Wilhelm Reich illustration by Pat Linse (copyright 1994)

Wilhelm Reich’s synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis

Back in June, in a post fea­tur­ing cri­tiques Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács wrote on Freu­di­an psy­cho­ana­lys­is, I an­nounced that I’d shortly be post­ing a num­ber of works by the Marxi­an psy­cho­ana­lyst Wil­helm Reich. A couple days earli­er, of course, I’d pos­ted an ex­cel­lent piece by Ber­tell Oll­man on Reich from his 1979 es­say col­lec­tion So­cial and Sexu­al Re­volu­tion. Need­less to say, this post is long over­due.

Some brief re­marks are there­fore ap­pro­pri­ate, in passing, to frame Reich’s rel­ev­ance to the present mo­ment.

First of all, Reich is rel­ev­ant to con­tem­por­ary dis­cus­sions of fas­cism. His work on The Mass Psy­cho­logy of Fas­cism re­mains one of the most in­nov­at­ive and pro­found Marx­ist ef­forts to un­der­stand ideo­logy as a ma­ter­i­al force that has ap­peared to date.

Moreover, this forms a pivotal point of de­par­ture for a host of sub­sequent at­tempts to the­or­ize re­volu­tion­ary sub­jectiv­ity — both in terms of con­scious­ness and of de­sire. To­mor­row or the next day I hope to jot down some of my own thoughts on the mat­ter, us­ing Reich for ref­er­ence.

Last but not least, Reich’s thoughts on sexu­al eman­cip­a­tion are con­sid­er­ably ahead of their time. Con­sider, for ex­ample, this ex­cerpt from one of his journ­al entries dated 1939, while in Oslo:

The past few nights I wandered the streets of Oslo alone. At night a cer­tain type of per­son awakes and plies her trade, one who these days must view each bit of love with great fear but who will someday hold sway over life. Today prac­tic­ally a crim­in­al, to­mor­row the proud bear­er of life’s finest fruits. Whores, os­tra­cized in our day, will in fu­ture times be beau­ti­ful wo­men simply giv­ing of their love. They will no longer be whores. Someday sen­su­al pleas­ure will make old maids look so ri­dicu­lous that the power of so­cial mor­al­ity will slip out of their hands. I love love!

While some of his views on ho­mo­sexu­al­ity might seem an­ti­quated or back­wards today — he saw it as a de­vi­ant be­ha­vi­or, linked to lat­ent au­thor­it­ari­an tend­en­cies — the fact re­mains that Reich favored de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion and pro­tested adam­antly against its re­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion in the So­viet Uni­on un­der Stal­in.

In­cid­ent­ally, this is why I find it so ab­surd that left­ists look to ex­cuse Castro’s ho­mo­phobic policies pri­or to 1980. Eduard Bern­stein was pro­mot­ing gay rights dur­ing the 1890s, and Au­gust Bebel ad­voc­ated the re­peal of laws against sod­omy as early as 1898.

Re­gard­less, here are the prom­ised PD­Fs, along with some rare im­ages and a trans­lated art­icle by the Itali­an Trot­sky­ist Aless­andro D’Aloia. I have taken the liberty of de­let­ing some need­less asides about the Big Bang, a pe­cu­li­ar hangup the In­ter­na­tion­al Marx­ist Tend­ency re­tains with re­spect to the­or­et­ic­al phys­ics des­pite none of its mem­bers be­ing qual­i­fied enough to judge the mat­ter.

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Sigmund Freud standing next to a bust of Marx copy 2

Early Marxist criticisms of Freudian psychoanalysis: Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács

Much has been written over the years about the similarity between and compatibility of Marxian sociology and Freudian psychology. Here is not the place to evaluate those claims. Suffice it to say, for now, that both social critique and psychoanalysis have seen better days. Both doctrines have lost whatever pretense they once had to scientific status and today are relegated mostly to the humanities. One is more likely to hear Marx and Freud mentioned in the halls of the academy than shouted in the streets or whispered in clinical settings.

Tomorrow or the next day I plan to post PDFs of the complete works of Wilhelm Reich in English, German, and possibly Spanish. I will perhaps devote a few lines to the question of Marxism and Freudism, to the way each approaches and interprets irrationality. Whether as social ideology or psychopathology, this is their shared concern and primary motivation. Each aims to render that which is unconscious conscious, to master the forces of nature (external or internal) in a more rationally ordered life. “Just as Marxism was sociologically the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the exploitation of a majority by a minority,” asserted Reich, “so psychoanalysis is the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the social repression of sex.”

Freudian analysis tends to fall back on biological explanations of irrational behavior, whereas Marxist theory places more emphasis on the historical dimension. Yet both of them ultimately fall under the heading of materialism, even if somewhat “idealistic” strains. Psychoanalysis gives too much priority to sexual factors, important though these doubtless are. Vulgar Marxism is quite often guilty of reducing everything to economic factors. Desires and drives are a major part of psychoanalysis, while needs and motivations are a major part of Marxism.

A word about these texts. Korsch’s article first appeared in the councilist periodical Living Marxism in February 1938. Its main point of reference, besides Freud’s work, is Wilhelm Reich, whose writings were virtually unknown in America at the time. Reuben Osborn’s 1937 book on Marx and Freud: A Dialectical Study is also dealt with, but Reich is the one Korsch for the most part has in mind. He is generally appreciative of both Freud, whose postulates about the unconscious Korsch calls a “genuine discovery,” as well as Reich’s efforts to understand the rise of fascism on its basis. Oddly, Korsch — who by then had long since abandoned Leninism and increasingly considered Marxism a lost cause — had recourse to Lenin’s arguments against the Economists in defending Marxist methodology.

Lukács’ review of Group Psychology by Sigmund Freud appeared even earlier, in the German communist paper Die rote Fahne [The Red Flag] in 1922. For whatever reason, Lukács never struck me as someone interested in Freud. Victor Serge had described him as “a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud” in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, so maybe I just forgot. Either way, Lukács makes very clear that he considers Freud “a researcher of integrity,” and even after criticizing psychoanalytic interpretations of military psychology insists: “We did not quote this example in order to expose an otherwise meritorious researcher to deserved ridicule.” Interesting stuff.
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There is no criticism, only history

Manfredo Tafuri
Design Book Review
No. 9: Spring 1986

Manfredo Tafuri is a prolific author on a wide variety of subjects ranging from 16th-century Venice (L’armonia e I conflitti, coauthored with Antonio Foscari) to more alien topics such as The American City (coauthored with Giorgio Ciucci and Francesco Dal Co). Each of his works serves as a platform for questioning the methods of architectural history, which, as he so emphatically states below, is not to be distinguished from criticism. In Theories and History of Architecture, he identified a major problem of “operative criticism,” endemic to architects who write about architecture. His suggestion to counteract this tendency to impose contemporary standards on the past was to shift the discourse away from the protagonists and individual monuments and consider architecture as an institution. His most widely read book in America, Architecture and Utopia, advanced this position, proposing an ideological analysis of architecture. His disconcerting message for those who had hopes of a “progressive” architecture was that there can be no class architecture which can revolutionize society, but only a class analysis of architecture. In his most recent theoretical work, La sfera e il labirinto, he has outlined a method of history called the progetto storico. This historical project, which is deeply indebted to Michel Foucault’s “archeologies of knowledge” and Carlo Ginzburg’s “micro-histories,” seeks to study the “totality” of a work, disassembling it in terms of iconology, political economy, philosophy, science, and folklore. His goal is to penetrate the language of architecture through non-linguistic means. At the core he still finds the problem of “the historic role of ideology.” The job of the Tafurian critic-historian is to “reconstruct lucidly the course followed by intellectual labor through modern history and in so doing to recognize the contingent tasks that call for a new organization of labor.” In November, 1985, we interviewed Professor Tafuri on the subject of criticism.

— Richard Ingersoll

%22On Theory%22 conference with Manfredo Tafuri, as part of the %22Practice, Theory and Politics in Architecture%22 lecture series organized by Diana Agrest, Spring 1974. Courtesy of Princeton School of Architecture Archives Round table at ETSAB with Manfredo Tafuri, José Muntañola, Pep Bonet and Josep Quetglas, February 1983. Manfredo Tafuri lecturing at ETSAB, February 1983

There is no such thing as criticism; there is only history. What usually is passed off as criticism, the things you find in architecture magazines, is produced by architects, who frankly are bad historians. As for your concern for what should be the subject of criticism, let me propose that history is not about objects, but instead is about men, about human civilization. What should interest the historian are the cycles of architectural activity and the problem of how a work of architecture fits in its own time. To do otherwise is to impose one’s own way of seeing on architectural history.

