Adorno and Critical Theory
“Die einzigen Werke heute, die zählen, sind die, welche keine Werke mehr sind.”
“[Neue Musik] verhallt ungehört, ohne Echo.... Sie ist die wahre Flaschenpost.”
These apothegms from “Schoenberg and Progress” present art in a state of crisis: Authentic works must forfeit their traditional foundations in order to survive. What remains possible under these conditions? Can art have it both ways—symbolic subject, free but running out of breath; determined object, bound but sheltered by convention? What is symptomized by “Flaschenpost” art? We must read Adorno.
Theodor W. Adorno was a principal member of the Frankfurt School and one of the founders of Critical Theory. Interdisciplinary in its scope, Adorno’s work encompasses sociology, philosophy, literature, Marxism, psychoanalysis, mass culture, fascism, and the Enlightenment. Over half of his published writings treat aesthetics, particularly the aesthetics of musical modernism. Adorno theorized modernism as a philosopher and sociologist, but also as a trained musician. His work is the most sustained (and hence disputed) contribution to aesthetics in the twentieth century, and his ideas have broad relevance for contemporary criticism and cultural theory. This course will examine various strands of Adorno’s critical project as they pertain to music. A running thread, as we move from topic to topic, will be a close reading of the essay “Schoenberg and Progress” from Adorno’sPhilosophy of New Music (1949).