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Questions on

Intellectual Emigration

Theodor W. Adorno

Let me immediately take up the distinction between immigration and
emigration. Many of you might find it pedantic. But as an expression
of an attitude it appears to me to be considerable. The immigrant is the
incomer [Einwanderer] who enters more or less voluntarily because he or
she is attracted by the limitless opportunities. The emigrant is the one
expelled [vertriebene], the refugee, who seeks and — as we have done in
America — finds shelter. If we wanted to call ourselves immigrants, we
would be in the right in the sense of our immigration papers, but at the
same time we would deny our actual situation. We would express a zeal
that our American friends probably notice — even if they are too polite
to say so.
If we were in fact immigrants we could present ourselves as a spiritu-
ally [geistig] homogenous group — roughly like the religious sects during
the early settlement of America. What unites us, however, is not a fun-
damental attitude shared from the outset. What unites us is that we have
been thrown out [verstoßen]of Germany, something negative, which all
politically unconscious emigrants experienced as accidental, external, as
a hardship that was done to them. To refer to our lot as a common destiny
reminds one of the fatal German saying, “We’re all in the same boat.”
Such consolation degrades the individual to a mere member of the group
into which he was thrown and deceives about the horror of the world by
passing off senselessness as sense.
The questions, however, to which I want to draw your attention — 
namely, the ones that refer to so-called contribution — depend on such con-

Social Text 99 • Vol. 27, No. 2 • Summer 2009
DOI 10.1215/01642472-2008-029  © 2009 Duke University Press
German original © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main, 1986 159

What I mean are the individual academic fields. by expressing the insight they have without stealing a glance at success. finally of one’s self- abandonment. Our gratitude is more serious: it should not be misused in order to deliver high-sounding jus- tifications for bustle [Betriebamkeit]. If the demand for intellectual independence is not consistent with the dominant habits of American intellectual life [Geistesleben]. however. develop our morality according to the view of the commercial world. If our experience places us under an obligation. “Please excuse our having been born. No one 16 0 Adorno • Questions on Intellectual Emigration . then it is more decent — as regards America — to oppose such habits than it is to subscribe to and perhaps even outdo them. by comparing them with the new experience — but also with what happened in Europe — and continuing it. But who among us could claim that? Without the moment of freedom the talk about contribution turns into a transfiguration of conformity. seen from the other side. Such silly customs lie on the surface and can be seen through all too easily. for being spared our lives. the so-called positive sciences in which a new discovery or invention has always and everywhere been rated a contribution. namely. just as we think we are obliging them. however. however. Through such gestures we would insult our hosts. particularly the natural-scientific and technical disciplines as well as the theorems of formal logic and methodology that are part of the natural sciences. It is exactly such pressure. who conforms to the formula. that the intellectuals have to withstand through self-reflection. The material expropriation by the Germans forces countless among us to conform. and mock democratic ideals. of making oneself useful. it is to resist the oppression and injustice that today even a person who is wholly taken up with self-preservation would have to recognize.” and pay a premium. They can thank the Americans by sticking to their insight and experience. as it were. “This is how things are done over here. It is up to us to get in touch with the exponents of the American Geist who are different: who do not conform. There are intellectual spheres in which the notion of contribution has its place.” behaves more or less like those Jews in Germany of whom one joked that they had taken part in the Nuremberg Party Rally and carried signs that said “Out we go!” “In we go!” is the same thing. For the idea of contribution implies the claim of deliberateness: that one originally feels attracted by a sphere of life and that one wants to prove to oneself and others the right to be accepted into the new circle on account of one’s accomplishment. In other words. Human rights were not intended as a reward for obedient conduct. joining in. and customer service. We may not. The intellectual. Otherwise they betray the Geist to which they lay claim. that one should offer people remuneration. siderations. It is as though we — because we escaped the gas chambers of the Germans — wanted to recommend ourselves with the words.

