Theodor W. Adorno: An Introduction

Theodor W. Adorno: An Introduction

by Gerhard Schweppenhäuser
     
 

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Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) was one of the twentieth century's most important thinkers. In light of two pivotal developments-the rise of fascism, which culminated in the Holocaust, and the standardization of popular culture as a commodity indispensable to contemporary capitalism-Adorno sought to evaluate and synthesize the essential insights of Western philosophy by…  See more details below

Overview

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) was one of the twentieth century's most important thinkers. In light of two pivotal developments-the rise of fascism, which culminated in the Holocaust, and the standardization of popular culture as a commodity indispensable to contemporary capitalism-Adorno sought to evaluate and synthesize the essential insights of Western philosophy by revisiting the ethical and sociological arguments of his predecessors: Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Marx. This book, first published in Germany in 1996, provides a succinct introduction to Adorno's challenging and far-reaching thought. Gerhard Schweppenhäuser, a leading authority on the Frankfurt School of critical theory, explains Adorno's epistemology, social and political philosophy, aesthetics, and theory of culture.

After providing a brief overview of Adorno's life, Schweppenhäuser turns to the theorist's core philosophical concepts, including post-Kantian critique, determinate negation, and the primacy of the object, as well as his view of the Enlightenment as a code for world domination, his diagnosis of modern mass culture as a program of social control, and his understanding of modernist aesthetics as a challenge to conceive an alternative politics. Along the way, Schweppenhäuser illuminates the works widely considered Adorno's most important achievements: Minima Moralia, Dialectic of Enlightenment (co-authored with Horkheimer), and Negative Dialectics. Adorno wrote much of the first two of these during his years in California (1938-49), where he lived near Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas Mann, whom he assisted with the musical aesthetics at the center of Mann's novel Doctor Faustus.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780822390725
Publisher:
Duke University Press
Publication date:
03/16/2009
Series:
Post-Contemporary Interventions
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
386 KB

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Theodor W. Adorno

an introduction
By Gerhard Schweppenhäuser

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4471-1


Chapter One

The Project of Renewing Childhood by Transforming One's Life

IN 1943, WHILE EXILED IN CALIFORNIA, Adorno became personally acquainted with the German author Thomas Mann, whom he greatly admired. As neighbors in Hollywood they became close both socially and professionally. The world-famous, Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who was nearing seventy, initiated the unknown music theorist, who had just turned forty, into his project of writing the novel about the dialectic of German culture. In Mann's Doktor Faustus the debate focuses on a culture that metamorphoses into an archaic brutality implemented with the most modern technology and methods of violence; this happens not by chance, but on the basis of the structural ambivalence inherent in that culture. In Hollywood, Adorno, through his understanding of music theory, became "coauthor" of Thomas Mann's novel.

In his account of the creation of Doktor Faustus, Thomas Mann writes the following about Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund-Adorno, born in Frankfurt on September 11, 1903:

"His father was a German Jew," namely, Oskar Wiesengrund, a Frankfurt wine wholesaler who had converted to Protestantism; "his mother, herself a singer, is the daughter of a French officer of Corsican -originally Genoan-descent, who married a German singer": Maria, born Maria Cavelli-Adorno della Piana. "Adorno, as he calls himself, using his mother's maiden name, is a person of the same kind of aloof, tragically astute, and exclusive intellectual temperament [as] Walter Benjamin, who, hounded to death by the Nazis, left as a legacy the book on 'German tragic drama'-in reality a philosophy and history of allegory."

Mann continues: "Growing up in an atmosphere totally dominated by theoretical (including political) and aesthetic, above all musical, interests," Adorno achieved, even as a young man, an impressive intellectual impact in liberal Frankfurt. His happy childhood and youth were clouded, if at all, only by the antipathy that narrow-minded fellow students may have shown toward him, a privileged and highly gifted boy. Later, in Minima Moralia, he described these "malicious schoolmates" as "messengers" of fascism. Such experiences became the basis of his aversion to "conformist identity," which he had been investigating since the 1940s using innovative methods in the social sciences.

Adorno was trained in philosophy by his older friend Siegfried Kracauer, an important literary journalist at the Frankfurter Zeitung: "For several years, every Saturday afternoon, he would read with me the Critique of Pure Reason. I don't exaggerate in the slightest when I say that I owe more to these study sessions than I do to my academic instructors."

As a student, Adorno was already an influential music critic in the spirit of radical modernism. He stood up for Schoenberg early on. Some of his own compositions were performed in Frankfurt. At twenty-one he concluded his study of philosophy, musicology, psychology, and sociology by gaining a doctorate in philosophy with Hans Cornelius. Cornelius was also the teacher and patron of Max Horkheimer, later the director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and founder of critical theory as a standpoint for social analysis. In 1925 Adorno went to Vienna for a year. We read in Mann's account:

This strange intellect persisted in a lifelong refusal to choose professionally between philosophy and music. It was all too clear to him that he was really pursuing the same goals in the two divergent fields. His dialectical way of thinking and his immersion in the philosophy of society and history-these traits are inseparable from his musical passion. Adorno pursued this passion in his studies of piano and composition with Alban Berg and Eduard Steuermann in Vienna. From 1928 to 1931, as editor of the Viennese journal Anbruch [Dawn], he worked on behalf of radical modernist music.

