restricted access 2. Object Lessons: Reification and Renaissance Epitaphic Poetry
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55 c h a p t e r 2 Object Lessons: Reification and Renaissance Epitaphic Poetry Rachel Eisendrath In this essay I explore how early modern artworks, both visual and verbal, anticipate Theodor W. Adorno’s concerns with reification in aesthetics.1 Focusing in particular on epitaphic poetry, I argue that early modern art provides a kind of “unconscious” history of reification during a period in Europe that was, in Adorno’s view, pivotal in the development of reification. Adorno’s well-known claim that “all reification is forgetting”2 can be understood in at least two overlapping senses: one, that reification forgets whatever does not fit into the conceptual categories of instrumental reason and in so doing disregards the irreducible alterity of the things of the world,3 and two, that reification forgets history, failing to acknowledge the historical processes that produced it. “Ever since men began to seek the foundation of all knowledge in the supposed immediacy of subjectivity , they have endeavored to expel the historical dimension of thought,” Adorno writes.4 Scientific methodology, for example, which emerges in the early modern period, presents itself as timeless. Given Adorno’s interest in this problem of effaced history, especially in regard to the rise of scientific objectivity, it is surprising that critics 56 Rachel Eisendrath rarely trace his thinking further back than the eighteenth century. Adorno himself repeatedly refers to Francis Bacon in the Renaissance: On the first page of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, for example, he and Max Horkheimer quote a passage of Bacon’s circa 1592 essay “In Praise of Knowledge” to show how “the father of experimental philosophy” wanted to “establish man as the master of nature”; in his Lectures on Negative Dialectics, similarly, Adorno refers to Bacon as “the founding father of empiricism” and suggests that the “exuberant” phase of empiricism may have begun with this thinker;5 and in the introductory text for these lectures, Adorno discusses Bacon’s justifiable antagonism to tradition but faults him (and René Descartes ), “the two progenitors of modernity,” for disregarding the role of tradition in knowledge, given that tradition mediates among its objects.6 It is hard to overestimate the importance of this kind of thinking for Adorno. “Since my earliest youth,” he writes in a note of May 1960, “I knew that everything that I stood for found itself in a hopeless struggle with what I perceived as the anti-spirit incarnate—the spirit of Anglo-Saxon naturalscienti fic positivism.”7 In this essay, I explore the role of early modernity in Adorno’s ideas by looking closely at the inner formal dynamics of various early modern artworks. I understand my approach as one way of attempting to take up Adorno’s own challenge: Drawing on G. W. F. Hegel, Adorno raises the question of whether a critique really places us above an issue—or, instead, merely “not in it.”8 At the same time as Adorno considers the social factors that shape art, he directs us to look inside artworks at what he calls their “immanent problems of form.”9 Art, because it is sedimented with the conflicts that society repressed, is “the unconscious writing of history.”10 My task is to show how some early modern artworks attempted to defy emergent forms of reification by pushing outward from within their own locked-in state—perhaps not unlike some of Adorno’s own sentences, which have the insistent charge of final utterances at the same time as they strive to express from within, as he says elsewhere, “an element of the tentative , experimental and inconclusive.”11 In exploring the issue of early modern art’s struggle with reification, I build on Hugh Grady’s claim that Shakespeare “registered, reflected on, and . . . passionately denounced the historically new forms of reification erupting into a social world in the earliest stages of the permanent cultural revolution we blandly call modernity.”12 My core examples concern epitaphic poetry, which, in mimicking reified objects, presumes to speak from the perspective of a dead corpse or tomb. This poetry exemplifies how, as Adorno says, an artwork both evokes and resists its own objectness: “If it Object Lessons: Reification and Renaissance Epitaphic Poetry 57 is essential to artworks that they be things, it is no less essential that they negate their own status as things, and thus art turns against art.”13 Art as the...