Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life by Theodor W. Adorno
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It helps to know that this 1951 book, an unclassifiable philosophical masterpiece consisting of 153 divisions ranging in length from the aphorism to the brief essay, was written largely in the light of Southern California. Adorno was a German-Jewish philosopher and member of the Frankfurt School, an institute devoted to the investigation of social phenomena from a neo-Marxist perspective inflected by psychoanalysis and German Idealism. Exiled from Germany by Nazi race laws, Adorno spent the war years, among other exiles like Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg, under and within the even yellow blue-sky sunlight of Los Angeles.
Minima Moralia, a book whose ironic title suggests how little remains in the middle of the 20th century of morality or of a good life to which it might pertain, radiates a sense of malign benignity, of catastrophe, crisis, and slaughter concealed behind a deceptive pleasantry; Adorno denounces midcentury society as a whited sepulcher whose consumer pleasures and technological marvels mask a process of unremitting domination whose already completed climax was the Holocaust.
Adorno’s critical disposition has been so mocked and memed by now, stereotyped with evasive irony as mere gloom-mongering by those who suffered and thought less than he did, that his work can be difficult to discuss. Let’s begin a discussion, then, not with his infamous judgments—about the crypto-fascism of jazz and cinema and astrology and The Odyssey and just about everything else in consumer society or in western civilization at large—but with the philosophy that brought him to his doleful conclusions.
Adorno was an adept of the philosophical method called dialectics. In a hysteron proteron worthy of Pynchon, he explains the origin and the dilemma of dialectics three pages from the end of his book:
The dialectic stems from the sophists; it was a mode of discussion whereby dogmatic assertions were shaken and, as the public prosecutors and comic writers put it, the lesser word made the stronger. It subsequently developed, as against philosophia perennis, into a perennial method of criticism, a refuge for all the thoughts of the oppressed, even those unthought by them. But as a means of proving oneself right it was also from the first an instrument of domination…
The dialectic, then, abjures transcendental truth, truth that stands outside the world as posited by Plato and his followers, in favor of immanent truth consummating itself by ideological conflict within time and collective human experience. Hence its use as a weapon of the oppressed against the dogmas of their rulers, but also its serviceability to anyone who would shake any conviction whatever, even in service to the cynicism of power. Ideally, dialectics says that truth would be the progressive self-realization and actualization in history of human reason, until we reach our perfected form in the ethical society, whether conceived as the modern nation-state, a communist future, or our own end-of-history liberal capitalism.
In the dedicatory preface to Minima Moralia, inscribed to his collaborator Max Horkheimer on his 50th birthday (also Valentine’s Day), Adorno declares his intention to correct Hegel’s concept of the dialectic, because it subsumes every element of experience in a totalizing progress that vanquishes all difference. Adorno thus dissents from Hegel’s dialectics, which the 20th-century post-Holocaust thinker arraigns for neglecting the individual and preparing the way for totalitarianism. But you can’t outwit a dialectician: he will only synthesize your antithesis with his thesis. In this way, Adorno is faithful to Hegel, presents him with a Valentine bouquet, precisely by criticizing his system. This is the Frankfurt School method of immanent critique: assailing a theory in its own terms for not realizing its own potential: “the self-criticism of reason is its truest morality.” The dialectic should mean liberation; if the historical process has produced only oppression, then the dialectician must side with those oppressed by the historical process if it is ever to be righted again. “The whole,” Adorno argues contra Hegel, “is the false.”
Adorno wrote an earlier book with Horkheimer called The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). There they describe how the human mind seeks to escape the domination of external nature by learning how to dominate nature in turn. This rational mastery of nature is an emancipation, because it frees humanity from subjection to the external world (often in the most literal ways: stemming floods, dousing fires, etc.) along with the superstitions and myths devised to propitiate the uncaring cosmos. On the other hand, as the mind brings more and more of nature under its command, and enthralls or oppresses as well those human beings the rational ruling classes designate as irrational (women, the lower orders, people of other races, etc.), it re-enslaves humanity at large to nature, now justified as “the way things are” disclosed by reason.
