Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund
Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund.
This entry comprises five separate essays that clarify and contextualize Adorno’s aesthetic theory and analyze its legacy:
The first essay is a survey of Adorno’s philosophy in general and the Frankfurt School (Germany) of critical theory that he helped to develop in the 1930s. The other essays treat “appearance” and “mimesis,” key concepts of Adorno’s aesthetics; music, the art form he discusses most often; and Kant, one of the main philosophers in dialogue with whom he developed his aesthetic theory. For related discussions, see Holocaust; Marxism: Marxism and Materialism; Mimesis; and Sublime: The Sublime from Burke to the Present.
Survey of Thought
Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) was a German philosopher, aesthetic theorist, and social critic in the Western Marxist tradition as well as a leading member of the first generation of critical theorists. It is the combination of a modernist aesthetic sensibility with rigorous philosophical theory and biting social criticism that makes Aesthetic Theory, his uncompleted summa aesthetica, as provocative and significant as it has proved to be.
Adorno grew up in Frankfurt am Main, where he attended university and entered the professoriate prior to being expelled along with other Jewish scholars. During the Nazi era he resided in Oxford, New York City, and southern California, writing in exile several of the articles and books for which he would later become famous, including Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Max Horkheimer), Philosophy of New Music, The Authoritarian Personality (a collaborative project), and Minima Moralia. Adorno’s landmark critiques of popular culture and the culture industry date from these years.
Returning to Frankfurt in the early 1950s, Adorno quickly established himself as a leading theorist and critic of high culture as well as a central figure in the Institute of Social Research. Founded in 1923, led by Max Horkheimer since 1930, and reopened in 1951, the institute constituted the hub for what has become known as the Frankfurt School. Adorno became the institute’s director in 1958 and, in that capacity, supervised several pathbreaking interdisciplinary studies of contemporary social issues. During the 1950s he published In Search of Wagner, an ideology-critique of the favorite composer of the Nazis; Prisms, a collection of social and cultural studies and the first of his books to be translated into English; Against Epistemology, an antifoundationalist critique of Husserlian phenomenology; and the first volume of Notes to Literature, a collection of essays in literary criticism.
The last decade of Adorno’s life was marked by conflict and consolidation. A leading figure in the “positivism dispute” in German sociology, Adorno was also a key player in debates about restructuring German universities. He continued to publish at an astounding rate, including numerous volumes of music criticism, monographs on the composers Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg, two more volumes of Notes to Literature, books on Hegel and on existentialism, and collected essays in sociology and in aesthetics. Negative Dialectics, Adorno’s magnum opus on epistemology and metaphysics, appeared in 1966. Aesthetic Theory, on which he had been working for most of the 1960s, appeared posthumously in 1970.
Although a torso, Aesthetic Theory marks the culmination of Adorno’s multifaceted scholarship. All the conflicting impulses said by Martin Jay to make up the historical “force field” of Adorno’s writings are found in it, including “Western Marxism, aesthetic modernism, mandarin cultural despair, and Jewish self-identification, as well as the more anticipatory pull of deconstructionism” (1984, p. 22). Adorno’s links to Marxism and his sophisticated dialectical critique of twentieth-century culture have made him a crucial figure for these postnational, poststructural, postanalytical, and, some would say, postaesthetic times.
Four topics in Adorno’s writings are of particular relevance to contemporary aesthetics and cultural theory: (1) his critique of the culture industry, (2) autonomy in the arts, (3) the aesthetics of nature, and (4) the status of philosophical aesthetics.
The Culture Industry.
Adorno’s critique of the culture industry arose in part from his debate with Walter Benjamin in the 1930s over the implications of film and radio for the democratization of culture. Whereas Benjamin had suggested that film has a progressive impact on ordinary experience and can serve to politicize the masses, Adorno’s 1938 essay “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” argues that the broadcast and recording industries resist musical innovation, make a fetish of commercial success, and promote the regression of both musical and political consciousness.
Adorno expanded his argument to include all the mass media in “The Culture Industry,” a chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Under capitalist conditions, he says, artworks and other cultural artifacts are produced as commodities. According to Marx, commodities are products whose use value (their ability to satisfy human wants) is dominated by their exchange value (their ability to command other products in exchange). Capitalist commodity production obscures the fact that human labor power is the source of value and that laborers must be exploited to generate the surplus value from which capitalists make their profit.
Building on this Marxian analysis and on György Lukács’s theory of “reification,” Adorno argues that a new level of sophistication and obfuscation characterizes commodity production in advanced capitalism and both directs and hides within the culture industry. Under such conditions, cultural artifacts are mass-produced without regard for their use value, and their exchange value is presented as use value, as something to be enjoyed for its own sake. The culture industry pushes people to consume films, recordings, broadcast concerts, and the like, not so their filmic or musical qualities can be appreciated, but so they can become a commercial success—a “hit” or a “star.” In this process, the consumer is a willing contributor. Twentieth-century capitalism has become, as it were, a self-celebrating system in which the cultural industry proves indispensable. Consequently, concerns about artistic quality become harder to raise, and the “masses,” whose exploited labor keeps the system going, become less conscious of their genuine and unfulfilled needs. Both of these consequences, together with the “standardization” of culture in the service of economic and political power, are the target of Adorno’s critique of the culture industry.
Critics of Adorno frequently describe his approach as elitist and monolithic, and not without reason. His published essays on jazz, for example, betray a failure to comprehend the ways in which African-American music arose from conditions of oppression and served emancipatory purposes. Yet the central theoretical claims in his critique remain relevant at a time when new mergers and globalization have swept the entertainment, telecommunications, and information industries. Without a theory of their economic underpinnings and cultural impact, such trends cannot be properly understood or evaluated.
According to Adorno, the emergence of advanced capitalism, with its ever-tighter fusion of state and economic power, does not leave the arts unaffected. Where these do not provide fodder for the culture industry, they become all the more alienated from mainstream society. Increased alienation does not lessen their social significance, however, for it gives them the distance needed for social critique and Utopian projection. Moreover, the alienation of the arts from society is itself socially produced. Arts that resist the culture industry are, in a phrase from Aesthetic Theory, “the social antithesis of society” (1997, p. 8).
Adorno’s account of artistic autonomy is complex. On the one hand, the independence of the arts from religious, political, and other social structures, as institutionalized and theorized in Western societies, creates a space in which societal wounds can be exposed and alternative arrangements imagined. On the other hand, because such independence itself depends on the division of labor, class conflict, and the dominance in society of the capitalist “exchange principle,” the space of exposure and imagination serves to shore up the societal system even as that space becomes internally problematic and externally irrelevant. As Adorno puts it at the beginning of Aesthetic Theory, referring to the modern art movements, absolute freedom in art stands in contradiction to the abiding lack of freedom in society as a whole. Yet, it is only because of autonomy that certain works of art can achieve a critical and Utopian “truth content” (Wahrheitsgehalt), in the absence of which a fundamental transformation of society would be even more difficult to envision.
This complex position puts Adorno at odds not only with formalist approaches, which either assume or ignore art’s social significance, but also with the socialist realism of Marxism-Leninism and the political commitment (engagement) promoted by Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, and much of the New Left. The controversial claim in his 1962 essay “Commitment” must be situated in that polemical field: “This is not the time for political works of art,” he writes; “rather, politics has migrated into the autonomous work of art, and it has penetrated most deeply into works that present themselves as politically dead” (Notes to Literature, Vol. 2, pp. 93–94).
Both societal structures and cultural contexts have shifted in the intervening years. The rise of new social movements, such as feminism, ecology, and gay and lesbian liberation, has helped turn the focus of cultural theory from autonomous works to emancipatory practices; postmodernism has challenged the normative assumptions built into modernist legitimations of high art; and the institutions of the art world—museums, publishers, symphony orchestras, and the like—have increasingly acknowledged and exploited their symbiotic relations with corporations, foundations, and the culture industry. Such developments cast doubt on the validity of Adorno’s dialectical autonomism.
At the same time, however, concerns about the need for artistic autonomy have arisen within the new social movements, particularly in response to moralistic and antimodern pressures from a revitalized right. The increasing dependence of arts organizations on business strategies and corporate generosity has also raised questions about the future of alternative modes of artistic expression. Although Adorno’s approach needs to be rethought in this environment, it nevertheless provides a crucial counterweight to prevailing assumptions about the social significance of the arts and their institutional frames.
Adorno himself was a master “rethinker.” Much of Aesthetic Theory can be read as a modernist reconceptualizing of philosophical aesthetics, especially the writings of Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Nowhere is this project more provocative than in Adorno’s return to an aesthetics of nature. On the one hand, Adorno rejects Hegel’s dismissal of natural beauty as inferior to the humanly produced beauty of art. On the other hand, he also rejects Kant’s reduction of natural beauty to an indefinite object of taste. Yet, he also refuses either to celebrate natural beauty as such or to define its independent nature. Rather, he sketches a genealogy of the modern discourse of “natural beauty,” and, from this, he identifies the referent in question as the trace of the nonidentical, which the arts seek to rescue, with unavoidably mixed results.
Initially, such an approach does not seem promising for the recently developed field of environmental aesthetics. Adorno does not so much theorize the aesthetic dimension of nature and daily life as challenge the assumption that these “have” an “aesthetic dimension.” What is important about Adorno’s approach, however, is his insistence that such matters are socially constructed within a political and economic system, and that any discourse of “natural beauty” must be linked to contemporary artistic practices.
