J. Robinson, Adorno's poetics of form

Michael D'Este

pp. 6

Publication details

Review of: Robinson Josh, Adorno's poetics of form, SUNY Press, Albany, 2018.

Online since: 20th February 2019

Full citation:

D'Este, M. (2019). Review of Adorno's poetics of form by Josh Robinson. Phenomenological Reviews 5, pp. 6.

J. Robinson, Adorno's poetics of form D'Este Michael; Archiving of XML in sdvig press database Open Commons October 24, 2019, 10:07 pm ( )

1In this addition to the venerable SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Josh Robinson seeks to problematize and subsequently re-construct the concept of ‘form’ as it relates to literature – and the sphere of the arts taken in general – through recourse to both Theodor W. Adorno’s aesthetic theory at large, and to the precise and manifold studies of practitioners which Robinson gathers from a thoroughly close reading of Adorno’s Gesammelte Schriften, including the Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949), Noten zur Literatur (1958-1961) and his posthumous projects Ästhetische Theorie (1970) and Beethoven. Philosophie der Musik. Fragmente und Texte (1993).

2Robinson provides many of his own translations throughout the book, seeking to preserve and amplify the nuance of Adorno’s distinct German idiom whilst maintaining readability and eloquence. Despite his – unfair – self-criticism in the introduction (22), Robinson has done an admirable job of rendering some of Adorno’s more abstruse terminology, such as erfüllen – which Robinson translates as ‘imbue’ rather than ‘fulfil’ – in ways which retain their literal meaning, whilst allowing him to comment on the tensions or ambiguities inherent in these lexical choices (69). As such, Robinson’s translations do not appear incongruous alongside his selections from Edmund Jephcott and Robert Hullot-Kentor’s work, and in some cases surpass these canonical translations in lucidity. These translations of his own are noted, helpfully, in the list of abbreviated works which precedes the introduction.

3The introduction lays out the overall aims of the publication in clear detail, which is characterised by a three-fold objective. Firstly, it seeks to support the development of the ‘New Formalism’ in poetics, outlined by means of tracing the history of this emerging field as it responds to dominant trends in literary theory – the New Criticism of I. A. Richards, Harold Bloom et al., and the New Historicist studies inspired by the work of Stephen Greenblatt and others – which is perhaps best characterised through its approach to the close reading of the internal elements of the text qua historically contingent features and functions, the study of which enables a more textually-grounded literary and cultural historicism. Robinson’s support for this New Formalism comes by way of a rigorous reflection on its underlying principle of artistic form. Rather than accepting the pre-supposition that one knows what is being dealt with when we speak of certain elements of the text as instantiations of the concept of form, Robinson seeks to elaborate on precisely what the ‘formal’ elements of a literature are, and how the consideration of form is itself able to shape the analysis of literary art and artworks.

4Secondly, Robinson proposes to support his more practical-critical goal outlined in the paragraph above by way of critical philology of Adorno’s writings. As an aesthetician, Adorno had a “somewhat uneasy influence […] on the New Formalism,” in Robinson’s characterisation (8). In his analyses of music, the visual arts and literature, we see a diversity of uses to which Adorno puts form—as an explication of the activity of a practitioner as they shape the lexical, physical or phonic materials out of which their art is made, as the manifestation of that shaping activity – the artwork itself – and, as the tradition or convention within which that objective manifestation is placed alongside others, the genre which draws different works together. By focusing on Adorno’s claim that form is ‘sedimented content’ in the artwork, and that artworks are “products of social labour[…],” Robinson seeks to provide a basis from which we can think of forms, and consequently what those forms might tell us about the form of life specific to capitalist social and property relations (25-26).

5Robinson’s third and final aim is to lay the groundwork for a future study of specific works of art and their attendant form, what this poetics of form may illuminate in the texts and other artworks to which it is applied, and the implications of this approach for the theorising of art’s possible intervention into, and relationship with, society and the political economy.

