Adorno's Noise
by Carla Harryman

Reviewed by Jonathan Wegner


Published by Essay Press, 2008   |   181 pages

Delicate sinews of thought and revelation manage to hold together Carla Harryman’s stargazing, mind-teasing, and genre-defying essays in her latest collection, Adorno’s Noise. Taking phrases from Theodor Adorno’s aphoristic text, Minima Moralia, as starting points for searching investigations inward and outward, Harryman presses language and dialectics into her service as she probes, explores, and lobs sticks of philosophical dynamite across the imaginative borders of art, sex, self, memory, politics, poetry, and, ultimately, Adorno. As the title essay declares: “Even as languages disappear the headspace made in the damage converts to tongue.” Likewise, in the clamor of Adorno’s Noise, new meanings come to life and resonate.

Take, for example, the essay “Just Noise,” appearing under the heading “imagination is inflamed by women who lack imagination.” Lucky for “imagination,” Harryman is the woman wielding the torch as she assembles, disassembles, and reworks sexually freighted quotations from authors like Elizabeth Grosz, Anais Nin, Jocelyn Saidenberg, and Kathy Acker. Harryman quickly takes apart her first assemblage of footnoted quotes, and the explications she included in the footnotes become detached from, and ultimately blend into, the quotations to which they initially adhered. The result is a literary fugue that both toys with and brings to the fore the pleasure inherent in appropriating and manipulating others thoughts and language.

In other essays, Harryman covers the surface and structure of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies’s notorious document titled “A Clean Break” or explores and analyzes reflections that have arisen from her fertile readings of texts by writers like Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe and conceptual artist Robert Smithson, among others. Moments of exceeding clarity erupt in the midst of imagined dreamscapes, such as when she describes her near decapitation while sticking her head out of an open casement window. Like many moments in this collection, the experience “never happened although it does correspond to a perception, if not a feeling, that [she] could not communicate in any other way.”

For those not familiar with Harryman’s oeuvre, her essays are often difficult, dense, or phantasmagorical—or, to quote from one of the essays, “reminiscent of Ovid and acid trips.” But from these challenging passages emerge sumptuous turns of phrase and images that bring light to the darkest recesses of thought.

As Harryman notes, “A blank and therefore barely existing feature of the world, once illuminated, fills out and extends the world.” Her essays will take you to many of those newly extended territories.

Jonathan Wegner is a writer and lawyer living in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the former Reviews Editor for MAKE.

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