More specifically, Adorno describes natural beauty as the trace of the nonidentical in things under the spell of universal identity. Amid its social construction as a category of alterity, that which is experienced as natural beauty reminds us that not everything is exchange value, not everything submits to the control of instrumental reason, not everything fits the grid of our definitions and categories. Contrary to Hegel, natural beauty is not deficient because it is indeterminate; rather, natural beauty is indeterminate because discursive thought is deficient. Among the various ways in which Western societies “relate” to “nature,” only art has the capacity to preserve this trace of indeterminacy while giving it definite contours. In that capacity, art not only challenges the dominance of exchange value and instrumental rationality, but also raises the trace of the nonidentical into a hint of reconciliation between nature and culture, a reconciliation that would presuppose an end to class domination in society.
Closely related to this figure of art’s “rescuing” natural beauty from sheer indeterminacy are Adorno’s notions of “mimesis” and “expression” in art, which he usually pairs with “rationality” and “semblance” (Schein) as their dialectical opposites. Mimesis, a truly protean concept, refers to an archaic openness to the other, to the disparate, diffuse, and contrary. Such openness lives on in artworks whose form accommodates the conflicting impulses of their content. Successful artworks embody a mimetic rationality and thereby provide a crucial alternative to the control and reduction characterizing the instrumental rationality that prevails under capitalist conditions. Similarly, expression refers to a capacity to register that which impresses itself upon human experience despite the various control mechanisms set up by society and the psyche. In artworks such a capacity is mediated by the mimetic behavior that goes into artists’ productive activity. The more expressive artworks become, the more their semblance of self-sufficiency is shaken, even though this semblance is required if artworks are to be expressions of something more than what society and the individual psyche permit.
Playing throughout such polarities is a continual reversal of the subject-object relation, such that the supposedly rational and controlling subject becomes an accomplice of the object, and the supposedly controlled and meaningless object begins to speak for itself. For Adorno, such a reversal—common in modern art—holds open the possibility that the alienation of subject and object, a central fissure within the dialectic of enlightenment, can itself be alienated, not only in art, but also in other modes of social labor. In other words, a reconciliation between culture and nature, together with the lessening of social domination, is not out of the question. This is the underlying issue that an Adornian “environmental aesthetic” would have to address.
In some respects the reception of Adorno’s aesthetics in Anglo-American philosophy was slow to begin, despite the many translations of his writings and the abundance of secondary literature from scholars of history, literature, music, cultural theory, religion, and the social sciences. In philosophy, and especially among Anglo-American philosophers, a serious engagement with Adorno’s aesthetics on the scale of, say, the reception of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, did not begin until the 1990s.
Many factors might account for this, not the least of which is the Habermasian turn in critical theory away from Adorno’s traditional, albeit explosive, subject-object paradigm toward a theory of communicative and intersubjective rationality. The rise of poststructuralism and postmodernism also made Adorno’s dialectical method and paradoxical modernism seem outmoded. Then, too, the theme of a possible “end” of philosophy did not bode well for an author who unrelentingly rewrote the philosophical tradition. Add to this some early unreliable translations, analytical philosophy’s avoidance of difficult German thinkers, and the long ascendancy of Martin Heidegger among continental philosophers, and the initial neglect of Adorno becomes understandable.
Yet, few philosophers have been as well versed in contemporary art forms as Adorno, and even fewer aestheticians have written so much of interest to the social sciences. As aesthetics itself becomes more interdisciplinary and shades into cultural theory, Adorno’s multifaceted aesthetics has begun to receive the attention it so manifestly deserves.
An unavoidable topic in this connection is the status of what Adorno called, ambiguously enough, an aesthetic theory. Clearly, he does not intend to give a theory of the aesthetic. If anything, his book by that title provides what has been described as “a paratactical and dialectical phenomenology of (modern) art” (Zuidervaart, 1991, p. 45), where “phenomenology” is understood in a modified Hegelian and not Husserlian sense, and where the parentheses indicate that Adorno tries to derive insights into the entire field from the peculiarities and dilemmas of modern art.
Adorno refuses to posit an essence to the arts or to treat normative notions such as beauty or meaning as timeless universals. Yet, he retains the assumption, derived from Hegel, that philosophical reflection is crucial for the proper reception of art. To do justice to artistic phenomena, such reflection must itself be aesthetic, in the sense of incorporating the openness to the other that successful artworks embody. Hence, the theory in question cannot take the form of straightforward analysis or deduction, but must construct constellations of concepts, hoping that their continually shifting light will illuminate the subject matter and do justice to its alterity. Hardly any precedent exists for this sort of writing, nor can there be an imitation. Aesthetic Theory is a singular achievement, which, although cut short by Adorno’s untimely death in 1969, will continue to challenge well into the twenty-first century.
Aesthetic Theory. Translated, edited, and with a translator’s introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.Find this resource:
The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Edited by J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991.Find this resource:
Notes to Literature. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991–1992.Find this resource:
Philosophy of New Music. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Bernstein, J. M. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.Find this resource:
Bernstein, J. M., ed. Art and Aesthetics after Adorno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.Find this resource:
Cook, Deborah, ed. Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts. Stocksfield, U.K.: Acumen, 2008.Find this resource:
Foster, Roger. Adorno: The Recovery of Experience. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Hammer, Espen. Adorno and the Political. New York: Routledge, 2005.Find this resource:
Hansen, Marian B. Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.Find this resource:
Heberle, Renée J., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Theodor Adorno. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:
Huhn, Tom, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.Find this resource:
Huhn, Tom, and Lambert Zuidervaart, eds. The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.Find this resource:
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic. London and New York: Verso, 1990.Find this resource:
Jarvis, Simon. Adorno: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1998.Find this resource:
Jay, Martin. Adorno. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.Find this resource:
Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.Find this resource:
Menke, Christoph. The Sovereignty of Art: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida. Translated by Neil Solomon. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.Find this resource:
Müller-Doohm, Stefan. Adorno: A Biography. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2005.Find this resource:
Nicholsen, Shierry Weber. Exact Imagination, Late Work: On Adorno’s Aesthetics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.Find this resource:
O’Connor, Brian, ed. The Adorno Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.Find this resource:
Paddison, Max. Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.Find this resource:
Pensky, Max, ed. The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.Find this resource:
Schweppenhäuser, Gerhard. Theodor W. Adorno: An Introduction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009.Find this resource:
Wellmer, Albrecht. The Persistence of Modernity: Essays on Aesthetics, Ethics, and Postmodernism. Translated by David Midgley. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.Find this resource:
Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Translated by Michael Robertson. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.Find this resource:
Witkin, Robert W. Adorno on Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2003.Find this resource:
Zuidervaart, Lambert. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.Find this resource:
Zuidervaart, Lambert. Social Philosophy after Adorno. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Adorno’s Dialectic of Appearance
Adorno’s aesthetic thinking, from his early music criticism in the 1920s to his late Aesthetic Theory of 1970, covers a wide range of aesthetic topics and literary and musical objects. His thinking is also articulated in a variety of forms: in criticism written for newspapers and journals; in essays, themselves aesthetically composed; in scholarly monographs, which treat the work of composers as well as the technical problems of musical education and composition; and in philosophical reflections on the central problems of aesthetics and art theory. Nevertheless, one philosophical motif lies at the very heart of Adorno’s aesthetic thinking in all of its forms and stages. This is the moment of a “dialectic of (aesthetic) appearance” (Dialektik des Scheins) that Adorno tried to formulate in ever-new ways from Kierkegaard, his first book, to Aesthetic Theory, his last.
The “Right” of Aesthetic Appearance: Kierkegaard.
The first formulation of the idea of a “dialectic of aesthetic appearance” can be found in the richly anticipatory final chapter of Adorno’s Habilitationsschrift, published in 1933 as Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic (1970–1986, Gesammelte Schriften [hereafter GS], Vol. 2). In a review of this work, Walter Benjamin suggested “that the later [books] of the author would arise from this one,” a comment that proved to be prescient. According to Adorno, appearance is the definition of aesthetics as the domain of the unreal, of “images.” Its “dialectic” consists in that aesthetic appearance is also the place of truth.
Herein lie both Adorno’s nearness to and distance from Søren Kierkegaard. With Kierkegaard, Adorno distances himself from the “neutrality,” with which aesthetics usually “looks at” art “without ever seriously asking about its fundamental right” (Recht). Kierkegaard had criticized the aesthetic as a domain of mere appearance. Aesthetic theory cannot escape this criticism, for it must confront the question of the right of aesthetic appearance.
Unlike Kierkegaard, however, Adorno answers this question in the affirmative. According to Adorno, Kierkegaard’s critique of aesthetic appearance depends on a false concept of the latter. It is false because it overlooks the “dialectical course” of aesthetic appearance. This dialectic consists in the self-questioning of appearance. More precisely, it is the (“dialectical”) achievement of art to question aesthetic appearance. Appearance is a closed, unitary, meaningful counter-reality. Art allows this appearance to “disintegrate”: it is “fragment,” “riddle,” “ruin,” “caesura,” “error”—that is, the dissolution of aesthetic and apparent unity and closure.
In Adorno’s concept of a “dialectic of appearance,” dissolution is bound up with two aspects. The internal aspect is the questioning of aesthetic appearance in art: the dissolution of the appearance of unity, closure, and meaning in each individual work of art. The external aspect is the overstepping of aesthetic appearance into truth, which thereby takes place in art. It is Adorno’s fundamental conviction that the “disintegration” of aesthetic appearance is the “trace” of truth. Furthermore, we know truth not as “devoid of appearance,” but only through the dialectic of aesthetic appearance. Therein lies what Adorno calls the “redemption” of the “aesthetic in its downfall.”
Critique of the Culture Industry: On Jazz and Dialectic of Enlightenment.
