University of León, Spain | Published: 18 December, 2023
ISSUE 18.2 | Pages: 83-98 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2023 by ALFRED MARKEY | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

In this article I will examine aspects of the work of the Irish writer Brian Dillon which allow us to propose the continuing relevance, from an Irish perspective, of a strain of critical discourse which engages with the legacy of the Enlightenment. Specifically, I look primarily at Dillon’s 2014 essay collection Objects in This Mirror as well as his 2017 collection Essayism, with a view to establishing some key characteristics of his artistic project, while showing their compatibility with the cultural materialism of key scholars of the Frankfurt School, before finally making explicit the compatibility of Dillon’s work with the values which underpin the Irish Field Day project which has influenced Irish studies since the 1980s.

En este artículo examinaré varios aspectos de la obra del escritor irlandés Brian Dillon para demostrar cómo, desde una perspectiva irlandesa, se vislumbra la relevancia vigente de una corriente de discurso crítico que entronca con el legado de la Ilustración. El artículo se centrará en la colección de ensayos publicada por Dillon en 2014 y titulada Objects in This Mirror, así como en su colección de 2017, Essayism, con el propósito de establecer algunas de las características claves de su proyecto artístico, mostrar su compatibilidad con el materialismo cultural de las principales figuras de la Escuela de Frankfurt y, finalmente, ilustrar la compatibilidad del trabajo de Dillon con los valores que sustentan el proyecto irlandés de Field Day que ha influido en los estudios irlandeses desde los años 1980.

Brian Dillon; Ilustración; Escuela Frankfurt; Theodor Adorno; Estudios Irlandeses; Field Day

In a 2006 essay “Enlightenment! Which Enlightenment?”, Princeton historian Jonathan Israel writes that under the “combined assaults of Post-Structuralism, Postmodernism, Postcolonialism […], the Enlightenment conceived as a movement of ideas appears to be not just firmly in retreat and increasingly under siege but also fragmenting into disparate remnants with no coherent overall profile (2006: 523). Just four years later, in “The Return of the Enlightenment”, Oxford literature professor Karen O’Brien states that “[t]he second decade of the twenty-first century finds the Enlightenment in robust health” (2010: 1426). Central to this resurgence, in fact, is Israel’s own The History of the Enlightenment which, drawing particularly on the early and seminal influence of Spinoza, posits the Enlightenment as “a radical, secular movement that holds the key to the prehistory of democratic liberalism” (2010: 1426). The Enlightenment can, thus, be considered as “not an entirely retrospective category” but, in effect, an active influence on our contemporary world (2010: 1426).

Despite the notable challenges to democratic liberalism manifest in the populist and reactionary politics of recent years, the championing of the Enlightenment, has, if anything, grown since 2010. This development is not confined to the Academy, with public intellectuals such as Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson achieving extraordinary levels of influence through bestselling, popular books and regular participation on digital platforms in which, with notable differences of emphasis, Enlightenment values are championed. That a publication such as Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress should achieve such significant traction can, to a considerable degree, be explained with reference to the heated contest over cultural and political values expressed in the excessively reductive but suggestive shorthand that is the so-called “culture wars”, in which a supposedly postmodern “woke” political activism is frequently pitched in opposition to a traditional Enlightenment liberalism. In the context of an increasingly digitalised, globalised world, and a growing perception of geopolitical instability, the tensions are not restricted to the national theatres of most obvious conflict, such as the USA and the UK, but also impact with varying degrees of intensity across the globe. Ireland, and Irish studies, are not, consequently, immune to the phenomenon. However, the mediation and consideration of today’s “cultural wars”, and their relationship to the Enlightenment, are everywhere shaped to local conditions. Ireland, its condition as hyper-globalised economic powerhouse notwithstanding, does, in this case, appear to follow its supposed historical trajectory of tardy incorporation into modernity, with polarised camps of antagonists as of yet less apparent, and loyalties less clearly defined. Witness, for example, the reaction to the 2016 election of Donald Trump by noted liberal, progressive, feminist and LGBT+ activist and Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole: “The sleep of reason, as Goya put it in the title of a famous etching, brings forth monsters” (2016). In contrast to the polarisation evident in Anglo-American political discourse, we do not find, in this case, an explicit cleaving which separates Enlightenment reason from “woke” activism.

O’Toole offers a useful starting point from which to consider the relevance of the interpretations of the Enlightenment to Irish studies, and the relevance of Irish studies to contemporary interpretations of the Enlightenment. He is difficult to classify, but among the labels which he has been traditionally assigned figures that of “revisionist”. This classification stems from the seminal division of cultural politics in Ireland which dates from the 1970s and the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland and can be expressed as Revisionism v. Field Day/Postcolonialism. The former is mainly protagonised by historians and journalists such as O’Toole and the latter by literature academics led by Seamus Deane. The engagement was, in part, depicted as one between Enlightenment values under “siege” from a backward mythopoetic discourse of a supposedly recalcitrant, trouble-making nationalism whose reluctance to embrace modernity was disguised with a patina of contemporary theory. Edna Longley, for example, lamented that Deane “betrays more clearly than usual the strains of reconciling Derry with Derrida” (1985: 31) The claim is, in effect, that it was absurd, and premature, to bring Derrida to Derry when the Enlightenment had not yet properly made it to what was depicted as a remote outpost of civilisation. Such an interpretation, however, fails to register the degree that the Field Day/Postcolonialism turn took much of its intellectual succour not from what was premodern, nor from what was postmodern, but rather from the twentieth century’s foremost critical engagement with legacies of Enlightenment and modernity: the materialist critical theory of the Frankfurt School, memorably articulated in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1947). Explicit evidence of this can be found in the early Field Day pamphlets written by key international scholars significantly influenced by the Frankfurt School: Edward Said, Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, later published in book form as Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature (1990), with an introduction from Deane.

