Published by Ignacio Guerrero on Heathwood Press, 25 June 2015
“What is negative is negative until it has passed.”
In his newly published In the Hotel Abyss, Robert Lanning presents an Hegelian-Marxist critique of Theodor W. Adorno, the famous twentieth-century critical theorist, aesthetician, and musicologist. In the work’s title and content, Lanning reiterates and expands György Lukács’ charge that Adorno and other like-minded contemporary German philosophers had effectively followed the pessimistic example of Arthur Schopenhauer and metaphorically taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” which affords its guests “the daily sight of the abyss between the leisurely enjoyment of meals or works of art,” thus “enhanc[ing their] pleasure in this elegant comfort.”1 With his colleague Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s predecessor as director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (also known as the Frankfurt School) and his writing partner for Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), “Teddy” shares a common theoretical inspiration emanating from Marxism, as reflected in the profound critique he advances of bourgeois social relations, yet he largely rejects the “positive” moment of historical materialism, which foresees the birth of communism through global proletarian uprisings, the “parliamentary road to socialism,” or some combination of the two.
In this sense, Adorno almost merits the accusation of having advanced the paradoxical concept of a “Marxism without the proletariat.” The very opening of his last work, Negative Dialectics (1966), is illustrative in this sense: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” For Adorno the leftist German Jew, the “attempt to change the world miscarried.” If one reflects even for a moment on the vast atrocities and historical errors that marred the twentieth century, the latter claim here cited would certainly be justified—but then one asks, what next? Why the sense that history has ended—that the chance for social revolution or even relative improvement has been “missed,” never to return? Can there be no rebirth of rebellion? Lanning is right to stress that Adorno’s politics are not especially helpful as regards reconstructive anti-systemic action, or praxis. Hence, a palpable conflict can be seen between the constant demand Adorno’s political philosophy makes for negation, following Hegel’s example, and his practical suggestion that corrective action is useless and revolution inconceivable, amidst the putatively “absolute power of capitalism.”2
Lanning argues that Adorno’s political philosophy, though highly critical of capitalism and authority, is excessively negative: his view is that it can be summarized as amounting to “unfettered negativity” (172). Lanning denounces Adorno’s seemingly wholesale rejection of the actuality or even potentiality of proletarian resistance and the development of anti-capitalist and anti-systemic alternatives, in light of the established power of monopoly capitalism and its culture industries. In Adorno’s presentation, as is known, the working-class majorities of capitalist societies are reduced to thoughtless “masses,” both colonized by and integrated into capitalism—supposedly willingly, on this account. Lanning posits that such a point of view leads Adorno inexorably to adopt an “essentially […] defeatist perspective”: “to him the class struggle was already lost” (18, 25). Having repudiated the positive and practical aspects of historical materialism, Adorno concerned himself with specializing in high art and writing in an exceedingly inaccessible style—as in the image of the Grand Hotel Abyss, indeed—and his few forays into social studies suffer from significant methodological problems, in Lanning’s view. Above all, as Lanning emphasizes, Adorno’s theory of social change is basically non-existent, and the sparse work he focuses on this question rather problematic. Overall, the author of In the Hotel Abyss is concerned that Adorno’s readers are left dialectically disempowered, even subject to despair, as they contemplate the vast depravity of capitalism and the lack of resistance to the system that Adorno observes, and upon which he concentrates.
This new volume certainly presents many compelling criticisms of Adorno’s lifework, particularly with regard to the philosopher’s elitism and political aloofness—manifestations, to be sure, of his disregard for the unification of theory and praxis, or his doubts even about the possibility of such—and for this reason merits a great deal of consideration, discussion, and debate. Adorno’s philosophical system had many shortcomings, and Lanning helpfully illuminates a number of the most important ones. Yet some of the critique presented In The Hotel Abyss of the philosopher also reproduces Adorno’s own penchant for exaggeration, overlooking the real contributions he made and continues to make to anti-capitalist struggle.
In the Hotel Abyss: Challenging Adorno
Lanning’s critique of Adorno is at its most incisive in terms of the challenge it presents to those who may hold the critical theorist actually to have been left-wing or revolutionary. The evident disconnect between theory and practice highlighted by Lanning in Adorno’s case is notorious. Like Horkheimer, Adorno favored the total overcoming of bourgeois society—its determinate negation, taking from Hegel’s dialectical method. Yet he dedicated exceedingly little of his intellectual life-work to theorizing about political action or change, and even less to concretely organizing against the system. While he is well-known for his radical critique of capital, as elaborated perhaps most systematically in Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951), Adorno doubtlessly errs in holding dialectical contradiction to come to be effectively arrested within the Iron Cage of monopoly capitalism. Speculatively, Lanning hypothesizes that the theorist’s self-assuredness on this point serves precisely as a means of ignoring the very “working class outside Adorno’s door” (11). Admittedly, the absence of discussion about class struggle or revolutionary political action of any sort in Adorno’s oeuvre is evident, and glaring. Lanning suggests that Adorno would do well to reconsider Hegel, who defined the dialectic fundamentally as movement and development, as in the image of the seed and the blossoming flower or fruit. “Where Adorno sees the acquiescence of the masses to the immediate environment he should also see […] the possibilities for developing the individual’s relation to such powers [of capital] and the possible alternatives in the face of it” (36).
