Theodor W. Adorno
Max Horkheimer (front left), Theodor Adorno (front right), and Jrgen Habermas (in the background, right), in 1965 in Heidelberg.
|Full name||Theodor Ludwig Adorno Wiesengrund (later Theodor W. Adorno)|
|Born||September 11, 1903
|Died||August 6, 1969 (aged 65)
|Era||20th century philosophy|
|School||critical theory– marxism|
|Main interests||social theory – sociology – psychoanalysis – epistemology – aesthetics – musicology – literary theory– mass media|
Theodor W. Adorno (September 11, 1903 - August 6, 1969) was a German-born international sociologist, philosopher, and musicologist. He was a member of the Frankfurt School of social theory along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jrgen Habermas, and others. He was also the Music Director of the Radio Project from 1937 to 1941, in the U.S.
Theodor Ludwig Adorno Wiesengrund was born in Frankfurt as an only child to the wealthy wine merchant Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund (1870–1941, of Jewish descent, converted to Protestantism) and the Catholic singer Maria Barbara, born Calvelli-Adorno. It was the second half of this name that he adopted as his surname upon becoming a naturalized American citizen in the 1930s ("Wiesengrund" was abbreviated to "W"). His musically talented aunt Agathe also lived with the family. The young Adorno passionately engaged the piano. He attended the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gymnasium where he did well, graduating at the age of 17 at the top of his class. In his free time he took private lessons in composition with Bernhard Sekles and read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason together with his friend Siegfried Kracauer – 14 years his elder – on Saturday afternoons. Later he would proclaim that he owed more to these readings than to any of his academic teachers. At the University of Frankfurt (today's Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universitt) he studied philosophy, musicology, psychology and sociology, graduating in 1924 with a dissertation on Edmund Husserl. Before his graduation, Adorno had already met with his most important intellectual collaborators, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin.
During his student years in Frankfurt Adorno had written a number of music critiques, but primarily wanted to be a composer. With this goal envisioned, he used his relationship to Alban Berg to pursue studies in Vienna beginning in January, 1925, making contacts with members of the Viennese School, Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg's revolutionary atonality particularly inspired the 22-year-old to pen philosophical observations on the new music, though they were not well received by its proponents. The disappointment over this caused him to cut back on his music critiques to enable his career as academic teacher and social researcher to flourish. He did however remain editor-in-chief of the avant-garde magazine Anbruch. His musicological writing already displayed his philosophical ambitions. Other lasting influences from Adorno's time in Vienna included Karl Kraus, whose lectures he attended with Alban Berg, and Georg Luk¡cs whose Theory of the Novel had already enthused him while attending Gymnasium and whose History and Class Consciousness he had reviewed a year previously.
After returning from Vienna, Adorno experienced another setback. After his dissertation supervisor Hans Cornelius and Cornelius's assistant Max Horkheimer had voiced their concerns about Adorno's professorial thesis–a comprehensive philosophical-psychological treatise–he withdrew it in early 1928. Adorno took three more years before he received the venia legendi, after submitting the manuscript Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des sthetischen ("Construction of the Aesthetic") to his new supervisor, Paul Tillich.
The topic of Adorno's inaugural lecture was the Current Importance of Philosophy, a theme he considered programmatic throughout his life. In it, he questioned the concept of totality for the first time, anticipating his famous formula (directed against Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) that the whole is the untrue (from Minima Moralia). However, Adorno's credential was revoked by the Nazis, along with those of all professors of non-Aryan descent, in 1933.
Adorno's 1932 essay Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik ("On the Social Situation of Music") was his contribution to the first issues of Horkheimer's Zeitschrift fr Sozialforschung ("Journal for Social Research"); it wasn't until 1938 that he joined the Institute for Social Research.
Beginning in the late 1920s during stays in Berlin, Adorno established close relations with Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch; Adorno had become acquainted with Bloch's first major work, Geist der Utopie, in 1921. Moreover, the German capital, Berlin, was also home of chemist Margarethe ('Gretel') Karplus (1902–1993), whom Adorno would marry in London in 1937. In 1934, fleeing from the Nazi regime, he emigrated to England, with hopes of obtaining a professorship at Oxford.
