Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Aesthetic Illusion in Total Illusion

Adorno asks that the play of illusion (Schein) in art be understood in the social “context of total Schein”:

What is social in art is its immanent movement against society, not its manifest opinions. Its historical gesture repels empirical reality, of which artworks are nevertheless part in that they are things. Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness. Through their difference from a bewitched reality, they embody negatively a position in which what is would find its rightful place, its own. Their enchantment is disenchantment. (Aesthetic Theory 227)

Although it's very hard to paraphrase Adorno's argument about the function of Schein, since it takes up most of Aesthetic Theory, it goes something like this: By coming into being as art, art works necessarily take on an illusory character, in that their fiction and semblance present themselves with the authority of facts; yet artworks incorporate an index that invites queries about their own status and that of facts in general. As artworks incite the question “What is it?” (AT 121), they may also raise the question “whether the power of being thus-and-not-otherwise” is “the index of . . . truth” (AT 245). By having form and becoming social fact, art stakes a claim to reality that amounts to “art’s Schein of being-in-itself,” and which always needs to be corrected and self-corrected; yet that claim, in the “context of total Schein . . . is the mask of truth” (AT 227).

The energy created in the implosive moment—a “moment” obsessively repeated—when Adorno asserts that art works entail a self-contradiction the awareness of which is also what they have to contribute, generates most of Aesthetic Theory and its 30+ years of commentary. Adorno’s aesthetics is a micrological cosmos that opens inside the infinite space of art’s self-contradiction, its vacillation between Schein and the forces (forces within illusion itself) that break its authority. The contradictory quality of artworks is the horizon for everything that can be imagined about art in the text. Adorno points out that the contradiction isn't just art’s own, that “irritation with Schein has its locus in the object itself” (AT 101). Modern art can’t cease to be contradictory before social reality itself ceases to be contradictory (which is perfectly logical, that's no problem), and art becomes a part of social reality as soon as it comes into being (which is where there starts to be a problem). It’s right here that pressure can be applied to Adorno’s economy. It's not a simple matter, as he knows, to say when art comes into being, since to answer that question we need to know what art is, and who knows what it is? The answer that Adorno gives is meant to be as general as possible: art comes into being as soon as it has form (AT 144).

Adorno’s evidence for the assertion that art exists wherever an artwork has form—and not where it doesn’t, since “art has precisely the same chance of survival as does form” (AT 141)—is axiomatic. Without form, the artwork wouldn't exist as art; there'd be nothing to distinguish it from everything else, everything that it repels through its form. His descriptions of what limits art are famously normative: art is not merely or mainly “involuntary” (AT 69); nor is it the unbinding of sounds and colors from context (AT 90) or “the grouping of color that is simply factual” (AT 144); art maintains a relation to meaning and interpretation, even when its enigma cannot be interpreted. If it didn’t, that “would erase the demarcation line between art and nonart” (AT 128). The many "when" and “if” clauses in the text indicate the places where possibilities are stirring and being stilled:

As soon as the artwork fears for its purity so fanatically that it loses faith in its possibility and begins to display outwardly what cannot become art—canvas and mere tones—it becomes its own enemy, the direct and false continuation of purposeful rationality. This tendency culminates in the happening . . . . The difference of artworks from the empirical world, their Schein character, is constituted out of the empirical world and in opposition to it. If for the sake of their own concept artworks wanted absolutely to destroy this reference back to the empirical world, they would wipe out their own premise. (AT 103)

Granted that the artwork that seems to exist as a unity generates a Schein effect and also partly negates its own Schein effect, why, finally, does art ever have to be positive at all—that is, why does art have to come to being? The justification for art's taking a falsely positive form seems to be the assumption that only "form" constitutes itself “out of the empirical world and in opposition to it.” But the example of the happening suggests that it's not only aesthetic form that opposes the form of the given fact. There are also experiences and perceptions that never crystallize a form, such as the phenomena Kant excludes from the aesthetic as “charms” (Reiz). Flashing up as mere appearance, they don’t hold still even for a moment for our contemplation. They don't, like aesthetic forms, give off the illusion that they couldn't be otherwise. They barely are what they are. They touch, then fall away from the threshold of “what is,” as though coming into being were no great prize. An artistic happening is infinitely more formal than this kind of mere phenomenality, and it possesses the second-tier Schein of the authoritative rejection of authority that Adorno describes in aesthetic examples throughout the book. Still, in contrast with Adorno’s notion of the artwork, it does have a distinguishing feature in common with mere appearance, over against the given fact: its willingness to stop happening, and soon. (This quality is mostly wiped out when artists record their happenings.) As he criticizes the happening for letting itself be just another part of the world, Adorno criticizes Webern for "dodg[ing]" the problems of form and negation by writing such tiny, fleeting musical pieces. Here, he doesn't completely explore what takes art’s place when art isn't compelled to exist, and whether that unknown category--the relief of art's lifted weight--might be better than “art” at that same rejection of "what is" for which he loves art.

