Printer Friendly

Split level, or, the predicament of dwelling.

This essay stages a dialogue between a handful of writers and artists whose works dramatise what will be called the 'predicament of dwelling'. Soren Kierkegaard, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Charles Baudelaire, and Gordon Matta-Clark shared a common sensibility with respect to the difficulties of modern life. Benjamin's 'destruction of experience' and Adorno's 'damaged life' evoked images of modern subjectivity as something as deranged and mutilated as the creatures in Kafka's stories (Gregor Samsa and Odradek come to mind). Matta-Clark's lacerated homes and buildings combined the despair and disrepair of the city with complex images of intrusion and redemption in ways that echo the enmeshment of melancholia and delight in Baudelaire's flaneur, in Kierkegaard's interieur.

Perhaps it would do to regard these as elaborations on the experience and the ironies of modern alienation, but what interests me here is the way we are presented with a subject that is ruptured, lacerated, and split, and whose splitting is reflected in the places and spaces in which it attempts to eke out something like a life for itself. I am going to suggest that we become reacquainted with the concept of 'dwelling', which in times past encompassed more than what its diminished meaning today manages to convey. Drawing from Aristotelian themes, dwelling at one time marked the intersection of life and the political--in the parlance of early Critical Theory: the intersection of 'experience' and the conditions of its (im)possibility. In The Arcades Project Benjamin archived nineteenth-century dwelling (interiors, furnishings, city planning, etc.) as a way to grasp the transformations of subjectivity in modernity. And in Minima Moralia, Adorno defied good, Hegelian dialectical procedure by arguing that in the twentieth century one had to begin with the subject and private life, with the problem of dwelling, if one was to grasp the nature of the Whole. Particularly for Adorno (who occupies the centre of my argument), dwelling became a metaphor for his controversial style of politics. Dwelling today (Adorno emphasised today-ness in what I believe was conscious disagreement with what he thought was Heidegger's a historical treatment of dwelling) was the location of catastrophe where both socialist dwelling and private life were made impossible, and we drudge daily amid the failure of the 'good life' to have taken hold. It is where we pose the question of what forms of life, and what form of the political, are appropriate to the conditions in which we live.

I explore the relation between dwelling and the political, inquiring into the politics of dwelling, or, politics as dwelling. Adorno's 'negative utopianism' stands in stark opposition to more robust and optimistic political philosophies in the past and the present, whether those of traditional Marxism, or the more liberal-minded sensibilities of subsequent generations of Critical Theory, or the neo-orthodox movement today, which promotes renewed commitment on the part of philosophy and politics to the notion of the Event. Adorno's entire philosophy is oriented rather differently around the idea that 'the chance that might have saved was missed' (from the opening lines of Negative Dialectics, but repeated elsewhere). In opposition to those who call for fidelity to some redemptive event, and to those who urge faith in the promises of the Enlightenment, Adorno concerned himself with the question of what it means to inhabit life gone awry, and his word for such inhabitancy was dwelling.

Modern dwelling, then, is the site of something amiss, it registers the ruptured conditions for 'life' and 'experience', for modern subjectivity, and serves as a paradigm for political life. In Adorno's hands the question of how one is to dwell in one's home doubles for the question of how one is to dwell after the end of history. In each case we are conjuring a post-apocalyptic landscape where the hopes and dreams of the grand ideologies of socialism and liberalism are in shambles; one has crumbled into violent excesses, while the other, claiming to be more successful, peddles the semblance of prosperous private life in a way that barely conceals its underlying emptiness. I want to show that the 'predicament of dwelling' for Adorno alluded to a theme that he credited to Kafka: we live in hell, and since escape is not imminently on the cards the urgent question should be, how does one live in hell? However one answers that question, one has unavoidably to invoke some model of political life.


Jay Bernstein was perhaps right that Adorno's dismal view of the obstacles to extricating oneself from damaged life was 'too strong'. (1) But as Bernstein also noted, Adorno's struggle was not to denounce dwelling; it was to acknowledge, as Adorno put it, the 'difficult relationship in which the individual now stands'. (2) In this sense, Adorno was echoing Benjamin's reflections on the nineteenth-century interior in The Arcades Project. Benjamin saw 'traces' of something primordial in the bourgeois apartment with its cloistered ornamentation and the way its blueprints and furnishings mimicked feudal fortification (he said that the trend of arranging sofas and rugs at an angle imitates the posture of combat, preparedness to defend oneself). Fortification is a kind of isolation, and Benjamin also tied nineteenth-century bourgeois interiors to the primitive sensibilities of regressing to the womb and living in shells and burrows: 'To live in these interiors was to have woven a dense fabric about oneself, to have secluded oneself within a spider's web [...] The nineteenth century, like no other century, was addicted to dwelling. It conceived the residence as a receptacle for the person'. (3) Benjamin cited Marx, who wrote that 'humanity is regressing to the state of a cave dweller', but who also added that, in contrast to the nineteenth-century bourgeois experience of cloistered interiors as one of womb-like safety, the basement dwellings that workers rent are 'hostile dwellings': 'Such a dwelling can never feel like home, a place where he might at last exclaim, 'Here I am at home!'. (4) In other words, bourgeois dwelling in the nineteenth century exhibits a kind of regression that Benjamin likened to dream-life--in one sense it ideologically conceals the nihilism that, without any awareness, permeates the secluded spaces of the interior, while in another sense it conceals the extent to which its own semblance of a primitive, cave-like environment corresponds to the lived reality of the proletariat. For both rich and poor in the nineteenth century, dwelling, according to Benjamin, conveyed socio-historical realities as well as the dream-life that emanates from the alienated experience arising from those realities.

