Scroll To Top

All Work, All Play: An Imaginary Visit from a Dead White Man

Text: Petteri Enroth

It was not today, but more like yesterday. Apparently, I had invited him over since he arrived promptly just when everything was ready.

I offered him a glass of Bavarian Riesling, and we sat down at the table. His dark grey suit hung awkwardly from his narrow shoulders. I looked at him and said that I had some topics I wanted to discuss. He nodded and took a sip of wine. I cleared my throat and, trying to sound professional, noted that one of the neglected sides of his Aesthetic Theory is the sincere undecidability and confusion about the future of art. He did not seem uncomfortable with the implicit challenge – after all, he was well used to people abusing his thinking to fit their own ends.

But I wanted to begin with philosophy. I turned my laptop around so we could both see the screen. I searched his Minima Moralia on Google Books and quoted:
“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” [1]
I added that today, of course, the despair we are facing is perhaps even more omnipresent and total than in his time. The ecological meltdown, for example, has seriously begun and causes mass immigration and social conflicts. Moreover, the wavering capitalist system is leading to ever more opportunist endeavours such as the water market, protectionist politics, and worse terms of employment which of course steepens class conflict. However, since the working class is too stupid to understand that it is the working class, the West is apparently facing, once again, the marriage of monopoly capitalism and strict fascism. Then I searched for this clip of a stand-up act by the American comedian Louie CK:

He seemed amused. I said that he simply cannot dismiss this as a calculated part of the culture industry – not he, who was always so critical of what generally passes for thinking in academia.
Is this not simply, I asked him, a profane version of your own imperative for philosophy? I’m just showing you this to illustrate the fact that, whereas academic thinking is anaemic and has not seriously taken heed of your wholly valid imperative, mainstream culture itself has begun to think, and more precisely, to think about the very abyss we are facing.
I continued that yes, criticality and dystopian scenarios sell well; but is this not inevitable for any criticality in capitalism that has any truth-value and touches upon something real?
I think you are partly right about the importance of the mainstream, he said. – As you must know, I began to attend radio shows and did a whole lot of them in the 1950’s and 60’s. But I think we need to consider the possibility that this comedy act is not a more profane version of my philosophy, but a mockery of it. If genuine, global tragedy can be turned into farce thereby, in a way, justifying the present condition, then the culture industry, apparently, is still as powerful as ever. It can aestheticize humanity’s very own destruction and sell it to this humanity.
Well, yes, I see your point, I answered. – But since I am less of a formalist than you, I think the same content can be expressed in a tragic and in a farcical way. Genuine laughter at horror addresses the very void, the nothingness, of our existence and thereby is a sincere form of self-criticism, the effect of which is not paralysis but liberation. You know, it’s like... the nothingess is the everything that we have to lose. You say that conceptual rigidity and play are the two poles of philosophy, but I like to think that they are one and the same pole.
But you must admit that there are things you cannot laugh at, or consider farcical. You cannot laugh at Auschwitz.
No, but it is, among other things, completely ridiculous in its sad, pathetic essence, right? And if Hitler had genuinely laughed at the state of the world and the tradition of Western culture, it would not have crossed his mind to do anything like that. Genuine laughter about these things would have brought about a true revolution instead of a spectacle of one.
Well, you must know how obscene that sounds, but because I’m not one to think with my ears only, I will just say that perhaps you are onto something.

I poured us another round of Riesling.
Ok, he broke the silence. – What about mass music in this time?
I’m glad you asked.
I typed my search into Youtube, handed him a pair of hi-fi headphones, and we sat through the clip:

He took the headphones off.
Well, I asked. – You say that the basic strategy of popular music is “the simultaneity of excess and rigidity”[2] and more precisely “a mixture of streamlining, photographic hardness and precision on the one hand, and individualistic residues, sentimentality and an already rationally disposed and adapted romanticism on the other”.[3] Is this song not turning these into a dialectical play in the same way that modern art problematizes artistic form itself? The song negates the aesthetic of popular music and preserves it on a higher plane. The beat is a travesty of a danceable rhythm and, as you must have noticed with the headphones, syncopation is audible only on the very lowest frequencies, as a haunting, bassy hum. The only dance proper to this track would be the dance macabre.
Yes, he replied. – I don’t quite know what to make of this. Is this the complete objectification of musical expression or an immanent, valid negation of it that itself becomes expression? What makes the question more complicated is that the soloist is very expressive in a deviant way. Her style is romanticized in a sense but very exceptional in its careful and absolutely premeditated yet crude naiveté – I mean, regarding the physical process of singing, she obviously sings “wrong” from any classical, or even modernist, perspective. There is romanticism there, but it is genuinely dark.
I completely agree. She sings like a string about to snap at any moment.
I was happy about his reflective confusion. I liked to think it was not the wine. We then further discussed the song’s utter blackness, according to his statement that radical art’s “primary colour is black”[4], and how the blackness is intensified by the vocals. I noted that this band often distorts the singer’s voice on their albums with tube overdrives, uncommon EQ positions and ghastly doublings, but on this track, and on this album in fact, there is merely some standard reverb added to her voice.
I guess the line, he said, looking at the table and frowning in a manner unseen in the passive-melancholic photos of him, between the calculated differences of the culture industry and genuine artistic distinction is becoming harder to draw. I am not sure whether this is a good thing or not. There is something barbaric about the thought, but to tell whether this is legitimate progress I would have to know more about the social present.

