As someone straddling media studies and contemporary philosophy, my orientation to an intervention on the question of post-factual culture was both theoretical, in a quest for certain abstract logics applicable to the present moment, and empirical in a quest for symptomatic examples. Like many of us, I think, I had been struggling with the question of how to develop a strong analysis of the current cultural moment, and particularly the so-called post-truth culture exemplified but hardly limited to Trumpism and related right-populist political movements. What concerned me about this contemporary moment was its slipperiness, the way that critique seem ineffective, that one was always forced to choose between pessimistic surrender and being drawn into what often seemed to be a trolling competition. The distinction, for example, between the antics of right-wing provocateur Milo Yannoupolis and an irony-driven MFA performance art thesis was often difficult to fully define, and the cliché amongst Trump supporters that the anti-Trumpers take him literally but not seriously while Trumpians take him seriously but not literally may have had a grain of truth. My frustration, I think, was rooted in a challenge that had affected critical theorists for more than a century: understanding the balance and interplay of conditional and unconditional thinking, and particularly holding on to a sense of the unconditional in the face of pressing conditions. This led me to a journey through the relatively recent intellectual history of critical theory that will provide the structure for most of what follows, focusing on three moments that throw into relief the struggle to conceptualize the conditional/unconditional dynamic in the face of urgent political circumstances and with it an attempt to think oneself out of these circumstances. So, I’ll proceed along the following lines: first, I’ll begin with Theodor Adorno and especially his Theses Against Occultism, a curious later work in which he struggles with astrology and what he calls “decomposed monotheism;” second, I’ll look at Louis Althusser’s struggle to define Marxism as a science of history and thus place it outside the otherwise resilient trap of ideology; finally, I’ll turn to Kroker, Kroker, and Cook’s attempt at “panic theorizing” and especially the particular place of art practices within that model of critical inquiry, one that had a Warholian moment of prominence but I think has been lamentably undervalued in more recent years. Then, I’ll conclude with two slightly tangential moves, first making good on the “villains” half of my title and looking at the ways that the Frankfurt School (exemplified by Adorno) and cultural postmodernism (exemplified by Kroker, Kroker, and Cook) have become the source of sometimes obsessive attention by some on the political right, and particularly the populist right. Indeed, both schools of thought are identified as the drivers of a dangerous moral relativism and the bearers of a sneaky cultural politics aimed at undermining capitalist democracies. The curiousness of this engagement worth is examining, as it indeed may explain why the work in fact seems to speak to a contemporary socio-cultural condition. Finally, in the spirit of both Adorno and Kroker, I’ll examine a symptomatic cultural text, Olivier Assayas’ recent film Personal Shopper, which manages to blend the occult, capitalism, and trolling in one magnificent cinematic package.
Part 1—Adorno’s Theses: “In vain they hope in its fragmented blatancy to look their total doom in the eye and withstand it”
Largely by happenstance, I recently re-read Theodor Adorno’s analysis of the occult.
I had first read the piece, part of Adorno’s 1951 collection of aphoristic writing, Minima Moralia, perhaps 25 years ago but had not engaged it since then, and going back to it, I was astonished. Of course, lots of intellectuals were revisiting work written in the shadow of mid-century totalitarianism, for quite obvious reasons, and the Frankfurt School were particularly popular (stories in mainstream outlets such as The New Yorker and Huffington Post on the relevance of the Frankfurt school, as well as scholarly pieces in journals such as Boundary and Communication, Capitalism, and Critique). Much of this work, quite understandably, focused on the analysis of the authoritarian personality, which seemed well-suited indeed to the American political context. But in his work on occultism, I found something a bit different and indeed something speaking to a problem distinct from, though often functioning in concert with, the analysis provided by the work on personality types.
