According to Theodor Adorno, the modern artwork makes the beholder shudder and reflect, purging his habit of over-conceptualizing. Furthermore, although the modern artwork may seem incomprehensible and foreign to the beholder, it expresses only a simple message: “this is how it is.” The artwork is not in itself an imposition, demand, or confrontation, though it may have all of these effects. Ontologically, the artwork is an expression: “It is thus.” To avoid the trap of conceptualization, Adorno varies the concept-name of this simple expression throughout Aesthetic Theory—from Sosein (or So-und-nicht-anders-Seins) to So ist es (with some other variations: for example, the “Here I am” or “This is what I am” of Etruscan vases), and finally to “Comment c'est,” which Adorno equates with “that's what it's like out there” (“so geht es zu, so ist es draussen”) as well as with “how it is” (“wie es ist”). This concept-name at times appears demonstrative—“It is thus”—at times general—“how it is”—and at times self-referential—“here I am.”
Although Adorno's English translator Hullot-Kentor notes that the meaning of Sosein for Adorno is equivalent to that of Beckett's “Comment c'est,” he refers to the French phrase as though it were a theoretical concept instead of the title of a prose work by Beckett published in 1961. In this essay I attempt to rectify that oversight by demonstrating that within Adorno's Aesthetic Theory Beckett's Comment c'est functions not as an artwork but as the slippage of the concept Sosein. Comment c'est remains a “comment c'est” for Adorno—not just an exemplum, or a reference, but something between a concept-name and an actual artwork: a “title” that reveals not only its own essence but also the essence of modern art. My analysis thus moves between reading Comment c'est as, on the one hand, a literalization of Adorno's ideas in Aesthetic Theory (in other words, as a kind of meta-text) and, on the other, as an exemplum of his views on the new, on unity and meaning, and on mimesis and expression. In doing so, I hope to deepen our understanding of the special place that Beckett occupies within Adorno's philosophy.