http://louderthanwar.com/an-open-letter-to-massive-attack-and-adam-curtis/

July 19, 2013 Leave a comment

http://louderthanwar.com/an-open-letter-to-massive-attack-and-adam-curtis/

Actually, maternity leave doesn’t give you loads of time to write.  In the mean time, here’s someone writing about interesting things.

Panthers

May 20, 2013 Leave a comment

“You can only die once, so do not die a thousand times worrying about it.” Huey P Newton.

.Image

Forgotten

March 13, 2011 1 comment

It was recently announced that Wikileaks has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  Julian Assange continues to struggle with the wrath of the US government, the international media and Swedish prosecutors in his pursuit of what John Pilger calls ‘the insurrection of knowledge’.  Debates rage around the world about the nature of individual freedom, free speech, the right of the people to know what our governments are doing, the role of the internet in exposing injustice and state excesses.

In the mean time 23 year old US Soldier Bradley Manning who is accused of leaking secrets to Wikileaks, is in a high security military prison in Virginia in the US.  He doesn’t have the celebrity support, bail money or media attention that Assange has and is facing up to 52 years in prison.  he is being kept in solitary confinement and his physical and mental health are deteriorating.

This is from an article about Bradley Manning in the New Statesman:

Manning is under a Prevention of Injury (POI) order, which limits his social contact, exercise, sleep and access to external stimuli such as newspapers or  television (Manning had no idea of the impact the WikiLeaks release was having until House told him). He spends 23 hours a day alone in his cell. The hour he is allowed out, he is taken to an empty room and walks in circles. If he is caught exercising in his cell, he is forced to stop. At night, Manning is stripped to his underwear and has to sleep under blankets that he says give him carpet burn. He is usually woken several times throughout the night by guards. POI orders are usually issued when prisoners present a risk to themselves or others and are supposed to be temporary. Manning has been under the order since he arrived at the Brig in July.  (http://www.newstatesman.com/north-america/2011/03/manning-house-held-base-iraq)

Bradley Manning does not know when his situation will change, if things will get better for him, or worse.  He is in prison because he did what he thought was the right thing.  It seems he understood the impact of his actions, but he went ahead and did what he felt he had to do.

There is nothing I feel I can say about this situation, except the Manning is one of many people, forgotten and not forgotten, suffering the most inhuman treatment while we – myself included – stand by and do nothing.

Perhaps two very heroic men can say more about it than me. So I will leave it to them:

The True Prison

It is not the leaking roof
Nor the singing mosquitoes
In the damp, wretched cell.
It is not the clank of the key
As the warder locks you in.
It is not the measly rations
Unfit for man or beast
Nor yet the emptiness of day
Dipping into the blankness of night
It is not
It is not
It is not
It is the lies that have been drummed
Into your ears for one generation’
It is the security agent running amok
Executing callous calamitous orders
In exchange for a wretched meal a day
The magistrate writing in her book
Punishment she knows is undeserved
The moral ineptitude
Mental decreptitude
Lending dictatorship spurious legitimacy
Cowardice asked as obedience.
Lurking in our denigrated souls
It is fear damping trousers
We dare not wash off our urine
It is this
It is this
It is this
Dear friend, turns our free world
Into a dreary prison.

Ken Saro Wiwa (1941 – 1995) Nigerian Poet, TV Producer and Environmental campaigner, executed by the Nigerian Government after a military tribunal for campaigning against Oil companies and for the rights of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


**

It’s Also Fine

It’s also fine to die in our beds

on a clean pillow

and among our friends.

It’s fine to die, once,

our hands crossed on our chests

empty and pale

with no scratches, no chains, no banners,

and no petitions.

It’s fine to have an undusty death,

no holes in our shirts,

and no evidence in our ribs.

It’s fine to die

with a white pillow, not the pavement, under our cheeks,

our hands resting in those of our loved ones,

surrounded by desperate doctors and nurses,

with nothing left but a graceful farewell,

paying no attention to history,

leaving this world as it is,

hoping that, someday, someone else

will change it.

Mourid Barghouti (b. 1944) Palestinian Poet and Writer

How can anyone say anything about anything?

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Recently, the Imperial War Museum expressed an interest in working with the musician PJ Harvey.  The museum has previously commissioned war artists, sort of artists in residence who create work in response to current or past conflicts.  Now they are interested, after the release of Polly’s album ‘Let England Shake’, in working with her as a war song writer.  Let England Shake is phenomenal; a subtle, angry and loving response to not only England’s past and present wars (especially the first world war) but also the ‘decline’ of England, the loss of empire, and what it means to be English – and a reflection on her own identity in the context of the earth shattering changes that England has experienced in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Although Harvey claims she isn’t ‘political’ of course that is exactly what she is.  Even the instruments she has chosen to play allude to the constant cultural flux that makes post-imperial England so unique. Have a look at her playing a song from the album on the Andrew Marr show last year in front of an uncomfortable looking Gordon Brown.  Watch this video – Polly manages with image and sound to capture a sense of english identity (something I believe to be almost impossible) with pathos, sensitivity and humour, whilst singing about the carnage a soldier experiences on a battlefield.  And it features one of my favourite places in the world: Blackpool Tower Ballroom.

