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|Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903-1969)|
German philosopher, sociologist, and essayist, member of the "Frankfurt School," a group of intellectuals working at the Institute for Social Research, loosely associated to the University of Frankfurt. Adorno's theories were much based on the writings of Hegel, Marx, and Freud. Central in his philosophy was the dialectic method of argumentation in which the thought proceeds by contradiction, a collision of ideas from thesis to antithesis. From the opposites a higher truth may be reached by synthesis, which leads to a new thesis and so on. However, Adorno did not believe that all contradictions can be solved and in Negative Dialektik (1966) he did not only reject utopian as the possibility of total reconciliation but all permanent concepts. Adorno's other major works include Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) and Aesthetic Theory (1970).
"The dual nature of artworks as autonomous structures and social phenomena results in oscillating criteria: Autonomous works provoke the verdict of social indifference and ultimately of being criminally reactionary; conversely, works that make socially univocal discursive judgments thereby negate art as well as themselves." (from Aesthetic Theory)
Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, the son of Oskar Wiesengrund, a successful Jewish wine merchant, and Maria Calvelli-Adorno, a Catholic of Corsican descent. Maria Calvelli-Adorno was a professional singer, who performed with her sister, a pianist. Adorno himself was trained in piano by Bernhard Sekles, who also taught the future composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). While attending secondary school, Adorno studied privately in 1918-19 with Siegfried Kracauer, a German historian, social critic, and friend of the family. In 1921 Adorno graduated from the Kaiser Wilhelm Gymnasium and entered the newly founded Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, receiving three years later his doctorate in philosophy in 1924. From 1925 to 1928 he studied music composition under Alban Berg in Vienna. A year before his death, Adorno recalled that his teacher's face was "a mountain-face [Berg-Gesicht], mountainous in the twofold sense that his features were those of someone who is at home in the Alps, and that he himself, with the nobly arched nose, the soft, finely chiselled mouth, and the abyss-like, enigmatically empty eyes like lakes, had something of a mountain landscape. . . . Appearance, bearing, and countenance were those of a groping, dreaming giant." (Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius by Detlev Claussen, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 2008, p. 107) In 1931 Adorno became a lecturer at the University of Frankfurt. His thesis on Kierkegaard's aesthetic appeared in 1933.
From 1928 Adorno worked informally with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research). Its other influential members included Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), whom Adorno had met in 1922 in a seminar, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, and Erich Fromm. Max Horkheimer was appointed director of the Instititute in January, 1931. Adorno's friendship and intellectual collaboration with Horkheimer lasted through the following decades of his life.
Besides publishing articles in the Institute's journal, Zeitschrift
für Social forschung, Adorno edited the music journal Musikblätter
des Anbruchs in the late 1920s. The Institute was founded to the
study of Marxism, especially Marx's early writings, and political
economy. Adorno's approach was more interdisciplinary and showed
interest in wide range of subjects from Chaplin's films and Schönberg's
atonal music to Freud's theories. In an article from 1938 ('Glosse über
Sibelius') he dismissed the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius as a
"Stravinsky against his own will. He is just less talentend." Behind
the attack was Sibelius's association with Ständige Rat für
Internationale Zusammenarbeit der Komponisten, established by Goebbels
in 1934. Practically, Adorno accepted only the music of Schönberg,
Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Sibelius, who was outside "mainsteam"
modernism, was incorrectly associated with the "blood and soil" (Blut
und Boden) ideology of Nazism. Adorno never reconsidered his aversion
to Sibelius. The essay was included in the collection Impromptus (1968).
Adorno also assisted the writer Thomas Mann, who turned to his expertise in modern music while writing in the novel Doktor Faustus (1949). Mann read the manuscript of Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949), a defence of Schönberg's twelve-tone system. Mann's other preparatory materials included Adorno's essays on Wagner, which were published under the title Versuch über Wagner in 1952, and Willi Reich's book Alban Berg: Mit Bergs eigenen Schriften und Beiträgen (1937), to which Adorno had contributed several essays.
During the era of Nazism, the Frankfurt School was exiled to New York City, where it continued to develop a critical theory of society, but returned to its German home after World War II. The school's cultural criticism and eclectic theories of mass society influenced deeply the New left in the 1950s and 1960s. Though the Frankfurt School never produced a unitary social theory, its members shared a critical view of modern capitalism, and rejected Soviet Communism and orthodox Marxism.
After the Nazis rose to power, Adorno first fled to Oxford, where he was registered as an advanced student in philosophy. During this period he worked on a study of Husserl's phenomenology and idealism. The philosopher Alfred Ayer recalled that with his snobbish demeanour and dandified manner Adorno "seemed to us a comic figure." In 1937 Adorno married Gretel Karplus, a chemist and businesswoman, who was acquainted with Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch and Bertolt Brech. After a period in England, he joined other members of the Institute at Columbia University in New York. He worked half-time for the Institute and the other half for the Princeton Radio Research Project, directed by Paul Lazarsfeld, the founder of modern communications research.