What is essential to understanding architecture is the mentality, the mental structure of any given period. The historian’s task is to recreate the cultural context of a work. Take for example a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Madonna, built sometimes in the Renaissance. What amazes us is how consistently these buildings have a central plan and an octagonal shape. The form cannot be explained without a knowledge of the religious attitudes of the period and a familiarity with the inheritance from antiquity — a reproposal of the temple form devoted to female divinities. Or take the case of Pope Alexander VII, whose interest in Gothic architecture at the cathedral of Siena [mid-17th century] compared to his patronage of Bernini in Rome can only be explained through a knowledge of the Sienese environment and traditions. The historian must evaluate all the elements that surround a work, all of its margins of involvement; only then can he start to discover the margins of freedom, or creativity, that were possible for either the architect or the sponsor.

The problem is the same for comprehending current work. You ask how the historian might gain the distance from a new work to apply historical methods. Distance is fundamental to history: the historian examining current work must create artificial  distance. This cannot be done without a profound knowledge of the times — through the differences we can better understand the present. I’ll give you a simple example: you can tell me with precision the day and year of your birth, and probably the hour. A man of the 16th century would only be able to tell you that he was born about 53 years ago. There is a fundamental difference in the conception of time in our own era: we have the products of mass media that give us instantaneous access to all the information surrounding our lives. Four centuries ago it took a month to learn of the outcome of a battle. An artist in the 15th century had a completely different reference to space-time; every time he moved to a new city (which was very rarely) he would make out his will. In earlier centuries, time was not calculated but was considered to be a gift from God. Knowledge was also considered to be God-given and thus teachers in the Middle Ages could not be paid; only later was their payment justified as a compensation for time. These factors belong to the mental web of another era. The way for us to gain distance from our own times, and thus perspective, is to confront its differences from the past.

One of the greatest problems of our day is dealing with the uncontrollable acceleration of time, a process that began with 19th-century industrializations; it keeps continually disposing of things in expectation of the future, of the next thing. All avant-garde movements were in fact based on the continual destruction of preceding works in order to go on to something new. Implicit in this is the murder of the future. The program of the “modern” artist was always to anticipate the next thing. It’s just like when you see a “coming attraction” ad for a film, essentially you have already consumed the film and the event of going to see the film is predictably disappointing and makes you anxious for something new. Continue reading


Book Review: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

Sunit Singh

Image: Cover to the new Philcox translation of
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (2008)


Originally published in the Platypus Review.

New York: Grove Press, 2008

It is no coincidence that there is a new English translation of Black Skin, White Masks [Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952), hereafter BSWM], since in this first book, Frantz Fanon himself believed that the fight against racism had nowhere found more succor than in the United States. Fanon poetically describes the shorn “curtain of the sky” over the battlefield after the Civil War that first reveals the monumental vision of a white man “hand in hand” with a black man (196). Yet while blacks continue to remain segregated under Jim Crow, the situation for the French man of color haunted by liberal metropolitan racism, is rather different. He remains locked in an existential struggle for recognition, unaware that freedom means “when there are no more slaves, there are no masters” (194). Fanon contends in BSWM that there is no more insidious obstacle than racism to the realization of our species capacities or the completion of the historical dialectic. Of course this claim only makes sense if racism is treated, like in BSWM, as a symptom of capitalism. That is, even The Wretched of the Earth [Les Damnés de la Terre (1961), hereafter W of E], fails to achieve the depth of analysis in BSWM.[1] The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was presumably speaking about W of E in the quip that “every brother on a rooftop” in the 1960s was able to recite Fanon. For no one quoting BSWM can miss its incisive rebuke of black militancy as proffering a chimeric freedom or its bold claim about alienation as the exclusive privilege of a certain class of blacks. “Fervor,” the narrator in BSWM poignantly remarks, “is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (9 CLM).[2] The awful truth that no one, except a handful of academic leftists interested in presenting BSWM as an anti-humanist phenomenology,[3] reads this book anymore indicates the depth of the sea change in attitudes about race on the Left. But if the utopian interracial schema of BSWM speaks to us at all, this is a consequence of the peculiarity of the US as a “nation of nations,” where the experience of racism raises the dilemma of freedom with acuteness.

The historic importance of W of E to the New Left overshadows the brilliant analysis of racism in BSWM.[4] Even the appearance of a new translation on the scene scarcely alters the conditions of this elision. His latest translator, Richard Philcox, in his afterword to the retranslation of W of E, explains the relevance of — or rather, expresses the contemporary confusion about — Fanon thus: “We cannot forget the martyrdom of the Palestinians when we read…‘On Violence’….We cannot forget the lumpenproletariat, the wretched of the earth, who still stream to Europe from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the countries of the former Eastern bloc, living on the periphery in their shantytowns.” As Philcox laments, “[there are those who] still unreservedly and enthusiastically adopt the thought characteristics of the West.”[5] The Freud-Marx confluence in BSWM sits at odds with this politically naïve anti-imperialism. No doubt this at least partially explains why the new translation elicits a tepid foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah. More pointedly, Appiah reads three themes as shared across both works — a critique of “the Eurocentrism of psychoanalysis,” a bid to reckon accounts with Negritude, and a concerted effort to develop a “philosophy of decolonization” — as if these formed a triptych. However this is no more than a trompe l’oeil. The concern with “disalienation” in the first book is non-identical with anxieties about “decolonization” in the latter: Whereas BSWM analyzes the wretchedness of racism under capitalism, W of E recoils from the task of pushing through what, in the conclusion to BSWM, is referred to as the “pathology of freedom” by virtue of its close identification with Third Worldism. On the other hand, the foreword seems apposite to this new translation, since the choices that Philcox makes in trying to render into English the peculiarity of the French in BSWM often coincide with the interpretation Appiah advances on the thematic unity of Fanon’s oeuvre. Hence, in its endeavor to restore some of the philosophically inflected categories (particularly in the fifth chapter), the new translation mirrors a wider historical trend privileging a descriptive phenomenology of race over a psychoanalytic interpretation.[6] The manner in which the new edition assumes the onus of parsing the French words nègre or noir (“black/the black man,” “negro,” or “nigger”) tends to blunt the affective charge of “negro” as well as the rhetorical use of “nigger” by preferring to update — although by no means always — these epithets with the more innocuous “black” or “the black man.” Part of the issue is that the French uses a number of words to express the gray scale that distinguishes black skin from white, “the Creoles, the Mullattoes, and Blacks,” (la békaill, le mûlatraille et la négraille), that in English are collapsed into “black/black man” or the more pejorative “negro/nigger.” Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is that the newer version shrouds a claim at the heart of BSWM: Blacks as much as whites share the connotations or stereotypes associated with what is “black,” so that the “nigger” is always someone else, somewhere else.[7] The new, “more accurate” translation painstakingly reconstructs the specificity of the numerous cultural references in the text, its idiosyncratic use of medical jargon, and its loanwords from existentialism. But these virtues are limited by the fact that it lacks the apparatus of a critical edition with which to adjudicate matters of nuance. Despite its infelicities, the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann, first issued in 1967, seems more aware of its intended audience; its age captures quaintly the historical texture of BSWM. The older translation was, in an important sense, more aware of the stakes of BSWM. Continue reading


Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels

IMAGE: Cover to Bruno Bosteels’
The Actuality of Communism (2011)

Platypus Review 54 | March 2013

Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe


On October 14, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe interviewed Bruno Bosteels, Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Alec Niedenthal:
 It is well known that 1968 was a critical moment for the Left in France, but the simultaneous events in Mexico are not so well-known. What was at stake for you in making this connection more explicit?

Bruno Bosteels: The events of 1968 were definitely pivotal globally for the Left. The reason why 1968 in France was a key moment was because the so-called theories, what people now call “French theory” and the philosophical elaborations and politics stemming from it, all share this interest in “the event.” Whereas Foucault, Derrida, Badiou, and Deleuze were once read as philosophers of “difference,” now it is common to read them as philosophers of the event — that is, 1968. So, we might ask, “Why is it an important moment or event in the history of France or Mexico or other places where, in the same year, there were riots, uprisings, popular movements, rebellions, and so on?” But also, “What does it mean to think about ‘the event’ philosophically?” The theoretical traditions that led to this pivotal moment have a longer history in France than in other places where one must search obscure sources to get to the same theoretical problem. Within the French context, for institutional, historical, and genealogical reasons we have a well-defined debate that can be summed up, as what Badiou himself called “The last great philosophical battle”: the battle between Althusser and Sartre, between structuralism and humanism, or between structure and subject. One can place these in different contexts, but they are extreme versions of the debate on the transparency of the subject versus the opacity of the structure. What I thought was interesting was that the most intriguing theoretical (but also experimental, literary-essayistic, or autobiographical) writings to emerge from 1968 are situated somewhere at the crossover between those two traditions, breaking down both and making caricature impossible. A similar debate also took place in Mexico with José Revueltas, typically considered a kind of Sartrean humanist-existentialist writer and theorist, versus a very strong tendency of Althusserianism on the Mexican left. Continue reading


The relationship between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics

Amanda Armstrong
Platypus Review, № 2
February 2, 2008


Castoriadis, Marx, and Freud
on time and emancipation

On two occasions, Sigmund Freud observed that politics, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis are all impossible professions. Cornelius Castoriadis attempted to make sense of this cryptic observation in a 1994 essay entitled “Psychoanalysis and Politics,” in which he argued that, not only are these three “professions” structurally analogous, they are also entangled with each other such that the “impossible” realization of pedagogical or psychoanalytic aims is ultimately conditional upon an emancipatory political transformation.

