Robert Hullot-Kentor in Conversation with Fabio Akcelrud Durão
One recent afternoon, Fabio Akcelrud Durão, a Brazilian literary theorist, paid a visit to the home of Robert Hullot-Kentor in Manhattan. The following is the result of their discussion of Adorno’s theory of a “web of unknowing,” psychoanalysis and politics, apocalypse, what words not to use, the gratuitous plural, and what art is.
Fabio Akcelrud Durão (Rail): I’ve always found Adorno’s idea of a societal “web of unknowing,” or “web of delusion”—what he calls the Verblendungszusammenhang—provocative and important. Could we discuss this idea and consider the concrete political relevance it might have for the present in such different contexts as those of Brazil and the U.S.?
Robert Hullot-Kentor: I agree that Adorno’s thoughts about a “web of unknowing” are interesting and important. But I don’t think we’d get very far with this idea, aiming head on like that. Important ideas are not necessarily capable of significant definition or application; ideas make us think, they draw phenomena into themselves, more than they allow us to define them or consider their direct application. Aristotle shows that fundamental concepts such as number, for instance, are not subject to definition. Neither is mimesis; neither is culture; neither is Adorno’s nexus of bedazzlement or web of delusion or whatever we call this momentarily untranslatable concept. Adorno took it almost as a maxim that there is nothing important except by way of forgetting. Let’s see if we can’t come around to the web of bedazzlement in some other way than straight on.
Rail: Well, one thing that has puzzled me as a visitor to the us over some years is that in Brazil and throughout South America and Europe, psychoanalysis is well regarded and people on many social levels seek therapy. By contrast, in the U.S., Freud is read in every university and taught all over by academics who write about psychoanalysis, but who would find the idea of talking about themselves while lying on a couch comical. They are more likely to be on anti-depressants or working out in the gym than giving a thought to the hour’s psychological content. Why is this?
Hullot-Kentor: What you’ve noticed about the place of psychoanalysis in the U.S. is important. Because, academics included, the U.S. verges on homogeneity in its denial of psychological reality. Hardly anyone wants to know what goes on inside themselves. There is strikingly little trust that intelligence is capable of understanding what transpires internally or that thought itself is even apposite to what the self is. There is the most limited recognition that we—I mean, humans—really are such stuff as dreams are made on, who in our deepest conflicts are most helped by thinkingly engaged self-comprehension, which is what psychoanalysis broadly is. It is all that succeeds in more than strategizing, in managerially stating goals and hobbling after them, pretending at business around the clock or heading off to yoga class to give the Phoenix posture another try.
Rail: You’re describing an aversion to psychological reflection on a national level.
Hullot-Kentor: Even the word “anxiety” has largely been forced to the mum perimeters of the language, as touching too closely on a sore spot, in favor of “stress,” a now much heard term from mechanical engineering. Only what blocks psychological perception is permitted to serve a psychological purpose. Characteristically, this is the case with those security badges that are now everywhere in the city. They function in superstitious rituals of security that reassure but, as has often been demonstrated, provide no actual protection from what is feared. And while it is unclear what the psychotropic drugs do or don’t do—the evidence is complex and disputed—the relief they provide is in some part how they collaborate in a nation’s need to defend itself against reflection. The country does not want to know what it is; it would not bear it. And this comes to the aid of its inhabitants in confirming their own skittish impulse to avoid knowing what they are individually and preferring medication, often with considerable side effects, to sorting things out. A geographically scaled dream cloud of imaginary security devices hovers over a nation that confidently dismisses the idea that dreams bear psychological meaning. This amounts to a situation in which people so rarely have the experience of their own capacity for psychological reflection that it makes their finding the kind of help they need unlikely. It is a tremendous pity.
Rail: I realize that I started this with my comment about academics, anti-depressants, and psychoanalysis. But is it really possible to talk in such global terms about a nation? Can an entire population be characterized as hostile to psychological reflection?
