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Re: <eyebeam><blast> Adorno's legacy

Dear Sjoukje van der Meulen (and list) -

Your first "net criticism" post touched off a fascinating discussion of
all the theorists you mentioned, except Adorno. I'm glad to see you
reopen that thread. I'd like to spin it a little further.

For me, Adorno and Horkheimer's "Dialectic of Enlightenment" remains an
outstanding, almost impossible book, as enigmatic as the artworks that
Adorno later described in his "Aesthetic Theory." I recall the riddle of
the Sphinx as the two friends saw it in 1947: an enlightened humanity
which thought to radically emancipate itself from nature by the exercise
of reason comes to recognize its rational thinking as an archaic,
"natural" compulsion... The scientific release from the spell of myth is
held spellbound by a new myth of science. Unmasterable technology
proliferates through the quasi-biological growth cycles of capitalism.

Since the 1960s this enigma or impasse, which makes objectified "nature"
itself seem alienating, has led many to seek an "outside" of Western
rationality (that famous _thought from the outside_ that someone here
mentioned). Much has been gained since that time. So much that I still
feel enough optimism to go on pointing out how very little the larger
situation differs, today, from the one Adorno and Horkheimer described.

The interesting question is, how would someone with Adorno's insight
describe the systematic lures of techno-capitalist rationality today? If
"Dialectic of Enlightenment" is outdated, it is because the
"authoritarian personality," the one that went along with dictators and
industrial regimentation, has faded away. It faded because the last
generation revolted against that regimentation - and all of us
exchanging ideas in this forum are in some way children of that fabulous
revolt, which lent an extraordinary openness to Western thought and
allowed it to throw off much of its bourgeois past, to embrace the
diversity that we now enjoy. We really can forget a lot of the old "Euro
theory," I agree with Spooky Williams. I love the openness of today's
world, which we no longer need to divide up into a first, a second and a
third. But those wide-open
possibilities are still only available within specific precincts of
experience. Elsewhere the instrumental reason of capitalist growth goes
unquestioned, has no outside. Bitter exploitation goes on. And the irony
is that our new freedom of thought satisfies us, we on this list and in
the cultural world generally, so that we rarely undertake the systematic
analysis and critique that Adorno and his friends did.

What struck me most powerfully in the research and translation work I
did for the Documenta book, was the extent to which the gains of the
sixties, the new possibilities for individual autonomy and spontaneity,
the new acceptance of desire and creativity, the new recognition of
cultural pluralism won through shared struggles with the "third world,"
all seemed to have been sucked up immediately by the managerial class,
who spat them back out as the new, lightweight, all-terrain economic
system of complexity and flexibility, apparently able to take immediate
commercial and propagandistic advantage of even the most outlandishly
creative thoughts and gestures. As though, despite best intentions,
there were no longer a possible outside or limit to the mechanisms for
the generation of surplus value. A condition which the Marxist economist
Immanuel Wallerstein expressed in succinctly geographic terms, when he
considered the borderline states, the ones between the dominating center
and the exploited periphery: 

"What are the functions of these semiperipheral states? They are double.
On one hand, they fulfill the function of depolarizing the system,
attenuating the center/periphery contradiction. On the other had, they
fulfill an economic function: these semiperipheral states constitute
possible "replacement parts" destined to take over for central states.
For the system knows no internal stability: to maintain production at a
certain level, the centers must be ceaselessly shifted... The system
does not change, only the distribution of the states between center and
periphery changes..." (Politics/Poetics, p. 371)

Wallerstein made it possible for me to see how transnational capitalism
maintains its growth dynamic by constantly shifting its centers within a
single, fully accessible, but never homogeneous world. The important
thing is simply to maintain, even exacerbate, the rich/poor
differential, even within single countries and cities. The transnational
rich will move with the shifting flows and generally stay on top - or
better yet, their capital will simply move, at electronic speed through
private computer networks. American-style capitalism is a matter of
channeling flows, as the two friends point out in the first chapter of
their Thousand Plateaus. No person is responsible for this, there is no
conspiracy even if there are a lot of collaborators. It is systematic.
The dynamic reaches a height of systematic perversion on the symbolic
level, where the media spotlight bounces between the fabulously rich and
the genuinely poor,  marginal, or deviant, each transformed for a moment
into attractors, dynamic generators, fantasmatic "centers" pumping up
peripheral consumer desire. A distorted replica of the desire that we
had recently liberated through the revolts of the sixties.

