Adorno and the Ban on Images: An Interview with Sebastian Truskolaski

by contributing editor Jonathon Catlin

By Jonathon Catlin

Dr. Sebastian Truskolaski is Lecturer in German and Comparative Literature at King’s College London and the author of Adorno and the Ban on Images (Bloomsbury, 2021), which traces the trope of the biblical ban on images of God (Bilderverbot) in the work of Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) and a number of his interlocutors. Its three chapters investigate Adorno’s “imageless materialism,” “inverse theology,” and “aesthetic negativity,” which together “reorganize Adorno’s uneasily systematic ‘anti-system’ around the notion of imagelessness” (8). While Adorno adhered to the maxim that “one may not cast a picture of Utopia in a positive manner” (140), his late work suggests that “successful” works of art “negatively intimate an ‘imageless image of Utopia’” (146).

Sebastian Truskolaski, Adorno and the Ban on Images (Bloomsbury 2021).

Grounded in nuanced close readings, the book also illuminates the status of theological figures in critical theory after they have “migrat[ed] into the realm of the secular, the profane” (81). In Adorno’s thought, Truskolaski ultimately finds “a restless and incessant dismantling of established philosophical dogmas that throws into relief a mode of thinking, and—by extension—living, that escapes the violence and coercion of the present” (13). Adorno’s “labour of critique,” the book suggests, holds open a “caesura” in “which a life free from domination might become conceivable” (151).

Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Truskolaski about his new book

Jonathon Catlin: Your book sets out from the biblical story of Moses breaking the tablets containing the laws he received from God on Mount Sinai. Moses then destroys the idol of the golden calf the Israelites made to worship in his absence. It has been argued by the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842–1919), among others, that the ensuing ban on material images makes Judaism a “philosophical religion” and its god an “intellectualized” one (3). In their 1944/47 Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) invoke this conception of Judaism as an antidote to the mythic, dominating, and instrumental rationality they identify with fascism: “‘The disenchanted world of Judaism’, we are told, ‘propitiates magic by negating it in the idea of God’” (4). Could you give us a brief history of this figure, and speculate a bit about why two secular, materialist philosophers might have turned to it in that dark hour?

Sebastian Truskolaski: The origins of this figure, as you rightly point out, lie in the Old Testament—specifically at the point in Exodus when Moses (upon receiving the tables with the Ten Commandments) reproaches his brother, Aaron, for encouraging the Israelites to worship an idol. On one level, the point is simply that intermediaries, such as the golden calf, are insufficient for capturing God’s transcendence. This is a foundational precept of biblical monotheism: there is one God, whose laws—including practical directives for proper worship— are absolute. God resists representation by earthly means.

There is another point here, though, which has a wider philosophical resonance. Such a view of a transcendent Absolute runs contrary to what one might call an “animated” view of the world. To put it bluntly, if the one true God demands exclusive worship and resists capture in the form of an intermediary, then: (a) This rules out the possibility of “magic,” as apparently practiced in various nature religions—at least according to Freud, whom Adorno cites on this point; and (b) It casts doubt on the truthfulness of “images” more generally. Images come to appear as partial, even deceitful attempts to enter into a relation to what might loosely be dubbed “truth.” In a sense, this recalls Plato’s famous cave parable: submitting to the “charismatic power of the idol” is akin to accepting the veracity of the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. From this viewpoint, what is philosophically at issue in the biblical commandment against idol worship is negotiating what a more emphatic concept of truth might entail. On the one hand, the banning of images asserts the power of reason by disenchanting the images’ claim to capturing the Absolute. On the other hand, it comes up against the difficulty of how to adequately construe a relation to what these images apparently miss. Versions of this problem have been taken up by a wide range of thinkers over the centuries, including—significantly for Adorno—leading figures from the German tradition. Kant, Hegel, and Cohen, for instance, all cite the image ban in connection with Judaism at prominent junctures in their writings (for instance in Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime”).

I think it’s fair to say that, for all their differences, these thinkers invoke the Bilderverbot to explore a shared question: What are the possibilities afforded by reason for entering into a relation to truth, be it in epistemological, ethical, or aesthetic terms? Adorno takes this question very seriously. However, he reads it in light of what he and Horkheimer call a dialectic of enlightenment (or of reason, if you will). For Adorno, the outlawing of images appears as an early instance of a rationalized approach to the world; but such an approach—or so the argument goes—always already contains its opposite. Reason reverts to unreason. To the extent that Adorno’s philosophical project turns on trying to immanently short-circuit this dynamic so as to arrive, prospectively, at a lived form of rationality beyond what he calls “identity thinking,” the Bilderverbot serves as a kind of case in point. Can this figure, which is implicated in the very dynamic it’s trying to overcome, serve as an occasion for the immanent critique of reason as such? On this point Adorno is close to Marx, to cite another thinker who was fond of citing the image ban: if pre-empting the shape of a world beyond suffering and domination limits the possibility of meaningful change, then the path to societal transformation must lie in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” It’s about weighing what reason promises against its inbuilt limitations. In my view, that remains a timely task.

