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Elemente einer Ästhetik des Theatralen in Adornos ästhetischer Theorie

Ort: Würzburg
Verlag: Verlag Knigshausen und Neumann
Jahr: 2012
Autor(en): Anja Nowak
Autor der Rezension: Jonas Tinius
ISBN: 978-3-8260-4812-8
Umfang / Preis: Seiten 130 / EUR 19,80

Adorno’s reflexions on aesthetics have become a source of much inspiration across the human sciences and art in the 20th century. Yet, despite the mark his work has left on many practitioners in the field of theatre studies, no work until this point has dedicated a thorough analysis to the ways in which Adorno’s writings on aesthetics pertain specifically to theatre or the theatrical. Anja Nowak has provided a convincingly meticulous and yet brief and accessible remedy for this lacuna. She sets out to investigate what elements of an aesthetic of the theatrical can be found in Adorno’s writings, taking his unfinished Aesthetic Theory (AT) as a starting point but venturing far beyond. Nowak stresses that references to theatre or the theatrical in these writings do not amount to an explicit theory, but that they constitute fragments, elements, Bruchstücke, much like the philosophy propounded in AT. This work sets out to show in what ways these are relevant for theatre studies, artists, and scholars interested in a social and processual aesthetics of theatre and art.

Levels of Abstraction: On the structure of the work

In its negative form, art can be both critique of the momentary and anticipation of the possible (cf. Tinius 2012; Bloch 1988). It can thus become a significant subject-matter for philosophy, as subject of a critical and negative aesthetics. And yet, as practice and performance thereof, such a negative aesthetics becomes a self-driving motor for critical reasoning and knowledge.

Nowak rightly notes that it is complicated (and undesirable at times) to identify and isolate a single aspect or strand of Adorno’s AT, or his philosophy more general. As Raymond Geuss most aptly suggested in reference to ‘Der Essay als Form’,

[h]e specifically rejected the usual apparatus of philosophical argumentation and the literary forms associated with it. … The insistence that serious philosophical work take this form, he thought, a kind of repression. … His favoured form is the kind of essay that circles around its topic, inspecting it from different points of view and playing one perspective off against the other, without necessarily ever settling on a specifiable conclusion.

The fact that AT is both unfinished work and posthumously edited seems to add difficulty. For Nowak, this situation of the coexistence of multiple strata of thought actually allows the scholar to cut-through the archaeology of the AT. Or to pick an analogy from the text, it approximates approaching the work like an ethnologist who learns a foreign language in a far-flung land without a dictionary at hand.

Nowak proceeds in three evident and logical steps of “ascending levels of abstraction” (Nowak 2012: 17). They are encompassed by concise and satisfyingly brief introductions and conclusions. First, her work explores the ways in which theatre becomes explicitly articulated in Adorno’s writings, an ‘inventory’ (2. ‘Bestandsaufnahme’). She encompasses not merely his AT but regularly references notes on literature or music, or, evidently, opera, from which she draws insights into the theatrical. Section 2.2 Theatre and Happening is provocative and yet subtle, as it weaves contemporary performance activism into questions of appearance and spontaneity and thus becomes a suitable prelude to a thoughtful analysis of Adorno’s stance on script and text.

This chapter takes as its central subject matter one of the most fundamental tensions implicit in Adorno’s thoughts on art and aesthetics; the tension between process and object, or, in other words, change and ‘objectification’. Interesting for scholars working on performance and anthropology might be Nowak’s engagement with Adorno’s thoughts on change, form, and temporality. Here, her exploration of processes of formation (‘Durchformung’) is key; for Adorno, this process coexists with thing-like states or processes of ‘thingification‘ (‘Verdinglichung’). Theatre, for Adorno, rests ambivalently in between a state of the fixed record and the time-bound experience. Nowak explores this seemingly contradictory albeit fundamentally defining complexity inherent in this dilemma.

