Erwin Panofsky and Art History, Part Two

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part Two: The System of Meaning: Art History as Symbolic Form

Like the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky considered social acts to be not natural but linguistic forms, which are cultural, and thus subject to human interpretation. As a social act, any work of art is a cultural artifact, and, as such, must function as a means of communication with its public and act as an object of visual language. This language speaks, as it were, through symbolic codes or a system of writing through pictures, called “iconography.” “Iconography,” Panofsky stated, “is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.” But the road to iconography was a long one, a journey through turn of the century attempts to put philosophy on the same certain basis as science.

Panofsky, as a student of Aby Warburg, was also the heir to late nineteenth-early twentieth century thinking that attempted to combine idealism and scientific thinking into a new absolute philosophy. In fact, Ernst Cassirer, one of the mentors for Panofsky, had begun his career in the philosophy of science. The copious writings of Panofsky can be situated squarely in this philosophical tradition and his philosophical take on art history was part of his effort to make of art history a solid “humanistic discipline” that was grounded in a solid epistemology. The art historian, as noted in the first part of the posts on Panofsky, staked out territory that separated his approach to art history from that of Heinrich Wölfflin, who stressed period styles, and from what art historian Christopher S. Wood in his preface to Panofksy’s 1927 Perspective as Symbolic Form, called the “homemade concept” crafted by Alois Rigel: Kunstwollen, or artistic will or volition.

Indeed in his famous 1940 essay, “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline,” Panofsky began by comparing the humanist to the scientist, but the comparison was challenged when it had to be acknowledge that unlike the scientist who confronted a static mindless object, the art historian worked with a work of art, a product of Kunstwollen. As Panofsky asked, “How, then, is it possible to built up art history as a respectable scholarly discipline, if its very objects come into being by an irrational and subjective process?” According to Wood, Panofsky attempted to salvage Riegl and to re-locate artistic creativity in Ernst Cassirer’s neo-Kantian idea of “symbolic form.” As Panofsky stated in “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art” (1925),

The ultimate task of a science of art, namely, the determination of Kunstwollen, can only be achieved in the interaction of the historical and theoretical modes of observation.

Previous art historians had followed either Kantian or Hegelian abstract structures and explained art in terms of formal categories. Alois Riegl, for example, worked in Hegelian dialectics by analyzing art within binary categories of internal-external, haptic-optic, and coordination-subordination, which he considered to be the deep structures of the work. Riegl considered the engine of this system to be Kunstwollen, which is a bracketing device that allows the study of art to be a study in form. Panofsky attempted to address the neglect of the meaning of art objects, by stating in his 1920 essay, “The Concept of Artistic Volition,” that, “Artistic products,” “are not statements by subjects, but formulations of material, not events, but results.”

To develop his concept of iconography, Panofsky drew together a number of philosophical ideas, replacing the notion of Kunstwollen with Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and used neo-Kantianism to analyze art through a priori categories. Ernst Cassirer’s symbolic forms are deeply spiritual, but their embedded meaning is attached to a concrete and material sign. Panofsky moved from the level of form to the level of structure by understanding that artistic perception was a special case of cognition. His most famous case study is his study of perception when he examined Renaissance perspective as symbolic form. Perspective as Symbolic Form, his most explicit revelation of the impact of Cassirer and neo-Kantian thought was a very impactful essay buttressed with extensive and erudite footnotes was a legend for those not fluent in high German until it was translated into English in 1991.

For Panofsky, perspective is an example of a “will to form” that was an unnatural invention of a particular period of time, the Renaissance. The symbolic form functioned at the structural level and the Renaissance version of perspective is comprehensible only for the modern sense of organized and structured space. Panofsky asserted that perspective is a form of thought and that thought is culturally bound to a place and time, a position of relativism that rested uncomfortably with the desired transcendence of symbolic form. The essay suggests that perspective is part of a change in world view, the shift in point of view from the infinity of religion where Earth is the center of the universe to a heliocentric world based on science. According to Panofsky, referring to perspective,

This formula also suggests that as soon as perspective ceased to be a technical and mathematical problem, it was bound to become al all that much more of an artistic problem. For perspective is by nature a two-edged sword: it creates room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally, and yet at the same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way to dissolve the bodies.

Experience or Welt is associated with Space as Experience and this experience is expressed in a linear fashion as a pictorial device in painting. For example, modern Western art based itself upon science, emulating the mindset of newly discovered humanistic values in the Fifteenth Century. Developed by architects to both measure and to map virtual space, “perspective” was an artistic language that was a sensuous and an intellectual (aesthetic) manifestation of a culture and its needs. Thus, following the thinking of his colleague, Ernst Cassirer who considered art to be a symbolic form, and perspective, for Panofsky, becomes symbolic form.

In 1951, Panofsky expanded upon this notion of symbolic form as a way of thinking that permeated an entire culture in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which precisely compared the way in which cathedrals were conceived and the way in which ecclesiastical literature was organized. Pierre Bourdieu, the French theorist, profoundly influenced by Panofsky’s idea of symbolic form, wrote in 1967 “Postface to Erwin Panofsky Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, of the Gothic imagination as a specific form of thought that produced buildings whose designs concretized and expressed the form of thought symbolically. Bourdieu used his own term, “habitus,” or an affinity among supposed different objects, to explain the existence of a mindset “..though which the creator partakes of his community and time, and that guides and directs, unbeknownst to him, his apparently most creative acts.”

As a form that symbolized a society’s desire to master territory and to understand space, perspective is a formal system that exhibits a system of relationships or formal principles that underlie the mental structures of the Renaissance. A Marxist, therefore, would have insisted that perspective reflected the new world of commerce that required mathematical measurement of all things. But there is another way of interpreting perspective as a symbolic manifestation of cultural cognitive structures. These structures produce a certain way of seeing the world that depends upon deeper formal codes of knowledge. Perspective painting originates in the human intellect as an artificial convention of seeing. This Renaissance way of seeing is a canon of representation that is also the history of how a culture thinks and sees. Panofsky takes up a task elided by Saussure, the problem of the diachronic aspect of language as a particular culture that expressed itself in a certain fashion through art forms at particular times.

