Object Oriented Marxism?

By Simon Mussell, 28 August 2013
Image: Still from Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, 1959

Reconceiving man's relations to matter and the world of objects was not always the politically insipid theoretical pastime it has become. Here, Simon Mussell revisits the Frankfurt School's work to explore how their consideration of the 'thicket of material life' created new lines of resistance to social alienation



Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades

― Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1925


Compensation Culture, or Things in Excess of Capital


Social and political theorists of all stripes have often sought forms of cultural compensation for the damage and deformation wrought by the seemingly autonomous forces that structure life under capital. The search is as unending and mobile as capitalist expansion itself, with pockets of resistance, if not mere solace, having been located amid a whole host of productive excesses. In this regard, much theory adopts – usually despite itself – a neo-Romantic bent in its diverse attempts to delineate a range of phenomena believed to be somehow beyond the reach of capital. Or if ‘beyond’ its reach is deemed too naïve and optimistic, then one might substitute the phrase ‘not entirely subsumable’ to capital. A brief survey of such neo-Romantic leanings might include the following theoretical trends: ecological discourse, which maps out unbreachable ‘natural’ limitations to capital’s endless enlargement, inevitable catastrophes of the near future, crises of resource management and energy provisions, and so on;1 the return of various vitalisms, which directly invoke ‘life’ itself in different registers (both scientific and mystical) as a force of radical and irreducible potential, diversity and creativity;2 and affect theory, which in following the Spinoza-inflected work of Gilles Deleuze and Brian Massumi, places great faith in the pre-rational, unpredictable and uncontainable intensities of ‘affect’, in contrast to the stifling, codified and calculable experiences under capitalism.3


In all such cases – and I have only mentioned some of the most prevalent here – it seems that social critique is premised upon some manner of excess as representative of a persistent belief in something that resists complete identification and determination by the otherwise rigid structures of capitalism and its hegemonic culture. Amid the negation of critique, then, one invariably finds some positive residue that provides a vestige of hope, or even a basis for activism. On this view, the rationalist discourse of modernity (and postmodernity) does not merely repress the natural, the vital, the affective, and so on; it also romantically fetishizes them as forgotten or neglected others. Disenchantment and enlightenment bring with them new forms of re-enchantment and illusion. And, so the argument goes, there is always something that escapes the present malady, so long as our theoretical vision is properly attuned to see it.


In her recent article for Mute, Svenja Bromberg sheds some light on another contemporary trend in Continental philosophy and aesthetic practice, namely, the turn towards objects. Bromberg offers a useful synopsis of this turn, as inaugurated through the works of Graham Harman and Quentin Meillasoux among others, before outlining some of the limitations accompanying these varied ‘new materialisms’. In Bromberg’s account, while the driving force behind the new materialisms stems from genuine anxieties over reification, oppression and exploitation within capitalist relations, ‘the solutions we’re confronted with . . . no longer lie in the critique of these relations, but rather in a nonrelational and un-dialectical gesture that posits the world of matter against the man-made disaster of a neoliberal existence’.


While I share some of Bromberg’s misgivings over ‘Object-Oriented Philosophy’, I want to show that the defence of an enhanced mindfulness of the object world need not so divide the world of things and the world of people. Attending to objects can take more dialectically and politically imbued forms. To this end, there is still much to be said on behalf of first-generation critical theory, which provides rich material for engaging with the philosophical, aesthetic and political import of objects.4 In contrast to the more recent turns toward the object, critical theory remains irreducible to a naïve realism on the one hand, or an inflated idealism on the other. It neither celebrates the ‘death of the subject’, nor embraces the fully-fledged idea of bourgeois subjectivity. Instead, critical theory dedicates itself to the paradoxical effort to express the inexpressible, that which exceeds the respective borders of ‘subject’ and ‘object’, to illuminate the subject in the object, and vice versa. A collapsing of these previously rigid ontological (and epistemological) boundaries need not be anti-political. Indeed, it is notable that some of the most sustained attempts to problematise these distinctions can be found in the work of the Frankfurt School.


