Of course, as Adler takes pains to point out, “theory” has always been shadowed by a certain sense of displacement or belatedness: “‘French theory,’ born in America,” as the cliché goes. But one could just as well say – and here we get to the part of what is characteristic of Adler’s approach – “‘French theory,’ born in Germany,” that is, with Heidegger (if not already Husserl). Adler thus writes with a full awareness of two operations of translation: “French theory in America,” but also “Heidegger in France,” to cite the titles of two well-known recent books. Indeed such a turn (back) to Heidegger is arguably definitive of a ‘second wave’ of American theory that has aimed to rectify the alleged lack of philosophico-historical awareness of the ‘first wave.’ (The narrative in shorthand: the forgetting of Heidegger is constitutive of “French theory” or “American deconstruction”; the philosophical maturation of ‘theory’ requires the long-delayed encounter with Heidegger.) That being said, Adler’s work differs from so much American writing in this tradition in that he does not write as a mere commentator or exegete, aiming simply to produce a better or more complex understanding of a notoriously difficult oeuvre. With an impressive boldness and audacity – underwritten by a highly advanced scholarly mastery, to be sure – Adler instead writes as a theorist-philosopher in his own right, one who dares to place himself at the same level as the authors under discussion (even and especially the Heidegger whose philosophical achievement, political ignominy not withstanding, is frequently treated with such awe and reverence by those who still dare to engage it).
Like many others, Adler writes ‘with and against Heidegger,’ but he does so in his own manner, even if he implicitly measures his readings throughout against those of Agamben and particularly Derrida. He writes ‘with and against Heidegger,’ but differently than Derrida, perhaps even ‘with and against Derrida.’ (Both Ronald Mendoza-de Jesus and Hannah Markley address the place of Derrida in Celebricities in their respective responses.) This is the gesture at the first point of translation. Given the heavy weight of the tradition here, it is bold enough in itself. But there is another gesture that gives specificity to Celebricities, a gesture that is perhaps bolder still: at the second point of translation Adler turns towards television, as the mode of (non-)experience that forces us to take the necessary step beyond the motifs of authenticity and ontological difference that are still in force in Heidegger’s thought. From this point of view, Adler’s work reads as a genuine intervention within the (“European”?) tradition of post-Heideggerian thought precisely because he is able to take a certain (“American”?) distance from it. It is worth quoting Adler somewhat at length here, in a passage from the introduction that also exemplifies Adler’s elegant and precise prose:
[W]hat I finally came to realize, as a child of the seventies and eighties who, seduced by deconstruction just as its star had begun to fade, had turned toward Europe, away from America, away from the guilty televisual pleasures of my childhood, is that the “high theory” in which I had been schooled as a doctoral student (indeed at one of its last and most austere outposts) was itself incapable of realizing its most radical theoretical intentions unless it achieved a “subject position” and “theoretical horizon” that is, for want of a better expression, truly its own. Or indeed truly my own. This attempt to renew the project of phenomenology demands taking seriously almost everything that, in trying to fashion myself as an intellectual in the European style, I had repressed, and most of all that televisionary accompaniment that, following a strategy I had been taught by my parents and that is perhaps quite typical of my class, I had regarded not only as fictional, spectacular, but as a kind of experience that, for all its various seductions, is unworthy of being experienced; cannot even be called experience–a nonexperience and nonlife in the very heart of life. (3)
“…[T]ruly its own. Or indeed truly my own.” The equivocation or alteration at the center of the above-cited passage discretely foreshadows a set of concerns – singularity, exemplarity, and substitution, propriety, ‘own-ness,’ and authenticity [Eigentlichkeit], not to mention truth itself – that emerge thematically in the text’s ensuing arguments and also inform its very structure. Because all of the responses gathered here focus – as they should – on particular details or ‘moments’ of the text, the following brief run-through of Celebricities gives special attention to its architecture and rhythm. If, as I mentioned at the beginning of this introduction, Celebricities may seem at first like several books in one, I would nonetheless like to insist that – to this reader at least – it is unusual in that it constitutes a true experience of reading, one that is ultimately distinguished for both its intensity and coherence. Above and beyond its explicit propositional content, Celebricities is a gripping theoretical adventure; its twists and turns of argument are ultimately inseparable from its modulations of style.
