Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 13

Back to the Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate Homepage

Adorno on Mimesis
in Aesthetic Theory
Amresh Sinha
In Briel, Holger and Andreas Kramer, eds., In Practice: Adorno, Critical Theory and Cultural Studies. Bern:
Lang, 2000, pp. 145-159.

Art is imitation only to the extent to which it is objective expression, far removed
from psychology. There may have been a time long ago when this expressive
quality of the objective world generally was perceived by the human sensory
apparatus. It no longer is. Expression nowadays lives on only in art. Through
expression art can keep at a distance the moment of being-for-other which is
always threatening to engulf it. Art is thus able to speak in itself. This is the
realization through mimesis. Art's expression is the antithesis of 'expressing
something.' Mimesis is the ideal of art, not some practical method or subjective
attitude aimed at expressive values. What the artist contributes to expression is his
ability to mimic, which sets free in him the expressed substance." [1]
Adorno's critique of mimesis proposes a method of dialectical reflection which
goes against the grain of the positivistic tendency of modern consciousness, which
has a tendency to substitute means for ends. "Art's expression is the anti-thesis of
expressing something," for Adorno, implies that it remains non-identical to a
tendency that is related to the exigency of commodity exchange. It resists the
functional aspect of being-for-other which "threaten(s) to engulf" its existence.
Artistic expression cannot be substituted for something else. It cannot be absorbed
into the identity of something that can be substituted for itself. Artistic expression
resists absorption into a method. According to Adorno, both
Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Marx's Capital, the "great dialectical texts of
modern dialectics," use the methodology of reflection, but it is a method which
performs a very different purpose. The method to which the object is now being
subjected is derived from the positivistic symptoms of modern methodology,

whose aim is to substitute means for ends. Instead of relying upon the functional
aspect of description as a method purported by positivistic scientism, Adorno
adheres to the Hegelian mode of dialectical reflection comprising both description
and understanding, but only to the extent that the latter would soon take
precedence over the former in almost every sense of the word. [2] The
understanding of mimesis, for Adorno, lies in the fact that as a self-identical entity,
the artwork is not produced in relation to the identity of a world or a method, but it
is self-identical to its mimetic moment, that is, it is identical to itself and not to the
other. This helps him to theorize the absence of the notion of subjectivity in
relation to the mimetic moment which withdraws or at least remains "at a distance"
from the moment of being-for-another. Art does not reflect the "mood" of the artist,
is not a "replica" or "a fuzzy photograph" of the "psychic content," it is a
contribution to expression, an ability that is transmitted through mimesis.
Furthermore, the artistic contribution also brings to expression the immanent
category of the truth content which is the object of understanding. Mimesis,
therefore, is not about replicating the content; rather it is a form of expression. The
mimetic moment in art is not found in the artistic intention, it outlines the features
of expression, in other words, it expresses expression itself and nothing else. For
Adorno the resignation of Schubert's music cannot be located in the so-called
"purported 'mood'" of its composer, for that is not what his art expresses. What it
expresses is rather the posture of slumping itself that mimics the resignation of his
Adorno, however, establishes a difference between the linguistic medium of art and
language as such. The linguistic aspect of language is manifested through mimetic
expression which itself is repressed in the medium of language insofar as this
repression of mimesis is expressed by the language, which has "disgraced" itself by
falling into the "pitfalls" of exchange language that determines the separation of
subject and object. The linguistic medium of art is delineated in the features of the
artistic expression, in its ability to mimic expression, or to lend a gesture or posture
to a feature which is brought about to express itself, or "to speak in itself;" on the
other hand, language as a medium of art does not express its mimetic ability but
merely replicates the meaning, the content of the artwork. The linguistic is a
medium-in-itself; language is a medium-for-another. In an attempt to recall
Benjamin's doctrine of mimesis, Adorno invokes James Joyce, and his linguistic
experiments which go beyond the scope of language, in order to stress the
difference between communicative and mimetic language. Art has a dual or
"double character." [3] It is both constitutive and constituted. Art, as a linguistic
expression of form, as in Joyce's prose, sets aside the discursive model of
language; it constitutes its own essence. On the other hand, art as a medium of
language is no longer an expression of itself, but loses its character and is
subordinated to meaning which poses a threat to its identity. And here we are at the
crux of the problem. If the meaning of language is expressed through
communicative language then it inflicts danger to itself.