However. it is inseparable from insight into meaning. But no unbiased person can close his or her eyes to the fact that the essence of the humanities does not actually consist in that. the restoration of a difficult musical text from the Middle Ages. elude any uncomfortable reflection. Most of the time. and deny themselves any seriously deviating productivity. they are satisfied with making contributions (be it actual ones or those to the cultural bustle). then that reflects the recognition of the obligation to transcend the merely given and existing — not only for the sake of the possibility that something better might be achieved. It seems to me that this is what the emigrant intellectuals are to blame for. however. the discovery of new philologi- cal interrelations. and mendaciousness of such conventional wisdom. Even a historical fact — however coarse it may appear to be — becomes understandable only when one relates it to the life process of society as a whole. philosophical thought is left to kitsch and noncommittal worldview literature [unverbindlichen Weltanschauungsliteratur] whose ideals are already roughly tailored to the standards of Hollywood — even before the final editing of a film is undertaken. the more problematic the idea of contribution becomes. with Hegel. Some form sectarian schools of philosophy that are just as specialized and limited as their German models. even the dating of a certain painting might be part of the formula for a contribution. This. finally to truth itself. If great philosophy at its prime. it is inseparable from a critical moment. In other words.will deny that the emigrants have made such contributions in abundance. and con- tradiction. Granted. This demand. equally to its positive and negative moments. however. any way of looking at a problem in the humanities — even if it were a statistical finding of modern sociology — presses toward philosophical theory in order to be insight at all. and thereby the demand that the beholder equal it. One only has to contrast such a notion of conceptual work with the talk that something positive has to be accomplished in order to become aware of the shallowness. which to a great extent reflects industrial organization. Even the biggest work of art — and it especially — contains this critical moment. coherence. For contribution naively presupposes the merit of the order to which one is supposed to contribute something. is never a contribution in the sense of a palpable result but rather reflection about the results and finally about the essence of contribution itself. the more one approaches the humanities. leaves it up to every intellectual to either integrate Social Text 99 • Summer 2009 161 . smugness. It is precisely the merit of the order that is to be questioned. In general. Rather. This is not wholly a matter of individual guilt. applies to every insight into that which takes place in history and society. equated the work of the mind [Arbeit des Geistes] with the principle of negation. namely. but also to be able to grasp the merely given in the first place. however. The organization of American intellectual life [Geistesleben].

music. Let me give you two examples. He had stopped to reflect critically when faced with the notion of culture. Instead of again denying ourselves critical thoughts. once had the idea to measure culture by means of the methodology that over here has evolved to an extraordinary degree and conduct statistical surveys on the con- sumption of cultural goods. if culture was not precisely the opposite of those thought processes with which he proposed to investigate it. On the contrary. A second example: a German philosopher who had been close to the so-called existentialist philosophy of Heidegger and whom one had been unable to acquit of certain nationalist leanings over there told me that he was happy about having to write in English rather than German: the 16 2 Adorno • Questions on Intellectual Emigration . In reality. What America lacks are loopholes. we should develop them in relation to the new situation. which are at home in our way of thinking and have been eradicated in Europe. The sociologist I was talking about — who. Rather. him. paintings without even as little as asking himself if culture did not consist in precisely that form of experience and spontaneous memory that resisted its translation into facts and numbers. By contrast. will have probably changed his mind in the meantime — has closed his eyes to the fact that consumer culture is no longer what it claims to be — simply because he has equated culture with intellectual consumption [geistiger Konsum]. I think that it is precisely the all-too- swift application of technical methods to culture that stands in the way of cultural critique. He contented himself with the idea that culture was the consumption of books. in other words. is referred to the market and competition and is controlled by consumers to a hitherto unknown degree. it is exactly the devouring of bestsellers. a man of great abilities. To experience an intellectual object is not to enjoy it but rather to grasp it — and that necessarily means to understand it critically. One of the most successful social scientists of the Emigration. and standard symphonies that destroys the relation to intellectual goods that it supposedly testifies to. Please do not misinterpret my words as being supportive of cultural conservatism that plays off an allegedly organic culture against technological civilization. by the way. which is unprotected. films.or herself or to remain a powerless outsider. it should be our task to deny — as far as that is possible — to the established bustle the corresponding and standardized contribution. Intellectual work [geistige Arbeit]. He did not ask himself. Europe — which is not organized down to the last detail — offered its independent intellectuals such hideouts. Natural-born citizens who know their way around the branching of the sys- tem can at best evade its constraints. We — who encounter the all-powerful institutions wherever we look — are tempted to resignedly relent and to even make a moral principle out of our compliance. Culture that is blindly accepted and branded as something of absolute worth is already barbarism.