Irish studies, through the influence of Field Day/Postcolonialism, has had a notable role in giving intellectual authority to a counter-hegemonic discourse which has served to question the legacy of the Enlightenment. In this article I will examine aspects of the work of the Irish writer Brian Dillon which suggest the continuing relevance, from an Irish perspective, of a critical discourse which offers paradigms of scholarly and creative engagement in the fraught context of current political and cultural debates where the Enlightenment continues to figure as a central concern. I look at Dillon’s 2014 collection of essays Objects in This Mirror and, to a lesser extent, his 2017 collection Essayism, with a view to establishing some key characteristics of his artistic project, before finally making explicit the compatibility of Dillon’s work with the values which underpin the Field Day project.

Brian Dillon and the Essayistic Tradition

Although widely published and acclaimed, Dillon’s work has scarcely been the subject of academic critical consideration. This may be due to the formidable nature of a body of work which, while non-academic in nature, and aimed at a general public, defies easy classification and does not lend itself to commercialisation. Given his range of output one is entitled to ask what exactly does Dillon do? He offers an answer in the introduction to Objects in This Mirror. Writing specifically on the essay form, but in terms applicable to all of his work, he states:

According to theorists of the essay from Michel de Montaigne through to Virginia Woolf and Theodor W. Adorno, it’s a famously vagrant mode of writing, with license to duck out of disciplinary constraints, to digress into the personal or the universal, to court specifics, if artistic need be, of eccentricity and even whimsy (2014: 11).[1]

Dillon’s embrace of the essay tradition was a rebellion against the strictures of a contemporary academic style which clearly framed specialisms, and was very much at odds with scholars he loved such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin. Essays “trouble efforts at definition”, he writes in “Energy and Rue: An Essay on Essays”, the final contribution to the collection, “even if they lean on a literary heritage” (2014: 349).

The literary heritage and intellectual traditions from which Dillon borrows and to which we can connect him are, then, we can suggest, “troubled”: plural, but also predicated on a positive valorisation of plurality paradoxically expressed through a vocabulary of negation, in the tradition of the Frankfurt School’s critique of Enlightenment, and most particularly the work of Adorno. In the introduction to Objects in This Mirror, Dillon lists a total of fifty-six subjects which he did not include in the volume, suggesting it is easier to thus express what he sought to do than “to try to imagine a rationale for all this stuff” (2014: 15).[2] Even in the negative exposition of the content of his volume, he ends his list with a phrase, “[a]nd so on”, designed to signal that what he had just outlaid could not, in fact, constitute an all-exhausting or total negative expression of his purposes, of what he does (2014: 16). His work, thus, by means of a vocabulary of negative intention, contests the urge towards totalisation. Dillon continues by proposing:

There are names for a person who writes about such a variety of subjects: dilettante, hack, dabbler. But there is also a tradition – let us call it essayistic, or let us simply call it curious – according to which one ought to be interested not exactly in everything, but in a sufficiently diverse range of things that nobody is quite sure what it is you “do” as a writer (2014: 16).

In his introduction Dillon names some of the writers and artists who, for him, are representative of the tradition into which he places himself and to which the above model of “doing” applies. These include Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Browne, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, Roland Barthes, as well as the key Frankfurt School figure Walter Benjamin and W. G. Sebald, a key influence on Dillon whose work, as scholars have noted, reflects a clear influence of Adornian thought with its critique of Enlightenment.[3] He explains: “[f]or me, […] the task is somehow to find a form and a voice that best expresses a mode of attention that the thing at hand – an object, a place, a work of art or a body of work […] has seemed to demand (2014: 18). In contrast to the tendency of many writers and critics to write to uncover or reveal what we can call the reality of their opinions, Dillon claims “I’m not sure that I’m interested enough in my own opinions for that; it seems more apt to say that I want to find out what effects, in terms of the essay’s texture, the subject itself may produce when turned over to the experiment of writing” (2014: 18). And almost as a secondary concern, from this process will emerge Dillon’s own voice, and, as he puts it, “[o]f course, you end up sounding like yourself, to varying degrees” (2014: 18). Playfully ambivalent in the rendering of his own role, with his subjectivity “subject” to the whims of what he terms “the subject itself”, Dillon’s “experiment” leaves himself entangled with the “subjects” he addresses and the objects he ruminates upon.

The Sentence

In his key publications Dillon seldom deals explicitly with political questions but in his formal, stylistic and thematic choices we can appreciate the radical potential of his work and the influence on it of the tradition we can trace back to Adorno, Benjamin and the Frankfurt School. In a 2018 interview he says:

Critics talk all the time, in academia and outside of it, about material, about wanting to be more grounded in “materiality”. I suppose, for me, the attention to the sentence is exactly what it would mean to be a materialist critic. So it’s not that an attention to the sentence, an attention to language, an attention to style, are a diversion from content, or from history, or from the political. But actually, this is the material. This is the level of materiality at which we ought to be working. (Goldman: 2018)

Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment argued that public opinion had reached a state in which “thought inevitably becomes a commodity, and language the means of promoting that commodity”; consequently “the attempt to trace the course of such depravation has to deny any allegiance to current linguistic and conceptual conventions” (1997: xi-xii). Contemporary linguistic and cultural forms both provided evidence of “the indefatigable self-destructiveness of enlightenment” (1997: xi) and, as a result, were inadequate to the needs of those who wished to, in Dillon’s vocabulary, “trouble” its legacy. Dillon both offers evidence of a similar interpretation of the nature of current conventions and looks to the achievement of a mode of expression which will contest it.

