Theodor W. Adorno: Notes to Literature: Combined Edition

Notes to Literature (Combined Edition) Couverture du livre Notes to Literature (Combined Edition)
Theodor W. Adorno. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholson. With a new introduction by Paul Kottman
Columbia University Press
Hardback $120.00 £100.00

Reviewed by: Richard J. Elliott (Birkbeck College, University of London)

 Adorno’s Critique of Aesthetic Intentionalism & its Limits


A prominent yet understudied feature that permeates Adorno’s aesthetics is a critique of intentionalism. In this review essay, I will look at this critique and one manifestation of it, as it appears in his Notes to Literature.

Previously published in two volumes, Columbia University Press have for the first time combined Adorno’s Notes to Literature in a single work, translated into English.  The scope of topics Adorno treats is broad, and reading is often difficult but frequently rewarding. Topics span from epic poetry, to Dickens, the free use of punctuation and its ramifications, reviews of individual texts, to more general methodologically loaded tracts on the status of art or particular aesthetic traditions. This is not exhaustive by any measure. As such, a sufficient characterization of this wealth of topics treated by Adorno in the short space available to review would be exceedingly challenging, likely impossible. Instead, I will restrict the focus of this review to a common feature across many of Adorno’s treatments of these topics: his rejection of intentionalism in aesthetics, in this instance, authorial intentionalism in literary works. This rejection appears to some degree in many if not all of the essays within the two volumes. It also looms large in Adorno’s aesthetic theory more broadly. However, it is usefully illustrated by means of a particular formally derived critique Adorno offers, about subject-driven exposition of narrative as an authentic and autonomous force in literary works. I will also argue that Notes to Literature aides in demonstrating an internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism, as it appears in such works. This internal limit offers a qualified role for the creator of autonomous works, and some insight into the machinations of this role – these will be discussed below.

Intentionalism is the presupposition many would-be aestheticians bring to artworks. The presupposition is that the pure intention of the creator (the composer, artist, or author) is what bestows aesthetic value to such works. Notes to Literature features many instances of a prominent critique of this position, as applied to literary works. Adorno views subject-derived expositions of narratives, particularly streams of consciousness as a narrative device, as one example of formal expressions of authorial intentionalism in literature. Its widespread employment demonstrates the primacy of this intentionalism. Viewing it as an authentically expository force involves a kind of presupposition to aesthetic methodology, and to any discernment of the value to be gleaned from works. This presupposition, Adorno claims, places the individual author in a position of epistemic priority. This position is an erroneous one, as it encourages the proffering and evaluating of works without exploring the social totalities which constitute the conditions for any such individual’s presentation of aesthetic knowledge. The role of the creator for Adorno is inherently mediated within the context of such totalities. Intentionalism and its formal manifestation in subjective narrative shirks this exploration, to the detriment of the autonomous potential that literary works might possess.

One particular target of Adorno’s is a manifestation of intentionalism in a particular conception of the genius. This conception gained predominance as a particular oppositional reaction to Kantian aesthetics. Kant describes the genius as “nature giving the rule to art”, contrasting it with the notion of the single creator doing so, from some epistemically authoritative vantage point. The conception that opposes Kant broadly states that as the wellspring from which aesthetic value flows, the intention of the genius offers a model of salvation, relayed through their work. The figure of the genius, so it broadly goes, is the one who oversees the total expression of their authorial or creative intention in the work, and this successful expression of that intention is the vehicle of aesthetic value for works of art, music and literature equally. On this model, appreciation of works then occurs with reference to this value. Adorno rails against this model.  While Adorno ultimately agrees with Valéry’s claim that great art “demands the employment of all of a man’s faculties” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 115), this is not the claim that this employment manifests the expression of the conscious intentions of the creator of that art.

Underpinning this presupposition is the wrong-headedness as Adorno sees it of aesthetic intention operating as if immediate value of a work can be transmitted, its message there to be received by an audience who can grasp it if they accept it. Here Adorno opposes an assumption shared by both Kant and those reacting to him, since they converge on the notion that this transmission can take place between agents – in Kant’s case certainly, rational ones. But operating with this kind of presupposition, Adorno thinks, is to be oblivious to the inherent alienation as “a fact that irrevocably governs an exchange society”. To illustrate this, in an approach characteristic of Adorno, he employs Hegelian motifs as a means of undermining of Hegelianism itself – Adorno targets ‘objective Spirit’ as represented in art. For Hegel, the truths purveyed through art (as well as religion and most importantly philosophy) claim to offer representational knowledge into the development of Geist, eventually culminating in the ironing out of all contradictions of reality. Built into this understanding, Adorno claims, of the Hegelian motive for art is that it “wants […] to speak to human beings directly, as though the immediate could be realized in a world of universal mediation” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 116). But this claim in itself about the representational power of art, says Adorno, is a kind of utilitarian degradation of the aesthetic. In literature specifically, this degradation makes ‘word and form’ into a “mere means” – a manner of utilizing the formal presentation of the work for expressing what the creator takes to be a truth or value relayed through art.

Structurally, Adorno here shares with Hegel the basic claim that art can illustrate certain kinds of truths. But he diverts from Hegel in a qualified way, in how he sees the promise for the role of autonomous art. Hegel conceived of putting art to use in the task of Geist’s reconciliation by means of what the work represents. By contrast, Adorno conceived of autonomous art’s power to at best be able to illustrate the current impossibility of reconciliation, due to the inability of the work to coherently represent reality, in the manner Hegel claims it can. It should be noted that it appears Adorno sees it possible for certain kinds of non-representational knowledge to be gained from successful works of art. Autonomous art can bestow negative knowledge of reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in our Time’, 223). This would initially seem to clash with the claim that this is itself a form of knowledge. But rather than this constituting representational knowledge, Adorno is in some way offering the potential for a kind of aesthetic exposure to an intuition that demonstrates the impossibility of representational knowledge. This is arguably one route to the ‘loss’ that Adorno counts as the second-order objectivity facilitated by autonomous artworks. More on this below. But in the context of the Hegelian assumption, Adorno thinks that this has ramifications for critical engagement. The Hegelian optimism for the revolutionary potential of art in fact pulls the rug out from underneath the work, by undermining its formal and practical autonomy, and its applications.

In this vein, Adorno critiques subjective exposition of narrative, as a manifestation of the intentionalist’s presumption about aesthetic value. This critique tracks formal characteristics intrinsic to presentations of works themselves. It is a claim about the inherent formal critical power or lack thereof that motivates his critique of literary subject-centrism, and the idea of subjectivist narrative as having expository primacy in its formal mode of presentation. It is not just that this is open to criticism as a bourgeois mode of attempted presentation, of the kind indicated above about the power of the author’s intentions. Rather, this more formal critique is aimed at narrative of this kind also for its reduction of the reader or spectator to being merely receptive to such a subjective flow of consciousness. Adorno claims that the proponent of formal narrative subject-centrism identifies “nodal points of conditioned reflexes” of the would-be passive human being, qua “mere receptive apparatuses” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 119). The work’s recipient responds to intake from their sensibility by the truth-bestowing flow of an intentional consciousness in the work. The presupposition here is that exposition is granted authentic force as a mode of formal description by the author. As such it is employed as a way of receiving and interpreting a work by an audience. This is problematized due to its assumption that the audience has been given the necessary sensibility for the narrative, on a kind of presuppositionless set menu of aesthetic evaluation. The presumption here is that the audience receives a formal presentation of the sensory scheme or stream of consciousness of the ‘genius at work’, to which they should passively engage.  The audience is a conduit to be filled up with aesthetic truths.

But this presumption exposes another facet to Adorno’s critique, centered around the assumption that any subject creating aesthetic works can provide such a coherent formal exposition, by virtue of their professed narrative. The work of Proust, perhaps ironically, is valorized by Adorno for upsetting a presumption in the “prevailing consciousness” about the notion of the unity and pre-given wholeness of the person. This presumption is characterized as a false idol by Adorno (‘Short Commentaries on Proust’, 181), which Proust’s works act as an ‘antidote’ to. A philosophical presupposition of this view concerns the power of subjective narrative. The audience doesn’t receive this subject and its narrative in some necessary and uniform fashion. Nor is the self-representation of either one of the subjects involved, author or reader, of an immediate cognitively accessible character. Rather, Adorno claims that such narrative is the product and cause of further alienation. Only in genuinely autonomous works can there be an intimation of this alienation by a display of the “social relationships [that] reveal themselves to be a blind second nature” (‘Short Commentaries’, 183). Again utilizing while subverting a familiar Hegelian motif, this of second nature, social relationships limit the remit of pure thought, not in a manner that adapts pure thought to nature, but shows its perversion at the hands of the productive forces at work in it.

In this respect, something Adorno claims favorably about Paul Valéry is his capacity to buck the trend of centralizing “the triumph of subjective over objective reason” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 161). Though Adorno takes this to be a product of the enlightenment, it is evident from his discussions of many post-enlightenment figures that he views them as capitulating to this trend, too. For example, Adorno writes that for Sartre, “the work of art becomes an appeal to the subject because the work is nothing but the subject’s decision or non-decision » (‘Commitment’, 349). This centrality has ramifications both theoretical and practical. As a result of it, “Sartre’s approach prevents him from recognizing the hell he is rebelling against”, namely the objective self-alienation that latently motivates him to make the proclamation that hell is, in fact, other people (‘Commitment’, 353). Indeed, Adorno’s infamous statement about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz is reaffirmed, in the context of this continued primacy of the subjective. He claims it “expresses, negatively, the impulse that animates committed literature” (‘Commitment’, 358). This criticism applies also to Heidegger. A ‘decision’ is demanded by Hölderlin, for Heidegger, in Adorno’s devastating excursus of Heidegger (‘Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’, 380). Claiming this, not only does Heidegger rob and ‘deaestheticize’ Hölderlin of his “poetic substance”, it also eliminates Hölderlin’s “genuine relationship to reality, critical and utopian” (‘Parataxis’, 381). This is done on the grounds of the notion of subjective decision being prioritized by Heidegger, erroneously recapitulating to “the idealism which is taboo for Heidegger [but] to which he secretly belongs” (‘Parataxis’, 385).

Motivating this critique in all of these forms is Adorno’s broader claim that “the social totality is objectively prior to the individual” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). The presupposition that successful, genuinely autonomous works still somehow belong to the author misses this point. Rather, a work’s success consists “in its becoming detached from [the author], in something objective being realized in and through him, in his disappearing into it”. (‘Toward a Portrait of Thomas Mann’, 295, my emphasis). Autonomy is not bestowed upon a work due to any relation with some condition of genius possessed by the author.

 Yet in pursuit of this thought, Adorno makes an intimation about what positive role the artist qua producer of works of art can have, should a work be successful in the possession and conveyance of truth content. In an ironic twist, he inverts the idea that the work is the instrument of communication for the intentions of the creator. Instead, this possession and conveyance involves the artist becoming an instrument, through which aesthetic form assumes a life of its own. It is this mode of production which ensures the artist does not “succumb to the curse of anachronism in a reified world” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 117). Adorno assumes his own idiosyncratic kind of interpretivist stance towards the possibility of aesthetic autonomy. Discussing the ways in which artistic creation is subject to reification, and on the point of to whom the truth-qualities of an art work ‘belongs’, Adorno endorses Valéry’s attack on “the widespread conception of the work of art that ascribes it, on the model of private property, to the one who produces it” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).

So Adorno postulates a kind of aesthetic virtue gained by means of a degree of liberation from the folly of intentionalism, including its formal presuppositions about subjective exposition. This liberation, Adorno notes, is a kind of recognition, namely a recognition on the part of the artist, such as Valéry’s bourgeois art as bourgeois, and that this recognition precludes it from conscious or intentional escape from that framework. In this sense, Adorno sees in Valéry (and also, for example, Thomas Mann) a critical platform through formal literary presentation in this “self-consciousness of [its] own bourgeois nature”. The premium is placed on a certain kind of self-knowledge, attained by a capacity for critical distance. This self-consciousness doesn’t determine the truth content of an artwork itself. Rather it constitutes a recognition by the artist that self-consciousness precisely doesn’t determine such truth content. Indeed, in an example of Adorno’s often ironic and flirtatiously paradoxical prose, this self-consciousness comes by the aesthetic judgement

“tak[ing] itself seriously as the reality that it is not. The closed character of the work of art, the necessity of its giving itself its own stamp, is to heal it of the contingency which renders it unequal to the force and weight of what is real” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).

With some nuance, Adorno criticizes the aims of recent art, at a “retreat of productive forces [as] a surrender to sensory receptivity” – in other words, it recapitulates to viewing subjective and specifically sensorially derived authorial creativity as the primary means of producing truth. This in fact diminishes the capacity for abstraction, or for the construction of artworks as possessing a genuinely autonomous character.

This makes Adorno’s claims about Valéry and Proust somewhat ironic, but arguably productively or virtuously so. Despite Valéry’s own processual and solipsistic mode of presentation, it is so by virtue of his “advocacy of the dialectic” qua the recognition that the only freedom possible is freedom in relation to the object (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). This in a roundabout fashion actually serves to undermine the idea that the subjective stream of consciousness is an authentic expository force for narrative truth.

Adorno writes that Valéry’s philosophical affinity to this advocacy “erodes from below […] the illusion of immediacy as an assured first principle” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). Indeed, intentionalists presuppose some primary or immediate access to the author or creator’s epistemic faculties via the formal presentation of the subjective narrative. But attempts at cleanly cutting through the social conditions which engendered the work are inhibitions to aesthetic truth, for Adorno. There is a broadly ethical dimension to Adorno’s rejection of this presupposition, too: “[t]he objectification of works of art, as immanently structured monads, becomes possible only through subjectification” (‘Presuppositions: On the Occasion of a Reading by Hans G. Helms’, 368).

Adorno offers the potential for a positive way out. He describes an emancipation made possible through aesthetic endeavour, when works are forced to try and re-establish a kind of objectivity which is lost

“when it stops at a subjective reaction to something pregiven, whatever form it takes. The more the work of art divests itself critically of all the determinants not immanent in its own form, the more it approaches a second-order objectivity” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152, my italics).

