Ktismatics

16 August 2007

Adorno and Bildung

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:47 am

To recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it, is the basic movement of the spirit, whose being consists only in returning to itself from what is other… Thus what constitutes the essence of Bildung is clearly not alienation as such, but the return to oneslf — which presupposes alienation, to be sure.

– Gadamer, Truth and Method

In the humanistic tradition of Bildung as it extends from Hegel through Gadamer (see prior post), the dialectic between self and other is transcended through identity. The self comes to recognize in its encounter with the other an aspect of itself that had previously remained hidden. By overcoming its alienation from the other, the self simultaneously overcomes self-alienation. The difference between identity and non-identity is resolved through identity.

As traditionally understood Bildung is a self-discipline by which individuals converge on a set of ideas, tastes, judgments that constitute the current approximation to universal standards. In a society dominated by economic considerations, Bildung ensures that buyers and sellers are on the same page regarding what sorts of commodities ought to be circulating. And universality never arrives; it’s always on the horizon, setting the direction of movement, of progress. The always-not-yet of the universal horizon assures a continuous influx of new and better products and a well-informed (i.e., well-disciplined) consumer base that’s ready to demand them. Bildung’s continual extension of provincial awareness toward the universal horizon assures the progressive globalization of the economy. Nietzsche recognized what was happening: As much knowledge and Bildung as possible — therefore, as much need and production as possible — therefore, as much happiness as possible. Instead of creating the universally conscious enlightened individual, this pseudo-Bildung produces a herd of Bildungphilisters — cultivated philistines, consuming popular culture spoon-fed to them by the marketplace while remaining unmoved by art and literature and other manifestations of high culture.

For Theodore Adorno, the humanistic project of Modernity has been thoroughly co-opted by the capitalistic production apparatus. In the marketplace the only difference that makes a difference is one that can be measured in excess profits: lowered cost of production, increased use value, and especially increased fetish value. All other differences are reduced to identity. Originally a means of nurturing humanistic individualism, Bildung becomes a means of minimizing individual differences. Higher culture is not immune:

No theory escapes the market anymore: each one is offered as a possibility among competing opinions, all are made available, all snapped up. Thought need no more put blinders on itself, in the self-justifying conviction that one’s own theory is exempt from this fate, which degenerates into narcissistic self-promotion.

Adorno, Negative Dialectics

As a corrective Adorno calls for a “negative dialectic” that upholds the irreducible integrity of non-identity in spite of the homogenizing machinations of capitalism. Adorno isn’t merely asserting the negative in response to the affirming collapse of all difference into the false optimism of the marketplace. It isn’t even the “negative of the negative,” by which the synthesizing co-optation is forestalled. Instead the intent is to draw attention to the unsynthesized remainder, the excess that identity cannot contain. Whatever resists identity will appear as contradiction, as the irrepressible negative.

Contemplating an unfamiliar idea or work of art, the observer encounters realms of familiarity interspersed with enigma. If you allow yourself to resist the lure of the familiar and to be drawn into the enigmatic, you find yourself withdrawing from comfortable identification and immersing yourself in the alien. You engage in a process of alienation from pseudo-Bildung — which is also a self-alienation, since the self has been so thoroughly shaped by pseudo-Bildung’s collective awareness. The progressive transcendence promised by authentic Bildung is pursued, says Adorno, not through self-effacement in the collective mind but through self-withdrawal into irreducible non-identity.

Adorno characterizes his praxis of Bildung as a “negative dialectic.” From the standpoint of the marketplace, differences that cannot be exploited economically have no meaning, no reality. To delve into these invisible differences is to seek presence in absence, forcing the mass culture of pseudo-Bildung to recognize its existence, which it can experience only as a negative, a disruption, a potential subversion. From within Critical Theory, of which Adorno was a central figure, Bildung becomes a form of counter-education, a way of building revolutionary resistance and counter-pressure to the hegemony of the “Culture Industry” that dominates the contemporary scene.

The practitioner of Adorno’s reconstructed Bildung is an alienated figure, a neurotic who will not be cured, who resists the social pressure exerted by the happy, healthy, normal people produced by mainstream pseudo-Bildung. Adorno’s pessimism was profound: Probably every citizen of the wrong world would find the right one intolerable, they would be too damaged for it. But there is no abandonment of humanistic idealism here. Instead its movement toward transcendence is inverted as a temporary corrective to the socio-historical situation “on the ground.” Instead of a unifying societal force, Bildung becomes a prophetic calling, a lonely trail into the wilderness, a utopian vision that only the pessimistic and the alienated can see.

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5 Comments »

  1. Interesting. Yeah…my most recent post was called “Jeremiah’s Indignation”
    :)

    Bringing up all this stuff about “the negative,” contradictiong Erdman’s optimism…I was expecting to hear from Dejan and The Erdmanian…??

