Symposium Introduction

On a first read, Anthony Adler’s Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life (Fordham UP, 2016) would seem to be several books in one: a phenomenological treatise on both “quality” television and television qua television; a systematic confrontation of Marx and Heidegger on the “truth of the commodity”; an investigation of the ontology of smartphones and other contemporary ‘gadgets’; a work of experimental philosophical writing in the tradition of Friedrich Schlegel and Walter Benjamin. And indeed Celebricities is all these things. But more radically, Celebricities is a forceful meditation on the tradition of “theory” as such and on the possibility and impossibility of “theory” now.

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.[4] 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.



Untouchable Girls and Radiohead

Femininity and Celebricities’ Alt-Rock Theory

This essay was written with the support of The Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry

Anthony Adler’s new book Celebricities celebrates theory.  However, the exuberant celebration that constitutes the book’s experimental second half also treats its celebrations as untimely. Indeed, in the penultimate chapter, Adler describes the experience of having been too late:

Two days ago, 17 years too late, I heard Radiohead for the first time as Radiohead. For the first time I understood what should have been, had I been “with it,” the musical accompaniment of my young adulthood. And suddenly I also recalled the heading that I saw in a music magazine many years ago.  “In order to save rock they had to destroy it.” I could even hear a bit of my own soul in them. (174)

If Celebricities recognizes its disjointedness and alienation from the theoretical milieu it nonetheless wants to address, then Radiohead figures the lateness that suffuses the text. Adler’s delay in the recognizing Radiohead “as” Radiohead suggests that in order for the band to appear as itself – that is, in its disjointedness – it always had to arrive too late. Adler’s belated recognition suddenly triggers another piece of the past: a music magazine headline: “In order to save rock they had to destroy it.”  Imagine a Rolling Stone cover from the late 90s when O.K. Computer catapulted the band and the frenetic Alt-Rock genre into the mainstream. Adler does not identify that album, and yet, its title touches upon the stakes of Celebricities and, indeed, its lateness. The recognition that Radiohead saved rock and roll by “destroying” it is bound up in the band’s self-conscious use of technology, synthesizers, voice distortion, and computers on the level of both sound and figure. Young adulthood returns to Adler as that “bit of my own soul” struck out in crunchy guitar riffs, drum kit breaks, and electronic interferences that tear to pieces the symphonic orchestrations that underlie the otherwise riven, frantic melodies.  Part of what Adler hears, then, in the lateness of Radiohead “as” Radiohead is the way in which their music collects and recollects the fracturing and dissociating effects of technology. This is also the lateness of Adler’s text.  He saves theory by attending to the proliferation of technological prostheses that seem to have “destroyed,” fractured, and redoubled its phenomenological interventions. To put it another way, he resurrects theory by mourning its untimely passing. Just as Adler only hears Radiohead “as” Radiohead 17 years after the fact, Celebricities negotiates the difficult terrain of reading theory “as” theory; that is, reading it even as it appears fractured, late, and, already past.

In this way, Celebricities mourns for theory by calling attention to the ways television and gadgets have disrupted and ruptured its phenomenological insights. Like television, the theoretical gestures of continental philosophy appear in the text, but recede from grasp in ways that redouble their allure.  Adler, a self-professed “late-born theorist,” a theorist who arrived “after theory” (perhaps even 17 years too late), hears in the theoretical tradition associated with continental philosophy a mode of thinking that he simultaneously longs for and remains removed from (214). Indeed, Celebricities, like Radiohead, tries to make sense of the “lost gestures of those that came before,” by mourning these gestures in order to “come of age trying to recover from this loss” (174).  Although Adler is referring here to Radiohead’s relationship with rock and roll, his formulation describes precisely the ways in which his own text comes of age through a concerted effort to recover from the loss of a theory as theory.

If Radiohead arrives late in the text, then so too does Adler’s most explicit work of mourning.  In the last section, Adler refers obliquely to Jacques Derrida whose appearance in the final pages of the book, as an unnamed and perhaps unnamable progenitor. Derrida’s theoretical gestures seem impossible to recover from and also impossible to mourn: “The critique of the critique of critique… is left with only one leg to stand on.  Still kritizierbar is this alone – the myth of heroic beginnings, of grand gestures, of new vistas, new worlds of thought, that might appear (ah… Baltimore… 1966) in a conference paper, written in a mere 10 days. Master thinkers, and their disciples. A playfulness that was serious.  Now our seriousness is stillborn in its seriousness” (213). The critique of the critique of critique is another name for Celebricities – the critique of deconstruction that in its very critique wants nothing more than to mourn for it and give voice to the lateness that now infuses deconstruction’s theoretical gestures. “To save deconstruction by destroying it.”  The nostalgia for Derrida is not nostalgia for the late theorist himself, but for the gestures and the celebrity he brought to theory.  It is nostalgia for the “myth of heroic beginnings,” writing “Structure, Sign, and Play” in 10 days, and, indeed, for “playfulness that was serious.” In this sense, Adler mourns playfulness, the theoretical gesture most closely associated with Derrida and bemoans his own “stillborn seriousness” that, unlike Derrida’s, is dead on arrival: a seriousness that is always already too late.

Still, Adler admits in the last paragraph of the book, “I was born then, in 1966” and he asks “Am I nothing simply because I was not there to watch my birth?” (214). “Structure, Sign, and Play” even ends with a birth announcement: “the as yet unnamable” theoretical insight proclaims itself “as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity” (Derrida 293). Adler produces his own theoretical gestures through Derrida’s unnamable scary baby. Derrida is the progenitor (among others, perhaps especially Heidegger, but also Marx) of celebricity as a concept.  One hears these affiliations in its definitions: “Celebricity is this phenomenality that, at the very moment it appears as it is, can no longer take the form of phenomenology, of a sober gathering of appearance” (42).  Celebricity refers to “the play of truth” and the ways in which the screens and devices with which we touch, change, and stare produce a phenomenal play that is, Adler suggests, “the play of values” that in turn begets “the value of values” (130). Derrida predicts these celebricities, writing them into the future as a terrifying “monstrosity” that is unrecognizable in 1966 and only grows into its perceptibility by arriving late – that is, by arriving after theory, after Derrida.

So, the baby only ever arrives “stillborn” in Adler’s words, and conspicuously motherless.  For all the reproduction at work in Adler’s text, sexual reproduction struggles against a sterility that is paradoxically fecund. Adler mentions reproductive femininity once in an allusion to Rosemary’s Baby. The mother appears, then, only in a passing reference to a monstrous, Satanic, and ultimately destructive birth.  What would it mean to save motherhood by destroying it? Adler’s Alt-Rock elegy to deconstruction, continental philosophy, and Derrida, not only imagines itself in a struggle with and against fathers who will never “get” our music, but cannot conceive of a mother, of sex, of femininity otherwise than a play of highly eroticized and ever-retreating appearances.  While the appearance of the feminine as the play of concealing and revealing is not new to philosophy, Celebricities unpacks the allegorical significance of the feminine without necessarily acknowledging that the reproductive “mother” of celebricity is not merely any celebrity, but the untouchable, dream-like, young girl.

Kim Yuna comes to me, and I awaken to the memory of a pleasure that bore possibility as if in its womb. Yet it was not another body’s desires… or the abstract, pure, possession-less pleasures of dream-sex, but something more intoxicating, unsettling, voluptuous. She showed nothing intimate; we did not touch. She needed me, but only to watch and celebrate her – from amidst the multitude. (154)

Kim Yuna is Celebricities. The South Korean figure skater began her Olympic career at 20 and her significance is written into the phrase “figure skater.”  She is first and foremost a figure. Adler reads the Young-Girl elsewhere through the work of the Tiqqun collective as an allegorical figure for “the human subjectivity that first reveals itself as the interiorization of commodities” (128).  The Young-Girl figures the gadget commodity only insofar as she also figures the ways in which these gadgets, like television, produce “scattered members and organs” that leave only “grotesque relics of sexual difference.” This is not to say that Kim Yuna is a caricature, but that the dream fragment speaks to celebricity’s reconfiguration of sexual difference.  

The eccentric center of celebricity as a concept, then, is the experience of the dream-like withdrawal of the Young-Girl-Commodity who, in her elusiveness, enhances the pleasure of the plays of truth and appearance to which she also gives birth.  Indeed, the memory of pleasure –pleasure gone by or late pleasure – bears “possibility as if in its womb.”  The phrase “its womb” ambiguously refers to the commingling of pleasure and possibility. The displacement of female reproductive organs from Kim Yuna (the Young-Girl) onto the pleasure that is the after-effect of her appearance in a dream, reconceives reproduction not as the province of fertile female body, but as the work of deferred, unfulfilled, and ultimately unfulfilling pleasures.  This is not even bad sex, nor is it a wet dream.  It is the retreat of any possibility of sexual contact, reproductive or otherwise, that in its very retreat, yields potentially endless possibilities.

Celebriticity is more intoxicating, unsettling, and voluptuous for the ways it promiscuously retreats, retraces, replays, and withdraws the eroticism of appearance. Moreover, this is how celebricity reproduces: “She needed me, but only to watch and celebrate her – from amidst the multitude.”  If the eroticism of celebricity results from the ways in which these appearances withdraw, reproducing itself through such withdrawals (pun intended), reproduction (in Celebricities) is reproductive only insofar as it is sexless. Moreover, the plays and fractures of appearance in the age of all our televisual and networked appearance machines, are exacerbated by the deconstructive insistence on the ethereal withdrawal of things in themselves, of the copula, “is,” and, indeed, copulation.  The copula is not only under erasure (is); it is forestalled by the unsettling and voluptuous withdrawal of that thing called reality.

Yet the sexless reproduction of feminine withdrawal written into the text is not only the celebricity of Celebricities, it also, like a symptom, marks Adlers’ struggle to mourn the theoretical tradition and the monstrous birth from which he emerged. That is, the retreat of femininity relates to Alder’s inability to say not only how his father (Derrida) met his mother, but who his mother possibly could have been. If Alt-rock theory emerges from the melancholic recollection and destruction of the moment of birth, the mother, according to its own precepts, cannot be said to exist. Rather, she withdraws and conceals herself, in the eroticized plays of appearance and the fracturing of experience that Adler’s text struggles to figure. She, like Radiohead, is late, but perhaps not only to the scene of birth from which she has been banished.  She is late in the sense that reproductive femininity only arrives as such insofar as reproductive sex, motherhood, and birth are simultaneously saved and destroyed – ripped out of the textual system by all the Young-Girls and preserved as the very engine through which Celebricities stakes its claim to a theoretical tradition. Hearing Radiohead as Radiohead 17-years too late, then, does not just involve lateness or the capacity of lateness to deliver the fractures of experience and history.  It involves the play of femininity and the withdrawal of appearances that allows “the memory of pleasure” that Radiohead triggers for Adler to bear “the possibility” of Celebricities as if in its Alt-rock “womb.”

  • Anthony Curtis Adler

    Anthony Curtis Adler


    Response to Hannah Markley

    Hannah Markley’s response has not only helped me better understand my own work, but, what is more—I say this without irony or exaggeration—it helps me better understand myself. There is no shame, I think, in admitting this. Which is to say: no shame either in admitting that one still heeds the call to “know thyself” as the call to philosophy, or in admitting that the truth of oneself is not to be found simply by turning inward but, always belongs to the Other, is to be found amid others; not as generic common sense, the ever-changing horizon of what everyone always already knows to be true, but as the event of the encounter.

    There is no shame in this, or perhaps there is only shame; since shame is precisely that moment where one’s own inner truth, in all its poverty and excess, exposes itself to the view of the Other, and becomes the truth of the Other; or indeed, the truth of oneself and the other. Socrates, of course, understood his own role as a kind of midwifery; he would help others give birth to the wisdom of which he is himself incapable. And in the Symposium, he recounts how Diotima (was she already a Young-Girl, as she will become for Hölderlin?) teaches him to think of philosophy erotically, as a pregnancy of the soul. Perhaps, in this way, Plato already intimates—and exposes—the shame of thinking. Yet in the same gesture he also not only conceals it, but obliterates it: the philosopher, appropriating for himself the power of reproduction, preempts the encounter in the very measure he recognizes its importance.

