Adorno and Aesthetics

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I have been reading Theodor Adorno of late, and in particular Brian O’Connor’s excellent introduction to his work. Here are a few of the many notes that I have taken on O’Connor’s book and others. I am particularily taken with his approach to ‘mimesis’.

Mimesis … is not another name for the subject-object relationship. It is the pre-conceptual human desire to imitate and to seek affinity with an other, underpinning, what we saw in Adorno’s discussion of morality, ‘the sense of solidarity with what Brecht called “tormentable bodies”. In a non-reified realization of the subject-object relationship, this desire is pursued through the activities of conceptualisation and judgment and through the correction of the content of those activities when contradictions emerge. It is in Aesthetic Theory that mimesis becomes a central theoretical principle. In that work Adorno endeavours to articulate a distinctly critical-theoretical account of the mimetic basis of art. Art is mimetic not only in its content that is, in how what it says is in some way imitative of reality but also in the aesthetic activities of performance and experience: the full range of the aesthetic realm is mimetic’. (O’Connor, 2013: 150)

Aesthetic mimesis is not just the opposite of reification, but is a diagnostic concept. It is a reference point for non-reified human behaviour.

‘Reification is the process of attributing concrete form to an abstract concept. For example, a red rose may be a reification of the concept of love. Reification is a complex idea for when you treat something immaterial – like happiness, fear, or evil – as a material thing’.

In the experience of aesthetic mimesis – imitative creativity – there is the ‘happiness of producing the world once over’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 339) that has almost entirely been eliminated by the reifying rationality of the social totality. Mimesis, then is a dimension of human behaviour whose origins precede the development of the aesthetic realm, whilst somehow surviving only as a vestige in an aesthetic form’. (O’Connor, 2013: 150)

It is about how the subject has a capacity to orient themselves non-instrumentally towards objects and .. an understanding of the orientation gains us a critical perspective in the current condition of experience’. (O’Connor, 2013: 151)

‘The external orientation towards objects in our knowledge gaining activities is, for them, grounded in our basic mimetic capacity. However, that capacity is not adequately exercised when knowledge becomes – as it does in modernity – a matter of constructivism: that is, when the subject seeks to generate knowledge through systems it establishes prior to engagement with objects. Constructivism is, they argue, a reversal of mimesis. It may well seek to apprehend the world but it does so by making the world fit with its systems. Writing of the notion that the world is most adequately grasped through mathematical conceptualisations they claim ‘mathematics made thought into a thing – a tool, to use its own term’. (Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: 19). Through this mimesis … thought makes the world resemble itself …‘ (O’Connor, 2013: 151)

‘In mimetic behaviour the subject loses itself in an ‘object of desire’ (Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: 27). The self driven by an affective interest in the world expands beyond itself. Constructivism, in stark contrast, is without the affective dimension. In Negative Dialectics, Adorno would go on to characterise constructivism, in the shape of idealism, as a predatorial ‘devouring’ rage against the world. Adorno and Horkheimer’s account of mimesis identifies a dimension of human engagement with the world not considered by the conventional explanation that human interest in the surrounding environment was originally motivated by practical concerns alone. Mimesis is a desire driven, transformative opportunity for the individual’. (O’Connor, 2013: 152)

‘Imitation [or mimesis] designates a relation between persons in which one accommodates to the other, identifies with the other, empathises with the other. There is an allusion here to a relation in which the surrender of the one to the example of the other does not mean a loss of self but a gain and an enrichment’. (Habermas 1984: 390).

‘This ‘imitative’ process is suggestive of Adorno’s account of non-identical experience, which involves subjects adjusting, as we saw it argued, ‘to a moment which they themselves are not’ (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 1966 :138). Adorno and Horkheimer contend that the dialectic of enlightenment eventually replaced the original mimetic immersion with conceptual structures that obviated the affective dimension. It thereby delimited the scope of the subject’s capacity to know an object: ‘Along with mimetic magic enlightenment tabooed the knowledge which really apprehends the object’ (Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: 10). Adorno and Horkheimer describe the original environmental relation as ‘purely natural existence’. (Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: 24). (O’Connor, 2013: 153).

‘Plato decried mimesis as a mere copy of a copy. But Aristotle took it as central to our learning capacity and method. It’s also central to our appreciation of art as the audience, yet these mimetic qualities are in no sense the artwork’s representational accuracy. (O’Connor, 2013: 155).

‘Adorno’s rejection of [mere] representation as a genuinely aesthetic quality leads him to a sharp repudiation of photography as as art form’. This critiquing Benjamin’. (O’Connor, 2013: 1560.

My observation – This may or may not be true, but it does frame Adorno’s non-representational principle of mimesis which underpins his view that social ideas should be treated aesthetically.

‘Adorno is not the first philosopher to characterise aesthetics as a kind of absorption in which the ego or self no longer relates experience to its objects instrumentally. What is original about Adorno’s contribution, though, is that he attempts to explain this capacity for absorption as a fundamental mimetic mode. We have already discussed the theory of that mode in some detail. Interestingly, Adorno does not defend the thesis purely theoretically. He also provides a phenomenology of aesthetic receptivity He identifies a moment in which we make the transition from non-mimetic experience to aesthetic receptivity as a moment of shock (Erschiittertuig). It is, for him, a shock precisely in its radical departure from what we take to be our normal experience:’ (O’Connor, 2013: 170).

‘The shock aroused by important works is not employed to trigger personal, otherwise repressed emotions. Rather, this shock is the moment in which recipients forget themselves and disappear into the work; it is the moment of being shaken. The recipients lose their footing‘. (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 244).

‘However, Adorno thinks of art’s critical relationship to society as a dimension of art per se. This relationship has nothing to do with the political or philosophical intentions of the artist. We are to think, rather, of art as being critical by virtue of its very status as art within its socio-historical reality. Adorno provides two general lines of thought on this inherently critical positionality of art towards society (1) Art’s specific intra-aesthetic motivations contrastively expose the deterministic life of purpose embodied in society (2) The dynamic of an artwork diverges from the narrow logic of reified society’. (O’Connor, 2013: 180).

(1) Art exposes the version of purposiveness that predominates in everyday life. Society is understood, by Adorno, as blind purposiveness, in which individuals gain meaning and significance only in so far as they accommodate themselves to the self-reproducing norms of society. Art, by contrast, does not have a socially functional purpose. Indeed, its anti-purposiveness is what allows the subject to experience ‘happiness’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 389) during aesthetic experience. The very presence of art within purposive society undermines – determinately negates ‘determinate society’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory:  226) – the social imperative that everything should be useful. What artworks offer, without intention, is ‘the critique of the practical positing of purposes’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory:  288). Aesthetic experience seems like something worth having, yet it is without any sense of purpose as defined by’ the functional processes of society’.

(2) Adorno specifies that the process of an autonomous work is ‘objectively the counter-image of enchained forces’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 226). The enchained forces refer to what Adorno describes as the integrational effects of the social totality. Against the pressure of conformism, in which each process is to be made entirely predictable, we have the authentic work of art. ‘Every authentic artwork is internally revolutionary’, he writes (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory: 228). And this revolutionary aspect is its innovation of aesthetic form. Through form an alternative to the grammar of experience to that offered by ‘administered society’ is produced. (O’Connor, 2013: 180).


Header Image: Theodor Adorno & Heinrich Böll. 1968. © Picture Alliance / AKG images


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