Benjamin and Adorno

Benjamin’s Conception of Language and Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory
Rodrigo Duarte – Philosophy – UFMG. 2005.


According to the theory of language of the young Benjamin, the primary task of language is not the communication of contents, but to express itself as a “spiritual essence” in which humans also take part. The former conception, according to which language would be a medium to signification of something outside it, leads to a necessary decrease of its original strength. Benjamin thus calls it bourgeois. The names of human language are remainders of an archaic state, in which things we not yet mute and had their own language.

Benjamin also suggests that all the arts recall the original language of things, as they make objects “speak” through sounds, colors, shapes, and so on. The relationship between the arts as reminders of the “language of things” and the possible reconciliation of mankind with itself and with nature has been developed by Theodor Adorno in several of his writings, especially in Aesthetic Theory, where the work of art is ultimately conceived as a construct pervaded by “language” in the broadest meaning, and not in the “bourgeois” sense.

Notes on this text for my present purposes are:

1. In On Language as Such and the Language of Man (1916) Benjamin says that language is not only a means to enable communication (this being the bourgeois view) but is the medium in which (not through which “das geistige Wesen des Menchen” is expressed.

2. The “language of man” (LM) names things, and in this way echoes the creative activity of G-d. The soundless “language of things” (LT) communicates to men the mental being of things through mute signs. The naming activity of humans communicates their “geistige Wesen” to G-d, and completes Its creation.

3. Humans thus translate LT into LM, and through this translation establish a relationship of knowledge between themselves and things.

4. Before the Fall, LM was based only on names. Now we have an excess of signification, which also means a degradation of knowledge.
In this situation, language becomes a mere means of communication (the “bourgeois conception of language”).

5. After the Fall, Nature was overnamed and thus silenced. Its original muteness was God-given, but now Nature has lost its immediacy to men (the immediacy it had when the signs of LT were readable to the practitioners of LM).

6. The language of poetry is LM (non-bourgeois) and the language of cuulpture or painting may be founded on LT. In them we may “find a translation of the language of things into an infinitely higher language.” (LSM 122)

7. In “The Task of the Translator,” Benjamin also presupposes that there is a higher language associated with divinity soaring above the many human languages. In LSM translation was the “removal of one language into another through a continuum of transformations” (117). Now it expresses an inner relationships among themselves, so that what lacks in one, when compared with the higher language, can be found in another.

8. The quality of translation cannot be measured by its fidelity to the original work: both languages will change, and the meanings and connotations of the texts will change, so a permanent similarity between them is impossible. But their reference to the “pure language” is always the same. The languages supplement each other and together, take us closer to the pure language.

9. It is not the similarity of a translation to its original that is most important, but the similarity of its “mode of intention” to that of the original in relation to the highest language.

10. Poetry does not “intend” language as a whole but some specific relations of the contents. The purpose of the translation is to find the “intention” in the target language which “awakens the echo of the original.” The purpose of both the original and the translation is not to communicate but to establish a relationship to language in general.

11. The translator looks in the original for a seed of the pure language, and finds a way to express this seed in the target language. The translation must touch the sense of the original.

12. The pure language resembles the Platonic world of ideas. In it there is no need to struggle with the communicative significance of words.

13. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment adopts the thesis of an originary word that undergoes fragmentation and results in Western positivistic science with its utilitarian conception of language. Elsewhere Horkheimer says that it was once “the endeavor of art, literature, and philosophy to express the meaning of things and of life, to be thevoice of all that is dumb . . . to call reality by its rightful name. Today nature’s tongue is taken away.” And Adorno’s work is permeated with references to Benjamin’s theory of language.

14. In Aesthetic Theory, very roughly, art leads to the language of things art remembers or activates LT and leads us from there to the (paradise of) the unspeakable. Art, thus, does not imitate nature, but “natural beauty as such.” (AT 72)

15. There is potential in these arguments for the critical evaluation of culture today. We are inundated with images, sounds and words: this is the “overnaming” of the bourgeois conception of language. Perhaps art can fight the reified cultural life of globalization.

Now we will contemplate the last few paragraphs of The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, a chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).


The general repetition of names for measures to be taken by the authorities makes them, so to speak, familiar, just as the brand name on everybody’s lips increased sales in the era of the free market. The blind and rapidly spreading repetition of words with special designations links advertising with the totalitarian watchword.

The layer of experience which created the words for their speakers has been removed; in this swift appropriation language acquires the coldness which until now it had only on billboards and in the advertisement columns of newspapers. Innumerable people use words and expressions which they have either ceased to understand or employ only because they trigger off conditioned reflexes; in this sense, words are trade-marks which are finally all the more firmly linked to the things they denote, the less their linguistic sense is grasped. The minister for mass education talks incomprehendingly of “dynamic forces,” and the hit songs unceasingly celebrate “reverie” and “rhapsody,” yet base their popularity precisely on the magic of the unintelligible as creating the thrill of a more exalted life.

Other stereotypes, such as memory, are still partly comprehended, but escape from the experience which might allow them content. They appear like enclaves in the spoken language. On the radio of Flesch and Hitler they may be recognised from the affected pronunciation of the announcer when he says to the nation, “Good night, everybody!” or “This is the Hitler Youth,” and even intones “the Fuehrer” in a way imitated by millions. In such cliches the last bond between sedimentary experience and language is severed which still had a reconciling effect in dialect in the nineteenth century. But in the prose of the journalist whose adaptable attitude led to his appointment as an all-German editor, the German words become petrified, alien terms. Every word shows how far it has been debased by the Fascist pseudo-folk community.


By now, of course, this kind of language is already universal, totalitarian. All the violence done to words is so vile that one can hardly bear to hear them any longer. The announcer does not need to speak pompously; he would indeed be impossible if his inflection were different from that of his particular audience. But, as against that, the language and gestures of the audience and spectators are coloured more strongly than ever before by the culture industry, even in fine nuances which cannot yet be explained experimentally.


Today the culture industry has taken over the civilising inheritance of the entrepreneurial and frontier democracy – whose appreciation of intellectual deviations was never very finely attuned. All are free to dance and enjoy themselves, just as they have been free, since the historical neutralisation of religion, to join any of the innumerable sects. But freedom to choose an ideology – since ideology always reflects economic coercion – everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same. The way in which a girl accepts and keeps the obligatory date, the inflection on the telephone or in the most intimate situation, the choice of words in conversation, and the whole inner life as classified by the now somewhat devalued depth psychology, bear witness to man’s attempt to make himself a proficient apparatus, similar (even in emotions) to the model served up by the culture industry.


The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified that the idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only as an utterly abstract notion: personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.


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