Theodor Adorno’s Force Fields and Camille Paglia’s Killing Fields


The majority of people don’t go around every day thinking about what art is. Few think about why the definition of art may change not only the way we think but also the way we act in the world.   Today, I was surprised to hear, in a discussion between two very controversial voices in contemporary North American culture – Camille Paglia and Jordon Peterson – that what “post-modernists” and “post-structuralists” have done is destroy the meaning of art by turning it into “text” or dissecting it (9:37).  The “true” meaning of art, says Paglia, has been distorted by the academy because it is populist, not elitist. 

For Paglia, not only post-modern artists but also academics (who she calls “academe” – suggesting something snobby and elitist), who go “hand in hand” with the artists – are a “fraud” because they believe that opposition to history and culture (via the avant garde) is alive when it is – post-Warhol – dead.  They act “as if” they are like these avant garde heroes, but they are really “infantile.”  Paglia suggests that the real art and left politics is populist and – together with Peterson – attacks the postmodern academy.  All of this name calling, note, is done over the meaning of art and leftism.  Art is not, rages Paglia, superior to the people.  It’s the other way around.  Postmodern art, which for Paglia also implies the academy, is the problem.  Paglia suggests, in her rhetoric, that it must be exposed as a fraud by the voices of the people (such as Paglia, herself, and Jordan Peterson):

It’s madness…teaching that everything is mediated by language…even gender….it’s absolute madness.  I am teaching people whose majors are ceramics, are dance…who understand the world in terms of the body…sensory activation…Everything about Andy Warhol was ‘wow’ it was about admiration.  What happened immediately after that, in the 70s was a collapse into a snide sort of postmodernism….this happened in the art world…there was an  utter misunderstanding of culture in the art world…Oppositional art in my view is dead.   What postmodernism is…is a pathetic attempt to continue the heroism of the avant garde.  The avant garde was genuinely heroic…Pop art killed the avant garde…It (the postmodern art world) feels it must attack, attack, attack the simplistic beliefs of the hoi polloi.  From the moment Andy Warhol….embraced the popular media – instead of having the opposition to it, which the serious arts had – that was the end of oppositional art….So we have been going on like this for 50 years….Postmodernism and academe going hand in hand with the stupidity and infantilism that masquerades as important art in galleries everywhere….With this idea that the art world has a superior view on reality. Authentic leftism is populist.  It is based in working class style, working class language, working class direct emotion…in an openness and brusqueness of speech.  Ok.  Not this fancy contorted jargon of this leftism of academe who are frauds.

 When Paglia takes aim at postmodernism, it seems like she is also taking aim at the 20th century European thinker, Theodor Adorno’s reading of art and culture.  After all, he sees art as going against the grain of history and culture. It is different and, for him, better because it is a form of critique (albeit momentary) when it doesn’t proclaim itself as art but something other.

In his book Aesthetic Theory, Adorno argues that “art is no fixed set of boundaries but rather a momentary and fragile balance, comparable to the dynamic balance between the ego and the id in the psychological sphere.  But artworks become bad only because they objectively raise the claim of being art”(300).    According to Adorno, surrealism had potential but it failed because it was rejected by “an anti-art deportment that never achieved its goal of becoming a political force.”  He suggests that the rejection of surrealism by this anti-art deportment was a mistake because it, itself, failed to become a political force.

The “force field” – created by art – is something to be reckoned with. The immanence of art, its totality, creates a force-field.:

All the same, origin is not radically external to the work.  It is an implicit part of the artworks that they are artifacts.  The configurations sedimented in each address the context from which it is issued.    In each its likeness to its origins is thrown into relief by what it became.  The antithetic is essential to its content.  Its immanent dynamic crystallizes the dynamo external to it and indeed dow so by virtue of its aporetic character.  Regardless of their individual endowments and contrary to them, if artworks are unable to achieve their monadological unity, they succumb to real historical pressure; it becomes the force that inwardly dislocates them.  This is not the least of the reasons why an artwork is adequately perceived as a process. If however the individual artwork is a force field, a dynamic configuration of its elements, this holds no less for art itself as a whole.  Therefore art cannot be understood all at once, but only in terms of elements, in a mediated fashion.   One of these elements is that by which artworks contrast with what is not art; the attitude toward objectivity changes.  (301)

The force field is inherent in this “dynamic configuration of its elements,” and this dynamic is what contrasts with what is not art.   If, on the other hand, it “succumbs to real historical pressure,” than the force of history “inwardly dislocates it.”  In other words, the force of history can destroy the force field of art.

And perhaps that is what distinguishes Adorno from Paglia.  He would argue that it is only through the opposition to history that art can be a force field – that is, a true force, with a dynamic of it own.  But the anti-art movement, which fails to become political, suggests that the killing field wants to destroy the force field.   The people – history – can and, as Paglia suggests, should dislodge it.  Because art – and by implication – academia have become a negative force that goes against the grain of true leftist history, which is populist, it must be derided and destroyed.

What Paglia suggests is that since postmodern art is not from the people but from the elite, it must be exposed as a fraud.   Only true art, in other words, comes from the people not from academics or artists. But will the people produce a force field that goes against the grain of history or will history (synonymous with the people) – embodied in, as Paglia says, in the “working class style, working class language, working class direct emotion…in an openness and brusqueness of speech” – destroy “art”?  Will the killing fields destroy the force fields?

Questions: Food for Thought

Has art – as Adorno understood – now become impossible after Warhol?  Is it really dead?  Are we living in an age when it must be killed because it is taking us from who we “really” are, as Paglia suggests?  Why is this struggle of forces over the meaning of art, as the meaning of the academy, so important today?  Will the academy be forced to address these claims made by Peterson and Paglia simply because they are so popular (this video, itself, has nearly 700,000 views and Peterson has recently scared the University of Toronto by suggesting that a website be built which designates which classes are “postmodern,” which means, as we see here, contrary to the people)?  Is this the contrast – the dynamic – that Adorno was looking for or is it something he wouldn’t expect?





