Lateness and Modernity in Theodor Adorno

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This paper has four principal objectives. Firstly, it will show that the most noteworthy and influential recent account of late style, that of Edward Said, is based on a bowdlerisation of the Marxist philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno’s reflections on late Beethoven. Said and Adorno both agree that late style makes possible a bracing encounter with aesthetic difficulty and dissonance. Yet whereas Said traces late style’s origins to the ageing artist’s life, Adorno is more interested in art’s capacity to articulate the lateness or moribundity of capitalism itself. My second aim is to show how this insight is muffled in Adorno’s writing, partly because his own style is so calculatingly cryptic but also because this claim about late style’s political and social origins co-exists awkwardly (indeed is often in conflict) with a quite different and in my view incompatible emphasis on the life and even the ‘genius’ of the artist. Thirdly therefore, I will look at Adorno’s reflections on capitalist modernity and look briefly at some more recent studies of this phenomenon in order to amplify that which remains untheorised or is simply left unsaid by Adorno: the ‘late’ in ‘late style’ refers to capitalism and in particular to capitalism’s senescence, its unsustainability and its inability to realise its own ideals. Lastly, the paper examines some of Adorno’s voluminous work on the German and Austrian musical traditions. I will suggest in conclusion that this music’s capacity to communicate a perception of lateness, failure and mortality, to express the end of one period whilst countenancing the advent of another one, might indicate ways of analysing contemporary culture in the light of the widely perceived crisis of neoliberalism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLate Style and its Discontents:
Subtitle of host publicationEssays in art, literature, and music
EditorsGordon McMullan, Sam Smiles
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780198704621
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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