Theodor W. Adorno: An Introduction (Part 1)

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) was a German philosopher, sociologist, psychologist, and a classically trained pianist and composer.  An only child to Maria Calvelli-Adorno della Piana (a devout Catholic from Corsica and former professional singer) and Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund (an assimilated Jew who had converted to Protestantism and a successful wine-export businessman), his childhood was marked by a love (and wunderkind proficiency) for music and a growing tendency toward intellectual nonconformism.

A founding member of the Frankfurt School and the philosophical style or approach known as critical theory, Adorno’s critiques of modern society (by way of Bloch, Marcuse, and others) significantly impacted Freud, Marx, and Hegel; and, his commitment to music and composition (in conjunction with critical theory) yielded significant contributions in aesthethics and sociology, including studies on authoritarianism and antisemitism that became models for the Institute for Social Research.  

The Culture Industry & the Power of Art

Adorno immigrated to the U.S. in 1937 and was horrified by a culture he thought would descend into fascism and repeat the worst mistakes of the 20th century.  Adorno’s dissatisfaction with American life was ultimately a reaction to a society which he believed was fully dominated by the economic mode of production.

This economic order created a “culture industry” where the form determined and controlled all content. The process of manufacture, reproduction and distribution of culture as an exchange ready commodity was the true content of the culture industry and all the professed content was merely a set of interchangeable and incidental cliches.

However, contrary to what he saw as a vacuous, useless culture in 20th century America, Adorno was an ardent believer in the radical transformative power of art. 

In a recent Philosophy Now article by Justin Kaushall, “Can Art Fight Fascism?”, Adorno’s aesthetic theory is explored. How can art change transform us and change how we think?  How can it reveal injustices in a system and produce political change?  For Adorno, art does this not by making explicit political statements but, rather, by transcending the ideology of mass culture and opening up space for new ways of thinking.  In a nutshell, art: protests, challenges, opens, inspires, abides.

To understand Adorno’s critique of American art and culture it is useful to first look to his critique of western philosophy.  

Adorno’s Critique of Western Philosophy & the Enlightenment

In Dialectic of Enlightenment (written with Max Horkheimer) Adorno argues that the horrors of the twentieth century were not a bug in the liberal system, but a rational end. As they write in the opening paragraph: “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” If the ideas of the enlightenment took hold across Europe why did Europe descend into fascism and violence?

Adorno argues against (a) commonsensical notions of history as a progressive process where the enlightenment overturns superstition and barbarism in favor of rational humanism, and (b) the marxist dialectical history which is concerned with the synthesis of opposing concepts and historical periods — in this case antiquity, myth, and religion vs. modernity, reason and science.

For Adorno, they cannot be easily separated as opposites and in retrospect (he claims) one can see the naturalistic and mythological contained within the enlightenment: “In the enlightened world, mythology has entered into the profane…Under the title of brute facts, the social injustice from which they proceed is now as assuredly sacred a preserve as the medicine man was sacrosanct by reason of protection of his gods.” In other words, Adorno maintains that choices about how we organize society and distribute resources which arise from contingent political conditions, are imagined as neutral and universal facts through the application of science and rationality.

This mistake is not so much a corruption of the enlightenment from without as it is an internal tendency. Adorno characterizes the enlightenment project (as it has developed throughout history) as one which loses its ability to self reflect and dismisses critique as superstition.

For Adorno and Horkheimer the enlightenment lost its relationship to Truth (a metaphysical and thus “irrational” category) and instead became a process which is defined only by its methodology irrespective of its ends.

They write: “Knowledge consists of subsumption under principles. Any other than systematically directed thinking is unoriented (sic) or authoritarian. Reason contributes only the idea of systematic unity, the formal elements of fixed conceptual coherence. Every substantial goal which men might adduce as an alleged rational insight is, in the strict Enlightenment sense, delusion, lies, or ‘rationalization’.” So the process of unifying the particular and the general, the facts and the principle, displaces the need for any moral or metaphysical consideration, any goal behind the reasoning.

Ultimately, Adorno believed the formal style of the enlightenment outlived its purpose; the technique of deriving conclusions from axioms survived while the goal of improving society and the interior lives of humans was replaced by purely economic and political motives. Unlike earlier, ethical motivations behind reasoning, these economic goals are treated as natural – a universal feature of the world, not a result of social relations.

To condense these into a more succinct form:

  1. Myth contains elements of enlightenment; enlightenment contains elements of myth.
  2. The enlightenment (as its is applied by historical capitalism) mythologizes social relations which arise out of human desires or needs into mere natural facts. This obfuscates the historical conditions from which “facts” arise.
  3. The dominant form of scientific rationalism central to capitalist society cannot self reflect so forms of domination are mistaken for natural, unchanging principles.

In contemporary society rationalism has turned irrational – the technological and scientific refinement of how we do what we do has obscured why we do what we do. The enlightenment must regain its powers of self reflection to see why the rational forces of technology and markets meant to liberate us from fear and superstition have instead led to global catastrophe and cultural decline.

An Important Caveat: Industrial Capitalism

Before moving on to how this phenomenon manifests in popular culture, it is important to make note of an important caveat about Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory.

Their criticism of the enlightenment is a criticism of philosophy under industrial capitalism; the irrational turn of the enlightenment is not a necessary feature but a historical development. They are, in fact, great admirers of enlightenment thought: “We are wholly convinced – and therein lies our petitio principii – that social freedom is inseparable from enlightenment thought… [however,] If consideration of the destructive aspect of progress is left to its enemies, blindly pragmatized, thought loses its transcending quality and, its relation to truth.”

Adorno and Horkheimer are most definitely not advocating a return to the past, nor do they romanticize the premodern world. This is why they apply their dialectical method of myth and enlightenment containing each other – ancient ways of understanding contained useful reflections on meaning, truth, and morality which contemporary society appears to lack, while the enlightenment contained the ability to turn matters of historical contingency or human relations into matters of fate.

Hence, to “save” the enlightenment from “blind pragmatism” we must rediscover self-reflection and critically examine what reason can accomplish and how it functions in contemporary society.


**NOTE:  This article was authored by Merlin volunteer and scholar Jonathan Drake.  Stay tuned for more articles by him on the philosophical contributions of Theodor W. Adorno.**

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