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<eyebeam><blast> Adorno's legacy

(the enigma of the work of art)

Could Theodor Adorno still have an impact on contemporary thought,
especially in relation to art and criticism on the Net, I asked
previously. Since there were some responses to my wish to reconsider
some theories and models of thinkers in the recent past, I want to add
here some thoughts in relation to Adorno's legacy. To start with.

Beginning this year a conference was held in New York on one of Adorno's
major works, 'The Dialectic of Enlightment'. It is a book that Adorno
wrote, shortly after World War II, together with another thinker of the
Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer. Anton Rabinbach, an influential Adorno
specialist, concluded in the final panel that various interesting
analyses had come up during the conference, but that surprisingly nobody
had refered to one of the most important aspects of Adorno and
Horkheimers arguments, namely their persistent warning against the
dangers of a technologically rationalised world. Instead of discussing
in depth what relevance these warnings might have for to-day's culture
and society, the book was mainly dismissed as being irrelevant,outdated.

And yet Adorno's theories still seem relevant to me. The digital age,
one might argue, can be seen as just another disguise of the omnipotent
belief in the Enlightment and the capacity of the human mind to master
nature. In the book 'In Search of Wagner' (a dialectical analysis of the
compositions of this German composer, whose music was embraced by the
Nazi's), Adorno talks about the 'Wonders of Technology'. By this term he
refers to the total mastering of techniques and material. Wagner masters
his music, Adorno argues, by the wide range of innovative musical
techniques, such as the use of the 'leitmotif' as a kind of allegorical
element that undermines the melodious line in the composition, or his
particular way of colouring by unconventional combinations of
instruments. But the reason Wagner does this, thus Adorno, is to
rationally construct the realm of a delirious phantasmagoria. A
Gesammtkunstwerk or Music drama in which the listener is completely
absorbed into an ocean of sounds and images, as if it were some
deceptive fata-morgana. This intention of Wagner represents the
dangerous other side of technological wonder: an 'intoxication of

Wonder versus intoxication. Here we are at the core of Adorno's
dialectical thought. On the one hand music can, if technically mastered,
establish wonders, art. But when it is used as a tool to intoxicate, it
may also turn into its opposite: technology becomes hostile to
consiousness. Adorno's model of thought, based on the idea of the
dialectic of opposites, reminds one of another writer on technology,
Oswald Spengler, who viewed technology, apart from a will to master, as
a Faustian pact with the devil. Yet Adorno came up with a more
philosophical framework for the complex orchestration of opposities,
which he called the 'negative dialectics'. The idea of contrasts that
never resolve but proceed dialectically provides us with an adequate
model to think of the effects of contemporary technology, with all its
positive and negative aspects included. Take the 'Wired circle'. From
the early days of the Net, they have been the spokesmen for the wonders
of technology. Yet they confiscated the New Media in such a way, that
the critical attitute of their fans is giving way for intoxication.

Another reason to take Adorno seriously is that he insists on the
interdependence of art and society, just as much as Nettime does today.
Adorno believed in the critical quality of autonomous art, in contrast
to Walter Benjamin, who thought of cinema and the mass-media as
potential revolutionary forces.'Art becomes social', Adorno writes, 'by
its opposition to society. It occupies this relation only as autonomous
art.' Art criticises society, he maintains, 'by cristalizing in itself
as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing
social norms and qualifying as 'socially usefull'.' Art, thus, is some
form of resistance to the norms of society through its inner-esthetic

I do not yet know of an analytic model in Net Criticism, concerned with
contemporary (digital) art, that leaves so much space for the autonomous
aspects of art. Nettime, for example, claims that art should always, and
exclusively, be read within the broader economical/political structures,
and does not, as Jordan so rightly has criticised, take into account
what Adorno has called the enigma, or 'das Ratsel charakter' of art, the
thing-in-and-for-itself. The sophistication of Adorno's model - even
though coloured by 20th century modernist thought - is that it relates
artworks to 'faits socials' without reading them solely within one or
another political programme. Adorno rejects artworks that strive for
literal 'social affects' or moral statements. The way art protests
against society, in his view, is much more subtle, lies inside the work.
Nettime, as far as I know it from the mailinglist about a year ago and
from the Documenta Site, is not concerned with art as (also) something
worth in itself, unglued from these social and political aspects.
Therefore it will hardly seduce or convince anyone. Although the level
to which one believes that art could be relevant to contemporary society
differs (from passionate defenders of the importance of esthetics (Rudi
Fuchs) to professionals who emphasise the political content of art
(Catherine David), everyone - at least that is my impression - agrees to
a certain degree on art's relative autonomy, however dialectical it may
be. So if there is any consensus in the artworld, it's exactly about the
enigmatic autonomous poetics of art.

I must confess, I am always seduced by an artwork. As soon as I get
moved or intrigued by a work of art, regardless of the time it is made
(it may be a painting by Seurat, a contemporary piece by Fabrice Hybert
or digital visual pun by Obselete), I get carried away by how it is
visually and technically constructed, how the meaning is mediated on all
levels of complexity. In that sense I feel close to the structural
analyses of signifiers by Roland Barthes and Derrida, methods that give
insight in the complexity of the framework, analysing all that is going
on inside'outside the frame of a painting, or, I should say now, the
screen. Yet in the end, there is always Adorno, whose writings, when you
become too much absorbed in art's autonomy, ring the bell: don't forget
you're part of the world, and don't ever make the mistake of becoming
undialectically intoxicated. 

Sjoukje van der Meulen

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