Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part One


Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1984)

Part One

In 1992, Charles Jencks summed up his definition of the Postmodern in ”The Post-Modern Agenda” by saying the over the past ten years the debate had centered on whether the changes should be called Neo or Post. However, Jencks continued, both movements shared the “notion that the modern world is coming to an end and that something new must replace it.” In this essay, Jencks summarized up the major theoretical positions to date about that “strange feeling of posteriority” or aftermath that had become pervasive during the previous decade of the 1980s. Jencks named Jean-François Lyotard and Andreas Huyssen, Linda Hutcheon, and Ihab Hassan as the leading writers on Postmodernism. For those writers, Postmodernism means the end of a “single world view” and the beginning of a “war on totality,” meaning a “resistance to single explanations, a respect for difference and a celebration of the regional, local and particular.”

In his naming of Postmodern writers, Charles Jencks wittingly or unwittingly pointed to the interdisciplinary aspects of Postmodern thought. Postmodernism brought together philosophy, literary theory, history, art criticism, sociology, anthropology–most of the humanities–in a generational effort to re-consider the Modern era now that it had passed. If it was the habit of those who fabricated the modern to be future oriented, it was the task of those who would write the post-modern or the after-modern, to be backwards looking in reconsidering the role of the past. Because Postmodernism accepted the past and was interested in history, it was not anti-Modern but accepted philosophical Modernism by transforming its larger framework into parts which “still keep their identity.” In addition, it should be noted that the “past” analyzed by these writers was a modernist past, and this fascination of Postmodernism with Modernism was akin to a snake swallowing it own tail.

Indeed, in reading the Postmodern authors, one hears echoes of Walter Benjamin’s idea of allegory, but more precisely, what Postmodern analysis did was to return to the Modern to re-read the supposedly “pure” texts from an “impure” or deconstructionists and critical perspective. It is easy to think of Postmodernism as opposite from Modernism but the philosophical efforts are much more than the other half of a dialectic: Postmodernism turns Modernism inside out and examines its seams to see how it was put together. One of the more original philosophers of the Postmodern, Frederic Jameson (1934-), was able to take advantage of the penchant for the past and the acceptance of popular culture to put the erudite ideas of Postmodernity into an easily digestible format–Hollywood movies–the cultural “unconscious,” if you will, of Western culture. It was Jameson, more than the other Postmodern theorists, who understood the “logical” connections between the omnipresence of popular culture, how this culture or what Theodor Adorno (1903-1965) would term the “culture industry” has shaped the Postmodern collective consciousness.


This consciousness, however, should not be considered to be owned by a personal self or unique subject. Just as earlier Postmodern theorists noted that language shapes not only the conscious mind but also the unconscious mind as well, Jameson came to a similar conclusion that minds are molded through the prevailing culture. Therefore, Jameson along with the Postmodern thinkers named by Jencks–a second generation, post-Derridian generation, if you will–considers the notion of the unique version of self and thus of a unique style to be an ideological expression of the dominant society unwilling to admit the extent to which the “selves” are oppressed. But as Jameson pointed out is is important to recognize and to analyze this “loss of self.” Keep in mind that this loss of self is theoretical and leads the way for a theoretical discussion of what it means to be “post” or “after.” As Jameson emphasized in his essay of 1984 “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” there is a sense of loss. He wrote of “Postmodernism,”

As the word itself suggest, this break is most often related to notions of the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old movement (or to its ideological or aesthetic repudiation). Thus abstract expressionism in painting, existentialism in philosophy, the final forms of representation in the novel, the films of the great auteurs, or the modernist school of poetry (as institutionalized and canonized in the works of Wallace Stevens) all are now seen as the final, extraordinary flowering of a high-modernist impulse which is spent and exhausted with them..What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally..

In order to make the leap from the loss of self to the Postmodern “condition” in the arts it is necessary to look to another of Jameson’s books The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) as a prelude to his book, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Captialism (1991). Jameson’s concept of Postmodernism is unusual in that he attempts to rescue the notion of the meta-narrative and to revive Marxism as a viable option for critical analysis in a time where it seemed that capitalism had “won.” But he also re-used Sigmund Freud and combined theories of the unconscious with theories of the economy from Karl Marx in a concept he called the “political unconscious,” a form of pensée sauvage. Jameson claimed that

Only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism..Only Marxism can give us an adequate account of the essential mystery of the cultural past..From this perspective the convenient working distinction between cultural texts that are social and political and those that are not becomes something worse than an error: namely, a symptom and a reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life. Such a distinction reconfirms that structural, experiential, and conceptual gap between the public and the private, between the social and the psychological, or the political and the poetic, between history or society and the “individual,” which—the tendential law of social life under capitalism–maims our existence as individual subjects and paralyzes our thinking about time and change just as surely as it alienates us from out speech itself..The assertion of a political unconscious proposes that we undertake just such a final analysis and explore the multiple paths that lead to the unmasking of cultural artifacts as socially symbolic acts.

Jameson considered this primitive and uncontrolled “unconsciousness” to be a “conspiratorial text” and stressed the importance of political interpretation of cultural artifacts that must be unmasked. He was opposed to “historicism,” a form of re-writing history, which is a projection of the present as a contrast to the past which, in turn is couched as being both specific and radically different. According to Jameson, the ideology of historicism actually stands for the deeper truth that it seeks to deny and conceal and that deeper truth is a desire of the ruling class to uphold its domination, that turns the construction of “history” into a strategy of containment. By “containing” history, that is writing it selectively, contradictions are denied, such as the contradiction between democracy and denial of universal suffrage. The collective mind that has been fed and shaped by these ideologies must, therefore, be analyzed (in the Freudian manner) as a consciousness that has been formed through cultural repression. According to Frederic Jameson, the collapsed sense of temporality was schizophrenic and without teleology, or that straight progressing line of movement imagined by nineteenth century historians. Therefore, there can be no “history” and without history, there is no past and no present and no future, only fragments of already-worked representations of memories. The lack of a coherent history results in a artificial sense of a “constructed” (non)self.

The theoretical loss of self is political, leaving that, rather than possessing an authentic sense of history, the individual has no self-hood and is shaped by emanations from mass media. In re-reading Jameson exactly thirty years later, one can only reflect upon how prophetic he was–even before cable television, the rise of the internet, and the retreat of Americans into market niches designed to shelter their media constructed “selves.” Jameson took up the issues of the postmodern culture industry, which, thanks to television and radio and the proliferation of film–beyond anything Adorno had experienced–in a Postmodern era. He understood it to be–even more so–as part of Adorno’s totally “administered society,” functioning as part of a set of institutions, from movies in Hollywood to radio in New York to magazines and mass media–that organize obedience and control from the citizens. In his essay on “Late Capitalism,” Jameson outlined the impact of the shaped and fabricated “political unconscious.” Rather than examine the loss of the political self in an age of “greed” and runaway unregulated capitalism, Jameson focused on the impact of the loss of subject which led to a “loss of mastery” as played out in the visual arts and architecture where contemporary artists could not “master” the signs; they could only manipulate images to simulate mastery of signs.

The result of this loss of mastery is the (non) creation of a patische or an imitation of a peculiar or unique style and patische wears a stylistic mask that masquerades as a “movement” or a faux style. A work of patische is a speech in what Jameson called a “dead language,” a politically neutral practice of mimicry of an element from the past. Patische, in French, which means “stencil” or a kind of stamping or repetition of a copy is therefore is a blank parody and blank irony, with the term “blank” suggesting inauthentic or a disconnect with the “original” parody. In other words, the element that is being parodied in the present comes from the past and has no real resonance in contemporary society but is used because the parody is “recognized” but is actually empty of meaning. The essential message from Jameson is the failure of “art,” the failure of the “aesthetic,” the failure of the “new,” which is never new only the old recycled. Through works of art, Postmodernism acknowledged its imprisonment in the past.

Follow the discussion in Parts Two and Three.

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

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Jean-François Lyotard and the Sublime, Part Two

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991)

Part Two

The definition of aesthetics has always been difficult to grasp and perhaps what is more interesting in attempts to define aesthetics is the fact that in the middle of the eighteenth century, philosophers deemed it necessary to return to ideas that had been languishing since antiquity. The eighteenth century is the century of reason and rationalism par excellence, but there was a category of thinking and feeling and reacting that fell between the rational and the irrational and the rest of the century would be spent in trying to bring “feelings” into the realm of reason. At first, these studies of what would later be termed “aesthetics” were extensions of pre-existing philosophical systems.

Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762) is usually credited with being the first to lecture on the topic of aesthetics in 1742 and published Aesthetica in two volumes in 1750 and 1758. Written (and available today) in Latin, a language spoken only by ancient and long dead Romans in that period, the book defined aesthetics in the following fashion: “Aesthetics (as the theory of liberal arts, as inferior cognition, as the art of beautiful thinking and as the art of thinking analogous to reason) is the science of sensual cognition.” From its very inception, aesthetics was concerned with the senses and with feelings, which caused an immediate problem for philosophy, which always seeks the universal, namely that “sensual cognition” is personal and unique, belonging to the individual. For example, in the history of aesthetics, the concept of the beautiful has always seemed clear. In his well-known attempt to define and divide the Beautiful and the Sublime, A Philosophical Inquiry into our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) devoted more than half the book to the Sublime, a notoriously difficult concept. On the Beautiful, he concluded,

On the whole, the qualities of beauty, as they are merely sensible qualities, are the following: First, to be comparatively small. Secondly, to be smooth. Thirdly, to have a variety in the direction of the parts; but, fourthly, to have those parts not angular, but melted as it were into each other. Fifthly, to be of a delicate frame, without any remarkable appearance of strength. Sixthly, to have its colours clear and bright, but not very strong and glaring. Seventhly, or if it should have any glaring colour, to have it diversified with others. These are, I believe, the properties on which beauty depends; properties that operate by nature, and are less liable to be altered by caprice, or confounded by a diversity of tastes, than any other.

Of the Sublime, Burke wrote,

..the sublime is an idea belonging to self-preservation; that it is therefore one of the most affecting we have; that its strongest emotion is an emotion distress; and that no pleasure from a positive cause belongs to it.

When one reads this book, written in 1757, it is clear that it is laced with the writer’s personal opinions on topics such as what makes a woman beautiful that have, with time, become dated. What Burke wrote about was “feelings,” but what was needed in philosophy, as Emmanuel Kant began to understand, was some kind of universal standard for the Beautiful and the Sublime. The mindset of the eighteenth century demanded an secular architecture for humanity that was all inclusive and, in his Analytic of the Sublime, Kant built a structure that included that most difficult of all topics in aesthetics, the Sublime. Kant differentiate between the “Mathematically” and the Dynamically” sublime, concluding,

Sublimity, therefore, does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us). Everything that provokes this feeling in us, including the might of nature which challenges our strength, is then, though improperly, called sublime, and it is only under presupposition of this idea wihin us, and in relation to it, that we are capable of attaining to the idea of the sublimity of that Being which inspires deep respect in us, not by the mere display of its might in nature, but more by the faculty which is planed in us of estimating that might without fear, and of regarding our estate as exalted above it.

