(JUNE 2007) 25-31
The Critical Role of Art: Adorno between Utopia and Dystopia Paolo A. Bolaños
In the drama of conscious existence, it is not theory and practice that encounter each other, but enigma and transparency, phenomenon and insight. If enlightenment does occur, it does so no through the establishment of a dictatorship of lucidity but as the dramatic selfillumination of existence. – Peter Sloterdijk1
Introduction eading or hearing about Theodor Adorno’s ideas always results in quibbles. He strikes many as a naïve philosopher because of his reversal of concept and object; some see him as an anarchist because of his relentless critique of rationality; while to others he simply does not make sense, and especially a critique of society based on negative dialectics simply does not make sense to many! These points, however, are precisely some of the key elements of his thought; without a deeper apprehension of these main themes, it would be impossible to arrive at a level-headed appraisal of his philosophy. Adorno’s philosophy revolves around the idea that the history of rationality has relapsed into barbarism; that irrationality itself inheres in rationality. In Minima Moralia, he writes, “Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.”2 What modernity or Enlightenment promises are the liberation of men from fear and the establishment of their sovereignty through the disenchantment of the world and the dissolution of myths;3 this is how we are seduced by Enlightenment. It was through the triumph of knowledge over our caprices that liberation was supposedly achieved. For Adorno, however, this promise of liberation is but another caprice, and a subtle one. The promise hides behind the façade of rationality—of enlightened knowledge—but its real nature is one that contradicts its façade. “There is to be no mystery” in 1 Thinker on the Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism, trans. by Jamie Owen Daniel (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), xxv-xxvi. 2 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. by E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005), 15. 3 Cf. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by John Cumming (London: Verso, 1997), 3.
© 2007 Paolo A. Bolaños http://www.kritike.org/journal/issue_1/bolanos_june2007.pdf ISSN 1908-7330
THE CRITICAL ROLE OF ART
knowledge, “which means, too, no wish to reveal mystery.”4 Society’s blind and blanket acceptance of the promise of Enlightenment distorts the faculty of perception. Enlightenment promises the “good life” while in fact, as a veil, masks the very possibility of life. Adorno’s seemingly bleak view of a reified society might be misinterpreted as sheer pessimism. However, I will argue in this paper that through Adorno’s “aesthetics of redemption,” it is possible to conceive of art as a medium of creating a dimension of imagined freedom. An artwork can present itself as an opposition to the present and thereby open up the present to the future. The future is a realm of hope; but art does not guarantee that the future will be better than the present. The most that art can do for us is to aid us in our battle against total reification and to arouse a sort of nostalgia without content. This is the most that art can do for us since even art can be commodified. I agree with Nicholas H. Smith when he writes that critical theorists “have at least one thing in common: hope for a better world.”5 But for Adorno hope will always have to be negative, for it will not allow itself to be justified in terms of naïve conceptions of humanism, teleology, and divine providence. Such notion of social hope is perhaps close to what Smith calls “ungroundable hope.”6 Our conceptualizations of utopias will always fall short of capturing what is hoped for. The paper is guided by one crucial question:...