Back in Frankfurt, Adorno intensified his contact with the Institute for Social Research, linked as he was to Max Horkheimer, its director, by theoretical interests they had shared since their time at university. Adorno described their first meeting later in an "Open letter to Max Horkheimer" on the latter's seventieth birthday:

When I first saw you, in Adhemar Gelb's psychology seminar, since you are eight years older you hardly looked like a student to me; rather, I saw you as a young gentleman from a prosperous family, evincing a certain distanced interest in science. You were untouched by the academic's vocational deformation that leads him all too easily to confuse an involvement in learned matters with reality itself. Yet what you said was so clever, so astute, and above all so independent-minded, that I quickly began seeing you as superior to that sphere from which you held yourself imperceptibly aloof.

A main theme of the institute's work was research into the causes of the unfolding self-dissolution of bourgeois society that was to lead, in Germany, to the authoritarian state. In order to comprehend why human subjects submitted to domination against their own interests, and indeed identified with their rulers, Horkheimer's critical theory linked insights from Marx to a form of psychoanalysis progressively developed into a social psychology, and began to integrate into its investigations the methodology of empirical social research, barely known in Germany at that point. In Horkheimer's institute, philosophy had the task of systematically fusing the interdisciplinary, largely empirical studies focused on this core theme into a materialist theory of the social revolution that had not occurred; the goal was to be able to contribute to such a revolution, to the extent it remained feasible.

Together with Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal, Erich Fromm, and others, Adorno as a music theorist worked in this context on an interdisciplinary theory of the overall social process, grounded in a critique of ideology. He investigated the social content of music in order to gain information about the dual character of artworks, understood by him as both autonomous constructs and socially determined products. He revealed the social content of music not from the outside, as something sociologically given, but through analysis of the formal aesthetic structuring of the works themselves. Adorno combined musicological analyses with sociological investigations of both the ways society shapes music and the public impacts of its production, reception, and distribution. Thus from his special field, music, he could gain insights into the social totality. At the same time, stimulated by Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács, and in a productive exchange with his teacher and friend Walter Benjamin, Adorno worked to articulate, in his dissertation on Kierkegaard, the social and potentially critical content of philosophy.

Adorno had met Benjamin in 1923, when Kracauer introduced them. "I saw Benjamin quite frequently, I'd say at least once a week, probably more often, during the whole time he lived in France," Adorno later wrote. "Later I also saw him regularly, not only on his visits here but above all in Berlin. I was very young then and he was eleven years older; I very much felt myself to be the apprentice. I know that I listened to him with total fascination, sometimes then asking him for more details. Very soon he began showing me some of his writings before they were published."

As Thomas Mann continues the story, in 1931 Adorno "qualified as a lecturer at Frankfurt University, where he taught philosophy until expelled by the Nazis." After that he tried first to "survive the winter" in Germany. At the same time, he sought to gain an academic foothold as an instructor in Oxford. Until 1937 Adorno regularly returned from Oxford to Frankfurt for extended visits. After initial misunderstandings and annoyances he was able, in 1938, to gain clear status as collaborator in the Institute for Social Research and to emigrate to the United States with his wife, the newly graduated doctor of chemistry Margarete Karplus. In Thomas Mann's words: "Since 1941 he has been living in Los Angeles almost as a neighbor." It was there that he changed his name to Theodor W. Adorno.

His ongoing work as a member of the institute's inner circle, which began after his emigration, first to New York and then to Los Angeles, defined not only Adorno's professional life but also his specific experiences of American life. While he never could reconcile himself to American culture, he also knew that he was in a sense indebted to it:

In America I was liberated from a naïve belief in culture as such; I became able to view culture from outside. To clarify: despite all critiques of society and awareness of the primacy of the economic, I had always assumed as obvious the absolute relevance of the spiritual. In America I learned that this obvious relevance was simply not so: there, there is no silent respect for everything spiritual, such as prevails in Central and Western Europe far beyond the so-called educated classes; the absence of this respect provokes the mind to critical self-reflection.

Just as important for Adorno was "the experience of democratic forms as having substance; ... they are wired into American life, whereas in Germany they were never more than formal rules of the game-and I'm afraid they're still no more than that." He applied this social experience to a concept, rooted in Marx and Engels, that was already central to him before his emigration: genuine humanism.

Over there I came to recognize a potential for genuine humanness such as can hardly be found in old Europe. The political forms of democracy are just infinitely closer to people. Notwithstanding the much deplored haste, there is in American daily life an element of peace, benevolence, and generosity that is totally remote from the pent-up malice and resentment that erupted in Germany between 1933 and 1945.... In German sociological studies one constantly encounters statements by subjects that go: "We're not yet mature enough for democracy"; such expressions of simultaneous urge to dominate and self-hatred are hard to imagine in the supposedly so much younger world. By that I don't mean to say that America is inoculated against such a collapse into totalitarian power structures.

