Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ranciere's Aesthetics and its Discontents & Adorno's "Extorted Reconciliation"

Adorno at the Beach!
I just read Ranciére's Aesthetics and its Discontents, along with Adorno's essay "Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács' Realism in Our Time" in an effort to parse out the complicated strands of politics, aesthetics, and the general critique of Modernism.  Lukács famously and obtusely criticized  Musil's Ulrich for his "worldlessness," as a bad example of the "decadent" tendencies of Modernist art; and Adorno defended both Musil and Modernist art from Lukács' charge on the grounds that Lukács was attempting an "extorted reconciliation" between reality and ideal which Modernist art emphatically resists. This resistance, inherent in Adorno's "negative dialectics," amounts to a form of political art which maintains its autonomy from affiliation and party program. Ranciére, compared to Adorno, is less critical of the realm of didactically political art (which he calls in one chapter "critical art" and which he divides up into the critical art of the earlier, supposedly more effective period of the 1920's to the 1970's roughly, and the current state of rather despair-driven works which Ranciére seems to see as more part of the problem than part of the solution, to borrow a phrase from the 60's). Yet he does mount a sort of defense of aesthetics and the Modernist program in Adorno's wake, arguing that the real issue is not about comparing postmodernism to modernism but, rather, realizing that Modernism itself has always been conscious of the necessary contradictions within it.  Ranciére writes:

“Modernism itself has only ever been a long contradiction between two opposed aesthetic politics, two politics that are opposed but on the basis of a common core linking the autonomy of art to the anticipation of a community to come, and therefore linking this autonomy to the promise of its own suppression” (128).

I just read in Allen Tiher's Understanding Robert Musil that Musil, of course (of course?), rejected any idea of salvation (aesthetic redemption included?), including, presumably, the "anticipation of a community to come" that would entail, according to Ranciére, the demise of art's autonomy (because, presumably, alienation would be at an end, the millennium would arrive and everyone would be too happy making love to need to make art at all?!). Tiher, who doesn't mention anything about aesthetic redemption, the millennium, or the sort of complex intrinsically-destructing motion suggested by Ranciére at all (lest my association of the two suggest that he does), writes: 

"It can be argued that Musil's failure to find a conclusion to his novel demonstrates the difficulty characterizing the modernist project of transforming or, indeed, saving culture through literary discourse. On making this observation, however, we should recall that he mocks the idea of salvation and saving culture as much as any other idea circulating in Vienna before the First World War---if this is not an idea taken from Weimar and projected back on Vienna...At some point during the writing of the novel saving culture became a cliché. ..From this perspective, if the novel's lack of completion illustrates a failure, it is the failure to create a discourse of salvation, a very modernist failure to create a viable myth" (230).

While it may be true that Musil mocks the idea of saving culture within the novel, it is important that we note Ulrich's proviso, referring, I believe, to the idea of the millennium or some other equally wild dream: “I only make fun of it because I love it" (II,817). Also, we must temper any of Musil's satirical comments on the possibility of creating a literary discourse of salvation in the novel with reference to his essays and addresses, particularly his notes for addresses during the reign of totalitarianism, where we see him engaged in a rather earnest "defense of culture" with the weapons of art. Which is not to imply that he meant that political battles could be fought by or with art. On the contrary, he maintained  explicitly that the defense of culture meant that one could not fight political battles with pens and brushes; the best one could do was maintain the free non-affiliated voice of the artist as the last bastion of critical and non-conscripted thought,  and encourage those whose job it was to use other kinds of weapons to understand that a large part of their job entailed protecting the autonomy of culture. Tiher's analysis suggests that the defense of culture was to be somehow better and more successfully waged with some other weapons than the tools the Modernists had at hand (maybe more up-to-date postmodernist weapons like the death of the author or the utter lack of differentiation between simulacrum and sense, or by a return to Social Realism perhaps?) and that the "failure" of Musil's novel is indicative of the generally agreed-upon consensus about the failure of Modernism to successfully negotiate the problems of engagement, politics, society, collectivism, culture.  I do not mean to suggest that Tiher is advocating for a politicized art or even criticizing Musil and his project for their affiliation with discredited Modernism. Tiher is doing no such thing and his discussion of Musil is actually very nuanced and enlightening. It is just that it reveals that even in cases when a critic is not explicitly setting out to argue against Modernism or its aesthetic aims, there seems to be a somewhat unexamined assumption about the failure and misguidedness of the project, as if that were a given.

