Michael Braverman portfolio / personal site

Modernity and its Latent Discontents

I regard the bad conscience as the serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced—that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace…They felt unable to cope with the simplest undertakings; in this new world they no longer possessed their former guides, their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives: they were reduced to thinking, inferring, reckoning, co-ordinating cause and effect, these unfortunate creatures; they were reduced to their ‘consciousness,’ their weakest and most fallible organ! 1

In his quote from On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche described the transition that humanity had undertaken in its departure from morality based on worship, religion and ancestry; to a morality that is instrumental and rational. By his diagnoses of the ‘bad consciousness’, Nietzsche meant to described a state of modernity in which the relationship of human subjects to the world, while empirical and rational, has become disenchanted and monotonous; an ill that he claimed, will haunt mankind throughout modernity. Adorno sought to provide a logical explanation to the problem of modernity formulated by Nietzsche: why did the culture of the European Enlightenment fail in its civilizing endeavor to emancipate mankind from its natural necessities, but instead, lead it into a state of barbarism? The essence to Adorno’s diagnosis of modernity is based on observations of a modern society that suffers from an assault of reification, technological rationality, instrumental reason, and alienation—the ingredients for what Nietzsche referred to as the ‘bad consciousness’. For Adorno, the ‘culture industry’ that evolved during the 20th century, was a manifestation of these assaults on humanity as it mated rational progress with barbarism2, the developments of which, Adorno did not hesitate to call ‘inhumane’, ‘Fascist’ and ’barbarous’—in spite of modernity’s aim for the contrary: to civilize mankind. This essay will attempt to elaborate on Adorno’s aesthetic theory and Clark’s conception of the crisis of representation and its blind incorporation and adaptation into what eventually would be referred by Adorno as the ‘culture industry’. I will attempt to expound the social condition of modern society in the context of aesthetics, which Adorno found to be a state in which the right to autonomous existence of art and subjectivity become challenged.

Early Impressionist paintings by Manet, serve as a great starting point for capturing the conditions in which the simmering Parisian culture of the 1860’s had spawned, and the way it paved the road for the Modernist upheaval. During this time, Impressionism sought to capture the Parisian high-class culture that enjoyed its liberated pleasures in the activities of picnics, promenades, boating trips, holidays and vacation travels.3 These activities where captured for the perpetual enjoyment of the subject, who payed attention to the superficial image without needing to peek at its underlying form that conceals their position in society. The representation of these individual enjoyments, is what constituted the motivation of Impressionism to capture the fleeting moments of pleasure that this social class encountered:

Cultivation of these pleasures as the highest field of freedom for an enlightened bourgeois detached from the official beliefs of his class…experiencing in its phenomenal aspect that mobility of the environment, the market and of industry to which he owes his income and his freedom.4

For Clark, the realm of representation is the most important element in Impressionism, even if its bedrock consisting of matter and action has become almost entirely subordinated to the mechanistic laws of economy. This bedrock, is a ‘determinant fact of social life’, entirely determined by the extents of which one possesses or dispossesses the social means of production—the dictating factor of ones hierarchical position in a society subordinated by capital.5 These conditions nevertheless created an environment that was a direct product of advancement of market and industry, on which the freedom of the bourgeoisie subject standed on: the cafés, the streets, the culture, all aided the development of a free individual consciousness, which pretends to not notice the hastily lowered blinds that conceal the alienated and disintegrated reality of the human condition. This condition of modern life, is what becomes continuously challenged by modernity itself as it lowers the opacity of human life, until its constituent mechanistic kernel can no longer be reified and hidden through representation. This kernel, as demonstrated below with Adorno, would become successfully hidden and concealed through successful mediation of human subjectivity by the cultural apparatus.