Watching this video made me think about how it can be possible to respond authentically to the big things in life like war, death, national identity.  Politics and philosophy fail us here, I think mainly because their language is too specific and, well, too motivated. One way to describe what I mean is that political language or discourse and often philosophical language too is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  Words in politics are weapons, they are used to  persuade, to convince, to win arguments. Conversely, the language of art has no structure or restrictions.

That’s why art is so hard to talk about – what does it really mean to say you like or don’t like something, that an artwork is beautiful, or great? A major branch of philosophy from Hume onwards addresses this issue and never really gives us a satisfactory answer.  This suggests that philosophy shouldn’t be wasting it’s time trying to answer questions that can’t be, and don’t need to be answered.   The Germans in 19th and 20th Century philosophy look at art slightly differently, and in a more interesting way, as a means of responding to and engaging with life that can radically impact on the way that we think about life, the world and ourselves. This makes more sense to me.  If you are interested, you might want to have a look at this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Aesthetics-Politics-Radical-Thinkers-Theodor/dp/184467570X/ref=pd_sim_b_2

or this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Romanticism-Critical-Theory-Philosophy-Literary/dp/0415127637/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298123811&sr=1-7

Art can do or be anything, and in fact (as the philosopher Adorno might say) it fails when it tries to convince us of anything – overtly political art is important, and I am a massive fan, but as art it can lack aesthetic truth because it is merely the medium of a message.  So what about artists that are ‘political’ (as if any artist isn’t…).

One of my heroes is Steve McQueen, who I have mentioned in previous posts, here he is below.  Actually he is linked to Polly Harvey through The Imperial War Museum. There are similarities in their work, in the way that they try to authentically respond in their art without being overtly political to the big things in life that make us who we are. Steve McQueen began as primarily a video artist, he represented Britain in the Venice Biennale in 2009.  In 2003 he became the Official War Artist at the Imperial War Museum.  McQueen went to Iraq and his subsequent project was about the British soldiers who have died there. He produced  photographs of a number of soldiers who died in Iraq on postage stamps and began a campaign to get the Royal Mail to have them as official stamps but they blocked his attempts, and unfortunately it has never happened. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/mar/18/steve-mcqueen-iraq-soldiers-stamps.

And then he made the film Hunger, about Bobby Sands and the 1981 Irish Republican hunger strikes.  What a brave and inspiring piece of film making.  I watched the film at a special viewing with Seanna Walsh a senior republican who was on the blanket protest.  He was amazed by the the beautiful look of the film and also how realistic it was.  I was moved by it’s loving and careful attention to detail, the truth in the film, the way that it spoke for those who didn’t have a voice.  For me, apart from inspiring an obsession with understanding the struggle of the Republican movement (British people, I believe, will never be told the truth about what was done in Northern Ireland in our name and it is up to us to ensure we understand our complicity in the suffering of the people there), this is what art should do on the very deepest level that it operates.  Art should try to say what can’t be said, even though this is impossible,  it should speak for those who can’t and should explore what this means.  This doesn’t mean art can’t be fun, frivolous or ironic. It needs to be fresh and relevant in order to connect with people.  You may think I am giving art a hard task, but that is, I believe, what we need it for. Both McQueen and PJ Harvey are there on the cutting edge – exploring the complex but very exciting relationship between art and politics.

Seamus & St Kevin

February 7, 2011 Leave a comment

St Kevin and the Blackbird by Seamus Heaney

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

…………………………………………………………….

And here he is, reading it himself, and it is a delight, and he explains that the poem is about ‘doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing’.

Read more…

The true international community

February 2, 2011 Leave a comment

A lot has happened to me since my last post, but this pales in comparison to the scandalous treatment of Julian Assange over the Christmas period and the current uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.  Our brothers and sisters have gone onto the streets to say a collective no to decades of treatment by their governments that we in the UK cannot even begin to imagine.  Despite many interventions from the International Community, and so much I am sure taking place behind the scenes, it is the people themselves who are driving these revolutions, and it is up to us to support them.  Just as the case of Wikileaks has shown, popular revolts take many forms and start in the very places you would least expect them.  The true international community is all of us, we are all capable of collective action. 

One of course remembers the heroes of 1989 across eastern Europe, but more than this, I think of the struggle of the Algerian people to free themselves of the French.

