Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.): Philosophers and Their Poets

Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant Book Cover Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Sarah Fayad (Emory University)

It is somewhat easy to forget that philosophy has not always, or in every case, been conducted through the medium of writing. For the most part, we expect philosophy to be written.  But the written-ness of philosophy is contingent, and so too is its suspension in the written: in literature, media, interview, and of course poetry. Socrates and Plato, or instance, did not make much use of citation and Plato especially elevated philosophy at the expense of poetry and drama. And, indeed, this contingency is all the more difficult for philosophers to fathom, because the written word is usually the trade-mechanism by which we philosophize, and through which we think. The experienced phenomena of reading and writing are the basic instruments of philosophy, as we practice it. Writing is not merely the way we convey and transmit ideas, born and nurtured in the mind. Rather, when we look at the phenomena of reading and writing, we see the ebb and flow of epiphany, of doubt, of enlightenment and invention. Writing is quite often how we philosophize at all.

The primordial disciplinary decision to move the vague shapes and shadows of our ideas from their mental and social obscurity (and incompletion) to the written word—a decision which none of us living had any hand in making— itself has philosophical ramifications. That is to say that the presupposition of philosophy’s written-ness, is shot through with questions: questions about the truth, as well as metaphilosophical questions about the place of philosophy within the universal/Borgesian «Library of Babel» it has chosen for itself, about the necessity of writing philosophy and the necessity of philosophy regarding other kinds of written works, about the relationship between philosophical, literary, journalistic, and poetical styles to reality, truth, clarity, and that part of the human spirit to which philosophy wants to appeal.

Charles Bambach’s and Theodore George’s anthology, Philosophers and Their Poets lights upon these fundamental questions of philosophy-as-word, as speech, and as our connection to one another and to the real through a series of serious, considered, and illuminating papers examining the relationship of philosophers to art, style, and of course poetry. I see these papers as being divided into four more-or-less distinguishable subject-categories: 1) papers dealing with German idealist discourse around the role and status of art, poetry, and beauty in what they regard as a burgeoning philosophical and rational world, 2) analyses of Nietzsche’s philosophy of art as it serves as a kind of hinge—indeed serves as itself a revealing poem—between idealism and more phenomenological and existential traditions, 3) those dealing with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry as a revolutionary force in meaning-making, and 4) those which proceed from the poems themselves to philosophical analyses.

The first three chapters of this collection take us through the foundations of these questions of style and artistry in the German idealist tradition. The first essay by Maria de Rosario Acosta Lopez analyses a historical controversy between Schiller and Fichte over philosophical style and the part of the human being to which philosophy must speak. This is followed by Chapter 2, which presents us with a very clear and compelling translation of the very letters exchanged between Schiller and Fichte, regarding philosophical style. These first chapters elucidate a possible ambiguity between reason and feeling, which gives way to a possible ambiguity between philosophy and poetry. This ambiguity leads Hegel’s intuitions, both conceptually and historically. Theodore George argues in Chapter 3 that philosophy and art have a similar purpose in the creation of world-historical meaning, for Hegel. We see a transition from any concern about the purity of philosophy in Fichte to an embrace of its meaning-founding affinities with religion and art in the later work of Hegel.

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with Nietzsche, whose philosophy marks a kind of transition between German idealism and the phenomenological and existential (represented by thinkers like Heidegger and Gadamer), which will occupy the four of the volume’s remaining chapters. In Chapter 4, Babette Babich analyses Nietzsche’s relationship to ancient Greek tragic poetry, to its lost poets, and to their time-silenced songs in the interest of revealing what are indisputable contributions to philosophy itself, contra an extant tradition in the literature which more or less excludes him from the field. The fifth Chapter by Kalliopi Nikolopoulou investigates Nietzsche’s attachment to the heroic in Greek tragedy. Nietzsche saw ancient heroes and the poets who sung their tales as perhaps doubly heroic, she argues, since they might remedy Modern nihilism.

