Geuss - Adorno's Aesthetic Theory

Download Geuss - Adorno's Aesthetic Theory

Post on 01-Dec-2014




5 download


Journal of Philosophy, Inc.

Review: [untitled] Author(s): Raymond Geuss Reviewed work(s): Aesthetic Theory by Theodor W. Adorno ; Gretel Adorno ; Rolf Tiedemann ; C. Lenhardt Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 83, No. 12 (Dec., 1986), pp. 732-741 Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc. Stable URL: Accessed: 30/01/2010 18:37Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Journal of Philosophy, Inc. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Journal of Philosophy.




classical problem of natural price? It is clear that Marx himself did not regard this principle as the solution. As Wolff points out, Marx did not defend the principle at all, for he regarded it (mistakenly) as self-evident. Wolff's reconstruction pushes us to a tantalizing question: does the logic of Marx's analysis point to a solution to the classical problem-or to its dissolution? Natural price in classical economics is today's equilibrium price, with one important difference: the "natural" price of a commodity was thought to be determined solely by conditions of production. How commodities were distributed-a social phenomenon-was thought not to matter. Marx's move to aggregates remains within this supposition, but his attempt in Volume III of Capital to transform labor values into prices points to the realization that equilibrium prices must be computed simultaneously. But if we begin solving systems of simultaneous equations (something Marx was not equipped to do), then we realize that we can compute equilibrium prices directly, without any need for labor values at all. Direct computation also shows that these prices are determined by technical conditions of production and worker consumption, the latter a decidedly "nonnatural" phenomenon. But if this is so, what becomes of the labor theory of value and the labor theory of exploitation? Wolff does not address this specific issue, but his final chapter raises other doubts about Marx's labor theory of exploitation which constraints of space prevent me from discussing. Once again Wolff's conclusion is controversial, but the technical arguments upon which it is based are cogent. Whether or not one accepts the interpretation Wolff gives his technical results, any philosopher grappling with the notion of Marxian exploitation must now take account of such arguments. Wolff has provided an immense service in demonstrating to philosophers how the technical game is played, and what unexpected conclusions sometimes follow.DAVID SCHWEICKART

Loyola University of Chicago

Aesthetic Theory. THEODOR W. ADORNO. Edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, translated by C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. 511 p. $50.00. Although Adorno left the manuscript of Aesthetic Theory unfinished, just before his death he wrote that the remaining revisions0022-362X/86/8312/0732$01.20 C) 1986 The Journal of Philosophy, Inc.




would be organizational rather than substantive (493). The seemingly disorganized and fragmentary state of the text is not, however, just a result of the fact that the final round of revisions was not carried out; at least part of what may appear to be disorganization is something Adorno strove assiduously to achieve (although he would not, of course, have called it "disorganization"). He specifically rejected the usual apparatus of philosophical argumentation and the literary forms associated with it. He never wrote the usual kind of philosophical treatise or article in which arguments are constructed and evidence marshaled in a more or less orderly way to support a single, relatively clear conclusion, which can then be detached and used in other contexts. The insistence that serious philosophical work take this form was, he thought, a kind of repression, a way of enforcing conformity by preventing thought from taking unconventional turns. His favored form is the kind of essay that circles around its topic, inspecting it from different points of view and playing one perspective off against the others, without necessarily ever settling on a specifiable conclusion.' Although Adorno officially opposed the presentation and defense of "theses" (and rarely gave anything that even approximates to an identifiable argument for any of his views), he did have general views (particularly on such topics as art) to which he returned again and again throughout his career. Oddly enough, these views underwent rather little change over the years; so Aesthetic Theory contains no surprises, but is rather just the last and most elaborate presentation of the general approach to art Adorno had first formulated in his essays on music in the 1930s. Unfortunately Lenhardt's translation of Aesthetic Theory is quite unreliable. Thus in the very first section of the book Adorno states that works of art "tend a priori to affirmation." The translation of this passage reads: "This claim is false; it implies an apriori affirmation of that which is.. . ." (2) This reverses Adorno's meaning; note, too, that the phrase "This claim is false" is the translator's invention. I found several mistakes of this order in the passages I checked, and the translation is just full of more minor errors. The general philosophical reader could probably get some sense of Adorno's characteristic concerns and theses from reading this translation, but would be extremely ill advised to depend on the rendering of any particular passage.

' Cf. his "Der Essay als Form" in Noten zur Literatur I (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1958).




