Reflections on philosophy and culture

Saturday, September 24, 2011


I've been making my way slowly through Adorno's Minima Moralia - reading the short, aphoristic sections one at a time and savoring them.  For a long time, I'd heard references to his 'dialectical style,' never understanding quite what people meant by that until I started in on the text for myself.

I would compare Adorno to Oscar Wilde - surely his wit and sense of irony is equally as impressive.  But the comparison would be misleading.  Adorno is like the straight man to Wilde's funny man.  This is not to say that Wilde's humor isn't frequently the vehicle for expressing the most consequential ideas: they certainly are.  But it's hard to imagine Wilde speaking any of his words without the hint of a wry smile at the corner of his mouth - the certainty shining forth from behind his eyes that he can outmaneuver anyone foolish enough to meet his levity with fury, hostility, or even deadly seriousness.

But when I imagine Adorno speaking the words of Minima Moralia out loud, I imagine him stern, monotone, with no suggestion in his manner of speech that he is aware of the pervasive schizophrenia of his prose - its ability to oscillate between different subject positions, to contain many voices in a single stream of thought.  Like Buster Keaton's unflappably calm, bored face amidst the chaos he creates around him, it would be an uncanny island of seriousness in a sea of absurdity - the strange absurdity of Adorno's words.

I was flipping around for a passage to illustrate what I have in mind here, and I couldn't think of a better example than the following passage.  It's a defense of the intellectual.  Yet, it's perhaps the most dismal, depressing defense of the life of the mind I've ever read: his aim isn't so much to valorize the intellectual as to mock her under the pretense of being on her side - or maybe to defend her under the pretense of being her enemy:

The circumstance that intellectuals mostly have to do with intellectuals, should not deceive them into believing their own kind still more base than the rest of mankind. For they get to know each other in the most shameful and degrading of all situations, that of competing supplicants, and are thus virtually compelled to show each other their most repulsive sides. Other people, particularly the simple folk whose qualities the intellectual is so fond of stressing, generally encounter him in the role of those with something to sell, yet who have no fear of of the customer ever poaching on their preserves. The car mechanic, the barmaid, have little difficulty in abstaining from effrontery: courtesy is in any case imposed upon them from above. If, conversely, illiterates come to intellectuals wanting letters written for them, they too may receive a tolerably good impression. But the moment simple folk are forced to brawl among themselves for their portion of the social product, their envy and spite surpass anything seen among literati or musical directors. In the end, glorification of the splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the system that makes them so. The justified guilt-feelings of those exempt from physical work ought not become an excuse for the 'idiocy of rural life.' Intellectuals, who alone write about intellectuals and give them their bad name in that of honesty, reinforce the lie. A great part of the prevalent anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, right up to Huxley, is set in motion when writers complain about the mechanisms of competition without understanding them, and so fall victim to them. In the activity most their own they have shut out the consciousness of tat twam asi. Which is why they then scuttle into Indian temples.

-Minima Moralia (London: Verso Press, 1978), p. 28

In the course of defending the life of the intellectual, Adorno exposes some of the most ridiculous follies of intellectuals - follies it's easy to recognize today, sixty years after he wrote these words: the guilt of belonging to a cultural elite coupled with the romanticization of the 'common man'; the pathetic infighting over paltry academic spoils.  When you read the last sentence about scuttling into Indian temples, you can't help but imagine the legions of contemporary liberal intellectuals flocking to buy organic foods that do almost nothing to improve health or environment, or defending shallow multiculturalism that does little more than block informed debate.  It's hard for an intellectual to read this passage without thinking "With friends like this, who needs enemies?"

But this seems to be Adorno's modus operandi throughout the text.  His mockeries turn out to be defenses and his defenses mockeries.  As soon as you identify with a sentiment he's expressed, he browbeats you for doing so.  As soon as he makes you turn a scornful eye towards an enemy - the advertiser, the psychoanalyst, the family man - he informs you curtly that you are one of them.  Like an Oscar Wilde, you can't ever quite keep up with the wit and irony.  But unlike Wilde, whose prose never lets you forget that it knows just how dazzling it is, Adorno's wall of seriousness makes you suspect that he's a madman whose elegant words conceal an unapproachable truth.  Perhaps you could encompass it, but that would require you to inhabit, just as it does, many personae at once - to radically abandon yourself in an insane bid to gaze upon the world from everywhere at once.  Of course, you can never accomplish what the text seems to be pulling you to do.  But perhaps the attempt gives you just the distance from your own point of view that you need to escape its inertia.

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