Adorno spent three years in New York then moved to the seaside town of Santa Monica, west of Los Angeles. In the Santa Monica home of Salka Viertel he discussed with Thomas Mann the work-in-progress, Doctor Faustus, and could meet there Arnold Schönberg, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and Charles Laughton, too. Because of its substantial German intellectual refugee population, the town was sometimes called "Weimar on the Pacific".
Considering himself "European through and through", Adorno never felt himself at home in the United States, but it did not stop him from writing prolifically. His collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia, composed between 1944 and 1947, was first published in German in 1951. "I have held on to your book magnetically for several days; it makes, day after day, for fascinating reading, though it can only be enjoyed in small gulps, as it it the most concentrated nourishment", Mann wrote in a letter to Adorno. Composing for the Films (1947), a product of Adorno's collaboration with Hanns Eisler, had been encouraged by Bertolt Brecht. It first appreared under Eisler's name alone. A revised edition, Komposition für den Film (1949), was published in Berlin by Bruno Henschel und Sohn. When original version was translated and reprinted in West Germany in 1969, Adorno was finally acknowledged as co-author.
Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment) was partly based on notes taken by Gretel Karplus, during discussions between Adorno and Horkheimer in the early 1940s. They argued that reason has become an instrument of totalitarian control. "Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward man. He knows them is so far as he can manipulate them." Much of the work is devoted to study of anti-Semitism, the actual reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism, and the culture industry, in which enlightenment has found its ideological expression.
The writers note that the culture industry has created technological inventions that have made easy the control of the individual consciousness – radio "turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them into broadcast programs which are all exactly the same..." Ten years later Adorno returned to the theme in his essay 'Television and the Patterns of Mass Culture' (1954), in which he viewed pessimistically individuals possibility to resist the ubiquity of modern mass culture. In his essay 'Standort des Erzählers in Zeitgenössichen Roman' (1954) he followed the thoughts of Walter Benjamin, presented in 'Der Erzähler', and claimed that modern warfare has made it impossible for those who have participated in the war to return to old narrative patterns.
Adorno and Horkheimer traced Anti-Semitism to the urge for equality. Liberalism advocated right of man, allowed the Jews property, but the harmony of society turned against the liberal Jews in the form of the harmony of a national community. "If the masses accept the reactionary ticket which contains an anti-Semitic component they are obeying social mechanism in which the experiences of individual persons with individual Jews play no part. It has in fact been found that anti-Semitism has as much chance in areas where there are no Jews as it does, say, in Hollywood." Dialectic of Enlightenment was published when the end of Nazism was in sight. "If the arrogance of reason has led to barbarism, what is left?" he asked. In one of his post-war essays Adorno made his famous question, is it possible to write poetry after Auschwitz.
"Life in the late capitalist era is a constant initiation rite. Everyone must show that he wholly identifies himself with the power which is belaboring him. This occurs in the principle of jazz syncopation, which simultaneously derides stumbling and makes it a rule. The eunuch-like voice of the crooner on the radio, the heiress's smooth suitor, who falls into the swimming pool in his dinner jacket, are models for those who must become whatever the system wants. Everyone can be like this omnipotent society; everyone can be happy, if only he will capitulate fully and sacrifice his claim to happiness." (The Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947)
Throughout his years in the U.S. Adorno had troubles with publishers who wanted to edit heavily his texts. Eventually Adorno returned to Germany, where he was able to settle in at his old flat in Kettenhofveg. He worked at the Institute of Social Research, becoming its director in 1959. On Thursday afternoons he conducted a seminar jointly with Horkheimer, who frequently came half an hour late and then offered a counter-thesis to Adorno's dialectic. Adorno used to reply, "Exactly, that's just what I think, Max." Horkheimer, who continued as director of the Institute until 1958, spent a number of years teaching in the United States.
From 1958 to 1969 Adorno was professor of philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt. When Adorno's appointment was under discussion in 1956, one professor claimed that all a man needed in Frankfurt to make a career, was to be a protegé of Horkheimer and to be a Jew (from Martin Heidegger by R. Safranski, 1998). The most prominent thinker among the second generation members of the Institute was Jürgen Habermas, who studied with Adorno in the 1950s.
In 1963 Adorno received the Goethe Medal. His last years were, however, shadowed by a malicious debate about his activities in the 1930s. Adorno had published a book review in 1934 in a Nazi magazine and quoted Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi party minister of propaganda. Adorno admitted that the article had been a mistake. Attacks on him continued, sometimes with anti-Semitic undertones. His stature as a critical thinker was questioned among students, who occupied in 1968 the Institute of Sociology and Adorno called in the police. Adorno died of a heart attack on August 6, 1969 in Visp, near Zermatt, in Switzerland.
