Academic journal article German Quarterly

No Fun: Aporias of Pleasure in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory

Academic journal article German Quarterly

No Fun: Aporias of Pleasure in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory

Article excerpt

"It's good, but it won't film. You've got to remember your audience. What about the barber in Perdue? He's been cutting hair all day and he's tired. He doesn't want to see some dope carrying a valise or fooling with a nickel machine. What the barber wants is amour and glamor."

-Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust

There is no system without its residue.

-Theodor W Adorno, "Notes on Kafka"

"Whoever concretely enjoys artworks is a philistine"1: thus Adorno lays out the prohibition, in no uncertain terms, on the notion of aesthetic pleasure. For Adorno, in the wake of centuries of politically motivated violence and in the face of a society characterized by the degradation of the subject to a mere laborer-consumer, an immediate enjoyment of artworks is a measure of false consciousness and political idiocy, the glossy flip-side to violence and degradation themselves. The "dissonance" of the autonomous artwork is thus one of the few things-perhaps the only thing-capable of both withstanding and delivering the refusal to such a situation. "Only in memory and longing," Adorno writes in typically aphoristic mode, "not as a copy or an immediate effect, is pleasure absorbed by art" (AT 14). If Kant's aesthetics is, according to Adorno, a "castrated hedonism" (AT 11), Adorno's own aesthetic theory is castration pure and simple: the unavailability of present pleasure and its corollaries in favor of a permanently frustrated future anterior of satisfaction.

Adorno has been vigorously and exhaustively criticized, by people from every point on the political spectrum, for being a pseudo-revolutionary killjoy, a narrow-minded elitist, a closet conservative, the fetishizer of his own (historically particular) miserabilism. Such arguments have at least some basis in fact, and there is no need to repeat them here. And yet the simultaneous vehemence and ambivalence of Adorno's arguments against aesthetic enjoyment, and specifically "fun," also tell a slightly different story. Much more than a mere object of repudiation, "fun" is the specter haunting Adorno's politicized aesthetics: the precise thing that must be cast out, in the logic of the Derridean supplement, to delineate the boundaries of the field, and yetalso in the logic of the supplement-the thing that, insofar as its exteriority is the definition of a privileged interiority, threatens time and time again to return and definitively compromise these same boundaries. Or rather, and despite all Adorno's efforts to defend against it, "fun" is always already there in Aesthetic Theory, at once the "guilt" and the precondition of every artwork. And it is perhaps the structural omnipresence of this rowdy poltergeist that simultaneously overturns Adorno's thinking on art and allows it to continue to be read without repeating its dilemmas.

For obvious reasons, "fun" appears more often in Adorno's writings on the culture industry (including the works co-authored with Horkheimer) than in Aesthetic Theory itself. Often left untranslated from the English-or rather, from the American2-the term usually functions in these works as a kind of cipher for the emptiest and most mind-numbing experiences of the culture industry's relentlessly amusing products. "Fun is a medicinal bath," Adorno writes in a typically damning passage on laughter in Dialectic of Enlightenment, "The pleasure industry never fails to prescribe it [...]. In the culture industry, jovial denial takes the place of the pain found in ecstasy and in asceticism. The supreme law is that they shall not satisfy their desires at any price; they must laugh and be content with laughter."3 Here as elsewhere in Adorno's writings, "fun" is not even pleasure but the simulacrum of pleasure, a temporary release which enables the enjoying subject to forget the forces of domination and unfreedom to which he or she is actually in thrall. The provision of an impoverished escapism through fun is indeed one of the defining characteristics of the culture industry and its "pornographic" (DE 140) products: "The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. …

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