Richard Leppert, “Introduction”, Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music

Adorno’s writing intentionally thwarts effortless reception by passive readers – which not coincidentally parallels his understanding of the resistant quality of socially “true” music.  In particular, it resist the “logic” of systematized argument, defined by the expectation that point A leads directly  and inevitably to point B.  In the words of Ben Agger: “Crtitique must wrestle with the mystifications of ordinary and disciplinary language in order to wrest language from its straitjacket in the straightforward.”  . . .

Adorno’s writing is often peppered with foreign words, and their use was of of sufficient significance that he produced two essays on the matter . . . In the first of these essays Adorno outlines what he terms “a determined defense of the use of foreign words.”  What he seeks is “to release their explosive force: not to deny what is foreign in them but to use it.”  Foreign words serve to explode the supposed transparency of language itself, to remind the reader of the history, contingency, and difference that language subsumes. – Richard Leppert, “Introduction”, Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, pp. 62-63, 65-66

One of the most difficult concepts to grasp is the reality that language is not a thing.  I remember taking a psych survey class when I was a freshman in college and learning that there had actually been studies done to learn whether the languages we learn are innate or learned.  I thought to myself, “Did people really believe that one’s native language was somehow a biological fact rather than an accident of birth?”  The answer, of course, is yes they did.  Because of our (western) history of racism and ethnic tribalism, the 18th-20th centuries were always seeking ways to give some kind of scientific authority to human difference.  If not create “race” as a category that included gradations of superiority and inferiority, why not language as well?

So my surprise was the surprise of someone sitting on the other side of a cultural divide, one in which things like “language” and “culture” are less and less reified and more and more historicized, recognized as the products of human action and subject to change over time.  This, however, continues to be a viewpoint that eludes too many people.  The reality of the contingency and historicity of language should be the simplest concept to grasp; just try reading the King James Bible, or a play or sonnet by Shakespeare.  Shoot, read a Dickens novel and marvel at the differences in the English language in just a century and a half.  Language is a human thing, changing constantly, with everything from grammar and syntax to simple words rooted in histories of usage, the social and economic contexts in which they are and have been used. As Adorno says elsewhere, defiance of the niceties of linguistic rules is defiance of the power structure that demands we only ever understand language as simple, clear, and timeless.

In a post elsewhere, I noted that the insistence that Christian doctrines and dogmas are unchanging is wrong on its face, if for no other reason than they are human creations, using language, which is contingent and historical.  No matter how hard we try, we cannot make the way we express what we believe mean the same thing as Christians in other times and places meant when they expressed their faith.  The original Trinitarian formula was written in a form of Greek that is now dead; the words had meanings rooted in neo-Platonism, a philosophical system that was current and accepted as valid and is now as odd as Zoroastrianism.  We cannot grasp the meaning of the original Trinitarian formula, but have to be taught what it meant to those who first set it down; our challenge is to express this same Trinitarian faith in words and concepts that make sense to us.  We cannot, and should not, ever try to repeat blandly and mindlessly the words of the Creed.  We must wrestle with what these words, in our language, mean for us, here and now.  This is the task and life of all Christians in all times and places: to understand that God meets us where we are, just as God met the people of Bethlehem, Galilee, and Judea in the person of Christ.  Timelessness is a concept with which we must do away if we are ever going to understand anything.

We should allow ourselves to be shocked as we struggle with texts that challenge our ability at simple comprehension.  We should be wary of those who insist upon simplicity, transparency, and universality in the use of language.  They are either demanding conformity for the sake of their own power, or they don’t understand the reality of language, its fundamentally ephemeral quality.  Adorno reminds us, as all great stylists do, that language is the angel with which we wrestle, the angel that will cheat to defeat our attempts to make us its servants.

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