Richard Brody is one of my favorite film critics. His squibs in the “Now Playing” section of The New Yorker are masterpieces of poetic sensibility and compression (like the current one on Children of Paradise) and often the best things in any given issue, while his book on Godard, Everything is Cinema, is masterful. So it’s disappointing to see him resort to the usual tiresome cliché about Adorno on art after Auschwitz in his otherwise moving and perceptive review of the life and work of Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah.
As Brody tells it, Lanzmann’s desire to make Shoah a beautiful as well as a morally forceful film – in Lanzmann’s eloquent phrase, “to make the unbearable bearable” – provides “a resounding response to Adorno’s assertion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” For response here, read "refutation."
It’s easy to misread Adorno. Understanding him means reading him alongside his friend Walter Benjamin’s definitive statement of dialectical thinking: “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” By saying that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Adorno was not condemning the power of art. He was saying that the culture that produced the poetry of Goethe and Rilke also produced the language of the Final Solution: culture itself is the problem. It’s impossible to think the two apart from one another, as though civilization was safely walled off from barbarism. Surely Abu Ghraib is the nearest reminder of that.
As a kind of shorthand for a profound resignation about the fate of culture, the phrase “poetry after Auschwitz” needs to be viewed in the wider context of Adorno’s critique of the Enlightenment, which as he observes in 1947, had “aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty,” only to culminate as “disaster triumphant.” As Adorno and Max Horkheimer elaborate in Dialectic of Enlightenment, “the human being’s mastery of itself, on which the self is founded, practically always involves the annihilation of the subject in whose service that mastery is maintained … self-preservation destroys the very thing which is to be preserved.”
In other words, events like the Shoah are not aberrations, not psychotic breaks from social reality. Rather, they exemplify the logic of technocratic culture at its most extreme. Adorno’s concern is with not succumbing to the collective amnesia and repressions of the fate of the Jews in post-Auschwitz culture, as described in the brilliant epilogue to Tony Judt’s magisterial Postwar, "From the House of the Dead."
Here’s Adorno’s full quote, more or less, from “Cultural Criticism” (1949):
“The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.”
As Michael Rothberg helpfully points out in Traumatic Realism, the phrase “poetry after Auschwitz” is perhaps rendered with greater clarity (but less urgency) if translated into “poetry after reification.” Reification is the agent of poetry’s impossibility, for, as he explains, “the barbarism or irrationality of ‘poetry after Auschwitz’ is that, against its implicit intentions, it cannot produce knowledge of its own impossible social status … this impossibility is neither technical nor even moral … it results instead from an objective and objectifying social process that tends toward the liquidation of the individual,” or what Adorno elsewhere calls the totally administered world, the society of "radical evil”.
Language’s complicity in the catastrophe of the modern means that poetry itself is vulnerable to reification. Poetry that does not acknowledge its own barbarism, then, its tendency to valorize subjective experience as though it floated free of its larger ideological framework, will do nothing to resist the cultural conditions that make an Auschwitz possible. Making it pretty just don’t cut it anymore.
To write poetry after Auschwitz means rejecting traditional aesthetic values like harmony, consonance, and even beauty. These values aim at reconciling tension and thus, for Adorno, can only corrupt the poem. As he writes in Aesthetic Theory:
“Art is true to the extent to which it is discordant and antagonistic in its language and in its whole essence, provided that it synthesizes those diremptions, thus making them determinate in their irreconcilability. Its paradoxical task is to attest to the lack of concord while at the same time working to abolish discordance.”
All critiques of culture, Adorno insists, must begin by implicating themselves in the wreckage they are sifting. This is why the understanding that poetry after Auschwitz has become barbaric is endangered, he warns, of being confused with a merely punitive or reductionist gesture banning all aesthetic expression. If lyric poetry is also a critique of culture – a point he makes strongly in his 1957 essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” where he writes “that the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism” – then it, too, is always already fully a part of the aporia of culture.
This does not mean that subjective suffering has no right to express itself. Even if, as Adorno claims in the famous conclusion to Negative Dialectics, “all culture after Auschwitz, including the urgent critique of it, is garbage,” “perennial suffering still has as much right to expression as the martyr has to cry out.” The aporia of cultural failure does not mean the collapse of culture into total barbarism, neither does it signal the end of dialectics.
Instead, Adorno tells us in Minima Moralia, it compels seeing things from “the standpoint of redemption,” an act that requires the construction of perspectives that “displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear on day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with objects – this alone is the task of thought.” That such a redemptive stance is to be achieved solely through “felt contact with objects” might seem at first glance a strange claim to make. Yet what Adorno is advocating here is a non-idealist move that, while reducible to vulgar materialism, seeks a return to things, not as essences, but as fragments whose integrity is guaranteed by their loss of wholeness. Located through a micrological sifting of the ruins, these fragments possess the ability to form new constellations of meaning.
Lyn Hejinian offers a nuanced reading of Adorno, suggesting that his maxim “has to be taken as true in two ways.” “First, because what happened at Auschwitz … [rendered] all possibilities for meaning … suspended or crushed.” And second, and more importantly, because the event of the disaster enjoins poets “not to speak the same language as Auschwitz … poetry after Auschwitz must indeed by barbarian; it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities. As a result, the poet must assume a barbarian position, taking a creative, analytic and often oppositional stance, occupying (and being occupied) by foreignness—by the barbarism of strangeness.”
Adorno was never opposed to the power of art to register the Shoah. His essay on Beckett’s Endgame provide ample evidence of that. Indeed, the whole of Aesthetic Theory, his final work, is devoted to working out this intractable problem. But the clearest statement he issued comes near the end of Negative Dialectics:
“A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler on unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”