Sunday, August 29, 2010

Marin Hielscher on Adorno's Aesthetics (Day 2)

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Martin Hielscher is the Fiction Editor at one of Germany's oldest publishing house, C.H. Beck.

NOTE: As with all my notes from the European Graduate School, there will likely be mistakes because I did not record the lectures, I made notes as they spoke, so I am perhaps interpreting what they are saying as I am writing.

Theodor Adorno died not far from Saas-Fee (home of EGS), he was hiking in Zermat.

To begin, there are two things to understand:
  1. Why "critical theory"
  2. What is Natural Beauty, or what is the role of Natural Experience?
What is called critical theory is a re-reading of the Western Tradition. This was the work of Benjamin, Horkheimer, Marcuse, etc. Their intent was not to be theoretical; they were searching for a new practical experience.

They were trying to think a new practice in the face of the disaster of so-called Advanced Modernity: what is this rational, industrial mode of mass murder that reduces contact with those murdered?

Critical theory tries to understand this rationality -- our Technological Age where the world is apprehended first through a technological viewpoint and mass communication.

Mass media informs how we relate to our personal (inner) nature and to outer nature; these outbursts of violence such as in Srebenica in the dissolution of Yugoslavia, just as in Rwanda. In both cases the UN witnessed and did nothing.

These outbursts are not alien because they are part of a pattern of thinking.

It's not a personal choice to live in the Technological Age; the world presents itself as such and we have no personal choice. The question becomes: will this come to an end; how does it impact our understanding of ourselves?

People are not free, but trapped in "free societies" -- these open, liberal societies are not as free as they proclaim. The Culture Industry and mass communication acts as another mode of social control because it shapes the horizon of what can be perceived.

Given this, there is a deep distrust of public communicative possibilities because it is all standardized.

Adorno takes a concrete phenomenological approach to understanding mass media. The term "critical theory" itself has a time code within it: There is always a horizon beyond what we can theorize.

There is no direct way to approach the phenomena we encounter because everything is already mediatized, so we must reflect on it and step back into this murky circle. There is no easy way out.

Adorno's critique of Heidegger is that Heidegger creates a false sense of direct contact with Truth or the Other.

Adorno's "the nonidentical" is similar to Derrida's "différance." Concept-making is the process of identity-making. This identification-making is a destructive act in that it has the tendency to ignore the inherent identification of those being described, but even their own self-identification is a self-deceptive act.

Critical Theory is a neo-Marxist thinking with a focus on the material existence of society. A pursuit of happiness is manifest in our corporeality. We are constantly fighting our own misreading of our own bodies.

You cannot ignore your own body, it will always be there communicating to us.

How does différance occur?
How do we experience it?
Love is one mode of access, as is philosophy, or the aesthetic experience.

The aesthetic experience shouldn't be confused with entertainment because entertainment is a standardized product and instrument of social control. The aesthetic experience resists entertainment.

Art is a way of Truth presenting itself.

It has a rationality but not for the sake of reifying a metaphysics but speaks a true language more true than the Truth and acts as a commentary on the social.

It's a form of encounter that changes the subject-object relationship: subjectivity is defined through its use of objects and how we make use of the world through this. True aesthetic experience presents the challenge of the inverse of this relationship -- we must step outside of ourselves.

It's not for the sake of uniqueness of myself to be expressed but for us to better understand the object, to experience the primacy of the object.

How do we get out of the narcotizing tendency of living in contemporary society? How do you have a true self in a false society? As Heidegger pointed-out that metaphysics rejects time (resists time), so Critical Theorists seek a thinking of an authentic living in a time where we are inundated with how to live as a consumable.

Adorno has a utopian residue, for Ernst Bloch and Karl Marx there were these utopian horizons and through this mode of thinking we approach the horizon of the Other, a promise of alterity. Postmodernity abandons the utopian project because it's part of a Grand Narrative.

We cannot escape Reason by being unreasonable or introducing an escapist metaphysics that excuses this world.

