From edition

David Brian Howard, Review of Espen Hammer, Adorno and the Political.

Espen Hammer, Adorno and the Political. New York and London: Routledge, 2005.

No one is more aware than I am that every single sentence here is and must be laden with political dynamite; but the further down such dynamite is buried, the greater the explosive force when detonated. (3)
— Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno is regarded by many scholars in the twentieth century as the paradigmatic example of the leftist mandarin scholar, obsessed with elitist modern art forms, and totally disparaging of politics. One of the most notorious and oft-cited critical descriptions of Adorno is by the Hegelian-Marxist intellectual, Georg Luckás, (a writer of tremendous influence on Adorno and many of his fellow members of the Frankfurt School) who characterized Adorno’s culturally elitist position as one of having taken up residence “at the Grand Hotel Abyss.”(179)   More recently with the rise of the postmodern left and cultural studies in the last three decades of the twentieth century, Adorno was one of the easiest members of the Frankfurt School to ridicule and caricature for his lofty and overly complex theorizing. Jim Collins, for example, in his 1987 book Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Post-Modernism skewers Adorno because of his insistence on dividing cultural production into authentic art and inauthentic mass culture, and for his gross misunderstanding of the American context for jazz music. Umberto Eco, in this 1986 book Travels in Hyperreality likewise pillories Adorno for adhering to an anachronistic binarism of high and low culture. Eco argues that Adorno is unable to see the potential that the blurring of the boundaries between high culture and mass culture offers, especially the exciting new possibilities that arise for critical interventions in the present.

As Espen Hammer points out in his new book Adorno and the Political, since the 1970s six dominant interpretations of Adorno’s writing have developed. In addition to the postmodern critique mentioned above, Hammer also lists approaches that range all the way from a Heideggerian line of descent that links Adorno to the deep ecology movement, to more overtly Marxist approaches as exemplified by Frederic Jameson, especially in his 1996 book Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic. But perhaps the most damaging interpretation of Adorno, especially for Hammer’s analysis, is the searing criticism of second and third generation critical theorists, who are most closely associated with Adorno’s own student, Jürgen Habermas. Hammer astutely recognizes that if Adorno’s political orientation is to offer any benefit at all to the present moment he must demonstrate the fundamental errors contained within the legacy of Habermas’s accounting of Adorno. Habermas’s intersubjective linguistic turn away from what he perceives as the flawed subjectivism and philosophy of consciousness within Adorno’s approach has functioned in recent decades as the most powerful inhibitor on the left to using Adorno’s approach.   Central to Hammer’s thesis is a recontextualization of Adorno’s thought that would ideally undercut many of the premises held by his sharpest critics.

In addition to Hammer’s book, however, a series of new books published in the last several years seriously challenges the comfortable narrative of elitism and political impotence that underpins many of the older narratives on Adorno. A few of the more notable texts in this critical re-appraisal of Adorno are Yvonne Sherratt’s Adorno’s Positive Dialectic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), Brian O’ Connor’s Adorno’s Negative Dialectic: Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality (London and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), Colin Hearfield, Adorno and the Modern Ethos of Freedom (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004), and, from a critical studies perspective, Shane Gunster’s Capitalizing on Culture: Critical Theory for Cultural Studies (Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2004) all of which call for a major re-appreciation for the complexity and critical subtlety of Adorno’s writing. Indeed, the portrait of Adorno that emerges from this spate of recent publications is far removed from the caricatures of Adorno that have overly shaped his reception in recent decades.   These texts offer the reader a radically more complex and critical reading of Adorno that not only restores his reputation from the insults of the past but reframes him as one of the most crucial critical voices of the twentieth century especially for dealing with an ever-increasing penetration of commodification into all aspects of contemporary life. With these texts Adorno ceases to be an elitist mandarin but becomes rather an uncompromising and insightful critic who never stops decoding the reifying aspects of modern life under late capitalism. In this context then perhaps one of the most important of the new publications on Adorno is Hammer’s precisely because Hammer tackles the thorny issue of Adorno’s political relevancy for the present. This is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks confronting any of the recent writers on Adorno since the absence of any recognizable formal political theory in his writing would seem to stymie such a critical re-appraisal in its tracks.

