Ben Agger (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: “On Happiness and the Damaged Life,” in On Critical Theory, edited by John O'Neill, The Seabury Press, 1976, pp. 12-33.

[In the following essay, Agger explains Adorno's place in critical theory.]

Critical theory chances to be either a museum-piece in the hands of its modern inheritors or...

(The entire section contains 182030 words.)

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SOURCE: “On Happiness and the Damaged Life,” in On Critical Theory, edited by John O'Neill, The Seabury Press, 1976, pp. 12-33.

[In the following essay, Agger explains Adorno's place in critical theory.]

Critical theory chances to be either a museum-piece in the hands of its modern inheritors or a living medium of political self-expression. My argument is that critical theory can only be renewed—as Marx would have hoped—by refusing to concentrate on its philosophical inheritance and instead by writing the theory in a direct and unmediated way. The old saw that to be a Marxist is to surpass Marx is just as true for critical theory: Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse blazed the trail for a theory of late capitalism, yet now they can only be suitably remembered by new formulations of theory responsive to the altered nature of the socio-cultural world.

The central motif in this task of reinvigoration is that of language. Critical theory employs a vocabulary of hope and defeat. Marx's great contribution was his notion of theory as a stimulant to political action, if not as action's mere reflection. The rhetoric of critical theory emerges from the theorist's sense of the possibility of social change and itself contributes to fostering or deflecting emancipatory activity.

In this sense, Adorno's nearly unmitigated pessimism contrasts with Marcuse's guarded and sophisticated optimism about cracking the one-dimensional totality. Although Eros and Civilization states definitely that only the “surplus” of ego-constitutive repression can be purposefully eliminated, Marcuse remains hopeful about the prospect of lessening this surplus. Similarly, O'Neill's “wild sociology” defends the commonplaces of everyday life as the inalienable basis of any community, from which all radicalism must inevitably proceed. For Adorno, there was an equivalency between basic and surplus repression, and thus few opportunities for social change.

The language of critical theory is its own meta-language. Objective description of things contains a vision of an Aufgehoben, a transcended-reconstructed world. The dialectic is captured in the capacity of objective knowledge for political enlightenment. Critique in Marx meant the imagination and analysis of a world without exploitation, a human world. This must be embodied in the forms of critical expression such as social thought, art, music, and philosophy. A dialectical language both describes the dissonant world and bespeaks the possibility of redemption.

The new sensibility and the new consciousness which are to project and guide such reconstruction demand a new language to define and communicate the new “values” (language in the wider sense which includes words, images, gestures, tones). It has been said that the degree to which a revolution is developing qualitatively different social conditions and relationships may perhaps be indicated by the development of a different language: the rupture with the continuum of domination must also be a rupture with the vocabulary of domination.1

Adorno employed a negative language and favoured negative culture. Marcuse was less negative because he glimpsed the point at which evil could be redeemed. Concretely, Adorno believed that the demise of a politically organized working class sealed the fate of Marxism, whereas Marcuse and O'Neill have responded to the libidinal rebellion of American youth as a potentially revolutionary phenomenon. However, O'Neill goes even beyond Marcuse's ingrained prejudice for high-culture in siding with Norman O. Brown against Marcuse in terms of what he calls “the Left version of the generation gap.”2 Whereas Marcuse flirts with turned-on youth, uncertain of their revolutionary potential, O'Neill celebrates them. Adorno saw negative theory captured in the mind-boggling rows of twelve-tone music where Marcuse and O'Neill hear the crash and flight of rock music as a new promise of freedom, providing a vision of the preverbal harmony of socialist life: the carnal grounds of socialism.

For too long, Marxism has been under the sway of a taboo prohibiting the depiction of the image of socialism. In Adorno's later work, there is barely a hint of the promised land. Critical theory, transplanted from Germany to North America, has become a crabbed style of philosophical analysis, replete with a scholastic structure of authority. My thesis is that this taboo must be lifted and Adorno's dismal reluctance to sing about socialism opposed. Marxism under the influence of its great founder has always assumed that history consisted in radical interruptions; Marx's eschatology revealed a temporal gap between the alienating present and future socialism. The taboo on graven images was erected because it was thought that the socialist future was too far off to admit of sensible description in the here and now. Yet in my opinion the “moment” of abstract negation—out of which Adorno's theory is built—must be superseded, and the temporal model of a long road to a redeemed future scrapped.

Marcuse explicitly rejects the model of critical theory as abstract negation; since his work on Freud he has concerned himself with depicting the body politic of the new society, its politics, sexuality, art, and philosophy. Freud enabled him to translate Marx's rationalism into naturalistic terms, into the body-language of a new version of critical theory. At the same time, Marcuse also rejected the notion of the long road to socialism and suggested instead that “revolutionary” forces could be perceived as emerging in the present society. Adorno's impatience with jazz and rock as culture-forms is rejected by Marcuse and O'Neill who search for oppositional impulses anywhere, even in apparently non-proletarian and non-political forms.

This potential for transfiguration is not at all obvious amidst the vulgarity and garbage of Woodstock or the May revolution. But this is the way of wild sociology into the world; it can enter only through self-mockery, nihilistic flirtations and the very self-violence which it seeks to avoid. Its way is profane because its resources are nothing else than the world and its people struggling for improvement. It is easy to be cynical about the organizational and promotional features of “rock-ins” and “maybe's,” to dissolve them in a phrase, to empty their logos into the waste-bin of fashion. Indeed, the spontaneity, festivity and refusals which constitute these events make it inevitable that the participants will “blow it,” will be unable to sustain their enthusiasm and disintegrate as at Altamont, in Paris and elsewhere. The critics will observe failure and speak wisely of what is to be done within the limits of an untransfigured world which lives without fancy and avoids enthusiasm in favour of the pigeonholes of politics, history and sociology.3

Modern critical theory in Marcuse and O'Neill has therefore abandoned the traditional model of the politically organized working class. Opposition can come from any quarter; the nature of modern opposition consists in rejecting the division of labour and in the actual creation of a new political body. Dialectical thought today rejects the thesis of a long road and indeed all crisis-theory rooted in the classical Marxian terms of a proletarian revolution. Instead, critical theory must—as Marx taught time and again—sensitize itself to all on-going oppositional movements in attempting to channel them in palpably political directions. Critical theory cannot afford to remain in the 1920s and 1930s when—perhaps—the old working class model did apply.

My thesis about O'Neill's and Marcuse's sensitivity to non-traditional forms of opposition, in contrast to Adorno, turns on their approach to certain cultural forms like language and music. They have tried to conceive how modes of expression like music and theory themselves constitute a new body politic and socialist relations. Theory is a praxis which concretizes and communicates the image of socialism. It contains within itself, as does music, a sense of the future which is emerging from the present. I want to read Marcuse, O'Neill, and Adorno as singing the world in different ways, as engaging in different styles of cultural opposition. The way of O'Neill and Marcuse is a direct attempt to create a socialist body politic through the medium of musical and theoretic harmony. Adorno's way is a form of abstract negation through dissonance.

Both body-politics and abstract negation must be moments of oppositional practice today. Marx's famous notion of the dialectic between theory and practice really bespeaks the practical potential of theory itself as a form of cultural politics. O'Neill's and Marcuse's “critical theory” is the cultural practice of a new sensibility; it is not a form of life separable from political practice. Adorno's “theory” is an abject resignation before a seemingly intractable world. Marcuse and Adorno cannot be compared according to the lifeless epistemological standard of bourgeois social science but only in terms of their varying styles of cultural opposition. My view is that Adorno is unjustified in resigning from the effort to build a socialist society in the actual here and now of everyday politics.

One-dimensional society swallows up deviance but leaves the traces of idealism in theory, art, and music through which opposition can find its voice. Inasmuch as the thought of freedom remains conscious, there is a chance to create a society grounded in active and reciprocal expression. Once the thought of freedom is buried in the unconscious, hope withers along with the subject of hope. I want to restore the self-consciousness of action and vision to critical theory in turning it towards its own potential for speech and conviction, thereby combatting its ossification as another differentiated form of academic thought.

O'Neill and Marcuse remain hopeful that theory can transcend itself as a new science and technology, whereas Adorno wrote of his own irreparably “damaged life.” Adorno's view was that theory remains imprisoned on the level of thought, that truth does not inhere in a collectivity or class. Theory in this vein is but a tragic expression of will, a theme reminiscent of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. In a way, Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy represents one of the options of language and style open to critical theory today. Nietzsche writes of the sublation of tragedy by “Socratism” and its destruction of music as a pure expression of the unencumbered will. Socratic optimism in its modern genre employs the techniques of opera, romantic classical music, and rock, while the tragic version of critical theory takes refuge in the dissonance of twelve-tone music.

Adorno is the theorist of atonality, while Marcuse is the opera buff wavering between romantic high-culture and the youth-culture of rock and acid. Their difference is the split between tragedy and epiphany, the one humbly owning up to its essential impotence, the other committing the sin of pride and challenging the world to change. Critical theory has two broad cultural styles, the one tragic or Nietzschean, the other more optimistic or Hegelian-Marxian.

The “negative totality” of modern capitalism has produced one-dimensionality and reduced criticism to imitation and private language. Marcuse believes in the possibility of a concrete harmony between subject and object, while Adorno rejected all identity-theory found in Hegel and Marx. The alternative to the Hegelian optimism of Marcuse is a Nietzschean perspective of tragedy and eternal recurrence for which things either remain the same or get worse. Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno is an echo of The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche believed that Aeschylus had been eternally wronged by Euripides and Socrates, whereas Horkheimer and Adorno thought that western civilization began to die with Odysseus' rationalism.

Marcuse has not been overly reluctant to hypostatize a worker-student-Third World coalition as the new collective subject. This has been largely an argumentative device, the alliteration of critical theory, in that Marcuse, like Marx and Lenin, never failed to reduce praxis to individuating acts. Hegel's phenomenology of mind underwrote Marx and Marcuse by offering them an image of the political nature of reflection and cognition. Marcuse's debt to Hegel is revealed in the second preface to Reason and Revolution where he writes that Hegel has restored the “power of negative thinking” in a time when the “second dimension” of transcendent critique has been assimilated to the positive affirmation of the given. But Hegel was not a tragic thinker in the same sense as Nietzsche. Hegel was a dialectical theorist who tried to comprehend how history was animated by its thought of itself, its essentially progressive reflexivity.

Critical theory mediates between the thought of freedom and the actuality of a free world. Mortal Marxism embodies in the struggling but hopeful subject the mediations which can let theory become a practice. The Nietzschean conception of the mortally self-limited subject differs radically from the Hegelian-Marxian idea of the potentially universal subject of world history. For Adorno, everything we do in the way of subjectively mediating present and future will end in disappointing failure; rebellion only strengthens the system. For Marcuse and O'Neill, we cannot avoid the attempt to translate emancipatory ideals into the concrete particulars of place, time and emotion.

To think sociologically is to dwell upon a question we have answered long ago: How it is that men belong to one another despite all differences? This is the task of a wild sociology, namely, to dwell upon the platitudes of convention, prejudice, place, and love; to make of them a history of the world's labor and to root sociology in the care of the circumstance and particulars that shape the divine predicaments of ordinary men. The work of sociology, then, is to confront the passionless world of science with the epiphany of family, of habit, and of human folly, outside of which there is no remedy. This is not to deny scientific sociology. It is simply to treat it as a possibility that has yet to convince the world.4

Critical theory either translates the universal of Freedom into sensible dimensions of experience and language or it acts as a fatalistic expression of the heteronomous will. I think it can be argued that Adorno hoped that music itself could express a theory too abstruse for words. Nietzsche heard the sound of tragedy in the choral music of Aeschylus. Tragedy and a certain mortal finity were expressed through the song. Adorno considered Schoenberg to be a prophet of tragedy—a tragedy essentially beyond the reach of the discursive voice. The negative dialectic must be base enough to bespeak an evil world.

Marcuse speaks about human tragedy without ascending to Aeschylean heights in forgetting the potential of the positive. He searches for a language with which to express the Good contained within the shape of the present. Art and theory prepare us for the time when social relations will not scar the human face. Yet criticism will also preserve the distance between vital lived experience and the reconstructed experience of language. That is to say, each society needs critics and artists to idealize a higher order of freedom than that which has been actually attained. Whereas Adorno felt that the jargon of authenticity rendered language impossible, O'Neill and Marcuse want to reserve the most revealing languages for the time when a socialist order is itself in need of pretheoretical invigoration.

Wild sociology will encourage radicalism. Yet it will be hard on its own radicalism, suspecting further evils from its own activity should it presume upon its relation to the lay community. It may well be that the daily practice of sociology encourages arrogance upon the part of its members, undermining the very resources of humanism with a numb professionalism or the shrill cry of ideology. If this is not to happen wild sociology must make a place for itself, and to accomplish this it must engage hope and utopia. Hope is the time it takes to make the place in which men think and talk and work together. Thus wild sociology is essentially engaged in the education of the oppressed.5

Praxis thus is anything we can do to remain critically alive, sensitive to pervasive dissonance and transcendent harmony. As its own metalanguage, critical theory is a praxis. It talks about the world as it assesses the social potential for freedom. My point is that for Adorno, O'Neill, and Marcuse theory is not always discursively set out but can assume prelinguistic forms. O'Neill draws from Vico's argument that poetry is the originary substratum of language and that critical theory must return to poetry in resurrecting the natural rationality of human expression. Vico implies that humanity can be redeemed because we are the original authors of our own humanity; we can hear the sound of our own humanity in non-discursive forms of expression like poetry and music.

Language fractures in the modern world because our speech is no longer the reflection of anything that is ordered either inside or outside of us. Every historical order ultimately collapses the literary, artistic, and philosophical languages that for a time allowed an age to speak of itself and to gather its particular goods and evils. It is an axiom of Vico's wild sociology that if history is at all saved it is saved by language. For it is in the history of our language that we recover our humanity. It is in language that we discover the gradual making of the institutions that have made us human.6

Music like poetry is a form of critical theory in that it stimulates and solicits resignation or rebellion. Adorno felt that twelve-tone music captured the negative dialectic of an insufferable society, whereas O'Neill's patience with rock and drug culture emerges from his contention that there is something elementally political in the ecstasy of turned-on youth. In a sense, Marcuse is located somewhere between Adorno's gloom and O'Neill's song of the inalienable commonplaces of humanity, less willing than O'Neill to relinquish the Greek ideal of Reason in favour of the mundane rationality of the body and voice.

Ultimately, critical theory develops an aesthetics of the good life. Marx resisted writing such an aesthetics, although he gave ample hints in the Paris manuscripts about the sense of socialism. Today, this aesthetics must depict the form and feel of socialism, not merely discursively, but through the body and voice of the new man, his art, music, architecture, sexuality. Marcuse was the only Frankfurt theorist to take the development of this aesthetics seriously, relying heavily on Freud for the sexual underpinning of a new body politic. O'Neill's concept of the “body politic” also renders this aesthetics as a possible sociological artifact, an aesthetics produced by all the forms of human expression. O'Neill's vision of a wild sociology is a version of critical theory which sings of commonplace pain and hope and thus constitutes itself as a form of music. The bittersweet harmony of Beethoven or Dylan is joined with the pretheoretical affirmation of common humanity which wild sociology provides. The organon of Marcuse's “new science” and of O'Neill's “wild sociology” is the body politic.7

In this sense, critical theory must build a body politic which has three dimensions. Theory sings, paints, writes, makes love. In so doing, it evaluates modern society against concrete criteria of socialist possibility. Marx's ideal of dis-alienation is rendered phenomenological in the translation of socialism into an actual political body. The taboo on graven images is explicitly rescinded, for the taboo robs us of an organizational device with which to redirect youthful opposition into political channels. Superficially, the Rolling Stones are not revolutionary for they are a product of late bourgeois society and the modern culture industry. Yet the libidinal responsiveness of the young to the sights and sounds of their music is a potentially political phenomenon, an essential component of the aesthetics of socialism.

The concept of praxis thus has a more allusive and negative formulation in Adorno; Marcuse and O'Neill locate the realm of praxis in the “infrastructure” of the psyche and body. The tragic form of theory has its roots in the philosophy of Nietzsche. I want to focus on the function of art in Adorno's view, a perspective which is not dissimilar to Nietzsche's own theory of music expressed in The Birth of Tragedy. Adorno says of music:

Its truth appears guaranteed more by its denial of any meaning in organized society, of which it will have no part—accomplished by its own organized vacuity—than by any capability of positive meaning within itself. Under the present circumstances it is restricted to definitive negation.8

Negation of what? Of social forms of domination? Certainly not. “Aesthetic authenticity is a socially necessary illusion: no work of art can thrive in a society founded upon power, without insisting upon its own power.”9 Art negates only as it promises a different, better world and thereby breaks through the one-dimensional totality by the example of its own abrasive contingency. Yet Adorno unlike Marcuse does not sanction Brecht's concept of the estrangement-effect, an art which shocks and educates. Atonal music was not to contain anything but the experience of pain; it was not a pedagogy of the oppressed. Marcuse's fondness for romanticism contrasts with Adorno's utter lack of sentimentality, issuing from his tragic concept of the negative subject. Marcuse's subject, rooted in Schiller's “play-impulse,” suffers greatly at the hands of the world yet can express his suffering in the hope of romantic redemption.

Aesthetic dissonance refuses to be sentimentally hopeful by giving in to harmony. Art mimetically mirrors the insane world. Rigour characterizes Schoenberg's music whereas sentimentality hiding only affirmative neo-objectivism taints the music of Stravinsky. Rigour can show us the evils of the world, but only subliminally through the preconceptual and precoherent effects of sound.

As Adorno and Horkheimer wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment, “the triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”10 Dissonant music serves as revolutionary advertising since it never falls on deaf ears. It insinuates its way into consciousness and tries to gain a foothold in the buried critical spirit of the subject. The clash of symbols reminds us however remotely of the din of the bourgeois city. Twelve-tone rows recall for us the seriality of our lives.

Music for Adorno is a social form because it is an element in a comprehensive social whole, almost a reflex of a noisy society. Music is not simply sold as use-value but gains its allure from its bourgeois purposive-purposelessness. Art is thought to have no use-value. The art-object delights because it represents the affluence of a culture which can afford to employ artists to do nothing in particular.

Theory itself for Adorno does not consist in a form of life exuding the positive character and need of its subject. Like dissonant music, it is socially useful noise. Its language cannot fail to be the language of the dominant society, extended to its limit of rationality. Adorno once believed that the social whole contained its own principle of contradiction to be revealed by a theory which comprehends the untruth of the whole. Theory is the critique of an ideology which does not penetrate its own veneer of half-truths and glosses. Theory opposes the premature harmony of liberal capitalism by denouncing the tragedy of liberalism, its ultimately cheerful seriality. Both Adorno and Nietzsche situated the originary mythologization of enlightenment in Socrates who first hoped rationally to eliminate tragedy. Dialectic of Enlightenment resonated the sentiment that Marxism had failed by breaking insufficiently with the ethos of the domination of nature and society. Negative Dialectics charts the self-consciousness of enlightened dominion which has produced a thoughtless world. Adorno has rephrased Hegel's cunning of reason as the cunning of unreason: the inexorable “progress” of enlightenment which can be depicted only in an enlightened, disenchanted music. Adorno ultimately abandoned Marx's hope that contradictions within society could be resolved and harmony created.

Like Marx, Adorno was concerned to reveal by reproducing the contradictions of the negative totality through ideology-critique. Schoenberg's music became the ultimate critique of ideology in its abrasive reproduction of social dissonance. “The penetrating eye of consciousness” is an art which bespeaks the world as it has come to be and apparently serves us as the critique of political economy served Marx. Hegelian rationality reveals the essential telos of things by peering behind their commonsense appearances. Adorno believed that a discursive philosophy would fail in this effort; that only art and music could truly disclose the negative inauthenticity of the bourgeois world.

“Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.”11 Theory is the bottle in which the shipwrecked deposit their plea for help. But no bottle is ever found except when it survives long after the shipwrecked have perished. Negative or radical music evokes only the negative. It provides a mood for the “penetrating eye of consciousness” and enables it to comprehend the depravity of things. The whole is the untruth and critical theory fails to change the world.

The subject is so deformed by his presence in a brutalizing, privatizing world that he can never resurrect himself with the aid of discursive theory, precoherent art, or concerted activity. The sin of Socratism which tried to comprehend all mysteries has plagued every subsequent generation. The sin of pride scars the subject by forcing him outside himself in the externalizations of technology. Realism overwhelms the subject with the things themselves. Adorno contrasts the music of Schoenberg to that of Stravinsky which expresses the ideal of an unradical neo-objectivism.

Stravinsky does justice to reality. The primacy of specialty over intention, the cult of the clever feat, the joy in agile manipulations such as those of the percussion in L'Histoire du Soldat—all these play off the means against the end. The means in the most literal sense—namely, the instrument—is hypostatized: it takes precedence over the music. The composition expresses only one fundamental concern: to find the sounds which will best suit its particular nature and result in the most overwhelming effect.12

Adorno felt that critical theory could restore the value of intention by asserting the primacy of music over against techniques to express sound. Radical music cuts to the heart of instrumentality by following out the logic of musical instrumentality to its ultimate conclusion. The “ideal of authenticity” for which Stravinsky's music strives is similar to the authenticity pursued by Heidegger's philosophy. Both forms of expression are jargons inasmuch as each sublates the objective subject by hypostatizing the abstract importance of technique and of care. Heidegger's Dasein is as inhuman as the subject of Stravinsky's composition—if indeed music has any conception of the subject, as Adorno would probably have claimed for it.

The annihilation of the ego is the residue of late bourgeois society which has collapsed the realms of ideology and reality. One-dimensional society contains no sensible criterion of unfulfilled actuality because reality contains every illusion and promise made by the ideology of limitless liberalism. Adorno's particular genius was to have recognized the phenomenology of one-dimensionality in its most insidious and abstracted socio-cultural forms.

Culture is the jutting tip of the iceberg of bourgeois society. But culture “progressively” penetrates downwards to affect the base by transforming the sensibilities and expectations of workers and their received ideology of the work-ethic and erotic renunciation. A phenomenology of advanced capitalism reveals the ground of the forms we invoke when we speak about a “one-dimensional” society.

Yet theory in Adorno's terms does not enlighten in the hortatory way in which Marx-the-rationalist conceived of theory doing. Theory merely acts as a bell-weather of domination by reflecting the deformations of subjectivity. The more insane is the object of critical theory, namely, late bourgeois society, the more allusive critical theory must be. The more that culture is disenchanted, the more theory will have to be mythological. Just here, dialectical theory in Marx's sense becomes frozen. Allusive theory responds reflexively to the deformations of culture. The dialectic of the real and the possible has been defused by the social totality and its metamorphosis into a universe which can liberally encompass deviance. Adorno understood that theory had become undialectical because the world had been totalized in its total evil to a degree which denied the critical immanence and transcendent quality of thought. Marx's conception of a critical theory which could reveal the telos of deformed things has been transformed in times when the negative totality of society has lost its principle of dynamic contradiction. Thus the falling rate of profit projected by Marx has not materialized in a final crisis as capitalism has “temporarily” curbed the disruptive principle of its own self-negation.

Adorno characterizes the damaged subject as a casualty of “social progress.” The “fallen nature of man” is the existential reality to be treated and hopefully resurrected by theorists. Music and theory can only express the tragedy of a world which through liberal enlightenment has lost sight of tragedy. There can be no guarantees that the music or theory composed by damaged, neurotic subjects can be anything but damaged expressions. Dissonant music bespeaks the dissonance of community and man. Likewise, allusive and gloomy theory stands witness to the seemingly eternal fall of enlightenment into myth.

The Nietzschean root of Adorno's thought is revealed in Adorno's affinity for Nietzsche's amor fati, the love of fate. Eternal recurrence of tragedy occasions a love of fate which can be broken through only by total redemption, fallen from the stars, a product of the unpredictable cunning of insanity. The Baconian root of modernity is the manipulative scientism which purges doubt and uncertainty from human experience. What Nietzsche disparagingly called “Socratism” in The Birth of Tragedy was Socrates' belief in the purposive reduction of uncertainty through technical rationality (epistemé).

Music in its non-tragic form sings the positive love of the earth and the eternal recurrence of existential mortality. We succeed only because we comprehend that success will not render the person transparent. Redemption is our atonement for the sin of pride. Critical theory sings the world because it is disenchanted with Marxist and bourgeois system-builders. In the profound despair of Adorno there is a kernel of mortal love for all men and for nature. The kernel will burst out of its shell only if we banish the Socratic and Baconian notions of the reduction of uncertainty through the objectifying control of society and nature. Adorno's critical theory sings the falleness of the world only because it cannot truthfully engage in the superficial and insidiously affirmative dialogue of enlightenment.

Marcuse always believed that the “power of negative thinking” contained within it a rational kernel of positive hope. In fact, the theory of liberation offered by Marcuse treats the subject as a relatively undamaged agent of revolutionary praxis. The Hegelian power of reason, its determinate negation of the apparent world, informs Marcuse's hopeful conception of the objectively natural subject. Nowhere does Marcuse allude to the permanently fallen hopelessness of critical praxis. Even his notorious One-Dimensional Man holds out the possibility of redemption. “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.”

Marcuse's “new sensibility,” like O'Neill's “wild sociology,” is an amalgam of bodily and mental senses, of libidinal and symbolic rationality. The bourgeois idealist concept of reason ignores the rationality of the body by concentrating solely on an abstract intellectual rationality, thus denying Freud's profound naturalism and his conception of the objective subject.13

Beyond the limits (and beyond the power) of repressive reason now appears the prospect for a new relationship between sensibility and reason, namely, the harmony between sensibility and a radical consciousness: rational faculties capable of projecting and defining the objective (material) conditions of freedom, its real limits and chances. But instead of being shaped and permeated by the rationality of domination, the sensibility would be guided by the imagination, mediating between the rational faculties and the sensuous needs. The great conception which animates Kant's critical philosophy shatters the philosophical framework in which he kept it. The imagination, unifying sensibility and reason, becomes “productive” as it becomes practical: a guiding force in the reconstruction of reality—reconstruction with the help of a gaya scienza, a science and technology released from their service to destruction and exploitation, and thus free for the liberating exigencies of the imagination. The rational transformation of the world could then lead to a reality formed by the aesthetic sensibility of man. Such a world could (in a literal sense!) embody, incorporate, the human faculties and desires to such an extent that they appear as part of the objective determinism of nature—coincidence of causality through nature and causality through freedom.14

In An Essay on Liberation Marcuse suggests that any future revolution will have to emerge through a new infrastructure of undistorted human needs and instincts. Counterrevolution and Revolt elaborates this in terms of Marcuse's critique of the American New Left which has regrettably eschewed the critical function of rationality. He also discusses the political aesthetic of a future society and a new nonantagonistic alliance between man and nature. New science can reconstruct the exchange between humanity and nature. The object-world is but a proving-ground for liberated subjectivity which has an ineluctably objective component in the body and instincts. Marxian scientism has contributed to the decomposition of Marx's original notion of the sensuous nature of man. The person has been falsely and narrowly treated as a socio-economic cipher devoid of libidinal, emotional faculties. Mechanical Marxism ultimately has no conception of the objective naturalness of the subject, a conception derived by Marcuse from the great works of psychoanalysis.

Behind these familiar traits of a socialism yet to come is the idea of socialism itself as a qualitatively different totality. The socialist universe is also a moral and aesthetic universe: dialectical materialism contains idealism as an element of theory and practice. The prevalent material needs and satisfactions are shaped—and controlled—by the requirements of exploitation. Socialism must augment the quantity of goods and services in order to abolish all poverty, but at the same time, socialist production must change the quality of existence—change the needs and satisfactions themselves. Moral, psychological, aesthetic, intellectual faculties, which today, if developed at all, are relegated to a realm of culture separate from and above the material existence, would then become factors in the material production itself.15

The historical nature of the subject itself stands at the ideological crossroads between the critical theorists. What is the nature of the subject? Can we even speak about the subject, except by very indirect analogy in our music or our science? Adorno supposed that the subject was an effete residual of bourgeois philosophy which perished in the Nazi death-camps. Marcuse and O'Neill by contrast argue that the kernel of positive opposition lies in the “libidinal rationality” beginning to emerge from the embodied subject. They have tried to harness the prepolitical reaction of subjectivity against surplus repression in building a new body politic.

Whereas Adorno read Freud as the prescient prophet of the completely eradicated subject, Marcuse employs the allegedly “gloomy” Freud to postulate a buried libidinal substratum capable of healthy creativity and socialist relations. The initial revolt of 1960s youth against an oppressive superego was not dismissed by Marcuse or O'Neill as merely another version of Oedipal reaction, but as indicating that the instinctual substratum was beginning to emerge. Marcuse's Freudianism enabled him to harness the natural subject as the new agent of body politics.

Marcuse and O'Neill want to restore the experience of the embodied subject to Marxism. Ideology-critique opposes the scientization of Marx in arguing that the fate and potential of the subject is important for oppositional activity. Although Hegel spiritualized the subject in terms of a world-historical Spirit, Marx re-objectivized and re-naturalized the concept of the subject through his labour-theory. Marx saw that contemplation was itself a kind of production, akin to work and possessing the same permanent objective residue. The German Ideology relentlessly criticizes the spiritualization of the subject in German philosophy and argues that the so-called objective spirit is a product of nineteenth-century ideology.

Restoring the bodily and libidinal health of the subject is for Marcuse and O'Neill tantamount to resuscitating the power of critical rationality. Adorno never believed that Hegel's concept of thought as negation was an adequate form of political activity; but negative thought was better than no thought at all. Marcuse believes that negative reason can actually be a form of praxis: the Great Refusal of what is. Hegel's concept of negation was revised by Marcuse to become a self-sufficient form of critical praxis: negation pregnant with the hidden positive. Marcuse's notion of the political character of sensibility turned the moment of thought into a directly political moment. Surplus repression was the libidinal counterpart of the extraction of surplus value.

Adorno's conception of the frozen quality of the social totality denied even the critical power of thought. The subject was so damaged—with no libidinal prepolitical potential—that his thought and speech were but determinations of the society's material and ideological forms. Total domination could not occasion total opposition unless opposition mirrored the form of domination.

Adorno's dialectic was defused and bent away from the social totality. Dialectic no longer reveals the unfulfilled purpose of things, but instead simply mirrors a “negative dialectic” of society which successfully reconciles all social contradictions. Dissonant music apes the prematurely de-structured dialectic which becomes sedimented in eternally contradictory social institutions. For example, increasing private leisure-time occasions a more thorough-going domination of the subject by corporate prerogatives. Indeed, leisure itself is captured by the culture industry as needs are turned into commodities. Critique has no field for its expression in that it would fall upon deaf ears. Everything can be made to seem affirmative, even Marxism.

The aesthetic theories of O'Neill, Marcuse, and Adorno all respond to the premature reconciliation of contradictions in late bourgeois society. O'Neill's turn towards a political aesthetic responds to the deformation of the subject and yet remains sensitive to nascent opposition on the level of body politics. Marcuse's hope of re-sensitizing the subject lies in an active conception of libidinal rationality and preservation of the transcendent function of art. Adorno argued that the dialectical method was stagnant, archaic; the only possible form of negation remained on the mimetic level of dissonant thought. Praxis, the self-externalization of the labouring subject, always fails to achieve its purpose, namely, the liberation of other men. Thought alone could conceivably remain undamaged by the pernicious totality.

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno argues that the conception of the subject itself is a remnant of bourgeois idealism. The subject could not be thought without thinking the object which dominated it. To subjectivize social theory was falsely to represent the actual powers of the nearly impotent, voiceless person. Theory was circumscribed by its own inability to theorize about a separate entity called the human being. In reality, the subject was almost perfectly synonymous with the objects to which it was politically subordinated. Thus, the subject is a trivial and forgotten moment in a dialectical method which charts the progress of the object's preponderance.

It is clear that Adorno does not completely banish a concept of the subject from his musicology, for music needs an audience. The culture-critique of Adorno deals with culture as an objectified domain of spirit which has somehow gone wrong. Minima Moralia is characteristically embellished with the sub-title “Reflections of a Damaged Life.” In Philosophy of Modern Music Adorno says that the avant-garde's rejection of Schoenberg's music which hides behind the apology of incomprehension masks their real hatred of the abrasive atonality of the music. Each sentence in Adorno's work likewise resonates a harshly dissonant quality through which he tries to capture the frozen quality of the dialectic.

Marcuse's theorizing makes thought practical by embedding thinking in the totality of the sensuous person. In O'Neill, “sensibility” is a combination of good sense and of good senses, intellectual and libidinal rationality. The ego itself is a dialectic between unfulfilled hopes and concrete possibilities. Thought thinks of the future and grapples with the “chance of the alternatives” which springs from the present circumstance. There can be no dialectical movement without the complicity of the self-conscious subject, a subject not as damaged as Adorno supposed. Whereas for Adorno culture was merely a domain for the system's ugly self-reflection, culture for O'Neill and Marcuse is a potential launching-pad for oppositional projects.

Negative theory for Marcuse works to create the aesthetic of socialist forms; it contains the positive within the negative. In O'Neill the Great Refusal breaks into song. In Adorno, the Refusal peters out in a vague imitation of social insanity by the crazy composer. There is a tendency both on the part of Adorno and his modern inheritors to reject youth culture as a superficial spin-off of the affirmative culture industry. Marcuse by contrast recognizes the ambivalent nature of the 1960s youth phenomenon. Events like Woodstock are obviously corporate rip-offs, yet they also represent a real attempt to create a new order of political togetherness, the beginning of a new class consciousness. Woodstock was an ambivalent phenomenon because American youth lacked the political structures—like an organized Left—within which to situate their erotic-aesthetic rejection of inner-worldly asceticism. Marcuse and O'Neill, unlike Adorno, see the positive within the negative, the real concretization of socialist experience within an otherwise disorganized, pre-ideological youth movement.

Rock music and drugs are sources of prepolitical ecstasy which in their ecstatic moments free the person from the spacetime of serial bourgeois life. Atonal music merely mocks seriality. Marcuse and O'Neill both attempt to force the moment of prepolitical ecstasy into the mold of a new body politic. The ecstasy of habitual, free and easy togetherness experienced at rock concerts can be recollected as an authentic mode of socialist co-existence. Ultimately, the ecstatic forms of youth culture constitute aspects of the everyday life of a socialist body politic. The naive, pre-ideological honesty of gentle folk can thus be preserved as a vital archetype of the post-ideological socialist personality. Marx's icon of the Paris Commune as the epitome of communism is replaced today by the icon of the “be-in.”

It is insufficient merely to reject these moments of cathartic subjectivity as fodder for the culture industry. Social change is effected between the moments of subjective abandon and objective sobriety; Marx roughly distinguished cultural from economic modes in accepting this motif. Yet nowhere did he rule out the objective potential of initially subjective rebellion. The “counter” culture is not actually against culture; it is against cultural forms which are serially divorced from political forms. The archetypal hippie, for all his apparent prepolitical innocence, actually rejected the bourgeois segregation of culture from economics and politics, and in this was engaged in a quintessentially political form of opposition. The “counter” culture opposed the categorial boundaries between bourgeois culture and politics. Indeed, Marcuse's new science and O'Neill's wild sociology are forms of cultural opposition against this very fragmentation of the modern lifeworld. Wild sociology attempts to reunite fractured humanity in rejecting the vulgar Marxist dichotomy between “superstructure” and “base.” It is a dialectical sociology because it digs beneath the apparently unpolitical surface of phenomena like Woodstock and the Rolling Stones and turns them towards the political light of day: towards the new dawn of a truly socialist world.

Adorno accepted a very deterministic model of the relation between economics and culture. Marcuse imputed less determinative force to the structure of capital and more to a relatively autonomous cultural sphere. I would argue that Marcuse's model is closer to that of Marx in that Marx also tried to discover prepolitical modes of opposition before they entered the schema of class-conflict. Today it is imperative to move further away from Adorno's model of a frozen, totally managed world in reassessing certain non-proletarian cultural forms for their contribution to the creation of a new body politic. It is also imperative that we reject Marx's model of the politically organized working class and the theory of crisis which supports it. In Marx's spirit, but not slavishly imitating him, we must become sensitive to untraditional modes of political opposition.

For Marxian theory, the location (or rather contraction) of the opposition in certain middle-class strata and in the ghetto population appears as an intolerable deviation—as does the emphasis on biological and aesthetic needs: regression to bourgeois or, even worse, aristocratic, ideologies. But, in the advanced monopoly-capitalist countries, the displacement of the opposition (from the organized industrial working classes to militant minorities) is caused by the internal development of the society; and the theoretical “deviation” only reflects this development. What appears as a surface phenomenon is indicative of basic tendencies which suggest not only different prospects of change but also a depth and extent of change far beyond the expectations of traditional socialist theory.16

We have contrasted Adorno, Marcuse, and O'Neill better to comprehend the alternative of critical theory as music and critical theory as the activist sin of pride, as praxis itself. Adorno thought that everything we do in the way of praxis is wrong, or at best insufficient; theory contemplates freedom which can only be expressed atonally: there is no collective subject anymore. The primacy of the object forces the subject into a meek and abstract compliance with the interdictions of the object. In late bourgeois society, Schoenberg sings the truth, although it is a dismal, negative truth. The dialectical blockage of dynamic forces issues in the death of opposition. We can only sing the tragedy of a world which has forgotten tragedy.

Adorno thinks that science has no song but that of mathematics. Nietzschean tragedy has been banished from memory by the instrumental success of scientism. Culture has been made an industry by those who attempt to harmonize the fundamentally tragic universe; culture is a painless ideology, another great myth.

Marcuse is less Nietzschean than Hegelian in that he does not accept the inherent tragedy of human existence. In fact, his conception of the mortal subject is based on Freud's essentially constructive matrix of instincts: natural man. His own theorizing presupposes Marx's optimism about eliminating domination. Critical theory can perhaps even serve as an expressive medium for the recreation of sensibility. The Great Refusal is a form of praxis, but dissonant music is not. Music is merely negative theory, resigned to its heteronomous quality. Marcuse's theory transcends itself in becoming a form of embodied sensibility, a political structure of needs and feelings. A dialectical theory must herald the negation of contradiction, couched in historically comprehensible terms and forms, which is to say that it must be a theory of hope.

Adorno's negative theory does not negate dissonance because it cannot rise above the terms of discourse of a dissonant world. O'Neill transcends pain through an optimism rooted in the natural or wild objectivity of the instinctual body. Without this source of naturalism critical theory will fail to rise above tragedy. Critical theory has become scholastic because its second generation could not come to terms with psychoanalysis and its theory of the objective character of subjectivity. Marcuse's Eros and Civilization failed to convince enough Marxists that the objectivity of subjectivity was a wellspring of hope, not despair. Therefore, in failing to assimilate Freud, critical theory runs the risk of neglecting vital cultural forms of opposition which kick surplus repression in the teeth.

Freud provides what Marx neglected: a transmission-belt between economic structure and cultural forms, the objective subject. Ultimately, Marx did not understand why the collapse of capital could emerge in a new order of society; he did not theorize the political sensibility which stands between the moments of structure and consciousness. Capitalism survived because workers could not translate the pain of hard labour and their fundamental insecurity as wage-labourers into a sensible language which pointed towards a new order. Marx himself did not tell them what the future could be like; he did not tell them what socialism would feel like.

Critical theory today must do so, even if it uses a crude, sensory language like that of freaked-out youth. The one-dimensional totality denies the experiences of imagination and union, experiences which are essential to the non-linear spacetime of rock and drugs. It is in this sense that the language of a critical theory which transcends its own scholasticism must portray the raw feeling of ecstasy through media which somehow escape the levelling influence of the culture industry.

We are not faced with a discrete choice between culture-forms like symphony, opera, jazz, or rock. Atonal music recollects the painful disassociation of meaning under alienating society; rock recollects the libidinal rationality of good times, the promise of living ecstatically beyond instrumental rationality. If critical theory is a discourse, it must talk even when ordinary language has been exhausted. Between Adorno, O'Neill, and Marcuse there lies the distance between disappointment and the cautious reawakening of hope, a distance vital for a practice with eyes wide open to a history which occasionally delights as well as disappoints.

Critical theory itself is a culture-form, a product of history and place. In singing the world, this theory chooses either to deny or affirm the possibility of a resurrected humanity arising from this earth. Atonal music evokes the scream of tortured Jews, appropriate to its time. Rock sings of sexual rationality and the transcendence of functional differentiation. Between Auschwitz and Haight-Ashbury critical theory has changed its tune, first Adorno, then Marcuse. As I said initially, critical theory must surpass itself in remaining within the dialectic of the real and the possible. New science recovers grounds for positive rebellion in the carnal body, the body politic. “Critical theory” is not a school but rather the way we choose to oppose inhumanity in different songs of joy.


  1. Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 39-40.

  2. John O'Neill, Sociology as a Skin Trade (New York: Harper & Row/London: Heinemann, 1972), p. 53.

  3. John O'Neill, “Gay Technology and the Body Politic,” in The Body as a Medium of Expression, eds. Jonathan Benthall and Ted Polhemus (London: Allen Lane, 1975), p. 299.

  4. John O'Neill, Making Sense Together (New York: Harper & Row/London: Heinemann, 1974), p. 10.

  5. Ibid., p. 80.

  6. Ibid., p. 34.

  7. See John O'Neill, “Gay Technology and the Body Politic,” pp. 291-302.

  8. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), p. 20.

  9. Ibid., p. 216

  10. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 167.

  11. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 133.

  12. Ibid., p. 172.

  13. See Russell Jacoby, Social Amnesia (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975).

  14. Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 37-38.

  15. Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), p. 3.

  16. Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, pp. 58-59.

David Martin (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: “Dr. Adorno's Bag of Tricks,” in Encounter, Vol. 47, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 67-76.

[In the following essay, Martin reviews Minima Moralia, finding the book intriguing even though he disagrees with many of Adorno's assertions.]

Our society distributes itself into Barbarians, Philistines and Populace.

—Matthew Arnold

Those qualified to judge are inclined to regard T. W. Adorno's Minima Moralia1 as the masterwork of the Frankfurt School. Certainly it illustrates one of that School's cardinal tenets: a rejection of over-arching system. An author who claims that “the whole is the untrue” probably represents his position best by collections of fragments. The Minima Moralia is fragmented in the way Pascal's Pensées is fragmented; and, as with Pascal, one suspects that a work which brought all the bits and pieces into a rounded system would result in distortion. Adorno's work is about multiple distortion, and you can only attack multiple distortion by continually criticising it from different angles and moving in from different starting points. If distortion of nature and man, science and culture is protean, then its negation must acquire a complementary variety of form. If the situation is as deeply distorting and pervasive as you claim, then any rounded system is both impossible and untrue to its object and objective. The rounded-off has no cutting edges to do the job it sets itself. “These fragments have I shored against my ruins.”

The fragmented mode is related more precisely to his view of the role of the individual and of the concept of the individual within a context of deepening cultural and social twilight. After the Twilight of the Gods, the twilight of man. Horkheimer and Adorno, in a sense joint authors of the Minima Moralia, came to see the notion of the individual as containing resistances which the onward march of the collective in its right- and its left-wing formations made doubly precious. After all, in one's social philosophy and political allegiance it is not merely a question of what is right, but where to lay one's weight when the worst tendencies of one or other alternative seem to be dominant. The problem for Adorno was compounded, however, by his belief that the individual was ceasing to have any weight to lay, or for that matter to experience; but that hardly made him less precious. Indeed even such strength as lay in archaic forms of the individual should be salvaged for the unequal battle.

This is his very first point in his dedication to Max Horkheimer, and this the text that informs this work right up to the final reflections on redemption. It is worth quoting:

What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.

So the plight of the intellectual is precisely how he may preach autonomy when the objective preconditions of the autonomous sermon are not genuinely present. No valid sermon can come from those who are representatives of what they condemn; and insofar as preachers are exempted from the general plight the exemption is almost too shameful to be exploited. Yet the paradox is that the exemption must be exploited, and all the historically outdated resources of the individual drawn upon in order to preserve a memory which can be carried forward into a new realization of individuality whenever that may become possible.

To know the alienation of one's power and experience is to be less than totally alienated. (After all it has been the malign achievement of Marxist régimes to use a vocabulary—in which alienation is central—in order to repress consciousness of its existence.) It is, therefore, possible as well as necessary to protest against the domination of productive forces; against technicism; against the measurement of the incommensurate; against a psychoanalytic cure of souls eliminating the soul in an ideology of adjustment; against the conception of science as a mere accumulation of instrumentalities; and against the ubiquitous character of the exchange relationship. This last is crucial for Adorno. He has a nostalgia for noblesse oblige and a hatred of precisely those aspects of contemporary life which use a parody of noblesse oblige to hide the reality of exchange. His obiter dicta on American hotels and trains are minor outworkings of this point. So strong is this feeling that even degenerations associated with the onset of the bourgeois era appear in retrospect to retain a precious possibility. His remarks on the humane protection afforded by “distance” could have been written by Professor Mary Douglas, and his treatment of “tact” can be taken as a precise illustration of his essential concern. It is worth some consideration.

For Adorno, tact is based on a convention which remains intact yet has lost its binding force. Tact both expresses alienation and represents a saving accommodation between human beings. Though inseparable from renunciation and the loss of the possibility of total contact, tact protects because it discriminates between different persons and situations. Without convention there emerges a demand that each individual shall be met in precisely the manner which befits him, and this replaces the careful modulations of manners by naked power. To be direct “places” a man. The abolition of convention heralds the advent of domination. Freedom dissolves in rib-digging camaraderie.

But why does this last point follow? On the surface it might seem that rib-digging is simply a convention of a pseudo-egalitarian kind supplanting another older type of convention. The answer is found in a typical Adorno paradox. In his view egalitarianism unveils a latent brutality lying behind the façade of affability. This is because condescension and thinking oneself no better are two sides of the same coin. If you adapt to the weakness, style, language, even the music, of the oppressed, you consent to deprivation and so to what makes deprivation possible. And simultaneously you develop in yourself the coarseness and the violence required to be an oppressor. In the end it may be that only the egalitarian adaptation remains visible, and such an adaptation is the perfect mask for power. To share men's pleasures in such a fashion is to collude in their pains. All the intellectual can do under such circumstances is to demonstrate solidarity by remaining inviolable. Hence Adorno's “snobbery” can be reinterpreted as closer to revolutionary solidarity than self-conscious slumming and the inversion of taste.

The excursus on tact, like the fragmentary mode in general, does justice to his main point: the intimate substance is gnawed at by the logic of the productive process. But in dealing with the problem Adorno was faced by a further paradox. He confronted two possibilities. The first was to lay bare with the utmost brutality the ruthless penetration of even sublime relationships by material interests and exchange. The second was to recognise that to assist in the brutal destruction of even the chimeras which impotently point to better things is to collude yet again with barbarism.

It is in the face of all these quite genuine paradoxes that one sees how Adorno could be regarded as a defender, not only of the best in bourgeois culture, but even of those elements that had fallen away from the best. Basically this is because he knows that there is no “good end” mysteriously waiting to be born as the beast of time shuffles towards the last antithesis. He says so precisely. Marxists who are

cured of the Social Democratic belief in cultural progress and confronted by growing barbarism are under constant temptation to advocate the latter in the interests of the “objective tendency” and in an act of desperation to await salvation from their mortal enemy, who, as the antithesis, is supposed in blind and mysterious fashion to help prepare the good end.

That should make everything clear. He does not believe in the long-term beneficence of the objective tendency or therefore in colluding with it to hasten the birth pangs of a better future. However, the passages on tact show that he does believe in an ideal of total contact and of pleasure in the thing itself which has never yet been realised except in constricted mediating forms like tact. As things are today, even the constricting mediations represent archaic sources of strength; and once this weak strength has ebbed away there is only naked confrontation and power. So here we have both his utopia and his nostalgia; and a man is known by his utopias and his nostalgias. What he does not quite admit is that an ancient partial good will never be reabsorbed in a surpassing future good, but that the partial and the constricting elements express certain ineluctable limits and conditions. His utopia is only realizable in love and music; hence perhaps his love of music. To use a phrase of Walter Benjamin, Adorno's angel “flew forward with face turned back.”

The implications of all this go beyond the posing of paradox against paradox and fragment over fragment. They need to be set in the context of Hegel (who stands behind the Minima Moralia) and especially in the context of Hegel and the individual. Hegel, says Adorno, argued against individual “being-for-itself”; and aphoristic fragments are directly drawn from individual selfhood. This tells against Adorno; but if the individual is vanishing, then the self can only fasten on the evanescent. Only by dwelling on what has almost ceased to be has it power to be. At precisely the moment of decay the experience of the individual contributes again to knowledge. What was once obscurantist in viewing itself as dominant now partakes in its weakness of the possibility of liberation. In Adorno's view, Hegel knew nothing of this because his conception of a whole harmonious throughout all its antagonisms assigned inferior status to individuation, whatever its importance as a dynamic force. Just as the social principle of individuation has concluded in the triumph of fatality so philosophy has hitched itself (understandably) to the triumphal car of objective tendencies. Yet in fact the whole is the untrue. Subjective experience, fragmented and without theoretical cohesion, has its contribution to make to truth.

There is one final reason for fragmentation. What Adorno writes is neither philosophy nor sociology but belongs to a class of philosophical reflection on society and on social fact rejecting both reflection and fact conceived in themselves. Merely to reflect on the given is simply to reflect the given, just as merely to reflect (i.e. mirror) the given is to leave everything as it is and claims to be. Philosophy conceived as pure reflection may achieve a systematic, rounded exposition, and science as the mirror of the given may also achieve systematisation. But the complicated reflexives of the critical dialectic have to work backwards, forwards, and across themselves, making every partial truth less partially true in the light of its negation and in the further light of a negation of that negation. Adorno writes in the double or triple negative, and this prevents an elegant, rounded mode of writing. The light has to be dark enough to be light. Nothing is as it seems, and truth is paradoxically layered. You can only break through to truth by exposing the paradoxes and masquerades at each layer and setting them against other masquerades and paradoxes. The first act of unmasking is not enough. The cunning of social reality is to delude you with the pleasure of thinking that you have got somewhere with the first act of unmasking. Indeed, it may even be that the cunning of social reality is to delude you with the pleasure of unmasking right down to that last layer which looks like hiding the truth. It is of the nature of critical reflection always to be discontented, even with a philosophy which insists on the last layer being the true. Maybe there was a truth as well as a lie at each point in the process of unmasking. I do not mean that Adorno held such a view; but that the complexity and constant attempt at self-correction and renewed suspicion of the correction always forces him to move from layer to layer sceptically suspicious and yet also suspicious of mere scepticism.

This makes him very difficult to attack. When you advance on him you have to ask which corner he has just turned around. There are some thinkers who are basically committed to doing the same disappearing trick around the same corner. Once you spot the nature of the disappearing trick you have them by the coat-tails and can haul them over the coals. But Adorno's trick is to look as if disappearing around the first corner when he is really round corner three or corner five, and to go round the corner in such a way as to prevent you supposing that corners one, three, and five can really be categorised over against two, four, and six. He is very tricky, and tempts you to declare you have him in order to laugh triumphantly and say you are illustrating just the point he is making, though not of course realizing it in the sense in which he realises it. He is a specialist in evasive affirmation and does so not only by covering himself at every point but by declaring his exposed parts more virtuous than obscene. The points at which he seems exposed are his virtues. For example, in a world where facts are disguises is it not virtue to be exposed to the charge of indifference to fact? There is a lower and higher form of indifference and to take the measure of the inordinate, incommensurable, is to defeat measurement even more truly than mere refusal to measure.

If one had to invent one of his own aphorisms one would say “the unmeasured is the true.” He is unmeasured and, as he says of psychoanalysis, only the exaggerations are true. Certainly the exaggerations enable one to see. Not that even this is the whole truth: there must be another aphorism posed against that aphorism. The result, as Anthony Quinton has remarked,2 resembles a highbrow party very late at night. The clever paradoxes cap each other tipping more and more tipsily towards complementary profundities until the final gross statement, made against all mundane commonsensical likelihood, appears as the only possible stand-in for the enigmatic truth. Be drunk enough on dialectic and the sibylline even becomes the obvious, and vice versa. If you see what I mean. It all depends on how much you have had. A simple man and proud of it can only find Adorno disgusting.

I want to move from approach and style to substance, which is a difficult move with a writer in whom the two are joined together. Basically I want to criticise his uncriticizability, and what bothers me at this juncture is that he evades criticism by never saying anything of substance. He certainly asserts and affirms, but he never says anything is “just so” because he rejects the category of the “just so.” Paul Lazarsfeld parted from him both in anger and in admiration partly because he found that Adorno was indifferent to criteria of more or less “just so”, since if things are not so you cannot have more or less of them. Lazarsfeld found that Adorno's notions just could not be operationalised. I am not surprised. Adorno preferred accentuating the negative to accentuating the positive, and above all he disliked positive science. His own assertions were subject not to the criteria of positive science but interpretative criteria. They constitute a category of statement between the metaphysical and evaluative categories on the one hand and the category of positive science. They make empirical connections, but they are not subject to criteria of test or to falsifiability or verifiability.

It is the fact that Adorno works in this intermediate mode which uses facts but does not allow them to constitute the court of final appeal which makes him ultimately elusive. I want to illustrate this category from his analysis of astrology, because this is relatively well-developed and illustrates very well his style of analysis and the difficulty of subjecting it to tests which might carry much inter-subjective conviction. He is, in short, beyond the verifiability principle. Perhaps I might say, parenthetically, that I do not accept his view that positive science, by paying attention to the given, is thereby committed to defending the given. This is just not true. I am, however, interested in a class of interpretative statement which appears to be beyond the normal criteria of science. As a sociologist I ask myself how such statements are justified and how they may be integrated with that other class of statements which is subject to the normal scientific criteria of justification. How can you use sociology and not be in the sociological mode?

Adorno's whole method is exposed in nuce by his treatment of astrology. I chose astrology because it relates to Adorno's favorite theme of genuine individual subjectivity confronting technology, in that astrology is a pseudo-technology utilised for individual ends. You could regard astrology as the randy grandsire of positive science and as its contemporary parody. The persistence of superstition is necessarily an important issue because it challenges so many assumptions about the unique authority of the scientific world view precisely in those sectors of the population where that authority is supposed to be best established. For Adorno, however, the emphasis of criticism must lie on the notion of a social fate transferred to the individual level. Men are haunted by their own spirits dispossessed of a home in their own concrete existences. Deprived of the Holy Spirit they have lost the instinct for the unconditional set over against the conditional and have confused the two, treating spirit as a form of factuality. (The parody of positivism is here very clear.) At the same time Judicious Reason has become ensnared in the demise of the Spirit. Ratio has become implicated in the fall of Sophia. The fall is a premonition of social disaster. If I may rephrase Adorno: it is an omen, an augury of what lies veiled in the future. The horoscope corresponds to official directives, and number mysticism to the mystique of administrative statistics and cartel prices, the break in the life-line to terminal cancer in the body politic. Official progress mocks the blocked hope of human beings and forces the absent—experience—to make its presence felt elsewhere in phantasmagoria and dreams from which there seems no awakening. The actual content of the dream reflects social nullity. The secondary, projected reality runs parallel to the prosaic emptiness of the primary reality and reinforces it: the spirits have nothing much or interesting to say.

The spirits are also falsely spiritual. In Occultism the Spirit does not vivify matter as in the resurrection of the body but floats above it in permanent schizoid disjunction. Spirit cannot say “This is my body”, demonstrating its reality, but becomes a thing “out there”, demonstrating its unreality. The usual parody of “fact” is conjoined to the self-inflated pomposity of the experimental routine. After the positivist ritual of experiment expels the ghosts and materializations they return to haunt the world with an appeal to experiment. By a parallel progression the idealist exaltation of Mind (rooted in and expressing the social supremacy of the mental over the manual) achieves reabsorption through Occultism in determinate, deterministic categories of Nature. It is the last bankruptcy of Hegel's original investment in the spirit.

I hope I have not given Adorno's views a false Anglo-Saxon clarity, but in any case there are certain things anyone in an Anglo-Saxon tradition can and must say. The first concerns the status of such interpretations. Some of them are simply the working-out of this or that internal logic. What he says, for example, about the relation of body and spirit in Christianity is an exposition, and a correct one at the abstract level, of the inner logic of that religion. Again, the transformations he proposes, such as the “degenerating” shifts in the logic of idealism, are just logical possibilities. So far no difficulty. The trouble comes with such a notion as “correspondence.” By what criteria can we show that there is a correspondence between the break in the life-line and the terminal illness of sick society? Adorno is not merely employing an illustrative image but asserting a link between the palmist practice and social praxis.

So far as I can see “correspondences” of this kind are partly in the hands of intelligent manipulators. There are always some phenomena at the level of everyday practice and some pathic elements in the body politic which permit the determined scryer to see the “correspondence” he wishes to see. The crystal ball is large enough. Fragments of evidence and degrees of similarity are not hard to come by, and even when the similarity is not clear one can always argue it is paradoxically imaged back to front in the mirror, or is “hidden”, or has undergone a “significant” process of distortion. And so you simply manipulate certain notions and make them play crystal ball for your analysis. You determine what shall be truly significant and what not, where real accident begins and genuine essence ends, what is to count under the rubric “It is no accident that. …” It is no accident, implies Adorno, that one man said he believed in the Occult because he did not believe in God. The isolated empirical fragment fits neatly into the logic of part of Adorno's case, but it really remains a question how many empirical swallows are necessary to make a dialectician's summer.

The above is concerned with the technique of picking out the single swallow to validate your hint of summer, but there are certain assertions of a different kind embedded in the dialectical framework. If you choose to take certain phenomena or statements and let the weight of your significance and of meta-interpretation rest on them, no man can say you nay. But if you declare that the secondary projected reality reinforces the primary reality and its conformism, you make what looks like a straight empirical statement. I have said that Lazarsfeld complained during his collaboration with Adorno that he could not derive testable empirical propositions out of his work, and one can indeed see the difficulty, just as one can also understand Adorno's violent rejection of the pomposities attached to the routine of experimental verification. Yet Adorno says something here about conformism which can be construed as an empirical statement about a linkage and about a state of affairs. (As a matter of fact, recent research, such as that of Patricia Hartmann, does indeed suggest the practitioners and devotees of the Occult are very conformist and conventional, which is consistent with Adorno's contention without precisely proving it.)

I mean it is relevant to Adorno's contention without constituting quite direct verification. But if the dialectical, critical mode permits of reference to relevant empirical material, by what criteria can it dismiss other material, or ignore the whole universe of comparative materials over time and social space? Researches also show, to give but one other instance, that Occultists are only marginally less believing in God than their age and status equals. Would this fact disrupt the analysis in terms of the posited transition from the Holy Spirit to the spirits? In other words does the statement of one possible logical transformation which probably exists in a few historical instances carry any weight in terms of an overall balanced interpretation of data? One can see why Adorno thought that in psycho-analysis only the exaggerations were true. I am not saying that all data have the same rights to significance, since there is I believe a class (or classes) of statement which are not open even in principle to empirical proof and yet which do assert empirical connections. At the same time such assertions are often open to some limitation on the ranges of interpretation which are consistent with the data. A clever dialectician may manipulate his framework to achieve an accommodation of the awkward and even make awkward empirical devils sing the dialectical Creator's praise. But the point is that he has to manipulate and can be seen to manipulate.

In Adorno's case he does not manipulate because he is indifferent, and this is exactly the substance of Lazarsfeld's charge against him. Adorno defended a reference to the specificities of history; but by ignoring data as a control on his imagination, he easily converted his assertions into free-floating ahistorical abstract possibilities. He could have looked at the enormous increase for astrology coincident with the rise of the bourgeois world-view, and he could have shuffled his dialectical frame around until he accommodated the fatality of both early bourgeois society and of late bourgeois society. And today he might have looked at the manner in which, under Communism, superstition has in some ways shown more resilience even than religion. Anybody can play the dialectical game and accommodate a vast range of seemingly contradictory evidence. But the act of accommodation in essence acknowledges the existence of a problem: Adorno made no such acknowledgment. His pessimistic dialectics required nothing beyond incidental illustration, which is not to say, of course, that he was not often right. And, in addition, he had the priceless advantage of the pessimist: in the last analysis you are bound to appear right some time. Doomsters cannot in the nature of things be wrong hic ubique et semper. When you are borne out by events, you can then say that the real revelations are now emerging from the veiled. But even religious revelations can utilise that privilege. Men carrying placards announcing that the last day is at hand are only wrong about the date. Adorno saved himself by ignoring both dates and data.

I want now to move on to another interesting analysis by Adorno because it illustrates another facet of his ability to do the disappearing trick. In this instance he not only makes doubtful connections but also refuses to acknowledge an ineluctable contradiction. The issue I select does not arise in the front arena of social debate, yet it presents a sociological and ethical problem of primary importance. It is the question of “first come, first served.”

Adorno argues that, where the intimate affections are concerned, temporal priority excludes genuine preference; the accidental precludes freedom of choice. A man and a woman meet each other at a particular point in time and mutually offer the unrepeatable. Their possession of each other is the very antithesis of the idea of property. Once this process has occurred objective moral right lies with whoever arrived first: priority has priority. But this principle leads to the antagonism of siblings, to age sets, to exclusive rights in a given national inheritance, and to the persecution of minorities. In short, it leads to Fascism.

The crucial reason, says Adorno, lies in the exclusiveness of what comes first. Possession is meaningful in relation to loss, and the fear of loss converts a genuine possession into mere property. The claim “my own, my very own” contains an implicit forfeit of that claim. What is a possession becomes an object in the universe of exchangeable objects and thereby changes the unique into the general and abstract. Yet—he says—truly to love is to speak specifically to the other, and it involves attachment to beloved features, not to some “idol of personality” which merely reflects the notion of possession and abstraction. At this point Adorno has arrived at a happy reprieve from all his difficulties. What is specific, i.e. features and immediate experiences of affection, is by definition unrepeatable. Ergo, infidelity is impossible. The cheat here is that Adorno defines specific features and experiences as concrete, unique, and incapable of distortion into the abstract and exchangeable. Yet, in fact, reaction to features (as distinct from reaction to that unique constellation of features which is a person) precisely converts the specific into the abstract.

Features are repeatable commodities capable of being made up into innumerable supermarket packages. Being loyal to this-or-that feature or experience merely means being loyal when you feel like it. By fragmenting people into features and experiences, Adorno achieves a worse objectification than exists in the idea of exclusive possession. He sidesteps the ineluctable dilemmas of morality and experience by sleight-of-hand. And all the side-stepping by partial analogy through sibling rivalry to Fascism is to throw back on to a genuine dilemma of personal relations the irrelevant odium of Fascism. Loyalty, by virtue of logical tricks and contagious analogy, is somehow tangled up with Fascism and the doctrine of an all-white Australia. Adorno is the kind of intellectual cheat who knows how to look sympathetic and be irresponsibly clever and superior at the same time. It is a capacity few of us lack entirely, but he had it in highly developed form.

Finally, there are two topics which can be used to back up the theme of what Adorno meant by the decomposition of the individual. One is his analysis of the Culture Industry, the other his negative assessment of Existentialist philosophy and theology. They can, and indeed should, be linked together.

The first is bound up with his critique of Positivism, the distortion of technology, social manipulation, technical and conformist concepts of health; and it is of a richness and complexity which summarization is bound to misrepresent. Again, there is the relationship of exchange, and the façade behind which that relationship lies omnipresent. Both can be combined in his image of the Hotel Manager. He outdoes aristocrats with his glossy, hygienic, elegant façade, but he lives by the tip. The Culture Industry, in apparently waiting on the customer, argues that its victims are its judges. It anticipates the spectator's imitation of itself like a parent talking baby language. Even its bad conscience is carefully put on public view. It indulges in a form of knowing self-criticism intended only to quieten the consumer. It admits to the propagation of an ideology of escape, and justifies it by distinguishing escapism from social realism, which is itself a supremely practical distinction because the escapist's dream is no more subversive than a pale reflection of the ordinary and because it carries the message: flee from flight. In all this, the objective character of manipulation, rooted in economic calculation and technical criteria, requires no censorship. In the older folk art, the lament against domination still remained audible, whereas the voice of the Culture Industry is alienation posing as togetherness, human closeness proclaimed through loudspeakers and the psychology of advertising. The confidential touch on the shoulder of Everyman is the consummate act of betrayal. The manufactured immediacy is a mediation reducing men so completely to things that real humanity becomes unimaginable. Men are made objects: decomposed consequences of exchange.

To lament this decay of the individual in the Existential manner is merely to describe a condition and to blame the weakness of individuals on to individuals without paying attention to the social principle lying behind individuation. To see the problem as an individual one is to give way to the social reality in the very act of criticism. Similarly the individual's freedom from society deprives that freedom of any genuine strength. Indeed, direct absolute individuation, beyond the restraint exercised by specific interests, leads to a situation where the weakest individual goes to the wall. The naked individual is easily captured and put in a cage or else himself becomes a keeper. When nothing can be required of the naked individual in terms of content, then all that can be asked for is genuineness and authenticity. From this arises the jargon of authenticity both in a religious form and usurping the place of religion.3

Yet in fact the self is not an absolute but an imitative playful consequence, and without society just a void. The claim of the self to be absolute is itself the consequence of a particular social process and amounts to a glorification of the void. God is the only possible ontological root of selfhood, just as Society is the source of all its richness and content. In a society dominated by exchange and interchangeability the claim to be genuine and unique is the first primal lie. The theological version celebrates faith for its own sake, and thereby breeds a vocabulary of pure inwardness which lives by verbal inflation. Such verbal inflation may be either radical or conformist, since it has no specific content; but either way the tortured wrestling of Jacob always ends up with the self in the right position. It is, perhaps, though Adorno does not say so, the analogue within the intellectual stratum of the colourful original personality, Star of Stage and Screen.

So much Adorno has to say about pure individuality and the naked self. So far I agree with him. In general, however, I am bound to disagree. He generalises far beyond the evidence and even glories in the maltreatment of evidence. He ignores the critical potential in positive knowledge, and he makes a facile link between everything he dislikes and “Fascism.” He mistakes the nostalgia of the haut bourgeois for the reality of general cultural decline. He constantly slides away from real ineluctable alternatives and those general limits on human possibility without which there is no potential at all. Total contact and pure pleasure cannot be socially embodied without disaster. Above all, he puts his criticism beyond criticism, and what is beyond criticism is often just not worth criticising.

Yet his text, fragmented and partial, is richly layered, imaginative, paradoxical. It represents an anti-holistic unity, an anti-individualistic defence of the individual, a critical Marxist attack on the haute bourgeoisie which could be an apologia pro vita sua, a non-believing affirmation that only theology is possible in the world as it now is and is likely to be.

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge, indeed because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a stand-point removed, even though by a hair's breadth from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible. But beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.


  1. T. W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. New Left Books, £4.25.

  2. Anthony Quinton, “Critical Theory”, Encounter (October 1974).

  3. See my essay “The Naked Person”, Encounter (June 1973).

Philip Rosen (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9217

SOURCE: “Adorno and Film Music: Theoretical Notes on Composing for the Films,” in Yale French Studies, Vol. 60, 1980, pp. 157-82.

[In the following essay, Rosen discusses Adorno's little-known volume Composing for the Films.]

Important recent work on the ideological operations of cinema bases itself on a view of the history of the graphic arts deriving from studies by Francastel and a more or less Althusserian view of ideology.1 But cinema incorporates non-graphic elements which have their own histories and social roles “outside of” and “before” cinema, and ideological analysis must account for the integration into cinema of such elements. One such component of film is music. An important study of film music based on a distinctive view of music as an autonomous art form and with a concern for the ideological operations of film already exists in the often noted but rarely discussed 1947 book Composing for the Films.

At first signed only by the composer Hanns Eisler, this book was actually co-authored by the eminent social philosopher and aesthetician Theodor W. Adorno.2 What follows is no more than notations from a reading of Composing for the Films in the context of Adorno's theories of society, music, and culture. The purpose is not to become involved in a dispute over authorship or to downgrade the significance of Eisler's views and contributions. It is rather to underline certain aspects of the book which may be of use now, given the current interests in the ideological functioning of film and in so-called Western Marxism.

Like Eisler's, Adorno's musical education included an association with the Vienna School of composition (for some time he studied under Berg), but by the 1930's Adorno was concentrating most of his efforts on philosophy and social theory.3 He had already developed a viewpoint enabling him to cross back and forth among philosophical analysis, knowledgeable commentary on music and literature, criticism of mass culture, and his distinctive view of culture in general in advanced capitalist societies. The fate of human subjectivity in such societies always held his special attention, and it is from his account of that fate that one must read Composing for the Films as part of his corpus.


Limitations of space make a detailed explication of Adorno's theories impossible here, but a brief list of certain motifs in his thought with regard to questions of knowledge, art, music, and the culture industry will help to contextualize Composing for the Films. The theoretical groundwork for it as well as for his analysis of music in Philosophy of New Music (1948) is provided by the contemporaneous Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), written with Max Horkheimer. All of these are in debt to the Hegelian Marxist approach formulated by Lukács in History and Class Consciousness. It is well known that by modeling the victory of the proletariat on the realization of Hegel's Geist, Lukács elevated the epistemological problem of subject and object to centrality in Marxist theory, made the problem of knowledge a crucial historical and political question, and by means of concepts such as reification and alienation focussed attention on the limitations of the realization of the rational imposed by the social structure on humanity.

In a sense, Adorno assumed the position of a radical critic of capitalist society by developing Lukács's work to account for the persistence of capitalist society. A Lukácsian problematic provided conceptual tools of great use for explicating the increasingly total social control Adorno saw at work throughout the bourgeois administrative-cultural order. Unlike his elder Lukács, however, Adorno was never transfixed by the image of an immediate, totalizing transformation of society; rather, he believed that contemporary refinements in mechanisms of alienation and reification render impossible any vision of an immediate reconciliation of subject and object, humanity and existence. Chief among these mechanisms is an omnipresent pretense to such immediacy, a pretense which pervades life thanks to the universalization of the principles of positivist science as the ultimate standard of knowledge. It is his theory of knowledge which is a primary aspect of Adorno's famous “pessimism.”

Adorno's thought is thus to a large extent based on an attack on an ideal of reason he finds to have dominated in the West since the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment ideal conceives of the realization of human rationality in objectifying, hypostatizing terms of calculation and repeatable categories that serve as instruments to conquer nature and hence displace myth with science. Knowing would thus require an immediate abstraction from the particular qualities of objects of knowledge in order that given factuality can become quantifiable, hence commensurable, therefore exchangeable. As capitalism becomes entrenched, this narrow view of rationality is fetishized and applied to all areas of human existence through the growth in administration and bureaucratic methods associated in part with industry. The ideal of human rationality dominating nature for the benefit of humanity becomes the rationalization of life, which in fact dominates the human and becomes a means of social control.

To Enlightenment rationalization Adorno opposes his “negative dialectics.” For him, knowing requires not an immediate translation from part to universal through the automatic application of abstract categories, but rather conceiving of the object of knowledge as a totality of mediations which are its linkage to the social whole. The immediate givens of existence must be grasped “as the superficies, as mediated conceptual moments which come to fulfillment only in the development of their social, historical, and human significance.” Adorno thus places himself in a Hegelian line for which any whole must be known as a mediated totality which is the synthesis of many determinations. Knowing is founded on the “determinate negation of each im-mediacy.”4

Dialectic of Enlightenment, which outlines the consequences of the universal legitimation of non-dialectical conceptions of knowledge, is still the story of Geist, but of a Geist gone bad. Supposedly triumphant human subjectivity is now judged by the categories it attributes to objectivity, and the principles of rationalization assume the irrational function of myth in their universalization. The dialectic of Enlightenment is the subjection of human subjectivity to the irrational components of its own advance. The idea that subjectivity participates in its own subjection explains the importance of psychoanalysis for Adorno, but his analysis of the universal immediacy of abstract equivalence is intended primarily as a totalizing social critique which engages the totalization of social control at its own level of comprehensiveness. As the following passage indicates, Adorno retains many elements of the classic Marxist view:

To the individual, domination appears to be the universal: reason in actuality. Through the division of labor imposed on them, the power of all members of society—for whom as such there is no other course—amounts over and over again to the realization of the whole, whose rationality is reproduced in this way. What is done to all by the few always occurs as the subjection of individuals by the many.5

It is his view of knowledge which grounds the ambivalent position Adorno assigns to the work of art under advanced capitalism. The art work in bourgeois society is defined by a negative social role: it is useless, cut off from the practical by a kind of sacred “magic circle.” Even the most serious art work is inserted into the area of acknowledged superstition and cannot be taken seriously.

On the other hand, this regressive position means that the work can be constructed as a mediated totality and hence embody a progressive negation of the abstract rationalization characteristic of advanced capitalism. Adorno is sometimes attracted by Benjamin's notion of aura6 to help describe the art work. By its insistence on its own unique presence, its specific here-and-now, the traditional art work maintains a distinctive connection with the particular time and space of its own origin and existence. The work becomes unexchangeable; there is no abstract equivalent by which it can be measured.

Thus, the regressive social situation of the art work, evinced in its aura, (often a regressive phenomenon for Benjamin) may permit the art work to achieve an epistemologically progressive protest against or negation of the given. If it avoids succumbing to the irrationalist and/or reifying temptations offered by its social role, the work can attain the traditional aesthetic goal of being a structure of particulars defined uniquely by their relationships to one another through the whole—in sort, a mediated totality. The price good art pays for the achievement of such monadic totality is often social isolation and misunderstanding on the part of the general population.

Crucially, the art work as a totality can be read as a working through of the relation of subject and object in a given social formation. The aesthetic subject (not identical to the biological human who assumes the social place of “artist”) constructs a totality—a network of relations of parts and whole—by manipulation of the material of the art form (often historically limited, then hypostatized as its “nature”) within a definite artistic tradition and social situation. The subject-object relation thereby established is a stance toward the epistemological possibilities of a given society. This is why as early as 1932 Adorno could equate autonomous (concert hall) music with social theory.7

In Philosophy of New Music Schoenberg's greatness is thus explicated from an account of the specific involvement of music in the dialectic of Enlightenment. Music is the rationalization of sounds, so the history of music can be measured as the use of various compositional logics that organize sound. In traditional bourgeois music, that organization constitutes the position of the subject in relation to the musical objectivity of the harmonic system of tonality, which is taken as musical “nature” itself. For example, in Beethoven's method of thematic-motivic development, there is an unprecedented total organization of the musical work; he constructs a musical totality which drives toward the final coda to reconfirm tonality (the natural, the universal), but in a forcefully unique way, for every individual element attains musical meaning only as it is mediated through the whole. But the impulse toward subjective expression in the later bourgeois era—related to the impulse to dominate nature—leads to the Romantic attack on tonality in the name of subjective spontaneity and uniqueness. After Wagner there is no longer a musical “nature” or objectivity through which the subject can express itself, and the construction of a mediated totality becomes difficult as music succumbs to irrationality by assuming the function of presenting a subjective immediacy. This reflects the impossible situation of genuine humanity and rationality under advanced capitalism.

The question for modern music, then, becomes how to construct a musical objectivity which will once again permit genuinely rational subjective expression. Schoenberg's great virtue is that, unlike Stravinsky, he does not pretend to the illogical and impossible accomplishment of simply bypassing the subjective moment hypostatized by Romanticism. Rather, with the method of the twelve-tone row Schoenberg introduces a new musical objectivity. But this new objectivity is unique to each individual work. The result is an even more totally organized music than that of Beethoven, for every element of the work—melody, counterpoint, harmony, timbre, etc.—is determined by the tone row unique to the individual work. A musical totality is again the goal of compositional technique, but the totalizing, honest expression of subjectivity that results inevitably alienates the audience—which still exists in the musical “nature” of tonality—from the music which most truthfully expresses that audience's situation.

The danger of this project is a temptation to succumb to the new musical nature in a dialectic of Enlightenment by stifling the spontaneity of subjective expression sought by Schoenberg with a mere mathematical calculation of necessities engendered by the row. Adorno defines Schoenberg's ultimate virtue with the peculiar compliment that, unlike Webern, Schoenberg ultimately learned to compose “twelve-tone music as though there were no such thing as twelve-tone technique.”8 A work by Schoenberg could thus attain the most exalted role Adorno was able to attribute to a serious art work in the bourgeois era: as a useless, isolated monadic totality, it refuses the immediacies of existence and hence exposes the truth about subjectivity in the age of advanced capitalism, when genuine individuality is suppressed under a banner of reified individualism.

Now, it might superficially seem that autonomous music and film play drastically opposed roles in Adorno's analysis of culture. The culture industry—with film as its most characteristic branch—incessantly produces affirmation of the immediate as universal. In their classic essay on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer argue that the culture industry works by instant linkage of a detail within a work to the cultural system as a whole, instead of mediating the significance of the detail through the structure of the individual work. Films, radio programs, advertisements, etc. are composed of details instantly recognizable, exchangeable in their givenness, and hence affirmations of the existing order.

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to read “The Culture Industry” as absolutizing the opposition between high culture and mass culture with all virtue on the side of the former. The essay contains a critique of high art which partially collapses that opposition to explain the ease with which so many apparent art works assume the position of commodity. The critique proceeds by a comparison of the ideals of various schools of bourgeois aesthetics as they are to be realized in individual works (e.g. catharsis, purposefulness without purpose, Gesamkunstwerk) with the accomplishments of the system of the culture industry as a whole. This produces a series of ironic inversions intended to show that the culture industry accomplishes the goals of bourgeois aesthetics through the system of incessant repetitions of interchangeable effects. But the resulting repression of genuine frustration in consumers reveals the regressive social implications of those ideals. From this perspective, the lighter arts are simply “the bad social conscience” of the serious arts, and the explicit capitulation of the culture industry to the commodity structure is socially truer than the implicit claim of the serious arts to genuine autonomy.9

One can also note that, despite the unceasingly condemnatory tone of the essay, such dialectical continuities can point to a potential not there emphasized. If the dialectic of Enlightenment means that art as an attempt to envision a realized human subjectivity always threatens to turn into its opposite, might it not be that an industry which clearly bases itself on the objectification of human subjectivity contains elements that could generate its own antithesis? Cultural production rejecting the sacredness on which the best bourgeois art depends to establish its seriousness might be able to escape magic, to foresee the integration of the spiritual and the practical in a more progressive way. Desite the fact that Adorno himself attacked Benjamin's versions of this argument,10 elements of it surface at points in Composing for the Films.


Composing for the Films is a work of description and prescription. What is described are the methods and products of what some now call classical cinema—the kind of film-making dominated economically, technologically, and aesthetically by Hollywood during the period of the studio system. The book thus takes narrative as a given and treats film as a major branch of the “cultural industry.” Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the book is one of the rare full-scale Hegelian Marxist discussions of any aspect of film; hence, despite the totalizing view of the culture industry usually imputed to Adorno, Adorno and Eisler base their analysis on the delineation of contradictions. For example, filmic narrative as a problem for the composer is discussed in terms of an opposition beloved by Hegelian aestheticians, i.e. as an alternation between dramatic and novelistic (epic) methods.

Certain of these contradictions are of special interest for questions of film and ideology. One is a contradiction between the technological nature of film, which gives it an inherent appeal as the direct transmission of everyday life, and the historical origins of cinema in the melodrama and the fair, which has resulted in film's penchant for the surprising or sensationalistic effect evident in the abrupt shifts in mood and tone with which film music must deal. Adorno and Eisler explicitly suggest the progressive potential in this contradiction: not only does the persistence of melodrama hold films “below” the artistic ideals of middle-class aesthetics, but also the sensationalism may be able to lift a film above the mere affirmation of the drudgery of everyday life recorded as the natural with moving photography (pp. 35-36).11

For Adorno and Eisler the most fundamental contradiction of film is perhaps a more general one between film as the record of an event with its own unique “here and now” and film as mass reproduction. Their discussion of this contradiction is in inverted congruence with the arguments of Benjamin, to whom reference is made in Composing for the Films. A shot records a unique here-and-now, implicitly insisting on its own singularity. But socially and technically film is a mass medium; that is, it multiplies the unique. This paradox leads Benjamin to situate film on the leading edge of a progressive revolt against the very idea of art, the concept of which is inseparable from the notion of uniqueness. But Adorno (who finds a subversive moment precisely in the presumption of uniqueness by traditional art works) with Eisler gives more weight to the totalization of administrative control which the mass reproduction side of the contradiction entails. Their general argument, which is in line with Dialectic of Enlightenment is that administrative rationalization of culture defuses the emancipatory potential inherent in a genuinely rational development of the technology.

The stunting of art by the administration of culture is a general phenomenon which surfaces most explicitly in organs of the culture industry. Adorno and Eisler find that in the film industry the fundamental “artistic” method consists in a calculation of audience reactions to the individual details of a film, so that the detail is used only for its immediate effect, which derives from an affirmative identification with the commodity cultural system as a whole. The problem of mediated totalities is thus eliminated. The success of the operation is measured by box office receipts—sheer exchange value, hence a reified standard—which are anyway subject to certain controls. Thus, the contradiction between technological progress and administration can be seen from the subjective side as one between the apparent directness of the appeal of film to its audience as literal immediacy and the “unbridgeable remoteness” from its audience which is the actuality of film production processes and techniques. Ultimately, the methods and products operate to deny real contact in production or consumption between a film and the actual needs of its public. (pp. 53, 58-59)

The establishing of the immediate identity of the detail in relation to the sociocultural system serves to universalize that system as the only rational one. It thereby obscures such contradictions, awareness of which could lead to a consciousness of the detail as a mediated element of the system. A progressive practice, then, would question the immediacy of the detail to the end of exposing and using contradictions.

In this general prescription for a less acquiescent filmic practice, Adorno and Eisler are near the famous Russian Formalist notion of defamiliarization. The culture industry operates by means of an associative automatism which gives the detail instant significance as an element in the system. It is this automatism whose vehicle is the apparently literal immediacy of the moving photographic image, which must be the first line of attack. This premise, for example, is the basis for the proposition that the melodramatic components of filmic practice have a progressive function.