What is resistance? What does it mean to resist the Culture Industry?
  • Resistance as direct political action is problematic because the likely result is to impose the exact same violence onto others
  • To resist, for Adorno, is to think and to create these true aesthetic experiences.
  • True art calls for philosophy and vice-versa in order to have this break in the repetition of living.
We must go back in history, we need to reread Schelling.
From Adorno's Aesthetic Theory page 61:
Since Schelling, whose aesthetics is entitled the Philosophy of Art, aesthetic interest has centered on artworks. Natural beauty, which was still the occasion of the most penetrating insights in the Critique of Judgment, is now scarcely even a topic of theory. The reason for this is not that natural beauty was dialectically transcended, both negated and maintained on a higher plane, as Hegel's theory had propounded, but, rather, that it was repressed. The concept of human nature rubs on a wound, and little is needed to prompt one to associate this wound with the violence that the artwork—a pure artifact—inflicts on nature. Wholly artifactual, the artwork seems to be the opposite of what is not made, nature. As pure antitheses, however, each refers to the other: nature to the experience of a mediated and
objectified world, the artwork to nature as the mediated plenipotentiary of immediacy. Therefore reflection on natural beauty is irrevocably requisite to the theory of art.
Art is not outside the subject-object relationship; it is also a violence. We think of Nature as unmediated, but this is already because we live in a totally mediated world.

From Adorno's Aesthetic Theory page 63:
The artwork, through and through δέσει (thesei, convention), something human, is the plenipotentiary of φύσει (physei, nature), of what is not merely for the subject, of what, in Kantian terms,would be the thing itself. The identity of the artwork with the subject is as complete as the identity of nature with itself should some day be. [...] Hegel obviously lacked the sensibility needed to recognize that genuine experience of art is not possible without the experience of that elusive dimension whose name—natural beauty—had faded.
The ideal of the artwork is that it is completely constructed; there is an identity within Nature of what Nature wants to be like.

From Adorno's Aesthetic Theory page 65:
Just how bound up natural beauty is with art beauty is confirmed by the experience of the former. For it, nature is exclusively appearance, never the stuff of labor and the reproduction of life, let alone the substratum of science. Like the experience of art, the aesthetic experience of nature is that of images. Nature, as appearing beauty, is not perceived as an object of action. The sloughing off of the aims of self-preservation—which is emphatic in art—is carried out to the same degree in aesthetic experience of nature. To this extent the difference between the two forms of beauty is hardly evident. Mediation is no less to be inferred from the relation of art to nature than from the inverse relation. Art is not nature, a belief that idealism hoped to inculcate, but art does want to keep nature's promise. It is capable of this only by breaking that promise; by taking it back into itself. This much is true in Hegel's theorem that art is inspired by negativity, specifically by the deficiency of natural beauty, in the sense that so long as nature is defined only through its antithesis to society, it is not yet what it appears to be. What nature strives for in vain, artworks fulfill: They open their eyes. Once it no longer serves as an object of action, appearing nature itself imparts expression, whether that of melancholy, peace, or something else. Art stands in for nature through its abolition in effigy; all naturalistic art is only deceptively close to nature because, analogous to industry, it relegates nature to raw material.
Natural Beauty is appearance, the experience of images. The form of self-preservation society we have actually brings the extermination of ourselves. The experience of Natural Beauty frees us of this sense of self-preservation.

Nature needs us as much as we need it, its call requires our response. There is an inherent teleology in Nature. It is a question of how we interact with Nature.

True art has become enigmatic for Adorno and there is this threat coming from the Culture Industry. There is no primitive or naive approach to art or to philosophy for Adorno. You need education and to know the material. The material will tell you, you'll have a gut feeling when it's time to change.

Changes in art happen because there is an inherent force (process) to do that. Historically it was not autonomous and was told to artists in large part by the patrons and authorities that commissioned the work.
  • To focus on the art experience in an aesthetic theory runs the risk of becoming solipsistic and self-focused; Adorno insists on the art object being in the center.
  • Art is not a given anymore, philosophy is not a given anymore, even humanity is not a given anymore given the way humans behaved in the 20th century
History may be a failed experiment, as Beckett said, "fail again, fail better."

How does social change occur? Classical political theory requires an agent doing direct action but this leads to the repetition of violence. But if you change the agent rather than the agent changing society... We must approach each other without instrumentalizing that Other.

Adorno says that we must stay with our conflicts and endure them (similar to Arendt).

His Negative Dialectics is his mode of ontology, it points to the question, "What is the good life?" and seeks to promote a happier world which depends upon recognizing how lost we are, lost even to the message emanating from our own bodies.

