[Bibliography] [Relevant Link] [Other Theories][Marxism]        Kate Liu
The Adorno-Benjamin debate

The Adorno-Benjamin debate centers on the issue of artistic autonomy. To Benjamin, aura has declined in this age of mechanical reproduction and artistic autonomy is either ahistorical or counter-revolutionary. Adorno agrees with Benjamin that the aura of art is declining in the modern era, but he finds the reasons for this decline not only in its technical reproducibility, but also in its "fulfillment of its own 'autonomous' formal laws" (Politics and Aesthetics 122-23). Whereas Benjamin bases modern reproducible art on politics and equates "progressive" artistic techniques with political tendency, Adorno thinks that the technical and formal innovations of modern art makes it critical of and relatively autonomous from the current political and socio-economical system. In his mind, it is the modern popular culture, or the cultural industry, that is subservient to the system, since it is commercialized and fetishized, conforming to the established order of capitalism despite its semblance of freedom.

Aura, to Adorno, is significantly canceled by modern art itself. Reacting to an age in which social consciousness lags behind art itself, modern art cancels its aura to include its opposite, the anti-art. Thus musicians like Schoernberg deny the tonal aspect of music, and modern novelists revolt against the traditional novelistic omniscience. "If anything does have an aural character," says Adorno, "it is surely the film which possesses it to an extreme and highly suspect degree" (A & P 123). One example of how the Hollywood films retain the illusion of aura is the cult of Mickey Mouse.

The technical innovations of modern art that cancel its aura, moreover, testify to its relative freedom from the dominant ideology. Art, as Adorno points out frequently, is both an autonomous entity and a social fact. But in cultural industry, "art and ideology are becoming one and the same thing" (AT 464), while the modern artistic mind "in displaying its blindness also displays its effort to free itself of ideology" (Prism 27-28). This relative autonomy of modern art consists in the negativity through which it "truly defines the existent"(26). Its negativity, or its force of protest, manifest itself in modern art's fragmentariness, dissonance and its self-negation. First of all, modern art "expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions...in its innermost structure" (P 32). The novels like Kafka's, for instance, are fragmentary, because they negate the possibility of "the totality of a rounded temporal experience" (Prism 265). Secondly, what modern art offers is not sensuous pleasure but dissonance, caused by the convergence of the immanent dynamic of art and the external reality, or by the inclusion of the non-integratable in the process of artistic integration. Fragmentariness and dissonance, however, are just two possible expression of negativity; ultimately modern art is self-negating. To avoid being fetishized or hypostasized, it constantly negates its artistic confine and maintains the mobility between itself and the empirical other.

To Adorno, the effect of modern art with its negativity on its audience is not distraction as Benjamin thinks, but concentration to the degree of self-abnegation. The audience is not absorbing by art but absorbed by it. Kafka's prose, for instance, "expresses itself not through expression but by its repudiation." It overwhelms the reader, demands his interpretation, and thus collapses the aesthetic distance between the text and the reader (P 246). Schoerberg, too, invites his listeners' "active and concentrated participation" (P 149).

To Adorno, therefore, Benjamin "underestimate[s] the technicality of autonomous art and over-estimate[s] that of dependent art" (A & P 124). The cultural industry, to Adorno, does not serve revolutionary purpose, but rather offers entertainment to inattentive audience at best. "The laughter of the audience at a cinema," as Adorno puts it, "is anything but good and revolutionary" (A & P 123). What is worse is that, in the cultural industry, culture is debased to "cultural goods" completely at the will of the market. In order to make itself marketable, the popular culture conforms to the established order and assumes a false immediacy to the reality it is blind to. As a consequence, Adorno does not see the mass audience become critics or even authors like Benjamin does; instead, he finds them deceived into believing in the freedom they have already lost.

The basic dichotomy in Adorno's analysis of modernism is that between the "autonomous" and the "dependent" art, whereas Benjamin's is that between the "reproducible" modern art and the "unique" traditional art. This paradigmatic difference can partly account for their controversies and show their respective blindness and insight. Concerned with the political function of art, Benjamin's analysis of modernism is more prescriptive than descriptive, and he ignores the differences between the popular and the serious art in terms of their self-awareness and their involvement with the dominant ideology. Moreover, it is true that the mechanical devices of reproducible art can increase its accessibility, reveal the "unconscious optics" of reality and thus allow it to serve revolutionary purposes; however, Benjamin does not consider the fact that these mechanical devices can also be manipulated to decieve and coerce people into believing in some untruths. Adorno, on the other hand, is more interested in distinguishing the autonomous art from the dependent one, and he ignores the critical power of some popular, dependent art. The formal innovations of modern avant-gardist art, indeed, can serve as a critique of its society, but it is also possible that its content, instead of being "truth content," is in collusion with the dominant ideology. If the autonomy of modern art is only relative, so is the heteronomy of pupular culture. Both of them can offer a dialectical criticism of the ideology they are embedded in.