The impossibility of psychoanalysis as well as of pedagogy lies in the fact that they both attempt to aid in the creation of autonomy for their subjects by using an autonomy that does not yet exist. This appears to be a logical impossibility…But the impossibility also appears, especially in the case of pedagogy, to lie in the attempt to produce autonomous human beings within a heteronomous society…The solution to this riddle is the “impossible” task of politics — all the more impossible since it must also lean on a not yet existing autonomy in order to bring its own type of autonomy into being. [1]

Castoriadis’s analysis of the “impossible possibility” of emancipatory politics, while deformed by his tendency to treat dynamic social formations as static states of being (i.e. “autonomy”), conveys, in a partially veiled form, certain important dimensions of Marxist politics. First, by analogizing social emancipation to pedagogy and psychoanalysis, Castoriadis squarely positions social emancipation along a temporal axis, indicating that Marxists should strive to bring about a break, in time, between an era characterized by “personal independence founded on objective dependence,”[2] and a subsequent era characterized by a more thoroughgoing form of social freedom. The essentially temporal (rather than spatial) nature of this hoped-for “break” has often been forgotten on the Left — an amnesia that has had disastrous consequences for the project of social emancipation.


Second, Castoriadis’s paradoxical formulation concerning the (non-)existence of the conditions for social autonomy indicates, albeit in a highly attenuated manner, something significant about the ground upon which a possible socialist future might be built. As Marx argued in the Grundrisse, an emancipatory transition to a post-capitalist society would entail the abolition of the value form of social mediation and the freeing up of the social wealth and human capacities accumulated in alienated form under capitalism.[3] In other words, the social form that currently frustrates social emancipation — namely, capital — would also constitute the ground upon which a socialist society would be built. Thus, in a sense, it is right to say that there is no currently-constituted social basis for emancipation, but that the basis for emancipation can nevertheless be found in contemporary society. Were this not the case, as Marx observed in the Grundrisse, “then all attempts to explode [capitalist society] would be quixotic.”[4] As Moishe Postone argues:

The specificity of capitalism’s dialectical dynamic, as analyzed by Marx, entails a relationship of past, present, and future very different from that implied by any linear notion of historical development….In capitalism, objectified historical time is accumulated in alienated form, reinforcing the present, and, as such, it dominates the living. Yet, it also allows for people’s liberation from the present by undermining its necessary moment, thereby making possible the future — the appropriation of history such that the older relations are reversed and transcended. Instead of a social form structured by the present, by abstract labor time, there can be a social form based upon the full utilization of a history alienated no longer, both for society in general and for the individual. [5]

In a brief footnote attached to this passage, Postone observes:

One could draw a parallel between this understanding of the capitalist social formation’s history and Freud’s notion of individual history, where the past does not appear as such, but, rather, in a veiled, internalized form that dominates the present. The task of psychoanalysis is to unveil the past in such a way that its appropriation becomes possible. The necessary moment of a compulsively repetitive present can thereby be overcome, which allows the individual to move into the future. [6]

With this footnote, we return to the analogy between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics with which we began. In what follows, I want to try and open up some inroads into thinking through the significance of this analogy — is it merely a coincidence, or can we offer an explanation as to why Freud formulated a theory of individual emancipation that was so strikingly analogous to Marx’s formulation of the relationship between history and emancipation?


One way to make inroads into this comparison of Marx and Freud’s conceptions of time and emancipation is through an examination of Freud’s theorization of the “compulsion to repeat” — a hypothesized compulsion that, in his metapsychological essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud finds evidence for in a number of social and psychological phenomena (from a number of developmental phases and historical eras). He goes so far as to suggest that this “compulsion” might properly be understood as an “urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces.”[7] The paragraph in which this quote is embedded is directly preceded by a discussion of the psychotherapist’s attempt to help their patient overcome a compulsively repeated present, indicating that Freud conceptualized the psychotherapeutic aim of helping a patient move into the future as somehow continuous with, or relevant to, a broader world-historical problem concerning the socially general “death instinct” — a problem that he would explore more extensively in Civilization and Its Discontents.

Freud’s rapid and undertheorized switching of levels of analysis in these paragraphs, as well as at other points throughout his writings, leads me to hypothesize that Freud partially identified his individual patients with society, and that, in developing his psychoanalytic practice, he was — in part — formulating a veiled model for how society might overcome the “compulsion to repeat” imposed by the value form of social mediation and thus realize the possibilities for human emancipation immanent in the present. Assuming that this explanation of the analogy between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics is plausible, we (as Left historians) can formulate an ambivalent historical evaluation of Freud: on the one hand, he fostered a conception of the temporal dimension of emancipation at a historical moment during which many Left social theorists were shifting into a spatial frame of reference — a shift that still haunts the Left; on the other hand, by partially identifying individuals with society (instead of — like Marx or Adorno — analyzing the manner in which, under capitalism, the individual mediates society), Freud prepared the ground for Herbert Marcuse and other New Left Freudo-Marxists, who replaced social emancipation with a reified “desire” as the desideratum of Left politics.


1. Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination. Ed. & Trans., David Ames Curtis. (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 1997). Pg. 131.

2. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Trans. Martin Nicolaus. (Penguin and New Left Review. London, England: 1973). Pg. 158.
3. Ibid, pgs. 704–712.
4. Ibid, pg. 159.
5. Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1993). Pg. 377.
6. Ibid, pg. 377, n. 131.
7. Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The Freud Reader, Ed. Peter Gay. (Norton and Co. New York, NY: 1989). Pg. 612. Emphasis added.


Three models of “resistance” — Introduction


Image: Elena Feliciano, Resistance

A glance at the way “resistance” has been theorized over time — in both political and extra-political contexts — might help illuminate the Left’s changing sense of its own subjective agency during the last sesquicentenary. Three models may serve as an index to its shifting historical aspirations, and capture its oscillating feelings of hopefulness and helplessness at the prospect of their attainment. Before embarking upon this exposition, however, a few facts regarding its political usages should be particularly borne in mind:

First, as Stephen Duncombe pointed out a few years ago, the concept of “resistance” is in a way inherently conservative.[1] It indicates the ability of something to maintain itself — i.e., to conserve or preserve its present state of existence — against outside influences that would otherwise change it. Resistance signifies not only defiance but also intransigence. As the editors of Upping the Anti put it a couple years back, “resistance” automatically assumes a “defensive posture.”[2] It thus appears to be politically ambivalent: it depends on what is being conserved and what is being resisted.

Secondly, “resistance” as a property can belong to any number of things, whether conscious or unconscious. The world, or nature, can “resist” our conscious attempts to transform it. Likewise society, or second nature, can prove similarly recalcitrant. Either way, this “resistance” tends to be unconscious (always in the case of the first, and usually in the case of the second). With nature, the conditions that obtain at any given moment appear objective and material. With society, by contrast, the conditions that obtain at this or that historical juncture appear quasi-objective and ideological.[3] The situation can be reversed, however. Insofar as society and the world operate unconsciously to transform the general conditions of existence, groups and individuals can consciously choose to resist these processes. Continue reading

Wilhelm Dilthey

Three models of “resistance”

Image: Photograph of Wilhelm Dilthey

1. The “resistance” of the world to humanity’s conscious attempts to transform it

Go to Three models of “resistance” — Introduction

In 1890, the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey authored a remarkable essay on “The Origin of Our Belief in the Reality of the External World and Its Justification.”  Against some of the prevailing interpretations of his day, Dilthey argued that the reality of the external world was neither an immediately given fact of consciousness nor the product of unconscious inferences linking cause to effect.  On the contrary, he asserted that the reality of the world outside of the self comes to be known to individual subjects only by encountering resistance [Widerstand] to the will.  Recognition of the external world’s reality thus arises from “[the] consciousness of voluntary motion [entering] into a relation with the experience of resistance [Widerstandserfahrung]; in this way a…distinction develops between the life of the self and something other that is independent of it.”[10]

Resistance in this model stands as the original ground on which all subsequent differentiation takes place.  Here the “I” is first separated off from a “not-I” that opposes it.  But unlike the Fichtean philosophy from which these terms are derived,[11] “I” and “not-I” for Dilthey are not distinguished (at least initially) by an act of cognition.  This cleavage is first realized, rather, through an act of volition.  In other words, the intuition of a world that exists apart from the ego does not come about through the self-positing activity of the subject in making itself an object of contemplation or thought,[12] as in Fichte.  It manifests itself through an act of the will, in the subject’s efforts to subjugate the whole of reality unto itself — thereby satisfying its every appetite.  The “pushback” it experiences in trying to enforce its will then prompts an awareness that something exists outside the self.  Thus does consciousness enter into existence, circumscribed within a world that is not of its making.  It learns the limits to its own subjective agency by encountering resistance to its sovereign will.