Chapters 5, 7, and 8 all deal with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry—as both the truth and the promise of philosophy. Like Schiller, Hegel, and Nietzsche Heidegger sees poetry as revealing a fuller truth than that accessible by reason alone. But it is only with Hegel that Heidegger shares this concept of the promise of poetry; both Heidegger and Hegel think art has (or once had) the power to inaugurate worlds and imbue them with meaning. Charles Bambach’s sixth Chapter for this volume begins at the interstices of aesthetics and ethics, mired in this Heideggerian meaning-making power/promise of the poem. He finds that the poem—in granting us access to our humanity in full—promises an originary ethics of our place, and (I’ll say) perfection, which is utterly opaque to us without the poetic disclosure. In the seventh Chapter, «Remains,» William McNeill addresses the futurity any concept of a promise must take for granted. He argues that Heidegger’s confrontations with Hölderlin’s poetry open up novel relations and meanings for us by altering the medium of time. Hölderlin’s works according to McNeill demonstrate a substratum of ambiguity in time wherein the greeting and remembrance are indistinct. Thus, the poem’s novel horizonality inaugurates a new world by possibilizing new projects, new relations to one another, and even new relations to the dead. Chapter 8 is likewise about the time of the poem, but it looks to its momentum, to the cadence of thought. Such poietic momentum, Krystof Ziarek argues, is experienced as rhythm and even texture. When philosophy takes on this cadence, it transcends the mere transmission of information and exceeds the possibilities of the argument: demonstrating in this excess new possibilities for thought itself.

Chapters 9, 10, and 11 emerge from analyses of poets and poetic works, rather than from within the philosophical theories which have taken them up. This provides what I think is a novel opportunity for philosophers who might not themselves read much poetry. It is a strange admission to make here, I suppose, that I have likely read more philosophical works which abstract from and selectively cite poems than I have poems themselves. To the question, «Is poetry true?» Chapter nine of Philosophers and Their Poets poses a kind of phenomenological/experimental response; «In order to answer this question maybe no extensive conceptual discussion of truth is needed…just attention to a particular poem led by the question how such a poem can be read and understood.»[1] To this end, Gunther Figal looks to Burnt Norton» by T.S. Eliot. Chapter 10, by Gert-Jan van der Heiden, which I discuss in some greater detail below, looks to the somewhat revolutionary poetry of Célan, which render in poetic verse that promise of a different world, or of new meanings, of new homes—out of the silence, the nothingness, that must follow the decay of status-quo intelligibility, in the rests, and breaths that keep familiar meaning from crossing living lips. In Chapter 11, Max Kommerell (who has been translated here by Christopher D. Merwin and Margot Wielgus) provides an analysis of Hölderlin’s Empedocles poem, which demonstrates his distinctiveness. In particular, this analysis lays bare Hölderlin’s perhaps utterly unique poetic «ear,» which attunes him to cosmic harmonies and truths, and places what is revealed in his writing always-already outside the grasp of our concepts; «…in accord with his talent, Hölderlin could experience what, for us, lies at an ungraspable distance and is a hardly thinkable event as the real history of his soul.»[2]

Because of its historical breadth, this anthology might serve as a kind of introduction to the specific questions that arise from continental philosophy’s various encounters with poetry. But the book would only be an appropriate introduction for somewhat advanced students of philosophy, familiar with continental thought, and its historical movements. It is therefore I think primarily suited to philosophers already researching some of the questions outlined in my introduction. These would also be invaluable secondary sources for interdisciplinary researchers. I would readily recommend the volume, for example, to anyone writing at the interstices of philosophy or art and aesthetics with ethics, political philosophy, epistemology, and metaphysics. This recommendation is in no small part because the authors in this volume have done an excellent job bringing the stakes of philosophy of art to the surface.

