Autonomy and Negation in Adorno
To my beloved friend Gerald Maria Bauer
lives in Vienna. He holds an M.A. in Aesthetic and Theory of Contemporary Art, Philosophy of Art and Political Science. He is DJ, music producer and editor of Entkunstung Journal.
If we are aware of the actual state of our culture and politics, with the rise of the right wing populism, the crisis of the left, the influence of design products in the shaping and controlling of the every-day-life aesthetics, with the way companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are conducting our actions and ways of communicating and the increased power of the culture industries in aestheticizing, and furthermore, neutralizing every discourse that may have the potential of becoming antagonistic, if we have all this elements in mind, we definitely have to consider the possibility of making a step forward and becoming political active, but not by making memes and following hashtag trends that last not even a week.
The current crisis of democracy is the conjunction of a state of affairs that cannot and doesn’t want to change, nevertheless, and as we know, conflict dynamizes, then democracy can be reaffirmed by the possibility of its transformation or radicalization. Alain Badiou claims that in order “to defend the new kingdom of emancipatory politics, we cannot radically exclude all forms of violence.”  That is why our political opinions and actions shouldn’t be banal, we have to be able to attempt to understand what has been done and what has been left behind in the course of our recent history in order to realize why we ended up in the historical situation we have to assume and confront right now. We are in the need of not forgetting and we have the obligation to remind ourselves that, what is happening, is not casualty.
In this order of ideas, by considering the possibility of interpreting the aesthetic sphere as a dimension of the political, some questions arise: how much can we ask art for? Does art have to take place and assume positions and responsibilities? And if yes, how and from where? Having this in mind, I would like to try to address (knowing that I will fail in giving a complete view), about one of the most controversial and forgotten –and even despised– notions in art: the concept of autonomy in Adorno.
The aim is simple: to try to find ways for approaching to art believing in its faculty as a discourse for criticism and resistance in times where everything it’s been neutralized in real time by the market and by the post-industrial state of the society of entertainment (the spectacle is long gone), with social media as the most powerful tool for controlling and sedating people actions, including the artistic production and reception.
Art is always negation, both of social praxis and of itself and its own tradition. Negation is what gives art its irreducible condition, and furthermore, it is what secures its autonomy. Art should be able to produce discontinuity, a rupture, not an event. Moreover, beyond its sensitive dimension, art is a process that has to do with the manifestation of any regime of truth. As follows, if art carries certain kind of truth, this truth manifest itself at the moment when there is a rupture, creating a meaning where there was not, however, this truth is given as an unforeseen event. We can argue that to signify ruptures can be understood as the hegemonic power that art carries within.
In order to approach to Adorno’s notion of autonomy, it is convenient to remember that he developed his theory by analysing the dialectic relation between the political influence in the process of production and reception of art. His œvre was intended to lay the foundations of a theoretical project with the aim of safeguarding the avant-garde art from the homogenizing effects of the Cultural Industry.
In the Dialektik der Aufklärung he denounces the ‘prescribed diversion’ of the cultural industry as ‘transposition of art into the sphere of consumption’, reducing the aesthetic pleasure to a mere sensible pleasure’.  His theory was based in denouncing –‘as moralist and social critic as he was’– the irruption of the cultural industry in the sphere of pleasure. For him, to have fun or to be able to have pleasure means to consent and being part of a situation, since ‘amusement always means no thinking, to forget suffering even when present’. 
He didn’t followed the Kantian solution of the antinomy between the two forms of pleasure (the aesthetic pleasure and immediate joy), instead, he opted for condemning, ‘for moral and no aesthetic reasons, the confusion created by the cultural industry between the aesthetic and the sensible, he didn’t claim for an autonomous aesthetic pleasure, instead he defended the moral and critic content of such pleasure.’ 
In this order of ideas, to preserve for art its power as a discourse for criticizing the excess of Capitalism with its renewed instrumentalized reason seems to be necessary more than ever, however, it is important to avoid anachronisms and moralist approaches.
One of the most insisted topics in Adorno’s theory is the reaffirmation of the clear difference between an artwork that can be experienced and understood solely and exclusively through the aesthetic reason, and the banal joy of an artwork of consumption and entertainment well known as Kitsch, which is nothing more than mere merchandise, and as such, moves in the market by the law of supply and demand and superficiality, creating needs and expectations, functioning as a placebo (just as design products).
Adorno was interested in preserving for art its power of social criticism through the negation of the social itself. To save for art its autonomy as an aesthetic object and, simultaneously, to consolidate its sovereignty as a form of knowledge that also disassociates itself from other discourses and spheres of value. “In order to delineated itself as modern, it is imperative that art define itself against those institutions which have brought it into being […] this model of autonomy allows for a defence of art against reductively heteronomous notions of art as a social practice, but from within the space of art as social practice.” 