Chapter 1, “The Phenomenology of Television,” outlines a first confrontation of television and (post-)phenomenology, reading the phenomenological play of distance and proximity alongside the televisual Fern-sehen, which “bring[s] différance and the claim of absolute presence into the greatest, most uncanny and spectral proximity, thus forc[ing] on us the thought of deconstruction.” (17) Working through a series of televisual examples from Beavis and Butthead through The Wire and Mad Men, Chapter 2, “The Life Not Ours to Live,” weaves variations on the thesis that “TV is the phenomenology of an everyday life that can never be turned around from inauthenticity to authenticity…that lacks even the prospect of a mineness that is continually evaded”; (27) along the way, Adler lays out a persuasive sketch of the category of “quality television” and its characteristic constellation “advertising/drugs/obscene commodity/dream-commodity,” before ultimately arguing that the very concept of “quality television” corresponds to the contemporary “irrelevance” of television as such. Though the analyses of The Wire and Mad Men take up just a few pages in total and form something of a digression, these pages are nonetheless among the most lucid anywhere written on the concept of “quality television.” Up to this point in the volume, the writing is relatively smooth and essayistic. With Chapter 3, “The Celebrity and the Nobody,” things become somewhat more technical and argumentative. The engagement with Heidegger intensifies; the alternative of “being just somebody [das Man] or being authentically myself,” already provisionally dismantled in the previous chapter, is rewritten as the absolute disjunction of “the celebrity” and “the nobody,” the disjunction that splits ‘showing’ from ‘shown’ and thus undoes the ‘self-showing’ that is central to Heidegger’s determination of “the phenomenon” (and thus of phenomenology). (42-46) Though this chapter is largely given over to Heidegger, the theory of the celebrity and the nobody also flows into a brief but striking analysis of the famous carousel scene from season 1 of Mad Men. (In conjunction with the reading of Mad Men in the previous chapter, the carousel-analysis is taken up in the response by Monique Rooney). In this chapter, Adler also introduces the thematic of ontological contingency. Even taken from its argumentative context, the following quotation gives a good sense of Adler’s speculative audacity, as he turns Heideggerian hermeneutics back on itself in the service of his own ontological thesis (or a-thesis or un-thesis): “Everything hinges here on a reversal of the hermeneutic method: instead of seeking to lead the errors of metaphysics back to a more originary and radical perspective, one must demonstrate that this very salvatory operation, through which the unicity of being is preserved, is itself responding, in a problematic and indeed ‘reactive’ fashion to the ontological potency of radical contingency.” (48) (This paradoxical ontology of radical contingency is one of the main subjects of Mieszkowski’s response.)
Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 are each relatively brief (five to eight pages per chapter), but highly dense and unapologetically philosophical. The imagistic and essayistic aspect of the preceding chapters has more or less receded; the Heidegger-faucet is turned all the way on. Chapter 4, “Being(s),” leads us swiftly from the necessary circularity of any ontology of contingency and event to the collapse of ontological difference to a reconceptualization of the commodity as precisely this quasi-transcendental impossibility of distinguishing Being from beings. Chapter 5, “The Life of Things” takes a first philosophical pass at Marx’s theorization of the “sensuously supersensuous” commodity as an undecidably metaphysical account of the genesis of metaphysical dualism. Chapter 6, “Ideology and Truth,” turns Heidegger’s deconstruction of “truth as correctness” in his 1933-34 Essence of Truth lectures and pauses to consider the accuracy of Heidegger’s placement of Marx’s theory of ideology in this Platonic lineage. Chapter 7, “The Truth of the Commodity,” argues that although Marx resists his own tendency to deconstruct subject-object and truth as correspondence, the Marxian commodity nonetheless remains the unthought of the Heideggerian project.
