[OPE-L] Re; [OPE-L] new publication: adorno and social theory

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed May 11 2005 - 10:38:42 EDT


Thanks for the information on the new book.  I was recently
sent a review on an Adorno book which you might find of

So, what do you think about the "organic composition of death"?

In solidarity, Jerry

< http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=2381 >

Tom Huhn (ed.)
The Cambridge Companion to Adorno

Tom Huhn (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to
Adorno, Cambridge University Press, 2004, 428pp,
$26.99 (pbk), ISBN 0521775000.

Reviewed by Eduardo Mendieta, State University of New York, Stony Brook

Great thinking is always majestic and towering in
its failure, as it speaks in signs and aphorism
to an age echoing in the distance . Theodor W.
Adorno (1903-1969) is one of those great thinkers
beginning to be rescued and listened to as if for
the first time, without the cacophony of his own
time drowning the sounds of his philosophical
music. 2003 marked the centenary of his birth and
with it also came the conferences and congresses,
and publication of a series of biographies[1],
and bibliographical references, like the
companion here under review. Dealing with
Adorno's oeuvre is a truly daunting task, not
merely because of its staggering size; presently
we have the collected works in 20 volumes, made
up actually of some 23 books, averaging 600 pages
a book. In 1993 Suhrkamp Verlag began the
publication of Adorno's Nachgelassene Schriften
[Posthumous Works] in 30 volumes, made up of six
sections, containing 17 volumes of lectures (some
of which have been already translated) and 5
volumes of philosophical notebooks, in addition
to numerous volumes of correspondence with Walter
Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Alban Berg, and his

The amount of his output is matched only by the
prodigiousness of the style. Adorno's works
abounds in aphorisms, making almost every line
quotable -- my undergraduate copy of the English
translation of Negative Dialectics has almost
every other line underlined. Only two other
thinkers of the German language are comparable,
Martin Heidegger and Ernst Bloch, although only
in Adorno is the dialectic between language and
thought suspended in such a way that the one does
not become a handmaid of the other. In contrast
to Heidegger's Teutonic boomings, Greco-Germanic
archaism, and hackneyed etymologies, Adorno's
style indulges neither imperial nostalgias nor
consolations in the tune of angelic voices
calling from the forests of time. In contrast to
Bloch's eulogies to the German language and the
cadences of spoken dialects, with their
colloquialism and their endearment with pithy
child-like philosophical ditties, Adorno's style
rubs everyday language against the roughness of
dialectical rigor, and the sounds of foreign
words interspersed throughout make sure that
language never forgets that its speaks in many
tones and possibly thinks at the rhythm of other
tunes. Adorno's style sobers, prickles, annoys;
it is a cold splash of reason that refuses to be
seduced by its own clarity. Adorno's thinking,
however, knows that it must think in language,
and this is at once its blessing and damnation It
is also the type of thinking that is indebted to
language, yet in its dependence, it realizes that
the concept, enunciated in language, betrays that
which its reaches out to grasp, returning
thinking to the insufficiency of its endeavors.
Adorno himself thought that "[p]hilosophy is
essentially its language, philosophical problems
are by and large problems of language, and the
alleged independence of language from things that
is found in the so-called positive sciences, does
not apply in the same way for philosophy"[2]

In the English-speaking world, the complicity and
promiscuous embrace between language and thought
in Adorno's thinking has created understandable
reticence to engage his work. The extant
translations, dating from the sixties and
seventies, have been denounced as wanting and
even misleading. In 2002 Stanford University
Press issued a new translation of The Dialectic
of Enlightenment, and Robert Hullot-Kentor hadd
already published in 1998 a new translation of
Aesthetic Theory, to replace the one published in
1984 by Christian Lenhardt. He is also preparing
a new translation of Negative Dialectics to
replace the 1983 translation by E. B. Ashton. It
is almost as if we are beginning to treat Adorno
as if he were two millennia removed from us, and
German had become a dead tongue. An equally
important reason for Adorno's challenge is the
breath of his overall contribution to the
humanities and social sciences. His complete
works contain studies on the authoritarian
personality, the culture industry and mass
culture, sociological treatises on music,
numerous essays on sociological themes and
concepts, reflections on Marxism, all of it woven
with learned reconstructions of social theory,
the history of philosophy with its terminologies,
and brilliantly original readings of canonical
figures. Adorno's work spans one of the most
ghastly periods in recent history, and his
thinking registered the horrors,

