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Modern Language Review
“This is a wonderful book.”
About the Author:
Ehrhard Bahr is distinguished professor emeritus of German at UCLA
When Theodor W. Adorno (190369) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) began to write their Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung) in 1941, they unintentionally provided a theory for the experience of exile in Southern California and for a modernism that had become questionable to its practitioners who felt out of place in the vicinity of Hollywood. Developed in discussions between Horkheimer and Adorno and recorded by the latter's wife, Gretel Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment was completed in mimeographed form under the title Philosophical Fragments (Philosophische Fragmente) in 1944 and first published under its current title by the publishing house Querido of Amsterdam in 1947. It was most fitting that Querido published this book because it had been the most important publisher of the exiles since 1933. Later, pirated editions were circulated during the student revolution in West Germany around 1968, and the book was republished by Fischer in Frankfurt in 1969.
Read in terms of the Weimar iconography of Los Angeles, this bookis also a theory of modernism; its pessimism reflects the crisis of modernism after 1933. What is most remarkable about Horkheimer and Adorno's theory is that it covers such a wide field of creative endeavors and affected even those who had never heard of it or disagreed with it. Bertolt Brecht's sarcastic remarks about the Tuis (his nickname for the intellectuals of the Institute for Social Research, derived from the anagram "Tellect-Ual-In") are well known, and he even planned to write a novel on the Tuis. Yet Adorno raised issues about the authentic reception of art in his chapter on the culture industry that were similar to those the playwright addressed in his Short Organon for the Theater (Kleines Organon für das Theater), a new theory of the theater that was conceived in Los Angeles at the same time as Dialectic of Enlightenment and later printed in East Berlin in 1949.
Horkheimer had come to Los Angeles from New York in April 1941 for health reasons. His doctor had advised him to move to a more temperate climate because of a heart condition. Adorno followed him in November 1941. After his arrival, Adorno sent an enthusiastic letter to his parents on November 30:
The beauty of the landscape is without comparison, so that even a hard-boiled European like me is overwhelmed. The proportions of mountains and ocean remind me of the French Riviera, near San Remo or Mentone, but it is not as sub-divided and privé, but on a much larger scale and more open. The silhouette of the mountains reminds me of Tuscany. The view from our new house lets me think of Fiesole.... But the most gorgeous are the intensive colors that you cannot describe. A drive along the ocean during the sunset is one of the most extraordinary impressions that my rather nonchalant eyes have ever had.... The southern architecture and the limited advertising have created a kind of Kulturlandschaft [cultured landscape]: one has the impression that the world here is populated by some human-like creatures and not only by gasoline stations and hot dogs. (Briefe an die Eltern: 107-8)
Both Adorno and Horkheimer settled on the Westside, Horkheimer in a bungalow at 13524 D'este Drive in Pacific Palisades and Adorno in a duplex at 316 South Kenter Avenue in Brentwood. For financial reasons Adorno preferred a rented apartment that was large enough for his library and a grand piano, while Horkheimer had the funds to build a new house that also had room for his friend Friedrich Pollock, a member of the Institute for Social Research who lived in Los Angeles until 1942 and to whom the mimeographed version of Dialectic of Enlightenment was dedicated in 1944 (Wiggershaus 312). Horkheimer described his daily routine during that time in a letter of August 12, 1942, to theologian Paul Tillich, a colleague from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Frankfurt, who had also been exiled to New York in 1933:
My life runs quite a regular course. In the morning, I take a short walk with Pollock, after which I write notes and drafts for a fairly methodical study; in the afternoons I usually see Teddie [Adorno] to decide on the final text with him.... The evenings belong to Pollock.... In between, there are seminars and business to do with practical questions involving the Institute. For nearly two months now I have been able to say that we are working on the real text.... There is already an imposing series of preliminary notes, but the final formulation of them will take years. This is due partly to the objective difficulties of the task of producing a formulation of dialectic philosophy which will take account of the experience of recent decades, and partly to our lack of routine, the cumbersomeness of thinking, and the lack of clarity on important points which we are still laboring under. (Gesammelte Schriften 17: 313)
Other members of the institute who came to Los Angeles included Leo Löwenthal, who was credited in the introduction of Dialectic of Enlightenment for his contributions to the chapter on anti-Semitism; Herbert Marcuse, who was likewise credited for parts of the book; and Friedrich Pollock, but all three left for Washington, D.C., when they were offered employment by government agencies that were involved in the war effort, such as the Office of War Information (OWI) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the case of Löwenthal and Marcuse and the Department of Justice in Pollock's case. According to Horkheimer's plan, Marcuse was supposed to set up an office of the institute in Santa Monica and to participate in the book on dialectics, but these plans were abandoned when Marcuse accepted the job offer from the OWI in 1942. Although Horkheimer benefited from the theoretical work of the other members of the Institute for Social Research, he was also somewhat relieved when they accepted jobs with the U.S. government, because the institute's funds were running low and some of the members' salaries had to be cut.