6His first chapter, titled ‘Form and Content,’ goes ahead to critically assess Adorno’s thinking of form through an analysis of the polemical rift between Adorno and Martin Heidegger, noting that although Adorno is guilty of mischaracterising Heidegger’s argument, his issue with Heidegger’s attempt to engage with the question of art is in fact a pointed critique of his method. In Heidegger we see that the question of what an artwork is cannot be answered by starting from the question ‘what kind of thing is an artwork?’ (30), whereas Adorno insists that the artwork’s thing-hood is that which enables it to be more than a mere thing—that their tangible qualities, accessible through sensory observation, simultaneously reveal elements which cannot be fully understood through that sensory observation or ‘anschauung.’ Much like Heidegger, Adorno focused a considerable portion of his writing on the lyric poetry of Johann Friedrich Hölderlin; Robinson notes, however, that Adorno’s criticisms recognise the tendency in Heidegger’s discussion of this work towards a metaphysical separation of form and content, which is then followed by the philosophical investigation of content to the detriment of any inquiry into the form of the work. This philosophical investigation into the content of the work is necessary, posits Robinson, but must begin with what is left behind after the philological analysis of form has been undertaken, in response to the “aspects that are philologically most challenging” (36).

7Adorno’s rejection of Heidegger’s theorisation starts here: any separation of form and content in Adorno’s work is first and foremost a conceptual separation which is only ever temporary, and the philosophy which attempts to uncover the truth-content of the work of art thus ought to be carried out in relation to the poem as it is experienced (36) in philological analysis, a philosophy commensurate with and sensitive to the requirements of the work. Such a philosophy would side-step Adorno’s criticism of Heidegger’s method, that it would not ‘infiltrate’ the poetry with philosophy from the outside, risking the possibility that the analysis would tell us more about the philosopher’s presuppositions than the “object of enquiry[…]” (29).

8Robinson carries on to clarify Adorno’s notion of form as sedimented content, whereby form is characterised as coming into being as the particular way the artist deposits content in the work:

“Form is thus the result or mark of the process by which the work of art is made, but never appears as merely subjective or arbitrary. […] What is significant for understanding the relationship between form and content is that the separation is arbitrary. […] Sedimentation refers here to a process whereby the content of what come to be artworks […] ceases to be relevant (or even exist), while the objects continue to be made with the same or similar features.” [Emphasis added] (44-45).

9As such, if the critic minimises the role of form in the artwork to the emphasis of content, they disregard what the whole aesthetic content of the work is, and simultaneously miss the way in which truth-content in the work is characteristically shaped by the intentions of the artist. Form has its origins in the content of the work of art, insofar as propositional content is only one half of the picture, the other half fulfilled by the formal content in the work. Discussing Adorno’s essay on punctuation marks in the Noten zur Literatur, Robinson suggests we see a clear example of the way in which form functions and takes on meaning, as distinct from the functioning of propositional content in the work. The punctuation in a work does not signify, Adorno insists, but rather fulfils a performative function in that they direct the subjective experience of reading, in that they encourage the reader to slow down, speed up, halt, and so on—and thus the language in the work is “itself[…]” able to enter “into communication with the reader” (52).

10Chapter two, ‘Form and Expression,’ continues this thread of argument, investigating the relationship between artist and expression. Form and expression, Robinson contends, are fundamentally observable phenomena in the work of art (67). If form is something which is refined by the work of the artist, as set out above, then it is also that which mediates the expression of the artist in the manifestation of the work, by way of its being imposed on the expressive impulse (69). However, if this is the case, then the observable form of the work is itself a presentation of the expressive impulse within the work; in Robinson’s words, “the form that subjugates expression itself becomes expression […]” an “immediate subjectivity that masquerades as object” in even the most stringently realist work (78-80). There is something of a reciprocity in the work of art, that is, there is a palpable subjectivity inherent in the work, even if the expression which is presented in the work is necessarily seen as an objective content. This formal mediation of expression in the work of art means that the expressive impulse outlined here is distinguishable from that of the individual artist themselves, characterised by Robinson as the ‘subject of art,’ which in Adorno’s words “speaks out of art[…]” and is not merely “presented by it” (78).

11This is perhaps best portrayed by recourse to Robinson’s discussion of Adorno’s critique of Expressionism. In attempting to bypass aspects of tradition or convention – and, by extension, form writ large – by way of the ‘intensification’ of the principle of expression, aiming at an immediately “subjective expression as its content,” by means of an “unstylised recording of psychic or emotional content,” the Expressionist work appears as merely a contingent, arbitrary ‘experiential impression,’ as it is through the process of forming that “the subjective presence of the artist exists within the work,” as the subjective power to form which is distinguished from the expression of the subject of art (73-78). In Robinson’s words, through the “elimination of the objective content of expression, expression can no longer be subjective, and at once ceases to express and is transformed into objective content. […] a subject free of all mediation through the object—is no subject at all” (74-78).

