The failure of Reason: Adorno and the non-identical

Haseeb Ahmed
Platypus Review
October 2009

Book Review:

D. Claussen. Theodor Adorno: One Last Genius
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008

For years Theodor Adorno’s theoretical work has suffered from either neglect or semi-hostile “interpretation.” It is therefore refreshing to see Detlev Claussen, who studied under Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt from 1966 to 1971, take a more sympathetic approach to the study of Adorno’s philosophy and intellectual life. In Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, Claussen attempts to track the historical and biographical factors that influenced Adorno’s critical theory and, in doing so, strives to carefully reconstruct both the changing context and the abiding problematic that Adorno was attempting to grasp in and through his work.

The late 1960s witnessed an upsurge of student activism that culminated in massive strikes and demonstrations worldwide beginning in 1968 and extending into 1969, the year of Adorno’s death. Though they had learned much from him, the student New Left in this period strongly counter-identified against their teacher, Adorno, who typified for them the old and impotent Left they sought to supersede. Following the lead of Herbert Marcuse, who said just after Adorno’s death that “there is no one who can represent Adorno or speak for him,” Claussen does not engage in a critique of Adorno’s students and contemporaries on behalf of his former teacher, but attempts instead to allow Adorno to speak for himself by drawing from a huge array of intimate correspondence, diary entries, and assorted works, many of them previously unpublished. Claussen makes the point straight away that Adorno’s criticism of the New Left and the parting of ways between Adorno and Marcuse over the latter’s support for it was not exceptional but consistent with Adorno’s lifelong history of remaining true to the Left by criticizing it. Claussen notes that Adorno’s lectures around this time attempted to clarify how “the new is the longing for the new itself: that is what everything new suffers from” (327). It is for this reason that there must be an unrelenting differentiation between “representation for the purposes of agitation and practical reality” (336), something that the students failed to realize as the situation in 1968 escalated, and to which both Adorno and the student movement ultimately fell victim.

The young Theodor Adorno with his 'two mothers' in the garden pavilion

For Claussen, Adorno’s childhood growing up in a Jewish bourgeois household in Frankfurt is crucial for understanding him, and Claussen returns to it throughout the book. Adorno is portrayed as the last generation to know the “broken promises of happiness” of the long Bourgeois era, which, at “the end of the nineteenth century denie[d] tradition by inventing it” (52), specifically through the cultivation of individual interests. For Adorno this meant chiefly musical pursuits. Claussen contrasts the relationship that Adorno and his family had to their Jewish origins with that of his colleague Leo Lowenthal and mentor Siegfried Kracauer. While Kracauer and Lowenthal would describe themselves as “hybrids,” unable to reconcile tradition and secularized life, Adorno appeared to be relatively untouched by this dilemma. However, this tension between the lived Jewish experience and enlightened liberalism was not entirely arbitrary since, on Claussen’s reading of Adorno, bourgeois ideology found its necessary conclusion with the rise of National Socialism. Claussen makes the point that this attitude towards “bourgeois” culture and society conditioned Adorno’s work throughout his life; after his return to Germany in 1953 Adorno wrote, “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more of a threat than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy” (335).

Before the Nazis took power, Adorno studied in Vienna under Arnold Schoenberg, the radical modernist composer, during which time Adorno had to reconcile his growing interests in philosophy and sociology with the pursuit of music. Claussen tracks how this tension remained constant and informed his work throughout his life. Adorno was repeatedly “forced to insist that social categories could not simply be applied to musical material from the outside but had to be generated from the material itself” (113). In this way, issues of technique in musical production could be potentially critical of the social situation that produced it, albeit never in a direct, unmediated way. The failure to recognize this capacity in art left it to the mere pathological function of “veiling” social reality. Furthermore, Claussen points out that the project of the institute was to query the character of a culture whose task “is to conceal the regression into barbarism” without having recourse to the tradition of Marxist categories that functioned also as signals for Stalinist and McCarthyite suppression (202). Claussen notes that, even today, much of the critique of Adorno internalizes the apparent contradistinction between theory and practice, by which Adorno is made to appear as a failed musician turned theorist. Claussen then goes on to quote Adorno as saying, “because of biographical destiny and assuredly also because of certain psychological mechanisms I have not achieved nearly as much as a composer as I believe I could have achieved” (133). But this was not merely a lament on Adorno’s part. Rather, it is the attempt to register the damage inflicted on individual life by a form of social organization that is not adequate to itself.

