Dr Daniel Steuer
In Negative Dialectics, T.W. Adorno claims that it is the task of philosophy to lend voice to suffering. He recognises that the historical conditions during which he was writing, namely the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, culminating in the atrocities of the holocaust, led ad absurdum the central claims of an idealist philosophy which posited the possibility of a world order free from domination. In light of the atrocities of the 20th century, philosophy has to refrain from offering blueprints for social change; rather, if it is to be responsibly practiced, it has to examine itself and its own complicity in the logics of domination. Adorno’s writings cover a variety of fields, from critical engagements with the texts of the philosophical tradition, to sociological accounts, and aesthetic and musicological writings; yet, the demand to lend voice to suffering resonates in and through all of his work. Apart from explicit discussions of the claim, it is nearly always present in the very method of articulation structuring his texts. Indeed, the attempt to lend voice to suffering is most adequately described as an act of ‘Selbstbesinnung’, that is, in terms of Adorno’s negative dialectical ‘method’ which urges thought to reflect on, or better, to remember, its internal history of becoming and to thus admit to an inadequacy in light of itself - to a violent, yet constitutive, repression of what is non-identical. ‘Lending voice to suffering’, then, is one of the most central themes of Adorno’s philosophy and is iterated in variations throughout his writings – it is recognisable as a theme and, yet, each repetition constitutes a particular material configuration which can be opened up to analysis.
It is the aim of this thesis to trace Adorno’s attempts of lending voice to suffering through the concrete media and forms of expressiveness in and through which they are articulated. Exploring the different figures and keys in which such a lending of voice is attempted, in conjunction with an investigation of Adorno’s theoretical accounts on aesthetics, language and music, this thesis advances the claim that a consideration of the aesthetic dimension, formally and theoretically, is crucial to an adequate understanding of his work. Contrary to much secondary literature, which often presents Adorno as a social theorist or a philosopher with the accidental skills of a literary critic or musicologist, or as either the one or the other, it is my contention that it is precisely through an engagement with the aesthetic, and in particular, with the musicological dimensions that a fuller picture of his philosophy emerges: a picture which reveals that the central task of giving voice to suffering cannot be thought independently of the specific aesthetic experiences or modes of interpretation and expressiveness in which human beings respond to the artefacts they encounter. This thesis thus proposes a reading of Adorno’s work as an endeavour to free for philosophical reflection and articulation (‘Selbstbesinnung’) the critical and speculative potential which lies in the material acts of singing, reading, writing, listening, seeing, imagining. In this context, it addresses how such forms of expressiveness are at once made possible and impossible by, what Adorno calls the ‘destruction of experience’ in modernity (muteness, gesture etc.). In investigating the relationship between aesthetic experiences and expressiveness, and the theme of ‘lending voice to suffering’, I attempt to construct, what one might call, in a variation of one Adorno’s own phrases, a ‘philosophical physiognomy’ of the latter’s work.