Juliane Rebentisch: Art-Life-Love, Aesthetic Subjectivity after Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard’s critique of Romantic aesthetics can be read as one of the first and most influential critiques of modern tendencies toward the so-called aestheticization of life. Central to this critique is the subject that does the aestheticizing. In line with this, Kierkegaard reads Romantic aesthetics less as a set of art-philosophical notions than as the agent of an aesthetic zeitgeist new at the time and extending far beyond the sphere of art to all spheres of life. For, on Kierkegaard’s view, this zeitgeist gives birth to a new human type, the ironist, whose stance toward the world, aloof and willfully subjective, poses not only theoretical but above all ethical questions. Nowhere do these questions appear more clearly than in the problematic consequences that a radically ironic stance toward world and others has for love. The famous “Seducer’s Diary” in Either/Or thus constitutes something like the systematic core of Kierkegaard’s critique of the aesthetic way of life in general. Moreover, this critique, no less than the subjectivism of the Romantic aesthetic to which it reacted, decisively shaped aesthetics in the 19th century as well as in the first half of the 20th century. Thus, after Kierkegaard, aesthetic discourse strove to import ethical motifs into the aesthetic to show that the aesthetic was something other and more than just a subjective stance, and it is no accident that the paradigm of love is often central to these motifs, as in the case of Adorno’s writings on Kierkegaard.
Contemporary interpretations of Romantic aesthetics differ from this ethical-aesthetic line of argument, viewing it, unlike Kierkegaard, less as an agent of aestheticization, midwife to an all-embracing aesthetic life-form, than as the discoverer of aesthetic autonomy as against the spheres of truth and ethics. While early modern aesthetics responded to Kierkegaard’s bugbear of the radical aestheticization of life by striving to ethicize the aesthetic, recent aesthetics ceases to view the aesthetic subject as a model for the life of the subject but as one moment in it, a moment that is on a par with the realms of theoretical and practical reason. Yet this most recent development in aesthetics can also be interpreted as a reaction to the problems Kierkegaard defined, possibly even as a direct upshot of his thinking. The debate around the correct reading of Romanticism, as of its critique, thus proves a privileged theater for rival interpretations of modern subjectivity.

The problem of aesthetic subjectivity already played a decisive role in Kierkegaard’s dissertation The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates.1 In this work, Kierkegaard distinguishes two types of irony, legitimate, Socratic irony, and illegitimate, Romantic irony. The first, Socratic type of irony he even views as quite a positive “qualification of subjectivity” (CI 262), in the sense of a negative freedom. The ironist is negatively free, according to Kierkegaard, because he emancipates himself, qua negation of reality, from constraints. He is only negatively free because he does nothing but negate. What is to fill the space negation creates is, in principle, inaccessible to irony. As Kierkegaard puts it: “Irony establishes nothing.” (CI 261) But, as power of negation, it can be a highly significant motor of historical change. If his irony is directed not just against this or that detail but against the totality of an historically determined world—and this alone for Kierkegaard is irony in its full sense—then the ironic subject is a figure of revolutionary potential. For, like the tragic hero, who, in Kierkegaard’s eyes, also plays an important role in times of revolutionary change, the ironist confronts what is; unlike the tragic hero, however, he posits nothing new in place of the old, but merely adopts a negative stance toward it. For it is not some specific idea of a better tomorrow that fuels the ironist’s negative energy vis-à-vis the existing world, but contingency ardently experienced. The ironist, in a sense, gets carried away with the limitless possibilities that attach, as pure potentiality, to the negation of what is. Thus also the ironic negation of that which is occurs not via something new but via that which is. The ironist fights what exists by making it turn against itself. To this extent the ironist can become the executor, though never consciously, of the Hegelian world spirit, or of “world irony” as Kierkegaard rephrases it. For, in Hegel’s philosophy of history, thus Kierkegaard, “every particular historical actuality is continually but an element in the actualization of the idea,” whence it always “carries within itself the seeds of its own downfall.” (CI 262 f.) The ironist seeks its downfall, but he does so after his own fashion, namely, by pretending to let the established—which for him has long since forfeited all validity—remain, in order, “under this mask,” to lead it “to its certain downfall.” (CI 264) Socrates, for Kierkegaard, is the paradigmatic ironist in this sense. Not only had the entire moral fabric of Ancient Greece, on Kierkegaard’s interpretation, forfeited its validity for him, but also his handling of Greek civilization and culture was intrinsically ironic: while he put himself to school in it, as if it retained validity in his eyes, it destroyed itself.2
While this type of irony, first seen in Socrates, is always directed against a specific historical reality, there is a second type, which first appears with the two Romantic writers Friedrich Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck, that is characterized by its being directed against reality as such. But precisely this feature deprives Romantic, as against Socratic, irony of its historical legitimation: for, according to Kierkegaard, by definition it cannot have been “in the service of the world spirit.” (CI 275) For Romantic irony negates no specific historical reality in order to make room for another such reality, no matter how tacitly, but rather it negates reality as such, solely in order to give free rein to irony as a euphoria of possibilities. But in doing so it is a perversion of Socratic irony. The ironic subject of Romanticism is no longer an agent of historical change, rather he withdraws entirely from his historical reality in order to “live poetically.” It is not on behalf of other realities, then, that the Romantic ironist negates reality, but on behalf of a reality that is itself a mere possibility, a fiction. Differently expressed: the ironist of Romanticism is not a negativistic revolutionary, but an aesthete. The sole reality agreeable to him is the poetic one he himself has created. The Romantic ironist is thus intrinsically estranged from reality and/or worldless [weltlos]. For, on Kierkegaard’s diagnosis, the Romantic ironist’s world reduces to the subject in two senses: it is the expression of a subject (and nothing else); and it is the expression of what, in that subject, is merely subjective, in other words private or arbitrary.3 The subjectivity that manifests itself in Romantic, as opposed to Socratic, irony is, in Kierkegaard’s words, an “exaggerated subjectivity, a subjectivity raised to the second power.” (CI 275)
But such subjectivity, thus exaggerated, deprives itself of its real destiny, namely, freedom. For, according to Kierkegaard, corresponding to the Romantic ironist’s freedom to live poetically is an even profounder unfreedom. The Romantic ironist thinks he is at the height of subjective freedom, yet actually he “drudges along,” as Kierkegaard says, “in the most frightful slavery.” (CI 284) Romantic irony, rather than liberate the subject vis-à-vis reality, throws him ruthlessly back on himself. The freedom of the poetic life proves to be the subject’s captivity in himself. The Romantic ironist’s subjectivity is therefore, according to Kierkegaard’s diagnosis, not strong and free, but, on the contrary, decidedly weak, being subject to its own immediacy and arbitrariness.
