Jargon of Authenticity, Day 3


We should be able to pick up the pace. Adorno has just said that it should be impossible for a free and independent mind — a mind that accepts the basic principle of all philosophy, which is that thought is to bow to no authority; that it is to accede to no position if authority is the only thing the position has going for it — it should be impossible for such a mind to submit to revealed religion. But that is exactly what the followers of Kierkegaard seem to be demanding. The Patmos people make the perverse demand that a freethinker freely submit to a paradoxically optional Absolute.

          He goes on:

The ones who closed ranks [against Adorno’s friend Kracauer] were anti-intellectual intellectuals.

That’s probably clear enough from what I’ve just written. I’ll just add that the phrase “anti-intellectual intellectuals” could serve equally well for a long tradition of skeptical anti-philosophers — thinkers who draw on stores of deep learning and use the methods of philosophical argument in order to discredit philosophy, reason, knowledge, or science. If you want to talk a philosopher out of philosophizing — if you want to persuade him that the problems that matter to him can’t be solved by philosophical means or that philosophy is actively making his life worse — you are presumably going to have to give him some sound arguments. You will have to learn to turn philosophy against itself. Kierkegaard said that his philosophy was a course in retrieved simplicity. Anyone reading Kierkegaard is learning to abandon the intellectual sophistication that is required to read Kierkegaard.

          Next sentence:

They proved to themselves their higher unity by shutting out the person who did not make a profession of faith in their manner, the way they all bore witness to one another. 

A few small things: Adorno was one of the first philosophers to pay close attention, on dialectical grounds, to the dynamics of exclusion — to pay close attention to what any particular conceptual formation has to exclude in order to maintain its integrity and to worry about the fate of the excluded terms. You can already see this in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, whose simplest, unsuperseded observation is that enlightened people have a way of dealing cruelly with anyone they deem unenlightened. There is even a whisper of Schmitt’s enemy-thesis in this sentence: We’ve already been told that the intellectuals in question had joined  different denominations and religions. Their affinity was to that extent fairly abstract and could only be brought into focus via a scapegoat.


What they championed spiritually, they entered into the ledger as their ethic, as though a person’s adhering to the doctrine of some higher being were enough to elevate his inner rank, as though the gospels had nothing to say against the Pharisees. 

What I’ve translated as “entered into the ledger” is a single word in German: buchen — they’ve “booked” their religious commitments; they bring a bookkeeping mentality to their own spiritual accomplishment. They’re keeping score. They want credit. The bit about the Pharisees is easy enough to parse: If I call someone “pharisaical,” I might just mean that they are being self-righteous, holier-than-thou. But I might also mean something more specific: that they are rigidly enforcing the external forms of religion and caring not enough about the spirit, that they want above all to be seen to be religious. It may come as a small surprise to realize that Adorno is in this instance siding with the gospels.

  In this last as in so many other respects, it is easy to get Adorno wrong. Many of us have read maybe two chapters of the Dialectic of Enlightenment in college and have him pegged accordingly — as the guy who thought that Francis Bacon led to Hitler. You’ll have to read rather further in Adorno to realize that in his thinking, the familiar Counter-Enlightenment positions don’t come off any better than the scientists or the lumières. If anything, they come off quite a bit worse. 

    That’s what makes the opening pages of The Jargon so instructive. The intellectuals who denounce the Enlightenment are most often promoting some version or another of religious revival, and that’s an option that Adorno rejects out of hand. Elsewhere, in an important essay on Schönberg, he writes that ”our epoch refuses to vouchsafe us a sacred work of art” and that “sacred art has become impossible.” We’ll want to know why he thinks that, given that he felt at least some affinity with religion — the kind of affinity that any heterodox Marxist might feel for Christian socialism or liberation theology. And we should note: It’s not that he thought that religious art was available but pernicious. He thought that the path to a genuinely religious art was blocked (and that attempts to fashion such art were therefore doomed and perhaps for that reason alone retrograde). Still, it’s a puzzle. “It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore.” That, too, is Adorno, making it clear that he was pretty close to Brecht after all. And one might think that Judaism and Christianity are helpfully crude in just this way — the way of the-last-shall-be-first-and-we-hold-all-things-in-common. Why wouldn’t someone trying to imagine the redeemed society avail himself of their accumulated historical power?

        The short answer is that Adorno is pretty sure this power has been dispelled for good. At heart, the claim that sacred art has become impossible is just Adorno’s restatement of Walter Benjamin’s great argument about the death of the aura. The simplest way to put this would be to say that art will never be special again, and if you still think that art is sort of special, that’s only because you have never lived in a world where artworks were genuinely special: singular and hummingly charismatic. The fancier way to put it would be to say that all art has undergone a many-sided process of decontextualization. The passage from church to museum deconsecrates the object in a single blow, removing it from the web of practices in which it was formerly suspended, stripping it from the believers who perceived it as sacred to begin with and handing it over to an endless parade of schoolchildren and tourists. Ceremonial pipes go unsmoked. Greek icons end up unkissably behind glass. Sacred art has become impossible because framing an object as art is all it takes to negate its sanctity.

