Session report: Adorno

As I mentioned a while back, I’m auditing a class on Adorno. Following the first two class sessions on his interests and influences, session three went deep into his theoretical labors with the essay on “Subject and Object” and chunks of Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory. My feeling at this point is that Adorno has an interesting vision, his rhetoric is annoyingly difficult to follow, and his ideas about art are inspired but with a dash of paranoia (just like his attitudes about everything else).   

It’s not a lecture class, but the professor wisely decided to include a strong lecture element, given the difficult and extensive reading. Here are some notes from that with my comments mixed in. I have not processed this stuff that much, so I’ve tossed it into a bullet-point salad:

  • Adorno is basically concerned with the problem of authenticity in knowledge, or “true knowledge.” This involves a constant eye on the relation between subject and object. His epistemology has an “ought” in it: a rhetorical and ethical impulse against anything smacking of coercion and reduction, including predefined methodology.
  • The subject-object relation (S-O) is predicated on the age-old philosophical concern for likeness in difference. Properly, it involves reciprocity and transformation. This reciprocity is asymmetrical, meaning that the two terms do not impact each other in the same ways (analogous to Graham Harman’s asymmetry in O-O relations).
  • But there’s a problem! We live in administered society, which works by coercion and domination, leading us into the delusion that it’s all perfectly natural (this is Adorno’s take on reification). Reminds the professor of Schopenhauer’s tendency to see the Will in all things.
  • Adorno’s project thus becomes: how to make a persuasive rationality if we’re stuck in an overwhelming context of irrationality, of subjects swallowing objects. Yet Adorno still wants ONE non-relativist truth, uncovered Kant-style by a critique of the conditions of experience.
    • Kant notes that it’s impossible to have experience without a point of difference (this is the “vertical” element). The object provides the elements for the realization of our subjectivity. The thing-in-itself is thus the basis for a form of realism. (Visions of Harman again…) This position is (1) anti-empirical, since S does not passively receive appearances, and (2) anti-idealist, since activity of S is circumscribed by the determinate independence of O.
    • Hegel makes a conceptual adjustment: the “horizontal” (temporal) element of the idea changing over time. We allow the object to test our concepts in experience. For Adorno, this dialectical movement must be held in check by the Kantian “vertical” (realist) element, denying any hope of an absolute knowledge following the determinate negation. It’s the difference between increasing sophistication (good) and containment (bad; S swallows O).
  • The object has a certain priority for Adorno. Besides the transcendental moment just discussed above, the object is responsible for a sense of wonder (Descartes?) raised by its non-conceptual but determinate aspect, and congeals its history. (Negative Dialectics 163: “Cognition of the object in its constellation is cognition of the process stored in the object.”) The object is an accretion of meanings over time that are prior to our dealing with it.
  • All of the above plays out in aesthetics, with the artist, the artwork, and the observer. Adorno largely agrees with Kant (against Aristotle) that aesthetic feeling isn’t about feeling, but about discrimination – in Adorno’s case, inspired by the non-conceptual but determinate aspect of objects.
  • The material of art is historically furnished. So instead of some naturalistic substrate like “pitches” in music, we get themes. Artistic materials make demands on artists that they must respond to.
  • The art object also has its own “sedimented subjectivity,” in the sense that artistic intervention on one’s materials gets bundled up in the art object.
  • Adorno clearly champions a kind of authenticity, no scare quotes. The artist is most successful when self-effacing, not aiming for something social or political, but allowing the material to speak through its own logic.
  • Adorno has his own view of the history of music qua art form, in which it parallels the formation and development of the bourgeoisie. It starts with Monteverdi (ca. 1600), reaches its peak with middle period Beethoven (as a Hegelian dynamically unfolding totality), then decays… Clearly something seems off about this vision. If I were writing about Adorno, the more critical parts would mainly focus on his “horizontal” ideas about historical sedimentation, not to mention his related reduction of society to coercive ideology (which is itself a coercive ideology). Adorno needs Latour to slap him right on the face.
  • Adorno’s concept of mimesis is compelling and bears an affinity with Graham Harman’s outlines of an aesthetic theory. The class will get into more specifics in a couple weeks, but there’s already a sense in which, for Adorno, the encounter with non-conceptual truth is driven by the mimesis of artistic materials. Anyone interested in theories of embodiment or somatics or whatever might want to take a closer look at Adorno, too.

Finally, there are a few extras I would add from my own notes on the reading.

  • MEDIATION for Adorno is not mediation in the sense of a deeper basis, like exchange value being mediated by labor. Rather, it refers to the mutual determination (and transformation) of S and O. There’s no “pure experience” in which S and O dissolve (this is myth), nor a self-identity for either one alone. For Adorno, then, immediacy is associated with identity and means a bad form of reduction. (He prefers a dynamic and interactive conception of S-O, and he is definitely a correlationist.)
  • While he doesn’t like immediacy, he does not deny it either. It gets secondary status as an end-result that distorts its own historical conditions and invites further opportunity for change. From what I can tell, Adorno believes supposed identity gives us the material for experience (hence “negative dialectics”). Or to put it another way, the object is both necessary for our Bildung and taunts us with the possibility (but never the actuality) of truth.
  • In the essay “Subject and Object” the first and second sections are among the few times I’ve seen Adorno lay out clear positions and even make an argument, rather than string together a bunch of thematically related dialectical aphorisms filled with cryptic references to ongoing debates in his own head (“constellations”). So it’s worth summarizing:
    • He argues that the very act of preliminary definition with regard to subject and object begs the question of an immediate and stable relation between them. So properly defining S and O “requires reflection on the very thing the act of defining truncates for the sake of conceptual manageability.” I think of this as the element of truth in dialectical thinking, its raison d’etre.
    • The gap between S and O is real insofar as it expresses a “coercive historical process” that splits the human condition. But it’s false insofar as the S-O relation is made invariant – “fixed without mediation” – and thus positions the subject as absolutely independent and dominant. We get a sense here in which Adorno conflates autonomy with dominance, which apparently follows from accepting Kant’s mixture of two senses of autonomy. (Adorno doesn’t like the outcome.)
    • He describes a “blissful identity between subject and object” as ideology, as myth, and takes this to be the main bad alternative to the reciprocal transformations of S and O that he champions.
    • BAD communication is a kind of information exchange between subjects.
    • GOOD communication: agreement (between people and things) about what is differentiated. Note that it’s not just agreement among people about things, but an active attempt to reach an agreement with one’s object – such as when you set out to write an essay, you “commune” with the essay.
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