Title: Negativity and mediation in Adorno's literary aesthetic
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Title: Negativity and mediation in Adorno's literary aesthetic
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Davies, Thomas James, 1958-
Copyright Date: 1986
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Full Text







An Margret. fir den Sinn

It's just how you feel,

When you know it's for real

-----Coca Cola jingle


As with most projects, the following work could not have been completed

without the kind assistance of many people. I wish to extend to my dissertation

director, Dr. John P. Leavey, Jr., my heartfelt thanks not only for his help with

this study, but also for his energy, intelligence, and wit that have helped sustain

me throughout my entire course of study in the English Department. I feel very

lucky to have found in Dr. Leavey both an exemplary mentor and a dear friend.

Thanks also go to my esteemed dissertation committee, Drs. John Perlette,

Norman Holland, Alistair Duckworth, and Robert D'Amico, whose knowledge and

kind grace made all meetings and consultations a pleasure. I cannot imagine a

more harmonious and helpful committee. I also wish to acknowledge Dr. Gregory

Ulmer, whose insight and friendly presence on my exam and Fulbright committees

added to the congenial atmosphere. I also wish to acknowledge Drs. Helga Kraft

and Otto Johnston in the German Department for their encouragement and help

over many years.

On the other side of the Atlantic, I would like to thank Prof. Dr. Wolfgang

Iser for taking me under his wing in Constance and making me feel at home.

He was a wonderful "Ersatzdoktorvater." I am also grateful to Christoph Menke-

Eggers for his helpful comments. I wish to thank the Fulbright Commission as

well for helping to put food on the table while I was writing in Germany.

On the home front I wish to thank my parents, Idris and Esther Davies, for

their love and concern always and specifically for taking care of innumerable

bureaucratic snags while I was in Germany. They also kept me up to date with

the football scores. To my wife, Margret, I offer my love and gratitude for

always caring. She first pulled up stakes and left her family, friends, and

country behind to live with me in the Gainesville student ghetto. Then, she

pulled up stakes again, put her career on hold, and patiently camped with me in

Constance while I finished my degree. She is more than I deserve and I will

always be thankful and happier for having met her.




ABSTRACT . . . . . . . . .



Notes . . . . . . . . .


Art's Negations of its Origins .
Illusion and Commodity Fetishism;
Culpability . . .. .
Historical Limits? . . . .
Art and Praxis . ..
General Validity of Theory . .
Art and Philosophy . . . .
Elitism . . . ... .
Toward Negativity and Negation
Notes . . . . . . ..


and Truth

III NEGATIVITY . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Determinate Negation: Hegel and Marx. . . ...
Adorno: The Work of Art as Determinate Negation .
The Beauty of Nature and the Beauty of Art . . . .
Competing Models of Negativity in Adorno . . . .
On Communication . . . . . . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Aesthetic and Empirical Objects . . . .....
The "Hunger for Wholeness" . . . . . . .
Artistic Production. . . . . . . . . ...
Artistic Material . . . . . . . .... .
Mediation Between Art and Society . . . . ....
Toward Reception . . . . . . . . . .
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . .

V ADORNO AND RECEPTION . . . . . . . . . .

Adorno's Case for Reception Studies . . . ....
Adorno's Case Against Reception Studies .. . ...


S 9

Adorno's Attack on Pleasure and Response .. . . . 110
Adorno's Move to Suppress the Subject.. . . ... 113
Jauss's Attack on Adorno . . . . . . . 116
Denouement . . . . . . . . . . . . 121
Notes. .. . . . . . . . . . . . 123

VI FORM AND ESSAY . . . . . .. . . . . 130

The Essay as Form for Understanding .. . ... . .. 131
Examples . . .. . . . . . . . . 137
Joseph von Eichendorff .. .... . . . . . . 138
Samuel Beckett . . . . .. . . . . . .144
Notes. .. . . . . . . . . . . . . 150

VII CLOSING REMARKS. .. . .. . . . . 160

Negativity and Mediation . . ... . . . . . 160
Language . .. . . . . . . . . . 163
Representation . . .... .. . . . . . . 165
Notes. . . . . . .. . . . . . . . 168

REFERENCES . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. .. .. ..... . . . . . . . . 176

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Thomas James Davies

August, 1986

Chairperson: Dr. John P. Leavey, Jr.
Major Department: Department of English

Theodor W. Adorno's theoretical work on aesthetics cannot be isolated from

his other philosophical pursuits. Central to his philosophy was a commitment to

the negative articulation of phenomena, a position that stemmed from his

conviction that the liquidated citizen of the administered world was blinded by

the manipulative apparatus of the culture industry and thus unable to express or

perceive truth that was articulated positively. Only a noncommunicative language

of resistance through dissonance could negatively express truth. Adorno looked

to art as the model for such expression.

By focusing on the central concepts of negativity and mediation, I attempt

to show why Adorno chose art as a potential repository for truth, a realm

approaching freedom from domination. To do this, I examine Adorno's argument

for artworks' unique ability to negate their origins, that is, how artworks

produced by human labor out of material from the empirical world can distance

themselves from mundane empirical objects. I point out that such distance is


accomplished through form, the artist's act of placing material into new and

altered constellations. it is thus through form that the social and the aesthetic

merge. Form is also the means to which Adorno turns to allow artists to

mediate truth indirectly as a consequence of their attempts to employ the most

advanced techniques at their disposal to solve formal problems: the artist's

struggle with form is simultaneously an unconscious struggle to resolve social

antagonisms. I also examine Adorno's related concern to suggest theoretically an

indirect means for art reception that circumvents the misguided and conditioned

impulses of the recipient by subordinating them to the objectivity of the

artwork. Here again Adorno looks to form as the solution, specifically to the

"modest" form of the critical essay.

While the main focus of the study is to explain how negativity as form

allows for the mediation of truth and how the levels and degree of mediation

show up in artworks, I also speculate about the link between Adorno's pessimism

and the German Idealistic tradition and argue for the transferability of his

aesthetic from music to literature.



Theodor W. Adorno's work on modern aesthetics has found its most concise

mottos in the slogans "negative aesthetics" or "negative dialectics," phrases

revealing the central importance of negativity that, according to Adorno,

characterizes the artwork's modus operandi. The concept of negativity in isola-

tion, however, immediately begs numerous questions that are not confined to the

field of aesthetics and could be equally valid concerning a negative function of

any object: Negative in respect to what? What characterizes this negativity?

Who perceives this negativity? Against what neutral (or perhaps positive)

baseline does negativity become apparent? What types of reactions does

negativity evoke? When placed in a scheme such as dialectics, the model in

which negativity for Adorno played its significant role, negativity becomes

somewhat more manageable, although each addition to the model brings with it

increasingly complex problems of definition and interrelation. One addition,

however, that cannot be avoided, if indeed a model of aesthetics is to emerge, is

the aesthetic object, the work of art itself.

The more difficult aspects of this aesthetic model become apparent when we

confront the issue of what stands juxtaposed to the work of art in Adorno's

negative dialectics, for example, society, the perceiving subject, or perhaps other

artworks that constitute the particular tradition. But these suggestions are too

vague. If we begin with the notion of society as art's oppositional object, the

definition of society itself becomes a major stumbling block. While it may be

tempting to single out ideology or false consciousness as that against which art

reacts, even this remains too simple, as Adorno in various places implies, for it

first demands that truth in society be discriminated from the ideological (and

even these two elements may not stand in mutually exclusive opposition).

Accomplished art does not consciously try to separate out truth from the untrue;

such a conscious effort results in propagandistic or committed art that only

continues the relationships of domination in society. Nevertheless, art can guide

the way toward truth (which itself has various definitions). Indeed, in Adorno's

system the very value of art lies in its potential truth content, although such

truth does not display itself conspicuously, nor does it shine a bright light on

the untruths of society. Rather art absorbs into itself society's contradictions,

injustices, and antagonisms, although these are only virtually and tacitly

expressed. It thus becomes the task of philosophy to define, discover, and

articulate the truth that art embodies.

The point of departure is therefore the artwork whose truth must be

excavated dialectically by the interaction between philosophical criticism and the

artwork itself, a truth that only becomes possible as the result of a dialectical

and adversary relationship between art and society. The numerous dialectical

relationships involved in Adorno's aesthetic suggest that a thorough examination

of negativity aesthetics necessitates identifying the complex interrelationships

involved in Adorno's dialectical constellation.

The dialectical method itself that Adorno employs presupposes another

important aspect: mediation. Adorno was emphatic about viewing the artwork as

a man-made becoming, not a being. The nature of this becoming, if it is to

depend on dialectical analysis to find its expression, must then also rely heavily

on the countless mediations that constitute these dialectics, especially if

ascertaining art's truth content is to be a part of Adorno's aesthetics.

The major elements to be examined have thus been named: the artwork's

unique ability to reflect truth, negativity, and mediation (with its implications

for conceptual perception).

One of the difficulties in presenting such elements of Adorno's system lies

in the danger that any chosen order suggests a type of logical progression from

a basic and fundamental foundation up to the more important elements of the

system. Such a perception, however, is misleading, since the elements of the

system can scarcely be viewed in isolation from one another. Any notion of

priority among the elements of this system of becoming also entangles one in the

troublesome problem of origins and destinations. Adorno himself struggled with

the problem of organization while writing Aesthetic Theory, as he wrote in two

letters from which the editors of the text, Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann,


Interestingly the content of thoughts forces, for me, certain conse-
quences onto the form. I knew and expected this all along, but now
that it has happened I am dumbfounded all the same. This has to do
simply with my theorem that there is no philosophical "first thing"; as
a result of this, I cannot now construct my argument in the customary
step-by-step fashion. Instead I have had to put together a whole from
a series of partial complexes which are concentrically arranged and
have the same weight and relevance. It is the constellation, not the
succession one by one, of these partial complexes which has to yield
the idea.

In another letter Adorno stated more concisely the unique organizational

problems Aesthetic Theory presented:

The progression from first to second to third, and so on, which nearly
always characterizes books--including my own, down to Negative
Dialectics--is not feasible in the case of Aesthetic Theory. This book
must be written concentrically such that the paratactical parts have

the same weight and are arranged around a center of gravity which
they express through their constellation. (AT, p. 496, translation

Thus, while the bounds of writing dictate that I take up the components of

Adorno's aesthetic theory one by one, I do so with the recognition that any such

analytical approach is bound to imply what can only be an artificial order of

presentation and development. As a result of this problem, I will in many ways

repeat the circularity of Adorno. As new sections and chapters yield greater

depth of information, I will at times circle back to reassess previously treated


Because of the great circularity of Adorno's aesthetics, one could probably

begin a discussion almost anywhere. The topic I chose to open the work in

Chapter II is that of the artwork's relationship to truth, since the recognition of

truth is such a crucial aspect of Adorno's philosophical and theoretical efforts.

In this chapter I attempt to show how artworks that emerge through human

labor from the imperfect empirical world can nevertheless function as reposi-

tories for truth by negating these origins. Important in this transformation,

however, is the role art's illusory qualities play: since art cannot completely

free itself from the tainted empirical world, its only hope is to simulate a realm

free of domination through Schein or appearance. By relying on appearance art

must plead guilty to the charge of mendacity, but Adorno argues that such

appearance must still be saved if we are to retain a glimpse, no matter how

imperfect, of a world free of domination. I also address in this chapter charges

of elitism that have been leveled against Adorno over the years and some of the

reasons for them.

Chapter III on negativity traces through some of the historical background

of this important concept, through Hegel and Marx up to Adorno. Adorno, by

viewing the work of art as a determinate negation of society, finds in the

determinate negation the means to bring together philosophy and aesthetics. As

determinate negation, works of art are by definition critical of society, but

because of their negativity they refuse to articulate solutions to social problems

positively. Adorno's commitment to negativity has to do with his conviction that

the world is too blinded and human subjects too liquidated to allow them to

express truth positively. The key is thus resistance, noncommunication, in short

negativity (Adorno points to the Jewish theological "ban on images" [Bilder-

verbot] that forbade assigning fixed attributes to God as a model of such

negativity). Because he did not abandon the notion of art as representation,

Adorno upholds negativity by having art reflect not anything that exists in the

empirical world but rather the "beauty of nature in itself" (das Natursch6ne an

sich) which stands for a state of reconciliation. In the chapter I also examine

the consequences of what at times seems to be two competing models of nega-

tivity in Adorno. I close the chapter with a look at Adorno's notion of

communication from an Iserian perspective.

In Chapter IV I explore the concept of mediation, a notion that tradi-

tionally makes comparisons in Marxist analyses of diverse phenomena possible by

transcoding them into common denominators. In Adorno's aesthetics, form and

formal concerns appear to be the way in which such transcoding takes place and

through which the social and the aesthetic merge. Adorno describes the activity

of the artist as a struggle to solve problems of form that the material presents.

Because the material, however, contains within itself the antagonisms of the

society from which it derived, the artist's preoccupation with form presupposes

an unconscious but simultaneous struggle with society. To Adorno it is crucial

that the social truth content enter art in this unconscious way since the artist

is not immune to the blindness that afflicts the rest of the world. For this

reason Adorno rejects art that is overtly committed to political change.

Mediation is not to be found in a third realm between that artwork and the

artist or the recipient, but rather within the artwork itself. To present some of

the complex aspects of mediation I look in some detail at how Adorno describes

the act of artistic production as well as the distinctions he makes between

aesthetic and empirical objects. In a section on the "Hunger for Wholeness" I

also look to the German Idealist tradition for clues as to why Adorno was so

convinced of the world's dismal state.

In Chapter V I examine reasons why Adorno believed questions of art

reception to be essential but practically impossible to resolve. These reserva-

tions have to do with his view that the subject was too conditioned by the

manipulative apparatus of the culture industry for studies of reception to

contribute much toward determining the "objective" value of an artwork.

Adorno's strategy to deal with this problem is quite similar to that employed in

the area of artistic production: he turns to form as a means to suppress the

subjective and distorting impulses of the recipient. In taking this position

Adorno collides head-on with Hans Robert Jauss's theory of Rezeptionasthetik. I

thus close the chapter with a brief discussion of the Adorno-Jauss dispute.

Chapter VI provides a more detailed discussion of how Adorno turns to

form, specifically to the critical essay, to insure that the subject is not allowed

free rein in the act of criticism. By demanding that the subject subordinate his

subjective impulses to the objective artwork Adorno hopes to circumvent through

form the blinded perceptions of the critic. This means that the subject can only

experience the artwork indirectly, since both the production and the reception of

art are highly mediated. However, in writing an essay the critic produces a

construct that, because of qualities it shares with the artwork, can approach

immediacy--an immediacy based on commonality of form between the artwork and

the critical essay. To provide a few practical examples of Adorno's own literary

critical practice, I examine Adorno's essays on Eichendorff and Beckett from

Noten zur Literatur to show how Adorno can derive his aesthetic program from

quite diverse literary works.

In my closing remarks in Chapter VII I examine the importance of form in

the relationship between negativity and mediation, and discuss Adorno's concep-

tion of a language that resists domination. Based on these linguistic attributes I

show that it is not difficult to translate Adorno's aesthetic theory from musical

to literary phenomena, since both media can to various degrees resist dominating

objects by striving for dissonance and noncommunication. I close with a brief

discussion of critics, especially Jean-Frangois Lyotard, who chided Adorno for

refusing to abandon the traditional Western philosophical view of art as repre-



Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt, ed. Gretel
Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 496,
translation modified; all subsequent English citations from Aesthetic Theory are,
unless otherwise stated, from this translation with the abbreviation AT and the
corresponding page number given in parentheses. Modifications to this transla-
tion, when necessary, will also be noted. The original German of each quotation
will appear in endnotes, cited from Asthetische Theorie, Vol. XII of Gesammelte
Schriften, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970)
and abbreviated as AT. "Interessant ist, daB sich mir bei der Arbeit aus dem
Inhalt der Gedanken gewisse Konsequenzen fur die Form aufdrangen, die ich
l.ngst erwartete, aber die mich nun doch dberraschen. Es handelt sich ganz
einfach darum, daB aus meinem Theorem, daB es philosophisch nichts 'Erstes'
gibt, nun auch folgt, daB man nicht einen argumentativen Zusammenhang in der
iblichen Stufenfolge aufbauen kann, sondern daB man das Ganze aus einer Reihe
von Teilkomplexen montieren muB, die gleichsam gleichgewichtig sind und
konzentrisch angeordnet, auf gleicher Stufe; deren Konstellation, nicht die Folge,
muB die Idee ergeben" (AT, p. 541).

. die einem Buch fast unabdingbare Folge des Erst-Nachher [erweist]
sich mit der Sache als so unvertraglich, daB deswegen eine Disposition im
traditionellen Sinn, wie ich sie bis jetzt noch verfolgt habe (auch in der
'Negativen Dialektik' verfolgte), sich als undurchfiihrbar erweist. Das Buch muB
gleichsam konzentrisch in gleichgewichtigen, parataktischen Teilen geschrieben
werden, die um einen Mittelpunkt angeordnet sind, den sie durch ihre Konstella-
tion ausdricken" (AT, p. 541).



Adorno's interest in works of art stemmed not only from aesthetic but also

from philosophical considerations. Although Adorno was a noted musicologist

who devoted a large proportion of his work to analyses of art, these studies

cannot be bracketed out of his political and philosophical interests: art played a

role in his entire philosophical system, not just in his aesthetics. In fact in

Adorno's view, art criticism and social criticism cannot really be separated.

To provide for this close connection between art and society, aesthetics and

philosophy, Adorno turned to the important term of truth content, which for him

was the bridge that combined the social and the aesthetic. "In truth content, or

its absence, aesthetic and social criticism fall together or coincide [zusammen-

fallen]" (Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie, p. 417, my translation).1 The unique

qualities of artworks, in Adorno's view, offer the world a potential repository

for truth that is not to be found anywhere else. We therefore begin our

consideration of Adorno with a look at the link between art and truth. Toward

this end, we will first discuss how art can negate its material, tainted origins, a

necessary step if art is to convey truth. This negation, however, is inevitably

somewhat delusive, since art cannot completely escape from the origins it tries

to negate. For this reason, art's truth depends on art's illusory character which

Adorno believes should be sustained. We will thus consider how this dependency

makes art vulnerable to the charge of being ideological; as we shall see,

however, Adorno sees no way of preventing art from being either ideological or

even a commodity, for that matter.

Thereafter we will touch on the actual historical setting from which

Adorno's aesthetics emerged to explore whether this setting places historical

limitations on his theory, as some have charged. We will then briefly discuss

how Adorno's background and method inevitably seem to lead to charges of

elitism, after which we will close by introducing the subject of the following

chapter: the link between negativity and Adorno's preoccupation with truth.

Art's Negation of its Origins

One of the powers of artworks, as Adorno stated both in Aesthetic Theory

and in Negative Dialectics, is their ability to negate their origins, an important

element of their autonomy. We should stress here, however, that Adorno always

viewed works of art as man-made products of labor, not magical, inexplicable

products of genius. "Works of art are products of social labor" (AT, p. 323),

". . artifacts of human creation . (AT, p. 6, translation modified).2

"Producers of great art are no demigods but fallible, often neurotic and damaged

human beings" (AT, p. 245, translation modified).3 Yet artworks can negate or

move beyond their status as mere artifacts and approach truth. "A metaphysics

of art today has to centre on the question of how something spiritual like art

can be man-made or, as they say in philosophy, merely posited, while at the

same time being true" (AT, p. 191).4 As we shall see throughout his work on

aesthetics, this necessity forces Adorno to construct a quite elaborate system by

which art can be seen to separate itself from its origins.

Although artworks emerge from within the empirical administered world by

becoming infused with spirit, they become more than mere artifacts.

Art negates the conceptualization foisted on the real world and yet
harbors in its own substance elements of the empirically
existent. . Even the most sublime work of art takes up a definite
position vis-a-vis empirical reality by stepping out of reality's spell,
not once and for all, but again and again in concrete ways, when it
unconsciously polemicizes against the condition of society at the
particular historical hour. (AT, p. 7, translation modified)5

In this transformation from empirical artifact to autonomous bearer of potential

truth, the antagonisms existing in the administered world are not covered over.

Instead the unresolved contradictions in society or reality become more conspic-

uously apparent in artworks, not in their content or "message," but instead in

their form.

