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Theodor Adorno (1903 - 1969)

Lifespan: 1903 - 1969

Related: Theodor Adorno on music - critical theory - cultural elitism - cultural pessimism - culture industry - culture theory - false needs and false consciousness - Frankfurt school - German philosophy - Marxism - modernism

Theodor Adorno was the most pessimistic of the Modernist philosophers and resented new media, new technologies and the popular arts (most notably his derisive attitudes towards jazz and dance music, see Theodor Adorno on music). As such he is a good case study in the nobrow debate. He is best contrasted to Walter Benjamin, whose optimism about popular culture developments is well documented. Contemporary philosophers perhaps of more interest to Jahsonic readers include Henri Lefèbvre, Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille [Nov 2006]

[Adorno] exhibited profoundly bourgeois taste in literature and art, an unfashionable aversion to Negro jazz, and a 19th-century sensibility that kept creeping into his aesthetic judgments. --via Adorno: A Political Biography, Lorenz Jäger

Key texts: Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947)

Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947) - Max Horkheimer, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno
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The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (2001) - Theodor Adorno
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Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno (September 11, 1903 – August 6, 1969) was a German sociologist, philosopher, musicologist and composer. He was a member of the Frankfurt School along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and others. He was also the Music Director of the Radio Project.

Already as a young music critic and unordained sociologist, Theodor W. Adorno was primarily a philosophical thinker. As a composer he was unable to step out from under the shadow of his teacher Alban Berg. The label 'social philosopher' emphasizes the socially critical aspect of his philosophical thinking, which from 1945 onwards took an intellectually prominent position in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Adorno [Jun 2005]

High and low culture

Some (e.g., Lyotard) have come to see Adorno's approach as a last-ditch attempt to maintain a boundary between high art and popular culture just at a time when the logic and social basis of such a boundary is becoming untenable in the name of the very political values (e.g., opposition to conventional Marxism) to which Adorno himself subscribed. Furthermore, in light of Bataille's work, it is clear that exchange-value can be subverted as much by the very 'low' elements (obscenity) in social life, as by the highest and most spiritually charged products of the avant-garde. Both can entail the distancing necessary to counter the ephemeral immediacy of consumer pleasure. Perhaps the 'low' even more than the 'high'; for ultimately 'high' art depends on the judgement of criticism as to its nature and quality; it is thereby incorporated into the play of concepts. In other words, avant-garde art and philosophy become interdependent and all the more so - if an analogy with Negative Dialectics holds - to the extent that the art object becomes inseparable from its materiality (nonidentity). Grasping the force and significance of avant-garde art requires the use of concepts which can never do a work justice; for the materiality of the work constitutes its uniqueness, and this defies conceptualisation. As Peter Osborne has remarked, 'It is out of this critique of identity-thinking that Adorno's basic conception of aesthetic experience, as the experience of the "non-identical", arises.-- abstracted from the Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers by John Lechte, Routledge, 1994.


Adorno was to a great extent influenced by Walter Benjamin's application of Karl Marx's thought. Unlike Marx, however, Adorno did not consider capitalism on the verge of collapse. Instead he argued that capitalism had become more entrenched through its attack on the objective basis of revolutionary consciousness. Additionally, Adorno focused on culture rather than economics as Marx did. He argued that critical theory must maintain a certain standard. On this ground Adorno attacked many approaches commonly used in social studies. He was particularly harsh on approaches that claimed to be scientific and quantitative.

He is probably best known for his critique of mass culture in contemporary societies. He argued that the culture industry manipulated the masses. Popular culture was identified as a reason why people become passive; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture made people docile and content, no matter how terrible their economic circumstances. It is culture industries that produce standardized cultural goods like factories. There are differences between the cultural goods that make them appear different, but they are in fact just variations of the same theme. Adorno called this phenomenon pseudo- individualization. Adorno saw this mass-produced culture as a danger to the more difficult high arts. Culture industries cultivate false needs; that is, needs created and satisfied by capitalism. True needs, in contrast, are freedom, creativity or genuine happiness. Some of the work on mass culture Adorno undertook together with Max Horkheimer. His work heavily influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies. At the time Adorno began writing, there was a tremendous unease among many intellectuals as to the results of mass culture and mass production on the character of individuals within a nation, by exploring the mechanisms for the creation of mass culture, Adorno presented a framework which gave specific terms to what had been a more general concern.