Before going into the Benjaminian nature of Adorno's discourse of language, it

might be useful to recall a significant essay Adorno wrote early in his career, "The
Actuality of Philosophy," in which he reiterates the logic of the Hegelian
interpretation of the riddle of the Sphinx in the Aesthetics, by describing the
process of how in the presence of meaning the riddle disintegrates. Such is the
form of the threat that hangs over the very existence of art, and that is the reason
why the indecipherability or incommunicability in art is so precious and valuable
for him. The very existence of the artwork depends on the fact that it remains
undecipherable, insurmountable, autonomous, and free. An expression is
undecipherable, unmasterable; it is unrepresentable.
In Adorno's theory of mimesis the non-significative character of language is given
precedence over the significative or communicative aspect of language. This is so
because in Adorno's consideration "the true language of art is speechless" (AT,
164). This, incidentally, also makes us reflect on his previous statement that "art
is...able to speak in itself" (AT, 164). It might well be a matter of contention
whether speechlessness coincides with an inner speech, or whether to "speak in
itself" is merely a logical category of being-in-itself which resists the sublation of
being-for-another. The fact that art does not speak out as a method does point to an
important difference in that we can observe that the language of art is both selfcontained and "mute." But, nevertheless, by standing on its own, art proclaims a
selfhood that expresses through its "gaze" the being-in-itself insofar as it does not
relinquish its self-identity by becoming a part of the totality of an identifying
thought process. The gaze allows the work of art to express itself through mimesis.
Mimesis presents the idea of the primary subject. Adorno's version of mimesis as
the archaic holdover of language is an echo of the Benjaminian motif. In his essay,
"On Language as such and the Language of Man," Benjamin speculates on the
Adamic language before and after the Fall. However a slight difference can be
perceived in their use of language. Benjamin shows a marked preference for the
theological and messianic implications of the language, whereas Adorno works
from a more anthropological and phenomenological perspective. The
phenomenological aspect of Adorno's thinking is brought to light by his effort to
formulate the discourse of art in the framework of the discourse of being. For
instance, he writes, "it is as if art works were re-enacting the process through
which the subject comes painfully into being" (AT, 164).
For as long as the memory of the primal history reverberates through the subject,
the work of art will bear affinity with it in its expression. [4] The point is not to
integrate this expression into the identity of the subject, the ego, because despite
the similarity and resemblance of this expression with the subjective content, it
should not be forgotten that the subjective element in the work of art at the same
time continues to be an impersonal and non-subjective expression. The closest the
work of art comes to expressing is the non-subjective impression of the subject.
Adorno writes:

More specifically it is in art's apparitional quality or phenomenality (das

Erscheinende) that the collective essence breaks forth because apparition goes far
beyond the mere subject. The memory trace of mimesis unearthed by every art
work, among other things, anticipates a condition of reconciliation between the
individual and the collectivity. And this collective remembrance is not divorced
from the subject but actualizes itself through it. The latter's impulsive aversions are
an indicator of collective modes of response. That is why the philosophical
interpretation of truth content has to proceed through the particular as well. The
subjectively mimetic and expressive moment of works of art terminates in
objectivity. They are neither pure impulse nor pure form, but the congealment of
the process of obtaining between impulse and form. This process is a social one.
(Emphasis mine) (AT, 190)
As the primal history of subjectivity, the mimetic impulses are themselves
integrated and transposed through a process of re-enactment into the works of art,
and "they retain their quality as plenipotentiaries of extra-aesthetic nature in the
midst of art, except that they cease to be nature pure and simple, becoming an
after-image of nature instead" (AT, 165). The mimetic impulse, as
"plenipotentiaries of extra-aesthetic nature," is sublated in the work of art and,
consequently, also preserved in its "after-image" as the objectification of the
artistic expression. In that sense the mimetic language, the non-communicative
aspect of the language, is no longer expressed in the language of nature, whose
"speechlessness" indicates the cause of its own suffering, but is being now
expressed as a language that transforms the language of suffering into a language
of expression. The work of art, through its "integrative machinery," manages to
transform and modify the original form of mimesis into the constitutive act of
spiritualization, a moment which comes prior to the reflection of spirit. The
expression of mimetic language in the work of art is preserved and conserved in
the artistic expression that speaks immanently from within the artwork itself. But it
is now as a modified, mediated version of spiritualization that the mimetic impulse
survives in the objectification of the artistic expression. In Adorno, the
historicization of mimesis remains informed by his reluctance to provide a
descriptive or definitive model of mimesis which, incidently, also serves as a
critique of the Benjaminian notion of "non-sensuous similarity."
Michael Cahn, in "Subversive Mimesis," argues that "for Adorno the relationship
between word and thing, as a negative dialectic which is not content with a simple
similarity, has to avoid the deadlock of synthesis which Benjamin's non-sensual
similarity seems to imply." [5] It is curious to find Cahn's insinuation that there is a
simplicity or navet to Benjamin's idea of non-sensuous similarity, because to
many readers it holds the key to his rather enigmatic and revelatory concept of
language. Cahn implies that it is simple because it is not sufficiently historical. It is
simple because it synthesizes the archaic with the latest--the mythical with the
technological. But what if it is none of that and consequently all of that? Adorno
remains, so to speak, in more than one sense, faithful to Benjamin's non-

