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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Adorno, Theodor W. ‘The Essay as Form’. The Adorno Reader. Trans. Bob Hullot-Kentor & Frederic Will. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 92–111. Print.

Essay form decried as lacking tradition in contemporary Germany [1958]
Not changed by being unhappy with this
Nor by being unhappy with scientific principles that designate art in the realm of the irrational
Being called a “writer” makes one unacademic

The cultural artefact is excluded from academic discourse, unless it can be universalized and the particular is neglected
This prejudice would be puzzling, except that German culture is painfully uncultivated in its recognition of the man of letters
In Germany, the essay is the constant reminder of academic freedom that never fully emerged from the Enlightenment principles
The German Enlightenment was always willing to subordinate itself to ulterior interests
The essay form, though, does not allow this prescription to dominate it
There is an element of luck and play in the essay and its success
The essay does not cover all; it starts at its start and ends when it feels itself complete
This is branded as “idleness” because it is not “what masks itself as objectivity”
But the essay writer who interprets is persecuted as “intellectualizing” (Adorno likens this to a Nazi persecution: “as if with a yellow star”)
Important not to be terrorized by the idea intentionality, which is a fallacy

The criteria of interpretation are: compatibility with the text; internal consistency of the interpretation; and the power of the interpretation to unleash the power of the text
The essay therefore looks like art because it possesses an artistic autonomy
Lukács was, therefore, wrong to call the essay form an artwork
It is also wrong, though, to say that the essay form can have nothing of art's autonomy of form
It is impossible to speak of form and content wholly separately; impossible to speak of the “aesthetic unaesthetically”
The urge to perform this impossibility harkens back to logical positivism and its insistence on protocol sentences (sentences on direct experience)
Positivism and science despises form
If the essay doesn't examine the social, it falls for the tricks of the culture industry
The essay form is capable of being subsumed by the culture industry

Saint-Beuve, Herbert Eulenberg and popular films about Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Bible all promote the transformation of cultural artefacts into commodities
Stefan Zweig started well and then described Balzac's psychology (thereby failing in Adorno's view)
This writing does not criticize, but presupposes, “abstract concepts, mindless dates, worn-out cliches”
This undermines academic freedom
Irresponsibility respects the object when it is irresponsible towards authorities, but in bad essays, irresponsibility merely accounts for itself before these authorities
Separation of knowledge from art is irreversible; this is part of the Enlightenment's demythologization of the world
A reconciliation between perception and concept; image and sign (cf. Kant) can only come about as the utopian conclusion of a dialectical process
Philosophy's attempt to do away with the split of subject/object by borrowing its form from art results in a pseudo-culture

Both the philosophical and aesthetic value of such work is weak
This results in the “jargon of authenticity”
The attempt to aesthetically transcend the objectivizing nature of language results in a meaninglessness, which positivism then criticizes but also shares
Some ranting about the reification of consciousness inherent in scientific mathesis
Art is, though, also woven into the dominant tendency of the Enlightenment and has appropriated its techniques
In art, though, “quantity becomes quality”
When technique is deemed all in artworks, it succumbs to a meaninglessness that Adorno equates with Heidegger and his focus on “Being”
Although art and science have separated, this separation is not to be treated as an absolute concrete reality
Disciplinary separation is not sanctioned by a “disgust for anachronistic eclecticism”
Disciplinary purity is repressive and presupposes that all knowledge can be converted into science

This is negated in that living consciousness has always escaped this transformation
Proust encapsulates this consciousness, despite his use of scientific-positivistic elements, far better through “individual experience, united in hope and disillusion”, rather than through “repeated testing”
College studies of aesthetics tend towards slapping on pre-culled modish philosophy and crudely applying it, or philosophizing in highly abstract and nonsensical terms
Division of labour between art and science is not wholly responsible for the split, though

It is rather the fact that Enlightenment thought overrides pre-Enlightenment models of knowledge that might promise a different future
The essay draws the harshest condemnation from scientific thought for this reason
Adorno notes that science presupposes conditions of knowledge and that doubt (surely a Descartes allusion) was raised by the essay
The essay “does justice to the consciousness of non-identity […] in accentuating the fragmentary, the partial rather than the total”
The essay contests that the ephemeral and changing is unworthy of philosophy
The essay shuns universal dogma through abstraction
The essay rejects the order of things being identical with the order of ideas as this is based on the notion of unmediated acccess
We cannot think facts non-conceptually and we cannot think concepts non-factually

The essay is not frightened of the “depraved profundity” of the claim that history and truth are incompatible
If truth is rooted to a temporal moment, then the full historical content is integral to truth (cf. Last point on page 98)
Experiential judgements become concretely independent of experience
The relation to experience is a relation to all of history
The essay acts as a corrective to theory's deprecation of the historically produced
“The intellectual process which canonizes a distinction between the temporal and timeless is losing its authority”
Abstraction tends to kill metaphysics and sanctity of thought, for which the essay attempts to make amends
Attacks on the essay as fragmentary assume the givenness of totality (cf. “The Whole is the False”) and the split of subject and object, suggesting that we control that totality
The essay doesn't want to “filter the eternal out of the transitory”, but to “make the transitory eternal”
Its “weakness” shows that it expresses non-identity and tries to nullify the distinction between eternal and transitory
The essay “suspends the traditional concept of method”
It penetrates the object, rather than referring back to something else
The essay chooses. It “freely associates what can be found associated in the freely chosen object”
It does not pretend to be beyond mediation

The essay does not want to move from thought to action
It honours nature by confirming that nature does not belong to human beings
The essay does not abandon entirely the idea of immediacy: “All levels of the mediated are immediate to the essay, before its reflection begins”
The essay takes the “anti-systematic impulse into its own procedure”
It takes the unmediated and gives them precision through their relation to one another (cf. Constellation)
All concepts, contra to science's statements, are already implicitly concretized through the language in which they stand
The essay articulates these pre-concepts in order to “help language”

The essay can neither do without concepts nor treat them arbitrarily
“The how of expression should rescue, in precision, what the refusal to outline sacrifices”
The essay mediates an “arena of intellectual experience”
The essay does not ignore indisputable certainty; it “becomes true in its progress”
The essay does not start from an obvious origin, but rather from a hidden endpoint
“[T]he essay expresses the utopian intention”

All parts of an essay support one another
The essay defies ideals of clear and distinct perception and of absolute certainty
It is a protest against the four rules of Descartes' Discourse on Method
The artefact that is the object of the essay “refuses analysis of its elements and can only be constructed from its specific idea”
The essay will deal purely neither with the whole generation of the specific nor vice versa

The essay will begin with the complex and the difficult
The student who is told to begin with the simple is mistaken
The essay will not be exhaustive; it will omit and is not totalizing in its system

The essay as form must “annul the theoretically outmoded claims of totality and continuity”
“Self-relativization is immanent in its form”
The essay lights up the whole without asserting the presence of the whole

The essay does not assert the identity between thought and thing
Some rants against literary theory!
“The consciousness of the non-identity between presentation and presented material forces the form to make unlimited efforts. In that respect alone the essay resembles art”
The essay, though, is not art but related to theory

The essay's relation to theories is not a standpoint (cf. Negative Dialectics: “dialectics is not a standpoint”)
The essay is the critique of ideology; the critique of what artefacts are as opposed to their concepts
The essay is dialectical. It takes a truth and pushes it to the point where its untruth becomes manifest

The proper theme of the essay is the “interrelation of nature and culture” (cf. Enlightenment)
All objects are central for the essay, hence its free choice of artefacts
The essay “refuses to glorify concern for the primal”

“Those who believe they must defend the intellect against the charge of a lack of solidity are the enemies of intellect”
The essay is related to rhetoric
Ideas of happiness abound in the rhetorical pleasure of the essay through the idea of freedom
This is posed against scientific discourse
On the basis of Kant's “transcendental dialectic” and the forbidding of reason to go beyond the realm of experience

The essay reflects the object without doing violence to it and “silently laments the fact that truth has betrayed happiness”
An essay's rhetoric is fused with its truth content
Equivocation in the essay is used in order to clarify the unity of the differences between words
“the totality of its sentences must fit together coherently”

The “law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy. By transgressing the orthodoxy of thought, something becomes visible in the object which it is orthodoxy's secret purpose to keep invisible.”

Featured image by Jeremy Shapiro at Wikipedia.