Adam Ash

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Deep Thoughts: about Adorno

Thinking from No-Man’s-Land. The Life
and Work of Theodor W. Adorno
Stefan Müller-Doohm
Translated by Stefan Bird-Pollan

September Eleventh of 2003 was commemorated around the world as a special
day because it was the centenary of the birthday of Theodor W. Adorno:
the philosopher of determinate negation, who, like no other, called into question
the institutions of the world as a systems of horror. If, on the occasion
of this anniversary, I take it upon myself as a witness of the 21st Century to
describe aspects of Adorno’s critical social and cultural theory, and want at
the same time to sketch a portrait of its creator, I must replace the aforementioned
image of Adorno with another one. The coincidence of the dates
11 September 1903 and 11 September 2001 creates a certain distorted interaction
between the two events. The idiosyncratic consciousness of time
demanded by Adorno forces us to register the coincidence of the date of his
birth and the date on which terrorists caused a terrible mass murder: the
strategic and intentional murder of innocent people in order to cause collective
panic. This coincidence only further emphasizes the fact that it was
Adorno who posed the most pressing of questions, one that still remains to
be answered today: “Why does humanity enter into a new barbarism instead
of entering into a truly human condition?” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1973:

Adorno, who formulated these lines more than 50 years ago with Max
Horkheimer, was thinking of totalitarianism and genocide, the bureaucratic,
state organized, and industrially conducted killing of six million Jews.
Fanatical terrorism, like the world war against international terrorism waged
by a super-power, now called for and already acted upon, shows that there is
in fact no end to violence. As Adorno noted in the mid-forties in his reflection
on the course of history, life is indeed an endless succession of shocks.
Thus the extreme formulation found in Dialectic of Enlightenment is still accurate:
“The fully enlightened earth glows under the sign of triumphal devastation.”

I exaggerate intentionally by bringing Dialectic of Enlightenment, a book which
is concerned with the rise and fall of reason, to bear on this contemporary
threat: for the man born 100 years ago belonged to that small group of intellectuals
who set themselves the pressing task of comprehending an absurd
world from whose lap the miscarriage of perpetual violence still continues to
issue. “That it continues ‘as it is’, this is the catastrophe.” (Benjamin, 1999:
473) The thinking of Adorno, Horkheimer and Benjamin had to show itself
capable of sustaining this thought.

For, do we really have occasion to deny what Adorno noted in his ‘dialogue
intérieur’ from his American exile in 1944?

There is nothing harmless anymore. […] Even the tree which blossoms
lies in that moment in which one perceives its blossoms without
the shadow of horror; even the innocent ‘how nice’ becomes an
excuse for the suffering of existence, which is different, and there is
no beauty and no solace but in the gaze, which sees horror, suffers it
and, in the unmitigated consciousness of negativity, holds fast to the
possibility of something better. (Adorno, 1974: 25)

This quotation, illustrating as it does Adorno’s linguistic virtuosity (he was
one of the most linguistically adept writers of the last century), leads to the
core of his intransigent philosophical style of thought, his negativism and his

Adorno, born shortly after the turn of the last century, already as a young
man witnessed the fragmentary nature of modernity, the exhaustion of the
bourgeois-humanist canon of form, the crisis and failure of intellectual and
aesthetic values, as well as the emergence of an ever more radical artistic
avant-garde. As a thirty year old, Adorno witnessed history’s descent into a
catastrophe, whose victim he too would become. How does a sensitive person
react to this experience of history, to the real experience of apocalypse
and its exaggeration in art. In searching for an answer, Adorno was never
drawn to nihilism, but instead looked to reason. Reason is for him
autonomous and must pull itself our of the morass by its own hair. It can
only sustain itself “in desperation and overflow”. (1974: 200) The insight
that the dialectic “moves through the extremes and thus brings thought to
turn in on itself in its most extreme consequence” (1974: 86) is a central tenet
of Adorno’s philosophy. In following this thought, Adorno’s philosophy
concerns itself with reason’s dissonance and free atonality which extends well
beyond the realm of music.

