Barbaric Poetry – notes for later…

Theodore W. Adorno Quotation:

To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”
(to 1969 Herbert Marcuse interview about Adorno)
From the web site of Evelyn Wilcock,,

accessed July 28, 2003
People who ask about Adorno want to know the source of his dictum about writing poetry after Auschwitz. Providing them with the date (written in 1949 for a festschrift) and source (published in “An Essay on Cultural Criticism and Society,” in Prisms, p.34) of the quotation may only increase their mystification. The sentence is part of the conclusion to an essay, and reading it on its own may be as fruitless as attempting to understand the last act of Hamlet without having first seen the rest of the play. This is the opening of the essay, ‘Cultural Criticism and Society,’ the whole of which may be read in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1967), p.19.
To anyone in the habit of thinking with his ears, the words ‘cultural criticism’ (Kulturkritik) must have an offensive ring, not merely because, like automobile, they are pieced together from Latin and Greek. The words recall a flagrant contradiction. The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent. He speaks as if he represents unadulterated nature or a higher historical stage. Yet he is necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior.

source: <>, accessed July 28, 2003On June 24, 2002 Frederik van Gelder of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (where Adorno worked), answered a query on Philnet as follows:
> I wonder if anyone can tell me the precise location of Adorno’s

> comment that it is impossible to write poetry/produce art after

> Auschwitz? Much quoted, but apparently from a little-known piece of
> writing.
> From: Andy Hamilton
> Dept. of Philosophy
> Durham University
> Durham DH1 3HP
> UK
Original quote in *Prisms*, 1955, MIT Press. Reprinted London, 1967.
It’s a misquote, in as much as it’s a phrase inside of a sentence which is usually left out:

The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”
Adorno came back to this topic on three different occasions: in the Negative Dialectics, in Ohne Leitbild, and in Noten zur Literatur IV.
Page references are to the Gesammelte Schriften, where more details can be found:

Original: Prismen, vol. 10a, p. 30.
Kulturkritik findet sich der letzten Stufe der Dialektik von Kultur und Barbarei gegenüber: nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch, und das frißt auch die Erkenntnis an, die ausspricht, warum es unmöglich ward, heute Gedichte zu schreiben. (1955)
Negative Dialektik, 06, p. 355/356:

Das perennierende Leiden hat soviel Recht auf Ausdruck wie der Gemarterte zu brüllen; darum mag falsch gewesen sein, nach Auschwitz ließe kein Gedicht mehr sich schreiben. Nicht falsch aber ist die minder kulturelle Frage, ob nach Auschwitz noch sich leben lasse, ob vollends es dürfe, wer zufällig entrann und rechtens hätte umgebracht werden müssen.
Ohne Leitbild, 10a, p. 452/453:

Weniger stets verträgt jener Schein sich mit dem Prinzip rationaler Materialbeherrschung, dem er die gesamte Geschichte von Kunst hindurch sich verband. Während die Situation Kunst nicht mehr zuläßt – darauf zielte der Satz über die Unmöglichkeit von Gedichten nach Auschwitz -, bedarf sie doch ihrer. Denn die bilderlose Realität das vollendete Widerspiel des bilderlosen Zustands geworden, in dem Kunst verschwände, weil die Utopie sich erfüllt hätte, die in jedem Kunstwerk sich chiffriert.
Noten zur Literatur IV, vol.11, p. 603

Der Satz, nach Auschwitz lasse kein Gedicht mehr sich schreiben, gilt nicht blank, gewiß aber, daß danach, weil es möglich war und bis ins Unabsehbare möglich bleibt, keine heitere Kunst mehr vorgestellt werden kann.