The difference between the combat against “literal immediacy” recommended by Adorno and Eisler and the Formalist conception of defamiliarization is that the former have as their standard of knowledge the grasp of a concrete, mediated totality and partly as a result stress contradiction as a social phenomenon. This makes the appeal of Adorno and Eisler to the principle of montage in its broadest sense unsurprising. Despite the severe (and largely irrefutable) critique of Eisenstein on the relation of image and music which pervades Composing for the Films, the book makes montage as cognition the basis for a proper practice of film making.12


In Adorno's corpus there is a good deal of discussion of the mechanical reproduction of Western high art music as a component of cultural degeneration. His general thesis is that the newer means of reproduction participate in a trivialization of musical listening which obstructs understanding of the connection between musical technique and the totality of a work.13 Musical Romanticism and Tin Pan Alley are also parts of this process. The result is that a composer like Beethoven, who worked towards a genuine totality within the “natural” idiom of tonality, is generally heard incorrectly in terms of musical meaning; and a composer like Schoenberg, who did not work within the “natural” musical framework, is heard even by experienced concert-goers as being incomprehensible and unbearable.

Adorno and Eisler argue that the dominant practices of film music are fully implicated in this general cultural phenomenon. It is not just that the industry embraces the cultural norm of tonality as musical “nature,” but that normal film music exists as a group of standardized devices which are rooted in a relatively short period of the history of Western music. And these devices are employed in a way that robs them even of their original musical significance.

Composing for the Films begins with a listing of some of the most common of such devices: the use of leitmotifs—a compositional technique which degenerates quickly into quotation as opposed to invention—without any organic link to the huge musical totality presupposed by Wagner; the fetish for melody, which usually consists of completely predictable tunes dominated by small diatonic intervals; use of only the most widely familiar kinds of harmony to insure easy intelligibility; the unobtrusiveness of the music, which serves to avoid any musical interruption of the drama and enforces the supposedly complete identification of music with image; the childish devices of immediate visual justification for music, and the related use of music to illustrate what is already occurring on screen, as in the musical imitation of a storm; the use of inauthentic “local” music for film with exotic settings; and stock music which “trade-marks” well-known excerpts from concert hall music, sometimes even by basing the resulting clichéd associations on titles rather than the music itself (for example, a night scene accompanied by the “Moonlight Sonata” pp. 4-15).

This kind of musical standardization participates not only in the trivialization of musical listening, but also in the processes by which instant comprehension of the detail through the system displaces the more difficult comprehension of the detail in relation to the individual work. Furthermore, such standardization results from the assimilation of all activities to the socioeconomic sphere and therefore is part of the suppression of the human (in this case, musical) subject. Composing for a film becomes simply the selection of a musical device which will result in a specific audience effect already indicated in the dramatic scene. This grounds composition on a pre-existing categorization of musical devices as audience effects, which in turn lends itself to the departmental regulation of musical production common in Hollywood studios. In the studio rationalization of musical production, the dominant tendency is for composers to assume the roles of mere hired employees who are specialists in selecting the correct devices from the storehouse of musical effects. The audience will automatically read the individual musical devices as instant “meanings,” regardless of their precise position within the film. Methods of industrial organization and production turn out a false yet automatic identity of music and image.

One might wish for more theoretical attention to the whole notion of musical codification, but anyone familiar with films of the 1930's and 1940's will recognize the practices here condemned. So far the description of those practices accounts for the adoption of certain production techniques, but does not explain why cinema as such attracts music in the first place. Adorno and Eisler do provide such an explanation.


Adorno and Eisler base their explanations of the need for music in cinema on the proposition that in contemporary society there is a contradiction between visual and aural perception. The eye “has become accustomed to conceiving reality as made up of separate things, commodities, objects that can be modified by practical activity” and is thus selective and active; the eye is associated with the definite, be it the singular object or the rational concept. The ear, on the other hand, has not adapted as readily to bourgeois rationalization, finding it more difficult to perceive separate things as such; hence, the ear of the musical layman “is indefinite and passive.” Perception through the ear involves a regression toward the primitive, the pre-individualistic collectivity in its resistance to the practical rationalization procedures that are the mark of bourgeois civilization (pp. 20-23).

This leads to the associated position that music is the most immediate of all the arts. As the art of the ear par excellence, music is aimed at a perceptual-mental apparatus which resists the rationalization of sounds music embodies. This resistance can draw musical technique towards forms which promote an understanding of the organization of sounds as an indistinct impression of collectivity and/or unmediated subjective spontaneity. This helps explain how the most standardized music can be so widely regarded as an expression of “subjective inwardness” (p. 71). Music can make an apparently direct appeal both as a manifestation of the divine or supra-individual and of the essentially human—or better, of the divine, sacred, unrationalizable aspects of the human.

We are thus back to the notion that, like all the arts, music currently has its regressive aspects. In other contexts Adorno emphasizes the opportunities of this situation, but Composing for the Films highlights the dangers, on the one hand of slipping into pure epistemological regression and on the other hand of succumbing to the reified but secure social position offered by Enlightenment rationalization. Both dangers distort music as cognition. In effect, the basic charge Adorno and Eisler make against normal film music is that it is an extreme condensation of both these poles.

As the rationalization procedures discussed above indicate, film music clearly accepts its social role as commodity and its epistemological function as instant affirmation. More specifically, Adorno and Eisler argue that film requires magical, irrational aspects of music for consumption to proceed smoothly, and the film industry therefore develops the irrational aspects of musical listening. Having assigned music to the realm of what cannot be rationalized, bourgeois culture finds ways to use this “irrationality” in a planned way. Elements lacking in the world of bourgeois rationalization and individualization can be supplied by the rationalization of musical effects. With film music, which must confront the contradiction between eye and ear, film's literal immediacy incorporates a required irrational component.


The specification of this last point begins from the proposition that film, shot through with contradictions as it is, generates a certain subjective “uneasiness” in the spectator, an uneasiness which threatens the film's coherent, immediate image of the world. Normal film music functions to overcome such contradictions and hence to suppress the potential for subversion inherent in this legitimate uneasiness. Adorno and Eisler offer accounts of some ways that music responds to contradictions.

One example is the contradiction discussed above between film's supposed function and effect (direct appeal to the spectator) and the remoteness of its administrative organization and technical character. A conscious comprehension of this contradiction would result in the spectator's understanding that the film is to him or her but not for him or her. Film music, according to Adorno and Eisler, helps suppress the uneasiness potential in this contradiction by supplying an apparently immediate humanity to the product. The music

attempts to interpose a human coating between the reeled-off pictures and the spectators. Its social function is that of a cement, which holds together elements that otherwise would oppose each other unrelated—the mechanical product and the spectators, and also the spectators themselves. … It is the systematic fabrication of the atmosphere for the events of which it is itself part and parcel. It seeks to breathe into the pictures some of the life that photography has taken away from them.

This account helps explain the limitations on dominant compositional practices for cinema. The music of a film must act as a kind of universal advertisement for the images, always expressing enthusiasm for the effects supposedly attained on the screen and thus “ensnaring the customer.” By giving the image a veneer of humanity, music obscures the film's lack of humanity. The most serious modern music, composed as a response to the real position of humanity under advanced capitalism, could not be suitable for this purpose, for its truth content alienates it from the middle-class civilization it reflects (pp. 56-61).

This position can be described in a slightly different way by an attention to the incorporation of music as an “auratic” art into film. The performance and reception of concert-hall music marks it off as an art which insists on the “concrete uniqueness” of the occasion of its performance. Film music uses a number of techniques drawn from this tradition to signify the existence of its own sacred here-and-now, its own unique being. However, the result is mechanically produced; therefore, cues that the music is “authentic” in the traditional sense are lies. The persistence of such musical cues, in combination with other falsely auratic tactics such as the star system, bestows on films a kind of “degenerate aura” that operates to suppress the fact of film as the result of a technified administrative process. Such “pseudo-individualization” is a strategy for displacing the truth of the rationalization of film production and purposes, and that truth is precisely the irrelevance of the human individual (pp. 129-131).

In one of their most interesting discussions of the contradictions of cinema Adorno and Eisler find a legitimate uneasiness on the part of the spectator stemming from the material heterogeneity of the medium. They explore this contradiction as a problem for aesthetics with consequences for the subjective position of the spectator. Aesthetically, they argue from Hegelian premises, the fusion of sound and image in cinema is an accident due to economic and technological factors rather than the result of inherent tendencies in the arts of sound-making and image-making. Were an aesthetics of the cinema possible (which is doubtful), it would therefore begin from the proposition that sound and image are inherently contradictory. The fetishization of direct identity or duplication of image by music, promoted both in Hollywood practices and in Eisenstein's fascination with synaesthesia, is therefore mistaken (pp. 63-78).

At one point Adorno and Eisler analyze the subjective position of the spectator as a response to this contradiction, concentrating on an opposition between pictorial representation and one element of the sound track, the spoken word. They begin by suggesting that spectators of a purely silent cinema must have been subject to a certain unpleasantness and even shock, for the moving two-dimensional figures of humans seen on screen are ghostly, in that they exist on the borderline between the living and non-living. The point is not that spectators of early cinema experienced a literal fear of ghosts, but that they experienced a subconscious shock because of their own socially imposed likeness to the half-live effigies on the screen. Under advanced capitalism individuals are “threatened by muteness” thanks to the decay of spoken language explored by Karl Kraus. This helps explain why music was so quickly added to film. Its cultural role as magic and immediate subjective inwardness helped “exorcise” the ghostliness of the images by supplying an indication of genuine, spontaneous life. This helped the spectator to overcome the shock and accept the literal immediacy of the image.

This speculation leads to an extremely significant hypothesis about the synchronized sound film. Adorno and Eisler do not treat this innovation as a break with silent film, but rather as its continuation. The image, which is dominant in cinema, is self-evidently, “pictorial” in that it lacks spatial depth. But reproduced sound, even in synchronization with moving photographic representation, is not an “image” in the same sense. Here Adorno and Eisler use terminology similar to that of Béla Balázs, but their conclusion is not the crude one Balázs draws, namely that there is no difference “in dimension and reality” between the original sound and its reproduction.14 Adorno and Eisler seem to be arguing only that representation of sound is of a different quality than visual representation in that reproduced sound resonates and thus representation of sound occurs in three dimensions. There is, then, always a large gap in the reception of a dialogue film between spoken word and image, no matter what the visual and aural cues that link the two. Psychologically this gap is virtually as great as that between intertitle and picture in the silent cinema: “the talking picture, too, is mute.”; The cinema is governed by gesture (photographed movement), and speech remains a kind of disjunctive label attached to moving effigies. This explains the commonly felt uneasiness at films which seem to depend on a large amount of dialogue: “speech, which presupposes man as a self, rather than the primacy of the gesture, ultimately is only loosely superimposed upon the characters.”

Thus, the unity of word and picture which is a fundamental “aesthetic” principle of the sound film's normal illusion of reality is “unconsciously registered” by the spectator as “fraudulent and fragile.” The muteness of the characters is still a threat to the spectator, even in the sound film. The sound film therefore still requires the impression of immediate life supplied by music (and possibly non-verbal sound). Music gives the picture “a sense of corporeity, as it were” to overcome the muteness of the image as spoken language cannot, and thereby helps the film bypass the contradiction between word and image (pp. 75-78).

The implications of this argument can be summarized to correspond to the previous account of film music as social cement. In terms of the subjective position of the cinema spectator, music is on the side of the image. It supplies a perceptual-psychological human “depth” which augments the literal immediacy of the pictorial illusion of reality. The primary relation for the music is to the gesture, which, in a sense, requires music as motivation and justification for its claim to being like life. The apparently artificial musical score is a psychological condition for the existence of the “naturalness” of the film image. This analysis has important implications, for if the analysis has correct elements, current studies of the suturing of the spectating subject “into” the film may require greater attention to the musical track.


Composing for the Films offers a description of the dominant practices of producing film music first of all as those practices correspond to the administrative organization of the film industry, which assures their economic legitimacy within the cultural system of advanced capitalism. It also offers a description of the ways that film music works to suppress the contradictions of the eye-ear conjunction as subjective immediacy, mystic spontaneity, and/or aesthetic empathy to the ultimate end of affirming the existing order. This suppression assures the ideological legitimacy of the dominant practices in conjunction with (in current terms) the positioning of the spectating subject as an untroubled entity.

Given these interlocked sociohistoric, ideological, and aesthetic descriptions, Adorno and Eisler can propose a number of prescriptions for the composition of film music that might constitute an oppositional practice. Instead of leading the spectator toward easy identity and false comfort, such a practice would attempt to stimulate genuine cognition through a more troubled kind of entertainment. It may be tempting to see this loosely “Brechtian” attitude as Eisler's contribution to the book, especially in view of the compositional examples he supplies in an appendix; however, this attitude is not at variance with the book's general argument.

The prescriptive sections of Composing for the Films are based on the need for defamiliarizing strategies which would displace the automatizing musical devices that promote instant comprehension of the film as literal immediacy and hence as an advertisement for the unmediated universality of the sociocultural system as a whole. The relevance of a mediated totality for the spectator can be established by exploitation of contradictions. Ultimately this implies a labor on the spectator's identification, which is subject to social controls. For music specifically, this entails techniques designed to refuse a direct identity between image and music.

The point is not that image and music should simply be unrelated. At any rate, according to Adorno and Eisler, this is an impossible goal, because the two are always related in some mediated way through the social whole. (This mediation through the social whole explains the dominant fetishism for identity of image and music.) Adorno and Eisler even agree with what they define as current prejudice that the image must always in some sense determine the music; however, this determination should not result in the immediate duplication of sight by sound through naturalized, automatizing musical conventions or through some farfetched attempt at Gesamkunstwerk.

Adorno's insistence on the significance of the individual work comes into play here. Composing for the Films argues that no positive general rules are available on the relation of music to image: each film must establish its own unique relations. The principle of montage should govern not only the image track, but also the musical track and the relation between the two. The structure of each work is to be a unique labor on the socially determined contradictions of the medium, in opposition to the system of the culture industry and hence the existing social formation as automatic universal. A genuine musical and filmic rationality can then displace the rationalization of culture.


The call for a genuinely rational film music in Composing for the Films has much in common with the outlook of Philosophy of New Music. In general, Adorno and Eisler prescribe the displacement of the fetishization of a certain, extremely limited musical “nature” prevalent in film music (and general musical culture) with strategies of composition made possible by the most advanced developments in twentieth-century music. It should be stressed that, despite their own educational allegiances, they do not end up prescribing the automatic use of twelve-tone technique as a universal solution to the problems of film music. They are concerned with the construction of each film (and therefore its music) as a unique work, in line with Adorno's promotion of the aesthetic monad.

The key term used by Adorno and Eisler to indicate the compositional approach they advocate is planning, which retains some of its connotations of scientific management but goes beyond the latter. The score of a film must be planned in advance as a whole in the construction of a mediated unity of music, image, word, narrative, and recorded noise. Identification between detail and system is to be eliminated in favor of a relation between part and the individual film as a whole. All of this will make the eye-ear contradiction into an element of the film's construction rather than lead to its obfuscation.

The displacement of identification by planned relation demands of the composer a much more precise control of musical resources than that supplied by the Hollywood storehouse of musical effects. A new film music will require a greater quantity of expressive possibilities than is provided by the harmonically safe techniques of a limited period of music history. Adorno and Eisler therefore demand opening up practices of film music so that the composer, working with the production team on the whole film from the beginning, can choose and/or invent any musical resources her or his imagination may deem necessary to the individual film.

The primary question for compositional technique now becomes one of structure: how can musical sense be made from such a potentially disparate collection of musical means? The answer lies in modern autonomous music. Given Adorno's argument elsewhere that Schoenberg is the latest in a compositional line which progressively establishes control over a greater and greater amount of sonic resources, it is unsurprising that Adorno and Eisler argue that modern music can supply the methods and models which would enable the film composer to organize the necessarily wide variety of musical material he or she may have to use. But the organizational virtues exemplified for Adorno by Schoenberg's music are now said to be attributes of all the best modern music, including the very different practices of Bartok and even Stravinsky (who is elsewhere treated as reactionary by both Adorno and Eisler). Autonomous music can teach film composers how to plan a unique musical structure engaging a wide variety of musical devices—atonal and tonal—instead of restricting themselves to the usual musical tricks, which do not depend on musical meaning (pp. 32-35, 79-84).

Adorno and Eisler also make another argument for the use of new musical resources, one which is based on their conception of film as a medium of extreme tensions (of montage and drama), abruptly shifting scenes, moods, and tones, and instantaneous, irregular visual progressions. They argue that most of the forms developed in serious music in the tradition of tonality are not flexible enough to be useful in establishing precise relationships between music and image. For example, traditional tonal forms move toward the resolution of musical tensions, as opposed to forms using modern harmony, which is founded on extreme suspense and knows no “natural” tendency toward its relief; with some danger of self-contradiction, Adorno and Eisler conclude from this that modern music is more appropriate for the tension-filled film than traditional music. Also, they point out that the abrupt changes in scene and tone in cinema require a music capable of abrupt changes, but that traditional harmony tends to presuppose a certain temporal expansion necessary for the formal developments, repetitions, etc. which give the final reconfirmation of the tonal center its force; the new music, on the other hand, allows for formal structures of extremely brief duration, which makes it more appropriate for film.

A genuine film music, then, will be based on neither the universalization of a certain compositional technique nor an indiscriminate incorporation of all the forms and devices of the tradition of serious Western music. Rather, the film composer needs at his or her disposal precise, condensed forms which will have special use for rapid changes available, say, from variational techniques or coloristic effects. The new music widens the possibilities of expression and provides the means of organizing the musical structure as a whole. But models can range from classical fantasias to the work of Webern and Bartok (pp. 38-42, 95-100, 113).

Although the word as such is not emphasized in Composing for the Films, it is clear that the desired music-image relation is there conceptualized as a dialectical one. The implicit model for the structure of the sound film is a mediated totality, and the only general requirement consistently mentioned is that the relation retain some contradictory aspects: “From the aesthetic point of view, this relation is not one of similarity but as a rule, one of question and answer, affirmation and negation, appearance and essence. This is dictated by the divergence of the media in question and the specific nature of each.” (p. 70)


There is a contradiction in the structure of Composing for the Films itself, namely between description and prescription. Despite all of the practical hints for the composer, ranging from tips about the importance of the head of the studio music department all the way to exemplary scores composed by Eisler, the economic and ideological power attributed to the rationalization procedures of the culture industry at the least must obstruct a genuinely rational musical practice in cinema. This contradiction is confronted most squarely by Adorno and Eisler in their consideration of the aesthetic subject in film music.

Adorno holds that autonomous music in advanced capitalist society is able to grapple with real problems of subjectivity and cognition only because of its social isolation, its “uselessness,” which allows it to establish a self-sufficient totality. But film music, by definition, not only retains a relation with something outside its musical structure, namely the drama conveyed through the images; it must even subordinate itself to something external, although still avoiding a simple duplication of that something. Film music is therefore denied the self-contained isolation which enables serious music to construct a more genuine position of musical subjectivity. Film music must still refuse to identify itself with the external (visual and, more distantly, social), yet it is denied the solution of blocking all relations with the external.

This is reflected in the situation of the musical subject. Even in the most organized autonomous music, there is an arbitrary starting point that Romanticism fetishizes as inspiration. For example, the most reified twelve-tone music still requires a spark of compositional spontaneity in the initial construction of the row, which only then determines every compositional parameter. Even the privileged model for complete planning of the score thus presupposes the existence of an arbitrary (in terms of absolute organization) subjectivity. In autonomous music the arbitrary is supplied by the musical subject expressed in the work, and so is still in some sense internal to the music.

In film music, however, the composer must integrate an already existing starting point which governs the music and yet produce a meaningful musical structure. The ideal kind of composing for films therefore requires a genuine musical subjectivity of the traditional kind, that is, a composer completely involved in the construction of a musical totality. But at the same time such a composer is denied the traditional function of the involvement, to be the one source of the arbitrary element. The ideal composer for films, then, “must, so to speak, both be and not be the subject of his music.” Adorno and Eisler remark that it is impossible to predict where such a contradiction will lead (p. 85).

But there are some indications in Composing for the Films as to the direction in which such a contradiction might take us. As necessities and dangers in composition, questions of organization, planning, and rationalization are crucial in the evolution of music. But it is in film music that style (the specific strategy of constructing an organic unity out of the tension between form and content) becomes totally outmoded. Thus, the contradiction between the need for a musical subject and a music without a function for the subject could lead towards a new kind of art. A genuine film music would give up style for planning, yet still would have to include a certain compositional spontaneity; it would give up the esoteric isolation of autonomous music, yet include a real musical subjectivity. That is, Adorno and Eisler envision a music in which the aesthetic subject need not be expressed only in its isolation, for the music will not be isolated. The musical expression of such a subject would in fact be the achievement of a reconciliation of freedom and necessity, of subject and object, which Adorno had previously found accomplished only temporarily by Beethoven and which Lukács foresaw as the triumph of the proletariat. In such genuine film music is to be found the realization of music itself and simultaneously its self-transcendence as bourgeois art.

Adorno and Eisler are even willing to venture a tentative characterization of such music. Current practices of film music degenerate into uniform affirmation but pretend to the seriousness of the best autonomous music through procedures of pseudo-individualization. The final prescription in Composing for the Films is that since film music cannot assume the internal self-sufficiency of genuine negation achieved by the best serious music, it should abandon that music's comprehensive seriousness. This is not to argue for musical humor, since film requires alternations between the most varied kinds of musical expression. But it is to argue for what Adorno and Eisler call a certain “discretion” in film music. Film music cannot pretend to organicism, being constituted as it is by contradictions (e.g. music as unique immediacy vs. its reproducibility in film, the impossibility of a completely free musical subjectivity in cinema vs. the necessity for a spontaneous musical subject, etc). Therefore, contradiction must be incorporated into the music. The musical subject must assume a less serious formal relation between itself and its object than is found in autonomous music. This requires a “formal self-negation of music that plays with itself” and hence attains a distance from the position of immediacy exploited by autonomous music in its expression of subjectivity. In a formal, relational (not expressive or associative) sense, film music must begin to approach the structure of the joke. Such a structure will be “nothing but the awareness of music that it is mediated, technically produced and reproduced” (pp. 128-132).

This helps explain why Adorno and Eisler, despite their insistence on the importance of the technical compositional procedures of autonomous music, intermittently make reference to certain types of already existing film music, such as music of animated cartoons and musical revues. Such music can serve a “Brechtian” strategy of narrative and dramatic interruption, and it accomplishes this by means of a certain reflexivity which, in its more or less comic function, distances itself from a purely musical immediacy, helps block pseudo-individualization, and therefore provides hints for a progressive practice of film music.

Such discretion, if achieved successfully for films with a serious content, again implicitly points towards a reconciliation of subject and object. In the context of Adorno's corpus, the abandonment of the requirement for seriousness while the music is still totally planned through the agency of a genuine musical subject constitutes a prescription for a music which surpasses that of Schoenberg. It makes the technified, industrially administered medium of film the basis for subjective expression, and that possibility suggests a way out of the isolation imposed on Schoenberg precisely by the administration of culture.

Ultimately, as the authors point out in a footnote which cites Hegel on the elimination of art, their vision of film music presages the development of art into something qualitatively different. The reconciliation of technification with subjective expression would be the end of the aura of music. Such a new kind of music “abandons itself to its concrete occasion as ‘unique’ … but at the same time takes care not to seek its fulfillment in the triumph of intruding upon something unique.” This is a vision of a freely expressed human subjectivity which does not require the realm of the sacred or magic to conceive of itself, yet does not submit to the processes of rationalization described in Dialectic of Enlightenment. An ideal film music implies a humanity which finds its specificity in something other than a magic immediacy. Hence, the concluding prescription in Composing for the Films: “By displaying a tendency to vanish as soon as it appears, motion picture music renounces its claim that it is there, which is today its cardinal sin” (pp. 129, 133).

For Adorno's Hegelian Marxism, this kind of formulation only makes sense in an industrial and cultural order other than those we know. As in all of Adorno's work, the description of the present situation is founded on a comparison with an impossibility. Yet it is that impossibility which is the concept of a genuine film music. The gap between concept and object is a condemnation of the society in which we live.


  1. See, for example, Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” trans. Alan Williams, Film Quarterly, 28 (Winter, 1974-75), 39-47; Jean-Louis Comolli, “Technique et idéologie: caméra, perspective, profondeur du champ,” a series which appeared intermittently in Cahiers du cinéma, nos. 229 (May, 1971) through 241 (Sep.-Oct., 1972); and Stephen Heath, “Narrative Space,” Screen, 17 (Autumn, 1976), 68-112.

  2. Subsequent references are to the original edition: Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947). For a note on Eisler's aesthetics as a vacillation between positions of Adorno and of Brecht, see Hans Mayer, “An Aesthetic Debate of 1951: Comment on a Text by Hanns Eisler,” trans. Jack Zipes, New German Critique, no. 2 (Spring, 1974), pp. 58-62.

    External evidence regarding authorship is murky. After Eisler went to East Germany, a translation was published there which contained some changes to which Adorno did not consent. A 1969 translation into German authorized by Adorno included no changes from the 1947 editions. See Susan Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (New York: The Free Press, 1977), p. 296, n. 32. On the other hand, before he went to East Germany Eisler claimed Composing for the Films as his artistic credo in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. See Hanns Eisler, A Rebel in Music: Selected Writings, ed. Manfred Grabs and trans. Marjorie Meyer (New York: International Publishers, 1978), p. 151.

  3. See Buck-Morss, pp. 11-17, for Adorno's musical activities in the 1920's.

  4. Max Horkeimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), pp. 26-27. The concrete totality was a basic concept for Lukács. The seminal formulation of the concept in classical Marxist literature is in Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), pp. 100-108.

  5. Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 22.

  6. See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1976), pp. 217-251.

  7. Theodor W. Adorno, “On the Social Situation of Music,” trans. Wes Blomster, Telos, no. 35 (Spring, 1978), p. 130.

  8. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), p. 77. On Philosophy of New Music, cf. Frederic Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University, 1974) for the essay on Adorno. Also helpful is T. W. Adorno, “The Radio Symphony: An experiment in Theory,” in Radio Research 1941, eds. Paul Lazersfeld and Frank N. Stanton (New York: Duell, Sloane and Pearce, 1941), pp. 110-139.

    On the relation of melody and tonality in Western music as a problem of the rationalization of music, cf. Max Weber's 1921 essay, The Rational and Social Foundations of Music, ed. and trans. Don Martindale, Johannes Riedel, and Gertrude Neuwirth (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1969). Weber there outlines the case for the necessity of an irreducible subjective component of music, given the ultimately unrationalizable character of the well-tempered scale. Weber, of course, was a touchstone for both Lukács and Adorno on rationalization, administration, and bureaucracy.

  9. See, for example, Dialectic of Enlightenment, pp. 135, 124, 144, 158.

  10. A classic exchange between Adorno and Benjamin on this point is in Ernst Bloch, et al., Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Ronald Taylor (London: New Left Books, 1977), pp. 110-141.

  11. References to Composing for the Films are in parentheses in the text.

  12. For a discussion of German leftist notions of montage and the relation of the Russian Formalist concept of defamiliarization and Brecht's alienation-effect, see Ben Brewster, “From Shklovsky to Brecht: A Reply,” Screen, 15 (Summer, 1974), 82-102.

  13. See Adorno, “The Radio Symphony.”

  14. Béla Baláazs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, trans. Edith Bone (New York: Dover, 1970), p. 216.

Peter Uwe Hohendahl (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “Autonomy of Art: Looking Back at Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie,1 in German Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, March, 1981, pp. 133-48.

[In the following essay, Hohendahl examines critical response to the publication of Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie.]

Theodor Adorno's major contribution to the philosophy of art, his Ästhetische Theorie, appeared in 1970.2 The work was almost completed when the author died in 1969. Adorno meant to rewrite the introduction, but otherwise the text needed only formal revisions, which were carried out by Rolf Tiedemann, Adorno's faithful disciple and editor. Tiedemann rightly felt that Ästhetische Theorie deserved immediate publication since it was the legacy of Critical Theory. Yet it was precisely this aspect which marred the reception of the book. Except for a few voices in the liberal and conservative camp, the response was surprisingly negative. One might have expected that the East German critics would denounce Adorno's theory as a typical example of Western ideology—which they did; more alarming was the unfriendly or at least cool reception among the West German Left. If the members of the Frankfurt Institute considered Ästhetische Theorie as Adorno's legacy, it turned out to be an Erbe which was clearly unwelcome. The charges varied, but there was almost a consensus among the critics of the left camp that Adorno's last book did not offer the materialist theory of art that everybody was looking for. It was particularly Adorno's insistence on the autonomy of the art work and his well known indictment of Tendenz and political art which angered the Left. Adorno evidently had not changed his position. In his last work he reiterated his critique of unmediated Engagement and once more presented modernism and the avant-garde as the only viable responses to the increasing brutality of advanced capitalism. His renewed claim that, in the final analysis, only the authentic work of art overcomes the stultifying atmosphere of the cultural industry met with disbelief and outspoken disapproval. The hostility was so strong that the German Left dismissed the book out of hand and left the appropriation to the conservatives who at this point were inclined to use some of Adorno's arguments for the defense of their aesthetic and moral beliefs.

What were the reasons for this bizarre development? After all, the left movement in Germany owed most of its theoretical insights to the Frankfurt School and especially to Theodor W. Adorno who taught the younger generation the critical approach to literature and music. When Ästhetische Theorie came out, the West German student movement had reached the climax of its public influence. At the same time, however, it faced its first major crisis. The remarkable public recognition did not translate into a lasting, serious impact on the social system which they critiqued and attacked. Unlike the American students, the West German students tried to solve this problem by forming more structured political organizations or moving closer to established political parties (DKP). In 1970 the student movement, entering its second phase, turned against its initial belief in spontaneous political expression and rallied around more orthodox leader figures like Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao-Tze-Tong. As much as these various groups fought among themselves and disagreed about strategy, they had one thing in common: their dislike of the Frankfurt School and its interpretation of Marxism.3 They redefined their goals in terms of immediate political action and tried to establish a closer connection with the working class. Critical Theory became the victim of this reorientation. Since the New Left had been under the influence of the Frankfurt School at least until 1969, this critique was more than anything else a self-critique and therefore carried out with uncommon harshness. The members of the Frankfurt School were openly condemned as bourgeois and their theory denounced as liberal middle class ideology. The liberal element in Adorno's writing—not only his concept of genuine culture, which clearly owed much to the eighteenth and nineteenth century and showed the Bildungsbürger in Adorno, but also his defense of individual freedom against the demands of the state and political parties, made Adorno definitely unpopular with a movement that struggled to transform the social structure of West Germany. Using the yardstick of orthodox Marxism, Adorno's left critics found it easy to dismiss his late work, especially Ästhetische Theorie, as irrelevant for the Marxist project. It was either Lukács or Brecht and Benjamin who became the new cultural heroes, and their theoretical work was appropriated to develop an alternative position. Ever since the famous Benjamin-issue of alternative in 1967 (no. 56/57), the extremely complicated personal relationship between Walter Benjamin and the younger Adorno, who became Benjamin's disciple, critic and editor, was presented as a clear-cut opposition: on the one hand the smug Adorno who tried to suppress certain parts of Benjamin's oeuvre because they did not agree with his understanding of Benjamin's essential philosophy (which cannot be denied); on the other hand Walter Benjamin who moved closer to Brecht, transcended idealism and developed a truly materialist theory of art. We have to understand this emotionally charged debate as a political rather than philological discourse. The heart of the matter for the New Left was a defense of Benjamin's oeuvre against the authority of Adorno and its integration into the dogma of the Frankfurt School.4

The interest in Benjamin, particularly in his essays of the thirties, which support the Communist party, reflects the yearning of the New Left to grasp and to revive the element of political praxis in aesthetic theory. Since the Left placed the emphasis primarily on those elements in Benjamin's work which agreed with Brecht and overlooked other traditions, Adorno's critique of these essays, which he advanced already in letters during the thirties, could only fuel the aversion against the devious influence of Adorno's aesthetic elitism.

Although this debate has not yet come to an end—the question of Benjamin's Marxism seems to be as undecided as ever—there is a growing consensus among the Left and its various factions, that the initial approach and the way it shaped the discourse has lost its usefulness and its critical edge. While Benjamin scholars have realized that we have to get out of the old mold, if we want to appropriate Benjamin's writings for the eighties,5 the discussion about Adorno's theory seems to linger without any direction.6 It is time to take another look at Ästhetische Theorie and Adorno's essays on literature. This is not to make Adorno less controversial and thereby more acceptable to the established forces of the academy. The perspective which guided the interpretation and critique of Adorno in the early seventies was rooted, as I have tried to show, in a singular historical situation—the struggle between the student movement and the West German establishment. The historical distance from these events, which only the nostalgic observer can overlook, calls for a reappreciation. This rereading cannot simply dismiss the arguments of the early seventies and pretend to face the text for the first time, but it must be conscious of the limitations which were imposed on the interpretation at that time.

According to the Left, Adorno refused to apply his own theory to the political realm. He indulged in pessimism. Indeed the social theory of the Frankfurt School which started out in the thirties as a Marxist project became increasingly pessimistic with respect to Marx' prognosis that capitalism would ultimately self-destruct and give way to a socialist society.7 Faced with fascism in Germany and Italy on the one hand and monopoly capitalism in the USA on the other, Horkheimer and Adorno concluded in the forties that the Enlightenment, which was supposed to bring freedom and emancipation, had resulted in barbarism and slavery, not as an accidental relapse, as the liberal mind preferred to see this development, but rather as the logical outcome of the historical process. In their Dialektik der Aufklärung Horkheimer and Adorno argued that the historical unfolding of ratio would lead to the increasing domination of nature by man who then would become the victim of his own structure of domination. Since Horkheimer and Adorno, unlike Lukács, had given up the belief that the proletariat would revolutionize the given social structure, their analysis of advanced capitalism did not include the revolutionary perspective of traditional Marxism. The Frankfurt School reached a position where man can analyze the logic of history but not organize political opposition. As late as 1969, shortly before his death, Adorno defended this stance against the demands of the students. The unity of theory and praxis, he argued, tends to privilege action.8 And this emphasis becomes irrational when imposed on philosophy. Adorno denounced the call for praxis as dogmatic and insisted that the uncompromising rigor of theory which defends its realm against the onslaught of positivism offers the truly critical opposition. This last effort to preserve the priority of theory came close to the very position that the Frankfurt School castigated as traditional in the thirties. Adorno's use of the category of negation became abstract and thereby lost its critical edge.

Although Adorno refused to view his attitude as pessimistic, we cannot overlook that the gap between theory and praxis is widening in his later writings. His late work tends to dwell on the importance of art. It is not accidental that Adorno's last book deals with aesthetic rather than social problems. His concern with social questions leads to aesthetic rather than political theory. Adorno's philosophy of art is his final answer to the dilemma of social praxis. Adorno offers the authentic work of art as that emphatic opposition which can no longer materialize in political organizations. This perspective might look more attractive today than ten years ago when there appeared to be hope that the age of capitalism might come to an end. But is this kind of relevance a good reason for us to return to Adorno's criticism? Is Adorno perhaps becoming fashionable again because his aestheticism and his pessimism appeal to the readers of the troubled eighties? By asking these questions I do not want to discredit the legitimacy of our present interests and simply restore the authority of Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Still, the question: what does Ästhetische Theorie offer to us today? should be coupled with the complementary question: what do we offer to Adorno's theory, from where do we look at it?

Let me begin with a broad description of Adorno's philosophy. His oeuvre is clearly grounded in the tradition of German Idealism, particularly in Hegel. The same can be said about Georg Lukács, but the results are strikingly different. When Lukács moved from an idealist to a Marxist position and attempted to work out a materialist basis for his criticism, he adopted Lenin's reflection theory which is supposed to support Lukács' concept of the organic work of art as the only authentic form of art. Adorno rejects this more traditional part of Hegel's aesthetics and insists that the rigorous historical approach should be extended to basic aesthetic norms and rules. Lukács also historicizes art and literature. However, coming from reflection theory and a general concept of realism he favors those forms of literature which express the interest and concerns of the proletariat—in other words social realism. Adorno, who admired the early Lukács, refused to accept this argument. In his essay “Erpresste Versöhnung”9 he distanced himself from Lukács' theory of realism and at the same time harshly critiqued Lukács' concept of the organic work of art. Adorno denounces Lukács' struggle against modernism, i.e., writers like Kafka and Joyce, as the regressive part of Hegel's influence—a reduction of the work of art to considerations of content. Adorno on the other hand defends modernism precisely because he shares the historical approach with the Hegelian tradition. To put it more concretely: he rejects the attack on modernism because it is rooted in an ontological, ahistorical understanding of the organic work of art. Modern writers are not decadent and therefore unable to synthesize content and form; rather they try to work out the dialectic of social change and aesthetic innovation. What we call the history of literature, changes of style and genres, is not just a sequence of facts and events, it consists of a dialectical process in which the individual work is seen against the background of conventions and norms. Authenticity is reached only through the negation of the affirmative tradition. This stress on novelty should not be mistaken for an apology of the fashionable, it rather indicates that the aesthetic material itself is drawn into the historical process.

Adorno follows the idealist tradition of Kant, Schiller, and Hegel and emphasizes the autonomy of the art work. Unlike the aesthetic theory of the later nineteenth century in Germany, which tends to view aesthetic principles as metahistorical, Adorno is much closer to Hegel's intention when he applies the historical critique also to the basic aesthetic categories—including the concept of autonomy. The legitimacy of this category is limited to the period between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries, although Adorno is never quite clear whether this period has come to an end or not. In his famous lecture on poetry and society of 195710 Adorno referred to the collective Grundstrom in the poems of Brecht and Lorca without indicating however whether this grounding in a collective spirit marks the beginning of a new progressive era or the decline of poetry as a medium of philosophical truth. I shall come back to this ambiguity later. First I would like to develop another important aspect of Adorno's theory: the correlation between the aesthetic and the social sphere.

When literary theory in the late eighteenth century developed the notion that art is autonomous, the intention was to free the art work from the demand of social praxis. The result is an abstract opposition between the social and the aesthetic sphere. By historicizing the major categories of aesthetic theory Adorno brings these realms closer together again. Ultimately art and society belong to the same stream of history. This insight is certainly not new. The left Hegelians, beginning with Heine, used Hegel's model of history to understand the evolution of literature as representative for the development of social and political history. Adorno's approach stands in this tradition, but he is very much aware of its dangers. While he insists on the dialectic of art and society (the art work is also a social fact), he does not, unlike Lukács, conceive of it in terms of reflection. Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie is his final effort to grasp and theoretically refine the dialectic of the social and the aesthetic sphere.

Adorno's theory not only defends and legitimizes modernism and the avant-garde, it may well be called a theory of the avant-garde. Its author is clearly on the side of those historical forces which undermine the rule of European classicism. Adorno is a distant and skeptical observer of Winckelmann's ideas. Looking back at Greek classicism Adorno points out the material conditions of Greek history which were anything but ideal: brutal warfare, slavery and oppression are the reality which have to be suppressed before we can enjoy the notion of perennial beauty and harmony in Greek art. “Die vom Klassizismus veranstaltete Einheit des Allgemeinen und Besonderen war schon in attischen Zeiten nicht erreicht, geschweige denn später. Daher blicken die klassischen Bildwerke mit jenen leeren Augen, die eher—archaisch—erschrecken, als daβ sie jene edle Einfalt und stille Gröβe ausstrahlten, welche das empfindsame Zeitalter auf sie projizierte. Was heute an der Antike sich aufdrängt, ist grundverschieden von der Korrespondenz mit dem europäischen Klassizismus in der Ära der Französischen Revolution und Napoleons, und noch der Baudelaireschen” (p. 241). The object of this critique is the neo-humanism of Weimar and its glorification of Greek art. This seemingly historical polemic, however, has a methodological aspect which I want to bring to the foreground: Adorno, at least implicitly, speaks here against the model that was used by the early Lukács to situate the novel form. Adorno undercuts the fundamental assumption of Lukács' Theorie des Romans that early Greek literature was grounded in social conditions which were free of alienation.

This critique of classicism becomes important because it is at the same time a critique of a model which was further developed by Lucien Goldmann. For Goldmann the task of the critic and sociologist of literature is to establish a homology between the social and the literary structure.11 Adorno's theory looks similar, yet this similarity is deceptive. While Adorno shares with Goldmann the interest in formal structures and rejects any kind of Inhaltssoziologie as vulgar materialism, he is careful not to press the correlation into the homology model. The difference becomes apparent when Adorno defines his approach as immanent. The critic is starting out from the text rather than beginning with an analysis of the social structure. It is the explication of the work of art which offers the insight into the social conditions that defined the production of the work of art. In his essay, “Rede über Lyrik und Gesellschaft” he unfolds the notion that the social meaning of the poem is expressed through its language. The poem relates to social history only indirectly. Adorno calls the poem a philosophical and historical sundial: by deciphering the structure of the poem the critic decodes the meaning of social history. Again, this sounds like Goldmann's theory, but we have to note the distinction: the interpretation of the poem refers to the meaning of history, not to the facts or the objective structures. The two realms are mediated by philosophy—more specifically the philosophy of the early Marx. Unlike Goldmann, Adorno would never identify the work of art with an individual social group or class. This procedure which is typical of Goldmann's criticism, is unacceptable to Adorno on grounds of principle. The correspondence between art and society, the aesthetic and the social meaning, transcends the particular group or class. Authentic are only those works which are representative of the whole. The choice of the sundial as the key metaphor signals that for Adorno the important element in the text is its expressive force and much less the author and his/her intentions to build up a coherent vision of the world. The individual author enters the sphere of criticism only as the human voice, the historical subjectivity that objectifies the expression through the work. Thus the emphasis is placed on the objective side: The authentic work of art is given the status of a permanent testament of human history—it embodies the hopes and the sufferings, the expectations and the contradictions of the human race.

In Ästhetische Theorie Adorno tries to unfold this argument. He notes: “Opponiert sie der Empirie durchs Moment der Form—und die Vermittlung von Form und Inhalt ist nicht zu fassen ohne deren Unterscheidung—, so ist die Vermittlung einigermaβen allgemein darin zu suchen, daβ ästhetische Form sedimentierter Inhalt sei” (p. 15). Or another definition: “Nur vermöge der Trennung von der empirischen Realität, die der Kunst gestattet, nach ihrem Bedürfnis das Verhältnis von Ganzem und Teilen zu modeln, wird das Kunstwerk zum Sein zweiter Potenz” (p. 14). Here Adorno, following Walter Benjamin, introduces the concept of the monad. By comparing art works with monads Adorno tries to explore the dialectic of art and reality. Monads are closed, they have, so to speak, no windows and therefore offer no immediate access to reality. This, as it turns out, is quite unnecessary, since the outside world is already contained in the monad. Adorno then applies this idea to the understanding of aesthetic forms: “Die ungelösten Antagonismen der Realität kehren wieder in den Kunstwerken als die immanenten Probleme ihrer Form. Das, nicht der Einschuβ gegenständlicher Momente, definiert das Verhältnis der Kunst zur Gesellschaft” (p. 16). These unanswered questions provide literary and art history with their dynamic force. The increasing contradictions of reality show up as dissonances of form, they propel the evolution of art to the point where the avant-garde artist negates the very principle of the art work itself. Thus only those works deserve to be called authentic which question their own formal structure.

By stressing the formal aspect of literary history Adorno arrives at a position which is close to that of Russian Formalism. He also argues that aesthetic criticism should primarily be concerned with questions of technique. The detailed analysis of seemingly technical points, in other words close reading, throws light on the social meaning. The comparison with Russian Formalism is fruitful with respect to considerations of form. There are also important differences. Adorno would have rejected the formalist notion that literary history can be fully understood in terms of its intrinsic evolution. As we shall see, Adorno insists on the totality of history no less than Hegel or Lukács. Therefore the approach of Tynyanov12 that the critic has to look first at the literary sequence, then at the political or economic evolution, and finally try to relate these sequences would be shunned as undialectical and positivistic. While Adorno shares the concern of the Russian Formalists with technique, his interpretation of history follows a model which is quite different.

In spite of his outspoken critique of the traditional dialectic which moves from thesis to antithesis and finally ends with a synthesis, Adorno's philosophy is still grounded in Hegel's philosophy of history. The concept of history which the formalists propose, although analytically sound, is unacceptable to Adorno, because it deprives the work of art of its emphatic truth value (Wahrheitsgehalt). Adorno's interest in literary evolution is not that of the historians who are satisfied when they have demonstrated how a genre changes or a motif is expressed in different ways. Adorno's theory puts a high premium on aesthetic innovation. Patterns, forms, genres are not fixed entities, but historical categories. However, the notion of change and innovation must not be fetishized. Its meaning can be understood only as a part of a larger historical context. Close reading is for Adorno, strange as this may sound, a contextual reading. When Adorno postulates that the sociologist of art must begin with the text, he presupposes a model of history in which the various spheres—the social, the political, the philosophical, the aesthetic—are part of a unified process. Thus Adorno's claim to Immanenz should not be interpreted as a German version of New Criticism, the equivalent of Emil Staiger for instance. Stressing the intrinsic approach means the opposite: it is the attempt to overcome the reification of traditional interpretation. Formalized professional scholarship insists on the rigorous definition of its object, the separation of the researcher and his/her material, without paying attention to their dialectical relationship in which the subject is very much part of the object and, on the other hand, the seemingly objective material the result of the subject's activities. When we talk about Adorno's approach we have to realize that he refuses to offer an objectified scientific method which can be abstracted from the individual act of understanding and then applied to various works.

Among the three approaches to the work of art, the interest in the origin and production of art, the interest in its structure, and the interest in its impact and reception, Adorno privileges, as we have seen, the structural procedure. He is less sympathetic to studies which try to understand art in terms of communication. Adorno argues: “Die Objektivation der Kunst, von der Gesellschaft drauβen her ihr Fetischismus, ist ihrerseits gesellschaftlich als Produkt der Arbeitsteilung. Darum ist das Verhältnis der Kunst zur Gesellschaft nicht vorwiegend in der Sphäre der Rezeption aufzusuchen. Es ist dieser vorgängig: in der Produktion. Das Interesse an der gesellschaftlichen Dechiffrierung der Kunst muβ dieser sich zukehren, anstatt mit der Ermittlung und Klassifizierung von Wirkungen sich abspeisen zu lassen, die vielfach aus gesellschaftlichem Grunde von den Kunstwerken und ihrem objektiven gesellschaftlichen Gehalt gänzlich divergieren” (p. 338f). This hostile remark against reception studies is primarily directed against positivism in musicology which tried to develop a quantitative method in order to demonstrate the success and significance of music.13 Adorno himself was clearly interested in reception and wrote a number of important essays on the sociology of hearing.14

Adorno's emphasis on production as the key to the understanding of the art work deserves closer scrutiny. What does he mean? Certainly not the kind of studies which were popular in the late nineteenth century, when the critic explained the work of art by documenting its sources and demonstrated the roots in the biography of the author. The individual author and his/her intentions receive rarely more than fleeting attention. Biography is in most cases treated on the anecdotal level. Adorno would agree with Lukács' argument that Balzac's intentions and the meaning of his novels were not identical. He carefully refrains from praising the genius, knowing well that this category is part of the liberal ideology: the self-promotion of the artist who has to deal with the market place. Adorno defines production of art in terms of the general economic and social conditions under which the artist has to work—feudal patronage, the competition of the capitalist market or the situation of culture industry in advanced capitalist societies. Secondly, Adorno wants to emphasize artistic labor: the concrete struggle of the artists with the techniques which are available at a certain time. By focusing attention on the process of production the critic at the same time reveals its meaning and truth value.

I want to give an example from Ästhetische Theorie to demonstrate what Adorno has in mind. There is no doubt that Adalbert Stifter was a conservative author. Both his critical prose and his works of fiction express a moderate and cautious stance. It is not accidental therefore that Stifter's reading public consisted to a large extent of educated conservative German Bürger, while the left camp remained indifferent or hostile. Typically enough, Lukács denied Stifter the status of a major German writer. Adorno agrees with neither side. His interpretation wants to rescue Stifter's work from his conservative admirers who find their own ideology confirmed in the message of the novels. Adorno is fully aware that this effort is problematical when he notes: “Die Schichten, die ihm seine halb esoterische Popularität verschafften, blättern ab. Damit jedoch ist nicht das letzte Wort über ihn gesagt, Versöhntheit und Versöhnlichkeit zumal seiner Spätphase sind outriert. Objektivität erstarrt zur Maske, beschworenes Leben wird zum abweisenden Ritual. Durch die Exzentrizität des Mittleren schimmert das verschwiegene und verleugnete Leid des entfremdeten Subjekts hindurch und die Unversöhntheit des Zustands” (p. 346). This statement, however, is followed by another one which demonstrates Adorno's understanding of the authentic value within the conservative ideology. “Ideologische Überspannung verleiht dem Werk mittelbar seinen unideologischen Wahrheitsgehalt, seine Überlegenheit über alle Literatur tröstenden Zuspruchs und beflissen landschaftlicher Geborgenheit und erwirbt ihm die authentische Qualität, die Nietzsche bewunderte” (p. 346). Adorno clearly differentiates between the meaning that Stifter wanted to express in his writings and the Gehalt which is hidden in the structure of the work. In the case of Stifter Adorno sets the utopian element apart from the conservative ideology of the author. This is a significant move. The sociologist who concentrates on the plot and the characters of, let us say, Nachsommer can read this novel as a typical example of the conservative mood of the eighteen-fifties.15 The overriding themes offer plenty of evidence for this thesis. Adorno, to be sure, does not deny the validity of this aspect, yet ultimately the thematic conservatism of Stifter's novels is seen as part of a large context. Adorno's reading links the conservative component to the industrial revolution of the fifties. The legitimacy of Nachsommer is its negation of the new industrial society.

The category of negativity is crucial for Adorno's philosophy. Through its negativity the work of art secures its authenticity and sets itself apart from the convention of its time and genre. Indeed, Adorno deemphasizes conventions because, as socially accepted modes of artistic expression, they indirectly also affirm the social status quo. This is the reason why Adorno never feels quite comfortable with older literature or music. The works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rely heavily on conventional devices and moreover fulfill immediate social functions. They are still embedded in social and cultural traditions of individual social groups and classes. For Adorno they are less valuable because they belong to a specific social setting and are not fully autonomous. Their truth value appears to be more limited. This bias shows that Adorno's criticism is not just another form of ideology critique. In this respect Goldmann's theory is certainly closer to Marxist orthodoxy. Goldmann's procedure focuses on a specific social and historical situation, for instance the situation of the noblesse de robe in France, and then relates his findings to the structure of individual works of literature, for example Racine's tragedies. In the final analysis he maintains a base/superstructure model. Adorno on the other hand, makes use of ideology critique in order to undermine ossified structures and reified thought patterns. He firmly holds that those works of art which deserve to be called gelungen, i.e., genuine and excellent, cannot be reduced to the status of documents which reflect the ideas of a particular class. Although the authentic work of art is grounded in its historical moment, its truth value (Wahrheitsgehalt) transcends this historical moment. This truth value, Adorno argues in a key passage of Ästhetische Theorie, on which their rank ultimately rests is historical through and through. “Er [i.e., truth value] verhält sich nicht relativ zur Geschichte derart, daβ er, und damit der Rang der Kunstwerke, einfach mit der Zeit variierte. Wohl hat eine solche Variation statt: und Kunstwerke von Qualität etwa vermögen durch Geschichte sich zu entblättern. Dadurch indessen fallen Wahrheitsgehalt, Qualität nicht dem Historismus anheim” (p. 285). Against any relativistic notion Adorno maintains that there is an objectively correct historical consciousness. I quote once more from the same passage: “Vielmehr heiβt richtiges Bewuβtsein, seitdem das Potential von Freiheit aufging, das fortgeschrittenste Bewuβtsein der Widersprüche im Horizont ihrer möglichen Versöhnung” (p. 285). The aesthetic analogy of this advanced consciousness are the forces of production within the art work, i.e., the craftsmanship of the artist, mastering the material, struggling against the general trend towards conformity. Artistic innovation, in other words, is the equivalence of the advanced historical consciousness.

It should be obvious by now that Adorno's theory summarizes the development of the last century. Its examples are the composition of Schönberg and his disciples and the evolution of modern poetry since Baudelaire. Whether this philosophy can be applied to medieval art seems doubtful to me, since the category of autonomy is central to the basic argument. This brings us back to my initial question. After I have outlined what Adorno has “to offer,” we have to ask ourselves where we stand and how we relate to this theory today. If we mean to take Adorno's philosophy of art seriously, we cannot evade this question, because theory itself is no less historical than literature and music. And Adorno was quite aware of this problem. In the introduction to Ästhetische Theorie he states: “Vom Begriff der philosophischen Ästhetik geht ein Ausdruck des Veralteten aus, ähnlich wie von dem des Systems oder der Moral” (p. 493). Then the question arises: How can we develop a systematic aesthetic theory when most of the traditional categories on which this theory was built have become obsolete? The fact that recent history has liquidated basic concepts like the beautiful makes any attempt to systematize aesthetics highly problematical.

Baumeister and Kulenkampff have argued that Adorno could no longer follow Hegel's philosophy of art which places the emphasis on content rather than form, because it privileges rational discourse and therefore imposes its concepts on art in such a way that art loses its status as an independent mode of expression.16 Those elements of the work of art which cannot be grasped by theoretical concepts are indeed the most meaningful ones for Adorno who is distrustful of rational discourse. By the same token Adorno cannot hark back to a more traditional genre theory which rests on metahistorical norms. Nor can he return to Kant's aesthetic theory which is concerned with aesthetic experience. Still Adorno is convinced that modern art and literature are in need of aesthetic theory. Appreciation as a mode of criticism is not enough. Since philosophical criticism aims at the truth value of art, the critics must not confine themselves to subjective experience. The task is to decipher objective meaning and this can be accomplished only with the help of a theoretical framework. Especially the complexity of modern art calls for a theoretical approach. Adorno notes: “Gerade die aufs Subjekt nicht zu reduzierenden, nicht in blanker Unmittelbarkeit zu besitzenden Momente der Kunst bedürfen des Bewuβtseins und damit der Philosophie. Sie wohnt aller ästhetischen Erfahrung inne, wofern sie nicht kunstfremd, barbarisch ist. Kunst erwartet die eigene Explikation” (p. 524). So Adorno, in spite of his skepticism against rational discourse, clearly relates back to the tradition of philosophical aesthetics and turns explicitly against the concept of experience offered by positivism and pragmatism. He defines the goal of aesthetic theory in the following way: “Ästhetik heute müβte über der Kontroverse zwischen Kant und Hegel sein, ohne sie durch Synthese zu glätten” (p. 528). This reference to Kant and Hegel, Adorno's shorthand for two types of aesthetic theory, locates the realm in which Adorno tries to work out the tension between theory and history. He suggests that the categories of idealism still help us capture the emphatic meaning of modern art and literature, although modernism and the avant-garde are no longer grounded in idealism. Adorno is fully aware of the dilemma. The philosophical concepts of criticism are at the same time indispensable and inadequate. Because of this ambiguity the late work of Adorno tends to identify philosophy and art, since the process of deciphering and preserving, in other words criticism, is the only way in which truth in an emphatic sense can be revealed. Genuine art, for Adorno the last bastion that has not yet capitulated, is the sphere where the deception of instrumental reason is without consequence. This vision owes its force to Hegel, although it does not share Hegel's negative attitude toward postclassical art. For Adorno art and philosophy are inseparable but not identical. This position allows Adorno to cling to the concepts of the work of art (Kunstwerk) and truth value (Wahrheitsgehalt) as his categories. When philosophy, as Adorno claims, in the phase of late capitalism, has lost most of its emancipatory functions, it becomes the task of the authentic art work to stand in and defend the tower of truth.

I started this essay with some remarks about the hostile reception of Ästhetische Theorie in the early seventies. This animosity was partly caused by the frustration of the student movement. The students were looking for a leader in their political struggle and had to realize that Adorno was unwilling and also unprepared to step into this role. This explanation, however, is not sufficient. The lack of appreciation which the younger generation showed in 1970 must be related to a broader phenomenon. Between 1967 and 1970 West Germany witnessed an almost unparalleled breakdown of the literary system. The radicals called for the end of literature and criticism, since the capitalist system had turned them into meaningless toys of the establishment. This crisis undermined the belief in the autonomy of art which Adorno defended against Tendenz. This debate in my opinion is only the foreground for a deeper problem which had been lingering after World War II. I mean the fate of the avant-garde. Adorno's philosophy of art is closely related to the avant-garde of the early 20th century. He takes most of his examples from works that were written or composed between 1890 and 1930. Seldom does he refer to later works. His literary criticism favors authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Heine, Balzac, Eichendorff, George, Wedekind, Kraus, and Benjamin. The notable exception is his interpretation of Beckett's Endgame (1957)—a play which speaks very much to the mood of Adorno's late years.17 Occasionally Adorno would play with the idea that the concept of autonomy of art might not be fully appropriate for the period that followed World War II. Here and there he cautiously alludes to the end of the avant-garde, yet he fails to pursue this perspective in any rigorous manner.

Today, however, it would be futile to suppress this question: did the neo-avant-garde still have the same critical edge which Adorno saw in the works of the previous generation? The New Left answered this question in the negative. They appropriated the arguments of Horkheimer's and Adorno's Dialektik der Aufklärung that there is no room for genuine culture in advanced industrial societies and therefore rejected the notion of aesthetic opposition. As I mentioned earlier, they discovered Benjamin's writings and followed his thesis that the autonomy of art, which was grounded in its ritual function, faded away with the advent of mechanical mass reproduction. Benjamin had argued: “In dem Augenblick aber, da der Maβstab der Echtheit an der Kunstproduktion versagt, hat sich auch die gesamte Funktion der Kunst umgewälzt. An die Stelle ihrer Fundierung aufs Ritual tritt ihre Fundierung auf eine andere Praxis: nämlich ihre Fundierung auf Politik.”18 This thesis guided the theoretical efforts of the student movement. They wanted to tear down the walls of the aesthetic ghetto and apply the arts to the political realm. By 1975 it was clear that this movement had failed to reach its goal. The literary system slowly but surely returned to the status quo ante. I cannot go into the political and philosophical reasons for this failure.19 My argument is exclusively concerned with the critique of Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie, as it emerged from the crisis of the literary system.

As soon as we focus on this question we begin to realize what separates our situation from that of Adorno in the sixties. We notice that Adorno's philosophy of art has become historical. Adorno stresses the precarious state of modern art and emphasizes the negative impact of capitalism on culture, yet he maintains that the function of art has basically not changed since the advent of modernism. To put it differently: Adorno's theory takes the institution of art for granted. Peter Bürger advanced the argument in his Theorie der Avantgarde (1974) that Adorno failed to critique the concept of autonomy.20 It was the aim of the avant-garde movement, according to Bürger, to overcome the gap between the aesthetic and the practical sphere and to regain the political impact by destructing the traditional aesthetic autonomy. Bürger convincingly demonstrates that Adorno, in spite of his hostility towards Lukács, shares basic philosophical assumptions with him. Their disagreement about realism and modernism is based on a common notion of the autonomous work of art. While Lukács tilted towards a model of organic works of art, Adorno placed the emphasis on the raison d'être of tensions and contradictions. In Bürger's analysis the sharp edge of the historical dialectic finally turns against Adorno himself. Following Benjamin, Bürger describes the avant-garde movement in terms of a self-critique which denounces the complacency of modern aestheticism. Compared with this radical stance where art moves towards its own destruction, Adorno's aesthetic theory reads like a somewhat belated summary of modernism—a recapitulation which is not quite ready to accept the extreme conclusions of the avant-garde of the twentieth century.

Not all critics and theorists have consented to Bürger's thesis. W. Martin Lüdke for instance, in a response to Bürger, has questioned whether Theorie der Avantgarde does justice to Adorno's category of modernism (Moderne).21 He takes issue with Bürger's presentation of Adorno's theory of aesthetic innovation, and finally tries to show that Bürger's critique is not really intrinsic, but rather inspired by the social theory of Jürgen Habermas. I find Lüdke's rejoinder persuasive as an interpretation of Ästhetische Theorie, but it is ultimately beside the point. Adopting a Habermasian position, i.e., looking at the Frankfurt School from a stance which has modified some of the basic tenets, enables Bürger to situate Adorno's aesthetic theory historically. Precisely because he stands outside of Adorno's theory he can point out that the logic of this theory is limited to a specific period of European art.

Although it may not be obvious at first sight, this argument has far-reaching consequences. It undercuts Adorno's key metaphor: the art work is no longer the sundial of history. The period after 1945, according to Bürger, is marked by a legitimate coexistence of different styles and tendencies. There is no stringent correlation between social and art history.

On the whole I find Bürger's critique and its strategy sound and convincing. Yet I would like to go one step further. To some extent Bürger himself still operates within the confines of Adorno's model. His major thesis, i.e., that the production and reception of literature between 1780 and 1910 is basically determined by the concept of autonomous art, is obviously derived from Adorno. Looking back at this period today and viewing it within the broader context of preceding and following literary history, we realize that Adorno's idea of autonomy, which was then historicized by Bürger, never covered more than a part of the actual literary production of the nineteenth century. Much of the Restoration period (1815-1848), with Heinrich Heine as the prime example, would not fit.22 Aesthetic autonomy as an episode of history: this perspective looks more familiar to us than to Adorno. He was not prepared to accept this interpretation, because it would have deprived him of any meaningful approach to history. In his essay “Das Altern der Neuen Musik” Adorno is ready to concede that modern music was more radical in its beginnings than in its later phases. Still he refuses to unfold the implications of this argument. He laments this development as a loss. His remark about Bartok's later work is quite typical of this attitude: “Die Naivetät des Fachmusikers, der sein Metier besorgt, ohne an der Bewegung des objektiven Geistes recht teilzuhaben, ist dafür mitverantwortlich.”23 This reference to the objective spirit indicates that Adorno, in the final analysis, relies on a Hegelian model of history in which all strands relate to one single center. The application of this model, however cautiously Adorno proceeded, seems to blind him with respect to the divergence of artistic trends and movements. While Adorno certainly rejected a reductive reading of history and was also skeptical of historical laws, his thinking is deeply rooted in the concept of a unified historical process. This idea then, since the project of the Enlightenment has failed, leads him to the notion that the evolution of modern music is regressive because there is less personal freedom and an increasing amount of alienating bureaucracy in our society.24 In a way, this argument puts the blame on history for not following the course that the philosopher has mapped out for it.

What is problematical in Adorno's philosophy of art, in other words, comes from the historical determinism which he inherited from the Hegelian and Marxian tradition. The link between this tradition and the Frankfurt School is the work of Georg Lukács, especially History and Class Consciousness. Those orthodox Marxists who denounced Adorno's theory as liberal ideology, failed to notice that they did not share his concept of the work of art and his approach to criticism, but based their aesthetic theories on the same understanding of history: history as a dialectical process in which the concrete is by definition part of the whole. For Adorno there is no philosophy without Universalgeschichte. As Russell Berman puts it in a recent article: “This historical scheme, an attempt to retain the universal history of Hegel and Marx, evidently precludes the possibility of perceiving the qualitatively new, for the new is only more of the old.”25 Although Berman in my opinion underestimates the difference between Adorno and orthodox Marxism, he has a valid point.

What are we to learn from this critique? Does it mean that any project of defining aesthetic theory in historical-philosophical terms has become impossible, as Bubner26 claims? Or are we to take the advice of H. R. Jauss and turn to a system of aesthetic experience? Both Bubner and Jauss, in his Kleine Apologie der ästhetischen Erfahrung,27 are prepared to eliminate history. This way they hope to regain a less problematical theory of art. I would not be willing to pay this price, for the loss of history would imply a fragmentation of experience which would decrease its meaning.


  1. This essay was first presented as a lecture at Dartmouth College and Smith College in February 1980.

  2. For a full account of the genesis of Ästhetische Theorie see Rolf Tiedemann's “Editorisches Nachwort” in: Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 7 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970), pp. 537-44. The following quotations from Ästhetische Theorie are from this edition.

  3. For the development of the West German student movement and its impact on literature see Literatur und Studentenbewegung, ed. W. Martin Lüdke (Opladen, 1977); Nach dem Protest. Literatur in Umbruch, ed. W. Martin Lüdke (Frankfurt, 1979).

  4. Cf. Jürgen Habermas, “Bewuβtmachende oder rettende Kritik-Die Aktualität Walter Benjamins,” in Zur Aktualität Walter Benjamins (Frankfurt, 1972), pp. 175-223; also Philip Brewster and Carl Howard Buchner, “Language and Critique: Jürgen Habermas on Walter Benjamin,” New German Critique, 17 (1979), pp. 15-29.

  5. Cf. Anson Rabinbach, “Critique and Commentary/Alchemy and Chemistry: Some Remarks on Walter Benjamin and this Special Issue,” New German Critique, 17 (1979), pp. 3-14.

  6. Among the recent contributions to Adorno see Richard Wolin, “The De-Aesthetization of Art: On Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie,Telos, 41 (Fall 1979), pp. 105-27.

  7. For a precise account of the development of the political theory of the Frankfurt School see The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York, 1978), pp. 3-25.

  8. Adorno, “Resignation,” in Adorno, Kritik. Kleine Schriften zur Gesellschaft (Frankfurt, 1971), pp. 145-50.

  9. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 11, pp. 251-80.

  10. “Rede über Lyrik und Gesellschaft,” Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 11, pp. 48-68.

  11. Lucien Goldmann, Pour une sociologie du roman (Paris, 1964); Recherches dialectiques (Paris, 1959).

  12. Jurij Tynjanov, “Über die literarische Evolution” in Texte der russischen Formalisten, Bd. 1, ed. Jurij Striedter, (München, 1969), pp. 393-431.

  13. Adorno, “Thesen zur Kunstsoziologie,” in Adorno, Ohne Leitbild (Frankfurt, 1970), pp. 94-103.

  14. Adorno, Einleitung in die Musiksozologie (Frankfurt, 1962).

  15. For example Uwe-K. Ketelsen, “Adalbert Stifter: Der Nachsommer (1857). Die Vernichtung der historischen Realität in der Ästhetisierung des bürgerlichen Alltags” in Romane und Erzählungen des bürgerlichen Realismus ed. Horst Denkler (Stuttgart, 1980), pp. 188-202.

  16. Thomas Baumeister und Jens Kulenkampff, “Geschichtsphilosophie und philosophische Ästhetik. Zu Adornos Ästhetischer Theorie,” Neue Hefte für Philosophie, 5 (1973), pp. 74-104.

  17. Adorno, “Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen” in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 11, pp. 281-331.

  18. Walter Benjamin, Illuminationen (Frankfurt, 1961), p. 156.

  19. See my forthcoming essay “Politisierung der Kunsttheorie: Zur ästhetischen Diskussion nach 1967” in Literatur in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland seit 1965, ed. Paul Michael Lützeler und Egon Schwarz (Königstein, 1980).

  20. Theorie der Avantgarde (Frankfurt, 1974), pp. 117-27.

  21. Lüdke, “Die Aporien der materialistischen Ästhetik—kein Ausweg? Zur kategorialen Begründung von P. Bürgers Theorie der Avantgarde” in: Theorie der Avantgarde. Antworten auf Peter Bürgers Bestimmung von Kunst und bürgerlicher Gesellschaft, ed. W. Martin Lüdke, (Frankfurt, 1976), pp. 27-71.

  22. Cf. Friedrich Sengle, Biedermeierzeit, vol. 1, (Stuttgart, 1971), pp. 83-109.

  23. Adorno, Dissonanzen (Göttingen, 1972), p. 140.

  24. Dissonanzen, p. 157.

  25. Berman, “Adorno, Marxism and Art,” Telos, 34 (Winter 1977-78), p. 165.

  26. Rüdiger Bubner, “Über einige Bedingungen gegenwärtiger Ästhetik,” Neue Hefte für Philosophie, 5 (1973), pp. 38-73.

  27. Konstanz, 1972.

Andreas Huyssen (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13510

SOURCE: “Adorno in Reverse: From Hollywood to Richard Wagner,” in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 16-43.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Huyssen discusses the influence of Adorno's theory of the “culture industry.”]

Ever since the failure of the 1848 revolution, the culture of modernity has been characterized by the contentious relationship between high art and mass culture. The conflict first emerged in its typical modern form in the Second Empire under Napoleon III and in Bismarck's new German Reich. More often than not it has appeared in the guise of an irreconcilable opposition. At the same time, however, there has been a succession of attempts launched from either side to bridge the gap or at least to appropriate elements of the other. From Courbet's appropriation of popular iconography to Brecht's immersion in the vernacular of popular culture, from Madison Avenue's conscious exploitation of avantgardist pictorial strategies to postmodernism's uninhibited learning from Las Vegas there has been a plethora of strategic moves tending to destabilize the high/low opposition from within. Yet this opposition—usually described in terms of modernism vs. mass culture or avantgarde vs. culture industry—has proven to be amazingly resilient. Such resilience may lead one to conclude that perhaps neither of the two combatants can do without the other, that their much heralded mutual exclusiveness is really a sign of their secret interdependence. Seen in this light, mass culture indeed seems to be the repressed other of modernism, the family ghost rumbling in the cellar. Modernism, on the other hand, often chided by the left as the elitist, arrogant and mystifying master-code of bourgeois culture while demonized by the right as the Agent Orange of natural social cohesion, is the strawman desperately needed by the system to provide an aura of popular legitimation for the blessings of the culture industry. Or, to put it differently, as modernism hides its envy for the broad appeal of mass culture behind a screen of condescension and contempt, mass culture, saddled as it is with pangs of guilt, yearns for the dignity of serious culture which forever eludes it.

Of course, questions raised by this persistent complicity of modernism and mass culture cannot be solved by textual analysis alone or by recourse to categories such as taste or quality. A broader framework is needed. Social scientists in the Marx-Weber tradition such as Jürgen Habermas have argued that with the emergence of civil society the sphere of culture came uncoupled from the political and economic systems. Such a differentiation of spheres (Ausdifferenzierung) may have lost some of its explanatory power for contemporary developments, but it is certainly characteristic of an earlier stage of capitalist modernization. It was actually the historical prerequisite for the twin establishment of a sphere of high autonomous art and a sphere of mass culture, both considered to lie outside the economic and political spheres. The irony of course is that art's aspirations to autonomy, its uncoupling from church and state, became possible only when literature, painting and music were first organized according to the principles of a market economy. From its beginnings the autonomy of art has been related dialectically to the commodity form. The rapid growth of the reading public and the increasing capitalization of the book market in the later 18th century, the commercialization of music culture and the development of a modern art market mark the beginnings of the high/low dichotomy in its specifically modern form. This dichotomy then became politically charged in decisive ways when new class conflicts erupted in the mid-19th century and the quickening pace of the industrial revolution required new cultural orientations for a mass populace. Habermas himself has analyzed this process in his Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit where he argues convincingly that the period of the Second Reich occupies a central place in the emergence of a modern mass culture and in the disintegration of an older bourgeois public sphere.1 What Habermas has attempted to do, of course, is to insert a historical dimension into what Adorno and Horkheimer, some twenty years earlier, had postulated as the closed and seemingly timeless system of the culture industry. The force of Habermas' account was not lost on John Brenkman who, in an important article, fully agrees with Habermas' periodization: “This public sphere, like all the institutions and ideologies of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century, underwent extreme contortions as soon as its repressive functions showed through its initial transforming effects. The ethical-political principle of the public sphere—freedom of discussion, the sovereignty of the public will, etc.—proved to be a mask for its economic-political reality, namely, that the private interest of the capitalist class determines all social and institutional authority.”2 Indeed there can be little doubt that—just as the beginnings of modernism—the origins of modern mass culture date back to the decades around 1848, when, as Brenkman sums up, “The European bourgeoisie, still fighting to secure its triumph over aristocracy and monarchy, suddenly faced the counterrevolutionary task of suppressing the workers and preventing them from openly articulating their interests.”3

While the emphasis on revolution and counterrevolution in the mid-19th century is important to a discussion of the origins of mass culture, it certainly does not tell the whole story. The salient fact is that with the universalization of commodity production mass culture begins to cut across classes in heretofore unknown ways. Many of its forms attract cross-class audiences, others remain class-bound. Traditional popular culture enters into a fierce struggle with commodified culture producing a variety of hybrid forms. Such resistances to the reign of the commodity were often recognized by the modernists who eagerly incorporated themes and forms of popular culture into the modernist vocabulary.4 When we locate the origins of modern mass culture in the mid-19th century, the point is therefore not to claim that the culture of late capitalism “began” in 1848. But the commodification of culture did indeed emerge in the mid-19th century as a powerful force, and we need to ask what its specific forms were at that time and how precisely they were related to the industrialization of the human body and to the commodification of labor power. A lot of recent work in social history, history of technology, urban history and philosophy of time has converged on what Anthony Giddens calls the “commodification of time-space” during the formative decades of industrial capitalism.5 We only need to think of the well-documented changes in the perception and articulation of time and space brought about by railroad travelling,6 the expansion of the visual field by news photography, the restructuring of city space with the Haussmannization of Paris, and last but not least the increasing imposition of industrial time and space on the human body in schools, factories, and the family. We may take the periodic spectacles of the World Expositions, those major mass-cultural phenomena of the times, as well as the elaborate staging of the commodity in the first giant department stores as salient symptoms of a changing relationship between the human body and the object world that surrounds it and of which it is itself a major part. What, then, are the traces of this commodification of time and space, of objects and the human body, in the arts? Of course, Baudelaire's poetry, Manet's and Monet's painting, Zola's or Fontane's novels and Schnitzler's plays, to name but a few examples, provide us with powerful visions of modern life, as it used to be called, and critics have focused on a number of social types symptomatic for the age, such as the prostitute and the dandy, the flaneur, the bohemian and the collector. But while the triumph of the modern in “high art” has been amply documented, we are only beginning to explore the place of mass culture vis-à-vis the modernization of the life-world in the 19th century.7

Clearly, Adorno and Horkheimer's concept of the culture industry does not yield much with regard to specific historical and textual analyses of 19th-century mass culture. Politically, adherence today to the classical culture industry thesis can only lead to resignation or moralizing about universal manipulation and domination. Blaming the culture industry for capitalism's longevity, however, is metaphysics, not politics. Theoretically, adherence to Adorno's aesthetics may blind us to the ways in which contemporary art, since the demise of classical modernism and the historical avantgarde, represents a new conjuncture which can no longer be grasped in Adornean or other modernist categories. Just as we would want to avoid elevating Adorno's Aesthetic Theory to the status of dogma, the last thing we want to start with is a simple projection of the culture industry theory back into the 19th century.

Yet, a discussion of Adorno in the context of the early stage of the mass culture/modernism dichotomy may still make sense for a number of simple reasons. First, Adorno is one of a very few critics guided by the conviction that a theory of modern culture must address both mass culture and high art. The same cannot be said for most literary and art criticism in this country. Nor can it be said of mass communication research which takes place totally apart from literary and art historical studies. Adorno actually undermines this very separation. The fact that he himself insists on fundamental separation between the culture industry and modernist art is to be understood not as a normative proposition but rather as a reflection of a series of historical experiences and theoretical assumptions which are open to debate.

Secondly, the theory of the culture industry has exerted a tremendous influence on mass culture research in Germany and, to a somewhat lesser extent, also in the United States.8 Recalling the ways in which Adorno theorized about modern mass culture may not be the worst place to start. After all, a critical, yet sympathetic discussion may be quite fruitful in countering two current trends: one toward a theoretically decapitated and mostly affirmative description of “popular” culture, the other toward a moralizing condemnation of imperial mind management by a media apparatus allegedly totally in the grip of capital and profit interests.

Any discussion of Adorno, however, will have to begin by pointing out the theoretical limitations inherent in his thought which, contrary to what one often hears, cannot be reduced simply to a notion of brainwashing or manipulation. Adorno's blindnesses have to be interpreted as simultaneously theoretical and historical ones. Indeed, his theory may appear to us today as a ruin of history, mutilated and damaged by the very conditions of its articulation and genesis: defeat of the German working class, triumph and subsequent exile of modernism from central Europe, fascism, Stalinism and the Cold War. I do not feel the need to either resurrect or bury Adorno, as the saying goes. Both gestures ultimately fail to place Adorno in the ever shifting context of our attempts to understand the culture of modernity. Both attitudes tend to sap the energy from a body of texts which maintain their provocation for us precisely because they recede from a present which increasingly seems to indulge in a self-defeating narcissism of theory or in the hopeless return of jolly good old humanism.

I will begin, then, by briefly recapitulating some of the basic propositions of the culture industry concept and by pointing to some of the problems inherent in it. In a second section, I will show that Adorno can be read against the grain, that his theory is by no means as closed as it may appear at first sight. The task of this reading is precisely to open Adorno's account to its own hesitations and resistances and to allow it to function in slightly different frames. In the two final sections I will discuss how both Adorno's theory of modernism and the theory of the culture industry are shaped not only by fascism, exile and Hollywood, but also quite significantly by cultural phenomena of the late 19th century, phenomena in which modernism and culture industry seem to converge in curious ways rather than being diametrically opposed to each other. Locating elements of the culture industry, with Adorno, in l'art pour l'art, Jugendstil and Richard Wagner may serve two purposes. It may help sustain the claim that Adorno's view of the culture industry and modernism is not quite as binary and closed as it appears. And, on a much broader level, it may point us—in a reversal of Adorno's strategy—toward a desirable and overdue exploration of how modernism itself appropriates and transforms elements of popular culture, trying like Antaeus to gain strength and vitality from such contacts.9


I will organize this brief outline in four clusters of observations:

1. Culture industry is the result of a fundamental transformation in the “superstructure” of capitalist societies. This transformation, completed with the stage of monopoly capitalism, reaches so deep that the Marxian separation of economy and culture as base and superstructure is itself called into question. While Marx's account reflected the realities of 19th-century liberal capitalism, its free market ideology and its belief in the autonomy of culture, 20th-century capitalism has “reunified” economy and culture by subsuming the cultural under the economic, by reorganizing the body of cultural meanings and symbolic significations to fit the logic of the commodity. Especially with the help of the new technological media of reproduction and dissemination monopoly capitalism has succeeded in swallowing up all forms of older popular cultures, in homogenizing all and any local or regional discourses, and in stifling by co-option any emerging resistances to the rule of the commodity. All culture is standardized, organized and administered for the sole purpose of serving as an instrument of social control. Social control can become total since in “the circle of manipulation and retroactive need … the unity of the system grows ever stronger.”10 Beyond that, culture industry even succeeds in abolishing the dialectic of affirmation and critique which characterized high bourgeois art of the liberal age.11 “Cultural entities typical of the style of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through.”12 Or, in a more precise Marxian version which plays out Marx's distinction of use value and exchange value thus making the culture industry all-encompassing and totalitarian: “The more inexorably the principle of exchange value cheats human beings out of use values, the more successfully it manages to disguise itself as the ultimate object of enjoyment.”13 Just as art works become commodities and are enjoyed as such, the commodity itself in consumer society has become image, representation, spectacle. Use value has been replaced by packaging and advertising. The commodification of art ends up in the aesthetization of the commodity. The siren song of the commodity has displaced the promesse de bonheur once held by bourgeois art, and consumer Odysseus blissfully plunges into the sea of commodities, hoping to find gratification but finding none.14 More than the museum or the academy even, department store and supermarket have become the cemeteries of culture. Culture and commodification have been collapsed in this theory to the extent that the gravitational pull of the culture industry leaves no meaning, no signification unscathed. For Adorno, modernist art is precisely the result of this conjuncture. But such a black-hole theory of capitalist culture is both too Marxist and not Marxist enough. It is too Marxist in that it rigorously applies a narrow reading of Marx's theory of commodity fetishism (the fetish as mere phantasmagoria) to the products of culture. It is not Marxist enough in that it ignores praxis, bypassing the struggles for meaning, symbols, and images which constitute cultural and social life even when the mass-media try to contain them. I am not denying that the increasing commodification of culture and its effects in all cultural products are pervasive. What I would deny is the implied notion that function and use are totally determined by corporate intentions, and that exchange value has totally supplanted use value. The double danger of Adorno's theory is that the specificity of cultural products is wiped out and that the consumer is imagined in a state of passive regression. If cultural products were commodities through and through and had only exchange value, they would no longer even be able to fulfill their function in the processes of ideological reproduction. Since they do preserve this use value for capital, however, they also provide a locus for struggle and subversion. Culture industry, after all, does fulfill public functions; it satisfies and legitimizes cultural needs which are not all per se false or only retroactive; it articulates social contradictions in order to homogenize them. Precisely this process of articulation can become the field of contest and struggle.