From these legitimate points, Lanning proceeds to take issue with Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics for being too radical, or too demanding: the charge is that Adorno’s critical negativism lends itself to an approach which overlooks the necessary intermediary steps between prevailing conformist resignation and the possible emancipated futures. Adorno “reject[s …] any behavior that appears to be positively oriented to the appearance of advancement, progress, partial resolution or sublation of contradictions” (46). Nothing “short of the complete negativity and annihilation of existing conditions” will do for Adorno. Lanning relates his complaint here about the theorist’s effective ultra-leftism to his claim that Adorno adheres metaphorically to the Jewish Bilderverbot, or the ban on images of the divine, as a negative theology which denies the possibility of something different. He further argues that Adorno’s employment of the Bilderverbot marks a distinct break from the Messianism of Judaism and the Jewish socialist tradition. However, it could be argued instead that Adorno’s use of the Bilderverbot illustrates the very revolutionism of his dialectical method, which must remain negative until global capitalist society is overthrown. On this point, in fact, it would seem more than a bit perplexing to accuse Adorno of being insufficiently messianic or utopian. One need only consult the finale to Minima Moralia:
Knowledge has no light but that that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.3
Violating this liberatory messianic sense, nonetheless, Adorno took a rather problematic view of jazz—one that is consistent with his analysis of the hegemonic culture industries, yet reflective of chauvinism and even racism as well. For Adorno, who first encountered the new musical style in Germany before the fall of the Weimar Republic to Nazism (1933) and his forced exile the next year, jazz was “perennial fashion”: supposedly standardized, commodified, and expressive of pseudo-individuality, jazz on Adorno’s account reproduces the subjectification of the masses through diversion, gratification, and integration. Clearly, Adorno did not associate the development of jazz with its African ethnomusical origins, or seem to have much of any familiarity with its relationship to the historical experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. For him, instead, it was an affirmative musical form that in practice served European fascism, particularly in Italy and Germany. Consideration of this viewpoint can help explain Adorno’s disturbing comments in “Farewell to Jazz,” an essay written in response to the ban imposed on jazz and all other expressions of “Negro culture” in Thuringia state following the Nazi accession to power there in 1930. In this piece, Adorno declares characteristically that, “no matter what one wishes to understand about white or Negro jazz, there is nothing to salvage.”4
Rather self-evidently, then, Adorno’s take on jazz is shocking: to portray it as an affirmation of subordination and alienation and thus ignore its historical and ethnographical context is at best to provide a very partial picture, or indeed to openly declare one’s distinct lack of sympathy with the struggles of Black people—that is to say, one’s racism. On this point, Adorno surely merits all the criticism he has received, and more. Furthermore, Lanning makes the important point that to merely dismiss jazz or any other musical style out of hand for the mere fact of its being commodified on the market is to overlook the very real dialectical possibilities that music can have as regards the emergence and expression of attitudes critical of existing power-relations. Lanning’s analysis is similar in terms of Adorno’s research on radio broadcasts in U.S. society, carried out at Princeton University following his emigration to the U.S. in 1938: the refugee intellectual either was not knowledgeable of the extensive contemporary use of the radio to promote the causes of labor and racial equality in his new host country, or did not believe such alternative programming to bear mentioning, in light of the dominance of the capitalist monster.
