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The “Life” of Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius

Review of Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius by Detlev Claussen. Harvard Belknap U.P., 2008.

“What philosophy once called life, has turned into the sphere of the private and then merely of consumption, which is dragged along as an addendum of the material production-process, without autonomy and without its own substance. Whoever wishes to experience the truth of immediate life, must investigate its alienated form, the objective powers, which determine the individual existence into its innermost recesses….The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact that it no longer exists.”

-Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (15)

In his writings dedicated to collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs argued that family memory operates as a “physiognomy” in which our remembrance of family members and relations consist of a condensation or “summation of an entire period—the idea of a type of life” (60). At the level of both content and method, Halbwachs’s observations about the condensed and physiognomic nature of family memory as “the idea of a type of life” speak directly to Detlev Claussen’s Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius. Anyone familiar with Adorno will surely be aware of his infamous claim in Minima Moralia that “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly” (39). This statement—usually interpreted as “survivor’s guilt,” or a declaration about the impossibility of escaping total enmeshment in the exploitative exchange relations of capitalism—has become, inter alia, the equivalent of a physiognomic sound bite, metonymically branding Adorno. It is perhaps Claussen’s most valuable biographical insight that this negation of an idea of a type of life should be understood in relation to Adorno’s own memory of family life and his membership in the extended family of his intellectual friendships.

With the publication of One Last Genius, Claussen, a former student of Adorno who is now a professor of social theory and culture at the Leibniz University of Hanover, has made an important and valuable contribution to the recent literature dedicated to exploring the relation between the dialectician’s life experiences and his unique articulation of critical theory. By combining a close, if unbalanced, reading of some of Adorno’s central texts with an astute attention to letters and other private and public testimony written by his intellectual contemporaries, Claussen has produced a work similar in scope (but not depth) to Rolf Wiggerhaus’s magisterial account of the Institute of Social Research:  The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance (1995). However, anyone who reads One Last Genius looking for a definite statement about Adorno or “negative dialectics” will be sorely disappointed. In fact, throughout much of the text, Adorno is a shadowy figure in the background of a story focused on his intimate circle of friends; just another face in the crowd. Furthermore, Claussen’ s stylistic approach is often so repetitious and circular that it is bound to frustrate even the most interested and sympathetic reader. This problem can partially be attributed to the fact that each chapter in the book is designed to stand on its own and thus inevitably covers the same material as others, often in the same context and to make the same point. For example, Claussen never tires of reminding his readers that Adorno was not an elitist. Nor does he hesitate to repeatedly present the case for understanding Adorno as a member of an extended family of friends that mourned the utopia of the bourgeois family but found solace in the imagined community of their intellectual interactions. A generous consideration of Claussen’s erratic presentation—he often jumps back and forth chronologically and conceptually—might suggest that he has tried (but failed in my opinion) to follow the stylistic imperatives Adorno proposed in “The Essay as Form” (1954/58). In “The Essay as Form,” Adorno argued that the contradictory nature of reality under capitalism called for a critical, self-conscious and reflexive compositional presentation that mimetically reproduced the world’s disharmony, rather than offering a straightforward or hierarchical account that pretends to completeness. While Claussen captures the spirit of Adorno’s stylistics in his multi-perspectival, relational approach and achieves the epistemological de-reification he so obviously intends, the ultimately overworked and strained text lacks the playfulness and hyperbole that make the dialectician’s arguments such rhetorical delights.