A young Adorno made similar observations about nineteenth-century dwelling in his (first) book on Kierkegaard, and among Kierkegaard's readers, few grasp the extent to which the interior life permeated his writings like Adorno. In Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic (which Arcades cited often), he argued that the heart of Kierkegaard's work concerned the melancholic response of subjectivity to an objectless condition, and that this objectless condition turns out to be the melancholic reflection of a vacuous bourgeois reality. As the self for Kierkegaard is overwhelmed and threatened by an increasingly intrusive world, it retreats into the only place it can find refuge, the interior. The interior of the Kierkegaardian self is marked by its failure in modern life to find itself at home in the world. In the section titled 'Interieur, Adorno considered Kierkegaardian interiority to be consistent with the ideology of the nineteenth-century bourgeois individual, noting the proliferation of metaphorical objects that litter the pages of Kierkegaard's texts: bell-ropes, red plush arm chairs, gas-lighting, parlours, living rooms, and other accoutrements of modern dwelling. (5) Spies, for example, were small mirrors attached to an extending apparatus that could reflect into one's living room a view of the row of apartments from outside. As Adorno put it: spies reflected exterior semblance into the isolated interior of the bourgeois living space. And he went on to say that Kierkegaard's melancholic inwardness reflected an exteriority without meaning and substance. 'The window mirror testifies to objectlessness--it casts into the apartment only the semblance of things [...] Mirror and mourning belong together'. (6)

Taken together, Arcades (Benjamin) and Kierkegaard (Adorno) construct nineteenth--century dwelling as a kind of unwitting self-imprisonment within the contentlessness that underwrites bourgeois society. (7) Apartments were decorated with pictures of far-off places, providing inhabitants with the illusion of contact with an outside world, but one that is in reality thoroughly domesticated. (8) Interior decorating is haunted by an unconscious fantasy to retrieve a lost connection with nature and the world, a primordial wish to be part of a practice, a determinate existence, which the bourgeois subject could only relate to as loss. (9) Meanwhile, the cosiness of the nineteenth-century dwelling feigned security from a world that was perceived as an invasive threat, but the ruse was that it had already invaded the interior through the inner reflection of pure semblance. Benjamin and Adorno co-authored a narrative of dwelling in this era as one that records the unfulfillement of bourgeois dream-life; the master is not at home in the world, and, retreating to interior spaces, his experience is one of the illusion of coherence, a thin veil for actual alienation.

This imagery of the intrusion into the nineteenth-century interior of external objectlessness sets the stage for a reading of the evolution of split dwelling and split subjectivity in early twentieth-century modernism. Although Arcades was particularly concerned with the nineteenth century, Benjamin at one point noted that, in the twentieth century, Jugendstil introduced transparency and airiness in its designs, and in doing so 'put an end to dwelling in the old sense'. (10) For Adorno, whatever was gained by the opening up of the nineteenth-century bourgeois interior, modern furnishings of the sort Adorno might have seen in Southern California, where Bauhaus designs were becoming popular, nevertheless signalled the intrusion of the production process into private life. Adorno portrayed the result of architectural modernism's repudiation of ornament in favour of function, technology (plastics, bent plywood, etc.), and geometrical simplicity as mass-produced habitations designed by experts without relation to the occupant, 'factory sites that have strayed into the consumption sphere'. (11) It would appear that wherever one turned 'the possibility of residence is annihilated'. (12) With the market-utilitarianism of modern houses, Adorno went as far as to regard concentration camps and the bombing of European cities as omens of the annihilation of possibilities for residence in the coming decades. To be sure, Adorno had his hyperbolic moments, like when he tried to connect low beds in the modern style to Nazi propaganda (he said that modern man apparently wishes to sleep close to the ground like an animal, while in fact their point at some symbolic level is to militate against good sleep in case one is called to duty). (13) But one has to weigh these exaggerations (as one often does with Adorno) against his more insightful reflections on modernist architecture's Corbusierian push towards the industrialisation of habitat.