In his theses, Adorno considers the popularity of astrology, in particular, and the para-normal more broadly, understanding them as the result of “monotheism decomposing into a second mythology.” Not holding back, Adorno describes the occult as the “metaphysic of dunces” and one in which “the beyond communicates nothing more than the dead grandmother’s greeting.” While it would be easy to regress to the cartoon Adorno, the jazz-hating, hippie-fearing elitist who could never free himself from his upper middle-class German origins, the sense of a decomposed monotheism does not seem quite so flip in the age of the fundamentalist Chrsitians willing to grant Trump “a mulligan” (as Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins put it, using a golf term for a do over) for his personal behavior; earlier in the piece, Adorno argues that the “bent little fortune tellers terrorizing their clients with crystal balls are the toy models of the great ones who hold the fate of mankind in their hands” and again there is an eerie reflection of present condition, as in Trump’s apocalyptic inaugural address in which he looked into his own crystal ball and saw “American carnage” and which former president George W. Bush reportedly described as “some weird shit.”
But spotting parallels between contemporary politics and some of doomier analyses of the Frankfurt School—and especially Adorno—is probably too easy and can obscure some of the deeper issues animating Adorno’s analysis. The central argument of the theses against occultism is not just that such practices reflect a capitalization of spirituality, draining it, ultimately, of spirit, as Adorno points out at the end of the piece, or that it acts a la Marx as the heart of a heartless world, but rather that this cultural phenomenon is a symptom of a larger tendency in thought. Reflecting on monotheism (for Adorno, the first mythology), he provides the following diagnosis:
The second mythology is more untrue than the first. The latter was the precipitate of the state of knowledge of successive epochs, each of which showed its consciousness to be some degrees more free of blind subservience to nature than had the previous. The former, deranged and bemused, throws away the hard-won knowledge of itself in the midst of a society which, by the all-encompassing exchange-relationship, eliminates precisely the elemental power the occultists claim to command.
Beyond the remarkable suitability of “deranged and bemused” for a characterization of the spirit of the age, here Adorno is identifying what Slavoj Zizek , in an altogether different context, characterized as a flat solution. In Zizek’s case, he was building a critique of Deleuze and Guattari’s tendency towards an analysis both Spinozan and machinic but the logic is not dissimilar. As Constantin Boundas points out, while himself more sympathetic to Deleuze and Guattari, Zizek views their work as “a materialism of pure becoming,” one that fails to recognize the tension between sense as cause and sense as effect. Now consider Adorno:
This (the occult) has lost the power to think the unconditional and to endure the conditional. Instead of defining both, in their unity and difference, by conceptual labour, it mixes them indiscriminately…The cardinal sin of occultism is the contamination of mind and existence, the latter becoming itself an attribute of mind. Mind arose out of existence, as an organ for keeping alive. In reflecting existence, however, it becomes at the same time something else. The existent negates itself as thought upon itself. Such negation is mind’s element. To attribute to it positive existence, even of a higher order, would be to deliver it up to what it opposes.
The possibility for reflection, what Deleuze himself describes as “the fold” in his masterful book on Michel Foucault, is the moment when negation is possible and thus is perhaps the moment of truth.
Let me very briefly digress very briefly here because I can imagine an objection, one involving the nostalgia that Adorno—and in a much more developed fashion, later figures such as Badiou and Zizek—seem to evoke for monotheism and perhaps most strongly Christianity. This is certainly potentially problematic and there is no question that one macro-influence on Adorno (Hegel) and one micro-influence (his habilitation supervisor Paul Tillich) were deeply Christian thinkers; but it is worth emphasizing Adorno’s complaint regarding the occult that “Spirit is dissociated into spirits and thereby forfeits the power to recognize that they do not exist.” The value of monotheistic thinking, for Adorno, is the possibility for negation; this is hardly a cartoonish Eurocentrism or an assertion of Judeo-Christian triumphalism. I mention this only because I sometimes find a reflexive reaction to the seemingly theological turn in some recent critical theory; in that respect, it is worth recalling Adorno’s Frankfurt School colleague Leo Lowenthal’s 1950 lament (roughly contemporary with Minima Moralia) that the natural sciences had replaced theology as the model for social theory, which curiously echoes Adorno’s tart observation that “ The same rationalistic and empiricist apparatus that threw the spirits out is being used to reimpose them on those who no longer trust their own reason,” suggesting the occult and the ideologically scientific are not far apart. In this respect, the argument mirrors Tillich’s description of supernatural elements of Christianity as themselves demonic.
