Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno is one of the most enigmatic members of the Frankfurt School associated with the critical theory movement. The programmatic distinction between “traditional theory” and “critical theory” was shaped by Adorno’s close colleague and co-author Max Horkheimer (1972). The school’s institutional base, the Institute for Social Research, was founded in Frankfurt am Main in 1923 by the son of the wealthy grain trader Felix Weil with the aim of examining the contradictions of today’s society from a Marxist point of view. However, not all members of the institute were Marxists, and its orientation was interdisciplinary and combined social theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, economics and empirical studies. From 1931, under the direction of Horkheimer, research at the institute was decidedly philosophical and committed to personalities such as Friedrich Pollock, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm (Wiggershaus 1995, 24-105). After Adorno joined Horkheimer as a co-director, the two wrote a series of interventions, the most famous of which is: Dialectic of Enlightenment (1997 ), a work that was created in American exile, to which the Institute for Social Research was temporarily relocated in order to escape Nazi persecution. This article will outline Adorno’s contribution to critical theory by addressing the problem of late modernism. The analysis tries to answer the following questions: Why should we read Adorno today? How do his ideas illuminate late modern society? Do they broaden our understanding of today’s global society?
International Relations (IR) students usually get to know critical theory through the writings of Jürgen Habermas, a second generation scholar at the Frankfurt School. While Habermas clearly represents the critical theoretical orientation of the school, his formal connection to the Institute for Social Research had remained meager after Horkheimer rejected Habermas’ habilitation project, which was later called. has been published The structural change of the public (1989 ). The ideas of the first generation thinkers at the Frankfurt School remain alien to the IR students. Adorno’s views are worth investigating not only because of their scope, which links social theory, metaphysics, and aesthetics with a historical critique of late capitalism, but also because of their particular philosophical sensitivity. The subsequent exposure will focus on clarifying Adorno’s criticism of late modernism and explaining why he ultimately diagnosed it as a problem of bondage.
A new metaphysics?
Adorno’s writings are notoriously difficult to decipher. In the English-speaking world, the problem was raised by disappointing translations of his major works, including his masterpiece on metaphysics, Negative dialectic (1973), which appeared shortly after Adorno’s death in the early 1970s. Be recent Estate, including numerous scripts, has been published and gives us new insights into his daunting philosophical vocabulary. In the following, Philosophical elements of a social theory (Adorno 2019) and Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems (Adorno 2001). These lecture notes shed light on why Adorno, whom Iris Murdock described as a “philosopher with a passion for metaphysics” (Adorno 1991, addendum), uses the example of Plato’s theory of forms (Adorno 2001, 26-27) and Heideggers’ fundamental Ontology ‘(Heidegger 1962 , Part One; Adorno 1973, especially 97-131). The problem with the first is that it postulates a double world, a world of immutable forms and a world of random appearances that asserts the reality of the former. Heidegger inappropriately assimilates the ontic (being) to the ontological (being) and then makes being empty of content: “Being that reveals itself says nothing other than“ being ”” (Adorno 1973, 114). In contrast, Adorno is looking for a new kind of metaphysics that reflects the conclusions of a social theory or the social practices that constitute a particular society (Adorno 2019, 50) and that has a historical dimension. In order to understand his position, it is necessary to take into account the basic ideas that shaped his thinking.
Major influences on Adorno’s thinking
The most prominent influence is Hegel. This also includes Hegel’s representation of reality mediated by thought (Hegel 1969). ), the dialectical development of institutional forms such as family, civil society and the state (Hegel 1967). ) and the theory of historical reason (Hegel 1953 ), as reason that reveals itself in and through such progressively evolving forms.
