In The Hotel Abyss An Hegelian marxist Critique Of Adorno

by Robert Lanning

In The Hotel Abyss An Hegelian marxist Critique Of Adorno Author Robert Lanning Isbn 9789004248984 File size 893 7 KB Year 2013 Pages 226 Language English File format PDF Category Philosophy This book is a critical analysis of a selection of Adorno s work framed by four essential concerns 1 Adorno s method of analysis 2 the absence of a theory of social change 3 the relationship of his approach to the dialectics of Hegel and Marx particularly to others in and around the Frankfurt School Benjamin Kracauer Marcuse and in contrast to schola

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Author : Robert Lanning

ISBN : 9789004248984

Year : 2013

Language: English

File Size : 893.7 KB

Category : Philosophy

Studies in Critical
Social Sciences
Series Editor

David Fasenfest

Wayne State University
Editorial Board

Chris Chase-Dunn, University of California-Riverside
G. William Domhofff, University of California-Santa Cruz
Colette Fagan, Manchester University
Martha Gimenez, University of Colorado, Boulder
Heidi Gottfried, Wayne State University
Karin Gottschall, University of Bremen
Bob Jessop, Lancaster University
Rhonda Levine, Colgate University
Jacqueline O’Reilly, University of Brighton
Mary Romero, Arizona State University
Chizuko Ueno, University of Tokyo


The titles published in this series are listed at

In the Hotel Abyss
An Hegelian-Marxist Critique of Adorno


Robert Lanning


Cover illustration: “Sun Streaks” by Eric Lanning.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lanning, Robert,d1948 In the hotel abyss : an Hegelian-Marxist critique of Adorno / By Robert Lanning.
  pages cm. -- (Studies in critical social sciences ; volume 60)
 Includes bibliographical references and index.
 ISBN 978-90-04-24898-4 (hardback : alk. paper) 1. Adorno, Theodor W., 1903-1969. 2. Methodology.
3. Marx, Karl, 1818-1883. 4. Dialectic. 5. Critical theory. 6. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 1770-1831.
I. Title.
 B3199.A34L36 2013

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1 Introduction�����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������1
Background and Context������������������������������������������������������������������������������������9
The Orientation of the Present Study���������������������������������������������������������� 15
Adorno’s Form of Presentation���������������������������������������������������������������������� 17
Theory and Practice������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 22
The Management of Politics and Personal Relations������������������������������ 25
The Socio-Historical Context�������������������������������������������������������������������������� 27
2 Hegel, Marx, Dialectics������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 30
The Individual���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 34
Being and Self-consciousness������������������������������������������������������������������������� 37
Becoming������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 42
Contradiction������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 44
Hegel’s Positivity, Critical Theory’s Positivism������������������������������������������� 46
A Note on Dialectical Logic����������������������������������������������������������������������������� 50
Mediation������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 51
3 Aspects of Adorno’s Method: Constellations and Images���������������������� 61
Adorno’s Bilderverbot and the Negation of Messianism������������������������� 77
4 Jazz, Radio and the Masses����������������������������������������������������������������������������� 83
The Masses and the Culture Industries�������������������������������������������������������� 86
The Jazz Essays���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 89
Marx, Music and Relative Autonomy���������������������������������������������������������101
Black Influence and Historical Materialist Analysis�������������������������������105
5 The Masses and Pro-fascist Propaganda���������������������������������������������������120
Pro-Fascism and the Masses�������������������������������������������������������������������������124
Irrationalism as the Basis of Analysis��������������������������������������������������������127
Lowenthal’s Anti-Fascist Writings��������������������������������������������������������������130
Adorno’s Study of Martin Luther Thomas������������������������������������������������132
The Approach of Others to Antifascism���������������������������������������������������143



6 Mediation�����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������151
Hegelian Mediation�����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������162
Adorno’s Mediation�����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������165
7 Negative Dialectic, Identity and Exchange�����������������������������������������������172
Negative Thought���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������172
The Positive Moment in Dialectics�������������������������������������������������������������176
Identity and Identity Thinking���������������������������������������������������������������������184
Concept and Identity��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������193
8 Conclusion���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������207


