chapter  50
FIFTY KEY POSTMODERN THINKERS
Pages 238

Adorno was one of the leading figures in the Frankfurt School of Social Research, a Marxist-influenced grouping based at Frankfurt University, which flourished in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s until it relocated in America after Adorno and his associates found themselves forced to flee the country by the Nazi takeover in 1933. After World War Two the School returned to Germany, although another key member, Herbert Marcuse, chose to remain in America, where he soon became a focal point for a new generation of political radicals through works such as One Dimensional Man. The School developed an analytical method known as ‘critical theory’, a blend of philosophy and sociology which they applied across the cultural spectrum: in effect, they were pioneering what has subsequently become known as ‘cultural studies’. Adorno’s writing, for example, comprises philosophy, social theory and aesthetics, often in collaboration with his Frankfurt School colleague Max Horkheimer. Much of Adorno’s later work is highly critical of Marxism, and could be described as post-Marxist in orientation, making him an inspiration for early poststructuralist and postmodernist thinkers (Jacques Derrida as a case in point), who picked up on Adorno’s deep distrust of authoritarian political systems and the absolutist philosophical bias of Marxism. Such anti-authoritarianism and anti-absolutism were to become intrinsic to the postmodern outlook, which progressively has distanced itself from Marxism, regarding it as having been superseded by historical events. The point made by Martin Jay that it could be argued that ‘Adorno was an ambitious failure, at least from the perspective of those who want solid and unequivocal answers to the questions they pose’ (Jay 1984: 163), is precisely what marks him out as a critical source for the postmodern. Adorno and Horkheimer’s most famous collaboration is Dialectic of

Enlightenment, written during World War Two. It is a book which is, not surprisingly, highly critical of the state of the world, and in particular the authoritarian socio-political systems which had developed between the two world wars, such as fascism and communism. These are claimed to represent the logical conclusion of the Enlightenment project of continual human progress, and as the authors acidly remark: ‘In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened Earth radiates disaster triumphant’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 1979: 3). Effectively, that constitutes the opening salvo in what is to become a sustained

poststructuralist and postmodernist campaign against the way the Enlightenment project has developed, and in particular the ‘grand narratives’ (or ideological systems) that have emerged from its cumulative influence in Western culture since the eighteenth century. For Adorno and Horkheimer the commitment to liberation and

progress had led instead to totalitarianism, with its belief that it knew best how to achieve those goals on behalf of humanity (more specifically perhaps, that its leaders, such as Hitler and Stalin, knew best and could force compliance with their programmes on those grounds). Neither are Adorno and Horkheimer much more sanguine about the alternative offered by Western liberal democracy, treating this as little better than a mirror-image of those authoritarian systems in its insistence that it constituted the ultimate answer to all our socio-political needs, an all-purpose grand narrative in its own right. All such systems demanded complete commitment and adherence to the cause from their followers and dismissed the claims to validity of all others: ‘The choice by an individual citizen of the Communist or Fascist ticket is determined by the influence which the Red Army or the laboratories of the West have on him. … The person who has doubts is already outlawed as a deserter’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 1979: 205). Such an outcome was hardly what the proponents of Enlightenment had envisaged when they set out to undermine the oppressive ancien régime in eighteenth-century Europe, but a similarly negative view of the Enlightenment project is to become a defining feature of postmodern thought. Eventually, Adorno is to hold the Enlightenment responsible for ‘Auschwitz’; the term standing for all the horrors perpetrated in the Holocaust. Auschwitz becomes deeply symbolic of the Enlightenment project

for Adorno, demonstrating the degree of inhumanity, up to outright barbarism, that its latter-day proponents are capable of inflicting in pursuit of their objectives. After an event of this magnitude, he suggests, it is all but impossible to engage in activities such as the creative arts; it is as if the higher ideals of humanity have been irretrievably compromised and it would be false to pretend that we can go on as before: ‘Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today’ (Adorno 1981: 34). Auschwitz has left a permanent mark on Western civilisation, to the extent that Adorno can even find himself wondering ‘whether one can live after Auschwitz’ (Adorno 2003: 435). He goes on to insist that steps have to be taken to prevent a recurrence of such barbarism: ‘The premier

demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again. Its priority before any other requirement is such that I believe I need not and should not justify it’ (Adorno 2003: 19). (Lyotard is later to reach a similar conclusion about the impact of the Holocaust in works like Heidegger and ‘the Jews’, arguing that it would be an act of bad faith ever to allow oneself to ‘forget’ such an event had occurred, and that many Germans were indeed guilty of just this sin – notably, from Lyotard’s perspective, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, a critical influence on postwar French philosophy.) Adorno also wrote extensively on aesthetic matters, particularly