Although perspective was uniquely a Renaissance invention of necessity, five hundred years later, we are still convinced that we “see” in perspective and we still draw “realistically” in perspective, still using the devices invented by Brunelleschi and Alberti. But Panofsky undermines the apparent “naturalness” of perspective. The Renaissance invented an equilibrium between the subject and the object and linear perspective is simply a necessary abstraction for practical empiricism and solves the problem of how to reproduce three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. The abstraction of the system is manifested through the artificial construction that keeps the object within certain spatial limits. The system depends upon a single, stable, and immobilized eye and does not recognize infinity. The space is mathematical and produces an adequate reproduction of an optical image. Representation takes place within a closed interior space or a hollow body or box that increased in its scope with the invention of the vanishing point that expresses infinite space (without depicting infinity). Perspective is the mathematical realization of an image of space.

Symbolic forms may manifest themselves as the deep structure of works of art, as habits of cognition. Panofsky discussed perspective as “symbolic form” in that perspective is not natural but artificial and needs to be understood within a cultural system that is an expression of an era.The new symbolic form comes about as the result of a Hegelian agonistic resolution of conflicts. Historical change is a series of syntheses, but for Panofsky, art will move in a schema of advances and reversals, rather than thesis and antithesis. In other words, art will recoil and reverse direction and abandon previous achievements. Today, the work of Panofsky is still prevalent in art history but is usually employed clumsily and superficially, with most adherents to his methods limiting themselves to a simplistic reading of symbols without understanding the complex network of relations that allow the symbols to function and ignoring the cultural context that engendered these symbols. Nevertheless, art history can claim the distinction of being the first humanistic discipline that responded to the linguistic claims of structuralism.

Symbolic forms are the deep structures of thought, functioning as an épistémè. But works of art manifest aspects of for example how people in Medieval times, such as Panofsky’s 1934 essay on the Arnolofini Wedding as an example of “disguised symbolism,” and the art historian needed a method to interpret the (superficial) visual codes. Panofsky, impacted by the semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce, organized visual language into 1. The pre-iconographical analysis, or what he terms “practical experience,” which is the primary, natural or factual expression which, when seen, must be subjected to 2. An iconographical analysis, or “knowledge of literary sources,” which decodes the image into conventional meaning. But this conventional meaning is part of a vaster system, a world of symbolic values that must be investigated through 3. an iconological analysis, a “synthetic intuition,” which is a study of the culture that produced the initial sign. Unlike iconography, which requires the viewer to know literary sources, themes and concepts and the history of visual types, iconology requires to the spectator to be conversant with the history of cultural symptoms that are essential tendencies of the human mind–the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Panofsky stated,

…as our practical experience had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms (history of style); and as our knowledge of literary sources had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes and concepts were expressed by objects and events (history of types); just so, or even more so, has our synthetic intuition to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts. This means what may be called a history of cultural symptoms–or symbols in Ernst Cassirer’s sense…

Iconography is not merely a decoding of symbols, not only an identification of icons; iconography reveals the basic attitudes of a nation, of a period, of a class or of a religion. The icon developed by the society is qualified by the artist’s personality but the symbolic values expressed must ultimately be manifestations of an underlying principle or structure. Iconography as a method of interpretation is an act of synthesis, in the Kantian sense, a putting together of identification or analysis that leads to interpretation. The recognition of the icon presupposes familiarity with the themes and concepts of the culture and its historical conditions. This synthesis takes place at the iconological level or third level where the cultural symbols are also the intuitions of the human mind.

To state Panofsky’s approach to art in Kantian terms, he has put forward a new theoretical manifesto. There are a priori categories that are independent of experience and are purely intellectual and are transcendental. Time and Space are antithetical and must be balanced into a unity that is art. This unity (symbolic form) or sinn is the intrinsic meaning of the art of a period and this unity spans the usual distinction between form and content. Painting in perspective, in other words, is a desire to order the world in a certain way. Between form and content is a middle ground: symbolic form, a concept derived from Ernst Cassirer, which is the sole object of Panofsky’s study.

The first part of the series discusses European philosophical ideas while third and final post on Erwin Panofsky will describe his system of iconography.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Sigmund Freud, Part Two

SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)

PART TWO

DREAMS AND THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND

The “psyche” was a term borrowed from Plato who had used the term as designated the “soul,” but for Sigmund Freud, the psyche was composed of energies or basic instincts. These instincts are simple and powerful: life and death, Eros and thantos, libido and constancy. Libido is blind energy (remember Schopenhauer) that needs to be properly directed. Thantos is destructive and aggressive and seeks death. They are governed by cathexis, or the urging forces, and anti-cathexis or the checking forces. The instincts are constantly trying to assert themselves while the forces that attempt to frustrate them are referred to as inner inhibitions. This constant frustration stands in the way of the pleasure principle and can be a useful and efficient operation of the reality principle, such as the delaying of gratification. Frustration can get out of hand and the privation can be too great and the mind needs always to be in balance.

The opposing forces of the mind cause a conflict that need to be resolved. The conscious mind is alert to danger and the ego understands that anxiety is a response to danger that is translated into a feeling of fear. These fears can be quite real and very relevant. Reality anxiety is a useful response to real danger in the real world. On the hand, healthy anxieties can also become unhealthy. Neurotic anxiety can be a fear of an uncontrollable urge and moral anxiety is the conscience in action, controlling these urges through feelings of guilt and shame. Neurotic anxiety can become overdeveloped as a free-floating apprehension that becomes an irrational fear or a phobia. The panic reaction is a sign the psyche is out of balance. The source of the imbalance is located in the unconscious and it is the role of the psychoanalyst is to locate the cause of the effect or “symptom.” Here at the point of the Symptom is where Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud come together.

The symptom as a social rather than a medical concept that was developed in Marxian theory and is linked to the psychological concept of “fetish.” The fetish is a symptom, not so much of a specific desire, but the signifier of the structure of desire or of how desire is structured within the capitalist system that produces commodities for consumers. For Freud, the symptom is psychotic and manifests itself in dreams. The unconscious mind processes all that the conscious mind has repressed and has then buried those forbidden desires in the unconscious mind and these repressions manifest themselves, in a twisted and symbolic fashion, through dreams. As Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900, translated into English in 1913),

The dream-content is, as it were, presented in hieroglyphics, whose symbols must be translated, one by one, into the language of the dream-thoughts. It would of course, be incorrect to attempt to read these symbols in accordance with their values as pictures, instead of in accordance with their meaning as symbols. For instance, I have before me a picture – puzzle (rebus) – a house, upon whose roof there is a boat; then a single letter; then a running figure, whose head has been omitted, and so on. As a critic I might be tempted to judge this composition and its elements to be nonsensical. A boat is out of place on the roof of a house, and a headless man cannot run; the man, too, is larger than the house, and if the whole thing is meant to represent a landscape the single letters have no right in it, since they do not occur in nature. A correct judgment of the picture-puzzle is possible only if I make no such objections to the whole and its parts, and if, on the contrary, I take the trouble to replace each image by a syllable or word which it may represent by virtue of some allusion or relation. The words thus put together are no longer meaningless, but might constitute the most beautiful and pregnant aphorism.

