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Adorno and DemocracyThe American Years$

Shannon L. Mariotti

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813167336

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813167336.001.0001

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Another Adorno

Another Adorno

(p.1) Introduction Another Adorno
Adorno and Democracy

Shannon L. Mariotti

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter lays out the argument of the book, discusses the largely unexplored English-language compositions it analyzes, and demonstrates its unique contributions to existing scholarship. This book analyzes Adorno’s largely unexplored English compositions, written in the United States and directed toward an American audience—Current of Music, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses, and The Stars Down to Earth—to show how a prescriptive and productive democratic project developed during his years of “exile.” This chapter gives an overview of the constellation of concepts the book traces—experience, critique, negative dialectics, pedagogy, leadership, democracy—to demonstrate the reparative work that Adorno performs on the practice of American citizenship during his years in the United States.

Keywords:   American democracy, Democratic leadership, Democratic pedagogy, “Democratic Leadership and Mass Manipulation”, Current of Music: Elements of a Radio Theory, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses, The Stars Down to Earth

We want to face the danger of this sea, not for the sake of fleeing to cultural islands, but for better navigation. Any investigator who does not see the dangers of that sea and who simply allows himself to be drugged by its grandeur, and who sees its waves as waves of unbroken progress, is very likely to be drowned.

Adorno, Current of Music: Elements of a Radio Theory

In the early 1940s two distinct images and metaphors seem to have been swirling around in Theodor Adorno’s head. One soon became part of Frankfurt School lore, immediately recognizable to anyone who studies this circle of scholars or one of its most famous members. The other was never well known in the first place and has been all but lost to history. The first image is the “message in a bottle,” or Flaschenpost. There is a history to this metaphor, and given its significance to the present-day understanding of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, one can find similar versions of the same anecdote recounted in the scholarship. According to the story that passed from Hanns Eisler to Leo Lowenthal, soon after the beginning of World War I, in the early 1940s, after Adorno had moved from New York to California, some of the émigré members of the Institute for Social Research were on a beach in Southern California: “During a beach party where much alcohol had been consumed, so the story goes, Adorno is said to have launched the idea of the message in a bottle. Someone asked, ‘What’s it supposed to say?’ Eisler is said to have answered in broad Viennese dialect, ‘I feel so awful! [Mir iss’ soo mies!],’ and everyone burst out laughing.” Horkheimer had also used the language of a message in a bottle to describe his and Adorno’s work in a 1940 letter.1 Some years later, in part 3 of Minima (p.2) Moralia, dated 1946–1947, Adorno also invokes this image. In aphorism 133, translated as “Contribution to Intellectual History,” Adorno discusses Nietzsche’s misunderstood genius and his attitude toward “ethical culture,” having “rightly decided to break off prematurely its communication with the world.” As Adorno writes, “Even at that time the hope of leaving behind messages in bottles on the flood of barbarism bursting on Europe was an amiable illusion.”2 This idea of a message that had to be placed in a bottle and sent off to future generations because it could not be heard in its own day and time became a metaphor to describe much of the work of first-generation critical theory, shorthand for Adorno’s self-understanding of his own writings.

The second image, presented in the epigraph above, is recorded in Current of Music: Elements of a Radio Theory, a study that Adorno composed originally in English between his arrival in New York in 1938 and departure for Los Angeles in 1941. Again, we have the symbols of water and a message, but with some important differences. Here we have an image of the critic not sending a message in a bottle out over the water to the future, but turning and facing the choppy waters, to learn to navigate through them in the immediate present. Emphasizing the political importance of engaging the cultural object of the radio, Adorno writes that the critic must “dispense with the suspicion that we want to save an island of genuine live music against the threatening sea of mechanization and reification.”3 Instead, he says, we should recognize that radio, “especially its shortcomings,” contains “indicators of contradictions in our whole art life and ultimately in our whole social life.”4 Critics must engage the productive contradictions that the cultural object of radio encapsulates.5 In direct opposition to the “message in a bottle” imagery, the epigraph that begins this chapter strikes a different note. Here, instead of rather impotently casting a message on the waters and hoping it may be received in the future, Adorno rejects withdrawal or retreat, choosing instead to actively navigate difficult waters.

The task of this book is to amplify the broadcast of this second transmission. Ironically, Adorno’s first message in a bottle was ultimately received. But his communication containing this second powerfully orienting symbol was missed and never picked up. The first image sent out over the water is still the predominant image of Adorno: a figure withdrawing from the pathological culture of his own day, especially during his “exile” in America, having lost hope about the possibility of engaging and changing that culture, resorting to sending out missives to the future containing his critical insights.6 Here we are presented with an Adorno who is apolitical, escapist, elitist, a cultural (p.3) mandarin engaging in gallows humor and laughing on the beach about the horror of modernity.

But the second image of Adorno, the critic turning and facing the dangerous waters of the present, engaging with the world immediately surrounding him, was circulating at the same time this first message in a bottle was supposedly being cast out. And this second image complicates the conventional image of Adorno. In the writings that are the focus of this book, Adorno turns and faces both the problems and possibilities of democracy in the United States. Adorno and Democracy adopts a similar posture, turning and facing the problems and possibilities of reading this difficult thinker as a twentieth-century democratic theorist, not just to discover a message in a bottle, but to help us chart our current position and navigate our future course.

For this second transmission, the medium matters too, not just the message. This book analyzes Current of Music: Elements of a Radio Theory, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses, The Stars Down to Earth, and several essays and addresses composed in English and offered to citizens of this country. These texts represent only a portion of the surprisingly extensive list of works Adorno composed originally in English.7 The specific compositions I deal with are selected because they represent the moments when he is most engaged in exploring the political landscape of the United States. The English compositions I analyze are unique in that they indicate an attempt, not always successful, to communicate more directly with the American people and to shape the practice of American democracy. I want to emphasize the moments when Adorno speaks to the public in a different register, to try to cultivate a more autonomous, more truly democratic citizen.

Most of the writings that are the focus of this book concern popular media, specific radio programs, addresses by well-known radio demagogues of the day, as well as newspaper items such as the Los Angeles Times’s astrology column. Here Adorno’s thoughts on democratic leadership as democratic pedagogy are broadcast, in several senses of the word. In focusing on radio, for example, Adorno writes about a cultural object that was an important part of the everyday life of many Americans.8 He speaks more directly to a wider audience of listeners, drawing out the countertendencies that exist in their immediate material world, illuminating the potential of their own latent responses to the radio. He communicates in a more accessible manner, translating his theory of negative dialectics into the language of leadership and education. And, finally, Adorno even tried to transmit his message about the radio over the radio. He made extensive use of the radio himself, both (p.4) in the United States and in Germany after his return to that country.9 In his radio addresses he uses the medium to critique the medium, to turn cultural pathologies into tools to strengthen the practice of American democracy.

Despite their richness, however, when the pieces that are the focus of this book have been studied at all, they have largely been analyzed as biography, as a cultural and social history of Adorno’s “exile” in America.10 But these works are significant for more than their historical value.11 My analysis of these English-language compositions takes place against the backdrop of Adorno’s entire corpus and is informed by his broader theory of negative dialectics. Indeed, there is a high degree of consistency between Adorno’s concerns and commitments from his early writings, composed under pressure and in exile in America, and the later writings that are of a more explicitly philosophical nature. Adorno’s theory and practice of negative dialectics are constantly at work in all his writings, even in nascent form and even when not explicitly named.

I do not, however, focus on these specific English compositions to “claim” Adorno for American readers or to avoid Adorno’s German writings. Adorno’s time in the United States prompted an overt consideration of American political culture, aimed at fostering a more robust practice of democracy. My focus on these particular texts is motivated by their relevance to my orienting questions about democracy in America: these are the texts in which Adorno seems to be trying to speak in English to Americans about the state of their own political culture. I am interested in the American reception of Adorno, but specifically in the English Adorno the demos might have received directly, not necessarily the German Adorno who was and is translated for American audiences.12 I analyze Adorno’s own performance of a unique form of democratic leadership as democratic pedagogy, as he translates a nascent form of negative dialectics directly to an American audience to inform them of the problems and possibilities of their own political culture.

