Monday, July 16, 2007

Total Illusion


From the perspective of the history of "appearance and reality" arguments, the most striking feature of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory (1969) is its polemical use of “Schein.” Adorno’s English translators render “Schein” as “semblance,” or false likeness; I'll preserve the broader German term here, to be able to refer to the way it connotes not only semblance but the generalized sense of illusion that is usually linked pejoratively with mere appearance. Adorno both uses and turns around the traditional association, in which appearance is mere illusion and facts are reality. It’s not misleading to say that for him, “Schein” refers primarily to fact perception. Tracking Marx’s great reversal of philosophical convention, fact perception for Adorno is always remembered to be what appears to be fact perception. All the fact perception that can be experienced in our world is bounded historically and generated in dialogue with capital: “the facts that have been advanced as a counterweight to Schein have themselves become a sort of cloak and so reinforce the impression of Schein” (History and Freedom 29). Facts experienced without awareness of their historical frame are the height of illusion. Hence Adorno’s special dislike of positivism (e.g., History and Freedom 164), which believes it can identify data exempt from the need for historical analysis. Other kinds of perception are also historically delimited, but what we call fact perception, as in positivism, is most likely to dispense with a qualifying metalanguage and the kinds of mental reservation that this kind of language brings. Philosopher Richard Moran argues that placing the frame of one's own perception or belief around something dilutes commitment to it: that the proposition “P” induces belief and commitment more strongly than the proposition “I believe that P” (Authority and Estrangement, Princeton University Press, 2005). For Moran, that's a reason not to focus on our perceptual frames; for Adorno, the ideological character of anything that appears as given is the reason to focus on our perceptual frames. The tendency to conflate fact with value coerces assent to fact perceptions and to the given as such. Adorno’s way of putting this is to write that Schein is “bound up” with “the affirmative power of society” (AT 110). Since the very notion of what counts as a concept and as an intuition are historical artifacts, it's literally true that we can abstract no fact or given from its historical frame; we can only wonder what it would look like in different frames and how resilient it might be to changes of frame. There is therefore no embarrassment in objecting to the inevitable, for Adorno; the embarrassment should be entirely on the side of what has the nerve to present itself as necessity.

to be continued

Image: Peter Alexander, Los Feliz, 2002

3 comments:

antonia said...

it is interesting how this complex problems with Schein and semblance and illusion again and again appears in philosophy. I wonder, did it begin with Kant's transcendental illusion or started it already before...

RT said...

Hi... My guess, I imagine the problems are there in a different way in antiquity, but I do think that Kant re-energizes the question and invents a new way of thinking about the question. For one thing, by making Erscheinung the alternative to Schein--making the alternative reachable and ordinary--he heightens the transgressive effect of any appearance that doesn't seem to be ordinary Erscheinung. Thus the romantic interest in images that the romantics themselves believe are deviant. Do you think?

etc said...

it becomes really clear for me in this posting what the stakes of the "facts" in your earlier posting are or have been, that facts often stand in for something like reality, maybe... i think it is that here, the fact is set in relation to appearance, something which seems self-evident but is not always so