At the Intersection of Ethics and Aesthetics: Emmanuel Levinas and Theodor Adorno on the Work of Art
Belmer, Stephanie Lynn
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation undertakes a comparative study of the aesthetic theory of Theodor Adorno and the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. I argue that Levinas’s resistance to aesthetics and Adorno’s to ethics have led interpreters to miss an essential overlap in their writings. My first concern is to demonstrate that Adorno’s theory of aesthetics, when placed side by side with Levinas's philosophy, serves to expand Levinas’s conception of the ethical encounter. While Levinas provides a rich account of the ethical, he does not commit himself in any serious way to the study of aesthetics. The expression unique to ethics, for Levinas, occurs as a face-to-face encounter, and Levinas is quite emphatic that the ethical encounter is not produced by any work, including and especially the work of art. Nonetheless, Levinas finds in certain artists evidence of ethical expression. When read alongside Adorno's aesthetic theory, it becomes possible to argue that Levinas’s ethics of responsibility need not be limited to the relation between two human beings. The experience of ethics described by Levinas can then be extended to include the experience of works of art. My second concern is to demonstrate how Levinas’s notion of ethical transcendence challenges Adorno's perceived confinement within a system of immanent critique. Adorno, like Levinas, criticizes a form of rationality that would elevate the subject to an absolute; and Adorno, again like Levinas, seeks ways to interrupt this subject’s totalizing stance. However, Adorno refuses to outline an ethics and there is much to his writing, particularly his reliance on a negative dialectics, which makes it very difficult to imagine ethics in the way that Levinas describes. Nonetheless, I argue that the two thinkers are not as far apart as they at first seem. There are striking similarities between Adorno's account of the artwork’s disorienting effect on subjectivity and Levinas’s description of the effect of alterity on the subject. By exposing these similarities, it becomes possible to attribute a Levinasian ethical dimension to Adornian aesthetic experience. In other words, Levinas helps us to push Adorno beyond his reliance on a privative description of ethics and thus allows for a productive rereading of Adorno's theory of art as critique.