We looked out the window of my studio into the gently dimming August evening.

Speaking of barbarity, I recovered, did you hear what Karlheinz Stockhausen said after 9/11? In a press conference, he sort of twisted your view about the barbarity of art into a grotesque statement... Let me quote from Wikipedia: “Well, what happened there is, of course … the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practise ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn't do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. ... It is a crime, you know of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the ‘concert’. That is obvious.”
Ah, Karlheinz, he moaned and rolled his eyes like a teenager. – Resurrection? Has he completely lost his senses? Heidegger could perhaps agree to this glorification of death...
Hey, I don’t think so.
Well, yes, ok. Anyway, Karlheinz was always too smart for his own good. And this time he simply rode a horse that was not his. This is precisely what I, in private, warned him of. He is basically saying that art is an imaginary, impotent act of mayhem and terrorism. This is infantile rebelliousness, and is directly linked to how he took something inherently critical, atonal composing, stripped it of the subjective need that justifies it and turned it into a positive idea. Criticality, as destructiveness, is not a positive idea, and this would have become clear to him had he been more attentive to what I was saying. He is so keen on playing with the bathwater that the baby drowns in it.
Hear, hear, I raised my glass. – What do you say, should we finish the wine and then go out, to the centre of the city? I’ll immediately admit that I have an agenda here, to take you to the movies.
Let’s do that.

We went out and stepped into a bus, where I half-forced the headphones on him again and had him listen to Public Enemy’s second album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a facial expression radiate so many contradicting sentiments. At the beginning of track four, “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor”, he took the headphones off.
I am not sure whether this is music. Of course, in a sense, it is not intending to be...
That’s it! You can’t look at this stuff from any perspective of the dialectics of tonality and musical progression. But if you want to, you can approach this from a European perspective by thinking about poetry readings. If you consider the history of poetry, it existed millennia before writing, not to mention printing – poetry originated as something appealing to the ears, not to the eyes.
Yes, yes. I do understand that. The African-Americans, and black people altogether, definitely have their own history, and in fighting their struggle they definitely need to take heed of that. I mean, African tribes, as you know, mediated their history and tradition through rituals where heightened speech...
And not just in Africa, but everywhere before there was writing, I shouted over the unusually loud bus engine.
True enough, he yelled back. If we are logical, we have to say that paradoxically this most technological form of... music is perhaps the purest, most undistorted form in which original, archaic popular culture has entered the technological culture industry. Usually this process eliminates the rebelliousness that is inherent in all authentic popular culture, but this certainly retains it.
We then debated the distinction between authentic popular culture and mass culture, and whether the term “culture industry” can be used with reference to independent record labels and other DIY ways of making music. But all in all, I was very pleased with the evening’s outcome already.

We walked out of the bus terminal and past a big multiplex theatre.
We are most definitely not going there, I said. – That is the epitome of monopoly capitalism in the culture industry. They only ever show big studio Hollywood movies and some big budget indie films and have absolutely no ambition to contribute to culture in any way.
We came to a modest wooden door at the base floor of a Jugend-style apartment building and entered a cosy little lobby.
Hey, this is great, I exclaimed. – They are showing Children of Men next. That is one of my all-time favourites. It is strictly narrative, so don’t expect anything like Neuer Deutsher Film.
I see you have found my little essay about experimental film.[5] Ok, let’s go.
I bought us tickets, and we walked in and sat on the slightly worn-out, royally crimson chairs. As the lights dimmed, I felt that my life has somehow been about, aimed at, such a moment.

