The Introduction; in which the author mangles Hamlet and attempts to explain the project of Nihil Moralia.
Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.
- Hamlet, I:ii:129-138
- The Big Lebowski
Like Hamlet, many of us – the denizens of contemporary society – are struggling with the questions of meaning and purpose. And, like the Hamlet from Act One, we conclude that there is no meaning, no purpose, only vague and arbitrary laws and expectations (formed by God or society, which may end up being the same thing) that keep us on the beaten track of existence. Hamlet’s ethical predicament is truly our own: the predicament of nihilism, and its consequent feelings of “fatigue, ennui, melancholy and above all boredom with life.”i In our contemporary situation, like in Hamlet’s, and Nietzsche’s, “[t]he aim is lacking: ‘why?’ finds no answer.”ii But thousands of young Hamlets, those that are not paralyzed by existential dread, or have been pushed beyond it, those who have come finally to the decision to kill the king, take to the streets in Ukraine, Greece, Spain, Palestine, Venezuela, almost everywhere it seems – too long have they withstood the whips and scorns of outrageous Fortune 500 companies and, filled with fear and anger, they take arms against a sea of troubles and try to tear down systems that are inherently corrupt and destructive. Whether they succeed, or end up as corpses in a final act blood bath remains to be seen.
When Adorno states in his introduction to Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life that the purpose of his book is no less than the purpose of all good philosophy, “the teaching of the good life”, a ‘how to’ guide to ethical living, he knows very well that this might be an impossible task (15-18). Jakob Norberg defines Minima Moralia, rather surprisingly, as advice literature, albeit advice literature of a different colour. The post-war German society, torn from its previous exceptionally harmful way of organizing society, was emerging from a self-imposed stupor and undergoing massive economic, political and social upheavals and its populace – having been taken in, seduced, or coerced into the Fascist system that stripped them of autonomy and subjectivity – had an increased demand for “books that offered guidance on social interaction, demeanor, and moral issues” (‘Adorno’s Advice’ 399). Adorno’s intervention in this field, as a German intellectual, would seem completely normal, even necessary – but, as Norberg notes, he “does not believe in the viability of advice. Whatever good suggestions the reader may find in Minima Moralia, it is framed by repeated, even obsessive, announcements of the end of the bourgeois era, as well as the demise of the self-determining subject, the projected recipient of advice” (400) – confronted with the myriad horrors, absurdities, and banalities of modern society (that he feels is regressing into Fascist barbarism), this project of teaching ethics can no longer be a naively positivistic or prescriptive one – it must be carried out negatively; what to do can be found in the gaps of what not to do – “[t]he text does not abstain from the modality of advice so much as it seeks to show how any advice has become impossible” (‘Adorno’s Advice’ 406). One can only speak of the world as it is (or as one sees it) and let the ‘advice’ be inferred from there. In Adorno’s inversion of the genre, self-help means to see that the Self is socially constructed, and thus to see that society must be changed if we can ever hope to help ourselves.
Though this negativity seems nihilistic, I believe that this way of looking at the world in fact reveals optimistic prospects that are not in the text itself. Andrew J. Douglas, in ‘Democratic Darkness and Adorno’s Redemptive Criticism’, argues that “Adorno’s characteristically pessimistic diagnoses of our modern condition – his claim that we find ourselves ‘in the face of despair’, caught in the throes of an arresting ‘totality’ of late capitalist exchange – can be understood as a kind of rhetorical strategy, a means of critical provocation that is constituted and sustained by a subsequent commitment to redemptive or alternative possibility” (821). If Adorno’s work, then, is obscure, shocking, even depressing, it is only to awaken us, to remove us from our stupor, to enable us to find the solutions to problems we didn’t know we had. But where do we find the real-world examples and implications, and not get bogged down in the abstract theory that Adorno seems to disdain? As noted Adorno scholar and biographer Brian O’Connor says, “Adorno’s critical theory is an attempt to identify the damaging social influences at work in social phenomena [...] not only to explain the behaviour influencing operations of the totality, but to show, indeed, that those operations are objectionable” (Adorno 44-51), a task that is extremely difficult, and getting more so all the time.