Stylistic failings aside, however, One Last Genius does accomplish several important tasks. One of these, which Claussen performs consistently throughout the book, is to challenge the myths and legends that too often cloud the origins of the Institute of Social Research and the lives of its central members. In the books opening chapter, Claussen notes the risks of writing an intellectual biography for an individual who critiqued the genre as reductively trapped between the dialectical poles of defamation and fandom. Ironically, the insight of reification as a process of forgetting that Horkheimer and Adorno noted in The Dialectical of Enlightenment continues to play a role in the popularization of their own thought. Like the obfuscations and elisions of the culture industry and instrumental reason, the myths and legends that continue to circulate around Adorno point to the phantasmatic nature of mass collective memory’s (re)constructed physiognomic caricatures:  Teddie the spoiled child prodigy, Weisengrund the Jew, T. W. Adorno the not-so-Marxist Marxist, and Dr. Adorno the curmudgeonly victim of bare-breasted, female SDS militants. All of these reified image-byproducts of Adorno’s canonization and standardization are dealt with by Claussen in a manner that is thorough but not overly defensive. One of the most important “myths” about Adorno that Claussen deals with is one he sees as being self-consciously cultivated by Adorno himself: the myth of the “continuous” Adorno. In nearly every comparison of Adorno with his fellow Frankfurt School colleagues Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, Adorno is portrayed as a consistent thinker, while the other theorists, like Karl Marx or G.W. F Hegel are thought to have their early and late periods of intellectual development. Claussen counters this narrative with one in which Adorno undergoes the effects of several “ruptures.” Moments that “damaged” Adorno’s life are not limited to those associated with exile such as his demotion to “graduate student” in England and exposure to the temptations of the culture industry in America. Just as important are those experiences Adorno had while studying music with Alban Berg in 1920s Vienna, where he made the acquaintance of Gyorgy Lukacs, Arnold Schoenberg, Hans Eisler and others. More significantly, in Vienna, where Adorno’s status as child prodigy no longer cemented his membership in the community of intellectuals and artistic radicals, he learned the hard lesson of the “provincial nature of Frankfurt” (108)—a lesson that both humbled and matured young Teddie. Admittedly, Claussen sees these changes in terms of self-awareness and political leanings, rather than conceptual or philosophical paradigm shifts; but the implication is that the image of Adorno as a young genius who always already had at hands the foundations of negative dialectics is a reputation that the “late” Adorno himself labored to produce. Yet the book’s de-mythification of Adorno, while certainly something that Claussen seems to have a vested interested in, appears more as a byproduct of his method of constellating Adorno in the network of his intellectual relations than a task that he intends to be a central aim of the book.

The central premise of One Last Genius is that Adorno’s life and works are best revealed in the biographical and autobiographical statements of the dialectician and his community of intellectual friends, which Claussen argues are “a supra-individual ‘we’” akin to the utopian image of the bourgeois family (9). Rather than identify his object within a constellation of key terms—“Jewish,” “German,” “Marxist,” “Dialectician,” “Musician,” “Sociologist,” “Philosopher,” “Genius,” etc.—Claussen circles around Theodor W. Adorno by attending to the network of relations that bring out the particular nature, the essence, of the man: “It is only when we glimpse their profiles [i.e. those of his close friends] that Adorno’s physiognomy becomes visible as the unmistakable person he was yet as someone who was unimaginable without their community of spirit” (260). Thus One Last Genius is more than a biography of Adorno; rather it is a kind of family narrative founded in family memory in which individuals like Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer are repeatedly depicted as Adorno’s loving elder brothers, while Hanns Eisler, Bertolt Brecht and Herbert Marcuse are rendered characters in tales of sibling rivalry. This family narrative takes a number of unexpected and pleasant expeditions down paths that are not usually traversed in considerations of Adorno. For example, Claussen devotes almost the entire fourth chapter, “Adorno as ‘Non-identical Man,” to Adorno’s relationship with Thomas Mann, explaining the tense relationship that developed in regards to the recognition of Adorno’s contribution to Doctor Faustus. In “Transitions” (chapter 5) Adorno’s long, productive and at times fraught relationships with Hanns Eisler and Fritz Lang are explicated in order to set the stage for a thorough consideration of Adorno’s writings on culture and music in chapter 6, “Frankfurt Transfer.” While the overwhelming attention lavished on Adorno’s musical writings in these sections threatens to obscure most of his other writings, Claussen’s sustained focused is ultimately justified as it parallels Adorno’s own autobiographical claims about the importance of music in his life. “I grew up,” Adorno wrote in a letter to Thomas Mann, “in a family atmosphere shaped by highly theoretical (also political) and artistic, above all musical, interests” (qtd. in Claussen 115).

