Aesthetics of Negativity: Blanchot, Adorno, and Autonomy

By William S. Allen | Go to book overview

PART III
Material Ambiguity

Is not all worked [gearbeitet] prose really a system of free rhythms, an at-
tempt to bring together the magic spell of the absolute and the negation of
its semblance, a strenuous effort of the mind to save the metaphysical force
of expression by means of its own secularisation? [MM: 252/222]

Having shown how Blanchot develops his own notion of literary autonomy and its attendant experience of negativity through his critical and fictional writings, it is necessary to contextualize this work by returning to the theoretical perspective introduced in Part I. Thus, Part III is dedicated to understanding the relation of autonomy and negativity as it is discussed in Adorno’s writings.

The central notion of Adorno’s aesthetics is his understanding of the dialectic of mimesis and rationality, which develops out of his work in Dialektik der Aufklärung and is then reconceived in Ästhetische Theorie. As far as artworks are concerned, the dialectic of mimesis and rationality operates in terms of what Adorno calls the language-like quality (Sprachähnlichkeit) of the work. This means that the work bears both conceptual (rational) and nonconceptual (mimetic) aspects that come together in the way that the work expresses itself like a language, bearing sensuous similarities to other things but also expressing meanings that can be articulated. The exact combination of these aspects is that which constitutes the identity of the work, which is to say that what it is in itself is inflected by its material particularity as well as its conceptual universals, and it is this interrelation that is to be understood as its autonomy, rather than any hermetic, elitist notion of l’art pour l’art. But this notion becomes complicated further when dealing with artworks that are already linguistic— that is, literary works.

Although Adorno is skeptical about the value of the term “linguistic artwork,” I will show that it can be rethought as a way of understanding the interrelation of materiality and rationality in literature. But central to this

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