communicative aspect of language. If the mimetic relation between word and thing
has a fixed historical value in Benjamin, then how can we explain his claim for the
"decline" of the mimetic ability, unless we completely ignore the implication of
historical reification? To claim that mimesis in Benjamin is more or less dehistoricized and thus, to reduce it exclusively to his rather idiosyncratic
onomatapoetical definition, is, unfortunately, quite reductive itself. According to
Cahn, "Adorno emphasizes the behavioral and almost sensual dimension of
mimesis in mimicry and magic, and their primitive, anthropological quality
constitutes the basis for other, less tangible 'versions' of the Adornian concept. But
all of these have in common the fact that they do not designate mere imitation."[6]
Adorno's concept of mimesis does not define itself as imitation. But it nonetheless
recognizes the insidious ambiguity in the word mimesis, which at once advances
the concept of a "thinglike copy," and which "might also refer to the activity of a
subject which models itself according to a given prototype."[7] Like Plato, Adorno,
too, is conscious of the difference between good and bad mimesis. The meaning of
the first type of mimesis refers to the structure of bad mimesis, whereas the second
type, which is a model of adaptive "and" correlative behavior, is marked as the
proper mimesis. In a peculiar fashion, Adorno both cancels and preserves, negates
and affirms, the Benjaminian notion of mimesis. On the one hand, he rejects the
nuances of imitation in Benjamin's unrestrained celebration of mass-reproduction,
which is limited and controlled by its visual aura, on the other hand, he
wholeheartedly embraces the Benjaminian doctrine of mimesis that offers
"similarity" as the basic impulse of mimesis. This unequivocal support of
Benjamin's language of mimesis echoes in his thought which claims that the
original meaning of mimesis consists in "making oneself similar to an other."[8]
Imitation is relegated to bad or secondary mimesis. Yet, for Adorno, the concept of
mimetic taboo--Bilder verbot--taboo on graven images--can also be seen as an
example of mimesis itself. Cahn argues that Adorno's critique of mimesis "as a
category of art must not be reduced to imaging representation," not because he is
primarily interested in music and other non-representational arts, but rather "for
him mimesis is a behavior which reaches towards the object, stands in a reflected
immediacy to it, and thus it implies the archaic affinity between subject and
object. [9] Similarly, in Late Marxism, Jameson makes the argument that the
introduction of the concept of mimetic taboo also represents a moment of
dialectical possibility between mimesis and rationality. [10] Only now, according
to him, "the turn of so-called Western science will...be seen as a result of the antimimetic taboo and of anti-mimetic regression--that is to say, the passage from a
perceptual 'science' based on the senses and on quality to notations and analysis
based on geometry and on mathematics."[11] Both the anti-mimetic taboo and antimimetic regression have preserved the memory of a "science," "the mimetic
prehistory of rationality." [12] Historically one can perceive in the enlightened
repression of mimesis a continuation of the same impulse.

