Against the "Critical Criticism" of Culture: Towards an Aesthetics of Blindness

by Jensen Suther
 

"As soon as I relate myself to something objective, it ceases to exist for me, and so I am poised above an immense void, conjuring up shapes and destroying them..."

I.

In one of the sardonic gestures that would come to define his polemical style, Marx subtitled his 1844 attack on the Young Hegelians Kritik der kritischen Kritik, or “Critique of Critical Criticism.” He intended for this witticism to reveal a short circuit in their form of social and political theory: criticism is exponentially augmented, to a second “critical” power, when it elevates its activity and standpoint above actual practical change. “The act of transforming society,” Marx writes, “is reduced to the cerebral activity of Critical Criticism.” In the case of the Young Hegelians, this entailed the impossible demand that the masses conform to the principles of criticism, by changing their thinking (and not their practices); in the case of Bret Schneider’s recent response, critical criticism becomes the equally impossible demand that culture be made to progress, that criticism itself “[raise] musicians to a superior historical consciousness of the still enigmatic means by which sound is organized.” In other words, from the standpoint of critical cultural criticism, the music of Oneohtrix Point Never fails when it succumbs to “true” art’s opposite, kitsch. By the same token, the criticism that, as if touching a leper, risks contamination merely by addressing it—never mind that Schneider, hereafter the Critic, led the way to the colony—fails “to keep culture moving via taking up a leadership role in cultural production.”

Critical cultural criticism thus tasks itself with the transformation of “the way culture is produced.” As the vanguard of the avant-garde, it expects its own critical activity to change the way that painters paint, that composers compose, that writers write. Leadership is always in need of a lodestar, and the idea of advanced technique is apparently the sole light that shines in this dark sky. But when Walter Benjamin’s important observation that the art of true artists teaches other artists is adapted as a norm for criticism, the critic is effectively reduced to little more than a tastemaker, charged with singling out for praise the most technically advanced works of contemporary art. It comes as no surprise, then, when the Critic tells us that his distaste for Garden of Delete is indeed a matter of preference: “I personally prefer the ‘technical’ avant-garde.” Those works are preferred that contribute most to “the development of aesthetic knowledge,” which the Critic seems to understand in the popular terms of the sharing economy as a growing database of techniques. On this view, the possibility of artistic progress is treated as a given and it is conflated, moreover, with the idea of technical advance: in order to “keep culture moving,” criticism drags art by the hair into the future, distinguishing the good from the bad in accord with the criterion of the technically superior.

Yet it is precisely with this implicit definition of criticism as a kind of banausic score-keeping that the Critic gives away the game. Several of Adorno’s comments in the draft introduction to Aesthetic Theory bear on the issue directly: “What currently passes for technical criteria in no way facilitates judgment on the level of artistic achievement and most often relegates it to the obsolete category of taste.” One can thus see how the Critic’s sheepishly proclaimed “preference” for the “technical” avant-garde—a false distinction to begin with—is an abdication of critical thought necessitated by the irresolvable contradiction at the heart of his own position: the criterion of technical advance itself must be superseded by a deeper criterion, lest what constitutes an authentic advance remain indiscernible. Since advances in technique are, it might be said, a necessary but not sufficient condition of artistic progress, in the absence of a more fundamental criterion of such progress, thinking must beg off and give way to the unbinding judgments of taste. Preference replaces insight into what is aesthetically—and thus socially—true or false.