Hullot-Kentor: Not dogmatically. What I’ve said about the place of psychoanalysis in the U.S. cannot directly be applied to any single individual as doctrine. But the element of universality that one senses striving in all particular judgments—so that in meeting by accident one narrowly pragmatic anti-psychological Wall Streeter at Broadway and 57th, one might plausibly start speculating that there are many other such people in the neighborhood—is not only a source of prejudice and delusion. The universal, an historical universal, is the one trace we have to find the truth and while that universal claim requires careful examination, the obliteration of that trace or disdaining it paralyzes the mind—and that paralysis is part of our contemporary situation. In the land we occupy the pervasive rule is that nothing can be called by its right name because even a particular truth seems to lay an almost illegal claim to something universal.
Rail: So national character exists, even in a country such as the U.S. where there are several hundred million characters, factually, and no way to guess on a big city sidewalk who the next person will be, or from where the person comes?
Hullot-Kentor: With all possible qualifications, yes, because what is universal, what is general, what most of all carves the lineaments of national character and with a vengeance, is the particular form in which all of these many people are here. It is as decisive as it is, and can be followed up as characterological elements streaked through the most apparently diverse people, because it is nothing less than the form of self-preservation itself, beginning with the structure of the economy and embedded in the most complex historical structures of totem and taboo. So, for instance, the anti-psychological animus of Americans is apparent in the expressed views of a president whom people broadly claim to detest but who amounts to the contemporary Over-soul in his rigid, even authoritarian refusal of psychological perception of any kind—his repeated insistence on ‘No second thoughts’ and ‘Don’t analyze me.’
Rail: Bush as the Emersonian Over-soul? Meaning that he encompasses much more of the American people than Americans might right now want to recognize?
Hullot-Kentor: However isolated, he remains among our representative men, and he would not be president otherwise; and however weakened his administration is, it all the same remains characteristic of the nation. If we racked our brains for a theodicy to cheer ourselves up about these eight awful years, it could be argued that the Bush administration, as a whole, has unstintingly bestowed a deeper good look at the country than we perhaps ever received before. I definitely hadn’t seen it for what it is, and neither had most of the rest of the world.
Rail: If this is the case, it would have implications for the next administration, wouldn’t it? If the Bush years reveal something of the texture of the nation, this isn’t going to dissolve in a moment.
Hullot-Kentor: Exactly. And this needs to be understood. If one listens carefully to the views of many people who say they “hate” Bush, they’ll tell you in the same next breath that the post-office is ‘a dysfunctional bureaucracy like the rest of government.’ Their views barely differ from his by more than a hair. So while we can be prudently confident that Obama will be elected and expect important relief on certain levels—especially with regard to the Supreme Court—there is reason to be concerned that soon enough we will be looking back on this period as part of an uninterrupted competition in the national spirit of forgetfulness. But to locate an historical landmark that might allow us right now to judge this moment’s actual intentions and gauge the narrows of its aspirations, think of the tepid, centrist Democratic economic plans that in a wink left behind the social programs and union activism sketched out in Edwards’s candidacy. And then realize that Richard Nixon—ontologically a demon—was able in his own presidency to propose to Congress and fight for a guaranteed national minimum income! A guaranteed national minimum income for all those in poverty.
Rail: You find this hard to fathom.
Hullot-Kentor: It is hard to fathom. Richard Nixon could propose to Congress what today no Democratic candidate could whisper and remain a candidate? Nixon puts the contemporary aspirations of the Democratic Party to shame?
Rail: Some American commentators think the Republican Party and the neo-conservative movement will be wiped out in the next election. What do you expect?