It's a melancholic philosophy but for the sake of of discovering happiness; it's vitalistic and in ways like Nietzsche. There is a deep tenderness in his thought, he writes about ways in which others exploit and do violence to them but he does this because he has such tenderness for others.

Critical Theory is an attempt to understand what is happening and in so doing find another way to act in this context. Key to this reevaluation is second reflection. The Holocaust is the symbolic event to which they point as indicative of the need for this mode of thinking.

"There is no poetry possible after Auschwitz." Adorno

There is a deep difference between humanity before and after the Holocaust. It has changed the way we relate to ourselves.

Paul Celan, a key Frankfurt School figure, wrote in German and asked how it is possible to write in the language of the Perpetrators. It is an aporia and we must stay with this problem and endure it. Celan irritated the practices of metaphor and emblematic language in his writing by using the German tendency of building words. In no small way this is in response to the development of euphemism in propaganda (like in the current Gulf crisis and the so-called "top-kill" of the well spewing oil).

What we need is a deep mistrust of language, especially in the case of literature, as Thomas Mann said, "a writer is someone that has a problem with language."

ME:Perhaps Naptha's suicide might be indicative of Adorno's position that we cannot counter Reason by being unreasonable; or maybe it illustrates Habermas' position that communication must happen again and again until we reach accord.

From Adorno's Aesthetic Theory page 63-4:
[63] The anamnesis of freedom in natural beauty deceives because it seeks freedom in the old unfreedom. Natural beauty is myth transposed into the imagination and thus, perhaps, requited. The song of birds is found beautiful by everyone; no feeling person in whom something of the European tradition survives fails to be moved by the sound of a robin after a rain shower. Yet something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed. The fright appears as well in the threat of migratory flocks, which bespeak ancient divinations, forever presaging ill fortune. With regard to its content, the ambiguity of natural beauty has its origin in mythical ambiguity. This is why genius, once it has become aware of itself, is no longer satisfied with natural beauty. As its prose character intensifies, art extricates itself completely from myth and thus from the spell of nature, which nevertheless continues in the subjective domination of nature. [64] Only what had escaped nature as fate would help nature to its restitution. The more that art is thoroughly organized as an object by the subject and divested of the subject's intentions, the more articulately does it speak according to the model of a nonconceptual, nonrigidified significative language; this would perhaps be the same language that is inscribed in what the sentimental age gave the beautiful if threadbare name, "The Book of Nature." [...] For natural beauty as something that appears is itself an image.
Archaic nature is unfreedom because there is no choice, we are at the mercy of Nature. Thus the bird's song is frightening because it is not a choice for the bird to sing but an echo of the hardwiring, they are limited in their repertoire.

Adorno and Horkheimer see modern life as spell-binding, not unlike this robin after the rain, and this shows us that the whole Enlightenment project has failed.

ME: Why is suicide the predominant mode of political action today?

Hegel's dialectic is one that espouses sacrificing the particular for the whole whereas Adorno's negative dialectic is the reverse: in the particular is the whole.

The attempt to dominate Nature was an attempt to get outside of the spell of Nature and yet this pursuit hands us back to that spell-state. The alternative is not an untouched Nature but another relationship to Nature.

A True work of Art is not a result of the artist's intentions but just the opposite: making the object leads to the primacy of the object.

The art object must survive the death of the author and in this sense the art object exists as a transformed subjectivity.

The contemporary art object remains a contemporary art object because it is more than the intentionality of the artist. The mode of art production is dependent upon the development of history as well as the living moment.

Below is Pollini's performance of Webern's Variationen für Piano op. 27; here's another link that allows you to compare four renditions of the same piece, starting with Glenn Gould.


Adorno studied in Vienna with Schönberg and Webern before he became the philosopher we know him as today.

Below is Pollini performing Beethoven's Opus 111 live in 1973:


Artists are able to transform the reception of the tradition to this point.