This theory is the necessary background to the manifold denunciations of modern culture undertaken by Adorno in Minima Moralia. Often not distinguishing among liberal, fascist, and communist societies, Adorno sees all of 20th-century modernity as a progressive enclosure of the human within mechanical systems that crush thought, spontaneity, complexity, creativity, and individuality. There are passages in this book where he links the dissolution of interpersonal courtesy (which, with a respectful concern for beauty and distance, mediates power relations between people), the driving of automobiles (which accommodates humanity to the inhuman mechanism), and even the decline of hotels (which, he argues, have become impersonal, sexless prison-clinics) to the rise of fascism: everywhere he looks in 1951 Adorno sees naked power perfected as an all-encompassing social machine.
It is ironic, then, that Adorno should mainly be known today outside universities as a figurehead for what the political right calls “cultural Marxism.” In fact, Adorno was not much of a Marxist: in the final lines of this book, he comes very close to saying outright that he only still believes in Marxism “because it is absurd,” i.e., as a kind of desperate religious faith the abandonment of which would mean siding against fascism’s victims.
Elsewhere, he contends, in a passage that would not find a ready reception on Twitter today, that only the educated bourgeoisie can even be trusted to create revolution because only they, as the indigenes of bourgeois society, are capable of its immanent critique:
There is to be found in African students of political economy, Siamese at Oxford, and more generally in diligent art-historians and musicologists of petty-bourgeois origins, a ready inclination to combine with the assimilation of new material, an inordinate respect for all that is established, accepted, acknowledged. […] One must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly. […] It would be poor psychology to assume that exclusion arouses only hate and resentment; it arouses too a possessive, intolerant kind of love, and those whom repressive culture has held at a distance can easily enough become its most diehard defenders.
Since I, as a semi-diligent writer and critic of petty-bourgeois origins, am grouped with the naive African and Siamese students as incapable of truly hating tradition because we do not really possess it, let me allow that even here Adorno has a point: I have certainly never been fond of the canon-smashing (as opposed to canon-expanding) impulse indulged by some who claim to be the heirs of Adorno’s critical theory, and perhaps that is because I came to the canon on my own, not as my inheritance or even, except desultorily, my education, but precisely as a counter to what I found at home and in school.
My main argument here, though, is that Adorno’s high-handed lecture hardly represents orthodox Marxism: it is a professor’s dream of bookish revolution. Adorno made a fetish—or, more charitably, an article of faith—out of “the oppressed,” for the good reason that he had as a Jew joined their number despite his privileged upbringing, but he remained a defender, however ambivalent, of the high culture to which he was the legatee. He would have little patience for attempts to achieve equality by lowering standards:
Condescension, and thinking oneself no better, are the same. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility and violence needed to exert domination.
The cultural deprivation of the oppressed, their exclusion from educational attainment, is the very mark of their oppression; to adapt one’s own behavior to it, then, is a patronizing reaffirmation of inequality:
In the end, glorification of the splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the splendid system that makes them so.
Here we come to Adorno’s complete contempt for mass culture, which I find so refreshing in these poptimistic times. Borrowing Walter Benjamin’s insight that every document of culture is a document of barbarism, Adorno explains the dual character of high art, of the classics. On the one hand, these works, with their model of a richer, more various, more intense, and even sometimes more just life, implicitly rebuke by contrast the injustice and privation we encounter in the actual world. But the classics are unable to bring about a better state of affairs, existing as they do in the autonomous, thus impotent, realm of art. Moreover, because they themselves become adjuncts of oppression through their contexts as (usually) the work of elite individuals and through their function as class markers or nationalist props, they testify to the need for actual remediation of our social life. Pop culture, though, as pacifying product prefabricated by the culture industry, offers its audiences only a smooth surface unable to challenge or surprise; beneath its shiny veneer, it is all barbarism, no culture:
The stagnation of the culture industry is probably not the result of monopolization, but was a property of so-called entertainment from the first. Kitsch is composed of a structure of invariables which the philosophical lie ascribes to its solemn designs. On principle, nothing in them must change, since the whole mischief is intended to hammer into men that nothing must change.
