The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption – Thodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections On A Damaged Life, No. 153, p.247
Writing about Theodor Adorno’s works presents challenges to even the best reviewer. Seeing as I’m hardly one such, I think it best to break things up just a bit, if for no other reason than clarity. And clarity about this little work is necessary, because for all its datedness, its rootedness in the historical moment of its creation, it is still a very important work of a very important person. I wouldn’t go as far as one reviewer from The Observer, quoted on the back cover, that it contains Adorno’s “best thoughts”. For all it is short, it covers an enormous range of the human experience.
Why Minima Moralia? In what way was Adorno’s life “damaged”? Adorno speaks to the first in his dedication to his friend and colleague, Max Horkheimer:
[T]he relation between life and production, which in reality debases the former to an ephemeral appearance of the latter, is totally absurd. Means and end are inverted. A dim awareness of this perverse quid pro quo has still not been quite eradicated from life. Reduced and degraded essence tenaciously resists the magic that transforms it into a facade. The change in the relations of production themselves depends largely on what takes place in the ‘sphere of consumption’, the mere reflection of production and caricature of true life: in the consciousness and unconsciousness of individuals. Only by virtue of opposition to production, as still not wholly encompassed by this order, can men bring about another more worthy of human beings. (p.15)
In other words, the best we can hope for in late capitalist society is a view of the moral life at its bare minimum.
As to the damage, he writes in No. 13, p.33:
Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated, and does well to acknowledge it to himself, if he wishes to avoid being cruelly apprised of it behind the tightly-closed doors of his self-esteem. He lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him, however flawless his knowledge of trade-union organsiations or the automobile industry may be; he is always astray. . . . The isolation is made worse by the formation of closed and politically-controlled groups, mistrustful of their members, hostile to those branded different.
On Style And Method
Minima Moralia is described as “aphoristic”. The problem with such a description is that it really isn’t. The masters of the aphoristic reflection rooted in philosophical commitments, Nietzsche and the French/Romanian pessimist E. M. Cioran, wouldn’t recognize Adorno’s work as the same as theirs at all. The latter two gentlemen are “masters” precisely because they are able to reduce their most important insights to the shortest, pithiest of sayings. Many are only a sentence or two in length. At his shortest and clearest, Adorno cannot reduce what he wants to say to such things. His insistence on dialectic as the only method worthy of pushing through the crudity and totalitarian tendencies of late capitalist thought leaves him with the necessity of offering his thoughts less as aphorisms and more as incomplete reflections that nevertheless offer the reader a chance to see a prodigious intellect at work.
Thus it is that, in his attempt to offer short observations, Adorno has little choice but to leave the understanding of “short” to those who know this word can have many meanings.
And yet . . .
No. 144, pp. 224-225, speaks of the political power of art in an age where art is degraded:
In the magic of what reveals itself in absolute powerlessness, of beauty, at once perfection and nothingness, the illusion of omnipotence is mirrored negatively as hope. It has escaped every trial of strength. Total purposelessness give the lie to the totality of purposefulness in the world of domination, and by drawing the conclusion from its own principle of reason, has existing society up to now become aware o another that is possible.
Adorno could have simply written: In its transcendence art offers an alternative that is better than the present. Precisely because he cannot write such a thing due to the demands both of method and style, however, we are left with this far more engaging, and I might add beautiful, paean to the power of art.
As I worked my way through Part I, my first thoughts were that Adorno was doing little more than using his platform as a philosopher of some repute to bitch about the conditions in which he found himself in wartime America. I even thought of including the picture below to best capture the tenor and tone of what I was reading:
For example, here is No. 21, p. 42:
We are forgetting how to give presents. Violation of the exchange principle has something nonsensical and implausible about it: here and there even children eye the giver suspiciously, as if the gift were merely a trick to sell them brushes or soap.
No. 25, pp. 46-47:
The past life of emigres is, as we know, annulled. Earlier it was the warrant of arrest, today it is intellectual experience, that is declared non-transferable and unnaturalizable. Anything that is not reified, cannot be counted and measured, ceases to exist.
No. 28, on p 48, is really quite amusing.