The concept of a “dialectic of (aesthetic) appearance” forms the backdrop to Adorno’s aesthetic works (devoted above all to music) of the 1930s and 1940s. At the center of his interest, however, is not the successful fulfillment of the dialectic of appearance, but rather its breaking off in the aesthetic phenomena of mass culture. “Music in the managed world”—the subtitle of the volume titled Dissonances (1956, GS, Vol. 14)—is a music that is only appearance, without “dialectical” conversion into truth. It is a music that conforms in undifferentiated and “dreamless” fashion to existing society. Here aesthetic appearance is “mere” appearance, and that means ideological appearance.
Adorno describes this first in two essays published in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research): “On Jazz” (1937, GS, Vol. 17) and “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Hearing” (1938, GS, Vol. 14). Both essays are directed against the interpretation of mass culture that Benjamin had undertaken for film. Benjamin had described the manner of film’s reception as one of “distraction” and seen therein a positive potential of disintegrating traditional aesthetic “aura.” Adorno, in contrast, judges this change in aesthetic reception to be a “regression,” a loss of those capacities without which there can be no art at all.
In addition to judging the aesthetic phenomena of mass culture differently than Benjamin, Adorno describes them differently. Adorno finds the same “distraction” that Benjamin had emphasized in film in the “atomistic” listening to jazz, which is directed to single, unintegrated moments of stimulus. But the “breakout” of these moments, experienced in sensual pleasure, is illusionary; in jazz, it remains bound by an “iron discipline.” Jazz “accomplishes normalization and individualization at the same time.”
In the chapter titled “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, written with Max Horkheimer (1947, GS, Vol. 3), Adorno sets these analyses into a larger theoretical framework. Following and radicalizing Karl Marx and György Lukács as well as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, this framework consists of a historico-philosophical description of contemporary society as a state of total reification: a state in which the principle of compulsive, external unity (“identity”) rules over the moments of qualitative specificity (as Adorno would later say, “the non-identical”). This state governs all levels, both of society and of the individual, of knowledge and morality.
Against this background of a philosophy of history and a critique of society, Adorno formulates his thesis of a loss of aesthetic “truth” taking place in the culture industry. The art forms of the culture industry are “untrue” for Adorno, because they merely “repeat” existing societal relations; they “absolutize imitation.” For Adorno, art is “true” if it knows social relations as “negative,” as alienated and reified. Art can do this only where it “goes beyond” existing social reality—where it anticipates that which is not possible in alienated society. Thus, art is “true” for Adorno, not where it imitates reality, but only where it is other than the real: “Useless and fragile beauty…means a protest against a hardened, reified society.” Art has lost this force of protest in the culture industry.
Aesthetic Subjectivity: In Search of Wagner and Philosophy of Modern Music.
Adorno’s critique of the culture industry is, as many critics have objected, not free from elitist presumptions regarding popular art. It follows, however, the much more general program of confronting aesthetic phenomena with the question of their “right,” their “truth,” that Adorno had set out in Kierkegaard. Adorno understands this question to be critical of society, and he asks it not only of the culture industry and mass culture, but also of so-called serious art: in In Search of Wagner (1939/1952, GS, Vol. 13) and the Philosophy of Modern Music (1940/1948, GS, Vol. 12).
In both books, Adorno is concerned with indicating a change in musical “technique,” which either anticipates the aesthetic regression of the culture industry (Richard Wagner) or accompanies it (Igor Stravinsky). The normative model on which this critique is based is the “construction of complete musical unity in multiplicity”; Adorno takes this idea from Viennese classicism and, above all, from Ludwig van Beethoven. This model breaks apart in Wagner and Stravinsky, where the individual moment becomes independent at the cost of the constructive, synthetic tendency of music. As he had done earlier with jazz, Adorno described this in the case of Wagner and Stravinsky as “regression.” At the same time, however, Adorno points to the consistency, even legitimacy, of this independence of the particular from unity: for it means also a release from false, “repressive” unity.
Above all, In Search of Wagner and the Philosophy of Modern Music mark a new step in Adorno’s aesthetics, in that both make fruitful use of the fundamental category of the Dialectic of Enlightenment in a context of (music) aesthetics: namely, the concept of subjectivity. For Horkheimer and Adorno, “dialectic of enlightenment” means that social reification is the result of the tendencies of enlightenment toward the emancipation of the subject: that is, tendencies that had originally gone in the opposite direction from that reification. Enlightenment can only realize this emancipatory goal as domination, as control of outer and inner nature. In this, a reversion of the emancipation of the subject into reification takes place.
Adorno also now defines the connection of art and society in terms of “subjectivity.” This connection is not a matter of the “content” of artworks, but rather of their “technique.” Thus, the technical structure of a work of art is defined by the form of the “aesthetic subject” that produces it. Thus, Adorno describes the aesthetic subject in Wagner’s music as the bourgeois subject, which has “shrunk” to a private individual, and which “renounces sovereignty, lets itself fall into the archaic, onto the ground of drives” (Triebgrund). In this the aesthetic subject is socially determined: the “regression” of the aesthetic subject into a mere state of nature, without the force to produce valid form, corresponds to the fate of the “social subject” and to the latter’s loss of autonomy.
Similar in content, but using a much clearer method, the Philosophy of Modern Music describes Stravinsky’s music as a “virtuoso act of regression,” which ratifies the “social liquidation of the subject.” At the same time, the Philosophy of Modern Music repeats the critique of aesthetic “depersonalization,” and not only in the section devoted to Stravinsky. In its first large section, devoted to Arnold Schoenberg and twelve-tone music, Adorno describes a form of aesthetic subjectivity that is both contrary to Stravinsky’s and yet precisely complementary to it. The aesthetic subject of twelve-tone music is not the late bourgeois subject that has regressed to mere individuality, as it is in Wagner and Stravinsky. Instead, it is the attempt to realize yet again via technical means the “primordially bourgeois longing” to realize “the control of nature in music.” This program of the “technical work of art,” which seeks to attain “total organization” through “total rationality,” must “fail,” however, for “the integral work of art is an absolutely senseless one.”
Thus, in the Philosophy of Modern Music, aesthetic subjectivity splits into two extremes: natural-amorphous expression, on the one hand, and rational control, on the other. For Adorno, both extremes, and their division from each other, are socially determined, as an expression of the fatal “dialectic,” which allows the emancipation of the subject to end in the “managed world.” Further, both forms of aesthetic subjectivity are incapable of producing an art that can still claim “truth,” that is, a critical difference from society. The sentence in “Culture Criticism and Society” in which Adorno summed up this pessimistic diagnosis reads: “Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the last stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbarous” (1949, GS, Vol. 10).
The Disintegration of Aesthetic Appearance: Notes to Literature.
When Adorno returned to Frankfurt after World War II, he continued his studies on music theory and music criticism, along with his investigations of epistemology, social philosophy, and the critique of culture. In addition, during this period his concern with literature gained increasing meaning. The texts that he produced were collected in three volumes titled Notes to Literature (1958–1965, GS, Vol. 11). The first text in the first volume has the programmatic title “The Essay as a Form.” Here Adorno stresses the “anti-systematic impulsion” of the essay. The essay follows no method and applies no rules and boundaries, but is rather the expression of an open spiritual experience, which is realized in reading.
Thus, it is impossible to subsume the wealth of insights and considerations that are collected in Adorno’s literary-critical essays under any one common factor. At the center of Adorno’s interest, however, is again and again the experience of the questioning and dissolution of aesthetic meaning that modern literature opens up. The aesthetic experience of the dissolution of meaning is the content, at once divergent and common, of the authors Adorno interprets—from Friedrich Hölderlin’s paratactical breaks and Joseph von Eichendorff’s linguistic rustling to the becoming independent of language in the poetry of Stefan George, Rudolf Borchardt, and Paul Valéry, the allegorical prose of Franz Kafka, and the splintered dramas of Samuel Beckett.
What is new in Adorno’s literary-critical description of aesthetic dissolution of meaning is not the phenomenon itself, but its interpretation. Continuing the programmatic openness of the essay, Adorno’s Notes to Literature leads beyond the system of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, on which the analysis of aesthetic subjectivity in the Philosophy of Modern Music was based. Adorno does relate the aesthetic dissolution of meaningful unity back to the social dialectic that lets subjectivity be converted to reification. But Adorno now insists more decisively than before on two things. First, he no longer understands the aesthetic dissolution of meaning as a consequence or expression of the social fate of the subject. Now—and most exemplarily in the essay on Beckett—he understands art in such a way that it reflects the social situation; that is, art represents and criticizes the “omnipresent regression,” so that it makes a “protocol” out of it and thereby “protests” against it.
The second new aspect of Adorno’s literary-critical essays is that they no longer judge the dissolution of aesthetic meaning from the perspective of a normative concept of the “integral” work of art, which was derived from classical bourgeois art. Adorno now describes the aesthetic dissolution of meaning positively, above all in his interpretations of poetry from Eichendorff to George and Borchardt. Two motives are combined in this: first, language becoming independent in a sonorous “rustling,” in which language, free from intentional meaning and the intention of speakers, speaks “itself,” so that, second, there arises through this the bursting of the unity of the I in a nonregressive experience of its “self-extinction.” The “fragmentation” and “depersonalization,” which Adorno had until now described predominantly negatively, now appear as a positive aesthetic achievement. Adorno recognizes its ground in the immanent logic of the work of art, which is a “logic of disintegration” of closed meaning and (self-) ruling subject.
Through two aspects, Adorno’s aesthetic thought frees itself from the compulsions of the systematism it had followed since the early 1950s (thereby returning to motifs from Kierkegaard). Aesthetic dissolution of sense is no mere symptom, but rather the medium of a critical reflection of the social crisis of sense and subjectivity. The aesthetic dissolution of meaning does not signify mere decadence, but rather the stringent and pleasurable dissolution of aesthetic meaning and subject.
The “Breakthrough” of Musical Unity: Mahler and Berg.
