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Ziarek’s Beyond Critique? Art and Power details the complicated relationship of art and power after modernity’s realization of the limits of critique. This essay would be ideal for anyone interested in the power of art to open up the critical conversation while freeing critique in some sense from the oppressive structures of rhetoric. Ziarek works through Adorno and Heidegger ultimately finding Heidegger’s treatment of instrumentality useful in freeing art from problematic dynamics of power. (more…)

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Rose claims that Adorno’s concept of reification is an original to his thought, and based in large part off of Marx’s distinction of use-value and exchange-value. Rose first speaks of the difference between the concept and object, a difference with which reification is intimately concerned. It is important to note that the German Begriff, translated as “concept,” has a second and equally prominent meaning that is the equivalent of the English idea of “property” in the sense of having a particular property. Adorno divides conceptual thinking into three forms: identity thinking, rational identity thinking, and non-identity thinking. Identity thinking consists of using a concept to pick out particulars in an object, and is the sort of thinking employed when one uses instrumental reason. Adorno is largely unconcerned with this form of thinking when he is speaking about reification. Rational identity thinking assumes that an object possesses all the properties of its concept, and therefore the object is idealized without examining its particulars. Adorno claims that society generally thinks of objects as being identical to their concepts. Non-identity thinking is practiced when it is realized that there is an unavoidable gulf between the object and the concept. The concept is taken as referring to what the object “would like to be,” its Platonic ideal, roughly. In example, the concept of an enlightened world does not include barbarity, but the real object, the actuality of the present enlightened world, does. This does mean that it is inaccurate to call our society an enlightened society, but instead that it is necessary to acknowledge the gap between concept and the object. Adorno says that an important tool of critical theory is to confront the object as it is with the concept of what it should be, instead of merely assuming the identity of object and concept.

Rational identity thinking and reified thinking are the same, because they make unlike objects the same. Adorno sees commodity exchange as involving the same principles. The only values naturally in things are their use-values. Their exchange-values, which often appear in our capitalist society as actually occurring in objects, are not truly within the object, but instead are part of a social relationship between people. This extends to labor, as well, which is a social relationship objectified by the reification of exchange. However, exchange-value is the only way that the relative value of an object can be expressed in a market economy. To say that something is reified is to say that the social relation appears as a property of the object, rather than something societal (and thus essentially arbitrary) that has no particular allegiance to the object itself. The object appears to have exchange-value because the labor used to produce it seems reified in the object. “Reified concepts describe social phenomena, the appearance of society, as if it has the properties to which the concepts refer” (47). A non-reified object is one in which the concept and the object are truly identical, an object that is considered as the sum of its properties without the incorporation of relationships external to the object. Adorno claims that the use-value of an object is non-reified. It is therefore the commodification of objects that reifies them.

Adorno’s distinction between different modes of thought is not an empirical one. If it were, it would itself be identity thinking. It is instead a formation based on the gap which it perceives. Adorno states that, “To want substance in cognition is to want Utopia.” The substance offered by rational identity thinking is the illusion that one thinks of the actual object, when one can only largely only conceptualize objects. It is only when a real object is viewed rigorously in relation to its concept that one can gain a view of it that possesses anything, because to not acknowledge the gap between an object’s rational identity and its actuality is to imply the intersection of the two, and thus misunderstand the nature of the object.

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In Mass Culture and Aesthetic Redemption: The Debate between Max Horkheimer and Siegfried Kracuer, Martin Jay explores the potential of art to redeem mass culture by dialoguing the contradictory thoughts of Horkheimer and Kracuer. In so doing, he offers an outline of their implicit debate and ultimately suggests with reservation the impossibility of a redemptive art.

The heart of the essay begins when Jay employs Peter Bürger’s controversial distinction between modernism and the avant-garde. Jay uses dichotomy as linchpin throughout his piece to help contrast the views of Horkheimer and Kracuer. That is, Horkheimer sides with modernism because in its most esoteric forms it supposedly works outside of the marketplace, thus offering a sort of utopian oasis from mass culture. Conversely, Kracuer sides with exoteric avant-gardism because it works within mass culture hopefully galvanizing revolution. After establishing this dichotomy, Jay unpacks and clarifies these two views focusing first on Horkheimer and then Kracuer.

Jay associates Horkheimer with esoteric modernism in large part because of his remarks on the writing of Joyce and paintings like Picasso’s Guernica: “[They] abandon the idea that real community exists; they are monuments of a solitary and despairing life that finds no bridge to any other or even to its own consciousness” (372). Or, put another way, Horkheimer wants art to negate culture and communication and in this negation escape mass culture. With this in mind, we can understand why Horkheimer rejected film as an art form –– it was too real, too easy, and consequently always under the tent of mass culture (372 – 373).

The analysis of Kracuer offered by Jay associates him with the exoterically avant-garde because for Kracuer –– and the following is something very quirky for a member of the Frankfurt of School –– mass culture was not bad, but rather a necessary stage in a larger process of rationalization (i.e., the end of class struggle). So where Horkheimer wanted to break bridges of communication in art Kracuer wanted to create them to invoke revolution. Kracuer, then, like Benjamin, celebrates the avant-garde filmmakers Pudovkin and Eisenstein for their collective calling of the body politic to organize and revolutionize. Kracuer did not care if such films were superficial for in he thought in a certain regard his era was one were “we cannot gain access to the elusive essentials of life we see assimilate the seemingly non-essential…” (374). This is all evidenced his discussion of the Tiller Girls were he argued that they were a “mass ornament” whose “aesthetic reflex” was inspired by the rationality of capitalism, like Taylor modes of organization. This rationality, of course, was obscured but it was less obscured than myth and thus marked a movement in the right direction. It was, in one of Jay’s more memorable phrases, “a way station towards a rational future” (380).

The difference between Horkheimer and Kracueris’s views on the potential of art, then, is the difference between solitary and solidarity, isolation and community. But as different as their views might be, they in the end both realized neither esotericism nor exotericism could redeem mass culture. Horkheimer realized that even the most esoteric art would be absorbed into the market (387). And Kracuer later lost his radical leanings deeming any revolution in art or elsewhere impossible (379). For this reason, Jay concludes with an ambiguous cynicism: “the sobering lessons provided by their very different attempts to harness art for radical purposes make it difficult not wonder if its end may be near” (381).

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