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Fr. 397

September 22, 2013

What would Adorno make of our Triptych, comprising those Messin exteriors marked by the use of the second person “you” and those Krakovian interiors marked instead by the first person “I”?

If this text is marked like Adorno’s by the passage between subject and object, the process seems, at first glance, to be the inverse of that in Adorno, insofar as the perspective shifts from the more objective “you” and its attempt to place the reader in position of the narrator with all of its attendant thoughts and musings (belonging in principle to anyone) to the more subjective “I”, where the concern seems rather to show just to what extent these same thoughts and musings cannot be divorced from the narrator and the act of narration. Certainly, this would prove the inverse tactic from that of Adorno, for whom objective historic and social processes seem to displace the subjective processes of interiority and personality, although, in truth, the objective have ever been at work beneath the seemingly subjective. In other words, what would begin with seeming objectivity in the Triptych and then shift to its underlying subjective framework instead begins with seeming subjectivity in Adorno only to shift to its underlying objective framework. In this way, the two presentations of the subjectivity-objectivity divide could be thought to be at odds with one another.

Yet the Triptych, as its name would implies, contains a third dimension or wing that encompasses the two previous wings and reverses at least to some extent the judgment given above. For, if in its final section the narrator stands in some way corrected in the balance of day and evening (“Corrected, I looked up for a moment to watch the ratio between blue day and black night even overhead”), this is precisely in virtue from airing out all that is objective in the ongoing formation of subjectivity yet in a manner different from that in Adorno. This takes the form, in the second section or the “Interiors”, of making clear the dependence on outside sources of the subjective position as well as its own shortcomings as an object of knowledge oriented towards other objects of the same class and itself capable of being known.

More specifically, this demonstration entails giving objective form or a presence in the world of the text to as many of the underlying thought processes as possible so as to place these processes in outer discourse and make them accessible to the reader. Accordingly, the following are made increasingly available by the speaking “I” in this second section: the sources of information available to the narrator, various doubts about their accuracy or authenticity, suspicions concerning the narrator’s ability to have an authentic relation to that under observation, the neutral quality of the narrator’s perceptions and style. In short, the second sections marks out a trend in which the narrator attempts to lay bare to the outside world the filter through which perceptions and information are received, thoughts processed and then issued in the form of statements or hypotheses; this filter is at once comprised of constitutive, objective elements from the outside world (economic, social, historical, etc.) and itself an object of study for narrator and reader as manifested in the world of text.

It can be therefore maintained that the increasingly frequent visibility of this filter acts as a third wing of this triptych that folds back over the whole text, both in the way of a reading strategy for the statements of the impersonal narrator of the first section or “Exteriors” and as a distinct rewriting goal that makes itself felt in the revised or wholly new sub-sections of “Exteriors”. Thus, this third section or wing underlies the two others without having a material or independent textual presence of its own. Moreover, it shows the way in which the attempts of the first section or “Exteriors” to attain objective status are fundamentally misguided leading to a wrongheaded form of objectivity that is mere posturing. The experiences, thoughts and musings put forward are objective but not in that they can be shared by the readers.

Rather, the subject or interiority from which they issue is itself a special object capable of being put forward in the world (at least, to some extent in the text) through the proper means of framing. This is not to be achieved through tailoring specific content to fit the generic reader, however well or ill this might be accomplished, through the use of a gimmicky framing device, i.e. the pronoun “you”; it requires instead a transformation of the text’s formal devices for presenting the narrator’s “interiority (for lack of a better word) in a “neutral” fashion, that is, leaning neither too heavily towards the subjective end of the spectrum (in positing autonomous interiority and personality) nor the objective (in claiming that the object is an object like all others). This neutrality method, as it were, seems to us the best way to approach the thorny issues of navigating the admittedly antiquated subject-object divide: presenting the objectively formed filter at work in the individual as a unique object among others.

The distinction between this account and that of Adorno can now be advanced in more clarity, as well as their proximity. For the latter, subjectivity is, at best, waning and, at worst, was never more than an illusion, insofar as the objective economic, historical and societal processes of the day inscribe themselves further and further in the everyday workings of that which was formerly recognized as the core of subjectivity: reflection, judgment, action, belief. Insofar as these issue entirely or almost entirely from outside factors, positing any positive form of subjectivity is misguided, and, although Adorno is fascinated by the “negative” subjective position as seen in Minima Moralia, the most room that is made for subjectivity in his thought is that of the violent eclipse of the subject in the work of art. It can also be maintained that the factors at work, in virtue of their objective form, are the same for each individual in a given historical context. Accordingly, any uniqueness that might have been secured at one time by the subjective position is at once swept aside by the increasingly homogenous movements of contemporary mass culture. It is for this reason that, were one to shift Adorno’s account into the language of our own, the existence of a unique “filter” would be excluded in advance by the general forces acting everywhere at once on the subjective position. More simply, rather than a unique for each position, there would exist but a unique filter for all such positions.

In the end, Adorno might hold that the positing of a unique filter for each subjective position (so as to make of this a special object amongst others) proves too positive given the grim realities of mass culture today, despite being an advance in relation to the Enlightenment subject. Yet we might ask in turn of our own account whether it is not itself too negative, eliminating as it does all self-orientation and impulsion.

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