The aesthetics of the shock, part II

the dialectics of the instincts in the artistic uncanny


  • Tidhar Nir Tel Aviv University


Adorno, Freud, Benjamin, uncanny, aesthetics


This second part of Tidhar Nir's essay on the aesthetics of the shock deals with Adorno and Benjamin's dialectical implementations of Freudian concepts such as Thanatos, repetition compulsion, and Eros as part of their relation to the autonomy of art. Interpreting works of art as uncanny and as animistic fantasies reveals how art, in their mind, is related to social reality and social struggles for individuality. Benjamin's account of the French photographer Atget stresses commercial fetishism by giving the inanimate new life through the absence of subjectivity. Atget's empty city is uncanny in its repetitiveness of unused objects, and nostalgic trends give a paradoxical expression to a yearning for innovation amidst the ``always the same.'' Alienation in this context can be understood in two different ways: 1) as the conjunction of inner and outer reality that takes place when the ego is objectified and comes to be regarded as a mere instrument; or 2) as a blurring of ego with outer reality in an effort to undermine the forces that have fixated the ego erotically by conjoining it with other life elements. Adorno designates this phenomenon as the ``return of nature'' or the aesthetization of the ego. Adorno's interpretation of poetic language draws the contours for a narcissism in which repetition compulsion may be expressed as an unintelligible sound. But that sound is not meaningless: it reiterates and uncovers the trauma inherent in the reification of language.


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Atget, Eugène. “Boulevard de Strassburg,” 1912. In Surrealism at Play, by Susan Laxton, figure 2.2, p.76. Duke University Press, 2019.
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