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Critique from the Margins: Adorno and the Politics of Withdrawal Adorno: A Political Biography by Lorez Jger; Stewart

Spencer; Adorno in America by David Jenemann; Adorno: A Biography by Stefan Mller-Doohm; Rodney Livingstone; Shannon Mariotti Political Theory, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jun., 2008), pp. 456-465 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. Stable URL: . Accessed: 10/04/2012 14:08
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Adorno: A PoliticalBiographybyLorez Jager, translated by Stewart Spencer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. 249 pp. $35.00 (cloth). America byDavid Jenemann. Minneapolis: Universityof Adorno in Minnesota Press, 2007. 280 pp. $66.00 (cloth);$22.95 (paper). Muiller-Doohm,translated byRodney Adorno:A Biographyby Stefan Livingstone. Malden, MA: Polity,2005. 667 pp. $75.00 (cloth). I
Is "democracy" necessarily defined in terms of engagement and participation in public spaces? Can someone who removes himself from mainstream society and politics in his personal life, theory,or both, still enact a democratic politics? Given the registers of withdrawal inAdorno's life and work, these questions of representation are confronted by Lorenz Jager,David Jenemann, and Stefan Muiller-Doohm. Though each author treats differentperiods of Adorno's life at differentdepths, all threemake choices (implicitly or explicitly) regarding how to characterize Adorno's life and work. Significantly, these decisions often seem to hinge on how the author imagines democratic politics. But as we will see, these hidden Adorno himself tries assumptions can be especially problematic given that to reconfigure our notions of what counts as a political practice and to means to be "democratic." expand our understanding of what it Adorno Jager and Jenemann represent opposing perspectives. For Jager, was withdrawn frommainstream social and political life, and thereby his theory is politically insufficient.For Jenemann, on the other hand, Adorno was in fact quite immersed in collective social life and the rediscovered relevance of his theory derives from this embrace and engagement. These authors take opposing positions on the question of whether or notAdorno was a reclusive, withdrawn, elitist resident of the "Grand Hotel Abyss," to



/ Adorno

and the Politics ofWithdrawal


draw upon Georg Lukaics' memorable

characterization.' And

yet, both

reaffirmthe traditional view thatdemocratic politics is premised upon par ticipation inmainstream society: they just differon the question of whether Adorno was in fact immersed in that society. Stefan Muller-Doohm, however, traces out a third possibility. Rather than tryingto recuperateAdorno's value by discrediting or downplaying his withdrawal frommainstream society,Muiller-Doohm shows how being an outsider and a continual exile is in fact part ofAdorno's democratic politi cal practice. We do not have to choose between "political Adorno" and "dis engaged Adorno": Miiller-Doohm shows how Adorno's unique form of democratic politics is premised upon a distance, a withdrawal, a critique from the margins of mainstream society and politics, that nevertheless avoids apathy, resignation, or disengagement. In doing so, Miiller-Doohm helps us construct an understanding of Adorno that illuminates the idiosyncraticways he enacted what Iwould call a "politics of withdrawal," thathighlights how Adorno's "negative dialec tics" is in fact a kind of democratic political practice. In thepractice of neg ative dialectics, thinking itselfbecomes a formof praxis because of theway it highlights contingency, invokes a need for change, and actively works against the instrumentalism and identity thinking that characterize what Adorno alternately calls "damaged life," "systematized society," and the "administered world." For Adorno, we can only engage in this practice of when we pay attention to particular objects and listen to theirdis thinking cordant speech. This way of thinking is potentially a shared human form of praxis, since the qualities thatcan stimulate our own critical capacities are contained within the antagonistic features of the object: thepractice of neg ative dialectics exists at least as a possibility for thosewho can learn to see, listen to, and engage particular objects. By focusing on the rupturingqual ities of particular things that resist a systematizing logic, Adorno engages in a broader social critique to show how the supposed harmony of society under the logic of identityand abstract exchange is an illusion. But this practice of negative dialectics is premised upon what Adorno calls a "distanced nearness."2 To think in thisway, we must cognitively dis tance ourselves from mainstream society to lessen the force of conventional ways of thinkingand the force of the collective. But we must also distance ourselves from theobject of our analysis, so as not to violate it, to trulygive "preponderance" to the object and let its nonidentical qualities "speak."3 The specific conditions ofmodernity necessitate that we engage in negative dialectics throughpractices of withdrawal and distancing from mainstream society; paradoxically, to engage in the (potentially collective) praxis of