The second influence is Jewish mysticism. It is rooted in Adorno’s own Jewish origins and that of his friend Walter Benjamin, who was briefly a member of the Institute for Social Research before he committed suicide on the Spanish border in September 1940 for fear of Nazi imprisonment. Hannah Arendt happened to be traveling through the same border checkpoint a few months later and managed to rescue and bring Adorno Benjamin’s last manuscripts, including himself Theses on the philosophy of history (Benjamin 1968). In these theses Benjamin articulates his hope for a messianic future and his criticism of historical progress that has landed in the gas chambers (Benjamin 1968, 257-258, 260-264). The rise of fascism and anti-Semitism is a problem that will continue to preoccupy both Adorno and Horkheimer Dialectic of Enlightenment (1997 , 168-208) and in the more empirically oriented Authoritarian personality (1950). Philosophically, this problem shows that Hegel must have been wrong in claiming that reason tends to dialectically correct itself and that society is evolving into ever more progressive historical, political, and cultural forms. Adorno’s metaphysics thus retains Hegel’s dialectic as a philosophical method, but rejects Hegel’s theory of historical development, historical reason and the state.
The third influence on Adorno is Marx’s early theory of alienated labor (Marx 1975). Adorno never accepted a full-fledged Marxism and remained critical of Marx’s scientism, the theory of class struggle and the vulgar suggestion of an economic base that determines the superstructure: the sphere of culture, art and the production of knowledge. In fact, one of Adorno’s most important contributions to social theory is his thesis that the distortions of late modernity manifest and reproduce in the area of the “culture industry” (Adorno 1991a, 1991b, 1991c; Adorno and Horkheimer 1997 , 120-167). Characteristically, this thesis does not belong to an economic theory like Marx’s, but to a philosophical social theory like Hegel’s.
Late modernism and lack of freedom: towards a philosophical social theory
In the sense of Hegel, the proposed theory assumes that society forms a “whole” that has no outside. in the Philosophical elements of a social theory, Adorno notes that the concept of society did not exist until the early 18th century, during which of the state began with the Stoics in ancient Greece (Adorno 2019, 39). At first glance, this contrast between “state” and “society” may seem fanciful. But it should not be forgotten that Adorno, as the theoretician of the Frankfurt School, set himself the task of producing a critique of late capitalism – the world of social relationships found in the developed world or roughly “in the West” after World War II . Understood in this sense, “society” emerged with the establishment of emerging market relationships in the stage of early (industrial) capitalism (Adorno 2019, 24-25). Its structure is not static, as was the case in the Middle Ages. In Adorno’s language, “society” stands for a post-capitalist society that is characterized by dynamism and social mobility, which is expressed in changing social roles and professions, and through multiple antagonisms and contradictions – between groups, between group and individual, between system-wide tasks and individual desires desire. It is not always easy or even possible to cleanly separate what is good from its faulty elements. This type of society can therefore only be understood through an equally complex and contradicting dialectical method that leads to one philosophical Social theory (Adorno 2019, 81).
The current late modern era has some key aspects, of which late capitalism is the most tangible. But as Adorno tries to show, the contradictions within late capitalist society are not limited to a class struggle between labor and capital or are fueled by it. One reason is that due to economic prosperity (Adorno 2019, 38) and the emergence of social security programs and trade unions (Adorno 2019), the working class has been co-opted – or sociologically “integrated”, 27-30). For Adorno, the current social system has the ability to recruit individuals for its own ends that run counter to their true interests as people and value producers. The result is the “atomization” of the social relations between the workers, who no longer show solidarity with one another, but instead become competitors (Adorno 2019, 36-37). In this line of reasoning, the early theory of alienation from Marx is easily discernible. But there are also major differences. For Marx, alienation is ultimately associated with value in the sense of the economist, who refers to scarcity and market exchange (Joseph 2003, 131). For Adorno, “value” has a broader meaning – it can encompass the aesthetic value associated with the experience of a beautiful work of art. In general, the possibilities of appreciation have been emptied in late modernity because we as individuals have fewer and fewer options and can stage ourselves as free actors.
