On Absurdity. Adorno, Beckett, and the Demise of Existentialism
There is, Adorno says, a certain conceptual connection between Samuel Beckett and the Parisian Existentialists; not only due to their literary practice, but also due to their struggle with the category of the absurd as an expression of the modern crisis of sense. The key difference, though, is that of form, as Sartre’s “didactic plays” remain rather traditional, while Beckett’s “are raised to the level of the most advanced artistic means” (Adorno: Trying to Understand Endgame [UE], 119). For the Existentialists the absurd remains an idea, a theme that is treated on the contentual level within a traditional form (the play, the novel). Beckett, on the other hand, reflects the absurd on the formal level, because the loss of meaning will necessarily impair the possibility of performing and watching plays, just as it will impair the possibility of uttering meaningful sentences. Due to this divergent approach, says Adorno, Beckett’s absurd “is no longer a state of human existence thinned out to a mere idea and then expressed in images” (ibid.), the way it was for the Existentialists. It is obvious which side Adorno is on; but wherein lies his critique of the Existentialists? Where do they fail? In what way does Beckett’s Endgame succeed?
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Let us first ask how the category of the absurd changes from the Existentialists to Beckett. By reflecting absurdity on the formal level, tracing the decay of sense not only as a theme of his plays, but also attesting to its consequence on the dramatic form and language, Beckett “divest[s the absurd] of that generality of doctrine which existentialism, that creed of the permanence of individual existence, nonetheless combines with Western pathos of the universal and the immutable” (ibid.). Even though, then, the Existentialists have experienced absurdity, the senselessness of human existence, they essentially end up affirming the perpetuity of the human subject, which is exactly what the experience of absurdity, being one of evanescence, denies.
Why do the Existentialists end up in this paradoxical situation? For Camus, “the tragedy of human existence lies in the absence of any transcendence” (Sartre: Camus’ The Outsider [CO], 37), and by lacking transcendental qualities it has become a priori undefinable, free of substance. Yet, Camus interpreted this severance as the “perfect freedom of the condemned prisoner to whom, some particular daybreak, the prison doors swing open” (Camus: Myth of Sisyphus, cit. in CO, 34). In an idealist move, then, the experience of the absurd is not only one of loss, but also one where the subject frees itself from its transcendental constraints. It thereby conserves itself in an immutable, empty form that burdens it with the absolute responsibility of choosing its own course of life. Absurdity, then, lies outside the domain of the subject, as something that it is confronted with. This freedom establishes the subject as a transcendental ‘area’, a ‘form’ that in itself is immutable, and hence escapes the crushing weight of senselessness, even though the latter arises from the experience of evanescence. Still, even though he wants to affirm life, Camus wants to do so in light of its finitude — so how can Adorno say that Existentialism remains a “creed of the permanence of individual existence”?
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The problem for Adorno lies in the nature of the Existentialists’ experience of the absurd. Because who is having it? As Sartre writes about Camus’ concept of the absurd: “The ‘absurd’ man is the man who does not hesitate to draw the inevitable conclusions from a fundamental absurdity” (CO, 27, my emphasis). This means, that the experience of the absurd is an authentic one; for it to be authentic, though, it needs to be experienced by an equally authentic subject. The latter must therefore lie beyond the absurd: It is the world, not the subject that is senseless. The human subject assumes, while lacking transcendence, a ‘transcendental area’ that creates an a priori distinction between the subject and the world that is inherently confrontational:
“Primary absurdity manifests a cleavage, the cleavage between man’s aspirations to unity and the insurmountable dualism of mind and nature, between man’s drive toward the eternal and the finite character of his existence, between the ‘concern’ which constitutes his very essence and the vanity of his eﬀorts” (CO, 27)
For Existentialism, then, the human subject is a metaphysical and ahistorical category (opposing the empirical and ephemeral world) that will be able to experience absurdity in any historical condition, or, rather, even more so the direr the condition is, leading Sartre to such paradox statements as the ones from his article for The Atlantic, which begins with the words: “Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces. […] They deported us en masse. […] And because of all this, we were free“ (Sartre: Paris Alive [PA], 39). This makes sense in relation to the Existentialists’ valorisation of authenticity, as the latter is attained by cutting one’s ties to society, bringing habitual blind spots to light and (re-)discovering that part of our selves that hasn’t been distorted by outward forces. During the Nazi occupation, the external world has become so hostile that the individual was (potentially) urged to break its ties with society, assume responsibility for what is happening and was thrown back to its authentic self. According to the Existentialists, then, if everything is removed, it is individuality that remains; and it is because of that, that the Existentialists could affirm the absurd condition.
