Suppose you succeed in breaking the wall with your head. And what, then, will you do in the next cell?

Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Theodor Adorno - biography

Theodor W. Adorno (September 11, 1903 – August 6, 1969) was a German-born international sociologist, philosopher, and musicologist. He was a member of the Frankfurt School of social theory along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, and others. He was also the Music Director of the Radio Project from 1937 to 1941, in the U.S.


The early Frankfurt years

Theodor Ludwig Adorno Wiesengrund was born in Frankfurt as an only child to the wealthy wine merchant Oscar Alexander Wiesengrund (1870–1941, of Jewish descent, converted to Protestantism) and the Catholic singer Maria Barbara, born Calvelli-Adorno. It was the second half of this name that he adopted as his surname upon becoming a naturalized American citizen in the 1930s ("Wiesengrund" was abbreviated to "W"). His musically talented aunt Agathe also lived with the family. The young Adorno passionately engaged the piano. He attended the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gymnasium where he did well, graduating at the age of 17 at the top of his class. In his free time he took private lessons in composition with Bernhard Sekles and read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason together with his friend Siegfried Kracauer — 14 years his elder — on Saturday afternoons. Later he would proclaim that he owed more to these readings than to any of his academic teachers. At the University of Frankfurt (today's Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität) he studied philosophy, musicology, psychology and sociology, graduating in 1924 with a dissertation on Edmund Husserl. Before his graduation, Adorno had already met with his most important intellectual collaborators, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin.

Vienna intermezzo

During his student years in Frankfurt, Adorno had written a number of music critiques, but primarily wanted to be a composer. With this goal envisioned, he used his relationship to Alban Berg to pursue studies in Vienna beginning in January, 1925, making contacts with members of the Viennese School, Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg's revolutionary atonality particularly inspired the 22-year-old to pen philosophical observations on the new music, though they were not well received by its proponents. The disappointment over this caused him to cut back on his music critiques to enable his career as academic teacher and social researcher to flourish. He did however remain editor-in-chief of the avant-garde magazine Anbruch. His musicological writing already displayed his philosophical ambitions. Other lasting influences from Adorno's time in Vienna included Karl Kraus, whose lectures he attended with Alban Berg, and Georg Lukács whose Theory of the Novel had already enthused him while attending Gymnasium and whose History and Class Consciousness he had reviewed a year previously.

The intermediate Frankfurt years

After returning from Vienna, Adorno experienced another setback. After his dissertation supervisor Hans Cornelius and Cornelius's assistant Max Horkheimer had voiced their concerns about Adorno's professorial thesis—a comprehensive philosophical-psychological treatise—he withdrew it in early 1928. Adorno took three more years before he received the venia legendi, after submitting the manuscript Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des Ästhetischen ("Construction of the Aesthetic") to his new supervisor, Paul Tillich.

The topic of Adorno's inaugural lecture was the Current Importance of Philosophy, a theme he considered programmatic throughout his life. In it, he questioned the concept of totality for the first time, anticipating his famous formula (directed against Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) that the whole is the untrue (from Minima Moralia). However, Adorno's credential was revoked by the Nazis, along with those of all professors of non-Aryan descent, in 1933.

Adorno's 1932 essay Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik ("On the Social Situation of Music") was his contribution to the first issues of Horkheimer's Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung ("Journal for Social Research"); it wasn't until 1938 that he joined the Institute for Social Research.

Commuter between Berlin and Oxford (1934–1937)

Beginning in the late 1920s during stays in Berlin, Adorno established close relations with Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch; Adorno had become acquainted with Bloch's first major work, Geist der Utopie, in 1921. Moreover, the German capital, Berlin, was also home of chemist Margarethe ('Gretel') Karplus (1902–1993), whom Adorno would marry in London in 1937. In 1934, fleeing from the Nazi regime, he emigrated to England, with hopes of obtaining a professorship at Oxford.

In 1936, the Zeitschrift featured one of Adorno's most controversial texts, "On Jazz" ("Über Jazz"). "Jazz" was frequently used to refer to all popular music at the time of Adorno's writing. This article was less an engagement with this style of music than a first polemic against the blooming entertainment and culture industry. Adorno believed the culture industry was a system by which society was controlled through a top-down creation of standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression. This topic is also discussed in his essay On the Fetish-Character in Music (Zeitschrift, 1938), in which Adorno formulated his famous quote "every pleasure which emancipates itself from the exchange-value takes on subversive features".

Extensive correspondence with Horkheimer, who was then living in exile in the United States, led to an offer of employment in America.

Émigré in the USA (1938–1949)

After visiting New York City for the first time in 1937 he decided to resettle there. In Brussels he bade his parents, who followed two years later, goodbye. He said goodbye to Benjamin in Sanremo. Benjamin opted to remain in Europe, thus limiting their very rigorous future communication to letters. Adorno's relocation was enabled under an arrangement whereby part of his time was committed to the Institute for Social Research, which was then resettled at Columbia University, and the remainder as musical director on the 'Radio Project' (also known as Lazarsfeld/Stanton Analysis Programme) directed by the Austrian sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld at Princeton University.