In view of all this, one wonders about the remark Adorno once made that, in contrast to Nietzsche, who was proud never to have been a house-owner, one should instead not be at home in one's home; Adorno was paraphrasing Kierkegaard, who had remarked that 'the art would be to be able to feel homesick, even though one is at home'. (14) Given the failures of socialist dwelling, and knowing that liberal dwelling is a sham, Adorno claimed that the 'best option' is nevertheless to take up private life, to inhabit it, but to be careful never to get too comfortable in it. This is not a side of Adorno that we are used to discussing, but it is at the heart of my argument that Adorno proposed dwelling in the midst of hell as a form of post-revolutionary politics. If it were not for Adorno's aversion to mass culture we might equate his position with that of camp: historically the scourge of the traditional Left, camp cultures emerge in the interstices of liberal life when radical alternatives languish. As Susan Sontag outlined in her incomparable essay on the subject, camp embraces artifice, exaggeration, androgyny, things being what they are not, and life as theatre. Camp is detached and disengaged. It relishes everything aesthetic and everything as aesthetic; style over content; aesthetics over morality; irony over tragedy. Camp is dandyism for mass culture, and while it is very unlike high culture seriousness, it is nevertheless 'part of the history of snob taste', indebted to (what she called) a certain bourgeois psychopathology. (15)

Is this not the point at which it begins to make sense (in a distorted way) to place Adorno alongside camp? Both Adorno and camp posit the following thesis: domesticity may be marred by ideology and by the market but one's enjoyment of its surfaces testifies to the extent to which one is in the thrall of marred society. In any case, one doesn't take it too seriously. This is how Adorno put it:
   The best mode of conduct, in the face of all this, still seems an
   uncommitted, suspended one: to lead a private life, as far as the
   social order and one's own needs will tolerate nothing else, but
   not to attach weight to it as something still socially substantial
   and individually appropriate. 'It is even part of my good fortune
   not to be a house-owner', Nietzsche already wrote in The Gay
   Science. Today we should have to add: it is part of morality not to
   be at home in one's home. (16)

Here, Nietzsche is the old bugger whose response to the contradictions of private life was not to participate, while Adorno's attitude approximated that of a now familiar sort: 'It's so problematic; I'll do it! (but I won't entirely mean it)'.

Jameson once wrote that Adorno was postmodern before its time had come. (17) Definitely so, but as evidence of that Jameson did not explore as much as he might have this curious contradiction between Adorno's aversion to the commodity culture of liberal individualism and his sense that, in any case, one has to make a go of it there, that one has to somehow inhabit it, take it up and make it one's own, but 'without attaching too much weight to it'. It would appear that the meaning of 'dwelling' for Adorno was just this: it is to inhabit, and to some extent it is to be stuck, but regardless to 'dwell' in what he called damaged life. When the redemptive event either no longer looms on the horizon or was bungled, then dwelling in damaged life is the dilemma that we face. We have to learn how to set up camp in hell.

There is a formula to this tradition of critical theory, the tradition of negative utopianism. It says that one begins with a great deal of lucidity about the severity of the situation and, by doing so, one has already as a matter of inference invoked the utopian idea that some better state of affairs must at least be thinkable; against what other criteria could we have judged the present as bad? Its formula is a cousin of the Kantian regulative ideal, which posited unachievable limit concepts that cast a perpetual shadow of imperfection and incompletion over the realm of finite experience. Ironically, the more pessimistic one is about the wretchedness of the present, the more one is--without making any sort of positive claims about the substance of redemption (which would, after all, sabotage the whole strategy)--keeping a record of the wrongness of what is and the rightness of an unforeseeable ideal. It is an approach that wants, firstly, to rule out the temptation of positing prematurely anything that would claim to have reconciled life already. And secondly (since getting on board with this or that fantasy of salvation-now is generally disastrous), it is an approach that requires one to 'dwell' in the bad, keeping track, however, of the distance between the way things are and how they might otherwise be, between one's inhabitancy of hell and the fact that one does not really belong there.

Albrecht Wellmer complained that the critique of reason that one encounters in Adorno necessarily dead-ends in either cynicism or theology. (18) In fact it is both, but how do we square this with the knowledge that Adorno was an unremitting utopian? Where is the optimism in Adornian cynicism, and what is the value, if any, in this kind of refusal of faith in the imminent Event, a refusal that relegates us to strategies for living in hell? In other contexts we might have simply compared Adorno's position to that of someone like Antonio Gramsci, for whom the 'war of position' trumps the 'war of manoeuvre', not for any sort of a priori reasons but because historical conditions necessitate it: anti-capitalist revolution did not take hold and the war that is being waged is a cultural one, a hegemonic struggle. (19) Indeed, part of my argument here is that Adornian 'dwelling' is not just a critique of habitation but a political paradigm that contrasts with traditional Marxism, on the one hand, and with neo-orthodox 'fidelities' to an all-consuming Event, on the other hand. In this way, Adorno, who tends not to be much liked by Cultural Studies (his views on film and jazz were enough to seal that fate), turns out to have articulated in subtle but significant ways a kind of apologia for the basic position of Cultural Studies, one that is coming into increasing conflict with the sophisticated recovery of old Marxist politics.


