Reviewed by Benjamin Crais
In 1941, the last year of his involvement in the Princeton Radio Research Project, Theodor W. Adorno wrote a study titled “The Problem of a New Type of Human Being.” In this short piece, Adorno diagnoses a “new type” of subject inaugurated by American culture. The “traditional pedagogical system,” Adorno wrote, had assumed a historically constant subject available for cultivation. Defined by “constant drives” on the one hand and their sublimation into culture on the other, this subject was assumed to be ever-perfectible. Culture, therefore, was thought to possess an inherent value: as that which educates, enlightens, and humanizes. Adorno puts into doubt the autonomous individual assumed by this schema: the subject of the ideal pedagogical scenario has waned and with it this possibility of cultivation. As Robert Hullot-Kentor paraphrases, “Culture itself had entered into such opposition to the real conditions of life that it could no longer fulfill its age-old hope of humanizing the individual” (204). These conditions of life smother the ego, denying it the possibility to develop or assert itself. For this “new type,” the possibility of cultivation and the value of culture cannot be presupposed.
As Jonathan Harvey notes in his review of Cured Quail’s first volume, this concept forms the basis for the critique of contemporary life developed in the journal. Pivoting on “the twofold axes” of “continual cultural impoverishment and its concomitant psychological injuries” (1), this concern with the fate of culture comes even more to the forefront of the second volume. Engaging “the everyday—as everything this society damages, everything it and its economy mangles into the deranged, everything which might yet also point beyond cultural desiccation” (1), the texts collected in Cured Quail’s second volume assay what remains of culture and the subject today.
Unlike the first volume, the essays here are formatted as one might expect and loosely thematically organized: the first two-thirds are largely concerned with questions of aesthetics while the remainder focuses on psychoanalysis. As it is impossible to adequately address every contribution in the space of this review, themes and critical positions cutting across individual essays will be emphasized. On this basis, we can assess the critique of contemporary life offered by Cured Quail in its second outing.
The initial sequence of texts largely reckons with the fate and status of art. While certain essays, like Ross Wolfe’s materialist history of aesthetic abstraction and Paul Barrow’s Arrighi-inspired tour through the London National Gallery, offer historical arguments about the relationship between periods of capitalist development, class struggle, and aesthetic form, the overarching theme is the waning ability for art to ‘cultivate’ in the manner described above. Eric-John Russell’s contribution, “Empowerment: An Infantile Disorder,” puts forward the concept of “empowerment” to diagnose this situation, defining it as the reigning “criterion of cultural and artistic literacy” predicated on “a veneration for greater accessibility, represented exactitude, and a wider audience” (133). Although not exclusively correlated to encounters with art, the essay extensively details empowerment’s hostility to aesthetic experience, symptomatic of a broader condition of mass solipsism. Empowerment, for Russell, names a reactive, infantile response to “material and spiritual impoverishment” (128) whereby instant gratification communicability are upheld as morally and politically significant values, systematically devaluing art’s potential negativity. Art is flattened to “the principles of empirical observation and moral obligation” (140) and enters into a pact with the world as it is despite any manifestly political content it might have.
Veronika Russell and Rebecca Carson take up a similar problematic vis-à-vis specific forms of contemporary aesthetic production and consumption, querying their ability to produce genuine aesthetic experience. Russell’s contribution, “How to Scratch Off Wallpaper,” develops an analysis of contemporary painting. Describing painting as “demoralized by the economy and its constant eye over the artist’s shoulder” (61), Russell discusses the art market’s overdetermination of the artist and the reception of their work and the consequent waning possibility of “a sense of capitulation in front of an artwork” (59). What we now expect—and what we encounter in the galleries she describes—is only the dull light of recognition. Carson’s essay, “Fichte’s Ghost,” likewise develops an argument about art’s diminishing critical function with respect to contemporary literature. Diagnosing contemporary literature as infatuated with “the semi-autobiographical first person” (112), she argues that such texts mirror existing social form and thereby lack any critical apprehension of the forces constituting the individual in the first place. Against this trend, Carson offers a persuasive argument for the importance of third-person narration: “In our inverted world, where the personal is an impersonal construct, only in the commitment to the impersonal,” she claims, “do we find the capacity to undermine the formal appropriation of self and being” (117).
The tour de force is Christopher Crawford’s brilliant “On Dosing Culture.” Crawford discusses the inhibition of aesthetic experience and of the ego’s development by “dosing culture,” his term for the stream of “content” administered by platforms and franchises to be consumed in “ceaseless, interminable, addiction-like dosing.” Culture, he writes, “is now something you microdose. . .You’re meant to get a shot of it, to get it coursing through your system so that you can relax, focus or simply feel anything at all” (32). Crawford’s essay, the longest of the volume, is divided into two sections. The first describes the formal attributes of dosing culture, its technological infrastructure, the experience it provokes (“a sense of timelessness and lack of development. . .the transition from boredom to manic activity. . .the constant sense of distraction or pseudo-engagement”), and juxtaposes it, like many of the other essays, to an Enlightenment conception of culture. Crawford argues that “dosing culture” undermines culture’s function of sublimating the drives and contributing to the maturation of the subject, instead dolling out doses of endless, diversionary content whose goal “is to breed identification, attachment, and addiction, not a new sense of reality” (31). The second section develops a convincing account of the pathologies this engenders, arguing that “dosing culture” induces a regression to an infantile, quasi-psychotic state that inhibits “mature contact with reality” (43).