Thus, in continually reinventing himself and his world, the ironist, as Kierkegaard argues, abandons the project of developing his own distinctive personality. Because he can be everything, he is in reality, ultimately, nothing. Rather than develop his “own self,” the ironist dissipates himself in arbitrary roles. As he runs through one new persona after another, unceasingly, his potentially “own” personality remains void and undeveloped. In this, the Romantic ironist and his unfree antithesis, the “altogether commonplace person” (CI 281), are already seen to converge. While the latter develops no distinct personality because he lets himself be led too much by the given reality, so that his individuality drowns in conformism, the former develops none because he mistakenly considers his freedom vis-à-vis the given reality as absolute, and thus he becomes arbitrary to himself. Mirrored in the Romantic ironist’s worldlessness [Weltlosigkeit], in other words, is a self-oblivion that is concealed from itself, because it misunderstands itself as self-enhancement. True subjectivity, however, according to Kierkegaard, only exists where historical reality stands in a twofold relation to the subject: “[P]artly as a gift that refuses to be rejected, partly as a task that wants to be fulfilled.” (CI 276) Only then can freedom exist. While the commonplace person never attains, in a sense, to a concept of freedom, because he fails to grasp reality as a task, the Romantic ironist does have a concept of freedom but misunderstands it, because he grasps reality as nothing but a task. His will to construct reality assumes a one-sided life of its own and deprives his constructions of their grip on the world; none are ever posited in it, none ever becomes practical. Thus, while the Romantic ironist (unlike the average conformist human being) may suspend morality and custom, he never actually flouts them in the realm of action. (Cf. BI 289 f.) For him everything has merely poetic, and hence fleeting validity; his every construction is a mere possibility, and, as such, inconsequential. The Romantic ironist’s constructions of reality are, therefore, too abstract, are too much poetic transports, to develop any revolutionary potential in reality or ever to turn practical. Consequently, the Romantic ironist does not perfect subjective freedom as manifested in Socratic irony, but rather he hovers over it. For freedom is a practical concept, not an aesthetic one. In holding that he perfects human freedom by living poetically, the Romantic ironist misses the truth of this freedom, always a function of practical realization, as well as that of the aesthetic. For the truth of the purely aesthetic way of life, on Kierkegaard’s diagnosis, is not freedom, but unfreedom. Because the Romantic ironist “lives in this totally hypothetical and subjunctive way,” says Kierkegaard, “his life loses all continuity.” And, according to Kierkegaard, precisely this makes him not free at all; on the contrary, “he succumbs completely to mood.” (CI 284) Thrown back on the immediacy of his moods, all he can do is learn to master them, and that means: he must serve their randomness. The virtuosity with which the Romantic ironist is able to evoke this or that mood on this or that occasion can no more conceal his dependence on moods than they can fill the vacant center that holds them together. Kierkegaard calls it boredom.

