[csaa-forum] MSCP course Adorno's Aesthetic Theory begins Tuesday 6.30pm UniMelb

MSCP Convenor convenor at mscp.org.au
Thu May 1 08:45:25 CST 2014

Please forward the following information on to interested students and


*Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: "Plenipotentiary for the In-Itself that Does
not Yet Exist"*Lecturer: Bryan Cooke

6 Tuesdays, 6.30-8.30pm May 6 - June 10

Room 0106, Law Building, University of Melbourne

For enrolment & recommended readings:

Course Description

In the very first line of his posthumously published masterpiece, Theodor
Adorno says:
"It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self evident anymore,
not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to

But while this statement is surely uncontroversial (especially by the
standards of its author who, not for nothing, wrote under the pseudonym
"Rottweiler") it is perhaps because, rather than despite, the
aforementioned obviousness that this non-self-evidence of everything about
art (though obviously known to artists), is almost never discussed by the
kind of breathy-voiced servants of Culture who, in assuring their readers
that art or philosophy is still important/"consoling"/exciting or urgent,
more often than not demonstrate the total destitution of that which they
praise far more effectively than any cynic.

In contrast, of all twentieth century philosophers, no-one has approached,
not only the question of art, but the broader problem of the *aesthetic*,
i.e. of the realm of affects, sensation, the sensory and the sensual, more
seriously (with more philosophical seriousness) than Theodor Adorno.  But
where other thinkers might — ostensibly as testimony to their *love* of
theatre, film, dance, literature or the plastic arts - happily declare
whole continents of experience/reality to be places where artists thrive
and touch the ineffable, but where fusty dialecticians could only stumble
in Laputan stupefaction —  Adorno neither attempts to deduce art from a
table of categories, nor to offer philosophy the "modest" task of further
elucidating  (what is surely supposed to be) an already luminous object.
Instead, Adorno's aesthetic-theory is not a theory *of* the aesthetic, but
instead the product of a kind of desperate and inspired incorporation
through which (as in Freud's description of  melancholia) both art and
philosophy are together entombed (or "encrypted"). Reduced to a cipher, and
occupying the threshold between life and death, the undigestible remnants
of art and philosophy give rise to a proliferation of phantasms — shards of
concepts and memory-fragments of aesthetic (i.e. sensuous/desiring)
experience — that, untethered from their original context, are given over
to a conceptual-sensory delirium which only the most painstaking act of
*composition* can temporarily arrest.

*Aesthetic Theory*, therefore, does not offer a *theory* of art, nor does
it attempt the (inevitably twee sounding) task of an "artistic" theory.
Instead, Adorno does something which (anticipating perhaps Francois
Laruelle's project of a non-philosophy) juxtaposes the two exhausted
Beckettian tramps of philosophy and art (strangely vital in their very
destitution) in the name of producing something entirely different: the
monstrous offspring of their illicit, but also ineluctable encounter.  Thus
and to repeat: Aesthetic Theory is not a book *about* art or even a book of
philosophy (although it is far more recognisably the latter than the
former.) Instead, it is a kind of dialectical soliloquy, apostrophising two
silent and absent interlocutors, whose *actual* subject matter is  "truth",
conceived as the elusive, but never renounced desideratum of both art and
thought.  It is also, perhaps surprisingly, a book about "happiness", about
the paradoxes and renunciations (but also the renunciations of
renunciation!) that something (art, life, thought) must go through in order
to be faithful both to the pain and to the promise of happiness which, for
Adorno, are the alpha and omega of art, thought and politics.

The purpose of the course is to use Aesthetic Theory (this "late work" of
Adorno's corpus) to offer students an introduction to  Adorno's thought.
Along the way, I hope to give a sense of just how little Adorno resembles
the caricature which is so often passed down by glib cultural history: the
dour mandarin who scorns  "popular art" for its (ostensible) frivolity, and
who demands instead that spirits already broken by their experience of
(systematic) injustice should shut up and learn to love Schoenberg.  That
this is image of Adorno is an absurd slander is both an axiom and (as such)
orienting principle of the course.

*Lecture Schedule*

Lecture One will introduce the book and the course.  Further explicating
the aims and the structure of the course, I shall speaking *briefly* on
Adorno's life and work, on some of the reasons that philosophy in the
nineteenth and twentieth century turns more and more to aesthetics before
attempting to say a few things about some of the "Adorno myths" (see above)
that may keep us from understanding the work . Although I intend to address
the opening of the book by the end of the lecture (at least the section on
"Art, Society and Aesthetics" this lecture is mainly intended as a

Lecture Two:
Will attempt to address the first three sections of the book, i.e. form the
end of the section "Art, Society and Aesthetics" to "On the Categories of
the Ugly, the Beautiful and Technique." and time permitting on "Natural

Lecture Three:
Will offer an account of the sections from "Natural Beauty"  and "Semblance
and Expression"  and the crucial sections on "Enigmaticalness, truth
content, metaphysics"

Lecture Four, the heart of the course will be concerned with what is
arguably the heart of the book, the sections on "Coherence and Meaning" and

Lecture Five will be devoted to the sections: "Toward a Theory of the
Artwork" and "Universal and Particular".  We may also begin the section on

Lecture Six: will conclude the discussion of the book with the Paralipomena
and the "Theories on the Origin of Art Excursus".

*Primary Readings*:
The text used in the course will be Robert Hullot-Kentor's translation of
"Aesthetic Theory" (Continuum).   Hullot-Kentor's translation is infinitely
superior to the earlier version, largely because Hullot-Kentor is both a
brilliant translator and perhaps the world's greatest Adornian.

*Supplementary Readings*:
Other readings (probably essays/short sections  from Prisms, Notes to
Literature, Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia) will be uploaded
to the dropbox account.  The purpose of these readings will be to serve as
both introductions to aspects of Adorno's thought that are evoked (and
sometimes invoked) in the text without being explicated and as points for
"further reading" for particularly keen students.

*Difficulty*: Intermediate.
No prior understanding of Adorno's work will be assumed and I will try
where possible to change the insistent dialectic into a form that is
accessible, even at the risk of inevitably outraging Adorno's doubtless
already unquiet shade.  In addition, I shall try, time permitting, to
relate certain passages of the book Adorno's oeuvre in general: in
particular some material from Prisms, and Notes to Literature and Minima
Moralia. Finally, the book, in Hullot-Kentor's brilliant translation is in
no way turgid in the manner of, say,  the more abstruse parts [sic] of
Hegel's phenomenology. Nonetheless, the text does entail difficulties of a
different order (putting aside the issue of translation) not so much
because of its range of cultural references, but because of its
determinedly dialectical structure of almost every sentence.  In  summary,
these lectures are intended as an *introduction* to a book, which happens
to go out of its way to avoid being squashed into the kind of sweeping
formulations to which introductions are prone.  At the same time, Adorno,
as a speculative thinker, on the model of Hegel, hates nothing more than
the pious gesture of declaring something ineffable.  Like Hegel, he knows
that the only way to access reality, or unleash something's truth content
is to make a pass at the Real and be broken (inevitably) against its rock.


MSCP Convenor,
Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy.
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