As one of the most influential strands of what Perry Anderson labelled ‘Western Marxism’, critical theory is usually seen as being steadfastly anti-capitalist and anti-Romantic. But while the former is undeniable, the latter is more contentious. Critical theorists are painfully attentive to the dangers of positing or rediscovering ‘first principles’, notions of ‘immediacy’, alleged sites of cultural immunization, and so forth. Moreover, they are also only too aware of their own place and complicity in the existing state of affairs.5 And yet rather than wholly reject all reanimations of the Romantic, there is arguably a quasi-Romantic repository of (as yet unredeemed) hope to be found throughout first-generation critical theory, particularly in the work of Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor Adorno. This argument could be made in light of the recent turns noted at the outset, that is, the returns to ‘nature’, ‘life’ (or ‘experience’), even ‘affect’.6 But my focus here will stay with the world of objects, since the latter confronts us with a more counter-intuitive point of resistance (at least in relation to critical theory). In revisiting the work of Kracauer and Adorno, we find that objects not only offer keys to unlocking the malaise of the past and present, but also prefigure (however obliquely) the possibility of transformed social relations in the future.


The Critique of Reification and the Subjugation of Objects


It has become cliché to say that we should not treat people like things. But it is a cliché that misses the point. What have we done to things to have such contempt for them?7


Before making the case for the centrality of objects to critical theory, it will be worth our while to consider why such an argument might appear counter-intuitive. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is referred to in the Stallybrass quote above, namely, the axiomatic conceptual distinction between people and things, invariably subordinating the latter to the former. This pervasive trope finds its way into multiple discourses.


In political theory, it produces a conception of politics centred solely around subjects and subjecthood. To the extent that political theory engages with material conditions, it tends to do so by way of adjudicating between those conditions that are enabling and those that are constraining for human agents. Political recognition is couched – even enshrined – in the moral, rational and juridical discourses of subjecthood, whose strict demarcation between active human subjects and passive non-human objects serves to subsume the world of things to the world of people. In this understanding, objects only achieve political or legal recognition as ‘property’.8


Image: Classic eye/plughole dissolve in HItchcock's Psycho, 1960


In Freudian psychoanalysis, objects are routinely demoted in terms of significance, instead being transposed into parts of human psychology and extensions of human physiology. A useful litany is provided by Bill Brown, who notes that in just two pages of Freud’s The Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, sticks, umbrellas, posts, trees, knives, rifles, watering-cans, hammers, Zeppelin airships, to name but a few, are all interpreted as substitutions for the ‘male organ’.9


Perhaps most pertinent to our concerns, in what we might call the traditional Marxist critique of reification, one also finds the subjugation of objects being reinforced. Marxism in general has an inconsistent relationship to the world of objects. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx criticizes private property, which has, as he puts it, ‘made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when we directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc., in short, when we use it’. He continues: ‘all the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by the simple estrangement of all these senses – the sense of having’.10 But this early critique of private property and possessive object relations develops into a more generalized critique of reification, that is to say, an antipathy towards thingness itself. As Rita Felski notes:


while Marxists and cultural materialists [have] retained a recalcitrant grip on the thingness of things, their stance [is] often one of guarded suspicion, if not outright condemnation. Invoking the language of reification and commodity fetishism, they [drive] home the theme that things [are] not to be trusted, that our relation to objects [is] irreparably damaged by structures of alienation and estrangement.11


While positing a theory of necessarily total commodification brings to light the ways in which everything is produced in order to be exchanged, and only accrues value in relation to another commodity – a situation Adorno calls ‘universal fungibility’ – the danger is that such a totalization in theory merely reproduces and even inadvertently validates the interchangeability of all things in practice. It ends up merely describing an unbreachable social process in which ‘the autonomization of commodity circulation’ continues ‘behind the backs and over the heads’ of individuals.12 As Marx notes in volume one of Capital, in the process of the valorization of value ‘it is still a matter of complete indifference what particular object serves this purpose’.13 Too often there seems to be a theoretical duplication of the practical subjugation of the object qua commodity. It is as if our manifold relations with and toward objects are utterly determined by capital’s quasi-autonomous forms. Such a totalizing perspective blocks access to the complex interrelations between people and things that go beyond their superficial acts of exchange and valorization. As Michael Heinrich notes:


