Dialectical Realism and Radical Commitments:Brecht and Adorno on Representing Capitalism

In: Historical Materialism
Author: Gene Ray 1
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  • 1 Geneva University of Art and Design, Email: gray@fastmail.fm

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Bertolt Brecht and Theodor W. Adorno stand for opposing modes and stances within an artistic modernism oriented toward radical social transformation. In his 1962 essay ‘Commitment’, Adorno advanced a biting critique of Brecht’s work and artistic position. Adorno’s arguments have often been dismissed but, surprisingly, are seldom closely engaged with. This paper assesses these two approaches that have been so central to twentieth-century debates in aesthetics: Brecht’s dialectical realism and Adorno’s sublime or dissonant modernism. It provides what still has been missing: a close reading and immanent critique of Adorno’s case against Brecht. And it clarifies one methodological blind spot of Adorno’s formalist conceptualisation of autonomy: he fails to provide the detailed analysis of context that his own dialectical method immanently calls for. The paper shows how and why Brecht’s dialectical realism holds up under Adorno’s attack, and draws conclusions for contemporary artistic practice.

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