It is ideological to propose technique as the antithesis of Nature: bourgeois sexuality leads to talk of "unravished Nature." The artwork can be true to the silence of Nature and yet also it speak; in this way Art is a way out, an agent of change.
Natural beauty, such as it is perceived unmediated in appearing nature, is compromised by the Rousseauian retournons. The mistakenness of the crude antithesis of technique and nature is obvious in the fact that precisely nature that has not been pacified by human cultivation, nature over which no human hand has passed— alpine moraines and taluses—resembles those industrial mountains of debris from which the socially lauded aesthetic need for nature flees. Just how industrial it looks in inorganic outer space will someday be clear. Even in its telluric expansion, as the imprint of total technique, the concept of idyllic nature would retain the provincialism of a minuscule island. In schema borrowed from bourgeois sexual morality, technique is said to have ravished nature, yet under transformed relations of production it would just as easily be able to assist nature and on this sad earth help it to attain what perhaps it wants. Consciousness does justice to the experience of nature only when, like impressionist art, it incorporates nature's wounds. The rigid concept of natural beauty thereby becomes dynamic. It is broadened by what is already no longer nature. Otherwise nature is degraded to a deceptive phantasm.
[...]
For in every particular aesthetic experience of nature the social whole is lodged.
[...]
Experience of nature is coconstituted by the capacity of determinate negation. With the expansion of technique and, even more important, the total expansion of of the exchange principle, natural beauty increasingly fulfills a contrasting function and is thus integrated into the reified world it opposes.
[...]
Natural beauty is ideology where it serves to disguise mediatedness as immediacy.
[...]
[69]
To feel nature, and most of all its silence, has become a rare privilege and has in turn become commercially exploitable.
[...]The "How beautiful!" at the sight of a landscape insults its mute language and reduces its beauty; appearing nature wants silence at the same time that anyone capable of its experience feels compelled to speak in order to find a momentary liberation from monadological confinement. The image of nature survives because its complete negation in the artifact—negation that rescues this image—is necessarily blind to what exists beyond bourgeois society, its labor, and its commodities. Natural beauty remains the allegory of this beyond in spite of its mediation through social immanence. If, however, this allegory were substituted as the achieved state of reconciliation, it would be degraded as an aid for cloaking and legitimating the unreconciled world as one in which—as the claim goes—beauty is indeed possible.
From Adorno's Aesthetic Theory page 70-1:
Although what is beautiful and what is not cannot be categorically distinguished in nature, the consciousness that immerses itself lovingly in something beautiful is compelled to make this distinction. A qualitative distinction in natural beauty can be sought, if at all, in the degree to which something not made by human beings is eloquent: in its expression. What is beautiful in nature is what appears to be more than what is literally there. Without receptivity there would be no such objective expression, but it is not reducible to the subject; natural beauty points to the primacy of the object in subjective experience. Natural beauty is perceived both as authoritatively binding and as something incomprehensible that questioningly awaits its solution. Above all else it is this double character of natural beauty that has been conferred on art. Under its optic, art is not the imitation of nature but the imitation of natural beauty. [...] In natural beauty, natural and historical elements interact in a musical and kaleidoscopically changing fashion.
To insist on the primacy of the art object is to do ethics because it is a shift and deliberated acting in the subject-object relationship. But we mustn't state that the aesthetic relationship is a path to ethics because this is an instrumentalizing of that relationship and necessarily subsumes the object to the desires of the subject.
As indeterminate, as antithetical to definitions, natural beauty is indefinable, and in this it is related to music, which drew the deepest effects in Schubert from such nonobjective similarity with nature. Just as in music what is beautiful flashes up in nature only to disappear in the instant one tries to grasp it. Art does not imitate nature, not even individual instances of natural beauty, but natural beauty as such. This denominates not only the aporia of natural beauty but the aporia of aesthetics as a whole. Its object is determined negatively, as indeterminable. It is for this reason that art requires philosophy, which interprets it in order to say what it is unable to say, whereas art is only able to say it by not saying it. The paradoxes of aesthetics are dictated to it by its object [...]
[73]
The origin of this paradox is the character of nature's language.
[...]
[A]s in all authentic works, it is, rather, that the subject wants to fall silent by way of the work[....] Natural beauty is the trace of the nonidentical in things under the spell of universal identity. As long as this spell prevails, the nonidentical has no positive existence.
The totality of rationality in modern life is this spell; it's a black magic, so to say.

So, this requirement that philosophy speak of the meaning of the art object is a failure on the part of art.
ME: Does this make art criticism a double failure?
Changes in music or art happen and it doesn't happen ex nihilo, these changes need to happen at the times when they do because of the context from which the changes spring-up.

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