josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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26 Sep '03 07:02:01 AM

Some stilted thoughts I've been returning to a lot lately:

If somebody gives me a theory of art and I can't immediately see where the people are, or what impact they have on the theory, then I can already tell that it will eventually disappoint me. I mean real people, meaning people who have relationships with other people, not all of whom are conceived of as essentially the same. If it's not social, it can't capture my experiences. It will fail.

The same is true of time. To look at one of the papers I typically have to read, you would think that there is no time.

It's reflexive to try to characterize art as essentially involving something aesthetic, something involving perception, perceptual experience - even if one is willing to admit that art may also be ethically valuable. The resulting conflict between ethics and aesthetics seems irresolvable.

Most concerns in ethics are immediately faced with the problem of all those people, again. However badly this has been handled, philosophers at least freely admit the people are there somewhere, before doing their best to get rid of them.

But the 'purely' aesthetic seems to me no less social, even if social in a different way. If I couldn't share my experiences with others, would they really be all that important to me?

25 Sep '03 08:21:10 AM

'Antithesis. - He who stands aloof runs the risk of believing himself better than others and misusing his critique of society as an ideology for his private interest. While he gropingly forms his own life in the frail image of a true existence, he should never forget its frailty, nor how little the image is a substitute for true life. Against such awareness, however, pulls the momentum of the bourgeois within him. The detached observer is as much entangled as the active participant; the only advantage of the former is insight into his entanglement, and the infinitesimal freedom that lies in knowledge as such. His own distance from business at large is a luxury which only that business confers. This is why the very movement of of withdrawal bears features of what it negates. It is forced to develop a coldness indistinguishable from that of the bourgeois. Even where it protests, the monadological principle conceals the dominant universal. Proust's observation that in photographs, the grandfather of a duke or of a middle-class Jew are so alike that we forget their difference of social rank, has a much wider application: the unity of an epoch objectively abolishes all the distinctions that constitute the happiness, even the moral substance, of individual existence. We record the decline of education, and yet our prose, measured against that of Jacob Grimm or Bachofen, has in common with the culture industry cadences unsuspected by us. Nor do we any longer have the same command of Latin and Greek as Wolf or Kirchoff. We point at the decline of civilization into illiteracy, and ourselves forget the art of letter-writing, or of reading a text from Jean Paul as it must have been read in his time. We shudder at the brutalization of life, but lacking any objectively binding morality we are forced at every step into actions and words, into calculations that are by humane standards barbaric, and even by the dubious values of good society, tactless. With the dissolution of liberalism, the truly bourgeois principle, that of competition, far from being overcome, has passed from the objectivity of the social process into the composition of its colliding and jostling atoms, and therewith as if into anthropology. The subjugation of life to the process of production imposes as a humiliation on everyone something of the isolation and solitude that we are tempted to regard as resulting from our own superior choice. It is as old a component of bourgeois ideology that each individual, in his particular interest, considers himself better than all others, as that he values the others, as the community of all customers, more highly than himself. Since the demise of the old bourgeois class, both ideas have led an after-life in the minds of intellectuals, who are at once the last enemies of the bourgeois and the last bourgeois. In still permitting themselves to think at all in the face of the naked reproduction of existence, they act as a privileged group; in letting matters rest there, they declare the nullity of their privilege. Private existence, in striving to resemble one worthy of man, betrays the latter, since any resemblance is withdrawn from general realization, which yet more than ever before has need of independent thought. There is no way out of entanglement. The only responsible course is to deny oneself the ideological misuse of one's own existence, and for the rest to conduct oneself in private as modestly, unobtrusively and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell.'

- Adorno, Minima Moralia section 6

25 Sep '03 07:29:57 AM

The strangest thing (well, not really, unfortunately): in the earlier paragraphs of the paper I'm working on, I availed myself of the first person quite readily. But in the paragraphs where I'm doing something more like music criticism and less like philosophy (putatively), I'm trying to write around the 'I' but still trying to say things I want to say about me listening to records.

22 Sep '03 09:47:01 AM

Owing to recently won perspective ('won' appropriately enough applying to both struggles and prizes, that is, the earned and the gift) I can now better see why my failures to write are so trying - tonight, physically, mountingly so, my breathing restricted, muscles tensed, warm, sweating even. Why going forward, adding to something I've already put down (especially if I've left it for a day or more, thus the felt restriction to writing only what can be written all in one sitting), appears to be far worse than even a blank screen: language has its own logic, words leading to other words, phrases implying other phrases, calling for certain pictures, certain completions, blocking others. This logic is evident - it's all the ways I can't help but think, reading a passage. But it is rarely congenial to whatever I'm trying to write, where I am likely trying (hoping) to get the words run together in a certain way so that when I read them back to myself, I think (however temporarily) that I've said what I wanted to say, rather than said what the words I started with led me into saying. I'm working against that logic. Or, it's working against me. And when I come back to a piece of writing that I've left, even for a day, sometimes hours, when I no longer have some sense of the thought immediately at hand, I futilely try to get it back by reading over the words on the screen, in order to go from there. This hardly ever helps, because what I wanted to say was supposed to have been articulated in the entire (now unfinished) act of writing, by the whole complex of sentences, phrases, words - not by the mere concatenation of the separate sentences. It's when considered separately that they begin to lead by their own logic.

