Friday, October 30, 2009

The Jargon of Inauthenticity

A casual reader of Adorno, and I am afraid that is all that I am, cannot help but notice his repeated use (or at least a translators repeated use) of the prefix pseudo. Here is a quote from the famous chapter on the Culture Industry (co-authored with Max Horkheimer) in which the term first appears:“From the standardized improvisation in jazz to the original film personality who must have a lock of hair straying over her eyes so that she can be recognized as such, pseudo-individuality reigns.”

Horkheimer and Adorno at first utilize the term to address what remains of individuality in the standardized products of the culture industry: character is reduced to a lock of hair, a funny hat, a hint of ethnicity. “Personality means hardly more than dazzling white teeth and freedom from bodily odor and emotions.”As Horkheimer and Adorno write:

Mass culture thereby reveals the fictitious quality which has characterized the individual throughout the bourgeois era and is wrong only in priding itself on this murky harmony between universal and particular. The principle of individuality was contradictory from the outset. First, no individuation was ever really achieved. The class-determined form of self-preservation maintained everyone at the level of mere species being. Every bourgeois character expressed the same thing, even and especially when deviating from it: the harshness of competitive society.
The use of species being in this passage is strange, the assertion of "mere species being" would contradict Marx's use, suggesting more of the reduction of man to an animal rather than a universal potential. Species is cast in an a strictly biological sense.However, I see their basic point about the status of the individual. As much as the bourgeois philosophy of possessive individualism asserts the individual as its foundation, the competitive relations that are its basis produce an underlying similarity of behavior, namely, individualistic competition. The result of this is paradoxical, individuals are similar in their fundamental isolation and competition. Individuality is to some extent always pseudo-individuality.

One could explore that this means for a rereading of the political anthropology of bourgeois philosophy and political economy, but my focus is on this idea of “pseudo”. The prefix "pseudo "also makes a prominent appearance in Adorno’s essay on “Free-Time.” Pseudo-activity is the term that Adorno uses to describe the various hobbies and other activities that people use to fill their time. These activities are pseudo-activities in that their terms and conditions of the activities are determined in advance: all is left to do is “paint by numbers,” follow the instructions, or fill in the blanks. Paint by numbers is Adorno’s dated example, I prefer Guitar Hero as a contemporary example of pseudo-activity. With respect to this definition of pseudo-activity, Adorno begins to outline some of the ways in which this prefix functions. As Adorno writes, “Generally speaking there is good reason to assume that all forms of pseudo-activity contain a pent-up need to change the petrified relations of society. Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity.”

This statement about pseudo-activity would seem to apply to pseudo-individuality: in each case there is a genuine striving, a genuine attempt to assert something, activity or the individual. The “pseudo” turns it and warps it, ultimately undermining it, producing individuals who are the same and activity that is nothing but busy work. "Pseudo" makes it possible for Adorno to have it both ways, to recognize the simultaneous illusion and the real drive underlying the illusion.

Adorno’s use of pseudo-activity would seem to fit into a general paradox that defines the twentieth century. This paradox is caught between a tendency within the critique of metaphysics in which the distinction between essence and appearance breaks down. This metaphysical tendency is countered by a tendency within social and political thought in which the task is to recognize the role of appearance, of spectacle and simulacra in modern life. One the one hand there is the rejection of the distinction between essence and appearance, of real society versus its image; while, on the other, there is a renewed importance in understanding the “powers of the false.” Capitalist society is recognized as a spectacle at the exact moment that that distinction between image and reality breaks down. (This paradox explains much of the thought of the later Baudrillard and other “postmodern” thinkers.) Adorno’s use of the prefix “pseudo” is poised between these two tendencies:

I have some other thoughts that tie this idea of pseudo to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in which his critique of theocracy could be understood as a pseudo-democracy, but I do not have time to develop them here. The end point would have been to bring this full circle to discuss fascism, and fascist tendencies as pseudo-democracy, but that is going to have to wait for another time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reductions/Amplifications of the Political

I realize that I have been neglecting this blog as of late, and, to be honest, that is not going to change in the next few weeks. I am at the point in the semester when anytime that I have for writing is dedicated to upcoming presentations or other crashing deadlines. Of course this is not a crisis, but I feel the imperative to post even if few people ever come to this blog. Caught between the imperative to post and the lack of time to write I scrounged around looking for anything that I have written in the past year or so that has not found a home. Well, I have this piece which is essentially homeless: I presented versions of it, but its breadth of references (Aristotle, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Rancière) give it a widely speculative, if not rambling, quality. No journal or book would accept this, it is the kind of thing that only gets published if you are famous and dead. Parts of it have been expanded to become the basis of actual publications, but the rest has been left to "gnawing criticism of the mice" or their twenty-first century digital equivalent. I realize that I am not exactly selling this, so I should mention that there is much in this that I am committed to: the critique of social contract theory, the oblique approach to the Hegel/Marx relationship, and the distinction mentioned in the title, all seem like worthwhile ideas.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Violence and the Common: Truth is Structured Like a (Science) Fiction Part Two

It has been said that every generation invents its own Marx: colonialism, alienation, commodity fetishism, and living labor have all at one time or another occupied center stage as different texts are discovered and different vicissitudes of struggle emerge. If this is true, and I realize that I have done little to do back it up here, then it could be argued that the Marxist themes that define the present are violence and the common. The first, violence, is primarily examined through the concluding chapters of Capital on primitive accumulation. Although this is not the only point of reference, the overt violence of primitive accumulation has also made possible a renewed examination into the structural violence of capital, the anonymous violence of day-to-day exploitation. Alternately, the common appears first and foremost as the commons, as the commonly held resources, such as land and woods, that primitive accumulation destroys. It is also not limited to that, however, there is also a reading of the common that works through the concept of species being and Marx’s writing on cooperation in the factory to articulate a different sense of the common. Not the common as a thing, but potentialities and relations internal to subjectivity.