Of the major points of Marx’s work, the most pertinent was that his
method could expose the contradictions of capitalism and contribute to
the organization of an alternative to it. In other words, it is possible to get
from the initiation of critique to socialism. With much of Adorno’s work,
that is not the case, neither in the method nor the expectation. The argument in this book is directed at the difference.
Marx employed dialectics as the method of his orientation to political
economy (1967: 30), to be able to reason through the experience of capitalism. For Hegel, dialectics was essentially the connection of elements of
experience: “this dialectical movement which consciousness exercises on
itself and which effects both its knowledge and its object, is precisely what
is called experience” (1977: 55). Adorno rejected Hegel’s view of dialectics
and experience as simply part of the “idealist machinery” (1973: 7). He did
not consider dialectics a method, a “pure method” (1973: 144), but acknowledged the necessity of beginning with matter rather than thought, “unreconciled,” contradictory matter. Unreconciled, contradictory reality resists
“unanimous interpretation;” contradiction existing in reality is “a contradiction against reality” (1973: 144–145). The notion of contradiction being
located in reality and, therefore, against it certainly holds. But while it
may be a contradiction against the whole of reality, as in the reality of
capi talism – the social process as a whole, as we will see later – it is, most
often, against a part of reality, a moment, with the complex of internal
relations connecting all other parts to the whole clearly in mind. If not,
how do we treat the contradictions of reality that are sublated by the
partial and momentary resolution of the original contradiction? Adorno’s
position is that no meaningful change in society is possible until the entire
structure, ideology and existing culture industries of capitalism have been
completely overcome. He embeds his theoretical orientation in a categorical approach, seeing contradiction as finality rather than an expression of
both the process of thought and the process of a changeable reality. Thus,
the contradiction in question is against the whole of reality taken categorically and absolutely. The philosophical orientation is on thinking and
interpretation devoid of a structure for thinking through actual political


chapter one

change. The contradiction, rather, should be searched to its source, as the
basis of developing adequate knowledge of process, development and
change. But a perspective on actual politically-driven change is absent in
Adorno’s work; his dialectics are dialectics of collapse, dissolution, and
Acknowledging that dialectics is thinking in contradictions, and on the
basis of his concern to repudiate all forms of identity, Adorno asserts that
his dialectics cannot be reconciled with Hegel’s which, by implication,
“tend[s] to the identity in the difference between each object and its concept” (1973: 145). In relation to this, he begins Negative Dialectics placing
the core principle of dialectics, non-identity in his view, against logic’s
“principle of the excluded middle,” that “whatever differs in quality, comes
to be designated as contradiction.” Dialectics, on the other hand, at its
inception is “the consistent sense of non-identity” (Adorno 1973: 5).
Contradiction, barred from the structure of formal logic, finds its home in
Adorno is correct about the difference between formal logic and dialectics. But herein lies the essential twofold problem in his recognition of the
absence of the excluded middle in formal logic: first, the limits that any
contradiction possesses for developing its relations with the reality in
which it arose and in which it remains in sublation, albeit residually; secondly, the contradiction, in itself and in the process of sublation, constitutes the excluded middle, the de-legitimizing of formal logic, the progress
of materialist dialectics. The core of Adorno’s dialectics is non-identity;
non-identity, as he conceives it, is categorical and, as such, does not bridge
the two moments of this process. In the excluded middle we see the
moments of the process of change that leads to the sublation – aufhebung,
transcendence and preservation. From such processes of transformation a
space is opened further to witness and to reason, to see political reality
meet its limits and its master, the historical subject carried forward by its
own consciousness.
Bertell Ollman argues that dialectics is a form of thought and analysis,
“it proves nothing, predicts nothing and causes nothing to happen” (1993:
10). In that sense, Adorno rightly states that dialectics “does not begin by
taking a standpoint.” But as philosophy it only operates as a human product and cannot be isolated from the human context; thought requires a
thinker, the thinker thinks in and about particular times, places, events
and conditions, however much he or she may wish to be insulated from
the context and its obligations. Dialectics, logic, in themselves, are prior to
any partisan, politically-driven viewpoint. It is the exposure to ideas,

