An Excursis: Reading Adorno And Why I Started This New Site
Sing to him a new song;
play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts. – Psalm 33:3
O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth. – Psalm 96:1
[A]nd they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth. – Revelation 14:3
Perhaps this belongs at Reflections On, at least the part about reading Adorno. At the same time, why I’m reading Adorno, what I’m learning by reading Adorno, and my reasons for starting a new site, and this site in particular, are linked far more closely than simple reflections on reading. Rather than split these things up, I thought it best to include it here. Of late I have become a bit too single-minded in writing about the United Methodist Church and our current struggles. This single-mindedness, along with my current weakened state of mind due to chronic depression, has limited my ability to do more than one thing at a time. I do wish to continue to engage my fellow United Methodists as we move toward what we all hope is a resolution to our current state of disarray. At the same time, this particular site, and its title, were created with a purpose in mind. To whit: I wanted to explore the theological, doxological, and liturgical possibilities of one of my pet projects, which is knocking down the wall between what we call sacred and what we call secular music. To that end, last Christmas I asked for and received several books on church music, two books on music and theology, a book exploring the theological depth of hip-hop, and two books by Theodor Adorno on music. More than all the others, it was Adorno with whom I wanted to wrestle the most precisely because of the depth of his thought as well as his love for and knowledge of music. What I have learned along the way, and how it might impact what I do and how I think about it and write about it going forward in no small part will be influenced by Adorno. So let’s begin with him.
II. Reading Adorno
Before the substance of Adorno’s work can be tackled with any understanding, a few words on reading his prose need to be said. In his long Introductory essay, Richard Leppert makes it clear that Adorno’s style was purposely not easy. While certainly not as nearly-indecipherable as Immanuel Kant or Martin Heidegger, Adorno nevertheless suffered from what I have come to think of as “Teutonicitis”. German is a language that lends itself to complex constructions, the long sentences with confusing directions, and paragraphs that can go on for pages. While also an aficionado of the epigrammatic style – used in both The Dialectic of Enlghtenment and Minima Moralia – these essay by and large rest more comfortably with the complications due in no small part to the grammatical and structural rules of German. At the same time, like his friend Ernst Bloch, there is a rhythm to the writing, a stylistic uniqueness with which the reader becomes familiar.
Which is not to say that one can peruse Adorno. On the contrary, despite stylistic specificity, Adorno sometimes is at great pains to strip the materialistic from his subject matter, leaving what should be concrete abstract, while conretizing the abstract through a stray example or reference to a piece of music, a passage, or whatnot. That these are always unexpected, they definitely demonstrate his dialectical style of thinking, working from opposites inward toward a center that can never be found. The reader needs to pay attention to each phrase, each sentence, sometimes this or that word, how they all fit together to make the whole that is and never can be quite whole. This openness, this sense of incompleteness, is as much a conscious part of Adorno’s style as everything else, reflecting his own determination that “the whole”, particularly the whole as described by Hegelian dialectics, is false. What Adorno called “negative dialectics” is only Hegel without a final synthesis. Thus, the opposites, sometimes appearing simultaneously, seeming to move toward one another, yet never quite getting there.
III. The Limits Of Adorno
While I am grateful for the gift of these works, and am actually enjoying each essay as I read them, one each day, I have come to learn, fairly quickly, that what Adorno has to say about music is both narrow and impossible to transfer – save for generalizations about its historical embededness and the limits of transcendence and the commodification forced upon all production through what Adorno would call the Culture Industry (CI) – to other styles. Precisely because Adorno is wedded both to a particular style of music, viewing the avante garde of the early 20th century both as revolutionary and the epitome of “the next phase” of modernist composition, there is little room to take what he has to say about compositional techniques, about music as art, and even about the growth and decay of music qua music and transfer it to other settings. In this sense his work is as much a product both of his history and the times in which he lived as his method is to embed all human life within a historical framework. It would do violence to the truth for which he struggled so hard and so long to rip out of context Adorno’s approach to music, applying it to a completely different historical, social, and cultural locus.
