Yesterday was Adorno’s birthday [peace be upon him!]. And, while it remains enduringly fashionable among left-wing types to dismiss Adorno, and no less The Frankfurt School, in a single remonstrating gesture, it also remains a verifiable fact that few bother to engage him from beyond the miasma of elitism, essentialism and arrogance which our spectacular age has mounted on his diagnoses of culture. The general response to his work bespeaks a fear of raising the patina of intellectualism over praxis, of alienating popular culture, of subverting reasoned criticism to shirk the unconscionable biddings of political immediatisms where art has lost its frame of coherence and has become yet another product for popular consumption- a respite with sound and fury but no signification- yet such was never Adorno’s own project.
Among his copious folios of work there is one particular stream in which his thought permeated the very heart of the matter, and though he may have fallen off his hobby horse now and then into the pits of assumption and error, his reconnoitering remains exemplary in its scope, perspicacity and endurance. His critique of the nexus between artistic expression and the cultural trends that it capitulates to is damning and remains all too painfully pertinent; when we admit to ourselves and others that music means no more than entertainment, which may be as it may, do we really escape the indictment of abandoning the task of our own escape from the strictures of oppressive culture? It is highly suspect. Among the basic axioms of his procedure, Adorno gave special place to the unique recursive structure of thought applied to thought, one expects no less from a dialectician: he posited that a deep dissatisfaction with one’s culture presumed an immersion worth the name into its substance. Only those who partake of its products, paradoxically, are allowed the luxury to see in it the detritus of their conscience, the dregs of their resistance waylaid by the trite melodies of popular dance music and as they are struck petrific by the entrancing thaumaturgy of film. Today, were he around, he would most probably be goaded into citing himself- Simon Critchley calls self-citation an act of narcissism, but I digress- and pronounce upon us our dishonest evasion of our predicament. It is not that merely our desires are stifled by the culture that enables us our habituated libertinage but even their symptoms are effaced by the apparatus of “…a lavish display of light air and hygiene…[produced] by the gleaming transparency of rationalised big business…” (Adorno 2005, p. 58).
Our complicity with contemporaneous conditions makes us culpable for its failings, for the slippages of desire and damage incurred by acceding to the despots’ machinery of causeless effects. If indeed art were produced in vacua there would be no need for its justification but only since we are swarmed by it in a reciprocal configuration of desire versus desire we owe more than wrung hands to its integral form. It behooves us to draw strength from this involvement “…to dismiss it” in so far as it fails to arouse our sympathetic epiphany, our rising beyond the material conditions of the commoditised world to reclaim the tenacity of despoiled, alienated and thereby mystified desire. “What is true of the instinctual life is no less true of the intellectual: the painter or composer forbidding himself as trite this or that combination of colours or chords, the writer wincing at banal or pedantic verbal configurations, reacts so violently because layers of himself are drawn to them. Repudiation of the present cultural morass presupposes sufficient involvement in it to feel it itching in one’s finger-tips…” (Adorno 2005, § 8. p. 29).
The import of his critical project would not have us wash our hands off art’s lifeblood at the scarce font of immediatisms accommodating the brutality of indifferent social systems. The mystical and poetical flourishes most contemporary artists employ to exonerate themselves from the duty of explaining their motivation only serves as a foil for the abject regression of the artistic self, which has miscarried all artistic intent before it can strive to redeem itself by its own toil. The artistic subject removed from ipseity at home in his milieu, thrown into the being of the market system which homogenises all in the currency of its one-all, has become a blight to the possibility of a conscience that has power to elevate art above human conditions and, so in due inversion, the possibility of also man’s elevation above the artefacts of [a]historical conditioning. “… [Herein] lies music’s [indeed, all arts’?] theological aspect. What music [art] says is a proposition at once distinct and concealed. Its idea is the form (Gestalt) of the name of God. It is demythologised prayer, freed from the magic of making anything happen, the human attempt, futile, as always, to name the name itself, not to communicate meanings” (Adorno 2002, p. 114).
The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech. Vague expression permits the hearer to imagine whatever suits him and what he already thinks in any case. Rigorous formulation demands unequivocal comprehension, conceptual effort, to which people are deliberately disencouraged, and imposes on them in advance of any content a suspension of all received opinions, and thus an isolation that they violently resist (Adorno § 64, p. 101).
