mourning becomes utopia

In this fresh hell, InterCcECT stands by our founding project, the pursuit of abstraction as both explanation for existing situations and inspiration for new situations, and we stand for the thinkers, makers, doers, survivors, gatherers who have lived other hells and will fight this one too.  We theorize and teach and struggle as we can with and for the oppressed and the objectified, and anyone who strives to build something more.

Join us Thursday 15 December for a reading group on thought in catastrophe and thought out of catastrophe, focusing on selections from Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia and Jose Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia.  The Map Room, 4pm.

Write interccect at gmail for the readings.

Hopelessness; Or, the world is a prison for the believer

You can feel the anger in the voice. But the voice gives shape to the anger and you can see that this is anger of hatred. Not the anger of hope, not the anger that leaders can tap into to turn revolts or riots into revolutions, but the anger of disdain, of contempt. And what is more worthy of contempt than this world.

I often think in terms of biography. Biography can easily turn into sentimentality and avoiding that is certainly difficult. But I think in terms of biography because one cannot understand the world without that understanding being lived. Continue reading “Hopelessness; Or, the world is a prison for the believer”

Getting Educated About America

This is going to be a bit of a confession. Up front I have to declare to you my naivety, because it helps explain why I’ve been anxious for weeks, on the verge of tears all day, and currently unsure if the food I ate today is going to stay down. So, a confession, though like all confessions it obscures a kind of cunning even I may be the target of.

I want to live and participate in a just country. And, as my physical symptoms evidence, I apparently believe that the United States of America can be a just country. It is embarrassing, because I am an educated person. Politically I was made aware of the kind of country I live in by radical Christians and secular anarchists and socialists during my teenage years. And that early consciousness raising by punk rock was felt in my bones only to be confirmed intellectually as a student reading history and critical theory. But, yet, I must still believe something about America.  Continue reading “Getting Educated About America”

Beyond pretension: On the afterlife of culture

In my recent halting quest to delve more deeply into classical music, it occurs to me that I’ve been pretty trusting of people’s advice. For instance, everyone who has an opinion seems to think that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is uniquely worthy of attention among his works, and so I got a recording of a performance from Netflix and watched it yesterday afternoon — turns out it’s pretty impressive. Similarly, I’ve eagerly acted on recommendations of books and recordings.

Why am I so trusting? Because basically no one is going to bother even claiming to have an opinion about classical music unless they know what they’re talking about to some degree. It’s totally “voluntary” to know about it — the culture has moved on, so there’s no payoff for pretension. Someone might tell you that The Wire is great just because they feel like they “should” think that; no one’s going to pull a similar move on Missa Solemnis.

In a way, this is a basic Adorno-esque point: previously elite artforms that have lost their accustomed role have a unique potential for “disinterested” uses. I wonder, though, how many other things are like this? Continue reading “Beyond pretension: On the afterlife of culture”

Stalinism and the Psychoanalysis of Politics

One of the biggest disappointments in the new movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes when the mole explains himself to Smiley upon being found out. The television series had had him launch into an anti-American diatribe, talking about the evils of consumerism and essentially the need to resist the capitalist degradation of all culture. In the film, however, he simply says claims that he had to choose a side and that the West has become “ugly” in some unspecified way. The mole becomes a shallow aesthete, impotently and arbitrarily “acting out,” whereas in the television adaptation, one could see a certain nobility to the character. I think one could read this shift as symptomatic of the historical shift that occurred between the two adaptations: after the fall of the Soviet Union, the appeal of communism, even as an alternative to what is undesirable in the West, has become unthinkable.

It is here that I think Zizek’s obsessive investigations of Stalinism are most important. On a certain level, he is simply following a “psychoanalytic” approach to politics, focusing on the pathological in order to shed light on the so-called normal (in this case, liberal democracy). Yet after reading Adorno for the last few months, I’m increasingly convinced that Zizek’s insistence on the distinction between Stalinism and fascism and his choice of Stalinism as the privileged object of critique — and his criticism of the Frankfurt School for taking the opposite approach on both counts — is justified, at least as a strategic choice. Choosing fascism as the “pathology” that is supposedly revelatory of the real content of the “normal” can fall much too easily into familiar patterns of liberal political analysis: moralism, progressivism (i.e., fascism shows that pre-modern national loyalties “still” hold great power), and the easy dichotomy between Enlightenment reason and its irrational other.

