Theodor W. Adorno – One Last Genius, by Detlev Claussen

Carl-Filip Brück

Reviews / 01.09.2008
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Early in Theodor W. Adorno - One Last Genius,1 Detlev Claussen's recently translated biography of the Frankfurt School philosopher, Claussen gives the following excerpt from a diary Adorno wrote during a visit to the Alps in the 1960s:

'Anyone who has heard the sound made by marmots is unlikely to forget it. To say it is a whistle is to say too little: it sounds mechanical, as if steam driven. And alarming for that reason. The fear that these little animals must have felt since time immemorial has frozen in their throats into a sort of warning sound; the sound that should act as a protection has lost its lifelike expressiveness. Stricken by panic, they have mimicked death itself.'

For many readers today, the speculative tone of the entry probably gives a comical twist to its underlying melancholy. Suddenly even squirrels are sucked into the dialectic of enlightenment, their ways of warning subjected to an aesthetical interpretation that finds them both mimetically expressing the negativity of their surroundings and reflecting a loss of some original quality ('lifelike expressiveness'). The passage captures the contradictions that still stick to the image of Adorno: the extreme sensitivity that verged on the insensitive; the crusader against subsumptive reason who transformed everything according to his own schema; the defender of the 'non-identical' who in his aesthetic area of expertise - music - was unable to appreciate anything outside of his own tradition (jazz being the most notorious example, but one could add Sibelius, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov… in fact most things non-identical-to-Austro-German-music). Honestly, wasn't Adorno just a snobbish aesthete who attempted to stage an obsessive lament of the dying away of his own preferred way of life as politically progressive? Didn't he, when asked of his abiding impressions of 1953 - the year of Stalin's death, the Berlin uprising of 17 June, the end of the Korean War - didn't he then single out a new edition of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, the publication of Kafka's letters to Milena Jesenska and a recording of Schönberg's Kol Nidre? He was himself aware of his inclination towards aestheticism, and he claimed to have been saved from it only through the influence of the politically more astute Max Horkheimer - not through the latter's 'principles, but though the power of an expanding consciousness'. Any attempt to make Adorno speak to us today must continue this expansion, overcome any suspicion of Adorno's aloofness and newly connect the threads between aesthetics, history, freedom and politics that he struggled throughout his life to capture in his philosophy.

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Detlev Claussen has written an elegant and engrossing biography. Himself a student of Adorno, he is in complete mastery of his material, and his background in sociology serves him well in his attempts to capture the complex cultural and historical experiences of his former teacher. It has rightly been hailed as one of the best biographical works yet on its subject. Claussen's aim is 'to let Adorno's texts speak for themselves', free from the veil of commentary, and he beautifully and seamlessly weaves in excerpts from Adorno's books, letters and diaries. Each chapter, designed so that it also can be read on its own, lets a period of his life appear through the lens of some of his formative relationships. In a way, it is as much a biography of a generation of intellectuals - Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Max Horkheimer - as it is of single thinker. This method of composition, together with the fact that Claussen prefers to quote rather than to venture into any attempt to characterise Adorno's philosophy, gives the book a mosaic-like quality. I found myself reading it almost like a puzzle, a thriller, which is strange, since its style, though highly readable, is certainly not that of a page-turner. And I slowly realised that I was experiencing the same constant, vague feeling of dissatisfaction that I do with page-turners, no matter how masterfully crafted they are.

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The dialectic. The word occurs in the titles of two of Adorno's most famous works (Negative Dialectic (1947) and The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1966)), and it purportedly denotes his own philosophical 'method' in the first one, and his pessimistic theory of history in the second. For Hegel, dialectics describes a process (cognitive, cultural, spiritual) whereby something develops through its own inner contradictions instead of being simply discarded and replaced by something better. In this process, the moments of that which is overcome ('sublated') are preserved at a higher level of reflexive integration. Of course, this new state contains its own contradictions, and so the process continues until we (hopefully) reach a state of absolute knowing.

For Adorno, things don't add up: 'The whole is the false.'

