By Alex Thomson

Probably the most influential philosophers and cultural theorists of the 20 th century, Theodor Adorno poses a substantial problem to scholars. His works can usually look vague and impenetrable, quite for people with little wisdom of the philosophical traditions on which he attracts. Adorno: A consultant for the puzzled is a fascinating and available account of his suggestion that doesn't patronise or short-change the reader. these new to Adorno - and people who have struggled to make headway together with his paintings - will locate this a useful source: truly written, finished and in particular taken with simply what makes Adorno tricky to learn and comprehend.

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In Negative Dialectics Adorno suggests that critical philosophy and autonomous art share a common aspiration towards singularity - the 'now and here' of all events, not just musical ones. But art strives to achieve this by its radical resistance to determination, meaning, explanation; philosophy can only pass by way of the concept, and thus through mediation (ND 15). This means an inevitable conflict, attested to in the common feeling that theoretical or philosophical investigation is somehow inimical to art, between the art work's claim to sensuous immediacy, to freedom from conceptual determination, and philosophy's rejection of that claim.

Rather than imposing a rigid 'system' on his composition, working with twelve tones in fact allowed Schoenberg to create work which moved more freely and more dramatically away from conventional musical forms. In a retrospective essay, this is the aspect of the composer's work which Adorno stresses. Because of its importance to Adorno's interpretation of Schoenberg, and so to our understanding of Adorno, it is worth quoting at length: The difference between Schoenberg and traditional music might be demonstrated with the help of a bon mot of Schumann's that one can tell whether a person is musical by his ability to continue performing a piece more or less correctly when someone forgets to turn the page.

Through this process of self-critical reasoning, culture seeks to reinvent itself from within, while the possibility that the new will come from outside it is left open. In this Adorno shares some of Nietzsche's longing for a revaluation of all values. But where Nietzsche tends to fear the levelling force of bourgeois equality, Adorno refuses to rush to judgement. He cannot embrace the destruction of culture, since that would mean affirming its untruth, from culture's point of view. But his mourning of culture is always tinged with the knowledge that something else may be beyond its demise.

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