Additionally, in parallel, Lanning subjects Adorno’s research on authoritarianism and fascist propaganda to critical review. Overseen by Adorno, The Authority Personality (1950) in its methodology and design followed the first study from the Frankfurt School into the political attitudes of German workers during Weimar, as directed by Erich Fromm in 1931. This previous study was never published, due to its politically negative conclusions: it anticipated that the majority of German workers could be expected to go along with Nazism if it came to power, with small minorities being either strongly pro-Nazi or strongly anti-fascist.5 In a similar way, Adorno and company were motivated to examine the psychological potential for fascism in U.S. society, both by investigating it descriptively, as by theorizing its causes, with the activist end of inhibiting its advance. The resulting study, based on interviews with about 2000 formally educated, white, middle-class men and women mostly from northern California, was conducted by presenting participants with questionnaires such as the Anti-Semitism (A-S) Scale, the Ethnocentrism (E) Scale, the Politico-Economic Conservatism (PEC) Scale, and the Fascism (F) Scale. Dividing the results into a bimodal distribution of high-scoring or prejudiced persons and low-scoring or relatively unprejudiced individuals, the study’s authors take heart in their findings that the majority of participants did not betray extreme ethnocentrism. Yet Lanning calls into question the external validity of The Authoritarian Personality, or its statistical generalizability across society as a whole, by noting that Jews and trade-unionists were excluded from participation, to say nothing of people of color. Presumably, a more diverse study sample could have yielded even greater anti-authoritarian conclusions.
Lanning also shows how Adorno’s investigations into the radio broadcasts of U.S. fascist agitator Martin Luther Thomas—investigations that have been considered innovative, given the theorist’s social-psychological conclusion that fascism advances not just through elite manipulation of the people, but also (and perhaps moreso) through working-class or “mass” complicity—themselves converge with the projected situation Thomas praises: that is, that “large sectors of the population” are sympathetic to fascism due to their putative mindlessness and brutalization in labor (133). Lanning here identifies an unfortunate and revealing affinity between Adorno’s conclusions and the irrationalist hopes of pro-fascist agitators: the view that rationality is possible only for a small sector of the population. This insightful point notwithstanding, the author does not in good faith acknowledge that Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality expressly seek to promote reason as a counter-move to the fascist threat.
Lanning is nevertheless correct in identifying the principal methodological problem in Adorno’s account of fascism as being the theorist’s systematic exclusion from consideration of the proletarian, anti-fascist, and anti-racist movements actively raging around him, first in Germany and then in the U.S. Adorno does not discuss or ever seem to mention the hundreds of street-battles between the German Social Democrats’ self-defense group, the Reichsbanner, and the German Communist Party’s “Proletarian Hundreds” against the Nazi SA in the years before 1933,6 nor did he dedicate much of any attention to struggles for racial equality during his exile in the U.S. (1938-1945). One wonders how Adorno the radical could have overlooked the latter, having lived years in Harlem on Morningside Heights before his wartime move to Los Angeles. For Lanning, then, much of what Adorno claimed regarding authoritarianism was based on little more than “imagery” and self-serving “esotericism”; worst of all, it has functioned to “denigrate the legitimacy of working-class politics by ignoring [them], thus affirming the non-existence of an historical agent for socialism” (150). The author of In the Hotel Abyss identifies Adorno’s sometimes-colleague Ernst Bloch as a more insightful commentator on these matters, given the latter’s view that, however acquiescent the “masses” may be with capital and authority at any given time, this situation should not be taken as final, but rather should be interpreted as a process that can dialectically be “disrupted and redirected,” as reflected in the Blochian concept of the “Not-Yet.”
Lanning’s concluding chapter focuses specifically on Negative Dialectics, and scrutinizes Adorno’s seemingly circular sociological argumentation. In essence, Lanning’s claim is that Adorno holds history’s dialectical dynamic to have been effectively strangled under late capitalism—hence the view imputed to Adorno that culture and consciousness cannot be other than what they are, and that psychological and material subordination within bourgeois society themselves reproduce capitalist domination. Lanning concludes that Adorno broke from the Marxist tradition and “chose to freeze the relations he observed as real […]. His position is that […] these are insurmountable conditions” (191-2). Though the author of In the Hotel Abyss concedes in passing that parts of Adorno’s critique of reified consciousness have merit, he notes that such criticism itself only reflects the alienation resulting from bourgeois society, and he reiterates the charge that Adorno presents no alternative—thus in fact yielding a significant regression in comparison with Marx’s communist method. In closing, Lanning returns to his chastisement of the critical theorist for the latter’s supposedly boundless negativity as well as his undifferentiated critique of “the masses,” which papers over distinctions in class and the division of labor, and he charges Adorno with limiting resistance to the life of the mind and imagination, as in German Idealism, rather than advancing radical political struggle, as materialism does.