The second half of Crawford’s text introduces the other reigning concern of the volume: psychoanalysis and the pathologies emerging from the impoverished culture described in the previous essays. As with the texts on art, there is a heterogeneity of approaches. Some, like Alexandra Ivanova’s “Psychologizing Sociology,” are concerned with the history of psychoanalysis while others, like Peter Samol’s “Narcissism as Norm: Psychic Deformation in Late Capitalist Society,” are more squarely present-facing. Yet, an overarching theme emerges: narcissism and infantilization as defining tendencies of the present. A major component of Adorno’s theory of the “new type” was the thesis that the ego withers due to a new environment that no longer encourages the individual’s “independent and antagonistic separation,” but rather a suffocating integration. The individual, Adorno wrote, “seems to be on the way to a situation in which it can only survive by relinquishing its individuality, blurring the boundary between itself and its surroundings, and sacrificing most of its independence and autonomy” (462). If Crawford’s essay sketches the environment that impels this, the essays on psychoanalysis articulate its psychic consequences: a thoroughgoing narcissism, an inability to recognize the external world in its autonomy. Narcissism, Anselm Jappe writes, “is the pathological effort to deny the original separation from the mother and compensate for the newborn’s frightening feeling of helplessness with imaginary omnipotence” (205). The narcissistic subject is infantile, vacillating between the desire to retreat into the self and to dominate reality, each expressing a fundamental inability to accept the fact of separation. Periodizing the predominance of narcissism to “the entire development of commodity society since the 1970s” (204), the authors develop a thorough account of the infantilism encouraged by the “regressive” tendencies of contemporary culture. As throughout the volume, a normative concept of aesthetic experience is juxtaposed to this description of psychic injury. Juan Chabrier and Jappe each invoke Lasch’s discussion of Winnicott’s theory of “transitional objects” to describe how art constitutes an “evolutionary” solution to the fundamental problem of separation anxiety. Art, they suggest, enables a non-narcissistic relationship to the world by allowing for a “conquering of an external world that is at the same time recognized in its autonomy” (208). They charge culture with increasingly failing to perform this function.
The account developed in Cured Quail is formidable, an unflinching description of the utter impoverishment of contemporary culture. The authors’ account of the withering of aesthetic experience, the suffocation of the ego, and the many incentives towards narcissism reads like an account of one’s culture written by an outsider or a time traveler in its critical distance and perspicuity. Yet, this sensibility is indicative of something undialectical about the reigning positions articulated throughout the volume, which often evince a refusal to penetrate the phenomena in question, remaining abstractly opposed as if from the outside. With many of the essays comprising Cured Quail’s second volume, one is reminded of Fredric Jameson’s evaluation of “the conservative position”: “useful as diagnosis, and as a means of disengaging everything that is problematical in the existing state of things” yet ultimately resolving into an abstract, undialectical opposition to the present (358).
In contrast, Adorno’s “The Problem of a New Type of Human Being” did not simply bemoan the anthropological transformations it analyzed. In a dialectical twist, Adorno noted the possibility of pushing the features of the new culture “so far that it. . .transforms itself into real thinking” such that it will be “precisely those ‘crippled’ human beings who will be most able to put an end to that crippling” (467). The description of the ‘new type’ is developed negatively against an older form, yet Adorno does not nostalgically linger on this past, but attempts to discern how renewed conditions of thought might develop out of the contradictions of the present. In many of the essays in Cured Quail, no such attempt is made. Rather, contemporary culture is often simply opposed to an older Enlightenment conception of the individual and of aesthetic experience. This stance leads to non-incidental resonances with social conservatism. Intimately related to this is a broad lack of curiosity about different forms of aesthetic experience and how they might illuminate the experience of capitalism today.
There is, in another words, a lack of interest in engaging new cultural forms and modes of aesthetic experience as contradictory phenomena which, despite being intimately bound up in processes of integration and infantilization, nevertheless contain utopian content (or, at very least, can be dialectically read as symptoms of something more than just uni-directional regression). Placed against recent scholarship like Sianne Ngai’s work on “minor” aesthetic categories and Fumi Okiji’s engagement with Adorno’s writings on jazz, the texts composing the second volume of Cured Quail evince their own parochialism: an unwillingness to tarry with the material of this world without holding one’s nose. This is not to say that new forms of experience and culture must be positively valued, but rather to claim that a sufficient account of contemporary culture must attempt to penetrate and inhabit it, lest one ends up in the position critiqued by Paul Mattick in the first Cured Quail: that of taking on the mantle of “the remaining representatives of civilized values in a darkening world.”
In this respect, A New Institute for Social Research’s essay, “Enemies of Art for the Sake of Its Realization: Some Comments on Crawford and Adorno” stands apart from the texts previously mentioned in its dialectical verve and willingness to tarry with the historical process itself. Critiquing Crawford’s contribution to the previous volume, the authors also inadvertently expose the shortcomings of many of the essays with which they share space. “A critique of homogeneity,” they rightly assert, “runs the risk of becoming a homogeneous critique” (156). Treating “autonomous art” as a contradictory, historical phenomenon symptomatic “of a world no longer fully feudal and not yet fully capitalist” (165)—rather than a predominantly normative idea—the authors offer a bravura historical and theoretical account of art that culminates in an invocation of “the vague outlines of aesthetic experience” that “may be sought in the time of un-and underemployed proletarians” (171) produced by the same historical process that dissolved the old ideal of autonomous art. What has been characterized as the “conservative” position of many of Cured Quail’s authors is also its strength: its unrelentingly negative account of the enforced rituals of debasement and aesthetic impoverishment that constitute much of contemporary culture. Yet, if the journal’s research program is to advance, such a turn to dialectics—a full, rather than partial, submersion in the contradictory movement of history—is necessary.
20 July 2021
- 2009 Current of Music: Elements of a Radio Theory ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Cambridge: Polity Press)
- 2006 Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno New York: Columbia University Press
- 1971 Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature Princeton: Princeton University Press