This article is a comparative study of Theodor Adorno and Roland Barthes. These rarely compared thinkers share a profound affinity: their lifelong work on ideology critique proceeds from similar bases, and they each accord preeminence to aesthetic reflection. Their shared insistence on the importance of openly subjective critical response is founded on a post-Nietzschean understanding of Kant and is concerned with the condition of the individual in modernity. Adorno's and Barthes's respective investments in the aesthetic realm have often been viewed unfavorably. Challenging such views, this article shows that aesthetic reflection, which stages the difficult balance between the particular and the general, is at the heart of Barthes's and Adorno's conceptions of the role of criticism in doing justice to the individual. Beginning by comparing Adorno's and Barthes's divergent views on Brecht as exemplar of committed literature, the article then examines the convergence between the two writers' attitudes to the aesthetic. Essayism is a central preoccupation, as a discussion of both writers' preferred forms shows: Adorno's “The Essay as Form” and Barthes's “Inaugural Lecture” reveal strikingly similar conceptions of the role of subjective aesthetic response in criticism. Finally, the article examines Barthes's Camera Lucida, arguing that this text on photography confirms Adorno's insistence that in individual literary works we can find embodied the hope of “attaining universality through unrestrained individuation.”

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