Volume 12, Number 2 (July 2015)
Author: Christopher Vanden Berg
The 20th century witnessed a proliferation of consumer objects at a rate never seen previously, a phenomenon which has continued into the 21st century without any indication of deceleration. Both Jean Baudrillard and Theodor Adorno wrestled with the effect such a proliferation had on our understanding of society and the individual. Each recognized the significance of the object in comprehending the world and subjectivity, marking a break with most of Western philosophy which hitherto favored and articulated the primacy of the subject. However, the thought of each object-oriented thinker contains radically different implications for how the subject should respond. For Baudrillard, the priority of the object promotes a creative freedom for individuality due to the loss of reality into hyperreality and the resulting impossibility of exchange and singularity of each action and event, while Adorno argues against the idea that any phenomena is isolated and stresses the danger in assuming so, understanding the gap between an object and its conceptualization not as a model for behaviour but instead as directional for praxis. In this way, these two theorists can be said to constitute two poles in to object-priority theory, and reading them alongside one another can help establish a landscape of object-oriented thought. The particular question, however, with which this paper engages (and from which this landscape becomes visible) is how object-oriented thought as represented in these two theorists arrives at such contrary conclusions; or, how the same epistemological evaluation of society can produce opposite existential attitudes, and which account, if either, should be given precedence.
The continuous increase of objects in our world serves as an impetus for clarity on this issue. How we understand the role this proliferation plays in what it means to be an individual, and in particular, how as individuals we should respond to our world of objects, is critical for a clear understanding of the nature of both ourselves and our social totalities. As will be shown, while both theorists postulate an ethic which recognizes the significance of the object, understanding the particular theoretical trajectories of each theorist helps clarify how such distinct conclusions could be reached despite sharing a similar starting principle. The first section of this paper will illuminate the shifts which led Baudrillard away from expressing the consequences of the system of objects—consequences which lack concern or mention in his later works—demonstrating that it is only by enclosing his analysis within a hyperreal world that can he posit his radical conclusions for an unrestricted praxis which disregards concrete consequences of actions. Alternatively, Adorno’s system, while consistent in its exposition throughout his career, is problematic for the inverse reason: the individual discovers no non-violent course of action beyond fantasies of reconciliation.
II. Baudrillard’s Object: From the Absence to the Singularity
Baudrillard’s works have been succinctly differentiated by commentators into an early, sociological or Marxist Baudrillard and a later, “performative” Baudrillard (see Lane, 2000). What will be demonstrated here, however, is that the kernels of his later performative positions can be identified at particular moments in the earlier works. Moreover, in this shift towards performativity, Baudrillard notably ceases to include the negative social consequences as part of his analysis, a reality which he once acknowledged and even emphasized. This section will therefore argue that by surveying the arguments Baudrillard makes throughout his career we can identify inconsistencies which produce and potentially undermine his later positions and conclusions. Highlighting the shortcomings of Baudrillard’s theory will be informative in attempting to formulate a sufficient theory of society which recognizes the significance of objects.
In the System of Objects, his first major work, Baudrillard identifies the challenges for a coherent understanding of the intricacies of society to be maintained given the vast increases in objects in late capitalist society: “everyday objects…proliferate, needs multiply, production speeds up the life-span of such objects – yet we lack the vocabulary to name them all. How can we hope to classify a world of objects that changes before our eyes and arrive at an adequate system of description?” (Baudrillard, 1996:3). Classification, definition and encyclopaedic organization, which once seemed adequate to organize meaning, lose their strength as the objects around us grow in number. Baudrillard argues that the prominent attempts to make such a scenario comprehensible fall short. This is due, he believes, to their focus on the function or structural significance of objects, failing to include the experiential and non-functional needs they effectively fulfil; in short, the cultural experience of objects; in his words: “the process whereby people relate to them and with the systems of human behaviour and relationships that result therefrom” (Ibid.:4).
Such a reconsideration of the significance of the object thereby postulates a distinction between the ‘spoken’ plane of the system of objects and the technological one (the former constituting the social, ‘inessential’ plane, which always refers to the latter plane, which is ‘essential’). The technological plane is a “coherent system that is never directly experienced” since one can never completely understand the intricacies of the computer they work on, the engine of the car they drive to work, and the electrical wiring which provides their office with power (Ibid.). The technological plane is therefore independent from individuals but is from which individuals construct meaning (Baudrillard thereby compares his understanding of this system to a language). A rigorous analysis of the technological plane (that is, of the relation between ‘technemes’ and objects, just as the relationship between langue and parole) would follow ‘too pure’ of a course, Baudrillard claims, noting that ‘everyday objects’ (what we encounter in the social plane) do not follow a trajectory of pure functionality, but constantly contradict such a development. It is thereby the way in which “the rationality of objects [the technological plane] comes to grips with the irrationality of needs [cultural plane], and the way this contradiction gives rise to a system of meanings that seek to resolve it” which Baudrillard feels is worthy of investigation, instead of an impossible and exhaustive account of technological models. Indeed, the need to focus on “the rationality of objects” remained a central theoretical maxim throughout Baudrillard’s career.