Adorno’s diagnosis of late modernism is that it represents a state of bondage. The leitmotif of Dialectic of Enlightenment is that freedom is threatened by a certain dehumanization and regression that paradoxically – or dialectically – is the unintended result of the progress initially associated with the Enlightenment. The main theme of dialectic is “the self-destruction of the Enlightenment” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997) , xi). But what exactly is education? What are its key aspects and is there a possibility for salvation? Adorno and Horkheimer use the term “enlightenment” to denote a number of concepts. In a sense, it means the historical epoch of the European Enlightenment. In another, conceptual (non-historical) sense, it stands for “reason” or relationship, an idea that goes back to Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle took the view that reason leads us to worthy ends, while the modern, post-Baconian view of reason is purely instrumental: it is about the indifference of the means to the end (Adorno 2019, 89-92, 102, 112- 114). But instrumental reasons were used to build the gas chambers in order to hasten the liquidation of the German Jews. The institutional vehicle that sustains instrumental reason is modern science, beginning with Bacon’s writings in the early 17th century. “Enlightenment” in the third sense refers to this image of modern science.
The other two aspects of late modernism for Adorno are Science and rationalismrepresenting the negative or caustic aspects of the education. The first represents an exaggerated belief in technical rationality based on science as a value-free, quantification-based research method. The second is the related belief that all social problems can be solved through the proper use of reason. Reason, in turn, stands for instrumental reason without ethical purposes. This portrait of society is anticipated by Foucault (1995) – it involves the use of averages, percentages, and statistical tendencies to classify, order, and control human behavior. Patients are not seen as specific individuals, but as medical “cases”, employees as “human resources” and so on. This creates an abstract image of society that reifies itself into a thing facing the individual and in which people can no longer find space for concrete, living experiences (Adorno 2019, 48-49).
In short, in the late modern era, reason turned against itself. Enlightenment should use reason to free humanity from fear and superstition and to secure control over the blind forces of nature. But in the end, reason is so instrumentalized that it falls back into irrationality. In the 20th century, fascism is the most hideous manifestation of irrationality at the level of social systems where the state begins to exterminate its own citizens. The grim record of violence and oppression in the Stalinist states is similar. The point is that this type of predatory social system stems from the Enlightenment project of reason (O’Sullivan 1983).
The culture industry
For Adorno, fascism is at the same time a product of late capitalism, which, alongside scientism and rationalism, represents the third core aspect of late modernism. Late capitalism is monopoly capitalism paired with an interventionist state that regularly intervenes in the economy in order to ensure sufficient employment (Adorno 1987; 2019, 28-29). This prevents the proletariat from becoming economically impoverished, but the problem does not disappear, but reappears in the cultural sphere, where the phenomenon of spiritual impoverishment takes on a new meaning (Joseph 2003, 131). The market has engulfed the realm of culture and turned it into an industry. The cultural industry does not pretend to trade in fine art and openly admits to selling certain cultural goods for mass consumption – films, radio and television programs – that obey the same principles of market exchange as other goods, namely product standardization and interchangeability. Movies in a given genre have identical plots, actors look similar, and the moral of the stories is predictable. Even in leisure time, the individual is no longer free: “Entertainment in late capitalism is the extension of work” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997). , 137). Leisure has become an unfree activity – it is controlled by the culture industry through the projection of false positivity (the hero defeats the villain), conformism, and most importantly, the need to encourage further consumption. Criticism of the given must be avoided at all costs so that it does not thwart the preconceived expectations of the mass consumer.
The culture industry is tracking down the renunciation of human autonomy and freedom. Since society is a whole, there is no safe haven within it for criticism of the ruling order – critics are forced to work with the materials of the integrated social system and the ubiquitous cultural industry. Few, if any, of the better educated and fortunate would have the luxury of reflection and independent thought; but those few would be individuals, perhaps intellectuals, not whole classes or groups. The task of the intellectual in this context is to pursue a philosophical and negative analysis – this is the ethos of Adorno’s negative dialectic. The negative dialectic seeks transcendence by rejecting the false immanence of what is immediately given to consciousness (Adorno’s non-identity principle, Adorno 1977, 4-5). Because it seeks transcendence, its purposes are metaphysical, and because it tries to overcome what is merely given as “false”, its purposes are critical. Such critical metaphysics works to expose the prevailing order of reified social institutions as false by showing that, although they pretend to be eternal and immutable, they are in fact historically ephemeral forms. The act of criticism itself is therefore transcendent and, for Adorno, must contain reflexivity.