Under these conditions it becomes important to characterize what one
might call the "flexible personality," to sketch out its dynamics and
its dialectical contradictions. This is why I suggested that certain
now-fetishized thinkers have been partially and selectively
instrumentalized within the symbolic economy of so-called "flexible
accumulation," with its preference for complex, lightweight,
short-lived, non-standard products, whose individualization doesn't
preclude high integration to the surplus-value system. I think the net
and especially the web are one field - but only one, obviously - for the
development of such virtual products. Soeren Pold's April 4 post
describes some of what I was trying to suggest, with welcome precision
as regards the specifics of hypertext and the web. I have carefully read
his post and, surprisingly, I agree with every word! For instance when
he says:

"...what hypertext technology does is an instrumentalisation or
technologizing of the way of reading pointed out by Barthes et. al.
Hypertext technology enables the computer/network to follow the reader's
non-linear drifting, and capitalize on it. That is especially clear in
the case of websites using cookies, member registration in order to 
read the reader and thus know more about reader behaviour in order to
sell advertising or just to make the site more meaningful and plastic
towards the reader's desire."

Soeren just asks that theory enthusiasts be careful about this kind of
intoxicating trap. He stresses that he in no way intends a blanket
critique of Barthes, Derrida, "D&G" and the others... I would add, after
Hans-Ulrich Obrist's post, that the same holds for the nomadic cities
imagined by Constant, Archigram, Superstudio - lest the climax-ambiance
of our New Babylons sink back into the eddying cash-flows of the new Las

The key thing is to rediscover the tactical means that our culture, the
culture of people with generous and contradictory minds, was so
successful with in the recent past. The tactical means that have given
us the better world we sometimes inhabit, the world that we should go on
fighting to extend to others, or to our other-selves. I don't subscribe
in the least to the watered-down critique of someone like Baudrillard,
who always tries to embroider an intoxicating picture of a one-sided,
undialectical "system," by delectation over each of its miserable
details. Adorno and Horkheimer were far less forgiving tacticians. At
their best, they characterized the mechanics of total submission to very
real instances of power, while simultaneously creating not just visions
but instances of farflung otherness. Thought from way outside.

I mentioned Documenta. As it turned out it's not something I can
entirely subscribe to, anyway I was just a cog in that big wheel. But
what I liked was the attempt to confront information about the
contemporary world with art, autonomous art, as Sjoukje says. The idea,
mine anyway, is not just to adapt to or mimic the information economy
but to probe its contradictions, and at the same time to keep looking
beyond, always outside, always elsewhere, for the enigma. As I write
this post and ponder what Sjoukje said, I better understand how Adorno
overcame the impasse of his totalizing critique. But I don't want to
focus on just one figure. A legacy is just a small part of a possible

I'd like to finish this way-too-long reflection with a look at the
Euro-reality I live in every day. Post-industrial capitalism, which the
internet rides on, clearly doesn't need all its worker-bodies anymore.
Autonomous electronic finance just wants to turn its virtual back on the
social real. A dangerous contradiction today is the massive unemployment
all around us in Europe, or further off, in places like Korea and
Indonesia, after the speculative crash. Flexibility has all kinds of
breaking points, which I think we should work to illuminate rather than
obscure. I can't forget that, every time I send another message to all
you centers-and-peripheries.

Brian Holmes

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