The unresolved antagonisms of reality reappear in art in the guise of
immanent problems of artistic form. . In art, the criterion of
success is twofold: first, works of art must be able to integrate
materials and details into their immanent law of form; and, second,
they must not try to erase the fractures left by the process of
integration, preserving instead in the aesthetic whole the traces of
those elements which resisted integration. (AT, pp. 8-10)

Through the production of artworks a privileged realm is created. "Works

of art expand the area of human domination to the extreme, not in a literal

sense, but in the sense of positing a sphere unto itself which by its very

immanence differs from real domination, thus negating the heteronomy of the

latter" (AT, p. 114). During this process, artworks draw on the stuff of the

empirical world but transform it by placing the material into new and revealing

constellations that, by becoming infused with spirit, negatively project truth.

The task of aesthetics or of a philosophy of art, therefore, is to point out the

results of such transformations and to display art's components both in relation

to the world and in relation to art's rejection of that world from which these

components are derived.

Illusion and Commodity Fetishism; Ideology and Truth

Artworks proclaim their autonomy foremost through their resistance to

society. By existing for themselves and renouncing exchange value, a being-for-

other, artworks distance themselves from the committed agenda of the adminis-

tered world.8 Yet even art is unable to escape commodity fetishism, and here

Adorno's argument separates decidedly from that of Marx and becomes compli-

cated. An example of the difficulty Adorno's argument presents is his seemingly

paradoxical statements concerning art's status as commodity: if art gives up its

resistance to society and reifies itself, it will become a commodity. However,

even if art continues to resist society, it still becomes a commodity; in fact, in

this instance art becomes what Adorno calls an absolute commodity because

through its resistance to society it takes on unique and monopolistic qualities.

"Art will live on only as long as it has the power to resist society. If it refuses

to reify itself, it becomes a commodity" (AT, p. 321, translation modified). As

it is, art is an absolute commodity that is both ideological and true. Since these

statements are hardly self-evident, let us try to make them clearer.

If we consider Marx's concept of commodity fetishism, we will recall that

his critique rested on the notion that commodities can have no inherent use

value, only exchange value. Our relationship to commodities is dominated by our

illusion that they however have use value in themselves. What Adorno is saying

is that in the modernist era art, characterized by its negativity and its refusal

to be communicative, willingly calls attention to its lack of utility, to its

purposelessness. But because artworks cannot escape the hold of the capitalist

economy they become as artworks commodities through their purposelessness; in

fact because of their unique stance in denouncing their utility, they actually

become monopolies in the view of society.

. works of art are absolute commodities; they are social products
which have discarded the illusion of being-for-society, an illusion
tenaciously retained by all other commodities. An absolute commodity
rids itself of the ideology inherent in the commodity form. The latter
pretends it is a being-for-other whereas in truth ijs only for-itself,
i.e. for the ruling interests of society. (AT, p. 336).

By being so uniquely purposeless, however, art becomes a monopoly. Its

exchange value skyrockets, with the fetishized commodity finding expression

through the artwork that does not want to be a commodity. For example, even

noncommunicative art cannot prevent communicating, against its own will, an

image of wealth and prestige about the person in capitalist society able to afford

and outbid others to purchase it. This fetishism is obvious when the purposeless

artwork inevitably makes the headlines through the price it can command on the

open market. Not surprisingly, the capitalist market makes of the "purposeless"

artwork something quite purposeful by putting it up for exchange. Perhaps this

is the reason public auctions are the preferred mode of sale: what the owner

buys is the proof that he can afford something expensive.

Alas, even as an absolute commodity art has retained its commercial
value, becoming a "natural monopoly." Offering art for sale on a
market, as pottery and little statues used to be sold in a marketplace,
is not some perverse use of art but simply a logical consequence of
art's participation in the relations of production. It is possible that
completely non-ideological art is entirely unfeasible. Art surely does
not become non-ideological just by being ptithetical to empirical
reality. (AT, p. 336, translation modified)

Thus, through ridding itself of the ideological illusion of being-for-society art

becomes an even more valuable commodity and enters into a new ideological

position of being prized for a purposelessness that by now is only mythical.

Art's conspiring with the market is only one of the ways it becomes

ideological. In fact, ideology is much more basic than that to its existence. As

Adorno argues, artworks by definition depend upon illusion and false conscious-

ness for their existence insofar as they emit the false impression of being self-

sufficient, independent from the laws of domination that prevail in society.

Works of art become what they are through appearance, or Schein, and in doing

so they propagate deception.

. works of art are products of social labor, and while they are
subject to a law of form, be it an externally imposed or self-generated
one, they do tend to isolate themselves from what they are. Accord-
ingly, every single work of art is vulnerable to the charge of false
consciousness and ideology. In purely formal terms, independent of
what they express, art works are ideological because they a prior
posit a spiritual entity as though it were independent of any condi-
tions of material production, hence as though it were intrinsically
superior to these conditions. (AT, p. 323, translation modified)

As we shall see, however, the fact that artworks constitute appearance or Schein

is no reason to abandon them. Rather, Adorno advocates that Schein must be

saved, since only appearance can illustrate reconciliation in a false and fallen


For now, let us simply point out that artworks' complicity in ideology, their

deception in passing themselves off as wholes, does not exclude them from being

truthful: ". . works of art are not finished just because of their culpable

fetishism, for in a world that is totally mediated by social reality nothing is

blameless" (AT, p. 323, translation modified).14 In fact, it is the ubiquitous

mediation and domination in society that force art to resort to deceptive

appearance (Schein) to convey at least a hint of what something would look like

that exists freely and for itself, beyond the social influence of domination. This

is why Schein must be saved.

As a response to this need, l'art pour l'art, in Adorno's view, is truthful

insofar as it recognized that only an artwork divorced from society could be

true. "Works of art are plenipotentiaries of things no longer a part of the muti-

lating sway of exchange, profit and the false needs of degraded humans" (AT,

p. 323, translation modified).1 L'art pour l'art of course failed in its endeavor

to separate itself from society, but in articulating the need for art to be

autonomous it recognized a necessary characteristic of art.


Artworks pay a price for their autonomy, however, since such distance also

leads art into the dangerous position of becoming superfluous. They also become

culpable, in Adorno's view, because they refuse to intervene in the horrors of a

world that inflicts suffering upon the innocent. It is difficult, however, to see

how art could overcome its culpability, for when art attempts to intervene, as in

the cases of overtly committed political art, it perhaps succeeds as propaganda,

preaching to the already converted, but as art it fails miserably in Adorno's

view. This failure is inevitable because as soon as art attempts to advocate

particular political or social agenda it sacrifices its autonomous status and
therewith its claim to truth;6 without any truth content art fails. Thus, art

today finds itself in a dilemma. If it renounces its autonomy in order to

intervene directly in the matters of the world, it sacrifices its truth content.

If, however, art steadfastly remains within the realm of autonomy, it can easily

be co-opted and rendered unimportant in the view of society.

This dilemma for art is relatively new, since throughout most of history art

was not autonomous and thus had no choice to make. Pre-autonomous art,

however, offers in Adorno's view little indication that it dealt with suffering any


better than modern art; in fact, modernism, in contrast to pre-autonomous art, is

superior, as is evident from Adorno's fervent defense of modernism throughout

his writings. For example, Adorno writes in criticism of pre-autonomous art:

"The real barbarism of ancient times--slavery, genocide, the contempt for human

life--has left virtually no trace in art from classical Athens forward. Art has

kept all of this out of its sacred precincts, a feature that does nothing to

inspire respect for art" (AT, p. 231, translation modified).17 If art now has any

hope of survival, it is through opposition to society, resistance to its ills, and a

willingness to portray these ills without trying to solve them or reconcile

contradictions. Adorno refers to Hegel as being the first philosopher to have

realized this by stating that if utopia were ever actually realized, art would

come to an end (see AT, p. 47; AT, p. 56).

Historical Limits?

Although some concept of autonomous art is important in understanding

modern and avant-garde developments in art, Peter Burger has criticized
Adorno's treatment of autonomy as lacking rigor and historical precision.8

While Adorno is of course aware of the dangers in establishing timeless rules and

measures, he, in Burger's view, nevertheless appears to fall prey in his enthu-

siasm for the new and the noncommunicative to just such an ahistorical


Let there be no mistake: Adorno certainly does not claim that his aesthe-

tic theory is valid for all of art; in fact, he makes it quite clear that modernism,

as a negation not only of previous styles but of tradition itself, calls for new

aesthetic criteria of evaluation. Yet in Burger's view, Adorno implies that true

art from his era on has to be judged by its resistance to society, its

noncommunicability, its autonomy, and its utilization of the most advanced

techniques available. By addressing himself to the modern (for Adorno, the art

after Baudelaire), however, Adorno, and here is Burger's criticism, is necessarily

setting up a particular historical society in a particular epoch that art must

oppose, an epoch that will presumably one day be as historicized as have been

previous epochs. To support his charge, Burger attempts to refine the notion of

what conditions and constitutes autonomy in art.19

Burger examines the changes that occurred in the evolution from sacred art

via courtly art to bourgeois art according to three criteria: the utility purpose

(Verwendungszweck), production, and reception. Of importance in these trans-

formations is the shift from collective means of production and reception in the

sacred stage (Adorno would say pre-autonomous), when the artwork served as

cult object, to an individual means of production but collective means of -

reception in the courtly stage, to individual production and reception in bour-

geois art. In the first phase, when artists as craftsmen produced art objects

with the same technology that was employed in other areas of production, artists

could not be easily distinguished from other workers. With the eventual

historical split between producers (workers) and the means of production in the

manufacture of consumer goods, artists took on a special status by remaining

craftsmen with means of production at their immediate disposal. Shifts in the

area of reception also contributed to the autonomy of art: as artists began

producing for the open market of collectors instead of fulfilling the contracts of

patrons, they gained more say over their efforts, with the result that artistic

concerns could gain precedence. Thus, historical and technological evolution

provided the conditions which allowed artists to distance themselves from

day-to-day life (Lebenspraxis) and thus create the autonomous aesthetic

sanctuary that Adorno hails.

Burger, however, argues that such autonomy is not the final phase of

development, for the avant-garde artists, recognizing separation from day-to-day

life (Lebenspraxis) as the most palpable characteristic of art in bourgeois society,

actively sought an Aufhebung of art in the Hegelian sense of the word. Their

attempt was thus not only the destruction of art as it was known, but further-

more a reintegration of art back into day-to-day life (Lebenspraxis), where it

would be preserved in a changed form (see Burger, Theorie der Avantgarde,

p. 67).20

Burger's presentation is valuable for several reasons: it provides a model

with which to examine more precisely the relationship between art and society;

it helps to place Adorno's theory in a specific context; it also helps to point out

a somewhat one-sided nature Adorno's theory takes on because of the philos-

opher's reluctance at times to concern himself with questions of reception (I will

address this problem in detail in my discussion of reception theory in Chapter


One of Birger's conclusions resulting from his study of avant-garde tech-

niques appears to strike a blow to Adorno's contention that the new and radical

best characterizes true art. Adorno stated many times that art, if it were to

survive at all in the reified world, had to resist convention by always striving to

adopt the most modern material and techniques.21 Burger, however, argues that

the techniques of avant-garde art often entail recycling techniques from all types

of earlier periods to the point of radical synchrony of styles (he points to the

techniques employed in some works of Ren6 Magritte as an example). "Through

the avant-garde movement the historical progression of modes of proceeding and

styles have been transformed into a synchrony of the radically different. As a

result, no artistic movement today can legitimately make the claim to be as art

more historically advanced than other movements" (Burger, Theorie der Avant-

garde, p. 86, my translation).22 In arguing that modernism is more advanced

than previous movements, Adorno shows himself, at least in Burger's estimation,

to be too historically tied to this movement to acknowledge sufficiently its


One weakness in Burger's argument lies in his failure to realize that the

sword of historicity he fervently wields against others is double edged. Burger

seems to feel that he has won if he can prove that Adorno's remarks are limited

to a certain historical context which has now been transcended. And yet what

Birger ascribes to avant-garde art--a radical synchrony of styles and modes of

proceeding--seems as historical and oversimplified as anything in Adorno's

argument. What does it mean, one may ask, to have a synchrony of styles, and

how is one to read individual styles as being connected with different "histo-

rical" levels of advancement? The apparent answer is that only as interpretation

can such conclusions be drawn, although Burger seems to confuse what is

obviously an interpretation with irrefutable facts.

For example, Burger does not seem to appreciate how difficult it is to

uphold the claim that avant-garde art exhibits the radical synchrony of styles he

wants to see, nor does he realize that his argument is just as historical as

Adorno's. Burger charges that in supporting modernism, Adorno fails to take

into account that modernism is historical too. However, in supporting and

arguing for synchrony, Burger is just as historical as Adorno, since any notion

of a synchrony of styles is also historical. In fact, Burger is in greater trouble

than Adorno, for to make a case for a synchrony of styles Burger must explain


how he can discern from his (historical) perspective that earlier styles are being

employed in such a way as to create a synchrony without obscuring the

individual historical strands. If these strands cannot be recognized as retaining

their historical uniqueness despite the new context, then there can be no talk of


Another phase of Burger's argument, the inability to decide anymore what

art is most advanced, is just as difficult. Burger not only wants to apply the

term "advanced" in order to tie a particular art movement to a specific historical

moment--say that modernism came after social realism, which makes the former

more "advanced" at least according to literary history; to this temporal use of

"advanced" Burger appears to add the qualitative connotation of the word too.

The consequences of this oversimplification are profound. For example, literary

historians would certainly be hard pressed to argue that an artistic movement

that subsumes an earlier one is qualitatively more advanced than that before it,

although Burger's description of avant-garde art rests on this very claim about

pre-avant-garde art.

In making this claim, Birger argues that the recycling of previous styles by

avant-garde artists is somehow unique, which it is not. Moreover, such a

recycling from the past cannot be accomplished without the new context in

which the past form is placed, altering this past form, revealing it as only a

shadow of what it once was. One of many possible illustrations of this

phenomenon is T. S. Eliot's Wasteland in which many poetic forms of the past

are recycled through the poem. One cannot therefore say, however, that one of

the competing styles is more advanced than another, for in the new context of

the poem these various elements set up a sort of stylistic intertextuality that

leaves both the present and the past altered. To put it shortly, a borrowed

form or style from an earlier period is no longer the same.

Burger also seems to forget that any synchrony must be recognizable from

some place. If, however, the observation is made somewhere outside the

synchrony, then the synchrony is historicized and becomes a part of the cycle

Burger criticizes and cannot be simply an ahistorical recycling of past styles.

Art and Praxis

In another charge against Adorno, Burger argues that avant-garde artists,

recognizing that separation between art and "life praxis" (Lebenspraxis) was the

major characteristic of bourgeois art, sought to reintegrate art back into life

praxis, thereby making distinctions between art and empirical objects super-

fluous.23 Yet such an Aufhebung seems hard to imagine if the products of these

artists are still recognized as art, which they are if one considers the manner in

which they are presented. I would argue that the mere use of mundane

materials or even complete empirical objects in constituting artworks is not

enough to undercut the separation between art and life praxis as long as the

producers are still considered artists and their products are still received or

displayed as art.

At a recent exhibit in the Cannes art festival, for example, one piece,

entitled "folded map," consisted of a standard nautical chart that can easily be

purchased by anyone. It was folded the way most maps eventually end up after

too much use: incorrectly, rendering it somewhat bulky, with different spatial

relationships than a freshly folded map. This map was thumb-tacked to a

bulletin board. Burger might argue that this exhibit constituted the trampling of

the distinction between life praxis and art that avant-garde artists intend. My


response is that in displaying this mundane object as art and calling it such, the

artist has already placed the said material into a new constellation for the

recipients viewing the exhibit to see the map in a different light and under

different assumptions. The very question of whether the map is or is not art

emerges from this new context, since one would presumably not pose this

question, had the poorly-folded map been discovered in a glove compartment

instead of in an exhibit. It thus seems as if what Burger sees as unique in

avant-garde art is merely another variety of negativity or defamiliarization that

is in no way new.

General Validity of Theory

As the preceding discussion of Burger shows, deriving an aesthetic theory

from one privileged historical epoch or artistic style becomes troublesome when

the theory goes beyond elucidating already existing artworks to prescribing what

constitutes successful art in general or in the future. Burger appears rightly to

be opposed to such judgments, although the means with which he argues the

point are insufficient. Nevertheless, Burger's reading of the Adorno-Lukacs

debate as representing two permutations of this very problem remains sound and

helpful, and insofar as Adorno employs his aesthetic theory to chastise certain

art movements and promote others are his arguments for modernism's truth

potential similar to Georg Lukics's insistence that the great novels of social

realism best convey truth.

But the better statement against the respective canon defenses of Adorno

and Lukacs is brought not by Burger (for reasons we have discussed), but by

Jameson on the topic of Lukacs.

. Lukacs was not wrong to make the connection between modernism
and the reification of daily life: his mistake was to have done so
historically and to have made his analysis the occasion for an ethical
judgment rather than a historical perception. . [E]ven the terms of
judgment--progressive or reactionary--are not wrong, provided they
lead to an ever greater sense of the complexity and dialectical
ambivalence of history, rather than to its dogmatic simplification.

Here Jameson correctly identifies an unfortunate consequence of both aesthetic

theories based on decisions about canon formation. While such theories are

designed to show precisely why the chosen canon is exemplary for truth, taste,

or accomplished works of art, they are regrettably utilized to engage in trans-

historical polemics with theorists promoting other canons. In this manner,

Lukacs proclaims social realism as the point from which one can see that

twentieth-century avant-garde merely represents the decadence of the modern

world; in this "decadence," of course, Adorno sees the truth of an oppositional

and noncommunicative art.25 More helpful would be a theory of mediation that

would allow more thoughtful comparisons of various societies and their cultural

artifacts and include a scheme for discerning art's enigmatic observations. For

Adorno, this task was the domain of philosophy.

Art and Philosophy

Art's revelations do not erupt automatically. Art must depend on philos-

ophy to articulate the antinomies that art tacitly expresses.

The subject matter of aesthetics . is defined negatively as its
undefinability. That is why art needs philosophy to interpret it.
Philosophy says what art cannot say, although it is art alone which is
able to say it: by not saying it. (AT, p. 107)26

The success of artworks rests, in Adorno's view, in the process of their

decomposition, a process which reveals to the discerning eye of philosophy, in


Adorno's reception, the inevitable gaps and breaks that occur when works of art

attempt to be wholes. Through its detection of art's decomposition, philosophy

is able to identify art's spirit through the process of critique. This identi-

fication of spirit is essential to art's truth content for "Art is antithetical to

empirical reality only as spirit, which moves toward determinate negation of the

existing order of things" (AT, p. 131).27 Thus philosophy plays a major role in

lending art its voice that opposes empirical reality.

While the spirit of art works is not a concept, it is through spirit
that they become commensurable with concepts. Critique interprets
the spirit of works of art on the basis of the configurations in them,
confronting the moments with each other and with the spirit as it
appears to them. In so doing critique passes over into a truth beyond
the realm of aesthetic configurations. That is why criticism is an
essential and necessary complement of art works. Criticism recognizes
the truth content of works in their spirit, or alternatively denies that
they have any truth content because they have no spirit. The only
place where art and philosophy converge is in this act of criticism--
which is a far cry from philosophy dictating to art what its spirit
ought to be. (AT, p. 131)Z

Adorno's assessment of philosophy's role is more difficult than it seems.

While he often makes rather elaborate statements about what "philosophy"

derives from art, one might object that philosophy consists of the work and

thought of many individual philosophers, many of whom may not agree with the

truth that Adorno has detected. It is of course correct that agreement among

philosophers is no guarantee of truth. Yet Adorno, by dogmatically insisting on

one truth in statements like "[i]n art, as elsewhere, there is only one truth" (AT,

p. 353), appears to be dictating to philosophy an unjustified ultimatum.29 It is

obvious that various critics interpret art differently, although they all may make

very strong cases for the "truth" of their interpretations. This seems a

reasonable circumstance for several reasons: art's truth is conditioned by the

falseness of reality, different aspects of which may well be apparent to different

critics. While no one would reasonably demand consensus among critics'

interpretations (all of which, by the way, may be attempts to find truth) as a

verification of their truth value, Adorno seems to deny multiplicity of truth in

his argument for the one truth of art. If there is only one truth, however,

consensus would be necessary if critics were to correctly identify this one truth.

