Adorno's Critique of Aesthetic Intentionalism & its Limits

Phenomenological Reviews 1 (2021)
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In this critical review I explore the anti-intentionalist stance Adorno offers in his aesthetics, specifically focusing on his Notes to Literature, and the internal limits to this stance. Adorno rejects the primacy of authorial intentionalism: The presuppositions of its aesthetic methodology, he claims, place the individual in a position of epistemic priority, without exploring the social totalities which constitute the conditions of the presentation of aesthetic knowledge by any such individual. The role of the creator for Adorno is inherently mediated within the context of such totalities. This is not to wholly discount the role of creative intentions, however. Rather, Adorno frames the artist as a ‘bearer’ and a ‘representative of the total social subject’. In this context he allows for a qualified form of subjectivity, construed as a mode of creativity produced by a particular kind of “achieved self-awareness” or disposition of consciousness towards an “estrangement of meaning”. Indeed, the loss of the stronger presupposition that the subject acts as an authentic expository force can lead to a realization that objectivity by this means constitutes a “loss”, Adorno claims, which creates the possibility for pursuing a critical stance to facilitate the capacity for creating autonomous works of art. Creators of autonomous works acknowledge “the paradoxical relationship of the autonomous work to its commodity character” (‘Valery’s Deviations’), namely an awareness of their inherent reification. The self-alienating yet autonomous work is described by Adorno as possessing and demonstrating tacit yet genuine ‘wants’, but this is framed by the demands of the human condition to recognize how ill-fitting the forces of social production are upon and towards securing them. Aesthetic intentions and the subjects which channel them can be critically valuable if they allude to or exposit the contradictions between these demands and those forces.

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