Dialectics at a Standstill: A Methodological Inquiry Into the Philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno
By Stephen Bronner
He was perhaps the most dazzling of them all. His dialectical style, his command of the dialectical aphorism, and his uncompromising assault on banality and repression turned Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno into perhaps the most alluring and surely the most complex representative of critical theory when he died in 1969 at the age of 66. His range seemingly knew no bounds. He was a musicologist who had studied with the great Alban Berg, a composer in his own right, a philosopher with expertise in the intricacies of phenomenology, a social theorist steeped in the tradition of western Marxism, a sociologist engaged in complicated empirical studies, a connoisseur of literature and poetry, an anthropological thinker, and an aesthetician committed to the new and the technically innovative. He incarnated the interdisciplinary perspective of the "Frankfurt School," and made contributions in all his fields of endeavor. He, above all, played a decisive role in shifting the interest of Horkheimer and the Institute away from its political and economic preoccupations of the 1930s. Adorno, in his own way, transformed the meaning of critical theory. It was Adorno, after all, who asked whether writing poetry was still possible after Auschwitz. It was Adorno who railed against the "liquidation of the subject." It was Adorno who claimed that the whole is false.
His thinking stands and falls on his confrontation with the "ontology of false conditions" in the name of an endangered subjectivity. Reacting against this ontology that led him, "in opposition to Hegel's practice and yet in accordance with his thought," (Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life trans. E.F. N. Jephcott (London, 1974), pg. 16.), to explode the moment of positivity in favor of an uncompromising emphasis on negation. Affirming the "non-identity" between the subject and his world was the logical consequence. Conceptualizing this threatened subjectivity involved leaving nothing unscathed: not phenomenology with its ontological flattening of the very experience it claimed to valorize; not empiricism with its blindness to the context of oppression; not positivism for its expulsion of normative values; not instrumentalism for sanctioning of what exists; and not even Hegel or Marx with their teleological commitment, their affirmation of progress, their emphasis on the positivity, and their vagaries concerning revolutionary change.
No reductionism would infect the mature theory of Adorno, no theological remnants of the Other, no soft humanism,"Freedom has contracted to pure negativity . . . The objective end of humanism is only another expression for the same thing. It signifies that the individual as individual, in representing the species of man, has lost the autonomy through which he might realize the species" (ibid., pg. 38), and no retreat into "play." This time there would be no illusions. Or better: illusion, the semblance of reality, would serve both a critical and a utopian purpose. Embedded within art, created by technique, illusion confronts the impover- ishment of experience generated by the "inverted world" of the commodity form. Adorno stands up against the "ontology of false conditions" with the emancipatory truth demanded by negative dialectics and retained in works of art. He knew that this truth is politically impotent, that its ability to contradict the unfreedom of the social whole exists only in the fleeting glimpse and the momentary experience. That is why Adorno simultaneously rejected the category of totality, elicited the evanescent and the fragmentary, and still called for a systematic reading of his own work and a contextual understanding of all social phenomena. (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics trans. E.B. Ashton (New York, 1973), pg. 20ff.) He would, for better or worse, define freedom by the ontology it denies. The dialectic would grind to a halt and, in this way, remain true to the reality it sought to comprehend. Adorno could not draw the practical conclusions. Nevertheless, through exposing the inverted "truth" of an "inverted world," illusion provided his "negative dialectics" with its uncompromisingly critical thrust.
Reification and Its Inversion
Negative dialectics was, from the start, a confrontation with the "false condition" of things. It thus always presupposed the commitment to a vision of truth critical of the way in which they were presented. History is that presentation. It develops through the rational domination of nature, which presupposes the expulsion of subjectivity and value-laden concerns from the process. Instrumental rationality, for example, transforms capital from the object of production into its subject and the actual producers of wealth into objects for the creation of profit. (Note the discussion in the famous section on "commodity fetishism" in Karl Marx, Das Kapital 3 vols. edited by Frederick Engels and translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York, 1967) 1:71ff). Even with its eradication of "use value" by "exchange value," however, capitalism is merely the highest expression of an anthropological development dedicated to dominating "inner" and "outer" nature while transforming qualitative distinctions into quantitative ones. Externalization of what is internal to the subject impoverishes the subject; that is the key. "The word alienation . . . acknowledges by the very tenacity with which it views the alien external world as institutionally opposed to the subject -- in spite of all its protestations of reconciliation -- the continuing irreconcilability of subject and object, which constitutes the theme of dialectical criticism" (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 246). Rationalization is thus rendered equivalent to reification (Note the excellent discussion by Gillian Rose, The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (New York, 1978), pgs. 43ff.) the objectifying "form" of productive activity produces it.
Reification becomes the fundamental fact of human existence, which is then read back into each historical epoch and every facet of human experience. Such a stance contests the claim that objectification is an anthropologically neutral phenomenon and that contingent historical conditions, rather than interaction with nature per se, creates alienation. An anthropological standpoint, albeit of a "negative" sort, (Stefan Breuer, "Adorno's Anthropology" in Telos 64 (Summer, 1985), pgs. 15ff.), thus begins to take shape. No wonder that, in contrast to Erich Fromm, Adorno should have called upon the Institute to place less emphasis on attempts to "sociologize" psychology and more on an independent appropriation of the instinct theory and metapsychological inheritance of Freud. (Cf. Theodor W. Adorno, "Die revidierte Psychoanalyse" and "Zum Verhaltnis von Soziologie und Psychologie" in Soziologische Schriften (Frankfurt, 1979) 1: 20-85). The domination of nature through history would now receive grounding in the repressive forms of sublimation offered by civilization. Maintaining any genuine commitment to happiness would then involve contesting the ways in which instinctual gratification is offered, delayed and distorted. The metapsychological and anthropological standpoint would make the need for a "total" break with reality evident.
