The View from the Reliquary

Anyone who has the gall not only to write a piece of criticism, but a highly obscure one, and moreover one directed at the highest echelons of intellectual culture in a left-leaning liberal arts college, faces not only the danger of being branded with the label of ressentiment (with all the formidable languor of a mediocre attempt at the original French), but of falling into the ridiculous position of the would-be intellectual who condemns the general vapidity of would-be intellectualism. Yet, possessed by boredom, I couldn’t stop myself: I sat down to write.

If nothing else, I hope that this somewhat uncouth (since, of course, to write a satirical article rather than flowing straight away on a river of jargon into the apeiron of pure différence betrays a reactionary character! But please, forgive me, for just as Kierkegaard (also a bourgeois) was unable to crystallize himself into the ‘pure thought’ of the Hegelians, I am still unable to transform myself into Deleuzian ‘difference-in-itself’) attempt at écriture may at least occasion an upsurge of laughter or self-satisfaction in ‘intellectual circles.’

I have always been concerned with trivialities, and so it was when I decided to try my hand, once more, at writing: I had nothing to say (which of course is a ridiculous qualm today, when the concept of meaning has been shown to be thoroughly authoritarian and, what is worse, idealistic); I realized that in this stage of history it was pointless for me to try to keep pace with the astonishing speed of the ‘new’. Hence, rather than write something only to be notified a few hours later that it had already been written a few decades ago and shown to be reactionary some years after that (it should be noted that I would never call into question either /mu/ or the Academy; moreover, any dilettantish anti-capitalist understands the importance of novelty, production, and the continual pursuit of innovation). So, I decided that, since it was impossible for me to say anything original, I could at least perform an archaeological service for contemporary intellectual life.

The following is an abridged version of Aphorism 132 of Theodor Adorno’s 1951 book, Minima Moralia. Since the work was written before vaporwave, it would be ludicrous to think that it had any relevance at all to contemporary life, and even more absurd to think that it could apply to today’s young intellectuals, who, having far more historical stamina than I, are always racing ahead of the new. I present this excerpt, as I said, merely as an archaeological curiosity:

“Society is integral, before it ever becomes ruled as totalitarian. Its organization encompasses even those who feud against it, and normalizes their consciousness. Even intellectuals, who have all the political arguments against bourgeois ideology handy, are subjected to a process of standardization which, whether in crassly contrasting content or through the readiness on their part to be comfortable, brings them closer to the prevailing Spirit [Geist], such that their standpoint objectively becomes always more arbitrary, dependent on flimsy preferences or their estimation of their own chances. What appears to them as subjectively radical, objectively belongs through and through to the compartment of a schema, reserved for them and their kind, so that radicalism is degraded to abstract prestige, the legitimation of those who know what today’s intellectuals should be for and against… Every judgement is approved by friends, they know all the arguments in advance. That all cultural products, even the non-conformist ones, are incorporated into the mechanism of distribution of large-scale capital, that in the most developed lands a creation which does not bear the imprimatur of mass production can scarcely reach any readers, observers, or listeners, refuses the material in advance for the deviating longing… Intellectuals themselves are already so firmly established, in their isolated spheres, in what is confirmed, that they can no longer desire anything which is not served to them under the brand of “highbrow” [in English in original]. Their sole ambition consists of finding their way in the accepted canon, of saying the right thing… The subjective precondition of opposition, the non-normalized judgement, goes extinct, while its trappings continue to be carried out as a group ritual.”[1]


As for a commentary, I offer no positive theses; in accordance with common practice, I shirk the paltriness of assertion and argument in favor of verbal overgrowth and quasi-mysticism. Basically, one considers the issue here as a subordination of experience to an encoding, or in other words as a contemporary triumph of death, the subordination, even in the most hallowed chambers of young intellectuals, of feeling to abstract bureaucratic protocol, the reduction of the encounter with, say, the work of art to another mark on the gargantuan curriculum vitae that is contemporary life, a flattening of experience which is evident among the collective incantations of jargon (the conjuration of difference in-itself!) which occur in apartment-sancta shrouded in darkness and a mixture of marijuana and tobacco smoke cut through by the newest music siphoned off from the outskirts of a system of fiber optic cables hooked up to obscurity in-itself or pretension for-itself but which, for all the inscrutable scaffolding of codes and rituals, rise to nothing more than a collective expression of the unrelenting lassitude of a Saturday night, a torpid shuffling of names like Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and Deleuze, of the titles of books or movies, in accordance with certain unshakeable, canonically accepted rules.

