The story goes: serious thinkers, serious writers, agree that our world is broken. All previous societies have had a unifying myth or metaphysic; in the rush to modernity, we have jettisoned ours, and replaced them with nothing. Science gives us an image of the individual human being, alone in the universe, struggling through a life that is pointless and cracked.
Granted that you're worried about this, where would you turn? The arts seem the obvious place, but you might be disappointed. Art is split in half: on the one side are stories, songs and contemporary art that seems to exist only to turn a profit. They'll offer you entertainment, and little more. On the other side are experimental literature, post-serial composition and performance art. These works might offer something to insiders, but, in general, they seem to be part of a closed conversation between poets, composers or art-school students. Art is either an accessible commodity, no better or worse than artisanal cheddar, or it's rebarbative.
Failing the arts, you could look to humanities scholars. You'll probably find a small number of men and women willing to explain that the Stoics are very useful for entrepreneurs; or, alternatively, an equally small number of far less well-paid men and women, who write about how people writing about people writing about people writing about people writing about the Stoics got it all wrong. The humanities are just as split as the arts, only here the divide is between people who work to make the past confirm popular ideas (Washington was a Christian/Deist, depending on the your own beliefs, and that's why he's so great), and people who (are forced to) make a career in the academy. By these latter, of course, the language of the corporate academy is perhaps elocuted with the consequent knock on effect that going forward they will be rarely understood by hoi polloi.
Where to turn next? This experience of not quite finding what you want elsewhere shows that Adorno's 'The Essay as Form' is still relevant.
Major twentieth century thinkers often wrote in off-beat genres, but Adorno, uniquely, wrote an off-beat genre piece that's both a key to his own work and a defense of a literary form. He praises the essay for its free-form speculation on specific, cultural objects; the essayist, on Adorno's model, browses, but browses one thing, and considers her reactions to it as much as the thing itself, reflecting on “what is loved and hated.” And she does all this with as much attention to style as substance.
So the essay falls between the arts and scholarship: it's concerned with style, but it works with concepts where art works with media; it works with concepts, but unlike scholarship, it makes no claims to objective understanding. It simply follows the author's mind, wherever it list.
This ambiguity can be infuriating. The essayist rejects the responsibility for truth and accuracy that you find in good scholarship, but also claims an intellectual standing that would never be given to an artist. If you're not aware of this, you're likely to produce a bland commodity, like the scholars or artists I described above: “bad essays are just as conformist as bad dissertations.”
But you can look at it from the other side (with Adorno, there's always a “but... the other side”): a good essay falls between scholarship and art, and in doing so shows us that the distinction between them, and the divisions within them, aren't natural. The split between high art or scholarship on the one hand, and commodities on the other, is just a symptom of the way our world works. Almost everything is turned into a product for sale, so we hold on ever more grimly to a few things that, supposedly, exist apart from the market: family, religion, high art, disinterested knowledge. At the same time, we police the boundaries between scholarship and art. This is a sign that we've given up searching for “the whole truth.”
A good essay will point us towards this, and force us to ask why we've introduced all these distinctions into our writing and thought. Always falling between this and that, the essay is ideal for questioning the modern world and the distinctions that make it up. The most important of these distinctions is that between an idea and a fact. We've learned, for instance, that there are great ideas, great theories of socialism, but that, in fact, it doesn't work; we've learned the same thing about democracy. Political science, you'll be shocked to learn, is split between those who work on theories, and those who work on facts—but an essayist is free to move between one and the other. She gets to show that actually existing democracy is nothing like our theory of it, she can question why it isn't, and then raise the possibility that we'd rather live in an ideal democracy than whatever it is we've got now. The essay can also play around with the distinction between truth and history—pure philosophy seeks eternal truths, while historians document our changing world; but, the essay asks, what if the relation between history and truth is more complicated than that? Will we only get to truth at the end of history? Is history in some truthful whole? Or is truth within history?
So the essay “thinks in fragments, just as reality is fragmentary.” But whereas our serious writers and thinkers would simply praise this—the essay speaks to our cracked lives, because it is cracked too!—Adorno is quick to stress that the essay is a parody of fragmented reality. An essayist chooses to write fragments; we do not choose to live fragmented lives. But by making the choice, the essayist can show that the cracked lives of modern human beings aren't natural. Like the essay, the way we live is historical, cultural, and mutable. It hints that lives do not have to be cracked. In this small way, it turns out, the essay is utopian.
And so we return to Adorno's own often misunderstood negative dialectics. In his work, concepts (e.g., 'socialism') are judged against their objects (e.g., 'USSR'), and the objects are also judged against the concepts, until we come to see something previously hidden (here, fairly obviously, that the USSR was not socialist, but shows the dangers of socialism). Or, we can investigate a phenomenon—for instance, art and discover how the distinctions within it point us towards something missing: commodified art just reproduces the world's illnesses, while difficult high art is too often a status symbol for the privileged. Once we understand that, perhaps we can come up with a form of art that addresses all, without pretending that life is beautiful. And if we can do that, we'll have an art form that points towards something new: “the creation of humankind.”
The essay, free of the limitations of art or scholarship, is the perfect form for this kind of thought—provided it always keeps in mind its own limitations. I fear that this particular piece doesn't quite live up to the ideal, but, fortunately for us all, this is not The Essay. It's just an essay. And there'll be another one tomorrow.
Justin Evans is a writer; he lives in Los Angeles. He's written essays and fiction for The Point Magazine and Bird's Thumb, and is working on his first novel, 'Jerusalem/September.' You can email him at email@example.com.