Adorno on the joys of interpretation

Ladies and gentlemen, I have spoken of the joys of interpretation. Now that I am coming to an end of my discussion of this topic, let me say another few words about this. Perhaps what I have said about the joys of interpretation will by now have become a little clearer to you. These joys consist in refusing to be blinded by the semblance of immediacy, and instead in uncovering the process by which the work became what it is so that we may transcend that semblance. At the same time, they refer to the power of the mind to retain its self-control in the face of the sorrow that is aroused by the contemplation of the past. Kant had noted, in one of the profoundest passages in the ‘aesthetics of the sublime’, that what a common-or-garden aesthetics customarily thinks of as aesthetic ‘pleasure’ is in reality a state in which the mind remains in control of itself in the face of the overwhelming power of nature, in the face of total transience. Thus the joy of philosophy—and philosophy should not deny this pleasure, but shed light on it and make it its own—is connected with the activity of interpretation. In fact, we are capable of experiencing this pleasure only in so far as we are capable of this act of interpreting. When it comes down to it, the source of this pleasure lies in the fact that the phenomena—and I mean the phenomena in their most concrete form, the form in which they have all the colourfulness that children desire, that children focus upon, for all happiness comes from our childhood—our pleasure derives from the fact that the phenomena always mean something different from what they simply are. Thus interpretation leads us to break through their surface existence. The deepest promise interpretation makes to the mind is perhaps the assurance it gives that what exists is not the ultimate reality—or perhaps we should say: what exists is not just what it claims to be. We might say, then, that the negativity of natural history—which always discovers what phenomena used to be, what they have become and, at the same time, what they might have been retains the possible life of phenomena as opposed to their actual existence. In this sense, the interpretative stance in philosophy is the prototype of a utopian stance towards thought. And philosophies that remain true to this utopian motif have always had a soft spot for interpretation. Interpretation in fact means to become conscious of the traces of what points beyond mere existence—by dint of criticism, that is to say, by virtue of an insight into transience, and into the shortcomings and fallibility of mere existence.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006), Lecture 15 (12 January 1965) — On interpretation: the concept of progress (I), pp. 137-138.

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