In a commodity-producing society, people (all of them!) are under the control of things, and the decisive relations of domination are not personal but ‘objective’ (sachlich). This impersonal, objective domination . . . does not exist because things themselves possess characteristics that generate such domination, or because social activity necessitates this mediation through things, but only because people relate to things in a particular way – as commodities.14


As the catch-all diagnostic tool of choice for many Marxists, the critique of reification itself risks becoming reified. The indifference to particularity – which presumably constitutes one of the main targets of the original Marxist critique, i.e. that exchangeability quashes the unique utility of a thing – is thereby incorporated into the critique itself, as the inescapable and omnipotent ‘value-form’ brings about a blind destiny for all objects under its spell – which, of course, includes every person too.


But as Heinrich’s gloss unwittingly acknowledges, our associations with things are not easily reducible to the overarching narrative of the commodity-form. The particular relation toward things qua commodities is neither natural nor immutable. Rather, our interactions take place within multiple aesthetic, political and affective registers. In the remainder of this article, then, I will to try to make good on the claim that the critical theory of Kracauer and Adorno offers valuable object lessons for us in how to: (1) avoid reproducing a one-sided critique of reification; (2) make reparations for the subjugation of objects; and (3) subvert the subjective-idealist hierarchy in the hope of less violent subject and object relations in the future.


Object Lesson 1: Siegfried Kracauer and the ‘Thicket of Material Life’


The cinematographic gaze becomes an innate faculty.15


For our first object lesson, I want to turn to the work of Siegfried Kracauer. Doing so will mean engaging in a minor ‘rescue’ project, since Kracauer’s work retains a relatively marginal position within studies of critical theory. Moreover, where his work has received attention – most notably, in film theory – it has been widely (if unfairly) disparaged. But hopefully I can shed some new light on what I take to be some important materialist turns in Kracauer’s thought, which situate his work in a productive constellation with that of his good friend Adorno.


In From Caligari to Hitler (1947) – his first foray into constructing a substantive film theory – Kracauer analyzes the cinema as an institution whose historical function was largely to ‘paralyze social life, reifying it into ornamental patterns, and evacuating the possibility for individual judgment or critical thought’.16 Such a view of cinema as being primarily and institutionally conservative was also Adorno’s default position at the time.17 But in Kracauer’s second English-language book, Theory of Film (1960), the reifying process of filmic representation is given a more open-ended and even positive spin. Cinematic reification there appears as a force capable of realizing the submerged liberatory potential of a technological medium within an abstract, alienated, modern age. Such emancipatory potential, however, is not simply an ontological property of the medium itself. Rather, film’s ‘turn to materiality’ has to be realized through particular stylistic choices and techniques – such as editing and framing. In breaking from the established formal conventions that ossify and codify social relations into readable (or ‘scannable’, as today’s more cognitivist terminology would have it) and predictable narratives, Kracauer defends a more materialist film technique that eschews the comforting formulas of subjective individualism – e.g. the recourse to psychological motivation, linear plot development and closure, shot-countershot routines, and so on. Taking up a line of thought introduced by Walter Benjamin, Kracauer turns a cinematic eye toward objects as not so much empty and lifeless husks, but more as material fragments that are both independent of human intentions and yet loaded with collective history and congealed labour. The world of things, then, rather than existing as wholly separate from that of people, is instead shown to be coexistent with human praxis, thought and feeling.


