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Jatin Waglé

Resistant Forms and Critical Subjectivities:
Reading Adorno in Our Times and Newer Places

It is by now a truism that the question of agency in scholarly writings is tied up with that of resistance. However, there appears to be no unanimity on what might constitute discursive opposition. A variety of approaches and strategies that oppose contemporary hermeneutic frames may be witnessed in the writings that are declared as “difficult”.

There seems to be some sort of agreement across approaches that the question of resistance of and in discourses cannot be separated from their treatment of form. Experimentation with newer, self-aware, presentational forms is an inevitable, historical process. In other words, oppositional strategies of the past may be absorbed in other times and those developed in particular contexts may be rendered complicit in changed environs. Therefore, we may need a nuanced theory of the forms of (re)presentations to comprehend the complex politics of writing resistance. Here, I wish to address the Darstellungsformen developed and reflected upon in the writings of T. W. Adorno, especially in the context of their translation and reception in the English language criticism.

Adorno’s commitment to resistant writing is central to his oeuvre; the concern about the relationship between content and form, as also what may constitute the language of critical philosophical writing, is articulated very early in his career as author. Moreover, it remains an abiding feature of his writings as he continued to reflect on and practise complex and oppositional forms that could articulate his particular vision of Critical Theory. Peter Uwe Hohendahl (1995: 220) defines Adorno’s project “as a relentless self-conscious critique of ossification as it is reflected in the language of positivism or ontology”, or even in the orthodox strands within the Marxist tradition.

It is possible to distinguish three significant aspects regarding Adorno’s rigorous relationship with the question of discursive forms of resistance. Firstly, he worked with a rather idiosyncratic theory of language comparable in its emphases with his theories of art and culture. Although he recognized the significance of the fundamental and everyday aspect of communication in language, he was extremely critical of what he saw as its growing complicity with the overarching systems of domination. As a counterpoint, he posed a complex theory of poetic or literary language that could resist the lure of commerce. Secondly, he honed forms which challenged habituated readings, and thereby, the reader’s unproblematic relationship with words, texts and readings. To this effect, he worked with genres conventionally understood as being unscholarly or non-academic. Thirdly, his quest was to shape forms that accorded primacy to the object (Vorrang des Objekts), spoke for and through the particular, and approximated to the non-identical, aconceptual, and aesthetic. In the process, he developed an idiom, Adorno-Deutsch, famed for its intractable difficulty.

Though Adorno did not articulate a systematic theory of language, his complete oeuvre is a complex elaboration of an unstated philosophy of language and presentational form, seen to be inseparable from his major substantive utterances. For Adorno (1992: 194), language is an intertwinement of two distinct yet inseparable dimensions – the ‘intentional’ language of communication and commerce with its affinity to the logic of domination, and an authentic, poetic, or expressive dimension which is threatened by the former and yet seeks to elude it. Thus, he saw his own writing as a political struggle against the gradual and possibly inevitable disintegration of language.

In his complex piece on the question of intelligibility in Hegel’s allegedly obscure writings, “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel”, Adorno extends his theory of language to that of the language of philosophy. While commenting on the inadvertent, hidden processes through which Hegel’s writing style takes on a music-like quality, he suggests that the inherent nature of philosophy should actually bring it closer to the literary, mimetic rather than the intentional, communicative dimension of language: “Philosophy as a whole is allied with art in wanting to rescue, in the medium of the concept, the mimesis that the concept represses…” (Adorno 1993b: 123).

However, Adorno’s most programmatic statement about presentational forms and their structures and import can be found in his famed piece on “The Essay as Form”. He defends this unscholarly form for its indirect expression of the consciousness of nonidentity, its radical refusal to reduce its substance to a principle, and its fragmentariness. Above all, he champions this genre for its rebellion against the dogma that sees the individual, transitory, and temporal experience as being unworthy of philosophical enquiry. Adorno’s theory of philosophical discourse should be seen, in this context, as an integral dimension of his rejection of the philosophy of the first principles.

It may be stated that the question of Adorno’s theory and praxis of resistant forms constitutes one of the most crucial moments in his English language reception. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (1997: 3) suggests that the relative indigence of the Anglophone Adorno criticism gestures towards a deeper, more basic and continued miscomprehension of his work in the Anglo-American context. She states that the English language criticism on Adorno has undervalued the “aesthetic dimension” of his work, and by extension, neglected his insistence on the “presentational form [Darstellungsform] of his work”. For her, it is the aesthetic aspect of Adorno’s oeuvre that articulates the inseparability of form and substance in philosophy – the configurational or constellational form that enunciates aconceptual rationality. She goes on to claim that to locate Adorno’s true actuality for the present we must delve deeper into the connection drawn in his work “between the aesthetic dimension and a nondiscursive form of truth”.

