Yesterday was Adorno’s birthday [peace be upon him!]. And, while it remains enduringly fashionable among left-wing types to dismiss Adorno, and no less The Frankfurt School, in a single remonstrating gesture, it also remains a verifiable fact that few bother to engage him from beyond the miasma of elitism, essentialism and arrogance which our spectacular age has mounted on his diagnoses of culture. The general response to his work bespeaks a fear of raising the patina of intellectualism over praxis, of alienating popular culture, of subverting reasoned criticism to shirk the unconscionable biddings of political immediatisms where art has lost its frame of coherence and has become yet another product for popular consumption- a respite with sound and fury but no signification- yet such was never Adorno’s own project.
Among his copious folios of work there is one particular stream in which his thought permeated the very heart of the matter, and though he may have fallen off his hobby horse now and then into the pits of assumption and error, his reconnoitering remains exemplary in its scope, perspicacity and endurance. His critique of the nexus between artistic expression and the cultural trends that it capitulates to is damning and remains all too painfully pertinent; when we admit to ourselves and others that music means no more than entertainment, which may be as it may, do we really escape the indictment of abandoning the task of our own escape from the strictures of oppressive culture? It is highly suspect. Among the basic axioms of his procedure, Adorno gave special place to the unique recursive structure of thought applied to thought, one expects no less from a dialectician: he posited that a deep dissatisfaction with one’s culture presumed an immersion worth the name into its substance. Only those who partake of its products, paradoxically, are allowed the luxury to see in it the detritus of their conscience, the dregs of their resistance waylaid by the trite melodies of popular dance music and as they are struck petrific by the entrancing thaumaturgy of film. Today, were he around, he would most probably be goaded into citing himself- Simon Critchley calls self-citation an act of narcissism, but I digress- and pronounce upon us our dishonest evasion of our predicament. It is not that merely our desires are stifled by the culture that enables us our habituated libertinage but even their symptoms are effaced by the apparatus of “…a lavish display of light air and hygiene…[produced] by the gleaming transparency of rationalised big business…” (Adorno 2005, p. 58).
Our complicity with contemporaneous conditions makes us culpable for its failings, for the slippages of desire and damage incurred by acceding to the despots’ machinery of causeless effects. If indeed art were produced in vacua there would be no need for its justification but only since we are swarmed by it in a reciprocal configuration of desire versus desire we owe more than wrung hands to its integral form. It behooves us to draw strength from this involvement “…to dismiss it” in so far as it fails to arouse our sympathetic epiphany, our rising beyond the material conditions of the commoditised world to reclaim the tenacity of despoiled, alienated and thereby mystified desire. “What is true of the instinctual life is no less true of the intellectual: the painter or composer forbidding himself as trite this or that combination of colours or chords, the writer wincing at banal or pedantic verbal configurations, reacts so violently because layers of himself are drawn to them. Repudiation of the present cultural morass presupposes sufficient involvement in it to feel it itching in one’s finger-tips…” (Adorno 2005, § 8. p. 29).
The import of his critical project would not have us wash our hands off art’s lifeblood at the scarce font of immediatisms accommodating the brutality of indifferent social systems. The mystical and poetical flourishes most contemporary artists employ to exonerate themselves from the duty of explaining their motivation only serves as a foil for the abject regression of the artistic self, which has miscarried all artistic intent before it can strive to redeem itself by its own toil. The artistic subject removed from ipseity at home in his milieu, thrown into the being of the market system which homogenises all in the currency of its one-all, has become a blight to the possibility of a conscience that has power to elevate art above human conditions and, so in due inversion, the possibility of also man’s elevation above the artefacts of [a]historical conditioning. “… [Herein] lies music’s [indeed, all arts’?] theological aspect. What music [art] says is a proposition at once distinct and concealed. Its idea is the form (Gestalt) of the name of God. It is demythologised prayer, freed from the magic of making anything happen, the human attempt, futile, as always, to name the name itself, not to communicate meanings” (Adorno 2002, p. 114).
The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech. Vague expression permits the hearer to imagine whatever suits him and what he already thinks in any case. Rigorous formulation demands unequivocal comprehension, conceptual effort, to which people are deliberately disencouraged, and imposes on them in advance of any content a suspension of all received opinions, and thus an isolation that they violently resist (Adorno § 64, p. 101).
So, briefly, why read Adorno today? Because, it is imperative to act against the reactionaries, though they be ourselves. If we say too much has happened that has incontestably altered the course of art and its equation with consumption, thought and its relation to things are we not merely begging more reasons for surrendering to the beast that is already astride us? Read Adorno because, precisely because, he angers you with his obstinacy, his clinging to a hopeful differentiation from the abject form of alterity imposed upon popular consciousness. To fight the abstractions which generalise the self, artistic and otherwise, Adorno’s critical apparatus remains a worthy weapon, -though it sometimes is a knife all blade- what hurt is spared the self which cannot define art but can seek out a hadron’s theotechny? Wherein rests the aura of artistic inspiration; wherein the magic of its immaculate conception; wherein the titanic moment of its articulation and production through the very engines from which we derive our existence, let us inquire therein of the precise psychical automatisms that move us thusly to procure for its occult, atemporal archaeology the produce of our bodily culture, our arts. If our art is all sensuousness and corporeality what then is the mystery of its immaculate inspiration, how can we rest assured in the rejection of all inquiry and criticism of its material epigenesis? To do so is dishonesty shown home, in ourselves, in a world where selcouth artistic essences threaten the very existence of the thing itself; the world where art is two birds in a bush and we are left with age-old platitudes in our hand, kneeling before the disembodied flash which animates it with a cataclysm. In the end, to mystify the moment of our deepest impulses with the rhetoric of romance or respectable forgetfulness is to disavow the pompous claim history lays upon our culture: justify yourself despite your existence. Why must rational consciousness coil itself like an illusion, effacing its discernable origins, if it comes ascendant on Dickinson’s nimble winged hope? The emancipatory potential of art lies in the understanding of its brutal prehistory and natal experience, which must be unearthed and come to terms with on its own terms; thought, in order to be made intelligible and not mystical or sophistically narcissistic, must break free its jaw from its own tail. Adorno invites us, despite the neutralising haze of our critical conscience that settles itself on his work, to recreate the topology of desire and study the imbrications and scarifications lathed upon it as so many warts only so we may excise them now, though it is too late. For, we are moving in the circle of unreason so long as we attribute to some divine preordainment the subordination of art to both commerce and magic, the repression of self to the bad infinity of the body which speculates about the end of history. The end of history situates itself in our aeon, and we must resist becoming anachronisms in this inauthentic becoming. Else, why art at all?
Theodor Adorno. Trans. Gillespie, S. Ed. Leppert, R. “Music, Language and Composition (1956)”. Essays on Music: Theodore W. Adorno. USA: University of California, 2002. Print.
Theodor Adorno. Trans. Jephcott, E., F., N. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. UK: Verso, 2005. Print.