Discussion: Negative Dialectics and Anti-Capitalism
Lanning clearly presents a number of serious charges against Adorno’s critical theory. This reviewer concedes that the philosopher’s essentially theoretical orientation is of little use for the political question of how to displace and possibly overthrow capital and authoritarianism, and the contempt Adorno often expressed in life for workers and common people is profoundly lamentable. Both of these negative aspects can be said to reflect Adorno’s considerable privilege, as the male child of a Jewish wine merchant and a Franco-German artist for whom labor was an unknown experience in youth and early adulthood. It would seem that Lanning has something of a point in hypothesizing that Adorno’s elitism perpetuated itself as a “career-building” experiment in “abstruseness” (13)—though Lanning’s claim that Adorno can justly be portrayed as the forerunner of postmodernism is less tenable, as this academic trend lacks the German theorist’s anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. In addition, Adorno’s highly insensitive and even implicitly racist comments on jazz speak for themselves, and may justly cause those encountering them to reject a thinker with whom they may share other affinities. Yet it would be wrong to hold Adorno to have been an ethnic chauvinist, as ethnocentrism is one of the main critical foci of The Authoritarian Personality. In Minima Moralia, Adorno identifies white supremacism as the basis not only of anti-Semitism and the Nazi death camps, but also the repression of people of color in the U.S.: “The outrage over atrocities decreases, the more that the ones affected are unlike normal readers […]. The ceaselessly recurrent expression that savages, blacks, Japanese resemble animals, or something like apes, already contains the key to the pogrom.”7 In this same work, as well, Adorno recalls a childhood memory which complicates the view that his critical theory is irredeemably anti-worker:
In early childhood I saw the first snow-shovellers in thin shabby clothes. Asking about them, I was told they were men without work who were given this job so that they could earn their bread. Serves them right, having to shovel snow, I cried out in rage, bursting uncontrollably into tears.8
Though this passage is ambiguous—it is unclear whether the young Adorno’s emotional reaction is directed against the workers themselves, the injustice they face, or the normalization of such oppression that is expected of him—it at the least shows sympathy for the cause of repudiating class inequality and the realm of necessity. In naturalistic and Freudian terms, moreover, it is significant that this experience took place early in Adorno’s personal development. Of course, the link between the sharing of this memory and a commitment to a concrete syndicalist program is tenuous in Adorno’s case. Similarly, to return to the question of race, one would be hard-pressed to find Adorno expressing support as a public intellectual for contemporary anti-racist and decolonization movements. While Adorno opposed the Vietnam War on a philosophical level, claiming it to carry on the genocidal specter of Auschwitz, he did little to concretely resist it, in contrast to radicals like Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre. Meanwhile, the militant German student movement of the 1960s had arisen largely in response to the Vietnam War and the Federal Republic of Germany’s collaboration with its prosecution, as seen in the U.S. military’s utilization of West German air-bases. The student radicals’ demand that Adorno and Horkheimer publicly come out against the war was one of many that resulted in the conflict which ultimately led to the Institute director’s death on vacations in Switzerland in 1969.
Reading In the Hotel Abyss, it becomes clear how much Lanning dislikes Adorno’s negative-dialectical approach. This disapproval toward the Adornian system may in fact mirror a dismissal of the anti-authoritarianism of Adorno’s seemingly intransigent negativity. In what sense might this be the case? We have seen how Lanning repeatedly rebukes Adorno for his ultra-leftism—his “position […] that capitalism must be completely defeated in all its aspects before the possibility of meaningful change can be considered” (208). One wonders if Lanning realizes he is chastising Adorno here for being faithful to the young Marx’s admonition to engage in the “ruthless criticism of all things existing.” Lanning’s argument against Adorno is thus more than a bit reminiscent of Lenin’s designation of “left-wing communism”—that is, anarchism or syndicalism—as an “infantile disorder”: consider the author’s rejection of Fromm’s designation of expressed political sympathy for Lenin as an historical figure as reflecting an “authoritarian” rather than “radical” attitude within the study on workers in Weimar Germany (144n12). The resort to Lukács for the title and spirit of the work is also telling, given that, while Adorno the unattached intellectual is subjected to critique—no doubt, to repeat, much of it merited—Lukács the advocate of Party Socialism is not.
A fundamental point within Lanning’s argument that bears reconsideration is the author’s very presentation of Adorno’s putatively unrelenting negativity. In his discussions of Bloch and Walter Benjamin, Lanning seeks to depict considerable differences between them and Adorno, when in fact all three held similar political and philosophical views, and greatly influenced one another. While it may be true that Adorno is overall more negative than these two, there certainly are a few positive moments in his oeuvre which anticipate the possibilities of a post-revolutionary society. In his final work, Adorno defines the “objective goal” of dialectics as being the task of “break[ing] out of the context from within.” Further, “[i]t lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope.”9 Here, at the conclusion of Negative Dialectics, Adorno posits a vision that is heterotopic to Lanning’s account. Criticizing Schopenhauer’s fatalism and other Kafka-esque manifestations of the belief that the world is irrevocably absurd, Adorno makes the following observations:
However void every trace of otherness in it, however much all happiness is marred by irrevocability: in the breaks that belie identity, entity is still pervaded by the everbroken pledges of that otherness. All happiness is but a fragment of the entire happiness [humans] are denied, and are denied by themselves […].
