Some of you may have preconceptions about Theodor Adorno: a little bitter if not snooty, impossibly thick prose, a staunch defender of modernism, something-something about domination and the culture industry— and the reputation is partly deserved. I get it. However, don't let this stop you from dipping into his greatest work, the Aesthetic Theory. It's not only his greatest work, but in my opinion, our greatest work of aesthetics, and the one most badly needed in contemporary life and culture. Adorno is, above all, a champion for uncooperative, truthful, "emphatic," autonomous cultural production. "Autonomy" here does not mean hermetic separation from the forces, institutions, or power structures that might compromise a work, as it was sometimes interpreted in the 20th century. Quite the opposite. Great works create autonomy out of their very struggles and engagement with those forces, institutions, and power structures, and in so doing, prefigure emancipation for us in the wider world. For Adorno, "every work is a forcefield" which negotiates without resolving or escaping the contradictions of modern life, the contradictions between the demands of form, content, subject, object, construction, expression, historical conditions, productive forces, social systems, genre, cliché, pleasure, expectation, boredom, aesthetic taboos, success, failure, beauty, ugliness— even what Adorno calls the "immanent necessity" of the work itself. What's important is how a work negotiates these tensions, and whether it does so boldly and truthfully. What's really not important is whether you or anyone else "likes" the work, whether it brings glory or fortune to its makers, or whether the work satisfies some pretedetermined aim or function of art and culture. Culture is not here to satisfy, flatter or fit into the world as it is, but to negate it and fight to bring another one into being, even if only as a glimmer.
This Assembly on Adorno's Aesthetic Theory— to be held this spring at Navel, if selected— is not so much going to be about Adorno or even Aesthetic Theory, nor is it going to be a reading group (we're not delusional: the book is pretty long and slow-going). Instead, it's going to be about a critical, dialectical way of thinking about culture and cultural production. Rather than reading the book from cover to cover, we'll take short passages and tease out how some of the big ideas— "truth content," "mimesis," "immanent necessity"— all work or grind together dialectically. Most importantly, we're going to make the case for Adorno's relevance, by thinking through these passages in relation to current cultural forms and practices of all sorts. Participants of the assembly can contribute their own texts or projects to the cause, help out by reviewing, editing, or giving feedback on texts or projects, or just breeze through out of curiosity. I'll also be using this assembly as an opportunity to resuscitate my campaign to get Adorno a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (more details here and to follow).