The eradication of the nonaesthetic reason is what gives art its sovereignty. It is important to account that for Adorno an artwork is autonomous because it can only be understood through aesthetic experience. With this, aesthetics becomes sovereign: only through aesthetic reason am I able to understand, or at least, to approach to the message a work of art has to communicate. There is no need, nor is it convenient, to look for another extra or nonaesthetic reason to try to comprehend an artistic object. Other forms of reason that may allow the understanding of life such as morality, politics, science or religion, are excluded. To subvert the rules of reason is what gives art its aesthetic sovereignty.
My bet is that an autonomous work of art is not and should not be exclusively formal and the aesthetic experience is not and should not be solely aesthetic. That is why I believe in something conciliatory, as for example to consider the possibility of a hermeneutic interpretation, following a posture pro Gadamer or from H. R. Jauss, or why not, through an ethical and language reading of Wittgenstein.
There is however, a really interesting approach coming from Rancière’s idea of Le Partage du sensible that should be held in consideration. In this case, understanding Partage as ‘to divide’, ‘to share’, as the premise for a renewal of the political sphere. For him, a change in the sensitive sphere will produce a transformation of the political dimension. Grounding his theory in the Kantian notion of sensus communis, he believes in the possibility of seeing art as a vehicle for participation and understanding, since the divergences in sensitivity opens the dimension of the politic. The idea is to rethink the aesthetic fact as a stimulator of some form of transformational power and not as a simple witness; thus the aesthetic experience will promote equality and the re-conquest of the lost unit of individuals.
Returning to Adorno’s puzzle, he adds another element to autonomy-sovereignty equation: the aesthetic negativity. He considers that the faculty of art lays in its capability of negation and therefore in its power of not being understood, power that apparently escapes also the aesthetic sphere. In his eagerness to safeguard art, this becomes unattainable, since not even the aesthetic reason can be considered as way of reasoning. Aesthetic negativity is therefore the negation of any possibility of understanding of an artwork and the negation of art itself.
The model is: I experience an artwork but I’m not able to establish communication with it, and although it comes from the social praxis, it is incomprehensible as a cultural product or as an artistic manifestation of an individual.
Adorno’s notion of autonomy coming from the aesthetic negativity perspective seeks to generate a cognitive crisis. Therefore no discourse will be able to allow its comprehension (not even the aesthetic? it seems like it).
“If the autonomy model describes the relative validity of the aesthetic experience, the sovereignty model attributes an absolute validity to it, since it simultaneously breaks the good functioning of the other modes of discourse. The model of sovereignty sees in the aesthetic experience the means of ruining the predominance of the extra-aesthetic reason, thus constructing the instance of a critic in the act of reason”.  Adorno tries to solve this contradiction by developing an aesthetic based on the negativity of the aesthetic experience, generating more tension to the already complicated equation. To resolve this dilemma, then, without weakening any of the two concepts (autonomy and sovereignty) is the task that emerges from his work, and Adorno himself fails to decipher it.
To defend the autonomy of the work of art is to generate the guidelines for asserting the sovereignty of the aesthetic reason, and at the same time, its negative condition. “If negation produces autonomy, autonomy is that which secures the conditions for negation.”  This can be understood as a ways for preserving for art its freedom and space for criticizing all discourses of reason, to which they fail to pave the understanding. “Art is sovereign not because it abolishes the frontier between the aesthetic experience and other modes of experience, to assert itself as an overcoming or a decomposition of the reason that was imposed immediately upon reason itself, but because founding its validity solely in itself, constitutes a crisis for the functioning of our discourses”.  It is seen in this theoretical development proposed by Adorno that the only possibility for the spectator to approach to an artwork is through a negative experience: a lack of access to the work, incomprehension, therefore, a non-understanding, not a shared language and not feedback, only discursive criticism through the denial of the social praxis by the isolation of the artwork in its sovereignty.
In order to rescue the importance of Adorno's contribution, hermeneutics seeks the reconciliation of these categories through a dialogue between different discourses of reason. The aesthetic experience, from a hermeneutical point of view, does not exclude other forms of knowledge. This model wouldn’t reduce the autonomy and sovereignty of the work of art, nor the aesthetic experience. By having the possibility of reading, communicating and understanding an artwork through other discourses, art gains more potential of experience, and therefore, of explanation of life, even in its critic content.
 Alain Badiou, Polemics. Horkheimer / Th. W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung. M. Horkheimer / Th. W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung. Christoph Menke, Die Souveränität der Kunst. John Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. Christoph Menke, Die Souveränität der Kunst.  John Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. Christoph Menke, Die Souveränität der Kunst.