22 Sep '03 08:36:33 AM

'The afterlife of artworks, their reception as an aspect of their own history, transpires between a do-not-let-yourself-be-understood and a wanting-to-be-understood; this tension is the atmosphere inhabited by art.'

19 Sep '03 07:22:58 AM

'Perhaps he thinks of himself as a long-running going-out-of-business sale, and finds this funny.'

- Frank Kogan on Richard Rorty's inability to stop talking about the end of philosophy and get on with it already

19 Sep '03 06:53:19 AM

And from the draft introduction, p. 334:

'Hegel and Kant were the last who, to put it bluntly, were able to write major aesthetics without understanding anything about art.'

19 Sep '03 06:33:36 AM

Fascinating material from the introduction to Robert Hullot-Kentor's 1997 translation of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory:

'Although these concepts emerged in the effort to master their material, they are more than that. Freed from the compulsion of domination they would potentially reveal their participation in what they sought to dominate and the impress of that through which they developed. Aesthetic concepts would become the memory of nature sedimented in art, which for Adorno takes shape in Aesthetic Theory as the unconscious, mimetically written history of human suffering against which enlightenment elsewhere seals itself off. Only this content could possibly bring reason's struggle for domination to its senses and direct its power to what would actually fulfill it. Thus Adorno organized Aesthetic Theory as a paratactical presentation of aesthetic concepts that, by eschewing subordinating structures, breaks them away from their systematic philosophical intention so that the self-relinquishment that is implicit in identity could be critically explicated as what is nonintentional in them: the primacy of the object.

Throughout his years in the United States, Adorno on many occasions met with the rejection of his work by publishers who saw his writings simply as disorganized. It was obvious to Adorno that what he was pursuing required his return to Germany if only because in the 1950s publishing was still less commercially unified than in the United States and permitted writers greater control over their work than here. One event did, however, finally prompt him to leave. When the editorial board at the Psychoanalytic Society of San Fransisco finished with his essay "Psychoanalysis Revised," he found that "the entire text was disfigured beyond recognition, the basic intention could not be discerned." As Adorno recounted, the head editor explained that the standards to which the essay had been adjusted, which made it look like every other essay in the journal, were those of the profession: "I would only be standing in my own way" - Adorno was told - "if I passed up its advantages. I passed them up nevertheless." Adorno moved back to Europe.

Adorno's sense that staying here would have impossibly burdened his work was confirmed long after the fact by the first English translation of Aesthetic Theory in 1984. The publisher, partly against the will of the translator, discarded the book's form as a superstitiously imposed impediment that would only stymie the book's consumption. Diametrically opposed to the course the book took in its various drafts in Adorno's own hands, a process that led in the final version to the rejection of the division of the book into chapters, the 1984 translation arrived on bookstore shelves divided into numbered chapters with main headings and subheadings inserted in the text. Paragraph indentations were distributed arbitrarily throughout, completing the image of a monodirectional sequence of topic sentences that could be followed stepwise from chapter 1 through chapter 12. This subordinated the text's paratactical order to a semblance of progressive argumentation that offered to present the book's content conveniently. This device provided a steady external grip on the book while causing it to collapse internally. For in lieu of any argumentative structure in the text itself, because it contains no homogeneous substance that can be followed from start to finish, the flaring clarity of paragraph indentations only produced a contrast by which the simulated paragraphs appeared murky in their refusal to parse into stages of thesis and evidence. And whereas the paratactical text demands that every sentence undertake to be the topic sentence and that the book be composed of long, complex phrases, each of which seems under the obligation to present the book as a whole, the 1984 translation carved up sentences in the image of declarative vehicles of content. The original paratactical text is concentrically arranged around a mute middle point through which every word seeks to be refracted and that it must express. The text cannot refer forward or backward without disturbing this nexus through which the parts become binding on each other. The linear argumentative structure imposed on the text by the translation thus dismissed the text's middle point as a detour and severed its nexus. Compulsory unification serves only to fragment: the imposed structure set whole passages adrift whose suddenly evident isolation required further apparatus to span them. Therefore, transitional phrases were interpolated such as: "as we saw" or "as we said" or "let us remember." The narrative persona that was projected into the text at these points and elsewhere was credible insofar as it seemed to substantiate an argumentative model of knowledge and its transmission. But this further contributed to muffling a text that, by its own standards, succeeds only insofar as what is particular in it begins to speak for itself. The rejection of the work's form as a superstition was carried over to the treatment of the original's many Greek, Latin, and French concepts and phrases. They were rendered literally, in English, and without any marking, as if their content was clear enough once they had been freed from their alphabetical inconvenience. Thus, for instance, chorismos - the contrary of methexis - was translated as "separatism," obfuscating the articulation of the problem of the participation of idea and object from Plato to Benjamin that is, so to speak, the topic of Aesthetic Theory and the whole of Adorno's writings. The many American phrases, which have abrupt expressive power in the original, were likewise seamlessly absorbed into the scenery. Almost ingeniously the language of the 1984 text pulls away from the movement of thought that can still be sensed gesturing underneath, giving the book a disembodied quality, as if it were dubbed rather than translated. Subordinated to the principle of exchange by its coerced identity with the subject's form of consumption, Aesthetische Theorie in translation became a model of what it protests against: the primacy of the constitutive subject. The irony is, of course, that by narrowing the distance of the book from its readers, ostensibly for their own good, but fundamentally to sell it to them, the work was put beyond them.'

