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Theodor Adorno

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Theodor Adorno-1969

Adorno was a German Jewish philosopher, sociologist, and essayist, member of the "Frankfurt School," a group of intellectuals working at the Institute for Social Research, loosely associated to the University of Frankfurt. He studied music (piano) and composition from his early years and both his mother and aunt were professional singers.

He received his doctorate in Philosophy in 1924. For three years he studied music, and worked informally at the University's Institute for Social Research (The so-called Frankfurt School) from 1928, before accepting a position at the University in 1931. He published a thesis on Kierkegard's Aesthetic in 1933. His main colleague and collaborator was there was Max Horkheimer , (the eventual Director of the Institute) whom he had met previously in 1922 and with whom his friendship lasted for decades.

During the Third Reich, the Frankfurt School moved to New York City, where it continued to develop a critical theory of society. Adorno initially moved to Oxford where he studied the writings of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, before moving to New York in 1938 to join the other exiled members of the Institute at the New School for Social Research at Columbia University. The school's cultural criticism and eclectic theories of mass society deeply influenced  the New Left in the 1950s and 1960s. The Frankfurt School never produced a unitary social theory, but its members shared a critical view of modern capitalism, and rejected Soviet Communism and orthodox Marxism.

He returned to Frankfurt in 1949 and became the Director of the Institute in 1959, after Horkheimer relinquished the position. He remained there until 1969, during which time he met and taught Jurgen Habermas.He died in August of that year in a heart attack. 


Adorno based his own theories on the writings of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, and was particularly influenced by Hegel's concept of the dialectic. However, Adorno did not believe that all contradictions can be solved and in Negative Dialektik (1966) he not only rejected the idea of a realisable utopia (as the possibility outcome of total reconciliation) but all notions of permamence. 

His major work is The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) which he co-authored with Horkheimer. There, they analysed the development of the Enlightenment project and saw it descending once again into barbarism - evidenced by the antisemitism of Nazi Germany. They saw that reason had become the instrument of Totalitarianism.

"Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward man. He knows them is so far as he can manipulate them."Much of the work is devoted to study of anti-Semitism, the actual reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism, and the culture industry, in which enlightenment has found its ideological expression."

  1. The Dialectic of Enlightenment we also see the first glimmerings of his interest in what was to become known later as "The Culture Induustry". He and Horkheimer noted how the technological development of media had now rendered the totalitarian control of populations easier to accomplish, as audiences became increasingly passive and receptive of socially constructed information systems amenable to minority capitalist control. Adorno returned to the theme in his essay 'Television and the Patterns of Mass Culture' (1954), in which he viewed pessimistically individuals possibility to resist the ubiquity of modern mass culture. This understanding led inexorably to the realisation, published later in Aesthetic Theory (publshed posthumously1970) that the manipulation of public awareness had rendered Art meaningless as a vehicle for social commentary and transformation. He suggested that "popular culture" was now nothing more than the manipulated will of the capitalist economy. His later years were clouded in controversy when he called in the police to evict students who had occupied the Institute in 1969.

In 1950, Adorno worked for a while at the University of California, Berkeley where, along with Nevitt Sanford he researched the social/psychological development of anti-Semitism and developed the concept of the Authoritarian Personality which was then published as a book. The Authoritarian Personality (1950) is an influential book by Adorno and and several other researchers during WWII and the period shortly thereafter. The book, which became a classic text in psychology, traced the links between children’s upbringing and their prejudice in adulthood. While it focused on anti-Semitism, the book also showed that people who were prejudiced against one ethnic, racial, or religious group tended to be prejudiced against others. The lead author was really R. Nevitt Sanford but when a dispute arose about the sequence of secondary authors' names Sanford suggested they simply list the names alphabetically. The authors postulated the existence of an "Authoritarian Personality" that was receptive to Authoritarianism. The researchers created a psychometric instrument for measuring 'fascism' (the F-scale) and developed a Freudian theory of the development of this personality type. The Authoritarian Personality inspired a huge amount of sociology and political science research during the later 1950s and early 1960s on the role of personality traits and in the adoption of political points of view. However, the concept of authoritarianism still stimulates much research even today. More influential, however, was the work that Adorno and his colleagues did not in the field of psychology, but in the field of cultural studies.