Developing dialectically out of its own deficiencies, this particular route to disillusionment constitutes a second-order objectivity – a kind of knowledge of one’s disillusionment, through aesthetic form. This is an objectivity which, depending on how one interprets Adorno, facilitates the possibility for reconciliation, or at least the knowledge that reconciliation is presently beyond our ken or grasp (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 154). This has already been discussed by Adorno in the context of a certain kind of self-consciousness. But Adorno also discusses a kind of forbidden mode of consciousness, which, if we had access to it, would allow us access through art and literature to a genuinely different and non-reified mode of approaching our genuine needs (‘The Handle, the Pot, and Early Experience: Ui, haww’ ich gesacht’, 473). One might interpret this forbidden mode of consciousness as something necessarily inaccessible, like Kant’s intellectual intuition. Or one might interpret it as something contingently improbable, an obfuscated mode of consciousness which might come to be available to us under certain productive conditions. Regarding this difference of interpretation, I remain non-committal about, for the purposes here. But this second-order objectivity partly constitutes an acknowledgment of some kind, of this mode.

What might this second-order objectivity amount to, in the context of the work? Herein I argue lies an important internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism. The loss of the subject as an authentic expository force can lead to a realization that objectivity by this means constitutes a “loss”, Adorno claims (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152). Adorno then claims that the subject’s pursuit of this “critical path is truly the only one open. It can hope for no other objectivity” (Ibid.). The ramifications for this in aesthetics is that the construction of works “no longer conceives itself as an achievement of spontaneous subjectivity, without which, of course, it would scarcely be conceivable, but rather wants to be derived from a material that is in every case already mediated by the subject” (‘Presuppositions’, 371). This is not mediation by the purely spontaneous, causa sui subject, a la the presupposition of the intentionalist. Rather, the creator of the genuinely autonomous and truth-contentful work of art must be in some respect a “representative of the total social subject” (‘The Artist as Deputy’,  120, my italics).

It is only by virtue of recognizing this representative nature of works as something interpreted by the social and cultural conditions it is subject to, that art can “fulfill [itself] in the true life of human beings” (Ibid.). Adorno’s conception of the artist involves acting as a “midwife” to the objectivity inherent in the autonomous artwork – which is delineated “in advance by the form of the problem and not by the author’s intention (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168)”. Indeed, in line with Adorno’s authorial anti-intentionalism, the problem of delineating a work’s autonomous value is framed by its historical contingency, determined by the conditions of possibility that the forces of social production allow for the work to rupture through. It is autonomous works which can attain this expository status in relation to these forces. Put succinctly in his essay critical of Sartre and the idea of committed literature, “art, which is a moment in society even in opposing it, must close its eyes and ears to society”, while holding out the presence of “an ‘it shall be different’”, which Adorno claims “is hidden in even the most sublimated works of art” (‘Commitment’,  362).

Important to note here is that the success of the work in its autonomy is to some extent accidental, if viewed from a purely intentionalist perspective. Formal technique can only contribute to the intention of “what is presented”, as opposed to what the author purely intended. Its conditions of success are determined by the ability to recognize its autonomy within the context of objective social reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). This includes a rupturous expression of what is concealed from reality by reifying processes, or as Adorno describes these processes, the purely “empirical form reality takes” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 225).

A paradox arises at the heart of Adorno’s position about this criterion for success. It is chance that “proclaims the impotence of a subject that has become too negligible to be authorized to speak directly about itself in a work of art” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156, my italics). Yet at the same time as this claim about the possibility created by chance, it is this subjectivity, as

“alienated from itself, against the ascendancy in the objective work of art, whose objectivity can never be an objectivity in itself but must be mediated through the subject despite the fact that it can no longer tolerate any immediate intervention by the subject”. (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156)

This is a convoluted qualification by Adorno, merciless in its demands on the reader. In a reductive sense, the brute intentionalist model of subjective creativity is rejected. But the importance of the subject in some mediated sense remains of critical importance, for Adorno. Creators of autonomous works acknowledge “the paradoxical relationship of the autonomous work to its commodity character” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 158).

Adorno makes the allowance that this mediation via the subject is not an enterprise which the subject remains wholly unaware of, within narrative structures. But at the same time, he frames this as an eventual culmination, in a particular mode of formal consciousness towards an “estrangement of meaning” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156). Adorno claims that its projection of this estrangement within an autonomous work “imitates the estrangement of the age”. Artists capable of producing autonomous works come to possess some conscious disposition towards an awareness of this imitation, by virtue of their being estranged. But how to understand this disposition toward an estrangement of meaning? Adorno thinks that it comes from a particular intuitive awareness of reification. Using Valéry as an exemplar, “[f]or Valéry’s aesthetic experience, the subject’s strength and spontaneity prove themselves not in the subject’s self-revelation, but, in Hegelian fashion, in its self-alienation. The more fundamentally the work detaches itself from the subject, the more the subject has accomplished in it” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 167). What Valéry and Adorno see interrelatedly, quoting Valéry, is that “[a] work endures insofar as it is capable of looking quite different from the work the author thought he was bequething to the future” (Ibid.).

Mere intention isn’t what makes a work autonomous: a presupposition of its primacy amounts to a recapitulation to the alienating forces as Adorno seems them as regnant in society. Rather, the author or creator is instrumental – “with the first movement of conception, the author is bound to that conception and to his material. He becomes an organ for the accomplishment of the work’s desires” (Ibid.). The most plausible manner of making sense of the idea that a work itself possesses desires is within the context of the claim about the artist or author as a midwife. The work embodies the hidden intuitions of a collective, expressed without ascribing any one individual’s intentions to the production of a work. Difficult as this may seem, I take it that Adorno’s point here is that autonomous works implicitly channel the hidden but genuine desires of the collective of human individuals, within their socio-historical context. Rather than representing the individuated subject, it represents the reification of the “latent social subject, for whom the individual artist acts as an agent” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168). Once again, the representation of the social subject is of an instrumental rather than intentional kind through the aesthetic creator. Since Adorno thinks that all those under the same socio-historical conditions are bound to a mode of reification, there will be broad similarity underwriting the mode of self-alienation the representative artistic agent embodies and formally expresses, as themselves a conduit through which the work comes to be. The self-alienating autonomous work is described by Adorno as itself possessing ‘wants’, but intuitions of these are framed by the demands of the human condition to recognize the ill, perhaps impossible fit of the forces of social production upon that condition – the blind second nature which all are forced to adopt.

The use of the term ‘latent’ in this context is important, since Adorno frames the capacity of the contingency of the subject in psychoanalytic terminology. The ego has heretofore been assumed as the origin of pure aesthetic intentions and the harbinger of aesthetic truth, by means of its transparent route to creativity. Contrary to this assumption, Adorno claims that the ego “cannot be healed of its cardinal sin, the blind, self-devouring domination of nature that recapitulates the state of nature forever, by subjecting internal nature, the id, to itself as well” (‘Presuppositions’, 373). Rather, the ego can only be healed “by becoming reconciled with the unconscious, knowingly and freely following it where it leads” (‘Presuppositions’, 373–4). In some sense for Adorno, the regulating ego is to some extent aware of obedience or concession to the unconscious id in the creative process. The ego wants to find out what it wants, or at least wants to become aware of what it is about empirical reality that it doesn’t want.

Once this awareness takes place, the experience of autonomous artworks gives “the sense that their substance could not possibly not be true, that their success and their authenticity themselves point to the reality of what they vouch for” (‘Short Commentaries’, 187). Or, as Adorno puts it punchily elsewhere, autonomous art “represents negative knowledge of reality” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 222-3) – not positive representational knowledge in Hegel’s fashion, but the poverty of representational knowledge to track the real. Adorno offers an explanatory metaphor for this in a powerful discussion of Ernst Bloch’s musings on ‘An Old Pot’ at the beginning of Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia. Emulating the conscious disposition which can be intuited through autonomous works, Adorno self-referentially writes, “I am Bloch’s pot, literally and directly, a dull, inarticulate model of what I could be but am not permitted to be” (‘The Handle, The Pot, and Early Experience’, 472).

There might be no right living in a world gone wrong. But through autonomous works, formal glimmers exude, that give us intuitions of its wrongness. Whether these intuitions could develop more concretely, or be instantiated practically, is of course another story, one that cuts to the heart of Adorno’s immanent critique.

Estelle Ferrarese: The Fragility of Concern for Others: Adorno and the Ethics of Care, Edinburgh University Press, 2021

The Fragility of Concern for Others: Adorno and the Ethics of Care Couverture du livre The Fragility of Concern for Others: Adorno and the Ethics of Care
Estelle Ferrarese. Translated by Steven Corcoran
Edinburgh University Press
Hardback £70.00

Martin Jay: Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations

Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations Couverture du livre Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations
Martin Jay
Paperback £13.99

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Martin Jay is a distinguished cultural historian, a pioneer of the study of the Critical Theory of the « Frankfurt School » with his book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973), and a scholar who wrote on different aspects of Critical Theory, on the concept of totality, and on the problematization of vision in modern French thought. Splinters in Your Eye, his most recent book, is made out of eleven essays, most if not all already published in some form.  They explore aspects of the work of the Frankfurt School’s main theorists, paying attention to the inner tensions and the wirkungsgeschichte of the theses formulated by Horkheimer and his band of merry theorists.

In an essay published in a previous book, Jay defended the honor of the kind of intellectual history that he displays in the book. Two aspects of his defense are relevant in this context. Jay calls himself a « synoptic intellectual historian, » namely, one that believes that « it seemed a sufficiently challenging task merely to reconstruct the demandingly difficult arguments of the Frankfurt School and relate them to some issues about the life histories of its members. » Synoptic cultural history came in recent years under attack because it abridges and reduces a complicated, heterogeneous mass to an abstract, homogenous form. (Jay, Two Cheers for Paraphrase, 52). This synopsis excludes normatively and hierarchically everything outside of a homogenized and consistent paraphrastic account. The observation that this kind of account may be a disservice for some texts is particularly acute when the subject matter is itself suspicious of premature totalization, as it is the case in Adorno’s thought.  To face this challenge, Jay assures us that « by turning it on Adorno’s intellectual production and isolating what I saw as the five main forces in his own field or starts in his constellation—Western Marxism, aesthetic modernism, mandarin cultural despair, Jewish theology and … proto-deconstructionism—I attempted … a methodological or formal paraphrase of his work in order to illuminate its substantive tension (op. cit., 61-2).  So, paraphrase and synoptic approach can be gentle enough to respect the nature of its subject-matter without incurring in mimetic repetition.  In the introduction to Splinters in Your Eye, Jay returns to this problem, using Adorno’s aphorism « the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass » (Adorno, Minima Moralia, 50). The splinter or the mote in question is an imaginative interpretation of the verse « why beholdest thou of the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? ». This injunction is usually interpreted as a caution not to be judgmental. The « mote » is here converted, through the vicissitudes of translation, into a splinter. And the eye’s irritation, into a glimpse of truth (Jay, Splinters, xi).  It is through suffering, vicarious, or our own, that knowledge of society is possible, Adorno claims. In the same section, Adorno also refers positively to exaggeration. Jay will use this idea for the title of an essay on the Frankfurt School’s position regarding psychoanalysis.   Jay also refers to the provocative sentence that closes the section: « The whole is the false » (Minima Moralia, 50).  But if the whole is the false, what about critical theory? Adorno’s claim questions any attempt to bring the ideas of the different personalities involved in the Frankfurt School into a harmonic whole. Jay expounds further on the nature of the painful eye that it will avoid the illusion of a « panoptic vision. » This concept that Foucault borrowed from Jeremy Bentham’s speculations on a system of inescapable omniscient social control is the clearest counter-ideal to Critical Theory.  It is in recognition of the appropriateness of the fragmentary that Jay writes: « the exercises that follow are left in their unintegrated form, with no pretense to be a coherent narrative » (xvi).

What is a reviewer to do? To compound the fragmentations (from the subject-matter, the fragmentation of the intellectual historical account)? Or to try to suggest a synthesis that was already twice refused? Sometimes problems are best perceived by turning them around. In this case, by turning our gaze to a different approach, one which as hostile to Critical Theory as Jay’s is caring.

The last essay, « Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment, » places us on a different plane. In this chapter, Jay deals with a fringe movement whose members have made of the Frankfurt School, a scapegoat for the illnesses and rottenness of contemporary society. With a twist. Because what they perceive as negative is what many will call the positive signs of reparation of long due injustices: the fight against racism, against discrimination on the base of gender and sexual orientation, the inequality of opportunities for minorities of all kinds (see a complete list in p. 157).  This is more than ironic. As Jay comments in another essay, the Frankfurt School has been ofttimes criticized for its ineffectualness, for its failure to become practically engaged with mass social movements, for the lofty tone of its pronouncements, etc. These critics make the opposite claim.

Against the claim that castigates the Frankfurt School for its presumed role in the development of a counterculture which rejected and supposedly replaced the traditional American culture of the 40s and 50s, first in academia, then in the media and cultural industries,  and finally in society as a whole, the historian can proceed in two ways. The first will be to show that, maybe except Marcuse, the influence of the Frankfurt School in American academia and popular culture was, to say the least, limited.  The different « critical studies » and what is called in the humanities and social sciences « theory » borrows much more from French post-structuralist thinkers, and indirectly from Husserl, Heidegger, and Nietzsche than from Adorno and Horkheimer (Cusset, 2003).