Obviously there are many ways in which these events connect, but one way is through the philosopher Frantz Fanon, who went to Algeria and joined the FLN in the 1950s.  In his book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, written in 1961, he develops his critical analysis of colonialism and it’s consequences, arguing that the only response to violent repression is violence.  This sort of thinking touches on existentialism and Sartre was a big fan.  if any book can tell us about the struggle for national liberation in north African and Middle Eastern countries  then this is it.  Even now we see the power of Fanon’s work, for example in analysis of the current situation (this article is worth a read):

 

http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/01/201111413424337867.html

The resonance of Fanon’s writing is evident in one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers.  I understand that this film was shown at the Pentagon before the invasion of Iraq, as it shows what urban guerilla warfare looks like and how any resistance, in order to be successful, must have the support of the people.  This was also the lesson the British army and government learnt in Northern Ireland in the 70s.  Ultimately although the film is a call to arms, told in snapshots, following the events as both sides upped the stakes, with the French using the most horrendous torture tactics to get viable information out of detainees (also something practised in northern Ireland). Ultimately the French threw everything they had at Algeria and lost because they could never contend with popular revolt.  The French would have done well to remember that their own democracy was born from a bloody revolution, the ideals of freedom, brotherhood and the belief that a government is only legitimate if it has the consent of its people. Surely this irony could not have been lost on them.

In my next post I will continue with this theme and also say something about another very inspiring film set in Algeria, which is about a different kind of freedom.

Art, Politics, Paradox

October 24, 2010 1 comment

Yesterday I saw John Pilger speak at the London Anarchist Bookfair.  It was heartening to see that he continues to see value in speaking truth to power, and challenging it’s various forms. He admirably challenges the corrupt behaviour of those in power around the world. I have a lot of respect for someone who can maintain their integrity over as many years as he has, and still manage to deliver some quality investigative journalism.

However, a throwaway comment that he made got me thinking.  In fact, I found what he said illuminating and rather disappointing.  Pilger was asked why it is hard to get people, especially young people, engaged in political activism, in criticising the system in a thoughtful and productive way, and then acting on their thoughts in a collective way.  One of the things he said in response to this question was that (he said this with a bit of a sneer on his face) young people ‘have postmodernism nowadays’ (?!)  to ‘keep them distracted’.  I am not really sure what he meant by this, but what I think he meant (given the context he said it in) is that there is too much moral ambivalence, there is no ‘Truth’, everything is relative and today’s culture seduces and distracts us from the ‘truth’.  This comment got me thinking about why some of the major critics of power can see things in such a simplistic way. I remembered how similar Pilger sounded yesterday to the late playwright Harold Pinter in his 2005 Nobel lecture, which was pre-recorded as he was too ill to travel to Stockholm to receive his award. And then I remembered a paper I gave a while ago at a number of conferences, which addresses this question, and looks at how a philosopher, TW Adorno, can help us to understand this simplistic and rather unhelpful approach.  I called it ‘Art, Politics, Paradox’.  It’s quite long, but I have posted it here.  I have posted the abstract first so that you can see if you would like to read the paper once you know what it’s about.  As usual, all comments are very welcome.

The Abstract:

It might seem that Harold Pinter and Theodor W. Adorno have little in common.  The former, a dramatist and poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, is also an outspoken political activist. The latter, a philosopher, musicologist and critic of the ‘culture industry’ is not usually associated with Pinter’s kind of public dialogue, indeed, he has often been mistakenly caricatured as an “aloof mandarin”. However, in the light of British academia’s renewed interest in Adorno, the question of the continuing relevance of his work needs to be addressed.  In this paper, I argue that Adorno’s relevance can be gauged through the exploration of some of the contradictions and tensions in his writings on art.  Essentially, it is in these contradictions and tensions that we find Adorno ruthlessly questioning notions of truth, experience, the political, and the limits of philosophy itself.  In order to illustrate this argument, I explore a rather illuminating dialogue between Pinter and Adorno, focusing on how each thinker conceives of aesthetic truth. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Pinter argues for two kinds of truth, aesthetic truth (which is open, ambiguous and flexible) and political truth (which is, he says, ‘accurate’, and ‘real’). Adorno, on the other hand, argues for two kinds of aesthetic truth, although they are also polarised; one account of truth is anti-essentialist and the other is absolutist. I explore these various accounts of truth, arguing that the similarity between Pinter and Adorno lies in each thinker’s paradoxical construction of truth.  I argue that what is interesting is how each thinker confronts the paradox that he constructs.

