Roe Ethridge, Prick Washer with Ador-gnome, 2022

Disorganisation & Sex

Celebrity parties, sodomy, fraudulent finance, washing machines – according to Jamieson Webster’s new book, talking with the unspeakable is the cure, not the sickness. An excerpt on Adorno’s obscene dreams from Disorganisation & Sex. With photos by Roe Ethridge especially conceived for this occasion.

Adorno Dreams

Adorno kept a dream journal between 1932 and 1969 intended for publication, but it was only published posthumously, in 2007, under the title Dream Notes. I don’t know of another philosopher who has chronicled his dreams in such length and detail. We don’t know what use Adorno wanted to make of this transcription of his dreams over thirty-seven years, only having his meticulously kept notes (transcribed by his wife). Only two parenthetical notes – quoted by the editors of the book – indicate something of his thoughts about this record of his dream life. Adorno writes, “Certain dream experiences lead me to believe that the individual experiences his own death as a cosmic catastrophe.” And, “Our dreams are linked with each other not just because they are ‘ours,’ but because they form a continuum, they belong to a unified world, just as, for example all Kafka’s stories inhabit ‘the same world.’ The more dreams hang together or are repeated, the greater the danger that we shall be unable to distinguish between them and reality.” Why does Adorno’s want to make us understand this continuum, this unified world, that he worries will invade our sense of reality?

Adorno’s dreams are a kind of testament to the difficulties he suffered after the Second World War. The dreams certainly consist mostly of nightmares. If dreams are the fulfillment of wishes, one might feel hard-pressed to find the wish buried beneath the “nauseating” anxiety of Adorno’s dreams. Many of these dreams took place when Adorno was in exile between 1941 and 1949 in Los Angeles, a city he found both fascinating and horrifying. Adorno’s many works on the culture industry as a kind of barbarism that was verging on fascistic hypnosis of the masses is reflected in dreams of celebrity-filled parties whose promise of untold pleasures becomes an inescapable labyrinth in his dream life. In these dreams Adorno never achieves the desired enlightenment of the masses, though he tries, and he finds it difficult to make himself even remotely understood.

For the majority of us neurotics, this “Other” scene is not present enough. We are always too deaf and too blind to it.

The fact of death is experienced as a cosmic catastrophe and every nightmare or anxiety dream is an attempt at working through not only trauma, but also the acceptance of one’s mortality and the fragility of life. Dreams help us confront what is impossible to think, what is unspeakable and as of yet un-symbolized, the object of anxiety par excellence wrapped in various imaginary guises from death, to the female genitalia, to castration. Nightmares have a quality of exposing a sudden uncanny presence of the sheer materiality and mortality of the body. Certainly in Adorno’s work how we accept mortality and the trauma of history is of undue importance.

That dreams are linked to one another and form a continuum in the logic and structure of the unconscious, shows us The Other as a kind of unity, one that makes its appearance in dreams, slips of the tongue, free association, transference. It forms a world that is uniquely ours, the sedimentation of history in language, thus uniting the individual with the fabric of the social order. Of course Adorno being Adorno, he worries that this unified world will become present prematurely, or just simply become too present and confuse reality. One might think of this as the problem with psychosis. But contrary to this assumption, from the point of view of psychoanalysis, the problem is that for the majority of us neurotics, this world, this Other scene, is not present enough. We are always too deaf and too blind to it. Establishing commerce with the Other is the cure, not the taming or expulsion of the Other.

Adorno writes in his dream journal that his wife asked him why he makes fun of himself in dreams, and he replied without thinking, “to fend off paranoia.” It is important to understand the dividing line between a paranoid relation to the Other and a theoretical praxis. If we ignore the last statement about the danger of dreams hanging together too much and distorting reality, I think we see Adorno’s profound recognition of the importance of the unconscious, how contact with dream life is a confrontation with desire that can inform an ethical form of creativity (à la Kafka).

Roe Ethridge, Prick Washer with Ador-gnome, 2022

Roe Ethridge, Prick Washer with Ador-gnome, 2022

Dreams are ingenious, and of course on several occasions Adorno’s dreams are absolutely brilliant in a manner befitting his way of thinking and seeing the world. On 10 September 1954 Adorno writes: “I dreamt I had taken part in a theological discussion … A speaker expounded the distinction between ‘equibrium’ and ‘equilibrium.’ The former was inner balance, the latter, outer balance. The effort of proving to him that there was no such thing as equibrium was so great that I woke up in the attempt.”

The lack of “equibrium” is not only the central content of the dream but is contained in its formal structure as well, since the effort to prove the falsity of the speaker’s statements is so great that it wakes Adorno up, meaning he loses his inner balance. The way in which form follows content is what makes the dream funny. But behind this humor one can also hear a wish, the wish for something impossible that appears at the point of nonsense, the signifier “equibrium.” The signifier points to an absence or lack, evoking desire.

For Adorno, this absent thing is profaned by the speaker’s theological extrapolation on what he assumes simply is. But it isn’t. That is what Adorno is at such pains to get across. Much of Adorno’s thought is directed at this impossibility: “wrong life cannot be lived rightly,” and it is an injustice to demand or decree otherwise. The impossibility has to be contained in thought, even if it means paradoxical thought, for example the truth of the dream being that there is no ‘equibrium’, which nonetheless does not exist.

