Adorno, Theodor (1903–1969)

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ADORNO, THEODOR (1903–1969)


German philosopher.

Born in Frankfurt am Main, Theodor Adorno studied philosophy there during the 1920s, when he became acquainted with future members of the Institute for Social Research such as Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, and Walter Benjamin. A youthful friendship with the writer and critic Siegfried Kracauer proved to be a major intellectual influence. When Adorno was fifteen, he and Kracauer read Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason together, an experience that the philosopher later described as an important turning point in his early development.

Having met Alban Berg in Frankfurt at a stunning 1924 production of Berg's opera Wozzeck, Adorno was so inspired that he decided, then and there, to travel to Vienna to study "modern music" (neue Musik) firsthand. Although he and the composer Arnold Schoenberg never hit it off, Adorno profited greatly from his contact with Berg. Adorno went on to become a major philosophical interpreter of the Vienna school music, despite Schoenberg's pronounced antipathy. "I could never really stand him," the composer once indelicately opined.

For Adorno, the integrity of Schoenberg's music—above all, middle-period Schoenberg, the master of "dissonance"—lay in its staunch refusal to provide ideological window dressing for a social world in which relations among persons were increasingly dominated by relations among things or commodities. The virtue of atonal composition was that it steadfastly resisted the idea of music as "consolation": sugarcoating for a "totally administered world." In Adorno's view, the rejection of harmony in favor of dissonance allowed "New Music" to unflinchingly articulate the language of social suffering. Under late capitalism, music, like all art, had become the flaccid blandishment of an all-encompassing consumer society. It had, in essence, become a "decorative" accompaniment to department store shopping. In Adorno's view, the colonization of composition by the "culture industry" was a tangible sign of the all-encompassing march of "total administration." Schoenberg's virtue as a composer was that he "declared his independence from this type of art.… His music systematically denied the claim that the universal and the particular had been reconciled."

Adorno was also a pioneer in the field of the "sociology of music," the study of how musical experience is influenced and shaped by social and economic forces. He set forth his views in a number of pioneering articles written for the Frankfurt school's journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Drawing on a long-standing German tradition dating back to Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Wagner, and Ernst Bloch, as well as on Walter Benjamin'stheological messianism, Adorno endowed serious music with a "redemptory" function. He believed that, in an era where philosophy, qua positivism, had been reduced to a handmaiden of the empirical sciences, only authentic works of art retained the capacity to "call things by their proper names." He argued that the nonconceptual character of classical composition—the fact that it communicated via the nonideational language of harmony and sound—endowed it with the ability to transcend the narrowly utilitarian orientation of bourgeois society and give voice to noumenal truth.

Drawing on Marx's notion of "commodity fetishism" as viewed through the prism of Georg Lukács's 1923 Marxist classic, History and Class Consciousness, Adorno depicted the commodification of modern musical experience. As a result of that commodification, music's utopian potential was increasingly diminished. Like other realms of social existence, music, too, had become subject to the all-encompassing dictates of the laws of supply and demand. Amid the forlorn cultural landscape of a burgeoning consumer society, musical taste had been reduced to a manifestation of conspicuous consumption. As Adorno argued in "The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening" (1938), "the listener really worships the money he pays for a ticket to the Toscanini concert." Under conditions of advanced capitalism, ends and means had been reversed, as commodification increasingly supplanted music's critical and utopian functions.

The Frankfurt school fled Germany shortly following Hitler's 1933 seizure of power. Adorno, conversely, remained in Germany until 1935, in the mistaken belief that the Nazi revolution might prove short-lived. In 1935 he emigrated to Oxford, where he completed Against Epistemology: A Metacritique, an important critique of Edmund Husserl's idealism. Following the precepts of ideology criticism, Adorno argued that the fashionable search for "essences," as it emerged, for example, in Husserl's idea of Wesenschau (the "intuition of essences"), masked social contradictions with a deceptive veneer of ideational harmony. Only a philosophy that rejected premature claims to "reconciliation" remained adequate to the lacerated state of contemporary social relations.