2. The postulated integration and manipulation of the mass of individual consumers from above into the false totality of the authoritarian state or of the culture industry has its psychoanalytic correlate in the theory of the decay of the ego. Löwenthal once put it this way: culture industry is psychoanalysis in reverse, referring of course to Freud's famous statement: “Where Id is, Ego shall be.” In a more serious vein, the Institute's Studies on Authority and the Family elaborated a theory postulating the objective decline of paternal authority in the bourgeois family. This decline of paternal authority in turn has led to a change in personality type based on conformity to external standards rather than, as in the liberal age, on the internalization of authority. Internalization of authority, however, is held to be a necessary prerequisite for the later (mature) rejection of authority by a strong ego. The culture industry is seen as one of the major factors preventing such “healthy” internalization and replacing it by those external standards of behavior which inevitably lead to conformism. Of course, this analysis was intimately bound up with the Institute's analysis of fascism. Thus in Germany, Hitler could become the substitute father, and fascist culture and propaganda provided the external guidance for the weak, gullible ego. The decay of ego formation in the family, according to Adorno, is complemented by the ontogenetically subsequent invasion of the psyche by the laws of capitalist production: “The organic composition of man is growing. That which determines subjects as means of production and not as living purposes, increases with the proportion of machines to variable capital.”15 And further: “In this re-organization the ego as business manager delegates so much of itself to the ego as business-mechanism, that it becomes quite abstract, a mere reference-point: self-preservation forfeits the self.”16

A lot could be said about this theory of the shrinking ego from the viewpoint of psychoanalysis and gender as well as from that of recent changes in family structure and child rearing. I will limit myself to one observation. While the question of the historical constitution of the subject remains important (against essentialist notions of an autonomous subject as well as against ahistorical notions of a decentered subject), the theory of the decay of the ego seems to imply a nostalgia for the strong bourgeois ego and furthermore remains locked into patriarchal patterns of thought. The culture industry as substitute father—Jessica Benjamin has eloquently criticized this view as “patriarchy without father.”17 Critical Theory also remains tied here to a traditional subject philosophy, and one does not need to resort to a critique of the whole trajectory of Western metaphysics in order to see that the notion of a stable “self” is historically datable and dated with the bourgeois age. Just as in their interpretation of culture Adorno and Horkheimer collapse the structure of art with that of the commodity, here they collapse the economic structure of society with the psychic dismantling of the individual, and again a form of closure prevails. Emptied subject and totality immobilize each other. The world appears frozen into nightmare.

3. The analysis of the culture industry draws out and applies to culture the premises of the Hegelian-Weberian Marx reception which had first been articulated in Lukács' History and Class Consciousness, the founding text, if there ever was one, of Western Marxism. Indeed, the culture industry chapter of the Dialectic of Enlightenment can be read as a political, theoretical and historical reply to Lukács' reworking of Marx's commodity fetishism and Weber's rationalization theory into a philosophy of social praxis. Adorno and Horkheimer's text gains its political cutting edge from its rejection of Lukács' belief in the proletariat as the identical subject-object of history, and the theory of the culture industry becomes the classical locus where its authors show how and why commodity fetishism and reification have forever lost their emancipatory function in the dialectic of history. To a large degree, it is this implied political and theoretical debate with Lukács which led to Adorno's excessive privileging of the pivotal critical categories of reification, totality, identity and commodity fetishism and to his presentation of the culture industry as a frozen system. Combined with the fearfully observed decay of the ego, this cluster of categories, however, can only prevent a differentiated analysis of social and cultural practices. It has to block out any insight into the functional autonomy of the various subsystems within the total system of production and reproduction. One is almost tempted to speak of an implosion of categories which translates into the incredible density of Adorno's writing, but which ultimately also makes the individual and serial phenomena of which culture industry consists vanish from sight as a field of concrete historical analysis. Even though Adorno recognizes quite frequently that there are limits to the reification of the human subject, he never asks himself whether perhaps there are also limits to the reification of the cultural commodities themselves, limits which become evident when one begins to analyze in detail the signifying strategies of those cultural commodities and the mesh of repression and wish fulfillment, of the gratification, displacement and production of desire which are invariably involved in them and in their reception. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that Adorno's contribution to the mass culture debate lies in his struggle against another kind of invisibility. His analysis of mass culture as a means of social control ripped to shreds that mystifying veil cast over the culture industry by those who sell it as “mere entertainment,” or, even worse, as a genuinely popular culture.

4. Contrary to what Fred Jameson has recently argued, Adorno never lost sight of the fact that, ever since their simultaneous emergence in the mid-19th century, modernism and mass culture have been engaged in a compulsive pas de deux. It indeed never occurred to Adorno to see modernism as anything other than a reaction formation to mass culture and commodification, as my later discussion of Adorno's views of Wagner and Schönberg will show. In a famous letter to Benjamin, in which he criticized Benjamin's reproduction essay, he wrote: “Both [modernist art and mass culture] bear the scars of capitalism, both contain elements of change. Both are torn halves of freedom, to which however they do not add up.”18 Adorno sees the dichotomy as historically produced, and he clearly interprets modernism as a “symptom and a result of cultural crisis rather than as a new ‘solution’ in its own right.”19 Adorno could not agree more with Jameson's claim that the commodity is “the prior form in terms of which alone modernism can be structurally grasped.”20 Even though Adorno's dialectical view of the relationship between modernism and mass culture may ultimately not be dialectical enough, it warrants repeating—in face of the often voiced mandarin reproach—that he is miles apart from the evaluative schemes of conservative mass culture critics and does not have much in common with the happy-go-lucky apologists of the triumph of modernism. Nevertheless, as I will argue in more detail later on, the problematic nature of Adorno's culture industry theory results precisely from the fact that it functioned, in the Derridean sense, as a supplément to his theory of modernism. Thus the lack of breadth and generosity which is so striking in Adorno's canon of modernism is not simply the result of personal, “elitist” taste, but it flows from his rigorous and relentless analysis of the cultural effects of commodification. The validity of that analysis has to be questioned if one wants to deal critically with Adorno's modernist canon. In this context, I think it is significant to point out that Adorno's modernism theory relies on certain strategies of exclusion which relegate realism, naturalism, reportage literature and political art to an inferior realm. All forms of representation fall under the verdict of reification which had been pronounced over the culture industry: Verdoppelung and Reklame, duplication and advertising. Just as the products of the culture industry, representational modern art is dismissed as a reified reproduction of a false reality. It is certainly strange to see one of the most perceptive critics of realism affirm, if only negatively, the power of language and image to represent reality, to reproduce the referent. Without pursuing this problem any further I am taking the status of realism in Adorno's modernism theory as support for my claim that any critique of the culture industry theory must be grounded to Adorno's modernist aesthetic. And I would even make the stronger, more general claim that to speak of modernism without mentioning capitalist mass culture is like praising the free market while ignoring the multinationals.


No account of the culture industry theory can be considered adequate unless it also locates Adorno's hesitations, resistances, and displacements within the texts themselves. In a close reading of Adorno's “Transparencies on Film” Miriam Hansen has recently made a convincing case for reading Adorno against the grain.21 Such a reading can indeed show that Adorno himself frequently cast doubt in the positions taken in Dialectic of Enlightenment. One of the most salient examples, quoted by Hansen, can be found in the posthumously published draft “Schema der Massenkultur,” which was originally meant to be part of the culture industry chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment. In capsule form Adorno and Horkheimer give the central thesis of the work: “Human beings, as they conform to the technological forces of production which are imposed on them in the name of progress, are transformed into objects which willingly allow themselves to be manipulated and thus fall behind the actual potential of these productive forces.”22 But then, in a dialectical move, the authors place their hope in the very repetitiveness of reification: “Because human beings, as subjects, still constitute the limit of reification, mass culture has to renew its hold over them in an endless series of repetitions; the hopeless effort of repetition is the only trace of hope that the repetition may be futile, that human beings cannot be totally controlled.”23 Examples such as this one could easily be multiplied. But while reading the classical texts on the culture industry against the grain may testify to Adorno's insight into the potential limitations of his theory, I doubt whether such insights should compel us to fundamentally revise our interpretation of these texts. The difficulty may only have been displaced to another area. The same move in which the monolithic closure of the culture industry theory comes undone in the margins seems to reaffirm another closure at the level of the subject. In the quoted passage any potential resistance to the culture industry is ascribed to the subject, however contingent and hallowed out it may be, rather than, say, to intersubjectivity, social action, and the collective organization of cultural experience in what Negt and Kluge have called counter-public spheres (Gegenöffentlichkeiten). It is not enough to reproach Adorno for holding on to a monadic or “bourgeois” notion of the subject. Isolation and privatization of the subject are after all the very real effects of much of capitalist mass culture, and the resulting subjectivity is, in Adorno's own terms, quite different from that of the ascendant earlier bourgeois class. The question rather has to be how Adorno defines that subjectivity which would elude manipulation and control.

Jochen Schulte-Sasse has recently argued that Adorno relies on an ahistorical hypostatization of the subject as a self-identical ego equipped with analytical power.24 If this reading is correct, the subject resisting reification through mass culture is none other than the critical theorist's younger brother, less stable perhaps and less forceful in his resistance, but the hope for resistance would indeed have to place its trust in the residues of that ego-formation which the culture industry tends to destroy. But here, too, one can read Adorno against the grain and point to passages in his work in which the stable and armored ego is seen as the problem rather than the solution. In his critique of Kant's subject of epistemology Adorno attacks the notion of the self-identical subject as a historically produced construct bound up with social experiences of objectification and reification: “It is obvious that the hardness of the epistemological subject, the identity of self-consciousness mimics the unreflected experience of the consistent, identical object.”25 Adorno's critique of the deeply problematic nature of such fortifications of the subject, which is reminiscent of the Jena romantics is summed up poignantly when he writes: “The subject is all the more a subject the less it is so; and the more it imagines itself to be and to be an objective entity for itself, the less it is a subject.”26

Similarly, in a critical discussion of Freud and the bourgeois privileging of genital sexuality, Adorno recognized the principle of ego-identity as socially constituted: “Not to be oneself is a piece of sexual utopia … : negation of the ego principle. It shakes up that invariant of bourgeois society understood in its broadest sense: the demand of identity. First identity had to be constructed, ultimately it will have to be overcome (aufzuheben). That which is only identical with itself is without happiness.”27 Such passages point to Adorno's fragile utopian vision of a reconciliation with nature which, as always in Adorno and Horkheimer, is understood as both outer and inner nature in a way that calls their very separation into question: “The dawning sense of freedom feeds upon the memory of the archaic impulse not yet steered by any solid I. The more the I curbs that impulse, the more chaotic and thus questionable will it find that pre-historic freedom. Without an anamnesis of the untamed impulse that precedes the ego—an impulse later banished to the zone of unfree bondage to nature—it would be impossible to derive the idea of freedom, although that idea in turn ends up in reinforcing the ego.”28 As against the previous quote from Eingriffe where the Aufhebung of bourgeois ego-formation seemed to hold out a promise, here the dialectic ends in aporia. Surely, one problem is that Adorno, like Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, metaphorically collapses the phylogenetic with the ontogenetic level. He permits his historical and philosophical speculations about the dialectic of self-preservation and enlightenment to get in the way of pursuing the question, in relation to mass culture, to what extent and for what purposes the products of the culture industry might precisely speak to and activate such pre-ego impulses in a non-regressive way. His focus on how the commodification of culture dissolves ego-formation and produces mere regression blinds him to that possibility. He founders on the aporia that in his philosophy of civilization these impulses preceding the ego simultaneously contain a sign of freedom and the hope for a reconciliation with nature on the one hand while on the other hand they represent the archaic domination of nature over man which had to be fought in the interest of self-preservation.

Any further discussion of such pre-ego impulses (e.g., partial instincts) in relation to mass culture would lead to the central question of identification, that ultimate bogeyman of Adorno's—and not only Adorno's—modernist aesthetic. Adorno never took that step. The suspension of critical distance which is at stake in any identification with the particular leads inexorably to a legitimation of the false totality. While Adorno recognized that there were limitations to the reification of human subjects through the culture industry which made resistance thinkable at the level of the subject, he never asked himself whether perhaps such limitations could be located in the mass cultural commodities themselves. Such limits do indeed become evident when one begins to analyze in detail the signifying strategies of specific cultural commodities and the mesh of gratification, displacement and production of desires which are invariably put in play in their production and consumption. How precisely identification works in the reception of mass culture, what spaces it opens and what possibilities it closes off, how it can be differentiated according to gender, class and race—these are questions to which the theory of the culture industry might have led had it not been conceived, in the spirit of the negative dialectic, as the threatening other of modernism. And yet, reading Adorno against the grain opens up precisely some of these spaces inside his texts where we might want to begin rewriting his account for a post-modern age.


To write a prehistory of the modern was the stated goal of Benjamin's never completed arcades project on 19th-century Paris. The dispute between Benjamin and Adorno revolving around their different readings of cultural commodification and of the relationship between prehistory and modernity is well-documented and researched. Given Adorno's trenchant critique of Benjamin's 1935 exposé of the arcades project it is somewhat baffling to find that he never wrote about mass culture in the 19th century. Doing so would have allowed him to refute Benjamin on his own ground, but the closest he ever came to such an undertaking is probably the book on Wagner written in London and New York in 1937 and 1938. Instead he chose to battle Benjamin, especially the Benjamin of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in his analysis of the 20th-century culture industry. Politically, this choice made perfect sense in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but the price he paid for it was great. Drawing on the experience of mass culture in fascism and developed consumer capitalism, the theory of the culture industry was itself affected by the reification it decried since it left no room for historical development. Culture industry represented for Adorno the completed return to prehistory under the sign of the eternal recurrence of the same. While Adorno seemed to deny mass culture its own history, his critique of Benjamin's arcades exposé shows clearly that he saw the later 19th century as prefiguring that cultural commodification which reached its fully organized state in the culture industry of the 20th century. If the late 19th century, then, already lives under the threat of cultural barbarism and regression, one might want to take Adorno another step further back. After all, throughout his work he interpreted the culture of modernity with its twin formation of modernism and culture industry as tied to high or monopoly capitalism which in turn is distinguished from the preceding phase of liberal capitalism. The decline of the culture of liberal capitalism, never very strong in Germany in the first place, was by and large complete with the foundation of the Second Reich, most certainly by the 1890s. The history of that crucial transition from the culture of liberal capitalism to that of monopoly capitalism never receives much explicit attention in Adorno's writing, certainly not as much as the artistic developments in the later 19th century which led to the emergence of Adorno's modernism. But even here Adorno writes about the major artists of the period only (the late Wagner, Hofmannsthal, George) while ignoring the popular literature of the times (Karl May, Ganghofer, Marlitt) as well as working-class culture. For naturalism he only reserves some flippant remarks and the early developments of technological media such as photography and film are all but absent from his accounts of the late 19th century. Only with Wagner does Adorno reach back to that earlier stage; and it is no coincidence that Wagner is indeed the pivotal figure in Adorno's prehistory of the modern.

Another point needs to be raised pertaining to this curious absence of 19th-century mass culture in Adorno's writing. Already in the 1930s Adorno must have been aware of historical research on mass culture. He only had to look at the work of one of his fellow researchers at the Institute, Leo Löwenthal, who did much of his work on 18th- and 19th-century German culture, high and low, and who never tired of drawing the connections that existed between 20th-century critiques of mass culture and earlier discussions of the problem in the work of Schiller and Goethe, Tocqueville, Marx and Nietzsche, to name only the most salient figures. Again the question presses itself upon us: why does Adorno ignore the mass culture of the Second Reich? He could have made much of the observation that many of the late 19th-century popular classics were still common fare in the Third Reich. Interpreting such continuities could have contributed significantly to the understanding of the prehistory of fascist culture29 and the rise of authoritarianism, the process George Mosse has described as the nationalization of the masses. But that was just not Adorno's primary interest. His first and foremost goal was to establish a theory of die Kunst der Moderne, not as a historian, but as a participant and critic reflecting upon a specific stage in the development of capitalist culture and privileging certain trends within that stage. Adorno's prime example for the emergence of a genuinely modernist art was the turn to atonality in the music of Arnold Schönberg rather than, as for Benjamin and many historians of modernism, the poetry of Baudelaire. For my argument here the difference in choice of examples is less important than the difference in treatment. Where Benjamin juxtaposes Baudelaire's poetry with the texture and experience of modern life showing how modern life invades the poetic text, Adorno focuses more narrowly on the development of the musical material itself which he nevertheless interprets as fait social, as an aesthetic texturing and constructing of the experience of modernity, however mediated and removed from subjective experience that construction may ultimately turn out to be. Given Adorno's belief that the late 19th-century commodification of culture prefigures that of the culture industry and sets the stage for the successful modernist resistance to commodification in the works of Schönberg, Kafka and Kandinsky, it seems only logical that Adorno should attempt to locate the germs of the culture industry in the high art of the late 19th century which precedes modernism—in Wagner, Jugendstil and l'art pour l'art. We are faced, then, with the paradox of having to read Adorno on the high art of the times if we want to find traces of the mass culture problematic in his writings on 19th-century culture. Here I anticipate the habitual battlecry of “elitism” which usually serves to end all discussion. Certainly, the bias is there in Adorno. But it is not as if the questions he raises had ever been convincingly answered. If modernism is a response to the long march of the commodity through culture, then the effects of cultural commodification and all it entails also need to be located in the development of the artistic material itself rather than only in the department store or in the dictates of fashion. Adorno may be wrong in his answers—and his rigorously atrophied account of modernism simply leaves too much out—but he is most certainly right in his questions. Which, again, is not to say that his questions are the only ones we should ask.

How, then, does Adorno deal with the late 19th century? On the face of it his history of modernism seems to coincide with that of Anglo-American criticism which sees modernism evolving continuously from the mid-19th century to the 1950s, if not to the present. Despite occasional shifts in the evaluation of certain authors (e.g., George and Hofmannsthal) Adorno privileges a certain trend of modernist literature—to take but one medium—from Baudelaire and Flaubert via Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal and George to Valéry and Proust, Kafka and Joyce, Celan and Beckett. The notion of a politically committed art and literature is anathema for Adorno as it is for the dominant account of modernism in Anglo-American criticism. Major movements of the historical avantgarde such as Italian futurism, Dada, Russian constructivism and productivism as well as surrealism are blatantly absent from the canon, an absence which is highly significant and which bears directly on Adorno's account of the late 19th century.

A closer look at Adorno's aesthetic theory will indeed dispel the notion of unilinear evolutionary development of modernism since the mid-19th century. It will show on the contrary that Adorno locates a major rupture in the development of modern art after the turn of the century, i.e., with the emergence of the historical avantgarde movements. Of course, Adorno has often been described as a theorist of the avantgarde, a use of terminology based on the problematic collapsing of the notion of the avantgarde with that of modernism. Since Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avantgarde, however, it seems no longer permissible to use the terms interchangeably, even though Bürger himself, at least in his earlier work, still talks about Adorno as a theorist of the avantgarde.30 But if it is true, as Bürger argues, that the main goal of the historical avantgarde was the reintegration of art into life, a heroic attempt that failed, then Adorno is not a theorist of the avantgarde, but a theorist of modernism. More than that, he is a theorist of a construct “modernism” which has already digested the failure of the historical avantgarde. It has not gone unnoticed that Adorno frequently scorned avantgarde movements such as futurism, Dada, and surrealism, and that he acidly rejected the avantgardes' various attempts to reintegrate art and life as a dangerous regression from the aesthetic to the barbaric. This insight, however, has often prevented critics from appreciating the fact that Adorno's theory of modernism owes as much to the historical avantgarde's onslaught against notions of the work of art as organism or as artificial paradise as it owes to late 19th-century aestheticism and to the autonomy aesthetic. Only if one understands this double heritage will statements such as the following in the Philosophy of Modern Music be fully comprehensible: “Today the only works which really count are those which are no longer works at all.”31 As far as I can see, only Peter Bürger has located this historical core of Adorno's aesthetic theory when he wrote in a more recent essay: “Both the radical separation of art from life completed by aestheticism and the reintegration of art and life intended by the historical avantgarde movements are premises for a view which sees art in total opposition to any rationally organized life-praxis and which at the same time attributes to art a revolutionary force challenging the basic organization of society. The hopes which the most radical members of the avantgarde movements, especially the dadaists and early surrealists, invested in this possibility of changing society through art, these hopes live on residually in Adorno's aesthetic theory, even though in a resigned and mutilated form. Art is that ‘other’ which cannot be realized in the world.”32 Adorno indeed holds in charged tension two diverging tendencies: on the one hand aestheticism's insistence on the autonomy of the art work and its double-layered separateness from everyday life (separate as work of art and separate in its refusal of realistic representation) and, on the other, the avantgarde's radical break with precisely that tradition of art's autonomy. In doing so he delivers the work's autonomy to the social while preserving it at the same time: “Art's double character, its being autonomous and fait social, relentlessly pervades the zone of its autonomy.”33 Simultaneously he radicalizes modernity's break with the past and with tradition in the spirit of avantgardism: “Contrary to past styles, it [the concept of modernity] does not negate earlier art forms; it negates tradition per se.”34 We need to remember here that the radical break with tradition, first articulated by artists such as Baudelaire and Manet, becomes dominant in German culture much later than in France: in Schönberg rather than Wagner, Kafka rather than George, i.e., after the turn of the century. From the perspective of German developments Baudelaire could then be seen as Adorno sees Poe in relation to Baudelaire: as a lighthouse of modernity.35

Adorno's fundamental indebtedness to the project of the post-1900 historical avantgarde can be gleaned from the ways in which he discusses l'art pour l'art, Jugendstil and the music of Richard Wagner. In each case, the emergence of “genuine” modernism is seen as resulting from a deterioration within forms of high art, a deterioration which bears witness to the increasing commodification of culture.

Adorno's work bristles with critiques of aestheticism and the l'art pour l'art movements of the 19th century. In his essay “Standort des Erzählers im zeitgenössischen Roman” (1954) we read: “The products [of modernist art] are above the controversy between politically committed art and l'art pour l'art. They stand beyond the alternative which pits the philistinism of Tendenzkunst against the philistinism of art as pleasure.”36 In Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno relates l'art pour l'art polemically to political advertising: “Advertising becomes art and nothing else, just as Goebbels—with foresight—combines them: l'art pour l'art, advertising for its own sake, a pure representation of social power.”37 L'art pour l'art, advertising and the fascist aesthetization of politics can only be thought together under the sign of that false universal of modernity which is the commodity. In a more historical vein, to give a third example, Adorno writes in Ästhetische Theorie: “L'art pour l'art's concept of beauty is strangely hollow, and yet it is obsessed with matter. It resembles an art nouveau event as revealed in Ibsen's charms of hair entwined with vine leaves and of a beautiful death. Beauty seems paralyzed, incapable of determining itself which it could only do by relating to its ‘other.’ It is like a root in the air and becomes entangled with the destiny of the invented ornament.”38 And somewhat later: “In their innermost constitution the products of l'art pour l'art stand condemned by their latent commodity form which makes them live on as Kitsch, subject to ridicule.”39 Adorno's critique here is actually reminiscent of Nietzsche's, that most trenchant and yet dubious critic of mass culture in Imperial Germany, whose influence on Critical Theory has recently been the subject of much debate. But while Nietzsche criticizes l'art pour l'art, for instance in Beyond Good and Evil, as a form of decadence and relates it metaphorically to the culture of deluded scientific objectivity and of positivism, Adorno succeeds in grounding the critique systematically with the help of Marx's notion of the commodity form. It is this emphasis on the commodity form (to which Nietzsche was totally oblivious) which permits Critical Theory to articulate a consistent critique of the objectivistic social sciences and of a reified aestheticism. And it furthermore connects Adorno's critique of l'art pour l'art with his discussion of Jugendstil, a style which in a certain sense aimed at reversing l'art pour l'art's separation from life.

The Jugendstil of the turn of the century is indeed pivotal to Adorno's historical account of the emergence of modernist art. Although he highly values certain individual works that were part of Jugendstil culture (e.g., works by the early Stefan George and the young Schönberg), he argues that the commodity character of art which had been an integral, though somewhat hidden part of all emancipated bourgeois art becomes external in Jugendstil, tumbling, as it were, out of the art works for all to see. A longer quote from Ästhetische Theorie is appropriate here: “Jugendstil has contributed greatly to this development, with its ideology of sending art back into life as well as with the sensations created by Wilde, d'Annunzio and Maeterlinck, all of them preludes to the culture industry. Increasing subjective differentiation and the heightened dissemination of the realm of aesthetic stimuli made these stimuli manipulable. They could now be produced for the cultural market. The tuning of art to the most fleeting individual reactions allied itself with art's reification. Art's increasing likeness to a subjectively perceived physical world made all art abandon its objectivity thus recommending it to the public. The slogan l'art pour l'art was but the veil of its opposite. This much is true about the hysterical attacks on decadence: subjective differentiation reveals an element of ego weakness which corresponds to the spiritual make-up of the clients of the culture industry. The culture industry learned how to profit from it.”40 Three brief observations: Adorno's aversion against later avantgardist attempts to reintegrate art and life may have been as strong as it was because he held those attempts, however one-sidedly, to be similar to that of Jugendstil. Secondly, the avantgarde's attempts to dissolve the boundaries between art and life—whether those of Dada and surrealism or those of Russian productivism and constructivism—had ended in failure by the 1930s, a fact which makes Adorno's skepticism toward sending art back into life quite understandable. In a sense never intended by the avantgarde, life had indeed become art—in the fascist aesthetization of politics as mass spectacle as well as in the fictionalizations of reality dictated by the socialist realism of Zhdanov and by the dream world of capitalist realism promoted by Hollywood. Most importantly, however, Adorno criticizes Jugendstil as a prelude to the culture industry because it was the first style of high art to fully reveal the commodification and reification of art in capitalist culture. And it would not be Adorno if this account of Jugendstil did not precisely thrive on the paradox that the culture industry's antecedents are traced to a style and an art which is highly individualistic and which was never meant for mass reproduction. Jugendstil, nevertheless, marks that moment of history in which the commodity form has pervaded high art to the extent that—as in Schopenhauer's famous example of the bird hypnotized by the snake—it throws itself blissfully into the abyss and is swallowed up. That stage, however, is the prerequisite for Adorno's negative aesthetic of modernism that first took shape in the work of Schönberg. Schönberg's turn to atonality is interpreted as the crucial strategy to evade commodification and reification while articulating it in its very technique of composition.


Schönberg's “precursor” in the medium of music of course is Richard Wagner. Adorno argues that the turn toward atonality, that supreme achievement of musical modernism, is already latent in certain composition techniques of Richard Wagner. Wagner's use of dissonance and chromatic movement, his multiple subversions of classical harmony, the emergence of tonal indeterminacy and his innovations in color and orchestration are seen as setting the stage for Schönberg and the Vienna School. And yet, Schönberg's relation to Wagner, which is central to Adorno's account of the birth of modernism in the arts, is described as one of continuation and resistance, most succinctly perhaps in the “Selbstanzeige des Essaybuches ‘Versuch über Wagner’”: “All of modern music has developed in resistance to his [Wagner's] predominance—and yet, all of its elements are latently present in him.”41 The purpose of Adorno's long essay on Wagner, written in 1937/38, was not to write music history or to glorify the modernist breakthrough. Its purpose was rather to analyze the social and cultural roots of German fascism in the 19th century. Given the pressures of the times—Hitler's affiliation with Bayreuth and the incorporation of Wagner into the fascist culture machine—Wagner's work turned out to be the logical place for such an investigation. We need to remember here that whenever Adorno says fascism, he is also saying culture industry. The book on Wagner can therefore be read not only as an account of the birth of fascism out of the spirit of the Gesamtkunstwerk, but also as an account of the birth of the culture industry in the most ambitious high art of the 19th century. On the face of it such an account would seem patently absurd since it appears to ignore the existence of a well developed industrial mass culture in Wagner's own time. But then Adorno's essay does not claim to give us a comprehensive historical description of the origins of mass culture as such, nor does he suggest that the place to develop a theory of the culture industry is high art alone. What he does suggest, however, is something largely lost in the dominant accounts of modernism which emphasize the triumphal march of abstraction and surface in painting, textual self-referentiality in literature, atonality in music and irreconcilable hostility to mass culture and Kitsch in all forms of modernist art. Adorno suggests that the social processes that give shape to mass culture cannot be kept out of art works of the highest ambition and that any analysis of modernist or, for that matter, premodernist art will have to trace these processes in the trajectory of the aesthetic materials themselves. The ideology of the art work's autonomy is thus undermined by the claim that no work of art is ever untouched by the social. But Adorno makes the even stronger claim that in capitalist society high art is always already permeated by the textures of that mass culture from which it seeks autonomy. As a model analysis of the entanglements of high art with mass cultural commodification the Wagner essay is actually more stimulating than, say, the Philosophy of Modern Music which in many ways represents the negative version of modernist triumphalism. Preceding Jugendstil and l'art pour l'art which are blamed for simply capitulating to the commodity, it is the body of Wagner's oeuvre, towering as it does at the threshold of modernity, which becomes the privileged locus of that fierce struggle between tradition and modernity, autonomy and commodity, revolution and reaction, and, ultimately, myth and enlightenment.

As I cannot possibly do justice here to Adorno's various writings on Wagner, I will only outline those elements which connect Wagner's aesthetic innovations to features of the modern culture industry. The other half of Adorno's Wagner—Wagner as premodernist—will have to remain under-exposed.

To begin with, Adorno concedes throughout his essay that in his time Wagner represented the most advanced stage in the development of music and opera. However, he consistently emphasizes both progressive and reactionary elements in Wagner's music making the point that the one cannot be had without the other. He credits Wagner for heroically attempting to elude the market demands for “easy” opera and for trying to avoid its banality. But this flight, according to Adorno, leads Wagner even more deeply into the commodity. In his later essay “Wagner's Aktualität” (1965) Adorno finds a powerful image for this dilemma: “Everything in Wagner has its historical core. Like a spider, his spirit sits in the gigantic web of 19th-century exchange relations.”42 No matter how far Wagner would spin out his music, spider and web will always remain one. How, then, do these exchange relations manifest themselves in Wagner's music? How does the music get caught in the web of cultural commodification? After a discussion of Wagner as social character, which I will skip here, Adorno turns to an analysis of Wagner's role as composer-conductor. He argues that Wagner disguises the growing estrangement of the composer from the audience by conceiving his music “in terms of the gesture of striking a blow” and by incorporating the audience into the work through calculated “effects”: “As the striker of blows … the composer-conductor gives the claims of the public a terrorist emphasis. Democratic considerateness towards the listener is transformed into connivance with the powers of discipline: in the name of the listener, anyone whose feelings accord with any measure other than the beat of the music is silenced.”43 In this interpretation of Wagner's “gesture” Adorno shows how the audience becomes “the reified object of calculation by the artist.”44 And it is here that the parallels with the culture industry emerge. The composer-conductor's attempt to beat his audience into submission is structurally isomorphic to the way in which the culture industry treats the consumer. But the terms of the isomorphism are reversed. In Wagner's theater the composer-conductor is still visible and present as an individual—a residue of the liberal age, as it were—and the spectators are assembled as a public in the dark behind the conductor's baton. The industrial organization of culture, however, replaces the individual conductor with an invisible corporate management and it dissolves the public into the shapeless mass of isolated consumers. The culture industry thus reverses the relations typical of the liberal age by de-individualizing cultural production and privatizing reception. Given Adorno's description of Wagner's audience as the reified object of aesthetic calculations it comes as no surprise that he would claim that Wagner's music is already predicated on that ego-weakness which would later become the operational basis of the culture industry: “The audience of these giant works lasting many hours is thought of as unable to concentrate—something not unconnected with the fatigue of the citizen in his leisure time. And while he allows himself to drift with the current, the music, acting as its own impresario, thunders at him in endless repetitions to hammer its message home.”45 Such endless repetitions manifest themselves most obviously in Wagner's leitmotiv technique which Adorno relates to Berlioz's idée fixe and to the Baudelairian spleen. Adorno interprets the leitmotiv's double character as allegory and advertising. As allegory the leitmotiv articulates a progressive critique of traditional totalizing musical forms and of the “symbolic” tradition of German idealism. At the same time, however, it functions like advertising in that it is designed to be easily remembered by the forgetful. This advertising aspect of the leitmotiv is not something projected back onto it from hindsight. Adorno already locates it in the reactions of Wagner's contemporaries who tended to make crude links between leitmotivs and the persons they characterized. The commercial decay of the leitmotiv, latent in Wagner, becomes full-blown in Hollywood film music “where the sole function of the leitmotiv is to announce heroes or situations so as to help the audience to orientate itself more easily.”46

Reification emerges as the conceptual core of Adorno's account. “Allegorical rigidity” has not only infected the motiv like a disease, it has infected Wagner's oeuvre as a whole—its music and its characters, its images and myths, and last but not least its institutionalization in Bayreuth as one of the major spectacles of the times. Adorno goes on to discuss reification, which can be regarded as the effect of commodification in the musical material, on the levels of melody, color, and orchestration. The overriding concern here is the question of what happens to musical time in Wagner's oeuvre. Adorno argues that time becomes abstract and as such defies musical and dramatic development on the level of melody as well as on that of character. The musical material is pulverized, characters are frozen and static. The construction of motiv as temporal sequence is replaced by impressionistic association: “For the composer the use of the beat is a fallacious method of mastering the empty time with which he begins, since the measure to which he subjects time does not derive from the musical content, but from the reified order of time itself.”47 The predominance of “sound” in Wagner also dissolves the temporal pressures of harmony. It spatializes musical time, depriving it, as it were, of its historical determinations.48

These observations about the leitmotiv, the reified order of time and the atomization of musical material lead Adorno to a central point where he affiliates Wagner's composition technique with the mode of production: “It is difficult to avoid the parallel with the quantification of the industrial labor process, its fragmentation into the smallest possible units. … Broken down into the smallest units, the totality is supposed to become controllable, and it must submit to the will of the subject who has liberated himself from all pre-existing forms.”49 The parallel with the culture industry becomes fully obvious when we read a little further on: “In Wagner's case what predominates is already the totalitarian and seigneurial aspect of atomization; that devaluation of the individual vis-à-vis the totality, which excludes all authentic dialectical interaction.”50

What Adorno describes here, of course, is the reflection of the 19th-century industrialization of time and space in Wagner's oeuvre. The devaluation of the individual vis-à-vis the totality appears in Wagner's orchestration as the tendency to drown out the voice of the individual instrument in favor of a continuum of timbres and large-scale melodic complexes. The “progress” of such orchestration techniques is as suspect to Adorno as the progress of the industrial upsurge of the Bismarck era to which it is compared.

If reification of musical and dramatic time is one major element of Adorno's account, then subjectivistic association and ambiguity of musical meaning is the other side of the same coin. What is at stake here is that which Wagner's contemporaries described as nervousness and hypersensitivity, what Nietzsche called decadence, and what we might call Wagner's modernity. It is interesting to take notice of Adorno's scattered references to the relationship of Wagner's modernity to that of Baudelaire and Monet: “Like Baudelaire's, his reading of bourgeois high capitalism discerned an anti-bourgeois, heroic message in the destruction of Biedermeier.51 In the essay “Wagner's Aktualität” the discussion of the composer's handling of color unmistakably conjures up the art of Monet: “Wagner's achievement of a differentiation of color by dissolution into minute detail is supplemented by his technique of combining the most minute elements constructively in such a way that something like integral color emerges.”52 Yet Wagner only approaches that threshold which Baudelaire and Monet had already crossed: “No comparison of Wagner with the impressionists will be adequate unless it is remembered that the credo of universal symbolism to which all his technical achievements subscribe is that of Puvis de Chavannes and not Monet's.”53 Therefore Adorno calls Wagner an “impressionist malgré lui” and relates his backwardness to the backwardness of economic and aesthetic developments in mid-19th-century Germany. The key point that emerges from this comparison is the paradox that Wagner's anticipation of the culture industry is proportionate to his aesthetic backwardness in his own time. His music conjures up a distant future because it has not yet succeeded in shedding a past rendered obsolete by modern life. To put it differently, the modernity of allegory and dissonance in Wagner's work is consistently compromised by that “universal symbolism” which simulates a false totality and forges an equally false monumentality, that of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Wagner's affinity to the culture industry is worked out most explicitly by Adorno in the chapters on phantasmagoria, Gesamtkunstwerk, and myth. Adorno's characterization of Wagner's opera as phantasmagoria is an attempt to analyze what happens to aesthetic appearance (ästhetischer Schein) in the age of the commodity and as such it is the attempt to come to terms with the pressure commodity fetishism puts on works of art. As phantasmagorias Wagner's operas have veiled all traces of the labor that went into their production. Blocking out traces of production in the work of art is of course one of the major tenets of an earlier idealist aesthetic and as such nothing new in Wagner. But that is precisely the problem. As the commodity form begins to invade all aspects of modern life, all aesthetic appearance is in danger of being transformed into phantasmagoria, into the “illusion of the absolute reality of the unreal.”54 According to Adorno, Wagner yields to the pressures of the commodity form. With some minor changes the following passage taken from the chapter on phantasmagoria could easily be imagined as part of the mass culture chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment: “It [the illusion of the absolute reality of the unreal] sums up the unromantic side of the phantasmagoria: phantasmagoria as the point at which aesthetic appearance becomes a function of the character of the commodity. As a commodity it purveys illusions. The absolute reality of the unreal is nothing but the reality of a phenomenon that not only strives unceasingly to spirit away its own origins in human labor, but also, inseparably from this process and in thrall to exchange value, assiduously emphasizes its use value, stressing that this is its authentic reality, that it is ‘no imitation’—and all this in order to further the cause of exchange value. In Wagner's day the consumer goods on display turned their phenomenal side seductively towards the mass of consumers while diverting attention from their merely phenomenal character, from the fact that they were beyond reach. Similarly, in the phantasmagoria, Wagner's operas tend to become commodities. Their tableaux assume the character of wares on display (Ausstellungscharakter).”55 At this point myth enters the stage as the embodiment of illusion and as regression to prehistory: “Phantasmagoria comes into being when, under the constraints of its own limitations, modernity's latest products come close to the archaic. Every step forward is at the same time a step into the remote past. As bourgeois society advances it finds that it needs its own camouflage of illusion simply in order to subsist.”56 As phantasmagoria Wagner's opera reproduces the dream world of the commodity in the form of myth: “He [Wagner] belongs to the first generation to realize that in a world that has been socialized through and through it is not possible for an individual to alter something that is determined over the heads of men. Nevertheless, it was not given to him to call the overarching totality by its real name. In consequence it is transformed for him into myth.”57 Myth becomes the problematic solution to Wagner's struggle against the genre music of the Biedermeier period, and his gods and heroes are to guarantee the success of his simultaneous flight from the banality of the commodity age. But as the present and the mythical merge in the Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner's divine realm of ideas, gods, and heroes is nothing but a deluded transcription of the banal world of the present. In a number of scattered observations Adorno juxtaposes, in a quite Benjaminean way, moments of Wagner's oeuvre to the culture of everyday life in late 19th-century Germany. Thus the Mastersingers are said to conjure up—like the images on the box containing the famous Nürnberger Lebkuchen—the bliss of an unsullied, premodern German past, which later fed seamlessly into völkisch ideology. Elsa's relationship to Lohengrin (“My lord, never shall this question come from me”) celebrates the subjugation of women in marriage. Wotan is interpreted as the phantasmagoria of the buried revolution, Siegfried as the “natural” rebel who accelerates rather than prevents the catastrophic destruction of civilization. The thunder motiv from the Ring becomes the signal sounded by the horn of the Emperor's motor car. Adorno gets to the historical core of Wagner's modern mythology when he writes: “It is impossible to overlook the relationship between Wagnerian mythology and the iconic world of the Empire, with its eclectic architecture, fake Gothic castles, and the aggressive dream symbols of the New-German boom, ranging from the Bavarian castles of Ludwig to the Berlin restaurant that called itself ‘Rheingold.’ But the question of authenticity is as fruitless here as elsewhere. Just as the overwhelming power of high capitalism forms myths that tower above the collective conscious, in the same way the mythic region in which the modern consciousness seeks refuge bears the marks of that capitalism: what subjectively was the dream of dreams is objectively a nightmare.”58 Thus the drama of the future, as Wagner called his Gesamtkunstwerk, prefigures that nightmarish regression into an archaic past which completes its trajectory in fascism. The Gesamtkunstwerk is intended as a powerful protest against the fragmentation and atomization of art and life in capitalist society. But since it chooses the wrong means it can only end in failure: “Like Nietzsche and subsequently Art Nouveau, which he [Wagner] anticipates in many respects, he would like, singlehanded, to will an aesthetic totality into being, casting a magic spell and with defiant unconcern about the absence of the social conditions necessary for its survival.”59 While the mythic dimension of Wagner's opera conjures up fascism, its homogenization of music, word, and image is said to anticipate the essential features of Hollywood film: “Thus we see that the evolution of the opera, and in particular the emergence of the autonomous sovereignty of the artist, is intertwined with the origins of the culture industry. Nietzsche, in his youthful enthusiasm, failed to recognize the art work of the future in which we witness the birth of film out of the spirit of music.”60 The totality of Wagner's music drama, however, is a false totality subject to disintegration from within: “Even in Wagner's lifetime, and in flagrant contradiction to his programme, star numbers like the Fire Music and Wotan's farewell, the Ride of the Valkyries, the Liebestod and the Good Friday music had been torn out of their context, re-arranged and become popular. This fact is not irrelevant to the music dramas, which had cleverly calculated the place of these passages within the economy of the whole. The disintegration of the fragments sheds light on the fragmentariness of the whole.”61 The logic of this disintegration leads to Schönberg's modernism on the one hand and to the Best of Wagner album on the other. Where high art itself is sucked into the maelstrom of commodification, modernism is born as a reaction and a defense. The point is made bluntly in Philosophy of Modern Music: “The liberation of modern painting from representation (Gegenständlichkeit), which was to art the break that atonality was to music, was determined by the defensive against the mechanized art commodity—above all photography. Radical music, from its inception, reacted similarly to the commercial depravity of the traditional idiom. It formulated an antithesis against the extension of the culture industry into its own domain.”62 While this statement seems quite schematic, especially in its mechanical derivation of abstraction in painting, it serves to remind us again that modernism itself is held hostage by the culture industry and that theories of modernism neglecting this conjuncture are seriously deficient. Adorno's bleak description of modern mass culture as dream turned nightmare has perhaps outlived its usefulness and can now take its place as a historically contingent and theoretically powerful reflection on fascism. What has not outlived its usefulness, however, is Adorno's suggestion that mass culture was not imposed on art only from the “outside,” but that art was transformed into its opposite thanks precisely to its emancipation from traditional forms of bourgeois art. In the vortex of commodification there was never an outside. Wagner is the case in point.


Reading Adorno in reverse, from Dialectic of Enlightenment backwards to the Wagner essay of 1937/38, from fascism and the capitalist culture industry back to Imperial Germany, leads to the conclusion that the framework for his theory of the culture industry was already in place before his encounter with American mass culture in the United States. In the Wagner book the pivotal categories of fetishism and reification, ego-weakness, regression, and myth are already fully developed, waiting, as it were, to be articulated in terms of the American culture industry. At the same time, reading Adorno's brilliant tour de force on Wagner—and a tour de force it is—produces a strange sense of déjà vu in which the temporal terms are once more displaced. It is as if accompanying Adorno on his travels into the 19th century we were simultaneously travelling into yet another time-space Adorno himself did not live to experience: that of the postmodern. Large segments of the book on Wagner could be read as a modernist polemic against postmodernism. It is indeed easy to imagine how Adorno would have panned those facile citations of the historical idiom in postmodern architecture and music, how he would have poured scorn over the decay of allegory into the “anything goes” of the art “scene,” how he would have resisted the new mythology of aesthetic experience, the cult of performance, of self-help and of other forms of narcissistic indulgence. Adorno would not have hesitated one moment to see the disintegration of modernism as a return to its prehistory and to collapse the prehistory of the modern with its posthistory.

After all, the art work is still in the grip of the commodity form, more so, if anything, than in the 19th century. The giant spider web of exchange relations Adorno spoke of has certainly expanded since that time. The late 19th century still had resistant popular cultures and it left more uncolonized spaces for possible evasions and challenges than today's thoroughly administered culture. If such a reading is by and large correct we will have to ask what the chances are for a genuine contemporary art after the demise of classical modernism. One conclusion would be to see the only possibility for contemporary art in a further elaboration of the modernist project. Possibly, Adorno would have advocated this route even though he was perfectly aware of the dangers of alexandrian sterility, of a dogmatic ossification of modernism itself. Another conclusion, however, would be to try and relocate contemporary artistic production and practices in the interstices between modernism and mass culture. Commodification invaded Wagner's oeuvre without completely debilitating it. On the contrary, it actually gave rise to great works of art. But then one must be permitted to ask why it should not be possible today to produce ambitious and successful works of art which would draw both on the tradition of modernism and on mass culture, including various subcultures. Some of the most interesting art of our time seems to pursue precisely this project. Of course Adorno would argue that the conjuncture that produced Wagner's oeuvre is irretrievably past. True enough, but I am not suggesting simply to revive Wagner's art as a model for the present. Where something like that is being done, e.g., in the films of Syberberg, the results are often less than convincing. The point is rather to take heart from Adorno's account of Wagner's contradictions and dilemmas and to abandon that set of purist stances which would either lock all art in the laboratory of ever more involuted modernist experimentation or reject, uncompromisingly, any attempt to create a contemporary art precisely out of the tensions between modernism and mass culture. Who, after all, would want to be the Lukács of the postmodern. …


  1. Jürgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (Neuwied/Berlin: Luchterhand, 1962). See also Habermas, “The Public Sphere,” New German Critique, 3 (Fall, 1974), 49-55.

  2. John Brenkman, “Mass Media: From Collective Experience to the Culture of Privatization,” Social Text, 1 (Winter 1979), 101.

  3. Ibid.

  4. For a recent discussion of the interface between modernism and popular culture in Germany see Peter Jelavich, “Popular Dimensions of Modernist Elite Culture: The Case of Theatre in Fin-de-Siècle Munich,” in Dominick LaCapra and Steven L. Kaplan, eds., Modern European Intellectual History (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 220-250.

  5. Anthony Giddens, “Modernism and Postmodernism,” New German Critique, 22 (Winter, 1981), 15. For a different approach to the problem of changes in perception in the 19th century see Anson G. Rabinbach, “The Body without Fatigue: A 19th-Century Utopia,” in Seymour Drescher, David Sabean and Allan Sharlin, eds., Political Symbolism in Modern Europe (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1982), pp. 42-62.

  6. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise. Zur Industrialisierung von Raum und Zeit im 19. Jahrhundert (Munich and Vienna: Hanser, 1977). Translated into English as The Railway Journey (New York: Urizen, 1979).

  7. At the same time it should be noted that the major accounts of modernism in literature and art rarely if ever try to discuss the relationship of the modernist work of art to the social and cultural process of modernization at large.

  8. I do not know of any specific study which traces the pervasive impact of the culture industry thesis on mass culture research in Germany. For the impact of Adorno and Horkheimer in the United States see Douglas Kellner, “Kulturindustrie und Massenkommunikation. Die kritische Theorie und ihre Folgen,” in Sozialforschung als Kritik, ed. by Wolfgang Bonss and Axel Honneth (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982), pp. 482-515.

  9. For an excellent discussion of the theoretical and historical issues involved in an analysis of the modernism/mass culture/popular culture nexus see Thomas Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” in S. Guilbaut and D. Solkin, eds., Modernism and Modernity (Halifax, Nova Scotia: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983).

  10. Horkheimer/Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972), p. 121.

  11. On the notion of affirmative culture see Herbert Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” in Negations (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

  12. Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” New German Critique, 6 (Fall 1975), 13.

  13. Adorno, Dissonanzen, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 14 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973), p. 20.

  14. On the usage of ship and ocean metaphors in the history of department stores see Klaus Strohmeyer, Warenhäuser. Geschichte, Blüte und Untergang im Warenmeer (Berlin: Wagenbach, 1980). For a recent study of commodity culture in late 19th-century France see Rosalind H. Williams, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late 19th-Century France (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1982).

  15. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: New Left Books, 1974), p. 229.

  16. Ibid., p. 230.

  17. Jessica Benjamin, “Authority and the Family Revisited: Or, World Without Fathers?,” New German Critique, 13 (Winter 1978), 35-58.

  18. Printed in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, I:3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), p. 1003.

  19. Fred Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text, 1 (Winter 1979), 135.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Miriam Hansen, “Introduction to Adorno's ‘Transparencies on Film’,” New German Critique, 24-25 (Fall/Winter 1981-82), 186-198.

  22. Horkheimer/Adorno, “Das Schema der Massenkultur,” in Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, 3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981), p. 331.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Jochen Schulte-Sasse, “Gebrauchswerte der Literatur,” in Christa Bürger, Peter Bürger and Jochen Schulte-Sasse, eds., Zur Dichotomisierung von hoher und niederer Literatur (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982), pp. 62-107.

  25. Adorno, “Zu Subjekt und Objekt,” in Stichworte (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969), p. 165.

  26. Ibid. On Adorno's relationship to early German romanticism see Jochen Hörisch, “Herrscherwort, Geld und geltende Sätze: Adornos Aktualisierung der Frühromantik und ihre Affinität zur poststrukturalistischen Kritik des Subjekts,” in B. Lindner/W. M. Lüdke, Materialien zur ästhetischen Theorie Th. W. Adornos (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980), pp. 397-414.

  27. Adorno, “Sexualtabus und Rechte heute,” in Eingriffe (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1963), p. 104 f.

  28. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Seabury Press, 1973), p. 221 f. (trans. modified).

  29. See for instance Bertold Hinz, Die Malerei im deutschen Faschismus (Munich: Hanser, 1974).

  30. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

  31. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), p. 30.

  32. Peter Bürger, Vermittlung-Rezeption-Funktion (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), p. 130 f. Eugene Lunn, in his valuable study Marxism and Modernism (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California, 1982), has emphasized Adorno's indebtedness to the “aesthetic of objectified expression” prevalent in Trakl, Heym, Barlach, Kafka and Schönberg.

  33. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), p. 16.

  34. Ibid., p. 38.

  35. Ibid.—The problem here is a historical one, namely that of non-simultaneous developments in different countries and different art forms. Explaining such Ungleichzeitigkeiten is no easy task, but it certainly requires a theory of modernism able to relate artistic developments more cogently to social, political and economic context than Adorno's (theoretically grounded) Berührungsangst would permit him to do. This is not to say that Adorno misunderstood the genuine modernity of Baudelaire or Manet. On the contrary, it is precisely in the way in which Adorno distinguishes Wagner from the early French modernists that we can glimpse his recognition of such Ungleichzeitigkeiten. More on this later.

  36. Adorno, Noten zur Literatur, I (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1958), p. 72.

  37. Horkheimer/Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 163.

  38. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, p. 352.

  39. Ibid.

  40. Ibid., p. 355.

  41. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, 13 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1971), p. 504. For a good discussion of Adorno's Schönberg interpretation see Lunn, Marxism and Modernism, pp. 256-266. The question of whether Adorno is right about Wagner from a musicological standpoint cannot be addressed here. For a musicological critique of Adorno's Wagner see Carl Dahlhaus, “Soziologische Dechiffrierung von Musik: Zu Theodor W. Adornos Wagner Kritik,” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 1:2 (1970), 137-146.

  42. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, 16 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978), p. 562.

  43. Adorno, In Search of Wagner, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: New Left Books, 1981), p. 31 (transl. modified).

  44. Ibid. Cf. also Michael Hays, “Theater and Mass Culture: The Case of the Director,” New German Critique, 29 (Spring/Summer 1983), 133-146.

  45. Ibid., p. 32.

  46. Ibid., p. 46.

  47. Ibid., p. 33.

  48. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, 13, p. 499.

  49. Adorno, In Search of Wagner, p. 49.

  50. Ibid., p. 50.

  51. Ibid., p. 101.

  52. Adorno, “Wagners Aktualität,” in Gesammelte Schriften, 16, p. 555.

  53. Adorno, In Search of Wagner, p. 50.

  54. Ibid., p. 90.

  55. Ibid.

  56. Ibid., p. 95.

  57. Ibid., p. 119.

  58. Ibid., p. 123.

  59. Ibid., p. 101.

  60. Ibid., p. 107.

  61. Ibid., p. 106.

  62. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 5 (transl. modified).

Martin Jay (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11095

SOURCE: “Adorno in America,” in Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America, Columbia University Press, 1985, pp. 120-37.

[In the following essay, Jay analyzes the theoretical, sociological, and aesthetic work Adorno did while living and working in the United States.]

The exemplary anecdotes are known to us all. Adorno arrives in America in 1938 to work on Paul Lazarsfeld's Princeton Radio Research Project. Lazarsfeld writes of his new acquaintance: “He looks as you would image a very absent-minded German professor, and he behaves so foreign that I feel like a member of the Mayflower society.”1 Adorno travels to the Project's offices in an abandoned brewery in Newark, New Jersey, through a tunnel under the Hudson River and admits “I felt a little as if I were in Kafka's Nature Theater of Oklahoma.”2 The attempt to adapt his ideas to the needs of the Project soon proves, not surprisingly, a failure, as Adorno's concept of fetishization resists all efforts to operationalize it. Lazarsfeld's hope to achieve what he later called “a convergence of European theory and American empiricism”3 is quickly abandoned with no small amount of embarrassment and bitter feelings on both sides.

A decade later, the Institute für Sozialforschung is invited back to Frankfurt, and Adorno, with no hesitation, joins Max Horkheimer and Friedrich Pollock in its reconstruction. Having noted in Minima Moralia that “every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated,” in particular because “his language has been expropriated, and the historical dimension that nourished his knowledge, sapped,”4 he leaves his exile home for good in 1953 and never looks back. Twelve years later, he tells his German audience in a radio talk entitled “Auf die Frage: Was ist Deutsch?”5 that both subjective and objective reasons determined his return. The former include the slight to his self-esteem dealt him by an American publisher who criticized Philosophie der neuen Musik for being “badly organized.”6 The latter, which he claims are more substantial, center around his desire to write in his native tongue, whose “elective affinity” for philosophy, in particular its speculative and dialectical moment, he claims is superior to that of English.

When Adorno dies in 1969, The New York Times carries a short obituary, which soon gains modest notoriety for its remarkable garbling of Adorno's life and work.7 Focusing for mysterious reasons on an obscure piece he once wrote on jitterbugging, it fails to record any of the important theoretical dimensions of his thought. At the time of his death, Adorno is known in America almost entirely as the first name on the title page of The Authoritarian Personality, a study whose uneasy mixture of empirical methods and Critical Theory was very atypical of his work as a whole. The only translation of his writings on cultural themes then available is Prisms, which a small British publisher had brought out in 1967 and failed to distribute in America. Not a single philosophical work is accessible to readers unable to take on the challenge of Adorno's formidable German.

The image of Adorno's relation to America conveyed by these anecdotes is not difficult to discern. The sensitive European mandarin is shocked and bewildered by the commercialism, vulgarity, and theoretical backwardness of his temporary home. Belittling the assimilationist tendencies of other emigrés as a form of craven accommodation to economic necessity, he hustles back to Germany as soon as the opportunity avails itself. America in return finds him arrogant, snobbish, and incomprehensible. His departure is little noted and even less mourned.

That this image is more than just impressionistically anecdotal is confirmed by a sample of the critical literature on Adorno's relation to America. The linguistic barrier, for example, is widely remarked even after translations are attempted. The musicologist and Stravinsky confidante Robert Craft speaks for many when he complains that “a more convoluted, abstruse, and floridly unintelligible style is scarcely conceivable. It can have been designed for one purpose only, that of maintaining the highest standards of obfuscation throughout.”8 No less disconcerting to many is Adorno's merciless critique of mass culture, which offends the populist pieties of progressive American thought. Edward Shils, Leon Bramson, and Herbert Gans lead a phalanx of critics who point to the apparent paradox of a self-proclaimed leftist so contemptuous of democratic tastes and values.9 Adorno is called a covert Puritan and ascetic for his hostility to the simple pleasures of the common man.10 Behind the facade of a modernist, one critic spies “a yearning for European liberal-bourgeois society and the life-style of its cultured upper-middle-class members.”11 According to another, Adorno's debts to figures like Spengler and Nietzsche make it “far more useful and evocative to regard” him and his colleagues in the Frankfurt School “as men of the Right than of the Left.”12 To still a third, Adorno can “be described, not altogether unfairly, as a materialist dandy … a stranded spiritual aristocrat doomed to extinction by the ‘rising tide of democracy.’”13

These examples are all taken from American responses to Adorno, but the image they convey has not been confined to our shores. In 1976, a very hostile essay entitled “‘Beute der Pragmatisierung’: Adorno und Amerika” was published in a collection on Die USA und Deutschland edited by Wolfgang Paulsen.14 Its author, Dagmar Barnouw, compared Adorno with the French aristocrats who emigrated during the French Revolution. Criticizing his “autocratic snobbism” and paranoiac ressentiment, she concluded that works like Dialectic of Enlightenment were little more than “poetic performances in total reaction against a social reality”15 that Adorno neither understood nor appreciated.

The grain of truth in these contentions, however exaggerated and one-sided they may be, must be acknowledged. The Adorno who could complain that “it is made unmistakably clear to the intellectual from abroad that he will have to eradicate himself as an autonomous being if he hopes to achieve anything”16 was clearly not an eager convert to the “American way of life.” There can be no question that the linguistic uprootedness that Adorno felt with a keenness more typical of literary than scholarly emigrés17 was a genuine trauma, as his frequent quarrels with Siegfried Kracauer over the use of English abundantly demonstrate.18 Nor is it disputable, as Adorno's notoriously unsympathetic treatment of jazz illustrates, that he tended to flatten out the dynamic contradictions of the popular culture he knew only from afar. It is equally clear that many of the analyses he made of his emigré home were colored by the aftereffects of his forced departure from Europe. As one commentator has recently noted, the major works he completed in exile all “contained many passages which assimilated American society to that of Nazi Germany”19 with an insensitivity obvious in hindsight. And it would be no less difficult to detail the ways in which the American reception of Adorno mirrors this image of hostility and incomprehension.

But it would nonetheless be a travesty of the truth to remain content with so one-dimensional an account of the impact of America on Adorno and the impact of Adorno on us. To make better sense of this dual relationship, it would be useful to borrow the celebrated image of a constellation which Adorno himself borrowed from Benjamin. It is, in fact, helpful to conceptualize Adorno's general place in the intellectual life of the twentieth century by understanding the multiple impulses contained in his work as forming a figure of juxtaposed elements irreducible to any one dominant star. For rather than turning Adorno into essentially an elitist mandarin merely pretending to be a Marxist or an aesthetic modernist with only residual nostalgia for the world he left behind, it is better to acknowledge the countervailing energies of each of these forces in his field. If we add to them several others, most notably his ambiguous identification with the Jews, which appears in his dark ruminations on the meaning of the Holocaust, and what might be called his proto-deconstructionist impulse, to which I will return later, a more fully nuanced understanding of the irreconcilable tensions in Adorno's formation can be grasped. Rather than reduce Adorno to any one star in his constellation, be it Western Marxist, elitist mandarin, aesthetic modernist, or whatever, we must credit all of them with the often contradictory power they had in shaping his idiosyncratic variant of Critical Theory. For what made Adorno so remarkable a figure was the fact that the negative dialectics he so steadfastly defended, with its valorization of nonidentity and heterogeneity, was concretely exemplified in his own intellectual composition, which never produced any harmoniously totalized world view.

The same approach, I want to argue, will allow us to make sense as well of his uneasy relationship to America, which was far more complicated than the conventional image expressed in the anecdotes and scholarship mentioned a few moments ago. For although there can be little doubt that the European star in Adorno's constellation shone brighter than the American, the gravitational pull of the latter was by no means negligible. If the aphorisms of Minima Moralia were reflections on an emigré's damaged life, it is, after all, important to recognize that the original source of the damage was not the culture industry in America, but rather the crisis of European culture and society that forced him into exile in the first place. Although it would be foolish to claim that the damage was somehow healed during his stay, it is also not entirely correct to see his experience as merely deepening his pessimism about the universality and irreversibility of the crisis. For when Adorno returned to Frankfurt, he was a changed man. “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say,” Adorno would ultimately acknowledge, “that any contemporary consciousness that has not appropriated the American experience, even if in opposition, has something reactionary about it.”20 Although Adorno's appropriation was largely in opposition, it nonetheless did include two positive elements.

First, the doubts he had already entertained about the redemptive power of high culture, doubts instilled in him in part by his Marxist and aesthetic modernist inclinations, were immeasurably strengthened by his contact with a society in which no such faith could be found. “In America,” he later wrote, “I was liberated from a certain naive belief in culture and attained the capacity to see culture from the outside. To clarify the point: in spite of all social criticism and all consciousness of the primacy of economic factors, the fundamental importance of the mind—‘Geist’—was quasi a dogma self-evident to me from the very beginning. The fact that this was not a foregone conclusion, I learned in America.”21 Adorno put this knowledge to good use in the essay he wrote in 1949 entitled “Cultural Criticism and Society,” which was first published two years later in a Festschrift for Leopold von Wiese and then served as the opening essay of Prisms.22 His American-induced critique of the fetishism of high culture, which expanded on the earlier analysis of “affirmative culture”23 made by Horkheimer and Marcuse in the years shortly after their own arrivals in New York, might, in fact, be seen as evidence of the radicalizing effect of Adorno's emigration. One commentator has gone so far as to claim that this change shows that “in certain ways Adorno now moved closer toward a Marxian analytical framework.”24

In more directly political terms, however, the emigration seems to have had the opposite effect. For the second lesson Adorno appropriated from his years in the United States was derived from what he called his “more fundamental, and more gratifying … experience of the substance of democratic forms: that in America they have penetrated the whole of life, whereas in Germany at least they were never more than formal rules of the game.”25 Here Adorno seems to exemplify the deradicalization familiar in the histories of many leftist intellectuals who came to America, much to the chagrin of some later observers like Joachim Radkau.26 But interpreted more generously, these remarks can be seen as indicating a cautiously realistic optimism about the value of trying to contribute “something toward political enlightenment”27 in his native land, as he was to put it many years hence. For by his actions after his return, it is clear that Adorno, like the other members of the repatriated Institut staff, had hopes that the substance of democratic forms might also be introduced to a Germany which had never known them in the past. Rather than bemoaning the penetration of American commercialism and vulgarity, which to be sure he did in other contexts, Adorno came back to Europe with the belief that something of genuine political value might be brought with him across the Atlantic.

It was in this spirit that Adorno, obviously fighting his earlier inclinations, cautiously defended the usefulness of public opinion research in Germany in the 1951 conference on empirical social research in Frankfurt.28 Pointing to the disparagement of such techniques during the era that had just ended, he noted that the Nazis had understood all too well the democratic potential of a method that treats every voice as having equal weight. With belated recognition of the original aim of Lazarsfeld's Radio Research Project, he contended that the unmediated opposition posited by some between “administrative” and “critical” social research was a fallacious oversimplification. His positive experience working on The Authoritarian Personality project clearly left its mark on Adorno, as it did other members of the Institut.29 Although in later years he would reconsider some of his enthusiasm for empirical techniques, because of their threat to replace Critical Theory entirely, he never lost his respect for their potential as tools of enlightenment.

In a country where most of the basic “facts” of social and political life had been systematically distorted for a dozen years, it is not difficult to see why Adorno would have modified his earlier hostility to empiricism or even have begun talking positively about the possibility of enlightenment. It was, of course, with the hope of reeducating his countrymen about those facts that Adorno would later contribute to the debate about Germany's “unmastered past” in such essays as “Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit” in 1959 and “Erziehung nach Auschwitz” in 1966.30 That Adorno could speak positively about pedagogy rather than revolution shows how deeply impressed by his American experience he was. So too does his emphasis on the importance of psychoanalysis in the process of reeducation, for it was one of the cardinal lessons of The Authoritarian Personality that the traditional progressive faith in reason alone was inadequate. As the concluding sentences of the study assert, “we need not suppose that appeal to emotion belongs to those who strive in the direction of fascism, while democratic propaganda must limit itself to reason and restraint. If fear and destructiveness are the major emotional sources of fascism, eros belongs mainly to democracy.”31 It was in the hope of harnessing the insights of psychoanalysis for emancipatory purposes that Adorno and his Institut colleagues organized the influential conference on “Freud in die Gegenwart” in Frankfurt in 195632 and were supportive of the work of Alexander Mitscherlich and the Sigmund Freud Institute.

In his essay on “Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit,” Adorno explicitly tied the absence of a lively psychoanalytic culture in Germany to the effects of anti-semitism, whose central importance seems only to have become gradually apparent to Adorno and his colleagues during their American exile. When they returned to Germany, the glib Marxist formulas that had characterized their work at least as late as Horkheimer's “Die Juden und Europe” of 1939 were now things of the past.33 In the “Elements of Anti-Semitism” section of Dialectic of Enlightenment in particular, Adorno had come to understand the intimate relationship between hatred of the Jews and the extirpation of non-identity that was the dominant bugbear of his negative dialectics. It was not merely the supposed guilt of the survivor that made him sensitive to the implications of Auschwitz for Western culture, but also the experience he had in America of a nonreductive reaction to anti-Semitism that avoided the trivializations of the European left.

In summary, although it might be said that while in America Adorno tended to interpret his new surroundings through the lens of his earlier experience, once back home he saw Germany with the eyes of someone who had been deeply affected by his years in exile. Negatively, this meant an increased watchfulness for the signs of an American-style culture industry in Europe.34 Positively, it meant a wariness of elitist defenses of high culture for its own sake, a new respect for the value of democratic politics, a grudging recognition of the emancipatory potential in certain empirical techniques, and a keen appreciation of the need for a psychological dimension in pedagogy. To put it in capsule form, only an Adorno who had spent time in the United States could have written a sentence like the following from his Introduction to the Sociology of Music: “In general, outrage at the alleged mass era has become an article for mass consumption, fit for inciting the masses against politically democratic forms” (p. 132).

If it is misleading, then, to discount the effects of Adorno's American experience as a subtle counterweight to his European origins and thus miss the dynamic tensions in his intellectual force-field, it would be no less so to characterize the American response to his work as entirely uncomprehending and hostile. For here too the relation between Adorno and America is far more complex and ambivalent than the anecdotal impressions mentioned earlier would suggest. As early as 1954 and C. Wright Mills' acknowledgment in The Saturday Review that the return of Horkheimer and Adorno to Germany was “to the great loss of American social studies,”35 a positive awareness of his work has been evident among growing circles of American intellectuals. Benefiting from the popularity of their former colleague Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s, the Frankfurt School as a whole gained widespread attention in the United States only a few years after its explosive rise to prominence in West Germany. Critical Theory seemed the most appropriate form of heterodox Marxism for a society without a large-scale militant working-class movement and with a growing counterculture distrustful of technological rationality. Unlike in Britain, where Althusser's brand of scientistic scholasticism and political orthodoxy attracted extensive admiration, in America, the New Left found Marcuse's version of the Frankfurt School's ideas especially congenial. Some of its members, like Donald Kuspit,36 Samuel and Shierry Weber, Jeremy Shapiro, and Angela Davis, were stimulated enough to go to the source and study in Frankfurt.

Adorno, of course, was initially far less well known back in America and was thus spared the type of controversy over the practical implications of his ideas that swirled around him in Germany shortly before his death. Although I can recall a heated conversation in 1968 with the leader of the Columbia University SDS and later member of the Weatherman underground, Mark Rudd, who dismissed Adorno as a betrayer of the revolution, this attitude rarely surfaced in the American New Left's reception of his work, such as it was. Far more typical was the joint dedication of a book edited by Paul Breines called Critical Interruptions: New Left Perspectives on Herbert Marcuse, published in 1970,37 which, with no apparent irony, was addressed to Adorno and another recently deceased hero of the movement, Ho Chi Minh. Although by the mid-1970s, some of the same complaints against Adorno's politics that had appeared in Germany were repeated in America, it was in the less volatile context of the postpolitical academization of Marxism.38

If the moment when Adorno's work became more than merely an enticing rumor for the American New Left could be dated, it would probably be 1967 with the publication of an essay entitled “Adorno: or, Historical Tropes” by the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson in the journal Salmagundi.39 Four years later, it served as the opening chapter in his widely influential Marxism and Form, which presented the first substantive survey of Western Marxism to an English-speaking audience. Although concluding that Negative Dialectics was “in the long run a massive failure,” Jameson nonetheless praised Adorno's concrete studies as “incomparable models of the dialectical process, essays at once both systematic and occasional, in which pretext and consciousness meet to form the most luminous, if transitory, of figures or tropes of historical intelligibility.”40 In the same year as Jameson's essay first appeared, George Steiner's highly lauded collection Language and Silence introduced Adorno's lament about the impossibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz to American readers.41 Scattered remarks throughout the rest of the book indicated that Steiner saw Adorno and other continental Marxists like Benjamin and Lukács as major cultural critics, whose absence from the Anglo-American scene was a scandalous indication of its sterility. No less powerful an endorsement came from the other leading guide to recent European theory of those years, George Lichtheim, whose interest lay more in political and philosophical matters than aesthetic or cultural ones. Although many of his best pieces appeared in British journals like the Times Literary Supplement, in 1968 Northwestern University's Triquarterly published his sympathetic overview of Western Marxism entitled “From Marx to Hegel,” which treated Adorno as the “spiritual antipode”42 to Lukács in that tradition. Three years later, Lichtheim republished the piece in a collection with the same name that included an admiring essay solely on Adorno, which had first appeared anonymously in the TLS in 1967, as well as several other essays on Critical Theory. Although somewhat journalistic in tone, Lichtheim's sympathetic appreciations of the Frankfurt School, with whose general position he explicitly identified,43 played a constructive role in the early years of Adorno's American reception.

Although Adorno's death in 1969 was, as we have seen, an event of little importance in the popular media, it was followed by a more serious appraisal of his significance in academic circles. In December 1969, the Jewish review Midstream published my essay on “The Permanent Exile of Theodor W. Adorno,”44 which tried to provide a broad overview of his career, including its last, unhappy episodes. In the following year, the newly founded radical philosophy journal Telos brought out the first of its many considerations of Adorno's work, Russell Jacoby's ecstatically favorable review of Aufsätze zur Gesellschaftstheorie.45 Jacoby, whose admiration for Adorno went so far that he emulated many of his stylistic mannerisms, soon became his major American defender against all attacks from the right or left. Intransigently insisting that negative dialectics was completely compatible with Marxism at its most radical, he quickly became notorious for his sharply worded critiques of all attempts to make sense of the Frankfurt School's work in less glowing terms.46

Telos was also the journal where other very positive assessments of Adorno's work by Dick Howard and Susan Buck-Morss first appeared.47 Although far from the center of American intellectual life during these years—in its Spring 1970 issue it proudly described itself as “a philosophical journal definitely outside the mainstream of American philosophical thought”48—it soon established itself as the major interpreter of Western Marxist ideas for the English-speaking world. Its only rival was the New Left Review in England, which was much more favorably inclined towards Althusserian and other allegedly scientific Marxisms than towards Critical Theory.49 Other journals like Social Research, New German Critique, Theory and Society, and Cultural Hermeneutics also opened their pages to articles about Adorno and his colleagues, but none was as tenacious as Telos in promoting his work in America, not only through articles about him, but also by translating many of his more important essays.

The difficult task of rendering Adorno's longer works into English began in earnest in the early 1970s: Dialectic of Enlightenment and Aspects of Sociology in 1972, Philosophy of Modern Music, Negative Dialectics, and Jargon of Authenticity in 1973, Minima Moralia in 1974, Introduction to the Sociology of Music and The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology in 1976, In Search of Wagner in 1981, and Against Epistemology and the republication of Prisms in 1982. Further translations of the Notes on Literature and the Aesthetic Theory have been announced. Although of very mixed quality—Edmund Jephcott's rendition of Minima Moralia is often said to be the most successful, while several others vie for the honor of being the least—the English translations of Adorno's major works in the past decade did make it possible for a much wider audience to confront his work. Against the backdrop of several accounts of the Frankfurt School as a whole, which began with my The Dialectical Imagination in 1973 and continued with the surveys and collections of Slater, Tar, O'Neill, Held, Friedman, Connerton, and Arato and Gebhardt,50 they provided the basis for an increasingly sophisticated American reception of his work, which is by no means at its end.

One of the clearest indications of that sophistication is the progressive refinement of the American perception of Adorno's unique place in the Western Marxist tradition, which is now no longer understood in the simplified terms of a return “from Marx to Hegel.” In 1977, Susan Buck-Morss published her penetrating study of The Origin of Negative Dialectics,51 which used previously untapped primary sources to demonstrate Adorno's indebtedness to Benjamin and subtle differences with Horkheimer. Moving beyond my emphasis on the relative coherence of a unified Frankfurt School in The Dialectical Imagination, she persuasively showed the ways in which Adorno was always an idiosyncratic member of the Institut's inner circle. Other scholars have scrutinized the complexities of Adorno's relationships with his friends Siegfried Kracauer and Leo Lowenthal, as well as exploring the implications of Lichtheim's remark that he was the “spiritual antipode” of Lukács within Western Marxism.52 More recently still, the full ramifications of his complicated interaction with Benjamin have been reexamined, most probingly in excellent new books by Richard Wolin and Eugene Lunn.53 Lunn, in fact, has succeeded in modifying still further Buck-Morss's modification of my argument about the collective coherence of the Frankfurt School by demonstrating the differences between Adorno and Benjamin even in the 1920s, before their celebrated dispute over mass culture, technology, and political engagement. Stressing Adorno's roots in an Expressionism that was moving beyond its subjective phase toward the objectification of its anguish, he contrasted Adorno's version of aesthetic modernism with Benjamin's, which was more deeply indebted to Surrealism and Symbolism with their relative indifference to the fate of subjectivity.

Adorno's differences with Habermas, most extensively spelled out in an article by Axel Honneth translated in Telos in 1979,54 have also attracted widespread comment in recent years. Those like the ecologically minded anarchist Murray Bookchin use Adorno's analysis of the domination of nature against Habermas, whom they accuse of complicity with the instrumental rationality the older Frankfurt School found so oppressive.55 Others like Joel Whitebook invoke the ambiguities of the dialectic of enlightenment against what they see as Habermas' “compulsively modernistic”56 project. Still others, like the English sociologist Gillian Rose, the author of a major study of Adorno entitled The Melancholy Science, chastise Habermas for violating Adorno's injunction against identity theory through his positing of an ideal speech situation.57 Those, on the other hand, who find Habermas' position more politically promising, often contrast his stress on intersubjectivity with Adorno's retreat into the wreckage of the bourgeois subject.58 Admiring Habermas' attempt to break the logjam of classical Critical Theory and develop new ways of conceptualizing the still unresolved contradictions of contemporary society, they also applaud his search for a more viable normative ground than the immanent critique whose power Adorno himself often came to question.

Although these debates cannot be pursued in greater detail now, I hope the general point has been made. The American reception of Adorno's work has been immeasurably improved by the increasing precision of our understanding of his place in the general context of Western Marxism. Not only are we increasingly aware of the differences as well as similarities between Adorno and the other members of the Frankfurt School, we are also far more sensitive than we were to the unexpected convergences between his position and that of other Western Marxists in the anti-Hegelian camp, like Althusser and Colletti.59 Although there are still some defenders of the absolute distinction between critical and scientific Marxisms,60 the second thoughts many American leftists have had about the virtues of neo-Hegelianism have led them to seek new ways to conceptualize the legacy of Western Marxism and Adorno's place in it.

If we turn now to the ways that specific dimensions of Adorno's work have been treated in America, the implications of this shift will become apparent. As might be expected, certain aspects of Adorno's work have been more readily accepted than others. In large measure because of the absence of translations, his writings on literature and aesthetics have been less widely discussed than his cultural criticism and philosophy. Aside from still unpublished dissertations by Michael Jones on the literary essays and Lambert Zuidervaart on the Aesthetic Theory,61 there have been no full-length treatments of these themes. Although scholars who teach European literatures, like Jameson, Russell Berman, and Peter Uwe Hohendahl,62 have incorporated and debated Adorno's ideas, those who concentrate on English and American literature have not. As Frank Lentricchia concedes in his magisterial survey, After the New Criticism, Adorno and other Western Marxist aestheticians “have a great deal to say to American critics, but … they have not been shaping influences.”63

Adorno's musical writings, which are somewhat more readily available in English, have fared marginally better. But scattered essays by Ronald Weitzmann (who is English), Donald Kuspit, Wesley Blomster, Rose Rosengard Subotnik, and James L. Marsh cannot really compare with the very extensive reception of Adorno's musicological works in Germany.64 In Charles Rosen's widely admired book on Schoenberg, for example, there is no mention of Adorno, nor is he widely cited in the American literature on Wagner.65 And if Adorno has had little impact on musicological circles, it is even less likely, although I cannot be absolutely certain, that he has influenced actual American composers, as Carl Dalhaus claims was the case in Germany during the 1950s and 1960s.66 Perhaps Robert Craft's remark in his critical review of the translation of Philosophy of Modern Music suggests the reason: it “comes twenty-five years too late to exert any active influence. Not that Adorno's interpretation has been proved or disproved. It simply has been passed by, relegated to academe when the music finally escaped the custody of theoretical critiques and entered the live performing repertory.”67

Adorno's thoughts on culture in general, however, have been far more influential in the still lively debate over the implications of mass culture. The model of the “culture industry” was, after all, first developed with America in mind and several of Adorno's former colleagues who remained in the United States, especially Lowenthal and Marcuse, were notable contributors to the discussion which followed. In the 1950s, many respected American intellectuals, including Dwight MacDonald and David Riesman, drew on Adorno's work, even if indirectly. By the 1960s and 1970s, many younger commentators, such as Diane Waldman, Andreas Huyssen, Stanley Aronowitz, Douglas Kellner, Philip Rosen, Miriam Hansen, Mattel Calinescu, John Brenkman, and Thomas Andrae, found Adorno a source of even greater inspiration.68 Interestingly, one of the keenest areas of interest has been Adorno's scattered remarks on film, which have attracted attention in part because of the increased American awareness of the new German cinema. The impact of Adorno's criticisms of traditional Hollywood films on directors like Alexander Kluge has not gone unnoticed by American critics. The translations of Adorno's essays “Culture Industry Reconsidered” and “Transparencies on Film”69 have also led to an appreciation of the ways in which he came to nuance the remittingly bleak prognosis of the original analysis in Dialectic of Enlightenment His reconsiderations in this area have allowed his critique of film to be taken more sympathetically than his less forgiving attack on jazz, which is probably the least successful aspect of his work in America.

Adorno's powerful critique of mass culture has been especially influential because of its roots in his social psychology. Although the dust raised by the controversy over The Authoritarian Personality settled long ago in the 1950s, other aspects of Adorno's appropriation of Freud have continued to attract attention. In works like Bruce Brown's Marx, Freud, and the Critique of Everyday Life and Russell Jacoby's Social Amnesia,70 Adorno's defense of the radical potential of Freud's early work and his critique of the premature harmony of sociology and psychology, a critique elaborated by Marcuse in his attack on Fromm in Eros and Civilization, have been endorsed with enthusiasm. In the even more influential studies of Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World and The Culture of Narcissism,71 many of the Frankfurt School's arguments about the decline of the family and its invasion by the professional bureaucracies of the administered world have been given still greater currency. Joel Kovel's probing dissections of contemporary analytic practice, A Complete Guide to Therapy and The Age of Desire: Reflections of a Radical Psychoanalyst,72 are also indebted to Critical Theory's earlier considerations of this issue. Thus, although the general Frankfurt School use of Freud has not been spared criticism from a variety of perspectives,73 it has nonetheless been and continues to be an enormous stimulus to the American attempt to harness Freudianism for emancipatory ends.

If, however, we really want to understand the implications of the shift I mentioned a few moments ago in the perception of Adorno's place in the Western Marxist tradition, it is to the reception of his philosophy that we must turn. For it is here that the most movement has occurred in the past ten years in the American understanding of Adorno's work. In fact, just as Adorno's differences from more mainstream Western Marxists like Lukács were becoming increasingly appreciated, so too were his similarities with non-Marxist continental philosophers. Adorno's complicated relationship with phenomenology, for example, has been the source of considerable interest, in part because of the translations of his critiques of Heidegger and Husserl and in part because of a prior awareness of Marcuse's debt to these same thinkers. In the early 1970s, Telos, in particular its editor Paul Piccone, was hopeful of finding a common ground between Critical Theory and phenomenology. Bemoaning the overt hostility of Adorno toward Husserl and Heidegger, Piccone and the Italians he translated in Telos like Pier Aldo Rovatti,74 refused to take their apparent incompatability as the final word on this issue. To reach the opposite conclusion, their strategy was to emphasize the importance of Husserl's late work, in particular The Crisis of European Sciences, which appeared after the Frankfurt School's position against Husserl had hardened. Finding common ground in their critical attitudes towards technology and hoping to integrate the phenomenological investigation of the Lebenswelt with negative dialectics, Piccone and his allies contended that the results would offer a better basis for a more genuinely materialist Marxism than that provided by Lukács' neo-Hegelianism. By the end of the decade, however, Piccone's faith in Marxism of any kind had waned so far that any thoughts of a creative synthesis had vanished, although he continued to rely on the traditional Critical Theory idea of an administered world in his notion of “artificial negativity.”75

At about the same time, a parallel effort was being made by Fred Dallmayr to find fruitful links between Adorno and Heidegger. Once again the strategy was to claim that Adorno's hostility was directed more against his target's early than late works. In an essay he published in 1976 and a book entitled Twilight of Subjectivity: Contributions to a Post-Individualist Theory of Politics that appeared five years later,76 Dallmayr argued that despite the outward signs of animosity, a close kinship existed between the two thinkers:

Adorno's strictures against individualism and the philosophy of consciousness correspond closely to Heidegger's critique of “subjectivism” and of the tradition of Western “metaphysics” with its accent on subjective reflection. Likewise, Adorno's comments on the ambivalence of Enlightenment thought and modern rationalism find a parallel in the existentialist posture toward logical calculation and the conception of man as “rational animal”; in particular, the argument that the growing sway of “instrumental” rationality reflects ultimately man's “will to power”—the desire to subjugate and control nature—is reminiscent of Heidegger's treatment of modern technology as an anthropocentric stratagem. A further affinity … can be found in the common stress of the two thinkers on historical exegesis and on the importance of “pre-understanding” or tradition in human cognition.77

Thus, like Hermann Mörchen,78 Dallmayr called into question Adorno's own self-understanding in order to find convergences where previously only antagonism had been recognized. What made Dallmayr's rapprochement plausible was his emphasis on Heidegger's late works with their critique of identity and defense of difference. Insisting as well on the parallels between both of their positions and Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of ambiguity, Dallmayr sought to forge a postsubjectivist and posthumanist philosophy that would avoid the domination of nature and “egological” individualism present in so many traditional Western philosophies.