determinations, empirical evidence that produces choices precisely
because of the method underlying the analysis. In this sense, Adorno is
correct to say, “Experience lives by consuming the standpoint” (1973: 30).
It is a higher level than Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason is centered on
“thinking about thinking”. Hegel also began his Science of Logic by noting
that dialectics did not begin from a “standpoint” but not in quite the same
way as Adorno. Hegel’s dialectics produced a standpoint internal to the
method when his indeterminate Being and Nothing were given only a
moment’s distinction before vanishing into Becoming (Hegel 1969: 92).
Such movement might satisfy the apparent neutrality suggested by
Ollman, but it also indicates the reality that dialectics is imputed a standpoint in the process of its development and is in a position to lend its
potential to a practical program without inherently privileging any partisanship. One can accept the idea that dialectics does not initially take a
position, but it is more difficult, in fact not possible to consider the thinker,
the agent of dialectical thinking, the person deeper into modernity than
Hegel who employs dialectics, being without a standpoint, a partisan position on existing conditions, their history and contradictions, and being
partial, at least, to a conceptual effort of the kind Bloch identified as forward thinking. Dialectics as a way of thinking can only be sustained
momentarily without recognizing the social ground of its cogitation. In
the pluralism of ideas and methods of reasoning and resolving, dialectics
itself may not possess a standpoint inherent in its name, but the choice of
dialectics by the thinking subject is a position taken.
Beginning without an obvious standpoint may be a narrative device
that holds the reader’s partisan interests at bay while the philosopher
forms the argument; this is indicated by Adorno’s statement that dialectics in its materialist form has “degenerated into a dogma” (1973: 7). But, in
fact, it is not widely evident in Negative Dialectics and elsewhere that he
holds his particular interests at a distance; rather, from the outset his position is emphatic, especially his writing on culture, the condition of ‘the
masses,’ and popular music. The style is one that rarely allows the reader
full insight into why he holds the categorical positions he does. Thus, he
continues in Negative Dialectics: “My thought is driven by its own inevitable insufficiency, by my guilt of what I am thinking” (1973: 5), evidence of
the retention of the priority of thought/thinking in the abstract, from
Kant. Cognizance of the insufficiency of one’s thinking should be a motive
for its development and clarity. If dialectics is a search for knowledge,
Adorno warns that it should not be for the comfort provided by the identity of contradictory elements found in the investigation of the social


chapter one

world. “Identity and contradiction of thought are welded together” [aneinandergeschweißt], he writes (1973: 6), although the weld suggests a more
permanent relation than is necessary philosophically or evident historically. But the obvious question concerns the structure or structuring of
consciousness, how it becomes structured under the conditions of its
experience, thought, and analysis, how the demand for resolution of
opposing phenomena and relations comes about rather than simply being
there as an historical fait accompli that Adorno often imputes to the
moment he fumes against.
The position throughout Negative Dialectics and elsewhere is that identity is total, that totality is totally identical, formed by identity-thinking.
Identity must be purged from consciousness, Adorno argues, as quickly as
it is sensed or the being who identifies will succumb to the existing social
order of identity-thinking. And he assumes this concerns the majority of
beings. This position, a standpoint, assumes that all forms and instances
of identity or unity are barriers to achieving a different social order and
these must be completely transcended before new social structural
arrangements, a new consciousness can be realized. For Adorno, unity in
dialectics implies a non-contradiction theoretically unattainable and he
continually pushes his readers toward a comprehension of this sense of
identity, its inadequacy and danger. His ‘identity’ is categorical and inclusive of too much that is characterized by the dynamism that can be
searched out and developed in reality; ‘identity’ is a concept, and he, quite
correctly, sees the concept as claiming to cover reality but cannot precisely because of its movement, and yet he treats the concept of identity as
if it is able to do so. Unity and identity are denounced along with the
notion that there is a positive moment in the dialectic that possesses any
intellectual, social or political value, and it is insisted here that the positive moment, however tendential and brief, is sublation. Adorno’s criticism of the “strive for unity” as a goal of consciousness, a matter of “the
structure of our consciousness” (1973: 5), is a problem, it seems, for all but
a minority of intellectuals, for there is no theoretico-practical relation in
political and social thought for him that has resulted in a dialectical overcoming of existing conditions and the sublation of philosophical and
practical problems.
However, the striving for, or preoccupation with identity, is contingent
on specific social, economic and historical relations, and thus, on consciousness, more or less developed. Contingency implies a set of conditions in which a specific complex of relations has arisen and developed,
and which are surmountable under specifically different, negatively

related conditions. But this development toward overcoming is not clearly
evident in Adorno’s argument for negative dialectics; it admits of no positive moment of which sublation is at least a threshold. A sense of the nontranscendence of conditions of identity-thinking pervades his dialectics.
That dialectics “does not begin by taking a standpoint” imputes to the
method of thought neutrality it cannot long sustain. Dialectics does not
have an immanent standpoint; dialectics is directed at exposing and analysing the determinants, the internal relations, of phenomena that in the
socially and politically conscious individual will lead to a choice between
alternatives. Dialectics is said not to begin with a standpoint, yet is said to
be surrounded by the demand for a continuous sense of non-identity that
is the standpoint of the theorist.
Mihailo Markovic argued that an analysis of society
is incomplete that is reduced to a mere description, or to structural analysis
without examination of the change of those structures. Equally incomplete
is research that seeks merely to explain and understand actually given phenomena without exploring the alternative possibilities. (1983: 556)