Adorno won Max Horkheimer over to his new metacritical position thereby supplanting Fromm's important role in the Institute. It would directly influence the "dialectical logic" of Dialectics of Enlightenment and, in a way, the metapsychological utopianism of Marcuse no less than the later work of Horkheimer. If ontology exists it will define the "false condition" in which freedom has no place. That false condition is history. No reform is capable of altering its structure any more than the effects of an reification process identified with objectification; liberation must subsequently involve an apocalyptic transformation in which a new order will emerge capable of preventing the conflation between subject and object while introducing a new harmony between humanity and nature.
The emancipatory inversion starts to take shape. The response to reification occurs in terms of "what lies beyond" it. The impossibility of bringing about such a changemaking "present" what inherently lies beyond, complements the ethical need to confront the encompassing reality of repression. Not simply an identification with suffering, (Cf. Drucilla Cornell, "The Ethical Message of Negative Dialectics" in Social Concept (December, 1987), 4:1, pgs. 3ff.), but guilt at the inability to eradicate its pervasiveness is what produces the commitment to negative dialectics. Practical pessimism will subsequently stands in "dialectical" tension with a certain variant of philosophical utopianism in the thinking of Adorno no less than the others whom his thinking influenced. Critical theory, in his opinion, cannot deny this tension.
Contesting the hegemonic claims of mainstream sociology, for that very reason, becomes imperative; its objectivistic prejudices become inverted as the point of departure becomes a repressed subjectivity. Empiricist and positivist forms of sociology not only ignore how subjectivity remains unexhausted by the processes supposedly constituting it, they also remain blind to the manner in which society is itself constituted by subjects. Remaining stuck within the realm of "social facts" necessarily produces a form of thinking in which the subject or individual is collapsed into the object or society. Mainstream sociology, by stripping the social outcome from the valueladen conditions of its constitution, thus contributes to the reification of the very subject it seeks to study.
A new "critical" approach to sociology is introduced by Adorno. Such an approach will prove as useful for empirical studies of authoritarianism or as for criticisms of astrology. But these do not fulfill its methodological purpose. The point of a new "critical" sociology, from the standpoint of of Adorno, is to highlight the intrinsic tension" between the need for the structures of society, which are open to reflection, and the ways they inhibit subjectivity and its desire for freedom. (Cf. Theodor W. Adorno et al. The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology trans. Glyn Adey and David Frisby (London, 1976), pgs.35ff). It is in order to explore this tension that Adorno has recourse to the categories of idealism, like totality and mediation, which were ignored by the mainstream. Nevertheless, these categories undergo a fundamental change of purpose and quality from the way they were employed by Hegel, Marx, Weber, and Lukacs.
"Mediation," for example, becomes a way of preserving experience by undercutting any sense of "false immediacy." The "totality" loses its validity as a "comprehensive principle of explanation;" (ibid., pgs. 12ff.) grasping it is no longer possible from the standpoint of the proletariat. (Cf. Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: 1968), pgs. 15ff). Adorno turns both "mediation" and "totality" into conceptual tools with which to indicate the subjectivity that escapes social and historical objectification. The indeterminate metaphysical character these concepts assume is precisely what justifies their determinate sociological employment. This is the sense in which inversion as an oppositional strategy comes to underpin the entire enterprise. Inverting the "inverted world" of the commodity form, without reference to the proletariat as the revolutionary agent of history, will demand that critique presuppose a realm external to what the object of analysis. Only in that way is dialectical tension maintained. Potentiality, for this reason, contests actuality while the subject confronts the object. Critique must confront all forms of identity thinking, which Adorno once called the "Urform" of ideology, even those of Hegel and Marx. Indeed, this must occur in the name of that "non-identity" between subject and object wherein freedom becomes manifest.
History, with its implicit involvement in the increasing subordination of nature through technology, militates against this nonidentitical relation between subject and object. That is why Adorno must break the identification of history with categories such as progress. And this is also undertaken from the perspective of a radical inversion. Progress is turned against itself, freedom is expelled from history, and the individual is pitted against a reality itself of human making. Adorno thus employs an "inverted historicism" to confront various enlightenment versions of the philosophy of history with their teleological assumptions (Rose, The Melancholy Science pg. 146). "Universal history must be construed and denied. After the catastrophes that have happened, and in view of the catastrophes to come, it would be cynical to say that a plan for a better world is manifested in history and unites it. Not to be denied for that reason, however, is the unity that cements the discontinuous, chaotically splintered moments and phases of history -- the unity of the control of nature, progressing to rule over men, and finally to that over men's inner nature. No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb" (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 320; also cf. Theodor W. Adorno, "Fortschritt" in Stichworte (Frankfurt, 1978).