At least since John Locke, the liberal tradition established an intimate relationship between property and the self. Marx criticised this relationship when he argued that the bourgeoisie's objection to the abolition of private property (because it would eradicate freedom and the individual) was unfounded, since ownership was already exclusive to one tenth of society. (20) 'Freedom' and 'the individual' merely meant bourgeois freedom and the bourgeois individual. But it remains the case that in (especially American) liberalism the individual is conceived in a quite intimate relationship with private property. Locke's Second Treatise of Government viewed the state's purpose almost solely in terms of the protection of property, so much so that protection of the individual and protection of property were all but indistinguishable for him. The groundwork for this elision was laid by his theory of labour, where he provided a rationale for the notion of private property arising naturally from the mixture of an individual's labour with the earth (the fruit of that labour, Locke thought, was effectively part of the individual; thus the state's obligation within the social contract was to protect the individual and all that it encompassed). (21)

In time, this association between property and individuality congealed into the present-day fascination with the single-family home, repeated ad nausea in tract developments whose promise of freedom and individuality can barely conceal the glaringly mass-produced quality of the lives they afford their inhabitants. Still, each home is regarded as a citadel of personal taste and privacy, with architecture playing a role that I'm not sure even Le Corbusier had in mind when he described the houses of the future as machines for living. (22)

Before returning to Adorno and Kafka, at the conclusion of this essay, I want to appropriate as my emblem of the underlying trauma of dwelling in the late twentieth century the split-level ranch house. My purpose here is to convey through a variety of means the manner in which modern life, and modern dwelling, has been grasped in terms of a deep rift, a traumatic split symptomatic of certain underlying contradictions, certain alienating cultural and economic processes. I'm interested in the way split dwellings can and have become something like a trope of lacerated living conditions, something that Kafka subtly incorporated into many of his stories in ways that Adorno was uniquely sensitive to.

The first split-level house may have been the one built per Frank Lloyd Wright's 1908 design for Isabel Roberts in River Forest, Illinois. In the 1950s William Levitt's 'Levittowner' model also employed a split-level. On the basis of the designs of Wright and Levitt the popular ranch house of the 1950s was expanded, particularly in California in the 1960s, into the split-level ranch house. Its design tells the story of a significant moment in American cultural history--the mass availability of cars and televisions, which the split-level ranch accommodated through the introduction of a dropped den and a carport. Like all ranch houses, the split-level ranch was distinctively modern at the time, trading porticos, dormers and other ornamental features for single stories, casual floor plans, lower-pitched roofs, and eat-in kitchens. For a time, the 800-1,000 square foot split-level was emblematic of the American dream, until rising prosperity and changing tastes favoured larger floor plans (averaging 1,300 square feet in the 1970s and 2,100 square feet by the 1990s) and a return to traditional features (colonial two-story designs, formal dining rooms, etc.). The most distinctive element of the split-level home, however, was the fluidity it created between previously discrete sections of the house. Its openness and shared spaces seemed to promise a kind of egalitarianism and interaction that traditional homes militated against.

I myself am the product of a generational culture for which the split-level house has served as the backdrop for recurring fantasies of attachments that succeed against the odds. In the 1970s, The Brady Bunch depicted two families sutured by the conciliatory space of the split-level house. It 'was the story' of the reconciliation of a sexualised rupture. The force of the show was its hardworking symmetry--a woman and three girls paired up with a man and three boys, all with corresponding ages, tidily placed and positioned by narrative and physical space. The dropped den of their split-level house acted as a visual model of mended domesticity. Bookending my generational experience--in step with our commodity-culture's habit of nostalgically recycling the past --was the indie hit, Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon's split-level ranch house staged another take on the attachment fantasy, consciously parodying the idealism of those earlier shows. The dysfunction and social ineptitude that accounted for this film's charm and humour glaringly contrasted with the symmetrical obsessions of The Brady Bunch. There were no parents on the scene, only a detached grandmother and an itinerant uncle. Napoleon and his brother, Kip, occupied the unstable centre of a domestic space marked above all by peculiar efforts to make connections in an otherwise disengaged environment. The uncle wanted to relive and recover his lost football past, the grandmother sought connection with her lesbian, quad-racing friends. Kip sought companionship online with a woman (who, when he meets her, is black and twice his size; Kip, epitome of whiteness, adopts a hip hop style of talk and dress and the arrangement somehow works), and Napoleon struggled to open up to a girl at school. Ultimately, however, Napoleon Dynamite (true to the nostalgic mode) reaffirms the idealism of elusive intimacy, adeptly symbolised by the game of tetherball in the film's closing scene. The Hopperesque quality of its photography reconciles the loneliness and detachment that, despite proximity, characterise late modern life (Hopper's speciality) with the closest thing to human contact to be found in the film.

In each case, the 'split' of the split-level ranch house serves as a suturing device, a seam at which disjoined or deranged configurations of friendship and kinship are satisfactorily brought together. The Mulveyan 'narrative pleasure' of this device suggests the extent to which my generation (born in the late 1960s and early 1970s) responds to the narratological and visual enactment of reconciled domesticity. It is a generation that, as children, experienced higher divorce rates, matriculated into and out of adolescence by milling around the sparse spaces of shrink-wrapped suburban developments or decaying post-industrial urban landscapes, and were the first to know the watershed youth-culture isolationism of Walkman and Atari. This generation's TV shows and movies enacted the kind of tethering it lost and lacked. Even lived spaces--split-level dwellings where families would literally meet in the middle--embodied within walls, stairs, and rooms an ideological sociability we distinctly lacked.