In such a world, our ‘everyday environment’ appears as an increasingly abstract system; everyday objects become less connected to the function they originally, technologically purport. Baudrillard notes, however, that this doesn’t result in an attempt to reconcile the object with its potential function, but instead to introduce more objects to fill in the gaps. He claims that this very pattern expands the inessentiality of the cultural system, and “threatens the objective status of the object itself”, as the ‘inessential’ (personalization or style) become the primary aim or function of the object, and functionality (essentiality) becomes secondary (Ibid.:8-9). Therefore, for Baudrillard, unlike language, technemes cannot claim an autonomy from the ‘spoken’ (cultural) system of objects; as technology constantly evolves in response to the spoken system of objects: “Whereas a rolled r in contrast to a uvular r changes nothing so far as the linguistic system is concerned- in other words, the connoted meaning has absolutely no retroactive effect on the denoted structures – the connotation of an object may for its part bring great weight to bear upon technical structures, and alter them significantly” (Ibid.: 10).
The system of objects is therefore most adequately approached and understood not encyclopaedically, but as “the result of the continual intrusion of a system of practices into a system of techniques” (Ibid.). Acknowledging the effect practice (culture) has on the technological system amongst the proliferation of objects leads Baudrillard to the conclusion that, in contrast to particular Marxists at his time (such as Louis Althusser), cultural practices are the effective vehicle of society, not the relations of production. As these cultural practices are characterised by the prioritizing of the inessential elements of the object over the functional aspect, it must not be the object itself which is desired, but what that object signifies that is of relevance to these cultural practices.
From this, Baudrillard makes the radical conclusion that consumption is immaterial, as objects become signs (as the periodization and serialization—which accompany a proliferation of objects—increases) and only its sign-ness “can it be consumed, never in its materiality, but in its difference”; that is, its significance lies in its relationship with and its status in comparison to the rest of the objects in the cultural landscape (Baudrillard, 1996: 200). Consumption can thereby be understood “as a total idealist practice of a systematic kind which goes beyond relations to objects and interpersonal relations and extends to every level of history, communication and culture” (Ibid.: 203). Significantly, consumption being immaterial implies that there are no limits to consumption, since that which is consumed makes no demands on the physical universe—a point which especially resonates decades later, now that a substantial amounts of objects (software, video games) are consumed in non-material ways. This consumption is far from a passive activity—as some concerned parents may perceive—but instead marks “an active form of relationship (not only to objects, but also to society and to the world), a mode of systematic activity and global response which founds our entire cultural system”, since the individual act of consumption perpetuates the system of objects (Ibid.:199). Moreover, such an understanding of the immateriality of consumption also demonstrates the insatiability of consumption: “Consumption is irrepressible, in the last reckoning, because it is founded upon a lack” (Ibid.: 205). Significantly, in “filling in” an unreconciled “gap”, a new object doesn’t reconcile the need such an object purports to fulfil, but perpetuates the absence, requiring another new object, and so on ad infinitum.
Baudrillard continues this line of analysis in The Consumer Society, noting that in our “age of affluence” individuals are surrounded with more objects than other humans, and are thus involved much more in “the reception and manipulation of goods and messages” than human relationships—resulting in the impression of society as “a jungle in which the new wild man of modern times has difficulty recovering the reflexes of civilization” (Baudrillard, 1998: 26). Here Baudrillard insists that we must keep at the forefront of our minds that such proliferation is “the product of human activity…dominated not by natural and ecological laws, but by the law of exchange value” (Ibid.: 27). In this second work, Baudrillard further develops the effects such a world has on the subject: “Just as the wolf-child became a wolf by living among wolves, so we too are slowly becoming functional. We live by object time: by this I mean that we live at the pace of objects, live to the rhythm of their ceaseless succession” (Ibid.: 36).
Now that we are used to such a ‘rhythm of the objects’, Baudrillard claims, our day to day lives—what her terms “everydayness”—would be unbearable apart from it. This simulated consumption of signs provides us with transcendence from the banality of the real. Hence his claim that “we live, sheltered by signs, in the denial of the real” (Ibid.: 35). Although participation in such a world is an “alibi of participation”, we are so constituted by it that we cannot live apart from it.
The logic of this consumption for Baudrillard does not consist of the satisfaction of needs, but instead “the production and manipulation of social signifiers” (Ibid.: 61). This process can be understood as a ‘system of exchange’ on par with language, but also as ‘a process of classification and social differentiation’ where signs and object are organized in a hierarchical value system. Objects are never consumed themselves, but are always manipulated as signs. As such, the act of consumption alters the individual’s location and status amid the hierarchical value system: participating in particular activities, owning certain brands, enjoying particular music identifies one’s position as being located within a particular group endowed with a certain level of status.