The irony, then, is that the Critic’s own work falls on the wrong side of the supremely undialectical distinction he himself draws, between a criticism that occupies itself with “good or interesting” works, and one that treats works that are “critical.” What was intended as an indictment of my supposed “kitsch criticism” becomes the unconscious self-indictment of the Critic himself, as “interest” becomes the key to his notion of judgment: “In a world of growing amateur cultural production, people more and more listen to the things that have direct interest [my emphasis] to what they themselves make…This alone fosters the conditions by which avant-gardism can flourish.” Contrary to what the Critic thinks, however, the quality of a work, the judgment as to “good or bad,” is decided by whether or not it is critical; contrary to his one-sided understanding of “caesura,” “the quality of works of art is measured […] according to the degree in which antagonisms are formed within [them],” as Adorno remarked in a roundtable discussion with Lucien Goldmann in 1968—well after the heyday of historical modernism, nota bene. But the most significant symptom of the Critic’s reliance on taste lies in his failure to grasp that the critical character of successful works can only be understood on the basis of their truth content, which requires interpretation of form and technique, rather than the smug affirmation of the technical opposition of advanced works to the kitsch products of the culture industry. This failure finds expression in his accusation that my critique “ends up being a literary critique of music and not a musical critique of music.” The rigid separation of the “literary,” or questions of meaning, from the “musical,” or questions of technique, defines, therefore, the one-sided approach of the Critic, which, as has become clear, relies ultimately on taste-based criteria to tell artists what to do and what not to.

While it is true that criticism, as Adorno argues, does have an “art-practical” function in that its “insight into the historical situation […] converges with binding implications for production,” criticism is not a mere appendage to production but is rather to be regarded as a “form in [its] own right” through which “the development of artworks […] is fulfilled.” What role can criticism possibly play in completing works of art, or “fulfilling” them? For Adorno, the artwork only truly comes into its own through the critical interpretation that, in going beyond the artistic intentions objectified in the work, distinguishes its truth from its untruth. Because artists do not get the final say on what their works mean, because their social significance changes over time, waning in one instance while bursting with new meaning in the next, the task of a work’s completion falls to the critic.

It is now apparent that, in the context of this debate, the notion of “truth content,” which I briefly mentioned in my original response, requires greater elaboration. Society leaves its traces in the details of the work of art, through the process of its production. This gives us a clue concerning the answer to the question: How does one decide whether an artistic decision is correct or incorrect? The “work-immanent” task of determining “the truth or untruth of a perception, the consequence or lameness of a thought, the coherence or incoherence of a structure, the substantiality or emptiness of a figure of speech,” requires a “work-transcendent” moment in which the critic relates “the knowledge of society as a totality … to the claim inherent in the specific object that it be apprehended as such.” To understand specific works of art on their own terms, one must go beyond them, to the society that appears “external,” but that in truth inheres in the smallest aesthetic details. Here are several other typical statements by Adorno:

“Art and society converge in the artwork’s content, not in anything external to it.”

“The aim of [criticism] is to provide not social justification but a theory of society by virtue of the explication of what is aesthetically right and wrong at the heart of art objects.”

“Artworks are objects whose truth cannot be thought except as that of their interior. Imitation [by way of interpretation] is the path that leads to this interior.”

Notice that in each of these lines Adorno is preoccupied with the notion of the “interior” of the work of art. While I have argued that the interior of the work is only truly accessible through the lens of society, it is important to keep in mind that the interior itself is a work’s unique language, the distinctive stylization of paint in a painting, say, or the rhetorical figures that constitute the formal substance of a poem. But this is a deceptively simple, “two-step” approach to the complex problem of interpretation, since the requisite “turn to the social” itself necessitates, according to Adorno, philosophical categories: “The truth content of an artwork requires philosophy. It is only in this truth content that philosophy converges with art or extinguishes itself in it.” It is hard to imagine what the Critic would make of this claim, especially in light of his remark concerning what he took to be extraneous, art-alien invocations of Kant in my response. It is certainly true that philosophy is often misused by critics, who artificially project its categories onto works of art. But it is also true that no genuinely dialectical approach to art can dispense with philosophy, which is for Adorno synonymous with critical theory, or, said all too quickly, the historically specific theory of the self-contradiction of society under capitalism. What the Critic referred to as the “very interesting” (but, for him, irrelevant) discussion of puberty in my piece was precisely a philosophical attempt to articulate the “meaning” of the lyrical and musical content of Garden of Delete in critical-theoretical terms: in terms of social contradiction. While the Critic accuses me of “Heideggerian phenomenology”—a misplaced epithet if there ever was one—I was attempting to articulate, however hastily or inadequately, the historical form of subjectivity to which the record gives voice. If the historical Heidegger invoked by the Critic is thought to “ontologize” the anxiety, isolation, and despair that characterize the experience of the modern subject, then my own procedure does the opposite: it critiques the abject subject of late capitalism from the standpoint of its possible fulfillment.