Art, especially as poetry, has had an inescapable influence on philosophical thinking throughout its 2000+ years of development. If the bare written-ness of philosophy opens up as many questions as it does, then what does its ready and intimate relationship to poetry mean for us? What does it say about philosophy itself: its veracity, its trustworthiness? And, perhaps more promisingly: What does it say about poetry, about its kind of truth? Bambach and George introduce the works in this anthology by way of a kind of conclusion:

What we find in poetry is the unfolding of the very momentum of language as an originary opening up and emergence that does not fit into the metaphysical encasements of presence and representation… Against the propositional language of statements, poetic language invites us to heed the pauses, the interruptions, and the caesurae that call us to attend to what is not said or can never be said in language.[3]

They find that poetry invites that part of the human spirit which can attend to the immutable mysteries of our existence and of Being, in general, to attend to these mysteries, in spite of their inherent obscurity. Poetry, in short, invites us to philosophize. We come up against this indistinction between the philosophical and the poetic, as we read the essays collected in Philosophers and Their Poets, again and again. The philosophical—which has, in many of its iterations attempted to void itself of the poetic, to let beauty die of neglect—is shot through with the poetic. The poetic is unavoidably philosophical: so much so that we might call any promise of truth philosophy might make, at all, the «poetic.»

We cannot help but ask here, where ordinary categories fail; Who are the philosophers and who the poets of Philosophers and Their Poets? Some thinkers examined within the volume trouble themselves with the differences, while others embrace, and even invest fully in the similarities. (Although, the indistinction between the poetic and the philosophical may, in the end, be why we feel compelled to draw such a distinction in the first place, rendering both derivative).

Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez’s analysis of a confrontation between Schiller and Fichte begins the essays in the collection and does so as an inauguration of the very questions with which we have been tarrying. Most importantly, the argument between these Modern titans lays bare a very basic metaphilosophical point I had not ever before considered: that all writing, all discourse, and all philosophy must speak either to the whole of the human being or to some part of her. Philosophy might, therefore, have a different audience than does poetry, news, or fiction even within the same enfleshed and living reader. Fichte presupposes that philosophy must solicit only some part of the subject. He argues that philosophical writing must be as logical as possible, using examples in such a way that they shore up arguments rather than evoke the sensible and imaginative capacities. This is because, on his view, philosophy takes aim at the Understanding alone. Other capacities of the subject are not relevant, on this view, to the philosophical pursuit of truth. Such a pursuit can, therefore, only be successful if it is confined to this valence of subjectivity.

But, is such a well-fortified compartmentalization of subjective parts, regions, and capacities even possible for more contemporary thinkers? Doesn’t Continental Philosophy’s «phenomenological turn» render anathema the very idea that philosophy might reach something like the tower-bound understanding—especially without dirtying itself in the more immanent ground of evoking and implicating imagination, sensation, and body? Indeed I think many of us would agree that philosophy might not be able to find and transmit truth if it does not consider and speak to the whole human being. Rosario Acosta Lopez shows that Schiller’s evocations of imagination insert «…in the heart of human action the elements of contingency, finitude and a permanent and necessary dialog with a world that is never entirely in our power to control.» Contra Fichte, Schiller’s more poetical and evocative style is veridical: showing us the world in its more awe-inspiring and challenging true-light.[4]

My continual tendency, aside from the inquiry itself, is to employ the ensemble of emotional forces and to the extent that it is possible to affect all of them. I thus do not wish merely to make my thoughts clear to others, but at the same time to transmit my entire soul to them, and to influence bother their sensuous and intellectual powers.[5]

Schiller makes an epistemological, existential, and ontological point with his imaginative and sensuous writing style. He also makes a metaphilosophical one, which proceeds naturally from undermining the understanding’s epistemic monopoly; «[T]he discussion reflects on philosophy itself, inviting us to understand the boundaries of thought, and the very rich possibilities that come along [sic] the recognition of these boundaries.»[6] The understanding has boundaries precisely with regard to the philosophical and cannot philosophize without pooling resources with something like the integrated-and-whole embodied subject.

This more phenomenologically salient, existential understanding of the poetic nature of philosophical writing (and of the philosophical nature of poetic writing, as well) seems to prevail in the context of the anthology as it deals with authors like Heidegger and Gadamer. Poetic writing, as it reaches the whole human being and casts its creeping, seeking, tendrils even into the most obscure and mysterious depths of the soil of our Being, and our Becoming.

