[Door creaks open. Footsteps] Fredric Jameson’s Seminar on Aesthetic Theory

What do we want from “school”? Knowledge, surely. But other things too. Experience, perhaps? — the vibrating sense of having been present as new thinking happened, of having been affected by an encounter with ideas? Certain kinds of teaching and learning, anyway, privilege that vaunted nexus of knowing and being. Early in the first session of his seminar on Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, the American Marxist literary scholar Fredric Jameson asserts, here below, that “aesthetics” can be thought of as precisely a project that lies “halfway between the cognitive and the artistic” — which is to say, it is the enterprise of trying to understand (conceptually) that which seems to elude reduction to concepts (because we are, somehow, there in aesthetic experiences; and we are not conceptual!). By meticulously translating his recordings of Jameson’s seminars into the theatrical idiom of the stage script, the artist and scholar (and former Jameson student) Octavian Esanu doubles down, playfully and tenderly, on this deep problem. Pedagogy as performance? Teaching and learning, about art — as a work of art?
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor

April 2, 2024

Photograph of a classroomScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Photograph of a classroom, potentially at the Johnston County Training School, Smithfield, North Carolina, ca. 1921–22 — Source.

Transcribed and Edited by Octavian Esanu



In 2003, the sixty-nine-year-old distinguished Marxist literary critic, the Knut Schmidt-Nielsen Professor of Comparative Literature and Romance Studies (French), and the director of the Center for Critical Theory at Duke University.


Undergraduate, graduate students and occasionally junior faculty from various departments at Duke University.


January 9, 2003

Seminar Introduction


Moving chairs, squeaking door, coughs, other sounds filling the noise environment of a large classroom in the Literature Department at Duke University. Undergraduates, graduate students, and junior faculty from various humanities departments have gathered for the first seminar on Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Most of the students are enrolled for credit, but there are also many who are simply auditing. Jameson’s seminars usually run over capacity, which often creates tensions with the administration. Out of concern for safety, the university has proposed to either move the seminar to a larger, newer, and brighter-lit auditorium on East Campus, which Jameson resolutely refuses, or limit enrollment and thus restrict access to those students or faculty who are auditing. The issue of crowded classrooms and auditing (which is lost revenue for increasingly corporatized academia) has been one of his many contentions with the administration. Those arriving late often have no places to sit. Therefore, during Jameson’s seminars, one can frequently see students wondering along the corridors of the Literature Department desperately looking for or carrying chairs.

Jameson enters the classroom carrying a few books and a large college notebook. The latter contains his notes for the course, which usually consist of one or two words, or phrases written in large letters across the otherwise empty pages. Jameson wears a fitted plaid flannel shirt, regular trousers with a chain to a watch in his pocket, and black sneakers. In the chest pocket of his flannel shirt, he always carries a red pen.

[Microphone turns on.]

JAMESON: Mm-hmm… [Long pause. Speaks without bothering about the noise.] Mm-hmm. This is the first draft, and he wrote it in sentences… [Sounds of chairs scraping against the floor. Footsteps. Backpacks and jackets’ zippers unzipping. The audience gradually turns to silence.]

Hmm… [Pause.] I’m sure if he had completed it, he would have done other things, but it is more or less what, hmm… [Hesitates.]1

[Long pause.]