If the negative dialectic demands the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true – if it is to be true today at least – it must also think against itself (Adorno 1973, 365).
Adorno’s analysis is pessimistic and the late modernity he portrays regressive. Relevant here is the dictum of Adorno and Horkheimer: “The myth is already enlightenment and the enlightenment returns to mythology” (1977 , xvi). It can be explained as follows (see Adorno and Horkheimer 1977 , 10-29; Wiggershaus 1995, 328-336). The phrase “myth is already enlightenment” suggests that the first break with the stage of mythology, in which myth embodies reverence for the magical powers of nature, takes place with the arrival of thought (when thought and reflection displace emotions and mimesis as given by the shaman). But when thinking mutates into instrumental reason, as Max Weber predicted, this leads to the disenchantment of the world and the loss of the magical in nature. In the 20th century, nature (including human nature) was reduced to an object of domination controlled by scientific and technological means. In today’s perfectly managed world, science and instrumental reason have become gods who keep us in awe. This is the meaning of the second sentence, “The Enlightenment Returns to Mythology”.
Adorno, Late Modernism and Globalization
How does Adorno’s pessimistic portrayal of late modernism speak to our present at the turn of the 21st century and in relation to global society? Even if Adorno did not draw such an analogy, his concept of late modernism has affinities to the concept of globalization. For Anthony Giddens, modernity, understood as the “stretching” of relationships in time and space, has globalized because “worldwide social relationships” have been intensified (Giddens 1990, 64). Following Immanuel Wallerstein, Giddens connects globalization with a “capitalist world economy” (Giddens 1990, 68), but as we have seen, Adorno (like other members of the Frankfurt School) did not think of late modernism as processes limited to the economy. For Adorno it is not the case that the economic system determines what happens in the political system, be it nationally or globally. Rather, late modernity is a complex, contradictory – or dialectical – development in the framework of which a monopoly-like capitalist economy is coupled with powerful administrative apparatuses that can be local or global and whose control is not limited to the political sphere (voting, basic laws). The administered world of late modernity is insidious precisely because it serves the integration of society as a whole, including its cultural space, which was previously a place of resistance and freedom, but no longer seems to be.
Adorno also draws our attention to the danger that fascism could reappear in new historical forms. Fascism represents a social system that is shaped by irrationality, scientism, theories of racial superiority, xenophobia and narratives of national greatness. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes to politicians such as Donald Trump (USA), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Recep Erdogan (Turkey), Viktor Orban (Hungary), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) and Kim. neo-fascist moves to Jong-un (North Korea) (Albright 2008). But we must be tired of making judgments that focus on individual nations or leaders because, if Adorno is right, all contemporary late modern societies contain fascist elements in one form or another. Adorno believes that the social critic must avoid complacency: criticism must remain negative and face further criticism.
Last but not least, Adorno was interested in the practice of university teaching (Adorno 2012), and the question should therefore be asked whether academic freedom is still possible in our administered world. Nowadays, and the trend is global, universities are being colonized by powerful administrators who pursue their own interests – namely the further consolidation of administrative power – in contrast to the interests of the teachers and students and without being bound by ethical standards or direct accountability. The pay gap between top administrators and those who actually do research and teaching is appalling. Lecturers are routinely appointed with fixed-term contracts and treated as expendable human resources, the abundance of which is secured by the steadily growing supply of fresh doctoral students. Academics compete for the only goods that have exchange value in the academic market – research grants and publications. The evaluation of their achievements is based on leadership rather than erudition, on quantitative Google indices, on “social impact” and on links to the media and industry. It seems related to that Homo-Academicus, Adorno’s criticism of late modernism, his pessimism and his conviction that despite everything we should not give up looking for ways to regain freedom are more relevant than ever.
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