Let me return to the question of critique and the wider implications of Adorno’s theses for a critical understanding of contemporary culture. I should acknowledge Chris O’Kane’s admirable 2010 examination of the relevance of Adorno’s work on the occult to the analysis of capitalism; O’Kane, though, is primarily interested in engaging with and countering other models of capitalism as religion, as for example, the work of Walter Benjamin, as well as with identifying some cultural phenomena, primarily new age self-esteem boosting practices, that resemble occultism, whereas I am more interested in the particular dynamics of post-truth populism, which is deeply connected. but hardly identical. to larger economic aspects of contemporary capitalism.
In the end, however, I do not think that Adorno can offer positive solutions to the question of how to hang on to the unconditional or even to think it effectively in present circumstances. What he can do however, and indeed does quite brilliantly in his writing on the occult is to consider, with perhaps expected grimness, the consequences of what he describes as an indiscriminate mixing of the absolute and the conditional. It is this tendency that leads to an acceptance of what he calls a metaphysic of dunces. It is a world of fortune tellers that terrorize their clients, mystical encounters that produce only a hello from a deceased grandmother, and a total inability to engage the negative, to create the reflection that makes human subjectivity and ultimately truth possible. Thankfully, this is not the end of the story, as we shall move ahead about fifteen years and find another central figure in critical theory struggling with some of the same questions.
Part 2: Althusser’s Science: What is the Unconditional of Ideology?
In many respects, the work of Louis Althusser offers a radically different reconstruction of Marxist thought from that of the Frankfurt school and particularly Adorno. Intent on overturning dialectical thinking and indeed purging Marxism of Hegelian contamination, his critical impulses are far removed from Adorno’s struggle with dialectical thinking and deep engagement, often quite critically but not in fundamental opposition, with Hegel’s thought. While, as Perry Anderson notes, both figures displayed a qualified enthusiasm for Nietzsche, Althusser’s curious gravitation to Spinoza and Mao, seems quite distant from Adorno’s interest in figures ranging from Soren Kierkegaard to Alban Berg, for instance. Althusser’s contribution, albeit one that may have been obscured by his horrific personal conduct, is clearly in his development of a concept of ideology that is still circulates largely unmodified through large swaths of social and political theory today.
This model of ideology—the “imaginary relations” model—bears a certain resemblance to the Frankfurt School tradition in its insistence on a Marxism not wedded to vulgar economic determinism and in the strong influence of Freudian thought. While Zizek and Eagleton, among others, have drawn attention to the limits of Althusser’s reductionist or even misdirected reading of Lacan, Althusser certainly understood his work as engaging psychoanalytic theory as a complement to Marxism. Now ideology theory, like the Frankfurt School, has enjoyed a new renaissance in the age of Trump and his populist cohort, for quite obvious reasons: never have the curious choices of many working class voters with a lot to lose been so hard to explain in either vulgar determinist terms or in terms of the Chomsky/Herman model of constricted media (watching a few minutes of CNN dispels the notion that they are in Trump’s pocket). Ideology theory, particularly as it gets both refined and expanded in the Zizekian intellectual world, seems well-suited to explain the seeming imperviousness of political views to reason, to facts, even to self-interest: imaginary relations, indeed.
There is a second aspect of Althusser’s thought that, while attracting more attention recently, is far less referenced and indeed not invoked much in regard to current circumstances, and this is the attempt to think an outside to ideology. Outside in the sense that ideology can appear in his work as so-locked down, so ambient as a part of lived experience, that it would be difficult to nearly impossible to think outside of it. But Althusser was at least partly committed to revolutionary politics, so he needs a way out. Thus, I want to turn to two more obscure works by Althusser and consider his strategies.