To establish his point, Dallmayr also drew on the work of a fourth figure, whose surprising resemblance to Adorno has received increasing notice in America, Jacques Derrida. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, it is arguable that one of the stars in Adorno's intellectual constellation can be identified with the poststructuralism of Heidegger's heterodox French disciples. This is not to say, however, that Adorno should be construed as a deconstructionist avant la lettre or that we can ignore the very important differences between his position, with its still Hegelian and Marxist dimensions, and theirs. Indeed, as one of the poststructuralists, Jean-François Lyotard, has recognized,79 a very nondeconstructionist nostalgia for a lost totality still permeates even a negative dialectics. And yet, it makes even less sense to build impermeable walls between two of the most significant theoretical movements of our time.

The most compelling historical reason for the similarity is, of course, the common respect for Nietzsche found in both Adorno and the poststructuralists. Virtually all of the literature on Adorno in English recognizes his remarkable debt to a philosopher for whom most other Marxists, Western or otherwise, had only contempt.80 It is partly for this reason that writers like the English critic Terry Eagleton have contended that

the parallels between deconstruction and Adorno are particularly striking. Long before the current fashion, Adorno was insisting on the power of those heterogeneous fragments that slip through the conceptual net, rejecting all philosophy of identity, refusing class consciousness as objectionably “positive,” and denying the intentionality of signification. Indeed there is hardly a theme in contemporary deconstruction that is not richly elaborated in his work—a pointer, perhaps to the mutual insularity of French and German culture, which now, ironically, converge more and more only in the Anglo-Saxon world.81

An even more extensive attempt to defend the comparison has been made by Michael Ryan in his 1982 Marxism and Deconstruction.82 Although acknowledging that Adorno's emphasis is on society and Derrida's on language, he nonetheless argues that both share a hatred of logocentric hierarchies, both attack “the idealist privilege of identity over nonidentity, universality over particularity, subject over object, spontaneous presence over secondary rhetoric, timeless transcendence over empirical history, content over mode of expression, self-reassuring proximity over threatening alterity, ontology over the ontic, and so on.”83 In fact, in his zeal to assimilate Adorno and Derrida, Ryan goes so far as to make them common enemies of the domination of reason, without acknowledging that Adorno's more discriminating wrath was directed against only certain forms of rationality rather than rationality tout court.

If the parallels between Adorno and Derrida have been noted in America, so too have those between Adorno and Foucault.84 In particular, the striking similarity between the arguments of Dialectic of Enlightenment and Discipline and Punish about the pervasiveness of disciplinary power in our administered world has been remarked.85 Although it would be misleading to ignore their different evaluations of psychoanalysis, both Adorno and Foucault share a common skepticism about the sexual utopianism of certain Freudo-Marxists, including Marcuse. And both are at one in their sensitivity to what in Dialectic of Enlightenment he and Horkheimer called the “underground history”86 of the European body, which Foucault's investigations of “bio-power” have helped bring to the surface. One final parallel might be mentioned, which concerns Adorno's regretful insistence in “The Actuality of Philosophy” that it was no longer possible for thought “to grasp the totality of the real” and Foucault's contention in Power/Knowledge that “the role for theory today seems to me to be just this: not to formulate global systematic theory which holds everything in place, but to analyze the specificity of mechanisms of power, to locate the connections and extensions, to build little by little a strategic knowledge.”87 In both cases, a micrological analysis takes the place of the grand syntheses that were so much a trademark of Hegelian Marxism at its most ambitious. Or more precisely, for both Adorno and Foucault, totality is retained only as a term of opprobrium to indicate the pervasive domination of power relations that can only be challenged on the local and particular level.

One way, to be sure, in which Adorno and the poststructuralists part company is in their differing attitudes towards aesthetic modernism. Whereas Adorno seems to have had little faith in an art that would follow the classical modernism of Schoenberg and Beckett, many poststructuralists such as Lyotard eagerly defend the postmodernism that apparently has. Interestingly, leftist American students of Critical Theory who have struggled with the elitism inherent in Adorno's position have found this alternative a promising one. Thus, for example, the same Fredric Jameson who did so much to introduce Adorno to American audiences now complains that his later work in particular fails to register the inevitable historicity of modernism.88 Rather than eternally contrasting avant-garde modernism and the culture industry, postmodernism, so Jameson suggests, calls into question the very dichotomy. Against Adorno, Jameson now argues for “some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity that can be detected, no matter how faintly and feebly, in the most degraded works of mass culture just as surely as in the classics of modernism.”89

Whether or not postmodernism can be harnessed for radical purposes is, of course, not yet clear, as Habermas has frequently warned.90 It may therefore be healthy to contrast Adorno in some respects with those recent philosophical currents that support it, rather than assimilate him too quickly to them. Moreover, as Habermas has also recently cautioned,91 there are important distinctions that ought not to be forgotten in their different appropriations of the Nietzschean critique of the Enlightenment, which prevented Adorno, contrary to the hasty reading of Ryan, from attacking all forms of rationality as oppressive.

And yet, despite the dangers of turning Adorno into a deconstructionist with a German accent, it would be equally misguided to ignore the undeniable parallels that allow us with hindsight to see the implication of Adorno's thought as more complicated than would have been foreseen during his own lifetime. And if Eagleton is correct in claiming that this recognition has happened primarily in the Anglo-Saxon world because of the “mutual insularity of French and German culture,” then we must take seriously the impact of his American reception. For if Adorno had to leave home to learn the lessons about democratic politics and the fetishization of high culture described earlier, the emigration of his thought may also have been necessary to bring out all of its potential implications. It has sometimes been argued that the first detached and analytical overviews of the Frankfurt School's history could only have been written by outsiders with no stake in the polemical wars within Germany that surrounded Critical Theory.92 No less perhaps might be said of the reception of Adorno's work, some of whose implications may be more apparent on foreign shores than at home. Although, as I mentioned earlier, Adorno never returned to America after 1953, it is thus perhaps symbolically just that when his heart gave out in Switzerland sixteen years later, he was in fact preparing to do so in order to give the Christian Gauss lectures at Princeton University. The lectures were never delivered, but Adorno's thought did return nonetheless.93

We might therefore in conclusion adopt the trope of chiasmus, so frequently used by Adorno himself, to describe his complicated relationship to America.94 As in such sentences as “history is nature; nature is history,” Adorno employed chiasmus to indicate the unreconciled and unsublated relationship between two elements that nonetheless are inextricably intertwined. It is appropriate to call his peculiar status as a thinker tensely suspended between his native land and his emigré home a form of chiasmus. For as an American, he was obviously a displaced European, while as a European, he was deeply affected by his years in America. As a result he was able to remain in permanent exile from both contexts, and still does after his death. Although surely a source of pain, this condition, as Adorno doubtless knew, was also a stimulus to his creativity and originality. It also paradoxically made him into something of an exemplary figure for contemporary man. For as he argued in his essay in Noten zur Literatur entitled “Die Wunde Heine,” “today, the fate Heine suffered has literally become the common fate: homelessness has been inflicted on everyone. All, in language and being, have been damaged as the exile himself was.”95

It is perhaps especially fitting that I borrow this citation from the opening remarks made by the American literary critic Harvey Gross at the earlier symposium honoring Adorno that was held in Los Angeles on the tenth anniversary of his death.96 For not the least of Adorno's gifts to his emigré asylum, a country known for receiving rather than generating refugees, was the knowledge that in some sense we too are still suffering from Heine's wound, we too are still leading the damaged lives of men unable to find their way home.


  1. Paul Lazarsfeld, “An Episode in the History of Social Research: A Memoir,” The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960, Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn (Cambridge, 1969), p. 301.

  2. Theodor W. Adorno, “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America,” The Intellectual Migration, p. 342.

  3. Lazarsfeld, p. 313. For an account of the failure written from Lazarsfeld's perspective, see David E. Morrison, “Kultur and Culture: The Case of Theodor W. Adorno and Paul F. Lazarsfeld,” Social Research (Summer 1978), 45(2):331-55.

  4. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London, 1974), p. 22.

  5. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, (Frankfurt, 1977).

  6. Ibid., p. 698.

  7. The New York Times, August 7, 1969. It is held up to ridicule in Hans Mayer, Der Repräsentant und der Martyrer: Konstellationen der Literatur (Frankfurt, 1971), p. 145; Martin Jay, “The Frankfurt School in Exile,” Perspectives in American History (1972), 6:356; and Zoltan Tar, The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (New York, 1977), p. 11.

  8. Robert Craft, “A Bell for Adorno,” Prejudices in Disguise (New York, 1974), p. 94.

  9. Edward Shils, “Daydreams and Nightmares: Reflections on the Criticism of Mass Culture,” Sewanee Review (Autumn 1957), 65(4):587-608; Leon Bramson, The Political Context of Sociology (Princeton, 1961); Herbert J. Gans, “Popular Culture in America: Social Problem in a Mass Society or Social Asset in a Pluralist Society?” in Social Problems, A Modern Approach, ed. Herbert S. Becker (New York, 1966).

  10. This in particular was Shils' argument, which paid no attention to the hedonist dimension of Critical Theory.

  11. Tar, p. 118.

  12. George Friedman, The Political Philosophy of the Frankfurt School (Ithaca, 1981), p. 32.

  13. Irving Wohlfahrt, “Hibernation: On the Tenth Anniversary of Adorno's Death,” Modern Language Notes (December 1979), 94(6):980-81. Wohlfahrt, who studied with Adorno in the 1960s and wrote one of the first introductions to him in English (the short “Presentation of Adorno” in New Left Review [January 1968], no. 46), is a far more sensitive analyst of his work, and that of Benjamin, than either of the two previously cited authors. He ends this compact but very insightful piece by reversing its generally critical direction and warning against “blaming the messenger [Adorno] for the news” (p. 982).

  14. Dagmar Barnouw, “‘Beute der Pragmatisierung’: Adorno und Amerika,” in Die USA und Deutschland: Wechselseitige Spieglungen in der Literatur der Gegenwart, ed. Wolfgang Paulsen (Bern, 1976). The author teaches in the German Department of Brown University in America, so perhaps the essay can be taken as another example of the American response to Adorno rather than a German reading of it.

  15. Ibid., p. 76.

  16. Adorno, Prisms: Culture Criticism and Society, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (London, 1967), p. 98.

  17. For a good discussion of this issue, see Egbert Krispyn, Anti-Nazi Writers in Exile (Athens, Ga., 1978).

  18. The correspondence between them, which can be found in the Kracauer Nachlass in the Schiller National Museum in Marbach am Neckar, contains many examples of their differing views of English.

  19. Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism: An Historical Study of Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno (Berkeley, 1982), p. 209.

  20. Adorno, “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America,” pp. 369-70. H. Stuart Hughes is one of the few observers who has noted the validity of Adorno's remarks about his debt to America. See his The Sea Change: The Migration of Social Thought, 1930-1965 (New York, 1975), pp. 150f. He points out how frequently American terms enter his vocabulary in the writings done after his return, terms like “healthy sex life,” “some fun,” “go-getters,” “social research,” “team,” “middle range theory,” “trial and error,” “administrative research,” “common sense,” “fact finding,” “statement of fact,” “case studies,” “facts and figures,” “nose counting,” and “likes and dislikes” (p. 166).

  21. Adorno, “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America,” p. 367.

  22. See, for example, his remarks that “the greatest fetish of cultural criticism is the notion of culture as such. … Only when neutralized and reified, does Culture allow itself to be idolized. Fetishism gravitates towards mythology.” Prisms, pp. 23-24.

  23. See, in particular, Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston, 1968); the first use of the term came in Horkheimer's “Egoismus und Freiheitsbewegung,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (1936), 5(2):161-231.

  24. Lunn, p. 208.

  25. Adorno, “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America,” p. 367.

  26. Joachim Radkau, Die deutsche Emigration in den USA: Ihr Einfluss auf die amerikanische Europapolitik 1933-1934 (Düsseldorf, 1974). Radkau includes the Institut für Sozialforschung in his general indictment because of their psychologization of social problems. But he notes that Adorno's “Scientific Experiences” essay has a “skeptical and pessimistic undertone” that sets it apart from other emigré memoirs (p. 13).

  27. Adorno, “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America,” p. 370. The desire of the returning Institut members to contribute to political enlightenment is expressed in a letter Horkheimer sent to Lowenthal on April 13, 1951, in which he wrote:

    We stand here for the good things: for individual independence, the idea of the Enlightenment, science freed from blinders. When Fred [Pollock] reports to me that you and other friends see the type of empirical social science we are conducting here as in many ways conventional, I am convinced that you would be of another opinion could you see the thing with your own eyes. … As much as I yearn for pure philosophical work again, as much as I am determined to take it up again under the right conditions and devote myself solely to it, so much do I also know that effectiveness here, either for the education of students or for ourselves, is not lost.

    (Lowenthal archive).

  28. Adorno, “Zur gegenwärtigen Stellung der empirischen Sozialforschung in Deutschland,” in Empirische Sozialforschung: Meinungs- und Marktforschung Methoden und Probleme: Schriftenreihe des Instituts zur Förderung öffentlicher Anglegenheiten e.V. (Frankfurt, 1952).

  29. See for example, Friedrich Pollock, ed. Gruppenexperiment: Ein Studienbericht: Frankfurter Beiträge zur Soziologie, vol. 2 (Frankfurt, 1955).

  30. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, 10.2.

  31. Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: 1950), 2:976.

  32. The proceedings of the conference were collected as Freud in der Gegenwart: Frankfurter Beiträge zur Soziologie, (Frankfurt, 1957), vol. 6. The Institute's purpose in sponsoring this conference were expressed in a letter Horkheimer sent to Lowenthal on January 20, 1956:

    I participate in the affair—on the urgent request of Mitscherlich—because such an event in Germany means a restrengthening of enlightened cultural forces, because young people in general no longer know of these things, but should be led through them, because the jurists in regard to the new formation of the penal code, the ministers and pedagogues in regard to the new teaching code should be reminded of these things, because psychiatry to a great extent is a scandal. I am very aware of the risks brought by such an undertaking, but it belongs to the things that justify my being here.

    (Lowenthal archive).

  33. For an overview of the Frankfurt School's changing attitude toward this issue, see chapter 6.

  34. See, for example, his remark in Introduction to the Sociology of Music, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York, 1976), that “it is different in America, where one meets scientists who must strain even to imagine experiencing music otherwise than by radio. The culture industry has become much more of a second nature than thus far on the old continent” (p. 231).

  35. C. Wright Mills, “I.B.M. Plus Reality Plus Humanism-Sociology,” Saturday Review (May 1954), p. 54.

  36. Kuspit actually went earlier, from 1957 to 1960. See his “Theodor W. Adorno: A Memoir,” Chateau Review (1983), 6(1):20-24.

  37. Paul Breines, ed., Critical Interruptions: New Left Perspectives on Herbert Marcuse (New York, 1970). In 1968, Breines had written an essay on “Marcuse and the New Left in America,” in Jürgen Habermas, ed., Antworten auf Herbert Marcuse (Frankfurt, 1968), in which he noted that “Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin and the perspectives developed in the Institut für Sozialforschung remain all but unknown” in America (p. 137).

  38. See, for example, the work of Ben Agger, “On Happiness and Damaged Life,” in John O'Neill, ed., On Critical Theory (New York, 1976); and “Dialectical Sensibility I: Critical Theory, Scientism and Empiricism,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory (Winter 1977) 1(1):1-30; “Dialectical Sensibility II: Towards a New Intellectuality,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory (Spring-Summer 1977) 1(2):47-57.

  39. Fredric Jameson, “Adorno: or, Historical Tropes,” Salmagundi (Spring 1967), 5:3-43.

  40. Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton, 1967), pp. 58-59.

  41. George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York, 1967).

  42. George Lichtheim, “From Marx to Hegel,” Triquarterly (Spring 1978) 12:5-42; republished in From Marx to Hegel (New York, 1971), where the citation appears on p. 21.

  43. Lichtheim, From Marx to Hegel, p. viii. For an overview of Lichtheim's career, which discusses his links with Critical Theory, see chapter 10.

  44. Martin Jay, “The Permanent Exile of Theodor W. Adorno,” Midstream (December 1969), 15(10):62-69.

  45. Russell Jacoby, review of Adorno, Aufsätze zur Gesellschaftstheorie, in Telos (Fall 1970), 6:343-48. For a general account of Telos and its debt to Critical Theory, see John Fekete, “Telos at 50,” Telos (Winter 1981-1982), 50:161-71.

  46. Russell Jacoby, “Marcuse and the New Academics: A Note on Style,” Telos (Spring, 1970) 5:188-190; “Marxism and the Critical School,” Theory and Society (1974), 1:231-38; “Marxism and Critical Theory: Martin Jay and Russell Jacoby,” Theory and Society (1975), 2:257-63; review of Phil Slater, Origin and Significance of the Frankfurt School in Telos (Spring 1977), 31:198-202; review of Zoltan Tar, The Frankfurt School in Sociology and Social Research (1978), 63:168-71; review of George Friedman, The Political Philosophy of the Frankfurt School in Telos (Fall 1981), 49:203-15.

  47. Dick Howard, review of Jargon der Eigentlichkeit, in Telos (Summer 1971), 8:146-49; Susan Buck-Morss, “The Dialectic of T. W. Adorno,” Telos (Winter 1972), 14:137-44.

  48. Telos (Spring 1970), no. 5, table of contents.

  49. The New Left Review did publish a two-part translation of Adorno's “Sociology and Psychology” in numbers 46 (November-December 1967) and 47 (January-February 1968), but its first extended analysis of Critical Theory was the Althusserian attack of Göran Therborn, “Frankfurt Marxism: A Critique,” in number 63 (September-October, 1970), pp. 65-89. My essay, “The Frankfurt School's Critique of Marxist Humanism,” Social Research (Summer 1972), 34(2):285-305 was in part a rebuttal to Therborn.

  50. Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Boston, 1973); Phil Slater, Origin and Significance of the Frankfurt School: A Marxist Perspective (London, 1977); Tar, The Frankfurt School; O'Neill, ed., On Critical Theory; David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (Berkeley, 1980); Friedman, The Political Philosophy of the Frankfurt School; Paul Connerton, The Tragedy of Enlightenment: An Essay on the Frankfurt School (Cambridge, 1980); Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York, 1977); and The New Left Review, ed., Aesthetics and Politics: Debates Between Bloch, Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno (London, 1977). For an overview of the American reception of Critical Theory, see Douglas Kellner and Rick Roderick, “Recent Literature on Critical Theory,” New German Critique (Spring-Summer 1981), 23:141-70.

  51. Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (New York, 1977). See also her “Piaget, Adorno, and the Possibilities of Dialectical Operations,” in Hugh J. Silverman, ed. Piaget, Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1980).

  52. David Gross, “Lowenthal, Adorno, Barthes: Three Perspectives on Popular Culture,” Telos (Fall 1980), 50:122-40; Martin Jay, “The Concept of Totality in Lukács and Adorno,” Telos (Summer 1977), 30:117-37; and in Shlomo Avineri, ed., Varieties of Marxism (The Hague, 1977); Martin Jay, “Adorno and Kracauer: Notes on a Troubled Friendship,” Salmagundi (Winter 1978) 40:42-66; reprinted below as chapter XIII.

  53. Richard Wolin, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (New York, 1982); Lunn, Marxism and Modernism.

  54. Axel Honneth, “Adorno and Habermas,” Telos (Spring 1979), 39:45-61. See the response in the same issue by James Schmidt, “Offensive Critical Theory? Reply to Honneth,” pp. 62-70.

  55. Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom (Palo Alto, Ca., 1982); “Finding the Subject: Notes on Whitebook and ‘Habermas Ltd.,’” Telos (Summer 1982), 52:78-98.

  56. Joel Whitebook, “Saving the Subject: Modernity and the Problem of the Autonomous Individual,” Telos (Winter 1981-1982), 50:94.

  57. Gillian Rose, The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (London, 1978), pp. 146f. She continues the attack on Habermas in Hegel Contra Sociology (London: Athlone, 1981), pp. 33f, but now her perspective is closer to Hegel than to Adorno, whom she also accuses of regressing back to a form of neo-Kantianism.

  58. See, for example, Jean Cohen, “Why More Political Theory?,” Telos (Summer 1979), 40:70-94, and Seyla Benhabib, “Modernity and the Aporias of Critical Theory,” Telos (Fall 1981), 49:39-59. Although these writers are by no means uncritical supporters of Habermas, they clearly find his version of Critical Theory an advance over Adorno's.

  59. See, for example, the review of Colletti's Marxism and Hegel by Ben Agger in Telos (Summer 1975), 24:191. See also the chapter on Della Volpe and Colletti in my Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas (Berkeley, 1984).

  60. See, for example, Russell Jacoby, Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (Cambridge, 1981).

  61. Michael T. Jones, “Constellations of Modernity: The Literary Essays of Theodor W. Adorno” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1978); Lambert Zuidervaart, “Refractions: Truth in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory” (Ph.D. diss., University of Amsterdam, 1981 (Zuidervaart is a Canadian); the best essay in English on Adorno's aesthetic theory is Richard Wolin, “The De-Aestheticization of Art: On Adorno's Aesthetische Theorie,Telos (Fall 1979) 41:105-127. See also Robert Lane Kauffmann, “The Theory of the Essay: Lukács, Adorno, and Benjamin,” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, San Diego, 1981), and J. N. Mohanty, “The Concept of Intuition in Aesthetics Apropos a Critique by Adorno,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1980), 39:39-45.

  62. Russell Berman, “Adorno, Marxism and Art,” Telos (Winter 1977-1978, 34:157-66; Peter Uwe Hohendahl, “Autonomy of Art: Looking Back at Adorno's Aesthetische Theorie,German Quarterly (1981), 54:133-148, and The Institution of Criticism (Ithaca, 1982).

  63. Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (Chicago, 1980), p. xii.

  64. Ronald Weitzman, “An Introduction to Adorno's Music and Social Criticism,” Music and Letters (July 1971), 102(3):287-98; Donald B. Kuspit, “Critical Notes on Adorno's Sociology of Music and Art,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1975), 33:321-77; Wesley Blomster, “Sociology of Music: Adorno and Beyond,” Telos (Summer 1976), 28:81-112; Rose Rosengard Subotnik, “Adorno's Diagnosis of Beethoven's Late Style: Early Symptoms of a Fatal Condition,” Journal of the American Musicological Society (Summer 1976), 29(2):242-75; “Why is Adorno's Music Criticism the Way It Is?,” Musical Newsletter, (Fall 1977) 7(4):3-12,; “The Historical Structure: Adorno's ‘French Model’ for Nineteenth-Century Music,” Nineteenth-Century Music (July 1978), 2(1):36-60; “Kant, Adorno, and the Self-Critique of Reason: Toward a Model for Music Criticism,” Humanities in Society (Fall 1979), 2(4):353-86, and James L. Marsh, “Adorno's Critique of Stravinsky,” New German Critique (Winter 1983), 28:147-69. One might also add two articles by the Hungarian-born sociologist, now living in Australia, Ferenc Fehér, because they were written for American journals: “Negative Philosophy of Music—Positive Results,” New German Critique (Winter 1975), 4:99-111, and “Rationalized Music and its Vicissitudes (Adorno's Philosophy of Music),” Philosophy and Social Criticism (1982), 9(1):42-65. Compare this rather paltry collection of essays with the German reception of Adorno's musicological works, a bibliography of which can be found in Burkhardt Lindner and W. Martin Lüdke, eds. Materielien zur ästhetische Theorie Th. W. Adornos Konstruktion der Moderne (Frankfurt, 1979, pp. 543f. For the reception in several other European countries, see the essays in Adorno und die Musik, ed. Otto Kolleritsch (Graz, 1977). See also Anne G. Mitchell Culver, “Theodor W. Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music, Evaluation and Commentary,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Colorado, 1973).

  65. Charles Rosen, Arnold Schoenberg (Princeton, 1975), which does not even list anything by Adorno in the bibliography. Rosen gave a hostile paper on “Adorno and Stravinsky” at the Adorno conference at the University of Southern California in 1979, but it was not included in the proceedings published in Humanities in Society (Fall 1979), 2(4). Adorno's influence can, however, be seen in Gary Schmidgall, Literature as Opera (New York, 1977), especially in the chapter on Berg's Wozzeck.

  66. Carl Dalhaus, Esthetics of Music, trans. William Austin (Cambridge, 1982), p. 101.

  67. Craft, p. 92.

  68. Andreas Huyssen, “Introduction to Adorno,” New German Critique (Fall 1975), 6:3-11; Diane Waldman, “Critical Theory and Film: Adorno and ‘The Culture Industry’ Revisited,” New German Critique (Fall 1977), 12:39-60; Stanley Aronowitz, The Crisis in Historical Materialism: Class, Politics and Culture in Marxist Theory (South Hadley, Mass., 1981); Douglas Kellner, “TV, Ideology, and Emancipatory Popular Culture,” Socialist Review (1979), 45:13-53; “Network Television and American Society: Introduction to a Critical Theory of Television,” Theory and Society (January 1981) 10(1):31-62; “Kulturindustrie und Massenkommunikation. Die Kritische Theorie und ihre Folgen,” in Wolfgang Bonss and Axel Honneth, eds. Sozialforschung als Kritik: Zum Sozialwissenschaftlichen Potential der Kritischen Theorie (Frankfurt 1982); Philip Rosen, “Adorno and Film Music: Theoretical Notes on Composing for the Films,” Yale French Studies (1980), 60:157-182; Miriam Hansen, “Introduction to Adorno, ‘Transparencies on Film’ (1966)” New German Critique (Fall/Winter, 1981-82) 24/25:186-98; Matei Calinescu, Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch (Bloomington, 1977); Jon Brenkman, “Mass Media: From Collective Experience to the Culture of Privatization,” Social Text (Winter 1979), 1:94-109; Thomas Andrae, “Adorno on Film and Mass Culture,” Jump Cut (May 1979) vol. 20: For still more recent considerations, see J. Frow, “Mediation and Metaphor Adorno and the Sociology of Art.” Clio (1982), 12:57-66, and Patrick Brantlinger, Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture and Social Decay (Ithaca: 1983), chap. 7.

  69. Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” New German Critique (Fall 1975) 6:12-19; “Transparencies on Film,” New German Critique (Fall/Winter 1981-82), 24/25:199-205.

  70. Bruce Brown, Marx, Freud, and the Critique of Everyday Life: Toward A Permanent Cultural Revolution (New York, 1973); Russell Jacoby, Social Amnesia (Boston, 1975).

  71. Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World (New York, 1977); The Culture of Narcissism (New York, 1979).

  72. Joel Kovel, A Complete Guide to Therapy (New York, 1977); The Age of Desire: Reflections of a Radical Psychoanalyst (New York, 1981).

  73. See, for example, Jessica Benjamin, “The End of Internalization: Adorno's Social Psychology,” Telos (Summer 1977), 32:42-64; “Authority and the Family Revisited: or, a World Without Fathers,” New German Critique (Winter 1978), 13:35-57; “Die Antinomien des patriarchalischen Denkens: Kritische Theorie und Psychoanalyse,” in Bonss and Honneth; Mark Poster, Critical Theory of the Family (New York, 1978).

  74. Pier Aldo Rovatti, “Critical Theory and Phenomenology,” Telos (Spring 1973), 15:25-40. Rovatti is an editor of Aut Aut and heavily influenced by the phenomenological Marxism of Enzo Paci, which also had a strong impact on Piccone. See, for example, his “Beyond Identity Theory” in O'Neill, in which he attacks the Frankfurt School for its lack of appreciation for Husserl.

  75. Paul Piccone, “The Crisis of One-Dimensionality,” Telos (Spring 1978), 35:43-54; “The Changing Function of Critical Theory,” New German Critique (Fall 1977), 12:29-37. Piccone's point is that the system is so well-established now that it can tolerate, indeed even generate, pockets of “artificial” negativity that nonetheless function to stabilize it.

  76. Fred R. Dallmayr, “Phenomenology and Critical Theory: Adorno,” Cultural Hermeneutics, 3:367-405; Twilight of Subjectivity: Contributions to a Post-Individualist Theory (Amherst, 1981). It might also be noted that another philosophical target of Adorno's, Wittgenstein, has been defended in precisely the same way. According to H. Stuart Hughes, “in Adorno's failure to come to grips with the Philosophical Investigations, an enormous intellectual opportunity was missed—the chance to associate two of the finest intelligences of the century in the enterprise of bridging the philosophical traditions which Wittgenstein's death had cut off in midcourse” (The Sea Change, p. 167).

  77. Dallmayr, “Phenomenology and Critical Theory: Adorno,” p. 395.

  78. Herman Mörchen, Adorno und Heidegger—Untersuchung einer philosophischen Kommunikationsverweigerung (Stuttgart, 1981).

  79. Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Adorno as the Devil,” Telos (Spring 1974), 19:128-37.

  80. See, for example, James Miller, “Some Implication of Nietzsche's Thought for Marxism,” Telos (Fall 1978), 37:22-41 and Rose, pp. 18f. Another common theme that some commentators have claimed links Adorno and Derrida is the importance of Husserl as a target of their work. It would, in fact, be very interesting to compare Adorno's Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie with Derrida's Speech and Phenomena: and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston, 1973).

  81. Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London, 1981), p. 141.

  82. Michael Ryan, Marxism and Deconstruction: A Critical Articulation (Baltimore, 1982).

  83. Ibid., p. 75.

  84. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago, 1982), p. xii.

  85. Tom Long, “Marx and Western Marxism in the 1970's,” The Berkeley Journal of Sociology (1980), 25:36.

  86. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York, 1972), p. 231.

  87. Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon et al. (New York, 1980), p. 145.

  88. Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text (Winter 1979), 1:130-48. See also his further reflections on these issues in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, 1981); and his “Reflections in Conclusion” to Aesthetics and Politics.

  89. Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” p. 148.

  90. Habermas, “Modernity versus Postmodernity,” New German Critique (Winter 1981), 22:3-14.

  91. Habermas, “The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment,” New German Critique (Spring/Summer 1982), 26:13-30.

  92. See, for example, Peter Uwe Hohendahl, review of Buck-Morss in Telos (Winter 1977-78), 34:185.

  93. As the examples cited above demonstrate, his American reception has been confined almost entirely to academic circles. But a glimmer of a slightly more popular appreciation may perhaps be discerned in the fact that a play entitled “The Dialectic of Enlightenment” by Daryl Chin was produced off-Broadway in New York in 1982. The play seems to have borrowed only the title from Horkheimer and Adorno's work. But surely there is some significance in the fact that the reviewer for The Village Voice, Roderick Mason Faber, could assume enough recognition of the authors to pun on one of their names in his negative review, which was called “Adore? No.”

  94. See Rose, p. 13.

  95. Adorno, “Die Wunde Heine,” in Noten zur Literatur, Gesammelte Schriften 2 (Frankfurt, 1974), p. 100.

  96. Harvey Gross, “Adorno in Los Angeles: The Intellectual in Emigration,” Humanities in Society (Fall 1979), 2:350.

William P. Nye (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Theodor Adorno on Jazz: A Critique of Critical Theory,” in Popular Music and Society, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 69-73.

[In the following essay, Nye examines the ways in which Adorno's opinions about American culture affected his criticism of jazz.]

The school of social thought called critical theory has two major branches. The younger is associated with the work of Jurgen Habermas and colleagues and has little relevance to the concerns of this paper. The focus here is on the other variety of critical theory which often goes by the name of the Frankfurt School, for it officially began with the establishment of the Institute of Social Research, in Frankfurt, in 1923. The Institute sought to synthesize aspects of the work of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Weber, Lukacs and Freud, among others, and attracted a diverse and discontented group of intellectuals. Erich Fromm, Friedrich Pollock, Franz Neumann, Leo Lowenthal, and Walter Benjamin were among those associated with the Frankfurt School at one time or another.

However, the primary architects of the emergent perspective of critical theory were Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno (Held, 1980: 14-16). All three were interested in the nature and function of the arts in modern societies but Adorno and Horkheimer collaborated on a systematic approach to the arts in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). According to Held (1980: 77) Horkheimer and Adorno's approach to the arts was to seek “to understand given works in terms of their social origins, form, content and function—in terms of the social totality. The conditions of labour, production and distribution must be examined, for society expresses itself through its cultural life and cultural phenomena contain within themselves reference to the socio-economic whole.”

Adorno's interest in a critical theory of the arts was particularly strong in regard to music, for over half of his published writings are devoted to the topic (Held, 1980: 78). His early formal training as a musician probably accounts for much of his interest in this field, but in his later years, or after his forced emigration from Hitler's Germany and subsequent involvement in American radio research, Adorno fastened his critical ears on the nature, production and social implications of American popular music.

One view of what happened is given by Held (1980: 78):

The emergence of an entertainment industry, the growth of the mass media, the blatant manipulation of culture by the Nazis and other totalitarian regimes, the shock of immigration to the U.S., the inevitable discovery of the glamour and glitter of the film and record industries: together all made imperative the task of assessing the changing patterns of culture.

A much different, and from the perspective of this essay more accurate, view of Adorno's critical and often contemptuous stance toward American popular music is suggested in this biographical assessment:

The thought and attitudes of Adorno were decisively shaped by his bourgeois social background and its concomitant life style, his training in music in Vienna, and the sociohistoric experiences of his encounter with American civilization …

Adorno encountered every aspect of American civilization with shock. Being suddenly transplanted from ‘baroque’; and gemutlich Vienna with its nineteenth century atmosphere, via Oxford, England, to the slums of Newark, New Jersey, necessarily brought forth shock and panic

(Tar, 1977: 171-72).

The raw, rough and raucous undercurrents of American culture seem to have repelled Adorno's refined artistic sensibilities beyond the usual limits of scholarly restraint, for he scathingly lambasted American popular music in its every form and guise. When stripped of invidious labels many of his comments on popular music appear both accurate and insightful, but only when applied to certain kinds of songs and performances. Yet, his analyses are demonstrably excessive when it is noted that Adorno intended his criticisms to apply to all music that fits under the Germanic rubric of Leichte Musik (Adorno, 1973, 1941). He approved the translation of this phrase as popular music and offered a rambling definition that covered virtually all music with any entertainment value. Examining the matter historically, Adorno applied the label of popular music to everything from The Magic Flute to My Fair Lady, not to mention Rachmaninoff, Offenbach, Gershwin, film scores, jazz and Tin Pan Alley (Adorno 1973: 23-25).

The concern here, however, is not in Adorno's criticisms of everything he called popular music. It is to examine Adorno's critique of jazz to demonstrate how his general approach is one of ethnocentric cultural elitism; an approach which led him to make value-ladened, prejudicial and poorly documented assertions about a primary source of virtually all American popular music.1 In order to be brief, primarily one source of supporting counter-evidence will be used, the readily available and eminently authoritative, “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz” (Columbia Special Products, P611891; hereafter referred to as SCCJ).

Generally, Adorno's criticisms of popular music are couched in terms of comparison with what he calls “serious” music and such comparisons serve to give definition to both types of music in his work. For example, Adorno writes that in serious music, themes and details are highly interwoven with the whole, whereas in popular music, the structure of the whole does not depend upon details, the whole is not altered by individual detail.

If one considers jazz a soloist's music wherein the soloist composes the music on the spot, then it is easy to find many recorded and musicologically analyzed examples of jazz solos that are perfectly conceived from start to finish in the sense that the original theme (or motive) is stated, developed and concluded in a manner lending it the status of a “mini” musical masterpiece. SCCJ examples would be Louis Armstrong's “West End Blues,” Charlie Parker's first take of “Embraceable You” and Sonny Rollins' “Blue 7.”

Adorno also says that themes are carefully developed in serious music, whereas popular music exhibits a melodic structure which is highly rigid and is frequently repeated. In jazz, again considered as our concrete example of popular music, the melodic structure is anything but rigid. Only the chord sequences are repeated and frequently with new variations on each repeat. In fact, a hallmark of an accomplished jazz musician is the ability to create melodies in a spontaneous fashion which are musicologically superior to that given in the opening and frequently borrowed theme of a typical jazz performance. SCCJ examples of the wondrous things the best jazz performers can do to melodies are Louis Armstrong's version of “Sweethearts on Parade,” Coleman Hawkins' famous rendition of “Body and Soul,” Charlie Parker's remarkably different but equally brilliant back-to-back takes of “Embraceable You” and Art Tatum's wizardry on “Willow Weep for Me” and “Too Marvelous for Words.” Furthermore, a jazz singer of the calibre of Billie Holiday can appear to sing and repeat the melody of a song on one level, yet inflect each round of interpretation with subtle but powerful tonal, dynamic and rhythmic nuances which tend to transform the song into a unique personal possession of the performer. SCCJ performances by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald are all noteworthy in this regard.

Elsewhere, Adorno observes that in serious music consistency is maintained between formal structure and content (themes), but in popular music, stress is on the combination of individual “effects,” or on sound, color, tone, beat and rhythm. What has already been said about the employment and development of themes in jazz applies here as well, but perhaps more importantly, Adorno's belief that popular music stresses the wrong elements reflects a general ignorance of what jazz in particular is all about. The importance of rhythm in jazz is undeniable and underscores the music's historical indebtedness to African music where rhythm was and remains the paramount consideration. Is Adorno suggesting that music which emphasizes rhythm cannot be serious? It sounds like it, which suggests that Adorno's critical stance may be biased in favor of European classical music which places great emphasis on harmonic sophistication often at the expense of rhythmic, tonal or even melodic complexity.

Adorno likewise misunderstands the historical origins and musical implications of popular music's concern with sound and color. European music at least since the time of J.S. Bach, has established strict tonal criteria for virtually all instruments normally found in a symphony orchestra, including the human voice. In a relative sense, musicians trained in the European manner achieve a standardization of tone production which is both historically and geographically rare. Jazz musicians, on the other hand, draw from the African musical tradition in which the development of a distinctly individual and widely expressive voice is a common goal of all who would seek to rise to the top of the profession.

For example, Jean Pierre Rampal and James Galway are two acknowledged masters of the European flute tradition. An experienced ear can discern differences in their respective tones and each would interpret the same piece a little differently. Yet, they still sound more alike than different when it comes to elements of vibrato, attack, intonation, and the like. To understand how different this is from the jazz tradition, one merely has to listen to the masters of jazz trumpet included in the SCCJ. It does not take an experienced ear to hear the obvious differences in sound produced by Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbeck, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Each produces a sound as personal, unique and as instantly recognizable as John Hancock's signature, and this is exactly what each sought to achieve through years of practice and experimentation. Adorno's critical deprecation of this aspect of popular music reflects a myopic ethnocentrism toward non-European music in general, and perhaps a disguised racism when applied to jazz.

Comment on one more of Adorno's criticisms of popular music should be enough to intellectually discredit his theoretical perspective. According to him, if standard themes are employed in serious music, say for a dance section, they still maintain a key role in the whole. He contrasts this to popular music in which, to use Held's (1980: 101) interpretation, “improvisations become normalized (the boys can only ‘swing it’ in a narrow framework)” and “details are substitutable (‘they serve their functions as cogs in machines’).” Putting this in a jazz context, Adorno is saying that jazz musicians do not really improvise and jazz compositions and performances are no more than tired musical cliches thrown together in new and perhaps even random combinations. Suffice it to say that good jazz musicians improvise in the fullest sense of the word and the truth of this is given in the sense of awe with which many accomplished “serious” or classically trained musicians regard the best and even the better jazz musicians. In response to Adorno's claim that jazz is mechanically produced, consider the SCCJ selections by Duke Ellington. Today it is widely conceded that Mr. Ellington is among the very best of America's composers. Yet he composed jazz. Therefore, if what Adorno says about jazz is true, then a logical conclusion is that thus far, America has produced little, if any, serious music of significance.

On the other hand, a more appropriate and justifiable conclusion would be to agree with Zoltan Tar (1977: 207), who had this to say about Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School: “Indeed, Critical Theory is the document of the disintegration of old Central European bourgeois society and the tragic fate of a group of intellectuals of that society.”


  1. The criticisms of popular music credited to Adorno are drawn from Held's (1980: 101, 103 and passim) summary. The original sources are scattered in English and German publications listed under Adorno's name in the bibliography.


Adorno, Theodor W. 1936. Uber jazz (published under pseudonym Hektor Rottweiler). Zeitschrift fur Sozialforshung 5 (No. 3).

Adorno, Theodor W. 1941. (With the assistance of George Simpson). On popular music. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9.

Adorno, Theodor W. 1964. Moments Musicaux: Neugedruckte Aufsatze, 1928 bis 1962. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. Introduction to the Sociology of Music. Tr. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press.

Held, David. 1980. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. 1947. Dialektik der Aufklarung. Amsterdam: Querido Verlag, N.V.

Schroyer, Trent. 1973. The Critique of Domination. Boston: Beacon Press.

Tar, Zoltan. 1977. The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Rainer Rochlitz (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Language for One, Language for All: Adorno and Modernism,” in Perspectives on Musical Aesthetics, edited by John Rahn, W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, pp. 21-39.

[In the following essay, originally published in French in 1988, Rochlitz locates Adorno's place in aesthetic modernity.]

Modernity can be assigned a minimalist as well as a maximalist definition. In the first case, one would go back to the birth of modern subjectivity, to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the French Revolution, and modernity would be understood as the perpetual re-questioning of the normative criteria on which a posttraditional society is founded, as a chronic tension between the demands of profitability, of efficaciousness, of maintenance, and the demands of validity, of the autonomous logics in the sciences, of norms, and of arts.1 From this perspective, the historical catastrophes of the nineteenth century do not justify the verdict which denounces modern reason as such. In the second case, modernity can be seen as the absolute radicality of the political and artistic avant-gardes and of their continuous bid for change, especially since the middle of the nineteenth century, a radicality which opposes to the apocalyptic negativity of modern societies a demand for rational reconciliation without compromise. In this latter case, after the successive defeats of the radical movements, there appears a deceived and bitter, cynical or desperate “postmodernity,” and a sceptical realism which ends up denouncing as utopian the perspectives of minimalist modernity.2

Adorno's thought is situated midway between these two definitions, and leans strongly toward the second. What separates Adorno from postmodernity is his paradoxical effort to save normativity and the emancipating potential of reason, whose totalitarian drift he nevertheless denounces. As for his successors, the principle of all essential change is resolutely confined to a force which is exterior to reason, and notably to the imagination without which it would be sterile and repressive.

Historically, Adorno's thought stems from a triple failure: the failure of Western humanism at Auschwitz, a catastrophe which the culture of Bach and Beethoven, of Goethe and Hölderlin, of Kant and Hegel, did not know how to prevent; the failure, in Stalinism, of the political movement which had claimed “to realize philosophy”;3 the failure, finally, of Western culture in a cultural industry dominated by the American model. In all three cases, Adorno (and Horkheimer, with whom he wrote La Dialectique de la raison, completed in 1944) sees the triumph of instrumental or practical reason in the modern subject, a subject which ends up by abolishing itself as subject.

However—and it is this which links Adorno to the first definition of modernity—philosophy “keeps itself alive” by virtue of its practical failures. It strives to save that which instrumental reason can only miss or destroy: the nonidentical, the individual, and the particular.4 What permits thinking, in opposition to the spontaneous tendency of thought—“to think means to identify”5—is the very failure of an identification which misses its object; by a sort of return of the repressed, that which is nonidentical forces thought into a “dialectic,” that is to say, into a critical reflection on itself, and into a mimetic relation with its object, much like the processes which are expressed in art. Instead of identifying its object, dialectical thought identifies itself with it, while at the same time retaining its identity as critical thought.

As Habermas has shown, this conclusion is inevitable within the framework of a philosophy of the subject, such as Adorno's philosophy remains. It can apprehend only by objectification—and thus by “reification”—that which arises from an essentially intersubjective “identity” of persons and of relations of reciprocity on which, in a final analysis, the social fabric relies. That is why it attempts to offer a remedy by a mimetic approach and a conceptuality founded on “affinity.” The recent theory which grounds society, language, and personal identity on the activity of communication, anterior to any reifying objectification, can avoid this stumbling block and more accurately assign a place to the pathologies of modernity. It escapes the aporias of maximalism and its postmodern consequences, because it is not compelled to attribute to the catastrophes of the twentieth century a meaning tied to the totalitarian essence of the modern subject.


Among the theories of modern art, the aspiration of the Adornian project is unique; it is comparable only to the three or four great syntheses of German philosophy, to the aesthetics of Kant and Schelling, of Hegel and the young Lukács, and to the collection of essays by Walter Benjamin which served as a model for the musical and literary studies of Adorno himself. Of all these theories, that of Adorno is the only one which was able to take into account, not only romanticism and postromanticism, but also the avant-gardes, their decline, and their influence up to the threshold of postmodernism.

In spite of the pessimistic tone which he consciously adopts, Adorno still speaks of an artistic modernity of the future. For him in 1969, not only is this adventure, menaced by cultural industry, yet to be concluded, but he places in it his hope for the survival of the critical spirit, since, according to him, dialectical thought itself relies on a conceptual equivalent of the mimetic attitude. Right up to its negation by a radically demystified art, aesthetic appearance is for him the basis of hope. It is this and this alone which maintains the perspective of a reconciled world, a view which philosophic thought is incapable of preserving without the aid of art.6 Demystified and reconciled myth, rational mimesis, art, and especially the disenchanted art of the avant-garde constitute the normative base of Adornian philosophy; this is the base which authorizes its critique of society.

The ultimate and incomplete synthesis of all Adorno's essays, his Aesthetic Theory, attempts to reconstruct all of artistic modernity as a function of the same historical situation. All modern works should be understood as responses to one and the same problem, that of myth, of disenchantment which is the process of an Enlightenment ongoing for thousands of years, and finally of reconciliation. It is a reflection on art seen from the interior, from the point of view of creation and of the work, with all the complexity and all the reflexive character that this implies for a modern artist. This is why the Aesthetic Theory—with its concentric structure and its aphoristic writing—draws close to being a work of art in itself, playing with the concepts to render them more permeable to their objects, and denying itself the transparency of a linear reading. No aesthetic connects art and modernity as closely; art is only realized by liberating itself from all heteronomy; it is the art of the avant-garde which reveals the essence of all art, but also its aporias.

Adorno's thought is paradoxical. Dedicated entirely to modernity, at the same time it gnaws away at its very foundations. In spite of the disastrous balance sheet which he draws up, Adorno nevertheless refuses to abandon the project of modernity. It is this which constitutes his intermediate position between the two definitions of modernity. There is no other root of reason for him; if the dialectical concept tends to be mimetic, the mimesis of modern art is rational and—contrary to Nietzsche and Heidegger—does not thrust its roots into a past which is anterior to Reason. It is this which saves Adorno from irrationalism, without however permitting him to differentiate art and philosophy as much as he would like to do.

One can say—in reflecting on Albrecht Wellmer's analysis7—that the paradox of Adornian thought is due to his fusion of two types of criticism, that of a rational philosophy of history and that of a critique of reason in the name of its other. The appeal to reason's other becomes inevitable once Adorno and Horkheimer begin to interpret the rationality of the historical process according to the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic of progress as well as to the Weberian analysis of bureaucratic rationality.8 Instrumental reason, which governs the development of the Mind (or of the productive forces), thus escapes all rational control, to the extent that all reason is instrumental, is the objectification of a reality by a subject. From this perspective, the critique of reason can only be carried forth in the name of reason's other, in the name of the nonidentical (nature, urges, poetry, the oppressed). Adorno's originality with regard to Nietsche lies in the fact that for him the nonidentical is not irrational, but rather a deformed element of integral reason. The dynamic which connects the two sides of reason, the “dialectic of reason,” is fundamentally a dialectic of mimesis: domination mimes the violence of natural forces in order to master them by work and by conceptual thought—it is a mimesis of death in the name of the conservation of self—whereas aesthetic affinity mimes that which is dominated.

As with Heidegger, the development of the modern subject coincides with the progress of reification, of the objectifying and dominating relation to nature, both external and internal; but analogously, the development of the subject is accompanied for Adorno by an internal differentiation whose effects are beneficial. Dominating reason gives rise to the birth of mimetic reason in the arts and in dialectical thought. To the extent that it is contrasted with magic, art is a rationalized mimesis, an appearance conscious of its unreality. Alone, it cannot reconcile a reality which has been oppressed and destroyed by instrumental reason; it can only testify to a possible reconciliation, evoked by aesthetic appearance, while representing nonreconciled reality.9 Modern works—those of Schönberg, of Kafka, or of Beckett—thus call forth reconciliation and at the same time deny it by their use of dissonance; to present dissonance as resolved in creating a harmonious work of art would deprive art of its critical force.

According to Adorno, humanity will escape its self-destruction by instrumental reason only to the extent that the two sides of mimesis reach a reconciliation. Now, the imbalance of modernity results from the fact that avant-garde art is already a synthesis of mimesis and of rationality—of the most advanced techniques and principles of organization—whereas positivist philosophy, sciences, technology, economic administration, and management have eliminated every mimetic element. As a successful synthesis of the human endeavor, art thus once again becomes the model for philosophy.10

If modern art is obscure and refuses itself to immediate comprehension, this is because its apparent irrationality is the inverse of instrumental reason. In exploring the repressed domain of the nonidentical which it is in the business of saving, this art incarnates a form of reason which would no longer be instrumental. It is thus that in speaking of artistic modernity Adorno does not cease to consider current problems in philosophy.

The dialectic of mimesis appears especially in connection with concepts of innovation and experimentation; it culminates in that which Adorno calls the “subjective point,” a sort of point of no return for artistic radicality.

Designed on the model of a commodity which must affirm its competitive uniqueness, the novelty of the modern work is at the same time a mortal parody of itself, to the point of the self-destruction of art. Contrary to appearances, a new work shows reality as it is, increasingly damaged under its polished surface, disfigured by the universal reign of merchandise, a final avatar of classical domination. The novelty of avant-garde art is its incessant transcendence of negativity. At the same time, the work nonetheless remains an artistic appearance, and in this manner a promise of happiness, thanks to a form, in itself new, which projects a distanced light on the reality which it reveals. This entanglement of disillusion and of utopian promise constitutes the dialectic of artistic modernity according to Adorno; it associates the content of truth with a quasi-messianic function of appearance in general.

If the new is “irresistible,”11 that is because each work which is truly new forces itself as a conquest upon other artists, analogous to a scientific discovery, henceforth not to be dismissed. It is this which connects the development of art both to the history of truth and to the development of productive forces, including the knowledge of artistic techniques. A work of art is intimately linked to a commodity in a capitalist society and can only affirm its autonomy by pulling itself away from the circulation of exchange by dint of its uselessness, in the manner of a “ready-made” by Duchamp.12 The truth of an avant-garde work consists in revealing all the violence, all the inhumanity, all the reification which crystallizes in a commodity produced by modern society.13 It remains to be known if art can be associated this closely to truth and to a philosophy of history univocally reduced to a course toward the catastrophe, whose Benjaminian image seems to have profoundly impressed Adorno.14

Dominating reason being irrational—the destruction of nature and of humankind—apparent irrationality in modern art is according to Adorno a form of rational reaction which denounces false instrumental logic. More precisely—and in this Adorno undoubtedly intends to take into account the Kantian systematic—art opposes to instrumental rationality the very finality of reason. In its continual reaction to the development of productive forces, art follows their logic by anticipating the diversion of technical potentials to human ends.15 It is to this intimate relation with the movement of history that aesthetic novelty owes its “irresistible” character.

By establishing such a close relation between art and historic reality, Adorno denies himself the concept of a logic proper to the artistic creation itself, founded on the emancipation and the differentiation of subjectivity, in the sense of a minimalist theory of modernity. This, moreover, is why he relativizes the autonomy of art from the very start of his Aesthetic Theory.16 The seductive force of the Adornian aesthetic is tied to the fact that a great number of modern artists were themselves involved with a logic of transcendence, devolving from the motion of the historic process toward the worst, even if they did not adhere to the dialectic of reason and of its mimetic inverse. The debate on the “end of the avant-gardes,” ongoing since the 1970s, has revealed a break with this logic of transcendence. In this context, the renunciation of the maximalist model could open out into two opposing perspectives: a pure and simple inversion of radical logic, or the elaboration of another logic, compatible with the minimalist model. Discussions on postmodernism fall within the first hypothesis; rather than a pursuit of radicalization, there is a provocative acceptance of all that which former reasoning had banished from modernism: a taste for the eccentric, for kitsch, for luxuriant excess rather than ascetic rigor; rather than a critical conscience going against the stream, a complacent adherence to what is in vogue. This inversion remains attached in a negative sense to avant-gardist dogmatism: “one must be absolutely postmodern.” In the second hypothesis, it is a question of reconstructing a logic of artistic modernity which is not simply the obverse of economic and social history, but which reacts in its own way, according to its own proper logic. The first path follows, in spite of itself, the logic of maximalism through a new global turning point and a new sectarianism which this time is eclectic; the second separates out the elements of a subjective singularization of language, even as in the apocalyptic logic of the avant-gardes.

If the dialectic of modernism tries to establish a relation between art and historic truth, the analysis of experimentation is concerned with the status of the subject in modernity; it defines the procedure which a subject impaired by identifying reason must follow—to bring about that which is modern. Originally, the concept of experimentation “simply meant that a self-conscious will set out to explore unknown and illicit ways of doing things;”17 at a later time—a time that was current for Adorno—this concept designated “the fact that the artistic subject uses methods the results of which it cannot foresee.”18 By abandoning itself to heteronomy—in aleatory music, in action painting, and in automatic writing—the subject exposes itself to regression while trying to remain master of itself at the point of contact with that which is the most alien to it.19 Artistic modernity is thus a test for the sovereignty of the aesthetic subject before the insignificant and the nonaesthetic; but for Adorno, the irrational element which thus imposes itself upon the subject has the characteristics of truth repressed by reason.

The theory of the “subjective point” relates to the same problematic of the subject: “If modern art as a whole can be understood as a continual intervention of the subject, which is no longer at all disposed to let the traditional game of forms of works of art play in a nonreflective way, then to the continual interventions of the self, there corresponds a tendency to give up in powerlessness.”20 For when everything is a construction of the subject, “there remains only abstract unity, freed from the antithetical moment by which alone it became united.”21 Art is at the same stroke “rejected at the point of pure subjectivity,”22 by the cry of expressionism, by cubist construction, by the gesture of Dada, by the intervention of Duchamp. After having reached this extreme point, the artist—as Picasso and Schönberg themselves illustrate—can only come back to a more traditional order. In this, Adorno sees signs of the end of an art which renounces itself rather than compromise; truth content risks destroying aesthetic appearance. Beckett alone succeeds at this tour de force: “The space assigned to works of art, between discursive barbarism and poetic prettification, is hardly more vast than the point of indifference in which Beckett has set up shop.”23

This restrictive concept of subjectivity as an integrative force—which, once having lost the aid of tradition, could only choose between sterile domination and abandonment of self—is due to the limits of the philosophy of the subject, the domain within which Adorno's thought remains.24 According to this philosophy, the subject is essentially an objectifying activity, even when it examines itself; it would thus not be able to constitute any meaning, since meaning is always intersubjective. According to Adorno, the growing weight of the absurd in modern art is due to the increasing force of a subject which dismantles all valid meaning. One might thus believe that Adorno expresses a regret vis-à-vis the objectivity of meaning in traditional societies, but this is not at all so. In truth, the stakes of art are for him foreign to the signification; art is a kind of “nonsignifying language,”25 as he characterizes both natural beauty and a modern art which—as does music—moves away from all narration. The progressive intellectualization of art contributes to this just as does its primitivism, the taste for fauvism. But in spite of this refusal of signification, Adorno attributes a very precise message to the language of art: it is the “language of suffering”; it evokes the negativity of reality and exorcises it through form. All “authentic” works convey this same message, which converges with the ultimate goal of philosophy.


Recent attempts to liberate aesthetics from this metaphysical heritage which—for Adorno, but also for Heidegger—makes of art the preserver of a precise truth, generally have the flaw of remaining negatively dependent on these concepts. Thinking to return to Kant or to Nietzsche, they substitute something for truth, be it the play of subjective faculties, authenticity, or a relativization of the concept of truth.

Albrecht Wellmer and Martin Seel,26 who endeavor to reinterpret Adorno in light of the thought of Habermas, are drawn to aesthetics as a means of completing a theory of the forms of rationality. Their analysis concentrates on the contribution of art and of aesthetic reception to the collective process of communication. Thus, Wellmer opens aesthetics to art, an aesthetics which is posterior to the Aesthetic Theory, by attributing to modern subjectivity the same power of regeneration and integration that Adorno had reserved for the open forms of art. This allows him to reformulate the Adornian aesthetic utopia as a salvation for the socially excluded and repressed, not only in an aesthetic testimony of truth, but in a communication constantly enlarged through the action of art.

As for Martin Seel, he renounces such a utopia to conceive a social game of rationalities in which art serves as invitation to make experiences—experiments—for their own sake. The work of art presents a “way of seeing” which cannot be objectivized (p. 272) but which, if it succeeds, can be actualized and made the object of a discourse showing others the mode of perception which leads to such a comprehension.

In the history of aesthetics, Martin Seel distinguishes two great, erroneous tendencies: the “privative,” which considers a work of art as inexpressible, radically foreign to a discursive apprehension of the real (Seel cites Nietzsche, Valéry, Bataille, Bubner); and the “superlative,” which sees in the aesthetic phenomenon the manifestation of a truth superior to that which discursive reason can attain; the first tendency is purist, the second fundamentalist (pp. 46-47). Now, Seel's endeavor consists in defining a more rational relation with art, that of attention to a content of experience presented in the form of a nonpropositional articulation. The criterion for the aesthetic value is not truth but rather aesthetic “success” (pp. 126ff.). Those works or artistic manifestations are successful which express the contents of lived attitudes to which they alone give us access; of which they reveal to us a new sense; and which appear to us as adequate and essential for a “just” life in the present time (pp. 210-11). Aesthetic rationality appears initially in an argumentative form highlighting that which shows itself to be expression in the artistic phenomenon (p. 214). Such an emphasis is both interpretation (commentary) and actualization (confrontation, immediate emotion), and becomes criticism by combining these two aspects. Criticism specifies the mode of perception which reveals the signification of the aesthetic phenomenon (p. 296); the artists themselves do not communicate any signification but make something which is significant in itself (p. 291).

For Seel, art does not aim for anything other than to acquaint us with the experiences that are possible on the horizon of the historic present—and first to draw our distancing attention to the experience which is ours; it does not convey any other utopia (p. 330). That of a widening message, integrating what up until then was inexpressible, is not specifically aesthetic, but rather political. Those who make the experience aesthetic live the fragile presence of liberty, not its ever-vanishing future (p. 332). Seel thus rejects all aesthetics of “preappearance” or of the anticipation of a real utopia, where he sees nothing but illusion.

His book is an important attempt to articulate a domain which is difficult to grasp, that of an expression which is neither idiosyncratic nor conceptual. He represents the most recent example of a paradoxical effort characteristic of German thought since Kant: to make sense of art through philosophy, while at the same time making art a privileged object of reflection, and keeping guard against its philosophic overevaluation. Reason has need of an art which clarifies, but art is not the totality of reason (p. 326).

Wellmer and Seel react against the privilege Adorno assigns to the creative process and to the work of art. As does H. R. Jauss (and Paul Ricoeur, who develops in Time and Narrative a theory of mimesis as refiguration of reality through the configuration of the artwork itself), they endeavor to reintroduce the receptive subject that the Aesthetic Theory had dismissed. This option actually recommends itself when one perceives the limits of the philosophy of the subject, which lead Adorno to admit of no social impact on the part of modern works, and to conceive only the evocation of a utopian reconciliation with nature, one which balks at all practical realization.

It remains that aesthetics—unlike ethics—is concerned with historically dated and completed objects which have the particularity of being able to influence well beyond the time of their creation.27 If aesthetic judgment renders “present” an experience crystallized in the work, one must admit that the work itself is not devoid of that rationality that criticism realizes; “a moment of reason is affirmed in the autonomy of the radically differentiated domain of avant-garde art.”28 Before analyzing the activity which consists in appropriating and making available the experience contained in the work, it is thus necessary to examine the rationality inherent in the aesthetic object, without which there is neither aesthetic nor critical experience. Without it, the work of art remains reason's irrational other and gains access to rationality only in critical discourse.

Traditional art—narrative, coherent, significant by itself—often seems to be rational in that it is composed of elements arising from a cognitive or moral rationality; on the other hand, modern art distinguishes itself precisely—and Adorno stresses this—by its apparent irrationality. It is this which led Nietzsche to see in the work of Wagner a resurgence of “presocratic” Dionysianism, radically foreign to the modern logos. The problem thus consists in identifying, precisely in this modern art which is reduced to that which is unique to it, the element which constitutes aesthetic validity—that in the name of which a work is considered a success—and which allows it to be judged. This brings us back to associating the rationality of the work of art with its validity as a work.

Aesthetics always comes up against the difficulty of reconciling the virtually universal validity of the successful work, the equivocal or polysemous character of this universality, and the singular character of the experience to which it gives form (often even of the material in which it is realized). Kant thus speaks of a universality without the intervention of a concept, Adorno of a nonsignificant eloquence. In both cases, one of the terms has a particular connotation: for Kant, the nonconceptual aspect expresses both a deficiency which turns art into the “symbol of morality,” and a path which leads to a moral life; for Adorno, eloquence is paradoxically univocal: it tells of the suffering that knowledge cannot express, and thus the difference between works becomes secondary in relation to the “nonrepresentable” which is the content of truth.

Art—especially modern art—is thus a language, but a language charged with intense energy and which denies communication.29 Aesthetic eloquence establishes itself in two ways: by a break with the established significations of ordinary language and by the creation of a singularized and intensified language, a language “for one.” The elaboration of this language “for one” transforms it into a language “for all,” made virtually universal by dint of its intelligibility, which necessitates a deciphering.30 Aesthetic comprehension—and criticism—is thus an art of translation which causes the apparent singularity of the work (and of the experience which constitutes it) to attain a virtually universal signification, but which is for its own part a function of a particular actualization. The unity of aesthetic “validity” does not in any way reduce the diversity of the “nonsignificant eloquence” particular to each work, nor the plurality of interpretations of which each can become the object, precisely to the extent that it is successful.

For Adorno, the particular nature of modern art was a function of reality—of absolute suffering under the reign of totalitarian identity—about which artworks unfurled their eloquence. According to the concept which has just been sketched, modern art is essentially a function of an internal necessity of decentralized subjectivity; a language “for one” charged with individual energy, which becomes “language for all” when the work is successful, is a proposal of meaning31 in the form of contingent figures and ordered materials.

The intensified proposals of meaning do not form a continuous tradition, according to the concept of hermeneutics; nor do they reveal a hidden essence along the line of the truth of being, but rather, a fragile construction whose internal coherence is always a little strained. That which saves the meaning—that rare commodity of postmetaphysical modernity—from contingency and total arbitrariness, is the fact that its elaboration is subterraneanly a collective work, constantly nourished by the social exchange of experiences, which is the foundation of artistic configurations; no singularity deprived of all supra-individual signification can crystallize into a work.

Proposals of meaning reflect an interpretation and an arrangement of sensitive perception for which the accuracy of tone and the original character of the experience (and of the language found to express it) count more than the conformity to facts and to norms. Art is not in the order of the everyday, even though it seeks its epiphanies in the most ordinary life; it can take the liberty—and this is in fact what one expects from it—of ignoring the intersubjective demands which constitute daily life in society. Only in this way does the stylization of the proposal of meaning become possible. For the receiving subjects, impressed by this ordering of meaning acquired at the price of a certain number of abstractions, the proposal will be confronted with suitable experiences, but also with quotidian demands, and its pertinence will be tested against the true and the just.

From here onwards, one can attempt to explain—without premature reference to historical reality—certain characteristics of modern art, notably the status of negativity and its avatars. According to our hypothesis, the proposal for a coherence of meaning based upon an absolutely singular experience brings into play the demand for a radical expression of self which—from Baudelaire to Beckett—comes up against rigid and intolerant social structures. It is this which gives to aesthetic singularity the appearance of the destructive, satanic, revolted negative. It breaks with the everyday and the constraints of rational subjectivity to bring to life an instant of absolute presence. The sudden shock of ecstasy or of sacred horror snatches it away from all habit and from all familiarity and plunges it into a lucid rapture. Extreme singularity wounds hopes for inviolable personal integrity, whose pathological deformations it denounces while at the same time becoming attached to them in as much as they are images of singularity. So long as the singularity of the subject is not established, it appears demoniac, and art is inhabited by a spirit of revolt; once it is recognized—and it is this which seems today to be the case—art loses its role of representing the “accursed part.” Initially subversive, artists tend to become public characters, proposing each of their singularities as a model across the schemas of their experience. Contrary to that which maximalist modernity dreads, it is not the absolute singularity whose existence is menaced, that will be mutilated, leveled, or abolished by social normalization. What risks generalization is a singularity that is without universal bearing, a pluralism of “differences,” empty and flatulent.32 At the extreme, current culture tends to multiply voiceless narcissisms one upon another, and to confuse the fugitive attention that they arouse with aesthetic or intellectual expression. Hence also, during a certain time, the cult of madness, of perversions and of abnormalities of all sorts, which themselves have no aesthetic value, but only documentary interest. The demand for aesthetic validity which characterizes an intensified proposal of meaning calls for a symmetry between the “voice” emanating from the work and that of the receiving subject; so long as it is a “proposal of meaning,” the work is not a psychoanalytical “case” which one studies, and this symmetry is the basis of aesthetic rationality.

In accordance with its subversive side, aesthetic singularity thus questions the forms of social normativity which uselessly limit the expression of self. Inversely, coherence of meaning, placed under the demand for originality, is ceaselessly confronted with the resistance of the nonmeaningful and the untenable. From Manet and Baudelaire to Beckett and Bacon, the sovereignty of art affirms itself in the face of the negative and the insignificant. The work is a “proposal” of meaning at the risk of failure: of a meaning which can remain private or of limited interest. In the course of this process, the means employed to affirm the sovereignty of the artist are continually reduced to the “essential”: to the expression of an invincible singularity, inexpressible in existing artistic languages. Basic geometric shapes, primitive strokes, pure or elementary colors, bidimensionality, distanced daily objects, raw materials, displayed in the context of a show, can play this role, and arouse the shock of the inartistic annexed by the sovereignty of the artistic sphere.

“Proposal of meaning” signifies finally that the language “for one”—the singularity of the work which seeks to be recognized as singular universal33—must be presented to an audience, in order to put to the test its virtually universal intelligibility, its effect of aesthetic coherence as a singularized language, and its power to make the singularity of its experience resonate in the historical experience of the receiving subjects. It is thus necessary that the work overcome at least the three stumbling blocks of absolute singularity: being nonintelligible or stripped of interest; the obstacle of aesthetic incoherence, or that of a break in tone incompletely mastered; and of inadequacy to historical expectations of originality, or of the nontopicality of the dissonance to which it responds.

Contrary to dramaturgical activity in daily life, which aims at influencing others to attain a precise goal, the presentation of works before an anonymous audience—a sort of generalized Other—establishes a contract between the work and its viewers.34 Nothing, in fact, obliges them to subject themselves to the discipline of the work, but once they have freely abandoned themselves to it, they will experience—or not—the internal necessity, and will recognize it by their aesthetic emotion and their critical judgment. It is this logic which makes of art (and of the aesthetic experience) a sphere of a demand for validity analogous to those which define science and ethics, but of a weaker demand, incapable of assuring the cohesion of society; it is a demand without an immediate “illocutory force,” without necessary consequence for daily life. That which could have welded together the audience of certain works in the past—recited epics, tragedies presented before the entire city on special occasions—was due to values other than aesthetic. The modern novel and painting, or recorded music, address themselves to an isolated individual; and the collective experience of the concert, of the theater, and of the cinema, even if it can mobilize shared values, does not create any real tie capable of uniting individuals outside of the aesthetic space.

The demand for truth always comes back to a necessity inherent in the arguments, and only in the second place to facts and events (which cannot of themselves assert their truth). The demand for moral justice is already inherent in the norms themselves, whose legitimacy is presupposed in every modern society, and only secondly in the arguments which justify them.35 As for the aesthetic demand, it is expressed by each singular, historically situated work which offers itself to the public, and only secondly by the criticism which justifies it, which recommends it or contests its value. But unlike truth and justice, no subject is obliged to accept the proposal of aesthetic meaning. If truth and justice are fallible, their demand is peremptory once one is obliged to admit its pertinence; the universality of a work of art, and more recently, of certain films evoking solidarity, remains on the contrary precarious and tied to the possibility of actualizing singular experience. That is why there exists a mortal rivalry among the works for the conquest of a universality of meaning; in this rivalry, the contingency of the subject's situation—which gives the subject access to a privileged experience—escapes the will of the artist. It is the “natural” part of the “genius”; only the capacity to exploit it, to confer upon it the form of a language “for all,” is within the province of the artist.

The cognitive and moral dimensions of language tend to parenthesize the particular meaning of the historic situation; the existence or the nonexistence of the facts and events, the normative adequation or inadequation of maxims of action and of institutions do not imply in themselves any relation of these demands either to the plans of the subjects or to the ultimate goals that they are pursuing. Intensified proposals of meaning schematize in pregnant materials the historical interpretations of the desires and the situations of the world; they thus reduce the metaphysical projects of the past to horizons of meaning that subjectivity assigns to itself in the aesthetic space.36 In modern society, this meaning must prove itself in the process of artistic reception, where it interacts with other demands for validity and with rival proposals. Postmodern “aestheto-centrism,” inspired by the Nietzschean theory of the “artist philosopher,” can thus be understood as a refusal of this reduction of metaphysics to a hypothetical status, to simple proposals of meaning; it is through loyalty to the lost absolute that everything is reduced to a game of appearances.


What makes Adorno correct in his analysis of radical modernity is that, until recently, most artists themselves admitted the logic of the worst and of apocalyptic anticipation. From Baudelaire to Beckett, including Kafka and Schönberg, modernity constantly repeated an apocalyptic blackmail which aimed to force the course of history. It is this implicit theology which collapses along with maximalist modernity. But just as the moral catastrophes of the twentieth century prohibit, in ethics, a simple “return to” a classical doctrine, and necessitate instead a redefinition of moral theory, neither can aesthetics go back in time. To reformulate the conditions of recognition of an action or a work does not mean to dissolve all criteria in “contextuality.”

Writers like Thomas Bernhard illustrate the passage from the apocalyptic vision (e.g., Corrections) to a proposal of meaning of the minimalist type (Le neveu de Wittgenstein). One may regret the passing of the fascinating beauty of the apocalyptic works, animated as they are by a certainty which transcends singularity, for even the nonmeaningful in them is more powerful than the risk of triviality that lies in wait for the atheological creator; but the decline of this type of creation has seemed inevitable since the banalization of singular difference. At the same time, the proposal of meaning that was apocalyptic blackmail—“going beyond real negativity by the despair of the imagination,” according to Adorno's formula—becomes an option among others, somewhat historically dated, and one would seek in these works that which connects with the stylization of a singularity. In this sense, postmodern “sensibility” is a proposal of meaning that is legitimate in itself.

Such an aesthetics—and it is still this which distinguishes it from that of Adorno—is not the principal support of a critical theory of society; it is complementary to an ethics inscribed in the ordinary language of modern societies. This ethics constitutes the normative expectations of reciprocity which allow for evaluation of the legitimacy of the social order and of equity in interpersonal relations. In a society which plays against the universality of egalitarian commerce the card of singularity and of the “difference” of each one—including anarchist and ultraconservative impulses—aesthetics cannot of itself represent the normative base of criticism. Tolerance for the expression of singularities serves often as a safety valve for persistent injustices. As for works of post-avant-gardist modernity which content themselves with seeking a “secular illumination” in the frame of a world which is neither the worst nor the best, their critical force will be all the greater as their normative reference is no longer an inverse image of redemption, but rather a meaning which is conceivable here below, here and now.


  1. Cf. Jürgen Habermas, “La Modernité: un projet inachevé,” translated by G. Raulet, Critique, no. 413 (October 1981): 950-69.

  2. Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition postmoderne (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1979) and A. Wellmer, Zur Dialektik von Moderne und Postmoderne (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1985) converge in this way up to a certain point in their criticism of Habermas. [Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, foreword by Frederic Jameson (Manchester: Manchester University Press; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).]

  3. Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectique négative (Paris: Éditions Payot, 1978), 11. [Originally published in German as Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1966). English edition, Negative Dialectics, translated by E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; New York: Seabury Press, 1973).]

  4. Dialectique négative, 15.

  5. Dialectique négative, 12.

  6. The Aesthetic Theory defines the content of the verities in works of art as “the act of freeing oneself from myth and bringing about a reconciliation with it” [trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 266]. This definition is borrowed from Walter Benjamin's essay on Goethe. The schema is invariably applied in all the concrete interpretations of Adorno, whether it is a matter of Goethe or Balzac, of Schönberg, of Kafka, or of Beckett. [This and subsequent references to the English translation of Aesthetic Theory are for the convenience of the reader. In most cases, we have translated directly from the French translation by Marc Jimenez (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1974), as cited in the original form of the article.]

  7. Albrecht Wellmer, “Wahrheit, Schein, Versöhnung. Adornos ästhetische Rettung der Modernität,” in Zur Dialektik, 9-47 (cf. note 2).

  8. Cf. Jürgen Habermas, Théorie de l'agir communicationnel, translated by Jean-Marc Ferry and Jean-Louis Schlegel (Paris: Éditions Arthème Fayard, 1987), vol. 1, 371ff. [Originally published in German as Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, 2 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1981-85). English translation, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols., translated by Thomas McCarthy (London: Heinemann; Boston: Beacon Press, 1984-87).]

  9. This is what Wellmer calls the “dialectic of aesthetic appearance,” Zur Dialektik, 15ff. Cf. Horkheimer and Adorno, La dialectique de la raison, trans. E. Kaufholz (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1974), 35-36. [Originally published in German as Philosophische Fragmente (New York: Institute of Social Research, 1944). English edition, Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cumming (London: Allen Lane; New York: Seabury Press, 1972).]

  10. Dialectique de la raison, 36: “In so far as an expression of totality, art claims the dignity of the absolute. It is this which has at times prompted philosophy to concede the primacy over knowledge to art. According to Schelling, art begins at the point where knowledge fails; art is ‘the model of science and is already found where science has yet to penetrate.’ According to his theory, the separation of the image and the sign is ‘completely abolished each time that there is an artistic representation.’ The bourgeois world was only rarely inclined to show such trust in art.”

  11. Aesthetic Theory, 31.

  12. In connection with the young Marx, it was often observed that his criticism of alienated work was based upon a creativist model close to the human ideal of the Renaissance and of German idealism. If this model disappears in Das Kapital, Aesthetic Theory goes back to a normative basis founded on the model of artistic creation.

  13. This is why Adorno's aesthetics remain in a sense an aesthetics of “reflection” (cf. Wellmer, Zur Dialektik, 29).

  14. With the exception of Peter Bürger, the German critics of Adorno question the predominance of the concept of truth in his aesthetics. They propose either a theory of aesthetic pleasure, indifferent to truth (Karl Heinz Bohrer, Rüdiger Bubner), or a relativization of the concept of truth (authenticity with Franz Koppe; “potential for truth” with Albrecht Wellmer).

  15. Art is truly modern, according to Adorno, “when it has the capacity to absorb the results of industrialization under capitalist relations of production, while following its own experiential mode and at the same time giving expression to the crisis of experience.” Aesthetic Theory, 50.

  16. “To be sure, autonomy remains irrevocable. … Today, however, autonomous art begins to manifest an aspect of blindness. … It is not certain that after its total emancipation, art would not have undermined and lost those presuppositions which made it possible.” Aesthetic Theory, 1-2.

  17. Aesthetic Theory, 35.

  18. Aesthetic Theory, 35.

  19. Aesthetic Theory, 36.

  20. Aesthetic Theory, 43.

  21. Aesthetic Theory, 43.

  22. Aesthetic Theory, 44.

  23. Aesthetic Theory, 47.

  24. It is this which Jürgen Habermas (Théorie de l'agir communicationnel, and Albrecht Wellmer (Zur Dialektik) demonstrate.

  25. “The total subjective elaboration of art, in so far as it is a nonconceptual language, is, at the stage of rationality, the only figure in which something is reflected which resembles the language of Creation. … Art tries to imitate an expression that would not contain human intention.” Aesthetic Theory, 115.

  26. Wellmer, Zur Dialektik; Martin Seel, Die Kunst der Entzweiung: Zum Begriff der ästhetischen Rationalität (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1985).

  27. Cf. György Lukács, Philosophie de l'art (1912-1914): premiers écrits sur l'esthétique, translated by Rainer Rochlitz and Alain Pernet (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1981), 159ff. [Originally published in German as Heidelberger Philosophie der Kunst (1912-1914), edited by György Márkus and Frank Benseler (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1975).]

  28. Jürgen Habermas, Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1985), 117. [English edition as The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, translated by Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: Polity, in association with Basil Blackwell; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987).]

  29. Wellmer (Zur Dialektik, 62ff.) emphasizes the equal importance of signifying and energetic aspects in the aesthetic object.

  30. It is this process which is dealt with by the phenomenology of the creative process developed by Lukács in his Philosophie de l'art, 41ff.

  31. “The power to create meaning, presently confined for the most part to aesthetic domains, remains contingent as does any truly innovative force.” Habermas, Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne, 373. According to Lukács's Philosophie de l'art, a work of art is the utopia of a world which can satisfy our expectations of integral self-realization. Such a definition excludes negative works from art, whereas the “proposition of meaning” accepts the affirmation of an experience of nonmeaning.

  32. Michel Foucault had observed this phenomenon of a deceptive individuation in contemporary society, attributing it unilaterally to a result of power; cf. Surveiller et punir (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1975) [English edition as Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (London: Allen Lane; New York: Pantheon Books, 1978)] and Volonté de savoir (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1976) [English translation as The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley (London: Allen Lane; New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).]

  33. Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Idiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert de 1821 à 1857, 3 vols., Bibliothèque de philosophie (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1971-83), vol. 1, 7. [English translation as The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857, translated by Carol Cosman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981-).]

  34. Cf. Aesthetic Theory, 108: “The viewer unknowingly and unintentionally signs a contract with the art work, as it were, pledging to subordinate himself to the work on condition that it speak to him.”

  35. Cf. Jürgen Habermas, Morale et communication, translated by Chr. Bouchindhomme (Paris: Édition du Cerf, 1986), 80ff. [Originally in German as Moralbewuβtsein und kommunikatives Handeln (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983).]

  36. Cf. Lukács, Philosophie de l'art, 213-26.

Rüdiger Bubner (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Concerning the Central Idea of Adorno's Philosophy,” in The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, edited by Tom Huhn and Lambert Zuidervaart, The MIT Press, 1997, pp. 147–75.

[In the following essay, originally published in German in 1989, Bubner interprets the major points of Adorno's philosophical system.]

“I do not want to decide whether my theory is grounded in a particular understanding of humanity and human existence. I deny, however, that it is necessary to have recourse to such an understanding.” This lapidary statement occurs at the end of the Aktualität der Philosophie, the inaugural lecture with which Theodor W. Adorno began his academic career in 1931.1 The lecture is important because it foreshadows many of the main ideas of his later philosophy. The statement itself reflects an orientation toward philosophy Adorno would maintain throughout his life.

Adorno's philosophical theses arise from certain fundamental assumptions, as do all meaningful propositions and especially those expressing pure theoretical insights. His intentional and emphatic refusal, however, to give an account of his premises is responsible for the form these assumptions take in the course of their theoretical development. Most assumptions that inform our everyday thinking and discussions about the world are so self-evident we pay no attention to them whatsoever. It is, however, theory's unique task to provide the most exhaustive and airtight account possible of just such tacit assumptions. Since its inception, philosophical theory has embraced an ethos urging the establishment of rational grounds. Adorno's startling statement, of which there are many others like it, does not deny that theories are constructed in this way. Instead, it calls into question our received ideas about theory in order to challenge their claims. For Adorno, the point is not to discover a different type of theory or to jettison theory tout court and replace it with a new, irrational mode of expression. Adorno remains firmly oriented toward an understanding of theory that “refuses to abandon philosophy.”2 Only against the backdrop of this explicitly philosophical orientation does Adorno's refusal to account for first principles, in the traditional sense, have any meaning at all. Nothing else, however, pervades Adorno's philosophy so thoroughly as his unremitting refusal to meet theory's traditional demands.

In the inaugural lecture, Adorno goes on to appeal to the essay as the appropriate form for philosophical discourse.3 Later on, this approach, from which Adorno's mature theory will emerge, is formulated in various ways. For example, “critical theory” characterizes his entire undertaking. “Negative dialectic” describes the leading intention behind the polemics he wages against Hegel. An important catchphrase is the “dialectic of enlightenment.” Adorno's thought, however, finds its definitive expression in the title Aesthetic Theory. This posthumously published work has proven to be his true philosophical testament. As is well known, the title is equivocal. “Aesthetic theory” does not only mean that theoretical aesthetics is one subdivision of an extensive, theoretical edifice. More important, it means that the text's main concern is the process by which theory itself becomes aesthetic—the convergence of knowledge and art. “Aesthetics is not a form of applied philosophy, rather it is in itself philosophical.”4 What does this mean?


The question I pursue here aims at discovering the reasons that, for Adorno, theory must give way to aesthetics. Even to raise this question is tantamount to dismissing out of hand both Adorno's refusal to reveal what his premises are and the verdict that the question itself is petty and lacks refinement. Such a purely stylistic concern, which makes it taboo to tamper with an argument's finely wrought unity, is usually a manifestation of sophistry and of little philosophical value. Adorno would have certainly fended off questions like the one I just raised by saying that there is no place within the structure of his work where they can gain a foothold. This objection is to be rejected. To maintain a stony silence when confronted with a call for the reasons that ground the type of theory Adorno advocates does not make the theory in any way more plausible.