The novelty of Hammer’s re-reading of Adorno lies in precisely in his ability to tease from Adorno’s abstract theorizing an unlikely political constellation in which Adorno is recast as a defender of autonomy, responsibility, and democratic plurality. While Adorno never develops a fully blown political theory, as Hammer notes, “… his accounts were geared, rather, towards disclosing mechanisms and systems of domination, as well as towards the possibility of rational resistance and subversion within them.”(1) This highly idiosyncratic approach was rooted in a fundamental ambivalence towards liberalism which nonetheless did not seek respite in orthodox communist party politics.   Rather, Adorno was aided and abetted in his shift away from liberalism in the late 1920s by reading extensively the writings of Georg Luckács, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, and Herbert Marcuse, all of whom, at one point or another, broke with the Marxist Leninism of the Soviet state in favour of what became known in the West as critical theory. In Adorno’s case this aversion to collectivist political practices meant shifting his emphasis away from the overtly political towards an overtly theoretical dimension that drew upon, “using philosophy of history, political theory and historical materialism to both diagnose the present and to uncover the potentials for change.”(14)   Adorno’s objective, and the objective of Hammer’s book, is to locate to where politics may have migrated, especially in modernist art, so that, what Adorno referred to as “an ethics of resistance, can be coherently conceived.” (25)

A key component of charting this ethics of resistance within Adorno is addressed by the two most important chapters in Hammer’s book: chapter four, which deals with the politics of culture, and chapter six, which explores the politics of aesthetic negativity. Drawing linkages between Adorno’s theory of art and the political sub-text of his work is fraught with difficulty yet the connections are essential if Hammer’s thesis is to succeed. Hammer downplays Adorno’s equivocations and his false generalizations, such as the aformetioned dichotomy between high art and mass culture, in order to extrapolate a powerful counter-weight to postmodern theorizing on culture. He portrays Adorno as fundamentally differing from the neo-liberal affirmations of postmodern culture by maintaining a critical modernist posture within the era of postmodernism. However, while undermining postmodernism, one of Adorno’s greatest achievements, according to Hammer, is his renunciation of the Jacobin political ima
ginary with its reliance on universal subjects and its linear progressive philosophy of history.   Adorno’s delicate negotiation of the fraught terrain between the two alternate conceptions of radicality in the present contributes, from Hammer’s point of view, towards “a radical and perfectionist transformation of liberal democratic theory.” (159) Hammer’s interpretation is a valuable contribution to rethinking the political through Adorno’s subtle and complex negative dialectic.

Where Hammer’s argument seems forced and, consequently, less convincing is when he switches registers from the cultural politics of Adorno to the relevance of Adorno’s perspective to contemporary political theory. For example, Hammer rightly challenges the standard assumption that Adorno has no relevance to contemporary feminist theory.   In addition, Adorno’s anti-essentialism resonates with the work of critical feminists, such as Judith Butler, but Adorno’s central importance to moving beyond Butler’s position lies, for Hammer, within the context of his Freudian-Weberian account of civilization. The promise of a radical political renewal via this point of view is promising, as Hammer notes, but this political stance is left too undeveloped within the chapter and could easily encompass a separate volume of analysis. Likewise, Hammer’s efforts to draw parallels between Adorno and a “deep” ecological position that draws from a joint demonstration of the inherent fallacies in liberal humanism is intriguing but again, is very brief, and attenuated. Thus the gap between the implications of an Adornian politics drawn from aesthetic negativity and contemporary political struggles remains under developed and still needs further elaboration.

In conclusion Hammer’s efforts at teasing out the implications of Adorno’s political thought are an excellent contribution to the body of recent publications that have sought to nudge Adorno out of the crude and intellectually lazy corner to which he had been relegated to in the last several decades, even by such an astutue and critical thinker as Habermas. Adorno’s intellectual integrity at not accepting the easy bromides of liberal or Marxist thought as well as his embracing of the tensions to the complex antimonies of modern thought, rather than their facile resolution, does seem to point to the current era as being the one most suited for the kind of critical politics advocated by Adorno. As Hammer rightly concludes, the urgency of Adorno’s critical perspective has never been greater.

David Brian Howard is Associate Professor of Art History at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

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