Chair Interviews

 

 

 

Robert Hullot-Kentor interviewed by Breixo Viejo

The Spanish-born film scholar, Breixo Viejo, visited Robert Hullot-Kentor—the chair of the recently founded program in Critical Theory and the Arts—to discuss the rigorous three-semester course of study. The program, Hullot-Kentor says, “is meant for students who have a lot on their minds and who very much want to have a whole lot more on their minds.” … “The year focuses on the contemporary situation of art in a way that involves the entire history of art and society and the most urgent concerns we have about our lives.”

BREIXO VIEJO (BV): Bob, we’ve known each other for some years already, back from when I was a graduate student making a video on Hanns Eisler’s and Adorno’s book on film music…

HULLOT-KENTOR (HK): Sure, you don’t need to remind me, Breixo. You wanted to interview me about the book on film music that Adorno wrote with the composer, Hanns Eisler…

BV: …and instead you hypnotized my video equipment!

HK: That’s what you get; you didn’t want to be hypnotized…

BV: …and you didn’t want to be photographed…

HK: So, I took it out on the machinery.

BV: The camera was still hypnotized when I got back to Spain! How did you do that?

HK: That’s not the important part.

What matters is that you never figured out that, while I pretended to hypnotize the camera, you were watching with a very special sort of attention.

BV: You mean it?

HK: Obviously. You can’t hypnotize a camera; think about it. Anyway, I didn’t mean any harm. Wasn’t it a lot of fun?

BV: We got nothing done.

HK: No. True. Nothing. Still, Breixo, it was for the greater good. Did anything get broken?

BV: What’s past is past, I guess… HK: …oh, I doubt that…

BV: …It’s a figure of speech; I doubt it too. But, now I’m interviewing you, instead, about the graduate program in Critical Theory and the Arts that you’ve started at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. It’s a big undertaking, I know. Is this something you just got into in the last couple of years?

HK: No. I’ve had this on my mind at least since graduate school.

BV: That means you would have had plenty of time to think about it, because I know you spent a lot of years in graduate school. You went from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to clinical psychology, got some other degree in psychology, and ended up in Europe studying philosophy and literature in Germany and France before you finished a doctorate in Comparative Literature.

HK: It’s true. I’ve rattled around a lot, studying. There’s more to it than that, but in the ’80s when I could have been finishing my degree there weren’t any jobs for anyone, and definitely not in the universities, and I figured I’d be better off staying in school.

BV: How did you manage?

HK: I’m not sure I did. I had a theory back then, for my amusement, the “Stay-at-Home Theory of Surplus Value.” It had one thesis: “Capitalism needs us more than we need it, so if we stay home, they’ll send checks.”

BV: Did it work?

HK: No. What do you think? No. No checks arrived. But there were a lot of credit cards, and, along with there being no worthwhile jobs around, I had decided that youth was most of all for debt and travel, and altogether the moment to get the education that I was sure I would never get later on if I ended up selling shoes.

BV: And you wanted to get an education in everything?

HK: Not at all. I’m not an omnivore; and even if I wanted to be, I don’t have that cast of mind. I enjoy hearing someone put on the show, but that’s not me. I’ve always had the sense of being interested in one thing.

BV: And what’s that?

HK: It’s one thing that is very hard to say. And it’s because it is so hard to say what that is, that I went from one graduate program to the next, trying to find the right place to study. I couldn’t help thinking a lot about the kind of graduate program I’d put together if it were up to me.

BV: Now it is up to you to make what you just called, “the right place to study.” The program started in the Fall, 2012. What is it turning out to be? It must be hard to put in a couple of sentences.

HK: It is hard to put in a few sentences, but there are things I like to say about the program.

BV: For instance?

HK: I like saying that the year is meant for students who have a lot on their minds and who very much want to have a whole lot more on their minds.

BV: I’m a bit that way myself. But, that doesn’t say what the year is.

HK: No, it doesn’t; but it is a big clue.

BV: How about another big clue, then? From those things you like to say…

HK: That while most of the United States is busy doing remedial education, Critical Theory and the Arts is devoted to irremediable education. At the end of the year, a student in the program glancing in a mirror might look about the same as at the beginning of the year, but for those eyes looking, quite a lot will have changed.

BV: What you’re saying about education in the U.S.— that it has become largely remediation—is so concerning; that’s happening too in Spain and throughout the EU. In education everyone has noticed. It seems the words themselves are vanishing; literally vanishing. What Mallarmé called ‘the words of the tribe’ are going up in smoke. Most all education now is busy trying to shore up one side of the sand castle while the other side is washing away; and that’s supposed to be an education. I suspect we could all use some irremediable education, right about now. More clues…

HK: How about we try some clues by negation and say what the year is by stipulating what it isn’t? First of all, the year’s study is not a Grand March of the Cognoscenti….

