Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of Punctuation


German critical theorist Theodor Adorno is known for many things, but a light touch isn’t one of them. His work includes despairing post-fascist ethics and a study on the sociology and psychology of fascism. Those who dig deeper into his catalog may know his rigorously philosophical Negative Dialectics or dense, opaque Aesthetic Theory. Given the seriously heavy nature of these books, you might surprised, as I was, to read the paragraph below:

An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks (<<> >) lick their lips.

The skillful deployment of aphorism seems typical; the playfulness not so much. But Adorno’s short essay, “punctuation marks,” takes a sober turn shortly thereafter, and for good reason. Punctuation is serious business. Sounding much more like the Adorno I know, the dour Marxist writes, “History has left its residue in punctuation marks, and it is history, far more than meaning or grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation.” Okay.

Well, Adorno would just hate what I’m about to do, but—hey—this is the internet; who has the time and concentration to traverse the rocky course of thought he carves out in his work? Maybe you? Good, read the full essay. Not you? See below for some bite-sized highlights.

Punctuation as music: “punctuation marks,” Adorno writes, “are marks of oral delivery.” As such, they function like musical notation. “The comma and the period correspond to the half-cadence and the authentic cadence.” Exclamation points are “like silent cymbal clashes, question marks like musical upbeats.” Colons are like “dominant seventh chords.” Adorno, a musicologist and composer himself, heard things in these symbols most of us probably don’t.

The semicolon: There is no mark of punctuation that Adorno rejects outright. All have their place and purpose. He does decry the modernist tendency to mostly leave them out, since “then they simply hide.” But Adorno reserves a special pride of place for the semicolon. He claims that “only a person who can perceive the different weights of strong and weak phrasings in musical form” can understand the difference between semicolon and comma. He differentiates between the Greek and German semicolon. And he expresses alarm “that the semicolon is dying out.” This, he claims, is due to a fear of “page-long paragraphs”—the kind he often writes. It is “a fear created by the marketplace—by the consumer who does not want to tax himself.” Right, I told you, he would hate the internet, though he seems to thrive—posthumously—on Twitter.

Quotation marks: While Adorno accepts every punctuation mark as meaningful, he does not accept all uses of them. In the case of the quotation mark, his advice is precisely what I have received, and have passed on to overly glib and thoughtless students. Quotation marks, he writes, should only be used for direct quotes, “and if need be when the text wants to distance itself from a word it is referring to.” This can include writing words as words (the word “word” is a word…). Adorno rejects quotation marks as an “ironic device.” This usage presents “a predetermined judgment on the subject”; it offers a “blind verdict.”

The ellipsis: On this mark, Adorno becomes very prickly, particular, and, well… elliptical. Three dots “suggests an infinitude of thoughts and associations.” Two is the mark of a hack. I leave it to you to parse his reasoning.

The dash: First, we have “the serious dash,” in which “thought becomes aware of its fragmentary character.” Dashes may signal “mute lines into the past, wrinkles on the brow” of the text, ”uneasy silence.” Dashes need not connect thoughts. The “desire to connect everything,” Adorno writes, is the mark of “literary dilettantes.” Thus the “modern dash” is debased, a symptom of “the progressive degeneration of language.” It prepares us “in a foolish way for surprises that by that very token are no longer surprising.” Adorno also prefers another use of dashes—more below.

Parentheses: Parenthetical phrases (like this) create “enclaves” and admit the “superfluousness” of their contents, which is why many stylebooks frown upon them. Their use in this way “capitulate[s] to pedantic philistinism.” The “cautious writer”—writes punctiliously cautious Adorno—will place parentheticals between dashes, “which block off parenthetical material from the flow of the sentence without shutting it up in a prison.” The parentheses do have their place, as do all marks of punctuation in Adorno’s lexical theory. But probably only if you are Proust.

Reading Adorno—on punctuation and anything else—can be intimidating. His erudition, his disdain for carelessness, middlebrow expediency, and the crude forms of expression given birth by commerce of all kinds: these are attitudes that can seem at times like overbearing elitism. And yet, Adorno understands the burdensome nature of writing prescriptions. “The writer,” he admits, “is in a permanent predicament when it comes to punctuation marks: if one were fully aware while writing, one would sense the impossibility of ever using a mark of punctuation correctly and would give up writing altogether.” Far too many have done so. We “cannot trust in the rules,” nor can we ignore them. What to do? Err on the side of the abstemious says our poker-faced German Strunk; to avoid sloppiness or rote misuse, follow an Epicurean mean: “better too few than too many.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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The Baffler Makes Its Back Issues All Free to Read Online


The New Yorker wasn’t the only magazine that relaunched its web site this week. The Baffler did the same. They got a new look and feel. And they made plenty of loyal readers happy by making 25 years of back issues freely available online. The editors of the magazine — that “loose collective of disaffiliated culture critics, knowledge workers, poets, illustrators, and closet utopians” — write:

Well, when The Baffler was born in 1988, we never could have foreseen this #innovation, but here we are. Please enjoy this new and uncharacteristically shiny iteration of The Baffler online—featuring not only our new issue (no. 25, “The None and the Many”), but also, for the first time ever, all of our digitized archives in one place.