It could be observed that Adorno’s carriage into English transfigures the English language and the Anglophone intellectual discourse, as much as it does Adorno’s ‘original’ writings in German and perhaps creates a new, exilic discourse that is neither the Adorno of the German ‘original’ nor the English language before it came into contact with the writings of the consummate “late stylist” (Nicholsen 1997: 8; Said 2002: 193-208). It is not only the language of the translations of Adorno’s works that bears the marks of this process, but even that of the second-order discourse appears to be affected by Adorno’s style. Thus, it may be said that the English language Adorno-discourse has flowed deep into the idiom of English language cultural and philosophical criticism. A close reading of the English language translations of Adorno reveals that self-aware, literal renderings of Adorno’s sentences are likely to turn out to be more coherent and comprehensible than the unselfconscious versions that try to make him ‘readable’ in English. It is clear that the task of translating Adorno’s words demands a grasp of the multiple and complex traditions of German Idealism, Critical Theory and philosophical aesthetics. However, above all, it seems to call for a self-conscious and critical engagement with both the form of his work, as also with the very project of translation.

Although the English language Adorno criticism does not accord centrality to the question of presentational and linguistic forms in his writings, it is possible to draw out at least three broad strands of criticism that respond to the question in a more or less direct manner. As Hohendahl (1995: 217) suggests, the Anglophone reception of Adorno’s theory of language and writing may be viewed in the context of the post-Adornian linguistic turn in cultural theory, of both the poststructuralist and the Habermasian variety.

The first approach appears to follow the critical insights developed by Albrecht Wellmer, where the “rigid features” of Adorno’s aesthetic theory are cited as a manifestation of what Wellmer identifies as a flawed, anachronistic notion of autonomous subjectivity in Adorno. In such criticism, Adorno’s writings are seen as the “univocal” representations of a lonely subject unwilling or unable to converse with other voices. However, only a few Anglophone critics appear to subscribe to the Wellmerian solution that seeks to redraft Adorno’s theory of forms on the Habermasian intersubjective-linguistic coordinates.

In what may be described as a postmodernist response to the question of discursive forms in Adorno, the Wellmerian critique regarding the question of univocality appears to be extended. In a move that seeks to both historicize Adorno’s aporetic constructions and distance them from contemporary cultural criticism, his writings, especially his reflections on culture and art, are portrayed as an illustration of an outmoded modernist worldview. In such depictions, formal experimentation and the ensuing difficulty of writing are viewed not as attempts at resistance but as the forbidding gestures of an elitist seeking to perpetuate the distinction between the higher pursuits of art and philosophy on the one hand and the low culture of everyday life on the other.

The third point of view, which could loosely be described as poststructuralist, appears to be far more ambivalent as regards Adorno’s attempt to construct a philosophical discourse, which recognizes the mediation of truth through language, and seeks to theorise the aconceptual and the particular without reducing it to a set of principles. The poststructuralist appropriation of Adorno has as its primary focus his conception of negative dialectics and its unrelenting epistemological questioning, as also his caustic critique of the Enlightenment. In this narrative, Adorno’s assault in Negative Dialectics on traditional epistemology of identity and his valorisation of the particular, the nonconceptual and the nonidentical are rendered as instances of proto-poststructuralism. Another approach within this school of thought seeks to read Adorno to reflect on the questions raised by poststructuralist theory. (Buhler 1999: 163) In such a mapping, emerges a pattern of shared philosophical affinities: contrapuntal readings of traditional philosophy, distrust of philosophical systems, critique of rationality, and the inclination towards the marginal. Thus, poststructuralism and Adorno’s philosophical writings are depicted as “parallel efforts to recover an ethics of alterity by way of an immanent overcoming of the tradition of philosophical idealism.” (Buhler 1999: 163-4)

However, none of these major modes of English language Adorno-criticism engages with the theory and praxis of his Darstellungsformen in an immanent manner. The post-Habermasian, Wellmerian and the postmodernist perspectives read his oeuvre selectively. The aphoristic, paratactic constructions in Adorno are seen to be lifeless figures creating a fetish of difficulty. Adorno’s engagement with a variety of genres of presentation from the aphorism to the radio talk is levelled out into a unitary characterization. As his formal experimentation is reduced to a set of techniques, the possibility of a multivalent reading is denied to his writings. Many of the postmodernist critiques of Adorno’s style of writing appear to be at best only a partial assessment of his oeuvre, in that they do not take into account for instance his late and occasional writings on the question of democracy. Similarly, the poststructuralist appropriation seems to be inattentive to those moments in Adorno’s writings that preserve the concept of totality and value conceptual rigour.

Thus, the English language reception of Adorno appears to be flounder on the question of form of his writings. In the first place, Adorno’s afterlife in English is an intensely self-conscious, hybridized, and ambivalent oeuvre, struggling with what it sees as the difficulty of his writings and beset with an awareness of its own “lack” vis-à-vis the “original”. Secondly, Adorno’s journey into the Anglophone world of letters is a reciprocal, multilayered process where, in most cases, interpretive subjectivities struggle to come to terms with and synthesize dissimilar orientations. Thus, the ‘difficulties’ involved in the passage of Adorno’s complex and resistant forms into English should also be viewed as creative possibilities as much as simultaneous linguistic, intellectual, and cultural anomalies, in that Adorno’s translation traverses the narrow precipices between understanding and confusion, familiarity and alterity. The narrative of Adorno’s afterlife in English could be rendered in terms of distortion, appropriation, misinterpretation, and loss; however, it should also be retold as a story of a deep intellectual engagement whose lived parallel may be witnessed in Adorno’s experience as an émigré in the English-speaking countries.


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