Mentor Adorno


[Bit of philosophy and memoir about one of my intellectual mentors. Might be a bit hard to read on screen, since it probably demands a bit of ‘deep’, i.e. concentrated, reading. Some of the abstract notions used probably read better in German. English seems to be more the language of the empirical and poetic than of more abstract theory…? Endnotes and sources have been left out because WordPress won’t take them.]

Mentor Adorno

The notion of alienation ‒ and its roots in Marx’ analysis of commodity fetishism ‒ lies at the heart of the radical social philosophy of Kritische Theorie, of the Frankfurt School, my important intellectual mentors and ‘elders of the book’. It informs, in particular, Adorno and Horkheimer’s seminal Dialektik der Aufklärung (1944): the ‘dialectics of the Enlightenment’ lie in the double nature of bourgeois (western) thought as ideology. Bourgeois abstract thought and science (‘enlightenment’ or ‘instrumental reason’), indeed bourgeois identity, is seen dialectically, paradoxically. In abstracting from and subjugating internal and external nature, it has both initiated technological and social progress and at the same time created a blind, oppressive, reified ‘second nature’ (commodities, market, money, capital) which now ‒ at the seeming apex of its historical development ‒ even threatens human, or at least humane, survival. Enlightenment as emancipation from mythic thinking was gained at the price of falling victim to a new mythology, the reifications of ‘second nature’, alienation and domination.

Moving beyond Marx’ critique of capitalism, Adorno and Horkheimer locate these ‘dialectics of the Enlightenment’ back at the very beginnings of western civilisation itself in ancient, iron age Greece. The birth of the western mind and ego identity ‒ and, later, science ‒ is thus inherently linked to the subjugation of inner and outer nature and a concept of domination or power-over (Herrschaft) as the principle of all relationships. Adorno and Horkheimer develop this notion in a new reading of Homer’s Odyssey:

Humanity pays for the power gained with alienation from that which it has power over. Enlightenment relates to things like a dictator to people. It knows them only insofar as it can manipulate them. The man of science knows things only in as far as he can make them. That way their autonomy becomes ‘for him’. In this transformation the essence of things always turns out to be the same: the substrate of domination.

Even before I move to Frankfurt itself, I have been first introduced to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School through Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and the short literary and philosophical essays by Adorno I read while working on my epistemological interpretations of Beckett and Shelley. In time, Adorno becomes another ‘mentor of the book’, another ‘spiritual elder’ of my grandfather’s generation. Two aspects of his thinking appeal to me immediately, the breadth and depth of his strong philosophical affinity to and specific interpretations of music and literature and, after early Marx, a first real experiencing of what ‘dialectical’ thinking might imply. Marx and Adorno in particular open up the delights and strengths of German philosophical language in its culturally specific tradition and mode of radical speculative thought.

(In historical-dialectical perspective, this specifically German tradition ‒ from the Renaissance mystics Eckhart and Böhme to Enlightenment thinkers Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling and on to Marx ‒ may be a compensatory expression of German historical Ungleichzeitigkeit, i.e. both of the historical backwardness and ‘lateness’ of Germany from the 16th to 19th centuries and the concomitant advantages of such backwardness in terms of keeping alive critical, i.e. non-commercial, pre-capitalist, values ).

The distinguishing feature of Adorno (perhaps more than anyone else inside or outside the Frankfurt School since Marx and the early Lukacs) is that to read him in the original is not to read about dialectics, but to experience it. Adorno does not talk so much about core Hegelo-Marxist dialectical notions such as ‘concrete totality’ (konkrete Totalität, das Ganze), ‘mediation’ (Vermittlung), ‘abstract’ versus ‘mediated negation’ (abstrakte/bestimmte Negation’) or ‘supercession’ (Aufhebung) as actually practise them before your eyes and ears. You share in a new adventure of ideas as you attempt to follow the living dialectical process of his (self-)critical thinking.

This process never seems to just dogmatically posit or abstractly deduce any notion but to engage in a spiralling process of developing it by exploring its inner structures or the movement of its inherent tensions, oppositions, or contradictions. Unlike the ‘common sense’ philosophies of empiricism, scientism or positivism predominant in Anglo-American culture, no single phenomenon or empirical ‘fact’ is taken as simply given and immediate (i.e. as ‘abstract’ in the Hegelian sense of ‘abstracted’ from its rich, multi-levelled context and ‘concrete totality’). Rather, such facts, or indeed anything ‘im-mediate’, are shown to be intrinsically ‘mediated’ (vermittelt), i.e. inherently related to a larger, socio-historical, contextual whole which will at some point necessarily include its opposite.