First, though, a bit of context. If Adorno writes in the shadow of genocide, unparalleled mass destruction, and decomposing monotheism, Althusser is working in the 1960s and 70s, in which decomposition might very well be an apt description of the French hard left. Althusser, despite his enthusiasm (which I admit I find troubling) for Mao, remained a member of the French Communist Party despite struggling with their Soviet style neo-Stalinist orthodoxy, and did not embrace the more freewheeling ethos of May 68. Rather than responding to the potentialities but also ultimate failure of the soixante huit-tards with ultra-leftism or a cultural turn or even anarchism, Althusser sought to hold onto a model of Marxism as the science of historical materialism and thus outside of the grip of ideology. Where Adorno turns to Beethoven’s late quartets and the music of Schoenberg for a taste of the beyond, Althusser ponders a range of scientific questions.
I want to thus focus on Althusser’s response to a 1967 lecture by the eminent French biologist Jacques Monod and his slightly earlier response to the 1964 Venice Biennale exhibition of paintings by the Italian Leonardo Cremonini; I find Althusser, as with Deleuze, most interesting when he is responding directly to the work of others; in my view, Deleuze on Bergson, Bacon, or even Jerry Lewis offers more insight than Deleuze (and often Guattari) free associating on politics. It is in the response to Monod that Althusser’s attempts to elucidate a Marxist science take on a particularly pointed tone, although, as Maria Turchetto points out in a very nice analysis of both thinkers that appeared in Historical Materialism in 2009, there are remarkable parallels in the thought of both, even as Althusser ultimately judges Monod an idealist inattentive to the science of historical materialism. Althusser’s response to Monod—one that did not appear in an official English translation until the early 1990s—tracks Monod’s grand theory of history and sorts it into four categories that “culminate in an idealist world view.” A bit earlier in the piece, though, Althusser makes his intentions clear:
I will discuss Monod’s SPS, his philosophy and his WV in the most objective manner possible. In speaking of Monod and citing his declarations, I am not attacking Monod himself but the ‘realities ‘ which appear in his own ‘consciousness’ as so many realities which appear in the ‘consciousness’ of all scientists, and therefore as so many objective realities independent of the subjective personality of the scientists.
The passage is symptomatically interesting in the prevalence of a kind of prophylactic rhetoric to avoid charges of personal grievance and also through the use of scare quotes around “realities’ and “consciousness” to contain any of the contaminating language of phenomenology (like existentialism, one of Althusser’s philosophical foils). It is also interesting, though, in the desire to gear into the spirit of scientific inquiry that animates Monod’s work, something that Althusser deeply desired to produce for Marxism, which had a sometimes dismal and even tragic history in the production of scientific concepts. In the end, Althusser finds that Monod’s position allows “element 2” (the idealist tendency) to triumph over “element 1” (the materialist tendency) despite the apparent scientific position to which Monod is presumably oriented. By implication—and more explicitly in a range of later Althusser texts—the sciences are seduced by an idealism that the true—which is to say Althusserian—Marxist is able to resist. Note here a kind of strategic reversal from Adorno and the Frankfurt School; rather than lamenting the domination of scientific paradigms over theological concerns (in the broadest sense), Althusser enters into a kind of competition with the scientists, attempting to turn their methodological sensibilities to the construction of a true social theory. In entering this position, though, Althusser gets tangled up in some of the same problems he encountered purging Marxism of existential, phenomenological, and even spiritual elements; these are the challenges that scientists face when trying to transform limited scientific theories into grand narratives of historical development. The scientific outside of ideology, while developed with great philosophical nuance and no shortage of jargon, still betrays contradictions and fissures.
Just a bit earlier, though, Althusser looked outside ideology on rather different terms in his single developed work on art practices, the aforementioned essay on Cremonini. In examining Cremonini’s paintings, Althusser sets himself apart from traditional art criticism and even, I think, from thinkers such as Adorno, arguing that art criticism “which, when it does not dress up its ‘judgements’ in the esotericism of a vocabulary communicating no more than the complicity of accomplices in ignorance, but consents to speak a plain language, reveals to one and all that it is no more than a branch of taste, i.e. of gastronomy.” Instead, Althusser tries to provide a criticism in which, as he puts it, consciousness is secondary to materialism, and which can reveal relations rather than representations. Following a remarkably detailed analysis of a large selection of the painter’s work, Althusser concludes:
It is precisely this radical anti-humanism of Cremonini’s work which gives him such a power over the ‘men’ that we are . . . If all that Cremonini ‘paints’ about ‘man’ is his reality: the ‘abstract’ relations which constitute him in his being, which make even his individuality and freedom — it is because he also knows that every painted work is only painted to be seen, and to be seen by living ‘concrete’ men, capable of determining themselves practically, within objective limits, determined, in their freedom, by the very ‘sight’ of what they are. Cremonini thus follows the path which was opened up to men by the great revolutionary thinkers, theoreticians and politicians, the great materialist thinkers.