That’s 25 issues, 432 contributors, 277 salvos, 450 graphics, 172 poems, 73 stories, 3,396 pages made of 1,342,785 words. You can click on individual pieces or flip through entire issues page by page, if you so desire.

You can flip through the sporadically-published back issues and revel in the iconoclastic magazine that “ridicules respectable business leaders, laughs at popular consumer brands as souvenirs of the cultural industry, and debunks the ideology of free-market nincompoops in the media and on the campuses.” Or, if you’re looking for some more direction, you can head to the The Paris Review, where Dan Piepenbring makes some recommendations, starting with his “personal favorite, Steve Albini’s “The Problem with Music,” a terse, caustic critique of the record industry at the height of yuppie-ism and major-label excess.”

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Read 15,000 Marvel Comics Online for 99 Cents (for a Limited Time)


Right now, Marvel is running a promotion where if you join Marvel Unlimited, using the promo code SDCC14, you can pay 99 cents for your first month, during which time you can access “over 15,000 Digital Comics, featuring Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and the galaxy’s vilest villains – all spanning Marvel’s 75 year history!” Yes, that includes the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, The Mighty Thor & many other favorites.

According to Wired, the “comics can be viewed on PC and Mac, as well as iOS and Android devices through a Marvel Unlimited app. Readers can download up to 12 comics at a time for offline reading.” A Marvel Unlimited subscription usually costs $69 a year or $9.99 a month, but the terms and conditions say that “Subscribers can cancel their subscription at any time by accessing My account or e-mailing Marvel customer service.” In other words, you can subscribe for one month, pay 99 cents, read a heck of a lot of comics, then decide if you want to continue the subscription — or not — before the end of 30 days. (Just as an fyi, offers a similar arrangement with audio books. You can join their 30-day free trial, download a free audio book, then decide whether you want to stick with the program before the month’s end. No matter what you decide, you can keep the free audio book. Find more details here.)

If you prefer to just pay zero cents for comics, please see our two prior posts.

Download 15,000+ Free Golden Age Comics from the Digital Comic Museum

Download Over 22,000 Golden & Silver Age Comic Books from the Comic Book Plus Archive

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A Quick Animated Tour of Iconic Modernist Houses

From Italian graphic designer Matteo Muci comes “a two-minute animated voyage through some of the most iconic masterpieces of modern architecture: Ville Savoye by Le Corbusier, Rietveld Schröder House by Gerrit Rietveld, Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Glass House by Philip Johnson and Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright.” Illustrations of the houses can be viewed and freely downloaded here.

H/t goes to Ian M. for sending this quick visual treat our way.

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Take The Near Impossible Literacy Test Louisiana Used to Suppress the Black Vote (1964)


In William Faulkner’s 1938 novel The Unvanquished, the implacable Colonel Sartoris takes drastic action to stop the election of a black Republican candidate to office after the Civil War, destroying the ballots of black voters and shooting two Northern carpetbaggers. While such dramatic means of voter suppression occurred often enough in the Reconstruction South, tactics of electoral exclusion refined over time, such that by the mid-twentieth century the Jim Crow South relied largely on nearly impossible-to-pass literacy tests to impede free and fair elections.

These tests, writes Rebecca Onion at Slate, were “supposedly applicable to both white and black prospective voters who couldn’t prove a certain level of education” (typically up to the fifth grade). Yet they were “in actuality disproportionately administered to black voters.” Additionally, many of the tests were rigged so that registrars could give potential voters an easy or a difficult version, and could score them differently as well. For example, the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement describes a test administered in Alabama that is so entirely subjective it measures the registrar’s shrewdness and cunning more than anything else.


The test here from Louisiana consists of questions so ambiguous that no one, whatever their level of education, can divine a “right” or “wrong” answer to most of them. And yet, as the instructions state, “one wrong answer denotes failure of the test,” an impossible standard for even a legitimate exam. Even worse, voters had only ten minutes to complete the three-page, 30-question document. The Louisiana test dates from 1964, the year before passage of the Voting Rights Act, which effectively put an end to these blatantly discriminatory practices. (Though last year’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby vs. Holder means that such tests, or even more slippery means, could ostensibly return in those parts of the country that have made little progress since the sixties). Learn more of the history of Jim Crow voter suppression at Rebecca Onion’s original post here and an update here.


via Slate’s Vault blog

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Stanley Kubrick Faked the Apollo 11 Moon Landing 45 Years Ago, Or So the Conspiracy Theory Goes

This week is the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 journey to the moon. And while most people will celebrate the event by acknowledging the abilities and courage of Neil Armstrong and company in this landmark of human endeavor, a small, though vocal, group of people will decry the moon landing as a fraud.

