(see the Links page for pointers to resources mentioned in this post)
Die kritische Theorie erklärt: es muss nicht so sein, die Menschen können das Sein ändern, die Umstände dafür sind jetzt vorhanden.
(Critical theory declares: things need not be so, people can change how life is, the conditions for change are present now.)
Max Horkheimer, “Traditionelle und kritische Theorie”
This quotation from Max Horkheimer (all translations in this post are my own) appears as a footnote in an essay that was written in 1937 and runs to 64 pages, published while World War II was raging and after the author had hotfooted it out of Nazi Germany to save his skin, landing eventually at Columbia University in New York. That footnote, a tiny thing stuck at the bottom of a page near the middle of the essay, seems to me one of the most momentous statements in the entire text because it neatly encapsulates the main agenda of the critique of ideology, which lies at the core of critical theory. Es muss nicht so sein … Things need not be so. Indeed, they do not. They can be changed. But how likely is such change? What good does the knowledge of potential change do us, who are stuck in Business As Usual? That is the million dollar question. I first asked myself that question nearly 40 years ago. My interest here is to see what good it’s done me over the course of my own lifetime. As I look at the picture above of Jaro, a district here in Iloilo where I currently live, I think to myself that the people in the picture don’t agonize about the role of ideology in their lives. People can change the way life is, but what conditions for change are these that Horkheimer mentions as already present? Are they present in Jaro? Or is Horkheimer talking about an intellectual flashpoint that was present in the European intelligentsia of his own period? Many questions, few answers …
But first another question: what in fact is this Business As Usual — what are its constituent elements and how does it hold itself together? We must know what we’re dealing with before we can tackle it. Horkheimer’s pal Theodor Adorno is credited with the concept of the “verwaltete Welt,” the “administered world,” which describes the encumbered reality in which we live our lives. I use Business as Usual as a designation for that encumbered existence as seen from the perspective of an individual stuck in it and unable to change it. I can even pinpoint a specific locus of that perspective given in Adorno’s Minimia Moralia, No. 6, “Antithese”:
Es gibt aus der Verstricktheit keinen Ausweg. (There is no escape from entanglement.)
There’s nothing particularly upbeat about Adorno’s statement but from it comes a model for one part of Business As Usual (for short, BAU). It’s all in the word “Verstricktheit,” i.e. entanglement, from which Adorno says no escape is possible. The phenomenon is the societal equivalent of quantum entanglement, a linkage of causality inseparable from the very beingness of the agents involved. Quantum entanglement can happen anytime, over the span of an eternity and across the vastness of an entire Universe. Adorno’s societal entanglement requires only one condition: birth. Once you’re born, you’re in it, babes. You can kiss independent causality goodbye. I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but facts is facts. To be honest, Adorno could have spared himself a good deal of tortuous cogitation and struck a much more upbeat tone simply by quoting John Donne: no man is an island. There it is, done and dusted. But we’re being dark and undertowey and Teutonic at the moment, so let’s stick with “entanglement” and see what nastiness lurks within Adorno’s fancy word.
In the States we have the saying, “Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.” But in fact there are many other certainties, for example: utility bills, attending to the call of Nature, money, aging … the list goes on and on. Adorno’s concept of entanglement leaves out the purely physical aspects of the equation, but the nature of our physicality is what provides the hook for the societal aspects. After all, we’re individuals in bodies. Bodies must be fed and housed, they tend at times to become ill, they age, inevitably they bring with them all manner of hoopla by their very nature. In my understanding both the physical and the societal elements combine to make up BAU. Try to do anything at all and you run smack dab into it. But dig around to find out whose hand is on the steering wheel and you’ll come up with thin air and the phrase, “Such is life,” or “That’s just how things are.” Here we must again inject a bit of Horkheimer: “Things need not be so, people can change the way life is …” Obviously, human agency is involved in all the societal elements that constitute BAU, yet the attempt to localize the nexus of that agency leads you into La La Land, not to an office with a title plaque on the door. Even a call to 911 will get you nowhere. When that kind of disappearing act happens, it’s a clear sign you’re dealing with something ideological. Of course, that’s the last thing anybody will admit — but that too is part of the game, keeping it all secret. BAU is sneaky, like a cockroach. Try to shine the light on it and it disappears where you can’t follow it. But you know it’s there, lurking, because its effects are clear enough.