The privileging of Stalinism gets around that, because one can position it specifically as a failure within the Enlightenment tradition, rather than a failure of the Enlightenment to overcome the forces opposed to it. Adorno (and Horkheimer) are much more sophisticated than your normal moralizing critique of “totalitarianism,” yet I do think their work can very easily be appropriated by such discourses — whereas Zizek’s valorization of Stalinism, at least so far, apparently cannot. Another advantage of the emphasis of Stalinism is that it can shed a more interesting light on contemporary power relations. It’s much too “easy” to prove that supposedly “pre-modern” forms of power (patriarchalism, tribalism) are on the loose — and then we get to feel a nice buzz of liberal righteousness denouncing these people for failing to get with the program. It’s a lot more interesting and surprising to hear Zizek say, as he did once in a public lecture I attended (but has unfortunately not followed up on yet to my knowledge), that Stalinism has finally come into its own in contemporary corporate culture.

DIY Hype

My recent study of Adorno has me looking at popular culture and everyday interactions through Adorno-shaded lenses. One phenomenon that jumps out at me is the tendency toward spurious “ranking,” that is, the expression of personal preference as an objective feature of the work. We don’t hear that our friends really liked a given album, for instance — we hear that it’s probably one of the best albums of the year. Even on purely personal measures, there’s a tendency toward ranking, as when one declares a given film their “favorite movie of all time.”

Why do we talk like this? Continue reading “DIY Hype”

Open thread: Occupy Adorno

I have been reading a lot of Adorno of late, and this morning I just read his essay “Resignation” from The Culture Industry, in which he discusses the relationship of theory and praxis.

This inspired a question in me: if Adorno were alive today, what would he think of the Occupy movement?

Adorno on “classic rock”

From The Culture Industry:

If one seeks to find out who “likes” a commercial piece, one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to the situation, even if the person questioned clothes his reactions in those words. The familiarity of the piece is a surrogate for the quality ascribed to it. To like it is almost the same thing as to recognize it.

One is predisposed to disagree with Adorno’s judgments on popular music. He is, after all, the stuffy German philosopher trained in 12-tone composition, etc., etc., and so what does he know?

My reaction to this passage was certainly negative when I read it a couple days before leaving to visit my family for Thanksgiving — but several hours stuck in the car listening primarily to “classic rock” stations convinced me of the essential truth of this observation. Does anyone really “like” the song “American Pie,” for instance? What would that even mean?

The intuitive reaction of most people who “like” classic rock is not to enjoy the musical content, chord progressions, etc., but to imitate it — for instance, by singing along to the guitar solo on “Comfortably Numb,” as someone of my acquaintance may sometimes do when in the car alone. The advent of karakoe, American Idol, and Guitar Hero revealed the underlying truth of popular music. The popularity of these phenomenon shows that what is being sold here isn’t the direct enjoyment of music, but the fantasy that one could be a rock star.

(A possible objection: some music is meant for dancing, which perhaps wouldn’t fit with this analysis. But I wouldn’t know anything about that.)

Religious but not spiritual

For years, I have been sarcastically reversing the popular claim that one is “spiritual but not religious,” instead declaring myself to be “religious but not spiritual.” As I’ve pondered this formula more, however, I have become increasingly convinced that this joke does contain a sincere grain of truth about the way I’d like to approach my life. I obviously don’t want to be “religious” in the sense of going to church every week, but that’s not all that’s at stake in “spiritual but not religious.” The “religious” is the formula, the ritual, the mediating institution that’s bigger than any individual — anything that’s not fully owned by the individual, anything that risks being an empty gesture. The “spiritual but not religious” person wants to cut past all the accumulation of tradition and habit and get straight to sincere spiritual experience.

My inspiration to write about this at long last comes from my reading of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which seems to fit my current mood perfectly. In particular, this bit strikes me as true:

Behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. The direct statement without divagations, hestitations or reflections, that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things. (sec. 20)

Once the empty gestures of courtesy are swept away, we aren’t inducted into a new realm of sincere, unmediated human brotherhood — rather, we are left with nothing but the brutality of market relations. Similarly, once we get rid of “religion,” we’re left with nothing but prideful (and empty) speculations and a demand for the warm fuzzies we associate with spiritual ecstacy.

My main focus is not on the spirituality element, though, but on the element of ritual. Continue reading “Religious but not spiritual”