Adorno & Benjamin:
Authentic Culture Critique
JD Casten

Chapter from Cybernetic Revelation

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JD Casten's Website


"Holiday in Cambodia" excerpt:

"You're a Star-Belly Sneech, You suck like a leech
You want everyone to act like you
Kiss ass while you bitch so you can get rich
But your boss gets richer off you
Well you'll work harder with a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers til you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake
Now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
And it's a holiday in Cambodia
Where you'll do what you're told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul"

—W-Biafra / M-Biafra, Ray, Flouride, Slesinger


This chapter includes reference to a compounded "dialectical" dichotomy.  First there is the general dichotomy between the critics, and some mass-media "art."   Within each of these categories, there is on the one hand a specific exemplar dichotomy between Frankfurt School insider critic Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) (with some focus here on his works, "Cultural Criticism and Society," and "A portrait of Walter Benjamin," found in Prisms), and the almost outsider critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) (with some focus on his works, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and the "Thesis on the Philosophy of History" found in Illuminations).  On the other hand, there is a material dichotomy between two "mass-media art works," I've selected to examine: a typical Richie RichThe Poor Little Rich Boy comic book and the Dead Kennedys' song, "Holiday in Cambodia," included here from their CD album, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.  Although both Adorno and Benjamin may have found such art vulgar, I believe these selections exaggerate, and hence clarify in way, the kind of pop-art that has saturated highly capitalist culture.

Martin Jay (in his The Dialectical Imagination) noted that:

"Adorno chose to discuss them [works of art] in dialectical pairs in order to transcend the inherent insufficiency of individual accomplishments" (Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950, Little Brown & Co.: Boston (1973), p. 178).

My selections also poke a little fun at Adorno and Benjamin as the lovers of seriously "classical" (yet challenging) music and literature.  The following will include many quotes:

"Benjamin saw himself as the vehicle for the expression of objective cultural tendencies, a belief that made the mode of expression particularly crucial.  One manifestation of this was his hope to exclude all subjective elements from his work by writing an essay consisting solely of quotations from other sources" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 176).

Jay offers some religious context for this as well:

"Benjamin's examination of cultural phenomena resembled that of a biblical scholar probing a sacred text.  In his hope of writing a book consisting solely of quotations, Benjamin expressed a quasi-religious desire to become the transparent mouthpiece of a higher reality" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 200).

And further, Herbert Schnadelbach (in his Philosophy in Germany 1831-1933) writes concerning a Historicist approach, of a:

"value-free accumulation of material and facts without distinction between what is and what is not important" (Herbert Schnadelbach, Eric Matthews (trans.), Philosophy in Germany 1831-1933, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge (1984), p. 35),

by way of:

"'depersonalization': research which is rationalized, in the sense of rigorously methodical, promises success only when the individual scientist precisely does not bring his own individuality into play in any essential way and when he strictly follows the ethos of pure 'objectivity'" (Philosophy in Germany 1831-1933, p. 71).

Could simple juxtaposed quotations from and selections of art from mass-culture be a powerful form of criticism?  Could the critic, by withdrawing themselves from the work, and simply presenting it, still imply a critique of the current state of society and point towards a more civilized and reasonable future—and help fulfill the goals of "Critical Theory" (which might precisely defined as: exactly not that which leads to its conception)? 

Again, Schnadelbach:

"Consciousness of the historical and consciousness of itself as something historical, the historical consciousness locates itself in the process of history, which, after the historicization of history, it can no longer confidently regard as being commensurable with our current conditions of interpretation and understanding.  Historical consciousness is thus at the same time consciousness of its own finitude and limited autonomy in the face of the superior force of history as a whole" (Philosophy in Germany 1831-1933, p. 38).

Historical consciousness operates something like a history pivot, where history turns or folds on itself and becomes conscious of its own determination: the light of consciousness becomes self-conscious through a hall of mirrors: mirrors of history reflecting on history through the light of that consciousness; yet that consciousness may become alienated from determining history, fearing a bad-faith un-freedom due to total historical determination: a double bind of being both from and against history.


