Germanic Languages | Seminar in German Literature
G825 | 14374-14375 | B. Robinson


Topic: Aesthetic Modernity: For and Against the 20th Century


This course on contemporary aesthetic and political theory begins
with Alain Badiou’s provocative plea, The Century (2005), which
calls for understanding the 20th century not as an era of ideology,
but as an epoch moved by a “passion for the real.” The century,
according to Badiou, is not to be characterized by its violent
aberrations—as a sheer pretender to the good, without any truth of
its own—but by its practical thinking about the project of novelty.
It is far from obvious what it means to attribute reality to
something so ponderous and diffuse as the century. Our concern is to
understand the meaning and consequences of such a claim under the
rubric “aesthetic modernity,” a term whose welding of the social-
historical term “modernity” with the metaphysical term “aesthetics”
is emblematic of our line of questioning. If the century is to be
apprehended, our central theses goes, then it is through its
artistic thought. Our task is thus to explain the relationship of
the art work to the 20th century, and thereby to clarify what each
of side of that relationship is, “art work,” on the one hand,
and “20th century,” on the other. We develop a working vocabulary by
reading three texts aimed at uncovering the particular status of
artistic reference to the present: Roman Ingarden’s The Ontology of
the Work of Art (1928-1961), Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory
(1970) and Frederic Jameson’s A Singular Modernity (2002). Rooted in
the phenomenological tradition, Ingarden is concerned with
distinguishing an aesthetic ontology from both an empirical realism
and an idealism, and also with distinguishing among distinct ways of
being for literature, music, picture, architecture and film. In a
sense, he gives us a propaedeutic for contemporary media theories.
Adorno turns our attention to the complex relationship between form
and thematic content under the circumstances of developed
capitalism, raising questions alternatively about art’s separation
from, turn against or affirmation of the present. Jameson engages
Adorno’s association of modernity and capitalism, but argues for the
impoverishment of the conceptual field of modernity in its
paradoxical insistence on novelty, difference, progress and freedom
under conditions of identity and interchangeability. Our readings of
these key texts direct us not toward a synthetic theory, but toward
elaborating concepts and distinctions that are useful both for our
own particular inquiries and for discriminating among major
approaches in contemporary aesthetic and political thought.

The course is open to students without German language background,
although graduate students in German are encouraged to read Adorno
in German (Ingarden is not readily available in German).

Course readings:
Alain Badiou, The Century (Cambridge: Polity, 2007) ISBN-10:
0745636322; ISBN-13: 978-0745636320

Roman Ingarden, The Ontology of the Work of Art: Musical Art,
Picture, Architecture and Film (Athens: Ohio UP, 1987) ISBN-10:
0821405551; ISBN-13: 978-0821405550

Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis:
U Minnesota P, 1998) ISBN-10: 0816618003; ISBN-13: 978-0816618002

[For students in Germanic Studies: Aesthetische Theorie (Frankfurt:
Suhrkamp, 2002) ISBN-10: 3518276026; ISBN-13: 978-3518276020]

Frederic Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the
Present (London: Verso, 2002) ISBN-10: 1859844502; ISBN-13: 978-
1859844502