In the details

January 31, 2004 at 11:49 pm | In yulelogStories | 8 Comments

Theodor Adorno is notorious for using deliberately difficult syntax, for building sentences that resemble roadblocks instead of road maps. I don’t always like this strategy, but I like the goal, if it’s to estrange the perceiving subject from well-worn paths, from comfort, from swallowing “truths” without having to chew over a single morsel. And while it’s true that German can be the kind of chunky language you could choke on anyway, translations haven’t always done him justice, either. Max Horkheimer, his senior collaborator at the Frankfurt School, far less of a snob and esthete than Adorno and much more forthcoming in his willingness to communicate ideas, probably helped to make their joint book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, an accessible read. It’s a page-turner in the original (really!), but the English translation is terrible, successfully making its subject boring while whacking nearly all the surprisingly manageable and stimulating complexity right out of it.

It’s too bad that Adorno’s method can make people feel stupid, then perhaps resentful, and possibly even angry once they’ve knocked themselves out trying to understand what he was talking about, only to discover that he doesn’t really offer a universal answer key to some cosmic test. I feel stupid a lot of the time, too, and I don’t even need to read Adorno to feel that way as the feeling is increasingly ubiquitous. The real world makes me feel stupid, real history makes me feel stupid. I don’t understand atrocity or evil or real misogyny or misanthropy: I have no big things to say about these big things. But if I don’t have some tools for bearing the weight of the world, I’ll either ignore the world (and probably inflate myself), or I’ll mistake the world for me and believe that we’re identical and in beautiful harmony, or I’ll fall through the cracks of a world splitting apart and lose myself in insanity. And strange as it may seem, Adorno’s difficult language made me slow down my stupidity just a little bit and turned my myopic sight to things I would otherwise surely have missed. Details, for example: Adorno paid attention to details, to how the world is contained in them, which was something I didn’t notice at first. It’s quite hard to notice details. It’s the one really good thing I got out of studying art history: attention to detail.

In 1950, the city of Darmstadt hosted a symposium on “The Image of Man in Our Time” (Das Menschenbild in unserer Zeit), which featured the art historians Franz Roh and Hans Sedlmayr. Roh defended modern art; he argued that regardless of how ugly or unpleasant the average B


  1. Great food for thought, completely new to me, but in light of my reflections on Schonberg and the Bing Bang Bong Boys, extremely relevant to the next opera written in what has recently been called the “withering” world of serious music.

    Comment by Betsy — February 1, 2004 #

  2. Wow! That last line in the extract is the least likely applause line in history! I actually can’t parse it at all. Could you maybe rephrase it?

    Also, could you expand a little on what Adorno means by “the riven”? Does that refer to a characteristic of the particular historical moment in which he was writing and in which modern art occurs?

    Also, I’m in total sympathy with what you say about detail: If I’ve made any progress as I’ve gotten older it’s in appreciating how details contain the whole. We need an ontology of details! (Yeah, like we need a whole in the head.)

    Oy, Yule, I’m so sure I’m not understanding this! But there’s probably no possibility of understanding it from the beginning, so I look forward to your next installment.