II.

My strategic defense of Oneohtrix Point Never against the one-sided approach of critical criticism was never intended to serve as an unconditional endorsement. The song “Animals” is an instructive example of artistic misfire that also helps to illustrate the foregoing points. It attempts to protest alienation in the digital age by way of a minor progression and hackneyed lyrics sung by the pitch-shifted voice present on most tracks, but here in an unusual “plangent” mode. Yet nearly every other moment on Garden of Delete is dedicated to the demonstration of the impossibility of the kind of subjective expression “Animals” takes for granted. It becomes clear that the record’s critical edge is dulled the instant society becomes its explicit object and it ceases to counterbalance the norms of popular songwriting with the skepsis of vaporwave. If society is made to foot the bill for this aesthetic error, the immaturity and petulance of its lyrics, along with the trite melancholy of its sound, appear as symptoms of capitulation to the socially necessary illusion of the substantiality of the subject and of the object of its protest, social forces of domination that are, in truth, because of their abstractness, beyond the individual’s grasp.

If the task of critique is to separate truth from untruth, then the album as a whole should be grasped in terms of the general aim or ambition its failings contradict. In the Critic’s response, much is made of OPN’s repetition of surrealism, which is grasped as a symptom of the project’s failure: “With the total degeneration of all things surreal into pathological affectation … what is needed above all today is music that aims to raise musical comprehension to a higher and more active level.” Surrealism strove to defamiliarize everyday objects so as to restore to their experience a feeling of childlike wonder, which renewed in turn an aura of potential surrounding the hollowed-out remains of culture. It relied on the commodity fetish to achieve its effect: cultural trash formerly imbued with nostalgia and longing came back to life under the surrealist’s gaze, as the “true object of love,” in Adorno’s words. But unlike surrealism, Garden of Delete does not seek to resuscitate lifeless objects. In the late phase of capitalism, the fetish character of the commodity has dissipated: the predominance of finance capital under neoliberalism has entailed the solidification of the capital fetish, which is the illusion of the absence of the system that marks its ultimate triumph. Under the rule of the capital fetish, all culture is kitsch and the form of fulfillment it promises is purely culinary, no longer admitting of the reflective and imaginative experience the original fetish, paradoxically, at least claimed to make possible. This was reflected in the illusion of the autonomy of culture, whose passing vaporwave cynically celebrates. As the ironic recognition of the degraded status of culture, vaporwave constitutes the farcical repetition of surrealism.

Yet Garden of Delete negates and fulfills the genre it exemplifies. It transforms irony into insight by adopting the capital fetish as a principle of form: through-composition and montage become the contradictory means by which the impossibility of surrealism is demonstrated. The potential in trash the surrealists aimed to educe is here denied, and instead, the total degradation of culture becomes a cryptogram for its realization. Garden of Delete strives to accomplish the impossible, to “make kitsch elegant,” as I wrote in my response, in the sense that it attempts to give form to formlessness itself, to what is now beyond redemption. The childhood naïveté that surrealism hoped to restore for an instant in the improbable context of abandoned commodities is supplanted on Garden of Delete by a prepubescent dread of bodily change. The capital fetish produces the subject’s consciousness of itself as its body, but as no more than its body. By figuring the effect of the capital fetish on consciousness of the body, Garden of Delete shows us that the illusion of self-identity under late capitalism reflects a reversion to mere animality. A new state of nature is reflected in the illusion of the system’s absence: the true self-identity that Marx called “species being,” humanity come into its own, is mocked in the pseudo-identity of second nature as the mere repetition of first nature. Identity politics takes this pseudo-identity as its starting point: you are your race, gender, sexual orientation, you are your nationality, but you are not what you do. On Garden of Delete, such pseudo-identity is explicitly represented as the return to bare nature. The body without freedom is nothing but pus.

