This essay argues for a close relationship between Shelley's aesthetics and the modern concept of nonviolence. By reading Shelley with Theodor Adorno and Jacques Rancière, the essay establishes a critical Romantic nonviolence at the core of their aesthetic theories.
Aesthetics of Nonviolence: Shelley, Adorno, Rancière
Matthew C. Borushko
1. This essay is motivated by three claims. The first is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s claim, dramatized most notably at the pivotal moment in “The Mask of Anarchy,” that there is a close relationship between aesthetic experience, political emancipation, and what can be called anachronistically nonviolent resistance. The second claim belongs to Theodor Adorno, who writes, in an early section of Aesthetic Theory, of the “[uniting] of the aesthetic element of form with noncoercion” (7). The third claim comprises Jacques Rancière’s definition of “critical art”—“a type of art that sets out to build awareness of the mechanisms of domination to turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation” (Discontents 45)—and his delineation of critical art’s formal means: a “suspension of the relations of domination” (Discontents 36). These three claims are by no means the same, but the terms they collectively encompass—aesthetic form, the politics of art, the nondominative—indicate, I mean to suggest, an overlooked aspect of the historical trajectory of the political possibility of art, beginning with the Romantic redefinition of aesthetic experience and practice in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and then taking shape in twentieth-century leftist rethinkings of politics and aesthetics in the Marxian dialectical tradition. Shelley’s reimagining of political poetry is thus seminal here. In engaging the complex historico-political moment of Peterloo, Shelley’s poetry enacts a form of critique constitutionally oriented against the violence that defined the day. What emerges is not just a politics of nonviolence but an aesthetics of nonviolence: art becoming the space, the time, and the form of the noncoercive and nondominative—a becoming that Adorno and Rancière help us to think.
2. While “The Mask of Anarchy,” written in response to the news of Peterloo reaching Italy, has long been associated with modern nonviolence—from Gandhi’s quoting of it to its prefiguring of the lasting images of Tiananmen Square in 1989  —it has at the same time stood at the center of persistent debates over how to measure the politics of a poem. One view might celebrate the poem’s overt political statements, including its bracing criticism of the British government, its outrage at the use of force against a peaceable assembly, and its disdain for Castlereagh, Eldon, and Sidmouth, for example.  Yet another angle on the poem characterizes its political aspirations as, in the end, dubious at best and failed at worst, insofar as the poem was too radical for even Leigh Hunt to publish, precluding it from effecting material change in England in 1819.  What is more, often implicit in this view is a rhetorical question: how could a poem ever effect political change? Thus the poem, along with others written by Shelley in the wake of Peterloo, brings us up against the larger issue of the politics of art: not only how to measure it, but what, in the first place, is it? To these questions I might add, as a way of signaling the direction of this essay: what can it be?
3. My argument is that one possible answer to these questions resides in our grasp of the Romantic construal of the aesthetic as nonviolence, first in Shelley’s poetics in the aftermath of Peterloo, and then in the theorizations of art’s “autonomy” and “criticality” in Adorno and Rancière, respectively. Indeed, thinking along these lines provides a way around, or through, the Scylla and Charybdis of measurable efficacy versus naïve idealism that defines the critical history of Shelley’s political poetry.
4. Standing behind ongoing debates over the politics of Shelley’s poetry, explicitly at times but also implicitly, is the influential distinction—and the generative tension—between “committed” art and “autonomous” art that Adorno makes in his well-known and much-discussed 1962 essay “Commitment.” While distinguishable from tendentious art or the “advocacy of a particular partisan position,” committed works of art are identifiable as “vehicles for what the author wants to say” politically or philosophically, as in the case of Sartre, whose works “operate with traditional plots and exalt them with an unshakable faith in meanings that are to be transferred to reality” 81). In contradistinction, autonomous works of art are “determinate negations of empirical reality.” This negation is accomplished through the work’s governing principle of “inherent structure”—through its “formal law” 92, 89)—which allows the work to become “knowledge in the form of a nonconceptual object.” Autonomous art can be known through its “intractability,” a primarily formal difficulty that “compels the change in attitude that committed works only demand” 90).