“Dreams,” according to Freud, were the “Royal Road to the Unconscious.” The unconscious is also divided into two parts: the pre-conscious, consisting of experiences that can be called up at will, rather like the way one accesses long un-used files in a computer and the unconscious proper which is inaccessible to the conscious mind. The unconscious proper is a strong opposing force, located deep in the buried and repressed libido. The unconscious hides and protects its secrets so well that these “secrets” are inaccessible and undiscoverable. The secrets, or repressed material, will manifest themselves in the highly disguised forms of dreams.

For Freud, dreams are both manifest and latent. A manifest dream is the dream an individual remembers but the content seems strange and bizarre. The latent aspect of the dream can be compared to a photographic process: an individual is exposed to a traumatic event and this event is imprinted upon his mental landscape, like a latent image on a photographic plate. But what is “developed” is a metaphor which has coded the event/message into a series of images that must be decoded.

Dreams are disguised (coded) as visual and verbal metaphors but their latent content cannot simply be translated with the hope of revealing “secrets”. The truth of the psychic suppression of “true” needs, as in the real meaning of the fetish, lies in the way the dream is structured. This structure is the rebus, which works its way as a dream. It is not the dream; it is not the fetish, but the “dream work”—the process that is significant.

For Freud, dreams are manifested in language, which are spoken by the person being analyzed and these words are metaphors and must be translated. But this is not to imply that dreams are simply another language. Dreams are, in fact, unrelated to normal communication and are emanations from that which has been pushed down into the “primary processes”. The work of dreams or “dream-work” is significant is that it is divided into three operations. There is the manifest dream content; there is the latent dream content and the unconscious desire that is attached to the dream. Freud insisted on distinguishing between the manifest and the latent content of the dream and it is possible to think of unconscious (repressed) desire as the mechanism that mediates between that which is manifest (that which language can express) and that which is latent (that which takes on a particular form dictated by dream work. As Freud said,

At bottom, dreams are nothing other than a particular form of thinking made possible by the condition of the state of sleep. It is the dream-work which creates that form, and it alone is the essence of dreaming—the explanation of its particular nature. The form is important, not the content; the work is significant not the subject matter which is submitted to the dream-work. We see the same process in Marx. It is not be pure chance that a commodity becomes a fetish. The fetish, like the dream, is a symptom of the way in which a network of relations has functioned. Social relations have functioned in such a way as to transfer abstract value to commodities and turning these commodities into fetishes. The operation of transformation can take place because the commodity or product has become alienated from any conceivable maker and thus is free-floating, like anxiety, within a system that will and must pin it down and give it another meaning.

This other meaning is reified or objectified in the commodity or thing which has a psychological meaning imposed upon it. Marx is aware of this operation, which means that the meaning that is imposed is already present in society and this meaning has acquired meaning already within a matrix of social relations. Marx is baffled by the fetish as he is with other mechanisms of capitalism. He seems to be also aware that something is amiss within his system of dialectical materialism, a psychoanalytic element that his system cannot take into account. He reacts to this anarchic element by using words, such as “mystery” and “magic” and “mystification” over and over to describe what should be pragmatic and material effects of capitalism. The fetish and the dream are symptoms of free-floating desire that has fixed itself upon objects already considered by society to be likely candidates for fetishization. Structuralist philosophy will express these concepts in terms of linguistic theory.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Postmodern Architects

The Masters of Postmodernism

Postmodern architecture is a generational Oedipal act of rebellion against the Modernist fathers. Beginning with early criticisms of Modernist destruction of traditional cities, from the 1970s a genuine rebellion broke out among younger architects. The new generation systematically broke all the rules laid down by their predecessors—idealism was replaced by cynicism and irony, originality was superseded by a return to history, and a pure meaning born of visual unity was wiped away by the multi vocalism of allegory, as buildings designed by historical analogy began to dot the landscape.

One of the first acts of provocation came from none other than one of the Modernist masters, Philip Johnson. In a perverse act that some called “betrayal,” the architect of the famous Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Connecticut, mashed styles and periods together in the AT&T Building—now the Sony Building—of 1978-84. Rising above New York City, the AT&T Building was topped by a faux crown fashioned after the top of a cabinet by the 18th century designer, Thomas Chippendale. As is typical of Postmodern art, the building required and even demanded a knowledgable viewer to understand the inside jokes written across the facade. The mixture of styles was an affront to Modernist purity, but Chippendale himself made furniture that was hybrid and allegorical: “classical” and “Queen Anne,” which would be called “Federalist” in New York. The broken pediment was a Baroque comment on the Greek pediment on temples transplanted from architecture by Chippendale who propped his “high boy” (haut bois) on curved cabriolet legs (pilotis for furniture) antithetical to pure classicism. The stories of the AT&T Building resemble the drawers of a cabinet or the shelves in a Chippendale bookcase. The resulting building was sixty odd layers of ironic allusions to the history of architecture and design, an act of architectural bricolage. It caused a sensation.

Just as Philip Johnson referred back to a previous period of quotation, Charles Moore followed with the Piazza d’Italia (1976-79) in New Orleans which commented on Roman architecture which, was in and of itself, a pastiche of Greek and local Tuscan styles. The key trope of Moore’s “piazza” is the fact that Roman architecture was based on façade or a cladding of the structure to disguise construction—also a rejection of Modernism’s assertion of form. The Piazza is also a nod to Hollywood which uses fake fronts, stage sets, for the Piazza is not a set of buildings but a grouping of façades that jumble together architectural components and materials all of which allude to imperial architecture. Originally conceived of as a piece of “destination architecture” by a “star architect,” (starchitect) the Piazza was not popular with the locals and quickly fell into disrepair as the unstable materials altered or were vandalized, after its opening in 1978. In 2004 this famous piece by the late architect was restored by Ronald C. Filson of Tulane University.