 

I go on to claim that Pinter presents us with an interesting problem: unlike Adorno, he resolves his paradox.  For political reasons, Pinter sacrifices aesthetic truth for political truth. He argues that we must reject the ambiguity and elusiveness of dramatic truth and assert political truth in order to expose the lies of the powerful. Thus Pinter privileges absolutism over anti-essentialism and absolutism wins the day, which in effect leads to the scepticism he is trying to avoid, and contradicts his political commitment to democracy. What I take issue with here is the idea that there has to be resolution; Pinter refuses to concede to paradox or even ambiguity in his work. However, Pinter is not necessarily right about this; one can live with contradiction, indeed, I would add that one should. This is where Adorno is more successful: Although his account of truth is also paradoxical, the dialectical negativity that Adorno maintains through contradiction and tension requires that his paradox is sustained rather than resolved. Thus Adorno strives to avoid absolutism, although this attempt often, and inevitably, fails.  But failure is insignificant.  For it is in this attempt to negate absolutes, in the non-identical, that we find the space for reflection, speculation, interpretation and, thus, perhaps freedom and the good.  It is here that we find the considerable ‘ethical and political force’ in Adorno’s work.  I conclude by arguing that Adorno shows us philosophy’s continuing significance for orienting ourselves in today’s complex world lies in asking pertinent questions, rather than searching for answers.

Pinter’s Nobel Lecture is recorded here:

http://nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=620


The paper:

It might seem that Harold Pinter and Theodor W. Adorno have little in common.  The former, a dramatist and poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, is also an outspoken political activist. The latter, a philosopher, musicologist and critic of the ‘culture industry’ is not usually associated with Pinter’s kind of public dialogue, indeed, he has often been mistakenly caricatured as an “aloof mandarin”. However, in the light of British academia’s renewed interest in Adorno, the question of the continuing relevance of his work needs to be addressed.  One way in which we might address this issue is by loosely comparing how Pinter and Adorno conceive of truth in art and in the political.

 

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Pinter develops an interesting distinction between aesthetic and political truth.  He argues that the language of contemporary politics has thrown his life as an artist and his life as a citizen into an unfortunate state of contradiction.  Pinter conceives of this contradiction in terms of the different ways in which art and politics view ‘what is real and what is unreal…what is true and what is false’ (Pinter 2005. p. 9). For Pinter the artist, the ‘exploration of reality through art’ (ibid. p.9) reveals that language is full of ambiguity.  Dramatic art presents us with many truths.  He writes, ‘[t]hese truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other’ (ibid.).

 

What art shows us, Pinter claims, is that ‘a thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false’ (ibid. p.9).  Conversely, for Pinter, his life as a citizen demands that he reject the ambiguity and elusiveness of dramatic truth.  This is primarily because, for him, mainstream politics is concerned with the exercise of power at the expense of truth. Pinter argues that ‘politicians…are interested not in truth, but in power and in the maintenance of that power.  To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives’ (ibid. p. 10).  The United States, the most powerful country in the world, has a monopoly on language: in US politics, ‘language is actually employed to keep thought at bay’ and citizens are led to believe that what is false is actually true. This denigration of the truth, Pinter argues, is an affront to ‘our moral sensibility’ (ibid. p.12).  In the present political climate, we should, more than ever, engage in the struggle to restore ‘what is nearly lost to us – the dignity of man’ (ibid. p. 13). Citizens are morally obliged to take a stand against this degradation of humanity by ‘defining the real truth of our lives and our societies’ (ibid. p.13). In his concluding statement, Pinter asserts that if we look for it, this ‘real’ truth will eventually manifest itself to us:

When we look into a mirror, we think that the image that confronts us is accurate.  But move a millimetre and the image changes.  We are actually looking at a never ending range of reflections.  But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us (ibid.).

Pinter claims that that we have to recover our lost dignity as human beings by being determined in our assertion of the ‘real’ truth when we come across lies. If we smash the mirror, we find ‘real’ truth, the binding element that the community needs in order to claim back its dignity.

 

Here, we see that for the sake of the urgency of the task at hand, Pinter’s political self overrides his artistic self and thus the unequivocal wins the day. The ambiguity and uncertainty of creative thought is replaced by Pinter’s assumption that there is such a thing as ‘the real truth’ (ibid.) – we might think of this as absolute objective certainty – which can be found behind the mirror.  Although it is impossible to disagree with Pinter’s demand that we stand up to the lies which politicians often claim to be true, it is also clear that if we follow this demand in the way that he conceives of it, something important is sacrificed. In effect, Pinter the artist, who maintains an interesting anti-essentialism, steps aside for the sake of Pinter the citizen’s political imperative.  Thus, Pinter suggests that we privilege absolutism over anti-essentialism.