Gustave Doré, Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law, 1866. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

JC: You write that “Adorno openly heeds the verdicts of his intellectual forerunners Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, arguing that ‘positive religion has lost its (. . .) validity’; that ‘[t]raditional theology is not restorable’” (6). Indeed, Adorno sees the waning of religious authority as an opportunity for critical thought. Yet he also derives an important insight from religion: “a refusal of the sense that that ‘which merely is’, is, in fact, everything” (6). Given Adorno’s skepticism of positive religion, what status do theological tropes or images in his thought hold? Can we call them merely metaphorical if they seem to play an indispensable role in his project?

ST: On my reading Adorno is a resolutely secular thinker, which makes the conspicuous recurrence of theological figures in his work surprising (at least at first glance). Religion and theology are, for Adorno, superseded forms of rationality—stages in the dialectic of enlightenment. However, insofar as these stages are conceived of dialectically, each of them contains a seed of truth. The yearning for transcendence is potentially emancipatory, but it too runs the danger of reverting into its opposite. The image ban might thus be read as an expression of the sense that something more may be possible, even if the particular shape of a truly liberated condition cannot be fixed in extant terms. As soon as one imagines something like a utopian land of plenty, this possibility is inscribed into the very structures it’s trying to overcome. Jürgen Habermas calls this a performative contradiction (Adorno’s thinking appears to him as suffering from a normative deficit). The point about the place of religion in Adorno’s account is to do with the broadly Weberian view that capitalism usurped the traditional place of religion in modernity, albeit with a certain modification. On this point, I follow an argument developed by Sami Khatib in his book Teleologie ohne Endzweck (2013). Khatib cites Benjamin’s fragment, “Capitalism as Religion,” arguing that Weber’s argument works in two ways. Through the usurpation of religion under capitalism, the positions of the old world-religions also shift. Accordingly, capitalism advances both the sacralization of ostensibly non-religious terrain and the profanation of a realm that was hitherto called sacred. Religion is entstellt, dislocated. This means that, in a peculiar historical twist, profaned religious terms gain a kind of afterlife in the critique of what, following Benjamin, one might call the “capitalist cult religion.” The image ban retains its propensity for gesturing towards something beyond the status quo; but it’s a beyond that must emerge from the immanent critique of the present, rather than as a divine incursion from “out there.”

JC: Following Georg Lukacs’s (1885–1971) quip that the Frankfurt School took up residence in the “grand hotel abyss,” Adorno has been derided for his supposed apolitical quietism and pessimism by critics ranging from Jürgen Habermas, to Hans-Jürgen Krahl, to Jacob Taubes, to Giorgio Agamben. Your book defends Adorno against their various charges, presenting his thought as a rigorous “effort to safeguard the minimal space within which something like a radical societal transformation might yet be thought”—namely by resisting capitulation to or apologia for the “administered world” of the society in which he wrote (6). How does re-centering Adorno’s work around the Bilderverbot bring out a less “resigned” Adorno?

ST: As you note, there’s long been a tendency to deride Adorno for his supposed quietism. For all their differences, the critics you cite share the view that it is impossible to conceive of something like societal transformation in Adorno’s terms. However, it seems to me that this misses something quite fundamental, namely that Adorno wants to completely overhaul the very terms in which we conceive of something like politics. Adorno is attempting to recast—from the inside out (ohne Leitbild)—structures of thought that he sees as co-extensive with the subjugation of difference. On the one hand, Adorno sees these structures as emerging from the material history of humankind, the speculative pre-history of subjectivity outlined in Dialectic of Enlightenment. On the other hand, it is precisely these structures of thought (what he calls “identity thinking”) that enable and sustain not only epistemic forms of violence, e.g., the subsumption of particulars under universals, but also the very real erasure of difference in, say, the Nazi death camps. Politics is what would follow from the very far-reaching effort “to think thinking differently,” as Derrida puts it with reference to Adorno; it means the prospect of difference without domination. But since the particular shape of a thinking that would undergird such structures cannot be pre-empted without being complicit in the problem it is trying to remedy, it follows that this “utopia of cognition” cannot be pictured. So how else does one arrive at such a position? For one, instances of what Adorno means flare up, albeit negatively, in modern works of art. In their own paradoxical way, works art stages what Adorno means by politics but cannot allow himself to spell out. It brings Adorno into an improbable connection with Heidegger, I think: short of a fully-fledged rethinking of thought itself (in its connection with lived reality), any talk of “politics” is bound to reproduce the injustices of the present.