BV: Cognoscenti?

HK: You know, “those in the know.”

BV: But, there are very interesting and distinguished people, artists and intellectuals, who visit the program during the year.

HK: That’s true. But, these are our colleagues; they are people we’ve known for many years and whose work the faculty has been interested in and studying for a long time; they are people we’re involved with; we don’t dole out charismatic visits from ‘famous artists and scholars’ to supposedly lucky onlookers. The people we invite join substantially in the year’s discussion.

BV: We’ve done clues; we’ve tried it by negation; say something substantive about the program.

HK: Wait — there’s lots more that I like to say about what the program isn’t. But, you want substance, you get substance: The year focuses on the contemporary situation of art in a way that involves the entire history of art and society and the most urgent concerns we have about our lives. And it is only possible to do this—to shape and discuss these most urgent concerns—because the program focuses on the contemporary situation of art. The problems and questions of making art today—what art has become, and is becoming—and understanding what is at stake in the relation of these questions to contemporary social conflict: that’s what defines the program. Incidentally, this isn’t a specialty program of some sort; it’s the heart of the matter.

BV: “The heart of the matter.”

HK: Honest, I’d rather you didn’t quote me.

BV: Honest injun, isn’t that what gringos like to say?

HK: Injun? I don’t know Breixo; that’s mostly a mid- Westernism. But, honest, Breixo, most anyone who has taught for a long time probably thinks about education in very serious, and perhaps even lofty terms that, when stated out loud while riding around on the back of one’s imaginary steed, may not carry all that well in public—especially in a country where educational reform is being self-evidently modeled, kindergarten through college, on testable prerequisites oriented to the ideal MBA. So I’ll heed my own advice here and keep those thoughts about education largely to myself except to say that I recognize that students today feel deprived of the truth, and even angry at that deprivation. Education needs to respond to this impulse in students, though without presuming that truth were something we might hold between our hands and dispense as from a jug.

BV: And you think of the program in Critical Theory and the Arts as responding to that impulse in students?

HK: It’s definitely not a one-year program in computer repair.

BV: Let me ask you more. You have a central faculty and several Graduate Associates; and, in addition, there are a number of participating visitors to the program. But what about those “Graduate Associates” ? I don’t know the phrase.

HK: It is special to this program. The Graduate Associates are advanced doctoral candidates. They are on the faculty—first of all—because they are terrifically intelligent, capable and engaged colleagues, and no less because they provide an historical depth of field in the generations participating in the program. The United States, by contrast, is otherwise strictly age segregated: you know, “I’m in fifth grade; I don’t talk to fourth graders.” That kind of thing.

BV: It’s true what you’re saying. In Europe, older and younger people are often together—here, you don’t see it.

HK: You really don’t; the ages and generations in the U.S. are quarantined off from each other in commercial bantustans of time, each with a marketing tag: Baby Boomers, GenX, Millennials, and so. We’re all aware of this; it’s one of the few things we all do know in a sort of absolute way. America hardly ever thinks about the
question of the possible reconciliation of the generations; the conflict is economically functional.

BV: But if the nation doesn’t thematize the question of the possible reconciliation of the generations, you have made the question part of the structure of the program in your faculty?

HK: Right. I might have fully staffed the program with colleagues from my own cohort, the old bears, from universities around the city; they would have come bounding out of the woods ready for September. But, with the Graduate Associates, we have faculty of several generations. This deepens the teaching and improves the advising of students, and makes the program more interesting for the faculty themselves. As the Occupy Movement made clear a few years ago, the generations have much to say to each other, and I’m sure we are only at the beginning of that.

BV: The curriculum couldn’t be more ambitious: aesthetics, art theory, political philosophy, social theory, social history, psychoanalysis, and art history.

HK: It is a lot, but the curriculum fits together coherently and dynamically in an education that, as I said earlier, involves one thing that happens to be very hard to say.

BV: Maybe you could say more about what this “one thing” is? But, in any case, the program is altogether interdisciplinary.

HK: You mean calling it “interdisciplinary” as a compliment, I know. I also know there’s no escaping it; but I’m not so content with the program being thought of as “interdisciplinary.”

BV: You’re against it?

HK: Not exactly; some good things have come of it. But interdisciplinary programs tend to be slack: “Invent your own MA; we teach everything; come to school, choose from hundreds of classes.” The critique of knowledge is more complex and more demanding than whatever the healing salts of interdisciplinarity might cure. Knowledge is not additive. And the argument for “breaking down the boundaries” between the disciplines is, however distantly, akin to those “get government off our back” impulses that have been all-but-unconsciously transposed from national ideology to education. It is not pleasant to consider, but interdisciplinary education seems to devolve from the same process of rationalization that gave us the free market ideology of neo-liberalism.