Laying Out Adorno’s Argument about Democracy: The Organization of the Book

Ultimately, Adorno and Democracy traces the interrelations and connections among a number of key ideas that show up in Adorno’s writings, often in different places and in different kinds of texts directed toward different audiences. The constellation of concepts that this book revolves around concerns the material objects of the world; the nonidentical elements that surround us; thinking, feeling, and the capacity for critique; the universal praxis of (p.5) humans; alienation; negative dialectics; leadership; education and pedagogy; and democracy. Adorno himself writes about all these ideas, though some are more well known and more closely associated with him than others. But he doesn’t always draw the connections between them or show how they work together to add up to a theory and practice of democracy. Adorno doesn’t tend to write about negative dialectics and democracy in the same place, for example. He doesn’t discuss the nonidentical and education in the same text. So this book will connect those dots in a more explicit way.

The chapters of this book build on each other, but the book also operates in a dialectical and not just a progressive, linear, unidirectional fashion. Each chapter is informed by the others in a way that reflects the development of my own understanding of Adorno and democracy in the United States. The parts of the book are laid out in the order that makes the most sense, moving from abstract theory to concrete plan to practice. But, in fact, we can really fully appreciate the democratic commitments of negative dialectics only if we think about it through the lens of an essay like “Democratic Leadership and Mass Manipulation.” And we better understand the significance of Adorno’s writings on American culture when we read them in terms of his larger theory. So the chapters of the book really enrich and inform each other in multiple directions and bear on each other moving backward and forward.

I have organized the book to present Adorno’s argument about democracy in terms of how I see it developing, starting with the problems and pathologies within American democracy to be overcome and moving through each stage of his “solution,” from our material experience of the everyday world to the practice of critique, leadership, pedagogy, and his efforts to draw out the “countertendencies” of American culture toward creating more robust and substantive forms of democracy. Given how closely the organization of the book is tied to the overall argument I make, I will lay out my thesis about Adorno and democracy in America at the same time I discuss the structure of the book.

The first chapter, “Seeing the Large-Scale System: The Pathologies of Modern America and Pseudo-Democracy,” lays out the problem to be addressed, exploring the pathological elements of (ostensible) democracy in America, as depicted by Adorno in Current of Music, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses, and The Stars Down to Earth. It gives us a sense of the problems that motivate Adorno’s project of democratic leadership as democratic pedagogy. In this chapter we gain a fuller picture of the aspects of American culture that Adorno’s writings both explicate and seek to remedy.

(p.6) Here Adorno is primarily concerned with what he calls “pseudo-democracy” in America. From his view, the dominant political and economic culture of liberal capitalism in the United States works against its purported values, making citizens passive and obedient and cultivating a sense of infantile helplessness. There are fascistic tendencies in the way this culture exercises an authoritarianism over dependent citizens, but for Adorno, as for Marcuse, this form of totalitarianism, this “unfreedom,” is often “comfortable,” “smooth,” and “reasonable,” something that citizens consent to, even if that consent ultimately turns out to be manufactured.13 But Adorno comes up against the same obstacle that has challenged other critical theorists and democratic theorists. He is deeply critical of existing forms of mass democracy because of how the structures, institutions, and norms of liberal capitalism work to produce obedient, unthinking, and conformist subjects. The goal is to strengthen the everyday practice of democracy on the part of citizens by cultivating their capacity for negative, critical thought that can go against the grain of the given, that can disrupt and then reconfigure the status quo. Adorno wants to fulfill the promise of democracy by fostering the kind of dispositional and intellectual, social and psychic, change on the part of individuals that would allow “the people” to truly wield power and rule, for the demos to have kratos.

But how to effect change toward a more robust democracy in a way that is itself democratic? How to push and prompt people to become more autonomous critical thinkers and actors in ways that are consistent with the principles of the desired democracy, without just putting into place new masters and new hierarchical authorities for people to obey? How to find a means to the end where the means is also consistent with the end? How to work toward realizing the alternative world that the practice of critique points toward in a way that itself prefigures the society that is trying to be achieved? Adorno does propose a solution to these dilemmas and an answer to the perennial question that follows his kind of critique, the “what is to be done?” question. The next two chapters of the book begin to lay out Adorno’s more positive and prescriptive democratic project.

In chapter 2, “Experience as a Precondition for Meaningful Democracy: Sensory Perception, Affect, and Materialism,” I analyze the fundamentally important place of experience in Adorno’s political theory. He puts forward a theory of democracy that focuses on experience and that sees the promise of democracy—the idea that the people can have power and authority, the idea that the demos can have kratos—as fulfilled when humans exercise their fundamental capacity and their universal praxis of sensing, perceiving, and (p.7) becoming attuned to the particular qualities of the material and ideological world that surrounds them. As a materialist, Adorno thinks that the world around us contains qualities that provoke us to both think and feel against the given, against the status quo, against what is presented to us as natural, inevitable, and just the way things are. These particular qualities, which he calls the nonidentical, ask us to engage in the critical practices that are vital for democratic citizenship, if only we could learn to listen to their dissonant and disruptive calls, which are more often drowned out by other forces of modernity. So for Adorno, democracy is, at a fundamental and essential level, about trying to experience the world around us differently, trying to see, hear, feel, perceive, and sense in a deeper, more sensitive, and more immediate way. Meaningful democracy is about experience, and the promise of democracy is fulfilled when we can open ourselves up to the nonidentical qualities of the world whose voices and lessons can work to make us more critical but also more compassionate, that can help us think against, but also feel against, the world we are given, that can enlighten us but also make us sensitive, as opposed to hard, cold, or numb.

If we were to draw a flowchart that schematizes the key terms and concepts of Adorno’s constellation, the starting point would be a materialist’s attention to the objects of the world around us. Adorno’s theory begins, like Marx’s, by granting “preponderance” to the objects that surround us in our everyday lives. These objects, Adorno says, contain contradictory, dissonant qualities—the nonidentical—that resist being fitted into the dominant systems and logics of modernity. These nonidentical elements, these particular qualities of the surrounding world, call out to us in their resistance to “what is” and their ruptures of the given status quo, but their voices tend to be silenced by the same aspects of modernity that they try to resist: the capitalist logic of abstract exchange, the idealist tendency toward identity thinking, and other trappings of modernity such as the culture industry. Given all this, Adorno’s efforts are directed toward trying to cut through these (at best) distracting and (at worst) violent logics, to allow humans to engage in the practice of “thinking.”

Thinking for Adorno is a praxis that humans universally share as humans, which is based on listening to, attending to, the nonidentical qualities of the material world. Thinking is not necessarily a rarefied intellectual activity for Adorno but, rather, is the ability to perceive and to experience our circumstances in a more direct and immediate way that allows us to see and hear the nonidentical qualities that tell us that things are not as they should be, that tell us something is wrong, that push us to resist the world we are given, (p.8) and that point toward alternative possibilities. Thinking is something that all humans can do, for Adorno: it defines our humanity. But thinking is not just a capacity that is inside humans. Rather, it is best understood as an openness to hearing what the nonidentical elements of the material world have to teach us. So thinking is a kind of feeling, a kind of experiencing, a kind of perception that defines us as humans. And using this mode of experience then to think against, and to feel against, the world we are given—to negate it—is to engage in the practice of critique. But when we cease to think, we suffer a loss of self: we become alienated. This form of loss under modernity, this numbing inability to think against, can be experienced as a psychically painful loss that we experience as suffering. But, as Adorno discovered during his time in America, alienation might also take the form of a kind of automated, robotic, cheerful normality.

But how does democracy fit into all this? In chapter 3, “Critique and the Practice of Democracy: Negative Dialectics, Autonomy, and Compassion,” I build on these arguments about experience to analyze the democratic value of Adorno’s practice of critique, to show how his method of negative dialectics is motivated by fundamentally democratic concerns. Adorno says that critique is the essence of democracy, that democracy is defined by the practice of critique. In essence, this means that fulfilling the promise of democracy relies on a certain way of experiencing other bodies, a certain mode of comportment, a certain disposition. To truly think and feel against what we are given as second nature, as inevitable, as just the ways things are—and thereby to engage in the practice of critique, which is the essence of democracy for Adorno—we need to attune ourselves to, open ourselves up to, the nonidentical, the contradictory, the disruptive, the disharmonious. We need to try to experience our world more deeply and directly, without the framing filters of conventions, norms, assumptions. Thus, for Adorno, fulfilling the promise of democracy is fundamentally about learning to think, feel, and experience in a different way.