Hullot-Kentor: As I’ve half said, I expect as most do that the Republicans will be broadly defeated. But it’s worth remembering that when the right wing vanished after the Scopes trial, which contested the teaching of Darwin in southern schools in 1920s, the humiliated evangelicals publicly dissolved in shame and vanished from the national scene. But humiliation is a complex emotion. At its limits it can be a disintegrative psychological catastrophe. But it can also be a tremendously mobilizing impulse, even simultaneously, and the evangelical right soon began to organize its distress privately by building the far-reaching group of institutions, colleges, and think tanks that became the foundation of the Reagan to Bush years. These now contemporary organizations will not disappear next year. In the more than difficult times we face nationally and globally, the right will continue to draw its energy like Proteus from the destructive anger that the nation produces in considerable surplus. Humiliation, rage, and guilt: these are the hidden realities that the perennial spawn of any nation’s distress, the inevitable Limbaughs and Coulters, manipulate with instinctual expertise. A psychoanalytically informed social criticism needs to comprehend this in plausible expectation of what may come next after the November elections.
Rail: We’re suddenly back to the question of psychoanalysis. I’d like to push you a bit on that. Because it is not only Americans who hold it in disrepute. In your recent book, Things Beyond Resemblance, you yourself mention that Adorno’s relation to psychoanalysis was complex and in part substantially critical.
Hullot-Kentor: Adorno’s philosophy is on one hand unthinkable without its psychoanalytical element; when he lived in the U.S. he worked as a psychoanalytical researcher. His Authoritarian Personality is a psychoanalytic study and his writings are full of salient psychological observations. Much of his Aesthetic Theory is modeled on the psychoanalytic concept of the self, but, on the other hand, that aesthetics itself ultimately shuns any kind of psychoanalytic reflection on art. And if you read through Adorno’s own recently translated collection of dream narratives, Dream Notes, you’ll see that there is no psychological interpretation of his dreams at all. And he certainly had considerable reservations about psychoanalytical treatment. Without any experience of it himself, he saw it as a kind of last ditch punishment for the seriously disturbed and when people asked for his advice about psychoanalysis for themselves, he actively dissuaded them saying that it would only make them even more normal and socially co-opted than they already were.
Rail: How does this fit together in his thinking?
Hullot-Kentor: Knowing nothing about it first hand, Adorno conceived the content of psychoanalytic practice on the basis of general aspects of his own thinking. And from the perspective of the structure of his philosophy, he held that any psychological dimension of the self is an historical, bourgeois distortion that a better world would leave behind. He must have thought that psychoanalytic treatment only expanded this dimension of the person. He had utterly contradictory things to say on this matter. A complete explanation of this is too much to develop here, but part of it has to do with how he inherited the anti-psychological stance of idealism. Briefly, idealism—Hegel’s idealism—is, of all philosophy, the one that is densest with historical reality. It came to this achievement in wanting to recover for the mind its place in opposition to the rise of the mechanical universe by turning over the entire objectivity of the universe to the subject. Not a pin could be left out that would not pop the bubble. Idealism undertook to internalize the historical universe whole by deducing the categories of the subject from the object. It thus made itself a philosophical Moebius strip, the secret of whose twist is that it paradoxically seeks the primacy of the object as that of the subject’s sovereignty; by devoting itself to the object, the subject continually rediscovers its own truth. In this development idealism so filled the subject with the object, with world history itself, that this left no plausible remainder to the individual as an individual psychological subject, a layer of reality that would have amounted to considerably more than a pin. The startling achievement of the subject’s sovereignty in idealism, in other words, is paradoxically at the price of the subject itself who is at the same time deprived of its object.
Rail: Adorno understood this dynamic of idealism.
Hullot-Kentor: He did; this is his insight. And he extended this criticism to Husserl and Heidegger. And in the broadest possible terms, he saw this dynamic of a self-emaciating sovereignty as the model of the social activity of capitalism. The development of this sovereignty is the construction of that web of delusion that you were wondering about at the beginning of our discussion. In mastering the world, the self progressively deprives itself of itself and of its own object. All it ultimately gets to enjoy is a fascination with the techniques of mastery that provide an hallucinated feeling of sovereignty more than any real control. It is a world of administrative people sending dozens of electronic messages to get together for dinner, six months in advance, and having nothing alive to do with each other when they get there beside checking for more messages. And it is no less a society where the flood waters are breaking over the Mississippi levees without being able to grasp what is happening at all. This is the web of delusion and it is palpable in our inability right this moment even to know what we perfectly well know.
