Re: [OPE-L] Philosopher of the Month

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Tue Jun 28 2005 - 20:27:53 EDT

I didn't get a chance to mention this a month or so ago when Adorno last came up on the list, but for any interested I have an article from last year called "Powers and Particulars: Adorno and Scientific Realism," which appeared in the Journal of Critical Realism, v. 3, no. 1 at 1 (2004).

I make the point that while Adorno was active during the early years of the emergence of scientific realism, natural science was for him 'a sensitive weak point.'  He never challenged Hume's concept of causality and as a consequence could not challenge positivism's core ontological assumptions.  While there are suggestions that he thought of aesthetics a bit differently, in general he clung to the Enlightenment idea that any ontology of powers was mixed up with occult aspects of traditional metaphysics.  This put limits on his thought and undermined the force of his critique of positivism, a lesson is relevant to our own understanding of realism's challenge to varieties of critical theory today.


  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: glevy@PRATT.EDU 
  Sent: Tuesday, June 28, 2005 6:38 PM
  Subject: [OPE-L] Philosopher of the Month


  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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