Parallel to his literary criticism in the 1950s and 1960s, Adorno also wrote a myriad of music-critical and music-theoretical texts, which describe the two aspects of aesthetic dissolution of meaning. This is shown in exemplary fashion in Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (1960, GS, Vol. 13), at the center of which stands the “critique of the appearance” of a successful musical unity. Musical stringency consists not in a “disempowering of the multiple” through its integration in unity, but in the refusal of this unity in the stress on the traits of the musical material that are irreducibly strange and not fully assimilable. For Adorno, the central achievement of Mahler’s music lies in its making the “breakthrough” of the moments through the aesthetic unity, and that of the material through aesthetic meaning, into its artistic principle of organization.
Adorno assigns a double social significance to this characteristic of Mahler’s music: critique and redemption. The questioning of aesthetic unity and meaning is critical because it refuses to produce an illusion of reconciliation and reflects the social “split between subject and object.” Above all, however, through the questioning of aesthetic unity and meaning, a redemption of the incommensurable and plural is effected, of what cannot be integrated without violence. In this “gesture” consists music’s “promise.”
Adorno’s other musical works from this period, such as Berg: The Master of the Smallest Transition (1968, GS, Vol. 13), make clear the degree to which his normative ideas have changed since the Philosophy of Modern Music. Adorno now defines the success of aesthetic unity as its failure (as the failure of aesthetic unity in the traditional sense): that is, as a questioning and self-surrender of aesthetic unity that is not immediate and naive, but strict and formed. With this aesthetic transvaluation, the social significance of art is transformed: art no longer points to the social split between subject and object, but develops a concept of success beyond the utopia of a seamless identity of subject and object.
A Summation: Aesthetic Theory.
Aesthetic Theory (GS, Vol. 7), which was published posthumously in 1970, is the sum of Adorno’s aesthetic thought. In this work, Adorno once again develops all the important themes of his theory of art. Until now, following the example of authors like Friedrich Schlegel, Nietzsche, and Benjamin, Adorno had written about art virtually exclusively via interpretation and criticism of specific artistic phenomena. General aesthetic insights were meant to result from this specific criticism, but could not be separated out from it. In Aesthetic Theory, this relationship is inverted: the reference to individual phenomena remains evident, but the goal is the development of a general theory.
At the center of Aesthetic Theory are still the two aspects of a “dialectic of appearance” that Adorno had sketched out in Kierkegaard: the dissolution of appearance in art and the resulting conversion of appearance into truth.
Thus, Aesthetic Theory seeks to systematically reconstruct the dissolution of aesthetic appearance that is internal to art and had been announced in the literary and musical criticism of the postwar period. In doing so, it becomes clear that aesthetic appearance takes two opposing forms: the appearance of an integral unity of the work and the appearance of the immediacy of its individual moments. Against the appearance of integral unity, Adorno mobilizes the modernist experience of the constitutive fragility of every aesthetic coherence. The moments make themselves independent relative to their unity. This does not, however, mean that they “literally” have significance in their immediacy, for they are irrevocably mediated through their unity. The “dialectical” movement between the two poles—independence and the mediation of the moments—defines the specific “processuality” of the artwork.
Aesthetic Theory offers a whole series of conceptual pairs to describe the poles of this movement from ever new perspectives: totality and moment, construction and mimesis, meaning and letter, spirit and material, processuality and objectivity. For Adorno, only tension-laden pairs of concepts can do justice to the “dialectical” constitution of the artwork. Moreover no one pair of concepts alone is adequate; instead, a “constellation” of various pairs of concepts is needed.
The second large theme that Aesthetic Theory takes up again is the “external” aspect of the dialectic of aesthetic appearance: its conversion into “truth.” Adorno speaks of the “truth” of art in its relation to existing and reified society. Art is a fait social, but is only “true” where it is simultaneously more than this, as the “other” of society. Art gains this otherness relative to social reification through the dissolution of aesthetic appearance. Thus, art succeeds in exploding the “false,” socially pre-given forms of unity—meaning and subjectivity. In doing this it opens an experience of the individual moments as both mediated and independent at the same time: as particular and “non-identical.”
As much as Aesthetic Theory owes to this impulse to think of art as the medium of truth, it also reflects clearly on the difficulties of formulating this in an aesthetically consistent manner. For Adorno, to speak of the truth of art should not (and cannot) mean the reduction of art to a comprehensible and statable “truth content.” Rather, art is true precisely in its refusal of any comprehensible and statable content, in its “enigmatic character.” One may then ask how it is possible to speak of “truth” at all with regard to this rupture with all comprehension and statement in art. Aesthetic Theory in no way overlooked this difficulty; it circles around it in paradoxes, which seem insoluble to it: “The truth of discursive knowledge is unveiled, but knowledge thus does not possess it; the knowledge which art is, has this truth, but only as something incommensurate to it.”
Ästhetik (1958/59). Edited by Eberhard Ortland. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2009.Find this resource:
Gesammelte Schriften. 20 vols. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann, with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss and Klaus Schultz. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970–1986.Find this resource:
Kompositionen. 2 vols. Edited by Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn. Munich: Musik-Konzepte Partituren in der Edition Text & Kritik, 1980.Find this resource:
Bernstein, Jay. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1993.Find this resource:
Friedeberg, Ludwig von, and Jürgen Habermas, eds. Adorno-Konferenz, 1983. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983.Find this resource:
Goehr, Lydia. Elective Affinities: Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.Find this resource:
Huhn, Tom, and Lambert Zuidervaart, eds. The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.Find this resource:
Lindner, Burkhardt, and W. Martin Lüdke, eds. Materialien zur ästhetischen Theorie T.W. Adornos Konstruktion der Moderne. Frankfurt: Suhkamp, 1980.Find this resource:
Menke, Christoph. The Sovereignty of Art: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.Find this resource:
Wellmer, Albrecht. The Persistence of Modernity: Essays on Aesthetics, Ethics, and Postmodernism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993.Find this resource:
Zuidervaart, Lambert. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.Find this resource:
Adorno and Mimesis
Adorno claimed that his philosophy, by virtue of its essence, would resist all summarization. He countered the requirements of the Cartesian method with a conception of form based on the essay style and the play of shifting constellations. In keeping with this view, he never explicated the concept of mimesis in any single, comprehensive treatment. The significance of the concept can only be gathered by exploring the individual constellations in which it appears. This structuralist procedure yields a series of concepts—imitation, mimicry, sympathy, inner nature, expression, identification, idiosyncrasy, affinity, elective affinity, similarity, and differentiation—that are centered on three loci: anthropology, a theory of drives, and epistemology. The concept of mimesis, therefore, has primary significance for these (three) discourses (anthropology, drive theory, epistemology). The basic figure of mimesis is that of a sensitive faculty—to be understood as ontogenetic and phylogenetic—that holds the dual function of assuring the self-preservation of the naturally and socially weak subject and serving to cultivate humanity.
Characteristically, when Adorno defines the concept of mimesis, he does not refer to the philosophical tradition of aesthetics that commences with Plato, but rather cites two contemporary authors: Sigmund Freud and Roger Caillois. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972), which introduced the concept of mimesis into critical theory in systematic fashion, he defines it as “the tendency, which resides deep in the living to lose oneself in the environment…the inclination to let oneself go and sink back into nature. Freud called it the death instinct, Caillois ‘le mimétisme.’” Thus, from the outset Adorno situates the aesthetic significance of the concept within an extensive context: the philosophy of history and the critique of civilization predicated upon cultural anthropology and psychoanalysis. Accordingly, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, “imitation” (Nachahmung) is the central concept in the history of civilization from prehistoric times to the present. Primordially, and in one essential aspect, the history of the human species is no different from that of other natural species: imitation of nature in the cry of terror (im Zeichen des Schreckens). This remains true even when the civilization makes increasing attempts to override the mimetic, context-sensitive behavior that continually confronts the individual with the threat of a loss of identity. As this overriding of the mimetic impulse proves, in psychoanalytic terms, to be a repression, that which is repressed returns. The return of the repressed forms a part of the unholy dialectic of a one-sided enlightenment.
At this point, one must be clear about the dual meaning of the concept of nature in Adorno. On the one hand, it represents the inorganic, the lifeless, the dead, the spatially external relation that gains primacy via instrumental rationality. On the other hand, the concept of nature represents the temporally antecedent and the historically prior (historische Zurückliegende), which is subjected to the repressions of the civilizing process and which various forms of regression seek to reestablish. In this second sense, the concept of nature refers primarily to the history of the individual, to the structure of the drives and affects of the human being, and therefore refers specifically to “inner nature.”
This twofold meaning corresponds to a twofold evaluation. It applies to both the concept of nature and the concept of mimesis. First, in reference to the relation to inner nature, mimesis destabilizes the subject—reduces it to a mere sequence of isolated moments of presence and resembles the mimicry performed by small animals. Adorno qualifies this mimesis as “false mimesis.” At the same time, mimesis eludes the dominance of the ego in the same act. Because it counteracts the identity (of the ego), something remains impervious to domination; to this extent, mimesis is “the representative of the undamaged life right in the middle of the damaged one.” Second, in reference to the relation to outer nature, mimesis facilitates domination because it, too, if only minimally, distances and alienates nature. At the same time, however, it does not yet presuppose that unity of nature that provides the substratum of domination for the concept and instrumental rationality; thus, in magic, the rites of the shaman are not addressed to substances or specimens, but to the wind, the rain, the snake, or the demon in those who are ill.