In “The Seducer’s Diary” in Either/Or Kierkegaard erected a monument to the Romantic subject oscillating between boredom and extremes of mood.4 Thus the diary is not the document of a run-of-the-mill seducer; rather is it a portrait of the Romantic-ironic way of life per se, a (fictive) testimonial to someone whose “life has been an attempt to accomplish the task of living poetically.” (EO1 304) Not sex, but moods are this seducer’s quarry. His object is not of practical-sexual, but of aesthetic-erotic interest. If a girl (and it is always girls) surrenders sexually, her attraction for the seducer vanishes; sexual surrender might be the ostensible telos of seduction, yet it hardly interests him anymore, except, at the most, as occasion for the despondent mood of the farewell. For Kierkegaard’s seducer the way is the goal. This is the real source of his satisfaction, or rather enjoyment, for enjoyment is what “his whole life was intended for.” (EO1 305) Now, this enjoyment, according to Kierkegaard, is aesthetic in two respects. Firstly, the seducer enjoys reality aesthetically, in the form of the mood it evokes in him. Secondly, he enjoys the subsequent aesthetic reflection on it all, in the form of the poetic. In the first case, reality is degraded to a mere occasion for his subjective moods; in the second, it is wholly “drowned in the poetic.” (EO1 305)
The ethical-moral problem posed by this radically aesthetic stance toward the world can indeed nowhere appear more clearly than in the consequences it harbors for love. Like all seducers, Kierkegaard’s avoids love. The mood of being in love, not love, is what concerns him. He is, therefore, concerned with himself, not with the individual outside him. Like potentially everything else, this individual is but an occasion for the seducer’s subjective experience of extremes of mood: an aesthetic object which, ultimately, is entirely robbed of its reality in order to lead an existence in the seducer’s life in the form of the poetic, as a fiction. In his relationship to the girl of his choice, the seducer acknowledges not her distinctive qualities—that would be a condition for love—but his narcissistic exhilaration at his own projections. His relationship to her is distinguished not by “the tender and trusting embrace of understanding,” as Kierkegaard has his seducer write, but by “the repulsion of misunderstanding.” (EO1 351) In this sense, she is strictly “his” girl, a tabula rasa for his subjective projections; apart from being his object she is nothing. For exactly this reason, she can always be replaced by other girls. Girls, for the seducer, have no independent right to existence. Far rather, because “she does not subsist out of herself,” as Kierkegaard’s seducer philosophizes in his diary, “[w]oman’s being” must be grasped as “being-for-other.” (EO1 430 f.) This theoretical conviction shapes his practice: a girl for him is but an aesthetic object, never a subject.
The reifying violence implicit in the aesthetic refusal of subject status is echoed in the name of the girl at the center of the diary: like King Lear’s youngest daughter, she is called Cordelia. As Stanley Cavell has persuasively shown,5 Shakespeare’s Cordelia, no less than Kierkegaard’s, is the victim of an avoidance of love that manifests itself in substituting aesthetic for ethical relations. The tragedy gets underway when King Lear compels his daughters to make a public show of their love for him. What can poor Cordelia as the truly loving daughter say in face of this theatrical affront but (as an aside) “Love and be silent”?6 Unlike Lear, however, there is nothing Kierkegaard’s seducer wants less than for his Cordelia’s heart to dwell on her lips. On the contrary, and herein lies “the evil”7 (EO1 306) of his crafty aestheticism, precisely her unostentatious virtuousness is aesthetically attractive to him. While Lear, tragic and naïve, commits a category mistake by desiring of the aesthetic what only the ethical can provide, a category mistake that will soon bring him to ruin, Kierkegaard’s seducer, fully conscious of this relation, spurns his chosen one’s ethical qualities in order to enjoy them aesthetically: herein lies his cynical bliss. (v. EO1 336)
But Cordelia’s inward-looking virtuousness is particularly attractive to the seducer because only what is unaware of its own aesthetic qualities can be aesthetically enjoyed: “A young girl who wants to please by being interesting,” the seducer remarks, “will, if anything, please herself. From the aesthetic side, this is the objection to all kinds of coquetry. It is quite different with what is inappropriately called coquetry, which is nature’s own gesture—for example, feminine modesty, which is always the most beautiful coquetry.” (EO1 339) Like the antitheatrical Rousseau almost a hundred years earlier, the seducer espouses an ordering of the sexes that relegates woman to the sphere of the private. If women are to appear in public at all, Rousseau, given his way, would allow them one mask only, namely, the natural blush of shame. For it proclaims a wish to disappear from view, to sink into the ground. The emotion of shame shuns the light of publicity. Not only is the theory of female modesty and/or shame the systematic core of Rousseau’s plea for a social order that segregates private and public spheres; it is also central to his puritanical scheme of a “natural” sexuality that leaves the heterosexist “order of attack and defense”8 untouched. Female modesty, for Rousseau, is the ultimate erotic signal, being untheatrical, a figurative coquetry whereby defense tacitly invites attack. The principle of action, with Rousseau as with Kierkegaard’s seducer, is on the man’s side. But viewed against this common ground, the seducer’s decadence is all the more obvious: for the seducer does not really act; his sly attack, in contrast to that of the run-of-the-mill seducer, captures no prey—only that of subjective moods. Thus the editor of the diary in his Preface: “In the same sense as it could be said that his journey through life was undetectable (for his feet were formed in such a way that he retained the footprints under them—this is how I best picture to myself his infinite reflectedness into himself), in the same sense no victim fell before him.” (EO1 307)