To boast of one’s individuality within the consumer society is to affirm and reinforce it, since the very process of differentiation—which one experiences as the ‘free choice’ of objects of consumption—affirms the value and status of that same distinction. This dilemma also testifies to the unlimited character of consumption, since both the need to maintain social status and aspiration to climb the social ladder are inherent to such a system of social differentiation, and can therefore such a system can never provide rest or satisfaction. The system also in the same way implies a “perpetual excess of needs over the supply of good”, as the compulsion for all to maintain and progress their status implies that the sum total of what people desire will permanently be more than what exists (Ibid.: 66). Baudrillard thereby concludes that such an analysis reveals “a logical contradiction between the ideological hypothesis of growth society, which is social homogenization at the highest level, and its concrete social logic, based on a structural differentiation” (Ibid.: 67).
At several moments in these early works, Baudrillard expresses the concrete outcomes which result from these contradictions. He notes that “there is no place for individual goals in the system; there is room only for the goals of the system”, and admits that poverty is a direct result: “It is our social logic which condemns us to luxurious and spectacular penury” (Ibid.: 66, 68-9) . On the relation of this system to the inequalities which it maintains and produces, he states: “Profusion is a function of discrimination. How could it be the corrective to it?” (Ibid.: 67). It can be said, at least in part, that Baudrillard draws these conclusions this point in his writings because he remains conscious of the importance of the gap between objects and the purpose they claim to serve. He perceives the ‘lack’ which the object fails reconcile to as being consequential for the individual and society. As we will see, the later works of Baudrillard do not focus on the gap, seeking instead to explicate the logic of the world of simulation and hypereality which emerge from this same system. As a result, however, in what appears as a theoretical flip, Baudrillard later no longer acknowledges that such a system compromises individuality, nor does he seem concerned of any ‘lack’ the profusion of objects defers, instead affirming the precise opposite conclusions. In order to see how he arrives there, we must continue to follow the trajectory of the conclusions of his works.
Throughout the Mirror of Production and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, his next major works chronologically, Baudrillard engages explicitly with Marx, identifying aspects of his theory which he contends are problematic for understanding the cultural phenomena of the object-ubiquitous 20th century. Of particular relevance to our topic is his explication in these works of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, as it is through presenting Marx’s understanding of the object of exchange in Capitalist society by which Baudrillard contrasts and articulates his own.
For Marx commodities are objects fetishized with an ‘exchange value’, which masks the alienated labor by which the objects were produced. Baudrillard challenges the assumptions made by such a claim, arguing that the concept presupposes “the existence, somewhere, of a non-alienated consciousness of an object in some “true,” objective state” (Baudrillard,1981: 89). The non-alienated consciousness assumed by Marx is that of ‘use-value’, the purpose of the object prior to the introduction of a market which dictates its (new) value. In protest, Baudrillard claims that “the empirical “object,” given in its contingency of form, color, material, function and discourse…is a myth”; that an object only ever consists of the “relations and significations that converge, contradict themselves, and twist around it”, and that it is only ever these relations which produce the discourse in which the object is understood (Ibid.: 63). As such, Baudrillard accuses Marx’s historical materialism as perpetuating the very antagonisms it seeks to reduce, since Marx’s theory universalizes a particular understanding of the object (use-value); not identifying its signification as belonging to a particular era which has certain relational consequences for the object (for Baudrillard, use-value is exclusively a capitalist understanding of the object), but as something which transcends history. In his words: “Presupposition of use-value — the hypothesis of a concrete value beyond the abstraction of exchange value, a human purpose of the commodity in the moment of its direct relation of utility for a subject — is only the effect of the system of exchange value, a concept produced and developed by it…use value is only the horizon of exchange value” (Ibid.: 23-4).
Against Marx, Baudrillard formulates distinctions in how economies have been historically organized, each with a different respective understanding of the object. Baudrillard understands societies prior to Capitalism as engaging in “symbolic exchange”, where the significance of the exchange of an object does not lie in the object itself, but is generated exclusively by the transaction. In symbolic exchange, social relationships are transparent, with the gift is the best example. Objects are endowed with the significance of their exchange (passing our tribe’s goods to yours signifies our relationship). Exchanges themselves created meaning, and included reciprocal recognition. As Baudrillard states, “There is neither a mode of production nor production in primitive societies. There is no dialectic and no unconscious in primitive societies. These concepts analyze our own societies, which are ruled by political economy” Baudrillard, 1975: 49). It is with the economic reorganization dictated by capitalism that political economy changes from relations of symbolic exchange to relations of “sign value”, where objects are exchanged in accordance with their status and value in relation to the entire system of objects. As such, the relationships by which the objects are marked are no longer transparent. The meaning of exchanges is not exclusive to or contained within the exchange itself, but the relation assume relationships in meanings to other signs.
