Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Short Analysis of a Fragment of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory

       As I try to transform my prospectus into a cohesive 10-12 page response from its original format of 32 overwhelming pages, I find myself having to cut some interesting material.  For instance, I wound up having to cut the passage that I have included below, which uses Adorno to think through the relationship between artistic form and social formations.  Rather than abandoning it completely, I thought I would include it here.  Consider it a precursor to some of the material that I have produced over the past few months on the relationship between aesthetic form and politics.

     The linkage between form and politics is most directly developed by Theodor Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory. Adorno’s analysis of the aesthetic utilizes Leibniz’s concept of the monad to capture the dialectical tension of literature ‘as both autonomous and fait social.’ For Leibniz, the concept of the monad links to his general concept of the harmony of nature, each element of the whole containing the key to understanding the whole. This concept of the monad then becomes the key for understanding the literary work, operating both within its autonomous sphere and containing the key to understanding a whole realm of social relations that exist outside of it. However, Adorno abandons Leibniz’s organic and harmonious whole for a concept of antagonistic totality. Adorno states this in the following terms.

     “That artworks as windowless monads “represent” what they themselves are not can scarcely be understood except in that their immanent historicity as a dialectic of nature and its domination, not only is of the same essence as the dialectic external to them but resembles it without imitating it. The aesthetic force of production is the same as that of productive labor and has the same teleology; and what may be called aesthetic relations of production—all that in which the productive force is embedded and in which it is active—are sedimentations or imprintings of social relations of production. Art’s double character as both as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced on the level of its autonomy. It is by virtue of this relationship to the empirical that artworks recuperate, neutralized, what once was literally and directly experienced in life and what was expulsed by spirit…. The basic levels of experience that motivate art are related to those of the objective world from which they recoil. The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society. The complex of tensions in artworks crystallizes undisturbed in these problems of form and through emancipation from the external world’s factual façade converges with the real essence.”[1]

     The relationship between the ‘artwork’ and its outside is understood through a structure of homology between the ‘aesthetic force of production’ and that of ‘productive labor.’ Both are ‘embedded’ in the social relations of production, that is, both are products of the structures of the social logic of capitalist domination, and simultaneously tied into the same social struggles that make up its teleology. The artist (as subject and as subject position) is both produced within the violence of the structures of social domination and resistance that constitute capitalist social relations and use as her or his raw material the ideology of those struggles, or, as Adorno states it, the ‘neutralized’ contents of what is ‘directly experienced in life’ and is ‘expulsed by spirit.’ Therefore the ‘artwork’ is both autonomous, in that it must be understood as a unique assemblage of ideological and material elements, and that it directly emerges from the social forces that shape the society as a whole. Thus, Adorno refuses simultaneously, a set of formal demands made by Marxist critics such as Georg Lukacs who demand a sort of mimetic ‘representation’ of its outside in the form of a sort of historical realism[2] that he finds in the works of Walter Scott among others. At the same time, it refuses the fantasy contained in the concept of an art for its own sake, which Adorno amongst others would link to the specific artistic alienation produced by the transforming social relations of the production of art. Instead, the artwork must be understood within the forces of production that created it, and specifically the multitude of social discourses that both are produced and reproduce the social. While this relationship may seem initially to point to a simplicity and clarity in the relationship, it is important to remember that this gestures to the fact that the artwork itself is as complex and overdetermined as the society is as a totality.

[1] Theodore Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
[2] See Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).

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