Monday, October 09, 2006


My brothers-in-arms (or, if you will, brothers-in-armchairs) Bob Archambeau and Mark Scroggins are blogging on the topic of Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, and they have invited me to join them. I am, of course, honored by the invitation, and I hope to keep things lively in this difficult--even far-fetched--approach to blogging. Because Scroggins and Archambeau are both poets and aesthetes, and I am a social scientist, there is every chance that my responses to Adorno will be quite different from theirs. So be it, let strength be found in differences, eh?

Scroggins was the first of we 3 Musketeers to blog on Aesthetic Theory. Scroggins called careful attention to some of the basics of the first section of the Hullot-Kentor (U Minnesota, 1997) translation of Aesthetic Theory, entitled "Art, Society, Aesthetics". Scroggins notes that Aesthetic Theory is Adorno's last work, and calls attention to the absurdity of even trying to sum up this work. Trying to get to the topic sentence here puts one in the mind of the old Python gag, the 'Summarizing Proust' competition. Aesthetic Theory was written in manner that seems entirely consistent with its view of aesthetics. My attempts to cull main themes, arguments, and examples from the text will no doubt leave poor Theodor spinning in his grave. As I pore over Adorno's text, I fear I must be approaching it in a manner not entirely dissimilar from Karl Lazarsfeld, Adorno's one-time colleague at Columbia, during the exile years. My knee-jerk reaction to such a text is simply: 'Great. What are you describing here? What can one do with this?' It's not surprising that Adorno moved back to Germany...

I suppose the first thing to say about the opening section of Aesthetic theory is simply to call attention to a tendency in the field of communication (and, I'm sure, in sociology, as well; perhaps in English?) to ignore Adorno's writings on aesthetics. Scroggins is wise to point out that "Adorno's critiques of the 'culture industry,' for which he might be best known in some quarters of the American academy, are like a mouse to the elephant of his music criticism." This is right on. Though 'the culture industry' is but one chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment, it is Adorno's writings on music that seemed to interest him the most. For this reason, I believe it is best to approach Aesthetic Theory as the ground on which any smaller works such as "The Culture Industry" could be fixed.

Aesthetic Theory features a number of features that frustrate almost any reader, and particularly frustrate the American reader: a steadfast dialectical logic, sentences long enough to break your arm, paragraphs long enough to act as mobius strips of neo-Hegelianism turned on its head two-times, and a devilish allusiveness that dates the text while successfully situating it in the 'big discourse' on aesthetics (overtones of Aristotle, Nietzche, Kant can be detected everywhere). Still and all, I'm reading it, and no one can stop me.

One good thing about a work so intransigent is the fact that, because of the intense filigree of verbiage, the commentator is allowed any number entries onto the text. There is a strange feeling of comfort that comes with allowing the text to flow over you, knowing that the dialectic will eventually work its way in.

Adorno's opening salvo is the "Art, Society, Aesthtics" section. Amongst other things, Adorno works with the idea of autonomy in art. He is no stranger to the irony of the workings of autonomy. This is particlarly apparent when he describes how "the autonomy [art] achieved, after having freed itself from cultic function and its images, was nourished by the idea of humanity. As society became ever less a human one, this autonomy was shattered" (p. 1) So, we're left with the idea of an art that briefly became autonomous, freed from the cultic demands and the courtier spirit. But before long, the very ideal of humanity turned art's autonomy into a mockery of itself. Because art reflects the society in which it is made (one gets the sense that Adorno hates even alluding to a fact so mundane), and because modern society lacks the very ideals that could potentially animate an art worth it's name, we get a self-avowed autonomous art that is really anything but.

But doesn't this doomy approach to art simply force Adorno to give us some kind of definition of art? What is art? This is an important question, and one that Adorno is willing to address (but not willing to answer). He says that "Art can be understood only by its laws of movement, not according to any set of invariants. It is defined by its relation to whgat it is not" (p. 3). Again, note the dialectic logic at work here. What art is can be best understood through a thorough review of what it is not. Does this mean we get a couple hundred pages of Theodor giving yes or no questions to what art is NOT? (Here one might imagine Adorno being shown a chicken, and being asked, "How 'bout this?". "NO," says Theodor. "How 'bout this rock?" "NO," says Theodor. And so on...) Of course not. He's simply (or not so simply) trying to get to the notion of rejection that lies at the heart of anything as autonomous as the art he imagines to be worthy of the name.