For example, in the closing essay of Objects in This Mirror, “Energy and Rue: An Essay on Essays”, he laments the current state of the American essay, and takes an acerbic dig at Jonathan Franzen for “bloviating” about a series of inconsequential issues, before making the general conclusion that contemporary American essayists “even at their smartest or most moving […] seem content with the role of the well-made, and well-meaning, essay – they fail, in the end to trouble the form as form” (2014: 354). By contrast, he states his allegiance to an alternative tradition, of essayists with a “commitment to abusing the form”, exemplified in the work of, for example, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion who “share a sense that the essay – whether somewhat loftily erudite or built around a wry neurasthenic persona – is a genre to be dismantled and remade in the context of relatively mainstream publications” (2014: 355). Or in the work of Elizabeth Hardwick, who by means of “the strength of the emptiness […] lived in the lyrics of her songs”, transformed subject matter into “form” in a fashion which rendered her message “otherwise. It was style” (2014: 355).

The relevance of these examples to our purpose is further apparent in the essay “On sentences”, from Essayism, which develops on these initial reflections. Here Dillon praises the manner in which Hardwick’s writing uses a prose style “which seems to me to perfectly justify Benjamin’s claim that the greatest sentences are those in which the whole having been perfectly composed and polished, some element has been botched or excised” (2017: 51). He explains:

Hardwick sounds otherwise – her syntax starts to stagger, her word choices loom eccentrically, the sentences sit alongside each other as if they have nothing to do with their neighbours. (“His sentences do not seem to be generated in the usual way; they do not entail”, said Susan Sontag of Walter Benjamin […]). (2017: 52)

It would be inaccurate and disingenuous to exclusively highlight the references in Dillon’s work to a key Frankfurt School figure such as Benjamin: he does also, for example, draw much on the influence of Barthes. However, we can establish an aesthetic continuity which speaks to a tradition of materialist criticism going from Benjamin and Adorno, with their seminal critique of Enlightenment, to the likes of Jameson, Eagleton and Said, and, if never explicitly expressed, to the current of Irish criticism lead by Deane to which we referred initially.

Consider, for example, how, in the essay “Fredric Jameson: The Politics of Style”, Terry Eagleton quotes Jameson’s opinion that “any concrete description of a literary or philosophical phenomenon – if it is to be really complete – has an ultimate obligation to come to terms with the shape of the individual sentences themselves […]” (1982: 14). He continues: “‘I cannot’, writes Jameson of Adorno, ‘imagine anyone with the slightest feeling for the dialectical nature of reality remaining insensible to the purely formal pleasure of such sentences’” (1982: 14). And consider how Eagleton, in “Jameson and Form”, addresses the character of Jameson’s observations on the art of De Kooning and proposes that “[d]eciphering the relations between daubs of paint is at one with interpreting the relations between certain conflicting forces and ideas”, and then reflects on a quotation from Jameson as follows:

There is an extraordinary drama at work in the passage […] as the De Kooning canvas is brought alive as a great war of antagonistic forces; and this drama is acted out in other terms in the sentences themselves, which as often with Jameson roll remorselessly on until, just at the moment when you feel they must surely have run out of breath and find themselves incapable of throwing off a single further sub-clause, they draw a last gasp and triumphantly snatch a few more pregnant utterances from their apparently inexhaustible depths. The passage also presents us with a literal version of the way that in Jameson himself ideas become materialized, as De Kooning’s concepts thicken into streaks of paint and the tug and tension of ideas can be felt in the fingertips. This interweaving of materiality and meaning is something that interests Jameson the cultural materialist a good deal, as well as being something that his own writing actually accomplishes. His style, poetic in texture but discursive in structure, thus becomes allegorical of its own preoccupations. (2009: 123)

In other words, the sentences of Benjamin, Adorno and Jameson are not “generated in the usual way; they do not entail”, they are “materialized” in the authors themselves, and in the presentation of antagonistic forces they are “allegorical” of their concerns in the manner by which they give a particular expressive form to these. Such concerns involve the creating of a writing style which shocks the reader away from the conventional contemporary manner of untroubled consumption of cultural commodities that serves, in tune with the Frankfurt School interpretation of Enlightenment as giving rise to capitalist modernity, to disenable authentic perception and engagement with material reality.

But crucially, this involves the proposal of a comprehension of aesthetics in terms of a dialectic between, as Eagleton puts it, the poetic and the discursive. This is conceived by Adorno as necessarily negative in order to avoid the submission of the essence of the elements, the parts, or fragments to the whole in the manner in which traditional Hegelian dialectics, in effect, sacrifices these parts to what is a minor role in the greater narrative that is an ahistorical, teleological, modern progress. An authentic dialectic of enlightenment involves denying or negating an ideological inheritance which fails to duly respect the means to the end, or the parts of the historical whole, and fails to give appropriate account of their complexity at any given moment of time. It is thus expressed and conceptualised in terms of being negative, of non-identity.

Negative Aesthetics

The continuity between what is proposed by Adorno, Jameson and Eagleton and Dillon’s work is explicitly clear. The essay “On Style” in Essayism starts with the author stating that all his writings “amount to nothing” but “style” (2017: 40). Subsequently, after considering how to get “closer to the truth”, he writes:

By indirection find direction out. And so on: other clichés of the writing life. The problem essentially is this: I want control, and I want to let go, but neither in itself is art, and how on earth do you find a way between, a way to direct all of this ecstasy and ache? And still not lose it? (Virginia Woolf on essays: “Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem”.) Is there some combination possible of form and the formless that would achieve what I want to achieve? (2017: 41)

The essay comes to an end as follows: “The refusal of ‘aestheticization’ is a refusal to accept the worst, but dressed up as its opposite. The greatest art is nothing but delicately broached negation. I went looking for writers who would tell me that, time and again” (2017: 42). Here, besides the clear relevance to our argument of an ending which states that the tradition of influence to which he looks is that of writers who propose above all negation, we can clearly see how the text itself achieves its particular form through the proposal of a series of opposites dialectically counterpointed, as well as a fractured, disjointed, even illogical elaboration which employs brackets and italics in a manner which checks the progress of the text; and finally by the consistent use of negative terminology.

