TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Devil and Theodor Adorno

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, Sunil Kumar looks at Jean-François Lyotard’s “Adorno as the Devil,” from Telos 19 (Spring 1974).

Jean-François Lyotard, as the title of his essay “Adorno as the Devil” indicates, attempts to take Adorno and the “radical” Marxism of the Frankfurt School by the horns. The chosen apparatus for the purpose is his analysis of Thomas Mann’s last novel, Doctor Faustus, first published in 1947 as well as Adorno’s magnum opus, Aesthetic Theory:

One of the masks that the devil assumes, in chapter XXV of Doctor Faustus, is the image of Adorno. In succession, the demoniacal principle, or demonic principle, as Freud would say, disguises itself as pimp, as hustler, as theoretician, and critic of musical composition, and as horned devil. The devil travestied as an intellectual, delivers whole phrases from the Philosophy of Modern Music just as they were written.

His aim, one could say, is to posit a move away from language-bound criticism and to replace it with the “deployment of libidnal investment.” He espies theological underpinnings in Adorno’s writings, which he would have inherited from Marx and Freud. “In Marx as in Freud,” Lyotard writes, “the laying bare of the economic, or the political and libidnal economy, remains inhabited by a theology. It is not the same one: in Freud, it is judaical, critical, somber (forgetful of the political); in Marx it is catholic, Hegelian, reconciliatory.” Adorno, in his refusal to ascribe any affirmative function to art, is the culmination of such thinking. In fact he goes as far as to state that, “In Adorno, all that is left is the theology.” Art for Adorno, as Lyotard points out, is a kind of Christ in its denunciatory function; therefore any redemption that it can offer, by that logic, has to always already come too late in order for redemption to take place. Art has to give form to contradiction, like dissonance in Schoenberg, and cannot offer any positive portrayals of utopia, lest it betray it by semblance and consolation. The more it is blocked by the real functional order, the more true it is. The seminal idea here is of non-identity, a negative dialectics, and this is precisely what Lyotard contends with. He sees Adorno as attempting to conserve/memorize redemption in absentia. The reconciliation that he forbids in art is by the very same bilderverbot sacredly preserved by being kept out of the reach of representation that might prove harmful to it.

“We have the advantage over Adorno of living in a capitalism that is more energetic, more cynical, less tragic,” Lyotard writes. “It places everything inside representation, representation doubles itself (as in Brecht), therefore presents itself. The tragic gives way to the parodic.” To forbid positive representation, lest everything be corrupted by capitalism, responsible for the dissipation of subjectivity, would now be a clown’s affair for Lyotard. The tragic, he contends, belongs to the clown’s genre; it is parody in the bad sense, “the representation of something which ‘outside’ the representative space (in ‘society’ is already dead, dialectics’ Finale.” Adorno’s refusal of all positive reconciliation is understood by him as a theology, almost like that of Marx, who saw the proletariats’ suffering as destined to triumph, but as a tragic theology without any economics.

The tragic theology grieves the loss of totality in modernism, the fact that all reconciliation can only be represented in its impossibility, the impossibility of the unity of concept (form) with intuition (material). The artwork recedes and makes way for critical knowledge, but criticism too is an authoritarian dominating relation. Lyotard terms it as “negativity in power,” and the power that it has is that of language, “which annihilates what it speaks of.” In his analysis of the influence that Marxism and psychoanalysis had on the Frankfurt School, Lyotard writes:

[T]he ‘radical’ religious function in Marxism covers another operation, perfectly effective in the most modern capitalism, and which permits doing much more than ‘criticism’ allows for, the operation of revealing the entire society as an economy (in the Freudian sense), as the expense and the metamorphosis of libidnal energy. It is precisely this affirmative operation which is lacking in the Marxism of Frankfurt. It is vain to reinforce composition in the Schonbergian sense, as it is vain to search out the right position from which to struggle (contester) in the leftist sense: these activities remain inside faith. In a sense, capitalism is stronger that these kinds of projects, not because it engulfs them, ‘co-opts’ them, but rather because it renders them useless, and its deployment is posed otherwise, elsewhere. . . . Adorno is critcism’s finale, its bouquet, it revelation as fireworks.

Read the full version of Jean-François Lyotard’s “Adorno as the Devil” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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