Horkheimer was the director of the Institute for Social Research, which was founded in 1923 in Frankfurt/Main and ten years later moved into exile, first to Geneva, then to Paris, and finally, in 1936, to New York, where it was affiliated with Columbia University. With Horkheimer's move to California the institute's activity shifted to the West Coast, although the Los Angeles office was considered only a branch office until the New York office closed in 1944. In Paris and then later in New York, the institute issued the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, continued in English as Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, which published seminal articles by members of the institute between 1933 and 1941. Martin Jay and Rolf Wiggershaus have written comprehensive histories of the institute.
It is important to note that Horkheimer tried to imitate the New York office and affiliate the Los Angeles office with a local university. It was his plan to establish a branch (Zweigstelle) at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1940, but the proposal was turned down by Robert G. Sproul, the president of the University of California, because the institute was not prepared to submit its appointments and promotions to peer review, as was required for faculty members of the University of California. The institute had planned to appoint Horkheimer as director of research and Herbert Marcuse as his assistant. They were prepared to lecture and conduct seminars on eighteenth-century philosophy, German and other European philosophy from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present, the history of sociology since August Comte, and the history of ideas during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The institute was willing to contribute $8,000 annually in support of this venture, but the university was not persuaded by the financial offer ("Memorandum"). In 1949, both Adorno and Horkheimer returned to West Germany, convinced that they "would be able to achieve more there than elsewhere" (DE xii). They reestablished at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Frankfurt/Main the Institute for Social Research, which played a decisive role in the intellectual and political culture of the Federal Republic of Germany, even after Adorno and Horkheimer had died. The term "Frankfurt School" was first used to refer to members of the institute by outsiders in the 1960s, but the group's founders and spokesmen adopted the label without hesitation. In Germany it is customary to speak of a first and second generation of the Frankfurt School (Wiggershaus 1). Jürgen Habermas, Adorno's most distinguished student in West Germany, belonged to the second generation and continued the tradition of the Frankfurt School long after Adorno had died, and even when Habermas was no longer associated with the Goethe University. In the United States, the most common way of referring to the Frankfurt School was to use the term "critical theory," because much of the group's work was done in exile and not in Frankfurt (Kellner 1).
It is my argument that Dialectic of Enlightenment provides a comprehensive assessment and analysis of modernism and its crisis during the 1940s. Since it is not limited to the discussion of aesthetics or art-although they form an important part of the modernist project-it has universal appeal and relevance, as indicated by the chapter "Elements of Anti-Semitism." It has been argued that Adorno and Horkheimer were not really familiar with American culture and treated most subjects with an obvious European bias, but this element of alienation served to explain the specific exile situation in Los Angeles to a degree that they themselves may not have been aware of. As foreigners they suffered from displacement, and their alienation, also inherent in modernism, required a new and philosophical response. It was not simply that they rejected modern America, but that they needed to reject it in order to identify and analyze the crisis of high culture. As Peter Uwe Hohendahl has persuasively argued, Adorno was aware of the problematic position of modernism before he came to the United States and "was therefore critical of a position that would identify 'bad' mass culture with America and 'good' high culture with Europe." The difference between Europe and America was the greater extent of "the systematic transformation of literature and the arts under the impact of monopoly capitalism" in the United States, but it was a difference only by degrees (Hohendahl 22). As Adorno says in his autobiographical essay about his experiences as a European scholar in America, he resisted adjustment and socialization not out of arrogance, as was sometimes suspected, but as a methodology of research. He did not want to perceive American phenomena as obvious, as Americans typically did, but rather wanted to "alienate" these phenomena so that they might reveal elements essential to them that were hidden to the American observers. Adorno admitted that he was indebted to Brecht for his use of the term "alienation" ("Scientific Experiences" 217). He also could have referred to Brecht's "Refugee Conversations" of 1940, in which the playwright says that "emigration is the best school of dialectics. Refugees are the sharpest dialectic thinkers. They are refugees as a result of changes and their sole object of study is change" (GBA 18: 264). This describes exactly the position that Adorno and Horkheimer took when writing Dialectic of Enlightenment. Adorno says that in the United States he was "liberated from a naïve belief in culture, [and] acquired the ability to see culture from outside." There was not the "reverential silence [that] reigned before everything intellectual as it [did] in Central and Western Europe far beyond the so-called cultivated classes." The absence of this respect induced in Adorno "the spirit to critical self-reflection." A few pages later he alluded to Hegel as the master dialectician who had emphasized that "speculative thinking is not distinct from so-called healthy common sense [gesunder Menschenverstand] but rather essentially consisted in its critical self-reflection and self-scrutiny" ("Scientific Experiences" 239-42).
