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Theodor Adorno - Biography

Theodor Adorno (1903-69)

"If negative dialectics calls for the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true — if it is to be true today, in any case — it must also be a thinking against itself. If thought is not measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims."
(Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 365)

Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was born in 1903, the son of an opera singer. Between 1918 and 1919 he studied under Siegfried Kracauer. He received his doctorate in philosophy in 1924 from the University of Frankfurt, where he had also studied sociology, psychology and music. His first published articles were on music, especially on the work of Arnold Schönberg. He wrote these in 1925 while training as a concert pianist and studying music composition under Alban Berg. In 1926 he returned to Frankfurt — claiming disillusionment with the 'irrationalism' of the Vienna circle-- to write an Habilitation on Kant and Freud titled, "The Concept of the Unconscious in the Transcendental Theory of Mind." This paper was ultimately rejected, so in 1931 he completed his Habilitation with "Kierkegaard: The Construction of the Aesthetic," published in 1933.

In 1931 Adorno started the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research with his friend and collaborator Max Horheimer. At this time Adorno was increasingly becoming influenced by Marxism, which was taking the place of the previously dominant influence of Husserl's phenomenology, through the encouragement of Walter Benjamin. During Hitler's rule in 1934 Adorno went into exile in Oxford, England, while the Institute moved to Zürich and then New York. In 1938 Adorno was able to rejoin the Institute in America. It was from the Institute that he lead the attack on the "culture industry" of advanced capitalist society, and wrote numerous critiques including a critique of the Enlightenment conception of reason (Dialectic of Enlightenment, written with Max Horkheimer, 1947, tr. 1972), of culture and civilization (see Minima Moralia 1951, tr. 1974), of Hegelian idealism (see Negative Dialectics 1966, tr. 1973), and of existentialism (see The Jargon of Authenticity 1964, tr. 1973). He also wrote a great deal about music and art in texts like Philosophy of Modern Music (1958, tr. 1985), and Aesthetic Theory (1970, tr. 1984), influenced by his earlier education and interest in Schönberg. Adorno's conscious attempt to write in a style that is difficult to consume or understand attests to his admiration of Schönberg as well, as he praised difficult works of both art and philosophy, maintaining that a struggle was necessary to achieve the true value of understanding.

Adorno's thought was unavoidably influenced by his experience of the rise of fascism in Germany and by Marxism's failures. His Dialectic of Enlightenment, written with Horkheimer, is a philosophical engagement with history that makes self-preservation the primary motivation for the creation of magic and myth, which explain and therefore dominate nature. The intellectual and technological Enlightenment arose in continuity from this same instinct for self-preservation and the annulment of fear through explication, but the Western world has fallen back into myth and barbarism since that time.

In his book Negative Dialectics (1966; tr. New York, 1973), Adorno exercises the continuous tension that is maintained between concepts when opposites are held in a dialectic without closure or synthesis. He uses the term "nonidentity" to refer to the fundamental disjunction between a concept and its referent. He challenges the traditional oppositions of metaphysics by creating philosophical "constellations" of them under the applied rule of "nonidentity". The ongoing movement of the effort to transcend the limitations of concepts by the very concepts that make up the constellation is "negative dialectics," a dialectics without closure. The never-ending movement of thought around the ideal object, the individual or the specific, is his goal: to dissolve conceptual forms before they stagnate and impair our vision of reality.

While in exile in America, he worked on the empirical sociological study, The Authoritarian Personality. He became involved with a number of other projects, among which was the Princeton Radio Research Project, headed by Paul Laisarsfeld and "Doktor Faustus" with Thomas Mann. He spent some time living in Hollywood, with access to close observation of the culture industry, which was a notable theme of much of his work. He argued that popular media, the product of the culture industry and the opposite of 'true art', works to preserve capitalism's dominance by keeping the population passive. The pleasure offered by standardized mass media is illusory, and strictly in response to false needs created by culture, rather than having any relation to true happiness. Adorno felt that people who were passively satisfied by products of the culture industry were politically apathetic. This system was proof to Adorno of capitalism's further entrenchment, the status quo being secured by culture, rather than strictly by economics, which had been Marx's focus.

Adorno was attracted to avant-garde art and music by virtue of its ability to resist commercialization and deny the homogenizing effects of the culture industry. The resistance of reduction to exchange-value is necessary, he writes in Aesthetic Theory (1970), to preserve the subjectivity embodied in the art object. To reduce the art object to a product of the culture industry would be to degrade subjectivity to the status of an object.

Adorno's literary essays and art critiques did not stay limited to modernism, but ventured back to more classical art and literary works as well. In Aesthetic Theory he examines classical themes of aesthetics, including the idea of the artwork's autonomy, the artwork as a socio-historical phenomenon, beauty in nature and in art, and the concept of 'beautiful semblance'. He uses this background to support his claim that the negation of society inherent in modernist art holds a lesson for philosophical aesthetics; that art is a place of struggle against a dominant threat of conformity and passivity.

Adorno left the United States in 1949 and returned to Frankfurt. There, with Horkheimer, he resconstitued the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist "Critical Theory. He became the school's director in 1959 after Horkheimer retired. Nearing the end of the 1960s, during the time of student uprisings in the United States and France, unrest moved also to West Germany. Finding himself in conflict with a number of students who decided to occupy the offices of the Institute, Adorno fled to Wallis, Switzerland. It was here that he died, in 1969, while writing his great work Aesthetic Theory.

"Adorno's enduring impact is due above all to a sensibility, rare among philosophers, through which he combines the eternal questions of philosophy and the artist's love of the particular. Adorno is a postmetaphysical thinker not because he presented modest philosophical proposals, as does the Frankfurt School of today, but because he knew how to protect the uniqueness of the particular from every theoretical assimilation and dominion." (Wolfgang Schirmacher, "Introduction" to German 20th Century Philosophy: The Frankfurt School, 2000)