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The Utopian Promise of Adorno’s ‘Open Thinking,’ Fifty Years On

Manfred Rehm/picture alliance via Getty Images
Theodor Adorno addressing an audience of German intellectuals opposed to the Emergency Acts, Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, May 28, 1968

The German philosopher and social theorist Theodor W. Adorno died fifty years ago this week, in the late summer of 1969. Even at the time of his death, he was entangled in controversy. Student militants, many of them aligned with the so-called “extra-parliamentary opposition,” had once seen him as a political ally. But when they occupied the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe–University Frankfurt, where Adorno kept his office, he called in the police, an act that was seen as unforgivable by the student radicals: How could a theorist of anti-fascism side with the authorities?

Adorno’s decision opened a bitter divide between the so-called Frankfurt School and the more militant members of the student movement that would never truly heal. In late April 1969, when Adorno commenced the first of his lectures on “An Introduction to Dialectical Thinking,” two students rushed the podium, demanding that Adorno engage in a public act of self-criticism. Three female students then showered him with flower petals and bared their breasts. The aging professor fled the hall, and students distributed a leaflet: “Adorno as an Institution is Dead.”

A month later, in an interview for Der Spiegel, Adorno remarked on the irony that in a piece of political theater he had been cast in the unlikely role of a cultural conservative: “To target me, I who have always positioned myself against every kind of erotic repression and sexual taboos!” Adorno tried to resume instruction in June, but further protests prevented him from lecturing. In anxious dreams, he saw Hans-Jürgen Krahl, a leader of the student militants, holding a knife to his throat.

With his wife, Gretel, he went on holiday to Zermatt, Switzerland, where, against his doctor’s advice, he took a mountain hike that strained his heart. He died in the hospital not long afterward, on August 6, 1969. An estimated two thousand people attended his burial in the Frankfurt cemetery.

This story has been told many times and has been embroidered with such symbolism that it too easily appears as a verdict of history, as if all that Adorno had come to represent were now obsolete. Fifty years later, however, the bitter memory of those final months has faded, and Adorno’s place in the canon of European philosophy seems secure. In certain circles of leftist sophistication, the mere mention of his name works like a charm and lends gravitas to even his most difficult or disputable claims. The irony of Adorno today is not that he is forgotten, but that he is remembered with such reverence that he has hardened into a kind of icon.

Not far from the Institute in Frankfurt’s west end, the bronze plaque outside the apartment where he and Gretel lived after the war shows Adorno in bas-relief and quotes his famous phrase, “Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen.” There is no right life in the false one. In the online store for the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (which has no affiliation with the German original), you can purchase a T-shirt in various colors that says: “Adorno was right.” The arch-critic of commodification has been turned into a commodity.

Too often, the various heroes of Continental philosophy are invoked on this side of the Atlantic as talismans for some undifferentiated thing called “Theory,” alongside other avatars such as Nietzsche and Foucault, Derrida and Heidegger, as if they were all authorities belonging to a catechism beyond criticism or questioning. Can Adorno be redeemed from this fate? A formidable body of scholarship in both Germany and the Anglophone world has already succeeded in keeping Adorno’s thought alive by doing what philosophers always do: subjecting the claims to rational scrutiny, dismantling and reconstructing, using not just Adorno’s own notoriously difficult language but the lucid language of philosophical analysis. But if Adorno was right, why was he right, and about what?

Perhaps the most helpful way to consider these questions is to note that already by the end of the Sixties, many of the commitments that Adorno wished passionately to defend were losing their appeal. This is especially true regarding his views on aesthetics.

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Raised in a milieu of artists and intellectuals, the young Adorno was not a child of great privilege, but he was steeped in European high culture. His mother, Maria, had been an accomplished opera singer, his aunt Agathe a skilled pianist, and “Teddie” himself studied musical composition with Alban Berg in Vienna. Throughout his life, Adorno wrote brilliant essays not just on music, but on literature as well. Always, he laid greatest stress on aesthetic experiences that tested the limits of convention. Art, he felt, was one of the last redoubts of “negativity,” bearing within itself the power to resist the norms of bourgeois life. This commitment to an aesthetic radicalism informed not only his high esteem for the Second Viennese School, but also his love of Kafka, Kraus, Proust, and Beckett. For him, no genuine social transformation was possible if it did not also bring about what Marx had once called “the emancipation of the senses.” Aesthetic experience and social critique went hand in hand.

