Term Paper: Adorno's Negative Theology

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[. . .] In the realm of art there can be questioning, opposition, tension and, potentially, revolution.

In this sense, the transcendence of religion becomes the transcendence of social and political transformation. To paraphrase the observation quoted above, Adorno looks to religion migrating into the autonomous work of art, rather than to "religious art" per se. It is revealing that Adorno naturally tended to employ a language imbued with religious meaning when giving an account of the aspiration to a better society, a better way of being, that he believed had to be at the heart of all valid human endeavor. His long-time friend and collaborator Max Horkheimer emphasized the importance of this point in an interview given just after Adorno's death in 1969:

[Adorno] always talked of longing for the other without using the words heaven or eternity or beauty or anything like that. And I believe that is in fact the greatness of his questioning; that when he enquired into the world he ultimately meant the 'other', but he was convinced that the 'other' could not be grasped by description, but rather by conceiving the world as it is under the aspect that it is not the only one towards which our thoughts are directed.

Adorno's own position on the significance of art in providing a realm in which such a conception could be nurtured echoes Horkheimer's view of the significance of religion in the development of human societies:

Historically, these concepts have found their most common expression in religion. The truth of religion, according to Horkheimer, lies in the individual and social needs it expresses: the need for a better, more just world ... Acceptance of a transcendental being is motivated by dissatisfaction with existing conditions, and it is precisely belief in such a being that sustains hope for a better world.

For Horkheimer, the role once played by religion has been subsumed into a mass political programme of revolutionary transformation. For Adorno, such socio-political movements were not his main concern, believing as he did that the dialectical process through which history moved on was an internal rather than an external process, and he saw needs that had once been answered by religion finding their only means of expression in the modern world through art.

This commitment to the importance of art in enabling a conception of human potentialities not accessible through any other means was complicated by the advent of modernism. Adorno's attitude to modernism was complex and paradoxical, but was fundamentally pessimistic. He saw the history of human development since the "Enlightenment" of the eighteenth century as one not of progress, but of regression, in an external sense of the whole political, social and aesthetic environment of human life, and (crucially) in an internal, intuitive sense as well. This theorization is most fully laid out in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, published in 1947, which Adorno wrote with Max Horkheimer while the two German theorists were in wartime exile in the United States. In the preface to this work Adorno goes so far as to claim that modern man has "a fallen nature," which is evident throughout modern history, culture, philosophy, and economic and social organization. This reflects his ironic use of the term "enlightenment" and his view that the social and intellectual phenomenon known as "the Enlightenment" had essentially turned upon itself and brought about its own destruction. Enlightenment, argues Adorno (with Horkheimer), was supposed to have ushered in a new age of individual freedom, choice and pluralism and the triumph of reason, bringing about demythologization. In fact, it has produced precisely the contrary effect. Modern individuals find themselves driven more and more into conformity and uniformity rather than choice and individuality, and, far from being ruled by reason, are still subject to myth as a guiding influence in their lives both individually and collectively. Myth no longer acts primarily through the forms of organized religion, but provides many of the structures and intellectual systems that the religion-myths provided. Adorno's most important point about all these developments is that they have been located at an unconscious level; so that modern man is able to imagine himself to be free when in reality he is not; modern mass culture, with its deadening of the senses and crushing of individuality, plays a vital role in bringing about this ignorance of modern individuals as to the reality of their own position. In effect the old restrictions of religious and social repressive pressures are still present, but in different forms, and forms that are not recognized for what they are: "Freedom to choose an ideology -- since ideology always reflects economic coercion -- everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same."

Adorno follows Marx in seeing this degenerative phenomenon associated with the enlightenment and its legacies as essentially the product of economics -- specifically, of modern industrial and investor capitalism. Thus culture, including artistic production, is transformed into a tool of the capitalist class rather than being a true expression of human creativity and individuality, and embodies uniformity and an aversion to questioning and change. The result, argues Adorno, was a "circle of manipulation" and a society "alienated from itself."

Adorno's deep aversion to the producers and manipulators of modern culture -- film, music, print -- reflects his conviction that the "culture industry" (as he calls it) is not concerned with truth, creativity or freedom but with creating and manipulating consumers. People become objectified, their very imaginations become objectified, and subjected to the power of exploitative capitalism.

In summary, it is important to note that Adorno is not a believer in the idea of progress, but rather of its opposite -- degeneration and decay. He is convinced that modern history is the history of decline, and that this is as much a spiritual or inward matter as it is an outward, environmental, social and political one. Adorno used the example of art in many of his writings to illustrate this point. He saw earlier artistic movements such as Romanticism and Expressionism as reflecting the presence of a current of protest against the establishment, embodied in an assertion of individuality, creativity, and difference, and believed that no similar movements existed in his own day. A brilliant musicologist in his own right, Adorno gave particular attention to music in this respect, viewing (for example) jazz, which he detested, as the epitome of the valueless, decadent culture of the modern age. Jazz did not create, question or develop, merely re-iterated and endlessly devoured itself. It went nowhere, which is where Adorno believed the age that had produced it was going.

Adorno thus, in many respects, regarded 'modern art' as exemplifying the negativity that he saw as essential to the contemporary human condition. He saw much modern art as compromised by its own compromise with the norms of the society that produced it, and therefore as unable to fulfil the almost visionary function he believed was essential to art; such works, he argued, seek to critique the society of which it is part, but simultaneously "makes an uncompromising reprint"

of that same society, sacrificing autonomy and differentiation as a result. He also saw the modern art of the post-war period as lacking in tension and critical engagement -- and, as a result, as producing a negation of the innovative tensions and energies of the art produced in the early twentieth century period he referred to as "high modernism"

(it is notable that the historical context for his Aesthetic Theory was provided by the rise of modernism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and its decline during the 1940s and 1950s

). Furthermore, such artistic production denies the essential mainspring of art's power to differentiate itself, its aesthetic qualities, by de-aestheticizing itself and presenting qualities of fragmentation and dissonance. The tensions embodied in the society that produces modern art are reflected in that art, but in a way that Adorno calls "non-repressive," allowing "non-integratable" elements to persist without the resolving synthesis this dialectical process requires.

So what role does this leave for religion in art? Adorno theorizes art as autonomous, but not self-referential and self-justifying. It cannot depend solely upon its own internal elements for its meaning and significance to be understood, but must be analyzed from an external viewpoint. If it is to fulfil its function as a means through which the development of humanity towards a better condition is to be expressed, it must also be anti-ideological and embody the notion of negativity. Adorno's conclusion from this argument is that modern art can no longer sustain "religious" art because religion itself is a kind of ideology -- it is itself the kind of institution against which art, if it is to fulfil its definition of truth content, must protest. Art is therefore anti-ideological in its essence, serving as an oppositional force of the humane, the free, the anti-repressive, against the dominance of powerful… [END OF PREVIEW]

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