It is perhaps Michael Graves whose works have been the most iconic and most recognizably “Postmodern.” His style is marked by a flat and linear effect, as if the façades of his buildings are drawings cut out of balsa wood, like an architectural model. The Portland Public Service Building (1982) is typical of his Postmodern “classicism,” with small windows, surface patterns and strong pops of color, especially terra cotta. But despite the iconic building in Portland, Graves is part of a group of architects, loyal to Modernism, known as the “Whites.” While it is hard to imagine Graves and the Late (Lingering) Modernist architect, Richard Meier, the “Whites” are distinguished from the “Grays,” led by Robert Venturi who take their inspirations from the built environment of the vernacular landscape. Because the structure is decorated with motifs that quote Classicism and Art Deco and refers to the practice of architecture, its history and its theories, the term “pastiche” sums up the Portland building by Graves.

It is important to note that the high point of Postmodern architecture coincided with a period of wealth and extravagance, particularly in the corporate culture. Like the International Style, Postmodern architecture quickly became equated with corporate arrogance and greed. These were expensive buildings, utilizing hard to maintain precious materials, and the architects allowed theories to override practicality and the insistence upon allegorical designs that combined architectural elements from various periods often overwhelmed function. It is best to think of these buildings as large works of art, needing the same care and conservation as any artistic creation. For example the architect Frank Gehry, who is neither Modernist nor Postmodernist, comes less from the world of architecture and more from the world of art. In Los Angeles, he was close to the artists of the city and his buildings resemble sculptures made out of titanium.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Hall in Los Angeles are explosions in metal, sprawling aggressively in peaks and valleys that shine in the sun and shimmer in rain. These fragile buildings are “signature” works, as recognizable as Dan Flavin’s florescent bulbs, and, like it is impossible to throw paint on the floor without being “Pollock,” Gehry “owns” titanium. Although this architect is not “Postmodern” in the sense of piling allegorical references upon a building which becomes an “emblem” of “architecture,” Gehry could not have built his signature creations in any other era. Neither could Peter Eisenman have made the move from academic theories on architecture if had the culture not been willing to embrace innovative ideas. In fact both he and Gehry are included, along with Rem Koolhaus, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and Coop Himmelblau, in a group of Deconstructivist architects who Deconstruct the Constructivist architecture of the Russian Avant-Garde.

The great architectural theorist, Mark Wigley, defined Deconstruction (taken from ideas of Jacques Derrida) in architecture as locating “inherent dilemmas within buildings….The demonstrative architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity. The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and the violent torture: the form is interrogated.” The most famous example of such architecture is Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center of Visual Arts (1983-89) on the campus of Ohio University in Columbus. The building is an ironic commentary on the Modernist grid and on the grid system, based in turn on Roman town planning, that was used by the American government to map the midwest and lay out its towns and cities. The grid for the city and the grid for the university were deliberately misaligned by Eisenman by 12 1/2 degrees. So it is here, at the site of an armory that was demolished after a devastating fire in 1958, that two historic grids inadvertently come together but do not join seamlessly.

The Wexner Center with its skewed gridded building is sited at the point of disjuncture and memory. The shape but not the function of the armory was disinterred from its fiery grave and sliced in half, split by time and space out of joint. The vaguely castle like shape in faux red brick is surrounded by a building that is a grid that de-defines enclosure and yet must contain the double buildings—the museum and the library. Pure white, without straight lines, full of stops and starts, suspended columns, unfinished lines, the building is a dizzying deconstruction of Modernist rectitude and the quintessential example of Deconstruction in Postmodernism in architecture. Indeed, Charles Jencks describes the building as a negation of the assumptions of architecture: a “not-entrance” past a “not-excavated” “not-armory” and through a “not-doorway” and towards “non-columns” and “non-pilasters”–all of which are evidence of “absent-presence.” Welcome to Postmodernism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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From Mannerism to Postmodernism in Architecture

Mannerism and Symbolism in Architecture

Robert Venturi began his famous book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, with a “gentle manifesto” for what he called “Nonstraightforward Architecture.” The young architect stated,

I like complexity and contradiction in architecture in architecture. I do not like the incoherence or arbitrariness of incompetent architecture nor the precious intricacies of picturesqueness or expressionism. Instead, I speak of a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including that experience which is inherent in art….Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like elements that are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, being as well as “interesting,” convention rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include non sequitur and and proclaim the duality. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer “both-and” to “either-or,” black and white and sometimes gray to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in serval ways at once…More is not less.

It is necessary to quote this opening passage at length because it is one of the earliest statements about what would be called Postmodernism in America and because it would form the basis for the definition of Postmodernism later fashioned by the architectural writer, Charles Jencks. In addition many aspects of his “manifesto” would find their way into the basic elements of Postmodern thought. Although Venturi declared that he was not a Postmodern architect—and as a pioneer, he could not be—his playful approach to re-examining Modernist architecture would change the thinking of an entire generation. His book, published in 1966, reflects the slow process his thinking had gone through during the five years he spent designing a small modest house for his mother, Vanna Venturi. Architectural historian, Vincent Scully, called this book the most important book on architecture since Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture (1923).

If Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture is his verbal manifesto, then the famous Mother’s House (1963) was his physical manifesto, demanding a change in architectural thinking. In his introduction to Mother’s House. The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, Frederick Schwartz noted that architectural students at the nearby University of Pennsylvania were warned by their professors to not visit this radical house. However, not only did they come, but Venturi also won a Gold Metal for this opening salvo against Modernism. If this house is a challenge to Modernist purism in architecture than it is instructive to compare it to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Both houses set alone on a small lot, a grass lawn, rimmed with trees, announcing each as a work of art. While the Villa is clearly a new and modern design that was a “machine for living,” Mother’s House was based on an old and familiar prototype—or a combination of traditions.

As he describes it, Venturi was seeking a combination of “essence” and “classicism.” The essential house or dwelling is an enclosure as evoked by the plain salt-box New England shape and the peaked roof. The classicism of the house is its split or divided pediment which interrupts while retains the classicism. Some of the playfulness comes from his desire to defy the elders of his profession—he returns windows to their original source, as holes in a wall and he repainted the stucco house from a taupe gray to a green to make the house blend in with nature, because Marcel Breuer would never do. And in the worst infamy of all, Venturi added moldings—from the unfunctional arch to the decorations around the windows—ornamentation. While symmetrical the exterior and interior have elements of asymmetry, from mismatched windows from a staircase hidden behind a door. Today this private home is a place of pilgrimage for architects seeking the source of Postmodernism.