Political Theory

we must withdraw frommainstream society. This is, in part,why thinking, Adorno identifies an ethical and critical value in theposition of exile, in one who is not "at home": the exile, the emigrant, inhabits thismarginal space of "distanced nearness." Adorno does not idealize withdrawal but instead shows how itneed not necessarily be equated with apolitical apathy. To withdraw typicallymeans to pull back, to retire,recede, quit, and disengage. But Adorno's withdrawal furthers the kind of critical thinking thathe sees as essential to the idea of democracy. Negative dialectics instantiates, performs, and enacts the criti cal negation thatdemocracy depends upon and is defined by: Adorno says that "Critique is essential to all democracy . . .Democracy is nothing less than defined by critique."4 For these reasons, Adorno gives us a valuable language for articulating the political value of withdrawal itself.He gives us compelling reasons to hesitate, to refrain fromuncritically accepting the participatory imperatives of contemporary democratic theory.How can coming together collectively be the only solution for political problem solving when the individual is so easily lost to the collective and to con ventional ways of thinking?But ifwe define democracy only in terms of intersubjective action in a public sphere, we cannot see the political value of Adorno's work. The strengths of Jager's, Jenemann's, and Muller Doohm's analyses of the relationship between Adorno's life and work Adorno hinge, in large part, on how well they appreciate, or fail to appreciate, how is trying to reconfigure our traditional notions of what counts as a democratic political practice. Ultimately, maybe Adorno's supposed aporia is constructed by our own limited understanding of theparameters of demo cratic political practice.

II Jager presents Adorno's theory as critical of all engagement: democracy and positive political action were impossible and "all that remained in the frenzy of this disappearance was the abstract concept of 'resistance' . . ." (p. 177). To drive thepoint home in a personal way, Jagerquotes lettersfrom Adorno's friends expressing theirconcerns about the direction of his theory. In a letter to Leo Lowenthal, Siegfried Krakauer criticizes Adorno's disen gaged, quietistic, but "invasive criticism": "Ultimately everything remains as before, and basically he feels very comfortable with this . . ." (p. 179). Another letter, from Horkheimer, expresses skepticism about Adorno's "abstractnegativity"and notes "And on a personal level he remainsuninvolved"


/ Adorno

and the Politics ofWithdrawal


(p. 179). Another letterJager quotes from calls Adorno's

theory "the prod

uct of his own vanity" and describes his style as creating "beautiful spiral ing towers thatultimately lack foundation" (p. 179). Jager's presentation of Adorno retreads familiar ground: here is theAdorno who finds theoretical ways to legitimate and justify his own personal abhorrence to getting his hands dirty inmainstream, participatory politics. movements of the Jager goes into significant detail exploring the student 1960s, the time period when Adorno was attacked most viciously for his Adorno's lack of involvement. For Jager, failure is double: he himself fails to engage with the students of the 1960s who take up his "message in a bottle," but that message itselfalso fails in its application. Jager presents the performance artists who rightful inheritorsofAdorno's led the studentmovements of the 1960s as the theorybut sees this as a fact Adorno did not

want to accept. In rejecting them,Adorno repudiates more political inter pretations of his own theory in favor of a withdrawal. The failures of the studentmovement-and Jager does see them as failures-were nothing more than the failures of Adorno's own theory. In a particularly revealing passage, Jager invokes Lukaics' reading of Adorno: The 'Grand was now inhabited, while here and there Hotel Abyss'. . . groups were slowly forming who had literallytaken Adomo's invitationto resis tance. Adomo faced themlike a sorcerer'sapprenticeno longerable to con troltheelemental forces that he had unleashed. (p. 179) Jager doesn't call Lukacs' characterization of Adorno as a mandarin and a cultural elitist into question here; he simply notes that Adorno had found potential followers. And yet, for Jager, "In the end itwas those who were closest to most fromhim who turnedagainst Adorno and who had learnt the him" (p. 192): Adorno became "both the inspirational mentor and the first victim of the new studentmovement" (p. 195). The twomost visible student groups were led byAdorno's own students: the "kingpin" of theSocialist League of German Students was Hans-Juirgen Krahl, while Hans Imhoffwas an "action artist" influenced by theDadaist and Surrealist avant-garde (p. 194). Jager gives many interestingexamples of the students' attempts to apply their understanding of Adorno's theory through actions, demonstrations, theatrics, and "carefully timed distur (p. 206). Jager sees these students as trying to embody Adorno's notion of the "non-identical" and act in unexpected, awkward, disruptive bances" Adorno himself, after repudiating these actions, was ways.; unfortunately, often himself the targetof them.Students continually disrupted his lectures,