"Heilsgeschichte," or history as providing salvation, is transformed by Adorno into a history of damnation. Arnold Kunzli, ("Irrationalism on the Left" in Foundations of the Frankfurt School of Social Research eds. Judith Marcus and Zoltan Tar New Brunswick, 1984), pgs. 140-1; also, cf. Paul Connerton, The Tragedy of Enlightenment: An Essay on the Frankfurt School (Cambridge, 1980), pg. 113ff). This reflects the claim made in Dialectics of Enlightenment that, just as myth served as a premodern form of enlightenment, enlightenment retreats into myth." The critique of ideology, bereft of a practical agent to realize the repressed possibilities of emancipation, can only "disputethe truthof a suspicious theory by exposing its untruthfulnessIt advances the process of enlightenment by showing that a theory presupposing a demythologized understanding of the world is still ensnared by myth, by pointing out a putatively overcome category mistake" (Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lecutres trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: 1987), pgs. 116). In principle, either philosophically or historically, no "reform" is possible; the negation of the negation cannot produce anything "positive." "Negative philosophy, dissolving everything, dissolves even the dissolvent. But the new form in which it claims to suspend and preserve both, dissolved and dissolvent, can never emerge in a pure state from an antagonistic society. As long as domination reproduces itself, the old quality reappears unrefined in the dissolving of the dissolvent: in a radical sense no leap is made at all" (Adorno, Minima Moralia pg. 245). History is a boot in the face. Nor does this derive merely from class contradictions. It is rather a result of the the constraints imposed by instrumental reason from the very beginnings of human history (Hartmut Scheible, Theodor W. Adorno (Hamburg, 1989), pg. 55). Reality is a constant assault on freedom. Only as an illusion is it possible to reassert the freedom lost in the reification process. And this demands a different language capable of asserting its "sensuous" quality for a subject; it must remain irreducible to either philosophical categories or any set of objective conditions. No wonder then that, for Adorno, the "mimetic" language of artworks should most directly express what is, in the terms of a reified reality, the illusion of freedom.
Illusion projects emancipation. Its truth content ("Wahrheitsinhalt") subsequently provides illusion with an element of truth, which propels it beyond magic and make-believe. This truth, however, has nothing in common with the assumptions of logic or instrumental reason. That, in fact, is precisely what separates aesthetic illusion from ideology and preserves its critical character. Adorno, following the dialectical thinking of the western marxists, sought to preserve potentiality from actuality. He knew that "it is not ideology in itself which is untrue, but rather its pretension to correspond to reality" (Theodor Adorno, "Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft" in Prismen (Frankfurt, 1955), pg. 27). Nevertheless, he gave the original historicist criticism with a political intent a very different twist.
Adorno refashioned the confrontation with reality. Freedom, for him, no longer sought formulation or grounding; its concrete and secular quality ("Diesseitigkeit") is lost since aesthetic illusion, wherein the repressed potential of subjective experience is preserved, can only exist outside reality in the "beyond" ("Jenseitigkeit") (Cf. Karl Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach" in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works 3 vols. (Moscow, 1969) 1:11; Karl Korsch, Karl Marx (New York, 1938), pg. 84). Inversion provides the standpoint of Adorno's "immanent criticism." Only from outside reification is it possible to engage in a defetishizing of reality. Artworks incorporate the subjectivity expelled from history and thus the quality of transcendence. They are, of course, created from the elements of the real. Adorno, for this very reason, can claim that artistic innovation is a "counterpart to the expanding reproduction of capital in society" (T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory ed. Gretl Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann and trans. by C.Lenhardt (Lodnon, 1972), pg. 30-31). Nevertheless, it is the emancipatory inversion of that process.
Emancipation conceived in this way can never receive any concrete determination. Negative dialectic sunders the wish from the deed. And it does so in a very particular way. The "determinate negation" emanating from within the contradictions of a given historical epoch must, in terms of aesthetic critique, appear one-sided and insufficient. "In the modern administered world the only adequate way to appropriate art works is one where the uncommunicable is communicated and where the hold of reified consciousness is thus broken" (ibid, pg. 280). The seemingly indeterminate critique of reality projected by aesthetic illusion subsequently becomes determinate precisely because it realizes that "the whole is false." An indication of this becomes apparent in the following: "What is unique about music, however, is the indeterminate conceptual quality; change and articulation by means typical of music alone are highly determinate. Music gains content because it gives itself a totality of defining characteristics" (ibid, pg. 282). Rationality, the technical fetish, stands open to critique only from what it denies. The negation, for this reason, can become manifest only through the inversion of reality.
Illusion is that inversion. Its existence in reality was precisely what Adorno always sought to confront; its manifestation in art offered precisely that palpable indictment of history that he alwyas sought. Philosophy makes sense of that indictment; it is illusory precisely because illusion of emancipation is preserved from history, to believe in the comprehension of the "totality" by philosophy. The totality is real only in its negation by aesthetic illusion. Totality must cease in its attempt to encompass the subject and, instead, become its creation. The concrete does not precede the subject. Truth will not appear within history, as its intentional product, but in its "intentionless" manifestations (Cf. Theodor W. Adorno, "The Actuality of Philosophy" in Telos 31 Spring, 1977), pg. 128). The point is to assemble the whole, in a form of "parataxis," from a series of partial complexes whose relations are not hierarchically defined (Rose, The Melancholy Science pgs. 13ff. Lambert Zuidervaart, Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion (Cambridge, MA: 1991), pg. 45ff). Generating the idea from these propositions and partial complexes of elements, making connections without creating a system, is the "higher praxis" of which Adorno's supporters tend to speak (Frederic Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic (London, 1990), pg. 179). It is not a matter of rejecting concepts in the manner of irrationalism, but of using them to comprehend a freedom beyond concepts (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 24ff). Subjectivity is preserved as the "constellation" becomes the category with which to expose the dynamic character of reality. Naively, Adorno can assume that "out of the construction of a configuration of reality the demand for its real change always follows promptly" (Adorno, "The Actuality of Philosophy," pg. 129).