    Moreover, what Markley’s response helps me understand is not least of all my own shame, and, specifically, the embarrassment that I still feel regarding many aspects of Celebricities. This embarrassment has to do first of all with the sense of mourning that suffuses it. Just as one often feels compelled to say too much, to give too much away, even when one knows all too well that one will end up exposed, I felt somehow driven, despite myself, to give in to a mood that I knew would seem (and perhaps in truth was) excessively subjective, affected, unrigorous, and thus could well make it seem as if I was still too much beholden, through a certain nostalgia, to a mode of theory that perhaps had already lost its relevance. It would have been easy enough to renounce this mood, yet I felt that it still had something to teach me. Or rather, that I still had to pass through it, and as I said before, find it. But this embarrassment also has to do with a certain intellectual eroticism—an erotic attitude toward the “object” of thinking—that might seem troubling, as if it originated in an immediacy of feeling that has not yet submitted itself to the “control” of more sophisticated, reflected considerations of gender politics. Ostensibly—ostentatiously—oblivious to the danger of an Orientalizing, exoticizing gaze, I treat Kim Yuna, the superlatively talented figure skater, as a figure for the peculiar nature of the erotic pull of the Young-Girl qua celebrity, who, withdrawing in her dreamlike appearance, figures for the concept of celebricity itself, understood as a kind of disfiguring displacement of, as Markley aptly puts it, the “female reproductive organs . . . onto the pleasure that is the after-effect of her appearance in a dream.” Thus reproduction is conceived not as a “province of [the] fertile female body, but as the work of deferred, unfulfilled, and ultimately unfulfilling pleasure.” Markley adds: “This is not even bad sex, nor is it a wet dream. It is the retreat of any possibility of sexual contact, reproductive or otherwise that in its very retreat, yields potentially endless possibilities.”

    I find Markley’s analysis of my—feigned? real?—recollection of an oneiric, semi-erotic encounter with Kim Yuna quite extraordinary, precisely because it ties together both these embarrassments—of mourning, of eros—suggesting the deeper connection between them. A shameful mood of mourning for theory, a mood that betrays me as hopelessly late-born and late, is, nevertheless, the only mood that could become receptive to the charms of the commodity, which by assuming the play of concealment and unconcealment, allows for the reproduction of the alethic of conditions of production and thus enables the continuation of capitalist relations of production even as they reach a limit point at which production itself can no longer be taken for granted. It is not just a question of an erotic mourning or mournful eroticism; we all know by now that the object of love has always already disappeared. The mourning for theory itself, which is not simply a theory of mourning or a mournful theory, is what makes it possible to theorize the commodity as a grotesquerie of reproduction, and thus of philosophy itself—insofar as philosophy has always involved a claim to take upon itself, to claim as its own, the power of reproduction as the power of the absolute. For since Socrates, philosophy has never ceased repeating the gesture of the Symposium; claiming to speak for the feminine as materiality, matrix, medium—the mother of all things—and yet, in its inveterate phallocentrism, it has never gotten further than the Young-Girl (or Young-Boy). But of course theory has itself taught us that philosophy is phallocentric: mourning theory realizes not only that philosophy, as the phallocentric appropriation of reproduction, is impossible, but that it is by way of this very impossibility that the commodity comes into its own; that theory plays into the play of the commodity.

    I could not agree more: Celebricities performs a perverse, melancholic suppression of reproductive femininity—and precisely to the extent that this remains the object of a philosophical desire beyond the desire for the father, the phallic master-signifier. As the father tells us the story of our birth, speaking for the mother by speaking of his desire, the mother retreats. Yet Celebricities, in just this way, also seeks, like Antigone, to do impossible things, if only by letting itself be buried in an odd, self-made womb and cave. Mourning theory makes philosophy, as the impossible task of speaking for the truth of being, possible again in the only form in which the impossible could ever be possible: as the shame of pure exposure.

    • Avatar

      Hannah Markley


      Grab ’em by the pussy

      Rereading myself and Adler this morning, it occurred to me that my response to Celebricities had missed something. The phrase (recirculated now so many times as a citation, recording, meme) “Grab ‘em by the pussy,” echoed in my head. How are we to read this phrase in the era of “presidential celebricity”?

      If I arrived late to “grab ‘em by the pussy” in ways that correspond to the belatedness of theory as I outline in my original response, it is also because how were any of us ever going to arrive on time for it? The video footage from an Access Hollywood in 2005 arrived on the scene in early October 2016, nearly 11 years after Trump spoke these words. The clip was expected to destroy the campaign; talking heads and bloggers predicted the end of Trump’s America; there is no recovering from this kind of blatant vulgarity. And yet, for all of these predictions, here we are in Trump’s America, attempting as best we can to support America’s institutions and uphold its constitutional foundations in the face of a regime that trump-ets, “Grab ‘em by the pussy!”

      The phrase sheds some light not only on the administration’s backlash against the rights of women, but also more deeply on the role of “Truth” and alethtic play in the Trump era. In my response to Adler, I attempt to draw out the ways his text deploys femininity as figure for what he calls in his response “erotic mourning or mournful eroticism” that captures the allure of celebrity in the post-industrial age. The attempt to reach out and touch what cannot be touched generates a form of pleasure that is endlessly engaging and, simultaneously, totally unfulfilling. (Think only of your iPhone or all the hours wasted scrolling through Facebook without comment or connection). Adler, of course, has these gadgets in mind when he says “celebricities,” but also a phenomenological insight: namely, that experience after the gadget has been reshaped along the lines of these unfulfilling, deferred, and even frustrating pleasures. Experience is erotic mourning, or mournful eroticism.

      So how to read “grab ‘em by the pussy”? In contrast to Adler’s untouchable girls, Trump has let it be known that all women are up for grabs. And while this sentiment is beyond disgusting for its threat of violence and violation, it also points toward the ways that Trump’s rhetoric manipulates the mournful eroticism of celebricity. That is, if celebriticity describes the retreat of fulfillment and eros in an age that is increasingly alienated by the commodities we use to define and disseminate ourselves, Trump seduced America with a masculinist fantasy of fulfillment – of reaching out and grabbing all of those untouchable girls. Which is not only a sexual fantasy, but also a fantasy of Truth that bypasses alethtic play, philosophical consideration, careful reading, and even thinking. Trump has not created a “post-truth” era, he has created a Truth era in which there is no room for mourning. Rather, the Truth of Trump is predicated on figures of repression and rape. This is not to say that Trump has succeeded in convincing all or even most of the United States that his policies are grounded in facts or plausible descriptions of the state of the nation. It is merely to observe that Trump’s “lies” are articulated in a rhetoric of Truth. Trump’s phrase, “grab ‘em by the pussy” after all is not a lie. It is a truth that, however ugly, appeals to some Americans for the fantasy it holds out: the bodies of women, minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ as well as all of those individuals at the intersections of those broad and unwieldy categories can be controlled, violated, and repressed under the auspices of Truth.

      At this risk of sounding maudlin or nostalgic, I wondered this morning, hasn’t the story of American democracy always been a story about Truth? Who gets to say it, decide on it, grab it even? Wouldn’t it be better to turn toward something else or, failing that, remember that Truth, is only ever a bedtime story we tell ourselves, frail and often tragic, a dream fueled, like the dream of Kim Yuna, by mournful eroticism.

    • Anthony Curtis Adler

      Anthony Curtis Adler


      trumping truth

      Thank you for this last reply, which really resonates with many of the things I have been thinking of in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory —and above all how to reconcile my own analysis of celebrity, television, gadgets with the shock of what had just happened. My thoughts on this subject remain inchoate — perhaps it is not entirely clearly what happened! But I think you are absolutely right to call attention to Trump’s “Grab em’ by the pussy” and discover in it a kind of counter-phenomenon (or maybe: counter phenomenology) to alethic play of the gadget. For it seems to be precisely a question of a “masculinist fantasy of fulfillment,” which is to say at once an absolute fantasy (since the fulfillment becomes utterly fantastic) and a non-fantasy (since fantasy is only fantasy if fulfillment is deferred, scuttled). Whereas the alethic play of gadget-life involves endless mediation, back-and-forth, give-and-take, excitement and disappointment, arousal and disarousal, as well as the subtle movement of a hand that is constantly touching against an impenetrable screen, Trump’s grab boasts of immediacy, instantaneity. Not only does the deed itself violate a place of greatest intimacy, as if the touch were finally able to overcome everything untouchable, but there seems to be no time left between thought and the deed. What is at stake here, perhaps, is a fantasy not only about masculine sexuality, but at same time about political power. The fantasy is this: in a world of “special snowflakes”; castrated, effeminate males; blurred gender boundaries; ineffectual managers, pencil pushers, bean counters, Trump is the one who will not only “say it like it is” but “do what he says.” His “Grab em’ by the pussy” could even be said to offer the best evidence for the peculiar efficacy of his words. Because the public utterance of these words already violates a social taboo, because such language is subject to repression, then the saying, already partaking of the pleasure of libidinal release, coincides to a degree with the doing. This, moreover, seems to have something to do with Trump’s celebrity status. It is as though he were telling us: because I am a celebrity, I can get away with talking about how, because I am a celebrity, I can get away with doing the things (violating the bodies of women) that, because I am a celebrity, I can get away with talking about. The proof of the magical efficacy of his words rests on this virtually vicious and viciously virtual circle… The celebrity, in the end, is the one who can boast about because a celebrity. Yet this is, nevertheless, a very peculiar kind of celebrity. Most celebrities have some relation to the “real” in the form of some kind of talent, beauty, or even, as in the case of the Royals, pedigree. Trump has only great wealth, which is not something “real” at all — at least not in the sense of being tangible, palpable, immediately self-evident — but thoroughly abstract. His celebrity, in this way, seems to revolve around the boast: the boast of greatness, the boast of power, the boast of transgressions… In this sense, the fantasy of power that he puts into play is not only masculinist and political, but also rooted in the quintessentially American type of the “salesman.” Trump’s business acumen rests entirely on his capacity to sell the Trump brand— or indeed sell himself as brand. He sells the fantasy of being the “great businessman.” But in a sense even this fantasy has been left desiccated and void. There is not really anything left to sell; no fantasies worth having. Seduction is impossible because resistance futile. The only fantasy left to sell is the non-fantasy of immediate gratification, contact, violence… “Grab em’ by the pussy.”

      I am sympathetic in many ways to your suggestion that we turn away from Truth and toward something else. And I also agree with your point that Trump is not “post-Truth.” But I also think the concept of truth (which I would hesitate to capitalize; indeed it is the plurality of alethic horizons that concerns me most of all) still has something to offer both politics and philosophy. But only if we begin to take a distance from the notion that the truth is something that we can possess— that we can relate to in the mode of owning and having. Perhaps then we are not saying something so different: for me it is a matter of deploying the concept of truth (in its plurality) as part of a discursive strategy of truthing away from Truth.



The Blue Glow at the Dusk of Theory

Celebricities is the book of one untimely born, of one who was “seduced by deconstruction just as its star had begun to fade.” One of the many questions this text poses is what becomes of theory in a post-theory era. Is indulging in high theory truly any better than watching television, which the Adler who put his childish televisionary ways behind him characterized as “a kind of experience that, for all its obvious seductions, is unworthy of being experienced; cannot even be called experience” (3)?

The answer, if Adler ultimately offers any, is yes and no. On the one hand, it seems that television is indeed “a nonexperience and nonlife in the very heart of life” (3), but it is a nonexperience and a nonlife with profound theoretical implications. If we embrace a distinction between philosophy and theory, as Adler clearly does, then the nonexperience of television fulfills one key goal of deconstructive “high theory”: demonstrating the inherent impossibility of the philosophical enterprise. Yet this high vocation of television does not answer the question so much as redouble it: what good is it to study Heidegger if the lowliest couch potato is effectively achieving his goal of a deconstruction of Western metaphysics?

