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  • Matches, in Our Time
  • Patrick F. Durgin (bio)
Review of: Carla Harryman, Adorno's Noise. Ithaca, NY: Essay Press, 2008.

The first of two major new works collected in Carla Harryman's new book of "literary nonfiction," Adorno's Noise, begins by eliding two otherwise remote passages from Minima Moralia: "If normality is death then regard for the object rather than communication is suspect" (Harryman 21). Equally spirited by Adorno's negative dialectics--a Hegelian counter-pointillism meant to ameliorate the devaluation of subjective experience in Marxist and Freudian categories--and the aphoristic, indeed noisily lyric, style of Adorno's prose, Harryman entertains the most dissolute promise of the opposite in "Regard for the Object Rather Than Communication Is Suspect":

I wonder if it would be the case that if normality were not death, regard for the object would be purely an entailment of belief and communication would in turn become the object of thought. This may seem a bit mad as well as inappropriate content for a meaty essay. Bear with me for a little while. You and I will go on an excursion together and discover something along the way if we're lucky. If we are not lucky, neither you nor I will be worse off than when we started. I can't guarantee this but it is something I believe with enough confidence to proceed to the next sentence. The next sentence is not a death sentence.

(Adorno's Noise 21)

The kind of improvisatory churning of antitheses that Adorno's most radical utopian dictates--in particular his initially liberatory extension of Fourier's critique of the commodification of gender norms--and the syllogistic force of dialectical thought are pitched as an aesthetic problem unresolved and yet still legible in the language of critical theory, the same problem that famously worried the question of writing poetry "after Auschwitz." Modernity's most rank expressions of positivist enlightenment genius pose the historical problem of "normality" in the wake of "defeated Germany," to which, in Adorno's assessment, only "a thoroughly unsatisfactory, contradictory answer, one that makes a mockery of both principle and practice" is available; is it not then barbarism to entertain the thought that "the fault lies in the question and not only in me" (56)?

With her alternative formulation, Harryman provides amply the "rigor and purity" of which Adorno speaks in his section on "Morality and style":

A writer will find that the more precisely, conscientiously, appropriately he expresses himself, the more obscure the literary result . . . . people know what they want because they know what other people want. Regard for the object, rather than for communication, is suspect in any expression: anything specific, not taken from pre-existent patterns, appears inconsiderate, a symptom of eccentricity, almost of confusion. . . . Few things contribute so much to the demoralization of intellectuals. Those who would escape it must recognize the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate.

(Adorno 101)

Quite literally appropriating the question of what remains an appropriate response to modernity's twilight produces an "essay" form that matches, in our time, the beleaguered "rigor" Adorno's friend Thomas Mann spoke of when he wrote, "in order to read you, one should not be tired" (qtd in Jäger 128). It's not enough to say that Adorno's Noise is citational, and not exactly accurate to say Harryman writes like Adorno. While these observations may be "true," it's only because they are tautological, logical coincidences that define normative forms of exposition and "rigor." Harryman's writing is full of wry humor and critical attentiveness, by turns lapidary and bombastic, sometimes maddeningly self-conscious, but in a thoroughly motivated, astonishingly informed manner. When Harryman cites Adorno, it is transformative. She renders him elliptical. Adorno himself worried about this nascent quality which, in postmodern American poetics, becomes a virtue; the apology that forms a substantial amount of his dedicatory preface to Minima Moralia posits the aphoristic texture of what follows as a revision of Hegel's proto-Fascistic denial of the "for-itself," the defining trait of the aphorism's pithy concision. Harryman's book begins with a tiny treatise on the "cell of meaning," the "in...

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