For the last 10 years, my research has been concerned with anxiety and the way in which it manifests in cultural products such as literature, essays, rhetoric, film and national identity. This focus on anxiety is deeply personal, as anxiety — what will go wrong, what can go wrong — is something that I experience in an acute form every day. The theoretical bent that I employ is a kind of anxious literary/ historical materialism. Historical materialism is best defined as “the doctrine that all forms of social thought, as art or philosophy, and institutions, as the family or the state, … [are reflections of] the character of economic relations and are altered or modified as a result of class struggle.”1 In other words, historical materialism focuses on economic and social relations of production and how these factors influence the day-to-day lives and beliefs of individuals. In literary studies, historical materialism usually takes the form of re-contextualizing a work within the ideologies present at the time. These ideologies, in a materialist perspective, are determined by the demands of the status quo — those controlling the social relations of production. As a materialist, I am acutely concerned with the way in which texts and other cultural products reflect the conditions of existence that produced them. I consider, for example, how texts subvert or challenge dominant ideologies. I ask how they register resistance to or anxiety of dominant and/ or subversive ideologies or changing perspectives. The theorist who has most influenced me is Theodor W. Adorno. I’d like to say a word or two about his view of culture since my own work is so indebted to his analyses. (I should note that I published a critical study of Adorno with Humanities Ebooks in 2015.)
Adorno’s Critique of Culture
Theodor Adorno was perhaps the most prominent member of the Frankfurt School of Social Research. Also known as the Institute for Social Research, the school was founded in 1923 by a committed (if wealthy) Marxist, Felix Weil. The school was established to forward Marxist analyses in sociology, history, literature and the arts.
In most of his work, Adorno attempts to understand the ways in which historical materialism — the analysis of how social structures are dependent upon particular historical and material conditions of exchange — affects cultural products (books, movies, TV, etc.). Within this general concern is a profound critique of enlightenment thinking. For Adorno, the enlightenment was a catastrophe for critical thinking, and its methods are what historical materialism must continually challenge. This is somewhat counterintuitive because many view the enlightenment as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise constrained, superstitious and traditionalist historical context – one that was overwhelmed by religious dogma rather than critical thought. Most thus see the enlightenment as freeing the individual by ushering in newfound freedoms of expression. For Adorno and some of his colleagues (Max Horkheimer, especially), the enlightenment was instead proto-fascistic, bent on categorizing, analyzing, and ultimately imprisoning complex social and material relationships into prefabricated and facile boxes. Rather than promoting an understanding of the world, the enlightenment worked to tame the world, according to Adorno and his colleagues.
Adorno’s critique prompts one to test his overall question by generalizing it to other cultural forms. To what degree do cultural products have within them the seedbed of regression – a consciousness that will not challenge the status quo but will live by it and for it? And, most importantly, how might this regression be a manifestation of cultural anxiety?
Shock Corridors: The New Rhetoric of Horror in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant
My analysis of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant grapples with the questions I ask above. This film is a retelling of the tragedy of Columbine. Instead of placing the blame for Columbine squarely in the hands of the killers, the film, in part, implicates the audience in this act of terror. We are, after all, the repositories of banality – of boredom that fuels catastrophes such as Columbine. Because of our own banality, we become not the victims of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, but their cinematic accomplices. I see banality as another form of anxiety and regression. Rather than the horror of boredom, and the anxiety that boredom can give rise to — what am I doing? what should I do? — banality allows us to recuse ourselves from answering these questions. We are content to rest in what happens to us, rather than explore what we can do to alter the circumstances of our own boredom and disinterest. It is thus a retreat mechanism from anxiety. We retreat to boredom and mask our anxiety with disinterest. This idea may best be understood if we look at my analysis of Elephant’s closing sequence. Before the characters Eric and Alex (the cinematic equivalents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold) go on their shooting spree, they play a video game. This game eerily mirrors the film’s structure and its manipulation of the audience’s response to the school and its students. Here I quote from my article:
In this ‹video› game, the characters are stalked by the player in much the same way as we, via the camera, stalk the film’s characters. In both settings, we follow all of the characters knowing full well that they are to die at any moment.
Banaled into affective submission, the viewer no longer really cares who dies next; instead, the audience is curious. Indeed, one might say, that by this moment, the viewer too has become blood-thirsty: who dies no longer matters; it is only the act of killing itself that matters.2
Although Adorno didn’t appreciate cinema much at all, he would have appreciated Van Sant’s critique of banality that the film forwards. In particular, he would delight in Van Sant’s implicit assumption about the audience: that we are, in some sense, bloodthirsty. For Adorno, this hunger for relief from boredom — the bloodthirstiness of the banal — is what inevitably results when the culture industry is unquestioned, and when one’s own interpolation into the culture industry is met by indifference.