Rail: There is much to talk about here, but in terms of the discussion so far, what does this have to do with psychoanalysis and Adorno?
Hullot-Kentor: If in dominating the world the self—society as a whole—produces a web of delusion that progressively distances itself from reality, then the philosophical and social question becomes how to make reality break in on the mind that dominates it. Adorno did not think that throwing a stone through the window of the State Department, for instance, would do the trick. The mind would make no achievement in abandoning itself and its own capacity for autonomy. The thinking that we are doing right this moment, largely organizing concepts, must somehow also be a capacity of emancipation. Adorno speculated that autonomy itself—sovereignty—holds the key to breaking the grip of its own web of delusion and his theory of this is what he conceived as negative dialectics. It is tremendously fruitful thinking. He doesn’t toss away the logic of Hegel’s idealism; he seeks to give that Moebius strip a second twist that will cause it to break its own spell. So, here is the answer to your question about Adorno and psychoanalysis: by pursuing an idealist logic, Adorno can see how the self is incapacitated by the social structure, but he cannot—not any more than Hegel could—comprehend psychical life itself, not without abandoning what makes his social criticism so profound. This is how Adorno inherited the idealist critique of psychological reality, and it explains why many readers of Adorno’s work rightly find it both true and exaggerated in its pronouncements. The redoubtable complexity of Adorno’s philosophy is at least in part, and in spite of itself, reciprocal with an important degree of psychological simplification.
Rail: This is a little much for an interview, isn’t it?
Hullot-Kentor: By a long shot.
Rail: We’ve ended up talking about Adorno and psychoanalysis. Let’s find another approach to Adorno’s philosophy by giving this discussion a larger context: where is this philosophy located in the history of thought?
Hullot-Kentor: Schematically, Adorno’s philosophical achievement is the development of a non-representational theory of historical truth. There are a number of twentieth century efforts in this direction, pragmatism for instance, but what distinguishes Adorno’s effort most of all is that it doesn’t cut the Gordian knot of the representational theory of truth by severing mimesis. For Adorno, the likeness of truth to its object is not an accident but neither is it a picture of its object. This theory, as an aesthetics, most of all as a philosophy of music, is a non-representational theory of representation that the emergence of twentieth century non-objective art required.—but, historically to situate Adorno’s effort to conceive this new theory of truth in the broadest context requires seeing that it amounts to idealism’s most important answer to Darwin.
Rail: Idealism and Darwin?
Hullot-Kentor: Yes, even though Adorno certainly never thought of his work in the blocky terms I’m laying out here, as a kind of contest between idealism and Darwin. But you can follow this problematic, however far under the surface of the philosophy it transpires, on every page Adorno wrote right into the structure of his style and it helps make sense of things. It is as if—as if—Adorno asked himself: what would idealism need to comprehend the Darwinian critique? How could what is valuably to be salvaged in idealism be conceived on the other side of Darwin?
Rail: But I don’t remember Adorno ever discussing Darwin.
Hullot-Kentor: There is no extensive discussion of Darwin in his work that I can think of either.
Rail: Then what makes you think Darwin is so central a point of conflict?