It is of course a platitude to say that critics often disagree, so the

question arises: Whom are we to believe? If we are to believe Adorno in 44

of Minima Moralia, the drive to be right and to win arguments, a vestige of the

human drive for self-preservation, has no place in dialectical thinking.30

However, in view of Adorno's disputes with most past as well as contemporary

philosophers (with the exception of Benjamin, with whom he also did not always

agree), Adorno does not appear to always keep this drive in himself at bay.31

The problem of truth and consensus in Adorno perhaps results from his not

always successful attempts to reconcile polemics with dialectics. It also frus-

trates attempts to criticize Adorno, for if one takes him to task for one of his

aphoristic (and often unsupported) polemical decrees, he can always slip through

the charge with the claim that the statement was only part of the dialectic and

that the true negative dialectic does not try to win arguments anyway. Adorno

attacks without allowing counterattack. On the issue of truth, for example,

Adorno at times seems to demand consensus, as we have pointed out. "Great

works of art are unable to lie" (AT, p. 188).32 This position, however, is

juxtaposed in the dialectic to the statement that no privileged perspective exists:

"The distinction between truth as such and truth as an adequate expression of

false consciousness is untenable, because no true consciousness has ever existed

to this day and there is no Archimedean point from which the distinction is

perceptible" (AT, p. 188).33

Adorno's way out of this predicament is perhaps the argument that while

artworks have only one truth, this truth is only realized in glimpses and that

these glimpses are directly bound to a philosophical comprehension of art. In

this light, philosophy the process, not the statements of individual philosophers,

is what is crucial in at least theoretically articulating art's truth. By this

process, I mean the necessary philosophical component of aesthetic experience

that, to name one example, during the act of reception keeps alive the insight

that artworks are ideological illusions; as we saw earlier, this knowledge, arrived

at through philosophy, is a necessary part of art's truth.

Another dimension of this process can be illustrated by Adorno's insistence

that objects must be criticized immanently on their own terms. As Adorno

describes, this process (like the process of artistic production that mediates

truth below the surface of the artist's conscious efforts, which is described in

"Artistic Production" in Chapter IV below) is less fallible than other forms of

criticism because it only articulates what the object says anyway--albeit by not

saying it. Again, Adorno seems to seek assurance that statements of criticism

are true by not allowing them to enter from an outside discipline of knowledge

or an idiosyncratic personal or political background. As we will point out below,

however, the extreme individuality that manifests itself in Adorno's critical

essays appears to hurt his case for immanent criticism's claim to veracity.


Adorno's statements about art's truth content are probably the major

irritation that leads some commentators to charge him with elitism. Reasons for

this accusation, I believe, have to do both with Adorno's love of polemical

dialectics and his inordinate sense of individuality.

In practicing his dialectic, it often looks as if Adorno simply posits

judgments without feeling compelled either to produce evidence or to outline

logical steps that lead to the statement.34 This problem is a result of Adorno's

conviction that philosophical concepts do not coincide with what one wants to

express. He therefore plays concepts against each other without ever trying to

pin them down.35 Gillian Rose describes Adorno's dialectic well and offers a

reason why many readers of Adorno remain skeptical.

Adorno presents whatever philosophy he is discussing so as to expose
its basic antinomies. He then shows that only a dialectical approach
can resolve the antinomy, often by turning it into a chiasmus, and
that this must involve a reference to society. He calls this "following
the logic of aporias," or the "immanent method," and it justifies his
rough and tendentious treatment of the texts of others'. . .
Adorno's critique of philosophy is not always convincing. The
philosophical weaknesses which he exposes have often been discerned
by critics writing from quite different positions. He succeeds in this
sense even though he never takes the philosophy with which he is
engaging entirely on its own terms. It is difficult, however, to judge
the move from revealing irreconcilable antinomies in central concepts
to establishing the social origins of those antinomies. This is partly
because the move is always accomplished by means of chiasmus and
analogy, and partly because there are no criteria by which to judge
that this move3is the only one which can account for the antinomies
discerned. . .

While Rose's description is directed toward Adorno's philosophical writings, the

same technique causes critics of Adorno's aesthetics to react similarly.

The force of Adorno's polemical dialectic combined with evidence considered

flimsy or absent often leads critics to mistake a dialectical exercise for an

imposition of will by fiat. But there is more to the frustration. While

condemning the conditions of the world, Adorno condemns with equal fervor

those who advocate practical and committed attempts to change these condi-

tions. These characteristics--highly individual but sweeping judgments about the

falseness of the world and an excluding argumentation and style that seems

almost authoritarian--convinced many (especially some of the equally dogmatic

leftist students of the '60s) that Adorno was not really of value to those

demanding action: theory as an end and an action in itself was rejected as

insufficient and elitist. Although a whole host of sources chastise Adorno for

his rejection of practical action, Karol Sauerland makes the case in a succinct

and representative manner.

Despite justified rejection of that which [Adorno] calls pseudo-
activism, a limitation to the demasking of false consciousness and
repressive measures is too little. It should have at least been his goal
to allow the gesture of resistance to become a general one. Yet
Adorno was not able to posit this goal, on the one hand, because he
pursued the elitist ideal of the lonely individual and on the other
hand, because he feared that ideas the masses seize not only become
material violence; he also feared that at the same time these ideas
could lose their original explosive power.7

Adorno's upbringing and training (especially in classical music) also

contributed to the charges of elitism. When, for example, Adorno described some

of the jolts he experienced in the United States--"I still remember the shock a

young immigrant woman provided me when we were first in New York when she,

daughter from a so-called well-bred high social class, declared: 'One used to go

to the philharmonic concert, now one goes to Radio City'"--critics could not help

but detect in his reactions a well developed arrogance.38 Adorno, however,

valued the American experience, for as he described, it enabled him to overcome

his background, which had convinced him since childhood that the absolute

relevance of the mind (des Geistes) was self-evident. ". . in America, where no

silent respect for everything intellectual (vor allem Geistigen) prevails [I was

taught] that [this relevance] was by no means valid; the absence of this respect

gave rise to critical self-reflection."9 Some critics, however, would nevertheless

claim that Adorno's shocks and self-reflection were still not enough for him to

overcome his faith in his own discerning powers of judgment and his equally

strong distrust of the judgments of others, including others' evaluations of art.

Let us return to the role this attitude often appears to play in Adorno's art


If, for example, Adorno states that art has only one truth, ascribes highly

specialized qualifications to a philosophy necessary to perceive such truth, and

then as philosopher comments on the truth of a particular art piece (something

from Beethoven's middle period, for instance), it is easy to see how Adorno's

case for philosophy can be interpreted as merely a justification for the claim

that his judgments are more sound than those of others. If works of art are

great, they cannot lie. Those works from which he can derive no truth Adorno

calls botched.

If we, however, give Adorno the benefit of the doubt that he is sincerely

arguing for a philosophical, dialectical process of immanent criticism, not high

flying justifications for his own interpretations, then we should read citations

like the following not as merely veiled autobiographical statements.

Recent technical criteria for judging the quality of art have no
discriminating power; one may as well go back to the discredited
concept of taste in order to judge in these matters. Many modern
works simply defy the question of how good or bad they are. Their
claim to excellence rests, as Boulez pointed out, on their abstract
opposition to the culture industry rather than on their content or the
artist's ability to articulate this opposition. Consequently any decision
about how good or bad something is should rest not with the artist,
but with an aesthetics that is fully conversant with the most advanced
artistic developments yet superior to them in its ability to
reflect. (AT, p. 470)4

The process of criticism thus goes on; only the goals of the enterprise change.

Instead of criticism struggling with the question of whether specific artworks are

good or bad, philosophically guided criticism must concern itself with the

question of what constitutes art at all, with the preponderant criterion in this

decision being truth content.

In this process, decisions about truth are closely related to two central

concepts that we will examine in the next two chapters: negativity and media-

tion. Since art's truth is used in Adorno's work to act as a determinate

negation to society, any serious examination of Adorno's aesthetic must take up

the issue of negativity.

Toward Negativity and Negation

The discussion of negativity in a dialectical scheme inevitably leads to the

more difficult question of mediation in Adorno's aesthetic, specifically the

problematic implications for the issue of conceptuality that result from Adorno's

assigning art to a privileged realm. These implications we will examine in

Chapter IV. For the moment, let it suffice to raise the question of the differ-

ence Adorno notes between the cognitive perception of artworks and the

perception of so-called empirical objects. Just such a difference appears to be

the reason artworks are such an integral part of Adorno's entire philosophical

canon. By postulating that artworks can negatively evoke perception other than

the conceptual, Adorno ascribes to artworks a power different from that of

empirical objects.

Concepts are as indispensable to art as they are to language, but in
art they become something qualitatively different than the concepts as
characteristics of empirical objects. The impact of concepts being
interspersed with art is not identical with the conceptuality of art.
Art is no more a concept than it is a view or attitude (Anschauung),
and by its being neither art protests against that dichotomy. More-
over art's view or attitude (Anschauliches) differs from sensual
perception because it always refers to spirit. Art is a view of that
which cannot be viewed; it is similar to a concept without actually
being one. It is in reference to concepts, however, that art releases


its mimetic, non-conceptual layer. (AT, pp. 141-42, translation

The task for the next two chapters is thus to outline the manner in which

art as negativity functions. Furthermore, we must examine in detail how works

can be interpreted as mediating social issues at all and additionally, to what

extent such mediation differs from that of empirical objects or discursive



1 "Im Wahrheitsgehalt, oder in dessen Abwesenheit, fallen asthetische und
soziale Kritik zusammen" Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie: zwdlf theoretische
Vorlesungen, in Dissonanzen: Musik in der verwalteten Welt, Vol. XIV of
Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1973).

2 "Kunstwerke, Produkte gesellschaftlicher Arbeit" (AT, p. 337), ". Arte-
fakte, menschliche Hervorbringungen. ." (AT, p. 14).

3"Die Produzenten bedeutender Kunstwerke sind keine Halbgotter sondern
fehlbare, oft neurotische und beschadigte Menschen" (AT, p. 256).

4 "Die Metaphysik von Kunst heute ordnet sich um die Frage, wie ein
Geistiges, das gemacht, nach der Sprache der Philosophie, 'bloB gesetzt' ist, wahr
sein konne" (AT, p. 198).

5 "Kunst negiert die der Empirie kategorial aufgepragten Bestimmungen und
birgt doch empirisch Seiendes in der eigenen Substanz. . Noch das sublimste
Kunstwerk bezieht bestimate Stellung zur empirischen Realitat, indem es aus
deren Bann heraustritt, nicht ein fur allemal, sondern stets wieder konkret,
bewuBtlos polemisch gegen dessen Stand zur geschichtlichen Stunde" (AT, p. 15).

6 "Die ungeldsten Antagonismen der Realitat kehren wieder in den
Kunstwerken als die immanenten Probleme ihrer Form. ... Das Kriterium der
Kunstwerke ist doppelschlachtig: ob es ihnen glickt, ihre Stoffschichten und
Details dem ihnen immanenten Formgesetz zu integrieren und in solcher
Integration das ihr Widerstrebende, sei's auch mit Brichen, zu erhalten" (AT,
p. 16, 18).

7 "Sie [Kunstwerke] dehnen den Herrschaftsbereich der Menschen extreme
aus, doch nicht buchstAblich, sondern kraft der Setzung einer Sphare fur sich,
die eben durch ihre gesetzte Immanenz von der realen Herrschaft sich scheidet
und damit diese in ihrer Heteronomie negiert" (AT, p. 120).

In Adorno's work, resistance against exchange value is often synonymous
with resistance against the domination of identity thinking, for identity thinking
is the type of domination that renders diverse objects and services (particulars)
commensurable and equivalent at least insofar as they can then be exchanged.
For more on identity thinking and domination see "The Beauty of Nature and the

Beauty of Art" in Chapter III. For more on the exchange principle in Adorno
and Horkheimer, see Norbert Rath, "Zur Kritik am Tauschprinzip," Chapter 3.1 in
Adornos Kritische Theorie: Vermittlungen und Vermittlungsschwierigkeiten
(Paderborn: Schoningh, 1982), pp. 52-57. On the exchange principle in Adorno,
see Joseph F. Schmucker, Adorno--Logik des Zerfalls (Stuttgart: Frommann-
Holzboog, 1977), pp. 46-58.

"Einzig durch ihre gesellschaftliche Resistenzkraft erhilt Kunst sich am
Leben; verdinglicht sie sich nicht, so wird sie Ware" (AT, p. 335).

10 "[D]ie Kunstwerke [sind tatsachlich] absolute Ware als jenes gesell-
schaftliche Produkt, das jeden Schein des Seins fur die Gesellschaft abgeworfen
hat, den sonst Waren krampfhaft aufrecht erhalten. . Die absolute Ware ware
der Ideologie ledig, welche der Warenform innewohnt, die pratendiert, ein Fir
anderes zu sein, wahrend sie ironisch ein bloBes Fiir sich: das fur die Verfii-
genden ist" (AT, p. 351).

11 "Auch die absolute Ware ist verkauflich geblieben und zum 'natiirlichen
Monopol' geworden. DaB Kunstwerke, wie einmal KrUge und Statuetten, auf dem
Markt feilgeboten werden, ist nicht ihr MiBbrauch sondern die einfache Konse-
quenz aus ihrer Teilhabe an den Produktionsverhaltnissen. Durchaus unideolo-
gisch ist Kunst wohl uberhaupt nicht moglich. Durch ihre bloBe Antithese zur
empirischen Realitat wird sie es nicht" (AT, p. 351).

12 ,
.Kunstwerke, Produkte gesellschaftlicher Arbeit, ihrem Formgesetz
untertan oder eines erzeugend, [dichten] sich gegen das [ab], was sie selbst
sind. Insofern konnte ein jedes Kunstwerk vom Verdikt falschen BewuBtseins
ereilt und der Ideologie zugerechnet werden. Formal sind sie, unabhangig von
dem was sie sagen, Ideologie darin, daB sie a priori Geistiges als ein von den
Bedingungen seiner materiellen Produktion Unabhangiges und darum hoher
Geartetes setzen. . (AT, p. 337).

For more on this, see "The Hunger for Wholeness" in Chapter IV as
well as endnote 23 below about an essay by Albrecht Wellmer.

"Aber mit ihrem schuldhaften Fetischismus sind die Kunstwerke nicht
abgetan, so wenig wie irgendein Schuldhaftes; denn nichts in der universal
gesellschaftlich vermittleten Welt steht auBerhalb ihres Schuldzusammenhangs"
(AT, p. 337).

15 "Kunstwerke sind die Statthalter der nicht langer vom Tausch verun-
stalteten Dinge, des nicht durch den Profit und das falsche Bedurfnis der
entwiirdigten Menschheit Zugerichteten" (AT, p. 337).

16 On this point, Walter Benjamin disagreed, for reasons he outlined in the
essays "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and "The
Author as Producer." In the latter essay, Benjamin argues that the author
should relinquish his autonomy in order join the cause of the proletariat both in
his writings and his personal actions. Benjamin believes that this change,
destroying the distinction between reader and writer by opening up the role of
writer to the reader, could revolutionize the whole enterprise of writing. As
evidence that such changes have already begun, Benjamin calls on a quote by
Sergej Tretjakow describing the revolutionary function of public media in the
Soviet Union. "For the reader is at all times ready to become a writer, that is,
a describer, but also a prescriber. As an expert--even if not on a subject but
only on the post he occupies--he gains access to authorship. Work itself has its
turn to speak" ("The Author as Producer," in The Essential Frankfurt School
Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt [New York: Urizen, 1978],
p. 259). ["Der Lesende ist dort jederzeit bereit, ein Schreibender, namlich ein
Beschreibender oder auch ein Vorschreibender zu werden. Als Sachverstandiger--
und sei es auch nicht fur ein Fach, vielmehr nur fur den Posten, den er
versieht--gewinnt er einen Zugang zur Autorschaft. Die Arbeit selbst kommt zu
Wort" ("Der Autor als Produzent," in Vol. II, part two of Gesammelte Schriften,
ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp,
1977), p. 688).] Benjamin's optimism about technological advancement and
revolutionary innovation in the artistic realm stands in stark contrast to
Adorno's pessimism and fear that mechanical reproduction and ever more techno-
logically advanced forms of transmission would inevitably lead to even more
effective means to oppresses and liquidate the individual. If we consider what
became of the Soviet "revolution" in journalism and art, about which Benjamin
was so enthusiastic, Adorno's reservations seem well founded. Nevertheless,
some would still point to such an opinion as further evidence of Adorno's elitism
(see "Elitism" below in this chapter). A more moderate view, however, expressed
in the introduction to the English translation of "The Author as Producer," bears
quoting: "Though Lukics and especially Adorno were right to point out the
questionable nature of the party-political presuppositions of essays such as this
one, we must emphasize Benjamin's 'democratic' corrective (the insistence on
community, communication and dialogue, the attack on the 'aura' of the creative
personality) to the elitist implications of all Hegelianizing esthetics. The
differences between Benjamin of this essay and Adorno do not preclude some
overlap; the reader will notice in this context Benjamin's stress on the critically
cognitive function of art (especially Brecht's) that takes the reduced, alienated
man of today as its starting point. Adorno has to reply that all political,
collectivist art must inevitably compromise just this starting point. What he
neglects is that to Benjamin the end point, namely speaking to and listening to
the mass of the alienated, was as important as the critical dissection of the
conditions responsible for alienation" (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader,
p. 254). For more on this dispute, see Aesthetics and Politics; James Cowan,
rev. of Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Ronald Taylor, Telos: a quarterly journal of
radical thought, 41 (1979), p. 209; Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative
Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute
(New York: Free Press, 1977), pp. 136-184.

17 "Die reale Barbarei in der Antike: Sklaverei, Ausmordung, Verachtung
des Menschenlebens, hat seit der attischen Klassizitat wenig Spuren in der Kunst

hinterlassen; wie unberuhrt diese, auch sonst in 'barbarischen Kulturen', sich
erhielt, ist nicht ihr Ehrentitel" (AT, pp. 241-42).

18 See Peter Birger, Theorie der Avantgarde (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp,
1974), p. 130, and Vermittlung-Rezeption-Funktion: Asthetische Theorie und
Methodologie der Literaturwissenschaft (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1979), pp. 87-92.

19 See Peter Burger, Theorie der Avantgarde, pp. 49-75.

20 Examples of such art that Birger cites are the ready-mades by Marcel
Duchamp. For criticism of Burger's position on the sublation of art in daily
practice in the avant-garde movement, see Burkhardt Lindner, "Aufhebung der
Kunst in Lebenspraxis? Uber die Aktualitat der Auseinandersetzung mit den
historischen Avantgardebewegungen," in "Theorie der Avantgarde": Antworten
auf Peter Burgers Bestimmung von Kunst und burgerlicher Gesellschaft,
ed. W. Martin Liidke (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1976), pp. 72-104. On specifics
about Duchamp in connection with Burger's theory, see Dolf Oehler, "Hinsehen,
Hinlangen: Fur eine Dynamisierung der Theorie der Avantgarde. Dargestellt an
Marcel Duchamps Fountain," in the same volume as above, pp. 143-165.

21 See for example, AT, pp. 28-33 (AT, pp. 36-41), AT, p. 49 (AT, p. 57),
AT, pp. 300-303 (AT, pp. 313-316), and Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie: Zw6lf
theoretische Vorlesungen, Vol. XIV of Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann
(Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1973), p. 419. See also the discussion of Beckett in
Chapter VI below.

2"Durch die Avantgardebewegungen ist die historische Abfolge von
Verfahrensweisen und Stilen in eine Gleichzeitigkeit des radikal Verschiedenen
transformiert worden. Das hat zur Folge, daB heute keine kiinstlerische Bewe-
gung mehr legitimerweise den Anspruch erheben kann, als Kunst historisch
fortgeschrittener zu sein als andere Bewegungen" (Birger, Theorie der Avant-
garde, p. 86).

