Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Adorno, Spirit, Enigma

(N.B. - some random pages from my dissertation that will probably end up on the cutting room floor).

The question of what happens to spirit in modernity is a complicated one and I shall only touch on it briefly here since it seems to me that the late Objectivist moment is less concerned with locating and resolving issues about spirit as such and how it might continue to mean in some worthwhile sense, and more on how history might be repaired and redeemed. In other words, the concerns with spirit that occupied a previous generation (and continue to vex those who would appeal to the government-in-exile of timeless transcendental values) have now migrated into the question of how to redeem historical disaster, how to alleviate human suffering.

What Raymond Williams said of "nature" could be applied with equal justice to "spirit." It is perhaps the most complex word in the language, used by widely divergent groups to indicate often dissimilar things. Yet the one thing these usages of spirit share in common is the designation of a non-material essence or property, either etherially transcendental, in the theological sense, belonging to an intuitive order of perception, or describing an innate attribute, drive, or primary feature of character in the empirical sense; an interiority that is both self-reflexive and rational.

Hegel uses it on several registers: as the subjective intellect or feeling; as the objective common values of a group; as, in the absolute sense, art or religion; and finally as the historical process whereby the world recognizes its own totality; a kind of pan-cultural self-reflexivity. Dialectics propels spirit along these stages of identity, through ever widening spheres of self-consciousness, toward the culmination of history through the negative movements of Absolute Spirit.

Adorno’s use of spirit derives from this Idealist tradition but is turned in such a way as to oppose the idea of spirit as a vehicle for world history or unifying social totality. What spirit signifies, at least in part, for Adorno is “inwardness,” a category of subjective experience that has become increasingly emptied out to the degree to which the autonomous subject itself has lost social power. This inwardness, Adorno, says, poses a problem for art since it is at once “the mirage of an inner kingdom” that has become empty of content and yet without which “art is scarcely imaginable” (AT 116).

To meet this challenge, art must become enigmatic, or endarkened. It must “do justice to contingency,” which can be read as another word for history, I think, “by probing in the darkness of the trajectory of its own necessity. The more truly art follows this trajectory, the less self-transparent art is. It makes itself dark” (AT 115). This endarkenement (a term Robert Duncan employed in an anti-rationalist, or intuitive, context closer to that of The Cloud of Unknowing) acts to counter the synthesizing propensities of spiritualization, its inevitable drift toward abstraction and totalization.

To become truly redemptive, Adorno claims, art must act so that “the spirit in it throws itself away” (AT 118). This radical self-canceling “holds true to the shudder, but not by regression to it. Rather, art is its legacy. The spirit of artworks produces the shudder by externalizing it in objects” (AT 188). That is, art replicates the originary shudder of recognition and displacement in the work itself, which, endarkened and estranging, disrupts spirit’s recidivist move to totality. In this sense, all artworks are caesuras, ritual scissions which cut into the illusory fabric of social relations and ideology.

If spirit for Hegel is rational self-consciousness coupled to a restless pursuit of self-negation and overcoming that stems from the desire for achieving an absolute self-realization, then for Adorno spirit's vitality must always remain oppositional.
“Dialectics is the self-consciousness of the objective context of delusion; it does not mean to have escaped from that concept. Its objective goal is to breakout of that concept from within” (ND 406).

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