Analogous to mimesis, nature reveals itself in two moments: as inner and outer nature. As a spatially external relation, it supplies the substratum not only of domination, but also of emancipation, which is to say, the substratum for the self-assertion of the human species. As the temporally primary, as something amorphous, as the undifferentiated state in which subject and outside world are not yet separated and which psychoanalysis calls “primary narcissism,” nature reminds us of the absence of domination and at the same time of unfreedom, for Adorno sets the emergence from nature as a condition of freedom; in that tradition stretching from Thomas Hobbes through Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx—the partial validity of which is thus recognized by Adorno in this respect—nature is not ascribed any normative status. By and large, however, the double character of nature in Adorno brings him closest to Friedrich Nietzsche. The fear of death accompanies the longing for reconciliation, because nature—its telos as supplied by memory—is highly ambivalent.
The equivocal and ambivalent concept of nature, as well as that of mimesis, is more narrowly defined by Adorno with the aid of two psychological concepts, each bearing the same epistemological relevance: projection and identification. These also have a twofold sense and are subject to twofold evaluation. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno notes three phases in the history of mimesis: the archaic-biological, the magical, and the historical-bourgeois. In the final phase, beginning as far back as Homer’s Odysseus, the dialectic of (instrumental) rationality and mimesis present in the first phase is realized: “The ratio which supplants mimesis is not simply its counterpart. It is itself mimesis: mimesis unto death.” Nature is the object of imitation not as a changeable, animated nature, but as a unified and, in this sense, dead nature. Thus, it is nothing but a “false projection.” Rationalistic mimesis, which is practiced at the level of the established ego, is the projection of the fixed, persistent identity onto what was once alive. Since the reflection of reason comes about as “conscious projection,” however, true mimesis must be understood as a projection that is both unconscious and correct. If psychoanalysis defines (false) projection as the transference of the subject’s tabooed impulses onto the object, then (correct) projection in Adorno should be defined as the transference of unrepressed impulses. Outer nature is thus the projection of inner nature, or, to express it epistemologically, the object is the subject’s constitutum. This again, however, should be taken in a twofold sense: As controllable and repressed, nature forms the projection of the fixed, the persistent, the identical—an achievement paradigmatic of instrumental rationality. As uncontrollable and unrepressed, nature forms the projection of the yielding, the changeable, and the non-identical—an achievement paradigmatic of mimesis.
The concept of identification confirms this: Adorno distinguishes between reflective-psychological and transitive-logical definitions. In the first case, it is a question of the identification of an object, in the second of the identification with human beings and things. In the “reflective-psychological” sense, Adorno further differentiates between alter-centric and ego-centric identification. In the first case, the subject identifies itself with another subject or object and makes an intentional movement toward the other. In the second case, the subject identifies another subject or object with itself and can thus only understand the other to the extent that this other resembles (the subject) itself. Ultimately, the “transitive-logical” identification presupposes the “reflective psychological” in Adorno: to identify an object correctly, one must identify with it correctly, that is to say, alter-centrically.
The constant ambivalence that runs through Adorno’s work and its endeavor to historicize the concept of mimesis should make clear—and this should not be overlooked—that Adorno does not adopt the anthropological (that is, antihistorical and antisociological) implications of Freud’s hypothesis concerning the death drive or Caillois’s biologization of social relations.
Ultimately, Adorno sees art or the “aesthetic mode of conduct” as heir to the biological-archaic and magical-cultic mimesis. He grounds this thesis by reference to historical materialism and psychoanalysis. In the preface to Critique of Political Economy, Marx indicates that the super-structure does not necessarily change at the same pace as the economic foundations, but rather proceeds more quickly or more slowly. In the case of the artistic super-structure, the change can be so slow as to be mistaken for stagnation. The “cultural lag,” to use the parlance of modern sociology, is most pronounced in the case of art. For this reason, it is able to retain “remnants” of biological and magical mimesis. A second reason for this is predicated upon psychoanalytic theory. For psychoanalysis, mimetic remnants are “regressive”: culture depends upon the suppression of drives, and suppressed drives find expression in various forms of regression. Therefore, a cultural medium that preserves access to the regressive can become a reservoir of critique. In Adorno’s view, this medium is art because it alone can block the repressive authority—instrumental rationality (perfected under capitalism). Art represents “full” rationality, not a one-sided and repressive rationality, and, as Adorno positively intimates, its standard lies in the “potential” of human beings and even of nature.
[See also Mimesis.]
Ästhetische Theorie. Gesammelte Schriften 7. Edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970.Find this resource:
Dialectic of Enlightenment. Co-written by Max Horkheimer, translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.Find this resource:
Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. London: New Left Books, 1974.Find this resource:
Früchtl, Josef. Mimesis: Konstellation eines Zentralbegriffs bei Adorno. Würzburg, Germany: Konigshausen und Neumann, 1986.Find this resource:
Halliwell, Stephen. The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.Find this resource:
Jay, Martin. “Mimesis und Mimetologie: Adorno und Lacoue-Labarthe.” In Auge und Affekt: Wahrnehmung und Interaktion, edited by Gertrud Koch, pp. 175–201. Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1995.Find this resource:
Kager, Reinhard. Herrschaft und Versöhnung: Einführung in das Denken Theodor W. Adornos. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1988.Find this resource:
Schultz, Karla L. Mimesis on the Move: Theodor W. Adorno’s Concept of Imitation. New York: P. Lang, 1990.Find this resource:
Verdeja, Ernesto. “Adorno’s Mimesis and Its Limitations for Critical Social Thought.” European Journal of Political Theory 8, no. 4 (2009): 493–511.Find this resource:
Wolin, Richard. “Utopia, Mimesis, and Reconciliation: A Redemptive Critique of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.” Representations 32 (1990): 33–49.Find this resource:
Adorno’s Philosophy of Music
Alban Berg, with whom Adorno studied composition in 1925, believed his pupil would have to decide “in favor of Kant or Beethoven.” Berg had become “thoroughly convinced” that Adorno had “a calling to achieve the highest in the realm of deepest insight into music (in all its hitherto unexamined aspects, whether philosophical, art-historical, theoretical, social, historical, etc.) and to fulfill that calling in the form of great philosophical works” (Adorno, 1970–1996, Gesammelte Schriften [hereafter GS], Vol. 19, p. 635). Two decades later Thomas Mann would appreciate these talents, now fully developed, and freely draw on them when enlisting Adorno’s advice, both philosophical and technical, on the musical aspects of his magnum opus, Doktor Faustus (1947). As Mann wrote in Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus: Roman eines Romans (1949), his account of the novel’s genesis (an account whose published form downplays the extent of the adviser’s substantial contribution): “All his life this remarkable intellect refused to choose between a career in philosophy and one in music. He was too convinced that in the two divergent realms he was really pursuing the same thing” (as quoted in Richard Winston and Clara Winston [translators], The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus, 1961). Mann’s description of Adorno’s professional profile points to an inevitable preoccupation with aesthetics that Berg had rightly perceived as Adorno’s calling. Yet although he was no Beethoven, or even a Berg, Adorno never gave up composition. Over a career of uncommon productivity lasting forty-nine years (the first of his numerous publications dates from 1920), he successfully combined his diverse interests and skills—in philosophy, sociology, belles-lettres, and musical composition—to produce a body of work matched in substance and influence by few other twentieth-century thinkers. (His compositional oeuvre comprising some thirty works has received a certain amount of critical attention, though it is generally unknown.)
Despite, and also because of, Adorno’s huge influence, the significance of his musical aesthetics is equivocal. Depending on the perspective from which they are viewed, his writings can be characterized by either the breadth or the narrowness of their focus, by either their radical modernity or their conservative subservience to tradition. Either way, they declare an unswerving commitment to an intellectual elitism that has engaged even Adorno’s detractors, who have variously criticized his work as arrogantly out of touch and rebarbatively snobbish. Of his lifework, assembled in the twenty volumes of the Collected Works and a similar number of supplementary volumes (some of them still to be published), about a third is devoted expressly to music. His musicological chef d’oeuvre, now available as one of those supplementary volumes, was to be a study of Ludwig van Beethoven, which occupied him sporadically for thirty-six years. Ironically, and perhaps also fittingly, it remained a fragment.
Adorno’s nearest predecessor was Friedrich Nietzsche, an abundantly literate philosopher who not only wrote extensively about music but, like Adorno, also composed. The parallel extends beyond the evident centrality of music in their lives—in both their philosophical thought and their technical expertise and connoisseurship—to the terse, aphoristic style that each cultivated as a reaction against the system philosophy of German idealism. If Adorno also eschewed professorial pedantry as fervently as Nietzsche did, he was seemingly immune to the latter’s caustically ironic tone, as a comparison of their writings on Richard Wagner reveals. Nor was there much room in his work for the kind of sarcastic humor that Nietzsche reveled in. The topics Adorno addressed and the way he addressed them were strictly serious. Whether in large books or short reviews, he mastered a form of higher criticism to which many have aspired but only a few have achieved. His gnomic, lofty style, as unmistakable as it is inimitable, insinuated itself into the minds of two generations of postwar German intellectuals. Coming from the pens of lesser minds, Adornoisms turn all too easily into irritatingly empty mannerisms. The language and content of his prose are one, as the mixed success of numerous translations demonstrates.
For all of his fundamental critique, most explicit in the Negative Dialectics, Adorno’s debt to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was enormous, itself a demonstration of a dialectical relationship. Emblematic of this relationship are the three quotations from Hegel that head the introduction and two halves of Adorno’s best-known and most frequently cited work on music, the Philosophy of New Music (1949). The first quotation, in particular, from Hegel’s Aesthetics, can stand as a motto for Adorno’s entire approach to aesthetics: “In art we are dealing not with a merely pleasurable or useful plaything, but with…an unfolding of truth.”
