The fabric of critique: ‘lending voice to suffering’ in the work of T.W. Adorno

  • Birgit Antonia Hofstätter

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The task of ‘lending voice to suffering’, identified in the introduction to Negative Dialectics as central to philosophy, resonates throughout Adorno’s work. Iterated in variations in and through his writing, the task of ‘lending voice to suffering’ is recognisable as a theme; and, yet, each repetition constitutes a particular material configuration that can be opened up by analysis. In tracing the different figures and keys in which such a lending of voice is attempted, and in conjunction with an investigation of Adorno’s theoretical accounts of aesthetics, language and music, this thesis argues that a consideration of the aesthetic dimension, formally and theoretically, is crucial to understanding 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, I contend that it is through an engagement with the aesthetic, and in particular, with the musicological and literary dimensions of his work, that a fuller picture of his philosophy emerges. This picture reveals that the central task of lending voice to suffering cannot be thought independently of the specific aesthetic experiences or modes of interpretation and expressiveness in which critique responds to the texts it encounters. The first part of this thesis presents an overview of the relationship between music, language and philosophy in Adorno’s writing. The work then zooms in on Adorno’s notion of critique as Selbstbesinnung. This is developed out of a discussion of his reflections on musical reproduction as a critical practice of reading. In the tension between musical and philosophical interpretation the contours of a movement of philosophical thought emerges, which, in reflecting upon itself, attends to the mute particularities of words – to those historically contingent meanings and material qualities, the ‘aroma’ of concepts, which exceed the permanence of the written form. This is followed by a critical reappraisal of the notion of reification as forgetting. Proceeding at the level of the medium, I develop the temporal dialectic that inheres in forgetting through a reading of Adorno’s reflection on the history of notation and the separation of the oral and written sphere. As a necessary moment of closure and loss, forgetting, concomitant with writing, is the condition of possibility of critique. Critique, in turn, responds to forgetting with a recherche du temps perdu in the texts it interprets. The fourth chapter engages with Adorno’s curious comparison of Beethoven and the chthonic spirit Suckelborst, the protagonist of Eduard Mörike’s fairy tale of the Sichern Mann. In tracing the dialectic of nature at the heart of Adorno’s Beethoven interpretation, I explore the modalities in which Beethoven’s music comes to speak, to ‘lend voice’. The second part of this chapter, an analysis of Beethoven’s late style, sets the tone for the concluding part of the thesis, which presents a reading of Adorno’s ‘Meditations on Metaphysics’ as ‘late work’. Raising the question of the possibility of metaphysics at the moment of its fall, the ‘Meditations’ negotiate a precarious ‘no-man’s-land of hope’ between being and nothingness. This, the chapter argues, is reflected by its form: as an exemplar of ‘late style’, understood as the manifestation of the experience of transience in form, Adorno’s writing proceeds in critical negation of itself. This concluding analysis poses the question to what extent Adorno’s own writing accomplishes what it sets out to do: to lend voice to suffering.
Date of AwardMar 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorMark Devenney (Supervisor)

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