So, briefly, why read Adorno today? Because, it is imperative to act against the reactionaries, though they be ourselves. If we say too much has happened that has incontestably altered the course of art and its equation with consumption, thought and its relation to things are we not merely begging more reasons for surrendering to the beast that is already astride us? Read Adorno because, precisely because, he angers you with his obstinacy, his clinging to a hopeful differentiation from the abject form of alterity imposed upon popular consciousness. To fight the abstractions which generalise the self, artistic and otherwise, Adorno’s critical apparatus remains a worthy weapon, -though it sometimes is a knife all blade- what hurt is spared the self which cannot define art but can seek out a hadron’s theotechny? Wherein rests the aura of artistic inspiration; wherein the magic of its immaculate conception; wherein the titanic moment of its articulation and production through the very engines from which we derive our existence, let us inquire therein of the precise psychical automatisms that move us thusly to procure for its occult, atemporal archaeology the produce of our bodily culture, our arts. If our art is all sensuousness and corporeality what then is the mystery of its immaculate inspiration, how can we rest assured in the rejection of all inquiry and criticism of its material epigenesis? To do so is dishonesty shown home, in ourselves, in a world where selcouth artistic essences threaten the very existence of the thing itself; the world where art is two birds in a bush and we are left with age-old platitudes in our hand, kneeling before the disembodied flash which animates it with a cataclysm. In the end, to mystify the moment of our deepest impulses with the rhetoric of romance or respectable forgetfulness is to disavow the pompous claim history lays upon our culture: justify yourself despite your existence. Why must rational consciousness coil itself like an illusion, effacing its discernable origins, if it comes ascendant on Dickinson’s nimble winged hope? The emancipatory potential of art lies in the understanding of its brutal prehistory and natal experience, which must be unearthed and come to terms with on its own terms; thought, in order to be made intelligible and not mystical or sophistically narcissistic, must break free its jaw from its own tail. Adorno invites us, despite the neutralising haze of our critical conscience that settles itself on his work, to recreate the topology of desire and study the imbrications and scarifications lathed upon it as so many warts only so we may excise them now, though it is too late. For, we are moving in the circle of unreason so long as we attribute to some divine preordainment the subordination of art to both commerce and magic, the repression of self to the bad infinity of the body which speculates about the end of history. The end of history situates itself in our aeon, and we must resist becoming anachronisms in this inauthentic becoming. Else, why art at all?
Theodor Adorno. Trans. Gillespie, S. Ed. Leppert, R. “Music, Language and Composition (1956)”. Essays on Music: Theodore W. Adorno. USA: University of California, 2002. Print.
Theodor Adorno. Trans. Jephcott, E., F., N. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. UK: Verso, 2005. Print.
Indian Naturalism: An Emic View
The naturalistic bent of contemporary Indian thought is a product of the materialistic philosophy of Lokāyatas or Carvākas from the Nāstika School, and, it is also, as is claimed by the movement, in contiguity with the ethos of European Enlightenment (Quack, J., 2011, p. 9). The Lokāyata is described, traditionally, with its origins being in heretical opposition to Vedic thought, as a technique of critique which did not propose a negation as logical refutation; its modus operandi, being the generation of inevitable absurdities [nigraha-sthāna] in an “…argument by adopting false and puzzling analogies [jāti]…”, is vitandā which can be translated into an oxymoronic appellation, in its substantive form, as illogical logic (Dasgupta, S., 2007, p.512).
There is here an ambivalence lieu of the oppositional tendency of the epistemic systems between the Hindus and the Buddhists as it can aid a more holistic comprehension of the metaphysical chasm between the two religions, as for the latter there is no distinction between tricky argumentation and correct argumentation. Although Buddhists do not accept distinction between modes of argumentation the do distinguish between arguments that provoke virtue and those that abet vice, yet what is illogical logic for rationalistic Hindus [upholders of Lokāyata, in terms of soteriological historiography] may be called logical in the Buddhist view (Ibid 2007). May one not say, then in the heretical and solemn timbre of the Lokāyata, an argument is an argument is an argument?
“All is impure; all is not impure; the crow is white, the crane is black; and for this reason or for that” says the Lokāyata, or the book of unbelievers (Ibid 2007, p. 515).
The popularity of this vein of sophistry was associated in public consciousness with science, and there was an entire discipline which concerned itself with the study of this modality of argumentation (Ibid 2007). This, contrarianism at the heart of Hindu hermeneutics, is sometimes taken as reason to propose that the truth of idealist Hindu philosophy can be attained sola scriptura (Ibid 2007) — by definition, cutting off the role of the hermeneutic subject, or interpreting authority as extraneous and even a priori nihilistic. The distinction “…between the natural and the supernatural…”, says Quack (2011), “is…extremely complex and treacherous” (p. 10); contemporary Hinduism would, however, by and large, treat of the naturalistic materialist position as atheism (Ibid 2011). This blanket term of atheist would also be used to describe rationalists who try to broach the question by adopting a syncretic view, inclusive of humanism, scepticism, ethical attitudes (Ibid 2011).
This blog-post is a continuation of an ongoing series on Indian Aesthetics…
Dasgupta, Surendranath (2007) A History of Indian Philosophy: Volume III. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Quack, Johannes (2011) Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. USA: Oxford University Press.
A Series of explorations in the Indian Aesthetic Universe
The aesthetic object, in Indian consciousness, is mediated by a syncretism which owes its rubric to the friction between ancient religious philosophy, colonialism, nationalist revivalism and post-globalised cultural invasion. To talk of indigenous artistic vision is to invoke a large tradition of self-assertions that hark back to the constructed unity of fragmentary social strata, it is to evoke the mythic idea of a unified Bharatavarsha, in so far as personal identities find their definition in relation to the traditionally delineated mythic structures of cultural memory. In short, the unity of non-dualist religion is not responsible for the Indian aesthetic, which seeks to combine sensate and supra-sensory experience in the aesthetic event. It is more a product of a burgeoning nationalist revivalism in the event of the Hindu encounter with religious Others.
