The Paradox of Play: Aesthetic Resistance in Lukács, Benjamin, and Adorno

July 27, 2016

Surti Singh

Wednesday, July 27, 6:00PM–8:00PM, Room 7000, SFU Harbour Centre

Sponsored by SFU's Institute for the Humanities

In thinking through the catastrophes of the 20th century, the Frankfurt School critical theorists considered art’s capacity to challenge the damaged rationality of postwar, late capitalist culture. In this paper, I examine the turn to art by looking at the influence of Schiller’s On The Aesthetic Education of Man, in which he emphasized the play-drive as an antidote to the fragmentation and alienation of social life. In particular, I trace how Lukács, Benjamin, and Adorno each take up the notion of play in their works. Lukács examined Schiller’s play-drive in the context of resisting the reification of 20th century capitalist society, a possibility that he ultimately deemed ineffective. In turn, Benjamin and Adorno viewed the aesthetic sphere as not simply a compensatory, romantic model of reunification between the subject and the social world, but as a realm that had its own critical force. Whereas Benjamin was more enthusiastic about play’s possibilities, Adorno assigned it a characteristically aporetic or paradoxical status as something that could express both freedom and repression. By discussing play in relation to concepts such as reification, semblance, and the death-drive, I consider whether play is simply a repetition of the labor practices that we are induced to perform, or whether it holds an emancipatory potential. 

Surti Singh is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo. She specializes in Twentieth Century Continental Philosophy, Critical Theory, Feminism, and Aesthetics. Her recent work has appeared in The Aesthetic Ground of Critical Theory: New Readings of Benjamin and Adornoand is forthcoming in New Forms of Revolt: Essays on Kristeva’s Intimate Politics.