Tagged: Theodor W. Adorno

Hwylio mewn cyfog

Western democracies have been around for two centuries. There’s no revolutionary force in existence of any sufficient weight, whether progressive or regressive (i.e., today’s gutter populism), to suggests there’s a threat of their demise on the near or distant horizon.

The endless stream of “end of this or that” columns (e.g., the end of liberalism, the end of neoliberalism, the end of the elite, the end of the state, the end of globalization, etc.) is a shopworn brand of political prognostication. It does show, however, the futility of ideology critique in the era of late capitalism and the worldwide culture industry (as per Adorno), whether immanent or transcendental.

The critical question is whether today’s forces of regression (e.g., Brexiteers in the UK, Deplorables in the US) are strong enough to undo all democratic institutions without facing significant resistance from the forces of enlightenment and reason.



(image: Jill Krementz)

Apropos Susan Sontag (b. January 16, 1933), a few remarks on interpretation.

(1) One should be concerned with the implications of various points of entry into the interpretation of texts. This means that it is necessary to break down the terms and relations of text, interpretation – and text and interpretation – into their subatomic units to see what is involved when one says “I’m interpreting a text.” So the most basic questions are the most important questions: What is a text or what are texts? Is it a Constituted Text, defined by the relation of author to text; a Text in Context, viz., conditioned text, shaped by extra-textual, non-authorial forces? Is the text a matter of structure (Structure as Text), comprised of the latent and the manifest, of relations in a sign system? Or is the text itself a context (Text as Context), which constitutes itself as unstable, fragmented, and contradictory because the signs that produce it are not fixed?

(2) What is it about a text that interests us? What is interpretation? What are the conditions of interpretation when we define a text this way or that, or when we define such and such a phenomenon as a text? For philosophical hermeneutics, this epistemological foundation involves overcoming the limits of the epistemological relationship between the author and the text. For social scientific approaches, this foundation involves the relationship between the text and its social context. For psychoanalytic and structuralist approaches, this foundation involves the primacy of a hidden or latent text. Finally, for literary and poststructuralist approaches, this foundation involves a conceptualization of the text that constructs and deconstructs itself.

(3) And, finally, what kind of knowledge is gleaned by interpreting a text and how do we come to know whether this knowledge is true, correct, valid, or authoritative?


Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” (which might rather have been entitled “Against Content”) traces the problems of interpretation to the mimetic theory of art and its emphasis on the figurative dimension.

… All Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such — above and beyond given works of art — becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.

Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression, the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still comes first. The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (p. 4)

Sontag argues that “the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism” (p. 5) Such philistinism, the piling up of interpretations of content, the thicket weaving around works by the date of the original publication of the essay (1964) that largely owed to the academic hegemony of the New Critics, distracts from the works themselves. Along the way, the form, style, and enjoyment of the work were rendered secondary at best and irrelevant at worst. (See W. K. Wimsatt, “The Affective Fallacy,” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry [1954], pp. 21-39)

The opposition between the philistine and the aesthete is longstanding, although Sontag does not primarily work with it. What she detects in philistine interpretation is reaction. “Interpretation,” she argues,

must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling. Today is such a time, when the interpretation is reactionary, stifling. . . . Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret the world is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (p. 7)

In addition to impoverishing the world (of its art), the philistine’s interpretive contributions undermine the agonistic experience of art.

In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistines refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable. (p. 8)

Sontag points out that such interpretation “runs rampant” in America in relation to “those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde” (i.e., fiction and drama) and conspicuously neglects what she calls “programmatic avant-gardism,” those paintings, poetry, and music which are “experiments with form at the expense of content” (pp. 10, 11). In place of interpretive criticism which fixates on content, Sontag proposes that a more adequate interpretive practice should focus on form.

What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today?. . .  What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary — a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. (p.12)

This emphasis on form would, in my view, restore to the work of art what makes it a work of art and not merely a substitute version of a reality existing outside the work: imagination, creativity, play, madness, joy, hubris, nonsense, pleasure.