12Robinson’s concern in this chapter is primarily given over to the notion of mimesis in Adorno’s aesthetics; that the artworks whose realism comes closest to the world are not necessarily works of Expressionism or Realism, considered as attempts to describe the – subjective or objective – world, but rather in the works of artists such as Samuel Beckett, and particularly in the short stories and novels of Franz Kafka, as artists whose works imitate the world and as such draw attention to the process of reification, which “makes the web of delusion knowable” in Adorno’s interpretation (85). In a masterful reading of Kafka’s Das Schloss (1926) and Der Process (1925) we see our own estrangement or alienation “come to expression” in light of the author’s “rejection of the techniques of literary expressionism[…]” in the form of Kafka’s works “their realistic element crystallizes;” that is, in the ‘sober’ depiction of brutal oppression and bureaucratic absurdity alongside the ‘interior’ sensations, thoughts and feelings of his characters we see imitated our own condition of social repression, the ‘scattered shards’ of reality which compose an enigmatic, thoroughly expressive image (82-84). Mimesis, as such, is tied to the composition of artworks and how works make meaning: a specific bearing towards the work, and towards the world. Through the mediation of their particular expression by way of the formal aspects of the work, the examples of Kafka’s work briefly stated here achieve, to paraphrase Robinson, mimetic, “objective form.”

13In chapter three, ‘Form and Genre,’ Robinson turns from his focus on the notion of form as it is manifest in particular works to how form is able to offer a way of thinking through the individual work to the shared character of different works. Each artwork that is worthy of the name, Robinson notes, ought necessarily to challenge and redefine the limits of its genre—and as such genre is shown to be historically contingent, characterised by its shifting frontiers. As each artist employs diverse techniques of composition in the process of creation they reconfigure the material available for future artists to shape, with consequent significance for the general category to which the work belongs. Pace Marx, Adorno suggests that artistic production is not a mere epiphenomenon of changes in industrial production, rather asserting that the means of artistic production are mediated through the relations of production, in much the same way that the means of industrial production are mediated through the relations of production. If “labour constitutes the principle means of relating to nature, at once enabling and restricting human life,” then the relations of production constitute the logic by which that labour is organised (100), and artistic labour is just as receptive to this mediation as industrial labour.

14Individual developments in the particular form of art have an effect on the ‘universal’ tradition or genre within which it is placed, but this is more than a simple contribution. It is in the aspect of the individual, particular work of art which is hostile to the very notion of genre – the ‘abstractness’ and ‘limitedness’ of the concept –that this “tendency to strive against and break down the generality of the subordinating concept starts[…]” (108-109). Robinson considers here Adorno and Horkheimer’s treatment of the products of the culture industry as illustrated in Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), suggesting that the significance of the consideration of these products – instantiations of the ‘commodity form’ (116) – for Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory is in their instrumentalisation of art. In short, the commodity form is a means by which the work uncritically assimilates and as such supports the state of things as they are; products of the culture industry are best depicted in opposition to the ‘worthy’ artworks outlined above in that there is an absence of the tension between particular and universal which characterises the individual work of art. By way of their “fidelity to this [uncritically accepted] reality they abandon that which distinguishes them from it, renounce their claim to be different from the world,” to restate Robinson’s explanation (117). Thus it is not the products of the culture industry which are the cause of the taking-up of the commodity form; rather, it is the development of the culture industry and automated production under late capitalism which has caused the shift in socio-economic conditions and thus enabled the commodity form to function.

15Of course, it is not simply the products of the culture industry which have been denigrated under this mode of production. In a case which appears as the opposite of the mimetic expression of Kafka’s work, the novel under capitalism has typically served not to draw attention to the reification of oppressive social-property relations, but to be in alliance with reification by means of a ‘realistic’ demystification of the world, an “uncritical absorption of and hence support for things as they are” [emphasis added] (118-119). The universal, generic artistic form, Robinson asserts, develops and evolves in response to the given social conditions of the historical ‘moment,’ conditions which demand a certain expression and ‘mode of address’ of the particular work, manifest in the ‘capitulation’ to a reality which cannot be transfigured under late capitalism (124-126). Those ‘worthy’ works draw attention to this state of alienation, to the “hollowing out of subject and reality,” even if they reject realism outright (125).

