A critic of modern jazz, a key theoretician of the left and a leader in the most celebrated academic institute of the last century, Theodor Weisengrund Adorno combined the intense speculative focus of a German academic with the feel for the concrete of a French aesthete. Along the way, he also unwittingly became a model - and a foil - for Anglo-American culture critics.
As a teenager, Adorno spent many Saturday afternoons poring over Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason with Siegfried Kracauer, who encouraged him to read philosophy in its socio-historical context and to apply philosophical and sociological tools to understand such cultural artefacts as film. Not surprisingly, as an undergraduate, he applied himself to philosophy, psychology and sociology and, after spending three years studying music in Vienna with avant-garde composers, he completed his doctoral degree requirements and began writing. His work over the span of forty years never lost the connectivity of art, philosophy and cultural criticism that so enthralled him in his early reading of Kant with Kracauer.
Adorno wrote most of his mature works under the aegis of the celebrated Institute for Social Research. He officially joined in 1938, but his relationship with its guiding spirit and founder, Max Horkheimer, began in the 1920s when they took courses together. Along with several others, they began a collaborative research programme within the Institute called the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Under Horkheimer and Adorno, the school dedicated itself to producing research characterized by the systematic rejection of closed philosophical and political systems, and a commitment to ongoing study and criticism of current oppressive sociopolitical structures. Less interested in Marx's reductionist critique of capitalism than traditional Marxists, the Frankfurt School sought to expand his criticisms of bourgeois culture. Less preoccupied with praxis (revolutionary action) than with theoretical insight into oppressive structures and processes, the school was often charged by more orthodox Marxists with élitism and passivity. This accent on culture and the charge of élitism have marked Adorno's career.
Adorno would put himself in the same group as Hegel, Marx and others who used the form of argumentation known as dialectics to unmask the hypocrisies and absurdities of the political and social status quo. Contemporary bourgeois life requires that all of its aspects be controlled - the statehouse, the family, the church, the airwaves, the marketplace. This ‘administered world’ needs homogenized certainties, concepts taken for granted unfailingly, in order to maintain total control. Hence, says Adorno, modern regimes ‘reify’ - make into a thing - and quantify what cannot be fashioned into permanent concepts and identities, but which nonetheless prove useful to those who rule. For Adorno, the most tragic manifestation of this ‘administered world’ was the Holocaust, in which even human beings themselves were ‘reified’ - counted, recorded and, eventually, ‘consumed’.
Dominating regimes must run according to political theories made of clear, determined concepts and predictable logic - a closed system. Philosophy for Adorno contests this desire for conceptual and systematic finality, for philosophical concepts resist their own closure. So understood, philosophy is dialectics, or ‘thought driven by its own insufficiency.’ The identical gets its wholeness only through the non-identical; the universal only through particulars. ‘Thought as such,’ Adorno maintains, ‘is an act of negation, of resistance to that which is forced upon it.’ Philosophy must constantly criticize itself, preventing the negative energy of thinking from getting short-circuited by conformity.
Art, too, like philosophy, can liberate people from the claustrophobia of power. ‘Works of art,’ states Adorno, ‘are … social products which have discarded the illusion of being-for-society, an illusion tendentiously maintained by all other commodities.’ To the extent that art gives people what they expect, it becomes a commodity.
This theme appears vividly in Adorno's best-known book, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), co-authored by Horkheimer. The authors first describe how the Enlightenment concept of reason became an efficient tool for social and political administrations to ensure the compliance of the administered at all levels of discourse and practice. ‘Through the countless agencies of mass production and its culture the conventionalised modes of behaviour are impressed on the individual as the only natural, respectable, and rational ones. He defines himself only as a thing.’ Even art becomes commodified, an example of ‘instrumental reason’, producing what the authors call ‘the culture industry’.
Though written in the 1940s this critique has not lost its relevance: speaking about what they saw as a growing monopoly, Adorno and Horkheimer claimed that ‘Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce.’ Widely anthologized, this chapter on the culture industry has inspired and guided the relatively new field of culture studies in the social sciences and humanities.
In the last year of his life, Adorno became embattled with radical students, and charges of élitism unfortunately made his last few months stressful. Yet Adorno's reputation survived to the extent that, currently, he is often claimed as a precursor to postmodern and post-structuralist thought.