This concept of critique in this regard reflects Marx’s basic use of criticism
by those who “want to find the new world through criticism of the old one
… constructing the future [through] ruthless criticism of all that exists”
(Marx 1975a: 142). He sought an alternative, not an interpretation. This is
essentially the sense of criticism used by Horkheimer (1982: 206–207) in
his most comprehensive early essay on critical theory. Adorno does indicate desirable changes in the structure of society, but those are most often
only general and vague, beginning and nearly always ending with the
intractable grip of modernity or capitalism or commodity fetishism, as in
the growth into dominance of science and quantification of the
Enlightenment and its business connections in capitalism, or the rise of
jazz as a musical form and the immediate, permanent domination of it by
market interests. These are macro-developments, big changes that,
indeed, mean a great deal to the structure of society, its institutions, the
psychology of a population, and although he speaks to that psychology
often it is still in terms of total identity that cannot be addressed before
total social change. His attitude toward the social movement of university
students and the New Left was a partial and only temporary exception
(see Adorno 1976a: 10–11).
Adorno comes up short, then, with regard to the second part of
Markovic’s prescription – change and alternatives as the real content
of social science. Adorno recognizes only those alternatives that have


chapter one

‘miscarried’ (1973: 3) or have been proven erroneous, stated also in terms
of macro efforts on the historical scale – communism in the Soviet Union,
for example. He does not explore the ongoing efforts at developing alternative measures within the context of capitalism, not for capitalism but
against its reality. This is not to argue for a reformist approach but to illuminate what is produced from the contradictions of capitalism itself, such
as mass movements that are not imposed from outside but arise from
capitalism’s internal contradictions and relations, and especially the
oppositions of capitalism’s subordinates.
These affirmative comments on Markovic’s concept of critique, particularly the second point concerning alternatives, may seem to be made
without consideration of immanent critique as a method of critical theory, derived, with modifications, from Hegel and Marx. Fundamentally,
the idea of an immanent critique is that there is a critique inherent in
the object itself, what something, on one hand – a social structure, for
example – thinks itself to be through the dominant agents of its construction and, on the other, the reality of the contradictions dwelling within
it. Thus, an immanent critique is intended to expose the complexity of
an object, exposing its contradictions, the falsity of its claim to legitimacy,
to itself and its subjects through the medium of the critical theorist.
Immanent critique will not take rationalizations for legitimate response.
Thus, Horkheimer explained critical activity as
a human activity which has society itself for its object. The aim of this activity is not simply to eliminate one or another abuse, for it regards such abuses
as necessarily connected with the way in which the social structure is organized. … On the contrary, it [critical activity] is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable … and refuses
to take them as non-scientific presuppositions about which one can do
nothing. (1982: 206–207)

The implication is that some action can be taken to address these presuppositions; the implication is one of possible alternatives. Contrary to
Adorno’s position, Horkheimer denotes (1982: 219) the necessity of a struggle between social transformation and the theory that advocates it –
the closest thing to a genuine relation between theory and practice.
(We return to this below.) But, does this provide or suggest the practical
alternative Markovic or Marx seems to support?
Adorno believes that philosophy can and must stand on its own, and as
with the problem of practice, is degraded by suggestions of its inter­
relationship with other disciplines; it may be applied to them but not
with them. Hence, his immanent critique is based in the assumption of

