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Resist, Artfully: On the Subversive but Compromised Role of Art

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, production photograph for The Island 2017*

In a world stripped of enjoyment -- a fractured existence broken on the wheel of pointless progress, determined domination, and wasteful and wasted work -- pleasure becomes the most determinate form of rebellion and liberation.

Pleasure Involves Endeavor


In our attempts to preserve ourselves we subject ourselves to domination, enslave and brutalize our fellow man, all in the name of progress and survival. Our success at self-preservation is the very cause and register of our corruption, indeed of our demise. Art discerns what has gone wrong and perhaps even points the way, cryptically of course, to a resolution of our enlightenment problem.
On the other hand, art is part and parcel of the very enlightenment that would condemn it. But more to the point, Horkheimer and Adorno assign art a critical function. Art attains a purview onto our fractured existence, shot through with instrumental reason; art discerns what has gone wrong and perhaps even points the way, cryptically of course, to a resolution of our enlightenment problem.

In this sense, it is conceptual thought that presents itself as overly immediate, disavowing the mediating nature of language as such (thus, instrumental reason’s emphasis on “hard facts”, that which must be accepted as uncompromisingly and obviously true). Art, to the contrary, is bound up in an ontology of representation (the artwork is always a semblance, it is never simply a “thing-in-itself” but always presents itself with an “as-if” quality), its very mode of being depends on the fact that it is mediation through and through.

Enlightenment insists on the self and its preservation as the utilitarian measure of all things, but art offers experience of the radically other by its insistence on its particularity. Enlightenment proclaims this a reversion to “the realm of prehistory” (27), in part because such experience is grounded in pleasure, which instrumental reason holds under suspicion.

For all of their fraught concern with the seriousness of art’s redemptive mission, Horkheimer and Adorno discern the source of art’s critical function in its service to pleasure. In a world stripped of enjoyment -- a fractured existence broken on the wheel of pointless progress, determined domination, and wasteful and wasted work -- pleasure becomes the most determinate form of rebellion and liberation.

This is no post-modern plea for a return to fun, to an undirected loosening of libidinal restraint. As Dialectic of Enlightenment will clarify in the celebrated chapter entitled “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, mere entertainment is not commensurate with what Horkheimer and Adorno intend by pleasure. To be entertained is to be distracted and thus to acquiesce to your social condition and conditioning. To be involved in pleasure is to be alert, to engage your critical function, to be made aware of your condition. Pleasure involves endeavor.

The subversive but compromised nature of pleasure and its relationship to enlightenment is the concern behind Dialectic of Enlightenment’s treatment of the Sirens episode from Homer’s Odyssey (25-28). In their rendering, the Sirens represent “the allurement of losing oneself in the past” (25). This is a pregnant phrase as soon becomes clear.

On the one hand, the Sirens offer a nostalgic immersion, a sense of belonging, they are echoes of a world resonant with possibility but now seemingly inexorably irrecoverable. On the other hand, the Sirens offer obliteration, the fulfillment of the desire for the dissolution of the ego that is concomitant with its development via enlightenment. Here the Sirens encourage a different (perhaps related) manner of immersion: a Dionysian loss of self, an abandonment of the prerogatives of domination and conceptual control. In both cases, what they demand is proximity. That is why their auditors plunge into the sea: to get closer and in getting closer to lose themselves (that is, their very selves).

The Sirens manifest the mythical past and thus they allow for Odysseus to inaugurate a tripartite spatialized and reified manner of thinking about time, wherein the present has priority over the past -- which, “as usable knowledge” is “in the service of the present” (25) -- and the future.

What concerns us here is Odysseus’s attempt to colonize the past as practical knowledge (learning from history’s lessons, for example) because Horkheimer and Adorno present a form of resistance to this mining of the past for more conceptual knowledge in the “presencing” of art: “The urge to rescue the past as something living, instead of using it as the material of progress, has been satisfied only in art” (25).