Art is a refuge of mimetic behavior. In art the subject, depending on how much
autonomy it has, takes up varying positions vis--vis its objective other from which
it is always different but never entirely separate. Art's disavowal of the magical
practices--art's own antecedents--signifies that art shares in rationality. Its ability to
hold its own qua mimesis in the midst of rationality, even while using the means of
that rationality, is a response to the evils and irrationality of the rational
bureaucratic world. (AT, 79)
The critical potential of art maintains itself qua mimesis in the midst of the
irrationality of the world and is still relevant, despite the loss of the subject, to the
priority of the object. Art survives first of all by adapting to the rational behavior of
the mimetic impulse, and secondly by remaining distinct from the all-embracing
identity of rationality. To put it slightly differently, the mimetic impulse in art
survives due to its correlative, adaptive behavior. Art takes refuge in mimesis in
order to escape from the irrationality of the death-like intensity of the reified
world; this leads to Adorno's musings on the "posthumous" character of art
in Aesthetic Theory.
Mimesis, in Adorno, mediates between two elements: life and death. In such a
dialectical context, if we assume that art's survival in the midst of its potential
annihilation by the bureaucratic irrationality of the world depends on the fact that it
must partake in the process of rationality, which itself is the reason for its
irrationality, then its relation to death is what is manifested as its relation to life.
Despite the historical fact that art emerged gradually from the fetters of magical
principles, it cannot simply go back to its natural origin, when faced with the
rational composition of the irrational, reified, bourgeois world. It is already a part
of it. Art's emergence from the shackles of the magic world testifies to its rational
principle. But it does not fully indicate the separation of subject from the object.
For Adorno, the "varying positions" of art signifies two distinct features. In the first
place, the work of art is endowed with the principle of rationality, which indicates
its separation from the dominance of the magico-mythical realm; secondly, art also
stands in opposition to the rationality, the real domination. In both instances the
actual process of art is "inextricably intertwined with rationality" (AT, 80). Yet, the
traditional aesthetic reception tends to be surprised at the "mobilization" of
technological, rational element of artistic production that works "in a different
direction than domination does." Both art and rationality mobilize technology: one
employs it for the sake of the survival of its magical heritage, the other pays no
attention to it. The difference lies in the direction of mobilization itself.
The dialectic of mimesis, Adorno claims, is absolutely "intrinsic" to art, a
proposition mostly misunderstood by the "navet" of modern aesthetic thought.
For it fails to appreciate the progressive disenchantment of the world in the work
of art as a means for securing, however through technology, the life of magical
heritage of art. The dialectic of mimesis and rationality reveals the compatible but
irreconcilable tendency of one to the other. Art's mimetic character is revealed in

its disenchantment from and secularization of magic from the archaic period. It
thus conveys the rational side of art, as well as its refusal to allow the domination
of rationality to turn it into a technological perfect being. In art the resistance is felt
in both directions as nothing but the mute suffering of its expression. For neither
does its mimetic rationality permit it to regress to the magical realm, in order to
separate itself from that type of cognition which aims at a singular conceptual
grasp of the world, nor the knowledge of the "magical essence" let it slide towards
the destruction of its self-identity.
Art's secularization from magic is secured within the antinomy of life and death.
The artwork's survival depends on its adhering to the mimetic impulse, which is
foremost a "zoological" or "biological" impulse, designed after the perseverance of
the species, a natural, anthropological impulse that survives in the face of death by
feigning death itself. In the face of death, many animals have been found to imitate
death, their enemy. Their survival results from the assimilation to the other. By
playing dead in the presence of extreme danger, by giving up the characteristic of
life, by playing dead, in the presence of extreme danger, the animal gives itself,
assimilates itself to death. In other words, the presence of death mimetically marks
the absence of both life and death. This ritual, or if you prefer, the dialectic, of life
and death points to a moment in the history of art that is indistinguishable from the
dichotomy of the rational and the irrational. Art is without doubt irrational, or at
least, its origin cannot be extricated from the horror that always distinguishes it
from the other, but it is also, at the same time, rational, to the extent that it must not
deteriorate to the superstitious mythological level. "What mimetic behavior
responds to," says Adorno, "is the telos of cognition," which is to say that the
tendency of modern scientism to reduce all means for its own ends will not do
justice to the mimetic requirements. The telos of cognition, however, signifies the
expansion of this concept into the non-existent, non-conceptual area--the domain
of mimesis. This brings us to that moment in Adorno's doctrine of mimesis that
performs the task of critique. The critical mimesis responds, more or less, in a
manner of a "critique of critique."[13] According to Adorno, "art is rationality
criticizing itself without being able to overcome itself" (AT, 81). Art is critical of
rationality, yet cannot be identified with it, despite the fact that rationality, too, is a
critical factor. The complimentary nature of this dialectical tension is best observed
in the cases where the ideological concerns of positivistic thinking are most
blatantly evident. Though Adorno himself does not hesitate to incorporate
materials from other academic fields, he nonetheless objects to that type of the
"rationalist critique" that, in order to make a point about art, applies the "criteria of
extra artistic-logic and causality" (AT, 81). Naming it an "ideological misuse" of
critique, he provides an example: "When a latecomer in the tradition of the realistic
novel objects to Eichendorff's verse, which says that 'clouds are floating like heavy
dreams,' pointing out that one may well compare dreams to clouds but not clouds
to dreams, then poetry, faced with the homely persuasiveness of this objection,
justly retreats into its own realm" (AT, 81). It is almost unbearable to leave the
poetic and mimetic configurations and constellations--in which the external nature