These four brief chapters turn out to be largely preparatory in character, setting out the terms for the two following long chapters, which elaborate an unusually challenging and complex – at times, almost painfully so or punishingly so – extended argument. The following brief accounts thus only serve to give some hint as to the contents of the chapters and their intricate argumentative structure. Chapter 8, “Value, Publicity, Politics” confronts Marx with Heidegger on the question of value, along the way working through Heidegger’s tool-analysis, Michel Henry’s controversial account of use-value as ontological “life,” and Heidegger’s late thinking of Ge-stell, ending with the claim that the thought of the commodity qua Ge-stell ultimately implies différance at the origin and thus the impossibility of any decision, “the impossibility of returning to the origin by repeating the unique beginning.” (99) Chapter 9, “Reproduction,” returns to the equivocal character of the theory of ideology, moving from Heidegger’s reproach of Marx’s alleged Platonism to Althusser’s famous attempt to rescue Marxism from any idealistic recourse to a notion of “false consciousness.” This trajectory entails filling in the Althusserian concept’ of “materiality” as a “materiality that will always be dislocated within itself…that can never present itself with a pure immediacy,” which means that “praxis” too in turn that “involves a kind of inherent latency, dislocation, Entstellung.” (99) One arrives at the end of Chapter 9 with the feeling of having completed an intellectual adventure or ordeal of an almost unbearable intensity; the encounter between Marx and Heidegger (mediated by the antithetical Marx-readings of Henry and Althusser) is taken to a kind of limit.
Chapters 9 and 10, the relatively brief final chapters of the first half of the book, point to a way forward, though they still do so mostly thematically, rather than on the level of presentation or Darstellung. Chapter 10, “Gadgets,” situates television and the gadget within a postideological problematic characterized by a concern for phenomenological or “alethic” conditions of production; for Adler, “the gadget is the commodity that has taken upon itself alethic production.” (127) Chapter 11, “To the Things Themselves,” announces the project of the second half of Celebricities, that of ‘repeating’ the “path…already taken,” but “starting out the from other side,” that is, “constructing the life of the thing; constructing the play of truth, and evental openness, that the commodity-gadget takes upon itself.” (132) This is one of the places in the text where Adler’s complex relation to Derridean deconstruction is made explicit: though Adler’s reading of Heidegger is quite Derridean in its unsettling of authenticity, origin, and Being, for Adler this entails no necessary turn to temporalization, futurity, and openness, the à-venir; Adler’s strategy, instead, is one of active or even activist anticipation, the attempt to speak from the place of the commodity before it arrives. Two paradoxes follow. First, “to approach the thing before it approaches us is…to allow the thing to forbid us from finding our way around it”; (133) in other words, anticipating the commodity cannot be distinguished from a certain submission to it (but which exactly?). Second, this activist or anticipatory submission entails a movement away from conceptual generality towards a singularity we could provisionally qualify as “aesthetic”, “literary,” or “affective,” with the monadological twist that the pursuit of singularity turns out to be the path towards a fragile and reconstituted generality – or at least, “the common.” Thus the lines with which Adler closes the first half of the book: “…I will nevertheless submit to seductions that speak to me, and perhaps only to me: only to my obsessions, inversions and perversions, eccentricities. But, of course, none of these are just mine. Perhaps none of them are mine at all. The most secret is also the most common. Can you follow?” (134) The second half of the book is therefore written in a literary mode, shunning extended discursive argumentation for the pleasures of the aphorism, fragment, and thought-image.
If I have reconstructed the trajectory of the first half of the book somewhat laboriously (if also rather brutally), it is to insist not only that this turn to a seemingly ‘freer’ style in the second half of the book follows from a certain intraphilosophical necessity, but also that this necessity itself has been meticulously demonstrated according to the most stringent of argumentative protocols. The heavy philosophical-theoretical weight that is placed upon presentation (or Darstellung) in Part II of Celebricities places the second half of the book in the lineage of German Romanticism. This is marked explicitly with the first section of the first chapter of the second half of the book, entitled “Concepts of Criticism,” in reference to Walter Benjamin’s dissertation “The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism.” The reference is crucial insofar as it indicates that Adler writes with full awareness of the potential trap of the Romantic-philosophical turn to literature, as outlined by Benjamin in his dissertation (and by Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, following Benjamin, in The Literary Absolute) – that is, the hypostatization of “literature” as the other of philosophy that will allow philosophy’s surpassing and completion ‘after’ metaphysics. On Adler’s account, “it has been decided: literature, literary theory, literary criticism – the three can no longer quite be kept apart – begin on the other side of philosophy; beyond the threshold toward which philosophy could only gesture. With singularity not as such but in a singularity that remains singular, in the development of this singularity (as the visual arts relentlessly approach the problem of color), its intensification and extensification.” (139-140) Literature, then, does not ‘return’ to philosophy in a movement of recuperative or dialectical totalization, not least of all because the self-identity of “literature” is no longer assured; not only does “literature, literary theory, literary criticism…begin on the other side of philosophy” and thus on the other side of the concept, but the concept of literature itself, now irreversibly confused with literary theory and literary criticism, begins to tremble as well; this is Adler’s hedge against German Romanticism. What is at issue is thus not speculative totalization but literary singularization: the maximal exploitation of the resources of language in the pursuit of a truth that can no longer be understood in simply propositional terms. (In his response, Adam Kotsko also focuses on the presentational form of Celebricities, but does by situating the text in the context of theory-blogging rather than that of post-Romanticism.)