According to Halbwachs, family memories are reconstructed pictures:

A given scene which took place in our home, in which our parents were the principal actors, and which has been fixed in our memories therefore does not reappear as the depiction of a day such as we experienced it in the past. We compose it anew and introduce elements borrowed from several periods which preceded or followed the scene in question. The notion we have at this moment of recreation of the moral nature of our parents and of the event itself—now judged from a distance—impose itself on our mind with so much power that we cannot escape being inspired by it….So it is that within the framework of family memory many figures and facts do indeed serve as landmarks; but each figure expresses an entire character, as each fact recapitulates an entire period in the life of the group. (61)

It is this type of physiognomic snapshot, with all its condensations and displacements, which Claussen extracts from the theoretical and autobiographical writings of Adorno and his intellectual community. One Last Genius constructs its scene of family memory around the idea that each member of Adorno’s extended family shared a deep experience and knowledge of the exhaustion of the bourgeois way of life: “What unites them is their belief that bourgeois society, with all its hopes of emancipation, had come to an end” (90). The generation of intellectuals that made up the so-called Frankfurt School and their extended network of intellectual relations lived out their childhood in the dying shadow of a bourgeois world which held out the promise of a cultivated individuality, fostered and brought to fruition in that utopia called the family home. Claussen participates in the construction of this family memory as much as he presents it. The picture that emerges is one of constant music, amateur dramatic performances, lively conversation, financial security and loving encouragement: bourgeois utopia and a sheltered Teddie. Claussen argues that Adorno’s childhood was one in which he was still able to experience the cultivation of individuality that was so horrifyingly reversed in the historical events to come. In light of this understanding of Adorno’s childhood and extended family life, Claussen suggests we come to understand Adorno’s infamous declaration about “damaged life.” Claussen returns to this thematic throughout the book (often with little or no development) as well as the image of the community of exiled intellectuals as an extended family that acts a kind of supplement for the utopia of family life. The firm and reoccurring conclusion of One Last Genius is that critical theory, especially Adorno’s version of it, would never have taken the shape it did without the unique historical and cultural experiences of a disillusioned group of intellectuals who found refuge in the solidarity of common understanding in an era when what they thought of as life was no longer possible. Without the imagined community of Adorno’s extended family there would be no critical theory.

There is a great deal of legitimacy to Claussen’s argument and its importance in understanding Adorno. Adorno himself, in Minima Moralia, argued:

What disintegrates, along with the family – so long as the system continues – is not just the most effective agency of the bourgeoisie, but also the resistance which indeed oppressed the individual, but also strengthened the latter, if not indeed producing such. The end of the family cripples the counter-forces. The dawning collectivistic social order [Ordnung] is the mockery of one without class: it liquidates, along with the bourgeois, at the same time the utopia, which at one time drew nourishment from the mother’s love. (23).

Unfortunately, however, Claussen never properly grapples with Adorno’s conceptualization of life—as a summation of an idea of life. That is, One Last Genius deploys “life” in a reified manner that constantly forgets that it is only “an idea of life.” Rather than reflecting on the condensed and displaced nature of Adorno and his friends’ family memories, Claussen takes them as a source of immediate access to that life. In short, he confuses the concept life with the object life. For Adorno, the task of critical theory, especially when he used it as a term synonymous with negative dialectics, was the labor of conceptualization; it was the task of the dialectician to struggle through a critique of the concept by bringing into a negative juxtaposition with its object.  Unfortunately, this task is one that Claussen steers clear of entirely.

Work Cited

Adorno, T. W. (1974). Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. London: New Left


Halbwachs, M. (1992). On Collective Memory (1st ed.). University Of Chicago Press.

Claussen, D. (2008). Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

J. M. Woolsey is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University, where he researches visual culture, critical theory, and the culture of humanitarianism.

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