War on the cottages… of philosophy

If, following Jameson, the situational representation of one’s place in a shifting, contradictory and impalpable totality is the stake of an aesthetics of cognitive mapping, then it is inseparable from modern philosophy and its mutations – especially once the primacy of subjective constitution is overtaken and refunctioned by the desire for totality. In short, it is inseparable from the dialectic. Two passages I’ve chanced upon recently dramatise this pervasive but rarely thematised problem, in a charmingly literal way, taking their cue from the hackneyed figure of the philosopher at his table. They suggest a preliminary periodisation of the aesthetics of dialectical philosophy, which would place the first, Hegelian moment in an analogous position to that which Jameson accords to a naturalism still mediated by the framework of the nation-state, and still capable of mediating locality and globality, personal and impersonal (see ‘Modernism and Imperialism’, in The Modernist Papers); while the second, Adornian moment, straddles the cognitive impasses of modernity and postmodernity. Note, in the first quote, the interaction between knowledge and the senses (those ‘social organs’ that Marx wrote about in the 1844 Manuscripts), and in the second, the need to attack the provincial travesty of nostalgia that pervades fundamental ontology’s kitsch simulation of the local (Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity contains the prosecutorial dossier on this question, but see also the incomparably funny rant against Heidegger in Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters: ‘I always visualize him sitting on his wooden bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife who, with her perverse knitting enthusiasm, ceaselessly knits winter socks for him from the wool she has shorn from their own Heidegger sheep’).

‘”I am not only a thinking being. I am the bearer of an absolute Knowledge. And this Knowledge is actually, at the moment when I think, incarnated in me, Hegel. Therefore, I am not only a thinking being; I am also – and above all – Hegel. What, then, is this Hegel?” To begin with, he is a man of flesh and blood, who knows he is such. Next, this man does not float in empty space. He is seated on a chair, at a table, writing with a pen on paper. And he knows that all these objects did not fall from the sky; he knows that those things are products of something called human work. He also knows that this work is carried out in a human World, in the bosom of a Nature in which he himself participates. And this World is present in his mind at the very moment when he writes to answer his “What am I?” Thus, for example, he hears sounds from afar. But he does not hear mere sounds. He knows in addition that these sounds are cannon shots, and he knows that the cannons too are products of some Work, manufactured in this case for a Fight to the death between men. But there is still more. He knows that he is hearing shots from Napoleon’s cannons at the Battle of Jena. Hence he knows that he lives in a World in which Napoleon is acting.’

(Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, ed. A. Bloom, pp. 33-4)

‘In the age of the great systems – in modern times, let us say, from Descartes to Hegel – the world possessed a certain visibility. I must add that there was something of a discrepancy between this visibility and the clarity of these systems – I need mention only the infinitely complex Hegelian system. Even so, the fact is that these systems came into being in a world in which people knew their way around. God knows that I do not mean by this that the world was what Cooley in his sociology described as a “primary community” – it certainly was not that. But right up until the early days of the Industrial Revolution it did possess this quality of visibility that was like that of a small town in contrast to a giant metropolis, with its endless tangle of elevated railways, subways, reversing triangles and the like. And I believe that, if we approach philosophy with the sort of claims I am making, it is out duty to become aware of a certain naïvety. This consists in the fact that, in general nowadays, in the models it applies to reality, philosophy behaves as if the visibility of existing circumstances allowed it to survey all living creatures and subsume them under a unifying concept – this is something it still takes for granted. We might say, then, that there is an element of provincialism in philosophy today. … One the one hand, we must cast off out provinciality. In other words, we should cease to speak as if we could explain a substantive world from within itself, as Hegel believed he was able to do, given that this world’s substantiveness has long since slipped out of the reach of the philosophical mind. On the other hand, if we wish to continue to philosophize and not to act as if we confused a comfortably furnished cottage with the Pentagon, we have to undertake the task, the quite unavoidable task, of describing the path that will turn our thoughts back to philosophy. … Only in this way, or so I believe, only by recovering this renewed sense of the necessity of philosophy can philosophy be cured of the provincialism that lurks in the conviction that it is possible for someone to enter his study, or, since such things do not exist anymore, to go into his seminar, or, since that doesn’t really exist either, to go into his office and believe that he can comprehend the universe from that vantage point equipped with paper, pencil and a selection of books. … It is impossible to ignore the smell of the stale atmosphere pervading that “philosophical cottage”. And if philosophy aspires to anything at all, it must tear down that cottage as fast as possible, and the very last thing it must do is to confuse it with the old shelteredness, to say nothing of a new one.’

(Theodor W. Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics, trans. R. Livingstone, pp. 42-3)

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