Adorno was known as a heretical and non-conformist intellectual for whom
‘the capacity for fear and for happiness’ (1974: 200) are subjective qualities,
which apply equally to his own personality. This is one side of the philosopher,
sociologist, music-, literary- and cultural- critic. But it is not Adorno in
his entirety. There is also the other side, that of the musician and the composer
whose more than thirty musical works were created in the most diverse
genres, from piano songs to pieces for orchestra and choirs. His is a musical
corpus whose stylistic orientation is close to Schönberg, Webern and Alban
Berg, but which refuses dogmatic gestures. It is close-knit and lyrical rather
than dramatic in manner.

Adorno lived many lives: that of a sheltered and precocious single child in the
commercially successful and intellectually engaged house of his parents, that
of a left intellectual in the Weimar era, that of a German émigré in England
and the United States and finally, that of an influential social critic in postwar
Germany. But he loved the life of the artist most, a life which for him
was embodied by his deeply beloved mother; before her marriage to the
assimilated Jew, the wine exporter Oskar Wiesengrund, his mother, Maria
Cavelli-Adorno, had had a successful career as an opera singer in Vienna,
Cologne, Prague and Riag and elsewhere. She even accompanied the famous
Italian singer Adelina Patti on her US-tour for a short time. Adorno’s second
mother, his mother’s unmarried sister, who also lived in the Wiesengrund
household, took it upon herself to educate her nephew in things musical and
literary as well - to this end she sang Schubert, played Hayden and Brahms
piano pieces for four hands with her nephew and read Baudelaire in the original
with him. Adorno grew up in a world of music and literature in which
it was not unsurprising that he, for instance, impressed his family with renditions
of Beethoven at the age of twelve. While the Jewish tradition receded
to the background, mother and aunt made sure that the youngster, who was
baptized in the Frankfurt cathedral and confirmed as a schoolboy, was
exposed to the world of Catholic symbols and images.

His father, Oskar Alexander Wiesengrund, did not interfere with his son’s
education. When, on occasion, he did express his values to his son, he did so
without invoking patriarchal authority or giving the appearance of being a
stern despot. As an assimilated Jew and an economically successful wine
merchant, Oskar Wiesengrund had a cosmopolitan outlook. The comfortable
position of the socially esteemed business man made it easier for
Adorno to identify both with the internal orientation of the ideals of his
mother and with the character and values of his father. It is interesting to
note that, both as a youth and as an adult, Adorno sought proximity to men,
who, from time to time, became father figures. This was the case in his complicated
but enduring friendship with the intellectual outsider Siegfried
Krakauer as well as in his close relationship to the composer Alban Berg and
with the philosopher Walter Benjamin, but most of all in the intense bond
with Max Horkheimer.

The intellectually challenging and happy childhood Adorno enjoyed were part
of the basis for the specifically utopian current in his later philosophical
thought; he would later claim that the aptitude for utopia ‘feeds on the love
for one’s mother’. (1974: 23) Adorno’s writings are replete with references
back to the positive experiences of his childhood: he himself speaks of
“memory traces of childhood, which made it seem as if it were worthwhile
to live for them alone”. (1974: 200)

At school, ‘Teddie’ had the reputation of being an overachiever, if not a
‘Wunderkind’. At age 16, he enthusiastically read Theory of the Novel by Georg
Lukács as well as Ernst Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia. He was an avid reader of
books and musical scores alike. With the help of his older friend Siegfried
Kracauer, he began at this time to read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and later
Kierkegaard and Hegel. He left gymnasium at the age of 17 as the best student
of the class.

Adorno completed his studies with a dissertation on Husserl at the unconventional
and liberal University of Frankfurt before moving to Vienna to
study composition with Alban Berg. The months the young Adorno spent in
Vienna, the city of music par excellence, and especially his friendship with
Alban Berg, whom he calls ‘Lord and Master’ in letters, left a deep impression
not only on his understanding of music but on his personality. In
Vienna he becomes part of the second Vienna school, he meets the authors
Karl Kraus and Soma Morgenstern, the philosopher Georg Lukács, as well as
Alma Mahler and her third husband, the author Franz Werfel. In Vienna the
twenty-one-year-old learns to appreciate the sensuous pleasures of life like
good food and fine wine. But the city also fascinates him because of its insistent
anti-traditionalism in the face of a great tradition.