Another iconic work of Postmodern architecture was designed around the same time as Venturi was working towards his final version of Mother’s House and that was the Sydney Opera House, which was not opened until 1973, a decade after the architect, Jorn Utzon. This building, an engineering marvel, was also a display of visual “double-coding,” a term coined by Charles Jencks to indicate that the visual forms of Postmodern architecture had codes, meanings, that had multiple meanings. The two sail-shaped, triple layered roofs of the Opera House refer to the Sydney Harbor and the ships that sail for pleasure in front of the famous building. The code for “sails,” “sea,” and even of vaults which capture the sound of the music are local and specific, rather than being universal forms favored by Modernist architecture. Although some wits have equated the layers or shells to a ménage à trios of mating turtles, the Sydney Opera House can, in Venturi language, be called a “Duck.”

Venturi confronted Modernism with his famous “duck” and “decorated shed” comparison put forward in his 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas. The “Duck,” inspired by a duck shaped structure on Long Island, is the Modernist building, which is a symbol of Modernism and of the machine. The Decorated Shed is a generic building that symbolizes nothing but enclosure or “shed” in which its actual function is designated by signage. That signage is symbolic but frankly so, for Venturi maintains that although Modernist architects deny it, all architecture, even theirs, is symbolic. When Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown and Steve Izenour visited Las Vegas, the town was full of “Sheds” Decorated with neon signs, designating them as casinos. But, interestingly, today Las Vegas is comprised of “Ducks:” a pyramid, an Eiffel Tower, a Venice, a Statue of Liberty and so on–an entire gaggle of ducks marching up and down the main highway.

The years following the publication of Learning from Las Vegas were the first years of acknowledged and frankly Postmodern works of architecture. One of the most successful works of Postmodern destination architecture was the Centre Georges Pompidou (1972-75) in the Beaubourg district of Paris. One of the grand projects of the post-war era, the museum for contemporary art celebrated technology. The architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano turned the building inside out, like a sweater, and displayed the seams or the technology that makes the building work. The conduits and pipes are on the outside and the outside is on the inside. Scaffolding permanently surrounds the building and, also on the outside, a clear tube escalator, a “people mover,” elevates the audience from one level to the other. The pipes on the exterior are color in codes for hidden functions: red for elevators, blue for air, yellow for electricity and green for water. The Beaubourg has been embraced by the Parisians and visitors, with the large sloping cobblestone courtyard becoming a theater for performance and street artists.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Historical Context of Postmodernism, Part Two

POSTMODERNISM: THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Part Two

Defining Postmodernism is a difficult process. Even though it is now fashionable to declare Postmodernism as “dead” or “over,” one should proceed with caution before burying the body. Unlike Modernism, which emerged from the Enlightenment hundreds of years ago, Postmodern ideas are essentially a mid century phenomenon, meaning that the entire body of knowledge is only sixty odd years old. We do not yet have the kind of historical perspective on Postmodernism that allows a single compact definition. Postmodernism was not just an academic event, the purview of ivory tower academics, it was also a cultural event that expanded beyond its European origins to the new global society.

The intellectuals, for all their removed condition, predicted with astonishing perception the impact of Postmodernism upon society. It should be emphasized that one of the first and most significant elucidators of Postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard wrote his diagnosis in response to technological changes and how the computerized societies of the twentieth century have impacted the legitimation of knowledge. The Report was commissioned in the late 1970s by the Conseil des Universités of the Quebec government in order to assess the confluence of computer technology, science and knowledge—how in this new age was knowledge be formed? Lyotard’s answers would be not only precise but prophetic.

As Lyotard stated,

I will use the term modem to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the her- meneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.

He continued,

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodem as incredulity toward meranarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in rum presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the mctanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds; most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it.

Although Lyotard correctly pointed to the end of the “metanarrative,” or the one overarching tale that explains everything, this metanarrative had spawned metanarratives for each intellectual, social, political and cultural field. The metanarrative implies as “master narrative,” or an idea that masters both nature and culture. One of the first tasks of Postmodern thinkers was to interrogate and dismantle the metanarrataive of the Enlightenment. In philosophy, this reexamination consisted of re-reading and re-writing the entire philosophical project of the eighteenth century. In art, the metanarrative was called “Modernism” and referred to a particular aspect of art, called avant-garde, that stemmed from the painting of Édouard Manet and the urban culture in Paris.

This metanarrative, like all metanarratives, was only as strong as what it excluded and what forms of art making were pushed aside to make room for a seamless story. As previous posts pointed out, the metanarrative of Modernism began to break down in the mid 1950s as new ideas about what art could be began to be exhibited. Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Minimal Art and Conceptual Art and Feminist Art and Pluralism all contained elements or aspects of Postmodernism and contributed to the demise of Modernism.

The art world did not systematically begin to examine Postmodern theory until the 1980s when it became obvious that the succession of movements and “isms” had ceased. Clearly, the idea that art evolves in one singular straight line was no longer tenable. Once authority had been questioned and it was evident that there was no single ruling intellectual or artistic force, Modernism was replaced by Postmodernism. It is important to understand that the art world comprehension of Postmodernism was somewhat limited and crude. Postmodernism was understood as an old-fashioned dialectic (one of the models questioned by Postmodern thinkers) as an oppositional force to Modernism.

Modernism was based upon a set of social, political and philosophical assumptions which were embedded in the Enlightenment. These assumptions were essentially optimistic: human beings would improve as they elevated themselves politically and economically through social equality. People, ordinary people, could come together and govern themselves for their mutual benefit. As history moved forward, now that they were in charge of their own destinies, people would also progress morally and ethically.

History proved this optimistic hypothesis to be wrong. Far from improving humanity, modern technology merely allowed people to kill each other more efficiently. After the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mood after (or “post”) the war was pessimistic. It was clear that a line had been crossed and that an era had come to an end. Humanity had revealed itself to be fatally flawed and trust in the good will of people had been lost. Although the sense of failure and disillusionment had yet to be named, Modernism had come to an end in the rubble and terror “after Auschwitz.”