5. The intersection of Adorno’s “Commitment” and Shelley’s 1819 poetics is addressed by Robert Kaufman and Mark Kipperman in Reading Shelley’s Interventionist Poetry, 1819-1820. Kaufman establishes the influence of Shelley not only on Adorno but also on Brecht and Benjamin, as each writer worked out his own ideas about the emancipatory potential of art. On this reading, Adorno’s notion of “commitment” derives in part from his reading of Shelley—including of Brecht’s translations of “The Mask of Anarchy”; what Adorno found in Shelley, Kaufman writes, is that “lyric experiment helps construct and make available the intellectual-emotional apparatus for accessing, and to that extent helps make available the social material of, ‘the new’ (‘the new’ here being understood ultimately as the not-yet-grasped features of the mode of production and, in fact, all that is emergent in the social)” (Kaufman 19). Shelley’s practice of “lyric as experiment” thus functions as a “prerequisite to such subjectivity, critical thought, and commitment” as would enable political emancipation (Kaufman 19). Suggesting that Adorno is “unfairly hard” on Brecht’s political art in “Commitment,” Kipperman carefully recovers the “historicity” of Shelley’s use of satire in “The Mask”—the socio-material grounding and penetrating analysis, that is, of Shelley’s “committed” poetry of 1819 that frees it from a verdict parallel to the one Adorno, fairly or unfairly, delivers on Brecht (Kipperman 5, 7). Through their readings of form (lyric) and genre (satire), both Kaufman and Kipperman are able effectively to reestablish the force of Shelley’s commitments.
6. Nearly absent in name, though—but most certainly, I must be clear, not in spirit—from both of these readings, is the other side of the coin in Adorno’s essay: autonomy. In many ways, “Commitment” is a brief for autonomous art over committed art, and it locates the emancipatory potential of the aesthetic in its autonomy from overt sociopolitical and philosophical commitments. However, as W. J. T. Mitchell reminds us, even for Adorno the distinction between autonomy and commitment does not result in a “simple choice” between the two: “Commitment, in short, leads to kitsch, and formalism [autonomy] leads to academicism. The compulsion and inescapability of formalism may lead to an end just as dead as the cul-de-sac of propaganda” (Mitchell 322-3). Yet in the powerful closing passages of “Commitment,” Adorno turns to autonomy, as distinguished from recent French and German examples of “politically radical” committed art, in order to delineate the emancipatory potential of the aesthetic, and in doing so subtly connects autonomy, and the “politics” it engenders or indeed enacts, to nonviolence:
7. Yet what should not be missed here is Adorno’s connecting of the formal autonomy of the work of art—the very “figure of revolution”—with “the idea of nonviolence.” A baseline formulation of this relationship would be that the difference between the autonomous work and reality—the work’s very autonomy—is marked and defined in terms of the violence of “the practical world,” a phrase Adorno uses in this context in Aesthetic Theory. Hence the negation of the violent means of practical politics in Kafka’s parable achieved through form: it is not the political content or justification of the call to arms (which we do not know) that matters as much as its form, its status as a call to arms in the first place. In this way, we see the “idea of nonviolence” in “The Appeal” as the parable resists dramatizing a world wherein a call to arms, the use of toy guns, and a false analogy work as political methods—which is to say, the entire parable resists the coercion and domination that constitute everyday practical politics.
8. A look at Adorno’s centenary address on Mahler, given in Vienna in 1960, two years before “Commitment” was published, offers further insight into the relationships among the formal features of works of art, their political possibilities, and their emancipatory nonviolence. Adorno brings the address to a close with a discussion of Mahler’s variation technique. Rather than purely academic variation for the sake of variation, Adorno argues, the individual “functional elements” of Mahler’s music are “too independent, too evidently living beings in process” such that variation and deviation “transforms the identical into the nonidentical” (“Mahler” 94-5). These functional figures of deviation and variation contain the substance of Mahler’s music: as they “emerge, persist, and disappear” they become, in a memorable phrase, “figures of disintegration” 95-6) What is formulated in such figures of disintegration, Adorno goes on to suggest, is what he calls Mahler’s “nonviolent violence,” akin to “the power of a true humanity” (96). That is, the figural disintegration of Mahler’s variation technique mimes violence but nonetheless, crucially, resists the totalizing violence of ideological integration. Mahler’s music “follows the notes where they lead,” Adorno writes, “from a sense of identification with those who are cruelly knocked about and forced into line by aesthetic norms and indeed by civilization” 96). The criticality of this nonviolent violence rests upon the political possibility of resisting—through a formal, nonrepresentational identification with “the victims”—the imposition of the norms of the world of domination.