According to Ben Agger, the critical theorists, by necessity, deepened “Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism into the analysis of reification”, and eventually took it even deeper “in a more evolved stage of capitalism. Thus the Frankfurt theorists conceived domination as even more intractable than reification” (Critical Social Theories 83). He continues: “Lukács and the critical theorists argue that ideology has been “routinized” [...] in everyday life through the various cultural discourses and practices that suggest the inevitability and thus the rationality of political conformity. Ideology in postmodern capitalism has become even more dispersed into the semiotics and discourses of everyday life” (ibid.). Thus our experiences of alienation, whether social, political or personal, are not accidental by-products of living in the world of global late capitalism – the alienation, the reification, serve specific ideological goals: to keep us isolated and afraid and powerless to oppose the domination, to leave us unable to reach political maturityiii and resist, since we are always tired, always hungry, always wanting, always chasing what capitalism promises is just around the next corner – freedom from the system itself: ‘If I could just make enough money to get out of my job, my house, my country, my life, I could finally relax and really live’. Happiness is what capitalism consistently promises and consistently fails to deliver on purpose, in other words.
The aforementioned shock to the system/System is also the purpose of this project. Culturally, at least, things have only gotten worse since Adorno’s time. With the fall/corruption of communism the capitalist hegemony/heteronomy has spread to all corners of the globe, infiltrating almost every aspect of public and private life. If Adorno’s greatest fear was barbarism, what would he think of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, the show that follows (exploits?) the family of an obese child beauty pageant contestant, and the myriad similar ‘reality’ TV shows? If Auschwitz was the only possible outcome of modernity’s emphasis on progress, efficiency and automation, what are the labour camps in Saudi-Arabiaiv, the Nigerian oil fieldsv, the dumping grounds for e-waste in Ghanavi, the unsafe and immoral factories in Asiavii, the internment camps in Isrealviii, the rise of Nazis (though they may not call themselves that) in Greeceix and elsewhere in Europe? If he was disgusted by the musical ‘degeneration’ evident in jazzx, how would he react to Britney Spears, or Rebecca Black? That is why I believe that the project of Minima Moralia is still an important one today, perhaps even more so.
For Adorno gaps are all-important. In a letter to Walter Benjamin he posits that “both high art as well as industrially produced consumer art ‘bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change. Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up’” (in Bernstein 2, my emphasis). It seems then that the freedom that we seek from the all-encompassing capitalist machinery lies not in the works of art, nor in social conditions or praxes, nor in what we say of them, but somewhere in between, between the fragments. For Adorno, somewhere between Hollywood and Auschwitz; for us, perhaps it is somewhere between Apple HQ and Asian sweatshops, between America and Russia, between Sharpeville and The Rainbow Nation and Marikana.
The aphoristic structure of Minima Moralia, then, becomes more than a stylistic choice – it reflects the damaged life of the subtitle. The aphorisms of Minima Moralia spring out at seemingly random locations, no single one being more important than the other. What are at stake here are the places between aphorisms, between single parts of aphorisms, between fragments: The lines that connect points and nodes that create a more complex picture than could be achieved through positivistic, instrumental reasoning. Adorno argues, in ‘The Essay as Form’ that “[t]he usual reproach against the essay, that it is fragmentary and random, itself assumes the giveness of totality and thereby the identity of subject and object, and it suggests that man is in control of totality. But the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal” (159). The critic of the essay here wants the true totality of the essay (with its inherent contradictions, slippages, and self-critiques) to become the servant of the false totality (totalitarianism) of society, in which dissent has been smoothed over completely. If every aphorism, then, is a small essayistic ‘constellation’ – a picture formed from seemingly disparate points – the book in which they are contained also becomes a constellation, or even a multiplicity of constellations – depending on what aphorisms are read, and in what order: constellations that are themselves parts of larger constellations, and through this technique we can critique and resist the ever-expanding heteronomyxi.
