Adorno on war-spectatorship, robot-bombs, & Hegel

33. Out of the firing-line [excerpt]

The total obliteration of the war by information, propaganda, commentaries, with camera-men in the first tanks and war reporters dying heroic deaths, the mish-mash of enlightened manipulation of public opinion and oblivious activity: all this is another expression for the withering of experience, the vacuum between men and their fate, in which their real fate lies. It is as if the reified, hardened plaster-cast of events takes the place of events themselves. Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen. It is just this aspect that underlies the much-maligned designation ‘phoney war’. Certainly, the term has its origin in the Fascist inclination to dismiss the reality of horror as ‘mere propaganda’ in order to perpetrate it unopposed. But like all Fascist tendencies, this too has its source in elements of reality, which assert themselves only by virtue of the Fascist attitude malignantly insinuating them. The war is really phoney, but with a phoneyness more horrifying than all the horrors, and those who mock at it are principal contributors to disaster.

Had Hegel’s philosophy of history embraced this age, Hitler’s robot-bombs would have found their place beside the early death of Alexander and similar images, as one of the selected empirical facts by which the state of the world-spirit manifests itself directly in symbols. Like Fascism itself, the robots career [sic] without a subject. Like it they combine utmost technical perfection with total blindness. And like it they arouse mortal terror and are wholly futile. ‘I have seen the world spirit’, not on horseback, but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel’s philosophy of history.

Autumn 1944

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974) [1951], Part One (1944), aphorism 33, excerpt, p. 55.

33. Far from the firing-line. [excerpt]

The total concealment of the war through information, propaganda, commentary, the film crews in the leading tanks and the heroic death of war reporters, the mishmash of manipulated-enlightened public opinion and unconscious action, all this is another expression for desiccated experience, the vacuum between human beings and their doom, in which their doom actually consists. The reified, frozen mold of events, as it were, substitutes for this itself. Human beings are turned into the actors of a monster documentary film, which no longer knows any viewers, because even the very last one has to participate on the silver screen. The genesis of the belabored talk of the “phony war” lay in precisely this moment. It originated to be sure from the Fascist technique of dismissing the real horrors of the war as “mere propaganda,” precisely in order to facilitate those horrors. Yet like all tendencies of Fascism, this too has its origin in elements of reality, which ends up prevailing only by virtue of that Fascist attitude, which sneeringly hinted at such. The war really is “phony” [in English], but its “phonyness” [in English] is more terrifying than any terror, and those who make light of this only contribute that much more to the calamity.

Had Hegel’s philosophy of history encompassed this epoch, then Hitler’s robot-bombs would have taken their place, next to the death-scene of Alexander and similar images, among the empirically selected facts in which the symbolic state of the world-spirit is immediately expressed. Like Fascism itself, the robots are self-steering and yet utterly subjectless. Just like the former, they combine the utmost technical perfection with complete blindness. Just like the former, they sow the deadliest panic and are completely futile. — “I have seen the world-spirit,” not on horseback but on wings and headless, and this at once refutes Hegel’s philosophy of history.

Autumn 1944

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Minima Moralia: Reflections from the Damaged Life, translated by Dennis Redmond (2005), Part One (1944), aphorism 33, excerpt.

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