23 Albrecht Wellmer, in a justified criticism of Burger, points out that
Burger's campaign against Adorno is specifically directed against the philos-
opher's attempt to save aesthetic appearance (asthetischer Schein), which
contradicts the pursuits of avant-garde artists to effect an Aufhebung of art
through a return to life praxis (Lebenspraxis). (I have already intimated that
Schein is necessary in Adorno's view because only such appearance can provide
for truth to emerge from falseness; see "Illusion and Commodity Fetishism;
Ideology and Truth" in this chapter and "The Hunger for Wholeness" in Chapter
IV.) Wellmer recalls that Adorno's remarks about "saving appearance" are
actually directed against tendencies toward a false Aufhebung of art. "Burger
. fails to take the connection of the aesthetic categories of truth,
appearance, and reconciliation seriously in Adorno; if he did, he would have had
to notice that Adorno's reservations against a false sublation of art were

grounded in the idea of its true sublation--as realization of its promesse du
bonheur (Gliicksversprechen). [Burger nimmt allerdings . den Zusammenhang
der asthetischen Kategorien Wahrheit, Schein und Versohnung [wenig] noch ernst;
sonst hatte er bemerken miissen, daB Adornos Vorbehalte gegen eine falsche
Aufhebung--als Verwirklichung ihres Glicksversprechens--begrundet waren.
Albrecht Wellmer, "Wahrheit, Schein, Versohnung: Adornos isthetische Rettung
der Modernitat," in Adorno--Konferenz, ed. Ludwig von Friedeburg and Jirgen
Habermas (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1983), p. 153, my translation.] Wellmer goes
on to point out that Adorno's reconciliation paradigm is hardly compatible with
the productive core Birger ascribes to avant-garde efforts in art. For this
reason, Burger replaces Adorno's system of reality, art, and reconciliation with a
new connection combining reality, art, and life praxis. In doing this, however,
Burger eliminates the key category of reconciliation.

24 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially
Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 227.

25 I will not provide a detailed discussion of the Adorno-Lukacs debate,
since there are already numerous good accounts. See Terry Eagleton, Walter
Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981), Section
Two, Chapter One, pp. 81-100; Peter Burger, Theorie der Avantgarde, pp. 117-28;
Martin Jay, Adorno (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 68-69 and
pp. 129-30; Karol Sauerland, "Kunst und Realitat," in Einfiihrung in die Asthetik
Adornos (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1979), pp. 135-151; and Ronald Taylor,
ed. Aesthetics and Politics: Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukics, Bertolt Brecht, Walter
Benjamin, Theodor Adorno (London: New Left Books, 1977).

26 "[Der] Gegenstand [der Asthetik] bestimmt sich als unbestimmbar,
negative. Deshalb bedarf Kunst der Philosophie, die sie interpretiert, um zu
sagen, was sie nicht sagen kann, wahrend es doch nur von Kunst gesagt werden
kann, indem sie es nicht sagt" (AT, p. 113).

27 "Nur als Geist ist Kunst der Widerspruch zur empirischen Realitat, der
zur bestimmten Negation der bestehenden Welteinrichtung sich bewegt" (AT, p. 137).

28 "Der Geist der Kunstwerke ist nicht Begriff, aber durch ihn werden sie
dem Begriff kommensurabel. Indem Kritik aus Konfigurationen in den Kunst-
werken deren Geist herausliest und die Momente miteinander und dem in ihnen
erscheinenden Geist konfrontiert, geht sie fiber zu seiner Wahrheit jenseits der
asthetischen Konfiguration. Darum ist Kritik den Werken notwendig. Sie
erkennt am Geist der Werke ihren Wahrheitsgehalt oder scheidet ihn davon. In
diesem Akt allein, durch keine Philosophie der Kunst, welche dieser diktierte,
was ihr Geist zu sein habe, konvergieren Kunst und Philosophie" (AT, p. 137).

29[auch sthetisch git es nicht zweierlei Wahrheit ( p. 370).
"[a]uch asthetisch gibt es nicht zweierlei Wahrheit" (AT, p. 370).

3Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschadigten
Leben, Vol. IV of Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt/M:
Suhrkamp, 1980), pp. 77-78.

3Karl Markus Michel, referring to Adorno's statements about "the
dubious judgement of history" (AT, p. 419, AT, p. 448) as well as his reluctant
concession "that the most renowned works by the most famous masters, while
fetishized in modern commodity society, are in fact often superior in terms of
quality to those that have been neglected" (AT, p. 279, AT, p. 291), justifiably
asks how it is possible that people before and without Adorno, despite all their
false assumptions about art, for the most part knew which works to value and
which to ignore. And why is it that, as Adorno says, "The Greek military junta
knew only too well why it banned Beckett's plays in which not a word is said
about politics" (AT, p. 333, AT, p. 348)? "Versuch, die 'Asthetische Theorie' zu
verstehen," in: Burkhardt Lindner and W. Martin Liidke, ed., Materialien zur
asthetischen Theorie Theodor W. Adornos. Konstruktion der Moderne
(Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1980), p. 42.

"GroBe Kunstwerke konnen nicht ligen" (AT, p. 196).

"Die Trennung zwischen einem an sich Wahren und dem bloB adtquaten
Ausdruck falschen Bewultseins ist nicht zu halten, denn bis heute existiert das
richtige BewuBtsein nicht, und in keinem, das jene Trennung gleichwie aus der
Vogelperspektive gestattete" (AT, p. 196).

This style caused him troubles during his exile in the United States.
As he describes in his essay "Wissenschaftliche Erfahrungen in Amerika," his
statements often provoked from skeptical Americans the question "Where is the
evidence?" "Wissenschaftliche Erfahrungen in Amerika," in Kulturkritik und
Gesellschaft II: Eingriffe, Stichworte, Anhang, Vol. 10, part two of Gesammelte
Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1977), p. 704.

Adorno's reservations about concepts is a main reason why some think
Adorno should have become a deconstructionist. For a discussion of this issue,
see "Representation" in Chapter VII below.

Gillian Rose, The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought
of Theodor W. Adorno (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 54, 76. For information on
Adorno's immanent method of criticism, see Chapter VI below.

"Trotz berechtiger Ablehnung dessen, was er Pseudo-Aktivismus nennt,
ist eine Beschrankung auf Demaskierungen falschen BewuBtseins und des Systems
der repressiven MaBnahmen zu wenig. Es hatte zumindest sein Ziel sein missen,
die Geste des Sich-Weigerns zu einer allgemeinen werden zu lassen. Doch zu
dieser Zielsetzung war Adorno nicht imstande, well er einerseits einem elitaren

Ideal des einsamen Individuums nachhing und er anderseits furchtete, daB Ideen,
die die Massen ergreifen, nicht nur zur materiellen Gewalt werden, sondern
zugleich auch ihre ursprungliche Sprengkraft verlieren k6nnten." Karol Sauer-
land, Einfiihrung in die Asthetik Adornos, p. 16, my translation. Other works
that take up the theory-practice issue in Adorno's work include: Frank B6ckel-
mann, "Die M6glichkeit ist die Unm6glichkeit; Die Unm6glichkeit ist die M6glich-
keit: Bemerkungen zur Autarkie der Negativen Dialektik," in Die neue Linke
nach Adorno, ed. Wilfried F. Schoeller (Miinchen: Kindler, 1969), pp. 17-37 (book
hereafter abbreviated as DnLnA); Otto F. Gmelin, "Negative Dialektik--Schalt-
system der Utopie," in DnLnA, pp. 55-90; Hans N. Schmidt, "Theorie, zu ihrem
Ende gedacht," in DnLnA, pp. 135-140; Hans Heinz Holz, "Mephistophelische
Philosophie," in DnLnA, pp. 176-192; Johannes Agnoli, "Die Schnelligkeit des
realen Prozesses: Vorliufige Skizze eines Versuchs fiber Adornos historisches
Ende," in DnLnA, pp. 193-202; Peter Reichel, Verabsolutierte Negation: Zu
Adornos Theorie von den Triebkraften der gesellschaftlichen Entwicklung (Berlin:
Akademie, 1972); Igor S. Narski, Die AnmaBung der negative Philosophie Theodor
W. Adornos (Frankfurt/M: Verlag Marxistische Blatter, 1975); Friedrich Tomberg,
"Utopie und Negation: Zum ontologischen Hintergrund der Kunsttheorie Theodor
W. Adornos," Das Argument, 26 (1963), 36-48; Ulrich Sonnemann, "Erkenntnis als
Widerstand: Adornos Absage an Aktionsgebarden und ihr Ertrag fiir die Kriterien
von Praxis," in Theodor W. Adorno zum Gedachtnis: Eine Sammlung,
ed. Hermann Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1971, pp. 150-176;
Manfred Clemenz, "Theorie als Praxis? Zur Philosophie und Soziologie Adornos,"
in neue politische literature, 13 (1968), 178-194. A defense against the charge of
elitism comes from Martin Puder who argues that if Adorno were really elitist,
then he would not have exerted such effort attempting to devise a way in which
the barrier of reification in the minds of the masses might be penetrated
through the shock of art, "Zur 'Asthetischen Theorie' Adornos," Neue Rundschau,
82 (1971), pp. 465-477.

38 "Ich erinnere mich noch des Schocks, den mir eine Emigrantin wie wir
in der New Yorker Anfangszeit bereitete, als sie, Tochter aus sogenanntem guten
Hause, erklarte: 'Friiher ist man ins philharmonische Konzert gegangen, jetzt
geht man ins Radio City,'" ("Wissenschaftliche Erfahrungen in Amerika," p. 702,
my translation).

The German passage from which this quote is pieced together: "In
Amerika wurde ich von kulturglaubiger Naivetat befreit, erwarb die Fihigkeit,
Kultur von auBen zu sehen. Um das zu verdeutlichen: mir war, trotz aller
Gesellschaftskritik und allem BewuBtsein von der Vormacht der Okonomie, von
Haus aus die absolute Relevanz des Geistes selbstverstaindlich. DaB diese
Selbstverstindlichkeit nicht schlechterdings gait, dariiber wurde ich in Amerika
belehrt, wo kein stillschweigender Respekt vor allem Geistigen herrscht, wie in
Mittel- und Westeuropa weit iiber die sogenannte Bildungsschicht hinaus; die
Abwesenheit dieses Respekts veranlaBt den Geist zu kritischer Selbstbesinnung"
("Wissenschaftliche Erfahrung in Amerika," p. 734, my translation).

40 This quote is taken from the published draft introduction to Aesthetic
Theory that, according to the editors, Adorno would have scrapped. I never-

theless feel justified in quoting from it because, as Adorno himself stated, the
manuscript, although in need of drastic re-writes, basically contained the
substantive elements of his argument even though they would have undergone
critical stylistic scrutiny. "Was neuerdings fir technische Kriterien gilt,
gestattet kein Urteil mehr fiber den kinstlerischen Rang und relegiert es vielfach
an die uberholte Kategorie des Geschmacks. Zahlreiche Gebilde, denen gegenuber
die Frage, was sie taugen, inadaquat geworden ist, verdanken sich, nach der
Bermerkung von Boulez, blo8 noch dem abstrakten Gegensatz zur Kulturindustrie,
nicht dem Gehalt und nicht der Fahigkeit, ihn zu realisieren. Die Entscheidung,
der sie entgleiten, stiinde allein bei einer Asthetik, die ebenso den avanciertesten
Tendenzen gewachsen sich zeigt, wie diese an Kraft der Reflexion einholt und
iibertrifft" (AT, p. 509).

41 "Begriffliches ist wie der Sprache so jeglicher Kunst als Eingesprengtes
unabdingbar, wird aber darin zu einem qualitativ Anderen als die Begriffe als
Merkmaleinheiten empirischer Gegenstande. Der Einschlag von Begriffen ist nicht
identisch mit der Begrifflichkeit von Kunst; sie ist Begriff so wenig wie
Anschauung, und eben dadurch protestiert sie wider die Trennung. Ihr Anschau-
liches differiert von der sinnlichen Wahrnehmung, weil es stets auf ihren Geist
sich bezieht. Sie ist Anschauung eines Unanschaulichen, begriffsahnlich ohne
Begriff. An den Begriffen aber setzt Kunst ihre mimetische, unbegriffliche
Schicht frei" (AT, p. 148).



Wolfgang Iser, calling negativity "the nonformulation of the not-yet-

comprehended," understandably hesitates to define it more formally.1

. we must not forget that negativity is the basic force in literary
communication, and as such it is to be experienced rather than to be
explained. If we were able to explain its effect, we would have
mastered it discursively and would have rendered obsolescent the
experience it provides. Hence definition can only be partial and
confined to salient features. (The Act of Reading, p. 226)

Iser articulates here the difficulties involved in trying to define what must resist

definition, since to define it directly is to rob it of its meaning. As we shall

see, negativity is but one of many terms in Adorno's philosophy and aesthetics

(although perhaps the most important) that reveals a major pattern in his

thought. This pattern has to do with Adorno's conviction that virtually every-

thing produced and perceived by humankind is tainted by falsehood. Because of

this life condition, matters such as truth and reconciliation can only be conveyed

and discussed through an intricate system of thought that allows one to cut

through thick layers of reification and blindness to reveal glimpses of truth. No

matter how elaborate this system, however, it can only work on objects that

contain some degree of truth content that, in many cases, must be distilled,

concentrated, or amplified by critical activity, that is, run through the apparatus

to yield a modest awareness of truth.

The truth-containing object in question here is the artwork, but as the

product of mortal artists, it does not magically become a kind of oracle.

Instead, the process by which artworks emerge is also highly intricate and, yes,

indirect. That such indirect means are called for by Adorno confirms an aspect

of negativity that Iser's definition makes clear. It cannot be grasped discur-

sively or, we might add, directly.

Fundamentally, negativity can result from the basic nonidentity or differ-

ence between two elements in a dialectical relationship. While Iser has in mind

primarily the asymmetry between the literary text and the perceiving subject in

his discussion of negativity, such nonidentity is also a fundamental aspect of the

relationship between artworks and society or even artworks and themselves.

Artworks, far from being products of complete mimesis, are only partially

mimetic. While they are constructed from the elements of empirical reality,

works of art alter the relationships of these elements by shifting them into new

and unfamiliar constellations.2 Such a shift forces one, through negativity, to

supply the complementing underlying explanation to make again the perceived

object at least to some extent comprehensible. To exemplify this process, Iser

cites an analysis of Rodin's sculpture by Merleau-Ponty. The phenomenologist

points out that to depict a man in motion, the limbs of that man must be placed

in a position that they would never take naturally. To account for this defor-

mation, the perceiving subject sets the sculpture into virtual motion in an

attempt to make the pose represented in the work of art correspond more

closely with a pose one would likely see in the empirical world. Iser writes:

. the individual limbs must themselves and also in relation to
others reveal a certain degree of deformation, for only if "the position
of each limb is . according to the logic of the human body
incompatible with the others" does the possibility arise of representing
movement as the "virtual focal point between legs, trunk, arms and

head." This virtual focal point can only be shown through the
"coherent deformation" of the visible. Alienation exploits the same
effect by distorting familiar knowledge, and so instigating the recipi-
ent to work out hidden causes. It follows that every such act of
comprehension is binary by nature: the perception of deformed
aspects can only be completed by producing the virtual cause of the
deformations. Negativity is therefore at one and the same time the
conditioning cause of the deformations and also their potential
remedy. (Iser, The Act of Reading, p. 228)

Thus, negativity is a fundamental epistemological element of Erkenntnis

(realization, act of becoming aware). As Adorno writes, "Thought as such,

before all particular contents, is an act of negation, of resistance to that which

is forced upon it."3 As we shall see, however, Adorno employs negativity, the

cornerstone of his thought, in multifaceted ways and contexts. But among the

most important concepts in the negativity discussion in Adorno is that of the

determinate negation, that which Adorno called "the nerve of dialectics as


The Determinate Negation: Hegel and Marx

Perhaps helpful in understanding the determinate negation is a quick review

of Hegel and Marx.3 In Wissenschaft der Logik. Hegel made the important

distinction between abstract and determinate negation in philosophical critique.

The philosopher, referring to the negative thought of Skepticism as a counter-

example to the negations of dialectical thought, criticizes the former for its

abstract process of negation, a process negating all things without distinction

and leading to a never ending series of negations without any positive result or

progress in the system. In contradistinction to the abstract negation of Skepti-

cism, Hegel sees in dialectical thinking the possibility for a transcending of

negativity via the determinate negation (bestimmte Negation).

A determinate negation determines the nothing from which the negation

emerges; this provides for a specific content of the negation. Determinate

negation is thus not simply a path to emptiness; on the contrary, every negation

preserves within itself a determined nothing from which the negation emerged.

Hegel cites as example the determinate negations of cold and darkness that are

determinately tied to that which they negate, namely warmth and light re-

spectively.6 The new concept that emerges from a determinate negation is.

according to Hegel, higher and richer than the preceding one, richer by virtue

and to the extent of that opposite which has been negated. Such a process

allows philosophy to construct useful concepts that can actually lead somewhere,

as opposed to the dead-end abstract negations of Skepticism. About the

determinate negation Hegel writes:

The only thing, in order to make scientific progress . is the
recognition of the logical statement that the negative is just as much
a positive or that the contradictory does not dissolve itself into null,
into abstract nothing, but rather is essentially only the negation of a
particular content, or that such a negation is not every negation, but
rather the negation of a determined thing that dissolves itself and is
thus a determinate negation; that therefore the result essentially
contains that from which it resulted--which is actually a tautology, for
otherwise it would be an immediate, not a result. Because the result,
the negation, is a determinate negation it has a content. The
determinate negation is a new concept, but a higher and richer
concept than the previous one; for it has become richer by virtue of
its negation or opposite of this concept. The determinate negation
thus contains the concept but also more than it and is the unity of
the concept and its opposite. --The system of concepts has to
construct itself in this way--and has to complete itself in an unstop-
pable, pure movement that does not take anything in from outside.
(Logik der Wissenschaft, p. 49, my translation)

The determinate negation finds its important conclusion in the process of

sublation or Aufhebung, which Hegel characterized as one of the most important

concepts of philosophy. "Whatever sublates itself does not become through this

process a nothing. Nothing is the immediate; the sublated, on the contrary, is


mediated, is nonbeing, but as result, what has emerged from a being; it therefore

retains in itself the determination from whence it came" (Wissenschaft der

Logik, pp. 113-114, my translation) Aufhebung in Hegel's thought has a dual

sense: it both brings to an end and preserves at the same time, by retaining

the negative within itself. "Thus is the sublated at the same time a preserved

that has only lost its immediacy, but is not therefore destroyed" (Wissenschaft

der Logik, p. 114, my translation).9

In Marx, the determinate negation gains a historical dimension. As Grenz


If the term "determinate negation" is to have a place in his teachings
at all, then its object realm in Marx means: class society. To sublate
(Aufheben) class society means: The liquidation of its class character,
the preservation of its social character. "Determinate" means that the
class society in its present form--capitalism--is sublated practically
through the deeds of humans: liquidated in its relations of production,
preserved in its productive forces. Decidedly important here if the
result is to be from a determinate negation is that the productive
forces cannot alone remain behind; rather the determined nothing of
the class society must have as its content1Bew relations of pro-
duction. (Grenz, pp. 79-80, my translation)

Grenz argues convincingly that Marx, in his attempts to translate Hegel's

dialectics, and specifically the determinate negation, from a model of mental

processes into one of practical action with a historical dimension, sacrifices the

dialectics for practical application. In Kapital, for example, only Marx's analysis

of the concept of the commodity is really dialectical in the Hegelian sense;

Marx's discussion of history and of revolution as determinate negation, especially

in projecting that the determinate negation of capitalism or fascism is socialism,

is marked more by positivistic than dialectical traits. Grenz rightly reminds us

that the new something that results from a sublation in the sense of Hegel takes

its content from what is sublated. Therefore, the sublation of class antagonism

cannot be conceived as a determinate negation if the desired product is the

entire liquidation of class character.

To summarize, then, Grenz sees Hegel's dialectics as being dialectical but

ahistorical; Marx, on the other hand, is historical but undialectical. This

circumstance points to the problems involved in using a dialectical model to

theorize political action and revolution. As Grenz writes, "That both the Marxist

theory of revolution and Adorno, who criticizes this theory, to the same extent

base their arguments on the determinate negation shifts the concept itself into

the dilemma of the dialectics of the real versus the dialectics of concepts"

(Grenz, p. 77, my translation).11 Furthermore, Ilse Miller-Stromsdorfer sees this

dilemma as a major contradiction of the dialectical, since dialectics cannot be

separated from the moment of synthesis, the sublation [Aufhebung] of opposites.