Hence Adorno’s praise for difficult modernist art like that of Kafka and Beckett, art that impedes immediate understanding to make impossible passive reception or evasion of the Rilkean command, “You must change your life.”
If the conservatives who rail against “cultural Marxism” were to rise to the challenge of reading Adorno’s mind-bending prose, they might find an ally rather than an adversary. Adorno judges socialist utopianism vulgar, merely a power trip that can only produce images of the good life out of experiences of the bad life, leading inexorably to totalitarianism; faithful to Proust, he finds sustenance in the past, in the old bourgeois world eliminated by leveling mass society and fascist politics, and even in the domestic realm from which images of peace and freedom come:
Unpolitical attempts to break out of the bourgeois family usually lead only to deeper entanglement in it, and it sometimes seems as if the fatal germ-cell of society, the family, were at the same time the nurturing germ-cell of uncompromising pursuit of another. With the family there passes away, while the system lasts, not only the most effective agency of the bourgeoisie, but also the resistance which, though repressing the individual, also strengthened, perhaps even produced him. The end of the family paralyses the forces of opposition. The rising collectivist order is a mockery of a classless one: together with the bourgeois it liquidates the Utopia that once drew sustenance from motherly love.
This nostalgia, motivated partially by the danger faced by Adorno’s own persecuted parents in Germany (he notes the Nazis’ penchant for terrorizing and murdering the elderly), accounts for his essays’ frequent allusions to fairy tales and children’s books (Struwwelpeter, Alice), which, he suggests, having been left out of the dialectic of high art, may disclose an otherness un-subsumed by progress. Just before his elegy to the family, he even recants his generation’s oedipal revolt:
Even the outdated, inconsistent, self-doubting ideas of the older generation are more open to dialogue than the slick stupidities of Junior. Even the neurotic oddities and deformities of our elders stand for character, for something humanly achieved, in comparison to pathic health, infantilism raised to the norm. One realizes with horror that earlier, opposing one’s parents because they represented the world, one was often secretly the mouthpiece, against a bad world, of one even worse.
Adorno’s suspicion of modern youth validates more than almost anything his conflation of fascist, communist, and liberal societies, all of which weaponize the young to disarticulate any institutions that stand in the way of total state or market administration, from the requisitioning of Hitler Youth to Maoist Red Guards struggle-sessioning their professors to American teenagers insisting in the name of consumerism on every fad and trend.
The denunciation of “Junior” was to prove prophetic during the upheavals of the late 1960s, when Adorno was shamed, protested, and humiliated by student radicals (“If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease”), a sustained assault by figures who would now be labeled social justice warriors that probably hastened his death from a heart attack in summer 1969. According to Stuart Jeffries’s entertaining 2016 popular history of the Frankfurt School, Grand Hotel Abyss, Adorno’s colleague Herbert Marcuse enjoined him to sympathize with the protestors, but Adorno, while agreeing with many of their aims, remained adamant that their irrational violence was reminiscent of fascism.
While he makes overtures to feminism (“The feminine character is a negative imprint of domination”), his overall politics of gender and sexuality are conservative by today’s standards. He adopts the midcentury left’s Freudian homophobia, diagnosing fascist brutality as repressed homosexuality:
In the end the tough guys are the truly effeminate ones, who need the weaklings as their victims in order not to admit that they are like them. Totalitarianism and homosexuality belong together.
He argues that the downfall of traditional marriage in the name of true love is a symptom of a society that disguises capitalist cunning and selfishness behind immediate sensationalism, today honorifically labeled “desire,” and that therefore the most radical gesture is fidelity: “He alone loves who has the strength to hold fast to love.” He dismisses “actually-existing socialism” as totalitarian and mocks western left-liberal bohemians as a hive of radical-chic conformists:
What they subjectively fancy radical, belongs objectively so entirely to the compartment in the pattern reserved for their like, that radicalism is debased to abstract prestige, legitimation for those who know what an intellectual nowadays has to be for and what against. […] They are already just like the rest.
None of this is to say, though, that Adorno is not himself radical; he always goes to the root. It is what makes his prose, dialectic-governed, always coiling and reversing on itself, reading in Jephcott’s translation as if it were written less in German than in Hegelian, such a strenuous thrill. When you trace domination and oppression to their roots, you find that their roots are so deep they may never be extirpated, that they are entangled with the very structure of mind and world.