Although Adorno makes a name for himself as a music critic toward the end
of the twenties, he decides to become an assistant professor for philosophy
at the University of Frankfurt. He already impresses people with his intellectual
acuity and wide learning. But he becomes a critical intellectual only as
the result of the historically specific experience of national socialism and his
own exile. The race laws make the left intellectual Adorno into a Jew, and
thus into an outsider.

Adorno’s thinking is politicized and radicalized by his forced emigration, first
to England and then to the United States. His thinking achieves autonomous
significance as a dialectical critique of society only in the years of exile. By
reflecting on his own, existential and intentional (Hans Mayer) outsider status,
Adorno grasps exile as the mark of an entire epoch. His description of
himself to Thomas Mann as ‘professionally [as well as nationally] without a
home [Heimat]’ shows that Adorno equates his experience of exile with the
general outsider position of the intellectual.

Adorno gives a trenchent assessment of the devastating course of history in
Reflections from a Damaged Life. In these Minima Moralia Adorno contemplates
the loss of culture and language in exile as well as the exile’s uncertain status
between safety and foreignness. Minima Moralia expresses that mourning and
desperation which the author associates with his own existential and intentional
loss of a home. In the dedication to this collection of aphorisms
(which Habermas rightly claims can be studied as a philosophical masterpiece)
Adorno informs the reader of the method of his ‘mournful science’.
The historical collapse of the ‘old subject’ notwithstanding, all observation of
the world must originate in individual experience. The condition of society
can best be seen in ‘individual experience’, even if subjective observation has
something ‘sentimental and anachronistic’ about it. (Adorno, 1992: 145) In
this way these very personal writings express on the one side that in exile
Adorno felt himself excluded from society. The feeling of deracination,
however, also brings with it a moment of autonomy and freedom. Through
his own marginalization, Adorno experienced the double position in society
of the social critic who is at once in society but not quite integrated in it.
From this extraterritorial realm of the no-man’s-land, Adorno is able to
observe social life. His vehement criticism of the then current forms of
American culture notwithstanding, Adorno never favorably contrasts the past
bourgeois forms of [European] education and high culture with the leveling
pressures to conform of the US society in which he lived. On the contrary,
he emphasized that the qualities of bourgeois forms of life had long ago
revealed their other side:

Whatever was once good and upstanding about the bourgeoisie, its
independence, tenacity, foresight, perspicacity has become spoiled to
the core. For, while bourgeois forms of existence are doggedly preserved,
their economic preconditions have disappeared. The private
has become the privative, which it secretly always was. Anger has
mingled with the obdurate insistence by each person on their own
interests, so that it has really ceased to be possible to notice that things
might be different and better. The bourgeoisie has lost its innocence
and has, as a result, become obstinate and angry about it. (Minima
Moralia (tv): section 14: 34)

In this, his most personal book, Adorno also articulated the shocking experience
of Auschwitz for the first time. According to him the total dehumanization
in the concentration camps is the expression of a society which makes
all life into things. Everything which is particular or deviates was declared a
‘mark of shame’ for being different, and destroyed. Through this the exponentially
increasing socialization, society itself generates a will to destroy. In
this context, the idea of a right society is reduced to a life in which one can
‘be different without fear’. (1974: 16) For Adorno, however, the United
States, where he not only found refuge and material survival, but lead an
eventful and happy life with his wife, Gretel, was apparently not the country
in which one could live one’s difference without fear. Was the assessment as
social critic darkened because of his memory of Europe? There is something
to this, for in a passage in Minima Moralia Adorno notes: “Abroad every
German deer roast tastes as if it has been killed by a hunter.” (1974: 49)
Ultimately Adorno’s never ending longing for the lost Europe, in particular
the desire to be able to express himself in German, was stronger than the
attraction that Adorno and Gretel’s life in California offered; here he was part
of the Hollywood society to which Berthold Brecht and Hanns Eisler, Lotte
Lenja, Fritz Lang, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin belonged. Adorno also
had contact with Thomas Mann, who chose the philosopher of music to be
‘general counsel’ during the writing of his novel Doktor Faustus. Adorno was
particularly proud of his work-relation with the ‘very pleasant, friendly and
cultured’ author, as can be seen in the detailed reports about their cooperation
in his letters to his parents. He writes to his mother that Thomas Mann,
in a gesture of thanks for his music-theoretical counsel, “composed” the
name Wiesengrund into the novel “in a highly artful way”. “This is a delightful
compensation for the loss of his proper Jewish name through the stupid
pedantry of the US immigration officials”. Adorno here refers to his
American exile in which, during the process of naturalization, Theodor
Ludwig Wiesengrund-Adorno had become Theodor Adorno. Henceforth,
Adorno would publish under Theodor W. Adorno. (Gödde and Lonitz,
2003a: 237, 431, 463ff, 524)

