Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund (1903–1969)

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Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, philosopher, composer, sociologist, and aesthetic theorist, was born September 11, 1903, in Frankfurt am Main and died August 6, 1969. His last days were beset by the "emergencies in democracy" prompted by the student movement of the 1960s; the students simultaneously treated him as friend and foe.

Life and Work

Studying in Frankfurt in the 1920s, but increasingly unable to secure employment in the first years of Nazi Germany, Adorno moved to England in 1934. Four years later, with his new wife, Margarethe ("Gretel") Karplus (19021993), he moved to the United States, first to New York and then to Los Angeles. In 1949 they returned to Frankfurt where Adorno worked both as professor at the university and as public intellectual, participating in radio and television programs on philosophy, society, education, and the arts.

Born into a comfortable bourgeois home, he was the only son of a Protestant wine merchant of Jewish descent, Oscar Wiesengrund, and of a Catholic singer, Maria Calvelli-Adorno. Before his move to the United States he was known by his father's name and after by his mother's. However, though "Wiesengrund" was abbreviated to a middle initial, the name was honored in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947), the exemplary novel on the fate of musical modernism to which Adorno significantly contributed. The Beethovenian tones of the Wiesengrund meadow-groundexpressed an early promise of happiness for the bourgeois age that would eventually be shattered, leaving the ill-fated dodecaphonic composer Adrian Leverkühn no choice but to complete his life with a melancholic requiem composed to the former greatness of German art.

Adorno wrote broadly on metaphysics, epistemology, political philosophy, ethics, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of history. He is most widely known for his attempt to reveal the intricate historical and dialectical relationships between philosophy, society and the arts, or between philosophy, sociology, and aesthetic theory.

Philosophy and Music

In the 1920s, Adorno worked as a music critic reflecting upon contemporary developments in both the high and popular forms of the arts. Following his graduation in 1924 with a critical dissertation on Husserl's phenomenology he moved to Vienna to study composition with Alban Berg, a member alongside Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern of the Second Viennese School. Torn initially between philosophy and music he finally chose both, in this way furthering a tradition that had its beginnings with Plato. Following Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche (and knowledgeable of his contemporary Ernst Bloch), Adorno gave pride of place to music in his philosophical thinking and to philosophy in his musical thinking. However, he never aimed to reduce one to the other. He aimed neither to produce a philosophy of music nor, indeed, a philosophy of anything else, as if, by this use of "of'," philosophy was assumed to be the master method to which all other disciplines were subject(ed). Philosophy, rather, was one of many nonreducible modes of thinking, and music was another, through which truth might be approached. Like music, philosophy was to be treated critically and self-reflectively; neither offered a guarantee regarding the good, the true, or the beautiful. Both were conditioned by what was going on in history and society. Yet both at best challenged the terms of that conditioning: philosophy by means of reason and music by means of expression.

Philosophy and music stood in an antagonistic but intimate relation. Because music was the exemplary language of pure expression but of no concept, and philosophy that of pure concept but no expression, each yearned, as if seeking a (Goethean) affinity, for what the other hadrational articulation for the one, and expression for the other. In their productive but troubled yearning they jointly tracked the historical course of modernity. Adorno focused predominantly on German philosophy and German music as both consummate and cautionary of enlightenment.

Collaborative Projects

Temperamentally allied to the solitary thinkers and lonely composers of modernity, Adorno's thinking was shaped by notions of exile, otherness, and alienation. However, this did not render him merely an isolated or esoteric thinker; much of his work was produced collaboratively and often under the auspices of publicly sponsored research projects.

A leading member of the Frankfurt-based Institute of Social Research, he worked most closely with its founder Max Horkheimer, but so too with other members like Herbert Marcuse and Leo Löwenthal. In his early years he was in close contact with Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer. In New York he worked, albeit with difficulty, under the leadership of the Austrian exiled sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld on the Princeton Radio Project. He worked specifically on the empirical testing (a method of which he was highly critical) of listening habits, opinions, and tastes shaped by the then new means of technological production. A significant proportion of his writing on the arts was devoted to the mass media, to the radio, record player, television, and film, and particularly to the changes in modes of reception each instigated. Generally Adorno showed more interest in developing a critical, sociological aesthetic of the ear than of the eye. He did, however, think about the prohibition of the image and then about the adaptation of that prohibition to word and tone within an increasingly censorious society.

