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Autonomy as an Important Concept by Theodor W. Adorno

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Autonomy, a word, a concept to ponder, a basic human right and one of the principles of bioethics, a concept tangible and with such real power that creates a wide social impact on our contemporary society. (John.M. Last, 2007). Autonomy is a compound word deriving from the two Greek words ‘Auto’ and ‘Nomos’. ‘Auto’ is the ‘Self’ and ‘Nomos’ is the ‘Law’ thus the word by definition means self-governed. However, to attempted to understand the real meaning of Autonomy one must first understand its antinomy, Heteronomy, another compound Greek word stemming from ‘Hetero’, ‘Other’ and ‘Nomos’, the ‘Law’ which describes the situation where one is governed by forces beyond one’s control. (T. Honderich,2005). Adorno presents a compound treatment of the autonomy of art. This essay will attempt to highlight and articulate the impact of autonomous art, through understanding Theodor Adorno and Cornelius Castoriadis autonomous theories. It will pursuit to analyze Steve’s Paxton autonomous art compared and contrasted with my personal views as a critical observer and an arts practitioner, as my artistic endeavors are focused in pursuing autonomous art through the form of contact improvisation and free movement. For Adorno, autonomous art has an immediate message to a social construct but no direct social function. Remarkably a social function of having no function. This is what Theodor Adorno called’s autonomous Art. To create something without a purpose or function is the “unconsciously” direct “purpose” of autonomous Art.

Adorno argues that both artwork and artists should free themselves from the capitalist system and the art market, free from the capitalist culture of normality. However, there is a dialectical relation between autonomy and commodification through his analyses. In a more complex and philosophical approach, his position involves two functions that have no function, the social and the aesthetic and these two creates a dialectic, supporting one another, the autonomy and commodification can’t exist without the thesis and antithesis which creates this dialectic synthesis. (Andy Hamilton.p.251, (2009). But is Autonomy an important concept worthy of research and investigation in both Academia and the Contemporary Art world? Autonomous art was born at the same time and as a response to capitalism thus the paradoxical relationship. Art is freedom and creation and not a construct of the Capitalist system. At a time when, from a purely visual perspective, “Art was easily absorbed by neighbouring disciplines such as design, fashion, architecture or advertising to economic, political or social ends, artists emerged with “Radical Autonomy” reminding us that ” art could be and should be, a sanctuary for futility, obscurity, insight, ambivalence, joy, and unease” (, 2018).

Theodor W. Adorno illustrated the ‘economic deduction’ (vol.7:331) of culture industry in 1983 in a psychological complex way: “since commodity is always composed of exchange values and use values, so now pure use values, the illusion of which must be retained by cultural goods in a thoroughly capitalist society, becomes replaced by pure exchange value, which precisely as exchange value deceptively takes over the function of use value. The specific fetish-character of music is constituted through this quid pro quo: the effects directed at exchange value create the appearance of immediacy, which is simultaneously denied by the relatedness to the object the latter is based upon the abstractness of exchange value. All the derivatively ‘psychological’, all pseudo-fulfillment (Ersarzbefrieddigung) depends on such social substitution”. (vol. 14:24-5) This statement will provide the guidelines from which this essay will attempt to explore how Contemporary Art misunderstood Adorno, by looking at ways autonomous art can function in an ethical way by understanding Adorno, Castoriadis and many other theoreticians’ theories. The category of autonomy, as it has been developed in critical theory since Marx, radicalizes the ideal of enlightenment. The dignified emergence from ‘self-incurred immaturity’ famously called for by Kant assumes access to culture and the time needed to appropriate it – in short, a privileged social position and existence (Immanuel Kant, pp. 54-5 (1991). Autonomous art has a correlation with Human Autonomy. Therefore, this could be understood in multiple ways.