His aesthetics shows how artworks become "constellations" and "unintentionally," or in a "purposefully purposeless" manner, evidence their "truth." History has, in any event, thrown philosophy on the defensive; it continues to exist only because the historical moment for realizing its emancipatory truth -- presumably during the workers' revolts of 1917-23 -- was missed (Adorno, Negative Dialectics pg. 3). The legitimation of metaphysics, not the creation of a "materialist metaphysic of modernity," (Cf. Peter Osborne, "Adorno and the Metaphysics of Modernism: The Problem of a `Postmodern' Art" in The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin ed. Andre Benjamin (London, 1989), pgs. 23ff), is what takes historical form. Adorno wished to render metaphysics "negative," anti-systemic and capable of discerning the threat to subjectivity, through its metacritical inversion. The undertaking proceeds directly from his from his friendship with Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, no less than his encounter with Husserl wherein -- whatever his criticisms of phenomenology he defended him for seeking to "destroy idealism from within," for maintaining a commitment to philosophical truth against relativism, and preserving subjective experience from the "concrete" ontology of Heidegger (Cf. Rose, The Melancholy Science, pg. 68ff). Adorno had originally given his study on Husserl, which can be literally translated as "Towards a Metacritique of Epistemology", the working title "Dialectical Epistemology" (Schieble, Theodor W. Adorno, pg. 76). He always insisted on the "logic" behind his immanent suversion of concepts (Cf. Christa Hackenesch, "Erfahrung von Nichtidentitat" in Philosophische Rundschau (1993) Vol.1-2, pgs. 106ff). Adorno was as little engaged in formulating an "anti-epistemology," the official English translation of this work, as in denying the truths embodied in the "untruth" of idealism. The issue for him involved recognizing the impossibility of identifying particular objects with concepts even while thinking always crytallizes in particulars (Adorno, Negative Dialectics pg. 5, 138). A concern with the unregimented and the spontaneous, which manifests itself in art as well as "non- identical thinking," is the basis for Adorno's assault on idealism. Critical reflexivity, however, remains the only way to uncover the "untruth" of identity and the manner in which subjectivity is repressed. Adorno maintained his commitment to immanent criticism (ibid., pgs. 153-4). Indeed, he did so in the name of what always served as both the foundation and goal of idealism: freedom.
His own "metacritique of practical reason," furthermore, followed certain currents of Husserl's work (ibid., pg. 211ff). It would, admittedly, emphasize the ignored antinomies of traditional phenomenology. But it too would seek to preserve philosophy from the incursions of social theory and historicism, reject ontology, radicalize idealism by exploding its formalism, and subject its positive assumptions to critical scrutiny. None of this has anything to do with materialism unless that concept is configured in the most abstract terms. Habermas is subsequently correct when he writes that "the Marxist theory of society is recast into pure philosophy through the form of Adorno's negative dialectic" (Jurgen Habermas, "Der Horizont der Moderne verschiebt sich" in Nachmetaphysiches Denken: Philosophische Aufsatze (Frankfurt, 1992), pg. 13).
A severing of the relation between "theory and practice" occurs as well. Erstwhile defenders of Adorno like Leo Lowenthal tend to dismiss the criticisms of "rebellious youngsters" like the fine scholar Andreas Huyssen and the important activist Hans-Jurgen Krahl with sophistic queries about what disasters would have befallen future culture had Adorno and his colleagues joined the barricades or through caricatured references to the radicalism of the 1960s. The mistake made by Huyssen and Krahl is not one of political evaluation. It derives instead from their inability to deal immanently with Adorno's concepts in their own terms (Cf. Leo Lowenthal, "Adorno and His Critics" in Critical Theory and Frankfurt Theorists: Lectures -- Correspondence -- Conversations (New Brunswick, 1989), pgs. 54ff; Hans-Jurgen Krahl, "The Political Contradictions in Adorno's Critical Theory" in Telos 21 (Fall, 1974, pgs. 164; Andreas Huyssen, "Introduction to Adorno" in New German Critique 6 (Fall, 1975), pg. 3). Adorno feared the subordination of theory to the exigencies of practice. To a certain extent, furthermore, this is understandable given his experiences in the interwar period. "No theory, not even the true one, is secure from perversion into madness should it only once its spontaneous relation to the object has been externalized" (Theodor W. Adorno, "Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft" in Prismen, pg. 29). Arguably, Adorno's later works build on Horkheimer"s materialist writings of the 1930s and the anthropological stance they elaborated in the 1940s. In sealing the divorce between theory and practice, however, his works from the postwar era constitute a break with the earlier attempts of the Institute to inform the struggles of the oppressed. They tend to legitimate what Leo Lowenthal considered Adorno's motto: "don't participate." "For the intellectual, inviolable isolate is now the only way of showing some measure of solidarity. All collaboration, all the human worth of social mixing and participation, merely masks a tacit acceptance of inhumanity. It is the sufferings of men that should be shared: the smallest step towards their pleasures is one towards the hardening of their pains" (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 26).
Philosophical reflection continues to project emancipation even if only, given the argument of Minima Moralia, by asking how things might look from the perspective of their redemption. The importance of understanding freedom in terms of unqualified autonomy remains. "Freedom," writes Adorno, "is really delimited by society, not only from outside, but in itself. We no sooner put it to use than we increase our unfreedom; the deputy of better things is always also an accomplice of worse ones" (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 297). The historical process, in Adorno's view, has expelled freedom while the hegemony of instrumental reason threatens subjectivity. The goal of critical thinking thus becomes clear. It is necessary for reason to project freedom in the "form" of new images so that "in the age of the individual's liquidation, the question of individuality [can] be raised anew" (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 129.