Thus in Adorno, as with Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, the Buddha and Hegel, nothing in world or mind is fixed and eternal, there are no simply dogmatically ‘given’, immediate and reified entities. Everything is fluid, changing, mediated, in a conflicted process of self-development. In this both cognitive and social development, previous positions are successively transcended or ‘superseded’, but not by throwing babies out with bathwaters (‘abstract negation’) but by a subtle movement of ‘mediated negation’ (bestimmte Negation) in which positions are both negated and kept, ‘lifted up’ and integrated on a higher level (aufgehoben: the untranslatable German word aufheben wonderfully incorporates the meanings of lift up, negate, keep and transcend or supersede).

Let us try and briefly exemplify such an ‘Adornite’ dialectical process thought using the abstract philosophical notions of ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’, for example.

Many of the views about apparently ‘objective’ realities expressed in my own essays are unashamedly ‘subjective’. They lay no claim to any scientific ‘objectivity’. The subjectivity of my views is, however, both in itself historically formed, an objectivity or ‘fact’, and at the same time very much formed and in-formed (‘mediated’) by the very historical objectivity it is describing. My thinking is obviously a product of my personal, social and cultural context. At the same time that historical objectivity already contains my subjectivity. It does this both in the trivial sense that any society of course contains its members, and in the epistemological sense that any objectivity, although, from a materialist perspective, logically and ontologically prior to any subjectivity, can exist for us only to the degree that it is subjectively perceived and expressed (cf. Kant). It is Hegel’s dialectical step beyond Kant to recognise that this subjective perception or expression of any objectivity is itself formed by and expresses the historical objectivity it is perceiving.

Thus subjectivity and objectivity can only be explored in their reciprocal and dialectical mediation. From a dialectical perspective, only this would be able to lay claim to any ‘truth’‒ and this ‘truth’, in turn, would not be a neat package or reified product separable from the process of dialectical exploration itself. For dialectical thought, there are thus no separable, isolated, abstract subjective or objective truths. To posit either without the other, to abstract one from the other, is to split off, fixate and reify one side and this must falsify reality into some ideology thereof.

Two such complementary ideologies are, from this perspective, idealism and positivism. Idealism, (and concomitant forms like literary romanticism, spiritualism etc), for example, is the subjectivist ideology of the Subject, mind, consciousness, spirit. On the other hand, Positivism (and concomitant forms like scientism, empiricism, naïve materialism or literary naturalism) is the objectivist ideology of the Object, matter, fact, event, thing. As Adorno shows, when analysed further, each of these two philosophical abstractions is found to inherently imply and contain its polar opposite as its own inner contradiction. However, separated and isolated, each is the denied truth of the other, and thus false.

And yet ‒ in another dialectical volte – it is precisely as ideologies, i.e. as forms of ‘historically necessary false consciousness’, that each expresses an unconscious truth about historical reality.

In inflating and hypostasising subjectivity, mind or spirit, in ignoring their objective mediations, the ideology of idealism compensates for the real historical powerlessness of mind and the individual. At the same time, however, this compensation ex- or implicitly includes a radical protest against that powerlessness. From a historical-materialist perspective, this protest is implicitly directed against the new dominating, all-powerful apparent Subject of history: money, commercialism, capital, industrial society, technology.

Similarly, there is (unconscious) historical truth in the ideology of positivism. In ignoring subjective mediations, in taking things as unmediated and simply given as abstracted ‘facts’, in isolating or socially and historically de-contextualising things and events, positivism and scientism truthfully reflect the social reign of abstraction, of quantity and things, the dehumanisation or de-subjectification, the separation and isolation of individuals, the atomisation, alienation and reification of relationships in modern commercialised society and capitalism.