Instead of following this road, Jay takes advantage of the opportunity to turn his regard into this distorted account in the hope that « something [be] revealed about the legacy of the Critical Theory—and, more importantly, about the current society that can turn it into a simplistic meme— » (161), a meme that under certain circumstances can turn deadly.  Jay refers here to the manifest written by the Norwegian neofascist Anders Behring Breivik before engaging in a terrorist attack that left 77 dead. Breivik, among other arguments to justify his acts, ranted against the influence of Cultural Marxism, referring even to Jay’s Dialectics of Enlightenment as proof for his claims.  Jay goes further to write that the situation calls for the kind of dialectical account that Adorno and Horkheimer devoted to the Enlightenment itself (166). If Jay does not offer us such an account, he lists references to different claims that distort and twist the legacy of the Frankfurt School. But he recognizes that to develop a critical theory of counter-enlightenment is beyond the scope of a single essay (167). Jay mentions a few attempts to apply the methodology devised by the Frankfurt School for their study of Authoritarian Personality (1950) to the current situation in the USA (168-9) but seems to have doubts on the merits of that methodology. Quoting a remark from Harvard’s historian Peter E. Gordon, he wonders about the appropriateness to assign individuals to personality types, as this mimics the reification of contemporary society (169). Maybe what this shows is that the Frankfurt School has many historians, but few disciples willing to follow in their path.  Only Habermas stands out as a continuation of sorts of the heritage of the Institute.

Was this fate foreshadowed in the early beginnings of the School?  Jay explores this question in the first two essays in the book. « Ungrounded » deals with the foundation of the Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), which through the particular circumstances of its origins and independence from party or government, gives rise to the accusation of being suspended in an abyss (Abgrund). Jay refers here to Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist literature scholar and philosopher whose 1922 History and Class Consciousness influenced the group of young scholars that ultimately created the ISR, that gave origin to the Frankfurt School.  Lukács, as an orthodox Marxist, rejected the idea of a critical stance that is not anchored in a political party, which is itself the conscious will and vanguard of the working class. Instead of a privileged vantage point, Horkheimer and his comrades preferred a sort of « immanent critique, » which Jay describes quoting from one of Adorno’s translators: « immanent criticism turns the principle of identity…into the power for the presentation of the way in which  an object resists its subjective determination and finds itself lacking » (4).  Jay raises two potential objections to this approach. The first recasts Adorno’s objection that immanent critique cannot be fully grounded on itself as « the totality is never fully self-contained. » The second objection has to do with what Marcuse called « one-dimensionality » and Adorno « totally administered » society.  In such a society, apparent dissatisfaction becomes functionalized in the service of the status quo. Despite such doubts on the actual possibility of a critical regard into the society that is not immediately instrumentalized, the members of the School continued to elaborate their positions. What are, Jay wonders, the motivations for such an undertaking? Maybe, he wonders, that motivation reflects the particular circumstances of the establishment of the ISR?

Jay embarks in the already well-known stories of Felix Weil’s role as founder and financial benefactor of the Institute, and Horkheimer’s appointment as Director of the Institute. Toward the end of the essay, Jay turns to explore the possible debts of Critical Theory to the philosophy of Schelling (11). In particular, to Schelling’s early thinking. Horkheimer wrote on Schelling and Idealism in the 1920s, and also Adorno has a substantive debt to his thought (15). Jay observes that « Schelling’s critique of rationalist metaphysics was attractive to thinkers trying to extricate themselves from…[a] philosophy in which all contingency was absorbed into a relational system » (13).  Others have observed that Schelling’s philosophy seems to anticipate the Dialectic of Enlightenment (15).  And Adorno in Negative Dialectics quotes approvingly Schelling as an antidote to a rationalistic consciousness philosophy.  These considerations led Jay to affirm that the uncertainty of « Abgrund » (groundlessness) may be less damaging to critical theory and to emancipatory practice than one may initially suspect.

In « The hope that earthly horror does not possess the last word, » Jay reminisces on his early contacts with the leading members of the ISR during the research that led to his writing Dialectical Imagination.  Three points can be highlighted in this essay.  First, the degree to which the members of the Frankfurt School wanted to shape Jay’s narrative. Second, the different perspectives of the individual members. Finally, Jay’s interpretation of the feelings of the founders of the ISR about their Jewish origins, and about the influence of their background in the outlook and the public perception of the Institute.  One of many, the anecdote regarding the title of Jay’s book, is telling. Jay suggested the title « Permanent Exiles » (28-9).  Horkheimer and Weil criticized the title as not only unprecise but also dangerous because it lends justification to their many foes from the right.

The next chapter, « Max Horkheimer and the Family of Man, » explores the balancing act of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s return to Germany. Horkheimer understood their public role as « reeducator of Germans, especially Youth, in the democratic values he had learned in exile » (35).  This understanding, and the realities of the Cold War, led to de-emphasize the earlier, more radical approach to contemporary society.  Jay exemplifies this with a close reading of Horkheimer’s talk at the opening in 1958 of the photography exhibits « The Family of Man » in the US-funded Amerika-Haus in Frankfurt. Jay emphasizes Horkheimer’s references to Kant, Emerson, and Dewey and their firm belief that man should count as an end and never as a means (36).

Further, Horkheimer characterizes the exhibit as « representative of all the forces that are now counteracting the…regressive movements that have occurred in Europe in recent years » (36). Jay notes the distance between the endorsement of the humanistic agenda of the exhibits and Horkheimer’s previous pronouncements in his writings of the late ’40s.  Also, Jay finds puzzling Horkheimer’s valorization of the power of images to give unmediated access to abstract philosophical concepts. After his return to Germany, Horkheimer increasingly endorsed the Bilderverbot, the biblical prohibition of images, which constitutes a central component of the Jewish faith (also to be analyzed in an essay comparing Adorno’s and Blumenberg’s position).

« Family of Man » approached the family at two levels. On the one hand, it showed pictures of couples and happy families from different cultures. On the other, it implied that humanity should be seen as one big family.  Jay deals with both levels and compares the underlying presuppositions of the exhibit with Horkheimer’s and Frankfurt Schools’ analysis of the family.  Jay also confronts Horkheimer’s remarks with Roland Barthes’ criticism of the exhibit. Jay sees the differences in approach mainly as a reflection of a difference in context.  Barthes was reacting against the danger of abstract universalism, whereas Horkheimer was dealing cautiously with the heavy heritage of Nazism and the war (45).

The « marriage » between Freud and Marx is the subject of the fourth essay.  The relationship of the Frankfurt School to Freud and psychoanalysis was complicated and not limited to the realm of theory. Horkheimer helped create a psychoanalytic institute in the University of Frankfurt and even invited it to share space in the ISR’s newly built building on the university campus. Horkheimer also lobbied the city of Frankfurt to give Freud the Goethe Prize in 1930. Even a few members of the ISR, including Horkheimer, underwent analysis.

Jay states four overlapping motivations that presided this matrimony. First, the hope that psychoanalysis may answer why orthodox Marxism, despite the widespread discontent with the status quo, failed in the 1920s’ Germany to generate a revolutionary practice. Second, to explain the emergence of Fascism, a social movement that traditional Marxism did not foresee. Third, in the case of Marcuse in particular, Freudism was expected to be a way to envisage a different civilization, beyond the one-dimensional one.  Lastly, in the case of Adorno and of Horkheimer, to build a plausible materialism. But, except for Fromm, their interest in Freud stayed mostly limited to his philosophical anthropology, and the members of the ISR remained indifferent to psychoanalysis as a therapy (53).

Jay surveys the different receptions of Freud in the Institute, from Fromm’s attempts to a build a social psychology which could be empirically verified and a tool to explore socio-political events, Adorno’s integration of Freudian insights into his analysis of the « culture industry » via de concept of fetishism, and Marcuse’s most explicit use of Freud for utopian purposes in Eros and Civilization (1955) (60).  In his work, and in the magazine Dissent, Marcuse attacked Fromm’s humanistic version of Marxism and his dismissal of Freud’s Metapsychology and instincts theory. Jay quotes Marcuse’s re-interpretation of Oedipal longings as archetypical of freedom from want, and his rejection of its surplus repression in the name of the reality principle.  Jay’s assessment that Fromm « never recuperated » from Marcuse’s onslaught in Dissent seems a bit extreme. Not only Fromm had a successful and long carrier, not only Marcuse’s name only become widely known after the 1968 student’s revolt, but Marcuse contributed a chapter to Fromm’s 1965 edited collection Socialist Humanism, indicating some level of agreement between the two.

Jay’s use of the metaphor of marriage to describe the attempts to bring to a synthesis Freud’s theory with Marxism or parts thereof also allows us to think a less blissful relationship, at least in Adorno’s late work (63).  Adorno was skeptical of a full reconciliation between the social and the psychological, and between the cultural and the natural.  He writes in his characteristic fashion: « The separation of Sociology and Psychology is both correct and false…correct insofar as it registers more intransigently the split that has actually taken place in reality than does the premature unification at the level of theory » (Sociology and Psychology, quoted by Jay, 64). The rejection of the premature unification of the social and the individual is supposed to prefigure a potential emancipatory outcome. He concludes this essay referring to Horkheimer’s work in post-WWII Germany to reintroduce the teaching of psychoanalysis and to renew the association of the ISR.

The fifth essay tells an enthralling story about the young Leo Löwenthal and his participation in the « Jewish renewal movement » in the 1920s. Löwenthal was very close to Rabbi Nobel, the charismatic rabbi that played a central role in developing the Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus. Jay discusses Nobel’s contradictions and how these allowed Nobel to be a magnet for highly educated and conflicted youth living through the turmoil of the first years of the Weimar Republic. Nobel had a refined German education, was an orthodox rabbi, a friend of the leading Jewish intellectuals of his time, and a gifted speaker.  Additionally, he helped Löwenthal financially during a bout of conflict between Löwenthal and his family.  Jay examines Lowenthal’s « Jewish writings, » which consists of an essay published in Nobel’s Festschrift (« The Demonic: Draft of a Negative Philosophy of Religion ») and a series of short articles on leading Jewish thinkers of modern times (Mendelsohn, Maimon, Heine, Marx, Lassalle, Herman Cohen, and Freud).  But, as Jay notes, Lowenthal’s energies were soon directed elsewhere (74). While there may be several reasons for this change of heart, the fact remains that Löwenthal’s interest in Jewish subjects faded, although maybe not entirely, as he republished his early essay on Heine in a 1947 issue of the magazine Commentary.

The sixth essay sets up a dialogue between Adorno and Blumenberg around the notion of « non-conceptuality. »  There are similarities between Adorno’s position in Negative Dialectics and Blumenberg’s criticism of the privileged role of concepts in philosophy. According to Jay, Blumenberg seems to have acknowledged his debt to Adorno. So, for example, Blumenberg gave a seminar on Negative Dialectics a year after its publication. While no transcripts from the workshop survived, the fact itself is meaningful.  Blumenberg used the notion of « non-conceptuality » in his writings of 1970, in what Jay considers a salute to Adorno.  Jay speaks of an « overlap » between the intentions of both thinkers to present an alternative to philosophy’s traditional preference for conceptualization (84).  Adorno and Blumenberg were both critical of Heidegger in general and of Heidegger’s attempt to offer a solution to the tension between conceptualization and content in particular. The title of the essay refers to the biblical Bildersverbot (prohibition of images), a common trope for a residual Jewish sensibility. Both Adorno and Blumenberg were of Jewish descent. Adorno’s father was Jewish, and so was Blumenberg’s mother. In the context of the Frankfurt School, the « ban on images » metaphor was used in two primary contexts. One, a refusal to engage in utopian speculation about an emancipated future society. The second, an affirmation of the irrepresentability of the Holocaust, as in Adorno’s ban on poetry after the Holocaust (90). Non-withstanding those similarities between the two thinkers, Adorno’s position is very different from Blumenberg’s.  As Jay shows it nicely, for Adorno, the non-conceptuality was historically bound, and a claim to redemption to be fulfilled in a different society. He quotes Adorno on Identity:

« To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not be simply discarded … hidden in [the supposition of identity] is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism » (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 149, quoted by Jay, 93).

Visual arts played no significant role in the work of the members of the Frankfurt School. Benjamin was the exception, and he was interested, among other things, in the « emancipation of color » in modern art. « Chromophilia: Der Blue Ritter, Walter Benjamin and the Emancipation of Color » brings together Jay’s interest in the history of visual arts in the early 20th century and his study of the Frankfurt School.

Using unpublished fragments from 1914-15, Jay presents Benjamin’s long-life interest in the color revolution. One opposes a child’s to an adult’s view of color. For the child, color is contour, but the adult sees objects only, abstracted from color fragment. Benjamin was, according to Jay, fascinated by the Blaue Ritter color experiments. In another fragment, Benjamin writes about the rainbow in contrast with graphic images, which with line and figure, separate the endless configuration of color.  Jay brings closer Benjamin’s reflection on color and his ideas about an Adamic language. WW I, which saw the death of two of the central figures of Der Blaue Reiter group, seem to have affected Benjamin’s hopes that the emancipation of color would foreshadow human freedom (111-12). In a following article devoted to Benjamin’s comments on stamps, Jay explores his own experiences in philately and its utopian dimensions.

The ninth essay expounds on the German American film theorist Miriam Hansen, the author of Cinema and Experience (2012). This one is the only essay in the book that deals with a thinker belonging to the younger generation of critical theorists.

As Jay puts it, Hansen’s problem is to develop a critical account of the film that goes beyond the blunt dismissal of the cultural industry characteristic of the first generation of critical theorists (including Krakauer). Hansen incorporated to her analysis the notion of a « counter-public sphere » in which technologically mediated distanced forms of interaction prevail. This notion elaborates on the ideas of Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt (both associated with the Frankfurt School and with Habermas in particular) (125-6).  Hansen also rescues from the early Frankfurt theorist the idea of mimetic comportment and the ideal of the « renewal of experience » (126).  Hansen claims, according to Jay, for the existence of an alternative public sphere that can only realize itself through the destruction of the dominant, bourgeois public sphere. Jay is somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of such an alternative. Hansen showed an alternative public sphere realized through cinema only for a limited period, which corresponds to the early silent cinema.  Furthermore, Jay defends the rights of the public sphere in its Habermasian sense, as a place of rational discussion, even as an ideal for democracy (134). Paradoxically, the criticism of purposive rationality cannot make room for the straightforward enjoyment provided by imaginative identification.

