Ordinary language is all right.
One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.
'Failure to converse with the one to whom you can talk is to lose the person; conversing with the one to whom you cannot talk is to lose the word. A wise man will lose neither the person nor the word.'
'How strange you are, you idiot!'
'Therefore the one who sees, without hearing, is much more ... worried than the one who hears without seeing. This principle is of great importance in understanding the sociology of the modern city. Social life in the large city ... shows a great preponderance of occasions to see rather than to hear people. One explanation ... of special significance is the development of public means of transportation. Before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and streetcars in the nineteenth century, men were not in a situation where, for minutes or hours at a time, they could or must look at one another without talking to one another.'
It seems lately I have tried to direct all my thoughts at clearing the way for interpretations of things, given the most concrete starting places I can find. Here are some such thoughts on Adorno's famous statement, usually alluded to with no or some opaque elaboration, that form is sedimented content. (Alluded to by others, I mean. I suppose that might be said truly of Adorno, too, but only if you stop reading on page 5 of Aesthetic Theory, which seems like a pretty good idea by the time you get to page 5.)
- Adorno's phrasing is ambiguous, without elaboration. Does 'form is sedimented content' mean, then, that form is like content in some way? Or that it is itself content? The passage I quoted earlier tonight suggests otherwise, by talking as if the passage from content to form involves a change in kind (such as, say, from alive to dead); but it also seems to imply that sedimentation is a matter of degrees, as one would expect of a metaphorically temporal, physical process, and thus that it is not so simple to separate form and content concretely (as he indicates, I think, with the talk about mediation).
- We should take the geological term seriously; it indicates a situation in which the form of an artwork is multilayered, different layers deriving from different periods and their circumstances, but with the layers still interacting and forming a complex whole. Adorno frequently uses words one would expect to describe this interaction, like 'force'. I hope that word doesn't sound needlessly aggressive to some readers, though I suppose in many cases it might be an apt way to describe an artwork. It doesn't read as aggressive to me because in the places he uses the word Adorno seems to stay faithful to the concept of force found in physics, in mechanics and dynamics; it is key to keep in mind situations with multiple bodies, multiple forces in multiple directions, velocities, movements, change, all in superposition. The metaphors - even in temporal arts like music, the different features of a work Adorno might attribute force to as a way of describing the work's form are not actually in motion, massive, pushing and pulling one another - the metaphors re-enter because the bodies under consideration are in 'motion' as pattern, as affect, as significance, as expectation and disappointment. There is something curious about this, simultaneously static and dynamic. The former, because the artwork comes to us 'finished'; the latter, because every little bit of that 'finished' whole comes from somewhere, from someone, and is going somewhere, doing something, and without engagement with the work, without attempting to understand it, we don't yet know where, what. But we do know, just upon first reading, first listen, that every little vector is pointing in a different direction.
- 'comes from somewhere' - or from some time, it seems more important to emphasize. It can be easy to think of form under Adorno's formulation as something fixed, because of its age. But the geological metaphor would have us see clearly that the form as manifest in a work has been changing right up to the completion of the work, and after, even; and had been changing right up through history, to the point where the artist took it up. This is just to say that even though some things about a work's form might be very old, some will be more recent.
- We should likewise emphasize the manifold nature of the forces resulting in a form, in a work's form. Even when considered in a simple-seeming aspect, of shape or pattern, a form's origins are not that simple.
- All of this calls for a great deal of historical awareness.
- This is all very nice, but still obscure on what, then, this 'content' might be that stands in intimate relation to sedimentary form. Adorno says eventually, then repeatedly, the sort of thing seized upon by every cultural studier ever: that this content is social. A quick accounting, at least, of the passage quoted: Adorno says that 'dance' is (a remote) content, that cultic symbols were contents, that 'aesthetic relations of production' are 'sedimentations or imprintings of social relations of production' (working the fossil angle, the wax mold, the gravestone rubbing even?), that 'the unsolved antagonisms of reality' return as problems of form. It is no doubt premature to do so, but the best way I find to make sense of this, in light of the fact that in many of these phenomena too one is likely to be able to find all kinds of formal-seeming things, sedimented, encrusted, regularized, rule-bound, is to note that Adorno seems to have in mind any kind of significant interaction or relation between people. Think language, think symbols, but think them in terms of rhetoric, in terms of utterances, in terms of concrete circumstances. Only given that mindset should you start feeling confident of finding some content. I gather that typical pop academic, or record critic, ways of understanding Adorno's form-content distinction are, say: content is FUCK YOU, or instead, FUCK BITCHES, or I AM BEING FUCKED. Well, yes and no.