BV: Still, what are you saying? I can jump ahead to your point about interdisciplinary studies as, paradoxically, the instrumentalization of knowledge—as the subjectivization of knowledge; and maybe then it isn’t so different from education that has been drastically reduced to the business model and an open-market mentality. But, from the outside anyway, reading through the course descriptions of Critical Theory and the Arts, the program looks about as “interdisciplinary” as any education there ever was.

HK: That’s the point; it’s not. There is a distinction between “come invent your own education in our graduate interdisciplinary program,” and a program organized so that one moment, one course and each course is brought into a relation with other moments in such a way that each part of the program sheds light on the rest of the…

BV: …I see; I see…

HK: You do?

BV: Yes; it has to do with something I had wanted to discuss with you in our interview on Eisler and Adorno that never happened—it’s the question of constellations of concepts in Adorno’s work. And what you were just saying about the structure of the program in Critical Theory and the Arts made me realize that it is less designed as an interdisciplinary program that adds one field of inquiry to another, than as a program constructed exactly in terms of what Adorno called “constellations” of knowledge.

HK: It is that. The critique of knowledge is not in supposing that wiping out the distinctions between disciplines will do the trick. Those disciplines are as forcibly and objectively in conflict with each other as is the entire social division of labor with itself. Here, as elsewhere, thinking is motivated by the experience of these conflicts, not in avoiding them. On one hand, thought must have the conceptual capacity to tolerate the tension of reality; and, on the other, those concepts must be organized in such a fashion—Adorno called it ‘constellative’—as to potentially become conscious that reality is also something other than these concepts. Thought that thinks achieves something more than thought, as the fulfillment of knowledge, and not as its destruction or circumvention.

BV: So Critical Theory and the Arts isn’t an “art and philosophy program.”

HK: It’s really not. And the year’s study doesn’t involve writing mechanically trumped-up thirty-page papers that students barely care about and that no one will ever read anyway.

BV: But students do write in the program?

HK: They write a lot. By the end of the year, they’ve written quite a lot. But the students write and struggle to shape what they have to say—and to find that when they have succeeded, they have shaped it under the pressure of what needs to be said. That, and not the edifying posture of being a writer, is the source of whatever binding objectivity expression can achieve. The summer before I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I picked up a feisty hitchhiker in Belgium. I was a bit proud of my plans, I admit. But fate hadn’t sent this Diotima along to deliver encomia. That lady wanted to know—kind of right away, “What do you have to write about?” It did not feel good. But, it gave me a shake. I did not stay long in Iowa.

BV: So, the program in Critical Theory and the Arts is not art plus philosophy; and not art plus politics; and it’s not a writer’s program—though it intensely involves art, philosophy, politics and writing. We’re on a roll. What else isn’t the program?

HK: It’s also not a job preparation program. But it does lead somewhere, and in directions that are consider- ably more real than what those ominous “career paths”—with carefully inventoried “career skills”— claim to guarantee. An eye for reality is what education achieves when it is an education; if any, that’s the career path we provide. And that eye for reality is what is most of all needed in a nation that fears knowing itself for what it is, and, by that measure, fears knowing what it instead might be.

BV: “Paths” and “skills”—if you don’t mind my saying, America is full of all this Cub Scout stuff. But how can colleges and universities be built that way? Incidentally, did you see that article pass by some time ago about a group of young law school graduates who sued Brooklyn Law School because that “career path” turns out to be a dead end?

HK: I did. So on one hand, we are letting ourselves be crushed under a spuriously imposed pragmatism…

BV: What do you mean, ‘spuriously imposed pragmatism’?

HK: I mean, it is a delusional pragmatism; it is a trumped-up realism. It looks at you with a stern eye and tells you to buckle down. But very little of this stuff about going to school to study what you’ll do in your life is real. In the first place, most people—in the U.S., in any case—end up doing all kinds of things in a lifetime; historically people change jobs six to eight times. That’s the historical pattern. What’s happening now is something much more drastic: according to recent research, 40% of all current work will be done by computer by 2025…

BV: 40% of the jobs in the country are being computerized?

HK: That is the estimate. And, on the other hand, it has been estimated by the political economist, Gar Alperovitz, that if the national product were more equitably distributed, every family of four might have resources well in excess of $100,000 yearly. Why can’t the country know itself for what it is? How did we end up making life so hard for ourselves? And why can’t the nation comprehend its own possibilities?