Adorno, however, does give a thorough explanation of his motivation for encouraging silence. He argues historically. The demand to specify the foundations presupposed by theory is a relic of idealism's overestimation of philosophy's importance and continues to foster the illusion that thought contains an absolute beginning.

“Philosophy, however, that no longer presumes to be autonomous, that no longer believes reality to be grounded in the ratio, but time and again assumes the transgression of an autonomous, rational legislation by a Being that is not adequate to such legislation and cannot be rationally construed as a totality, will not pursue to the end the path leading back to rational premises but will come to a standstill wherever irreducible reality intrudes. … The intrusion of irreducible reality occurs concretely and historically, and this is why history keeps the movement of thought from returning to presuppositions.”5

To begin with, it is not at all convincing to denounce every theory's search for grounds as being tainted with idealistic presumption. Ever since the Socratic challenge of the logon didonai, it has been one of philosophy's most basic tenets to give an account of why we say what we say. In addition, rationalism's various systems have claimed to provide proof that their respective principles were absolute and could not be surpassed by any other. That was true for Spinoza and especially for Fichte and Schelling, who both, not by chance, returned to Spinoza. In contrast, Hegel, whom Adorno quotes with particular relish when it comes to idealistic hubris, showed much more caution than his contemporaries, who were always too quick to assert that they had surpassed each other in building unsurpassable systems. The absoluteness Hegel's philosophy in fact lays claim to did not arise out of historical myopia or the arbitrary positing of abstract principles. Rather, it was acquired on the basis of consistently confronting the one immutable idea of philosophy with the experience of the historically contingent forms the idea must assume if there is to be philosophy at all. All of this, however, does not directly concern us.6 What is at issue here is Adorno's reluctance to give an account of his own underlying philosophical premises.

Adorno's reference to an irreducible Being, which intrudes on philosophy through the backdoor of history, is either a surreptitious way of establishing grounds or nothing more than an empty incantation. The first alternative gives rise to difficulties that I will consider below. Understood as an example of the polemics Adorno continually wages against Heidegger, the second alternative is pointless to pursue. The surprising parallels between Adorno's early works and Heidegger's Seinsphilosophie, do, however, bear closer examination.7 From early on, Adorno never tired of pillorying the “new ontology” as the form par excellence of ahistorical hypostasis.8 With the publication of Being and Time (1927), which immediately received wide recognition, Adorno must have clearly sensed his unsettling philosophical proximity to Heidegger. The way Heidegger sometimes expresses his hope for a Being that will directly reveal itself at the end of traditional metaphysics' long history of decline, a Being that only makes itself known within the dimension of concrete existence, beyond the reach of philosophical insight, comes very close indeed to mirroring many of Adorno's theses. In order to undermine the outward impression that he might have shared similar insights with Heidegger, Adorno emphasized, in the strongest possible terms, the substantial differences between their two philosophical standpoints.

Adorno thus pursues throughout his Habilitationsschrift on Kierkegaard the ulterior motive of contesting existentialism's appropriation of this church father of the protest against Hegel's brand of idealism.9 Adorno also takes Heidegger to task for his dubious and, in terms of style, not exactly surefooted attempts to take refuge in poetic metaphor in order to avoid the atrophy that, according to Heidegger, had overtaken the expressive power of the language traditionally used by philosophers.10 Only later, however, did Adorno succeed in delivering the decisive blow that contributed to removing Heidegger from the center of public influence. As Heidegger's star began to fade during the period of Germany's restoration after the Second World War, Adorno's essay called The Jargon of Authenticity, intended as a pamphlet, certainly came at precisely the right moment. Since then, the laconic expression Sein has been taken out of circulation and replaced by the more complicated sounding das Nichtidentische. What is meant in both cases is that reality eludes or, in Adorno's words, is not absorbed by the philosophical concept. Only insofar as the concept recognizes reality can the dimension of truth really be disclosed to it. As Adorno writes, “[C]oncepts for their part are moments of the reality that requires their formation.”11

Those who are not satisfied with bare, emphatic assertions can interpret the reference to historical experience, which forbids recourse to rational premises, as itself an unacknowledged premise for the type of theory Adorno has in mind. The grounding of theory must be carried out in a way which shows that precisely today, under the prevailing conditions of the here and now, and after society has reached its present level of historical development, it has become impossible to return to the old naive way of pursuing philosophy. Adorno's work resonates from many sides with similar formulations. But why should an account of the historical hour be sufficient to bid “traditional theory” a final farewell and to put in its place a form of theory whose sole function is “critique,” a theory “which holds that the core of truth is historical, rather than an unchanging constant to be set against the movement of history”?12 The blanket answer to this question is mystification [Verblendungszusammenhang], that is, the profound and all-pervasive blindness to sociohistorical truth that sets in once society has fallen under the sway of ideology.

According to this thesis, in all societies in the grip of late capitalism, ideology has become so total and totalizing that there is no way to escape its influence. Even the simple act of stating what is falls prey to mystification, for it necessarily fails to add that everything that is should not have been in the first place. Thus, every statement made in the interests of serving truth must simultaneously recant the insight it was meant to express. Such a paradoxical use of language immediately exhausts theory's already-limited possibilities. All hope must now be directed toward another type of language, toward art. “The true is revealed to discursive knowledge, but for all that, not attained; the knowledge that is art has the true, but as something incommensurable.”13


Before it is possible to understand how art can function as a substitute for theory in the context of the above considerations, we must discuss the difficulties implicit in Adorno's historical diagnosis that underlies the transition from theory to art. The controversy surrounding historical diagnosis has nothing at all to do with actual assessments of the current political situation or with occasional ad hoc attempts to improve it. Nor does it have anything to do with a strategy of moral intimidation that all too easily silences naive doubt, by holding up examples of cataclysmic historical events. Rather, what is problematic is the paralysis the diagnosis brings on itself by assuming that everything is exactly as it makes it out to be. The belief in the totalizing power of ideology to mystify all aspects of modern life, including our own individual powers of judgment, thoroughly deprives theory of the freedom to move within its own sphere of operation. Under the distorting lens of historical diagnosis, everything, without exception, appears reified. As a result, theory completely succumbs to the very same coercive ideology it was, in fact, enlisted to describe.

Trading in hypotheses, tedious to-and-fro argumentation, ponderous deliberations, proofs, objections, questions raised about other theories and about itself—all this drops away as soon as the diagnosis calls the universal spell by its proper name. Thereafter, it would be an example of systematic self-delusion if theory carried on as if nothing at all had happened. The moment at which historical truth is revealed simultaneously ushers in the moment at which historical truth slips forever beyond theory's grasp, a negative kairos. Because it now senses that all of its knowledge is unavoidably false, theory also realizes that truth by means of theory is no longer possible. With this insight, its concepts are subjected to an entirely heteronomous determination.

The paralysis that has overtaken theory now sets in on its object and affects the process by which theory determines what its appropriate field of inquiry should be. This, however, fundamentally contradicts the avowed intentions of critique and dialectic. The very same totality, with which theory has invested the bruta facta of ideology, consistently ties the hands of critique. Confronted with the opponent's superior strength, theory has only one viable recourse—to strike back with the most stringent, thoroughgoing form of negativity. Because, as theory itself has shown, there can no longer be any exceptions to the global rule of ideology, it is forced to denounce everything under the sun as being a product of ideology. The bogus ideal of totality, which theory in its newly won role of critique attributes to traditional systems, insidiously turns back on theory with the same intensity with which it afflicts everything else.

In order to preserve its critical edge over against a world dominated by the totalizing effects of ideology, theory must target the objects of its inquiries before it has direct knowledge of them. It must maintain a critical attitude toward these objects to ensure that it deals with them impartially and remains immune to whatever charms they may hold for it. Theory must keep itself at a safe distance from the flux of phenomena and reestablish this distance whenever they threaten to lead it astray. To sustain its opposition toward what is immediately given, theory is forced endlessly to redefine itself by successive acts of reflection. This means, however, that theory winds up being driven by an inner necessity to validate itself and thus replicates the dogmatic self-certainty displayed by the philosophical concept—the object of Adorno's unmitigated contempt.14

As much as Adorno would like to claim that the emergence of Critical Theory is historical and concrete, the truth of the matter lies elsewhere. In fact, it is based on sweeping, a priori assumptions. These assumptions, guiding the course of Adorno's earlier thinking, remain just as much in force later on. Adorno himself confirms this in a chance observation: “Actually, there is one ontology maintained throughout history, the ontology of despair. If, however, ontology is what is perennial, then thought experiences every historical period as the worst and, most of all, its own which it knows directly.”15 To be secure in the belief that from its very beginning the world has always been thoroughly degenerate makes every present historical moment appear in the most dismal light. Because historical diagnosis is guided by such foreknowledge, it necessarily cuts off all discussion.

As we have just seen, Critical Theory does, in fact, rest on a full-fledged theory of history that claims ontological status. If such a theoretical foundation did not exist, Adorno would not have proposed so vehemently that we renounce traditional theories in favor of one whose sole function is to unmask the workings of ideology. Of course, to avoid the penalty of transgressing all that Critical Theory stands for, the actual underlying ontology must remain out of the discussion. The validity of such a foundation, however, can be tested only when it is openly defended in discussion. This would allow for an undogmatic assessment of Critical Theory's soundness. Adorno, however, deliberately formulates all his arguments to preclude such a possibility. We thus have no other choice but to follow the clues implicit in his silence. This will lead us into the terrain of aesthetics.

Adorno bans discussion not out of a desire to surround his argument in an aura of mystery. On the contrary, the strategy of keeping silent acquires an overt and novel function within the architectonic that underpins a highly intricate thought progression. Adorno's position, that theory is no longer viable in a world dominated by ideology, must be construed as his attempt to demonstrate the necessity of the transition from philosophy to aesthetics. Yet in order to continue to give expression to theory's departure from its traditional function of establishing grounds, Adorno offers a special form of discourse. Instead of following Wittgenstein's famous maxim to keep silent on that about which there is nothing to say, Adorno transforms aesthetics into the one legitimate way to speak about the ban on speaking about theory per se.


It has been often observed that the Dialectic of Enlightenment holds the keys to understanding Adorno's Aesthetic Theory.16 The studies or “philosophical fragments” that constitute the Dialectic of Enlightenment were written while Horkheimer and Adorno lived in exile in the United States. The text is characterized by the authors' own political and existential concerns, translated into general philosophical terms. It occupies a central place in their thought because it does not, as is usually the case with their other work, subject external issues to critique but turns critique back on itself so that it becomes its own object: “the point is … that the Enlightenment must consider itself.17 Against the backdrop of their historical experience of fascism, as well as Stalin's perversion of Marxist theory, they felt it had become imperative to embark on a critique of ideology, which, since Marx, had remained nothing more than a desideratum.

If the critique of ideology is not based on a “socially detached intelligentsia,” as Karl Mannheim's sociology of knowledge would have us believe, what then is the special form of objectivity the critics are so deeply rooted in that they are not blinded by the universal mystification caused by ideology?18 Or is the critique of ideology secretly just as prone to ideological appropriation as all those theories it relentlessly takes to task? Lukács was one of the first to be struck by the problem of how enlightenment becomes stymied once orthodoxy sets in. His remedy is to introduce Hegel's concept of reflection into Marx's concept of class consciousness. One should not underestimate the role Lukács's important book History and Class Consciousness played in inspiring the Frankfurt School. Nevertheless, Lukács's attempt to identify the one revolutionary class, the proletariat, as the sole bearer of historically correct consciousness could not, in the final analysis, prevent the decline in political relevance of a theory that had once been the source of so much hope.

The idea of a “dialectic of enlightenment” deals with the paradox that a dialectic plays with enlightenment instead of explicitly working in its interests. In contrast to Marx, whose dialectical method coincided with the possibility of real historical progress, Horkheimer and Adorno conceive the process of enlightenment itself as succumbing to a dialectical reversal into its opposite, a reversal that takes place behind the back of enlightened reflection.19 This, however, should not be confused with Hegel's critique of enlightenment, which was meant to overcome the biased nature of enlightened reflection in order to open the way for a truly speculative movement of ideas. Adorno and Horkheimer specifically intend that their dialectic of enlightenment should not culminate in absolute knowing. Indeed, for them, idealism's final configuration continually serves as an ominous reminder of how philosophy is brought to a standstill. How is it possible to make use of Hegel's dialectic and, at the same time, be dead set against its logical and historical consequences?

To prevent theory from being absorbed by idealist speculation, it is necessary to check the automatic, dialectical progression from reason's critique of enlightenment, as carried out in the realm of the understanding, to the autonomy that theory achieves in Hegel's system. This requires, in defiance of enlightened thinking, that a natural prerogative be granted to all those deep-seated prejudices and superstitions from which enlightenment promises to emancipate humankind. The privileged position these irrational beliefs have in our thinking, however, is obvious from the fact that, despite all its efforts, enlightenment always fails to dislodge them. All the exertion expended in good faith to raise this intractably irrational substance to the level of the concept comes to absolutely nothing. The more enlightenment is convinced of itself and the correctness of what it does, the more it risks being dominated by the same irrational principle it struggles to supplant. Thus, in the end, reason's omnipotence turns out to be just as irrational as nature's despotism, against which all the first cultural revolutions were fought. In this way, the dialectic of enlightenment is made to atone for the Fall that, before all recorded time, drove humankind out of paradise and into history.

In order to describe this hard-to-grasp dialectical reversal of enlightenment into its opposite, Adorno and Horkheimer introduce a concept of myth that, however much it may have been inspired by Judeo-Christian tradition, is at odds with all usual meanings of the word. We might consider Rousseau's ambivalence toward modernity in general and the Enlightenment in particular to help see how a projection back through history to an original state of nature is solely a consequence of the Enlightenment's having reached the zenith of its historical development and yet, at the same time, is the standard by which the Enlightenment measures reason's historical progress. Understood in this way, Rousseau's fictional reconstruction of the state of nature serves as a mirror in which the hopes of the Enlightenment are reflected from afar, and the sins, inherent in cultural progress, seem to be completely wiped away. Myth is not a word for a primordial state out of which human reason slowly and successfully evolved. On the contrary, reason is already present in the earliest myths; conversely, the mythical maintains its presence throughout the Enlightenment's entire historical development. The culmination of the Enlightenment in scientific knowledge is, in fact, a reversion to earliest times, which shows, contrary to the expectations of philosophers and other enlightened thinkers, that nothing at all has changed.

Precisely understood, the word “myth” maps out a dimension that is not affected by the dialectic of history, because it forms the basis of this dialectic.20 This reveals the limits and futility of believing in open-ended historical progress; in whatever direction history may happen to push forward, it cannot escape this pregiven situation.21 Of course, corresponding to this understanding of history is a vaguely defined ideal of an eschatological reconciliation in which all differences are eliminated, all errors are avoided, and historical change is brought to an absolute standstill. Knowledge of this reconciliation lies beyond the finite capacity of our rational faculties and, therefore, also avoids being compromised by our ideological thinking. As mere mortals, however, we can experience such a reconciliation only in the limited way afforded to us by the pseudoreality created by art.22

Philosophy has a concept available that, as a product of reason, marks out, in the most subtle way, reason's own limits—the concept of illusion. Although, in the first place, illusion is something other than the philosophical concept, nevertheless, it is illusion only because the concept recognizes it as such. Philosophy has always seen the true nature of art mirrored in the concept of illusion.23 It is one of the terms in which the problem of the Dialectic of Enlightenment is articulated. To designate illusion as the locus where this problem can be adequately addressed means to obscure the line of division that separates art from philosophy.24


Schelling's philosophy of art is the appropriate court of appeal for a type of philosophy whose most deep-seated intentions are to be transposed into the medium of art.25 Schelling thought that the absolute indifference of subject and object could be brought to the level of intuition by means of art. Philosophy cannot achieve this identity without transcending itself and ceasing to be philosophy. The last point reached by reflection, where it abandons its own claims for the sake of absolute, seamless unity, simultaneously reveals the limits of discursive philosophy. In contrast to philosophy, art realizes this unity on its own accord and without distortion. In order, however, for art to succeed in this undertaking of speaking for philosophy, both sides of the relation between art and philosophy must be adequately determined.

The younger Schelling drew on the idea of an organon26 to conceptualize the relationship in which philosophy establishes a close proximity to art. This allowed Schelling to use art as an antidote to philosophy's shortcomings without art's merely substituting for philosophy. On the one hand, this lets art remain autonomous and prevents the intentional and unintentional transformation of art into a philosophical hybrid that solely serves the interests of philosophical proof. Art must not be defined as an ancilla philosophiae; it is precisely art's autonomy that enables it to serve the function philosophy requires of it. On the other hand, the function art assumes on behalf of philosophy must lend itself to characterization so that art remains accessible to philosophy. Nothing is to be gained either by an intoxicated feeling of identity that blurs all distinctions between art and philosophy or by a neutral coexistence in which philosophy and art have nothing to say to each other. Considering the extreme nature of the opposing demands philosophy makes on art, the Aristotelian model of an organon is only, at best, a makeshift solution. Art is not, at any price, to be instrumentalized by philosophy, the way, for example, tools are subordinated to the ends they serve. Art is able to express philosophy's most difficult paradoxes only when it has parity with philosophy and, therefore, like philosophy, is not a means to an end but is an end in itself. This is the reason Schelling later abandoned the organon model and relied less heavily on the problematic relationship between philosophy and art.27

Critical Theory's general program is informed by a tension whose extremes are characterized by Kant's doctrine of the Ding an sich and Hegel's absolute concept, whereas the arena in which these two extremes are battled out was prepared by Marx and the Young Hegelians. Adorno's aesthetics, which emerged from these conditions, is best understood, however, in connection with Schelling, a connection almost all interpreters of Adorno and modern aesthetics have failed to take into consideration. If, for once, this suggestion is taken to heart, then the question of defining the relation between philosophy and art can be posed more clearly than Adorno would have been willing to admit. Adorno himself always stressed that philosophy and art converge in knowledge. It will be more difficult, however, to understand what the terms of this convergence are.

To begin with, not all forms of art entail knowledge per se. As opposed to idealist naiveté, the critic of ideology makes a strict distinction between liberal or “enlightened” art and art that, as part of the “culture industry,” is complicit in furthering the general deception produced by ideology. This distinction does not automatically coincide with qualitative distinctions based on pure aesthetic categories. Rather, it presupposes a highly attuned awareness of prevailing historical conditions. The art critic's aesthetic sense becomes more finely honed through knowledge that is extraneous to aesthetic considerations, that is, philosophical and sociological insights into the factors determining the present state of society and possible prospects for the future. By emphasizing that artworks of true aesthetic import are also ones that boast a progressive outlook, Adorno forces aesthetic and political judgments to overlap. This echoes Walter Benjamin's tenuous attempt to understand the “artist as producer” in such a radical way that the mastery of the technical side of art production and “the correct political tendency” are predicated on each other.28 Increase in technical skill and keeping in step with the course of history amount to the same thing—progressive art.29

In referring, on the one hand, to the expertise involved in discerning art's purely formal aspects and, on the other, to the knowledge involved in evaluating its content according to the degree it furthers the cause of humanity, the term “progressive art” brings aesthetic and political concerns under one roof. Sometimes the language Adorno uses to reconcile the universal with the particular is reminiscent of classical poetics, for example, Goethe's concept of symbol.30 At the same time, however, the critic must rein in the writer of poetic theory in order to prevent the deception from insinuating itself should it be forgotten that the reconciliation achieved by art is fictive, that it is not present in reality but lies forever in a distant, utopian future. Art must simultaneously present things in two different ways. On the one hand, it must present the concrete particular as something that is not eclipsed by abstract universality but exercises its own right in harmonizing with the universal; on the other hand, art must make manifest the irreality of such a reconciliation.31 The status of important artworks is established by the contradiction that takes shape between harmony and its disillusionment. What constitutes the historical meaning of works of art must find expression in their artificial construction.

Adorno's theory thus presupposes that the extra-aesthetic categories that form the basis of the critic's interpretations are directly embodied in the artworks themselves. Strictly speaking, then, art expresses only what someone who already has knowledge of historical processes can possibly understand. In fact, this remarkable type of art, with just such an interiorized awareness of its own historical position, is modern art. Complete rejection of the traditional canon, which we have come to expect of modern art, seems to provide the paradigm for Adorno's theory. Obviously, here, the contradiction has become real between art's immanent, self-contained harmony and the sudden shattering of this longed-for harmony. The critic's task is to bring out what is already embedded in the structure of art, and consequently the critic is reduced to a mere recipient to whom art provides whatever he or she might require. The critic's role would be completely redundant, were it not for the complication that not all of the art produced in the last hundred years can be counted as progressive, even when some works seem to look or sound “modern.” In the updated musée imaginaire, it is once again a question of separating the sheep from the goats. The critic's function, which seemed to have entirely merged with the structure of artworks, is given a new and apparently independent lease on life. The critic's task, however, is no longer to distinguish between good and bad art. Rather, the critic must now distinguish between progressive and reactionary art, a distinction that obviously is no longer based solely on aesthetic criteria.

In relation to modern art, the rehabilitation of the critic's function shows that in truth the formal laws supposedly governing modern art production are merely invoked to divert attention away from criteria introduced by critical aesthetics. Untutored perception alone can never disclose the meaning of art. In order to penetrate art's structure, it is necessary to have command over the history of philosophy and its categories. “To be sure, an immanent method of this type always presupposes, as its opposite pole, philosophical knowledge that transcends the object. The method cannot, as Hegel believed, rely on ‘simply looking-on.’”32 This is the difference between progressive art and all other forms of art production, which only seem to be comparable to it. Without such philosophical and historical categories, the controversy Adorno stages, for example, between Schönberg, the standard bearer of “true” modernity, and Stravinsky, the incarnation of “false” modernity, would be nothing more than an academic debate between two opposing schools of musical composition.33 Philosophy thus adds what is not already contained in innocent artworks, indeed what can never be contained in them: the interpretation of their meaning as the negation of existing reality.

With this, the cornerstone of Adorno's aesthetic theory is in place. It will be obvious now why it is necessary to compare art and social reality from an external vantage point in order to discover the moment of contradiction in certain works—by no means art in general. If all art were to stand opposed to reality, then the distinction between art shot through with ideology and progressive art would be totally meaningless. By the same token, if the pseudoreality created by art represented the complete negation of existing reality, then art would lose its oppositional stance toward the external world and would forfeit its function as critique. In the guise of uncompromising protest, art would then be guilty of passing off its illusion of harmony for the real thing. Thus Adorno is perfectly consistent in rejecting all forms of “engaged” art;34 only art that is entirely itself, and does not attempt to have an effect outside of itself, is able to confront reality's most dominant features with sufficient autonomy to allow the contradictions to force themselves on the spectator. The universal mystification of social reality and art's complete autonomy stand radically opposed to each other. But only from a third position, totally removed from ideology, which affects all aspects of everyday life and art production, can mystification be exposed in all its ramifications. This position can be assumed only by the critic.

I needed to pursue the analysis to this point in order to arrive at an approximate answer to the question raised above. In connection with the discussion concerning transformation of philosophy into aesthetics, the question was posed as to the possibility of determining both sides of the relationship between art and philosophy. A confused mirroring of philosophical concepts in artworks and vice versa will not yield the knowledge of social reality for whose sake art was introduced into the consideration in the first place. It turns out, however, that two corresponding, fundamental assumptions are presupposed that work in tandem to support the thesis that art and philosophy converge in knowledge. By insisting, on the one hand, on reality's completely ideological character and, on the other, on the complete autonomy of art production, philosophy and art are forced to act on each other in such a way as to make the truth of social reality totally transparent. Adorno's conclusions can be made to appear persuasive only if a strict separation is dogmatically presupposed between art and reality, both of which, with equal right, follow their own internal laws and remain directly opposed to each other.

The unique relationship art and philosophy share with regard to knowledge can only be established once it has already been accepted on good faith that art stands diametrically opposed to reality. According to this ungrounded dogma, art is the adversary of fetishized reality that, by carrying out its own form of negation, is capable of breaking ideology's spell. Thus, as if by an act of providence, art comes to the aid of philosophy as it struggles to break free from the dialectic of enlightenment. Only the critic's powers of interpretation, however, can make us aware of this feat of negation, accomplished in and by art.


Things become more complicated when we turn to aesthetic experience. According to Adorno, to view paintings or to listen to symphonies does not automatically give us access to their truth content. If we want art to perform the additional service of ideology critique, then we must relinquish the classical idea that beauty imparts its truth unaided. All aesthetic experiences require theory in advance. “The demand of artworks to be understood by taking hold of their content [Gehalt] is tied to a specific experience of them. This, however, can only be completely fulfilled by a theory that reflects upon experience.”35 If only theory is able to complete what is laid out in experience, then art's critical function of enlightenment depends, once again, on its undiminished autonomy. As we have seen, autonomy means in this case that art remains independent of philosophy and is not used for the purposes of supporting or validating philosophical insights. What art has to say will come to the fore against the backdrop of philosophy, so long as philosophy does not impose its interests on art.

By means of the oldest concept known to the philosophy of art, Adorno's aesthetic theory attempts to find a way out of this self-imposed impasse. Mimesis, which has certainly undergone a remarkable change in meaning and importance, was understood by the tradition as an imitative mode of representation, parasitic on an independently given and higher-order reality. Plato thought that mimesis was inimical to truth, because it produced likenesses “three removes” from reality,36 and Aristotle classed mimesis among those most fundamental attributes that make humans “the most mimetic of all animals.”37 For Adorno, mimesis is a virtue, because it resists being defined by reason, and because it is so firmly rooted in human behavior. He also places a high value on the necessarily derivative nature of all mimetic forms of representation, something that was anathema to the tradition. Philosophy's recourse to mimetic behavior is intended to repair the damage mimesis suffered at the hands of the philosophical concept. “There is no way for the concept to plead the case of mimesis, without losing itself in mimesis, which it itself supplanted, other than by incorporating something of mimesis in its own conduct. In this respect, the aesthetic moment is not accidental to philosophy, though for reasons quite different from the ones Schelling proposed.”38

By way of mimesis, Spirit is restored to a quasi-prehistorical attitude toward the phenomenal world. Spirit adapts itself to experience as its other without offering any resistance and abandons its need to dominate the concrete. Blind imitation, which philosophy has held in contempt since the advances made in perfecting conceptual representation, is now seen as a corrective to what has become philosophy's idling machinery of empty categories. Philosophy comes into closer proximity to art, for which it had so little respect, the more theory's sovereignty is called into question. Mimesis in art acquires an altogether new meaning once theory's monopoly on appropriating reality has been challenged.

Adorno's new assessment of mimesis, as a corrective to theory, was fated to run against the grain of the traditional copy theory of art. Above all, Adorno objected to reviving axioms of traditional mimetic art theory in a neo-Marxist principle requiring that art produce mirror images of reality. Starting out from Marxist premises, Lukács, in his later writings, adhered to a thoroughly orthodox theory of art that called for faithful reproductions of a pregiven reality. Considering Adorno's understanding of the relation of art to reality, it is not surprising that he vehemently opposed such a misuse of mimesis, which substitutes images for knowledge and prefers concealment to disclosure. “The most fundamental weakness of Lukács's position may be that he … applies categories that refer to the relationship between consciousness and reality to art as though they simply meant the same thing here. Art exists within reality, has its function in it. … But nevertheless, as art, by its very concept it stands in an antithetical relationship to the status quo.”39

Adorno's newly accentuated concept of mimesis can be defended against entrenched traditional views only by dint of ingenious argumentation. Understood as a basic form of assimilation, capable of overcoming the concept's rigidity, mimesis is not a remnant of another age that has come down to us intact so that the worn-out concept can revert to it at any time. It would be an illusion for philosophy to believe that mimesis can, with the touch of a magic wand, restore a more direct relation to reality. Without the help of well-reasoned explanations, the concept of mimesis has no meaning whatsoever. This becomes all too obvious in the dispute between Adorno and Lukács, in which bare assertions are traded back and forth and the continually cited crown witnesses, Adorno's Samuel Beckett and Lukács's Thomas Mann, are given permission to speak only when they can give testimony on behalf of the respective positions.40 Seen in this way, Adorno's recourse to mimesis, as a form of “mimicry” of spirit, fails to persuade.

One last consequence remains to be considered. For the sake of the coherence of his own insights into modern art, Adorno cannot get around reinstating an unqualified work category in his aesthetic theory, even if the theory itself constantly maintains the opposite. Where else can the concrete and the universal be reconciled in a way that is far removed from all conceptual schematizations, if not within the autonomous sphere created by artworks? What else is to serve as a mirror for exposing “bad” reality, if not an objective example? What else can reflection cling to as it founders in the vortex created by the dialectic of enlightenment, if not a tangible product of mimetic behavior? In spite of whatever statements Adorno may have made to the contrary, it is beyond all doubt that the work category plays a central role in his undertaking. The theory as well as the actual writings on art criticism bear witness on every page that Adorno systematically presupposes the given fact of artworks.

Just as little can it be doubted, however, that modern art, the basis of Adorno's aesthetic theory, represents one continuous process, the demise of the work category.41 If the diverse forms of art production crudely classified as “modern” permit being reduced to one common denominator, then the main trend embodied by modern art is the steady subversion of the traditional work category. In the absence of the work category, modern art has resorted to a number of strategies, ranging from playful skepticism to ironic distortion and surrealistic shock, from the systematic destruction of unity and the radical reduction of planned construction to the increased, constitutive function assigned to chance; readymades, found objects, happenings, and performance pieces are the most obvious examples. Modern art denies the ontological status of a second reality that, although derivative, would be equal to the first. Ergon, as an independent bearer of meaning, has disappeared from art altogether. Where modern art does not aim to disappoint the traditionally passive spectator, who usually expects to find a full-fledged work, it often serves to inspire the spectator's imagination and active participation, at least to some degree. What used to be attributed to the creative process of actual art production has been transformed by modern art into a process that is automatically set in motion after the work has been completed.42 In this way, the entire notion of the autonomous artwork has been overtaken by aesthetic experience, which, according to Adorno, is always a “reciprocal” experience between the work of art and the spectator.

This understanding is not new. Nor, to be reminded of it, do we need to turn to Adorno, who, with considerable insight, describes how modern art eroded the central role the traditional work category formerly played in art production and aesthetic theory. All the same, it is worth mentioning two arguments that are often raised and profess to jeopardize this thesis. It is often said that the demise of the traditional work category, in fact, only makes room for new kinds of artworks. If this is true, then the entire modern art movement is by no means as revolutionary as it is made out to be. Modern art would represent only a further phase in a long series of style changes and historical shifts to be indifferently classified by the art historian. Above all, those analyses that are of vital importance to Adorno's aesthetic theory would prove to be invalid. For Adorno, what is truly innovative about modern art and specifically distinguishes it from art of all other periods is precisely its protest character; therefore, it should be interpreted in this way. If we subscribe to critical aesthetics, then we can hardly take seriously the argument just mentioned.43

The second argument is based on the conviction that modern art simply makes explicit what is implicit to art in general. Fragility is art's true abiding essence, whereas substantiality is make-believe. This argument takes two forms. First, current ideas about art are simply projected back on the entire past, so that modern art is not seen as modern but merely as a new expression of what we understand art to have always been. To draw conclusions about the past on the basis of the present and to level all historical differences results in a distorted foreshortening of historical perspectives. Second, similar to Marx's famous dictum that the anatomy of man is the key to the anatomy of the ape, this argument often reverts to a teleological model that presupposes the most recent stage of art's historical development to be the culmination of art's entire history, and thus allows all the preliminary stages leading up to a completed process of historical development to be taken in at a glance. Apart from the dubious nature of the method involved in historical teleology—which even in Marx's case, despite his materialist examples, had strong roots in idealism—such a belief in progress, together with the claim of rendering ever more transparent the origins of the current historical moment, once again robs aesthetics of its potential as critique. As Adorno saw, rational capacity does not develop according to the dictates of an inner telos. Art that opposes the advance of rationality and, like Faust's return to the mothers,44 reverts to fundamental, mimetic levels of human existence is the last place of refuge from where it is possible to expose the new and ever-deeper inroads deception continues to make into history.

To conclude, we cannot avoid synthesizing the following two irreconcilable sides of modern art. On the one hand, modern art undermines the traditional work category, and it is thanks to this that it acquires its protest character. On the other hand, modern art has no means of expression other than individual concrete works; aside from their autonomous structure, no place remains where they can carry out their mission of critique. Adorno resolutely engages both sides of this paradox. Theory cannot provide us with any solution. The paradox can be defused only by means of casuistry. On the basis of case-by-case analyses of literary texts and musical scores, the two sides of the paradox can be set off against each other, that is, modern art's need to destroy unity for the sake of preserving its critical function and its need to maintain unity for the sake of giving expression to its critical function.

Merely providing examples, however, can in no way substitute for establishing the grounds for a theory. As plausibly as Adorno may have sometimes demonstrated his general insights with regard to particular literary and musical works, he provides little in the way of evidence to ground the application of these insights. Every one of his interpretations hinges far too much on his hermeneutical starting point and rhetorical skill to serve as evidence for the conclusions he draws. If the same works are considered from a different perspective and with different intentions, then, to a certain extent, the resulting interpretations would also make sense. The ultimate ploy, which Adorno all too gladly uses to give his interpretations an authoritative tone, is to insinuate that all possible alternative interpretations are to be suspected of being ideologically biased or, worse still, philistine. This, however, only camouflages the shaky foundations on which his own interpretations are built. To shift the burden of fundamental aesthetic issues intentionally onto the shoulders of interpretation underhandedly obscures the difference between aesthetic theory and aesthetic experience.


The role aesthetic experience plays in Adorno's aesthetic theory is particularly puzzling. In fact, the tautological character of his analysis of how art affects us renders his theory incapable of shedding light on the structure of aesthetic experience; it presupposes a definite effect, which it then uses to account for its findings. The possibility of analysis slips away when theory is fashioned after an aesthetic paradigm, which should, in fact, form the object of analysis. Since art is at theory's beck and call to produce exactly the kind of knowledge theory wants, the outcome of actual encounters with concrete artworks is always determined in advance. Theory knows art has a critical effect, because it knows art's autonomy is the last bastion of resistance in a world blinded by ideology. Theory, therefore, also knows how to distinguish between truly avant-garde art that looks ahead and art that, despite its modern trappings, is reactionary.

Because art always reconfirms the structural insights theory brings to bear on the wealth of aesthetic phenomena, there is no longer, to put it bluntly, a need for individual aesthetic experience. The undeniable attraction of the concrete interpretations Adorno offers us in his numerous essays lies in his versatility and in the keenness for detail with which he makes aesthetic experience meet the conditions laid down by aesthetic theory, rather than in the freedom and range of understanding with which he is prepared to confront the unexpected in aesthetic experience.

Because it makes all actual experience superfluous, the absolute certainty that art is the source of a type of knowledge is the weakest aspect of Adorno's theory. This is why Adorno's aesthetic theory tends toward dogmatic self-validation,45 shutting itself off in narcissistic reflection from doubt and from anything else that might disturb its conception of itself. If we use Adorno's theory as a guide to aesthetic experience, nothing out of the ordinary will ever happen to us; we will see, hear, feel nothing new, because the theory has already accounted for every possible reaction we might have. True aesthetic experience is predicated on the willingness to remain open to what is unexpected. An ironclad theory can never be a substitute for this openness, which allows art to provoke us into seeing the world in new, unchanneled ways.

The true antidote to traditional theory's dogmatic self-certainty, which Adorno's aesthetics was meant to provide, consists in giving precedence to the possibility of engaging art in a way not already thoroughly determined by theory. Aesthetic experience must be made the basis for aesthetic theory and not the other way around. The entrenched illusions generated by ideology can be dispelled only when there is freedom to confront the official face of reality with alternatives. This freedom is first and foremost acquired by an unfettered play of reflection, which can be set in motion only by genuine aesthetic experience. Let us consider this a bit more closely.

In contrast to our everyday experiences of the world as we find it, encounters with aesthetic phenomena are unique in that they do not require organization by the understanding; nor, strictly speaking, do artworks prescribe how these encounters will turn out. Aesthetic experience encourages consciousness to engage in a form of reflection that does not restrict it in any way. This highly unusual experience opens up for consciousness new and previously unrealized possibilities. The age-old solution to the problem of how to reawaken deadened forms of perception lies entirely in the possibility of being moved by art. The extreme nature of modern art production, however, makes openness and breadth of vision especially necessary to have such experiences.

I have deliberately introduced this description of aesthetic experience in order to bring Kant to mind. It is time to rediscover his analysis of how aesthetic phenomena affect consciousness, an analysis that Schelling and Hegel thought they had consigned to history.46 Kant's insights into the structure of reflective judgment, applied to modern art, not only dispense with a fixed, traditional work canon but also make it imperative that we reconsider aesthetic experience, not in terms of confirming what we already think or know about the world but as the way art enhances our powers of perception and understanding. To account for the basis of aesthetic experience in terms of what Kant called our disinterested pleasure in objects allows us to define art without directly identifying it with knowledge. The true nature of art thus consists in its capacity to stimulate thought without restricting it and to bring reflection to a level of independence where it is no longer bound to concepts. Because it loosens reflection's ties to specifically determined cognitive functions, only the type of art that is capable of initiating the free play of reflection can do without the services of thought.

In contrast, art whose entire function is critique is in fact not conducive to critique, as Adorno would have it. Rather, just the opposite is true. Instead of freeing knowledge, it succeeds only in trammeling knowledge. Art that takes on meaning only in opposition to reality is the reverse side of art that merely copies reality. In both cases, consciousness is condemned to fixed, predetermined, almost mechanical reactions in its apprehension of art. Neither of these concepts of art is capable of bringing about the freedom of reflection necessary for true aesthetic experience.


Hegel's dialectical method, which Adorno unabashedly employs at strategically crucial moments, may help us understand why the latter places so little value on true aesthetic experience. Hegel's objection to Kant's concept of the Ding an sich, resurrected in Adorno's concept of the Nichtidentische, involves the dialectic of limits. Hegel's argument maintains that in order to define the limit of something, a position must already be assumed outside of that limit. Limits can never be drawn from only one side. To recognize a limit thus implies the possibility of overcoming it. Within the context of his debate with Hegel there is no way, other than blind obstinancy, that Adorno can circumvent the consequences this insight has on his own “negative dialectic.” Adorno must first explicitly complete the dialectic of limits in order then to sublate it again.47Theory's transformation into aesthetics rests squarely on this step.

Insight into theoretical knowledge's limitations cannot lead to theory's consummation by transcending its limits. According to what I have identified as Adorno's a priori principle, which accounts for the convergence of art and philosophy in terms of their shared orientation toward knowledge, this insight into theory's limits would seem to fall within the purview of art. By locating the point of convergence in art, however, the mediation is cut short, which prevents the dialectic from culminating in an absolute system. If this mediation were to be completed, then theory would be able to draw its own limits, which would make art's limiting role superfluous. That theory's limits are determined by art, however, is by no means a self-evident truth. In fact, theory imposes its limits on itself and thus determines what its proper domain should be. Aesthetics, as the limit of theory, can be determined only by theory. This, however, sets the dialectic of limits in motion again.

This relationship can be understood as the inversion of the relationship in which Hegel ranks art with respect to philosophy. According to Hegel, art is historically prior to philosophy, but because art represents absolute Spirit only in its immediacy, art is subordinate to philosophy. Spirit's unmediated presence in art gives rise to a mediation by which Spirit comes into its own as philosophy. Philosophy, in spelling out what is spiritual in art, necessarily destroys art's autonomous sphere. To raise art to the level of the concept means to put an end to how aesthetic illusion creates its unrestricted effect, which depends on immediacy. Illusion recognized as illusion is robbed of its power and magic. The advent of the philosophy of art thus rings out the age of art.

Neither with respect to its content nor its form is art the highest and most absolute way for Spirit to bring its true interests to consciousness. The type of creation and works peculiar to art no longer fulfill our highest needs. … For this reason, in our age, the science of art is much more of a prerequisite than for those times in which art pure and simple really did offer complete satisfaction. Art invites us to consider things in a thinking way; not for the purpose of creating new works of art, but rather to know, in a scientific way, what art is.48

In a certain sense, it can be said that Adorno's aesthetics reverses the process by which Hegel's philosophy destroys art's independent sphere. Although Adorno discovers in art philosophy's most fundamental interests, he does not subject art to a philosophical concept of truth, as Hegel does. To do so would deprive art of its power to impose limits on philosophy. In order to save art from sinking back to the level of one of Spirit's irrelevant, preliminary stages, Adorno would rather dispense with reflection. This would reveal, of course, that it was philosophy, in the first place, that had conferred the status of knowledge on art. Adorno thus conceals from himself that it is only by way of philosophical interpretation that art can be put on an equal footing with philosophy. The fact that he does not admit philosophy's constitutive role gives art the aura of independence. The truth of the matter, however, is that Adorno uses art as a deus ex machina, which he hauls in to save the day for philosophy. Perhaps, in spite of all its self-effacing gestures, it is Adorno's aesthetic theory that treats art with the most extreme condescension, the condescension of an anonymous sovereign power.

All these complications could have been avoided if Adorno had once and for all given up the dream that it is possible for philosophy to remain itself and at the same time be different from itself. The aestheticizing of theory impoverishes a theory of the aesthetic. Although Adorno professes to promote art's autonomy, he always has theory's interests at heart. In this way, aesthetics is rendered thoroughly heteronomous. The line of argumentation that begins with the insight into universal mystification and extends through the dogma that art and reality are diametrically opposed to each other, in the end, transforms art into an agent of critical theory's interests. Because these interests cannot be openly articulated, they are imputed to the artworks themselves, thus determining in advance how we will experience them. In this way, theory prevails in the very act of denying that it plays a constitutive role in aesthetics.


  1. Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften (GS),vol. 1 (“Die Aktualität der Philosophie”), pp. 325-44, 343. See also the preface to Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (ND) (1966), GS 6:9; trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), p. xix.

  2. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente (DA) (1944/1947 and 1969), GS 3:10; trans. J. Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), p. x.

  3. See also Theodor W. Adorno, “Der Essay als Form” (1958), in Noten zur Literatur, vol. 1, GS 11:9-33; trans. as “The Essay as Form,” Notes to Literature, vol. 1, trans. Shierry Weber Nichelsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 3-23.

  4. Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (AT) (1970), GS 7:140, trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 134 (translation modified).

  5. GS 1 (“Die Aktualität der Philosophie”), p. 343.

  6. For a detailed account, see my essay “Problemgeschichte und systematischer Sinn der ‘Phänomenologie’ Hegels,” in Dialektik und Wissenschaft (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973). This essay has been translated as “Hegel's Concept of Phenomenology” for a book on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, ed. Gary K. Browning (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997).

  7. For an extensive treatment of the philosophical similarities, see Hermann Mörchen, Adorno und Heidegger. Untersuchung einer philosophischen Kommunikationsverweigerung (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981).

  8. See GS 1 (“Die Idee der Naturgeschichte” [1932]), pp. 345-65.

  9. Kierkegaard, Konstruktion des Ästhetischen (1933); GS 2; Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

  10. Theodor W. Adorno, “Parataxis. Zur späten Lyrik Hölderlins” (1963/1964), in Noten zur Literatur, vol. 3, GS 11:447-91.

  11. ND, GS 6:23; trans., p. 11.

  12. DA, GS 3:9; trans., p. ix.

  13. AT, GS 7:191; trans., p. 183 (translation modified).

  14. These are sketches of analyses I have dealt with in more detail in my essay “What Is Critical Theory?” in R. Bubner, Essays in Hermeneutics and Critical Theory, trans. E. Matthews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 1-35.

  15. Theodor W. Adorno, “Offener Brief an Rolf Hochhuth” (1967), in Noten zur Literatur, vol. 4, GS 11:591-98, 598.

  16. For example, see T. Baumeister and J. Kulenkampff, “Geschichtsphilosophie und philosophische Asthetik,” in Neue Hefte für Philosophie, no. 5 (1973): pp. 74-104.

  17. DA, GS 3:15; trans., p. xv.

  18. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, trans. L. Wirth and E. Shils (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1948). See M. Horkheimer, “Ein neuer Ideologiebegriff?” (1930), in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2 (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1987), pp. 271ff.; “A New Concept of Ideology?” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, trans. G. F. Hunter, M. S. Kramer, and J. Torpey (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), pp. 129-49. This essay is similar to Adorno's “Das Bewuβtsein der Wissenssoziologie” (1937, first published 1953), in Prismen. Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (1955), GS 10/1:31-46; “The Sociology of Knowledge and Its Consciousness,” in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981), pp. 35-49.

  19. In his essay on Samuel Beckett's Endgame, Adorno refers to this reversal as follows: “The irrationality of bourgeois society in its late phase rebels at letting itself be understood; those were the good old days, when a critique of the political economy of this society could be written that judged it in terms of its own ratio.” (“Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen” (1961), in Noten zur Literatur, vol. 2, GS 11:281-321, 284); “Trying to Understand Endgame,Notes to Literature, vol. 1, p. 244.

  20. See Adorno's essay “Zum Klassizismus von Goethes Iphigenie” (1967), in Noten zur Literatur, vol. 4 GS 11:495-514, 512ff.

  21. “As far back as we can trace it, the history of thought has been a dialectic of enlightenment.” ND, GS 6:124; trans., p. 118.

  22. Compare AT, GS 7:16, 67, 114; trans., pp. 78, 60, 108.

  23. For example, consider Plato's Republic X.

  24. DA, GS 3:36-37; trans., pp. 18-19. Cf. also T. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949) (Berlin, 1972), pp. 20ff., 189.

  25. DA, GS 3:36-37; trans., pp. 18-19; AT, GS 7:120, 197, 511; trans., pp. 113-14, 189, 457; ND, GS 6:26-27; trans., p. 15.

  26. Friedrich Schelling, System des transzendentalen Idealismus (1800).

  27. Friedrich Schelling, Philosophie der Kunst (1802/1804) (Darmstadt, 1959), pp. 8ff.; Vorlesungen über die Methode des akademischen Studiums (1803), lecture 14.

  28. W. Benjamin, “Der Autor als Produzent,” in Versuche über Brecht (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968), pp. 96ff.; “The Author as Producer,” in Reflections, trans. E. Jephcott (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), pp. 220-38.

  29. For example, T. W. Adorno, Ohne Leitbild. Parva Aesthetica (1967/1968), GS 10/1:289-453, 299ff.

  30. Theodor W. Adorno, “Zum Klassizismus von Goethes Iphigenie,” in Noten zur Literatur, vol. 4, GS 11:502ff. (Cf. Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen, no. 751.) For a pertinent observation about Adorno's essay, see Gerhard Kaiser, “Adornos Ästhetische Theorie,” in Antithesen (Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1973), pp. 309ff.

  31. Citing “historico-philosophical reasons” and referring to his favorite example, Samuel Beckett, Adorno demonstrates the following “change in the a priori of drama: the fact that there is no longer any substantive, affirmative metaphysical meaning that could provide dramatic form with its law and its epiphany. That, however, disrupts the dramatic form down to its linguistic infrastructure. Drama cannot simply take negative meaning, or the absence of meaning, as its content without everything peculiar to it being affected to the point of turning into its opposite.” “Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen,” Noten zur Literatur, vol. 2, GS 11:282; “Trying to Understand Endgame,” in Notes to Literature, vol. 1, p. 242.

  32. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, p. 31. Adorno's reference to Hegel is completely misleading. What Hegel describes as “simply looking on” [das reine Zusehen] refers specifically to the method appropriate to a “phenomenology of Spirit.” It does not apply to his philosophy in general, nor does phenomenological Zusehen mean that systematic premises are lacking. See Phänomenologie des Geistes, in Werke, vol. 3 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986), p. 77; Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 54. In this connection, see my essay “Hegel's Concept of Phenomenology.”

  33. Such an innocuous observation, as F. Busoni made in his Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (1916; new ed., Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974), does not at all come to grips with the problem: “Ephemeral qualities constitute what is ‘modern’ about a work of art; the immutable qualities save it from becoming ‘old-fashioned.’ For ‘modern times,’ just as much for ‘former times,’ there is good and bad, authentic and inauthentic. The absolutely modern does not exist. There is only what comes into existence earlier or later, what flourishes longer or fades away more rapidly. There have always been things which are modern and things which are old” (p. 8).

  34. AT, GS 7:134; trans., p. 128. In his essay “Engagement” (1962), Adorno chooses to make Sartre and Brecht into opponents (Noten zur Literatur, vol. 3, GS 11:409-30).

  35. AT, GS 7:185; also 189, 193ff., 391; trans., p. 179; also pp. 181-82, 186ff., 370-71 (translation modified).

  36. Plato, Republic 595c ff.

  37. Aristotle, Poetics 1448b.

  38. ND, GS 6:26; trans., pp. 14-15 (translation modified). See also AT, GS 7:86ff., 180ff.; trans., pp. 79ff., 174ff.

  39. Theodor W. Adorno, “Erpreβte Versöhnung” (1958), in Noten zur Literatur, vol. 2, GS 11:251-80, 260; “Extorted Reconciliation,” Notes to Literature, vol. 1, pp. 216-40, 224.

  40. On the background and orientation of this debate about materialistic aesthetics, see my essay, “Über einige Bedingungen gegenwärtiger Ästhetik,” in R. Bubner, Ästhetische Erfahrung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989), pp. 23ff.

  41. Ibid., esp. pp. 30ff.

  42. For a good standard work on Rezeptionsästhetik, see Wolfgang Iser, Der implizite Leser. Kommunikationsformen des Romans von Bunyan bis Beckett (Munich: Fink, 1972); The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).

  43. That holds for Peter Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974). See my essay, “Moderne Ersatzfunktion des Ä;sthetischen,” in Ästhetische Erfahrung, pp. 76ff.

  44. Johann W. v. Goethe, Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil, 6216ff.

  45. From an external standpoint, this consequence is particularly striking, as Marc Jimenez has shown in his insightful analysis in Theodor W. Adorno: Art, idéologie et théorie de l'art (Paris: Union générale d'éditions, 1973), pp. 270ff.

  46. See, R. Bubner, Ästhetische Erfahrung, pp. 34ff.

  47. Compare, ND, GS 6:9, 397ff; trans., pp. xix, 405ff; Philosophie der neuen Musik, pp. 20ff., 189.

  48. G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, ed. H. G. Hotho (1842), Werke 10.1:13ff., 16.

Carol V. Hamilton (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “All That Jazz Again: Adorno's Sociology of Music,” in Popular Music and Society, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 31-40.

[In the following essay, Hamilton argues that Adorno's ideas about jazz, understood in their proper context, do have relevance as a part of his larger aesthetic theory.]

Theodor Adorno's “On Jazz” is as infamous in academic circles as it is misunderstood. In the Winter, 1988, issue of Popular Music and Society, William P. Nye renewed the attack on Adorno, dismissing not only his analysis of jazz, but his work in general, that of other Frankfurt School members, and the claims of critical theory to be a scholarly, oppositional means of understanding popular culture. The subtitle of Nye's article is “A Critique of Critical Theory,” and he quotes Zoltan Tar's damning one-sentence summary of the Frankfurt School: “Critical theory is the document of the disintegration of old Central European bourgeois society and the tragic fate of a group of intellectuals of that society.” While many of their positions have been absorbed, modified, and revised by the current generation of theorists, the ideas of Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and other Frankfurt School members are still influential in current debates about aesthetics and politics.1 A 1990 book on Adorno, Fredric Jameson's Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic, argues for “the special relevance of Adorno's Marxism, and of its unique capacities within our own equally unique ‘late’ or third stage of capitalism” (12). In this far briefer response to William Nye's article, I want to challenge some of Nye's claims and suggest why readers of Popular Music and Society might give Adorno's work a second look. My aim is not to renew Adorno's critique of jazz but to contextualize it.

One can criticize Adorno's understanding of jazz without, as Nye puts it, “intellectually discrediting his theoretical perspective.” Like other Frankfurt School theorists, Adorno's premise is that all cultural products, including those of so-called “high art,” participate in a larger social logic, one which, under capitalism, is subservient to “exchange value.” Just as one worker can be replaced by another, so can, and must, one popular song or style of dress replace another. Written when the bourgeoisie was still a progressive class, the production aesthetic of “serious music”—its formal structure—escaped subjection to commodification, only to be threatened by capitalist modes of distribution and reception. Unlike Walter Benjamin, author of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Adorno was pessimistic about the effects of twentieth-century technology (the cinema, radio, phonograph album), fearing the standardization of culture. The ten-inch 78 rpm record, for example, restricted recording time to three minutes, with obvious formal constraints on the complexity and duration of the music (Harrison 574). Adorno and his colleague Horkheimer wrote a long essay called “The Culture Industry,” in which they articulated their critique in detail.

It was the culture industry against which the critical fury of the Frankfurt School was directed, not popular culture forms per se. Indeed, the term “culture industry” was chosen to refute the very idea of an authentic, potentially counter-hegemonic popular culture. Adorno understands twentieth-century American and European popular music as written for consumption, not for aesthetic contemplation; unlike the uncompromising music of Schoenberg, pop music refuses to acknowledge either the horrors or the routine of an era of assembly lines, world wars, and concentration camps. It is “affirmative,” in contrast to the “negative aesthetic” that Adorno considered truly oppositional and the only strategy for art in a society in which everything is up for sale. (In non-Marxist parlance, Adorno is talking about commercialism—as in recent explanations of New Kids on the Block as an example of an artificial, prefab, marketing success.) In his Aesthetic Theory, Adorno speaks of “the ability of art to incorporate into its formal language those phenomena that bourgeois society outlaws, revealing in them a natural other, the suppression of which is truly evil” (137).

The reference to a “formal language” is important for the subject of jazz, which Adorno understands in terms of both its musical structure and the construction of the subject/listener. But what does Adorno mean by “jazz”? The term has to be historicized; clearly, since “On Jazz” was published in 1936, it does not mean the improvisations of Keith Jarrett or even some of the later, extended compositions of Duke Ellington, like the 1943 work Black, Brown and Beige. The entry on jazz written by Max Harrison in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) begins as follows: “Attempts at a concise—even a coherent—definition of jazz have invariably failed. Initial efforts to separate it from related forms of music resulted in a false primacy of certain aspects such as improvisation, which is neither unique nor essential to jazz, or swing … which is absent from much authentic jazz, early and late” (561). Harrison then states: “the conventional view that jazz emerged from a balanced meeting of African and European musical characteristics is an oversimplification” (561). In other words, “jazz,” like “the novel,” presents a genre problem: what are its origins, what belongs to it, what lies outside? The Grove goes on to describe “the slowly assembled mixture of mutually influential folk and popular styles” as indigenously American and neither predominantly black nor white: “the diverse elements making up this idiom—in effect a broad and composite ‘matrix’—gave it a potential for development … whose fullest realization is found in jazz.” The prehistory that the Grove describes does imply a partial refutation of Adorno's critique: namely that if jazz has origins that predate the culture industry, then its structure may not be totally dominated by commodity logic. The Grove states: “There has indeed been an evolutionary succession of styles, and this has maintained the continuity, logic, and inner necessity that characterizes real art” (562).

If jazz cannot be formally defined, and if Adorno himself does not define his use of the term, to what music was Adorno referring? He does not engage in attacks on specific albums or musicians. One good guess is that “On Jazz” is really about swing, the dominant form of popular music in the 1930s and a form dominated by white musicians—not, of course, because they were more gifted but because they were more saleable to a predominantly white society. Attali points out that the first jazz recording was that of a white band, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and that in the early days of jazz recording, the best-known musicians, such as Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman, and Stan Kenton, were white (Attali 104). And Jameson writes that Paul Whiteman is “the proper referent for what Adorno calls ‘jazz,’ which has little to do with the richness of a Black culture we have only long since then discovered” (Late Marxism 141).

This is significant because the lurking suspicion about “On Jazz” is that it is racist. That Adorno was Eurocentric in his attitudes is not in doubt. According to the Grove, however, jazz was for decades taken more seriously as an art form in Europe than in America, and “Europe became a haven for American jazz musicians” (577). If Max Harrison is correct in his claim that jazz is a melting pot of white and black folk idioms and is indigenously American, not African, in origins, then the equation of jazz with black music becomes problematic. Adorno himself did not make this equation, remarking, “It is difficult to isolate the authentic Negro elements in jazz” (Adorno “Perennial” 146). Consequently, the assumption that Adorno is a white European snob lashing out at African-American music ignores three issues: the mixed racial prehistory of jazz, its commercialization by white Americans, and its positive reception by many Europeans.

Despite his generally critical stance, some of Adorno's observations in the later essay “Popular Music” would surprise William Nye. Adorno remarks, for example, that “the minuets of lesser seventeenth-century composers were as fatally alike as our pop songs” and “within pop music, jazz has its unquestioned merits. Against the idiotic derivatives from the Johann Strauss type operetta it taught technique, presence of mind, and the concentration which pop music had discarded, and it developed the faculties of tonal and rhythmical differentiation” (Adorno, Introduction 32-33).

Admirers of Adorno's work point out his weaknesses as well as his strengths. In Understanding Toscanini, Joseph Horowitz devotes considerable attention to Adorno's account of the commodification of Western art music; he observes that “the strength of Adorno's ideological grounding is its heuristic breadth. Working from a general base, he is attuned to issues, even musical issues, that other writers on music overlooked or could not take seriously” (Horowitz 242). On the other hand, Horowitz admits, “Adorno's shortcomings of tone are unignorable. More often than not, his anger at commodity society seems mainly directed at its victims, whom he holds in contempt” (Horowitz 239). An authority on the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay describes Adorno as follows:

Adorno's relentless animus towards mass culture was among his most controversial characteristics, often leading to the charge that he was an elitist snob, an arrogant mandarin, and even (because of his hatred for jazz) a covert racist. These glibly defensive epithets fail to acknowledge the extent to which the very same criticisms he levelled against mass culture were often directed as well against most elite culture, which he refused to fetishize as inherently superior … although he may have been overly eager to demonstrate the sadomasochistic core of jazz, he was no less willing to discern the same pathology in the music of Stravinksy

(Jay 119).

It is the discussion of sadomasochism and castration that is the most offensive part of “On Jazz.” Contemporary critics would probably understand some of the same issues in terms of gender rather than psychopathology and would substitute rock music for jazz. The datedness of Adorno's 1936 essay is evident in its references to jazz as a “mass phenomenon”; in fact, much of “On Jazz” is simply out of date, given the different strains of jazz produced since it was written and the revisions of Freudian psychology that have appeared in the past decade. But Western art music is still, as Adorno implied then, culturally coded as feminine or effeminate in opposition to a supposedly robust and masculine popular music. Such gendered cultural codings have nothing to do with the intrinsic qualities of the music or its performers but spring rather from perceptions of class (the social class above, in its relative refinement, perceived as feminine) and cultural stereotypes (Europe gendered as feminine, America as masculine). Adorno argues, in effect, that this cultural coding intimidates younger American male listeners from expressing an interest in art music.

Adorno is not alone, however, in some of his formalist criticisms of jazz. Carl Dahlhaus, the late German musicologist, makes similar observations in an essay entitled “Composition and Improvisation.” His argument, unlike Adorno's, is not only about jazz, is almost purely formal (Dahlhaus doubts the very project of a sociology of music), and lacks the harshness that sometimes mars Adorno's work.2 For these reasons Dahlhaus can be helpful in elucidating Adorno's formalist analysis.

Improvisation is not, as William Nye's article implies, foreign to Western art music.3 If you look up the term in a reference work like the New College Encyclopedia of Music you will read that “the fame of J. S. Bach in his lifetime rested chiefly on the powers of improvisation which he showed in well-known instances,” that “Handel used improvisation freely in playing his organ concertos,” and that “Mozart and Beethoven were renowned for their improvising of cadenzas and of complete movements” (Westrup and Harrison 332). Improvisation is thus something that jazz and art music have in common historically, even though the emphasis in the latter has shifted to aleatory techniques and electronic music. In both cases it has functioned as a sign of the performer's virtuosity.

Dahlhaus describes the emotional content of improvisation as “the hope that musical improvisation is the expression of, and a means of achieving, an emancipation of consciousness and of feeling” (Dahlhaus 265). The word “emancipation” implies, as Adorno would quickly point out, a pre-existing state of oppression or slavery; freedom depends upon its absence in a dialectical relationship. The longing for utter freedom in improvisation suggests that more is at stake than music; the belief that such freedom is possible implies a denial of social as well as musical constraints. Like Adorno, Dahlhaus is doubtful about the degree of freedom in improvisation, whether in jazz or in other kinds of music:

Analyzed soberly, improvisation almost always relies to a large extent on formulas, tricks of the trade, and models. … The improviser must be able to fall back at a moment's notice on a repertoire of cliches, on a store of prefabricated parts, which he may indeed modify or combine differently, but which he does not invent on the spur of the moment if he does not wish to get into difficulties or grind to a halt. The idea that he can commit himself entirely to the vagaries of chance is a fiction

(Dahlhaus 268).

Dahlhaus understands improvisation as opposed to composition, which “tends to balance the various aspects of compositional technique … melody, rhythm, and harmony”; in contrast:

Improvisation is almost always one-sided. It almost always concentrates on a single, isolated feature of the music, be it rhythm, harmony or tone color. And the real object of the improvisation stands out from its surroundings on account of its novelty, its differentiation or surprise effects, whereas everything else, being a mere foil, remains conventional and formalized

(Dahlhaus 269).

In the course of this article, the binary oppositions African/American, American/European, and masculine/feminine have emerged and broken down. The opposition improvisation/composition suggests another, that between orality and literacy. Jacques Derrida has treated a version of this opposition—speech and writing, presence and absence—at length in Of Grammatology. Ever since Plato, according to Derrida, Western philosophy has privileged speech and presence over writing and absence: “Speech is seen as in direct contact with meaning: words issue from the speaker as the spontaneous and nearly transparent signs of his present thought, which the attendant listener hopes to grasp” (Culler 100). It is obvious how this description would apply to a live concert. William Nye's critique of Adorno is oddly full of terms which Derrida, Roland Barthes, and other poststructuralist thinkers have successfully put into theoretical disrepute. “Voice,” “mastery,” “signature,” and “possession,” language which Nye uses to defend jazz, are now recognizable as crucial terms in Western metaphysics, a philosophical tradition constructed upon binary oppositions—male/female, self/other, white/black, etc.—in which one term is privileged over the other with oppressive socio-cultural implications. “Voice” belongs to the logocentric discourse that Derrida finds in Plato and throughout Western thought. “Mastery” implicitly excludes women from the achievement it describes; “possession” belongs to the discourse of private property that Barthes exposed in “The Death of the Author.” “Signature,” which Nye uses as a variant of “possession,” is the subject of an amusing debate between Derrida and another philosopher, John Searle, in which Derrida deconstructs the concept to reveal its internal contradictions.

In rejecting Adorno's formal analysis of jazz, William Nye does not offer another formal analysis of his own but retreats instead to value judgments like “wizardry,” “mastery,” and “wondrous things.” Such terms stand in contrast to Adorno's elaborate musical analyses, his exegesis of a musical text to expose its governing logic, and his recognition of the social implications of musical logic. Adorno was himself a student of the composer Alban Berg and possessed a musician's sophisticated understanding of theoretical issues. It is the combination of musical and philosophical erudition that makes his work impressive; those readers who dismiss it are most likely offended by its Western Marxist premises, its assumption that art, psychology, politics, and economics cannot be cleanly separated from each other but are instead intermeshed. Adorno's analysis of jazz should be refuted by someone who uses Adorno's own weapons; the Grove entry, which addresses both the formal strengths and weaknesses of jazz and which is far more specific than Adorno in its references to musicians and composers, is a better potential critique.

In defending jazz improvisation, Nye writes, “good jazz musicians improvise in the fullest sense of the word and the truth of this is given in the sense of awe with which many accomplished ‘serious’ or classically trained musicians regard the best and even the better jazz musicians.” There are at least two problems with this defense. One is that the value judgment “the fullest sense of the word” begs the question of what, technically, improvisation is; secondly, by appealing to classical musicians' “sense of awe” (another emotional claim substituting for an analytical one), Nye reinscribes the superiority of “classical training” that he sets out to refute.

Nye's characterization of classically trained musicians—that they “sound more alike than different”—is also misconceived in several respects. It is true that listeners expect to recognize a Mozart piece when they hear one, not to be misled by an unduly whimsical or self-aggrandizing interpreter; there is thus the same emphasis on a distinctive, although theoretically problematic, individuality in Western art music as there is, according to Nye, in African music, but the primary emphasis is on the composer, not the interpreter. A Mozart concerto, for example, is not only an opportunity for a performer to showcase her own abilities; it involves complex textual and interpretive decisions. Nonetheless, Nye underestimates the differences between classically trained musicians, the more accomplished of whom are almost instantly distinguishable. I remember once standing in a record store while a symphony was being played on the store stereo system; a young man walked in the door and remarked, “It's the BPO (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra)!” Similarly, I once surprised a musician friend when I walked into a room where the radio was playing Bach and said, “It's Glenn Gould.” In both cases, recognition of the performers was virtually simultaneous with recognition of the composers.

Ultimately, what's wrong with Nye's strategy is that he attempts to rescue one musical tradition from attack by attacking another, thus replicating Adorno's own fault. If Adorno misrepresented jazz, misrepresenting “classical” music will not repair the damage. Jazz and “classical” music are not inherently oppositional; not only do many listeners enjoy both, but performers and composers in the one have been influenced by or performed the other. Modernist composers like Milhaud, Ravel and Stravinsky drew enthusiastically upon jazz idioms, and Charlie Parker asked avant-garde composer Edgar Varese to tutor him in composition.4 In 1938 Benny Goodman recorded the Mozart clarinet quintet with the Budapest String Quartet and commissioned Bartok's Contrasts (Grove 577). In 1990 the Kronos String Quartet and the Modern Jazz Quartet appeared in concert together in Berkeley, California. If the musicians themselves take such an interest in each other's music, why should listeners be hostile? Indeed, there has probably been more cross-fertilization between jazz and “classical” than between any other major forms of music in the West. The antagonism is not musical but social. The privileged position Western art music has maintained, its associations with wealth and class, have also marginalized it; in the United States, with its ambivalent attitudes toward Europe, “classical” music is often regarded with a kind of xenophobic animosity, sometimes tainted with homophobia. We need to understand how social and institutional contexts situate musical discourses, not to essentialize those discourses. One-sided attacks on either jazz or “classical” music tend to contain within them the kind of binary oppositions that privilege the “civilized” over the “primitive,” or else merely invert the opposition, as Nye does, without deconstructing it. This while is ultimately an appeal for openness, in the hope that music may provide, on occasion, a utopian moment in which social tensions are sublated.


  1. A 1989 book edited by Christopher Norris, Music and the Politics of Culture, cites Adorno often; particularly interesting in this context is Ken Hirschkop's contribution, “The Classical and the Popular.”

  2. Dahlhaus's Schoenberg and the New Music contains his critique of the sociology of music.

  3. William Nye objects to Adorno's use of the term “serious music”; this is not unique to Adorno but is fairly common in music criticism. A more recent but also problematic version is “art music.” “Classica” is a period term; Adorno called its wider usage “vulgar.”

  4. Parker wrote Varese the following: “Take me as you would a baby and teach me music. I speak in only one voice. I want to have structure. I want to write orchestral scores” (quoted in the Grove, 576).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. “Perennial Fashion—Jazz.” Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Sherry Weber. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981. 119-132.

———. Introduction to the Sociology of Music. New York: Continuum, 1988.

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Dahlhaus, Carl. “Composition and Improvisation.” Schoenberg and the New Music. Trans. Derrick Puffett and Alfred Clayton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 265-73.

Harrison, Max. “Jazz.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Stanley Sadie, ed. London: Macmillan, 1980.

Horowitz, Joseph. Understanding Toscanini. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Jay, Martin. Adorno. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Westrup, J. A. and F. Harrison, ed. The New College Encyclopedia of Music. New York: Norton & Company, 1960.

James M. Harding (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Historical Dialectics and the Autonomy of Art in Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 183-95.

[In the following essay, Harding argues that Adorno's thesis in Ästhetische Theorie is based on a notion of historical dialectics.]

As Peter Hohendahl has noted, the posthumous publication of Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie in 1970 disappointed many who expected that it would provide a materialist aesthetic which would cultivate praxis.1 The Left, who dismissed the work “out of hand,” maintained that, though anti-capitalist, the text advocated an anachronistic cultural elitism.2 After Hohendahl (re)constructs the historical context in which Adorno's text was so negatively received, he suggests that the time has come (1981; 1991) to reassess the Ästhetische Theorie. Interestingly, while implying that the apparent flexibility of German society in the 1970s produced an inadequate analysis of Adorno's final work, Hohendahl's reappraisal still embraces the cornerstone of that analysis: like Peter Bürger, he posits the autonomy of art as the central thesis of the Ästhetische Theorie and then places the work squarely in the historical tradition of German idealism.

The brash rejection of the Ästhetische Theorie does call for a reassessment, but that reassessment ought not neglect questioning the role the autonomy of art has in the work's overall project. At stake is whether the initial reception cited by Hohendahl centered on a problem of secondary importance to the more subtle and comprehensive analysis occurring in Adorno's text. The dismissal of the Ästhetische Theorie on the grounds that it advocates an autonomy of art preconceived the meaning of aesthetic autonomy rather than deriving it from the text, i.e., from Adorno's usage. Consequently, the dismissal sidestepped a confrontation with the work's greater concerns: an analysis which explores how historical dialectics are erratic and lack uniformity and stability.3 As the following arguments will demonstrate, the autonomy of art in the Ästhetische Theorie is not—as Bürger maintains—merely an historical category describing the detachment of art from practical life. It results from an historical dialectic whose mechanics, Adorno argues, are faltering and unable to enact supersession (Aufhebung). In the Ästhetische Theorie, art is autonomous because of the unique formulation of dialectics posited by Adorno: art manifests itself in dialectical tensions with its own historical moment—in this respect art and life are indelibly intertwined—but these tensions remain unresolved; though art receives its identity from its negative critical relation with society, it does not have the ability to sublate the social dimensions that it negates. As society inevitably changes, an art work's non-identity becomes increasingly encapsulated—and therein lies the autonomy. For Adorno, the autonomy of art refers to the unresolved dialectical tensions of a work that respond to socio-historical conditions that have subsequently changed. Autonomy denotes the aesthetic tension's lack of resolution, a resolution that only supersession at a specific historical moment could have brought.

When Bürger argues that the autonomy of art is a category that describes art's detachment from practical contexts, he isolates only one aspect of (and thereby impairs) the dynamic at play in Adorno's discussions.4 For Adorno, the autonomy of art is double-edged, and although he appears to hold to a philosophy of l'art pour l'art, Adorno has a radical theoretical adherence to the relation between art and society. On the one hand, he affirms that socio-historical change makes the separation of art and practical life unavoidable. But on the other, the separation does not denote the irrelevance of art to life. The relevance, however, can only be stated in negative terms. Adorno uses the autonomy of art to sustain art's negative value, i.e., to sustain the integrity of the unresolved negative tensions (the non-identity) a work has with a specific historic moment.

Aesthetic autonomy occurs with the inevitable movement of history, and Adorno uses autonomy to defend art against the reification that results from elevating a work's aesthetic non-identity to a status of validity beyond its historic moment. On its most immediate level, the Ästhetische Theorie uses the autonomy of art as the foundation for an emphatic plea not to turn previous aesthetic non-identity into subsequent positive values. The plea is the natural heir to Adorno's reservations about supersession. Without supersession, the movement from negation to positive value falters, and a work's non-identity remains intact, i.e., autonomous. The point is this: for Adorno, historicizing a work does not solely relegate its negative (aesthetic) value to the past; historicization revitalizes a work's non-identity in the sense that historicization enacts its own brand of negation.

A criticism that historicizes art in order to counteract reification initiates a negation ancillary to the negation implicit in an art work's original non-identity. Like the art it discusses, the criticism has a negative function: the negation of reification. A criticism that underscores a work's unresolved tensions results in an unresolved tension of its own. Like the art it discusses, the criticism generates an unresolvable tension in the positive value it derives from maintaining what it heralds as essentially negative, art's non-identity. Thus, Adorno revitalizes art in an act of mimicry—a mimicry which his idiosyncratic conception of the autonomy of art to a great extent facilitates. Yet in terms of importance, the autonomy of art is subordinate to the (negating) mimicry that marks the whole of Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie; both are only possible as by-products of the revision of dialectics that precede them. In the Ästhetische Theorie, the autonomy of art has to be understood in the context of this revision. This is not to say that the mimicry in Adorno's criticism is without its problems—they will be explored in this work—but it seems to me that an adequate reassessment of Adorno's final work has to look at the dynamic Adorno constructs between his revision of dialectics and his mimicry of art.

The early reception of the Ästhetische Theorie mistook Adorno's defense of the autonomy of art as an exchange of praxis for an aesthetics of retreat—in fact, the defense of the autonomy of art serves as the premier example for de-reified critical activity. In answer to the calls for an aesthetic that cultivates political praxis, Adorno offered an aesthetic that, by using the autonomy of art as its primary example, challenged the ossified presumptions underlying praxis. Not only did it preclude art as a tool for social change, it argued that art exposed the delusory presuppositions of engagement.5 The specific rigor that the Ästhetische Theorie applies to the concept of art—to proving that as a concept, art itself lacks continuity—is the central strategy of its larger enterprise: that of fostering critical attitudes resilient to reification. More importantly, the critique of aesthetics, the argument that the concept of art lacked continuity, offered a subtle critique of presumed continuity in the goals guiding political activism, certainly during the sixties and seventies if not in general.

The sub-text on history that structures the autonomy of art in the Ästhetische Theorie employs an historical-materialist dialectic in which neither universals nor particulars are precluded from change.6 Rather than appealing to immutable, transcendent (e.g., Kantian) aesthetic criteria, Adorno posits an autonomy of art bound to society by its non-identity with a specific socio-historical moment.7 The elements of this dialectic can be seen in the following statement which, interestingly enough, also indicates that Adorno's defense of art's autonomy is not positivist, as Hohendahl suggests Adorno's early reception implies. For Adorno, the autonomy of art makes assumptions about the structure of dialectics, not an assertion that art is independent from practical life or society. He writes:

Works of art are after-images of the empirically living, inasmuch as they offer to the latter what outside is denied them, and thus liberate from their objective-external experience which shapes them.8

The key terms here are “after-images” (Nachbilder) and “the empirically living” (das empirisch Lebendige), the former not being a mere replica of the latter, but rather a dynamic counter-image to what the “empirically living” denies. Of equal importance to this counter-image is the peculiar formulation das empirisch Lebendige, what Adorno also calls die empirische Realität or simply die Empirie. From the section's subheading, “On the Relation Between Art and Society,” we can gather that these obscure references to living, to experience and to the senses make broad allusions to society while trying not to succumb to its reified categories. In other words, Adorno echoes the art works he describes: he employs these peculiar terms to circumvent the denials inherent in the dominant discursive patterns of society. Like art, Adorno's terms “should assist the non-identical, which the coerced identity in reality represses.”9

Whether the circumvention succeeds is debatable. Adorno's elocutions possess an amazing flexibility which is offset by an equally amazing vagueness. (One need only consider that they accommodate aesthetic discussions as diverse as adultery in Madame Bovary and absurdity in Beckett.) But the negative import of the terms das Nichtidentische and Nachbild allow Adorno to undercut the fixed criteria normally associated with the autonomy of art—that is, once he supplements the terms with assertions about the ephemeral nature of every work of art. He argues not that each work has its place in history but that important works of art “age, go cold and die.”10 Each individual work dies as the conditions of empirical reality change. Rather than contributing to the evolution of a concept, a work's characteristic counter-image or non-identity survives only as long as do the historical conditions from which it emerged. “What was once true in a work of art … [was] dismantled in the course of history.”11 This death necessitates a new form of aesthetic criticism, but more importantly, death precludes Aufhebung.

Instead of a movement of negation that resolves itself into subsequent moments (as in Hegel), historical passage is, for Adorno, the steady accumulation of unresolved tensions, repressed beneath the appearance of resolution. By questioning Aufhebung, Adorno can argue that the dialectical tensions between an art work and its origins remain intact and unresolved, buried beneath the passage of time. The autonomy of art is premised upon this lack of resolution, upon temporal movement without a reconciliatory absorption into a greater whole, i.e., upon the persistence of tension between an art work and die empirische Realität from which it emerges. What Adorno's aesthetics seek, then, is to bring these unresolved tensions back into focus and thereby subvert the appearance of their resolution, the appearance which contributes to their reification.

In the absence of transcendent and inalterable aesthetic criteria, this refocus is for each work of art, a new project following new criteria—and in the absence of sublation, this refocus is especially in need of persistent revision because the unfolding continuity implied by Aufhebung obscures and even reifies the tensions upon which the autonomy of art is premised.12

The disparity and lack of resolution in historical movements, which Adorno posits, allow art to occupy a watershed-position within historical passage. Yet the former is inextricably bound to the latter: “Directly as artefacts, however, as products of social work, they [art works] also communicate with the empirical experience that they reject and out of which they draw their content.”13 Art is always in response to the social empirical reality, and the social empirical reality always provides the substance or “origins” from which art emerges. The restructuring of historical dialectics which procures the autonomy of art also binds it: the socio-historical context, “the empirically living,” structures art and its autonomy.

The structural relation between the socio-historical and the autonomy of art is most evident in the foundational dynamic Adorno argues exists between the two. The dynamic is itself dialectical. What remains constant in Adorno's aesthetic is that, though neither universal nor particular is exempt from the consequences of historical passage, art always emerges from a negative dialectical or non-identical relation to its corresponding Empirie. But inasmuch as the instability of historic sublation procures the autonomy of art, the negative dialectical movement of art out of its socio-historic context is subject to a corresponding instability. Adorno's contention about the instability of sublation in the socio-historical process, the very instability that allows for the autonomy of art, brings the stability of aesthetic negation into question as well.

While art may in fact owe its existence to a negative dialectical relation with its socio-historical context, art reflects this context foremost in its own inability to prompt sublation with the “origins” or context to which it is bound in antithetical (negative) dialectical opposition, i.e., in its own inability to enact a comprehensive and nonetheless de-reified transformation of the social whole (whether politically oriented or otherwise).14 The instability of aesthetic negation, its inability to sublate—in the material social environment—the “origins” it negates, procures their autonomy while confirming art's own. Both are contingent upon the instability of sublation. The continued autonomy of an art work's origins, despite their aesthetic negation, is the logical consequence of the law (Bewegungsgesetz) creating the autonomy of art itself.15 What results is not a bifurcation of art and society into separate, autonomous realms, but a bilateral staggering of tensions straining against one another.

While the initial reception of Adorno's study in aesthetics latched on to the prominent position he gives to the autonomy of art, Adorno's questioning of sublation itself, not art's autonomy, is the central focus of the Ästhetische Theorie. But this clarification would not have been enough to re-ingratiate Adorno with the Left, from whom he was estranged in his last years. Using aesthetics as the catalyst for a rigorous inquiry into Aufhebung did little to meet the Left's demands. While the Left sought an aesthetics for activists, Adorno developed Leftist cultural thought. In this respect, Hohendahl is correct in his assessment: the Ästhetische Theorie is consistent with Adorno's general resistance to the dogmatic privileging that an emphasis on praxis gives to action.16 If, for Adorno, art and philosophical thought were not the last bastions of critical opposition to society, he at least prescribed them as a seemingly interminable prerequisite to engagement.

Hohendahl is cautious not to dismiss the initial reception of Adorno's final work, like the work itself was dismissed. Nor do I want to dismiss this reception “out of hand.” Although my coming remarks argue that to interpret the autonomy of art as the central thesis of the Ästhetische Theorie is to mistake effect for thesis, the prevalence of this interpretation cannot be explained solely on the basis of the political climate of the 1970s. It is the result of Adorno's rhetorical stance, his articulating his theory from the perspective of art itself, i.e., of his adopting the voice of the aesthetic position he purports to describe.

By positing the autonomy of art as the Ästhetische Theorie's central thesis, Hohendahl and the initial reception of Adorno's last work missed a crucial link in the chain of Adorno's reasoning: an argued discontinuity in the concept of art is part of Adorno's project to revise historical dialectics, and, once Adorno pinpoints this discontinuity, he can challenge traditional dialectics because as a system they provide an insufficient account of art. As his revision unfolds, the autonomy of art comes to signify how art functions in the absence of conceptual continuity. But if the excessive attention Adorno devotes to the autonomy of art while restructuring historical dialectics did not in itself explain why the student and academic Left thought his central thesis was art's autonomy, then Adorno's rhetorical stance gave them what seems to be understandable cause.

In the sections which follow, I argue that Adorno creates the illusion that one can reside (indefinitely) in the autonomy figured by works of art. He does this by rhetorically adopting the voice of art looking in retrospect on what he describes as its negated origins. This rhetorical strategy is arguably an attempt by Adorno to distance himself from the reified social structures negated by art. But in his efforts to avoid succumbing to reification, Adorno side-steps the crucial question of origins itself. He side-steps the socio-historical particularity upon which aesthetic autonomy is based. It seems to me that this strategy displays a preference which obscures a most problematic and unwritten chapter in Adorno's last work. Rhetorically, the Ästhetische Theorie occupies the same position that Adorno repeatedly asserts must find new and dis-continuous forms in a non-identical relation to specific socio-historical origins.


Early in the Ästhetische Theorie Adorno clarifies that the autonomy attributed to art is sustained only in movement, and that this movement, in contrast to immutable criteria, depends not upon what art is, but on art's differentiating itself from what it is not. In other words, art defines itself through a process of negation or a continuous non-identity. Adorno writes:

It is through its dynamic laws, not through some invariable principle, that art can be understood. It is defined by its relation to what is different from art. This other makes it possible for us to arrive at a substantive understanding of the specifically artistic in art. It is this approach to art that alone meets the criteria of a materialist and dialectical aesthetic, which evolves by segregating itself from its own matrix.17

In this general statement, Adorno provides the structure, indeed the modus operandi, underlying his subsequent claim that art works are “counter-images” to the “empirically living.” In these and similar passages in “On the Relation Between Art and Society,” Adorno constructs a definition of the autonomy of art based on an ever-changing socio-historical context. Art obtains autonomy in opposition—this is the cornerstone of negation—while its socio-historical context, the object of its opposition, structures (bestimmt) both the nature of that opposition and the character of art's autonomy.