      But then museums are just part of the story. Walter Benjamin was interested above all in the fate of art after the 1880s, when photography was mainstreamed, and as of the 1920s, when sound recording took off. And the point here, of course, is that photographs and records decontextualize art all over again. They do so rampantly, in fact, by reproducing any artwork a thousandfold. Anyone who walks into the Sistine Chapel is likely to have seen its ceiling a hundred times already, before seeing it now, “for the first time,” and is unlikely to feel that they are in the presence of God. They’re just happy they got to hear the band play its greatest hit. Fresh experience gets shelved in favor of the three-dimensional augmentation of the already-known. In the age of the postcard and the dorm-poster, you can’t remember when you first saw Girl with a Pearl Earring or Starry Night or The Birth of Venus. You have never not seen them.

         So that’s most of Adorno’s point: Art this routinized is going to have trouble conveying the sacred. The last time I listened to Bach’s Easter Oratorio, I was vacuuming the house. To this, he adds the simple observation that the churches are much weaker than they used to be. Science now carries most of the intellectual authority. Thus Adorno: “How is cultic music possible in the absence of a cult?” How is ritual music possible when so few people attend the rites? An artist who wanted to create in a religious idiom would be speaking a language that most people no longer understand. And such art wouldn’t be sacred. It would just be … there.

        So what happens when artists try to create religious art all the same? They can travel the path of the subject, but if they do that they will inevitably miss their target. A devotional poem about the Christian’s ardently pious inner life is not a poem about God; it’s a poem about a Christian. Alternately, then, they can travel the path of the object, which would mean rejuvenating some of the old religious iconography, only to suffer the fate of Chagall’s etchings of Moses and Jeremiah and Rachel — images whose storybook naïveté preemptively invites viewers to regard the Hebrew Bible as folklore. Anyone who knows their Adorno might remark at this point that he advocated an iconoclasm, which we might hold out as a third option, the path of neither subject nor object. A big part of his project, in fact, is to update the old Judeo-Protestant ban on images. Short version: 1) He is preoccupied, on dialectical grounds, on the gap between things and the concepts, words or terms that claim to capture them, and so fixated on the way in which representation is likely to betray its objects. 2) He subscribes to the Marxist prohibition on spelling out how communism is likely to function, which irritates many readers of Marx, but is, in fact, altogether defensible. If the whole point of communism is for people to make their own society together — and to remake it ongoingly — then the society they build and re-build obviously can’t be spelled out for them in advance. Their constituent power has to remain the gap in your thinking. The point is easy to defend on political grounds, but aesthetically something of a mess, since iconoclasm is an unpromising platform for anyone looking to make sacred art. Adorno’s essay on Schönberg’s Moses und Aron boils down to his amazement that the composer had had the gumption to devise an opera, of all things, on the subject of iconoclasm, a Gesamtkunstwerk on a biblical theme whose lesson is that we should stop trying to represent sacred things, a Singspiel in which anyone who sings turns out to be sinful for that very reason.

  We’re in a good position to appreciate the book’s next sentence:

A full forty years later [after the Patmos incident — in the 1960s, therefore, as Adorno was writing The Jargon of Authenticity], a retired bishop walked out on a conference at a Protestant academy because an invited speaker had cast doubt on the possibility of sacred music today. 

At least we can be pretty sure who that invited speaker was.

He too felt absolved from, or had been warned against, getting mixed up with people who do not toe the line; as though critical thought had no objective foundation but were instead a kind of subjective lapse.

It would be easy to mishear Adorno as voicing the liberal intellectual’s familiar complaint against believers, which is that they are intolerant. But that’s not really what he’s saying here. In fact, we might as well correct a second misapprehension while we’re at it. It is common for readers to complain that Adorno is finally apolitical or even anti-political — that he talks often enough like a Marxist and still manages to land upon a pessimistic quietism. It’s not hard to see where readers get that idea, given that he rejected what were in his lifetime all the available political options. But what we see here is Adorno hewing to one of the classic Marxist positions — the one that affirms the priority of the political. Critique has an “objective foundation.” In this instance, that means: The position of religion really has changed — socially, structurally, and as it were objectively. Under those conditions, no one can rescue religion simply by doubling down  on belief, by promising to believe all the harder. Big changes in the social order cannot be overcome by adjusting one’s subjectivity.

 We read on. Adorno is still talking about the bishop who stormed out:

People of his type combine the tendency that Borchardt called “putting oneself in the right” with the fear of reflecting on their reflexive reactions—as if they didn’t altogether believe themselves.