The dialectic is thus a poorly chosen mode for theorizing truly revolutionary

changes.1 Responding to Miiller-Strdmsdorfer, Grenz sees Adorno's project

precisely to be the attempt to free dialectics from the thought of synthesis while

retaining the moment of sublation (Grenz, p. 77). For our purposes this attempt

must be examined in conjunction with Adorno's aesthetics, a bridge to which is

provided by Adorno's contention that "Art works are true in the medium of

determinate negation only" (AT, p. 187).13

Adorno: The Work of Art as Determinate Negation

As we have outlined, Adorno's preoccupation with truth was a driving force

in all his philosophical considerations. Equal in magnitude to his zeal for truth,

however, was his conviction that society in all its facets, including its language

and its concepts, is quintessentially false. The problem thus becomes: by what

means is one to imagine a truth that must emerge from a source completely

pervaded by falsehood?

A few possibilities can be ruled out quickly. Because truth does not reside

in society as it is, Adorno saw no reason why committed, engaged, or politicized

art should accomplish anything toward ameliorating the false conditions of life, a

position for which he drew harsh criticism from the more activist Left.14 But as

Adorno wrote, "There is no correct life in falsehood."15 The answer is also not

to be found in Marxist revolution. For Adorno, the key to articulating truth

was through the determinate negation of the falsehood of society provided by

artworks, a truth that is therefore only negatively expressed.

As a model for such negative expression Adorno took the prohibition in

Judaism against pronouncing God's name. As a consequence of this prohibition,

man gains the possibility of retaining nonidentity negatively. This means that

man can retain a picture of God that, because of the prohibition, is not subject

to man's identity thinking. By not permitting man to pronounce God's name,

God, the absolute, is protected from imperfect mortal images and human identity

thinking, since only negatively constructed images are allowed.16

The means by which art expresses truth is analogous to the negatively

constructed image of God. If human society is false, completely devoid of truth,

and if art is nevertheless to express truth, then artworks certainly cannot be

mimetic, for then they could only reflect or re-present the falsehood already

present. In addition, art cannot conceptually transmit its truth through any

known language or concepts, for these are also tainted and false. Thus, art

must reflect without directly expressing something that does not actually exist;

in a second step, it falls upon philosophy to articulate art as a determinate

negation of society, without, however, defusing art's resistance against society

by forcing a synthesis or a happy ending onto it. Through this step, Adorno

identifies a new permutation of the determinate as "immanent criticism," a

procedure we will examine in the following chapter.17 For now, however, let us

touch upon that which art can reflect in at least a simulated fashion: the

beauty of nature in itself, which is directly related to the beauty of art.

The Beauty of Nature and the Beauty of Art

That the beauty of nature and the beauty of art are important components

of Adorno's aesthetics appears obvious from the circumstance that the philoso-

pher devotes complete chapters of his Aesthetic Theory to each topic. Such

interest in the beauty of nature, however, seems outmoded for an aesthetics of

the twentieth century, as Adorno himself concedes. Yet as we will see, Adorno

distinguishes between the beauty of nature and the beauty of nature in itself

[das Natursch6ne an sich], with the latter being a significant realm of Adorno's

aesthetics that cannot be directly perceived but which allows art to express

truth despite seemingly impossible conditions.

Adorno begins his chapter on the beauty of nature by pointing out that this

beauty, which held a position of great importance in the aesthetic theories of

the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, has gradually been driven out of

discussion and replaced by the beauty of art. If one recalls that Kant in his

Critique of Judgment (42) placed the beauty of nature above that of art, then

the rapid decline of philosophical interest in the beauty of nature is quite

evident. With Adorno, however, comes a return to a consideration of the beauty

of nature with the following justification.

Why was natural beauty dropped from the agenda of aesthetics? The
reason is not that it was truly sublated in a higher realm, as Hegel

would have us believe. Rather, the concept of natural beauty was
simply repressed. Its continued presence would have touched a sore
spot, conjuring up associations of acts of violence perpetrated by
every work of art, as a pure artefact, against the natural. Wholly
man-made, the work of art is radically opposed to nature, which
appears not to be so made. However, in their antithetical opposition
the artwork and nature are dependent on each other: nature on the
experience of a mediated and objectified world, the artwork on nature
which is the mediated plenipotentiary of immediacy. Reflections on
natural beauty, therefore, are an integral and inalienable part of any
theory of art. (AT, p. 91, translation modified)

That the beauty of nature has been repressed is a direct result of man's

antagonistic relationship with nature throughout history, as Adorno, along with

Horkheimer, most explicitly outlines in Dialectic of Enlightenment. As the

authors point out there, man's drive to dominate nature is a function of his

instinct for self-preservation and his fear of nature's power to destroy him. The

zenith of this drive to dominate nature Adorno and Horkheimer see in the

Enlightenment, when nature becomes solely an object man seeks to control, an

attempt that is accompanied by man's forfeiture of his bond with nature. "What

men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it

and other men" (DE, p. 4).19 This complex manifests itself in man's identity

drive, that is, in man's urge to trample over all that is different or nonidenti-

cal. According to Adorno, man has reached, at least since the end of the

nineteenth century, a level of productive forces that could make possible a

liberation from the drive to dominate nature and with it a liberation from

domination (Herrschaft) in general. But Adorno remains painfully aware of the

gap between the theoretically possible and the practically attainable.

In seeing nature as an Other that man no longer need control, Adorno

assigns to nature qualities similar to those of art. In fact, as Thomas Bau-

meister and Jens Kulenkampff mention, Adorno makes use of the concept of

nature as a "mere name for every Other."20 Man's pathological drive to

dominate nature is passionately criticized in Dialectic of Enlightenment, where

this condition is characterized by man's obsession with the general to the

detriment of the particular. "Nothing at all may remain outside, because the

mere idea of outsideness is the very source of fear" (DE, p. 16).21 ". . the

trajectory of progress, which has ploughed under all that did not conform to

identity, is also marked by devastation" (AT, p. 93). Sauerland concisely

describes this spirit of the Enlightenment: "Everything different, nonidentical,

with outside being, everything incommensurable must be either cut away or

explained, classified or grasped by a formula."23

To combat such reified thinking, nature and art refuse to be classified,

since their essence is negativity. Their enigmatic quality, their refusal to speak

or be perceived in conceptual terms marks the power of art and nature. At this

point, however, it is important to emphasize that nature is only negatively

definable and that the beauty of nature in itself, as Adorno uses it, is nothing

but a pure construct. That Adorno can only discuss such characteristics

negatively or as constructs, consistent with the ban on graven images, derives

directly from his conviction that everything in society is blinded (Verblendet)

and false; ". . the universality of mediation has yet to generate a livable life"

(AT, p. 95, translation modified).24 Thus, if art and nature are to contain truth,

they must remain beyond society's ability to articulate them positively: the

beauty of nature in itself is not something one can find. Unmediated experience

is not possible.

In every perception of nature there is actually present the whole of
society. The latter not only provides the patterns of perception in
general, but also defines nature a priori in relation to itself. Thus
the perception of nature is a product of the faculty of determinate
negation... ..... .the immediate experience of nature has become
neutralized. As nature becomes synonymous with national parks and
wildlife preserves, its beauty is purely tokenistic. Natural beauty is

an ideological notion because it offers mediatedness in the guise of
immediacy. (AT, p. 101, translation modified)

The above remarks make it clear that if art is mimetic at all, it reflects

neither society nor nature in the form in which either is accessible to us. What

art reflects, then, is the beauty of nature in itself (das Naturschone an sich;

think here of Kant's thing in itself, the Ding an sich). "Art imitates neither

nature nor individual natural beauty [einzelnes Naturschones]. What it does

imitate is natural beauty in itself [das Naturschone an sich]" (AT, p. 107,

translation modified).26

Through the beauty of nature in itself, Adorno provides a way out of the

dilemma of how an art that emerges from the blinded sphere of humankind can

attain truth content: it takes material from society while at the same time

resisting this society; what it reflects through its negativity is a beauty that is

analogous to what nature in its negativity produces but cannot articulate. Art

reflects a something we cannot perceive directly.

The being-in-itself of art is not an imitation of something real but an
anticipation of a being-in-itself yet to come, of an unknown that will
determine itself through the subject. Works of art state that there is
an in-itself, but they do not spell out what it is. . Art would like
to realize the articulation of the non-human with human means. (AT,
pp. 114-115)

Art is therefore not something that can be positively defined or described.

Its locus, however, can at least be suggested based on the reference points of

society and nature. Art is the determinate negation of the negativity of society,

which does not mean that it is a positive.28 Art's relation to nature, a nature

that silently suffers from the domination man inflicts upon it, is more comple-

mentary. Art also suffers, but it differs from nature in being able to lend a

voice to suffering. Art thus plays a role that nature perhaps could have, had it

not been rendered silent by man. The negative strength that art must uphold,

the battle that nature lost but art still fights, is the battle to resist man's

attempts to master, control, or categorize it. Art must remain noncommunicative

and enigmatic if it is to retain its negativity; its only hope for survival is its

albeit contradictory existence. Art must remain an Other; it must remain

asymetrical not only with society but also with itself, for the asymmetry con-

tained within the work itself also determines negative Erkenntnis. Yet as

Adorno points out, artworks in themselves are illusory because they appear as

totalities, the other side of their contradictory existence that we discussed in

the previous chapter. "Coherence of meaning and oneness are artificial products

of the artwork's own making. They do not exist by themselves. Now, as artifi-

cial products they negate the being-in-itself which was to have been ac-

complished through this strategy of making. And ultimately this negates art as a

whole" (AT, p. 155).29

Artworks' claim to totality is not the only way they become contradictory.

The very fact that they posit the possibility of effective intersubjective commu-

nication through linguistic expression dooms art's undertakings, for language

refuses to cooperate in upholding the delusive contradictions of the empirical

world. "The power of language proves itself therein that in reflection expression

and thing separate. Language becomes an instance of truth only in the aware-

ness of the nonidentity of expression with that which is meant" (NDk, p. 117, my


Competing Models of Negativity in Adorno

Because negativity and negations are such basic concepts in Adorno's

aesthetic theory, negativity often comes up in contexts beyond merely negations


of art's origins or art's negative opposition to the world. Indeed the notion of

negativity pervades Adorno's texts. This heavy reliance on negativity at times

appears to result in competing models of negativity that, although possibly

incompatible, often get mixed around. We will touch briefly here on two of the

major variations that we will build upon in subsequent chapters.

The first type of negativity Adorno utilizes seems to be the negation of

late capitalist society by the artwork as negating monad that resists being

categorized or understood. Adorno sees such a negation as having a critical

function because, as negation of the status quo, it suggests that something other

than the status quo might be desirable. The model Adorno has in mind for this

position is artists such as Kafka or Beckett, in whose work positions are only

established in order to be negated; what emerges is an eternal series of nega-

tions of negations with no solid positions surviving.

In his essay "Ist die Kunst heiter?" (Is art cheerful?) in Noten zur Liter-

atur, for example, Adorno argues that the endless negations of positions in

modern art make tragedy and comedy impossible, because both forms rely on

privileged positions. In comedy, for instance, we can only laugh (say about the

ridiculous aristocratic codes of decorum) if we feel secure in a superior position

(say the bourgeois codes of place through accomplishments rather than by right

of birth).31 Tragedy is similar insofar as the eventual collision of positions in

the work brings about the negation of one position or the triumph of another

position (usually both occur). Thus, without privileged positions the traditional

forms of literary art fall by the wayside.32

The main thrust of this first model of negativity is thus art as the

determinate negation of contemporary society and its governing norms. Art's

function is to resist categorization and thereby thwart the dominating advances

of identity thinking. But art characterized by its noncommunicative posture in

relation to contemporary society does not necessarily imply a model of recon-

ciliation. It is certainly critical, but to attain reconciliation Adorno introduces a

second model of negativity.

The other model of negativity Adorno uses has more to do with the

authentic reception of artworks and retains a moment of reconciliation (Versohn-

ung). The image for this type of reception Adorno presents in Dialectic of En-

lightenment as the episode when Odysseus has the opportunity to hear the song

of the Sirens. Odysseus comes of age through suffering, forms an identity

through rationally separating the present, past, and future. This model seems to

assume that in the past unity between man and nature existed, a unity, however,

that man forfeited in forming an identity. The promise of the Sirens' song is

the happiness of returning to this unity at the cost of losing this painfully won

identity. By having himself tied to the mast, Odysseus is able to ponder the

song without being able to follow its message; he can experience the desire to

return, but through physical bondage he retains his identity. The song is

stripped of its power and becomes merely art for contemplation.

This aesthetic experience is also tied up in the existing relationships of

power (Machtverhiltnisse) because Odysseus can only enjoy the song by

benumbing his crew's sense abilities (the wax in their ears). Only because they

are dominated and excluded from the pleasure can Odysseus enjoy art. With this

circumstance begins the break between art and praxis. "The bonds, with which

[Odysseus] has irremediably tied himself to practice, also keep the Sirens away

from practice: their temptation is neutralized and becomes a mere object of

contemplation--becomes art" (DE, p. 34).33 Thus, the subject's confrontation

with art implies a negation of sorts, but it also offers a glimpse of the

immediacy of the past, a promise for reconciliation (here we could think of

Benjamin's more theologically oriented notion of reconciliation). While the first

model's main component was criticism of contemporary society, this model is

chiefly concerned with reconciliation based on the myth of past unity. In short,

the first model is critical but does not necessarily contain a theory of reconcili-

ation. The second model theorizes a path to reconciliation but it is not neces-

sarily a critique as determinate negation.

The second model of negativity appears to be the more troublesome one

because it can easily lead to questionable premises concerning mediation, which

we will discuss in the following chapter. Wolfgang Iser has suggested that this

problem may find its way into Adorno's writings because Adorno, like many other

Marxists of his era, had no apparatus of terms at his disposal with which to

discuss materialist issues in art; Marxists were thus forced to articulate proper-

ties of art and aesthetic experience in the classical humanist terms in which

they evolved.34 For this reason, these Marxist aesthetic theoreticians continued

to talk about aesthetic experience in the humanist vernacular of "truth" and

"reconciliation," words that in the post-structuralist setting sound anachronistic.

Marxist thinkers such as Adorno, however, obviously considered such terms in-

dispensible to their program of outlining the distinction between the world of art

and the world of mundane experience, and we will examine in the next chapter

whether the problem involved more than merely inadequate terms.

On Communication

To open this chapter, we referred to Wolfgang Iser's discourse on negati-

vity, which we compared and contrasted with Adorno's use of negativity. To end

this chapter, it seems appropriate to consider briefly a major point of discord

between the Rezeptionsasthetiker of the Constance School and Adorno, the issue

of art as communication.

Although Adorno and Iser share the position that nonidentity is a basic

precondition for mediation, Iser and Jauss call this communication, while Adorno

insists, at least in his rhetoric, that art must refuse to communicate. "The only

way to get through to reified minds by means of art is to shock them into

realizing the phoneyness of what a pseudo-scientific terminology likes to call

communication. By the same token, art maintains its integrity only by refusing

to go along with communication" (AT, p. 443).35 "What is called 'communication'

today is the adaptation of spirit to useful aims and, worse, to commodity

fetishism. Similarly, the equally popular term 'meaning' is also enmeshed in

these sorry developments" (AT, p. 109).36

It is difficult to be certain that Adorno's stance against communication

separates him from the Constance School as much as one might think. The

stress he places upon art's noncommunicative stance is not inexplicable; by

refusing to communicate (at least along traditional lines), art increases its

negativity and thus its asymmetry with the empirical world and the perceiving

subject. But this desired increase in negativity serves an important purpose, for

meaninglessness and noncommunicability posit meaning and communication. Thus,

Adorno's attack on communication probably cannot be construed as an attack on

the type of communication Iser outlines in his phenomenological descriptions of

the literary text. For instance, what Iser calls gaps and negations, that is,

structures that determine communication, may be structures that actually enhance

a text's noncommunicability in Adorno's terms (we will examine questions such as

these more thoroughly in Chapter V).

Adorno's opposition to communication and the hermeneutical tradition

appears to be based on his view that to interpret what a text "communicates" or

to decipher a text's "meaning" is simultaneously to categorize it, to render it

explicable through the conceptual and linguistic apparatus at one's disposal. It

is true that Iser relies on concepts and language to discuss texts, but his objec-

tive is not to coerce meaning out of a text. Rather, Iser attempts systematically

to explain how interaction between text and recipient takes place and how

recipients not only arrive at "meanings" but also how recipients are often

frustrated in their attempts to determine meaning by negativity structures in the

text. Iser is thus no meaning monger, but he does not consider an examination

of textual structures and their influence on aesthetic experience to be a taboo

subject. Adorno states that art resists communication; Iser looks at how art

accomplishes this resistance.

Still, Iser (and to a greater extent Jauss) remain nearer to Gadamer than

Adorno. Much of what concerns the Constance School critics is the way in

which "sense" (or "non-sense") is communicated in aesthetic experience. Both

Iser and Jauss (as opposed to say Stanley Fish) believe that the text plays a role

in limiting interpretation and that the text and the recipient interact to co-

produce the aesthetic experience. They also believe that such restricting textual

structures can be isolated and discussed. (In the case of Jauss, the text can

even be used to construct an era's "horizon of expectation" for which no first-

hand interpretations remain available.) Adorno's view of the text-recipient

relationship is far more ambivalent, as we will see in Chapter V, and it is

perhaps his strong reservations about reception and interpretation that lead him

to criticize the hermeneutical tradition so harshly.

Adorno writes, for example, "Aesthetics cannot hope to grasp works of art

if it treats them as hermeneutical objects. What at present needs to be grasped

is their unintelligibility" (AT, p. 173).37 Of course to grasp unintelligibility is to

grasp intelligibility as well. Adorno's target in mind here seems to be the

traditional position that art is valuable because it conveys a message or tells a

story on the level of content. Such a position has long since been abandoned by

hermeneutics. The unintelligibility of modernism is still able to convey some-

thing and probably in a very similar manner to Iser's description of how

negativity operates. The major difference, then, between modernist and previous

art seems to be a matter of distance: modernist art more willingly relinquishes

control over its reception (a control that was probably only mythical anyway), as

is apparent by what Iser sees as the greater number of gaps of indeterminacy in

modern texts. These gaps, which force the reader to sort things out on his own,

indicate a shift in art from an emphasis on conveying a specific message found

in the content of a story (as in more determinate didactic, pre-autonomous texts)

to greater indeterminacy that results from increased formal difficulties, e.g., gaps

of indeterminacy, that bring with them more freedom of reception, mediated to a

larger extent by form. It is interesting to note that what Adorno and the

Constance School critics say about actual artworks is in many ways similar,

although the terminology differs. The great disparity is rather the political and

philosophical conclusions the respective critics draw from their aesthetic

observations, or in Adorno's case, the philosophical views of contemporary

society that make his turn to art inevitable. We will have the chance to

examine both these similarities and differences in somewhat more detail in

Chapter V on reception.

Before that, we will explore more closely the concepts of mediation and

conceptuality in Adorno's work in an attempt to understand better how art is

uniquely able to convey experiences that cannot be articulated otherwise. We

will also examine Adorno's argument for art's ability to circumvent the concep-

tual structure of cognition, and perhaps more interestingly, reasons why Adorno

believes such a circumvention is necessary. In short, Adorno's aesthetics, a key

to his entire philosophical program, stresses again and again that human exis-

tence and virtually everything connected with it is false. A question thus arises:

How is Adorno so sure of life's utter falseness? (After all, revelation of

Auschwitz's horrors only confirmed the convictions about humanity Adorno

already held.) We will thus look for some of the reference points without which

a dialectical mind such as Adorno's could scarcely have posited a position of

such uncompromising pessimism.


1 Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), p. 229.

2 The is not a new insight. The Russian formalists used the concept of
ostranenie ("making strange") to describe this negativity phenomenon of art.
More recently Bertolt Brecht attempted to increase his dramas' negative content
through employing Verfremdungseffekte ("alienation effects") in his epic theater.
The critic Hans Robert Jauss also turns to negativity in his theory of evaluative
literary history through his emphasis on art's "norm-breaking potential" in his
pioneering essay "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory," in Toward
an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minne-
sota Press, 1982).

3 "Denken ist, an sich schon, vor allem besonderen Inhalt Negieren,
Resistenz gegen das ihm Aufgedringte," Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics,
trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1983), p. 19; all subsequent English
citations from Negative Dialectics are, unless otherwise stated, from this
translation with the abbreviation ND and the corresponding page numbers given
in parentheses. Modifications to this translation, when necessary, will also be
noted. In notes will appear the corresponding passages from the original German
from Negative Dialektik, Vol. VI of Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann
(Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1973) and abbreviated NDk; the present quote is from
NDk, p. 30.