    Comment by David Weinberger — February 2, 2004 #

  3. Ok, let me try to unpack Adorno’s last sentence there, David, with some recourse to art history first. You
    know that Juan Gris came to cubism on the heels of his countryman
    Picasso, right? Now, at the time of Adorno’s comment Picasso is this
    big unassailable star, this protean painter, sculptor, printer
    who freely changes form and medium according to the dictates of his
    genius, who has ranged across an incredible history, half a century,
    from 1900 (when he first skulked around Barcelona’s anarchist cafes and
    travelled to Paris) to 1950 (by which time he symbolises artistic
    freedom on the continent). No one could catch him. Gris’s contribution
    was more strictly limited to the heyday of cubism on the other hand,
    and his importance was in how he and the other secondary cubists helped
    shape a movement in the years around the First World War and
    immediately after. Everything had changed by 1918. Gris and the
    so-called secondary cubists — even Braque, but especially Gleizes,
    Metzinger, de la Fresnaye, (I’m embarassed to admit I can’t even
    remember all their names right now) — consolidated Picasso’s early
    pre-WWI breakthroughs and helped push cubism forward as a visual
    paradigm shift; they basically made it a movement as opposed to a
    stylistic oddity belonging to a solitary genius. You could almost argue
    that they helped shape ideas about cubism as a language, since it
    became (through them) a style shared by many. That is, if only Picasso
    had “spoken” this “language,” there’s the chance that he would just
    have been another eccentric (and let me add that I don’t think cubism
    is a language, but that’s another thread). The German Expressionists
    and the Italian Futurists deepened their activities and gained momentum
    based not just on Picasso but also on the other cubists around him. I’m
    not sure exactly when Gris said this, but around the time when cubism
    was getting more exposure, he defended this “ugly” style
    (traditionalists wanted pretty pictures, not these refracted images)
    along the lines Adorno cites. That is, if you want to continue to have
    a vital visual art culture, you have to let the new be born,
    you cannot cling to old styles that have basically become trite and
    cliched. Gris’s remark was in the context of post-World War I “calls to
    order,” directed at people who wanted either a continuation of a
    watered-down impressionism they had gotten used to (forgetting all the
    while that impressionism had once been an effrontery to the eye for
    most people) or who wanted realist propaganda. That would be the
    referring to “tradition” in the above quote: the people who wanted that
    said, “paint me a pretty picture, something I’m used to,” vs. the
    reference to the “salient” aspects of modern art: “teach my eye to see
    differently.” Take flatness in pictorial representation, for
    example. For centuries, painters had laboured to “perfect” their
    ability to show things so realistically as to fool the eye. “Salience”
    then meant making things pop out, 3-d-like, in a painting, making you
    forget that the representation was happening on a flat 2-d thing.
    Looking at these paintings, you forgot what they were made of or what
    they were made on. By the early 19th century, the popularity of that
    method resulted in a sterile Academicism, and it took painters like
    Manet and Morissot to paint pictures that were obviously flat,
    that didn’t try to make themselves look slick and smooth and perfectly
    3-d. This was a renewal in visual art, a revolution that made painting
    alive again, both in technique and in subject matter; no more boring,
    kitschy subjects, prurient nudes, tedious rehashes of history lessons,
    or glossy hidings of painting’s material facts. Instead, Pissarro
    painted factories, Cezanne painted mountains, Monet painted haystacks
    and facades, and you could see the brushstrokes: modern life, see? The
    renewal — the salience or importance to modernity — happened because
    those painters said, to hell with tradition if tradition means academicism (which it did , which is why it had to go). Many in the contemporary audiences liked
    their traditional “timeless universal beauty,” however, and found the
    “moderns” ugly. What Gris and other defenders of modernism were saying,
    however, was that “timeless” and “universal” are dead-ends in art,
    especially when they become golden calves. This is getting way too long, isn’t it? Sorry. Ok,
    fast forward to 1950, another “call to order” period. I’ve left
    expressionism out of the discussion so far, but I intend to deal with
    it in greater depth later. For now, a brief sketch: after WWII,
    expression and the style expressionism were in deep shit in Germany,
    mainly for ideological reasons. Not necessarily in the immediate
    postwar years, but by the time of the currency reform and Berlin
    Blockade (1948), the partition, the GDR and the Cold War there were
    things you just couldn’t mess with anymore. Adorno wasn’t advocating
    for historical expressionism (the kind produced in Germany around WWI),
    but his advocacy of “the riven” is a shorthand for expression and
    expressiveness. I’ll write about that in more detail later, promise. It
    has to do with how Adorno theorised the relationship between subject
    and object through language and through mimesis, which for him
    had nothing whatsoever to do with what I think is the traditional
    meaning of the word: the copying of likeness, imitative representation,
    etc., or, if you will, mimesis as what the traditionalists wanted from
    painting: a true likeness or copy, but without any risks or dangers to
    the copyist or the viewer. In Adorno’s thinking, mimesis seems to mean
    the bringing to representation of all those things that language and
    idealism elide, which I would argue is an ideal deeply informed by
    expressionism. The “audience applause” note was actually
    included in the book’s transcript of the symposium proceedings, and I
    thought that applause was an interesting detail. It showed that
    more people than one might think tended to agree with Adorno, which I
    find intriguing since a whole pile of neo-expressionist painters from
    Germany made a fortune in Germany and in NYC in the 1980s by claiming
    that no one in Germany had been interested in expression since
    Hitler was defeated, and that they were the first to reconnect to an
    “authentic” Germany tradition. Ugh. Caveat emperor. The only really
    interesting guy to come out of that group was Anselm Kiefer,
    and he knew how to wield a detail, too: straw for Margarete’s hair,
    ashes for Shulamith’s. The others in that neo-expressionist group were
    duds. If you’re still with me this late in the comment — and
    I know this is terribly wordy — I hope I haven’t bored a whole in your
    head…. I’m starting to sound too pathetic even to myself, and feel
    that I should blog about my dog or about the weather or about
    …politics …or anything, instead.

    Comment by Yule Heibel — February 2, 2004 #

  4. And “Yule Heibel is notorious for . . .” also writing long sentences. One in the comments-reply is four lines long.

    Lighten up a little, Yule, you’re becoming hard to read.

    Stu (regular reader).

    Comment by Stu Savory — February 2, 2004 #

  5. Ah Yule, I could have used this post a number of years ago, when I was writing my “essay” in the MFA program, trying to argue against that traditional sense of mimesis among a group of poets who believed that language was nothing but clear glass (even if glass comes from sand, and sand from ground down rock) that will open the vistas to pure experience, while at the same time, preserve it unchanged behind its solid pane.

    Okay, I am not saying this too well (I have a fever and a herd of elephants sitting on my chest), but the point is that what you are trying to write about is difficult … it’s not your writing that is difficult. George Steiner wrote an essay called “On Difficulty,” in which he distinguishes between four classes of difficulty. He writes:

    “Contingent difficulties arise from the obvious plurality and individuation which characterize world and word. Modal difficulties lie with the beholder. A third class of difficulty has its source in the writer’s will or in the failure of adequacy between his intention and his performative means. I propose to designate this class as tactical.


    Contingent difficulties aim to be looked up; modal difficulties challenge the inevitable parochialism of honest empathy; tactical difficulties [which he assign to reading poets such as Celan, for example] endevour to deepen our apprehension by dislocating and goading to new life the supine energies of word and grammar. Each of these three classes of difficulty is a part of the contract of ultimate preponderant intelligibility between poet and reader, between text and meaning. There is a fourth order of difficulty which occurs where this contract is itself wholly or in part broken. Because this type of difficulty implicates the functions of language and of the poem [or essay, or art, if you will] and of the poem as a communicative performance, because it puts in question the existential suppositions that lie behind poetry as we have known it, I propose to call it ontological.

    Difficulties in this category cannot be looked up; the cannot be resolved by genuine readjustment or artifice of sensibility; they are not an intentional technique of retardation and creative uncertainty (though these may be their immediate effect.

    Ontological difficulties confront us with blank questions about the nature of human speech, about the status of significance, about the necessity and purpose of the construct which we have, with more or less rough and ready consensus, come to perceive as a poem [or piece of art … or criticism….]”

    Anyway, my point with this long quote is that Yule is addressing all these levels of difficulty related to both art history, the art itself, and Adorno … within the difficulties implied in her chosen form: the post in a blog.

    And you thought Yule wrote long, difficult sentences….

    Comment by maria — February 2, 2004 #

  6. …supine energies of word and grammar: what a great image! Maria — and Betsy, with your music background — you are very generous readers here, thank you. I gave fair warning earlier that some of this might make some people’s eyes glaze over, and I’m not changing my prediction now! Simpler sentences? Not sure how that would really work. Parse or unpack or explain? Ok, can try, but the parsing might end up in long strings, too. 😉

    Comment by Yule Heibel — February 3, 2004 #

  7. This is a very interesting quote, that I haven’t seen before. Adorno is so clear and eloquent when he improvises.

    One might add that Adorno’s pointing at the ambivalence of “rivenness” has far-reaching historical implications.

    What has happened seems to be that rivenness has become a klich

    Comment by Torben Sangild — February 10, 2004 #

  8. Realy good site!

    Comment by Anonymous — September 16, 2005 #

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