Without further ado

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetics, ed. Eberhard Ortland, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017). 376pp., £55.00 hb., £18.99 pb., 978 0 74567 939 6 hb., 978 0 74567 940 2 pb.

Amongst the writings of canonised thinkers, there often exist ambiguous yet generative gaps between those works published during their lifetime and those made posthumously available. The task of bridging these two bodies of work, and according philosophical intent, is one fraught with complications. Questions as to the ‘authentic’ kernel of a thought, the marginal history of a concept or the speculative shape of unrealised work remain open and contestable. The stakes are heightened when, for instance, the border between published and unpublished is complicated by historical dramas and institutional positioning, as in the case of Walter Benjamin, or when archival or private material is said to unsettle otherwise rehearsed conceptual formations, as in the case of Martin Heidegger. When it comes to the work of Theodor W. Adorno, one of the most testing divides is the one that separates his Gesammelte Schriften [Collected Writings] from the Nachgelassene Schriften [Posthumous Writings]. If it is clear that such a divide cannot settle in either direction each and every dispute, it does, for a Germanophone audience at least, raise the distinction to the point of articulation. In an Anglophone context, despite the well-known shortcomings of existing translations of major works, it is becoming something of a tradition to pursue those works contained in the latter of these two, his Nachgelassene Schriften. The latest book-length work to be published in English falls squarely within this tradition.

Delivered during the winter semester of 1958–59, Adorno’s Aesthetics is the eighth lecture course to have been translated and published by Polity, with one other announced (the 1960–61 course Ontology and Dialectics, edited by Rolf Tiedemann) and several more (possibly nine) likely to follow. The course documents the fourth of six occasions in which Adorno lectured students on the topic of art and philosophical aesthetics between 1950 and 1968, and, of all six, it is the earliest to have been recorded on tape and transcribed in full (the fifth occasion, delivered during the winter semester of 1961–62, exists as a transcript and will be published by Suhrkamp in the future).

As the book’s editor, Eberhard Ortland, underscores in his German-afterword-cum-English-introduction, there are several points of theoretical interest in these lectures, three of which he selects as the most prominent. First, Adorno’s demanding concept of aesthetic experience, fleshed out from the opening to the closing lectures, as an accompaniment to its use in other works; second, the discussion of Plato’s Phaedrus, most fully examined in lectures nine and ten, is perhaps Adorno’s most express analysis of pre-Modern philosophical notions of beauty; and, third, the references to John Cage in lecture eight, whose work, importantly, Adorno had engaged with during the 1957 and 1958 Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music. The Aesthetics discusses each of these to a degree either greater than or different to that found in his wider, published oeuvre, providing richer character to statements that might otherwise remain elliptical, technical or unjustified. In addition to Ortland’s list, many readers will find the opening lectures dedicated to artistic and natural beauty, as well as his claims – repeated and qualified – as to art’s capacity to help the ‘suppressed and suffering to find its voice’, illuminating and reassuring. Equally advisable, one should be alert, especially in lectures six to eight, to the categories of construction and expression; to consider the sustained argument against the sufficiency of subjectivist aesthetics, a corrective that remains poignant; to trace his early, although not first, diagnosis of art’s historical ‘crisis of meaning’; and finally but not exhaustively, to note his attacks on defensive reactions against modern art found in the work of Georg Lukács and Hans Sedlmayr alike. Accordingly, there are a number of conceptual contributions that the 1958–59 Aesthetics course introduce into the Anglophone philosophy of art and, if handled correctly, to our understanding of Adorno’s positions and thought. Due credit must be granted here both to Ortland’s editorial work and Wieland Hoban’s translation. Not only does Ortland resist including any pantomime laughter and jeering (compare the Introduction to Sociology, edited by Christoph Gödde), but the endnote editorial commentary and the inclusion of Adorno’s lecture notes are worthwhile. And in a situation where no translation can win, Hoban’s attempt doesn’t lose too badly.

For those unfamiliar with Adorno’s lecture courses it may come as a surprise to find that he appears so engaged with his students, not only insofar as his intellectual demands are matched by patient elaboration and argumentation, but also insofar as the students’ problems, questions and concerns often dictate the content of the lectures. As to the growing chorus that sings the lectures’ praise as a gentler way into Adorno’s written work, they are liable to find the 1958–59 Aesthetics an exemplary score. For, in contrast to many of the existing courses, what is historically and theoretically remarkable about the Aesthetics is that it is one of the few published transcripts that shows substantial evidence of having been consulted and annotated by Adorno himself. He returned to the transcript during the preparation of later editions of the course and through the period in which he wrote drafts of what was to be posthumously published as Aesthetic Theory. The years immediately succeeding this lecture course thus figure heavily in the afterlife of its transcript, for it is this period, as Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann note, that inaugurates early attempts towards Aesthetic Theory, formally christened by the first dictation of draft paragraphs in May 1961. Ortland’s editing ensures that readers of the 1958–59 Aesthetics can participate in this origin story of Aesthetic Theory by tracing those passages and thoughts that Adorno felt worthy of marking and marginalia.

