Monday, November 13, 2006


In what remains a peculiarly Sisyphean adventure, allow me please to continue moving forward with some blogging notes on Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. First, I would like to address some tendencies that have already developed in the blogging on this (something I'm doing with Mark Scroggins and Bob Archambeau, poets both). Then, I'm going to move on with some notes on the second section from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, a section that is entitled "Situation".

First, some notes on the blogging experience. Scroggins, Archambeau, and I have quickly developed a pattern of simply going over what Adorno puts forth in Aesthetic Theory. What I think will develop over time will be a more gnarled and involved set of blogging strategies, wherein the three of us begin commenting not just on Adorno's writings, but also on each other's understandings of Adorno's writings. One hopes that Adorno's penchant for the dialectical insight could be burnished by an intertwining set of critical notes on Aesthetic Theory. Those who enjoy rhyzomic discourses should enjoy this, I think. But for now, I think it's reasonable simply to expect a few more weeks of trying to get a grasp on what Adorno is all about in this book, with a slowly emerging critical dialogue soon to come.

Now, let's get to the second section of Aesthetic Theory: "Situation". This section features more of an emphasis on instantiation than the first section, and Adorno's ideas here link up quite explicitly with those of Walter Benjamin and (I say) those of the great media theorist/historian/whatever Harold Innis.

Adorno begins this "Situation" section with a riff on the autonomy of art. He is concerned that the seeming autonomy of art in the 20th century is but an illusion, a vestige of the proper autonomy art once briefly had. What Adorno wants in art is more distance from the "viewer" (p. 16). Allow me please to start splitting hairs here. Adorno at times conflates all art into one category. Can all art be 'viewed'? I submit that music is not viewed, per se. Is this conflation a problem? Perhaps it will be, for Adorno. I argue that Adorno moves from artistic medium to artistic medium, and blows off some of the distinctions between them. If Adorno were only concerned with visual art, this would not be much of a problem. We would be able to bracket his insights as relevant only to the visual arts (what, after all, a lot of folks simply call 'art'), and move on. But let's keep in mind that Adorno wishes to address literature and music as much as any other arts. Are these media 'viewed'? I think that's a warping of the term.

This all becomes (I hope) something more than an exercise in 'gotcha' polemics when moving on to the broader question that is prompted by this: might the loss of autonomy that Adorno describes work differently in different media? This is Adorno totalizing a bit too much, I think. Adorno seems to argue that art in general is losing its autonomy because of the encroachment of the culture industry (significantly, a term he uses for the first time in this book just before this quote I'm dealing with). He does not allow that there may be some differences between different media in this. It's like some master switch has tied the essence of all art together, and ruined it all at once. I suggest that the process he describes--to the extent that it can be said to exist--is almost certainly more messy. Music, painting, literature, printmaking, cinema, photography, dance, and other media involve different phenomenological routines, and even if they were all undermined by the master switch of late/capitalist modernism, should we not expect that this effect would be differently timed or differently inflected across different media? Adorno seems to blow this off (so far...).

A much bigger idea in this section puts me in the mind of Harold Innis's "Plea for Time" in contemporary culture. Allow me please first to summarize some relevant bits of Innis. Innis addressed what he saw as two dimensions of media: time-binding and space-binding. The time-binding dimension is the dimension that allows certain message to reach out over time. Hieroglyphics (or any kind of symbol system carved into rock) was particularly time-binding, because it lasted for a long time. Wanna know what happened a very long time ago? Wanna know what the values are that are important to a society and have kept it together for hundreds of years? You'll want to look at what they've carved into rock. It's no accident that Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with a couple tablets of God's word (and not, say, a post-it, or a voice-mail). The space-binding dimension referred to how media move through space. Here a classic important development was papyrus (which could be moved very far, without much trouble), but electronic media (telegraph through internet) are particularly space-binding because they move messages everywhere. Want to expand an empire (be it the British empire or the image empire loosely associated with the U.S.)? Space-binding media can help you with that.