Dr. Frederik van Gelder
Institut fuer Sozialforschung
Frankfurt University
Senckenberganlage 26 60325
Frankfurt am Main

page by Harold Marcuse, July 2003, uploaded June 8, 2005, updated:

back to top, to Herbert Marcuse Adorno Page,
Marcuse Publications PageHerbert Marcuse website

Note for the preservation workshop NYC

Globalization and preservation: two abstract and abstracting processes that oftentimes are critiqued as a perspective that leaves out people, lived experience, specificity, the street, the intangible and heterotopic flux. A google earth view of the world chimes well with an alienated populace passing each other anonymously in the crowded streamlined furrows of the contemporary metropolis, with heritage and city planners seemingly more concerned with museumification and/or a sleek shining renewal that foregrounds commercial interests and markets (national cultural heritage at best, new privatised shopping malls at the other end). Being in the city that a famous Italian neo-realist film-maker once said he would not film until cinemas screens were 70 mm vertical rather than horizontal, can I be forgiven for noting that although the New York moment of September 11th 2001 was striking for many reasons, the one that struck me was the way people unusually stopped in the street to look up together as if at a screen event (just as we did worldwide, by a kind of proxy experience – which is not at all yet globalization from below). Far be it for me to celebrate some transitory globalisation of Gotham spirit or to somehow favourably–perversely applaud the brutal crisis that brought a population together in myriad forms of protest (in New York itself, across the US, and worldwide) and which has been so viciously abused in various ways by homeland and patriot action since then. What it does say to me is that there are more detailed perspectives on Global events that should be the preserve of those that work this terrain.

So I ask, naively, what of those people on the street, the entire corpus of urban studies that starts with street life – two examples, in NYC, Dunier’s book Sidewalk; in Kolkata, Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay’s work on street food.

Who are the people here? That question drives my interest in a more overtly political project inspired by a certain reading of Marx. Gayatri Spivak points out that Marx’s project in Kapital is to teach his implied reader to see through the trick of commodity fetishism. The members of the German social democratic workers party were to see through the facade of capital and grasp its inner workings, exploitation and expropriation of their own creative energies, in a way that would lead from critique to transformation – and then interregnums would burst asunder, chains be cast aside, a new continent of thought and new possibilities of life engaged. Communist new dawn.

Before then, Marx must write and explain. In the Working Day chapter – the longest in Kapital, the hinge of the book, in my mind the equivalent moment of ethnographic work that a street-life study might engage, an exhaustive and emotive survey – Marx, drawing from Leonard Horner and the Factory Inspector reports, tells the story of the scandalous conditions of workers in circumstances barely distinguished from the worst examples of wage slavery ever seen. Leonard Horner of course was caught in a policy cleft between the parliamentary negotiations of reformers and resistance to reform. The entire struggle of the Working Day, and the ‘modest Magna Carta’ of the 8 hour agreement that cuts through this negotiation, is a foundation for the second half of the book (and the subsequent volumes) which show different ways in which Capital responds to worker’s struggles, using technology, organisation, geographic dispersal and more, to maintain its advantage. Marx’s message here is that the workers must go further than negotiations about hours of wages… Of course based on detail, but ambitious too. Engels already had made the first moves in examining the Condition of the Working Class in Manchester, in 1844, what Marx adds is a theorised agenda for further researched and engaged action around these conditions. The book is not a description of what is that should remain fixed, but a call to action, an elaborated manifesto, and agenda for a future that would preserve life, through struggle.

Rush forward to Lenin’s Bolshevik party and the factory exposures, to Mao reporting on the peasantry from Hunan, to Adorno’s talk of Parallel Sociology, to the Italian workerist tradition examining class composition, through to contemporary explorations by groups like Kolinko: call centre inquiry and ‘mapping’ exercises by activist groups in sectors as diverse as higher education, banking, sex work and service sector precarity like waitressing and similar. All research projects with a program.

Can the engagement with people in these last studies – that try to report, as did Marx and Engels, on the imbrications of lived experience with the great machinations of globalization – be offered as an example for our work? To work in the way that only occasionally and under extreme circumstances falls to us today when we are shocked into standing, stop and stare, looking closely and wondering at the spectacular facade upon which global processes are screened? In the oft-replayed destruction of some buildings, a globally overwritten image, there is perhaps something potent still that leads us to a philosophy that is not just contemplation, to a sociology that is not just interpretation, to a policy engagement that is not just negotiation. A project and a campaign may be? Is that still possible? Is that what might be done, as a way to think about our work, and to work, on work – hi ho, hi ho?