In that spirit, French filmmaker William Karel spins an elaborate tale of intrigue in Dark Side of the Moon, which you can see above. The 2002 film posits that the Apollo 11 moon landing was staged by none other than Stanley Kubrick. How else did the director get his hands on a super advanced lens from NASA to shoot those gorgeous candle-lit scenes in Barry Lyndon? The film is slickly produced and features an impressive array of interviewees from Henry Kissinger, to Buzz Aldrin to Christiane Kubrick. Some of the other people interviewed include Jack Torrance and David Bowman. If that’s not a tip off that the whole movie is fake, then the blooper reel at the end drives the point home. Only a lot of people didn’t get the joke. Conspiracy enthusiasts Wayne Green cited the movie as further proof that the moon landing was faked.

Moon hoaxers like to point to The Shining as a confession by Kubrick that he was forced into a Big Lie. In the documentary Room 237, conspiracy theorist and leading Sandy Hook truther Jay Weidner claims as much. And Michael Wysmierski argues the same in The Shining Code 2.0, a feature length video that you can watch below. Or get right to the meat of things here.

And just in case you get swept up in Wysmierski’s loony logic, filmmaker S. G. Collins makes the very compelling argument that the technology simply didn’t exist to fake the moon landing in 1969. Case closed.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.


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Dante’s Divine Comedy Illustrated in a Remarkable Illuminated Medieval Manuscript (c. 1450)

YT 36

Few writers have inspired so many artists, so deeply and for so long, as Dante Alighieri. His epic poem the Divine Comedy (find in our collection of Free eBooks) has received striking illuminations at the hands of Gustave Doré, Sandro Botticelli, Alberto Martini, and Salvador Dalí — to name only those we’ve featured before here on Open Culture. The names Priamo della Quercia and Giovanni di Paolo may mean relatively little to you right now, but they’ll mean much more once you’ve taken a look at the illustrations featured here and at The World of Dante, which come from an illuminated manuscript of the Divine Comedy at the British Library known as Yates Thompson 36. Produced in Siena around 1450 for an unknown original patron, “the codex belonged to Alfonso V, king of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily,” and includes “110 large miniatures and three historiated initials.” (See all here.) Della Quercia illustrated the Inferno and Purgatorio and all three historiated initials; di Paolo illustrated Paradiso.


“This makes for two distinctly different styles,” continues The World of Dante’s page. “Priamo’s work reflects the more realistic style of late fifteenth-century Florentine painting, an influence which is particularly noticeable in his use of contours and outlines in the depiction of nudes. Giovanni di Paolo’s style is closer to that of late fourteenth-century Sienese artists,” producing results “greatly admired for their visual interpretation of the poem: the artist doesn’t just transcribe Dante’s words but seeks to render their meaning.” The British Library’s medieval manuscripts blog describes it as “certainly a lavish production” that “must have been an expensive undertaking,” given the status of the men doing the illuminating as “two of the preeminent artists of the day.” But when it came to visualizing Dante’s journey, quite literally, to hell and back in 15th-century Italy, no artist ranked too highly. Even today, I can’t imagine any artist reading the Divine Comedy, illuminated or no, without getting a few vivid ideas of their own.

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More images can be found on the British Library web site (scroll down the page). A Yale course entirely dedicated to Dante appears in our collection, 1000 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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The Night When Miles Davis Opened for the Grateful Dead in 1970: Hear the Complete Recordings


What’s that, you ask? Did Miles Davis open for the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West? In what world could such a thing happen? In the world of the late sixties/early seventies, when jazz fused with acid rock, acid rock with country, and pop culture took a long strange trip. The “inspired pairing” of the Dead with Davis’ electric band on April 12, 1970, “represented one of [promoter] Bill Graham’s most legendary bookings,” writes the blog Cryptical Developments. I’ll say. Davis had just released the groundbreaking double-LP Bitches Brew and was “at somewhat of an artistic and commercial crossroads,” experimenting with new, more fluid compositions.

Aggressive and dominated by rock rhythms and electric instruments, the album became Davis’ best seller and brought him before young, white audiences in a way his earlier work had not.  The band that Davis brought into the Fillmore West, comprising [Chick] Corea, [Dave] Holland, soprano sax player Steve Grossman, drummer Jack Dejohnette, and percussionist Airto Moreira, was fully versed in this new music, and stood the Fillmore West audiences on their ears.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to see that performance live. But we don’t have to imagine what it sounded like. You can hear all of Davis’s set below. In his autobiography, Davis described it as “an eye-opening concert for me.” “The place was packed with these real spacy, high white people,” he wrote, “and when we first started playing, people were walking around and talking.” Once the band got into the Bitches Brew material, though, “that really blew them out. After that concert, every time I would play out there in San Francisco, a lot of young white people showed up at the gigs.”