The optimistic and progressive metanarrative of Modernism hid another assumption: that everyone agreed that the social and political principles of the Enlightenment were superior to all other philosophical systems. The Enlightenment was Eurocentric, secular, and, in favoring “progress,” left tradition behind, but not all societies agreed with this forward thrust into the “modern.” The Second World War shattered the illusion that there could be one objective truth, the truth of the science and philosophy of the Enlightenment. The only truth was that there was no truth.

Germany refused the onrush to the modern and substituted social hysteria and cultural subjectivity for scientific thinking. The Myth of the Third Reich was an alternative “truth”–the Nazi narrative of the way the world should be. Japan also rejected the Eurocentric extension of power into Asia and substituted its own cultural imperatives for the Enlightenment principles of progress. Twenty years after the Second World War, the nations of the Middle East also rejected modernity and its insistence on gender and class equality and enlightened secularism. In other words, the metanarrative of the Enlightenment which purported to be based on the objective and provable truth of science would be met with a refusal to accept that imposed imperative. In the post-war period, it became clear that subjectivity or local narratives had dislodged the certainty of the eighteenth century and “post” modern doubt was dominant.

The Enlightenment itself was a belief system—it substituted a belief in religion with a belief in human reason. Faced with the extremes of historical conditions, the powers of the human intellect had broken down, revealing the dark side of the mind as the European culture descended into an irrational madness. It is important to note that Postmodernism was a European invention and not an American one because it was Europe that experienced the worst effects of the Second World War. Instead of creating a continent of free people, the War had cut Europe in half, condemning the eastern nations to lives of autocratic arbitrary rule.

In the free zone, the Cold War stifled real political and social progress. In the west, the forces of the status quo had a firm hold but there were those who hoped for change. By the 1960s, idealism evaporated after the uneasy Spring of student uprisings and the reassertion of dogmatic authority, and the European intellectuals simply lost their belief in the revolutionary process that should had led to greater emancipation. Once the grand idée was dead, unity was impossible and philosophers sheltered themselves into small conclaves of thought. This disunity signified and end of “meaning” as a singular belief system. The permanent modernist revolution gave way to a Postmodern critique of the Enlightenment as if to find out how the culture could have gone so far astray from its initial promise.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Theodor Adorno and “Negative Dialectics”

THEODOR ADORNO

(1903-1969)

AND

IDENTITY

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote their critique of the culture of Western civilization, Dialectic of Enlightenment during the Second World War. When the book was published in German in 1947, the full extent of the Holocaust had been revealed, two atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Horkheimer and Adorno were now “Holocaust survivors,” and cultural amnesia was already setting into the minds of the German people. The failure of the Enlightenment was now evident and the raw truth of the rout of rationalism was undeniable. And although the book opened with the essay “The Concept of Enlightenment” the texts on the Culture Industry were the best remembered. Perhaps it took the magisterial pessimism of Theodor Adorno in Negative Dialectics to articulate the true extent of the Fall of humanity outside the bounds of the Enlightenment. Published two decades after his work with Horkheimer, Negative Dialectics is a tragic document, written in the wake of Shoah and in full understanding of the author’s Jewishness as an identity that guaranteed death.

Negative Dialectics is famously difficult to read, much less comprehend or understand. Large stretches of the book are page after page of impenetrable prose with little narrative flow, guaranteeing reader frustration. Adorno certainly wrote for his peer group, his fellow philosophers who were presiding over the corpse of Western philosophy. Every now and then, flashes of poetic writing that one begins to recognize as Adorno’s “style” or “manner,” so to speak, break this wall of writing. Thomas Mann, who called Adorno a “strange intellect, stated that he refused to chose between music and philosophy as his life’s work. The artistic nature of the opening sentences of this book is nothing short of profound and beautiful.

Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried…philosophy is obliged ruthlessly to criticize itself…The introverted thought architect dwells behind the moon that is taken over by extroverted technicians.

Even the most educated reader waits for and treasures such passages, which are relics or reminders that Adorno was once a gifted pianist. The roots of Negative Dialectics lie undoubtedly in his entire experience as a German philosopher who was surprised to find himself sentenced to being the Other by a culture he had dedicated his intellectual life to studying. Adorno’s scholarly home was the Frankfurt School, which understood that the problem of contemporary Western civilization was the Enlightenment itself, because that “civilization” had ended in “barbarism”. They owed this profound thought to Freud, who put forward the proposition in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization could be brought into being only through repression of primal instincts. One force—call this force ego or civilization—had to repress another—the id or instinct or barbarism—and these forces would be translated into social forces seeking control of the masses. Beyond a disciplinary force seeking to rule antisocial behavior are competing political and social forces, whether religion or regime, seeking to gain the upper hand. No matter how benign or benevolent, these social forces come into power by suppressing by acts of power other contenders. Thus “civilization” is the result of “barbarity”, a condition of force.

The Frankfurt School was formed and re-formed during a battle of civilization—the Allies—struggling against barbarity—the Nazis. Long before the war began, the French considered themselves to be cultured and the Germans to be barbarians, threatening invasion of European “culture”. After the war, the Germans were exposed as barbarians. The extent of the barbarism was not fully evident until the post-War period, inspiring Bertold Brecht to note that the “mansion of culture” was made of “shit.” The world, shocked by photographic and documentary evidence of death on an industrial scale wondered incredulously how the nation that nurtured Kant and Hegel and Beethoven could have systematically slaughtered over six million human beings. How from this peak of culture could the society sink to these depths of barbarism? The Enlightenment had failed, having produced positivism. Positivism, a degraded form of the Enlightenment, created an administered society that led to totalitarianism. Fascism was administered and highly controlled capitalism that revealed the contradictions inherent in the Enlightenment. Fascism put into practice the inherent self-destructiveness of the Enlightenment.

During the Second World War, the scholars of the Frankfurt School were scattered between European outposts and locales in America. For some the experience in America was a satisfying one, for others, such as Adorno, his time in America was an “exile.” Even though he became an American citizen, Adorno finally returned to Germany in 1949. Succumbing to the inducements of the city of Frankfurt, the scholars came back to Germany in 1950, committed to being politically committed, to exposing the myths of capitalism and socialism in the era of the Cold War. The memory of Walter Benjamin was maintained and even celebrated in the seminal study of German forgetting, The Inability to Mourn, by Institute fellows, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, contrasted mourning to melancholia. Benjamin had picked up these contrasts from Freud and used them in his discussion of allegory. The Mischerlichs, in turn, appropriated these ideas and fittingly used them to point out that Germany refused the mourn (the Jews) and hence was condemned to a state of (unresolved) melancholia.