By the time of Adorno’s death, however, this bond had already disintegrated. The emergence of a rebellious youth culture (especially rock-and-roll) in the Sixties seemed to invalidate Adorno’s belief in the principled alliance between social radicalism and the Modernist avant-garde. Works such as Warhol’s Soup Cans or the Marilyn Diptych (both from 1962) willfully ignored the earlier ideal of aesthetic stringency that Adorno most admired, plunging art into the dreamscape of commodities that he reviled. His early, vitriolic essays on jazz left many readers with the impression that he suffered from an incurable elitism, though what he knew of jazz was limited chiefly to Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, an all-white band whose standardized songs were tailored for mass consumption.

It is hardly surprising that, especially in the United States, where the arts were expected to conform to democratic tastes, the demanding high Modernism of Adorno’s aesthetic philosophy has never received so warm a reception. Greater prestige was conferred on his one-time colleague Walter Benjamin, who, unlike Adorno, embraced the “dissolution of the aura” of the individual artwork that promised, via “mechanical reproduction,” to make high culture newly accessible to the masses. Under the influence of Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin thought that this wider circulation of art would permit the masses to abandon the worshipful posture that traditional aesthetics once required; art could then be experienced in a state of “distraction.”

To Adorno, however, this meant capitulating to the debased conditions of the market. The value of art, he believed, is not found in its consumption. Genuine art bears the promise of a happiness that society in its present form does not allow; and if such art resists understanding, this is only because it confronts the beholder with its own impossible demands. The aura, Adorno warned, was a sign of this utopian promise: “One cannot abolish it and still want art.”

If this warning seems obsolete today, it is only because, since Adorno’s death in 1969, the Modernist concept of aesthetic experience as a demanding encounter with an artwork’s singularity has gradually fallen apart. As Modernism yielded to Postmodernism, art took into itself a knowing recognition of its own commercial construction, and aura gave way to irony, pastiche, and play. More often than not, artworks appear in the news not for their artistry, but for their prices—like Jeff Koons’s stainless-steel rabbit, recently bought by the art dealer Bob Mnuchin, father of the Treasury Secretary, for $91 million. What Benjamin called “distraction” now pervades our everyday experience, though it has not nourished the growth of collective political consciousness as Benjamin hoped. Reproducibility in art did not bring us revolution; it brought us Taylor Swift. 

Adorno, who learned so much from Benjamin but never ceased to disagree with him, wanted less distraction, more concentration. His aesthetic ideal may strike many readers as anti-democratic because it places impossibly high demands on the ordinary viewer. In Minima Moralia (1951), Adorno’s brilliant collection of aphorisms and philosophical observations, he lamented the “withering of experience.” Art, at its best, is an encounter with difference that breaks open the world and tests its limits. But our capacity for this kind of experience has grown feeble as culture has yielded to the “culture industry.”

The principle of universal exchange that animates global capitalism works as a solvent against difference. Our senses are trained for consumption and, in this commodified system, the individual human being, too, is fashioned into a social type whose gestures and beliefs have little meaning besides the affirmation of the world as it is. In the landmark 1950 study, The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno warned that this affirmative culture might serve as the seedbed for a resurgent fascism: the individual who loses the capacity for criticism becomes a cold realist who denounces all thoughts of utopia and heaps his anger upon the “outsider” who disturbs his fantasy of social unity.

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After the war, when he returned to Frankfurt from his American exile, Adorno became not only an esteemed professor but also a public critic whose voice was frequently heard on German radio. In the postwar era of willful forgetting, Adorno spoke of the need to confront the facts of the Nazi past. He called for the creation of a “new categorical imperative”—the establishment of a critical public consciousness “so that Auschwitz never repeats itself, so that nothing similar ever happens again.” By the Sixties, his lectures were drawing crowds from a new generation of students who grasped the urgency of his warning: in the colonial wars of North Africa and in Vietnam, the imperative of greater social awareness had already been transgressed and traduced.

More than anything, Adorno loathed the ponderous model of philosopher-as-sage, whose living embodiment in postwar Germany was Martin Heidegger, a former enthusiast for Nazism. The rehabilitation of Heidegger’s philosophy in the postwar period moved Adorno to compose his most excoriating polemic, The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), in which he explored the improbable ideological alliance between Existentialism and modern advertising. Heidegger, Adorno said, trades in platitudes, propagating the illusion that higher meaning could be conferred upon the most banal features of everyday life. Existentialism, he wrote, was “the Wurlitzer organ of the spirit,” a philosophy made to appeal to the masses in the era of mass consumption.