I first delved in a major way into critical theory when I was a graduate student in my twenties. I shudder to think that almost 40 years have passed since that first engagement with the Frankfurt School and its large body of work. And here we are, four decades on from the point when I first chugged my way through Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment — as extracurricular reading, mind you, not assigned, which fact raised eyebrows if I made so bold as to state it openly. Had I been at the University of Wisconsin at Madison things would of course have been different, because everybody knew that Madison was full of Commie pinkos reading all sorts of dodgy stuff. But not at my school, Mr. Jefferson’s University, thank you very much. As one professor explained it, Mr. Jefferson’s University was in the business of “preparing professors for better universities.” Well, we can’t very well have people being thus prepared go off at the mouth about western Marxism and the critique of ideology, now, can we. Heavens no. It simply won’t do. The farthest over the event horizon we ever went was to dabble in a bit of Derrida with a professor who was into deconstruction (and ended up being shown the door fairly quickly, btw — draw your own conclusions). So I learned early on to keep my mouth shut. In the middle of the academy — that arena of free thought and investigation, ha-ha — I had run smack dab into BAU. Whoda thunkit. I finished my graduate program, passed with flying colors — even wrote my thesis in German, another sign of eccentricity — and then left the academy to its own devices, having sickened on the business of literary criticism to the point that the mere sight of a work of fiction induced nausea. Off I went to become a working stiff. And that was the end of that.
But Adorno and Horkheimer went with me, oh yes they did. They’ve stayed with me throughout the years, although I’ll admit we’ve not always remained in close touch. Even so, I’ve always had their contact info and anytime I wanted to have a chat I knew where to find them. Horkheimer, bless his heart, has been for years in my parlance “Uncle Max.” I’d like nothing better than to sit down with him for tea, cookies and a confab. Such a lovely person, smart as a whip of course, but kind as the day is long, and he wore his learning lightly. If Adorno invited me to tea, on the other hand, I’d immediately break out in a cold sweat. No no, just send it through the post, thanks. No need to take up your valuable time. With Adorno you pays your money and you takes your chances. Catch him on a bad day and he’ll be all up in your grill and you’ll soon smell the reek of fire and brimstone wafting around you. Uncle Max would never do such a thing. Never in a million years.
A Google search yesterday turned up a fascinating workshop taking place this year in Berlin: “International Summer School Critical Theory 2018 (July 15 –20): Re-Thinking Ideology.” Fairly makes your mouth water, doesn’t it. I have no clue who any of the conveners or presenters are. There’s the trace of those 40 years for you. Had I stayed in the academy as a professor at one of the “better universities,” I would of course have all the dirt on those people out of pure self-interest for maintaining my position in the academic scheme of things. But as the nobody I am, I’m blissfully free from such pressure. What interests me particularly about the workshop is the title: “Re-Thinking Ideology.” The Frankfurt School thought a great deal about ideology and published thousands of pages of top drawer material on the subject. Why, pray tell, are we now engaged in the business of re-thinking it? Did somebody miss something?
