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Fr. 410

October 9, 2013

Two considerations favor this seeming equivalence of work of art and subject. First, there are those passages where Adorno considers both subjectivity and objectivity as reciprocal, interacting processes. Consider the following example from Aesthetic Theory: “Proust (and after him Kahnweiler) took the position that painting transforms our very mode of seeing and thereby the objects themselves along with it. As authentic as may be the experience to which this doctrine corresponds, the formulation may well be too idealistic. Precisely the reverse of this formulation may not be altogether unconvincing either: that it is the objects themselves which have historically changed, so that the human sensorium adapts to those changes and painting ultimately invents the appropriate indices for them.” (Aesthetic Theory, pp. 447/418; cited in Late Marxism, p. 193). Although this passage is remarkable as another instance of the subject-object reversal characteristic of Adorno’s oeuvre, it also deserves mention for showing the extent to which neither subject nor object are fixed entities with unchanging contents and are bound to change as their conditioning factors change.

The second consideration weighing in favor of such a hypothesis also comes in the form of textual considerations in that Adorno himself considers the relation between works of art and subjectivity:

“Works of art possess expressivity, not when they communicate subjectivity, but rather when they tremble with its Ur-history, and the Ur-history of endowment with soul and life: the tremolo of willed expressions of subjectivity is an unbearable substitute for this primal historicity. This situation is what circumscribes the affinity of works of art with subjectivity: that affinity persists because that primal history lives on within the subject itself, beginning again and again throughout all history. Only the subject can constitute the vehicle for expression, no matter how mediated it is even where it imagines itself to be the most immediate. Even where what is expressed resembles the psychic subject, and there its impulses are ‘subjective’ in the conventional sense, these remain impersonal, passing through the integrated ego rather than emerging from it. Expression in works of art is the non-subjective dimension of the subject itself, less its expression than its impression” (Aesthetic Theory, pp. 172/165, cited in Late Marxism, pp. 204-205).

Yet we should not be too quick to suggest that the work of art and the subject completely coincide. Certainly, they demonstrate parallel functions in that the work of art qua expression possesses a determinate content and the subject qua intermediate expression lends this content its specific shape through objective forces acting on it.  In this way, the two entities demonstrate a parallel internal economy, i.e. that of expression. Indeed, this would seemingly lend credence to a view on which the two are one and the same, backed further as it is by such claims from Jameson:

“This peculiar dialectic of a subjectivity that passes back and forth between the two poles of expression and of the psychic subject itself, in which each is alternately subjective and objective in opposition to the other’s variability” (Late Marxism, pp. 205).

Although such parallels can be pursued quite some way, the subject remains functionally distinct from the work of art. Whereas the work of art results from the work done on the subject qua expression, the subject is overcome by the work that it undergoes qua expression. In other words, while the work of art qua result readily accepts this status of object existing in the world, the same cannot be said for the subject. Indeed, when pushed to its logical conclusion, Adorno’s view holds the proper place of the subject is only ever to be its own “violent eclipse” as seen in his polemics against the aesthetic subject, subjectivity and subjectivism (Late Marxism, pp. 215). All of this would seem to suggest that, even were one to conceive of subjectivity as an analogous or identical process, it diverges from the work of art at the level of its effective reality and status post-creation. In the end, subjectivity can only ever act as a placeholder for some future, eventual work of art that will come to take its place.

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