The importance of Kant’s concept of the Sublime is that, unlike Beauty, which resided in object, whether natural or human made, is that the Sublime is a reaction within the mind. But in order to deal with the Sublime in a universal fashion, Kant needed an example of an Event that induced or caused a Sublime reaction. That Event had to have a universal basis (or as universal as a European philosopher in his era could conceive) and Kant’s choice example of an Event in the Critique of Judgment (1790) was the French Revolution. Even today it is possible to understand the feelings of joy, relief and hope for the citizens of Europe, from the peasants to the bourgeoisie, and the feelings of fear and terror on the part of the ruling classes that would have been collectively aroused by the overthrowing of a class that had ruled France for centuries. These feelings, at least in France, would have been fueled by the spectacle of a huge and overwhelming public uprising that swept the spectators up into what Kant termed “enthusiasm,” an intense and shared reaction experienced by the witnesses.

But the task of Jean-François Lyotard in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991) differed from that of Kant. Following his train of thought from The Postmodern Condition to The Differend, Lyotard realized that the Sublime needed to be rethought in relation to current or recent Events, namely the Holocaust. The philosopher of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, was the precursor for Lyotard, entering into that most delicate and treacherous territory of mass murder, which is among the contemporary events that are simply “unrepresentable.” In Negative Dialectics, Adorno grappled with the problem wrought by Dialectics:

Dialectics serves the end of reconcilement. It dismantles the coercive logical character of its own course; that is why it is denounced as “panlogism.” As idealistic dialectics, it was bracketed with the absolute subject’s predominance as the negative impulse of each single move of the concept and of its course as a whole.

Negation is of paramount importance for the Sublime which is an odd combination of “Thou Shalt Not” and “Thou Can Not.” It is the issue of “presentability” or “representation” or the conditions of or the possibility of representability that became the mode of entry for Lyotard into the question of the Sublime and the Holocaust. The Sublime is a question of ability and inability. If “taste,” in the Kantian sense, is accord with the capacity or ability to present or to represent an object which can (has the ability to) correspond to a given concept, then the sublime is formlessness or absence of form–inability to conceive and to reason and to utter or to represent. Paradoxically and ironically the Sublime, described by Kant as mathematically infinite, is also about limits. The imagination, limited by the Event, fails to present any object that could possibly conform to the concept, which is, in itself, is incomprehensible. In its own way, the Sublime is iconoclastic and opposes graven images. Because the sublime is unpresentable, the figuration or representation must be avoided and what is (not)presented must be blank or blanche, not empty or wiped out but simply absent, to convey the limits of an imagination brought up short by the Event.


Joseph Mallord William Turner. The Slave Ship (1840)

The Sublime makes us see, shows us only through taboos and by prohibition, meaning that for the artist, the issue becomes how to present the unpresentable without presenting it. Thus the power of the poetry comes from not saying and the pleasure of not seeing comes from the pain of being deprived of the privilege of the direct gaze. That said, in the nineteenth century, many works of art were considered “sublime” in the general parlance of the time. For example, J. M. W. Turner’s painting Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming On (1840) was described in 1843 by John Ruskin in the following terms, ..the whole picture dedicated to the most sublime of subjects and impressions—(completing thus the perfect system of all truth, which we have shown to be formed by Turner’s works)—the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea. One of the cornerstones of the nineteenth century mind was its supreme confidence in its ability to conquer, even the unconquerable notion of the Sublime. Turner’s The Slave Ship is surely an example of the concept of the Sublime of his century but it violated the “rules” of the Sublime, which are that the Sublime is an Event and that this Event cannot be depicted. But, in its assumption–manifested in Turner’s painting–that the Sublime can be viewed/seen–the reading of the Sublime has weakened and had been watered down over time. The vernacular interpretation of the Sublime as had been inherited by the twentieth century had to be contested and the meaning to of the Sublime needed to be brought back to its original sense–the Sublime cannot be thought much less presented. In 1991 Jean-François Lyotard set out to deal with that which is unpresentable, which will be discussed in the next post.

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Jean-François Lyotard: “Le Différend,” Part Two

The Différend (1983) as “The Postmodern Condition, Part Two”

Defining the Différend

Although Le Différend was the natural outcome of The Postmodern Condition, this book is also an overt return to politics and a reassertion of a life-long concern with justice for those oppressed by the meta-narrative on the part of Jean-François Lyotard. The philosopher grew up during the Second World War under Nazi occupation and because France surrendered, he, like many of his generation, was spared military duty. The invasion of the Allies in June 1944 interrupted what he described as a “poetic, introspective and solitary way of thinking and living,” and his closest brush with the War was his service providing first aid during the fight to liberate Paris in 1944. Without the wartime disruptions that German or English of American men experienced, Lyotard was able to proceed with his life, marrying at age twenty four and fathering two children before he achieved his Docteur ès lettres in 1971. The War had shaken his earlier intellectual adherence to “indifference,” but his early work was indebted to the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who had a rather too close relationship with the Nazi Party and the Nazi ideology.

Lyotard’s acceptance of Heidegger was common among French philosophers, and nothing measures the journey he took better than the distance between La Phénoménologie of 1954 and Le Différend of 1983, which is informed by Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, Holocaust survivor. During this journey, Lyotard had become a committed Marxist and then a disillusioned Marxist and finally a philosopher who wrote, on occasion, politically activist works. Written in the midst of a public debate in Germany and France on how the history of the Holocaust should be written, Le Différend picked up the sub-text of oppression and silencing embedded in The Postmodern Condition and foregrounds what was a contest among academics and scientists for what constitutes “knowledge,” and shifts the ground to a question more highly charged: under what conditions is one party utterly silenced and what are the consequences? The meta-narrative is untenable, therefore, not just because it can no longer be believed, but because it is also terroristic. However, this narrative totalitarian can be countered by what Lyotard called “critical pragmatics,” or replacing the universal with the situational, or the pragmatic narrative, which legitimates itself simple through performativity or presentation.

The local and the specific (as opposed to the universal) now replace the narrative and is dubbed “the phrase” by Lyotard to denote its fragmentariness. Geoff Bennington pointed out in Lyotard: Writing the Event (1988) that the term “phrase” could be translated as “sentence.” In other words, a sentence (phrase) is a unity but is not also a part of a larger whole or narrative. Lyotard wrote of “phrases in dispute” or phrases (fragments) that cannot communicate with each other. He made the distinction between “negotiation,” in which both parties are allowed voice and “litigation” which is a language game that enforces silence upon the aggrieved party in order to empower larger forces, such as the state or the system. What if one cannot present? What if one is not allowed to speak? Lyotard recognized that political injustice and social silencing can operate with in the (idealized) language games of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lyotard borrowed what was, for Wittgenstein, a philosophical concept, and transformed the language game into the political. The language games have rules but the rules are hardly equitable and are built upon the “system” which empowers some and disempowers others. Into the language game, Lyotard interjected the phrase or the fragment, the fact of “it happens” that refers to the event as a “pure happening.” In other words, the phrase or event being fragmentary or singular cannot fit neatly into a metanarrative and points to the inherent injustice embedded in language.

Lyotard’s philosophy of phrases is called the différend, a play on the concept of “different,” indicating the “other” or something else, a variation or a disruption that that resists unification with a larger story. The différend is an ungovernable phrase and, although these phrases can be extended in a series, one linked to the next, the process of linking reveals difference/s among the phrases (sentences), or that which cannot be assimilated. Being part of litigation, not negotiation, the différend is that which stands alone. When foregrounded and recognized (a situation not always guaranteed) the différend is, and reveals itself to be, a unrepentant point of disagreement or dispute between at least two radically heterogeneous or opposing or incommensurable language games. In other words, the two speakers cannot speak to one another. There are rules in the game, which disadvantage one and favor the other. For example, a courtroom is an arena where a certain kind of restrictive language game is played under the guise (disguise) of being adversarial. In a rape case, the victim is presumed guilty and is silenced through questioning. A victim of discrimination has no legal standing in court if the court announces that discrimination does not exist. Language games, then, are exercises that are quite separate from the “truth” or reality.

The différend is a term based in the judicial concept of “obligation:” one party has a grievance and the tribunal (court) has the obligation to hear that grievance. However, the party which has been wronged cannot speak except in the language of the one who has caused the harm. Immediately, as has been seen, when the aggrieved one attempts to use the language of the oppressor, then the “obligation” vanishes. In other words, to assert “I have been discriminated against and here are the instances of discrimination” is to borrow a phrase that results in the speaker replying, “You are speaking, therefore, you are not being discriminated against,” and the victim is silenced. As Bennington noted, the victim is then forced to retreat into mysticism (or the irrational) and say something like “No one should be discriminated against,” which is true but non-functional within the rules of the tribunal.

It is possible to play a language game and substitute it for accurate history, a practice that, in France, was called “negationism.” As Stephen E. Atkins pointed out in Holocaust Denial as an International Movement (2009), the leading Holocaust denier in France was Robert Faurisson, the best known negator in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Faurison was the chief protagonist of Lyotard in Le Différend, which is a direct response to the denier’s claims (games). The game of denying the Holocaust had been going on for thirty years when Faurisson used linguistic slight of hand to erase the event, making historically meaningless claims but linguistically clever moves, such as pointing to the fact that extermination could not be “proved” because no victims had come forward. For Faurisson, the silence of the dead meant that no witness to the effect of extermination can come forward and therefore ispo facto the Holocaust never happened. For Lyotard, the silence in the death chambers that followed the screams is a phrase in and of itself. But how can a silence become a sentence in philosophy?


Auschwitz Today

Lyotard, who had earlier discussed the haunting of the written text by a visual figure in Discours, Figure (1971), used the Polish death camp, “Auschwitz” as an image, a traumatic memory that had become the most prevalent model (figure) of a name that functions figuraly or as a figure, because “Auschwitz” escapes conceptualization and expression within the usual rules of the language game. There is a connection between Lyotard’s announcement of the end of the metanarrative and his studies of the Holocaust, and the tie that binds his works together, from his early work on the figural to Le Différend, is his interrogation of authority and his interrogation of the possibility of representation. The Metanarratives of Modernism always supposed the possibility of representation, but Postmodernism resisted or refused the comfort of a position of authority or the assurance of a conscious stance or a position of knowledge, whether it be a critique or a historical survey.

A Postmodern analysis, from Lyotard’s perspective, considered the Figure, which is smuggled into the Narrative under the guise of “narrativity,” an anachronism in history. A form of a Figure would be “Progress,” a trope, which disguised disruptions and schisms in time in favor of picturing or imaging an unbroken chain of evolution and development moving along a teleological line. The Event, which occurs at a specific time, will disturb the flow of the “historical narrative.” Suddenly there is a disruption that inserts a very specific temporal event into/onto the “time line,” but history can be written only if such “events” are effaced. The excess of the “event” must be dealt with. In the case of the Holocaust, the “event” can be denied. Or the Holocaust can be written as a narrative, even as a regulating narrative, designed to produce a consensus. The next question or the more profound question then becomes, how can the Holocaust be written without desecrating the dead and disturbing their silence?