Hullot-Kentor: The central motive in Adorno’s philosophy is how life could be more than the struggle for self-preservation. This is the source of his thinking in terms of where it most wants to go. It defines its social criticism and its implicit praxis. This is what necessarily engages his thinking most of all with Darwin, since in the history of modern thought it was Darwin who most formidably established sese conservare as nec plus ultra. If Darwin upset American evangelicals—and will continue to do so—in the history of German philosophy his discoveries over a number of decades devastated idealism and its philosophy of nature, which was the pivot of its effort to counter the mechanical universe. Again, there is too much to say here to say much at all, but the outline of the problem is pretty straightforward if we deal with idealism by formulating the problem in terms of the theological toll that Darwin took: in the Christian view, which includes Hegel’s triune concept, the highest becomes the lowest so that the lowest can return to what it implicitly always was, the highest. Darwin runs so intransigently contrary to this thinking because in the theory of natural selection the lowest, the one cell, becomes the most complex organism. But that highest organism is at every point implicitly what it always was, the primitive. Here, where it can be seen that the low becomes the high only to remain the low, the door cracks open on the fundamental insight out of which the whole of modern thought and art developed: the recognition of the primitive content of all reality, including the whole of human society.
Rail: In other words, for Darwin there is no escape from the primitive any more than there is from life as self-preservation? The struggle for domination is the absolute limit of history as natural history.
Hullot-Kentor: Yes. And Adorno’s thinking is as interesting as it is because it is a third direction—one that up to his work had remained a truncated current of thought in romanticism—that is by no means indifferent to the other two I mentioned: Adorno does not dispute the theory of natural selection or of our essential primitiveness. But he also thinks that there is potentially more to this situation coiled up in the capacity of domination insofar as it is also the capacity for emancipatory criticism. That is his concept of truth, and there is a theological reflection in it. And it is in these terms, for instance, that Adorno would approach the question of national character that we discussed earlier. The solution isn’t to claim that there is an utter diversity of persons on every block; the solution would be to solve the problem of nations as instruments in the survival of the fittest; then, as individuals, we might be something else than stereotypes of our national origins—an idea that would be fulfilled in anything but the grim boy scout, girl scout notion of world citizenship. Likewise, the cartoons of Bush as the hunched, low IQ monkey would need to contribute to the self-conscious recognition of the primitivism of this moment of the social totality red in tooth and claw, instead of acting as furtive allies of Bush in their disdain of what we really are, in the comprehension of which we would be more than that. Those images represent the quintessence of our moment: the repression of the insight into the primitive in which radical modernism originated, and, most urgently, this has blinded us to the primitive quality of the reality that we now increasingly inhabit.
Rail: The problem Darwin poses, then, for Adorno is what history might be other than the history of domination. The form of criticism he developed somehow picked up on the idealist critique of the mechanical universe. This must be why Adorno’s thinking so constantly revolves around Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?” But Marx was also a critic of life lived as self-preservation. And he is just as much a part of Adorno’s thinking as Hegel. Could we get to that by considering why the revolutionary students of ’68 were so attracted to Adorno and then so disappointed by him?
Hullot-Kentor: Your supposition of why Benjamin’s essay meant so much to Adorno is correct. And, as to Marx, Marxism is the only mass movement in the history of philosophy, the only philosophy you can join, march with, bang on a can and die for, as people have in almost inconceivable numbers. Adorno himself stood in the Marxist tradition in more ways than we could consider here. He fully agreed with Marx that society is built on one group appropriating the labor of another group and that any substantive social transformation would require abolishing this. He shared with Marx the conception of history as the domination of nature, the critique of society as a second nature and the telos of social transformation as the problem of overcoming life as self-preservation. But Marx and Adorno would have meant considerably different things in stating this telos, and in many regards the difference between them could be summarized in terms of ultimately opposing relations to Darwin. Marx wanted to dedicate a volume of Capital to Darwin whereas not a page of Adorno’s voluminous writings would even have toyed with that appellation. Adorno was really evaluating Marx’s Darwinism when he criticized the Promethianism of his vision of labor and the unbridled intention of changing the world into a workhouse. But whatever the range of alliances and arguments between Adorno and Marx, the Marxist students of ’68 plausibly felt they were joining up with an extraordinary and charismatic Marxist philosopher. The lecture halls filled and overflowed. Yet what the students wanted from Adorno were words that would head up a mob marching to the barricades. What they received instead were lectures that turned out to be something intolerably productive in a considerably different way.