It is, however, perhaps the initial sentence which most clearly illuminates the nature of Dillon’s discourse. It is proposed in the heightened manner of an italicised, almost poetic mode, while simultaneously containing a “discursive” argument which is apparently prescriptive and imperative, suggestive of clarity of meaning while containing an enigmatic, subversive subtext. Encountering or uncovering “direction” is to be achieved by “indirection”, with the understanding that to find “direction” is desirable, suggestive of progress in an obvious trajectory, the value of which, in the imperative articulation, does not invite questioning or dissent. Notably, synonyms, words of clearly proximate meanings which afford authority to the term, include: control; order; command; charge; government; supervision; administration; superintendence; guidance; leadership. And yet all this authority and clarity of purpose and direction are undermined by the potential for contradiction, for an alternative meaning for “find out” which is to reveal as inauthentic, a fraud. This is, I propose, a signal example of Dillon’s style. It is particularly useful to our purposes but also representative of his work, and reflects that characteristic he sees as appropriate for the essay, as indicated in the quotation above in which, with Adorno, he called it “vagrant”, moving but not in any fixed direction, and with no fixed abode.

The above sentence also deals with a key theme for Dillon, one which gives further consistency to the argument that a clear continuity can be found in his work with that of the Frankfurt School, particularly the work of Benjamin and Adorno. The negative dialectic which Adorno used as a key conceptual tool to critique the Enlightenment is expressed by means of the idea of the non-identical, and the idea, as we have referred to above, that a “negative” critical practice allows us to highlight the essential inauthenticity of the thought of abstract modernity which feigns ahistorical meaning but which, for Adorno, at bottom, involves a similar degree of abstraction as that of primitive pre-modern myth. Dillon uses precisely this critical tool, that of non-identity to address aesthetics. In Objects in This Mirror one of the six themes around which he collects the twenty-three essays is that of “Inaesthetics”, an umbrella term which expresses a common thematic concern of questions of aesthetics proposed negatively.

Five essays comprise “Inaesthetics”: “Another Fine Mess: Theses on Slapstick”; “Le Goût des Autres”; “F for Fake”; “Seven Faces of the Art Vandal”; and “The Revelation of Erasure”. The term “Inaesthetics” suggests entering the field of aesthetics while figuring a negative perspective articulated by means of the prefix “in” – as in for example, insincere – and each of the essays deals with some aspect of challenging, erasing, smashing, or articulating a negative take, so to speak, on the inherited aesthetic tradition which disavows or disguises its embeddedness in the social world. Two examples are particularly illustrative of this Adornian turn in Objects in This Mirror.

“Le Goût des Autres” begins with “I like:” followed by a list of forty-one examples and a closing “etc.” (2014: 273), and concludes with a final paragraph which begins with “I don’t like:” and another list of twenty-seven examples, before coming to an end with “etc.” (2014: 281). We have here, in short, an explicit exposition of a dialectic which refuses an ultimate synthesis, and the proposition of an aesthetic and political position which negates or contests, and attempts to place in crisis, the historical narrative of modern progress. It does not resolve contradiction, it embraces paradox. Ross Wilson describes Adorno’s aesthetics as overcoming “the opposition of Kantian and Hegelian aesthetics” (2007: 153) to address the “paradoxical nature of autonomous art in contemporary society” (2007: 157).

In “Another Fine Mess: Theses on Slapstick”, Dillon addresses the theme of slapstick humour. Adorno and Horkheimer consider the question of entertainment and humour in their “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which they negatively appraise the nature of modern entertainment and popular culture, including humour and laughter, proposing that the culture industry and the entertainment business produced cultural forms which confine consumers, “body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them” (1997: 133). The culture industry, they suggest, “proves to be the goal of liberalism”, the key philosophy underwriting Enlightenment, through the expression of the values of an essentially mercantile society (1997: 131). The mechanical production of derivative imitations of art which are to be found in popular culture fails to duly accommodate the sort of “style” which disdains a facile harmony that parodies solidarity and, by contrast, achieves greatness through “self-negation”, relying instead on “similarity with others – on a surrogate identity” (1997: 131). Adorno and Horkheimer emphatically state that “[i]n the culture industry this imitation finally becomes absolute. Having ceased to be anything but style, the imitation reveals the culture industry’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy” (1997: 131). Contemporary popular culture forms thus betray man, the consequence of the industrialisation of culture is that “[t]he collective of those who laugh parodies humanity” (1997: 112).

In his essay on slapstick, Dillon echoes the negative, critical take of Adorno and Horkheimer. Consistent with the difficult or contrarian style evident in all his work, Dillon avails of slapstick in order to negate conventional comedy, while in the process negating slapstick itself in a bravura performance of the unresolved dialectic which lay at the heart of the critical project of the key protagonists of the Frankfurt School. Slapstick is, at bottom, the antithesis of what Dillon himself does, its apparent simplicity and immediacy at odds with the elaborate, relatively high-brow style of his work. And this opposition is reflective of the counterintuitive manner in which the essay is elaborated. To again echo Eagleton, we can propose that it is “allegorical of its own preoccupations”, nowhere more evident than in the contrast between what Dillon has termed “[t]he exigency of style, its imperious demand”, the gravity of the concepts broached and the seeming naivety and lightness of the theme under consideration (2017: 41).