In writing the Holocaust, one incorporates the Holocaust into the larger flow of historical events, and its singularity is refuted. Because it is incorporated into the (meta)narrative, the happening can the be represented and reduced to a commodity that can be exchanged because it has been leveled. At that point the Event ceases to be an event. The Historians’ Controversy in Germany was an attempt to “normalize” or level the Event (the Holocaust) into a flattened time line, while in France, the efforts went to denying the Event (the Holocaust). Regardless of the motives of the historians in the 1980s, the refusal of the Event as an event was a reaction to the fact that the event itself was an excess that disrupted the traditional historical framing devices. If as Loytard stated, “The event is the occurrence after which nothing will ever be the same again,” then history is halted and the problem becomes one of how to write the event and how to restart history itself.

The discussion of the Event, the différend, and Auschwitz will continue in the next post, Part Three.

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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 One


Part One

Writing in the second volume of his important book, A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee attempted to describe the moment/s in which the “Modern” ended and the “Post-Modern” began. He asserted, although Europeans and “North Americans” were unaware of what was happening, that the Modern Age was winding down in “the aftermath of the General War of 1792-1815.” Toynbee was referring to the period between the French Revolution and the final fall of Napoléon. It was during these decades that the Age of Reason was refuted by the Age of Terror, total war, and democracy and equality were delayed by a ruthless dictator bent on ruling Europe. These years of irrational and regressive political actions were also precisely the years that, in art history, marked the end of Neo-Classicalism and the establishment of Romanticism. Toynbee wrote that “…the Modern Age of Western History had been wound up only to inaugurate a Post-Modern Age pregnant with tragic experiences.” In referring to the well-to-do economic beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution and the political winners of the the Enlightenment, he continued, “They were imagining that, for their benefit a sane, safe, satisfactory Modern Life had miraculously come to stay in a suddenly inaugurated timeless present.” Toynbee wrote that the privileged of this Modern society were somehow able to overlook the continued inequalities. The historian described a kind of willful blindness to the fact that, in a modern age, monarchies and colonialism and imperialism simply could not continue and “must be borne away, sooner or later, by Time’s ‘ever-rolling stream.'” The Late Modern Age (1675-1875), according to Toynbee, “is one of the great Ages of Faith—Faith in Progress and in Human Perfectibility…A Faith that has lived three hundred years dies hard…” the historian asserted, adding that this Faith took “a knock-out blow in A.D. 1914.” His tone and style of writing is decidedly old fashioned, an attempt to look into the soul of twenty three civilizations to understand their rise and fall. One of the last of the historians who were were ambitious enough to delve into a broad sweep of historical forces, Toynbee’s approach favored the spiritual or moral (or psychological) forces of history. For example, he indicted the moral failure of American democracy and the European refusal to deal fairly with the proletariat or the poor and lower classes. Toynbee’s twelve volume history was published between 1934 and 1961 and was abridged in the early 1950s into two volumes. However, by the time of the completion of the long publication process, his style of history had gone out of vogue and attacks on his approach damaged his reputation. And yet, Toynbee presented a cogent and insightful analysis of how the Age of Faith gave way to the Post-Modern time of disillusion. By the end of the Second World War the damage to the Faith in Reason was irreparable. It was only after the final war was over and the Western world contemplated the smoldering ruins that the extent of the loss in Faith became clear. Modernism or the Modern Age was historically linked to the Enlightenment and its doctrines of human perfection through the forces of reason, its hopes of political equality and its drive towards Progress. Reason replaced Faith and Culture replaced Nature. The Modern period was marked by a new desire to cultivate and master Nature and this sense that nature could be controlled came to characterize Modernism. In the early decades, technology seemed to be a miracle which transformed an entire continent from an agrarian one into a site of industry and manufacture. It would take over one hundred years for the price of the Industrial Revolution and the relentless impetus of technology to be fully realized—the pollution of the water and air, the toll on human beings, and the spoliation of nature itself. The idea that rational thinking would lead to inhumane rationalism did not occur to the Enlightenment philosophers whose task was not to foretell futures but to replace God with philosophy. But the German (Nazi) use of logic, reason and rational thinking had lethal consequences. Given the appropriate technology, the human being could take the place of God with the powers of life and death—even to the extent of attempted extermination of an entire people. Philosophers have traced the logical consequences of scientific farming, selective breeding of animals, urban planning, and the hierarchical ordering of people according to skin color, to the ultimate act of rationalization, the Holocaust. After the Second World War, the Frankfurt School, an important precursor to Post-Modernist theory, would claim that the Enlightenment brought only darkness. “How was it possible to write poetry “after Auschwitz?” asked Theodor Adorno of artists. It seems to be the task of the Postmodern generation to ponder the problem of the monstrous potential of limitless inhumanity in an age of absolute disillusionment and cynicism. Postmodernism arrived as a mind set at the same time the international culture awaited another millennium. The war ended with the losers–Germany and Japan–becoming the economic victors and the military winners–England and France–losing status and empires and self-respect. Once again, exhausted, decimated and destroyed, Italy was lost in the shuffle. America and Russia took on the respective roles of Good and Evil as Western and Eastern Europe faced each other in a long ideological war of threat and counter-threat, a chess game of never-enacted virtual reality, a simulacrum of ultimate annihilation by apocalyptic weapons, build, cherished but never launched. The Cold War, ending only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, was played out between neo-imperialist Euro-American powers in theaters of color–Algeria, Korea, Viet Nam, exotic locales where nasty little wars could be carried out without inconveniencing the Superpowers at home.

The French Connection

What is remarkable about the post-war period is the extent to which American and European powers continued the same policies of empire and imperialism and inequality without regard to ethics of morality—after Toynbee had spent decades describing these very conditions as the reasons why cultures failed. If the Modern Age failed and gave way to the Post-Modern with the beginning of the First World War, then, by the end of the conflict filled century a consciousness arose of something that could be called in a self-conscious way “Postmodernism,” of the state of being in the Post-Modern Age. The awareness of the cultural condition of “Postmodernism” could be separated from “Postmodernity,” which is a more specific concept. Postmodernity is a social and cultural state characterized by globalization and computer-based technology. That said, it is convenient to point out that Postmodernism, as a time period, played out in two different arenas, Europe and America. For America, 1968 was a year of assassinations—Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—and all the cultural leaders of change were wiped away. For America, the sixties were over and were followed by an age of self-indulgence and disco. For Europe, that year was one of revolutions and uprisings, none more notorious than that in Paris, the events called “May ’68.” In his recent book The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (2010), Richard Wolin described the rise and fall of the Marxist student and worker attempt to change France during a hot spring month. The time of revolution, long predicted by Marxist theory, had finally come—the masses had risen up, but, like most modern revolutions, this one lacked leaders and a coherent agenda. While everyone gave up, went home and accepted the reimposition of the status quo, the long term impact of “May ’68” played itself out among the scholars and intellectuals. As Wolin expressed it, “By the time the dust had cleared, many of France’s leading intellectuals—Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Tel Quel group—had been swept up in this giddy left-wing political vortex.” According to Wolin, the revolution that wasn’t

…had a strangely beneficial on French intellectuals, curing this mandarin caste of its residual elitism and thereby helping to promote a new, more modest, and democratic cultural sensibility, for in the aftermath of the aftermath of the May revolt, when Maoism had reached its zenith, French intellectuals learned to follow as well as to lead. Much of this development was captured by Foucault’s felicitous coinage: the specific intellectual had supplanted the universal intellectual. In a further nuance of twist, the democratic intellectual would replace the vanguard intellectual…

Founded in 1960, Tel Quel, both a publication and a group of leading intellectuals, including, Jean-louis Baudry, Pierre Boulez, Claude Cabantous, Hubert Damisch, Marc Devade, Jean-Joseph Goux, Denis Hollier, Julie Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet, Jean Ricardou, Jacquelin Risset, Denis Roche, Pierre Rottenberg, Jean-Louis Schefer, Phillipe Sollers, Paule Thévenin, Jean Thibaudou, submitted a statement in the summer of 1968. They issued the following statement, We believe it necessary to call to mind the following points:

  1. we are not “philosophers,” “savants,” or “writers” according to the representative definitions admitted by a society whose material functioning and consequent theory of knowledge we attack;
  2. this theory of language, subjugated by the metaphysical category of expressivity, seems to us to constitute one of the ideological keys to the current situation, in that disastrous complicities between the worst reactionary conservatism and baseless revolutionism are able to “spontaneously” reveal themselves here;
  3. we believe that the signifying activity of a given historical phase constitutes a decisive determinant of the transformative possibilities of that phase. The subordination of this specific level, the abandonment and the negation of its effects on consciousness and change, always coincides with an overdetermined regression by the state of things en acte, reinforcing themselves by means of local contestation;
  4. it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages;
  5. consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state;
  6. in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science);
  7. any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although the scholarly trend towards the intellectual postmodern project was well underway before Summer 1968, the stance of Tel Quel mirrored the changing social structure of French society. Founded in response to the Algerian war by a young men under the age of thirty, Tel Quel evolved from an apolitical literary review to an enterprise parallel to the seizure of art writing by the artists in New York, part of what was called in Paris, the “war of the reviews.” In contrast to the New York artists who merely wanted to explain their own art, the Tel Quel writers were deliberately avant-garde or what is called the engaged or activist intellectual—the public intellectual who deliberately courted controversy. This is a cultural role that simply did not and does not exist in America. The review was named Tel Quel after a 1943 book of poetry by Paul Valéry whose lectures at the Collège de France impacted Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, and other French intellectuals who changed the face of “theory.” This literary review sought to separate “literature” from its isolated position of being a “fine art” or a creative enterprise and to join literature to a social activity. As Daniell Marx-Scouras pointed out in her book, Cultural Politics of Tel Quel. Literature and the Left in the Wake of Engagement (1996), “This new interest in semiotics and psychoanalysis led to a reevaluation of language, which was no longer viewed as a mere instrument or decoration but rather as a sign and a truth.” She continued, “…the preoccupation with language during the late 1950s and early 1960s was, in effect, a political gesture.” Marx-Scouras quoted Roland Barthes, a frequent contributor to Tel Quel as saying, “The origin of semiology was political to me.”

The Postmodern philosophers in Paris began the process of interrogating the canonical writings of the Enlightenment, from Rousseau to Freud. Jacques Lacan’s project of rewriting and rethinking the project of Sigmund Freud from a linguistic point of view. Indeed, the Postmodern reexamination of Modern philosophy was an interesting intersection of literary theory and philosophical thinking in which philosophy was considered as language. This linguistic turn appeared early, before “May ’68” with the formation of theories of “intertextuality” from Julia Kristeva and the first flurries of “deconstruction” from Jacques Derrida which appeared in Tel Quel.