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If there is one thing that characterizes the aesthetic sensibility of modernity it is the experience of the ageing of material, of things becoming stale, false, turning into clichés. The naïve employment of artistic material, the attempt to assert artistic truth with bygone means, the attempt to make things add up, is kitsch - forced reconciliation. But what else is possible? Any attempt at an immediate escape (Ausbruch) from the historically determined means of expression by simply expressing your own 'authentic' self is just as doomed, just as caught up in the dialectic.

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Listening to recordings of Adorno one is struck by the extreme clarity of his articulation. Every syllable is pronounced and the quality is almost artificial. (If it wasn't for its sense of urgency one would be tempted to say that it lacked 'lifelike expressiveness'.) Claussen claims that 'it was a tone dictated by a fear of false familiarity that verged on paranoia', but it was probably just as much dictated by a fear of alienation, by a fear of his speech being tainted by the blatantly false tone of any claim to simple, immediate expression of one's inner self. Unable to be the same, unable to be different - even in Adorno's voice there was something of that central impasse which he arrestingly expressed by the dictum 'the wrong life cannot be lived rightly'.

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For Hegel, dialectics was about integration, but Adorno claimed to have been 'allergic to synthesis'. It is probably not wrong to see in this a generalized expression of his aesthetic sensibility, a sensibility that not only guides his writings on art but also on philosophy. If art in modern society is compelled to turn against itself in order to save itself, then so, for Adorno, is philosophy. Only by putting the impossibility of either art or philosophy in relief can their necessity appear - if only negatively - and the impulse of reconciliation informing them can be saved.

'I studied philosophy and music. Instead of deciding exclusively for one or the other, I have always had the feeling that my true vocation was to pursue one and the same thing in both of these different realms.'

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Because of Claussen's way of presenting his subject through his intellectual friendships, Adorno himself remains somewhat at a distance throughout the book, intimated only through the various constellations that formed between him and his surroundings. There is undeniably something fitting about this, even apart from the fact that it echoes the Benjaminian-Adornian idea of constellation. The one leitmotif of the book, and the recurring biographical clue to all the catch-words of his thinking ('the non-identical', 'instrumental reason', 'reification'), is Adorno's fear and dislike of being 'socialised', of being made to fit in (Claussen is, after all, a sociologist). The better world is not one of universal equality, but one 'in which one can be different without fear'.

However much truth there is in observations like these, they remain biographical, and do not in themselves communicate what would transcend the particular or purely 'personal' in Adorno's thought. Adorno himself was not averse to the particular or biographical as such - his recollections of his own childhood being a recurrent theme of his writings. His attempt to let 'spiritual experience' (geistliche Erfahrung) be communicated through his texts is closely related to the Hegelian idea of expressive particulars, particulars those that through themselves express their universal content and do not simply fall under it or are subsumed by it. His way of doing this, inspired by Walter Benjamin, was by placing them in constellations, in relation and in contrast to other ideas and observations. For Adorno, the constellations primarily speak to us by showing the limitations of an object and our representations of it. Only in this way do they free thought and experience from the illusion of identity, of our concepts as already adequately capturing and being identical to things or, since Adorno is a dialectician, to themselves.

Though one can be sympathetic to Claussen's attempt to let Adorno appear obliquely, of not making him 'identical', he does so at the cost of not fully bringing together the different pieces of the puzzle, and thereby not confronting the question of whether they add up or not, and what their contradictions might reveal. Claussen writes not only from the perspective of a loving student, but also from that of a loyal, and the book's decision to abstain from philosophical (meta-)commentary leaves the tensions of Adorno's life and thought a bit too implicit. Claussen never achieves the theoretical distance needed to do justice to the historical distance which has opened up between us and his subject. In one of the few places where he discusses Adorno's ideas head-on, for example, he hurriedly admits that Adorno's critique of jazz was 'a blind spot' and leaves it at that. This is in a way a minor complaint about a rich and brilliant biography that never strives to be a theoretical treatise on Adorno's philosophy. Still, it is somewhat dissatisfying for a primarily intellectual biography that aims to let Adorno's texts speak to us today. After all, didn't Adorno teach us that the contradictions of an author are his moments of truth?

- Carl-Filip Brück

Footnotes
  1. Detlev Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno - One Last Genius (trans. Rodney Livingstone), Harvard University Press, 2008.