Theory through the prism of a life

A thinker who had no truck with biography is well served by this moving portrait, says Chris Thornhill

April 10, 2008

Theodor Adorno is a daunting prospect for biographers. He was expressly disdainful about biography as an intellectual form, and throughout his work he rejected the belief that thought can contain and disclose an immediate relation to the particularities of lived experience. In fact, he often dismissed as ideological those philosophical positions that presume to authorise philosophical insights through experiential claims, and he insisted that experience can be meaningfully articulated or interpreted in theory only as an element of social-dialectical process.

Nonetheless, Adorno's work was intricately strained and reflected through experience, and he saw theory as a conceptual refraction of intensely personal locations and sentiments. Research on Adorno that defies his veto on biography is consequently exposed to a forbidding set of challenges. It cannot avoid the personal sources of his thought, and it must attempt, however impossibly, to decipher the remote contents of experience underlying the conceptual apparatus of his theoretical writings. However, following Adorno's own insistence, it cannot address these contents in unreflected, unmediated or purely personal form: it must view them as prismatically open to wider patterns of social formation and analyse them at once in a subjective-reflexive and in a sociological dimension.

Despite these obstacles, Detlev Claussen's biography of Adorno is a remarkable achievement. Central to the success of this book is the fact that its author is not solely a biographer but is also a distinguished sociologist and social theorist, and he is able to identify and respond to each of the difficulties that Adorno poses.

Claussen's main motive for writing the book appears to spring from a deep respect for Adorno and his theory. However, he also pursues an expansive sociological approach to the facts and the questions that he considers, and, both methodologically and thematically, he has clearly internalised some of the analytical principles established by Adorno himself. He consequently accounts for Adorno's life and work by isolating conceptual forms and fragments of experience as repositories of complexly mediated social and personal meaning, and he approaches Adorno's theoretical stances both through micro-experiential reconstruction and through a wider depiction of their context and social determinants.

Although not bound by chronological structure, the book begins by reconstructing the environments of Adorno's youth in Frankfurt am Main, and it describes his relations with other neo-Marxist intellectuals such as Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukacs, Ernst Bloch and Max Horkheimer. It discusses his life in Vienna and his responses to cultural circles around Schoenberg, Berg and Karl Kraus.

It gives an account of his emigration to the US and the background to his early sociological writings on the authoritarian personality. It also provides extensive analysis of his role in the reorientation of socio-political debate in the Federal Republic in the 1950s and 1960s. Here, it talks in perceptive and distinctive manner about Adorno's relationship with the radical student groups of the 1960s, and about the gradual, unintended emergence of what came to be known as the Frankfurt School. The book thus observes Adorno in all the main roles that he occupied: as left-oriented German-Jewish cultural critic in the Weimar Republic; as unorthodox Marxist and critic of the Soviet Union; as emigre sociologist in the US; and as influential public intellectual in Germany under Adenauer. To support and frame these observations it reflects in sweeping yet incisive fashion on the overarching social and theoretical conditions that shaped Adorno's life, and at times it opens broad and astoundingly penetrating perspectives on the intellectual sociology of modern Germany as a whole.

In its entirety, this is a brilliant book that movingly disentangles and pieces together highly complex relations of personal, historical and intellectual life. It is difficult to imagine how biography could be more successful in examining theoretical existence or how it could more accurately elucidate thought in so many of its formative dimensions.

Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius

By Detlev Claussen

Harvard University Press 464pp, £22.95

ISBN 9780674026186

Published 1 April 2008

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