BV: I gather that the possibility of finding any kind of answer to these questions concerns the problem of developing an eye for reality….

HK: Yes. That’s genuinely pragmatic; not buckling under a pseudo-rationality that confidently warns students away from pursuing what they most have a mind and talent to pursue; especially the legitimacy of serious study.

BV: In this regard, the motto you’ve chosen for Critical Theory and the Arts—that “Art knows us better than we know ourselves”—is intriguing. It comes from Adorno?

HK: From Current of Music. Adorno wrote several variations on the line, some published, some not. The epigram implies a series of questions. If we suppose that art knows us better than we know ourselves, how does art form this insight; how would we be able to know what that content is; and how would we be able to say it? That’s for starters.

BV: The answers to these questions would be very difficult to say.

HK: To my mind, it is one thing that is extremely hard to say.

BV: … …

HK: In any case, the motto is the middle point of the program; all of the year’s study—in aesthetics, social theory, art history, and the rest—is equidistant to that point. It is in thinking about art, and the contemporary situation of art, that the several courses bear on each other and become something more than interdisciplinary study.

BV: Is this a program for artists or for—it’s hard to find the right word— scholars?

HK: Both, for sure; there are those in the program each year who are most of all scholars—students who may or may not go on to get more advanced degrees. And there are artists who are taking a year away from the studio for more study. And then there are those who are both involved in making art and thinking about it. I meet that increasingly.

BV: Why is that?

HK: Again, that would be a lot to get into. But, the general point is that, as always, the artists who are emerging are those who can make what art now demands. And what it demands are artists who are intellectual to a considerable degree. How else could it be? There just isn’t any possibility for making art that matters in a straightforward way.

BV: Everything is up for grabs now, isn’t it.

HK: Yes, everything: what do you make art out of? What is painting, what is installation, what is dance, what is music?—which is which?—the arts no longer arrive one at a time, but keep turning up in a giant heap. Where does art belong, in a gallery or at the bottom of the ocean? Why are the materials at once so available and so recalcitrant? Why does every artwork, if it is going to succeed, need to throw something in front of itself to trip over? And as virtuosity has vanished as the sine qua non of art, the conception of the work has become overriding, and that conception tends to be intellectual or political in a way that runs contrary to what art historically has been.

BV: You’re picking up momentum.

HK: The point is, like it or not, the conceptual, reflective dimension that was once commonly held, self-evidently held, to be the opposite of art, now needs to be woven through art with every stitch—and artists who want to make anything must do an awful lot of thinking. I’m sure you’ve noticed: virtually all younger artists now also write about what they do and what they think art is and take part in what was once the rarified realm of social theory and aesthetics.

BV: So Critical Theory and the Arts is a program in contemporary studies?

HK: There you hit a nerve. Yes and no, in equal measure. It would like to be a program in contemporary studies in the sense that Joyce’s Ulysses is contemporary studies: one day in the life of a character that contains the whole of western history in its tensest reality. But while we have this insight into time, it has also slipped out of our understanding.

BV: What are you saying?

HK: I’m saying, in answer to your question whether this is a program in contemporary studies, that it is not at all clear what “contemporary” means. We have clues to it. We have some insights into a new idea of time that began to emerge in the early 20th century in which figures such as Joyce, El Lissitzsky, and Benjamin, understood something about the past as the origin within our own moment, not as a moment ‘back then.’ But what sense can a new idea of time have, if the idea of the new is itself palpably anathema? Try it out on your own lips. You can “rethink” all you want, “revisit,” and “reinvent” all you like. But don’t try anything new on us. The syllable won’t carry…

BV: Is it a program in contemporary studies, or not?

HK: The radical thoughts of modernism have lapsed. How can we have a sense of what “contemporary” means when, by any measure, the past is so broadly withheld from us as it now is? The thread of human history has snapped; the sense of imagination having gone slack measures this lapse. We talk about the past as if it occurred some forty-some miles from something called the present. Derrida didn’t help us out much at all with this by making “presence” a taboo and a madhouse, as if now everyone knows why that word bears a stigma.

BV: So, it is not a program in contemporary studies?

HK: What is there to be dogmatic about here? All we can do, is to consider the question of what it is to make art, and how to think about art in its vast history, as the unconscious transcription of the history of human suffering, when the thread of human history has snapped. We must look to grab a hold of these threads when there are really no threads at all to grab a hold of.

BV: Are you saying that there is nothing at all to take hold of, or that artworks are what we have when the thread of history has snapped?

