[OPE-L] Philosopher of the Month

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Tue Jun 28 2005 - 18:38:41 EDT


Philosopher of the Month: Theodor Adorno

Jack Furlong

A critic of modern jazz, a key theoretician of
the left and a leader in the most celebrated
academic institute of the last century, Theodor
Weisengrund Adorno combined the intense
speculative focus of a German academic with the
feel for the concrete of a French aesthete. Along
the way, he also unwittingly became a model - and
a foil - for Anglo-American culture critics.

As a teenager, Adorno spent many Saturday
afternoons poring over Immanuel Kant's Critique
of Pure Reason with Siegfried Kracauer, who
encouraged him to read philosophy in its
socio-historical context and to apply
philosophical and sociological tools to
understand such cultural artefacts as film. Not
surprisingly, as an undergraduate, he applied
himself to philosophy, psychology and sociology
and, after spending three years studying music in
Vienna with avant-garde composers, he completed
his doctoral degree requirements and began
writing. His work over the span of forty years
never lost the connectivity of art, philosophy
and cultural criticism that so enthralled him in
his early reading of Kant with Kracauer.

Adorno wrote most of his mature work under the
aegis of the celebrated Institute for Social
Research. He officially joined in 1938, but his
relationship with its guiding spirit and founder,
Max Horkheimer, began in the 1920s when they took
courses together. Along with several others, they
began a collaborative research programme within
the Institute called the Frankfurt School of
Critical Theory. Under Horkheimer and Adorno, the
school dedicated itself to producing research
characterized by the systematic rejection of
closed philosophical and political systems, and a
commitment to ongoing study and criticism of
current oppressive sociopolitical structures.
Less interested in Marx's reductionist critique
of capitalism than traditional Marxists, the
Frankfurt School sought to expand his criticisms
of bourgeois culture. Less preoccupied with
praxis (revolutionary action) than with
theoretical insight into oppressive structures
and processes, the school was often charged by
more orthodox Marxists with elitism and
passivity. This accent on culture and the charge
of elitism have marked Adorno's career.

Adorno would put himself in the same group as
Hegel, Marx and others who used the form of
argumentation known as dialectics to unmask the
hypocrisies and absurdities of the political and
social status quo. Contemporary bourgeois life
requires that all of its aspects be controlled -
the statehouse, the family, the church, the
airwaves, the marketplace. This 'administered
world' needs homogenized certainties, concepts
taken for granted unfailingly, in order to
maintain total control. Hence, says Adorno,
modern regimes 'reify' - make into a thing - and
quantify what cannot be fashioned into permanent
concepts and identifies, but which nonetheless
prove useful to those who rule. For Adorno, the
most tragic manifestation of this 'administered
world' was the Holocaust, in which even human
beings themselves were 'reified' - counted,
recorded and, eventually, 'consumed'.

Dominating regimes must run according to
political theories made of clear, determined
concepts and predictable logic - a closed system.
Philosophy for Adorno contests this desire for
conceptual and systematic finality, for
philosophical concepts resist their own closure.
So understood, philosophy is dialectics, or
'thought driven by its own insufficiency.'
Philosophy must constantly criticize itself,
preventing the negative energy of thinking from
getting short-circuited by conformity.

Art, too, like philosophy, can liberate people
from the claustrophobia of power. 'Works of art,'
states Adorno 'are   social products which have
discarded the illusion of being-for-society, an
illusion tendentiously maintained by all other
commodities.' To the extent that art gives people
what they expected, it becomes a commodity.

This theme appears vividly in Adorno's best known
book, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947),
co-authored by Horkheimer. The authors first
describe how the Enlightenment concept of reason
became an efficient tool for social and political
administrations to ensure the compliance of the
administered at all levels of discourse and
practice. 'Through the countless agencies of mass
production and its culture the conventionalised
modes of behaviour are impressed on the
individual as the only natural, respectable, and
rational ones. He defines himself only as a
thing.' Even art becomes commodified, an example
of 'instrumental reason', producing what the
authors call 'the culture industry'.

Though written in the 1940s this critique has not
lost its relevance: speaking about what they saw
as a growing monopoly, Adorno and Horkheimer
claimed that 'Movies and radio need no longer
pretend to be art. The truth that they are just
business is made into an ideology in order to
justify the rubbish they deliberately produce.'
Widely anthologized, this chapter on the culture
industry has inspired and guided the relatively
new field of culture studies in the social
sciences and humanities.

In the last year of his life, Adorno became
embattled with radical students, and charges of
elitism unfortunately made his last few months
stressful. Yet Adorno's reputation survived to
the extent that, currently, his is often claimed
as a precursor to postmodern and
post-structuralist thought.

Suggested reading
Adorno, T. 1991. The Culture Industry: Selected
essays on mass culture. London: Routledge.
O'Connor, B. 2000 (ed.). The Adorno Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
Horkheimer, M & Adorno, T. W. 1976 [1947],
Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Continuum.

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