The essay is a constrained form. Fiction is freedom. Freedom to tell stories and freedom to be discursive, too. But essayistic discursiveness, in the context of fiction, has an entirely different meaning. It is always voiced.

Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143

It can be argued, as Theodor Adorno does, that the essay form “evokes intellectual freedom.” In his view,

The essay, however, does not let its domain be prescribed for it. Instead of accomplishing something scientifically or creating something artistically, its efforts reflect the leisure of a childlike person who has no qualms about taking his inspiration from what others have done before him. The essay reflects what is loved and hated instead of presenting the mind as creation ex nihilo on the model of an unrestrained work ethic. Luck and play are essential to it. It starts not with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to talk about; it says what occurs to it in the context and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say. (T. W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” Notes on Literature, v. 1 [1991], p. 4)

Nonetheless, one can agree with Sontag regarding freedom. Fiction is the freedom to tell stories, not because of the content of the stories, but because of the form which communicates the stories. The form is the real artifice, the real art in fiction, which involves the same luck and play Adorno attributes to the essay form. Yet, as Adorno would no doubt acknowledge, it is a serious form of play, not the equivalent of infantile finger painting.



Sontag’s call for an erotics of art is not an anti-intellectual move, although it may be anti-academic; rather it brings back a Kantian sensibility for the sublime and the beautiful, while not dismissing the more visceral element of feeling-interpretation that Kant downgraded to the level of the gustable. The problem of interpretation, on Sontag’s account, is that it “takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there.” Hence, the “aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” (p. 14).

What may have been the main problem of academic interpretation in the early 1960s has become, in recent decades, a problem of the overly abrupt political readings of works, which focus on content in a different way. Now interpretations build up around a thicket of categories of identity, which are either judged to be erased, elided, rendered non-legible and invisible, no longer distorted by bourgeois ideology but rather by the identity of the author and her characters. This new version of the will to knowledge/truth extends to works of art at the expense of any recognition of the fact that works are not totalitarian with respect to form.


What is the historical state of interpretation today? Naive realism appears to rule popular criticism. Works are judged deficient to the extent that they stray from a mimetic theory of art derived, ironically, from Greek antiquity. In more contemporary philosophical terms, such realist interpretive practices comport well with the correspondence theory of truth. This tendency is especially noticeable in popular film criticism. Here, Susan Sontag’s insistence on the significance of form for the interpretation of works of art remains permanently timely.

Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1990 [1966]), 3-14

Wonder and doubt


Q: “How do people approach life? With a sense of wonder or with doubt? Aristotle said many years ago that philosophy begins in wonder. Kierkegaard later observed and lamented in the 19th century, that there’s been a shift; that philosophy begins with doubt. Is that still the case today?”

Near the beginning of Negative Dialectics, Adorno claims that philosophy had been surpassed (because its moment of realization was missed). Yet, I witnessed a packed auditorium at 9am on a Saturday morning held in rapt attention by Habermas’s lecture “From Kant to Hegel and Back Again: The Move toward Detranscendentalization” (subsequently published in Truth and Justification). There’s no schande in the fact that there is professional philosophy (and the claim against academic philosophy that it is academic doesn’t constitute a non-trivial finding) and that philosophy exists outside the academy. I’m amused by the apparent war between analytic and continental philosophy (which echoes the apparent war between quantitative and qualitative methods in the social sciences). Professional philosophy is an embattled field, at once the most exulted of the cultural sciences and, often, the smallest department within the humanities. The social sciences have encroached, in their clumsy way, on the philosophical field, appropriating, borrowing, and stealing, frequently without understanding.


Socrates: “I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder. He was not a bad genealogist who said that Iris (the messenger of heaven) is the child of Thaumas (wonder).” Plato, Theaetetus (Penguin Books: p. 25).

Hegel: “Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.” The Philosophy of Right (Preface).