Still, one may safely aver that Adorno's work can
be accessed in terms of its relationship and
contribution to what has been called left
Hegelianism, on the one hand, and historical
materialism, on the other. Adorno is surely the
most Hegelian of 20th century philosophers, in
more ways than those who toiled with
phenomenology, existentialism, pragmatism, and
Nietzschean genealogy, were trying to come to
terms with the fragments of an irreversibly
shattered totality, but got caught in its shards
and tangles. Reason can only be approached by way
of conceptual ruin, and the ruins of the concept.
If Hegelianism is about both totality and
mediation, identity and difference, then Adorno
was the most Hegelian of 20th century thinkers,
who also, however, refused to embrace the
Hegelian tale of ultimate reconciliation, or buy
into the presupposed theodicy of the Golgotha of
reason becoming freedom in history through
endless suffering. If Geist, reason, is its
history, this history remains a scar and no
cauterization will conceal it under the smooth
neoplasm of world-historical platitudes. Today,
as Adorno said in so many ways, everything that
is social and natural is thoroughly mediated, but
the vehicle of the mediation is itself distorted
by the "totality." There is no outside, only the
mediated meditation, the trace of the whole in
everything singular, and the singular as a monad
that mirrors the whole. This mediated mediation,
however, is always the commodity form. The
concept itself has succumbed to the theological
incantations of the circulation of wares and
exchange values. The concept itself, as Lukýcs
had already shown in his History and Class
Consciousness, and as Adorno never ceased to
underscore, wore the scarlet letter of the market
of commodities. For this reason, one may safely
claim, that along with Fredric Jameson, Adorno
was one of the great Marxist dialecticians of the
20th century.

With these claims, we have already anticipated
how to begin to evaluate The Cambridge Companion
to Adorno. Although the editor did an outstanding
job of introducing the essays, and gathering a
stellar group of scholars, the book fails as a
unity . There are some truly outstanding
contributions in this volume. J. M. Bernstein's
and Simon Jarvis's soon to be canonical essays
are gems of philosophical reflection that are
first-rate contributions to Hegelian, Marxist,
and Adornian scholarship. After Bernstein's essay
it will be easier to understand how Adorno was an
anti-Hegelian Hegelian, and how faithful
Hegelians can only be so as anti-Hegelians.
Jarvis's essay rightly draws the contours of
Adorno's historical materialism, and elucidates
the ways in which Adorno's philosophical system
was a close commentary and explication of Marx's
Grundrisse and Kapital. The essays by Christoph
Menke and Gerhard Schweppenh·user explicate the
ways in which Adorno contributed to the debate
among Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche on the
relationship between freedom, morality, ethics,
and justice, and how Adorno, therefore, should
become a dialogue partner for second- and
third-generation Critical Theorists as they study
the nature of communicative freedom, dialogic
solidarity, and substantive justice. The book is
arguably weighted down by too many contributions
on Adorno's work on the philosophy and sociology
of the production and consumption of music. These
essays, however, are also deformed by an
eagerness to depict an Adorno in contradiction
and aporia, an attitude more appropriate for
scholarly journals and less so for tools of
reference. James Schmidt's essay on Adorno's
contributions to Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus and
his tortured relationship with Arnold Schoenberg
is an important contribution to the intellectual
history of a decisive period in Euro-American
migrations and diasporas. It should be read as a
preemptive answer to Robert Hullot-Kentor's
mystifying contribution, which unfolds an utopian
aspect of Adorno's work on the grounds of a
disconcerting assumption, namely that Adorno's
work should be doubly alienated from the United
States, the country that always stands in his
work as a metonym for totality and modernity, and
has served as the very material condition of
possibility of most of his work. In more than one
way, Adorno's work was a meditation on America,
and that there may be interest on his obtuse and
hermetic work in the US should not be "puzzling,"
but both expectable and inevitable. In fact,
Adorno may be needed more in the US than in
Germany or Europe in general.