Political Theory fun of him publicly. During this time

attacked him personally, and made

period, Gunter Grass wrote toAdorno to complain thathe had not publicly shown himself to be on the side of the students and in support of social democracy. Grass wrote a poem called "Adorno's Tongue," which features a silver tongue that remains immobile and impassive as the action creeps closer; Adorno sits playing with his silver tongue and looking at it in a mir

Themes of failure and defeat also dominate the epilogue, titled "The Abandoned Room." Why does Jager give this title to the final pages of the book? He doesn't explain, but is he perhaps implying that even Adorno has leftand abandoned his hotel room in the "Grand Hotel Abyss"? Again, fail ure piles on top of failure. Jager's epilogue implies that Adorno ultimately The final pages of Jager's book abandoned his own ostensibly failed theory. show Adorno escaping to themountains, to Valais, a region in Southern Switzerland, in the period rightbefore his death: he died of a heart attack in thismountain region. Jlger says Adorno "fled" toValais where he "sought is portrayed as searching for peace, tranquility,reconcilia tion, to leave society to engage in unconscious reveries in nature. This search forpeace and reconciliation is deeply opposed to Adorno's dissonant practice of negative dialectics; thus Jager seems to imply that Adorno recognized the failure of his theory and ultimately abandoned it. Jager ends the book by Adorno wrote for his school-leaving going back to an essay on nature that In this Adomo noted that "anyone who sought out examination. early piece, in existence contrast to conscious civilization"' nature wanted 'unconscious of Adorno (p. 212). We are leftwith images seeking thoughtless repose in nature, going into the country to search for a home out of theworld. refuge"; Adorno

David Jenemann's Adorno is very different:he wants to revise the tradi tional image of Adorno as a "disengaged," "aloof," "anti-American intel lectual elitist." Jenemann notes that even Adorno's defenders affirm this image: because of the "administration of life at every level," Adorno saw the only "righteous position" as "disengagement from that system" (p. xvi). Jenemannwants to reconsider the idea ofAdorno as "an intellectual loner": "To dismiss Adorno as politically and socially detached is also tomisun derstand how thoroughly he immersed himself inAmerica's myriad forms Adorno's of entertainment and communication (p. xvii). Jenemann shows how were formed through significant thoughts on the culture industry interactionswith the radio and film industry,as well as Hollywood society.


/ Adorno

and the Politics ofWithdrawal


Jenemann gives us insight into the nature of the radio industryduring the 1930s and 1940s, the state of advertising, and the relationships thatexisted between the industry and organizations like Paul Lazersfeld's Princeton Radio Research Project (which employed Adorno when he firstemigrated to theUnited States). In addition, drawing from new sources, Jenemann also gives us new information about the extent of theFBI's monitoring and surveillance ofAdorno and other FrankfurtCircle members. The social history thatJenemann explores is very interesting,novel, and an important contribution to our understanding of the development of Adorno's critique of the culture industry. But there are inconsistencies and contradictions in how Jenemann frames his project and his portrayal of Adorno. These problems seem rooted in Jenemann's sense that to recuper ateAdorno's political and social value, he must prove his deep immersion, engagement, and interaction with mainstream society. But the way Jenemann frames his project and articulates his goals makes several prob lematic assumptions. Most fundamentally,he poses Adorno's withdrawal as primarily physical and corporeal. Jenemann argues against the image of Adorno as a kind of recluse or hermit. Thus to prove this image false, all Adorno was, in fact, physically engaged Jenemann has to do is show that with the culture industry: "he really did know the American radio industry; he knew the television industry; he knew Hollywood" (p. 186). But these are only surprising and original contributions ifwe had initially assumed Who can that Adorno's theorieswere not grounded in sociological research. read Minima Moralia and still thinkAdorno's critiques of America are uninformed? Or Stars toEarth? Or Prisms? Or The Culture Industry itself? I am unconvinced that theAdorno scholars who would comprise the audi ence for Jenemann's book thinkof his writing as formedwithout research, without being grounded in material experience. We would only think Adorno's writings weren't shaped by his own experiences with the culture industry ifwe see Adomo's "detachment" and his withdrawal as primarily physical, imagining him as a recluse or hermitwho didn't leave his study. But Adorno's "withdrawal" ismore complicated: it is not primarily physi cal or literal, but intellectual and cognitive. Perhaps because of his emphasis on the physical nature of Adorno's withdrawal, Jenemann fails to address some highly relevant questions he raises concerning how Adorno's "ethical position of exile" relates to his political value. In his introduction, Jenemann says, "I would suggest that it Adorno lays out in his alienating prose that is precisely the challenge that which to approach holds up exile as an-perhaps the-ethical position from American life . . ." (p. xxvii). Jenemann admits thatAdorno remains an