In 1936, the Zeitschrift featured one of Adorno's most controversial texts, "On Jazz" ("ber Jazz"). It should be noted that "jazz" was frequently used to refer to all popular music at the time of Adorno's writing. This article was less an engagement with this style of music than a first polemic against the blooming entertainment and culture industry. Adorno believed the culture industry was a system by which society was controlled through a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression. This topic is also discussed in his essay On the Fetish-Character in Music (Zeitschrift, 1938), in which Adorno formulated his famous quote "every pleasure which emancipates itself from the exchange-value takes on subversive features".
After visiting New York City for the first time in 1937 he decided to resettle there. In Brussels he bade his parents, who followed two years later, goodbye. He said goodbye to Benjamin in Sanremo. Benjamin opted to remain in Europe, thus limiting their very rigorous future communication to letters. Adorno's relocation was enabled under an arrangement whereby part of his time was committed to the Institute for Social Research, which was then resettled at Columbia University, and the remainder as musical director on the 'Radio Project' (also known as Lazarsfeld/Stanton Analysis Programme) directed by the Austrian sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld at Princeton University.
That arrangement lasted until 1941. His attention shifted to direct collaboration with Horkheimer. They moved to Los Angeles together, where he taught for the following seven years and served as the co-director of a research unit at UCLA. Their collective work found its first major expression in the first edition of their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklrung) in 1947. Faced with the unfolding events of the Holocaust, the work begins with the words:
'In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.'
In this book, which was virtually ignored until republished in 1969, Adorno and Horkheimer posit a dynamic within civilization that tends towards self-destruction. They argue that the concept of reason was transformed into an irrational force by the Enlightenment. As a consequence, reason came to dominate not only nature, but also humanity itself. It is this rationalization of humanity that was identified as the primary cause of Fascism and other totalitarian regimes.
After 1945 he ceased to work as a composer. He worked on his 'philosophy of the new music' (Philosophie der neuen Musik) in the 1940s, and on Hanns Eisler's Composing for the films. He also contributed 'qualitative interpretations' to the Studies in Prejudice performed by multiple research institutes in the US that uncovered the authoritarian character of test persons through indirect questions.
After the war, Adorno, who had been homesick, did not hesitate long before returning to Germany. Due to Horkheimer's influence he was given a professorship in Frankfurt in 1949/1950, allowing him to continue his academic career after a prolonged hiatus. This culminated in a position as double Ordinarius (of philosophy and of sociology). In the Institute, which was affiliated with the university, Adorno's leadership status became ever more and more apparent, while Horkheimer, who was eight years older, gradually stepped back, leaving his younger friend the sole directorship in 1958/1959.
His collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia, led to greater prominence in post-war Germany when it was released by the newly founded publishing house of Peter Suhrkamp. It proposed a 'melancholy science' against the dark background of Fascism, Stalinism and Culture Industry, which seemingly offered no political or economic alternatives: "Wrong life cannot be lived rightly" (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). The work raised Adorno to the level of a foundational intellectual figure in the West German republic, after a last attempt to get him involved in research in the United States failed in 1953.
Here is a partial list of his accomplishments:
In 1966 extraparliamentary opposition (APO) formed against the grand coalition of Germany's two major parties CDU/CSU and SPD, directed primarily against the planned Notstandgesetze (emergency laws). Adorno was an outspoken critic of these policies, which he displayed by his participation in an event organized by the action committee Demokratie im Notstand ("Democracy in a State of Emergency"). When the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a police officer at a demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran, the left-wing APO became increasingly radicalized, and the universities became a place of unrest. To a considerable extent it was students of Adorno who interpreted a theory of revolt, thus executing a "praxis" from Critical Theory. On 31 January 1969, Adorno asked for the help of police to remove the students that had occupied the Frankfurt Institute in fear of vandalism, resulting in the arrest of 76 members of Rudi Dutschke's SDS socialist youth. Therefore Adorno in particular became a target of student action. He sharply criticised the anti-intellectual trend in the 60's Left, which he called a "pseudo-activity" attempting to overcome the separation of theory and praxis but getting caught up in its own publicity; he argued instead for "open thinking": "beyond all specialised and particular content, thinking is actually and above all the force of resistance"  In 1969 the disturbances in his lecture hall, most famously as female students occupied his speaker's podium bare-breasted, increased to an extent that Adorno discontinued his lecture series. In a letter to Samuel Beckett, he wrote: "The feeling of suddenly being attacked as a reactionary at least has a surprising note."