HK: Now we really have something to talk about.*

Robert Hullot-Kentor interviewed by Paul Chan

Published in The Brooklyn Rail, March 7th, 2007

IN CONVERSATION

One early evening in February, on the occasion of his new book, Things Beyond Resemblance, the translator, critic and philosopher Robert Hullot-Kentor sat with the artist Paul Chan at the The Brooklyn Rail’s HQ in Greenpoint, where they exchanged reassessments of Adorno’s life and philosophy.

Paul Chan (Rail): You have a few new books. There’s your collected essays on Adorno, Things Beyond Resemblance, which was just published. And then there’s something called Current of Music, which I guess is a reconstruction of a book Adorno was writing when he lived in New York City in the late 1930s?

Robert Hullot-Kentor: That’s right. It’s an extensive study that Adorno was writing on how music was being transformed in the 1930s by its electronic transmission over radio; it’s electric current in current of music. The Adorno Archive in Germany asked me to finish the book that Adorno left behind in fragments during the war years. Adorno wrote thousands of pages for it, mostly in English—and it took me a long time to sort it out. The book is now part of Adorno’s Collected Works, but it will come out from Polity Press in a couple of years. And I expect it’s going to be important for understanding the electronic transformation of all things happening now.

Rail: And there’s also your new translation of Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music.

Hullot-Kentor: Yes.

Rail: Don’t forget [Laughs] Advertising in Hong Kong Society, Reminiscences of a Hong Kong Gardener, and your introduction to first-year Chinese grammar!

Hullot-Kentor: [Laughs] Right. I’ve gotten a lot done lately. The phantom publications at Amazon—maybe twenty titles; there’s a volume on managing diabetes there too. How do these things happen, Paul?

Rail: Can we work on that later? I wanted to ask how all these books on Adorno happened to you in the first place. How did you get interested in Adorno’s work? You’ve been at it a long time.

Hullot-Kentor: It is getting to be a long time. During the Vietnam War years, many students on the Left wanted to make sense out of the questions raised by several generations of critical theorists on the relation between Marx and Freud—actually, Marx, Freud and aesthetics. The possibility of social emancipation—words we no longer hear—seemed to depend on comprehending these matters.

 

Rail: Those several preceding generations, they’d include people like Marcuse?

Hullot-Kentor: Right. Marcuse, especially, meant a lot back then. If you read him today, he comes across like a TV philosopher. But then he was incisive and profound. As to myself, things started after I left the Iowa Writers Workshop. I could not stand the corn fields or figure out why I was trying to write and learn about poetry in a ‘workshop’—something modeled on hammers, saws and nails—where most of the students had read next to nothing and didn’t want to read anything either. But then, finally, it made too much sense, Paul; these people in ‘workshops’ had no interest in books and not much interest in art either. Maybe Iowa was fine, but I couldn’t take it.

Rail: What was next?

Hullot-Kentor: So, I found myself studying clinical psychology in Massachusetts. And pretty soon I was trying to figure out how not to end up with the click-clack language of a social scientist. But I was increasingly involved in questions of social history and psychology—and Wallace Stevens was always on the desk. That’s when I came across Adorno’s extraordinary essay “Psychology and Sociology” in New Left Review. It promised an answer to all the questions I had about Freud and Marx. The only problem was, I couldn’t understand it, just parts of it.

Rail: There wasn’t much Adorno in English then, I’d guess.

Hullot-Kentor: Just that essay and a few other things.

Rail: Did you know German?

Hullot-Kentor: No, well, guten tag, that’s about it. I had had a useless education. So I signed up for comparative literature, got a scholarship, locked myself in a room and a year later I knew German and French. Then I could study what I wanted, especially the thirty plus volumes of Adorno I knew were waiting. And in comparative literature—since no one really knows what that is, including the people who teach it—you’re free to get the education you need. For me that meant studying philosophy, history and the arts as a whole, a fragmented whole, for sure, especially music.

Rail: Iowa wasn’t for you, but does poetry have something to do with how you write? Because, in your Things Beyond Resemblance, and in your newest essay in the next RES, “In Exactly What Sense the Culture Industry No Longer Exists,” there’s a process of writing that is unique. I don’t find it in other writers. Or, like that essay in your book, “Right Listening and a New Kind of Human Being,” which I especially like, there is a development of thought as the writing goes along, changes in rhythm, the temperature of thought, and humor. What I see in your writing is this kind of flexibility that follows a thought where it wants to go. And I think that’s actually a phrase that you used once. You weave in ideas of Adorno, and some jokes too, as well as acute observations that careen into surprising philosophical insights, like your stinging remarks about Stanford University that starts one of the essays.

It all comes, not easily, but in a way that you wouldn’t expect. So I just wanted to start talking about how you write, and how you weave those things together, and what makes you think you can put those things together.