By universalizing the concept of ‘use-value’ across all societies regardless of economies, Baudrillard feels that Marxism fails to get to the root of the issue which plagues our object-filled society. By assuming an object’s only purpose can lie in its use, and thus making central the relationships of production which create useful objects, we fail to articulate an alternative to a society which doesn’t have production as a central organizing principle. Hence Baudrillard claims, appropriating the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, that “A specter haunts the revolutionary imagination: the phantom of production” and that “in Marxism history is transhistoricized: it redoubles on itself and thus is universalized” (Ibid.: 18, 48). In contrast to Marx, Baudrillard contends that: “The truth is, not that `needs are the fruits of production’, but that the system of needs is the product of the system of production. This is quite different. By system of needs, we mean that needs are not produced one by one, in relation to the respective objects, but are produced as consumption power, as an overall propensity within the more general framework of the productive forces” (Baudrillard, 1998: 75-6).
While commodity fetishism constitutes “a force, a supernatural property of the object and hence…a similar magical potential in the subject”, in centuries prior to Marx, the idea of ‘fetishism’ took on the property of a fabrication, imitation, and creation (Baudrillard, 1981: 91). Baudrillard contends that this earlier understanding is more apt to describe the scenario for the subject in the world of objects, suggesting that it is on the “arbitrary code of differences” in which the objects exert their fascination—the fetishism occurs, not of the signified (object), but of the sign itself. Baudrillard thus insists that we must move from critique of political economy, of which’s work is complete, to the critique of the political economy of the sign (Ibid.: 53).
In these works too, Baudrillard express his understanding of the outcomes of such a system of sign-value, noting that its tranquility “requires perpetual consumed violence for its own exaltation…It is partial to events and violence, provided the violence is served up at room temperature”, and that “the system is exhausting itself in its own reproduction… devouring itself” (Baudrillard, 1996: 36, 41). The recognition of real consequences contained in these works of Baudrillard’s led some to consider these works, up to and including Symbolic Exchange and Death, as his last real works (Lane, 2000: 62). Yet In arguing for the sign value of the object as central instead of the relations of production which produced it, Baudrillard also, be it consciously or unconsciously, began a shift away from the material reality which produced the bearer of the signs: the reality of the concrete object itself. In centralizing his focus the role of sign, the material aspects of the ‘signified’ shifted to the background.
The later works of Baudrillard emphasizes “hyperreality” as the dominant way of experiencing the world, and seek to explicate the intricacies of such a world’s logic, focusing not on the lack of reconciliation between what objects purport and the ‘real’, but insisting upon the complete loss of the real due to the ubiquity of the sign-values of objects. In the hyperreal, phenomena such as Disneyland and the Watergate scandal represent not escapes or aberrations from the norm, but serve primarily to convince us that the norm (or the real) still exists apart from or outside of them (Baudrillard, 1983: 25-7). For Baudrillard, culture outside of Disney and politics apart from Watergate still are constituted by the same logic or simulation which mark the former, the distinction being a mere illusion propagated to provide assurance that a “real” still exists and occurs somewhere. In a similar move, Baudrillard argues that war as expressed in film or the news and physical war on the ground both are similarly consumed as simulated expressions of technology, as oppose to a “real” experience of war (Lane, 2000: 93). Such analyses led to Baudrillard’s controversial claim that the gulf war did not happen, stressing that it was only experienced for everyone through simulation. While such an argument may seem extreme, it succinctly expresses the hyperreal world view Baudrillard is extolling.
In one of these later (see Lane 2000: 93) works, Baudrillard concludes that the subject has now completely lost its foundations (Baudrillard, 2008). Baudrillard claims that the reason it has been privileged throughout history has merely been the sense of balance and reassurance it provides. The subject constitutes “the equilibrium between a will and a world, a drive and an object, the balancing principle of the universe” (Ibid.: 142). Remaining with the subject protects us from “the multiple, monstrous and fascinating universe” (Ibid.). While the subject’s former beauty lay “in its caprice, in its inexhaustible will to power”, the subject is now finds itself “a miserable carcass in conflict with its own desire…incapable of managing a coherent representation of the world” (Ibid.: 143). Baudrillard thus sees the only tenable position as being the position of the object. While the subject fatally desires (a fatal strategy because there is no end to that desire; the subject will always find itself to have been mistaken on what was desired), the object seduces, free of any commitments beyond that immediate seduction. The object, as a “strange attractor” is “free a priori of psychology and introspection”, and thus exemplifies “the way to go in search of otherness” (Baudrillard, 1993: 152, 173).