The nine fragments of which “Another Fine Mess: Theses on Slapstick” is composed are headed with sentences in italics. A number of examples from the text will suffice to illustrate the quality of the essay:

Fragment 1:

The essence of slapstick”, he begins, “is slowness”, the velocity of its characteristic actions such as “a swift kick to the seat of the pants” belied by the fact that, he proposes, “slapstick essays a dogged, Zeno-like decomposition of human actions into their component gestures, so that they last forever” (2014: 261).

Fragment 2:

Slapstick is inherently logical: its subject is reason itself, and its form is but a repeated insistence on the relations of cause to effect” (2014: 261).

“It is a matter of machine logic, something mechanical encrusted on the living […], it stages not only the appearance of rational action taken to its absurd extreme, but the mechanics of thought as such: the (perfectly rational, therefore idiotic) decisions behind the behaviour” (2014: 262).

Fragment 4:

In slapstick, the pratfall is more a heroic than a hapless dive: what it stages is not the self as it slips and forgets itself, but the tragic impossibility of escaping oneself” (2014: 264).

“The subject is doubled, splits into falling self and observing self, and remains fully aware of its plight. Del Boy, on the way down, is still Del Boy” (2014: 265).

Fragment 5:

Slapstick is a master class in what it means to be inhuman: it discerns the limit not only of subjectivity, but of life, and dangles some poor schmuck over it, just for fun” (2014: 265).

“[W]hat slapstick gives us most often is a human being forced to act like a thing, which is not quite the same thing. The mechanized individual acts in accordance with some clumsy logic, but the slapped or battered stooge is […] reduced to rag doll simplicity […]” (2014: 266).

Fragment 6:

Just as humans are rendered thing-like, so by the logic of slapstick things themselves start to rebel, to take on a life of their own” (2014: 266).

Fragment 8:

The politics of slapstick are utterly anomic, and unamenable to reformist or liberationist programs” (2014: 268).

Fragment 9:

Given its obsession with inert objects, its circularity, its violence, its nihilism, it seems that the ultimate slapstick act would involve beating oneself to within an inch of one’s life” (2014: 269).

Without question, the density and often fragmented, difficult style is reminiscent of the work of Adorno, most notably in Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (2005) and that of a Benjamin whose sentences, as Sontag noted, did not “entail”, or in Dillon’s own words the “sentences sit alongside each other as if they have nothing to do with their neighbours” (Dillon 2017: 52). The fragmented and playful style notwithstanding, a number of aspects are, however, explicitly clear.

First, in the penultimate section indicating slapstick is not amenable to liberationist programs Dillon concludes as follows:

There is, then, no such thing as a historical dialectic in slapstick. Conventionally conceived, comedy is basically dialectical: opposing forces (order and chaos) are in the end resolved; authority is restored, but this time with a kindly, liberal nod to the need for tolerance and occasional (controlled) misrule. The interior logic of slapstick – which may well be a component in this larger dialectic – is rather one of endless revolution and reaction: its model of history is that of Tom and Jerry […]. Slapstick has the endlessly escalating structure of an arms race: there is no Hegelian synthesis, merely thesis-antithesis-thesis-antithesis-thesis-antithesis-thesis … . (2014: 269)

Here we have a very clear expression of the Adornian unresolved dialectic, with the essay and the idea of slapstick used to articulate a negative dialectics which echoes Adorno’s rejection, in an essay on Lukács, of what he called “false reconciliation under duress” (cited in Said 2001: 440), with this rejection explicitly aimed at Hegelian synthesis and liberal and liberationist narratives of Enlightenment origin, while evoking the idea of a resolution or synthesis under duress being akin to the apocalypse of nuclear war, an association at one with Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique that the values of Enlightenment culminated in the apocalypse of dehumanising militarism and Nazism.

Second, if humans are rendered “thing-like”, or, in the idiom of materialist critique, reified, and so treated as concrete objects, they are, in effect, commodified, with the result that they are dehumanised and trafficked within mercantile society. Dillon, in consonance with Adorno and Horkheimer, links this social reality with obedience to the social hierarchy, while proposing that the source of a rebellion may be found in slapstick, here proposed as conventional comedy negated. This potential rebellion is explicitly linked to a reaction against one of the philosophical traditions which underpins the Enlightenment: empiricism. Dillon recounts the famous anecdote of Samuel Johnson kicking a stone and reflects:

Like Johnson, the characters in slapstick are confirmed empiricists; like him, they discover that things have a habit of kicking back. Basil Fawlty, for example, may have the upper hand when it comes to treating his long-suffering waiter, Manuel, as a mere object, but he is less certain of victory in his struggle against the aristocracy of things: a stalled car, a badly hung painting, a moth-eaten moose head, a vagrant corpse. (2014: 267)

Following this depiction of authoritarian empiricists, Dillon makes immediate reference to Freud’s uncanny and then goes on to propose that “slapstick actually pictures a world in which people and objects act in amazing concert” (2014: 267). This does not appear accidental and is suggestive of Adorno’s use of Freud in his essay “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (1991b) and his earlier participation in the study published as The Authoritarian Personality (2019). In his examination of slapstick Dillon thus appears to recognise the tradition to which he is indebted, both in relation to what is explicitly critiqued and what is proposed as a workable ontology, with each echoing Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the inheritance from Enlightenment thought which is seen as essentially authoritarian. Martin Jay explains that Horkheimer “castigated the legacy of Cartesian dualism in Western thought. The stress on nonidentity in Critical Theory never meant the absolute separation of subject and object. Such a separation, the Frankfurt School held, was connected to the needs of the rising capitalist order” (1996: 258). “Since Descartes”, Horkheimer stated in “Reason and Self-Preservation”, “bourgeois philosophy has been a single attempt to make knowledge serve the dominant means of production”, with Cartesian dualism proposing man as the master of nature and the material world (cited in Jay 1996: 258). But ultimately, the objectification of nature in the new science had led to the objectification of man by increasingly authoritarian regimes, a result which, as Jay puts it: “was in a sense the revenge of nature for the cruelty and exploitation that Western man had visited upon it for generations” (1996: 256-57). To highlight the potential to kick back was in itself part of a strategy to kick back.