The second part of her narrative (3. ‘Samuel Beckett: Starke Korrespondenzen’ and 4. Bertolt Brecht: ‘Kontroverse Wertschätzung’) concerns Adorno’s perspective on Beckett and Brecht. In her discussion of these two central theatrical references, Nowak’s work begins to capture the full scope of Adorno’s fragments of an aesthetic of the theatrical. This rests on Adorno’s claim that aesthetic dilemma, or questions of form, are inherently linked to socio-political dilemma. Modernist art, for Adorno, is the only kind of art capable of being politically progressive, as it took to task to reveal the real problem of art in the twentieth century: that since the society we live in is not at its core rational and good, but pervasively evil, art can no longer represent or affirm the status quo but takes as its function the investigation of this dilemma (Adorno 1984: 24ff; Geuss 1986: 735). Doing so, Nowak’s discussion of the theatrical deploys a rich web of text-sources that brings the theatrical into conversation with the ethical in Adorno and Horkheimer’s earlier work on myth and Enlightenment (1947; 1966). This occurs at its densest in Chapter four. Nowak here suggests a corrective to more common readings of Adorno’s Brecht reception (one that highlights Brecht’s critique of Romantic naturalism). She proposes alternatively an intricate array of similarities between Beckett’s dramaturgical reflexions and Adorno’s concern with the subject in crisis, and the enigmatic character of art.

Chapter 5, ‘Werkbegriff’ discusses a range of Adorno’s concepts (‘dialectic processuality’, ‘objectivation’, ‘reception’, etc) as they appertain to the theatrical. Her reading of the way Adorno speaks of the theatrical suggests that theatre is not only significant for Adorno as “an exemplary model for the dialectic relation between the objectification and processuality of art” (Nowak 2012: 18), but as exhibiting paradigmatic aspects of the ambiguity of art.

Towards an aesthetics of the theatrical

Throughout the study of this work, one remains impressed by Nowak’s sober and honest awareness of the limitations of both her own analysis and of the significance of Adorno’s fragmentary expositions (Nowak 2012: 41). One evident void she addressed is the genealogy of the theatre as concept and practise. It would be too facile and insufficiently appreciative of Adorno’s epochal epistemological awareness (cf. Geuss 2005: 153ff) to generalise a timeless notion of the bourgeois theatre. Like its function, its practice is both temporal and yet inevitably historic; and so is its function as critique (cf. Isambert 1967 on Duvignaud 1965).

In section 2.4 (‘Theater als Zeitkunst’), Nowaks shifts from an analysis and a focus on ‘temporality’ and ‘durée’ to the historicity of artistic practice. This “constitutive vanity” of the artistic moment (Nowak 2012: 40), long regarded with scepticism, situates Adorno’s contemplations in a range of most recent publications on questions of the aesthetic of the performative (Fischer-Lichte 2008), and the aesthetic of the staging (Früchtl und Zimmermann 2001).

In a similarly close reading, 3.5 ‘Reflexionen II: Konsequenzen, in the carefully elaborated chapter on Beckett, Nowak allows even Adorno’s precariously antiquated and yet necessarily requested evaluation of the “end-product” of an artistic process through its relation to the script to become relevant and interesting (Adorno 2003: 392; Nowak 2012: 38), not the least in the light of postdramatic theory (Lehmann 2005). Her discussion of the question of duration addresses Adorno’s subtle distinction of theatrical temporalities. The fate of the category of duration, for Adorno, is that of its descent. The idealised but dangerous fetishisation of duration, then, is distinguished from the concept of impermanence of art. Such a gesture, the recognition of its impermanence and vanishing [Vergänglichkeit], is supposed to be true to the historicity of the artwork. It furthermore reminds us of its immanent relation to time [Zeitkern] (Nowak 2012: 39). Insofar as truth itself has an immanent relation to time and is historical, Adorno posits, it should be requested of art to embrace it just as well. Such interiorisation is not its demise, but its potential for survival, Phoenix-like.

The staging of theatre, and each staging in particular, is defined by its constitutive impermanence. Nowak suggests that this fact was long a source of concern for theatre scholars. Yet it is precisely this ideal of impermanence and historicity which makes it a role model of an aesthetics that has abandoned the fallacious category of duration and abstract permanence. Nowaks exegesis relates Adorno’s thought not merely to a pragmatist concern with the contingency of truth and its examination in art (cf. Rorty 1989). She also contributes a hitherto underexplored critical philosophical perspective to contemporary developments in the study of music practice, classical reception, and theatre studies (cf. Leech-Wilkinson’s The Changing Sound of Music, 2009 and research projects at the University of Cambridge; Performance Network 2013, CPMPCP 2013) that interrogate the discrepancy between the study of cultural phenomena as a fixed object record and as a time-bound embodied experience. The assigning of fixed or stable 'meanings' to works of art has been widely challenged over the last century by an increased privileging of the receiving context as a key constituent of meaning.
Important concepts like the ‘enigmatic character of art’ are discussed in one of the most elaborate chapters of this work, ‘Samuel Becket: Starke Korrespondenzen’. Although Nowak is right to suggest that Adorno noted as early as 1961 how Beckett’s pieces deliberately resist the fixation on finite questions (Adorno 1961), the concept was certainly already discussed as early as The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer 1947).