When he returned to Germany, Adorno was not received as a conquering hero but as someone tainted with his American associations and, ironically, for someone who criticized popular culture, he was known mostly for his music criticism. As an exile, he returned to a culture that had been through an experience he had not shared and his mindset and methodology had been changed in New York. But Adorno had a sharp eye and a unique perspective for the way in which anti-Semitism had become a non-issue, swept under the rug while the former Nazis were being absorbed back into “normal” life. Just because the “Jewish question” had been “solved” in the concentration camps, did not mean that identity politics had also vanished. If the Jews in Europe had been exterminated in the name of “identity”—that is, they were identified as “the Other” through their yellow stars, then it was up to Adorno to explore the concept of non-identity.

In order to do so, Adorno continued his critique of philosophy, a critique that went beyond the abstract realm of thought and grappled with the implications of the refusal to remember the past so prevalent in West Germany. While The Inability to Mourn, is an elegy to the loss of “culture” in Germany, Negative Dialectics, is less psychological than philosophical. Martin Jay’s book Adorno set out the five “force fields” in his career: Marxism in the West, modernist aesthetics, intellectual despair, and deconstruction. Indeed it is fruitful to read Negative Dialectics through the Deconstruction of Jacques Derrida. Like Adorno, Derrida thought deeply about Hegel’s dialectic—thesis, antithesis and synthesis—as the metaphysical force that propelled Life toward the Absolute. Both modern philosophers would be suspicious of metaphysics but interested in the mechanism through which “Being” was brought into existence through its Other, Nothingness.

In deconstructing the Dialectic, Derrida noted that one term was always valued over the other term and yet the de-valued term was necessary for the preferred or favored term to exist. We understand one term only through the other term or by the différance and so, Derrida pointed out, these terms are neither opposite nor independent and their final meanings remain indeterminate and without origin. Later Jean-François Lyotard would use deconstruction married to Adorno to discuss the Holocaust in terms of what he called the differend and the forced silence of those who were outside the dialectic.

For Adorno, the problems of the Enlightenment were caused by “identity thinking”, or the subsuming of the particulars under general concepts or grand narratives. Like Benjamin who insisted on examining an object in its historical particularity, Adorno asserted that the danger of identity thinking could be averted through Negative Dialectics, which assesses relations among things according to the criteria the object had of itself. The constellation would be impervious to bourgeois identity thinking. The “constellation” refused to privilege one element over another and produced a dialectical model of negations or a fluid reality that was hostile to the reconciliation of the dialectical process.

Adorno took up the Dialectic in order to negate the presumed progression from one term to the other. Along with Benjamin, he understood a word to belong, not as part of a pair of opposites, but as an element in a constellation. While Benjamin thought of his “constellations” or what Fernand de Saussure would call a “network of relationships” as being eternal in meaning, Adorno understood meaning as being both historically determined and contingent upon the points in the cluster. Most importantly, Adorno has eliminated the linear teleology of the Dialectic and once the possibility of progressive movement is negated within the constellation, the point of origin—Nothingness—is eliminated. In other words, there was no positive to be reached.

The Dialectic that structures the Enlightenment is based upon Hegel’s distinction between the self and the other, between the mind and matter, between the One and the Other, between the Master and the Slave. Self-recognition and actuality is achieved through the recognition that it is not-me. But subjecthood has a dark side. Subjecthood is achieved through the domination of the other. Humans become “human” through culture, which denies and deforms nature. Science is the ultimate expression of the (in) human drive to subjugate nature through culture (technology), a drive that reached its peak with the Holocaust and the technology of Death.

That which was Jewish would be expelled from the purity of the Nazi body politic. Through subjective domination, Jews became objectified through reification. To counter this domination of nature, the Nazis had to regress to the mythic past and progress spawned barbarism. The humanity of the Jews was “forgotten,” because as Adorno said, “…all reification is a forgetting…” and even democratic countries produce forgetting through the culture industry. All levels of culture are permeated with this process of commodification that reduces people to things to be assimilated or purged.

Throughout his career, Adorno never relaxed his hostility to “affirmative cultures” and wrote Negative Dialectics, 1966 and explored the dark implications of Auschwitz for metaphysics and art. Adorno’s critique of the concept of “origin” coincided with the 1968 uprisings both on the streets of Paris and within the halls of French philosophy and he was taken up by Post-Structuralism, also known as Post-Modernism. He insisted that philosophy continue its engagement—an engagement that was “fatal”—with the world. This task would preserve the critical powers of philosophy and maintain a dialectical relationship between tragic history and philosophy. For the Frankfurt School, genuine materialism was an ethical function. Philosophy had come full circle and returned to the analysis of the real world and its political condition. But philosophy could no longer trust “progress” or “reason” and could only assume a position of constant critique against the effects of reification upon human culture.

The Frankfurt School accepted Marx’s notion of reification, of desire being frozen and fixed in place as a commodity object-as-fetish. Commodities are estranged from human origins in order for desires to be projected onto and into them so that the objects can become reified. America was the setting for the reification of desire through mass media. In the land of freedom and democracy, “The Culture Industry” undermined freedom of choice and expression. “Reason” becomes an “instrument” aligned to technology. The system of the Culture Industry was created in more liberal and industrialized nations. The culture industry creates a mass consciousness that is manipulated and distorted. Popular entertainment is standardized but pretends to individualization but produce Herman Marcuse’s “one dimensional society”. The techniques of the Culture Industry include the distribution and mechanical reproduction, which are external to the object. Therefore, all mass culture is identical and impresses its same stamp on everything.

“Instrumental Reason” was a pernicious effect of rationality. The term alone speaks of its danger: “instrumental” is subjective aligned to “reason”, presumed to be neutral. The Enlightenment had produced opposites that reduced everything to abstract equivalents of everything else in the service of the system of the exchange principle. All that is different or “non-identical” is forced into the mold to produce identity. For Adorno this mode of thinking would be countered by asserting his own difference, his own Jewishness—Difference instead of Identity. Instrumental Reason could be used to dominate nature through scientific control.