One artist working in the 1970s approached the 'split' of the split-level house with a good deal of candour. Gordon Matta-Clark was the son of a surrealist painter, studied at Cornell and the Sorbonne (where he encountered deconstruction) and was in Paris and participated in the student protests of May 1968. Although he was a Cornell-educated architect, to the dismay of his modernist mentors he became best known for the artful misuse of his skills by photographing buildings that he first destroyed. In Splitting (1974), Matta-Clark purchased a two-story house and cut it in half with a large laceration beginning at the roof, running down the middle of the house to its base. In other works, he purchased abandoned factories and warehouses and carved gaping holes and spiral cuts through walls, ceilings, and floors. Matta-Clark's subjects tended to be abandoned relics of commercial and residential space; friends recall excursions into foreclosed homes and buildings where it appeared that families had left in the night, leaving most of their things. They remember Matta-Clark's characterisation of the installation (cutting) process as a kind of archaeological work, peeling back or cutting through layers of linoleum, surrounded by the artefacts of a once-secure home. (23) In the works collected in the exhibit Real Properties, Fake Estates, he purchased at auction fifteen or so small lots of New York City land that had been produced as the remainders of awkward zoning distributions: a 5' by 5' chunk of sidewalk, a 1' by 350' strip of alleyway. He obsessively photographed, drew and diagrammed these properties and apparently viewed them as commentaries on disuse, on the between-spaces and remainders left behind by the contradictions of property and social exchange. In 1978, at the age of 35, he died before following through with whatever plans he had for them.





I am particularly attracted to a shot from the interior of one of Matta-Clark's slashed buildings. A gaping slit opens at the top of the room and runs down to the floor between two windows, narrowing almost to a point. External light enters from the cut, filtering the room with a blue-green hue. The room's interior is mutilated, exposed and intruded upon. This image is reminiscent of another photograph that I first encountered as the frontispiece to Roland Barthes' last book, Camera Lucida (let us not forget that Barthes wrote this book in the context of mourning the loss of his mother, as reflections on the process of foraging through family photographs in hopes of finding one that would capture her essence ... also a kind of elusive attachment fantasy). There, one is spectatorially inside a bedroom filtered with the same blue-green hue, but instead of a slit wall one sees a panel of sheer curtains with a sliver of an opening. Barthes' image insinuates something either erotic or esoteric, or both. One is drawn to the mysterious light behind the veil, or one is attracted to the rim of the cut itself. Barthes proposed the language of the 'punctum', the cut or rupture in the image that distracts from its smooth-functioning, well-intended 'studium'. (24)



If punctum and studium apply to Matta-Clark's pictures, it is in a slightly different way. The particularly compelling provocation of Splitting is its perverse superimposition of destruction and beauty. But it would be unsatisfying to call this an instance of Dionysian creative destruction, because Matta-Clark manages not only to aestheticise but to materialise the laceration of lived space that is concealed by ordinary physical integrity. His excessive cuts signify a lack that otherwise goes unseen. I am inclined to read him in this way: He takes as his raw material a landscape littered with evacuated domiciles of despair and disrepair and, by slashing facades and exposing interiors, displays a condition in which the interior no longer holds. Is this not an architectural elaboration on the death of the subject? And the difference between the dramatisations of reconciliation that we find in the split-levels of The Brady Bunch and Napoleon Dynamite, on one hand, and the splittings of Matta-Clark, on the other, amounts to this: in the first two cases the split level is a sutured space of reconciliation, while in Matta-Clark's case the split stands in for the violent incursion of a void.

There is a growing body of literature that reappraises the implications of Matta-Clark's work, and, while I have not the space to adequately address it here, it will do to highlight one interesting connection. Moving beyond the rather less interesting considerations of a creative/destructive tension in his work, or the question raised by the proliferation of his installations as photographs ('What is the work?'), James Attlee revisits the complex relationship between Matta-Clark and Le Corbusier as architectural visionaries who present us with a kind of dyad. When Matta-Clark named one of his works Anarchitecture, which led to subsequent collaborations among artists and architects, he was nodding to Le Corbusier's Vers Une Architecture (Towards A New Architecture). To Le Corbusier's remark, 'Do not forget the problem of architecture!' (which for Le Corbusier meant pure function), Matta-Clark responded 'Anarchitecture attempts to solve no problem', and in another place described the aspiration for one of his works as that of creating 'a machine for not living'. (25) To whatever extent Matta-Clark's works pointed to a critique of the role of function that Le Corbusier imparted to American architecture with such lasting impact, could we not compare the intruding void in so many of his artworks to the intrusions of objectless inwardness that Adorno and Benjamin observed in the interiors of the early twentieth century, at the time when Le Corbusier in America and Bauhaus in Europe were already putting the stamp of pure function onto the design landscape? Can we not see Matta-Clark's installations as Kafkaesque depictions of the reduction of life to a kind of numeric and impersonal insignificance, where antiseptic interiors conceal aggressive incursions of a void-like experience waged against the individual and the inhabitant in the name of progress and problem-solving? On the other hand, alongside Matta Clark's cynicism towards the Corbusierian ideal of progress embodied in lived spaces and structures, how, like Kafka, do his works also contain a certain presentiment amidst images of decay and destruction?