As a communication theorist, much of this is fascinating. Adorno insists quite blankly that "The communication of artworks with what is external to them, with the world from which they blissfully or unhappily seal themselves off, occurs through noncommunication; precisely thereby they prove themselves refracted" (p. 5). I might suggest that 'noncommunication' might be a bit much. He gets closer to le mot juste when he notes that "Artworks participate in enlightenment because they do not lie: they do not feign the literalness of what speaks out of them" (p. 5). Their artifice, in other words, redeems them. Their existence in a system of art, their relation to other artworks, and the fact that this makes them non-transparent refractions of a social order, a means of production, and much else, gives them their value. Here we see a modernism that is such high modernism, one can barely imagine it. Art is not there to do stuff for us (give us pleasure, give us justice, help us find the elected official who will finally pick up all that trash that's getting piled up outside). Art's value comes from its autonomy, which Adorno seems to think can be found in its refractory powers. If it's communicating in a straight-forward way, it's not doing its job. Because the "unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form," (p. 6) we wind up with a vision of art here that is straight-forwardly difficult. The artifice in art can, at its best, seal it off from the heteronmy that is always ready to take over.

Art that demands to be experienced in an 'easy' or 'direct' manner has problems. As Adorno says,
While the artwork's sensual appeal seemingly brings it close to the consumer, it is alienated from him by being a commodity that he possesses and the loss of which he must constantly fear. The false relation to art is akin to anxiety over possession. The fetishistic idea of the artwork as property that can be possessed and destroyed by reflection has its exact correlative in the idea of exploitable property within the psychological economy of the self. (p. 13)

Hence, what Adorno seems to think of as a minor paradox: art that is alienated is often experienced as 'closer', as more direct; art that is autonomous ('serious music'?) is often experienced as 'distant'.

I often amuse myself when faced with difficult prose by imagining myself hearing some difficult chunk of prose being read to me, and then responding with a dismissive wave of the hand, and then saying, "Yes, well, this is all very interesting..." It's difficult to know what to say about this. What I would like to offer as a final thought here would be an appreciation of what all of this tells us about Adorno's other writings on communication processes, especially those writings in Dialectic of Enlightenment. What we find (so far, a mere 15 pages into the text of Aesthetic Theory) is an Adorno who is perhaps even more gloomy than some communication scholars are prepared to accept (excellent exception to this is John Durham Peters in Canonic Texts in Media Research). We find Adorno disappointed not just with mass culture (a term I don't think he uses here at all), but with art in general. This is not an instrumental, 'eat your spinach' approach to art, with Adorno advising to fortify our diets by listening daily to Schonberg (after all, this was a man who loved his joyous Mozart). Adorno has no problem with sensuous pleasure at all here. The problem comes from the encroachment of a dehumanizing social order onto a system of art whose ideal of autonomy no longer applies (except as a kind of crude self-ironizing mockery that apparently few can appreciate). In a sense, Adorno is so pessimistic about the prospects of a 'real' art that even 'lower' arts get off easy. If you think the whole world is lost, it makes little sense to single out any part of it.

More soon. I'll be trying to keep up with Scroggins and Archambeau as we all blog more on Aesthetic Theory. And, of course, there's so much more to talk about...


Anonymous Joe Figliulo said...

Well written, good sir! After a good year of wading through Adorno's wilfully obtuse prose, I still find myself in much the same "what of it?" predicament. Of course Adorno would write this off as a typically American penchant for instrumental logic, a refusal to consider the "thing-in-itself" and force utility out of that which by its nature defies utility.
I haven't read Aesthetic Theory but it seems that it is, at least, more optimistic than Minima Moralia. Given that Adorno died in 1969 and A.T. was his last work, it begs the question: 'What would ole' Teddy have made of Trout Mask Replica?' I'd like to see anyone,even Adorno, explicate the dialectic of Cpt. Beefheart.

11:19 PM  

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