Understanding Adorno, Understanding Modernism
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Understanding Adorno, Understanding Modernism

Robin Truth Goodman, Robin Truth Goodman

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Understanding Adorno, Understanding Modernism

Robin Truth Goodman, Robin Truth Goodman

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Having studied philosophy at a time when its traditions were being seriously uprooted by the atrocities of World War II, Theodor Adorno had an enormous impact on thinking about aesthetics at a transitional historical moment when the philosophy of science and leftist politics were looking for new ground. Moreover, with his focus on the rise of commercial culture and its effects on identity-construction, Adorno can be said to have reinvigorated modernist concerns by introducing the prevailing terms in our contemporary versions of cultural politics and cultural studies. Understanding Adorno, Understanding Modernism traces Adorno's social and aesthetic ideas as they appear and reappear in his corpus. As per other volumes in the series, this book is divided into three parts. The first, "Adorno's Keywords, " is organized by the aesthetic terms around which Adorno's philosophy circulates. The second section is devoted to "Adorno and Aesthetics." While Adorno's philosophical viewpoints influenced modernism's evolution into the 21st century, the history of modernist aesthetics also shaped his philosophical approaches. The third and final part, "Adorno's Constellations, " discusses how aesthetic form in Adorno's thinking underlies the terms of his social analysis.

