The basic question for this set of readings is: how do they relate to one another? they all discuss variations on the theme of reification, enlightenment and commodification, which is basically to say the normative establishment of an abstract and impersonal, rationalizing and objectifying matrix through which experience is made to flow in order to be recognized as such. What does each author call the cause of this, what kind of harm does each attribute to it, and what if any solution/remediation does each allow for or propose? Who do you find most compelling and why?
Dialectic of Enlightenment
Why do Adorno/Horkheimer claim that “the only kind of thinking that is sufficiently hard to shatter myths is ultimately self-destructive” (4), and “men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them only insofar as he can manipulate them” (9)?
The key question raised by this selection I think is how precisely to distinguish what the authors call “primitive, magical mimesis” from “enlightenment.” Both practices involve representation and substitution (10) in more or less instrumental pursuit of some aim (11), so why does magic lack the self-destructive and totalitarian effects of enlightenment?
Without telling you how to interpret it let me just say that, in respect to the preceding question and others, I find this one of the most evocative passages of this book: “The shaman’s rites were directed to the wind, the rain, the serpent without, or the demon in the sick man, but not to materials or specimens. Magic was not ordered by one, identical spirit: it changed like the cultic masks which were supposed to accord with the various spirits….The magician never interprets himself as the image of the invisible power; yet this is the very image in which man attains to the identity of self that cannot disappear through identification with another, but take possession of itself once and for all as an impenetrable mask. It is the identity of the spirit and its correlate, the unity of nature, to which the multiplicity of qualities falls victim. Disqualified nature becomes the chaotic matter of mere possession–abstract identity” (9-10).
Also consider the famous analysis of the story of Odysseus and the sirens from later in the book: “The deception in sacrifice is the prototype of Odyssean cunning [that is, the kind of practical cunning that defines Odysseus’s heroism is nothing categorically new but merely an extension of the deception involved in the most primitive sacrificial rituals]….All human sacrifices, when systematically executed, deceive the god to whom they are made: they subject him to the primacy of human ends, and dissolve his power; and the deception of the god carries over smoothly into that practiced by the disbelieving priests on the believers. Deceit has its origin in the cult.” BUT, Adorno/Horkheimer continue, what makes Odysseus crucially new and effectively the founding father of enlightenment is the way in which, in the sirens episode, he “acts as sacrifice and priest at one and the same time. By calculating his own sacrifice, he effectively negates the power to whom the sacrifice is made” (50). This is new because Odysseus dispenses altogether with the mimetic element: the power to whom the sacrifice is made–“the wind and the rain, the demon in the sick man, the serpent without,” etc.–for Odysseus these do not represent overwhelming powers that he could only hope to influence by, like the shaman, magically imitating them; rather his relation to the power of the sirens is entirely calculating and instrumental. He could arrive at his strategy of tying himself to the mast only by considering the power of the sirens and his body’s susceptibility to that power in an entirely cold, calculating and instrumental way. He doesn’t relate to that power, or even to his own body, like the shaman by theatrically mimicking it but, like the scientist or dictator, by calculating and manipulating it. Odysseus’s heroic cunning exults the capacity to abstract oneself entirely from embodied, sensual experience, and consider it from what has been termed the objective, instrumental, scientific/totalitarian “view from nowhere.”
Honneth also uses this basic picture of a detached, alienated because self-instrumentalizing, perspective to define reification (24-5). Honneth’s argument however is that “refication doesn’t represent a false form of habitualized praxis, but a false interpretive habit with reference to a ‘correct’ form of praxis that is always given in an an at least rudimentary fashion’ (32-3), a “modus of existential engagement, of ‘caring,’ through which they disclose a meaningful world” (32).
In “Marx, Freud: the analysis of form,” zizek again picks up the appearance/essence problem we discussed last time, noting that in the case of both Marxian analysis of commodity fetishism and Freudian dream analysis “the point is to avoid the properly fetishistic fascination of the ‘content’ supposedly hidden behind the form,” instead zizek says, the secret is “the form itself” from which the fascination with content distracts us (3).