When socio-historical context provides the substance “out of which … [art draws its] content,” and out of which art determines itself in negating recoil, each work of art constitutes a definitive instance of autonomy.18 Aesthetic autonomy is indelibly defined by the non-identical tensions it possesses with its historical context. Aesthetic negation, the emergence of the artistic out of its Other, is neither a more accurate articulation nor a progressive unfolding of autonomy. Individual instances of autonomy have only the movement of non-identity in common. Each instance is connected to other instances not in any reciprocal confirmation of having taken different paths to the same destination, nor in having assisted one another in a greater realization of potential autonomy, but in a dynamic, mutually-negating interaction that challenges the universal position of autonomy as a concept. The interaction of heterogenous autonomies occupied by or articulated through different works of art dispels the reified illusion of autonomy as a realm unto itself. The autonomy of art pivots on the negation of autonomy as a reified ideal. Each work of art is singularly exemplary, its non-identity not being an example of a greater universal, but a singular instance of itself. For Adorno, any conception of the autonomy of art, other than the position a given work occupies in negative relation to its Other, regresses into reification and a repressive positivism.

This last point—which it seems to me does much to vindicate Adorno from his critics—is not immediately apparent in Adorno's writing. On the contrary, Adorno gives the appearance of adherence to a fixed conception of autonomy because he attempts to avoid reification by speaking from the general position or perspective of art that is already autonomous, i.e., from the perspective that has already negated its socio-historical context. For example, in the claim that the artistic (das Kunsthafte) specifies itself out of its Other (das Andere), the movement of aesthetic negation is an event spoken of in retrospect, when the socio-historical is already positioned as an object of hindsight, signified here by the term “the Other.” By speaking from the position of art, Adorno eliminates the necessity for exploring the vast complexities underlying the socio-historical, choosing instead to dismiss them as the single collectivity, “the Other.” As previously stated, this strategy of adopting the voice of art as a means of avoiding a reified concept of autonomy gave his initial readers the impression that Adorno had traded the goals of political activism for the consolations of aesthetic pleasure.

Yet for Adorno, aesthetic negation could never meet the demands of activists: aesthetic negation is not the direct articulation of criticism nor is it the positing of formulated goals or hypothetical alternatives—all of which sustain prevailing, delimiting discourse by appealing to tolerated and defusing avenues of dissent. Negation would be neutralized if subordinated to protest or if constricted to preconceived reified concepts of autonomy. Aesthetic negation, according to Adorno's argument, occurs when art resists the temptation to oppose the portrayed “unredeemed” state with formulated or implicit ideals. He specifies this in his Ästhetische Theorie:

By cathecting the repressed, art internalizes the repressing principle, i.e., the unredeemed condition of the world (Unheil), instead of merely airing futile protests against it. Art identifies and expresses that condition, thus anticipating its overcoming. It is this and not the photographic rendition of the unredeemed state or a false sense of beatitude, that defines the position of authentic modern art towards a gloomy objectivity.19

Adorno's distinction between an anticipatory, cathected internalization of the repressing principle (Lust am Verdrängten) and mere protests against the principle arguably respond to the demand for an aesthetic which instigates political activism. While politically engaged art like Brecht's—which often serves as a whipping-boy for Adorno—attempts to adjust the social whole by protesting society's aberration from preconceived guidelines or values, such art fails to recognize that these same values are intrinsically structured by the dominant discourses which they ostensibly oppose.20 In the place of such limited aesthetic approaches, Adorno suggests the need for art works which incorporate the preconceived notions of autonomy into themselves and thereby expose how the dominant social discourses permeate current ideals. He posits an aesthetic whose autonomy resides in its negative dialectic or non-identity with prevalent conceptions of autonomy.

The futility of protest, its false sense of beatitude, lies in the mistaken presumption that subjects can detach themselves enough from the mediations of repression so as to offer an alternative that does not subscribe to the same repressive forces. Instead of offering protests that attempt to redirect within the status quo, art seeks to deadlock repression and thereby violate its limits. The deadlock generates a crisis in meaning, whereas protest only simulates crisis while still perpetuating prevalent constricting delusions. The crisis occurs through an exposure of stultification and reification in perception, thus exposing the ways accepted interpretations of reality dictate experience. Art is anticipatory in that it upsets or obstructs habitual, unexamined principles of conduct. Adorno argues that “Willfulness amid spontaneity—this is the vital element of art,” a willfulness that facilitates spontaneity by negating repression.21 Art demands a willfulness, a courage, which allows new meaning. This meaning is a departure from reification into spontaneity and the unknown.

Art's incorporation of the repressive principle into itself objectifies the dynamic of negation. When an art work objectifies repression, it becomes the progenitor of aesthetic reflection, and its non-identical movement subverts the repression. According to Adorno, objectification alters the social environment of those who come in contact with the work. More than a mere reflection of the social milieu, an art work that objectifies its origins alters the socio-historical context, offering in its “counter-image” to “the empirically living” what the “empirically living” denies.22 The non-identical generates tension between itself and its origins that endures beneath the appearance of resolution. The work becomes a limited part of the social environment, but nonetheless an object to which an individual potentially can respond. Adorno argues:

Aesthetic expression is objectification of the non-objective. Put more precisely, through its objectification expression becomes a second non-objective substance, one that speaks out of the artefact [sic] rather than out of the subject.23

The aesthetic voice emerging from the artifact anticipates a new-found autonomy in the contemplation it facilitates. Anticipation would seem the correct term here because aesthetic expression is only potentially autonomous. Negation is not cancellation, i.e., final. It denotes a dynamic impasse in a continuing struggle for dominance. Here we are speaking of two distinct autonomies: one ephemeral and terminal, and the other resulting from historical passage. The former resides in what an art work potentially offers to an individual in the counter-image it provides to a specific socio-historical context. The latter is the autonomy addressed earlier in this paper, the autonomy that results from the unresolved tensions an art work has with a specific historic moment.


The autonomy of art depends upon such an elaborate conception of historical dialectics that Adorno's writing from the perspective of the non-identical is arguably a subtle method for talking about the autonomy of art without becoming entangled in the complexities leading to it. But the method also has the tendency to presume that the origins with which an artwork is non-identical are non-problematic. Thus Adorno dismisses the question of origins in an early section of the Ästhetische Theorie entitled “Gegen Ursprunsfrage.” The dismissal might not be so problematic were it not for two points: First of all, art owes its non-identical existence to the origins which Adorno dismisses. Immediately after dismissing the question of origins, Adorno specifies that aesthetic negation and the subsequent autonomy of art are meaningless without the origins from which they emerge: “Works of art became what they are by negating their origins.”24 Secondly, Adorno keeps the question open at the margins of his discussions by pushing it into an appendix.25

When he finally does return to the question of origins in the appendix, the reasons for his discomfort quickly become evident; the excursus is a documented explication of his earlier rejection.26 The rejection of origins as a topic worthy of consideration is based upon its association with debates concerning the origin of art itself. For Adorno, the origin of art is irrelevant to the origins an art work negates, and he dismisses the question of art's origin because the question presupposes a continuity in art which, according to Adorno, is at odds with art itself. This is ostensibly why he begins with, in the excursus, the claim that the endeavor to understand the essence of art by looking to its origins is “necessarily disappointing.”27

While the distinction between the origin of art and the origins an art work negates is important to the subordination of universals to the influence of historical dialectics, Adorno also overplays the distinction. The excursus rigorously dismantles and obstructs a view of art as a continuous and unfolding concept, but does so at the expense of an adequate explanation of what constitutes the origins an art work negates. Like his structurally binding “autonomy” to socio-historical specifics, his rejection of the “Ursprungsfrage” emphasizes historical distinction or particularity over historical evolution or continuity. Adorno's views on the autonomy of art and on the origins negated by art bear the additional similarity that, in both instances, the socio-historical occupies the position of the unarticulated. But the point is that regardless of whether Adorno rejects the term “origin(s)” in its common usage, he still employs a structural conception of it whose explanation he neglects.

Although the excursus refuses to provide an adequate explanation of what is meant by the “origins” an art work negates, the methodology of the excursus lends itself to an inferential construction of the underlying structures governing Adorno's use of the term. Adorno's use of “origins” rests at the center of a dynamic tension between a radical historicization and an equally radical questioning of what comprises historicity. Like the art works whose negative basis they form, the origins to which art works owe their existence are historical.28 But while historicity joins an art work to its origins, one must also understand what constitutes the substance of history to understand origins. Unfortunately, it is not enough to say that the material and the social are the substance of the historical.

The vagueness of the term “origins” hedges between a catch-all phrase and a critical expression that calls into question the material and the social realms to which it refers. It alludes not only to socio-historical context but also questions the fixity and stability of such a concept. By saying that art negates its origins rather than its socio-historical context, and by adopting the position of art looking in retrospect on the “Other” it has left behind, Adorno concedes that art responds to social reality, but leaves open the question as to what constitutes that reality.

The scope of the origins to which art responds extends beyond the specifically “material” life men and women lead. As Peter Hohendahl has noted:

[Adorno] … used Hegel's model of history to understand the evolution of literature as representative for the development of social and political history. … While he insists on the dialectic of art and society (the art work is also a social fact), he does not, unlike Lukács, conceive of it in terms of reflection.29

Adorno's opposition to the arguments that art is a reflection of social reality stem from his assumption that consciousness is not merely a reflection of the material. The lives men and women lead respond to a social milieu comprised of ideas as well as materiality. Rather than thought mirroring the material-social environment, art actively contributes to it. The origins negated by an art work denote a socio-historical context that includes art and philosophy—not as reflection but as substance. As Hohendahl notes: “Ultimately, art and society belong to the same stream of history.”30 “Origins” denotes them both.

Once art and philosophy become part of the socio-historical context that a work of art negates, it is not difficult to understand why Adorno is so opposed to studies tracing art back to its prehistoric origins. Such studies presuppose a separate qualitative continuity in art that Adorno claims each work must negate in order to be art at all: “It must turn against that which determines its own concept and thereby becomes uncertain within its deepest fibers.”31 His combining the intellectual with the material in a single milieu subordinates abstractions and concepts—which try to stand “above” or “outside”—to the qualitative substance, i.e., the origins that a work must negate to become art. The consequences of this subordination occur at numerous levels. First of all, it radically alters the notion of “an unfolding concept,” by leaving each work of art disjointed and severed from the next. At the same time that Adorno places art amidst specific socio-historical parameters, he expands the width of these parameters by replacing reflection theory with a conception of the socio-historical as an admixture of the intellectual and the material.32 Combined, these two maneuvers suggest a revision of dialectics that distinguishes Adorno from Hegel. They make up a dynamic that pulls at its own seams: once the historical becomes an admixture of intellectual and material, the elements of history, which include the disjointed concept of art, lose their qualitative continuity.

Adorno's emphatic rejection of a qualitative continuity in the concept of art has implications for the movements of history in general. A discontinuity in concepts implies a corresponding discontinuity in history—especially within the Hegelian model where concepts are traditionally the movers of history itself. Even if the concept of art were a special case—which here it is not, despite other privileges Adorno gives to art—its being an exception among concepts would have ramifications that demand a conceptual restructuring of history. The qualitative discontinuity of the concept of art suggests that, rather than evolving, concepts expire once outside of their socio-historical context. They have a bounded, contextual vitality. This is the essence of their autonomy. Like an individual work of art, concepts in general sustain a dialectical tension which thrives within their socio-historical context, but which reifies once beyond this context.

While reification in place of a dialectical synthesis brings into question the conception of history as a unified process, it has specific consequences for aesthetics as well. Socio-historical change de-stabilizes the referents of the terms and ideals with which previous works of art formulated their non-identity. Historical passage slips these terms into the origins with which later works are qualitatively at odds. Once de-stabilized, previous aesthetic ideals or discourse lend themselves to appropriation and ultimately to the opposite of their earlier non-identical opposition, viz. repression and reification.33

With the contextual, qualitative specificity of the concept of art, an additional element vies for position within the dynamic tension of its negated origins: Adorno's radical historicization is not only offset by a rigorous questioning of what comprises history; this historicization is offset by a questioning of supersession as well. Art's non-identical origins are a socio-historical context in which the content of the social and the historical are brought into question, and in which reification prevails beneath the appearance of supersession.

The “origins” of Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie presuppose a model of history in which even the basic oppositions of Hegelian dialectics are brought into question, a model in distinct contrast to Hohendahl's Hegelian reading of Adorno and to the reading of Eugene Lunn, who defends a similar position. Lunn notes Adorno's frequent juxtaposition of “seeming opposites … so as to mediate them by developing each of the apparent antinomies out of the other in mutual critique.” This strategy is according to Lunn “a dialectic procedure which … [Adorno] owed to Hegel.”34 With origins, however, the mediation quickly extends beyond the mutual critique of antinomies. It escalates instead into a constellation of mediations: at one level, there is the socio-historical that brings its very substance into question, and the socio-historical is in dynamic tension with a rigorous inquiry into the presumptions underlying supersession, the continuity thought to gauge temporal passage. While one can single out specific elements—as, for example, the apparent antinomy that the continuity of a concept becomes a litmus test for its reification—the question of socio-historical substance is no less a mediating factor to a concept (ein Begriff, in the Hegelian sense) than is the question of its continuity. The complex mediation within “origins,” indeed, mediation in general, occurs at a level where the antinomies are never quite clear because opposites are themselves never stable enough to polarize and ossify into the Hegelian categories of thesis and antithesis.

The diverse and dynamic mediation occurring beneath Adorno's own use of the term “origins” helps to pinpoint the referent in the sentence with which he opens “Gegen Ursprungsfrage”: “Art has its concept in the historically changing constellation of moments.”35 The weight of this sentence rests on the definite article, on the specificity that it connotes. The constellation to which he refers is the “origins” that he says an art work must negate. But the concept of art is not that which is changing or evolving, at least not evolving beyond the constellation itself, within which, it continues to unfold because its dialectical tensions remain unresolved. It is the constellation of moments that changes and the constellation from which art receives its concept, each new constellation necessitating a new non-identical concept of art and of autonomy. The dialectical evolution continues within the constellation itself, but the concept has no continuity outside of the contextual origins structuring it.

While Adorno's polemic against the so-called origin of art does emphasize a discontinuity that is presupposed in the autonomous, non-identical movement of aesthetic negation, and while the description of origins as a constellation or dynamic of tensions does much to highlight the presumptions functioning beneath Adorno's own application of the term “origins,” these characterizations still describe the consequences of aesthetic negation and not really origins per se. The characterizations are part of Adorno's rhetorical stance. They still come from the perspective of art looking in retrospect on the origins or “the Other” it has negated. Aesthetic negation uncovers the discontinuity of concepts—i.e., the breakdown in sublation—and it illuminates the unresolved, thriving dialectical tensions obscured beneath the appearance of supersession. To say that art has its concept in the historically changing constellation of moments is to describe origins in their negated relation to an artwork, to describe origins after the appearance of continuity and stability has given way to an aesthetic force capable of reinscribing the constellation which appearance obscures. But it makes sense, at least according to the dictates of Adorno's argument, that the origins as Adorno presents them must already be in their negated state: if the origins were already obviously discontinuous and unresolved, an art work could not find the stable basis—however illusory that basis proves to be—against which to build its non-identical relation without positing continuity so as later to dispel it.

The origins negated by art remain unarticulated in Adorno's theories, more so than the non-identity of art itself. One might think that this is as it should be, given that the Ästhetische Theorie is after all a work on aesthetics, and given that the theory itself emphasizes the socio-historical specificity of origins, a specificity articulation might dilute. Yet for all its non-identity, art presupposes a corresponding specificity as well, the structure and not merely the details of which Adorno neglects by addressing the consequences of negation instead of clarifying his own use of the term “origins.” As a result, both the non-identity of art and its negated origins remain cryptic and formulaic. Crucial structural aspects of the dynamics between art and society persist in the form of mostly unexplored terms—e.g., “non-identity,” “what it is not,” “the Other” and above all “origins”—although their exploration would foster a clarity rather than dilution. In part, this lacuna results from and is even obscured by Adorno's having selected the concept of art to illustrate the discontinuity of concepts in general, the discontinuity that aesthetic negation exposes. This unexplored territory results, in part, from Adorno's mesmerizing account of the consequences of negation—an account that is in itself suspect because, by articulating the consequences of negation rather than the structural conditions leading to it, the account comes dangerously close to the formulation of immutable criteria which artifacts must meet in order to be art. At the very least, the account of the consequences of negation cultivates registers with which a critic/reader can search for that which appears to correspond to preconceived results. It borders on begging the question. While these last possibilities are at odds with more dominant tendencies in Adorno's text, their emergence in the theory's central dynamic raises questions that cannot be ignored. For the present suffice it to say that, though the terms may remain unexplored, their function is to provide the means with which to discuss the aesthetic exposure of the heterogeneity which society obscures.


Rainer Nägele argues that “if Hegel's dialectic is the attempt to master the heterogeneous in philosophical concepts, negative dialectics is the attempt to reinscribe the heterogeneous as heterogeneous also in thought.”36 In Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie, art's non-identity is this reinscription. This means that the non-identity of art, because it re-inscribes heterogeneity, presupposes the homogeneity, i.e., a continuity in concepts, which negation dispels. More than a mere reversal of Hegel, reinscribing the heterogeneous articulates a crisis in the basic mechanics of Hegelian dialectics. Without continuity in concepts, sublation comes to a standstill—in this respect there is a brilliance in Adorno's having focused on the discontinuity or disunity of the concept of art.37 Art's own heterogeneity gives it the conceptual basis from which to question and negate the appearance of continuity in concepts; its heterogeneity is its non-identity with its origins; and it is at the avant-garde of the heterogeneity it uncovers.

Adorno's rejection of theories on “the origin of art” and this rejection's connection with his reworking of historical dialectics are but two aspects within a larger critical constellation. While the discontinuity of art suggests that sublation forces or creates the illusion of unity “where none in fact exist[s],” Adorno's rejection of continuity also initiates a reworking of the idea of reification—which here signifies the glossing over or repression of heterogeneities beneath the appearance of unity.38 The appearance of a resolution (Aufhebung) that leads from one historical constellation into another robs art of the dialectical vitality it has within its specific socio-historical context.

In contrast to the continuity of origins implied by supersession, Adorno posits layers of constellations whose essential tensions have not resolved, but are buried beneath a reified rhetorically imposed supersession which accompanies temporal passage. This same lack of resolution is, for example, what allows Adorno to make the claim with which he opens Negative Dialektik: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”39 Philosophy is not a floating potential waiting for realization—its moment has passed. It is rather the premier example of unresolved tension surviving within its specific moment or constellation and providing a point of focus from which to scrutinize fabricated resolution. In the unity and stability presupposed by the origins art negates, Adorno finds a false and reified history—just as the question of the origin of art is a false question based upon a reified concept of art. While origins presuppose historical continuity, negation reinscribes historical heterogeneity. Art's negation of its origins is two-fold: it uncovers unresolved dialectical tensions that the apparent unity within origins obscures; and its non-identity with these origins generates a dialectical tension that also knows no resolution.

In Negative Dialektik Adorno argues that unity was fraudulently posited at the expense of plurality, and that whatever the initial source of this fraudulence might have been, the end result was that as “unity” gained in prominence, it also gained the power to repress those resisting it.40 He argues:

The universal by which every individual is determined at all, as one of his particular kind, that universal is borrowed from what is extraneous and therefore as heteronomous to the individual as anything once said to have been ordained for him by demons.41

Adorno's resort to the image of demons in his description is not gratuitous. The image forms a negative or contrast to the Hegelian Spirit, specifically a contrast to the continuity so central to the movements of Hegelian dialectics: a contrast between the singularity of an all-superseding and unifying Spirit and the diverse plurality of demons reinscribing heterogeneity. The image of demons admonishes against concepts of unity because these concepts erase the history they purport to trace. Art negates these posited origins with the reinscription of particularity, the cornerstone of heterogeneity. The contrast in imagery extends even into the structural morphology of Adorno's descriptions: while “origins” retroproject an evolution through sublation, art recalls “an objectivity removed [enthoben] from categorical frameworks.”42 The contrast between the subsuming supersession of Spirit and the heterogeneous reinscriptions of demons resides in the distinction between an auf- and ent- (ge)hobene Objektivität. The polarities of demons and Spirit, the Enthobene and the Aufgehobene, are the opposing elements in art's non-identity with its origins. The reinscription of heterogeneity is the recovery of the Enthobene vis-à-vis the overwhelming appearance of the Aufgehobene.

Yet despite the forcefulness of this contrast, it still remains within descriptions of consequences at the expense of an explanation of the structural conditions leading to it. By articulating the discussion from the perspective of art looking in retrospect on the origins or “the Other” it has negated, Adorno posits his (art's) oppositions rather than allowing art to formulate them on its own. In this case, the necessary opposite is Hegel whose dialectics foster the appearances with which art is non-identical, but which persist in each instance of art's non-identity to them. Inasmuch as art persists in the lack of resolution of its dialectical tensions, so too do the counter-elements of these tensions. Though Adorno attempts to circumvent Hegel by arguing that art recalls a reality before the Hegelian system, eine dem kategorialen Gefüge enthobene Objektivität, his having built aesthetic negation in opposition to Hegel reflects Adorno's own irresolute and unresolved tension with his origins.


  1. For a brief definition of the term “materialist,” I would recommend Lambert Zuidervaart's discussion of Marxist aesthetics in his recent book Adorno's Aesthetic Theory (MIT Press, 1991)—in particular, his statement: “Marx's historical materialism implies that conflicts within art must be examined in terms of conflicts within the technological and economic base” (p. 69). For the whole of Zuidervaart's argument see pages 68-77. This section substantially revises arguments first formulated in his “The Social Significance of Autonomous Art: Adorno and Bürger,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48 (1990): 61-77. Insofar as the term “materialist” is associated with the disappointment that marked the reception of the Ästhetische Theorie, it is worth tracing the term back to Marx's “Thesen über Feuerbach,” in which “materialism” is “sinnlich menschliche Tätigkeit” and in which “materialism” is concerned with changing the world. See Marx-Engels Werke, vol. 3 (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1956), pp. 5-7. For a more thorough discussion of the Left's disappointment with Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie see Peter Uwe Hohendahl, Reappraisals (Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 1-21 and especially pp. 75-98. The latter section is a reprint of his “Looking Back at Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie,German Quarterly 54 (1981): 133-148.

  2. Hohendahl maintains that with the formation of the Brandt government “radical [political] reform seemed to be possible” (Reappraisals p. 9), and the Left abandoned what they interpreted as Adorno's pessimistic aesthetics of hibernation—what Peter Bürger describes as Adorno's succumbing to the historical bourgeois separation of art from the context of practical life. See Theorie der Avant-Garde (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), p. 63; trans. Michael Shaw (University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 46. Bürger maintains this same position in his more recent article “Adorno's Anti-Avant-Gardism,” Telos 86 (1990-91): 49-60.

  3. Adorno's revision of dialectics preceded Ästhetische Theorie, having already occurred in Negative Dialektik, where, as Martin Jay has pointed out, drawing upon the ideas of Benjamin, Adorno replaced the Hegelian conception of synthesis with that of the constellation of ideas. See Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973), pp. 158-168; trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), pp. 156-166. For Martin Jay's account see Marxism and Totality (University of California Press, 1984), pp. 241-275, especially pp. 246-252. These revisions and their relation to Adorno's aesthetics will be discussed later in this work.

  4. Bürger, Theorie, Suhrkamp, p. 63; University of Minnesota, p. 46.

  5. For further discussion of this last issue see Jochen Schulte-Sasse, “Theory of Modernism versus Theory of the Avant-Garde,” Foreword, Theory of the Avant-Garde, pp. xviii; see also Elizabeth Wright, Postmodern Brecht (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 68-89. For a specific discussion of the effect of Adorno's negativism on his reception see “Introduction to Adorno,” Telos 7 (1974): 2-3.

  6. The most recent assessment of this unique form of dialectics can be found in Fredric Jameson's discussion of Adorno's aversion to positivism: see Late Marxism (New York: Verso, 1990), pp. 89-90.

  7. For an analysis of the aesthetics of Kant and Adorno see Lambert Zuidervaart, “The Artefactuality of Autonomous Art: Kant and Adorno,” The Reasons of Art, ed. Peter McCormick (University of Ottawa Press, 1986), pp. 256-263.

  8. “Kunstwerke sind Nachbilder des empirisch Lebendigen, soweit sie diesem zukommen lassen, was ihnen drauβen verweigert wird, und dadurch vom dem befreien, wozu ihre dinghaft-auswendige Erfahrung sie zurichtet.” [translation corrected] Theodor Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973), p. 14; trans. C. Lenhardt (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 4.

  9. “soll dem Nichtidentischen beistehen, das der Identitätszwang in der Realität unterdrückt.” [translation corrected] Adorno AT Suhrkamp, p. 14; Routledge, p. 6.

  10. “altern, erkalten und sterben” [translation corrected] Adorno AT Suhrkamp, p. 14; Routledge, p. 6.

  11. “Was einmal in einem Kunstwerk wahr gewesen ist … [ward] durch den Gang der Geschichte demontiert.” [translation corrected] Adorno AT Suhrkamp, pp. 67-68; Routledge, p. 60.

  12. The controversy regarding Adorno's seemingly contradictory application of the term “reification,” a controversy pursued by Gillian Rose and picked up by Martin Jay, is explained by Adorno's argument on the inadequacy of synthesis as a means of accounting for historical passage. As later discussion will show, Adorno replaces sublation with the idea of constellations. While “constellations” maintain the dimension of the socio-historical, they avoid the illusion of resolution that Adorno argues is inherent to the notion of sublation. It is this illusory resolution that Adorno combats and that constitutes what he deems as reification. See Gillian Rose, The Melancholy Science (London: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 40-47 and Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality, pp. 266-272.

  13. “Gerade als Artefakte aber. Produkte gesellschaftlicher Arbeit kommunizieren sie auch mit der Empirie, der sie absagen, und aus ihr ziehen sie ihren Inhalt.” [translation corrected] Adorno AT Suhrkamp, p. 15; Routledge, pp. 6-7.

  14. Bruce Baugh uses this lack of comprehensiveness for a convincing revision of Adorno's aesthetics. Baugh argues that an artwork's non-identity is addressed to specific groups and is much more contextualized than Adorno allows. See “Left-Wing Elitism: Adorno on Popular Culture” Philosophy and Literature 14 (1990): 65-78.

  15. The term “Bewegungsgesetz” will be explored in the sections that follow.

  16. Hohendahl Reappraisals, p. 80.

  17. “Deutbar ist Kunst nur an ihrem Bewegungsgesetz, nicht durch Invarianten. Sie bestimmt sich im Verhältnis zu dem, was sie nicht ist. Das spezifisch Kunsthafte an ihr ist aus ihrem Anderen: inhaltlich abzuleiten; das allein genügte irgend der Forderung einer materialistisch-dialektischen Ästhetik. Sie spezifiziert sich an dem, wodurch sie von dem sich scheidet, woraus sie wurde.” Adorno AT Suhrkamp, p. 12; Routledge, p. 4.

  18. Adorno AT Suhrkamp, p. 15; Routledge, pp. 6-7.

  19. “In der Lust am Verdrängten rezipiert Kunst zugleich das Unheil, das verdrängende Prinzip, anstatt bloβ vergeblich dagegen zu protestieren. Daβ sie das Unheil durch Identifikation ausspricht, antezipiert seine Entmächtigung; das, weder die Photographie des Unheils noch falsche Seligkeit, umschreibt die Stellung authentischer gegenwärtiger Kunst zur verfinsterten Objektivität.” Adorno AT Suhrkamp, pp. 35-36; Routledge, pp. 27-28.

  20. In his recent article “Karl Popper and the Frankfurt School,” Robert D'Amico observes the emergence of similar arguments in Horkheimer's late writings. D'Amico maintains that for Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School, moral commitments and theoretical agendas “followed different logics of analysis” (p. 41). See Telos 86 (1990-91): 33-48.

  21. “Willkür im Unwillkürlichen ist das Lebenselement der Kunst.” Adorno AT Suhrkamp, p. 174; Routledge, p. 167.

  22. Ibid., p. 14; Ibid., p. 4.

  23. “Ästhetischer Ausdruck ist Vergegenständlichung des Ungegenständlichen, und zwar derart, daβ es durch seine Vergegenständlichung zum zweiten Ungegenständlichen wird, zu dem, was aus dem Artefakt spricht, nicht als Imitation des Subjekts.” Ibid., p. 170; Ibid., p. 163. (A small note on the translation is in order because in the original it is not the expression that becomes “a second non-objective substance,” but the objectified “non-objective.” The “artefact” is the aesthetic expression, and it consists of more than the objectification of the non-objective. Otherwise negation would not occur, and the “artefact” would remain an “imitation of the subject.” That the objectified non-objective becomes a “second non-objective” acknowledges its role in the dynamic or dialectic of aesthetic negation.)

  24. “Fraglos … sind die Kunstwerken nur, indem sie ihren Ursprung negierten, zu Kunstwerke zu werden.” Ibid., p. 12; Ibid., p. 4.

  25. The placement of these arguments in an appendix may be the consequence of editorial decisions made after Adorno's death. But this is not explicit in the afterword to the Ästhetische Theorie written by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Indeed, the editors mention the paralipomena (appendix I) that Adorno wished to incorporate into the final draft of the text and the introduction (appendix III) that Adorno had planned to revise. No mention is made of the excursus “Theorien über den Ursprung der Kunst,” the only appendix to which Adorno gave a separate title and which he called an “Exkurs,” i.e., a digression from the main issues of his concern.

  26. Ibid., p. 480-490; Ibid., p. 447-455.

  27. “Enttäuschen notwendig.” Ibid., p. 480; Ibid., p. 447.

  28. Ibid., p. 480; Ibid., p. 447.

  29. Hohendahl Reappraisals, p. 82.

  30. Ibid.

  31. “Sie muβ gegen das sich wenden, was ihren eigenen Begriff ausmacht, und wird dadurch ungewiβ bis in die innerste Fiber hinein.” [translation corrected] Adorno AT Suhrkamp, p. 10; Routledge 2.

  32. While Hohendahl is correct in distinguishing Adorno from this position, his associating Lukács with it is somewhat sweeping and obscures the diversity of positions Lukács defended during his life.

  33. In a recent essay entitled “Adorno and the Metaphysics of Modernism: The Problem of a ‘Postmodern’ Art,” Peter Osborne has pointed out that this de-stabilization is not a phenomena unique to works of art. He argues that aesthetics itself experiences this crisis and that the attempts to circumvent the exhaustion of aesthetics is at the center of Adorno's project. He writes:

    If art had reached a point at which it must ‘revolt against its essential concepts’ in order to survive, it none the less remains inconceivable without them. All modern art, according to Adorno, is inscribed within the terms of the contradiction. Under such conditions, aesthetics can have only one goal: ‘to foster the rational and concrete dissolution of conventional aesthetic categories’ in such a way as to ‘release new truth content into these categories’ by confronting them with the most recent forms of artistic experience

    (p. 24).

    See The Problems of Modernity, ed. Andrew Benjamin (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 23-48.

  34. Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism (University of California Press, 1982), p. 230.

  35. “Kunst hat ihren Begriff in der geschichtlich sich verändernden Konstellation von Momenten.” [translation corrected] Adorno AT Suhrkamp, p. 11; Routledge, p. 3.

  36. Rainer Nägele, “The Scene of the Other: Theodor W. Adorno's Negative Dialectic in the Context of Poststructuralism,” Boundary 2 11 (1982-83), p. 68.

  37. In Marxism and Totality, Martin Jay attributes Adorno's questioning of sublation to the influence of Benjamin, for whom also “dialectical mediation with its goal of Aufhebung (sublation) too quickly forced a unity where none in fact existed.” Jay argues that Adorno drew heavily on Benjamin's Der Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels in this instance and with regard to “constellations” as well. See Marxism and Totality, p. 248.

  38. Martin Jay, Adorno (Harvard University Press), p. 248.

  39. “Philosophie, die einmal überholt scheint, erhält sich am Leben, weil der Augenblick ihrer Verwirklichung versäumt ward.” Theodor W. Adorno ND Suhrkamp, p. 15; Continuum, p. 3.

  40. Ibid., p. 309; Ibid., p. 315.

  41. “Das Allegemeine, durch welches jeder Einzelnen sich überhaupt als Einheit seiner Besonderung bestimmt, ist dem ihm Auswendigen entlehnt und darum dem Einzelnen auch so heteronom, wie nur, was einst Dämonen über ihn sollten verhängt haben.” Ibid., p. 310; Ibid., p. 315.

  42. “eine dem kategorialen Gefüge enthobene Objektivität.” [translation corrected] Adorno AT Suhrkamp, p. 488; Routledge, p. 453.

Richard Wolin (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7641

SOURCE: “Mimesis, Utopia, and Reconciliation: A Redemptive Critique of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory,” in The Terms of Cultural Criticism: The Frankfurt School, Existentialism, Poststructuralism, Columbia University Press, pp. 62-79.

[In the following essay, Wolin examines the utopian elements of Adorno's aesthetics.]

In 1980, Leo Lowenthal formulated a set of prescient insights about the future of Critical Theory in an interview entitled “The Utopian Motif is Suspended.”1 By “utopian motif,” Lowenthal was referring to the eschatological hopes for a better life in the here and now that inspired not only the enterprise of Critical Theory, but an entire generation of Central European Jewish thinkers who, like himself, came of age around the time of World War I and drew on utopian aspects of the Jewish tradition as a source of messianic inspiration.2 Among this generation, a decisive influence on the “inner circle” of Critical Theorists was exercised by the thought of Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, and Walter Benjamin.3

Prima facie, the claim epitomized in the title of the Lowenthal interview cannot help but seem a startling admission. For if we try to imagine the work of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse stripped of this dimension of utopian longing, it seems divested of its most fundamental impulses. Moreover, Lowenthal's contention seems a striking concession in the direction of Jürgen Habermas, who has made a point of trying to integrate Critical Theory with contemporary developments in social science and philosophy of language at the expense of its speculative-utopian tendencies. “Maybe [Habermas] is right,” Lowenthal observes. “Perhaps [the speculative-utopian moment] is ballast. When I speak of such things, I feel a bit old and obsolete. After all, one cannot just live from utopian hopes based in never-never land, whose realization seems scarcely in the realm of the possible. Maybe this is a cause of the sadness I spoke of at the outset. But perhaps the theoretical realism I sense in Habermas is the only means of salvaging the motifs present in Critical Theory and thereby of protecting them from a complete disintegration into an empty, melancholy pessimism.”4

Of course, Lowenthal's comments must in no way be construed as an abandonment of the critical intellectual legacy he helped found. Instead, in keeping with the nobler aspects of the dialectical tradition, they represent a constructive modification of what seem to be, from the vantage point of the current historical hour, extraneous preoccupations. As Lowenthal explains, Critical Theory's own revolutionary ardor was decisively cooled in the aftermath of the twin catastrophes of Nazism and Stalinism. For him, however, the loss of concrete utopian prospects in fact signifies the need for a redoubling of original critical energies. “It would be criminal to bury ideology critique now,” Lowenthal remarks. “What has not been lost is, of course, the critical approach: the process of analysis, retaining the good and rejecting the bad, the need to accuse, the indictment of all that exists, … but without explicit hopes. What has occurred is not a retreat into skepticism or cynicism but sadness. The utopian motif has been suspended.”

Lowenthal's sober appraisal of the utopian side of Critical Theory represents a valuable point of departure for examining Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. For it is in Aesthetic Theory that we find Adorno at his most utopian. In the later Adorno, philosophy is assigned the “negative” role of ruthlessly criticizing itself in order, against all odds, to undo its manifold past failings. This is the message of Negative Dialectics, a work which, in eminently quixotic fashion, fights against the domination of the concept through the use of concepts. Only as aesthetics does philosophy for the first time truly come into its own. It thus relinquishes its traditional position of privilege as prima philosophia and instead becomes a handmaiden to the arts as their faithful interpreter. Its new mission is to give voice to the speechless particularity of aesthetic objectivations, which, as “art,” are nonconceptual, and thus devoid of the capacity for theoretical expression. It is precisely at this intersection of art and philosophy, that the utopian dimension of Adorno's work manifests itself. For this intersection is also the locus of aesthetic theory.

The stakes in this debate over the continued relevance of the utopian dimension of Critical Theory are high: an answer to this question will go far toward determining one's receptivity to the “linguistic turn” in Critical Theory spurred by the work of Habermas. To be sure, Habermas' oeuvre is far from devoid of utopian potential: the theory of communicative competence sets forth an ideal speech situation in which generalized and unconstrained participation in decisionmaking becomes the counterfactual normative touchstone. Yet, unlike his predecessors, Habermas is someone who is fully at home with the ethical presuppositions of the modern world. He is for the most part interested in bringing these preconditions to consummation; or, as he once phrased it, the project of the modern age must be brought to completion. It is in this spirit that he has felicitously characterized the political implications of his theories as a “radical reformism.” Absent from his perspective is the “romantic anti-capitalist” impulse that pervaded the worldview of the first generation of Frankfurt theorists. It was precisely this impulse that impelled their program of a “ruthless critique of everything existing” (Marx), which took the form of an unmitigated existential antipathy toward capitalist modernity as a whole. In eminently dialectical fashion, it was precisely this existential antipathy that spurred the profound utopian longings of Adorno, Horkheimer, Lowenthal, Marcuse, etc.

While Habermas has not hesitated to criticize vigorously the various “social pathologies” engendered by late capitalism, the sentiment of anticapitalist, “existential antipathy” is fundamentally foreign to his way of thinking. Correspondingly, he has often attacked the romantic anticapitalist utopianism of Critical Theory as one of its weakest aspects. The Critical Theorists' rejection of the notion of “immanent critique” is seen as essentially Nietzschean: they accept Nietzsche's Zeitdiagnose of bourgeois modernity by concurring with him that its cultural ideals are wholly bankrupt; and this conclusion forces them, like Nietzsche, to abandon the concept of immanent critique for that of “total critique.” In both cases, the equation of modernity with a prosaic logic of “rationalization” (“instrumental reason”), where the unexalted mentality of the Weberian “Fachmensch” reigns triumphant, leads to a search for aestheticist alternatives. For Habermas, conversely, the ideals of bourgeois modernity (embodied in the differentiated spheres of science, morality, and art) remain serviceable as a basis for the immanent criticism of its various “social pathologies.” The authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment have abandoned too much by succumbing to Nietzsche's heady, totalizing critique of the bourgeois world—for example, the potentials for communicative reason embodied in modern bourgeois law and morality.

We may summarize Habermas' objections by saying that as a result of a totalistic and undialectical understanding of the significance of modernity, Horkheimer and Adorno remained incapable of comprehending future sources of social change: from a “totally administered world” no good can conceivably emerge. And in consequence of this diagnostic incapacity, emancipatory prognoses of necessity took on an unrealistic, utopian hue. Unable to locate progressive emancipatory tendencies in the concrete historical present, the Critical Theorists were constrained to identify ersatz repositories of negation deriving from the aesthetic sphere. But in the last analysis, art was unable to bear the heavy burden accorded it in their framework. Instead, one is left with the conceptual aporia of a “totally administered world” side by side with historically unrealizable utopian projections. Both Lowenthal's observations and Habermas' critique, therefore, cast serious doubt on the utopian aspirations of Adorno's aesthetics.

One cannot help but be struck by the indebtedness of Adorno's aesthetic theory to insights first expressed by Max Weber in the famous “Zwischenbetrachtung” to his great work on the Sociology of World Religions.5 Certainly, Adorno the musicologist learned much from Weber's essay on the Rational and Social Foundations of Music. The fundamental concept of that work—the “rationalization” of musical techniques in the modern West—plays a major role in Adorno's analysis of aesthetic modernity tout court. As Adorno emphasizes repeatedly, the imperatives of aesthetic modernity dictate that only those works of art which rely on the most advanced techniques historically available become worthy of serious consideration. In this context, he approvingly quotes Rimbaud's dictum, “Il faut être absolument moderne.”

But it is Weber the theorist of the “Aesthetic Sphere” in modern life who establishes the parameters for Adorno's theory of aesthetic modernism. Following Kant's discussion of art in the third Critique as “purposiveness without purpose,” Weber points out that in traditional or premodern art, art's inner logic remained stultified, insofar as form was always subordinated to content: the independent development of artistic technique was perennially subservient to the ends of salvation. In fact, these two aspects, form and content, stood in grave conflict, since aesthetic means inherently threatened to outstrip the demands of the religious message per se. (The annals of art history are replete with such tensions. For the sake of illustration, I mention three: Augustine's concern about the enticement to pleasure for pleasure's sake in musical liturgy; Tarkovsky's conflicted icon painter in Andrei Rublov; and the threat posed to the worldview of the Church by the “new realism” of Renaissance painting.)

All this changes, according to Weber, with the differentiation of the spheres of science, morality, and art that follows from the thoroughgoing rationalization of life in the modern age. For the first time, art (and the same claims can also be made for the spheres of morality and science) need no longer legitimate itself in terms of a logically prior, all-encompassing worldview. Instead, it is free to develop its own intrinsic formal potentialities to an unprecedented extent. The result, for Weber, is the creation of the “Aesthetic Sphere” in the modern sense, a historically unique network of artists and persons of taste, whose interactions are mediated by a new series of public institutions: theaters, galleries, feuilletons, critics, public libraries, museums, and so forth. Weber encapsulates this development—with characteristic pith and discernment—as follows: “[Under] the development of intellectualism and the rationalization of life … art becomes a cosmos of more and more consciously grasped independent values, which exist in their own right. Art takes over the function of this-worldly salvation, no matter how this may be interpreted. It provides salvation from the routines of everyday life, and especially form the pressures of theoretical and practical rationalism.”6

I think there could be no better lead-in to the basic intentions of Adorno's aesthetic theory than the remarks of Weber just cited; above all, his characterization of aesthetic modernism as a type of inner-worldly salvation. To be sure, Adorno, following the lead of Walter Benjamin, is primarily concerned with de-auraticized (or postauratic) art; that is, with forms of modernism that have relinquished the immediacy of the Stendhalian promesse de bonheur, the “beautiful illusion” that happiness might be attainable in the here and now. Nevertheless, Weber attributes a special redemptory function to art in the modern world, which, for men and women of culture, surpasses religion to become a unique locus of ultimate meaning and value in life.

Art performs an analogous redemptory function in Adorno's aesthetics. For him, too, art represents a form of salvation vis-à-vis the pressures of “theoretical and practical rationalism” that predominate in daily life. Moreover, in Adorno's aesthetics, art becomes a vehicle of salvation in an even stronger sense. It takes on a compelling utopian function as a prefiguration of reconciled life. If Adorno stands Hegel on his head by claiming that “the whole is the untrue,” it is art alone that offers the prospect of reversing this condition, of redirecting a lacerated social totality along the path of reconciliation (Versöhnung).

It is important to recognize that Aesthetic Theory, Adorno's magnum opus, fulfills an important systematic function in his oeuvre as a whole, addressing a concern originally posed jointly with Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment.7 There, social evolution is comprehended, in a manner reminiscent of both Nietzsche and Freud, in terms of the progressive mastery of unsublimated impulse. The latter must be perpetually subordinated to the “organizational imperatives” of civilization. Individuation thus means domination: increasing control of human drives on the part of the superego, the internalized agent of social authority. Ultimately, this dual process of self-renunciation and the extirpation of “otherness”—of those spheres of life that remain nonidentical with the subject qua res cogitans—leads to the horror of Auschwitz: the Jew, with his pre-Christian rites and physiognomy, represents the ultimate incarnation of otherness at the heart of European modernity. So pervasive is this dilemma that conceptualization itself—the very process of making the nonidentical intellectually comprehensible to the subject—is fully implicated in this world-historical march of unreason. As Horkheimer and Adorno observe, “The universality of ideas, as developed by discursive logic, domination in the conceptual sphere, is raised up on the actual basis of domination. The dissolution of the old magical heritage, of the old diffuse ideas, by conceptual unity, expresses the hierarchical constitution of life by those who are free. The individuality that learned order and subordination in the subjection of the world, soon wholly equated truth with the regulative thought without whose fixed distinctions truth cannot exist.” And further: “Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator behaves toward men. He knows them insofar as he can manipulate them.”8Dialectic of Enlightenment may thus be read as a type of cautionary tale concerning the fate of civilization once it has succumbed to the identitarian spell of formal logic.

In the context at hand, it is not so much the accuracy of the Zeitdiagnose set forth by Horkheimer and Adorno that concerns us, as the fact that an analogous preoccupation with “domination in the conceptual sphere” pervades Adorno's epistemological musings some years later in Negative Dialectics. To be sure, the historico-philosophical framework of the latter work is very much of a piece with Dialectic of Enlightenment. As Adorno remarks at one point: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one that leads from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.”9 But of greater relevance for our purposes is the fact that the theme of the “domination of the concept” occupies pride of place in the work, which may thus be understood as an elaborate meditation on a specific epistemological problem that had been inherited from the philosophy of history of the 1940s. For Adorno, “the original sin of all philosophy is that it tries to grasp the non-conceptual through conceptual means.” It is the tacit alliance between society and ratiocination, which manifests itself in their mutual hostility to the nonidentical, that Adorno seeks to undo via negative dialectics—which, paradoxically, “strives by way of the concept, to transcend the concept.”10 Adorno has drunk deeply from Nietzschean waters: his critique of conceptualization derives from the latter's characterization of philosophy as a manifestation of the “will to power.”

Adorno offers a succinct rendering of his philosophical program—an intransigent defense of nonidentity—in the following statement: “To change [the] direction of conceptualization, to give it a turn toward the non-identical, is the linchpin of negative dialectics. Insight into the constitutive character of the nonconceptual in the concept would end the compulsive identification which the concept brings unless halted by such reflection. Reflection on its own meaning is the way out of the concept's seeming being-in-itself as a unit of meaning. … Disenchantment of the concept is the antidote of philosophy. It keeps it from growing rampant and becoming an absolute unto itself.”11

A prior account of Adorno's stance on the philosophy of history and theory of knowledge is crucial for an informed appreciation of the stakes of his Aesthetic Theory, which is the direct philosophical heir of these earlier works. More importantly, in Aesthetic Theory, Adorno explicitly attempts to posit “solutions” to the dilemmas of abstract conceptualization—“domination in the conceptual sphere”—targeted in his previous work. And these solutions are integrally related to the redemptory or utopian function he assigns to works of art as ciphers of reconciled life.

Adorno fully accepts the Hegelian turn in aesthetics whereby art is deemed a serious vehicle of knowledge and truth. Thus, for Adorno, like Hegel, art remains an embodiment of Spirit; however, in opposition to Hegel, art is no longer deemed a subaltern manifestation of the latter insofar as it represents the Idea merely in the realm of sensuous appearance. Instead, he in effect reverses the terms on his idealist predecessor. The truth claims of the aesthetic sphere are potentially superior to those of philosophical truth precisely because of their greater affinities with the realm of sensuous appearance.

Philosophical truth is by definition disembodied. Whereas for Hegel, this high degree of “spiritualization” accounted for its distinct superiority vis-à-vis, for example, the pictorial representation of the absolute in religious lore, for Adorno, the reverse is true: the sensuous nature of works of art means that they display a greater affinity with objectivity as such. In his eyes, therefore, philosophical thought, which seeks to represent the nature of things by use of abstract concepts, operates at a more distant remove from the reality it seeks to grasp.

The greater concretion of works of art, their inherent affinities with the realm of “sensuous externality,” is not, however, an unequivocal gain. Instead, the increase in material concretion simultaneously signifies a diminution in intelligibility. For unlike philosophy, the language of art is sensuous. Its mode of articulation relies on images, sounds, and colors rather than the clarity of discursive argument. Consequently, as vehicles of truth, works of art are inherently enigmatic, rätselhaft. And it is precisely this enigmatic quality that beseeches, implores, and requires the philosophical interpretation of art. This dynamic alone mandates the necessity of aesthetic theory.

Similarly, it is only in light of the epistemological problematic inherited from Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics that one of Adorno's more controversial theoretical strategies in Aesthetic Theory becomes comprehensible: a rehabilitation of the category of natural beauty. Here, too, a comparison with Hegelian aesthetics is instructive. For Hegel, natural beauty was indisputably inferior to the humanmade variety, insofar as nature is inherently de-spiritualized. At best, it represents spirit in the mode of “otherness.” There is no mistaking the fact that Aesthetic Theory is in the main a theory of aesthetic modernism. But this fact only makes the elaborate justification of natural beauty contained therein all the more surprising. To be sure, if various artistic movements throughout history have emphasized “naturalism” as a paramount criterion of aesthetic value, such a mind-set is completely foreign to the sensibility of modernism, for which all residues of naturalist sentiment must be ruthlessly expulsed (otherwise one ceases to be “absolument moderne”). Adorno's concerted efforts to rehabilitate this category from the legacy of pre-Hegelian aesthetics can only be understood in light of the ulterior epistemological agenda of his aesthetics.

Thus, just as Adorno criticizes the pan-logism of Hegelian metaphysics for its perpetual willingness to sacrifice the nonidentical to the imperatives of systematic unity, he similarly attempts to overturn Hegel's dismissal of natural beauty as part and parcel of a process of “spiritualization” (Vergeistigung) that must be combated. “Spiritualization” bespeaks an imperious anthropocentrism, in which all that is alien to and other than the subject must be rendered equivalent to the latter at the expense of its own intrinsic contents. Consequently, in the framework of Adorno's nonidentitarian theory of knowledge—a theory that takes issue with the main epistemological desideratum of German idealism: the identity of subject and object—the category of natural beauty is endowed with immense metaphorical significance: it represents the irreducible Other, a pristine condition beyond the reach of subjective self-assertion that is for this reason to be cherished and emulated. Adorno expresses this view forcefully when he opines, “The beautiful in nature is the residue of non-identity in things in an age in which they are spellbound by universal identity.” As a “residue of non-identity,” natural beauty is at the same time a utopian cipher of “reconciliation”: utopia would be a state of “reconciliation,” i.e., a condition in which the nonidentical could freely articulate itself, rather than function—as is the case at present—solely under the aegis of the concept. “The beautiful in nature,” observes Adorno, “is different from both the notion of a ruling principle and the denial of any principle whatsoever. It is like a state of reconciliation.”12

It is the conceptual triad nonidentity-reconciliation-utopia that assumes central significance in Aesthetic Theory; though for Adorno, unlike Hegel, in the Aufhebung of reconciliation, nonidentity is not effaced but first truly comes into its own. For Hegel, it is the very existence of nonidentity that accounts for an antagonistic (or unreconciled) state; and this condition must be overcome via the moment of synthesis. Conversely, for Adorno, it is the suppression of nonidentity by its other, the concept, that is the root of all injustice in the theoretical sphere; thus, reconciliation signifies the elimination of the identitarian urge, rather than, as with Hegel, its consummation.

But on the whole, the utopian potential of natural beauty is of minor moment in Aesthetic Theory in comparison to that of works of art—and especially modern works. Works of art are utopian constructs of necessity, according to Adorno. Social life exists in an unredeemed, “fallen” state. Its elements are subject to the rule of heteronomous and alien principles such as the law of universal equivalence characteristic of a commodity economy. Amid the omnipresent degradation of the phenomenal world, works of art possess a unique saving power: they incorporate these phenomena within the context of a freely articulated, noncoercive totality, thereby redeeming them from their deficient everyday state. According to Adorno, in a capitalist society dominated by considerations of utility, phenomena are allowed to subsist only in an inferior state of universal Being-for-Other, which militates against the prospects of authentic Being-for-Self. In a flash, works of art dramatically reverse this state of affairs: “Whereas in the real world all particulars are fungible, art protests against fungibility by holding up images of what reality might be like if it were emancipated from the patterns of identification that are imposed on it.”13 Works of art for the first time allow the Being-in-Itself of things to emerge by virtue of the redeeming capacities of aesthetic form: “The utopia anticipated by artistic form is the idea that things at long last ought to come into their own. Another way of putting this is to call for the abolition of the spell of selfhood hitherto promoted by the subject.”14

For Adorno, art is intrinsically utopian by virtue of the nonutilitarian principle of construction that is peculiar to it. Art emancipates by virtue of its formal principle, which is that of “free articulation” rather than “instrumental reason.” And this emancipatory aesthetic practice is actually enhanced in the case of modern works of art, in which the principle of montage becomes predominant, such that the individual parts attain independence, and are thereby no longer mechanically subjugated to the whole. Art redeems the material elements of everyday life by absorbing them within the liberating contours of an aesthetic constellation. This inherently emancipatory effect of aesthetic form contrasts starkly with the coercive nature of contemporary social organization. According to Adorno, at the present stage of historical development, aesthetic form signifies a unique refuge in which things are temporarily freed of the constraints of Being-for-Other and their Being-for-Self is allowed to flourish. In this way alone can one break the “spell” of the subject as well as the principle of social organization that follows therefrom—instrumental reason.

In the discussion of the utopian function of art in Aesthetic Theory, Adorno comes close to violating the Judeo-Marxian Bilderverbot (the taboo against graven images), insofar as utopia is well-nigh concretely depicted. He explicitly recommends aesthetic form as a positive alternative to the reigning principle of social organization. His aestheticist solution to the dominant pressures of “theoretical and practical rationalism” is wholly consistent with Weber's discussion of the aesthetic sphere. In this respect, Adorno's approach is at one with a tradition beginning with romanticism and continuing through l'art pour l'art, whereby the nonutilitarian logic of the aesthetic realm is viewed as the only alternative to an increasingly rationalized and prosaic bourgeois social order. In accord with both the romantics as well as the proponents of art for art's sake, Adorno seeks to redeem the vaunted promesse de bonheur that art counterposes to an antagonistic social totality. Art comes to represent a world of happiness and fulfillment that is denied in the workaday world of bourgeois material life. It embodies claims to sensuousness and affective solidarity that are repulsed in a social world in which formal rationality is the dominant principle. For Adorno, “Art is a refuge of mimetic behavior” and thus signifies a “response to the evils and irrationality of a rational bureaucratic world. … The memory trace of mimesis unearthed by works of art … anticipates a condition of reconciliation between the individual and the collectivity.” As such, art becomes a form of “remembrance,” joining “the present to the past.” As Adorno phrases it, “Remembrance alone is able to give flesh and blood to the notion of utopia, without betraying it to empirical life.” That Adorno interprets works of art as concrete utopian projections in more than a metaphorical sense is indicated by his contention that one must “reverse the copy theory of realist aesthetics: in a sublimated sense, reality ought to imitate works of art, rather than the other way around.”15

That Adorno makes a concerted effort to emphasize the relation between mimesis, reconciliation, and utopia in the passages just cited is far from accidental. For the utopian program of Aesthetic Theory—and the link between “mimesis” and “remembrance” which is its linchpin—bears a profound resemblance to the one adumbrated jointly with Horkheimer some twenty-five years earlier in Dialectic of Enlightenment. There, too, ruthless domination over external nature becomes the central theoretical problematic. What has been lost in the species' inexorable drive toward rational self-assertion is the capacity to view nature mimetically or fraternally. The solution to this dilemma hinges upon the capacity for remembrance of nature in the subject: “By virtue of the remembrance of nature in the subject, in whose fulfillment the unacknowledged truth of all culture lies hidden, enlightenment is universally opposed to domination.”16 The subject must remember that it, too, is part of nature; and that consequently all violence perpetrated against the latter will in the last analysis redound implacably against subjectivity itself. The program of enlightenment is thus fulfilled only in a distorted and one-sided sense when it is equated simply with the advance of the rational concept. Equally important is the “natural” or “sensuous” substratum of subjectivity—the subject as a medium of desires, drives, and somatic impulses—which comes into its own only via a conscious act of remembrance: an act that recaptures the “natural” dimension of subjectivity which remains ever-present, though dormant, in our mimetic faculty.17

The mimesis-reconciliation-utopia triad plays a key role in Adorno's response to the epistemological problem of the “domination of the concept.” For in his eyes, works of art possess the singular advantage of greater immediacy over against the abstract mediations of the conceptual sphere. It is this enhanced immediacy that accounts for their greater affinities with the sensuous dimension of objectivity as such, unlike pure concepts, which exist at a studied remove from the objective world they seek to grasp intellectually.

Art, therefore, may be said to possess a certain epistemological superiority vis-à-vis philosophical truth. Philosophical cognition is suspect insofar as it is inherently implicated in the dialectic of enlightenment: since concepts know phenomena only insofar as they can manipulate them, they are a priori part and parcel of the historical unfolding of domination. As Adorno remarks: “The derivation of thought from logic ratifies in the lecture room the reification of man in the factory and office.”18

Since theoretical reason is untrustworthy, the aestheticist solution Adorno posits in response is far from surprising. It is of a piece with the standard critique of a rationalized, bourgeois cosmos by the elevated Kulturmensch. It is precisely because of this inordinate distrust of formal rationality that the wager on the aesthetic dimension in Critical Theory is so pronounced: art alone, it would seem, can undo the damage wrought by a logic of unrestrained subjective rationality gone awry.

Adorno emphasizes the superior representational capacities of the aesthetic faculty, as opposed to philosophy, when the depiction of truth is at issue. In art the mimetic faculty, long repressed, is emancipated: one no longer need suppress the desire to be like the Other. The realm of aesthetic illusion or Schein thus frees the subject from his or her otherwise natural compulsion to objectify the Other for purposes of enhanced control. “Works of art represent self-sameness that has been freed of the compulsion to identify,” remarks Adorno.19 Only works of art are exempt from the Kantian proscription against depicting the “intelligible realm”—a ban that must be upheld in the case of theoretical reason. They alone possess the capacity to express the ineffable, to represent the unrepresentable, by virtue of the magical, transformative capacities of aesthetic Schein. Works of art represent a secular redemption of myth: they alone are capable of depicting a superior, transcendent world order in which—unlike the world at present—good, evil, and beauty are assigned their rightful niches. Yet, unlike traditional myth, aesthetic cosmologies no longer stand in the service of alien powers, but in that of a potentially redeemed humanity. At the same time works of art, in contrast to philosophy, never attempt to serve up the absolute as something immediately accessible. Instead, it always appears enigmatically, via the embellishment and indirection of aesthetic form. As Adorno himself expresses this point: “Works of art speak like fairies in tales: if you want the absolute, you shall have it, but only in disguise.” They are enigmatic “images of Being-in-itself.”20 Art restores the element of wonder or thaumazein to the everyday phenomenal world; a power, according to Aristotle, once possessed by philosophy, but which the latter has surrendered in recent times in favor of protocol statements and analytical truths. Art is the utopian reenchantment of radically disenchanted social totality. It serves as irrefutable proof of the fact that the existing universe of facts is not all there is. It is a constant reminder of a state of not-yet-Being (Bloch) that eludes our concrete grasp at the moment, but which for that reason remains nonetheless “real.” As Adorno remarks, “Aesthetic experience is the experience of something which spirit per se does not provide, either in the world or in itself. It is the possible, as promised by its impossibility. Art is the promise of happiness, a promise that is constantly being broken.”21


Can the utopian potential of Adorno's aesthetics be redeemed? This is only another way of responding to the Lowenthal query with which we began: to what extent has the utopian motif in Critical Theory been suspended? The case of Adorno's aesthetics is paradigmatic, since the utopian wager of Critical Theory was so often couched in aesthetic terms.

In order to be redeemed, Adorno's aesthetics must be refunctioned. To be sure, few theorists have probed the fundamental parameters of aesthetic experience in the modern world more deeply than Adorno. Yet it seems that the true import of Adorno's aesthetic utopianism remains limited by certain fundamental shortcomings of his metatheoretical framework. Adorno's aesthetics are therefore in need of a redemptive critique so that they may be freed from the prejudicial constraints of his own theoretical presuppositions.

The conceptual deficiencies alluded to emanate primarily from two quarters: Adorno's theory of knowledge and his philosophy of history. Both components of his theoretical framework were originally articulated in Dialectic of Enlightenment.22 It is these two aspects of the Adornian worldview that prevent his aesthetic doctrines from receiving the fully exoteric redemption they merit.

We turn first to his theory of knowledge, having already indicated that Aesthetic Theory is very much concerned with resolving certain epistemological problems inherited from German Idealism.

In this respect, it is in no way accidental that one of the book's central categories is the eminently Hegelian concept of the “truth-content” or Wahrheitsgehalt of art. It was unquestionably an advance on the part of Hegel over the aesthetic doctrines of the eighteenth century to have valorized the cognitive dimension of aesthetic objectivations, to have viewed them as legitimate incarnations of the “Idea” or truth. And in this regard, Adorno's aesthetics are eminently Hegelian, even if he values the sensuous side of works of art to an incomparably greater extent.

Nevertheless, once works of art are viewed primarily as “epistemological vehicles” (and in this fundamental respect there is really very little difference between Hegel and Adorno), another crucial component of aesthetic experience tends to fall out of account: the pragmatic dimension, on which the essence of aesthetic experience depends. Because Adorno tries to conceive of works of art primarily as vehicles of philosophical truth, in his approach the entire pragmatic side of works of art—their role in shaping, informing, and transforming the lives of historically existing individuals—falls by the wayside.

That Adorno succumbs to this error in judgment is due to an eminently Hegelian preconception: a belief in an “emphatic concept of truth,” whereby truth is viewed as something transcendent and noncontingent, which escapes the fallibility of the human condition. Adorno's thought—despite the conceptual pyrotechnics of negative dialectics—still very much moves within the horizon of traditional metaphysical theories of truth. One might go so far as to say that his entire philosophical program is motivated by a nostalgia for the lost prelapsarian unity of subject and object, concept and thing. It is this nostalgia that accounts for the prominence of mimesis in his thinking—the importance of a fraternal, nonobjectivating relationship to the external world—as well as the category of reconciliation, the explicit hope for a future condition beyond the subject-object split.

As a result of this tendentious preoccupation with works of art as vehicles of truth, the richness of aesthetic experience—i.e., art's status as a pragmatic phenomenon capable of altering the existential parameters of human life—is significantly downplayed. Interpreting art becomes primarily an esoteric philosophical exercise in deciphering the work's “enigmatic character” (Rätselcharakter); with the result that Walter Benjamin's question concerning the exoteric value of aesthetic experience—the capacity of art to produce “profane illuminations”—is lost sight of.

This deficiency of Adorno's framework is, moreover, systematic rather than accidental in nature. Since his debate with Benjamin in the 1930s over the status of mechanically reproduced works of art, Adorno—who was very likely correct in terms of the particulars of the debate itself—remained undialectically wedded to the concept of an esotericized, autonomous art as an absolute model of aesthetic value. In the debate with Benjamin, he pointed out, in the cases of both film and surrealism, that the act of bursting the vessels of aesthetic autonomy does not automatically produce an emancipatory effect. Instead, one runs the risk of a false sublation of autonomous art, whereby a crucial refuge of negativity and critique would be prematurely integrated with facticity as such. Adorno's cautionary remarks concerning the dangers of a premature integration of art in life-praxis remain valuable to this day. The problem, however, is that his own stance in this debate became rigidified, and thus possible countervailing tendencies in the postwar period were ruled out a priori. The “culture industry” thesis from Dialectic of Enlightenment ossified into a monolithic, self-fulfilling prophecy—a mere mirror image of that undifferentiated continuum of the always-the-same that Adorno himself had projected onto social life under advanced capitalism.

In the present context, we can only fleetingly touch on the second systematic deficiency of Adorno's approach: a philosophy of history that was formulated during one of the darkest hours of recent memory: the era of Nazism, Stalinism, and the ensuing Cold War period, when international politics was reduced to the avoidance of successive, imminent catastrophes. However, his theory of a “totale Verblendungszusammenhang”—a context of total delusion—formulated during these years cannot withstand transposition to very different historical conditions without undergoing extensive modification. Consequently, Adorno's historico-philosophical thinking became similarly ossified, reinforcing his unreceptiveness to oppositional cultural forms with genuinely exoteric, generalizable potential.

The utopian moment of Critical Theory is redeemable; but one must specify very carefully what type of utopia one intends to redeem. What is not meant by utopia in the present context is the variety of utopianism criticized by Marx throughout his writings of the 1840s: a utopian future which is in essence a secularized version of eschatological religious longing. This strong version of utopianism resurfaces in the secular messianism of Bloch, Benjamin, the early Lukács, and Marcuse. In Adorno's work, it appears in the guise of a “negative theology”: utopia would be the obverse of the present state of things.23 This strong version of utopianism, whose telos is a state of reconciliation—of humanity with nature, existence and essence, thought and being—beyond the split between subject and object, is the type that Lowenthal has rightly consigned to an outmoded theoretical paradigm.

The weak version of utopianism that is recuperable from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory pertains to his advocacy of “aesthetic alienation”: art presents the familiar and everyday to us in a new and unexpected light, such that we are impelled to modify our habitual modes of thought and perception. Authentic works of art are the archfoes of all intellectual complacency and positivist affirmation. Adorno is essentially correct in his claim that works of art exist in a state of constant polemical tension vis-à-vis the given universe of facts. Genuine works of art are intrinsically utopian insofar as they both highlight the indigent state of reality at present and seek to illuminate a path toward what has never-yet-been. The profane illuminations of aesthetic experience seek to unseat the predominant tendencies toward “theoretical and practical rationalism”; and as such they give expression to an affective dimension of life that is routinely tabooed by bourgeois subjectivity and its unceasing will toward rational self-preservation: they are powerful repositories of a mimetic, noninstrumental relation to nature, of human fraternity, of nonutilitarian playfulness.

Habermas has expressed a similar insight: aesthetic experiences “are possible only to the extent that the categories of the patterned expectations of organized daily experience collapse, that the routines of daily action and conventions of ordinary life are destroyed, and the normality of foreseeable and unaccountable certainties are suspended.” By being “incorporated into the context of individual life-histories” art “belongs to everyday communicative practice. It then … reaches into our cognitive interpretations and normative expectations and transforms the totality in which these moments are related to each another. In this respect, modern art harbors a utopia that becomes a reality to the degree that the mimetic powers sublimated in the work of art find resonance in the mimetic relations of a balanced and undistorted intersubjectivity of everyday life.”24

A precondition for redeeming Adorno's theory of aesthetic modernity would be its transposition to an exoteric context: aesthetic illumination is not just the province of critics, aesthetes, artists, and experts, but a general phenomenon of daily life that concretely alters the life-histories of individuals. The “truth-content” of art is in principle accessible to a plurality of recipients.

There are, moreover, several structural features of contemporary aesthetic experience that suggest that Adorno's argument for the esoteric redemption of artistic truth-content is being undercut from below. For example, in an essay on “The Decline of the Modern Age,” Peter Bürger points to the obsolescence of modernist high art in favor of a new series of hybrid genres and forms that are loosely identified as “postmodern.”25 Bürger correctly questions the descriptive cogency of the latter term, observing that many so-called postmodern art forms (e.g., neo-dada, neo-expressionism, etc.) are in fact continuous with the modern. The important point is that the conception of modernism on which Adorno's aesthetic theory was predicated—the idea of a select canon of hermetic, self-referential, autonomous works—has burst asunder. Any attempt to preserve the contemporary relevance of his theories must of necessity incorporate this manifestly new “state of the arts” into the total picture.

The changed configuration of contemporary aesthetic experience, the dissolution of traditional genre distinctions that has been described by Bürger and others, suggests the prospect of redeeming Adorno's aesthetics on a truly generalizable scale. And although this new aesthetic constellation is fraught with contradictions and tensions whose ultimate outcome remains difficult to foresee, it seems to indicate a potentially new sphere of operation for an aesthetics of negativity such as Adorno's. For the contemporary fusion of genres and levels of aesthetic experience suggests the real possibility that the profane illuminations Adorno sought to cull from esoteric art may now be exoterically available—in a way Adorno himself may have been incapable of anticipating. The apparent dissolution of the traditional European “aesthetics of autonomy” seems to indicate that the types of critical aesthetic experiences Adorno confined to hermetic works have now taken root in the life-world of late capitalism in general. That the aesthetic sensibility of modernism seems to have been democratized—and this is certainly one prominent aspect of the various strands of cultural experience commonly referred to as “postmodern”—is a phenomenon to be welcomed. For it means that an aesthetics of rupture, discontinuity, de-familiarization, and disenchantment—in sum, the “ideology-critical” function Adorno attributes to authentic works of art—has shifted to the plane of everyday artistic endeavor. An entire series of “popular” genres and cultural forms that as a rule fell beneath the threshold of Adorno's theoretical purview—popular music, cinema, even television in certain respects—have over the course of the last two decades displayed a new pluralism and inventiveness. To subsume them immediately under the “culture industry” thesis as originally formulated in the 1940s would be rash. It is, moreover, hardly surprising that this assault on the tenets of high modernism originated in the U.S., where (European) cultural elitism has always been at odds with a fundamentally democratic cultural self-understanding.

Nevertheless, the tendencies we have just described are far from unambiguous. The two most salient features of the much vaunted postmodern turn in the arts are 1) random historical borrowing of artistic styles; and 2) a collapse of the distinction between high and low culture, art and entertainment. The first trend poses the specter of a historicist loss of historical consciousness; if “all ages are equally close to God” (Ranke), then the course of history itself is trivialized, and all epochs are simultaneously equally meaningful and equally meaningless. And an absolute effacement of the distinction between high and low culture would be a far from untroubling development: for it harbors the prospect of a false sublation of art in the domain of life praxis, whereby art would to all intents and purposes become fused with the phenomenal sphere of daily life. The last-named tendency represents a real danger for the various artistic currents commonly referred to as postmodern. And thus, from the bursting of the vessels of aesthetic autonomy, an emancipatory effect does not necessarily follow. Here, the main risk is a slackening of the critical tension between art and life that proved the linchpin of modernist aesthetics. Consequently, the danger arises that once the boundaries between art and life become blurred, the critical potentials of art decay, and art itself is transformed into a vehicle of affirmation: i.e., the uncritical mirror-image of the “happy consciousness” of late capitalism. Adorno's “aesthetics of determinate negation” provide an important safeguard against this eventuality.


  1. Leo Lowenthal, “The Utopian Motif is Suspended” (interview conducted with Martin Lüdke), New German Critique 38 (Spring-Summer 1986): 105-111. It has also appeared in Lowenthal's autobiography, An Unmastered Past, edited by Martin Jay (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 237-246.

  2. For the best account of this generation and its various programs, see Michael Löwy, Rédemption et Utopie (Paris: PUF, 1988).

  3. In a private conversation, Lowenthal identified Bloch's Geist der Utopie and Lukács' Theorie des Romans as the two works that most influenced his own early development.

  4. Lowenthal, “The Utopian Motif,” p. 111.

  5. Translated in English as “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions,” in From Max Weber, pp. 323-359.

  6. Ibid., p. 342.

  7. It may seem paradoxical to attribute “systematic intentions” to the author of Negative Dialectics. However, it should be kept in mind that despite his pronounced aversion to l'esprit de system, l'esprit systematique was not a concept entirely alien to his way of thinking: from Rolf Tiedemann's “Nachwort” to Aesthetic Theory, we learn that Adorno intended to compose a major treatise on moral philosophy upon completion of the latter work. Had this intention not been cut short by his death in 1969, Adorno's three major works would have corresponded to the subject matter of Kant's three Critiques.

  8. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, pp. 14, 9.

  9. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 321.

  10. Ibid., p. 15.

  11. Ibid., pp. 12-13.

  12. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pp. 122, 124.

  13. Ibid., pp. 122-123.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid., pp. 190, 192; emphasis added.

  16. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 40.

  17. Cf. Walter Benjamin, “The Mimetic Faculty,” in Reflections, edited by Peter Demetz (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978), pp. 333-336.

  18. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 30.

  19. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 183.

  20. Ibid., pp. 183, 184.

  21. Ibid., p. 196.

  22. Although the true intellectual historical origins of his outlook on philosophy and history go back to two profoundly Benjaminian essays from the early 1930s. See “Die Aktualität der Philosophie” and “Die Idee der Naturgeschichte,” both in Theodor Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften I (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974), pp. 325-344, 345-365.

  23. On the relation between Adorno and negative theology, see F. Grenz, Adornos Philosophie in Grundbegriffen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974).

  24. Jürgen Habermas, “Questions and Counterquestions,” in Habermas and Modernity, edited by Richard J. Bernstein (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985), pp. 200-202.

  25. Peter Bürger, “The Decline of the Modern Age,” Telos 62 (Winter 1984-1985): 117-130.

Miriam Hansen (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Of Mice and Ducks: Benjamin and Adorno on Disney,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 27-61.

[In the following essay, Hansen discusses differences in the way Disney was viewed by Adorno and Walter Benjamin, finding in their respective analyses important keys to their opinions on twentieth-century American mass culture.]

Walter Benjamin's reflections on film and mass culture repeatedly revolved around Disney, in particular early Mickey Mouse cartoons and Silly Symphonies.1 Theodor W. Adorno took issue with Benjamin's investment in Disney, both in direct correspondence and implicitly, in his writings on jazz and, after his friend's death, in the analysis of the culture industry in his and Max Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. These scattered references to Disney encoded central questions concerning the politics of mass culture, the historical relations with technology and nature, the body and sexuality. They demonstrate, in an exemplary way, a mode of thinking that transformed observations on mass-cultural phenomena into a critical theory of culture and history.

In this essay, I reconstruct Benjamin's and Adorno's arguments on Disney as a debate on these larger questions. By doing so I do not intend to reiterate the familiar pattern of adjudicating between the two writers—dismissing one as mandarin and pessimistic while claiming the other for a radical, Brechtian or Cultural Studies canon of mass culture theory. For one thing, Adorno's reservations about Disney highlight ambivalences in Benjamin's own thoughts. For another, maintaining these conflicting perspectives in a stereoscopic view seems to me a more productive way of engaging problems and possibilities of mass culture and modernity in general and, for that matter, the media culture of postmodernity.

Nor is the point of this essay to measure Benjamin and Adorno's remarks on Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in terms of their critical adequacy or inadequacy toward Disney as a textual and historical phenomenon. Rather, I am interested in the way the Disney films became emblematic of the juncture of art, politics, and technology debated at the time. The key question for critical theory in the interwar years was which role the technical media were playing in the historical demolition and restructuring of subjectivity: whether they were giving rise to new forms of imagination, expression, and collectivity, or whether they were merely perfecting techniques of total subjection and domination. This was not just an abstract question of power as discourse; in the face of fascism, Stalinism, and American Fordism, theorizing mass culture was a highly political effort to come to terms with new, bewildering, and contradictory forces, to map possibilities of change and prospects of survival. In this situation, the Disney films catalyzed discussions on the psycho-politics of mass-cultural reception, specifically the linkage of laughter and violence and the sadomasochistic slant of spectatorial pleasure. But they also rehearsed, especially for Benjamin, alternative visions of technology and the body, prefiguring the mobilization of a “collective physis” and a different organization of the relations between humanity and nature.

The questions that Benjamin and Adorno raised in connection with Disney point not only beyond the textual occasion, but also beyond the specific historical context of critical theory. In the age of global integration and postmodern diversification, the imbrication of technology with violence still prevails, confronting us as the unresolved legacy of modernity or, if you will, hegemonic modernism. Now as then, the industrial-technical media are as much part of the problem as they constitute the horizon through which solutions can be envisioned and fought for. Now as then, the issue is the organization and politics of sensory perception, of “aesthetics” in the etymological sense which Benjamin, as Susan Buck-Morss reminds us, significantly resumes.2

Focusing on Benjamin, and interweaving Adorno's comments intermittently, I will proceed from a key passage on Mickey Mouse in the 1935/36 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility.” I will then trace the appearances of the Disney mascot through various constellations in Benjamin's writings of the 1930s, which means complicating the modernist and psychoanalytic concerns of the more familiar Benjamin with the lesser-known historical-anthropological perspective of his work on the Paris Arcades.

Over the past two decades, Benjamin's Artwork essay may have been invoked more often than any other single source (with Jacques Lacan's paper on the mirror stage and Laura Mulvey's on visual pleasure as runners up), whether in film theory, cultural history, or the post-modern art scene. In the course of these ritualistic invocations, the essay has not necessarily acquired new meanings nor has it become any less problematic. Perhaps there should be a moratorium on quoting it or, as Peter Wollen has recently suggested, it should be shelved altogether in favor of those of Benjamin's texts that are not marred by the rhetoric of left Fordism, such as his essays on surrealism and the Arcades project.3

But which Artwork essay are we talking about? The vast majority of references in English are to the translation published in Illuminations in 1969, a translation that is not altogether reliable. This translation in turn is based on a German version of the essay first published in 1955, edited by Adorno and Friedrich Podszus. As the editors of Benjamin's Collected Works have established, moreover, that version is probably the most compromised among the four versions we now have. The first typed, and for Benjamin definitive, version, did not turn up until 1989: this is the text that Benjamin submitted to the Journal of Social Research in February 1936 and to which Adorno responded in his famous letter from London of 18 March 1936.4 The first version to be published was the French, translated by Pierre Klossowski, which roughly corresponds to the essay in its well-known shape but still contains some passages from the earlier versions. The French, along with the first, handwritten version, has been generally accessible since 1974, when it was reprinted in volume I of the Collected Works.

In this handwritten, first draft of the essay, the entire section devoted to the notion of an “optical unconscious” is entitled “Micky-Maus.” Where the third, familiar version meanders through a reference to Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the earlier versions (including the French) open with an epigrammatic thesis: “The most important among the social functions of film is to create a balance [Gleichgewicht] between the human being and technology [Apparatur].” To that effect, Benjamin stresses the importance of film, not only for the manner in which human beings present themselves to the apparatus, but also for their effort to represent, “to themselves,” their industrially changed environment. This implies an aesthetics of film that utilizes the camera's exploratory, cognitive, and liberating possibilities. To recall the beautiful passage that appears in all versions of the essay:

Our taverns and city streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our train stations and factories appeared to have us locked up beyond hope. Then came film and exploded this prison-world with the dynamite of one-tenth seconds, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly embark on adventurous travels. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. Thus it becomes evident that it is a different nature that speaks to the camera than speaks to the naked eye. Different above all, because an unconsciously permeated space substitutes for a space consciously explored by human beings. … [The camera] introduces us to the optical unconscious as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.5

The psychoanalytic metaphor here serves to underscore the discontinuity between consciously perceived and unconsciously permeated spaces, and the ability of film to reveal this “other” space. The object of such revelation is at once redemptive—in enscripting the “trivial milieus” of everyday life—and critical—in destroying the fixed perspectives that have naturalized social and economic arrangements.

In the passage that follows in the earlier versions of the Artwork essay, however, Benjamin gives the analogy between film and psychoanalysis a slightly different twist. Film not only makes visible formations hitherto invisible to the human eye, but registers aspects of psycho-perceptual reality that only emerged, historically, with modern technology; as Benjamin put it elsewhere, film gives rise to “a new region of consciousness.6 But these new aspects of reality are not necessarily all liberating. On the contrary, Benjamin locates them largely “outside the normal spectrum of sense perceptions,” in the region of “psychoses, hallucinations and dreams.” Thus, “the deformations and stereotypes, transformations and catastrophes that may occur in the perceptual world of film” provide an unconscious optics for the borderline experience that comes with the pressures of urban-industrial modernity.7

The point of the psychoanalytic analogy here is not merely the revelation or “prismatic” analysis of latent structures. Rather, Benjamin is concerned with film's therapeutic function, based on its ability to translate individually experienced borderline states, such as the psychoses and nightmares engendered by industrial and military technology, into collective perception. These coordinates mark the cue for the entrance of Mickey Mouse.

Film has launched an attack against the old Heraclitean truth that in waking we share a world while sleeping we are each in separate worlds. It has done so, less with representations of dreams, than with the creation of figures of the collective dream such as the globe-orbiting Mickey Mouse.

As an antidote to the violent return of modern civilization's repressed, effecting “a therapeutic detonation of the unconscious,” the image of the frantic Mouse is brought to a standstill at the crossroads between fascism and the possibility of its prevention:

If one takes into account the dangerous tensions which technification and its consequences have engendered in the vast masses—tensions which, at critical stages, take on a psychotic character—then one cannot but recognize that this same technification has created as protection against such mass psychosis the possibility of psychic inoculation by means of certain films in which a forced articulation of sadistic fantasies or masochistic delusions can prevent their natural and dangerous ripening in the masses. The collective laughter signifies a premature and therapeutic eruption of such mass psychoses.8

Like American slapstick comedy (Groteskfilme) and the figure of the “eccentric,” notably Chaplin, Benjamin concludes, the Disney films pioneer ways of inhabiting the new space or margin (Spielraum) that historically emerged with film, by disarming the destructive effects of technology through technologically mediated laughter.

In his response to Benjamin's Artwork essay, Adorno was clearly troubled by this passage: “Your dig at Werfel gave me great pleasure; but if you take the Mickey Mouse instead, things are far more complicated, and the serious question arises as to whether the reproduction of every person really constitutes that a priori of film which you claim it to be, or whether this reproduction is not part of precisely that ‘naive realism’ whose bourgeois nature we so thoroughly agreed upon in Paris.”9 In light of the passage cited above, we can understand why Adorno had problems with Benjamin's Mickey Mouse: not because of the Mouse's relation to representational realism but because of Benjamin's endorsement of the collective laughter that the films provoked in the mass audience.