Alternatively, to posit the simple identity of subject and object (‘all is one’), as in many forms of New Age spiritualism and simplistic forms of pop-mysticism, is equally false and ideological. Paradoxically, this identification in fact precludes their harmonisation or reconciliation. To simply posit identity – in contrast to developing it within and out of an inherently self-contradictory, conflicted process ‒ is a form of violence, a negation of difference in ‘premature’, externally enforced harmony. If (as in personal relations or psychotherapy) there are no boundaries, no separation, there is also no relationship, no communication, no dialogue, and thus no possibility of redemption. The process of dialectical mediation thus overcomes and integrates the false poles of reified separation and pseudo-mystical identity (the latter being Hegel’s famous undifferentiated ‘night in which all cows are black’). Paradoxically, only a maintaining of differentiated ‘non-identity’ can remain true to the dialectical process of free self-harmonisation and reconciliation. (Politically, this can thus be seen as an inherently ‘anarchist’ mode of philosophizing).

Thus, in sum, ‘subject’ and ‘object’ (or any other common philosophical dualisms like ‘theory’ and ‘praxis’, ‘mind’ and ‘body’, ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’, ‘individual’ and ‘society’, ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ etc) are not merely separable, independent entities which are to then be (as in most scientistic thinking) externally and mechanically connected in relations of ‘influence’, ‘determination’ or ‘causation’. They are, rather, internally interdependent and reciprocally ‘mediated’. Object is mediated by subject and subject is mediated by object; none exists without the other, and thus to split them and reify one or the other leads to the co-dependent ideologies of idealism/romantic voluntarism (Subject over Object) or positivism/scientistic materialism (Object over Subject). Without simply abstractly negating them or taking some imaginary ‘middle-of-the-road’ position, i.e. in taking up and consciously integrating (aufheben) their unconscious truths, dialectical thought also declares ‘a pox on both these houses’.

As these necessarily abstract, and ‒ in English ‒ probably rather ponderous, descriptions indicate, much of this mode of dialectical and critical thought seems very much bound up with the specific characteristics of the German language and is much diminished, verbose or obscure in English translation. German delights in nominalisations that the English preference for verb phrases finds very alien. Academic German also admires the long hypotactic sentence that even academic English tends to frown upon as convoluted and obscure. However in the original German, Adorno’s critical theory is usually a consciously aesthetic, and thus often (paradoxically despite the mostly high level of abstraction and nominalisation) almost ‘sensuously’ satisfying way of philosophising. There is a highly unusual combination of philosophical rigour and aesthetic sensitivity and even, at times, playfulness. Adorno, the master of long, intricate, hypotactic sentences that may critically double back on themselves, is at the same time a master of apodictic, dialectical paradox and the radically paratactic aphorism, compressing volumes into a sentence or two.

All art is a riddle. Works of art express something and hide it in the same breath. Works of art that are totally amenable to contemplation and thought are not works of art.

Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.

While art is a form of truth, it cannot (unlike philosophy) have truth as its intention.

A poem hopes to achieve the more-than-personal by radical individuation.

Individual feelings and experiences only become art when they – precisely by virtue of the specifics of their aesthetic forming – achieve participation in the general.

Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.

Negativity is the only possible form of love in philosophy today.

The almost insoluble task is to let neither the power of others, nor our own powerlessness, stupefy us.

No authentic life is possible within generalized inauthenticity. (Es gibt kein wahres Leben im Falschen).

To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.

As the last four aphorisms may indicate, Adorno is the radical philosopher of negation and despair. This despair is rooted in two (for Kritische Theorie and Western Marxism in general) axial historical phenomena: the failure of the European working class to overthrow capitalism after the first world war and, arguably linked to that failure, the rise of totalitarianism and the fascist version of the latter’s ultimate expression in the industrialised mass murder of the Holocaust. The latter is for Adorno and Horkheimer the defining catastrophic break in, and collapse of, bourgeois civilisation in the 20th century, a Zivilisationsbruch.

In the tradition of Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean existentialism and against Hegel’s ultimately theological positivism or a dogmatic Marxian theologising of ‘economics’ or ‘the system’, Adorno sees the systematic and ‘totality’ as always latently totalitarian, as ‘the false’ (das Falsche, das Unwahre). His famous Hegel-inverting dictum is Das Ganze ist das Unwahre: ‘the whole is the false’. He thus does not construct any positive system of philosophy and his philosophical magnum opus in this regard is programmatically named Negative Dialectics. His favoured modes of discourse are in fact the smaller, anti-systemic forms of the critical essay, the dialectically developing lecture, the pungent aphorism. His favoured subject matter, whether philosophical, sociological, musicological or literary, is critique, Ideologiekritik, the critique of ideology.

