intro. to adorno’s alternative aesthetics by/for reinaert de v.


donald lipski – “dangerous husband”

…as the books pile up, we are required to make a decision: whether or not to work through what was important a month ago, or to add another weighty tome to the stacks. With this decision there’s always the added requirement to actually read & to go through the work that’s essential for any actual comprehension. While the initial reading is underway, one has to then turn to other texts for a paragraph, a definition & a maybe another nuance to fill in the unknowns. Sometimes this referencing helps & at other times there is nothing to be found. This continual effort has to be held with a notion that one will never entirely know the object/idea of enquiry in the totalizing way that was once wished for. An idealistic goal of reading rarely matches the result, because your mind has simply changed—if you’re actually learning—& what mattered in the beginning of the pursuit isn’t always the end vantage. Consider with all this, that any subject matter will never completely unfurl to a precise, neat & rational definition. The resulting thoughts spread out & divide, becoming much more than an identifiable end, over again, outside of thinking, more than before, back then to innumerable unturned pages, into a manifold reading, through to continuing thought & finally given over to dozens of multiplied meanings. …& so, here’s to introducing another such book that now sits on the top of the piles, ready as it were, to be entangled with the rest.

This post is unique in that it’s a very short inconclusive introduction to the aesthetics of the philosopher & musicologist Theodor W. Adorno & it’s looking forward to a long promised essay from a good friend: Reinaert de V., who hails from half-a-world-away in the Netherlands.  When we are presented with the rigorous philosophical aesthetics of Adorno, we are in the unusual circumstance of an artist as a philosopher & a philosopher as an artist. Adorno’s artistry has been inextricably linked to a mid-twentieth century stylistic phenomena known as ‘atonal music.’ He maintained relationships with two of the style’s main proponents Alban Berg & Arnold Schoenberg. In the 1940’s the author Thomas Mann lived in Los Angeles where he, Schoenberg & Adorno would meet to discuss ideas while all of them were in exile from Germany during the devastating excesses of Hitler’s dictatorship. As Adorno was influential in multiple creative circles, he was also intensely involved with the mid-century philosophical intelligentsia of Europe & the Untied States. The Frankfurt School of ‘critical theory’ counted him as a founding member, along with the likes of Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas, Erich Fromm & others.

Let’s now for a moment, lay down a few thoughts, without getting too much in the way of Reinaert de V.’s brilliant exploration of Adorno’s (posthumously published) magnum opus: “Aesthetic Theory” (1970). These preliminary notes should not be confused with any of Reinaert de V.’s conclusions, but a reader might find a relatable confluence.  If any ‘constellation’ of ideas are attributed to Adorno, it would have to be what we’ll call here his post-enlightenment-critique-of-rationality. That any rational claims exist are real enough to be contended with & are not to be wholly denied by Adorno. But, that all this extant & excessive rationality gets in our way of coming to terms with the ‘non-identity’ of an art object, is certainly an issue to be examined, critiqued & theorized about. Critique & theorization are really the only tools left to the philosopher to manage through the social/cultural/historical ways that art is comprehended, judged, talked about & created. Standing within these theorizations that resist any overt systemization, Adorno pays half-allegiance to our philosophical father of German idealism: G.W.F. Hegel (he also speaks of Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, &c, but we won’t look those thinkers in this short into.). With this said, Adorno shouldn’t be mistaken for an idealist. Let’s recall Karl Marx, who came after (to then use & abuse) Hegel with his own transformation & downgrading of Hegel’s idealism, re: dialectical materialism. Adorno’s thought is classified as Marxist, in that it’s openly materialist with regard to the autonomy of the art/object as a distinguished material reality, & as a monad. His Marxism, is difficult to pin down wholeheartedly, yet, the overtures to the unavoidable socio-historical role of art in his aesthetics bear the unmistakable fingerprints of Marx.

The best avant-garde artwork (yes, the concern here is primarily with the avant-garde & not the casual regard for an art that’s designed to please, like that of an over-commodified public easement &/or privately owned mass-produced commodity) cannot & should not escape its hard won position as a provocateur, as socially antagonistic & as the rebellious object currently classified under the title: contemporary art (& for Adorno’s sake, think high Modernity). Art in its very rebelliousness—whether it be modern or contemporary—has to suffer through the very rationalist paradigms it operates within & against. It is in this discomforting tension, between that which often cannot be put into words, as it’s entirely submerged in a consumerist culture with its stubbornly insistent demands on the art object to provide a logical answer for its validity. This all contributes to art’s avowed unwillingness be what it is. Art then is often a glaring enigma & in this problematic way it belies definition & so this (now traditional) resistance can be where its elusive beauty is sought after. It cannot be avoided that although this relationship between art & society/culture/history is often antagonistic, the relationship itself is never to be thought of as mutually exclusive. All the elements must be considered together in their relationships, no matter how infuriatingly strained the couplings seem to be.

marlie mul – “cigarette ends here” 2011

Adorno’s indebtedness to Hegel partially had to do with a recasting of the dialectic as ‘negative.’  Hegel spoke to Enlightenment’s reason, therefore it’s been our reason. That is, if we recognize Hegel’s dialectical telos as continually rushing toward rationality. It is this reason that drove enlightenment, modern & contemporary society to privilege rationality over the body, the sensual, the irrational. If it doesn’t make ‘sense’, if it’s not reasonable, it’s not worthwhile, this is/was the prevailing attitude. Positivist thinking is, more or less, all there is in this enduringly-logical paradigm. This is the very kind of calcified schema Adorno wishes to critique. Keep in mind that this overt rationalizing had to do with many of the infamous problems of the 20th century—including Marxism.  It’s Adorno’s wish to take the dialectic & turn its rational telos around & back to the contradiction. Where Hegel’s dialectic implied a negative contradiction to be overcome to get to reason’s advancement, Adorno’s negative dialectic repositions this to re/cognize the division, instead of the unification. Hegel’s dialectical unification implicated an identity onto disparate entities that are brought together dialectically. When we choose to see these elements (artworks vs. society vs. culture vs. history vs. the subject) as originally separate & un-identical, we can pay respect to their ‘truth-value’ as not having to entirely belong to the whole, the absolute & to not always be part of a reasonable framework. That the artwork/object still operates in a rational society/culture/history is a feature that it violates & hence, bears the unsightly scars of. Art continually suffers through the misunderstandings of reason & in turn we suffer through our misguided efforts to insist on the dictatorship of reason at any cost. We cannot remove these intricacies, but we can with observe them as a way to gain a newfound critical stance, until this utopia is challenged again.

…& what meaning is there (for art) after the injustice of identity, the debasement of definition & the banal reduction of the rational?

Here’s a diagram to roughly illustrate three interconnected ideas from Adorno’s aesthetics (click for a closer view).

three diagrams for adorno

Please enjoy Reinaert de V.’s upcoming text as it reaches for Adorno’s aesthetic beauty in all its gratifying rigor & its thoughtful mystery.

Aurelio Madrid

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