Consider the tension here with Althusser’s response to Monod; while the esteemed biologist falls prey to idealism in constructing his meta-theory of history, the modern painter is (probably unbeknownst to himself) a kind of revolutionary materialist theoretician. The translation of art into theoretical insight is hardly novel and indeed a shibboleth of critical theory, but Althusser’s particular desire to locate that insight within his developing model of Marxism-as-scientific-truth is compelling on one level but also distressing at another. The relentless appeal to materialism is understandable given his anti-humanist leanings and particular antipathy to Jean-Paul Sartre and Gyorgy Lukacs, both humanists and aesthetically-inclined Marxists; however, it also never really precludes another translation of Cremonini on phenomenological or humanist grounds. While Adorno’s aesthetic theorizing certainly had its limitations (and indeed explains his sometimes negative reception amongst cultural studies scholars), he was willing to leave open a set of contradictions that Althusser tries to reconcile under the sign of Marxist truth.
Part 3—Kroker, Kroker, and Cook’s Panic: Redeeming the “Vacuous Parlour Nihilists”
I want to move forward another 20 years or so and make my final stop on this theoretical journey with some Canadian scholarship, and explore the “panic paradigm” as it appears in the work of Kroker, Kroker, and Cook as well as their fellow travelers in a particular vein of postmodern social theory. I am insisting on recognizing Marilouise Kroker and David Cook rather than reducing this work to the name “Arthur Kroker” as there has been a tendency to obscure the collaborative character of the work I will discuss. There is a third “decomposition’ relevant to the particular context of the work here: rather than the post-catastrophe aura of Adorno or the chaotic struggle to define a Marxist left for Althusser, the panic paradigm emerges in the era of both Reaganite triumphalism and the decomposition of Soviet and Yugoslavian authoritarian socialism; the choice Althusser makes to hang on to a party-based communist left aligned to some degree with the Soviet bloc is no longer viable in 1989 except as a nostalgic fantasy. Kroker, Kroker, and Cook’s work adds another set of thinkers, Georges Bataille, Marshall McLuhan, and especially Jean Baudrillard, to the set of influences that have shaped the theorizing described thus far. To that end, the second part of my subsection title is a reference to Althusser-inflected orthodox Marxist Alex Callinicos’ description of Kroker and Cook’s work in his 1990 book Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. Callinicos writes,
Kroker’s and Cook’s vacuous parlour nihilism is in fact the reductio ad absurdum of a style of thinking with rather more distinguished antecedents (here referencing Heidegger and Nietzsche)…the apocalyptic sense of an ending which postmodernism supposedly articulates loses any historical specificity, becoming instead the chronic condition of Western civilization since the fall of Rome.
While Callinicos’ condemns a wide swath of contemporary, at least at the time, critical theory including Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, and Habermas, his particularly venomous attacks on Kroker and Cook stand out.
As is often the case, Callinicos’ orthodox Marxist attack actually reveals one of the key insights in this work: the centrality of panic as an affective through-line from modernity into postmodernity and the development of it as a kind of hermeneutic. If Althusser seeks scientific truth and Adorno aesthetic/theological truth, Kroker, Kroker, and Cook find a kind of affective truth in panic. This is all laid out in some detail and in a wry revision of a modernist literary form in the Panic Encyclopedia from 1989. Continuing with the theme of decomposition (of monotheism, of the French left), 1989 is of course the year of both the symbolic and material collapse of the Soviet bloc, as exemplified by the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The context that produces the Panic Encyclopedia is one in which a massive geopolitical change, one with very significant consequences for radical politics, provides a backdrop for Kroker, Kroker, and Cook’s presentation of an alphabetical spectrum of cultural panic.
