The Ratless Countryside

Sebastian Truskolaski, Adorno and the Ban on Images

Bloomsbury, 224pp, £85.00, ISBN 9781350129207

reviewed by Stuart Walton

An enduring caution that has underlain utopian thinking in the materialist tradition is that it should not, in the present world at least, assume an appearance. Whatever shape a reconciled or transformed society might take cannot be conjured out of the present morass, as though being constructed from the IKEA flatpack. This disinclination, attributable to Marx's famous reticence about the lineaments of a liberated world, contrasted favourably with the embattled liaisons of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ideal community, Blithedale, and, in the longer perspective, set its face against the unbridled horrors of Thomas More's Utopia and Plato's Republic.

The theme of the ban on images endured in Theodor Adorno's thinking throughout his career, from his early reflections on Kierkegaard to the dialectical philosophy and aesthetic theory of the late works. In a passage of the Negative Dialectics (1966), he states that '[t]he materialist longing to grasp the thing aims at the opposite: it is only in the absence of images that the full object could be conceived. Such absence concurs with the theological ban on images. Materialism brought that ban into secular form by not permitting Utopia to be positively pictured; this is the substance of its negativity'. In modernist artworks, too, Adorno would detect the crucial absence by which the hope of escape from a failing world might be preserved — the Three Sisters‘ return to Moscow, the restitution to a healthy life in the flatland for the patients of the Berghof sanatorium, the figural representations that abstract painting chased from its canvases, the possible arrival of Godot in a charabanc bound for Paradise.

In this well-organised, and daringly succinct, consideration of the image ban — Bilderverbot, in the German — in Adorno's writings, Sebastian Truskolaski delineates the progression of a theoretical trope through three key perspectives: imageless materialism, inverse theology and aesthetic negativity. The voiding of concrete blueprints from political thinking, the salvaging of the hope for a better world from theological piety, its repurposing for a late metaphysics that could transcend the withering of human experience in the era following Auschwitz, and the discerning of a philosophy of history in the bedrock of contemporary aesthetics: these form what are arguably the central support structures of Adorno's mature thinking.

In a lecture series on philosophical terminology in 1963, Adorno said of the dialectical approach to materialism that it too often treated the material world as though it were an unquestioned blessing, a cornucopia of sensuous, pleasurable stuff to be set against the elusive chimeras and bursting bubbles of idealist abstraction. What it ought rather to tend towards is its own self-sublation in the fulfilment, and therefore abolition, of material needs. Otherwise, the valorisation of the material in itself led, on one side of the Cold War schism, to a materialism come to power as ideology and disposing over every last movement and thought of its clients, or, on the other, to the brainless gratuity of an industrialised culture that has swept almost everything, including art and religion and much of philosophy, into the bottomless sack of mass consumption.

Truskolaski is not the first to find something worryingly evasive about Adorno's mobilisation of the concepts of theology, and insists fastidiously, more than once, on the detail that he had no theological training. There is nothing of the institutional prescriptiveness of faith in the negative dialectician's thought, and naturally nothing about a God of whom one would be unauthorised to make images anyway. What remains is the notion that a disintegrative critique of the present world preserves the unarticulated hope of a different one. Inversion and negation, as Truskolaski shows, are the twin strategies by which Adorno subjects conventional theological thinking, just as he does traditional dialectics, to the possibility of realisation through its own surpassing. The promise of the resurrection of the flesh, Adorno suggests, is an extraordinary, and unimaginable, hope that confronts the ethereal impulses of the spirit with something utterly concrete. It is at once a purely idealist conception that no idealism, however, would dare propose.

As to aesthetics, it has become an axiom of much recent writing on Adorno that it was where he reposed his final hopes for liberation, rather than in political praxis. Although Truskolaski appears to restate this case summatively in the coda to this book, his chapter on Adorno's aesthetics is more nuanced. Art is both a product of the domination of nature and a means of critiquing that condition. It is precisely in the immanence of artistic language that a transcendence over the indigent world that art convicts may be intimated. Culture offers no defence against social and political barbarity, indeed can often be dragooned into supporting it, and yet nowhere else in secular reality may a society freed from coercive rapacity be imagined. Then again, if art is founded on Kant's celebrated 'purposiveness without purpose', it might well have been that very purposelessness that led to its failure, in the guise of the institution of culture, to allow humanity to progress beyond the establishment of concentration camps.

It is one of the unexpected moments in Adorno's aesthetic theory that he links the image ban not to the sublime of 18th-century speculation, the intimidating power of nature that invoked the presence of a mighty deity, but precisely to its counter-pole, the beautiful. Natural beauty is not an autonomous constant, that refuge from human commerce as which it appears in the travel brochure, but is itself thereby historical through and through. 'Without historical remembrance,' Adorno writes, 'there would be no beauty', and without the densely woven social web that threatens to suffocate the living, an unwoven nature would not present itself as a historically determined refuge. It is only from the vantage point of high bourgeois civilisation that Verlaine can claim the sea is more beautiful than the cathedrals. Expatiating on the loveliness of nature becomes the recourse of a pseudology that wants to insist that, for all that the industrial cities might have turned human beings to rats, the ratless countryside stands ready to refresh them with the irrelevance of their humanity.

Combining all these currents with syncretic concision is one of the achievements of Truskolaski's penetrating work. It would be tough to improve on many of the author's distillations, such as the statement late on that Adorno offers

a philosophy of history that plays out in his aesthetics, an aesthetics that bears the weight of his metaphysical concern with transcendence, and a metaphysics (or, indeed, an 'inverse' theology) that is compounded in a quasi-epistemological model which Adorno associates with the specific 'truth content' of art.

In his closing thoughts, Truskolaski defends Adorno's theoretical procedures against a litany of the familiar criticisms: he fell into a politically useless quiescence, in the view of the student movement that reviled him; or, according to Jürgen Habermas, ended up confined within the gyrations of performative contradiction, using reason to condemn the instrumental use of reason; or, in the view of such political theologians as Giorgio Agamben, failed to see that a kind of liberation could be effected by pretending — with fingers crossed, one assumes — that it was already at hand. If Adorno is less political than many radical thinkers would like, he is simultaneously more so, says Truskolaski, in that 'the transformations [his thought] entails are, in fact, of the most emphatic sort'. For Adorno, politics means seeking out the elusive position of enunciation from which 'the rearticulation of all existing relations might yet become possible'.

What is needed now is a form of thinking that puts these intellectual procedures back to work, rather than simply summarising them once more. That might lead an astute theoretical practitioner to avoid the claque of online petitions in favour of thinking against particular configurations of the political as such, in its manifold present travesties. It might provoke an engagement with the dissension expressed in antique religious ceremonial when it refuses the cold comfort of the things of this world, instead of mendaciously celebrating the richness of existence. It might hear and intuit, in certain forms of music and visual media that Adorno himself scorned, an immanent defiance of what merely is, in favour of a life lived in contrapposto to it. 'What was once called intellect is superseded by illustrations,' he writes in Minima Moralia (1951), the triumph of a subjective reason that tore through the metaphysical images of myth, only to replace them with a reality constituted today in the ubiquity of computer graphics, animated film, the retinal hysterics of advertising, only to uphold the subject's death sentence.

Stuart Walton is Associate Editor of the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, and author of Introducing Theodor Adorno, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and A Natural History of Human Emotions.