Political Theory "ethical position"; yet at the same time,

exile and identifies this as Adorno's

Jenemann's book is devoted to highlightingAdorno's immersion in the cul ture industry. Instead of exploring this paradox further, Jenemann ends the book on a note that in fact undoes themore complex image of Adorno he hints at in the introduction to thebook. In the coda, titled "Theodor Adorno, American," he implies thatAdorno is valuable to democracy because he cared deeply about America and because we need his critical insight in the Adorno's political value post-9/1 1 world. In effect, thebook concludes that is rooted in his commitment toAmerica, his immersion inAmerican cul commitment to "sub stantive democracy" by showing how deeply he cared for his temporary home, like Superman: from Created by young Jewish illustrators Siegel and Joe Cleveland, Jerry Schuster, Superman took his comic-book bow in June, four months after Adomo landed inNew York ... There is a poignant resonance between the German scholar Adomo and the serialized lifeof the exile experienceof the Man of Steel, a poignance that becomes more pronouncedwhen one consid ers that, both Superman andAdomo were committed to despite the fact that thenotions of 'truth, American way,' Americans ultimately justice, and the while Adomo has been dogged for embraced thesuperheroas a populist icon, years by charges of elitism and anti-Americanism.(p. 180) It seems inaccurate and misleading to say that Adomo was committed to "truth, justice, and theAmerican way," given his critiques of the culture mode of capitalist production thathe called "Americanism."s industryand the Adomo's complicated "ethical position of exile," Earlier, Jenemann alludes to but now we are presented with an oversimplifiedAdomo who, like Superman, America" is "committed" to theAmerican way and is in a "tendentious embrace of (p. 191). The second image that Jenemann invokes in his coda is 9/11, noting that September 11th (1903) was also Adomo's birthday. ture. Jenemann seems to try to highlight Adorno's

Jenemann argues that"in thepolitical aftermathof our September 11, it ismy belief that by embracing Adorno and his complicated relationship to the United States, Americans stand the best hope of defending the 'substantive democracy' Adomo himself so cherished" (p. 190). Jenemannwants to recuperateAdomo as a valuable figure fordemocratic politics, but he can't seem to find a way to do thiswhile retaining the image ofAdorno as working froma position of exile. His book lacks a deeper analy sis of what "withdrawal" can mean, of what itcan mean to be "not at home," to be an exile: tobe a part of somethingwithout being taken inby it. In other words, what is Adomo's unique, contradictory, and paradoxical brand of


Adorno /

and the Politics ofWithdrawal



withdrawal? Instead of addressing this dilemma, the book leaves us with a traditional image of Adomo as someone who embraces American democracy, as a political hero from whom we can draw inspiration. IV

Stefan intellectual is richly Muiller-Doohm's biography detailed,thor

oughly researched, well written, and engrossing to read. It is certainly the best biography of Adomo currently available in English (itwas translated is both a superb life and work are explored equally from German by Rodney Livingstone). Miiller-Doohm biographer and theorist, thusAdorno's well. He Adorno's

appreciates the complex, and indeed, paradoxical ways that status as an exile, as an outsider, shapes his theory and his poli

tics in valuable, if unusual, ways, instead of invalidating them.Muller Doohm explores thevital questions thatJenemann's book also raises:What does itmean to engage in politics, paradoxically, while also holding one

selfapart, andwithdrawing? by cognitively Muller-Doohm's distancing

Adorno was not a recluse or a hermit in his personal life.Miiller-Doohm shows how Adorno was a leading figure in the post-WWII rebuilding of Germany and was a prominent member of society, "in the spotlight of public affairs" (p. 385). Miiller-Doohm also makes itclear that Adorno does withdraw and distance himself frommainstream society and politics, in both his life and his theory.And yet, the result is not apolitical apathy. Muller-Doohm sees this withdrawal, this critique from the margins, as Adorno's unique form of democratic politics. As Miiller-Doohm notes,