Current Project: What Does It Mean to Be German Today?
My present project takes me in a different direction, although it is still inflected with anxiety. 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. This anniversary raised several questions for me, in part, because of my own family’s victimization during the Holocaust. I wondered how it feels to be German today. What are some of the ways in which the experience of the war and the Holocaust changed contemporary Germans’ sense of themselves? Some historical background regarding Germany’s educational system is helpful here. Since 1962, West Germans have charged themselves with what we may understand to be a new categorical imperative: Intolerance, discrimination and persecution must never be perpetuated or even tolerated, in any form, by Germans. The German word for this categorical imperative is Vergangenheitsbewältigung — a coming to terms with the past and a responsibility toward the future. This coming to terms with the past was to be achieved by an unflinching self-examination of Germany’s own history of persecution and genocide. Promoting this kind of introspection is the aim of secondary school education and public memorials of the Holocaust in Germany up to this day.
My study is in its early stages, but I have been able to interview West German nationals from two generations: those born between 1938 and 1950 (who would not have received this educational exposure) and Germans born between 1970 and 1990, who would have participated as students in this curriculum. My goal is to see if there is a salient difference between the two groups with regard to understanding German identity. Does the older generation feel a sense of historical responsibility; do they, in other words, share in this categorical imperative? Does the younger generation also feel compelled to ensure that Germany’s history never repeats itself? Once I collect interviews, I will investigate them for certain rhetorical signposts that signal either a sense of responsibility or forgetfulness. For example, I will consider how Germans answer the question, “What does it mean to be German?” Do they bring up the past when answering this question? Do they ignore it? Do they convey via words a sense of responsibility or coming to terms with the past? My study will not assume that German identity is static but rather is in a continuous process of transformation. Because of change, one question that I consider is whether the secondary school curriculum should alter its treatment of World War II and the Holocaust. Should high school students still learn about World War II and the Holocaust in the same way as they did in 1962? How should new immigrants learn about Germany’s history? What role should they assume (if any) in ensuring that Germany remains the democratic safe haven that it is now? These questions are crucial for both Germany and Europe in light of recent geopolitical calamities, such as the Syrian immigration crisis and the rise of ISIS.
In some sense, this study closes at least one loop with regard to Adorno’s concern with the enlightenment project. Adorno’s vociferous critique of the enlightenment was powered by the rise of fascism in Germany, a catastrophe that he saw as the inevitable outcome of the confluence of capitalism, enlightenment thinking, and anti-Semitism. It should be noted that, for Adorno, a major factor in the rise of fascism was also the bad faith of the German working class: their betrayal of the Marxist cause in favor of fascism.
The Holocaust, for Adorno, was the greatest proof of the devastating danger of enlightenment/categorical thinking. Adorno and Horkheimer famously remark on the first page of Dialectic of Enlightenment that “the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”3 To return to Germany is thus to return to the site of the enlightenment’s greatest catastrophe. Yet I nervously choose to return to the Germany of 2015, 70 years after the gates of Auschwitz closed, to ask whether some of the lessons of history have any lasting effect. Confronted now by almost a million refugees at its doorstep, will the worst facets of the German enlightenment – the need for order and conformity – be repowered? Or will a more nuanced and empathic collective response win the day? The new categorical imperative that I referred to above has, by extension, required Germany to behave in a way that no other European nation would when faced with this refugee crisis. Germany’s decisions in this matter will affect other European countries in ways that we are as yet unaware, but that is a subject for another time.
Finally, I know that some readers will find the work described above diverse and perhaps disconnected. My training in English literature and my current work in rhetoric has allowed me to bring together “texts” of different kinds — some sociological, some literary — and to investigate them for the way in which language, and in particular rhetoric, is deployed. Writing studies, apart from its concern with writing pedagogy, provides a kind of forensic attention to the text, whether it is a commercial, an interview, or a literary/nonliterary work. It is this forensic approach — the search for textual evidence in the form of rhetorical signposts and tropes — that constitutes my methodology of analysis, and that makes scholars in writing studies extremely versatile in their critical projects.
1 Zuidervaart, Lambert. “Theodor W. Adorno,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/adorno/>.
2 Rich, Jennifer. “Shock Corridors: The New Rhetoric of Horror in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant,” Journal of Popular Culture 45.6 (December 2012): 1310-1329.
3 Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. “The Culture Industry” in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. J. Cummings. New York: Continuum, 1994.