In today’s episode of the Telos Press Podcast, David Pan talks with Lillian Hingley about her article “The Feminine Character: The Allegory of Ibsen’s Women in Adorno’s Modernist Literary Theory” from Telos 196 (Fall 2021). An excerpt of the article appears below. In their conversation they talked about Adorno’s idea of the “feminine character” and how it relates to his broader critique of capitalist society; Adorno’s reasons for focusing on the women of Ibsen’s plays; the ways that Adorno uses the idea of allegory to interpret Ibsen’s work; how Adorno links individual tragedy to more general structures of alienation; and whether Adorno is trying imagine a world without tragedy or, alternatively, if tragedy for Adorno is just a part of human existence. If your university has an online subscription to Telos, you can read the full article at the Telos Online website. For non-subscribers, learn how your university can begin a subscription to Telos at our library recommendation page. Print copies of Telos 196 are available for purchase in our online store.

From Telos 196 (Fall 2021):
Lillian Hingley
It is perhaps not surprising that the idea of the “feminine character” proposed by Theodor Adorno in his early theory has been picked up foremost by feminist scholars. In the early 1990s, German feminists such as Eva Geulen and Regina Becker-Schmidt began a more extensive reexamination of Adorno. This led to an increase in Adornian feminist scholarship in English, most notably Maggie O’Neill’s Adorno, Culture and Feminism (1999) and Renée Heberle’s Feminist Interpretations of Adorno (2006). Such scholars were particularly drawn to the idea that the feminine character could be defined as a gendered example of the nonidentical, or that which negates the false, oppressive identities projected onto the object (in this example, women) by capitalist society.
However, for some critics Adorno’s definition of “the feminine” would have to be transgressed and adapted before it could be considered feminist; there is a certain uneasiness within this scholarship that Adorno’s original formulation of the feminine character is no different from the patriarchal identity that is foisted onto the woman as if that were her natural state. One of the first feminist essays on Adorno in English, Andrew Hewitt’s “A Feminine Dialectic of Enlightenment?” (1992), criticizes Adorno for “instrumentaliz[ing]” the feminine and denying woman her individuality.[1] Similarly, Becker-Schmidt argues that Adorno’s feminine offers an essentialist view of women, acting “more conformist than progressive.”[2] While not all feminist critics are this damning, even sympathetic accounts such as Lisa Yun-Lee’s “The Bared-Breasts Incident” (2006) resist calling Adorno a “protofeminist.”[3] Adorno has been criticized for defining the feminine as a trait of bourgeois women by Eva Geulen, Becker-Schmidt, Juliet Flower MacCannell, Maggie O’Neill, and Robyn Marasco.[4]
Increasingly, scholars such as Espen Hammer, in Adorno and the Political (2006),[5] and Rochelle Duford, in “Daughters of the Enlightenment: Reconstructing Adorno on Gender and Feminist Praxis” (2017),[6] have pushed against this conclusion and instead revisited the critical potential of Adorno’s own construction of the feminine character. This approach points to the moments where Adorno’s original presentation of the feminine exceeds and actively resists a mere reproduction of patriarchal identity thinking. This movement in Adornian studies has offered a way of seeing the feminine as it is originally expressed in Adorno as a gendered metaphor for his project of negating identity thinking.
In this light, the two scholarly approaches to Adorno’s feminine character could still be reconciled: the earlier, feminist recognition of the critical potential of the feminine as a tool that grasps toward the nonidentical and the more recent view that Adorno’s own feminine character was a self-consciously constructed concept.