The shortcomings of the American landscape is not so much, as romantic illusion would have it, the absence of historical memories, as that it bears no traces of the human hand. This applies not only to the lack of arable land, the uncultivated woods often no higher than scrub, but above all to the roads. These are always inserted directly in the landscape, and the more impressively smooth and broad they are, the more unrelated and violent their gleaming track appears against its wild, overgrown surroundings.
Some of this has the air of an Old World petty aristocrat arriving in “vulgar” America and seeing and experiencing all that confirms his bias. Adorno merely dresses up his complaints in the dialectic of critical theory, trying to make them sound less bitchy and more authoritative. This reaches a kind of absurd, quaint, and comical peak with No. 75, pp. 116-117:
Probably the decline of the hotel dates back to the dissolution of the ancient unity of inn and brothel, nostalgia for which lives on in every glance directed at the displayed waitress and the the tell-tail gestures of the chamber-maids. But now that the innkeeper’s trade, the most honourable of the professions in the sphere of circulation, has been purged of its last ambiguities, such as still cling to the word ‘intercourse’, things have become very bad.
Were these the only things about which Adorno wrote, I would have set the work aside. There is so much more. Reflections on patriarchy and feminism. Thoughts on how society has distorted sex and the pursuit of love. And always, always the constant refrain that the culture industry dictates both the limits and terms of what is and is not permissible, not because of bourgeois morality so much as it serves as a functionary of the larger forces of production.
On patriarchy and sex, he reaches a kind of stylistic and insightful peak in No. 112, p. 174:
The bourgeois needs the [harlot], not merely for pleasure, which he grudges her, but to feel himself a god. The nearer he gets to the edge of his domain and the more her forgets his dignity, the more blatant becomes the ritual of power. The night has its joy, but the whore is burned notwithstanding.
In No. 124, p. 194, Adorno writes the following on the insidiousness of the culture industry’s distortion of small ‘d’ democracy through the medium of film, in this case 1946’s The Best Years Of Their Lives:
When, in the most successful film of a year, the heroic squadron leader returns to be harassed by petty-bourgeois caricatures as a drug-store jerk, [the elite] not only gives the spectator an occasion for unconscious gloating but in addition strengthens them in their conviction that all men are really brothers. Extreme injustice becomes a deceptive facsimile of justice, disqualification of equality. Sociologists, however, ponder the grimly comic riddle: where is the [American] proletariat?
In the midst of it all, however, comes my favorite, No. 114, pp. 177-178. It is nothing more or less than a quaint, charming recollection of the power of real human encounters upon children. Reading it, I thought more of Adorno’s friend Ernst Bloch. In both tone and style, it sounds far more like the more-than-occasionally whimsical Utopian than the hard-boiled critical theorist:
When a guest comes to stay with his parents, a child’s heart beats with more fervent expectation than it ever did before Christmas. . . .Among all those nearest him, as their friend, appears the figure of all that is different. The soothsaying gypsy, let in by the front door, is absolved in the lady visitor and transfigured into a rescuing angel. From the joy of greatest proximity she removes the curse by wedding it to utmost distance. For this the child’s whole being is waiting, and so too, later, must he be able to wait who does not forget what is best in childhood. Love counts the hours until the one when the guest steps over the threshold and imperceptibly restores life’s washed-out colours.
I was reminded of a Christmas when my older sister’s housemates came up with her. Older, attractive (this was important, I won’t kid you), seemingly exotic as both were from the deep south (my sister attended The University of Southern Mississippi), these women brought with them something more, something that cannot be defined but only described. Adorno captured it precisely in this beautiful reflection on those moments from our lives that imprint upon us something of the “more” that lies outside our usual run of experience.
Adorno’s Minima Moralia offers something for anyone seeking something akin to understanding. It is particularly timely as it deals forthrightly with the horrible reality of Fascism at a moment in our collective lives when we hover on the brink of sinking into its barbaric depths. While I do think there’s at least some justice in Georg Lukacs observation regarding Adorno having taken up residence in “The Grand Hotel Abyss”, it should never be forgotten that what drove Adorno, as it did Lukacs, Bloch, Horkheimer, and the rest of the early-20th century Marxist and critical theorist, was a deep passion for real human justice, a society in which human beings could truly be free human beings, rid once for all of the threat of totalitarianism. In this little work, even at its moments of grousing, we encounter a powerful thinker reflecting on his particular experiences and how they might serve as a guide through the morass.