4 "Der Nerv der Dialektik als Methode ist die bestimmte Negation." In
Theodor W. Adorno, Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie; Drei Studien zu Hegel,
Vol. V of Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann
(Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1971), p. 318.

For a much more detailed discussion of the determinate negation and the
determinate nothing in Hegel, Marx, and Adorno, see Friedemann Grenz, "Die
bestimate Negation als Ort der Wahrheit und die These von der riickwirkenden
Kraft der Erkenntnis," in: Adornos Philosophie in Grundbegriffen: Auflosung
einiger Deutungsprobleme; Mit einem Anhang: Theodor W. Adorno und Arnold
Gehlen: Ist die Soziologie eine Wissenschaft vom Menschen? Ein Streitgesprach
(Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1974), pp. 75-116; abbreviated hereafter as Grenz.

6 See Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik, Erster Teil,
Vol. V of Werke in zwanzig Banden (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1969), p. 108.

"Das Einzige, um den wissenschaftlichen Fortgang zu gewinnen . ist
die Erkenntnis des logischen Satzes, daB das Negative ebensosehr positive ist oder
daB das sich Widersprechende sich nicht in Null, in das abstrakte Nichts auflost,
sondern wesentlich nur in die Negation seines besonderen Inhalts, oder daB eine
solche Negation nicht alle Negation, sondern die Negation der bestimmten Sache,
die sich auflost, somit bestimmte Negation ist; daB also im Resultate wesentlich
das enthalten ist, woraus es resultiert,--was eigentlich eine Tautologie ist, denn
sonst ware es ein Unmittelbares, nicht ein Resultat. Indem das Resultierende,
die Negation, bestimmte Negation ist, hat sie einen Inhalt. Sie ist ein neuer
Begriff, aber der hohere, reichere Begriff als der vorhergehende; denn sie ist um
dessen Negation oder Entgegengesetztes reicher geworden, enthilt ihn also, aber
auch mehr als ihn, und ist die Einheit seiner und seines Entgegengesetzten.--In
diesem Wege hat sich das System der Begriffe iiberhaupt zu bilden--und in
unaufhaltsamem, reinem, von auBen nichts hereinnehmendem Gange sich zu vollenden."

"Was sich aufhebt, wird dadurch nicht zu Nichts. Nichts ist das
Umittelbare; ein Aufgehobenes dagegen ist ein Vermitteltes, es ist das Nichtsei-
ende, aber als Resultat, das von einem Sein ausgegangen ist; es hat daher die
Bestimmtheit, aus der es herkommt, noch an sich."

"So ist das Aufgehobene ein zugleich Aufbewahrtes, das nur seine
Unmittelbarkeit verloren hat, aber darum nicht vernichtet ist."

1"Wenn der Terminus 'bestimmte Negation' in seiner Lehre uberhaupt
einen Platz haben soll, heiBt ihr Objektbereich bei Marx: Klassengesellschaft.
Aufheben ihrer heiBt: Liquidation ihres Klassencharakters, Bewahren ihres
Gesellschaftscharakters. 'Bestimmt' heiBt, daB die Klassengesellschaft in ihrer
vorliegenden Form, der Kapitalismus also, praktisch, durch die Tat von Menschen,
aufgehoben wird: liquidiert in ihren Produktionsverhiltnissen, bewahrt in ihren
Produktivkriften. Entscheidend ist daran, daB die Produktivkraifte nicht allein
zuriickbleiben k6nnen, sondern das bestimmte Nichts der Klassengesellschaft neue
Produktionsverhiltnisse zu seinem Inhalt haben muB, will es das Resultat einer
bestimmten Negation sein."

"DaB sich die marxistische Revolutionstheorie und der sie kritisierende
Adorno gleichermaBen auf die bestimmte Negation berufen, riickt den Begriff
selbst in das Dilemma von Real- und Begriffsdialektik."

Ilse Miiller-Stromsddrfer, "Die 'helfende Kraft bestimmter Negation':
zum Werke Th. W. Adornos," Philosophische Rundschau: Eine vierteljahresschrift
fiir philosophische Kritik, Vol. 8 (1960), pp. 81-105. Grenz also refers to this

13Keine Whrhet der Kunsterke ohne bestmmte Negaton" (T, p. 195).
"Keine Wahrheit der Kunstwerke ohne bestimmte Negation" (AT, p. 195).

14 See endnote 36 in the previous chapter for a listing of a few sources
that discuss this problem. See also Adorno's essay "Engagement" in Noten zur
Literatur, pp. 409-430; this essay appears in English and is discussed in Aesthe-
tics and Politics.

15 "Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen" (Minima Moralia, p. 43, my

16 In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkeimer write: "Jewish
religion allows no word that would alleviate the despair of all that is mortal. It
associates hope only with the prohibition against calling on what is false as God,
against invoking the finite as the infinite, lies as truth. The guarantee of
salvation lies in the rejection of any belief that would replace it: it is know-
ledge obtained in the denunciation of illusion. Admittedly, the negation is not
abstract. The contesting of every positive without distinction, the stereotype
formula of vanity, as used by Buddhism, sets itself above the prohibition against
naming the Absolute with names: just as far above as its contrary, pantheism;
or its caricature, bourgeois skepticism. Explanations of the world as all or
nothing are mythologies, and guaranteed roads to redemption are sublimated
magic practices. The self-satisfaction of knowing in advance and the transfigu-
ration of negativity into redemption are untrue forms of resistance against
deception. The justness of the image is preserved in the faithful pursuit of its
prohibition. This pursuit, 'determinate negativity' does not receive from the
sovereignty of the abstract concept any immunity against corrupting intuition, as
does skepticism, to which both true and false are equally vain. Determinate
negation rejects the defective ideas of the absolute, the idols, differently than
does rigorism, which confronts them with the Idea that they cannot match up
to. Dialectic, on the contrary, interprets every image as writing. It shows how
the admission of its falsity is to be read in the lines of its features--a confes-
sion that deprives it of its power and appropriates it for truth. With the notion
of determinate negativity, Hegel revealed an element that distinguishes the
Enlightenment from the positivist degeneracy to which he attributes it. By
ultimately making the conscious result of the whole process of negation--totality
in system and history--into an absolute, he of course contravened the prohibition
and himself lapsed into mythology" Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John
Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972), pp. 23-24; hereafter abbreviated as DE.
["Die jidische Religion duldet kein Wort, das der Verzweiflung alles Sterblichen
Trost gewahrte. Hoffnung kniipft sie einzig ans Verbot, das Falsche als Gott
anzurufen, das Endliche als das Unendliche, die Luge als Wahrheit. Das Unter-
pfand der Rettung liegt in der Abwendung von allem Glauben, der sich ihr
unterschiebt, die Erkenntnis in der Denunziation des Wahns. Die Verneinung
freilich ist nicht abstrakt. Die unterschiedslose Bestreitung jedes Positiven, die
stereotype Formel der Nichtigkeit, wie der Buddhismus sie anwendet, setzt sich
iber das Verbot, das Absolute mit Namen zu nennen, ebenso hinweg wie sein
Gegenteil, der Pantheismus, oder seine Fratze, die birgerliche Skepsis. Die
Erklarungen der Welt als des Nichts oder Alls sind Mythologien und die garan-
tierten Pfade zur Erlosung sublimierte magische Praktiken. Die Selbstzufrie-
denheit des Vorwegbescheidwissens und die Verklarung der Negativitat zur
Erlisung sind unwahre Formen des Widerstands gegen den Betrug. Gerettet wird
das Recht des Bildes in der treuen DurchfUihrung seines Verbots. Solche

Durchfuhrung, 'bestimmte Negation', ist nicht durch die Souveranitat des
abstrakten Begriffs gegen die verfihrende Anschauung gefreit, so wie dis Skepsis
es ist, der das Falsche wie das Wahre als nichtig gilt. Die bestimmte Negation
verwirft die unvollkommenen Vorstelungen des Absoluten, die Gitzen, nicht wi-
der Rigorismus, indem sie ihnen die Idee entgegenhalt, der sie nicht geniigen
konnen. Dialektik offenbart vielmehr jedes Bild als Schrift. Sie lehrt aus seinen
Zigen das Eingestandnis seiner Falschheit lesen, das ihm seine Macht entrei3t
und sie der Wahrheit zueignet. Damit wird die Sprache mehr als ein bloBes
Zeichensystem. Mit dem begriff der bestimmten Negation hat Hegel ein Element
hervorgehoben, das Aufkldrung von dem positivistischen Zerfall unterscheidet,
dem er sie zurechnet. Indem er freilich das gewunte Resultat des gesamten
Porzesses der Negation: die Totalitat in System und Geschichte schlieBflich doch
zum Absoluten machte, verstieB er gegen das Verbot und verfiel selbst der
Mythologie," Dialektik der Aufklarung, Vol III of Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf
Tiedemann (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1981), pp. 40-41; hereafter abbreviated as DA.]

1The movement in Adorno's argument from determinant negation to
immanent criticism is highly complex. To provide a detailed examination of all
the facets of negativity in Adorno's work would go beyond the scope of the
present study. For a good summary of these complicated issues, see Grenz.
pp. 57-116.

18 "Der Theorie ist das Naturschone kaum mehr thematisch. Schwer-
lich jedoch deshalb, weil es, nach Hegels Lehre, tatsachlich in einem Hoheren
aufgehoben ware: es wurde verdrangt. Der Begriff des Naturschonen ruhrt an
eine Wunde, und wenig fehlt, daB man sie mit der Gewalt zusammendenkt, die das
Kunstwerk, reines Artefakt, dem Naturwichsigen schlagt. Ganz und gar von
Menschen gemacht, steht es seinem Anschein nach nicht Gemachtem, der Natur,
gegeniiber. Als pure Antithesen aber sind beide aufeinander verwiesen: Natur
auf die Erfahrung einer vermittelten, vergegenstandlichten Welt, das Kunstwerk
auf Natur, den vermittelten Statthalter von Unmittelbarkeit. Darum ist die
Besinnung Uber das Natursch6ne der Kunsttheorie unabdingbar" (AT, pp. 97-98).

19 "Was die Menschen von der Natur lernen wollen, ist, sie anzuwenden,
um sie und die Menschen vollends zu beherrschen" (DA, p. 20). Karol Sauerland
also cites this sentence in her helpful summary of Adorno's concept of the
beauty of nature in Einfuhrung in die Asthetik Adornos, pp. 81-91. Adorno and
Horkheimer believe that such "enlightened" thinking began much earlier than the
period known as the "Enlightenment." In fact the very first myths, ideological
attempts to explain or defuse the inexplicable and potentially dangerous, mark
the beginning of enlightenment: ". . myth is already enlightenment" (DE,
p. xvi) [". . "schon der Mythos ist Aufklarung" (DA, p. 6).]

20 "bloBen Namen fur alles Andere," Thomas Baumeister and Jens Kulen-
kampff, "Geschichtsphilosophie und philosophische Asthetik. Zu Adornos 'Asthe-
tischer Theorie,'" Neue Hefte fiir Philosophie, No. 5: Ist eine philosophische
Asthetik m6glich? (1973), p. 83, my translation.

"Es darf (iberhaupt nichts mehr drauZen sein, weil die bloBe Vorstellung
des DrauBen die eigentliche QueJle der Angst ist" (DA, p. 32).

S. die Bahn dieses Fortschritts, der alles unterpfliigte, was nicht
solcher Identitat willfahrte, war auch eine der Verwiistung" (AT, p. 99). Oin
should perhaps mention at this juncture that Adorno firmly believed that the
horror of Ausschwitz, the attempts of the Nazis to annihilate Jews, was directly
related to man's identity drive, the compulsion to destroy that which was
different. For more on this, see Arnold Kinzli, Aufklarung und Dialektik;
Poiitische Philosophie von Hobbes bis Adorno (Freiburg: Rombach, 1971).

23 "Alles Andersartige, Nichtidentische, DrauBen Seiende, alles Inkommen-
surable muB entweder weggeschnitten order erklart, klassifiziert und hunter eine
Former gebracht werden" (Sauerland, p. 84, my translation).

. die Universalitit der Vermittlung [ist] nicht umgeschlagen in
lebendiges Leben" (AT, p. 102).

S. in einer jeglichen [Erfahrung] von der Natur steckt eigentilich die
gesamte Gesellschaft. Nicht nur stellt sie die Schemata der Perzeption bei,
sondern stiftet vorweg durch Kontrast und Ahnlichkeit, was jeweils Natur heiBt.
Naturerfahrung wird mitkonstituiert durchs Verm6gen bestimmter Negation ..
Die unmittelbare Naturerfahrung, ihrer kritischen Spitze ledig und dem Tausch-
verhaltnis--das Wort Fremdenindustrie steht dafiir ein--subsumiert, wurde
unverbindlich neutral und apologetisch: Natur zum Naturschutzpark und zum
Alibi. Ideologie ist das Naturschone als Subreption von Unmitteibarkeit durchs
Vermittelte" (AT, p. 107).

2"Kunst ahmt nicht Natur nach, auch nicht einzelnes Naturschones, (loch
das Naturschone an sich" (AT, p. 113).

27 "Das Ansichsein, dem die Kunstwerke nachhangen, ist nicht Imitation
eines Wirklichen sondern Vorwegnahme eines Ansichseins, das noch gar nicht ist,
eines Unbekannten und durchs Subjekt hindurch sich Bestimmenden. . Kunst
mochte mit menschlichen Mitteln das Sprechen des nicht Menschlichen reali-
sieren" (AT, p. 121). This quote is an unfortunate example of a thought that in
German is rather clear but, when rendered into English, becomes somewhat
cryptic, mainly because of a literal translation of compound German nouns. I
believe a gloss on these words would be helpful. The "being-in-itself" is merely
a literal translation of the word "Ansichsein." If we recall the connection we
made between the beauty of nature in itself (Das Natursch6ne an sich) and
Kant's thing-in-itself (Ding an sich), then the construction may become easier to
grasp. The beauty of nature "an sich," or "in itself," like the thing in itself,
must remain a construct because we cannot perceive it. Art reflects this
construct, this something. When Adorno wants to refer to this something, he

calls it an "Ansichsein," which, for lack of a better word. becomes in English
Another aspect of this quote I believe requires comment as well, for in it
Adorno seems somewhat atypically optimistic about the eventual arrival of the
"being-in-itself" that art anticipates. Adorno's position on this issue does not
seem to completely rule out such an eventuality; however I do not believe
Adorno considered it inevitable. See "The Hunger for Wholeness" in Chapter IV
below. As I argue there, I believe Adorno's ambivalence Loward normative
totality in his aesthetics has to do with the competing models of negativity he

On this point Adorno was emphatic in his criticism of Hegel's premise
that the negation of a negative is a positive, for this only promoted the identity
thinking against which Adorno was struggling. "The nonidentical is not to be
obtained directly, as something positive on its part, nor is it obtainable by a
negation of the negative. This negation is not an affirmation in itself, as it is
to Hegel. . To equate the negation of negation with positivity is the
quintessence of identification; it is the formal principle in its purist form. What
wins out in the inmost core of dialectics is the anti-dialectical principle: that
traditional logic which, more arjthmetico, takes minus times minus for a plus. It
was borrowed from that very mathematics to which Hegel reacts so idiosyncra-
tically elsewhere. If the whole is the spell, if it is the negative, a negative of
particularities--epitomized in that whole--remains negative. Its only positive side
would be criticism, determinate negation; it would not be a circumventing result
with a happy grasp on affirmation" (ND, pp. 158-159, translation modified).
["Unmittelbar ist das Nichtidentische nicht als seinerseits Positives zu gewjnnen
und auch nicht durch Negation des Negativen. Diese ist nicht selbst, wie bei
Hegel, Affirmation. . Die Gleichsetzung der Negation der Negation mit
Positivitat ist die Quintessenz des Identifizierens, das formal Prinzip auf seine
reinste Form gebracht. Mit ihm gewinnt im Innersten von Dialektik das anti-
dialektische Prinzip die Oberhand, jene traditionelle Logik, welche more arithme-
tico minus mal minus als plus verbucht. Sie ward jener Mathematik abgeborgt,
gegen die Hegel sonst so idiosynkratisch reagiert. Ist das Ganze der Bann, das
Negative, so bleibt die Negation der Partikularitaten, die ihren Inbegriff an
jenem Ganzen hat, negative. Ihr Positives ware allein die bestimmte Negation,
Kritik, kein umspringendes Resultat, das Affirmation gliicklich in Handen hielte"
(NDk, p. 161).] See also Norbert Rath, "Kritik als Negation," in Adornos
Kritische Theorie, pp. 108-114, and M. Puder, "Zur 'Aesthetischen Theorie'
Adornos," Neue Rundschau, 82 (1971), pp. 465-477.

"Sinnzusammenhang, Einheit wird von den Kunstwerken veranstaltet,
weil sie nicht ist, und als veranstaltete das Ansichsein negiert, um dessentwillen
die Veranstaltung unternommen wird--am Ende die Kunst selbst" (AT, p. 162).

30 "Die Kraft der Sprache bewahrt sich darin, daB in der Reflexion
Ausdruck und Sache auseinander treten. Sprache wird zur Instanz von Wahrheit
nur am BewuBtsein der Unidentitat des Ausdrucks mit dem Gemeinten." Post-
structuralist thought has more recently made great contributions toward ques-
tioning many of the traditional notions of language and communication and

critics have already noticed some of the affinities between Adorno's negative
aesthetic theory and post-structuralism. Terry Eagleton, for instance, writes in
his Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism: "The parallels
between deconstruction and Adorno are particularly striking. Long before the
current fashion. Adorno was insisting on the power of those heterogeneous
fragments that slip through the conceptual net, rejecting all philosophy of
identity, refusing class consciousness as objectionably 'positive,' and denying the
intentionality of signification. Indeed there is hardly a theme in contemporary
deconstruction that is not richly elaborated in his work--a pointer, perhaps, to
the mutual insularity of French and German culture, which now, ironically,
converge more and more only in the Anglo-Saxon world" (p. 141). Martin .Tay,
Adorno, outlines concrete historical reasons for the cross pollination between
Adorno's work and post-structuralist thought. Jay cites Benjamin's connection
with the circle of proto-deconstructionists in Paris in the 1930s (Georges
Bataille, Pierre Klossowski, Roger Caillois and Michel Leiris) as a possible reason
for the parallels (p. 21).

31 Theodor W. Adorno, "Ist die Kunst neiter?", in Noten zur Literatur,
Vol. XI of Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp,
1974), pp. 599-606.

32 Fredric Jameson provides a perhaps desirable defense of this model of
negativity's critical element which Adorno does not always articulate forcefully.
As mentioned earlier, this model of negativity has affinities to the Russian
Formalist concept of ostranenie, but as Jameson explains, there is a difference:
.. it seems to me that even such aesthetic concepts as the ostranenie or
'making-strange' of Russian Formalism (as well as its American version, 'make it
new'), indeed the profound drive everywhere in modern art toward a crnewal of
our perception of the world, are but manifestations, in aesthetic form and on the
aesthetic level, of the movement of dialectical consciousness as an assault on our
conventionalized life patterns, a whole battery of shocks administered to our
routine vision of things, an implicit critique and restructuration of our habitual
consciousness. What distinguishes such concepts philosophically from genuine
dialectical thinking is of course their failure to account for the initial numbness
of our perception in the first place, their inability to furnish a sufficiently
historical explanation for the ontological deficiency which they can only under-
stand in ethical and aesthetic terms. Yet such intellectual distortion, such
structural repression of an essential element in the situation, is amply accounted
for by the Marxist theory of ideology, which posits a kind of resistance or
mauvaise foi that grows ever stronger as we draw closer and closer to that truth
of the socio-economic which, were it realized in all its transparency, would
immediately obligate us to praxis," Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century
Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971),
pp. 373-74. This view of how Marxism differs in its treatment of ostensibly
aesthetic and nonpolitical phenomena could be offered as a partial answer to
those who charged that Adorno believed that theory itself was a kind of praxis.
It seems clear, however, that Adorno was more pessimistic than Jameson about
the fruits action might bear.

