Julian Davis on "Adorno's Radical Objective Spiritualization of Artwork: Genealogy of an Aesthetic"

Julian Davis
Tue September 28th 2021, 6:15 - 7:45pm PDT
Event Sponsor
Philosophy and Literature at Stanford, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages
Julian Davis on "Adorno's Radical Objective Spiritualization of Artwork: Genealogy of an Aesthetic"

Before the session please read Julian's draft (to be added to our email list for Julian's paper please contact gdowling [at] stanford.edu (gdowling[at]stanford[dot]edu))

Theodor Adorno’s sustained, plodding, and honest attempt to reckon with some of the most challenging features of mid-twentieth century modernist artistic production yielded some of the most prima facie incredible philosophemes in the history of aesthetic theory. The notion that artwork has a spiritual agency of its own, quite independent of the artists and consumers who produce and experience it, which passes judgement over itself (and appears to us only by infiltrating our consciousness) strikes one as somewhat absurd. And yet, there can be no doubt that Adorno was out to make sense of deeply novel works in a deeply novel way and, moreover, in circumstances in which many of his contemporaries were content to either banish the new work from the realm of aesthetics, as some dreadful excrescence, or coddle it in the facile embrace of free association as something utterly incommensurate with the past.

How does one, for instance, make sense of how Adorno made sense of works by Beckett, Berg, Brecht, and Schoenberg? I work out an answer within a broadly speaking genealogical methodology, i.e. telling a story of how Adorno’s radical objective spiritualization of artwork came about and what the likely thought process was that led up to it. I discuss the profound influence of Auschwitz and WWII on his thinking, the philosophical background in his Negative Dialectics for his particular conception of objectivity, and his Marxian critique of idealist aesthetics. In addition, I assess the radical spiritualization of artwork that he borrowed from his friend Walter Benjamin. I also explore some applications of his aesthetic theory to modernist art, in particular by trying to understand his Trying to Understand Endgame, a sustained attempt to reckon with aspects of Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre which he takes to represent the highest and truest form of artwork. I conclude with some reflections, some subversive and some vindicatory, about the purported scope and ultimate utility of Adorno’s aesthetic theory as a whole.

Julian Davis is a California attorney holding bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from Brown University. He graduated magna cum laude from U.C. Hastings College of the Law, where he served on the editorial staff of the Hastings Law Journal. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at Stanford University, before which he provided general counsel legal services to small businesses, start-ups and non-profits and received numerous awards for community service including the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Local Hero award. Julian’s interests span legal, political and social philosophy; literature, aesthetics and the arts; as well as intellectual history and the history of science.

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