The book itself attracted quite a bit of notice upon publication, although it has faded from significant cultural prominence. But a case for its relevance today, both here and within a larger social context, can be made by referencing the second paragraph of the entire work in a section entitled “Why Panic?” In it, Arthur Kroker writes the following:
Panic patriotism too. That is Donald Trump and Lee Iacocca as self-nominated American heroes of the market-place. Breaking with the old robber baron tradition of practicing primitive exploitation in the age of an equally exploitative primitive capitalism, they have discovered the secret formula of postmodern robber barons as that of merging the economic calculus with the political rhetoric of making America stronger.
While thinkers of the era sometimes looked askance at the “postmodern prophets” (and this reaction was even more pronounced in the case of Baudrillard), in retrospect their work looks eerily prescient. The Panic Encyclopedia is a collection of essays covering a wide range of panics—panic jeans, panic sex, panic shopping malls, etc.—by a wide range of authors with the larger aim of cataloging the titular mood as it is manifested in art, architecture, fashion, politics, medicine, and so on. The role of art, particularly, is important here as it repeats Adorno’s and Althusser’s enthusiasms, although rather than offering a utopian dialectical synthesis, as in Adorno’s view of later work of Beethoven, or an aesthetic-scientific analysis of material relations, as in Althusser’s work on Cremonini, Kroker, Kroker, and Cook find “panic” in a wide range of visual and performance art practices. I want to highlight two examples, one from the Panic Encyclopedia and one from the earlier Postmodern Scene (1986), that analyze the work of painter Andre Masson and photographer Francesca Woodman. In the case of Masson, the authors find the “dynamic disequilibrium of the social” in the mid-century surrealists’ work, and an anticipation of the mutations of the human that were on the horizon in 1989 (and at least partly reality today). In the case of the tragically suicidal Woodman, her primarily self-portrait-based photography, presents the body “perfectly rhetorically and topologically, all a matter of the play of a delocalized, dematerialized, and dehistoricized investiture of the political economy of signs on the text of the flesh.” While I find these two analyses particularly salutary in their critical elegance, the pattern is repeated with Edward Hopper, Eric Fischl and a variety of other 20th century artists, as well as in the treatment of a wide range of expressive cultural practices, as noted earlier.
I make my third and final stop with Kroker, Kroker, and Cook to emphasize the repetition of a major tension that is at least partially centered upon an attempt to discern forms of truth; oddly enough, truth is something presumed to be anathema to such hyper-relativist postmodernists in the cartoon version of postmodern theory that certainly circulated thirty years ago and, as we shall see, continues today. While their informing theoretical traditions are quite different (although Nietzsche appears as an influence for all three) and the emphases on where to seek a kind of unconditional vary dramatically (is it in negation, in science, in affect?), each of these critical moments shares a context of socio-political instability and the recognition of an irresolution around the question of truth. While Althusser, particularly, strives hardest to find a bridge across the abyss, the three cases collectively illustrate the importance of thinking this tension rather than resorting to either vulgar materialism or vulgar mysticism—in that respect we might return in the end to where we began, with Adorno’s response to the occultism of fortune tellers and astrology columns. Indeed, all of this might be merely a nice bit of intellectual genealogy, but for a curious second thread that unites these schools of thought.
Part 4—From prophets to villains or, Andrew Breitbart, social theorist
Alex Ross, in a widely circulated New Yorker piece titled “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump was Coming” published shortly after the 2016 election, explores the prophetic character of the Frankfurt school and particularly Adorno in regard to the rise of Trump. In response to the Ross essay, a number of commentators pointed out an additional aspect of the Frankfurt-Trump encounter (and I want to note that it was this secondary commentary that pointed me in this direction): that the Frankfurt School had been a particular demon for many on the incipient alt-right for a number of years. Indeed, the late Andrew Breitbart had written in some detail about the Frankfurt School in his 2011 book Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World. As he explained in an interview with Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution:
Adorno is the one that drives me the most crazy. He came out to California…and moved to Santa Monica at the height of the golden age. Think about this—these guys left Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy to come to California in the 1940s and they lived by the beach and they were depressed by the relentless cheeriness, the productivity and the capitalism that they witnessed around them and they came up with (at the end of the day), we could call it cultural Marxism (at the end of day), we experience it on a day to day basis by that I mean a minute-by-minute, second-by-second basis—it’s political correctness and it’s multi-culturalism….
