LettersTheory & Practice

Kierkegaard’s Frenemies: From Adorno to Zizek

2013 was Kierkegaard’s 200th  birthday. I am grateful to Mark Taylor for asking me to contribute something to his birthday celebration, and also for not giving us any time to prepare for it. Had he done so I might have had to do more than say what I think I know.

Marx and Kierkegaard were contemporaries, and one could think of them as diverging from Hegel in different and opposite ways. But are those divergences complementary?

I want to approach this topic via the reception of Kierkegaard by western Marxists, including Adorno and Sartre, but also Debord and Kierkegaard’s fellow Dane Asger Jorn. I want to propose that Jorn represents a more interesting way to take up Kierkegaard in the present than the way that Zizek and Badiou have deployed him, via Sartre.

Kierkegaard came to Georg Lukacs too early and to Walter Benjamin too late, but to Theodor Adorno at just the right time. His first book is Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic (1933). Walter Benjamin identifies the key to it: Adorno reads literally Kierkegaard’s metaphorical descriptions of the bourgeois interior. He is a kind of “flaneur who promenades in his own room.” (41) “Fleeing precisely from reification, he withdraws into ‘inwardness.’” (50) The social reappears only via the contiguity of the interior as the neighbor, who is shorn of all substance, all necessity.

Adorno produces out of his encounter with Kierkegaard a “sociology of inwardness.” Whatever its merits as a reading of Kierkegaard, Adorno’s book opens up a path for Adorno himself as a critical sociologist of just such interiors. One thinks here of his magnificent Minima Moralia, and the way it works outward from the bourgeois interior to the commodity form, to the administered society, to damaged life.

A more affirmative reading of Kierkegaard had to wait until after the war and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. For Sartre, the body is an obstacle to inter-subjective unity. There can be no dialectical reconciliation of subject and object. The subjective pole is considered negatively, as lack, as nothingness. There is no meta-being which might include both the subject and what it desires.

Nor is there a subjective group. Individual consciousness regards others with an objectifying gaze. There can be no world-community because there is no God. To be human is to be future-oriented. There is no past unity, and there is no future reconciliation. We are condemned to freedom. Our free choice is concealed by bad faith. One should take responsibility for the choice of a project. Such projects never amount to much: “man is a useless passion.”

After the war this rather stark view of the self and the world had to confront the historical experience of the Resistance. To Sartre as to so many others it was an exemplar of a praxis. His postwar work tries to respond to it. Hence his 1945 lecture on existentialism and humanism. Here men are defined by their actions. Sartre offers an anti-materialist view of revolution as a subjective transcendence of the material world, a sort of secularized leap of faith.

In Search for a Method, he argues against the subject-object dialectic as it appears in the late Lukacs as a kind of terror, liquidating all particulars. Sartre speaks up for the stubborn resistance of the particular to dialectical sublation. For Sartre, a philosophy is the consciousness of a class. A philosophy is a totalization of knowledge, a method, a weapon and a praxis. They are rare. There were only three: 1. Descartes/Locke, 2. Hegel/Kierkegaard and 3. Marx/(Sartre).

Kierkegaardian existentialism is on ideological revision within a philosophy, within Hegelianism. Kierkegarrd stands for the incommensurability of thought and the real. Marx, like Kierkegaard, reproaches Hegel for a dialectic which makes the real disappear into system, where objectification and alienation are conflated.

But Marxism reduces change to identity. Satrean existentialism insists on differences. Yet Marxism remains for Sartre the philosophy of our time, even if inflected into his own idiom: “For us man is characterized above all by his going beyond a situation, and by what he succeeds in making of what he has been made – even if he never recognizes himself in his objectification.” (91)

In The Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre puts far more stress on the impediments to the conscious creation of world history. Now history has no subject. It is a “totalization without a totalizer.” There are only ephemeral totalizations of the fused group, and the fused group is very rare. The fused group totalizes, but the totalization collapses back into the practico-inert and seriality is restored again. There isn’t a world knowable in its totality by collective praxis.

Sartre is perhaps responding here to the parallel encounter with both Marx and Kierkegaard in Merleu-Ponty: “As it becomes material, the dialectic must grow heavy…. there is an inertia in Marx.” (33) And hence: “Marxism does not have a total view of universal history at its disposal.” (51) For M-P: “Within the revolution itself the scintillation of truth and falsity continues.” (40)

Sartre’s politicized reading of the leap, as the fused group realizing its project in a situation, but falling back into seriality as it produces the practico-inert over and against it self, is an idea with a strange afterlife. It could be read optimistically as prefiguring May ’68, as it was by Mark Poster, or pessimistically, as predicting its failure, as in Martin Jay.

But beyond that, in our own time, both Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou reproduce quasi-secularized version of the political event as a leap of faith. For Zizek, taking the proletarian position is a leap of faith, and the truth of Marxism-Leninism-Zizekism is available only to those who make such a leap. (Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It is perhaps worth remembering that God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is the story upon which Kierkegaard bases the leap of faith.) While partisan, the Leninist who makes this leap of faith acquires a ‘universal truth.’ The working class cannot perceive itself as itself, only the Leninist coming from without can be the bearer of this universal truth. Zizek goes so far as to ask why Lenin’s version of Marxism ought not to be thought of as a secularized religion.

The traumatic experience of the divine real and the leap of faith of the Leninist is for Zizek the same as the role of the psychoanalyst. Something must come from without for the worker, the believer, and the analyst’s client. In each case there’s a foreign kernel: God, Party, Analyst, three forms of the “subject supposed to know.”

