Adorno Reframed by Geoff Boucher - Read Online
Adorno Reframed
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Dismissed as a miserable elitist who condemned popular culture in the name of ‘high art’, Theodore W. Adorno (1903-1969) is one of the most provocative and important yet least understood of contemporary thinkers. This book draws on new translations into English to challenge this popular image and re-examines Adorno as a utopian philosopher who believed authentic art could save the world.

Adorno Reframed is not only a comprehensive introduction to the reader coming to Adorno for the first time through detailed discussion of artworks, novels, films and music, but an important re-evaluation of this founder of the Frankfurt School. Influenced by Kant, Hegel, Freud, Marx, Nietzche and Kierkegaard, Adorno was a searing critic of the formal, reductive rationality of the Enlightenment and of modernity. Unafraid to talk about human nature, undaunted by dogmas regarding cultural construction, Adorno loved art that hurts, that challenged the prevailing culture of the day and resisted the managed, commodified pseudo-happiness of ‘administered society’. Defending the independence of the natural world and the particularity of the human individual, for Adorno real authentic art was a defiant refusal to subordinate the materiality of the world and the lived reality of human activity to the imperatives of social totality.

Making his theory accessible through a wealth of concrete illustrations, many drawn from Adorno himself, Geoffrey Boucher recasts Adorno as a revolutionary whose anthropological vision of the human condition, sense of subversive irony and profoundly historical aesthetics defended the integrity of the individual against the commodified culture industries that supply unsatisfying consumer ‘happiness’. Grounding Adorno’s social philosophy and aesthetic theory in contextualised analysis of artists ranging from Stockhausen and Kafka to David Lynch and Brett Easton-Ellis, Adorno Reframed takes its subject from interwar modernity into the postmodern and feminist present to examine the legacy and influence of Adorno’s radical modernism and his belief that art was in the final analysis a way to cope with, not escape, reality.
Published: I.B.Tauris on
ISBN: 9780857736956
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Adorno Reframed - Geoff Boucher

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Atonal philosophy

The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman of refined sophistication and exquisite tastes. We know this because that emissary of Lucifer, the archfiend Mephistopheles, told us so, in English in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and then in German in Goethe’s Faust. But when the Devil finally presents himself in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947), it is as a vicious pimp, in tight pants, yellow shoes and a cheap jacket. In the book’s central confrontation between the Devil and the avant-garde composer, Adrian Leverkühn, however, the Devil manages to morph briefly into a sartorial professor. Emanating a powerful aura of absolute coldness, the Prince of Darkness delivers a devastating critique of modern music. That figure is, of course, none other than Theodor W. Adorno – avantgarde composer, dialectical philosopher, radical critic, and ‘musical advisor’ in the writing process of Mann’s novel about the rise of fascism. ‘The masterpiece,’ says Adorno-as-the-Devil, ‘the selfsufficient form, belongs to traditional art; emancipated art rejects it…for the historical movement of the musical material has turned against the self-contained work’ (Mann, 1968: 232–33).

In Mann’s novel, the Devil’s advice assists Leverkühn to achieve artistic greatness at the expense of human solidarity. In desperate loneliness, Leverkühn breaks from classical music, with its organic forms and harmonious intervals. He invents a new, atonal music that combines rigorous technical constraints with unprecedented expressive possibilities. As death and madness invade the shrinking circle of Leverkühn’s damaged life, his final composition – The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus – represents an atonal ‘retraction’ of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. This is the twentieth century’s bleak response to the nineteenth century’s optimistic vision. Technological advance and scientific progress have not brought happiness, but rather enslaved the individual to anonymous systems and political demagogues. Progressive technique and rational mastery of the musical material have not yielded songs of delight, but only the perfected means to express the suffering of Leverkühn’s arctic solitude. The German intellectuals, Mann suggests, sold their souls to the devil of fascism when they turned their backs on the ideals of liberalism and the humanist tradition. They rejected the humanist ideal of the organic work of art, and embraced either an arid avant-garde idea of progress (Leverkühn) or a reactionary nostalgia for authoritarian collectivism (Leverkühn’s opposite, Breisacher, modelled on the composer Stravinsky).

Not surprisingly, the models for Leverkühn and the Devil, themselves also in exile from fascism in the United States during the 1940s, and indeed living in Hollywood not far from Mann, were unimpressed – but for rather different reasons. Arnold Schönberg, the Viennese composer, who in reality developed the forms of atonal music that the character Leverkühn discovers, was eventually credited for his invention by Mann in the second edition. But Schönberg could never forgive the representation of the avant-garde composer as forging an aesthetic breakthrough by morally irresponsible means, through coldness and calculation. As it happens, in 1947 Schönberg brought out an important work of his own that was anything but unfeeling (Schmidt, 2004). The seven minutes of A Survivor from Warsaw are a lamentation not for the German intellectuals but for the Jewish victims. It ventilates what Adorno described as ‘anxiety, Schönberg’s expressive core, [through] identification with men in the agonies of death, under total domination’ (Adorno, 1967a: 172).