For Dilthey, then, this experience not only formed the basis for understanding the world as an independent and objective entity — i.e., as something separate from the self.  It was also to an equal extent the source of the ego’s self-understanding as an autonomous and subjective entity.  Dilthey went on to explain that “the difference between a ‘self’ and an ‘other’ is first experienced in impulse and resistance…,the first germ of the ego and the world and of the distinction between them.”[13]  This initial moment of separation is then necessary to lend legitimacy and significance to the network of distinctions educed from it.  “The entire meaning of the words ‘self’ and ‘other,’ ‘ego’ and ‘world,’” explained Dilthey, “and the differentiation of the self from the external world is contained in the experiences of our will and of the feelings connected with it…The core of this distinction is…the relationship of impulse and restraint of intention, of will and resistance.”[14] Continue reading


Three models of “resistance”


Image: Ferdinand Schmutzer,
Portrait of Sigmund Freud (1926)

2. The “resistance” of humanity to its own self-conscious transformation

Go to Three models of “resistance” — Introduction
Go to Three models of “resistance” — 1. The “resistance” of the world to humanity’s conscious attempts to transform it

The second major historical conceptualization of “resistance” examined in this essay comes by way of psychoanalysis directly, rather than through the indirect affinity between Freud’s reality principle and Dilthey’s account of the reality of the external world.  Indeed, Freudian analysis largely hinges on the various forms of resistance the analyst encounters in trying to disembed layers of repressed experience buried in the patient’s unconscious: “[The] opposition…during psychoanalytic treatment…against our effort to transform what is unconscious into what is conscious…is what we perceive as resistance.  We…[name the] pathogenic process demonstrated by this resistance…repression.”[36]

Here the operative concept is the “resistance” — whether conscious or unconscious — of the subject (and more specifically the ego)[37] to the task of working through its own past, which has been systematically repressed.  Once again, this resistance expresses an extreme conservatism.  In part, the subject avoids revisiting its own history because it finds many of its experiences traumatic and disturbing.  But the patient is not simply afraid of its past.  It is also afraid of its future.  The subject is gripped by a primitive urge for self-preservation, and balks at the prospect that it might potentially become something other than what it already is.  Having fallen in love with the symptoms of its own unfreedom, the analysand stubbornly resists the idea of living without them.

This notion of “resistance,” I submit, corresponds to the work of figures like Karl Korsch, Georg Lukács, and above all Wilhelm Reich early in their careers.  Each of these thinkers sought to digest the legacy of the international workers’ movement in the aftermath of its defeat between 1917 and 1923.  Following the spectacular series of capitulations, conciliations, schisms, and betrayals that shook the Second International in the decades leading up to World War I, all three authors came to the conclusion that the greatest obstacle to the proletariat’s emancipation was the proletariat itself — or more precisely, its inability to “work through” its own reified forms of consciousness.  For the emancipation of the working class was to be self-emancipation.  The “resistance” thus encountered was no longer that of the world maintaining itself against the actions of humanity.  In this case, the “resistance” was instead that of humanity in preserving its present condition of unfreedom against the challenge of fulfilling its destiny. Continue reading

Theodor Adorno’s “Functionalism Today” (1965)

AFE Tower at the University of Frankfurt

I would first like to express my gratitude for the confidence shown me by Adolf Arndt in his invitation to speak here today.  At the same time, I must also express my serious doubts as to whether I really have the right to speak before you.  Métier, expertise in both matters of handicraft and of technique, counts in your circle for a great deal.  And rightly so.  If there is one idea of lasting influence which has developed out of the Werkbund movement, it is precisely this emphasis on concrete competence as opposed to an aesthetics removed and isolated from material questions.  I am familiar with this dictum from my own métier, music.  There it became a fundamental theorem, thanks to a school which cultivated close personal relationships with both Adolf Loos and (the Bauhaus, and which was therefore fully aware of its intellectual tics to objectivity [Sachlichkeit][1]in the arts.  Nevertheless, I can make no claim to competence in matters of architecture.  And yet. I do not resist the temptation, and knowingly face the danger that you may briefly tolerate me as a dilettante and then cast me aside.  I do this firstly because of my pleasure in presenting some of my reflections in public, and to you in particular: and secondly, because of Adolf Loos’ comment that while an artwork need not appeal to anyone, a house is responsible to each and everyone.[2]  I am not yet sure whether this statement is in fact valid, but in the meantime.  I need not be holier than the pope.

I find that the style of German reconstruction fills me with a disturbing discontent, one which many of you may certainly share.  Since I no less than the specialists must constantly face this feeling.  I feel justified in examining its foundations.  Common elements between music and architecture have been discussed repeatedly, almost to the point of ennui.  In uniting that which I see in architecture with that which I understand about the difficulties in music, I may not be transgressing the law of the division of labor as much as it may seem.  But to accomplish this union, I must stand at a greater distance from these subjects than you may justifiably expect.  It seems to me, however, not unrealistic that at times — in latent crisis situations — it may help to remove oneself farther from phenomena than the spirit of technical competence would usually allow.  The principle of “fittingness to the material” [Material-gerechtigkeit][3] rests on the foundation of the division of labor.  Nevertheless, it is advisable even for experts to occasionally take into account the extent to which their expertise may suffer from just that division of labor, as the artistic naïveté underlying it can impose its own limitations.

Let me begin with the fact that the anti-ornamental movement has affected the “purpose-free” arts [zweckfreie Künste][4]as well.  It lies in the nature of artworks to inquire after the essential and necessary in them and to react against all superfluous elements.  After the critical tradition declined to offer the arts a canon of right and wrong, the responsibility to take such considerations into account was placed on each individual work; each had to test itself against its own immanent logic, regardless of whether or not it was motivated by some external purpose.  This was by no means a new position. Mozart, though clearly still standard-bearer and critical representative of the great tradition, responded in the following way to the minor objection of a member of the royal family  — “But so many notes, my dear Mozart” — after the premier of his “Abduction” with “Not one note more, Your Majesty, than was necessary.”  In his Critique of [6] Judgment, Kant grounded this norm philosophically in the formula of “purposiveness without a purpose” [Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck]The formula reflects an essential impulse in the judgment of taste.  And yet it does not account for the historical dynamic.  Based on a language stemming from the realm of materials, what this language defines as necessary can later become superfluous, even terribly ornamental, as soon as it can no longer be legitimated in a second kind of language, which is commonly called style.  What was functional yesterday can therefore become the opposite tomorrow.  Loos was thoroughly aware of this historical dynamic contained in the concept of ornament.  Even representative, luxurious, pompous and, in a certain sense, burlesque elements may appear in certain forms of art as necessary, and not at all burlesque.  To criticize the Baroque for this reason would be philistine.  Criticism of ornament means no more than criticism of that which has lost its functional and symbolic signification.  Ornament becomes then a mere decaying and poisonous organic vestige.  The new art is opposed to this, for it represents the fictitiousness of a depraved romanticism, an ornamentation embarrassingly trapped in its own impotence.  Modern music and architecture, by concentrating strictly on expression and construction, both strive together with equal rigor to efface all such ornament.  Schonberg’s compositional innovations, Karl Kraus’ literary struggle against journalistic clichés and Loos’ denunciation of ornament are not vague analogies in intellectual history; they reflect precisely the same intention.  This insight necessitates a correction of Loos’ thesis, which he, in his open-mindedness. would probably not have rejected: the question of functionalism does not coincide with the question of practical function.  The purpose-free [zweckfrei]and the purposeful [zweckgebunden]arts do not form the radical opposition which he imputed.  The difference between the necessary and the superfluous is inherent in a work, and is not defined by the work’s relationship — or the lack of it — to something outside itself.