It is certainly very satisfactory in itself, Aesthetic Theory, and it came out I suppose the year after his death… [Tries to remember] in 1971 maybe? No, in 1970; I think he died in 1969.2 At the end, hmm… [Hesitates.] Mm-hmm… [Pause.] At the end, there are some appendices, and that is called “Paralipomena,” which are other thoughts he had on various things, a hundred pages of those, they’re very interesting and worth reading, but I want you to separate those off; then there is an earlier piece called “Theories on the Origin of Art,” and finally a “Draft Introduction.” Making abstraction of those final three parts, you will please number all of these sections in such a way that they come out to twelve chapters…3 [Door creaks open. Footsteps. Sounds of chairs scratching against the floor. Audience members move closer to the front to make space for those arriving late] which critics say Adorno didn’t do it himself. I believe that the German was originally published without any breaks, but with running heads that I think Adorno, you can look the story up, and I think that Adorno, hmm… [Hesitates] made up the running heads, that is to say what’s on the top of these chapters.4 And I believe that the editor Tiedemann has gone through and made more substantial breaks, which in later editions involve, hmm… [Examines his notes] involve the kind of index that you have here, the kind of chapters, or table of contents that you have with indications of what’s in these series of pages but without numbers.5 And indeed, now the German and the English both have an index of names and of topics, which is very useful. [Firmly.] Use the index of names — don’t use the index of topics for reasons I’ll tell you in a moment.

[Long pause.]

There was an older translation of this book that wasn’t very meritorious. Mm-hmm. This man… [Quietly: I forget who he was, thought that after all these are very complicated sentences, let’s break them down into simpler sentences.]6 I assure you that, hmm… [Hesitates] it’s a very strange thing to read because you look at this and you follow some kind of ideas going on and then you look at the German and you can, maybe by what Adorno calls “second-reflection,” you can see, oh yes, those are sort of the same things, but it’s a wholly different text from Adorno’s. So, this translator made a… [Pause.] He made the wrong decision, or maybe it was the publisher who insisted on making the text more readable by simplifying the English translation, I don’t know. And finally, Hullot-Kentor did this translation… [Words indistinct] this new English version of Aesthetic Theory. And I think it is quite excellent, as it gives you the spirit of Adorno’s writing.

[Long pause.]

It is supposed to be difficult.

​Mm-hmm… [Pause.]

Well, there are certainly lots of references here to everything possible, some of which he will explain to you, some of which… [Sighs] he doesn’t, and I will have to, and maybe I will know some of them myself. But the main thing is that there is certain kind of style going on here, a certain stylistic procedure, which is one of — I don’t want to call it “paradox” even — and if I call it “dialectical” that would be maybe also not the right way to describe it. Mm-hmm… [Pause.] But it’s quite unique, and I also think that Aesthetic Theory is not a discursive work, but a [Stressing] literary product. I hope that there will be enough of this in English, for those of you who don’t read German, to take some pleasure in reading this text. It’s certainly not something you can read fifty pages at a time, and once you’ll get into the spirit of this, and you see the interesting operations going on, you realize that it is like aesthetics itself lying halfway between the cognitive and the artistic.

[Long pause.]

This will be our… [Door creaks open. Footsteps] our principal text here, or one of the only three texts that we’re gonna look at. However, because aesthetics really starts with Kant, and I think, hmm… [Hesitates] if one wants to get some idea of what we’re doing here and what these initial references are all about, we must also talk about Kant. Therefore, I also ordered the latest edition of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Now, the Critique of Judgment is on two things: it’s on forms of beauty and natural forms, or the teleology of nature. That’s very important, and when we look at Kant, we’ll take a look at that too. But we will only focus on the first half of the Critique of Judgment, and here are the pages which you’ll get from… [Talks to himself while leafing through the Table of Contents of Kant’s last Critique.] Mm-hmm… [Pause.] The first section is on beauty and the second section is on the sublime.7 These are both parts of what in the division here is called… [Sighs] Part One, which is the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,” that’s the first half of the book.8 Book One of Part One is the “Analytic of the Beautiful” and Book Two is the “Analytic of the Sublime,” and those are the parts that we need to, hmm… [Hesitates] that we need to take on. And I would suggest that what we are going to do today is look at the very opening of Aesthetic Theory, and at the moment when this passes to, questions of, hmm… [Reflects.] Here, in what I call the first chapter of Aesthetic Theory, when this chapter passes over into questions of effect, suddenly we are confronted with two thinkers.9 One of them is… [Sound of chalk on the blackboard] K-A-N-T, and the effect of the beautiful, or, how can I say it, the pleasure without interest, and purposiveness with no purpose, or Zweck, hmm… [Hesitates] Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck, and the other thinker is… [Chalk on the blackboard] F-R-E-U-D. It would be appropriate to get this part out of the way today, to look at the first few pages in detail, then we’ll go into Kant and Freud. If someone wants to give us an introduction to Freud’s “Der Dichter” essay, which is sometimes called “daydreaming and creative writing,” come talk to me after the class.10 And then we’ll go back to Adorno.