 

Pinter implies in his acceptance speech that there has to be resolution; it is impossible for him to concede to ambiguity or contradiction.  However, Pinter is not necessarily right about this; one can live with contradiction, indeed, I would add that one should. Pinter’s ruminations on art, politics and truth have an interesting affinity with Adorno’s notion of aesthetic truth in his posthumously published  Aesthetic Theory. The affinity lies in the fact that, like Pinter, Adorno conceives of truth in two, apparently paradoxical ways.  Unlike Pinter, however, Adorno both tries to resolve contradiction and attempts to turn living with contradiction into an ethical imperative.  In fact, Adorno’s success lies in how he constructs multiple, dialectical arguments.  He discusses aesthetic truth in ways which overlap, contradict and interplay, so that contradiction isn’t a problem and becomes a resource, which potentially informs our ethical and our political considerations.  This claim clearly requires some elaboration.

 

Albrecht Wellmer, who writes extensively about Adorno, argues that ‘[n]o one has succeeded better than Theodor W. Adorno in analysing modern culture with all its ambiguities – ambiguities which herald the possible unleashing of aesthetic and communicative potentials as well as the possibility of a withering away of culture’ (ibid.). Adorno examines the ambiguities of modern culture at length in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (1970a, 1997a).  In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno makes a central claim, not unlike Nietzsche’s claim about ancient Greek art in The Birth of Tragedy, that a specific kind of art in modern capitalist society has an important social function.  Adorno is specifically interested in the social function of what he calls ‘autonomous’ artworks. These artworks are social both historically and materially, but they have no function or meaning, they ‘step outside’ of what Adorno (rather problematically) calls ‘the constraining spell of empirical reality’ (ibid.). Because they do not use universalising conceptual language (they appear to be “meaningless”), artworks are vehicles of particularity. Adorno points out that it is an artwork’s non-conceptual language that makes it a bearer of truth.

 

Artworks contain the ‘capacity to express the ineffable [and] represent the unrepresentable’ (Wolin, 1992). In other words, authentic artworks do not summon concepts to mind, instead they point towards the possibility of expressing particularity. Thus, it is art’s mimetic sensuousness that refutes the universality of reason based on the processes of identity thinking which Adorno claims is fundamental to domination, repression and suffering in modernity. By refusing to communicate, authentic artworks communicate this essential truth.  However, not all modern artworks are authentic. Art is authentic when it manages to (somewhat paradoxically) express, or at least hint at, both reification and reconciliation. What makes this sort of art important is its critical nature.  Essentially, because they do not communicate in a conceptually meaningful way, autonomous artworks highlight the possibility for experience beyond the restrictive and damaging conventions of identity thinking. This argument leads Adorno to claim that ‘[a]rtworks must act as if the impossible were for them possible’, they aim at ‘perfection which it is impossible for them to reach’ (ibid. p.169), thus signifying that this is not all there is.

 

For Adorno, autonomous art ‘confronts existing society with a principle of radicality and negativity, with the postulate of the possibility of the impossible’ (Schafhausen, Muller & Hirsch, 2003 p.9) and thus, ‘truth is revealed through [artworks]’ (ibid. p. 284).  Despite the all-encompassing nature of the system in which we live, where freedom, morality, the good, even ‘positive meaning’ (Adorno 1997a p. 152) are impossible, ‘art is the ever broken promise of happiness’ (ibid. p.136).  Here aesthetic truth is an antidote to what Adorno, rather problematically, describes as the social ‘spell’.   However, he also views truth in art as something more open and flexible, and it is here that the paradox  lies.  At once, autonomous art embodies  the post-metaphysical, anti-essentialist negation of absolutes and, more problematically, it confronts what Adorno calls the social ‘spell’, the ‘totality’ and the all-encompassing nature of ‘what exists’.

The key to understanding Adorno’s notion of aesthetic truth lies in what he writes about the relationship between art and philosophy, and the relationship between the actual, or the social – which he calls ‘what is’, the ‘totality’, the Verblendungszusammenhang (Adorno 1973, 1997a, 1999) – and the possible, the redeemed and the reconciled. Lambert Zuidervaart comments on this relationship: ‘To the extent that disclosure of artistic truth requires philosophical interpretation, it is ultimately because of philosophy that art can express social antagonisms and suggest the possibility of reconciliation’ (Zuidervaart 1991 p. 209). Conversely, philosophy needs art in order to fulfil its purpose, to ‘break the magic spell’ (Adorno 1998 p. 13).  In the essay ‘Why Still Philosophy?’, Adorno explains why art and philosophy are in this relationship.  ‘What is right for art is just as right for philosophy’, he writes, ‘whose truth content converges with that of art, by virtue of the technical procedures of art diverging from those of philosophy.  The undiminished suffering, fear and menace dictates that the thought that cannot be realised should not be discarded’ (ibid. p. 14).