Five years after becoming a US citizen, in late fall of 1949, and 15 years after
his own emigration, Adorno was, for the first time, able to see Europe and
his own country now laid waste by war. The forty-six-year-old was devastated
by his first contact with the European continent after his long years of
exile. After arriving in Paris, where he stayed in the historic hotel “Lutetia”
on the Boulevard Raspail, he wrote to Max Horkheimer: “The return to
Europe has taken hold of me with a violence which I can scarcely put into
words. And the beauty of Paris glimmers through the rags of poverty more
movingly than ever before. […] What is here may be historically condemned
and carries the mark of this plainly enough, but that it still is, the uncontemporaneous
itself, also belongs to the historical picture and carries with it the
weak hope that something human has survived.” Adorno’s spontaneous joy
went so far that he altered the epigram to Minima Moralia and claimed that
“life still lives”. (Horkheimer, 1996: 67)

The American citizen Adorno relates the impressions which he gathered of
his native Frankfurt during the months 1949 to 1950 not only in many letters
but also in his diary. Here he notes the conscientiousness of the students and
writes to the author of Dr Faustus: “The comparison to a Talmud-school
suggests itself; sometimes it seems to me as if the spirits of the murdered
Jews had gone over into the German intellectuals.” (Gödde and Sprecher,
2002: 46)

It would not be long until Adorno was perceived as the prototype of that
German intellectual who risked taking up taboo issues in a post-war
Germany in the midst of rebuilding itself. Who but Adorno would have
dared formulate the dictum: to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. He
thus exposed himself in a manner that would scarcely permit a return to the
ivory tower of pure science. When, in late fall 1959, he finally turned to the
question What does it mean: Working up the past? he was in the full spotlight of
the public arena. As a philosopher and sociologist, Adorno used the reputation
of his academic position to emphatically warn against the afterlife of
national socialism. He claimed: “I consider the afterlife of national socialism
in democracy as potentially more threatening than the afterlife of fascist tendencies
against democracy.”

During this time in which Adorno was among the few German intellectuals
who were prepared to speak of the worst, Adorno became a moral authority
for the generation which made history itself as sixty-eighters. It was Adorno
who was able to grasp and articulate the generation’s specific discomfort at
the half-heatedness with which official Germany was coming to terms with
the past. Adorno’s rigorously critical stance was consonant with the ethicalpolitical
motivated sentiments of refusal which young intellectuals started to
show toward society and state.

Let us return to the summer term 1962, and to the long and genuine applause
which met Adorno as he walked to the podium in the packed Lecture room
VI of the University of Frankfurt. His high forehead, the result of few
remaining hairs and somewhat old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses atop the
round face leaves no doubt about the advanced age of the professor. The
gray suit with buttoned vest and a slightly too bright tie— a bourgeois custom.
But this should not deceive us about the anti-bourgeois thinking of the
protagonist of critical social theory. Adorno clears his throat, removes his
glasses, accidentally brushing the microphone causing a deafening sound
which combines with the sharp rustle of his quickly jotted down notes. He
glances at the few handwritten key words, fixes the now quiet audience with
his lively big dark eyes which shoot out from behind his glasses, and begins
the lecture. Adorno receives approval from his audience although he consistently
refuses to make concessions in his lectures and seminars by simplifying
the material, nor does he deign to deliver finished products of thought.
Rather, he delivers his lectures as manifestations of a dialectical process of
reflection which does not resolve contradictions but leaves them in tension.
The movement of this processes of reflection is effected by its own continued
calling into question. Adorno’s stylistic mannerisms, such as the habit of
placing the reflective pronoun at the end of the sentence, the frequent use of
Latinate words as well as the use of the subjunctive, capture the audience as
expressions of linguistic originality rather than being ironized as recognizable
elements of style. The way in which Adorno questions outmoded beliefs and
values proves to be one of the best schools for learning something about
democracy as a cultural form of life in the first two decades of the Federal