The very form of Adler’s text stages an implicit debate about how a work of theory (or post-theory, or televisionary non-experience) should present itself. The book itself is more or less split in two, between a more recognizably “theoretical” first half and an aphoristic and fragmentary second half. The first half is itself divided, as the torso of a “gruesome synthesis” (60) of Marx and Heidegger is bracketed by reflections on the phenomenology of television.

Though the first half is presented in the form of a traditional philosophical treatise, the “boring” theoretical part never quite connects up to the discussion of the televisionary that at once motivates the discussion of Heidegger and Marx and renders both thinkers somehow inadequate or already passé. The advent of television—which was in the process of occurring just as Heidegger set to work on Being and Time—means that Heidegger is working within a paradigm of lived experience that has already died, if it ever existed at all. The very distinction between Being and beings, so central to every phase of Heidegger’s work, breaks down in the televisionary, which irretrievably flattens out the ontological horizon, which Adler expresses using the admittedly unattractive coinage “being(s).”

Strangely, though, the televisionary drops out of sight for dozens of pages at a time in the first part, which center around reaching a rapprochement between Heidegger and Marx (by way of Althusser) on the concept of the commodity. Neither, as it turns out, is fully adequate to the task, though a complex movement “with Heidegger against Heidegger for Marx” and “with Marx against Marx for Heidegger” will, by “bringing both to a point of undecidability,” enable a quasi-theorization of the commodity that is at the same time an enactment of the non-experience of the commodity itself—in other words, of television.

Yet even television, it seems, is already passé, in the process of being surpassed by the “gadget”—which is Adler’s (strangely antiquated) term for the smartphone. Though the gadget makes it into the subtitle, it is discussed only briefly, whereas television—above all the kind of television that was prominent during Adler’s childhood and adolescence—commands both author and reader’s attention. As a child of roughly the same era as Adler, I found his account of the quasi-liturgical cycle of the televisionary day, from morning show through soap opera to the news and then prime time, compelling and nostalgic. I suspect that he and I spent our summer vacations in much the same way growing up.

Like Adler, I went through an extended period of more or less renouncing television while I fashioned myself into an intellectual. I found that whenever I came back to it, I was an easy target. I could not look away from TVs in public places, even and especially when they were showing nothing of particular interest to me (sports, commercials, talking heads with no sound). Ultimately I immersed myself in the “so-called quality television” that Adler dismisses as not yet or no longer television (30)—pseudo-television that embarks on a quest for the authenticity that television “proper” (if this is the right word) radically forecloses. (Apparently the marketing team was more right than it knew when it came up with the famous slogan: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”)

My journey through the classics of prestige television—The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad—was part of a broader mobilization of my Protestant work ethic that turned the Netflix DVD service into a powerful tool of self-education in film (which my particular form of Protestant upbringing had largely denied me). These shows were the spoonful of sugar to make the Netflix queue go down: not as demanding as an art film, more approachable due to their shorter run-time (though I was quite happy to sit through binge sessions longer than almost any film), yet not quite the time-wasting, purely idle television that I had sworn off in favor of great literature and philosophy.

And that same work ethic drove me to “redeem” my TV time through writing—in my case, a trilogy of short books analyzing TV through the lens of negative character traits (Awkwardness, Why We Love Sociopaths, and Creepiness), with small helpings of “theory” (primarily Heidegger and Freud) to guide me. No longer properly academic (I don’t even use footnotes), but not truly popular (I spend ten pages on Heidegger at one point), one could view them, from the perspective of Adler’s investigation, as one attempt to carry out theory in a post-theory world.

My books are part of a series (Zero Books) that gathered together a whole range of such interventions, a task the editorial team is now continuing with a new series (Repeater Books). The majority are by academics at relatively marginal institutions or the ever-increasing number of para-academics—graduate-educated writers unable to find suitable employment, seeking some way of combining intellectual life with making a living. Many, including myself, Mark Fisher, and Nina Power, first came to prominence in the world of “theory blogging” that had its first major flowering in the middle of the awkwardly unnamed decade that opened our young century.

Since that time, blogging has become more institutionalized—both on the grassroots level of self-proclaimed blog-based philosophical movements (Speculative Realism, Object-Oriented Ontology, Accelerationism) and in the proliferation of blogs attached to journals and academic departments, as well as quasi-institutionalized outlets like Syndicate itself. Meanwhile, many academic and para-academic discussions have moved to Facebook and Twitter. Blogging (including commenting on blog posts) now seems to be too much work, a trend that the increasing institutionalization of blogging likely reinforces. Now a blog builds your brand, provides publicity and exposure, even grants CV lines—a process that I now hypocritically scorn, as someone who has benefited greatly from the good luck of getting in on academic blogging from the ground floor.

As I read the fragmentary second half of Adler’s book, it struck me that this style of reflection would not have been out of place during the heroic era of academic blogging. Each grouping could be a post or series of posts, and the whole would hit that balance between low culture, classic literature, and theory that was such a hallmark of many blogs that I remember fondly. It might even fit in well today. The long numbered list (pp. 146–51) reminds me of a Speculative Realist or OOO blog, happily laying out an axiomatic system in a series of posts, or indeed of the Accelerationist Manifesto. And many sections reminded me of the style of Sam Kriss’s posts, where references to high theory seem almost parodic—not of the theorists themselves (who are presented with painstaking accuracy), but of the very gesture of deploying high theory for pop cultural or political analysis.

More interesting to me are the passages that seem inspired by the style of an unnamed theorist—particularly Agamben and Žižek. The fact that such passages fit seamlessly into the blog-like whole highlights how blog-like both were from the very beginning. Žižek has always worked via the concatenation of passages rather than the systematic construction of books, and many of those passages have been routinely published in blog-like venues before being compiled into his books. Agamben, though he is more elegant and hermetic in his style, also proceeds by way of evocative fragments and often struggles to develop a suitable architectonic structure for his longer works. One might even say that a work like The Idea of Prose—which Ted Jennings once characterized as a book of “devotional readings for atheists”—amounts to a blog avant la lettre.

Adler brings up Agamben’s status as an exemplary contemporary theorist in the section entitled “Listening to Radiohead for the First Time, 17 Years Too Late,” where he pairs him not with Žižek, but with Žižek’s close comrade Alain Badiou. Citing a critic who claims that “to save rock [Radiohead] had to destroy it,” Adler claims that the same is true of Agamben and Badiou for theory. He describes their dubious achievement in a sentence that, like the concluding sentence of the book as a whole, is syntactically a question but lacks a question mark: “And what has been saved, in the end, but the posture of the theorist: a posture of a gesture that is no longer possible as gesture” (174).

This is not only posturing in the derogatory sense, because it has been productive: “They inspired us, no doubt—and they impregnated us with ideas. And we will remain forever their followers, epigones, with small tasks and smaller prospects” (175). Yet it seems that it is also posturing in the derogatory sense: “But we needed them above all because we were afraid that, without them, we would not appear as anything” (175)—which is to say, we need their pose to support our own pose as intellectuals, a pose that is increasingly exposing itself as empty.

In the wake of the Last Theorists, Adler proposes “an occasional, nameless, unidentifiable thinking” (175). Does his own book exemplify this style of thinking? It is occasional, but the majority of occasions are far from contemporary. Many were quite resonant to me as a child of the ’80s and ’90s, but that just highlights how dated they are. Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Madonna—are these really the most pertinent points of reference today?

It is nameless in the sense of not relying on any “big names” for legitimation, at least in the second half, but can such a nostalgic, almost memoiristic work really count as “unidentifiable”? I hesitate here, because there is so little that is truly particular to Adler in this work. The concrete memories that he mentions are always moments where he is somehow relating to television—either watching it (at a particular place and time that immediately fades away in favor of the television itself) or else dismissing and rejecting it (through his posturing as a theorist). Surely few would draw the same conclusions as Adler, but the realm of non-experience he is drawing on is broadly shared by anyone who grew up between the late ’70s and mid-’90s. It is a strange thing that drawing on his own personal experience can lead to a work that is so impersonal—and yet it proves his point as well, if this is an appropriate way to speak about a work that explicitly disclaims the status of an argument.

Is this what the afterlife of theory looks like? If so, then it looks a whole lot like a parody of “continental theory” itself—a mélange of bold declarations about the impossibility of philosophy, a painstakingly close reading of selected figures with unclear stakes, and a slew of gnomic pronouncements of varying degrees of plausibility. Is the parody self-conscious? Sometimes it seems difficult to avoid that conclusion, as when we are treated to a meditation on the fact that Kermit the Frog’s skin is green, “the color of photosynthesis” which “only appears on the surface of the world, where dark, solid matter and the light of the sun converge” (199), or when we learn that the possible offspring of “a teddy bear and a Barbie doll” gives us “a faint premonition of the cliffs on which speculative philosophy will come to grief” (197). And at times we get a glimpse of why this procedure may appear necessary, as in this remarkable reflection found in the section entitled “Things”:

Since almost everything nowadays is created almost exclusively for the sake of novelty, its life is from the beginning an afterlife. The moment the thing exists, it has outlived the only purpose it could have had, which was to be new. (173)

By refusing to be new—by aping the most characteristic gestures of the very “theory” that you proclaim to be over, by being self-consciously out-of-date with nearly every cultural reference—is Adler’s work enacting a refusal to be commodified, a way of bringing the vicious cycle of production to a halt? I suspect that we may be in a better position to answer that question if Adler had published the second half as blog posts and devoted a full book to the “gruesome synthesis” of Marx and Heidegger. But then, I may just be old-fashioned.


  • Anthony Curtis Adler

    Anthony Curtis Adler


    Response to Adam Kotsko

    Epochal pronouncements are perhaps the first thing that would have to go if the age of theory is past, and thus I might hesitate to declare either theory, or philosophy, over and done with: nevertheless I cannot deny, as Adam Kotsko suggests, that in the background of Celebricities, indeed even as its motivating ground, is the feeling—perhaps nothing more than a feeling—that I have come “too late” for theory, not in the sense that theory is no longer possible, but that somehow it is no longer possible through the affective registers that characterized it during its heyday: an enthusiasm for the liberating powers of thought expressed in partisan engagement, devotion to master thinkers, and above all the good faith of making a new beginning, of breaking free from the past, yet while still belonging to a tradition, speaking under its aegis, with a certain institutional authorization. But perhaps these affects come down to this: the “heroic” confidence of being “with it” when “things are really happening.” I suspect, nevertheless, that this feeling is itself nostalgic and illusory—and is itself bound up with a “commodification” of theory that, reaching far deeper than its problematic institutionalization, touches the very truth of theory as an activity, making it complicit, despite its best intentions, with a capitalist mode of production. Perhaps theory and philosophy (I refuse to draw a more than tactical distinction between them) are more possible than ever before—but only by way of a new mood that constitutes itself through a confrontation with the nostalgia for theory.

    The task I took upon myself in writing Celebricities was to find, if only for myself, this mood. It is for just for this reason that, as much as I might agree with Kotsko’s first formulation of the question (“what becomes of theory in a post-theory era”?), I sense a certain misunderstanding playing out in the second: “Is indulging in high theory truly any better than watching television . . . ?” For if I do not give a clear answer to this question, if it indeed seems doubtful that I provide any answer at all, it is because, whatever the validity of this question may be, it is not a question I take it upon myself to ask. It is true, to be sure, that I conceive of television not just as one phenomenon among many, but as a phenomenon that is phenomenological through and through: an experience, which, precisely as nonexperience, brings with it its own condition of possibility. But this is not to claim that television and high theory are equally valuable, equally good, let alone equivalent. Indeed, it does not seem to me to be a question of relative value at all. Rather, at risk of making my project sound more Hegelian that it is, it is a matter of the horizon of thinking (a thinking that is trans-individual and social in character) that implicitly comes into play in watching television; a horizon which, I further argue, plays out in the logic of the commodity, insofar as it institutes “alethic production.”

