Sunday, December 20, 2009

Me and Teddy Adorno

never really got to know each other that well, basically because he was at the height of his fame in the mid-60's, and continually surrounded in public by mobs of students and admirers looking for their celebrity fix. I happened to be on the inside track for some meetings and conferences held at the Free University of Berlin, where my Doktorvater, Wilhelm Emrich, who had been one of Adorno's students in Frankfurt, often assisted his appearances. These ranged from lectures held in the Audimax (Auditorium Maximum) in the Henry-Ford Building (oh the irony), to radio shows and sociologist meetings.

What impressed one most was the absolute intensity of his formal presentations. Unlike other German cultural heroes of the time -- such as the mystical Marxist Ernst Bloch, who rambled on at such a sedate tempo, and in such a soothingly avuncular manner that he seemed only to be thinking out loud -- Adorno often spoke rapidly and with such urgency that you could imagine yourself on the deck of the Titanic in its final moments. There was never a moment to lose, whatever the subject. Unfortunately his discourse usually functioned at such a high level of philosophic abstraction that it became difficult to follow him closely -- when you had one sentence figured out, he had already advanced two sentences further, so with luck you might get the general drift, but in detail only every third sentence or so.

Unlike most philosophers, Adorno had the weight of history on his shoulders -- the tragedy of the Holocaust and the loss of many friends, the shut-down of his professional career upon the rise of Nazism, the gradual abandonment of the Institute's plan to reconstruct Marxist theory after the rise of Stalinism and wholesale destruction of Russian peasants during the period of agricultural collectivization in the 1930's.

But he also simply owned the whole intellectual and cultural tradition of German philosophy, and forced you to discover, confront and respect that tradition in almost all that he spoke about, including his periodic and somewhat overdone rants against consumerist cultural barbarism and the inadequacies of a "positivistic," theory-less praxis of sociology in the U.S.

In the early 1960's, Adorno had hardly been translated into English; Heidegger's Sein und Zeit likewise remained untranslated; Marx wasn't taken seriously in American universities; and the only translation of Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes was a hundred-year-old relic (by Baillie) left over from the Victorian era when English philosophers gushed over Hegel as a metaphysical idealist, ignoring the dialectic and concomitantly the substance of Hegelian thought. To be a young American student in Germany in the 60's meant to discover a vibrant intellectual culture and a body of philosophy that was not a subject of attention in the U.S., where academics at the time were still floundering in French existentialism or else trying to figure out Wittgenstein.

In the 1980's and 1990's, the now reasonably-translated Adorno started to gain a certain currency among American authors, who found it remarkably easy to grab a quote from Minimalia Moralia or the correspondence with Walter Benjamin, but who had and still have no time for Adorno's Negative Dialektik, or (with Horkheimer) the Dialektik der Aufklärung, let alone for the two centuries of German philosophic thought upon which Critical Theory itself is based, or, better, is in reaction to.

It would be impertinent for any bystander as weak-minded as myself to assess Adorno's significance as a 20th-century thinker, but I know very well what he meant to me. Although he was probably more wrong than right on most issues -- excepting Heidegger, he was spot on about Heidegger -- he was the most impressive intellectual I ever encountered personally. He embodied like no other the worst calamity in modern European history, in fact it was almost as if he was that history, and he insisted that it not be forgotten by anyone.

He awakened his listeners to the understanding that there exists no philosophy or philosopheme capable of successfully relativizing the significance of violence or brutality -- that evil is in effect relentlessly and irretrievably evil. And that if there is to be an exit from the social hell in which we are all held captive, or if there ever develops a means to break the all but universal entrancement (as he put it) of social untruth and domination, it would only proceed through this same realization.

[The photo of Adorno above, apparently on his way to a Fasching party somewhere with a couple of young undergrads in tow, is no doubt heavily copyrighted somewhere -- I lifted it off the Internet and have no idea whom to credit.]

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