The next two chapters lay out Adorno’s plan for a mode of democratic leadership that works through a democratic form of pedagogical practice. Chapter 4 is titled “Democratic Leadership: Egalitarian Guidance and a Plan for Empowering the People,” and chapter 5 is titled “Democratic Pedagogy: Resistance and an Alternative Model for Civic Education.” Here I draw from essays and radio addresses in which Adorno discusses the need for specifically democratic modes of leadership and pedagogy. In these pieces we see Adorno speaking in a much more accessible register and translating his theory for a broader audience in surprising ways. A very (p.9) important part of these two chapters concerns Adorno’s short essay, composed in English for an American audience and first published in an edited volume on leadership, titled “Democratic Leadership and Mass Manipulation.” This little-known essay provided a great deal of illumination for the project as a whole as I began researching. It works as a linchpin between the theory sections of chapters 2 and 3 and the practice sections of the chapters that follow. In this short essay on democratic leadership, we see Adorno introducing and translating his theory of negative dialectics to a wider audience and outlining a concrete plan for how to put it into practice, a plan that he works to carry out, as I show, in the writings and radio addresses I analyze in chapter 6.

Along with “Democratic Leadership and Mass Manipulation,” a set of writings on pedagogy provides the key to understanding the political significance of Adorno’s writings on American culture. These essays and addresses on education and teaching were composed primarily after Adorno’s return to Germany. Together, they provide the lens through which I analyze the democratic value of Current of Music, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses, and The Stars Down to Earth. Though Adorno did not publish Negative Dialectics until 1966, after his return to Germany, these earlier studies of American culture exemplify the kind of critique he outlines in his major theoretical statement and help us appreciate how democracy figures into his corpus more broadly.

The final chapter of the book mirrors the first, in that it presents the “solution” to the “problem” as it is laid out in chapter 1. Chapter 6, “Seeing Small-Scale Resistance: Turning Countertendencies into Vaccines to Strengthen Democratic Practice,” shows how Adorno attempts to put into practice the theory of democracy and the plan for democratic leadership articulated in the earlier chapters. Returning to the same writings on American culture explored in the first chapter, I draw out the “countertendencies” and “vaccines” that we can identify in Current of Music, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses, and The Stars Down to Earth.

In this final chapter, I show how Adorno identifies small-scale, modest, less visible “substantive democratic forms” in the United States that act as countertendencies that might be drawn out as a vaccine against more prevalent fascistic elements of pseudo-democracy in America. In his writings on American culture, we see Adorno employing the same mode of critique that Marx applies to the commodity, but with a different object: Adorno’s critique is directed toward an exploration of the radio or the Los Angeles Times’s astrology column, for example, as microcosms of the larger modern capitalist (p.10) culture in the United States. Adorno explores these particular things not just to lambaste and lament American culture as “wrong life.” For a long time this was the dominant interpretation of Adorno’s writings from the presumed cultural wasteland of California. But Adorno aims to illuminate how even these seemingly insignificant cultural objects actually contain important nonidentical qualities—countertendencies—that protest against and can be used to unsettle the problematic conditions that they otherwise participate in and uphold.

Adorno’s writings on democracy in America also exemplify his method of negative dialectics. He focuses on particular material objects that contain elements of the larger modern capitalist culture in microcosm, and—in a mode of critique that is also a form of praxis—draws out the typically unseen qualities that contain a utopian moment in their protest against given conditions. Those who have seen Adorno’s writings on America as wholly gloomy and critical miss the unconventional politics that he is performing through his critiques. For these reasons, Adorno’s writings on American culture must be read in terms of his theory and practice of negative dialectics for our picture of him to avoid the problematic distortions it has been subjected to in the past. In this way, Adorno sees the potential for change—what might be—arising from the tensions and contradictions—the countertendencies—that exist within a problematic status quo. Thus, even the predominant retrograde qualities of pseudo-democracy can be approached in ways that might cultivate what he calls “democratic enlightenment.” And, indeed, this kind of unspectacular, small-scale, everyday recuperation that takes place in and among existing pathologies seems, for Adorno, to represent the best hope for the creation of more meaningful democracy in America.

Through these chapters that lay out Adorno’s theory and practice of democracy, we will see how the thinker associated with the idea of the “totally administered world” in fact thought there were ways that U.S. citizens could work against that seeming system. Adorno was never as entirely pessimistic about the possibility of resistance as some of his critics have made him out to be, as a careful understanding of the practice of critique immediately makes clear. Critique and negative dialectics are a kind of praxis, and they even encapsulate a utopian moment of hope that “the way things are” is not the way things have to be, that we could order our worlds in alternative ways. But even if reading Adorno as the gloomy pessimist who draws a portrait of the totally administered world of modernity as an impenetrable system is in fact a flawed and partial interpretation, it is certainly fair to say that at moments he focuses his gaze on the world around him at the level of the system (p.11) in ways that seem inconsistent with the micro-level countertendencies and small-scale forms of resistance that I discuss in this book.

This is all to show that if Adorno thought that the logic of identity, the capitalist system of abstract exchange, and idealism worked together in the modern era to create what could at times look like an unbroken pattern of domination, he also knew that was only part of the story, only one moment in his critique. He knew the value of shifting his gaze. Adorno is the thinker who is perhaps most closely associated with the idea that modernity is a system, that the culture industry and capitalism, for example, form a net that ensnares every aspect of our lives. And yet even Adorno recognizes that we can always look past the realities of this entangling system of modernity to the small-scale subversions that people enact against it. If we keep our gaze focused on these networks of domination, however, we will fail to see the little ways, micro as opposed to macro, that people operate against the logics that otherwise order their lives. But we can’t look up and down simultaneously, and it is difficult to focus on the large and small, macro and micro, abstract and particular, at the same time. So Adorno shifts his gaze.

In the writings on American culture that I analyze here, he looks at the little things people do to throw wrenches in the system, so to speak, even when it is not necessarily their goal to bring down the system. Adorno sees substantive forms of democracy that people practice and enact, despite large-scale pathologies, and he shows how people work against the system even when they are not consciously being critical of the prevailing ideology. In an interesting reversal, Adorno shows how Americans resist the dominant ideology in small ways even when they are not aware that they are resisting. Usually, critical theorists—including Adorno—emphasize the unconscious ways that ideology operates on people, not the unconscious ways they work against it. But this almost instinctual refusal of the given culture industry is actually the kind of subversion Adorno describes in these writings, given what he sees as the deeply rooted democratic inclinations that persist in people’s dispositions and modes of comportment. Again, these substantive forms of democracy exist despite the overarching ways that citizens are made into dependent objects by the forces of modernity.

Adorno, of course, makes his statements about these countertendencies not naively, but with full knowledge of the power of the forces of modernity. The countertendencies to which these substantive forms of democracy give rise exist in the crevasses of the systematizing logics of modernity—in fractures that run alongside, beneath, and between all the pathologies he also illuminates. The forces of modernity he explores in his work—the culture (p.12) industry, the logic of capitalism and abstract exchange, identity thinking, and idealism—as well as the pseudo-democracy he identifies in the United States are all systems that work without an agent, that work subtly and in complex networks. But they are not totalizing or all-encompassing systems. There are fractures. And in his writings on American culture, Adorno is focused on highlighting these ruptures, these moments when people unknowingly resist the world they are given. Turning these nascent and unconscious counter-tendencies of resistance into actual, conscious, politicized forms of resistance is the goal of Adorno’s project of democratic leadership through the form of democratic pedagogy.

Adorno’s aim is to illuminate the social, political, and economic forces that undermine autonomy, through an immanent critique with people to cultivate their understanding of how existing powers actually work against the democratic ideals they ostensibly support. Then, the hope and the goal are that this new critical consciousness prompts people to act, to build more meaningfully democratic social structures, institutions, and norms in the world around them—all of which truly try to give power to the people. At the same time, these individuals will also be living their own everyday lives in more robustly democratic ways, which demonstrate their own power by their ability to negate and to critique, but also by their ability to do the other things that Adorno sees as vitally important to democracy, such as attending to the suffering and pain of others.