¡@Notes and Quotes: 

Adorno--Benjamin's estimation of politicising capacity of technical art:

1) he queries the ability of technical art to fulfil the task Benjamin assigns to it. Aura, to A, is an integral feature of contemporary popular culture. "if anything does have an aural character, it is surely the film which possesses it to an extreme and highly suspect degree" (123) e.g. the cult of Mickey Mouse

2) he disagrees with B's general methodological approach--subjectivist interpretation of the character of commodity fetishism

3) reject the notion of the collective consciousness

"The interior should be made transparent as a social function and its self-containedness should be revealed as an illusion--not vis-a-vis a hypostasized collective consciousness, but vis-a-vis the real social process" (119).

culture industry v.s. cultural criticism

a false emancipation

commercialization of culture


"Both [the high art and the low art; Schoerberg and the American film] bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change" (A & P 123)

"You underestimate the technicality of autonomous art and over-estimate that of dependent art" (124)

aura "I agree with you that the aural element of the work of art is declining--not only because of its technical reproducibility, ...but above all because of the fulfillment of its own 'autonomous' formal laws"

autonomy/--counter-revolutionary "the center of the autonomous work of art does not itself belong on the side of myth...but is inherently dialectical; within it juxtaposes the magical and the mark of freedom" (A & P 121) "the uttermost consistency in the pursuit of the technical laws of autonomous art changes this art and instead of rendering it into a taboo or fetish, brings it close to the state of freedom, of something that can be consciously produced and made" (122)


B, following Brecht, tended to hypostasize techniques in abstraction from relations of production, and to idealize diversion in ignorance of the social determinants of their reproduction. (107)

Where B manifestly overestimated the progressive destiny of the commercial-popular art of his time, Adorno no less clearly over-estimated that of the avant-garde art of the period.



Kafka: --fragmentary "[The novels] do not permit themselves to be brought to an end as the totality of a rounded temporal experience" (265)

For A, Kafka's untotalised perspective represents the tearing down of 'the soothing facade to which a repressive reason increasingly conforms' (252). "His power is one of demolition."


"[Kafka's prose] expresses itself not through expression but by its repudiation, by breaking off. ...Through the power with which Kafka demands interpretation, he collaps aesthetic distance" (246).

Schenberg's music demands "active and concentrated participation.... It requires the listener spontaneously to compose its inner movement and demands of him not mere contemplation but praxis" (149-50).

The subversive capacity of modernism rests...on its ability to undermine the semblance of legitimacy which a false, totalising perspective gives to an alienated social existence. He suggests that the 'resentment' which Schoenberg's music arouses can be accounted for on the basis of its refusal of the the 'soothing facade' of a totalising perspective.

"The modernist work of art has...only a formally subversive capacity. The authentic work's estrangement from the demands of the masses deprives it of any practical influence" (Johnson 95).

negativity: the force of protest; the mind, the product of an economic type, "it implies at the same time the objective possibility of overcoming it" (25)

"...the mind...truly defines the existent in its negativity" (26) "The ideology which affirms life is forced into opposition to life by the immanent drive of the ideal....Prompted by the incompatibility of ideology and existence, the mind, in displaying its blindness also displays its effort to free itself of ideology" (27-28)

(B equates artistic technique and political tendency)

Dissonance--the trademark of modernism (the immanent dynamic of autonomous works of art and the growing power of external reality over the subject converge in dissonance)

Cultural criticism--a dialectical, "immanent" critique of art

"The task of criticism must be not so much to search for the particular interest-groups to which cultural phenomena are to be assigned, but rather to decipher the general social tendencies which are expressed in these phenomena..." (30)

"Culture is only true when implicitly critical,...Criticism is an indispensable element of culture...as true as culture is untrue" (22)

"Only in so far as it withdraws from a praxis which has degenerated into its opposite, from the ever-changing production of what is always the same, from the service of the customer who himself serves the manipulator--only in so far as it withdraws from Man, can culture be faithful to man...impoverishment" (23)

"The dialectical critic of culture must both participate in culture and not participate" (33)