    If I am unsettled by Kotsko’s tendency to conceive of my project in terms of value judgments that I have no interest in making while ignoring the considerable attention I devote to the question of value in relation to Marx and Heidegger, it is because this underwrites his tendency to exaggerate its negative, “deconstructive,” dimension at the expense of the positive. Kotsko suggests that my book appears as a “parody of ‘continental theory’ itself’—a mélange of bold declarations about the impossibility of philosophy, a painstakingly close reading of selected figures with unclear stakes, and a slew of gnomic pronouncements with varying degrees of plausibility.” I will gladly admit that a parodic impulse is at play, and indeed self-conscious parody. Yet if Celebricities is a parody, it is, I hope, not one whose value exhausts itself in the mere devaluing of theory. If the value of what is parodied consists only in seriousness as an end in itself, then parody, so far as it denies the serious, might be considered purely negative. Yet in the case of “high theory,” a claim to seriousness and a superior cultural value is perhaps quite inessential, and thus the force of my parody is not to deny the insight of high theory (or philosophy), but to bring it into play in an element and a time in which it might seem untimely and out-of-place.

    There is, as Kotsko notes, a willful “untimeliness” to my cultural references. Yet I am not sure that I am “late” in the sense that he seems to imply; much of the second half was first written as an anonymous blog which I began in 2008, while my own theoretical engagement with television goes back to an essay that I wrote in the spring of 2004 on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, eventually published, more than a decade later, by Punctum books. But granted: I do not make the claim to “immediate relevance” that, for better and for worse, the activity of blogging most often depends on, and which has always left me feeling somewhat alienated. Thinking can be “occasional” without referring immediately to what is immediately contemporary. If my cultural references are often, if not always, “dated,” it is because, even when more or less timely, they are mediated by involuntary memory. The time of television, to which alone an involuntary, compulsive memory gains access, is discontinuous, broken; it is above all a question of the moment of legibility. Needed is a practice of reading that seeks to do justice to the “distracted” characteristic of television viewing. It is for this reason that I deemphasize so-called “quality television”: by demanding attentive viewing, it forces a return to a traditional mode of aesthetic valuation. Distracted theory is a part of this technique of distracted reading: it makes it possible to resist the tendency of interpretation toward common sense.




The Moon Belongs to the Siren-Song

How do contemporary media, with their plurality of screens, celebrities, nobodies and gadgets, affect and condition what it is to be? In Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life, Anthony Curtis Adler attends to the limits and possibilities that contemporary media cultures oppose to experience. Reaching back from Heidegger to Rousseau to Plato, phenomenological understandings of being have engaged with the idea of a human life that, able to stand and discern a horizon, has the capacity to foresee the death that conditions its singularity. The real of who I am resides in the fact that no one else can die my death. My death-horizon conditions the Being (Dasein) that is there to be experienced, to be lived. For Adler, the phenomenology that the televisual commodity-form presents to my being, my singularity, is televisual para-existence—or, rather para-existences. The latter amount not to another existence but to a plurality, a system, a conglomeration, a massification of lives that have taken up the human-form within its form. The “system of rhythms” (25) that we watch while living distracts us from our singular being (our authentic relation to our own death) but also captures us and, in doing so, divides us from ourselves.

It is not, writes Adler, that televisual life—and the life of the commodity-gadget—will lead us to the cessation of human existence. Rather, the risk is that our lives will be given up to the commodity that “appropriates Dasein as its own, turning our own Dasein, the very being that we are, against us as the life that is not ours to live” (127). In Celebricities’ “The Gadget” chapter, Adler reads a form of Dasein commodity life into the form of “subjectification” that the Tiqqun collective present in their Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl (127). For Tiqqun (a name that derives from the Hebrew Tikkun olam, meaning reparation or restoration), the Young-Girl emerges at a time when the modes of a condition of production have taken hold of human subjectivity and human subjectivity has revealed itself to have interiorised those commodities. Adler notes the possibility of further understanding the Young-Girl—and what she might tell us about the “alethic” modalities of contemporary media cultures—via “Madonna’s Material Girl” and briefly speculates that the music-videos of South Korean girl groups might reveal the “hidden schema” of an abstract feminine sexuality that simultaneously turns its “gaze back against itself and into its own truth” (129).

Through these and other readings, Celebricities invites us to go amidst television’s non-appropriable distractions, captures and divisions, its life that is “not ours to live.” “Who is this we, this us? Are you with me still?” (134), the book asks its potentially attentive reader(s), as it calls us to think more deeply about the modalities organising televisual life. The response that follows here attends to one aspect of Celebricities’ argument: its reading of “quality television” as “stylised pseudorealism” (30–31) and its reading of the Carousel scene in AMC’s Mad Men (2008–2015) as exemplary of the workings of this form. Through a close reading of another Mad Men scene, I extend Adler’s argument about how quality television co-opts and re-advertises pre-existing forms. Discerning a version of the Young-Girl in Mad Men, my reading then departs somewhat from Adler’s argument that quality television portrays and reproduces nostalgically inflected commodity-fetishism, in order to gesture toward another horizon. This is one that, like the temporal, rhythmic structure of the long-form television series, illuminates uncannily seasonal processes of sexual reproduction that, I suggest, also condition the workings of the commodity-form.

Incorporating and reselling a previous generation of television, quality television is for Adler “stylised pseudorealism” in that it attempts to restore or revive an era of television that is no longer relevant (30–31). Quality television reproduces the televisual commodification that it simultaneously sells and does so not simply through the production of a melancholy longing for the previous era that it fetishises. Quality television, Adler argues, produces a “nostalgia for nostalgia and for the novelty that is its counterpart” (36). Its animation of a dream-time of childhood memories and/or formative years transforms our melancholy for a previous time into the “joy of taking pleasure in the fleeting sense of loss” (36). But this enjoyment derives from television’s alchemy of dream-memories that are, however, “not ours to live.” Television’s dream-memories are, moreover, phantasmatic memories that, mediated by commodity-images, the quality television series restores, captures and reanimates in the service of its own reproduction and self-advertisement. It is Mad Men’s now famous Carousel slide-projector scene that epitomises, for Adler, quality television’s “nostalgia for nostalgia” punctuated by novelty products and gadgets. Like the adman Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) pitch for the Carousel slide-projector that can take us to a “place that we ache to go again” (Don’s words), we now advertise our own phantasmatic memories through social media feeds, as if we are able to restore our earlier selves to ourselves. As Adler writes, however, all that is shown through social media’s hypercommoditisation of our dream-memories is that that earlier place has nothing to reveal (48).

Mad Men’s finale (2015) refers obliquely to the “nothing” that the contemporary adman / quality television series sells. Moving from Adler’s discussion of the Carousel scene, my focus here is on the scenes leading up to, and including, the finale conclusion. The adman Don has, at this stage of the series, fled to the Big Sur yoga meditation retreat, having escaped McCann Erickson, the globally-networked advertising agency that has now subsumed the smaller agency that Don had part-owned and led. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Don calls Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) who, on hearing his distress, urges him to “come home.” Don responds that he can’t leave “here” because he has taken another man’s name and “done nothing with it.” Following these words, the long-running television series concludes with a scene that appears to repair and restore the adman to himself, echoing the terms in which quality television attempts to restore and revive a previous era.

The finale’s very final scene opens with an image of Don standing on a grassy plateau overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is sunrise on the morning of 1 November 1970 (All Saints’ Day, the day after All Hallows Day), signifying the day of restoration that the finale thematises. Despite his multiple falls, including the near breakdown just mentioned, and despite the repeated, multiply-replayed image of his cartoon avatar falling from a skyscraper in Mad Men’s credit sequence, Don here stands still as he gazes out at the ocean horizon. Moments later, the sound of a man’s voice is heard, speaking a prayer: “Mother Sun we greet you and are grateful for the sweetness of the earth.” The camera then pans across a small group, including the prayer-speaker, sitting on the same, grassy plateau. The prayer continues to praise the “new day [that] brings new hope. . . . A new day, new ideas, a new you.” There is a cut to a long shot, revealing the one reciting the prayer is sitting facing the small group, which now includes Don. Dressed in peasant tops that emblematise late ’60s counterculture, the group sits in lotus-position with their backs turned toward the sea, rocks and horizon beyond.

The camera then moves to a close-up of Don’s face, his eyes closed as he sounds a long “om” in unison with the others. While the shot continues, a slow smile spreads across his face, then a female voice is heard singing, “I’d like to build the world a home and furnish it with love. . . .” From the close-up of Don, and while the voice continues, there is a cut to another scene altogether. We now see in close-up the face of the singer whose melody had accompanied the final image of Don. The camera pulls back and, as if somewhat in mimicry of the previous sequence, pans to reveal a congregation of singers also dressed in peasant tops but standing on another hillside in another time. Holding bottles of Coca-Cola, the “hillside singers” sing of how they’d “like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

Mad Men began its first season with a scene in which Don pitches an ad for the cigarette brand Lucky Strike. With its incorporation of the iconic 1971 Coca-Cola advertisement, the spin-off song from which became the pop hit “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” Mad Men concludes by implicitly merging Don Draper’s fictional character with his real-life counterpart Bill Backer (the McCann Erickson creative director who came up with the idea for the 1971 commercial). As I argue elsewhere in relation to season 5, Mad Men is not only a show about advertising but is also itself one long advertisement.1 In the context of Adler’s argument about how quality TV combines “nostalgia for nostalgia” with novelty, we can now see how Mad Men has integrated within its long-form quality “advertisement” a commodity-chorus that, singing of “the real thing” that can keep us “company,” seems to offer the “world” a kind of restoration or repair.

Previous to its rebroadcasting of the ad, the finale merges the first melodic bars of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” with its final image of Don. It is the last we see of him, sitting with his back turned to the horizon with eyes closed, as if listening, impossibly, to the melody. On the terms defined by Adler, the adman is here a figure for a contemporary subjectivity that is captured within the commodity-form. Is this, too, how we should understand the presence of the girl whose face follows after that final image of Don? The face is that of a young girl—or Young-Girl, to use Tiqqun’s hyphenated and capitalised name for the human commodity caught within the commodity-form. The Coca-Cola ad’s Young-Girl(s) are captured within the 1971 advertisement-frame that is itself captured within the television series. Adler writes that advertising is at its most authentic when it presents commodities in their most narcotising dimension. We smoke while watching on television those who smoke and who discretely invite rather than demand us to join them in their sensual-seeming activity (19–20). Like the Lucky Strike cigarette, Coca-Cola is a semi-addictive product, a caffeinated sugar-drink. The quality TV series’ incorporation of the Coca-Cola commercial intensifies the narcotic effect. Tempting us with the retro-appeal of their song, Mad Men’s repurposed Coca-Cola commodity-sirens lure us to a “home” that, though promised as a renovated “world,” is a phantasmagoria of dream-memory images and sounds. Like Odysseus tied to his mast, we may sensually respond but we cannot touch the real of the figures that are caught behind our screens. Significantly, the song lyric addresses not a first-person singular “you” but the “world”—the multiple “they” of television’s lifeworld who have turned Being into undifferentiated being(s), or Heidegger’s das Man, the one (40–41). Promising the pleasure of a total merge, a total connection, the Young-Girl(s) of Mad Men’s finale impossibly offer the possibility of merging with the life that is “not ours to live.”

Arguably, a Young-Girl can be found not just within the finale’s Coca-Cola commercial but within one of Mad Men’s central storylines. As already noted, Don Draper had told Peggy Olsen during his telephone call to her that he had taken the name of a dead man and had “done nothing with it.” Previously in the same season finale, on the morning after Neil Armstrong’s world-historic moon landing, Peggy had introduced her pitch to the fast-food restaurant chain Burger King’s clients by claiming that she could not tell a better story than the televising of the moon landing that they had all watched the night before. She had then delivered a sales spiel about how the pleasure taken from watching the event had revealed how we are all “starving” for connection.