JC: You’ve also co-translated, with Paula Schwebel, the forthcoming English edition of Adorno’s letters with Gershom Scholem that Asaf Angermann edited in German. These letters show Adorno reframing his negative dialectics for an eminent scholar of mysticism. You quote Adorno claiming, in a 1967 letter to Scholem, that his dialectical materialism, based on “the preponderance of the object,” defies any dogma or fixed worldview yet “warrants an affinity with metaphysics (I would almost have said theology)” (7). As Adorno similarly writes in a passage of Negative Dialectics (1966) that is central to your study, “At its most materialistic, materialism comes to agree with theology” (10). Scholem had already described Adorno’s 1951 Minima Moralia as a work of “negative theology”—a view Adorno found objectionable, but which has nevertheless spurred a stimulating discussion of resonances between these traditions. How has this exchange shaped your understanding of Adorno’s use of theological tropes?

ST: To me, the most interesting thing about the Adorno-Scholem correspondence is the way they approach each other’s projects from their particular disciplinary standpoints. It is characteristic of Adorno that since he cannot allow himself to positively articulate certain concerns, he has to circumscribe them; and, for this purpose, he often expresses similar points in a variety of different registers—philosophy, sociology, musicology, art/literary criticism, etc. He talks around the issue, casts it into relief. In the letter to Scholem that you note, he is, in effect, reframing the basic tenets of his negative dialectic in broadly theological terms. For instance, “theology” and “metaphysics,” as Adorno presents them, come to coincide because, ultimately, they are both chapters from the aforementioned dialectic of reason. They contain partial articulations of a “truth” that Adorno wants to present in terms of what he calls materialism, which is a version of the non-coercive thinking I mentioned earlier. The point about negative theology is interesting: on the one hand, it appears that Adorno’s resistance to picturing the Absolute is akin to saying, via negativa, that God is only what is not not. However, I think Adorno’s objection to this classification is understandable to the extent that negative theology, properly speaking, is still a full-blooded theology, whereas Adorno is not making a case for the existence of God—negatively or otherwise. In a 1934 letter to Benjamin, he insists, instead, that his position is better characterized as an “‘inverse’ theology,” which goes back to the point we discussed earlier concerning the dislocation of religion in the present. This is a “theology” only in a very qualified sense. I prefer to think of it as a terminological peculiarity that follows from a diagnosis of the historical currency of theology in capitalist modernity. Adorno assigns a peculiar afterlife to theological terms. The central points of reference are Kafka and Benjamin, rather than any established theological tradition. The flipside of this is that negative theology comes to play a prominent role in Jürgen Habermas’s criticism of Adorno. “God,” on this reading, is forever out of reach; and, to the extent that “God” might be substituted here with a less loaded term (say, politics), this is precisely the disqualification of Adorno that I try to argue against.

JC: Let’s dive into that critique of Adorno. Habermas figures in your book because, in a 1981 profile, he pejoratively described his mentor’s thought as a “negative theology”: His negative dialectics being without normative foundation, “Adorno is […] left with nothing but a vague longing’ for an amorphous ‘wholly other’” (73). One accomplishment of your book is, to put it polemically, to reclaim Adorno from followers of Habermas. You are not alone in worrying that “the reception of Adorno’s work has long been dominated by a slightly singular interest in questions of normative legitimacy,” an approach with a “broadly liberal” rather than revolutionary political orientation, which also sometimes diminishes Adorno’s work by seeing it as merely “a prelude to the achievements of the Frankfurt School’s so-called second generation” (8). Your attention to aesthetic dimensions of Adorno’s distinctive language and style (and not only his objects of inquiry), as well as your willingness to take theological motifs seriously, rub against the grain of prevailing “analytic” interpretations. Could you situate your work in Adorno studies and speak to some promising directions the field might take in the future?

ST: It’s true that I’ve tried to steer clear of the focus on normativity that—in my view—has (somewhat unduly) come to dominate Adorno’s reception today, and that seems to me to be a particular preoccupation of figures from the orbit of the Frankfurt School’s so-called second generation. In the first instance, I’ve attempted a sympathetic reconstruction of Adorno’s position on its own terms—and that includes engaging with the eccentricities of his “style.”