In this regard, one of the most notable aspects of film’s turn to materiality lies in the way it radically alters and deflates the role of the actor. No longer occupying a privileged space of heightened prominence and foregrounding, an actor becomes merely a ‘thing among things’.18 But here the adverb ‘merely’ might be misleading, for it furtively reintroduces the hierarchy of people over things. Moreover, it implies that a degree of indignity or degradation is inherent in such an objectification.19 For Kracauer, by contrast, refiguring the actor as cinematic material – a thing among things – can serve to deform if not negate the traditional value accorded to personality, identity, even celebrity (that is to say, all the highly commodified features of acting ‘talent’). The camera’s objectifying or reifying gaze goes beyond photographic indexicality, and instead renders familiar surfaces – the outer skin of things – strange, unique and opaque. In Benjamin’s celebrated terminology, film illuminates or serves the ‘optical unconscious’, the unseeable micrological constituents of the everyday world. No longer simply ‘recording’ or ‘capturing’ material, imposing symbolic meanings onto things, or incorporating objects into hegemonic allegories and narratives, film is capable of framing material contingency, expanding its field of vision to include those previously overlooked, imperceptible or unremarkable parts of the physical world. But in doing so the cinematic apparatus doesn’t just alter the mode of filming material; it also produces more mimetic forms of viewing material.


Our traditional habits of seeing – based on seeking out signifiers, imputing intention and causality, identifying with characters, and so on – are in need of radical transformation. In cinema’s decentering mode of reception, its mimetic and mobile forms of assimilation that unsettle the boundaries between subject and object (spectator and spectacle), Kracauer discerns a sharp critique of sovereign subjectivity, self-identity and interiority.20 Just as the cinematic apparatus (ideally) assimilates to its manifold material with minimal subjective imposition, so the viewer assimilates to the filmic object in an act of self-effacement. In giving ourselves over to the object, the individual ego is disarmed, if not dissolved, allowing for the possibility of a material ‘continuum’ to take shape. Such a continuum would encourage more horizontal relations between spectator and spectacle, and would aim at breaching the all-too-rigid borders of ‘subject’ and ‘object’.


To the extent that film ‘addresses’ its viewer, it does so at a ‘corporeal-material’ level, seizing the human being ‘with skin and hair’. As Kracauer puts it, ‘The material elements that present themselves in film directly stimulate the material layers of the human being: his [sic] nerves, his senses, his entire physiological substance’.21 The cinematic image, then, is doubly invested with materiality – at first in its revealing (and revelling in) the world of physical objects, and then once more in its visceral spectatorial address. Only after film has affected us at the sensuous level are we able to engage with it intellectually. But even then, Kracauer wants to uphold and respect the object’s otherness, its indeterminacy, its stubborn resistance to nominalism and conceptual closure. In this way, film dialectically plays out the simultaneous figuring and disfiguring of materiality, the interpenetration of distance and proximity. The close-up on a face,22 for instance, uncovers infinitesimal detail through its hyper-familiarity and physical closeness, but it also renders the face’s contours strange and uncanny, distancing us in the process. Fleshy delineations morph into surreal and dynamic landscapes, as a kind of benign scopophilia takes effect, whereby we – as viewers – assimilate to the objects depicted (or rather to the multiple layers of materiality disclosed). Such is the transformative power of the mutual interplay between the object world and a materialist aesthetics of film in Kracauer’s critical theory.


Object Lesson 2: Adorno and the Preponderance of the Object


If the subject is no longer able to speak directly, then at least it should . . . speak through things, through their alienated and mutilated form.23


Kracauer’s object-oriented film theory would seem to have a philosophical counterpart in Adorno’s notion of the ‘preponderance of the object’ [Vorrang des Objekts]. However, to make good on this connection we will need to navigate Adorno’s own critical take on Kracauer’s work. It’s worth quoting Adorno at length here, so as to convey some of the peculiar tone of what is meant as a birthday ‘tribute’ to his close friend and former mentor:


In Kracauer the fixation on childhood, as a fixation on play, takes the form of a fixation on the benignness of things; presumably the primacy of the optical in him is not something inborn but rather the result of this relationship to the world of objects. One looks in vain in the storehouse of Kracauer’s intellectual motifs for indignation about reification. To a consciousness that suspects it has been abandoned by human beings, objects are superior. In them thought makes reparations for what human beings have done to the living. The state of innocence would be the condition of needy objects, shabby, despised objects alienated from their purposes. For Kracauer they alone embody something that would be other than the universal functional complex, and his idea of philosophy would be to lure their indiscernible life from them.24


Adorno’s complaint here smuggles in a hierarchy that registers ‘indignation about reification’ (presumably referring to his own work) as the mature critical position, in opposition to Kracauer’s ‘primacy of the optical’, which Adorno presumes to result from an infantile and playful relationship to objects.25 In supposedly abandoning the fallen world of people, Kracauer turns to the innocent world of things as recompense for inescapable alienation. Adorno admonishes him for this move toward ‘needy objects, shabby, despised objects alienated from their purposes’.