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One biographer on Adorno, Stefan-Mller Doohm, contends that he was convinced the attacks by the students were directed against his theories as well as his person and that he feared that the current political situation might lead to totalitarianism. He left with his wife on a vacation to Switzerland. Despite warnings by his doctor, he attempted to ascend a 3,000 meter high mountain, resulting in heart palpitations. The same day, he and his wife drove to the nearby town Visp, where he suffered heart palpitations once again. He was brought to the town's clinic. In the morning of the following day, August 6, he died of a heart attack, aged 65.
|Part of a series on the|
|Reason and Revolution
Dialectic of Enlightenment
Eros and Civilization
|Max Horkheimer– Theodor Adorno
Herbert Marcuse– Walter Benjamin
Erich Fromm– Friedrich Pollock
Leo Lwenthal– Jrgen Habermas
|Critical theory– Dialectic– Praxis
Popular culture– Culture industry
Advanced capitalism– Privatism
Adorno was chiefly influenced by Max Weber's critique of disenchantment, Georg Luk¡cs's Hegelian interpretation of Marxism, as well as Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history. Adorno, along with the other major Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse, argued that advanced capitalism had managed to contain or liquidate the forces that would bring about its collapse and that the revolutionary moment, when it would have been possible to transform it into socialism, had passed. As he put it at the beginning of his Negative Dialectics (1966), philosophy is still necessary because the time to realise it was missed. Adorno argued that capitalism had become more entrenched through its attack on the objective basis of revolutionary consciousness and through liquidation of the individualism that had been the basis of critical consciousness.
Whilst Adorno's work focuses on art, literature and music as key areas of sensual, indirect critique of the established culture and modes of thought, there is also a strand of distinctly political utopianism evident in his reflections especially on history. The argument, which is complex and dialectic, dominates his Aesthetic Theory, Philosophy of New Music and many other works.
Adorno saw the culture industry as an arena in which critical tendencies or potentialities were eliminated. He argued that the culture industry, which produced and circulated cultural commodities through the mass media, manipulated the population. Popular culture was identified as a reason why people become passive; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture made people docile and content, no matter how terrible their economic circumstances. The differences among cultural goods make them appear different, but they are in fact just variations on the same theme. He wrote that "the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardised production of consumption goods" but this is concealed under "the manipulation of taste and the official culture's pretense of individualism". Adorno conceptualised this phenomenon as pseudo-individualization and the always-the-same.
Adorno's analysis allowed for a critique of mass culture from the left which balanced the critique of popular culture from the right. From both perspectives – left and right – the nature of cultural production was felt to be at the root of social and moral problems resulting from the consumption of culture. However, while the critique from the right emphasized moral degeneracy ascribed to sexual and racial influences within popular culture, Adorno located the problem not with the content, but with the objective realities of the production of mass culture and its effects, e.g. as a form of reverse psychology. Thinkers influenced by Adorno believe that today's society has evolved in a direction foreseen by him, especially in regard to the past (Auschwitz), morals or the Culture Industry. The latter has become a particularly productive, yet highly contested term in cultural studies. Many of Adorno's reflections on aesthetics and music have only just begun to be debated, as a collection of essays on the subject, many of which had not previously been translated into English, has only recently been collected and published as Essays on Music.
Adorno's work in the years before his death was shaped by the idea of "negative dialectics", set out especially in his book of that title. A key notion in the work of the Frankfurt School since Dialectic of Enlightenment had been the idea of thought becoming an instrument of domination that subsumes all objects under the control of the (dominant) subject, especially through the notion of identity, i.e. of identifying as real in nature and society only that which harmonized or fit with dominant concepts, and regarding as unreal or non-existent everything that did not. Adorno's "negative dialectics" was an attempt to articulate a non-dominating thought that would recognize its limitations and accept the non-identity and reality of that which could not be subsumed under the subject's concepts. Indeed, Adorno sought to ground the critical bite of his sociological work in his critique of identity, which he took to be a reification in thought of the commodity form or exchange relation which always presumes a false identity between different things. The potential to criticise arises from the gap between the concept and the object, which can never go into the former without remainder. This gap, this non-identity in identity, was the secret to a critique of both material life and conceptual reflection.