Hullot-Kentor: I’m not sure I know altogether what’s happening in how I write. One has intentions and one hopes that something results that is other than those intentions. There is no sense doing it, otherwise. If writing weren’t a kind of catapult, an instrument of the non-intentional, no one would have ever bothered with it. If we weren’t able, by writing, to make something more than we can make, we’d have been done with it a long time ago. Carrier pigeons wouldn’t even carry the notes around.

Rail: Can we forget about the carrier pigeons?

Hullot-Kentor: Sure. But, I was saying, about those intentions, that’s what there is to work with; one has to find ways to lean on and heighten the tension between appearances and what is real—on what divides them. You have to load the surfaces; there isn’t anything else to aim at. Rembrandt would set a thick brush of wet paint right onto a portrait’s forehead and then some more onto the nose. Somehow you have to make the wallboard bulge; that’s when intentions can become more than intentions. And since we all live at the back of the scenery at the same time that we can’t help being part of the scenery, to ourselves and to each other, we’re in the right position to make this happen; we’re the only part of nature that can make this happen. If this sometimes occurs in what I do, if the wallboard does momentarily bulge in a couple of places—maybe from shoving behind it too—I’d be awfully pleased. Maybe that’s what you call the sense of a “process” in what I write. Following thought where it wants to go.

Rail: Maybe. Things flash up in your writing that always surprise me. It’s the flow of thought as you develop an idea, whether it’s the idea of “progress as domination,” or the idea of the primitive in us and in reality—which you’ve claimed is the central insight of radical modernism. They are flashes of what I would call “real time” that come into play. All of a sudden in your essay the topic turns out to be global warming, for instance. Or I remember specifically in one of your essays, in Origin is the Goal, you talked about the behavior, the walk and the stance, of President Bush and his brother in Florida. These “real time” events crop up within an essay and weave their way from the present and connect themselves to the ideas you develop. They come in a flash. This energizes the work in a way I find rare with people who are involved in the kind of ideas that you are involved in.

Hullot-Kentor: The issue is, as you say, “real time.” You’re touching on a big topic. The whole of twentieth century philosophy, the interesting part of it anyway, was preoccupied—still is preoccupied—with the question of how to bring time into the structure of concepts. The thinking on the problem resulted in all those notoriously puzzling forms of writing in radical modern philosophy. Everything that is peculiar in Adorno’s style, the ten page long paragraphs, and so on, it all originates in reflection on the question of time, which for Adorno turns out to be the question of nature. Of course, you can get a surrogate temporality into an essay by importing doses of current events. But how to capture time in concepts? I suppose I’m working on that too, though my way of putting things together isn’t anything like Adorno’s, and couldn’t possibly be. And even when parts of stories, or particular events turn up in my essays, I’m not relying on them. I sure don’t want to write poetry in discursive essays, either.

Rail: Another of the essays in Things Beyond Resemblance that I wanted to ask you about, and learned a lot from, is “Second Salvage.” It’s about Adorno’s Current of Music and how he was hired to be a researcher for a man who wanted to publish research that valorized his business, and his business was the new technology of radio.

Hullot-Kentor: It was sort of that. Paul Lazarsfeld, a Columbia University sociologist, hired Adorno to study—as I started to say before—what was happening to music in its electronic transmission. In the 1930s lots of people, especially on the Left, had great hopes that radio would democratize cultural treasures that had previously been the private domain of the wealthy. It was a terrific idea; it is easy to sympathize with. But, the problem was, radio transmission and reception were still inadequate; transmissions and recordings were full of static and background noise. And Adorno, who certainly shared the idea of a democratization of culture—he gave radio courses on new music over WNYC—could not pretend that these transmissions did what they promised. Instead of making important music available to all, they were deceiving mid-America, the farmer heartland, proudly huddled up around the Sunday evening symphony broadcast, waiting for the treasures to arrive. Anyway, Lazarsfeld didn’t like those conclusions too much, and Adorno—who was certainly never easy to get along with—got fired.

Rail: Now I remember. But what especially interested me in Adorno’s conclusions was that even though he didn’t think radio delivered what it promised to mid-America, he did think that something else in those broadcasts could be cultivated. Didn’t he think the static, the distortions in the broadcasts, could itself be cultivated?