Adorno's philosophy of art is informed by a very specific aesthetic parti pris, by the desire to vindicate the inherent superiority of a particular kind of modernist art. "Modernist art" means in the first instance that of Sch6nberg and his school (where Adorno got most of his advanced musical training), but then also any art that can be seen as sufficiently like that of Sch6nberg in relevant ways. Inclusion or exclusion from Adorno's modernist pantheon is rather an arbitrary matter: Picasso, Beckett, and Kafka are "in" (and so, too, apparently is Thomas Mann); Eisenstein, the Bauhaus (except for Klee) and(most emphatically) Stravinsky are "out."2

It is characteristic of genuine modernist art, Adorno holds, that it be produced by a highly self-conscious cultural elite. This elite will have a conception of itself and of its activity which will exhibit three striking features:(a) Modernist artists will see their own activity (and art in general) as "autonomous," i.e., as having its own rules of procedure and standards of success distinct from those which govern any other human activity (199ff, 320ff). (b) Modernist artists will see themselves as a revolutionary avant-garde, that is, as a group that is consciously breaking with the dominant cultural traditions in a radical way (32-48). (c) The "revolution" this avant-garde wishes to bring about will consist in formal innovation in the expressive techniques used in the art in question. That is, the historical situation in which the avant-garde sees itself will be one in which the "artistic forces of production" are fettered by traditional conventions and forms of expression; the goal will be to find a new set of expressive forms appropriate to the artistic forces, i.e., a set that will allow these forces to develop further (48-55, 273-276, 298-308, 360ff).

The superiority Adorno claims for this kind of modernist art is twofold: aesthetic and sociopolitical. The only aesthetically satisfactory twentieth-century art, he thinks, is modernist, and only modernist art is politically progressive in a real way. Furthermore, he holds that, although these two dimensions-the aesthetic and the sociopolitical-are distinct, they are also connected in various complex ways which it is the task of analysis to reveal. Adorno's philosophy of art is based on the claim that the function of art is to present the truth, and it is this, he thinks, which allows him

2 For an excellent discussion of this with special reference to Adorno's exclusion of Stravinsky, see Peter Burger, Zur Kritik der idealistischen Asthetik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983), pp. 128ff.




to connect the aesthetic and the political; to tell the truth is both an aesthetic and a political demand (128, 138f, 152f, 342f, 349ff, 362). Adorno took over from Hegel the view that art has as its vocation to tell the truth, but subjects it to a characteristic inversion. For Hegel the final metaphysical truth about the world is that it is rational, intelligible, and good. People have a vital need to know this truth and thereby to become "reconciled" to their world. Art, at least in certain historical periods, can give people a kind of awareness of this underlying metaphysical truth and thereby help to satisfy their need for reconciliation. Contrary to Hegel, Adorno thinks that our world (at any rate our social world) is not basically rational and good, but rather radically and pervasively evil. Although Adorno sometimes gives this bleak view a Marxist veneer by suggesting that our society is evil because it is capitalist, his considered opinion seems to be that the final source of evil is not capitalism, but the predominance of "instrumental reason."3 Humans do have a need for reconciliation, and Hegel was quite right to assert a connection between art and that need. Works of art "tend apriori to affirmation" (2, 195); that is, art ought ideally (i.e., according to its "concept") to present the truth and thereby foster reconciliation, but unfortunately genuine reconciliation with our social order is impossible because that order is evil and does not deserve to be affirmed. Since art in a thoroughly evil society can't both tell the truth and thereby satisfy our need for reconciliation, it is faced with an impossible dilemma. Either it will provide people with false but reassuring images of their society, thereby giving them at least the illusion of the reconciliation they need. Or it will cling to its vocation to present the truth, but, by presenting the society as it really is, it will produce the reverse of reconciliation; it will have the effect of making people even more alienated and miserable than they otherwise would be. Synthetically produced "popular art"-the Hollywood films and Broadway musicals Adorno so detested-takes the first horn of the dilemma; modern art properly so called takes the second. Both paths lead to failure, but to failures of a different kind. Works of popular art have no aesthetic value to begin with and are socially pernicious because they foster acceptance of the political status quo (24ff, 334f,3Adorno develops this view further in his Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1966) and in Dialektik der Aufkldrung, written jointly with Max Horkheimer (Amsterdam: Querido, 1947). He has an extremely wide notion of "instrumental reason."