According to Horst Mller's Kritik der kritischen Theorie ("Critique of Critical Theory"), Adorno posits totality as an automatic system. This is consistent with Adorno's idea of society as a self-regulating system, from which one must escape (but from which nobody can escape). For him it was existent, but inhuman. Mller argues against the existence of such a system and claims that Critical Theory provides no practical solution for societal change. He concludes that Jrgen Habermas, in particular, and the Frankfurt School in general, misconstrue Marx.
Positivist philosophers accuse Adorno of theorizing without submitting his theories to empirical tests, basing their critique on Karl Popper's revision of Logical Positivism in which Popper substituted "falsifiability" as a criterion of scientificity for the original "verifiability" criterion of meaning proposed by A.J. Ayer and other early Logical Positivists. In particular, interpreters of Karl Popper apply the test of "falsifiability" to Adorno's thought and find that he was elusive when presented with contrary evidence.
Adorno's defenders[who?] reply to his positivist and conservative critics by pointing to his extensive numerical and empirical research, notably the "F-scale" in his work on Fascist tendencies in individual personalities in The Authoritarian Personality. And in fact, quantitative research using questionnaires and other tools of the modern sociologist was in full use at Adorno's Institute for Social Research. Adorno also argued that the authoritarian personality would, of course, use culture and its consumption to exert social control, but that such control is inherently degrading to those who are subjected to it, and instead such personalities would project their own fear of loss of control on to society as a whole.
However, as a pioneer of a self-reflexive sociology who prefigured Bourdieu's ability to factor in the effect of reflection on the societal object, Adorno realized that some criticism (including deliberate disruption of his classes in the 1960s) could never be answered in a dialogue between equals if, as he seems to have believed, what the naive ethnographer or sociologist thinks of a human essence is always changing over time.
Because Adorno believed that sociology needs to be self-reflective and self-critical, he believed that the language the sociologist uses, like the language of the ordinary person, is a political construct in large measure that uses, often unreflectingly, concepts installed by dominant classes and social structures (such as our notion of "deviance" which includes both genuinely deviant individual and "hustlers" operating below social norms because they lack the capital to operate above: for an analysis of this phenomenon, cf. Pierre Bourdieu's book The Weight of the World). He felt that those at the top of the Institute needed to be the source primarily of theories for evaluation and empirical testing, as well as people who would process the "facts" discovered...including revising theories that were found to be false. For example, in essays published in Germany on Adorno's return from the USA, and reprinted in the Critical Models essays collection (ISBN 0-231-07635-5), Adorno praised the egalitarianism and openness of US society based on his sojourn in New York and the Los Angeles area between 1935 and 1955.
One example of the clash of intellectual culture and Adorno's methods can be found in Paul Lazarsfeld, the American sociologist for whom Adorno worked in the middle 1930s after fleeing Hitler. As Rolf Wiggershaus recounts in The Frankfurt School, Its History, Theories and Political Significance (MIT 1995), Lazarsfeld was the director of a project, funded and inspired by David Sarnoff (the head of RCA), to discover both the sort of music that listeners of radio liked and ways to improve their "taste", so that RCA could profitably air more classical music. Lazarsfeld, however, had trouble both with the prose style of the work Adorno handed in and what Lazarsfeld thought was Adorno's habit of "jumping to conclusions".
While even German readers can find Adorno's work difficult to understand, an additional problem for English readers is that his German idiom is particularly difficult to translate into English. A similar difficulty of translation is true of Hegel, Heidegger, and a number of other German philosophers and poets. As a result, some early translators tended toward over-literalness. In recent years, Edmund Jephcott and Stanford University Press have published new translations of some of Adorno's lectures and books, including Introduction to Sociology, Problems of Moral Philosophy and his transcribed lectures on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Aristotle's "Metaphysics", and a new translation of the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Professor Henry Pickford, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, has translated many of Adorno's works such as The meaning of Working Through the Past. A new translation has also appeared of Aesthetic Theory and the Philosophy of New Music by Robert Hullot-Kentor, from University of Minnesota Press. Adorno's correspondence with Alban Berg, Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction, and the letters to Adorno's parents, have been translated by Wieland Hoban and published by Polity Press. These fresh translations are less literal in their rendering of German sentences and words, and are more accessible to English readers.
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