S. D. Chrostowska’s Matches

“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” — Adorno, Minima Moralia

It is full of surprises, this book that interweaves the philosophical and the personal. It is a creature of excess that gives the appearance of being casually composed, layer by layer, aphorism by fragment, resisting integration into the totality of a completed system. There is an intense quality similar to that of atonal music, a teetering on an edge that is never quite resolved between art, philosophy and political polemic. As with Minima Moralia, this book is an indictment of what capitalism is doing to life (and death). Matches can share with Adorno’s book its subtitle: Reflections from Damaged Life, and its idea that the notion of an ethical life is so battered that all philosophy can do is survey the destruction and dream of what has been lost. It is an unflinchingly perceptive book, a heartfelt reflection of what it is to be neither dead nor alive.

Why I Read Adorno …

The Adorno mystique. Geoff Dyer, whose work I no longer read, quotes Karl Ove Knausgaard, a writer I preferred not to read, but in whose work I’ve recently developed a grudging curiosity: “‘What enriched me while reading Adorno,’ writes Knausgaard in A Death in the Family, ‘lay not in what I read, but the perception of myself while I was reading. I was someone who read Adorno.'” It seems characteristic of Knausgaard to admit that Adorno is for him a badge writer and for Dyer to admire his declaration.

I question, during a long jet-lagged night in Tokyo, whether I read Adorno for the badge. The issue of mass culture is never far from mind in Tokyo, more so than in the southern California from which Adorno’s Minima Moralia was born. It wasn’t this loose collection of interconnected fragments that endeared Adorno to me, but a life-changing reading of Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (from the Dialectic of Enlightenment).

What they had to say about mass culture (I wrote about it once), turned me from a naive condescension towards its consumers, to a fascination for its pervasive effectiveness and systemic beauty. I may not like it, but like Adorno and his contemporaries, it is easier to subject it to critique than destroy or subvert it in any meaningful way.

I’ve come to dislike the term ‘mass culture’ for its intimation that such a culture arises instinctively from the masses, preferring Adorno’s ‘culture industry’. The Japanese have a term ‘taishū’, which, I believe, refers to an aggregate of consumers for which a commodified culture is produced, pre-targeted and administered. This seems more precise and deals with the difficulty of the concept of ‘masses’.

On Twitter, for a long, time my bio stated ‘Adorno to Zwicky.’ This blog post is the first in a series reflecting on why I read those writers I consider in some way tutelary spirits, or as Beckett would have it, ‘old chestnuts’. It isn’t a fixed canon and is subject to frequent revision.

I came to Adorno initially curious to read his thoughts on Beckett’s Endgame, having read somewhere else that Beckett considered them a perverse and deliberate over-reading. From there to his illuminating writing on music, particularly the Beethoven essays (another old, old friend). There still Adorno to read and reread and I’ve no intention of reading all he wrote.

Why do I read Adorno? Beckett was undoubtedly right about wilful over-reading. I often struggle with Adorno’s writing. I lack the philosophical-sociological grounding to understand much of it. It’s also said that much of Adorno’s complex, circumlocutory arguments are difficult to translate. But my reading of Adorno often follows a similar pattern: lack of understanding-persist-glimmer of understanding-persist-some understanding, but a sense that he must be over-reading-awakening at four in the morning with a flash of comprehension and recognition. I read Adorno for those flashes. Cognitive fireworks.

Forthcoming Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading

  1. Roberto Calasso, The Unnamable Present
  2. Laura Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul
  3. Jan Zwicky, The Experience of Meaning
  4. Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
  5. Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob
  6. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Anarchy’s Brief Summer
  7. Simon Critchley. Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
  8. Dan Gretton, I You We Them
  9. Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
  10. Simone de Beauvoir, Diary of a Philosophy Student: Volume 2, 1928-29
  11. Annie Ernaux, Happening
  12. Moyra Davey, Moyra Davey
  13. Claudio Magris, Snapshots
  14. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Sarah Richmond’s translation)
  15. Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project
  16. Christina Hesselholdt, Vivian
  17. Enrique Vila-Matas, Mac and His Problem
  18. Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature
  19. Geoffrey Hill, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin

Hardly a Person at all . . .

‘Just as [Walter] Benjamin’s thinking constitutes the antithesis of the existential concept of the person, he seems empirically, despite extreme individuation, hardly to have been a person at all, but rather an arena of movement in which a certain content forced its way, through him, to language.’

‘It is doubtful whether anyone else ever succeeded in making his own neurosis–if indeed it was a neurosis–so productive.’

‘In himself and his relations with others he insisted unreservedly upon the primacy of the mind; which, in lieu of immediacy, became for him immediate.’

