Friday, September 2, 2016

as in, parts

"The exchange from part to whole generates wholes that turn out to be only parts."
--Paul de Man, "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant"

In Adorno's writing on damaged life, guilt—the “context of guilt” [Schuldzusammenhang]—is understood as constitutive of postwar society.[1] This phrase, which he uses in the lectures on Metaphysics, noting that “all culture shares the guilt of society [alle Kultur am Schuldzusammenhang der Gesellschaft teilhat]” (153), is key to thinking about how experiences of guilt becomes rewritten according to a model of complicity that functions as the predominant mode of figuring postwar European subjectivity. Even if it is the case that all culture shares in the “context of guilt,” by which Adorno refers to the inextricability of culture and barbarism, there is yet another question here, of how the European subject comes to know this inextricability, which is also a matter of how guilt is experienced. Adorno figures this as a problem of practical knowledge rather than aesthetic experience; insofar as they can be seen via the aesthetic problem of representation, artistic works share this problem of being imbricated in a barbarism they also seek to rise above. In Adorno’s description, culture’s “taking part” in society’s “context of guilt” phrases the latter as given and the former as acting upon it, the latter as a “crime,” and the former as a crime of the second order, of complice. The more colloquial phrasing Adorno uses through these lectures and his lectures on moral philosophy, about how to live a good life in a bad world, is a translation of this scenario. What kind of “good life” one might lead is not a problem Adorno or theorists of compicity take up, rather, the problem is dealing with the apparent necessity of dissolving the terms of the relation of inextricability—a problem for practical knowledge, echoed in aesthetic works. But if culture and society relate to one another through these logics of consumption and sustenance, which may—though do not necessarily need to—lead to an understanding of the social “context [Zusammenhang],” terms of extricability are also equally evident. Although they often get parsed as impossible “in reality”—in the sense that, we could say, it is impossible to isolate one’s psychic reality from social reality, and so forth (even though the obverse, that social reality can be imagined as separate from psychic reality, is often not just possible, but the dominant explanation)—such relations of extricability make it possible to think about how compelling the imagination of oneself as part rather than limit is. In their social untenability, such relations make it possible to think about spaces and cultural experiences that open under what might be called the aesthetic problem of sublimation, in which the relief afforded by state change, as in being able to make this distinction between part and limit, is not available, for one reason or another, including that defenses come to been seen as entirely necessary. The aesthetic problem of sublimation pertains to the illusiveness of the representation’s mediating determination about the kinds of state changes that go into the constitution of a dynamic that becomes construed as necessary, as between culture and barbarism, addressing the extent to which the achievement of the aesthetic is a negotiation of the availability of a perspective as part in contrast to as limit of the Zusammenhang of society. The problem of sublimation acknowledges a constraint on one’s ability to negotiate this perspective, as when the bad world described by Adorno seems not just bad, but as W.R.D Fairbairn might say, “unconditionally bad”—in other words, perhaps not “there” at all. In such a world, the terms and concrete conditions of the “guilt context” of society are apparently so diffuse and vast that everything seems to be a part; poetic modes that point out minute distinctions between sustenance and destruction challenge the idea that what can be used to explain them is actually there. If culture is not just a part of the guilt context of society but one of its limits, part of its task—which Adorno also recognizes and to which he assigns the task of art—is to resist the totalizing context of guilt. Left off, however, is the experience of culture as the expression of this limit, an experience of guilt that is extricable to the extent that it is non-utile. For it is preferable to think of what one “cannot do” when one imagines oneself as a part of the good world, and this is the perspective that complicity always produces; this is what it means, in Adorno’s world, to live (or not) the “good life.” It is preferable, only when one glimpses the alternative, ideas about forms of inaction that are not enough in a bad world—for here, where everything is dissatisfying and/or absent, what can possibly be enough? Only in this scape does asserting what is given assume a certain risk, as also it takes place in relation to what is lost; only here does it mean something to say that there is a there, there.