In the history of twentieth-century European thought, Heidegger and Adorno stand at the opposed poles. While Heidegger retreated to his hillside cabin to meditate on the forgotten question of Being, Adorno plunged into social conflict, working at the border between philosophy and sociology. He refused to proceed as if the brute, empirical facts of human suffering were of no relevance to the philosophical tradition. “The capacity for metaphysics is crippled,” Adorno wrote, because the catastrophes of the modern era had shattered our faith in the possibility of reconciling metaphysics with modern experience. The Existentialist credo that “meaning” could now be found in immanence alone was little more than “sanctimonious prattle” that did an injustice to history’s countless victims.

Was Adorno right? This is perhaps the wrong question to ask, because philosophy at its best offers not definitive answers but the encouragement to sustain a critical posture in all our questioning. As the director of the Institute for Social Research throughout the Fifties and Sixties, Adorno gave inspiration to students like Jürgen Habermas, who would build upon his teacher’s multidisciplinary legacy and transform social and aesthetic criticism into a new field of research that fastened philosophical attention on the problem of language: in our communications with one another, Habermas has argued, we presuppose the possibility of mutual understanding; and even when we fail to reach agreement, we pay homage to “the unforced force of the better argument.” This was not a betrayal of Adorno’s mission but an expansion of it, an attempt to rescue Critical Theory by placing it on more secure foundations. Adorno himself, however, was far from sanguine about the prospects for any rational grounding. “Thinking,” he wrote, is a “force of resistance,” though it is “not secured, not by the existing conditions, nor by ends yet to be achieved, nor by any kind of battalions.”

In the late Sixties, the allusion to battalions came into sharpest focus. While activists and police clashed in the streets, students raised the complaint that Adorno had lost his relevance. Rather than crossing the bridge from theory to practice, he had retreated into the comforts of mere theory alone. In February 1969, Adorno once again took to the radio to offer a response: an uncompromising thinker, he said, could hardly permit himself to be “terrorized into action.” Theory and practice were intertwined, to be sure, but the demand that theory should be applied was a dangerous reflex, a symptom of that same spirit of instrumentalism that now threatened to consume all of modern culture. “Open thinking,” he declared, is “insatiable,” and cannot be measured by the standard of immediate consequences. One can hold fast to the ideal of social happiness only if thinking is permitted to continue without restraint. Pressing too soon for an objective utopia would only sabotage its realization.

In his private correspondence, Adorno expressed himself with greater candor. Following the April disruption of his lectures, he wrote to Herbert Marcuse, his Frankfurt School colleague who had stayed in America, of his fear that the student movement might actually degenerate into fascism: “the word ‘professor,’” he said, had become a term of abuse, “much as the Nazis used the word ‘Jew.’” His fear may have been exaggerated, but for the son of a German-Jewish father who had been forced into exile, the memory of persecution was still vivid.

Roland Witschel/picture alliance via Getty Images
Margarete Adorno at her husband’s funeral with, leading in line behind her, Max Horkheimer, the politician Willi Brundert, and Jürgen Habermas, Frankfurt, Germany, August 13, 1969

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If Adorno was not entirely right, the questions he raised still retain their urgency. The culture industry of the late-capitalist era has metastasized to such a degree that people are reshaped from the inside; what one feels and believes work in lockstep with socially pervasive ideologies. Even resistance is easily co-opted by the market and what passes for criticism circulates in forms pre-packaged for consumption. In an environment saturated in social media and ruled by the tweet, critical reflection can barely survive, and it should hardly surprise us that the brute simplicities of authoritarian rule have gained new currency. It was Adorno who helped to identify this trend. For this reason alone, we cannot afford to ignore his critical legacy.

Most of all, Adorno was a great polymath, one of the last exemplars in a long tradition of European thinkers, who constantly transgressed the conventional academic boundaries that separate the disciplines—philosophy from sociology, politics from aesthetics, even music from morality. In his style, Adorno remains one of the most notoriously challenging writers in the modern canon, and even today his work can seem unassimilable. Those who try to summarize its lessons soon learn—this essay being no exception—that it forbids summary or encapsulation, because Adorno seems constantly to anticipate the negation of each of his own claims. This restless quality, the resistance to completion, is the experiential core of his “open thinking,” the readiness to imagine possibility that he called a “negative dialectic.” Fifty years after his death, Adorno still resists fashion and category. But his ideas sustain the utopian thought that there might be a right life, after all.


A new edition of The Authoritarian Personality, by Theodor Adorno et al., with an introduction by Peter E. Gordon, will be published by Verso on August 27.