9. In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno fleshes out the relationship between form and the nonviolent:
10. A coherence that does not cohere is an apt way to characterize the unique form—and, ultimately, the critical politics—of Shelley’s sonnet “England in 1819,” which stands, next to “The Mask of Anarchy” and Shelley’s other post-Peterloo political poetry, at the heart of ongoing debates in Romantic studies over how to read the politics of a work of art. Indeed, even more so than “The Mask,” Shelley’s sonnet has been celebrated for its foregrounding of and achievement in poetic form by at least two of the most important formalist studies of Romantic poetry. Of form and content in this Shelley’s “greatest sonnet,” Stuart Curran writes, “the melding . . . appears seamless” yet “ultimately . . . is a paradox”: “the informing idea of this marriage is an impossibility: the subject, as Shelley conceives it, is pitted against the form itself” (54-5). “The form,” Curran concludes, “symbolically consumes itself, as surely as the society it catalogs” (55). While noting the “forceful . . . play against formal prescription” in among other places the sonnet’s syntax and deployment of a pivotal concluding couplet, Susan Wolfson points to the “uncertain effect” of the formal means Shelley uses to shape this attempt at political intervention (204). In the end, Wolfson finds “indeterminacy” and “undecidability” at the heart of the sonnet, such that “the charge to Shelley’s readers is to see how this poetic form keeps the [political] possibilities in tension” (Wolfson 205).
11. Taken together, Curran’s and Wolfson’s formalist readings can instigate a new angle on the critical-political possibilities of Shelley’s sonnet if we recall Adorno’s articulation of form as a “nonviolent synthesis of the diffuse that nevertheless preserves it as what it is in its divergences and contradictions.” That is, the posited, paradoxical and ultimately unsuccessful (by some measures) marriage of aesthetic form and sociopolitical content identified by Curran, and the unresolved and ultimately irresolvable semantic and structural tensions analyzed by Wolfson—contradictions and divergences enlivened by acts of formalist criticism—do not necessarily indicate that the sonnet lacks political possibilities. Conversely, it is in the resistance of the sonnet to the identity of form and content, and then to the ideology implied by the very notion of resolution—as if, that is, the violence of Peterloo and all that it revealed about England in 1819 could ever yield a resolution that was not effectively a continuation of a violently repressive status quo—that we can locate the beginnings of the sonnet’s dialectical criticality. Indeed, James Chandler’s important reading of the historicist self-consciousness informing the “ambiguity, paradox, and paranomasia” in Shelley’s “experiment with the form of the sonnet” is a powerful example of such political possibility, as the poem enacts a “commitment to the notion of changing history by interpreting it” (31).
12. Yet I wish to suggest that the political possibility defining the sonnet’s formal intricacies, and thus also undergirding the nuanced formalist readings it has engendered, is a Romantic political aesthetic of nonviolence. That is to say, the poem resists the barbarism of late 1819 in England not by declaring its commitments to radicalism and to reform but rather by staking out its autonomy from the coercive methods of practical politics, from the self-defeating violence of revolutionary politics—from, in short, the entire economy of instrumental rationality, which, for Shelley, serves as the structural or objective source of events such as Peterloo.