[Long pause.]

Obviously, we will not be holding to this schedule as such, because, hmm… [Hesitates] some things take more time than the others. So, this is very approximate, and our main plan of action is simply going through all of the Aesthetic Theory in its order, chapter by chapter. [Decisively.] However, because this can be tiresome, and I do know, maybe at a certain point we may get exasperated of Adorno… [Quietly: and after you’ve learned some of the mistakes and some of his tricks by now] then we will take a break. At that point then we will, hmm… [Hesitates] do something else, namely read Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus. [Addresses the audience.] How many people have read Doctor Faustus?

[Long pause. A few students raise hands.]

JAMESON: Oh, that’s not too many. How many read some Thomas Mann?


JAMESON: Death in Venice I suppose, or The Magic Mountain? [Pause.] Mm-hmm. This is really Mann’s greatest book, I think… [Quietly: I mean a lot of people think so, and he wrote it, hmm… (Pause).] It’s a book about a musician who makes a pact with the devil… [Cough in the audience] and whose musical work then evolves into the twelve-tone system. Schoenberg, who was also living in LA at the time when Mann wrote the novel, was very unhappy. Doctor Faustus was written during the war, published in the last days of the war in May probably, and it came out almost simultaneously in German and English. First it was published in German in Switzerland, and soon it appeared also here in English to become an American bestseller at that time… [Achoo. Sneeze in the audience.]11 Mm-hmm… [Pause.] Schoenberg was furious… [Quietly: he wrote a very angry letter to Mann in which he accused Mann of misrepresenting his ideas and using him to create a character.]12 I’m not going to go into biography today, or into the history of the Frankfurt School. There are two books you can look at, one is Martin Jay’s famous book, hmm… [Tries to remember] Dialectical Imagination, or something like that I think it’s called, which is the history of the Frankfurt School up to their return to Germany in 1953.13 This book essentially tells the story of the Frankfurt School from the point of view of Adorno’s collaborator and the head of the school Max H-… [Chalk strokes on the blackboard] H-O-R-K-H-E-I-M-E-R, with whom Adorno wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment. We’ll come back to it at some point. That’s one version.

[Long pause.]

Much more recently in the last ten years there is a much more detailed history of the Frankfurt School, including the German period. Horkheimer presided over the school up to the 1960s, hmm… [Pause.] It was of course very dramatic like everything else in the 1960s, hmm… [Pause] up to Adorno’s death. This is the so-called “first” Frankfurt School because then Habermas is supposed to be the “second” Frankfurt School, which is not altogether so. At any rate, this book I think… [Tries to remember] is by Rolf, and I cannot think now of his last name…

STUDENT: Wiggershaus.

JAMESON: Yes, Rolf Wiggershaus and he gives you the whole story of the Frankfurt School but now from Habermas’ point of view.14 Mm-hmm… [Pause.] Horkheimer fired Habermas and here you will see quite a different view from the one you get from Jay. It is very well done. Wiggershaus uses a lot of letters and documents that were unknown at the time and has also the biographies of all the major figures that are put in smaller type, inserted in the text, and also some of the more minor figures, like Leo Löwenthal, for example, who had his teaching career at Berkeley, or Erich Fromm, and people like that who have been associated with the School, and obviously Horkheimer… [Quietly: who is made a central figure in… (Achoo. Sneeze in the audience.)]

[Long pause.]