Adorno is closer to Kierkegaard in this respect than he would probably care to admit. (Cf. Theodor W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Aesthetischen Frankfurt am Main, 1979). For a summary of the critique developed in this unnecessarily convoluted work, cf. Martin Jay, Adorno (Cambridge, 1984), pgs. 29ff. The universal does not vanish; it is merely inverted regarding its relation to the particular. Both philosophers understand that "the principle of individuation, while encapsulating the demand for aesthetic particularization, is of course, itself a universal. What is more, it inheres in the subject that seeks to free itself. In short, it has a universal -- spirit -- which is not beyond the particulars, but in them." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 286; Negative Dialectics, pg. 160ff.) The singular becomes the universal. And the need for such an inversion the same in the realm of culture. Consequently, even in the sphere of music, "the collective powers are liquidating individuality, which is irrecoverable -- but against them only individuals are capable of consciously representing the aims of collectivity." (Theodor W. Adorno, "On the Fetish Character of Modern Music and the Regression of Listening" in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York, 1978), pg. 299.)
A crucial difference, however, does assert itself. Adorno believes that the tradition of existential phenomenology stemming from Kierkegaard obliterates real subjectivity by subsuming it within an ontological framework. Individuation substitutes itself for subjectivity, under these circumstances, in the same way that prefabricated and standardized forms of entertainment supplant the immanent elaboration of genuine artistic concerns.
"My argument is that precisely because art works are monads they lead to the universal by virtue of their principle of particularization. In other words, the general characteristics of art are more than just responses to the need for conceptual reflection: they also testify to the fact that the principle of individuation has its limits and that neither it nor its opposite should be ontologized. Art works approach this limit by ruthlessly pursuing the principle of individuation, whereas if they pose as universals, they end up being accidental and pseudo-individual like examples of a type or species." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 259.)
A philosophical critique of subjectivist ontology, if not the ontological character of external reality, complements Adorno's aesthetic critique of the culture industry. Both have as their goal the reassertion of subjectivity. Thus, contesting Kierkegaard's notion of inwardness, Adorno will assume that "the constitution of the domain of art resembles theconstitution of an inner space of ideas in the individual." (ibid., pg. 11.)
His position, however, is defined less by an attempt to develop a "materialist reincarnation of the Kierkegaardian subject" (Irving Wohlfarth, "Dialektischer Spleen. Zur Ortsbestimmung der Adornoschen Aesthetik" in Materialien zur asthetischen Theorie Theodor W. Adornos Konstruktion der Moderne hrsg. Burkhardt Lindner und W. Martin Ludke (Frankfurt am Main, 1980), pg. 318.) than a traditional emphasis on immanent critique and an unwillingness to identify subjectivity with anything external to it. This makes it possible for Adorno to suggest that a dour irrationalism, predicated on the experience of "dread" ("angst"),
"that supposed 'existential,' is the claustrophobia of a systematized society. I ts system character, yesterday still a shibboleth of academic philosophy, is strenuously denied by initiates of that philosophy; they may, with impunity pose as spokesmen for free, for original, indeed, for unacademic thinking. . . . [But] the things philosophy has yet to judge are postulated before it begins. The system, the form of presenting a totality to which nothing remains extraneous, absolutizes the thought against each of its contents and evaporates the content in thoughts. It proceeds idealistically before advancing any arguments for idealism." (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 24; note also, what was originally to have been included in this major volume, by Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (London, 1973). Angst is merely the flip side of the "happy consciousness" (Marcuse) generated by advanced industrial society. Again, it becomes apparent that freedom demands transcendence. Theory must "rise above the individuality that exists as well as above the society that exists." (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 283.)
Art embodies that transcendence; it rejects the "pure immanence" of positivism. The artwork, whose various moments exist in constant struggle with one another, "The more the work of art seeks to liberate itself from external determinations, the more it becomes subject to self-positing principles of organization, which mime and internalize the law of an administered society." (Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (London, 1990), pg. 351.) Art becomes the most obvious way of contesting the given petrified arrangment of reality. Every genuine artwork, according to Adorno, "exposes something which is lacking." Art makes the individuated person aware of a repressed subjectivity. It follows from his modernist convictions, in fact, that a genuine artwork always produces a "tremor." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 346.)
The aesthetic inquiry must begin with the object and its critique of the world in which the subject is enmeshed. For this very reason, art must "hurt." Pleasure and entertainment, even when transvalued within the artwork, lose their validity; "entertainment and art are antithetical to each other." (ibid., pg. 20-1.) The specter of false immediacy presents itself and, insofar as pleasure and entertainment are rationalized, severed from the critique of repression, (ibid., pg 351, and passim; also, cf. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment trans. John Cumming (New York, 1972), pgs. 81ff.) they become the enemies of aesthetic appreciation. "The value of a thought is," thus, "measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar. It is objectively devalued as this distance is reduced." (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 80.)
Alienation from the alienated social relations of the whole, the "ontology of actuality," is the aim of art. And that is only possible by emphasizing the formal, rather than the substantive, character of the work. Adorno's first cultural essay, "Expressionism and Artistic Truth," already emphasized that the form employed by this movement rather than its rebellion against the "father" or its political ambitions projected its emancipatory character. (Scheible, Theodor W. Adorno,pg. 16.) Nevertheless, by highlighting the question of form, Adorno necessarily places particular weight on the specialized knowledge of artistic technique.
The division of labor, a fundamental source of alienation in the realm of social interaction, subsequently becomes essential an aesthetic practice committed to abolishing alienation. Initially, of course, the critical theory of society initiated by the Institute for Social Research was "supradisciplinary" in character; it was meant to serve as a propadeutic with which to inform the specialized empirical sciences and maintain the commitment to the unrecognized concerns of humanity as a universal. In the later writings of Adorno, however, "art can realize its universal humanity only working within the framework of specialization. All else is false consciousness." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 334.) What occurred in response to the traditional philosophy of history with its teleological assumptions, now takes place with respect to specialization. Adorno engages in another inversion. Specialization is changed, when employed by critical aesthetic inquiry, from a servant of alienation into a rebel seeking to contest its power.