Recognition of the real appears at moments in these works, but not enough to ground it as being consequential for Baudrillard. One passage in Transparency of Evil in particular testifies to this: “There are two methods of getting beyond alienation. Either disalienation and the reappropriation of oneself – a tiresome process, without much prospect of success these days. Or the other extreme – the path of the absolute Other, of absolute exoticism. This alternative path leads to an exponential defined elsewhere, virtually, in terms of total excentricity. It goes beyond alienation but in the same direction – to what is more than the Other, to radical otherness (emphasis added)” (Ibid.: 173).
Baudrillard declares that attempts at reconciliation have failed to succeed, and thus advocates the alternative strategy of giving over to the logic of the object, as it is the only plan he sees tenable. As we will later see, this marks the point of difference between him and Adorno, who remains unrelentingly concerned with the concrete consequences of any strategy which departs from attempts at reconciliation the object with its concept.
Baudrillard’s strategy of passing over to the logic of the object is outlined in Impossible Exchange. There, he notes that an obstacle in going in such a direction is that thought still feels, instinctively, that it belongs in the realm of utility; thought feels compelled to have a purpose. This is due, he claims here, to a nostalgic attachment to the former use and application of thought (the ‘phantom of production’ extends to the mind). With the rise in the presence of technology, the ‘human’ and the ‘inhuman’ have lost their definitions (Baudrillard, 2001: 49). The distinction which needs to be made, he insists, is between intelligence and thought (Ibid.: 149). Technical apparatuses, in absorbing all information and performing all functions, allows for thinking to be “freed from all purpose…and restored to its radical uselessness” (Ibid.: 153). Assigning intelligence to machines is thereby the final solution to the incompleteness of thought; it allows thought to be set it free (Ibid.: 145). Thought is useless, and we must acknowledge it as such to achieve the liberation it desires. If we assign thought the aim of ‘truth’, we are “beat from the start” (Ibid.: 146). Alternatively, if we assign thought no aims, it will always be fulfilled.
Such recognition of the uselessness of thought thereby posits what Baudrillard argues is its ‘true’ role: “Relieved of the real by the virtual itself, thought can once again assume its place where the thinking is” (Ibid.: 156). All bodily actions which once had a function—Sex, thought, death—can now be recycled as mere leisurely activities Ibid.: 48). Individuals “are at last free to be what they are without going through anyone else, and not even through freedom or the right to be free” (Ibid.: 157). Realization of this, Baudrillard states, is a cause for celebration: “Where we might deplore the disappearance of the real in the virtual…we should instead rejoice in the totalization of the world which, by purging everything of its functions and technical goals, makes room for the singularity of thought” (Ibid.: 158).
In recognition of this, Baudrillard suggests “reinvesting of the sphere of all exchange by that which cannot possibly be exchanged”, a return to the kind of pre-capitalist symbolic methods of exchange (Ibid.: 159). However, this new economy will contain a crucial difference: In recognition of the impossibility of exchanging meaningless objects in a meaningful way, individuals can exchange “without losing” (Ibid.: 162). The proliferation of objects thus invites the subject consume, exchange, and play freely.
As has been shown, in Baudrillard’s earlier works, he notes the consequences of the system of objects – the logic of which later helps constitute the hyperreal. Later, such consequences are ignored. While his final understanding of the world of objects which surrounds us provides a theoretical license for a guiltless freedom of action, such a prescription is unrecognizable from the theorist who once asserted: “Profusion is a function of discrimination. How could it be the corrective to it?” (Baudrillard, 1998: 94). In other words, Baudrillard’s exposition on the consequences of ‘hyperreality’ as a completed process completed may provide insights into a hyperreal world, but whether such a world is representative of one universally experienced is a question which undermines the significance or importance of those insights. While it may be a truth that attempts at reconciliation between objects, individuality, and the real does not have much success, as Baudrillard argues in Transparency of Evil, abandoning attempts does not eliminate their failures.
III. Adorno’s Object: Reconciliation and the Non-Identical
Parallels can be drawn between the theoretical trajectory of Baudrillard and that of the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno. Each philosopher were struck early in their careers by the rise of consumer culture, and the analysis each developed at that time expanded into their later positions on how the subject should respond to such a world. In his essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” Adorno constructs arguments similar to what we have identified as the ‘early’ Baudrillard.1 However, While for Baudrillard the schema by which consumer culture can be dissected and understood is language, for Adorno it must be understood as part the larger phenomena of Enlightenment’s entanglement with Myth (hence the title of his essay).