13. The poem enacts an aesthetics of nonviolence in a number of ways, beginning from its well-established and often-remarked-upon resistance to the inherited norms of the sonnet tradition. While we know both that the rhyme-based organization of this sonnet may be unprecedented and that Shelley employs (or at the very least alludes to) the thematic pivot of the hallmark closing couplet of the English sonnet tradition, these formal idiosyncrasies continue to bear revisiting for the new avenues they open up. The rhyme scheme divides the poem into two sections, though not in the traditional octave-sestet manner of a Petrarchan sonnet. Rather, Shelley’s poem is organized as a six-line section (rhyme scheme: ababab) followed by an eight-line section (rhyme scheme: cdcdccdd), essentially, one might say, a kind of inversion of the Italian form once we grasp that the rhyme in the closing couplet originates in the eighth line of the poem. 
14. While the opening sestet describes those who occupy the highest seats of power, the “king” (1), “princes” (3), and “rulers” (4) subsisting on the “blood” (6) of “their fainting country” (5), the closing “octave” hinges on the introduction of “a people” (7) into the portrait of England in 1819:
An old, mad, blind, despised and dying King; Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow Through public scorn,— mud from a muddy spring; Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know, But leechlike to their fainting country cling Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow. A people starved and stabbed in th’untilled field; An army, whom liberticide and prey Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield; Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay; Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed; A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed— Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day. (Shelley 326-7)
15. “A people” begins the second and final sentence of the poem, its second section, its octave, and thus here the sonnet might enjoin us to locate its volta. However, the introduction of “a people” in line seven functions as a false volta, for rather than representing the counterpoint that might be implied by the new section it announces in the poem, it merely joins the chronicle of ills plaguing England in 1819. In other words, the “people” are part of a detailed list—what Curran calls Shelley’s “pointillist survey” (55)—that includes a “despised and dying King,” “Princes,” “Rulers,” “an army,” “laws,” “Religion,” and a “senate.” “Starved and stabbed,” the “people” are identified as the victims of violence—“th’untilled field” likely alludes to Peterloo—but the poem’s formal insistence on not granting them the status of volta, of not locating political agency or possibility in the straightforward solidarity implied by simply the declaration of “a people,” conveys the structural nature of the violence characterizing England in 1819. One cannot point alone to the king, to parliament, to the army, to the laws, or even to the people in order to obtain purchase on the “tempestuous day” post-Peterloo. Rejecting standard political attributions of causality and agency by way of resisting the aesthetic laws—“golden and sanguine”—of the sonnet form, the poem alternatively arranges the various factors of the condition of England in 1819 in constellar relations.
16. It is through the positing of such relationality, a set of formal moves that refuses the existing self-defeating and pernicious explanatory paradigms, that we can continue to chart the poem’s aesthetics of nonviolence, present in both form (the poem’s autonomy) and content (the poem’s commitments). On one level of the sonnet’s logic, the necessity of “blood” to sustain the status quo will also cause the downfall of those who hold power, as kings and princes eventually will “drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” Yet on the level of form, the effect of their fall is rendered null by its placement as the conclusion of the poem’s opening sestet, in other words, as the moment prior to the false volta of “a people.” Reinforced by the full stop, the end of line six might normally produce anticipation of the contrapuntal gesture of the next section. But “a people” becomes part of what amounts to the political paralysis of England in 1819 depicted by Shelley’s experimentation with the forms and norms of the sonnet. Progress will not come with intervention as it is traditionally understood in the liberal-reformist or even the radical political lexicon. The mere “dropping” of tyrants and rulers is not emancipatory, for domination has taken the institutionalized form of the “laws which tempt and slay.” The laws “slay” in their alliance with God and King, as the contemporaneous “Mask of Anarchy” makes clear. But more balefully they “tempt” those seeking political progress to rely upon them only, inevitably, to “slay” those who seek redress.