philosophy’s capacity to develop through its own processes. Marx’s
attempt to transform philosophy was a practical and theoretical action
that, for Adorno, was not successful and its traces cannot or are not
­worthy of discovery. He states at the beginning of Negative Dialectics
(1973: 3) that the dictum of Marx was “crippled” by the attempt’s “resignation in the face of reality” and became the “defeatism of reason after
the attempt to change the world miscarried.” This occurs repeatedly in
Adorno’s work.
This makes the principle of non-identity quite problematic and, as in
other instances, a rather formal category that suggests of a type of logic
ill-equipped for contradiction. As we will see, Adorno felt that interpretation was at the heart of philosophy and yet well-before the historical juncture in which that position was taken, Marx had argued that that moment
for philosophy had passed, of necessity. As Bloch noted, in his 11th Thesis
on Feuerbach, Marx did not rebuke philosophers for philosophizing but
for only interpreting the world as if the class issues at the core of capitalism
did not exist; contemplation as such is not an object of rebuke, but a call
to philosophers to study reality is the message Marx wanted to communicate (Bloch 1971: 93–95). Adorno’s position is that interpretation is sufficient in itself to produce knowledge.
Buck-Morss (1977: 154) suggests that Adorno’s very exposure of fetishism, reification and the sado-masochistic features of jazz are an example
of his immanent critique. Indeed, it is, and it is predominantly one-sided
as we will see in the chapter discussing jazz and popular music. It is insufficient because the mediating energy of critique is not, in itself, a direction. As we have noted, Adorno may be correct in his view that dialectics
itself does not have a standpoint, but like any other method, it is nothing
without an agent.
We can see something of the difference in approaches by noting Marx’s
‘immanent critique’ of the Commune. His assessment of the contra­
dictions workers faced within that form of social organization required
them to pursue a course of action. He argued that they could “not
expect miracles from the Commune,” that the struggle would necessarily
take place over a period of time “through a series of historical processes …
against capital and landed property,” and through the “development of
new ­conditions.” At that historical juncture the workers knew both
­concretely and theoretically “that great strides may be taken at once
through the Communal form of political organization and that the
time  has come to begin that movement for themselves and mankind”
(Marx 1986b: 335, 491–92).


chapter one

Consistent with the implications of Markovic’s concept of critique,
Marcuse considered “determinate negation” as the “governing principle of
dialectical thought”: “it refers the established state of affairs to the basic
factors and forces which make for its destructiveness as well as for the possible alternatives beyond the status quo” (1960: xi–xii). These are historical
factors and forces and, therefore, must be an essential component in any
analysis. Marx argued that criticism (critique) was focused on demonstrating to “the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is
something it has to acquire” in order to “possess it in reality” (1975a: 144).
Thus, a crucial question about Adorno’s work is not simply whether he
was wrong but what did he miss because of his particular approach to
dialectics, to Marxism and politics, and where does his approach prove to
be insufficient with respect to the goal of substantive social change?
Another means by which to address this issue is by way of Hegel’s use of
speculative thought. This approach is integrally related to consciousness,
to the historical subject, and surpasses both the understanding and reflection upon which Kant centered his thinking. Hegel exceeds Kant’s formalism of the object by insisting that it is not substance but subject (1977:
9–10), that which has an “inner life … governed by spirit” (Verene 2007: 7).
Spirit, in the first instance, Hegel denoted as consciousness (1977: 21); the
subject is alive and self-moving. The speculative proposition in Hegel’s
philosophy exposes the ordinary sense of identity between subject and
predicate as a non-identity as well. The “distinction of Subject and
Predicate” that is “destroyed by the speculative proposition” does not
unify or identify the two in an ordinary sense, but brings them into “a harmony” (Hegel 1977: 38) so that their “identity” is one of difference in unity.
The self-movement is facilitated by the tension that remains in this harmony, the subject’s consciousness and inner life.1
Thinking as mere reflection will capture and freeze the object of
thought as a formal relationship out of which no alternative can emerge
and be developed. This provides an uncomplicated space in which such
objects as the working class or the masses can be thought as a simple
reflection of capitalism for I believe Adorno treats them as mere
­substance  – not Aristotle’s cause and first principle nor Spinoza’s god/
nature complex, but matter alone devoid of inner life. Although Adorno
(1976a: 4–5) lamented that speculation no longer held Hegel’s essential
meaning it is not evident that he used the concept in a way consistent
with Hegel’s use.
1 For another discussion of Hegel’s use of speculative, see Rose 2009: 51–53.

