Tag Archives: Theodor Adorno


[Left:] Marble Torso of a god or Athlete, Roman Imperial, ca. 1st or 2nd century AD; [Right:] Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1964-67)

[Left:] Marble Torso, Roman Imperial, ca. 1st or 2nd century AD; [Right:] Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1964-67)

In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno writes:
The truth content of art, whose organon was integration, turns against art and in this turn art has its emphatic moments. Artists discover the compulsion toward disintegration in their own works, in the surplus of organization and regimen; it moves them to set aside the magic wand as does Shakespeare’s Prospero, who is the poet’s own voice. However, the truth of such disintegration is achieved by way of nothing less than the triumph and guilt of integration. The category of the fragmentary—which has its locus here—is not to be confused with the category of contingent particularity: the fragment is that part of the totality of the work that opposes totality.1

In the modern sense, the fragment is no longer a dissociated piece of the whole. Rather it is the particular object that tasks the totality brought about by the farreaching consequences of the crisis of the commodity form. Contingent particularity would be the healthy dialectic of particular and universal in bourgeois society that has since then become antinomical. Particularity in our time is no longer an effect of freedom in social practice, but rather the marker of damage already inflicted on all. At the register of psychology, we can look to Freud, for whom neurotics are just like everyone else, but more so. Integration today rather becomes a terrible adaptation to an irrational totality. But from the bourgeois view that expects the world to follow discernible reason, the moments of unreason are felt as ugly accidents that might have been avoided. The fragment opposes the totality only insofar as it reveals this accident to be a historical necessity.

1. Theodor Adorno, “Situation,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 45.

Terror and Fear

Neolithic ancestor masks found in the Judean Hills (ca. 9,000 BC)

Neolithic ancestor masks found in the Judean Hills (ca. 9,000 BC)

Could an image be made that mimics terror? Or is the mimetic act itself a function of the transformation of terror into fear? The movement from myth in the process of enlightenment runs parallel to the movement from terror to fear. Fairy tales are an index of the subjective development out of the world of myth that has not truly faded for all time. This movement is not guaranteed to be that of constant progress: that is why it the dialectic of myth and enlightenment.1

With the development of subjectivity in society, man’s Imaginative abilities are historically formed. Consequently, so is the ability to recognize the Sublime. This is all related to the movement of enlightenment—what Kant called “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.”2 For Kant, the Sublime has a particular dialectic of form and content, in which the form is adequate to the content, but the content goes beyond the form. Kant writes, “But the other [the feeling of the Sublime] is a pleasure that arises only indirectly; viz. it is produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them, so that it seems to be regarded as emotion,—not play, but earnest in the exercise of the Imagination.”3 The force of the object is felt through the subject’s Imagination in this way. The subject is not overcome by the object, but is, rather, affirmed through its ability to not be overcome.

The danger of the regression of historical consciousness into myth constantly rears itself, and it reigns now. Inspecting regression at the register of the Sublime, Adorno writes, “In the repetitive rhythms of primitive music the menacing aspect originates in the principle of order itself. In this principle the antithesis to the archaic is implicit as the play of forces of the beautiful single whole; the qualitative leap of art is the smallest transition. By virtue of this dialectic the image of the beautiful is metamorphosed into the movement of enlightenment as a whole.”4 It necessarily appears that with self-domination under capital, the phenomena of capitalist society such as the individual, are the carriers of embedded myth. Adorno notes this especially with regard to the category of the ugly:

Archaic ugliness, the cannibalistically threatening cult masks and grimaces, was the substantive imitation of fear, which it disseminated around itself in expiation. As mythical fear diminished with the awakening of subjectivity, the traits of this fear fell subject to the taboo whose organon they were; they first became ugly vis-à-vis the idea of reconciliation, which comes into the world with the subject and his nascent freedom. But the old images of terror persist in history, which has yet to redeem the promise of freedom, and in which the subject—as the agent of unfreedom—perpetuates the mythical spell, against which he rebels and to which he is subordinate.5

1 See Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. An aside: the New Left has almost ruined the reception of this book through its misreading of it. Adorno and Horkheimer are noting how through the lens of regression in the 20th century, the entirety of history appears as the apology for domination. The New Left instead thinks the authors are rejecting Marxism in favor of a transhistorical anti-authoritarianism. No.
2 Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?,'” in Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54.
3 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000), 102.
4 Theodor Adorno, “On the Categories of the Ugly, the Beautiful, and Technique,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 52.
5 Ibid., 47.

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.


Contentment with life cannot be reduced or found only in the practice of having the right thought.

Adorno and Horkheimer noted that today’s anti-intellectualism can in part stem from resentment of perceived happiness that the intellectual appears to have achieved mentally. This appearance of happiness, which isn’t true, raises such ire because it is a reminder of the question of the crisis of society, a reminder of an unfree society, which one even unknowlingly participates in its reproduction.

And speaking of that reproduction, even thought participates in labor that is the total mediation of society. There are those who can trace the movement of Spirit to trace its trajectory, to see how the crumbling totality is sick, but—as Nietzsche points out—its sickness is pregnancy, and it is pregnant with a classless society. The problem is that such an outcome requires the overcoming of this sickness. Either that or barbarism. Perhaps the intellectual is discontent because of a more acute sense of the latter.

Isa Genzken Retrospective at MCA Chicago


For the next few days, MCA Chicago will be hosting a retrospective of the German artist Isa Genzken. I had no previous knowledge of Genzken, and went at the suggestion of my friend Emma Pavlik—an artist in Cleveland, Ohio. My experience of the exhibition initially was by looking at her most recent work first, then seeing the rest in reverse chronological order. I’m not sure which way would work better for the retrospective. It was interesting watching certain gestures or themes revert to smaller forms as time went backwards.