The Frankfurt critiques of centralized Soviet socialism, coupled with their analyses of the production of culture under capitalism established the basis for new conceptions of culture as a major factor in the social process.  While they apparently refused to conduct their analysis of culture within the frame of reference of the old marxist base-superstructure model, Horkheimer and Adorno were themselves paradoxically unable to abandon their own beliefs in either the ultimate influence of the economic base nor in the primacy of their own cultural baggage in their theories of culture.

They established the importance of culture as an instrument of social and political reproduction, but not as a vehicle for social and political production. They saw it as a mechanism of oppression, not of liberation. Real culture, for them, was high culture. Popular culture, on the other hand was seen as a social manipulation carried out by the productive forces for the purpose of consumerism and social reproduction - making sure the peasants stayed in their place, lulled into soporific passivity by alienating forms of popular cultural production. In this belief, they missed the essential importance of the "youth culture" of the 1960's, and its capacity as an instrument of social change.

Aware that social and cultural conditions had changed dramatically since the time of Marx (through the greater concentration of capital, more advanced technology and sophisticated modes of administration, and so on) the members of the Frankfurt School realised that the scope of domination had extended well beyond the work-place into the domain of cultural and social life itself. “Culture” for the members of the Institute was not viewed dialectically - that is to say that they did not recognise their own view of the social category of “culture” as itself being culturally determined. In other words they stood outside the sphere of their own analysis. This is nowhere more clear that in the work of Theodor Adorno and in his joint work with Max Horkheimer into what they called the “culture industry”.  They distinguished, for instance, between "authentic art" (meaning "high culture art forms") and popular culture which they saw as diametrically opposed, the former seen as potentially liberating, the latter as stultifying.  As Douglas Kellner has astutely remarked:

"...for Adorno, "authentic art" provided insight into existing reality, expressing human suffering and the need for social transformation, as well as providing an authentic experience which helped to produce critical consciousness and awareness of the need for individual and social transformation. Art for Adorno was thus a privileged vehicle for emancipation. Aesthetic experience alone, he came to believe, provided the refuge for truth and a sphere of individual freedom and resistance. The problem was that only authentic art could provide aesthetic experience, and it was precisely authentic art which was disappearing in the administered society." 
While acknowledging that the critical theory of culture and the culture industry developed by Horkheimer, Adorno and  Herbert Marcuse offers many useful insights into the role of the media and the the relationship between the production, communication and reception of normative values, Kellner, for one is quick to point out that:
"Part of the problem is that for Adorno and many of his colleagues, the artefacts of the culture industry are simply beneath contempt....Such an arrogant, grandiose gesture of absolute disdain, however, precludes understanding what gratifications popular culture actually provides, and what needs it serves, in however distorted a fashion. This attitude also leads critical theorists to neglect, albeit with some exceptions, analysis of specific films, television programs or artefacts of popular culture, since they assume in advance that such artefacts are merely a debased form of culture and a vehicle of ideology which are not worthy of detailed study or critique."

This is clearly a serious oversight, for even a cursory glance over the historical record indicates that oppressed peoples and liberation movements have almost invariably coalesced around popular forms of culture - from Blues, through folk music to protest songs. Furthermore, recent events in Bosnia and elsewhere have indicated the amazing ability of popular cultural forms to survive intact after decades of the most apparently determining institutionalised cultural superimpositions. It is particularly sad that those members of the Institute who held this view of culture and aesthetics also missed the radical potential that their other theories and writings precipitated in the youth of the 1960's. They did not seem able to draw a distinction, for instance, between those aspects of popular culture which grew organically from the fertile ground of oppression itself, and those which were created and administered from above. It was, paradoxically, in the 1960s that the Frankfurt theorists would have their greatest impact - upon the youth culture which they had disparaged as culturally alienated and conditioned.

One of the main functions of education, for instance operates through what Raymond Williams calls a process of "selective tradition", - that is through the selection and organisation of particular forms of knowledge, which are then imbued them with a Truth value and passed off as the only way of perceiving reality. Within this structuring, hierarchies of knowledge are established and legitimated, such that the hierarchies themselves become normative structuring devices for further cultural production. Certain texts become canonised as having a particularly close relationship to Truth, and therefore as being possessed of superior qualities over other texts etc. and in this way the whole corpus of formalised knowledge becomes a structured medium for the continued reproduction, celebration and  legitimation of particular works and are reciprocally legitimated by them. In addition, focusing on culture as a medium of social stratification allows us to understand how power and culture intersect. We are able to recognise whose values have the greatest value within society, and to interrogate what precisely is the relationship between cultural production and material production. We recognise, for instance how some subject groups are pushed to the margins of normative cultural values while others are validated and supported. We are able to interrogate how the cultural productions themselves correspond to the collective values of these groups and to understand in more insightful ways the relationship between particular forms of production and domination. What emerges is a sense of culture as a site of struggle between competing interest groups which are differentiated by intersecting vectors of race, gender, class, etc. and which correspond to the broad and generalised designations of high-culture and common-culture.  These dynamic and shifting polarities operate at every level of cultural production. This characteristic of culture as a field of struggle emerged in the social dynamics of the 1960s, in what became known as the "youth" culture, after Horkheimer and Adorno had completed their own analysis.