In History of Poetics and Intertextuality (2008) Marko Juvan described the emergence of a phenomenon called “Theory” which rejected the notion of an aesthetic sphere for literature. He stated, Theory pushed aside Existentialism, Neo-Marxism and Structuralism. As Jovan stated,

Theory experienced a fashionable flowering among American scholars and then everywhere that globalization penetrated with its cultural industry and intellectual market on one hand, and local resistance against it on the other. In France, Theory originally took shape as a radically critical, often explicitly politicized, transdisciplinary, eclectic and daringly speculative discourse that problematized prevailing ideas, stereotypes, assumptions, and values on which traditional learning and common sense rested…Theory pretentiously offered new and would-be universal explanations of the subject and its location by weaving together concepts from linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, history, mathematics, analytical philosophy, heideggerianism and Phenomenology.

In the year 1966, Deconstruction was “announced,” not in Paris, but in Baltimore, with a presentation by Jacques Derrida at a conference on Structuralism at Johns Hopkins. In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” in which he critiqued the structuralist philosophy of Claude Lévi-Strauss. By the end of the 1960s, Structuralism, a literary theory that used a “close reading” to analyze texts, was upended and Modernism in the arts had run their course. In the beginning of the 1970s, what would be called “Postmodern” ideas began to wend their way across the Atlantic.

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

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

[email protected]


Theodor Adorno and “Negative Dialectics”





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]

Theodor Adorno and “The Culture Industry”





Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) was born in the sun of Hollywood, beside the pools of Santa Monica, in the capital of mass culture designed to entertain and to (literally) stupefy the American public. It would seem that the focal point for such a book, popular culture, is a slender reed for such a weighty philosophical discourse, but the authors Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were German refugees who understood all too well the power of mass media. Although in their early years in the Frankfurt School, or the Institute of Social Research, the scholars attached to this group were Marxist, they were not doctrinaire and were not orthodox. Led by Horkheimer, the philosophers sought a way to update Marxism and to get beyond the failure of social revolution and to understand why this uprising among the lower classes did not take place.

Part of the very notion of “Late Capitalism” is the concept that economic forces invade all relationships and all aspects of a lived social life. In other words, the economic model, fueled by the profit motive, is now in full control. In contrast to earlier modes of Capitalism (or Feudalism), which were limited in their effects, Late Capitalism is theoretically limitless, thanks in no small part of technology. It is modern technology that spreads the ideas of the dominant group currently in control of society through radio, film and published documents. Marx certainly anticipated the role of the commodity as creating “desire” but he could not have envisioned the extension of capitalist control through technology.

Even before the Frankfurt School was forced to leave German in 1933, it was clear that the modern world had gone beyond the old-fashioned version of Marxism and that other disciplines had to be brought to a new critique of a new culture. The culture of the 20th century was “administered” and the administration of this new society was facilitated by the “culture industry.” It was this unholy alliance between state and entertainment that had caught the attention of Adorno and Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School during the rise of Fascism in Germany. And now the exiled philosophers were at Ground Zero of the Culture Industry—Hollywood.

Theodor W. Adorno was born Theodor Adorno-Wiesengrund, his father’s (Jewish) name retained only as an initial. He took his Italian mother’s name, perhaps in honor of their mutual love of music, perhaps to highlight the non-Jewish half of his parentage, and almost certainly to veil the Jewish-ness of the Frankfurt School when the scholars moved to New York City. Just as Walter Benjamin was a poet as much as he was a philosopher, so too Adorno was as much a musician as he was a philosopher. Adorno wanted to become a professional pianist but lacked the talent necessary for such a career. He drifted into philosophy and, influenced by early twentieth century Neo-Kantianism, took up the task of making the theories of Karl Marx relevant to the new century. His philosophy was always about praxis, but, paradoxically, he refused to write in a way that could be easily understood or paraphrased. According to the authoritative scholar of the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay, his style of writing is so dense and so obscure that it has a name all its own: “Adorno Deutsch” that resists easy translation. However, Dialectic of Enlightenment, perhaps because it was co-written, is a fairly straightforward book to read and, because of its readability, the central notion of the Culture Industry has had a profound impact upon Neo-Marxist thinking and upon its cousin in critique, Critical Theory and upon modern thinkers from Jurgen Habermas to Guy Debrod.

Adorno, like his colleagues, had inherited the notion of the superiority of Germany’s Kultur, as opposed to commercialized Zivilisation of other nations, such as America. The role of Kulture in Germany was what might also be called “high culture,” which would be opposed to popular culture or the mass culture of the entertainment industry. High culture enlightens and lifts up, while low or popular culture flattens and homogenizes public “taste.” Decades later, Pierre Bourdieu would point out that “taste” is, in fact, a social divider, marking out high class “taste” from low class “taste.” Perhaps because of such a class divide, or perhaps because he had a background as a classical pianist, Adorno had a famously limited appreciation for popular culture.

He was an unrepentant snob and, even after living in the United States for years, he could not understand the value of jazz. Some have accused Adorno of being a racist for this blind spot, but it is more likely that he disliked the improvisational nature of this form of music that seemed so casual, without structure or compositional permanency. Having lived in Hollywood, Adorno watched Walt Disney appropriate Stravinsky and, after the War, he rejected any possibility of high “culture” and thought of culture as “neutral and ready-made” simply because it could be borrowed and reused for any purposes. Rather than being a living, growing creative enterprise, culture, by whatever name—high, low, popular—replicated itself. Nevertheless, Adorno maintained his task as “cultural critic” and produced a large body of works as a music critic.

The perspective of Dialectic of Enlightenment was also impacted by the role that mass entertainment played in the Weimar Republic and in the rise of the Nazis. In New York, the Frankfurt School could view the cunning and dangerous use of the apparatus of media on behalf of Nazi propaganda from a safe distance. During the Second World War, the scholars witnessed a full-scale effort in America to deploy mass entertainment and mass information to keep Americans patriotically involved in what would be a long and costly war. In 1943 Max Horkheimer had to leave New York and go to Los Angeles for his health. Here, he was joined by Theodor Adorno and the two Germans joined a large colony of émigrés and exiles in Hollywood. There they could watch the local “industry”—mass entertainment—at work. The resulting book Dialectic of Enlightenment contained the essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” a seminal study of contemporary mass media. The book, written by Adorno and Horkheimer just after the end of the war, is reflective of their Hollywood experiences. But the essays also recall their experiences as witnesses to the rise of fascism. The book was originally published by a Dutch publishing firm and was reissued in 1970, a year after Adorno’s death.

The Culture Industry, as the name implies, is part of the Industrial Revolution, a product of industrial technology. The industrial aspect had long since taken over the “cultural” aspects and, since the late nineteenth century, “culture” had been co-opted by a vast capitalist profit-making machine. The result was, for Adorno, a great loss to humanity. Unlike his friend Walter Benjamin, Adorno could not envision any possibility that technology could be used to either arouse or liberate the masses. Indeed in his time, culture was a captive of corporations that used music and dance, the performing arts, to make a profit. In order to make this profit, the culture proffered to the public had to appeal to the greatest number. The result was that “high” culture had to be supported by a small and wealthy and dedicated group of those who were educated enough to appreciate it. There was little profit in this elitist form of culture until the technology of the record player could be used to sell records to a wider audience.

Mass culture, or culture for the masses, was vastly more popular and profitable. Popular culture emerged from the lower classes, from the folk, from the middle classes, but these distinctions were lost under the homogenizing impact of the industry, which needed to level out differences to sell to the greatest number of buyers. The enterprises that manufacture and promote and sell “culture” on an “industrial” scale are capitalist in nature and, in the process of selling their product, they sell capitalism and capitalist ideology as well. For example, the creation of the “star” and the “cult” of worship around the star him or herself gives rise to the illusion among the worshipers that a rise to stardom is in her or his grasp. Thus the dull truth of class division and unequal opportunity is overlaid by unrealistic hope.

In her book on Adorno, Culture Industry Revisited: Theodor W. Adorno on Mass Culture, Deborah Cook begins with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and states, “Adorno transformed, in broad but clear strokes, the ancient allegory of the cave into an explosive critique of the culture industry.” The idea is that people prefer the cave and its shadows to the reality outside in the bright sunlight, but the real question is why? Why do people prefer the commodity to class equality? Why do people while away hours in a darkened theater? Marx, long before Freud, understood that the commodity was a “symptom” of a desire for something else, and Adorno connected Marx and Freud through the Culture Industry, the cave of the masses. As Adorno wrote, “This dreamless art for the people fulfills the dreamy idealism which went too far for idealism in its critical form.” Parenthetically, it should be pointed out that the “psychology” of the culture industry differed between Germany and America. In Germany, the culture industry, especially under the Nazis, led the citizens into regressive pleasures and towards a narcissistic worship of the “Leader,” Adolf Hitler. In America, the culture industry distracts the view of the people away from economic and social issues and points them towards the pleasure of escapism through entertainment.

Whatever nationalistic differences an audience may share, the result is the same—indoctrination of the masses into a sameness that serves the needs of the masters. “The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry,” the authors stated. According to Adorno, the individual does not exist but has been reconfigured into a “social object” shaped for the administered world, ruled by capitalism. Earlier work by scholars of the Frankfurt School showed that the role of the father in a patriarchal society had been supplanted by the state, which in concert with the Culture Industry, now controlled the collective cultural psyche. It matters not whether the society is totalitarian or “non-totalitarian,” the result will be the same—a society under enchantment and trained to seek pleasure over confrontation with the authorities. The question is who is in control?

The forces which generate the economic engine behind the Culture Industry are not unknown but, to be more precise, are abstract. The Culture Industry is not ruled by people but by profit and the need to acquire a monopolistic position in order to acquire more profit. Marx’s metaphor of an “engine” is an apt one in that it conjures up a sense of a force that no one controls or commands. The Culture Industry is particularly efficient as definitionally it is a collaborative enterprise composes of many people all of whom want to earn a living, laboring away as cogs in a wheel, thinking they are being “artists” or that they merely want to entertain.

The real workings of culture are invisible to them, for the true purpose of any system is to preserve itself and the Culture Industry protects itself by calling up emotions that produce the pleasurable and manufacture and artificial desire for more pleasure. The industry, whether it is the movies or pornography, has the same result: reification. The individual is dissolved into abstract relations between, not people, but things. These “social things,” so to speak, these reified people can now be compartmentalized and labeled and thus controlled by the capitalist system that has need of their services. Capitalism appears to be “rational” and “logical” and claims to be “inevitable” but in order to function, psychological forces within humans must be both suppressed and deployed.

Culture becomes a commodity that provides pleasure-giving entertainment to the repressed masses that are allowed to express their regressive and childlike impulses and instincts through emotional music and exciting films. The result is the replacement of any social critique by the masses with spectacle. People, the audience, is thus, through spectacle, is trained into certain habits of thought and taught to think and act against their own best interests and to instead align themselves with the abstract powers of capitalism which themselves become reified into political slogans. Politics follows the lead of the movies. Adolf Hitler understood himself as a film star and his “director” Albert Speer created magnificent sets for his leader at Nuremberg. The essay also commented on the Führer’s use of a new instrument of propaganda, the radio:

The National Socialists knew that broadcasting gave their cause statue as the printing press did to the Reformation. The Führer’s metaphysical charisma, invented by the sociology of religion, turned out finally to be merely the omnipresence of his radio addresses, which demonically parodies that of the divine spirit.