Ultimately, as this book shows, exiled in the United States, writing in English for an American audience, Adorno is engaged in the kind of world-building enterprise that defines the subfield of political theory at its best, turning critique into action and discontent into empowerment. The constellation of concepts this book traces—experience, critique, negative dialectics, pedagogy, leadership, democracy—demonstrates the reparative work that Adorno performed on the practice of American citizenship during his years in the United States, as part of the world-building activity of transforming “what is” to “what should be.” Or, at least, “what might be.” Adorno walks us through the changes that can be made, at the level of experience and sensation, to realize the alternative possibilities for a better world that exist even within and among the pathologies of the existing world. He gives us plans and programs for how we can work on ourselves, revising our habits to try to get out from under the thumb of the various forces of modernity—the culture industry, identity thinking, the capitalist logic of abstract exchange—and instead, to fall back on the aboriginal human praxis for thinking and feeling against the given that is still always there, but bound, gagged, and (p.13) blindfolded. Through conversation, through discussion, we can learn to reconnect with this more spontaneous and autonomous mode of perception that is available to us, and we can revise the self to inhabit new ethical positions and more compassionate subjective states. Through an unconventional kind of democratic leadership that operates as democratic pedagogy, we can become more attuned to the nonidentical elements of the world. We can push ourselves to experience life more fully, deeply, and immediately, and then let ourselves be unsettled by the dissonant voices we hear, the disruptive sights we see, the sensations of anxiety and unease we feel. Through the work on the self that enables such encounters with material particularity, and in conversation with others who help cultivate our critical capacities, we can be drawn toward a more meaningful practice of democracy.

The Contributions of This Book

The rest of this introduction outlines the innovations of Adorno and Democracy, while also briefly showing how my argument builds on, but moves beyond, existing scholarship. (Fuller discussions of the relevant secondary literature take place in the individual chapters.) There are many advances in recent scholarship that both make my analysis of Adorno’s thoughts on democracy in America possible and create a space for the kinds of questions I explore. But in each of the relevant areas for my particular project, the existing scholarship also contains limitations, shortcomings, and omissions that highlight the need for the further exploration that this particular book undertakes.

The book’s first major contribution, of course, concerns a dramatically revised narrative of his relationship to the political. This book stands on the shoulders of all the recent scholarship that has productively complicated the tenacious yet flawed image of Adorno as a resident of the “Grand Hotel Abyss.” Recent studies have analyzed the practical, ethical, and political dimensions of Adorno’s life and work, exploring his thoughts on critique as praxis and articulating the nature of his unique modes of political engagement.14 And, though there is much more work to be done in this area, a few scholars have begun to explore how Adorno’s work might productively inform current politics.15

But much of the scholarship working to unsettle this traditional framing of Adorno is still quite limited in scope. Even the scholarship that is most consistent with my project is generally content to prove the point that Adorno was more engaged in contemporary politics than is commonly appreciated. (p.14) Or that Adorno’s thought contains politically valuable utopian moments. Or that his aesthetics represent the political promise contained in his concept and practice of critique.16 Or that Adorno’s writings are concerned with ethics, justice, and suffering in politically important ways. Ultimately, even the scholars who seek to recuperate the political value of Adorno’s thought are, by and large, still seeking to prove that he wasn’t actually quite as apolitical as we thought. His work is still seen as having some major political liabilities, such as his attitude toward “the masses” and mass society, his seemingly wholesale rejection of twentieth-century liberal democracy, and his inaccessible and elitist style of writing. Even among his sympathetic readers, Adorno’s writings are thought to have a more or less insurmountable democratic deficit, and his political theory seems best described in terms of utopian moments that point toward an alternative order. Indeed, many people would still assert, as Albrecht Wellmer said in a conversation with Dana Villa, that “Adorno did not have a political theory—he had a dream.”17

Given how deeply entrenched this traditional image of Adorno has become, scholars often find themselves still working to prove that Adorno was not apolitical, that he was not wholly gloomy, that he did not completely hate America. In contrast, Adorno and Democracy will not just argue that Adorno wasn’t apolitical, but will illuminate the positive political project that comes through when we read several of his largely neglected English-language compositions on American political culture in conjunction with one another and against the backdrop of this larger theoretical corpus. Adorno and Democracy will argue not just that Adorno wasn’t wholly gloomy, but that he had a great deal of optimism and hope about what he called the “substantive forms of democracy” that persist as a part of American political culture. This book will not just argue that Adorno wasn’t elitist, but will emphasize how his deep commitments to democracy shape both the form and content of these writings composed in America, directed toward U.S. citizens, and communicated in a register more accessible to a wide audience, even on the radio. And, finally, Adorno and Democracy will argue not just that Adorno didn’t hate America, but that his time in the United States proved formative to his later thinking. The texts that are the focus of this study help us better understand how a concern with the problems and possibilities of democracy shapes the goals for Adorno’s larger theory and motivates the practice of negative dialectics. As this book shows, an explicit democratic political program can be identified in Adorno’s English-language writings, and once it is illuminated, we can also see how this plan for democratic leadership as democratic pedagogy runs throughout his writings.

(p.15) The second major contribution of this book concerns the place of America in Adorno’s theorizing. Though Adorno is most closely associated with Germany and the Frankfurt School, recent scholars have explored Adorno’s complex relationship with America. Forced to flee Germany before World War I because he was Jewish, he wrote some of his most influential texts during the nearly fifteen years he spent in the United States. Researchers have begun to explore how this time in the United States was not something incidental or minor, but shaped his thought in constitutive ways.18 Given his method of social theorizing, and his unique integration of Marxist and Freudian theory, we should not be surprised to hear that Adorno’s writings attended to the conditions of the world around him and bear the imprint of the postwar culture in the United States.

But the vast majority of secondary scholarship on this theme still tends to highlight the distinction between Adorno’s early, negative, and more pessimistic interpretations of the United States and his later, positive, more optimistic tone on American democracy.19 Claus Offe’s words reflect this general tendency in the literature: “Adorno offers two pictures of America that simply do not go together and are each as unconvincing as the other.”20 In important ways, though, the image we get of Adorno’s time in America depends on the writings we read, and—even more important—how we read them and whether we study them against the backdrop of the larger theory of negative dialectics. So it is significant that almost none of this existing literature, with the significant exception of Paul Apostolidis’s work, explores the neglected texts studied here. The writings I analyze help us appreciate how Adorno is simply engaged in different moments of the same overall critique in a way that allows us to move beyond the sense that his early and late writings on America represent oil and water.

Adorno’s English-language texts make the same biting critiques and contain the same critical portrayals of this country that we see in Minima Moralia, for example, or Dialectic of Enlightenment, both written during his years in the United States. But in the English-language compositions he spends more time and energy drawing out the alternative possibilities that always, for him, exist within the nonidentical qualities of a retrograde liberal capitalist landscape. He illuminates political tools in a pathological landscape. And that is because Adorno is speaking more directly to a new audience, an American audience, and is trying to translate his theory into useful tools for everyday life. This kind of tense relationship between negative and positive, critical and prescriptive, thinking and acting, defines Adorno’s method of negative dialectics. In this particular moment of his critique, he just goes (p.16) further to illuminate the countertendencies of everyday life that run through American culture. In the writings that are the focus of this book, Adorno sees, at once, promising elements in the practice of American democracy as well as pernicious qualities. Indeed, his goal is to work against pseudo-democracy. But we get to this point only by using the program outlined in Adorno’s essay on democratic leadership as a map to explore texts such as Current of Music and The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses. Then we can see how his interpretation of American life combines positive and negative, toward creating vaccines to strengthen the everyday practice of American democracy.

