The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation. Theodor Adorno, "Cultural Criticisms and Society," 1949
You drive by the same house five mornings a week. The weather is pleasant. Your car windows are down, the windows of the house are opened. Fragrant breezes waft. You always hit the light on the corner red, so you sit and idle, listening to the cries of agony ululating from the home. Every morning you tell yourself you'll either roll your windows or call the police. Every morning you continue to wonder what the person inside may be enduring. The light changes, you floor the accelerator, go to work and do your job. The work gets accomplished, you take a different route home, and watch the evening news.
"Police tell Action News," says the anchor person, "That three children between the ages of two and eight were taken into Child Protective Services custody earlier today when it was discovered their parents were putting cigarettes out on their hands and arms. Now let's turn to Chad Bradstone for a look at this evening's weather. Chad?"
The "reification" Adorno talks about in the introductory quote means to make real in either one's own mind or even the collective mind of a group, community, or society. That intellectual process of concretizing an otherwise abstract occurrence must precede a reasoned response. Reactive bursts of behavior call upon a more primitive set of non-intellectual thoughts, but in order for a given person to become creatively involved in responding to horror, he or she must be willing to strip away all the falsehoods, boredom and rationalizations and know to the fullest extent possible what is really going on.
Contemporary American society, it appears to me, is very much "total," in the sense Adorno intends it. More than eighty percent of us now live in cities, which means that in addition to the electronic peeps and quips from televisions, computers, telephones, stereos, radios, and other information distortion devices, we may compound our input with the sounds of grown-ups yelling at one another, police sirens, car alarms, screaming children, airplane engines, construction zones, ice cream vendors, and the scurrying feet of escaping muggers. Reifying all of that might leave us overwhelmed, so perhaps we will prioritize our attention. Assuming for the sake of discussion that we do not choose as our single focus the score of a video game or outcome of our dinner broiling in the oven, we decide to place ourselves in a role where we believe we can make a difference. We join the HOA, or we volunteer for security patrols, or we begin attending meetings at the PTO.
And the first thing we are struck by is that all the other members of whichever group we join have competing points of interest. Even the simplest essential chains of the bureaucracy distract us from our original intent. So even when something actually does get done, the process gets the recognition and the people who involved themselves are given a desk job.
All we may be talking about here is one house in one neighborhood in one city. It scarcely whispers its importance when stood next to the atrocities of the Taliban, ISIS, or the Republican Party. But if we are unwilling to try to make real to ourselves the fears of the occupants of a single house, how then can we have the courage to do more than merely contemplate mass kidnappings of schoolgirls, the disappearance of the polar icecaps, or the purposeful erosion of voting rights in America? I hope that word "contemplate" jumps off the page because I'm talking to myself as much as I am to anyone when I argue that these situations deserve more than just self-serving cogitation. They deserve a reasoned response.
If one of us came home to find some strange, hulking man backhanding our own child, the primitive layers of our brains would blaze, leading us to pulverize the aggressor. But if the knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, hunchbacked, reptile-skinned pods of our brain can get us to do the right thing, then why do we hesitate to move beyond a little menial mental labor when we hear bullets blasting down the alley? Kitty Genovese still screams for somebody to shout out the window, chase the killer away, call the police--anything other than turning up the television to blot our her demise. Six million Jews ask the same question. So do one million Armenians, two million Cambodians, one hundred thousand Bosnians, one million Rwandans, or closer to home, the eight million Haitian Indians exterminated in the years following Columbus, or the millions torn apart by America's slave business.
The point is not about guilt, at least in the sense of complicity. The real guilt, if that's what you want to call it, comes from even taking that first painful step in the process of making these things real.
Once we've done that, as Adorno implies, poetry may still be possible. I'd be surprised if it didn't flow even more freely. But at least we will have cultivated the bond between the intellect and the emotions that is required to appreciate it. Anything short of that, when discussing art of any kind, is thinking for its own sake, a pathetic use of powerful tool.
Goering at Nuremberg Trials