Precisely because Adorno was perceived as an outsider who could be institutionally
integrated no more than he could be classified to one academic discipline,
he appeared as highly credible to his apostles. Whoever dares to postulate:
“There is no right life in falsehood”, can be trusted to have that speculative
power of thought without which no counterproposal to current existence
can be conceived. Adorno’s critique of the totalizing system of
exchange value in a capitalist economy, his critique of the progressing disintegration
of the autonomous individual in the ‘administrated world’ and his
critique of the primitive and omnipresent culture industry provided the decisive
keywords for people to become conscious of the pathology of modernity.
As a refuge from the Nazis, Adorno was extended a great deal of confidence
by the younger generation in postwar Germany. Adorno’s criticism engaged
the justified distrust against the glorification of German literature, German
music and philosophy and opened up paths to Goethe, Beethoven and Kant.
In his unconventional manner, Adorno placed this intellectual tradition in the
context of an avant-garde. Thus he showed the younger generation how to
move from Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett to Stefan George and Rudolf
Borchardt, from Schönberg and Webern to Bach and Mozart and from Marx
and Freud to Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. The growing hope, alive since the
sixties that there was a ‘different Germany’ buried under the Nazi rubble
which could be set free, can be credited in large part to Adorno’s intellectual
influence. Adorno’s publishing campaign for an ‘education to maturity
[Mündigkeit]’ had almost revolutionary ramifications for pedagogy and
proved to be the impetus for the school and university reform of the seventies.
Nonetheless, it was never Adorno’s intention to claim the hybrid role of chief
intellectual for himself. He tries to open peoples eyes to the fact that the
common need for ready frameworks comes burdened with conformist substantive
content, where there cannot be any substantive content. It thus
became clear that only autonomous thinking and acting can stand against
‘fundamental values’.

There were several rumors about Adorno’s private life. In particular, his passion
for the female sex was reported on often, but usually without malice. He
was easily made passionate by women while at the same time being an oldschool
gentleman, who kissed hands as a matter of common courtesy; even
in situations where this form of courtliness perhaps appeared comical. He
dedicated some of his books and articles to the not insignificant number of
women to whom he stood in a special relation.

Adorno was always open to the needs of students. Even later, in the course
of the increasing politisization of student movements, he, together with the
younger Jürgen Habermas, was one of the few professors who were prepared
to engage in discussions about the reform of the university, the US policy in
Vietnam or the emergency laws proposed by the German parliament.
Despite his sharp criticism of some of the actions of parts of the antiauthoritarian
protest movement, Adorno stayed in contact with left groups
who, for their part, engaged with Adorno’s criticism of capitalism.
Even if the rigor of his statements has something elitist and the tone of his
texts had something apodictic about them, the professorial disease of cynicism
was foreign to him. He was a highly sensitive man who always tried to
avoid false intimacy even in relations with friends. He tried to overcome his
shyness with a mixture of distance and conventional politeness. To Hans
Magnus Enzensberger, who lived in Frankfurt’s Westend in the time around
1960 and was a close neighbor, Adorno evinced a “Chinese politeness and
reserve”. Enzersbenger reports: “getting close to Adorno was not exactly
easy. He had so many layers of protection around him that interaction with
him had something ceremonial about it (…). We saw each other often, but
the distance was always maintained (…). When one was with Adorno, one
always felt a little stupid, for he was of monstrous intelligence.”
(Enzensberger, 1999)