While chapter 12, “Methods,” offers a series of self-reflexive meditations on the problem of Darstellung that compels the movement from philosophy to “literature, literary theory, and literary criticism,” chapter 13, “Celebrity,” puts the aphoristic-fragmentary style to work in pursuit of a wide-ranging sketch, by turns mysterious and outrageous, of a theory of celebrity or better, celebricity; moving briskly and with great élan, Adler turns his attention to examples ranging from Madonna and Michael Jackson to Dexter, America’s Top Model, and Radiohead, not to mention Goethe, Hölderlin, and Robert Walser. Counter-intuitively but ultimately persuasively, Adler situates ‘celebricity’ in the aftermath of romantic aesthetic theory: “The celebrity is thus the one whose appearance consolidates and exemplifies a theory of appearance—whose very appearance makes appearance possible. Hence the celebrity must appear as the perversion of the romantic theory of the work of art. The celebrity comes into being at the very moment that the artwork fails to live up to the extraordinary theoretical and critical tasks with which it has become invested: the artwork fails, and its burden falls to the celebrity, conjured into existence at the very moment it is needed.” (144) This theorization of “celebricity” by way of “appearance” – i.e., the fundamental concept of aesthetics – thematically affirms and doubles the (post-)Romanticism problematic that grants structure to the second half of Celebricities. Repeating the trajectory of Part One, Chapter 14, “Television/Gadget,” loops the continuing meditation on appearance qua “celebricity” through a renewed reflection on the ‘alethic’ technologies of appearance, as they merge with the human subject itself; Eminem’s “rap-god” thus comes to emblematize “the incandescent, exuberant, schizoid murmuring of gadget-life.” (198) Adler’s speculative-elegiac gaze settles upon the Muppets as privileged exemplars of this inhuman celebricity: “Selling his own failure to sell, charismatic in its very lack of charisma, the Muppet shows the commodity becoming lovable, and infinitely satisfying, in its very incapacity to satisfy the needs that it conjures into existence….perhaps the Muppets will remain an impossible ideal—the most truly iconic, truly unforgettable celebrities that television has ever produced.” (203)
Having completed this all too rapid tour of the text, let me turn quickly to the five responses that make up the main part of the forum. Hannah Markley’s response “The Untouchable Girls and Radiohead: Femininity and Celebricities’ Alt-Rock Theory” takes Adler’s fragment “Listening to Radiohead for the First Time, 17 Years Too Late” as the figure and starting point for a meditation on the belatedness of theory, a motif that runs throughout Celebricities. Markley argues that this belatedness of theory corresponds, paradoxically enough, to the monstrosity of its birth, its status as a “scary baby.” Though the phrase is Markley’s, it is an allusion is to Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play,” a text referred to by Adler in the closing pages of Celebricities. On one hand, Markley recognizes the deconstructive struggle with the deconstructive progenitor, a struggle that by definition exceeds any simple oedipal schema; on the other hand, Markley gestures to the unthought figure of the mother and takes this gap as an occasion for a broader inquiry into the status of the feminine in Celebricities, particularly as regards the metaphorics of veiling that recur throughout the text in relations to the ‘alethic’ play of truth.
In his response, “The Blue Glow at the Dusk of Theory,” Adam Kotsko too addresses the question of theory’s belatedness, or as he calls it, “theory after theory.” Using his own theoretical writings on television as a point of comparison, Kotsko too makes the experience (or non-experience) of television central to ‘theory after theory.’ In reframing Adler’s argument, Kotsko autobiographically raises the specter of the Protestant work ethic, situating televisual ‘theory after theory’ as the project of ‘redeeming’ the dead or wasted time of televisual consumption through the labor of theoretical reflection. Though Kotsko does not simply endorse such a view of theoretical activity – he writes with a certain wistful irony here – it is fair to say that his emphasis on redemptive theoretical labor betrays a certain skepticism as to the viability of Adler’s gesture of hyperbolic submission. It would be interesting to press here on the two authors’ respective accounts of the relation of “critique” to “theory” and to “theory after theory.” In a second strand of argument, Kotsko relates the presentational form of Celebricities to the golden age of theory-blogging, ultimately posing the broader question of the affinity between the fragmentary, paratactic style of much recent theory and styles of writing that flourish online.
