Exposing capitalism’s blind domination | Daily News

Exposing capitalism’s blind domination

Theodor W. Adorno’s radical positions on philosophy, art and society

And yet Adorno grew up in comfort and privilege. He was born on September 11, 1903, in Frankfurt am Main, the only child of Oscar Wiesengrund, an assimilated Jewish merchant, and Maria Calvelli-Adorno, a devout Catholic of Corsican descent. Baptized Catholic as Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund and later confirmed as a Protestant, he was raised in a sheltered and cultured middle-class home.

Maria’s sister Agathe Calvelli-Adorno lived with his parents and was like a second mother to him. The two sisters were accomplished musicians, Maria a singer and Agathe a singer and pianist. Teddie, as his family and friends called him, learned his passion for music from them. His attachment to them shows up in the hyphenated name he used as a young adult: Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno. Later, during the Nazi era, he shortened his Jewish patronym to the initial “W”.

Post-war Europe

Still in his mid-teens when the First World War ended, Adorno avoided direct experience of the conflict. Even as a schoolboy, however, he rejected the rampant nationalism and war propaganda that flooded German culture. Soon he would be caught up in the revolutionary fervour spreading across post-war Europe and articulated in the early 1920s by the Western Marxist philosophers Ernst Bloch, Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács. From these years stem the conviction, which Adorno never lost, that society as a whole needed to be transformed. Or, as Minima Moralia puts this negatively, parodying Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: “The whole is the false”.

Admitted in 1921 to the recently founded Frankfurt University, the precocious twenty-one-year-old obtained his philosophy doctorate in 1924. By then he had met the older men who would mentor and collaborate with him in later years, including the writer and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, the essayist and cultural critic Walter Benjamin and the philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer.

A year later Adorno moved to Vienna, his “second home”, to pursue his musical passions in the Second Viennese School surrounding Arnold Schoenberg. There he studied composition with Alban Berg and piano with Eduard Steuermann. He also befriended Hanns Eisler, one of Schoenberg’s most accomplished students and a musical collaborator of Bertolt Brecht.

In later years, after most of these Jewish intellectuals had fled Nazi Germany to the United States, Adorno co-wrote a book with Eisler on movie music titled Composing for the Films (1947). It was through a circle of radically left-wing artists in Berlin including Benjamin, Brecht and Eisler that he met Gretel Karplus. They married in 1937, shortly before they emigrated to the United States. Adorno was not yet thirty when he completed his second dissertation (Habilitationsschrift) and became an instructor (Privatdozent) at Frankfurt University. He wrote it on Søren Kierkegaard, under the supervision of the philosophical theologian Paul Tillich. Two years later the dissertation appeared in book form as Kierkegaard: Construction of the aesthetic, on the day that Adolf Hitler came to power. Soon afterwards the Nazi regime forced all Jewish faculty members and many left-wing intellectuals out of their university positions across Germany.

Marxist scholarship

Their ranks included the members of Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, collectively known as the Frankfurt School. Founded in 1923 as an independent centre for interdisciplinary Marxist scholarship and led after 1930 by its director Max Horkheimer, the Institute included the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, literary sociologist Leo Löwenthal, social psychologist Erich Fromm, and other scholars in economics and political theory.

In the 1930s they developed an interdisciplinary research programme called critical theory. Adorno gave his controversial Benjamin-inspired inaugural lecture, “The Actuality of Philosophy”, at the Institute in 1931. It argued that only a radical change in philosophical approach, one neither imitating the social sciences nor aiming at systematic completeness, would suffice for a critical understanding of contemporary society.

Adorno and Benjamin did not become members of the Institute until it had moved to New York City in 1935. Their famous field-shaping debate on the political potential of mass-mediated culture took place in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research), the Institute’s journal of record. Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) and Adorno’s rejoinder “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938) have become classics in cultural studies and related fields.

Whereas Benjamin suggested that film as a mass medium has democratic and emancipatory potential, Adorno argued that, for the most part, the entertainment industry simply secures the capitalist status quo.

Nightmare of fascism

Adorno expanded and deepened this argument in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the groundbreaking book he co-wrote with Horkheimer during the Second World War, by which time both had moved from New York to southern California. In it, they set out to explain why a world with so much potential for good had become so unrelentingly bad, why the dawn of enlightenment had become the nightmare of fascism, why the social promise of happiness had been broken.

Interweaving philosophy, literary commentary and social critique, they tried to show that reason, the purported agency of enlightenment, had become irrational. Whereas the purpose of reason was to liberate people, it had instead served to trap them in patterns of blind domination. By not serving its own purpose, and instead serving as a tool for domination, reason had become irrational.

According to Horkheimer and Adorno, blind domination occurs in three tightly interlinked forms: human subjugation of nature, psychological repression and social exploitation.

What drives all three forms in contemporary society is an ever-expanding capitalist economy, wedded to massive state power, and fed by the latest science and technology. Moreover, the contemporary tendency towards such domination has ancient roots.

Critical theorists

This diagnosis became definitive for first-generation critical theory. It also became the target of criticisms from second-generation critical theorists, led by Adorno’s former assistant Jürgen Habermas. Contrary to some interpretations, the diagnosis in Dialectic of Enlightenment does not mean the authors give up on rationality and have no hope for social transformation.

Their attempt at a comprehensive critical diagnosis is an exercise of dialectical reason. It aims to recall and project the origin and goal of thought itself, namely, freedom – not blind domination, but thoughtful reconciliation, not the subjugation of nature, the repression of needs and desires, and the exploitation of disadvantaged people but rather their liberation.

And, within Dialectic of Enlightenment itself, their diagnosis yields powerful insights into both the culture industry as “mass deception” and the psychosocial roots of anti-Semitism in false projection.

- Times Literary Supplement


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