The spirit of Hegel is never more palpable than in the concept of “musical material,” which informs Adorno’s musical thinking from early on. It surfaces as early as 1928 in a notice of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. The enormous commercial success of this work, along with the means employed to achieve it, posed a critical dilemma for “progressive intellectuals,” as Adorno described them, and by implication for himself. Igor Stravinsky had made comparable use of “dead music,” and although Adorno acknowledged the parallel, he was rarely so charitable about the Russian master:
How distant I at first feel from music that does not draw any consequences from the current state of musical material, but rather seeks its effect by transforming old, atrophied material: Weill achieves this effect with such force and originality that, faced with the fact, the objection pales. In Weill there is regression, one which exposes the demonic traits of dead music and uses them.
(1970–1996, GS, Vol. 19, p. 137)
In his subsequent writings, Adorno’s concept of “musical material” would gradually become a terminus technicus. Crudely put, in a way that might make Adorno balk, “material” is the musical manifestation or (to use Adorno’s own expression) “sedimentation” of “objective spirit” (objektiver Geist), which in Hegel’s philosophy of history pertains to legal and moral aspects of the world spirit. Material, then, is not the stuff of descriptive music theory but of prescriptive and proscriptive aesthetics. It is not the raw material of music given by nature, something essentially pre-musical and available to composers at any time, but, as Adorno would say, is “historical through and through.” In the Philosophy of New Music, he writes not just of a “state” of musical material but also of a “tendency,” a historical dictate that composers ignore at the price of consigning themselves to the forces of reaction and regression. Hence the headings for the book’s two halves: “Schoenberg and Progress” and “Stravinsky and Restauration.”
For the postwar musical avant-garde in Germany and beyond, the Philosophy of New Music became a canonical text, not only informing critical sensibilities but guiding the very history of musical composition. As the doyen of postwar German music critics Joachim Kaiser put it, his generation received from Adorno’s tract “the analytical utensils … for diagnosing that which was inadequate or neoclassical or … no longer permitted by the world spirit.” Yet in the same tract, which Adorno wanted understood as an “extended excursus to Dialectic of Enlightenment,” he had also drawn attention to the “fetishism of the tone-row,” as he described Anton von Webern’s precompositional rationalization of material. Born of subjective freedom, rationalization may turn (and for Adorno did turn) into its opposite, unfreedom: a fetish in the strict Marxist sense. And it was from Webern’s approach to twelve-tone composition that the postwar generation took its cue. For Adorno, Arnold Schoenberg was never “dead,” as he was for Pierre Boulez and his contemporaries.
The aesthetic yardstick of the Philosophy of New Music was supplied not by Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositions, still less Webern’s, as much as they may have embodied the current state of musical material, but by the earlier, pre-World War I works, especially the monodrama Erwartung, which linked the composer of so-called free atonality so compellingly with the Expressionist movement. “Expressionist music,” Adorno writes, “took quite literally the principle of expression from the traditional romantic principle so as to assume the character of a protocol.” (Adorno saw expressionism in music as a kind of psychoanalysis, as the word “protocol” suggests, taken as it is from the Freudian term used to describe the clinical documentation of dreams. A decade earlier, in a review of Ernst Krenek’s 1937 book Über neue Musik (On New Music), Adorno had asserted: “It is questionable whether the aspect of expressionist expression can even be reduced to romantic expression; whether between the two there is not the difference between the proclamation of a protocol and fiction; whether Schoenberg’s battle against musical ornament, the innermost motive of atonality, did not derive from the principally changed content of his music, which stands in the same relation to romantic content as Freud does to the psychological novel of the nineteenth century.” The four-page review is remarkable for the clarity with which it presents the central ideas of the Philosophy; see GS, Vol. 20.2, p. 805.) With the analogy to Sigmund Freud’s clinical protocol of dreams, Adorno argues that music can transcend the merely subjective realm. It records, so to speak objectively, the malaise of the socially alienated subject. Although the notion of the individual, isolated and anxious, may become precariously fragile in Adorno’s sociological view, it still serves a critical purpose in the modern music that he defined in a celebrated phrase in the Philosophy as “the true message in a bottle” (die wahre Flaschenpost). Such is Adorno’s expressionist “dialectics of loneliness”: “lonely speech expresses” for him “more about the social tendency than communicative speech does.”
The same yardstick obtains in the essay “Vers une musique informelle” (1961), a riposte to those younger composers at Darmstadt who misread Adorno’s earlier work as legitimizing total serialism (that is, the precompositional manipulation not just of pitch but also of the musical parameters of rhythm, attack, and dynamics). Ever circumspect but resolute, he sketches a musical ideal charting “a third way between the jungle of Erwartung, on the one hand, and the tectonics of Die glückliche Hand, on the other”—both works from Schoenberg’s atonal period. While delineating a program yet to be realized, Adorno invokes earlier achievements, particularly the organic coherence of tonal compositions, now undermined by the historical tendencies of musical material:
A composition as a whole creates tension and resolution, just as used to happen in the tonal idiom with its primal model, the cadence. This shift to the totality, however, has stripped the parts of their power. In order to become equal to the task, then, which at present remains hidden, it would be necessary to construct down to the last detail the entire texture of the composition, as Schoenberg did in his day with larger forms, like the sonata and the variation, trusting that construction at the level of detail would be carried out by the twelve-tone technique. Relationships have to be established between events which succeed each other directly and indirectly—and this applies to events within simultaneous complexes—relationships which themselves provide the necessary stringency.
This description elaborates the technical aspect of the “expressive-dynamic principle” with which, in the Philosophy, Adorno associates “the essence of all great music since Bach” and with which he contrasts the “rhythmic-spatial” principle of Stravinsky’s music. Negating that essence, he believed, represented not only a “death of subjective time,” but a regression into irresponsible primitivism. The 1962 essay “Stravinsky: Ein dialektisches Bild” (A Dialectical Portrait), while qualifying and tempering his earlier polemic, nonetheless serves to confirm Adorno’s essentialization of the “expressive-dynamic principle.” He thus asserts:
What we may conceive of as musical transcendence, namely the fact that at any given moment it has become something and something other than what it was, that points beyond itself—all that is no mere metaphysical imperative dictated by some external authority. It lies in the nature of music and will not be denied. Ever since music has existed, it has always been a protest, however ineffectual, against myth, against a fate that was always the same, and even against death.
The shift of focus from the alienated individual to the cause of alienation, the “administered” capitalist world, and back again is precisely reflected in the mix of Freudian and Marxist terminology employed throughout Adorno’s writings. In an essay published shortly after his immigration to the United States in 1938, the mix is nicely contained in the very title: “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (“Über den Fetischcharakter der Musik und die Regression des Hörens”). The essay has attracted notoriety as one of several critiques from his pen directed at his then host country’s national music: jazz. (In 1937, before leaving England for the United States, he had viciously lambasted Jean Sibelius, whom British critics and concert audiences had accorded something approaching cult status.) As the title suggests, Adorno’s jazz essays focus less on the aesthetic object than on audience attitudes—a diagnosis that derives from his belief in jazz’s complicity with the ubiquitous “culture industry,” the latter itself a function of the “administered world.” Regressive listening habits, Adorno argued, amount to an essentially “pathological” approach to music, leaving consumers at the mercy of social manipulation and exploitation. But it is not just jazz that falls victim to the charge of such complicity—most composers outside the second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg do so as well. Even many of the critics who are sympathetic toward Adorno’s sociological perspicuity are unhappy about his musical judgment. In the case of jazz, it has been shown that his understanding of the phenomenon derived mainly from the commercial dance music he knew from Weimar Germany, not from American jazz music. To avoid terminological confusion, he directed his critique in the Introduction to the Sociology of Music at “light music,” which is principally what he had meant all along.
His deciphering of music, whether jazz or Stravinsky, as sadomasochistic or even Fascist has been frequently dismissed as absurd. The negative sociological criteria, it is argued, fit too snugly with his negative aesthetic values. In a society deemed fundamentally “false,” his attribution of positive aesthetic values, like the prospect of truth, must be severely limited. Of the handful of German or Austrian composers who represent “progress,” none of them wholly complies with his rigorously demanding standards, even Schoenberg and Berg. But it is with society that Adorno principally finds fault. Like Nietzsche, he mistrusts the masses, all those listeners not in possession of his level of musical sophistication who must inevitably succumb to music’s ideological influence.
For Adorno, the critical theorist, ideology in the Marxist sense of “false consciousness” lies at the core of aesthetic theory. His elaboration of musical “false consciousness,” however, betrays an aesthetic understanding rooted in German romanticism. At issue is music’s transcendental quality. Of all the arts, music most effectively supports the fiction that, to quote Aesthetic Theory, “by its mere existence, the limit [of our existence] had already been overcome.” Thus, in a passage from the unfinished Beethoven monograph, Adorno can unequivocally state that music’s ideological nature resides in its mere commencing: “Its language is, of itself, magic, and the transition to its isolated sphere has, a priori, something transfiguring about it. Suspending empirical reality and constituting a secondary one sui generis proclaims, as it were in advance: it is good.” All music is thus “caught under the spell of appearance.” The only escape from such appearance is for music permanently to revoke its premise. This it does, according to Adorno, by remaining in a state of becoming, rather than by positing closed, self-contained aesthetic totalities. Compositionally speaking, this amounts to an apology for the technique of developing variation, which Schoenberg inherited from Beethoven and Johannes Brahms, and by means of which music can articulate a continuously unfolding thematic process (in the Philosophy Adorno boldly claims that “in Brahms there is no longer anything unthematic”).
Philosophically, Adorno draws an exact parallel between Beethoven’s music and Hegel’s Logik, between the “becoming” of developing variation and the “becoming” of spirit in the Phenomenology of Spirit. But just as in the Negative Dialectics, where Adorno had branded the closed system of Hegel’s philosophy as an untruth, he criticizes the Beethoven of the heroic middle period for the “affirmative gesture of recapitulation.” Such a literal restatement of thematic material, introduced so triumphantly in the middle-period works, is “Beethoven’s forced tribute to the ideological essence whose spell is cast by even the highest music that ever connoted freedom in the midst of enduring unfreedom.” Only in Beethoven’s late style, then, did Adorno sense a satisfactory, because dynamically dialectical, formal balance between part and whole—or, put sociologically, between individual and society.