In Loos’ thought and in the early period of functionalism, purposeful and aesthetically autonomous products were separated from one another by absolute fact. This separation, which is in fact the object of our reflection, arose from the contemporary polemic against the applied arts and crafts (Kunstgewerbe).[5]  Although they determined the period of Loos’ development, he soon escaped from them.  Loos was thus situated historically between Peter Altenberg and Le Corbusier.  The movement of applied art had its beginnings in Ruskin and Morris.  Revolting against the shapelessness of mass-produced, pseudo-individualized forms, it rallied around such new concepts as “will to style,” “stylization,” and ‘shaping,” and around the idea that one should apply art. reintroduce it into life in order to restore life to it.  Their slogans were numerous and had a powerful effect.  Nevertheless.  Loos noticed quite early the implausibility of such endeavors: articles for use lose meaning as soon as they are displaced or disengaged in such a way that their use is no longer required.  Art, with its definitive protest against the dominance of purpose over human life, suffers once it is reduced to that practical level to which it objects, in Hölderlin’s words: “For never from now on/Shall the sacred serve mere use.”  Loos found the artificial art of practical objects repulsive.  Similarly, he felt that the practical reorientation of purpose-free art would eventually subordinate it to the destructive autocracy of profit, which even arts and crafts, at least in their beginnings, had once opposed.  Contrary to these efforts.  Loos preached for the return to an honest handicraft[6] which would place itself in the service of technical innovations without having to borrow forms from art.  His claims suffer from too simple an antithesis.  Their [7] restorative clement, not unlike that of the individualization of crafts, has since become equally clear.  To this day, they are still bound to discussions of objectivity.

In any given product, freedom from purpose and purposefulness can never be absolutely separated from one another.  The two notions are historically interconnected.  The ornaments, after all, which Loos expulsed with a vehemence quite out of character, are often actually vestiges of outmoded means of production.  And conversely, numerous purposes, like sociability, dance and entertainment, have filtered into purpose-free art; they have been generally incorporated into its formal and generic laws.  Purposefulness without purpose is thus really the sublimation of purpose.  Nothing exists as an aesthetic object in itself but only within the field of tension of such sublimation.  Therefore there is no chemically pure purposefulness set up as the opposite of the purpose-free aesthetic.  Even the most pure forms of purpose are nourished by ideas — like formal transparency and graspability — which in fact are derived from artistic experience.  No form can be said to be determined exhaustively by its purpose.  This can be seen even in one of Schönberg’s revolutionary works, the First Chamber Symphony, about which Loos wrote some of his most insightful words, ironically, an ornamental theme appears, with a double beat recalling at once a central motif from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” and the theme from the First Movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.  The ornament is the sustaining invention, if you will, objective in its own right.  Precisely this transitional theme becomes the model of a canonical exposition in the fourfold counterpoint, and thereby the model of the first extreme constructivist complex in modern music.  Schönberg’s belief in such material was appropriated from the Kunstgewerbe religion, which worshipped the supposed nobility of matter: it still continues to provide inspiration even in autonomous art.  He combined with this belief the ideas of a construction fitting to the material.  To it corresponds an undialectical concept of beauty, which encompasses autonomous art like a nature preserve.  That art aspires to autonomy does not mean that it unconditionally purges itself of ornamental elements: the very existence of art, judged by the criteria of the practical, is ornamental.  If Loos’ aversion to ornament had been rigidly consistent, he would have had to extend it to all of art.  To his credit he stopped before reaching this conclusion.  In this circumspection, by the way, he is similar to the positivists.  On the one hand, they would expunge from the realm of philosophy anything which they deem poetic.  On the other, they sense no infringement by poetry itself on their kind of positivism.  Thus, they tolerate poetry if it remains in a special realm, neutralized and unchallenged, since they have already relaxed the notion of objective truth.

The belief that a substance bears within itself its own adequate form presumes that it is already invested with meaning.  Such a doctrine made the symbolist aesthetic possible.  The resistance to the excesses of the applied arts pertained not just to hidden forms, but also to the cult of materials.  It created an aura of essentiality about them.  Loos expressed precisely this notion in his critique of batik.  Meanwhile, the invention of artificial products — materials originating in industry — no longer permitted the archaic faith in an innate beauty, the foundation of a magic connected with precious elements.  Furthermore, the crisis arising from the latest developments of autonomous art demonstrated how little meaningful organization could depend on the material itself.  Whenever organizational principles rely too heavily on material, the result approaches mere patchwork.  The idea of fittingness to the materials in purposeful art cannot remain indifferent to such criticisms.  Indeed, the illusion of purposefulness as its own purpose cannot stand up to the simplest [8] social reality.  Something would be purposeful here and now only if it were so in terms of the present society.  Yet, certain irrationalities — Marx’s term for them was faux frais — are essential to society: the social process always proceeds, in spite of all particular planning, by its own inner nature, aimlessly and irrationally.  Such irrationality leaves its mark on all ends and purposes, and thereby also on the rationality of the means devised to achieve those ends.  Thus, a self-mocking contradiction emerges in the omnipresence of advertisements: they are intended to be purposeful for profit.  And yet all purposefulness is technically defined by its measure of material appropriateness.  If an advertisement were strictly functional, without ornamental surplus, it would no longer fulfill its purpose as advertisement.  Of course, the fear of technology is largely stuffy and old-fashioned, even reactionary.  And yet it does have its validity, for it reflects the anxiety felt in the face of the violence which an irrational society can impose on its members, indeed on everything which is forced to exist within its confines.  This anxiety reflects a common childhood experience, with which Loos seems unfamiliar, even though he is otherwise strongly influenced by the circumstances of his youth: the longing for castles with long chambers and silk tapestries, the utopia of escapism.  Something of this utopia lives on in the modern aversion to the escalator, to Loos’ celebrated kitchen, to the factory smokestack, to the shabby side of an antagonistic society.  It is heightened by outward appearances.  Deconstruction of these appearances, however, has little power over the completely denigrated sphere, where praxis continues as always.  One might attack the pinnacles of the bogus castles of the moderns (which Thorstein Veblen despised), the ornaments, for example, pasted onto shoes: but where this is possible, it merely aggravates an already horrifying situation The process has implications for the world of pictures as well.  Positivist art, a culture of the existing, has been exchanged for aesthetic truth.  One envisions the prospect of a new Ackerstraße.[7]

The limits of functionalism to date have been the limits of the bourgeoisie in its practical sense.  Even in Loos, the sworn enemy of Viennese kitsch, one finds some remarkably bourgeois traces.  Since the bourgeois structure had already permeated so many feudalistic and absolutist forms in his city, Loos believed he could use its rigorous principles to free himself from traditional formulas.  His writings, for example, contain attacks on awkward Viennese formality.  Furthermore, his polemics are colored by a unique strain of puritanism, which nears obsession.  Loos’ thought, like so much bourgeois criticism of culture, is an intersection of two fundamental directions.  On the one hand, he realized that this culture was actually not at all cultural.  This informed above all his relationship to his native environment.  On the other, he felt a deep animosity toward culture in general, which called for the prohibition not only of superficial veneer, but also of all soft and smooth touches.  In this he disregarded the fact that culture is not the place for untamed nature, nor for a merciless domination over nature.  The future of Sachlichkeit could be a liberating one only if it shed its barbarous traits.  It could no longer inflict on men — whom it supposedly upheld as its only measure — the sadistic blows of sharp edges, bare calculated rooms, stairways, and the like.  Virtually every consumer had probably felt all too painfully the impracticability of the mercilessly practical.  Hence our bitter suspicion is formulated: the absolute rejection of style becomes style.  Loos traces ornament back to erotic symbols.  In turn, his rigid rejection of ornamentation is coupled with his disgust with erotic symbolism.  He finds uncurbed nature both regressive and embarrassing.  The tone of his condemnations of [9] ornament echoes an often openly expressed rage against moral delinquency: “But the man of our time who, out of inner compulsion, smears walls with erotic symbols is a criminal and a degenerate.”[8]  The insult “degenerate” connects Loos to movements of which he certainly would not have approved [i.e., Nazism].  “One can,” he says, “measure the culture of a country by the amount of graffiti on the bathroom walls.”[9]  But in southern countries, in Mediterranean countries in general, one finds a great deal.  In fact, the Surrealists made much use of such unreflected expressions.  Loos would certainly have hesitated before imputing a lack of culture to these areas.  His hatred of ornament can best be understood by examining a psychological argument.[10]  He seems to see in ornament the mimetic impulse, which runs contrary to rational objectification: he sees in it an expression which, even in sadness and lament, is related to the pleasure principle.  Arguing from tins principle, one must accept that there is a factor of expression in even, object.  Any special relegation of this factor to art alone would be an oversimplification.  It cannot be separated from objects of use.  Thus, even when these objects lack expression, they must pay tribute to it by attempting to avoid it.  Hence all obsolete objects of use eventually become an expression, a collective picture of the epoch.  There is barely a practical form which, along with its appropriateness for use, would not therefore also be a symbol.  Psychoanalysis too has demonstrated this principle on the basis of unconscious images, among which the house figures prominently.  According to Freud, symbolic intention quickly allies itself to technical forms, like the airplane, and according to contemporary American research in mass psychology, often to the car.  Thus, purposeful forms are the language of their own purposes.  By means of the mimetic impulse, the living being equates himself with objects in his surroundings.  This occurs long before artists initiate conscious imitation.  What begins as symbol becomes ornament, and finally appears superfluous; it had its origins, nevertheless, in natural shapes, to which men adapted themselves though their artifacts.  The inner image which is expressed in that impulse was once something external, something coercively objective.  This argument explains the fact, known since Loos, that ornament, indeed artistic form in general, cannot be invented.  The achievement of all artists, and not just those interested in specific ends, is reduced to something incomparably more modest than the art-religion of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have been willing to accept.  The psychological basis of ornament hence undercuts aesthetic principles and aims.  However the question is by no means settled how art would be possible in any form if ornamentation were no longer a substantial element, if art itself could no longer invent any true ornaments.