Taking this into account, as some prominent commentators have already suggested, it may be tempting to figure the Aesthetics as an introduction to, or identikit sketch of, Aesthetic Theory itself, a rudimentary but otherwise faithful likeness. As such, the relation between these two texts acts in part as a test case for the wider problem of how Adorno’s Nachgelassene Schriften is to be thought alongside his Gesammelte Schriften. Many of the Nachgelassene Schriften editors are acutely aware of this issue, repeating the sediment problems that come with the publishing project. However, too often this is forgotten in secondary philosophical work that furiously grabs at exegesis or an unplumbed term. As regards relating the Aesthetics to Aesthetic Theory, legitimacy for such a manoeuvre may be sought in their shared intellectual content such that one could turn, for instance, to lectures one and five for some remarks on ‘technique’ or four and eleven for clarification of the notion of ‘ugliness’. Straightforwardly to follow through on this, however, would be myopic on at least two counts: on one side, it limits the possibility for wider systematic connection and mediation; on the other side, it produces a false conceptual equivocation based on superficial similarity.

In the first instance, it risks distancing the 1958–59 Aesthetics from his longstanding writings on musicology and music criticism, as well as the important post-War dispute with Sedlmayr during the 1950 Darmstädter Gespräch on ‘The Image of Man in our Time’. It risks severing ties to the extensive 1950s writings that form the 1958 publication of Notes to Literature I. It risks forgetting that 1958 marked the year that Adorno was commissioned by the Schweizer Monatshefte to write an essay on the sociology of music, signalling what was to become a public dispute with Alphons Silbermann. And, it risks occluding from view the three studies on Hegel delivered on each side of the lecture course. Where Aesthetic Theory is concerned, it risks failing adequately to mediate it through the 1960s, through the heavy edits, deletions and revisions that drafts went through, and through that extended set of activities that would interrupt, obstruct and distract from its completion. On this latter point, not only should we have in mind the increasing demands and interests from Adorno’s radicalised students, and the infamous tensions that this brought with it, but also his increasingly public role in German sociological debates and, of course, the intellectual work that went into Negative Dialectics. This without mentioning any of the developments in 1960s art practice, music composition and film direction of which he was not unaware.

In the second instance, through a flagrant betrayal of those familiar comments made in the 1969 preface to the Dialectic of Enlightenment – comments that admit the authors’ commitment to ‘a theory which attributes a temporal core to truth instead of contrasting truth as something invariable to the movement of history’ – there is a danger of stripping the two texts of their differing historical context, character and specificity. The Aesthetics lectures and Aesthetic Theory are not readily equivalent or interchangeable, and the force required to make them so is subtle but decisive. To make a quick conceptual comparison, or to view one as the other made simple, is to assume a base historical stasis between the respective positions. Equally problematically, one would have to lose a sense that the lectures are informally sequential and, despite being terminated early owing to poor health, generally followed a preconceived argumentative arc. Aesthetic Theory, as Adorno himself claimed, is decidedly fragmentary and paratactic. To hastily align the two would be to underestimate the strict argumentative organisation and presentation of the mature work that, however clichéd it might sound, causes such productive interpretative difficulties. Commenting on the editorial challenges that Aesthetic Theory presented, Gretel Adorno and Tiedemann remind us that ‘[t]he problems of a paratactical form of presentation, such as they appear in the last version of Aesthetic Theory, with which Adorno would not have said he was content, are objectively determined: They are the expression of the attitude of thought to objectivity.’ To overlook this is to forego Adorno’s thought itself.

In an aphorism positioned against the mediation of two thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science that ‘seeing things as similar and making things the same is the sign of weak eyes.’ His comments, aimed at those with ‘no eye for the unique’, critique a variation of a familiar conceptual-methodological flaw: the false attribution of identity in an unwitting denial of the dissimilar. Although the work of mediation (vermitteln) does not necessarily conform to the error of reduction in the way Nietzsche wants to claim, losing sight of a thinker’s thought by only recognising resemblances does. Striking, mutatis mutandis, at the issues at hand, there may then be some merit to viewing Adorno as two separate thinkers, neither reducible to the other. More accurately, by reading the Aesthetics as elementary movements toward Aesthetic Theory and not a crude form of it, more may be gained in thinking their systematic connection through argumentative disjunction than there would be in suturing them together. To undertake this one would have to inquire into the problems Adorno encountered, for instance, in the notion of world-feeling (Weltgefühl), to account for the relative demotion of the role of co-enactment (mitvollziehen), or to register any other remarks that were abandoned or deemed insufficiently defensible to be included in Aesthetic Theory’s drafts. In reverse, one could treat the Aesthetics as a prompt to consider the absence in the lectures of his claims on the double character of art as autonomous and fait social, and the various post-1959 conditions that would ensure its introduction. Perhaps providing a better model for thinking the Nachgelassene Schriften and Gesammelte Schriften relation, any attempts of this sort would enrich its philosophical content by way of the necessary intellectual history and division. But the temptation to trade having to labour over Adorno’s written prose for the comparative ease of turning to his lectures persists, and with it the danger that patient interpretive work will be sacrificed in the process. Whether such a sacrifice is executed for the sake of pedagogy or to soften the welcome to a general audience, obscuration or avoidance of intellectual difficulty harbours nothing more than the base theoretical conservatism contained in an injunction to digestible reception.