Progress and technological advances led, not to the empowerment of the people, but to their enslavement under despots. Modernism was exposed as a myth and social progress is shown as having fallen from grace. Technological apparatus allows for more efficient categorization that strengthens the collective order. Certain social groups succeed in administering and dominate other social groups through the appropriation of the means of rationalization. The masses are bought off with commodities. The masses are silenced by the entertainment industry that claims to inform but only instructs and stultifies opposition while pretending to allow “freedom of expression”. The result is totalitarianism or totalizing thinking. Everyone and everything must be the same, think the same, do the same: identity must be identical and the system resists the Other, which must be purged to protect the purity of the system. Hence the danger of the dialectic is that it privileges the One over the Other and seeks to annihilate the Other by negating it.

Under Fascism, progress became regression through ideology. Nazism refused the modernity of the Enlightenment while embracing modern mechanisms to produce and promulgate ideology, expressed through film and radio, controlled by the government. Fascism always regresses into a mythic past, while using mechanical means to control the present. The concentration camps were the ultimate example of administered death and efficient extermination. Auschwitz was the ultimate expression of rational thinking. Power had become the ideology, which controlled technology. As a Holocaust survivor, Adorno was profoundly suspicious of the universal. As he wrote,

Identity and contradiction in thinking are welded to one another. The totality of the contradiction is nothing other than the untruth of the total identification, as it is manifested in the latter. Contradiction is non-identity under the bane [Bann] of the law, which also influences the non-identical.

In Adorno and Horkheimer: Diasporic Philosophy, Negative Theology, and Counter-Education, Ilan Gur-Ze´ev wrote in 2005 that Horkheimer and Adorno broke with tradition and created a “diasporic philosophy” which is “nomadic.” Its starting point, he pointed out is the absence of truth. This analysis is a particularly valuable one because Gur-Ze´ev stresses the signal importance of the effects of exile upon Post-Structuralism after the War. It is impossible to go home again and take up philosophy where it left off. The Shoah represents the Fall of Humanity from Eden and what is left is the blasted wasteland of philosophy. Both Hegel and Marx offered a promise of a utopia, whether of Spirituality or of the Social, but Adorno could accept no Positive ending and the concept of a Synthesis had proved to be a dangerous one when put into political practice. Synthesis insists upon Sameness and Adorno counters with Non-Identity.

But it is capitalism itself that forces separateness upon the (administered) world, cleaving theory from practice creates a false contradiction, which is not real but which is the result of the way in which capitalism fragments society. Capitalism is not a neutral economic force or an impartial system, for it contains the seeds of fascism as the ultimate in administrative capitalism. According to Adorno, He who does not wish to speak of capitalism should also be silent about fascism”. Such a world does not admit to contradictions that must be silenced by received wisdom or what Adorno called “reified consciousness.” Reified thinking is almost a contradiction in terms for such a pattern of acceptance cannot change. Therefore “negative dialectics” is the refusal to accept the presumed identity between a thing and its concept.

Only by confronting the contradictions can one resist totalizing systems. The goal is to rescue non-identity, or that which was repressed in the quest for totalization and reification. In an abstract way that is also concrete and psychological, it is important for Adorno that one recognizes not just that which as been refused but also to come to terms with one’s guilt for having turned away from the contradictions within the dialectic. The philosopher’s thinking is often metaphorical and the need to feel guilt and the necessity of seeking redemption is more than a critique of Hegelian dialectical thinking. Philosophy has “allowed” and even constructed such thought processes of opposites with all internal discrepancies filed away and forgotten unexamined. One must now, in the face of a disastrous history, make amends by remembering.

Remembering is difficult and fraught with danger in post-war Germany. Adorno could foresee that the “working through the past” would lead to exactly where it ended up twenty years after his death, in the “Historians’ Controversy.” His worst fears were realized when apologists attempted to “normalize” the Holocaust and re-characterize it as part of larger historical patterns. As Yasmin Ibrahim pointed out in 2009 in Holocaust as the Visual Subject: The Problematics ofMemory Making through Visual Culture, “The Holocaust is inextricably imprisoned through the dialectical discourses of universalism and particularism.”

Adorno insisted upon critical thinking, which was a moral imperative. Dialectical thinking must be redeployed against systematic thinking, like that, which trapped the Holocaust. Instead of responding to reification, the mind should turn away from the system that “produced” the object and closely view the object itself. The aim is to overcome what Adorno called “philosophical imperialism” or the way in which the mind seeks to conquer (by categorization) and annex the “Alien.” The result of such imperializing and totalizing thinking is to render the indigestible into that which must be expelled. As Adorno wrote,

If negative dialectics calls for the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true – if it is to be true today, in any case – it must also be a thinking against itself. If thought is not measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.

In many ways, Negative Dialectics is the aftermath of Dialectic of Enlightenment, for the Holocaust was the result of modernity and the breakdown of Enlightened thought under the totalization demanded in Late Capitalism. Technology forces conformity of thinking through propaganda and entertainment, producing conformity and homogeneity through the principles of pleasure and desire, always denied and always promised. The result is an inability to identify with anyone but the group to which we have been assigned. Those on the outside loose their identity and become what Lyotard called “unrepresentable,” because they have become absorbed into the “differend.”

It was the goal of Theodor Adorno to refuse identity and to demand that non-identity be recognized. Other Holocausts would come, he predicted accurately. To resist the false “positive” is to insist upon the “negative” and to reintroduce the invisible term back into visibility of the (moral) dialectic. The book ends on an elegiac note of mourning and guilt, for the author and philosopher and musician has arbitrarily survived the Holocaust. Adorno had recurring dreams of being sent to the gas chambers and found himself not just a Survivor but also an alien in his own homeland. Written in 1966 Negative Dialectics is not just a critique of Western philosophy after the end of the Enlightenment it is also a document of morality. In his parting thoughts, Adorno wrote these famous lines,

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Our metaphysical faculty is paralyzed because actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought could be reconciled with experience…the administered murder of millions made of death a thing one had never had to fear in just this fashion…That in the concentration camps it was no longer an individual who died, but as a specimen—this is a fact bound to affect the dying of those who escaped the administrative measure.

Genocide is the absolute integration…Absolute negativity is in plain sight and has ceased to surprise anyone.

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there would have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]