Theodor_W_fmt 1928

Beyond Adorno’s childhood and musical upbringing, Claussen illuminates the personal and professional difficulties that constantly confronted the intellectuals, grouped around Max Horkheimer, known as the Frankfurt School. Of Adorno’s exile in the United States during World War II, Claussen reports that Adorno found himself isolated and “out of the firing line” (the title of an essay he wrote), along with other Jewish intellectuals, as the systematic murder of Jews in Europe remained distant, if ever-present. In this context, friendship took on an even greater importance for Adorno as an essential way of knowing himself. Claussen describes personal relationships that shed light on different aspects of Adorno’s inner life and the potentials he wished to realize, since “for Adorno bourgeois society continued to live on in ‘the minds of intellectuals, who [were] at one and the same time the last enemies of the bourgeois and the last bourgeois’” (137). Adorno’s deep affection for his friends permeates the book: To his friend Fritz Lang, whom he nicknamed the Badger, Adorno was Hippopotamus King Archibald, while Horkheimer was the Soft Pear. In a birthday letter Charlie Chaplin became the Bengal Tiger as Vegetarian. Imagination was not reserved only for its use in creating work but as a way of shaping one’s inner life, as Adorno employed playful references to our animal origins to animate the characters closest to him. If the experience of living in the United States strengthened Adorno’s friendships with his fellow exiles, the political climate that led to their exile also complicated and strained these relationships. Living in the wake of the collapse of organized revolutionary Marxist politics, each member of this diverse and eclectic émigré intelligentsia had to decide for herself a relationship to the Soviet Union and “the Party.” Claussen details Adorno’s painful political partings with friends and comrades like Ernst Bloch and Bertolt Brecht, whose attitude, for Adorno, prefigured the anti-intellectualism of the students in 1968. Adorno refused to heed the call for “unity” between theory and practice which was the official Communist Party line and later a slogan of the students in 1968. In both cases it resulted in the suppression of critical thought.

Furthermore, the Frankfurt School group was not exempt from pressures of economic survival, and Claussen offers detailed accounts of how friendships fell prey to rivalry in the competition for financial and moral support. The experience of suppression in both the GDR (East Germany) and America in the McCarthy period showed how easy it was to fall victim to inquisitorial campaigns (156). Adorno did not become a full professor until the 1950s upon his return to Frankfurt, with the help of his old friend and benefactor Max Horkheimer. Even then, he was contemptuously referred to by his colleagues, who had continued on the faculty through the Nazi era, as a “reparation-professor,” or someone who had achieved his position undeservedly through West Germany’s policy of making reparations for Nazism by appointing Jews to faculty positions. Adorno only reached popular audiences in Germany with the post-war publication of his book Minima Moralia. All this fits with Claussen’s image of Adorno as a “late bloomer,” an opinion shared by many of Adorno’s colleagues.

Theodor Adorno young

But while Claussen illustrates clearly how such friendships were formative for Adorno, at these points the identity between Adorno’s life and its presentation in the book become confused and Adorno’s own criticisms about biography as the bourgeois idealization of the individual, the topic with which Claussen paradoxically opens the book, seem applicable to the work itself. Nevertheless, Claussen’s careful and sympathetic rendering of various aspects of Adorno’s theory emerges as the greatest strength of One Last Genius.

Claussen identifies the most important thought-figures for Adorno, developed in different ways throughout his work, as being those of identity and non-identity. As Adorno puts it, “Freedom postulates the existence of something non-identical” (247). There is an integral link between individuals through a shared form of subjectivity.

The persistent contradictions of social life under capitalism point to the possibility beyond, but as generated from within capitalism itself. For Claussen it is this basis that shapes Adorno’s aesthetic writings from within and renders their ideological content. The attempt to superimpose political content onto aesthetic form, however, transforms it from an object of negative reflection into a tool for the affirmation of that which it seeks to critique. Claussen reports that in a radio talk prepared by Adorno in 1962 in honor of the death of Hanns Eisler, another one of Schoenberg’s students whom Claussen’s dubs Adorno’s “non-identical brother,” a small note appears: “Socially the relation of the intellectual to the proletariat amounts to a failed identification” (308). Referring to earlier sections of the book, we can understand that what Claussen is conveying is that certain Marxist intellectuals eliminated the standpoint of critical theory by attempting to collapse it into the ubiquitous standpoint of the proletariat in the name of unity; Eisler is now best known for his composition of East Germany’s anthem. To identify with a proletariat whose political consciousness had been seriously undermined by political failures of the 20th century and who had been barred from meaningful, organized political practice by the dominance of Stalinism in the international Left — this would be an abdication of the attempt to describe the conditions of life under capital, in the face of those conditions.