Hegel might seem an odd-man-out in terms of this generalization since he does not affirm the indistinct boundaries between philosophy and art. His infamous and oft-misunderstood argument for the «end of art» and the primacy of philosophy is a testament to this. Yet, Theodore George shows Hegel nonetheless sees art as serving a similar function to philosophy in the founding and transmission of meaning, even in the Modern world. This function unsurprisingly has to do with truth. Art, religion, and philosophy allow «a society…to take a good look at itself, to make explicit its deepest context of meaning, the context that otherwise remains merely tacit even as it shapes, orients and grants legitimacy to all further meanings within that society.»

On George’s account in this volume, Hegel should be read as saying that between art and philosophy as well as between Classical and Romantic art, there are no differences in kind. Rather there are differences in context, which yield differences in the magnitude of their respective world-founding forces. Hegel thinks that Classical artworks originarily founded, grounded, and justified Greek culture. Everything in this period—including the first works of philosophy— derives from and makes sense in reference to this founding. Within the modern period, however, art bears no such promise and philosophy must provide our social foundations. The ancient context gave art a greater share of the inauguration, transmission, and preservation of its truth. The modern era by necessity gives it less.

On this view, the nascent philosophy of the ancient world could not but be derivative of its more originary sculptural founding, and thus will be supplanted by modern philosophy: the first philosophy to successfully found and ground a world-historical epoch. Hegel argues that modernity is, in essence, a revaluation, whereby philosophy accrues a greater degree of veridical force. This changing of worlds, the promise of new meanings and truths—the world-historical dawn in which Hegel feels himself bathed—this is the promise of philosophy as poetic and of poetry as philosophical, which comes to dominate Philosophers and Their Poets. Inchoate in language are new worlds.

Babette Babich’s search for Nietzsche’s all-but-lost poet, Archilochus, lays bare the tension with which humanity is suspended upon the Earth. The truth of tragedy is a musical truth, she concludes. But what is music within the Nietzschean paradigm other than «the becoming human of dissonance?»[7] In music, we take up into the body our irresolute difference from the world and its entities: a tension that cannot be resolved so long as we are of this world. Such a tension as that between the world and its dominant species is perfectly thought as musical dissonance; dissonance heard arises from the proximity of one note with the other, the greatest dissonance from the greatest similarity, proximity, intimacy.

This is what distinguishes us as the exception among beings, that we both inhabit and are inhabited by an inescapable uncanniness that pervades our ethos.[8]

This tension between the «possible nearness and necessary remoteness of all things» to us is the foundation of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially his philosophy of poetry and art. That strangeness and disquiet that emerges most strongly, most sustained, from the smallest margins of difference, from the tightest chasms of intimacy. We seek the resolution, like any listener, any composer. But the resolution cannot happen here, within our fraught intimacy with a world that cannot harmonize with us; a world that—through Modernity, mechanization, and technologization—we have mistakenly set to sing a different song from us, altogether. Philosophers and Their Poets allows us to tarry with the major philosophical insight that there are however possible—that is, horizonal, not-yet-actual/arrived—worlds, with which we could harmonize.

Such worlds, on Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s accounts, seem to exist just beyond the concepts that make up our reality:  possibilities invisible to us because we have a faith in the world, which could perhaps shatter upon rocks of the right philosophical or poetic work. William McNeill argues that Heidegger’s encounters with poetry reveal the limits of phenomenology, and therefore of the truth-telling capacity of our very experience. Poetry reveals those limits of our world which serve as its conditions of possibility (time), and thus what is real beyond our comprehension, or our apprehension, through the structures of meaning in which we are presently enmeshed.[9] Bambach argues that the poet sings the philosopher his longing for his «own home amid the experience of expulsion,» in an uncanny home, in an intelligibility which fails to make sense of the philosopher and indeed each of us, an intelligibility that thus desacralizes us, flattens and debases us. But the poet’s hymn is a heralding hymn, which points «ahead to the futural coming of the gods.» Gods, of course, found worlds. And perhaps the poet can sing the eventual creation of a home that protects our dignity, sanctifies us, and sets us forever free of the old intelligibility.[10]

The anthology presents oscillations and refinements of this insight throughout the history of Western thought—from Nietzsche’s conception of world-revolutionary «revaluation,» to Heidegger’s alethic revelation of (extant and real) values, the existential progressivism of so-called ontological and ethical «ambiguity,» and Gadamer’s «subdued hope…» The notes that harmonize with our being, hum imperceptibly all around us; we just need philosophy and art to amplify them, and finally to change the song of the world.