In her response, Monique Rooney engages closely with Adler’s analysis of the “dream-commodity” in Mad Men. Setting out from Adler’s reading of the famous carousel-pitch in season 1, Rooney pursues a related conceptualization of a commodified nostalgia at the heart of subjectivity itself in a reading of the final scene of the series: here subjective spiritual rebirth merges with the utter triumph of the commodity, transcendental meditation flowing into the capitalist-utopian gesture of ‘buying the world a Coke.’ In a second movement of her response, Rooney brings out a critical dimension of historicity in Mad Men that runs counter to the logic of the “dream-commodity.” In a particularly ingenius reading, Rooney draws attention to the overlay of linear historical time and cyclical lunar time in the epochal book-ends of Mad Men’s “long 1960s”: the 1959 invention and marketing of the pill, crucial to Peggy Olsen’s plot in season 1 (which takes place in 1960), and the 1969 moon-landing, the occasion in season 7 not only of Bert Cooper’s death but of his fabulously surreal posthumous song-and-dance routine. On Rooney’s account, the fleetingly encountered ‘lunar real’ offers an historically charged alternative to the Heideggerian pathos of authenticity and being-towards-death.
Jan Mieskowski’s “Snap, Crackle, Pop” begins by taking up the metaphorics of walking and falling (and walking as falling) that open Celebricities and provide the text with a conceptualization of its own halting conceptual trajectory. Working out the “para-logic” of the stumbling pas au-delà, Mieszkowski demonstrates the aporiae that ensue once “staying on track [is] no longer the goal of goals.” Making his own way through Celebricities, Mieszkowski pivots from the “pas au-delà” of thinking to the cultural form arguably most strongly associated with “gadget-commodity life” – the viral youtube video, which is shown to have its own distinctive strides and stumbles. Mieszkowski thus analytically juxtaposes two famous K-pop videos, each of which is marked by a distinctive stride or stumble: Gfriend’s live “Me Gustas Tu,” which presents commodity-subjectivity as a kind of indefatigable serial faceplant, and Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” whose inexplicably compelling horse-trot dance comes to appear as the trot of capital itself. In a final gesture, Mieszkowski tarries with the question of ontological contingency, asking whether the effective absence of a preceding transcendental horizon necessarily entails, as Adler suggests, that the contingent event retroactively produces its own new transcendental, or whether the third excluded possibility is in fact thinkable – the possibility “that the truth that the gadget impossibly brings into being is neither its own nor ours.”
Ronald Mendoza-de Jesus’s “Danger(s): On the ‘History’ of ‘Truth’” hones in upon Adler’s reading of one episode of Beavis and Butthead (“True Crime”), arguing that this reading is exemplary in “its relentless, if implicit, argument for the ‘experience’ of a certain laughter as a crucial site from which the question of what thinking ought to be after Marx and Heidegger.” Linking Adler’s analysis to Derrida’s famous account of Bataille, Mendoza-de Jesus finds in Beavis and Butthead’s allegory of thwarted self-reflexivity a version of the non-Hegelian laughter that promises an “exit strategy from Hegelianism.” In the remainder of his response, Mendoza-de Jesus opens up three avenues for critical investigation, which we can identify as epochal self-identity, the history of truth, and phallogocentrism. With epochal self-identity, Mendoza-de Jesus suggests that Adler’s insistence on the collapse of ontological difference means that Celebricities must devote more attention to seemingly ‘merely ontic’ matters of political economy and uneven development – i.e., the epoch of “gadget commodity life” may have unthematized spatial-geographic limits or it may be more internally heterogeneous than Adler allows. With the history of truth, Mendoza-de Jesus asks exactly how we should understand the subtle movement from the “truthless truth” of the commodity to the truth of “being(s)” after the collapse of ontological difference and, more to the point, how we can find a philosophical vantage-point upon the question of truth itself. With phallogocentrism, Mendoza-de Jesus (like Markley) argues that Adler is too uncritical in his deployment of the gendered metaphorics of veiling tied to the ‘alethic’ play of truth and the seductions of the commodity.