While the critique of aesthetic Modernism assumes already that a response and a resolution of political problems is, necessarily, the role of art, one might ask (as Musil did, albeit coming to no absolute conclusion) if such a task need be taken on by art at all.  That being said, Tiher's analysis of the "failure" of Musil's novel to conclude as evidence of the failure of Modernism to come to a satisfactory conclusion, neglects a different reading of this lack of conclusion, one which I am sure Adorno would agree sees the lack of closure as much more active or proactive than passive. While Musil once wrote "Down with cultural optimism!" in a note about the attempts of his contemporaries to celebrate the coming salvation of the new Soviet era, he was not quite as pessimistic about the role and requirement of the artist to speak to, about, above, beyond the problems at hand; but this discussion was to be carried out with the tools of art, not those of demagoguery or party politics or didacticism or "extorted reconciliation". And he used the tools of art to resist the call to closure, to partisanship, to Gleichschaltung, by continuing to write, by refusing to come to final solution, by providing endless perspectives. Ranciére, looking out from the center at the two political positions he sees as inherent even in the so-called un-political aims of Modernism, writes:

“On the one hand, the avant-garde movement aimed to transform the forms of art, and to make them identical with the forms for constructing a new world in which art would no longer exist as a separate reality. On the other, the avant-garde preserved the autonomy of the artistic sphere from forms of compromise with practices of power and political struggle, or with forms of aestheticization of life in the capitalist world. ..This was not at all to preserve it for the pure enjoyment of art for its own sake but, on the contrary , as the inscription of the unresolved contradictions between the aesthetic promise and the realities of oppression in the world” (129). 

The phrase "unresolved contradictions" is reminiscent of both Musil and Adorno, and should remind us that aesthetics does not necessarily mean wholeness, completeness, or harmony, but can just as easily be an awareness of discord, dissonance, what Ranciére calls "dissensus" in contradiction to our beloved contemporary "consensus".  As Adorno writes:
"The postulate of a reality that must be represented without a breach between subject and object and which must be 'reflected'---the term Lukács stubbornly adheres to---for the sake of that lack of a breach:  that postulate, which is the supreme criterion of his aesthetics, implies that that reconciliation has been achieved, that society has been set right, that the subject has come into its own in its world. ...But the division, the antagonism, continues, and to say that it has been overcome in the nations of the Eastern Bloc, as they call it, is simply a lie [Adorno's essay was written in the 1960s]. The spell that holds Lukács in its power and bars his longed-for return to the utopia of his youth reenacts the extorted reconciliation he himself detected in absolute idealism" (240 Notes to Literature, Volume I).
While few people still believe today in the promises of the Soviet utopia, there are other utopias of reconciliation in the air, and the attempt to make the ever-shifting nature of truth fit in to a narrowly defined concept of good and right is probably always an anti-aesthetic attitude. It comes back to Carson's  imperative to "keep the difference visible," or to Nietzsche's warning that we should not forget that the metaphoric unions that we make into meanings and truths are fictions and should be continually refreshed and reevaluated, since no two things are ever really the same, and never can really be fully reconciled. The “extorted reconciliation,” in contrast, is the forced happy ending of the isolated subject’s reunion with world and society, progress, success.

But why the need to justify art at all, this defensive stance. From where this need to argue that aesthetics has political and social value, that aesthetics is ethics, that there is a link between aesthetics and conduct of life?  Of course in so far the way we see the world determines our ethics, aesthetics is inherently connected to ethics, and Musil certainly saw it that way. If aesthetics made us callow craven indifferent cruel sadists (Zizek  suggests as much in an essay comparing de Sade and Kant!), if it made us Dorian Grays with hidden atrocities in our closets, if aesthetics were merely a way to cover up ugly truths, then perhaps the attack would be justified. But if aesthetics is, as I believe,  a conscious attention, concern and value applied to surfaces, shapes, arrangements, techniques, dynamics, movement, suspensions, densities, repetition and their expressive powers, as opposed to a limited focus only on ideas, ideologies, content, message, political program, action, expediency, utility, practicality, materialism, then a defense of aesthetics amounts to a defense of the imagination, of pleasure, of human sensual and intellectual freedom, curiosity, play (defined by Kant and Schiller), essay, experimentation, openness.  