16Chapter four, ‘Form and Material,’ sees Robinson turn to questions of the relationship between works and the materials out of which they are formed, engaging more closely with questions of technique and process. If “content, broadly speaking, is an aspect of existing artworks[…]” [emphasis added], then the material of which those artworks are created – the colours from which the painting is fashioned, the sounds from which compositions are hewn, the words from which the poem is constructed – can be understood as “in some way pre-artistic, that out of which not-yet-existing artworks are made” [emphasis added] (136). This distinction between form and material and content and material is, much like the distinction between form and content, not a metaphysical separation, but an abstract and conceptual one which again serves to temporarily allow for investigation of the aspects of art which are present in the experience of the work. In Robinson’s words:

“Material can no more be thought of as contentless than content as free from the material in which it is expressed; the meaning of a poem cannot be divorced from the words and sounds and traces of which it is made.” (136)

17The physical properties of a given material do not merely lend themselves to the production of a given artwork, but, as a pre-artistic and pre-productive condition from which those particular works are fashioned, must also and to a significant degree determine the way that the particular work – and, by extension, the universal, generic form in which that particular work is placed and modifies – develops. Though these materials pre-exist the work of art, the range of material which appears available to the artist is and must be, as Adorno suggests in the Ästhetische Theorie, “historical through and through” (ÄT, 223). For how could it be any other way? To take an Adornian tack, the material available to the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, such as the stochastic or random process which he applied in his musical arrangements, pre-existed his use of them – indeed, they pre-existed our uncovering of them, considering that ‘stochastic processes’ merely delineates and enables the description of various physical and biological phenomena such as the motion of particles through space – but they were not apparent and available as an artistic material until they were theorised as being applicable in the work of composition, and they did not become part of compositional tradition until the 1957 premiere of his piece Pithoprakta. In Robinson’s terms, “each new composition not only opens up new possibilities but also[…] sets new restrictions for future musical development;” and, by extension, future artistic development in general (140).

18Artistic technique and material, for Robinson as for Adorno, are mutually interdependent; technique is attentive to the constraints and “demands of the material, but also by the content of the work that is to be created” whilst the material available for use is determined by the results of prior artistic technique (144-145). Even the most oppositional technique which seeks to fight against “form’s tendency to settle and stagnate” is complicit in the creation of a new form, which will consequently be opposed by even newer forms (147). Technique is not merely an addition to working the available materials of artistic production, but is also present to the future artist as a constraint, inhering in a form which becomes material to be opposed in this future productive activity. Contingency enters into the picture here in the shape of “influences or interruptions from external factors” which destroy or modify the material available to the artist—here one could think of the potential artistic materials lost when the artist’s studio burns down, for instance (160).

19In chapter five, ‘Artistic Form and the Commodity Form,’ Robinson highlights “the antagonisms that permeate bourgeois society[…]” insofar as they are reflected within the concept of form (163). In doing so, Robinson is able to bring his discussion to a close through a return to Adorno’s discussion of artworks as products of social labour, characterised not by their relationship to exchange-value through ‘commodity-producing labour,’ but rather as it refers to an activity which deliberately sets out with the “purpose of improving human existence,” the form of human labour prior to its transformation into a type of mutually-reinforcing abstract, alienated labour through the reification of social domination, hierarchy and the logic of the capitalist mode of production (168-170).

20Even under the conditions of this society – our society – there exist forms of labour which are able to realise a different kind of sociality (170). The making works of art is such a process, although it is one in which the product is never wholly disassociated from the commodity form—whether that is through the techniques of mechanical reproduction which are deployed in industry before being co-opted by artists, or by the use of tools such as the internet, developed within a military context. It is in the experience of the artwork, however, in our experience of the particular work, that we see the potential of art manifested:

“Artworks[…] exemplify the actuality of a social labour that is liberated from compulsory abstraction […] in doing so they not only serve as a reminder that it is possible to resist the totalising claims of abstract value and its logic of exchangeability, but also present a kind of social labour that does not efface the particularity of the activities that constitute it. […] The artwork as we encounter, experience, and conceive it, that is, is a consequence and a phenomenon[…] of capitalist society. Absent this coercive, violent sociality, the artwork ceases to be thinkable as we think it, as both a mode of resistance and a promise of something better […] Artworks are thus a kind of clearing within a world dominated by instrumental reason, opening the way for emancipation from it.”[Emphasis added] (176-177)

