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New Left Review I/219, September-October 1996

Malcolm Bull

The Ecstasy of Philistinism

Believing that philistinism was not mere vulgarity but ‘the antithesis par excellence of aesthetic behaviour’, Adorno expressed interest in studying the phenomenon as a via negativa to the aesthetic. [1] T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, London 1984, p. 342, p. 454. But the project remained unrealized, and although he frequently made dismissive or insulting remarks about philistines, Adorno never bothered to investigate what, if anything, philistinism might be. In this respect, his attitude was characteristic of the discourse against philistinism that had been in circulation since the nineteenth century. But in his unfulfilled desire to study the philistine, Adorno opened the way to a revaluation of that tradition, for upon closer examination the philistine proves to be a figure of greater historical and intellectual importance than Adorno imagined.

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