Indiana University Bloomington

The Persistence of Art: T. W. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory — A Symposium

Friday-Saturday, Nov. 10-11, 2017, Oak Room, Indiana Memorial Union

Conveners: Michel Chaouli (Germanic Studies) and Jeffrey Saletnik (Art History)

Friday, Nov. 10

4 pm: Welcome (Michel Chaouli)

4:15 pm: Espen Hammer, "Thinking of Being versus Dialectical Negativism: Adorno’s Critique of Heidegger."

Abstract: The paper has three parts. In the first part I critically discuss Adorno’s interpretation of Heidegger’s concern with the question of Being. Central to this interpretation is Adorno’s view that Being, for Heidegger, resonates with onto-theological accounts of the highest and most general being. I argue that this approach is misguided. Heidegger distinguishes between his conception of Being and the Platonic vision of essence. The second part identifies a strand of Adorno’s critique that does not depend on the onto-theological reading. This is the critique of fetishization and reification – Adorno’s view that Heidegger falsely seeks to imbue his diagnosis of modernity with a veneer of the timeless and transcendental. In contrast to the Heideggerian call for essential or necessary reference, Adorno insists on difference, differentiation, and absence, a historically indexed self-reflection. In the final part, I propose a reading of Heidegger that takes heed of Adorno’s warnings against fetishization and reification. While far from trying to efface the decisive differences between the two thinkers, I highlight moments in Heidegger that lend themselves to a dialectical interpretation. I argue that these are moments of remembrance and of mourning – moments in which human practice anticipates a more reconciled relation between subject and object.

Espen Hammer is Professor of Philosophy at Temple University, Philadelphia. He is the author of Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the Ordinary (Polity Press, 2002), Adorno and the Political (Routledge, 2006), Philosophy and Temporality from Kant to Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2011), and Adorno’s Modernism: Art, Experience, and Catastrophe (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is the editor of  German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2006) and Theodor W. Adorno II: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers (Routledge, 2015). He is also a co-editor of Stanley Cavell: Die Unheimlichkeit des Ungewöhnlichen (Fischer Verlag, 2002), Pragmatik und Kulturpolitik: Studien zur Kulturpolitik Richard Rortys (Felix Meiner Verlag, 2011), the Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School (Routledge, 2018), and the Blackwell Companion to Adorno (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018). His Norwegian translation of Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft came out in 1995.


Saturday, Nov. 11

10 am: Sianne Ngai, “Transparency and Enigma in the Gimmick as Capitalist Form.”

Moderator: Jonathan Elmer (English, IU).

Abstract: Using examples from philosophy, literature and anthropology, this talk explores the gimmick as a form that simultaneously repels and attracts us and the judgment by which we express this ambivalent mixture of feelings. As both a compromised aesthetic form and an equivocal aesthetic judgment stemming from the recognition of interlinked contradictions surrounding labor, time, and value, the gimmick offers us a surprisingly rich place to think about capitalist aesthetics and the intertwining of technique and enchantment therein.

Sianne Ngai is Professor of English at the University of Chicago. Her work is broadly concerned with the analysis of aesthetic forms and judgments specific to capitalism. Her first book, Ugly Feelings (2005, Harvard University Press), investigates the aesthetics and politics of non-prestigious, non-cathartic negative emotions—envy and irritation as opposed to anger and fear. Her second book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012, Harvard University Press), won the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize for Best Book of 2012. Currently she is at work on Theory of the Gimmick, which explores the uneasy mix of attraction and repulsion produced by the “gimmick” across a range of forms particular to capitalist culture. These include fictions by Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, Gertrude Stein, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, and Henry James; twentieth-century poetic stunts; the photographs of Torbjørn Rødland and video installations of Stan Douglas; reality television; and the novel of ideas.

11:20 am: Coffee break

11:40 am: Surti Singh, “Adorno’s Theory of Aesthetic Play.”

Moderator: Naz Pantaloni (IU Libraries).

Abstract: In this paper I reconstruct a theory of play (Spiel) from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Adorno’s remarks on play appear at first to be largely negative, particularly in relation to his contemporaries such as Benjamin and Marcuse who embraced the revolutionary potential of play in the artwork. Although cautious about the equation of play with freedom and pleasure, Adorno is not wholly dismissive of the concept. Rather, as I demonstrate in my paper, Adorno discusses instances in Aesthetic Theory when play is a form of aesthetic resistance to the rationalized and instrumental forms of knowledge in the twentieth century. I trace how Adorno develops this notion of play through Huizinga’s anthropological theory of play and reading of myth, which highlights a self-awareness of untruth in practices that are taken to be true. I argue that this unity of truth and untruth is central to Adorno’s notion of play and its critical role in modern art.

Surti Singh is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo. She specializes in twentieth-century continental philosophy, critical theory, aesthetics, and feminism. Her recent work appears in The Aesthetic Ground of Critical Theory: New Readings of Benjamin and Adorno (Rowman and Littlefield: 2015), Adorno Studies (2017), New Forms of Revolt: Essays on Kristeva’s Intimate Politics (SUNY: 2017), and Subjectivity and the Political (Routledge: 2017).

1 pm: Lunch break.

2:30 pm: Christopher Wood, “Good Form and Bad Form.”

Moderator: Jeffrey Saletnik (Art History, IU).

Abstract: Adorno’s position on the question of harmony and dissonance, or order and disorder, is ambivalent. He is troubled by but can’t quite discard a normative concept of artistic form. This paper approaches the problem by parsing and assessing the section of Aesthetic Theory on “Semblance and Expression” (Schein and Ausdruck), bringing out the Hegelian aspects of his thinking as well as his indebtedness to early avant-garde discussions of form.

Christopher Wood is Professor and Chair at the German Department, New York University. Before coming to NYU he was Carnegie Professor of the History of Art at Yale University. In 2002 he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wood is the author of Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (1993, reissued with new Afterword, 2014); Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art (2008) (awarded the Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship); and Anachronic Renaissance (with Alexander Nagel) (2010).  He is the editor of The Vienna School Reader:  Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s (2000).

3:50 pm: Coffee break

4:10 pm: Adrian Daub, “Tone, Color, Program — Mimesis and Metaphysical Experience in 19th Century Music.”

Moderator: Sonia Velázquez (Comparative Literature, IU).

Abstract: Theodor Adorno was an implacable critic of the commodification of music, but he was equally attuned to the objective tendencies within certain types of music which made them ready fodder for commodification. Yet when it came to “technologies” of nineteenth century music that did exactly that – the manipulation of tone color, for instance, or the use of musical programs – Adorno was often more nuanced and forgiving than his invectives against the culture industry would suggest. In fact, he seems to insist that even such thoroughly commodified music can, under the right circumstances, yield what he terms “metaphysical experience.” This talk asks why this is so, and how musical mimeticism would yield metaphysical experience.

Adrian Daub is Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Stanford University, where he directs the Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies. His books include Uncivil Unions: The Metaphysics of Marriage in German Idealism and Romanticism (Chicago UP, 2012), Tristan’s Shadow: Sexuality and the Total Work of Art after Wagner (Chicago UP, 2013), and Four-Handed Monsters: Four-Hand Piano Playing and Nineteenth Century Domestic Culture (Oxford UP, 2014).

The Center for Theoretical Inquiry in the Humanities gratefully acknowledges support from the College Arts & Humanities Institute, as well as from the Burke Fund of the Department of Art History, the Department of Germanic Studies, and the Department of Philosophy, all at Indiana University.


Symposium on Jean-François Lyotard's The Differend

Friday, April 13, 2018. Details to be announced.

Confirmed speakers:


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