One of the most highly regarded theorizations of the essay form, is the text ‘Der Essay als Form’ by German philosopher Theodor L.W. Adorno (1903-1969). The text was written between 1954 and 1958 and it was ﬁrst published as the lead essay of ‘Noten zur Literatur I’ in 1958.76 I will use the English translation “The Essay as Form” translated by Bob Hullot-Kentor and F. Will (1984), and the more recent Dutch translation published in 2015 in “De Kunst van kritiek — Adorno in Context” by Hartle and Lijster. In addition, I asked artist and academic (German language philosopher) Christina Della Giustina for feedback on the two translations.
Adorno counted ‘The Essay as Form’ amongst his most successful works.77 We might understand why Adorno took interest in the essay form, considering his interest in dialectics. The essay and Adorno are also a perfect ﬁt because the essay’s concern is not just with content but also with the manner of presentation: the form. As Hartle and Lijster note: “Adorno’s philosophy (…) considered content and form of thought”78. This makes the essay a perfect format for Adorno to convey his train of thought. It is not just the content, but the manner of presentation that the essay form embraces. Hartle and Lijster describe that the essay connects art and theory dialectically.79 They even claim that ‘Der Essay als Form’ is probably as close as Adorno ever came to giving a description of his philosophy.80 Adorno always withheld from giving an outline of his philosophy for principal and theoretical reasons. As the ‘Encyclopedia of the Essay’ describes: “The style of philosophy and his critique of social systems (based on theories of Hegel, Marx and Freud) are shaped by his predominantly dialectic mode of thought”81. Adorno does not think that the dialectical contradictions can be resolved. His dialectical mode and method of thought are also described in ‘Dialect of Enlightenment’ and ‘Negative Dialectics’.
He published the book ‘Negative dialectics’ in 1966. Apart from important contributions to music theory, he also published writings reﬂecting on visual æsthetics. A result is his book ‘Aesthetic Theory’ (written between 1961 and 1969 and remained unﬁnished, published posthumously in 1970). Adorno also holds an important role in the development of the Frankfurter Schule’s ‘Critical Theory’. His dialectical thought was inﬂuenced by Marxist material dialectics and it was ﬁrst formed under the umbrella of the Frankfurter Schule. Adorno’s ﬁrst thoughts on critical theory and the roll of dialectics were formulated in a collaborative work written together with Max Horkheimer during their wartime exile in America. The text “Dialektik der Aufklärung” or “Dialectics of Enlightenment” was ﬁrst published in 1944, and again in their book which was published in 1947.
The essay as theorized by Adorno is considered to be one of the most important contributions to its conceptualizations.82 Sara Pourciau declares: “the work has long been considered one of the classic discussions of the genre”83 and it is even perceived as “a now classic deﬁnition of the essay from”84 by Krista Brune. Elena Guatary pointed it out as the “most striking analyses of the genre”85. Other important theoratizations on the essay form that Adorno refers to as well are: “Soul and Form” by György Lukács (1908) and ‘Über den essay und seine prosa’ by Max Bense (1947). These argumentations and references show the fundamental relevance of Adorno’s text, hence my decision to use this intriguing investigation and interpretation of the essay form as main point of departure. I will analyze the text in order to depict and describe the core characteristics of the essay as intended by Adorno.
What makes Adorno’s text about the essay exceptional is that he treats the essay as a concept, he never uses a single example of an actual essay. He does refer to the essayist — mostly in a negative manner — but he mainly talks about the essay as an entity. In reference to other theorizations on the subject he only refers to ‘Soul and Form’ (negatively), and he incorporates two quotes from ‘Über den essay and seine Prosa’. We could say that Adorno describes the methodology of the essay or rather, the “un-methodological method”86 of the essay. The text can be considered as an essay about the essay (Graham Good calls it “meta-essay”87). His manner of presentation reﬂects the content and intent of the text. Content and form are both essential, the essay balances between art and science. Therefore, the essay takes the position of a non-identity which makes it difﬁcult to deﬁne. The non-identity is also present in the essay’s anti-systematic procedure. Anders Johanssen justly points out: “even though it advocates an anti-systematic procedure, it is not to be mistaken for a defense of relativism.”88 In the essay as depicted by Adorno, a couple of elements are characteristic: the anti-systematic approach, over-interpretation, juxtaposition of elements and equivocation. The content is informed by theories, art, impulse, intuition and experience.
The essay has no natural beginning, middle or end. Its structural point of departure is exactly the opposite. As Adorno says: “it begins with the most complex, not the most simple”.89 The essay does not follow any scientiﬁc method90, it does not strive for an inductive or deductive mode of thought because its intention is not to ﬁnd deﬁnite conclusions. It disregards continuity and totality. Like Adorno says: “It ends at any moment it feels itself complete, not where nothing is left to say”.91 This sentence insinuates that the essay as a text has a mode or entity, and character on its own. In the process of writing the author reacts to his/her own writing and this becomes the mode. Or, as Adorno describes: “The essay becomes true in its progress, which drives it beyond itself”92. In this process self-reﬂection is essential. It is not just a process where we can let go of our thoughts and feelings, without reﬂecting on them. Adorno: “(the essay) does not proceed blindly, automatically, but at every moment it must reﬂect on itself”.93 As its structure is always in process its form is always complete, because it recognizes its own incompleteness. Or as Adorno puts it: “the totality (…) of non-totality”.94 The essay tries to grasp truth, and at the same time it recognizes its immanent failure, but it deploys eﬀortless attempts to come close, nonetheless. These eﬀortless attempts are key to the essay. It is literally an attempt, as the word essay implies (as previously described). It is a continuous thought experiment, a speciﬁc and deliberate strategy. In Adorno’s case aimed to try and break objects free from their historical, dogmatic or idealistic burden. The essay as described by Adorno has a heavy societal load in light of his time. He puts emphasis on the importance of autonomy. To be autonomous, in Adorno’s eyes, is to be critical. Critique is the only way to break through dogma and consensus, through idealism and propaganda. We can never escape this but we must try relentlessly to break free.
The object of investigation is the (cultural) artifact and the interrelation between nature and culture. The thing that binds the essay is its object of investigation. As Adorno puts it: “The essay is determined by the unity of its freely chosen object, together with that of theory and experience which have migrated into the object.”95 Its unity comes from the tight bound to its freely chosen object and manner of investigation. Because of this, Adorno claims: “the essay is both more free, dynamic and open than traditional thought and at the same time more closed and static than traditional thought.”96 The closed and static part is related to the tight bond to the object of investigating, it always has the object at the center. The open and dynamic part, is the freedom the essay is granted to approach the object. This freedom can be associated with the freedom of an artist, and even childlike pleasure. The essay as a predominantly non-ﬁctional form concerns itself with concepts and theories but allows intuition and experience as well as spontaneity to enter in the course of writing. The essay occupies the space between the assumed organized rational science and the romanticized irrational art.
According to Adorno, the presence of theory is one of the most fundamental elements of the essay. It absorbs theory of past and present, but the objective is the “genuinely new"97. In the tension between free association and theories, the dialectic dichotomy of its form is most clear. Adorno points out that the traditional intellectual process is not sufﬁcient in the essay: “the essay mirrors what is loved and hated instead of presenting the intellect”.98 Adorno’s term is translated as “intellectual experience”99 of concepts, or perhaps better translated (by courtesy of Della Giustina)100: “The experience of mental activity, or experiencing your own mind while thinking.”101 Here, self-reﬂection reappears as a continuous awareness of the past, as present in the current thoughts. In this way the essay questions that which appears to be self-evident.
According to Adorno, content is central: “The essay’s openness is not vaguely one of feeling and mood, but obtains its contour from its content.”102 The form is taking shape in a process driven by its content. It concerns itself with all theories that are close to the object. However, its relation to theory is not that of a standpoint, its tendency is always toward the “liquidation of opinion”.103 When interpreting a text one must not have the illusion of seeking truth. This would result in what Adorno calls “false intentionality”104, because he claims that it is scarcely possible to ﬁgure out what someone felt or thought. There is an openness to “spontaneity of subjective fantasy”105 needed to interpret the interpreted.
But how could we describe the essay’s form then? Adorno calls it a “conﬁguration of elements”106, “presented in such a manner that they support one another. Each element articulates itself according to the conﬁguration that it forms with the others.”107 It allows a freedom towards the object, and concerns itself with all associating and relating concepts surrounding the object. Each element, in relation to the other elements, can be lit from diﬀerent points of view. A conﬁguration consists of diﬀerent parts or elements that form a shape together in a speciﬁc arrangement. It implies the possibility of movement or re-arrangement of its structure, by giving every element an amount of individuality within the conﬁguration. However, all the elements are inherently connected. The essay’s conﬁguration lets the relations — the lines that shape the form of the object — be open to interpretation of the reader. The essay wants to reconstruct the object out of its conceptual “membra disjecta”108 (scattered fragments). The object investigated by the essay is shaped by, and linked to, diﬀerent concepts that surround it. Together in a conﬁguration they tell us something about the object. Even words and materials are concepts. The intent is not to copy, or to directly describe the object: it appears from the associated elements.
In relation to concepts Adorno writes: “the essay denies any primeval givens, so it refuses any deﬁnition of its concepts”.109 He adds: “we can not know beyond a doubt what is to be understood by the real content of concepts (…) Neither can it do without general concepts”. “Its concepts are neither deduced from any ﬁrst principle nor do they come full circle and arrive at a ﬁnal principle.”110 Adorno takes this standpoint because he aims to disarm the violence of dogma and doctrine which is in his case closely related to an aversion to propaganda, idealism and positivism.
The shape, and process of shaping the conﬁguration, is a dialectical one. The “juxtaposition of elements”111 to create continuous contradictions in a dialectical process. However, Adorno says: “Mere contradictions may not remain, unless they are grounded in the object itself.”112 In this procedure the essay paradoxically seeks truth by acknowledging its own untruth, by recognizing its own insufﬁciency and the awareness of ignorance. These types of contradicting sentence structures are grounded in dialectics, and these paradoxes occur often in this text, and they are an essential part of his presentation form. They are an act in the process of thought. Adorno even says that: “the essay is more dialectical than the dialectic”113. This is because it continuously tries to drive itself beyond itself, it seeks to break free from its own system. The essay makes use of deliberate equivocations and contradictions which makes you read the text from one sentence to the other. No easy summary or conclusion can be made because you have to experience the process that the train of thought goes through. This reminds us of Montaigne’s essayistic approach in following the author’s thoughts. An this thought process Adorno adds: “thought does not advance in a single direction. The fruitfulness of the thought depends on the density of its texture.”114 And: “It acquires its depth by penetrating deeply into a matter, not by referring it back to something else”115, which it achieves by over-interpretation. Anders Johansson regards this over-interpretation as the central aspect of Adorno’s attempt to establish a form of critical thinking.116 This would support Hartle and Lijsters point that in this text Adorno aims to give a guideline to his philosophy. With “not refer back” he aims at historical deﬁnitions of concepts and dominant theories.
Like Montaigne, Adorno uses equivocating words in order to force the reader to interpret. One telling sentence is: “Er denkt in Brücken so wie die Realität brüchig ist”, which translates to: “it (the essay) thinks in fragments, just as reality is fragmented.”117 He continues: “und ﬁndet seine Einheit durch die Brüche hindurch, nicht indem er sie glättet”, which translates to: “it ﬁnds its unity through the gaps, not by smoothening them over.” In Dutch it is translated to: “Het essay denkt in breuken, zoals de realiteit gebroken is”118, which can be translated to: “he thinks in cracks, as reality is broken.” In every dictionary I could ﬁnd, Brücken is most often translated as bridges, and brüchig as brittle. Then we would get a sentence like: “the essay thinks in bridges because reality is brittle, and ﬁnds unity by going through the cracks, not by levelling them.” That would give a completely diﬀerent interpretation of the sentence as a bridge is built to connect. “Building bridges between brittle fragments” might metaphorically capture the essay’s attempt even better. Fragments implicate a deconstruction, as if reality consists of deconstructed elements, and the essay moves between them. But, we can also interpret it as: the essay thinks in between the brittle elements, and builds (temporary) connections. Della Giustina translates it as: “it thinks in bridges, just as reality is brittle (broken, “breaky”), and ﬁnds its unity through (throughout) the breaks, not by smoothening them out.” This equivocating language is telling for the essay as formulated by Adorno, and for the way we should read essays. We should be critical, and interpret the essay at all times. In part 3 I will return to this equivocating use of words in relation to art.
To place objects and concepts together, the mental construction contains something material and the material always contains something mentally projected. This projection can be a result of experience, culture, society and history. Maybe there is not much diﬀerence between looking at something and thinking about it. If we look at an object we already conceptualize it, and we look at objects (as well as theories) diﬀerently at diﬀerent times. Conceptions, and deﬁnitions, of words change. As Adorno describes: “it strives to concretize content as determined by space and time; it constructs the interwovenness of concepts in such a way that they can be imagined as themselves interwoven in the object.”119 He adds: “the essay comes so close to the here and now of the object, up to the point where that object, instead of being simply an object, dissociates itself into those elements in which it has its life.”120 As described before, the object literally exists of its (surrounding) elements which are conﬁgured in a time frame. In order to express ourselves we have to materialize our thoughts. One might say it honors the origin of the word concept in Medieval Latin: conception (to grasp, to comprehend) — where already, and not yet, meet.
This reminds me of a beautiful sentence by Montaigne: “what I cannot expresse, I point at with my ﬁnger”121. It seems like a simple sentence, but to have the desire to express your experience, and to experience the inability of shaping it into a communicatable form, leaves you with just the abillity to point at your experience — the gesture of pointing. In other words: experience is personal (may I call it even physical?) but to express it he has to point to something external.
As mentioned previously in this chapter, we can also read his text as “an essay about the essay.”122 Talking about form Adorno does a lot of things that insinuate it is an essay about the essay. He does not say that sentence have to be long, or that references and quotes are not always noted. Foreign words used are not translated. But these are key characteristics of Montaigne’s form of writing. Even in invalidating Descartes’s rules, he literally does not follow the steps because he skips the ﬁrst rule. What Adorno writes about the essay is not the only thing we should read, it is how he writes it that gives information about his ideas on the essay form. It are the words, the structure, and the form of the text combined that convey the meaning. Form and content are mutually inclusive.
As a ﬁnal thought, Adorno starts his text with a quote from Goethe’s Pandora: “Bestimmt, Erleuchtetes zu sehen, nicht das Licht” (Destined to see the illuminated, not the light). This references the idea that we can’t see the source but we can see what is illuminated by the source. Not to be blinded by the light of the contemporary but to try and see which things reﬂect the light of the contemporary.123 Or, as Graham Good describes it: “to transcend the here and now”124. I will elaborate on the connection of Adorno and Goethe, and on Goethe to the essay in a later stage in this chapter.