The idea of aging seems, at first sight, to be at odds with the concept of theory itself. Theory is supposedly something immaterial that should encompass or anticipate the idea of a development with time, or at least this would be the case if we were talking about theory in the context of systematic or analytic philosophy. Instead, the concept of aging (Altern) in Adorno’s theory is at centre of a discourse tied to his conception of history with regards to critique. The very idea of critical theory, as the first generation of Frankfurt School intellectuals posited it, is a movement which intervenes on concepts, such as that of truth, that are to be understood historically. This entails that the question of aging assumes specific historical connotations and becomes an essential element in the process of criticism. Indeed, it is only because of its temporal core that a theory can become dialectical and therefore gain historical consistency for Theodor W. Adorno.
However, another question which might come to mind when thinking about aging is in which way the type of aesthetic theory that Adorno delineated would still have to do with today’s artistic development. It is through these lenses that the book, ‘The Aging of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’, edited by Samir Gandesha, Joan Hartle and Stefano Marino, looks at Adorno’s aesthetics and gives a nuanced and multifaceted account of it. The book, which was published in 2021 by Mimesis International, presents fourteen critical essays by international scholars and an editorial introduction.
The editors choose to utilize the concept of aging, as explicated in the title, as they deem it to be central to the Adornian conception of criticism (Gandesha S., et al., 9). Indeed, aging is delineated as a dialectical quest for what remains of the philosopher’s aesthetics, conveyed through different writings among which his last and perhaps most enigmatic work: Aesthetic Theory (Ibidem, 11). As an unfinished manuscript, Adorno’s work has received renewed critical attention from the eighties onwards. In ‘The “Aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’, the authors frame their and their contributors’ approaches as a critical dialogue with Adorno. The multiplicity of texts that they include, as they put it, ‘often proceed dialectically “with Adorno” and simultaneously “against Adorno”’ in a productive dialogue that aligns with Adorno’s own understanding of a critical philosophical dialogue, as he himself outlines it with regards to Hegel (25). Indeed, this type of approach considers how one can productively engage with Adorno’s aesthetic theory today by following the pathway of the Adorno’s own approach to Hegel – that is, thinking about what Hegel himself would have said with regards to the present (24). That means engaging in a critical understanding of the philosopher that neither is a defense nor is it an ‘exercise of distinguishing between “what is living and what is dead”’ (ibidem).
An instance of this re-evaluation from within Adorno’s theory is Gunter Figal’s essay ‘Is Art Dialectical? Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory Revisited’, where the author argues that one should critically assess the fact that, for Adorno, art ought to be necessary dialectical. Through a thorough analysis of Adorno’s aesthetics which goes back to its Hegelian and Kantian roots, Figal sustains that there is a need to overcome Adorno’s dialectical understanding of art as it is bound to the idea of ‘artistic rationality’ (87). Indeed, to build a dialectical understanding of art, Adorno needs to posit the existence of an artistic rationality which would resemble the determined rationality Adorno identifies to be constitutive of contemporary society. However, this is at odds with some instances of contemporary artistic endeavours where the creative act does not embrace the sort of all-encompassing controlling rationality that characterizes society, as Adorno describes it. Figal gives the example of Jackson Pollock’s dripping technique, where the element of chance is incorporated in the act of artistic creation (90). Figal’s is a provocative take on aesthetic theory, and one that wants to provoke discussion within the scholarly community.
Gerhard Schweppenhäuser’s essay, titled ‘Nature and Society in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’ cleverly considers the role played by natural beauty and its nuanced conception in Adorno’s aesthetics. Indeed, because the concept of natural beauty is at the basis of Adorno’s utopian conception of art, Schweppenhäuser tries to outline how this plays a part when one wants to consider the philosopher’s aesthetic theory together with his theory of society (105). Indeed, Adorno’s aesthetics and social philosophy inform one another as artworks ‘stand for the right of the suppressed nature to exist’ (96). Therefore, as the concept of natural beauty has become absurd in a reified society, the very utopian moment resides in the artworks that structurally aim towards this conception. At last, Schweppenhäuser quite on point emphasizes the reflective moment in Adorno as the kernel of both his theory of society and of art. Therefore, what is rendered visible in Adorno’s conception of art is its reflective character which lies bare art’s inherent contradictions (110-111). This in turn reflects the social sphere as art is a ‘fait sociale’ and becomes the ultimate source of criticism (105).
Another significant contribution on the topic of the formal structure of artworks is that of Giacchetti Ludovisi. In his essay ‘Aesthetic Form and Subjectivity in Adorno’, Ludovisi shifts from a viewpoint that necessarily wants to evaluate Adorno’s conception of autonomous art in contrast to non-autonomous art and argues that one productive way to look at Adorno’s aesthetics is by linking the formal structure of art to psychoanalytical interpretation. Ludovisi creatively draws parallelisms between psychoanalytical concepts and formal structures of art situating his essay within interpretations such as Joel Whitebook or Amy Allen’s (Whitebook 1996; Allen 2020). Moreover, Ludovisi productively emphasizes the formal aspects of Adorno’s artistic criticism drawing on Adorno’s own work as a composer within the context of atonal music.
The book is composed of five different sections, each of which collects two to three essays from international Adorno scholars. Each one of the different parts is thematic and aims at dealing with a specific aspect of today’s scholarly debate on Aesthetic Theory. The sections are titled Revisions, Conditions, Materiality, Constellations and Contemporaneity. While the division of the book into different parts presents a useful tool for navigating its structure, it may feel arbitrary at times. An instance of this are section two, ‘Conditions: On the (im)pulse of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’ and three ‘Materiality: on the construction of the specific in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’, where the dividing line between the two is blurred at times. Hence, an essay such as Surti Singh’s ‘Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: the artwork as a monad’ could have easily been placed in the second section, as it deals with the interpretation of Adorno’s aesthetic theory considering the Leibnizian conception of monads.
Moreover, while the book achieves its aim in giving a nuanced account of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory fifty years after its publication, the choice of including such a wide number of essays risks losing the common thread which ties them all together. Despite this lack of a unitary point of view, which might impact the reader which approaches this collection from beginning to end, the book’s eclectic character can be one of its strong points too. A prismatic collection of viewpoints on allegedly one of the thorniest parts of Adorno’s theory, this book represents a refreshing collection of original contributions, each one to be extracted and read singularly. Moreover, an excellent introduction by the three editors sets the tone of the book and signals that there is a harmonized critical approach from authors that have indeed collaborated in the past. The choice of essays present in the book shows the originality of the editors’ perspective on contemporary Adornian scholarship and makes the book a precious collection of scholarly essays.
Gandesha, S., et al. 2021. The “aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic theory. Fifty Years Later. Milan: Mimesis International.
Whitebook, J. 1996. Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory. Cambridge. Mass: MIT Press.
Allen, Amy. 2020. Critique on the Couch: Why Critical Theory Needs Psychoanalysis. Vol. 73. New York: Columbia University Press.