resembles the inner state of almost sentimental longing--in the hands of rationalist
Rationality is immanent to art, and this rationality is in many ways similar to the
rationality of the outside world, but it is also, at the same time, different from the
rationality of the conceptual order. No artistic work can exist in complete isolation
from the "rationality governing the world outside," yet it may not reproduce or
imitate the strictures of the governing logic that condemns it for having irrational
features. What appears as irrational expression in art in the "eyes" of the
conceptual ordering is actually the expression of the "forgotten experiences" that
themselves cannot be understood by "rationalizing them." The defense of
irrationalism, in Adorno, is prompted by a desire to defend expressionism and
surrealism from the attacks of the propagandist apparatchiks like Zhdanov and his
followers. Adorno maintains that "to manifest irrationality--the irrationality of the
psyche and of the objective order--in art through a formative process, thus making
it rational in a sense, is one thing: to preach irrationality, which more often than not
goes hand in hand with a superficial rationalism in the use of artistic means, is
quite another" (AT, 82). This leads to a critique of Walter Benjamin: "Walter
Benjamin probably did not take cognizance of this in his theory about the work of
art in the age of mechanical reproduction. For one thing, Benjamin's dichotomy
between auratic and mass-produced art, for simplicity's sake, neglects the
dialectical relation of these two types. For another, he becomes the victim of a
perspective on art that hypostatizes photography as a model, which is just as
atrocious as the view, say, of the artist as creator" (AT, 82).
One of Adorno's main criticisms of Benjamin hinges on his difference from
Benjamin's endorsement of mass-reproduction, which has for him a negative
connotation. Adorno's formulation of mimesis disavows any affinity to imitation,
since imitation or "copy realism" cannot account for the critical moment in art. The
concept of the mimetic taboo is introduced, in effect, to prevent mimesis from
regressing to its archaic mode. Adorno traces the origin of the mimetic taboo to the
psychoanalytical phenomenon of the return of the repressed. He returns in
the Dialectic of Enlightenment to confront the question of the "return of the
repressed" in the chapter on anti-Semitism. [14] Thus, in one sense, he manages to
demonstrate the continuity of the "forms of domination" between the mimetic
impulse and the process of enlightenment, which also signals the displacement of
the discourse of the "specificity of science"onto its representation and its language.
As a postulate of an archaic mode of behavior the mimetic capacity refers to a state
prior to the distinction between subject and object; it lacks the instrumentality of
expression which is conveyed through the means of representational languages
and, therefore, remains immune to the representations of the instrumental reason to
enforce a conceptual opposition to it. "The capacity of representation," according
to Adorno and Horkheimer, "is the measure of domination, and domination is the
most powerful thing that can be represented in most performances, so the capacity
of representation is the vehicle of progress and regression at the same

time." [15] The process of enlightenment--as forms of domination--is itself nothing