Adorno knows that “knowledge comes to us through a network of prejudices, opinions, innervations, self-corrections, presuppositions and exaggerations, in short through the dense, firmly-founded but by no means uniformly transparent medium of experience” (MM 80). The essay, or the aphorism, does not pretend to be completely rational, mathematical, or ‘scientific’ – its very form exposes both the world, and the way we think about it. Thoughts do not come to us logically and well-formulated, and in that way the essay shows the process of thinking by working through the process instead of presenting the sterile ‘conclusion’ to thought. So it is here then, in the gaps, the lines of interaction, that his “prose radiates the promise of happiness beyond catastrophe – a happiness which the total system, to this day, denies its constituent members, simply because it is the catastrophe” (Redmond 1) – with this fragmentary, essayistic mode of thinking that emphasises disjunction and contradiction we can find and explore the cracks in the systems of total administration and discipline, and perhaps widen those cracks and destroy the entire edifice. Adorno wrote that “Marx believed that the possibility of changing the world from top to bottom was immediately present, here and now. Only stubbornness could still maintain this thesis as Marx formulated it” (‘Why Still Philosophy?’ 14, my emphasis). Perhaps we just have to change the direction of Marx’s formulation, and begin from the bottom...
Using both serious world news events as well as supposedly empty or irrelevant pop-cultural phenomenon is not an accidental choice – I, like Judith Halberstam, “believe in low theoryxii in popular places, in the small, the inconsequential, the antimonumental, the micro, the irrelevant; I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely” (The Queer Art of Failure 21). I do not wish to win anyone’s agreement – I am not a lawyer stating a case. Raymond Geuss affirms Adorno’s view that “traditional academic philosophers seek to convince others of the rightness of their views by presenting logically irrefutable arguments. The coerciveness of this project, even if it is a highly sublimated form of coerciveness, is part of the general obsession with control that is characteristic of the Enlightenment” (‘Adorno’s Gaps’ 163). Adorno works in opposition to this tradition, says Geuss; that “[t]he micro-treatises that constitute Minima Moralia are supposed to be series of images, suppositions, insights, even “arguments” (of a kind), etc., that do not demand agreement but which have other kinds of plausibility” (ibid. 164, my emphasis). This plausibility might be bound up with the notion of failure – a failure on the part of Adorno, as well as Benjamin, to be properly analytical, to give clear and concise answers and definitions. It is also the failure to be happy or content with ‘the way things are’, the command that is constantly being barked at us from billboards and magazines and televisionxiii. But if “wrong life cannot be lived rightly” (MM 39), if a life that is lived with unconscious and unexamined obedience cannot be a moral life, is this failure not in some sense a great triumph, or at least a worthwhile rebellion?
Adorno’s own words, in Critical Models, ring true: “Critique is essential to all democracy. Not only does democracy require the freedom to criticize and need critical impulses. Democracy is nothing less than defined by critique” (281), again evoking the idea of a totality that can only be complete with the inclusion without judgement of contradictions. So the focus of this project, its task, is not to answer the old Communist question ‘what is to be done?’ in any dogmatically ‘practical’ sense – I believe that any real, radical, redemptive praxis can only happen once we change our minds. I would like to echo Louis Althusser in his critique of the May ’68 slogan ‘Get rid of the cop in your head!’, which he replaces with a more complex, but more accurate, formulation of the fight against oppressive and repressive ideologies and systems: “Fight false ideas, destroy the false ideas you have in your head – the false ideas with which the ideology of the dominant class pulls the wool over your eyes, and replace them with accurate ideas that will enable you to join the revolutionary class’s struggle to end exploitation and the repression that sustains it!” (On the Reproduction of Capitalism 231). This does not mean that the ‘masses’ are what conspiracy theorists refer to as ‘sheeple’. In the age of Google it is easier than ever to do some research and find the gaps in the dominant ideology. We can very easily see through lies but choose to ignore this knowledge. Robert Pfaller, working with Žižek’s analysis of ‘canned laughter’ in comedy TV, states that “Žižek drew the conclusion that our supposedly most intimate feelings can be transferred or delegated to others. Our feelings and convictions are therefore not internal, but rather can lead an external, ‘objective’ existence: a television sitcom can laugh for me; weepers can mourn in my place; a Tibetan prayer wheel can pray for me; and a mythical being, such as the renowned ‘ordinary man in the street’, can take my place and be convinced of things that I cannot take seriously.”xiv It is, in the end, easier to pretend to believe in things that pretend to be true, than to actively try to change what seems immutable.