A tension intensifies in early twentieth century continental philosophy between various theoretical dichotomies and their inter-determination.  Indeed, the theoretical, or abstract itself has its opposite in the particular and, with another context, in praxis, or practice.  However, theory is seen to color particular experience, through what is highlighted, and how it is interpreted.  There is a hermeneutic circle, where an individual's history and background (or a group's), both as part of the human condition and culture on this planet, informs what is determined as perceptually relevant: just as we can only learn what we almost already know, the hermetically self-referential nature of what a person knows shapes what they can possibly come to know in addition.  That is, knowledge is not added, piece by piece in some sort of stockpile, but is integrated with what we already know, by means of what we already know how to do.  We, as individuals, and a culture, have a web of knowledge, as it were, that can integrate new knowledge only when it is recognized as such through the lens of that web.  How we are who we are is largely determined by our cultural history; a cultural history which limits what we may perceive, simply by offering some of the only tools by which we can perceive at all: the gift of the ability to reason, as given by culture (beyond the body), is also constrained by the limited number of methods given (what we have to work with), and by the historically indoctrinated limitations on what is considered acceptable (these methods and limitations have proven pragmatically useful over the course of the evolution of culture's reason and knowledge).

Now, Critical Theory (and Adorno's Negative Dialectic), as developed in the Frankfurt School, seems aimed, like an active Darwinism (or more accurately, a post-Hegelian Marxist praxis) at propelling culture forward by a critique of that present which is a remnant of the past: the status quo.  Hence the critique of repetitious and formulaic art, and the anti-systematic, anti-methodological, and difficult to summarize, appropriate, and co-opt style of  Adorno's thinking that favors bold schisms and unfamiliar shocks, which would awaken people from their dogmatic slumber.  (A possible critique of such a notion might make reference to the fact that errant DNA would more often lead to dysfunction rather than better adaption to existing and new niches in the ecological and sociological environment.)

The link between the particular and practice in opposition to theory, is important, in that while theory often strives for that which is universal and absolute (think science and mathematics), practice operates temporally through change, as the particular itself also changes relative to some other particular (spatiotemporally).  There is a tension between the contingent, singular, dynamic particular, and the theoretical reasoning that tries to freeze it, e.g. in a concept or percept, through hypostasis, reification and analytical definition: a fetishism that isolates some feature of the inexhaustible "object."   Such an "object" may itself be a limitation of the dynamic flux of the concrete particulars: the surface of the concrete may have no theoretically distinguishably identifiable particular.  The truth of the singular particular is lost in repetitious generalizations (by "The Whole is the False" Adorno must have referenced Hegel's Reason reaching the absolute and comprehending everything, and not the whole as every particular aspect of the concrete: possibly the two are one at such a differential point of being).  Adorno does not keep silence with some sort of particular—he uses the repeated words of language, albeit often in a different manner, and emphasizes a gestalt constellation of concepts in opposition to some key concept (like Being), or isolatable faculties of the mind (as with Kant).  Adorno recognizes that his is an Immanent Critique, one already within a tradition: that he is part of what he questions.  The objective is always perceived through the lens of the subjective, which subjectivity is shaped by the objective.  Hence the difficulty with the critical project of withdrawing from culture (and its objective history) and letting it speak for itself in such a way that said culture is disrupted, disturbed by its own image, and is propelled towards improvement.


Addressing the problematic and subjective nature of critical selection in Prisms, Adorno notes:

"The cultural critic evaluates and hence is inevitably involved in a sphere stained with 'cultural values,' even when he rants against the mortgaging of culture.  His contemplative stance towards culture necessarily entails scrutinizing, surveying, balancing, selecting: this piece suits him, that he rejects.  Yet his very sovereignty, the claim to a more profound knowledge of the object, the separation of the idea from its object through the independence of the critical judgment threatens to succumb to the thinglike form of the object when cultural criticism appeals to a collection of ideas on display, as it were, and fetishizes isolated categories such as mind, life, and the individual" (Theodor W. Adorno, Samual & Shierry Weber (trans.), Prisms, The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. (1994), p. 23, "Cultural Criticism and Society").