III.

In the fourth chapter of The Holy Family, Marx undertakes a curious defense of “love,” which critical criticism had rejected as a threat to the soul of man. Love, according to Marx, requires that one take another as one’s object, an act condemned by critical criticism as “selfish.” By overcoming love, Marx cunningly argues, critical criticism becomes the “tranquility of knowledge”: nothing can disturb it, because it denies that there is any object outside itself. The Critic denies that he ignores the object, and his denial takes the form of an either/or: either he acknowledges the object by way of “a more socially focused analysis,” or he acknowledges it through appreciation of its technical achievement and contribution to the “development of aesthetic knowledge.” This separation of what I called above the work-immanent and work-transcendent moments of criticism, however, effectively means that the object is denied: an either/or criticism either reduces its object to its social origin and function, or “slips into the disreputable role of the messenger who brings the latest news” from the front, while failing to meaningfully penetrate its object either socially or technically.

Yet implicit in Marx’s critique of critical criticism is a conception of true critique as love of its object. But in what sense can critique “love” its object? If, in the absence of an object, critical criticism “self-immolates” in the demonstration of its own vacuity, true critique must see itself in its other, starting from and grounding itself in its object. “One must have tradition in oneself,” Adorno tells us, “to hate it properly.” Or said differently, in order to interrogate the failings of culture, to grasp its moments of falsity or untruth, its false consciousness, one must have an intimate knowledge of its form and its relation to the works that preceded it (and in many instances, those that came later). What the Critic derides as “erudition” is the knowledge of the object requisite for disclosing its determination by society.

All of this is to say, then, that genuine love of culture, as I have defined it, is a prerequisite of its hatred. And one can only see the object of critique, I want to argue further, if, like Oedipus, one tears out one’s eyes. Hyperbole aside, against the critical criticism of culture, I want to insist on an “aesthetics of blindness” grounded in the materialist dialectic, as first mentioned in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory:

The truth of the new, as the truth of what is not already used up, is situated in the intentionless. This sets truth in opposition to reflection, which is the motor of the new, and raises reflection to a second order, to second reflection. […] Second reflection lays hold of the technical procedures, the language of the artwork in the broadest sense, but it aims at blindness.

The intentionless is accessible only to the blind in the sense that the critic can only truly see what a work intends by going beyond its intention. Blindness allows one to see what a work comes to mean in spite of itself, in spite of its own intention: the social significance of a work, what it tells us about our world, can only be decided by way of the willed naiveté of commentary, interpretation, and critique. Strategic blindness is the key to social insight.

There is something tragic about the necessity of an aesthetics of blindness. But one must understand “tragedy” here in its technical sense: necessary misrecognition of the meaning of one’s deed that results in one’s downfall. The tragedy of art is that artworks are the deeds of artists whose failure can only be apprehended after the fact. Just as the tragic actor only retrospectively grasps the meaning of her deed, so must criticism seek to bring to speech after the fact what remains unconscious in the deed of the artist, the artwork. Yet the failure of art is not a question of a lack of talent or technical ability on the part of artists. Art owes its failure to the form of social life that makes it both necessary and impossible: “Art really only exists as long as it is impossible by virtue of the order which it transcends.”

Adorno frequently analogized society to the Sphinx, the artist to the blinded Oedipus: the work of art is the answer that topples the monster by naming the humanity it opposes. To complete his analogy by way of conclusion: perhaps the critic, then, is Tiresias, the blind seer who knows what Oedipus cannot, the fate that will unfold through his deeds. Yet Tiresias cannot save him, or even convey his fate in terms he can understand, just as the critic is helpless to fundamentally change an art whose fate is, in the last instance, determined by that of the world.

 

Oedipus Rex. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1967.

Oedipus Rex. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1967.