but a continuation of science and ritual. The "enigmatic status" of mimesis is
expressed in the dialectical possibility of both regression and
progression. [16] This also reflects the progress of narrative in its historical form as
a repression of mimesis.
If the structure of narrative, of the instrumental reason, causes the domination of
mimesis, if mimesis is repressed, dominated and tamed by instrumental reason,
then, it also, ironically, survives through the existence of the myth of
enlightenment itself. Thus mimesis's "aggression" is purely bound up in its efforts
for survival. Mimesis and narrative are the forces of dialectical possibility, but only
in so much as they remain in opposition to each other. At one point Adorno speaks
of the distinction between the linguistic and the language of mimesis. For Adorno
the latter does not exist. Mimesis is not a language, a system of representation. If
one must speak of the mimetic language, it should only be an expression of the
"utopia of language" [17] between the relation of word and thing. Cahn interprets
this shift in Adorno by suggesting that Adorno "separates mimesis from the crisis
of representation and instead brings it to bear on the crisis of
critique." [18] Mimesis is never mimesis of this or that. Mimesis is not constituted
in relation to the subject-object dualism, since it is nothing but the expression of
that dualism. This dualism refers to a state which originates prior to the division of
subject and object, and historically one can locate it as "an attitude towards reality
prior to the fixed (fixen) opposition of subject and object." [19] "What is not fixed
in art seems to be closer to the mimetic impulse," says Adorno (AT, 147).
The distance between subject and object presupposes a clear line of demarcation,
an abstraction that mostly serves the interest of enlightenment rationality, which, in
other words, "liquidates" its object. "Expression in art is mimetic, just as the
expression of living creatures is the expression of suffering. The lines of expression
that are engraved in a work, assuming they are clear and sharp, simultaneously
serve as lines of demarcation to keep out illusion. Even so, works of art continue to
be illusory. Therefore the conflict between illusion--form in the most general
sense--and expression remains unresolved, raging back and forth in the course of
history. Representing a stance toward reality that is different from the rigid
juxtaposition of subject and object, the mimetic mode of behavior in art has been
progressively infiltrated by illusion--the organ of mimesis since the archaic taboo
on mimesis, just as form has become the vehicle of autonomy" (AT, 162). Once
again mimetic behavior is contrasted with the notion of imitation and developed
more along the lines of expression. The works of art do not "imitate the impulse of
an individual in the medium of expression, much less those of the artist himself";
the mimetic impulse, on the other hand, constitutes expression that is reified to the
extent that in it the non-aesthetic experience of the real is expressed through the
fictitious quality in art. Art no longer expresses the value of a living substance.
Aesthetic expression aims at the "objectification of the non-objective" (AT, 163).
And since the objectification of the non-objective already requires a form of

expression--that no longer expresses the value of a living substance--in the

objective substance of the artefact that "raises its voice to speak: sadness, strength,
yearning" (AT, 163).
For Adorno "mimetic behavior does not imitate something but assimilates itself to
that something" (AT, 163). Mimesis and its relation to the other, its assimilation to
the other, is also indicative of a relation based on similarity and affinity. Moreover,
the dialectical relation between mimesis and rationality can also be extended to
how expression is diametrically opposed to conceptualization. In mimesis the
relation to the other, "which exceeds the limit of history," is one of similarity and
affinity. [20] As an expression mimesis is related to the other as a self-identical
concept and therefore resists the power of objectification through
conceptualization. In other words, the regression of mimesis which, being a part of
that history which itself is anterior to the polarity of subject and object, is never
actually a regression, constitutes its opposition through which it escapes the power
of conceptualization in the process of identifying with something. Art becomes
conscious of the other when it recognizes its own non-being. As long as art
identifies itself with the image of nature, and that is exactly what instrumental
reason reduces it to, it remains non-identical with the truth-content, which is
immanently expressed through the historical development of the artefact. And
since Adorno most emphatically declares that "truth content cannot be an artefact,"
therefore, truth, in its immediacy, is necessarily posited by its presence as illusion,
as the illusion of truth (AT, 191).
"The mark of authenticity of works of art is the fact that their illusion shines forth
in such a way that it cannot possibly be prevaricated, and yet discursive judgement
is unable to spell out its truth. Truth cancels the artwork along with its illusion. The
definition of art in terms of illusion is only half correct: art is true to the degree to
which it is illusion of the non-illusory (Schein des Scheinlosen)" (AT, 191). The
non-illusory is not the function of critique for art, because as itself it is nothing but
the illusion of the other, the non-being, whose longing is translated in the form of
image in relation to nature. For nothing than this sheer longing of art to assimilate
itself to the other, nature, both withdraws it from the rationality of the identifying
thinking, the power of conceptualization, and affirms its mimetic capacity for selfidentity. In its relation to truth art functions as the principle of non-identity, which
informs its separation from an all embracing identifying thought, and releases its
mimetic ability to function as a critique which does not imitate the characteristics
of instrumental rationality through which domination is institutionalized. Aesthetic
thought, Adorno maintains, unlike Kant, is unable to fulfill the requirement of
truth, which can only be experienced if it passes through philosophy. The artworks
posit what is man-made, "the actuality of the non-existent," and its own reality
testifies to the "feasibility of the unreal" (AT, 192). Thus through contradictoriness
and negativity the artwork suggests a boundary beyond which its claim to truth is
normally ascribed in the false claim that it can transcend these limits.