Not unlike Baudrillard, Adorno notes the cultural objects which emerge in the 20th century signify a substantial shift in the nature of society itself. The introduction of the radio exemplifies this shift, since in comparison with the telephone, radio does not permit the listener “to play the role of subject”, but instead it “democratically makes everyone equally into listeners” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002: 95). This same passivity is also experienced in the widespread consumption of magazine and film. As a direct result of the ubiquity of these new mediums, “culture…infect[s] everything with sameness” (Ibid.: 94). Consequently, “images and texts of advertisements are, at a cursory glance, hardly distinguishable from the editorial section…Every film is a preview of the next” (Ibid.: 132). Moreover, the content of culture is increasingly liquidated by economic forces for the sake of sales. As a result, Individuality can be expressed only through the consumption of these products, as the entire content of society becomes enveloped with consumerism. Hence his claim that even individuality itself becomes an advertisement for products: “Through the language they speak, the customers make their own contribution to culture as advertising” (Ibid.: 133). As a further result, the enjoyment of these banal products comes to replace the higher values of society (Ibid.: 115).
The culture industry’s effects on individuality are matched by its economic effects. Adorno states that “the possibility of becoming an economic subject, an entrepreneur, a proprietor, is entirely liquidated….all have become employees” (Ibid.: 123). Even though the possibility of emerging successful or economically prosperous is claimed to be universal, “only one can draw the winning lot” (Ibid.: 116). Due to the liquidation of individuality and the economic dependency on the system itself, the conclusion which Adorno makes in regards to the understanding of freedom in the age of the culture industry is that it is reduced to “freedom to choose an ideology…freedom to be the same” (Ibid.: 136). Similar to Baudrillard, survival is dependent on incorporation (Ibid.: 104). Such tendencies mark the logic of the object-filled world of the culture industry.
Like Baudrillard, attentiveness to the logic of objects remains present in his Adorno’s later theoretical works, and Adorno also moves to from discussing the object in material terms (radio, tv) to discussing it primarily in epistemological and metaphysical terms. However, Adorno’s position on the object and the need to give the object priority is not the result of surrendering to the logic which the object purports, but is inextricably linked to the broader process in which any object is conceptualized; the process of thought itself. In this manner, the significance of the opening line of the introduction to Adorno’s theoretical magnum opus Negative Dialectics, “Philosophy lives on because the moment to realized it was missed” is twofold (Adorno, 1973: 3). On the one hand, it refers to a specific event: the failure of the 20th century experiments in alternatives to capitalism.2 More radically, however, it can be seen as a statement which indicates the very nature of thought itself. In this sense, the ‘moment’ to realize philosophy is each moment in which it is possible to philosophize. As such, for Adorno, thought itself contains the reason why thought occurs. While the following exposition may seem quite epistemological to deal concretely with the phenomena of a world overflowing with consumer goods, such exposition is necessary to adequately explicate Adorno’s understanding of such a world and his position on what the subject should do in response.
“To think”, claims Adorno, soon after, “Is to identify” (Ibid.: 5). Reflection upon thinking, however, reveals an untruth in identity. Since each concept is an appropriation of an object, there always remains some aspect of the object which is inevitably left out. Such recognition for Adorno testifies to the true nature of the activity of ‘dialectics’. “The name of dialectics”, he states, “says no more…than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder” (Ibid.). In this sense, “dialectics is the consistent sense of non-identity” (emphasis added). Adorno describes the ‘leaving out’ of identification as an act of violence done to the object. Thinking itself can thus be considered as an act of “doing violence to the object of its synthesis” (Ibid.: 19). By inevitably leaving something out, thought cuts the ‘non-identical’ short. The violence of thought achieved its ultimate manifestation, Adorno claims, in the deaths of the concentrations camp: “Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death” (Ibid.: 362). In this sense, Auschwitz does not represent an aberration of reason, but is the direct result of unreflective ‘identity’ thinking. While Auschwitz constitutes one of the most violent manifestations, Adorno states that such identity thinking is largely “a characteristic form of reified consciousness at present” (Adorno, 1998: 252).
As has been stated, this gap between the object and what the object purports was lamented by the early Baudrillard and understood as a moral maxim by the later Baudrillard (in the context of hyperreality). In distinction, Adorno is not silent on the means to deal with these insights into the violence and antagonism contained in thought, describing the means by which thought could function otherwise: “The cognitive utopia”, Adorno claims, “would be to use concepts to unseal the non-conceptual with concepts, without making it their equal” (Adorno, 1973: 10). By reflecting on the concept as that which sells the object short, new insights can be made concerning the object. In the consciousness of a concept as that which overshoots the object is a new kind of concept, one which is self-aware. In this sense, a ‘changed’ philosophy “would be nothing but full, unreduced experience in the medium of conceptual reflection” (Ibid.: 13). The concept of non-conceptuality, conscious of is conceptualization, would transcend identity thinking through the awareness of the contradiction contained within thinking itself. This consciousness enables us to transcend ‘concept fetishism’, the term Adorno attributes to identity thinking – such activity is Adorno’s ‘antidote’ to what he identifies as philosophies’ shortcomings. While Baudrillard historicized Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism in order to supersede it, Adorno expressed it universally as reification not just of consumer goods but of all objects of thought, and thus could suggest a universal antidote, at least conceptually.