According to Claussen, the categories of identity and non-identity are essentially derived from psychoanalysis, and this appropriation is one of the Frankfurt School’s greatest contributions to Marxist critical theory. In texts such as The Authoritarian Personality, hailed by C. Wright Mills in 1954 as “the most influential book of the last decade,” Adorno and his colleagues anticipated the underlying authoritarianism of the supposedly “anti-authoritarian” Left of the 1960s, a character structure that is still with us today. In this text, Adorno labored to understand how people could act against their own interests, and on such a massive scale, while at the same time allowing for the potential critical recognition of such cathartic behaviors that proliferated with the rise of fascism globally. On this point Claussen quotes Adorno: “the capacity for fear and for happiness are the same, the unrestricted openness to experience amounting to the self-abandonment in which the vanquished rediscovers himself” (246). One can recognize oneself in advanced capitalism’s forms of mass mediation in both their apocalyptic and banal forms.

Claussen elaborates at length on the effect and meaning of Adorno’s most famous dictum, that “after Auschwitz to write poetry is barbaric,” a statement that curiously attracted poets and writers like Paul Celan and Samuel Beckett. Claussen makes the point that it is usually quoted without the following clarifying clause, from Adorno’s last major work, Aesthetic Theory: “After Auschwitz no further poems are possible, except on the foundation of Auschwitz itself” (330). However, in a review of Eisler’s work, Adorno admits that this argument “stems from politics, not aesthetic reflection.” A radical negative poetry can register the absence of both a collective that would be able to deliver a sense of meaning more authoritative than private attempts, and a personal poetry able to deliver “truth in itself in the interest of society” (300). In an effective synthesis of biographical research and theoretical analysis, Claussen shows how this dictum was developed as an attempt to challenge radical left-wing artists, such as Brecht and Eisler, to register the changing character of one’s social situation and to respond to it through aesthetic form. The failure of reason, which allowed itself to be instrumentalized in the systematic murder of millions of Jews, still also contains within it the kernel of individual thought, through which freedom can become generalizable. By overcoming its own form through consciousness of itself, it can make good on the promise that allows life to carry on. This is what formulating the non-identical would mean.


Conditions of life under capitalism are in constant flux and seem to deny the essential forms of social relations at their core. For that very reason such social relations must be approached as historically specific. Specifically, Claussen points out that anti-Semitism was “not the function of an authoritarian national character but… a historically determined manifestation of violence that could not be eliminated simply by an enlightened program of information.” In 1967, before the student uprising, this was the real point of contention between Adorno and Marcuse, something that remains a key factor in the reception of Adorno’s work, according to Claussen. Today we see Marcuse’s argument reproduced in a degenerate form in the criticism of mass media as the “manufacturing of consent” (Noam Chomsky, after Walter Lippmann), which assumes that culture, as the form of representation of society, and society itself are identical with one another. This eliminates the core of freedom, conceding it to the “totally administered world.” It is this core non-identity that Adorno never loses sight of in his writings and that Claussen traces throughout his work, revealing Adorno to be a far more “optimistic” theorist than colleagues like Marcuse. Claussen similarly shows how Bloch’s and Brecht’s work to “reconstruct a meaningful connection between reason and revolution…was irrevocably doomed after the Stalinist regression and the fact of Auschwitz” (327), because these thinkers allowed an idealized reason to obscure the reality of the historical moment they were hoping to address. This also differentiates them from Adorno, who was willing to register the effects of the cataclysm on himself and, in that way, on everyone else subject to the shared historical moment.

Benjamin argued through the dialectic of continuity and change that each historical moment up to and including the present has to be understood in the terms of its form of appearance [Schein], and it is for this reason that the categories of identity and non-identity offer a way of registering the character of an otherwise opaque form of subjectivity. The book Adorno: One Last Genius at times makes it difficult to differentiate between Adorno’s lived experience and the interpretation of it offered up by Claussen. Nevertheless, it offers a robust historical and theoretical foundation for understanding the categories of Adorno’s thought. The pleasure of seeing in such great detail how ideas were a way of living for Adorno and those around him, allowing them to understand, in and through their own lives, what it was that gave them form, is exhilarating. Thus revealed, Adorno’s critical categories retain their capacity to deepen our understanding of present social reality. Claussen’s contribution advances and broadens the potential use of these categories, even if it risks obscuring them even further by exploring them in a biographical form. |P

One thought on “The failure of Reason: Adorno and the non-identical

  1. Pingback: Trotsky and the Frankfurt School | The Charnel-House

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