exilemeant above all thefeelingsof exclusion and homelessness . .. On the of being uprooted,of release from one's bourgeois tra otherhand, thefeeling As someone ditions, also contained an element of autonomy and freedom. who had been marginalized,Adomo made theacquaintance of the interme who both live in society and yet are not diaryposition of those social critics of uncertainty between inside and outsidewas the ideal This start quite of it. observationpost from his point of view. (pp. 305-306) This critiquemust occur froma position on the margins because of the alien ated nature of life inmodem society,what Adomo calls "damaged life," in Minima Moralia. As Miiller-Doohm recognizes, the "end of individuality" and the loss of "self-determining active subjects" "must be regarded as a central featureof his analysis of the age" (pp. 388-389). Late modem society


Political Theory the individual's ability to negate conventions and the status indi

has weakened

quo: this is the aspect of "damaged life" thatposes the greatest threat to the possibility of democracy, which relies upon "mature," "autonomous" determination. If the "self' is constantly being viduals capable of thecritical thoughtnecessary for self-governmentand self lost to the collective, sacrificing autonomy to the group, then itbecomes politically important to learn to stand apart, to thinkagainst. As Muller-Doohm puts it,"democracy" for Adorno was defined not in termsof political institutionsbut by a person's capacity forcritical thinking,forquestioning conventions and the status quo: He emphasized the idea of political criticismsince, in Adomo's understand ing of democracy, the intellectualpractice of criticism was a definingele ment. Criticism was an essential component of all democracy; democracy was in fact tobe definedby criticism.(p. 387) But asMuller-Doohm has told us, for Adorno, this critique is best practiced Given the the from margins. topography ofmodern alienation, of "damaged mainstream society and the force of life,"we must distance ourselves from we are to be able to negate the status quo and imagine alter the collective if natives to "what is."Muller-Doohm gives an example of what motivates Adorno's withdrawal: he explains how Adorno's initial sympathy to the studentmovement, which "he interpreted ... as a resistance to thepressures to conform," became more cynical as he saw the movement itself mounting its own pressures to conform (p. 443). Even if the cause is good, the indi vidual thinkeris easily co-opted by movements. Muller-Doohm quotes from Adorno's "Marginialia to Theory and Practice": "More implicit and there fore all themore powerful, is the commandment: you must sign. The indi vidual must yield to the collective: as recompense for his jumping into the melting pot, he is promised the grace of being chosen, of belonging" (p. 462). Muller-Doohm describes how, for Adorno, thepressure "to sign," to publicly declare one's support for a movement, and to toe theparty-line, so to speak, more than left-wing fascism. And yet, for amounted to little Muiller-Doohm, Adorno's criticisms of such movements do not amount to a rejection of democratic politics as such.Muller-Doohm recognizes that,given the force of the collective in latemodernity,Adorno's democratic politics necessarily come in the form of a critique from themargins. Shannon Mariotti


of Withdrawal 465 Mariotti/ Adornoand the Politics

including "A considerable partof theleading Germanintelligentsia, 1.As Lukacswrites,
Adorno, have taken up residence in the 'Grand Hotel Abyss' excellent meals . . . 'a beautiful hotel, equipped of absurdity. And the daily with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, contemplation of the abyss between

or artistic entertainments, can only

of the Novel of the subtle comforts offered."' GeorgLukacs,TheTheory heighten the enjoyment (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,1994),22.
2. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, 90.

3.Adorno, Dialectics, 183. Negative and Catchwords (New inCritical Models: Interventions 4. Theodor Adorno,"Critique," York:Columbia University Press,1998),281.
5. In one essay, for example, Adomo (he cites de Tocqueville and Utopia," remarks that the most insightful critics of "Americanism" "Aldous Huxley and its attendant "unfreedom" were, surprisingly, native sons, such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Poe as a notable exception to his theory). Theodor Adorno, Press, 1983), 97. in Prisms (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT




in 19th-century American


thought and 20th Withdrawal:

century critical social theory.Her book manuscript,

titled Thoreau's


readsThoreau through the theoretical lens of Participation, and Modernity, Alienation, of the"hermit of Walden Theodor Adorno to illuminate theidiosyncratic democratic politics
Pond." She also has written an article titled "Thoreau, Adorno, Particularity," which will be published from Cornell University in A Political Companion and the Critical Potential of toHenry David Thoreau, theory in

forthcoming fromUniversity Press of Kentucky. She received her doctorate in political

in 2006 and is currently an assistant professor at Rollins College,

Florida. Winter Park,