Image: Still from Karl Grune, Die Strasse, 1923


This critique – quite condescending in tone – fails to note that in Kracauer’s attention to the world of objects lies an attempt to expand the sphere of influence beyond bona fide ‘subjects’ and to include the entire ‘thicket of material life’. Kracauer places human beings neither above nor below, but alongside such needy objects. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that human subjects are also precisely these needy, shabby objects alienated from their purposes. This position is not, then, a naïve inversion of the subject-object hierarchy – a slapstick [Groteske] philosophy whereby objects transmogrify into conspiratorial agents with humans suffering as a result. Instead, it attests to the dialectical intertwinement and co-constitution of all things – human and non-human – to the point at which such boundaries become more porous, expansive and open-ended.


Not only are Adorno’s concerns over Kracauer’s work misplaced, they are also disingenuous. For in Adorno’s own thesis of the ‘preponderance of the object’ – a crucial concept in both his philosophy and aesthetics – we can discern a similar motive at work, namely, the defence of a critical materialism attuned to the object world that helps to produce and yet exceeds subjective experience and knowledge. What we find in both theorists is not so much a project of de-reification as one of distinguishing between good and bad reification, that is to say, the establishing of what we might call good object relations. Tellingly, in a letter to Walter Benjamin from 1940, Adorno suggests ‘there is absolutely no question for us of merely repeating Hegel’s verdict upon reification here, but rather of formulating a proper critique of reification . . . [i.e.] of formulating a distinction between good and bad reification’.26 This tentative suggestion sheds light on the materialist layers of Adorno’s critical theory. Once these layers are qualified and admitted, one can find them underpinning his thought.


Let us begin with an ending: the final aphorism of Minima Moralia provides a good indication of Adorno’s turn toward the object world. While this passage is widely cited, the focus is ordinarily placed on the gnomic invocation of messianic redemption. But there is more than messianism afoot in the following:


Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be . . . as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects – this alone is the task of thought.27


In this well-known passage, Adorno breaches the borders between thinking and feeling, mind and body, subject and object. As was also the case in Kracauer’s film theory, Adorno works to deflate the transcendental ego of idealism (the ‘bourgeois I’), and unsettle the notion of disembodied reason. In doing so, I believe his aim is to inaugurate what we might call a heterodox materialism – by which I mean a mode of thinking that tries to mimetically assimilate to its objects. This mode of thinking actively takes on a reparative role for the damage done to things by conceptualization: ‘While doing violence to the object of its syntheses, our thinking heeds a potential that waits in the object, and it [thought] unconsciously obeys the idea of making amends to the pieces for what it has done’.28 What thought has done is to exclude the multifarious possibilities, singularities and moments within things, in favour of expedient taxonomy. By contrast, to ‘yield to the object means to do justice to the object’s qualitative moments’.29 By passing to the object’s preponderance, ‘dialectics is rendered materialistic’.30


This mode of thinking is in no way dogmatic though; it does not suggest that only ‘matter’ matters. Instead, Adorno advocates a critically attuned and non-reductive materialism that proceeds through a dual recognition: first, of how objects retain an independence vis-à-vis thought; and second, of how thinking is always materially affected. The first point invokes the (anti-conceptual) concept of the ‘non-identical’, namely, that in the object which exceeds conceptual determination.31 The second point highlights the objectivity of the subject, the affective contamination and embodiment of all thought. Both points are crucial to Adorno’s subject-object dialectic, which in turn is at the heart of what I am calling his ‘heterodox materialism’.


