Adorno the Right-Winger?

Theodor Adorno, despite his Marxist credentials, seems to get mistaken for a conservative rather often. I recall being in a politics seminar in which we discussed his idea of a ‘culture industry’ — that popular culture is a capitalist industry pacifying the working classes. Admittedly, I doubt anyone read the chapter in any depth. But the general impression was something like, ‘man, this guy’s conservative’. If you don’t like Hollywood, jazz or popular culture, you must be a conservative, so the logic goes. And indeed, were he to come out with these ideas today, he would surely be vilified. It is a delicious irony, then, that Adorno and the Frankfurt School have since been used to validate popular culture. You have to love the way history sweeps men and their ideas from any intended course.

I write this because I just started reading Philosophy of New Music. One should know one’s enemies and all that. Actually, that’s somewhat unfair. I kind of like Adorno, once past the ideological guff. He’s definitely not a conservative, but he might just be a reactionary underneath it all. I’ll leave you with an extract from his Minima Moralia, which is a collection of brief but interesting reflections in this vein. Compared to this, I’m a liberal:

Melange. – The usual argument of tolerance, that all human beings, all races are equal, is a boomerang. It opens itself up to easy rebuttal by the senses, and even the most compelling anthropological evidence for the fact that Jews are not a race at all, will in the case of a pogrom hardly change anything at all, since the totalitarians know very well who they want to kill and who not. If one wished to proclaim the equality of all those who bear human features as an ideal, instead of establishing it as a fact, this would be of little help. The abstract utopia would be all too easily reconcilable with the most devious tendencies of society. That all human beings would resemble each other, is exactly what suits this latter. It regards factual or imagined differences as marks of shame, which reveal, that one has not brought things far enough; that something somewhere has been left free of the machine, is not totally determined by the totality. The technics of the concentration camps was designed to turn prisoners into guards, the murdered into murderers. Racial difference was absolutely sublated, so that one could abolish it absolutely, if only in the sense that nothing different survived anymore. An emancipated society however would be no unitary state, but the realization of the generality in the reconciliation of differences. A politics which took this seriously should therefore not propagate even the idea of the abstract equality of human beings. They should rather point to the bad equality of today, the identity of film interests with weapons interests, and think of the better condition as the one in which one could be different without fear. If one attested to blacks [Neger], that they are exactly like whites, while they are nevertheless not so, then one would secretly wrong them all over again. This humiliates them in a benevolent manner by a standard which, under the pressure of the system, they cannot attain, and moreover whose attainment would be a dubious achievement. The spokespersons of unitary tolerance are always prepared to turn intolerantly against any group which does not fit in: the obstinate enthusiasm for blacks meshes seamlessly with the outrage over obnoxious Jews. The “melting pot” [in English in original] was an institution of free-wheeling industrial capitalism. The thought of landing in it conjures up martyrdom, not democracy.


11 thoughts on “Adorno the Right-Winger?

  1. I haven’t read him, nor will I at my advanced age but I have gleaned over the years that Adorno can be useful to ‘my side’ just as he can be useful to ‘their side’– which of us is misrepresenting him, I don’t know and don’t particularly care; as you wrote, ‘you have to love the way history sweeps men and their ideas from any intended course’.

    “The spokespersons of unitary tolerance are always prepared to turn intolerantly against any group which does not fit in: the obstinate enthusiasm for blacks meshes seamlessly with the outrage over obnoxious Jews.” Those ‘spokespersons’ don’t care, either, so long as they have weaponizable auctores to advance the interests of their masters– who, from my point of view, are the world, the flesh, and the devil.

    “The ‘melting pot’ [in English in original] was an institution of free-wheeling industrial capitalism. The thought of landing in it conjures up martyrdom, not democracy.” See, one sentence I can shake my head in agreement with and the very next one seems to me to be simply wrong, although I have no doubt an argument can be spun out that will seem to substantiate that notion of ‘martyrdom’.

    Happy reading!


    1. Yes, that last sentence threw me too. I thought I had finally found an Adorno passage I mostly agreed with, but alas…

      I don’t know if happy is the right word. It’s a bit of a slog. The idea is to read some Adorno and Schoenberg before reading Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which I’ve been putting off for a while now anyway. Not sure how far I’ll get.


  2. Ah, I see. Have only read that, once, years ago but do like his Magic Mountain enormously. I expect that the major theses in each are pretty much identical. Enjoy the reading!

    Did you catch the MacMillan Requiem earlier? I remain impressed, although my sense is that the percussion rather overpowers the vocal parts.


    1. Yes, I was actually at the concert. Quite tired after long train journey back so I’m not at my most lucid, but I did like it. In concert, the balance seemed fine. I was not taken with it though. My reaction to it was similar to my reaction to his John Passion, that it was too bombastic at times. I know MacMillan’s big orchestral works are much liked, but I prefer his more intimate works. Give me Seven Words any day; or even better, Since it was the day of preparation… Anyway, I will listen to it again tomorrow with the score. I certainly was impressed by its mood, which felt like decline, ending in a very unsettled way (with unusually long silence after for a proms). And Iestyn Davis, the counter-tenor, was fantastic.


  3. I think you’re right about the ‘mood, which felt like decline’– he did somehow work that sensibility into it. A Requiem is premised on ‘hope’, sure, but the texts are more preoccupied with addressing the fact that most human beings live lives that are more often than not found wanting in virtue and besmirched with sin and consequently require the purgatorial fires and the prayers of the saintly dead and the guilty but pious living; so my guess is that MacMillan puts Europa into that ‘dying and dead but, after a purgatory of sorts, who knows? perhaps resurrection’ dynamic– the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ suffered by an entire civilisation, The main difference of course is that it’s only people who are raised to participation in this action (cf the conclusion, ‘Chorus angelorum te suscipiat et cum Lazaro…’): societies have no guarantee of ‘rebirth’.


    1. That is more eloquently put than I could hope of. I’m at a slight handicap in interpretting the text in that I forgot to buy a programme, and I must confess my grasp of Latin is non-existent. (Ditto faith; I never encountered religion in a serious sense until discovering classical music.) ‘Hosannah is excelsis’ was about all I could make out (and that’s only because of a certain Christmas carol…) Hopefully a second listen, this time with score in hand and a programme I fished out of an Albert Hall bin, will be more insightful.


  4. What, do you know, does ‘JA’ at the Telegraph mean when he or she writes, “As usual, MacMillan’s music is effective in its blimpish way”– ‘blimpish’ here means ‘overstuffed with hot air’? then in what sense is it ‘effective’? it begins and then ends without crashing? That notice is here; Alan Sanders at Seen and Heard was less enthusiastic, although I have no idea who he is and he has the whole business of MacMillan’s use of the Latin wrong.


    1. I’ve seen ‘blimpish’ used as a term to knock conservatives before, though Wiktionary tells me it is generally capitalised if that is the intended meaning. I thought JA meant it was unwieldly and massive. How he can say that is ‘usual’ for MacMillan, who knows!


  5. (Don’t feel obliged to respond to each iteration of my nonsense! I quite realise that you have other things to do. 🙂 Honestly, if I had to choose I’d rather have been at tonight’s Monteverdi than MacMillan’s Requiem yesterday.)


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