Obscured by the increasing division of labor, without a subject to thematize its transformation, and thus incomprehensible from the standpoint of social theory, the totality becomes the focal point of an aesthetic built upon specialized knowledge. What sociologically appears as emphasis on subjectivity, from the standpoint of the aesthetic, gives "primacy to the object." The artwork offers a critique of the whole precisely because its rejection of direct political commitment prevents it from leveling a critique of anything in particular. Its illusionary quality confronts the real, its indeterminacy supplants meager determinations of freedom, so that "praxis is not the impact works have; it is the hidden potential of their truth content." (ibid., pg. 350.) Freedom covers its face. Adorno, like Max Horkheimer, rejects any attempt to provide the most radical illusion with a content. He, too, will embrace the "Bilderverbot" -- or the Jewish injunction against seeking to depict God -- and extend it to utopia. In Aesthetic Inversion and Illusion, Adorno never surrenders the concept. So, for the hopeless, he holds out a moment of hope. But, in his view, utopia rests upon a "compact with failure." His is a "telos" without teleology. Emancipation thus becomes a floating opposition to a reality ontologically structured by reification. The truth of illusion contests the untruth of repression. It was for this reason he could write that "truth is inseparable from the illusory belief that from the pictures of the unreal one day, in spite of all, real deliverance will come." (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 122.) The unreal and the non-discursive confront the reification of the real and the rational. This deliverance is neither articulated with respect to its meaning nor justified in terms of its "concrete possibility" (Lukacs). It is really, for want of a better term, a myth, and thus the inversion of what the Enlightenment sought to dispel.
Such is the manner in which art evidences what Stendhal termed its "promesse de bonheur". Philosophy once proclaimed a similar promise. History, however, remained deaf to it. Philosophy, for this reason, lacks foundations and even negative dialectics recognizes that its status has become indeterminate. (Habermas, "Motive nachmetaphysichen Denkens" in Nachmetaphysiches Denken, pg. 45.) Contradiction must therefore become redefined in terms of opposition to reality per se. (ibid., pg. 145.) Illusion alone, generated in the form of art, can contest the real; it alone can secure the moment of transcendence by remembering the past. ("Knowledge as such, even in a form detached from substance, takes part in tradition as unconscious remembrance; there is no question which we might simply ask, without knowing of past things that are preserved in the question and spur it." ibid., pg. 54.) Indeed, with the unceasing assault on philosophical reflection by technological rationality and reification, "art may be the only remaining medium of truth in an age of incomprehensible terror and suffering." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 27.)
The aesthetic inversion of reality now serves as its negation. Art redeems truth by illuminating its sensuous quality. It does not, like philosophy, assume that "the authentic question will somehow almost always include its answer." (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 63.) Emancipation lies in fantasy and the language of experience irreducible to linguistic rules: mimesis. Freedom is sensed beyond the conditions defining it while experience is preserved from closure in fixed philosophical categories and formulae. (ibid., pg. 151.) Philosophy loses the unassailable primacy given it by Hegel; it now complements or "overlaps" with art in the idea of truth content. (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 189; also, cf. Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, pg. 361.) It receives a new task. It must now discursively shape the non-discursive and "mimetic" elements of art. "Unlike discursive knowledge, art does not rationally understand reality, including its irrational qualities which stem in turn from reality's law of motion. However, rational cognition has one critical limit which is its inability cope with suffering. Reason can subsume suffering under concepts; it can furnish means to alleviate suffering; but it can never express suffering in the medium of experience for to do so would be irrational by reason's own standards." (ibid., pg. 27.)
The fusion between art and philosophy is, however, impossible to achieve. (Cf. Albrecht Wellmer, The Persistence of Modernity Essays on Aesthetics, Ethics, and Postmodernism trans. David Midgley (Cambridge, Mass: 1991), pg. 5ff.) Their identity is actually little more than a utopian longing predicated on the "non-identity" between them. It is the same with the "logical essence," the internal coherence of an artwork, (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 197.), which underpins the ongoing conflicts between the elements composing it. Tension of this sort is always felt. It is precisely what disrupts the sleek and smooth unfolding of technological rationality and secures the unrealized potential of freedom. The internal volatility of art is what resists the world and fosters the "non-identity" between subject and object. (ibid., pg. 6.) An inversion of the relation between universal and particular thus takes place within it; the object must the subject in the realm of the aesthetic, if not in reality per se, which is why Adorno can claim that "art speaks in universals only when it moves away from universals to specific impulses." (ibid., pg. 293.) This, in turn, renders art incapable of being defined ontologically or by any determinate set of logical, philosophical propositions. (ibid., pg. 3.) The artwork stands apart. It has no external referent; its autonomy testifies to its freedom; it is always "sui generis".
Adorno is no traditionalist. The innovative and the new, inverted in the aesthetic realm, confront the tricks and the fads of the culture industry. Judging the innovative character of a work, however, presupposes a knowledge of artistic technique. Artworks may not be reducible to technique, it may threaten the non-conceptual "language" of art, (The tension between them, in fact, casts doubt on Benjamin's belief that "the adjustment of art to extra-aesthetic technique has always automatically spelled intra-aesthetic progress." ibid., pg. 310.), but only technical knowledge of the work provides an objective referent for criticism and a corrective to interpretations based on experiential or historicist criteria. "[W]e must look not at the pshere of reception, but at the more basic sphere of production. Concern with the social explication of art has to address the production of art rather than study its impact." (ibid., pg. 324.) Technique, whose origins derive from the external world the artowrk contest, becomes internal to its effect. The manifestation of reification turns into the criticism of it. Thus, with its inversion, technique "alone guides the reflective person into the inner core of art works, provided of course he also speaks their language . . . It is rational but non-conceptual, permitting judgment in the area of the non-judgmental." (ibid., pg. 304.)