The comparison between Matta Clark and Kafka is, for my purposes, a productive one. Kafka's stories narrated the destruction of the individual by the very processes that brought it into being; they depicted the demise of a traditional criterion of individual experience. Adorno made a point of criticising the existentialist habit of conflating Kierkegaard and Kafka, even though, with respect to the theme of objectless inwardness, Kafka was 'Kierkegaard's pupil'. In Kafka, objectless inwardness appears everywhere, but its appearances make a spectacle of failed conditions for the possibility of the individual. The individual becomes a falsified relic of bourgeois society that its own development demolished, and inwardness is rejected as a point of resistance to the intrusions of an outside world. Autonomy becomes impossible and the individual is relegated to a mutilated, perpetually catastrophic state. (26) It is worth recalling that in two obvious instances of the 'destruction of experience' in Kafka's stories--Gregor Samsa in 'Metamorphosis' and Odradek in 'Cares of a Family Man' (sometimes translated as 'Worries of a Householder')--Kafka's creatures (one is a bug or beetle, the second is a star shaped thing) experience marked relationships with the between-spaces of the house. Gregor's movements and gazes are ordered by the positions and impositions of the window, the door, the hallway and various rooms of the house (Nabokov had things to say about the layout of the apartment and the way it, too, 'encloses' Gregor (27)); Odradek 'lurks by turns in the garret, the stairway, the lobbies, the entrance hall'. It has 'no fixed abode' and (which for Kafka is the same thing at a metaphorical extreme) suffers the miserable fate of being unable to die; his existence is that of a living hell. (28) In Matta-Clark we encounter the underlying destruction or split that is the intruding void of an ethos of pure function in modern dwelling; in Kafka we encounter not only the split, but also, precisely in the splits and between-spaces of the house, we encounter the splitting of the subject.

Much has been said about Adorno's treatment of Kafka, but far less about how Adorno's Kafka studies filtered throughout his other works. The language of lacerations in the Kafka essay appears again in the final aphorism of Minima Moralia, with its references to the world's 'rifts and crevices', (29) for example. Adorno also commented that what for Kierkegaard was a moment of salvation was for Kafka a moment of failure: 'history becomes Hell in Kafka because the chance which might have saved was missed'. (30) And of course this language of missed salvation, along with the requirement to focus on the predicament brought on by that failure, appears again in the infamous opening lines of Negative Dialectics: 'Philosophy, which once seemed outmoded, remains alive because the moment of its realization was missed'. (31) Kafka inspired Adorno to orient his philosophy away from an otherworldly messianic towards the distinctively this-worldly problem of a living hell, of living in hell, dwelling in the predicament, confronting and somehow salvaging a little dignity and goodness from the mess the world has made of us. Kafka troubled himself to put flesh and bones on the underlying, unseen, disavowed hell of the present, giving it form and content; that last aphorism of Minima Moralia may have had Kafka in mind when it said that in the face of despair 'perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light'. (32) Could we not say the same of Matta Clark?

Beyond the claim that for historical reasons dwelling has become a legitimate sphere for analysis and the political (consistent, I think, with the essential premise of Cultural Studies), it has also been my intention to elucidate the structure of 'negative utopianism' at work in the Adornian notion of dwelling as the inhabitancy of hell. It is true that, for well-rehearsed reasons, Adorno was given over to an enormous amount of pessimism, as can be seen in his refusal to accept that the conditions for Hegelian reconciliation hold true. The irony of this, and the more difficult thing to grasp is that, even in those moments when Adorno was utopian, his pessimism persisted. It is often hard to see how Adorno's pessimism and utopianism was just one thing, not two. I would explain it in this way: The meaning of his 'negative utopianism' is precisely that the split itself gives rise to a presentiment. Strange though it may be, Adorno's utopianism redirects the gaze towards the damage and becomes preoccupied with the rupture, because somehow when abjection is aware of itself there is a moment of self-reflection that gives rise to a sort of autonomy, perhaps only the semblance of autonomy, but nevertheless something that keeps in mind the ideal of autonomy.