At the time this was considered important because of the role which the state took in cultural production, Adorno's analysis allowed for a critique of mass culture from the left which balanced the critique of popular culture from the right. In both arguments the nature of cultural production was felt to be at the root of social and moral problems resulting from the consumption of culture. Where as the critique from the right emphasized moral degeneracy ascribed to sexual and racial influences within popular culture, Adorno located the problem not with the content, but with the objective realities of the production of mass culture and its effects, e.g. as a form of reverse psychology.

Many aspects of Adorno's work are relevant today and have been developed in many strands of contemporary critical theory, media theory, and sociology. Thinkers influenced by Adorno believe that today's society has evolved in a direction foreseen by him, especially in regard to the past (Auschwitz), morals or the Culture Industry. The latter has become a particularly productive, yet highly contested term in cultural studies. Many of his reflections on music have only just begun to be debated, as a collection of essays on the subject, many of which had not previously been translated into English, have only recently been collected and published as Essays on Music. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Adorno#Theory [Jun 2005]

Douglas Kellner on Adorno's view of mass culture

T.W. Adorno was one of the first and most pungent radical critics of mass culture. In early essays on popular music in the 1930s, Adorno developed a critical methodology to analyze the production, texts, and reception of the artifacts of what became known as "popular culture," thus anticipating the approach of later forms of "cultural studies." With Max Horkheimer, he developed in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947) the first critical theory which discerned the crucial roles of mass culture and communication in contemporary capitalist societies. Emigrants from Nazi Germany, Adorno and his colleagues observed the use of mass culture in German fascism and were shocked to see in the United States the same sort of ideological culture which reproduced the existing social relations and served as propaganda for the established socio-economic and political order. -- http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/courses/ed253a/MCkellner/COOKREV.html, Douglas Kellner

Émigré in the USA (1938-1949)

After visiting New York for the first time in 1937 he decided to resettle there. In Brussels he bade his parents, who followed in 1939, farewell, and said goodbye to Benjamin in San Remo. Benjamin opted to remain in Europe, thus limiting their very rigorous future communication to letters. Shortly after arriving in New York, Horkheimer's Institute for Social Research accepted Adorno as an official member. His first job was directing the 'Radio Project' together with the Austrian sociologist Paul Lazersfeld. He also took up a post at Princeton University between 1938 and 1941. Very soon, however, his attention shifted to direct collaboration with Horkheimer. They moved to Los Angeles together, where he taught for the following seven years he spent as the co-director of a research unit at the University of California. Their collective found its first major expression in the first edition of their essay collection Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung) in 1944. Faced with the unfolding events of the Holocaust, the work begins with the words:

"In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlighten­ment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and estab­lishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant." (Adorno/Horkheimer, 1973)

"Seit je hat Aufklärung im umfassendsten Sinn fortschreitenden Denkens das Ziel verfolgt, von den Menschen die Furcht zu nehmen und sie als Herren einzusetzen. Aber die vollends aufgeklärte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils." (Adorno/Horkheimer, 1947)

It was published in 1947. In this influential book, Adorno and Horkheimer outline civilization's tendency towards self-destruction. They argue that the concept of reason was transformed into an irrational force by the Enlightenment. As a consequence, reason came to dominate not only nature, but also humanity itself. It is this rationalization of humanity that was identified as a cause of fascism and other totalitarian regimes. Consequently, Adorno did not consider rationalism a path towards human emancipation. For that he looked toward the arts.

After 1945 he ceased to work as a composer. By taking this step he conformed to his own famous maxim: "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (Nach Ausschwitz noch ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch). He was entrusted with the honorable task to advise Thomas Mann on the musicological details of his novel Dr. Faustus. Apart from that he worked on his 'philosophy of the new music' (Philosophie der neuen Musik) in the 1940s, and on Hanns Eisler's Composing for the films. He also contributed 'qualitative interpretations' to the Studies in [anti-semitic] Prejudice performed by multiple research institutes in the US that uncovered the authoritarian character of test persons through indirect questions. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Adorno [Jun 2004]

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