That arrangement lasted until 1941. His attention shifted to direct collaboration with Horkheimer. They moved to Los Angeles together, where he taught for the following seven years and served as the co-director of a research unit at UCLA. Their collective work found its first major expression in the first edition of their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung) in 1947. Faced with the unfolding events of the Holocaust, the work begins with the words: 'In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.'

In this book, which was largely ignored until its republication in 1969, Adorno and Horkheimer posit a dynamic within civilization that tends towards self-destruction. They argue that the concept of reason was transformed into an irrational force by the Enlightenment. As a consequence, reason came to dominate not only nature, but also humanity itself. It is this rationalization of humanity that was identified as the primary cause of Fascism and other totalitarian regimes.

After 1945 he ceased to work as a composer. He worked on his 'philosophy of the new music' (Philosophie der neuen Musik) in the 1940s, and on Hanns Eisler's Composing for the films. He also contributed 'qualitative interpretations' to the Studies in Prejudice performed by multiple research institutes in the US that uncovered the authoritarian character of test persons through indirect questions.

Late Frankfurt years (1949–1969)

After the war, Adorno, who had been homesick, did not hesitate long before returning to Germany. Due to Horkheimer's influence he was given a professorship in Frankfurt in 1949/1950, allowing him to continue his academic career after a prolonged hiatus. This culminated in a position as double Ordinarius (of philosophy and of sociology). In the Institute, which was affiliated with the university, Adorno's leadership status became ever more and more apparent, while Horkheimer, who was eight years older, gradually stepped back, leaving his younger friend the sole directorship in 1958/1959.

His collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia, led to greater prominence in post-war Germany when it was released by the newly founded publishing house of Peter Suhrkamp. It proposed a 'melancholy science' against the dark background of Fascism, Stalinism and Culture Industry, which seemingly offered no political or economic alternatives: "Wrong life cannot be lived rightly" (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). The work raised Adorno to the level of a foundational intellectual figure in the West German republic, after a last attempt to get him involved in research in the United States failed in 1953.

Here is a partial list of his accomplishments:

  • In 1952 he participated in a group experiment, revealing residual National Socialist attitudes among the recently democratized Germans (commented on critically by Peter R. Hofstätter).
  • From 1954 onwards, he taught musicology in the summer academies in Kranichstein in Darmstadt.
  • Numerous radio debates (among others with Ernst Bloch, Elias Canetti and Arnold Gehlen)
  • Numerous lectures in Berlin and around Europe (Paris, Vienna, Italy, at the 'documenta' in Kassel in 1959, in Czechoslovakia in 1968)
  • Release of Walter Benjamin's letters and writings
  • In 1961 he initiated the positivism debate (Positivismusstreit) at a meeting of the German Sociological Association in Tübingen.
  • 1963–1967, he was Chairman of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie.
  • In his capacity, he headed 1964 the 15th sociology conference, Max Weber and Sociology Today and in 1968 he headed the 16th sociology conference, Late Capitalism or Industrial Society.

Final years (1967–1969)

In 1966 extraparliamentary opposition (APO) formed against the grand coalition of Germany's two major parties CDU/CSU and SPD, directed primarily against the planned Notstandgesetze (emergency laws). Adorno was an outspoken critic of these policies, which he displayed by his participation in an event organized by the action committee Demokratie im Notstand ("Democracy in a State of Emergency"). When the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a police officer at a demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran, the left-wing APO became increasingly radicalized, and the universities became a place of unrest. To a considerable extent it was students of Adorno who interpreted a theory of revolt, thus executing a "praxis" from Critical Theory. On 31 January 1969, Adorno asked for the help of police to remove the students that had occupied the Frankfurt Institute in fear of vandalism, resulting in the arrest of 76 members of Rudi Dutschke's SDS socialist youth. Therefore Adorno in particular became a target of student action. He sharply criticised the anti-intellectual trend in the 60's Left, which he called a "pseudo-activity" attempting to overcome the separation of theory and praxis but getting caught up in its own publicity; he argued instead for "open thinking": "beyond all specialised and particular content, thinking is actually and above all the force of resistance" In 1969 the disturbances in his lecture hall, most famously as female students occupied his speaker's podium bare-breasted, increased to an extent that Adorno discontinued his lecture series. In a letter to Samuel Beckett, he wrote: "The feeling of suddenly being attacked as a reactionary at least has a surprising note."

One biographer on Adorno, Stefan-Müller Doohm, contends that he was convinced the attacks by the students were directed against his theories as well as his person and that he feared that the current political situation might lead to totalitarianism. He left with his wife on a vacation to Switzerland. Despite warnings by his doctor, he attempted to ascend a 3,000 meter high mountain, resulting in heart palpitations. The same day, he and his wife drove to the nearby town Visp, where he suffered heart palpitations once again. He was brought to the town's clinic. In the morning of the following day, August 6, he died of a heart attack, aged 65.

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: Biography
The article is about these people:   Theodor Adorno

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