Larry David, the Schlemiel, and Holocaust Humor


Larry David’s opening monologue for SNL – which included a joke about picking up girls in Concentration Camps – was contested by many on Twitter and elsewhere.  The harshest criticism came from Thane Rosenbaum in his piece for the Los Angeles Journal entitled “Larry David Goes One Cringe Too Far.”   Reading some of these articles I wondered about what kinds of distinctions were being made with respect to the schlemiel character.  To be sure, when it comes to the schlemiel, it’s hard to classify Larry David and his humor.   His skits on Bernie Sanders were in the classic schlemiel mold, but other things he has done point to something else.

(If you are in Canada clicking this video, go here.)

Ruth Wisse, in her last book on comedy, No Joke, argues that Larry David’s schlemiel is different form anything we have ever seen in the Jewish tradition:

He is now the Jew with influence, thoughtlessly rich.  The transformation of this character from harmless to hurtful demonstrates the adjustment of Jewish humor to altered conditions of power and prosperity.  Puncturing political correctness in liberal democracies is hardly as dangerous as defying Hitlerism and Stalinism in Europe, which may be why American Jewish comic heroes and no longer (like Charlie Chaplin, many Sholem Aleichem, or I.B. Singer schlemiel characters) necessarily winsome or charming.  The man who drives the slickest car on the road can’t claim the naiveté of an eastern European Jew in his wagon, and the owner of the biggest house on the block can’t garner the affection reserved for Molly Goldberg yoo-hooing out of her cramped apartment window (238-39).

In an article entitled “Larry David’s SNL Jokes Moved Jews Haters to Laughter and Holocaust Survivors to Tears,” Varda Spiegel draws on Ruth Wisse’s kind of language and argues that Larry David is different from the traditional schlemiel and fails to hit the mark:

Perhaps, Larry, you were going for a classically Jewish, Chaplinesque, and self-deprecating laugh through tears. If so, I appreciate the shout-out to Woody Allen and Hershele Ostopolyer. But I expected better of you, Larry, and better of SNL, than moving tweeters to tweet, anti-Semites to laugh, and Holocaust survivors to cry.

Spiegel argues – like Ruth Wisse, Irving Howe, and Saul Bellow – that what makes the schlemiel such a great character is that it prompts laughter through tears.    What we get here, instead, is laughter for the anti-Semites and tears for the survivors.   This suggests that what David is doing is actually anti-thetical to the traditional schlemiel.

Thane Rosenbaum, in his essay for the Jewish Journal, substitutes the word “nebbish” for schlemiel when characterizing Larry David (perhaps in an effort to save the schlemiel from being contaminated by David’s Holocaust humor):

Appalling, but perhaps not surprising.  David has been flirting with the Holocaust for many years.  And he keeps coming back, not taking no for an answer, a nebbish with a libido for bad taste.  Except the Holocaust is not a love interest.  It is an unsightly atrocity, incapable of attraction of any kind, and on any human scale.

This is the same man who conceived a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry was making out with a girl during a screening of Schindler’s List.  And another in which a disagreeable fast-food proprietor was renamed “The Soup Nazi.”  An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm riffed on the Reality TV show, The Survivor, in which a winning contestant squared off at a dinner party with an actual survivor of a death camp, comparing their relative suffering.  In still yet another, a man with numbers tattooed on his forearm turns out not to be a Holocaust survivor, but rather just someone who temporarily inks his lotto ticket number each week so as not to forget.

So much for Never Again.

Rosenbaum’s wording is interesting because David Biale, in his book Eros and the Jews, characterizes Woody Allen’s schlemiels as “sexual schlemiels” and says that they have a “small ego and a big libido.”

Rosenbaum finds words to describe what David had done with not only his own schlemiel character, but with George Constanza:

Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption.  George Costanza, David’s doppelganger, was an enduring fool of humiliation, placed in recurring, squirming situations.  David took the Borsht Belt and twisted it into a straightjacket of Jewish self-loathing.  

The new schlemiel is one who is “disgraced beyond redemption,” or an “enduring fool of humiliation.”   In other words, he is different from the traditional schlemiel which is a redemptive character.    While it is true that Larry David – in his very SNL dialogue – sees himself as the master of self-deprecation, there are many questions left about this comedy act in particular and how it relates to the schlemiel in general.

Larry David touched on the worst aspects of the sexual schlemiel – which can be read, as they were by Mark Oppenheimer – as a pervert. We see this in Roth’s Alexander Portnoy character and in many of Roth’s later novels.   Unfortunately, this stereotype did get new life in the skit.  He tried to deflate it but there was no “laughter through tears.”    Perhaps we can better understand this through the fact that, few Yiddish writers wanted to cast a sexual schlemiel character.  This is certainly an American creation.  But what is the best way to address this without failing to hit the mark and effacing the schlemiel character?

And if Ruth Wisse thought that I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool was the most fitting character for post-Holocaust literature (also see Nathan Englander’s “The Tummlers”), this suggests that the sexual schlemiel  is not the best character to use when approaching the Holocaust.   Their take on the character in relation to the Holocaust, makes us pause and think about the meaning of humanity.  This joke didn’t do that.   It did something else.  Perhaps it did separate laughter and tears.

Since we are witnessing so much judgment these days, I’m going to with-hold my judgment with this word perhaps.  I’ll let you decide.  All I can say is that Larry David is more like a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik – altogether, at the same time.  And that’s simultaneously funny, sad, and offensive.