Wittgenstein: “In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem. We must always be prepared to learn something totally new.” Remarks on Colour (University of California Press: 1-15, 4e).


Wonder and doubt should not be placed in opposition. Here I would say that “wonder” stands in a polemical relation to the view of philosophy articulated by Hegel in the Preface to The Philosophy of Right; the notion that philosophy comes on the scene only after events are cut and dried (which allows an identity between the real and ideal, the real and the rational) and the List der Vernunft (in The Philosophy of History) leave no room for contingency, of anything of which one might be “in wonder.” There are no historical surprises for Hegel, no possibility that things could be otherwise; they simply are.

And yet, Wittgenstein signals: uncertainty — a form of doubt — also opens a way to wonder (the preparation, or capacity, to learn something new or unexpected); or perhaps we can understand wonder and doubt as different orientations that bring about openness towards what exists, what is thought to exist, and categories of knowledge.


Whether doubt and wonder should be considered oppositional ways of knowing (of philosophy) or as complementary orientations, one can also acknowledge that a hierarchical relationship exists between wonder and doubt. A homology exists in the relationship between the following terms, with primacy accruing to the first term in the paired sets:

Doubt and wonder
Science and art

The hierarchical relations of doubt/wonder, science/art have other associations (or relations) of superior and inferior mapped on to them:



We can also consider the question raised by Kierkegaard in another way, with another provisional “opposition” between two orientations: knowing and being. Ricoeur’s summary of the trend in philosophical hermeneutics (represented by Heidegger and Gadamer) is helpful: “I see the recent history of hermeneutics as dominated by two preoccupations. The first tends progressively to enlarge the aim of hermeneutics, in such a way that all regional hermeneutics [NB. here he means hermeneutics developed for the purpose of the study of the bible and ancient texts (philology)] are incorporated into one general hermeneutics. But this movement of deregionalization cannot be pressed to the end unless at the same time the properly epistemological concerns of hermeneutics – its efforts to achieve a scientific status – are subordinated to ontological preoccupations, whereby understanding ceases to appear as a simple mode of knowing in order to become a way of being and a way of relating to beings and to being” (“The task of hermeneutics” (p. 54) in From Text To Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II). The opposition of epistemology (which is associated with doubt, science, and method in Gadamer’s Truth and Method) to ontology (with the shift in favor of the latter) has this implication for philosophy in the work of Gadamer. According to Gadamer, we must first ask what types of beings we are; answer: we are historical beings. Second, he argues that interpretation/hermeneutics involves us in acquiring the historical tradition which always already shapes our way of being; prejudices, the bête noire of Enlightenment thought (and the philosophy of doubt running from Descartes to Durkheim), are not to be rejected, but rather are the starting point for an interpretive process in which a fusion of horizons (our own with those of the past) takes place.

Hence, we wind up (following Heidegger and Gadamer) with a rejection of skepticism, epistemology, and, most significantly, explanation, and an exclusive embrace of interpretation and understanding. Ricoeur attempted to overcome this opposition by turning to linguistics as a “scientific method” that is appropriate to language and our being in language — as per Heidegger’s claim that language is “the house of Being.” (Martin Heidegger, “The way to language” (p 135) in On the Way to Language).

“We can, as readers, remain in the suspense of the text, treating it as a worldless and authorless object; in this case, we explain the text in terms of its internal relations, its structure. On the other hand, we can lift the suspense and fulfill the text in speech, restoring it to living communication; in this case, we interpret the text. These two possibilities both belong to reading, and reading is the dialectic of these two attitudes” (Ricoeur, “What is a text? explanation and understanding” (p 113) in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II)

I reference Ricoeur for the purpose of showing an effort to work through apparent oppositions that pertain to defining what “philosophy” is (as they are raised in Heidegger and, perhaps in Kierkegaard). It is possible to both raise epistemological questions (in this case, the conditions of meaningfulness) and ontological questions (the meaning of a text in relation to the world of texts and to ourselves) within philosophical hermeneutics. Ricoeur explains this as follows, with the notion of a “hermeneutical arc.”

“I shall therefore say: to explain is to being out the structure, that is, the internal relations of dependence that constitute the statics of the text; to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text, to place oneself en route toward the orient of the text. We are invited by this remark to correct our initial concept of interpretation and to search – beyond a subjective process of interpretation as an act on the text – for an objective process of interpretation that would be the act of the text.”

“The idea of interpretation as appropriation is not, for all that eliminated; it is simply postponed until the termination of the process. It lies at the extremity of what we called about the hermeneutical arc: it is the final brace of the bridge, the anchorage of the arch in the ground of lived experience. but the entire theory of hermeneutics consists in mediating this interpretation-appropriation by the series of interpretants that belong to the work of the text upon itself. Appropriation loses its arbitrariness insofar as it is the recovery of that which is at work, in labor, within the text. What the interpreter says is a resaying that reactivates what is said in the text” (“What is a text? explanation and understanding” (pp 121-122, 124) in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II)

In this case, an openness to the text (towards discovery and appropriation of its meaning) is compatible with the philosophical tradition of doubt (epistemology), which raises questions of the conditions for knowing a text (its internal conditions of meaningfulness). The tradition of doubt does not have to be excised; and the “pathos of astonishment” need not be dispelled (pace Heidegger).


Philosophy and poetry

All attempts to comprehend the writings of philosophers as poetry have missed their truth content. Philosophical form requires the interpretation of the real as a binding nexus of concepts. Neither the manifestation of the thinker’s subjectivity nor the pure coherence of the work determines its character as philosophy. This is, rather, determined in the first place by the degree to which the real has entered into concepts, manifests itself in these concepts, and comprehensibly justifies them. The interpretation of philosophy as poetry is opposed to this. By tearing philosophy away from the standard of the real, it deprives it of the possibility of adequate criticism. Only in communication with critical thought may philosophy be tested historically.

Theodor W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, 3

Adorno in brief

Another swing and miss on Adorno. [1]

According to Alex Ross,

When Adorno issued his own analyses of pop culture, though, he went off the beam. He was too irritated by the new Olympus of celebrities—and, even more, by the enthusiasm they inspired in younger intellectuals—to give a measured view. In the wake of “The Work of Art,” Adorno published two essays, “On Jazz,” and “On the Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening,” that ignored the particulars of pop sounds and instead resorted to crude generalizations. Notoriously, Adorno compares jitterbugging to “St. Vitus’ dance or the reflexes of mutilated animals.” He shows no sympathy for the African-American experience, which was finding a new platform through jazz and popular song. The writing is polemical, and not remotely dialectical.

The critique Adorno levels against jazz (circa the 1930s) and the ham radio operator is also leveled against Stravinsky. He is not a simplistic or merely polemical enemy of pop culture. In “On Jazz,” Adorno writes

In this context, it may be decisively illuminating that the only important composer who is at all close to jazz is Stravinsky, whose principal work, Le Sacre du Printemps, famous for its artful syncopation, makes the subject of the work a human sacrifice, that of the principal dancer – a sacrifice which the music not so much interprets as ritualistically accompanies. [2]

He characterizes the jazz aesthetic as modern archaic: “The modern archaic stance of jazz is nothing other than its commodity character.” This commodity character stands oppose to any potential liberation from the straitjacket of modernity (and bourgeois music that is not jazz) a return to the archaic might promise.

Whatever primordial instinct is recovered in this is not a longed-for freedom, but rather a regression through suppression; there is nothing archaic in jazz but that which is engendered out of modernity through the mechanism of suppression. It is not old and repressed instincts which are freed in the form of standardized rhythms and standardized explosive outbursts; it is new, repressed, and mutilated instincts which have stiffened into the masks of those in the distant past. [3]

The deployment of the modern archaic is not solely the province of jazz. Again, one finds Adorno detecting similar tendencies in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, particularly in the function of sacrifice.

Stravinsky undertakes such a rebellion [against culture] not only in the familiar aesthetic game with barbarism, but furthermore in the fierce suspension of that element of music which is called culture — the suspension, that is, of the humanly eloquent work of art. He is drawn in that direction where music — in its retarded state, far behind the fully developed bourgeois subject — functions as an element lacking intention, arousing only bodily animation instead of offering meaning. [4]

In Stravinsky’s case, subjectivity assumes the character of sacrifice, but — and this is where he sneers at the tradition of humanistic art — the music does not identify with the victim, but rather with the destructive element. Through the liquidation of the victim it rids itself of all intentions — that is, of its own subjectivity. [5]

The archaic effect of Sacre is a product of musical censorship, a self-denial of all impulses which do not agree with the basic stylistic principle. Artistically produced regression then leads, however, to the regression of the composition itself — to the progressive deterioration of compositional procedures, to the ruin of technique. Stravinsky’s admirers have grown accustomed to living with the resulting discomfort, by declaring him a rhythmist and testifying that he has restored the rhythmic dimension of music — which had been overgrown by melodic-harmonic thinking — again to honor. In so doing, they assert, he has excavated the buried origins of music; as, for example, the events of Sacre might well evoke the simultaneously complex and, at the same time, strictly disciplined rhythms of primitive rites. [6]

Compare Adorno’s analogous comment on the paradox of what could be called regimented spontaneity in jazz:

Even the much-invoked improvisations, the “hot” passages and breaks, are merely ornamental in their significance, and never part of the overall construction or determinant of the form. Not only is their placement, right down to the number of beats, assigned stereotypically; not only is their duration and harmonic structure as a dominant effect completely predetermined; even its melodic form and its potential for simultaneous combinations rely on a minimum of basic forms: they can be traced back to the paraphrasing of the cadence, the harmonically figurative counterpoint. . . . The archaic stance of jazz is as modern as the “primitives” who fabricate it. The improvisational immediacy which constitutes its partial success counts strictly among those attempts to break out of the fetishized commodity world which want to escape that world without ever changing it, thus moving ever deeper into its snare. [7]


Contra Ross, I read Adorno as saying “high culture” is a matter of bad faith; the “culture industry” is a matter of no faith.

One could question Adorno’s starting premises which are a mix of Kant, Freud, and Marx. E.g., his insistence on critique over enjoyment. In other words, under the heteronomous conditions of capitalism, autonomous enjoyment of cultural products (enjoyment without compulsion) is impossible. Hence, negative dialectics.

One can ask whether this point of view is correct.


[1] Discussion sparked by Leah Reich.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, “On Jazz” (1936), Discourse 12, 1 (Fall Winter 1989-1990): 64.

[3] “On Jazz,” 54.

[4] Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music (1948) (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 140.

[5] Philosophy of Modern Music, 143.

[6] Philosophy of Modern Music, 154.

[7] “On Jazz,” 53.

All that you dream

Male professional sports have always been supported by the bedrock of misogyny.

President Reagan loved dictators, counting Pinochet and Saddam Hussein as close friends. As a birthday gift for “Ronnie,” Nancy Reagan and her personal astrologer even hatched a plan to revive Generalissimo Franco during what can only be described as an occult ceremony.

100 years after the beginning of WWI, particularism is resurgent across Europe.

Dick Cheney is the Breitbart of conservative television.


Theodor Haecker was rightfully alarmed by the fact that the semicolon is dying out; this told him that no one can write a period [sentence containing several balanced clauses] anymore. Part of this incapacity is the fear of page-long paragraphs, a fear created by the marketplace – by the consumer who does not want to tax himself and to whom first editors and then writers accommodated for the sake of their incomes, until finally they invented ideologies for their own accommodation like lucidity, objectivity, and concise precision.

Theodor W. Adorno, “Punctuation Marks,” The Antioch Review, 48, 3 (1990): 303.