While reading Dialectic of Enlightenment one begins to recognize the voice and the thoughts and the preoccupations of Adorno verses Horkheimer. Threaded throughout the essay on the culture industry are Adorno’s ideas on aesthetics. He wrote little about artists, who were once shielded from the market by their patrons, and more about the state of “art” itself in the culture industry. Although Adorno’s aesthetic viewpoint is more fully laid out in his books on music, he often mentioned the fact that art is no longer a privileged object but simply one more commodity in a world of consumerism. Influenced by Walter Benjamin’s concept of “aura,” Adorno felt that art retained some of its mystic only to the extent the relationship between art and the marketplace was disguised and kept form the art audience. Museums, as much as art galleries, are part of the larger cultural industry, one hawking art for profit and the other corralling the items for entertainment and exhibition value in an artificially “sacred” space.

Adorno did not live long enough to see the rise of the Internet and the subsequent rise of Information technology that, at this writing, is still (precariously and contentiously) in the hands of “the people.” He was well aware that the culture industry of his time did not all allow for a response, but now the one-sidedness of communication has changed. The watcher and answer back. Adorno would certainly have pointed out that however “democratic” the Web might seem, the main concern of the corporations has been how to monetize its potential profit.

As the world has been flooded with information or facts or knowledge, people have replicated the habits of thinking taught by the Culture Industry. Confrontation with information that one does not agree with causes “cognitive dissonance” for the viewer, and to protect each group from the minds of other groups, various economic forces have divided and have created separate spaces so that disparate entities can receive pleasure by hearing what they want to hear and seeing what they want to see. Adorno’s macro view of a totalitarian Culture Industry has been replace by the reality of many micro “cultures,” whether as cable television stations, newspapers with a certain slant, or Internet outlets on the Web.

According to Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, the book by Horkheimer and Adorno became an underground must-read that fueled anti-bourgeois students in the sixties. This connection, whether appropriate or not, whether or not the students understood the scholarship of the Frankfurt School, was perhaps the cause for the decades long opposition to its philosophy from the right wing. Adorno’s death is claimed, by many, to have been hastened by the assault of his rebelling students who chastised the old revolutionary for not being revolutionary enough. The repudiation of his students and their accusations that he had mistreated Walter Benjamin broke the heart of the scholar who had worked so hard to preserve the writer’s memory and works. Benjamin’s writings deeply affected the thinking of Adorno who, in many ways, carried on his earlier work on popular culture. Adorno never fully recovered psychology from the shock of being exposed the Counter Culture and he died in 1969.

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Culture in Los Angeles, 1940-1950



The City of Angels has many names, or to be more correct, many variations of its Spanish name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula. The locals have their own names for the city: “L.A.” and the “City of Lost Angels,” located in “Californication,” as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing. Lacking a locatable center, the city is a prime example of urban sprawl with 160 separate municipalities. In its best years the city was growing by 2 million people per decade, with 500 people arriving each day. The city grows and shrinks according to the economy for it is on a transcontinental highway between North, Central and South America. Separated from the South—Mexico—by an unnatural boundary, the state of California runs on the usually illegal labor force that comes into the state when the times are good and abandons it when times are bad.

Mike Davis, the ironic historian of L. A., described Los Angeles as “eutopic,” not just anti-utopic but even worse, a “no place,” stripped bare of nature and history, he claims. But Los Angeles has its own history, a history of no traditions, but a history nevertheless. The city has heritages brought into the site by the many immigrants, but what makes L.A. unique is that it is the Last Frontier, a place where people come to forget the past, to leave their old selves behind, and to start anew with a fresh identity. The City on the Hill, or Mike Davis’s New Jerusalem, is at the center of an “urban galaxy” dominated by Los Angeles, which is the size of Ireland with a GNP bigger than India. If Los Angeles were a separate nation, it would have the ninth biggest GNP in the world, depending on the year. The sixth largest of world’s mega cities, Los Angeles was never anyone’s first choice destination for moving out west. San Francisco was the cultural mecca and commercial center for California, and L. A. was always an afterthought.

Founded by a mixed band of Spanish adventurers, natives of Latin American and individuals of African descent, the city was settled by Spanish soldiers and their families. After the Gold Rush of 1850, California became a state and new settlers began moving in. After years of legal skullduggery and nefarious governmental practices, the original Spanish land grants were pulled away from the rightful and original owners, the rancheros, and parceled out to the newcomers. The names of the old soldiers lived on in the names of streets and boulevards, Pico, Sepulveda and so on. The land grab set the tone for the city to this day, for Los Angeles was a city brought into being by real-estate developers and land speculators. The potent combination of developers, bankers, transport magnates, who were able to take advantage of the transcontinental railroad, advertised sunshine for those who wanted to get healthy and an “open shop” for those who wanted cheap labor.

Unlike the East Coast cities, such as New York, which runs on finance and is ruled by bankers, Los Angeles and San Francisco are newspaper cities, controlled by mass media. In San Francisco, it was the empire of William Randolph Hearst; in Los Angeles it was Colonel Harrison Gray Otis, owner of The Los Angeles Times and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler and Charles Fletcher Lummis, a city editor, who ran the City of Angels. Otis and Chandler had their fingers in every conceivable pie, from oil to water to land. Few people realize that Los Angeles, especially Beverley Hills, sits atop an oil field that rivals that of Saudi Arabia, but the city has no water source. All water that comes to Los Angeles has been “appropriated” from elsewhere, the Owens Valley and the Colorado River. Access to water and the exploitation of oil wrote the early history of Los Angeles.

So powerful and all controlling were the team of Otis and Chandler, it is quite possible that the character of “Noah Cross,” played by John Houston in Chinatown (1974) was probably based on that of Colonel Otis. But the most obvious aspect of Los Angeles was the “industry,” by which one means the “film industry.” Lured to Los Angeles because of the varying terrain, ocean, desert, mountains, and year around sunshine, the filmmakers moved out West, fleeing the patent restrictions Thomas Edison had placed on his movie camera. Over time the business of making entertainment for the masses became one of the nation’s most profitable ventures. At one time, one could drive down the major streets of the city and see sets left over from major Hollywood blockbusters. The gate to Chinatown in Los Angeles is one of those leftovers still present today. Movie stars lived and worked in Los Angeles and formed a separate circle of power brokers.

Los Angeles in the 1940s

Los Angeles by the Forties was a sleepy movie town, still a stepsister to San Francisco and scorned by New York, and not quite aware of what Hollywood really did. It took fresh eyes to see that the city was the “Capital of the Culture Industry,” a designation given by émigrés from Europe. Los Angeles was always a city of immigrants, and during the Second World War that flow of newcomers included what Davis has termed the “mental labor” of European intellectuals who were fleeing Hitler’s Germany. One is accustomed to reading of the exiles in New York City, but there was a sizable community of artistic and intellectual refugees in Hollywood, mostly from Germany. These exiles all knew each other and spoke German to each other while trying to acclimatize to a town where C. B. De Mille was considered a master artist. The author of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque found the city unbearable and left its “empty sidewalks, streets, and houses…” Theatrical producer, Berthold Brecht was stranded without his Communist environment and bored with Los Angeles. Santa Monica, he complained, was “too pleasant to work in.” Although after the War was over, most of the émigrés became American citizens, Brecht got his wish to go to a less pleasant place and spent the rest of his life in East Germany, in the Soviet Zone.

In contrast, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard, Lord Bertram Russell, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, and Clifford Odets rather enjoyed Los Angeles. Christopher Isherwood never left and became a familiar figure on the art scene with his lover, artist Don Bachardy, and were joined in the sixties by another exile, their good friend, David Hockney. Other great artists found the trivializing of their art in an uncultured land depressing. Composer Arnold Schoenberg lived across the street from Shirley Temple and was offended when tour buses stopped to see her home and not his. To earn money, he tutored studio composers. Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was used for Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse movie, Fantasia (1940), which did more to popularize the once controversial music than all the concerts in Europe.

Watching these indignities with Jovian detachment were the philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. German refugees of the Frankfurt School, these scholars had become fascinated with the use and abuse of mass media in Germany and in America. They were the first to link modern philosophy and modern culture with mass media and its cultural production. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, they created myth of Los Angeles as crystal ball of capitalism’s future in a depersonalized “administered society” with no hope of liberation. “The Culture Industry” was one of the key essays in this book and was an extremely significant post-war critique of how “culture” was produced by industrial methods for the purpose of quelling public dissent. A snob until the day he died, Theodor Adorno thought that Hollywood was the “mechanized cataclysm abolishing culture” and that “the term ‘culture’ will become obsolete….”

For those in the movie business from Europe, Hollywood literally saved their careers. Actors and directors in exile found success, some more than others: Edward Dmytryk, Marlene Deitrich, Max Reinhardt, Fritz Kortner, Alexander Grenach, Peter Lorre, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Erich von Stroheim, Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, Cary Grant, and David Niven. The directors, especially, imported the late German Expressionist film style to Hollywood and revived the “look” for crime films, later called Film Noir, by the French after the War. The enrichment of local culture, both popular and intellectual mirrored the sudden surge of growth for the city during the Second World War.

Suddenly people who wanted to work for the military-industrial complex inundated a small city that had once advertised itself as a healthy place for white people to live. Los Angeles exploded in population and most of the newcomers came to stay. Many military personnel came to Los Angeles while on duty, like the climate and the open and tolerant atmosphere and returned after the War. Of course, Los Angeles had been an open-minded town when it was mostly white with small minorities of Latinos and African-Americans and Asians. However, with the war came new tensions and, in one of the most shameful acts in the city’s history, its people stood by and allowed Japanese-American citizens to be removed from the city and shipped to “Internment Camps” in the East. African-Americans moved into vacated Little Tokyo, which was renamed “Bronze Town.” With the Japanese population “relocated” and with wartime tensions high, the negative energy of the public turned to a new target, the Mexican population, especially the young men who wore Zoot Suits. In the 1940s there were two miscarriages of (in)justice, the Sleepy Lagoon Murders (1942) and the Zoot Suit Riots (1943).

Literature in Los Angeles

Although the Second World War made Los Angeles into a mega metropolis and a power based for military and aerospace research, the art forms of the city seldom dwelt upon these transformative experiences. Only decades later did films, such as Zoot Suit a musical by Luis Valdez and Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn, investigate the ways in which the War changed peoples’ lives. The native literature took up different themes, that of a Paradise Lost. Although the city produced what could be termed “regional fiction,” like that of New York, these novels had significance and an audience beyond Los Angeles. Although Hollywood threw itself into the war effort by cranking out propaganda films and “war movies,” these offerings are little remembered. What was imprinted upon the collective consciousness was the nightmare of “El Dorado becoming hell,” as Mike Davis expressed it. The dark or noir mood of Los Angeles fiction expressed a culture wounded by a Depression and traumatized by War. The key writers of the thirties and forties were Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. Most of their books were made into movies in which ordinary people under unbearable pressure commit nasty little crimes. The leading character is neither black nor white but a morally ambiguous shade of gray. He is the hard-boiled detective or a man who had lost his place in society, a creature of the Depression, the time when American criminals were erecting Empires of crime upon the willingness of the upright citizens to break the law.