For example, in the remarkable penultimate passage of the book’s first of three major divisions, Adorno notes that time itself produces domination. Because we met our lover before any other lover, we think we may possess her; because we were born into a nation, we think latecomers like immigrants should be ejected. “Abstract temporal sequence,” not morality, governs our decisions: “I was here first,” a claim as morally dubious as the right of might. Even so, totally free love and totally open borders may not be entirely practical solutions; what are we to do about time, in which, after all, we live?
What we are not to do, Adorno makes clear, is to seek refuge in the occult. Minima Moralia climaxes with its famous “Theses against Occultism,” which condemn magical thinking as a confusion of categories that distracts us with over-literalized supernaturalism from really changing our lives by altering our societies. Traditional religions like Christianity and Judaism are superior to occultism, since they take the union of flesh and spirit, secularized in dialectical thinking, much more seriously. (Adorno even included an attraction to astrology as an indicator of latent fascism in his sociological research, anticipating today’s apparent trend of “straight men hating astrology.”) He likewise condemns the decadent modernism of Poe and Baudelaire, eulogized by his erstwhile friend Walter Benjamin, for contributing to fascist sensationalism. Such modernists offer a sensationalist pseudo-relief for industrial society’s enervations that, requiring stronger and stronger stimuli to achieve the same nervous charge, leads eventually to the shock tactics of war and genocide.
Adorno lauds instead the more stringent modernism of Proust, Mann, Kafka, and, later, Beckett; their modernism was left behind by the mere trendiness of the culture industry with its ever-new product and content posing as a bold futurism, but precisely high modernism’s belatedness and its lack of complicity with kitsch make it a perennial resource for resistance to the dominant order. As a writer, Adorno aspires to the modernists’ literary devotion and asperity, to the post-Flaubertian demand that prose be a woven text that excludes “the word coined by commerce” and every other florid lie:
Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air.
This unyielding radicalism, this fearlessness of thought and sedulousness of prose, makes Minima Moralia a masterpiece. Sold as a contribution to Marxism, it offers little in the way of political advice; it is so political that it is in fact apolitical. Generally read in the company of more locally Marxist thinkers like Gramsci or Lukács or academic epigones like Jameson and Eagleton, Adorno is perhaps better placed in the company of the great moralist-essayists: Montaigne, Johnson, Thoreau, Ruskin, Nietzsche, Weil, Baldwin, Sontag. He suggests that emancipation might not look like any extant or even imaginable socialist policy, but like the bliss of doing nothing whatever, of having nothing to do, of finding peace at last:
Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars. A mankind which no longer knows want will begin to have an inkling of the delusory, futile nature of all the arrangements hitherto made in order to escape want, which used wealth to reproduce want on a larger scale. Enjoyment itself would be affected, just as its present framework is inseparable from operating, planning, having one’s way, subjugating. Rien faire comme une bête, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, ‘being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfillment’, might take the place of process, act, satisfaction, and so truly keep the promise of dialectical logic that it would culminate in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to fulfilled utopia than that of eternal peace.
As for the duty of the philosopher, it is to behold our damaged life in the ever-present consciousness that it is damaged, and that our very ability to imagine its repair accuses and exposes the present in the light of a messianic future portended by thought:
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.
Adorno even provides perhaps the best definition of love I have ever read: “Love you will find only where you may show yourself weak without provoking strength.” If that—the palpable presence of love amid the evil of an everyday pleasantry stretched over an abattoir—is not reason enough to read Minima Moralia, I do not know what is.
It’s not often that I read a review that forces me to reexamine settled opinions, but this is very good. Thanks for this, John. I don’t know that I would actually get around to reading Adorno anytime soon, but I wouldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand anymore either. (I got Jeffries’ book Grand Hotel Abyss for Christmas a couple years ago, but didn’t come away with any more respect for the subjects or the writer afterward.)
Thanks so much–glad you found it useful! I just finished Grand Hotel Abyss, and came away liking Adorno more, and Benjamin and Marcuse less, to be honest.
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