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Adorno’s Dreams and the Aesthetic of Violence

Russell Perkins’s “Adorno’s Dreams and the Aesthetic of Violence” appears in Telos 155 (Summer 2011). Read the full version online at the TELOS Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here.

Adorno kept detailed record of his dreams throughout his adult life; yet scholars have only recently begun to investigate these exceedingly intimate narratives, largely since their posthumous publication in the volume Dream Notes. This paper links Adorno’s dream writings with his late writing on aesthetics, examining their common preoccupation with the problematic of bearing witness to violence. Whereas Adorno’s dreams are often overtly violent at the level of “plot,” his discussions of modern art are frequently pervaded by figurative language that invokes bodily wounding and pain. I argue that the rhetoric of violence in Adorno’s aesthetics suggests a guiding metaphorical characterization of the modernist artwork as constituted in the gesture of enacting injury upon itself. Aggression and victimhood likewise collide in the quite different register of Adorno’s nightmares, in which Adorno is never merely a passive bystander to suffering. In both of these contexts, we see that insight into violence only becomes possible when neutrality is foregone for standpoints of ambivalent participation, and thus that the suspension of the category of witness becomes the very condition of possibility for testimony.

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