To escape the concealed subjective of the modern consciousness and the latent crisis of representation that breaths behind it, Impressionism slowly progressed as it attempted to capture new modes of representation. Particularly, since the 1870’s when a mixture of different classes and social interplays produced new forms of sub-classes who desired representations that they could identify with and speak to.6 The most particular class that was incubated out of the interplay of modern cosmopolitan life, was the petty-bourgeoise who consisted of intellectuals, artists, workshop owners, etc.—whom Adorno describes as ‘the last enemies of the bourgeois and the last bourgeois’7. Representations serve as an outlet for the petty-bourgeoise subject to find his/her place in the modern world; not by identifying with the brute facticity of reality directly, but rather indirectly, through a blind identification with signs, symbols, and social constructs.8 The essence of this form of identification frequently consisted of practices and experiences that allowed for one social class to exclude itself from another.9 This function of representation, is frequently grounded on an inherent tendency of a subject’s strife for recognition with other consciousnesses; impressionism, as much as it embraced the petty-bourgeoise conscious, also embraced a crucial function of grounding the subjectivity of an individual and his/her recognising status in society.

Although modernity stresses on an identification with a subject’s class within society, its characteristic is paradoxically individualistic; it is nevertheless an identification of a consciousness with itself, and not an identification with the multiplicity and totality of a society as a constitutive One. Clark points out how this form of identification is contrary to the Hegelian resolution where two subjects strive to become a unified Hegelian ‘Spirit’ through a strife towards ‘selfsame-ness’; modernity on the other hand, repels this resolution and compels every consciousness to strive for an identification with its own ‘absolute individuality’.10 Adorno emphasizes how this state of individualistic being is one that consists of an unopposed consciousness that is mere ‘being-for-itself’, who does not have a counteracting opposing consciousness through which one and the other can gain recognition.11 This unopposed state of the modern consciousness, for Adorno, is precisely what would be successfully appropriated by the culture industry in order to satisfy its thirst for rationalized accumulation. Interest and disinterestedness have been entirely reduced to a form of an individualistic Desire, that is blind to any sort of feeling of suffering—an experience that was severed from the modern subject, and was substituted by the act of mere pleasurable consumption. For Adorno, suffering is precisely what can redeem humanity and its relation to the the primacy of existence12. It is a process that has successfully concealed the latent existential crisis of modern life, while the culture industry feeds on this state and perpetuate its existence as the subject avoids confronting the negativity of his/her existence as a consuming subject.

For Adorno, the question of modernity was posed in one of his early works Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951) that diagnosed the a state of society in which ‘the entire private domain [is] engulfed by a mysterious activity that bears all the features of commercial life’13. In this work, Adorno outlines the difficulties of an individual subject to exist authentically in a modern society. The central idea of the claim of his aesthetic theory, is that sensuous particularity of almost any object or experience, is reduced into a rational abstraction of sign and image14. The only way in which a subject could escape the condition of its brute reality, is through a superficial identification with these social constructs and representations, which in turn, reduce the subjective experience into an un-particular universal. Modernism sought to confront these remnant tendencies of the Enlightenment as it sought to appose the rationally of its universalising hegemony as it dissolves the quality of the particular. As Clark puts it, Modernism attempted to ‘recast aesthetic practice and move into uncolonized areas of experience’.15 For Adorno, the colonising force is the ‘cultural industry’ of the 20th century, in which the ‘rational-cognitive’ significance of any image and its authority, would be ‘effectively disenfranchised and delegitimised’ by the thirst for positivism and rationality16.

This was precisely the condition in which Pollock found himself in as he attempted to redeem his autonomy within the bounds of the canvas. By painting and emptying various techniques of expressing his unconscious on the canvas, Pollock attempted to counteract the hegemony of conscious appropriation by representation.17 This state of the unconsciousness in Pollock’s drip paintings, can also be read in Bernstein’s reading of Adorno as a ‘procedure’ which a subject undertakes in order to ‘effectively isolate [the artwork] or make independent its capacity for sensory encounter’18. The motivation behind what Adorno refers to as the ‘mimetic impulse’19 in Modernist art, is different from the mere mimetic practice that seeks to elaborate on techniques that attempt to imitate the external world through categorization; instead, Modernist art seeks to elaborate on techniques and methods that unleash its own understanding about the world by gaining subjective control over the material. In his Aesthetics, Hegel puts in good words the liberating qualities of production and enjoyment that such art can entail:

