Author: Thijs Lijster
Graduation Year: 2006 (Research master)
Department: Practical Philosophy
Reading Culture. Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno on the Meaning of Cultural Phenomena
In every epoch there are cultural phenomena which seem to transcend their own direct meaning and become a symbol of their time. For this reason, they can become an object of cultural-philosophical research. The question underlying my thesis is if and how one can ‘read’ these cultural phenomena. Some of the most interesting and sophisticated theories concerning the relation between society and culture have been developed by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903-1969). Although they both criticize Marx’s base-superstructure model (in which the cultural superstructure is determined by the economic base), they maintain the possibility of meaningful views on society via cultural phenomena. They often speak of culture as a form of language: cultural phenomena are called Schrift, Rune or Hieroglyphe, which are to be deciphered by the critical reader. In this thesis I investigate how Benjamin’s and Adorno’s notion of ‘reading’ is to be interpreted. How should we read, what can we read and what can be gained by reading?
In chapter one, I discuss Benjamin’s and Adorno’s theories of language. Language stretches beyond texts and the spoken word: human language is only but one form of interaction between man and its surroundings. By virtue of man’s ‘mimetic faculty’, we are able to read objects and works of art as if they have a language of their own. Once we have a clear vision of what it means to read, we discuss what can be read. The crucial term in chapter two is Monade. This Leibnizian-inspired concept entails that the smallest thing can in itself represent the universe. In chapter three we investigate what can be gained by reading cultural phenomena. What is it that the reading of cultural phenomena gives us knowledge of? Adorno emphasizes art’s ‘truth content’, a latent social truth in art. Benjamin is more ambitious and argues that reading culture releases the revolutionary energy hidden inside cultural phenomena, thus bringing about social change. At the end, it remains to be seen what their theories mean under the current social conditions: is their still use for reading cultural phenomena in Benjamin’s and/or Adorno’s way within our society and within the (post)modern philosophical debates?
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