The predicament of dwelling, then, was two-fold. (33) It denoted the kind of chilling candour about the wretchedness of the world and the life of the individual that one finds in Kafka. It also referred to a species of political imagining that requires one to contemplate how to live in damaged life, as damaged beings, demeaned and dehumanised by explicit and mundane strategies of mechanisation and objectification, but with a glint in the eye. The whole of Aesthetic Theory contemplated art's unique standing as something that cannot escape objectification but points beyond itself. Minima Moralia considered what it means to live the good in the bad, when even one's 'innermost recesses' have been colonised. Negative Dialectics was a monumental reflection on the afterlife of philosophy once metaphysics was dead. To be sure, the work of dwelling in the bad involves the demarcation of a horizon of transcendence, but the extent of the experience of transcendence for Adorno is the glimmer in the eye, the direction of the gaze. That 'gaze', I believe, is what many of us look for in culture and art, giving those realms a certain dignity as sites of political life. I am arguing that if, in Minima Moralia, Adorno defended that search against dominant tendencies in Hegel to pass over the subject and subjective life as little more than a cipher for the Whole or the One, rather than as a point of resistance to it (the 'non-identical'), then the same defence is due against those who now seek to rescue the very same tendencies in their reading of Hegel. Amid consumer culture on one hand and the declining tradition of community life on the other hand, dwelling and the dwelling subject in postmodernity become interesting as well as urgent subjects of investigation because they are indices of the failures of the Good, and because they are instances of the attempt to keep alive the anticipation of the Good. The politics of dwelling politicises that anticipation.

Adorno's attitudes recall that of Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal. One of its poems, 'The Irremediable', depicts a series of images of inescapable struggle. In 'Part I' it describes: a form or idea fallen from the sky into the 'Stygian slough'; an angel lured into temptation like a 'swimmer who struggles for a shore'; a bewildered man miserably groping for escape from a place full of snakes, without a light or the key; a damaged soul fumbling down the steps of an infinite staircase without rails, below which is a precipice which smells clammy and is filled with the glowing eyeballs of monsters; a ship caught in ice, 'seized in a vice of glass', unable to escape its imprisonment. Baudelaire describes each of these as 'pure emblems, a perfect tableau/of an irremediable evil'. In 'Part II' the tone of the poem changes from the despair of imprisonment to the solemnity of a kind of hope. It turns to the image of a heart that 'gives its own image back' by acknowledging its predicament. Without any illusions of escape and from the perspective of its immersion in blackness there 'trembles a ghastly star, / an ironic beacon, from Hell, / torch of Satanical Graces, / And a glory in consolation, / -Evil aware of itself!' 'Satanical graces' are identified with that which acknowledges its own guilt context, and through the self-awareness of both its predicament and the inescapability of that predicament one gains in consolation the clarity that comes with the avowal of the inhabitance of Hell. Matta-Clark, Kafka, Baudelaire, Adorno--ironic beacons from the depths of the predicament of dwelling. (34)


Near the end of an American presidency sure that one of its legacies would be the expansion of an 'ownership society', we were confronted with a housing catastrophe. Dwelling is a problem. This has to be insisted upon. The Marxist lesson is still that crises like these are not rough patches but symptoms of underlying, persistent contradictions. The tenacity with which this is denied is most energetic, in fact, when we are narrativising the crisis. The standard debate over what to do and who to blame routinely involves questions of individual culpability--deceptive lenders or irresponsible borrowers? Should the government bail out banks or buyers, or is everyone equally accountable for the consequences of their voluntary choices? This is, of course, a misleading debate, one that contributes to an ideological rendering of the society of ownership. Brecht once interrogated these very same issues in The Good Woman of Szechwan. Was the prostitute Shen Teh to blame for her failures and misdeeds, or were the gods to blame for justifying the conditions in which her 'choices' were compulsory? Should the gods intervene, or are individuals owners of their own fates? Brecht's story condemns the shallow restriction of responses to just these two by illustrating how the predicament runs all the way down to the intersections of gender, culture, and private property. In order to maintain her tobacco business, Shen Teh's deception--dressing as a man and pretending to be her fictitious cousin, Shui Ta--was forced, because it was the only way to slip through the logic of sex and capital that structured social relations in Szechwan. Should the gods intervene? Yes, of course. But what would constitute an intervention of any significance would not be stipends. It could only be the reconfiguration of the entire social structure, altering the sex/state/culture/capital nexus that doomed Shen Teh's pursuit from the beginning. (36) 'No emancipation -without that of society'. (37)

Is not our so-called housing crisis a contemporary affirmation that the chance that might have saved was missed, and that the 'individual' and 'freedom' in liberal society remain unresolved problems? If it was ever hard to understand what was meant by the death of the subject, I doubt anyone will have as much trouble understanding what is meant by the death of the house. Surely houses proliferate across the landscape, but what is now being registered is the extent to which the house (and its attendant ideologies of 'home' and the 'individual') is both real and not. For many homeowners foreclosure is an event that renders visible a certain kind of trauma, the nonidentity of house and dwelling. The 'housing crisis' is in fact a crisis of dwelling. There is a term in the home construction industry today, 'spec house'. It refers to homes built by speculating contractors that do not yet have buyers. They are built rampantly in housing bubbles on the supposition that buyers will be plentiful. What we would have to insist upon today is the rise of new degrees of 'spec individuality'; in Lockean liberalism where home ownership and the individual are integrated concepts, the owner-individual becomes a spectre, a chimera that, like the house itself, may seem real enough. But in fact the owner-individual is the prop for a bewildering network of lending products and finance circuits that are grounded not in something concrete but in complex abstractions. Like the spec house, the speculative individual in an opportunistic housing market structured by uneven exchange relations is constituted as a risk, a speculation, a future asset that may or may not pan out. When markets fail, inflation hits, wages drop and rates climb, spec individualities are left as empty and contentless as the evacuated homes they leave behind. The foreclosed home, and the foreclosed homeowner, become instances of the incursion of the void that in good times gives rise to the otherwise ordinary reality of tidy homes and gleaming homeowners in the society of ownership. Foreclosure is the Matta-Clarkian laceration that materialises the internal split that is the Real of American real estate. And the owner-individual has experienced, violently, an incursion of the void that reveals the extent of 'the difficulty in which the individual now stands'. Our current foreclosure epidemic testifies, like an ironic beacon from hell, to the vacuity and the failure of liberal dwelling today.

