Adorno - Theory


Part of a series on the
Frankfurt School
Major works
Reason and Revolution
The Work of Art in the
Age of Mechanical Reproduction Eclipse of Reason
The Fear of Freedom
Dialectic of Enlightenment
Minima Moralia
Eros and Civilization
One-Dimensional Man
Negative Dialectics
The Structural Transformation
of the Public Sphere The Theory of Communicative Action
Notable theorists
Max Horkheimer · Theodor Adorno
Herbert Marcuse · Walter Benjamin
Erich Fromm · Friedrich Pollock
Leo Löwenthal · Jürgen Habermas
Important concepts
Critical theory · Dialectic · Praxis
Psychoanalysis · Antipositivism
Popular culture · Culture industry
Advanced capitalism
Privatism · Non-identity
Communicative rationality
Legitimation crisis

Adorno's work sets out from a central insight he shares with all early 20th century avant-garde art: The recognition of what is primitive in ourselves and the world itself. Neither Picasso's fascination with African sculpture nor Mondrian's reduction of painting to its most elementary component - the line - is comprehensible outside this concern with primitivism Adorno shared with the century's most radical art."Adorno’s desires to illuminate the radical potential of culture through immanent criticism on the one hand, and to expose the intellectually petrifying and politically authoritarian powers of the culture industry, on the other hand.” (Apostolidis: p.55) At the same time, the Western world, beset by world-wars, colonialist consolidation and accelerating commodification, sank into the very barbarism civilization had prided itself in overcoming. According to Adorno, society's self-preservation had become indistinguishable from societally sanctioned self-sacrifice: of "primitive" peoples, primitive aspects of the ego and those primitive, mimetic desires found in imitation and sympathy. Adorno's theory proceeds from an understanding of this primitive quality of reality which seeks to counteract whatever aims to either repress this primitive aspect or further those systems of domination set in place by this return to barbarism. From this perspective, Adorno's writings on politics, philosophy, music and literature could be described as a lifelong critique of the ways in which each tries to justify self-mutilation as the necessary price of self-preservation. According to Adorno's translator Robert Hullot-Kentor, the central motive of Adorno's work thus consists in determining "how life could be more than the struggle for self-preservation." In this sense, the principle of self-preservation, Adorno writes in Negative Dialectics, is nothing but "the law of doom thus far obeyed by history." At its most basic, Adorno's thought is motivated by a fundamental critique of this law.

Adorno was chiefly influenced by Max Weber's critique of disenchantment, Georg Lukács's Hegelian interpretation of Marxism, as well as Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history. Adorno, along with the other major Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse, argued that advanced capitalism had managed to contain or liquidate the forces that would bring about its collapse and that the revolutionary moment, when it would have been possible to transform it into socialism, had passed. As he put it at the beginning of his Negative Dialectics (1966), philosophy is still necessary because the time to realise it was missed. Adorno argued that capitalism had become more entrenched through its attack on the objective basis of revolutionary consciousness and through liquidation of the individualism that had been the basis of critical consciousness.

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