In Adorno’s work, philosophical concerns are inseparable from those of aesthetics. While philosophy can usefully posit the object’s preponderance, the closest we come to affirming or maybe performing the priority of the object is through art. In encountering a work of art, the subject gives itself over to the object, allowing the vestiges of mimesis – the ‘nonconceptual affinity of the subjectively produced with its unposited other’32 – to be reignited and redirected. In so doing, we detect the limited cartography of constitutive subjectivity, while leaving the object free from domination. The subject does not remain a static accumulator of knowledge, but instead is transformed in the process of its objective mediation. The aporetic attempt in art to voice the mute expressivity of the object world forms a counter image to visions of the subject as omnipotent and all-knowing. It also stands in opposition to the ceaseless imperialism of the signifier.


As with Kracauer’s ideal spectator, Adorno’s advocacy of mimetic comportment disarms the private bourgeois ‘I’ and promotes an openness to the experience of what is alien and alienated, the non-identical. What seems at first to be an intensely personal experience in attempting to decipher, classify or read the (aesthetic) object, gradually dissolves into the object’s ‘enigmaticalness’33 and congealed historical content. In materially outliving and resisting all subjective claims upon it, the object extrapolates that which is irreducible, the stubborn surfeit of its qualities. This liquidizing of individual subjectivity calls forth an expanded sense of collectivity – above and beyond a merely inter-subjective public sphere, and more towards an inter-objective sphere in which subjects and objects, people and things, are reciprocally comprised, no longer reduced to pure fungibility and functionality.


Of course, in our current state, art is but society’s bad conscience: its utopia is ‘draped in black’.34 Art can only intimate such a radically transformed order by alienating and constellating its material from the existing world. Art’s ostensibly exceptional status is precarious and paradoxical: ‘Only as things do artworks become the antithesis of the reified monstrosity’.35 And yet, if ‘it is essential to artworks that they be things, it is no less essential that they negate their own status as things . . . The totally objectivated artwork would congeal into a mere thing’.36 The artwork therefore enacts the dialectic I’ve been trying to sketch out here. It operates within the positively charged nexus of personhood and thinghood, subjectity and objectivity. In this dynamic, the subject merges with the object, just as the object emerges as a subject. This shift not only forestalls the possible idolatry of subjectless objects (a risk not heeded in the ‘political ecology’ of Jane Bennett), it also dethrones the constitutive bourgeois subject. This dialectic marks out the critical theory of both Adorno and Kracauer as being particularly mindful of the materiality, historicity and utopian possibility sedimented in the object world. Such mindfulness is brimming with political implications and intent. It charges our inter-objective relations with meanings, histories and intensities beyond the narrative of the commodity-form.


I began with the general claim that much contemporary social and cultural theory has sought reistance to capital through various forms of excess, a sort of alternative or subterranean ‘surplus value’, we might say. My aim has been to show how a similar kind of excess – in the form of a heterodox materialism that attests to the partial autonomy of the object world – serves as a placeholder for hope within the critical theory of Kracauer and Adorno. Just as for Kracauer filmic technique can be put into the service of disclosing the ‘thicket of material life’, so for Adorno the very form of one’s thinking affects what concepts can be thought and the constellations into which those concepts can be placed. In mimetically assimilating to the object in fidelity to the non-identical, we might finally relinquish the myth of subjective omniscience. Our object relations can exceed the domineering narrative of the commodity-form, just as the surrounding materiality breaks through the conceptual apparatuses routinely applied to it. The things around us are both obstinate in their physical contingency and independence, and replete with meaning, history and congealed labour. Reintroducing materiality and objects into the composition of ourselves and our manifold interactions need not be an anti-political gesture. The object lessons of Kracauer and Adorno call for us to appreciate the mutual dependency and co-constitution of people and things, of subjects and objects; to allow for what is irrevocably material to bleed into our thinking and practice, and transform them; to finally acknowledge the things in our hands as equals.37


Simon Mussell <> is an independent researcher, writer and copy-editor based in Newcastle Upon Tyne. He studied Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex. His research interests include critical theory, political modernism, film, and affect.