This last difficulty, which Sachlichkeit unavoidably encounters, is not a mere error.  It cannot be arbitrarily corrected.  It follows directly from the historical character of the subject.  Use — or consumption — is much more closely related to the pleasure principle than an object of artistic representation responsible only to its own formal laws: it means the “using up of,” the denial of the object, that it ought not to be.  Pleasure appears, according to the bourgeois work ethic, as wasted energy.  Loos’ formulation makes clear how much as an early cultural critic he was fundamentally attached to that order whose manifestations he chastised wherever they failed to follow their own principles: “Ornament is wasted work energy and thereby wasted health.  It has always been so.  But today it also means wasted material, and both mean wasted capital.”[11] Two irreconcilable motifs coincide in this statement: economy, for where else, if not in the norms of profitability, is it stated that nothing should be wasted: and the dream of the totally [10] technological world, free from the shame of work.  The second motif points beyond the commercial world.  For Loos it lakes the form of the realization that the widely lamented impotency to create ornament and the so-called extinction of stylizing energy (which he exposed as an invention of art historians) imply an advance in the arts.  He realized in addition that those aspects of an industrialized society, which by bourgeois standards are negative, actually represent its positive side:

Style used to mean ornament.  So I said: don’t lament! Don’t you see? Precisely this makes our age great, that it is incapable of producing new ornament.  We have conquered ornament, we have struggled to the stage of non-ornamentation.  Watch, the time is near.  Fulfillment awaits us.  Soon the streets of the cities will shine like while walls.  Like Zion, the sacred city, heaven’s capital.  Then salvation will be ours.[12]

In this conception, the state free of ornament would be a utopia of concretely fulfilled presence, no longer in need of symbols.  Objective truth, all the belief in things, would cling to this utopia.  This utopia remains hidden for Loos by his crucial experience with Jugendstil:

Individual man is incapable of creating form: therefore, so is the architect.  The architect, however, attempts the impossible again and again — and always in vain.  Form, or ornament, is the result of the unconscious cooperation of men belonging to a whole cultural sphere.  Everything else is art.  Art is the self-imposed will of the genius.  God gave him his mission.[13]

This axiom, that the artist fulfils a divine mission, no longer holds.  A general demystification, which began in the commercial realm, has encroached upon art.  With it, the absolute difference between inflexible purposefulness and autonomous freedom has been reduced as well.  But here we face another contradiction.  On the one hand, the purely purpose-oriented forms have been revealed as insufficient, monotonous, deficient, and narrow-mindedly practical.  At times, of course, individual masterpieces do stand out: until then, one tends to attribute the success to the creator’s “genius,” and not to something objective within the achievement itself.  On the other, the attempt to bring into the work the external clement of imagination as a corrective, to help the mailer out with this element which stems from outside of if is equally pointless: if serves only to mistakenly resurrect decoration, which has been justifiably criticized by modern architecture.  The results are extremely disheartening.  A critical analysis of the mediocre modernity of the style of German reconstruction by a true expert would be extremely relevant.  My suspicion in the Minima Moralia that the world is no longer habitable has already been confirmed, the heavy shadow of instability bears upon built form, the shadow of mass migrations, which had their preludes in the years of Hitler and his war.  This contradiction must be consciously grasped in all its necessity.  But we cannot stop there.  If we do, we give in to a continually threatening catastrophe.  The most recent catastrophe, the air raids, have already led architecture into a condition from winch it cannot escape.


The poles of the contradiction are revealed in two concepts, which seem mutually exclusive: handicraft and imagination.  Loos expressly rejected the latter in the context of the world of use:

Pure and clean construction has had to replace the imaginative forms of past centuries and the flourishing ornamentation of past ages.  Straight lines: sharp, straight edges: the craftsman works only with these.  He has nothing but a purpose in mind and nothing but materials and tools in front of him.[14]

Le Corbusier, however, sanctioned imagination in his theoretical writings, at least in a somewhat general sense: “The task of the architect: knowledge of men, creative imagination, beauty.  Freedom of choice (spiritual man).”[15]  We may safely assume that in general the more advanced architects tend to prefer handicraft, while more backward and unimaginative architects all too gladly praise imagination.  We must be wary, however, of simply accepting the concepts of handicraft and imagination in the loose sense in which they have been tossed back and forth in the ongoing polemic.  Only then can we hope to reach an alternative.  The word “handicraft,” which immediately gains consent, covers something qualitatively different.  Only unreasonable dilettantism and blatant idealism would attempt to deny that each authentic and, in the broadest sense, artistic activity requires a precise understanding of the materials and techniques at the artists disposal, and to be sure, at the most advanced level.

Only the artist who has never subjected himself to the discipline of creating a picture, who believes in the intuitive origins of painting, fears that closeness to materials and technical understanding will destroy his originality.  He has never learned what is historically available, and can never make use of it.  And so he conjures up out of the supposed depths of his own interiority that which is merely the residue of outmoded forms.  The word “handicraft” appeals to such a simple truth.  But quite different chords resonate unavoidably along with it.  The syllable “hand” exposes a past means of production: it recalls a simple economy of wares.  These means of production have since disappeared.  Ever since the proposals of the English precursors of “modern style” they have been reduced to a masquerade.  One associates the notion of handicraft with the apron of a Hans Sachs, or possibly the great world chronicle.  At times, I cannot suppress the suspicion that such an archaic “shirt sleeves” ethos survives even among the younger proponents of “handcraftiness”: they are despisers of art.  If some feel themselves superior to art, then it is only because they have never experienced it as Loos did.  For Loos, appreciation of both art and its applied form led to a bitter emotional conflict.  In the area of music, I know of one advocate of handicraft who spoke with plainly romantic anti-romanticism of the “hut mentality.”  I once caught him thinking of handicrafts as stereotypical formulas, practices as he called them, which were supposed to spare the energies of the composer: it never dawned on him that nowadays the uniqueness of each concrete task excludes such formalization.  Thanks to attitudes such as his, handicraft is transformed into that which it wants to repudiate: the same lifeless, reified repetition which ornament had propagated.  I dare not judge whether a similar kind of perversity is at work in the concept of form-making when viewed as a detached operation, independent from the immanent demands and laws of the object to be formed.  In any [12] case, I would imagine that the retrospective infatuation with the aura of the socially doomed craftsman is quite compatible with the disdainfully trumped-up attitude of his successor, the expert.  Proud of his expertise and as unpolished as his tables and chairs, the expert disregards those reflections needed in this age which no longer possesses anything to grasp on to.  It is impossible to do without the expert; it is impossible in this age of commercial means of production to recreate that state before the division of labour which society has irretrievably obliterated.  But likewise, it is impossible to raise the expert to the measure of all things.  His disillusioned modernity, which claims to have shed all ideologies, is easily appropriated into the mask of the petty bourgeois routine.  Handicraft becomes handcraftiness.  Good handicraft means the fittingness of means to an end.  The ends are certainly not independent of the means.  The means have their own logic, a logic which points beyond them.  If the fittingness of the means becomes an end in itself, it becomes fetishized.  The handworker mentality begins to produce the opposite effect from its original intention, when it was used to fight the silk smoking jacket and the beret.  It hinders the objective reason behind productive forces instead of allowing it to unfold.  Whenever handicraft is established as a norm today, one must closely examine the intention.  The concept of handicraft stands in close relationship to function.  Its functions, however, are by no means necessarily enlightened or advanced.