Once I began to think in this way as a student in Munich and Frankfurt, the critical notion of ideology now became quite central to the perception and interpretation of all ‘establishment’ statements and theories. Suddenly it became almost viscerally unbearable to watch the TV news, for example, given the new awareness of the huge selectivities, unconscious biases, overt propaganda, moral double standards and convenient omissions it necessarily contains as one of the main reinforcing mechanisms of official ideology. Ideologiekritik became a constant intellectual pastime, a useful new lens to apply to diverse phenomena. I learned Ideologiekritik mainly through Adorno’s works.

Although I later at Frankfurt university heard the two other ‘living legends’ of Critical Theory, Marcuse and Habermas (both of whom, for very different reasons, were rather disappointing), I never got to hear Adorno himself. In the summer of 1969 I went on a holiday to Paris, staying in a single room in vacant student dormitories at the Cité Universitaire. On the train out from Munich a young woman, much to my surprise, invited me into her compartment and we met again in Paris. The city was hot and quite empty of Parisians who were all holidaying in the country or by the sea. There were cops everywhere, still nervous and angry about the student-led almost-revolution fifteen months ago. The Munich girl and I were walking down the Boulevard St Michel towards the Seine. As we passed a news kiosk I noticed a copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The headline read: Adorno tot (Adorno Dead).

I was shocked, saddened, although I had at that stage only read a few of his shorter pieces. I was alone with my feelings as the girl, an office worker, had of course never heard of him. We sat on an island in the Seine with other young people. Cops arrived. We were made to stand on the bridge in the glaring sun for about an hour. No reasons were given. Then we were trundled into a paddy wagon and taken to the local police station where we were put behind bars. The girl I was with was allowed to stay outside the jail room so that the cops could flirt with her. In the jail cell bread and wine were passed around. A French guy sitting next to me on the floor seemed to have had a little too much wine. I got very nervous as he started shouting à bas les flics, à bas les flics (down with the cops, down with the cops). A cop appeared and threatened violence if he didn’t stop. Thankfully, he did. When we were let out for a pee, a cop followed and watched us. After a few hours we were set free without apology or explanation. I read the event as an intimidating, banal demonstration of police and state power vis-à-vis the young people and students who had briefly defied and shaken that power just over a year ago. The day Adorno died.

Adorno Hork


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 17, 2014.

10 Responses to “Mentor Adorno”

  1. Brilliant introduction to a brilliant mind and system of thought,thanks. Dialectics of Enlightenment sits on my shelf as a perpetual challenge (maybe the Cummings translation adds to it?). I should have taken my German more seriously so I could get that nuance you describe so wonderfully.

    I take a slightly different approach to the notion of ideology, a more positive, Gramscian perspective that disavows the possibility of a “false” consciousness (as opposed to the true) , This is where Zizek’s synthesizing of Laclau/ Mouffe and Lacan is extremely valuable, IMO, as is his re-working of Hegel. It’s that damn unconscious that neither Marx nor the New Agers could really get to fit in any of their systems. That “traumatic kernel” means we can’t get back to some post-industrial bliss nor Marx’s workers paradise nor Perfect Discourse. It will always be messy and radically contingent but hopefully a little more sustainable and just.

    • Thanks Dave. If I were starting with Adorno, German or English, I probably wouldn’t start with The Dialectics of the E. (and definitely not with Negative Dialectics, or Aesthetic Theory). I’d go with collections of essays or an aphoristic text like Minima Moralia. His essays on specific authors or works of literature (Noten zur Literatur) are great. His sociological essays also, topics range from TV, anti-semitism and fascism, education, progress, to Germany/US, Freud, politics and neurosis, the individual and the organization originally appeared in little edition suhrkamps like ‘Kritik’, ‘Stichworte’ and ‘Eingriffe’…I assume most of those would have been translated by now.

      I’d be very loathe to give up on the original, sociologically critical meaning of ‘ideology’ as the (usually unconscious) rationalisation of material interests by the representatives of dominant or new ascending classes. E.g. Liberalism, or Orthodox Marxism/Marxism-Leninism as ideologies of bourgeois or neo-bourgeois classes. From a dialectically critical perspective, the falseness of their ideologies is balanced by their ‘social necessity’, and thus unconscious ‘truth’. ‘Truth’ and ‘falsehood’ are of course always socially contested notions, and so they should be. Yet absolutely essential. That’s a very different attitude from (seemingly) ditching them, as in deconstruction/social constructionism…

  2. Is this why, whenever I stumble across some the thinkers you mention, perhaps Hegel more (and I meant stumble because it is more than likely I’m not reading them directly), I see similarities with Buddhist thought? Dependent origination. Nothing exists in and of itself, and that’s where the nothing is! The emptiness if emptiness. The concept if emptiness must be destroyed, for it too is non-existent. Kill the Buddha!

