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Aesthetic Theory. Theodor W. Adorno. Translated and edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Pp. xxi + 383. $39.95 (cloth).
Adorno and “A Writing of Ruins”: Essays on Modern Aesthetics and Anglo-American Literature and Culture. James Martin Harding. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Pp. vii + 197. $19.95 (paper).
The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern. Edited by Max Pensky. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Pp. vii + 199. $21.95 (paper).
The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Edited by Tom Huhn and Lambert Zuidervaart. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. Pp. ix + 356. $35.00 (cloth).

Difficult is a word that seems especially appropriate for Adorno’s thought, nowhere more so than with Aesthetic Theory. The solid new translation by Robert Hullot-Kentor improves on the previous translation to such an extent that it reads like a wholly different book. It also makes clear that the profound difficulties of this text do not lie simply in the inadequacies of the earlier translation. As Hullot-Kentor notes in his introduction, the very look of the text, with its pages of unbroken paragraphs and a mere line of open space separating the “chapters,” appears “visibly antagonistic” (AT, xi). This book makes no concessions [End Page 161] to the reader. The text’s apparent indifference to its reception, Hullot-Kentor suggests, is due to the fact that the book “is oriented not to its readers but to the thing-in-itself,” that is, art (AT, xi). This is a book on aesthetic theory that tries to appropriate its insights self-reflectively into its own mode of presentation. The result, Adorno wrote, was that “any organization in the traditional sense . . . proved impracticable. The book must, so to speak, be written in equally weighted, paratactical parts that are arranged around a midpoint that they express through their constellation” (AT, 364). Parataxes, which Adorno once described as “artificial disturbances that evade the logical hierarchy of a subordinating syntax,” are indeed important to the structure of Aesthetic Theory, as they are to all of Adorno’s writing. 1 What makes Aesthetic Theory an exceptionally difficult text, however, is not its paratactic mode of presentation per se, but rather that parataxis has been elevated to a formal principle and extended far beyond the usual breaking point. Paratactic texts, Hullot-Kentor notes, are usually short, fragmentary, and “intensive, almost to the denial of their quality of extension; and the more extensive the paratactical work actually is—and Aesthetic Theory is almost unparalleled in this—the greater the potential for its unraveling at each and every point” (AT, xvi).

Shierry Weber Nicholsen, a frequent translator of Adorno and, like Hullot-Kentor, one of our best, agrees. In her contribution to Semblance of Subjectivity, she writes, “Aesthetic Theory, more strikingly than other works, perhaps, consists of one long series of Adorno’s sentences” (SS, 84). The book, she says, seems to have “no natural starting or ending point to it” (SS, 83). In Aesthetic Theory, parataxis gives the impression not so much of being fragmentary, but almost of being long-winded: “In contrast to Adorno’s essays, which are often constructed of relatively self-contained ‘paragraphs,’ Aesthetic Theory seems to go on and on, each sentence linked with the next one” (SS, 84). The long paragraphs, which in his essays still develop, if not deductively with clarifying hypotactic syntax, then logically like a musical theme, here assume a hardness that is difficult for thought to penetrate. This text strenuously resists efforts to read for depth, seems to push thought continually back to the surface, which is why, at first reading, the book seems to lack Adorno’s usual eloquence. Elevated to a formal principle, parataxis produces an obdurate language alienated from itself, a language that Adorno associates with late styles. 2 Adorno’s language in Aesthetic Theory, Nicholsen suggests, has a crystalline structure: “The coherence from one sentence to the next seems to be provided by the concept or image in a sentence showing first one face, which links it to the sentence preceding, and then another face, which...

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