429ff). On the other hand, few in our society will have retained enough spontaneity to understand and appreciate the radical formal freedom modernist works exhibit (25f, 360ff); fewer still will have the ego strength to bear the truth modernist works transmit-that our world is fundamentally evil (169ff, 360). Thus modernist art will lose its audience and end up telling its truths to no one. In utterly refusing to be "affirmative" it will run the risk of aesthetic regression (53ff, 135ff). The claim that art must tell the truth is thus not a demand for realism in any normal sense or for photographically accurate reproduction of our existing world, because the "truth" to be told is the metaphysical truth about pervasive evil (27f) and to express that truth art must rather be a negation or "destruction" (201) of the world than a mirroring of it (44ff, 53, 200f). To do this art must create perspectives from which the world-as-it-is seems as "displaced and estranged" and as "needy and distorted" as it would appear to the members of a utopian society of a completely free agents (366f).' The constructivist techniques of modernist art are necessary to produce the requisite "displacements" and "distortions" of the world as it is (35f, 49, 83ff; but cf. 223f and 316f for discussion of the limits of such techniques). The basic vehicle of truth in the work of art is its "aesthetic form" (207). The "aesthetic form," however, is always the result of the activity of an artist who is attempting to respond to the demands of some "material."5 By 'material' Adorno does not mean the physical bronze of a stuff of which an individual work is composed-the statue. The material is never a Naturmaterial, but is "historical through and through" (214). Material is everything on which artists operate, everything "that confronts them on which they must make a decision" (214). The material thus includes (traditional) ways of combining elements in the work, ways of structuring the work as a whole, and methods of procedure (214). So "forms, too, can become material" (214). The material that confronted Beethoven thus presumably included the tonal system and sonata form. Several further things are supposed to be true of the material. First, although the individual artist must decide what to do with the'The phrases quoted here are actually from a passage in Adorno's Minima Moralia (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1951), pp. 333f, in which he is discussing how philosophy should look at the world, but he thinks the same should hold true for art, too. 5 Cf. Adorno, Impromptus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968), pp. 42, 104; hereinafter der neuen Musik (Frankfurt: abbreviated Imp. Cf. also his Philosophie Europaiische Verlagsanstalt, 1958), p. 37; hereinafter abbreviated PnM.




material, the material itself is "pre-given" at any particular time (Imp 102).6 Artists in any given epoch are "forced to a specific material" (213). Second, the material is not inert, but has its own "historical tendency" (214; PnM 36), is subject to its own "laws of motion" (279, 335; PnM 38), and makes its own particular demands on artists (Imp 42, 104; PnM 37). Third, the material is connected with society as a whole in an especially close way. Although the laws of motion of the material are its own-this is what makes the autonomy of art possible-the material actually "moves in the same direction" as society does (335; PnM 38). The material is "sedimented Geist" (PnM 38; cf. 6ff, 53), the result of previous human activity. So social problems, antagonisms, and contradictions will have "immigrated into the material" and "impressed themselves" there, and thus will "be contained" in the smallest details of artistic technique (ZgL 105; PnM 38; 8, 329). Social problems recur in art as technical problems (ZgL 111) or as "immanent problems of [aesthetic] form" (8).7 In confronting and aesthetically forming the material, then, artists will really be dealing with society (PnM 38). The task of the artist is to satisfy the immanent demands of the material by solving the aesthetic problems it presents (Imp 42). It is precisely by doing this that the artist "represents" society and its problems and antagonisms (ZgL 105). The artist can approach the material with a more or less complete and correct understanding of it and its demands. To the extent to which an artist has "correct consciousness" and is able to "objectify" this satisfactorily in a work (274), the resulting work will have truth content and be an aesthetic success (269ff). "Correct consciousness" means, however, "the most advanced [historically possible] consciousness of contradictions in the horizon of their possible reconciliation" (274). The criterion for how advanced a state or form of consciousness is, is the "state of the productive forces" (274). SinceCf. Adorno, "Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik," Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung, I (1932): 1 1Of; hereinafter abbreviated ZgL. 7One would like to know more about how it is possible for social antagonisms to wander into the material and express themselves there as purely aesthetic problems. In 1932 Adorno wrote that the "Vermittlungsmechanismus" operating here was "noch unbekannt" (ZgL 117). He never did give a general account of the mechanism-the best one gets in Aesthetic Theory are metaphors like "sediment," "impression" (Abdruck), and "trace" (7f, 52f, 276, 329 etc.). Apparently he eventually decided that no general account would be possible here: all one could do was specify the particular mediations in particular historical cases. His Versuch uber Wagner (Munich and Zurich: Droemer Knaur, 1964) is supposed to give the kind of concrete analysis he thought possible and desirable (507, fn 15).b