14 Sep '03 08:30:08 AM

'Memento. - A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph to check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it. Too close to his intention, 'in his thoughts', he forgets to say what he wants to say.

No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.

One should never begrudge deletions. The length of a work is irrelevant, and the fear that not enough is on paper, childish. Nothing should be thought worthy to exist simply because it exists, has been written down. When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it. Their richness and vigour will benefit other ideas at present repressed. Just as, at table, one ought not to eat the last crumbs, drink the lees. Otherwise, one is suspected of poverty.

The desire to avoid clichés should not, on pain of falling into vulgar coquetry, be confined to single words. The great French prose of the nineteenth century was particularly sensitive to such vulgarity. A word is seldom banal on its own: in music too the single note is immune to triteness. The most abominable clichés are combinations of words, such as Karl Kraus skewered for inspection: utterly and completely, for better or for worse, implemented and effected. For in them the brackish stream of stale language swills aimlessly, instead of being dammed up, thrown into relief, by the precision of the writer's expressions. This applies not only to combinations of words, but to the construction of whole forms. If a dialectician, for example, marked the turning-point of his advancing ideas by starting with a 'But' at each caesura, the literary scheme would give the lie to the unschematic intention of his thought.

The thicket is no sacred grove. There is a duty to clarify all difficulties that result merely from esoteric complacency. Between the desire for a compact style adequate to the depth of its subject matter, and the temptation to recondite and pretentious slovenliness, there is no obvious distinction: suspicious probing is always salutary. Precisely the writer most unwilling to make concessions to drab common sense must guard against draping ideas, in themselves banal, in the appurtenances of style. Locke's platitudes are no justification for Hamann's obscurities.

Should the finished text, no matter of what length, arouse even the slightest misgivings, these should be taken inordinately seriously, to a degree all out of proportion to their apparent importance. Affective involvement in the text, and vanity, tend to diminish all scruples. What is let pass as a minute doubt may indicate the objective worthlessness of the whole.

The Enternach dancing procession is not the march of the World Spirit; limitation and reservation are no way to represent the dialectic. Rather, the dialectic advances by way of extremes, driving thoughts with the utmost consequentiality to the point where they turn back on themselves, instead of qualifying them. The prudence that restrains us from venturing too far ahead in a sentence, is usually only an agent of social control, and so of stupefaction.

Scepticism is called for in face of the frequently raised objection that a text, a formulation, are 'too beautiful'. Respect for the matter expressed, or even for suffering, can easily rationalize mere resentment against a writer unable to bear the traces, in the reified form of language, of the degradation inflicted upon humanity. The dream of an existence without shame, which the passion for language clings to even though forbidden to depict it as content, is to be maliciously strangled. The writer ought not to acknowledge any distinction between beautiful and adequate expression. He should neither suppose such a distinction in the solicitous mind of the critic, nor tolerate it in his own. If he succeeds in saying entirely what he means, it is beautiful. Beauty of expression for its own sake is not at all 'too beautiful', but ornamental, arty-crafty, ugly. But he who, on the pretext of unselfishly serving only the matter in hand, neglects purity of expression, always betrays the matter as well.

Properly written texts are like spiders' webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging towards them. The soundness of a conception can be judged by whether it causes one quotation to summon another. Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.

In his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live. In it he inevitably produces, as his family once did, refuse and lumber. But now he lacks a store-room, and it is hard in any case to part from left-overs. So he pushes them along in front of him, in danger of finally filling his pages with them. The demand that one harden oneself against self-pity implies the technical necessity to counter any slackening of intellectual tension with the utmost alertness, and to eliminate anything that has begun to encrust the work or to drift along idly, which may at an earlier stage have served, as gossip, to generate the warm atmosphere conducive to growth, but is now left behind, flat and stale. In the end, the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing.'

- Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, section 51