Adorno and Horkheimer: The Dialectic of Enlightenment

The Dialectic of Enlightenment is a collaboration between Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer didn’t attain the fame of Frankfurt School peers like Adorno and Marcuse, but this was at least in part because he took on more responsibilities than they did, chairing the Institute for Social Research in its various locations and editing its publications. At any rate, the book is basically about how the project of The Enlightenment seemed pretty great for about 160 years or so, but that now (and by “now” I mean 1944, the year of the book’s release) are the direct result of those things that seemed good at the time.

Easily (and understandably) the best-known section of The Dialectic of Enlightenment is the essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” One of the earliest work of proto-cultural studies (no Robotech jokes, please), it considers the dangers inherent in the power of mass media to form consensus. While it is clearly haunted by the specter of Walter Benjamin, it focuses more on the fusion of the sub and super structures, rather than the inversion of the traditional Marxist understanding of their relative importance.

This is also plagued by the cranky and dismissive tone that makes Adorno’s jazz essay so funny, but much of what is here is interesting in prescient. In fact, there are a lot of points at which the reader is inclined to think, “wow, you dudes have no idea how good you had it.” The most obvious cause here is their inclination to think that mass media creates its own ideal consumer. Now, I’m sure that back in 1944 it seemed like the one-way street of radio communication seemed pretty dictatorial, but compared to the ostensibly user-sensitive pigeonholing technology of the internet that stuff comes off as a bit amateurish.

In true modern style, then, it’s the form of the warnings in “The Culture Industry” that make it interesting. The corollary to the outdated feel of their particular instances is the rather stark fact that this now quite venerable understanding of the risks involved in the compliance-creating power of media technologies has done nothing of any kind to disturb that power.

Adorno: Minima Moralia

I have a permanent bookmark in this book. It points to this (haphazard punctuation in original):

Had Hegel’s philosophy of history embraced this age, Hitler’s robot-bombs would have found their place beside the early death of Alexander and similar images, as one of the selected empirical facts by which the state of the world-spirit manifests itself directly in symbols. Like Fascism itself, the robots career without a subject. Like it they combine the utmost technical perfection with total blindness. And like it they arouse mortal terror and are wholly futile. ‘I have seen the world spirit’, not on horseback, but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel’s philosophy of history.

Minima Moralia is a book of epigrams, so really you can drop in anywhere. I just read 10 pages on either side of my epigram of choice. They revealed a lot of the sort of things Adorno is known for: racism snobbery, homophobia aaaaaaaand, lest we forget, profound insights. In particular my epigram of choice (clocking in at 3 pages, which is a real heavyweight for an epigram) has much to offer besides the incredible quote above (as if that weren’t enough.)

Entitled “Out of the firing line,” it starts by mentioning the fact that news coverage of air-attacks never fails to name the manufacturer of the aircraft involved. The scale of war, Adorno suggest, is now too great to be comprehended in human terms. Mechanization means that destruction is both tremendous and anonymous. The epigram, written in 1944, ends with the observation that there can’t really be an acceptable course of action in the aftermath of the war that was raging at the time.

To the question of what is to be done with defeated Germany, I could say only two things in reply. Firstly: at no price, on no conditions, would I wish to be an executioner, or to supply legitimations for executioners. Secondly: I should not wish, least of all with legal machinery, to stay the hand of anyone who was avenging past misdeeds. This is thoroughly unsatisfactory, contradictory answer, indeed one that makes a mockery of both principle and practice. But perhaps the fault lies with the question and not only in me.

I really like this too, and if my first reading of this work had come later than age 20, I may well have put the bookmark on the next page. The inability, or pig-headed unwillingness, to engage with contradiction (or, frankly, even gradation) is hallmark of the disastrous state of our discourse. Great philosophy is always applicable to current events, and this does that with real class.

So the whole going-easy-on-myself phase of this process is about to come to a screeching halt. The next book on the shelf is the Adorno/Horkheimer collaboration The Dialectic of Enlightenment and I will, of course, be compelled to read “The Culture Industry.” Now, this is better than it would be if I owned a copy of Negative Dialectics, but it’s not going to be a cakewalk.

Adorno: Prisms

I made some vague allusions to reading only “the musicology,” but in truth I only read the infamous “Perennial Fashion — Jazz” essay. Luckily, this was not out of laziness, but because I found it more intriguing than I remember it being. This is not to say that it isn’t still hilarious (because boy howdy), but there is something interesting to it.

The upshot of the piece is that jazz is quite shit, and also boring and repetitive. For the most part, he seems to be talking about commercial/big band jazz which, to be fair, is awful and banal. Still there is a lot of snobbery at work here, and Adorno is always talking about “real music” and the degree to which jazz isn’t it. To give you a little context that may explain what he means by that, I’m pretty sure that Adorno would have called Schoenberg the greatest musician of all time. Take that how you will.

So aside from simple snobbery, Adorno is concerned with letting you know that enjoying a commercial product in a non-critical way makes you prone to fascistic thought. There’s a lot of stuff about how dancing to syncopated rhythms is one (dance) step away from marching at a rally. It is tempting to greet this with a facepalm, but he presumably had musical numbers in films in mind when he wrote this, and it’s hard to say that there is nothing there. Further, Adorno makes much of a commercial product’s ongoing effort to efface history in order to present recycling as innovation.

Also, the article ends comparing the victims of commercial culture to “one of those Russians, accused of a crime, and who, although innocent, collaborates with the prosecutor from the beginning and is incapable of finding a punishment severe enough.” Presumably this is a reference to Bukharin, who will be making at least one appearance later in this process.

Big Plans for Everyone

The ladyfriend and I have been wrangling our bookshelves into shape. It has been quite a struggle, but the end is definitely in sight. This fact, however, throws into stark relief the fact that I have a ton of books that I ought to at least touch base with from time to time. The classics of the genre that one should recall upon occasion. Stuff like that.

So I’m going to do it. I’m going to read an excerpt from each of my philosophy books every couple of days and post about it. It’s going to be awesome. Serious! For the record, when one collects a certain type of book predominantly, one tends to fold other books into that type. This means that some sociology and psychology and assorted other types of books will be included here, but that’s probably a bonus, if you think about it.

I’m going to go in alphabetical order, so in a couple of days you’ll get my treatment of noted crank Theo Adorno’s Prisms. Because I want to go easy on myself in the early days of this endeavor, I think I’ll be sticking to the musicology.


In case you haven’t been following along, the ladyfriend and I picked up a house. Some portion of this process was recorded for television. In fact, we’ve just soldiered through our last shoot, so I guess the completion of the process is official. I am landed.

My feelings about this are not wholly unequivocal. Up until about 9 months ago, I hadn’t really planned on buying property any time in my thirties, and I’m pretty sure I’ve always assumed that I just wouldn’t ever have a detached house. I mean, I’m not really the kind, right?

What this shift means is still up in the air, along with everything else until all the detritus around here is beaten into some semblance of order.