These last remarks seem directed at cultural criticism performed by life philosophers such as Nietzsche: such individualist preferences fly in the face of lessons learned from Marx about the importance of the social: Adorno's "Culture Industry" critique and psychoanalysis of culture was informed by both Nietzsche's notion of a "herd" mentality, and Marx's notion of class-consciousness and outlook "ideology."  The "masses," like Heidegger's "they," are often un-self-determined in their flocking to a inter-subjective "reality" which may have little resemblance to objective reality.  However, in contrast to Marx, for Adorno the material objective order does not center on the economic, but on the social.  Again, there is a tension for the critic, for that objective reality sought may be heavily intertwined with the very inter-subjective "reality" that shapes the critic too.

Like Jacques Lacan psychoanalyzing psychoanalysis, Adorno, more generally, is criticizing criticism: he is performing a double application of criticism, a folding over of criticism on itself where the critic becomes more self-conscious of what they are doing: while criticizing the critic, Adorno is simultaneously criticizing himself:

"The culture critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent.  He speaks as if he represented either unadulterated nature or a higher historical stage.  Yet he is necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior" (Prisms, p. 19, "Cultural Criticism and Society").

Critics are in a struggle for their own autonomy:

"Their very rejection of the guilt of life which blindly and callously reproduces itself, their insistence on independence and autonomy, on separation from the prevailing realm of purposes, implies, at least as an unconscious element, the promise of a condition in which freedom were realized" (Prisms, p. 23, "Cultural Criticism and Society").


"Only the mind which, in the delusion of being absolute, removes itself entirely from the merely existent, truly defines the existent in its negativity" (Prisms, p. 26, "Cultural Criticism and Society").

Here Adorno, with shades of Freud, has taken cultural criticism to the absolute limits, where the critic, in an insane moment of monumental megalomania completely severs all ties with society.  But again, back here on earth, the:

"Dialectical critic of culture must both participate in culture and not participate" (Prisms, p. 33, "Cultural Criticism and Society").


The very title of the compilation CD, Give Me Convenience OR Give Me Death, has its own little dialectic; and is a commentary on the fact that the band "Dead Kennedys" has let its record company weed out all their less popular tunes for the sake of a more marketable compilation album.  Even my own selected quotation of their song, "Holiday in Cambodia" could be seen as a co-opting choice: this song was probably their most popular.  Maybe the Dead Kennedys have co-opted the Frankfurt School a little with their questioning the use of brand-name "Right Guard" antiperspirant in Pol Pot's Cambodia ("It's time to taste what you most fear / Right Guard will not help you here": turning political radicalism into the band's most accessible "alternative hit song," complete with a repetitious and catchy chorus.  The CD album art shows a road littered with decaying corpses and large face with its mouth bound by barbed-wire, possibly depicting the atrocities that occur in society, and the stifling of those who would try to reveal them (such as the Dead Kennedys).  Martin Jay on Adorno on music:

"As was the case with all cultural phenomena, it [music] was neither fully reflective nor fully autonomous.  Still, in the current era, its autonomy was severely threatened.  Most music displayed the characteristics of a commodity, dominated more by exchange than by use value.  The real dichotomy, Adorno contended, was not between 'light' and 'serious' music […] but rather between music that was market-oriented and music that was not" (Dialectical Imagination,  p. 182).

With this Dead Kennedys' CD, we have something that wavers on the edge of marketability; possibly both the best and worst for either spreading critical thought or co-opting it.  Adorno may have not appreciated the frantic beat of punk though, for he found the:

"use of neoprimitive rhythms corresponded to the shocks of unintegrated Erlebnis (experience) fostered by fascist society" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 184).

Although, Adorno praised a:

"fragmentary montage style, which employed shocks […] as the most progressive and critical and popular music of the day" (Dialectical Imagination, p.184);

he may have found punk music's:

"beat and syncopation were derived from the military march, which suggested its implicit relation to authoritarianism" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 187).


In his "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda," Adorno notes:

"for Freud the concept of psychology is essentially a negative one.  He defines the realm of psychology by the supremacy of the unconscious and postulates that what is id should become ego.  The emancipation of man from the heteronomous rule of his unconscious would be tantamount to the abolition of his 'psychology.'  Fascism furthers this dependence instead of the realization of potential freedom, through the expropriation of the unconscious by social control instead of making the subjects conscious of their unconscious" (Andrew Arato & Eike Gephardt (eds.), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Continuum: London (1982), p. 136,  "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda").