The concept of imagination, like that of handicraft, must not be adopted without critical analysis.  Psychological triviality — imagination as nothing but the image of something not yet present — is clearly insufficient.  As an interpretation, it explains merely what is determined by imagination in artistic processes, and, I presume, also in the purposeful arts.  Walter Benjamin once defined imagination as the ability to interpolate in minutest detail.  Undeniably, such a definition accomplishes much more than current views which tend cither to elevate the concept into an immaterial heaven or to condemn it on objective grounds.  Imagination in the production of a work of representational art is not pleasure in free invention, in creation ex nihilo.  There is no such thing in any ail, even in autonomous art, the realm to which Loos restricted imagination.  Any penetrating analysis of the autonomous work of art concludes that die additions invented by the artist above and beyond the given state of materials and forms are miniscule and of limited value.  On the other hand, the reduction of imagination to an anticipatory adaptation to material ends is equally inadequate; it transforms imagination into an eternal sameness.  It is impossible to ascribe Le Corbusier’s powerful imaginative feats completely to the relationship between architecture and the human body, as he does in his own writings.  Clearly there exists, perhaps imperceptible in the materials and forms which the artist acquires and develops something more than material and forms.  Imagination means to innervate this something.  This is not as absurd a notion as it may sound.  For the forms, even the materials, are by no means merely given by nature, as an unreflective artist might easily presume.  History has accumulated in them, and spirit permeates them.  What they contain is not a positive law; and yet, their content emerges as a sharply outlined figure of the problem.  Artistic imagination awakens these accumulated elements by becoming aware of the innate problematic of the material.  The minimal progress of imagination responds to the wordless question posed to it by the materials and forms in their quiet and elemental language.  Separate impulses, even purpose and immanent formal laws, are thereby fused together.  An interaction takes place between purpose, space, and material.  None of these facets makes up any one Ur-phenomenon to which all [13] the others can be reduced.  It is here that the insight furnished by philosophy that no thought can lead to an absolute beginning — that such absolutes are the products of abstraction — exerts its influence on aesthetics.  Hence music, which had so long emphasized die supposed primacy of the individual tone, had to discover finally the more complex relationships of its components.  The tone receives meaning only within the functional structure of the system, without which it would be a merely physical entity. Superstition alone can hope to extract from it a latent aesthetic structure.  One speaks, with good reason, of a sense of space [Raumgefühl]in architecture.  But this sense of space is not a pure, abstract essence, not a sense of spatiality itself, since space is only conceivable as concrete space, within specific dimensions.  A sense of space is closely connected with purposes.  Even when architecture attempts to elevate this sense beyond the realm of purposefulness, it is still simultaneously immanent in the purpose.  The success of such a synthesis is the principal criterion for great architecture.  Architecture inquires: how can a certain purpose become space; through which forms, which materials? All factors relate reciprocally to one another.  Architectonic imagination is, according to this conception of it, the ability to articulate space purposefully.  It permits purposes to become space.  It constructs forms according to purposes.  Conversely, space and the sense of space can become more than impoverished purpose only when imagination impregnates them with purposefulness.  Imagination breaks out of the immanent connections of purpose, to which it owes its very existence.

I am fully conscious of the ease with which concepts like a sense of space can degenerate into clichés, in the end even be applied to arts and crafts.  Here I feel the limits of the non-expert who is unable to render these concepts sufficiently precise although they have been so enlightening in modern architecture.  And yet, I permit myself a certain degree of speculation: the sense of space, in contradistinction to the abstract idea of space, corresponds in the visual realm to musicality in the acoustical.  Musicality cannot be reduced to an abstract conception of time — for example.  The ability, however beneficial, to conceive of the time units of a metronome without having to listen to one.  Similarly, the sense of space is not limited to spatial images, even though these are probably a prerequisite for even architect if he is to read his outlines and blueprints the way a musician reads his score.  A sense of space seems to demand more, namely that something can occur to the artist out of space itself; this cannot be something arbitrary in space and indifferent toward space.  Analogously, the musician invents his melodies, indeed all his musical structures, out of time itself, out of the need to organize time.  Mere time relationships do not suffice, since they are indifferent toward the concrete musical event: nor does the invention of individual musical passages or complexes, since their time structures and time relationships are not conceived along with them.  In the productive sense of space, purpose takes over to a large extent the role of content, as opposed to the formal constituents which the architect creates out of space.  The tension between form and content which makes all artistic creation possible communicates itself through purpose especially in the purpose-oriented arts.  The new “objective” asceticism does contain therefore an element of truth: unmediated subjective expression would indeed be inadequate for architecture.  Where only such expression is striven for, the result is not architecture, but filmsets, at times, as in the old Golem film, even good ones.  The position of subjective expression, then, is occupied in architecture by the function for [14] the subject.  Architecture would thus attain a higher standard the more intensely it reciprocally mediated the two extremes — formal construction and function.

The subject’s function, however, is not determined by some generalized person of an unchanging physical nature but by concrete social norms.  Functional architecture represents the rational character as opposed to the suppressed instincts of empirical subjects, who, in the present society, still seek their fortunes in all conceivable nooks and crannies.  It calls upon a human potential which is grasped in principle by our advanced consciousness, but which is suffocated in most men, who have been kept spiritually impotent.  Architecture worthy of human beings thinks better of men than they actually are.  It views them in the way they could be according to the status of their own productive energies as embodied in technology.  Architecture contradicts the needs of the here and now as soon as it proceeds to serve those needs — without simultaneously representing any absolute or lasting ideology.  Architecture still remains, as Loos’ book title complained seventy years ago, a cry into emptiness.  The fact that the great architects from Loos to Le Corbusier and [Hans] Scharoun were able to realize only a small portion of their work in stone and concrete cannot be explained solely by the reactions of unreasonable contractors and administrators (although that explanation must not be underestimated).  This fact is conditioned by a social antagonism over which the greatest architecture has no power: the same society which developed human productive energies to unimaginable proportions has chained them to conditions of production imposed upon them: thus the people who in reality constitute the productive energies become deformed according to the measure of their working conditions.  This fundamental contradiction is most clearly visible in architecture.  It is just as difficult for architecture to rid itself of the tensions which this contradiction produces as it is for the consumer.  Things are not universally correct in architecture and universally incorrect in men.  Men suffer enough injustice, for their consciousness and unconsciousness are trapped in a state of minority; they have not, so to speak, come of age.  This nonage hinders their identification with their own concerns.  Because architecture is in fact both autonomous and purpose-oriented, it cannot simply negate men as they are.  And yet it must do precisely that if it is to remain autonomous.  If it would bypass mankind tel quel,then it would be accommodating itself to what would be a questionable anthropology and even ontology.  It was not merely by chance that Le Corbusier envisioned human prototypes.  Living men, even the most backward and conventionally naive, have the right to the fulfillment of their needs, even though those needs may be false ones.  Once thought supersedes without consideration the subjective desires for the sake of truly objective needs, it is transformed into brutal oppression.  So it is with the volonté generale against the volonté de tous.  Even in the false needs of a human being there lives a bit of freedom.  It is expressed in what economic theory once called the “use value” as opposed to the “exchange value.”  Hence there are those to whom legitimate architecture appears as an enemy; it withholds from them that which they, by their very nature, want and even need.

Beyond the phenomenon of the “cultural lag,” this antinomy may have its origin in the development of the concept of art.  Art, in order to be art according to its own formal laws, must be crystallized in autonomous form.  This constitutes its truth content; otherwise, it would he subservient to that which it negates by its very existence.  And yet, as a human product, it is never completely removed from humanity.  It contains as a constitutive clement something of that which it necessarily resists.  Where art obliterates [15] its own memory, forgetting that it is only there for others, it becomes a fetish, a self-conscious and thereby relativized absolute.  Such was the dream of Jugendstil beauty.  But art is also compelled to strive for pure self-immanence if it is not to become sacrificed to fraudulence.  The result is a quid pro quo.  An activity which envisions as its subject a liberated, emancipated humanity, possible only in a transformed society, appears in the present stale as an adaptation to a technology which has degenerated into an end in itself, into a self-purpose.  Such an apotheosis of objectification is the irreconcilable opponent of art.  The result, moreover, is not mere appearance.  The more consistently both autonomous and so-called applied art reject their own magical and mythical origins and follow their own formal laws, the greater the danger of such an adaptation becomes.  Art possesses no sure means to counter such a danger.  Thorstein Veblen’s aporia is thus repeated: before 1900, he demanded that men think purely technologically, causally, mechanistically in order to overcome the living deceit of their world of images.  He thereby sanctioned the objective categories of that economy which he criticized: in a free state, men would no longer be subservient to a technology which, in fact, existed only for them; it would be there to serve them.  However in the present epoch men have been absorbed into technology and have left only their empty shells behind, as if they had passed into it their better half.  Their own consciousness has been objectified in the face of technology, as if objective technology had in some sense the right to criticize consciousness.  Technology is there for men: this is a plausible proposition, but it has been degraded to the vulgar ideology of regressionism.  This is evident in the fact that one need only invoke it to be rewarded from all sides with enthusiastic understanding.  The whole situation is somehow false; nothing in it can smooth over the contradiction.  On the one hand, an imagined utopia, free from the binding purposes of the existing order, would become powerless, a detached ornament, since it must take its elements and structure from that very order.  On the other, any attempt to ban the utopian factor, like a prohibition of images, immediately falls victim to the spell of the prevailing order.