‘In the letters this ritual element extends to the graphic image, indeed even to the selection of writing paper, about which he was uncommonly particular . . .’

‘Benjamin experienced the present moment in the “prismatic splendour” of reflection; but he was granted power over the past.’

‘The letter form is an anachronism and was already becoming one in Benjamin’s lifetime; his own letters are not thereby impugned.’

‘In a total constitution of society that demotes every individual to a function, no one is now entitled to give an account of himself in a letter as though he were still the uncomprehended individual, which is what the letter claims; the “I” in a letter has something about it of the merely apparent.’

‘His own letters, by virtue of not at all resembling the ephemeral utterances of life, develop their objective force: that of formulation and nuance indeed worthy of a human being. Here the eye, grieving for the losses about to overtake it, still lingers over things with a patient intensity that itself needs to be restored as a possibility.’

Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, editors, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910 – 1940, Translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson

Theodor Adorno’s opening essay, Benjamin the Letter Writer, five pages of it, is by far the best of this 651 page book. It is no surprise to read Michael Rosen’s comment that, “the Jacobsons’ translation is stiff and unidiomatic to the point of unintelligibility at times.” The Benjamin/Scholem correspondence, translated by Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere is altogether more rewarding, in large part because it provides both parts of the exchange of letters.

Thoughts on Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats

We live in economic uncertainty, Western nations are gradually drifting into the direction of fascism, divided by social fragmentation, trapped by lowest-common denominator mass cultures that seek only to fulfil our desires for the latest technologies, so is it any surprise that there has been what Joe Kennedy calls a “quixotic cultural lurch away from what is taken to be postmodern flippancy” to a new seriousness?

Now and then it becomes possible to observe our cultural life revising itself. In Authentocrats, (a snappy title despite my innate mistrust of neologisms), Kennedy takes on the cult of authenticity. He looks back to the postmodernists’ suspicion of authenticity and how it emerged in the new millennium as a degraded, secular religion that came to dominate our cultural landscape. The intensity and potency of this cultural lurch is evident throughout contemporary thought and life.

Kennedy’s argument and sources used are personally satisfying in that he traps under the microscope so many subjects that I intuitively mistrust, but have never considered part of the same cultural malaise: ‘gritty’ Bond and The Lord of the Rings films, Game of Thrones and Scandic-Noir on television, the seemingly endless sprawl of melancholic nature writing and narcissistic, pseudo-subversive psychogeography in literature.

In Authentocrats, Kennedy not only pursues this nihilistic thread of western culture, but also confronts the pervasive argument that our social realm is split along class lines, between ‘authentic’ provincials and urban ‘elites’ living in cultural and political bubbles. He shows how such an identity framework is overly simplified, a convenient way of packaging a system in distress. Although suspicion about authenticity is nothing new, and Kennedy acknowledges his debt to Adorno in particular, his cogent analysis offers readers a profound way to engage with our current cultural and political perspective.

There is Life No Longer

“What philosophy once called life, has turned into the sphere of the private and then merely of consumption, which is dragged along as an addendum of the material production-process, without autonomy and without its own substance. Whoever wishes to experience the truth of immediate life, must investigate its alienated form, the objective powers, which determine the individual existence into its innermost recesses…The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact that it no longer exists.” (Trans. Dennis Redmond, 2005)

“What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own. He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form, the objective powers that determine individual existence even in its most hidden recesses..Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.” (Trans. E. F. N Jephcott, 1974)

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1951

I’ve been spending some time with Adorno’s Minima Moralia, not something I do lightly as it is too easy to be taken over by its melancholy tone. It isn’t undiluted pessimism, despite Adorno’s reputation, but it depends, like anything we ingest, on what filters are in place at the time. It has more to offer. The 153 apparently sealed aporias offer up some fragile hope, a way to see beyond his assertion above that life, from a historical perspective, has ended.

I’ve also been reading J. M. Coetzee recently, his exchange of letters with Paul Auster, and The Childhood of Jesus, which I found very interesting but perplexing. It was the latter that made me look once again into Minima Moralia. Coetzee also appears to contend in this novel that our inner lives are no longer a necessary part of continued ‘progress’; that philosophy and art have been rendered redundant. This thought also occurs in Annie Ernaux’s The Years, this idea that those things that shape and feed our inner subjectivity have been appropriated by what Adorno would call ‘the culture industry.’ Ernaux writes, “I’m a petite bourgeoise who has arrived,” that she is “no longer entitled to an inner life.”

With no ability to decipher how good are the translations of Adorno, I include both above. It is useful I find to read them both side by side.