Background and Context
In the mid-1940s Adorno queried the interest of workers in their own class
as a political means to social change. It was a legitimate inquiry, one taken
up later by members of the Frankfurt School but with few attempts to
address the class directly or to address the politics of class struggle.
Marcuse was a partial, but important exception much after this period. In
his aphoristic piece, “Puzzle-picture,” Adorno alludes to the social mobility and rough equality possible in an increasingly technological society –
an “immanently socialist element in progress” – while capitalism retained
its rigidity. His question about “subjective class membership” therein was
answered, not surprisingly, in a deprecating fashion: “Sociologists … ponder the grimly comic riddle: where is the proletariat?” (Adorno 2005: 194).
We should expect that Adorno would be concerned about the response
of sociologists, but not political leaders of the organized working class.
So, too, should we expect that for him the problem is grim and comedic,
and comes in the form of a riddle; grim to match his own despair,
comedic because of his tendency to be dismissive of the need for detailed
and systematic analysis – little seems to be taken seriously except his conclusions, and a riddle because of his interpretive philosophical approach,
a metaphor of a game, notwithstanding its common use in the philosophies of Antiquity. Or perhaps Adorno uses ‘riddle’ in its agricultural
denotation – an instrument that separates the chaff from the wheat. The
‘comedic’ problem of the proletariat reflects the orientation of his social
criticism: obscurantist language, images, and the turning-inside-out of
concepts, a style hardly conducive to attracting the interest of working
class activists to a comprehensive and coherent analysis of capitalism and
the possibility of transcending its limits on human development. But that
was never his intention. Nor would it have been conducive to developing
a more critical side of the sociology of the day.
This attitude was also not a favorable approach to attracting or developing the educated organic intellectuals of the working class in the factory
or elsewhere, and those from other class backgrounds who joined their
struggle. Given the historical period of his early writings in the 1930s
and 40s, there is a nearly complete absence of reference to working class
political actions or organizations. It is one of many reasons to ask to
what extent Adorno, early or late, seriously sought an audience there or
wanted his philosophical message to reach and influence activists or proletarian political organizations, an attitude consistent with most Frankfurt
School members toward the working class as a possible historical agent of


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revolution. Indeed, Richard Bernstein suggested that this question became
the Achilles heel of the School, for “what is the function of critical theory,
if no such class seems to exist?” (1976: 183). Adorno was more emphatic
than others in his dismissal of the working class and leads one to ask what
aspects of Marx’s work he appropriated and why, or at least what kind of
Marxist he was if it is possible that all variations in fact lead back to the
same source for the same reasons and are, therefore, legitimate in their
variation. But, that is a position we do not take. Adorno’s own final statement on the matter is his rather cynical self-exposé in the Preface to
Negative Dialectics: “The author is prepared for the attacks to which
Negative Dialectics will expose him. He feels no rancor and does not
begrudge the joy of those in either camp who will proclaim that they knew
it all the time and now he was confessing” (Adorno 1973: xxi).
While the question of the proletariat’s class consciousness, their organization and means of confrontation with capitalism remains central to the
problem of social critique and change, the axis of this issue for Adorno was
the willful subordination of the working class beneath the weight of capitalism’s culture industry. Given the absence in his work of any recognition
of the capacity and interest of the working class to contribute significantly
to the overcoming of oppressive conditions of capitalist society in thought
or in action, the self-imposed subservience of that class was, for him, irrevocable. It is that perspective that will be a major focus here.
The development of class consciousness requires the expansion of
thought, and Marxists have anticipated that thought will be advanced dialectically through its objectification in the efforts of individual development, class organization and class struggle. I have explored this further in
my discussion of Lukács’ conception of “imputed class consciousness”
(Lanning 2009). The absence of a place for the working class or other historical agent for Adorno made his metaphor of the ‘message in a bottle’
appropriate to his pessimistic outlook. Claussen (2008: 61) identifies the
origin of the phrase in a letter written by Horkheimer; it was a form of
communication for the work in which he and Adorno were engaged.
Adorno used the phrase in Minima Moralia, alluding to messages “stuck in
the mud” subsequently picked up and parodied by their new owners as
“highly artistic but inexpensive wall-adornments” (2005: 209). The message in the bottle was critical theory, but it is questionable who the
intended recipients were. Claussen suggests that the intended audience,
when Horkheimer first used the phrase, was the “traditional addressees of
the critical theory of society,” the proletariat. But the character of the audience changed as circumstances changed for Adorno who sought a wider,