Based on a paper presented at a Brandeis conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Marcuse’s One-dimensional Man, Jay explores the different ways in which this famous book can be said to be « ironic. »  First, there is the irony that this pessimist analysis of contemporary society, which forecloses all possibility of a challenge to the encroachments of instrumental rationality, is published at the very same moment when new avenues of resistance are opened.  That consideration leads to a review of the analysis of irony in Adorno, and eventually to the question in what sense the argument in One-dimensional Man is itself ironic.  In Minima Moralia, Adorno seems to deny that irony is still possible.  Irony for  Adorno « convicts its object by presenting it at what it purports to be » (quoted by Jay, 138). But, in our advanced industrial societies, « Irony’s medium, the difference between ideology and reality, has disappeared » (quoted by Jay, 139).  But, is this also Marcuse’s position? Jay probes different types of irony, with the object, ultimately, of examining if there is, in One-dimensional Man, a « more promising notion of irony » that avoids the flaws of the ones Jay already reviewed. Jay will look for an alternative in a notion of irony described by Christoph Menke, a member of the third generation of the School.  Discussing Oedipus Rex, Menke makes a difference between the « irony of the action » and the « the poets’ irony. » The first refers to the character Oedipus’ blind responsibility for his fate. The second, which we share as spectators, is our knowledge of the situation and our capability to foresee the outcome. Both irony positions are unified in Oedipus at the end of the play.

How are these insights important to evaluating Marcuse’s reflections on advanced capitalist society in a context which is quite different from the one we live today?  Taking stock of Marcuse’s work would require identifying what is living and what is dead. Marcuse himself, at the end of his book, offered a gloomy picture of, on the one hand, a critical theory unable to provide a bridge between the present and its future, and the other, the wretched of the earth, free of the encumbrance of theory but driven forward by their despair. Critical Theory need to remain solidary of those without hope, advises Marcuse, even though the system may be strong enough to defuse any confrontation: « The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concessions to the underdog. »  On his side, Jay concludes, « we can still find in…[Marcuse’s]  insistence on the superiority of a two-dimensional understanding of the human condition over its one-dimensional alternative something akin to … [a] committed pursuit of personal excellence … an ironic attitude that is neither cynical nor disengaged, … [that] resists accommodation to social pretense … It may not provide the reassurance of Socratic or dramatic irony at its most knowing, but in a world that will not grant us such knowledge, it keeps alive the negative power of two-dimensionality that Marcuse so eloquently defended. » (150)

Jay’s book carries the subtitle « Frankfurt School provocations, » asserting the longevity of the program of the early critical theory.  The attacks of the ultra-conservative factions add some credence to the luster of the ISR, and the blossoming of a third and fourth generation of thinkers who declare some degree of fidelity to the original vision of Weil, Horkheimer, Pollock, and others should at least provide a modicum of hope.




Cusset, François. 2003. French Theory. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et es mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux État Unis. Éditions La Découverte, Paris.

Jay, Martin. 1988. « Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of a Synoptic Intellectual Historian. » In: Martin Jay, Fin-De-Siècle Socialism. Routledge, New York and London, pp. 52-63.

Elad Lapidot: Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism, SUNY Press, 2020

Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism Couverture du livre Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism
SUNY series, Philosophy and Race
Elad Lapidot
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Miroslav Petříček: Philosophy en noir, Karolinum Press, 2020

Philosophy en noir Couverture du livre Philosophy en noir
Václav Havel Series
Miroslav Petříček
Karolinum Press, Charles University
Paper $20.00

Theodor W. Adorno: Ontology and Dialectics: 1960/61

Ontology and Dialectics: 1960-61 Couverture du livre Ontology and Dialectics: 1960-61
Theodor W. Adorno. Nick Walker (Translator)
Paperback €21.46

Reviewed by: Sílvia Bento (Institute of Philosophy - University of Porto)

“I believe that if you look at the writings expressly directed against Wagner, and especially The Case of Wagner, you could readily extrapolate what he [Nietzsche] would have said against Heidegger. And I think if you could actually perform this feat of imagination that I am proposing to you, and envisage such a Nietzschean critique of Heidegger, then for penetrating insight it would surpass anything which I can offer you with my modest powers in these lectures.” (104)

These intriguing remarks, set forth by Theodor W. Adorno in his series of lectures delivered in Frankfurt during the winter semester of 1960/61, can be regarded as the touchstone of Ontology and Dialectics. This lecture course of 1960/61 – and the three Vorlesungen delivered at the Collège de France in March 1961 – first published in 2002 under the title Ontologie und Dialektik, excels in presenting a subtle analogy between Nietzsche’s positions concerning Richard Wagner’s music as a cultural expression of décadence and his remarks on Heidegger’s fundamental ontology as a degenerate movement or tendency against Aufklärung. As presented in Der Fall Wagner (1881), the Nietzschean formulation of Wagner’s music as a “disease” affecting German culture is evoked in order to analyse the philosophical observations on Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno in Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno’s incisive observations, fundamental ontology, as defined by Heidegger, manifests a specifically German posture – considered by Adorno as profoundly deplorable – against Enlightenment ideology. As Adorno asserts, fundamental ontology is a philosophical movement which can be characterized as an abominably vile counter-Enlightenment. The Nietzschean analysis regarding the infamous power of seduction involving Wagner’s music, from Adorno’s point of view, is a “Heideggerian disease” because it profoundly affects the German academic world, which represents a new philosophical movement that is intensely respected and greatly venerated. The bizarreness of this Heideggerian spell, or disease, under which the German intelligentsia seemed to succumb, is often considered by Adorno:

“[…] for in Germany there are now hardly any responsible academic positions or professorial chairs in philosophy that do not feel obliged at least to show that they are somehow worthy of what has been achieved by Heidegger and Jaspers. And even those thinkers who for political and other reasons are extremely critical of both philosophers, but especially of Heidegger, still appear to be captivated – in a way I find really hard to understand since I have never experienced this spell myself – by this kind of thinking and seem unable to sever the umbilical cord entirely in this regard.” (100-101)

According to Adorno, fundamental ontology, Heidegger’s philosophical project, can be regarded as a philosophical tendency which owes its effect and possesses its forces through opposition to idealism in general. It is an anti-subjectivism; in fact, the philosophical question concerning fundamental ontology may be stated in a variety of ways. Adorno puts it thus: fundamental ontology is essentially an anti-subjectivist. Fundamental ontology stands in contrast to a philosophy which remains essentially devoted to a preliminary question, namely the question of how knowledge is possible at all. The coarse obliteration of the philosophical reflection upon the subjective mediation of knowledge and the epistemological relevance of the conceptual thought represents the chief theoretical posture of Heidegger’s ontology as conceived by Adorno.

Fundamental ontology is unequivocally the chief subject matter of Ontology and Dialectics by Theodor W. Adorno. The relevance of such a book – essentially a compilation of 23 Vorlesungen delivered in Frankfurt in 1960/61 and in Paris, at the Collège de France, in March 1961 (we refer to the last three lectures included in the book) – can be described in accordance with the consideration that the positions expressed in Ontology and Dialectics represent as an initial discussion of the Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno. It should be observed that Ontology and Dialectics presents a philosophical anticipation of the incisively penetrating analysis of the Heideggerian ontology which, ultimately, forms the core of The Jargon of Authenticity, published in 1964. According to the “Editor’s Foreword” included in this edition, written by Rolf Tiedemann, the book Ontology and Dialectics, which expresses the philosophical antipathy to the ontological movement emanating from the Black Forest, evokes a project which Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht had already begun to pursue around 1930, not long after the publication of Being and Time. The project they sought to pursue was that of “demolishing Heidegger” [den Heidegger zu zertrümmern]. The intention of “demolishing Heidegger” pervades Adorno’s work and thought, especially after his return from exile to Germany. As Rolf Tiedemann elucidates, within the German philosophical academic circle developed after the end of the Third Reich, during the political and social process of re-establishing democracy in Germany, Adorno was widely regarded as the pre-eminent intellectual opponent to Heidegger – and Adorno accepted this incumbency. To lay emphasis on the fact that Adorno’s Complete Writings comprise almost 600 references to the name of Heidegger (exceeded in number only by those to Walter Benjamin) is not superfluous. Clearly then, “demolishing Heidegger” was an Adornian philosophical project. Nevertheless, the Adornian critique of Heidegger is not an aggressive refutation of the fundamental ontology that is without merit, nor is it intended to chiefly condemn the political positions adopted by Heidegger. The Adornian objections to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology that are most important are those which excel in revealing the dangerous political and social implications of a philosophical tendency – developed in accordance with the refusal of the cognitive sophistication of philosophy – that, in its instauration of odd cults and bizarre interests, promoted the pseudo-ideal of pre-Socratic irrationalism.

The title of the book, Ontology and Dialectics, alludes to Adorno’ intention of presenting a philosophical contrast between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and Adorno’s own conception of dialectical thought as negative dialectics. This intention is subtly illustrated in a story involving Gustav Mahler and his literary taste.

“It is well known that Gustav Mahler was passionately interested in Dostoyevsky, who stood for something quite different in the years around 1890 than he does of Moeller van den Bruck. On one occasion, during an excursion with Schoenberg and his pupils, Mahler is said to have advised them to spend less time studying counterpoint and more time reading Dostoyevsky. And Webern is supposed to have responded with heroic timidity: ‘Pardon, Herr Direktor, but we have Strindberg’.” (1)

As Adorno explains, this story is probably apocryphal; nevertheless, this episode involving Gustav Mahler’s literary taste is mentioned by Adorno as a witty elucidation of the relationship between the new fundamental ontology of Heidegger (or, we might say, Dostoyevsky’s new literature) and the tradition of the German dialectic thought (or, we might say, Strindberg’s thought).  However, the emphasis upon the philosophical opposition between the new fundamental ontology and the traditional dialectic thought does not form the heart of Ontology and Dialectics. It is pertinent to observe that this series of lectures, published under the title Ontology and Dialectics, precedes the three lecture courses which form the book Negative Dialectics, Adorno’s masterpiece, published in 1966. The thorough theoretical presentation of such a philosophical project – the delineation of the philosophical singularity and distinctiveness of the negative dialectic thought – is indeed the chief subject matter and the central line of thought developed by Adorno in Negative Dialectics, written between 1964 and 1966. It is worth noting that Ontology and Dialectics, which precedes Negative Dialectics, is especially devoted to the philosophical condemnation of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology.

At any rate, as Adorno conceives it, the concept of Being, in Heideggerian terms, is not actually a concept at all. In fact, according to Adorno’s reading of Heidegger’s ontology, the concept of Being is not supposed to be the highest abstraction, the supra-concept reached by omitting all particular individuation, all particular determination. In approaching such a philosophical account of Being, Adorno intends to lay emphasis upon the fact that the Heideggerian ontological positions should be sharply distinguished from other kinds of ontology – such as the concept of ontology introduced by Husserl, the ontological project developed by Nicolai Hartmann, or the ontological positions advanced by the neo-scholastic tradition. The relentless obliteration of the conceptual dimension of Being defines the decided difference between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and the traditional ontologies. As Adorno clearly explains, Being, in Heideggerian terms, is supposed to be what is utterly prior and primary, that which is highest and most constitutive. The question regarding Being – over against the highest regions, the highest and most universal concepts of all possible classes of beings – is what is decisive here, precisely because it involves the problem of the possibility of ontology as such, namely whether such a pure doctrine of being can be thought as such independently of the doctrine regarding the order of beings. From Heidegger’s point of view, those doctrines devoted to the ontological delineation of the order of beings – those doctrines which totally disregard the benedictory ontological difference between Being and beings, those ontologies of the ontic developed in accordance to systems of blind conceptual categories, fundamental principles and axioms – it is these doctrines imply an ontological questioning in the naïve sense. They do not represent, as Heidegger insists, the essential task of ontology understood in the radical sense – and this is precisely what fundamental ontology is.

The cult of the concept of absolute originality, the cult of the Firstness, is one of the philosophical oddities bound up with the persistent assertion of such an ontological questioning in the radical sense, as advanced by Heidegger. According to fundamental ontology and, especially, according to its chief claim concerning the ontological difference between Being and beings, any approach which does not involve the priority of Being with respect to beings is already rejected ab ovo and defamed as inferior, as a failure, as a betrayal of the real question. As Adorno asserts: “we are constantly presented with the same invocation, variation or repetition of this premise, namely the priority of Being with respect to beings” (22). Consequently, in repudiating the conceptual sophistication of the traditional philosophical thought (and of the philosophical ontologies), Heideggerian ontology fails to consider that the concept of Being itself is not the original question which fundamental ontology would have us believe. As Adorno attempts to explain – this is, unfortunately a very laconic explanation – the concept of Being deserves to be regarded philosophically as a concept of reflection in the sense of those concepts subjected to criticism by Kant in his “Amphiboly of the Concepts of Reflection” when they are hypostasized – in other words, when they are treated as an expression of true beings as such. On this view of things, the concept of Being is not something very ancient but something rather late and, correlatively, developed in accordance with the conceptual sophistication of critical philosophical thought. It should be observed that, from Adorno’s point of view, the concept of Being is a result, a historical result, attained only through a process, which, in turn, can be characterized as a conceptual and critical philosophical process. The concept of Being, in Adornian terms, is, in fact, understood philosophically as a concept – the highest abstraction, understood in accordance with the development of the conceptual sophistication of philosophical thought. It is not properly a Kantian perspective. This concept of Being as the highest abstraction is already present in Plato and in Aristotle, as Adorno claims, despite the brevity and the laconism of his elucidations.

It is certainly worth noting that Adorno’s reading of Heidegger excels in presenting a collection of problems, ambiguities and contradictions which profoundly involves fundamental ontology. According to Adorno, Heidegger’s fundamental ontology comprises a double refusal: in effect, fundamental ontology is a philosophical tendency developed in accordance with its emphasis upon the rejection of both conceptuality – it is pertinent to mention the delineation of the concept of Being as a non-concept – and reality – and it is convenient to consider the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings. Fundamental ontology can be described, as Adorno suggests, by its attempt to escape both from mere conceptuality and from any reality simply or immediately accepted as such. This double approach, this double front against a philosophy of concepts and against a philosophy of reality, is precisely what characterises the efforts of fundamental ontology. However, as Adorno elucidates, Heidegger incessantly fails to attain these philosophical intentions.