Contrary to this, as we will see, Beckett has uncovered the human subject as a historical category, meaning that it can perish — not only after death, but during one’s life; where historical circumstances can not only strengthen the subject by igniting its rebellious spirits, but also annihilate it. The subject therefore does not make an exception in the dissolution by the absurd, as it did for the Existentialists. This cuts the subject away from the access to any authenticity, a consequence that, as we will see, necessarily and essentially changes the experience of the absurd; it becomes essentially un-affirmable, and neither Adorno nor Beckett do so.
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This might sound abstract, but it is of immediate political urgency, primarily regarding the experience of fascism and the events of WWII, which all of them, the Existentialists, Adorno, and Beckett, had witnessed:
“Even to the concentration camp victims, existentialism had attributed the freedom either inwardly to accept or reject the inflicted martyrdom. Endgame destroys such illusions” (UE, 126)
If subjectivity is an eternal and immutable category, it cannot be lost in even the most totalitarian system; Existentialism conserves the potential rebellion by positing that there’s something that cannot be taken away, namely the empirically untouchable subjectivity. This was of personal concern, considering that Sartre and Camus took part in the French résistance, the rebellion against Nazi occupation. The conservation of the rebellious spark in the ‘authentic self’ was therefore not prima facie a weakness; to ignite the fighting spirit, they had to assume a position of inalienable freedom that urges expression, and is therefore confrontational toward suppression. This is why Sartre was able to say that he felt the ‘freest’ during Nazi occupation. Yet, Beckett also travelled to France during the occupation and has therefore not refused political action either; his more radical and ‘depressing’ views did not amount to a defeatist cynicism. Quite the contrary, as we will see shortly.
While Existentialist philosophy is more straightforward in providing its readers with hope to resist against the forces of evil, it does so at the cost of cloaking the truth of how much is really at stake in the struggle against totalitarian regimes. The belief that even in the direst situation there is a spark of hope and freedom, sounds derisive in light of the fate of the concentration camps’ victims, whose individuality was reduced to nothing in the factories of death. As the quote above points out, it’d be the highest cynicism to say that, in their last moments, these victims still had the ‘choice’ to ‘accept their destiny’.
If, on the other hand, individuality is a historical category, it becomes much more precarious; meaning, that had the resistance against totalitarianism failed, there would have come a point where rebellion was categorically impossible because the entity that could lead it, a subjectivity rising against all-embracing collectivity, would simply not exist anymore. Human beings, once they are completely reduced to things, will not spontaneously become individuals due to an antecedent metaphysical structure. As a historical category, subjectivity demands societal structures that demand strong individuals; in this dialectics, it becomes the individuals’ responsibility to establish and uphold a humane society, while the community is responsible for upholding structures that strengthen the individual. For example, direct democracy requires citizens that are not only capable to participate, but also capable of participating in political decisions, and the political system should therefore be interested in promoting good education for everyone, one that can teach its citizens to think independently; on the other hand, the individuals need to make sure that this setup does not get corrupted, by participating in the political decision process and voting.
We can see the idea of the subject as an ahistorical category in a novel that, like the Existentialists, posits the spontaneous (and hence ‘pre-empirical’) emergence of the subject as a weapon to fight totalitarian regimes, one that is contemporary to Beckett and the Existentialists, namely Orwell’s 1984. There, despite the totalitarian structure being inescapable and absolute, Winston Smith manages to become an individual out of himself, thereby expressing the perpetual possibility of rebellion. On the other hand, and here the novel becomes ambivalent, by the end of the book, Smith’s individuality is irrevocably crushed, which implies that subjectivity can be lost as quickly as it was discovered. So, while 1984 affirms the metaphysical primacy of ‘the authentic self’ against the collective, which brings it close to the Existentialists, it also shows its precariousness.