Despite the unyielding criticisms of middle-period Beethoven, whom Adorno fondly apostrophizes as the “prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie,” the posthumously published fragments of Beethoven: Philosophy of Music (1993) also reveal that Adorno’s critique of modern society is derived from a nostalgic belief that things were once better. Like Hegel and earlier romantics, he looks back more than forward to a Golden Age, remaining tied to his roots as representative of the nineteenth-century Bildungsbürger. Translated into musical terms, his nostalgia manifests itself unabashedly in the fragment in which he bemoans the inevitable loss of nuance enjoyed by the supposedly stable language of the Viennese classics: “With us language itself is increasingly the problem, not the idiom. As a result we have, in a sense, become coarser and ourselves poorer…. Romanticism is the history of musical language being subverted and replaced by ‘material.’”
It was that historical process of subversion, less than its outcome, that so fascinated Adorno as a philosopher of music. All three of his completed composer monographs were on prime representatives of that romantic heritage: Wagner, Gustav Mahler, and Berg, with each illuminating a different phase (the Berg monograph is subtitled “The Master of the Smallest Transition,” alluding to Wagner’s description of his own music as “the art of transition”). Whereas Adorno was unable to finish the Beethoven monograph, he wrote almost nothing on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A short review from 1932 puts it bluntly: “The mastery is beyond discussion” (1970–1996, GS, Vol. 19, p. 326).
The narrowly defined limits of Adorno’s musical tastes were amply compensated for by the breadth of his methodological context and by his frequent flashes of brilliance as an insightful, eloquent critic. The aesthetic prejudices that informed his philosophy of music demand to be acknowledged for the key role that they played—that is their place in history. His legacy will endure, however, in the continuing attempts to find fresh answers to the numerous questions he formulated and addressed, above all to the vexed problem he set himself of mediating between philosophy, sociology, and music analysis. Although a passionate advocate of absolute music and “aesthetic” (as opposed to “pathological”) listening in the tradition of Eduard Hanslick, he refused to accept any clear demarcation between autonomy and heteronomy. Perhaps that is why his dialectical defense of the former may ultimately fail to convince. Declaring his cultural diagnoses misplaced in their specifics, most recent commentators have felt compelled either to reject outright or at least to revise the historically and culturally limited aesthetic premise that informed the political decisionism of his higher criticism, at the same time as they recognize that the commercial and ideological abuses of music that he identified have in no way diminished. If the overall tone of this assessment is reminiscent of an obituary, it is because the value Adorno attached to the cultivated bourgeois musical experience in the modern industrial age has lost much of the vitality that it possessed—in no small measure thanks to him—until quite recently.
[See also Music.]
Beethoven: Philosophie der Musik. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1993.Find this resource:
Gesammelte Schriften. 20 vols. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970–1996.Find this resource:
Philosophy of New Music. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Arnold, Heinz Ludwig, ed. Theodor W. Adorno. 2d ed. Munich: Edition Text u. Kritik, 1983.Find this resource:
Dahlhaus, Carl. “Adornos Begriff des musikalischen Materials.” In Schönberg und andere: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Neuen Musik, pp. 336–342. Mainz: Schott, 1978.Find this resource:
Dahlhaus, Carl. “Das Problem der ‘höheren Kritik’: Adornos Polemik gegen Strawinsky.” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 148 (1987): 9–15.Find this resource:
Dahlhaus, Carl, Ludwig Finscher, and Joachim Kaiser. “Was haben wir von Adorno gehabt?” Musica 24 (1970): 435–439.Find this resource:
Falke, Gustav. “Neoklassizismus als andere Moderne.” In Adorno-Handbuch: Leben—Werk—Wirkung, edited by Richard Klein, Johann Kreuzer, and Stefan Müller-Doohm, pp. 139–145. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2011.Find this resource:
Gabbard, Krin, ed. Representing Jazz. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.Find this resource:
Hinton, Stephen. “Adorno’s Unfinished Beethoven.” Beethoven Forum 5 (1996): 139–153.Find this resource:
Hoeckner, Berthold. Apparitions: New Perspectives on Adorno and Twentieth-Century Music. New York: Routledge, 2006.Find this resource:
Kolleritsch, Otto, ed. Adorno und die Musik. Graz, Austria: Universal Edition f. Inst. f. Wertungsforschung, 1979.Find this resource:
Metzger, Heinz-Klaus, and Rainer Riehn. Theodor W. Adorno: Der Komponist. Musik-Konzepte 63–64. Munich: Edition Text + Kritik, 1989.Find this resource:
Paddison, Max. Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.Find this resource:
Roberts, David. Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory after Adorno. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.Find this resource:
Robinson, J. Bradford. “The Jazz Essays of Theodor Adorno: Some Thoughts on Jazz Reception in Weimar Germany.” Popular Music 13 (1994): 1–25.Find this resource:
Schubert, Giselher. “Adornos Auseinandersetzung mit der Zwölftontechnik Schönbergs.” Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 46 (1989): 235–254.Find this resource:
Steinert, Heinz. Die Entdeckung der Kulturindustrie oder: Warum Professor Adorno Jazz-Musik nicht ausstehen konnte. Vienna: Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, 1992.Find this resource:
Wellmer, Albrecht. “Adorno, Modernity, and the Sublime.” In The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern, edited by Max Pensky, pp. 112–134. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.Find this resource:
Adorno and Kant
Theodor Adorno owes an immense debt to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. The major terms and categories of Adorno’s aesthetics are informed by a thoroughly sympathetic understanding of what Kant posits as the centrality of aesthetic judgment and experience to the shape and formation, as well as experience, of subjective life. Yet despite the continuity between Kant and Adorno’s aesthetic theories, Adorno finds Kant’s aesthetics unfinished. Adorno begins to draw the trajectory of his own aesthetic theorizing in the Kantian passages that are incomplete or unreconciled—in particular, those dealing with beauty and the sublime and with the opposition between the beauty of nature and that of art.
Adorno is a faithful Kantian both in his elaboration of the subject of aesthetics and in the subjectivity he imagines is constituted by aesthetic judgment. Adorno’s insights regarding the nature of aesthetic appearance are modeled on Kant’s descriptions of the form of beauty and the character of the sublime. Just as Kant finds the legible image of subjective constitution in aesthetic judgment, Adorno theorizes that the artwork is its reverse image. Adorno, like Kant, attempts to see by means of this image, as well as through it. For Adorno, perhaps the only substantive difference between his aesthetics and Kant’s is two hundred years of history. For him, that history consists of a transfiguration of what was once embodied by aesthetic judgment into what now occurs as the history and process of art.
The most profound intimacy between Kant and Adorno’s texts lies precisely in the inextinguishability of the aesthetic hope for reconciliation within human life. Yet Adorno reads the Critique of Judgment as the richest, most nuanced treatise on aesthetics and, simultaneously, as a site of immense repression. Rather than fault Kant’s text for the latter, Adorno instead reads that repression as integral to the aesthetic. Specifically, what is being repressed is the subject in whose name aesthetic taste occurs, only on the basis of a thorough disinterest and a pervasive disavowal of sensuousness. Adorno does not attempt a liberation of sensuousness or of subjective interests, but instead examines the specific sites of repression within the judgments of beauty and the experiences of the sublime, as well as in their relation to one another. Whereas the hope for reconciliation registers itself in Kant as a refusal to forsake nature as the realm in which human freedom comes to fruition, Adorno proceeds instead to recount the historical migration of this hope from the Kantian site of natural beauty to that of the sublime and finally (or at least up until the present) from there to art-beauty, and a subsequent self-evisceration.
It is as though Kant and Adorno peer at the same phenomenon from opposite points of view. Kant glimpses a view of the constitution of subjectivity, and intersubjectivity as well, by suppressing the view of the object, which, ironically, is the occasion for the judgment of beauty. The Kantian aesthetic subject congeals in the evacuated space of the object. For Adorno, Kant’s aesthetic theory—especially in its overdetermined rigidification and suppression of the object—is thus a mimetic recapitulation of the very dynamic by which judgment functions. Indeed, we might well say that for Adorno the ontogeny of each Kantian aesthetic judgment recapitulates the phylogeny not only of judgment in general, but also of subjectivity. Adorno’s own aesthetic theory, rather than attempting, like Kant’s, to look past the object of judgment in order to discern its subject, draws a precise focus on the object as the best way to illuminate both object and subject. The object of aesthetic judgment is thereby to reveal itself as subjectivity in its otherness. Thus, it is the artwork, and no longer Kant’s (nonetheless correct critique of) aesthetic judgment, that becomes the richest and most privileged site of alienation for Adorno.
Adorno’s critique of the third Critique is that it attempts to hold at a standstill what Adorno sees as an unceasing dialectical momentum within aesthetic judgment between an expanding and a contracting subjectivity. Kant’s inclination is to keep natural beauty separate from art-beauty and, further, to keep both these instances of taste separate from the judgment of the sublime that occurs within—though seemingly above—the all-too-civilized heads of men. Adorno’s immanent critique of Kant’s account of the sublime contains the insight that the very movement of Kant’s sublime—encompassing the move from beauty to the sublime, from the mathematical to the dynamical sublime, as well as the move within the sublime from pain to pleasure—is already a symptom of the seeming success of taste’s judgments of beauty. Thus, for Adorno the symptomatic expression of what ails the success of taste is found in the account of the sublime.