The concern of functionalism is a subordination to usefulness.  What is not useful is assailed without question because developments in the arts have brought its inherent aesthetic insufficiency into the open.  The merely useful, however, is interwoven with relationships of guilt, the means to the devastation of the world, a hopelessness which denies all but deceptive consolations to mankind.  But even if this contradiction can never be ultimately eliminated, one must take a first step in trying to grasp it; in bourgeois society, usefulness has its own dialectic.  The useful object would be the highest achievement, an anthropomorphized “thing,” the reconciliation with objects which are no longer closed off from humanity and which no longer suffer humiliation at the hands of men.  Childhood perception of technical things promises such a stale; they appear as images of a near and helpful spirit, cleansed of profit motivation.  Such a conception was not unfamiliar to the theorists of social utopias.  It provides a pleasant refuge from true development, and allows a vision of useful things which have lost their coldness.  Mankind would no longer suffer from the “thingly” character of the world,[16] and likewise “things” would come into their own.  Once redeemed from their own “thingliness,” “things” would find their purpose.  But in present society all usefulness is displaced, bewitched.  Society deceives us when it says that it allows things to appear as if they are there by mankind’s will.  In fact, they are produced for profits sake; they satisfy human needs only incidentally.  They call forth new needs and maintain them according to the profit [16] motive.  Since what is useful and beneficial to man, cleansed of human domination and exploitation, would be correct, nothing is more aesthetically unbearable than the present shape of things, subjugated and internally deformed into their opposite.  The raison d’être of all autonomous art since the dawning of the bourgeois era is that only useless objects testify to that which may have at one point been useful: it represents correct and fortunate use, a contact with things beyond the antithesis between use and uselessness.  This conception implies that men who desire betterment must rise up against practicability.  If they overvalue it and react to it, they join the camp of the enemy.  It is said that work does not defile.  Like most proverbial expressions, this covers up the converse truth: exchange defiles useful work.  The curse of exchange has overtaken autonomous art as well.  In autonomous art, the useless is contained within its limited and particular form: it is thus helplessly exposed to the criticism waged by its opposite, the useful.  Conversely in the useful, that which is now the case is closed off to its possibilities.  The obscure secret of art is the fetishistic character of goods and wares.  Functionalism would like to break out of this entanglement: and yet, it can only rattle its chains in vain as long as it remains trapped in an entangled society.

I have tried to make you aware of certain contradictions whose solution cannot be delineated by a non-expert.  It is indeed doubtful whether they can be solved today at all.  To this extent, I could expect you to criticize me for the uselessness of my argumentation.  My defense is implicit in my thesis that the concepts of useful and useless cannot be accepted without due consideration.  The time is over when we can isolate ourselves in our respective tasks.  The object at hand demands the kind of reflection which objectivity [Sachlichkeit]generally rebuked in a clearly non-objective manner.  By demanding immediate legitimation of a thought, by demanding to know what good that thought is now, tire thought is usually brought to a standstill at a point where it can offer insights which one day might even improve praxis in an unpredictable way.  Thought has its own coercive impulse, like the one you are familiar with in your work with your material.  The work of an artist, whether or not it is directed toward a particular purpose, can no longer proceed naïvely on a prescribed path.  It manifests a crisis which demands that the expert — regardless of his prideful craftsmanship — go beyond his craft in order to satisfy it.  He must do this in two ways.  First, with regard to social things: he must account for the position of his work in society and for the social limits which he encounters on all sides.  This consideration becomes crucial in problems concerning city planning, even beyond the tasks of reconstruction, where architectonic questions collide with social questions such as the existence or non-existence of a collective social subject.  It hardly needs mentioning that city planning is insufficient so long as it centers on particular instead of collective social ends.  The merely immediate, practical principles of city planning do not coincide with those of a truly rational conception free from social irrationalities, they lack that collective social subject which must be the prime concern of city planning.  Herein lies one reason why city planning threatens cither to degenerate into chaos or to hinder the productive architectonic achievement of individuals.

Second, and I would like to emphasize this aspect to you, architecture, indeed every purposeful art, demands constant aesthetic reflection.  I know how suspect the word “aesthetic” must sound to you.  You think perhaps of professors who, with their eyes raised to heaven, spew forth formalistic laws of eternal and everlasting beauty, which are no more than recipes for the production of ephemeral, classicist kitsch.  In fact, the [17] opposite must be the case in true aesthetics.  It must absorb precisely those objections which it once raised in principle against all artists.  Aesthetics would condemn itself if it continued unreflectively, speculatively, without relentless self-criticism.  Aesthetics as an integral facet of philosophy awaits a new impulse which must come from reflective efforts.  Hence recent artistic praxis has tinned to aesthetics.  Aesthetics becomes a practical necessity once it becomes clear that concepts like usefulness and uselessness in art, like the separation of autonomous and purpose-oriented art, imagination and ornament, must once again be discussed before the artist can act positively or negatively according to such categories.  Whether you like it or not you are being pushed daily to considerations, aesthetic considerations, which transcend your immediate tasks.  Your experience calls Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain to mind, who discovers to his amazement in studying rhetoric that he has been speaking prose for his entire life.  Once your activity compels you to aesthetic considerations, yon deliver yourself up to its power.  You can no longer break off and conjure up ideas arbitrarily in the name of pure and thorough expertise.  The artist who does not pursue aesthetic thought energetically tends to lapse into dilettantish hypothesis and groping justifications for the sake of defending his own intellectual construct.  In music, Pierre Boulez, one of the most technically competent contemporary composers, extended constructivism to its extreme in some of his compositions: subsequently, however, he emphatically announced the necessity of aesthetics.  Such an aesthetics would not presume to herald principles which establish the key to beauty or ugliness itself.  This discretion alone would place the problem of ornament in a new light.  Beauty today can have no other measure except the depth to which a work resolves contradictions.  A work must cut through the contradictions and overcome them, not by covering them up, but by pursuing them.  Mere formal beauty, whatever that might be, is empty and meaningless; the beauty of its content is lost in the preartistic sensual pleasure of the observer.  Beauty is cither the resultant of force vectors or it is nothing at all.  A modified aesthetics would outline its own object with increasing clarity as it would begin to feel more intensely the need to investigate it.  Unlike traditional aesthetics, it would not necessarily view the concept of art as its given correlate.  Aesthetic thought today must surpass art by thinking art.  It would thereby surpass the current opposition of purposeful and purpose-free, under which the producer must suffer as much as the observer.


[1] The Neue Sachlichkeit movement, one of the main post-expressionist trends in German art.  Is commonly translated as “New Objectivity.”  The word sachlich, however, carries a series of connotations.  Along with its emphasis on the “thing” [Sache] it implies a frame of mind of being “matter of feet,” “down to earth.”

[2] See Adolf Loos, Sämtliche Schriften, I, Franz Gluck (ed.), Vienna/Munich, 1962, pg. 314 ff.

[3] Gerechtigkeit implies not just “fittingness” or “appropriateness,” but even a stronger legal or moral “justice.”

[4] The word Zweck appears throughout Adorno’s speech, both alone and in various combinations It permeates the tradition of German aesthetics since Kant.  While it basically means “purpose,” it must sometimes be rendered in English as “goal” or “end” (as in “means and end,” Mittel und Zweck)Hence there is a certain consistency in Adorno’s use of the word which cannot always be maintained in English.


[5] Kunstgewerbe carries perhaps more seriousness than “arts and crafts.”  It covers the range of the applied arts.

[6] The word Handwerk in German means both “handwork” and “craftsmanship” or “skill.”  Because Adorno later emphasizes the “hand” aspect, we have decided on “handicraft.”

[7] The reference here is unclear.  It means literally “Field (or Acre) Street.”  Perhaps he is referring to a real street, a movement, or a historical place or event.  We have not been able to trace it.

[8] Adolf Loos, op cit., pg. 277.

[9] Ibid.

[10] It is unclear in the original text to what extent the following argument is Adorno’s or Loos’.  We have tried, to some extent, to maintain the ambiguity.

[11] Adolf Loos, op. cit., pg. 282 ff.

[12] Ibid., pg. 278.

[13] Ibid., pg. 393.

[14] Ibid., pg. 345.

[15] Le Corbusier.  Mein Werk, Stuttgart.  1960, pg. 306.

[16] The word Ding (“thing”) is also attached to numerous traditions in German thought and therefore has a certain philosophical or poetical importance (hence “the thingliness of things”).  Heidegger and Rilke, for example, both tried to elevate the notion of Ding to a new essential and existential status.