The same logic is at work in one of my favorite dreams, dreamt much earlier than the latter, sometime in November 1942 in Los Angeles. Adorno dreams:

“I was talking with my girl-friend X about the erotic arts with which I thought her conversant. I asked her whether she had ever done it par le cul [up the arse]. She responded very frankly, saying that she could do it on some days, but not on others. Today was a day when it was quite impossible. This seemed quite plausible to me but I wondered whether she was speaking the truth or whether this was just a prostitute’s pretext for refusing me. Then she said that she could do quite different things, more beautiful things, Hungarian ones, of which I had never heard. In reply to my eager questioning, she said, ‘Well, there was Babamüll, for example.’ She started to explain to me. It soon turned out that this supposed perversion was in reality a highly complicated, to me entirely opaque, but evidently illegal finance operation, something like a safe way of passing worthless cheques. I pointed out to her that this had nothing to do with the erotic techniques she had promised me. However, she stuck to her view and replied in a supercilious tone that I should pay close attention and be patient – the rest would come of its own accord. But since I had completely lost track of the connection, I despaired of ever finding out what Babamüll was.”

Roe Ethridge,  Prick Washer with Ador-gnome , 2022

Roe Ethridge, Prick Washer with Ador-gnome, 2022

The series formed around the signifier Babamüll is fascinating and hilarious: müll means “garbage” or “waste” in German, baba is clear in its reference to babies, bottles, orality. Together, they are a promised erotic art to supplement for the impossibility of anal sex, a sexual act that turns out in the end to be some kind of “illegal finance operation” like “passing worthless cheques.”

How can we not think of Freud’s unconscious series baby=penis=feces=money. Adorno wants an anal-erotic, not to mention exotic, encounter. It is not in the least accessible or available – “quite impossible,” as his girlfriend says – and the greater his anticipatory excitement, the less comprehensible his situation feels. The series, as Freud defines them, are drive representatives that appear in the place of what is irrevocably lost. Following these avatars of drive, one slides down the chain of signifiers as they already exist formed in the unconscious network of wishes.

Adorno grows over-excited or desperate.

This momentum in Adorno’s dreams often leads to the concrete need for some transgressive-excessive act (par le cul). Adorno grows over-excited or desperate. The lost object appears as waste, garbage, an abortion, something psychoanalysis has always linked with melancholia: the identification with what falls, what is rejected, what is trapped in an impossible exile, what we must achieve radical separation from. It is for this reason that Freud, when contemplating melancholia, wondered if one needed to be this sick in order to see this truth.

Adorno must be patient, so he seems to say to himself. The object will only come in its own time, of its own accord. He is scolded superciliously by his girlfriend – “Be patient! Pay attention!” But what we find is Adorno’s haste towards this object, or obstinate distance, and his refusal to play a game of interchanging desire – the desired anal sex for your Babamüll – causes a kind of breakdown. One is trying to get one over on the other. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to believe that his paramour’s lesson is lost on him, for Adorno often spoke about the necessity of letting the unique time-stamp of the object speak, one of his reasons for loving music as much as he did.

Adorno’s diagnosis of the contemporary world as an impossible bureaucratic regulation of life in the model of a Kafkaesque labyrinth is powerfully represented by this dream: the erotic degrades into anal exchange, gold turning into shit, which becomes an endless paper stream, the fraudulence of currency. The world feels unnavigable. Perhaps the difference between this early dream and the “equibrium” dream is that the signifying point of nonsense is less a point of despair than it is in this one, saturated with the unfulfilled promise of erotic satisfaction. It must be said that the “prostitute” and her Babamüll appears in one of Adorno’s last dreams. This time she is “Mistress A,” who demands he buy a “prick washing machine” if he wants her to have sex with him with her mouth. He thinks to himself that she might be a saleswoman for the firm that manufactures the machine, and wakes up laughing. Perhaps here, Adorno’s projected anality finds its point of humor.

Roe Ethridge,  Prick Washer with Ador-gnome , 2022

Roe Ethridge, Prick Washer with Ador-gnome, 2022

It is important to note that while these dreams may be funny to us, especially in their lewdness, it’s unclear – or, rather, uncertain – as to how funny they are to the Adorno in the dream. The anxiety of being deprived, of being duped and led on, seems to me to characterize Adorno’s philosophical thought at its worst, namely when paranoia is the only means for him to maintain his integrity. It is always where the signifier appears, implicating Adorno’s desire, that one sees another possibility; a challenge to the disorder of the world. And this isn’t simply laughing at the corruption made present in the figure of the woman, but rather a kind of refiguring of reality … what is this promised but elusive object? Babamüll, prick washing machine, equibrium.

This was in large part the fascination I felt while reading Adorno’s dream journal: watching possibility experienced by the Adorno in the dream as a space of failure, while the dream itself, the subject that isn’t quite Adorno, points the way beyond. I wanted to know more where the dream seems to announce something new and opaque. What comes forward is not Adorno as Adorno in the dream, or Adorno the philosopher, but the unconscious as subject, the one determining or writing this text, that overturns everything.

Certainly, Adorno’s writing, and his analyses of literature, are works that seek to give room to this Other subject, non-identity, the object. Adorno felt there was “a further language ‘beneath the helpless language of human beings,’” but this may be “no more than the invocation of what doesn’t work or can’t work.” He sees that there is a language beneath, a second language that concerns an almost inevitable structural failure. But the slant is often more on the melancholia of this failure, than its potential – even in his dreams. Heartbreaking.