The violence inflicted by the seducer on Cordelia is clearly of a different nature. Not only does he reify her, turning her into an aesthetic object, but—and this seems to be more grievous still—by teaching her to reflect aesthetically, he estranges her from her femininity. The crucial problem in the seducer’s relationship to Cordelia therefore lies not in the asymmetry of positions of the sexes, but in their aesthetic perversion. “It is oppressive for her [Cordelia, JR],” the editor of the diary notes, “that he has deceived her, but still more oppressive, one is almost tempted to say, that he has awakened multiple-tongued reflection, that he has so developed her aesthetically that she no longer listens humbly to one voice but is able to hear the many voices at the same time.” (EO1 309)9 Perfidiously enough, the development of multiple-tongued reflection not only awakens in Cordelia the same heightened awareness of contingency that intoxicates the seducer, but it also leads her to forfeit the very ideal of femininity that made her attractive to the seducer in the first place. Thus, to begin with, the seducer is pleased by the fact that Cordelia is evidently an “isolated person.” (EO1 339) “[A] man,” he reflects in this connection, “ought never to be [so], not even a young man, because, since his development depends essentially upon reflection, he must have contact with others.” (loc. cit.) A girl, on the other hand, should in her youth be sufficient unto herself; only, of course, she has no self that could be sufficient unto itself. “But that by which and in which she is sufficient unto herself,” the seducer goes on, “is an illusion.” Precisely this illusory state of prereflective, that is, presubjective sufficiency unto self, is the seducer’s ideal of the feminine; it is the girl’s quintessential object status. “Nothing,” the seducer proceeds, is “more corrupting for a young girl than associating a great deal with other young girls. … The woman’s fundamental qualification is to be company for the man, but through association with her own sex she is led to reflection upon it, which makes her a society lady instead of company. … If I were to imagine an ideal girl, she would always stand alone in the world and thereby be assigned to herself, but mainly she would not have friends among the girls.” (EO1 340) Ultimately, and this is the seducer’s real offence against the girl, he has seduced Cordelia to reflection. Because her relationship to him consists in mere latencies, she has nothing but her own reflection with which to get a hold on this unreal reality. Her relationship is perforce as aesthetic as his is to her. (v. EO1 307, 309 f.) Of Cordelia’s aesthetic transformation precipitated by his relationship to her the seducer is only too clearly aware: in losing her prereflective innocence, she becomes unattractive to him. “Innocence,” the seducer writes in his final diary entry, “in a man … is a negative element, but in woman it is the substance of her being.” Through him Cordelia has lost her innocence. “If I were a god,” he concludes, more despondent than pitying, “I would do for her what Neptune did for a nymph: transform her into a man.” (EO1 445)
The formulation is instructive from a subject-theoretical viewpoint. It demonstrates again, at a general level, how the concept of subjectivity and that of reflection hang together. Cordelia, by reflecting, forgoes her object status and fulfils a condition for subjectivity as associated with masculinity. But, at the same time, through the aesthetic education she has received from the seducer, she misses out on the possibility of becoming a subject. Instead, in her social isolation, it is as if she developed that exaggerated subjectivity, the subjectivity, as Kierkegaard expressed it in The Concept of Irony, “raised to the second power,” which holds her captive in herself. Precisely this thralldom to self constitutes a second, aesthetic, isolation, a condition which equally affects the seducer. The seducer’s exaggeratedly reflective self, no less than the girl’s prereflective self, on Kierkegaard’s view, is, ultimately, an illusion. This is one of the things that Cordelia’s fate illustrates. Cordelia acquires no subjectivity, according to Kierkegaard, only an intensification of its illusion.10 Conversely, the common structure that links the illusory self of Romantic reflection with the girl’s prereflective self in this way also gives the deficiency a curiously gender-specific slant. Contrary to the seducer’s view of himself, the fact that his subjectivity is illusory means it is not altogether masculine, it is overdone, and that means, on the terms of reference employed here, it is an effeminate subjectivity, one that is interested in merely superficial effects while, deep down, it is empty.

What, in The Concept of Irony, took the form of a literary-philosophical examination of early Romanticism, assumes a distinctly culture-critical slant in Either/Or. In his critique of the Romantic notion of aesthetic subjectivity, Kierkegaard, unlike Hegel, is no longer so much interested in controverting the early Romantics. As Karl Heinz Bohrer has pointed out, the thrust of his existential diagnosis of early Romantic consciousness and its emptiness is more culture-critical, treating of the impact this consciousness had on the late-Romantic zeitgeist around 1840. Kierkegaard’s critique therefore, and this becomes abundantly plain in Either/Or, addresses not the aesthetic of the young Friedrich Schlegel—an aesthetic that, on closer reading, as Winfried Menninghaus11 and Ruth Sonderegger12 together with Bohrer have shown, with critical reference to Walter Benjamin, is not as subjectivist as the Hegelian tradition claims—but addresses instead a new, ironic zeitgeist prevalent in Kierkegaard’s own time. Kierkegaard, thus Bohrer, “recognized in the power of the aesthetic, which he experienced at work on himself, the sign of a new era” and responded.13 If one sees his response in the same light as the answers the moralist delivers the aesthete in Either/Or Part II, then it is a clear rejection. Again, this comes across with particular clarity in respect of the understanding of love developed there.
For the aesthetic seducer’s opposite is not a run-of-the-mill seducer, nor is it the Jutland priest whose sermon, in Part II, is the formal counterpart to the diary of Part I, but Wilhelm, the husband by persuasion. Wilhelm not only opposes the aesthetic and run-of-the-mill seducers’ avoidance of love, but also a zeitgeist in which irony causes the ideal of Romantic love to implode. If by no means entirely unjustly to implode, as Wilhelm himself is ready to concede. For the Romantic ideal of love as immediate and unchanging, and thus eternal, cannot withstand the test of time. Its cessation in time is inevitable. The fact that this ideal continues to exist, while no one really believes in it anymore, puts Wilhelm in mind of the disintegration of the Greek state. (EO2 19) But irony’s power of negation, thus his culture-critical diagnosis, fails to replace Romantic love with any better kind. Instead, irony takes on a life of its own, and with it desponds of love; while ridiculing love’s pretensions to eternity as illusory, it nevertheless wishes to claim just that for itself in euphoric moments of being in love, moments, that is, which already bear within themselves their sobering end. That is precisely the seducer’s standpoint. But against the backdrop of a reflecting age, the seducer is the norm and the emancipation of disillusioned, reflecting society ladies is inevitable—anathema to the confirmed Protestant and patriarch Wilhelm. (EO2 22 f.)