Aesthetic form, precisely insofar as it transfigures empirical being, "represents freedom whereas empirical life represents repression." (ibid., pg. 207.) A work's truth content is thus necessarily transcendent. Nor does it help to claim that "truth content is that which is not illusory in the artistic illusion. Truth content is that which transcends via that which is transcended." (Cf. Zuidervaart, Adorno's Aesthetic Theory pgs. 201ff). This is nothing other than playing with words. "What", concretely, is not illusory in the illusion? "What" mediates transcendence? Technique? The configuration of elements in the artwork ? Talk of this sort only turns the products of human activity into human agents. There is, in fact, no mediated transcendence at all since mediating transcendence would involve providing it with a "concrete" and positive historical determination. That, however, is precisely what illusion cannot provide. The illusion generated by technique projects a promise beyond the suffering caused by the triumph of technical reason. That is the sense in which works of art "want us to become aware of what is true and what is false in them." (ibid., pg. 22.) Technique, in this way, helps elicit the "meaning" of the work: "Meaning is responsible for producing illusion and therefore contributes in a major way to the illusory quality of art. Still, the essense of meaning is not synonymous with illusion; it is more. Above all, the meaning of a work of art is also the summoning to appearance of an essence that is otherwise hidden in empirical reality. This is the purpose of organizing the work of art in such a way that the moments are grouped `meaningfully' in relation ot one another." (ibid., pg. 154.) Thus, the hidden moment of reconciliation demanded by the unreconcilable opposition to reality. Aesthetic negation thus suggests positivity which, within the terms of a reified reality, remains always negative. This is the sense in which Adorno's later work fulfills the earlier desire to provide a "positive concept of enlightenment." (Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, xvi.)
The work is that positive concept. It is the central concept of the aesthetic; "art," Adorno can write, "is as inimical to 'art' as are artists." (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 214.) For this reason, in contrast to Benjamin or Marcuse, he seeks to introduce categories of aesthetic judgment. Intensity, accomplishment, depth, and articulation become the conceptual tools with which to divine quality. (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pgs. 268ff.) Categories such as these are meant to rescue the work from submersion within the experience of the subject. Indeed, given these categories, it becomes apparent what he meant by his claim that "aesthetic experience must pass over into philosophy or else it will not be genuine." (ibid., pg. 190.)
Aesthetics becomes metaphysical. (Rudiger Bubner, "Kann Theorie aesthetisch werden? Zum Hauptmotiv der Philosophie Adornos" in Materialien zur asthetischen Theorie Theodor W. Adornos Konstruktion der Moderne, pgs.108ff.) So it must if experience is to resist reality and remain immune to relativism. "Relativism, no matter how progressive its bearing, has at all times been linked with moments of reaction, beginning with the sophists' availability to the more powerful interests. To intervene by criticizing relativism is the paradigm of definite negation." (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 37.) Adorno, unwilling to surrender the concept of reflection, "The less identity can be assumed between subject and object, the more contradictory are the demands made upon the cognitive subject, upon its unfettered strength and candid self-reflection." (ibid., pg. 31.) maintains its intrinsic connection with a thematized object. He is not intent merely on deconstructing reality, denying the need for categories of differentiation, obliterating universals, or promulgating subjectivism. Quite the contrary. Adorno may have opposed the neo-classicism of Stravinsky and Hindemith along with "new objectivity" (Neue Sachlichkeit) and its belief that the composer is a "musical engineer." Nevertheless, the problems with his own aesthetic derive precisely from an objectivism of a different sort. "Dialectics is not some rule on how to handle art, but something that inheres in it." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 203.) The artwork, so to speak, takes on a life of its own. It retains a set of dynamic from which possibilities arise for reconciling internal tensions while contradicting the external reality from which it arose."When we say that works undergo changes we mean something more than changes in reception and appropriation: there are objective changes taking palce in the works themselves, which must mean that there is a force bound up in them that lives on." (ibid., pg. 276.) While interpretation, commentary and criticism are necessary to elicit the "truth content" ("Wahrheitsinhalt") of the work, in fact, they are little more than midwives. They only articulate what is already extent, the elements of quality, within the work as a work. It is rather a matter, for Adorno, of employing reflexivity to "retrace" the dynamic of a work by examining its particular aspects and how they are "wanting."
The autonomy Adorno seeks implies that "works of art are their own standard of judgment. They themselves stipulate the rules they then follow." (ibid., pg. 243.) The influence of Benjamin is apparent in his refusal to divorce categories from the empirical objects they describe. "Becoming aware of the constellation in which a thing stands is tantamount to deciphering the constellation which, having comee to be, it bears within it." (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 163.) Universality will make itself felt in the particularity generated by the aesthetic monad. The artwork lives, assumes its most critical character when it first appears, and then dies buried in the museum; indeed, "neutralization is the social price art pays for its autonomy. Once art works are buried in the pantheon of cultural exhibits, their truth content deteriorates. (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 325). "Amor fati": the authentic work of art, no less than Nietzsche's authentic individual loves its fate because it determines that fate. Art does not progress for Adorno, it pulsates. The work of art, with its appropriated materials and dynamic capacity for engendering reflection, produces its own temporality. Adorno knows, of course, that art participates in the history of society. It is a product of social materials; there is also no way in which a genuine work of art will not put those materials to critical use. No matter how art is mediated, then, art will constitute itself as autonomous beyond its existence as a social fact. (Peter Burger, "Das Vermittlungsproblem in der Kunstsoziologie Adornos" in Materialien zur aesthetischen Theorie Theodor W. Adornos Konstruction der Moderne, pg. 175.)