What art, notably the art decried as nihilistic, says in refraining from judgments is that everything is not just nothing. If it were, whatever is would be pale, colorless, indifferent. No light falls on [humans] and things without reflecting transcendence. Indelible from the resistance to the fungible world of barter is the resistance of the eye that does not want the colors of the world to fade.10
This utopian underside of Adorno’s thought is similarly expressed in Minima Moralia, where the philosopher presents the following images as an alternative for the possible communist future: “Rien faire comme une bête [Doing nothing, like an animal], lying on the water and looking peacefully into the heavens—’being, nothing else, without any further determination and fulfillment’—might step in place of process, doing, fulfilling, and so truly deliver the promise of dialectical logic, of culminating in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to the fulfilled utopia than that of eternal peace.”11 Thus we see the selectivity of Lanning’s charge of Adorno’s “endless negativity” (208), and the inaccuracy of the claim that Adorno adhered entirely to the Bilderverbot. In this sense, it is unfortunate as well that Lanning ignores Adorno’s 1969 essay on “Resignation,” which was written in response to the criticisms raised precisely by Lukács and the radical student movement against Adorno and the Institute for Social Research. In this momentous intervention, Adorno defends autonomous thought as resistance and praxis: “the uncompromisingly critical thinker […] is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway.” As the “universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such,” the “happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity,” and whoever has not let her thought atrophy “has not resigned.”12
Whether one accepts Adorno’s defense of the prioritization of theory over action here or not, consideration of this essay and the other positive dialectical images mentioned above problematizes Lanning’s characterization of Adorno’s thought as being entirely negative. Incidentally, Lanning himself almost unconsciously recognizes this at the outset of his discussion of Negative Dialectics, which he presents as demanding a “second” negation to follow the insufficiently radical “first” negation of capitalism—the Soviet Union, say, or social democracy. Lanning then proceeds to write that the Hegelian “negation of negation” amounts to a “positive moment” (174), but he chooses not to connect Adorno’s thought to this point. On this matter, in point of fact, Adorno’s finale to Minima Moralia bears revisiting: “consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite.”13 From this perspective, the dialectical interplay between the fallenness of bourgeois society and its envisioned inversion in Adorno’s system comes to be seen as having subversive and even hopeful rather than quietistic implications.
The present review will end by raising an important problem in Adorno’s thought that Lanning points to but does not sufficiently develop: the problem of false consciousness and social determination, or who it is that determines social reality. Lanning argues that Adorno’s account of worker or “mass” acceptance of fascism and capitalism represents an exercise in victim-blaming. In Negative Dialectics and other works, Adorno does note that humanity is effectively imprisoned by the system which it reproduces and upholds—in an echo of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, a concept the transcendental Idealist describes as being inhibited by humanity’s “self-imposed immaturity,” which results from “indecision and lack of courage.” Lanning picks up on this, claiming Adorno to have viewed proletarian conformism as willful. While this charge against Adorno is partly true, as far as it goes, it is also too quick, in that it offers no alternative means of thinking through the observed problem of proletarian integration into capitalist society, and how this might be resisted and overcome. Certainly, a great deal of coercion goes into the reproduction of class society, as Adorno recognizes: “Proletarian language is dictated by hunger.”14 Yet one should not simply hold the capitalist game to proceed through the duping of the workers—for such a view removes the personal and collective agency of the subordinated, and all practical possibility of achieving something different. The present discussion on this complicated matter will close here, though the reviewer firstly should like to mention that autonomous Marxism has tried to address these issues in creative ways, in an echo of Étienne de la Boétie’s innovative Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1548), and lastly to emphasize that the interrelated problems of conformism and bourgeois destructiveness retain all of their acuity in the present day, nearly a half-century after Adorno’s passing.
1 György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 243.
2 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1982), 120.
3 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 ), §153 (emphasis added).
4 Theodor W. Adorno, “Farewell to Jazz,” in Essays on Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 496.
5 Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby, Social Character in a Mexican Village (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 23-30.
6 M. Testa, Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years of Resistance (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 53-84.
7 Adorno, Minima Moralia, §68.
8 Ibid §122.
9 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (Routledge: London, 1973 ), 406.
10 Ibid 403-5 (emphasis added).
11 Adorno, Minima Moralia §100.
12 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 289-93.
13 Adorno, Minima Moralia §153.
14 Ibid §65.