The Heideggerian cult of language, or the fascination with language, has tremendous significance for Heideggerian ontology. Language as a mediation of Being, or language as the possibility of aletheia and the unveiling of Being, is not philosophically compatible with a coarse rejection of conceptual thought. As Adorno proposes, Heidegger continuously disregards the fact that the concept of Being, in terms of its origin and its legitimacy, is directly bound up with the categorial structure of language. Heidegger’s ontology perniciously explores such a quid pro quo involving Being as a concept – Being as an element of language, entity, and even Being as a non-concept – which cannot be expressed through mere meanings insofar as it is not exhausted by conceptual terms nor by subjectively instituted concepts, and is cut off from conceptual thought. Nevertheless, such a remarkable ambiguity between Being as concept and Being as a what-is-beyond-concept is not acknowledged by fundamental ontology as a deficiency at all, as Adorno explains. On the contrary, it is chalked up as a positive and counted as credit. Why? The enigma, or the touchstone, underlying Heidegger’s pernicious ambiguity is taken as a venerable philosophical position that proceeds from a peculiar account of language that is incessantly proposed by Heidegger: the idea that language as a true, pure and absolute entity, or the idea of language as the domain of the unveiling of Being, is that of an immediate medium, organon or ‘complexus’ of truth that is deprived of any conceptual elements or aspects – and, as Adorno elucidates, also deprived of subjectivity and historicity. Hence, the concept of Being – in accordance with such a conception of language – deserves to be inexorably regarded as an entity beyond mere conceptuality.

In presenting this Heideggerian ambiguity, Adorno reflects more closely upon fundamental ontology as an anti-subjectivism by apparently overcoming subjectivism and the spurious claim that philosophy has somehow escaped its imprisonment within subjectivity (and within conceptual and categorial thought) through this new ontological project. This is intimately bound up with the Heideggerian quid pro quo, acknowledged and presented by fundamental ontology as an element of apparently higher dignity, as “one of the strongest seductions of this philosophy” (46), which arises from “that wavering, negative and inarticulate character of this talk of being itself” (46). Regarding the Heideggerian refusal of reality and the abandonment of the empirical dimension – a claim which involves and justifies the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings and, correctively, the hypostatization of the word ‘Being’ (by supressing the dialectic of Being and beings) – Adorno draws attention to a conspicuously Heideggerian philosophical posture:  the act of ontologizing the ontic; the repeated ontologising of ontic beings, namely, the human being itself. The anti-subjectivism which involves fundamental ontology is, in effect, the central axis treated by Adorno – that of the ontological conception regarding the human being as Dasein, which permits an elimination of the subjective character, now turned into a determination of Being. As Adorno explains, the ontological interest is profoundly incompatible with the subjective reflection itself. The subjective dimensions of reflection, spontaneity, consciousness and self-consciousness, and, by extension, the subjective dimensions of critical, conceptual and discursive thought, are all totally avoided and obliterated in order to sustain an ontological conception of Dasein as a ‘mode of being’ or, in a developed sense, a “shepherd of being”, where the latter serves as a primitive agrarian metaphor set forth by Heidegger in Letter on Humanism, and serves as an amusing object of Adorno’s attention.

According to Adorno, Heidegger sets out to extirpate subjectivity by transforming it into the scene or arena of ontology. In effect, this ontological kind of thinking, for which Being appears or manifests itself in Dasein, naturally evokes something related to subjectivity; but, at the same time, it loses what was so decisive for this subjective form of thought – in other words, it loses that moment of subjectivity that appears in Kantian philosophy under the name of ‘spontaneity’ and in Hegelian philosophy, under the name of ‘labour’. In fundamental ontology – and this is, as Adorno explains, the phenomenological legacy of the doctrine which Husserl had already developed, namely the idea of the pure intuiting of the thing in question – subjectivity is actually introduced as a kind of pure receptivity; subjectivity becomes that to which Being manifests itself, yet without that moment of activity, or that ‘function’, as Kant also occasionally puts it, properly being acknowledged. Consequently, a philosophical relevant determination of the Heideggerian project consists in “taking up that moment of reflection and subjectivity which is directly opposed to the ontological approach and integrate it into his original project by turning it into a mode of objectivity, turning ‘existence’ into Seinsweise, or ‘mode of being’” (82). It is the absolute precedence of Being over beings, the total precedence of Being over human existence, that concerns us here. This structure – that a particular being is itself ontological – is the defining and distinctive touchstone of the doctrine of Dasein, and it implicitly expresses Heidegger’s intention of avoiding the conflation of his own analysis of Being with the ‘philosophy of existence’ associated with Kierkegaard or Jaspers. Ultimately, as Adorno suggests, this ontologizing of the ontic, this reduction of the ontic being to Being, promotes, in an unexpected and ineluctable way, the superfluity and the dissipation of the celebrated ontological difference, which gives rise to the absolute hypostatization of Being. Indeed, Adorno’s acute reading of the Heideggerian analysis of Dasein deserves an extended treatment, for it excels in considering the anti-subjectivism manifested in fundamental ontology. Nevertheless, we venture to say that Adorno disregards the philosophical relevance of the Heideggerian notion of Befindlichkeit as a singular determination of human being, which cannot be reduced to any subjective or discursive determination developed by critical thought.

The Adornian emphasis upon the anti-subjectivist turn introduced by Heidegger’s fundamental ontology represents a crucial element of Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno, this “pseudo-revolutionary form of thought” (121) – which incisively repudiates the axes of modern critical form of thought, declaring itself to be a pre-critical return to naïve realism – expresses “a reactionary mentality” (121), which can be characterized by its philosophical intention of destructing the subjective mediation of thought, the critical moment of thought, in order to extirpate Enlightenment and rational thought. In Adorno’s words, Heidegger’s ontological project imposes itself as a pernicious philosophical tendency which can be described as irrationalism, counter-Enlightenment and, ultimately, return to myth, return to barbarism. In rejecting the question of the mediation of Being, and in repudiating the critical relevance of the thinking subject and the subjective determination of knowledge, Heidegger’s philosophical project, developed in accordance with the veneration of a truth fallen into oblivion (namely Being), expresses an odd return to myth and to fate that elaborates a philosophical project that denigrates philosophizing in favour of a particular relationship to language – an archaic language – that is totally devoted to what is primordial, original or authentic, and, supposedly, purified of conceptual determinations. The analysis of a collection of poems written by Heidegger – characterized by its “inferior character” (162) and “wretchedness” (162) – is an integrate part of Adorno’s emphasis upon the conspicuously archaic moment of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology: the spuriousness of Heidegger’s philosophy and poetry resides in its veneration of an archaic kind of thinking, which manifests an intention to suppress historical and social determinations inextricable to the act of philosophizing.

Regarding Adorno’s remarks on Heidegger’s poems, it is perhaps not superfluous to draw attention to an important aesthetic essay dedicated to Hölderlin’s late poetry: the essay entitled “Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry”, written by Adorno in 1963, which is fundamentally devoted to condemn Heidegger’s approach to art, namely to Hölderlin’s poetry; interestingly, according to Adorno, the Heideggerian commentaries on Hölderlin’s poetry reveal the total absence of aesthetic sensitivity towards the poetic object – the lack of an aesthetic organ (Mangel an ästhetischen Organ), as set forth by Adorno in his essay.

It is convenient to take into account the centrality of the concept of Schicksal in Heidegger’s ontology, for it clearly illustrates the intention of supressing the critical dimension of the act of philosophizing in order to establish a reversion to fate and a revocation of rationality and, ultimately, of freedom. In Adorno’s words,

“the concept of fate or destiny here ascribed to ‘being’ is that of a blindly entangled will – for what is ascribed to ‘being’ in this context bears all the marks of irrationality. In other words, ‘being’ is characterized as something utterly obscure that may somehow be intimated and venerated, but about nothing substantive can ever be said. In the first place, you should clearly observe how this very passage moves directly to the concept of Schicksal or fate, and how this concept of fate, even if it is indeed indexed historically, is furnished with that blind and ineluctable character which belongs to the ancient and traditional notion of fate” (117).

The Heideggerian emphasis upon the concepts of time and historicity is actually designed to deceive: the concept of Schicksal – regarded in its philosophical affinities with the concept of Hörigkeit, or ‘obedient hearkening’, a hearkening to Being which sounds like blind submission – defines and determines Heidegger’s form of thinking. It’s worth noting that Schicksal and Hörigkeit represent Heidegger’s condemnation of the critical thought – the critical labour of the conceptual, as Adorno puts it, according to Hegelian positions – regarded by fundamental ontology as a process of philosophical degeneration. Heidegger annuls critical labour, as if philosophy could assume a historical standpoint beyond history; although, philosophy is enjoined to obey history, which is then, like existence, itself ontologized.

The philosophical purpose of Ontology and Dialectics, as announced by Adorno in the first lectures, consists in throwing light upon the philosophical discrepancies, contrasts and oppositions between fundamental ontology and negative dialectics. We conclude that Adorno leaves untouched a philosophical intention of forming the heart of negative dialectics in Ontology and Dialectics, for Adorno passes in silence the chief lines indicative of such a philosophical intention. In the context of Lecture 23, the last lecture of Ontology and Dialectics, there is a philosophical concept under the name “negative dialectics” that is described theoretically by fundamental determinations, but, interestingly, in order to offer a precise theoretical description of negative dialectics, Adorno proposes to consider the most relevant philosophical condemnations advanced against Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, especially the disapproval concerning Heidegger’s project as a philosophical tendency intended to perpetuate mythical thought. Dialectical thought, in its turn, is described as a philosophical attempt, “by means of cunning, the oldest medium of enlightenment” (240) to dissolve the mythical context of nature, to transcend the immediate context of nature without imposing its own domination, the domination of reason – in other words, dialectical thought “attempts to transcend nature without incurring that sacrifice and rage which would merely perpetuate the same context of nature” (240). As Adorno argues, dialectical thought excels in being the acne of enlightenment – the culminating point of conceptual thought – presented in its critical potential to extirpate the mythical context of nature. In accordance with these observations, it is worth noting that Adorno considers the mythical context of nature under the conception of identity – or, identity principle. Indeed, the idea of such a negative dialectics, as delineated and described by Adorno, implies a critique of identity – a critique of mythical forms of thought. It is the philosophical purpose of negative dialectics to abolish the circle of identity and the correlative identity principle. According to negative dialectics, the philosophical procedure of conceptualization is devoted to the determination of the non-identical; the negative element of thought which cannot be entirely tolerated under the identity principle. Such a principle – the identity principle – does not recognize the prominent prerogative of subjectivity or subjective mediation, which consists in determining the non-identical, the negative element of thought, without extirpating it under the logic of conceptual hypostatization.

In conclusion, it is important to lay emphasis on the logic of conceptual hypostatization. As Adorno argues – and this forms the core of the book Negative Dialectics (1966) – negative dialectics attempt to contradict any positive and unconditionally total dialectic elaborated under the identity principle. To distinguish negative dialectics, Adorno’s own philosophical project, from the Hegelian model of dialectics is, indeed, the theoretical axis of Negative Dialectics: the Hegelian elaboration of the supreme concept of Geist as a philosophical bizarreness which, as Adorno states, implies the pernicious sovereignty of the identity principle and its aspiration for (false) totality. Interestingly, in Negative Dialectics, the Hegelian dialectics – regarded as a model of dialectical thought, and not as the dialectical thought par excellence – there is treated by Adorno a degenerative dialectic, which succumbs to the hegemony of the identity principle and, consequently, to the annihilation of the preponderance of the negative elements of thought. According to Adorno, the hypostatization of the concept of Geist as a superlative entity, developed as an absolutization of the concept of subjectivity, clearly illustrates the process of decline of the Hegelian dialectics – a process of decline due to the assumption of the identity principle. It is not, perhaps, philosophically irrelevant to consider a subtle affinity between Hegel’s Geist and Heidegger’s Sein (advanced by Adorno as against the philosophical intention of elaborating supreme concepts, supreme conceptual entities which subsume the ontic or individual elements or realities under an aspiration for total identity), as an incisive disapproval of both Hegel’s dialectics and Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The chief purpose of Adorno’s negative dialectics consists in presenting the philosophical prerogative of subjectivity: subjective mediation as an act of spontaneity devoted to determine the non-identity and the negative elements of thought in order to destroy – through the critical labour of the concept – the identity principle (a mythical principle) which governs conceptualization itself.

Is it possible to abolish the identity principle through the labour of concept? Is it possible to extirpate the supreme conceptual entities, such as absolute subjectivity, or Geist, through the act of subjective spontaneity? To present and consolidate the fundamental lines of thought of negative dialectics with conviction represents a philosophical tour de force developed by Adorno. But, as with all tours de force, we are confronted with confusion, perplexity and uncertainty: How philosophically convincing is negative dialectics, Adorno’s philosophical project? The response should be found not in Ontology and Dialectics, but in Negative Dialectics.

Iain Macdonald: What Would Be Different: Figures of Possibility in Adorno, Stanford University Press, 2019

What Would Be Different: Figures of Possibility in Adorno Couverture du livre What Would Be Different: Figures of Possibility in Adorno
Iain Macdonald
Stanford University Press
Paperback $26.00

Rüdiger Zill (Hrsg.): Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit, Suhrkamp, 2019

Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit Couverture du livre Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit
Rüdiger Zill (Hrsg.)
Suhrkamp Verlag
Paperback 20,00 €

Julian Young: German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: From Weber to Heidegger

German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger Couverture du livre German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger
Julian Young
Paperback £29.99

Reviewed by: Francesco Pisano (University of Florence)

Modern philosophical historiography has to constantly face some well-known problems. Julian Young’s book on the history of twentieth-century German philosophy is not only a precise, instructive and critical exposition of the work of Adorno, Husserl and Heidegger (among others). It is also a prime example of applied historiographical methodology with respect to some of these problems. Young’s original approach to philosophical historiography resonates throughout the text. His remarkable sensitivity for political and theoretical issues expresses itself through a brilliant and clear prose. This review will try to present a concise but complete exposition of the contents of the book. However, coherently with the author’s intent, it will attempt to do so while highlighting the critical choices that defined his work.