My project draws from, but moves beyond, the existing literature on Adorno in America in another important way. As I have already mentioned, to the extent that his writings on American culture have been explored, they have been read primarily by historians or social biographers, not political theorists. The two deepest treatments to date of Adorno in America, by Thomas Wheatland and David Jenemann, both explicitly distance themselves from his theory. Wheatland emphasizes that he approaches Adorno and the Frankfurt School not as a theorist, but as a historian: as he says, “I am a historian of Critical Theory, not a Critical Theorist.”21 Similarly, Jenemann gives us a social history of the America of Adorno’s exile rather than a theoretical analysis of Adorno’s writings in and on America. Jenemann notes that he has “tried to avoid getting caught up in the thorny, dialectically intricate arguments of both Adorno and his devotees in favor of rediscovering the America that made Adorno so profoundly suspicious and that, at the same time, he nevertheless genuinely admired.”22 In this way, however, my project aims to fill a (perhaps, for their projects, necessary) lacuna in both Wheatland’s and Jenemann’s valuable social histories by bringing the theory developed throughout Adorno’s corpus specifically to bear on his writings on democracy in America. We do not yet have an analysis of Adorno in America that fully explores how the practice of negative dialectics relates to his writings on American culture. My project aims to bring Adorno’s theory and practice of negative dialectics fully to bear on his writings on democracy in America and reads these neglected English-language compositions through the lens of his larger theory.

The third major innovation of this book is implied by what I have already outlined in the two previous sections concerning Adorno’s theory and practice of negative dialectics. Reading his writings on America against the backdrop of the theory of negative dialectics helps us appreciate how, in America, Adorno performs a nascent practice of the theory he will not develop in its (p.17) official form until years later. As later chapters will show, the practice of critique that Adorno develops into a theory of democratic leadership in the form of democratic pedagogy anticipates, in a more popular vernacular, his method of negative dialectics. But if understanding negative dialectics helps us understand the political significance of Adorno’s English-language compositions on life in the United States, then these writings also help us better grasp the practical application of negative dialectics and give us a sense of what the theory looks like in action. So this book brings together thought and action, theory and practice, conceptualization and application—as well as the United States and Germany—to give us a more whole and complete version of Adorno, another Adorno.

The fourth innovation of my project, also previously alluded to, concerns the political significance of Adorno’s thoughts on experience, specifically, how attending to the material elements of the world around us represents the starting point for his theory and practice of democracy. Previous scholars have analyzed Adorno’s concept of experience.23 But no one has connected it to his thoughts on democracy or appreciated the role that experience plays in stimulating the critical capacities that are necessary for democratic action. In Adorno’s view, as we have seen, democracy begins with our ability to perceive, hear, feel, and see the world around us in deeper, more sensitive, and more immediate ways. Democracy begins with a change in disposition, whereby we try to open ourselves up to the dissonant call of the nonidentical material elements of the world around us. If we could learn to experience our material worlds more fully, the nonidentical elements that surround us would teach us lessons to make us more compassionate, but also more critical, better able to think and feel against the world we are given—and better able to engage in the practice of critique that is, for Adorno, the essence of democracy. My book shows how the robust practice of democracy that Adorno practices and advocates can be traced to his writings on experience, materialism, and the nonidentical.

The fifth contribution of Adorno and Democracy concerns the democratic nature of his pedagogy, as outlined in his writings on education.24 My study builds on but moves beyond previous work in this area by specifically emphasizing the political significance of Adorno’s writings on education and by also highlighting how they work to complicate and reconfigure our traditional conception of him. First, Adorno and Democracy analyzes the democratic nature of his writings on education in a way that ties them to his definition of democracy and explicates how this style of teaching is part and parcel of his project for democratic leadership. I analyze Adorno’s essays (p.18) and lectures on education in a way that is informed by the previous chapters on experience, critique, and the theory and practice of negative dialectics that are laid out there. Second, this book explores the specifically democratic nature of Adorno’s own performances of his pedagogical project in the context of his writings on American political culture, whereas postwar Germany is the usual frame of reference for this work. Finally, my exploration of Adorno’s democratic form of pedagogy is situated within his larger theory of negative dialectics. Adorno’s writings on education are intimately connected to his understanding of democratic practice and, as we will see in the next chapter, his model of democratic leadership. And further, we can see Adorno undertaking this form of democratic leadership as democratic pedagogy in the writings on American political culture that I analyze in later chapters.

The final contribution of this book concerns Adorno’s lessons for democratic theory and practice today. Adorno and Democracy focuses on articulating the political value of his program for democratic leadership as democratic pedagogy and his practice of drawing out countertendencies to produce useful treatments for pathological conditions. But Adorno’s work adds to current theory and practice in other ways that I want to briefly note here at the outset, to color what comes later. First, his writing adds substance and rigor to the concept of democracy, which Wendy Brown thinks has increasingly become an “empty signifier” in the present political landscape. In “We Are All Democrats Now,” Brown highlights a peculiar inverse relationship. Today, as various social, political, and economic forces undermine any sense that the demos has power or is ruling itself, which leads to what she characterizes as a “crisis of de-democratization,” the rhetoric of democracy has become strikingly more pervasive and ubiquitous.25 Given this state, it is especially useful to go back to Adorno. Even if we contest his definitions, his deep interrogation of what democracy means on a normative, theoretical, and practical level pushes us beyond the mere rhetorical celebration of an empty concept. Additionally, Adorno’s mode of critique contests the tendencies toward abstraction within some forms of theorizing today. Adopting close cultural analysis—looking at the contemporary cognates of radio and of the rhetorical tools of proselytizing political figures—can help us identify important countertendencies in what otherwise might look like an unbroken pattern of authoritarianism. Adorno’s method allows us to find alternative possibilities within existing conditions, to excavate latent possibilities even in a retrograde political landscape. This lesson is especially important to remember today, as many critiques of neoliberalism make it seem like a hegemonic system that offers no escapes, no possibilities of resistance. Finally, we might heed Adorno’s (p.19) warning that “the American attack on democracy usually takes place in the name of democracy” to analyze the various arguments that are made in the name of democracy today. Adorno reminds us that democracy is a normative promise that the people might have power and asks us to think more deeply about what modern forces distort that aspiration as well as what might be required to fulfill it.

Until recently, scholars generally thought Adorno’s writings were too fraught with dilemmas, too difficult to inform political practice. But, as Russell Berman notes, “By labeling Adorno politically impossible, his critics provide themselves an illusory security in their own political self-understanding…. In other words, the image of Adorno, the unpolitical aesthete, is little more than a phantom that haunts a left that cultivates its own self-deceptions about an immediacy of political practice. Because it is convinced that progressive politics must be easy, it demonizes Adorno for pointing out the difficulties.”26 But because democratic theory and practice today are also in a particularly difficult place, we might include Adorno in our conversations for the same reasons he was excluded in the past.

Adorno asks many of the same questions that pervade democratic theory today.27 What is the true meaning of democracy, apart from its current manifestations? Is there any value left in democracy, or has it been completely co-opted and corrupted by liberal capitalism? How can one argue that liberal capitalism cultivates a passive citizenry and also that it is possible today to foster independent thinking and action? How can we work against liberal capitalist hegemony, or, today, the seeming hegemony of neoliberalism? In the writings I analyze, Adorno explores the democratic horizon and identifies sites in everyday life where the promise of popular sovereignty might develop. An unorthodox Marxian thinker, Adorno is critical of how liberal capitalist institutions cultivate a sense of dependency and manufacture consent, but he is also skeptical of leftist programs that simply promote a new kind of conformity to authority. Adorno’s thoughts on democratic leadership and democratic pedagogy begin to outline a strategy for slowly reworking social structures and collective identities. This democratic pedagogy helps people develop the capacity for critical detection of nonidentical elements and encourages the countercultural tendencies of everyday life, to turn pathologies into vaccines against conformity. For all these reasons, and with Adorno’s complicated commitments to democracy in mind, we might begin to read him as a twentieth-century democratic theorist and think about how his writings productively inform both our theory and practice.