Did the Dead become a crossover hit with jazz fans? Not exactly, but Davis really hit it off with them, especially with Jerry Garcia. “I think we all learned something,” Davis wrote: “Jerry Garcia loved jazz, and I found out that he loved my music and had been listening to it for a long time.” In his autobiography, the Dead’s Phil Lesh remembered having his mind blown by Davis and band: “As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking What’s the use. How can we possibly play after this? […] With this band, Miles literally invented fusion music. In some ways it was similar to what we were trying to do in our free jamming, but ever so much more dense with ideas – and seemingly controlled with an iron fist, even at its most alarmingly intense moments.” You can stream the Dead’s full performance from that night below. Think what must have been running through their minds as they took the stage after watching Miles Davis invent a new form of music right before their eyes.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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The First Animations of Mike Judge, Creator of Beavis and Butt-head & Office Space (1991)

Mike Judge first became famous for creating the crude and crudely drawn cartoon series Beavis and Butt-head (find complete episodes online here). The show was about two high school burnouts whose running commentary on the latest music videos was so boneheaded and baldly vulgar that you couldn’t help but laugh. Prissy culture warriors pointed to the show as yet another symptom of America’s decline while legions of stoned college students gleefully tuned in. In 1998, Judge made the jump to live action features with Office Space, a hilarious, if uneven, take on the banalities of American corporate culture. It’s one of those movies that no one saw in the theater but, thanks to cable, everyone of a certain age can quote. (“If you can come in on Saturday, that would be great.”) Currently, he is the creator for the hit HBO series Silicon Valley.

Judge started in animation after working for a spell as first a computer programmer and then a blues bassist. After seeing an animation cel on display in a local movie theater in 1989, he ran out and bought a Bolex 16mm camera and started making movies. Two years later, he was producing odd, thoroughly unpolished animated shorts that made the rounds in film festivals, eventually launching a career in Hollywood.

Above is a short about Milton, the nebbish stapler-obsessed cubicle dweller who was the genesis for Office Space. Stephen Root played him in the movie. His boss is the same passive-aggressive prick as in the movie though played with less unctuous zeal as Gary Cole’s performance. The short proved to be such a success that MTV’s Liquid Television ordered more.

Next is The Honky Problem, about an emotionally unbalanced country singer named ‘Inbred Jed.’ He wants you to know that he is really, really, really happy to be playing at a remote trailer parker populated by a bunch of characters out of a David Lynch movie. In fact, if it weren’t for the jokey voice over at the end, this short is creepy enough to almost pass for an episode of Lynch’s own animated series, Dumbland.

And there’s this short also from 1991 called simply Huh?, which pits the shrill against the oblivious.

You can find more Animations in our collection, 675 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.

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T.S. Eliot Reads Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats & Other Classic Poems (75 Minutes, 1955)

eliot cats readNot only did T.S. Eliot draw the cover for the first edition of his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, featured yesterday, he even read it aloud for the audiobook edition. You may think the time of the audiobook, now a popular form on digital audio devices everywhere, must have begun long after the time of Eliot had already ended. (Eliot died in 1965.) But as we know from having previously featured their mid-1970s albums of Leonard Nimoy reading Ray Bradbury, the record label Caedmon positioned themselves well ahead of the audiobook game. Using recordings made from readings given in London in 1955, Caedmon managed to release albums of Eliot speaking his own work aloud. Today we offer you T.S. Eliot Reads T.S. Eliot, made available via Spotify. The 18 tracks, running some 75 minutes, mostly features Eliot reading from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But he also recites a handful of other classic poems. (If you need Spotify, you can download the software here):

Other audio editions of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (some including a score) would come out later, but, for many Eliot enthusiasts, nothing else can quite match hearing the man himself introduce the likes of Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees, and Bustopher Jones. Listeners in most geographies should be able to access the Spotify playlist. But if you live in Canada and South Africa (where some readers have reported problems) we can recommend that you listen (or re-listen) to Eliot’s readings of his modernist masterpieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, plus his Four Quartets. And if, by chance, you feel like hearing Eliot’s verse but not Eliot’s voice, how about letting Bob Dylan take over reading duties?

Eliot’s reading of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats will be added to our collection, 550 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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T.S. Eliot Illustrates His Letters and Draws a Cover for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

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Bob Dylan Reads From T.S. Eliot’s Great Modernist Poem The Waste Land

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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