Flesh behind the theory of an oft abused thinker

June 2, 2006

A close look at the life of Theodor Adorno reveals a consistent strand running through the philosopher's diverse body of work, Chris Thornhill discovers.

It is no exaggeration to say that for most intellectuals working at the theoretical margins of the humanities or the social sciences, all analytical reflection places itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in some kind of relation to Theodor Adorno and to the wider intellectual debates associated with the Frankfurt School.

Adorno's argument that human reason has experienced a dialectical fate - that is, that it tends to renounce its original emancipatory functions and to revert to mythological or exploitative cognitive dispositions - is woven into the conceptual foundations of contemporary thought and contemporary education. Similarly, his claim that the instrumental tendency of reason culminates in the conditions of modern capitalism is also a precondition of critical social-scientific inquiry. In addition, his critique of the cultural industry and of the commodification of art and his analysis of art as a singular site of authentic experience and resistance to rationality's oppressive functions contain perspectives that almost universally influence debate about the contents of culture and the political possibilities of the aesthetic. There are, therefore, few modern philosophers who have exercised greater or wider influence than Adorno.

Moreover, while other influential philosophers soon become irritatingly ubiquitous and trivial, the theoretical benefits that have arisen through the broad resonance of Adorno's work are inestimable, and the full potential of his theory has yet to be appreciated fully. Despite this, however, one of the slightly annoying aspects of the Adorno legacy is that the wide respect for his work often induces a catch-all laziness in the application of the concepts and contents of his thought. More specifically, among many students and scholars there is a tendency to apply critical paradigms loosely derived from the Frankfurt School to any object of socio-political or aesthetic analysis, and to assume that a few quotes from Adorno will have sufficient authority to resolve all problems of critique and to provide an unquestionable matrix for organising conceptual debate.

Stefan Müller-Doohm's biography has two immediate and highly significant benefits. First, it stands as a very informative account of Adorno's life, which has much to offer casual readers of Adorno and those with a thorough interest in his work. Second, it ties a narrative description of Adorno's life to a sensitive understanding of his thought, and of the consistency of his reflection across the different disciplinary boundaries that it traversed. It clearly shows how the diverse aspects of his oeuvre, sociological, philosophical and musicological, were shaped by the same originating theoretical impulses and objectives.

There are already some very good books on Adorno in English, and some of these are distinguished by philosophical subtlety and originality. However, this biography stands comfortably alongside these as an effective contextual discussion of Adorno's entire work. It might, therefore, be hoped that it will generate a wider appreciation of the complex intersections between different elements of Adorno's theory and stimulate a more judicious and less selective interpretation and application of his central philosophical concepts.

In its treatment of Adorno's public, institutional and intellectual activities, this book is unlikely to engender the same theoretical controversies as some other recent biographies of philosophers, and it is unlikely fundamentally to alter the direction of conceptual debate about Adorno. This is not the consequence of any shortcoming of the book, but simply of the fact that it is difficult to problematise Adorno's life profoundly in the way that, for example, analysis of the political beliefs and associations of Martin Heidegger can raise far-reaching critical questions about the value of his philosophical outlook.

To be sure, Müller-Doohm, straining for impartiality, faces up to some of the more compromising moments in Adorno's trajectory. Thus he examines the lingering accusations of cultural intolerance provoked by Adorno's contemptuous dismissal of jazz music; he discusses the curious motives for his reluctant politicisation and late departure from Germany after Hitler's assumption of power in 1933; he analyses his infamous altercations with Walter Benjamin; he is not afraid to present Adorno as tediously ingratiating in his attempts to curry Alban Berg's favour; and he gives a detailed account of his uncomfortable relations with the self-styled student dissidents of the late 1960s. However, it is difficult to find anything here in Adorno's intellectual or public life that might demand a thorough revision of how his work is approached or of how its constitutive motives are evaluated.

Despite this, in its discussion of Adorno as a public figure, especially after his return to Germany after the Second World War, this book does all the things a biography should, and it successfully relates the different periods of his theoretical career to the changing social and intellectual milieux in which he operated.

The chapters treating Adorno's early attempts to establish himself in Viennese musical circles make particularly informative background reading, and the centrality of musical analysis to his sociological, philosophical and socio-political theories becomes clear through these reconstructions.

Similarly, the discussions of his intellectual friendship with Siegfried Kracauer in the 1920s and of his early involvement with the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt in the early 1930s throw revealing light on the stimuli behind his early thought and on the very gradual nature of his inclusion in the intellectual environment around Max Horkheimer and other associates of the institute. Indeed, the account of the often fractious and distant relationships between Adorno and other members of the institute renders highly precarious the idea that the Frankfurt School ever really existed as a distinct movement or as a consistent set of theoretical stances.

The sections treating Adorno's return to Germany and his rapid assumption of central importance in the process of cultural/political reconstruction at this time contain extremely valuable factual material. The importance of these chapters far exceeds biographical discussion, and they include much that illuminates the emergent fabric of political culture in the Federal Republic as it evolved, tentatively at first, in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Particularly striking in this respect is the way that Adorno, far from acting as a marginal critical intellectual, was able to reach across variant positions, some of which seem, in retrospect, to mark insurmountably adversarial poles of political discourse. It is a slight surprise, for example, that he was intermittently on friendly terms with the great hermeneutical philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer; it is a far greater surprise that he could maintain relatively cordial relations with theorists such as Arnold Gehlen and Helmut Schelsky, who, despite being strongly tainted by earlier Nazi affiliation, began in the 1950s to reconsolidate a conservative orientation in German political sociology and political theory. In consequence, one important aspect of this work is that it shows that Adorno was much more at home in the institutional framework of the early Federal Republic than is often supposed, that he was consistently flexible in his choice of personal associations, and that his personal influence crossed a number of theoretical terrains.

Beyond his public actions, however, it might be observed that Adorno is a particularly difficult and obscure object for biographical research, which struggles to penetrate the real importance of his work. This is particularly the case because, although vehemently hostile to philosophy that preciously authenticates its claims through reference to personal experience, Adorno's work has a strong experiential, or even existential-sociological, intonation. His work often transforms the discrete and ephemeral contents of lived existence, or - in his own words - "damaged life" into conceptual or reflexive forms, and it approaches other philosophical structures with a view to their formative socio-historical and experiential motivations. For this reason, a philosophical biography of Adorno is likely to find itself measured by the degree to which it clarifies the relation between experience and conception in his work, to which it retraces experientially determined concepts to the factual contents underlying them, and to which it grasps the ways in which he configured the experiential residues in the philosophies with which he engaged and around which his own thought critically evolved.

Where this book tries to account for the passage of life into thought, it supplies meticulously gathered data concerning the writing and rewriting of Adorno's books and the relationships in which he engaged as his books approached completion. It documents the shifting personal and political backgrounds against which his ideas were formulated. However, it also accepts that, where thought is shaped by vital impulses, these impulses cannot be discerned.

In sum, it might be fairly reflected that biographical work on Adorno, however exemplary, ultimately shows up the limits of what biographical research can contribute to philosophical inquiry. Adorno: A Biography provides an admirable factual framing for Adorno's philosophy. However, there is no substitute for a committed reading of his books, and no amount of factual detail can stand in for this direct engagement.

Chris Thornhill is professor of politics, Glasgow University.

Adorno: A Biography

Author - Stefan Müller-Doohm
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 667
Price - £60.00
ISBN - 0 7456 3108 8
Translator - Rodney Livingstone

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