TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Adorno and the Difficulties of Tradition Today

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Aaron Bell looks at Theodor W. Adorno’s “On Tradition” from Telos 94 (Winter 1992).

“There is no tradition today and none can be conjured, yet when every tradition has been extinguished the march toward barbarism will being.”

It is hard to imagine what Adorno’s corpus would look like without the deep scars left by his period of exile in the United States during the Second World War. Despite its catastrophic genesis, his exile played a constitutive role in the development of his thought, and made him, among many other things, a savagely insightful commentator on American life. This commentary on America is marked by a dialectic of fascination and disgust with his newfound home, perhaps the most “radically bourgeois country” (75) in the Western world. In particular, he was fascinated by America’s lack of cultural tradition. In his essay “On Tradition,” America serves as a model of a society ravaged by bourgeois rationalization, proudly celebrating its lack of tradition by rejecting “old world” values as archaic, irrational, and pompous. The relatively short history of the nation compounds the problem, further disconnecting us from any substantial sense of tradition or historical consciousness. We are proudly the country of the nouveau riche, possessed of power and wealth bereft of tradition and culture. This literal lack of history and evaluative rejection of tradition places America at ground zero of the crisis of tradition. Tradition survives in America in its most degraded and mutilated forms, manufactured in artificially aged consumer products and conservative “traditional” family values. The recent wave of gauche typographical décor emblazoned with the actual word “TRADITION” seems designed to confirm Adorno’s worst accusations.

To situate his discussion of tradition, Adorno begins with an etymological note on the origin of “tradition.” A German-English cognate, tradition is derived from tradere, “to hand down.” Adorno starts with etymology in order to locate the concept within the kind of concrete historical continuum that he saw lacking in American culture. According to Adorno, tradere‘s central metaphor of “handing down” precious items from generation to generation is illuminating, because it relies on a way of life and a mode of production that has been historically surpassed–”the category of tradition is essentially feudal.” (75) The provincial familial communities doing the “handing down” and the handicrafts that produced such valued objects to hand down between generations have both been rendered obsolete by bourgeois society and by the rise of capitalism. Even more so now in our digitalized age than in 1968 (when Adorno first published “Über Tradition”), the moment of immediacy and proximity supposed by tradere‘s metaphorics is largely gone. The fragmentation of society, propelled by the industrialized division of labor and the splintering of familial and cultural community, has imperiled the very possibility of enjoying these traditions, starting with the disruptions in the handing down of valued practices and artifacts from one generation to the next. Tradere, and, according to Adorno, tradition itself, is out of joint with the times, making it an anachronistic holdover that frustrates any simple evaluation. Nowhere is this more present than America, a nation born thoroughly in the age of capitalism, without even a history of feudal relations to deny.

For Adorno, this historical decay of tradition is not a passive product of undirected change. The Enlightenment values of bourgeois society, bent on erasing the dogma of the past and replacing them with the rationally transparent, have undermined the conditions for the possibility of experiencing tradition. Tradition is predicated on the authority of the past, founded on “the pregiven, unreflected and binding existence of social forms—the actuality of the past” (75). Bourgeois rationality, on the other hand, is predicated on a principled irreverence, judging all things according to the sole criterion of efficiency. According to Adorno, immediacy, authority, and self-evident cultural value all stand as enemies of bourgeois ways of life—”what fails to establish its immediate social usefulness in the market place does not count and is forgotten.” (75)

Traditional values derive their authority from a respect for the past that ultimately relies on some criterion other than efficiency. This is demonstrated by the figure of the elderly, the living embodiment of the past in bourgeois society. Bourgeois society lacks the evaluative resources to ground our duty or respect owed to the elderly. While we can attempt a rationalized explanation of the traditional practice of respecting one’s elders, citing the epistemic authority of life experience or the social indebtedness of the young to their former caretakers, this account cannot capture either this sense of respect or the phenomenon of respect in general. The opaque nature of respect, which resists any complete instrumental explanation, is irrational from the perspective of bourgeois rationality. In light of this, Adorno suggests, the rising eldercare industry, as well as the extreme example of the Nazi extermination of the elderly, represent logical responses given the socio-economic uselessness of elderly people.

