Adorno’s Alternative Aesthetics, part II

by Reinaert de V.

previously: “Adorno’s Alternative Aesthetics: Introduction” & Aurelio’s Version


"Passanten IV", 2010, by Bert Jacobs

“Natural beauty is suspended history, a moment of becoming at a standstill. Artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension are those that are justly said to have a feeling for the natural. Yet this feeling is – in spite of every affinity to allegorical interpretation – fleeting to the point of déjà vu and is no doubt all the more compelling for its ephemeralness.” (AT, p.71)

Sentences like these are commonplace when dealing with Theodor W. Adorno. His fragmentary or aphoristic style, combined with a highly cerebral and condensed way of putting things, while often exhilarating, can also be quite daunting at times. Every single sentence seems super charged with meaning and part of a complex circuitry that aims to shock and electrify.[1] With the way themes get introduced and developed, it would not be stretching the truth to say that Adorno – who after all was a musicologist too – ‘composes’ his philosophy. But even though everything is intricately interconnected with everything else, making it very easy to get stuck or lost, one obviously has to start somewhere. So I wish to begin my exposé by unpacking this first cluster of sentences, which I believe is crucial because it lies at the centre of his finely spun web of subtly interwoven layers of meanings. By gently pulling this thread – which I have to admit, is more like a lifeline to me – I hope to get hold of, or make sense of “a voluptuousness for the mind in a train of thought he can never fully unravel…” (AT, p.63)

By defining Natural Beauty as “a moment of becoming at a standstill”, one can almost picture it, and indeed one should ‘picture’ it. Because “artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension” – be it paintings, photos, novels, movies or whatever – are not unlike snapshots of a process. Albeit, a very elusive and peculiar kind of process, one that needs an unwavering eye to capture it, the eye of a true artist. It is by no means by accident that Adorno speaks about “suspended history in this context, for it is actually human history, or our historical development in relation to nature, as mirrored in art, that is the subject of his aesthetics. Which brings us to the second part of his definition: the affinity of the feeling of momentary suspension to “allegorical interpretation”. On the one hand, and despite this affinity, he contrasts it with allegorical interpretation, due to the ephemeral nature of this feeling. What he means by this, I think, is that through allegorical interpretation meanings have usually become fixed or stabilized, and thereby appropriated. While the affinity he has in mind has to do with allegory’s potential for creating new meaning, which happens when something stands in for something else – or, as happens in nature, when something changes or seems to change into something else. So it is the allegorical intention (AT, p.71) that creates the momentary suspension – a state of reverie – which functions like an opening for an associative or kaleidoscopic process to take hold[2]. Every artwork that successfully captures or duplicates it, basically turns it into a still, or ‘distills’ it, by tapping into but only capturing part of it, because in actuality it is a natural process of recurring and continual change. Thus, while sharing in it, in the end it is a richesse the work can merely evoke or allude to. And it is this ephemeral process, which feels like déjà vu that makes artworks resonate with Natural Beauty.

“According to the canon of universal concepts [Natural Beauty] is undefinable precisely because its own concept has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70)

Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery. Due to nature’s inherent indeterminateness, as being essentially non-human, or something foreign and sealed-off from thought, it makes ascribing a priori statements about what Natural Beauty consists in into a futile enterprise. Nonetheless, without these efforts Natural Beauty as a concept would remain empty and silent – like an empty canvas or a blank screen with nothing to project on. Leading Adorno to conclude that if Natural Beauty is to be sought in anything at all, it must be in the way that natural ‘non-man-made’ things, and those things taken back into nature’s fold, tend to speak to us, or “resonate”. In other words, beauty is to be found in their eloquence (AT, p.70), in that which enables these seemingly random objects to reach out to us, and makes them shimmer as if “luminous from within” (AT, p.70), and appear as “more than what is literally there” (AT, p.71). It is through the spell they cast, binding us to them, that ignoring, or denying their individual worth and uniqueness, becomes impossible[3]. Gaining in voice to the degree that they are foreign, other, new, or left out – in proportion to which they elude us. It is this feature that makes them stand out and that lets us experience them. And yet,