Despite the hopelessness at the end of the novel, a glimmer of hope is conserved in the thought that outward circumstances can always be changed (and considering that Orwell also uses the traditional form of the novel with Smith as its protagonist, we could again say that he presupposes the immutable individual straight away as Smith is singled out right from the start). Beckett’s knife cuts deeper:
“He lengthens the escape route of the subject’s liquidation to the point where it constricts into a ‘this-here,’ whose abstractness — the loss of all qualities — extends ontological abstraction literally ad absurdum, to that Absurd which mere existence becomes as soon as it is consumed in naked self-identity” (ibid., 124)
Let’s try to understand this difficult sentence. The condition of pure “this-here”, of “naked self-identity” is what Adorno calls absolute reification; ‘reification’ [Verdinglichung] literally means ‘becoming a thing’. In that sense, “absurdity” must mean that a person gets reduced to a thing, just as, for example, the table I’m sitting at is a pure material presence, a ‘thing-here’. A thing is what it is, a mere presence, nothing more. Or is it? Even the table in front of me has a certain ‘history’, of assembly and of use, a certain emotional value for the family that has been owning it for years; the use of its materials pertains to certain (aesthetic, fashion) traditions, just like its form (its ornaments, its ‘style’). We could say that even a concrete thing is always ‘more’ than a mere “this-here”, as it has countless qualities that connect it with other things — at least as long as there is a subject that makes these connections. This means that as long as there is a present subject (that observes, uses, destroys the thing), the thing is more than a thing, and the reification is not absolute. You can even see this in the term “this-here,” which, even in its minimal form, retains the indexical denotation, the ‘finger’ pointing to whatever is in front of it: “This here is the table.” Absolute reification can therefore not even be expressed by language; it is pure silence, but neither the blissful silence of the monastery nor the negative silence of holding one’s breath.
But why is this ‘this-here’ (which, as we’ve seen is even less than mere indexical denotation), abstract and not, as one would intuit, a hundred percent concrete in its pure presence? Because it is exactly the contraction of these various connections that allows us to identify a concrete object, that makes a concrete object: This table is this table because it is in front of me, because it has been in my family for 15 years, my parents bought it at that store, here are the stains from my coffee mug etc. etc. If we remove the observer, the ‘thing’ is indeed reduced to a ‘this-here’, as a free floating something where neither the legs nor the surface make a whole, not even a ‘something’ at all; an emptiness devoid of all qualities, a state of absolute contingency, or, in the words of Adorno, absolute immanence. A molecule, an atom, is already a contraction of different elements, a quality that establishes a connection.
That’s why Adorno can say in the quote above that at the end of the subject’s liquidation, where the present thing has been ‘dispensed’ from all qualities and comes undone in pure presence, lies not concreteness, but abstractness, resulting in a contradictory condition: absurdity. As soon as we identify a concrete thing, the subject sneaks back in. You might object by saying that at least the laws of nature are still here; but even those, at least in their abstract and general formulation, remain coupled to the mind of the scientists that manages to observe regularities and unite them in the ‘all-embracing formula’ (or even just a partial, specific one). If we truly take away the subject, there is nothing more than the singular, free-floating, absolutely contingent event, which, at the same time, is absolutely void and abstract. This is what for Beckett and Adorno is the absurd, and it stands at the end of a whole process of liquidation, not at the beginning of it, as it did for the Existentialists. We need to make an immense effort to remove the subject from the equation; the absurd is not primordial, it is something educed [‘ein Gewordenes’, as we’d say in German].
It is therefore not the ‘human condition’ that is absurd, as the Existentialists thought; the absurd rather appears when the subject is already (being) reduced to nothing. This is the reason, why the former could affirm this condition, while for Beckett and Adorno, it is to be overcome at all cost — and also, why the experience of absurdity is so inherently connected to the experience of totalitarianism. The absurd is not (primarily) something we are confronted with metaphysically, but something that we are threatened with historically. If Beckett renders the absurd ad absurdum, we can surmise a critical potential; but to understand it, we need first to see, how Beckett arrives at this endpoint of absurdity by reflecting the crisis of sense on the formal level.