For Zizek and Badiou, the political and the economic appear as separate worlds, irrevocably split. The criteria of a Zizekian political act is that it is an enacted utopia: “… it is rather as if, in a unique suspension of temporality, in the short-circuit between the present and the future, we are – as if by grace – for a brief time allowed to act as if the utopian future is not yet fully here, but already at hand.” (Slavoj Zizek, Repeating Lenin, grace, p. 102-103) Revolution is ”as it were its own ontological proof, an immediate index of its own truth.”

In Badiou, four major concepts betray in a parallel fashion a strange uptake from Kierkegaard via Sartre. They are being, event, subject, fidelity. There are also four domains of truth procedure in which a subject might encounter an event: politics, science, art, and love. Fidelity to the event is what makes a subject. A subject is an an individual or group transfigured by the truth it proclaims. We are all possible subjects of an event, always open to its happening. But subjects, like Sartrean fused groups are rare.

We have come to a bad place. Where Sartre and Merleau-Ponty used Kierkegaard as a wedge against all-encompassing dialectic that subsumes all into its historical maw, Zizek and Badiou do quite the opposite. A residual Kierkegaardian moment becomes the very thing which short-circuits the discovery of the inertia of the material world beyond the bourgeois interior and the irreducible particularity of the subject within it. Badiou, let’s recall, has never renounced or much revised his fidelity to Mao Zedong, whom he once described as “the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.”

There is however another, less well known passage of Kierkegaard into western Marxism. I’m thinking here of Asger Jorn and Guy Debord, co-founders of the Situationist International. While this avant garde movement was probably named for that Kierkegaardian concept by Debord by way of a borrowing from Sartre, Asger Jorn certainly knew his Kierkegaard – and in Danish. At a particularly low moment in his career as an artist, he ended up in with tuberculosis, and while recovering in a Danish sanitarium, borrowed several volumes of Kierkegaard from a priest he met there.

Luck and Chance was Jorn’s first published book, in 1952. It is, amongst other things, a critique of Kierkegaard’s triad of aesthetic, ethical and religious stages, and of his definition of truth. It is one of the most fundamental texts to understand Jorn’s undertaking of “a reconstruction of philosophy from the point of view of an artist”.”

Jorn thought of the irrational mysteries of cult and religion as keys to a materialist attitude to life. He held that a unitary monism interrupted by rise of class society and its idealism. The dualism of class society renders impossible a genuinely monist attitude to life. Aesthetics, ethics, religion as three idealist deviations. All three are bourgeois forms, both historically and in terms of individual life courses. The three working class deviations: anarchism, syndicalism and communism.

The situationist, in Jorn’s version, is a member of a movement which positions itself beyond both of these series of deviations from an originary, mystical and materialist monism. The situationist is committed to the construction of new situations which overcome both the reified forms of working class organization and the dualist doctrines of bourgeois thought.

Whether intentionally or not, Jorn and Debord make progress by taking the liminal category of situation as a central one. The site of the production of situations is everyday life, but one not restricted to the bourgeois interiors, which, no matter how much he critiqued their reified form, Adorno never really left behind.

The situation, for situationists, is where the rational and non-rational are both in play. It’s the site of neither the administered life of Adorno nor of irrational leaping Lenins and Maos. For Jorn, it’s the place of an experimental practice, after art; for Debord the situation is the site for the signature situationist practice of détournement, which takes all of culture to be a commons, to be freely appropriated and corrected by all.

In his major work, Society of the Spectacle, Debord even explains the concept of détournement via two quotes from Kierkegaard. Its likely a nod to his friend and comrade Asger Jorn. While acknowledged as one of the great painters of mid century Europe, Jorn has never quite received his due as a writer, even as a writer in the western Marxist tradition. I want to end this account of the strange mediation of Kierkegaard through western Marxism with a tribute to his fellow Dane, Asger Jorn.

Jorn’s reading of Kierkegaard has no more fidelity to him than those of Sartre, Badiou or anyone, perhaps even less. We could actually celebrate eighty years of détournement of Kierkegaard, of borrowing and correcting him, if not always in helpful directions. But of all Kierkegaard’s ‘frenemies’ in the Marxist camp, Jorn found the most productive use for him, by turning the Kierkegaardian aesthetic on its head and making it over into a collaborative practice. Whatever its limits, it’s a better idea than a theology of revolutionary terror.


Previous post

A Post on Laughter and Remembering in Berlin

Next post

Tiny Instruments Hit a Profound Chord

McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark

2 pingbacks/trackbacks

  • http://www.deliberatelyconsidered.com Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    The Leninist leap of faith, lightly described here, by Zizek and Badiou, seems playful, but can be deadly. Jorn’s experimental practice seems much more promising – a frenemy I would like to know better.

    • mckenziewark

      I’ll post more about Jorn on his centenary next month.

  • Pait

    “Whatever its limits, it’s a better idea than a theology of revolutionary terror.” Agree. I’d visit the Jorn Museum in Silkeborg any day over the killing fields of Cambodia.

  • La Life

    Typo: “complimentary” => “complementary”, unless you really meant “complimentary”, in which case I’m going to have to read the whole thing again :)

    • mckenziewark

      fixed — thanks!

  • Pingback: #Accelerate and intertia | Public Seminar()

  • Pingback: Althusserians Anonymous (2) | Public Seminar()