Here Zizek argues that, in the case of the Freudian unconscious and the commodity fetish alike, the secret of their form is what he calls “real abstraction.” By this term he means to emphasize two things at once: first the term describes the form of capitalist economy whereby two discrete object become equivalent and completely exchangeable insofar as they have the same price. This price, the reduction of a qualitatively discrete object to an quantifiable value, is what Zizek means by “abstraction” (cf. Adorno/Horkheimer: “Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities” (7)). This is clearly also central to Honneth’s notion of reification. Perhaps in contrast to Honneth, however, Zizek secondly wants to insist that this abstraction is nonetheless as real as can be; not a distortion of a more fundamental reality but fundamental reality itself. The abstraction of exchange value is, as I wrote in the previous post about the abstractions of concepts generally, the lens through which the world as such becomes available to us in the first place. And likewise the fantasy of connecting with a world prior to or beyond exchange value (e.g. in terms of a dream’s autonomous “latent thought,” or the autonomous value of “labor power”) is not only impossible but also a fantasy that is generated by capitalism itself.
Hence what Zizek discusses as the “scandal” of philosophy (14): i.e., the fact that philosophy’s pursuit of autonomous critical reflection, which it defines in terms of rational coherence, is not autonomous at all but derivative of “the real abstraction” of capitalism, an attempt culturally to imitate and appropriate the form of value as determined by concrete reality. The same holds for the rational autonomy pursued by the Freudian ego. The form of autonomy pursued by the philosopher is, like that pursued by any self, no autonomy at all but instead an attempt to emulate an object, a fetishizing the commodity form.
Zizek illustrates the pivotal effect of commodity fetishism by contrasting social relations under capitalism and under feudalism. Whereas under feudalism relations are defined in terms domination and servitude, under capitalism domination and servitude persist but not in the relations among people: relations among people are defined in terms of universal freedom and equality. Where domination and servitude are expressed instead is in the displaced form of the relations among things, namely commodities. The fact that our social relations play out as relations among things Zizek attributes to a mass “hysteria:” we hysterically project our desires and identities onto fetishized objects which now serve as our surrogates. Under feudalism the relations of domination and servitude determined the official, symbolic (or ‘rational’) order of social value and identity; by contrast, under capitalism domination and servitude have instead assumed the status of a pathological symptom, what emerges in defiance and disruption of the official order of rationality and value. Our commodities vicariously live out the dangerous dramas of domination and servitude for us which our innocuously free and equal existences can no longer tolerate.
This makes us sound like mini-Odyseusses, calculating and administering our lives via our possessions instead of actually living. But would this Odyssean picture be compatible with what Zizek says about hysteria? Odysseus seems transcendently self-controlling not hysterical. Are these incompatible accounts or somehow two sides of the same coin?
Part of the reason the first sentence of P&P is one of the most famous in English literature is surely that it combines two of Austen’s signature features: her ironic form of expression and a content centered on economics (i.e., property and income). How do you understand the relation between this particular form and content? is the playful irony meant to mask the ugly underlying economic reality? or is there another way to explain this dynamic? for instance, although Austen’s emphatic contrast of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet seems so clearly to place the former on an altogether different plane of wit, sophistication, moral circumspection and general admirability, does he not actually share some of Mrs. Bennet’s mechanical predictability? is his wit, for all its supposed thoughtfulness, ultimately no less prescribed and reified than Mrs. Bennet’s naked thoughtlessness? and if Austen encourages or allows us to entertain such suspicions of Mr. Bennet’s wit than wouldn’t such suspicion apply to the wit also of the narrator? for instance doesn’t Austen offer something like a mocking caricature of her novel itself–its whole account of Lizzy’s distinctive, class-transcending heroism–in Mr. Bennet’s joke about “throwing in a good word [to Mr. Bingley] for my little Lizzy” (4)? what is P&P if not such a good word writ large?
Building on this same question of the relation of form and content, what can you say about the grammar of the sentence introducing Mr Darcy? “His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation with five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year” (7f). And how exactly does FID function in the subsequent sentence? Why do you suppose the admiration is directly reported and the disgust indirectly mimicked?