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Reviewed by:
  • The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, and: The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern
  • Paul Fleming (bio)
Tom Huhn and Lambert Zuidervaart (eds). The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997. 356 pages.
Max Pensky (ed). The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern. SUNY Press, 1997. 199 pages.


Adorno, if he ever fully left, is back. This decade has witnessed a marked acceleration in the rate of translation of Adorno’s works into English as well as a notable proliferation of secondary literature on him, a fact to which these two anthologies attest. And if the planned 47 volume Collected Works of T. W. Adorno ever comes to fruition, it is safe to say that Adorno, at least on paper, is here to stay.

In light of such an “actuality of Adorno,” the task an anthology editor faces is twofold: both to begin to set the terms under which Adorno can and should be discussed, and to address the possible reasons for his renewed relevance. With respect to the later, Max Pensky is unequivocal: Adorno is not only “an essential precursor” to poststructuralism, but also its “continuing irritant” (6). From his analysis of the administered world to his insistence on the non-identical, Adorno anticipates and enables various streams of postmodernist thought, from cultural studies to deconstruction. Yet Adorno equally retains a gadfly presence within poststructuralism, whether through his supposed cultural elitism, his rejection of a jouissance of play in favor of a Trauerarbeit, or his clinging to a non-linguistic, conceptual model of thought. Adorno’s actuality is, therefore, inextricably bound to his non-actuality, to his Unzeitgemäßigkeit; because he is a bit out of time, Adorno returns just in time. It is precisely this oscillation between affinity and irritation which demands, for Pensky, “the necessity of reading Adorno now” (2). At stake then is not merely Adorno’s relevance, but his exigency. These two anthologies begin then to circumscribe the terms, the thematic of Adorno’s reintroduction.


Mimesis, Martin Jay points out, is a concept which has been more maligned than embraced of late (Huhn 29). Adorno’s employment of it as a central concept in Aesthetic Theory seems then to call immediately into question his affinity to contemporary thought. Yet when one reads statements such as “The mimesis of works of art is their resemblance to themselves” (AT 159), it is clear that mimesis understood as a slavish form of ontological copying is not at work here. Art imitates itself, and thereby provides itself with autonomy as well as an utopic potential: by refusing to imitate and reproduce false reality it provides the possibility, if only negatively, of another, better realm. Hence automimesis and autonomy become inseparable in Adorno, producing a very complex structure of “autonomimesis” which lies at the heart of [End Page 696] Aesthetic Theory. Adorno employs mimesis as that form of thought which can rupture instrumental reason’s claim to totality; whereas schematizing reason is grounded in the subsumption of an intuition to a concept—for Adorno, a model of domination—mimesis is an originary openness of something like a subject to other, to an object. In this relation, the “subject” does not appropriate the object, but rather assimilates itself to the object, granting the object a certain primacy. Mimesis precedes both subject and object and is constitutive of both. Subject and object (in the widest possible sense of these terms, for no human subject or self is necessary in this relation) emerge as paratactical products of the originary movement of mimesis. Mimesis, as Mariam Bratu Hansen succinctly summarizes, “involves making oneself similar to the environment; a relation of adaptation, affinity, and reciprocity, a non-objectifying interchange with the Other; and a fluid, pre-individual form of subjectivity” (Pensky 90).

Martin Jay and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (both in Huhn) set out to trace the various forms which this non-conceptual mode of understanding takes in Aesthetic Theory. By exploring Adorno’s indebtedness to Benjamin’s notion of mimesis (from his early writings on language), Weber Nicholsen not only helps delimit the...

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