The idea of “Hard-boiled” is closely related to “Pulp Fiction,” or dime novels, so called because they were quickly written and cheaply printed on low-grade paper. The archetypal “hard-boiled” detective was “Ben Jardinn,” the anti-hero of the 1930 serial, Black Mask Serial. Created by Raoul Whitfield, the appropriate style writing was brisk and no nonsense and to the point. Always from a masculine point of view, these Los Angeles novels told stories of men down on their luck, struggling to keep their heads above water, only to be dragged under by a treacherous femme fatale who lured them into murder. In the declining days of a once-proud community of Victorian homes, Bunker Hill, writers such as John Fante (Ask the Dust) and James M. Cain typed away in the sordid but inspirational surroundings in a declining neighborhood in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, these men were tortured souls who were alcoholics.

But a new genre of novels emerged from these dark days: The Maltese Falcon, 1930, by Dashiell Hammett, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934 by James M. Cain, 1935 by Horace McCoy, Double Indemnity, 1936, by Cain, The Day of the Locust, 1939 by Nathanael West, Farewell My Lovely, 1940 by Chandler, and Mildred Pierce, 1941, also by Cain. All of these novels were made into films or “B movies” or the second feature of a double feature. During the war, films had to be made economically and these small, cheaply made, masterpieces, given little respect in their time, were directed by some of the greatest German directors of their time, such as Edward Dymtryk, and starred “B” list actors, such as Fred McMurray and Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

The gloomy and fatalistic themes were combined with imported German Expressionist cinema in which there was no moral right or light, only dark shadows and dark characters. While not making an overt comment upon the bankruptcy of capitalism, these novels were turned into films by leftist auteurs, including Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., Ben Maddow, Carl Foreman, and Dalton Trumbo, etc. Not recognized as a form of Marxist cinema, these movies were a subversive realism, a critique that could have only come out of Los Angeles where corruption was rampant and Germany where morality had taken a holiday. The crime movies, featuring a gangster underclass as minor background characters, highlighted middle and upper class corruption. The ugliness of humanity sprang horribly off the pages with the Black Dahlia case of 1946, a still-unsolved murder of a prostitute.

Strangely, instead of being stranded as period pieces, these throwaway “B” movies were greatly admired by French film critics after the War was over. Unlike the American audience who saw these crime movies over time, the French could view these films as a single body of work and named them “film noir,” or dark film. Few art forms, either literary or visual, have implanted themselves into the minds of such a large and international audience. The strong chiaroscuro, the legendary voice-over, the dangerous woman, the wary detective, these devices have never gone out of style. Beginning in the 1970s, a wave of “nostalgia” films re-visited the noir style for two decades: from Chinatown to Pulp Fiction to Devil in a Blue Dress in America to Hard-Boiled in Hong Kong, the regional style of writing recreated by the local “culture industry” converted the world to the homegrown indigenous art of Los Angeles.

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Abstract Expressionism: The Field of Cultural Production

The Historical Context of Abstract Expressionism

The historical context of Abstract Expressionism can perhaps best be mapped out according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase “the field of cultural production.” What was the “field” which “produced” the culture of Abstract Expressionism? One should also add the thinking of Giesele Freund who wrote of the “preparedness” or the “readiness” of society for photography. Abstract Expressionism marks the shift of Modern Art away from Paris and towards New York, the movement of the avant-garde from Europe to America. New York, as Serge Guilbault remarked, “stole the idea of modern art.” The theft of modern art was the result of the preparedness of the artists in New York City in the 1940s to take advantage of the shift of the field of cultural production from the Old World to the New.

First, European politics stymied and stifled the free circulation of avant-garde art around the continent. Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and their totalitarian control of art was prefaced by the crushing of the vanguard Russian artists in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate freedom in the arts and a political party that seeks absolute power will always move against the artists first. Major sources of art making and art thinking were shut down and many of the artists impacted simply packed up and left. Many artists came to America, bringing with them ideas of art theory and concepts of art practice to provincial shores.

Second, even in Paris, where there was open acceptance of avant-garde art, the art market had a dampening effect upon the development of new and innovative ideas. The time between the wars in Paris was a conservative one, an era of consolidation of the pre-War avant-garde movements. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, et al. were now “historical” movements and their leaders were now Old Masters. A tendency towards a conservative approach to art evidenced itself very early on, during the Great War, in the work of Picasso. After the war the mood was one of “Return to Order” and restoring all that was classical in French art in The School of Paris. Nostalgic conservatism after a devastating war is a common reaction and would be exemplified by the Ingres-esque classicism of Amedeo Modigliani. After post-War economic recovery, French collectors were eagerly flocking to the revived and expanded art market. The dealers sold their clients “a Picasso,” or “a Matisse,” art done in the characteristic styles of the masters, but tamed down. A case in point is Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, which is a painted collage, in other words, not innovative mixed media, but a conservative and salable painting.

Surrealism emerged in 1924 out of the ashes of the last provocative avant-garde movement, Dada. Conservative Surrealism was an inward looking movement that possessed no particular stylistic “look,” but was a placeholder for the avant-garde. In contrast to the pre-war avant-garde movements which were stylistic change, Surrealism produced not so much new styles as new approaches to the process of making art, such as automatic writing. Another historical footnote worth noting was the fact that the history of pre-War avant-garde movements was largely written by the art dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, thus legitimating their art and elevating the price. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, avant-garde artists either sought safety in America—-Chagall, who was Jewish, moved to New York—-or were forced to keep a low and safe profile in France to survive the Nazi occupation.

Third, European artists immigrated to America over the course of ten years. Some of these artists, such as the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, simply moved their practices to the American cities of New York and Chicago. The coming of the Bauhaus architects to the United States paved the way for the International Style that would characterize architecture after the Second World War. Indeed, Modernist architecture was a case in point of how inhospitable Europe had become to avant-garde architects. While those in Russia were doomed to produce mostly “paper architecture” or models, other architects concentrated on domestic architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the De Stijl architect Gerrit Reitveld’s Schröder House in the 1920s. Thwarted by wars and oppression, Modernist architecture finally found itself in great works of public and corporate works only after the Second World War. The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe in New York was the achievement of the prosperous Fifties in America.

But architects weren’t the only Europeans to seek safe haven. Even as Hitler was moving into power in Germany, Hans Hofmann was moving out to become an art teacher in New York in the winter and Providencetown in the summer. Bauhaus faculty members, Josef and Anni Albers, found themselves at the famous Black Mountain College where they taught the next generation who would overtake the Abstract Expressionist artists. Piet Mondrian, who had fled Holland for London, had to leave London for New York, where he died in 1945. The American Dada photographer, Man Ray, came home and spent the next eleven years in Los Angeles. These artists were joined by intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, who changed the climate and the quality of American thinking during the Second World War.

Fourth, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was of great significance in educating American artists on European avant-garde art. Since Alfred Stieglitz had closed down his gallery, 291, in 1916, there had been no reliable gathering point were artists could see the cutting edge art of Europe. And then MoMA opened in 1929, headed by Alfred Barr. Barr ended the somewhat specious relationship between the dealers and the museums: dealers would organize and mount shows in museums, giving their art greater legitimacy, and subsequently raising the prices. Like Christ in the Temple with the Moneychangers, Barr barred such practices and art was set apart from commerce. The look of MoMA, the “pure” White Cube, gave the museum of modern art a sanctified air, where art and commercialism did not consort. Most importantly, Barr was able to bring in avant-garde European art in a series of shows that would be hard to mount in many European countries. It could be argued that, thought these important exhibitions, American artists had better access to this new art than did European artists, particularly those who were stranded in totalitarian countries.

Fifth, American artists were being brought together as never before during the Thirties. Government programs employed artists as either easel artists or as mural artists for public buildings, granting them the status of professionals. Many artists were able to take advantage of these employment programs, others, such as Willem de Kooning, who was not in American legally, or Newman, who had political qualms, did not take part. Whether or not one participated or not, the result of the government programs was to bring artists together, to create an artist community that included art critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. This community was ready to hear the new ideas of the European émigré artists and intellectuals. Greenberg learned studio talk at the feet of Hofmann who gave his American audiences a synthesis of Cubist and Expressionist art theories.

Although in the post-war, art history glossed over the art commissioned by the New Deal, the murals and photographs and easel painting stirred up creativity and provided challenges to American artists. In contrast the European artists who were essentially running in place, American artists were keeping active, forced into the innovation demanded by new conditions. Sensing an opportunity, Americans watched closely as nation by nation, territory by territory, Europe shut art down. American artists respected European art, but many felt that the avant-garde movements were played out. The best artists were old and long past their prime. Surrealism was already twenty years old, for instance. No new generation had emerged in Europe.

Sixth, Americans wanted to go beyond European art, but the question was how? Painters in New York wanted to create a new avant-garde art that was uniquely “American,” being robust, reflective of the greatness of the nation. The local artists liked the all-over effects of Cézanne and Mondrian, but found the easel art small and confining. Mondrian, especially, seemed “effeminate” in the precise preciousness of his meditative approach to painting. The New Yorkers were interested in the concept of the powers of the unconscious mind, suggested by Surrealism, but did not like the realistic dream paintings or Freudian theory. They did, however, appreciate the freedom from convention that the practice of écriture automatique or automatic writing could give to artists.

The promise of the all-over effect expanded beyond the portable easel painting could be fulfilled by mural painting, as practiced and taught by the Mexican muralists. The Mexican muralists were highly political and highly specific and many of them had an unfortunate track record of having their murals defaced: Rivera by the Rockefellers in New York and Siqueros by Christine Sterling in Los Angeles. Wary of political content, the American artists preferred the universality of message combined with an impressive scale found in Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily housed at MoMA.

Seventh, as can be seen, it is as important to take note of what the younger generation of American artists rejected. In addition to the Communist statements of the Mexican painters and the dream content of the Surrealists, American artists did not want to continue the nationalistic art of the Regionalist artists, such as Benton and Wood, nor did they want to continue the political art of the Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn and the other Depression artists. During the Depression and the Second World War, much art was dedicated to propaganda which promoted the benefits of the New Deal and then the need to support the War. The new artists appreciated abstract art, and, indeed there was an active group of abstract artists, the American Abstract Artists, but theirs was an old-fashioned abstraction of European formalism. The American artists coming into maturity in New York wanted a new kind of abstraction.

And, last, there was one factor, seldom emphasized but often mentioned in passing—the age of the Abstract Expressionist artists. They were all middle-aged men who had been developing their painting techniques and styles for years, working in obscurity. Unlike their European counterparts, the painters of the New York School had uninterrupted careers, untouched by political oppression or war. When America was drawn into World War II in 1941, these men were too old or too unfit or too ineligible to serve in the Armed Forces. While younger men went to war, sacrificing their careers and sometimes their lives for their county, the Abstract Expressionists were able to remain in the safety of New York City.

