The F-Scale

by Yule Heibel on October 7, 2003

Well, I think my inner fascist hauled out and grabbed me by the throat these past 2 days. I’ve been too busy. My vision is blurred as I type. Since I was spending part of my evening at the UVic library, I planned to break my serendipity quest by returning to last week’s book on nightmares, but it was gone! Which might prove that serendipity doesn’t want to be duplicated, or that rituals want to be respected, or that someone hasn’t been sleeping well lately… After wondering why I hadn’t brought along the novel I’m reading (Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart), I glimpsed an interesting title: The Phenomenal Woman; Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity, by Christine Battersby. Serendipity revived, for in ch. 7 (pp.125-147) Battersby elaborates on Adorno’s investigation of subject-object relations, and champions his critique over post-modern variants propagated by Lacan, Irigaray, and others. This was what I needed to read. I had been thinking about Adorno a lot, in particular his contribution to the development of the F-Scale (on which I am a “whining rotter”; n.b. that this site is hostile to the work done in The Authoritarian Personality). This book, which has so often been rejected by Americans as “impossible” (I beg to differ: I think it’s pretty accurate) was on my mind because of the California recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s alleged pro-Hitler statements, and Helmut Newton’s veneration of Leni Riefenstahl’s aesthetic sensibility. It’s a messy place at times, my head, but basically I was wondering why modern society has gotten so stupid and blinded by spectacle that the only way progressive forces can hope to defeat evil & stupidity is by playing a trump card of cartoonish evil in the form of the Nazism label.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing cartoonish about Nazism, but it strikes me that the way the card was played against Schwarzenegger was. As if: oh noble citizens, behold, a Nazi!, now surely you will turn away from him-who-is-an-abomination? Well, no. Actually, it turns out that Californians have embraced the Total Retard and the juggernaut of stupidity juggers on. (Jughead for President.) Meanwhile, Helmut Newton, in an article called The ‘King of Kink’ Made Naughty Fashionable (hint: that’s why you can’t defeat Arnold, or any stupid stupidity: if it’s fashionable, it’s a done deal, there’s no stopping it), can revel in his role as “spoiled sex-and-camera-mad Jewish Berliner” and say things like, “Leni! Pity she’s dead. She once made me promise never to call her an old Nazi, you know.” He “admired [Riefenstahl] greatly as a filmmaker and photographer.” As the article points out,

Multiple meanings; extremes and nuances of human nastiness; the frisson of unease and excitement generated by the sight — or even the suggestion — of carnality, narcissism and perversion are Mr. Newton’s eternal subject matter. His menu — threesomes, sadomasochism, sapphism, prostitution, voyeurism, maids, mistresses, masters and beyond — may be the routine fare of pornography, but in his hands the potentially crude acquires an inimitable gloss of luxurious sophistication.

Listen, it doesn’t matter where Arnold put his tongue or his hands or his cock anymore, or whether he did or did not admire Hitler. Glamour, sophistication, you understand, sheer glamour is what makes the deadly lively, what makes thanatos into eros.

But at least Helmut is honest in his chilling, anti-erotic way, which is more than I can say for the desperate strategies of the politicos who remind me of morticians dressing the corpse:

Mr. Newton has always attributed his obsession with the powerful female nude to his adoration of strong women, but the resemblance of these impossibly perfect specimens to the classic Aryan ideal has always provoked. He doesn’t deny the double whammy. “Don’t forget, from the age of 13, I was surrounded by the images of Nazi Germany,” he said. “You know, the photography wasn’t bad. It was very, very good in that period. Russian photography was very interesting, too. What certain persons in Germany have accused me of is making fascist images, referring to my `Big Nudes’ ” — his 1980 series of life-size women, dressed only in high heels. “My answer was, I recognize that,” he said. “It was a throwback to my youth.” [if the link has decayed, I put the article on this Newton/NYT page too]

Yes, well, I remember spending long periods of time in my father’s study — this was about the time he had gone bankrupt and was working ’round the clock to dig us out of the hole we were in; we were still in Germany, so I was perhaps 5 or 6 — poring over some ancient book about Rubens, and stopping again and again at the picture of The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. That didn’t mean I grew up wanting to be raped, however. Our positions as subjects vis-a-vis the various objects in our lives certainly are inflected by our gender. Helmut can speak from a universal p.o.v., but it’s strictly male. And I puzzled and puzzled over that Rubens. But Newton admired, I guess.

Which brings me back to Battersby’s ch.7, “Flesh with Trimmings: Adorno and Difference,” p.127-8:

For Adorno, the problems of contemporary philosophy do not relate to the question of the ‘certainty’ of the self, but instead stem from the delusion that the ontological or epistemological priority of the mind (or spirit) can be addressed without also considering the historical circumstances within which the question of the subject comes to be posed. Thus, Adorno argues ‘against epistemology’ and also against metaphysics considered as an objective account of ‘being’. His own methodology of ‘negative dialectics’ rests on the claim that we need to register how ‘object’ and ‘subject’ belong together — and change together as the position of the bourgeois subject changes in the period of modernity.

(…) It was the drive to dominate nature [as Adorno & Horkheimer argue in Dialectic of Enlightenment] that led at first to the reification of nature — reducing it merely to the ‘other’, to be controlled and manipulated by the ‘subject’. But in order to control that ‘object’ and manipulate it, nature has to be stripped of all its qualities and represented as a ‘unity’ and as mere matter:

Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities. To the Enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion; modern positivism writes it off as literature. Unity is the slogan from Parmenides to Russell. The destruction of gods and qualities alike is insisted upon.

Little by little, this drive for abstract (and quality-free) ‘equivalence’ which is a feature of instrumental reason comes to pervade all aspects of human life.

Today, it’s not even written off as literature. It’s simply consumed as spectacle. Arnold is the abstract and quality-free equivalence to salvation; Jesus and all his kind (messiahs) are spectacle or they are toast.


Betsy Burke October 8, 2003 at 3:19 am

I once did a translation job for a work of Helmut Newton’s on Florence- a PR thing to sell the city for conferences. I didn’t get to meet him but his work was pretty interesting

Yule Heibel October 8, 2003 at 11:54 pm

His work is interesting, no question. But you know, look at that Rubens painting: the clever (dare I say soulful?) representation of the male gaze as embodied by the Dioscuri (the 2 brothers taking the 2 sisters away) — that’s what always got me, as a kid: what were these men thinking?, I always thought there was some kind of exchange there, even if it was governed by violence…. And Helmut Newton? There’s no surrogate, no stand-in for the male viewer — he’s in your face all the way. I’m not sure what this means, in terms of modern pornography and spectacle. But maybe it means something in terms of the changing relations between subjects and objects. I don’t know; but in the one, there’s something to puzzle over, and in the other, you either admire or you don’t. It sometimes strikes me that we’ve been pushed into this either/or dead-end choice (the fancy word for that is aporia) — to admire or not — too often now.

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