Roughly speaking, over the last two centuries the academization of philosophy resulted in two broad challenges for the historian of philosophy. The first issue concerns the technicalization of philosophy. The specialization of philosophers, along with the growth of productive interaction between philosophy and other sciences or disciplines, is responsible for the progressive blurring of the borders of philosophy as a specific praxis and as a distinct form of knowledge. With respect to philosophical historiography, this process culminated either in an inflation of the metaphilosophical question, or in various debates about the “end” of philosophy. The second general issue concerns the need for a canon of philosophy. It is true that this demand dates back at least to Aristotle’s Metaphysics. But the modern search for a canon had to deal specifically with an extensive increase of the material available to the historian. Today, a plurality of cultures is involved in the history of thought – a plurality so vast and articulated that the very possibility of a rigorous and neutral canon of philosophy is called into question.

In this broad context, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century stands out immediately by virtue of the author’s attentive and radical approach to the apparent opposition between “objective-historiographical” and “theoretical-philosophical” history of philosophy. Even without an explicit thematization of his own historiographical method, Young manages to deal with this antinomy both in its relation to the metaphilosophical problem and in its link to the idea of a philosophical canon. He does not attempt at neutralizing the ambiguity between historiographical exposition and theoretical framework. Rather, he elaborates it by presenting an accurate historical exposition, while at the same time defining this exposition by means of an original critical premise. This premise could sound, in the words of the author, like this:

“Crisis […] lies at the heart of modern German philosophy. And in spite of the personal, philosophical, and above all political animosities that marred relations between Frankfurt and Freiburg, that the modern world is in crisis is a point on which they agree. The thinker who […] provided the most significant articulation of the nature of the crisis was the sociologist Max Weber” (2).

The reference to Weber gives a unitary frame to Young’s analysis, both internally and within the context of German philosophy as a whole. The proposed canon is defined by the concept of crisis: namely, German philosophy is a philosophy of crisis. But “in German thought, the conception of Western modernity as a ‘crisis of humanity’ reaches back”, in fact, “to the end of the eighteenth century, to the critique of the Industrial Revolution initiated by Goethe and the German Romantics” (2). Thus, “Weber’s primary significance for philosophy is that he transmits this critique to the twentieth century” (2). According to Young, the twentieth century sees a separation of this heredity along two branches: the “Frankfurt” one (Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, Marcuse) and the “Freiburg” one (Husserl, Heidegger, Arendt, Gadamer). These two branches delineate the two parts of the book, while each chapter concerns an author. Interestingly, Young devotes two chapters to Heidegger: the early Heidegger (between Husserl and Gadamer) is markedly distinguished from the later Heidegger, protagonist of the book’s last chapter.

Even if the book is a complete and exhaustive reading in itself, it constitutes only the first part of a broader project about the history of German philosophy. A future instalment should deal with other relevant German thinkers such as Benjamin, Bloch, Lukács, Scheler and Schmitt. It is left unclear if these philosophers will, in the end, all fit within the “Frankfurt-Freiburg” frame. If that will be the case, it seems that two main obstacles should be overcome. First, philosophers like Benjamin or Schmitt can hardly be defined as belonging to any school of thought. Second, the explanation of Bloch’s and Scheler’s work would require an extensive mention of German traditions that do not seem to be part of Young’s canon: psychologism (e. g., Külpe) and Lebensphilosophie (e. g., Simmel). On the other hand, it should be noted that, within Young’s narration, “Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are not properly names of cities, schools or traditions. They are names for two different critical approaches to Weber’s idea of a link between crisis and rationalization. Or rather, they are names for different theoretical positions within the long-lasting German debate about rationalization and loss of freedom.

“While the Frankfurt thinkers recognize loss of meaning as indeed a pathology, in practice, their attention is directed almost exclusively towards loss of freedom. […] The Freiburg thinkers, by contrast, while recognizing loss of freedom as an issue, attend far more closely to loss of meaning” (253).

“Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are indeed names of constellations within the same cosmos, rather than rigid titles. Thus, it should be possible to define intermediate and “heretical” positions, thanks to the fluid nature of these distinctions.

The main theoretical and political point that Young wants to prove is that “with respect to the task of understanding the communitarian need, liberal thinkers have […] a great deal to learn from the German phenomenological tradition” (254). This theoretical thesis is motivated by a political reason.

“What, since 2016, had become unmistakeable is the existence of a widespread revolt against the liberal hegemony, the appearance throughout the West of political movements that in every case represent, at least in part, the demand for fraternity: for the community that comes from sharing with one’s neighbours what, borrowing the term from the Roman Stoics, Gadamer calls a sensus communis […], an intuitive understanding of the good life. Often, the manifestations of this demand are cynically manipulated, distorted and ugly—white nationalism, Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, illiberal democracy—but sometimes they evoke a greater or lesser degree of sympathy – the independence movements of Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders, Corsica and Quebec, for example” (254).

Nowadays, this urge for a new Gemeinschaft is resurfacing despite a fifty-year-long association with conservative and right-wing values.

“The notions of ‘tradition’, ‘homeland’, ‘people’, and ‘community’ were hijacked by the Nazis. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in mainstream post-war political thought, in Germany and elsewhere, such notions have been anathematized. Liberal, cosmopolitan, Habermasian, anti-traditional, modernity-embracing thought has been in the ascendant” (253).

The theorist that blindly follows this anathema ends up neglecting the urge for a new Gemeinschaft. However, this urge exists, and the current forms of its expression are often violent and populistic. In fact, the danger for a liberal critical theory is to ignore these pulsations that run across society, rather than attempt at comprehending and redirecting them.

The political motivation sets the tone and the main intention of the book. It is the tone of a liberal historian of philosophy speaking to liberal philosophers and liberal humanities students. Coherently, the demonstration of the aforementioned thesis aims to help the liberal thinker in “the challenge […] of understanding the character of this need [for community] and of assimilating it into liberal thought” (254). This aim is perhaps the key to understand some of Young’s methodological choices, such as the stark distinction between a “early Heidegger” and a “later Heidegger”. The author means to remark an implicit influence of Weber’s work on Heidegger’s conception of “technology” (Technik).  Thus, he needs to draw a dividing line between a more generic Weber – “early Heidegger” relation (mainly through Sein und Zeit and its position within the Zeitgeist) and the specific role that Weber allegedly has in relation to the “later Heidegger”.

In short, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century presents, more or less explicitly, each thinker’s work in its relation to Weber’s announcement of a crisis in modern European thought. Thus, Young’s exposition of Weber’s work is of pivotal importance for the internal economy of the book. Even so, it mainly concentrates on one short (and famous) lecture delivered by the old Weber to the students of Munich University in 1917: Wissenschaft als Beruf.

“The lecture is far from a celebration of science as a ‘vocation’. One reason for this, one can hypothesize, is the fact that the First World War, still in progress, had deployed the fruits of modern science to kill people on a hitherto unimaginable scale (38 million in total). […] Whatever the original intention that led to the delivery of the lecture, in the event, its central force is to place a serious question mark against the value of science, against, indeed the entire post-Enlightenment development of the West” (7).

The central equivalence of Weber’s lecture identifies modernity and rationalization. Modern science is, first and foremost, a vehicle of rationalization – i. e., of “control trough calculation”. Namely, control on nature and man is obtained trough the calculated manipulation of causes, in order to obtain certain consequences. The transformation of non-human nature in a series of causal relations generates a pathological “loss of meaning” (14). The transformation of human relationships in a series of causal relations, for its part, implies a “loss of freedom” (10). Disenchanted nature and organized work are, according to Weber, the main products of modern science. “We face, Weber tells us, a future denuded of both freedom and meaning. We stand in a moment of world-historical crisis, a crisis that can only be resolved by […] a ‘turning’ to a new, genuinely post-modern age” (15).

Young underlines how Weber’s solution to this crisis has already embraced a certain irrationalism. The only possibility for this revolutionary turning lies in the appearance of charismatics prophets: leaders that are capable form a new meaningful Gemeinschaft, defined by shared values. The nature of these values remains unspecified. But “Weber explicitly warns against ‘chiliastic prophets’ who believe that a noble end justifies any means […]. Weber’s call is a call for charismatic leadership within the limits of liberal democracy—the charisma of a Churchill or a Martin Luther King Jr.—rather than for charismatic leadership instead of democracy” (16). Thus, Wissenschaft als Beruf can also be read as the mature self-critique of a social scientist. Weber recognizes that the European man lost more than it gained from modern science. “Weber’s belief that rationalization has been a disaster places him in the tradition not only of Wagner and the youthful Nietzsche’s neo-Romantic critique of the Enlightenment, but also of the critique of the Enlightenment conducted, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, by the German Romantics themselves. […] It is through the early Nietzsche’s neo-Romanticism that the Romantic critique of Enlightenment rationalization passes to Weber, and primarily through Weber that it passes into twentieth-century German philosophy” (17).

The idea of a nearly irrecoverable loss pervades most of the following philosophical debate, in Germany. Young presents Horkheimer and Adorno’s common work as the first attempt at dealing with this loss. They both “reject the ‘bourgeois’ conception of the task of thought in general, and social thought in particular, as that of providing a neutral analysis of the way things are. To be worth anything, thought must be an attempt to alleviate suffering, an act of ‘solidarity’ with a suffering humanity” (21). This therapeutic, political and praxis-oriented character is what makes critical theory stand out from traditional theory. It is the Marxist trait that, along with a dialectical conception of history, makes Horkeimer and Adorno’s theory “critical” of the status quo. “Critical theory, writes Horkheimer, thinks in the ‘service’ of an ‘oppressed humanity’ and seeks to eliminate ‘social injustice’. […] Whereas […] traditional theory thinks of itself as simply trying to understand the world, the critical theorist wants to change it, change it so as to bring about ‘a future society (Gesellschaft) as a community (Gemeinschaft) of free men’. The aim, then, is liberty, liberation, but also – a point often overlooked – that other battle cry of the French Revolution, fraternity, community” (25). The struggle of critical thinking addresses, at least in principle, both the loss of freedom and the loss of meaning. However, Young argues, while contributing to a better articulation of our loss of freedom, Horkheimer and Adorno fail to provide a positive indication for action – a pars construens that is especially important with regards to the problem of meaning. Sure enough, the liberation that could amend our loss of freedom would consist in the negation of a condition we already know, inasmuch as we already are in it. On the other hand, the loss of meaning could be resolved only through the affirmation of new shared values: that is, by placing and constructing something that, at the moment, remains unknown. Horkheimer and Adorno “rouse us out of false consciousness to an explicit awareness of the suffering it causes, but that, it seems, is all they do. Yet is ‘negation’ enough, given that the aim is, with Marx, not merely to understand the world, but to change it; to engage in the ‘intellectual, and eventually practical, effort’ to change the order of things for the better?” (40). Young implicitly argues that this inadequacy is a flaw of “Frankfurt” philosophy as a whole, and that, consequently, an actual and up-to-date critical theory would need the constructive help of “Freiburg” phenomenology.

An emblematic instance of the weakness of the “Frankfurt” approach with regards to the loss meaning can be found in Habermas’ idea that social solidarity can be supplied by communicative rationality. In this case, the appeal to feeling that characterizes charisma – both in religion and in politics – would be replaced by the binding force of rationally valid claims. These claims would be defined by rational deliberation and criticised within public debate. This would be the frame of a “deliberative” liberal democracy. But such a liberal democracy would be the very antithesis of an actual Gemeinschaft.

“For while a community is defined by a sense of ‘belonging together’, a liberal democracy is defined – ever increasingly, in multicultural modernity – by a sense of belonging apart. […] Political liberalism is the solution to a problem: the problem of how we can live together without harming each other, given that we no longer have a shared conception of the good life, a shared ethical substance. While community is based on both respect for and ‘fraternity’ with the other, liberal democratic society is based on respect alone” (56).

This discrepancy within classical liberalism and a radical, genuine idea of Gemeinschaft excludes the simple solution, so to speak: a true Gemeinschaft cannot, as such, be re-imposed by the same Enlightenment culture that dissolved it in the first place. In order to appropriate the very idea of Gemeinschaft, the contemporary liberal philosopher must rethink Enlightenment in its defining terms, rather than extrinsically “apply” it on the current social situation.

While still being an important contribution to the German “philosophy of crisis”, critical theory remains wanting in its constructive aspect. An important exception, within the “Frankfurt” context, is represented by the work of Marcuse. His research constitutes not only a diagnosis of present-day social pathologies, but also of an audacious indication of possible remedies. It could be argued that it is actually Marcuse’s phenomenological education that mostly contributed in shaping the rich and lively idea of man that animates the future society he wishes for. Marcuse’s deep acquaintance with American society contributed to this vision too. One could say that Marcuse’s main distinctive trait, among “Frankfurt” theorists, consists in the importance he assigns to a positive description of man’s free desires: namely, the desires one harbours beyond the extrinsic conditioning imposed by advanced industrial society. “A true desire is a desire one would retain even after having become fully aware (through exposure to critical theory) of the degree to which advanced industrial society attempts to manipulate one in its own interests” (63). The very admission of the possibility of free desires opens a utopian space within Marcuse’s philosophy. And this space is positively characterized by means of a psychoanalytical (and partly phenomenological) anthropology.

“As a Marxist, Marcuse believes the point of all worthwhile theoretical activity is to change the world for the better, and so one might imagine that his engagement with Freud is generated by the need to refute his pessimism. […] The reason for the engagement is Marcuse’s belief that Freud got almost everything right. He believes, in particular, that Freud got the nature of happiness right. Freud’s belief that happiness within civilization is impossible is, however, a mistake. Perhaps it was once true, concedes Marcuse, but it is no longer so. Therefore, purged of this error, Freud’s theory can be developed in a way that provides the key to a happy civilization” (67).