Adorno’s concern with the adequation of culture to society leads to his 1955 essay “Guilt and Defense,” a qualitative summary of the findings of the Frankfurt School’s Gruppenexperiment, which surveyed Germans about conflicts present in accepting responsibility for Nazism. Adorno describes an “intermediate layer” of “transsubjective elements” that he imagines as a “subjective social-psychological disposition” (52) that spans social and psychological, ultimately explaining how it would be possible for individuals to take responsibility for their part in the context of guilt. If the “transsubjective” means to point to one’s implication in social institutions and discourses, it can be seen as a solution that also holds in place a certain dynamic between guilt and complicity, and maintains a set of assumptions about part/whole relations, more generally. Adorno describes this dynamic in the following way:
Instead, it is most often a matter of trying to reconcile one’s own excessive identification with the collective to which one belongs with the knowledge of the crime: one denies or minimizes this knowledge so that one does not lose the possibility of identifying with the collective to which one belongs, which is the only thing that psychologically allows countless people to overcome the unbearable feeling of their own powerlessness. (53)
Here, Adorno positions the “unbearable feeling of…powerlessness” as that against which a certain tension between identification with a collective and knowledge of a crime defends. As Adorno argues, “identifying with the collective to which one belongs” is preferable to feeling powerless in committing a crime, and this amounts to the difference between living in a conditionally bad versus an unconditionally bad world, a world, which Fairbairn describes as a world ruled by god versus one ruled by the devil.[2] Denial or minimization is read as a defense that allows for identification and the feeling of belonging, and that ultimately protects people from experiencing the “unbearable feeling of their own powerlessness.” This dynamic of complicity, in which such a denial or minimization of knowledge secures a feeling of belonging, has the secondary but perhaps more significant function of holding away an experience of guilt that might come upon one as the feeling of this powerlessness. While we can glimpse, from Adorno’s perspective, the threat posed to the coherence of society by this guilt or powerlessness, we can also see that in his work, the maintenance of the dialectic, including the dialectic of civilization and barbarism—another iteration of the dynamic between the “possibility of identifying with a collective” and “knowledge of the crime”—serves a conservative function, in still protecting the idea of civilization [Kultur] against a more damaging idea about the guilt of society.[3] If the transsubjective refers to these relations of complicity that are secured within the dialectic, the experience of guilt, as a feeling unprotected from this badness, is a nonsubjective registration of the environment of destructiveness. One way of thinking about the contrast in modes I am trying to articulate might be to think about experiences of guilt as the loss of a registration of what is “whole” or total about society—it might be to indicate a realm of experiences in which one’s idea of oneself and others follows more closely a model of relations between part objects than between subject and objects. Experiencing relations as between part objects might be another way of thinking about not being able to afford the relief offered by state change—state changes that pertain to the shifting of attachment and investment (of instinct, for Freud), as for example, involved in experiencing oneself as part of society, or as belonging to it, rather than as a limit. The experience of European subjectivity in the postwar articulates the aesthetic problem of sublimation; there is no insight into or knowledge of destructiveness that can be used to negotiate the relation between one’s part and one’s limit, between one’s experience as a human [menschliches] subject and one’s experience as a metaphysical [metaphysiches] subject. Paul de Man’s reading of Kant’s location of aesthetic judgment as the mediation of pure reason and practical reason pushes in the direction of thinking about conditions that maintain the irreconcilability of these experiences. While it becomes clear that for certain subjects this means the re-entrenchment of an impossible politics of reparation, which counts on establishing not just lyric works but the artwork as a vehicle for change, what is far less clear is what is desirable about situations of imperceptible state change, or when what is desired is the obscuring of change. In much the same way, it’s always clear what sublimation, in its traditional sense as the shifting of instinctual energy from sexual to non-sexual, makes representable, though it’s far less clear what theories of sublimation have to say about how the logic of change governs ideas of the scapes that (part) objects find themselves in.

[1] In his lectures on Metaphysics, Adorno uses the phrase in this way: “all culture shares the guilt of society [alle Kultur am Schuldzusammenhang der Gesellschaft teilhat]” (153).
[2] See W.R.D. Fairbairn, “The Return and Repression of Bad Objects,” page 66-67.
[3] Consider Michael Rothberg’s distinction between guilt and complicity, for example, which I disagree with, in Multidirectional Memory: “The concept of complicity offers a way of thinking about the iterations of the face that neither transcends race and racism, nor subsumes all of the figures into identical subject positions as racist perpetrators. The rhetoric of complicity suggests both a form of binding and a degree of distance: to be complicit is to be responsible (bound to certain events, processes, or people),” but it is not identical to begin guilty. Complicity suggests an ethical binding distinct from legal guilt…[t]o be complicit, as opposed to being guilty, implies at least a minimal distance from the center of events” (250).”

No comments: