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Anthony Auerbach

‘Reprise: Aesthetic Theory‘, from Anthony Auerbach: Structural Constellations: Excursus on the drawings of Josef Albers c. 1950–1960, PhD Thesis, University of London, 2004, pp. 217–220)

This section appears at the end of my thesis and picks up where the opening section ‘On Constellation and Interpretation: An exchange between Walter Benjamin and T. W. Adorno’ broke off after a discussion of Adrorno’s Negative Dialectics. It reprises the themes I explored in the following sections: on the graphic forms of constellation (the history and the semiotics of star maps) and on structure and representation (geometry, drawing, modernism). Given the way the dissertation is structured, this section could be both a foreword and an epilogue.

The fragmentary character which Adorno’s last work Ästhetische Theorie has in common with Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk is that of a work interrupted by death. Adorno wrote, ‘The fragment is the intrusion of death into the work. While destroying it, it removes the stain of semblance.’ [note 1] In relation to Benjamin’s work, Aestheic Theory is late as Albers’ Structural Constellations are late in relation to the inter-war avant-gardes. The criterion often all too glibly associated with Adorno’s name of writing ‘after Auschwitz’ perhaps overshadows a more intimate criterion: writing after Benjamin. With Aesthetic Theory Adorno faced the impossibility to which Benjamin had surrendered, namely the impossibility of accomplishing the Arcades Project except as an ‘impermissible “poetic”’ work. Adorno’s book is adapted to its material to the extent that a theory of the aesthetic would not do; neither would an aestheticised theory, as if aesthetics were mere ornament on a neutral substrate or theory were an essence which needed to be clothed in appearance. Adorno recognised the impossibility while refusing to surrender to it. He refused to allow theory to be consumed by aesthetics—or as he feared for Benjamin’s work — to allow the material to be consumed by its own aura.

An aesthetic theory would have to bind these two terms together, but without unifying them. Adorno’s title Aesthetic Theory should probably be read as a miniature model of the paratactical structure of the book. The burden of the book’s aesthetics — its literary form — is demonstration, but not by argument — not, so to speak, more geometrico. Adorno never accepted Benjamin’s ‘I have nothing to say, Only to show’ [note 2] as the criterion of philosophical representation. Nonetheless, only saying that included not-saying and counter-saying in its enunciation would be capable of doing justice to its topic. Philosophy was not to acquiesce in the merely existing. It was not to ‘portray reality as “meaningful” and thereby justify it.’ [note 3] The muteness of things enjoins philosophy to interpretation and impugns the adequacy of the concepts philosophy can bring to bear on things. The non-identical is all there is to prevent the identity-principle from dissolving by its own means. For the sake of the non-identical, philosophy is to seek its own dissolution.

The scruples of representation Adorno encountered in the ‘Epistemo-critical Prologue’ to the Trauerspiel study were the lesson Benjamin’s only pupil carried throughout his work. From my earlier discussion it is evident that the difficulties of aesthetic theory would have been clearly predicted by Adorno and he had indeed rehearsed them continually in his ‘aesthetic writings’, that is, his criticism of music and literature. Yet, well into the second draft, the work on Aesthetic Theory presented problems not anticipated by the writer. Adorno wrote in a letter:

The result has been described as ‘visibly antagonistic’. The wall of text presented by Aesthetic Theory, as a form of address, corresponds throughout with the way the work is addressed by Adorno’s intended dedication of the book ‘To Samuel Beckett’. In contrast with Adorno’s previous works, which displayed their structure as the articulation of parts, in sharply cut insights and the crystallisation of ideas, Nicholsen characterises Aesthetic Theory as ‘a more fieldlike presentation in which the figurative language has virtually disappeared and been replaced by a flatter, almost compendiumlike dialectic without detail, in which one idea shifts into the next virtually without boundaries.’ [note 5] Seemingly perhaps: it could be argued that what remains in Aesthetic Theory is only detail.

Aesthetic Theory is unquotable, even as it contains hardly any quotations. Aesthetic Theory has no passages. No clause or phrase from a sentence, no sentence from a paragraph can be extracted with its sense intact. The paragraphs moreover go on for pages and hardly tolerate any separation from one another. The sections of the book, divided by only the slightest caesura of a blank line, refuse to become chapters. At the same time as they are continuations of one another, they are also startings-over, repetitions.

What replaces argument in Aesthetic Theory — the exposition of concepts and premisses and their logical development — is the performance of a series of variations or permutations of a theme that is not stated. Adorno deploys a small number of rhetorical patterns to enact a multitude of intertwined dialectical reversals, contradictions and inversions which tumble and revolve in what, for the reader, is a vertiginous, airless text (in the words of its translator, ‘almost too interesting to read’).

The dominant figure is the chiasmus: a crossing, diagonal arrangement; an X of paradoxical symmetry in which the terms of parallel clauses are inverted. For Adorno, X marks the site of cancellation, of disenchantment (i.e. not the bewitched cross-roads where Adorno found his friend on 10 November 1938) [note 6] as well as the location of something buried (a treasure or a suicide). The chiasmus is not simply a crossing but, in the warp and weft of the text, a knot which binds concepts to their opposites, although it does not reconcile them. Thus, for example, subjectivity and objectivity, integration and disintegration, theory and critique, what exists and what ought to exist, encipherment and decipherment are not separated.

But Adorno is not a carpet weaver. A web of knots is a lace:

A lace, moreover, is literally and figuratively a net, a noose or a snare which potentially entangles the hunter with his/her quarry; which embroils the one who knots it and the one who attempts to unpick it — that is, both the writer and the reader. A lace thus discloses the work of language.