Marcuse accepts Freud’s hedonism: he deems all human action motivated by the search for immediate libidinal pleasure. Thus, the inner pathology of civilization consists in the fact that it demands the sacrifice of this erotic impulse. But not all instances of rational civilizations are equal in their repressive aspect. There is a possible social organization within which repression would be reduced to its basic, “natural” contrast against the pleasure principle: socialism.

“If some repression is surplus, man-made rather than imposed by nature, then it is ‘artificial’, which means, contra Freud, that there is a […] [possibility of its] elimination by revolutionary action aimed at installing socialism as society’s reality principle. Given the current state of technology, a degree of repression will continue to be essential to any society’s survival. But, with the installation of the socialist reality principle, it will weigh on the individual in a greatly reduced, ‘basic’ form” (70).

Marcuse sees science as an historical process, rather than as a static aspect of civilization. This allows him to believe that modern science can, in fact, define a different distribution of work without altering its productivity; and his optimism regarding human nature prompts him to find the contents of a future, utopic Gemeinschaft in the creativity of human fantasy and in the free exercise of a polymorphous and sublimated sexuality.

Young makes a conscious effort in explicating the elements of phenomenological thought that could resonate with Marcuse’s attempt at a therapy for the crisis of meaning. Vice versa, he presents Husserl’s work under a specific perspective: the perspective that deems phenomenology essentially as a philosophy of crisis. After a concise summary of transcendental phenomenology’s main ideas, the author focuses on the late Husserl, and especially on Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. The early Heidegger is presented under the same light. Young’s discussion of Sein und Zeit is markedly characterized by a specific interest in the link between meaning and culture. However, this apparent one-sidedness is, in fact, an attempt at rethinking the relevance of classical phenomenology as a “political” philosophy – that is, as a philosophy that, even if not directly concerned with political issues, produces the idea of a possible human community.

The author finds this relevance in the common space sketched by Husserl’s idea of lifeworld and Heidegger’s idea of being-in-the-world.

“As Husserl puts it, the question that modern humanity finds ‘most pressing’ is that of ‘the meaning or meaninglessness of the whole of human existence’ […]. What, however, is missing, according to both Nietzsche and Husserl, are ‘norms of absolute validation’, that is […] moral norms that are universally valid” (104).

The result of modern science is “the epistemological view that our only access to knowledge is through the natural-scientific method, together with its ontological consequence that nothing can be said to exist save the entities recognized as existing by natural science. An important fact about the natural sciences – and the social sciences, too, which ape the natural sciences in this regard – is that they are ‘value free’: among the entities recognized as existing by science, values (as distinct from valuings) are not to be found. Husserl’s claim […] is that it is the exclusion of values from the realm of the objectively real that results in the onset of nihilism, of ethical polytheism” (104). There is little doubt that both the late Husserl and the early Heidegger acknowledge the relation between modern rationalization and the pervasive sense of meaninglessness that characterizes present-day human life. To put it briefly, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century sees the phenomenological movement as the part of the rationalist enterprise that is capable of a rigorous self-critique – that is, of a critique of Enlightenment that is neither (critical) refusal nor (critical) acceptation, but radical reformulation instead.

The idea of lifeworld gives Husserl the critical margin that such a self-critique presupposes. Lifeworld claims are, roughly said, the claims of everyday knowledge. They are the basis for the construction of every scientific knowledge. Sure enough, insofar as they define every self-evidence, they constitute the last ground of each complex scientific experience.

“What naturalism forgets is that the lifeworld is the ‘meaning-fundament’ of science, that what science is really talking about – ‘the only real world’ that is available to be talked about – is the lifeworld. […] Husserl uses ‘lifeworld’ sometimes to refer to culturally and historically specific lifeworlds and sometimes to refer to a structure that is common to them all, a structure that is partially definitive of what it is to be a human being. In Husserl’s language, ‘the’ lifeworld belongs to the ‘essence’ of human being. […] Transcending all culturally specific lifeworlds is the lifeworld together with the norms embedded in it, norms which are common to all cultures” (111-112).

Young presents Sein und Zeit’s project of a fundamental ontology as a deeper investigation in the ontological structure of this proper, more comprehensive lifeworld.

Heidegger’s approach to the question of being definitely refutes the idea of a phenomenology that deals exclusively with abstractions. His ontological analysis is, at the same time, a phenomenological description of the most primordial features of human existence.

“What explains the excitement surrounding Being and Time is not the fact that it chooses to interrogate Dasein but rather the manner of interrogation. […] We can only answer the question of the meaning of being by providing a ‘primordial’ account of Dasein, of us ourselves. […] Being and Time’s account of who we are portrays us as particularly fascinating, not to say troubling, beings. […] Suddenly, the seemingly dry investigation of what we mean when we say that something is has transmogrified itself into ultimate Nietzschean and Kierkegaardian questions about the meaning of life. Ontology has become existentialism, phenomenology has become existential phenomenology” (119).

Young’s presentation of the young Heidegger remains within this frame. Heidegger’s existential determination are critically discussed as aspects of his (provisional) solution to the problem of the meaning of human life. The key to this problem would be, according to Young’s interpretation of Heidegger, in the concept of praxis. Praxis should be defined as the original source of meaning. But, if praxis is in fact the structural source of every meaning, present-day meaninglessness must be a result of some change within the context of human praxis. Thus, an ethical problem arises: what is the proper, most authentic praxis? How can we act in a way that makes our lives meaningful?

The author describes Gadamer’s and Arendt’s philosophical projects as attempts at answering these questions. They both write against the dehumanizing effects of rationalization. Gadamer adopts an approach that is both ontological and epistemological. His task consists in rehabilitating artistic expression as a form of knowledge in its own right and as a moment of a complete human Bildung, in opposition to the privilege that positivism accords to an education based on natural science. On the other hand, Arendt deals with the problem of the loss of meaning from a political point of view. She emphasizes the role of educators in transmitting and enriching a shared ethical tradition.

In Young’s eyes, Gadamer and Arendt partake in the history of German philosophy inasmuch as they take part in a debate started by Goethe, transmitted by Weber and concluded by the last great philosophy of the crisis: the philosophy of the later Heidegger. Considering that this moment of Heidegger’s thought paved the way for the so-called postmodern philosophy in Germany (Sloterdijk), France (Derrida), Italy (Vattimo) and America (Rorty), one could probably say that the course of the German “river” described by Young flows again into the European “sea” from which it gushed out in the first place, with the French revolution and the end of the age of Enlightenment.

Young summarizes later Heidegger’s thought as a new appeal to the charismatic and unifying power of common “gods”. But this is not a repetition of Weber’s Wissenschaft als Beruf. The long phenomenological detour has shown that these “gods” are not specifically conservative forces. They represent the idea that every past meaning preserves a possibility for the future, but only inasmuch as the realization of any future simultaneously creates a new past – i. e., a new concealed possibility for yet another possible future.

“When we take into account the possibility that future generations will experience the world in ways that are unimaginable by us, not to mention the possibility of non-human knowers, we realize that there is no limit to the number of potential horizons of disclosure that are concealed by the horizon – the ‘being of beings’, as Being and Time calls it – that constitutes our life-world. This ‘unexperienced domain of being’ is the ‘non-essence of truth’ and is as inseparable from the essence of truth as is […] the dark side of the moon from its illuminated side. Heidegger calls this unexperienced domain simply ‘the mystery’. And since it is unlimited in extent it is, as with all things we cannot fathom, profoundly awesome” (233).

In this awesomeness appears the possibility of a rational, immanent salvation from the crisis. The search for this possibility – the search for a new rationalism – is, in the end, the story that German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century passionately narrates.

Josh Robinson: Adorno’s Poetics of Form

Adorno’s Poetics of Form Couverture du livre Adorno’s Poetics of Form
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Josh Robinson
SUNY Press
Hardback $90.00

Reviewed by: Michael D’Este (School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester)

In this addition to the venerable SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Josh Robinson seeks to problematize and subsequently re-construct the concept of ‘form’ as it relates to literature – and the sphere of the arts taken in general – through recourse to both Theodor W. Adorno’s aesthetic theory at large, and to the precise and manifold studies of practitioners which Robinson gathers from a thoroughly close reading of Adorno’s Gesammelte Schriften, including the Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949), Noten zur Literatur (1958-1961) and his posthumous projects Ästhetische Theorie (1970) and Beethoven. Philosophie der Musik. Fragmente und Texte (1993).

Robinson provides many of his own translations throughout the book, seeking to preserve and amplify the nuance of Adorno’s distinct German idiom whilst maintaining readability and eloquence. Despite his – unfair – self-criticism in the introduction (22), Robinson has done an admirable job of rendering some of Adorno’s more abstruse terminology, such as erfüllen – which Robinson translates as ‘imbue’ rather than ‘fulfil’ – in ways which retain their literal meaning, whilst allowing him to comment on the tensions or ambiguities inherent in these lexical choices (69). As such, Robinson’s translations do not appear incongruous alongside his selections from Edmund Jephcott and Robert Hullot-Kentor’s work, and in some cases surpass these canonical translations in lucidity. These translations of his own are noted, helpfully, in the list of abbreviated works which precedes the introduction.

The introduction lays out the overall aims of the publication in clear detail, which is characterised by a three-fold objective. Firstly, it seeks to support the development of the ‘New Formalism’ in poetics, outlined by means of tracing the history of this emerging field as it responds to dominant trends in literary theory – the New Criticism of I. A. Richards, Harold Bloom et al., and the New Historicist studies inspired by the work of Stephen Greenblatt and others – which is perhaps best characterised through its approach to the close reading of the internal elements of the text qua historically contingent features and functions, the study of which enables a more textually-grounded literary and cultural historicism. Robinson’s support for this New Formalism comes by way of a rigorous reflection on its underlying principle of artistic form. Rather than accepting the pre-supposition that one knows what is being dealt with when we speak of certain elements of the text as instantiations of the concept of form, Robinson seeks to elaborate on precisely what the ‘formal’ elements of a literature are, and how the consideration of form is itself able to shape the analysis of literary art and artworks.

Secondly, Robinson proposes to support his more practical-critical goal outlined in the paragraph above by way of critical philology of Adorno’s writings. As an aesthetician, Adorno had a “somewhat uneasy influence […] on the New Formalism,” in Robinson’s characterisation (8). In his analyses of music, the visual arts and literature, we see a diversity of uses to which Adorno puts form—as an explication of the activity of a practitioner as they shape the lexical, physical or phonic materials out of which their art is made, as the manifestation of that shaping activity – the artwork itself – and, as the tradition or convention within which that objective manifestation is placed alongside others, the genre which draws different works together. By focusing on Adorno’s claim that form is ‘sedimented content’ in the artwork, and that artworks are “products of social labour[…],” Robinson seeks to provide a basis from which we can think of forms, and consequently what those forms might tell us about the form of life specific to capitalist social and property relations (25-26).

Robinson’s third and final aim is to lay the groundwork for a future study of specific works of art and their attendant form, what this poetics of form may illuminate in the texts and other artworks to which it is applied, and the implications of this approach for the theorising of art’s possible intervention into, and relationship with, society and the political economy.

His first chapter, titled ‘Form and Content,’ goes ahead to critically assess Adorno’s thinking of form through an analysis of the polemical rift between Adorno and Martin Heidegger, noting that although Adorno is guilty of mischaracterising Heidegger’s argument, his issue with Heidegger’s attempt to engage with the question of art is in fact a pointed critique of his method. In Heidegger we see that the question of what an artwork is cannot be answered by starting from the question ‘what kind of thing is an artwork?’ (30), whereas Adorno insists that the artwork’s thing-hood is that which enables it to be more than a mere thing—that their tangible qualities, accessible through sensory observation, simultaneously reveal elements which cannot be fully understood through that sensory observation or ‘anschauung.’ Much like Heidegger, Adorno focused a considerable portion of his writing on the lyric poetry of Johann Friedrich Hölderlin; Robinson notes, however, that Adorno’s criticisms recognise the tendency in Heidegger’s discussion of this work towards a metaphysical separation of form and content, which is then followed by the philosophical investigation of content to the detriment of any inquiry into the form of the work. This philosophical investigation into the content of the work is necessary, posits Robinson, but must begin with what is left behind after the philological analysis of form has been undertaken, in response to the “aspects that are philologically most challenging” (36).

Adorno’s rejection of Heidegger’s theorisation starts here: any separation of form and content in Adorno’s work is first and foremost a conceptual separation which is only ever temporary, and the philosophy which attempts to uncover the truth-content of the work of art thus ought to be carried out in relation to the poem as it is experienced (36) in philological analysis, a philosophy commensurate with and sensitive to the requirements of the work. Such a philosophy would side-step Adorno’s criticism of Heidegger’s method, that it would not ‘infiltrate’ the poetry with philosophy from the outside, risking the possibility that the analysis would tell us more about the philosopher’s presuppositions than the “object of enquiry[…]” (29).

Robinson carries on to clarify Adorno’s notion of form as sedimented content, whereby form is characterised as coming into being as the particular way the artist deposits content in the work:

“Form is thus the result or mark of the process by which the work of art is made, but never appears as merely subjective or arbitrary. […] What is significant for understanding the relationship between form and content is that the separation is arbitrary. […] Sedimentation refers here to a process whereby the content of what come to be artworks […] ceases to be relevant (or even exist), while the objects continue to be made with the same or similar features.” [Emphasis added] (44-45).

As such, if the critic minimises the role of form in the artwork to the emphasis of content, they disregard what the whole aesthetic content of the work is, and simultaneously miss the way in which truth-content in the work is characteristically shaped by the intentions of the artist. Form has its origins in the content of the work of art, insofar as propositional content is only one half of the picture, the other half fulfilled by the formal content in the work. Discussing Adorno’s essay on punctuation marks in the Noten zur Literatur, Robinson suggests we see a clear example of the way in which form functions and takes on meaning, as distinct from the functioning of propositional content in the work. The punctuation in a work does not signify, Adorno insists, but rather fulfils a performative function in that they direct the subjective experience of reading, in that they encourage the reader to slow down, speed up, halt, and so on—and thus the language in the work is “itself[…]” able to enter “into communication with the reader” (52).