Adorno sought to demonstrate this danger by using the methods of empirical social research in his studies of the authoritarian personality. "The danger of authoritarianism is inherent in the core tendency of modern society," he wrote. "But the power to resist fascist impulses is probably stronger in America than in any European country, with the possible exception of England." With his critique of the American culture industry, which anticipated the European and subsequently worldwide mechanisms of mass culture, and especially with his pathbreaking Studies of the Authoritarian Personality, published in the United States in 1950, Adorno contributed, as an immigrant, to the insights of democratic society into its own ambivalence. According to Adorno, the inner contradiction of culture lies in the way it promises human fullness on the basis of an inhuman, repressive social formation; ultimately culture negates its own promise by surrendering entirely, as culture industry, to the rules of commodity production. And it is no mere accident of biography that his investigation into the authoritarian character took place in the most democratic country. The self-undermining tendency of democratic society became open to empirical social-psychological analysis for the first time through the well-known "F-scale," presented in Adorno's studies into the authoritarian character. This scale measured the character dispositions that make individuals "especially receptive to antidemocratic propaganda."

In the United States, then, Adorno did not only work with Thomas Mann on Doktor Faustus, with its inspiration drawn from musical aesthetics. He also wrote the Essay on Wagner and Philosophy of Modern Music; he produced Minima Moralia and Dialectic of Enlightenment, the latter written in collaboration with Max Horkheimer. With Horkheimer, Adorno returned to Frankfurt in 1949. The philosophy students there knew little about their new professor, who had just returned from exile. Insiders knew that he had helped Thomas Mann, exiled in California, with the creation of Doktor Faustus, which had just been published. For many postwar Frankfurt philosophy students, the lectures by Adorno and the other "new" professor, Max Horkheimer (who had also taught in Frankfurt in the 1930s, before the National Socialists drove him and Adorno away), seemed like a revelation. For otherwise, in the philosophy department, philosophy was taught, in the years 1933 to 1945, both in Germany and elsewhere, as if nothing had happened to prevent the subject from being presented, now as before, in the good old academic way.

When Adorno was later asked, at the beginning of the 1960s, why he had returned to Germany, he pointed to the "continuity of his intellectual life" and the dialectical embeddedness of his thinking in the German philosophical tradition. He pointed to "the language which is my own to write in, whereas in the long years as an emigrant I learned to write English, at best, just like everyone else," and to his sense that in Germany he was free from the pressures of the market and of public opinion. He stressed that only a failure to understand the socioeconomic roots of fascism could lead to the view that it was grounded in a supposed German national character; hence the very construction of a "collective guilt" was dubious, belonging to the psychological climate "that produced fascism." He intended to continue his critical theoretical work in the place where his concrete life experience was rooted. He did not want there to be confusion between

the sense of continuity and fidelity to one's own origins and an obstinacy and arrogance about what one simply is. Fidelity like this means that one would rather try to change something in the place where one's own experience is centered than simply abandon it for a quite different place. I simply wanted to return to the place of my childhood, ultimately on the basis of the feeling that what one achieves in life is nothing other than the attempt to regain one's childhood by transforming it. I did not underestimate the danger and difficulty of my decision, but to this day I have not regretted it.

Beginning in 1949, Adorno held a specially structured professorship in philosophy and the sociology of music at the University of Frankfurt; four years later he became a regular distinguished professor of social philosophy and finally, in 1956, chaired professor of sociology and philosophy. In 1950, together with Horkheimer, he restarted and directed the Institute for Social Research. And there, in the 1950s, critical sociology received its big impetus toward a breakthrough in the Federal Republic.

In the 1960s Adorno became one of the most important critical intellectuals in the young Federal Republic. From 1963 to 1968 he was president of the German sociological society. His essay collections Prisms, Interventions, and Catchwords were influential far beyond the academic sphere. On the radio and in the press he was an active public intellectual who made his points sharply; for example, he strongly advocated the liberalization of laws criminalizing some sexual behaviors.

Adorno waged his primary struggle against forgetting, against a process that, under the name "overcoming the past," was supposed to clear away the final obstacles standing in the way of the restoration and "economic miracle" being produced in the "aligned society." (The concept of the aligned society had been coined by Ludwig Erhard, who in 1963 had succeeded Konrad Adenauer as federal chancellor.) Detlev Claussen writes, "In the last twenty-five years of his life Adorno kept his eyes trained on the afterlife of National Socialism. From the consciousness of the actuality of Auschwitz emerged the consciousness of necessary remembering. Without chasing after actuality, he made it possible for many people to use his intellectual efforts as aids to genuine experience."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Theodor W. Adorno by Gerhard Schweppenhäuser Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gerhard Schweppenhäuser is Professor of Design, Communication, and Media Theory at the University of Würzburg in Germany. He has written many books building on the sociocultural, analytical mission of the Frankfurt School, including two focused on Adorno. James L. Rolleston is Professor Emeritus of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Duke University. He has written books on Kafka, Rilke, and modern German poetry. His translation of Bernd Witte’s Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography won the German Literary Prize of the American Translators Association. His and Kai Evers’s translation of Peter Weiss’s last play, The New Trial, is also published by Duke University Press.

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