(p.20) The Moods and Moments of Adorno’s Critique

Because the tone of Adorno’s voice in the writings I analyze is so surprising at times, I want to take a moment to set the proper mood for this book and to say a word about the mood of Adorno scholarship in particular and current democratic theory in general. Robyn Marasco’s wonderful recent book, The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory after Hegel, helps us think through some of these themes and provides an illuminating foil for this argument of this book. Marasco gives us one of the best recent analyses of Adorno’s somber and mournful moods and a compelling portrayal of the political value of the negative moments of critique. She reminds us: we don’t want to turn a blind eye to the reality of the rational grounds for Adorno’s pessimism, to the value of his negativity, to the depths of his critique. We also don’t want to equate this negative critique with an apolitical withdrawal or apathetic retreat. Marasco emphasizes the mood of despair as one way of recentering passion in the discourse of modernity, to recover negative states as valuable political categories, to see despair as social, historical, and political. And I am deeply sympathetic to approaching such negative states not as retreats or withdrawals but as creative, energetic, productive. Marasco sees despair as “a dialectical passion,” and “passion suggests energy, movement, and the extrarational intensities of desire, but also excess, suffering, and sacrifice.”28

There is great value in the way that Marasco sees despair and hope, the negative and the positive, the profound pessimism and the persistent possibility, as all tangled up with each other, as constitutive of each other, and as politically valuable. In a somewhat similar way, my first book, Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal: Alienation, Participation, and Modernity, reads the so-called hermit of Walden Pond through the theoretical lens of Adorno to show how the withdrawals and retreats from conventional society that caused generations of scholars to label Thoreau as misanthropic, solipsistic, apathetic, and apolitical are actually part and parcel of an unconventional practice of democratic citizenship within the burgeoning landscape of modernity.29 I identify deep sympathies between Thoreau and Adorno, on the basis of their critiques of modernity, their hostility toward the mainstream democracies of their day, and their efforts to enact and encourage alternative political practices that, given the force of the collective in modernity, necessarily take place through critical practices of distancing and withdrawal.

Importantly, though, this negativity should not become a reason for labeling them undemocratic or apolitical, but in fact is the basis for the revisioning of citizenship that is based on the practice of critique that they both (p.21) undertake and that I articulate in Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal. Both thinkers, in my view, are valuable for their negativity. They are characterized by a similar disposition, a similar mood: they can both be scathingly sharp in their negativity, in their gloom, in their despair. This is part of why we need them. Both Thoreau and Adorno are the kind of critics who chasten the American tendency to put a smiley face on everything. They remind us how the alienating logics of modern liberal capitalism, early for Thoreau, late for Adorno, force everything to fit into identical molds in dehumanizing ways. Both advance a critique of modernity as an oppressive system, but both also identify small-scale ways that we can subvert it toward unearthing better alternatives. So they are valuable, in my view, because of how their negativity chastens our tendency to avert our eyes from displeasing sights and to close our ears to unwelcome sounds.

But the research that Adorno and Democracy comprises goes one step beyond my first book to show that we also need to be able to see the moments when Adorno moves entirely beyond despair. This is where I depart from Marasco. She begins her chapter on Adorno with these words: “Theodor W. Adorno comes to us in various ways—as a philosopher, a cultural critic, a literary theorist, a sociologist—but always in despair.”30 Despair is there, yes, but despair is not all that is there and it is not always there. Marasco sets the tone by recalling Martin Jay’s discussion of the photograph of Adorno that is used on the cover of his study of this thinker. Jay also, says Marasco, “deciphers despair in the contours of his downcast lips and eyes, in the ‘mournful expression of his face.’ ”31 The purpose of Adorno and Democracy is not wholly to replace the traditional gloomy image of him. This is, after all, another Adorno, not an entirely other Adorno. My goal is not to call into question the depths of Adorno’s critiques or undercut the magnitude of the structural problems of liberal capitalism he is best known for laying out in such stark terms. Rather, I want to build on this knowledge to show how his critique also entails other moments when he articulates and acts out a democratic theory, a form of democratic leadership in the shape of democratic pedagogy.

Adorno’s dominant mood may be lugubrious, but he is not entirely dour and doleful. Even the most cynical moments of his critique necessarily contain, given his materialist method of negative dialectics, a utopian element of hope and possibility. For Adorno, the negative is always also productive and filled with possibility, however minimal. That is the essence of negative dialectics. His materialist methodology focuses on the contradiction, the latent potential, the utopian moment that is represented in the nonidentical (p.22) qualities that persist as rebellious features in the overall retrograde landscape of late modern liberal capitalism that he charts so thoroughly, so adeptly. Given all this, it is easy to lose sight of his overall method and forget that his mode of critique means that the latently positive is always encapsulated within the negative. The neglected texts that this book analyzes state the case for another Adorno in clear terms that will make it easier to remember and harder to forget: that there is another Adorno, that there is another moment in the critique that more explicitly focuses on identifying and drawing out those possibilities, and that these more positive moments are also part and parcel of the practice of negative dialectics. The writings that are the focus of this book pause longer in the space of that potential and devote more energy to drawing out the productive moments of the critique.

After reading this book, to the extent that we still close our eyes to another Adorno, we might ask ourselves: What investments do we have in maintaining the traditional image of Adorno? What attraction do we on the left have with the idea that to be critical means to be wholly pessimistic or despairing? To put things another way, why have the writings on which I focus been neglected by scholars? We might be disturbed to think about how the dominant trends of scholarship on Adorno can also refuse to see, drown out, or forget the positive potential that is always also part of critique in a way that, perversely and unintentionally, mirrors how modern liberal capitalism works to silence the dissonant call of the nonidentical. The gloom, pessimism, and despair are there for Adorno, but this book reminds us: that’s not all that’s there.

But if another Adorno is not entirely gloomy, neither is he glib. This is not a thinker who, in the space of America, relaxes and becomes comfortable with the prospects offered by the micro-level forms of resistance he finds, the latent potential of the substantive forms of democracy he draws out of the culture. Nothing I say in this book contradicts or dispels the depths of his critique of bourgeois liberal capitalism. The Adorno presented here is still a Marxist Adorno, as I show, a materialist Adorno, not an Adorno reconfigured as a poststructuralist theorist now wholly preoccupied with the micro, matters of disposition, character, and a personal ethos. The current “ethical turn” in democratic theory can be seen as too concerned with style and not concerned enough with system and structure. But even as I establish sympathies between Adorno’s writings and affect theory, between Adorno’s writings and the micro, between Adorno and thinkers like Gibson-Graham, we need to remember that his work on micro-level forms of resistance takes place against the backdrop of a Marxist theory that critiques modern liberal capitalism (p.23) as systems. He is not just celebrating little things here for their own sake. Adorno and Democracy builds on the structural critique we are already familiar with from this theorist—also laid out here in the first chapter, in the English-language texts that are my focus—but layers on top of that a novel sense of how important small acts of subversion and resistance can be as a way of raising the consciousness of citizens to reject bourgeois liberal capitalism and create more enlightened and humane alternatives. With all this in mind, the following chapters lay out the contours and character of this new Adorno, another Adorno. (p.24)


(1.) As Detlev Claussen writes, “The émigré community living in the shadow of Hollywood experienced its deepest gloom in the years 1940–1943, after which optimism returned among those identified with the workers’ movement. This was the precise moment in which Horkheimer and Adorno discussed the idea of critical theory as a message in a bottle. Horkheimer had used the term in a letter from New York in 1940 to Salka Veirtel, Eduard Steuermann’s sister: “In view of everything that is engulfing Europe and perhaps the whole world, our present work is of course essentially destined to be passed on through the night that is approaching: a kind of ‘message in a bottle.’ The idea of the message in a bottle belongs to the prehistory (p.162) of Dialectic of Enlightenment. It reflects the loss of the traditional addressees of the critical theory of society.” Claussen then relates the story of the beach party; Detlev Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 161. There is a similar version of the same anecdote cited in Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 70n 224: “At the beginning of the war some of the émigré Institute members were on the beach in Southern California when suddenly Adorno, overcome with melancholy, said: ‘We should throw out a message in a bottle.’ To which Eisler responded—with sardonic humor—that the message should read: ‘I feel so lousy.’ ” The original source of this anecdote is given in the note as Leo Lowenthal, “The Utopian Motif in Suspension: A Conversation with Leo Lowenthal,” interview by W. Martin Lüdke, trans. Ted R. Weeks, in An Unmastered Past: The Autobiographical Reflections of Leo Lowenthal, ed. Martin Jay (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 237.

(2.) Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974), 209. The original German reads: “Schon damals war die Hoffnung, in der Flut der hereinbrechenden Barbarei Flaschenposten zu hinterlassen, eine freundliche Vision”; Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 4, ed. Rolf Tiedemann et al. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1951), 239.

(3.) Adorno, “Radio Physiognomics,” in Adorno, Current of Music, 62.