 

A serious problem with Adorno’s analysis of the social function of art is that he employs concepts like utopia, redemption and reconciliation, which tend to take precedence over more interesting, less restrictive concepts like astonishment or shock and shudder. Adorno’s notion of aesthetic truth tends towards totalising claims, for instance he claims that society is totally dominating, which it clearly isn’t: human beings are occasionally able to make free choices, to say no to the system, despite what Adorno may claim. This flawed approach has the effect of undermining the negativity that is vital for his dialectic, and it is not at all necessary for the considerable ethical and political force in much of what he writes. A related problem is that statements like ‘artworks have no truth without determinate negation’ (ibid. p. 129) mean that Adorno has no choice but to characterise art’s social function in terms of a negative utopia. Behind this problematic view of aesthetic truth is Adorno’s assumption that somehow art offers ‘big answers’ to the big questions of philosophy, that it is possible to pose, and solve big questions about the “nature of reality”.

 

A major problem with Adorno’s account of aesthetic truth is that, like Pinter, he prioritises a misguided (we might call it a realist) notion of truth and thus a problematic notion of redemption which he really doesn’t need. The reasons why Adorno pursues this notion of redemption are to be found primarily in his relationship with certain materialist and messianic aspects of the work of Marx and Walter Benjamin. Although Adorno argues for the sake of maintaining his all important dialectic, that we should not let thought ‘atrophy’ (Adorno 1998  292-3) at the same time he allows his own thought to distance itself from the negativity required to resist ‘atrophy’ (ibid.) by taking a problematic, absolutist position when he writes about aesthetic truth.  So why does Adorno, like Pinter, counter absolutism with absolutism? Here, we again find the paradox that we find in Pinter; Adorno employs absolutist concepts in order to undermine the absolute nature of what he calls the totality. The problem is that Adorno takes his negativity into the theological.  This sort of language is the only way in which it is possible to question what he believes to be the absolute nature of the social totality.  Thus, because Adorno attaches theological implications to what he says about the critical social role of autonomous art, he forfeits the negativity that makes his work critical in the way he wishes it to be. The question is: does, or can, Adorno reconcile redemption with his negative dialectic? Is this theological, messianic impulse necessary?  As Raymond Geuss writes, ‘it would be a shame if it turned out to the case that Adorno remained dependent on the tired, diffuse Romantic religiosity from which it was one of the glories of the twentieth century to have freed us’ (Geuss 2005 p. 247).  I would argue that no, Adorno does not need this theological messianic impulse, it is both unnecessary and misguided.  But it does show us something interesting about philosophy, the ethical and the political.

 

A central issue here is that Adorno often tries to make a strong claim out of a more interesting weak one. He tends to turn his interesting claims about the social role of art into unproductive metaphysical claims about redemption and reconciliation, rather than exploring the less structured or rigid possibilities suggested by these concepts. In Minima Moralia (1999), Adorno is clearly aware of doing this.  ‘Did not Karl Kraus, Kafka, even Proust prejudice and falsify the image of the world in order to shake off falsehood and prejudice?’ (Adorno 1999 p.72). Despite this self-awareness, the problem is that this tendency to totalise obscures his more interesting arguments. On the other hand, Adorno’s less structured, anti-essentialist  approach is reflected in his productive notion of art’s cognitive potential, where ‘thinking empirical incommensurability’ criticises identity thinking. Here, what Adorno says about aesthetic experience can direct and enrich how we think about experience in general. We find this experimentalism in this wonderful line from Minima Moralia: ‘[t]he task of art today is to bring chaos into order’ (Adorno 1999 p.222).

 

This contradiction creates a tension of some interest.  Essentially, Adorno’s notion of aesthetic truth is paradoxical; he at the same time tries to think in absolutes and he attempts to undermine absolutism. However, unlike Pinter, Adorno does not attempt to resolve this tension.  Indeed, for Adorno it is an imperative that such tensions should be sustained rather than resolved, despite the theoretical paradoxes that may ensue. Adorno’s refusal to resolve the paradoxes in Aesthetic Theory is significant because it shows us that thinking in absolutes is ultimately bound to fail.  The point here is if we no longer see the need for thinking in absolutes, what we have left is merely a question: what do we do? Gadamer points out that we should ask this more productive question, which concerns ‘the sense of what is feasible, what is possible, what is correct, here and now.  The philosopher of all people, must, I think, be aware of this tension between what he claims to achieve and the reality in which he finds himself’ (ibid.).  This tension is central to the successes and inadequacies in Adorno’s account of aesthetic truth. In Aesthetic Theory this tension manifests itself as a theme of struggle and inevitable failure, and of the consequent struggle between the denial of, and acceptance of, that failure.  Despite (and perhaps because of) its metaphysical implications, Aesthetic Theory’s key point is that art’s great achievement lies in its failure. Art ‘signals the possibility of the non-existing’ (ibid. p. 132) but fails to give us what it promises.