17. The sonnet refuses to advocate insurrection, for “an army” as metonymy of force is a “two-edged” self-defeating political means; nor does the sonnet yield a positive alternative program of political action. Rather, the poem’s formal play, an instance of what Kaufman identifies as Shelley’s “lyric as experiment,” stands as a critique of the violence of post-Peterloo politics in England. All of the items on Shelley’s list—the “rulers” as well as the “people,” the “army” as well as the “laws”—turn out to be “graves from which a glorious Phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.” Indeed, the poem famously pivots, in the closing couplet, upon a modal auxiliary that expresses possibility. It is often noted that Shelley here retains the English sonnet’s central formal feature. But Shelley’s allusion to tradition is complex. The poem certainly contains a concluding set of two rhymed lines through which, in terms of both form and content, the problems articulated by the preceding twelve lines are recast. However, its rhyme is not new: “may” and “day” repeat the “c” rhyme of the pattern charted above, recalling “prey” and “slay” from the second group of rhymes in the poem. What is more, the closing couplet is preceded by another couplet, this one determined by the rhyme of “sealed” and “unrepealed.” One might then venture to say that Shelley’s sonnet in fact concludes with two consecutive couplets in another parry against the violence of aesthetic norms. Yet one might also find the relationship of the concluding couplet to the rest of the poem—of, we might say, the very possibility of emancipation to the society from which emancipation is necessary; of the “glorious Phantom” to the “th’untilled field”—thus resistant to extant aesthetic, explanatory, and political forms. The couplet, connected to the preceding lines by way of rhyme (its commitments) and separate from those lines by way of its functional allusion to sonnet tradition (its autonomy), creates, through its formal relations—its nonviolent violence—the space wherein the diffuse material of England in 1819 may be constellated rather than determined.
18. In the broadest terms, Shelley’s aesthetics of nonviolence ultimately rests on the resistance of the work of art to incorporation into the social totality: the resistance, we might say, of “England in 1819” to England in 1819. This resistance is achieved primarily through form, and it can properly be called nonviolence insofar as the society and attendant politics against which it pitches itself are defined by, and effectively carry out, domination. The nature of the relationship of art to domination is central to Rancière’s conception of critical art, which takes us further in imagining the unique political possibilities therein. “In its most general expression,” Rancière writes, “critical art is a type of art that sets out to build awareness of the mechanisms of domination to turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation” (Discontents 45). Beginning from the Romantic-age notions of free appearance and free play in Schiller, and from the suspension of the power of the sensible experienced by the spectator before an idle work of art, Rancière argues for a critical difference between two realms: the sensorium of art and the sensorium of domination. This distinction between sensoria is, in turn, the way in which art can have a politics: in fact, Rancière argues that a specific politics is consubstantial with the suspension of the cognitive power of the understanding that defines aesthetic experience. The suspension “defines that which comes within the province of art through its adherence to a sensorium different to that of domination” (30). “It is,” Rancière continues, “as an autonomous form of experience that art concerns and infringes on the political division of the sensible” (32).
19. A work of art achieves its criticality through the “redistribution of the sensible,” a key idea in Rancière’s aesthetic theory. In other words, art consists in constructing spaces and relations to reconfigure materially and symbolically the territory of the common. A work of art exists as the place wherein the relations among bodies, images, times, spaces, “all the self-evident facts of perception based on the set of horizons and modalities of what is visible and audible as well as what can be said, thought, made or done” are reconfigured (Politics 89). Such a repartitioning of the realm of the sensible, effected by the status, the mere existence, of works of art as objects of sensory experience, names the emancipatory, nonviolent politics of art for Rancière. “Art is not, in the first instance,” Rancière writes,
When between her and her foes A mist, a light, an image rose, Small at first, and weak, and frail Like the vapour of a vale:
Till as clouds grow on the blast, Like tower-crowned giants striding fast, And glare with lightnings as they fly, And speak in thunder to the sky,
It grew--a Shape arrayed in mail Brighter than the viper's scale, And upborne on wings whose grain Was as the light of sunny rain.
On its helm, seen far away, A planet, like the Morning's, lay; And those plumes its light rained through Like a shower of crimson dew.
With step as soft as wind it passed O'er the heads of men -- so fast That they knew the presence there, And looked,--but all was empty air.
As flowers beneath May's footstep waken, As stars from Night's loose hair are shaken, As waves arise when loud winds call, Thoughts sprung where'er that step did fall.