While we can be amused at the curious assignment of blame to the Frankfurt School for a range of modern left political inclinations and it is clear that multi-culturalism and political correctness were hardly hallmarks of Adorno’s thinking, it is important to recognize the particular interest in the Frankfurt School by some on the alt-right. This appears across the Trumpian spectrum from relatively mainstream organizations such as Breitbart to some of the most extreme fringes of white nationalist and anti-Semitic radical culture.
However, it not just the Frankfurt School that has attracted a wave of attention from the alt-right. “Cultural Postmodernism” is another villainous movement for many on the right; indeed I would expect that the very word “postmodernism” as is invoked far more commonly today on the right (as an example of degeneracy) than as an analytical, cultural, or philosophical term on the left. Postmodernism is in this case synonymous with hyper-relativism, identity politics, and the lack of any ethical, moral, political, or theological foundation, as well as a reflexive denial of any scientific concepts or forms of evidence.
I raise this as a final point primarily because it reflects an irony in that at least two of the movements I have presented as struggling with the question of absolute and conditional truth are strongly associated with schools of thought blamed for the decline of truth itself among those I would describe as “right post-truthers” vs. the “left post-truthers” who find in Trump and larger right populisms a similar contempt for any strong notion of the truth. In regard to the former and their fear and loathing of the Frankfurt School and cultural postmodernism, I am tempted to invoke Freud’s argument that in psychoanalysis the closer one gets to the “pathogenic nucleus” of one’s neurosis, the stronger the defences become and suggest that the particular contempt, for example, of Adorno may be rooted in a recognition of some unpleasant insight within his thought. Rather than pursuing this off-the-cuff psychoanalysis, though, I will simply note that, in the war over the fact and truth, some of the most interesting thinkers on the question have emerged as villains at one end of the political spectrum. Rather than end on that somewhat depressing note, I’ll instead return to Adorno, who was analyzing the occult and the “mediocrity of the mediums,” and also to the through line linking all three stops: the centrality of art practice.
Part 5—The Occult, Capitalism, Truth and Cinema: Ending with Personal Shopper
So, rather than end with Breitbart and Gorka, let us end with Kristen Stewart. Or rather with Olivier Assayas’ recent film Personal Shopper. I realize this may seem an incoherent or even perverse coda to a perhaps too-serious theoretical reflection, but the film actually provides a nice aesthetic synthesis to some of the issues I’ve discussed thus far. The film centers on the titular personal shopper played by Stewart who is also a medium seeking to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother, who died suddenly from the same heart condition that afflicts her. The film blends a supernatural ghost story with a murder mystery when the celebrity for whom Stewart shops is killed by a jilted lover. The film quite brilliantly presents two hauntings—the haunting of Stewart by her dead brother and her haunting of Kyra—the model socialite that employs her—through her acting as her proxy consumer and later more dramatically inhabiting both her clothing and her bed.
While there are have been a number of recent, critically respected films that have relied upon the figure of ghosting for thematic weight—David Lowery’s recent Ghost Story and Nicolas Winding-Refn’s The Neon Demon from 2016, for example—Personal Shopper is particularly adept in its use of ghostly tropes to build a compelling treatment of some of the paradoxes of truth and appearance in fashion-inflected high-tech post-industrial capitalism. The film suspends judgment over Stewart’s credulity as to her brother’s ghostly presence and points out that we all float between material reality and the ether. Adorno quite sneeringly reduces the occult to a greeting from a dead grandmother but Personal Shopper places the attempt to contact a dead brother within a much wider and vivid assortment of ghostly presences. In a particularly powerful sequence from relatively early in the film, Stewart travels to London on the Eurostar train to shop for her glamorous boss and along the ways is taunted by text messages from an invisible stranger (later revealed to be the murderer of her employer).