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So if it is this, absolute reification, which Beckett attempts to express, it seems as if he is aiming for a paradox and futile endeavour. Is not the mere existence of the play Endgame a negation of absolute reification, as it’s breaking the silence? Here, we return to the differentiation sketched above between the contentual and the formal. If Beckett merely tried to ‘point’ to the absurd, to ‘address’ it, meaning: if he treated it as a theme or idea as part of the plot, then yes, he would necessarily fail, as once again the subject would creep back in. The solution for the conundrum is to reflect the absurd on the formal level by drawing the consequences of the dissipation of sense. After all, if the subject is lost, how can we still speak of protagonists, antagonists, plots, decisions, feelings? This means that Beckett does not aim at expressing the absurd directly, but that he wants to lead us to the point where the absurd becomes visible at the end of a process, namely the “liquidation of the subject”. This is the point where the subject no longer creeps back in and where we are able, even if only for a glimpse, to experience absurdity in its horror.
The Crisis of Sense in Endgame
Expressing the absurd is impossible, because if we try to do so, we need to assume the position of a subject that does the expressing. Meanwhile, the absurd alludes to a condition where the subject is disintegrated. Therefore, Beckett cannot reflect it on the purely contentual level, for example by describing a meaningless life; he needs to deconstruct any structure that could make the subject ‘magically’ reappear, he needs to disintegrate the form so as to disintegrate the subject. Adorno identifies three such formal levels, which we will analyse one by one: (1) The “metaphysical content”, (2) “the intention as a whole as a structure of meaning [Sinnzusammenhang],” and lastly (3) “the sense of the words and sentences which the characters speak” (ibid. 120). In other words, the first level concerns philosophy as a possibility to think and conceptualize sense, which according to Adorno has become historically impossible; the second level concerns the theatrical form that creates a structure out of particular events and actions (beginning/middle/end; a ‘climax’ and a ‘lesson’) as a possibility to represent sense; and the third level concerns language as a way to express sense. To truly reflect the absurd means to reflect the crisis of sense on all these levels. This means that the impossibility of sense on the ‘highest’ philosophical level must necessarily tarnish the ‘lowest’ level of language. In short, as long as we can speak meaningfully about the absurd, we have not really reached it yet:
“Such construction of the senseless also even includes linguistic molecules: if they and their connections were rationally meaningful, then within the drama they would synthesise irrevocably into that very meaning structure [Sinnzusammenhang] of the whole which is denied by the whole” (ibid. 120)
(1) Let’s start with the ‘top’ level, the metaphysical one. It concerns the collapse of the possibility to ascribe our life an objective sense due to our position in the cosmos, or, rather, in a cosmological order. For example, if we say that God has created us and has deemed his creation good, then our lives are legitimised due to our status as intended creation. If we say that all citizens have an obligation to serve the state, and the state reflects a natural order, then our lives are legitimised as long as we fulfil this task etc.
Sense in this case is based on the identification of the individual’s position within a certain structure. Meanwhile, as we’ve seen, absurdity lies exactly in radical dissolution, rendering such sense-providing structures void. Uncovering their ideological moment was a chief achievement of Enlightenment, even though for the most part unintentionally (none of the main ‘original’ Enlightenment philosophers aimed for a collapse of the religious order). The total collapse of metaphysical sense was in a certain way an excess, but a necessary one. It is this “historical moment” (ibid. 122) that Adorno deals with in his Negative Dialectics:
“Positive metaphysical meaning is no longer possible in such a substantive way (if indeed it ever was), such that dramatic form could have its law in such meaning and its epiphany” (ibid. 120)
This aspect is connected to an observation that is very common in modern thought, namely that the traditional institutions of sense and meaning, primarily religion and the state, have imploded and are no longer able to establish an ‘objective’ order. Human subjects are in a free fall, and it is this that the Existentialists tried to express with the absurd (man as the ‘per se undefinable being’). In Endgame, this condition is summarized as such: “there’s no more nature” (Beckett: Endgame [E], 11). This means, that “the phase of completed reification of the world” (UE, 122) has already happened in the play and it is in a state of “permanent catastrophe” (ibid. 123).