Adorno, meanwhile, had more reasons than Schönberg to be upset about attribution. Most of the extensive musicology in Doctor Faustus was taken – often almost verbatim – from the manuscript of his Philosophy of Modern Music, which Adorno had lent Mann before its publication, also in 1947. Characteristically, Adorno was unconcerned about intellectual property. He was disturbed by what he felt to be Mann’s betrayal of ‘the utopia of youth, the dream of a world unspoilt’ (Gödde and Sprecher, 2006: 10). Mann’s is an incipient Cold War ideology, nostalgic for the golden age of bourgeois society. Appalled at what fascism had revealed about the fragility of democracy, and devastated by the catastrophe of revolutionary hopes in Stalinist totalitarianism, Mann proposes that even the imagination of a better world is irresponsible (Gödde and Sprecher, 2006: 93). Adorno was a lifelong, bitter critic of Stalinism. He described Stalinist totalitarianism as ‘state capitalism’, and refused to concede that the Soviet Union had anything whatsoever to do with socialism. But by contrast with Mann, Adorno thinks that the disaster of fascism in Germany was not because the intellectuals had abandoned humanism and liberalism, but because liberal humanism had ceased to be historically effective. Capitalism is both dehumanising and anti-liberal, Adorno argues: capitalism undermined liberal humanism and generated the conditions that made fascism possible.

Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music is the companion piece to his collaboration with Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, yet another work produced in 1947. The Dialectic of Enlightenment sets out to clarify the real causes of totalitarian domination. The scientific rationality of the European Enlightenment aimed at liberating humanity from natural want and the religious superstition that went with it. But this goal of the mastery of nature became, when Enlightenment rationality combined with capitalist society, a means for the domination of men and women. When rational calculation is placed in the service of an economic system that regards everything in monetary terms, it must quantify and evaluate, must treat its objects, including human beings, as things. It must reify them. For Adorno, the capitalist society that in the eighteenth century liberated individuals, providing them with social prosperity, political rights and liberal ideas, in the twentieth century became dominated by a totalitarian state, became an administered society that dispensed with liberal politics and human rights. Eventually, the methodological techniques of Enlightenment rationality became a social procedure: thanks to the perfected calculations of the Nazi’s administrative apparatus, nothing was wasted; they even remembered to use the pubic hair of exterminated victims to make thicker socks for the U-boat crews (Distel and Jukusch, 1978: 137). Social progress through technological advances and human happiness through market mechanisms – these became the new myths of the Enlightenment. The myth of technological progress then generated dark counter-myths of blood and soil, solidarity through sacrifice of the individual and savage release through primitive regression.

Horkheimer’s companion piece is Eclipse of Reason, published – when else? – in 1947, and it explains the intent behind the idea of a critique of the tragedy of enlightenment. The alternative to the scientific positivism of Enlightenment rationality is not the abandonment of reason. The alternative is a renovation of humanist ideals within the framework of a different conception of reason (Horkheimer, 1974: 128–51). An alternative rationality must grasp reason historically, while understanding the social conditions of political freedom (Horkheimer, 1974: 182–84). Adorno’s central contribution to this project is to suggest that art and culture are the most important parts of this alternative rationality. Trained as a composer of avant-garde music, Adorno believes that modernist art does not at all surrender to dehumanisation, but instead vigorously protests against it. As one of the twentieth century’s most important philosophers, he locates modernism’s protest in its social and intellectual context, as an act of resistance against the reifying effects of capitalist economics and its calculating rationality. But Adorno is also critical of some kinds of modernism. Modernism, for Adorno, has two wings: a radically utopian and progressive wing, that speaks the truth to power, and a reactionary and nostalgic wing that rejects rationality altogether and embraces fascist collectivism.

Mann and Adorno therefore approach the questions of the significance of modernism and the origins of fascism from diametrically opposed perspectives.That explains their completely different evaluations of Schönberg/Leverkühn. For Mann, all of modernism reflects a morally irresponsible intellectual and aesthetic decision. For Adorno, Schönberg/Leverkühn and Stravinsky/Breisacher reflect a social and historical process. For Mann, fascist totalitarianism is the opposite of liberal democracy. For Adorno, fascist totalitarianism emerges because of the historical limitations of liberal democracy. This could not fail to strike Mann as ‘daemonic’.

Adorno as the Devil

Adorno as the Devil – the image is striking. Again and again, it has captured the imaginations of those who need to represent Adorno’s modernism as a problem. But every culture involving domination, as Adorno knew well, needs a demonology.

Theodor W. Adorno (1903–69) is, quite simply, the twentieth century’s most important philosophical spokesperson for the legitimacy of artistic modernism, as a politically and aesthetically radical breakthrough. Adorno once said that the problem with philosophical aesthetics is that it usually lacks one of two important things – the philosophy, or the aesthetics. Adorno had both. A highly original philosopher, his work is central to the very unorthodox current of Western Marxism known as Critical Theory, or the ‘Frankfurt School’. A gifted musician, Adorno had studied composition under the avant-garde composer of atonal symphonies, Alban Berg, and written a wildly experimental opera on the theme of The Treasure of Indian Joe (based on Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer). An assimilated Jew forced to flee Hitler’s Germany, Adorno’s philosophical interventions identified the fascist potentials in German existentialism (especially Martin Heidegger) right from the 1920s. A passionate advocate of political freedom and moral independence, artistic integrity and what he called ‘reconciliation’ amongst human beings and with the natural environment, Adorno’s Marxist individualism is the enemy of all forms of totalitarianism, Nazi or Stalinist. He insisted that aesthetics and philosophy be responsible to the major questions posed by history, investing sometimes extravagant hopes in the power of groundbreaking art and dialectical thought to loosen up petrified cultural conventions and rigid ways of thinking. His interpretations of music, literature, painting and theatre advocate a dissonant modernism that complements Adorno’s radical politics. Meanwhile, his critiques of mass culture, of radio and television, newspaper astrology and mainstream sport, popular music and airport fiction, link the entertainment industry to widespread apathy. He loved Kafka’s idea that unconventionality is ‘an axe, with which to break up the frozen sea within’, but he wielded the cutting edge of art and philosophy as a