Mad Men’s incorporation and reanimation of advertisements exemplifies Adler’s argument about how quality TV both depends on and reproduces nostalgia for commodity forms. Mad Men is also, however, a costume melodrama about the long 1960s and, viewed another way, its beginning and end refer us not only to preexisting commercials and novelty products but also to what can now—retroactively—be understood as two momentous technological events. At the far end of Mad Men (season 7) the televised moon landing is re-televised for a plot in which, while Peggy delivers the sales pitch referred to above, the advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s founding patriarch Bert Cooper dies while watching the landing. Bert may insist—in the posthumous song and dance routine he performs at the end of this episode—that “the moon belongs to everyone,” but the moon, like advertising, like the Young-Girl, does not always show itself. It conceals as much as reveals itself as it waxes and wanes through its twenty-eight-day cycle.

Not unrelated to the lunar event—and the advancements in space-technology that made it possible—is the series’ brief portrayal of another event tacitly referred to at the beginning of season 1. The pilot episode, set in March 1960, includes a storyline about how Peggy, sexually active for the first time, obtains a doctor’s prescription for oral contraceptives. The Pill, with its hormonal regulation of the twenty-eight-day cycle, first became widely available in 1959. Its invention enabled women’s biomedical control of their own bodily rhythms and reproductive futures, paving the way for a decade in which sexual freedom would be enjoyed alongside its co-option and commodification. It is not until toward the end of season 1 that we learn that, shortly after obtaining the Pill, Peggy has become pregnant. Nine months later, at the end of the first season (November 1960), she belatedly discovers she is pregnant with a child she does not want and, with counsel and assistance from another orphan—her boss Don Draper—she gives birth and then gives the baby up for adoption.

Mad Men’s repurposed advertisements exemplify what Adler calls a dream-memory phantasmagoria. At the same time, and through a series that begins with the invention of the Pill and ends with the moon landing, Mad Men touches on another “real,” another horizon, that points us to uncanny temporal forces and bodily rhythms caught within, but also existing beyond, the frames of its commodity-drama.


  1. See my chapter “Turned Back: Advertising, Televisual Melodrama and Metamorphosis in Mad Men,” in Living Screens (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

  • Anthony Curtis Adler

    Anthony Curtis Adler


    Response to Monique Rooney

    As I was responding to Jan Mieszkowski’s response, I thought quite a bit about falling. A kind of shutter comes over me now as, reading Monique Rooney’s analysis of the finale of Man Men, I am reminded once more of the series’ opening credits: a faceless shadowy suit-man falls against a backdrop of skyscrapers, advertisements projected against glass and steel.

    It has often seemed to me as if a good part of television’s pleasure consists in the repetition of the theme song; almost as if the televisionary events that will unfold are themselves pleasurable only insofar as they are “summed up” in an endlessly repeating theme. This is characteristic, moreover, for the somewhat special role that repetition plays in television: rather than either turning what is ordinarily senseless into a mysterious hieroglyph, or sacralizing the everyday by dissociating it from its ordinary context and endowing it with aesthetic values, it produces another familiarity, another ordinary life, intercalated into the life we live. The theme is a bridge from one life to another life. With the opening credits, this is to say, the show shows itself—advertises itself—as commodity; as that which not only can be possessed over and over again, possessing a kind of self-identity in its repetition, but as epitomizing itself in a single feeling, gesture, mood. The taut, funky bass line is Seinfeld, and draws the limits of its “event horizon,” just as the corny platitudes heralding the Facts of Life make it clear that nothing, good and bad, will happen, not even the fall from innocence, that will not be turned into an opportunity to learn.

    But the opening credits of Mad Men are different: presenting nothing but catastrophe, a falling without end, they do not lead into the proper drama while encapsulating it in commodity form, but offer, with this single simple gesture, not only a commentary on what follows, but a kind of counter-pose and contretemps; indeed, a counterpoint—as if the rising melody of triumphant post-war American capitalism, culminating in the man on the moon and the utopian dreams of the Age of Aquarius, was being played against the economic, social, political, and environmental disintegrations of the twenty-first century. Whereas the drama itself seems to celebrate the evolution of advertising and the commodities which come to life through it, the opening credits have already withdrawn from the affective order of advertising.

    Yet perhaps this counterpoint is, in the end, itself the point of advertising: the rhythm of the commodity, cyclic and ascendant, spiraling upwards as it recovers and finds its balance again after every disaster, would always have to take place against the backdrop of an absolute disaster. The finality of death, the truth of finitude, is overcome when we learn that life is nothing else than the opportunity to finally learn how to live. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have: the facts of life, the facts of life. I was a bit discomfited watching Maura Pfefferman, former professor of political science, whose name, changed from death, sounds almost like fate, singing this schlocky song in the third season of Transparent. But perhaps Hegel and Socrates could also join in the chorus; it will take Nietzsche to point out the tragic despair behind their pedagogical optimism.

    The rhythm of the commodity presumes, and anticipates, that the world is over, or at least, as we could almost imagine Heidegger saying, that it is homeless. But there is no need to imagine: the Young-Girls are already there, gathered in a hill in Italy—right outside Rome, in fact, only hours from the Palatine; coke bottles in hand, they are singing: I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love. Perhaps the world already has a home, or does not need one. Or perhaps the world is a world only in its homelessness. These questions don’t trouble the angelic chorus as it hovers above the birthplace of empire. But let us suppose that the world needs a home. How could the world exist at all without already having everything that it needs to be what it is? And isn’t it clear that the home of the world is simply the earth. It is not that they (singing as a chorus of “I”s) want to make sure the world has a home, but that they want to buy it a second home, another home. (When the jingle becomes a pop song, “buy” becomes “build.”) This uncanny doubling of homes, revealing itself as the telos of all “purchasing power” and commodity-consumption—and hence as the deepest desire of the Young-Girl—is what brings forth second life as learning experience. The world must become docile, allowing itself to be taught the harmonia mundi of the commodity, forgetting its first home, the earth, in the name of new rhythms, new cycles, new growth. Coca-Cola. It’s the real thing. Even though, of course, we all know it’s not even the real, original, fully-addictive Coke.

    The last season of Mad Men, Rooney notes, brings together the “invention” of the iconic Coca-Cola ad, now attributed to Don Draper, with the re-television of the televised moon landing. The lunar landing—as is clear from the death of the “founding patriarch Bert Cooper”; as is clear from Peggy Olson’s own confession, amid her professional ascendance, that “she could not tell a better story than the televising of the moon-landing”—represents a limit to the commodity-advertising complex. The commodity has bought the world another home, as bleak and inhospitable as it may be. The phantasmagoria of the commodity is of essence extraterrestrial. But, Rooney further notes: “the moon, like advertising, like the Young-Girl, does not always show itself. It conceals as much as reveals itself as it waxes and wanes through its twenty-eight-day cycle.” Perhaps it is precisely this that allows the extraterrestrial commodity to double the play of world and earth that, for Heidegger, is put into play through the work of art.




Snap, Crackle, Pop

Celebricities opens by reminding us just how remarkable it is that we are able to walk. As “we shift our weight from one foot to another, falling away from stable ground with each step,” we are, with a dexterity and poise we can scarcely recognize, forever “falling into the abyss, almost beyond the point of no return; and yet somehow hindered, impeded, held back” (1). In directing our attention to the deceptive simplicity of our ambulatory rhythms and to the complex gymnastics that keep us upright, the dynamics of the walk bring us to the dynamics of thinking: “Thinking also has its stride and its gait, its grace and elegance and flow, and its faults and faltering and clumsiness” (1). Having recognized the potential precariousness of our mental and physical flânerie, the next step in these reflections on the step is to disrupt the pace and tread of reflection itself in order to make it possible to explicitly conceptualize the near-abyssal fall and recovery that thought undergoes with each move.

The goal is not to further buttress ourselves against taking a spill. Rather, we have to ask what it would mean for thinking to stumble without vigorously—instinctively—seeking to right itself. What if our modes of inquiry were not first and foremost organized to correct or outright avoid any and every misstep? What if staying on track were no longer the goal of goals? Having raised these questions, Celebricities tries not to subordinate its demonstrations to the methodological and argumentative conventions designed to ensure that any impending bumps in the road have always already been anticipated. Importantly, this cannot simply mean forging a new path for others to follow, nor wandering on stray paths in an effort to get somewhere by getting nowhere. In both these cases, the integrity of the walk and one’s ability to walk the walk would remain uninterrogated.

On this basis, we might suppose that the goal of this book will be to reveal that the correct step is always a misstep, but the figure of the faux pas implicitly confirms the authority of a rule or standard on the basis of which each step’s potential aberrance is evaluated. More than a mere faux pas, each move—backward or forward—must be un pas au-delà. At once a step beyond steps and a step beyond the logic of the beyond, this para-logic will remain at best quasi-transcendental insofar as it will be forever compromised by the specter of the proverbial ne . . . pas, a laggard half-negation that will plague our proposed conceptual gait without giving us the benefit of a fixed determination to affirm or reject.

Having begun to grapple with the vicissitudes of these complex promenades, it is only a few more steps into the book until the advent of the Walkman is designated as a key moment in the process by which the commodity-gadget starts to appropriate the temporality, moods, and (in)authenticities of our world, putting the ownness of our Dasein into play as its own (128). Does this mean that the gadget has a characteristic stride or pace, or does it merely toy with ours? In what follows, I want to suggest that if we are to have any hope of interrupting the imminent hegemony of the gadget’s affectless auto-affectivity, we must look for glimpses of this commodity-life not just at the moment of its emergence, but at the moment that it acquires its distinctive walk.

To help us understand the imminent hegemony of the commodity, Adler directs us to music videos in which what seem to be run-of-the-mill exploitations of hypersexualized female bodies instead betray the co-option of the male gaze by the very fantasy object it ostensibly produced. This inversion is exemplified by Madonna’s Material Girl, who “joyfully materialized through her desire for materiality, taking ownership of her desire as commodity-desire” (129). Going a step further, Adler locates a fuller expression of these tendencies in the girl groups of contemporary South Korean K-Pop. Meticulously groomed epitomes of teeny-bopper allure with identical haircuts, skimpy outfits, and plastic surgery faces, these young women are part of the performance in which the commodity acts out its own self-commodification and self-consumption, articulating a pop ontology uniquely its own.

If today commodity being is indeed the way to be, or well on its way to becoming so, the question is whether the commodity-gadget’s own gait is as stumble-proof as might sometimes appear to be the case. In September 2015, the popular South Korean girl band GFriend achieved new heights of domestic as well as international fame when a four-minute video of them performing their hit song “Me Gustas Tu” went viral on YouTube. Archetypes of their genre, the band’s musical routines are exercises in extreme standardization. Each young lady is a cookie-cutter clone of the next, and they do not so much dance as slickly position and reposition themselves in various configurations. If they are lip-synching the lyrics, they are equally foot-synching the choreography. In the particular performance immortalized on video, however, the imperatives of mechanization and routinization were temporarily suspended as one of the six members of the group repeatedly fell, in a couple of cases crashing to the stage with such force that the wincing viewer could not help but wonder whether she would be able to continue. As it turned out, she did get up after each fall and ultimately saw the performance through to its meticulously scripted close.