It is precisely the freedom of production and configurations that we enjoy in the beauty of art. In the production as well as in the perception of works of art, it seems as if we escape from every fetter of rule and regularity.20

For Adorno, the thought is essentially similar: artworks are able to detach from the ’empirical world’ and exist as ‘autonomous entities’—which is what constitutes the work’s freedom and independence.21 Art deems itself to gain independence from its contingency on any conceptual framework that is based on signs and concepts, and instead, seeks refuge in the expression of spontaneity and procedure. As Clark puts it, subjects under the Modernist movement seek to protest their ‘mechanically repeated dances [that are] submitted to a preordained movement with little spontaneity22; the concept of ‘spontaneity’ is precisely what is attempted to be redeemed through artistic practice of Modernism. Modernity (not Modernism) however, has adapted in ways that allow it to appropriate procedure and spontaneity based on its rational procedures; for Adorno, this spontaneity had been successfully incorporated into the ‘culture industry’—the mechanism and technology of which—has been successfully achieved the standardisation and mass production of representation.23 Talent scouts, music competitions, and official programs all become tools and extensions of the culture apparatus which instrumentally appropriates spontaneity and incorporates it into its own monotonous cycle of production and consumption. This is the extrapolation of what Hegel referred above to as the prevailing character of ‘fetter of rule and regularity’ that penetrates the fabric of society’s relation to the world and the production of art as such. In modernity, the laws of the empirical world and rationality, penetrates and make unfree the spontaneity of what was once the prevailing character of art and its potential for redeeming freedom.

Besides serving as an allegorical confirmation of Nietzsche’s prophecies envisioning the circumstances in which human life would be painted by the dull colors of modernity; under the conditions of the ‘culture industry’, the qualitative aspects of spontaneity become decomposed, quantified, and rationalised, and transformed into an alienated product that can be easily incorporated into the culture apparatus geared towards maximising consumption. To this culture apparatus, Adorno draws the reality of the conditions in which it operates in, and how economically interwoven it is with the most powerful industrial sectors of steel, petroleum, electricity, and chemicals: the most powerful radio and television broadcasting depends on the electrical industry; the production of Kitsch depends on steel, petroleum and chemical industries; and the motion picture depends on investments from banks.24 Clark also describes this process as an extension of the capitalist market that commodifies and restructures all spheres of private life, free time, and leisure.25 These developments, serve almost as ideal circumstances in which the human primacy of existence is entirely severed and decomposed in the process of positivist progress. What Nietzsche referred to as the ‘bad consciousness’, dissects the human capacity for feeling and suffering; as society’s autonomy is shattered it becomes ever less human and degenerates into an intricate state of deterministic ‘barbarity’.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, sec. II, §16 (Emphasis in original) 

  2. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 50 

  3. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p.3 

  4. Ibid

  5. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p.7 

  6. Ibid

  7. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 27 

  8. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p.3 

  9. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p.8 

  10. Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 329 

  11. Adorno, Minima Moralia, sec. Dedication, p. 16 

  12. J. Bernstein, Blind Intuitions, p. 1079 

  13. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 23 

  14. J. Bernstein, Blind Intuitions, p. 1073 

  15. Clark, Farwell to The Idea, p.308 

  16. . Bernstein, Blind Intuitions, p. 1072 

  17. Clark, Farewell to An Idea, p. 306 

  18. J. Bernstein, Blind Intuitions, p. 1086] 

  19. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 285 

  20. Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics, Vol. I, p.5. (Emphasis in original.) 

  21. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 1 

  22. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, pp.3-4 

  23. Gottlieb, An Anthology of Western Marxism, p.181 

  24. Gottlieb, An Anthology of Western Marxism, p.183 

  25. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p.9