Rail: Intolerably productive?
Hullot-Kentor: Yes, the content of Adorno’s philosophy is a level of insight that borders on the intolerably productive. Intolerable because what has to be called the yearning expressed in the insight of his work comes up so drastically against the limits of our circumstance. That’s its productiveness; the way in which the negativity of the stance refracts an “if it only were.” This is the vulnerable, skin close, aspect of Adorno’s writings that can bring out the taunting bully in his readers; it certainly excited the sadism in his students. Adorno found a way in his negative dialectics to make the longing in history bindingly cognitive. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment he writes that the problem is not to return to the past but to rescue its hopes. He succeeded.
Rail: The students mistook a cri de coeur for an aux armes? And they were furious at the discovery?
Hullot-Kentor: You’re adding in something of your own there, but it’s to the point.
Rail: Does this in a sense make Adorno the philosopher of the defeat of socialism—a defeat that is being recognized now more than before? In Brazil the horizon for actual social change has contracted considerably recently. This has been the greatest lesson of the Lula period for those on the left. Isn’t the situation similar in the u.s.?
Hullot-Kentor: You’re half quoting the first line of Negative Dialectics—that philosophy lives on because the moment of its realization was passed. That is how Adorno understood the relation of his work to the possible history of socialism. This relation to possible history has in the decades since Adorno’s death been considerably sharpened. After all, the deepest economic aspiration of capitalism has been fulfilled. With the destruction of the environment, capitalism has solved for keeps the problem of overproduction. Since the latter half of the 19th century we have had, in principle, the ability to feed every single person; almost up to today’s date it has been a matter of the relations of agricultural production to which starvation could be responsibly attributed. This is no longer the case. Never say die, but by any sober estimation we now inhabit as far as the eye can see a massively starving world. All those volumes on “post-scarcity” capitalism, the volumes on the “transition to socialism,” the production of needs that go beyond self-preservation and thus beyond what we’ve got: that may be over. Nature as cornucopia is the source of socialism as of every related image that nurtured the vision of utopia: that may be over now.
Hullot-Kentor: The distinguished British environmental scientist James Lovelock is reported in a recent Guardian Weekly, March 28th, as having estimated that by 2020, catastrophic weather will be the norm, by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan, and by 2100 80% of the living will be gone. 80% of the current world population would amount to some 5.7 billion people. Let’s make that 5.7 billion and 12 to find a raggedy place in these numbers for ourselves.
Rail: That is something more than the defeat of socialism.
Rail: But haven’t apocalyptic thoughts been milled out by the centuries?
Hullot-Kentor: True. But there is nothing apocalyptic in Lovelock’s statement. The world is not going to end; not at all. We can expect more of the same to the umpteenth power. We are at the edge of the most fundamental transformation of life to date in recorded human history.
Rail: Changing directions again here, I’ve been looking for a moment to ask you to develop an idea from Things Beyond Resemblance when you write, “If Adorno was dissatisfied with all existing art, it was because he was intent on finding the one right art work, the one that would be the art work.” This runs contrary to all those discourses of abundance—difference, plurilinguism, multiplicity, hybridity, etc.—that are now as prevailing in the U.S. as in Brazil, and which should somehow be questioned, don’t you think?