​Anyway, we’ll come back to all of that. What I wanted to say is that Adorno, hmm… [Hesitates] started really… [Quietly: I don’t know what kind of degree he first had, but he finally got a philosophy degree.] I believe his first work was on Husserl and today there are some interesting essays and more and more of his work is being translated today.15 But his real interest was music. He went to Vienna. He didn’t study with Schoenberg, but he studied with Alban Berg, who was Schoenberg’s student… [Quietly: And they both had a complicated relation.] There are now compositions of Adorno on CDs that you can listen, and I have those, and I will play some for you — they are pretty much in the style of Berg. He composed his music in the 1920s and 1930s… [Quietly: people said he knew a lot about music and about the twelve-tone system, but in practice he was very slow at composing.] So, music becomes a major reference throughout his aesthetics, and a lot of his writings on music has now also been translated.

​ [Long pause.]

How many people read German? Let’s see, raise your hands…


​Well, that’s a pity because it would be nice to look at his work in German. But the… [Pause.] But whether all his books are still in print, or translated, I don’t know. The important book on Schoenberg is called The Philosophy of Modern Music… [Quietly: Philosophie der neuen Musik] and there are also little books he wrote on Mahler, on Berg, hmm, a sort of memoir of Berg.16 [Pause.] There is now an entire collection coming from Verso, a collection of his musical books, and what is that one called… [To himself: I was looking at it this morning, well I can’t remember it now but is very new… (Pause).] And finally, there is also the posthumous work on Beethoven that he was working on.17 You will see that Adorno is never philosophically continuous, as you can observe this in Aesthetic Theory, which proceeds by blocs of themes. There are paragraph breaks that correspond to various themes, and then you go on to another theme, and in a way the same thing is being said in all of those themes… [Choo-choo. Amtrak train whistle in the distance.] So, clearly there is a change of topic, and a sort of a shifting of gears. The fact that Beethoven essay was unfinished is maybe not necessarily the worst thing and there are a lot of other essays… [Choo-choo. Amtrak train whistle loud.] There are a lot of musical references in here. I don’t know to what degree we need to look into those. There are fewer references to the visual arts in Adorno and that we will have to make up for ourselves by trying to see how his aesthetics works across various arts. And in literature… [Pause.] Suhrkamp used to publish these little volumes, a little smaller than this [Holds Aesthetic Theory up], and there were four or five of these little volumes called Noten zur Literatur. Mm-hmm, and those have all been translated now, as… [Chalk on the blackboard] N-O-T-E-S T-O L-I-T-E-R-A-T-U-R-E.18 But these texts are not just on literature, there are also musical essays, there is an essay on essay… [Quietly: “Essay as Form,” which I hope we will talk abouant in this seminar] and others ones on Beckett, on surrealism, and so forth. And there are a number of literary references there, which I don’t… [Pause] you can decide later on for yourself whether you think that this perspective on the arts allows for criticism. Proust was very important to him but is he a good critic of Proust, I’m not sure about that… [Quietly: you can look at his Proust essay and decide for yourself.] There is a wonderful little essay on Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop and there are other titles as well. The German classics were important. He had a running kind of relationship with Benjamin, and they exchanged many letters which have been now published.19 [Clears throat.] Adorno read to Benjamin chapters of his work on Wagner, which I believe has also been translated as In Search of Wagner… [Quietly: Versuch über Wagner.]20 Maybe that would be also a place to look at Wagner’s work, where he illustrates the problem of value plus ideology, and if anybody knows anything about Wagner, they know about the role that’s played in it by a certain kind of nationalism, a certain kind of anti-Semitism, and all the rest of it. This is certainly one of the problems that comes up in Aesthetic Theory at a certain point, and we will look at that when time comes. But there is the other book on Wagner, which Adorno had connections with… [Mumbles indistinctly.]21 But overall music was very important for Adorno, and we will have a few sessions dedicated exclusively to music theory. Music also runs through Mann’s novel, which we will discuss.

[Long Pause.]

