Mimesis in Adorno's Aaesthetic Theory

By Paudyal, Bed P. | Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Mimesis in Adorno's Aaesthetic Theory


Paudyal, Bed P., Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry


Theodor W. Adorno's reflections on literature and the arts are spread over several of his works, but his "systematic" and comprehensive theorization of art (including literature) was to wait until Aesthetic Theory, which Adorno did not live to complete. However, as the editors of the original German edition, Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedeman, quote Adorno (from a letter he wrote "several days before his death"), "the final version 'still needed a desperate effort' but ... 'basically it is now a matter of organization and hardly that of the substance of the book'"; (1) it is not inappropriate to rely on Aesthetic Theory as repository of Adorno's thought on the subject of art and literature. Supplementing its "reading" with relevant chapters from Adorno's other works -Dialectic of Enlightenment (which he coauthored with Max Horkheimer), Prisms, and Notes to Literature)-this essay concentrates on the concept of mimesis in Adorno's theory of arts and literature in order to examine the various meanings Adorno assigns to that concept as well as the "constellations" in which this concept articulates with other concepts. Since Adorno's aesthetic theory forms a coherent part of his overall philosophical enterprise, the strategy used here is to discuss briefly some key concepts constitutive of Adorno's critique of philosophy and of Capitalist society, and then zero in on the concept of mimesis.

Adorno was a leading member of the Frankfurt School-an institute that championed "critical theory," which attempted to "grasp contemporary society and culture as a totality," espoused "unity of theory and praxis," and critiqued instrumental rationality. (2) Key to Adorno's thinking, as to the Frankfurt School's, were Marx's concept of commodity fetishism and Georg Lukacs's concept of reification. Commodity fetishism names the enigma in Capitalist society, where the value of the commodity as the product of social labor appears as the value of the commodity itself just as the relation between human beings essential to the production and exchange of commodities appears as the relation between commodities themselves. In other words, commodities become fetishes because they seem to acquire a life of their own. (3) Lukacs's theory of reification extends Marx's concept of commodity fetishism, via Max Weber's theory of rationalization, to argue that not only the economic sphere (in Marxist base-superstructure model, the socio-economic base comprising of the forces and relations of production) but "social institutions such as law, administration, and journalism" and "academic disciplines such as economics, jurisprudence, and philosophy" also become permeated by the commodity form or the logic of exchange. Indeed, according to Lukacs, commodity fetishism governs not only the objects in the world but equally the subjects, who are reduced to exchangeable commodities, "like mere things obeying the inexorable laws of the marketplace." (4) Adorno's favorite word for the total reification of society under Capitalism is "administered world," which appears repeatedly in Aesthetic Theory as it does in his other works. In "Cultural Criticism and Society," Adorno thus describes the totalizing and totalitarian effect of reification:

   This regimentation, the result of the progressive societalization
   of all human relations, did not simply confront the mind from
   without; it immigrated into its immanent consistency.... The
   network of the whole is drawn ever tighter, modeled after the act
   of exchange. It leaves the individual consciousness less and less
   room for evasion, performs it more and more thoroughly, cuts it off
   a priori as it were from the possibility of differencing from
   itself as all difference degenerates into a nuance in the monotony
   of supply. (5)

The Cartesian division between the thinking self and the extended reality, therefore, no longer holds (if it ever did); the subject does not confront the object from a position transcendent to it but is rather enmeshed in "the network of the whole" that leaves no room for authentic difference and autonomy.

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