Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The Restlessness of the Lawn Ornaments
Adorno uses the language of the posthistorical fairly frequently in Minima Moralia, most often to indicate the superannuation of the postwar individual, who is among the objects “that history has condemned” and that “are dragged along . . . neutralized, powerless [mitgeschleppt . . . neutralisiert, ohnmächtig] as ignominious ballast” (Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1951], 153; Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott [New York: Verso, 1978], 135, trans. modified). His willingness to talk about posthistory is worth attention although the end of history (even as catastrophe) is a problematic and mystifying figure. Rather than justifying the idea of posthistory or attacking it as unjustifiable, we can ask what someone like Adorno manages to draw from it nevertheless. For Adorno, thinking about posthistory and the kind of perception that it calls forth helps one to take in and to take up--to realize in some way--the “neutralized” position. These thoughts about realization offer a reason to revisit the Hegelian idea that to realize a position is to think beyond it. Adorno’s kind of realization is not power or necessarily even the thought of it, but a diagnostic that shows to what self power would have to be joined in order to be worthy of the name.
How does the figure of posthistory help one to live one’s neutralization--and why should anyone want to do this? Its appeal has to do with the mutual suitability of posthistory’s empty time and the attentive mode of “tarrying with ["staying with"] the negative,” which, Adorno writes, “school[s]” the method of Minima Moralia (MM 16). Their association arises from the closeness between posthistorical suspension--the nothing-much that the posthistorical being has to do—and the form of thought in which, for Hegel, the mind/spirit is most powerful. According to the chestnut passage of Phenomenology of Spirit, the mind finds its power “only when looking the negative in the face” (MM 16). Readers have discussed the negativity in this passage more than the figure of looking that structures it:
It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being [Er gewinnt seine Wahrheit nur, indem er in der absoluten Zerrissenheit sich selbst findet. Diese Macht ist er nicht als das Positive, welches von dem Negativen wegsieht, wie wenn wir von etwas sagen, dies ist nichts oder falsch, und nun, damit fertig, davon weg zu irgend etwas anderem übergehen; sondern er ist diese Macht nur, indem er dem Negativen ins Angesicht schaut, bei ihm verweilt. Dieses Verweilen ist die Zauberkraft, die es in das Sein umkehrt] (G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977], 19).
Zizek’s quotation of these lines in the epigraph to Tarrying with the Negative cuts the sentence about looking altogether, not even marking it with an ellipsis (Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology [Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000], vii). The elision omits the description’s account of how the mind works--“by looking”--leaving the impression that finding oneself dismembered is in itself the form that tarrying with the negative takes, and its own magical response. Without the explanation of how one finds oneself, in a state of alert reception, truth becomes a matter of sacrifice and resurrection instead of an achievement of perception and absorption. It is Hegel’s visual figure for awareness “only” that indicates the kind of attention through which power can be turned on. The power proposed inheres in the creative ability of attention to bring out of reality something to work with, but this operation is not time-limited and not an action in conventional terms. It therefore bears relation to descriptions of the “nothing” there is to do after history has ended.
Adorno gives this autobiographical description of the kind of nothingness he found in postwar employment: “in the midst of standardized, organized human units the individual persists. He is even protected and gaining monopoly value. But he is in reality no more than the mere function of his own uniqueness, an exhibition piece [Ausstellungsstück]” (MM 135). “Ausstellungsstück” can mean “fixture,” “plaster decoration”; I’d be tempted to translate, unfaithfully: “lawn ornament.” The “nullified” individuals may be successful and busy. People praise their work; they utter “aggressive jibes [Witze] masochistically enjoyed by” their employers (MM 135). They perpetuate the nothingness of human affairs. In contrast, the person tarrying with negativity is a gazer, willingly using up time, and then using some more.
Adorno claims that his project is to reveal what “social analysis can learn . . . from individual experience” (MM 17) even if that experience consists only in reflections of “the nullity [Nichtigkeit] demonstrated to subjects by the concentration camp” (MM 16). What is one supposed to do--or even to feel--while being “dragged along”? It’s not as obvious as it would seem to say that first of all, we’re supposed to feel that we are being dragged along. (The odd sound of this sentence indicates the difficulty of the supposedly obvious apprehension....) The challenge is to notice the neutralization; and after we arrive at that observation, which for most people is never, we need to “stay with” it. For how long, and why? Being able to look at, even dwell on and in, powerlessness does not in itself make one powerful, or even provide the thought of what power would be like. It shows, rather, to whom and as what power would be relevant, to what condition it would have to be linked in order to be power at all. To disregard the unemployed state of one's negativity would be to insult the attempt to live “in the matter” of it, to dare to be alive in it and not elsewhere or as someone else. As tasks go, this one tends to be seen as at once anticlimactically easy and too hard, unlike the kind of nothing we’re used to doing.
Image: advertising for photograph backdrops, with Ausstellungsstücken.