Key Theories of Theodor Adorno

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German philosopher, sociologist and musicologist who was a leading member (and eventually director) of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (the institutional basis of the Frankfurt School of German critical theory),  Theodor Adorno’s (1903-1969) work may be understood as an attempt to develop a Marxist theory of twentieth-century capitalism (Adorno 1987).

Theodor Adorno follows Lukacs (1971) in recognising that Marx’s account of capitalism is inadequate, for it lacks a theory of bureaucracy. This theory is found in the work of Max Weber (1946b). Lukacs fused Marx and Weber through his theory of’reification’. A reified society is one that confronts its members as a quasi-natural object, rather than as a product of human subjective action. Reification is rooted in the all-pervasiveness of the principles of commodity exchange. Commodity exchange entails the comparison of qualitatively distinct goods and processes by reducing them to a common quantitative measure (monetary value). For Lukacs this quantification of the qualitatively-unique underpins not just commodity exchange, but all forms of social interaction, including the bureaucratic organisation of work-forces and a state’s citizens. For Adorno, more radically still, the principles of quantification and exchange infiltrate even thought itself.

While Lukacs retained faith in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, so that he found in the standpoint of the proletariat a supposedly objective point from which to criticise capitalism, Adorno lacks this faith. Traditional class distinctions are no longer relevant, for all human beings are alike integrated into the ‘totally administered’ capitalist society through commodity exchange, bureaucracy, and through what he calls the culture industry (Adorno 1991a). The culture industry is composed of primarily the advertising and mass media industries, that influence the consumer’s judgement of the usefulness (or ‘use-value’) of commodities. In effect, while in nineteenth century capitalism consumers chose goods because they found them useful, now our very acts of choice are constructed by the producers. The commodity exists, not to satisfy the needs or desires of consumers, but simply to be exchanged and generate profit (surplus value) and thus to perpetuate the capitalist system. Criticism of capitalism is hampered because, crucially, the resources that capitalism provides to the intellectual (for example in philosophy or the social and natural sciences) are no longer sufficient to challenge the capitalist order, because these resources are fundamentally coherent with capitalism’s basic principles of quantification and exchange. In  effect, philosophy and science (like advertising) exist to reproduce capitalism.

Adorno is therefore suspicious of the very possibility of thinking coherently and critically about capitalism in its own terms, and so must seek an approach to social analysis that will break apart the reified or natural appearance of capitalism, and thus open up the possibility of recognising that things could be otherwise.

In part this involves a complex use of language, a refusal to define concepts, and a pursuit of arguments into unresolved contradictions. Contradictions expose the inadequacies of reified thought, and specifically the failure of thought (the order of ideas) to grasp adequately social reality (the order of things). Thus, Adorno’s (1973b) approach of ‘negative dialectics’ (or ‘non-identity thinking’) proceeds, not, like Lukacs’, by positing some objective standpoint from which philosophy and criticism could be developed, but rather by recognising only the falsehood of all existing accounts and judgements of society (precisely because they fall into contradiction). Adorno is thus arguing that the thinker or analyst is not autonomous from the reality they seek to analyse. Rather, because the very structure of their thoughts is determined by capitalism, the analyst can only work by recognising the ways in which capitalism has falsified and inhibited thought. The thinker strives for ‘exact fantasy’ that is at once disciplined by a sensitivity to the object under analysis, and yet is free to take risks, breaking from the control of orthodox systematic thought (1977, p. 131).

Art, and specifically the art of the modernist avant-garde, is for Adorno the principle source of resistance to capitalism. He approaches art through a contradictory thesis: art is at once a social fact and yet autonomous from society. This is to claim that the analysis of art requires both that one recognises that it is determined by society, and yet that it is free of society. Adorno unravels this through a reinterpretation of Kant’s definition of ‘beauty’ as ‘purposiveness without a purpose’ (Kant 1952a, p. 80). A work of art is purposive, in the sense that it is an intentionally constructed human artefact. It is purposeless in that it does not wholly pursue the dominant purposes of capitalism (which is to say, a work of art is not simply a commodity that exists for exchange and the realisation of surplus-value). Aesthetics — the philosophy of art – presupposes that an art work should be analysed in its own terms. An art work pursues intrinsically artistic problems, such as expression or representation of the natural or emotional world; the organisation of the surface of a painting; the development of a narrative; or the structuring of themes within a piece of music. In contrast, a sociology of art will demonstrate that any given art work is a product of its age. The technology used in the art work will be similar to that used in industry (consider the chemicals in paint or the machinery of the musical instrument), the thought processes of the artist (such as the sense of time, space, narrative and logical development) will be akin to those of their contemporaries, and the art work will be distributed and consumed like other goods. Adorno’s claim is that the sociology of art reveals that the autonomous, purely aesthetic, content of the art work is in fact a sedimented social content. By pursuing its aesthetic concerns, the art work is pursuing the concerns of mundane society, albeit crucially stripped of the constraints of the dominant objectives of capitalism. An appropriate reading of a work of art can, potentially, tell us more about society than can an empirical sociology, precisely because the work of art exposes the inner tensions of society, not its reified appearance.

Adorno turns to modernist avant-garde works — such as the music of Schoenberg (Adorno 1973a) or the theatre of Beckett (Adorno 1991c) — as the most profound response, not just to aesthetic problems but also, necessarily, to social problems. The shocking, seemingly incomprehensible nature of the avant-garde is important, because the avantgarde is responding to the art of the past, and is recognising that its solutions to aesthetic problems are no longer adequate. Thus, for Schoenberg, the tonal system that governed Western music from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries is no longer adequate to express emotions, and its possibilities for organising thematic material is exhausted. In breaking with tonality, Schoenberg exposes as conventional what was previously taken for granted as natural. A reified surface is broken apart, and one realises that things could be otherwise.

While Adorno is a critic of the Enlightenment, he is ultimately a critic of its failure (Adorno and Horkheimer 1973). There has been too little enlightenment, not too much. In avant-garde art, in contrast to the rest of contemporary culture, he still finds the relentless challenging of taken-for-granted foundations and boundaries (myths of givenness or naturalness) that characterise critical, enlightened thought, and a striving for truth, if only in exposing the falsehood of past and present.

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