popular audience rather than a partisan one (or even a necessarily academic audience) for his first collection of essays, Prisms, published in
Germany after the war (Claussen 2008: 211). It is an interesting change of
intended audience as the agents Adorno hoped would help secure his
reputation as a public intellectual and critic.
If the message in a bottle is a form of communication why cast about
for a different audience, except to argue that the nearest one, the working
class outside Adorno’s door, was either uninterested or incapable? He
knew the answer: the audience in contemporary capitalist culture is there
for support of the artist, a support that takes place through the commodification of music, painting, the novel, drama, and in his case, academic
discourse. That was a position he adopted toward the existing, dominant
culture industry, but also a position he adopted for his preferred addressees. After all, if there was a possibility for an intelligent consumer among
the public and in the universities then those sites could serve as the marketplace for the criticism he espoused.
The audience he sought was not necessarily antithetical to the interests
of the working class. His desired addressees consisted of intellectuals, students, well-read knowledgeable people interested in the social problems
of the day: philosophy, education, antisemitism, and the re-building of
culture and academic life in post-war Germany. These were legitimate
audiences and some portion of them, such as university students, showed
they were up to the task of confronting the state and capital on issues of
war, economy and racism, although their actions were not always supported by Adorno. From such confrontations some degree of social change
did issue, along with some measure of ideological and organizational skills
useful for building and sustaining broadly-based political movements. It
was an audience present for edification in matters of philosophy, sociology and culture, among other things; it was an audience worth having.
Once listening and reading, this audience provided some institutional and
popular security (see Adorno and Becker 1999) as well as personal refuge
for Adorno; it provided conditions for teaching and writing, while for
Horkheimer it provided a privileged withdrawal from public life (Claussen
2008: 208).
Adorno cultivated his return to Germany and his new audience with
questionable actions, not least of which was the Institute’s excising of
­provocative – for the cold-war environment of Germany – early writings
of its members on antisemitism and class issues (Meszaros 1989: 100). This,
however, was nothing new for Institute leaders. Horkheimer had been an
obstacle to the conclusion and publication of Erich Fromm’s study of the


chapter one

Weimar working class, believing it to be “too Marxist” and a risk for
“­negative consequences for the Institute” (Bonss 1984: 3). Additionally, the
controversy over Walter Benjamin’s Baudelaire essays (which I address in
chapter six) was more a conflict over Adorno’s demands that Benjamin
adopt his esoteric style and that Benjamin discard his quasi-partisan historical materialist perspective. When a new essay fit the demands of
Horkheimer and Adorno’s desire for political neutrality, the Institute published it; it was satisfactory to Adorno theoretically and stylistically
(Adorno 2003; Buck-Morss 1977: 155–163; Meszaros 1989: 49). Adorno’s
strive for acceptability extended as well to the targets of his criticism of
the left and his choice of publishing venues, such as his attack on Georg
Lukács (Adorno 2007b) published originally in 1961, first in the U.S. Army
and Ford Foundation funded Die Monat and later in an English translation
in the CIA sponsored Encounter (see Presentation IV in Adorno et al. 2007:
143). As well, he lectured on a comparison of German and American culture at the Third Armored Division’s Historical Society in 1956, writing to
Horkheimer of the pleasant atmosphere and the “friendliness and humanity” of the generals attending (Kalbus 2009: 139). All this and more may be
what Heinz Lubasz (1984: 79) refers to as the “ambivalence toward radicalism … of a certain type of middle-class left intellectual”, attributable to
Adorno but perhaps equally so to many others in university positions
from the 1960s on.
The orientation to a desired audience and his long-standing deprecation of the working class as a possible agent against capitalism requires a
closer examination of some of his writings that shed light on his attitude
toward the group which, for Adorno, had even lost its status as a class and
had become merely ‘the masses.’ Where his attitude is not outright dismissive of working class politics and people or utterly fails to take the opportunity of historical analysis, it is paternalistic and condescending. It is an
attitude that reflects problems in Adorno’s conception and use of dialectics to which we have alluded, above, and which will be addressed further
throughout this book.
If Theodor Adorno set out to establish a status of supreme intellectual
for himself, it has been accomplished, more so posthumously than during
his lifetime. The essence of my argument here is that Adorno’s status
has been bestowed, built-up and celebrated, ordained in the manner in
which he set its foundation with his inaugural address in 1931 (2000a) and
reaffirmed upon his return to Germany, as a detached intellectual, freefloating in a Mannheimian sense. Much of his work may remain attractive
precisely because its style allows for interpretation and reinterpretation