Now, I bring that up because Adorno was Thomas Mann’s musical adviser in Doctor Faustus. Mann knew music very well, he played the piano, there are some famous stories… [Quietly: Bruno Walter was playing something from the Tristan and Isolde, and at some point, Mann pointed out that he left out the low B flat in a certain passage.] This is a period in which music was practiced in the households of the German grand bourgeoisie, and it was very important to Mann, who has written some very important essays on Freud and on Wagner.22 But the Doctor Faustus, hmm… [Hesitates] you’ll see that it’s more than just the twelve-tone system which Adorno advised Mann on music philosophy. Indeed, some of the compositions mentioned in the book have some Adornesque, or Alban Bergesque… [Raps his knuckles against the desk] resonances. Also, by some happy coincidence they just published the correspondence between Thomas Mann and Adorno, so we have more material on that front… [Mumbles indistinctly.]23 Anyway, but that’s… [Pause.] I think you’ll find in Doctor Faustus somewhat more clear discussion of music, or more immediately entertaining than Aesthetic Theory, and so the novel shall furnish us with a useful break.

[Long pause.]

Mm-hmm… [Looks over the syllabus. Reaches for the red pen.]

​You will note several days without class, and this is January 23rd, January 28th, February 6th, besides the break, hmm… [Pause.] You will also note a series of topics that I would like some oral presentations on. These presentations can be brief, fifteen-minutes exposés on certain topics, so I’m not the only one talking here.

​[Long pause.]

You also need to add two further topics which are on the list there… [Breathes on the lenses and begins to polish them with his handkerchief.] It is a way of introducing some practical considerations, some of the artists, works of art here, or themes because Aesthetic Theory itself is fairly abstract, as we shall see. And those two themes here are, first of all, Herbert Marcuse’s early essay called “On the Affirmative Character of Culture.”24 This is an [Whispering] absolutely fundamental essay for the whole view of the Frankfurt School on culture and art. Mm-hmm. Adorno… [Pause.] In the first few pages of Aesthetic Theory, you will find Adorno recapitulating some of Marcuse’s ideas on the inescapable affirmative essence of art. And there you have to know, and so I pointed out to you in the very beginning… [Tries to remember.] Mm-hmm, oh yeah, this essay is in Marcuse’s collection of essays called Negations, and I would very much appreciate if somebody would like to give us a kind of précis of that article. I must also tell you right away… [Pause.] I must give you a lexical idiosyncrasy because it’s important to know from the very beginning of this seminar some of these specific uses of words in the vocabulary of Frankfurt School, which you might otherwise be tempted to misunderstand.

​[Long pause.]

​[Softly.] It is that “affirmative” here means bad.

​[Long pause.]

Photograph of a classroomScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Photograph of a kindergarten classroom in Alberta, Canada, ca. 1910 — Source.

Works in the public domain, at least somewhere in the world, are hyperlinked to online versions (and to out-of-copyright English translations where available). The original works of Theodor Adorno are public domain in countries with copyright term of life plus 50 years.

​​Octavian Esanu is an Associate Professor in the Department of Fine Arts and Art History, at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Director/Curator of AUB Art Galleries. In this position, he oversaw the inauguration of the two galleries, and has curated and published on modernist and contemporary art from Lebanon and the Middle East on topics related to their intersection with wider currents in global art. He holds a doctoral degree from Duke University and has also researched and published on Moscow Conceptualism and the transition to “contemporary art” that took place in the art of post-Soviet and other postsocialist Eastern European countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall. During the late 1990s he founded, directed and curated for the Soros Center for Contemporary Art Chisinau (Moldova). He has degrees in studio art (Ilya Repin School of Art, Chisinau), in Interior Architecture (The Moldovan State Institute of Arts) and in Critical Theory from the Jan van Eyck Academie (Maastricht).

This essay has been excerpted from ​​Octavian Esanu (ed.), Mimesis, Expression, Construction: Fredric Jameson’s Seminar on Aesthetic Theory (London: Repeater Books, 2024). Copyright © Repeater Books and Fredric Jameson.