Here the cognitive aspect of art and its living presence as an incursion of a significant past (bound up in the cultic, the mythical, the unassuaged unassimilable) comes to bear as a critical force in contradistinction to instrumental reason.

And yet Horkheimer and Adorno are hardly ready to simply hand the future over to art as redemption for our fallen state. Remember that art owes its existence to the same enlightenment that gave rise to instrumental reason and is thus subject to its own dialectic of enlightenment. While this is hardly the primary concern of Dialectic of Enlightenment (thus, Habermas’s critique that the authors focus too exclusively on instrumental reason), I believe that we do get a glimpse of what the authors had in mind in the Sirens episode.

Odysseus realizes that there are only two ways of dealing with the Sirens, this problem of the persistent cultic past, without sacrificing self-preservation. One way is through work in the service of instrumental reason. He subjects his followers to this course by plugging their ears (limiting their access to the sensuous) and forcing them to “look ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to one side” (26).

The other way is to treat the Siren song as art in the Kantian sense: to take it as having no consequence, to contemplate it in a disinterested manner (meaning it has no direct bearing on your life). This keeps “the Sirens at a distance from praxis; their lure is neutralized as a mere object of contemplation, as art” (27).

This might strike us as rather disheartening. Art opens up an alternative but only insofar as it is neutered and treated as a “mere object of contemplation”, holding no practical purpose for our lives and thus holding out no real promise for change, for the improvement of our condition. But earlier, Horkheimer and Adorno claimed that “the Sirens’ song has not yet been deprived of power as art” (25). In contradistinction to this, the “way of civilization has been that of obedience and work, over which fulfillment shines everlastingly as mere illusion, as beauty deprived of power” (26).

Work and instrumental reason posit a world of progress but without fulfillment. The work never ends, progress has no telos. Redemption here is an illusion and beauty without efficacy, except perhaps as a moment of respite so that increased exertion may be put into one’s work. Art offers experience of the radical other, that which is not subsumed but faced and contemplated. Art asks that we assimilate to it rather than succumbing to instrumental reason’s demand that we assimilate the world to ourselves, our egos, our leveled-down concern for self-preservation.

To find pleasure in art is to hand yourself (your self) over to otherness. In this sense, art presents an image of fulfillment, the bliss of the encounter with the other founded not on domination but acceptance and repletion. To end there would be a utopian vision and therefore mere fantasy. Mere fantasy is illusion; it is a way of acquiescing to the status quo.

Horkheimer and Adorno, I contend, suggest that the redemptive quality of art, its commitment to fantasy as bound up in the critical function of pleasure, is grounded in its compromised status. If it merely offered visions of utopia, it would have no critical efficacy but, strikingly, it would be assimilated to mere praxis -- it would be another illusion of fulfillment (a kind of false consciousness) to distract us from our alienated position in the world.

By occupying a position that seemingly involves no practical use-value, by resisting assimilation to praxis, by exemplifying the Kantian paradigm of our “disinterest” toward it, art paradoxically is able to exude a critical efficacy. Through its presencing of a cultic past, through its manifestation of the unassimilable enigma, it forces us to confront the intolerable cruelty of our insistence on the present, our overarching concern with our mere self-preservation while disavowing any interest in the preservation of virtue, value, and, yes, the power of beauty.

As one reading of Hobbes might have it: our need for self-preservation has an instrumental value: we survive in order to pursue what we perceive as goods or the good [see Corey Robin’s book Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford UP, 2006) for one version of this reading]. Mere survival is worthless.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that art is able to speak against the twisted priorities of instrumental reason precisely because of its own compromised state. And yet, owing to its debilitation, art offers a vision not of mere survival but rather of the good that makes survival necessary. The glimmering image of its own impossibility (the impossibility of reconciliation merely through aesthetic insight) is what grants art its power.

*Tuan Andrew Nguyen, production photograph for The Island 2017 Ultra-high-definition video, color, sound; 42:05 min. | Collection of the artist; courtesy the artist.


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