It is important to emphasize that Adorno and Horkheimer did not believe that German high culture was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933, but rather that its destruction was a long process that had begun already during the 1920s. Therefore, they did not expect German culture simply to be restored after World War II, but instead expected it to be reconfigured in terms of American mass culture (Hohendahl 33). Modernism was not immune to German fascism. On the contrary, fascism had developed its own modernism, and left-wing modernism had adopted some of the stylistic features and topoi of fascist modernism, as Adorno and Horkheimer did not hesitate to show in regard to Alfred Döblin, a fellow exile in Los Angeles. The protagonist of Döblin's famous novel Berlin Alexanderplatz was compared to desperate characters in mediocre films (DE 123). The year 1933 marked only the date of the final split between right-wing, left-wing, and central modernism that was effected by the external force applied by German fascism, and even that split was not clean, as the examples of Brecht and Werfel showed.
When Adorno and Horkheimer announced their project-namely, the presentation of their momentous discovery that "humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism," in the preface of their Dialectic of Enlightenment (xiv)-in 1944, they were looking back at a learning process of more than ten years. This insight, which had the ring of a similar declaration by Friedrich Schiller in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man of 1795, dated back to the 1930s. Although it was the French Revolution that served as a sobering influence on Schiller, it was the experience of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise to power of the Nazi party that shaped Adorno and Horkheimer's assessment of modern culture and its development. Realizing that the conditions of Nazism were already present in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, Adorno and Horkheimer came to the conclusion that enlightenment always contained the seeds of its own destruction or reversion to mythology, or irrationality, unless it reflected on this "regressive moment" (DE xvi).
Although they acknowledged the presence of the individual self and were convinced that "freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking," Adorno and Horkheimer nevertheless believed that this very notion, "no less than the concrete historical forms, the institutions of society with which it is intertwined," already contained "the germ of regression" (DE xvi). They saw this regression as universally apparent not only in the 1920s and 1930s, but also in the 1940s, and not only in Central Europe, but also in the United States. Since their argument was not strictly historical, but instead based on structures, patterns, and process, they could claim that the threat of fascism existed also in the United States (Hohendahl 34). Although in fact the United States was involved in a war against fascism as of December 1941, Adorno and Horkheimer were eager to point out similarities in the forms of mass control and mass entertainment used in Nazi Germany and the United States. In this context, fascist Germany appeared as "the alternative version of modernity" (Hohendahl 34). As Hohendahl explains, "For Adorno and Horkheimer, an analysis of the American society included, explicitly and implicitly, an analysis of modern Germany, since they saw both the political system of the National Socialists and the organization of culture in North America as aspects of the same historical dialectical of reason" (34). While Adorno and Horkheimer admitted that the increase in economic productivity had furnished "the conditions for a more just world," they saw the individual "entirely nullified in face of the economic powers." Even if the economic apparatus provided better for individuals than ever before, they vanished "before the apparatus they serve[d]" (DE xvii).
Excerpted from Weimar on the Pacific by Ehrhard Bahr Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 7, 2008
For those who are studying the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory and struggling with the likes of Adorno, Weimar on the Pacific is an excellent book for arriving at a deeper and sounder understanding of the formative American contexts out of which these scholarly traditions emerged. Through detailing the complicated relations between art, philosophy and politics in the modernist works produced within the German exile community in Los Angeles before and during World War, Ehrhard Bahr provides a highly compelling account of the connection between the Enlightenment and the Weimar legacy and the diversities, ambiguities and paradoxes that characterize modernism. Above all, Weimar on the Pacific will be of exceptional value to those interested in reconsidering Adorno¿s famously trenchant critique of the Hollywood dream machine and as such makes a significant contribution to the inter-disciplinary historical study of modernism unfettered by obscurantist philosophy and theory.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.