Who was this band member who refused to content herself with the normal rhythms of the commodity spectacle and instead set out to confront the abyssal crashes that the show itself cannot afford to think? Several accounts of the ill-fated routine observed that the girl in question can easily be identified in the video because she alone has a protective bandage on her knee. It would appear that the de-individuation of the members of GFriend has been taken so far that falling every forty-five seconds does not suffice to make one stand out, a conclusion confirmed by an article in the Daily Mail that described the six girls falling “one by one.” Under the reign of the commodity-gadget, the bond between subject and predicate, actor and act, is broken, and the falls circulate freely, to be linked up indifferently with any or all of the performers. This conclusion is reinforced by the curious non-role that cause and effect play in the stories about this event. A number of English-language reports mentioned that rain had dampened the stage, which could certainly explain why an ordinarily sure-footed performer would repeatedly fall. It would not, however, explain why one girl in particular would do all the falling, yet strangely none of the journalists who covered the story took the obvious step of suggesting that perhaps her knee wrap was evidence of a lingering injury that had made her especially vulnerable to losing her balance. In other words, no matter how many times she fell, the falls were never conclusively attributed to her or identified as evidence of something unique to her on that particular day.

Perhaps in response to this unsettling of the traditional tropes of agency and responsibility, several entertainment writers went to some lengths to cast the unfortunate member of GFriend as a heroine who taught us, as Time magazine put it, that “no matter how many times life knocks you down, [you should] just get back up and carry on.” On YouTube, the ultimate arena of the commodity gadget, all endeavors are reduced to the same banal parable about courage and resolve, be it a rat dragging a piece of pizza five times its size or the epic feats of firemen rescuing babies from burning buildings. Indeed, in this medium the imperative to allegorize is so intense that it proves curiously difficult for anyone to watch any given video with any care, even when it is only four minutes long. Despite the existence of a crystal clear document of the event that could never have been more than a few taps away on their phones, the journalists reporting on the exploits of GFriend could not agree on exactly how many falls took place during the performance. While the Daily Mail referred to five, Time magazine described one performer falling eight times and another member of the band falling once, figures echoed by a report in Cosmopolitan.

By my count, one girl fell five times and another fell once. We could watch and count again, but this only highlights the fact that where such a video is concerned, what really counts—arguably the only thing that counts—is the number of times it has been viewed. In South Korean K-Pop, this truth was graphically illustrated by the triumph of megastar Psy, who became world famous when his “Gangnam Style” video literally broke the YouTube counter by exceeding the maximum number of views (2,147,483,647) that could be logged thanks to the company’s decision to store the view count for each video as a 32-bit integer.

Naturally the number of views of a video does not exist in a one-to-one relationship with the number of human beings who have actually watched it any more than the number of falls in the GFriend dance performance aligns perfectly with the number of performers in the group. Left undisturbed, a web browser that starts playing YouTube will proceed from one offering to the next indefinitely, irrespective of whether anyone is around to see or hear. Like crashing to the stage during a K-Pop performance, “watching” a YouTube video is a purely abstract, self-externalizing activity, to the point that spectatorship itself can start to seem like an antiquated concept, grounded in decidedly inoperative notions of subject and object, experience and event.

Among other things, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video is known for its peculiar “horse trot” dance. Like a philosopher searching for a special walk that will allow him to think the unthought, Psy maintains that he stayed up late exploring different choreographic options for thirty consecutive nights, precisely ten less than required to count as a biblical reference. (Rejected options included “panda” and “kangaroo” moves.) That Psy’s search for a gait would take him into the animal kingdom paradoxically bespeaks a last gasp of humanism, as if patterning our movements on those of other mammals were the only way that our dancing (and falling) could be something other than cannon fodder for the commodity in its own playful acts of self-determination. In this respect, we might say that the YouTube view counter is the pedometer of the commodity-gadget’s being-in-the-world. (How many steps did I take today, how many thoughts did I have, and how many times was I seen doing all of this?) Of course, in contrast to the recording of GFriend’s live performance, Psy’s video is impossibly slick, almost comically so. Even as his ontological pedometer has reached 2.6 billion and beyond, he has never fallen, not even once.

One might suppose that the very fact that there is so much interest in seeing a South Korean girl band botch its routine is evidence that the gadget-commodity is not all-powerful, at least not yet. Perhaps our concern for the unlucky tumbler(s) suggests a reassertion of our gaze as we exude paternalistic sympathy for the pretty girls in distress. Is there not in fact a “we” fantasizing that it could have been there to help them up when they fell?

At the same time, the real provocation of the GFriend video may be that it shows us what Dance like nobody’s watching really means. The argument of Celebricities is that a truly radical contingency creates its own a priori conditions of possibility after the fact, retroactively undoing its status as contingent. The gadget is ontologically “potent” insofar as it effects such a “transcendental shock,” as Adler terms it, redrawing the very modalities of truth (52). It is in this sense that he argues that the commodity comes to exist for itself and not for an other, for instance, us. What this argument potentially leaves unchallenged is the assumption that alethic production is an intrinsically self-referential, self-legitimating act. It may be that the truth that the gadget impossibly brings into being is neither its own nor ours. In hijacking our concern with our own being, the gadget undercuts the authority of both self-concern and—perhaps most crucially—ownership, breaking the implicit connection between being and having. In its being-beyond-concern and being-beyond-owning-it, the pop event would alter the ontological order, but not in a way that would retroactively make its own existence comprehensible. The contingent would thus remain genuinely random, in both the old paradigm and the new. Impossibly—but what isn’t here?—ontological claims and truth claims would no longer be one and the same, and instead of transcendental shock, we would have transcendental schlock. Or to put this slightly differently, if being-toward-death is the ownmost possibility of Dasein precisely insofar as it is the condition of Dasein’s impossibility to be, then the sequel to Being and Time currently being authored by K-Pop bands is undoubtedly titled Dead Can Dance.

  • Anthony Curtis Adler

    Anthony Curtis Adler


    Response to Jan Mieszkowski

    Reading Jan Mieszkowski’s response to my Celebricities, and especially his marvelous account of der Fall Gfriend, makes me realize a thematic continuity in my research that I had not fully appreciated before. In my dissertation, a study of Friedrich Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion, I argue that dance, despite its relatively small presence in his writings, comes to serve as a central and privileged point of reference for rethinking the political aesthetics of poetry in light of the emergence of an “economic” view of life. While I discuss dance only a few times in Celebricities, I see now that it might actually provide a powerful conceptual apparatus for gaining greater clarity about what is perhaps the most fundamental, but also difficult and precarious, claim that I make: that the gadget-commodity takes over Dasein—human existence in its irreducible singularity—that it appropriates it as its own; not just that it becomes alive, but that it lives as us and for us. This claim loses its fanatical and strange quality if we think of it in terms, echoing Marx, of the commodity beginning to dance, and precisely insofar as dance, as is perhaps most evident in the formal and academic language of ballet, transforms the seeming fixity of human essence into an endless danger of becoming: becoming-machine, becoming-human, becoming-animal, becoming-divine. The capitalist regime of the commodity, in this sense, might be understood as a rhythmic ordering of events that dissolves everything (human, animals, inanimate nature, artifacts) into this play of becoming while at the same time orchestrating a seemingly inviolate continuity. Ideology would be nothing else than simply the sense of continuity, which is not simple and geometric but, like the set-theoretical construction of the real number system, is built from discrete elements.

    Or in other words, the basic gesture of ideology comes down to this: showing that every fall, every crash, every lapse and relapse is already on the way to its recovery, or is in fact already its own recovery. (Perhaps this is why the Internet loves cats: they possess an almost infinite gift for falling gracefully.) Dance is not least of all the art of falling: it takes the fall up into itself, whether by (as in ballet’s tombé) translating it into upward, leaping momentum, or (as in modern dance) developing it into a more autonomous expressive register. The uncanny force of the Gfriend video, amid the already uncanny tendency of KPop girl groups to choreograph a “zone of indistinction” between Young-Girl and commodity, seems to consist in this: since the aesthetics of dance uses repetition to “sanction” movements and bestow on them the ideality by which they can function as expressive forms, the repetition of a fall that at first seems completely contingent, a pure accident that has nothing to do with the performance, endows it with a disturbing ambiguity: to the very degree that the fall is appropriated into the performance, becoming a “performed fall” that belongs to the continuity of the dance, it seems to reveal not only a failed performance, but a performance of failure. Instead of demonstrating the perfected sexual-social functionality of the Young-Girl(s) performing—their disindividuating interchangeability as materialized signifiers of the perfect self-eroticizing object of heteronormative male desire (the Young-Girl-Friend as such)—the performance turns into a catastrophe. But of course there is always hope of recovery: secondary narratives, as Mieszkowski points out, arrive in the nick of time to save the day by spinning a story of individual triumph over adversity.

    There is a connection, as I have already intimated, between the play of stepping and falling, auto-affective autoeroticism, and the alethic play of un-concealment. Each involves appropriating the abyssal un-ground—a moment of absolute exteriority—as transcendental ground. Rhythm is of the essence of this appropriation, and there is no thinking apart from such a rhythm of repetition. But would this not then suggest that ideology and thinking cannot be kept apart? What is the difference between thinking gadgets and a gadget-like thinking of the gadget? Might I not have taken upon myself, in the name of philosophy, the maieutic task of enabling the commodity to think itself? This is perhaps another way of putting the probing criticism that Mieszkowski raises in the conclusion of his response:

    What this argument potentially leaves unchallenged is the assumption that alethic production is an intrinsically self-referential, self-legitimating act. It may be that the truth that the gadget impossibly brings into being is neither its own nor ours. In hijacking our concern with our own being, the gadget undercuts the authority of both self-concern and—perhaps most crucially—ownership, breaking the implicit connection between being and having.

    The difference between gadget-thinking and the thinking that Celebricities itself undertakes perhaps comes down to this: whereas the gadget-commodity appropriates truth-play as its own, and hence as self-referential and self-legitimating, Celebricities seeks to dislocate truth-play into a third, “neutral” element in which it not only belongs neither to the gadget nor to us, but does not properly belong at all. Thus I write in the transitional final chapter of the first part: “The prevaricating construction of the life of the commodity-gadget, of its truth and event, is also a way of inhabiting this truth and event—dwelling in it without appropriating; without seeking to return the dwelling to the abode of the proper; dwelling in this strangeness, as strangeness; dwelling in it as out there.”

    • Avatar

      Jan Mieszkowski


      Can you walk on your head?

      I found Adler’s elaboration on the question of dance compelling, particularly this point: “There is a connection . . . between the play of stepping and falling, auto-affective autoeroticism, and the alethic play of un-concealment. Each involves appropriating the abyssal un-ground—a moment of absolute exteriority—as transcendental ground.” I was reminded of a moment in Paul Celan’s Meridian Address when he is discussing the opening line of Georg Büchner’s novella fragment Lenz, in which it is said of the protagonist that “sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Celan comments: “He who walks on his head, ladies and gentlemen—he who walks on his head, has the sky beneath himself as an abyss.” Celan is characterizing the impossibility of a simple inversion—or as Adler says “appropriation”—whereby the “abyssal un-ground” would become a “transcendental ground.” This is close to what Adler says in Celebricities about “dwelling . . . without appropriating.” I’m not sure, however, that Celan would like the term “neutral,” which Adler uses here in his response to characterize the non-appropriative non-belonging of truth-play. At the very least, we would need to clarify to what extent this neutrality is decidedly not benign or non-violent. To this end, it might be useful to think more about the term “transcendental.” In this context, it’s not obvious to me that it’s one half of a transcendental/empirical dichotomy, but I don’t think that the relevant distinction is immanent/transcendent, either. Maybe the interesting question is why mobilizing the full resources of Marxist and Heideggerian conceptuality doesn’t suffice to make this—Kantian—language go away. (And what other vestiges of Kantian thought may also be lurking in the wings?) In this regard, is what Adler calls “dwelling” to be thought of as an alternative to a rhythmic dynamic? In other words, is the “inhabiting [of] this truth and event” no longer a form of dancing, and if not, how did walking on our heads become a way to leave the register of movement altogether?