Adorno's objections to Benjamin's political investment in collectivity (such as the concept of the “dreaming collective” in the Arcades project) are well-known: besides straying into the vicinity of C. G. Jung's “collective unconscious,” Benjamin, according to Adorno, seriously underrated the extent to which any existing collective today was imbricated with the commodity character. The more specific point of dissension, in this case, was the sadistic—and, for Adorno, effectively masochistic—slant of the collective laughter. In the letter quoted above, Adorno cautions Benjamin emphatically against romanticizing the barbarism manifested in mass-cultural reception: “The laughter of the cinema audience is … anything but good and revolutionary; instead, it is full of the worst bourgeois sadism.” He extends this verdict even to Chaplin, who had been a politically good object, after all, not just for Siegfried Kracauer, but generally in leftist-intellectual and avant-garde circles of the time. Instead of elaborating the point, Adorno refers Benjamin to his soon-to-be completed essay on jazz, which contains remarks on the figure of the eccentric.

Like the essay “The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening,” Adorno's writings on jazz represent a running argument with Benjamin's work on mass culture. In a postscript written in Oxford in 1937, Adorno delineates the “jazz subject,” the listener's position in the musical text, in terms of sadomasochistic pleasures short-circuited in the service of social integration. Like its precursor, the eccentric, the jazz subject is marked by a pseudo-individuality which Adorno pinpoints as the root of the jazz ritual's “curiously affirmative character.” Instead of real autonomy, the “individual traits [of the jazz subject] by which it protests against social authority are in truth the very stigmata of mutilation inflicted upon him by society.” This makes for a form of identification in which the subject takes pleasure in his or her own mutilation, yet without consciousness, identifying with the sadistic principle, internalizing the threat of castration. In the dancers' relation to the music, this submission corresponds to a stubborn refusal to really dance the “break” (English in the original), the syncope which is jazz's futile assertion of difference. This is the place where Adorno ambiguously situates the Disney mascot: “[I]t is key to the success of Mickey Mouse that he/she/it alone translates all the breaks into precise visual equivalents.”10

The association of Mickey Mouse and jazz was a commonplace in Weimar and Nazi Germany, perhaps more so than in the United States. The connection was not only the literal one, suggested by a synchronization of the figure's movements with the rhythms of the music (which was, in fact, rarely, properly speaking, jazz); but both Mickey and jazz figured prominently in the German discourse of Americanism, that is, a modernism predicated on industrial-capitalist rationalization, on Taylorized labor and a Fordist organization of production and consumption. Like Chaplin and American slapstick comedy, jazz and cartoons represented, as it were, the “other” side of Americanism, a branch of consumer culture that seemed to subvert the economically imposed discipline through orgies of destruction, magic, and parody.11 Disney's relation to Fordism was anything but critical, to be sure, and he espoused Fordist principles both in his aesthetics and business strategies.12 Still, Mickey's enormous success in Germany from the late 1920s through the 1930s no doubt owed much to the figure's anarchic, ecstatic appeal which was, in a more exoticized vein, what people expected from jazz.

It is not surprising that the National Socialists early on included Mickey Mouse in their campaign against the “Verniggerung” (negroization) of German popular culture.13 The ideological conflation of Mickey and jazz throws into relief the question of the figure's blackness and thus inserts it into the long history of white projections of African-American culture. In a recent exhibit on the reception of Disney in Germany, 1927-1945, a number of vernacular depictions (caricatures, mugs, figurines) show Mickey with protruding white teeth and Africanized features, while others make him look like an inversion of black face, that is, a black figure wearing a white face and white gloves.14 Whether Benjamin and Adorno were aware of this racialized subtext is unclear; that Adorno, by placing Mickey Mouse in the context of white projection—for which he (mis)took jazz—came close to spelling out the figure's racial and racist connotations might also account for his greater ambivalence.

For Mickey, in Adorno's reading, is not simply an embodiment of the jazz subject (as Lawrence Rickels would have it), but rather one element in a configuration of desire: the bait of difference, the fantasy of a break.15 It is no coincidence that Adorno later, in a kind of substitution trick, switched his polemic against Disney from Mickey to Donald Duck, a cartoon character who fits the authoritarian profile much more smoothly. Thus we read in Adorno and Horkheimer's chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment: “Donald Duck in the cartoons, like the unfortunate in real life, gets his beating so that the viewers can get used to the same treatment.” Sadistic pleasures are mobilized, not to challenge the regime of heterosexual genitality, but to rehearse the internalization of terror. The “iron bath of fun” administered by the culture industry does not inspire a conciliatory laughter that would “echo the escape from power,” but a Schadenfreude, a terrible laughter that “overcomes fear by capitulating to the forces which are to be feared.”16 Humor provides the glue that prevents the subject from recognizing him/herself as the object of mutilation. These ideological effects of the Disney humor are at once revealed and sanctioned in the locus classicus of “laughter betrayed” (Kracauer): the climax of Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1942), in which the screening of an old, rather violent, Mickey Mouse cartoon to an audience of chain-gang prisoners persuades the eponymic director-in-disguise that cathartic laughter is a better gift to humanity than any realist critique of social conditions.17

Benjamin, writing in the mid-1930s, was no less aware of the direction in which the Disney films were heading. In a footnote to the section cited above, following the therapeutic reclamation of the collective laughter inspired by these films, he concedes that their comic aspects are often indistinguishable from horror. In particular the most recent Mickey Mouse films, he observes, manifest a tendency already latent in the earlier films “to put up comfortably [gemütlich] with bestiality and cruelty as corollaries of existence.” By doing so, they resume an “old and nothing less than confidence-inspiring tradition” that is led by the “dancing hooligans” in “medieval depictions of pogroms” and vaguely reverberates in the “riff-raff” of Grimm's fairy tales.18

The affinity of comedy and cruelty is an old story, though it clearly assumed an acute meaning in the face of the more systematic, totalizing manifestations of anti-Semitic terror after 1933. But Benjamin actually comes closer to describing a psycho-perceptual structure similar to that observed by Adorno in another part of the Artwork essay, the epilogue, where he castigates the aestheticization of politics that culminates in fascism and war. “Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of spectacle for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”19 This configuration seems only the most extreme instance of the miscognition Adorno sees operating in mass-cultural reception, the identification with the aggressor by which the consumers assent to their own mutilation and subjection.

Susan Buck-Morss reads Benjamin's analysis of fascism in the larger context of the fate of human sense perception under the impact of modern technology, which she sees defined by a “tripartite splitting of experience” into agency, object, and observer. This splitting is graphically illustrated by a remarkable quote from Edmund Husserl: “If I cut my finger with a knife, then a physical body is split by the driving into it of a wedge, the fluid contained in it trickles out, etc.”20 The separation of cognitive and bodily experience, and of both in turn from agency, is a decisive moment in the process Buck-Morss characterizes as a dialectics of “anaesthetics” and “aestheticization,” a defensive numbing of the human senses in response to technologically created “shock” and the concomitant, ever-more-relentless stimulation of the senses through technologically generated “phantasmagoria.” In the media mise-en-scène of fascist rallies and parades, epitomized by Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the tripartite splitting of experience takes on monumental, collective, and national dimensions: spectatorial pleasure is divorced from both political agency and its object, the purpose of the display: the militarization of society and the telos of mass destruction. In Buck-Morss's words, this kind of aesthetics promotes an “anaesthetization of reception.”

Obviously, there is a difference between the fascist aestheticization of politics and the ideological mechanisms that Adorno imputes to Hollywood cartoons and jazz. But the structural similarity between the forms of miscognition that Benjamin and Adorno see at work in the respective syndromes is nonetheless striking. In each case, there is a complicity between historical subjects and their particular mode of subjection; in each case, this complicity hinges on a numbing of (self-) perception, an inability to recognize one's own vital interests and one's mortal enemies; in each case, there is a denial of the gaps between the sundered positions of experience. The disagreement between Adorno and Benjamin lies less in the diagnosis than in the assessment of whether and by whom this complicity could be undone, how the integrity of the human senses could be restored.

There is no doubt also a convergence with another analysis of miscognition, elaborated around the same time and probably in view of some of the same historical developments—Lacan's theory of the mirror stage.21 Like Benjamin and Adorno, Lacan confronted the problem of the infinitely amplified power of imaginary relations in the structuring of psychic, sexual, social, and political realities. While Lacan focused primarily on the narcissistic register in the process of identification which, if the imaginary unity of the ego is threatened, results in aggressivity, Adorno stressed the sadomasochistic logic that governed, unrecognized, processes of mass-cultural identification. For Benjamin, the miscognition operative in the fascist mass ornament falls under the heading of humanity's “self-alienation,” a concept that is likewise indebted to psychoanalysis but interweaves Freudian motives with Gnostic-Messianic and anthropological-materialist ones. The concept of self-alienation leads Benjamin—via the question of technology—to the opposing concept of “innervation,” and it is in this constellation that Mickey Mouse assumes an alternative, even utopian significance.

In Benjamin's analysis of the fascist mass spectacle, two distinct strands of human self-alienation come to a head: one turning on the consumer's “identification” (Einfühlung) with the commodity, the other on the failed and fatal reception of technology. The first is related to Benjamin's discussion of exchange-value as a “phantasmagoria,” as a sensuous transfiguration of the commodity, an illusion that is at once mental drug and utopian wish-image. The nineteenth-century world exhibitions, for instance, beckon their visitors with a phantasmagoria that makes the use-value recede, ostensibly for the purpose of distraction. Prepared by the entertainment industry which has been raising them to the level of the commodity all along, human beings easily “yield to the manipulation, by enjoying their alienation from themselves and from others.”22 However, since the consumerist phantasmagoria simultaneously represents a displaced form of human desire, commercially promoted distraction also contains the antidote to such self-alienation: the practice of collective reception, which for Benjamin provides a matrix for the political self-organization of the masses. The life-and-death alternative of “giving the masses an aesthetic expression” (the fascist imaginary) vs. giving them “their rights” is thus already implicit in the ambivalent structure of a collective, if still individualized, identification with the commodity.

The second trajectory of self-alienation is the legacy of the nineteenth-century dream of technology which first exploded in the inferno of World War I. Fettered by capitalist relations of production and Imperialist politics, advanced technology has turned against human beings with a vengeance. Reduced to a mere instrument for the human domination of nature, technology confronts human beings as a second nature, insufficiently understood in its moral dimensions, as a human, social activity, and hence infinitely more destructive. For the human species to survive, Benjamin insists, technology has to be transformed from a means of mastering nature into a medium for “mastering the interplay between human beings and nature.”23 Yet for this to happen, technology would have to become an “organ of the collective,” an object of collective “innervation.”24

The notion of a “collective innervation” of technology first appears at the end of Benjamin's essay on surrealism (1929), linked to the idea of an integral “body and image space” to which I will return. The central arenas for such innervation, as Benjamin increasingly came to realize, were the technical media—photography, film, radio, the gramophone—that is, the very technologies that participate in the historical proliferation of the shock experience and thus escalate the spiral of sensory alienation, phantasmagoria, and violence. The expropriation of the human senses that culminates in Imperialist warfare and fascism can be countered only on the terrain of technology itself, by means of perceptual technologies that allow for a figurative, mimetic engagement with technology at large, as a productive force and social reality. In other words, the technical media would have to set into play their metonymic relationship with other technologies, so as to function as a supplement or pharmakon to the latter, to provide a discourse of experience that would allow for a collective adaptation of and to technology. This is why film assumes such political importance for Benjamin, not as a medium of realistic representation, but as a perceptual training ground for an industrially transformed physis: “To make the vast technical apparatus of our time an object of human innervation—this is the historical task in whose service film has its true meaning.”25

But how do we distinguish between a film practice that “breaks through the numbing shield of consciousness” and one that “merely provides a ‘drill’ for the strength of its defenses?”26 Where do we draw the line between a defensive adaptation to technology and a mimetic, cognitive one? On one level, Benjamin indeed envisioned the process of innervation, like the notion of shock, in rather neurological, electrodynamic terms. In that sense, the paralyzing and destructive effects of technology are only the flip side of tensions, currents, and forces which, under different relations of production and reception, could have a mobilizing and empowering effect. To return to Mickey Mouse, the therapeutic diffusion of violent mass psychoses that Benjamin attributes to the films is accomplished through a process of transference by which individual alienation can leap into collective, public recognition. Such transference is brought about by a series of staged shocks or, if you will, countershocks—in this case, the precise rhythmic matching of acoustic and visual movement (which Adorno and Eisenstein understood more clearly than Benjamin as Disney's particular aesthetic innovation). In the stimulation of involuntary and collective laughter, the Mickey Mouse films affect their viewers in a manner at once physiological and cognitive.27

Notwithstanding this neuro-energetic model, Benjamin assigns Mickey Mouse a rather specific historical, cultural, and political place. For the currents that electrified Mickey's German audience have one pole in the cataclysm of World War I and another, as Benjamin foresaw as early as 1933, in “the coming war,” implicit in the fascist rise to power. As it did for many Weimar intellectuals, World War I had an emblematic, epistemic function for Benjamin, not only because it exploded the nineteenth-century dream of technology and progress, but because it catalyzed an unprecedented crisis of “experience” (Erfahrung). Technologically facilitated mass destruction changed all the familiar coordinates of experience; and it expelled the private individual from the shell of the bourgeois interior. In “Erfahrung und Armut” (“Experience and Poverty”), a programmatic essay of 1933, Benjamin writes: “A generation that still drove to school in a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a landscape in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and, in the center, in a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.”28

The monstrous fruition of technology has not only muted the faculty of experience, the capability of individuals to narrate and communicate their experience; it has also revealed the bankruptcy of existing discourses of experience, in particular those predicated on a classical humanist notion of the subject. The inadequacy of the latter, and its myriad sectarian offshoots, for dealing with the psychosocial consequences of the war and the subsequent economic catastrophe only compounds the “poverty of experience” that Benjamin observes on an anthropological scale, “a new kind of barbarism.” Instead of condemning this barbarism on moral grounds, however, he advocates a “new, positive concept of barbarism,” an attitude he sees exemplified in constructivist painting (Paul Klee), modern architecture (the Bauhaus, Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier), and the work of writers such as Brecht and Paul Scheerbart. This new culture—or anti-culture—is a “culture of glas,” a phrase Benjamin borrows from Scheerbart: a culture that rejects the privacy of the bourgeois interior, the Etui (case) and the overstuffed armchair, the personal trace, anthropomorphism, symbolism, the mystery of the “aura.” The popular cousin of these “new barbarians” is Mickey Mouse, herald of an imagination that does not rely on experience, citizen of a “world in which it does not pay to have experiences.” In the Disney films, Benjamin says in a fragment of 1931, “humanity prepares itself to survive civilization.”29

The concept of Erfahrung is one of the most central, difficult, and ambivalent in Benjamin's work, linked to the equally elusive notion of the “aura.”30 Throughout his life, Benjamin was concerned with the problem of how to conceptualize a cognitive discourse vis-à-vis the transformations of modernity when those same transformations had eroded the very capacities that would enable such a discourse on a collective and public scale—capacities of being open to and reflecting upon experience, of seeing relations and making connections (for instance, between the split positions of observer, object, and agency), of remembering the past and imagining a different future. The problem was compounded with the more acute insight that these capacities, indeed the very concept of experience, were being held hostage by a bourgeois-humanist culture that had tied them to the perpetuation of social privilege, to aestheticism, escapism, and hypocrisy. In view of this dilemma, revealed in the aftershock of World War I, Benjamin opts for a desperate leap forward, into the “purgatory of New Objectivity [Neue Sachlichkeit].”31 The decline of experience is troped into an opportunity to abolish it altogether; the “new barbarism” of experiential poverty appears as the proletarian alternative to a moribund bourgeois culture. We find this position elaborated in, among other things, Benjamin's work on Brecht, his essays on Karl Kraus and “The Destructive Character.”

At the same time, Benjamin never abandoned his effort to reconceptualize, rather than simply abolish, experience. As he remarked in 1929 regarding a critical essay on “experience” written in his youth: “[M]y attack only punctured the word without annihilating it.”32 The contours of a new theory of experience can be found, for instance, in his essays on surrealism, Proust, and Kafka and his speculations on the “mimetic faculty” (1933/35), that is, in writings concurrent with his Brechtian, leftist-Fordist phase. If the essay “The Storyteller” (1936) appears to revert to nostalgic lamentation, the work on Baudelaire and respective sections in the Arcades project attempt more systematically to keep both irrevocable disintegration and the need for a refiguration of experience in view—as does, as I have argued elsewhere, the Artwork essay. For by this time, fascism had brought home the vulnerability of a collective lacking a discourse on technological modernization, lacking a public horizon that would enable human beings to recognize and negotiate the effects of historical fragmentation, rupture and loss, of collective yet privatized self-alienation. Without the self-reflective, anamnestic, and figurative dimension of experience, Benjamin knew, collective innervation would mean nothing but a behaviorist adaptation to the present.

Even in the programmatic endorsement of a “poverty of experience,” Mickey Mouse does not fully merge with the “destructive character,” but retains some of the fairy-tale appeal that Benjamin had noted in 1931 (“the motif of one who set out to learn fear”).33 To people “tired” of experience, “fed up” with “Kultur” and “the human being,” the existence of Mickey Mouse is “a dream that compensates for the sadness and discouragement of the day” and shows them that “simple and quite magnificent existence which waking they lack the energy to realize.” But unlike the aesthetics of Neue Sachlichkeit, this dream does not imitate the forms and functions of technology. On the contrary, it seems much closer to a surrealist fantasy than to the functionalist sobriety of the Bauhaus or the didactic rationalism of a Brecht. The existence projected by the Mickey Mouse films

is full of miracles that not only surpass those of technology but make fun of them. For the most curious thing about them is that they all emanate, without machinery and improvised, from the body of the Mickey Mouse, her/his/its partisans and pursuers, from the most quotidian furniture just as from trees, clouds or a lake. Nature and technology, primitivism and comfort have completely become one, and before the eyes of people who have grown tired of the endless complications of the everyday and to whom the purpose of life appears as nothing more than a distant vanishing point in an endless perspective of means, there appears as a redemption an existence which at every turn is self-sufficient in the most simple and simultaneously most comfortable way, in which a car does not weigh more than a straw-hat and the fruit on the tree grows round as fast as a hot-air balloon.34

Like Eisenstein, Benjamin was impressed with the metamorphoses staged by the Disney films, with what Eisenstein called their “plasmatic” tendency: “[A] displacement, an upheaval, a unique protest against the metaphysical immobility of the once-and-forever given.”35 But where Eisenstein, writing at the height of World War II, curiously elides the role of technology in these metamorphic games, Benjamin reads them as figures of innervation, anticipating an emancipatory incorporation of technology. As he had stressed in the 1931 fragment, the Mickey Mouse films engage technology not as an external force, in a literal or formal rendering of “mechanization,” but as a “hidden figure”: they hyperbolize the historical imbrication of nature and technology through humor and parody. While mechanically produced, the miracles of the animated cartoon seem improvised out of the bodies and objects on the screen, in a freewheeling exchange between animate and inanimate world.36 This aesthetic self-sublation of technology not only condenses the supplementary, homeopathic relation between the technical media and other technologies; it also prefigures the utopian potential of technology for reorganizing the relations between human beings and nature.

The notion of an aesthetically sublated technology points toward Benjamin's cryptic remarks, in the Artwork essay, concerning film's ability to make its own technology disappear. There he refers to the “equipment-free aspect of reality” created through editing as “the height of artifice,” “the ‘blue flower’ in the land of technology.”37 The invocation of this highly auratic emblem of the Romantic imagination remains puzzling, especially in light of more recent film theory's pinpointing of the “equipment-free aspect of reality” as a guiding principle of the Hollywood continuity system, the ideological masking of the apparatus that subtends the diegetic effect of classical narrative. Rather than dismissing it for perpetuating the illusion of reality, Benjamin sees the cinematic crossing of supreme artificiality with physiological immediacy as a chance—to rehearse technological innervation in the medium of the optical unconscious.

The parallel between Mickey Mouse and the cinematic Blue Flower effect throws into relief the relationship between animation and live-action film which is of some importance here. In the ideological division of labor between the two—rather unequal—genres, animation traditionally served the role of exemplifying the “mechanical magic” of the cinematic apparatus as a whole so as to complement and uphold mainstream narrative films' claim to “realism.” To be sure, cartoons also imitated live-action films, not necessarily all in a parodic spirit, and Disney in particular began to develop a naturalistic look patterned on the Hollywood continuity style; while the pulsating rhythm of the Disney cartoons prior to the mid-1930s destabilizes just about everything within the frame, most of the subsequent productions, especially the features, show an increased concern for a stable animated diegesis.38 But, if verisimilitude in animation was debated as a matter of stylistic choice, comparable options for live-action film were restricted in advance due to the institutional investment in the medium's photographic iconicity. In our context, this is particularly relevant for conventions of representing the human body, that is, in classical cinema, the illusory self-identity of the human figure as embodied by the star.

As a prototype of innervation, Benjamin's Mickey Mouse competes with the figure of the screen actor. In the earlier versions of the Artwork essay, Benjamin elaborates at much greater length on the profound changes that the mediation through the apparatus has visited upon the phenomenology of performance. In a significant respect he takes a position diametrically opposed to the later version: in the screen actor's confrontation of the apparatus, the audience is constructed as identifying, not with the testing, critical, impersonal attitude of the camera (as in the later version), but with the actor as their stand-in, as a representative of their own daily battle with an alienating technology who takes “revenge in their place.” The actor's forced self-alienation in front of the camera, microphones, and klieg lights, the extreme presence of mind required in the absence of the aura of live performance, shows the masses how “[one's] humanity (or whatever may appear to them as such) can assert itself in the face of the apparatus.” This is to say that humanity, what being human means in the twentieth century, can be redefined through the performance of self-alienation: “In the representation of human beings through the apparatus human self-alienation has found a most productive realization.”39

In the historical task of making self-alienation productive, Mickey Mouse has certain advantages over the screen actor. While the actor remains tied to a realistic imaging of the human shape and thus can be naturalized and fetishized in the capitalist cult of the star, the cartoon figure does not lend itself to such false restoration of the aura—or so it seems, at least, in theory.40 The appeal of the animated creature, and this goes beyond Mickey, owes much to its hybrid status, its blurring of human and animal, two-dimensional and three-dimensional, corporeal and neuro-energetic qualities. This hybrid status brings Mickey Mouse into the purview of Benjamin's reflections on the body: the problematic of the psycho-physiological boundaries that are supposed not only to contain the subject within but also to distinguish the human species from the rest of creation.

The vast transformations of second nature could not have left human beings' primary nature untouched: they have changed the meaning of sexuality and death; they have pervaded the boundaries of the human body and endowed it with prosthetic extensions; they have initiated, as Kracauer put it in his essay on the “mass ornament,” the human figure's exodus from luscious organic splendor and individual form into anonymity. Indeed, the technically induced mutations of “our historical metabolism” have called into question the very distinction between first and second nature.41

The figure of Mickey Mouse answers to the historical experience of mutilation and fragmentation in technological warfare and industrial production. In 1931 Benjamin notes that the Mickey Mouse film upsets “relations of property”: it visualizes, “for the first time, that one's own arm, even one's own body can be stolen.”42 This bodily fragmentation, actually quite rare in Mickey Mouse, is more typical of “radical” animation in general: think of figures such as Felix the Cat, Koko the Clown, or even Disney's own Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.43 In the context of the German 1920s, moreover, the playful fragmentation of bodies in the cartoons forms a constellation with Dadaist depictions of the body as a dysfunctional automation or a dismembered mannequin. As Hal Foster has persuasively argued with respect to works by Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer, such depictions do not just respond to physical violations of the human shape but, more specifically, to the psychosocial reconfiguration of the body as whole: they deconstruct the defensive transmutation of military-industrial trauma into the prosthetic fantasy of the male body as armor.44

In Benjamin's work, the antithesis to the phantasmic wholeness of the “metallized” male body is the embodiment of the alien in the writings of Kafka. In his great essay on Kafka, he delineates a third etiology of self-alienation in the human relationship with the body, “one's own body,” which he calls the “most forgotten alien land [Fremde].”45 The strangeness or distortion that characterizes the inhabitants of Kafka's world is the result of a primal “forgetting,” a forgetting in which psychic repression mingles with prehistoric forces, reverberations from a Gnostic abyss. The forgotten alien that is part of oneself extends beyond the human body to the strange and simultaneously familiar creatures that populate Kafka's tales, hybrid or imaginary creatures like the Cat Lamb or Odradek that challenge the taxonomies of an anthropocentric creation.

This psychoanalytic-Gnostic perspective makes it sufficiently clear that Benjamin's concept of self-alienation does not imply an alienation from an ostensibly prior, authentic, identical self. Rather, Kafka's figurations of the forgotten alien point to a constitutive split, an anthropological condition which only culminates, historically, in the effects of modern technology and commodification. The answer is therefore not a return to an unalienated, undivided, natural state but, as we already saw in the case of the screen actor, a productive transformation of self-alienation in the medium of representation. Benjamin compares Kafka's situation with that of experimental subjects who, watching themselves on film or hearing themselves speak on a gramophone, do not recognize their own walk or their own voice. But this moment of trompe l'oeil (and its acoustic equivalent), this salutary miscognition prompts an inquiry into “the fragments of one's own existence.”46

In an early Messianically inflected text, Benjamin elaborates on a similar, species-specific form of alienation when he reflects on the basic discrepancy between human physis and the human senses, the inaccessibility of the body to sensory perception: “We cannot see our face, our back, not even our whole head, that is, the most noble part of our body.” But this dilemma, like human perception itself, is historically variable, given the transformations of nature and the human physis.47 If one traces out this line of thought, the task of the technical media vis-à-vis human self-alienation is actually two-fold: allegorical, in the sense of making the dilemma visible, readable in materialist terms (which includes the way technology perpetuates, instead of overcoming, sensory alienation); and utopian, in the sense of compensating for the anthropological lack (without denying it) by rehearsing a collective innervation of technology. In the latter, the Messianic motif of an integral presence converges with the revolutionary motif of technology as a liberated and liberating productive force.

If Chaplin is exemplary of the allegorical function of film, the embodiment of self-alienation in the spirit of Kafka, Mickey Mouse prefigures the utopian interpenetration of body and image space which Benjamin delineates at the end of his essay on surrealism.48 What the surrealists, according to Benjamin, have understood on an individual basis, Mickey accomplishes in the arena of mass reception: by generating in the sphere of the image, through techniques of “profane illumination,” the reality of a “collective physis” (Kollektivleib). Where image space and physis coincide, there is no place for armored bodies. The leap into the apparatus opens up the dimension of the optical unconscious, makes it public and redemptive; hence Benjamin's initial choice of the title “Micky-Maus” for the entire section devoted to the optical unconscious in the Artwork essay.

As an animated, artificial subjectivity, Mickey Mouse not only unfetters the human sensorium from its imaginary confinement to the human shape, but also projects the demise of the human species in an anthropomorphic, anthropocentric sense. “The Mickey Mouse demonstrates that the creature [Kreatur] continues to exist even when it has shed all similarity with humans. He/she/it ruptures the hierarchy of creatures predicated on the human being.” In the context of the Passagen-Werk, the deliberate blurring of boundaries between human and nonhuman nature joins Mickey Mouse in a constellation with Charles Fourier, with the utopian project of “cracking the teleology of nature.” Like Fourier's extravagances, Mickey Mouse represents a “moral mobilization of nature,” and as in Fourier, the vector of this mobilization is humor: “The cracking of natural teleology proceeds according to the plan of humor.”49

Benjamin, like the surrealists, was fascinated with Fourier's fantastic visions in which technology found a playful use in the cosmic reorganization of nature. When the ocean turns to lemonade; when human beings will be able to live like fish in the water and fly like birds in the air; when they can turn themselves into amphibians at will by closing the hole in the cardiac chamber; when oranges will blossom in Siberia and the most dangerous beasts will be configured into their opposites—anti-lions will deliver the mail and anti-whales will help human beings tug boats; when new stars come into existence that replace the old which, as we speak, are rotting anyway. … It is evident why Benjamin perceived an afterglow of the Fourierist imagination when he saw films in which trees court and marry, cars turn into dangerous monsters, pigs into accordions, fish into tigers, and octopuses into elephants.50

Benjamin's peculiar form of negative anthropology, which links his reading of Kafka with his interest in Fourier, superimposes the historical-political trajectory of modernity—from the Second Empire to fascism—with a different temporality, closer to the Messianic speculations of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”51 Even in the context of the Artwork essay, he sees the problem of revolution defined by the disjunction between “the utopia of the second nature,” concerned with society and technology (the Soviet experiment) and “the utopia of the first,” concerned with the human body, with “love and death” (Fourier, de Sade). If the utopia of second nature takes on the legacy of one or more centuries, the utopia of a changed physis refers itself to the grand scheme of “natural history”; like Kafka, it thinks “in terms of cosmic epochs” (in Weltaltern).52 Inasmuch as the concept of collective innervation bridges first and second nature, it also telescopes anthropological, global-ecological and Messianic perspectives into the politics of perception mandated by the contemporary crisis. Mickey Mouse becomes a dialectical image for Benjamin because he/she/it embodies the disjunctive temporalities of human and natural history.

As is well-known, Benjamin was not the only writer who perceived Mickey as an instance of the utopian imagination.53 And the earliest Mickey Mouse films (such as Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy [1928]), like some of the Silly Symphonies of the early 1930s, indeed contain glimpses of a playfully transformed nature, nature liberated from anthropocentric, phallocentric oppositions and hierarchies, a nature in which the boundaries between humans and animals, mechanical and organic, living and inanimate objects, master and slave, labor and play become fluid. Is Mickey a mouse? Or an android? Is the creature woman, man, or child?

If such blurring of boundaries had a utopian appeal, it also involved an encounter with the uncanny. For Mickey's otherness was not that of an easily recognizable difference (like his “blackness”), but his/her/its very hybridity, the peculiar, syncretistic blend of strange and familiar elements that the genre of the animated cartoon permits. Contemporary responses to Mickey, including Disney's own, tend to register the creature's uncanny fallout, but only to domesticate it in various ways.

Fritz Moellenhoff, for instance, in the first major psychoanalytic attempt to come to terms with Mickey Mouse, relates the figure to “doubts and anxieties” caused by the “overpoweringly rapid development” of technology. Drawing on an important essay by Hanns Sachs, “The Delay of the Machine Age” (1933), Moellenhoff sees Mickey as a “playful inversion of the machine age,” inasmuch as the Mouse “ridicules” the “goddess” which technology has become. If the division between organic and mechanical, “living and lifeless,” breeds anxiety under conditions of reality, Mickey's animated, artificial, dreamlike existence allays those fears by appealing to our narcissism and fantasies of omnipotence. In a similar gesture, Moellenhoff enumerates other aspects that combine at once transgressive and reassuring appeals: Mickey's inversion of the mouse character, the fearless pluckiness of the tiny, weak creature; Mickey's hybrid gender (especially after Disney gave the creature the voice of a eunuch or prepubescent child, which was, coincidentally, his own); Mickey's acting out of polymorphous perversions, in particular sadism and orality, without guilt or punishment; and the absence of castration symbolism and of Oedipal conflicts and confrontations. Moellenhoff concludes by venturing that the key to Mickey Mouse's success is his symbolic significance of “a phallus but a desexualized one.” Lacking genital interest—and thus refusing heterosexual reproduction—“he does not stir up wishes which have to be suppressed and consequently he does not arouse anxiety.”54

The psychoanalytic discourse on Mickey Mouse evokes, once more, Adorno's association of the Disney figure with the “jazz subject.” If jazz has a socially nonconforming, resistant element, Adorno grants, it may lie in its gender hybridity. For even as the sound approximates the human voice, the timbre of the jazz instruments refuses to be characterized in terms of sexual difference: it is “impossible to diagnose the muted trumpet as masculine-heroic; or to define the anthropoid sound of the saxophone as the voice of a noble virgin in the manner in which Berlioz still used the related clarinet.” To be sure, the partial drives released in the moment of regression are as soon repressed, falsely integrated, and become detrimental in their particular social configuration which turns “sadism into terror,” “homosexuality into a conspiratorial collective.” Nonetheless, Adorno discerns in jazz's momentary rebellion “against patriarchal genitality” an affinity with the most advanced esoteric music (Berg, Schönberg) in which “the partial drives are called up one by one.” The timbres in which this naming takes place are the same ones that in jazz appear as “parodistic.”55

The radical edge the first Disney cartoons might have had, critics tend to agree, disappeared sometime during the early 1930s. Perhaps Disney had his own or, rather, his corporation's, second thoughts on the uncanny hybrid that some of his viewers discovered in his creation. Mickey's perverse streaks were sanitized, his rodent features domesticated into neotenic cuteness; the playful, anarchic engagement with machinery was functionalized to comply with the work ethic; and outlandish fantasy gave way to an idealized, sentimentalized world. And despite—and, perhaps, through—this process of normalization, violence and terror became a staple of the Disney films, including the features.56

Benjamin's investment in Mickey Mouse no doubt corresponded to certain traits present in the films that were also perceived by his contemporaries. But there is a moment of excess in this investment (an excess comparable to Eisenstein's obsession with Disney's fire imagery in The Moth and the Flame) that has at least as much to do with the writer's unconscious as with that of the spectating collective whose reactions are claimed as evidence. Compared with Benjamin's Gnostic science fiction fantasy of the Disney Mouse, the psychoanalytic efforts at explanation or critique (including Adorno's) invariably sound tame and normalizing. Benjamin's own effort to rationalize Mickey as part of a presentist “culture of glas” suggests that the utopian overvaluation of the figure is a reaction formation against a formidable fear, unleashed by thinking the destruction of the subject. The fear that Mickey “sets out to learn” in Benjamin's technological fairy tale is that of the reactions that it might catalyze in the mass audience, the “inhuman laughter” that may be therapeutic discharge or prelude to a pogrom.

Today, Benjamin's image of Mickey Mouse enters a constellation with the cyborg, as an emblem of a similar confusion of boundaries—between organism and machine, animal and human, male and female, Oedipal and social, public and private. The cyborg, in Donna Haraway's famous manifesto, is the prototype of “a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self.”57 Benjamin's Mickey Mouse has an affinity with Haraway's cyborg not only in the (post)-anthropological, cosmic perspective but also in the assessment of the political stakes, the insistence on holding both infinite destructive power and new possibilities with a double, stereoscopic vision:

From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women's bodies in a masculinist orgy of war. … From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.58

Like Haraway, Benjamin could not envision a transformed relationship between technology, human beings, and nature without a different organization of the social, economic, and sexual order—a postnational, postcolonial, and non-Oedipal order of humanity:

Human beings as a species may have completed their development tens of thousands of years ago; humanity as a species, however, is only at its beginning. For that species, technology organizes a physis in which the exchange with the cosmos takes on new and different forms from those of peoples and families.59

With somewhat less pathos, Benjamin makes a similar point in his Kafka essay, when he recounts Max Brod's anecdote of Kafka referring to contemporary humankind as “nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God's head” when he is in a bad mood, has a “bad day.” Asked if that means that there is “hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know,” Kafka is supposed to have responded: “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” Which leads Benjamin to single out a particular group of “extremely strange figures” in Kafka who may be exempt from this verdict: “the assistants” (Gehilfen), unfinished and awkward creatures who alone “have escaped from the bosom of the family and for whom there may be hope,” that is, because they have escaped from the family circle.60

“To see from both perspectives at once” even as they seem to rule each other out: this program is not without danger. For it involves going further along with the powers of destruction than any humanist critique would dare to permit. Benjamin's own rhetoric is characterized by a fascination with technological violence and simultaneous attempts to check the vehemence of the destructive imagination. Thus the utopian passage from One-Way Street cited above is preceded by an organicist-sexist fantasy that can compete with anything Ernst Jünger or Oswald Spengler wrote about technology. Warning against a failure to theorize humanity's need for an ecstatic and communal contact with the cosmos, Benjamin points to the terrible realization of this need in the “last war, which was an attempt at a new and unprecedented mating with the cosmic powers.”

Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-voltage currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug into Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology.

Benjamin's style mimicks the phallic, heterosexist, irrational thrust of the military imaginary even as he goes on to pull the anti-capitalist emergency brake: “But because the lust for profit of the ruling class sought penitence for its own will technology betrayed humanity and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath.”61

A similar pattern seems to be at work in Benjamin's inscription of Mickey Mouse with the utopian idea of a collective innervation of technology, revealing this idea as the site of an intense ambivalence. By the time he was writing the Artwork essay, he was well aware of how close the Disney subject could come to the spirit of fascism. In a note accompanying the first version, he considers the “usability of the Disney method for Fascism,” a remark he elaborates in the already cited footnote to the second version.62 “The somber fireworks [of the more recent Mickey Mouse films] manifest an already present but latent trait that suggests how comfortably fascism, in this area too, appropriates ‘revolutionary’ innovations.”63 Recent research on the German reception of Disney confirms Benjamin's suspicions. Contrary to Disney publicity, Hitler was a great fan of Mickey Mouse, and Disney films and comics continued to be circulated even after and against the official prohibition; Mickey appeared as a mascot on German fighter planes well into the war.64

For Benjamin, the fine line that separated the Fourier/Disney dream of a transformed nature from the nightmare of fascism was that of humor: only in a playful, parodistic form can the revolution counter the “beastly seriousness” of fascism, its retrenchment of the dialectic of second nature into the literalist, essentialist myth of blood and soil.65 This is no doubt an important point. But in the context of the reception of the Disney films, Benjamin's insistence on the therapeutic, redemptive role of humor suggests a rhetorical emergency break similar to the anti-capitalist afterthought in his war-as-mating fantasy. For one thing, not all cartoons—and certainly not all Disney cartoons—are funny; as Kristin Thompson points out, the view of cartoons as comic was part of the ideological construction of animation, a way to rationalize departures from standards of verisimilitude.66 For another, making humor the answer to the question of a non-fascist innervation of technology sends us back to an issue that had been in question all along: the politics of the collective laughter.

It may well be that Benjamin had maneuvered himself into a genuine aporia, and his squirming (in the footnote to the second version) over the legitimacy of raising the question of the relative humanity or inhumanity of this laughter suggests as much. Adorno may have had a more acute assessment of the sadomasochistic mechanisms operating in mass-cultural reception; and his individual-humanist critique put him at a safe distance from fascism. Unlike Adorno, Benjamin took both technology and mass-cultural reception seriously as productive forces, and came close to getting caught in the rhetoric of their destructive reality. Yet even in these aporetic and ambivalent moments, the price of a tendency to think through extremes, he understood something about the success of fascism that Adorno did not.

Benjamin's ambivalence (of which Adorno's critique is an important part) holds important implications for our own unresolved relations with technology. To be sure, the catastrophe unleashed by fascism has changed the world to which Benjamin and Adorno responded, and subsequent transformations on a global scale have given their theories a historical and local patina. The use of technology in the service of domination can no longer be distinguished by the criterion of monumentality, and “play versions of second nature” (Benjamin)—such as video games—have become a major site for naturalizing violence, destruction, and oppression. In the postmodern age, technology has become infinitely smaller, miniaturized like Mickey Mouse, while power has expanded into totalities that defy representation. The global and cosmic dimensions that Benjamin superimposed upon the present through his figurative telescope have become an electronic reality.

Still, even as the stakes have multiplied, the evasions, gaps, and contradictions in our public—and, for that matter, also academic—discourses on technology remain. The confusion of death and play in contemporary entertainment culture is as symptomatic in this regard as is the unshaken belief in technology's subservience to the cause of American democracy/hegemony, to say nothing of the optimistic narratives of current media theory sailing under the flag of Cultural Studies. The perceptual splitting of agency, object, and spectacle that Benjamin and Adorno observed in different contexts is as strong as ever, and jeremiads about the media's complicity with violence tend to perpetuate that split rather than lead to a different media practice. Now as then, a politicized aesthetics of technology is key to the project of social and sexual transformation. As Benjamin insisted vis-à-vis Adorno, the very media that exacerbate human self-alienation have to be mobilized if humanity is to take charge of its own fate and ensure not only the survival but, for the first time in history, the conscious innervation of a collective physis.

For both Benjamin and Adorno, the Disney syndrome was perched on the threshold to fascism: for Benjamin, a dialectical image of the utopian possibilities of technology in an age of technological warfare; for Adorno, a sociogram of the psychic deformations that linked the liberal-capitalist culture industry to its völkisch counterpart. Half a century later, in an age of cyborgs, global integration, and more sophisticated technological warfare, the questions posed by Benjamin and Adorno's debate on Disney are still with us, suggesting a line of inquiry that can help us defamiliarize the all-too-familiar opposition of high-modernist critique and postmodernist affirmation.


  1. This essay is based on a lecture written for the centennial symposium on Walter Benjamin, “The Visual Arts in a Technological Age,” Wayne State University, Detroit, April 1992. For discussions and readings that have helped shape this essay I wish to thank Lauren Berlant, Bill Brown, Susan Buck-Morss, Donald Crafton, Hank Sartin, and, especially, Michael Geyer. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are my own.

  2. Susan Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork Essay Reconsidered,” October 62 (Fall 1992): 3-41.

  3. Peter Wollen, “Detroit: Capital of the Twentieth Century,” lecture presented at the Detroit Benjamin symposium; for an earlier version, see Peter Wollen, “Cinema/Americanism/the Robot,” in Modernity and Mass Culture, ed. James Naremore and Patrick Brantlinger (Bloomington, 1991). Wollen's suggestion assumes a reading of the Artwork essay that I have contested in “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,” New German Critique 40 (Winter 1987): 179-224.

  4. Theodor W. Adorno, letter to Walter Benjamin, 18 March 1936, trans. Harry Zohn, in Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Fredric Jameson (London, 1977), 120-26; a number of points in Adorno's letter, such as the remarks concerning Mickey Mouse and Benjamin's distinction between a “first” and a “second technology” (Technik), do not make sense unless one refers to this version of the essay. The textual vicissitudes of the Artwork essay are described in the editorial apparatus accompanying the eventual publication of the second version in volume 7 of Gesammelte Schriften (hereinafter cited as GS), ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt, 1989).

  5. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1969) 236f.: translation modified. For an earlier elaboration of the “optical unconscious,” see Walter Benjamin, “Short History of Photography” (1931), in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London, 1979); GS 2:371; and draft notes in GS 2:1140.

  6. Walter Benjamin, “Erwiderung an Oscar A. H. Schmitz” (1927; reply to an anticollectivist review of Battleship Potemkin), in GS 2:752. The subsequent elaboration of this point reads like a draft for the passage from the Artwork essay cited above.

  7. Benjamin, GS 7:376ff.

  8. Ibid., 7:377.

  9. Adorno, letter to Benjamin, 18 March 1936, in Jameson, ed., Aesthetics and Politics, 124; translation modified. I am aware that the literal translation of the definite article (die Micky-Maus) is unidiomatic, but I wish to convey the vernacular, more concrete and physical sense of the creature in Benjamin and Adorno's style. Likewise, in the following text, I will preserve the sexual ambiguity of the figure resulting from the “naturally” feminine gender of the German “Maus.”

  10. Theodor W. Adorno, “Oxforder Nachträge,” in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt, 1982), 17:101, 105. Also see Theodor W. Adorno, “On Jazz” (1936), trans. Jamie Owen Daniel, Discourse 12.1 (Fall-Winter 1989-90): 45-69; and “Perennial Fashion: Jazz,” in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Mass., 1981).

  11. On the concept of “Americanism” in general, see Victoria de Grazia, “Americanism for Export,” Wedge 7-8 (Winter-Spring 1985): 74-81; on German Americanism between the wars, see O. Basler, “Amerikanismus: Geschichte eines Schlagwortes,” Deutsche Rundschau 224 (August 1930); and John Willett, Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic: The New Sobriety, 1917-1933 (New York, 1978). Siegfried Kracauer captures the two sides of Americanism in a review of 1926: “One has to hand this to the Americans: with slapstick films they have created a form that offers a counterweight to their reality: if in that reality they subject the world to an often unbearable discipline, the film in turn dismantles this self-imposed order quite forcefully (Frankfurter Zeitung, 29 January 1936). Sergei Eisenstein makes a similar point about Disney in Eisenstein on Disney, ed. Jay Leyda, trans. Alan Upchurch (New York, 1988) 3f., 21-22, 42.

  12. Richard Schickel, The Disney Version (New York, 1971), 208f., 107, and passim. Also see Noah's Ark (1959), Disney's paean to Fordist-Taylorist methods of production.

  13. J. P. Storm and M. Dressler, Im Reiche der Micky Maus: Walt Disney in Deutschland, 1927-1945 (Berlin, 1991), 61. An article in the party paper of the Gau Pommern of 1931 calls Mickey Mouse “the most miserable ideal ever revealed,” a “dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom,” another instance of the “Jewish brutalization of the people” (ibid.). Art Spiegelman uses this quotation as an epigraph in the second volume of Maus: A Survivor's Tale (New York, 1991).

  14. Storm and Dressler, Im Reiche der Micky Maus, 55-56, 156, and passim.

  15. Lawrence A. Rickels, The Case of California (Baltimore, 1991), 59.

  16. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), trans. John Cumming (New York, 1969), 138; translation modified. The sadomasochistic structure described here is actually not limited to Disney; it can be found as well in some of the stylistically more radical Warner Brothers cartoons of the period, such as You Ought to Be in Pictures (Porky Pig/Freleng, 1940) or Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt (Bugs Bunny/Freleng, 1941).

  17. Siegfried Kracauer, “Sturges or Laughter Betrayed,” Films in Review 1.1 (February 1950): 11-13, 43-47.

  18. Benjamin, GS 7:377.

  19. Ibid., 1:508; and Illuminations, 242 (translation modified). Adorno invokes this passage in his analysis of mass-cultural forms of alienation in “On Jazz,” 49. Also see Benjamin's review of Ernst Jünger's collection, Krieg und Krieger, “Theories of German Fascism” (1930), trans. Jerolf Wikoff, New German Critique 17 (Spring 1979): 120-28; and “Pariser Brief [I]” (1936), in GS 3:482-95.

  20. Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, vol. I, trans. R. Rojcewicz and A. Schuwer (Boston, 1989), quoted and discussed in Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics,” 30. A key text for Benjamin's notion of “shock” and the historical crisis of perception is his well-known essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939).

  21. Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I” (1936/49), in Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977). As Buck-Morss points out (“Aesthetics and Anaesthetics,” 37), the first version of Lacan's paper was presented the same year as Benjamin's Artwork essay, at a meeting of the International Psychoanalytic Association at Marienbad in 1936; during that conference, Lacan traveled to Berlin in order to watch the fascist imaginary in action at the Olympics which were being held there. See David Macey, Lacan in Contexts (New York, 1988).

  22. Walter Benjamin, “Paris—the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn and Quintin Hoare (London, 1983), 165; and GS 5:50f. On the concept of “phantasmagoria” in Benjamin's Passagen-Werk, see Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), chaps. 4, 5, and passim.

  23. Walter Benjamin, “Planetarium,” in GS 4:147; and One-Way Street (selection), in Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York, 1979), 93; translation modified. Benjamin elaborates on this distinction by resorting to the analogy of education: “Is not [the purpose of] education above all the indispensable ordering of the relationship between the generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of children?” Also relevant here is Benjamin's distinction between a “first” and a “second technology,” relating to the historical distancing of human agency from its effects, in the second version of the Artwork essay, in GS 7:359f. For a detailed account of Benjamin's philosophy of technology see Norbert Bolz, Theorie der neuen Medien (Munich, 1990), pt. 2; and Auszug aus der entzauberten Welt: Philosophischer Extremismus zwischen den Weltkriegen (Munich, 1989), pt. 3.

  24. As Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis point out, Freud used the term “innervation” to describe a “physiological process: the transmission, generally in an efferent direction, of energy along a nerve-pathway,” possibly produced by the “conversion of psychical into nervous energy” (The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith [New York, 1973], 213). Whether Benjamin took the term directly from Freud or from French psychoanalytic discourse of the period, he must have found it useful for conceptualizing historical transformation as a process of converting images into somatic and collective reality. Thus, he speaks of the idea of “the revolution as an innervation of the technical organs of the collective,” comparing the at once utopian and practical aspects of this process with the development of “the child who learns how to grasp by trying to catch the moon” (GS 5:777; Artwork essay, second version, in GS 7:360 n. 4).

  25. Benjamin, Artwork essay, first version, in GS 1:445. The corresponding passage in the second version spells out more clearly the physiological and cognitive components of that task: “Film serves to train human beings in apperceptions and reactions caused by the interaction with technology [Apparatur] whose importance in their lives grows almost daily. The interaction with technology teaches them at the same time that the enslavement in its service will not give way to a liberation by this same technology until the constitution of humanity has adapted itself to the new productive forces opened up by the second technology” (GS 7:359f.).

  26. Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics,” 18 n. 62.

  27. “A Mickey Mouse film may still be incomprehensible today to [this or that] individual, but not to an entire audience [Publikum]. And a Mickey Mouse film can govern an entire audience through rhythm” (Benjamin, GS 2:962). Eisenstein was particularly interested in Disney's synaesthetic matching of sound and image tracks in conjunction with his own collaboration with Prokofiev on Alexander Nevsky (1938): see The Film Sense, ed. and trans. Jay Leyda (New York, 1947), 161f.; and Non-Indifferent Nature, cited in Eisenstein on Disney, 98-100, 65f. On the ambiguity of Benjamin's notion of “shock,” see Hansen, “Benjamin,” 210-11.

  28. Walter Benjamin, “Erfahrung und Armut” (December 1933), in GS 2:214. The same passage reappears five years later, in Benjamin's essay on Nikolai Leskov, “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations, 84, where it serves to set up a position that by and large reverses that of the earlier essay.

  29. Benjamin, “Erfahrung und Armut,” 215-18; “Zu Micky-Maus” (1931), in GS 6:144.

  30. The German word Erfahrung, more than the English word “experience,” preserves an etymological connection with both “fahren” (to ride) and Gefahr (danger) and thus conveys a sense of mobility, of journeying, wandering, or cruising, that is, temporal dimensions of duration, habit, repetition, and return, as well as a sense of risk to the experiencing subject—connotations that distinguish Erfahrung from the more neutral, singular occurrence of Erlebnis (event, adventure), a meaning contained in “experience.” On the centrality of “aura” for Benjamin's theory of experience, see Marleen Stoessel, Aura, das vergessene Menschliche: Zu Sprache und Erfahrung bei Walter Benjamin (Munich, 1983).

  31. Bolz, Auszug, 95. See also Burkhardt Lindner, “Technische Reproduzierbarkeit und Kulturindustrie: Benjamin's ‘Positives Barbarentum’ im Kontext,” in “Links hatte noch alles sich zu enträtseln …”: Walter Benjamin im Kontext, ed. Burkhardt Lindner (Frankfurt, 1978).

  32. Benjamin, GS 2:902; “Erfahrung” (1913), in GS 2:54-56.

  33. Siegfried Kracauer saw the fairy-tale motif of “the weak creature who asserts himself in the struggle against the evil forces of this world” as a distinctive characteristic of both animated cartoon and slapstick comedy, but criticizes Disney for abandoning this line, the revelation of the everyday as a fairy tale, in his longer films by merely assimilating stereotypical fairy-tale figures to a more and more conventional depiction of the everyday (“Dumbo,The Nation, 8 November 1941, 463).

  34. Benjamin, GS 2:218f.

  35. Eisenstein on Disney, 33.

  36. For a discussion of animation's specific relation to technology, see Michael Wassenaar, “Strong to the Finich: Machines, Metaphor, and Popeye the Saylor,” Velvet Lighttrap 24 (1989): 20-32.

  37. Benjamin, GS 1:495; and Illuminations, 233, where the proverbial Blue Flower is demoted to a generic “orchid.”

  38. Kristin Thompson, “Implications of the Cel Animation Technique,” in The Cinematic Apparatus, ed. Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (New York, 1980), 106-20; Richard Schickel, Disney Version, chap. 21 and passim; and Kracauer, “Dumbo.” See also Eisenstein's critical remarks about “the crude naturalism” of the landscapes in Bambi (Eisenstein on Disney, 99). Hank Sartin confirms my suspicion that, contrary to received opinion, Disney's move toward “realism” already began prior to the features, with the stabilization and standardization of the background drawings that were thus distinguished from the throbbing, rhythmic movement of the figures.

  39. Benjamin, GS 1:450-51; 7:365, 369. See also my “Benjamin,” 205-7, 219-21; and Bolz, Auszug, 129.

  40. Cartoon figures, Mickey Mouse in particular, did of course assume star status, with the attendant phenomena of fan mail, fan clubs, and copyright exploitation; in the measure that the name Disney increasingly referred to a giant corporation of anonymous employees, the star aura was transferred to Walt the inventor, artist, American genius. A considerable number of Warner Brothers cartoons, by contrast, present parodies of the star cult and of particular stars.

  41. Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament” (1927), trans. Barbara Correll and Jack Zipes, New German Critique 5 (Spring 1975): 67-77; and Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic (New York, 1990), 95.

  42. Benjamin, GS 6:144.

  43. I am indebted to Hank Sartin for this observation.

  44. Hal Foster, “Armor Fou,” October 56 (Spring 1991): 65-97; the by now classical argument on this fantasy is Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies (1977/78), 2 vols., trans. S. Conway, E. Carter, and C. Turner (Minneapolis, 1987/89).

  45. Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka,” in GS 2:431; Illuminations, 132, 126. On the body in Benjamin, see Sigrid Weigel, “Passagen und Spuren des ‘Leib- und Bildraums’ in Benjamins Schriften,” in Leib- und Bildraum: Lektüren nach Benjamin, ed. Sigrid Weigel (Cologne, 1992), 49-64; for a different position, see Stoessel, Aura, 61f., 72-77, and chap. 5.

  46. Benjamin, GS 2:436; and Illuminations, 137. I am using the term “trompe l'oeil” here in the sense developed by Mary Ann Doane, “‘When the Direction of the Force Acting on the Body Is Changed’: The Moving Image,” Wide Angle 7.1-2 (1985): 45-49.

  47. Walter Benjamin, “Wahrnehmung und Leib,” in GS 6:67; for a more extensive comment on this fragment, see Gertrud Koch, “Cosmos in Film: On the Concept of Space in Walter Benjamin's ‘Work of Art’ Essay,” trans. Nancy Nenno, Qui Parle 5.2 (Spring/Summer 1992): 61-73.

  48. In the draft notes to the Kafka essay, Benjamin repeatedly aligns Kafka and Chaplin and both in turn with the medium of silent film, a “reprieve” in the historical process to which Kafka furnishes the “last intermediary texts” (Verbindungstexte) (GS 2:1256-57); on Chaplin, see also Benjamin, GS 1:1040, 1047. Kracauer had made an explicit linkage between Kafka and silent film in his essay “Photography” (1927) and an implied one in his review of The Castle (Frankfurter Zeitung, 28 November 1926), both of which Benjamin had read. See my “Decentric Perspectives: Kracauer's Early Writings on Film and Mass Culture,” New German Critique 54 (Fall 1991): 47-76.

  49. Benjamin, GS 6:144, 5:777, 781.

  50. The last example is actually from one of Eisenstein's favorite Silly Symphonies, Merbabies (1938), in which he perceived a similar play with evolutionist teleology; see Eisenstein on Disney, 4, 10, 33.

  51. See, in particular, Benjamin's thesis 18, in GS 1:703, in which he cites a biologist on the minute fracture that human history represents in relation to organic life on earth and equates this disproportion to the “time of the now” which, as a model of Messianic time, represents, in an “enormous abbreviation,” the history of all humanity (Benjamin, Illuminations, 263; translation modified).

  52. Draft notes on the second version of the Artwork essay, GS 7:665f.; “Kafka,” in GS 2:410; Illuminations, 113. On the concept of “natural history” (Naturgeschichte) in Benjamin and Adorno, see Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics (New York, 1977), 52-57; and Dialectics of Seeing chaps. 3 and 6. Jameson, Late Marxism, 95, ironically notes the scandal, “worse than old-fashioned … a kind of social blunder,” involved in Critical Theory's evocation of “the larger, more abstract thoughts” of natural history, that is, from the perspective of Althusserian Marxism, and goes on to link the notion of natural history to the discourse of contemporary science fiction.

  53. Eisenstein on Disney; Kracauer, “Dumbo”; also see Gregory A. Waller, “Mickey, Walt, and Film Criticism from Steamboat Willie to Bambi,” in The American Animated Cartoon, ed. Gerald Peary and Danny Peary (New York, 1980), 49-57; Timothy R. White, “From Disney to Warner Bros.: The Critical Shift,” Film Criticism 16.3 (1992): 3-16; and Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Dream Masters I: Walt Disney,” Film Comment (January-February 1975): 64-69.

  54. Fritz Moellenhoff, “Remarks on the Popularity of Mickey Mouse,” American Imago (June 1940), rpt. American Imago 46.2-3 (Summer/Fall 1989): 105-19. Hanns Sachs's essay first appeared in Psychoanalytic Quarterly 2 (1933): 404-24. Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart take the Disney characters' refusal to reproduce—and thus evade ‘natural’ motherhood—as part of the comics' authoritarian structure; see their How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, trans. David Kunzle (New York, 1975).

  55. Adorno, “Oxforder Nachträge,” 106f.

  56. Robert Sklar, “The Making of Cultural Myths: Walt Disney,” in Peary and Peary, eds., American Animated Cartoon, 58-65; David I. Berland, M.D., “Disney and Freud: Walt Meets the Id,” Journal of Popular Culture 15.4 (1982): 93-104; Elizabeth A. Lawrence, “In the Mick of Time: Reflections on Disney's Ageless Mouse,” Journal of Popular Culture 20.2 (1986): 65-72; and Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic (New York, 1987), 37. Also see Schickel, Disney Version, on the films' reputation of terrifying children (most impressively, Dr. Benjamin Spock's allegation that Nelson Rockefeller told his wife “that they had to reupholster the seats in Radio City Music Hall because they were wet so often by frightened children” [185]).

  57. Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York, 1991), 163.

  58. Ibid., 154.

  59. Benjamin, GS 4:147; Reflections, 93; translation modified.

  60. Benjamin, GS 2:414f.; Illuminations, 116f.

  61. Benjamin, GS 4:147; Reflections, 93; translation modified.

  62. Benjamin, GS 1:1045.

  63. Ibid., 7:377.

  64. Storm and Dressler, Im Reiche der Micky Maus, for instance, cite the following entry from Goebbels's diary, 20 December 1937: “I present the Führer with thirty of the last years' top films and eighteen Mickey Mouse films … for Christmas. He is very pleased and quite happy over this treasure which will hopefully bring him much joy and recreation” (11). When Leni Riefenstahl visited the United States in the winter of 1938-39, she was boycotted by the industry; the only producer who gave her a warm welcome was Walt Disney (128f.); see also 64ff., 142-46, and Carsten Laqua, Wie Micky unter die Nazis fiel: Walt Disney und Deutschland (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1992).

  65. Benjamin, GS 1:1045.

  66. Thompson, “Cel Animation,” 110.

Thomas Pepper (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11626

SOURCE: “Guilt by (Un)Free Association: Adorno on Romance et al,” in MLN, Vol. 109, No. 5, December, 1994, pp. 913-37.

[In the following essay, Pepper analyzes the aphorisms in Minima Moralia.]

It follows from this that anybody who attempts to come out alive—and survival itself has something nonsensical about it, like dreams in which, having experienced the end of the world, one afterwards crawls from a basement—ought also to be prepared at each moment to end his life.1

But this is to condemn and to love in an abusive way.2

Minima Moralia is a hard book to read all at once, both because it is simply too delicious and at the same time because it is highly repetitious—I, for one, cannot eat chocolate all day—also because it is not quite repetitious enough, but demands a considerable amount of energy to keep alert so as to be able to follow the dialectical pattern of Adorno's sentences to their often startling and unexpected conclusions, thus to admit that his scorn and his despair are not necessarily one's own. Reading this book must be an experience that never spares the reader the constant need to examine his or her specific difference. Identification as a readerly strategy belongs to the New Old Right, which is why we don't have to throw out Adorno because he rejects, for example, jazz: it is only the uncritical desire to seek a Master, thus to be a Slave, that would demand of a great thinker that his taste always be right. It is silly enough, but the mistake is so often made that an error of such serious proportions could force an absolute reader-text estrangement or divorce. But this would be to miss the point of the notion of a, or of the, critical reader Adorno promulgates, which notion refuses to allow the reader off the hook, and refuses as well to allow the reader simply to indulge in the (naively construed) aesthetic pleasures of turning our author into just another example of an irate parent on the other side of the generation gap.

The theoretical justification behind these apparent obiter dicta, however much these may find echoes—or not—in the arena of the politically correct, is not to be found in some recent polemic in the debates surrounding cultural studies, but in a place apparently far removed from them. While the point I am making can be found more or less everywhere in Hegel—for Adorno, His Master's Text—a passage from the Aesthetics will serve as well as any to make the point. When Hegel defines allegory as representing the separation of subject from predicate, of individual singularity from the universal conceptuality that is being predicated of it, he thinks that he can reproach allegorical intention as being inferior to that, say, of the symbolic. But the moment of this separation reveals itself to be structural and incapable of being eliminated, despite whatever derogations or tonal regrets. This form of non-identification of universal and particular, and our understanding in some way of the nonidentity they maintain over the copula, is, in fact, the very possibility of our being able to make meaningful sentences in which singular terms are related to universals at all (SS, 774-75).

It is also, of course, the very possibility of criticism itself that is at issue here, that is to say of the ethical necessity of owning up to not identifying with what one reads. For a critic to identify with what he reads is not merely silly—the equivalent of the character played by Woody Allen in his Zelig—it is, epistemologically speaking, a massive error, a blatant stupidity. A sentence as simple as ‘the sky is blue’ is dependent, for its interpretation, on this ability to recognize, even without being able necessarily to explain, the kind of relation that is meant, even if what is also said is the inability of any universal term to link up with or cover any particular. The structural predicament of allegory, which thus infects all discourse, will not be gotten rid of by demoting it as an aesthetically inferior mode.

And where the particular is of the highest importance, the most important is what is tendency, Tendenz, and inclination, Neigung. At the moment one thinks oneself to be engaged in the spirit of conspiratorial identification between author and reader (precisely the sort of theatrical conspiracy which constitutes the central irony of Kierkegaard's oeuvre, with which Adorno was passionately involved from his adolescence and which was the subject of his first book) something intervenes, and one is very likely to miss a beat in this nothing-but-syncopated book if one isn't careful not to adopt Adorno's or anyone else's scorn entirely as one's own.

The tightness of the aphorisms that make up Adorno's Minimabilia is Pascalian.3 The regression toward the particular of the essay, itself the denial of system, cannot be tolerated in a work that makes a claim to totality, even though it can only exist in a silent relation to the assertion of that totality, as Adorno remarks in the little preface—actually not a preface, but a dedication to Max Horkheimer on Valentine's Day, Horkheimer's birthday—to Minima Moralia. The difference between a preface—to a book such as The Phenomenology of Spirit—and a dedication—to a book such as Minima Moralia—is the formal symptom of the full-scale critique of Hegel's conception of Science that Adorno is mounting, not merely a literary device to be philosophically dismissed. It is a matter of where one chooses to put one's emphasis, and thus it is a question of what I will call, in the extremely precise but unfashionable language of the New Critics, tone.

Adorno, who would have disdained any attempt to justify work by recourse to mere humor, makes a logical argument for this most abstractly confessional of books by reproaching Hegel for his neglect of the particular, in what is itself one of Adorno's most stunningly ironic coups:

Thus Hegel, whose method schooled that of Minima Moralia, argued against the mere being-for-itself of subjectivity on many levels. Dialectical theory, abhorring anything isolated, cannot admit aphorisms as such. In the most lenient instance they might, to use a term from the Preface to the Phenomenology of Mind, be tolerated as ‘conversation.’ But the time for that is past. Nevertheless, this book forgets neither the system's claim to totality, which would suffer nothing to remain outside it, nor that it remonstrates against this claim.

Up to this point in the paragraph, Adorno is merely asserting the fact that he knows well enough where his present is falling out of the System, but has not yet hit bottom. He has no illusions, he is nobody's—least of all Hegel's—fool. But the truly philosophical moment of critique begins when the baldness of a temporal scheme of later-is-less-naive (the equivalent of post hoc propter hoc in the history of ideas) is left behind for an argument based on grounds internal to Hegel's text itself:

In his relation to the subject Hegel does not respect the demand that he otherwise passionately upholds: to be in the matter and not ‘always beyond it,’ to ‘penetrate into the immanent content of the matter.’ If today the subject is vanishing, aphorisms take upon themselves the duty ‘to consider the evanescent itself as essential.’ They insist, in opposition to Hegel's practice and yet in accordance with his thought, on negativity: ‘The life of the mind only attains its truth when discovering itself in absolute desolation. The mind is not this power as a positive which turns away from the negative, as when we say of something that it is null, or false, so much for that and now for something else; it is this power only when looking the negative in the face, dwelling upon it.’

(Minima Moralia, [hereafter abbreviated as MM] Dedication, 8-9/16-17)

Minima Moralia is announced, then, as an attack on the soft underbelly of the Hegelian System. But this attack does not come from outside the system, it is simply the result of attending to the details, the matter, die Sache, of Hegel's own system. This is a critical argument. But, on the other hand, it may now be necessary to take Adorno's assertion of his later-therefore-wiser quite seriously. For, given the prodosis of the rebuke, with its temporalizing Setzung, even if hypothetically stated (“If today the subject is vanishing. …”), Adorno is marking something else, his being on the other side of a watershed, attempting an almost post-phenomenological investigation from the perspective of the moment of the subject's matutinal evanescence.

It is crucial for his argument, for his attack, that the subject has not entirely vanished yet, else one would hardly be able to write in reference to the System at all. The aphorism will be used to rebuke the System, which, qua system, had to throw itself in with the matter of the universal element, precisely in order to be able to enunciate itself as the arrival of Science on the world stage. Hegel is reproached for being at odds with his own intention: to attend to the matter itself is always the claim of the person who announces himself as the phenomenologist.

The dialectics of this paragraph are, as is fitting for a dedication or an exoteric paratext, clear enough. But what is disturbing, in its very obviousness, are these very moments, these puncta: “The time for that is past,” “if today the subject is vanishing. …” The only way for Adorno entirely to avoid being eaten alive by the Pantagruelian—or perhaps better, phagocytotically vacuolizing or macrophagic—dialectic of the Master, even at the very moment when he is admitting where he himself was “schooled,” is to inscribe the entirety of the Hegelian lesson into a history as a moment now over.

This, then, is the work of a mature poet, who has swerved successfully from his father and the father of all of us moderns, in addition to being perhaps the first post-Auschwitz classic. It laments modernity's passing and fully evil flowering on the very eve of what some have hailed as its dissolution. Adorno's dedication cites The Preface, the only one, in order to get past the moment of Hegel's Preface (Hegel as preface to Adorno), that is to say the emergence of Science, that is, Hegel, on the world scene. What Adorno the son wants to bring as his gift to the Father (Grandfather?) is the message of the first son who got it, Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote, in his Repetition:

The exception explains the general and itself. And if one wants to study the general correctly, one only needs to look around for a true exception. It reveals everything more clearly than does the general. Endless talk about the general becomes boring; there are exceptions. If they cannot be explained, then the general also cannot be explained. The difficulty is usually not noticed because the general is not thought about with passion but with a comfortable superficiality. The exception, on the other hand, thinks the general with intense passion.4

One might repeat with insistence and with Kierkegaard, in order to gloss Adorno's strategy in respect of Hegel, from a different moment in the dialectic of Fear and Trembling, published on the same day as Repetition: “the one who will work gives birth to his own father.”5 Adorno continues in his reproaches:

The dismissive gesture which Hegel, in contradiction to his own insight, constantly accords the individual, derives paradoxically enough from his entanglement in liberalistic thinking. The conception of a totality harmonious through all its antagonisms compels him to assign to individuation, however much he may designate it as a driving moment in the process, an inferior status in the construction of the whole. The knowledge that in pre-history the objective tendency asserts itself over the heads of human beings, indeed by virtue of annihilating individual qualities, without the reconciliation of general and particular—constructed in thought—ever yet being accomplished in history, is distorted in Hegel: with serene indifference he opts once again for liquidation of the particular. Nowhere in his work is the primacy of the whole doubted. The more questionable the transition from reflective isolation to glorified totality becomes in history as in Hegelian logic, the more eagerly philosophy, as the justification of what exists, attaches itself to the triumphal car of objective tendencies. The culmination of the social principle of individuation in the triumph of fatality gives philosophy occasion enough to do so. Hegel, in hypostasizing both bourgeois society and its fundamental category, the individual, did not truly carry through the dialectic between the two. Certainly he perceives, with classical economics, that the totality produces and reproduces itself precisely from the interconnection of the antagonistic interests of its members. But the individual as such he for the most part considers, naively, as an irreducible datum—just what in his theory of knowledge he decomposes. Nevertheless, in an individualistic society, the general not only realizes itself through the interplay of particulars, but society is essentially the substance of the individual.

(MM, Dedication, 9-10/16-17)

There you have it. The Master has now been rather magisterially treated as a moment in the preface of the son. Exit Daddy, Teddie arrives. But the sweetness of revenge is tempered by a terrible melancholy: these “reflections from the damaged life” attach themselves to the triumphal car of the silly optimism of bourgeois liberalism, but in doing so are not one, but at least two steps behind the objective tendencies, which perhaps no longer exist. We are all in the cortège at the end of Sirk's Imitation of Life. Hegel's dismissive gesture toward the individual becomes here Adorno's chastising gesture toward one very specific individual—Hegel—at the same time that he is addressing this book of aphorisms to one very specific individual, Max Horkheimer, “in thanks and promise.”

The final blow of the lesson is contained in the last sentence of the paragraph, in which Adorno tells us what the objective tendencies of this time of writing are, in a corrective gesture, a tribute that Hegel qua Hegel cannot take. And, in a move of truly Adornian irony, we find the opposite of what we have, thus far, expected him to say: It is not Hegel's romantic yearning for totality or totalization or any other such history of ideas claptrap which forced him toward utter contempt for the individual. Rather it is his engagement precisely with the Protestant and bourgeois ideology of individualism which, rather than pushing him toward giving a stronger valence to the individual in his philosophy, robs, on the contrary, the individual of his weight by making it—the individual—into yet another bloodless form of universality, even if, according to Hegel the bourgeois, it is the very form of our being and of our social being.6 It is the very form of our existence which Adorno reproaches Hegel for ignoring. In a sense it is, if you will, Adorno's ultimate condescension to Hegel's naiveté to be able to broach or to inflict such an ironic blow, to be able to strike a blow at a prejudice that emanates from the level of the axiomatic form of the System itself: the form of the thinking subject is I (SS, 767-79).

All of this being said, the most striking aspect of this passage is the fact that it is a reading of Hegel on the Terror. The Terror is the moment in which the pure universality of the law-without-law, the nakedness of the symbolic order, reigns and strips every subject of his or her individuality and right to persist in living. “With serene indifference he opts for the liquidation of the particular”: how can we hear this, from Santa Monica, Grand Hotel Abyss, in 1944-45, as anything other than what we will be dealing with presently in our chosen singularity, our exemplary aphorism, as yet indicated but untouched, as “the Fascist eradication of the racial minority itself”? This is the objective tendency of our hearing. It is not a matter of Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood as the truth of the Universal Revolution that produced the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. It is a matter of Jew, Gypsy, Homosexual, Asocial, Mentally Ill: it is a matter of the reduction of humanity to types, absorbing the absolute singularity of individuals into the global and levelling universality of predicates, concepts, which reveals the truth of Reason in the Terror.

But in order to deal with the sweating out of these foreign bodies reduced to types and thus to concepts and thus to ashes at Auschwitz, I want to talk about the structure of the French Terror. Let us turn for a moment to what Adorno's contemporary, Maurice Blanchot, is saying about similar motifs and about some of the same passages in Hegel, reviewing Kojève, shortly after Adorno writes up the damaged life in California:

Let us acknowledge that in a writer there is a movement which proceeds without pause, and almost without transition, from nothing to everything. Let us see in him that negation that is not satisfied with the unreality in which it exists, because it wishes to realize itself and can only do so by negating something real, more real than words, more true than the isolated individual in control: it therefore keeps urging him towards a worldly life and a public existence in order to induce him to conceive how, even as he writes, he can become that very existence. It is at this point that he encounters those decisive moments in history when everything seems put in question, when law, faith, the State, the world above, the world of the past—everything sinks effortlessly, without work, into nothingness. The man knows he has not stepped out of history, but history is now the void, the void in the process of realization; it is absolute freedom which has become an event. Such periods are given the name Revolution. At this moment, freedom aspires to be realized in the immediate form of everything is possible, everything can be done. A fabulous moment—and no one who has experienced it can completely recover from it, since he has experienced history as his own history and his own freedom as universal freedom. These moments are, in fact, fabulous moments: in them, fable speaks; in them, the speech of fable becomes action. That the writer should be tempted by them is completely appropriate. Revolutionary action is in every respect analogous to action as embodied in literature: the passage from nothing to everything, the affirmation of the absolute event and of every event as absolute. Revolutionary action explodes with the same force and the same facility as the writer who has only to set down a few words side by side in order to change the world. Revolutionary action also has the same demand for purity, and the certainty that everything it does has absolute value, that it is not just any action performed to bring about some desirable and respectable goal, but that it is itself the ultimate goal, the Last Act. This last act is freedom, and the only choice left is between freedom and nothing. This is why, at that point, the only tolerable slogan is: freedom or death. Thus the Reign of Terror comes into being. People cease to be individuals working at specific tasks, acting here and only now: each person is universal freedom, and universal freedom knows nothing about elsewhere or tomorrow, or work or a work accomplished. At such times there is nothing left for anyone to do, because everything has been done. No one has a right to private life any longer, everything is public, and the most guilty person is the suspect—the person who has a secret, who keeps a thought, an intimacy to himself. And in the end no one has a right to his life any longer, to his actually separate and physically distinct existence. This is the meaning of the Reign of Terror.7

Revolution is the flower absent from all bouquets, that is to say, it is the moment of purest negation, when there are no compromises. The compromises always come afterwards. It is in this sense that revolution is fabular or allegorical: as soon as it happens—and since it is, by definition, an extralegal situation, it is hard to speak of agency and to say anything other than it happens, es ereignet sich, like the true, it occurs—a certain number of names take on the form of blank subjects that are then filled in during the temporal economy thus opened up and which follows: terrors, reactions, decapitations, consulates, Final Solutions, liquidations, Exterminations.

As far as the nationalist moment here is concerned, the distinction between the Revolutions American and French can be registered by comparing the mottos: if the French have “Freedom or Death,” where both words should be capitalized as allegorical, fabular entities, we in the United States have something like “your money or your life,” in which both substantives as well as the possessives are written in the lower case.8 French absolutism here is capital and crucial, providing as it does the motive for the very Hegelian text both Adorno and Blanchot-via-Kojève are commenting upon: the Preface to the Phenomenology, written, proverbially, that is to say fabularly enough, as Napoleon was sidling up to the gates of Jena, home of the German Romantics (who were busy working on the theory of irony inside).

Now it is time to zero in on the text we have been slouching towards since the beginning, the aphorism from Minima Moralia entitled “Morals and the Order of Time”:

—While literature has treated all psychological modes of erotic conflicts, the most simple, mechanical matter of conflict has remained unattended by virtue of its self-evidence. It is the phenomenon of being possessed: that a beloved person refuses himself [sich uns versagt] to us not because of inner antagonisms or inhibitions, because of too much coldness or too much repressed warmth, but rather because a relationship already exists that excludes another. In truth abstract temporal sequence plays the role one would like to ascribe to the hierarchy of feelings. In being previously taken there lies—apart from freedom of choice and of decision—also something of the wholly accidental that seems entirely to contradict the claim of freedom. Especially in a society cured of the anarchy of commodity production, rules would hardly [schwerlich] keep watch over the sequence [Reihenfolge] in which one gets to know people. Were it otherwise, such an arrangement would have to amount to the most unbearable intrusion upon freedom. From this comes the fact that even the priority of the accidental has powerful grounds on its side: if a newcomer is preferred to some person, one does to this person inevitably an evil thing—in that the past of a shared life is annulled [annulliert], experience itself likewise crossed out. The irreversibility of time delivers an objective moral criterion. But it, the criterion, is a sibling of myth, like abstract time itself. The exclusionary character posited in time unfolds according to its own concept towards the exclusionary dominance of hermetically sealed groups, in the end those of big business. Nothing is more touching than the anxiety of the loving woman, lest the newcomer be able to draw love and tenderness—her best possessions, precisely because they do not allow themselves to be possessed—toward herself, precisely because of that newness, which itself is produced by the privilege of the older. But from this stirring up, through which all warmth and everything sheltering immediately dissolve, begins an irresistible way upon which the stations are the disinclination of the little brother for the one later born[9] and the contempt of the fraternity student for his pledge to the immigration laws that keep all non-Caucasians out of Social-Democratic Australia, and unto the Fascist extermination of the racial minority, in which in fact warmth and shelter explode into nothing. As Nietzsche knew, not only were all good things once evil; but the most tender, left to their own momentum [Schwerkraft], have the tendency to end up in unimaginable brutality.

It would be superfluous to try to indicate a way out of this entanglement. But the disastrous moment that brings the entire dialectic into play most probably allows itself to be named. It lies in the exclusionary character of the first. The originary relation, in its mere immediacy, already requires [voraussetzt] abstract temporal order. Historically, the concept of time is itself modeled on the basis [Grund] of the order of ownership. But the wish to possess reflects time as fear of losing, of the irretrievable. What is, is experienced in relation to its possible non-being. Only thus does it really get made into a possession and, thus fixed, into a functional thing that allows for its being exchanged for other, equivalent possessions. Once become entirely a possession, the beloved person is simply no longer looked at. Abstractness in love is the complement of exclusionariness, which deceptively makes its appearance as the opposite, as a clinging to this very one being. But exactly this holding on loses its hold on its object, in that it makes it into an object, and thus misses the person whom it denigrates to “my person.” Were people no longer possessions, they could no longer be exchanged. True affection [Neigung, preference, inclination] would be one that speaks specifically to the other, that attaches itself to beloved traits [Züge] and not to the idol of personhood, the reflection of possession. The specific is not exclusionary: it lacks the drive [Zug] toward totality. But in another sense it is nonetheless exclusionary, in the sense that it does not forbid, but by means of its pure concept does not even allow substitution of the experience indissolubly bound up with it to occur. The protection of the entirely determined is that it cannot be repeated, and thus it tolerates the other. To the property relation to the person, to the exclusionary law of priority, belongs exactly this wisdom: God, they are all only people, whichever one it is is not so important after all. Affection that would know nothing of such wisdom would not need fear infidelity, because it would be guarded against faithlessness.

(MM I, 96-99/78-80)10

One might well ask, rather: But without such “wisdom,” how can there be any true affection? And this in so many senses: Time, experienced by the subject as anxiety before death and other endings—and this by lovers most of all—or rather, the demand to spend time, to do time, the demand on a beloved that we do time together, etc., cannot be tempered, pragmatically speaking, without the irony, this time of consciousness, necessary to shrugging the shoulders and simply waiting for the other to come, if ever. I take this as both psychologically and phenomenologically true, and therefore, linguistically, almost certainly uninteresting. To demand of the would-be conquering lover that he simply give the love object space out of infinite love for that love object is to ask too much from anyone who has not acquired enough wisdom to know not to be impatient enough to fall in love in the first place. As Kierkegaard knows, every love is the first love, and following from this, in and as its inevitable disappointment (as Bataille knows, for it is the experience he shares with us as the experience motivating his L'expérience intérieure), is the realization that to love and not to do so in an abusive manner it is counterproductive or even destructive to desire to be everything.

Down to brass tacks. Literature is a collection of particulars, of singularities, and, as such, it is a set that forms the totality that treats all the psychological species of erotic conflict. This is not what Adorno says, but it is worthy of being thought, as a definition of literature. But the simplest has escaped being included in this baroque catalogue. What is the simplest? It is what the logicians call material implication, cause and effect, what Kant himself knew to be unanalyzable at the conceptual level.11

But the fact of the simplest having escaped notice is not insignificant. As atom, the simplest itself has no epistemic valence until it combines, until it is sequenced into a series of moments in which it will receive its value as first. The potential love object refuses himself to us out of a monogamous prior commitment. The assumption here, at least at this point, is that every monad has a valence of one: monogamy is the presumed atomic fact, Sachverhalt, to use Wittgenstein's Tractarian term with rigid precision.

But at this point the dialectic has already come into play, for the monad is only seen to be (a) monad(ic)—remember the monad is a mirror and a window—in relation to its complement. Abstract temporal sequence is abstract here because it applies structurally to all subjects qua subjects. It is not as though there might be any way to sidestep this predicament, which is why the references to prehistory and to history, both in the passage from the Dedication cited above as well as here, are so interesting. The reference to prehistory [Vorgeschichte] is Adorno's way of denouncing the idyll of a mythic time before time in which such relations would not have obtained.

We are limited to analyzing the structure of the events in question, but that proves to be quite a lot. For what we are up against is the very birth of consciousness in the Oedipal triangle, the primal repression of the Father's No. The parental pair is, after all, the first dyad. Teddie will, after all, marry into Mommy's name, contracting Daddy's land holdings into that celebrated W.12 Not might makes right, but time makes right: (The) I got (t)here first. Or at least that is the story it tells after getting there. In psychoanalytic terms, the law of priority, of temporal relations is called the Oedipus Complex, which can be summarized for our purposes here in Lacan's lapidary “if you do that again, I'll cut it off.”13

In the matter of constraint, or, as Adorno puts it here, of freedom of choice and decision, there is more than a hint of the F. W. Schlegelian language of irony as unrelieved arbitrariness, unbedingte Willkür. The accidental fact of time makes right not only seems, but is in flat contradiction to the claims of freedom. Lest we be mistaken for speaking only of things as they are in that fallen state of commodity fetishism (Adorno's supposedly secular equivalent for Pascal's state of Man's Fallenness), Adorno spells it out: even in a society cured of such human relations as object relations, it would not be possible to predict or to plan better, to regulate the order in which one met people. One would have to say, precisely in such a “cured” society, that the arbitrariness of quickies would be even more manifest, because even more purely related to some kind of myth of spontaneous desire.