however. In reality there is no other answer to the questions that I have posed than elaborated philosophical theory itself. I want to concede to you that the gesture of demand possesses something that is as unpleasant as the format of terse theses. Even if people preach to us that a transfer of our European past is impossible. the sum of one’s experience. All of these things are — as I know only too well — relatively formal indications. Instead. But I do know that enthusiasm for the new language. 1. The thinking person in the Emigration should not fool him. which none of us can write in the way at least some of us could write in German. not only amounts to the fact that one abandons all nuances and expressive aspects of thought — that is. It. and the difficulties in the new country and come to the obvious conclusion. one does not actually achieve a crystal-clear wording of one’s ideas. and I want to ask you to excuse the immoderateness of expression with the difficulty of the issue.or herself about beginning life anew. to analyze the circumstances themselves. If one tries to make Geist altogether practical and to attach an instruction to every thought as to what one is to do with it. we should at least remain conscious of the fact that people who do not delete themselves as Social Text 99 • Summer 2009 16 3 . one should consider one’s past life. however. It also boils down to the fact that one coarsens and reifies the things themselves — the consequence of which is that their substance disappears. the things of which a thought’s life actually consists — for the sake of communication and comprehensibility. Let me instead and at a stroke sum up in four theses what I deem to be legitimate demands on the intellectual Emigration [Forderung an die intellektuelle Emigration]. No thought is independent of the form of its commu- nication: assuming so already presupposes a distinction between thing and experience that stems from the most disastrous tendencies of contempo- rary language forced him to think through every thought immeasurably more clearly than before. one cuts them into little chunks — one is even afraid to put long sentences down in writing — and stirs them in a general sauce of intellectual [geistigen] communication. It befits thought to critically describe this distinction instead of tacitly submitting to it. Before that. however. I do not want to decide whether that compul- sion was actually salutary in his particular case or not. It would be the task of thought. What defines one as an individual is barely good enough to serve as a mark of the colorful personality and sufficiently distinguish one from one’s competitors whom one otherwise equals in all respects. Rather. cannot even be hinted at in a contribution to a discussion. By pretending to cultivate noble simplicity and silent greatness and shedding European tortuousness and extravagance. the European catastrophe. one accepts the existing circumstances within whose framework this practice takes place.

speculation. we may hope to contribute to that end only if we do not blindly devote ourselves to the existing. The dangers that I indicated stem from the need to sustain one’s life — a need to which the intellectuals among the emigrants are subject like everybody else. While we should learn everything that can heal us of the illusory moment of German thought. 3. and unconcerned insight. that has remained with us. 2. we should accept them in the harsh knowledge of the compulsion weighing on us. as it were. What I mean to say is that whenever we are forced to make concessions. The more the universal control mechanisms of the academic bustle [wissenschaftbetrieb] check the correctness of each and every one of our thoughts. We have no other choice than to transfer the nontransferable. we should at the same time not curtail our imagination. we should become aware of the possibilities contained in the overpowering reality over here and — by virtue of these possibilities —  try to resist the pressure of the ubiquitous machinery. We are caught up in the Ger- man temptation to not be able to tell a lie without at the same time believ- ing it — of all things German. We should remain unflustered when conducting our material work. We should not deduce pro- hibitions on thought from the compulsion to render everything in facts and numbers. in reality only he or she who is not cleverly intent on speaking to people speaks to them. In a world in which everything is communication. we should endeavor to express what we have in mind purely and without regard for ends and communication. the more we should remain aware of the fact that truth is only contained in the thought that manages to slip through the mechanism of control. I have reached the end. We should not let ourselves be made stupid. What I advise is neither defiance nor a situation in which we are viewed as curiosities who — for the sake of their peculiarity — are gaped at and perhaps also fed. 4. Let me repeat: my suggestions were not intended as an unworldly homily.  — Translated by Mark Kalbus 16 4 Adorno • Questions on Intellectual Emigration . we should not accept them as our own will with beat of drum and flourish of trumpets. That is to say. Especially when we are in earnest about achieving a better society. individuals are not blank slates and that the notion of beginning anew con- stitutes an illusion in the intellectual realm. The superior strength of the immense industrial apparatus over the indi- vidual should not entice us into idolizing the world in which we live and that dominates us. Rather. Rather.