The absence of nature, be it theological or even biological, once again points to the complete dissolution of any unified and integrating structure of sense for human life towards a ‘free-floating’ state. The establishment of sense in the theological interpretation of nature in the form of “be fruitful and multiply,” is in the end not that different from the biological one, with its orientation towards procreation. Both interpretations of nature offer at least a minimum of sense for human life, a minimum value in preserving the status quo of staying alive and having children. Endgame depicts a world (maybe rather a non-world: “Outside of here it’s death!”), where even this minimum has been eradicated. Hamm’s parents live in dustbins, representing a complete absence of generational contract; the windows open the view on complete desolation. It is truly a state of no future. What Camus formulated as the problem of suicide, where the individual needs to negate suicide in each moment and choose to stay alive, so that the continuation of life is imbued with ineluctable affirmation, is cynically reinterpreted here as a radical indifference towards either choice— stay alive, or die, it doesn’t matter.
This is a condition of the complete dissolution, of the absence of any unified and integrating structure, meaning that all objects and people are dissociated from one another; a free-floating state, as we have already sketched it above. But instead of reaching concreteness, a strengthening of their autonomous being, the characters of the play appear completely abstract in their indifference, in their lack of quality; unlike what the Existentialists hoped for once the subject frees itself from the shackles of authority (religion, the state). Radically independent, the subject will dissolve, and will not become free. In this light, we can return to the difficult quote above and understand it in its very concrete interpretation:
“He lengthens the escape route of the subject’s liquidation to the point where it constricts into a ‘this-here,’ whose abstractness — the loss of all qualities — extends ontological abstraction literally ad absurdum, to that Absurd which mere existence becomes as soon as it is consumed in naked self-identity” (ibid. 124)
(2) What about the dissolution of sense on the level of the theatrical form? After all, Adorno says that this is one of the core differences between Sartre’s and Beckett’s plays.
A well-ordered play mirrors a well-ordered universe, even unintentionally. Hollywood movies, with their ‘strokes of fate’, ‘happy accidents’ and ‘endings’, even their ‘well-disposed nature’ express a world in apple-pie order, preserved in its dramatic structure. Their crises, safely embedded between Act II and III, prepare the arrival of the climatic resolution and are therefore themselves replete of sense due to their structure. This, as Adorno would say, is deeply anachronistic, ideological even, because the untruth of it is metaphysically attested. Unlike Endgame:
“It yields both to the impossibility of dealing with materials and of representation according to nineteenth-century practice, as well as to the insight that subjective modes of reaction, which mediate the laws of form rather than reflecting reality, are themselves no absolute first principle but rather a last principle, objectively posited” (ibid. 127)
The theatrical form is institutionally set, just as the viewer’s expectations, as he is prepared to react to specific cues (Chekhov’s gun, for example) and to ‘read’ the development of the action (silent movies are harder for us to ‘read’ because they had developed a specific ‘language’). All these elements are synthesised in the overarching action of the play that condenses in the climax, in the final decision, where the hero expresses his singularity — they are all missing in Endgame. Even in Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) the famous final exclamation “L’enfer, c’est les autres [Hell is other people]” points to a final conclusion that summarises the whole plot that has continuously unfolded the characters’ backstories, which are interconnected and form a dense net. Sartre’s dramatic form thereby expresses a central idea, it creates sense through its structure, even though thematically, it aims at expressing the opposite. The subject creeps back in through the dramatic organisation.
In Endgame, there are no lessons learned, no essence to be derived, in fact, there is no hero to speak of: “Along with subjectivity, whose final epilogue is Endgame, the hero is also withdrawn” (ibid. 136). The conflict of the hero against outer forces — be it Destiny, God(s), Nature or Society — was always a way to express his autonomous interiority, even if he fails in his resistance. In fact, his climatic failure would always affirm both his unity as an individual and the unity of the play with help of the final heroic deed. On the other hand, the dramatic form would affirm his subjectivity, because, after all, he’s the protagonist (just as it does with the antagonists, and even side characters) — character and action determine each other dialectically. There is no such conflict in Endgame, and hence no unity of action, no difference between inner and outer when it comes to the characters. What is left is indifference only, of action and of character (note that the Wikipedia page of Endgame lacks a description of the ‘plot’):
“As soon as the subject is no longer doubtlessly self-identical, no longer a closed structure of meaning, the line of demarcation with the exterior becomes blurred, and the situations of inwardness become at the same time physical ones” (ibid. 129)
Without a goal to aspire to, one that would provide one’s life with unity and a purpose, there is no action to conceive. We are left with a state “of ‘not being in a hurry’,” situations that “allude to the indifference and superfluity of what the subject can still manage to do” (ibid. 132). The busyness of the figures of Endgame, with their weird rituals and quirks, becomes as silly as the busyness which we invest into our daily lives: “Am I right in the centre?”