These crucial war years were the very years that preceded their individual styles, which would emerge in the fifties. When peace returned, the New York artists had benefited from a period of maturation that placed them at the forefront of the art world. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the European artists had to endure a period of rebuilding and restoration. In contrast, the American artists had to wait only for the emergence of a professional gallery scene that could support their ambitions. In ten years, it had become apparent that New York had inherited the idea of Modern Art.

What did the American artists in New York City want? They wanted to take over the reins of avant-garde Modernist art. They wanted to make modernist art American. The artists, who would form (loosely) the New York School in the Fifties, were ready, they were prepared. The field of cultural production had shifted to the East Coast of America. The result would be Abstract Expressionism.

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

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“The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936, Part Two

Re-reading “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

by Walter Benjamin

Part Two

“What is aura actually? A strange weave of space and time:

the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.

Decades after the death of Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in its Age of Technological Reproducibility was often mis-read and misunderstood, but in its own time, this essay had a profound impact upon the thinking of Benjamin’s friend Theodor Adorno. Benjamin essentially raised the issues of both the (re)definition of art in an age of mass media and of the impact of art once it could be dispersed over the vastness of time and space. While Benjamin lived, art teetered on the precipice of a precipitous fall into popular culture, where it would be engulfed: simply an image among other images. Benjamin apparently realized—quite keenly—that the traditional work of art existed as “art” by virtue of its uniqueness and specificity and its sense of place and history.

Almost a decade after the death of his colleague, Adorno, working with Max Horkheimer, examined “The Culture Industry” in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Adorno and Horkheimer were alerted by Benjamin of the unholy alliance between politics and art, but Benjamin’s larger project in his “Work of Art” essay was more subtle. Benjamin was interested in the new mode of perception ushered in by modern mechanical reproduction. In other words, his essay recalls the anxieties of the Ninth Century Iconoclasts that the image might replace the authenticity of the Divine with a simulacra and anticipates the predictions of Jean Baudrillard that the simulacra will be substituted for the real. The central question of the “Work of Art” essay is how do we see and how to we think now that we are exposed to reproductions which are inherently and definitionally not real but are simulacra?

Of singular importance to this question is the association between Benjamin and the Weimar film writer, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). Kracauer, like Benjamin, had a Neo-Kantian background and was one of the intellectual pioneers in formulating a theory for film, a new art form and a new form of mass media. The Benjamin essay, therefore, needs to be understood from a dual perspective. First, Benjamin examined the idea of the substitution of the object for its reproduction and second, he was concerned with the new mode of cognition wrought by this new “Age.” As Kantians, both film writers, Kracauer and Benjamin, would have been concerned about the impact of a mechanical apparatus mediating reality—a mass social experience that Kant could not have anticipated when he posited his “Copernican Revolution.” The means of delivery had the potential of superceding content, a phenomenon best stated by Marshall McLuhan as “the medium is the message.”

Almost a hundred years ago, at the dawn of mass media, Benjamin was concerned with the idea of “origin” or authenticity in relation to “the work of art.” If the origin of art can be located or known, then authenticity can be assured. Authenticity is deeply connected with Benjamin’s ephemeral but powerful notion of “aura.” “Aura” in turn can be traced back to the remote origins of art embedded in objects deemed sacred by the tribe. “Aura” refers to that “quality” which defined “art”—its inaccessibility, its remoteness, its distance from the observer/worshiper. Art—or that special object set aside from normal social life—was always a cult object, viewed but never approached, venerated but never touched. However, reproductive technology was in the process of dispelling “aura” by making a cult object visible and available through an endless reproduction. As Benjamin wrote, “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique experience.”

Instead of taking a pilgrimage to view a sacred relic, the “pilgrim” of Benjamin’s time had only to turn the page of an art magazine to view a work of art. The reproduction provided a substitute for the “real thing” and gave the audience a sense, however fleeting, of accessibility if not ownership. Benjamin thought that the masses wanted to get closer to the object in their “concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness.” The precise “thing” that gave art its “aura” must be assimilated into a mass experience. Benjamin understood that in the age of “mechanical reproduction” “art” needed to be understood from another point of view, one that did not depend upon the inaccessibility or cult status of the object. He also understood that the entire apparatus of mass media reproduction, especially film, had a profound impact upon how people would perceive the world—through the mediating actions of images. These images would be ubiquitous and would bear messages of all kinds. Unlike the work of art, these images would be partial, fragmented, un-whole, and conveyed via montage, which sliced through time and space, deploying incomplete impressions. Nevertheless, such images could be powerful and impactful.

For wholeness and authenticity and completeness and, ultimately, “aura,” “technological reproduction” of an image must suffice and substitute for the human’s mysterious need for images. These notions of origin and authenticity and the vanishing point of aura also refer to the bourgeois ego, also on the point of vanishing into the commodity spell of capitalism. Since the time of “high capitalism,” the ego or one’s sense of individuality or uniqueness or one’s “aura,” if you will had become more and more of an illusion. Individuality had to be processed or expressed through commodities which substituted for uniqueness. The moment of the writing of this essay—1936 in Paris—was a time of crisis for the work of art and for the intellectual freedom of the consumer, perpetually under the spell of an increasingly technological society fueled by commodities. Thanks to technological reproducibility, art could be dislodged from its site of origin and from its place in history and could be magically transported into the present where it could be possessed or repossessed, used or misused. Under such a system, aura would wither and decline.

“Aura” was an odd topic for this most Jewish of Jewish writers to take up, for traditional Judaism forbad “graven images.” Art and its aura was a manifestly Christian tradition, but Benjamin understood art as having its origins in the rituals of the (prehistoric) cult—an object of veneration upon which human feelings of awe was projected. He defined “aura” as that which is generated by and from the work of art when it functioned as a cult object within ritual due to the distance between the relic and the worshiper. The psychological and physical space between the spectator and the relic created an aura that could be completely dispelled when the distance vanished. Mechanical Reproduction had the capability to bring that worshiped object down to earth, as it were, and place in within visual reach of the viewer.

“Auratic perception” could be defined as an atmosphere enveloping the object. The subject’s position is one of contemplation or repose, a mental absorption in the object, an “intent attentiveness.” But with the possibilities of reproductive technology, art was displaced from its position of distance and and could be captured and owned through mechanical reproduction. The gaze becomes a quick and casual look. Satisfaction comes, not from deep immersion in the “aura,” but in the acquisition of another commodity. In other words, the antique “attentiveness” was, in modern times, disrupted by the effects of mass reproduction of images, requiring little more than a passing glance.

Whereas both Karl Marx and Charles Baudelaire discussed the loss of the halo worn by those who had once made “art,” Max Weber used the term Entzauberung or “demystification,” or the loss of enchantment, in the world to explain the loss of “aura.” As Baudelaire wrote in his famous Petits poèmes en prose (1869):

Just now, as I was crossing the boulevard, and hopping in the mud, in quite a hurry, through the shifting chaos where death comes galloping from all sides at once, my halo slipped off my head, in one abrupt movement, into the mire of the macadam. I didn’t have the guts to pick it up. I considered it less disagreeable to lose my insignia than to break my bones. And anyways, I said to myself, misfortune is good for something. Now I can walk about incognito, commit foul acts, and indulge in debauchery like ordinary mortals. So here I am, just like you, as you can see!

Acutely aware that Baudelaire had previously written of art’s “decay,” Benjamin examined the possible role of the art object in a secularized and modernized culture. As Rob Halpern wrote in Modernist Cultures in 2009,

Rather than protest or mourn his loss, however, Baudelaire’s angel accepts his fallen condition “into the mire of the macadam.” By resigning himself in this way, the poem registers an awareness that the traditional artwork or poem could no longer claim a unique value, and that aesthetic authenticity – in this case, the elevated status of lyric poetry – had become incompatible with modern experience, whose transformation, Benjamin argues, was inseparable from the domination of life by the commodity, and the disfiguration of social relations by the dynamics of capitalist production.

Clearly, there is a line of thinking from Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno connecting capitalism and mass reproduction with the loss of the “halo” or “aura.” Some twenty years later, André Malraux would take up the idea of reproducing works of art in his book, Museum Without Walls. By then, art history books and reproduction of works of art was commonplace, but, in the Thirties, when this use of reproductive technology was in its infancy, and Benjamin was concerned about the fate of art. Indeed, it is possible to become sidetracked over the questions of reproduction and it is important to remember that Benjamin’s concerns were aesthetic—in a modern era, what is art?

Can art exist without “aura?” The question for Benjamin is where and when did the status of auratic art begin to decay? The atavistic, sacred, and mythic character of the cult object was transformed in the Renaissance, a period of secularization, as European societies increasing became less spiritual and more material. “Art” was displaced from ritual and replaced into a cult of beauty and thus became profaned by what was (the wrong kind of) a new kind of appreciation. In other words, the frescoes of Michelangelo might be admired for their sheer artistic beauty which could override the sacred message. In fact this clear threat could have been the cause for the aggressive censorship of The Last Judgment. The result for aesthetics was contradictory—on one hand, art was emancipated from its dependence upon ritual, but on the other hand, the work of art became a fetish with mystifying character due to its former role as a cult object. Benjamin asserted that, “mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.” But to be clear, Benjamin was not referring to “art-for-art’s-sake” but to the severance of the connection between art and distance. This “decay,” as it were, was a new condition for sacred objects (art).

For Benjamin the reproduction of works of art, which are unique, part of ritual and sacred practices, destroys the authority of art. Loss of authenticity or aura destroys the very “rootedness” of art. This “aura” Benjamin discusses is the result of distance which is decayed by the desire of the masses to bring things closer both in human and in spatial terms. This loss of distance between the viewer and the work of art and the replacement of aura with familiarity lead to the universal equality of things, or what Benjamin called the “cult of similarity.” On this point, his friend in the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, will not only agree but will also appropriate some of his colleague’s insights. For Adorno, equality will lead to “identity thinking” and he will recommend the philosophical position of “negative dialectics” to counteract the deadly and totalitarian effects of demanding totalization of thinking.

Once the apparatus of mechanical reproduction is established, then art is produced for reproduction, fundamentally changing the character of art, which was once unique and original. Without uniqueness and originality and authenticity, art has no aura. Art is displaced from the cult and its cult value is replaced by its exhibitionary value. Once art is on film (reproduced) or is film (photography or movies) its aura “shrivels” and ”withers” to the extent that the distance is diminished. But Benjamin was concerned with the difference between the “first technology” or the desire to master nature and the “second technology,” or film, of which he said, ” The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.”

Benjamin, however, had hope for mechanical reproduction. Like his colleague, Bertold Brecht, he hoped that cinema, as a mass media, could, and would be an instrument to awaken the masses. Film inherently tended to dissipate “aura” but Benjamin balanced losses against gains and the possibility of positive results. There is the possibility of a catharsis, of a clean slate, which starts by admitting the modern poverty of experience in a disenchanted world. New technology, used properly, could change the world. The Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, had hoped that montage or editing would emancipate the thinking of his audience.