Through political concepts of Freedom and Liberty, we can comprehend the importance of Autonomy in Art today which summarizes and reports to a wider social impact on how we could behave and create a position through concepts and habits. Timothy Snyder says in his book “On Tyranny, Twenty Lesson from the twentieth century”, that “Life is Political not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future. In the politics of the everyday life, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much” (Snyder, (2017)]. In the next paragraphs, this essay will reflect on the importance of the word autonomy for Cornelius Castoriadis. Castoriadis was a Greek-French philosopher, social critic and a psychoanalyst that influenced through his writings on autonomy and social institutions, many academics, and activists. He was a practitioner, immersed by the idea of autonomy and we can see that the word Autonomy appears in his work from its early stages as early as in 1949. Castoriadis was questioning and practicing autonomy in his work and his everyday life. He envisioned a different society and forced a question: “how can it be possible to reconcile the autonomy of individuals with the existence of real social laws and with the existence of a state, with the meaning of that mechanism as we know it today while maintaining some sort of power? (Vibrating,2014) Art for many artists has a direct relationship with the social issues and society. Castoriadis stated that the content of socialism is a radical autonomy.

Aiming to decompose those who predominate and take the reins of productivity which creates antagonism with those who practice these directions as their exercise. Cornelius Castoriadis looks to ‘Nomos’ of autonomy to understand it as self-governing and aims at the radical transformation of society. Perhaps Castoriadis, as well as Adorno, have been misunderstood by various groups of people like anarchists that read the word Autonomy in a different way. I read in the sense of “hating the world, therefore opposing it” through an erroneous praxis in an undeveloped and immature way of seeing autonomy develops. Looking behind the words Castoriadis sees analyses and practices through his life his perceptiveness of the of word Autonomy. For many, this sounds like a revolutionary fantasy, but I believe how Castoriadis orientated his understanding of this transformation can be well understood through self-manifestation on how laws and norms are created for an individual. Furthermore, a coaction between the collective and individual, that involves the institution of law as a norm but not from the hetero, must be formed and reformed collectively.

Autonomy must co-exist with praxis and emancipatory, a personal construct a theory that becomes a direct purpose. Cornelius Castoriadis had argued repeatedly for the organization, claiming that people need to be indented in organizing how to operate and not just follow the orders of heteronomous and hierarchical figures (N. Et1,1984). The social conditions that individuals have adapted are based on individual empowerment. However, if individuals begin to create, structure and follow their own laws the possibility of generalizing autonomy shifts from individual empowerment to a collective one. Autonomy then becomes a revolutionary concept as its nature becomes the overcoming of antagonistic relations in a collective and inclusive manner. If self-realization becomes society’s first priority then simultaneously people will be happy and able to enjoy the fruits of their labor attaining and maintaining their dignity and freedom. Currently, this is a life that its lead by the few, the artists, the intellectuals and the leisured dilettantes but the logic of autonomy dictates the necessity to overflow the given social constraints and take charge towards the inequities, the ones that are excluded and change the form of domination hardwired and structured into our everyday capitalist normality. For Isaiah Berlin, there are two types of freedom, Negative freedom and Positive freedom.

Negative freedom, a freedom from instruction, coercion, prevention, and construction. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved […] You seek freedom and political liberty only if you are told to achieve a goal by other hierarchical human figures (Isaiah Berlin, (1959). In Ben Lewis Documentary, we can see that even in the Arts, there are the artists that create work as instructed from the ‘established’ galleries for the sake ‘filling’ the space, receiving recognition and success that was prefabricated while seemingly appearing to have achieved a goal from a hierarchical figure (The Contemporary Art Bubble,2009). Positive freedom according to Berlin is free to act. The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ comes from the wish of an individual to be the master of one’s destiny. “I wish my life and decisions to be depended on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own free will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer – deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and releasing them” (Berlin,1991). I can definitely see a relationship between Berlin’s Positive Freedom and Castoriadis’s orientation of Autonomy.

