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Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: "Plenipotentiary for the In-Itself that Does not Yet Exist"

Lecturer: Bryan Cooke

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 1 2014

Dates: 6 Tuesdays. May 6 - June 10.

In the very first line of his posthumously published masterpiece, Theodor Adorno says:
"It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist."

But while this statement is surely uncontroversial (especially by the standards of its author who, not for nothing, wrote under the pseudonym "Rottweiler") it is perhaps because, rather than despite, the aforementioned obviousness that this non-self-evidence of everything about art (though obviously known to artists), is almost never discussed by the kind of breathy-voiced servants of Culture who, in assuring their readers that art or philosophy is still important/"consoling"/exciting or urgent, more often than not demonstrate the total destitution of that which they praise far more effectively than any cynic.

In contrast, of all twentieth century philosophers, no-one has approached, not only the question of art, but the broader problem of the *aesthetic*, i.e. of the realm of affects, sensation, the sensory and the sensual, more seriously (with more philosophical seriousness) than Theodor Adorno.  But where other thinkers might — ostensibly as testimony to their *love* of theatre, film, dance, literature or the plastic arts - happily declare whole continents of experience/reality to be places where artists thrive and touch the ineffable, but where fusty dialecticians could only stumble in Laputan stupefaction —  Adorno neither attempts to deduce art from a table of categories, nor to offer philosophy the "modest" task of further elucidating  (what is surely supposed to be) an already luminous object.  Instead, Adorno's aesthetic-theory is not a theory *of* the aesthetic, but instead the product of a kind of desperate and inspired incorporation through which (as in Freud's description of  melancholia) both art and philosophy are together entombed (or "encrypted"). Reduced to a cipher, and occupying the threshold between life and death, the undigestible remnants of art and philosophy give rise to a proliferation of phantasms — shards of concepts and memory-fragments of aesthetic (i.e. sensuous/desiring) experience — that, untethered from their original context, are given over to a conceptual-sensory delirium which only the most painstaking act of *composition* can temporarily arrest.

Aesthetic Theory, therefore, does not offer a *theory* of art, nor does it attempt the (inevitably twee sounding) task of an "artistic" theory. Instead, Adorno does something which (anticipating perhaps Francois Laruelle's project of a non-philosophy) juxtaposes the two exhausted Beckettian tramps of philosophy and art (strangely vital in their very destitution) in the name of producing something entirely different: the monstrous offspring of their illicit, but also ineluctable encounter.  Thus and to repeat: Aesthetic Theory is not a book *about* art or even a book of philosophy (although it is far more recognisably the latter than the former.) Instead, it is a kind of dialectical soliloquy, apostrophising two silent and absent interlocutors, whose *actual* subject matter is  "truth", conceived as the elusive, but never renounced desideratum of both art and thought.  It is also, perhaps surprisingly, a book about "happiness", about the paradoxes and renunciations (but also the renunciations of renunciation!) that something (art, life, thought) must go through in order to be faithful both to the pain and to the promise of happiness which, for Adorno, are the alpha and omega of art, thought and politics.

The purpose of the course is to use Aesthetic Theory (this "late work" of Adorno's corpus) to offer students an introduction to  Adorno's thought.
Along the way, I hope to give a sense of just how little Adorno resembles the caricature which is so often passed down by glib cultural history: the dour mandarin who scorns  "popular art" for its (ostensible) frivolity, and who demands instead that spirits already broken by their experience of (systematic) injustice should shut up and learn to love Schoenberg.  That this is image of Adorno is an absurd slander is both an axiom and (as such) orienting principle of the course.

Lecture Schedule

Lecture One will introduce the book and the course.  Further explicating the aims and the structure of the course, I shall speaking *briefly* on Adorno's life and work, on some of the reasons that philosophy in the nineteenth and twentieth century turns more and more to aesthetics before attempting to say a few things about some of the "Adorno myths" (see above) that may keep us from understanding the work . Although I intend to address the opening of the book by the end of the lecture (at least the section on "Art, Society and Aesthetics" this lecture is mainly intended as a prolegomenon.

Lecture Two:
Will attempt to address the first three sections of the book, i.e. form the end of the section "Art, Society and Aesthetics" to "On the Categories of the Ugly, the Beautiful and Technique." and time permitting on "Natural Beauty"

Lecture Three:
Will offer an account of the sections from "Natural Beauty"  and "Semblance and Expression"  and the crucial sections on "Enigmaticalness, truth content, metaphysics"

Lecture Four, the heart of the course will be concerned with what is arguably the heart of the book, the sections on "Coherence and Meaning" and "Subject-Object."

Lecture Five will be devoted to the sections: "Toward a Theory of the Artwork" and "Universal and Particular".  We may also begin the section on "Society"

Lecture Six: will conclude the discussion of the book with the Paralipomena and the "Theories on the Origin of Art Excursus".

Primary Readings:
The text used in the course will be Robert Hullot-Kentor's translation of "Aesthetic Theory" (Continuum).   Hullot-Kentor's translation is infinitely superior to the earlier version, largely because Hullot-Kentor is both a brilliant translator and perhaps the world's greatest Adornian.

Supplementary Readings:
Other readings (probably essays/short sections  from Prisms, Notes to Literature, Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia) will be uploaded to the dropbox account.  The purpose of these readings will be to serve as both introductions to aspects of Adorno's thought that are evoked (and sometimes invoked) in the text without being explicated and as points for "further reading" for particularly keen students.

Difficulty: Intermediate.
No prior understanding of Adorno's work will be assumed and I will try where possible to change the insistent dialectic into a form that is accessible, even at the risk of inevitably outraging Adorno's doubtless already unquiet shade.  In addition, I shall try, time permitting, to relate certain passages of the book Adorno's oeuvre in general: in particular some material from Prisms, and Notes to Literature and Minima Moralia. Finally, the book, in Hullot-Kentor's brilliant translation is in no way turgid in the manner of, say,  the more abstruse parts [sic] of Hegel's phenomenology. Nonetheless, the text does entail difficulties of a different order (putting aside the issue of translation) not so much because of its range of cultural references, but because of its determinedly dialectical structure of almost every sentence.  In  summary, these lectures are intended as an *introduction* to a book, which happens to go out of its way to avoid being squashed into the kind of sweeping formulations to which introductions are prone.  At the same time, Adorno, as a speculative thinker, on the model of Hegel, hates nothing more than the pious gesture of declaring something ineffable.  Like Hegel, he knows that the only way to access reality, or unleash something's truth content is to make a pass at the Real and be broken (inevitably) against its rock.

Evening Sem 1 2014