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Fr. 411

October 10, 2013

Any further attempts to identify the work of art and subjectivity as being strictly the same meet with similar difficulties. Consider Adorno’s estimation that “expression is the gaze of the work of art” (Aesthetic Theory, pp. 172/165, cited in Late Marxism, p. 204). Would subjectivity qua intermediate expression retain a gaze as well? Adorno’s comments on the violent eclipse of the subject would seem to indicate otherwise, i.e. that the work of art possesses a certain kind of aura or presence that is no longer the purview of subject and subjectivity. Although the subject retains a role in the expression as that which filters the various, determinative, objective influences from the socioeconomic realm, it cedes its pride of place to the work of art as that final object for which the intermediate object, the subject, has prepared the way. In other words, the work of art has displaced the subject as the true historical subject of the present day.


The preceding remarks have made clear the extent to which: subject gives way to object for Adorno at the methodological and practical level; the subject consequently becomes an object possessing a processual status and is to be understood on the model of a synchronic, total expression of the socioeconomic-historical situation at a given time; the new objective subject acts as a local filter of sorts for the broader, ongoing causal networks that both take shape in the work of art and determine the composition of that filter.

Despite his persuasive presentation, it is not certain that the causal networks of the kind aimed at by Adorno themselves escape claims of reductionism. Certainly they are  preferable to bald determinism explicated in terms of causal chains, but causal networks remain overly deterministic.  Whereas Adorno does not consider this a theoretical problem in and of itself insofar as his presentation of socioeconomic-historical determination calls for such a model, it does pose a problem for the contemporary philosopher in ethics and politics for whom such notions of a total prove somewhat untenable. Moreover, although differing over the precise nature of causality, it is not clear that Adorno distances himself sufficiently from the form of scientific positivism and reductionism dominant in the natural sciences and analytic philosophy.

Additionally, it is worth returning to the question from which we set out: is it possible to conceive of a political response to the objectivizing tendencies of late capitalism that is not itself already compromised, secretly betraying the objective status of the subject despite itself?

If one considers those particular strands of philosophy that take into account the extent to which the community and tradition into which the subject is born determine that subject, it is clear that these view are a partial approximation of the objective turn in contemporary philosophy. After all, they allow for the determinative influence of the community to shape fundamentally the content and form of the developing subject. That said, this approximation is at best partial, for, even within the most thoroughgoing communitarianism, the subject retains room for movement and self-determined acts. This is the case even in those systems where the subject exists as the culmination of the practical rationality in which a community trades. In short, though communitarian thought shifts the paradigm from self-determined subject to determined object, even the strongest forms of communitarianism resist the temptation to totalize this determination.

For this reason, one can consider systems of this kind to have successfully integrated the workings of late capitalism only to turn these back on capitalism as they take heed of its continually expanding influence. Yet communitarianism itself strays at times too closely to the bald determinism hinted at above insofar as it tends to grant the preponderant determinative influence of subjectivity as process to objective sphere of community and tradition. As a result, the subject cannot escape or wholly distance itself from the environment of a particular tradition, even if, practically speaking, precisely this distancing occurs with some regularity in the life of the individual. Is there not some other system in which the subject retains the status of processual being, containing within itself the totality of a complex network of determinative, objective relations, without thereby being reduced to an entirely determined objective process itself?

The work of Jeffrey Stout seems to offer one such possibility in that the reasons that an individual gives in political discussion can be said to have a “dialectical location”. This notion suggests the reason being given can be identified to a particular moment in the processual development of being or thought in that they must entertain some relation, however slight, with the context from which the individual speaks. This “dialectical location” recalls the status of the subject in Adorno, particularly when the latter notes that “every moment of expression bears within itself synchronic history” (Late Marxism, p. 204). Yet the subject in Stout’s work remains its own actor to some greater or lesser extent, free to choose, modify and work on these same reasons. Hence, Stout’s thought could be advanced as a subjective theory that incorporates this notion of dialectical location and the weight of material, socioeconomic influence without giving way before them. Nor does it give itself over to the insidious movements of capitalism in that it brings to light the inner workings of the former as well as those of the communitarian machine of influence, tradition and belief. In sum, Stout’s system makes room for subjectivity and opens new political ground beyond the machine of late capitalism, thus proving a way past the dilemma posed by Adorno of compromised, political responses of subjectivity.

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