the state of the productive forces changes over time, what counts as correct consciousness will correspondingly vary, and the truth content of art itself will have a historical dimension (60, 278f). In the twentieth century "the state of the productive forces" will include "the position the work occupies socially" (274) because modern art "takes up into its own consciousness and into its own form the contradiction in which it stands to reality" (PnM 119). In the early nineteenth century, then, Beethoven could find direct artistic solutions to the technical problems posed by the material he had to confront. In embodying such solutions in a work he created the appearance of a resolution of the antagonisms and contradictions in the material, brought the disparate parts of the material to aesthetic unity, and thereby formed the material into an image of reconciliation (81, but cf. 154). The resulting work has truth content because, in operating as he did on the material, Beethoven was objectifying the most advanced consciousness possible at the time. At the beginning of the nineteenth century real reconciliation, i.e., not just the artistic image of reconciliation, but actual resolution of existing real social antagonisms, was not possible; presumably Adorno thinks with Marx that the forces of production in society at the time were not yet highly enough developed. The best that was possible was the illusion, image, or fictive appearance of reconciliation, and that is what Beethoven's music gave. In the twentieth century the situation has changed. Real reconciliation is objectively possible, but has not been realized (48). Also knowledge about the social role of art has become part of the aesthetic productive forces of society, and so an artist who does not wish to fall below the most advanced position of consciousness must reflect on the social effects of art and try to embody that reflection in works. But one effect of presenting mere images or appearances of reconciliation in the twentieth century is to bring people to accept a state of affairs in which an objectively possible real reconciliation of social antagonisms has been prevented. But what art actually aims at is just such a real reconciliation of the antagonisms of the world (47f; cf. 77f, 430). So twentieth-century art can be "true," can embody "correct consciousness" only if it refuses to produce works that give the (mere) appearance of reconciliation (47f, 194f). Modernist art rejects aesthetic unity, "meaning," and harmony (219ff), presents contradictions in the material and allows them to stand (PnM 119), and "has all its beauty in denying itself the semblance of beauty" (PnM 126; cf. 78). As I mentioned earlier, that art tell the truth seems to be both a political and an aesthetic desideratum for Adorno.




Adorno thinks not only that a work of art that tells the truth is politically more progressive than one that does not, but also that the whole political vocation of art consists in telling the truth autonomously. Apart from this, all art can do is be useless, thereby tacitly criticizing the predominance of instrumental reason-the main source of evil-in our society (321ff). Adorno opposed agitational art, art intended to have a direct political effect, on the grounds that art could never be effective in changing the world directly and that to assume it could was to fall prey to false consciousness (330, 343f, 349ff, 359ff). At best, art can have the effect of "helping to break through false consciousness and to give people a more correct one" (Imp 21), and this can have some long-term "subterranean" (343) effect in bringing about gradual social change. To try to turn art into an instrument or a means to any end outside itself will deprive it of the autonomy it needs to tell the truth (and thus have the eventual indirect effect on consciousness that it can have), and will contribute to a further instrumentalization of reason which art should help us resist. This part of the theory seems particularly unconvincing. Adorno, after all, thinks that it is part of the great virtue of twentieth-century art that it reflects on its own social position and can turn such reflection into an "aesthetic force of production" (274, 349f). If in the past "engaged art" has had at best ephemeral and unpredictable results, there is no reason why that state of affairs might not change, especially if more artists began systematically to reflect on their political situation in the right way. The crux here seems to be Adorno's hatred of instrumental reason, a topic he treats only peripherally in Aesthetic Theory (64, 200f), but which is in fact central to his thinking. To turn to truthtelling as an aesthetic desideratum, that is, to the claim that the aesthetic quality of a work depends on how advanced and correct a form of consciousness is objectified in it, Adorno was aware of the difficulties of determining what form of consciousness was "most advanced" and thus "most correct": a complex theoretical construction is required to find that out (274), and in the end there is no such thing as a completely correct or true form of consciousness; every form is a complex of truth and ideology (186ff, 331). Although Adorno is no doubt right to emphasize that artists stand in a tradition from which they must originally take their material and their modes of procedure, it is hard to believe that the history of art is quite as unilinear and as highly determined as he suggests: that at any given time there is a uniquely defined "state of development of the artistic forces of production," that the artist is