(6.) In a chapter titled “Approaches to Adorno: A Tentative Typology,” Peter Uwe Hohendahl maps out different interpretations of Adorno in ways that highlight the tenacity of the image of him as withdrawn, distanced, a defender of high culture, an unhappy exile in America, and politically problematic. Hohendahl’s typology helps us see the contours of the conventional framing of Adorno, though this is not his own view of Adorno. Hohendahl emphasizes the political value of Adorno’s aesthetics and the social and political character of works of art. Peter Uwe Hohendahl, Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 3–20.

(7.) The list of publications that Adorno originally composed in English is quite extensive: Current of Music; The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000) (also in his Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 9); The Authoritarian Personality (with Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford) (1950; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1993); The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, ed. Stephen Crook (1994; repr., New York: Routledge, 2001); “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda,” in The Stars Down to Earth (also in his Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 8, bk. 2); “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (in his Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 8, bk. 2); “Democratic Leadership and Mass Manipulation,” in Studies in Leadership: Leadership and Democratic Action, ed. Alvin Gouldner (p.163) (1950; repr., New York: Russell and Russell, 1965) (also in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 20); Composing for the Films (with Hanns Eisler) (1947; repr., New York: Continuum, 2007).

(8.) For a sense of the importance of radio in the United States during the WWI era, see Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); Alfred Balk, The Rise of Radio: From Marconi through the Golden Age (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006).

(9.) For example, most of the essays compiled in Adorno’s Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (first English ed. 1998) were initially German radio addresses broadcast in the 1950s and 1960s, then later published as essays. Here is the original broadcast information for these lectures: “Why Still Philosophy?” (“Wozu Philosophie heute?”), Hessischer Rundfunk, 2 Jan. 1962; “Philosophy and Teachers” (“Lehrer und Philosophie: Ansprache an Studenten”), originally a lecture in the Studenthaus, Frankfurt, broadcast by Hessischer Rundfunk, 7 Dec. 1961; “The Meaning of Working through the Past” (“Was bedeutet: ‘Aufarbeitung der Vegangenheit’?”), Hessischer Rundfunk, 7 Feb. 1960; “Opinion Delusion Society,” lecture held in Bad Wildungen during the University-Weeks for Continuing Education in Political Science, conference sponsored by the Hessen State government, Oct. 1960; “Notes to Philosophical Thinking” (“Meditationen über das Denken,” Deutschlandfunk, 9 Oct. 1964; “Reason and Revelation,” theses for a discussion with Eugen Kogon in Münster, broadcast by Hessischer Rundfunk, 20 Nov. 1957; “Progress,” lecture at Münster Philosophers’ Congress, 22 Oct. 1962; “Gloss on Personality” (“Persönlichkeit: Höchstes Glück der Erdenkinder?”), Westdeutscher Rundfunk, 2 Jan. 1966; “Free Time” (“Freizeit: Zeit der Freiheit? Leben als Konterbande”), Deutschlandfunk, 25 May 1969; “Taboos on the Teaching Vocation” (“Der Lehrerbreuf und seine Tabis”), Hessischer Rundfunk, 9 Sept. 1965; “Education after Auschwitz” (“Pädagogik nach Auschwitz”), Hessischer Rundfunk, 19 Apr. 1966; “On the Question: ‘What Is German?’ ” (“ ‘Was ist Deutsch?’ Versuch einer Definition”), a contribution to the series of the same title, Deutschlandfunk, 9 May 1965; “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America” (“Wissenschaftliche Erfahrungen in den U.S.A.”), Hessischer Rundfunk, 31 Jan. 1968; “Critique”(“Kritik”), broadcast in the series Politik für Nichtpolitiker by Sudeutscher Rundfunk, 26 May 1969; “Resignation” (“Aus gegebenum Anlab”), Sender Freies Berlin, 9 Feb. 1969. These addresses are directed toward the German demos, but there are similar instances in which he speaks to the American demos, in English.

(10.) Paul Apostolidis, Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), is both an exception to the existing scholarship and a valuable model for this project in that Apostolidis seeks to use Adorno’s theory to inform our analysis and consideration of the contemporary American context. In addition, Apostolidis’s book is one of the few existing scholarly investigations of The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses. Apostolidis draws from Adorno’s work to mobilize the nonidentical elements of an unlikely cultural (p.164) object, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio program. Following Adorno’s own method of immanent critique, Apostolidis analyzes Christian right radio in a microscopic way, drawing out its internal contradictions to show how this form of evangelicalism gives evidence of utopian moments based on deep criticisms of our post-Fordist social order as well as a desire for greater autonomy. For Apostolidis (following Marx and Adorno), “a radical approach to religion does not merely dismiss it as a pack of capitalist lies, but tries to convert its protestative strength into different modes of historically concrete expression” (7). Apostolidis undertakes an immanent critique of Focus on the Family to show how left democratic politics might more effectively engage evangelicalism, rather than dismissing Christian right discourse entirely.

(11.) Two valuable recent books on Adorno in America—David Jenemann’s Adorno in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and Thomas Wheatland’s The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009)—discuss some of the writings I explore here. But whereas my project aims to bring Adorno’s theory and practice of negative dialectics fully to bear on his writings on democracy in America, these other scholarly treatments are explicitly disconnected from the theoretical dimensions of his work. Jenemann’s Adorno in America provides a social history of the America that Adorno was immersed in, highlighting his extensive and penetrating encounters with mass culture. Jenemann give us a sense of Adorno’s experience in America and his intellectual concerns during this exile, drawing on various archival materials: memos, letters, unpublished documents relating to the culture industry, internal documents of entertainment and advertising firms that Adorno had access to through the Princeton Radio Project, NBC and CBS promotional materials and educational manuals, publicity and advertising materials that give insight into consumer culture at the time, and even Adorno’s own FBI files. But Jenemann is clear that his book is a social history of the America of Adorno’s exile rather than a theoretical analysis of Adorno’s writings in and on America. Similarly, Wheatland approaches Adorno and the Frankfurt School not as a theorist, but as an historian: “I am a historian of Critical Theory, not a Critical Theorist. My goal has been to build on the work of Jay and Wiggershaus in an effort to clarify our understanding of the Frankfurt School by situating it in a significant and largely unexplored sociohistorical context that shaped its development and reception—the United States” (4).

(12.) I note this difference because of the interesting discussion of the American reception of Adorno in David Jenemann’s Adorno in America. Jenemann addresses issues of reception in ways that highlight the challenges facing the American reader who is not a native German speaker but who wants to study Adorno, especially Adorno’s writing on America itself. As Jenemann says, “Anyone who studies Adorno will have faced the near-mandatory caveat that the English translations of Adorno are imperfect at best, mutilating at worst. Since I first began reading Adorno as a student, I have always felt that these warnings were both daunting and discouraging, (p.165) as though I was being told that unless I could read Adorno in German, my understanding would always be second-rate. These dire warnings smacked of their own type of elitism, in part because they seemed to deny that an American reader could possibly find something powerful and resonant in Adorno’s writings, even though so many of them were written in this country and, at some fundamental level, about the American experience” (xxx). Jenemann is frustrated with the idea that native English speakers can never fully grasp Adorno’s German writings, even when he is writing about the American context. As Jenemann says, “I reject that idea. What’s more, I believe that the insistence on what an English speaker cannot understand threatens to undermine what an American reader can take from Adorno as a critic and as a vital intellectual force. It is true: Perhaps more than any other writer, Adorno can probably only be fully understood in German; the very structure of his sentences, and the way the German syntax aids in those sentences’ ability to negate their own meanings, help convey those meanings. But the Adorno I’m interested in is the American Adorno: not just the Adorno who wrote some of his most important critiques of the mass media in English, but the Adorno whom Americans get to know through his translated works. The choice not to make too much of translation difficulties reflects my commitment not to derail or demean the reader, but it also represents a tacit acknowledgment that this book is about Adorno in America, the Adorno we’re stuck with, both the long-neglected day-to-day existence of the actual, historical figure and also his texts, the ones that we in this country get to read” (xxx–xxxi). In light of these problems of translations, Jenemann sticks to Adorno as he has been translated to Americans who are native English speakers: “And so, with a few exceptions, where I have had to make brief translations of letters or archival documents, I have decided to use preexisting translations rather than to try to bring the English closer to its German home. They might be flawed and messy, but they are also powerful, and funny, and sad, and destabilizing, and like Adorno, even in their ‘damaged’ American form, they are still very much alive” (xxxi). Jenemann raises some interesting issues here, and he perhaps highlights a (unnecessary? exaggerated?) tension between Adorno’s German and American readers. I don’t think we have to, or should, try to “claim” proprietary ownership of Adorno for primarily German readers or English readers: the unusual circumstances of his life gave him a foot in both places, in both cultures, and legitimately open his corpus up to both kinds of readers. And, indeed, Jenemann is right to note that Adorno’s American audience might have some unique insights into his writings, just as his German audience has other unique insights. At any rate, however, Jenemann’s concerns are not my concerns, given that my primary texts are indeed written in English and aimed at an English-speaking American audience. These relatively unexplored texts are an important resource for thinking through the questions of democracy in America that prompt my project.