Artistic truth represents only half-truth as far as it is presented as a critique of

reason, the other half is supplemented by the mimetic impulse that seeks identity
with itself (AT, 153). If it is presented merely as an expression that is critical
towards reason then its own objective ideal is virtually forgotten. As something
other than itself, as a critique of reality, art itself cannot attain its own truth content
which is manifested by "the law" that it resembles, here in the sense of similarity to
itself, rather than imitation of an other, its own objective ideal. [21] Art carries the
principle of contradiction to its extreme. For instance, as a man-made substance it
is not purely "objective," and its ideal in its being is to become whatever it aspires
to. Adorno captures the real tension between the objective and the ideal in the
process of the artist making the artwork. For the artist to capture the essence of the
objective ideal, he or she must account for an objectivity that is not "posited" by
him or her, and an ideal that is reminiscent of the mimetic trace that every art work
seeks to resemble. Adorno's dialectic of mimetic identity and instrumental
rationality incorporates a sense of yearning and longing for the non-existent. "By
their presence," says Adorno, "art works signal the possibility of the non-existent;
their reality testifies to the feasibility of the unreal, the possible. More specifically,
in art longing, which posits the actuality of the non-existent, takes the form of
remembrance" (AT, 192). That which does not exist, i.e., the past, now exists in our
memory. Through remembrance the present is joined with the past. The notion of
utopia in art is, therefore, preserved in the act of recollection, in the specularity of
anamnesis, in the potential of the yet-to-come. That which through remembrance
remains potentially possible in the realm of the artwork does not necessarily mean
a betrayal of the reality of the empirical world. Rather the imagery of art,
through mmoire involontaire, "brings to life the existence of empirical world."
And precisely along this line that we must acknowledge the importance of
Adorno's critique of "copy theory," of mimesis as imitation of reality. Adorno
reverses the adage of art imitating reality; instead he proposes that "reality ought to
imitate art" (AT, 192).
The artworks reach the highest stage of their vulnerability at the moment when
they seek to transcend the limit set by their own principle of negativity, a boundary
that expresses the negation that "each and every work...seems to say:non
confundar" (AT, 192). Adorno claims that the "truth content of art works, as a
negation of their being, is mediated through them, but they do not communicate it
any way whatsoever" (AT, 193). That the strength of artworks lies in the fact that
they can transcend the limit also makes them, at that point, the most vulnerable to
their own deception and fictitiousness. For the artwork's truth content lies not in
communicating something other than itself; rather it is a mediation, a
"participation," in history. The great works of art do not transcend the boundary of
their own illusion, because their illusion represents their truth, an illusion of truth,
i.e., their falsity. Aesthetic truth transcends illusion, but the artworks themselves
are illusory. This is the paradox: they cannot lie, and yet they remain false.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge
& Kegan Paul, 1984), 164. All subsequent references will be given with page
numbers in the text as AT.
[2] See H. T. Wilson's critique of scientism and positivism, "Critical Theory's
Critique of Social Science: Episodes in a Changing Problematic from Adorno to
Habermas, Part I & II," in History of European Ideas, Vol. 7, Nos. 2 & 3, 1986.
[3] Lucian Goldman, Cultural Creation in Modern Society (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1977), 133.
[4] "Art possesses expression not when it conveys subjectivity, but when it
reverberates with primal history of subjectivity and ensoulment" (AT, 165).
[5] Michael Cahn, "Subversive Mimesis: Theodore W. Adorno and the modern
impasse of critique," Mimesis in Contemporary Theory: An Interdisciplinary
Approach, ed. Mihai Spariosu, Vol. I (Philadelphia: John Benjamin's Publishing
Company, 1984), 38.
[6] Cahn, 34.
[7] Cahn, 34.
[8] Cahn, 34.
[9] Cahn, 45.
[10] Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism (London: Verso, 1990), 105.
[11] Jameson, Late Marxism, 105.
[12] Cahn, 45.
[13] Cahn, 50.
[14] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 168-208. See also
Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Boston: Little, Brown and Company,
1973), 269-270.
[15] Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 34-35.
[16] Jameson, Late Marxism, 104.
[17] Cahn, 39

[18] Cahn, 32.

[19] Cahn, 35.
[20] Cahn, 35.
[21] See Lambert Zuidervaart, Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of
Illusion (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 181-183.

return to the top of the page