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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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

14 Sep '03 08:06:57 AM

Minimalistic summary of Minima Moralia: it was unbearable before, but now it's even worse.

12 Sep '03 07:34:55 AM

Title of unwritten future paper: 'Wittgenstein's Avoision of Philosophy'.

12 Sep '03 06:07:29 AM

'What philosophers say about actuality is often just as disappointing as it is when one reads on a sign in a secondhand shop: Pressing Done Here. If a person were to bring his clothes to be pressed, he would be duped, for the sign is merely for sale.'

11 Sep '03 07:41:04 AM

I thought Geoff was talking to himself in the next room. But I forgot that I was playing a Glenn Gould record.

6 Sep '03 11:35:04 AM

The number of ways (4) in which I am not alone that I found tonight just about astonishes me.

4 Sep '03 07:49:11 AM

Devastating, brilliant passage by Kierkegaard follows (from 'The Seducer's Diary' by A. in Either / Or, I 383). Artless, lifeless technicians, leave philosophy now.

'An ancient philosopher has said that if a person carefully chronicles all his experiences, he is, before he knows where he is, a philosopher. For a long time now, I have lived in association with the fellowship of the engaged. Such a connection certainly ought to yield some harvest. I have thought of gathering material for a book titled: A Contribution to a Theory of the Kiss, dedicated to all doting lovers. Incidentally, it is curious that there is no book on this topic. If I manage to finish it, I shall fill a long-felt need. Can the reason for this deficiency in the literature be that philosophers do not think about such things or that they do not understand them? -- I am already in a position to offer some hints. A perfect kiss requires that the agents be a girl and a man. A man-to-man kiss is in bad taste, or, worse yet, tastes bad. -- In the next place, it is my opinion that a kiss comes closer to the idea when a man kisses a girl than when a girl kisses a man. When over the years the distinction has been lost in this relationship, the kiss has lost its meaning. That is the case with the conjugal domestic kiss, by which husband and wife, for want of a napkin, wipe each other's mouth while saying "May it do us good."

If the age gap is very great, the kiss lies outside the idea. I recall a special expression used by the senior class of an outlying girls' school -- "to kiss the councilor" -- an expression with anything but agreeable connotations. It began this way. The teacher had a brother-in-law living in the house. He was an elderly man, formerly a councilor, and because of his age he took the liberty of kissing the young girls.

The kiss must be the expression of a particular passion. When a brother and sister who are twins kiss each other, it is not an authentic kiss. The same holds for a kiss paid in Christmas games, also for a stolen kiss. A kiss is a symbolic act that is meaningless if devoid of the feeling it is supposed to signify, and this feeling can be present only under specific conditions.

If one wants to try to classify kisses, numerous possible principles of classification come to mind. The kiss can be classified according to sound. Unfortunately, language does not have an adequate range for my observations. I do not believe all the languages of the world have the stock of onomatopoeia necessary to designate the variations I have come across just in my uncle's house. Sometimes it is a smacking sound, sometimes whistling, sometimes slushy, sometimes explosive, sometimes booming, sometimes full, sometimes hollow, sometimes like calico, etc. etc.

The kiss can be classified according to touch -- the tangential kiss, the kiss en passant, and the clinging kiss.

The kiss can be classified according to time as short or long. In the category of time, there is another classification, really the only one I like. A distinction is made between the first kiss and all the others. What is under consideration here cannot be used as the measure of what appears in the other classification -- it has nothing to do with sound, touch, time in general. The first kiss is qualitatively different from all others. Very few people think about this. It would be a shame if there were not even one who thinks about it.'

2 Sep '03 08:02:29 AM

'Better off then than when life was babble? That's it, that's it, the bright side. And the absence of others, does that count for so little?'