In Los Angeles he collaborated with Horkheimer in research on authoritarianism, fascism, antiSemitism, and prejudice. To their results they linked descriptions of what came to be called the culture or mass entertainment industry, an industry of cultural production and propaganda devoted to "administering" public opinion and taste. In relation to philosophy, society, and the arts they traced the tendencies they took to be equally prevalent in Germany and America, although in different degrees and modes of advancement. They traced the tendencies toward mass consumerism and standardization, toward conformism and adaptation (as part of their critique of identity thinking ), and toward domestication and normalization, as if, they argued, that which was being sold to the public as "the good, the true and the beautiful" was nothing but obviously "authentic," "natural," or "self-evident." They picked out these latter terms just because they were the ones most often used in public discourse, where the understanding was that to declare something self-evident, for example, rendered any further justification or reasoning unnecessary. In general, their work aimed to disassemble the philosophical illusions and aesthetic appearances that sustained a modern society of self-evidence. The work culminated in their jointly authored Dialectic of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments (1944), Adorno's Philosophy of New Music (1948), and Horkheimer's The Eclipse of Reason (1947).

In tandem with the work he did with Horkheimer, Adorno argued against the false rationalizations offered on behalf of mainstream social and aesthetic forms: the pseudo-individualization associated with the main-stream production of jazz and popular music, the pseudoritualization of some of Igor Stravinsky's music, and the pseudo-naturalism of some of John Cage's. He objected to contemporary appeals made on behalf of particular arts to return to ritual, nature, or the individual, as if these things had not suffered what society in general had suffered. All had suffered the consequences of an ideology of progress or of enlightenment ideals gone wrong. Adorno wanted the contemporary forms of art to take account of what had historically occurred and not assume that good-sounding ideas and ideals remained guiltlessly in place.

While working with Horkheimer and Mann, Adorno also collaborated with the composer Hanns Eisler, a student of Schoenberg and collaborator also with Bertolt Brecht, all of whom were contemporaneously resident in Los Angeles. With Eisler, Adorno furthered his sociological aesthetic of listening. Together they wrote a primer (1947) for the composition of a progressive or new music for the film. They framed their recommendations by a sustained critique of the increasingly dominant Hollywood film industry.

Critical Theory

Adorno contributed significantly to the development of critical theory, a dialectical, historical approach to both thinking and writing that unrelentingly aimed to expose the errors of the dominant scientistic, empiricist, and positivist methods of the day. In 1961, in Tübingen, he engaged in the so-called positivist dispute with, among others, Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas. What he argued was just a continuation of his life-long double-pronged critique of a reductionist or eliminativist method, on the one hand, and an overly grounded or too securely founded totalizing metaphysics, on the other. (With the latter he usually associated the work of Heidegger and the postwar Heideggerians.) His work in aesthetic theory mirrored the same double-pronged critical aim.

Influenced by Goethe, Kant, Beethoven, and Hegel at the one end of modernity, and by the post-Marxists and Freudians, Lukacs, Kracauer, and Benjamin at the other, Adorno traced the convergences between philosophy, society, and the arts, or the dialectical movement of reason and irrationality that reached its inconceivable extreme in the Nazi concentration camps. Reversing Hegel's dictum that "the true is the whole"where the whole is the positive and absolute completion of the dialectical movement of Geist Adorno described the complex tendencies that had historically led toward untruth in its varying regressive and progressive concrete arrangements. He encapsulated his entire philosophical, sociological, and aesthetic reflections in the thought that there is no lifeand thus no thought, no art, and no actionthat is lived rightly when the whole is false.

Adorno focused on the major thinkers and artists of his times, for example: on Husserl and Heidegger in philosophy, on Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky, and Cage in music, and on Brecht, Kafka and Beckett in literature and drama. He did so partially to assess their historical relation to their great predecessors: Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Hegel, Beethoven, Kierkegaard, Wagner, Balzac, Valéry, George, and Proust, to name only a very few of the many writers who absorbed Adorno's indefatigable attention. He explored the tense relation between ideas of tradition, establishment, the accepted, and the expected, on the one hand, and ideas of the new, the unfamiliar, the unexpected, the explosive, and the shocking, on the other. (He particularly liked to work with an analogy between the artwork and the firework.) When he spoke of the old and the new, he most often thought, with Goethe, about how the new comes to suffer from its own aging. In other terms, his aesthetic reflections were also reflections constitutive of a Geschichtsphilosophie : a philosophy of history that would attempt to resist either falling into the safety of conservative, nostalgic, or utopian pastures, on the one hand, or reaching absolute or positive end points on a road that had no end, on the other. Most of his thinking aimed to invert the movement of Hegelian spirit in the light of the concrete social changes that had occurred between Hegel's time and his own.

Tendencies and Categories

Adorno approached history by describing how the general social tendencies toward regression and progression were always mediated by concrete or particular instances. Though he had a rhetorical tendency to make it seem as if all the many thinkers, artists, and composers about whom he wrote would duly be lined up on the side of "the good" or of "the bad," his more subtle aim was to show how particular thoughts, works, or genres were constellations of contradictory tendencies. Indeed, to show them as such was to counter the very tendency to which his rhetorical tendency pointed, namely, the extreme polarization into which modern, administered society had placed its products and its persons.