Which is not to say I have not learned much that is useful. On the contrary, Adorno’s view of music, his commitment to music both as art and as the most fully human expression both of beauty and truth precisely because it is the most historical of the arts, I find not only uplifting but agreeable. It is important to remember that, even as he dismisses popular music, jazz, and even some classical music (he is dismissive, for example, of Rachmaninov), he does so for clearly stated reasons. In true dialectical fashion, I on the other hand stand with Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk (who said “There are no wrong notes.”), and even Ozzy Osbourne, refusing to adhere to labels, and insist there really are only two kinds of music – good and bad. What constitutes these aesthetic decisions are both objective and subjective, in need precisely of a dialectical analysis that is also beholden to musicological understandings that consider the sounds themselves, as British musicologist Allan F. Moore has written. A strict adherence to such a principle – seeing stylistic, timbral, functional, and even temporal differences as more those of degree than of kind – takes a great deal both to defend and explain. Through reading Adorno, I am learning how to do this in a way that is both thorough and uncompromising, although my position is exactly the opposite of his.
IV. This Site
When I started this blag back in April, I did so for several reasons. Just beginning a journey out of a near-suicidal depression, I knew that writing is therapeutic. My old site had become, well, old. I decided that if I was going to start again, I needed to start fresh. A new platform, a new name, a new set of rules, and a new goal; these were my watchwords. I spent time reading John Wesley and Walter Benjamin. I reflected on Christian worship, on music in worship, on the liturgical needs for a changing church in changing times. I have avoided secular politics almost completely, precisely because I no longer wish to involve myself, my time and energy, there. My interests now are the future of The United Methodist Church, in particular how we can offer worship worthy of being called true praise of God even as we take risks both in our liturgy and our mission, our ministry and our private prayer and meditative life. To that end, I have tried as much as possible to concentrate my efforts on those themes and subjects. Recently, however, the controversy over LGBTQ people and our denomination has taken pride of place, even as I would much rather be doing other things. I wrote yesterday, reflecting on some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that our best hope as the Church is to let Christ be Christ, to be the Church of God, always at the foot of the cross, which is always planted firmly in this world. Thus it is that I think taking the stands I have taken is justified, at least to the extent that I have made clear my view of what the Church is, or least should be, perhaps even can be.
All the same, my primary interest is now, and has been from the beginning, to work on knocking down those walls I talked about between sacred and secular music, between all those labels that prevent us Christians from really singing a new song, from hearing music all around, over our heads, and from allowing music not only to be functional within the liturgy of the faithful, but to reflect the eschatological vision contained in the Revelation to St. John on Patmos. To do this interest justice, I need to spend time reading and learning, reflecting, getting some things right and other things wrong. I keep this site closed to comments because it is in comment sections that the toxicity of the Internet exists most clearly. My own experience with this toxicity is such that I prefer to offer these pieces without an opportunity for constructive dialogue to be broken down by the omnipresent trolls.
At the same time, there’s no reason any this shouldn’t be fun. Thus I try to include photos, music videos, and other things not only to hold the reader’s interest, but to make sure the reader knows that while I take the subject matter seriously, I do not take myself seriously at all. My own ignorance on so much needs to be kept in mind as you read.
Thus, we return to Adorno. Despite what seems at first blush to be the limited utility of his approach to music, I look forward to continuing to read and reflect upon his essays, a project I see taking a while considering the number of essays in the Leppert anthology. I will also try to refocus my own energies here on what was the original impetus behind it all: To destroy the barriers between what we call sacred and what we call secular, a project begun the moment Jesus died and, according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, the curtain in the Temple separating the people from the Holy of Holies, was torn asunder, breaking forever the transcendence of God and inaugurating the age of Divine Immanence.
I hope you keep reading. I hope you don’t get bored. I hope you have as much fun reading as I have thinking and writing what appears here. And you can always get in touch with me by email – firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for sticking with me, and I look forward to what’s coming.