We cannot afford to brush aside ‘mass culture’ as unworthy of our academic, critical attention. Even though “[t]he cultural commodities of the industry are governed [...] by the principal of their realization as value, and not by their own specific content and harmonious formation”xv, we know that the industry is an ideology-machine constantly producing and reproducing the conditions of its own survival, built on the assumption that we do not know any better and that it can never change, since “conformity has replaced consciousness”xvi; a machine that does its best to keep us away from political and historical maturity “almost without a gap”.xvii It is exactly in these gaps that we can learn what Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 might tell us about genetically manipulated food, what Pokémon might tell us about ‘eco-terrorism’, what Jersey Shore might tell us about sexuality. If the culture industry, along with church and state, is one of the largest producers of ideology and heteronomy, by sifting through the cultural detritus of contemporary life, by engaging with, and not merely looking at, but looking with and through products of culture and society (most of which seem at first glance to be completely vapid and devoid of meaning), we must be able to escape the wilderness of the nihilism that contemporary systems of discipline create, even if it is through the negative space left by the fragmentation and alienation of societyxviii, and – hopefully – “[h]aving started from an anguished awareness of the inhuman, the meditation on the absurd returns at the end of its itinerary to the very heart of the passionate flames of human revolt” (Camus 55), so that we can accomplish “the insoluble task [:] to let neither the power of others or our own powerlessness stupefy us” (MM 57).
i Bernstein, J.M. Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. 6.
ii Nietzsche, F. The Will to Power. 9.
iii Adorno: “Politically mature is the person who speaks for himself, because he has thought for himself, and is not merely repeating someone else” (‘Critique’, in Critical Models, 281).
iv See: Abdul-Ahab, Gaith. ‘Inside Dubai’s Labour Camps’: http://www.theguardian.com/global/gallery/2008/oct/08/1
v See: Vice on HBO. Episode 9: Gangs and Oil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01Xa2oKKVR0#t=866
vi See: Reid, David. ‘Making a living from toxic electronic waste in Ghana’, BBC Click: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-26239741
vii See: Qiang, Li. ‘Beyond Foxconn: Deplorable working conditions characterize Apple’s entire supply chain’: https://www.chinalaborwatch.org/pro/proshow-176.html
viii See: Kane, Alex. ‘Journalist David Sheen delivers blistering indictment on Isreal’s racist war on African migrants’: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/03/journalist-blistering-indictment.html
ix See: Vice on HBO. Episode 4: Love and Rockets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEk5-MAKlHE#t=711
x “The resulting enigma that millions of people seem never to tire of its monotonous attraction” (Adorno, ‘Perennial Fashion – Jazz’, in Prisms, 121).
xi Which, according to Adorno, is no less than the necessity of philosophy “from time immemorial” (Critical Models 10).
xii According to Halberstam, “[l]ow theory tries to locate all the in- between spaces that save us from being snared by the hooks of hegemony and speared by the seductions of the gift shop. But it also makes its peace with the possibility that alternatives dwell in the murky waters of a counterintuitive, often impossibly dark and negative realm of critique and refusal” (2).
xiii See, for instance, this commercial for the anti-depressant Prozac (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=of22ROQxvn8), or think of the Coke slogans with their injunctions to ‘Open Happiness’ and ‘Enjoy’, or the viral Pharrell Williams hit ‘Happy’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6Sxv-sUYtM) which tells us to “clap along if you feel that Happiness is the Truth”. All of which implies that if you are unhappy or angry there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with you, and not with the world you are living in.
xiv Pfaller, R. On the Pleasure Principal in Culture, 17.
xv Adorno, T. ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, in The Culture Industry, 99.
xvi ibid. 104.
xvii ibid. 98.
xviii “Because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite” (MM 247).