Image: Marco Breuer, cameraless photograph; thank you to The Art of Memory


etc said...

and the Schein of art makes it clearer. i am interested in this problem as well, and in thinking a version of it in relation to Brecht. I came across a passage today on Jameson and Adorno and Brecht in Sean Carney's book, Brecht and Critical Theory (which i was happily finishing up), that related the tension of form and content to the problem of system and concept. For some reason, it seems there is a less uneasy tension in the system/concept notion, and this emphasis made me think about the imperative of "form" to be without "content." Carney takes the discussion in the direction of thinking about the difference between genre and form, which i feel poses a question about the evanescence of form vs. exemplariness of genre, or something like that.

RT said...

That's an interesting angle on it....Is it that systems are at least made out of concepts (even if you think of the whole as more than just another concept), while form is supposed to be different in kind?

maybe the way Freud thinks about "form" in dreams--things you can't say thematically, you can act out in form--also tries to make it a different way of being as well as a different way of expressing what content would express. Also, he thinks it's the only way of really conveying negation. I wonder if that problem would disappear if he would substitute "dislike" for negation. "Negation" wants too much annihilation, not just distance but total difference--so maybe that's what "form" wants as well?

so maybe the question is, why do various arguments need form to be different in kind, what do they need the difference for?

etc said...

i wonder if the dislike were "alienation"--this is also less than total difference? i was thinking this because the relationship between perceptual distancing and alienation--as in Verfremdung--aims not towards annihiliation; alienation is here "device". Form is not "device", right? "Device" would be a way of thinking more intentionally or more tendentiously about the element of creation or creativity. one of the ways in which i think form and system are similar (and thus both different in kind from concept/content) is their overdetermined referentiality--it also seems that this is why form needs a difference in kind--it is sort of like a qualitative difference has to registered rather than a quantitative one at the point of overdetermined referentiality--because to measure the quantity is more tedious, less interesting, more offensive, more threating?... i think what i am getting at is the relation that this problem has to the idea that we are far more uneasy with the idea that we don't know what portion of a form would come from one source, what from another, (or an other), than we are to posit the obscure quality of either or any of the presumed sources or their resultant. is it 95%sweat 5% inspiration or the other way around, or should we instead marvel at the sweat or the inspiration or the sweatinspired product--

Larry Gross said...

This was not entirely easy for me to follow but it seemed to shed light on a fascinating and difficult film experience I just had--namely the recent LA showing of Out 1, then I noticed you'd seen it, I presume at the same screening. Am I nuts, or is Rivette's prolonged interrogation of the ethical-political pros and cons of performance, "star" imagery, conducting a kind of analysis that converges with Adorno's as you describe it here.

RT said...

Oh, man . . . . I was thinking about some of this too during the film, but am not sure what to think. (What *would* be nuts would be being sure what to think after the film.) One thing that seems Adornian in Out 1 is that people are mourning over something that didn't happen (a political opportunity that didn't come to be 2 years before), and Rivette seems to be showing how this thing that didn't take place nonetheless isn't nothing, but is still a possibility that people want to express and to return to. So, all that we're looking at in the film, and in the rehearsals of plays within the film, does function as a negative image of the other social situation that was lost (but is still there to the extent that its negative implies it). And the actors don't have to "succeed in doing something constructive" (or even in putting on their plays) in order for this to be so--on the contrary, if we feel some of their sorrow or "failure," we also feel some of the possibility inside it. --Something like that?

Larry Gross said...

Dear Rei Tereda: It's unfortunately taken me more than six months to locate and read your very interesting reply to my question-comment about Rivette's Out One as a possibly carrying out some aspects of Adorno's
critique. I would only add to your remarks one tiny piece of literal emphasis: That it's very remarkable that the unfolding presentation of a reality that can't be said to fully exist, results in so long a flm-except perhaps that the same as true of the immense duration for comparable reasons to Proust's search. I do think there's a Proust-- OUt-one connection to be mined one day when the film exists to be studied properly. Have you seen the Todd Haynes? Can't wait to read your blog on it. I wrote a piece about it in the Sept. Film comment, very amatuerishly connecting it with Deleuze.

Larry Gross