Thursday, March 17, 2005

Adorno Blogging?

So, um, I was reading The Dialectic of Enlightenment the other day...

No, seriously, I thought that maybe Adorno would have something usable about Enlightenment thinking, and his critique of Kant, while certainly not systematic, is thought-provoking.

But what I really want to talk about is Adorno and Horkheimer's style.

I'd always thought of Adorno as Benjamin's humorless older brother, but this read-through made me realize that Adorno (and H.) have a much wilder prose style than I'd expected. There are the strangely active personifications of myth and reason, a device Adorno may have picked up from Marx, who uses them all the time. The real surprise for me, however, were the barbed epigrams.

"The rulers themselves do not believe in objective necessity, even if they sometimes call their machinations by that name. They posture as engineers of world history" (30) .

"The spark which most conclusively indicates a lack of systematic thinking, a violation of logic, is not a fleeting perception but sudden death" (64-65) .

"The private sphere of the bourgeois is an upper-class cultural asset which has come down in the world" (76).

"It is not the softness but the restrictive nature of pity which makes it questionable--it is always too little" (80).

"Fun is a medicinal bath which the entertainment industry never ceases to prescribe. It makes laughter the instrument for cheating happiness" (112).

"As long as it was expensive, art kept the citizen within some bounds" (130).

Now, that's bold writing! Each of these definitions twist inwards with dark irony. The immediate point is shocking, the metaphors vivid, the tone peremptory and indicative. Even when you disagree, you have to take the statement literally, explain the irony like some dimwit literary scholar "unpacking" PG Wodehouse, and argue at length to defend your disagreement. This is what a good epigram does: it forces someone who disagrees with the statement into a humorless, straight-man role. The unfairness of this kind of argument is perhaps why the epigram--and the Nietzchean aphorism, by which Adorno is surely influenced--are frowned on in contemporary academic discourse. But man, when done well!


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