Sunday, April 19, 2009

the name of place

On the way back from LACMA's The Art of Two Germanies exhibit, Philomena and I drove beneath a canopy of trees, and it made me think of the enfolding monumentality of Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee. Philomena was literally a pea when I drove my bike beneath those trees last August, turning off to visit the monument to Soviet soldiers with Travis on one of our last nights in Berlin. We had had many conversations about monuments in Berlin, with our friend Dave, who has been attempting to articulate an argument about the relationship between monuments and the filth, trash, or refuse of a city, which are the general terms Adorno uses to describe the problem of culture in his lectures on metaphysics.This is the dialectic of cutlture and barbarism central to his thinking about expression and Auschwitz. In the last of these lectures, he attempts to identify the possibility of metaphysical experience, given this dialectic and the sense that he has of the prevailing barbarism, the corruption, of society. He gives two examples, which are not intended as a dialectical pair, but which are interesting to think as the particulars of the barbarism/culture dialectic. Earlier, he says, metaphysical experiences of the sort theorized by Proust were available to us, experiences related to the feeling of "it" being held in a single word. For Proust, this happens in terms of the names of places, places that seem to offer all possible fulfillment. These experieces are metaphysical because even if the place disappoints (and it always/often? does), the feeling of it being "it" is retained. Adorno also gives the example of looking back on children's literature, of having the feeling of being able to return to the imagined places of childhood. It seems that this would be the monumental version of cutlture. On the other side, and realistically, in the post-Auschwitz trash heap of barbarism, the most we can hope of a metaphysical experience is what Adorno calls "fruitless waiting." Fruitless waiting, bureacracy, a disillusioned promise, a dystopia maybe, and yet it retains something of the metaphysical offer of fulfillment, despite disappointment.
picture: blind shot from driver's seat window, Los Angeles

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

writing with philomena

In his lectures on metaphysics (1965), Adorno writes

One would need to be a very superficial and, if you like, a very nominalistic linguistic philosopher to deny that this experience of being unable to take certain words into one's mouth--which you can all have and which was probably first registered, though in a avery different way, in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's 'Chandos' letter--also says something about what the words stand for. I believe that one of the crucial points on which the theory I advocate, and of which I can present you at least some sizable fragments in these lectures, differs from the currently prevalent one, is my view that the historical-philosophical fate of language is at the same time the historical-philosophical fate of the subject matter to which it refers. This is supported, incidentally, by a viewpoint which was by no means foreign to German idealism, and especially to Wilhelm von Humboldt: that language constitutes thought no less than thought language.

Adorno's comments about the way that language constitutes thought (as more radical than the idea that thought constitutes language) take place only within the "negativity" that he urges his students to be able to "think." To me it seems that the purported radicalness of this formulation does not lie in the role of the constituent, but in the idea that language is in some sense crucial to the type of thinking that Adorno advocates as our way of not merely "adapting" to the ways of the world, of not simply accepting what is. But in what sense language? His version here of something like "silence"--of "not being able to take certain words into one's mouth"--differs indeed from the prevalent notions of silence. In these, silence registers as good or bad: as a mode of resistance, as testiment to the enormity of the referent, as traumatic symptom, as irresponsibility for the past, as the bystander's response to atrocity, and as lack of awareness of real social or political injustice (i.e. a problem of ideology). It might, in fact, be helpful to catalogue these forms of silence. What Adorno grants to silence here is an ambivalence, one that takes place however, only within the need to think about the negativity of the world. This "not being able to take in certain words" is both the fate of language and the fate of the subject matter; it stands not for language's inability to grasp reality, but for the nature of language to be on course with reality--I want here to say to "reflect" reality, but it is not exactly this, at least the mimetic implications. In previous lectures, these "certain words" are "squalid" and "dark" realities necessarily suppressed by the sublime and lofty goals of culture. It is to gain some form of access to these "unsayable" squalids and darks that is the task of philosophy. This silence is thus a silence that is paired with talking out the other side of one's mouth. Perhaps this is also its ambivalence.