Descending into Individuality in Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society”

Henri Matisse, La Desserte rouge (1908) [detail]

Henri Matisse, La Desserte rouge (1908) [detail]

Theodor Adorno’s opening paragraph1 addresses any apprehensions his readers might have concerning the discussion of lyric poetry and society. Adorno explains that his methodology is not that of a sociologist identifying the general aspects of society arising in the particularities of the poem as if it were an identical mapping of ideology, but rather it is an approach beginning from the poem and moving outward, or, more accurately, an immanent dialectical critique. Adorno wishes to see the interpenetration of lyric poetry and society through the poetry itself—to see how the monad of the poem prismatically shines outward, illuminating society as it is and as it isn’t. The chief task of critical thought arising from poetry is “rather to discover how the entirety of a society, as a unity containing contradictions, appears in a work; in which respects the work remains true to its society, and in which it transcends that society.”2 The individual itself is most social when he acts as an individual,3 and in doing so, he attempts to participate in the bourgeois promise of what Kant calls “unsocial sociability.”4 Just as this individual’s attempt to realize himself is thwarted by contradiction, so too is the poem most revealing when it attempts to be itself, and thus when it shows a gap between its meaning and its context. By working immanently through the individual character of the lyric subject as it appears in the poem, Adorno is able to grasp the work’s critical stance.

Despite its seeming untimeliness, lyric poetry is not a remnant of feudalism nor the impossible daydreams of utopians, but rather it is particularly bourgeois in its expression of discontent and in its preconditions, both in its production and reception. Lyric poetry requires and implies the individual, which only comes about through the development of bourgeois society, where social relations are mediated through the “freely” given labor of individuals. This historically specific universalizing compulsion also implies the potential for the sharing of aesthetic experiences in a way that had not been qualitatively possible before, although, paradoxically, art in pre-bourgeois civilization has the appearance of being more immediate.5

The phenomenon of lyric poetry itself implies—or is seen as—the battle ground for dialectics that have broken into antinomies, of which the most contentious are subject/object, individual/society, private/public, particular/universal, unique/abstract, and essence/appearance. These antinomies are related to that of the commodity form, whose ongoing crisis enigmatically pushes and necessarily changes appearances for us. Lukács states plainly the need for drawing this connection, “at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure.”6 Adorno, like Lukács, is not interested in choosing one side of these antinomies over the other, but rather he is interested in seeing how the phenomenon of lyric poetry expresses and clarifies their contradiction in society. The overwhelming assumption made by society about lyric poetry is that it should be a realm of the private subject or individual, of quality, of particularity, and of essence. Society prefers and reifies the lyric subject,7 the appearance of which is defined negatively against the opposing antinomies above: “the subjective being that makes itself heard in lyric poetry is one which defines and expresses itself as something opposed to the collective and the realm of objectivity.”8 Such a one-sided expectation of art as demanded by the middle-classes ultimately does not achieve its goal: “Meaning itself became bound to the accidents of individual fortune and happiness; it acquired, or rather usurped, the dignity that it would otherwise attain only in conjunction with the happiness of the whole.”9 But even in escaping to the particular, meaning is still damaged. Only through social emancipation can these antinomies be overcome and completed in a unity that would still preserve their reciprocal non-identity.

The focus of Adorno’s essay upon a seemingly frivolous activity actually reveals the seriousness of lyric poetry’s meaning in society. The light touch with which society holds lyric poetry allows thought released by the poem to move in such a way that it is able to press against its context—a movement which “once set into motion by a poem cannot be cut off at the poem’s behest.”10 Lyric poetry is what Kracauer would call an “inconspicuous surface-level expression” of an epoch—one of the expressions, which “by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things.”11 This is why the individuality of the lyric subject is addressed by Adorno, who adds, “the descent into individuality raises the lyric poem to the realm of the general by virtue of its bringing to light things undistorted, ungrasped, things not yet subsumed—and thus the poem anticipates, in an abstract way, a condition in which no mere generalities (i.e., extreme particularities) can bind and chain that which is human.”12 The aesthetic experience of the “involuntary crystallization”13 in the poem points beyond the status quo by revealing the immanent contradictions in the non-identity of society’s practices and its ideals, and how it has thus fallen below its own threshold to become barbaric.

The style of lyric poetry is in part “a form of reaction against the reification of the world.”14 It uses the same language as society, and yet its placement is able to resist reification, if only in making the reader or listener feel the difference from the consciousness of everyday life. Reading Stefan George’s poem, Adorno points out that its use of language becomes so individuated and unique that it condemns instead of affirms the status quo, even if that were not its goal: “only by means of this extreme differentiation could the lyric Word do the bidding of language’s deepest being and oppose its enforced services in the realm of economically organized purposes and goals.”15 It is the very uselessness—as deemed by the instrumental reason (ratio) of capital—which momentarily disrupts reification. But art’s dreams cannot be fulfilled through art alone. By creating something new and different from that which already is, the poem implies the possibility of transformation of the world. The aesthetic education from the reception of such transformation could inform the judgment required to properly mediate both the Pure and Practical Reason for further transformation.

1 Theodor Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” in Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, eds. Bronner and Kellner (Routledge, 1989), 155.
2 Ibid., 156.
3 Karl Marx, excerpt of The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (Princeton: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 85-86.
4 Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 44.
5 Theodor Adorno, “Society,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 225.
6 Georg Lukács, “Reifcation and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1971), 83.
7 Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” 162.
8 Ibid., 158.
9 Ibid., 166.
10 Ibid., 156.
11 Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament,” in The Mass Ornament (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 75.
12 Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” 156.
13 Ibid., 160.
14 Ibid., 157.
15 Ibid., 169.

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