We walked out of the theatre into the warm late Summer evening air. I took us half a block up the street and we sat down at a terrace for Warsteiners.
Ok, he began. – There is much in this film to chew on. First of all, the big thesis: “Life does not live”... And it has to escape into the foggy, formless margins of reality in order to survive. I do like how the loss of biological life grounds the nihilism of social life, it mirrors the empty history of capitalism. It is a clear-cut way to bring about a deep sense of thinking about why we live, which is, of course, always for the future. The past means nothing without a sense of going somewhere, and history can only be appreciated as a way toward something. I guess this is a very Hegelian film without being so self-enclosed, because in the end scene we know nothing else about the future than the fact that it will happen after all.
Absolutely. Popular culture often tends to be Hegelian. And also, just in terms of cinema as a form, think about how this configuration was delivered to us. Of course, there is nothing new about the apparent protagonist of the film, you know, this is a coming-of-age story up to the point of banality. This is the conformist, culture industry aspect of it, but there’s a reason why it is there. Because everything that is anything in this film actually happens not in the psychology of the guy but in the surroundings, and therefore any naïve realism is overcome – reality is completely structured and mediated in the film. The main character is there just to provide us a lens through which we can check the world, the social reality, and this is the tension that gives us an extremely strong sense of both the absurdity and urgency of life. I think the same happens in Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 from 1962, did you ever see that?
Yes, I did.
Yeah, you get what I’m going for? Varda’s main character walking the streets toward the end of the film, thinking she is about to die, is actually more of a prism through which we see the people who stare at her and have no idea why she’s being filmed. From psychology to social reality, right? I think this is the power of cinematic narrative at its purest.
I guess you are right. Because what I most of all have reproached about narrative cinema is the apparently unavoidable realist aspect of it, but in this movie, as you said, social reality is in many ways completely constructed. Everything material is at the same time thoroughly geistig. Yes. I guess it is possible.

We sat through the rest of our beers listening to the surrounding conversations, and I also tried to explain to him the way people were dressed. I then suggested a trip to the outskirts of the city centre, to an industrial zone in the process of transforming into a trendy urban area. We took the metro, sharing the carriage with noisy drinking crowds, tired shift workers and hooded kids too young to be out at that late an hour. As we got out, we came into the district dotted with unfinished blocks of flats, construction sites, old industrial halls turned into clubs, galleries and coffee shops that stood side by side with desolate waste lands and cargo areas. We walked quietly among the structures, pits and fields of asphalt.
One of the last sections, he said, of Aesthetic Theory that I worked on before I died was the one dealing with ugliness. I reckon you have read it? It is very unfinished, but I am happy with the sentences about industrial landscapes. You know, where I claim that it is not their formal qualities that make these landscapes ugly, but the principle behind it? The domination of nature is so concretely present that even “the most well-integrated functional forms in Adolf Loos’s sense would probably leave the impression of ugliness unchanged”[6].
That’s it, I said. – And I think the same goes the other way around. Abandoned industrial landscapes are beautiful for the same reason. They are quite concretely the sort of cracks in the totality that you call for as the content of thinking and art. You see that area, with the flashy new blocks of flats? It used to be a sort of industrial wasteland, with plenty of unused onshore cargo areas and such. It was one of my favourite places in the city, it had a hopeful absence about it. Once, we saw a deer standing in the middle of one of these huge empty lots of asphalt. It was breath-taking.
I can imagine.
We strolled on for a few minutes in silence. Suddenly, we heard what sounded like an eerily beautiful bird song – a long, screeching but sensitively echoing upward glissando. We looked at each other, eyebrows lifted, and I was just about to say I had absolutely no idea what kind of bird it was when we spotted an old, battered car standing in the traffic lights about a hundred meters from us and instantly realized we had heard the sound of un-overhauled brakes. We laughed.
To be honest, I said, lately I’ve started to see other kinds of beauty in all this, in industrial scenes. It has something to do with the fact that we have the technology, the means of production to make life materially easy and bearable for everyone. It’s just a matter of using the technology right, putting it in the right hands – and I think such a time is coming, but first we will see a great, catastrophic disintegration of capitalist reality as we know it, and lives will be ruined. I know you don’t agree, but I’m beginning to see the “standpoint of redemption” not in terms of a reconciliation with nature like you do, but as something that is inherently technical and man-made.
I see. Yes. I still prefer to emphasize the role of nature. But maybe there are indeed many kinds of standpoints of redemption, and it is valuable to be able to appreciate more than just one. And as long as you can see everything in that light, not just you own life, your own friends and family, then there is indeed hope.
He was already gone before he finished the sentence. I started to walk back toward the city lights that shined the absurdity and urgency of life.

[1] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso 2005), p. 247.
[2] Adorno, “On Jazz” in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie et. al. (Berkeley : University of California Press 2002), pp. 470—495, cit. on p. 471.
[3] Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, New German Critique, 6, Fall 1975, 12—19, ref. on p. 15.
[4] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (New York: Routledge 1997), p.39.
[5] Adorno, “Transparencies of Film”, New German Critique 24/25, (1981), pp. 199–205.
[6] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 46.