... "Die Bande, mit denen er sich unwiderruflich an die Praxis gofsselt
hat, halten zugleich die Sirenen aus der Praxis fern: ihre Lockung wird zum
blofen Gegenstand der Kontemplation neutralisiert, zur Kunst" (DA, p. 51).

Wolfgang Iser made this statement in a personal conversation with me.
for which I thank him.

3"Kiinsterlisch zu erreichen sind die Menschen iiberhaupt nur noch durch
den Schock, der dem einen Schlag erteilt, was die pseudowissenschaftliche
Ideologie Kommunikation nennt; Kunst ihrerseits ist integer einzig, wo sie bei der
Kommunikation nicht mitspielt" (AT, p. 476).

36 "Denn Kommunikation ist die Anpassung des Geistes an das Niitzliche,
durch welche er sich unter die Waren einreiht, und was heute Sinn heiit.
partizipiert an diesel Unwesen" (AT, p. 115).

"Xunstwerke sind( nicht von der Asthetik als hermeneutische Objekte zu
begreifen; zu begreifen ware, auf dem gegenwartigen Stand, ihre Unbegreif-
lichkeit" (AT, p. 179).



One of the fundamental features of negativity lies in our inability to

express or describe it directly, or, to paraphrase Wolfgang Iser's observation at

the beginning of Chapter III, in our inability to explain it without rendering it

obsolete by mastering it discursively. We are thus faced with the task of

suggesting a technique, almost a heuristic means, with which we can translate

negatively constructed phenomena into terms that we can discern and discuss.

The construct we will suggest for this purpose is mediation, which, in the

negative aesthetics of Adorno is probably just as overtaxed as negativity, as both

terms are often used in multitudes of ways. The first use of mediation that we

will discuss, however, has to do with the very problem we have laid out:

rendering manifest negative expression. As we shall see, this function makes

clear why negativity and mediation are so closely related, indeed why negativity

is hardly useful without some notion of mediation.

Fredric Jameson offers in both Marxism and Form and The Political

Unconscious thoughtful comments contributing to a good operational definition of

mediation in this sense, which he describes in the latter work as a process of


The practice of "mediation" is then . understood as a more
seemingly dialectical but no less idealistic mechanism for moving or
modulating from one level or feature of the whole to another. . .
. [T]he concept of mediation has traditionally been the way in
which dialectical philosophy and Marxism itself have formulated their


vocation to break out of the specialized compartments of the (bour-
geois) disciplines and to make connections among the seemingly
disparate phenomena of social life generally. If a more modern
characterization of mediation is wanted, we will say that this opera-
tion is understood as a process of transcoding: as the invention of a
set of terms, the strategic choice of a particular code or language,
such that the same terminology can be used to analyze and articulate
two quite distinct types of objects or "texts," or two very different
structural levels of reality. (Political Unconscious, pp. 28 and 40)

If we consider the many levels existing in Adorno's aesthetics between

truth--mediated as a partial mimesis of the beauty of nature in itself by art and

in turn articulated by philosophy in the process of criticism--and the recipient.

then it becomes evident that a great deal of transcoding is involved. But this is

not the whole story, since the recipient's perceptions themselves are dominated

by the reified categories of the administered world, which makes the whole

question of reception a difficult one too (this problem we will reserve for the

next chapter). Moreover, the language and concepts of philosophy are also

suspect, since they reflect the entire identity drive of Western metaphysics that

Adorno seriously questions.1

The task that we have set ourselves thus involves the challenge of docu-

menting to some extent how Adorno imagines these vast mediations. This

endeavor is further complicated by the fact that in Adorno's scheme mediation is

not limited to a transcoding carried out by the critic to talk about art's truth

(although this is part of it), for in addition to this, art itself is assigned the

function of mediating or transcoding raw material into something that can be

discerned as truth: in this regard, artists, in their struggle to resolve formal

problems that the material presents them, are also mediators. Another problem

we must take up has to do with the feasibility of the arguments Adorno makes

for nonconceptual mediation and his tacit admission of at least a heuristic

unmediated experience into his program.

To explore these questions we will first take up Adorno's distinction

between aesthetic and empirical objects, on which so much of his aesthetic

theory is based. We will then try to discover if Adorno's turn to art for truth

reveals a "hunger for wholeness" (perhaps to be expected of a thinker in the

German tradition) that has implications for mediation and negativity. Thereafter

we will look more closely at how artistic production according to Adorno implies

mediation between art and society through the artist's confrontation with artistic

material. We will then close the chapter with a brief introduction to issues of

reception to be taken up in the following chapter.

Aesthetic and Empirical Objects

To outline the role of mediation in the relationship between art objects and

perceiving subjects is difficult enough. More difficult, however, becomes

distinguishing between the aesthetic perception of art objects and the discursive

knowledge of empirical objects after one has postulated (as most aesthetic

theorists including Adorno do) that artistic objects possess unique epistemological

qualities and reside in a privileged ontic sphere. While we can probably agree

that all experience is mediated, this consensus becomes difficult to uphold as

soon as we look to art objects to provide us with more insight than, say,

dishwashers. At that point, the temptation arises to posit that art can be

experienced somehow more directly, more immediately than empirical objects. In

Adorno's work, for example, words such as nonconceptual and sensuous often pop

up in discussions of artworks, discussions that at least imply that artworks evoke

types of perception differing from the perception of mundane empirical objects.

Let us sketch out some of these passages.

For one thing, in Adorno's scheme art is not rational; this characteristic

allows art to become the language of suffering.

. something on the other side of reality's veil--a veil woven by the
interaction of institutions and false needs--objectively demands art;
demands an art that speaks for that which the veil obscures. While
discursive knowledge reaches toward reality and also its irrationalities
that stem from reality's law of motion, something in art resists
rational understanding [Erkenntnis]. However, rational cognition has
one critical limit which is its estrangement and separation from
suffering. Reason can subsume suffering under concepts; it can
furnish means to alleviate suffering; but it can never express suffering
in the medium of experience, for to do so would be irrational by
reason's own standards. Suffering understood as a concept remains
mute and inconsequential. (AT, p. 27, translation modified)

This statement suggests that not only does the perception of art differ from that

of empirical objects; the distinction also extends to how artistic knowledge and

discursive knowledge "understand reality." Discursive knowledge, being rational,

deals with reality by resorting to concepts. Art, however, in Adorno's view, can

not only understand but also convey in the medium of experience sentiments

such as suffering nonconceptually.

Seen in this way, art does have a less mediated relationship to repressed

aspects of reality than does discursive knowledge, because art circumvents the

conceptual apparatus of that knowledge. But exactly through such circumvention

this immediacy becomes, similar to a thing in itself, something that remains

outside our representations. That is, this immediacy can only be postulated or

negatively defined. It is not something humans can ever perceive directly,

although Adorno suggests (as we point out in Chapter VI below) that forms such

as the critical essay can at least provide for a transcoding to take place that

allows the chain of immediacy to be extended from the beauty of nature in itself

through the artwork to the critical essay itself. The final product, the critical

essay, can be viewed as an autonomous form that helps to articulate the beauty


of nature in itself art conveys without destroying it through categorization. The

essay, as we will see in Chapter VI, thus emits imperfect rays of immediacy that

only the form itself, not the human subject, can perceive.

Whether art in fact mediates recognition in a different way than empirical

objects thus does not appear to be an easy question to answer, but Adorno at

least theorizes that this distinction exists. This of course does not mean that

art allows perceiving subjects to avoid mediation, since they are buried under

the concepts, language, indeed mediations of the administered world. Thus if

there is an immediacy, it exists in the relationship between the beauty of nature

in itself and art (and between art and the critical essay), hermetically sealed

away from direct human perception or production (which may explain why

Adorno stresses form over content, unconscious activities of the artist over con-

scious intention, music over more content-laden art forms).

But what about how empirical and artistic objects themselves are per-

ceived? Is there a distinction to be made here? Apparently so, as far as

Adorno is concerned. Although some of his formulations about art are cautiously

expressed, Adorno nevertheless seems to see art's unique power as at least

approaching sensuousness and nonconceptuality. "The mainspring of art is the

fact that the immediate sensuous presence of art's enchanting quality, which is a

vestige of its magical phase, is constantly repudiated by the demystification of

the real world without being entirely erased" (AT, p. 86, translation modified).3

This quote seems to indicate that while art cannot be experienced immediately, it

at least negatively, in its resistance to the empirical world, retains a memory of

immediate experience. This memory, however, since it must be thought, can only

be imagined through mediated and conceptual understanding which make the

aesthetic experience an intellectual comprehension of this memory as negativity.

In reference to music, for example, Adorno writes:

In all its genres, art is permeated by intellective moments.
Suffice it to mention only one example here. The great musical forms
would never have come to pass without intellection, without listening
in context backward and forward, without synthesizing what is
separate. It may be argued that these functions belong to sensuous
immediacy, and this is indeed true inasmuch as the parts presently
before the listener carry with them Gestalt qualities of what went
before and what comes after. But this argument only goes so far.
Sooner or later works of art reach thresholds where that immediacy
ends and where they need to be "thought," not in the medium of
extraneous reflection, but in themselves. This means that intellective
mediation is an integral part of the sensuous complexion of works and
determined the way they are perceived. (AT, pp. 132-33. translation

Adorno thus retains in his aesthetic a place for an immediacy between art and

reality. One could perhaps formulate it so: art becomes the means by which

elements of reality that would otherwise be lost are transcoded or mediated into

forms that are more compatible with our receptor codes. The distance between

the recipient and truth is reduced but not overcome.

We might ask if art's ontological properties as Adorno describes them,

primarily through negativity, are adequate to justify this almost magical trans-

coding. Does it seem plausible, for example, that art as resistance, as non-

communication, as negativity, or as dialectics without synthesis is enough to

allow such a transcoding to take place? And is aesthetic experience actually

capable of transmitting to us the memory of a reconciled world? For the

moment, we cannot answer these questions. Instead, we will begin by examining

possible origins of this posited memory.

The "Hunger for Wholeness"

On the issue of what Peter Gay calls the "hunger for wholeness," major

Adorno commentators such as Martin Jay seem almost as ambivalent as Adorno

himself.5 Such a hunger for wholeness seems generally to be reflected in

idealized views of past harmony and plenitude combined with a utopian strand of

rediscovering or recreating such harmony at some point in the future; an

important corollary to this yearning for something better in the past or future is

an utter dissatisfaction with the present.

Jay seems to believe that Adorno harbored no illusions about a past of

wholeness and only weak and intermittent desires for a harmonious future. "For

all his own interest in the liberating power of remembrance, which he shared

with other members of the Frankfurt School. Adorno steadfastly refused to

succumb to any nostalgia for a prehistorical era of plenitude and harmony"

(Adorno, p. 63). And in a footnote to his article on totality, Jay quotes Adorno

on Lukacs to support his claim:

The meaningful times for whose return the early Lukacs yearned were
as much due to reification, to inhuman situations, as he would later
attest it only to the bourgeois age. Contemporary representations of
medieval towns usually look as if an execution were just taking place
to cheer the populace. If any harmony of subject and object should
have prevailed in those days, it was a harmony like the most recent
one: pressure-born and brittle. The transfiguration of past conditions
serves the purpose of a late, superfluous denial that is experienced as
a no-exit situation; only as lost conditions do they become glamorous.
Their cult, the cult of pre-subjective phases, arose in horror, in the
age of individual disintegration and collective regression. (ND, p. 191)

Commenting on this quote, Jay offers generational differences between Lukacs

and Adorno to explain the latter's supposed lack of nostalgia for an idealized


Lukacs' nostalgia for a lost past and Adorno's lack of the same might
well have something to do with their respective ages. Lukacs was
born in 1885 into a wealthy, patrician family; Adorno's family back-
ground was no less fortunate, but he was born in 1903. Thus, whereas
Lukacs matured in an environment that still seemed relatively secure,
even if bourgeois culture as a whole was in decline, Adorno came of
age during the war when it had completely collapsed. Like Brecht,
who was roughly of the same generation, he had no nostalgia for a
prewar era, which may account for their common interest in the
modernist art that Lukacs abhorred. (Jay, "The Concept of Totality,"
p. 129)

A dissenting opinion concerning the presence of nostalgia for a lost past in

Adorno's work is offered by David H. Miles, who sees in The Dialectics of

Enlightenment "strong traces of a Lukicsian nostalgia for a nonindustrial,

nonalienated age" as reflecting Adorno's German Idealist roots.6 And about

Adorno's essay on the novel, "Narrative Perspective in the Contemporary Novel,"

Miles writes:

By "contemporary" novel Adorno actually meant the novels of Proust,
Gide, Joyce, and Kafka, and by "perspective" he was referring primar-
ily to the intolerably subjective narrative stance of these writers.
Thus he did Lukacs and Hegel one better by finding modern novels not
just "godless" and "middle-class" but also "negative" epics, ones in
which the heroes, as well as the most ordinary, everyday characters,
have been "liquidated" by excessive Reflexion. . The novel's
subject matter, accordingly, had become a negative world in which
"alienation" transmogrifies all human qualities into what is simply more
"lubricating oil for the smooth performance of the social machinery."
One does not have to be a close reader to get the point here:
unalienated man for Adorno obviously inhabits a preindustrial,
agrarian culture. Thus, despite his infinite adeptness at navigating
between philosophical extremes, Adorno's underlying pessimism about
modernism--which begins with the Enlightenment--puts him virtually in
the same camp as LukAcs and Benjamin, although without their
eschatological frameworks. (pp. 30-31)

While Miles' remarks about Adorno seem to refute Jay's statement, Miles'

position also needs some correction. Dialectic of Enlightenment does offer a

view of nonalienated harmony; in this point I think Miles is right and Jay wrong.

For more evidence of Adorno's position on man's past relation to the

objective world, a position I believe is for important reasons ambivalent, we can

also look to Aesthetic Theory. In one instance, for example, Adorno writes

".. works of art salvage, albeit in neutralized fashion, something that once

upon a time was literally a shared experience of all mankind and which enlight-

enment has since expelled" (AT, p. 8). Or in another place, Adorno writes "On

and through the trajectory of rationality, mankind becomes aware through art of

what rationality has erased from memory" (AT, p. 99).8 Yet Adorno cautions

that aesthetic appreciation of nature ". .represents the recollection of a non-

repressive condition that probably never existed" (AT, p. 98, translation modi-

fied).9 One thing about a past of plenitude and harmony, however, is clear: if

it did exist--and I think this is an interesting question to ask about the

ideological and historical assumptions of Adorno and other Marxists in the

German Idealist tradition--it cannot be a place to which we can return, since

man did become self-reflexive (in this point, I believe Miles greatly overstates

Adorno's interest in past wholeness to squeeze him into the Lukacsian and

German Idealist tradition).10

This is where Adorno's positions on past and future begin to dovetail.

Adorno's view is that the development of man's subjectivity and "enlightened"

thinking was a necessary stage through which man passed. It is not possible for

man to simply forget this identity, and this would also not be desirable. The

task Adorno sees is thus to bring self-reflexive man into a new setting of

harmony in which domination does not exist. As Giinter Rohrmoser puts it, "A

large part of Theodor W. Adorno's intellectual effort concerns the attempt to say

how man's relationship to nature, from which man in history has emancipated

himself, must be conceived" (Das Elend der kritischen Theorie, p. 25, my


translation).11 This harmony, however, would be qualitatively different from the

postulated harmony of pre-alienated society, for it presupposes a human that

remains aware of his own subject and objects too, with neither dominating the

other. As to the possibility of reaching such a state, Adorno seems to have

been pessimistic at best, which is reflected in commentators' observations.

Rohrmoser writes for example: "If the Whole is false, then the possibility

of changing the totally false must be at least possible or conceivable. Yet

Adorno says that there is no such possibility in the present" (Das Elend der

kritischen Theorie, p. 29, my translation).12 Rohrmoser thus sees no way out of

the deadlock, no source for a change in the present circumstances. Martin Jay

offers a somewhat more moderate view of this issue, which he calls "normative


Despite the clear pessimism of his vision, Adorno did not entirely
abandon the idea of an integrated, reconciled totality in the future.
In at least two places in Negative Dialectics, he permitted himself to
indulge his own, albeit faint, "hunger for wholeness." In a section
entitled "Noncontradictoriness Not To Be Hypostatized," he wrote:
"Dialectical reason's own essence has come to be and will pass, like
antagonistic society" (ND, p. 141). And in his closing remarks, he
adopted a view reminiscent of Ernst Bloch in saying that "it lies in
the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in
itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope" (ND, p. 406).
Despite these isolated comments, however, it is clear that the concept
of totality did not become an affirmative category in his thought, but
remained a perpetually critial one. ("The Concept of Totality in
Lukacs and Adorno," p. 134)

What should be asked of the "hunger for wholeness" model, it seems to me, is

whether the notion of such a prealienated world is a legitimate model for

desirable changes in contemporary society. In short, what do such preoccupa-

tions with past and future have to do with the present in general, and specifi-

cally, Adorno's aesthetics?

On these questions I believe Jeffrey L. Sammons offers some helpful

remarks on the hunger for wholeness in the German tradition. Sammons ascribes

this hunger to the loss of paradise which is generally thought to have resulted

from the introduction of private property, a view that places this problem

squarely in Marxist territory.14 Sammons thinks the entire hunger complex is a

myth, and offers a thoughtful assessment of some of its implications.

The responsible critic must endeavor to make some distinctions
here [about lost Golden Ages], which sometimes get blurred in the
metaphorical habits of, especially, German thinkers. Whether futurism
is a specifically German view, impelled by the misery of political
reality, is questionable, but its persistence, not only in the proto-
realistic theories of the Young Germans around 1835, but even in the
foundations of German realism itself, gives one pause. Miiller-Seidel
has warned us against an excess of rationalism, and reminds us that
"the recovery of paradise after its loss is a literary motif of high
rank." Of course it is, but when we are examining the cognitive
claims made for literature, a distinction between real history and
imaginative myth seems urgent; Wolfgang Binder has remarked that no
post-medieval writer has believed literally in the myth of the Golden
Age, that it is "not a creed, but a method." I am not as confident
about this as I should like to be, and, anyway, some cultural criticism
tends to handle myth ambiguously, offering it as metaphor, but
nevertheless acting upon it intellectually as though in some sense it
were history. When a philosophy of history that contains obvious
mythical elements becomes the framework for estimating the truth of
literature, then our troubles multiply. (Sammons, p. 59)

Sammons charges Marxism with allowing the myth of a "truncated eschatology"

to eclipse the present.15

The disappearance of the present may be a common feature of the
intellectual interpretation of the modern condition, but it appears to
me most profound in the German tradition, doubtless owing to the
recurrently unsatisfactory nature of the German social and political
environment. It is a Romantic inheritance, and that inheritance
conditions the tendency to look for redemption in the artistic imagi-
nation. (Sammons, p. 61)

I believe this background is essential if we are to understand Adorno's

despair with the present which, as Fritz J. Raddatz points out, Adorno often


called a "wound."17 It is difficult to accept that Adorno's dialectical mind could

conceive of just complete falseness, despite his famous reply to Hegel that the

whole is false.18 However, his point of departure is nevertheless the falseness

of society; art emerges to show that even in falseness truth can emerge through

resistance against falseness. Thus, truth is inextricably tied to and conditioned

by falseness. This shows, however, that if falseness is a starting point it is not

also the end, for through the dialectic Adorno arrives at the possibility for truth

in falseness, for art as a corrective to false society.

Perhaps the problem with Adorno's discussions of falseness is the ease with

which they imply reference points of better times lying either in the past or the

future that, as we have seen, occasionally find their way into Adorno's texts.

The dissatisfaction with the present appears to link Adorno (and other Marxists)

in many ways to early German Romanticism that also anguished over the

falseness of an earthly existence. Unfortunately, this commonality between

Marxism and early German Romanticism (which is discussed in greater detail in

Chapter VI below) seemingly leads Marxists such as Adorno to import many of

the Romantic myths, especially the myth of a past Golden Age, that exposes

Marxism to the charge of being based on speculation. As Sammons puts it:

My real point here . is that Marxist criteria for truth in literature
are grounded in a philosophy of history that, while certainly not
wholly implausible in the broad outline, is fundamentally speculative
and tends to look somewhat quaint and simple-minded as soon as one
takes any real historiography in hand. (Sammons, p. 63)

Ironically, the Marxist motive for wanting to criticize society and expose

its myths--a dissatisfaction with the present and a desire to change the condi-

tions that make a "livable life" impossible--seem to lead Marxism into

incorporating, at least implicitly, the myths of the Romanticists (and Idealists in

general) who were acting on similar motives.