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Adorno’s Keywords
Adorno and Beyond
The Modern as Critique of Modernism
Max Paddison
Adorno is often regarded as the protagonist of modernism, even though this is based on a misunderstanding. Adorno’s focus was on a different concept—“the modern,” and on how Enlightenment rationality and the process of rationalization (with its association with “modernization”) had ended up serving irrational ends. The aim of this chapter is to explore the relationship between these connected but often blurred concepts in the context of Adorno’s thinking and in key debates around the experience of modernity and “the modern” in critical aesthetics, cultural theory, and the arts that emerged in the decades following his death in 1969.
Adorno’s concept of “the modern” in art can be understood, on the one hand, as a range of different and frequently conflicting responses to a fundamental predicament: an experience of instability, uncertainty, and alienation in the face of constant change and the threat to survival. On the other hand, “the modern” also needs to be seen as presenting a critical position in relation to the concept of modernism, and indeed to the concept of art itself. This raises issues of terminology, problems of ideology, and questions of the modern’s relation to modernism, as well as to the avant-garde and the New. It also raises questions regarding art’s relation to the repressed and unresolved contradictions of our experience of modernity. Underlying this argument is the issue that emerges clearly only toward the end: whether the art of “the modern” has been able to address Adorno’s famous injunctions regarding the survival of art after Auschwitz.
Concepts of Modernism and the Modern
The first concern is with the problem of terminology, given the general confusion around the terms “modernism,” “modernity,” “the modern,” and, for good measure, “modernization.” In fact, the word Modernismus rarely appears in Adorno’s writings. A quick search of the DVD (Suhrkamp DB097) containing the entire twenty volumes of Adorno’s collected writings in German, as published in the Suhrkamp Gesammelte Schriften, shows that the word occurs in total only fifteen times.1 It crops up far more frequently in English translations of Adorno, however, because translators have usually chosen to render die Moderne either as “modernism” or as “modernity.”2 To confuse matters even further, “the modern” can sometimes embrace both these concepts as an umbrella concept. What is clear, nevertheless, is that Adorno favors the concept of “the modern,” which in German includes a broader and more far-reaching set of concerns than is implied by the more limited (and mainly Anglophone) term “modernism,” with its connotations of being an art movement, or at least a portmanteau term for the whole range of modern art tendencies and styles that he calls “the -isms” (die Ismen). The concepts of “modernism,” “the modern,” and “modernity” also overlap, and a degree of fuzziness pervades attempts at clarification, not helped by the fact that Adorno himself seldom provided clear definitions of the concepts he employed. In view of this I want first to attempt a preliminary differentiation among these related but often opposed concepts, and consider the position of “modern art” within this context, before tackling in more detail how Adorno uses these terms.
In general academic usage, the concepts of “the modern” and of “modernity” are often taken as coterminous, to the extent that they are used to embrace the historical, cultural, social, economic, technological, and political dimensions of modern life. Both terms suggest a process (dynamic and ongoing) and a condition (experiential and existential), rather than something fixed, like a single historical period, specific style, an artistic movement, or pertaining to a particular geographical location. At the same time “modernity” also has an association with the application of reason and the process of rationalization, in which respect it connects with the concept of modernization, even though its rationality may be directed toward irrational ends. “The modern,” on the other hand, as well as meaning “up-to-date,” in tune with the present time, and in conflict with tradition, implies an imperative, in that it calls up Rimbaud’s famous exhortation: il faut être absolument moderne.3 To be “modern” in this sense is to push the boundaries of experience, expression, and the latest technical means.
The experience of being “modern” is characterized by extremes, all-embracing and inescapable and at the same time fragmentary and without bounds. Much of this is implied in Marshall Berman’s account, when he writes,
To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. . . . To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.” (Berman 15)
Viewed historically, modernity can be said to have a beginning (the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, perhaps?—or maybe the early modern era going back to the Renaissance in the period from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries, when the word “modern” first began to be used to refer to “now,” the “present time” in contrast to antiquity?). But modernity appears to have no end (or at least, none is currently conceiv able—the advocates of postmodernity notwithstanding). The American sociologist Peter Berger has argued that two things are fundamental to modernity and belong to “the normative assumptions about it” (Berger 10): one is the founding myth of modernity, which is that of continuous progress, and the other is that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, modernity is historical.
Modernity and the experience of the modern acquired an affinity with the experience of the sublime that is also historical. It involves the shift from the concept of the beautiful in nature and in art, to the experience of the sublime in nature, via the experience of the sublime in art, toward the experience of modernity as sublime—that is, modern urban society has come to appear as opaque and impenetrable to those who live in it. It was the appearance of the “unboundedness” of modernity and the impossibility of grasping the experience of the modern as a totality, to put it in Kantian terms, which led Jean-François Lyotard to claim that “the sublime is perhaps the only mode of artistic sensibility to characterize the modern” (Lyotard 93). But Lyotard owes this insight as much to Adorno as to Kant. In Ästhetische Theorie (Aesthetic Theory) Adorno writes, “The more decisively that empirical reality shut itself off from it, the more art was funneled toward the sublime; subtly understood, it was the sublime alone among the traditional ideas of aesthetics that remained for the modern after the fall of formal beauty” (Adorno GS7, 293–4, my trans.). But Kant points to a further requirement for the experience of the sublime (as opposed to the direct threat posed to one’s existence by the perils of real life): he says in §28 of the Critique of the Power of Judgment that we can only experience it as the sublime (das Erhabene) “as long as we find ourselves in safety” (Kant 2000, 144; Kant 1957, 348). The immediate experience of modernity, however, does not always allow for a safe place from which to measure ourselves against the overwhelming experience of the tumultuous complexity of modern life. “Modern art” (not to be confused with “modern life”) might therefore be seen as a mediated and parallel sphere of activity, a kind of “safe place” in and from which to contemplate such experiences. Its autonomous forms can be seen as what Umberto Eco called “complements of the world” (Eco 1997, 50, my trans.),4 but not the world directly. This remains the case, however much modern art—including the New and the avant-garde—attempts either to extend or to break down the boundaries between art and life, or to claim that art has escaped from its parallel sphere into the real world.
The concept of “modernization,” on the other hand, is associated particularly with the social sciences, where it applies to the shift from traditional semifeudal rural societies to modern industrialized urban societies driven by capitalism. By extension the term can also be defined as the forms taken by rationalization, as organization, as bureaucratic, political, and cultural control, to attempt to shape modernity toward particular ends. I shall not discuss the experience of modernization as “an adventure” in positive and developmental terms, as Marshall Berman does when he concludes: “The process of modernization, even as it torments and exploits us, brings our energies and imaginations to life, drives us to grasp and confront the world that modernization makes, and to strive to make it our own” (Berman 348). On the contrary, I see modernization (Modernisierung) as a euphemism for rationalization (Rationalisierung) in the sense in which Max Weber uses the term in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society ), as political and cultural control through bureaucratization that leads to alienation. This is also emphasized by S. N. Eisenstadt, who writes,
Both political and cultural processes attendant on modernization have paradoxically enough created, through the very drawing in of broader groups to the center, the potential for alienation of wide groups from the central political and social system, for the development of feelings of anonymity and anomic estrangement from their societies, which became stronger as their expectation of participation in the center . . . grew. (Eisenstadt 21–2)
This wide concept of modernization as drawing everything toward the center, and in the process creating feelings of estrangement from the center as well as relegating traditions to the margins, has a further contradictory manifestation in the arts. It creates powerful urban centers of elite culture and at the same time creates the conditions for the reification of “the New” by the bourgeois cultural institutions that control the arts. These same conditions lead to the constant and continuing revolt by art against reification and institutionalization.
This brings us back to the concept of “modernism,” so widely used in the English-speaking world, but in a more limited way elsewhere. While in a very general sense the term “modernism” can be said to refer to the manifestation of modernity in the aesthetic sphere, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century in the West (in which sense it overlaps with the concept of “the modern”), it is nevertheless most often used in a very specific sense to imply a style (e.g., in architecture), or a movement or tendency (e.g., in literature). The most obvious case is the academic study of literature in the English language, which has employed the label “modernism” to refer particularly to the experimental use of language and narrative in Anglo-American and Irish writers like Yeats, Woolf, Eliot, Pound, and Joyce in the period 1890–1950.
The term “modernism” is intrinsically plural, as represented by the “-isms” of which it is constituted (impressionism, symbolism, expressionism, cubism, neoclassicism, and so on), and it has to be admitted that it is a cause of confusion when it is used both as a label for one movement among others in the arts and as the overarching concept that embraces all these movements. Talking of “modernisms” (or maybe “modern-isms”) in the plural could e...

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