On Fragments and Aphorisms

We noted above how Dillon seems to enact a negative critique in the Adornian manner, resisting a false synthesis which merely traps the modern subject in the straitjacket of mercantile society, but perhaps the most significant turn is the enactment of his poetics by means of a form of essay which owes much to Adorno in Minima Moralia and the aphoristic writing of Benjamin. Dillon does, in fact, make no bones about this, writing in “On the Fragment” that the defence of fragmentary writing can be sourced above all in the “poetic” strain of German philosophy:

Like the tradition of the fragment in general, this history contains competing impulses towards concision and dispersal, unity and sprawl. The proper names attached to these tendencies are Adorno and Benjamin: together and apart they arrived at a complex realisation of the tensions that inhere in the fragment and its relation, the essay. (2017: 71)

He then specifically references Minima Moralia, highlighting its exilic origin and its fragmented character, while noting this form was a response to the complicity of Adorno’s civilisation and culture in its own destruction by the Nazis, and contemporary popular cultural forms in a “softer authoritarianism” (2017: 71). Clearly Dillon, as someone who has struggled with mental health problems, sees in this tradition the form that is adequate to his own needs, it is allegorical of his preoccupations: the fractured quality of his own self, both as subject and as a competing object of medical attention – a patient whose mental health problems left him “not all there” – and the historical reality that cannot be decoupled from his personal crisis. The form is thus one which is potentially deployable for reflections on his own damaged life.

The first section of Objects in This Mirror contains five essays grouped under the heading “Curiosities”, with the last of these, “On Aphorisms”, of particular interest. A mere five pages long, its brevity appears designed to accentuate its fragmentary quality, while its content illuminates a whole system of interpretation. The later “On the Fragment” piece in Essayism borrows significantly from it and I will here quote from both.

A primary characteristic of the aphorism is its condition as a fragment, and as such it serves to figuratively represent the world which has been, in effect, crushed by modernity: “[…] ‘my whole little universe in crumbs; at the centre, what?’ Modernity itself starts to look like a junkyard of cultural fragments. Things fall apart [….]” (2014: 63). This process is also visited on the individual subject: “bodies hacked to pieces, the whole era is transfixed by fragments” (2014: 63); “a self that has been sundered” (2017: 69). The writing of the aphorism or fragment is not exempted from the violence that lay at the heart of the project of modernity.

“Competing impulses” are evident in the origin and subsequent destiny of the aphorism. It is, Dillon notes initially, born out of the fact that ancient texts come down to us in fragments of what were originally whole texts, with the fragments reconstituted a posteriori into apparently coherent narratives. This is suggestive of an historicism which serves to, in effect, tidy up the diverse elements into a whole, but this process involves a “cutting off” of elements from one another that “fools us into thinking that the sequence makes up a story” (2014: 64). The aphorism has, however, a quality that sets it apart from the primary narrative of the human family; it “is the stunted family secret in a modest but respectable dynasty of ‘minor’ literary modes” (2014: 61). It can be “reworked later as part of a serious work”, but it has “only one eye on posterity” and, crucially, it has the potential for rebellion, to go against the flow, or, in Terry Eagleton’s vocabulary “against the grain” (1986): it keeps “threatening to turn into meaningless fragments, nuggets of willful obscurity dredged from the riverbed of something more coherent: an argument, a narrative, a proper book” (Dillon 2014: 61).

Dillon again clearly chooses his words with attention. Here “willful obscurity” chimes with the “bullying cogito that obscures” which elsewhere, in the essay “Feeling Feeling”, he used to openly critique the Cartesian inheritance of Enlightenment thought (2014: 165). His discourse, like that of Adorno and Benjamin, playfully challenges singularity of meaning and encourages contradiction and paradox. He writes: “The essence of the aphorism is wit: the art of paradox. The aphorist overwhelms our expectations by pairing the most unlikely ideas in elegantly startling conjunction” (2014: 62). In this case, “obscurity” obviously denotes a “darkness” suggestive of the pre-Enlightenment period of history, or places, people and cultures which have not been fully incorporated into the main “stream”, but also “ambiguity” and “uncertainty” or “indistinctness”, which challenge definition and classification, foundational elements of the modern scientific tradition. To be “willful” is to be difficult, a contrarian, but is also suggestive of future determination, or of having to do with inherited material wealth or with agency, choice or determination of someone with authority or power; paradoxically, it recognises existing power while hinting at the possibility of other forms or manifestations. Dillon clearly intends to overwhelm his reader with the potential for meaning, with, as we noted above, “competing impulses towards concision and dispersal, unity and sprawl”, which he linked to Adorno and Benjamin.