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 August 2007 @ 10:44 am

  2. I just watched Beetlejuice with my daughter, a film that links this post with the discussion of hauntology from the preceding post. The dead couple are architects and designers with high-class TASTE; their house has been taken over by tacky New York fashionistas who are in it for the money and the fame. The tasteful dead cannot be seen by the living. Only the goth daughter can see. The dead are surprised: Why can you see us? Because, she says, the living don’t pay attention to the strange and unusual. Finally the dead make their presence known to the living, and what happens? They want to turn their haunted house, and the whole town for that matter, into a theme park devoted to the afterlife — money money money co-opts the strange, deriving quantifiable fetish value from the invisible realm. Their presentation to the NY investors fails when the ghosts don’t show up. I’m dead, says the humiliated living wife — after which she begins to see the dead people.

    So we read the movie as Bildung hauntology: those who pursue timeless good taste are alienated from society. “How can they be neurotic when they’re dead,” somebody asks, but that’s almost the definition of neurosis. But those who live in the pseudo-Bildung world that reduces taste to money are haunted by the specter of true Bildung that flickers around the edges of their awareness. Only when they’re marginalized, occupying the place of the unprofitable losers, does it become possible to recognize the lure of the tasteful dead.

    Still, Tim Burton isn’t quite that clear-cut, since the tastes of the dead are actually pretty square too. The characters with the most potential are the goth daughter, who would like to be dead, and Beetlejuice, who’s so far off the track he’s been exiled from the land of the dead.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 18 August 2007 @ 11:13 am

  3. Its been a LONG time since I’ve seen beetlejuice. The last time I saw that movie, it was nothing but wierd to me. I had no interpretive lense for it. It was probably like in high school or something, or even before.

    Anyway…you said interesting things about it. Anyway, also…I don’t really like Tim Burton, even now. He seems to like to play on certain themes and then still not really say anything. I am reminded of what you said about beetlejuice in your last paragraph as an example. I’m not sure of thats a good one or not, but…I dunno…maybe I just don’t identify with his sense of humor (and other senses as well).

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 18 August 2007 @ 2:51 pm

  4. Contemplating an unfamiliar idea or work of art, the observer encounters realms of familiarity interspersed with enigma. If you allow yourself to resist the lure of the familiar and to be drawn into the enigmatic, you find yourself withdrawing from comfortable identification and immersing yourself in the alien. You engage in a process of alienation from pseudo-Bildung — which is also a self-alienation, since the self has been so thoroughly shaped by pseudo-Bildung’s collective awareness.

    So, on these two Bildung posts I see a great of your theory coming through. I think it is good and also refreshing in many ways, though you note that:

    The practitioner of Adorno’s reconstructed Bildung is an alienated figure, a neurotic who will not be cured, who resists the social pressure exerted by the happy, healthy, normal people produced by mainstream pseudo-Bildung….Instead of a unifying societal force, Bildung becomes a prophetic calling, a lonely trail into the wilderness, a utopian vision that only the pessimistic and the alienated can see.

    Most see the goal of therapy not as “a lonely trail into the wilderness”, but as a means to function “normally” in society with all the other lemmings. My question for you is this: Do you present the possibility of still interacting “normally” in society (the “wrong world”)? Or is this necessarily excluded? Can one walk “a lonely trail” while still owning a business or working at the accounting firm or producing architectural designs for “The Firm”?

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    Comment by Erdman — 20 August 2007 @ 8:28 am

  5. Excellent comments and questions. You’re right, this is an elaboration that integrates the creational with the therapeutic. The idea of Bildung suggests a window opening onto another reality, a portal leading outward from purely subjective awareness onto something bigger, broader, maybe even universal. Adorno retains the universalism, but his Bildung leads the individual into isolation from a false culture. Nietzsche’s Bildung is a portal that opens only for the elite, and instead of converging on the discovery of a single universal it may instead diverge onto a congeries of trajectories. And for Nietzsche what Bildung reveals might not be a pre-existing reality but rather a reality that’s in the process of being created by the observer. I resonate with that understanding of Bildung too.

    Until recently I’d been thinking in terms of two different praxes: one for creation/discovery, the other for therapy. Now, framed in terms of Bildung, the therapeutic path is also one of creation and discovery. Looking through the portal, the client doesn’t delve into the self but gazes out at other realities. Through this purposive self-alienation the client comes also to understand himself, a kind of Moebius-strip action in which the outside surface curves around to face the inside.

    Is this sort of therapy a lonely walk into the wilderness on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams? Maybe, but for the client normal society is already being experienced as alienating. This alienation is subjectively experienced as a psychological symptom that needs to be fixed, whereas in Bildung it’s part of the process, something not to be avoided or cured but explored. And there’s also a “tour guide” or “outfitter” to keep the client from getting too isolated in this exploration.

    “Do you present the possibility of still interacting “normally” in society (the “wrong world”)? Or is this necessarily excluded?”

    If Bildung opens a window onto the pre-existing universal reality, then it should be possible to chart a course and an outcome. But if Bildung opens onto an emerging multiplicity, then all bets are off. Some clients might end up as successful entrepreneurs, others as revolutionaries, others as hermits.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 20 August 2007 @ 10:12 am


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