With new worlds, of course, come new ethics, new values, new ways of being with one another, and even new entities. The works collected in Philosophers and Their Poets confront the abyss of the as-of-yet inchoate possibilities of this new world—hidden in the bare written-ness of philosophy—and they do so with an eye to what’s at stake in such questions for denizens of the present world. We should, I think, desire new answers to the question, «Who are we?”[11] While I am reticent to add much of anything extra-textual to such a rich volume, I will say I feel we cannot but look at our current world in mourning, in longing. The coming of another means the terrifying demise of the world. But it might finally mean the embrace of the Other, of one another, no matter how strange we’ve been to each other:

Language gives us shelter… by deconstructing word and language the poem sets free another horizon, namely the horizon of the unfamiliar… the horizon of heaven.[12]

The stranger, in her approach through the medium of the poem; The strange in its approach through the medium of the poem; Both approach with their arms outstretched, and paradise in their hands, according to Célan.

I do not believe a poem alone can save us (unless our definition of «poetry» becomes so diffuse as to lose all meaning). After all, the horrors of this world have easily survived any beauty in it. I therefore even have to regard the destructive power Célan grants poetry with some skepticism. Nonetheless, I do think that (poetic) beauty has its place, as we attempt to turn the world over and reveal its other side. Alongside Schiller, I feel poetic language might help to engage the entire human being in the work of making a way for new meanings. As social and political creatures we are, of course, embodied and intercorporeal, only partially rational. If poetry is world-transitional in the ways Heidegger and Célan argue, it is in part because we cannot migrate to a new world by virtue of our rationality alone. Beauty as justice, as long-awaited relief, as burgeoning post-revolutionary responsibilities to one another, even as forgiveness, as absolution: this is the medium of revolutionary beauty, which might both carry us to a new world as well as compose this world in its meter, its tone, and its colors (as the paint carries us to the world of the painting, by the very act of creating that world). Such a medium perhaps makes possible—even beckons—the revolutionary poem. And thus we might be called to the selfless, futural, heartache of revolutionary beauty by the poets of our current, decaying, world as well. A poem alone may not be able to save us, but I am inclined to take what help there is.

[1] Günter Figal, “Learning from Poetry: On Philosophy, Poetry, and T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 204.

[2] Max Kommerell, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,» Translated by C. Merwin and M. Wielgus, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 260.

[3] Charles Bambach and Theodore George. 2019. Philosophers and Their Poets. Albany: State University of New York Press, 5-6.

[4]  Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.

[5] “Fichte and Schiller Correspondence, from Fichte’s Werke, Vol. 8 (De Gruyter).”  Translated by Christopher Turner, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 56.

[6]  Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.

[7] Babette Babich, “Who is Nietzsche’s Archilochus? Rhythm and the Problem of the Subject,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 103.

[8] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’ Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 146.

[9] William McNeill, “Remains: Heidegger and Hölderlin amid the Ruins of Time,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 179.

[10] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 152.

[11] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 145.

[12] Gert-Jan van der Heiden, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 226.

Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback: Time in Exile: In Conversation with Heidegger, Blanchot, and Lispector, SUNY Press, 2020

Time in Exile: In Conversation with Heidegger, Blanchot, and Lispector Book Cover Time in Exile: In Conversation with Heidegger, Blanchot, and Lispector
SUNY series, Intersections: Philosophy and Critical Theory
Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback
SUNY Press
Hardback $90.00

Josh Robinson: Adorno’s Poetics of Form

Adorno’s Poetics of Form Book Cover 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.