If Wilhelm had his way, Romantic love ought to be replaced not by its negation, but by being transfigured in marriage. But such a transfiguration, he is convinced, cannot result from reflection, but only through a leap of faith, that is, through religion. The precondition of this transfiguration, Wilhelm insists, is the first love, because its immediacy has not yet been troubled by reflection. Precisely this is what Wilhelm refers to as the aesthetic in love; thus the aesthetic for him becomes a term for the immediate. However, the immediate beauty of first love does have a flaw, namely, it is ahistorical. The index of eternity that the immediacy of first love harbors if it is to be saved from reflection is in need of transfiguration through Christian faith. It alone, in marriage, can secure love, marital love now, that historically concrete eternity which reflecting consciousness regards as illusory.
But this leap of faith, severely censured by Adorno,14 is both a leap from the world and from the concrete other toward pure subjective inwardness. As Adorno says in an essay on Kierkegaard’s doctrine of love: “Thus Kierkegaard admonishes the loving person to maintain faith in a once beloved person, even if this faith has lost any rational justification. He ought to believe in the person in spite of any psychological experience, which is taboo, according to Kierkegaard, as being ‘secular.’ Here, the transformation of love into mere inwardness is striking.”15 Here, in the worldlessness and ahistoricity of Protestant inwardness in the face of contrary pronouncements, as in its—ultimately—reifying resistance to the other, the Protestant moralist comes to resemble his opponent, the aesthete. Thus, the “ethical” verdict here is passed not in the name of reality, but in that of inwardness. The ideology of inwardness manifests itself, ultimately, in the role Wilhelm assigns woman in his scenario of Christian marriage. For woman is the true emblem of the inwardness that marriage represents. “[I]nwardness,” Wilhelm states, “[is] the essence of woman.” (EO2 92) In this sense, she is “man’s conscience,” and her “blush of modesty … is the man’s disciplinarian.” (EO2 67) Strength and meaning are indeed granted the woman, but only inasmuch as she seeks this in the man. For this guarantees, so Wilhelm, that “this strength does not become an unfeminine masculinity.” (EO2 67) In her prereflective simplicity she is to help the man gain that second, namely, religious simplicity, with which to overcome reflection. In other words, the married woman for Wilhelm—like young girls for the seducer—has a primarily mediate function, which devalues her freely reciprocated love, that is, ultimately, her subjectivity. In her the social cost of the identification of freedom and inwardness, which Wilhelm opposes to the aesthetic identification of freedom and contingency, is made manifest. The more thoroughly freedom is interiorized, the more drastically its real actualization in female emancipation is denounced by Wilhelm.16
The answer Kierkegaard gives, then, with Wilhelm, to the aesthete’s reifying stance vis-à-vis the world and his alienated relationship to himself is inwardness. Yet its problematic nature comes out unintentionally—as it came out deliberately in the case of the aesthetic way of life—in the picture Kierkegaard paints here of the opposite sex. For the aesthete, woman embodies being-for-other [Füranderessein], for the moralist, being-for-herself [Fürsichsein]. The one characterization is clearly no less fetishistic than the other. In both cases, the female sex is denied full subject status. This is not just a problem for feminists, however; here also the systematic difficulties inherent in both the aesthetic and the ethical model emerge with striking clarity. That unemancipated woman reduced to the private represents the paradigm of inwardness also betrays something about the worldlessness of the ethical subject oriented on such inwardness and enshrined in its glow. As Adorno puts it in a related context: “Kierkegaard fails to see that the individual is not an absolute, any more than any other category taken for itself, but that he contains in himself, as a necessary element, his opposite … . What is real, however, is society.”17

For Adorno, individual being-for-oneself [Fürsichsein] is simply the wrong answer to the false being-for-other [Füranderessein] of capitalist society correctly diagnosed by Kierkegaard. For Adorno takes Kierkegaard seriously as a culture-critical counterpart to Marx.18 In his Aesthetic Theory, precisely this formulation from “The Seducer’s Diary”—“being-for-other”—is Adorno’s formulaic label for a reifying view of art, a view with which he sharply contrasts his own. Indeed, in this ethical-aesthetic framework one can see not only why Adorno—and in this he is paradigmatic for a large part of post-Romantic art theories—sought to distinguish himself on ethical grounds from Kierkegaard’s subjectivist conception of Romantic aesthetics, but also why for Adorno as Kierkegaard reader, love, and not “being in love,” necessarily became the decisive paradigm for the aesthetic—love here, of course, viewed as an experience of alterity that opens a subject to the other, and which therefore cannot be interpreted in terms of mere inwardness.