(3) The ‘lowest’ level of dissolution, but at the same time the most radical one, is that of language; because as long as we manage to speak, we utter meaning. But even here, Endgame doesn’t halt:
“Short of breath until they [the speakers] almost fall silent, they no longer manage the synthesis of linguistic phrases; they stammer in protocol sentences that might stem from positivists or Expressionists” (ibid. 137)
Silence is the death of language, the last consequence of senselessness, because there is no point of speaking about anything. The protocol only lists the immediately available and disposable; it’s the reification of language. Beckett’s strategy, then, is neither silence nor the disintegration of language to pure sound, to the pure sighs and exclamation of the suffering, as the Expressionists did (“Oh! Ah! Alas!”), because language “cannot shake off its semantic element” (ibid. 138) — as the exclamations’ proximity to kitsch shows. Instead, Beckett “turns that element into an instrument of its own absurdity and he does that according to the ritual of clowns, whose babbling becomes nonsensical by presenting itself as sense” (ibid.). It is “the second language of those falling silent [zweite Sprache der Verstummenden]” (ibid.), a language that only works with phrases, clichés, slogans that seem to express something, but are actually completely empty. Like: “Ah the creatures, everything has to be explained” (E, 43), which “is drummed daily by millions of superiors into millions of subordinates” (UE, 139); or all those “I’ll leave you”, that lose their performative element through the endless repetitions. Language therefore becomes absurd not by silence, but by the paradox state where it speaks without speaking and therefore becomes truly senseless and empty.
Note the difference to Camus’ linguistic strategy in The Stranger: “Each sentence is a present instant, but not an indecisive one that spreads like a stain to the following one. The sentence is sharp, distinct and self-contained. It is separated by a void from the following one[.] […] When the word makes it appearance it is a creation ex nihilo. […] We bounce from sentence to sentence, from void to void” (CO, 41). In this extreme ‘presentism’, language has come fascinatingly close to the free-floating condition of total dissociation that we’ve sketched out above, the condition of the absurd. But while the structure of the whole is dissolved, a “void”, the singular sentence is still “distinct” and complete. The singular sentence therefore remains untouched by the dissolution, it is even affirmed in its singularity against the surrounding emptiness. This repeats the Existentialists’ conception of the absurd, where the singular human subject is untouched by the dissolution of the metaphysical whole. The absurd remains external to the singular (sentence or subject).
While there is no hope left for the characters of the Endgame, the viewer might be better off, as “Beckett’s language bring[s] about a healing illness of those already ill: whoever listens to himself worries that he also talks like that” (UE, 139). All hope of Endgame lies in the possibility that it’s not too late for us yet, that complete reification is still avoidable. All this is in the viewer’s responsibility who needs to experience the despair that is expressed in the play, an experience that awakes the desire that things should not be this way, that change is necessary to avoid this state of complete hopelessness — an aspect that is crucial in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. As long as we experience the dread that seeps between the lines of Endgame, as long as we understand how much is at stake if we continue our path towards reification, not all is lost.
With relentless consequence, Beckett railroads the demise of sense; but what ‘logic’ is he following? What is it, at the endpoint of which stands absolute reification? Instrumental reason, Adorno says. It is a topic that is too complex to enlarge upon now; but let it be said that what Adorno understands as instrumental reason is a certain direction Enlightenment took with its mechanistic approach to thought that resulted in positivism and utilitarianism, the emergence of the homo economicus and his technocratic ideals; a thorough ‘rationalisation’ of society within the categories of profit and efficiency maximisation, which reduce the subject to a thing, to ‘human capital’.