Adorno focused on categorization, on the social dynamics of organization that included the stereotying and pigeonholing of persons, the social classification and marketing of the arts, as well as the construction and use of philosophical concepts. In his work on listening, he produced a taxonomy of listeners, to show less the type of which he approved (although his own tastes and preferences were always explicit in his critique), and more the types of listening that had developed in relation to the production of modern, "high" and "low" forms of music. Labels designating one sort of music as "serious," "elite," "esoteric," "difficult" or "incomprehensible" maintained a dialectical relation to those that designated another sort of music as "popular" and "authentic." On either side, the labels deflected the listener's attention from the music itself and refocused it in terms of what best suited the listener as consumer. Concepts of the high and low were not "givens" of aesthetic practice; they were sociological categories used to encourage musicians to produce musics of perfect fit, equally "hit tunes" or "difficult works."

Aesthetic Theory and Negative Dialectics

Adorno may be read through his many essays and books amounting to more than 20 volumes. Or he may be read through his two masterworks, his Negative Dialectics of 1966 and his unfinished and posthumously published Aesthetic Theory of 1970. More specifically, whether one reads his early Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic or his exemplary essay on the "Social Situation of Music," or one of his monographs on Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, or Alban Berg, or whether, rather, one reads only his last works, one sees immediately that his primary interest in music never confined him to this particular art. Music was the model through which to access the entire domain of the aesthetic if not also society. He pursued most of the traditional problems of classical, romantic and modernist aesthetic theory: judgment and experience; the sublime and the beautiful; form, content, and material; genre, movement, and style (naturalism, realism, expressionism, and surrealism); the fateful, tragic, and the comic; art's relation to nature, to time, temporality, history and movement, and to society, politics, and propaganda. He drew upon many concepts unfamiliar to us today as well as upon concepts that at the time had become overly standardized through long term (mis)use, notably: mimesis, autonomy, expression, remembrance, comportment, commitment, and convergence.

Central to his aesthetic theory were two dialectical relationships, first, between the concept of art and that of the work of art; second, between the articulated and the hidden, concealed, or unexpressed dimensions of meaning. To regard a work of art as a constellation of contradictory impulses was to regard it as suspended between historical, social, and aesthetic demands: for example, following Kant, between the demand that the work be a product of labor and construction and the demand that it be a product of genius and thus appear as if natural, spontaneous, and free; or, following Schiller, that the work embody the mutually antagonistic drives toward form and sensuousness; or, following Hegel, that a work tremble between freedom and necessity, or between form and content, or between the demands of the traditional and the new, or between the repetition of the same and the shock of the different, or, finally, between acceptance and exemplarity.

To the extent that a work maintained the tension between conflicting demands, the work, so Adorno argued, was truthful. To resolve the tension in any given direction tended to result in an ideologically, theory-laden, or aesthetically compromised product. Thus, the more autonomous, or the more philosophically and socially truthful a work, the more it failed to conceal its inherent tensions or contradictions behind the illusion of perfect order, the more it refused not to show the untruth of its times. The failure and refusal prompted Adorno to speak of a negative autonomy or of a negative dialectics. Following an old Platonic anxiety, art had the ability to expose the lie of appearance or the untruth of society at the same time that it was able to serve as the primary means (of appearance) by which to encourage and sustain the lie. Its double-sided character and dependence on appearance rendered it exemplary both as a means and as an object of critique.

For Adorno, artworks were social formations set at an aesthetic remove; as such they exhibited a drive toward order, harmony, and internal coherence. This drive was dominant in the very concept of a work, a concept coincident with the dialectical course of enlightenment. And precisely what this drive aimed to do was suppress its opposing drive, the drive that would itself attempt to flout the conditions or possibility of order in a work by mimetically conveying as residue the non-expressed expression implicit to the concept of art. Just as the one drive toward order couldn't do without the drive toward free expression, so, under the condition of modernity, the concept of a work couldn't do without the concept of art, despite the antagonism they displayed toward one another. Yet in this antagonism resided all that was most productive and exemplary in the world of art. Hence, the more autonomous a work, the more the work exhibited the mimetic tension between silence and expression, between what it brought to expression under the concept of the work and what was concealed or excluded of the concept of art thereby. That Adorno often pursued an analogy between the artwork and the person was not without relevance for the truth art could indirectly reveal about society as a whole. The greater society's untruth, the more reified or fetishized the work's or the person's relation to society. The greater society's untruth the more the work was inclined to show the achievement of work-hood as consumer product. The work, like a person, could show the achievement in two ways, either by adapting to or by resisting the social situation.