1 See also Leon Niemoczynski, who invokes the notion of ‘speculative naturalism’ to argue that nature can offer lines of insight into its own infinitely productive ‘vibrant’ ground, which he identifies as natura naturans (‘nature’ doing what it uniquely does, nature naturing); Niemoczynski, Charles Sanders Peirce and a Religious Metaphysics of Nature, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

2 ‘Our innovative and creative capacities are always greater than our productive labour – productive that is of capital . . . [B]iopolitical production is . . . always excessive with respect to the value that capital can extract from it because biopolitics can never capture all of life’; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 146, emphasis added. For a critical account of the recent return to vitalist thinking, see Eugene Thacker’s After Life, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

3 ‘Affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is . . . Something remains unactualized, inseparable from but unassimilable to any parlicular, functionally anchored perspective . . . If there were no escape, no excess or remainder, no fade-out to infinity, the universe would be without potential, pure entropy, death’; Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 35.

4 I am using ‘first-generation critical theory’ here to refer to a loose affiliation of thinkers associated with the Institut für Sozialforschung at the University of Frankfurt am Main. Leading ‘first-generation’ members of the Institute include Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Friedrich Pollock, Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Otto Kirchheimer and Leo Lӧwenthal. External thinkers associated with the Institute include Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Alfred Sohn-Rethel.

5 Indeed, at times critical theory’s auto-critique is so thorough as to border on the pathological. This risks making of vulnerability, sacrifice, inescapable entwinement, guilt, pessimism, and so on, prescriptive and formalized principles, for which Rebecca Comay’s phrase might be an apt shorthand: ‘the slave logic of recuperative self-denial’; Rebecca Comay, ‘Materialist Mutations of the Bilderverbot’, in Sites of Vision: The Discursive Construction of Sight in the History of Philosophy, ed. David Michael Levin, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997, p. 342.

6 Indeed, moves along these lines have already been made. For example, on critical theory and nature, see Andrew Biro’s edited collection Critical Ecologies: The Frankfurt School and Contemporary Environmental Crises, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011). For a somewhat flawed defence of the importance of ‘life’ in Adorno’s critical theory, see Alastair Morgan’s Adorno’s Concept of Life, London: Continuum, 2007.

7 Peter Stallybrass, ‘Marx’s Coat’, in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, ed. Patricia Spyer (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998), pp. 183–207.

8 Think here of how even an ‘absolute commodity’ like a Rothko painting only receives legal protection on condition that it ‘belong’ to someone or some identifiable body (e.g. the artist, the museum, the ‘people’, etc.).

9 Bill Brown, ‘Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny’, Critical Inquiry, 32, Winter, 2006, pp.175–207.

10 Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,

11 Rita Felski, ‘Object Relations’, Contemporary Women’s Writing, 1.1/2 (2007): 185–91.

12 Ernst Bloch, ‘Alienation, Estrangement’, Literary Essays, trans. A. Joron, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 242.

13 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, p.311.

14 Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capitaltrans. A. Locascio, New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2012, p. 75.

15 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor, London: Continuum, 2004, p.193.

16 Patrice Petro, ‘Kracauer’s Epistemological Shift’, New German Critique, 54, Autumn 1991: pp.127–38.

17 For instance, see the denouncements of cinema in the ‘Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ essay in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and in §5 and §131 of Minima Moralia. However, in a short and somewhat underworked piece from 1966 entitled ‘Transparencies on Film’, Adorno appears to relent on the hyperbole and deigns to allow for the possibility that film could contain critical and aesthetic potential on a par with literature, painting and music; see Theodor W. Adorno ‘Transparencies on Film’, [November 1966], New German Critique, 24/25, Winter 1981–2, pp.199–205.

