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A critical exile
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 09 - 2003

A century after his birth, Ernest Wolf-Gazo recalls the life and achievements of Theodor Adorno
The centenary of Theodor W Adorno's birth on 11 September this year elicits innumerable responses. Perhaps the most ironic among these is its coincidence with the memory of the attack on New York's World Trade Centre. As a Nazi exile Adorno spent the first few years of his extended sojourn in the US (1939- 1949) in New York City; and the core of his interpretation of Enlightenment, centering on the dark side of the brotherhood of man, finds symbolic expression in that metropolis of immigrants, exiles and refugees; New York is, in some sense, the city of Enlightenment applied. Yet Adorno's involvement with America must not detract from one of the essential truths about his achievement: that he was one of the last old-fashioned European intellectuals, remaining at home in classical music, literature, literary criticism, psychology and sociology as well as philosophy even as he became increasingly aware of the decomposition of the old European cultural order prophesied by Nietzsche. Adorno is the rightful analyst of European culture in decline. Associated with the critical theory of the so- called Frankfurt School (a student of the Protestant theologian and social critic Paul Tillich, he became an official member of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, headed by Max Horkheimer, in 1938, and continued to collaborate with the latter in exile), Adorno retained his sense of belonging to the city of Goethe and Schopenhauer till the end of his life -- something to which his eventual return after 1945 bears testimony. Others who belonged to the same school include Friedrich Pollock, Siegfred Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal and Franz Neumann. Beyond the Frankfurt School, Adorno was associated with such scholars as Karl Mannheim and Martin Buber as well as Mannheim's assistants Norbert Elias and Gisele Freund, who were to make a seminal contribution to sociology and photography. In common with these and other scholars Adorno's central concern was modernity -- issues of identity and meaning in the context of modern mass communications, which he approached in a variety of ways through his career as musicologist, sociologist and philosopher.
I first encountered Adorno on arriving from Washington DC at Bonn, capital of the newly established West German Republic, in 1969. Politically too naive for the Frankfurt School, I started with the classics of German philosophy, from Kant to Nietzsche. Yet being close enough to Frankfurt, I was picking up much of the Weltanschauung of the school as I went along, especially in the work of its subsequent generation led by Adorno's assistant Jurgen Habermas. By mid-October, when lectures started at the university, rumour had it that Adorno had died. In fact he died on 6 August while on vacation in Switzerland. Despite the rift that had occurred following a dispute with the student left (the "year of the student rebel", as the poet Stephen Spender called 1968, had just come to an end), Adorno's death was greeted with shock and distress. At the time of his death he had the reputation of the leading cultural critic of late industrial society. Virtually unknown in the English- speaking world -- English translations of Adorno's books began to appear slowly in the 1970s -- Adorno's books were nonetheless available in German, at Bonn's most prominent bookshop Bouvier for one venue: Kiekegaard (1933); Philosophy of New Music (1949); Minimia Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life (1951); Three Studies on Hegel (1963), Notes on Literature (1958); his major metaphysical work, Negative Dialectics (1967); and the posthumous Aesthetic Theory. His Complete Works began to appear in 1970. In the 1969-70 semester I learned a lot about Adorno's theory, particularly from students who travelled to Frankfurt. The information was conveyed with characteristic intellectual liveliness. In Bonn, too, there was much discussion in the cafés and pubs: Hegel's alienation concept and Marx turning the master upside down, DIAMAT (the German acronym for dialectic materialism) and Mao's little red book, Habermas branding student violence "left fascism" and the sex scandal that drove him out of Bonn -- all against the backdrop of the ubiquitous Guevara and Castro poster.
The only child of a German-Jewish wine merchant and a former Italian-Catholic soprano from the Calvelli-Adorno della Piane family, Adorno was initially known as Theodor Wiesengrund, after his father. Later, in Vienna, he adopted the surname Wiesengrund- Adorno, eventually dropping Wiesengrund altogether. Pre-1933 Frankfurt exercised an intellectual influence over the young scholar, with its vibrant culture and acclaimed newspaper Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, whose cultural sections were read and discussed throughout Germany, while Vienna afforded a solid education in the new forms of music, with which he was about to make his name as the new Wunderkind of musicology, delivering critical essays and reviews of immense foresight. This technical as well as sociological confrontation (Auseinandersetzung) with the new music is crucial to understanding Adorno's later critique of mass culture. As he tried to come to terms with the neo-Kantianism of his day, Adorno was repeatedly discovering the significance of phenomenological analysis of objects in space and time. In the 1920s he would flit from Frankfurt to Vienna to Berlin and back, commuting constantly. Even at this stage Adorno's language in his chosen form, the essay, was remarkable: playful, ironic, with plenty of insight -- a true forerunner of postmodernism. Music aside Adorno concentrated on philosophy equally, producing his dissertation under Professor Cornelius on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Disagreements resulting from Adorno's single- mindedness and independent approach to the problems he tackled eventually drove him away from Cornelius, however, and he began working on Kierkegaard with Tillich. The result of this collaboration, Habilitation, was published on 30 January 1933, the day Hitler came to power. A fateful coincidence for the future of Adorno, who did not yet realise the extent of the danger posed by such a turn of events.
