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by drawing from a huge array of intimate correspondence, diary entries, and assorted works, many of them previously unpublished.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. Continue reading