And the prostrate multitude Looked--and ankle-deep in blood, Hope, that maiden most serene, Was walking with a quiet mien:
And Anarchy, the ghastly birth, Lay dead earth upon the earth; The Horse of Death tameless as wind Fled, and with his hoofs did grind To dust the murderers thronged behind. (Shelley 319-20)
20. We are united with the multitude as we read the poem; we are suspended in the time and space of the work’s sensorium, which has replaced the sensorium of violence and domination represented by Anarchy’s procession. One might say that Shelley dramatizes the repartitioning of the sensible. The sensory experience of the Shape, the experience begat by Hope’s originary nonviolence, remains autonomous: the multitude’s looks and “thoughts”—new thoughts, thoughts detached from and not emerging from Anarchy’s reign of God and King and Law—“spring up.” Thoughts whose content is not told, I should add, as if Shelley is asking us here to consider the very form of the new more so than its content.
21. Of course, while the multitude is idly and freely engrossed in the organic deviations and variations of the Shape, Anarchy and the rest of the procession meet their end, and the multitude is emancipated from the violence and domination of Anarchy’s reign. The poem is suggesting the veritable equivalence and simultaneousness of aesthetic experience, nonviolence, and the possibility of political change. One does not cause the others; rather, as Rancière and Adorno would argue, albeit with different inflections, one indeed amounts to the others: a nonviolent, autonomous aesthetic experience, an experience of the power of form, is the only politics of poetry. In reconfiguring the sensible, a work of art can simply refuse to play by the rules of, and thus resist, the violence of the world.
I would like to thank Joseph D’Amore, Jared Green, Robert Kaufman, and Erin Salius for conversations about this essay. I would also like to thank the SURE Program at Stonehill College for a summer of research support that enabled work on this essay and on the volume.
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Kafka, Franz. The Blue Octavo Notebooks. Ed. Max Brod. Trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. Cambridge: Exact Change Press, 1991.
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---. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Ed. and Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print.
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 On Gandhi and Shelley, see Weber 28-30. The images of Beijing in 1989 I refer to include the several photographs of the individual known as “Tank Man” by Charlie Coe, Stuart Franklin, Terril Jones, Jeff Widener, and Arthur Tsang Hin Wah. BACK
 The parable, as it appears in Adorno’s essay on Kafka: “‘In our house, this enormous suburban house, a rented barracks overgrown with indestructible medieval ruins, there was proclaimed today, on a misty, icy winter morning, the following call to arms: “Fellow Tenants, I possess five toy guns. They are hanging in my closet, one on each hook. The first is mine, the rest are for anyone who wants them. Should there be more than four, the others will have to bring their own weapons and deposit them in my closet. For there will have to be unity; without unity we will not move forward. Incidentally, I only have guns which are entirely useless for any other purpose, the mechanism is ruined, the wads are torn off, only the hammers still snap. Therefore, it will not be very difficult to procure more such weapons should they be needed. But fundamentally, I will be just as happy, in the beginning, with people who have no guns. Those of us who do, will, at the crucial moment, take the unarmed into our midst. This is a strategy which proved itself with the first American farmers against the Indians; why shouldn’t it prove itself here as well, since the conditions are, after all, similar? We can even forget about guns, then, for the duration, and even the five guns are not absolutely necessary, and they will be used simply because they are already here. If the other four do not want to carry them, then they can forget about them. I alone will carry one, as the leader. But we shouldn’t have a leader, and so I, too, will destroy my gun our lay it aside.” That was the first call to arms. In our house no one has the time or desire to read such calls, much less consider them. Soon the little papers were swimming along in the stream of dirt which originates in the attic, is nourished by all the corridors, and spills down the stairs to struggle there with the opposing stream that swells upward from below. But a week later came a second call: “Fellow Tenants! So far no one has reported to me. I was, insofar as the necessity of earning my living allowed, constantly at home, and during the time of my absence, when the door to my room was always left open, a sheet of paper lay on my table on which anyone who so desired could enroll. No one has done so.”’ This is the figure of revolution in Kafka” (“Notes on Kafka” 224-5). BACK