Hullot-Kentor: If you’ve ever been in a room with a Francis Bacon painting that was hung in any close proximity to other work—a big mistake—the advantage is you get to feel that it would just as soon eat the works around it straight off the wall. Bacon himself said that he was always wanting to paint the one image that would do away with all the others. He was not kidding. There is a barbaric element to this urge of making the one and only art work, which implies asserting oneself as the one and only artist. This impulse is now opposed by what I’d like to call the contemporary gratuitous plural, by which I mean not only your list beginning with plurilinguism and hybridity but especially that insistence on labor “movements” rather than labor movement, on “musics” rather than music or on innumerably many art works rather than the one art work. But, in spite of itself, the gratuitous plural will not make the lion lie down with the sheep of the fields. It does not outwit the subordinating concept but instead displaces it to the subject’s side in a way that it can no longer be considered, as a taboo. The unity, for instance, of “musics” is implicitly in a suppressed universal, the one, hidden, “music” as a category of the mind towering over all; furtively and paradoxically, the concept of “musics” initiates the long regress of the research of reality in the mind. As such, it rules out any adequate reflection on the actual antagonism of the one and the many. In place of Bacon’s semi-cannibal self-love it exhales an administrative hush over the effort to comprehend an effective state of war, let alone understand why so much in your average Whitney Biennial is additive trash.
Rail: But what you are calling the gratuitous plural others would say is the achievement of equality.
Hullot-Kentor: On the contrary, the gratuitous plural is itself a potentiated function of what has not been solved. It is the expression of an equality predicated on an enforced objectlessness. As such, equality fails to subserve fairness. If this sounds a bit like Rawls, it should. Rawls’ concept of fairness could be extracted from its shallow science fiction of the “original position” by being brought into relation to Adorno’s idea of the primacy of the object. Fairness can only be conceived in the primacy of the object freed from self-preservation. For when equality is not a technique of fairness, but rather a goal in itself, it becomes the dynamic of society as a “guilt context of the living”—the phrase in which Benjamin captured the quintessence of a mythical world. Objectless equality is the internal mechanism of the perpetually guilty condition of the gratuitous plural. By the way, but importantly for the whole of our discussion, Adorno’s web of unknowing is another formulation of Benjamin’s guilt context of the living. It develops other aspects of that context.
Rail: I appreciate your point. But much of what you’re saying is only a rehashed critique of liberalism. Isn’t that true? And weren’t we talking about art?
Hullot-Kentor: You’re right. But I am not claiming to have something new to say other than trying again to solve some part of the old, using its own pieces. What else would the new be, for where we are, than the solution of the old? And I haven’t lost track that we are talking about art: the gratuitous plural is the many, methodologically severed from the one, the one that would be fairness itself, truth, if the world were reconciled with itself. When art is art, and even when it isn’t, but only the half thoughts of six year olds making napkin holders or ashtrays out of clay, it is the inconsolable intention of the one and only art work that makes each and every art work the sworn enemy of every other. The reconciled one and only would be, effectively, a principle of emancipation. In art as art, this is what form means. If this is achieved at all it is not by blowing kisses; if it requires a limitless narcissism to shape it, it is the only way we have of making something that is more than amour propre, more than what anyone could possibly make. The history of art is the history of techniques of the unmakeable. The muses used to help, but even then, as now—when we are obliged to look for the unmakeable mostly in what we can break—we have largely had to fake it. For Adorno, “new music” meant art that would no longer need to fake it. The intensity of his aesthetics—the reason he was dissatisfied with what art has so far achieved—is that he would not relinquish the intention of the veridically unmakeable. Evidently, he wanted to live there. He had a dream once in which his aunt said, more or less: “Do not be angry with me my child, but if I could own two genuine valleys, I would trade all of Schubert’s music for them.”
Rail: So, what is art, anyway?
Hullot-Kentor: Art is a portable temper tantrum and perhaps something more than that. And if it is something more than that, it would amount to what is emphatically more than sese conservare.
Rail: You look like you have something else to say.
Hullot-Kentor: Thanks, yes. When we think of James Lovelock’s research, Adorno’s dream takes the measure of our moment and expresses the problem of art today.
Rail: We didn’t get very far in saying much about the “web of unknowing” did we?
Hullot-Kentor: Not really. We were preoccupied looking for some way through it.
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