Levi Bryant via…Adorno?

Well, not really.

But it’s funny how a single idea, book, or meeting can bend you back to things you haven’t thought about for some time. Case in point is the work of Levi Bryant, and now in two contexts. Let me marvel at just one of those wobbly routes here and save the other one for next time. It starts with Theodor W. Adorno.

I am about to audit a semester-long course on Adorno. It will be a lot of extra reading, but I really ought to know his thought better than I currently do.

Believe it or not, Adorno looms large in musicology – larger than nearly any other mid-twentieth-century philosopher (including Heidegger!!). He has an intense attraction/repulsion glamor about him for music scholars. He’s technically learned and rhetorically eloquent about some things (such as any music he thinks disrupts its own tradition from within, cough cough, Schoenberg), but he’s also kind of gross about other things (he hates all forms of popular music because, you know, Capitalism). His writing also has some cultish leanings, bolstered by meta-negations, meta-critiques, and other fancy meta-things that make him remarkably difficult for me to read.

The chronological line of scholarship about philosophers in Western music history gets pretty fat in the nineteenth century and spreads out into everywhere and nowhere in the twentieth. But Adorno is the exception, a lone figure who in a way completes the loop that started with that other great lone figure, Kant. After the Cartesians, music history students mostly see Kant –> Lots of Romantics –> Nietzsche –> Adorno –> Everyone else, depending. That’s because the music is the subject matter, and any near-contemporary philosopher who sheds some light on the music’s context appears as a bonus interpretive justification, especially if he wrote a great deal about music or had a feud with Wagner.

Where Adorno is concerned, I’ve gotten the anxious feeling that I should (re-)learn some basic Hegelian and Marxist jargon that I spent most of my adult life avoiding. That means going over some old notes and getting copies of material by and about the great lovers of paradox and sublation. Now what does any of this have to do with Levi Bryant? Not much, but there’s one more step.

The (mainly exegetical) living philosopher Michael Forster once wrote a very clear-headed piece about Hegel’s notion of dialectic, which I just looked through in order to get back into the headspace of the Hegelian legacy. It’s published in the Cambridge Companion to Hegel. Anyway, in one section he outlines what he takes to be Hegel’s underlying motive or “point” of evolving his dialectical method. Forster ends up with a list of three reasons that Hegel did his thing: (1) pedagogical (showing other people the way), (2) epistemological (justifying it to skeptics), and (3) scientific (making it methodical and systematic). Adorno will turn out to have very different motivations. But in the meantime, I smiled at the epistemological summary:

In the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel strives to meet three justificatory standards on behalf of his system: (1) the standard of showing his system to be immune to the skeptical objection that equally strong contrary positions might be adopted; (2) the standard of showing that his system does not fall victim to skeptical doubts about the instantiation of its concepts, doubts about whether or not these have instances in reality; (3) the standard of showing his system to be provable for every other viewpoint…

In other words, Hegel wanted to show that his system was air-tight, connected to reality, and convincing to reasonable skeptics by employing their own intellectual resources.


Obviously Lacan has something to say about a system meant to enclose all other systems by accounting for reworked versions of their contradictions (put that word in scare quotes if you want). This led me to think of how much I enjoyed Levi Bryant’s ongoing work on a “New Universe” of Lacanian discourse, though it has been a little while since I looked closely at what he’s written about it. Bryant submits Lacan’s four-quadrant symbolic language of subject + master signifier + knowledge + surplus to general permutations in order to produce a wide variety of “discourses,” by contrast with its four standard circular permutations (discourses of the master, university, hysteric, and university).

Whereas someone like Zizek delivers a Lacanian-feeling philosophy that playfully repeats itself in numerous contexts, Bryant dives into the structural features of that feeling and playfully rearranges its pieces (“let’s see what happens when the barred subject is over here haha!”). If you’re at all interested in learning more about recent Lacanian thought, give Bryant’s commentary on the topic a try.

Alright, this post was remarkably light on content. The next one will have more meat, but I’m sorry to say it will also get a bit more negative in tone. After that, it will probably be Adorno time. Oh boy!


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