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Neither Autocracy nor Automatism: Notes on Autonomy and the Aesthetic


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Over the last few decades, an increasing identification of autonomy with the imperialist and colonialist autocracy of Western subjectivity has led to philosophical flirtations with the rejection of both the concept of autonomy and often that of the subject, for example in various strands of posthumanist thought, the works of Latour, and sundry object-based ontologies. The Enlightenment subject has been unmasked as nothing but a male bourgeois rights holder and property owner, casting large parts of his humanist entitlements into the netherworld of abject near-objecthood. Autonomy has also gotten a bad name in the field of art. In the US in particular, the association of the concept of autonomy with Clement Greenberg’s restrictive understanding of modernism has made the term seem toxic and beyond reappropriation. However, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, with its dialectical account of the artwork as being both autonomous and fait social, is itself a trenchant Modernist autocritique.

For Adorno, autonomy was as problematic and crucial a notion in art as elsewhere, for instance in education. When debating his conservative opponent Arnold Gehlen on the subject of “Freedom and Institution” on German television in 1967, Adorno defended the Dutch Provo movement—film footage of which was used to introduce the debate—as well as the budding student movement in Germany against Gehlen’s insistence that such contestations were dangerous symptoms of hubris. While increasingly wary of the young radicals’ anti-institutional “actionism,” Adorno was all too aware of the reactionary implications of his colleague’s institutionalism. Referencing Hegel’s notion of objective spirit, Emile Durkheim’s concept of faits sociaux and Thorstein Veblen’s understanding of institutions in terms of habits of thought, he argued that even while institutions are not purely external but rather shape our mind and our social habitus, they are still imposed by coercion and as such are alien, reified, or objectified—vergegenständlicht.

While neither Adorno nor Gehlen addressed this in the 1967 debate, the Amsterdam Provo movement was not purely a matter of youth protest. With its imaginative and “ludic” tactics, it was a form of aesthetic practice that derived its impetus to a significant extent from the provocative happenings Robert Jasper Grootveld had started staging in the centerof Amsterdam—at some remove from the “official” artistic avant-garde, yet basing himself loosely on American happenings and on Fluxus events. Furthermore, a crucial point of reference for Provo was Constant’s utopia of New Babylon and its vision of the unalienated life of the homo ludens, inspired by Huizinga. First developed under the auspices of the Situationist International, New Babylon is art that wants to become lived aesthetic praxis beyond “the autonomy of art.”

When aesthetic theory emerged around 1800, it was as an autocritique of Enlightenment and Idealist thought and its self-legislating, self-governing subject equated with an abstract notion of reason and devoid of Lebensrealität. To the extent that aesthetics became a discipline claiming autonomy for its own area of expertise (aesthetic experience), this relative autonomy consisted precisely in the problematization of autonomy, in the creation and examination of impure mixtures and intricate dialectical entanglements of freedom and determination, mind and body, subject and object. If the aesthetic also held out a highly ideological promise of imaginary fulfillment within alienating modern society, it also proffered a “vision of human energies as radical ends in themselves which is the implacable enemy of all dominative or instrumentalist thought.”

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