Some beginnings

by Yule Heibel on January 28, 2004

Yes, I used to be an art historian, an academic with a possibly not unpromising career, until by the end of the 1990s other life stuff made its claim with the force of a wooden stake through the heart. Since nothing in life is ever simple, that sensation was furthermore exquisite, both painful and pleasurable. What will follow in the coming days or weeks is my personal paint-by-numbers reconstruction of one aspect of my former life, namely ideas I used to care about, as blogged verbatim from my book. I did give fair warning a few days ago that I might start doing this, start by blogging some Adorno bits, and here’s my start: a 1944 Adorno quote. This is easy, just a quote, no exegesis, so don’t worry. But first, some background to explain where I got it: In 1989 I was researching my dissertation in Germany. I had a Social Science Research Council fellowship with the Berlin Program, and for once my timing was excellent: I was there when The Wall came down in November. …Except I nearly missed it, as I was travelling around to research in various regional archives, after which I got massively sick and spent most of January 1990 in a state of semi-delirium, reading. Hey-ho. But what a Fall ’89 it had been. There was a glut of interesting work showing up at several Berlin venues: the Berlinische Galerie and the Hamburger Bahnhof had excellent exhibitions dealing with Nazism and the post-WWII period. The Hamburger Bahnhof installation “So viel Anfang war nie” (a H�lderlin quote), studded with post-war art and documents, film showings, and readings, came with an exhibition catalog by Herman Glaser, Lutz von Pufendorf, and Michael Sch�neich. It’s almost impossible to find information about this tremendous resource or its contents online, however. Too bad, there was so much good research coming to light that year. The exhibition featured, immediately at the entrance, a quote by Adorno on a huge wall board. Its source was unattributed, but it was dated 1944. Since I never came across it in Adorno’s published writings, and since it had the kind of immediacy one might expect in a letter, I assume it’s from his personal papers. This is my translation:

The idea that after this war life would be able to continue “normally” or that culture could even be “reconstructed” — as if the reconstruction of culture itself was not already its negation — is idiotic. Millions of Jews have been murdered, and this is supposed to be but an intermezzo and not catastrophe itself. What is this culture actually still waiting for? And even if countless people find reprieve, could one imagine that what has occurred in Europe will not have consequences, that the quantity of victims won’t turn over into a new quality — barbarism — of society itself? As long as things continue blow by blow, the catastrophe is perpetuated. One only has to think of vengeance for the murdered. If as many of the other side are killed, then the horror is institutionalized and the precapitalist schema of the blood feud, which since time immemorial has reigned only in isolated mountain regions, will be reintroduced in more expanded form, with entire nations in the role of subjectless subject. If, nowever, the dead are not avenged and mercy reigns, then unpunished fascism will have its victory after all, and after it has shown how easy it is, it will continue elsewhere. The logic of history is as destructive as the people it produces: wherever its center of gravity falls, it reproduces the equivalent of past disaster. Death is normal.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Coming soon, I will blog other Adorno bits, along with my responses and interpretations, all from that same far-away book. If this makes your eyes glaze over, too bad. I’m doing it by way of responding to a bits-and-pieces email exchange about Adorno with Chris Locke, whose blogly excoriations of narcissism I never miss. My merely slightly sadistic bloggish terrorism (think very limp guns, but at the same time I won’t hold your hand, you know, so if you do strike something hard, tough luck), upcoming in bits and pieces (stay tuned or not), is also motivated by my general annoyance over Heidegger’s share of air time. I will tell you, if you can stand to stick around, what I think Adorno thought was wrong with the Ontology Overlord. It really used to matter to me, since I thought it had something to do with how a particular society (post-WWII Germany) was reconstructed. In other words, philosophical ideas had real contexts and consequences for me, which, I’ll admit, really turned me on. It’s different now, but consider this, by way of many mirrors, a portrait then.


Betsy January 29, 2004 at 8:22 am

Can’t wait to read more- and just when I wondering what kind of world it would have been with the continuous contribution of those now-forgotten names that left with the Shoa.