Within months Adorno, along with many of his teachers and associates, lost his venia legendi or license to teach. He had met his future wife, Gretel Karplus, while living in Berlin in the late 1920s. As a precaution against Nazi persecution, the magnitude of which he initially underestimated, he had also relocated to Merton College, Oxford, where he married Gretel and eventually realised the necessity of a long-term departure. At the age of 35, distraught and undecided, Adorno landed in New York. Exile was a terrible punishment in the ancient world, equivalent almost to death. When Socrates was given the choice between exile from Athens and the hemlock, he chose the latter. The experience of being forced out of Frankfurt must have been a source of intense pain, not to mention anxiety. Oxford may have had its drawbacks, but it was still Europe; and the experience was ameliorated by the thought that it would be a short while before the Nazi threat was over and one could safely return to Frankfurt. New York, by contrast, proved a shock to which Adorno found it nearly impossible to adjust initially. The American version of the old world was still evident across the ethnic gamut of the city, but this was palpably no longer Europe. Hegel's prophecy concerning America's rise to prominence following Europe's decline may well have been ringing in Adorno's ears. Perhaps as a result, it was in America that Adorno's thinking matured. From 1988 to 1941 he stayed in New York. When Horkheimar moved to southern California, along with Friedrich Pollock, who managed the daily affairs of the Institute, Adorno and his wife followed. Marcuse and Franz Neumann, who stayed on, would also decide to continue living in America after the war -- a fact that explains why Marcuse was so much better known than Adorno in the English-speaking world during my early years at university.
For the next eight years Adorno struggled to assimilate (after returning to Frankfurt, he would revisit America only once as director of the Haecker Foundation in 1952-53, in order to keep his US citizenship), acquiring the means to resume his intellectual endeavours. Once in Los Angeles, besides the Institute, Horkheimer secured him a position at the Princeton Radion Research (later the Office of Applied Research); and he was to work at the New School for Social Research as well, lecturing periodically alongside Claude Levi-Strauss at the University in Exile. Both Adorno and Horkheimer were Thomas Mann's neighbours (Adorno collaborated with the latter on his Dr Faustus), and the meetings of Institute members would sometimes take place in Horkheim's mansion. The significance of his stay in America on Adorno's achievement has yet to be fully assessed and his relations with the New World reappraised. Adorno's association with the student left may have resulted in the general assumption that he was anti-American; yet such a statement would have no foundation in fact. Indeed he seems to have understood Hegel's picture of North America entering world history, and at many levels he tried to be appreciative of the locale in which his exile was served out. Despite the enormous missed opportunity of a possible marriage between the Frankfurt School and American pragmatism (the Frankfurt people restricted their assessment to the work of William James, failing to take account of the full scope of its implications), Adorno benefited from the methodology of the empirical approach he encountered in the American academy; and he confronted progressively less cultured, more frivolous and unsettling aspects of the mass media head on. Written in his house in Los Angeles, Adorno's autobiographical aphorisms, collected in Minima Moralia, testify to a developing sense of humour that was necessary for intellectual survival among students who confused Plato with Pluto the cartoon character. On the whole California was undoubtedly an intense and productive encounter, however.
It would be impossible to cover the full extent of Adorno's contribution in this article. A more realistic approach is to touch on its main constituents, providing digital snapshots for the e-mail reader, as it were. Starting with a critique of Husserl's subject functioning as a sort of replacement for essences -- one that he completed in Merton College and published in full in 1956 -- Adorno proceeded to a closer look at the subject-object model of knowledge, inherited from classic German idealism. And from there he goes on to search for an appropriate concept of non-identity, glancing at Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the Marx of 1844. Through non-identity Adorno wanted not to turn Hegel upside down but to make Hegel's idea of negation work for him the way Spinoza's extensions worked for Hegel. This led him to the discovery of negation in Aristotle's de Anima -- hence, by way of Spiel, the final formulation of Negative Dialectics. As his genre of choice the essay -- an otherwise despised form in German academia -- allowed Adorno to forward a conscious critique of the predominant, systematic form of presenting a Weltanschauung, one that gave Adorno plenty of scope for irony, humour and playfulness. This idea of play permeated Adorno's texts, freeing him, along with Friedrich Schiller's Letters on Aesthetic Education, to explore his topics intuitively and creatively, away from the straightjacket of the system, as it were. Yet a search engine ceaselessly operates in Adorno's mind, attempting to locate non-identity -- his way of escaping the tyranny of subject-object epistemology. In Kafka and Beckett, in psychoanalysis and pop art, Adorno found subject matter with which to expand and develop this notion of non-identity constantly, reformulating it one last time in his metaphysical lectures of 1965 -- the point at which he could be said to have reached a degree of reconciliation and the end of his journey through exile.


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