18 Robert Bresson’s preference for the ‘model’ over the ‘actor’ is indicative of such a move. For Bresson, the model is a stubbornly non-rational, singular, physical entity whose actions and movements are not expressive of subjective intentions and motivations, but rather are subsumed to the filmic totality. ‘One single mystery of persons and objects’, Bresson notes. ‘The persons and the objects in your film must walk at the same pace, as companions’; Bresson Notes on Cinematography, New York, NY: Urizen Books, 1977, p.8, p.38. Andrei Tarkovsky’s works also provide ready examples of this practice. According to the actor Alexsander Kaidanovsky, on the set of Stalker, Tarkovsky had said to him: ‘I don’t need your psychology, your expressiveness . . . The actor is part of the composition, like the tree, like the water’; cited in Petrie and Johnson The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.

19 Obviously, ‘objectification’, like reification, is a historically loaded term. Part of my aim here is to (temporarily) neutralize such terminology so as to create a space in which the status of objects/thinghood may be re-evaluated. Such a move should not be taken as an outright attack on subjectivity, however; it is more an attempt to recognize the current limtations of a subject that does not allow for materiality to affect its content. The subject is an object too.

20 Miriam B. Hansen ‘Introduction’, in Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997, p.xi.

21 Cited in Miriam Hansen ‘“With Skin and Hair”: Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Marseilles 1940’, Critical Inquiry, 19.3, 1993, pp.437–69.

22 ‘Any huge close-up reveals new and unsuspected formations of matter; skin textures are reminiscent of aerial photographs, eyes turns into lakes or volcanic craters. Such images blow up our environment in a double sense: they enlarge it literally; and in doing so, they blast the prison of conventional reality, opening up expanses which we have explored at best in dreams before’; Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 48.

23 Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 154.

24 Theodor W. Adorno ‘The Curious Realist: On Siegfried Kracauer’ New German Critique 54, 1991, pp.159–77.

25 Adorno also complains of Kracauer’s ‘amateurish thinking on his feet’, which combines with a ‘certain slackness [that] damped self-criticism in favor of playful pleasure in felicitous insights’; Ibid., pp. 161–2. Quite apart from the problematic associations of slackness with playfulness in opposition to rigidity and seriousness, Adorno’s suspicions about playfulness – evidenced in his criticisms of Kracauer here and of Benjamin elsewhere – appear overstated when we are told in the Introduction to Negative Dialectics that ‘philosophy contains a playful element which the traditional view of it as a science would like to exorcise’. He even likens the practice of philosophy to a kind of ‘clowning’; Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, London: Continuum, 2005, p.14, my emphasis. All the more bizarre then that he would bemoan: ‘With Kracauer there was always some clowning in the stance’; Adorno, ‘The Curious Realist’, p.172. I have argued elsewhere that Adorno’s writing can be seen as a form of clowning; see my seminar paper for the Modernist Studies Association 15 conference, University of Sussex, Seminar 6, ‘Narrating the Everyday: Ethical Risks and Rewards’, 31 August 2013.

26 See Adorno’s letter to Benjamin dated 29 Feb 1940; Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence, 1928–1940, ed. H. Lonitz, trans. N. Walker, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 321.

27 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E. Jephcott, (London: Verso, 2005), p. 247, my emphasis. Adorno also invokes thought’s proximity to its objects when discussing Benjamin’s oeuvre: ‘[B]ecause the subjective intention is seen to be extinguished in the object, Benjamin’s thought is not content with intentions. The thoughts press close to its object, seek to touch it, smell it, taste it and so thereby transform itself. Through this secondary sensuousness, they hope to penetrate down to the veins of gold which no classificatory procedure can reach, and at the same time avoid succumbing to the contingency of blind intuition’; Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983, p.240.

28 Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 19.

29 Ibid., p. 43.

30 Ibid., p. 192.

31 ‘[O]bjects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder’; Ibid., p.5.

32 Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p.70.

33 This is Hullot-Kentor’s translation of the German noun ‘Rätselcharakter’.

34 Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p.178.

35 Ibid., p.220.

36 Ibid., p.230.

37 A shortened version of this article was presented at the Sixth International Critical Theory Conference, Loyola University Chicago, John Felice Rome Center, May 6–8, 2013. I am very grateful to Birgit Hofstaetter for providing such an excellent and timely response, and to Josephine Berry Slater for her helpful comments.