sufficient to maintain an audience and adherents of intellectual and
political diversity. Adorno’s legacy fits well in an academic world selfdescribed and self-satisfied as postmodern. He was surely the vanguard of
the postmodern – against philosophical systems (1973: 20–22), interpretive rather than historical in analysis (Adorno 2000a), giving priority to the
refuge of discursive style more than to substance, esoterically pleasurable
and career-building in its abstruseness.
Other than his brief period of lecturing between 1931 and 1933, he began
his university career only in the post-war period. By the time of his death
in 1969 universities in Europe and North American had undergone a significant transformation. The expansion of the post-secondary system in
the United States, for example, included not only an increase in the number of institutions but opened admission to applicants of socio-economic
status, ethnicity and gender who would not have found a place in a university in an earlier period. The same trend was true for Canada, though
slower, but even in this period two of its major universities, McGill and the
University of Toronto, finally dropped their quotas on Jewish students.
Increasingly, the teaching force in American universities operate on a
two-tier system with upwards of 70% of faculty in the U.S. in non-secure
forms of employment with little institutional support while the remainder
hold employment security, little scrutiny beyond the moment of tenure,
generally well-supported by their institutions as well as a textbook industry eager to profit from book sales to students and academics alike. The
university, at least for tenured faculty, has indeed become a place of an
elite core of professionals, effectively a managerial group at the department level. In this atmosphere, perhaps Adorno would be mindful that an
early comment on the commodification of thought (Horkheimer and
Adorno 1982: xi–xii) would apply equally well to academia.
The period of history in which Adorno’s work was written that is of primary concern here was a period few have had the audacity to ignore. With
the important exception of the Holocaust, Adorno was one. Perhaps the
North American students of the 1960s whose interest in Frankfurt School
members propelled their writings into the public forum could be excused
for a lack of knowledge about the political vibrancy and objective potential of the political and social movements of three and four decades earlier, although this would be less true of the red diaper babies at Port Huron
or in the Mississippi Freedom Schools or at Draft Board confrontations.
Out of concern for their security, members of the Frankfurt School wanted
to function below the political radar in America to which they had been
fortunate to emigrate. The member who most significantly broke that


chapter one

silence was Marcuse, and that was not until the volatility of the 1960s student and anti-war movements were about to be realized. Fromm had
retreated to an interesting humanism informed by Marx’s early writings
but distant from revolutionary practice. Lowenthal, as interesting in his
use of Marxism as was Marcuse, was less of a public political presence.
Horkheimer and Adorno had shifted to academic careers in Germany.
Studies of Adorno’s work continue. The books for which he became
well-known continue to be available or republished in new editions and
translations; major and minor post-war treatises on music and literature
have recently been translated. Two recent studies have attempted to capture his biography as a life of genius (Claussen 2008) (complete with a
note to the reader: “How to read this book”) and his period of exile in the
United States (Jenneman 2007). Claussen’s work is thorough, covering
Adorno’s major works and relations with people in and out of the Frankfurt
School circle, in Europe, England and the United States. Clearly sympathetic, Claussen begins with Horkheimer’s response to Adorno’s death,
referring to him as a genius, followed by Adorno’s own negative view of
the term as typically used. Claussen writes on Adorno’s collaboration with
Thomas Mann on the music section of Dr. Faustus, and other collaborations, with Hans Eisler and Horkheimer, as well as his relations with
Benjamin, Bloch and others. Claussen’s use of Adorno’s correspondence
gives the study both a range and intimacy not achieved in other writings.
Jenneman’s book focuses on Adorno’s work on radio providing useful
background material on his interests and work during his relatively short
period in the U.S. as well as important background material on the study
of antisemitism and attitudes toward race, The Authoritarian Personality.
But as we will see with respect to Jenneman there is hardly a glimpse at
what is going on outside of Adorno’s immediate interests. Generally,
Jenneman’s and Claussen’s works are intended to create a sympathetic
and ultimately unproblematic picture of their subject to secure him
against accusations of elitism. Despite these efforts, attempting to prove
or disprove such claims misses the major problem: that Adorno’s attitude
toward those in social classes below his strata of intellectuals is an inevitable outcome of his abandonment of the central requirements of historical materialist analysis.
Though not unsympathetic, others have sought to critique Adorno’s
work, as Susan Buck-Morss has, acknowledging his “vision of the intellectual elite as the formulators of … truth” (1977: 42). Her The Origin of
Negative Dialectics, perhaps the most oft-cited resource on Adorno, establishes the links between his early and late philosophy and a detailed

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