I believe that Adorno’s difficulty is essential to his project, rather than being a mere obstacle to understanding something he might’ve said more clearly in his lectures, or an occasional piece for a newspaper, or in a radio lecture. The point, for me, is that his main concerns are not independent of their articulation. It’s all a matter of presentation, Darstellung. The issues play out at the level of the text—that’s why they require close readings, or even a broadly deconstructive approach. I’m not convinced, for instance, that there’s much to be gained by trying to translate Adorno into terms that would be recognizable to many mainstream anglophone philosophers today. It’s partly a political point in the sense alluded to earlier: as I see it, Adorno was not principally interested in, say, legitimating democratic institutions through recourse to the power of the better argument. (That may have been true of Adorno the citizen, but it doesn’t seem to me to follow from his published works, whether that reflects his intentions or not.) As I mentioned earlier, the kind of politics that I see as following from Adorno’s writing turns on a very far-reaching effort to “think thinking differently”—and this is to do, in practice, with destabilizing established intellectual conventions, rather than assimilating Adorno to them (be they liberal, revolutionary, or whatever). One way this seems to be playing out in practice is by trying to imagine what “identity” of an altogether different stripe might look like, thinking with and beyond Adorno. That was something I took away from the workshop series on Adorno and Identity you co-organized this year: it’s important to imagine how thinking “differentiation without domination” plays out, politically, in terms of race, gender, or sexuality.

JC: I know you’ve also spent a good deal of time in the art world, along with doing your degrees in fine arts and visual culture at Goldsmiths. Your third chapter focuses on the importance of art in Adorno’s thought, showing that “for Adorno the significance of art lies precisely in the fact that it eludes theorization while, at the same time, demanding it” (134). You go on to explain how it is that “artworks speak,” seeking to express “what has become opaque to humans in the language of nature” (142). For Adorno, works of art express a “truth content” and have a “cognitive character” (135). It’s interesting to recall here that Adorno first studied to become a composer in the tradition of the modernist Second Viennese School. I was struck by the fact that Adorno still refers, in a 1963 essay, to Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron (1932) as “sacred music” (55). What is at stake for you in this category after, as Adorno writes, “a secular world can scarcely tolerate […] sacred art” (53)? Can art still provide, like Kafka’s Odradek, a “photograph of earthly life taken from the perspective of the redeemed” (56)?

ST: Adorno’s wager seems to be that “advanced” works of art are paradigmatic—if paradoxical—products of capitalist modernity, self-conscious instantiations of the commodity form. As such, he suggests, they enact—at the level of form (e.g., through the interplay of their compositional elements)—a relation that anticipates what, elsewhere, he describes as a state of “differentiation without domination.” In his more pointedly philosophical writings, this is coded in terms of the subject-object relation; in his philosophy of history, it’s thought of as the dialectic of nature and culture; but in his aesthetics, it’s to do with a particular attention that works of art require so as to discern from them something that points beyond the present condition. Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is an interesting example for Adorno, not least because the image ban is at the heart of the libretto. In a secular world, the opera cannot function as a work of sacred art, properly speaking; but the very fact that it poses questions as to the possibility of such art in the twentieth century is a testament to art’s enduring striving for something “more.”

It’s a productive kind of failure. The point about Odradek—the central figure from Kafka’s “Cares of the Family Man” (1919)—is related insofar as it serves as another occasion for Adorno to outline his “‘inverse’ theology.” The formulation you cite (“standpoint of the redeemed”) occurs several times in Adorno’s writings. It suggests a contradictory topography: how can Adorno presume to speak of a divine perspective given his self-professed abidance by the image ban? The point, I think, is to do with what we said earlier: for Adorno (via Kafka and Benjamin), theology is dislocated, entstellt. The polarity of sacred and profane is short-circuited so that the “messianic light” that he occasionally invokes does not shine from some transcendent beyond, but rather from within the cracks and deformations of the present, e.g., in certain works of art (including, significantly, those by Kafka). To put it differently, Adorno collapses the distinction between town and castle in Kafka’s Das Schloss  (1926). There is only life as it is lived in the village at the foot of the castle, if you will.

19 December, 1919 printing of Franz Kafka’s short story, “Die Sorge des Hausvaters,” featuring the mysterious figure “Odradek,” in the Prague-based newspaper Selbstwehr: Unabhängige jüdische Wochenschrift. Wikipedia.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured image: Theodor W. Adorno, courtesy of DPA, pixelated by the author.

Leave a Reply