"Vlinder", 2011, by Bert Jacobs

“Without receptivity there would be no such objective expression, but it is not reducible to the subject; natural beauty points to the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71)

Adorno takes great pains to point out there is something, though mediated, that is irreducible in its foreignness and externality, that is doing the talking – albeit, through us. There is a good reason for this, for without what he terms the primacy of the object, there would not be any ‘talking’ going on, in fact there would not be anything to convey. There would solely be the subject caught in a gilded self-made cage, built around pleasurable and self-congratulatory feelings. And according to him, such a life, cut off from the outside world, would not simply amount to self-amputation, but eventually end up being, to quote Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” – a fact Adorno believed two World Wars had borne out. Luckily for us, the “objective expression” found in Natural Beauty implies “receptivity” on the part of the subject, for without it there would be nothing to receive, nor any reaction to it. At the same time though, this receptivity should not be taken for granted, because there is a threshold: in order for the object to be received it should not be merely external to the subject but nonidentical (AT, p.4) as well. What he means by this, is that through familiarizing ourselves with the world, which at first appeared to us as a chaotic and heterogeneous whole, we not only came to master it by dividing it up – making it more manageable – but we re-created it into our image along the way, expulsing what could not be accommodated. We quite literally ‘subjected’ the world around us, making us lose track of it in the process. In this sense, objects identified as ‘part of this world’ are not really external anymore but have become extensions of the subject, making receptivity – since they would be ‘more of the same’ – superfluous. For the potential to relate implied by receptivity, demands conscious effort on our part. It suggests responsiveness, and a need to grapple with what is ‘outside’. It implies a challenge.

[coming up] more on Natural Beauty and its relationship to Art.

[1] Since Adorno’s philosophy is essentially about ‘openness’ and the creation of what is wholly new and original. Thinking, especially in the free and undelineated form of an essay – which has a certain artfulness about it – is (his) philosophy put into action, because it is a thought process or an experience in and of itself: a place where the particular and the personal are allowed to speak, where variety and the fragmentary are not shunned.

[2] “Allegorical interpretation” in this way, is closely related to Adorno’s concept of mimesis. Because even though ‘nature’s continual and recurrent change’ speaks of a wealth that man can merely allude and aspire to, it was while being under nature’s mercurial spell – a state of dreamlike reverie – that he was forced to imitate its cruelty and fickleness to stay afloat. And so it is through our original interaction with nature – a complete surrender to the outside – that we absorbed a plethora of forms through which we learned to express and externalize ourselves, thereby gaining an abundance of idioms. In other words, “allegorical interpretation” in this sense, is a kind of imitation without full understanding, that has allowed man to acquire nature’s formal language. “Déjà vu”, however, points to the fact that each expression seems to contain a reference to something else, outside itself, from which it originated and sprouted forth. Given all this, we can conclude that man’s slow but steady progress resembles awakening from an often frightening and fitful sleep; after all, we only become fully conscious of our actions after initiating them.

[3] There is a subtle dialectic of binding and unbinding at work in “Aesthetic Theory”. Where, if pushed to excess, both nature’s binding and society’s unbinding can blind us – see footnotes 7 and 12 on detachment and survival. It is therefore all about finding the proper balance or critical distance. Even so, both nature and society cast their respective spells, for though we are driven in the arms of society to escape nature’s bonds, we can only hope to resist society’s universal bondage by offsetting it with the unique and particular found in nature. Hence, at first sight, art seems to function as Aufhebung of thesis (nature) and antithesis (society), by carrying both to another level. Yet on closer inspection art turns out to be both nature’s and society’s “pure anti-thesis” (AT, p.62), since society is actually the sublimation and adaptation of nature’s drive to domination and objectification. “The song of birds is found beautiful by everyone; no feeling person in whom something of the European tradition survives fails to be moved by the sound of a robin after a rain shower. Yet something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed. The fright appears as well in the threat of migratory flocks, which bespeak ancient divinations, forever presaging ill fortune. With regard to its content, the ambiguity of natural beauty has its origin in mythical ambiguity…” (AT, p.66)