But why does instrumental reason advance the total disintegration that leads to the absurd? In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer show how nature has become a mere resource in the course of industrialization, something to be exploited. It has lost its status as a ‘solemn totality’ which humans once considered themselves to be part of, it is now a mere conglomeration of different means of profit and utility. A mountain is nothing but a resource of granite and coal, a river one of water, fish and electricity. Reduced to tools, the elements of nature are integrated into specific dynamics of profit and power and are no longer able to unite in a universal synthesis. Utility, after all, disappears as soon as the thing is used up, so to speak. The term ‘consumption’ rightfully indicates that the consumed thing is used up in the process and is therefore no longer part of a whole (complete reification therefore consists of completely used-up things). Once we’ve driven all nails into the wall, the hammer becomes a mere thing (even a no-thing) that wastes our storage space; we only keep it in regard to potential future use. Utility is confined to the event of usage and can only be perpetuated in the repetitions of habit; but all in all, this event is dissociated from a whole. Thereby, the complete ‘utilititarisation’ of nature through instrumental reason leads to its disintegration, as no universal synthesis is conceivable (once humans no longer use oil for energy, the whole industry collapses, it becomes no-thing if no alternative utility emerges).
Human beings, being part of nature, cannot remain untouched by this process, as there is no reason why we should be an exception. Note the ambivalence of the word ‘instrumental reason’; it is not only a reason that only sees instruments in the world, but also one that has itself become one. And if humans are the ‘rational animals’, and the ratio has become instrumental, then we are, by deduction, mere instruments as well. A condition where nature is a mere thing to be used brings us dangerously close to the absurd state of absolute reification.
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It is therefore not a necessity of thought or truth that leads us to the absurd, but in itself a historical tendency. On the other hand, and therein lies the kernel of Enlightenment’s veracity that we’ve noted above, it has shown the ideological character of the established institutions of ‘truth’, be it religion or the state. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, the figure of Kant is marked by exactly this ambivalence between critique and ideology; the dialectical structure between the instrumentalisation and liberation of and by reason. Enlightenment’s rightful critique of transcendental structures has at the same time expedited its approximation to absolute immanence, i.e. reification. If nature serves no higher cause, then let’s at least make our best use of it; but Beckett showed what such thinking ultimately leads to. In this dialectical model, historicity is not a sign of falsehood or relativity, but rather a truth that concerns human beings in their historical situation, it is an exigent truth (for another outline of the subject’s historicity, ref. John C. Brady’s contribution in this issue). We can therefore not shrug off either subjectivity or the absurd as ‘mere’ historical accidents; they are, in the strictest sense, problematic.
It is this ‘logic’ of instrumental reason that Beckett follows through, and at the end of which he discovers the absurd — but not as an eternal condition of the immutable human subject, and rather as the historical endpoint of a socio-political trend. While the Existentialists started out with a seemingly authentic experience that uncovered the absurd foundation of the human condition, which was hidden in our day-to-day life, Beckett took the historical process of dissociation that the age of Enlightenment initiated, and has uncovered the absurd at the end of it — but as an absurdity that does not render itself to human experience, as it already presupposes the subject’s dissociation as well. He draws the final conclusions of what absurdity actually means, and makes us realize that no affirmation can be obtained from it: It is a total annihilation of the subject to a mere thing-ness that we don’t even attribute to the things we observe and handle, a no-thing-ness so to speak. The absurd is reification; reification is the absurd; and like human subjectivity, they both are historical categories. What Adorno and Beckett are looking for are not new forms of affirmation that could give us final comfort and security; their necessarily negative, critical, and unapologetic approach aims for the rare moments, where, unexpectedly, the untruth of the absurd, of the inhumane condition leaps out and makes us surmise the presence of something completely different:
“The immanent contradiction of the absurd, reason terminating in senselessness, reveals the possibility of a truth which can no longer even be thought; it undermines the absolute claim exercised by what merely is” (ibid. 148)
[UE] — Adorno, Theodor W.: Trying to Understand the Endgame. In: New German Critique, №26, Critical Theory and Modernity (Spring — Summer, 1982), pp. 119–150.
[E] — Beckett, Samuel: Endgame: A Play in One Act (New York: Grove Press, 1958).
[CO] — Sartre, Jean-Paul: Camus’ The Outsider. In: Literary and Philosophical Essays (New York: Collier Books, 1955), pp. 26–44.
[PA] — Sartre, Jean-Paul: Paris Alive. The Republic of Silence. In: The Atlantic, Vol. 173, №6 (December, 1944), pp. 39–40.