Aesthetic subjectivity, according to Adorno, is the epitome of a subjectivity that has opened itself to ethics, that is, a subjectivity that relates to and is affected by the other. Accordingly, the subject’s relation to art is modeled on an ideal of love wherein the initial phase of infatuation has been overcome, the rose-tinted spectacles of euphoria and unbridled projection laid aside, and the other unconditionally accepted as other. On this ideal, love exists only on the condition of such unconditionality—to the extent that it does not possess itself of the other. Intrinsic to true love is thus an experience of the other’s not being at one’s disposal; the other is not for me. Herein lies the distinction, for Adorno, between true love and its reified correlate, the service amenity of prostitution. In contrast to Kierkegaard’s and/or Wilhelm’s apologia for first love, however, the bourgeois notion that love must be purely “spontaneous, involuntary and unconscious,” is for Adorno pure ideology.19 As against Kierkegaard’s ethical-religious rescue of the aesthetic, therefore, the aesthetic for Adorno is not identifiable with the immediate. On the contrary, modern art can secure its autonomy neither by posing as a refuge for the irrational in a rationalized world, nor by wrongly thinking itself independent of commodity culture; in fact, in Adorno’s words, “Emphatic modern art … is, rather, strengthened by way of the experience of the commodity.”20
If art production is to escape the logic of reification and the concomitant alienation of subject and object, then not, thus Adorno, through any claim to immediacy, but only by dint of more mediacy, and that means more technology and rationality. Only through technical self-limitation, and not by any supposedly immediate expression at gut level, can the artist create something that transcends his empirical subjectivity and which, by that token, keeps faith with the idea of unalienated subjectivity. This self-limitation consists only partly in technical specialization pursued to the point of a “sacrifice of individuality”;21 it also consists in the artist’s serving the material and its intrinsic logic with his technical skills, rather than treating it as a mere object to be mastered. Only when the latter succeeds, on Adorno’s view, does the essence of the work of art cease to be credited, “on the model of private property,” simply to him who produced it.22 It exists—more like a subject than an object—for itself. At the same time, this quasi-subjectivity of the work of art has decidedly universal, and not just individual, validity. The successful mediation of subject and object in production, according to Adorno, safeguards in the work of art the utopian idea of a subjectivity that is supra-individually true, that is, free both of self-subjugation as well as hegemonial pretensions.
Thus aesthetic experience for Adorno is not a matter of projection onto, but of surrender to the work of art. Herein lies the quasi-erotic moment in the relationship (of love) to the work of art.23 The identification carried out by the subject in aesthetic experience is ideally, according to Adorno, not that of making the work of art like himself, but rather that of making himself like the work of art.24 Aesthetic subjectivity is therefore determined by what Adorno occasionally calls, with Hegel, “being-present” [Dabeisein]; it is no longer understood as a subjective stance as with Kierkegaard; far rather, the work is taken as the starting point, aesthetic subjectivity being a moment in its realization, namely, being-present. Only in it can the I, as Adorno expresses it, “catch even the slightest glimpse beyond the prison that it itself is.”25 What in production was the successful mediation of subject and object, in reception becomes, above all, an experience of the subject’s surrender to the object. One likely ought to call the model of love this corresponds to ecstatic, rather than “partnerly.”
The salient features of Kierkegaard’s conception of aesthetic subjectivity have, in Adorno’s, evidently been turned on their head. Aesthetic subjectivity, for Adorno, is no longer the epitome of a reifying relationship to world and self, but rather the epitome of a reconciliation that is secured dialectically and experienced in a shudder [Erschütterung] of the I. But, concomitant with this reversal, Adorno also radicalizes the diagnosis of modernity that Kierkegaard, as its early critic, had set up. Being-for-other, for Adorno, is no longer just the correlate of the aesthetic-ironic stance of particular decadent subjects, but rather a constitutive condition of capitalist society in general. Precisely because he radicalizes Kierkegaard within the framework of a critique of reason that is defined, right down to its most basic categories, by an asymmetry of subject and object that has gained both epistemological and practical ascendancy, the aesthetic for Adorno holds out a promise of happiness. However, through this constellation of concepts, the gap between a utopia surviving dialectically in art and a reality positively constituted by instrumental reason becomes an unbridgeable gulf. The perspective on a real-utopian freedom, which Adorno, rightly, missed in Kierkegaard, remains obstructed for him as well. The problem makes itself felt, for instance, as Jürgen Habermas and Albrecht Wellmer have pointed out, in Adorno’s systematic underrating of communicative intersubjectivity and its emancipatory potential.26 In his Aesthetic Theory, this systematic mistrust of communicative reason is reflected, as I see it, in an objectivistic understanding of aesthetic experience that reduces the subject’s participation in the work to an implementation—no matter how complex in conception—of “being-present” in the work.27

A completely different response to Kierkegaard’s subjectivist view of the aesthetic is offered by theories for which the aesthetic subject is likewise a moment, a moment, however, not in the unfolding of the work, but in the life of the subject.28 These theories link up to Kierkegaard via a central argument. The objection to the Romantic ironist in The Concept of Irony was that he lives in a purely “subjunctive way.” His aesthetic stance toward the world consists in thought-experiments. But one who merely conducts experiments never decides. Hence, in the final analysis, the ironist fails in practice and by that token in the freedom he claims is his. As against the strict opposition of inwardness and contingency, which is an either/or decision from the ethical perspective of Either/Or Part II, the line of argument in The Concept of Irony ultimately suggests a different conclusion that facilitates an alternative reading of the dyadic structure of Either/Or: namely, here are not two opposed ways of life, between which one has to choose, but rather two contrasting models, both of them flawed and requiring dialectical transcendence by a third. That the pseudonymous editor of Either/Or in his Preface considers it a “piece of good fortune” that the papers say nothing as to which view of life ultimately prevailed, speaks for such an alternative reading. “[W]hen the book is read,” he says there, “A [the aesthete] and B [the moralist] are forgotten; only the points of view confront each other and expect no final decision in the particular personalities.” (EO1 14) What in The Concept of Irony eliminates such a choice, and suggests a third option, is the concept of “controlled irony.” When it is controlled, irony is “reduced to an element.” (CI 325) Thus limited and tied in to the practical world again, Kierkegaard can even eulogize irony—insofar as it “rescues the soul from having its life in finitude”—as “the absolute beginning of personal life” (CI 326), as being “extremely important in enabling personal life to gain health and truth” (CI 328), and, not least, as a significant “guide.” (CI 327) Irony, Kierkegaard writes, is “the bath of regeneration … not in order to stay there … but in order to come out healthy, happy and buoyant and to dress again.” (CI 326 f.)