    • Anthony Curtis Adler

      Anthony Curtis Adler


      The double abyss

      The quote from Celan is very apt, not least of all because it recalls (Celan, I would suppose, had this in mind) these words from Hölderlin’s Reflexion”: “Man kann auch in die Höhe fallen, so wie in die Tiefe. Das leztere verhindert der elastische Geist, das erstere die Schwerkraft, die in nüchternem Besinnen liegt.” [”One can also fall into the heights, just as into the depths. The latter is prevented by elastic spirit, the former by the gravity of sober reflection.”] The poet, Hölderlin seems to be telling us, is the one who, having forsaken the seeming security of an earthly ground, is exposed to a double abyss. For indeed: the earthly and heavenly — empirical and transcendental — grounds depend on each other. The idea of God as creator keeps things from dissolving into flux, and yet God can only be comprehended when understood in terms of the finite things that He/She/It created. Yet the task of the poet, exposed to this double abyss, is to find a new measure, a new moderation beyond what we might call, a bit cheekily, the measure and moderation of “ideology.”
      In this sense perhaps it might have been better to speak not of “neutrality” but of a “hovering.” The problem with neutrality is that it is completely dependent on the conceptual binaries that it defines itself against. The neutral country refuses to take sides; but sides must already be taken for this refusal to make any sense… The neutral seeks to withdraw from the violence of conflict, but it occupies a space that is only possible if there is conflict—and hence it cannot but affirm the violent order itself even as it refuses to take sides with this or that act of violence. Hölderlin’s hovering, by contrast, begins by exposing itself to the double violence that is always at work in “everyday life,” but also concealed in its works; concealed behind the comforting finitude of things.
      This hovering is precisely what I mean by a non-appropriative dwelling. Appropriation is not violence itself, but the ideology of violence; the concealment of violence by justifying it, divinizing it, naturalizing it… Likewise: the “inhabiting [of] this truth and event” of which I speak is still a kind of dancing, and perhaps even a rhythmic movement. One might distinguish between dancing and an “ideology” of dancing. The ideology of dancing turns the rhythm of dance into a rhythm of appropriation. But resistance to appropriation, to ideology is an ongoing task, and perhaps ultimately an impossible task. There is no ideological solution to ideology, just as there is no violent, or non-violent solution to violence; only never ending poetic and philosophical resistance…Counter-rhythmic rhythms.
      Mieszkowski writes: “Maybe the interesting question is why mobilizing the full resources of Marxist and Heideggerian conceptuality doesn’t suffice to make this—Kantian—language go away. (And what other vestiges of Kantian thought may also be lurking in the wings?)” I very much agree: this is the question, and it continues to trouble me. I wonder, though, whether we should be so quick to wish to conjure away the last trace of Kantianism, lurking, hovering, in the wings; eagerly awaiting another chance to rush out on stage. This very question is itself a Kantian question: a critical question… And it all has to do with the sense of the transcendental. Perhaps the transcendental is not a destination for thinking, safely contained in one or another dualism, but a tendency, a tension, a restlessness.




Of the “History” of “Truth”


Laughter bursts out. And yet, in privileged moments that are less moments than always sketched out movements of experience, rare, discreet, light, without triumphant inanity, far from the public square, quite near to that at which laughter laughs: to anxiety, first of all, which must not even be called the negative of laughter at the risk of being snatched once more by Hegel’s discourse.

—Jacques Derrida1

From the many wonderful passages in Anthony Adler’s Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life (Fordham UP, 2016), I want to begin by singling out one moment in which what is at stake is laughter—a laughter that, I would argue, bears an affinity with that explosive, though oblique, laughter that Jacques Derrida saw as singularly emblematic of Georges Bataille’s “exit strategy” from Hegelianism in particular and philosophical discourse in general. For one of the major merits of Celebricities to my eyes lies 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 is to be taken up once more.

The moment of Adler’s book that focuses on the laughter of Beavis and Butt-Head.2 In a remarkable reading of one episode (“True Crime”) of the series, Adler shows why this particular laughter of Beavis and Butt-Head is one of his privileged “phenomena:” In this episode, Beavis and Butt-Head, after using Michael Jordan’s ATM card to withdraw cash, find themselves on the couch, laughing, as the TV shows that somebody is being arrested, without knowing that they themselves are the butt of their own joke. For Adler, it is because their laughter in this episode corrodes the structure of self-referentiality that would enable the who of laughter to identify itself with the what of laughter. This separation between “self” and “itself” short-circuits not only the specular circle of ipseity but even the hermeneutic circle of Dasein and exceeds the orbit of theatrical notions of irony that presuppose a unity behind such a doubling. And yet, this laughter is still indexed to a singularity that, in its laughter, shows itself, but without being able to show itself as itself. Beavis and Butt-Head’s laughter exceeds the purview of an understanding of life that is each time “my own,” whether it is lived in authenticity or in inauthenticity.

If, through their laughter, Beavis and Butt-Head become more emblematic for Adler of what he calls “televisionary life” than The Wire or Madmen, it is because this scene discloses that “TV is the phenomenology of an everyday life that can never be turned around from inauthenticity to authenticity; an everyday life that never calls us, that never names us, that lacks even the prospect of a mineness that is continually evaded” (27). This moment alone is enough to justify Adler’s own characterization of his book as a “parody” of Being and Time (4). For, on the one hand, the “phenomenology” of “TV” presents an “everyday life” in which the viewer remains incapable of moving from inauthenticity to authenticity. And, on the other hand, the ontological elaboration of TV as phenomenology is not impaired by the nonexistence of an authentic “televisionary life”—something that cannot be said for Being and Time.3 The TV viewer that, for Adler, we all are, is neither Dasein nor a Mitdasein, since it lives in the suspension of any proper, authentic, life—beginning with its own.

Before I continue this line of thought, I want to raise a couple of questions around what I take to be Adler’s unstated or, to put it better, unexamined assumption regarding the fact that “we all” live in an epoch that has not only rendered the phenomenology and the ontology of Dasein obsolete and that also couldn’t even be said to be the epoch of “televisionary life,” but rather of its transformation into “gadget commodity life.” Although at the very end of the first section, Adler seems to trouble his own unrestrained use of the plural personal pronoun “we” throughout the book (132), it remains the case that nowhere in Celebricities do we find a serious attempt from Adler’s part to dwell with what, for lack of a better term, we could provisionally call the “factic” or “ontic” differences in the penetration and distribution of “gadget commodity life,” which may or may not complicate Adler’s account of this epochal, ontologico-historical transformation. The fact that he moves swiftly from a geographical landscape that, while rooted in Hollywood (coincidentally, where I am writing these lines), brings the Franco-German borders of the Rhein, and parts of East Asia (mostly Korea and Japan) within the world of celebricity, proves that Adler is by no means beholden to a monolithic or Eurocentric understanding of what counts as the world. And yet, he seems rather comfortable in his capacity to carry out his analysis as if this question regarding the possibility of a plurality of worlds that would display a difference vis-à-vis the increasing transformation of everyday life as televisionary, gadget, commodity life had already been settled, or, at least, as if the possibility of this difference did not matter for his own questioning and the insights that it has to offer. This possibility of a discrepancy or of a difference within what Adler nonetheless argues convincingly is a fundamental and under-examined transformation of life and the world would not pose any problem if Adler were simply doing a fundamental ontology of the gadget that retained the faith in the power of transcendental phenomenology to illuminate all entities solely on the basis of their conditions of possibility. But since Adler insists that the “new being” itself that appears first as televisionary life and more intensely as the gadget, is a being that is “no longer a being, anticipating an unprecedented horizon, but it is both a being and being, being(s), having taken upon itself the alethic, phenomenological reproduction of production itself as coming into appearance, as the play of truth” (131), since, for Adler, “being(s)” makes it impossible to circumscribe the “essencing of truth” to the withdrawal of Being to the extent that it is being(s) themselves that are “now” both withdrawn and revealed, then the question of what otherwise could only be considered to be ontic—such as whether gadget commodity appears here or there in the way that, according to Adler, characterizes our epoch—should not be so easily ignored.

From this excursus it should be clear that, when Adler characterizes the first part of his book as a parody of Being and Time, he must have written that out of modesty since his book offers not only a parody and a probing examination of Heidegger’s masterpiece but also of his thinking at least until the mid-’50s, well beyond the so-called “turn” (“Kehre”). The fact that Adler’s Celebricities tells a history, as it were, of TV-time’s becoming absolute, separated from the ebbs and flows of a life whose everydayness was, until recently, still organized around more or less fixed demarcations separating work-time, family-time, rest-time, and play-time; the fact that Adler’s text brings us to the historical threshold that obtains when the gadget has begun to transform “our” everydayness to such an extent that it is no longer even “oursnot to live, that is, not anymore “ours” as a life that can only be lived in its irremediable inauthenticity; the fact that the time of our lives, even the very Da– of our television-hooked, resolutely improper Dasein, has become for Adler nothing more than the site in which the gadget “plays us” (128)—all of this can be read as a thoughtful, parodic, and intensely historical repetition of Heidegger’s thinking of Gestell. Most strongly elaborated in his 1954 Bremen Lectures, Heidegger turns to the word “Gestell,” often translated as “positionality” or “enframing,” in order to name the non-technological essence of modern technology as the leveling down of all ontic-ontological differences and the transformation of all beings into “standing reserve” that are in principle always available, equatable, presentable, replaceable, and are so in order to fulfill any technological aims whatsoever.

It is at this point in Heidegger’s thinking, at the moment of danger in which being persecutes itself with its own disappearance, that Adler turns away from Heidegger to Marx in order to read the former through the latter and the latter through the former in an effort to find other ways of taking up the question of the task of thinking in an epoch in which capitalism’s reduction to general equivalence has become more absolute than even Heidegger’s thinking of Gestell would allow. Since I don’t have time to explore in more detail Adler’s remarkable and suggestive, if at times exceedingly dense, readings of Marx and Althusser about the status of the commodity and the question of ideology, I want to bring my response to a close by bringing the reader’s attention—and Adler’s—to some of his concluding remarks in the penultimate chapter, which deal explicitly with the limits of Heidegger’s thinking as they are disclosed by the life of the “gadget-commodity.”4

For Adler, the “commodity gadget” takes Dasein’s place, indeed we could even say that it becomes Dasein to the extent that it becomes the very Da- of Da-sein, occurring itself properly by appropriating for itself the place in which the play of unconcealment and concealment unfolds as its innermost property, forcing our own “Dasein” to be a simple witness to its “truthless truth.” Although later on Adler adds that “we are not quite there yet” (130), we can see the kind of history that Adler is beginning to intimate here: a history in which “surplus value” would become fully autonomous with regards to both “use value” and “exchange value,” a history of consumption in which the only truth will be the “truthless” truth of the commodity, whose value itself is nothing other than “play” as the value of all values, beyond any use and any exchange (130). It is from the perspective of this dangerous history, which is already here and yet remains to come, that Heidegger’s thinking appears as not quite up to the task: “The more that thinking thinks it has evaded the danger by becoming once again receptive to being, the greater the danger becomes, since it is precisely as a kind of commodity-forgetfulness, and indeed commodity-self-forgetfulness, rather than the forgetfulness of being, that the commodity will seek to take the play of the truth upon itself” (129).