"forced to a specific material," that the material makes specific objective demands which cannot be avoided, etc. Perhaps one can tell the story of German-Austrian music from Haydn to Sch6nberg along these lines, but not the whole history of an art. Adorno seems to think that we need the notion of truth in art for three reasons: (a) without it art would degenerate into a mere form of entertainment (18, 24ff, 340 f, 358f, 432ff); (b) without it criticism of art would be impossible; anything would go; (c) we can learn much about a society (e.g., our own) by studying its works of art; what we learn are truths. None of these seem to me to be good reasons. First of all, there is nothing inherently wrong with entertainment. There seems to be no good reason for us to adopt the nineteenth-century German attitude that art is a kind of religion and altogether too elevated and serious a thing to be "entertaining," an attitude of which Adorno was perhaps the last and one of the most extreme representatives. Second, Adorno's criticisms of mass-produced entertainment are in fact that these are politically and socially pernicious-that's fair enoughand that they will displease or even offend people with highly developed sensibilities-that's fair enough, too; but neither one of these criticisms requires that we call Hollywood films "false." As far as the third reason is concerned, it is right that we can learn much about a society by studying its art, but no one would think in general that objects with high "truth content" in this sense (i.e., objects that told us a lot about a society) need be aesthetically highly satisfactory. Admittedly, the objects in question are quite special (carefully fashioned art objects) and the truths we learn from them are especially elevated ones about the possibilities of reconciliation; but why should that make a difference? So, although the political demand for truth in art seems right-at least art should not actively mystify people about their world-it is less clear what sense can be made of truth-telling as an aesthetic requirement. Note, too, that to say that art ought not to mystify is not to endorse Adorno's rigoristic view that everything that is not "informed by the most advanced consciousness" is regression. In a way, to present Adorno's theory in outline as I have done is to do it a disservice, because Adorno is at his best in the details and Aesthetic Theory is full of brilliant and suggestive details. Still, it must be legitimate to ask how the theory as a whole is to be taken. To claim that one can't legitimately try to extract a general position from the aesthetic writings because Adorno held, after all, that exaggeration is essential to thought8 and that dialectics ought not to be8

Minima Moralia, pp. 164ff, 266.



taken too literally,9 is just to claim for the theory immunity from critical scrutiny. One hopes that wasn't Adorno's intention.RAYMOND GEUSS

Princeton University

NEW BOOKSThe Elements of Moral Philosophy. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1986. ix, 169 p. $24.95. RADDEN, JENNIFER: Madness and Reason. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985. xiii, 174 p. Cloth $19.95, paper $8. RAZ, JOSEPH: The Morality of Freedom. New York: Oxford, 1986. ix, 435 p. $55. READ, WILLIAM: Legal Thinking: Its Limits and Tensions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1986. viii, 189 p. $21.95. REARDON, BERNARD M. G.: Religion in the Age of Romanticism. New York: Cambridge, 1985. ix, 303 p. Cloth $39.50, paper $14.95. REDNER, HARRY: The Ends of Philosophy. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1986. xiv, 423 p. $35. REES, JOHN C.: John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. New York: Oxford, 1985. xi, 210 p. $19.50. REGAN, RICHARD J.: The Moral Dimensions of Politics. New York: Oxford, 1986. viii, 204 p. Cloth $24.95, paper $10.95. RESCHER, NICHOLAS: Pascal 's Wager: A Study of Practical Reasoning in Philosophical Theology. Notre Dame, Ind.: University Press, 1985. xi, 176 p. $19.95. RESCHER, NICHOLAS: The Riddle of Existence: An Essay in Idealistic MetaRACHELS, JAMES:

physics. Lanham, Md.: up of America,

1984. 99 p. Cloth $19.50,



The Strife of Systems: An Essay on the Grounds and Implications of Philosophical Diversity. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University Press, 1985. xii, 283 p. $34.95. ROBINS, MICHAEL H.: Promising, Intending, and Moral Autonomy. New York: Cambridge, 1985. xi, 180 p. $29.95. ROSENBERG, ALEXANDER: The Structure of Biological Science. New York: Cambridge, 1985. xi, 281 p. Cloth $37.50, paper $12.95. ROSENFIELD, LEONORA COHEN: Condorcet: Studies, 1. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities, 1985. xi, 220 p. $16.95. ROTENSTREICH, NATHAN: Jews and German Philosophy: The Polemics of Emancipation. New York: Schocken Books, 1984. viii, 266 p. $21.95. ROUTLEY, RICHARD, et al.: Relevant Logics and Their Rivals, 1. Atascardero, Calif.: Ridgeview, 1982. xv, 460 p. Cloth $29, paper $17.

9 Adorno et al., Der Positivismusstreit in der deutschen Soziologie (Neuwied and Berlin: Luchterhand, 1972), pp. 44ff.