Berlin’s way of seeing freedom might exist with the sense of how Castoriadis sees Autonomy which is a more self-institutional, in order to be “free” and “autonomous” one has to understand that the one can’t exist without the other which leads as to a more dialectical thinking that links to Adorno’s viewpoint. Adorno’s criticality of dialectical thinking in connection with aesthetics in Art can prove how Art is political from its nature through the practice and aesthetic of Art. When this is linked with the theories and theoreticians under investigation in this essay, we can continue to explore the basic idea of this Dialectical Adornian theory. Quoting Adorno “Art can be understood only by its laws of motion, not according to any set of invariants. It is defined by its relation to what it is not. The specifically artistic in art must be derived concretely from its other; that alone would fulfill the demands of a materialistic-dialectical aesthetics. Art acquires out of: its law of movement is its law of form. It exists only in relation to its other; it is the process that transpires with its other” (BRUNS, 2008 p.233).

Indeed as J.M. Bernstein says, the aim of dialectical thinking is not to resolve contradictions but to experience them reflectively (Bernstein, J. M. (2001). Theodor W. Adorno had a principle theory of his aesthetics and that’s the form. But form is never a concept that stands on its own but it has its others, the more experiential and somehow ponderous, by the artist’s subjectivity and of course, Adorno was a dialectical and not an analytical thinker, he didn’t want to expose concepts but to put them into play in movement and then nothing will appear to expect from what it is not. (BRUNS,2008) Therefore, the experiential has an immediate connection with the individual and then with the social. Most Art forms are very experiential when are thriving from the autonomous need to react in the capitalist normality and be led by oneself through autonomous processes. Andre Lepecki mentioned in his book that “McKenzie analysed how the constitutive ambiguity of the word performance has emerged within the twentieth century, in two spheres: what he called organizational performance with the implementation of “efficiencies” in state, institutional, corporate, and industrial environment and what he called “cultural performances” denoting those that “foreground” and resist dominant norms of social control” (Lepecki, 2016 ).

In regards to this, following this essay will attempt to analyze briefly my personal opinion on why dance focused on Steve’s Paxton Contact Improvisation has a such a privileged critical position of analysis and resistance in regards to the Capitalism and Neoliberal rationality and subjectivity. Steve Paxton is a pioneer, a dancer with a background in Martial Arts who then became a member of several modern dance companies in New York in the 1960s, he collaborated with the revolutionary, the choreographer Merce Cunningham and his partner John Cage. Steve Paxton was a Pioneer not because he participated with the Avant-Garde performers but because of his bravery to break free from the dance rationalities and hierarchical figures of the heteronomous groups, setting himself free from the specificity of movements that have been created from another figure in order for the dancers to illustrate each praxis of the Hetero. Paxton created Contact Improvisation in an era when the Capitalist society and commodification of Art was flourishing. He challenged the assumptions of dance and he opened new possibilities for the Art form, questioning what kinds of movement could be considered dance and how dances are made. “Contact Improvisation is an open-ended exploration of the kinaesthetic possibilities of bodies moving through contact. Sometimes wild and athletic, sometimes quiet and meditative, it is a form open to all bodies and enquiring minds” from Ray Chung workshop announcement, London, 2009. (, 2018)

The philosophy beyond contact improvisation goes against the usual dance company setting. Modern and postmodern dance is already a lot more inclusive. In modern dance, dancers have been seen and used more equal than in the traditional ballet institutions. Even so, contact improvisation has gone much further in equalizing partnering among dancers as well as in loosening the teacher-student relationship. This is partly why Paxton has been considered anarchic, though he would rather call himself an individualist. The emphasis on the viewer’s own private, self-reflexive experience shifted the context of avant-garde art from idealized time and space, aesthetic conventions and transcendence to the exploration of one’s own personal and immediate relationship with literal and direct experiences and interactions. This sensibility has allowed us to explore such phenomena as how our sense of self-shifts in time and space, and how our immediate experience of the world helps to shape how we see ourselves in the world (Paxton, S., & Mazzaglia, R. 2013).