Bombing of Poems book to be launched at Goldsmiths 4.3.10

We are delighted to invite you to the launch of the book Bombing of Poems over Warsaw. A public intervention realized in Poland on the 8th August (2009) where one hundred thousand poems printed as bookmarks from a helicopter were dropped over the Castle Square and Old town of the city.

Warsaw is the 4th city that holds a Bombing of Poems.  Others were the La Moneda palace of Chile, bombed by Pinochet on 11/9/1973, (BoP 2001); the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, shelled on 6/12/1991 by Serbian and Montenegrin forces (BoP 2002); and the city of Gernika, Basque Country, Spain, which suffered the first Nazi air-bombardment on 26/4/1937 (BoP 2004)

The book gathers together a DVD, pictures, illustration and a total of the 80 poems –use in the event-written by contemporary Chilean and Polish poets translates in Spanish and Polish.

The book will be presented by Professor John Hutnyk and Cristóbal Bianchi on behalf of Casagrande.

During the launch we will screen a video of the performance which is included as a DVD in the book.

The event will be realized on the Thursday 4th of March from 18:00 to 21:00 at Ben Pimlot Lecture Theatre, Goldsmiths University of London.

Drinks will be served.

For Daisy

One of my nieces in Australia has a high school project which entails asking people: “Do you Like reading – Why,  What does reading do for you, what comes to your mind when you think about reading and What makes a peice of literature – to you?”  So I have responded, no doubt with the overkill of someone playing the favourite far-overseas Uncle (its one of the joys of going back to Australia, seeing the nieces and nephews – some of whom are now grown up proper – I remember one Xmas teaching them how to play Monopoly with anti-corporate rules, no ‘Go to Jail’ and public utilities and expensive Park Lane properties free to visit…. Apparently this was then a hit at school…)

Anyway, here are my responses to Daisy’s questionnaire (do let me know how far I have strayed from all that was probably required):

Hi Daisy. I could talk for ages on reading. How much do you want?

I like reading, I like it for a dozen, even a hundred different reasons. Most important about reading is that it changes the way you think – whether you are reading a novel to get a new perspective on everyday life or something, or if you are reading a book about history or politics so as to understand the world better, more deeply, or even if its a computer manual because you do not know how the damn thing works and you need to fix it, reading is about changing your point of view, changing your outlook, seeing things from another angle. There is NO point in going on if you do not do this. It is about awareness of the world. Sure, in a different world you might be able to get that from television and film, but more often than not the TV and Film we have here is not going to be challenging you to think, merely to sit back and daydream. Of course some film is wonderfully thought provoking – like documentary, good cinema, critical TV shows (West Wing, Battlestar Galactica!) but usually it is writing that is more subtle.

That is what reading does for me – stands out as the repository of all that is interesting and what I might want to know – even what I do not yet know I want to know. A new book  is a chance to find something new in the world – new to me at least, which means new in general because it changes me in new ways. Change is good (who said that?) and reading lets me access it. Quite a privilege really. Imagine a world where we never read. It would be like endless days of eating, fighting and sports – not bad in themselves and for a time, especially if its sunny, but possibly not the only things I wanna do.

What comes to mind is open possibility. Cracking the spine of a new book,opening the first pages, the smell of different books, the idea that someone wrote this, caring for the words, carrying them to the page and arranging them just so (I leave aside the tones of books that are not made with care these days, and the endless dribble of the mainstream press, and the internet – where people present their insipid view about literature and reading and how they feel about it – heh heh.

What makes a piece of literature – the possibility of the new. But really anything that provokes. Its not literature just because its published in the Penguin Classics series or some other authoritative publisher, its literature because its literate, or helps us all become so. There are comic books that are as much this as Moby Dick – itself a book that was largely overlooked while its author was alive, and now is considered the greatest piece of North American literature bar none. So who can say what literature is, now, as what is scrap paper to us now might be something really special quite soon (not that I hold out any hope that these paragraphs would be subject to some astonishing elevation).

Who set you this project? Good thing. Love, Uncle John