Beauty, a western concept, is a transition of Western historical self-narratives corresponding to sates of social evolution in the reflected light of Occidental cultural vestiges (Eco, 2004; Eco, 2007). An analogue to this Western concept for India’s aesthetic domain is to be found in the notion of saundarya. This theoretical distinction attains laudable weight when it is used to cleave at the excessive nature of constructed formalisation of aesthetic attitudes in Indian society which is not to be subsumed by the theistic schema of Advaita Hinduism in isolation. One may contend that the non-duality of Advaita Hinduism, which enjoys numerical predominance, is not responsible for the Indian aesthetic vision, where artifice must produce affect to insinuate beauty is more in line with the materialistic naturalism of post-colonial India.
Saundarya means the whole gamut of aesthetic experiences, as enunciated by Indian aesthetic traditions, and is, therefore, the formal localisation of beauty. Saundarya is the product of that which arouses rasa. Rasas are, as concepts quite selcouth and polyvalent, determinate states of affect engendered as sensuous experience through the instrumental provenance of artifice. Artifice, in its turn, is defined by Jagannatha as the collocation of circumstances of cause, effect and comprehension that produce a sensation that bespeaks an affect which belongs to the “…super-mundane [lokottara] (Prasad, G., 1994, p. 132)”. The beauty of painting is said to emerge from harnessing the representative faculty of mimetic gestures, which draw on the skill of “…abhinaya [acting], an integral part of dancing” as a repertoire of stylistic gestures and postures that elicit, or produce, “…rasa and saundarya” (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003, p.55).
Bharatas’ Natyashastra enunciates the inherent aesthetic values of dance while evading their qualia, and instead alluding to the means of their genesis (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003, p.54). Traditional exegesis of aesthetic characteristics of dance has often involved the study of analogical hierarchies, such as the one found in Vishnudharmottara-Purana (Ibid 2003). The analogy offered here is revelatory in relation to the experiential provenance of aesthetic creation and criticism: a gradation from sculpture to music is implicit in traditional accounts- since, according to the allegory offered here, sculpture captures an image which is vital to the art of painting, but painting needs dance since it implicates the conscious interpellation of images and mental states that “…imitate the world”, and mastering dance demands an understanding of music and musical instruments (Ibid 2003, p.54-55). The implicit definition of beauty is, thereby, “…imitation”, which is the forte of dance (Ibid 2003, p. 55).
Traditionally, the inadequacy of painting in relation to dance consisted in its failure to represent, through mimicry, the flux of objects at home in the world of experience (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003). Thus, the operational distinctions between the arts were always taken to impute a hierarchy of the faculty of reproducing material reminders of the mythic cultural homology of the Hindu universe. Housden, pithily, illuminates the uniquely Indian production of a notional monad from the dualistic stuff of cultural memory and communal memory: “The sacrality of the land of India, not any political vision, is what, still today, gives a sense of unity to this country of so many religions, cultures, races and factions” (Paranjape, M., R., 2012, p.97). This reassessment of ancient thought in aesthetics represents the reassessment of cultural memory in relation to historical experience.
Since the body is the frontier where dance must invoke its mimetic lines of production it is apposite to define the codifications of body language as they have come to be embodied in filmic representations as a product of colonial influence. The side effect of Western education which led to self-consciousness of victim-hood among Indians under British rule was a simultaneous revulsion towards the dislodging of the Indian subject from local culture into foreign mores, and thereby a reinvigoration of the same by reclaiming the cultural narratives which defined contemporaneous disillusionment (Clark-Deces, 2011, Ch. 6). The most popular form of dance in India today is Bollywood film music oriented, and despite film music’s syncretic character, by its nature of inclusion in films, is in keeping with the spontaneous trappings of the of the nautanki tradition (Richmond, Swann & Zarrilli, 1993, p. 272; Stange, Oyster & Sloan, 2011, p. 175).
This blog-post will be continued as a series of posts about Indian Aesthetics at later dates catagorised under Art.
Clark-Deces, Isabelle (2011) A Companion to the Anthropology of India. USA: John Wiley & Sons.
Dehejia, Harsha, V. & Paranjape, Makarand (2003) Saundarya: The Perception and Practice of Beauty in India. India: Samvad India Foundation.
Eco, Umberto. Ed. (2004) History of Beauty. Italy: Rizzoli.
Eco, Umberto. Ed. (2007) On Ugliness. Italy: Rizzoli.
Paranjape, Makarand, A. (2012) Acts of Faith: Journeys to Sacred India. India: Hay House.
Prasad, Gupteshwar (1994) I.A. Richards and Indian Theory of Rasa. India: Sarup & Sons.
Richmond, Farley, P.; Swann, Darius, L. & Zarrilli, Phillip, B. (1993) Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Stange, Mary, Z.; Oyster, Carol, K. & Sloane, Jane, E. (2011) Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World, Volume 1. USA: Sage Publications.