In addition to some of these shortcomings, the
book fails to cover some significant territory in
Adorno scholarship. Adorno's relationship to
Benjamin is not substantively addressed, and this
is a major oversight, especially as Adorno's work
is so much a commentary on what is promised and
left unresolved in Benjamin's mangled torso of a
work. Another twin to Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, is
only mentioned once, but not discussed at all. No
justice is done to Adorno's Negative Dialectics
if it is not read in tandem with Bloch's
Principle of Hope and Subject-Object:
Clarifications on Hegel. Bloch was also a
philosopher of music, and philosopher of art, in
general, who was always in Adorno's background,
much like the tain of a mirror. Adorno's
relationship to psychoanalysis and Freud should
have received more attention, notwithstanding
Joel Whitebook's essay, which should not have
been included in this volume because it is less
interested in engaging Adorno's work on its on
terms than in pushing Whitebook's own
intellectual project. It is simply not the case
that Adorno was not aware of the ways in which
sublimation does happen in and through the
psycho-social mechanism of civilization. At the
same time, however, and Adorno did not tire of
making this point, sublimation must be both
resisted and held in abeyance. This was the point
of a negative dialectics that resists all
attempts at reconciliation with a reified psychic
life. Adorno's rupture with Erich Fromm, for
instance, could have been a point of departure
for an insight into what type of Freud Adorno and
Horkheimer wanted to preserve. For both, the
Freud of instincts and intractable corporeality,
whose suffering and desiring remains
un-sublateable and irreducible, became the alibi
for a critique of consumer culture and the
discontents of civilization. It is with reference
to this Freud of tormented and tormentable bodies
that Adorno developed his "negative morality,"
which refuses to reconcile Kant, or morality, and
Hegel, or ethical life, because the moral
imperative wells up as a somatic "impulse" and
"stirring impatience" of the flesh. In general, a
discussion of Adorno's type of Freudianism and
how it stands athwart post-Lacanian
psychoanalysis would have been most welcome.

Although there are two essays that deal with
Adorno and Heidegger, their focus militates
against a more thorough and synoptic overview of
this antinomial duet. There was no contemporary
thinker against whom Adorno thought most
continuously, consistently, obsessively, and
lastingly. Heidegger haunts almost every sentence
in the Negative Dialectics, precisely because
Adorno thought that Heidegger was usurping what
he thought he himself was doing: overcoming
metaphysics by its immanent destruction. The
question of technology was not the only the issue
that brought them into vicinity. Both thinkers
dealt extensively with questions concerning the
nature of the work of art, the role of language
in thinking and philosophy, and both produced
original readings of Hegel, Kant, and Nietzsche,
among others.

Finally, an essay on Adorno's role as a public
intellectual in Post-World War II Germany would
have been very useful and would have allowed
readers of the volume to access the impact, both
beneficial and detrimental, to the development of
West German political culture. The prejudice that
Adorno was an elitist, disengaged from public
culture, has begun to be refuted and dissolved by
studies of the archives of the Institute for
Social Research, and the publication of his
extensive correspondence with colleagues,
university officials, newspaper editors, and
radio station directors[3]. These drawbacks
notwithstanding, The Cambridge Companion to
Adorno makes for a good point of entry into one
of the most brilliant and capacious thinkers of
the 20th century .

[1] See in particular Stefan Mller-Doohm,
Adorno: Eine Biographie (Frankfurt am Main:
Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003), and Lorenz J·ger, Adorno:
A Political Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 2004).

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophische
Terminologie, Vol 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp
Verlag, 1973), 7.

[3] See Alex Demirovic, Der nonkoformistische
Intellektuelle. Die Entwicklung der Kritischen
Theorie zur Frankfurter Schule (Frankfurt am
Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1999). See the thorough
review essay by Max Pensky, "Beyond the Message
in the Bottle: The Other Critical Theory"
Constellations, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2003) 135-144.
See also Jrgen Habermas's essay on Adorno's
centennial celebration, "Dual-Layered Time:
Personal Notes on Philosopher T. W. Adorno in the
'50's" Logos 2.4 (Fall 2003), available on-line
at: http://www.logosjournal.com/

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