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Telos 149 (Winter 2009): Adorno and America

Since its beginnings in 1968, Telos has repeatedly turned to the work of Theodor Adorno, asking how his version of Critical Theory could cross the Atlantic and make sense in the United States. The extraordinary attention paid since to Adorno’s American experience, like that of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gunnar Myrdal, derives in part from a constant fascination with the spectacle of the critical European intellectual’s encounter with the antithetical culture of a resistant America. In this classic meeting of Old World and New, misunderstandings abound. Americans regard the European intellectual as biased and arrogant, spinning grotesque caricatures of America from imagination. The European intellectual, in turn, theoretically inclined, immersed in high culture, and skeptical of American empiricism, generalizes from a narrow, unrepresentative slice of American culture.

Yet, if the object does not go into its concept without remainder, as Adorno argues in Negative Dialectics, the skeptical view of the outsider reveals a great deal about American society, much of which is too intertwined with the culture to be readily visible to insiders. At the same time, the American experience greatly alters and deepens the European’s Weltanschauung, serving in the end as a career-defining event. This is certainly true for Adorno. The past tendency to read Adorno as entirely negative about America derives from the popularity of writings in which he is hypercritical of America and American culture, such as the seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia. But other, less prominent texts, such as his Letters to his Parents, his Dream Notes, his essay “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America,” and his untranslated lecture “Kultur und Culture,” suggest a more sanguine assessment of American culture and society. It is easy to draw the wrong conclusion from the manifest contradiction between simultaneous approval and disapproval and to claim that “Adorno offers two pictures of America that simply do not go together and are each as unconvincing as the other” [1].

However, the tension created by Adorno’s contradictory appraisals of America is genuinely productive, for it provides a model for the relationship between Adorno and America and it demands rigorous scholarship, sensitive to biographical detail, textual nuance, and historical context. In place of reductive anecdotes intended to disparage Adorno as a European mandarin, we must carefully examine the complex American dimensions of his thought, without restricting the evaluation to only one or two texts. The whole cannot be abstracted from the part. It is therefore impossible to attribute to Adorno a single position, pro- or anti-American.

This issue seeks to challenge the ingrained views about Adorno and America by turning the topic’s conventions on their head, dialectically, of course, unearthing new archival material, and treating conventional questions from divergent disciplinary perspectives. In his general discussion of Adorno’s American reception, Joshua Rayman rehearses this familiar terrain critically, examining the rise of Adorno’s academic reputation, changing scholarly views on his opinion and knowledge of America, the reasons for his own institutional standing in America, his political position under McCarthyism, and his long-standing battle with empiricism and positivism over the way to do social science. For Rayman, Adorno’s internal destruction of the positivist, empirical research project, in The Authoritarian Personality and the Princeton Radio Research Project, constitutes his lasting message for contemporary social science.

Adorno’s work on the Princeton Radio Research Project remained largely unpublished until the recent appearance of his tome Current of Music. David Jenemann uses the text’s insider accounts of the radio industry both to dismantle critiques of Adorno as ignorant of America and to set forth an Adornian philosophy of ambivalence. Implicit within Jenemann’s reading of Adorno’s analysis of plugging, the practice of paying radio stations to play a label’s songs, is a general defense of Adorno against empiricist critiques. Plugging was significant not because of the particular content of plugged songs, which Adorno neglected, but because what was being plugged was the social structure at large. Hence, Adorno’s neglect of the particular content of plugged songs, films, and magazines was a result of his recognition that the individual commercial phenomenon both derived from and exhibited the culture industry’s universal structure.

Adorno’s influential writings on music also include at least two insufficiently credited collaborations, with Hanns Eisler on Composing for the Films and with Thomas Mann on Doctor Faustus. In his article on Adorno and Eisler, James Parsons relies upon a newly discovered archive of Oxford University Press documents to demonstrate and provide details of their collaboration on Composing for the Films. The extent to which Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus depended on Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music is now well known. But John Wells argues that the status of Adorno’s philosophy within the novel becomes troublingly ambivalent, in much the same way as does the Schoenberg material. Both become susceptible to misappropriation in a fictional force field in the shadow of fascism. Where living work grows stale, it inevitably becomes appropriable for antithetical purposes.

Perhaps the most popular, calcified view of Adorno is of the unredeemable pessimist. By offering redemptive and liberatory readings of Adorno on literature, film, and philosophy, Matt Waggoner, Antonio Y. Vázquez-Arroyo, Ulrich Plass, and Ryan Drake set the record straight. From Adorno’s reading of Franz Kafka’s Amerika (Der Verschollene), Waggoner traces elements of a philosophy of dwelling, of home and homelessness. Against a standard reading of Kafka’s unfinished text, according to which the ragtag band of train passengers bound for “The Nature Theater of Oklahoma” is on its way to death or permanent exile, Waggoner adopts what he takes to be Adorno’s redemptive reading of this dream-like, carnivalesque passage of angels and devils. Vázquez-Arroyo develops and defends his emancipatory reading of Adorno in what he calls a minima humana or critical humanism that stands for universal human freedom without importing anything like a thick conception of human identity into the universal sphere.

Adorno’s view of film is often thought to be entirely negative. Yet, by looking at his relation to the German-American director Fritz Lang, Plass and Drake uncover a more complex view of film’s potential for a necessary regression and a critical emancipation. Plass argues for the necessity of insinuating the dialectical view of Adorno’s attitude toward America further into each side of his dialectic of enlightenment in demonstrating that Lang’s late orientalist films, as a return to youthful, somatic immediacy, exhibit the positive side of a dialectic of regression that Adorno had viewed in negative terms in his critique of the culture industry. Drake’s Adornian reading of shock effects in Lang’s great American film Fury recovers the emancipatory potential of film for Adorno from the weight of his pessimism and his many negative remarks about Hollywood films. The stunning images of the mob’s descent into violence, the individual’s consequent fall into revenge, and the restoration of individual autonomy through cinematic technology provide a powerful example of the democratic and critical potential of film to resist irrational rule.

Finally, Shannon Mariotti constructs from an Adornian perspective a lacerating genealogy of the contemporary medical model of American psychology and corporate pharmacology. She reminds us that while the psychoanalytic models dominant in Adorno’s America were quite different from today’s “Prozac society,” Adorno long ago anticipated and provided a theoretical critique of the present model through his analysis of the destruction and reification of human subjectivity.


1. Claus Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber and Adorno in the United States, trans. Patrick Camiller (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), p. 92.

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