The 1960s in many ways forms an important cultural turning-point, exemplified by the emergence of a youth culture celebrating its own cultural forms and origins, and developing counter-hegemonic themes and instrumentalities which would find their way into the political theorising and activism of the New Left. In particular, this process began in England, most specifically in the development of an authentic Northern England cultural dominance in what had previously been the most suppressed and marginalised element of a classed British society. It was the developing identity of the "Liverpool sound" which gave substance to a whole coalescing culture of disaffected working class children in the slums of the North of England, and which did indeed provide a disaffected and socially and economically oppressed group with a symbolic culture of resistance.

Although the British 1944 Education Act allowed the streaming of “intellectually gifted” children to Grammar School (effectively ensuring that only small numbers of working class children could slip through the net and that the proportions in the numbers of intellectual and manual  laborers remained unchanged), nevertheless some educated working class children (including this author) still gained access to tertiary education. Their numbers were augmented by numerous returned servicemen demanding access to professional education. The result was an unprecedented cultural shift in British society, in which working-class culture began to be seen by the working class themselves as a valuable culture in its own right, challenging the received (and classed) meaning of Culture as an exclusive mark of social distinction and upper class status. This shift was evidenced in  numerous literary, stage and film productions of that time, all of which celebrated, rather than apologized for, working class culture.  The anti-heroes of these works provided powerful role models for the emergent youth, many of whom carried the cultural shift into new areas, particularly the music industry. As the American sociologist Stanley Aronowitz rightly notes:

“...the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks cannot be understood simply as a further development of tendencies internal to Rock as it took shape during the late fifties and early sixties. Rather...these particular expressions of individual creativity by artists such as Jagger, Lennon or Davies are only comprehensible in relation to the expressions of social creativity unleashed in England at that time by “the deep, spontaneous revolt of working class youth against British bourgeois society which it articulated” and which, while economically rooted, took predominantly cultural, even sexual forms....English rock during this period directly assaulted the linguistic hegemony of standard “U” English with such striking success that one may even find impeccably educated, upper-class English youth affecting a Liverpool accent.”

Culture was now firmly bracketed in the plural. Society was no longer made up of the cultured and the uncultured. There were cultures, often opposed to each other - giving rise to what Theodor Roszak would call the youth counter-culture.  It will be noted that this oppositional model of culture is very different to that to which Adorno and Horkheimer tenaciously clung. The myriad pop groups who came to prominence at that time controlled their own material - a material which invariable grew out of a rich and fertile regional musical tradition. At the same time, the famous expansion of the clothing industry in Soho's Carnaby Street in "Swinging London" developed not from established rag-trade manufacturers, but from a burgeoning hippie cottage industry transported from the Portobello Road and Kings Road in Chelsea. These aspects of popular culture were missed by Adorno and Horkheimer simply because they had decided a priori that all popular culture was the expression of a regime of exploitation and domination. Not only did the Frankfurt theorists fail  to recognise the radical potential of popular cultural forms, but their continued reliance upon a determining economic base also failed to adequately theorize the ultimate failure of the traditional marxist model. In spite of their best intentions, they remained tied to an essentially pessimistic view of the world.

Having said all of this, it is important to note that the range of Adorno's achievement, and the depth of his insights is remarkable. His work on literary, artistic, and musical forms, his devastating indictment of modern industrial society, and his profound grasp of Western culture have made him one of the most significant philosophers of the twentieth-century. As one of the main philosophers of the Frankfurt School, his influence on literary theory, cultural studies, political theory, art criticism, and musicology and philosophical aesthetics has been profound.

For access to a good eBook on Adorno click here. 

For a comprehensive though brief online summary of Adorno click here.  

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