If all (reified) thought can be described dialectically, Adorno argues, we should, in attempt to articulate a conceptually reflective method of thought, engage with the system which represents the greatest attempt to “use philosophical concepts for coping with all that is heterogeneous to those concepts”– that is, Hegel’s philosophy (Ibid.: 4. Such a strategy is consistent with Adorno’s mandate that one cannot ‘start anew’ – instead of describing dialectics from scratch, Adorno begins with Hegel). Adorno claims that the shortcomings in Hegel’s philosophy are precisely due his lack of recognition of the violence done to objects. By completely identifying concepts with their objects, Adorno argues, Hegel leaves them unacceptably unchallenged. Against this, Adorno argues once we recognize that “all concepts, even the philosophical ones, refer to nonconceptualities”, we can recognize that philosophical knowledge can never be absolute (Ibid.: 11). A qualitative change is thereby invited into the nature of dialectics and indeed of thought itself. If in Hegel’s system there is no recognition of the violence done to objects, a changed system would constantly remain open to the object itself. On this note, Adorno claims that “if the thought really yielded to the object, if its attention were on the object, not on its category, the very objects would start talking under the lingering eye”, which is to say that objects themselves would contest any ‘violent’ conceptualizations done to them (Ibid.: 27-8).
The only hope for thought, and thereby for reconciling objects with their concepts, therefore lies in this kind of yielding – the allowing of objects to refute dogmatic conceptualizations which are antagonistic to their character. In doing so, Adorno argues, thought can progress towards a state of reconciliation in which the antagonisms contained in concepts are relieved. Dialectics thus “serves the end of reconcilement” (Ibid.: 6). The goal of philosophy for Adorno can therefore be summarized as the reconciliation of the antagonisms which present themselves to thought. Since the antagonisms contained in thought trigger a sense of guilt of something being ‘left out’, we can state that we are compelled to think by that which is not reconciled. Adorno summarizes this by stating that each concept longs for reconciliation with the object to which it is attributed: “A is to be what it is not yet…The ideas live in the cavities between what things claim to be and what they are” (Ibid.: 150). Identifications contain within them the indication and directional compulsion towards reconciliation. In this way, “non-identity is the secret telos of identification” (Ibid.: 149).
To translate this elaborate understanding back into Adorno’s earlier analysis of culture (and to express it in terms of our current milieu, which is our central question): cultural objects are always claiming some purpose, be it functional or entertainment. However, consuming objects as narrowly as they are presented to us will always out leave an aspect of that object. While this will always also include more banal and arguably irrelevant aspects (why an object is a certain shape or color), significant aspects left out would include the origins of where the object came from (it’s labor/environmental/geopolitical background), or effects which aspects have on the individual and society (individual/social health, ideas which the object purports). Within Adorno’s framework we must admit the impossibility of ever fully knowing an object, but to contemplate it non-identically could reduce some of the violence which the object embodies and would otherwise go unrecognized.
In order to properly contemplate an object’s non-identity, Adorno argues, one must simultaneously be critical of the extent to which the subject and object dialectically mediate one another. In his words: “the two concepts are resultant categories of reflection…they constitute one another as much as—by virtue of such constitution—they depart from one another” (Ibid.: 174). Adorno claims we have had the division between subject and object ‘seared’ into our brains, resulting in an ‘absolute duality’ between them. However, such a duality would also be, alongside the other forms of explicit identity thinking, an all-encompassing monism: “Absolute duality would be unity” (Ibid.). In recognition of this, the moments of identification in subject-object dialectics must be negated. This would begin with recognition that the inclination to reduce objectivity to the subject—a tendency in epistemology—must be rejected. This reduction results in an autocratic “I” which is perceived to be ‘above’ the content in which (or the objects with which) it engages (the extreme example being Kant’s transcendental subject). However, by recognizing that “It is not true that the object is a subject, as idealism has been drilling into us for thousands of years, but it is true that the subject is an object”, we can acknowledge that the subject is not something detached from material reality, but mediated directly by it (Ibid.: 179. In this sense, objects gain priority over the subject in that they must be constantly yielded to fully understand the subject’s constitution.
Recognition of the object’s supremacy, however, does not give it the same primacy often attributed to the subject. As Adorno puts it, quite powerfully: “it is not the purpose of critical thought to place the object on the orphaned throne once occupied by the subject. On that throne the object would be nothing but an idol. The purpose of critical thought is to abolish the hierarchy” (Ibid.: 180-81). The subject is still acknowledged as the primary mediator, but strictly as the agent who must yield to the object, recognizing its mediating effect on the subject. Recognition of this mutual mediation between subject and object therefore gives us the true insight into the reality of each. The subject still exists in the world of objects for Adorno, yet must understand itself in a radically new fashion: not as the Kantian “I”, but as existing in a mutually constitutive relationship with those objects around it. Not recognizing this relationship results in the violent logic of the objects taking control. Thinking in the form of non-identity would instead recognize “the conditionedness of what conditions the Object” (Adorno, 1998: 250-1).
