‘Reclaiming Autonomy: The Rhetoric of Contrary’

Harma, Tanguy. 2012. '‘Reclaiming Autonomy: The Rhetoric of Contrary’'. In: 2012 Goldsmiths Postgraduate Symposium. Goldsmiths, London, United Kingdom. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

My paper aims to investigate various forms of dialectical ‘contraries’ that can be found in the critical methods of the social sciences and humanities. I will demonstrate that those forms of contraries are not oppositions, and partake in the rehabilitation of the autonomous position – in particular vis-à-vis the arts – as Adorno suggested in his essay ‘Commitment’ (1962).
In a first part, I will discuss three particular cases of the use of contraries that I have encountered in my research so far. I will start with theology, and more particularly Buddhism. The story of the awakening of Gautama perfectly illustrates the rhetoric of contrary, which is also present in Tao and Zen Buddhism through notions of ego and wu-wei, where spontaneity is preferred to the fugacious and elusive annihilation of the ego. In philosophy, Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), delivered a thoroughly anti-Socratic discourse. A charge against rationalism, Nietzsche gave birth to the intuitive Dionysiac figure: I will demonstrate that the Dionysiac is operating a switch between modalities and cannot be read as an opposition to Socratic metaphysics but as a contrary. Eventually, I will evoke psychoanalytic theory. Freud, in 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' (1920), highlighted the dialectical interplay between sex drive and death drive. For Carl Jung however, death drive and sex drive are two faces of the same coin: both partake in a creative process regardless their nature. Introducing the notion of fear and immobility, Jung formally defined a ‘contrary’ to the Freudian concept of sex drive.
Oppositions, then, seem defeated by the rhetoric of contrary in many instances, and I will focus on Adorno’s 1962 essay ‘Commitment’ in a second part. The essay draws a line between committed art and autonomous art: although committed art is politically ambivalent for Adorno, it seems to stand on the verge of propaganda, thus losing its integrity. According to Adorno, committed art does not allow creating, defining or devising one’s own position: it suggests a futile commitment to the other side of the political spectrum as foreseen and expected by the ideological system it originally aims at fighting back. Autonomous art, on the contrary, resists power through its very form: it is precisely this non-commitment to the dialectic of historical reality that proclaims a refusal to engage in the edification of power. Thus, through the use of a rhetoric of contrary, the autonomous position gives birth to a form of subversion that may be more much more efficient than a mere oppositional strategy.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Autonomy - Commitment - Contrary - Dialectics - Adorno -

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


April 2012["eprint_fieldopt_dates_date_type_shown" not defined]

Event Location:

Goldsmiths, London, United Kingdom

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

04 Apr 2016 22:18

Last Modified:

26 Jun 2017 09:10



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