That one needn’t put on the same musty clothes after a refreshing bath in irony is an option that, subsequent to Kierkegaard, theorists from (late) Nietzsche to Richard Rorty and Judith Butler have followed up, replacing the abstract inwardness/contingency distinction with a concept of practice that views the subject as caught up in interminable processes of becoming. The question how the different theories treat the relation of subject and practice goes way beyond the issue of aesthetic subjectivity, of course, and is thus outside the scope of this essay. But the important thing about this line of thought, and my reason for introducing it, is that it sunders the aesthetic from the ethical. The aesthetic is no longer viewed as a model of the subject and his life, but as a reflective space for experiment, one whose possibilities “can be taken on in life or else not.”29 That such possibilities cannot be translated into life just like that is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the cases Judith Butler discusses, where a desire for self-invention is brutally frustrated by social limitations. Love—as we see for instance in the murder of the transsexual Venus Xtravaganza in Jenny Livingston’s film Paris is Burning30—cannot be had in the sphere of aesthetic experiment, but only within a sphere of intersubjective practice that is shared and regulated (right down to the sphere of intimacy) by norms. It requires more than subjective irony to alter that; intersubjective practice alone gives love its validity, not in the sphere of aesthetic experiment, but of action. Freedom, and this was Kierkegaard’s insight, is a practical, not an aesthetic, concept. But nor is it a religious one. Not inwardness, but reflection, that is, the consciousness of performance and contingency, are the constitutive conditions of practical freedom. But reflection, in its practical sense, and this is the point, is always intersubjectively mediated. To develop a concept of freedom, girls need girlfriends; to realize it as feminists, a common practice is necessary. Or to speak with Richard Rorty: for the practical realization of the possibilities that irony opens up, solidarity is necessary.31 To the extent that reality is constitutively tied back into an intersubjectively shared practice, it is, as we have already seen Kierkegaard express it, “partly … a gift that refuses to be rejected, partly … a task that wants to be fulfilled.” (CI 276) But these, both gift and task, place limits on irony.
As Karl Heinz Bohrer has pointed out, that the aesthetic and the practical are distinct is a discovery we owe, interestingly enough, to Romanticism or, more precisely, to Friedrich Schlegel’s aesthetics. But to exactly this, i.e. the Romantic discovery of aesthetic difference, the critique of Romanticism in the Hegelian tradition wanted to turn a blind eye. Thus Bohrer criticizes “Hegel’s attack on ‘irony’” as “the last, ominous elaboration of the classical alliance of ethics and aesthetics, which saw itself challenged above all because the aesthetic moment in the Romantic philosophy of art had begun to make itself independent.”32 But instead of denouncing it as “flawed reasoning with grave moral consequences,” as Hegel and subsequently Kierkegaard had done, the process ought to be seen as an historical event in a new aesthetic for which the beautiful is, and should be, distinct from truth and ethics.33 In this sense, in isolating beauty from the true and the moral, Schlegel, ironically, takes to its logical conclusion Kierkegaard’s insight into the distinctness of ethics and aesthetics. As Ruth Sonderegger in particular has shown, Schlegel’s thought contains the beginnings of a theory of aesthetic experience whose own intrinsic logic can attain to autonomy in the face of theoretical and practical reason, precisely because this aesthetic experience relates in a reflectively discontinuous way to the acts and feats constitutive of these latter spheres.34 Moreover, the form the subject assumes in aesthetic experience is neither understood subjectivistically as the constituting ground of aesthetic phenomena (as in Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Romanticism), nor objectivistically, as reduced to “being-present” in the work (as with Adorno). Rather, the aesthetic subject is now a constitutive element in the play between subject and object. In other words, with the Romantic philosophy of art a perspective begins to emerge where the abstract subject-object dichotomy is replaced by an aesthetic practice of play. Here, it would seem, if we are to appeal one final time to the analogy between art and love, a partnerly model of love has been attained.