music, as in his Philosophy of Modern Music, in which he strongly defended the musical style of Arnold Schoenberg against that of other contemporary composers such as Igor Stravinsky. Schoenberg’s compositional style, serialism (or ‘twelve-tone’ music, as it is also known), was for Adorno a revolutionary method, whilst Stravinsky’s early ballets such as Petrushka and The Rite of Spring presented a picture of the human race as ontologically, rather than ideologically, alienated, and thus were to be considered reactionary since their story-lines seemed to rule out the possibility of political change (one might question the comparison of a ballet score to Schoenberg’s generally more abstract orchestral work, however). In the event, Stravinsky has proved to be by far the more popular of the two composers, and Adorno’s defence of serialism, a style deliberately breaking with the Western classical music tradition by refusing to adhere to its system of tonality controlled by seven-note scales, cultivating ‘atonality’ instead, marks him out as a modernist sympathiser rather than a precursor of the postmodern. (Martin Jay has even defined Adorno’s dense and complicated writing, often criticised by commentators, as ‘atonal philosophy’ (Jay 1984: 56).) Postmodern composers are quite happy to use standard tonality (as in the work of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, for example), and regard this as a way of reconnecting with an audience which never showed much enthusiasm for serialism anyway. Indeed, serialism has all but died out as a musical style and the works of its major composers do not feature very prominently in concert-hall programmes. Adorno’s pro-serialism views also very much differentiate him from

the main trends of the time in Marxist aesthetics, such as socialist realism, with its campaign against formal experimentation and insistence on the use of older styles with a more obviously popular impact. To that tradition, Schoenberg’s style was elitist and did nothing to further the cause of proletarian revolution, therefore Soviet composers were banned from adopting the serial method and

required to use standard tonality in all their works. Any hint of dissonance at all was disallowed by the Soviet authorities, never mind the persistent presence of it in the work of the early serial school – namely, Schoenberg and his composition pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. In Adorno’s view, however, Schoenberg represented ‘progress’ (Adorno 1973: 29), having so uncompromisingly broken from traditional musical practice in the West and created an entirely new method of composition. Adorno’s Marxism is never less than iconoclastic, and it is not difficult to see why he ultimately feels the need to question some of the theory’s most fundamental principles, such as the nature of the dialectic. The work of Adorno’s which more than any other signals towards

postmodern thought is Negative Dialectics, which is a broadside against Marxism and all other totalising forms of philosophy, prefiguring one of the central concerns of postmodernism. Marxism takes over the concept of totality from Hegelian philosophy and similarly sees the dialectic as having a specific end-goal, although of course this is very different in Marxism than it is in Hegelianism, being materialistically rather than metaphysically inclined: dialectical materialism as opposed to dialectical idealism. So for Hegel the world spirit eventually realises itself in the perfect society (symbolised for him by the Prussian state, in which he was a prominent public official as Professor of Philosophy at Berlin University); whereas for Marx class struggle culminates in the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, the Marxist utopia, when the dialectic’s mission is complete. In Adorno’s reading, however, the dialectic was open-ended and had no final objective, a notion that proved to be very congenial to poststructuralist and postmodernist thinkers who rejected teleologically oriented systems in general and Marxism in particular. Adorno is adamant throughout Negative Dialectics that everything that happens in the world cannot be reduced to a system, or can ever be made to fit into a preconceived system; the ‘non-idealistic form’, as he pointedly describes it, of dialectics has long ‘since degenerated into a dogma’ (Adorno 1973: 7). The book turns out to be, as its translator E. B. Ashton puts it, ‘an apologia for deviationism’ (Adorno 1973: xi) from an ostensibly Marxist thinker. Without absolute identity, Adorno argued, there could be no tel-

eology of the kind envisaged by both Hegel and Marx, and Adorno dismissed this possibility: ‘The principle of absolute identity is selfcontradictory. It perpetuates nonidentity in suppressed and damaged form’ (Adorno 1973: 318). As far as postmodern thinkers are concerned there is no pattern to be found in history, never mind the inevitable trajectory towards the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’

posited by Marxism, and the future is to be considered wholly unpredictable. The critique of the notion of unity that is to be found in Negative Dialectics is to resound throughout postmodern thought.