Photo of Isa Genzken's Kinder Filmen (2005)

Photo of Isa Genzken’s Kinder Filmen (2005)

In Genzken’s installation Kinder Filmen (Children Filming) (2005), we look upon the imagined aftermath of a crime scene, where children watched their peers assaulting one another. The wildly bright materials, along with their references to youth, like a Coca-Cola beach umbrella, give the scene an inappropriate brightness. The work is described as using these objects to also indict the state of cheaply made products throughout the world: “Like other works from this period, it relies on mass-produced, found objects that challenge accepted notions of taste, perhaps as a commentary on the cheap, easy, and disposable flow of goods and information available in the present day.” I wonder who writes these descriptions. I’m assuming the writers were the curators at MCA Chicago. I find it interesting that the write-up would juxtapose “taste” with “cheap goods”, as if Genzken is merely having some fun by descending from the heights of proper art to “slum it” with capitalism’s trash. It seems to me, rather, that Genzken understands that this debris is the world we live in. There is no real distinction between a “high” and “low” taste to the degree museum-goers might imagine there to be. Instead of eschewing the creation of contemporary society as something to be rejected in its entirety, she acknowledges that there is a bit of freedom about these new materials and our ability to produce them. The concept of “taste” is itself specious in our time, especially in a museum because our aesthetic experience has become aligned with the expectations mediated by the commodity form. But, even in the bleak thoughts brought to mind by this medium of detritus and toys, there is still a turning point that can be reached by the viewers. In the 1930s, Theodor Adorno perceived this characteristic in the arising production of kitsch, which we still consider today: “Even the most stupid people have long since ceased to be fooled by the belief that everyone will win the big prize. The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life”.1 By seeing through kitsch as being made not really for us, but rather as things we wish to be for us, we might better understand what must be changed for our aesthetic experience, or life in general, to be as true as it could be.

Photo of Isa Genzken's Oil XI (2007)

Photo of Isa Genzken’s Oil XI (2007)

One of my favorite pieces of the exhibition was the installation, Oil XI (2007), which is described as follows:

Oil XI is the centerpiece of a sixteen-part installation that Genzken first exhibited at the German Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. […] The installation and its title evoke the spirit of a world in the grips of the War on Terror, which some would argue was not only aimed at curbing global terrorism but also a militarized effort to maintain control of this natural resource. ¶ […] The installation, with its accumulation of roller-board suitcases, calls to mind a transit station that has suddenly been abandoned, perhaps due to an unseen threat. Three astronauts, identified as NASA employees by the insignia on their uniforms, float overhead as if exploring the ruins of a devastated culture.

The inclusion of several plastic molds of owls implies the scrutiny of ever-watchful security in a place like an airport or other transit stations.

Photo of Isa Genzken's Oil XI (2007)

Photo of Isa Genzken’s Oil XI (2007)

The hovering astronauts, as employees (or soldiers, even), of the U.S. government, add another level of the scope of surveillance techniques in the world, such as the capabilities of satellite imagery. Given the breadth of security measures which includes the might of the U.S. military, one is tempted to jump to the conclusion that perhaps all is lost, that the end of the world is the only way out. Today’s spokesman of cosmology, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has spoken about the unfortunate history of NASA. But just as the exploration of space and the scientific advances made from the development of space-fight came about through military endeavors, there is still a tiny progressive element in the world reflected here. One need only listen to Brian Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978) to feel the channelled reverberations of hope for airports—sent out decades before Eno—washing ashore now, even if the waves are admittedly humble. There is still something to be said for the ability to fly around the world. There is potential in globalization. Only a fool would turn one’s back on that fact.

I plan on writing more about this retrospective soon, since there was so much to digest.

1 Theodor Adorno, “Commodity Music Analyzed” (1934-40), in Quasi Una Fantasia [London: Verso, 1998], 50.

More on Camping and Freedom

Speaking of the wish to escape to nature, I just found a passage I recently read in Adorno’s essay “Free Time” (1969) that points to the ways in which our desire for freedom is manipulated in our non-working time. In fact, Adorno refers specifically to camping:

Camping—an activity so popular amongst the old youth movements—was a protest against the tedium and convention of bourgeois life. People had to ‘get out’, in both senses of the phrase. Sleeping out beneath the stars meant that one had escaped from the house and from the family. After the youth movements had died out this need was then harnessed and institutionalized by the camping industry. The industry alone could not have forced people to purchase its tents and dormobiles, plus huge quantities of extra equipment, if there had not already been some longing in people themselves; but their own need for freedom gets functionalized, extended and reproduced by business; what they want is forced upon them once again. Hence the ease with which the free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them (190-91).

Advertising “Off-Road” Vehicles

The “off-road” vehicle is advertised as a gateway to the life you wanted, however ambiguous that might be. In fact, the more ambiguous your dream-life is, the better the situation for the marketing. As a potential buyer you are meant to think, “if only I could buy this SUV and get that kayak …” The advertisement plays on the romanticized notion of nature, in which one “gets away from it all.” There’s something humorous and sad about advertisements that sell the idea of escape. People have such dreams because they feel an inadequacy in their lives, but it’s far too opaque for them to understand it. Their dreams for improvement are mediated by the same commodity form that dictates their daily lives. The phenomenon of American off-road nostalgia is merely the appearance of discontent in society. Social relations seem to have lost their essence, and all is thrown away in a regressive eschewal. If only those who run to the woods could see past the fetish that is presented to us by every commodity. Adorno saw this potential: “Even the most stupid people have long since ceased to be fooled by the belief that everyone will win the big prize. The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life.”