Benjamin understood that montage could work in another fashion: that editing and constructing a film role could build up an actor’s “aura,” an effect clearly seen in Triumph of Will—the “star power” of Hitler, who was framed in such a fashion to make him look like a god. Plainly, Benjamin understood the danger of the “close up” to produce another kind of aura—a more dangerous cult could arise. But he also had faith in the possibility that mass audiences could organize their own responses to film and thus, perhaps, emancipate themselves by using avenues of resistance and expression that “art” does not provide. He stated,

“Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve the magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its commodity character, but its counterpart the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses.”

For Benjamin, the loss of aura was deeply tied to a more profound crisis, and the loss of the aura of art was but a symptom of this crisis. Borrowing from Marx and combining these insights with those of Freud, Benjamin dated the crisis from the end of the Great War to the end of the Weimer Republic, culminating in the seizure of power by the Nazis. This crisis was the shattering of tradition, a tradition that had guaranteed coherence, communicability and the transmissibility of experience—the accumulation of unconscious data called “memory.”

Erfahfung”, that assimilation of sensations, information, and events into an integrated experience had given way to “Erlebnis” or (modern) experience reduced to a series of atomized and unarticulated moments merely lived through. Baudelaire understood modern experience, and Benjamin who wrote extensively on Baudelaire, while he was in exile in Paris, oscillated between celebrating this new culture and mourning the loss of traditional culture. He was horrified by the new political barbarism he saw and was pained by the new poverty of experience, mediated by mass culture.

Indeed, in the early years of the Frankfurt School, the scholars did empirical studies which revealed that the masses were inherently passive and uninterested in rising up politically to help themselves through political revolution. Benjamin watched while the forces of fascism took hold of the passivity of the masses and mobilized them to the cause of keeping property relations unchanged. In other words, fascism gave the proletarian mobs the illusion of participating in shaping their own destiny while they remained powerless.

The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction is often reprinted in a truncated form and was, in effect, intellectually and anachronistically “rewritten” for the purposes of re-contextualizing the work of Benjamin in the contemporary context of the art world. Art historians who rediscovered Benjamin in the 1980s depoliticized his thinking. However, this essay was very much concerned with politics, particular the rise of fascism, which manipulates the masses through art forms. Benjamin begins this essay by stating that under the “present conditions of production” (mechanical), “outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” can be used by Fascism, or they can be used for “the formulation of revolutionary demands of the politics of art.”

Benjamin understood that Fascism, like the Roman Empire before it, would attempt to provide bread and circuses to distract the masses. He also saw the danger that aesthetics and politics could be linked to war:

Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, which Fascism, with its Fuehrer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus, which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war…Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.

The “self-alienation” of society, Benjamin continues, “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics, which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”


Thus ends one of the most significant essays for the Postmodern Condition. However, the historical context of this essay was lost, as, when the work was finally translated, it was released in America during the high verses low culture debate. Certainly, Benjamin understood that once art was displaced from its auratic function, art could float from high to low, but his interest was more in what would later be termed “appropriation” or in what Clement Greenberg clearly saw was “kitsch” or the appearance or semblance of “art,” watered down for mass consumption. After the emergence of Pop Art in the 1960s, the work of Benjamin was recontextualized and distorted to fit into Pop’s use of ready-made imagery.

In part one of this section on the “Work of Art” essay, the question was asked if this meditation on that which has been lost by Walter Benjamin has any value today, one hundred years later. In the twenty-first century, we enjoy the fruits of mechanical reproduction and “technological reproducibility.” We are inundated with images, bombarded by media, from twenty-four hour cable to radio stations that never go off the air to the faux intimacy of the Internet. All “information” gets the same weight and accountability to the “facts” is often absent. Media has become a commodity which needs to be bought and sold, meaning that intellectuals and ideas, as Marx foretold, are part of capitalist transactions.

Most people know “art” only from mechanical reproductions, augmented by occasional visits to a museum or gallery. Television flattens the intellectual landscape by giving equal value to reality shows and Masterpiece Theater. The movie industry produces entertainment for the lowest common denominator (the teenage boy) and news “papers” are becoming extinct and morphing into apps. One wonders what Benjamin would have thought. It is possible he would have delighted in the openness of the World Wide Web and would have been thrilled at the emergence of the “Arab Spring” via cell phone and blogging, but he would have grieved at television being appropriated by corporate interests, which use the concept of “news” to manipulate and dominate the masses.

When his essays were translated into English in the 1980s and made available for a wider readership, the cultural context of his essay made it clear that the writer was struggling between what he could clearly see as a misuse of “culture” and the great liberating possibilities of bringing images and people together. Here is this benign field of entertainment the dominant ideology can be challenged and perhaps changed. Years later, greatly indebted to Benjamin’s ideas, Theodor Adorno would write of a dominate “culture industry” that served to support the prevailing belief system. Benjamin would not live to see how this culture industry came to dominate and shape “reality” or how the internet allowed the people to lay their hands on “the media.” If he were alive today, Benjamin would probably be on the internet, blogging away.

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

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

[email protected]


“The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936, Part One

Re-reading The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936

by Walter Benjamin

Part One

Also know as The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, this essay by Walter Benjamin has been published in three different versions. The definitive second, or “Ur,” version, as Benjamin stated, has been published most recently in the 2008 collection of essays, edited by Michael Jennings, et al. in a book titled after this famous essay. And this is a famous essay—rediscovered in the 1960s in the wake of the age of youthful discontent, and read and re-read until this day. The question is, almost one hundred years later, is this essay anything more than a predictor of what we already know?

Much has been made of the fact that, when it was originally published in 1936 by the exiled Frankfurt School, publishing in German in their new home in New York City, the essay was shortened. Or according to some, the essay was censored because the now famous last lines: Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. In his excellent 1997 account of Benjamin’s life, Walter Benjamin. An Intellectual Biography, Bernd Witt explained that the writer understood quite well the precarious position of the exiled Marxist Jews in a nation that, on a good day, was barely tolerant of Jews and terrified of the Communists.

Benjamin agreed to having the essay shortened. After all, the Frankfurt School was paying him a stipend and he needed the publication. In addition, Benjamin was a professional writer. Writers get edited; that is the nature of the work and not writer expects to have his or her work published in an untouched form. Those who make charges against Theodor Adorno, claiming he had personal issues with Benjamin, are factually off the mark and are naïve in assuming that his peer group considered any writer’s work as being sacrosanct.

Benjamin himself had stated that one of the reasons why he left Berlin was because he was having difficulties in getting his work published. Although he left the city very soon after the Nazis came into power, at the insistence of the wife of Theodor Adorno, Gretel Karplus, the repression of Jewish intellectuals, especially one of Marxist sensibilities, made his writing career hopeless. Witt quotes Benjamin as writing, “…The terror directed at any attitude or mode of expression that does not completely correspond to the official one has reached a virtually unsurpassable level…” And so, Benjamin was forced into exile and went in 1933 to Paris where the “Work of Art” essay was written.

This work is best understood as a dual project between Benjamin’s flâneur wanderings throughout Paris that produced the Arcades project and his observation of the Nazi use of mass media in Germany. Benjamin was uniquely positioned to understand how expertly Hitler utilized new technologies of communication, because, in an unusual move for a writer, he was an early radio personality from 1929. Witt points out that “As one of the pioneers in this new medium, he may have gained here the experiences that enabled him, in the great essays written in exile, to formulate a theory of non-auratic art.” According to Witt, Benjamin thought that he could provoke his listener to counter the “consumer mentality” of the listener’s passivity and that he hoped to create a model for the “people’s art.”

Benjamin acquired this notion of provoking the radio audience from his friend, theatrical producer, Bertold Brecht, who later spoke of the death of Walter Benjamin as the “first casualty of Hitler’s war on intellectuals.” Indeed, the two writers were very much in tune in their interpretation of Marxism, the ideological enemy of the Nazis. Neither were scholarly Marxists, like those of the Frankfurt School. Both were what might be called practical or activist Marxists who favored intervention by using popular culture to question conventional values.

For Brecht, the theater could still be an agent of revelation and transformation. The playwright sought to break through the illusion of realism projected from the stage by shaking the complacency of the audience who was passively soaking in ideology disguised as “the theater.” Brecht shattered with “Fourth Wall” or the subterfuge that the play was a reflection of reality. By calling attention to the inherent artificiality of mass entertainment, Brecht hoped to challenge the bourgeois dominance of the social discourse. Popular culture could be hijacked for the purpose of an ideological critique. Benjamin called Brecht’s techniques of estrangement “Epic Theater” and gave a radio lecture on the playwright and wrote an essay, “Epic Theater,” on his Marxist ideas about jolting bourgeoisie complacency.

Indeed the basis of Marxism is critique—an analysis of society used to break through False Consciousness—and mass media presented an unprecedented and novel opportunity to challenge the dominate ideology. Popular culture was a new way to indoctrinate the masses and the Nazis had seized the apparatus of communication and entertainment and turned the new mechanics of propaganda into a powerful weapon of indoctrination. The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction was written in 1936 in the wake of years of Nazi rallies, designed by Albert Speer and after the successful films of Leni Reifenstahl. Benjamin’s essay needs to be understood within this cultural context. Although the writer could not have foreseen the Holocaust, he was obviously aware that mass media presented both a danger and a promise. Thanks to the effectiveness of the use of film and radio and large gatherings the Nazis had lulled the population into acceptance of what would be a series of horrifying acts starting in 1937 on Kristallnacht.

For Benjamin, that continuing promise of Marxism could be found in mechanical reproduction. Here was a mode of production of information and knowledge that could reach the masses and present them with a social critique. Where Benjamin saw the hopeful possibilities of reproductive technologies, his friend, Theodor Adorno, an unapologetic snob, disagreed and saw mass culture as the final annihilation of “autonomous art”. Benjamin was less interested in whether or not popular culture was art. In contrast to Adorno, perhaps as the result of his interest in Jewish mysticism, Benjamin was greatly concerned with the loss of the “aura” of art and investigated a different aspect of artistic autonomy.

The concept of the “Aura” of the work of art was inspired by Benjamin’s experiences with the old sections of Paris, the Arcades, where he strolled, like a twentieth century Baudelaire. But unlike the poet, Benjamin was not reveling in the symptoms of modernité, he was searching for a past that was at the point of vanishing. It is here at the “vanishing point” that the past can be grasped before it becomes invisible and confined to the discourse of history. In the same way, the authentic work, surrounded in “aura” was vanishing, overwhelmed by a technology that was mechanical and ungovernable and indiscriminate. In many ways Benjamin foretold the “flattening” effect manifested so clearly in postmodernism—everything would have the same value through the miracle of total reproducibility and universal availability.

Part Two of this essay on Walter Benjamin will examine the concept of “aura.”

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

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

[email protected]