However, in this failure also lies art’s success.  It is because of this failure that we keep trying, that we don’t give up, that we can go on. It is only when we try, and inevitably fail, that we can “let go” of absolutism and turn to Gadamer’s ‘weak’ ethical question of what we should do here and now. Perhaps, in the light of this failure, we are able to consider what we should do, in ethical social and political terms, without recourse to final resolution, to strong arguments and big answers. When he writes about the possibility of the impossible, Adorno is trying to capture this moment of anti-absolutism. This is why the concept of negation is important for him.  IT is also why resolution is not necessarily a good thing. It is in this moment of openness, similar to the one we find in Gadamer’s hermeneutic notion of play (Gadamer 2004), that we experience non-identity; here we do not have to, or need to ‘take a standpoint’ (Adorno 1973, p 5).  In the negation of absolutes, in the non-identical, we find the space for reflection, speculation, interpretation, and thus perhaps for experience of the other, freedom and the good.

 

There are further implications of privileging absolutism, particularly when conceptions of the political are at stake.  For instance, although the American pragmatist Richard Rorty would agree with Pinter that the desire to ‘uncover’ truth is often the binding principle of a community committed to democracy, he argues that this is actually a counter-productive way of doing politics. Rorty’s criticism here is based on his more general argument, considered earlier that truth is a ‘contingent’ property of language rather than something that ‘corresponds to facts’ or that is ‘discovered’ (Rorty 1989 p. 9). Given the premise that truth is ‘agreement among human beings about what to do’ (Rorty 1999 p. xxv), ‘[t]he more of that truth we uncover, the more common ground we shall share and the more tolerant and inclusivist we shall become’ (Brandom, 2000 p. 1). However, for Rorty, the desire for an ‘object cannot be made relevant to democratic politics’ (ibid. p. 2) and truth in the sense of correspondence is such an object. Instead of trying to uncover truth, we should be working out how to reach a temporary consensus on justified belief, in terms of what is true for now.  Perhaps Pinter would argue here with the urgency of political struggle in mind; we can only win the battle for truth by responding to the (false) truth-claims of the powerful with our own (true) truth-claims.  However, Rorty would respond by questioning why we need these sort of truth claims at all. Rorty suggests that thinking about truth in this way, is essentially thinking about truth as redemption.  For Rorty, redemptive truth is

 

…a set of beliefs which would end, once and for all, the process of reflection on what we do with ourselves.  Redemptive truth would not consist in theories about how things interact causally, but instead would fulfil the need that religion and philosophy have attempted to satisfy.  This is the need to fit everything into a single context, a context that will somehow reveal itself as natural, destined and unique (Rorty 2000 p.1).

 

What is particularly interesting in Pinter’s speech is his view that, in the end, truth is a redemptive force. Redemption here is a sort of rescuing, a recovering of something that has been lost. Pinter argues that if we assert the truth we can counter the immorality of untruth. If we do this, we recover our dignity and thus individual and community are redeemed.

 

Clearly, Pinter is trying to fit everything into the single, specific context of what he believes to be the ‘real’ truth.  But, however much we want to, we can never claim to have the complete picture, we can never obtain the absolute. All we have is language, which we use to describe the world and orient ourselves within it. In Holzwege (1959, 2002) Heidegger argues that modernity is characterised by the ‘conquest of the world picture’ (Heidegger 2002 p. 67).  He claims that the ‘essence’ of modernity (ibid.) is the objectifying, institutional research mode of explaining and understanding the world.  This leads us to believe we can ‘represent’ the world through ‘the unlimited process of calculation, planning and breeding’ (ibid. p.71).  This damaging objectification of things, and ultimately ourselves, is characterised through a ‘battle of world views’, with each world view believing itself to be the correct picture of reality.  Like Rorty, Heidegger claims that the problem is the belief that we can accurately picture reality.  Human beings dominate and master beings ‘as a whole’ because their relationship with other beings is inauthentic, they have forgotten that they share an essential Dasein with all other beings in the world.  For Heidegger, technology, scientific research discourse and the related objectification of the world have made humanity forget its authentic Being, its ‘is-ness’ that it shares with all other beings. One way to counter this drive for ‘picturing’ for Heidegger is the quest for ‘authenticity’, which involves ‘creative questioning and forming from out of the power of genuine reflection.  Reflection transports the man of the future into that “in-between” in which he belongs to being and yet, amidst beings, remains a stranger’ (ibid. p.72).

 

The claim Heidegger makes here about reflection is interesting for our understanding of the role and limits of politics and philosophy.  The problem arises when, like Pinter, we privilege redemptive truth in political and philosophical discourse.  Paradoxically, the downfall of political and philosophical language lies in the claim that they are privileged discourses, because this assumes that they can get to ‘the truth’.  Similarly, although Pinter privileges political discourse over artistic language in his claim about the redemptive nature of political realism, he paradoxically exposes the essential poverty of the discourse he privileges.  In fact, as the writer Siri Hustvedt argues in a similar vein to the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘language can’t be disentangled from seeing and recognition.  When Marco Polo first saw a rhinoceros on Java, he recognised it as a unicorn’ (Hustvedt 2003).  Of course, we now know that a rhino is not a unicorn.  Thus,

…nobody sees everything.  All vision is partial, as is every descriptive sentence.  We are all a bit blind, and when we tell a story, we all leave out parts of it.  If language orients vision and words create pictures, then the reliable cliché crumbles to bits, and we find ourselves in another landscape altogether – a mysterious island where we must always be on the lookout for unicorns (ibid.)