Let’s go back 40 years to an autumnal evening in Virginia. I’m sitting in my humble student abode with Adorno’s Minima Moralia open. I’ve schlogged through the Baroque German poetry I needed to read for class the next day (just. shoot. me) and have settled in for the evening with Herr Adorno as company. I come across No. 6, “Antithese” and stop dead in my tracks. Damn, Bridget, there it is in black and white. Game over. We’re screwed. As in: permanently screwed. A couple years ago I did a translation of the entire piece in an attempt to gain even deeper insight into it by grappling with the task of putting Adorno’s infamously convoluted German into clear English. Here’s the result:
Antithesis. For the person who positions himself as an outsider there exists the danger of thinking oneself better than other people and of using one’s critique of society as an ideology for one’s own private interest. As one gropes one’s way forward in the attempt to make one’s existence a frail image of a real life, one should always remain aware of that frailty and remember how little the constructed image replaces real life. But all one’s own bourgeois tendencies strain against that remembrance. The person who distances himself remains just as entangled as the person who is fully engaged; the one who holds himself at a distance has no advantage save the insight into his own entangled state and the satisfaction of the paltry freedom that comes from that awareness. One’s own distance from Business As Usual is itself a luxury produced precisely by Business As Usual itself. For that reason, every attempt to opt out shows characteristics of what is ostensibly being negated. The coldheartedness indispensible to the effort of distancing is indistinguishable from the coldheartedness of the bourgeois. Where protest arises, the ruling generality lies hidden in the monadological principle. Proust’s observation that photos of a duke’s grandfather and a middle-class Jew are so similar that questions of difference in social rank disappear applies to a much more generally valid circumstance: objectively speaking, all differences disappear that constitute happiness with a capital H or the moral substance of individual existence. We recognize the decline of education, but our own prose, compared to that of Jacob Grimm or Bachofen, shows similarity with that produced by the culture industry in ways we do not perceive. What is more, we can no longer handle Latin or Greek like a Wolf or a Kirchoff. We point to the fall of civilization into a state of illiteracy and ourselves forget how to write a letter or how to read a text by Jean Paul as it must have been read in his own day. We are mortified by the coarseness of life, but the absence of any objective and binding morality pushes us at every turn into behaviors, speech and calculations that are barbaric by any measure of the humane and tactless even by the standards of polite society. With the dissolution of Liberalism the true bourgeois principle, i.e. competition, is not overcome but simply transferred to the domain of anthropology through the mass of individuals who press upon and collide with each other. The subjugation of life to the production process forces on each of us, in a humiliating way, something of the isolation and loneliness we are tempted to think is our own considered choice. It is as much an old cliché of bourgeois ideology that each person, from the standpoint of his own interests, thinks himself better than others, as it is that he thinks that other people, as customers, are more valuable than himself. After the old bourgeois class stepped down, both cliches now continue in the life of intellectuals, who are at the same time the last enemies of the bourgeoisie and the last bourgeois themselves. To the degree they allow themselves thought about the crass reproduction of existence, they behave like a privileged class; by taking their objections no further than thought, they declare the pointlessness of their privilege. Any private existence that longs to be similar to one really worthy of human being betrays that beingness at the same time by withdrawing private existence from the sphere of collective humanity, which needs independent consciousness more than ever. There is no escape from entanglement. The only responsible thing to do is to deny oneself the ideological misuse of one’s own existence and to live one’s private life in a modest, unassuming and unpretentious way, which is for some time now urged on us not by good upbringing, but instead by shame at still having enough air to breathe while in Hell.
Oh man. Major bummer. Should be read to the strains of “Killing Me Softly.” 🙂 To put things into proper perspective: this is one paragraph from Adorno’s entire body of work, which runs to many thousands of pages. And yet in this one paragraph is captured in a nutshell a truth from which one can easily derive an entire lifetime’s work for an individual living in the modern world, smack dab in the middle of BAU. But lo and behold, in 2018 the academy is “Re-Thinking Ideology.” What gives here, anyway?
What gives here is: BAU. Duuuh. A gentle reminder: being a university professor is a job. One has a job primarily to make money, despite whatever intellectual satisfactions or desires one may claim as the gig’s main event. By rather facile logical derivation it follows that public academic inquiry — however free and liberal it purports to be — is forced economically to act like the continuous revelation of an oracle. How else, Bridget, are you gonna get articles published so you can get tenure? Huh? How else are you gonna pay for that new SUV and get the kids through college? It’s BAU, babes. Of course it is. So it really doesn’t matter what Adorno or Horkheimer got sorted out once and for all back in the 30’s and 40’s or what they nailed to the door in far more than 95 theses. It’s all got to keep going or you’re sunk — on the dole and looking for work. That’s the BAU bottom line here. So we are re-thinking ideology because we have to, otherwise things will go wonky in no time flat and dad gummit, I’ve got bills to pay. So let’s get on with it, shall we?