On the flip side of rejecting the psychological "status quo history" of the unconscious (our animal past), we have the  ego hitting a glass ceiling of the super-ego state; Martin Jay notes:

"By portraying so vividly the unattainable promise of individual self-realization in the age of destructive competition, Ibsen exploded the liberal myth of personal happiness.  'Competition,' Lowenthal wrote, 'turns out to be not only a struggle for social and economic success among various individuals; it is also an inner struggle in which the individual must drastically curtail certain sides of his own being, his personality, in order to realize his personal ambitions'" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 139).

"The people he has to reckon with generally undergo the characteristic modern conflict between a strongly developed rational, self-preserving ego agency and the continuous failure to satisfy their own ego demands [….] Freud's psychological construction of the leader imagery is corroborated by its striking coincidence with the fascist leader type, at least as far as its public build-up is concerned.  His descriptions fit the picture of Hitler no less than the idealizations into which American demagogues try to style themselves" (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, p. 126, "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda").

"Since the libidinal bond between members of masses is obviously not of an uninhibited sexual nature, the problem arises as to which psychological mechanisms transform primary sexual energy into feelings which hold masses together [….] Freud dwells on the fact that in organized groups such as the Army or the Church there is either no mention of love whatsoever between the members, or it is expressed only in a sublimated and indirect way, through the mediation of some religious image in the love of whom the members unite and whose all-embracing love they are supposed to imitate in their attitude towards each other" (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, p. 123, "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda").

Max Horkheimer from his "The Authoritarian State":

"If the lack of modern technology and the war-like environment had not played into the hands of bureaucracy, statism would have already outlived its usefulness.  In integral statism, even apart from the militaristic encroachment, the absolutism of bureaucracy, whose authority the police enforce to the utmost in all phases of life, stands opposed to the free structuring of society.  No economic or juridical measures, only the will of the ruled can lead to the democratization of the system of control.  They will be trapped in the vicious circle of poverty, domination, war and poverty until they break through themselves" (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, p. 102, "The Authoritarian State").

"If a region, for example the United States or Europe, is great and powerful enough, the machinery of oppression used against the internal enemy must find a pretext in the threats of the external enemy.  While hunger and the danger of war are necessary, uncontrollable and inevitable results of a market economy, they can be constructively utilized by the authoritarian state" (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, p. 103, "The Authoritarian State").

"Critical theory is of a different kind.  It rejects the kind of knowledge one can bank on" (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, p. 106, "The Authoritarian State").

"The belief that one is acting in the name of something greater than oneself is bankrupt" (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, p. 112-113, "The Authoritarian State").

"The mass media assimilate the revolution by absorbing its leaders into their list of celebrities.  The isolated individual who is not appointed or protected by any power cannot expect fame.  Even so, he is a power because everyone is isolated.  Their only weapon is the word.  The more it is bandied about by the barbarians within and the cultural sophisticates abroad, the more its power is restored" (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, p. 115, "The Authoritarian State").

"The fact that even the enemies of the authoritarian state can no longer conceive of freedom destroys communication.  A language in which one does not recognize his own desires or become impassioned is alien.  Thus the bourgeoisie is no longer upset in the slightest over its own non-conformist literature; it has brought Tolstoy into the movies and Maupassant into the drugstore" (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, p. 116, "The Authoritarian State").


In his critique of radio, Martin Jay claims Adorno thought:

"radio could preserve the nunc or 'nowness' of a performance but not the hic or 'hereness.'  In so doing, it destroyed one of the crucial features of what Benjamin had called the 'aura' of a work of art, its ritual, cultish nimbus" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 191).

"Normal time was indeed suspended by great works of art, but in its place was a type of coherent development, which was a foretaste of the temporal order of the 'other' society.  Benjamin was especially fond of distinguishing between 'homogeneous, empty' time and time 'filled by the presence of the now'" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 192).

Jay later notes that:

"the posthumously published 'Thesis on the Philosophy of History' [.... was where] Benjamin most clearly articulated his distinction between homogeneous, empty time and the messianic Jetztzeit (the fulfilled time of the present) that the revolution was supposed to usher in" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 200).