It was not until 1972, when the founding work of Critical Theory, Dialectic of Enlinghtenment, was translated into English. His key essays on music began to appear in English in the 1970s in the journal Telos and later in New German Critique. Adorno's last great work, Aesthetic Theorie, which was left unfinished, came out posthumously in 1970. Partially against the will of the translator, the publisher abandoned the massive spatial organization of the text, numbered the chapters, and added main headings and subheadings. A new translation more faithful to the original structure was published in 1997.
Negative Dialectics (1973) stepped outside standard Marxist framework. Adorno criticized Karl Popper and Martin Heidegger of positing an object independent of the subject, when the object is in fact subjectively defined. He stated that there is no absolute starting point in metaphysics and epistemology – the false search for "primac"' leads totalitarian forms of thought. To avoid fallacy of the ultimate "identity", Adorno presented his principle of "negative dialectics", in which all theories are systematically negated and concepts are constantly reformed to fit the object. Heidegger was Adorno's target in The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), in which he attacked the language of existentialist thinkers. They did not meet after 1945, and in public Heidegger never addressed a single word to Adorno. Heidegger's main work was Being and Time (1927). In the 1930s he had joined the Nazi Party. Crossing back and forth ideological boundaries, a number of intellectuals have hailed both Adorno and Heidegger as major aesthetic theorists and cultural critics. Adorno himself dismissed Heidegger as "the advocate of the unfullfilment of life", but they had much in common in their diagnosis of the modern age. Thus it is not totally inconceivable that Herbert Marcuse (1898-1978), who had been Heidegger's student, was also closely associated with the Frankfurt School. In 1932 Adorno reviewed Marcuse's study Ontology and the Theory of Historicity, noting that with it he departed decisively from Heidegger's public teaching.
In the difficult and aphoristic work Aesthetic Theory Adorno started from his theorem that there is no philosophical first principle. "A general theory of the aesthetically concrete would necessarily let slip what interested it in object in the first place." The concept of art refuses definition if one doesn't accept alternatives between trivial universality and arbitrary judgments. From this point of view Adorno rejects the archaic definition of aesthetics as the theory of the beautiful: the concept of beauty is inadequate to the full content of the aesthetic. Following Hegelian idea of art as a product of history, Adorno sees modern art scarcely possible unless it does experiment. More than being up to date modern art tends to oppose the ruling Zeitgeist – arts seeks refuge in its own negation, and nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore. "The cheap aestheticism of short-winded politics is reciprocal with the faltering of aesthetic power. Recommending jazz and rock-and-roll instead of Beethoven does not demolish the affirmative lie of culture but rather furnishes barbarism and the profit interest of the culture industry with subterfuge. The allegedly vital and uncorrupted nature of such products is synthetically processed but precisely those powers that are supposedly the target of the Great Refusal: These products are the truly corrupt."
For further reading: The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923–1950 by Martin Jay (1973); The Origin of the Negative Dialectics by Susan Buck-Morss (1977); Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno by Gillian Rose (1979); Adorno by Martin Jay (1984); Late Marxism: Adorno, Or, the Persistence of the Dialectic by Fredric Jameson (1990); Ohne Mitleid by Konrad Paul Liessmann (1991); Adorno: An Introduction by Willem Van Reijen (1991); The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance by Rolf Wiggershaus (1994); Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik des Aporetischen by Martin Asiain (1996); The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, ed. by Tom Huhn and Lambert Zuidervaart (1997); Exact Imagination, Late Work: On Adorno's Aesthetics by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (1997); The Actuality of Adorno: Critical Essays on Adorno and the Postmodern, ed. by Max Pensky (1997); Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno by Peter Uwe Hohendahl (1997); Adorno on Music by Robert W. Witkin (1998); Adorno: A Critical Introduction by Simon Jarvis (1998); Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music by Christopher J. Dennis (1998); Adorno, Culture and Feminism, ed. by Maggie O'Neill (1999); Adorno's Nietzschean Narrative by Karin Bauer (1999); Perseverance Without Doctrine: Adorno, Self-Critique, and the Ends of Academic Theology by Mattias Martinson (2000); Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics by J. M. Bernstein (2001); Rethinking the Communicative Turn: Adorno, Habermas, and the Problem of Communicative Freedom by Martin Morris (2001); Theodor W Adorno: An Introduction by Matt F. Connell (2001); Adorno: A Critical Reader, ed by Nigel C. Gibson and Andrew Rubin (2001); Adorno: A Biography by Stefan Müller-Doohm (2005); Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius by Detlev Claussen, translated by Rodney Livingstone (2008); A Companion to Adorno, edited by Peter E. Gordon, Espen Hammer, Max Pensky (2019); The Saving Line: Benjamin, Adorno, and the Caesuras of Hope by Márton Dornbach (2020)