But the fact is, Adorno has just explained to us not only why such a society is not possible, but, in fact, unimaginable. In fact, it is the matter of this already announced abstract sequencing operation itself, structurally unavoidable, that is precisely the explanation for why commodity production is inevitable, at least in a society based on the not-yet-vanished atom of the subject. What we are dealing with here is a metaphorical catastrophe of the first order. We thought that the false, inauthentic relations among people were going to be at least partially accounted for by the evil contingencies of our production system, and now what we have discovered to be the case is the opposite, namely that the fetishism of the production system is determined by the abstract element that imposes itself in and as sequence in human relationships.

The sentence “historically, the concept of time is itself modelled on the basis of the order of ownership” in the second paragraph of our aphorism is not to be read as a statement of the historical truth or falsehood of the twinned origin of these concepts. Rather this generalization at this moment in the narrative of this fable repeats what has already been said: reification, making the person into “my person,” thus implying possession, must bring a before and a potential after along with it. Thus we might want to say not that these two concepts are historically linked, but rather that history is precisely what we call that which is constituted in this linkage. The only time or place within which such relations would not obtain would neither be in history nor in pre-history, but in no history at all. For time to be time, such relations must exist.

Hence pre-history, as well as the post-history toward which more vulgar readings of Kojève yearn, are both delusions. Only myth can name the idyllic non-time when such relations did not obtain. Myth is thus both more and less than pre- or post-history: it is the name here for the negation of history. The tendential inevitability of the obtaining of the situation Adorno is describing (as opposed to the one for which he erases all hope) is evidence enough that neither such pre-history nor its after-the-fact mirror image have anything to do with actual or potentially existing states of affairs. Rather these names with unreal referents can only serve as structural moments in the unfolding of the story in their being denounced as the impossible.

This is why the “objective moral criterion” delivered by “the irreversibility of time”—irreversibility and time being, for all intents and purposes, the same here—is a sibling of myth: the myth in question is that of an “abstract time” that would exist without being filled by the kinds of events that occur in and as historical time. The myth here is the myth of a pre- or a post-history that would not be historical, i.e., a time which would not be defined as time is defined by the commodified relations that obtain for us. On the other hand, “if today the subject is vanishing,” this would also imply that time, as part of the form of the subject, is vanishing too.

But the question is, isn't the subject always vanishing?, hasn't the subject always been vanishing? If the structural faults to which Adorno points in the constitution of the System in fact are there, then the answer is yes. But vanishing may not imply the perfection of its activity, so that time and the subject in fact never vanish absolutely into the mythic, abstract time-without-the-subject that the subject projects into the past as pre-history or a different future, the possibility of deliverance into which is given the lie by the contrary-to-fact subjunctive verbs in which this time after time is described.

And when time is troubled, so is experience. Why is experience deleted, why are things misused, annulled? Because what is happening here is that relations are being dictated by rhetorical figures. Substitutions are taking place at the level of entities because the chiastic, hypallagous rhetorical structure demands it. The structure always wants a matched, mathed, mathematized crossing. And so the eraser or cursor moves over one term, deletes it, and fills in the blank with another individual, whose substitutability occurs by virtue of that person's being the bearer of a name to which, for the purposes of this very operation, he or she may be reduced, has to be reduced.14 And a name can also, in this context, be reduced to a number.

There is the name and the thing. But discourse, like and as the Terror, is capable of taking the name of the thing and combining it with other thingly and abstract-thingly (it does not matter if the referent exists materially or not) names, which are then read and used as a template for mixing and matching the phenomenal entities. The annulment, the effacement of previous experience, is the very operation of the verb tilgen Hegel assigns to the function of the name when he says, in the Encyclopedia, it is in names that we think, and when he proclaims that the sign must be declared to be something great because it allows us to subject the material world to the powers of mind in exchanging qualities in discourse that cannot be exchanged in so-called reality, which has, by now, fully earned its scare quotes, those linguistico-phenomenological brackets (SS, 766-77). The priority of the fortuitous assigns to chance the power of unrelieved arbitrariness, what Merleau-Ponty will call, shortly before his death, the irony of things. It has powerful arguments on its side because it assigns to fate the ultimate power of the subject, that of defacing-refacing the world according to its wishes.

But now we enter a new dimension, with the bringing into play of the question of irreversibility. For it is the irreversibility of sequence—the revenge, to speak metaleptically, of the young on the old—that dictates the entire schema. Property is irreversibility: this in the sense of property as in “life, liberty and …”, as well as in the sense of Merkmale, that which a subject acquires in taking on predicates. The fact that we can go from A to B but not back again sets things up so that what is done is done. It is related to myth in the sense that it is, qua abstract, part of that allegorico-fabular dimension of template structures we use to negotiate our stories about ourselves, one of the stories we tell ourselves in order to live.

And now comes that conspiracy-theory laden moment when we explode into the discourse labelled “Marxist”: the exclusivity in time takes us to inherently hermetic groups, big business. That is just to say, the combines, the constellations that come together to keep ahold of what they have by having more are the material instantiations of the steady accretion disks of these figures. Pull back from the totalization: the little woman appears, defenseless Olive Oyl, waiting for Popeye to come rescue her from the evil usurper.

What happens here is that the initial couple of stable, heterosexual nature and origin (they always must needs be the same, in this context, at this moment), the man and woman, who can move “naturally”—but, remember, we are in a post-Pascalian universe, where nature has been effaced—over the copula, have drifted into being the couple of the first partner and her youthful or new replacement.15 What we are dealing with now is catty bitchery. And it is her or their own—structural—fault, because if she didn't have her arms around him in public, the character ready to rob her of her prize wouldn't know to take her cue.

We are approaching the moral of the end of this paragraph, in which a series of parallel totalizations are presented. And here is where the moral of the story gets complicated and therefore interesting, qua fable. Perspective has been collapsed: we have moved back from big business to the innocence of the atom. And now it is a matter of showing how this telescopic manoeuvre has been accomplished. The motif that gets globalized is not necessarily a heterosexual partner's fear of replacement, but rather the fear before the evident structure of replaceability in general. For the next link in the chain is the little boy's fear of being replaced by his younger brother, or the fraternity student's contempt for his “fag,”—as Jephcott translates it, his pledge, “Fuchs” in German, “fox,” his younger cadet.

There is an important twist on the Oedipal cliché here: Usually, what one is referring to when one makes reference to oedipal anxiety is the anxiety of the infant. But what of the anxiety of the Father, what of his anxiety at the arrival of a possible replacement in the child? One might call this the neglected, countertransferential dimension of the Oedipus Complex. But it helps to make the link between the intergenerational aggression implied in the all-too-familiar idea of Oedipal conflict and the sibling aggression, the intragenerational competition Freud discusses, for example, in “Eine Kindheitserinnerung aus Dichtung und Wahrheit.16 Only now can we move on to the racism of so-called democratic societies, and thence to Fascism, the negative-theological name for ultimate horror in our almost exhausted if not yet ended century. And the appearance of Nietzche's name here has as much to do with his talents as an aphorist as with his being the author of The Genealogy of Morals.

It is time to comment on the famous line from the aphorism “Tough Baby,”17 where Adorno tells us that “Homosexuality and Totality belong together.” The sublimated homosexual urges to which Freud often pointed as the homosocial glue of society are, Adorno is saying, not very far off from the paranoia (with its foreclosive trait of lack of connection to any other) that Freud also ascribes to the same repressed, homosexual urges. In both cases, however, it is the repression of homosexual drives that is at issue. But it is the violence of the latter, of paranoia, that needs to designate an object as foreign in order to call itself whole, to constitute itself as a totality. So the older brother, who is supposed to identify with Daddy, must neutralize the threat of the newcomer, the younger brother, in passing on the threat of castration, thus of feminization, which is how the feminized-castrated male becomes the object of fear: if it can happen to him, it can happen to me. This is the fear that must be kept at bay in the designation of this figure as foreign, other. In between the first loving couple and the various constitutions of social bodies around a figure to be excluded, then, come the situations in which the persecution of the newcomer presents itself as the strategic excuse by means of which the hyperbological extension towards totality will be made.18 But Adorno, for whom the distinction between male homosociality and male homosexuality is no distinction at all, himself does not seem to see, in “Tough Baby,” that it is the matter of priority he is discussing in “Morals and the Order of Time” that is even more primordial than the gender relations it conditions or engenders.

After this piece of writing, which dates from the end of the War, I think it would be preposterous to blame the French defenders of reading Heidegger for being Fascist thinkers, or at least of being tainted. Their point, rather, is that it is Heidegger who, in producing an integral reading of the tradition—even if this reading leaves much out and does great violence—has given us the tools to think Fascism as the monstrosity of Western culture, not as something that flew in, on a given day, from the outside. It is clear that this is no excuse for not reading the French, nor for not reading Heidegger either, given that it is now clear that one would have to call Adorno thus tainted as well.

And the fact is, he is, we all are, and should be. For it is this very desire for purity itself, this desire not to be involved, not to be tainted, because the subject qua subject knows precisely that if it is involved, it risks losing what it ‘has,’ being replaced,—it is this desire for purity that, pursued to the end, led to Auschwitz, the marginal place in the light of the East where Germany sweated out its hysterical fantasm of the Jews as a foreign body.19 The literalization of the figure of the atopic Jew through mass carbonization, so that there not be a trace, is, in this sense, the horrible realization of the psychotic-foreclosive fantasy of cleaning up one's territory so that it be absolutely immaculate, pure, rein.

Nietzsche told us this fable: How one gets from the bad to the good through dilution and legitimation, also how, moving in the direction in which Adorno is rigorously drifting, how one gets from the good to the ugly. Now that the fatal sequence has been sequenced, and the unquestionable but dreaded truth has been uttered, it is a matter of asking, what now? Since we cannot get out of this trap (what Paul de Man might call a predicament, something predicated, spoken before and after, prejudiced, demanded by [vorausgesetzt] by sequence) what is left?

The structure of this pensée cuts it almost exactly in two.20 The first part gives us the figure, and itself consists of two parts, that is to say, the delivery of the figure as the mechanism of replaceability, and the explosive movement towards totalization that is generated as soon as one realizes that the chain of substitutability or replaceability can be hyperbologically extended to cover the entire social field21 conceived of as a text, that is to say, the entire tropological field.22 In seeing this we see as well that the reason why this one of the aphorisms singles itself out as exceptional, as requiring special handling, is because it is a rather pure version of a tropological model, that is to say, of substitution or substitutability as such. “Abstract temporal sequence” is precisely what Paul de Man will call the story of the figure in the course of its undoing, decomposition in and as the text, that is to say, narrative, that is to say, allegory.23 Temporality, for us, is not, then, as it was for Kant, the form of inner experience, therefore the first form, but the form of textual procedure, of the way in which argument and storytelling inextricably commingle in and as precisely what we call text.

The second part of Adorno's now disfigured maxim, then, plays the part of the moral of this fable, what we might call, in its belated phase, its consolation:

It would be superfluous to try to indicate a way out of this entanglement. But the disastrous moment that brings the entire dialectic into play most probably allows itself to be named. It lies in the exclusionary character of the first. The originary relation, in its mere immediacy, already requires [voraussetzt] abstract temporal order.

I say consolation advisedly, for what we are dealing with should be called the consolation of critique in that very Kantian sense of mapping out and knowing the scope and limits of the region one is in. The knowing of the structure has to serve—has to because it is the only thing that can serve—as the consolation for a machine for unstoppable, inevitable, rigorous, impersonal and therefore brutal ubiquity. At least we can name it, and, in naming it, we can, among other things, inscribe it as one punctum in the scansion of moments that is this book of mourning, Minima Moralia. We can inscribe it as one moment cleverly hidden to look like just one moment among others, even if it perhaps, figurally speaking, brings all the other moments into play, prefigures them, if it doesn't contain them outright, absolutely.

The original relationship, in its mere immediacy—blosse Unmittelbarkeit (let not the sense of lack of mediation in the technical sense be lost from that mere immediacy) already establishes the conditions for (voraussetzt) abstract temporal sequence. Triumph of the dialectic as cortège. The already of this sentence conditions the abstract temporal sequence. Immediacy is an after-effect, a Nachtrag, in Freudian terms, of the mediations that follow immediately upon this wavering dyad of the first loving duo. Wanting to possess makes for fear of loss, of that which cannot be brought back, Unwiederbringlichkeit. This sentence gives the logical explanation for the purported historical explanation of the last. What is, is experienced in relation to its not only potential but in fact inevitable nonbeing. This sentence brings (whether Adorno wishes it or not) an entire Heideggerian register into play, and with a very interesting twist.

For if Heidegger's Dasein is the being for which Being is an issue, the being for which Being is an issue precisely because it, Dasein, is continually exposed, held out over the possibility of its non-Being, then Adorno's commentary takes Heidegger's topos out of a certain kind of self-interested deep-structure narcissism into the realm of care about others, while at the same time exposing the presumed charity of that care for others or the significant other as self-interest about and for one's own property. Christian charity is revealed as the theologically sanitized version of private property—what we knew all along. Only thus is the other truly a possession, when it is transfixed into some functional form as a commodity, which form allows it to be exchanged for other equivalent possessions.

Time for the subject is time for a transaction. Once become a property—not Merkmal here, but Besitz, a possession, but a prop to be moved around also—the beloved is in fact no longer seen. Its first figure has been effaced. Abstraction in love, this turning the beloved into a bloodless placeholder, is the complement, that which completes exclusionariness, which manifests itself deceptively as the opposite, as this holding fast to this one being, the one that is thus, dies eine so Seiende. The object is lost to the degree to which it is objectified, and misses, wrongs (verfehlt) the person whom it reduces to mine.

It might appear to be a reduction of this lofty melancholy to say so, but we are still in the thick of the Hegelian topos of the relation between universals, concepts, and particulars here. But the crucial difference between Adorno and Hegel is the melancholy tone of the former as opposed to the scientific optimism of the latter. It is much like the night before the morning after.24 And Adorno is writing, in 1944, at dawn on the day after. Dawn on the first postmodern day: the discourse of the concept is over. The bringing of the other under a concept led to the extermination, Vernichtung, in which all otherly qualities were effacted to zero. This is the inversion, the logical end of Blanchot's fable of the fable of the French Revolution, of the allegorical dance of Reason, Progress, Enlightenment: fabula rasa. This is the sad dance of the realization, not of the impossibility of bringing all particulars under the concept—to say that would be fatuous—but of realizing what happens when this is done. This is mass murder, extermination, holocaust. This is the very moment of our realization that the key to allegory is its failure, its ability, not to teach a stable lesson, but only to tell the story of the disjunction between subject and predicate, universal and particular. Totalitarian Hegelian optimism about the march of the dialectic has to be read against the young Hegel's own warnings, against his “Who Thinks Abstractly?” for example, which dates from the same year as the Phenomenology and to which Adorno's diction points here.

“If people were no longer possessions, they could no longer be exchanged” is this paragraph's complement to the last's “even, and precisely, in a society cured of the anarchy of commodity production, it would hardly be possible for rules to surveil the order in which one met people.” But this time, the need for Adorno to struggle against the hopelessness, which he himself is in the process of teaching in this after of the last paragraph's before, forces him to make this instantaneous idyll of a hypothesis out of what he has already shown to be impossible: the shimmering phantasm of post-commodity romance. True affection would be—but is not—one that speaks specifically to the other, and becomes attached to beloved features—predicates—and not to the idol of personality, the Idol that is the mirror image of personality. But in the realm of the imaginary that is the realm—and the only one—in which human relations are constructed, there is only the méconnaissance of the idols. To speak, as Hegel did not cease to remind us, is to speak in the realm of the general. The particular is lost as soon as one begins to speak. There is only one option: love and be silent. There are no words for this one love. The specific is not exclusive, it does not close out other things. The beloved in one port is different, after all, from each one in every other. Or I might say, every beloved not has, but is its own harbor. In this sense, each love is exclusive or exclusionary: because, having gone through this allegorical regression to the particular, we realize that our moral vision is precluded from the vulgarity of impossible, hence inappropriate comparisons—even though this is all that our language, which is a language of particular and universal terms, can do.

Adorno's language either helps him or trips him up: he says, the specific lacks the trait, pull, almost the drive—Zug—to totality. But the last sentence has told us that true affection attaches itself to the traits, Züge, of the other, not to their harmonized image, itself always, as Lacan tells us, a totality qua image. The attention to the beloved traits, Züge, of the specific love non-object keep that object from being reduced to being prey to the holocaust of totality or of totalization, the train, Zug, on the way to totality, into the all. The singular and plural of this word cannot be reconciled with each other, for the singular, Zug, in its sense of ‘drive,’ connotes a unity of direction, a single motion in the direction of the all—an idol to be sure—that the plural, Züge, in its senses of ‘traits,’ thus of plurality and disparity—but not of the idol of totality—would oppose. It is the lower gods, the idols, that are praised with the promise of the All. They listen for praise like children, infants learning to speak by collecting together their traits into a false image, Man, in the mirror.

The specific precludes replacement in this exclusivity of a higher power, radicalized—as they said in the Seventies and early Eighties—its essence precludes it. But its essence precludes it because, in a manner of speaking, its essence is to have no essence.25 Thus: “But in another sense nonetheless it is exclusionary, in that the substitution [Adorno uses the Latin Substitution, not the German Ersetzung] the substitution of the experience indissolubly bound up with it [ihm, the specific] doesn't forbid, but through its pure concept [reinen Begriff] doesn't allow it even to come up.”

Now, with the entrance of the language of the concept, that is to say, of language, what can be said in the realm of the general, not merely meant, opined, gemeint, onto the scene, we see that what Adorno is dreaming is the idyll of the world in which to each object, or subject, there is a concept. Or better yet: for each object, there is one aphorism. But this is, then, the end of the concept, the end of philosophy. The protection of the completely determined, determined through all its properties, is that it cannot be repeated, and therefore that it tolerates the other, allows for, makes room for, is patient for the other. Let there not be only or dead repetition.

Kierkegaard's entrance here, of whose book of this title Adorno is writing the canniest abstract, should confuse and disorient, if not simply terrify. For from Kierkegaard's narrative, it is not really possible to figure out if repetition in his sense, as opposed to melancholy recollection (which is what Adorno paraphrases and condemns here) exists or is possible. The question is not (only) “Will I go back to Berlin?,” but “can I go back to Berlin?,” to love, true love, to Hegel, to the System, to philosophy. And the fact that Adorno says repetition when he is paraphrasing what Kierkegaard, in the book Repetition, calls recollection, would tend to indicate that Adorno does not put much faith in the possibility of repeating, let alone understanding, what Kierkegaard meant by repetition.

To the property relation to human beings, to the exclusive right of priority, this kind of ius primae noctis valid for all nights before the morning after, belongs exactly this wisdom: God, it's only people, and it's no big thing which one. Inclination which would know nothing of such wisdom—the published translator misses the contrary-to-fact subjective—would not need fear infidelity, for it would be fast protected from faithlessness. But it is precisely the contrary-to-fact mood of every verb in his last sentence that tells us that we have all drunk of this wisdom, and that all we can do, to continue with that old Cole Porter song, is sigh a little. No matter how present, this song is an ars amatoria in the pluperfect tense. This is why, though the time be long, the true will indeed come to pass. But what about love?

—True love was always in another.


  1. All references to T. W. Adorno, Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1951), and to its translation by E. F. N. Jephcott, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: NLB, 1974) will be given by the abbreviation MM, followed by the number of the part of the book given in Roman numbers, the section number in Arabic numbers, and the relevant page numbers from these editions separated by a slash. Hence this citation MM I/17, 39/38. In the course of this essay I also refer to Paul de Man, “Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics” (Critical Inquiry 8:4 [Summer 1982]), by the abbreviation SS, followed by page number. De Man's essay is itself a very complex piece of work, to which I do not pretend to do justice here.

  2. Maurice Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death” in his The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, ed. George Quasha, trans. Lydia Davis (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1981), 33.

  3. De Man remarks that each of the Pensées can only be sustained over a very brief period of time because the rigor of their chiastic pattern of attribute-crossing (hypallage) does not lend itself to longer narrative exposition. See his “Pascal's Allegory of Persuasion,” in Stephen Greenblatt, ed., Allegory and Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981). The same observation can be applied to de Man himself, in order to explain why the essay, and not the treatise, was his form. Oddly enough, reflection on the tension between essay and treatise produced much of the great work of Adorno and Benjamin both. To see this one need only think of the Epistemo-Critical Preface to Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama, and its valorization of the treatise as method in and as digression, in relation to what Adorno says about the form of the essay. I would call this development, in Adorno's “The Essay as Form,” regression toward the particular. Adorno quite simply predicates of the essay what Benjamin had said of the treatise fifty years earlier. Both with right: the difference is in the ‘before’ and the ‘after,’ pre- and post-1945. Adorno might just as well have written, in the Negative Dialektik, “After Auschwitz, no more treatises.” The fact that both of these signal and crucial essays are written as paratexts should be reflected upon.

  4. Cited from the end of the first chapter, “Definition of Sovereignty,” of Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Lectures on the Concept of Sovereignty, George Schwab, trans. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 15. It is hardly an accident that the person in our century who cites this maxim from Kierkegaard is Carl Schmitt, the man whose critique of parliamentary democracy during the Weimar Republic, whose formulation of the idea of the “State of Emergency” as the moment at which democratic decision making fails, whose attempt to formulate a theory of sovereignty under the maxim “He who is sovereign is the one who decides the exception,” and whose revival of the idea of political theology in our time all coexist within the same text.

  5. I cite from the translation of Howard and Edna Hong, in Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 27. This translation is in agreement with at least two German translations and with the French translation published in the Oeuvres complètes, as well as with significant and learned commentaries, such as that of Gregor Malantschuk (see his Søren Kierkegaard's Frygt og Bœven [Copenhagen: Reitzel, 1980]). What is at issue is the occurrence in the same sentence of two uses of the same verb, which can mean both ‘to bear’ and ‘to nourish’: “[d]en, der ikke vil arbeide, ham passer det paa, hvad der staaer skrevet om Israels Jomfruer, han føder Vind, men den, der vil arbeide, han føder sin egen Fader.” (Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Vœrker, vol. 5 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1963), 27. Several contemporary Kierkegaard scholars would prefer to render this sentence as “he who will work hard nourishes [føder] his own father.” I thank Henrik Blicher, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, and Kim Ravn for a discussion of this matter, which I shall pursue elsewhere.

  6. Heiner Müller comments on the same theme in respect not of Hegel, but of the continuation of the Prussian state in what Müller sees as its avatar, East German Socialism reified into a state apparatus. See his Jenseits der Nation (Berlin: Rotbuch, 1991). Müller describes the East German State as being defined by its lack of relation to femininity, a theme familiar from his Hamlet Machine and from the sections of The Civil Wars he wrote with Robert Wilson. In these works the primal scene of Frederick the Great's absolute monarchy is represented as his being forced to watch the execution of his male lover for desertion from the army, a crime the young Prince committed as well but which punishment he was spared because of his royal station. As in Adorno, we are in the topos of the relationship between the repression of male homosexuality and absolute power.

  7. Maurice Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death,” in Blanchot, op. cit., 37-38.

  8. I am thinking of the different inflections Lacan gives to these two expressions, the latter in Les Quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse (Paris: Seuil, 1972), and the former in “La Science et la vérité,” in Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966).

  9. Think, with Avital Ronell, of Freud's “Eine Kindheitserinnerung aus Dichtung und Wahrheit.” See her Dictations: On Haunted Writing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

  10. Because Jephcott's translation is so inaccurate, I have resorted to what is no doubt an even worse one of my own, although I still offer his pagination for the purposes of easy comparison. If my own translation has anything at all to offer it is no doubt due to the dialectical impatience of Jan Keppler.

  11. The reference to the Critique of Pure Reason here is overwhelming, and culminates in the use of the word Reihenfolge, sequence, which I have inserted into my translation in brackets. Sequence, in Kant's Transcendental Aesthetic, is the form of inner perception as time itself, and hence logically precedes that other logical form, space, which can only be treated once the inner form of time has been established. Likewise causality, also a form, is not analyzable in the way that objects given to experience within these forms are. The forms of subjectivity are not part of the experience of the subject. They are the conditions of its possibility. All of which makes Adorno's aphorism out to be playing for the highest stakes indeed, since what is at issue is this miming of the founding text of modern transcendental-critical discourse. Jacques Lacan has a fascinating and not unrelated commentary on this Kantian moment in his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, which, since it begins with the notion of the discovery of the unconscious through the discourse of hysterics and their symptoms, has to ask—parallel to its asking how psychoanalysis is a science and what would that mean, for psychoanalysis, for science—how the unconscious can be said to cause all the phenomena (dreams, parapraxes, symptoms) that lead us to the hypothesis of its existence. Lacan's discussion has capital implications for the post-Kantian theory of the subject, for if the unconscious is pre-subjective and timeless—pre-ontological, as Lacan asserts, not yet of the order of Being—it is not so easy to speak of things such as cause in respect of it, because cause is part of the formal structure of subjective experience and belongs thus, in Freudian terms, to secondary and not to primary process.

  12. See Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), xxxv: “With Adorno, the denial of the masculine went so far that he retained only one letter from his father's name, W. The path to the meadow (Wiesengrund), however, does not exactly have to be the wrong one (Holzweg).”

  13. See his Télévision (Paris: Seuil).

  14. This is the very meaning of ideology as the mistaking of linguistic for phenomenal structures, such as Paul de Man defines it in “The Resistance to Theory” in the book of the same title (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). The pre-history of this moment in this essay would seem to be the essay “Roland Barthes and the Limits of Structuralism,” now in Paul de Man, Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

  15. For all those who blame the contemporary French and their minions for having invented the sex-gender distinction: Go back and read Pascal.

  16. In Sigmund Freud, Studienausgabe, Band X, Mitscherlich, Richards, Strachey, Grubrich-Simitis, eds. (Frankfurt/M: Fischer, 1969). I made the link between the Father's anxiety in the Oedipus Complex and sibling anxiety in a conversation with Gene Ray during which we were discussing Lacan's reading of the Dream of the Burning Child. For this occasion, as for so many other thoughtful ones, a word of thanks.

  17. This title is in English in the original.

  18. Lacan is in the same register when he proclaims television and racism to be the same (see his Télévision, op. cit.). Racism is the name for the same psychotic-foreclosive manoeuvre by which one's own object is thrown out into the field of the real in order to return as a hallucination. Television presents or materializes this very fact: the far comes back into the near as a framed, inscribed object presented to the unity of a single—in this case collective—gaze. Reason and race come from the same etymon, which is a figural way of relating the unity of the logos to its exclusion of other types.

  19. This is what Michel Foucault is talking about in the preface to the English-language edition of Anti-Oedipus, when he refers to the Fascism inside all of us.

  20. If this is not exactly unique within the covers of this book, it is still interesting, as Adorno's next unit of form above the sentence is the paragraph—or, in the other direction, the one-liner. I thank Jack Cameron for having called this matter of disposition to my attention.

  21. Lacan has a similar insight toward the end of his 1948 “Le temps logique et l'assertion de la certitude anticipée: un nouveau sophisme,” in his Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966), when he is attempting to make the structure of subjectivation triadic, and then to extend his cellular-triadic model toward a field that could always add one more subject, hence be globalized to account for social structures. The potential for false idealization inherent in the essay on “The Mirror Stage,” which postdates the essay on logical time, makes the dyadic structure of the Mirror Stage essay an anachronic regression from the rigor of the triadic one on logical time. The crucial character of this essay for the entire unfolding of Lacan's thought is evinced by the overwhelming reference he himself continues to make to it, for example in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, where the story told about it is also and simultaneously the story of the temporal beating or pulsation of the atemporal unconscious in and as the production of consciousness and of time.

  22. The notion of the tropological field, like the notion of the language game, is in fact generated by this tropological urge towards totalization. The totality of the world does not exist as totality except in language. This is the truth of the always-already of the abstract.

  23. The typescript of de Man's essay on Julie, now printed as “Allegory (Julie)” in Allegories of Reading, bears the title “Narrative.” The textual model of the figure in the course of its undoing-decomposition is the paradigm for all texts de Man offers early in that essay. See Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979), 205-77, also the critique of Genette in “Reading (Proust)” within the same covers.

  24. Thomas Bernhard puts these words in the mouth of Paul Wittgenstein the younger as a description of Karl Boehm conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten. See Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew: A Friendship for many more such manically delectable lines. The melancholy of Bernhard's writing is in the fact that one can only enjoy it once, the first time. After that, it is forever the morning after, recollection in the Kierkegaardian sense. Its energy is that of all of our philosophical adolescence. Except, perhaps, for Old Masters, and the prosaic horror of the autobiographies, which have a certain real ecstasy to their hammering.

  25. This is what the other is, in Levinasian ethics, as it is mapped out in its greatest statement, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, which began as an essay, now the book's central core, called “Substitution.”

James M. Harding (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Adorno, Ellison, and the Critique of Jazz,” in Cultural Critique, Vol. 31, Fall, 1995, pp. 129-58.

[In the following essay, Harding finds similarities between Adorno's ideas about jazz and those of Ralph Ellison's narrator in Invisible Man.]

All totaled, Theodor Adorno wrote seven essays on jazz: three in the thirties, two in the forties, and two in the early fifties. His portrait of jazz was never flattering and was highly idiosyncratic. In the thirties, Adorno's criticisms of jazz functioned as the negative critical movement in what can be described as his dialectical embrace of Walter Benjamin's classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Arato and Gebhardt 270; Daniel 41-42). For while a polemic against technology endures throughout Adorno's subsequent writing on jazz, extending well into the sixties and framing his discussion of jazz in Dissonanzen (1962), Thomas Levin has recently noted that even as far back as the thirties, Adorno was simultaneously calling for a reading of popular music that was “sensitive to both its reified and its utopian dimensions,” and he began to acknowledge the didactic and “decidedly progressive” advantages offered by phonographs and radio programs (Schönherr 85; Adorno, Dissonanzen 6; Levin 28, 47). Despite this call, Adorno lingered on the “reified” and never ventured into the “utopian dimensions” of jazz. Even Adorno's defenders concede that his criticisms are marked by an almost fanatical rigidity and that the criticisms tend to “flatten out the dynamic contradictions of popular culture” (Jay, “America” 122). Two comparable tendencies to “flatten out” surface in Adorno scholarship on jazz: those who criticize Adorno the strongest examine neither all of his essays on jazz nor the historical context of his arguments, and those who sympathize with Adorno ignore the vast amount of research on jazz that is at their disposal.1 In both cases, jazz is handled as a homogeneous collective entity, which thus obscures the internal dynamics of jazz and attributes to it a privileged ahistorical status.

To understand Adorno's criticisms of jazz requires situating them in a social history that considers the internal (dynamic) tensions within the jazz tradition. One means of highlighting the socio-historical complexities of this tradition is to juxtapose Adorno's criticisms with the representations of jazz in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). In his essays, Ellison has proven himself to be a formidable jazz critic in his own right. Bringing the two writers into the same discussion not only confronts Adorno's arguments with those of a critic who had first-hand experience of the formative years of jazz, but also, because of the important role that African-American musical traditions have in Ellison's novel, discussion of it side-by-side with discussion of Adorno places Adorno's criticisms within a context of the social complexities of the jazz tradition.2 My goal in pursuing such considerations is to demonstrate Adorno's place in the history of jazz criticism and to give a much needed historical grounding to the debate on Adorno, jazz, and popular music. In particular, I want to focus on the pivotal position that Louis Armstrong plays in Invisible Man's prologue and epilogue. What emerges from this focus is a surprising correlation between the attitudes of the narrator in Ellison's novel and of Adorno in his criticisms of jazz.

During the thirty years that span Adorno's writings on jazz, his only major discursive shift resulted from his encounter with two books which, save for numerous earlier discussions in Frankfurt with the jazz critic Mátyás Seiber, were to become the intellectual sources of all his subsequent writing on jazz: Winthrop Sargeant's Jazz: Hot and Hybrid (1938) and Wilder Hobson's American Jazz Music (1938). In one respect, the review which Adorno wrote of these books in 1941, and which is marred by misquotations and misrepresentations of Sargeant's and Hobson's arguments, only widens Adorno's frame of reference for opinions he already had about classical music and about jazz. Written roughly two years after Adorno's arrival in America, the review, interestingly enough, criticizes the defenders of jazz not because they equate jazz with classical music, but rather because in doing so—to invert Jay's phrase—they “flatten out the dynamic contradictions of” classical music. By reaffirming the internal disparities of classical music, Adorno begins in his review to dismantle what two years earlier he argued was an obsolete distinction between classical and popular music. Adorno believed that the culture industry had long since appropriated the distinction and thus undermined the presumptions of both Sargeant's and Hobson's arguments.

Jazz: Hot and Hybrid and American Jazz Music became fixed diametrical points of reference for Adorno, and the arguments Adorno formulated for his review resurface in his last three essays. Though critical of Sargeant's “naive” defense of jazz, Adorno admired him as a fellow musician and critic. Sargeant was a Viennese trained violinist with the New York Philharmonic, and his book was, according to Adorno, of “much more serious scientific intentions and … much more adequate to the subject matter” than Hobson's (Adorno, “Review” 168). The fact that Adorno twists many of Sargeant's arguments against him did not stop Adorno from later frequently appealing to Sargeant as a “scientific” authority to substantiate his own arguments. The appeals span twenty years: from Adorno's short contribution to Runes' and Schrickel's Encyclopedia of the Arts (1946), to his article “Perennial Fashion” (1953) and his little-known published polemic with Joachim-Ernst Berendt (1953), to his Introduction to the Sociology of Music (1962).

Adorno's handling of Hobson, on the other hand, was curt if not abusive. He attacked Hobson's attempt to define jazz as America's classical music, reacted negatively to Hobson's understanding of how jazz had found its way into modern classical composition, and challenged Hobson's uncritical conception of modern classical music. In his equation of jazz and classical music, Hobson fails to distinguish between Viennese schools which understood themselves in terms of rivalry and opposition, and Adorno's disapproval derives in large part from the strong personal investment that he had in maintaining the clarity of these oppositions. By citing both Alban Berg's “Wozzeck” and Krenek's “Jonny Spielt Auf” (in the same sentence) as examples of jazz-influenced concert music, Hobson merges the avant-garde atonal school of Schönberg with the Gebrauchsmusik of composers like Hindemith, Krenek, and Weill (Hobson 82-83; Craig 475). Adorno associated Hindemith's circle with Neue Sachlichkeit, which was the subject of much of his aesthetic criticism and which was, temperamentally at least, incompatible with Schönberg's atonal philosophy.

It is safe to say that as far as Adorno was concerned, if jazz was associated with Neue Sachlichkeit or Gebrauchsmusik, so much the worse for jazz. Indeed, as early as his 1936 essay “On Jazz,” Adorno had rejected jazz because of its association with Neue Sachlichkeit and the movement's ideological undertones (49). It is no small coincidence then that after his review of American Jazz Music, Adorno subtly revises Hobson's argument in his contribution to Runes' and Schrickel's Encyclopedia of the Arts (1946). He cites all the examples given by Hobson, but replaces the reference to Berg with one to Stravinsky, who, in The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949), was to become the central figure of contrast which Adorno used in his praise of Schönberg. Four years later, in Adorno's published polemic with the German jazz critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt, “Für und Wider den Jazz” (1953), Adorno turns the tables on Berendt, who in defense of jazz notes the similarities it bears to the compositions of Stravinsky and Hindemith. Adorno responds that whoever believes Stravinsky and Hindemith to be the vanguard of the new and modern clearly is unfamiliar with Viennese atonality (Adorno and Berendt, “Wider” 892).

Aside from how the two books summon Adorno's investment in the rivalries of twentieth-century European music, Hobson's and Sargeant's books are important to an understanding of Adorno's views on jazz because, while both books trace the migration of jazz musicians from New Orleans to Chicago, they were published prior to the advent of bebop. This is a source of enlightening irony in “Perennial Fashion” and also in Introduction to the Sociology of Music, since in both instances Adorno appeals to the authority of Sargeant when he rejects both swing and bebop (“Perennial” 121; Sociology 33-34). Published when they were, Hobson's and Sargeant's books could provide no account of the period of musical innovation and philosophical redefinition that occurred in jazz during the forties. Hobson's and Sargeant's arguments precede the period which Adorno used them to reject, and Adorno's appeal to Sargeant in his rejection of bebop suggests that Adorno's opinions about jazz were already solidified before the rise of the movement he slights in passing reference. With the exception of his categorical rejections in 1953 and 1962, Adorno displays no knowledge of bebop whatsoever.

There is little question about the inexcusable disservice that Adorno did to jazz and to his own arguments by relying so heavily in the forties, fifties, and sixties on jazz histories published in the thirties. But what this disservice means for Adorno's critique is another question. His arguments precede what has often been called the second half of jazz history. If we can accept Miles Davis's claim that the history of jazz is summed up in four words, “Louis Armstrong Charlie Parker,” then it is worth considering the place and the significance that Adorno's opinions have in relation to the first half of that history. Despite his condemnation of bebop, Adorno's criticism focuses primarily on the early history of jazz, and philosophically, his criticism coincides frequently with the underpinnings of the first major movement in jazz history after Louis Armstrong's migration to Chicago.

Inasmuch as Adorno maintains that, in the aftermath of the culture industry's rise, a serious distinction can still be made in classical music between Gebrauchsmusik and Schönberg's avant-garde atonality, he concedes the possibility that other musical forms may sustain comparable critical disparities within the discourse of their own cultural traditions. Bebop's relation to swing, for example, can be understood in these terms, despite Adorno's having categorically rejected this interpretation. On this point, which is the logical baggage carried by Adorno's own arguments, it is helpful to apply to jazz Adorno's claim that works of art represent the last vestiges of critical resistance to social repression. Acknowledging the internal dynamics of the jazz tradition thus offers the possibility to heed Adorno's social and cultural critiques without succumbing to his penchant for totalizing concepts. Such an acknowledgment salvages Adorno's cultural theories by circumventing his monolithic conception of society and culture and by giving it a critical diversification and flexibility. To consider the dynamics of the jazz tradition facilitates an evaluation of jazz in terms of the “rigor,” to follow Adorno, with which it established itself within a vast diversity of cultural contexts which Adorno passes over. The question thus arises concerning the extent to which jazz too is marked by dynamic disparities comparable to those whose integrity Adorno so vociferously defended with regard to modern European music. Pursuing this question provides a clear avenue into the workings of Invisible Man because Ellison draws heavily upon the disparities of jazz when constructing the essential tensions of his novel.

When Ellison's novel begins, the story has already ended, and the invisible man has retreated into hibernation, which he defines as “a covert preparation for a more overt action” (13). As a source of solace and inspiration, the invisible man listens to records by Louis Armstrong, who he says has “made poetry out of being invisible” and who has already moved into a realm of “overt action” comparable to that for which the invisible man is preparing and which takes form in the poetic structure of the story he narrates (8). For the invisible man, Armstrong's significance derives from an ability to create poetic meaning out of a situation with which the invisible man is only beginning to come to terms. Of central importance is the invisible man's distinction between the “covert” and “overt,” because it is here that through literature he imitates Armstrong and develops what Deleuze and Guattari call a “minor literature” within the major cultural tradition which can afford him no visible recognition. In short, he begins to understand the revitalizing power of the vernacular amidst the dominant discourse which excludes him.

Briefly, Deleuze and Guattari argue that minorities (like the Czech/German Jews of Kafka's Prague) often construct a minor literature within a major language. Minor literatures emerge as a source of identity within an immediate political/cultural context. With regard to Adorno and the question of jazz, it is possible to modify Deleuze's and Guattari's arguments to accommodate a notion of a “minor culture” and to use this modification to examine two concurrent but disparate forms of cultural experience, what the invisible man calls the “overt” and “covert.” The first instance falls under the scrutiny of Adorno's claim that resistance to uniformity demands the most rigorous critical activity. But the second becomes the minor cultural locus of identity and resistance which Deleuze and Guattari describe. A sense for the “covert” and “overt,” or the “minor” and the “major,” is implicit in the invisible man's act of self-naming, i.e., in the identity that he assumes while in hibernation.

“Jack-the-Bear,” the name which the invisible man assumes for himself in his secluded basement room, belonged to an actual jazz musician and in the context of the invisible man's hibernation alludes to what in criticism has been acclaimed as the most vital element of jazz culture. Ostendorf recounts that Louis Armstrong learned his art in private sessions where jazz musicians gathered, competed with one another, and forged musical innovations in improvised “cutting contests” (Ostendorf 166). Jack-the-Bear was an avid participant in these sessions in Harlem during the thirties (Sales 74). In his own essays on jazz, Ellison describes the sessions as “a retreat, a homogeneous community where a collectivity of common experience could find continuity and meaningful expression” (Shadow 209). Even Sargeant notes in his revised edition of Jazz: Hot and Hybrid that jazz historians have frequently discussed the double life of jazz, that a covert or sub-cultural form of jazz existed “for the enjoyment of the players themselves” beneath the popular commercialized version criticized by Adorno (18). This duplicity in jazz culture is reflected in the name which the invisible man assumes for himself. Not only was Jack-the-Bear a legendary (covert) cutter, but his name later served as the title for one of Duke Ellington's greatest popular (overt) successes (Collier, Making 247).

The duplicity is also reflected in the structure of jazz music itself, and a momentary consideration of this structure suggests that the “covert” life of jazz is not merely a transitory respite to be discarded once the musician has prepared for “overt” action. The “covert” and “overt” exist concurrently, forming a social cultural parallel to the multilayered rhythms of jazz that are traceable to African influences and that are part of the religious cultural heritage of African Americans (Kofsky, “Folk Tradition” 3). In jazz a major beat in one line may simultaneously be a twelfth in another line, and thus jazz rhythm incorporates a notion of multiple meanings (Brown 117, 125-26).

Likewise, Amiri Baraka argues that in jazz improvisation the notes are not merely a departure from the score, but have multiple mediations and hence multiple meanings (Black Music 15). What in one setting constitutes the type of commercial exploitation for which Armstrong was later criticized by beboppers and Adorno alike, in another setting makes up the virtuosity upon which the legend of Armstrong firmly rests. Certainly, “the improvisatory skills of jazz musicians reflect the … flexibility and immediacy of response” which have been necessary for black American survival (Cowley 196). Later in the novel, this same type of flexibility enables the blues singer Trueblood, as Pancho Savery, Houston Baker, Jr., and Berndt Ostendorf have noted, to reaffirm “his [folk] identity” despite catastrophe, “translate his personal disaster into a code of blues,” and resist the “centralized [cultural] monologue” which would condemn him (Savery 69; Baker, Blues 190; Ostendorf 151). The covert thus functions as a strategy for dealing with the deficiencies of overt social experience. More importantly, however, in jazz a double cultural life emerges, and in its parallels to the multilayered rhythms of African music, the duplicity of the jazz social experience is a distinctly African contribution to American culture. The duplicity is as much a part of the structures of the music itself as it is reflective of the lives of jazz musicians.

Given that Hitler's stigmatization of jazz as non-Aryan belonged to the same ideology that forced Adorno, a German Jew, to flee Nazi Germany, one would think that Adorno might have developed a sensibility for the struggles for freedom within African American folk culture—or, to follow Deleuze and Guattari, that, as a member of one minor culture, Adorno might have felt strong affinities for the articulated struggles of another. In fact, Adorno claimed to have precisely such an affinity for black experience when, shortly after he published “Perennial Fashion,” Joachim-Ernst Berendt accused him of implicit racism and suggested that Langston Hughes would be a more appropriate spokesperson than Adorno on behalf of black struggles for civil and cultural equality. The tag of racism has plagued Adorno since his earliest writings on jazz. Adorno reminds Berendt quite accurately that he (Adorno) co-authored the most significant study of racism in America in recent times, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Adorno explains to Berendt that he desires merely to point out where blacks are being exploited as “eccentric clowns” and where jazz subtly makes entertainment out of what has been done to African Americans (Adorno and Berendt, “Wider” 892-93). In this respect, Adorno's response to Berendt corresponds with criticisms voiced in the African American community itself. In fact, Adorno's argument coincides almost verbatim with Ellison's argument in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” where he claims that “the entertainment industry … [debases] all folk materials” and reduces blacks to grotesque comedy (Shadow 48). For Adorno, however, understanding of debasement and racism is inseparable from the forced experiential lessons he learned amidst the fascist rise to power in Weimar Germany. The seemingly racist undertones of his criticisms of jazz are a combination of abhorrence to both the culture or entertainment industry and the implementation of Nazi ideology.

Given the historical context of Nazi cultural politics, one can read, for example, the oft criticized grounds that Adorno uses for rejecting jazz in his first article on the subject, “Abschied vom Jazz” (1933), as a subtle defense of it. Adorno wrote this first article shortly after the Nazis outlawed the broadcasting of jazz on the radio. When one places Adorno's claims that jazz is “not Black, not powerful, not dangerous … [nor] emancipatory” in the context of fascist Germany, Adorno's arguments refute point by point the hysteria to which the Nazis appealed when they banned jazz music. As Marc Weiner has argued, it is thus “possible that [Adorno] intended … [his claims] to be read as a strategic response to the conservativism discernible in his contemporaries' reaction to the music” (Weiner 484).

The problem with Weiner's reading of “Abschied vom Jazz” is that, unless the article is placed within the general schema of Adorno's critique of fascist cultural ideology, it is equally possible to read “Abschied vom Jazz” as a defense of high culture, a reading which is encouraged by Adorno's scathing review of Wilder Hobson's book. This is the most frequent criticism of Adorno, typified by critics like Lorenzo Thomas, William Nye, or Peter Townsend who argue that, as a Eurocentric cultural elitist, Adorno had a deaf ear when it came to vernacular cultural expressions. Fredric Jameson subscribes to a similar position, although with a more apologetic tone, by simply redefining Adorno's writing on jazz as a critique not of “serious jazz” but of “Paul Whiteman” and by comparing Adorno's criticism with a rejection of a “standard Hollywood Grade-B genre film” (141). In Adorno's defense, Martin Jay, Ulrich Schönherr, and Jamie Owen Daniel have noted that Adorno's controversial opinions on jazz employ the identical dialectical methodology that, a year after he published “On Jazz,” Adorno used when criticizing Wagner in In Search of Wagner (Jay, Adorno 119; Schönherr 86; Daniel 40).3 Two years later in “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938) Adorno suggested that the Nazis' banning of jazz was as disgusting as their subsequent programmatic attempt to “cultivate” the masses by broadcasting the greatest achievements of German classical music.

The importance of “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” to any understanding of Adorno's concerns in his criticism of jazz cannot be underestimated. It undercuts the charges that Adorno was defending a high cultural elitism, because in it he asserts that “the differences in the reception of official ‘classical’ music and light music no longer have any real significance” (276). For Adorno “the real dichotomy … was not between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ music—he was never a defender of traditional cultural standards for their own sake—but rather between music that was market-oriented and music that was not” (Jay, Imagination 182). According to Adorno, the culture industry (and fascism is implicated here as well) had gained control of both classical and folk or popular music and employed similar mechanisms in both cases to manipulate the market. Although Adorno's favorable comments on music always refer to European music, to argue that Adorno's criticisms of jazz are a defense of high culture is to ignore his focus on the socio-historical tendencies which have rendered “the organization of culture into ‘levels’ … patterned after low, middle and highbrow,” not only obsolete but also “reprehensible” (Adorno, “Perennial” 127).4 Adorno's general critique of the commodity character of music as it has evolved under late capitalism challenges the survival of both classical music and jazz as forms of entertainment.

In Adorno's Aesthetic Theory Lambert Zuidervaart argues that in the early stages of capitalism “music was produced to be purchased, and it was purchased to be enjoyed.” Adorno's objection was not against enjoyment, but rather that at the hands of the late-capitalist culture industry the use value of enjoyment had been supplanted and exchange value was now presented as “as an enjoyable use value” (Zuidervaart 77-78). When Adorno speaks about the necessity of jazz's constantly promising “its listeners something different [to] excite their attention,” Adorno is not so much talking about jazz itself as the industry that props it up (“Perennial” 126). But as a consequence, this industry seriously compromises the possibility for critical assessments of the quality of the entertainment provided by the music, whether jazz or classical. On this point Adorno is no voice in the wilderness. In Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (1970), Frank Kofsky notes the conflict of interest resulting from the fact that the critics of jazz are by and large “dependent on the recording industry for their livelihood” (75). They cannot afford to be critical because they are the same people who earn their living by writing record jackets. More recently, John Gennari has explained that early jazz critics would have had trouble avoiding these conflicts, that anyone “trying to make a living as a jazz critic in the 1930s … would have had a hard time not looking for the most remunerative possibilities available in the practice of his craft” (475). To say that “Jazz, like everything else in the culture industry, gratifies desires only to frustrate them at the same time” refers to the advertising hype which redirects “enjoyment” to the actual purchase and the often misleading thought that one is getting something “new” and “innovative” (Adorno, “Perennial” 126).5

Although Adorno's criticisms of modern music hinge on a dichotomy between market orientation and resistance to commodification, his reservations about jazz folk culture as a locus of struggle and liberation cannot entirely be linked to the abuses of the entertainment or culture industry. They are also “tied … to his revulsion with Nazi pseudo-folk culture” (Jay, Adorno 120). Martin Jay has noted that for Adorno:

Folk music was no longer alive, because the spontaneous Volk had been consumed in a process that left popular music, like all popular culture, the creature of manipulation and imposition from above.

(Imagination 185)

Inasmuch as the manipulations “from above” can be associated with the entertainment industry, so too are Adorno's criticisms of jazz inseparable from an intellectual opposition to the conditions which he believes led to the election of Hitler (Daniel 40). Adorno's apprehensions about jazz culture stem from his having observed the Nazis manipulate folklore to their own propagandistic ends.

Adorno's concern that jazz culture lends itself to appropriation does not appear to have been groundless. Scott DeVeaux observes in “Constructing the Jazz Tradition” that the history of jazz is a “struggle for possession of that history and the legitimacy that it confers” (DeVeaux 528-29). The struggle is often waged through definition by exclusion. Jazz has so frequently been coopted by groups with contradictory agendas that Amiri Baraka complained that white critics who seek to define “jazz as an art (or folk art)” often do so without giving consideration to the intelligent “sociocultural philosophy” from which it stems (Black Music 14). During different periods, jazz has been embraced across the political spectrum. Cold Warriors and the State Department have used it as an avatar of American cultural values (Kofsky, Revolution 31, 111; DeVeaux 526; Gennari 478). In the twenties and thirties, the left too vied for possession of the jazz tradition in accordance with Lenin's general wishes that all branches of the party render “direct aid to all the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies” (Berry and Blassingame 416). Citing S. Frederick Starr's Red and Hot, James Lincoln Collier has noted that in 1928 “the Comintern decided … to treat American blacks as a ‘colonized nation’” and that consequently critics like John Hammond, Otis Ferguson, Charles Edward Smith and B. H. Haggin represented jazz in left-oriented presses “as the ‘folk music’ of … [a] colonized race” (“Faking” 37; Reception 70-71). Incidentally, Collier himself has been the subject of much deserved criticism for his own selective revision of the jazz tradition.6 But his argument on the subtleties of the left's interest in jazz offers some provocative insights into how Invisible Man questions the substantial theoretical support that black nationalists historically received from the Communist party. Lenin's insistence on “the right of subjugated peoples to self-determination” takes the ironic form of the Brotherhood's concern that the invisible man might not be black enough to represent their interests in Harlem and in the invisible man's being given “freedom of action” while remaining “under strict discipline to the committee” (Berry and Blassingame 416; Ellison, IM 351). Here, the irony emerges as it becomes increasingly evident to the invisible man that the Brotherhood will tolerate only its own limited preconception of what is black and what constitutes legitimate ethnic expression.

In his recent article “The Signifying Modernist,” William Lyne observes that when the invisible man is asked by another member of the Brotherhood to sing a “Negro work song,” the invisible man's mentor Jack rifles his ability to respond, subsumes it beneath the monologic interests of the Brotherhood, and thus disarms the “double-voiced tools [in jazz] that are supposed to undermine and transform … official hierarchies.” In short, Jack, whose own expressions occasionally regress into a European tongue, appropriates “one of the most important parts of African American expressive culture” (Ellison, IM 304; Lyne 328). He can only understand enjoyment of African American musical traditions as degrading and as a remnant of racist attitudes. Collier's arguments suggest that a similar procedure marks the left's manipulation of jazz for its own political ends. On this point, he is in agreement with other historians, except that it is euphemistic to describe their view of jazz merely “as the ‘folk music’ of … [a] colonized race.” Jack's disapproving retort, “the brother does not sing!,” differs from the left's provisional embrace of jazz only in its frank rejection of the value of jazz traditions.

Scott DeVeaux has argued that Starr and Collier misperceive jazz and see it as a crippled articulation of a repressed people. Yet the same can be said of the left whose appreciation of jazz in the thirties was as often scurrilous as it was supportive (534). Examples abound. John Hammond was subjected to severe criticism in the Daily Worker when, after his “Spirituals to Swing” concert (1939), he claimed that “jazz music is uniquely American, the most important cultural exhibit we have given to the world” (Naison 22). Following the benefit given the next year for the Spaniards who were fighting against fascism, Hammond was so infuriated with the party's patronizing response to Fats Waller and Cab Calloway that “he demanded and received an apology from the Daily Worker” (Naison 3-4, 15). The source of the left's criticism of Hammond and of their patronizing attitudes toward jazz musicians lies in their assessment of jazz itself, an assessment which treated black folklore and jazz not as “important cultural exhibits” but rather as Eugene Gordon depicted them at the American Writers' Congress in 1935: “as a ‘national psychosis’ resulting from repression” (Strout 82). In this respect, Jack's blunt rejection of the request that the invisible man sing “a Negro work song” parallels the left's view of jazz: that it needed to be overcome.

At first glance Adorno's own position on jazz would appear to coincide with that expressed by Eugene Gordon and by the character Jack in Ellison's novel. In “Perennial Fashion,” he argued that a “real unadulterated jazz” could not be distinguished from “the abuse of jazz” because abuse was an innate dimension of jazz itself. Negro spirituals, he argued, “were slave songs and as such combined the lament of unfreedom with its oppressed confirmation” (“Perennial” 122). To celebrate “Negro spirituals” now was also to celebrate the unfreedom that they confirm. However, Adorno's position differs from the left's provisional support of jazz specifically with regard to the question of abuse. Gordon's reservations about the aesthetic virtue of jazz did not hinder the left's appropriation of it as a tool for its own agenda.

Of particular interest to the left was the desire to dampen rivalries with black nationalists who had described themselves “as a nation within a nation” some seventy years prior to the Comintern's decision to adopt a similar line (Berry and Blassingame 397). In terms of improving the living standards of the African American community, the gains brought about by the left's activism in the 1930s had weakened support for black nationalist ideologies of Garveyism. Ellison portrays this competition in the Brotherhood's rivalry with the black nationalist Ras the Exhorter (Naison 2; Strout 82). Jazz fell within the scope of this agenda, in part, because the Nazi denouncement of it as degenerate galvanized black civil rights activists and the left in a common fight against the racist attitudes of fascism (Naison 3). But Jazz was not supported for jazz's sake. Rather the left's embrace of jazz further undermined black nationalism by coopting what Mary Berry and John Blassingame have called its cultural nationalistic program (388).

Ellison's novel parallels the left's use of jazz when, on the advice of the invisible man, the Brotherhood attempts to gain a consensus for its overall agenda by forging one on a specific community issue, the resistance to evictions. The strategy is to force Ras and his black nationalist followers into a position where the only way for them to keep from contradicting their own rhetoric is to give their support to the Brotherhood. Having gained community support for this specific goal, Jack then shifts focus from local issues to international ones (IM 355, 418). Likewise, specific support by the left for jazz music in the thirties was an attempt to gain consensus for a larger political agenda. Insofar as the left capitalized on the opportunity presented by the Nazi denouncement of jazz, their interest in jazz was as “unadulterated” as the Brotherhood's interest in pushing the issue of unjust evictions in Harlem; both serve to divert support from black nationalism and build consensus for their own program; both are part diversion and ploy.

In contrast to such political stratagems, Adorno's criticisms evince an unwillingness to pay disingenuous lip service, i.e., to abuse jazz, as a political strategy for forging consensus. Having witnessed how easy it was for the Nazis to manipulate folklore in a similar manner, Adorno approached jazz with apprehension and caution, recognizing that out of their element the artifacts of folk culture can become powerfully dangerous rhetorical tools. In this regard, Adorno's apprehensions have a subtle correspondence with the arguments of those whose defense of jazz emphasizes a cultural nationalism over the celebrated double life of jazz. Like Adorno, jazz critics who tend toward cultural separatism are most vehemently critical of the degrading abuse that jazz and jazz musicians have suffered and are skeptical of programmatic attempts to integrate them into a larger communal system.

Unlike Adorno, however, separatist critics attempt to circumvent the abusable dimensions of jazz by asserting its purity and value vis-à-vis environments that are prone toward abuse. Jazz becomes a music of “doing,” whose vitality is lost in the recordings that document it (Williams 251). Or the vitality of jazz diminishes “the further jazz move[s] away from the stark blue reality of the blues continuum and the collective realities of Afro-American and American life” (Baraka, Daggers 271). In a new context, jazz becomes recoded, vitiated, reified. The vital literally becomes an object, manipulable and marketable. The separatist project, then, is to shelter jazz from abusive environments—except the problem with blaming abuse entirely on socio-historical mediations (i.e., the social context), exempting jazz itself, is that the two cannot be neatly separated. The fact that jazz readily glides from one context to next would suggest that it is fundamentally not as separatist as those who would “protect” it.

In reply to the unsympathetic analyses of black cultural nationalism that have dominated scholarship, Mary Berry and John Blassingame counter that, given the abysmal failures of integration, black separatism is no more “pathological,” fantastic, or “unrealistic” as an idea than is integration (396). Yet neither is it any less problematic. If it were possible for jazz to thrive within a social vacuum, then perhaps apprehension would not have dominated Adorno's critique—and it is here that he parts ways with the majority of separatists. Whereas separatist critics often attack the abusers of jazz, Adorno pursues a radical critique aimed at eliminating the potential for abuse within cultural artifacts. His arguments presume that the potential for abuse (not just of jazz but of any cultural artifact) is one of the few areas of potential whose realization is virtually inevitable. This is no less true of jazz in the hands of the white jazz establishment than it is of communism in the hands of Stalin. The same is true of the Enlightenment philosophies which underlie the Brotherhood's ideology in Ellison's novel and which Adorno and Horkheimer subjected to a rigorous critique in Dialectic of Enlightenment precisely because, like jazz, the potential for abuse was part of their structure. For Adorno, the project of cultural criticism—however dubious its prospects might be—is to develop a discourse at whatever cultural level (high or low, aesthetic or philosophical) that cannot be appropriated, that cannot be abused. Not only does Adorno use the same dialectical method in his criticisms of Wagner and of jazz; but, insofar as jazz purports to be a voice of liberation (separatist or otherwise), it also falls within the scope of Adorno's dialectical critique of Enlightenment philosophy. In both cases the issue for Adorno is to point out where discourses of liberation perpetuate the domination that they ostensibly eliminate, to show where they generate the abuse they are supposed to prevent. To criticize jazz is simultaneously to criticize the social structures from which it seeks (or purports) to disentangle itself, structures which inevitably absorb, appropriate, and alter jazz almost as quickly as it appears.

Unlike those paying lip service, the invisible man's interest in jazz is not a strategy for building consensus. He turns to jazz and the recordings of Armstrong in disillusionment with the Brotherhood, once he realizes that their “words [can] no longer teach him anything” (de Romanet 113). At first one might argue that the turn coincides with sentiments of many jazzmen who, “unable to convey … [their] deepest emotions in the received idiom …, invented terms of … [their] own” (Leonard 152). The correspondence between Armstrong's voice and his horn would suggest that in Armstrong's musical riffs the invisible man seeks what the “Brotherhood's” idiom precludes (Schuller 100). Or along these same lines, the invisible man's shift from the Brotherhood to Armstrong coincides with Larry Neal's classic argument that Ellison is a counter-Marxian black nationalist, who develops, as Baker has added, “a theory of culture able to lend clarity to the quest for Afro-American liberation” (Baker, Afro-American Poets 153). But in Ellison's novel the recordings of Louis Armstrong are not merely a reinstatement of the “double-voiced” tools repressed by those whose interest in the black community was never more than a calculated ploy in a larger struggle for power. The invisible man's relation to Armstrong is far more ambivalent and coincides with Adorno's own apprehensions about jazz—particularly with regard to the critique of jazz as a discourse of liberation.

Kimberly Benston argues that in his plight for recognition the invisible man “is drawn into … the Marxian (or more accurately, Hegelian) historical myth of progress through linear, spiralling development,” in short, progress toward a teleological goal (“Historicism” 91). According to Benston, the invisible man's movement toward freedom necessitates a recognition that teleological history is a myth (“Historicism” 91; “Performing” 170). Yet this myth is precisely what the invisible man finds repeated in Armstrong's music. In “The Poetics of Jazz,” Ajay Heble explores how early jazz musicians, like Armstrong, relied on a diatonic scale. Structurally, the music resembles the “linear, spiralling development” cited by Benston. Armstrong's music drives toward resolution. Always evolving toward a goal, viz. the tonic, the music “begs for completion,” fosters the illusion of telos and “produce[s] a semblance of [the] sociality” that has been denied the invisible man in his own experiences (Heble 53; Hullot-Kentor 100).

The telos reflected in Armstrong's music may explain why the invisible man listens to “What Did I Do To Be So Black And Blue,” rather than to Armstrong's legendary “West End Blues” or “Weather Bird.” Like Adorno himself, the invisible man recognizes that “in music, the concept of representation or imitation as a way of correlating art and reality is not particularly fruitful” (Hohendahl 66). Adorno is as apprehensive about jazz culture as he is about Enlightenment philosophy—so too is the invisible man as ambivalent with Armstrong's teleological diatonic music as he is with the Brotherhood's teleological, dialectical ideology.

The myth of progress has beaten and excluded the invisible man. In the novel's epilogue, he says he is uncertain whether his disillusionment “has placed him in the rear or in the avant-garde” (IM 599). This question of historical position, whether he is behind or ahead, reiterates the invisible man's relation to Armstrong. The position that he develops in relation to Armstrong not only resembles the ambivalence to jazz that Adorno expresses in his rejection of folk culture. It also expresses an attitude that only in retrospect has been called part of jazz history.

As is the case with Charlie Parker and bebop, the invisible man's personal history begins with his ambivalent relation to the diatonic music of Armstrong. When the invisible man says that he likes Louis Armstrong because “he's made poetry out of being invisible,” his subsequent explanation of his “own grasp of invisibility” is a paraphrase of Charlie Parker. The invisible man explains: “Invisibility … gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind” (IM 8). This is an explanation of the musical structure that Parker developed and that became the signature of bebop (Collier, Making 350, 353-54). Upon its arrival, bebop was called everything but jazz. The musical dimension of bebop responded to a long history of repression and the rejection of bebop by contemporary jazz critics fueled its momentum as a sub-cultural phenomenon. The subsequent placement of bebop in the jazz tradition was possible only by an improvised concept of history which, like the music of bebop itself, “denies system, closure, purity, abstract design” (Ostendorf 154). Like Schönberg's own rejection of late romanticism's organic development, continuity, and closure, bebop marks a departure from the organic musical structures that Adorno observed in the early forms of jazz. Insofar as the invisible man aligns himself with bebop's temporal and rhythmic revisions of Armstrong's music, he is also shifting conceptual modes of history. He shifts from a repressive systematic teleology to the unsystematic and also to un-totalizing historical improvisation.

Critics have argued that, viewed from its social aspect, bebop was a “manifesto of rebellious black musicians unwilling to submit to further exploitation” and “was a deliberate attempt to avoid playing the role of the flamboyant black entertainer, which whites had come to expect” (Kofsky, Revolution 57; Collier, Jazz 360). In this regard, Adorno's most vociferous attacks on the commercial jazz industry are contemporaneously as well as philosophically in harmony with the temperament of bebop. His criticisms coincided with a growing self-consciousness that occurred within African American communities as bebop was on the rise. Baraka argues that during the forties African Americans began to “consciously analyze and evaluate American society in many of that society's own terms.” The crucial realization was that being black was not the only liability but rather that the society itself was also lacking. As the African American community grew increasingly self-conscious and confident, the general deficiencies of American society became more apparent (Baraka, Blues People 184-85). Like Adorno during his exile in the United States, black artists began to recognize the presence of these deficiencies specifically in entertainment, and they sought art forms in which they could distance themselves “from a cultural tradition that … [had] been integrated into the culture industry” (Hohendahl 65). Bebop was actively engaged in this search. So was Ellison.

For all its emphasis on racial identity and on resistance to exploitation, bebop still succumbed to the debasement which it tried to avoid. The reasons for this are complex; bebop succumbs not, as Frank Kofsky has argued, solely because whites controlled the “jazz establishment,” and forced jazz musicians to conform because they found bebop's black nationalist undertones incompatible with their business interests (“Forerunners” 2). Rather the debasement resulted from dialectical tendencies in American society which were able to blunt “the sharp, ugly lines of … [the bebop] rebellion” (Ellison, Shadow 204). In short, black nationalist or anti-capitalist sentiment has proven to be a lucrative product in the marketplace. “The culture industry can diffuse … rebellious sentiment … by repeating the same ideas and themes, even if they speak to the deepest contradictions of capitalism, until they lack all meaning” (Koval 2-3). Just as the invisible man turns to jazz when the Brotherhood's words of liberation and freedom prove to be the contrary, so too does the revolutionary promise of the jazz idiom accommodate, indeed contain, its opposite.

The presence of this opposite is most immediately apparent in bebop's point of departure, i.e., its attempted break from the traditions that Armstrong was said to embody. Through the figure of Armstrong in his novel, Ellison exposes the delusory, even contradictory, idealism that seethed beneath the beboppers' “rejection of the traditional entertainer's role” (Ellison, Shadow 225). In his essays Ellison expresses understanding for the desire of Parker's contemporaries to move beyond the “heritage from the minstrel tradition,” viz. the tradition carried on by Armstrong, but at the same time he notes that the beboppers were caught up in the contradiction of trying to get “rid of the role they demanded, [striving] in the name of their racial identity … [for] a purity of status which by definition is impossible for the performing artist” (Shadow 225). Against the backdrop of “the thrust toward respectability exhibited by the Negro jazzmen of Parker's generation,” the invisible man points out that Armstrong has not been superseded (Ellison, Shadow 225). The breakup of a linear teleological history has preserved him. Armstrong, the invisible man says, “is still around with his music and his dancing and his diversity, and I'll be up and around with mine” (Ellison, Shadow 225; IM 568). Though clearly not Armstrong's, neither is the invisible man's diversity that of the beboppers.

An awareness of these contradictory tendencies—or deficiencies—pervades the writings of both Adorno and Ellison, and it is the search for a form in which to critically articulate the awareness of them that finally places the two writers dialectically at odds with both the deficiencies in American society to which bebop responded and to bebop itself. While Ellison's novel alludes sympathetically to bebop, the novel is no mere apology for it—any more than the unflattering portrayal of the Brotherhood is merely a criticism of the deficiencies of the communist party. First of all, inasmuch as bebop carries either a revolutionary or black nationalist agenda, it too falls within the scope of Ellison's critical presentation of the Brotherhood and of Ras. The invisible man does after all spear the black nationalist in the jaw. Secondly, to argue that bebop has superseded the pitfalls into which Armstrong fell is to grant to jazz the teleological history with which the invisible man is at odds. Correspondingly, the more one examines where and how Adorno's arguments diverge from the general similarities that they bear to bebop, the more Adorno's arguments converge with the attitude that Ellison develops toward jazz and bebop in his novel.

In particular, the beboppers were “resentful of Louis Armstrong,” as Ellison was later to argue, “confusing the spirit of his music with his clowning” (Shadow 211). If Ellison's depiction of the beboppers is accurate, then Adorno's association of jazz with the antics of an “eccentric clown” at first appears to have fallen into the same trap (Adorno, “Jazz” 512). In terms of general disposition, Adorno certainly had more in common with beboppers than he either realized or was willing to admit. How far this convergence extends beyond general disposition is another matter. Recently, Ulrich Schönherr has suggested implicitly that the convergence extends a great deal. Although Schönherr does not pursue the historical similarities between Adorno's arguments and those of bebop, he does argue that the contributions of musicians who followed in the wake of bebop have “largely fulfilled what Adorno had not seen realized in jazz” (93). But Schönherr has not gone unchallenged.

In the introduction to the volume in which Schönherr's article appears, Russell Berman and Robert D'Amico challenge Schönherr on the grounds that “to continue to defend jazz … through its later exponents and more ‘artsy’ performances vastly underestimates the force of Adorno's suspicion of emancipatory appearances” (73). Although it sounds as if Berman and D'Amico are addressing one issue and Schönherr another (i.e., as if Berman and D'Amico are reaffirming Adorno's dismissal of the notion that jazz is a source of liberation and Schönherr is merely concerned with musical innovations), the two are in fact intimately related, because the area in which jazz's most significant innovations have occurred is also the area in which jazz has traditionally expressed its emancipation: improvisation.

Schönherr's claim presupposes the position of critics like Bruce Baugh, who argues that Adorno relies too heavily on musical notation and thus fails to recognize the significance of the unscorable subtleties of jazz and blues improvisation (73-74). Yet, such assertions, which are standard criticism of Adorno, are premised upon a fundamental mis-perception about musical scores. Adorno points out that rather than producing mechanical acts, classical score establishes a sophisticated context for interpretation, the subtleties of which scoreless improvisations cannot provide and which are not part of notation anyway. Indeed, Adorno argues that “a performance of a Beethoven quartet that conveyed exclusively what was prescribed in the music would not make sense” (“Review” 168). “Inner transfiguration” and “paraphrases,” traits which André Hodeir cites as hallmarks of improvisation, occur in every act of playing from the score (158-81). The point is this: reading a musical score is already an improvisatory act, just as reading a text is an act of construction. The inevitable improvisatory movements within the context established by the score may in fact be the only prospects of liberation which music offers. For Adorno, the exploitative, abusive wherewithal of the culture industry is so pervasive that only the most concerted effort can circumvent it (in this case only the musician's interpretative response to an already orchestrated context of resistance).

Adorno's defense of scored music coincides with his general views on the critical function of art and culture as a whole. Each genuine cultural artifact facilitates an interaction that in turn cultivates critical resistance. This is not to say that, collectively, cultural artifacts lead to a unified concept of resistance or even of liberation. Rather they comprise a diverse array of critical contexts, the individual mastery of which impedes abuse and appropriation in specific repressive situations. Nor is this to say that jazz music has never achieved the level of critical sophistication to which Adorno refers; it is merely the false dichotomy of “free” improvisation and “constrictive” musical notation that is reductive.

Adorno's position on context, resistance, and cultural artifacts helps to explain the disparate cultural repertoire that the invisible man employs in order to break the rhetorical bind that Jack places him in with the contradictory statement: “You will have freedom of action—and you will be under strict discipline to the committee” (Ellison, IM 351). The diverse field of reference in Ellison's novel provides “the resources of consciousness and imagination … [which the invisible man] brings to bear against the pressures of a changing environment” (Tanner 49). For the invisible man, the “changing environment” is reflected in the evolution of Jack's sentence, in the casual (almost un-observable) glide from “freedom” to “strictness.” Perhaps the invisible man's single most significant accomplishment lies in marshaling his diverse interaction with cultural artifacts in a grand unmasking of the latent “strict” repression in each of the discourses of liberation in the novel.

Armstrong belongs to the invisible man's cultural repertoire and to his process of unmasking repressive “strictness” masquerading as liberation. Insofar as the invisible man is able to use Armstrong in this regard, Ellison provides a positive dialectical compliment to Adorno's claim in “Perennial Fashion” that “the organization of culture” in levels of high, middle, and lowbrow is anachronistic and “reprehensible.” Most importantly, Ellison uses Armstrong to read bebop against the grain. He uses what Adorno describes as the obsolescence of high and lowbrow distinctions in order to undercut bebop's attempt to obtain liberation through a recognition by “high” culture. To undercut this appeal to high culture, Ellison embraces Armstrong and places improvisation in the most debasing light (Shadow 225). The most explicit example of this is to be found in the factory hospital attendants who, while trying to give the invisible man an electronic lobotomy, tell him—like fans encouraging a jazz player to improvise—to “Get hot, boy! Get hot!” (IM 232). The hotter he gets the more effect the lobotomy will have. Ellison thereby creates a position sensitive to the criticisms Parker and his contemporaries levied against Armstrong while at the same time subjecting bebop to critical scrutiny. In this respect, the invisible man is able to transform his original ambivalence for Armstrong into a critical negative dialectic.

This dialectic is manifest in the hospital scene as well because the scene can also be read as an allusion to the degrading side of the jazz tradition that Parker and his contemporaries were trying to circumvent. They sought to avoid not merely the entertainer's role but also the association of this role with the tradition of minstrelsy. Adorno shared this sentiment, repeatedly drawing attention to the continued presence of minstrelsy in modern jazz. In 1938 he echoed the stock leftist interpretation of jazz and argued that “the European-American entertainment business” had such control over jazz that its “triumph[s]” were “merely a confusing parody of colonial imperialism” (“On Jazz” 53). Nowhere was this colonial attitude more played out than in minstrelsy. Baker has noted that in minstrelsy white Americans “conceptualized a degraded, subhuman animal as a substitute for the actual African” (Blues 193).

The only way out of this degrading role is for Baker, like Ellison, to maintain that the private session of jazz and blues singers—when the white oppressor is absent—is where the real playing occurs (Baker, Blues 193-94). Baker's argument is compelling so long as one is of the opinion that there are adequate opportunities for the mask to be cast aside and so long as earlier role playing does not impair or constrain the player when he or she is alone. In these presumptions, Baker follows the arguments previously articulated by Robert B. Stepto in From Behind the Veil (1979). Both critics rely on an idealistic conception of the self whose integrity is immune from impairment despite the repeated “self-humiliation” and the “symbolic self-maiming,” which according to Ellison is enacted by the minstrel (Shadow 49). Stepto, for example, claims that one of the great achievements of Invisible Man is “its brave assertion that there is a self and form to be discovered beyond the lockstep of linear movement within imposed definitions of reality” (168). Not merely the advent of poststructural theories of the self challenges Stepto's and Baker's claims. So too does the invisible man's relation to minstrelsy. His “improvisation” at the factory hospital questions the extent to which the formation of a vernacular theory compensates for the “maiming.”

In “On the Fetish-Character in Music …,” Adorno begins his critique with an argument on the dissolution of the subject, a dissolution which arguably takes “humiliation” and “symbolic self-maiming” seriously and interprets such tendencies as having lasting debilitating consequences (276). According to these arguments, vernacular theory is purchased at great cost. More recently, Eric Lott has explored how Blackface Minstrelsy enacted a complex symbolic castration of black males (33-37). An allusion to this disturbing aspect of the jazz tradition occurs in the invisible man's dream when he is in the coal pit at the novel's end. Not only does he dream of castration, but he does so sleeping atop the material used to blacken faces in minstrelsy (IM 557). While Lott's exploration provides historical documentation for Adorno's infamous assertion that jazz has a “eunuchlike sound,” the invisible man's dream graphically depicts what for Adorno were the most disturbing aspects of the blackfaced minstrelsy out of which jazz emerged. Indeed, Adorno was never able to see a function of jazz beyond the minstrelsy which he criticized in 1936 and 1938.

That the legacy of minstrelsy lies at the foundation of the jazz tradition is hardly subject to debate, but whether one can equate the colonialistic prejudices embodied in the figure of the minstrel with the late-capitalist enterprise embodied in the jazz musician is another question. What Adorno does in his reading of jazz is to presume that the interest of capital in culture is tantamount to the gross sub-human parodies of African Americans in minstrelsy. While the two are historically related, they are not the same, and to imply that they are succumbs to a blinding ahistoricism—with regard to minstrelsy but more significantly with regard to the historical consequences of late industrial capitalism. To undo this conflation is simultaneously to place Adorno in historical context and to uncover the dialectic at play in Ellison's novel. It is to apply the invisible man's break with the teleological historicism of the Brotherhood, his break with Armstrong's diatonic music, and his break with bebop's supposed evolution beyond swing; it is to apply all of these ruptures to the supposed continuity between minstrelsy and jazz. The question that jazz raises with regard to Adorno is whether the interest of the culture industry can really be reduced to a kiss of death for all cultural expression.

Scott DeVeaux has argued that jazz implicitly challenges traditional agoraphobia, the fear of the marketplace, which in cultural issues has manifested itself within an inflexible dialectic between “commercial” versus “artistic.” Jazz challenges this dialectic because it “developed largely within the framework of modern mass market capitalism” (DeVeaux 530). Insofar as jazz has maintained a double life, this is perhaps where it is most readily to be found: in the forging of a space which is simultaneously commercial and aesthetically interesting. In fact, Adorno provides the basis for this argument in the peripheries of “On Jazz,” where he concedes the need for quality jazz in order to promote mass consumption and to “allow the upper class to maintain a clear conscience about its taste” (51). In his novel, Ellison moves Adorno's argument from periphery to center and explores the history of jazz as a securing and expanding of the parameters of the limited space for the quality (jazz or hibernation) that Adorno allows for marketing purposes.

Instead of merely dismissing Adorno as a cultural elitist, it is far more fruitful to address the evolution of his own terms—in other words, to consider whether the encroachment of technology and the culture industry is a process which halts once uniformity is supposedly reached. Florindo Volpacchio has argued that technical advances in market machinery were in direct response to the need to accommodate an increasingly diverse and fragmented consumer public. For its own survival the entertainment industry has had to accommodate heterogeneity (Volpacchio 120). Given Adorno's own pessimistic concerns regarding the momentum behind the culture industry, it is difficult to imagine how it would come to a standstill or avoid diversification in its own interest. There is an inkling of this awareness in a peripheral reference to jazz late in Aesthetic Theory, but whether the covert spaces of jazz would have attained visibility in the final version of Adorno's unfinished manuscript is a matter of speculation.


  1. The reasons for this neglect derive in part from the fact that until 1991 there had been no adequate critical examination of the socio-historical and ideological dimensions of jazz criticisms. This lack led Gary Carner, in the introduction to the special issue on jazz that Black American Literature Forum (25.3) published in 1991, to argue that after seventy years of jazz literature, it is finally time for some serious attempt to examine it (443). As an illustration of the state of scholarship on the question of Adorno and jazz, it is worth noting that in the same year Telos published a special issue on Adorno, jazz, and popular music (87.1). While Adorno receives only a passing swipe in Black American Literature Forum, Telos examines Adorno's views without a single reference to the array of scholarship Black American Literature Forum was exploring at the same time.

  2. The importance of African American music to this novel has often been cited, most notably by Houston Baker, Jr., Kimberly Benston, and Berndt Ostendorf. Their work will be discussed later in this essay.

  3. The foundations for these arguments were first provided in Andreas Huyssen's “Adorno in Reverse: From Hollywood to Richard Wagner,” which was first published in New German Critique 29.2-3 (1983): 3-38, and then later included in After the Great Divide. For Huyssen's entire argument, see After the Great Divide 16-43. It is important, however, to note that while, with regard to the effects of the culture industry, there are similarities between Adorno's critique of Wagner and of jazz, Adorno's association of Wagner with the beginning of the culture industry is in large part a rhetorical counter to Wagner's anti-Semitism. By locating the beginning of the culture industry with Wagner, Adorno subtly rebuts Wagner's claim that Jewish financial interests are corrupting German culture. Thus a simple association of the two critiques is highly problematic. Unlike his discussion of the culture industry and jazz, Adorno's discussion of the culture industry and Wagner is inseparable from his critique of Wagner's anti-Semitism. I examine the problematic nature of this comparison in the chapter of the book manuscript to which this article belongs.

  4. Despite these general statements by Adorno, which challenge high-low cultural dichotomies, his fixation on European music demonstrates that he only made cultural concessions on a theoretical level and was unable to finally turn his recognition that high-low distinctions were “obsolete” into a serious consideration of the critical dimensions of “light” music. In his discussion of what he calls the “incestuous choice” of the German intellectual exiles who fled from Nazi Germany to Los Angeles, Mike Davis has implicitly provided a partial explanation for this tendency in Adorno's writings. Davis notes that “segregated from native Angelenos, the exiles composed a miniature society in a self-imposed ghetto, clinging to their old-world prejudices like cultural life-preservers” (City of Quartz 47). While Davis' metaphor of the “life-preserver” highlights the personal investment in Adorno's, Horkheimer's, Schönberg's, and Mann's German cultural predilections, they also saw themselves as contributing to the preservation of the culture that the Nazis were destroying.

  5. Adorno began to develop this critique of jazz as far back as 1936 in his essay “On Jazz,” in which he claimed that use value of jazz intensifies rather than supersedes alienation because its innovations are produced “in terms none other than its marketability” (48). He repeats the same argument in “Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Hearing” and again in 1941 in his review of Sargeant and Wilder: jazz “cheats the masses as soon as it holds them in its grip” (“Review” 170).

  6. See, in particular, John Gennari, “Jazz Criticism: Its Development and Ideologies” 496-504.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. “Abschied vom Jazz.” 1933. Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. 18. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984. 795-99.

———. Aesthetic Theory. 1970. Trans. C. Lenhardt. New York: Routledge, 1984.

———. Dissonanzen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1962.

———. “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” 1938. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. Ed. Andrew Arato and Erike Gebhardt. New York: Urizen, 1978. 270-99.

———. Introduction to the Sociology of Music. 1962. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1989.

———. “Jazz.” Encyclopedia of the Arts. Ed. Dagobert D. Runes and Harry G. Schrickel. New York: Philosophical Library, 1946. 511-13.

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Peter Uwe Hohendahl (essay date 1995)

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