Adorno’s asceticism is not that of which he accused Benjamin in connection with the latter’s reluctance to exercise theory in the Arcades. Adorno’s asceticism — if not his technique — is that of Penelope: a dialectic of doing and undoing, inscription and erasure; a ruse of resistance to the status quo. The labour is not provisional or anticipatory, but insists the condition of its completion is not present. Adorno, however, would not necessarily have welcomed the return of the wily Odysseus whom he and Horkheimer portrayed in the Dialectic of Enlightenment as the prototype of the bourgeois individual, protagonist of the mutual implication of enlightenment and myth. [note 8] Adorno’s technique, as he described in a letter while working on his second draft of Aesthetic Theory, was to manoeuvre himself into the position of the critic of his own work, the position he regarded as the most productive. He considered first drafts merely ‘organised self-deception’ necessary to achieve a position of critical reflection. [note 9] In the case of Aesthetic Theory, the second draft brought him only to a position of second reflection and occasioned a second critical revision, which, it seems, anticipated a third.

The term constellation is caught in the web of Aesthetic Theory, but is neither elaborated (as it was in Negative Dialectics) nor posited as an undefined term (which would be only logical). Constellation does not surface as a idea, nor, despite the efforts of various commentators, can it be convincingly excavated as a ‘fundamental concept’. The idea of doing philosophy without ‘first principles’ may have always been a conceit, but that does not authorise the search for something lying beyond the text, as it were on the other side of the screen. As a provocation (such as it was introduced in ‘The Actuality of Philosophy’) [note 10] or, as Adorno refers to it ironically, his ‘theorem’, it says no more than what came to be accepted as ‘philosophical principles’ are nothing other than mirages of language — as Wittgenstein thought, grammatical mistakes. The idea expresses Adorno’s commitment to doing philosophy with language, in language, against language.

In the text, Adorno elicits no metaphors or similes from constellation although there is more than a hint, confirmed by the letters, that it governs the whole project. The remark in the draft introduction, ‘Aesthetics is not obliged to set off on the hopeless quest for the primal archetype of art, rather it must think such phenomena in historical constellations,’ may or may not have survived Adorno’s projected revisions. The word ‘constellation’ appears from time to time in Aesthetic Theory in various contexts without any gloss. So do the terms ‘monad’, ‘magnetic field’, ‘enigma’, ‘nexus’, ‘cipher’, which we might assume to be among the numbers whose combination would unlock the thought theory had encircled in the hope of seeing it ‘fly open’, as Adorno had suggested in Negative Dialectics. [note 11] Except that the tantalising ‘object’ at the centre is now ‘aesthetics’ and we cannot be sure the hope is intact.

The efforts of commentators to reconcile Aesthetic Theory with the earlier constellation metaphors by providing visual analogies tend to underline the absence of the images which I documented and interrogated in my first essay. Aesthetic Theory does not suggest the illuminated figures of Sternbilder — illuminated, that is, in consideration of the stars which shine from the vault of the sky or in consideration of the graphic elaborations on maps and atlases which mediate their sign-character. Neither does Aesthetic Theory suggest the momentary conjunctions which flash across the horoscope in an act of interpretation. Adorno scholars could not be expected to consider an analogy with Argelander’s BD charts which my study suggested were a form of constellation under a ban on images [note 12] and, as has been remarked of Aesthetic Theory, ‘without boundaries’.

Adorno, it seems, no longer required a visual analogy for his structural constellation of the conduct of aesthetics.

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  1. Quoted in ‘Editors’ Afterword’ to Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997), p. 361. [back to text]
  2. The notes for The Arcades Project contain the provocative statement: ‘Method of this project: literary montage. I have nothing to say. Only to show.’ Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge MA and London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 460, as translated in Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, (Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press, 1989), p. 222. See Part I, p. 18. [back to text]
  3. Theodor W. Adorno, 'The Actuality of Philosophy', Telos, 31, (1977), p. 126. See Part I, p. 13. [back to text]
  4. Quoted in ‘Editors’ Afterword’ to Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, (London: Athlone Press, 1997), p. 364. [back to text]
  5. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Exact Imagination, Late Work: On Adorno’s Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1997), p. 49. [back to text]
  6. ‘[T]he theological motif of calling things by their names tends to switch into the wide-eyed presentation of mere facts ... one could say that your study is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. This spot is bewitched.’ Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Complete Correspondence 1928–1940 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 283. See Part I, p. 23. [back to text]
  7. Pat Earnshaw, Bobbin and Needle Laces: Identification and Care, (London: B. T. Batsford, 1983), p. 14. [back to text]
  8. Dialectic of Enlightenment does not mention Penelope. [back to text]
  9. Quoted in ‘Editors’ Afterword’ to Aesthetic Theory, p. 363. [back to text]
  10. See Part I, p. 12. [back to text]
  11. ‘Becoming aware of the constellation in which a thing stands is tantamount to deciphering the constellation which, having come to be, it bears within it. [...] The history locked in the object can only be delivered by a knowledge mindful of the historic positional value of the object in its relation to other objects — by the actualisation and concentration of something which is already known and transformed by that knowledge. Cognition of the object in its constellation is cognition of the process stored in the object. As a constellation, theoretical thought circles the thought it would like to unseal, hoping that it may fly open like the lock of a well-guarded safe deposit box, in response, not to a single key or a single number, but to a combination of numbers.’ Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 163. See Part I, p. 28. [back to text]
  12. F. W. A. Argelander, Atlas des Nördlichen Gesternten Himmels, (Bonn: Adolph Marcus, 1863). The atlas accompanied the cataglogue known as the Bonner Durchmusterung (BD) which was the result of a sky survey undertaken by Argelander and his assistants beginning in 1852. See Part II, p. 70. [back to text]