Artistic Production

We have suggested that Adorno's aesthetics attempts to establish an

elaborate means by which art can be determined both on the production and

reception side somehow indirectly, above and independent from individual human

intention. This is an important part of how art avoids contamination and retains

its truth content. As one might imagine, however, a materialist explanation of

how art emerges through human labor and yet mediates truth is difficult. Again

Adorno is faced with the task of devising an elaborate system to account for the

possibility of producing an art that stems from the material world but transcends

its conditions and negates its origins in order to mediate truth. Let us begin by

looking at a fairly lengthy but important passage by Adorno on the subject.

Art communicates with the outside world through noncommunication,
because it seeks, blissfully or unhappily, to seclude itself from the
world. This noncommunication points to the fractured nature of art.
It would be easy to think that art's autonomous domain has no more
in common with the outside world than a few borrowed elements
undergoing radical change in the context of art. But there is more to
it than that. The historical cliche which states that the developments
of artistic methods, usually lumped together under the term "style."
correspond to social development is undeniable . .
That works of art as windowless monads "present" something
which they themselves are not can hardly be grasped other than thus:
artworks' own dynamic, their immanent historicity as dialectical
tension between nature and domination of nature is not only of the
same kind as that of the external; the dialectic of art resembles the
social dialectic without imitating it. The productive force of useful
labor and that of art are the same. They both have the same tele-
ology. And what might be termed aesthetic relations of production--
defined as everything that provides an outlet for the productive forces
of art or everything in which these forces become embedded--are
sedimentations of social relations of production bearing the imprint of
the latter. Thus in all dimensions of its productive process art has a
twofold essence, being both an autonomous entity and a social fact in

the Durkheimian sense of the term. (AT. pp. 7-8. translation modi-

This quote, in referring to the identity between the productive force in useful

labor and in art, makes clear that Adorno did not substantially modify his

position in Aesthetic Theory from the earlier position he took in Einleitung in

die Musiksoziologie where he also insisted on such identity. Some critics of

Adorno have pointed out that the terms productive force (Produktivkraft) and

relation of production (Produktionsverhaltnis) come directly from Marx's terms

productive forces (Produktivkrafte) and relations of production (Produktions-

verhaltnisse), but questioned if the latter's terms make sense in Adorno's the-
ory.0 In this regard, I agree with Karol Sauerland's observation that while it is

certainly possible to demonstrate shortcomings in Adorno's application of Marx's

terms, such an effort accomplishes little toward understanding the fruitful

moments of Adorno's aesthetics.21 I will thus not attempt to criticize the fine

points where Adorno's definitions seem to deviate from Marx's. Instead. I will

try to explain how Adorno employs these terms in his discussion of how art can

escape the stigma of its human origins.

While Adorno's definition of artistic productive forces varies depending on

the context in which it appears, these forces generally refer both to everything

necessary to create the artwork (all the requisite technical and artistic know-

how, techniques, and equipment) and all the requirements for its reproduction

(i.e., interpretation in music, recitation in poetry, production knowledge and

equipment in the theater, as well as the multitude of technical equipment used to

reproduce music from records, tapes, etc. for broadcasting or for private use).

The relations of production for Adorno are the economic and ideological condi-

tions that control artistic creation.22 Productive forces and the relations of

production make up a dynamic unity in which the two constantly influence each

other. On the one hand, as Adorno explains, productive forces can expand the

relations of production.

Productive forces themselves in the particular social sphere of music
can change, or to a certain extent, even create relations of pro-
duction. Transformations of public taste through great production--
abruptly through Wagner, imperceptibly slowly in entertainment music
(where despite being diluted and neutralized the compositional inno-
vations leave behind their traces)--are models for this process.
Sometimes musical productive forces explode the relations of produc-
tion that are sedimented in the public taste as in the case of jazz
which expelled all the non-syncopated dance music from the vogue and
degraded it to a memory piece. (Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie.
p. 423, my translation)

Productive forces, however, can also have a restrictive effect, as Adorno explains

in the next paragraph.

Conversely, productive forces have the power to fetter productive
forces; in recent times this is the rule. The music market has refused
the advanced, which has held up musical progress. There is no doubt
that numerous composers--and by no means just since the middle of
the nineteenth century--had to suppress what they themselves desired
because they were compelled to adapt to the market. That which is
almost intolerably referred to by the expression alienation from
advanced production and listenership should be broken down into its
social proportions: as an unfolding of the productive forces that
refuse to be bridled by the relations of production and severely
opposes them. (Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie, p. 423, my trans-

These definitions shed light on how Adorno intends to allow art to remain

autonomous while allowing for input from the social and economic setting. The

relations of production are quite comprehensive. They include, for example,

public taste, which to a large degree dictates the market for art. They also

include the particular types, genres, and themes, indeed the entire tradition in

which art must survive. In this way, the relations of production could be

considered social, economic, and artistic problems confronting the artist.

The productive forces can be viewed as the artist's arsenal of possible

solutions to these problems. These possibilities too are comprehensive, including

techniques, knowledge, and equipment to name a few.

Actual artistic production therefore is a kind of problem solving exercise in

which the artist engages, a confrontation between the artist and artistic

material, another important element in Adorno's system, for the material contains

within itself the stored problems and tried solutions of the past (because of this,

the mediation between art and society takes place below the surface of the

activities of the individual artist). To simplify somewhat, the relationship of the

force of production with the relations of production is the struggle of artists

(and everything at their disposal) with the material (and indirectly with the

tradition and society itself).25

Artistic Material

The artistic material--the historical level of advancement in artistic

technique including content as well as the formal means at hand to deal with

this content--stores the experience of socially determined history. Thus, an

artist's attempt to come to terms with material is simultaneously an attempt to

deal with social problems. With his concept of material, Adorno sets out to

replace the traditional opposition between form and content with the opposition

between material and artistic means of proceeding (kiinstlerischer Verfahrungs-


Peter Burger points out why this opposition at first may be difficult to

understand: in design, Adorno's opposition seems to juxtapose the objective (the

given material) with the subjective (the artistic means of proceeding). Yet the

material itself is the result of the subjective labor of previous artists: "the


material itself is always already a product of means of proceeding (Verfahrungs-

weise), permeated (durchwachsen) by subjective moments" (Einleitung in die

Musiksoziologie, p. 421, my translation).26 Nevertheless, the material, despite its

subjective component, presents itself to the contemporary artist as a quasi-object

consisting of artistic and technical problems. Thus, the concept of material

allows society to present itself to art while preserving art's autonomous status.

In addition, it enables the individual artwork to influence the mediation between

future art and society.

One may perhaps ask whether Adorno's concept of material can account for

how the historical component, formed by dominating and forceful figures, can

adequately represent the mass movements of history, particularly when we

consider that influential artists often win their status by, to use Jauss's terms,

"breaking the norms" of a particular society's "horizon of expectations."

Moreover, if the material is that which is presented to the artist from previous

influential artists, it may be difficult to see how this exclusive group can

represent the totality of history. Peter Burger, for example, suspects that

Adorno's concept of material may simply return us to the history of ideas

approach and influence studies, albeit with Marxist terminology. On this point,

Jameson provides perhaps the best answer when he claims that the concept of a

global totality is not as methodologically useful as "limited sequences which are

modified by the addition of a new term, itself perceived against the continuum

of which it is a part" (Marxism and Form, p. 314). Jameson makes clear that

our understanding of literary history and its developments is to a large degree

an understanding of how major writers represent changes in the literary land-

scape. About "limited sequences" he writes:


Such limited sequences furnished the context or framework for literary
understanding at least as long ago as the Greek tragedians: in modern
times we have only to think of Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne in the
English novel; Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola in the French; Baudelaire,
Rimbaud, and Mallarm6 in the development of modern poetry, to
realize the degree to which our understanding of any one of these
authors is a function of a differential perception in which his position
in the sequence determines the way in which his specificity is
measured. That Flaubert is sui generis is to say nothing but that he
is no longer Balzac, that he is not yet Zola, and this in a host of
determinate ways, is to articulate the structures inherent in and
constitutive of the novel of Flaubert. . Such sequences, and such
comparisons, largely transcend traditional questions of the personal
influence of one writer upon another. We are, I think, for the most
part agreed to see the individual writer as the locus or working out of
a certain set of techniques, as the development and exhaustion of a
certain limited set of possibilities inherent in the available raw
material itself. (Marxism and Form, pp. 314-15)

The artistic material can thus be seen to some degree as the works of

previous artists, which represent their attempts to solve formal and technical

problems. Through knowledge of this tradition, succeeding artists know what

solutions have been attempted in the past, what possibilities have been

exhausted. The task of each new artist in Adorno's program is thus to employ

the most advanced means possible (which are to some extent influenced by the

relations of production) toward solving the problems the material comprises.

At this point it bears mentioning that Adorno's theory of material and his

demand for progressive solutions derive from a particular example in musical

history, specifically Schonberg's introduction of the twelve tone technique as the

answer to a host of problems that Wagner had left behind.27 And indeed most

of the secondary literature on Adorno's aesthetic theory also concerns musical,

not literary art.28 These facts will affect our efforts in Chapter VI to discover

Adorno's relevance for literary phenomena, specifically whether a theory largely

adopted from musical examples to explain, among other things, mediation in

music of a specific transitional period can also be applied to elucidate literary

aesthetic phenomena. But it also has implications for the present issue of

material; it may also allow us to elaborate briefly on two points we touched on

earlier: Adorno's elitism and pessimism.

In his discussion of material, both Adorno's pessimism and his classical

background (which some would call elitist) manifest themselves. Elitist, for

example, seems to be his opinion that one really only understands a work when

one has the erudition to recognize the formal/technical solutions the artist has

developed to deal with the problems facing him. His pessimism too seems

grounded in an elitist opinion about art development. He fears, for example,

that the outer limits of technical solutions have been reached, as if the twelve

tone system were music's last hurrah (a position similar to Hegel's, who also

predicted the end of art).

Possibilities for new sounds within the realm of the twelve halftones
of the tempered mood have virtually exhausted themselves. No tone
today could easily claim never to have been heard before. If an
insatiable composer went on a search for such a tone, he would fall
into that state of powerlessness that always sets in as soon as the
material no longer expands itself out of compulsion, but rather is
checked off, like inventory in a warehouse, by someone in search of
charms of novelty. The noncommitment of musical radicalism today,
the moderation of the bold is the direct result of the fact that the
absolute limit of the historical tonal system of Western music appears
to be reached; that every conceivable tonal single event has already
done its work as previously planned, while neither a strong impulse of
the tonal system to burst itself has roused. Nor has the mere ability
to hear spontaneously outside of this system manifested itself.
(Dissonanzen, pp. 154-55, my translation)

The situation, however, may not be completely hopeless: Adorno for

example wonders whether it may be time for composers to concentrate their

efforts in another direction, "not in the direction of mere organization of the

material, but in the direction of composing true, coherent music also with the
always disqualified material" (Dissonanzen, p. 155, my translation).30 But this
always disqualified material" (Dissonanzen, p. 155, my translation). But this

hope seems modest at best. Yet seemingly revolutionary developments in music--

the electronic sound generators, synthesizers, and other new tools--Adorno

rejects, seemingly because for him only the classical instruments were capable of

producing what he would call music (electronic music was the product of a

mathematically based, and therefore reified type of production). One could

argue, however, that the twelve tone system also had similarities to mathematics.

It seems as if Adorno is trapped by his background and attitudes, which

only allow him to entertain a limited set of alternatives. For him, music is

classical Western music that was radically changed by Schonberg's oppositional

and negating compositions, whose system eventually reached an impasse.

Adorno's hailing of the new and the revolutionary--necessary as a response to

the reified, administered world--accompanied by the restrictions from which the

new may emerge, conditions this impasse. Adorno, it seems, could have con-

sidered other alternatives that perhaps take reification as a basic condition for

creation. We can point to Jameson's explanation of the emergence of landscape

art as an example: ". . fragmentation, reification, but also production, of new

semi-autonomous objects and activities, is clearly the objective precondition for

the emergence of genres such as landscape, in which the viewing of an otherwise

(or at least a traditionally) meaningless object--nature without people--comes to

seem a self-justifying activity" (Political Unconscious, p. 229). Another possi-

bility would be to oppose banal reification through magnification by producing an

art that "outreifies" the reified world. In other words, the determinate negation

may not be the only way to preserve art's autonomy. Again, as we have said

before, opposition and noncommunication may not be enough to define a surviv-

able art. The limitations Adorno saw may have been the limitations of his

theory, not of art.

Mediation between Art and Society

Up to this point, we have only intimated how mediation takes place
according to Adorno's theory.31 We have now set up enough background so that

we can attempt to tackle an important specific case of mediation: between art

and society.

In Adorno's theory, mediation between society and art does not take place

in some third realm lying between them. ". . mediation [Vermittlung] takes

place not externally, in a third medium between thing [Sache] and society, but

rather inside of the thing" (Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie, p. 409, my

translation).32 Adorno, following the Hegelian-Marxian tradition, postulates that

the mediation between art and society can be found in the artwork itself and

that such mediation is best revealed through immanent criticism of the work of

art. If immanent criticism is to be successful in bringing to the surface social

and class struggles, it must concentrate on the structure of the work, for the

structure encompasses and mediates the stored up tensions of society; in contrast

to the structure of artworks, the overt political positions expressed in artworks

are only epiphenomena that mostly place an extra burden onto the task of

discovering the work's truth content (we will discuss immanent criticism in more

detail in Chapter VI).

Social conflicts and class relations leave an imprint on the structure
of works of art. By contrast, the political positions art works
explicitly take are epiphenomenal. Usually they work to the disad-
vantage of elaboration, ultimately undermining even the social truth
content. In art little is achieve by political convictions alone. (AT,
pp. 329-30, translation modified)

This statement makes Adorno's opposition to politically committed art apparent.34

Adorno's insistence that art can only indirectly and unconsciously oppose society

is closely linked to his position that art is an unconscious writing of history.

"Unbeknown to themselves, [artworks] represent the historiography [Geschichts-

schreibung] of their times, which is why they are related to knowledge" (AT,

p. 261).35 That artistic works yield an account of history has nothing to do

with an artist's purpose to produce such an account. Rather, this product comes

about automatically from the artist's confrontation with the artistic material.36

What this suggests is that the actual mediation between society and art

takes place clandestinely, veiled by the visible struggle of the artist with ma-

terial. Thus the transcoding of the social into the artistic is beyond the

conscious control of the artist (and must remain beyond his control if art is to

mediate truth). This explains how art can mediate truth despite its human

origins. The conscious activities of the artist are more comparable to those of a

technician than a creative genius. And this condition must remain art's hope.

Another piece of information surrounding Adorno's work on mediation has

to do with one of his major targets: the empirical sociology of music that was

practiced and promoted by the sociologist Alphons Silbermann. Adorno's

opposition to Silbermann also brought out some of his clearest statements about

the reception side of mediation, an area to which Adorno for several reasons

devoted less attention than to production. Nevertheless, reception is an impor-

tant component of any theory of mediation. We thus shift our attention in that


Toward Reception

In Adorno's debate with the empirical sociologist Alphons Silbermann, the

battle lines were fairly clearly drawn: Silbermann defined the object of study

based on a positivistic/empirical model, while Adorno countered with a

dialectical/materialist position. For Silbermann, the work of art is identified

through its effect, with effect defined as that which can be registered by a

process of quantitative analysis. For Adorno, effect (Wirkung) is to an over-

whelming degree determined by manipulation of the recipient through the

numerous mechanisms of the culture industry. ". . the effects [Wirkungen] [of

artworks] depend on countless mechanisms of dissemination, social control and

authority, and finally on the social structure, within which their effect-con-

nections (Wirkungszusammenhange) are established" ("Thesen zur Kunstsoziologie,"

p. 367, my translation).37 To view the work of art as merely a stimulus, as

Silbermann presumably does, according to Adorno brackets out of the model the

content of the artwork; furthermore, in making the effect on a recipient the

supreme object of study and transforming effect into a quantifiable fact,

Silbermann legitimizes the very response that the manipulative culture industry

with great effort conditions or even dictates. The sociology of art must concern

itself with much more.

The sociology of art encompasses, by definition, all aspects in the
relationship between art and society. It is impossible to restrict it to
the social effect (Wirkung) of artworks. For this effect itself is only
one moment in the totality of that relationship. To isolate and
proclaim it as the only worthy object of study for a sociology of art
would amount to substituting a methodological preference for an
objective interest that permits no prejudicial definition. .... ("Thesen
zur Kunstsoziologie," p. 367, my translation)

For Adorno, important questions about art's social role and its effects

cannot be determined based on the highly subjective responses of the public.

Instead, the ideal methodology should be a reciprocal model combining objective

analyses of artworks' response mechanisms with a meaningful compilation of

subjective findings in response studies: the objective and the subjective must

explain each other dialectically. Adorno's thoughts on reception reveal two


major assumptions that Burger has identified: that artworks, as social products,

have something to say about the society from which they emerged and that there

are deficient as well as authentic receptions of artworks.

Since the study of reception has become increasingly stressed in the field

of literary studies, the area of reception warrants closer attention in our search

to see if Adorno's aesthetic theory retains its relevance and if that theory,

largely derived to explain developments in music, can also shed some light on

questions of negativity and mediation in literature.


1 This is perhaps the main reason some commentators on Adorno have
wondered why he remained within the conceptual system of Western philosophy.
Terry Eagleton, for example, writes: "For discourse to refer, even protestingly,
is for it to become instantly complicit with what it criticizes; in a familiar
linguistic and psychoanalytic paradox, negation negates itself because it cannot
help but posit the object it desires to destroy. Any enunciation is fatally
compromised by the very fact of being such; and it follows that what one is left
with is the purest imprint of the gesture of negation itself, the prototype of
which, for Adorno, is modernist and post-modernist art," rev. of Aesthetics and
Politics, New Left Review, No. 107 (1978), 30-31. See too my discussion of Jean-
Frangois Lyotard's criticisms of Adorno's program in "Representation," Chapter
VII below.

2 ". etwas in der Realitat jenseits des Schleiers, den das Zusammenspiel
von Institutionen und falschem Bediirfnis webt, [verlangt] objektiv nach Kunst;
nach einer, die fir das spricht, was der Schleier zudeckt. Wahrend diskursive
Erkenntnis an die Realitat heranreicht, auch an ihre Irrationalititen, die ihrer-
seits ihrem Bewegungsgesetz entspringen, ist etwas an ihr spr6de gegen rationale
Erkenntnis. Dieser ist das Leiden fremd, sie kann es subsumierend bestimmen,
Mittel zur Linderung beistellen; kaum durch seine Erfahrung ausdriicken: eben
das hie8e ihr irrational. Leiden, auf den Begriff gebracht, bleibt stumm und
konsequenzlos. . (AT, p. 35).

3 "Kunst wird davon bewegt, daB ihr Zauber, Rudiment der magischen
Phase, als unmittelbare sinnliche Gegenwart von der Entzauberung der Welt
widerlegt ist, wahrend jenes Moment nicht ausradiert werden kann" (AT, pp. 92-3).

4 "In ihren samtlichen Gattungen ist Kunst von intellektiven Momenten
durchsetzt. Geniigen mag, daB groBe musikalische Formen ohne diese, ohne Vor-
und Nachhoren, Erwartung und Erinnerung, ohne Synthesis des Getrennten nicht
sich konstituieren warden. Wahrend derlei Funktionen in gewissem MaB der
sinnlichen Unmittelbarkeit zuzurechnen sind, also gegenwartige Teilkomplexe die
Gestaltqualitaten des Vergangenen und Kommenden mit sich fiihren, erreichen
doch die Kunstwerke Schwellenwerte, wo jene Unmittelbarkeit endet, wo sie
'gedacht' werden mussen, nicht in einer ihnen aiuerlichen Reflexion, sondern aus
sich heraus: zu ihrer eigenen sinnlichen Komplexion geh6rt die intellektive
Vermittlung und bedingt ihre Wahrnehmung" (AT, pp. 138-9).

Martin Jay refers to Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as
Insider (New York: Harper, 1968), Chapter IV, in his article "The Concept of
Totality in Lukacs and Adorno," Telos, 32 (1977), p. 120.

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