ND Translation Notes
Adorno FAQ


Theodor Adorno (1903-69) was one of the great cultural theorists and philosophers of the 20th century, and the central intellectual driving force behind the Frankfurt School, a distinguished group of intellectuals and academics who were without question the most progressive thinkers of the so-called Weimar Republic (Germany in its postwar democratic phase, 1918-33). After Fascism triumphed in Germany in 1933, the members of the School went into exile, eventually ending up in America, where they were confronted with the very different cultural situation of the New Deal and 1940s consumerism. Confronted by the jarring shock between a semiperipheral, partly industrialized Central European culture, and the fully industrialized, motorized USA, the School did two things which had never been done before: (1) theorize the dynamics of the consumer and media culture, and (2) integrate sociological and practical fieldwork into philosophical and theoretical issues, in a whole new way. The result was Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which created the world's first theory of mass-culture. Though this text often gets the most attention in academic circles, it needs to be read in conjunction with two other breakthrough texts Adorno wrote in the 1940s, namely Minima Moralia, a collection of short essays and aphorisms, which sketched out a whole new theory of monopoly capitalism, and powerfully anticipated the micropolitical struggles which would erupt two decades later, and Philosophy of Modern Music, Adorno's landmark analysis of the musical modernisms of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, which gave a Marxist account of atonal music precisely where Walter Benjamin provided the first Marxist account of poetry in the latter's study of Baudelaire (and where, still further afield, Lukacs provided the first Marxist analysis of the novel). The whole idea of cultural studies, radical sociology, and many of the themes of deconstruction and the post-structuralisms, namely that reading is political, that works of art and aesthetic interpretation have powerful effects on each other, and that texts express genuine social conflicts, owes a tremendous debt to Adorno's pioneering work here.

But there's more to the story. During the 1950s and 1960s, the members of the School returned to postwar West Germany, where they played a key role in resurrecting the German Left and spurring the New Left of the late 1960s. Unlike his works from the 1940s and 1950s, which are oriented mostly to a Western European situation, his texts in the 1960s strike out in a new direction, towards the nascent space of that multinational world-system which was indeed being born in the 1960s. It's important to stress that Adorno didn't work on the aesthetic side of the problem, i.e. he doesn't give us a theory of film and the mass media (this is the great achievement of Fredric Jameson); nor does he provide a theory of American jazz modernism (even though many of the musicological categories he developes in the context of European modernism can be directly applied to jazz, which went through a similar dialectic of modernism, from Louis Armstrong's solo to the big band synthesis of Duke Ellington -- jazz' symphonic phase, as it were -- to the increasingly specialized innovations of Charlie Parker, thence to the jazz cubism of Thelonius Monk, and finally to the late jazz atonality of John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor). What Adorno did achieve, though, which stamps his late work as an epochal breakthrough, is to think through the total system of the 1960s (if you think this is easy, just try it sometime). Thirty years ahead of the fact, Adorno somehow sensed, no doubt due to Germany's paradoxical position as the contested borderzone between the Cold War superpowers, that the East and West really were converging into a single monstrous Ueber-system (or what we call nowadays neoliberalism).

Another way of thinking about this is that Adorno's distance from the metropoles of the Cold War -- the fact that West Germany was politically subaltern to the Pax Americana, very much like postwar Japan was until the late 1980s -- unwittingly enabled him to look beyond the Cold War national security state, and to grasp the juridical infrastructures of the Central European developmental states as a new kind of political object in their own right. Though this move is probably most obvious in Adorno's last essays and talks on sociology, especially Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?, where Adorno urges us to rethink late capitalism as the contemporary version of the Marxian relations of production, and industrial society as the equivalent of the Marxian forces of production, Adorno is already doing something similar in the second half of Negative Dialectics, which picks apart the juridical antinomies of Kant's philosophy, and the antinomies of nationalism and national identity in Hegel, all in the context of the Marxian categories of commodity fetishism, accumulation, and natural and social history. The last part of Negative Dialectics sketches out the space of a multinational dialectics, which is directly linked to the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Fredric Jameson, unquestionably the greatest dialecticians of our era. Negative Dialectics is, in this largest and most significant sense, a well-nigh inexhaustible storehouse of tools, concepts, strategies and heuristics for the global Left, which need to be accessed, thought through, and set into motion, as a crucial and indispensable part of the project of a multinational Resistance to the multinational capitalism flourishing all around us.


[ Return ]