While this operates at one level as a representation of the perpetual surveillance associated with digital life, it also points to the ghosting impact of mobile communication and thus the parallels with a spirit world; John Durham Peters had written extensively about the paranormal dimension of mediated communication in his landmark work, Speaking into the Air. This is repeated in the film with the only appearances of Stewart’s onscreen boyfriend are really an “on screen” boyfriend in that he appears only on SKYPE from Oman, where she travels but finds instead the spirit of her brother, creating a retrospective question regarding the existence of the boyfriend.
But the film is perhaps more fascinating in the ways that it presents the ghostly in concrete human life. In this case, the title character’s carefully constrained proxy functions for her employer—she can shop for her, stand in for her in preparation for a photoshoot, but trying on clothes for her is tightly limited (as she reveals to a designer who encourages her to try on Kyra (her bosses’) shoes. Indeed, moments in which she more fully embraces being possessed by Kyra appear as standout cinematic sequences, such as one in which she tries on one of Kyra’s dresses at the urging of her mystery mobile contact.
The oscillation in and out of both being haunted by spectral presences and also channeling alter-egos is a persistent theme in the film and repeats a perhaps shopworn critique of social media as a body invader, as a perpetual presence; however, it also suggests deeper questions regarding the ephemeral and the durable, the material and the ethereal, and the dynamic interplay of a fashion-driven political economy of consumption and the spiritual quest to touch the beyond. The ambiguities of the film’s ending do not fully resolve any tensions here, but it is precisely in this ambiguity that the film dramatizes some of the tensions that I have discussed today. Whether in Adorno’s resignation, Althusser’s grasping for a scientific solution, or Kroker, Kroker, and Cook’s initial subjective panic that then mutates into a kind of absolute metaphysical panic, a grappling with these questions—questions that ultimately raise the larger issue of the constitution of truth —requires confronting a fundamental but possibly productive ambiguity, an irresolute core that cannot be consigned to science or to theology, to the concrete or to the spectral, to the affective or to the material. While I recognize, as noted, the perversion in ending with cinema, it seems appropriate for two reasons. First, it takes us back to where we started, the spirit-world, and while it does not erase Adorno’s justified skepticism of what he calls the occult it does suggest that it might be part of the metaphysic of cineastes rather than merely the metaphysic of dunces. It also matches a persistent theme here—and perhaps this is a rather old fashioned humanistic orientation—which is he value of artistic practice in illustrating cultural and theoretical tensions; in this light, perhaps Olivier Assayas can join Beethoven, Cremonini, Woodman, and so forth as sonic and visual dramatists of some of the philosophical paradoxes of post-facticity and perhaps even the spectral character of the truth.
York and Ryerson Universities
1. A student working on an MA thesis that drew upon non-traditional knowledge systems referenced the work and I thus re-read it to better critique her analysis.
2. Or maybe not so curious, given the trendiness of Maoism among Parisian intellectuals.
3. As a side-note, there are parallel struggles in regard to the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his notion of habitus as well as Foucault’s work on power; Jean Baudrillard has a charming little book called Forget Foucault where he argues rather cheekily that if Foucault were really correct about the insidious character of domination—in his early work, it must be noted—he would make his own position impossible.
4. This is described in fascinating if also excruciating detail in his autobiography, The Future Lasts Forever.
5. As in Lysekno, most notably.
6. I would also note that including this work is part of a larger effort to revisit what is sometimes thought of as a kind of academic novelty from the 1980s, a sort of equivalent to the earlier embarrassing excesses of countercultural thinking.
7. As a side-note this is quite distinct theoretically from the slightly later “affect theory” paradigm associated with Massumi, Clough, Thrift, and so on.
8. As a side note, as Josh Harkinson pointed out in a Mother Jones profile, white nationalist Richard Spencer wrote an MA thesis on Adorno and Wagner before more explicitly embracing neo-fascism.
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