Nowak explicitly limits her exploration to Adorno’s ideas on an aesthetic of the theatrical. Yet, her approach could have yielded potent links to pressing debates in adjacent disciplines, some of which I have outlined. The analysis of the relation between the subject and drama through the lens of crisis in section 3.5 is a brilliant example just short of such potential value added from an interdisciplinary view outside theatre and philosophy. Rightly so, Nowak points to the stimulating idea that the ‘crisis of sense’ (which Adorno discusses with regard to the disappearance of usual theatrical constituents in Beckett) could provide a parallel to much contemporary theatre praxis, such as that of René Pollesch. His unsympathetically received piece Der General, premiered at the Berliner Volksbühne in May 2013. It confronted the audience with two actresses, mumbling Adorno citations about the utopia of death. Their words were barely audible. Prompted by this experience, an interjection from the audience requested a louder voice and was met with an improvised stage exit by said actresses. Such a performance performed resistance to interpretation; a process that has been carefully explored by Pollesch for quite some years now. As such, Nowak hints and sometimes guides possible audiences seeking to bridge the gap between theatre studies and philosophical theory. There are innumerable points of particular interest throughout further parts of the work, some of which rejuvenate older debates (on the instrumentalisation and pedagogy of art and aesthetics, Nowak 2012: 74; or Adorno’s implicit recognition of Brecht’s critique of naturalist realism, ibid., p. 84).

A section that particularly merits the work’s anticipated lasting shelf-life is chapter 5, ‘Werkbegriff’. The oscillation immanent in theatrical practise between object-life and process is placed alongside Adorno’s ontological claims about the existence of art:

“As tension between the elements of a work of art, instead of a simple Dasein sui generis, its spirit is process and thereby the work of art” (Adorno 2003 [1970]: 136).

The dialectic between processuality and objectification Nowak rightly recognises in Adorno’s analysis of the act of reception might even be read as suggesting an early aesthetics of the performative in the philosophy of art (Nowak 2012: 108).

In its constitutive ephemeral constitution, theatre, in this impressively brief and yet profound analysis, emerges as the epitome of Adorno’s idea of the impermanence of all art. It thus resituates Adorno’s aesthetics of the theatrical as fundamental to analyses of the performativity of the theatrical staging and of performantivity as a prism for the analysis of aesthetic phenomena.

The feeling that this work could have benefitted even more from further exploration of connections to analyses of the social in theatre remains therefore a feature of the ‘pleasure of this text’. If we consider Jean Duvignaud’s dictum (1965) that theatre is a socially anomic and yet societal phenomenon, an auto-critique that is also an alter-critique, then we can begin to see some of the potential of Adorno’s reflections for observations of the constitutively social element in theatre (Tinius 2012).

Outlook: Who is this book for?

This is a tremendously timely and convincing analysis of Adorno’s aesthetic theory with regard to theatre and the theatrical. Nowak provides a compelling reason to revisit this fragmented source for more thorough and conceptually guided scrutiny. It can be recommended to scholars, not just of theatre, at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Further, it also provides a clear, rigorous and extremely literature introduction into some of the interdisciplinary perspectives that link philosophy and performance. It is thus a confident contribution to what is already a productively contested scholarly space (Cull and Gritzner 2011). I believe that this book is a great scholarly contribution to debates on the intersection of aesthetics, philosophy, and theatre. It merits attention, however, from those venturing outside the literary bounds of such discourse, as it penetrates provokingly into debates on the processuality, the emergence, and the sociality of the work of performative art.


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Diese Nachricht wurde redaktionell betreut von Jo Jonas.
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Erstellt am: 21.06.2013