- He's cagey about it but my sense is that whatever the content - social content? - of an artwork turns out to be, it's something one discovers via interpretation, investigation of the smallest details of a work's form in order to find out what content is revealed (was embodied in it). Discovers later. If lucky. If there is any. Adorno is not an optimist. Especially when it comes to the music I love.
'There is no aesthetic refraction without something being refracted; no imagination without something imagined. This holds true particularly in the case of art's immanent purposiveness. In its relation to empirical reality art sublimates the latter's governing principle of sese conservare as the ideal of the self-identity of its works; as Schoenberg said, one paints a painting, not what it represents. Inherently every artwork desires identity with itself, an identity that in empirical reality is violently forced on all objects as identity with the subject and thus travestied. Aesthetic identity seeks to aid the nonidentical, which in reality is repressed by reality's compulsion to identity. Only by virtue of separation from empirical reality, which sanctions art to model the relation of the whole and the part according to the work's own need, does the artwork achieve a heightened order of existence. Artworks are afterimages of empirical life insofar as they help the latter to what is denied them outside their own sphere and thereby free it from that to which they are condemned by reified external experience. Although the demarcation line between art and the empirical must not be effaced, and least of all by the glorification of the artist, artworks nevertheless have a life sui generis. This life is not just their external fate. Important artworks constantly divulge new layers; they age, grow cold, and die. It is a tautology to point out that as humanly manufactured artifacts they do not live as do people. But the emphasis on the artifactual element in art concerns less the fact that it is manufactured than its own inner constitution, regardless of how it came to be. Artworks are alive in that they speak in a fashion that is denied to natural objects and the subjects who make them. They speak by virtue of the communication of everything particular in them. Thus they come into contrast with the arbitrariness of what simply exists. Yet it is precisely as artifacts, as products of social labor, that they also communicate with the empirical experience that they reject and from which they draw their content. Art negates the categorial determinations stamped on the empirical world and yet harbors what is empirically existing in its own substance. If art opposes the empirical through the element of form - and the mediation of form and content is not to be grasped without their differentiation - the mediation is to be sought in the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content. What are taken to be the purest forms (e.g., traditional musical forms) can be traced back even in the smallest idiomatic detail to content such as dance. In many instances ornaments in the visual arts were once primarily cultic symbols. Tracing aesthetic forms back to contents, such as the Warburg Institute undertook to do by following the afterlife of classical antiquity, deserves to be more broadly undertaken. The communication of artworks with what is external to them, with the world from which they blissfully or unhappily seal themselves off, occurs through noncommunication; precisely thereby they prove themselves refracted. It is easy to imagine that art's autonomous realm has nothing in common with the external world other than borrowed elements that have entered into a fully changed context. Nevertheless, there is no contesting the cliché of which cultural history is so fond, that the development of artistic processes, usually classed under the heading of style, corresponds to social development. Even the most sublime artwork takes up a determinate attitude to empirical reality by stepping outside of the constraining spell it casts, not once and for all, but rather ever and again, concretely, unconsciously polemical toward this spell at each historical moment. That artworks as windowless monads "represent" what they themselves are not can scarcely be understood except in that their own dynamic, their immanent historicity as a dialectic of nature and its domination, not only is of the same essence as the dialectic external to them but resembles it without imitating it. The aesthetic force of production is the same as that of productive labor and has the same teleology; and what may be called aesthetic relations of production - all that in which the productive force is embedded and in which it is active - are sedimentations or imprintings of social relations of production. Art's double character as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced on the level of its autonomy. It is by virtue of this relation to the empirical that artworks recuperate, neutralized, what once was literally and directly experienced in life and what was expulsed by spirit. Artworks participate in enlightenment because they do not lie: They do not feign the literalness of what speaks out of them. They are real as answers to the puzzle externally posed to them. Their own tension is binding in relation to the tension external to them. The basic levels of experience that motivate art are related to those of the objective world from which they recoil. The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form.'
Huh. That 'but' should be read as: and check out this less awesome but still awesome thing.
'It has also found him scribed on the covers of hiphop magazines as the greatest living rapper, which always makes me laugh and think of how predisposed white supremacy has made even colored journalists crown any white man who takes a Black art form to the bank, to mo' money than Shine ever seen, as the greatest who ever lived. Fred Astaire, Benny Goodman, Elvis, Eric Clapton, Larry Bird, take your pick. As if any of them understood the kind of casual fatalism I overheard on 116th and Adam Clayton Powell the other day, where one brother say to another, straight-faced and not a hint of irony, "He'll be out soon, he didn't get much time, he only got 10 more years." All that August Wilson sheet in other words. That real Black Angst. The kind of angst that only the burdensome, belaboring crucible of white supremacy could twist into those bizarre, contorted, and comforting expressions of Black Pleasure and Irony known as bebop and hiphop and the blues.'