Adorno's Aesthetic Theory

Adorno's Aesthetic Theory

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Robert Kaufman
2:00 PM - 5:00 PM
4104 Dwinelle

This seminar (""co-listed"" as Critical Theory 205) is not an introduction to Theodor W. Adorno’s work; rather, it will involve sustained reading and discussion of Adorno’s last major text, which he was still finishing at the time of his 1969 death: AESTHETIC THEORY (1970). We will be reading Robert Hullot-Kentor’s English translation of ÄSTHETISCHE THEORIE. Though we will sometimes briefly consider the original German text, knowledge of German is not required (though it would of course prove very helpful).

What can hopefully make a slowed-down, reflective reading of this dense, famously difficult work prove fruitful begins with at least some familiarity with the figures, texts, and artistic/aesthetic/political movements that Aesthetic Theory assumes its readers to have had some acquaintance with. This includes—among many others–Kant, Hegel, Marx and Engels, Lukács, the French Revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871, Lenin, the Bolshevik Revolution, Marxism-Leninism, Romanticism, Realism, Symbolism, Naturalism, Modernism, Dada, Surrealism, Avant-Gardism, Social and Socialist Realism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Postmodernism!!! (Don't worry, that's only about 20 years worth of reading...)

It’s worth knowing that Adorno’s final text is written with the expectation–though it of course won’t be our expectation or prerequisite–that its readers will have previously encountered, for example: Kant’s Critique of Judgment; Hegel’s Lectures on the Fine Arts and Phenomenology of Spirit; Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and Das Kapital (esp. the chapter-section “The Secret of Commodity Fetishism”); Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto; Walter Benjamin’s “One-Way Street,” “The Storyteller,” “Surrealism,” “The Author as Producer,” “Conversations with Brecht,” “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility [Mechanical Reproduction],” “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” “On the Concept of History [Theses on the Philosophy of History],” The Origins of the German Play of Mourning, and The Arcades Project; as well as Adorno and/or Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” “Cultural Criticism and Society,” “Commitment [Engagement],” “The Essay as Form,” “Parataxis”, Minima Moralia, and Negative Dialectics. (Take a deep breath–and then realize that, depending on how you feel at any given moment, it gets better–or worse: that is, what you’ve just read has been, incredibly enough, a very minimal listing!)

Meanwhile, AESTHETIC THEORY offers sustained and repeated yet often extraordinarily compressed responses to some celebrated political and aesthetic/critical-theory debates, and does so on yet another assumption: that AESTHETIC THEORY’s readers are aware not only of these debates, but likewise of the histories of key concepts and phenomena at issue within them. These debates, concepts, and phenomena include: the status of objectivist conceptuality vs. aesthetic quasi- or extra-conceptuality; the notions, in art and critical theory, of the constellation and force-field; the concepts and practices of use-value, exchange value, and reflective-judgment value; mechanical/technical/technological reproduction’s value, over/against aesthetic value; art’s political commitment (or engagement) vs. its aesthetic/artistic autonomy; mass, popular, and conceptually undetermined culture; relations among subjectivity, critical agency, and class consciousness.

And finally, AESTHETIC THEORY presumes that among the artists we as readers will know include Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Hölderlin, Shelley, Byron, Dickens, Robert Browning, Swinburne, Mörike, Rilke, Stefan George, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Ibsen, Strindberg, Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, the Surrealists, Brecht, Lorca, Sartre, Joyce, Beckett, Celan, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Berg, Webern, Schönberg, Weill, Eisler, Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen, Goya, David, Ingres, Delacroix, Gericault, Courbet, Manet, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Braque, Grosz, Gris, Léger, Pollock, Kline, Rothko, Guston….

About the first half of the semester's class sessions will be devoted to an extremely brisk sketching and discussion of the earlier texts, figures, political/artistic/critical movements, and concepts mentioned above (starting with the Kant and continuing through writings by Adorno and his Frankfurt School colleagues). The second part of the semester’s undertakings–our close, careful reading of AESTHETIC THEORY–will then seek to understand, interpret, and respond to the text’s treatments of modern art’s development on its own terms, and in relation to (1) mostly Kantian, Hegelian, Marxian, and earlier Frankfurt Critical-Theory traditions of aesthetics and critique; and (2) sociopolitical, cultural, and aesthetic-artistic history. We’ll pay ongoing attention to how and why the imaginative, potentially intersubjective activity traditionally understood to be at the heart of aesthetic experience turns out, with various twists, to be crucial too to Adorno’s overall analyses of modernity, mechanical/technical/technological reproduction and reproducibility (in both the economic and artistic-aesthetic spheres), and critical agency. We’ll also consider how AESTHETIC THEORY'S concerns and legacies might engage the changed sociopolitical circumstances–and the changed artistic-aesthetic, critical-theoretical tendencies­—of the last four decades. Among the seminar’s emphases will be an ongoing inquiry into how attention to artworks’ formal, stylistic, and philosophical-theoretical dynamics (the relation of artistic technique to aesthetic form and aesthetic experience) may offer stimulus toward, and insight into, historical, sociopolitical, and ethical understanding and engagement.