Adorno’s aesthetics persists with the theme that nature might indeed “free itself from…imperious subjectivity” by way of an art aligned in opposition to us. Although Adorno suggests that art’s opposition to us might also be taken as the return of repressed nature, this return is motivated by something more than revenge for what we have technologically inflicted on nature. This revenge is also prompted by our having ceased to hold regard for nature in any of its guises; that is, since art’s ascendancy necessitated a continuing disregard for nature, the return of repressed nature in art (i.e., the sublime) produces an appearance of nature as exaggeratedly oppositional. Art’s contrariness, then, is a historical product of the sublime that has migrated, following Kant, from nature into art. For Adorno, the third Critique is the avant-garde of this migration.
The historical era of the sublime appearing in nature, say, the second half of the eighteenth century, Adorno describes as coincident with a development in which “the unleashing of elemental forces was one with the emancipation of the subject and hence with the self-consciousness of spirit.” The subject did indeed come into its own (Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment records this), even though it (mis)recognized itself as sublime nature. This misrecognition and arrival, this hope and reflection, could not persist, however, if only because of the subjective failure to realize itself as indeed something more than mere life. In this regard it is helpful to recall Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man as the failed but valiant attempt to realize and sustain the achievement of the Kantian sublime.
For Adorno, it is Kant’s account of taste—the experience of beauty in contrast to that of the sublime—that might best be described as a diagnosis of subjectivity’s somewhat blinding attempt to universalize itself. For Adorno’s Kant, subjectivity succeeds as a universal project in the moment of aesthetic (tasteful) pleasure. But that same moment must also be judged—by Kant’s own account—a failure, insofar as it is precisely the universality of that moment that remains unrecognized by subjectivity. Indeed, for Adorno, it is just this inability and opacity, the persistent failure of aesthetically realized subjectivity to recognize itself as such, and therefore as an agent, that calls forth the need for a continuing critique of aesthetic judgment.
Subjectivity, pace Kant, realizes itself in taste, but fails to recognize itself therein and thereby likewise fails to reproduce itself as explicitly social. Although the singular success of taste lies, according to Kant, in the achievement of positing and “feeling” intersubjectivity, its failure nonetheless is twofold: taste fails either to transform its achieved universal intersubjectivity into something objective (for example, a political state) or, what seems the very least, to apprehend its achievement—hence its continuing opacity. This particular failure of taste—again, in the very moment of its success—sets in motion, according to Adorno’s reading of Kant, the project of the sublime.
The first task of the sublime is to remove from taste the presentation that allows it to misrecognize itself as objective. For Adorno, the migration of the sublime from nature to art is not the product of nature’s revenge alone, it is also a symptom of the reciprocally increasing reification of the social and the subjective. If the sublime begins as the withdrawal of the purportedly objective, it continues more purely as the force of the negative. As reification increases, so too does the urgency for a dynamism that cuts across it. The migration of the sublime into art might then well be construed not merely as the product of a disregard of nature, but also as the signal of an increased reification within the confines of art itself. For Adorno, if art was ever a realm of free play, the arrival of the sublime indicates that it exists as such no longer. Since art, for Adorno, now requires the sublime, art is no longer the realm of mere appearance but, beyond that, the realm of false appearance, which is to say, of appearances that demand to be disavowed. If aesthetic appearance once served, pace Friedrich Nietzsche, as a goad to reflection and life, it must have since hardened into an impediment, especially to itself.
Adorno finds in Kant’s aesthetics a symptomatic readiness to posit, in the object of beauty, too smooth and seamless a relation between particularity and universality. Hence, despite his aesthetic theory’s having originated in critique, Kant nonetheless helps keep invisible the technological machinery of transition from particular to universal. Since the object of beauty—whether artistic or natural—therefore occurs for Kant as a wholly harmonious identity between particular and universal, it thereby fails to serve as a dynamic site of promise or reconciliation. In Kantian beauty, for Adorno, there is no productive tension, slippage, or dialectic. These qualities instead reside in Kant’s theory of beauty. It is as if Kantian natural beauty too readily avoids what Adorno considers art’s inescapable telos: “Since time immemorial art has sought to rescue the particular; advancing particularity was immanent to it.”
So too, for Adorno, the Kantian redemption and promotion of the particular object (but so too surreptitiously of the subject) come at too high a cost: at the price of the complete obliteration of what, for Adorno, ought to be the persistent tension between particular and universal in a still unreconciled world. In the end, the Kantian aesthetic elevation of the particular becomes the total effacement of the object of beauty itself. For Adorno, Kantian beauty severs forever—in order to gain the universality of subjectivity—whatever remaining ties bound it to the particularity of the object. With this effacement of the object for the sake of beauty, or with what Adorno will formulate as the later evisceration of art, art’s immemorial project of redeeming and promoting the particular now becomes the problem of the sublime. More simply put, Kant’s formulation of beauty resolves, but all too quickly and completely, the immemorial tension between particular and universal. Adorno suggests that this immemorial tension migrates into the domain of the sublime, where the fault line within subjectivity becomes all the more precipitous.
Yet Adorno finds in Kant’s favoring of natural over artistic beauty an implicit recognition of the importance of some resistance to an all-pervasive and seamless identity of particular and universal. For Adorno, Kant’s natural beauty is also a precise cipher of that which resists identity: “The beauty of nature is the residue of nonidentity in things spellbound by universal identity. As long as this spell rules, nothing nonidentical is positively there.” Natural beauty is not itself the nonidentical but the cipher or promise that nonidentity might be possible. “Natural beauty partakes of the weakness of all promisings: they are inextinguishable.” This inextinguishable promise is also fragile: “The reason one shies away from natural beauty is that one might wound the not-yet-existing by grasping it in what exists.” The sublime, in its attempt to extinguish the promise once borne by natural beauty, bears no regard for this fragility. At the same time, however, the sublime is also the attempt to allow the not-yet-existing to come into being.
Adorno reads the historical genealogy of art-beauty as the dialectical response to the implicit failure of Kantian natural beauty: the beauty of art now carries the burden of what was once promised of nature in the guise of natural beauty. Natural beauty might then be understood as a dynamic, indeed a dialectical one: it begins as the hope for identity and comes near to achieving it, but in the proximity of this near-identity, it “conceals itself anew,” which is to say, it retreats finally from positing identity. It is as if the sublime arrived in the eighteenth century as the most advanced dialectical technique for producing human freedom, and so too reconciliation. Adorno describes the traditional concept of the sublime as an “infinite presence…animated by the belief that negation could bring about positivity.” In having sacrificed empirical existence so completely and readily, the sublime thereby also discarded nature, the realm that until then was requisite for the prolongation of hope provided by natural beauty. With the sublation of human existence in the sublime’s hope for transcendence, the place where, as well as the means by which, reconciliation might occur is disregarded. If this sweeping, purposive disavowal is already a feature of natural beauty, then the negation of empirical existence effected by the sublime is but a more thorough version of the effacement of nature achieved in Kant’s account of taste. The salient difference, then, between Kant’s theory of taste and his account of the sublime is that in the former beauty still required nature (whatever that might have been or comes to be) as an occasion for an aesthetic experience—for the harmonization of the particular and universal—even though Kant explains the functional importance of that occasion as merely an opportunity for subjectivity to misrecognize itself.
What Adorno means by the autonomy of art may well be a result of the historical piling up of functions onto art and art-beauty such that art, merely by the accumulation and variety of tasks and expectations that fall to it, comes to be autonomous. Art thus functions as the default sphere into which migrate the historic frustrations of the failed dreams and projects of human emancipation. Yet insofar as this sphere not only serves as a reservoir of these frustrations, but also maintains them, the aesthetic sphere of art thereby becomes—for Adorno—an active, independent agency. This, of course, is not to suggest that all art is autonomous, or that all or any art making occurs in autonomy, but rather that some art achieves—like Kant’s aesthetic judgment—autonomy. Put differently, the autonomy of art signals the transfer of human autonomy (that is, freedom) from the human subject to the aesthetic artifact. When we speak of the spirit of art, we do not just infer our own alienation but posit the privileged site of alienation.
Like natural beauty, the sublime is hope. It is also a good deal more, and less. It is more than hope insofar as it attempts to make actual the hoped-for identity between particular and universal. The sublime, in this regard, is the refusal of the solace of hope evoked by and sustained in natural beauty. We might well recall here Adorno’s statement explaining how the sublime and taste come into conflict in the late eighteenth century as a result of the “unleashing of elemental forces” that were “one with the emancipation of the subject.” The subject, however, was not emancipated, and to paraphrase a well-known passage from Negative Dialectics, we might say that the moment when the subject was to realize itself has passed. The residue of this passed moment, of a subject stillborn, is not the hope for some future birth but the refusal of nature as the locus of generation and regeneration. The sublime, after Kant, thus migrates to art, to the realm of artifice par excellence. The fact of this migration means that hope has been transferred, not extinguished. The question is how this migration affects the hope, and whether there is more to hope for from art and art-beauty than once was allowed by nature and natural beauty. This, for Adorno, is the task of aesthetic theory.
[See also Kant, Immanuel.]
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Bernstein, J. M. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.Find this resource:
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Hullot-Kentor, Robert. “Back to Adorno.” Telos 81 (September 1989): 5–29.Find this resource:
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Kaufman, Robert. “Legislators of the Post-Everything World: Shelley’s Defence of Adorno.” English Literary History 63 (1996): 707–733.Find this resource:
Koch, Gertrude. “Mimesis and Bilderverbot.” Screen 34 (September 1993): 211–222.Find this resource:
Levin, Thomas Y. “For the Record: Adorno on Music in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” October 55 (Winter 1990): 23–47.Find this resource:
Menke, Christoph. Die Souveränität der Kunst: Ästhetische Erfahrung nach Adorno und Derrida. Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1988.Find this resource:
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