Specifically, I will extend this hybrid approach to Adorno’s feminine character to literary studies, suggesting that Adorno’s feminine character should also be understood as a literary aesthetic that anticipates his later theory of modernist literature. What I mean here by “modernism” is the literature that Adorno designated as critical in the sense that it could point out and resist reification, or discover and draw upon the negative identity between the concepts that society forces onto objects and the objects themselves. To do this, I will suggest that Adorno offered Henrik Ibsen as an ostensibly modernist—and feminine—writer. This follows and builds upon the scholars who have already examined Adorno’s engagement with Ibsen: J. M. Bernstein’s “Fragment, Fascination, Damaged Life: The Truth about Hedda Gabler” (1997), Rainer Forst’s Justification and Critique (2014), and Frode Helland’s Melankoliens spill (The Play of Melancholy) (2000) and “The Scars of Modern Life: Hedda Gabler in Adorno’s Prism” (2018) represent some of the most significant studies of Ibsen’s influence on Adornian theory.[7] Alongside these studies, Eva-Maria Ziege and Rochelle Duford have offered some of the most important commentaries on how a letter Adorno sent in 1937 marked the beginning of his idea of the feminine character (and the beginning of its development through reference to Ibsen).[8]
In this tradition, I will argue that Adorno uses the feminine character of Ibsen’s literature for his project of resisting reification through nonidentity thinking in the sense that he uses Ibsen’s theatrical heroines as the allegory for negative dialectics, or that they illustrate the discrepancies between false identities (i.e., the feminine character) and the objects that these identities obscure under capitalism (i.e., women). I will begin by illustrating how Adorno first offered his idea of the feminine character as a gendered example of reification. Then I will show how Adorno developed the feminine character through reference to Ibsen’s heroines from A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. This will be followed by a discussion of how Adorno’s interpretation of Hedvig from Ibsen’s A Wild Duck shows that he treats Ibsen’s heroines as allegories for reification in the same way that he treats Nell from Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop as an allegory for capitalism. Finally, I will conclude by proposing that Adorno saw Ibsen’s plays as having a feminine character in themselves, and that he uses this formal quality to expose and critique reification.
Through this, this study will hopefully show how Adorno’s feminine character can be understood and applied more expansively to the area of modernist literary studies by demonstrating the intersection of the feminine with Adorno’s work on the allegorical power of female literary characters in his lecture on Dickens. In turn, this study will also make a case for the centrality of Ibsen to the establishment and development of Adorno’s aesthetic theory and conception of modernism, even despite the playwright’s use of a naturalist aesthetic that Adorno would often criticize.[9]
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1. Andrew Hewitt, “A Feminine Dialectic of Enlightenment? Horkheimer and Adorno Revisited,” New German Critique 56 (1992): 147–48.
2. Regina Becker-Schmidt, “Critical Theory as a Critique of Society: Theodor W. Adorno’s Significance for a Feminist Sociology,” in Adorno, Culture and Feminism, ed. Maggie O’Neill (London: Sage, 1999), pp. 105–18.
3. Lisa Yun-Lee, “The Bared-Breasts Incident,” in Feminist Interpretations of Adorno, ed. Renée Heberle (State College: Penn State Univ. Press, 2006), p. 128.
4. Eva Geulen, “Toward a Genealogy of Gender in Walter Benjamin’s Writing,” German Quarterly 69, no. 2 (1996): 161–80; Becker-Schmidt, “Critical Theory as a Critique of Society,” p. 104; Juliet Flower MacCannell, “Adorno: The Riddle of Femininity,” in O’Neill, Adorno, Culture and Feminism, pp. 141–60; Maggie O’Neill, “Adorno and Women: Negative Dialectics, Kulturkritik and Unintentional Truth,” in O’Neill, Adorno, Culture and Feminism, pp. 22–40; Robyn Marasco, “Already the Effect of the Whip: Critical Theory and the Feminine Ideal,” Differences 17, no. 1 (2006): 89.
5. Espen Hammer, Adorno and the Political (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 166.
6. Rochelle Duford, “Daughters of the Enlightenment: Reconstructing Adorno on Gender and Feminist Praxis,” Hypatia 32, no. 4 (2017): 784–800.
7. J. M. Bernstein, “Fragment, Fascination, Damaged Life: ‘The Truth about Hedda Gabler,’” in The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern, ed. Max Pensky (New York: SUNY Press, 1997), pp. 154–82; Rainer Forst, Justification and Critique (Cambridge: Polity, 2014); Frode Helland, Melankoliens spill (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2000); Helland, “The Scars of Modern Life: Hedda Gabler in Adorno’s Prism,” in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler: Philosophical Perspectives, ed. Kristin Gjesdal (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2018), pp. 92–111.
8. Eva-Maria Ziege, “A Letter from Adorno to Erich Fromm,” Logos Journal 2, no. 4 (2003): 81–87; Duford, “Daughters of the Enlightenment.”
9. Theodor W. Adorno, “On Women: A Letter to Erich Fromm,” Logos Journal 2, no. 4 (2003): 89.
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