Chapter two, ‘Form and Expression,’ continues this thread of argument, investigating the relationship between artist and expression. Form and expression, Robinson contends, are fundamentally observable phenomena in the work of art (67). If form is something which is refined by the work of the artist, as set out above, then it is also that which mediates the expression of the artist in the manifestation of the work, by way of its being imposed on the expressive impulse (69). However, if this is the case, then the observable form of the work is itself a presentation of the expressive impulse within the work; in Robinson’s words, “the form that subjugates expression itself becomes expression […]” an “immediate subjectivity that masquerades as object” in even the most stringently realist work (78-80). There is something of a reciprocity in the work of art, that is, there is a palpable subjectivity inherent in the work, even if the expression which is presented in the work is necessarily seen as an objective content. This formal mediation of expression in the work of art means that the expressive impulse outlined here is distinguishable from that of the individual artist themselves, characterised by Robinson as the ‘subject of art,’ which in Adorno’s words “speaks out of art[…]” and is not merely “presented by it” (78).

This is perhaps best portrayed by recourse to Robinson’s discussion of Adorno’s critique of Expressionism. In attempting to bypass aspects of tradition or convention – and, by extension, form writ large – by way of the ‘intensification’ of the principle of expression, aiming at an immediately “subjective expression as its content,” by means of an “unstylised recording of psychic or emotional content,” the Expressionist work appears as merely a contingent, arbitrary ‘experiential impression,’ as it is through the process of forming that “the subjective presence of the artist exists within the work,” as the subjective power to form which is distinguished from the expression of the subject of art (73-78). In Robinson’s words, through the “elimination of the objective content of expression, expression can no longer be subjective, and at once ceases to express and is transformed into objective content. […] a subject free of all mediation through the object—is no subject at all” (74-78).

Robinson’s concern in this chapter is primarily given over to the notion of mimesis in Adorno’s aesthetics; that the artworks whose realism comes closest to the world are not necessarily works of Expressionism or Realism, considered as attempts to describe the – subjective or objective – world, but rather in the works of artists such as Samuel Beckett, and particularly in the short stories and novels of Franz Kafka, as artists whose works imitate the world and as such draw attention to the process of reification, which “makes the web of delusion knowable” in Adorno’s interpretation (85). In a masterful reading of Kafka’s Das Schloss (1926) and Der Process (1925) we see our own estrangement or alienation “come to expression” in light of the author’s “rejection of the techniques of literary expressionism[…]” in the form of Kafka’s works “their realistic element crystallizes;” that is, in the ‘sober’ depiction of brutal oppression and bureaucratic absurdity alongside the ‘interior’ sensations, thoughts and feelings of his characters we see imitated our own condition of social repression, the ‘scattered shards’ of reality which compose an enigmatic, thoroughly expressive image (82-84). Mimesis, as such, is tied to the composition of artworks and how works make meaning: a specific bearing towards the work, and towards the world. Through the mediation of their particular expression by way of the formal aspects of the work, the examples of Kafka’s work briefly stated here achieve, to paraphrase Robinson, mimetic, “objective form.”

In chapter three, ‘Form and Genre,’ Robinson turns from his focus on the notion of form as it is manifest in particular works to how form is able to offer a way of thinking through the individual work to the shared character of different works. Each artwork that is worthy of the name, Robinson notes, ought necessarily to challenge and redefine the limits of its genre—and as such genre is shown to be historically contingent, characterised by its shifting frontiers. As each artist employs diverse techniques of composition in the process of creation they reconfigure the material available for future artists to shape, with consequent significance for the general category to which the work belongs. Pace Marx, Adorno suggests that artistic production is not a mere epiphenomenon of changes in industrial production, rather asserting that the means of artistic production are mediated through the relations of production, in much the same way that the means of industrial production are mediated through the relations of production. If “labour constitutes the principle means of relating to nature, at once enabling and restricting human life,” then the relations of production constitute the logic by which that labour is organised (100), and artistic labour is just as receptive to this mediation as industrial labour.

Individual developments in the particular form of art have an effect on the ‘universal’ tradition or genre within which it is placed, but this is more than a simple contribution. It is in the aspect of the individual, particular work of art which is hostile to the very notion of genre – the ‘abstractness’ and ‘limitedness’ of the concept –that this “tendency to strive against and break down the generality of the subordinating concept starts[…]”  (108-109). Robinson considers here Adorno and Horkheimer’s treatment of the products of the culture industry as illustrated in Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), suggesting that the significance of the consideration of these products – instantiations of the ‘commodity form’ (116) – for Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory is in their instrumentalisation of art. In short, the commodity form is a means by which the work uncritically assimilates and as such supports the state of things as they are; products of the culture industry are best depicted in opposition to the ‘worthy’ artworks outlined above in that there is an absence of the tension between particular and universal which characterises the individual work of art. By way of their “fidelity to this [uncritically accepted] reality they abandon that which distinguishes them from it, renounce their claim to be different from the world,” to restate Robinson’s explanation (117). Thus it is not the products of the culture industry which are the cause of the taking-up of the commodity form; rather, it is the development of the culture industry and automated production under late capitalism which has caused the shift in socio-economic conditions and thus enabled the commodity form to function.

Of course, it is not simply the products of the culture industry which have been denigrated under this mode of production. In a case which appears as the opposite of the mimetic expression of Kafka’s work, the novel under capitalism has typically served not to draw attention to the reification of oppressive social-property relations, but to be in alliance with reification by means of a ‘realistic’ demystification of the world, an “uncritical absorption of and hence support for things as they are” [emphasis added] (118-119). The universal, generic artistic form, Robinson asserts, develops and evolves in response to the given social conditions of the historical ‘moment,’ conditions which demand a certain expression and ‘mode of address’ of the particular work, manifest in the ‘capitulation’ to a reality which cannot be transfigured under late capitalism (124-126). Those ‘worthy’ works draw attention to this state of alienation, to the “hollowing out of subject and reality,” even if they reject realism outright (125).

Chapter four, ‘Form and Material,’ sees Robinson turn to questions of the relationship between works and the materials out of which they are formed, engaging more closely with questions of technique and process. If “content, broadly speaking, is an aspect of existing artworks[…]” [emphasis added], then the material of which those artworks are created – the colours from which the painting is fashioned, the sounds from which compositions are hewn, the words from which the poem is constructed – can be understood as “in some way pre-artistic, that out of which not-yet-existing artworks are made” [emphasis added] (136). This distinction between form and material and content and material is, much like the distinction between form and content, not a metaphysical separation, but an abstract and conceptual one which again serves to temporarily allow for investigation of the aspects of art which are present in the experience of the work. In Robinson’s words:

“Material can no more be thought of as contentless than content as free from the material in which it is expressed; the meaning of a poem cannot be divorced from the words and sounds and traces of which it is made.” (136)

The physical properties of a given material do not merely lend themselves to the production of a given artwork, but, as a pre-artistic and pre-productive condition from which those particular works are fashioned, must also and to a significant degree determine the way that the particular work – and, by extension, the universal, generic form in which that particular work is placed and modifies – develops. Though these materials pre-exist the work of art, the range of material which appears available to the artist is and must be, as Adorno suggests in the Ästhetische Theorie, “historical through and through” (ÄT, 223). For how could it be any other way? To take an Adornian tack, the material available to the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, such as the stochastic or random process which he applied in his musical arrangements, pre-existed his use of them – indeed, they pre-existed our uncovering of them, considering that ‘stochastic processes’ merely delineates and enables the description of various physical and biological phenomena such as the motion of particles through space – but they were not apparent and available as an artistic material until they were theorised as being applicable in the work of composition, and they did not become part of compositional tradition until the 1957 premiere of his piece Pithoprakta. In Robinson’s terms, “each new composition not only opens up new possibilities but also[…] sets new restrictions for future musical development;” and, by extension, future artistic development in general (140).

Artistic technique and material, for Robinson as for Adorno, are mutually interdependent; technique is attentive to the constraints and “demands of the material, but also by the content of the work that is to be created” whilst the material available for use is determined by the results of prior artistic technique (144-145). Even the most oppositional technique which seeks to fight against “form’s tendency to settle and stagnate” is complicit in the creation of a new form, which will consequently be opposed by even newer forms (147). Technique is not merely an addition to working the available materials of artistic production, but is also present to the future artist as a constraint, inhering in a form which becomes material to be opposed in this future productive activity. Contingency enters into the picture here in the shape of “influences or interruptions from external factors” which destroy or modify the material available to the artist—here one could think of the potential artistic materials lost when the artist’s studio burns down, for instance (160).

In chapter five, ‘Artistic Form and the Commodity Form,’ Robinson highlights “the antagonisms that permeate bourgeois society[…]” insofar as they are reflected within the concept of form (163). In doing so, Robinson is able to bring his discussion to a close through a return to Adorno’s discussion of artworks as products of social labour, characterised not by their relationship to exchange-value through ‘commodity-producing labour,’ but rather as it refers to an activity which deliberately sets out with the “purpose of improving human existence,” the form of human labour prior to its transformation into a type of mutually-reinforcing abstract, alienated labour through the reification of social domination, hierarchy and the logic of the capitalist mode of production (168-170).

Even under the conditions of this society – our society – there exist forms of labour which are able to realise a different kind of sociality (170). The making works of art is such a process, although it is one in which the product is never wholly disassociated from the commodity form—whether that is through the techniques of mechanical reproduction which are deployed in industry before being co-opted by artists, or by the use of tools such as the internet, developed within a military context. It is in the experience of the artwork, however, in our experience of the particular work, that we see the potential of art manifested:

“Artworks[…] exemplify the actuality of a social labour that is liberated from compulsory abstraction […] in doing so they not only serve as a reminder that it is possible to resist the totalising claims of abstract value and its logic of exchangeability, but also present a kind of social labour that does not efface the particularity of the activities that constitute it. […] The artwork as we encounter, experience, and conceive it, that is, is a consequence and a phenomenon[…] of capitalist society. Absent this coercive, violent sociality, the artwork ceases to be thinkable as we think it, as both a mode of resistance and a promise of something better […] Artworks are thus a kind of clearing within a world dominated by instrumental reason, opening the way for emancipation from it.”[Emphasis added] (176-177)

Artworks, in Robinson’s final analysis, come to be defined in opposition to the logic of the capitalist mode of production, yet this is always already a definition which sustains a connection between the work of art and the society in which they were a part; in even the most radical rejection of the principles which govern that society and its mode of production one cannot wholly separate the work from its negation of the society out of which it was created—capitalist social-property relations remain in the work as a trace, or mark, or echo. Robinson’s utilisation of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is a notably clear example of this quality of artworks: freed of the functional rationale of instrumentality in which it would have otherwise been found – in this case, the ‘mens room’ – our experience of the work nevertheless calls to mind the location and instrumental reason from which it has been freed by means of the subjective activity of the artist (179). This recursive and referential relationship to reality is reflected in the form of the work, a reality it simultaneously maintains and abandons, a reality which “form thus helps render[…] thinkable” (179). Referring back to Adorno’s demand “that life imitate art,” we see that the poetics of form which Robinson draws out of Adorno’s aesthetic theory is one which enables the reading of artworks as a means by which the possibility of a different mode of production, and thus a different kind of sociality, is not realised or actualised, but is postulated as possible. This illuminates Robinson’s claim that Adorno’s aesthetic theory is an poetics of “the wrong state of things;” that is, that his reconfiguration of the work of art “opens up the possibility of the emergence of a transformation out of the existing order[…]” and as such, the work of art effects a “formulation of the complexity of the relationship between commodity society and a successor[…] that is worth wishing for” (186-187).

In his conclusion, ‘Lyric, Form, Society,’ Robinson considers the implications of the arguments outlined here, and the elaboration of Adorno’s ‘poetics of the wrong state of things’ for the study of literature. In this study, forms are grounded as “a token or[…] a deposit for a wide range of connections between us and the worlds to which the work connects us: it lies at the nexus of these connections,” the sensitivity to which means that, through our experiential engagement with the work of art, we keep in sight the prospect of a different world, or the realisation of a different set of social-property relations in our present one (209). Robinson’s analyses indeed fulfil his goal of gesturing towards a conception of the work of art, as outlined above, in which particular works are able to intervene into the social and economic form of a given society, whilst not restricting this functional possibility to ‘political’ works of art, or the ‘revolutionary art’ which Trotsky sets out in his Literature and Revolution (1924).

Adorno’s poetics of form appears to present a means by which we can theorise the relationship between artworks and shifts in the fabric of society by imbuing those works with a kind of agency: by means of the function outlined in the discussion of chapter two, these works are able to embody “emancipatory social practice,” clearing away the reification which attends the capitalist mode of production, a means of thinking beyond oppressive social structures towards a “non-hierarchical life in the world” (218-222).

In Adorno’s Poetics of Form, Josh Robinson carries out a necessary and fruitful investigation into the way we think about art, and the potential embedded in particular works. His reconstruction of Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory – considered beyond the remit of his Ästhetische Theorie – is masterful, and establishes a strong foundation on which the thinking of literary form, and artistic form in general, can take place. It is able to stand alongside projects such as Fredric Jameson’s The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms as setting the stage for a contemporary Marxist aesthetics, whilst being of practical value for literary critics and art theorists alike. The immediate criticism which could be made of Robinson’s publication, a choice which was no doubt necessitated by the requirements of brevity and the focus of the project, is that it perhaps gives Walter Benjamin’s arguments in support of Surrealism, outlined in a short paragraph in chapter two, rather short shrift; similarly, his discussion of labour and the creative process in chapter five would have benefitted from a discussion of Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936). For a reader well-versed in the internal debates – both voiced and unvoiced – between the thinkers within and on the periphery of the Frankfurt School, this work was likely in mind, however, for the reader just setting out on their investigation of Adorno’s aesthetics, to understand what he was responding to in his collaborator’s work may provide additional insight into what sets Adorno’s project apart.

These minor criticisms notwithstanding, Robinson has produced a highly readable and accomplished contribution to the scholarship on Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic project as it pertains to the question of form, and a thought-provoking reformation of the Marxist theory of art.