Friday, December 29, 2006


It's been a while since I've posted, and even longer since I turned my attention to Adorno here. Allow me please to shock myself back into Aesthetic Theory with a suite of ideas. I have (as has been ordained by the Gods of well-organized ideas, capricious though they be) three ideas to pursue here:

1) "The Ugly, The Beautiful, and Technique". En Garde, Monsieur Scroggins!

The first thing I want to do here is to try to work more closely with one of my two partners in the Aesthetic Theory blogging. It just so happens that the section of Aesthetic Theory I read most recently ("The Ugly, The Beautiful, and Technique") seems redolent of some of the concerns often raised by poet, scholar, and blogger extraordinaire Mark Scroggins. Scroggins has been, and continues to be, concerned with what he calls "non-absorptive art". He is curious about how art can draw us in and/or push us away. And whaddyaknow? Adorno seems to deal with a number of issue relating to this issue of absorption in art in this section of Aesthetic Theory. Let's take a closer look...

As the title for this section indicates, Adorno concerns himself with the ugly and the beautiful. He addresses art's relationship to the 'ugly', which he situates as a more or less recent development. "The motive for the admission of the ugly," he claims, "was antifeudal. The peasants became a fit subject for art" (p. 48). And then he lays it down like Eddie freakin' Van Halen (a comparison I'm sure is causing fits to his undying soul...):
"Art must take up the cause of what is proscribed as ugly, though no longer in order to integrate or mitigate it or to reconcile it with its own existence through humor that is more offensive than anything repulsive. Rather, in the ugly, art must denounce the world that creates and reproduces the ugly in its own image, even if in this too the possibility persists that sympathy with the degraded will reverse into concurrence with degradation" (p. 49).

So, here we see (in a very small slice of Adorno) an appreciation for a social function of art. Of course, Adorno avoids the use of the word 'function'. Still, a certain functional element comes through when he goes all Hitler on us (a move that he had unique authority in deploying):
"The aesthetic condemnation of the ugly is dependent on the inclination, verified by social psychology, to equate, justly, the ugly with the expression of suffering and, by projecting it, to despise it. Hitler's empire put this theorem to the test, as it put the whole of bourgeois ideology to the test: The more torture went on in the basement, the more insistently they made sure that the roof rested on columns."

Indeed. Here the 'ugly' gives art the power to show a society to itself, to block the tendency for an uncritical notion of beauty to become what it seems utterly impelled toward: a reification of the society's own need to forget, to deny, itself. It's significant that much of his language in this section concerns music. No doubt an oversimplified--if still useful--way to approach this would be to contrast the martial melodies preferred by Hitler youth (brassy, powerful, fitting for both the beer hall and the rally) with the modern compositions of Hindemith, Berg, and Webern. In their engagement with the ugly, the latter provided an aesthetic approach that avoided the programmed forgetfulness/ignorance of the former.

So, I pose the following question to Mark Scroggins, knowing he can answer it far better than myself: Do these categories of ugly and beautiful map onto the categories of absorptive and non-absorptive art? Might pushing the audience away (through syntax, composition, 'difficulty') with non-absorptive art be what Adorno is talking about here? If there is (as seems likely) some slippage between these two pairs of categories, what is it? And, of course, is any of this helpful for thinking about art?

2) A Response to Arnold of Brescia.

In an earlier post, I tried to find some overtones that pulled together the ideas of Adorno with those of Harold Innis, who was similarly concerned with how media of communication relate to the dimension of time. In a very thoughtful response, Arnold of Brescia observed that
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.

Right. To a great extent, Adorno is guilty as charged here. And this is one of the things that surprises me (and many others, I know) about Adorno. It's also one of the things that surprises me about reading Innis and early McLuhan. Adorno, Innis, and McLuhan were, in some ways, all conservatives. They all shared a concern that something (they varied on what the something was...) essential to the sustenance of the good was in danger of being wiped out by certain tendencies in modernity. This doesn't make exploitation of the masses a good thing in and of itself. I think Adorno might retort by saying that nothing would make the exploitation of the masses more inevitable and irreversible than the elimination of aesthetic autonomy. In the aesthetic, he saw a chance for liberation, spontaneity, true freedom. He was aware (though perhaps only occasionally aware) that Beethoven's works required somebody to mop of the floor of the concert hall. But to boil it all down into Marxian materialism would, I think, strike Adorno as a further (if strangely inverted) advance of capitalist reification. If Marx stood Hegel on his head, perhaps Adorno returned the favor...

3) Brother Archambeau Lays It Down.

In his most recent post, Bob Archambeau defends the very task of paraphrasing Adorno. So says Bob:
I know Adorno wants the kind of truth he wants to get at to be transcendent, above any commodification or reification. But I believe in the need to try to incarnate the transcendent — with the proviso that we make it plain to ourselves and others that these attempts will be innacurate — almost as innacurate as reverant silence.

As has been said so many times in discussions of how best to deal with Adorno: "I hear ya, buddy." But seriously. This is an issue that should matter a great deal to Bob, Mark, and myself. Are we in danger of being untrue to Adorno's aims if we try to pull out individual nuggets from his thought? I think we're more than 'in danger' of this. We're downright contradicting Adorno's approach, and as Bob points out, I think that's part of the value here. Perhaps if Adorno had wanted to be truly faithful to his own approach, he should have invented his own language for this purpose. Why didn't Adorno go the extra mile? Harry Partsch invented a new system of notation to get his own musical ideas into the world. I suppose the point I'll close with is simply this: Adorno (and many of his 21st century sequelae) was wisely uncomfortable with the communicative dimension of culture. He knew how easily reification could turn communication into an exercise in self-stultification. Let's not forget, though, that the avoidance of 'pure communication' (as Georges Gusdorf referred to empty verbiage) can also become a danger. At the end of the day, you gotta say something.


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