(13.) Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), 3.

(14.) See these recent analyses of Adorno’s politics: Apostolidis, The Stations of (p.166) the Cross; Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. Michael Robertson (1993; repr., Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995); J. M. Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Martin Morris, “Recovering the Ethical and Political Force of Adorno’s Aesthetic-Critical Theory,” in Morris, Rethinking the Communicative Turn: Adorno, Habermas, and the Problem of Communicative Freedom (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001); Russell Berman, “Adorno’s Politics,” in Adorno: A Critical Reader, ed. Nigel Gibson and Andrew Rubin (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002), 110–131; J. M. Bernstein, “Negative Dialectics as Fate,” in Cambridge Companion to Adorno, ed. Tom Huhn (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Brian O’Connor, Adorno’s Negative Dialectic: Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004); Lorenz Jäger, Adorno: A Political Biography, trans. Stewart Spencer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2005); J. M. Bernstein, “Intact and Fragmented Bodies: Versions of Ethics ‘after Auschwitz,’ ” New German Critique 97 (Winter 2006): 31–52 (see also this special issue of New German Critique, on the topic of “Adorno and Ethics,” 97 [Winter 2006]); Paul Apostolidis, “Negative Dialectics and Inclusive Communication,” in Feminist Interpretations of Theodor Adorno, ed. Renée Heberle (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 233–256; Espen Hammer, Adorno & the Political (New York: Routledge, 2006); Richard Wolin, The Frankfurt School Revisited, and Other Essays on Politics and Society (New York: Routledge, 2006); Roger Foster, Adorno: The Recovery of Experience (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007); Marianne Tettlebaum, “Political Philosophy,” in Adorno: Key Concepts, ed. Deborah Cook (Stocksfield, U.K.: Acumen, 2008); John Holloway, Fernando Matamoros, and Sergio Tischler, eds., Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism (London: Pluto Press, 2009); Gerhard Schweppenhäuser, Theodor W. Adorno: An Introduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009); Andrew Douglas, “Democratic Darkness and Adorno’s Redemptive Criticism,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 36, no. 7 (2010): 819–836. See also Shannon Mariotti, “Critique from the Margins: Adorno and the Politics of Withdrawal,” Political Theory 36, no. 3 (2008): 456–465.

(16.) See, for example, Hohendahl, Prismatic Thought; Peter Uwe Hohendahl, The Fleeting Promise of Art: Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory Revisited (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

(17.) Dana Villa notes this conversation, which took place in Berlin in 2006, in his essay “From the Critique of Identity to Plurality in Politics: Reconsidering Adorno and Arendt,” in Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations, ed. Lars Rensmann and Samir Gandesha (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 90.

(18.) See, for example, Martin Jay, “Adorno in America,” in Permanent Exile: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America (p.167) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 124; Claus Offe, “Theodor W. Adorno: ‘Culture Industry’ and Other Views of the ‘American Century,’ ” in Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber, and Adorno in the United States (Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2005), 69–92; Detlev Claussen, “Intellectual Transfer: Theodor W. Adorno’s American Experience,” New German Critique 97 (Winter 2006): 5–14; Jenemann, Adorno in America; Russell Berman, Ulrich Plass, and Joshua Rayman, eds., special issue, “Adorno and America,” Telos 149 (Winter 2009). See also Joshua Rayman, “Adorno’s American Reception,” Telos 149 (Winter 2009): 6–29; Shannon Mariotti, “Damaged Life as Exuberant Vitality in America: Adorno, Alienation, and the Psychic Economy,” Telos 149 (Winter 2009): 169–190; and Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile.

(19.) In this way, my interpretation is more like Detlev Claussen’s. In contrast to both Jay and Offe, who emphasize an unresolved disjuncture between the American Adorno and the German Adorno, Claussen sees Adorno as engaged in a more complex dialectical negotiation between his American experiences and German influences and implies that the perceived anti-American slant of Minima Moralia has been overemphasized. As Claussen notes, “Horkheimer and Adorno returned from America not as disappointed revolutionary critics but as dialecticians of enlightenment. The essence of the American experience—of what was new to the enlightened Europeans—consisted of what Adorno called the ‘experience of substantive democratic forms.’ Those Germans who read Minima Moralia when it appeared in 1951 could hardly understand this, for democracy was for most of them still largely an imported good brought by the occupying power. The anti-American slant inherent to many of the German interpretations of Minima Moralia over the years should be viewed in terms of this socio-historical context”; Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, 9. Claussen also emphasizes the value Adorno places on the substantive forms of democracy, based on his experiences in America, after his return to Germany.

(20.) Offe, “Theodor W. Adorno,” 92; emphasis in original.

(23.) On the theme of experience, see O’Connor, Adorno’s Negative Dialectic; Foster, Adorno: The Recovery of Experience. See also, importantly, J. M. Bernstein’s work on the critical and ethical importance of Adorno’s thoughts on the nonidentical and the significance of letting our gaze linger on suffering; Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics.

(24.) On the theme of education, see Jaimey Fisher, “Adorno’s Lesson Plans? The Ethics of (Re)Education in ‘The Meaning of “Working through the Past,” ’ ” in Language without Soil: Adorno and Late Philosophical Modernity, ed. Gerhard Richter (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 76–98; Henry Giroux, “What Might Education Mean after Abu Ghraib: Revisiting Adorno’s Politics of Education,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24, no. 1 (2004): 3–22; K. Daniel Cho, (p.168) “Adorno on Education; or, Can Critical Self-Reflection Prevent the Next Auschwitz?” Historical Materialism 17, no. 1 (2009): 74–97; Volker Heins, “Saying Things That Hurt: Adorno as Educator,” Thesis Eleven 110, no. 1 (2012): 69–82.

(25.) Brown argues that the concept of democracy “has historically unparalleled global popularity today yet has never been more conceptually footloose or substantively hollow”; Wendy Brown, “We Are All Democrats Now …,” in Giorgio Agamben et al., Democracy in What State? trans. William McCuaig (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 44–57. See also Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” in Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 37–59; Wendy Brown, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization,” Political Theory 34, no. 6 (2006): 690–714.

(27.) The number of modern theorists taking up these questions is too numerous to list, but for a sense of the relevant debates, see the essays by Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaïd, Wendy Brown, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, Kristin Ross, and Slavoj Žižek in Agamben et al., Democracy in What State?

(28.) Robyn Marasco, The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory after Hegel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 5; emphasis in original. Marasco defines despair “not as pathology or paralysis, but in connection with the passions of critique and the energies of everyday life” (3). Despair is “the negative imprint of hope” (17). Despair is not retreat or resignation but the “restlessness of the negative, or the energetic force with which consciousness keeps moving” (31). She says that “critique … is the work of despair” and turns despair into something productive, moving, energetic (31). Ultimately, “Despair is the refutation of the end of history: It is that dynamic and restless passion that keeps things moving as earthly projects and purposes fall into disrepair” (14). In a passage that captures the key questions of the book, Marasco asks: “What if there are no rational grounds for hope? Does this mean there is no hope? Or does it mean instead that the proof of hope lies in the persistence of despair, that to speak of despair is also to bespeak of hope” (87).

(29.) Shannon Mariotti, Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal: Alienation, Participation, and Modernity (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).

(30.) Marasco, The Highway of Despair, 81; emphasis in original.