While the anti-aesthetic privileging of content over form seems on the surface to be a favoring of the transcendental Platonic Idea over vulgar materialism of the flesh, in fact it amounts to just the opposite, since the formal games of art are respites from the materiality of the world of profit, loss, purpose, use, they are (as Lukács complains) “worldless” in the sense that they (contrary to his intent) imagine new and other worlds, in that they cannot be commodified, in that they are of no earthly use, and thus confound the philistine, the ideologue, the agitator and the capitalist merchant, who do not know how to sell what is most valuable about them. That they are free. Wilde wrote that the "cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing".  This is, in fact, a critique of materialism by one of the most extreme aesthetes of literary history, a proponent of the truth of masks and the depths of surfaces. The shape of a poem, its cadences, surprises, sounds, spaces, cannot be commodified, and cannot be taken as booty by either side, cannot be turned into slogan or party program.

Musil's  defense of culture amounted to a defense of Geist as realm of aesthetic play, critical non-affiliation, subjunctive and, yes, subjective perspectivism (why should the individual’s perspective be suspect?). When infinite and defracted perspective is simplified down to the common denominator (the lowest common denominator, by the way), it is by definition less complex, less comprehensive, less, to use a word with some value for some people who attack aesthetics for its supposed escapism, less  “real”.  Reality is not some ideal of good or right or moral, but, rather, a constantly changing, shifting complexity of values, desires, choices, imaginings and perspectives. Something we make together, out of our differences. Which is not to say that nothing matters or that there is no way to approach truth or attempt right action, but, rather,  that to do so is far more interesting and complex and challenging than communally establishing (from above, by the way, despite claims of populism) what is right or wrong or correct or incorrect and then attempting, rigidly, to make artists and other creative individuals adhere to that system.

The activity of the free realm of aesthetics turns out, despite itself,  to be political, social, ethical; and this not by virtue of its supposed attempt to conceal the reality of suffering or to maintain the entrenched values of the people in power, but because it is intrinsically a realm which cannot breathe when constricted by dogma, coercion, or “extorted reconciliation”.  The aesthetic is not only anathema to oppression, not only political thus in negativity or non-collaboration with programs or systems, but also positively, affirmatively, in its natural generation of new ideas, forms, desires, possibilities, its active proliferation of human energies…and, gasp, its love of existing in the world. As Nietzsche would remind us: Amor fati. Love of fate! In all its unreconciled beauty and horror!


  1. Quoting Zizek:

    "G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday tells the story of Gabriel Syme, a young Englishmen who makes the archetypal Chestertonian discovery of how order is the greatest miracle and orthodoxy the greatest of all rebellions. The focal figure of the novel is not Syme himself, but a mysterious chief of a super-secret Scotland Yard department who is convinced that 'a purely intellectual conspiracy would soon threaten the very existence of civilization':

    He is certain that the scientific and artistic worlds are silently bound in a crusade against the Family and the State. He has, therefore, formed a special corps of policemen, policemen who are also philosophers. It is their business to watch the beginnings of this conspiracy, not merely in a criminal but in a controversial sense. /.../ The work of the philosophical policeman /.../ is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime."

    Or, as Zizek puts it in In Defense of Lost Causes, "The philosophical policeman tries to arrest those about to deconstruct the religious and moral foundations of our societies."

    It might be simplistic to claim that much of the blahblahblah against Modernism is merely reactionary--but I'll say it: It's reactionary. It's not unlike what we continue to see in United States politics wherein the far (or mainstream?) right creates conspiracies involving a so-called "Liberal Elite" bent on destroying freedom and conservative Christian values. The problem is that both the present and past (on which they place their worldviews) are inventions--simplistic, contrived inventions at that! Literature is dangerous because it's closer to the truths we do not necessarily want to see.

    1. Ah, Kenneth! So fantastic. I have just been thinking about the invention inherent in the anti-art and anti-modernist narrative. It is, to my reading of literary history, a pure fiction or an unconscious or more malignant misreading to proclaim that literature before postmodernism was merely in the service of the power elite or that it privileged only the values of the dominant culture. Where did this narrative come from? Did the people who created it read the same Homer and Shakespeare and Rabelais and Wilde and Blake and Melville and Thoreau, etc, etc, that I read? And people just keep repeating this unexamined narrative over and over again, taking the ironic or at least obliquely complex concept that "all art is quite useless" at its literal word and wholly out of context. Your connection with present day reactionary moralism is interesting indeed, and really echoes Adorno's allegation that Lukács is actually operating within a conservative system of Idealism which he purports to be attacking. Is it not Lukács and his ilk who are, as Adorno writes "vulgar materialist[s]" after all? Thanks for your comment!