 

Hullot-Kentor: You always remember the best parts, Paul. Yes. Adorno shunned the normative interest in high culture in favor of the static, the distortion. The distortion seemed to him to be his ally—in the way that Picasso knew distortion was his ally—in the critique of societal appearances. Adorno speculated whether it wouldn’t be possible to compose music, new music, advanced music, out of the static itself and use the radio as the ‘instrument,’ a musical instrument, for the performance of this new music. By the way, Adorno didn’t think that this could be done; he thought it was what would need to be done to make good on radio’s false promises—a hypothetical project that illuminated the actual limitations of radio. In a sense, Cage devoted much of his life to proving Adorno right about the difference between tools and musical instruments. But I see what appeals to you in Adorno’s thinking. And it has more to do with Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” than with Cage. In your recent work, in 1st Light, for instance—which I think is the best of what anyone has done as a memorial to 9/11—you’ve been trying to emaciate reality into existence, starve it into existence. That’s your way to get the wall board to bulge. Am I right? In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds?

Rail: I thought I was interviewing you.

Hullot-Kentor: Ok, onward.

Rail: You’re saying that Adorno’s point in Current of Music wasn’t that radio was no good and we should shut it off and learn to play Beethoven on proper instruments?

Hullot-Kentor: He wouldn’t have minded if we could all play Beethoven, I’m sure of that. But that isn’t where his focus went. When he lived in New York City, he spent time uptown in Harlem dancing with people that I suspect not all that many Columbia professors go dancing with right now; not since the days of Bobby Kennedy, anyway, if then. Adorno wasn’t a rigorist, in the ethical sense; his thinking is exacting, but not strict; it’s not a punishment. He wasn’t for any kind of restoration, not politically and not artistically; he didn’t think the world of classical music could be, or should be, glued back together again. He was looking for the potential in the moment of his day as the source of the genuinely new. He was relentlessly preoccupied with the possibility of emphatic experience.

Rail: Do you have a favorite essay in Things Beyond Resemblance? 

Hullot-Kentor: I’d probably take “Apple Criticizes the Tree of Knowledge.”

Rail: Why that one?

 

Hullot-Kentor: It’s short, it’s three pages, you can read it in five minutes. I read slowly, so I’m always in favor of what’s got fewer pages. But, also because that essay takes the side of theory in opposition to what passes for theory. “Theory,” comes from a Greek word that once meant, “to see a snake.” That could be just funny. But a snake was once a significant, a prodigious thing to see; it was for the Greeks. Their ancient idea of theory propitiously, luckily maybe, developed into the idea of thought that would achieve a true seeing—in the sense that Plato wanted us ultimately to see the ideas. “Theory” then is importantly related to that interesting Sanskrit Hindu word, darsan, a blessed seeing: the perception of what is of the greatest interest. Strangely, maybe, such a seeing would ultimately have to mean a being seen by what is most important; it’s implied.

Rail: That reminds me of Adorno’s line, wherever it was in one of your essays, that “art understands us, we don’t understand it.” Was that it? 

Hullot-Kentor: More or less. And that’s the point. If art—when art is art—understands us better than we can intentionally understand ourselves, then a philosophy of art would need to comprehend what understands us. Thinking would need to become critically imminent to that object; subjectivity would become the capacity of its object, not simply its manipulation. That’s the center of Adorno’s aesthetics. It’s an idea of thought that is considerably different from the sense of contemporary “theory,” where everyone feels urged to compare Derrida with Nietzsche, the two of them with Levinas, and all of them now with Badiou, Zizek and Agamben. That kind of thinking is primarily manipulation. It’s the bureaucratic mind unconsciously flexing the form of social control it has internalized and wants to turn on others. Seeing, as seeing what’s of the essence, is at best the lesser part of that thinking.

Rail: But if that’s bureaucratic reason, you keep bringing in other forms of knowledge. There’s sociology, philosophy, psychology, and probably economics too.

Hullot-Kentor: Economics too. You’re right, even if there are distinctions to be made here. For reasons we don’t have time for, German philosophy ended up wanting to solve the question of the relation of the individual to society in a way that involved an organization of all knowledge from the perspective of aesthetics. That, of course, was not going to work; and it definitely did not work in Germany, which could hardly have a more tragic history. Aesthetic social philosophy did not exactly do the trick. There is much to think about in this, and critically of Adorno as well. We are touching on the strength of his thinking and in part on its Achilles’ heel, all at once. But it isn’t a bureaucratic heel; it doesn’t manipulate ideas externally.

 

Rail: Can I ask you about your translation of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory? That’s the first work of yours I came across. I thought it had the ugliest cover I had ever seen.

Hullot-Kentor: Thank you, Paul. I remember that that attracted you to it. 

Rail: Well it did, but look, I understand that your translation is a second translation of the book? What happened to the first one?

Hullot-Kentor: I wrote a critical review of that first translation. It found its way back to the German owners of the copyright—Suhrkamp—and they insisted that the book be taken off the shelves. I felt an obligation to present a new translation.

Rail: How long did that take you?

