I Don’t Heart Adorno

The New York Sun reviews a new biography of Adorno.  The biography seems to be largely admiring.  The reviewer?  Not so much:

Adorno, who wrote that “even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror,” would certainly not want to be “hearted.” At best, he would take a grim pleasure in seeing this confirmation of the power of what he named the Culture Industry, which neuters even the most powerful challenges to its domination. And perhaps, it is only fair to add, his vanity would be pleased. For as the wife of Max Horkheimer, his Frankfurt School colleague, once observed, “Teddie is the most monstrous narcissist to be found in either the Old World or the New.”


Yet for all the intellectual dexterity Adorno expended in this effort, and all the undoubted insights he gained into history and culture, it is precisely the totalizing nature of his thought that renders it so questionable. With the subtlety of a schoolman, Adorno tried to show how every aspect of 20th-century life was implicated in the same process of alienation, exploitation, and suffering. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly,” he decreed, and it followed that anyone who believed he was living rightly, or enjoying the “false pleasures” of bourgeois culture, was miserably deluded. Adorno effectively denies the possibility of spontaneity and pluralism, of freedom and new beginnings — in other words, all the human capacities that make genuine humanism possible.

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