Still, what of truth? And of the “truthless” truth of the commodity? From where can “we” anticipate that what awaits us while already being here is a situation of truthlessness? In spite of all appearances, Adler is not arguing for a return to a humanism, not even of a Heideggerian kind, even if his text operates for the most part within a tone that is certainly closer to the explicit and implicit humanisms of thinkers such as Heidegger, Benjamin, or Adorno, than to the less humanist tones of Derrida or Deleuze. And yet, the identification of thinking with the task of exposing “the life of the thing” to a “third” life that would neither be that of the commodity nor of Dasein seems to me rather unconvincing (130). And for two main reasons, which are interrelated. On the one hand, because the constellation of terms that are brought together to scaffold the articulation of this task are, at best, problematic. For, according to Adler, in order to accomplish this task one must commit oneself to the following: )a) philosophy must be the distinction between truth and non-truth, (b) the philosopher must commit to such an understanding of this task (commit to commitment), (c) only on the basis of such a de-cision will the political become possible, (d) truth is perhaps nothing other than responsibility to the new “being(s),” (e) praxis is political when it tends “toward” truth, rather than, as one is supposed to assume is the case now and will continue to be in the future, “untruth” (131). My question to Adler is this: How will the truth of being(s), which up to this point has been identified exclusively with the truthlessness of a commodity and its celebrity—best “exemplified” in its a-phenomenality by Madonna’s music videos and K-Pop girl groups—how will this truthless truth become the play of truth? Is it a matter of both affirming this truthlessness of commodities and affirming our responsibility for the fact that they have been produced? Or does Adler envision a more profound transformation? Given that a certain untruth belongs to the play of truth if this play is to be a play at all, then what is Adler inviting us to think and, above all, to do when he calls us to philosophy’s political task and understands the latter as the reassertion of truth against untruth, which could well be the inaugural decision that founds both the philosophy and the politics that Adler suggests has already reached its point of exhaustion?

While echoing my earlier excursus, the second reason why I remain dissatisfied with Adler at this point also addresses the status of truth in his thinking. Adler’s analyses of celebricity through the exposition of “things” such as “Michael Jackson,” The Gilmore Girls, Seinfeld, and, my personal favorite, Frasier, are not only incredibly lucid but philosophically stimulating. It is truly a joy to read theoretical writing so beautiful and rigorous. That said, his analyses of Madonna, of K-Pop girl groups, and of any other “being(s)” that bring up the question of sexual difference strike me as indicative of Adler’s willingness to repeat, without at all displacing or troubling, the phallogocentrism that is part and parcel of Western philosophy’s determination of truth as unconcealment. Indeed, at times it is clear that, for Adler, the truthless truth of the commodity is, as in Nietzsche, a “woman,” but one that at first seems to have been produced by an objectifying male gaze but then “banishes every trace of the masculine or reduces it to a position of mere servitude and secondary objectification” (129). Though remarks like these have helped me to understand Benjamin’s remarks about the commodity as a prostitute, I am not entirely sure that I am willing to follow Adler as he repeats this particular tradition of thinking of truth, the commodity, and the truth of the commodity, as a woman. This is not at all to suggest that Adler’s analyses are sexist, but rather to point out that the horizon in which his writing unfolds, with striking confidence and remarkable comfort, seems to rely precisely on a constellation of traditional concepts, names, and metaphors that bring with them “old horizons of understanding” (131), at the moment in which, according to Adler himself, what is needed is to take political responsibility for the new as the truthful event of the play of truth.

This hesitation leads me to one last thought. More than a thought, it is a hunch that persists in the midst of the excitement that I still feel after having finished reading a book as brilliant and as innovative as Celebricities. For I almost feel as if there were a certain necessity to some of Adler’s decisions—even when he explicitly claims to have decided for in-decision, for instance, between “being” and “beings” (75)—and as if this necessity became more patently obvious in those moments in Adler’s text in which he engages—or, to be more precise, dismisses, if not disavows—Derrida’s deconstruction as an ineffectual theoretical exercise that consists in turning the very singularity of the “opening of language” into quasi-ultra-transcendental condition (161), or simply as an ethics of the Other that, in fact, plays into the commodity’s play all the more as it claims to expose itself to the “to come.” Though Adler’s decision against Derrida is understandable and to a certain extent justified—especially if this decision is more a decision against a certain strand in his reception that remains content with identifying the ultra-transcendental conditions of deconstruction as the ur-logic of life as such—I cannot help the thought that the situation is more complicated and that, a more open engagement with Derrida’s writings would have perhaps modified, in a way that Heidegger’s history of beyng couldn’t, the desire for philosophy as the name for the decision of what is truth and nontruth. To no longer write under the drive of this philosophical desire does not necessarily mean to surrender oneself without any form of vigilance or resistance to the commodity, but it may well trouble the very understanding of what Adler calls, in an attempt to best Heidegger at his own game, “the greatest danger.” Perhaps rather than identifying the “highest” or the “greatest” danger, we need to start thinking about “danger(s),” beginning with the “dangerous perhaps.” At any rate, if the thought of the “dangerous perhaps” were something that Adler’s book could not necessarily digest without undergoing a radical alteration, then perhaps we should leave it there. Future readers, myself included, will be grateful enough for the courageous volume that has been given to them.

  1. Derrida, “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism Without Reserve,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge Classics, 2001), 323, translation modified.

  2. See Adler, 21: “I remember watching an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head. The two protagonists, adolescent reprobates and ironic television junkies, find a card in an ATM, guess the pin code, and, withdrawing thousands of dollars, run back to their home and their couch, only to watch on television—their misdeed, it turns out, had been captured on a closed-circuit feed—as the police break through their door to arrest them. I found myself laughing. I was laughing at their foolishness, their stupid criminality, to be sure, but I was also laughing at them laughing in their muted, hideous fashion at the TV, at themselves, without recognizing themselves as themselves, and suddenly, in this moment, I was also laughing at myself—for I too, like them, was laughing at myself as not myself. Thus I became the object of my own laughter to the very extent that I did not see this.”

  3. Although Heidegger in Being and Time is clear about the fact that Dasein exists in both authenticity and inauthenticity, and that the latter are two modes of Dasein’s existence, the exposition of the ontological structure of existence, understood as the there in which the essence of Dasein lies, would not be possible without clarification of Dasein’s most proper, authentic possibility: “being towards death.” Without the disclosure of this authentic way of being of Dasein the existential analytic of Dasein would not have been possible, since it would have been what is most existential—that is less ontic, categorial, and existentiell—about Dasein, namely, that its most proper time is disclosed as the stretching out between two “surreal” ends that are possible only as impossible, remaining outside the purview of actuality, beyond any realization.

  4. Adler, 128: “The gadget-commodity in this way becomes the site of a staging or screening of our life, our Dasein, and its life. It is not that it submits human life to a regime of thoroughgoing automation, not that it colonizes us and draws our affective and mental life into the machine of capitalist flows. The point is neither that we are becoming machines nor that machines are becoming human but rather that the gadget-commodity plays us: it puts our life, the very fact of our Dasein being our own, into play as its own. . . . The gadget-commodity comes into its own, appropriates the possibility of being its own to be, the possibility of having possibilities, by playing our Dasein and putting it into play not just as its own, but as an indication of its own ownness. Slowly—indeed almost imperceptibly—the gadget-commodity gathers us around it to have us play out its truthless truth.

  • Anthony Curtis Adler

    Anthony Curtis Adler


    Response to Ronald Mendoza-de Jesús

    Ronald Mendoza-de Jesús’s response begins with laughter. I am grateful for this: not only because it sets a graceful and generous tone for the thoughtful, incisive critique that follows, but also because—as I suspect Mendoza-de Jesús understands—the first possible, perhaps only possible, response to the probing, profound challenges he offers to my project is to double down on its comic, parodic aspects. But this is a dangerous game; it risks being “snatched up once more by Hegel’s discourse.” If I admit that Celebricities is ultimately a mere parody, reveling in a purely negative, destructive wit, capable of showing nothing more than the death-throes of theory, then I end up holding open the space for a triumphant historical dialectics. Yet should I insist that my parody is not mere parody, that it has a positive edge—that it involves a kind of determinate negation, as it were—then I will end up not only summoning the dialectic, but appropriating it.

    Laughter offers an exit strategy from Hegelianism. Yet it is necessary not to overthink it: at the critical point, at the point of laughter, one must insist on the discreetness and discretion, indeed a certain privacy, or non-publicity, of laughter. Laughter must not be turned into the engine of philosophical labor; the mechanism by which the public work of philosophy, be it absolute skepticism, absolute spirit, or even the eternal return, works itself out. Laughter must not become—as it was with Greek comedy, with the spectacles of the ancient regime, with the bourgeois theater, and as it now is with all forms of mass media and social networking—a kind of public utility; a laughworks. But above all this means, insofar as history is the ultimate element of public existence in modernity, that laughter must refuse the work of history.

    Hence Celebricities takes its departure from the phenomenological “non-experience” of television. At once radically interior and exterior—not just intimate but extimate—television explodes the phenomenological gathering that has always been at the basis of philosophy itself; the gathering of appearances, through the play of proximity and distance, concealment and unconcealment, into the unity of a world. Laughter, one might then say, is the experience of a disaggregation that is simultaneously a doubling of the world. Yet it is precisely in trying to formulate and formalize this experience through a reading of Heidegger, Marx, and Althusser, culminating in an account of the commodity as being(s) and alethic reproduction that, as Mendoza-de Jesús argues, I end up producing, or rather reproducing, a philosophical tale about the history, and historicity, of truth. While insisting that the commodity collapses the ontic/ontological distinction, I assume that “we” all live in a certain epoch, characterized by a certain ontological horizon, failing to take seriously the “‘factic’ or ‘ontic’ differences in the penetration and distribution of ‘gadget commodity life.’” This is, I think, a subtle and important point: for it would seem that, while rejecting the ontological reductionism of Heidegger’s Seinsgeschichte, I not only fail to do justice to the ontic plurality of experience, but end up understanding the ontic/ontological collapse in terms of an ontologico-historical theory of this collapse. Yet I don’t think it quite hits the mark. The ontico-ontological collapse, as I try to understand it, is not an epochal “destining” of Being. Rather: the particular encounter with the gadget-commodity shows itself as alethic play, as historicity and horizontality—as the historical work of the play of truth. I’m in no way committed to saying, or even just assuming, that other experiences could not happen. I am not speaking for everything that is possible, for everything that could happen, but only for the experiences that I have in writing about it. If I assume the grand style of the philosophers, it is always in jest: not unseriously or unrigorously, but as gesture; the gesta of the gadget-commodity-life itself.

    This brings me to the question of truth, at the center of Mendoza-de Jesús’s critique. If there is a fundamental claim in Celebricities on which everything else depends, and which is itself not developed in an adequate fashion, it is the plurality of modes of truth; the irreducibility of truth to being. Preempting the groundless plurality of truth, philosophy, from Parmenides to Hegel and Heidegger, has always sought to identify truth with being. Truth becomes a function of being. If the gadget-commodity, as the collapse of being and beings, belongs within the history of being, it is precisely insofar as this history is, in essence, the history of being’s truth—of being as its truth. But there are other manner of truth, and I would moreover reject the claim that un-concealment is the more originary of these. If philosophy makes a distinction between truth and non-truth, then this distinction nevertheless itself remains relative to a certain manner of truth. But what is truth? Perhaps nothing else than this decision—a decision that is neither subjective and arbitrary, existential, or even world-historical, but philosophical . . . and political. Or put another way: truth is “at once” undefinable (a “primitive notion”) and plural.

    Mendoza-de Jesús asks: “How will the truth of being(s), which up to this point has been identified exclusively with the truthlessness of a commodity and its celebrity . . . become the play of truth?” This question seems to presuppose that I understand truth fundamentally as the play of unconcealment. Yet if the commodity is “truthless,” it is not because it lacks the alethic play, the play of truth and untruth, that Heidegger attributes to the work of art, but because this very truth-play plays out as, and plays into, the reproduction of the alethic conditions of production. What I am proposing is not to return the commodity to the originary truth of unconcealment, but to preempt it by allowing it to speak philosophically, if in jest.

    Does this mean, then, that I am willing to “repeat, without at all displacing or troubling, the phallogocentrism that is part and parcel of Western philosophy’s determination of truth as unconcealment?” Here I must object: the commodity, to be sure, brings into play an explicitly phallogocentric play of desire, a dance of seven veils. Yet I do not wish to claim that this dance is all there is, all that can be thought. Surely there are more things, in heaven and earth, than are dreamt in this phallogocentric philosophy. If I summon it, if I repeat it, it is only to bring it the point of exhaustion, saturation; to cause it to break down. But this is itself a dangerous game.