The almost-always pessimistic Innis (and the early McLuhan with him) was concerned that modern culture had lost touch with tradition, throwing time-bound ideas away in favor of the evanescent vagaries of electronic media. Why pay attention to the Ten Commandments when you've got this great YouTube video of some college sophomore lip-synching to 50 Cent while standing on his head? The culture of critical discourse (to write Alvin Gouldner onto Innis) disappears without some kind of time-bound grounding.

This idea can be quite easily compared to Adorno's concerns about art and tradition. Adorno tells us in Aesthetic Theory that "the experience of the modern...does not...negate previous artisitic practices, as styles have done throughout theages, but rather tradition itself; to this extent it simply ratifies the bourgeois principle in art" (p. 17). The emphasis on time becomes more clear later, when Adorno notes that

"it is not only reactionary rancor that provokes horror over the fact that the longing for the new represses duration. The effort to create enduring masterpieces has been undermined. What has terminated tradition can hardly count on one in which it would be given a place. There is all the less reason to call on tradition, in that retroactively countless works once endowed with the qualities of endurance--qualities the concept of classicism strove to encompass--no longer open their eyes" (p. 27)

So, some factors outside of art proper--like, society, man--have killed the potential for the kind of conversation over the longue duree that Adorno identifies as crucial to the sustenance of the autonomy of art. Here the parallel to Innis is (for a hack like myself) irresistable. Like Innis, Adorno charts a path by which ideas (in this case, art) has become much less involved with itself. Art that is informed by tradition, and uses tradition as a launching pad for its own revolution, becomes impossible because our society doesn't work that way any more. Innis and Adorno both identify modern capitalism as the culprit for this, and they both speak in the somber tones of the narrative of decline. Innis wanted a gyroscope to be installed in our society (I should point out that this metaphor is David Riesman's), so as to prevent us from losing our balance. Adorno wanted our art to maintain touch with the traditional because without it all art would become little more than the kind of carnival distraction that subverts the very potential of autonomy/creativity/spontaneity/individuality.

So, there you have it. What I find particularly enjoyable about the comparisons between Innis and Adorno is how well Innis fills in some of the gaps that Adorno leaves in here. Innis gives us a political economy and a media perspective that Adorno leaves out, in favor of a focusd discussion of the phenomenological and the historical.

Having done this, I find myself bummed out.

More soon on popular music, and probably something else.


Anonymous Arnold of Brescia said...

While I often agree with Adorno's belief in the end of both art's autonomy and any sense of connection with the past, how worthwhile was that past? Benjamin himself said in the Theses on the Philosophy of History that "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism..." Adorno's disgust with the bourgeoisie tendency to annihilate tradition and replace it with...well, either nothing, or commodities, while understandable, sometimes comes off as the snarky retorts of an old man refusing to allow any sort of change in art without a corresponding affront to its autonomy/tradition. Did Innis note that perhaps the ultimate "time-binding" monuments--such as the Pyramids, the Great Wall, Darius' inscriptions at Behistun- were built by the nameless, voiceless masses that art- and tradition- have always depended on?
All too often Adorno sounds like one of the late antique Neo-Platonists bemoaning the loss of a sterile, elitist culture that has run its course (in Adorno's case, classical music or modernism or whateverthefuck; in, say, Proclus' case, the entrenched, fossilized aristocratic Hellenism of 6th c. Athens).
As noted above, i agree with Adorno on a lot but he often seems to ignore the fact that the art he loved was based on the exploitation of the masses. He often can't reconcile Adorno-as-Marxist and Adorno-as-ivory tower snob.
Herbert Marcuse's treatment of traditional Western art as the momentary illumination of the possibility of a different way of living is a lot more appealing; he acknowledges the aristocratic and hierarchical basis for art, but argues that it still was capable of portraying a world in which all people had the opportunities of a French dandy of the 18th c.

7:22 PM  

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