In the final paragraph of “On the Fragment”, Dillon goes on to lay out with uncharacteristic clarity the implications of the representation of such competing impulses. We get here an explicit expression of the values that underlie his work:

There is a ready answer to this question or problem concerning unity and difference in a piece of writing. It is to say that the relations between parts are not simply to do with identity or difference, a pleasing aesthetic and logical integrity versus the fractured style of the fragmentist, who proceeds without pattern or plan. No – these relations are instead dialectical, the text advancing by the simultaneous struggle and agreement between the fragments. […] In other words, the force and unity of a fragmentary work are precisely the results of struggle and disparities between the parts. To follow Adorno’s instructions and properly say what you wanted to say may also mean (as Adorno knows well) allowing your text, allowing yourself, to say many contradictory things at once. (2017: 73)

For Adorno and Benjamin, the authentic work of art is marked precisely by tensions which give expression to those of the sociohistorical context from which it arises. It is by means of the artist’s struggle with his own conflicted world of unequal material relations that the art achieves form in contradiction, precisely the phenomenon we find in Dillon’s expression of his own fractured, conflicted and damaged self.

In his essay “Traveling Theory Reconsidered”, Edward Said examines Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music, describing it as “a quite spectacular instance of a traveling theory gone tougher, harder more recalcitrant” (2001: 440). And Said’s reading of Adorno’s interpretation of Schoenberg’s atonal music is useful to our consideration of a Dillon who finds expression primarily in a form, the essay, which, borrowing from Adorno, he terms “vagrant”. Said states of Schoenberg’s music that:

Its premise was dissonance, the subject-object impasse raised to the level of an uncompromising principle, “forced into complete isolation during the final stage of industrialism”. Standing apart from society with a uniquely brooding severity […], the new music’s loneliness pitilessly showed how all other art had become kitsch. (2001: 441)

This vagrant standing apart from society is not however passive. For Adorno, derivative art forms needed, Said reports, to “be destroyed” (2001: 441). Dillon exhibits a similar penchant for destruction. In the “Introduction”, when referring to the “parts” of which Objects in This Mirror is constituted, he notes that in the “Land” section he has written of “places, things, and bodies at the moment […] of their collapse”; in the “Pathologies” part, he sketches “instances of physical and mental breakdown and the cultural debris that surrounds them”; and in the “Inaesthetics” series of essays on erasure, vandalism and faking of art, “[t]here is more destruction” (2014: 20). In “An Essay on Essays” he criticised writers who did not “abuse” the form, while in “On Aphorisms” he recognised how the aphorism “keeps threatening to turn into fragments” (2017: 61).

But for Dillon and Adorno something new can be wrought from the destruction. Dillon develops his image of modernity as a “junkyard” as follows:

Modernity itself starts to look like a junkyard of cultural fragments. Things fall apart and are rebuilt as ruins: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a fractured panorama of the nineteenth century, or Samuel Beckett’s progressively nugatory writings: thought and style shrinking to a series of snapshots, tentative images of a mind in tatters. As the prodigiously glum Romanian aphorist E. M. Cioran put it: “No need to elaborate works – merely say something that can be murmured in the ear of a drunkard or a dying man”. (2014: 63-64)

Dillon’s choice of Benjamin and Beckett to illustrate his idea is significant. The former was, of course, a key influence on Adorno, while the latter was one of the artists that he chose as exemplary of appropriately negative aesthetic practice. Cioran’s negation of creation, though, is strikingly reminiscent of what drew Adorno to Schoenberg. Said quotes from Adorno: “The function of the work of art lies precisely in its transcendence beyond mere existence. Thus the height of justice becomes the height of injustice: the consummately functional work of art becomes consummately functionless” (2001: 443-44). This is followed, in Said’s view, by an “even more drastic statement […] when Adorno avers as how the fate of new music in its illusionless self-denial and ossified self-sacrifice is to remain unheard” (2001: 444). And the consequence of this is more dramatic again: “Thus the subject-object antithesis simply disappears, because Adorno has Schoenberg rejecting even the ghost of achievement and experience” (2001: 444).

Dillon does not go quite so far as Cioran or the Schoenberg of Adorno’s interpretation in negating his own work. His choice of form, that of a loose collection of essays or fragments, unequivocally expressed in a vocabulary of contradiction, and in a sense as dissonance, does, however, speak to a similar ideological choice. He states that it is the object that “demands” the form: “For me […] the task is […] to find a form and a voice that best expresses a mode of attention that the thing at hand – an object, a place, a work of art […] – has seemed to demand”, and that his interest lies in finding out what effects “the subject itself may produce when turned over to the experiment in writing” (2014: 18). Clearly, he celebrates the potential for the object to kick back, nowhere more apparent than in his choice of title, Objects in This Mirror, where the gazing subject is given form as object.

We have, then, a very clear proposition of an ideological position which takes its cue from the Frankfurt School and which contests the primacy of the subject which they located as at the root of Enlightenment domination, mastery and destruction of the material and natural world. The only turn available was negation of the subject-object binary. As Horkheimer put it in The Eclipse of Reason, subject and object “cannot be integrated under present conditions, we are driven by the principle of negation to attempt to salvage relative truths from the wreckage of false ultimates” (cited in Jay: 263). These words echo those of Benjamin and gain later expression in the work of Dillon in what is an intellectual tradition of enduring value.


