Jazz Thoughts

The form of aesthetics?

Although I had read some of his music-specific writings way back when, rediscovering Adorno in his more strictly philosophical mode was a significant part of rejuvenating my interest in these topics. Reading Minima Moralia felt like discovering a long lost uncle, someone chewing on many of the same topics, and thinking about them in similar ways. His work has certainly put some of my musings on aesthetics from the late 1990s and early 2000s into perspective, at least for me. Having come largely out of a Foucault-centric tradition, my reaction to Adorno was not unlike Foucault's himself: If only I had known his work, it would have saved me a lot of time. Unlike Foucault, I'm not sure what saved time would have really bought me, so that's OK. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory was first translated (or at least the first good translation) in 1997, when I was in my hermit phase. So reading it now was overdo by any measure, but I do want to offer a short meta-critique.

It's probably unfair to offer any sort of critique, given that the volume is unfinished, and apparently in the midst of a fairly substantive revision when Adorno died, including a stated intention to completely rewrite the introduction, although the editors were kind enough to include the original draft introduction as the last section of the book. Upon starting the introduction, I wondered why Adorno had intended to discard it, because the first part — which basically argues for the value of aesthetic theory — is excellent. But in getting into the second part, including the ubiquitous & seemingly endless rehashing of Kant & Hegel (which he'd have undoubtedly kept), the need to rewrite starts to become clear. The introduction attempts to establish a beginning point for the work itself, but blinks — doubly. Although Adorno does argue that beginning a study of aesthetics with contemporary art makes sense, his statement (albeit in quote) about contemporary art being a critique of past art is remarkably undialectic. For him, an analysis of this statement is a stunning omission. Perhaps more to the point, the introduction struggles to precisely locate that contemporary beginning, and with it to announce a form for what follows. This form, however (and the editors do briefly discuss it), begins to emerge from the reworked main sections themselves.

Likewise rather undialectically, Adorno draws a line between art & aesthetics in the introduction. He lets these phenomena mingle to a degree, but always seems wary of crossing that line. There can be no doubt, however, that at least in the case of modern art, these categories are immanent to each other. The notion of an unartistic performance of aesthetics is kitsch, perhaps bordering on scientism. This wariness might be ascribed to the Frankfurt school as a whole, iconically in Habermas's criticism of postmodernism: Postmodernists haven't decided if they're writing theory or literature. Well, what is the difference between theory & literature? (And it's interesting on this account that Adorno criticizes Mallarmé in his introduction.) Which comes first, the work of literature or the work of theory, and which comes last? Literature is the answer to both of those questions, I would argue. Reified theory is... what, really? But theory is immanent to literature as art, and I certainly have no problem with reading literature that is also (called) theory. I suppose I prefer it. So yes, in Habermas's terms, this would be a totalizing perspective, but not an impenetrable one — just the opposite. Penetrability is what makes success possible (what in postcolonial theory might be called the trace). How to facilitate that penetrability formally (which is also a question for the artist)?

The existence of Aesthetic Theory as a fragment allows an entry into the process of Adorno's confrontation with this topic. He needed his form to reflect (and be reflected by) his material — his own requirement for a successful work of art. Would he have made this... concession, is it? in a rewritten introduction? It's certainly made in the work itself, first of all in the question of beginning. Adorno — quite correctly, to my mind — is not one to put forward first principles, or some other bedrock on which to rest a theoretical discussion: There is no prior. He's likewise not one to draw ultimate conclusions (so eloquently stated by the Taoist aphorism he seems not to know), and so cannot orient a form around its conclusions. Simplistically, the text is in a narrative form; maybe it doesn't tell a story, but it clearly has a narrator. What I find striking is that in locating this beginning, including in the second major reworking, Adorno never takes up the first person. This is in sharp contrast to his conclusion of the draft introduction, that one starts with current art, because that's what one knows — or, is closest to, and that one can only gain knowledge of what is farther away via what is closer (and this presumably goes for other cultural differences as well as historical distance). This is a reasonable observation, and I agree a good beginning, and in fact parallels the jazz idea of improvisation coming from "who you are." From that perspective, it's the only place to start a discussion of anything ("write what you know," correct?). I have to think that Adorno's refusal to move to first person narration is related to his rejection of radical relativism (or linked in the aesthetic scene, the nominalism to which he often returns as a topic). However, this is not addressed.

I have no intention of defending relativism, and indeed I believe Adorno's remarks regarding it are on target. But what then is the form? The text starts very near to Adorno himself, what he knows, but never moving to the first person, or quite articulating exactly what that is. I should also include the aside that "giving an account of oneself" is no easy matter, and in many ways impossible, per Butler. So it's not as though Adorno sidestepped some obvious possibility here, but rather that he didn't analyze it to the extent that he perhaps could have. (And note also, on this account, that Adorno explicitly considered his life to be "damaged.") The work starts from a fairly vague place, then, but near to its author, and with the perspective of viewing past art via current art. It then proceeds, from this place, to connect more and more ideas, in a big spiral or web. All of the various things that various (European, or mostly German) people have ever had to say about aesthetics (OK, maybe I exaggerate, as it might not include everything!) are then connected to each other, but dialectically, which is to say not in a simple deductive fashion. They interpenetrate each other, which brings up new issues for discussion, and so on. (The picture has layers.) One could continue this basic process forever, as there is no closure (an important point of theory that can contrast with an artwork). The other formal aspect, of course, is that it's not simply an outward spiral, because the work — as a work — attempts to decenter itself, by which I mean the new topics dialectically penetrate the beginning point. It's relatively unsuccessful at decentering itself, because the center is the least critically examined part of this picture.

I used the word "performance" consciously above. That's my first answer to a debate between "I" and not-relativism. It's also a recognition of both the arbitrary (yet necessary) aspect of a personalized center to a spiraling discussion, and a universalizing desire motivating a decentering. (And Adorno has a keen sense of the universal & particular in this regard.) An immolated spiral form of this sort could proceed in a variety of directions at any point; in that sense, it's essentially contingent, a particular performance of a web of ideas whose various connections & interconnections require discussion. Once written — and here we're left with the fragment, which opens the creative process to us — the particular choices made are constitutive of the resulting monad, which as an object distances itself from any subjective intent (according to Adorno's view of art). Moreover, the fine-grained form of the text, the paratactical structure, adds to this spiraling. Notice how the clearest statements are often in the middle of the "paragraphs": All manner of qualifications lead up to them (no concrete prior), and all manner of disclaimers follow them (absolute contingency, to inject something more recent?). The paratactic segments are spirals within spirals, moving in an opposite direction, i.e. back to the unsaid "I," and then out again. So the emerging form of Aesthetic Theory reflects its content, a vague personal beginning, no real end — an alignment of form & material achieved iteratively (ironically, an impression Adorno had & disliked about early music). It's natural to take this as at least a first description of the form of aesthetics itself. As emerging form, the work might actually be more successful at demonstrating the immanence of theory in an unfinished state. Does this suggest an artistic process to expunge theory, to be recoverable only as trace (or signature), and is theory the trace of itself in an artwork constituting theory? I'm coming up against my own vague beginning here.

Given this discussion's literary emphasis, we might also ask, is it possible to express aesthetic theory in a medium other than words? Such a question could be one way to penetrate, to break open, the form of aesthetics. I see no reason to give preference to words in this regard, other than historical contingency. By all accounts, they constitute a minority of human communication.

Todd M. McComb
26 February 2013