I thank my lucky stars I jumped the academic ship when I did. Until the conditions in which we live have changed enough to warrant a major overhaul of our understanding of ideology, have we really exhausted all the possibilities of insight into the concepts already to hand? And pardon me the impertinence, but is there any point at which the matter of praxis might inject itself into the discussion? No? Well, then, never mind. Silly of me to have mentioned it. Carry on, forget I even brought the matter up. And do try the chocolate cake on the buffet table, it’s absolutely scrummy. Dessert is half the fun of these workshops, in my experience. Live it up! That’s what I always tell myself when I’m off to yet another powwow, even if I’m not reading a paper. As long as the Department pays for the meeting, I’m in.
What the Frankfurt School produced through the Institute for Social Research was groundbreaking and momentous. Horkheimer and Adorno were intellectual warriors fighting a desperate battle on which, in their view, the continuation of intellectual life itself depended. Their primary concern was the survival of productive consciousness, not tenure. Consciousness is likewise my concern, not tenure. My involvement with these two thinkers over the last 40 years has been about the stuff of living, about survival of the faculties of mind in the face of conditions under BAU which threaten the equivalent of lobotomy. I’ve turned to both thinkers for help, for guidance, for insight into the process of rescuing somehow, some way, from the dismal and intellectually dangerous modern civilization they saw developing and which we now in our misfortune call home, a state of productive consciousness that makes living something more worthwhile than mere survival from day to day. Horkheimer offers help graciously and with a gentle touch. Adorno fairly bashes you over the head with it and scolds you for a lout while administering his medicine. There have been times when I’ve put Adorno away for months simply because he’s too much to bear. Yes, he’s right, he nailed it spot on but jeez, give a girl a break, will ya? The truth he exposes in the piece I translated above is, if thought through to its logical conclusions, devastating. It’s essentially the death sentence passed on human existence by Sartre: Huis Clos. No Exit. And into the bargain: l’enfer c’est les autres. Hell is other people. You must be made of stronger stuff than I to stare that kind of grimness in the face 24/7, 365 a year. I can handle being reminded that my ass is permanently grass every couple weeks but not every day. It’s simply too much to bear. And God knows I’m grumpy enough as it is.
So just where are we 40 years on? In larger scope of things, our home boys didn’t get very far. Adorno and Horkheimer are extremely marginalized intellectual goods, even more so now than they were in my student days. Nothing of their body of thought seeped into mass culture — that goes without saying, since their main focus of attack (especially in Adorno’s case) was that very mass culture. I’m grateful for Adorno’s sake he was spared the agony of witnessing the emergence of reality TV. What he would make of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” I shudder to think. While looking up “verwaltete Welt” recently to see what turned up online, I happened upon this:
Adorno would have an aneurism if he saw this. I imagine him so beside himself with outrage that he can only point and splutter. Talk about Kulturindustrie … But both he and Horkheimer are dead and gone now, and only a small group of academics and a few oddballs like myself continue to pay either of them much attention. They didn’t bring about The Revolution. BAU has continued on its merry way and follows its downward spiral of “progress,” ignoring any suggestions from Messrs Adorno and Horkheimer concerning a more enlightened course of action. So yes, Horkheimer is right: people can change the way life is. But Adorno is also right: we’re screwed, Bridget, permanently screwed.
In the matter of praxis Adorno has perhaps the upper hand because he knew and stated for the record that BAU is unassailable by the individual. I appreciate Horkheimer’s optimism about things not needing to be so, but let’s be crassly realistic: they are so and very few give a thought to changing the paradigm. Over the course of my adult life I’ve actively engaged the challenge Adorno sets out in No. 6 of Minima Moralia. That challenge has touched on many points of my life, urging me to expand continuously the paltry freedom Adorno mentions that one can wrest from BAU through the exercise of consciousness. Both thinkers have been my constant companions in that endeavor. Plowing through Adorno’s mind-bending prose will keep your intellectual appendages limbered up even if at times not much comprehension comes of it. Horkheimer’s fireside chats always open up new pathways of thought I find myself wandering down after finishing whatever piece of his I’ve been reading. Had I not found Horkheimer and Adorno in my youth, I think I would have lived less well and would find my consciousness at this stage of my life to have a smaller scope than I believe it in fact does. So I’m grateful to them for the 40 years of companionship and support.
And so it will go on, since the curtain hasn’t dropped yet. 🙂