This is the sort of landscape in which it is possible to imagine Heidegger’s stranger; such a place requires the creative reflection of the imagination.  There is an interesting affinity here with a major subtext in Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1999), a book which concerns itself with the notion of exile and what it means to live in a strange culture. Although his notion of the ‘totality’, or the ‘spell’ is problematic because of its tendency to totalise, something of interest can be gleaned from what Adorno says about the potential for individual freedom, represented by the strangeness of the emigré experience.  Adorno writes, ‘Every intellectual in emigration…lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him’ (Adorno 1999 p. 33).  Although Adorno writes of the experience of exile as a negative and stifling one, because of his insistence on the dialectic we are constantly reminded of the possibility for freedom of expression and creativity that exile brings.

 

Perhaps, in the moment of chance, of creativity, of naming a unicorn, we might experience otherness. We could say, then, that it is in the gaps that we find the good, even if Adorno does insist that modern life is irreparably damaged and hence ‘in the bad life a good life is not possible’ (Adorno 2001b p. 167).  For Adorno, then, the key to drawing out the implications of these ideas can be found in the incommensurable or non-identical in art. What is important here is that what might be called imagination, or creative ambiguity –  despite Pinter’s objections –  does have a distinctly ethical edge because it criticises the limits of redemptive absolutist thinking and opens up possibilities for thinking and practice. The Iranian writer Azar Nafisi paraphrases Adorno when she argues that ‘ “The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home”…most great works of the imagination…always forced us to question what we took for granted.  It questions traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable’ (Nafisi 2003 p.94).  Adorno himself writes, in the appropriately titled ‘Gaps’ in Minima Moralia,  ‘the value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar (Adorno 1999 p. 80).

 

However, this sort of anti-essentialism can easily be sacrificed by pursuing truth as a redemptive force.  This feeling of in-between, of gaps, of what Pinter calls ‘never ending reflections’ (Pinter 2005 p. 13), constitutes an openness, an uncertainty, a capacity for imagination.  Anti-essentialism not only exposes the poverty of redemptive language that can lead to entrenched religious, moral and political positions.  It also advocates the kind of ethical deliberation that Iris Murdoch refers to in her claim that moral reasoning is not a ‘privileged activity’ done by philosophers, but should instead be thought of as something that we all do, in everyday life. Certainly, Murdoch would agree with Heidegger’s claim that ‘[r]eflection is the courage to put up for question the truth of one’s own presuppositions and the space of one’s own goals’ (Heidegger 2002 p. 57).  On this account, our reasons for doing things are more akin to Pinter the writer’s anti-foundational claim that things can be both true and false, rather than Pinter the citizen’s desire for redemption (Pinter 2005 p. 9).  Perhaps, then, Pinter is mistaken to separate his political and artistic selves; maybe his citizen could learn from his artist.  For example, Pinter’s citizen could learn that politics needs more description and evaluation, more of the ambiguity, complexity and anti-essentialism common to the language of art. For Nafisi, in literature, we find ‘an affirmation of life…[which]…lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in its own way, thus creating a new world’ (Nafisi 2003 p. 47). This sort of approach is useful for thinking about how we might create a more progressive politics because the open and reflective retelling of our lives that art encourages can help us to rationalise, discuss and evaluate with more understanding and less prejudice. As Richard Rorty writes, art provides ‘glimpses of alternative ways of being human’ (Rorty 2000 p.2). This tells us that we should be aiming for more, not less uncertainty; the more alternatives and possibilities there are, the more likely we are to devise new, more productive ways of doing things.

 

Of course, the uncertainty that is required for this sort of reflective anti-essentialism is a threat to absolutism, and it is in politics that we most clearly see absolutism’s response to this threat.  Absolutism comes down hard, to show it is not afraid.  After all, it has redemption on its side.  We only need to think of the cases of Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk, two writers who, in their respective challenges to the orthodoxies of Shi’ah Islam and the Turkish state, called for more, not less, uncertainty. Because they celebrated ambiguity where there is no room for it and championed Heidegger’s ‘creative questioning’ (Heidegger 2002 p.72), both Rushdie and Pamuk were subjected to the force of absolutism.  Despite Pinter’s claims to the contrary, then, perhaps pursuing redemptive truth is, in the end, less effective than looking for unicorns.