In this "Thesis on the Philosophy of History," Walter Benjamin roughly sketches two views of history; one which he believes to be the faulty view of classical historicism, and the other, which is the proper goal of the historical materialist.  He sees the faulty view as that of a narrative history, where the historian compiles:

"the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary" (Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt (ed.), Harry Zohn (trans.), Illuminations, Schoken Books: New York (1969), p. 263, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History"),

with a history conceived as a

"progression through a homogeneous, empty time" (Illuminations, p. 261, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History").

Such historians believe in

"technological progress" (Illuminations, p. 258, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History"),

yet ultimately end up perpetuating the status quo, and reinforcing the hold of those in power.

To understand how historicism is duped into this, we must see how Benjamin views time.  As Jay was noted above, for Benjamin, the important element is the moment; Benjamin says:

"The true picture of the past flits by.  The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again" (Illuminations, p. 255, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History").

Thus, there is a moment of pure presence of the moment, which disappears instantly—an instant which may only be remembered through the constructs of the history we are embedded in:

"For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably" (Illuminations, p. 255, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History").

As soon as one tries to articulate the past moment, dominant modes of perception distort it; it is:

"lost in the void the very moment he [the historian] opens his mouth [….] To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it" (Illuminations, p. 255, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History").

From each of Benjamin's historical perspectives, the other seems like chaos.  From his preferred view, what I would call "Now History," narrative history resembles a:

"catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage" (Illuminations, p. 257, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History").

Within narrative history, the Now occurs as revolution.  To recognize this, the historical materialist must attempt to exit historical constructs; (s)he must view:

"cultural treasures [….] with cautious detachment […. Where he…] dissociates himself from it as far as possible" (Illuminations, p. 256-257, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History"),

in order to recognize

"the sign of Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.  He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history" (Illuminations, p. 263, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History").

The critic must rescue the moment from the continuum of history, thus redeeming the silent origin which was fractured into narrative history, and returning the moment to a:

"present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to stop" (Illuminations, p. 262, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History").

Benjamin writes:

"To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.  Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l'order du jour [summons to the order of the day]—and that day is Judgment Day" (Illuminations, p. 254, "Thesis on the Philosophy of History").

For Benjamin, each moment can be viewed within two contexts; the fallen (genealogical) context of a narrative history, or the proper (phenomenal) context of "Messianic time."


Benjamin's notion of a continually experienced full "now" connects with his notion of an artistic:

"'aura' which was so frequently used in the Institute's [for Social Reform's] cultural analyses" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 210).

In his "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Benjamin examines this notion of the aura, and how it is both lost and artificially reconstructed in the age of reproduction.  He says:

"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be" (Illuminations, p. 220, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").

He continues:

"One might subsume the eliminated element in the term 'aura' and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art" (Illuminations, p. 221, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").

What is lost, then, is the sense of authenticity, but more theoretically important, as discussed above, the singular particularity of the work of art is lost when it is mechanically repeated and reproduced, much like abstractions, or theories, (or even language) lose some detail of the object or data they are concerned with.

Benjamin argues that contemporary society seeks to distance itself from authenticity:

"Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction" (Illuminations, p. 223, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").

I think this point is exemplified by turning a few pages of a typical Richie Rich comic book.  The comic book could be seen as the ultimate humanized and inauthentic work of pop-art.  And with Richie Rich, we have the added dimension of glorified wealth aimed at enticing youth.  The words "NOW" and / or "NEW" are frequently emblazed across the typical cover, as if to compensate for the considerable distance the comic book has from any sort of actuality.  Moreover, in the upper right corner, appears a stamp reading, "Approved by the Comics Code Authority."  Benjamin notes that such types of art were able to come about only through the mechanisms of reproduction:

"the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility….  But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed.  Instead of being based on ritual [as Benjamin claims pre-reproductive art-forms were], it begins to be based on another practice—politics"  (Illuminations, p. 224, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").


"When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult [which was involved with ritual], the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever" (Illuminations, p. 226, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").

Jay also points out that Adorno and Benjamin:

"feared [...] that mass art had a new political function diametrically opposed to its traditionally 'negative' one; art in the age of mechanical reproduction served to reconcile the mass audience to the status quo" (Dialectical Imagination, p. 211).

It would seem clear then, that a comic book might be caught up in a perpetuation of capitalism, and a degradation of critical autonomy.  Along similar lines, Benjamin claims:

"One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of demand which could be fully satisfied only later" (Illuminations, p. 237, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").