21Artworks, in Robinson’s final analysis, come to be defined in opposition to the logic of the capitalist mode of production, yet this is always already a definition which sustains a connection between the work of art and the society in which they were a part; in even the most radical rejection of the principles which govern that society and its mode of production one cannot wholly separate the work from its negation of the society out of which it was created—capitalist social-property relations remain in the work as a trace, or mark, or echo. Robinson’s utilisation of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is a notably clear example of this quality of artworks: freed of the functional rationale of instrumentality in which it would have otherwise been found – in this case, the ‘mens room’ – our experience of the work nevertheless calls to mind the location and instrumental reason from which it has been freed by means of the subjective activity of the artist (179). This recursive and referential relationship to reality is reflected in the form of the work, a reality it simultaneously maintains and abandons, a reality which “form thus helps render[…] thinkable” (179). Referring back to Adorno’s demand “that life imitate art,” we see that the poetics of form which Robinson draws out of Adorno’s aesthetic theory is one which enables the reading of artworks as a means by which the possibility of a different mode of production, and thus a different kind of sociality, is not realised or actualised, but is postulated as possible. This illuminates Robinson’s claim that Adorno’s aesthetic theory is an poetics of “the wrong state of things;” that is, that his reconfiguration of the work of art “opens up the possibility of the emergence of a transformation out of the existing order[…]” and as such, the work of art effects a “formulation of the complexity of the relationship between commodity society and a successor[…] that is worth wishing for” (186-187).

22In his conclusion, ‘Lyric, Form, Society,’ Robinson considers the implications of the arguments outlined here, and the elaboration of Adorno’s ‘poetics of the wrong state of things’ for the study of literature. In this study, forms are grounded as “a token or[…] a deposit for a wide range of connections between us and the worlds to which the work connects us: it lies at the nexus of these connections,” the sensitivity to which means that, through our experiential engagement with the work of art, we keep in sight the prospect of a different world, or the realisation of a different set of social-property relations in our present one (209). Robinson’s analyses indeed fulfil his goal of gesturing towards a conception of the work of art, as outlined above, in which particular works are able to intervene into the social and economic form of a given society, whilst not restricting this functional possibility to ‘political’ works of art, or the ‘revolutionary art’ which Trotsky sets out in his Literature and Revolution (1924).

23Adorno’s poetics of form appears to present a means by which we can theorise the relationship between artworks and shifts in the fabric of society by imbuing those works with a kind of agency: by means of the function outlined in the discussion of chapter two, these works are able to embody “emancipatory social practice,” clearing away the reification which attends the capitalist mode of production, a means of thinking beyond oppressive social structures towards a “non-hierarchical life in the world” (218-222).

24In Adorno’s Poetics of Form, Josh Robinson carries out a necessary and fruitful investigation into the way we think about art, and the potential embedded in particular works. His reconstruction of Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory – considered beyond the remit of his Ästhetische Theorie – is masterful, and establishes a strong foundation on which the thinking of literary form, and artistic form in general, can take place. It is able to stand alongside projects such as Fredric Jameson’s The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms as setting the stage for a contemporary Marxist aesthetics, whilst being of practical value for literary critics and art theorists alike. The immediate criticism which could be made of Robinson’s publication, a choice which was no doubt necessitated by the requirements of brevity and the focus of the project, is that it perhaps gives Walter Benjamin’s arguments in support of Surrealism, outlined in a short paragraph in chapter two, rather short shrift; similarly, his discussion of labour and the creative process in chapter five would have benefitted from a discussion of Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936). For a reader well-versed in the internal debates – both voiced and unvoiced – between the thinkers within and on the periphery of the Frankfurt School, this work was likely in mind, however, for the reader just setting out on their investigation of Adorno’s aesthetics, to understand what he was responding to in his collaborator’s work may provide additional insight into what sets Adorno’s project apart.

25These minor criticisms notwithstanding, Robinson has produced a highly readable and accomplished contribution to the scholarship on Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic project as it pertains to the question of form, and a thought-provoking reformation of the Marxist theory of art.

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