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  • Melancholy and the Masses:Siegfried Kracauer and the Media Concept
  • Andrew McCann (bio)

In his lecture "On Interpretation and the Concept of Progress" from January 1965, Theodor Adorno suggests that "the transition from philosophy to criticism represents something like a secularization of melancholy." This form of melancholy, he goes on to say, has become "active": it is not a melancholy that "makes do, that remains stuck fast in an unhappy consciousness, not at home with itself, but a consciousness that exteriorizes itself as a critique of existing phenomena."1 These comments appear in proximity to Adorno's notoriously difficult concept of natural history, which earlier in the 1965 lecture series he describes as "the transmutation of metaphysics into history." This transmutation is also a process of secularization. Natural history, he writes, "secularizes metaphysics into the ultimate category of secularity, that of decay."2 As a result, natural history would seem itself to be irrevocably melancholic: the transmutation of metaphysics, in which secularity is dominated by the notion of decay, involves an acute consciousness of the kind of loss or passing legible in the mutability of material things. Adorno is echoing Walter Benjamin's writing about allegory and the Trauerspiel when he evokes a mode of interpretation that orients to the "shards that result from decay and that are the bearers of objective [End Page 150] meaning."3 Philosophy becomes active in its ability to dwell on this material stratum and to grasp the materiality into which the metaphysical has fallen. The position, however, remains delicately tempered in its relationship to the framework it seems to have discarded. The moment of secularization never quite loses sight of the fall. This is why it remains melancholic. At the same time, though, it is framed by the impossibility of thinking transcendence independently of transience, which is why it can be described as secular: "No recollection of transcendence is possible any longer unless it passes through transience in the spirit of the heretical speculation that makes the life of the absolute as dependent on the finite, as the finite is dependent upon the absolute."4

The critical disposition Adorno sets out here always seems to be glancing back at a lost horizon of meaning, even as it is moving forward through the rubble of the present. It isn't exactly the posture of Benjamin's angel of history, because the gaze, as Adorno emphasizes, is also fixed on existing phenomena. But insofar as it is still defined by the fall away from the metaphysical, it retains something of this backward-looking, forward-stumbling disposition. If, as Meagan Morris writes, the wings of Benjamin's angel are "beating sluggishly in the service of a not very lively professionalism,"5 one might well imagine the melancholic as an allegorical figure for a kind of critical hypertrophy: as Max Pensky puts it, "the hypertrophy of inwardness or private subjectivity and the simultaneous hypertrophy of the anamnestic concentration on the fragmentary thing."6 In this respect, the melancholic outlook that Pensky locates in the figure of the Grübler reappears as one of the institutional forms of critical theory itself. As Wendy Brown suggests in her gloss on Benjamin's idea of "left melancholy," this disposition, with its "mournful, conservative, backward-looking attachment to a feeling, analysis, or relationship that has been rendered thing-like and frozen in the heart of the putative left," also seems at odds with contemporary visions of political engagement and efficacy.7 Adorno's secularization of melancholy does little to attenuate that sense of "backward-looking attachment." For this reason it also seems perennially constrained by its origins in a kind of lack.

By contrast, we might glance at the particularly secular—and decidedly nonmelancholic—strain of cultural studies that has led to the cultural policy movement. With no interest in the loss of a theological worldview, this version of cultural studies is also one that doesn't spend much time thinking through the transmutation of metaphysics as the foundational condition of critique. Its major points of orientation are elsewhere: the emergence of the everyday as an object of contemplation and a field of intervention, [End Page 151] the shift from a narrowly...


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