In this instance Adorno’s claims are easy enough to identify. Beliefs arrived at by existentialist methods could seem uniquely fragile. I have chosen a set of commitments, but I know that I have chosen them freely and that they lack strong justifications. I have merely chosen them. And if I keep this perspective before me, as the existentialists would have me do, one might reasonably ask whether I really believe my own beliefs. Certain types of philosophical reflection are, in fact, no longer available to me. I can’t ask, for one, whether my beliefs are true or right — or whether some new experience hasn’t shown them to be false. I didn’t claim they were true to begin with; and new experience can’t falsify them. Any questions of this nature can only prompt new confessions of their groundlessness. The first bit, meanwhile, says little more than that some of these religious types act self-righteously. The curious thing is that Adorno bothers to cite Rudolf Borchardt in order to make the point, since the point is simple enough, and Borchardt was one of those rare German Jews who became fascists if never quite Nazis. He was the very model of a freak-Right literatus, totally committed to the legacy of the European humanities; to antiquity, in fact, though opposed to the Renaissance, which he thought of as having destroyed antiquity in the guise of reviving it, and committed to channeling this other, stranger, poetic-prophetic antiquity, which channeling he combined with a virulent German nationalism. He was also Adorno’s favorite alt-Right poet; his essay in praise of Borchardt has got to be Exhibit A in any attempt to depict Adorno as a mandarin of the Left. (Adorno likes the phrase “putting oneself in the right” enough to mention it in that essay, as well, though in neither case does he provide a citation. In the essay, at any rate, Adorno is explaining how much he likes a short neo-cavalier poem that Borchardt wrote in the voice of a sexually loose woman who is leaving her current lover in favor of a richer man — and one of the things he likes most about the poem is that it is non-judgmental, ironic but not satirical. Borchardt, he says, does not “put himself into the right.”)

      He goes on:

They still sense the old danger of losing, again, what they call the concrete—of losing it to that abstraction of which they are suspicious and which cannot be eradicated from concepts. They consider concretion to be promised in sacrifice, and first of all in intellectual sacrifice.

It might be easiest to illuminate this point without specific reference to German existentialism. Adorno often comes out against philosophies that think they can break through to something outside of thought (outside the concept, outside of abstraction) simply by affirming it. I affirm particularity or materiality or specificity or the individuum or the concrete —meaning: I say that it’s what I care about; I tell others that it’s what should matter to them; it’s what they should give priority in their thinking. This is all pretty hapless — I will happily second Adorno on this point — because those terms are themselves all abstractions. If I say that I am intellectually committed to particularity, then I am committed to no particular particularity and am therefore not committed to particularity at all. Or more bluntly: Just saying “let’s think about objects” obviously doesn’t get you to the objects. You don’t get to, y’know, vote for the object.

Adorno, in other words, shares with the existentialists (and vitalists and pragmatists and object-oriented ontologists) their suspicion of abstraction or mere thought. But he doesn’t think that there is a ready exit out of abstraction; there is no short-cut to concretion. He is, for most purposes, what we might call a reluctant idealist. The task is to dialectically overcome the idealism that is our fundamental cognitive condition, on the understanding that this can’t be done non-philosophically, by, for instance, kicking stones. And to that extent, he is not in fact the kind of anti-philosopher for which he (and other critical theorists) are often mistaken. (The first sentence of Negative Dialectics is “Philosophy lives on….”) The existentialists seem to think that you can get closer to the stuff of the world if you just stop thinking about it. The later Heidegger settled on the idea that  poetry is writing that is content not to know its objects, a writing that summons the objects into view while presuming to tell you very little about them. Poetry is the sacrifice of thought; it teaches us how to un-think the world.

   We see here now, already for a second time, an issue that is going to recur again and again throughout the book, which is that Adorno is plainly attacking his intellectual cousins and potential allies. It is from Adorno, after all, that many of us first learned to distrust abstraction. Here’s one of the most famous sentences from the opening pages of Negative Dialectics: “At this historical moment, philosophy’s true interest lies with those things in which Hegel professed to be least interested: with the concept-less, the individual, and the particular; with everything that has, since Plato, been written off as ephemeral and insignificant and which Hegel festooned with the label of ‘lazy existence.'” Adorno seems committed enough to the “concrete” that I couldn’t without checking remember whether this sentence included that word. What Adorno is opposing, then, is what he sometimes calls “simulated immediacy” — the pretense that one can dispense with concepts altogether or use them in a way that somehow neutralizes their inevitable abstractness — the illusion, then, that we can throw our arms around the uncognized object and still know that we are doing that. Negative dialectics offers, at best, a highly intellectualized path back to particularity, one that requires extended feats of philosophical virtuosity, in which the thinker hijacks the apparatus of abstraction and forces it on an accelerated schedule to the breakdown that it would eventually have suffered anyway. The alternative that Adorno is warning against is the one that says that we can sidle up to the stuff of the world if only we train ourselves not to think; and by using the term “intellectual sacrifice,” sacrificium intellectus, he is aligning the existentialists with a history of anti-intellectual religious authoritarianism, an ethos of mental submission, that was formulated paradigmatically by the Jesuits, from whom the phrase has been borrowed.

      A short capper:

Heretics baptized this circle “The Authentics.”

The verb is, of course, a jab. Kierkegaard’s philosophical Anabaptists have been re-baptized. It is, after all, what they wanted.

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