This Is Not an Adorno T-Shirt: New Adorno Biography and Review

This morning I came across this passage from Adorno‘s introduction to Negative Dialectics:

The un-naive thinker knows how far he remains from the object of his thinking, and yet he must always talk as if he had it entirely. This brings him to the poing ot clowning. He must not deny his clownish traits, least of all since they alone can give him hope for what is denied him. Philosophy is the most serious of things, but then again it is not all that serious.

It’s hard not to think of a certain Slovenian thinker when I read this, but from all accounts, Adorno was not a clown. Harvard UP has published a new book about Adorno by Detlev Claussen entitled Theodor Adorno: One Last Genuis (the HUP website has some exerpts). Here’s the blurb from Harvard University Press:

He was famously hostile to biography as a literary form. And yet this life of Adorno by one of his last students is far more than literary in its accomplishments, giving us our first clear look at how the man and his moment met to create “critical theory.” An intimate picture of the quintessential twentieth-century transatlantic intellectual, the book is also a window on the cultural ferment of Adorno’s day—and its ongoing importance in our own. The biography begins at the shining moment of the German bourgeoisie, in a world dominated by liberals willing to extend citizenship to refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Detlev Claussen follows Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903–1969) from his privileged life as a beloved prodigy to his intellectual coming of age in Weimar Germany and Vienna; from his exile during the Nazi years, first to England, then to the United States, to his emergence as the Adorno we know now in the perhaps not-so-unlikely setting of Los Angeles. There in 1943 with his collaborator Max Horkheimer, Adorno developed critical theory, whose key insight—that to be entertained is to give one’s consent—helped define the intellectual landscape of the twentieth century. In capturing the man in his complex relationships with some of the century’s finest minds—including, among others, Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Siegfried Kracauer, Georg Lukács, Hannah Arendt, and Bertolt Brecht—Claussen reveals how much we have yet to learn from Theodor Adorno, and how much his life can tell us about ourselves and our time.

There is an interesting review in the NY Sun, “The Stern German,” by Adam Kirsch:

Walking near the Metropolitan Museum not long ago, I saw a young man, about the right age for a graduate student, wearing a T-shirt that declared “I (heart) Adorno.” I’m not sure how ironically the slogan was intended, but it perfectly captures the ambiguity that still surrounds Theodor Adorno’s name, nearly 40 years after his death. On the one hand, he is the kind of intellectual who has not just readers but fans, who define themselves in part by their allegiance to him. The breadth and absolutism of his judgments, the way he seems to peer down on all of culture and history from the heights of theory, inspire a cultish devotion that more modest thinkers neither attract nor desire.

Adorno’s critical theory, which allows its wielder to discover the stigmata of history in even the most trivial products of culture, is especially attractive in our post-ideological age, when Marxist cultural analysis is more plausible than Marxist economics. (For examples, see any issue of the magazine n+1, where Adorno is a tutelary spirit.) Even the famous difficulty of Adorno’s prose, which retains in English the auratic abstractness of German, helps to increase his allure. As with the guru who sits at the top of a mountain, his teaching is made more seductive by the hardships the seeker encounters along the way.

Yet at the same time, that T-shirt demonstrates — dialectically, as Adorno would have it — the self-canceling nature of his celebrity. To elevate his name to a slogan is simultaneously to reduce it to a brand, one of the interchangeable markers by which the consumer constructs his illusory identity. It is a textbook example of what Adorno called “reification,” the reduction of a vital subjective experience to a mere dead thing. The almost unbearable demands of Adorno’s thought —which is punishingly consistent in its suspicion of pleasure, its refusal of consolation, its longing for an unattainable utopia — are silenced and betrayed by the kitschy heart symbol.

No. Adorno, who wrote that “even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror,” would certainly not want to be “hearted.” At best, he would take a grim pleasure in seeing this confirmation of the power of what he named the Culture Industry, which neuters even the most powerful challenges to its domination. And perhaps, it is only fair to add, his vanity would be pleased. For as the wife of Max Horkheimer, his Frankfurt School colleague, once observed, “Teddie is the most monstrous narcissist to be found in either the Old World or the New.”

The bluntness of that judgment makes it an exception among the many views of Adorno quoted in “Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius” (Harvard University Press, 440 pages, $35), but the sentiment is not an isolated one. Detlev Claussen’s fascinating study is not quite a biography; it does not lay out the events of Adorno’s life in chronological order, preferring to skip thematically through the decades, and it assumes a good deal of prior knowledge of his work and milieu. It might best be described as the biography of Adorno’s friendships — or better still, his relationships, since even his friends tended to go through phases of disliking him.

Here is Kirsch’s somewhat overstated conclusion:

Yet for all the intellectual dexterity Adorno expended in this effort, and all the undoubted insights he gained into history and culture, it is precisely the totalizing nature of his thought that renders it so questionable. With the subtlety of a schoolman, Adorno tried to show how every aspect of 20th-century life was implicated in the same process of alienation, exploitation, and suffering. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly,” he decreed, and it followed that anyone who believed he was living rightly, or enjoying the “false pleasures” of bourgeois culture, was miserably deluded. Adorno effectively denies the possibility of spontaneity and pluralism, of freedom and new beginnings — in other words, all the human capacities that make genuine humanism possible.