In 1938 Adorno left Oxford for New York. It was at this point that he became an integral member of the Frankfurt school in exile. He and Max Horkheimer established a close working relationship. Increasingly, critical theory's original methodological program of "interdisciplinary materialism," according to which philosophy would play a leading role in directing the research orientation of the various social sciences, seemed outmoded—especially in light of the ever-darkening European political situation. Horkheimer had felt burdened by his organizational responsibilities as the Frankfurt Institute's director and had always fantasized about writing a major study of "dialectics." Once Adorno emigrated to the United States, the prospect of writing a collaborative study materialized. In 1941 the two men repaired to Pacific Palisades, California, to write Dialectic of Enlightenment—one of critical theory's major intellectual statements.

Although the authors insisted that the book was jointly dictated, its approach was clearly Adornian in inspiration. In light of the ongoing European catastrophe—as they began writing, three-quarters of continental Europe lay under Nazi jackboots—Marx's progressive philosophy of history seemed naïve and untenable. In Dialectic of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno outlined an alternative philosophy of history adequate to the realities of the contemporary political situation.

But this goal entailed a major reformulation of critical theory's mission statement. Whereas Horkheimer's original program remained fully indebted to the precepts of Enlightenment reason, Dialectic of Enlightenment reversed this orientation. Following Adorno's lead, the authors traced the origins of totalitarianism to the eighteenth-century ideal of a totally enlightened society. Instead of seeking Nazism's ideological origins in the rise of irrationalism (historicism, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Lebensphilosophie), they discovered its intellectual basis, counterintuitively, in modern positivism. Following Nietzsche, they reasoned that a methodological approach such as positivism, for which ultimate value choices were an arbitrary posit—a question of faith or belief—could provide no compelling arguments against mass murder. The Nazis had merely drawn the logical conclusions from the triumph of bourgeois "instrumental reason." Whereas nineteenth-century observers as diverse as Marx and Herbert Spencer could still view human history via the narrative of progress, Horkheimer and Adorno, following Oswald Spengler, perceived it as essentially a tale of decline.

Another risky feature of their argument—also following Nietzsche—was the indictment of reason as a source of domination simpliciter. Marx had referred to logic, with its uncanny capacity to make dissimilar things similar, as the "money of the mind." Dialectic of Enlightenment stood Hegel back on his head (after Marx, in Das Kapital, claimed to have righted him) by contending that the "domination of nature" was at the heart of the program of Western reason. For obvious reasons, this conclusion lent the book's argument a type of conceptual impotence. For if reason were merely a handmaiden of social domination, what means lay at humanity's disposal to set things right? Here, too, Adorno's guiding hand was detectable. For with this indelicate rejection of reason, the only apparent solution was a quasi-religious reverence for inarticulate nature—a mythical, prelapsarian state prior to the corruptions and divisions of instrumental reason.

The approach perfected in Dialectic of Enlightenment became the basis for Adorno's major post-war philosophical works, such as Negative Dialectics (1966). There Adorno claimed that philosophy's "original sin" was its desire to grasp the nonconceptual—Being—via conceptual means. He thereby proclaimed the very project of philosophical understanding, going back to Plato, to be a false start. The rationalist goal of trying to make Being intellectually comprehensible possessed a type of primordial illegitimacy, he argued. For, by definition, it subjected Being or things to standards that were alien to their nature. In this way, Adorno stealthily reprised Friedrich Schelling's well-nigh anti-intellectual critique of Hegel's "pan-logism"—the imperialism of the logos. Still, one had the feeling that, despite its manifest brilliance, Adorno's project ended up in the intellectual cul-de-sac of a self-flagellating misology, or hatred of reason.

His other major work of the 1960s, Aesthetic Theory (published posthumously in 1970), was intended as a partial solution to Negative Dialectics' pessimism. Given philosophy's complicity in the Enlightenment project, the task of exposing social suffering fell to works of art. Art's utopian function lay in its "uselessness." Thereby, it defied the instrumentalist credo of bourgeois society. Yet, because art forms like music and painting were "speechless" or nonlinguistic, aesthetic theory was needed to render their contents in a conceptually meaningful fashion. Adorno had intended to write a moral philosophy before he died, in which case his major works (Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory) would have paralleled the topics treated by Kant's three Critiques.

See alsoFrankfurt School.


Primary Sources

Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E. B. Ashton. New York, 1973.

——. Philosophy of Modern Music. Translated by Anne G. Mitchell and William V. Blomster. New York, 1973.

——. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. London, 1978.

Secondary Sources

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origin of Negative Dialectics. New York, 1977.

Jay, Martin. Adorno. Cambridge, Mass., 1984.

Richard Wolin