After Catastrophe

When Adorno returned to Germany in 1949 he was confronted with the fact of having survived the catastrophe. He asked what it meant for (West) Germany to become a democracy given what he understood to be a continuation of social injustice and prejudice. He used his experiences in America partially as a model of both the promise and the curse of democracy. While convinced that neither the philosopher nor the artist could assume an ahistorical vantage point from which to view society, Adorno was nonetheless convinced that by describing the dominant tendencies toward philosophical, social, and aesthetic untruth, one would thereby show by dialectical negation what remained as the residue or remainder of truth. With Walter Benjamin, he did not think that truth could be found or established in a sustained method of philosophical argument; he rather looked in the cracks of such arguments, in what was not said, in what had historically come to be concealed by dominant patterns, be they philosophical theories, social formations, or artistic movements.

After the war, Adorno wrote that "to still write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric," a claim he later somewhat modified (1992, vol. 2, p. 87). However, in the claim he asked a question of despair, whether and how continuation in art or thought was possible in a society that now lived "metaphysically"as he used that term in concluding his Negative Dialectic,under the condition of death. His Aesthetic Theory had, however, opened with the same claim, that it "is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident any more, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist" (1997, p. 1). Here, the point was to use the concept of self-evidence to begin a critique of its social, philosophical and aesthetic forms, where self-evidence found its subjective side in the formation of public opinion and its objective side in the production of ordered-appearances (say, in works of art). His preoccupation with how art and philosophy could continue in modern times had begun around 1930 when he asked after their "actuality." Later, he posed the question again but now even more concretely against the background of the compromise the university and the concert hall had made under national socialism.

Adorno experimented with the essay form, as is shown in his exemplary essay in his Notes to Literature on the essay as form. He wrote his aesthetic theory conscious of aesthetic figuration, sometimes in aphorisms or fragments, sometimes in figures of montage, even if this text often reads as a single paragraph without end. He wrote in such a way as to show his interest both in the techniques of high modernism and in the use and mutilation of language (his own use included), be that language one of communication, speech, gesture, or expression. He often expressed his thoughts as catch-phrases articulated as statements of a negative dialectic: for example, only for the sake of happiness and beauty are happiness and beauty renounced; only in memory and longing is pleasure now possible in art; the old only has refuge in the new; dissonance is the truth about harmony. Adorno was an aesthetic thinker of exemplary modernist form; he mediated that thinking within a dialectical and materialist history of society.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Beauty; Benjamin, Walter; Bloch, Ernst; Critical Theory; Dialectical Materialism; Enlightenment; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Habermas, Jürgen; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Horkheimer, Max; Husserl, Edmund; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Lukács, Georg; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Popper, Karl Raimund; Proust, Marcel; Schiller, Friedrich; Schopenhauer, Arthur.


works by theodor w. adorno

Composing for the Films. With Hanns Eisler. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Rolf Tiedemann. 20 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 19701986.

Negative Dialectics. Translated by E. B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press, 1973.

Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1974.

Introduction to the Sociology of Music. Translated by E. B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

"The Actuality of Philosophy." Telos 31 (Spring 1977): 120133.

In Search of Wagner. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. London: New Left Books, 1981.

Positivist Dispute in German Sociology. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Press, 1981.

Prisms. Translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link. Translated by Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited by J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991.

Notes to Literature. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 19911992.

Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Nachgelassene Schriften, edited by Rolf Tiedemann et al. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1993.

Aesthetic Theory. Edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music, edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Sound Figures. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

The Dialectic of Enlightenment. With Max Horkheimer, edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated and with a preface by Henry W. Pickford, Introduction by Lydia Goehr, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Philosophy of New Music. Translated and with an introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University or Minnesota Press, 2006.

works about theodor w. adorno

Arato, A., and E. Gebhardt. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum, 1982.

Benjamin, Andrew, ed. The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Bernstein, J. M., ed. The Culture Industry. London: Routledge, 2001.

Bernstein, J. M. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. New York: Free Press, 1977.

de Nora, Tia. After Adorno. Rethinking Music Sociology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hohendahl, Peter Uwe. Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Huhn, T., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Huhn, T., and L. Zuidervaart, eds. The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic. London and New York: Verso, 1990.

Jarvis, Simon. Adorno: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1998.

Jay, Martin. Adorno. London: Fontana, 1984.

Leppert, Richard, ed. Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno. Selected, with introduction, commentary, and notes by Richard Leppert. Translated by Susan H. Gillespie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

O'Connor, B. ed. The Adorno Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Paddison, Max. Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture. Essays in Critical Theory and Music. London: Kahn and Averill, 1996.

Paddison, Max. Adorno's Aesthetics of Music. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Pensky, Max, ed. The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern New York: SUNY Press, 1997.

Reijen, Willem van. Adorno: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Pennbridge Books, 1992.

Rose, Gillian. The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Weber Nicholsen, Shierry. Exact Imagination, Late Idyll: Adorno's Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Zuidervaart, Lambert. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Lydia Goehr (2005)