In our Richie Rich comic book there is a "center-fold" of "Casper the Friendly Ghost," evidencing this: what appears as an added bonus also doubles as advertisement, and hence far from being some Hegelian Spirit at the center of things, we find a semi-present ghost referring to yet another product possibly promising its own "NEW NOW" that never ultimately delivers authenticity.

The comic book form may have merits though; as Benjamin discussed film in depth, noting that the format offered different modes of expression:

"The spectator's process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change" (Illuminations, p. 238, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").

Could it be that Richie Rich is a parody?  Who could take the approval of the comic code authority as authoritarian?  (Its logo looks slightly like an anarchy symbol!)  Possibly this is an opportunity for those who can afford a comic book to have a laugh at the impossibly rich.  Yes, the comic book creates a fantasy world where all of the Rich family's employees are happy… but possibly in a subversive implication, the fact that this is self-evidently an impossible fantasy world brings down the entire house of cards.  The comic book allows the reader to both enter an impossible fantasy world of wealth vicariously, and to remain critical of it as completely ridiculous.  The parodying nature of this comic book might subtly indoctrinate youth to have a bifurcated relation to super riches, as both an unobtainable fantasy, and something not to take too seriously: a joke.  If you are against capitalism, this might be negatively interpreted as encouraging complacency with the status quo of wealth.  If you don't mind some capitalism, but are not as rich as Richie, it may help you to not take the disparity between you and him too seriously.  Whether the parody is dangerous, or comforting, might depend on your own political persuasion: but a unified message is clear—you're not as wealthy as Richie Rich.


When Adorno writes of Benjamin, in "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin," he notes that Benjamin is a philosopher who:

"had nothing of the philosopher in the traditional sense" (Prisms, p. 229, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

And developed,

"a philosophy directed against philosophy" (Prisms, p. 235, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

Although being one of those who lived the kind of life that others write about, Benjamin did not draw upon his life, in order to create something original—something originating in him:

"The impression he left was not of someone who created truth or who attained it through conceptual power; rather, in citing it, he seemed to have transformed himself into a supreme instrument of knowledge on which the latter had left its mark" (Prisms, p. 229, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

Such was in line with Benjamin's "anti-subjectivism" that sought to eliminate personal intention, and let "objects" speak for themselves.  In fact, an unfinished "On the Concept of History" had nothing more or less than 1000's of pages of citations.  He didn't seek to use his subjective powers to form such into a unified narrative, but rather left the object in its fragmented state:

"Benjamin as it were revokes the unity of the subject to mythic turmoil in order to comprehend such unity as itself being only a natural condition; with his philosophy of language oriented on the cabbala, Benjamin saw subjective unity as scribbling of the Name" (Prisms, p. 236, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

Adorno sees "myth" as tying Benjamin's theological esoteric period with his fragmentary materialist period; yet each period tried to suspend subjectivity:

"Just as the domain of myth is ruled by multiplicity and ambiguity and not subjectivity, the unequivocal character of

reconciliation—conceived after the model of the 'name'—is the contrary of human autonomy" (Prisms, p. 236, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

Like some cabbalist performing an exegesis of a sacred text, the text takes primary place before the subjectivity of the exegete, for:

"In all his phases, Benjamin conceived the downfall of the subject and the salvation of man as inseparable" (Prisms, p. 231, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

Yet, twice in his essay on Benjamin, Adorno mentions Medusa:

"Before his Medusan glance, man turns into the stage on which an objective process unfolds" (Prisms, p. 235, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

"The glance of his philosophy is Medusan.  If the concept of myth, as the antipode to reconciliation, occupies a central position in it, especially during its openly theological phase, then everything, and especially the ephemeral, becomes in his own thought mythical" (Prisms, p. 233, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

And, twice, Adorno notes the metaphor of "microscope":

"He [Benjamin] sees his task not in reconstructing the totality of bourgeois society but rather in examining its blinded, nature-bound and diffuse elements under a microscope" (Prisms, p. 236, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

"By permitting thought to get, as it were, too close to its object, the object becomes as foreign as an everyday, familiar thing under a microscope" (Prisms, p. 240, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