Despite his public influence in the sixties and his publishing successes as an
author of books about Gustav Mahler, of Jargon of Authenticity and of Negative
Dialectics, Adorno remained what he had always been: an outsider. A sign of
this is that philosophy belittled him as a sociologist, sociologists called him
too philosophical, the academics thought of him as an essayist and artist
while artists thought he was too abstract and theoretical. Ostensibly bourgeois,
Adorno was the sharpest critic of his own class: “Whatever was once
good and upstanding about the bourgeoisie (…) has become spoilt to the
core.” Because Adorno had been aware of the shoddy edifice of the bourgeois
tradition, and had let himself be guided by the idea that the “ marks of
disruption (are …) modernity’s mark of authenticity”, his interest turned to
those writers who thematized the demise of the bourgeois world. The
unbourgeois qualities which Adorno discerns in his portrait of Thomas
Mann, the highly esteemed epigone of educated bourgeois, are partly themselves
disguised self-descriptions: the antinome between bourgeois existence
and the life of the artist, the discontinuity of his path of life, the pairing of
self-motivation with the readiness to be alone. The longing for applause held
for Adorno as well, who might also have said of himself: “He was almost
defenselessly and without armor exposed to the affect of joy and that of
pain.” (Adorno, 1992: 18)

Like no other, Adorno knew that the intellectual is only able to maintain solidarity
in uninterrupted loneliness. Already in a letter from the summer of
1937, during his emigration years in England, he told Horkheimer that he was
a writer of a particular kind: “one whose a priori it is to inflict upon himself
the deepest loneliness and the principal impossibility of what he thinks and
says.” (Gödde and Lonitz, 2003b: 374) Adorno characterizes those citizens as
intellectuals who refuse to be dominated by the bourgeoisie: intellectuals are
the last bourgeois citizens and at the same time, their enemies.

Ever since his inaugural lecture of 1931 as assistant professor for philosophy,
the critique of the process of knowing had been central to what he called
“the same in divergent realms” in a letter to Thomas Mann:1 to analyze reality
under the aspect of its incompleteness. Adorno characterizes this practice
of knowing as a dialectical movement in which the negation of negation
does not issue in positivity.

With this epistemic goal, Adorno reacted against the type of dialectics which,
according to him, has an affirmative basis in philosophy from Plato to Hegel.
Today, dialectics must “take place in the tension between insight into the
whole impossible depiction of the right life and the consciousness of how
things could be.” (Adorno, 1973a: 133) This image underlies Adorno’s thinking
from the early inaugural lecture of 1931 to his philosophical master work,
Negative Dialectics of 1966, which is among his thematically most complex and
stylistically most difficult books. In Negative Dialectics Adorno claimed to have
traveled across the ice desert of abstraction. This opus magnum reaches its
peak with the twelve Meditations on Metaphysics, which are located at the outer
peripheries of what philosophical reflection is capable. Here Adorno asks
whether the idea of man’s humanity can be saved in the face of the reality of
death camps. Adorno opposes the historical fact of a failure of culture, a
failure “unquestionably proven” by Auschwitz, to Kant’s expectation that
freedom will realize itself in the transcendental subject and to Hegel’s idea
that reason will realize itself in world spirit. This moves Adorno to formulate
a new categorical imperative: “That Auschwitz never be repeated and
nothing similar ever happen.” (Adorno, 1973b: 365)

Adorno saw himself as someone whose path of radical-negative thought was
dependent on the free space of nowhere. The zone between the boundaries,
no-man’s-land, had fascinated him since childhood. “There I liked to while
most under the pretense, which I in no way believed, that this realm belonged
to no-one.” (Adorno, 1997: 305) In this recollection, written down at the age
of sixty, Adorno comes back to an old dream that everyone might be able to
move equally freely in no-man’s-land, that there differences might flourish
equally. Adorno got his pictureless picture of the right life from this happy
image of the unbounded yet mutually recognizing existence between borders:
No-man’s-land as the place of the non-identical. No-man’s-land was the
symbol of that place in which one could be different without fear, in which
contradictions would coexist in their extremes, without already having to take
one side or the other.

(Stefan Müller-Doohm is Professor of Sociology at the University of Oldenburg and is the author of Adorno: An Intellectual Biography, which will be published by Polity in May 2005.)
1. In a letter to Thomas Mann of 5 July 1948, giving information about his life,
Adorno writes: ‘I studied philosophy and music. Instead of deciding between them,
I have had the feeling all my life that I was pursuing the same thing in the different

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