Aesthetics of Negativity: Blanchot, Adorno, and Autonomy

Aesthetics of Negativity: Blanchot, Adorno, and Autonomy

Aesthetics of Negativity: Blanchot, Adorno, and Autonomy

Aesthetics of Negativity: Blanchot, Adorno, and Autonomy

Synopsis

Maurice Blanchot and Theodor W. Adorno are among the most difficult but also the most profound thinkers in twentieth-century aesthetics. While their methods and perspectives differ widely, they share a concern with the negativity of the artwork conceived in terms of either its experience and possibility or its critical expression. Such negativity is neither nihilistic nor pessimistic but concerns the status of the artwork and its autonomy in relation to its context or its experience. For both Blanchot and Adorno, negativity is the key to understanding the status of the artwork in post-Kantian aesthetics, and although it indicates how art expresses critical possibilities, albeit negatively, it also shows that art bears an irreducible ambiguity such that its meaning can always negate itself. This ambiguity takes on an added material significance when considered in relation to language, as the negativity of the work becomes aesthetic in the further sense of being both sensible and experimental. But in doing so the language of the literary work becomes a form of thinking that enables materiality to be thought in its ambiguity. In a series of rich and compelling readings, William S. Allen shows how an original and rigorous mode of thinking arises within Blanchot's early writings and how Adorno's aesthetics depends on a relation between language and materiality that has been widely overlooked. Furthermore, by reconsidering the problem of the autonomous work of art in terms of literature, a central issue in modernist aesthetics is given a greater critical and material relevance as a mode of thinking that is abstract and concrete, rigorous and ambiguous. While examples of this kind of writing can be found in the works of Blanchot and Beckett, the demands that such texts place on readers only confirm the challenges and the possibilities that literary autonomy poses to thought.

Excerpt

Blanchot’s first novel, Thomas l’Obscur, begins with a scene that has long been regarded as paradigmatic for his approach to writing in general, and it is remarkable, as Jean Starobinski noted, how much of his later thought is already apparent in these opening lines:

Thomas sat down and looked at the sea. For some time he remained
motionless, as if he had come there to follow the movements of the
other swimmers and, although the fog prevented him from seeing
very far, he stayed there obstinately, his eyes fixed on the bodies that
advanced through the water with difficulty. Then, when a wave more
powerful than the others reached him, he in his turn went down the
sandy slope and slipped among the currents that quickly immersed
him. [TP: 23; cf. TN: 9/55]

Thomas looks at the sea and then goes down into the waters, and so the novel begins. There is very little space here between a literal reading of this opening and an allegorical reading that would see it as an entrance into literature, for example, as each appears to give way to the other. Nothing in the text seems to prevent this slippage and fix it as one kind of text or another; on the contrary, the simplicity of the writing, its apparent lack of adornment or artifice, enables this ambiguity to emerge. For in its simplicity the writing seems to operate as if the literal and the figurative could not be definitively distinguished, and the figure of Thomas then proceeds as the exposition of this narrative ambiguity.

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