Yule Heibel January 29, 2004 at 2:00 pm

Well, part of my wish to do this is fueled by the fact that Adorno is anything but forgotten, and that he’s instead too much the property of this faction or that faction. But you know me, Betsy, I’m a magpie and I have no faction to defend, so I’m happy to throw a wrench into the machinery if I can. (The ref. to “portrait then” was to me, too, to what I used to get into. I’m not sure I’ll still fully understand it, we’ll see.)

Since you were trained as a musician and performer, your comment triggered a new understanding of the Adorno quote which hadn’t really sunk in for me in the same way before, however. It’s the next to last sentence: The logic of history is as destructive as the people it produces: wherever its center of gravity falls, it reproduces the equivalent of past disaster. It never occured to me before to think of this in terms of performance, but Adorno must have thought of history in musical and performance terms. In the main, it’s an ingenious way to avoid the notion of eternal recurrence or return, which is suspect because it posits a kind of inevitability, blocks progress, and is generally only liked by authoritarian types who believe in “human nature.”

If you substitute performance for eternal return, however, the perspective shifts in an interesting way. There’s a score for musical performance, right?, which stays the same — but only sort of, as scores, too, are always open to subsequent interpretations. Then there’s the performance of the score, which is always this highly individual, charged, energised, and even erotic thing, sometimes done solo, often done collectively. The performance, then, is what obliterates the wrong idea of eternal recurrence: The performance is different every time, even when it’s based on a familiar score. The score can furthermore be “read” (not performed) with differing levels of intensity or understanding. Hence the score is never really the same, even though it’s written down on a piece of paper: the score can be visually interesting, apart from what it will sound like when performed, for example. The score is mistaken for eternal return, but that’s only because it has been misunderstood by the interpreters, it hasn’t been addressed with sufficient aesthetic understanding. Note that aesthetic is the opposite of anaesthetic. You’re anaesthetised in preparation for surgery, your body is deadened to pain. Fully alive and awake, with aesthetic sensibilities intact, you will feel (everything: pleasure and pain), and this ability to feel is a crucial part of your cognitive apparatus for gaining the world, a world in which there are no eternal recurrences, but only scores and performances. If the “performers” (the people produced by the “logic” or score of history) are destructive, history will reproduce “the equivalent of past disaster,” if for no other reasons than gravity and entropy. So it’s up to us, the performers, to choose how we interpret the score, to not be anaesthetised. But once the orchestra is in full swing, the maestro wields the baton, and a certain pitch of agreement is reached, individual dissonance becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible. And yet more necessary, otherwise there is Gleichschaltung (“co-ordination”).

maria January 29, 2004 at 8:44 pm

I am so glad to see your post on Adorno — and am looking forward to more. The bit you quoted, especially this “And even if countless people find reprieve, could one imagine that what has occurred in Europe will not have consequences, that the quantity of victims won’t turn over into a new quality — barbarism — of society itself?” is a welcome reminder, not about European history or the Shoa as such, but about the logic of these processes … which is still very much at work — isn’t it?

You’ll have me climbing up the shelves of our bookcase (we have a very tall one), to dust off my Frankfurt School books.

Never mind the Frankfurt School … I think it’s time I bought a copy of YOUR book!

Keep these posts coming!

Yule Heibel January 29, 2004 at 8:54 pm

Thanks, Maria, but don’t bother buying it — it’s overpriced, very slim, and dry (and no, I’m not talking about myself…!). I’ll pull out pieces of it here, by and by, hunt around for the juicier parts…

Jon Husband January 30, 2004 at 10:32 pm

Lovely – looking forward to more. I keep meaning to come back here and read, drink in the nifty combo of wisom and wit, but got kinda scared last time.

It’s only virtual, so I can’t get bruised physically, so back I’ll be

Yule Heibel February 1, 2004 at 3:18 am

Oh dear, that must have been my evil twin, Jon! I don’t want to scare you, honestly! 😉

Torben Sangild February 10, 2004 at 10:28 am

The quoted text is taken from Mimina Moralia #33. The reason why you haven’t found it may be that it was lost in the Suhrkamp editions up until 1979, whereafter it has been added. I haven’t got the English translation, but it may be missing there as well.

I just found your weblog, and I have already ordered your book, which seems very interesting.


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