As I said previously, I forgo all positive theses. Again, none of this has any relevance for the here and now; I only comment upon an artifact, in order to glorify the spirit of the times, the head poltergeist of our contemporary hauntology, that sublime lethargy which manifests itself on weekend nights on front porches bustling with life amidst ruined colossi of beer cans and tedium, the post-Dionysian apex, the exquisite refinement which life on Earth has attained, on some Friday night in rural Iowa, with the deconstruction of the binaries of enjoyment and tedium, energy and fatigue, intimacy and loneliness, seriousness and ‘joking,’ enthusiasm and detachment. Pleasure without a tinge of boredom, talk which became too earnest, that childlike enthusiasm which does not know how to conceal itself, all bear a certain vulgarity, a certain unaesthetic quality–or so it seems to an observer in the reliquary! What is required, it seems, is not only to acknowledge but to apotheosize the arbitrary fluctuations of what is in, the primordial gerrymandering of intellectual taste in accordance with a mighty and unfathomable algorithm existing, presumably, in the heart of a darkened space of wires and ideas.

I, for one, do not dare to question the whims of an arbitrary fashionability, the tacit acceptance of supposedly avant-garde, innovative, experimental, and above all else ‘cool’ collections of behaviors which have been handed down, filtered and refined through the various stages of a monolithic and impersonal communications network, a certain module of which is specifically tailored to the production of that which will appeal to the ‘young intellectuals,’ these products serving as the continually-updated, ever more innovative, ever more experimental, ever more radical, ever more liberatory, non-representational, abstract, fragmented means by which they can idolize chaos, chance, play, and a joyful affirmation of difference and at the same time engage in the age-old task of creating and enforcing rigid social hierarchies, distinguish clearly between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and ultimately between those who belong and those who do not.

I present no positive theses, but at least from the reliquary it seems that the ‘affirmation of difference,’ observed in the social sphere of Grinnell College, means the affirmation of that to which one can attach, in a suitably apathetic voice, the predicate ‘cool’; i.e., that which is different, weird, or new in the right way, i.e., in accordance with the conventions of a certain group. The affirmation of difference, chaos, joy, play and excess in social life would seem to consist in the crystallization of distinct groups and the congealment of hierarchies, acting primarily as a tag or a stamp which, when placed upon age-old social forms (competition, struggle for prestige, dominant behavior, exclusion, instinctive liking of the conventionally attractive, the charismatic, etc.), gives these ancient rituals an appearance of being current.

Intellectual and artistic productions are props to be used in rituals of various in-groups, while to make art is ‘cool’; the artist who has put some time into developing the requisite habit of affected apathy, and who can successfully anticipate the judgments of the intellectual collective (thereby subordinating artistic novelty, as is proper, to the regulation of a thousand almost imperceptible, purposefully apathetic nods) can attain a respectable position within the court intrigues of High Street, Grinnell IA. And indeed, the labyrinthine complexities and the unyielding stringency of this behavioral code of young intellectuals could, in fact, provide apt material for a comedy of manners.

Regardless, I advance no positive theses, and accede entirely to the trendy cynicism which mocks the criticism of social hierarchies as naive or idealistic. Even if one views the consolidation of social groups and norms as an inevitable process which it is nevertheless necessary to attempt to undermine, to seek to actually do so, to actually attempt to develop a suspicion toward the received habits and norms by which one and one’s companions act toward others and to make an effort to avoid falling into a mechanical repetition of exclusionary, totalitarian or repressive behaviors in one’s own daily life would certainly be a waste of time– when, after all, one needs to keep up with post-vaporwave and when one can, in fact, surely do so much more good for the world by writing a critical essay on a film. And when, anyway, one has to maintain one’s image, since to mold one’s comportment to the demands of contemporary social life, to subordinate the immediate feeling to the universal of the intellectual collective and its stylistic preferences, is frankly a necessity, as acting without having cultivated a sense of style would, without doubt, be wholly unaesthetic.

Of course, I rigorously abstain from all positive theses, and engage neither in arguments nor in any earnestness whatsoever, in accordance with the contemporary style; hopefully the words I have flung out will land happily in that nebulous domain lying beyond even post-irony, in a spectral semantics where the meaning and sound of a word collapse into a stream of phantom images. All that I have attempted is to present a view, or not even a view but a feeling, or simply to write in a way that abolishes the dichotomy of depth and vapidity, or not even to give a narrative but a landscape painting, or rather merely an elaborate and confused joke involving a landscape painting of intellectual life reduced to a collection of social rituals as seen from a certain reliquary, a certain suburb of that gigantic encoding system which constitutes life and through which runs a river of lethargy which is, perhaps, the residue of wistfulness produced by the ongoing conversion of life into a notational system for habits.

1. Translation by Dennis Redmond; accessible online at


Cover photo by Mary Zheng ’15

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