The participation of an artwork in history thus occurs only partially by its appropriation of technology from the external world. "In art, the criterion of success is twofold: first, works of art must be able to integrate materials and details into their immanent law of form; and second, they must not try to erase the fractures left by the process of integration, preserving instead in the aesthetic whole the traces of those elements which resisted integration." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 10.) Progress in art, which is legitimate to discuss only because "there is no progress in the real world," (ibid., pgs. 296-302.) is comprehensible only in terms of an inherently contingent form of such appropriation. It is neither linear nor apparent in the arbitrary comparison of particular works; indeed, fashion makes sense of his claim that artworks die. (ibid., pg. 274.) The discontinuous progress of art, which actually subverts the concept, differs qualitatively from that of social development. The only point of continuity within art history is the constant rejection of that domination inherent in the social conditions making for its own genesis. Thus, the work of art must internally set its technologically appropriated devices in motion so that they transcend the merely functional. The moment of art within the artwork accomplishes that in the name of freedom."The development of art works is therefore the posthumous life of this inner dynamic. What an artwork expresses by virtue of the configuration of its moments differs objectively from one epoch to the next, and ultimately this change affects its truth content, namely at the point where it becomes uninterpretable." (ibid., pg., 277.) Adorno never rejects the concept of "essence" even if only as the "irreducible" differentiating subject from object. "Nietzsche, the irreconcilable adversary of our theological heritage in metaphysics, had ridiculed the difference between essence and appearance. He had relegated the "background world" to the "backwoodsmen," concurring here with all of positivism. Nowhere else, perhaps, is it so palpable how an undefatigable enlightemnet will profit the obscurantists. Essence is what must be covered up, according to the mischief-making law of unessentiality; to deny that there is an essence means to side with appearance, with the totality ideology which existence has since become. If a man rates all phenomena alike because he knows of no essence that would allow him to discriminate, he will in a fanatcized love of truth make common cause with untruth." (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 169.) He does, however, back away from the irrationalist implications of what initially appears as an inverted form of aesthetic "Lebensphilosophie". Metaphysics provides the corrective in a world dominated by instrumental reason on the one hand and irrationalism on the other. Adorno's point is to assert precisely what has been lost. The question of whether metaphysical experience is still possible, which animates Negative Dialectic, (ibid., pgs. 362ff.) receives its answer in Aesthetic Theory where experience is preserved in the work of art. Thus, in order to explicate works of art, Adorno can claim that "they have to be honed to the point where they become philosophical. It is in the dynamic of the internal constitution of works and of the relation that particular works have to the concept of art in general that we obtain proof of the fact that art, its monadic essence notwithstanding, is an aspect of the movement of spirit and social reality." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 278.) Philosophy prevents art, with its ability to generate an irreducible experience or a "somatic moment" of cognition, from slipping into "the abyss of relativity." (ibid., pg. 128.) Metaphysical reflection preserves the work from historicism and makes it possible to perceive the moment of universality projected by the monadic "essence" of the work. It is possible to argue that, just as philosophy makes the truth of art comprehensible, art makes the truth of philosophy concrete. (Zuidervaart, Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, pgs. 178ff.) The moment of reflection, however, is itself interwoven with experience. Adorno does not ignore the excitement of art or its elemental attraction. Thus, while praising the manifold possibilities for new experience offered by the circus, he can eloquently describe fireworks as the "prototype of art."
This is, in fact, the key to understanding his commitment to art and the manner in which it embodies freedom. "The work of art," he can write, "is both a process and an instant." (ibid., pg. 147.) Fireworks evidence the evanescent, the fleeting moment, which prods memory; indeed, he can write that "the tendency to objectify what is evanescent rather than what is permanent may well be one that runs through art history as a whole." (ibid., pg. 312.) Subjectivity experiences itself in that moment. (ibid., pg. 119-120.) But, even this does not simply belong to the subject. Adorno maintains his rejection of "false" immediacy, of enjoyment,"Mistrust is called for in face of all spontaneity, impetuosity, all letting oneself go, for it implies pliancy towards the superior might of the existent." (Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 25.) in the name of a structured experience capable of grasping the utopian. Aesthetic feeling, even in the case of fireworks, retains its critical and reflexive edge. Thus, he can write
Aesthetic feeling is not what is being aroused in us. It is more like a sense of wonderment in the presence of what we behold; a sense of being overwhelmed in the presence of a phenomenon that is non-conceptual while at the same time being determinate. The arousal of subjective effect by art is the last thing we should want to dignify with the name aesthetic feeling. True aesthetic feeling is oriented to the object; it is the feeling of the object, not some reflex in the viewer. (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 236.)
Fireworks demonstrates the idea of art as a "tour de force". The display is defined by antinomies. Its particular elements rebel against unification even as they form a unity without a fixed center. Colors clash, mosaics form, the work lives and then it dies. Fireworks are not reducible to the interpretive description and the meaning of the event occurs only in the attempt to "retrace" it. The work retains its own internal discipline, (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 70.) forms its own "mimetic" language, and binds people together while leaving the singularity of their experience intact. The prototype of art secures the non-identity of subject and object in the experience of a non-objectifiable freedom, which begins to vanish as soon as it appears, like utopia. Reality can never measure up to the illusion. Nevertheless, for that very reason, reality can take its revenge.
Dialectics at a Standstill: A Methodological Inquiry Into the Philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno