Response to Matthew Gannon: “Adorno as a Reader: Writing the Mediation of Literature and Philosophy”

By | January 20, 2022

This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading with posts from the collection’s contributors.

Guest post by Fabio Akcelrud Durão

Distance affects commentary: when the former proves to be too great, finding a minimal common ground between commentator and text to be commented can become an excruciating task, often demanding considerable talent in the art of verbal contortionism. When no shared assumptions can be obtained, arguments based in reason become useless and dialogue impossible. (Bolsonaro’s regime has given us here in Brazil plenty of opportunities to experience this.) Communication then turns into confrontation and logic deteriorates into sarcasm. On the other hand, however, a corresponding difficulty arises when the commentator shares too much of the underlying presuppositions and conclusions of the text they have to comment on. The risk now is that of agreement degenerating into praise, which as a speech act represents the surest way to paralyze thinking (a cultural symptomatology of praise remains to be written, but see Kaufman [2001]). All the positive adjectives I could attach to Matthew Gannon’s essay, and I would have quite a few of them available, would fix it in admiration and stop the movement of thinking: that would be an irresponsible reading (interestingly enough, irresponsibility emerging as a result of praise). In order to avoid this, one possible strategy, to persist with the topographic image, is to keep the proximity of the ground but change its setting or ambiance, in the particular case of this response bringing in a tenser, more conflicting one. Matthew Gannon’s reading of Adorno’s responsible theory and practice of reading is lucid, convincing and inspiring (so here’s three adjectives after all), but it assumes a communicability that deserves to be problematized.

Adorno’s ideas are so dissonant, so out of place in relation to what we do today as readers in our corporate universities, that a curious effect of meaning appear generating two Adornos: one is the Adorno we discuss and debate, dissecting concepts, explaining arguments etc.; the other is a phantom who remains mute and has no impact whatsoever in concrete practices of reading. In other words, we are entitled to ask if in reading Adorno, and Gannon’s reading of him, the ideas presented do something, if they catch, stick or hold, or if, on the contrary, they inhabit a parallel world, existing in ours as dead letter, signifying but not making sense. Strangely enough this question is central to Adorno himself as he reflects on how works of art age and how thereby they close themselves to experience.[1] In sum, then, and ironically, when Gannon remarks that “Adorno’s key insights about reading and writing—and about aesthetic experience more generally—intersect with and deviate from today’s concerns in productive ways” (PAGE), I am tempted to add that are productive precisely because they deviate.

First, then, two words on terminology and theory. Even though Adorno coins new notions on occasion, he insists on abiding by traditional concepts, most notably those of subject and object. There are important reasons for this, which we can’t dwell on here, except to emphasize that “subject” and “object” ought not to be taken as static categories, not as mere tools for knowledge, but rather as terms containing history in them, a history to which the reader belongs. “Subject” and “object”, then, not only embody a contradictory and moving past, but also, precisely because of it, also project the possibility of reconciliation. This contrasts sharply with the current neological fury in theoretical discourse, which can be seen as repeating the by now very old gesture of proposing something new. As for theory, Gannon conflates meanings that one had better keep apart. It is only on a footnote (PAGE) that he observes that his use of “theory” corresponds to kritische Theorie; now, that is very different from Anglo-American “critical theory”, and has little to do with what became known as theory, sometime capitalized (see my chapter). Kritische Theorie referred to a rigorous dialectical attempt to break the disciplinary boundaries in the different branches of knowledge, while retaining their objective necessity; this is not the first sense that comes to mind in Anglo-American usage, which seems to refer to a much looser body of texts: Adams’s Critical Theory Since Plato (1992), for instance, would puzzle German readers.

Gannon hits the bull’s-eye when he asserts that “[r]esponsibility hinges on the dialectic between subject and object” (PAGE), a dialectic that he compellingly explains. However, if closely scrutinized, this dialectic will reveal aspects very much at odds with our ways of reading today. In the beginning of his essay Gannon mentions that Adorno’s theory of responsible reading is “necessarily somewhat anachronistic” (PAGE); later on he remarks that Adorno is “[n]ot exactly a close reader by today’s standards” (PAGE); and in the same context we are told that “‘experience’” is nevertheless a key term for him” (PAGE). These three terms should to be combined, for reading here is anachronistic because it is mediated by aesthetic experience, which feeds and guides writing. This means that it is not regulated by the idea of a “field” to which one should offer a “contribution”, nor by a concern with an updated bibliography. Arguments are not subjected to the principle of verification that close reading so immensely enables. In terms of language, the primacy of subjective experience over scientific rationality leads to an avoidance of technical vocabulary, a welcoming of figurative language, especially the use of metaphors as analytical instruments, and the mobilization of a broad scope of rhetorical strategies, exaggeration being a central one.[2] In the history of literary criticism, there is a name for such strong reliance on the role of the subject as an organizing factor in reading: impressionism, the primordial adversary of literary theory as it was trying to establish itself as a scientific endeavor almost a hundred years ago. Adorno here can be useful in suggesting that the derogatory meaning of the term might rather be reserved for failed attempts, and that proceeding from an “impression”, if properly characterized, may be a fruitful way to approach the objectivity of the literary work.

But such confidence in the subject’s capacity to experience an artwork, as Gannon so cogently outlines, depends on an intense relationship with the object. Through a “long uncoercive gaze” (PAGE), the subject performs the contradictory act of willful self-effacement, voluntary surrendering, a “self-forgetfulness before the object” (PAGE). Killing of intention requires more force than one would assume at first sight. The point of this active passivity is to follow and reproduce in oneself the discipline contained in the object, its internal rules, and formal principle. It’s a mimesis in the subject of the object. As Gannon highlights, reading is not “fun”, but demands concentration, is real work. Effectiveness of imagination and rigor in attention are not exclusive impulses; inspired by Goethe, Adorno calls it exacte Phantasie[3], and aesthetic experience corresponds to a great extent to the synthesis thus achieved. As the role of the subject qua subject and of the object qua object are intensified, a dialectical turn takes place, whereby their poles are reversed: the subject becomes a stage on which the work is produced, whereas the latter acquires an active role and seems to speak.

This contrasts visibly with cherished assumptions underlying our notion of reading. In the first place, it presupposes an emphatic notion of work: texts without discernible internal consistency are simply illegible as aesthetic objects, though not as sociological ones[4]. In this view, the world is not a book to be read, meaning is not everywhere to be found. But it gets worse. At a certain point, Gannon points out that “[i]nterpretation and criticism then—or theory, the term does not matter much because at stake is not a concept but a practice—refer to thinking itself, thinking which does not exist without reading, without objects” (PAGE). I couldn’t agree more with this, but as I try to argue in my chapter, there is a perceptible inclination in current theory to exhibit the contrary movement, namely, of an increasing independence vis-à-vis objects, which is reflected in several rhetorical and argumentative strategies leading to a semi- or quasi-objectivity: the object as an excuse for subjective imposition. Furthermore, as Gannon observes, when confronted with actual practices, this injunction of the primacy of the object casts suspicion on the application of theories to literary artefacts and raises severe doubts about methodological discussions that seem to exist independently of works. Finally, from all this it is not difficult to surmise that if we want to approximate Adorno’s dialectic of subject and object to notions of coparticipation, it would be in a quite strained sense, because the dissonance here with ideas of “teamwork”, “network” or “negotiation could hardly be louder. Again, for Adorno the encounter between subject and object in reading is through the exacerbation of the poles, not the creation of a middle way.

The next point touches the thorny question of the form of exposition in Adorno, whose fundamental role Gannon perceptively stresses. Reading and writing, theory and practice are rigorously intertwined here. In such a programmatic piece as “The essay as form”, so very well presented by Gannon, this can be observed in the way that all the predicates relating to the essay are performed in it. How do we relate to this double implication of saying and doing? Who writes today dialectically apart from Roberto Schwarz? Not Eagleton and not exactly Jameson. What happens when one says this dialectics but doesn’t replicate it? There’s a weird mixture of ad infinitum and ad absurdum in the chain formed by Gannon’s commentary on the unity of saying and doing, but without doing, and my own on Gannon’s, which also fails (you are invited to continue).

And now to conclude. Through Gannon’s illuminating explanation a new aspect of interpretative responsibility emerges, that of the self-reflection on the conditions in which reading is realized. There is a nice performative twist in this, first through a question of self-referentiality. With its ageing and the reduction of the horizon of possibility in relation to Adorno’s, something of what he says about Beckett can uncannily be transferred to him, in such a way that it becomes possible to think of a “Versuch, Adorno zu verstehen”. By trying to understand our incomprehension of Adorno (which includes the shrinking of the horizon for the imagination of the Revolution) we can have access to a fuller view our predicament, which was Adorno’s intent in the first place. This may seem like a long way from the problem of responsible reading, and yet I could hardly think of a better starting point.


Brown, Nicholas. Autonomy. The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

Durão, Fabio Akcelrud. “Las dificultades para ler Teoría estética hoy: razones y consecuencias,” Constelaciones. Revista de Teoría Crítica, nº 11-12, 2020.

Hullot-Kentor, Robert. “The Exact Sense in Which the Culture Industry No Longer Exists”. In: F.A. Durão (ed.) The Culture Industry Today. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010, pp. 5-22.

—-. “What barbarism is?”. In: F.A. Durão (ed.) The Culture Industry Today. pp. 23-42.

Kaufman, Eleanor. The Delirium of Praise: Bataille, Blanchot, Deleuze, Foucault, Klossowski. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Mansour, Chris. “Praxis, theory and the unmakeable: An interview with Robert Hullot-Kentor” Platypus Review, #33.

Nicholsen, Shierry W. Exact Imagination; Late Work. On Adorno’s Aesthetics. MIT Press, 1997.

[1] The general hypothesis of a gradual shrinking of Adorno’s horizon of intelligibility in and for the present is paradoxically a rich one. I first became aware of it in two essays by Robert Hullot-Kentor (2010a, 2010b) and in an interview with him (Mansur, 2011). I try to develop some consequences of Adorno’s incompatibility with the present in Durão (2020).

[2] Exaggeration in turn strives to stimulate experience out of its numbness.

[3] See here Shierry Weber Nicholsen’s beautiful description of this in her Exact Imagination, Late Work (1997).

[4] In Autonomy (2018), Nicholas Brown presents a similar position, arguing that objects composed according to heteronymous principles, i.e. to please the consumer and feed the market, have just no meaning.

Modernism, Theory and Responsible Reading cover
Fabio Akcelrud Durão is Professor of Literary Theory at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). He is the author of Modernism and Coherence: Four Chapters of a Negative Aesthetics (2008), Teoria (literária) americana (2011), Fragmentos Reunidos (2015), O que é crítica literária? (2016), and Metodologia de Pesquisa em Literatura (2020), among others. He is also the editor Culture Industry Today (2010) and the coeditor Modernist Group Dynamics (2008). His essays appeared in journals such as Critique, Cultural Critique, Parallax, Wasafiri, and Luso-Brazilian Review.

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