At the start of it all, Steve followed his interest of becoming more aware of the possibilities and boundaries of the body even while merely standing. Miranda Tufnell in her book had mentioned that improvisation practices have been used as a source for original material and as training in perception (Dance Books, 1993′). “From 1967 and for the next few years of contact improvisation, Paxton would ask his students to do what was commonly known as the “small dance”, also described as “finding that limit to which you could no further relax without falling down” because of a “sustaining effort that goes on constantly in the body”. When standing, the dancers did not perform, but rather watch their “body perform its function”. “Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts a space. It applies itself to space like a hand to an instrument; and when we wish to move about we do not move the body as we move an object. We transport it without instruments as if by magic, since it is ours and because through it we have direct access to space. For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions. Even our most secret effective movements, those most deeply tied to the humoral infrastructure, help to shape our perception of things” (Merleau-Ponty, 2012). It is these acts that deeply affect our unconscious and the energetic makeup of our bodies that create change. But they are made invisible by the achievement-focused ways of our rational mind, reflected in patriarchy, whiteness, able-ism, and so on. When we forget that our experience is not in the mind but in the body, we start to think the way forward is by filling our brains with information but neglect to attend to our deepest unconscious patterns.

Contact improvisation appears to be a development of Paxton’s earlier interest in the pedestrian movement. Paxton also insists on the necessity for “peripheral vision” and peripheral attention to co-existing both in one’s own dancing and in his/her immediate understanding of the partner’s potential for leverage, movement, support. On the one hand, in contact improvisation awareness develops from within and is always directed inwards; on the other, the dancer has to be connected with space in-between himself and the partner. He/she has to realize who else is moving in the space, without inhibiting his/her actions and reactions (Paxton. ,2011). This mental state requires an alertness that comes not so much from vision as from the other senses, such as a tactile sense (that allows the dancer to feel pressure and touch), balance, the perception of gravity and spatial orientation. Dancers are, in fact, instructed to “see through the body” and to “listen through the skin”.

For instance, even when the dancer is lifted from the floor, he/she might be able to feel the ground through the partner’s body. Working on these principles, contact improvisation becomes a tool for changing and extending ordinary habit and towards a redefining of the self. Through the causal relationship between the two interacting bodies, and the emergence of sensory reactions, the sweat, and flush, awkwardness and ease, reluctance and willingness. The supportive and trusting attitude of Contact Improvisation encourages its participants our impulses and tendencies, confirming who we are in the very moment of becoming, a simple act led by our self to move the body with profound consequences. A dialectical and reflexive relationship exists between the person and their surroundings. This notion of a redefinition of the self-reflects a phenomenological approach that is based on the idea that “I don’t have a body”, because “I am a body” and my body, as any other body, is not a given. Novack, drawing from her experiences within the CI community notes the general feeling was “. . . that the movement structure of contact improvisation literally embodied the social ideologies of the early ‘70s which rejected traditional gender roles and social hierarchies (Novack, C.J.,1990)”.

Contact Improvisation is functioning a score: to keep in contact with another dancer(partner) while improvising with the natural body the improvisation kinetics are seeking for exploration. The outcome brings out many techniques and mechanics out of practicing over for many years this autonomous “praxis” it’s perhaps developing an open willing mind and body. “Contact Improvisation demonstrates how dance is a part of life and culture–as a metaphor for social interaction and values . . . as the direct apprehension of moving with and for a community of people.” (Novack, C.J., 1990)

In Conclusion

From Adorno to Castoriadis and then to Steve Paxton the word Autonomy appears in their work in an attempt to give a reason of being and give a realization of self-governing humans in an era where the Capitalist society is flourishing. CI can bring self-awareness to practice the mind and body and act within a group of people for a social change that comes from an individual level firstly in the everyday life. At the same time, as is the case with any utopia, its value does not lie in the results, but in the processes. It can encourage change but can contact improvisation affect life? This question fuels with endless new questions and possibilities and is and will be apparent in the development of my personal artistic practice as a material for the development of a critical thinking and analysis, or a doer in an attempt to seek for the answers.

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