Adorno – Aesthetic Theory (1970)

An ongoing post. Page numbers refer to Hullot-Kentor translation.

On Taste: Adorno enters the discourse of taste obliquely, by pitting Hegel against Kant. In the Draft Introduction, he’ll claim that Hegel is “the enemy of taste” in so far as he wanted the beautiful to reside in the object, not in the relationship between the subject and the object (Kant). Adorno believes that he could not wrest himself from this contingency–that Kant’s “aporia” between “aesthetic objectivity” and “judgments of taste” persists as the defining antinomy in post-Kantian art” art that “pursues its objectivity openly, without any sort of protection” (343). Thus Hegel’s attempts to identify the spirit of art with totality (the objectivity of art is the truth of spirit); now, after the collapse of Idealism, spirit is only one part of the artwork, the other being objectivity. Nevertheless, the determination of spirit is art’s highest call (all the more reason to not let philosophy do it for art); but the reduction of art to subjective spirit is ridiculous when the “objective” qualities that resist and coconstruct the work are fully accounted for. Thus art’s spiritual character is located at a far remove from its genesis: Hegel’s elaboration of work in the lord and bondsman passage is replicated in every work of art. The consequence (for taste), is that it is annexed to the side of the subjective entirely: not only the subject experiencing the work of art, but also the subject creating the work of art. Both, in some sense, participate in the logic of domination.

“Second reflection,” or the criticality of aesthetic experience: Subjective projection belongs to the realm of the preartistic–aesthetic experience is a countermovement to the subject. As such, it breaks through “the spell of self-preservation”: the I no longer has it happiness in its reproduction, interests, etc. Second reflection is that mode of critique that recognizes critique as immanent to the work of art: that all art contains the pure joy of mimetic impulse (reproducing a world), and also an anti-mythological element that resists mimesis. Critique is immanent to aesthetic experience. Aesthetics that does not recognize this is “merely culinary.” The use of this word connects with Brecht and dinner theater…but it also forcefully connects with the images of vulgar philistinism characteristic of those who want to identify with the work of art, taste and touch it. This is an improper comportment toward objectified spirit: what is need is reflection by means of the concept. The concept liberates the subject from the constraints imposed on it by the form  of the artwork. That is, it liberates content: second reflection is a dialectically mediated naiveté that doubles as a critique of reason itself: content is no longer the the brute materialism of Enlightenment thinking, but a “realized materialism.” Art’s power of resistance is precisely this powerlessness of content that anticipates a “spirit that would only step forth.” The “truth” of the new, which second reflection discloses, is the truth of that which has not yet been “used up.” [Connect with Berlant, Bennet, Bataille, Heidegger, etc….]

Kant,  Hegel, and domination, or the emergence of “truth-content”: Hegel’s “content aesthetics” supersedes the empty formalism of Kant by recognizing the importance of that which is other to art being internal to art. However, by transforming the form into content, Hegel makes the aesthetic complicit with an ideology of domination. He transgresses his own dialectic at the point when poetry translates into the prose of thought (the unity of the concept). He confuses the representational mediation of thematic material with that which is truly other to art. In Adorno’s terms, Hegel obliterates truth-content by regressing to a pre aesthetic literalness: the literal is barbaric. Truth-content is the history of violence (the primal act of formal violence against nature) that gets preserved in the tension between form and content. This is where Kant is still useful: whereas Hegel’s aesthetic becomes subordinated to the cycles of desire that propel the dialectic (I realize this is tendentious), Kant separates out aesthetic comportment from immediate desire: “he snatched art away from that avaricious philistinism that always wanted touch it and taste it” (10). An yet Kant nevertheless goes on to merge aesthetic experience with the realm of practical reason, i.e. desire. Kant offers a “castrated hedonism,” desire without desire, which is a form of domination explicable in terms of Freud, of course.

On Natural Beauty, or the dangers of immediacy: Adorno disagrees with Kant: Art is not an imitation of nature, is the imitation of natural beauty., a concept that already implies a history of mediation. Natural beauty emerges out of fear of the ugly, which requires the birth of the sacred. Thus what is beautiful in nature, is what appears to be there above and beyond what is there. One could say that, for Adorno, Kant’s sublime becomes the condition for the beautiful. If nature is said to have a language, then art tries make nature speak a mute eloquence: this language will turn out to be precisely the successive acts of violent domination. Thus art must do the impossible: making the nature speaking without trying (willing) to. Claiming natural “immediacy” amounts to passing over this violence in silence. Art beauty, then, attempts to determine the contingent “more” of natural beauty as semblance and negate it as unreal.

The subjective paradox, or why semblance is the opposite of expression: Expression is precisely that which must be produced blindly, by way of reflection (form): not to rationalize it, but to produce it aesthetically, through semblance. That is, to make things of which we do not know what they are. But this involves the gradual extinction of expression, and there is not sure way to tell whether such an artist is not just a mouthpiece of reified consciousness or “the speechless expressionless expression that denounces it” (117).  Expression is therefore imitation, and semblance is precisely that which does no imitate, or goes beyond imitation. Expression can only happen by way of a semblance that negates itself as unreal. For Adorno, this dialectic strains against the relations of production in order to really establish the subject. But one wonders what sort of subject is possible after all this self-negation. Have simple processes of life been negated beyond recognition?

The beautiful and the sublime and their reversal in modernism: Modernism accounts for the Enlightenment concept of nature (as calculable, interchangeable elements) to the degree that the categories of formal beauty no longer hold up. Thus sublime (in the form of atomistic mathematics) is all that is left for modernism. But what was once the confirmation of man’s rational power, is not the source of shame. The sublime therefore returns as first nature to the degree that it breaks out of the forms of second imposed by subjective rationality. This is the sublime as it takes the place once inhabited by beauty–what has been lost is the ability to be disinterested. What is universal is the return of the non-identical, demanding acknowledgement.

 

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