In his introduction to the collection of essays from Jameson, Eagleton and Said, Seamus Deane states that Field Day was founded in 1980 as a response to the Northern Irish political conflict and its “analysis of the situation derives from the conviction that it is, above all, a colonial crisis” (1990: 6). Field Day engages very clearly with the orthodoxy of a Revisionism which rejects “ideological” scholarship, while looking upon Revisionism with disfavour because “it shows little or no capacity for self-analysis”, while paying “no serious attention to the realm of culture, regarding it as in some sense separate from politics” (1990: 7). This incapacity to critique the self, the subject, and the rejection of the interference of politics in culture are expressive of an intellectual, cultural and political tradition which is metropolitan in origin and ultimately productive of colonial dominion over peripheral subjects. The discourse of Revisionism is, thus, allegorical of its own preoccupations, and the conservative role it assigns to the aesthetic realm expressive of a desire to give continuity to existing political relations. As part of a challenge to this hegemony, Deane rejects Revisionism’s belief in “the autonomy of cultural artifacts”, and “the Arnoldian notion that the work of art that most successfully disengages itself from the particularities of its origin and production is, by virtue of that “disengagement”, most fully and purely itself” (1990: 7). By contrast, Field Day sees art as an engagé activity “in which the whole history of a culture is deeply inscribed” (1990: 7).

The Field Day v. Revisionism “Battle of the Books” is, then, not just about affiliation to one side or other of the political divide, not just about being in favour of Enlightenment or against nationalism with its supposed penchant for atavistic and backward fairy tales of mythical origin: rather it goes to the heart of the relationship of politics and aesthetics and to competing ontological models. The “Arnoldian” artistic creation that is fully and purely itself is produced by the artist of a similar condition, whose centred, stable subjectivity of universal reach raises him above the fray of politics, places him in the vanguard of humanist progress and at the centre of advanced civilisation. For Deane and Field Day, history shows us that such a model has failed Ireland, and that alternatives must be sought. The Frankfurt School alternative is that of an aesthetics of fragmentation, of a multiple and fractured self which explodes the total dominion of the subject and of the centre, and of its historicism which leaves peripheral cultures playing an eternal game of catch up. With Benjamin and Adorno, the potential exists for something new, and for expression to be given to the periphery and voice to, in Fanon’s formulation, the Wretched of the Earth.

It is thus completely logical that the Field Day endeavour should, in part, be protagonised by the postcolonial outsider Said, and by two other scholars classified by Deane in impeccably Adornian terms as “not Irish” (1990: 19). Said, in particular, has acknowledged the extent of the influence of Adorno on his elaboration of an exilic, even vagrant, praxis of cultural intervention. Based in Kent, England, Brian Dillon, too, is a clear inheritor of this legacy, of this “negative” intellectual and artistic tradition we find in the work of Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Jameson, Eagleton, Deane and Said. From his exilic position, both literal and stylistic, it is hard to imagine that he will have a huge impact on the ground, or at the front line of conflict, cultural and material, in Ireland, or in the broader sphere of our contemporary culture wars; nor that posing and re-posing at his mirror will actually allow green to see itself as orange, or orange as green. But, unquestionably, his own technique of vagrant trouble affords us a renewed template with which to explode a flawed history and remake more enabling relations for all.


This publication has been completed in the context of the activity undertaken by the research groups GHUMECO, at the Universidad de León, and GENTT, at the Universitat Jaume I, Castellón; and in relation to the following research projects: (PGC2018-098726-B-I00 – Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades); (FFI2015-67427-P – Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad); and (AICO/2019/182 – Generalitat Valenciana).


[1] See Adorno’s “The Essay as Form” (1991a). Adorno writes: “the essay arouses resistance because it evokes intellectual freedom. Since the failure of an Enlightenment […], [it], does not let its domain be prescribed” (3-4); and “[t]he essay does not play by the rules of organized science and theory” (10).

[2] Original emphasis. In view of the extensive use of italics by Brian Dillon, all use of italics should be considered original unless otherwise indicated.

[3] See, for example, “The Shadow of Resistance: W. G. Sebald and the Frankfurt School” (2011) by Ben Hutchinson.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. (1991a [1958]). “The Essay as Form.” Notes to Literature vol. 1, edited by Rolf Tiedemann. New York: Columbia University Press. 3-23.

______ (1991b). “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited by J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge. 132-57.

______ (2005 [1951]). Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, translated from the German by E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso.

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer (1997 [1972]). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. London: Verso.

Adorno, Theodor W. et al. (2019 [1950]). The Authoritarian Personality. London: Verso.

Deane, Seamus, ed. (1990). “Introduction.” Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 03-22.

Dillon, Brian (2014). Objects in This Mirror: Essays. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

______ (2017). Essayism. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Eagleton, Terry (1982). “Fredric Jameson: The Politics of Style.” Diacritics 12: 14-22.

______ (1986).  Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985. London: Verso.

______ (2009). “Jameson and Form.” New Left Review 59 (Sept/Oct): 123-37.

Goldman, Nathan (2018). “A Desire for the Sentence: An Interview with Brian Dillon.” Los Angeles Review of Books (November 2).

Hutchinson, Ben (2011). “The Shadow of Resistance: W. G. Sebald and the Frankfurt School.” Journal of European Studies 41 (3-4): 267-84.

Israel, Jonathan (2006). “Enlightenment! Which Enlightenment?” Journal of the History of Ideas 67 (3): 523-45.

Jay, Martin (1996). The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950. Oakland: University of California Press.

Longley, Edna (1985). “Poetry and Politics in Northern Ireland.” Contemporary Culture Debate The Crane Bag 9 (1): 22-40.

O’Brien, Karen (2010). “The Return of the Enlightenment.” The American Historical Review 115 (5): 1426-35.

O’Toole, Fintan (2016). “The United Hates of America has raised its middle finger to the world.” The Irish Times (Nov. 9).

Said, Edward W. (1990). “Yeats and Decolonization.” Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, edited by Seamus Deane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 69-98.

______ (2001 [1994]). “Traveling Theory Reconsidered.” Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays. London: Granta. 436-52.

Wilson, Ross. (2007). Theodor Adorno. London: Routledge.

| Received: 15-10-2023 | Last Version: 25-11-2023 | Articles, Issue 18.2