While such a framework indeed articulates a non-violent and transparent praxis in relation to objects, in doing so it also renders any possible positing of alternatives as being marked by that same violence. In essence, pure non-violence could only occur through no action at all, hence Adorno’s dark question of whether after Auschwitz occurred one can go on living (Ibid.: 363). Translating this position to the question of how to respond to a world of increasing objects could be interpreted as advocating a minimalist lifestyle which refrains from any participation or consumption, but would also be one which declines to become involved in any movements against the violence which the objects mask.
Which model better provides for an understand of the subject in a world of increasing objects, what are the consequences of embracing each theory, and which, if either, should be embraced? Adorno’s concept of non-identity boasts of non-violence, physical and epistemological (which are inextricably linked). In remaining open to objects, the objects undoubtedly talk, but can the subject respond? While the state of thinking in damaged life is inextricably caught up in forces which dominate it, Adorno insists he is not as defeatist as his critics make him out to be. If non-identical thinking, which for Adorno is the only coherent and adequately reflective thinking, involves yielding to the object, then the direction in which to take society can be dictated precisely by the aspects or contradictions which are ignored or left out; that is, the objects which speak out against their conceptualizations. The aspect that is most explicitly ignored, states Adorno, is the aspect of suffering. In this way, the maxim ‘woe speaks go’ resounds as the correct manner of indicating where action should be taken. All suffering thus compels action to end suffering, as it indicates a contradiction in the very structure of society, (since a role of society is to alleviate conditions of suffering). Adorno’s thought thereby echo’s Walter Benjamin’s claim that “while there is a beggar, there is a myth” (Ibid.: 203, Adorno quotes the line from Benjamin). However, what is not clear is how the action dictated in the gaps between the conceptualization of an object and the object does not itself reconstitute a gap; that the action taken to end suffering will not perpetuate it. In identifying suffering, an identity-thinking of sorts must be manifested in order to take action. Indeed, Adorno in this very way criticized many of the counter cultural movements and protests of his own times as representing an unreflective, violent mentality (Richter, 2002: 10-23). Critics of Adorno doubted the ability for any choice of action to ever be adequate, and accused such a framework of being doomed from the start (see Habermas’s discussion of Adorno in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures). There is no alternative state of things to be postulated for Adorno, other than the inversion of what currently exists, and attempting anything will always run risk the domination. Perhaps Marx had this very impasse in mind when, in the Eighteenth Brumaire, he stated that revolutions cannot be drawn from the past, but must be drawn exclusively from the future (Marx Eighteenth Brumaire).
Baudrillard’s final, ‘performative’ framework in a sense contains the precise opposite problem. In remaining within the context of hyperreality; that is, practicing a symbolic exchange while admitting the impossibility of any value underlying such transactions, we can exchange freely, yet in doing so we relinquish the possibility of there being any responsibility or consequences for such actions or exchanges. His analysis of hyperreality may testify to the consequences of an entirely hyperreal world, but we cannot help but feel the reality of ‘the real’; our constant needs for food, shelter, and a safe and open community may be met for most of those immediately surrounding us, but images of individuals still existing without those needs met, however simulated those images may be, still compel us to acknowledge that the material benefits characteristic of hyperreality (the reduction of needs) are not yet universal.
Neither framework then seems adequate for properly conceptualizing the subject-object relation in a way that articulates both an effective and responsible practice. Perhaps this reveals the necessity of a type of inconsistency in behavior for such a precarious subject. What is needed is a framework which articulates the need be ‘attentive’ to the objects, as ‘yielding’ to them fully constitute a kind of paralysis, incapable of acting for fear of any action’s negative consequences, while affirming their logic would encourage a radical indifference. If such a position eludes systematic representation, Adorno’s framework, if loosened, may come close. The extent of its slackening would be proportionate to its risk, but such risks would be necessary to adequately and efficiently respond to what objects have to say.
About the Author
Chris Vanden Berg is a Doctoral student at York University in Toronto and completed his MA at the University of Toronto. He is interested in German Idealism and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, and in particular the intersection between these fields and other streams of Continental philosophy such as radical democracy and post-structuralism.
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Richter, Gerhard. “Who’s Afraid of the Ivory Tower? A Conversation with Theodor W. Aorno.” Monatshefte 94.1, Rereading Adorno (2002): 10-23.
1 -From his co-authored work with Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. As translator Edmund Jephcott notes, however, evidence points to Adorno being the primary if not exclusive author of the culture industry essay.
2 – As the lines that follow it affirm: “the summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world”, Marx’s famous dictum from the Theses on Feuerbach, “becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried”.