Yet, in the next paragraph I think Kirsch hits the nail on the head:

Only on the other side of redemption, in the utopia Adorno vaguely envisioned, would there be once more a place for happiness. He could write very movingly about that utopia, often drawing on images from childhood, as when he suggests that children’s love of animals has to do with their indifference to human profit and loss. “In existing without any purpose recognizable to men,” he writes, “animals hold out, as if for expression, their own names, utterly impossible to exchange.” The best thing about Mr. Claussen’s book is the way it helps us to understand the extremities of Adorno’s experience, which gave rise to such hope and such despair.

I think that Adorno, and more broadly, the Frankfurt School was at its best as a critique of culture focused on the role of the variant forms of electronic media in transforming modern life and culture and pointing out the inadequacy of the contemporaneous discourses attempting to explain and address all of these changes. However, on the other hand, I always find Adorno most lacking when he attempts to deal with more obtuse “big” concepts like rationality, social justice and social agency. While I am sympathetic to the problems with the controversial thesis of totalization/”the system” that Kirsch seems to be alluding to here, I don’t quite see how Adorno “denies the possibility of spontaneity and pluralism.” Even with all its snobbiness, Adorno and Marcuse’s concept of affirmative culture sought to mobilize the critical resources of the audience in order to open a space wherein the individual is tossed back onto his or her resources to construct a meaning that will shed some light on both personal existence and the existence of society. Hence Adorno’s enthusiasm for 12-tone music and abstract painting. Sure, it runs the risk of being commodified and reinterpretated as being owned by the elite, but it’s a fine risk.

Yes, ok, culture has now become integrated into the web of production within the capitalistic economy. And rightly so, this debasement of culture presents us with a new model, what Horkheimer and Adorno call “the false identity of the general and particular” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 121). This means (as Kirsch notes in his review) that as far as the very occurrence of particularity goes it is illusory-what seems to us to be particular isn’t, it’s merely integrated and repressed. The fetishism of commodities induces a relationship between people that emerges in the form of a quality of a thing, which is expressed through its exchange value (the real object of consumption). So, the culture industry is not a distinct business practice, but is rather a “constant initiation rite” and as such is an important element in assisting the process of domination involved in the account of the mythos of the enlightenment.

Throughout, H/A proceed to give us examples (of the universalizing/generalizing tendency of ‘culture’ even in light of opposition) in order to show us how this “false identity” (of particular/universal, high/low etc.) was determined by distinguishing autonomous art (abstract, particular) from mass production (illusory, universal). This gives us instances of the experience of the culture industry from the viewpoints of both production and consumption (examples and concepts abound: individuality and pseudo-individuality, amusement, pleasure, happiness, style, detail, freedom, illusory otherness and non-identical otherness etc.). So, the culture industry, as mass deception, produces identity (repetition of the same), which razes taste to the most bland (‘collapses’ high/low into a false identity) and generalized principles so that our mass media is predictable-“formula… replaces the work” (126).

Now whereas Adorno emphasizes the mode of production, Walter Benjamin-in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”-is concerned more with the techniques of production. Here, we see the potential for a process of secularization in light of the mechanical reproduction of the work of art. Works of art are less fit to appear as unique and “auratic cult objects.” The aura, Benjamin’s term for the unique sort of ‘halo’ that surrounds the original work of art and gives it authenticity, is displaced by mechanical reproduction along with the hierarchy of the realm of ritual. For Benjamin (unlike Adorno) the loss of the “data of prehistory” (cf. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” in Illuminations) and the closure of experience grounded in tradition offers new possibilities, viz., instead of being based on ritual, art is now based on politics. In some ways, (as Adorno would be quick to point out and is acknowledged by Benjamin) one superstitious adoration was simply replaced with another, e.g. the cult of the movie star. The film admitted the same ‘trauma’ or disgust through the techniques of fragmentation in modern art, yet in film this was accepted by the masses (“The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie”). Film is a characteristic medium in the age of mechanical reproduction because the “receptive stance of distraction” of the cultural consumer, as a politically progressive stance, helped restrain the cultic elements of the work of art. While Benjamin laments the divestiture of the aura he sees the political potential of collective art.

So, whereas Adorno would certainly agree with Benjamin that the political function of art is to expose a glimpse of the other society cloaked by the present social/economic conditions, on the other hand, as we have seen, mass art levels our predilection to the status quo. Benjamin counters Adorno’s insistence on the praxis of “tuning in” to the work of art with the suggestion that the receptive stance of distraction has valuable implications for displacing fetishism. In the age of mechanical reproduction the cult value of the work of art is replaced by its exhibition value, in this analysis, film. Finally, a last word regarding the ‘tenability’ of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School in relation to more recent “postmodern” discourses. As Bernstein points out, “The culture industry in its postmodernist phase has achieved what the avant-garde always wanted: the sublation of the difference between art and life” (The Culture Industry: 24). If we are to take this passage seriously, it seems to me that this problematizes the very notion of “aesthetics”, add for instance Lyotard’s rejection of conventional judgment (i.e. criteria) and perhaps (please forgive me) we may very well live in a “post-aesthetic” age and as such, think ‘beyond’ aesthetics. Before I get too carried away, on a final note, I will say that while the logic of enlightenment may have been displaced, the effects are in many ways very much the same-in this manner for instance, the debate between Adorno’s pessimism and Benjamin’s hope are still germane to any modern critical theory. All in all, perhaps Kirsch’s qualifications in the second serve to exhibit the dialectical movement–or impossibility– of Adorno’s thought. Read the full review here

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