I find it interesting that Adorno, when citing a "Medusan glance," says first that it is from Benjamin's philosophy, and then from Benjamin himself, as if the two were one and the same—and indeed this close friend of Benjamin seems more oriented towards his friend's philosophy in this portrait, than to the human being himself.  Possibly such was in line with the anti-subjectivity sought for; but this seems a little less than friendly, or humane.  Yet again, with his turn of phrase, Adorno is also giving Benjamin, something of the "legendary" treatment—promoting him, through his work, as larger than life.  Such "anti-humanism" may have been oriented towards Benjamin's own wishes, with his:

"idiosyncratic distaste for worlds like 'personality'" (Prisms, p. 235, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

Such reminds me of Heidegger's looking toward a Being beyond beings in his "Letter on Humanism."  Although it is a safe bet that Benjamin and Adorno did not share Heidegger's affiliation with the Nazi's, there remains a dangerous, in my opinion, desire to transcend the human—by perfecting science like some engineered machine, and pushing the human into that perfection, to the point of losing what was characteristically human.  Yes, I can see the desire for the spiritual as some sort of pursuit of perfection parallel to a scientific quest for the deepest truths—and Benjamin, with his theological and materialist pursuits seems to be looking for the final revelation of attaining these truths—but perfection at the price of personal humanity seems too steep for me.  Again, not that Benjamin, Adorno, or even Heidegger were inhumane people (I have little inclination to believe they were not humane)—but one may ask: "can a person live in your philosophy, and remain humanly alive?"

It is clear that Benjamin sought to suspend his subjectivity and let the fragmented material objects of contemporary history speak their ancient being beyond the everyday ways they are commonly comprehended—with a sort of social Heideggerian existentialism, which sought not for an authentic self in the face of vacuous everydayness, but for an authentic social history erupting out of the corrupt status quo.  Walter Benjamin sought to be nothing less than a pivot for the critical awakening of history to itself; in order, it would seem, to transform it into something ultimately out of history as we know it.  A tall order for a "mere" human; yet with reference to Benjamin's interest in the "microscopic":

"He never wavered in his fundamental conviction that the smallest cell of observed reality offsets the rest of the world" (Prisms, p. 236, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

Adorno's epigraph by Karl Kraus captures the flavor of Benjamin's project in a crystal clear light:

"… and listen to the sounds of the day as though they were chords of eternity" (Prisms, p. 227, "A Portrait of Walter Benjamin").

With these words, and linking the "day" with a microscopic look at contemporary history, that through the subject-less observer's Medusan look,  is found frozen in time like an eternal "now," Walter Benjamin could have been seen as (1) messianically realizing the true essence of social history, or (2) caught in a self or world-referential paranoia almost beyond imagination.  Maybe a little of both, seeing that Benjamin had both monumental insights, yet remained a troubled human being.


In closing this chapter, I'll try to co-opt some Critical Theory insights, given my opinion that for many, the DNA divergence has gone fallow, and for the few where seeds have taken root, or may take root, spurring healthy intellectual growth, my few insights should not obstruct further Frankfurt School fertilization.

In sum, a central methodological, systematic, and structural element of critical theory is to be a-methodological, a-systematic, and a-structural: it might be defined in the negative.  It questions all that is stable, the same, and repeating (the status quo, etc.) and everything that would attempt to keep things stable, the same and repeating (co-optation, the formulaic, etc.)—in contrast, it celebrates the subversive, changing, and differing.  Again, this opposition between conservation and revolution has structural-epistemological roots in the contrast between a mental reason which would reveal the universal (unchanging), and a material reality which would be in constant motion: the revolution of the now, vs. the stasis of a static eternal history.  Yet, although these thinkers seemed to prefer change to stasis (they tended to be more liberal than conservative, politically), they often recognized the impossibility of completely severing themselves from history: possibly a balance should be struck, but they saw history, especially the history of theory, as dominated by the pursuit of eternal stability, and a counter-movement seemed necessary in the face of the fascist seizures of centralized power seeking ego-controlled order in their time.

Benjamin, but especially Adorno were both thinkers that took "thinking outside the box" to an (anti) systematic extreme.  Their sophisticated philosophical outlook was crucial to the formation of Derridian deconstruction, and AI researchers may find, that although difficult, the Frankfurt School work went to the very heart of social intelligence.