Hullot-Kentor: Forever. I’m not sure I like thinking about that. Probably 10 years. I must have given up on it I don’t know how many times. Friends insisted: “No, you can’t forget it on the subway;” “No, it’s too big to hide under a rock.” I did the best I could with it. Translation is something you can always improve on. There’s always reason to give it another try. I don’t think I’ll be giving it another try though.

Rail: But you are doing a new translation now of Negative Dialectic?

Hullot-Kentor: Right. I am working on it. I’ll finish it up tomorrow.

Rail: Do you have any thoughts on how having those two books in English might change things? Or what could change as a result of them?

Hullot-Kentor: Nothing special. The rubbish in the world’s oceans will rise to the surface and dissolve harmlessly, like fresh baking soda tablets; global warming will reverse into global mellifluousness, with an intermittent, pleasing drizzle; and the 184 million people that Hobsbawm estimates were shot, bombed, starved, gassed, and marched into mass graves and who were bulldozed over in 20th century conflicts, will send off postcards saying they feel better now.

Rail: … …

Hullot-Kentor: I don’t know, Paul. There are many important ideas in those two books. Ideas make us think; we think ideas. They are what are urgent in our minds—contrary to the mindset of colleges and universities which are proudest claiming that they teach how to do it, how to think, how to write, how to read and end up leaving the students cold, in debt, stupidified and hating what they’ve done in those years in classrooms, being prepared mostly for bad jobs—and unable even to follow the news in something more than a tabloid. What is it, is it 60 or 70 percent of Americans—I forget—say they don’t have the background to follow the news in the newspaper? But where the ideas go, where Negative Dialectic might lead, that’s hard to say.

One hesitates to speculate because it seems like that would slam more doors than open. If I got to choose, though, I know what I’d choose.

Rail: Alright, you pull the wishbone.

 Hullot-Kentor: I’d wish those books would be read and that we would resist a little more. We aren’t resisting. For all the difficulty of our lives, for how dissatisfied people are, when you think how many flounder, however angry and destructive we can be, however much we feel we’re pushing against the current, people might actually think of resisting. People aren’t resisting Movie Land. They’re not resisting what’s on the radio. We largely parade what’s being sold us, and not much more. The culture industry today, if you look at it anthropologically, is in considerable proportion made up of forms of ritual defilement. That’s what we are doing with ourselves; that’s where the energy goes. It’s a way of ruining what one has so there’s nothing left to lose. It’s worth seeing it for what it is. Maybe let the batteries peter out on the cell phone; tuck it away in a bottom drawer. It is conceivable that there is something else than business. Untangle the earphones from the ears. You can take an ear-training class and learn to pick out a minor 7th and develop an acuity of listening and a comprehension of music that will make you disconsolate with what there is to hear over the radio and the web.

Rail: What you’re saying, I don’t know if radical is the right word, anachronism may not be the right word, but really the idea of this seemingly innumerable, inextricable, connection that comes from everywhere and anything, from media coming at you, from the cell phone, the e-mail, to your landline, to text messaging; it really feels like everything around you is saying you should connect.

Hullot-Kentor: That’s exactly the point; I’m glad you put it that way. Adorno gave a set of lectures on moral philosophy in 1957—it’s not the series on moral philosophy that was recently published. But, anyway, Adorno ended that seminar acknowledging the disproportion between what an individual can do and what the combined social powers are. He thought that the disproportion of forces is absolute. If a single person could locate the mythical lever that would change everything, that person could not budge that lever. This is plain fact in the US right this minute where even a considerable majority has so far been unable to budge that lever and isolate a president who represents forces that have done incalculable harm and still mean to do lots more of the same.

So what’s a person to do who has few illusions about the situation? Adorno recommended something modest, but it would be half utopian right this moment: “You,” he was talking to his students, and I’m just half remembering this ‘you don’t have to play along completely; you can do things a little differently.’ That word “difference” took a considerable beating over the last few decades. But, Paul, you indicated what would make a difference, if a modest one: instead of functioning as the point where all those connections you were talking about a second ago are made; instead of being the synaptic co-ordination for the sales brigade; instead of eagerly handing the baton along—it can be intercepted and set quietly on the ground. You can not make the connection. You can cause a Bermuda triangle to settle over the scene of industrial entertainment. It’s a pleasure listening for the engines to conk out, where the conversation folds up and pitches into the waves. You might not know what that movie was about, and are indifferent anyway; maybe you can’t recognize the punch line to that advertisement; maybe you don’t know which team plays which sport; or maybe you couldn’t escape knowing the ad lines, or the movie plot, but you do as if. It’s a possibility. One can save the capacity of familiarity for what might be genuinely familiar. I wish people would. Let the big ship leave by itself, one rider less.*

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