Richard Leppert, Introduction, Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music

For Christmas, my wife gave me an enormous volume of new translations of Adorno’s essays on music.  In the long Introduction, editor Richard Leppert notes that nearly a third of Adorno’s published works – both technical and popular – concerned music.  Both his mother and his aunt were musicians, and Adorno himself was a gifted musician, even studying composition for a time under Vienna School composer Anton Webern.

I first read the Introduction back in January.  That was a time in my life, however, when absorbing something as complicated, subtle, and occasionally argumentative (on my part) as the complexities of Adorno’s thought was just beyond my ability.  Now, as I read through it again, I’m finding myself not only attracted to much of Adorno’s basic thought; I’m seeing similarities between his larger philosophical project and that of his near contemporary in theology (a person with whom I have no idea if each had contact with the other), Karl Barth.  Now, Adorno did complete his habilitationschrift, on Kierkegaard, under Paul Tillich.  That by no means includes any familiarity on Adorno’s part with contemporaneous trends in theology.

If the difficult and complex basis of Adorno’s thought could be summarized, such a summary would consist of two things: that all of us exist within interlocking institutions of late capitalism that compromise our abilities to see, think, and speak clearly and effectively about its dangers; as limited and compromised, then, as our efforts can ever be, nevertheless, the best weapon thought has against this kind of totalitarianism is the open-ended possibilities of the negative dialectic.  As Adorno himself wrote in the Minima Moralia, “The whole is a lie.”

In much the same way, Barth was opposed to the on-going attempts in Protestant Dogmatic circles to present theology as a “System”.  The whole idea of “Systematic Theology” violated the most basic realities of the faith.  For Barth, that would be the reality of the Christ-event and the pronouncement of the Word of God to the believing community each week.  No system, no matter how well thought-out, can relate this vibrant reality.  It is something to be lived rather than set forth a priori.  In the midst of writing his millions of words on the subject, Barth once said that all theology is prolegomena.  We must remind ourselves that our faith is best summed up in the children’s song, “Jesus love me, this I know/For the Bible tells me so,” and not become so wedded to systems and ideology that we forget this fundamental reality of the Christian faith.

Adorno recognized how compromised his own thought – indeed the thought of anyone attempting to do philosophy under the conditions of late capitalism – had to be.  He and his colleague Max Horkheimer spelled out that compromised position of philosophy at the very beginning of their influential The Dialectics of Enlightenment.

Barth, too insisted that Christian theology is “compromised” in a way.  Limited by the reality of the Word of God, we must ever and always steer clear of the temptation of the system, of the philosophical principle, of the seduction either of popularity or relevance.  Like Adorno, Barth believed Christian theology not to be a whole, but an open-ended human project.  For Adorno, the rejection of the totalizing tendencies of positive dialectics (Hegel being the best example) offered if not a doorway out, at least a window through which one could catch a glimpse of hope for the future; the compromises forced upon all of us by late capitalism allowed us only that hope, as powerful as it is.  For Barth, theology is open precisely because theology, like the faith upon which it reflects, is open because of its primarily eschatological nature.  The Word of God is historical – indeed, it defines real history – and it is present, but most of all the Word of God is a word of faith and hope for the future which we proclaim as God’s future.  For Barth, this is the hope that cuts through the totalizing ideologies of late capitalism.  It is weak, to be sure, just as Adorno’s negative dialectics aren’t much.  All the same, it is what we have, it the hope it offers is, like Adorno’s open-ended dialectic without a synthesis, the hope for a future where the fullness of humanity,  and end to suffering, and justice are regnant.

What does any of this have to do with music?  Well, I’m getting there.  For now, this is enough to make me excited that I’m finally entering the thought-world of an individuals whose concerns mirror many of my own.