However, it is no accident that the analogy between love and art starts to wear thin here (at the latest). For the play of aesthetic reflection is subject to its own intrinsic logic, and while this logic has an ethical implication, namely, it represents a loosening, rather than a consolidation, of an asymmetrical subject-object relationship, yet this logic itself can no longer provide a model of the ethical. Love, as the argumentation above implies, relates to a dimension of practical intersubjectivity which cannot be replaced by a reflexive object relationship no matter how playful. If “being in love” is to turn into love, it can do so neither through a leap of faith, nor through ecstatic surrender to its object. What is required is a practical decision for the specific other, a decision that is renewed over and over, and that against a backdrop of reflection. Last but not least, it also needs the other, and his assent in the simple words “I love you too.”


1 Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates, tr. H.V & E.H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989); referred to in the following text as CI.
2 On this interpretation Socrates’ standpoint is purely negative. Only through Plato’s treatment of it, thus Kierkegaard, does Socratic irony become a negative power in the service of a positive idea. Socrates, in contrast, knows about the idea, but he does not have it—regarding its determination he is essentially ignorant: [W]hen subjectivity by means of its negative power has broken the spell in which human life lay in the form of substantiality, when it has emancipated man from his relation to God just as it freed him from his relation to the state, then the first form in which this manifests itself is ignorance. The gods take flight, taking the fullness with them, and man remains as the form, as that which is to receive the fullness into itself, but in the sphere of knowledge a situation such as this is correctly interpreted as ignorance.” (CI 171)
3 See Christoph Menke, “Subjektivität,” in vol. 5 Ästhetische Grundbegriffe: Historisches Wörterbuch in sieben Bänden (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 2003–2005): 774.
4 Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 2 vols., tr. H.V & E.H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987); referred to in the following text as EO1 and EO2 respectively.
5 Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969): 267–353.
6 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear, in The Norton Shakespeare (New York and London: Norton, 1997): 2321.
7 Kierkegaard is evidently following Hegel’s critique of Romanticism again. In The Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel develops evil from the radicality of an ethic of conscience that is purely subjective. See Karl Heinz Bohrer, Die Kritik der Romantik (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1989): 141.
8 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Brief an Herrn d’Alembert über seinen Artikel ‘Genf’ im VII. Band der Enzyklopädie und insbesondere über den Plan, ein Schauspielhaus in dieser Stadt zu errichten,” Schriften, ed. H. Ritter, vol. 1 (Frankfurt a. M., 1988): 333–474, at 419; French original: Lettre à M. D’Alembert sur les spectacles, ed. M. Fuchs (Geneva: Droz, 1948), citation here at 114: “l’ordre de l’attaque et de la défense.”
9 Insofar as the comments in the Preface (only ostensibly by A, i.e. the aesthete) of “The Seducer’s Diary” touching on Cordelia’s fate contain “ethical” elements, they evince the same fascinated detachment toward the aesthetic way of life as informs the tone of the editor introducing the collected papers of Either/Or. Thus, in the Preface of Either/Or, he writes: “The last of A’s papers is a narrative titled ‘The Seducer’s Diary.’ Here we meet new difficulties, inasmuch as A does not declare himself the author but only the editor. This is an old literary device to which I would not have much to object if it did not further complicate my own position, since one author becomes enclosed within the other like the boxes in a Chinese puzzle.” (EO1 8 f.)
10 So according to Kierkegaard the seduction is not, as Konrad Paul Liessmann holds in his apologia for the seducer and his aesthetic way of life, a “seduction of the other to himself.” See Konrad Paul Liessmann, Ästhetik der Verführung: Kierkegaards Konstruktion der Erotik aus dem Geiste der Kunst (Frankfurt a. M.: Hain, 1991): 82 f.
11 Winfried Menninghaus, Unendliche Verdopplung: Die frühromantische Grundlegung der Kunsttheorie im Begriff absoluter Selbstreflexion (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1987).
12 Ruth Sonderegger, Für eine Ästhetik des Spiels. Hermeneutik, Dekonstruktion und der Eigensinn der Kunst (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2000): 121 ff.
13 Karl Heinz Bohrer, Die Kritik der Romantik, 157.
14 Theodor W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Ästhetischen, Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt a. M. : Suhrkamp, 1962), vol. 2.
15 Theodor W. Adorno, “On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, 8 (1939–1940): 413–29, at 416.
16 See ibid., 422.
17 Theodor W. Adorno, “Kierkegaard noch einmal,” Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1962), vol. 2: 248.
18 See ibid., 225.
19 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, tr. R. Hullot-Kentor (London/New York: Continuum, 1997): 350.
20 Ibid., 380.
21 Theodor W. Adorno, “The Artist as Deputy,” in Notes to Literature, Vol. 1, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991): 101.
22 Ibid., 104.
23 See Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 419.
24 See ibid., 23.
25 Ibid., 319.
26 See Albrecht Wellmer, “Wahrheit, Schein, Versöhnung: Adornos ästhetische Rettung der Modernität,” in Zur Dialektik von Moderne und Postmoderne: Vernunftkritik nach Adorno (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1985): 20; English version of this essay: “Truth, Semblance, Reconciliation,” Telos 62 (1984/5): 89–115.
27 For a critique of Adorno here see Juliane Rebentisch, Ästhetik der Installation (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2003): 101–46, 207–31.
28 Christoph Menke, “Subjektivität,” 784.
29 Ibid., 785.
30 See Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993):p.123 ff.
31 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
32 Karl Heinz Bohrer, Kritik der Romantik, 145.
33 Ibid.
34 See n. 12.

[[Translated from the German by Christopher Jenkin-Jones, Munich]]