DOI: 10.3898/NEWF.70.09.2010

(1.) Jay Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge, 2001, p53, fn15.

(2.) Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life, Jephcott (trans), New York, Verso, 1974, p40.

(3.) Walter Benjamin, 'The Interior, The Trace' in The Arcades Project, Cambridge, Belknapp Press, 1999, pp216, 220.

(4.) Ibid., p223.

(5.) Theodor Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, R. Hullot-Kentor (trans), Minneapolis, U. Minnesota Press, 1989.

(6.) Ibid., p41.

(7.) Benjamin quoted Adorno in Arcades, op. cit., 'Inwardness is the historical prison of primordial human nature', 1999, p218.

(8.) Benjamin: 'In the end, things are merely mannequins, and even the great moments of world history are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances of complicity with nothingness', in Arcades, op. cit., 216.

(9.) Benjamin writes about residential rooms in the factory, concluding that the 'alienation process culminates in the emergence of the private home' in Arcades, 1999, p226; later he reflects on another aspect of the integration of production and the private sphere. Bourgeois life, and interiors, mourn the loss of the kind of self-knowledge that is acquired through practice: 'Practice is eliminated from the productive process by machinery [...] Knowledge of human nature, such as the senior employee could acquire through practice, ceases to be decisive', 1999, p227. In this section Benjamin is opposing practice to dream-life, and appears to develop a kind of master-slave dialectic of the bourgeois interior: these are spaces that feign active-immediate relation to the world through pictures of other parts of the world, etc., but this only occurs at the level of the wish. The evacuation of practice (and thus determinate self-knowledge) from bourgeois interiors is a reflection into private life of the material conditions of the bourgeoisie.

(10.) Benjamin, Arcades, op. cit., p221.

(11.) Adorno, Minima Moralia, op. cit., p40.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Ibid., p38.

(14.) Kierkegaard is cited in Benjamin, Arcades, op. cit., p218.

(15.) Susan Sontag, 'Notes on Camp' in Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, New York, Macmillan, 1966, pp275-292.

(16.) Adorno, Minima Moralia, op. cit., p39.

(17.) Frederic Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno; Or, The Persistence of the Dialectic, New York, Verso, 1996.

(18.) Albrecht Wellmer, The Persistence of Modernity: Essays on Aesthetics, Ethics, and Postmodernism, Cambridge, MIT, 1991; 'The critique of identitary reason seems ultimately to result in a choice between cynicism and theology', p63.

(19.) Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, J.A. Buttigieg (ed), New York, Columbia, 1991.

(20.) Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, New York, Signet, 1998.

(21.) John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Cambridge, Hackett, 1980, pp18-30.

(22.) Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, New York, Dover, 1931, pp225-66.

(23.) Ned Smyth, 'Gordon Matta Clark', artnet, 2004; G.H. Hovagimyan, 'Gordon Matta-Clark-1', post.thing. net.

(24.) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections On Photography, New York, Hill and Wang, 1982.

(25.) Quoted in James Attlee, 'Towards Anarchitecture: Gordon Matta-Clark and Le Corbusier' in Tate Papers, Spring 2007.

(26.) Theodor Adorno, 'Notes on Kafka', in Prisms, S. Weber (trans), Cambridge, MIT, 1983.

(27.) Vladimir Nabokov, lecture on Kafka's 'Metamorphosis'.

(28.) Both stories in Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories, New York, Schocken, 1971.

(29.) Adorno, Minima Moralia, op. cit.

(30.) Adorno, Prisms, op. cit., p259.

(31.) Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, E.B. Ashcroft (trans), New York, Continuum, 1974.

(32.) Adorno, Minima Moralia, op. cit., p352.

(33.) Ibid., p38.

(34.) Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, Cambridge, Oxford, 1993.

(35.) Adorno, Minima Moralia, op. cit., p39.

(36.) Bertolt Brecht, The Good Woman of Szechwan, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

(37.) Adorno, Minima Moralia, op. cit., p173.
COPYRIGHT 2010 Lawrence & Wishart Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Waggoner, Matt
Publication:New Formations
Article Type:Report
Date:Jun 22, 2010
Previous Article:Ravishing Maggie: thatcher thirty years on.
Next Article:The offices of comedy.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters