TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Feminist Performance Art and Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Carlos Kong looks at Julia Rothenberg’s “Form, Utopia, and Feminist Performance Art: Toward a Rehabilitation of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory” from Telos 137 (Winter 2006).

In “Form, Utopia, and Feminist Performance Art: Toward a Rehabilitation of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory,” Julia Rothenberg attempts a recovery of Adorno’s aesthetic theory through an unconventional application of its utopian hermeneutic gestures to feminist performance art of the 1970s. Reading beyond popularized characterizations of Adorno’s pessimism, his apoliticism, his privileging of high modernism, and his negativistic theorizations of culture under late capitalism, Rothenberg suggests that overlooked, utopian elements of Adorno’s critiques of Enlightenment and commodified exchange practices both prefigure and are revived by feminist performance art. Rothenberg’s focus on Adorno’s disavowal of instrumental reason and his turn to art as counter-dialectic to the dominating potential of knowledge accrues a new politicized relevance when reread in relation to feminist performance practices. Thus, a rehabilitation of Adorno’s critical utopianism, as Rothenberg ultimately maintains, further invokes the possibility of political praxis and social transformation when expressively performed in the body of the subjected.

Rothenberg explicates lines of critique from Adorno’s social theories, which become integral to his theorization of utopian aesthetic potential as well as to the concurrently emergent project of second-wave feminism. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer renounce the reification of instrumental reason, or “treating nature as an object that could be known, mastered, and controlled” (39). For Adorno and Horkheimer, this totalizing, objectifying will to knowledge and cognition in Enlightenment discourses, such as Kant’s transcendental unity and Hegel’s Geist, thus functions to dominate nature, erase realities of difference and subjection, and patriarchally essentialize the subject of rationalist teleology.

Rothenberg extends Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental reason to Adorno’s exegesis on coercive mechanisms of exchange in Negative Dialectics. Adorno suggests that the objectified, dematerialized concepts that result in the Enlightenment instrumentality of reason, afford a principle of exchange in which human experience is constituted at the expense of individuation. Rothenberg quotes from a compelling passage of Negative Dialectics:

It is through exchange that non-identical individuals and performances become commensurable and identical. . . . The dividing line [is whether] we maintain that identity . . . is absolute, that we want to reinforce it—or whether we feel that identity is the universal coercive mechanism which we, too, finally need to free ourselves from universal coercion.[1]

Adorno’s statement thus expounds the dialectical tension of subjectification and subjection, in which coercive mechanisms of exchange confirm the latter while eliminating the subjective performance of agency.

Adorno’s rejection of instrumental reason and principles of exchange that extend from his critical evaluation of the Enlightenment project directly underscores his reconstruction of women’s ideological and representational oppression throughout history. Through Adorno’s characterization of the essentialized woman as an objectified, exchangeable synecdoche of nature itself as expounded in Dialectic of Enlightenment, of women’s “wholly standing for nature, as the substrate of never-ending subsumption notionally and of never-ending subjection in reality,”[2] Rothenberg posits the feminist project and its expression in artistic performance as the extended disavowal of the patriarchal logics of instrumental reason and exchange that Adorno purports to condemn. Rothenberg acknowledges feminist criticisms of Adorno, most notably Andrew Hewitt’s “A Feminine Dialectic of Enlightenment? Adorno and Horkheimer Revisited,” which suggests that Adorno’s theorization of women’s status fails to think beyond the patriarchal logic that he seeks to reject. However, Rothenberg maintains that the entangled, patriarchal mechanisms of psychical and social domination that Adorno and second-wave feminist theorists describe at an equivalent historical moment in the 1960s–70s convey the possibility of a reconfigured epistemology of reflexive, political praxis and social transformation, to which Adorno ascribes as the social function of art and to which feminist performance practices aim to make manifest.

Rothenberg further relates Adorno’s critique of Enlightenment reason to his utopian renderings of aesthetic potentiality, which feminist artists endeavor to realize in performance. When characterizing art’s evasion of instrumental reason and utopian affordances that Adorno maintains, Rothenberg states: “In Aesthetic Theory he claims that works of art can serve as actual models of non-dominating reason and as fragile attempts at individuation while also revealing societal truths” (44–45). This mobilization towards the emancipatory subjectivity and praxis that art mediates further stems from what Adorno frames as the “self-locomotion of the material,” a processual techne of artistic materiality that carries a feminist political agency in reflexive relation to the female body that constructs the work of performance. When elucidating the possibility of configuring a feminist praxis through performing the utopian aesthetics that Adorno theorizes yet is unable to mobilize, Rothenberg states:

The feminist performance artist, as in Adorno’s view of emancipatory, autonomous art, constructs an aesthetic utopian model of cognition both by attempting to reappropriate her body as a subject, and also by acting on and with her body as object toward expressive, rather than instrumental, ends. Her body is material, and, as in Adorno’s objective form, this material is allowed to speak along with, but is not dominated by, the subject’s act of forming. Additionally, the aesthetic content produced by body art is indeed mediated if we keep in mind that the body is always already mediated in and through socio-historical experience.

Thus, Rothenberg rereads the utopian autonomy that Adorno ascribes to art as extended and politicized in feminist performance, which legitimates a corporeal, female subjectification beyond the subjecting, patriarchal conditions of Enlightenment rationality and commodified exchange.

Rothenberg centers her analysis of feminist performance on the artwork of Hannah Wilke, yet suggests that her interpretation could extend to other female performance artists of the 1970s, including Marina Abramovic, Eleanor Antin, and Carolee Schneemann. In So Help Me Hannah, a live series begun in 1978, Wilke performed nude, except for pair of high-heels and a gun, to which she caressed and aimed at herself. Wilke’s performance consisted of moving slowly throughout a series of poses and gestures while a soundtrack of her voice reading quotations from the (male) philosophical canon played in the gallery space. Rothenberg suggests that Wilke’s performance, a testimony against the patriarchal logics of instrumental reason evident in the philosophical soundtrack, affords a truth-value of dialectical dissonance by exposing the objectifying dynamics that attempt subjection in the processual will to autonomous female subjectification. Wilke’s use of the gun as a prop further surfaces the repressed phallic punishment that threatens individuated female agency, yet fails to silence it. Rothenberg reiterates Wilke’s mobilization of Adorno’s utopian aesthetic potential through the dialectic of pleasure that Wilke performs, materializing both dynamics of patriarchal voyeuristic pleasure that reduces the female body to an exchangeable object and its negation in Wilke’s affirmation of feminist confrontation.

Rothenberg’s article expounds a relevant rehabilitation of Adorno’s aesthetic theory in thoughtful counterpoint to the social engagement of feminist performance art. Her interpretation challenges canonical approaches that limit unconventional applications of critical theory to political movements and to the history of art. Rothenberg’s creative methodological revision of Adorno’s aesthetic theories maintains pertinence amid the urgent contemporary state of totalizing commodification and present loss of a utopian vision, as well as their contestation in an observable rise of a new global movement of art activism. A revival to Adorno’s insights on art as both a form of social critique and a utopian alternative, as Rothenberg advocates and conducts, thus provides a possible emancipatory framework for an oppositional confrontation with current cultural conditions of subjection and exchange to accrue a resistant agency in aesthetics.


1. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1992), p. 147.

2. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 111.

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