    Freely improvising seems close to what you describe Peter,

    “To simply posit identity – in contrast to developing it within and out of an inherently self-contradictory, conflicted process ‒ is a form of violence, a negation of difference in ‘premature’, externally enforced harmony. If (as in personal relations or psychotherapy) there are no boundaries, no separation, there is also no relationship, no communication, no dialogue, and thus no possibility of redemption. The process of dialectical mediation thus overcomes and integrates the false poles of reified separation and pseudo-mystical identity (the latter being Hegel’s famous undifferentiated ‘night in which all cows are black’). Paradoxically, only a maintaining of differentiated ‘non-identity’ can remain true to the dialectical process of free self-harmonisation and reconciliation. (Politically, this can thus be seen as an inherently ‘anarchist’ mode of philosophizing).”

    I wonder if this is why I was drawn to free improvising and why, while I’m doing it and after, I often feel conflicted? Why I recently wrote to Will Lapinel and spoke of the internal/external trouble of activism. The conflicting psyche of the individual coming up against the very same thing, at different levels perhaps, in others, which is an external meeting that carries extra formidable challenges and on and on…

    Those moments when you stop suddenly and just stare, as if everything has just fallen away, and seems so useless, until you snap back into the “real” world like you have just stubbed your toe. The big and small each rolling and a tumbling all over themselves, one never getting clear or on top of the other. That brutal frustrating scream again, that you are never getting and will never get closer to whatever IT is. That absolute nothing is impossible because something already is, rendering a beginning problematic, and birth and death an ever continuing absurdity!

    Shit, sounds like every goddam improvisation Music With My Insane Friend has ever played!

    Only halfway through your piece Peter but had to write before I forgot. You know, because what I have to say is soooo important! 🙂

    • All my ifs should be ofs.

    • Nice riff on this, thanks James. Yep, could be some parallels between Buddhist Dependent Origination and dialectical thinking as total ‘inter-mediation’. Also between Buddhist ‘all is change’ and dialectical process thinking (Hegel drew attention to ‘the fury of disappearing’, die Furie des Verschwindens…). His philosophy of history (taken over and materialised by Marx), is, however, very non-Buddhist: a mystical coming-to-self-consciousness of The Absolute/God within human history becoming self-conscious of itself, the bloody events of human history as Masks of God which He removes at the End (both Judeo-Christianity and Vedanta Hinduism seem to share a bit of this; as do spiritual philosophers of history like Teilhard de Chardin and Ken Wilber). I have found most of Hegel himself almost unreadable, like most philosophers much too abstract, but to an even more absurd degree… BTW Adorno, who trained in piano and composition in Vienna with Alban Berg and originally intended becoming a composer, wrote some interesting stuff on classical/modern classical music (Introduction to the Sociology of Music, and an essay collection ‘Impromptus’), which even I could mostly understand. He rejected the big band white jazz of the 20s and 30s as capitalist machine music, but I don’t think he ever got Afro-American groove, rhythm, blues…

  3. Ah, so that’s where the title of Ben Watson’s about Zappa book comes from. It’s probably in the book, but I had such trouble understanding all the Adorno references that I just ignored them really. You know, went straight for the pictures so to speak.

    “The almost insoluble task is to let neither the power of others, nor our own powerlessness, stupefy us.”

    Almost insoluble! That’s how hard it is, eh. That’s where the brutal scream and the sudden vacant stare is.

    Well, I reckon.

  4. thanx for that peter…so so much to think about…your posts always get me out of the mundane…for a while anyway…
    “No authentic life is possible within generalized inauthenticity”… really hit me…

    • Thanks Kristi. Yep, that one-liner you quote is a nice one against the New Agey notion of merely individual ‘liberation’. Another possible translation would be: ‘There is no right way of living within a wrong one.’ Similar to older ones like: ‘no man is an island’, or ‘no one free is free while anyone is in prison’.

  5. i hadn’t seen this Peter. Thanks; I’ll look into his D of E as you suggest …

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