The bourgeois antipathy to tradition may additionally be traced back to the other meaning of tradere: to surrender or give up. Kant’s vision of the Enlightenment can be understood as a defiant refusal to surrender to the tyranny of the past by refusing the “self-imposed immaturity” of an unreflective, traditional form of life. Against what Adorno would call the “mythical” nature of tradition, which sees all history as a superficial cycle of repetition without change, bourgeois society conceives of history as a linear, dynamic process of invention and opportunity. Against the opaque “that’s just how it’s done” of tradition, bourgeois society provides a chance for second-order reflection, re-invention, and change. However, this leaves no room for the constellation of values embedded within tradition, especially the reassuring immediacy of self-evident values and culture. Our “immaturity” overcome, we are left in a place of dislocated alienation, suffering from a valuative void that cannot be filled by the reason that Kant found so awesome.

This is the antinomy in which we find ourselves trapped: we can neither affirm tradition, nor simply discard it. However, the antinomical nature of tradition does not indicate, as Kant believed, that we have a fallacious understanding of the problem. For dialectical thinking, and Adorno’s negative dialectics in particular, contradiction does not entail error. The problem of tradition, as Adorno formulates it, is a dialectical one, caught between the reactionary posture of either authoritarian conservatism or radical progressivism. The former leads to a naïve faith in the past; the latter to an unquestioning faith in the future.

Tradition’s cultural moment is gone. Any simple affirmation would entail a dangerous conservatism; however, doing away with any pretense of tradition would sever the historical continuity that links the present to the past. This rupture would undermine the possibility of epistemic and emphatic meaning, which only appears through the resonance of the present with the past. As Adorno demonstrates in his treatment of “tradition,” the contemporary status of any concept can only be determined vis-à-vis its place in a specific, concrete history. Failure to acknowledge the material history of the concept inherently leads to a myopic understanding, blind to “the dust and debris which cloud [the] allegedly clear vision” (78). Critical clarity entails an almost Socratic recognition of the limitation of any historical perspective.

Rejection of the past would also entail a failure of our duty to remember the burden of prior suffering, which settles as a patina “on things, words, colors and sounds.” For Adorno, we have an ethical obligation to recover and sustain the suffering of the past. Absent a meaningful overarching historical narrative, a fantasy destroyed by the horrific rupture of the Holocaust, suffering must be remembered because it can never be safely discounted as the “price of progress.” Without our memorialization of past suffering, it will disappear, remain forgotten, and linger unreconciled. Without a memory of past suffering and its irreconcilable relation to the present, we run the risk of being taken in by facile justifications of the status quo, affirming Hegel’s callous dismissal of suffering on the “slaughter-bench of history.”

Adorno’s discussion of “tradition” is a helpful, if compressed, introduction to his distinctive treatment of concepts. For Adorno, concepts are not Platonic ideas dwelling above the material world in a pure realm of Being. Rather, concepts, despite their immaterial nature, share the same fate as physical objects; they are born, they grow old and decay, and, if neglected, die. They bear the marks of their heritage, containing traces of the time from which they came that only become visible as they age and become alienated from their historical point of origin. As products of a historical moment, they have no guarantee of continuing relevance. Yet, they also demand a kind of care and respect that remains attentive to their lineage in the history of ideas. The present is a product of the past, and this is no less true of the elaborate conceptual manifold that we use to comprehend it.

“On Tradition” exemplifies the claustrophobic narrowing of critical possibilities typical of Adorno’s mature philosophy. Recently, his position on tradition has interested J. M. Bernstein and other contemporary interpreters of Adorno as an ethical thinker. The sophistication of Adorno’s relationship to tradition and historical continuity is a rich source of insight for theoretical discussions of the intersection of value theory, normative ethics, and social epistemology. His attempt to carve out a space critical of the limited account of value of bourgeois rationality, without lapsing into a foundationalist or communitarian theory of value, stands as a resource for any critical theory of value that meets the difficulties of establishing (post)modern value head on.

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