on June 17, 1999
Although the Frankfurt School enjoyed some popularity in the US during the 1960s, its greatest writer never gained a following. Read this book and you may understand why: Adorno's thought is dense, allusive, and difficult to assimilate. It assumes quite some background in European, and especially German, intellectual history.
The right reader, however, will find Minima Moralia a tightly written, polished masterpiece. It is essentially a series of aphorisms in the style of Nietzsche. Adorno blends sharp observations about daily life in the 20th century with choice gleanings from philosophy, literature and history. The result is a unique work of cultural criticism that defies characterization or summary.
Almost every sentence of Minima Moralia contains a devastating insight into modern culture. Must reading for anyone who cares about Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, and all related strands of thought.
on July 11, 2003
Like Noam Chomsky, Theodor Adorno is one of those thinkers whose exposures of what society keeps hidden are so antithetical to received opinion, that they are either ignored or attacked by those who evade the actual issues at hand. While Chomsky uncovers hypocrisy and deception in international politics, Adorno cuts to the heart of alienated modern subjectivity, exploring the paradoxes and delusions of a world that most people imagine couldn't be otherwise. While his writing always carries a faint glimmer of hope that "things could be different", Adorno is largely pessimistic about the possibility of true freedom and reconciliation (in a Marxist sense) under the often absurd conditions of modern life. Now, this doesn't mean that he subjects "society" to vicious attack. On the contrary (and again, like Chomsky), Adorno speaks with sobriety and erudition. He's not afraid to interogate the customs and habits that are woven into the very fabric of modern institutions, charting their evolution and pointing out the relatively late development of many types of human interaction that are ordinarily dismissed as human nature, if thought of at all.
Adorno's dense, challenging prose can be difficult to digest in large portions. I made the mistake of beginning my exploration of his work with "Aesthetic Theory", which consists of 250 pages of undiluted thought, and no chapter divisions. The aphoristic collection of ruminations that is "Minima Moralia" is a much better introduction to this twists and turns of Adorno's thinking. As always, he uncondescendingly offers faithful transcriptions of his very thought processes, making things both difficult for the lazy reader, and more revealing to attentive readers able to hug the sharp corners at accelerated mental speeds. Adorno's critique centers on the alienation produced by commodity culture, where everything is reduced to a price tag, the complementary "administered" world, where all aspects of modern existence are mediated by government beaurocracy, and the shallow "culture industry" that dispenses the bread and circuses of corporate pop culture to superficially fill the void at the center of a "free" existence enslaved to capital. This book will hit some uncomfortable nerves, and sections here have the same potential to change one's life as David Edwards' "Burning All Illusions", a more psychological/political attack on the underlying societal assumptions that are uncritically accepted as given. However, unlike Edwards, Adorno sees no way out of the vast prison of alienation that precariously butresses the pervasive false consciousness of the modern subject. Potential avenues of escape are quickly dismissed as illusory products of man's false sense of freedom. Edwards doesn't pull any punches in his emphasis on the difficulty of escaping the myriad mental bonds of contemporary existence, but at least he pushes the reader to seek a better life beyond the superficial trappings that have all but smothered our apprehension of the big picture of human history. Adorno resigns himself to the small consolation of having diagnosed the sickness, while advising a low-key existence, afloat in a sea that is, nevertheless, recognized for its falsehood.
Ultimately, Adorno was a vital critic of what often goes unconsidered, not to mention a razor-sharp philosophical mind. While a master of unmasking the falsity of so-called first principles, he isn't without his own ideological givens: He relies far too much on the dialectical method of Hegel and Marx. Still, within the experimental controls provided by his subtly dogmatic ideological undergirding, Adorno provides ample food for thought. The hardline intellectual presentation requires the reader to operate at a level conducive to critical thinking, not only in relation to society, but in relation to
Adorno's thought itself.
on May 26, 2000
...when it comes to praising this book. as a european refugee in this country, i feel that adorno's lucidity is almost uncanny. many times i read and reread one page, enjoying and deeply respecting his wisdom and intellectual courage, shocked by his insight. it is not an easy reading and it is mostly painful...but very, very rewarding. i love books more than anything, and i spend all my money and time on them, but until now i have not read anything comparable. the only other book i know of that offers such challenge and such solace is le mythe de sisyphe by camus. by the way, i hope the english translation is good, but i recommend to read it in german.
on August 8, 2005
Adorno, at first grown up upper-class-protected, became acquainted with the horror only outside the family (his mother was a classical musician). Outside: on the school-yards, pursued and pushed by his peer group, because he always was teacher's darling. Outside: being a Jew walking on Nazi-streets of a pre-Hitler Germany with subtle racial discrimination. They soon would build Auschwitz. The same pattern, which at first as the contempt of mediocre school-gangs came into much too close contact to Adorno, secondly reached more painful intensity in the shape of the ideological constructions and daily realities of the National Socialism in the Third Reich. Though no one had a presentiment of the coming Holocaust, Adorno told, that the exploding of inhumanity did not astound him, after all that he had to suffer in the years before. Adorno fled to the U.S. for political reasons and because his father had Jewish roots. He worked in New York in the "Institute for Social Research". After exile (in the 1950s) Adorno returned to Frankfurt. He soon became a hero of the student revolts of 1968, but unfortunately students prefered a style of discussion and acting (Adorno's lectures were disrupted by bare breast girls), - a style of discussion and acting, which the (latent conservative) upper-class child Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (called "Teddy" by the students) disliked in the beginning, in the middle and at the end of his life. His literary and philosophical masterpiece MINIMA MORALIA however is a testament of a razor-sharp philosophical mind, using an élitist, brilliantly aphoristic language. He continually followed the principle, that the only method to write nowadays is an essayistic, non-systematic, code word analyzing method, considering the fact, that big mega-philosophies (fascism, marxism ...) always tumble down after a while or seep silently, trickle away by the working process of dialectic thinkers. Since the attack against the World Trade Center in New York the understanding grows, that living in bondage with a false philosophy or a fundamentalist religion or an impudence nation (sometimes difficult to decide) nearly inevitably leads into a catastrophe. It is a maybe confusing but easily remembered coincidence, that Adorno's birthday is on a "September Eleven" (9/11/1903), duplicating the hint at the warning that ideological instigation gives rise to an escalation of terrible disasters. Like a Noam Chomsky or a grandchild of Nietzsche, Marx and Kierkegaard this German philosopher, co-founder of the so-called "Frankfurter Schule", provides with ample food for thought with his dense, challenging prose. But on the other hand he very lowly uses language as a poet, describing daily life and it's false consciousness: leading the view to Proust or Sigmund Freud, to "Golden Gate" or "Tough Babies", to cats or mammoths, to marriage and divorce, to "L 'inutile beauté" or "Wishful Thinking", to "Il servo padrone" and "They, the people": if you decide to read Adorno, you will forget the present world of violence and you will enter an inspiring galaxy of ideas. The modesty of Adorno's working method, trying to convince linguistically only by small artful steps, this could be a comfort-rich meditation assistance for those, who live in rough political and urban scenes ...
on May 24, 2015
When reading Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia, I've found it useful to bear in mind a specific metaphor or ideal-type. Specifically, think of the world as a 1950's vintage factory in which everything that exists is produced. Even the people, who ostensibly operate the factory, in a darkly dialectic twist of irony, are produced by the factory. Ideas, too, are factory products, manifestations of technology intensive means-ends, dollar-valued rationality. The factory, thus, has become the source -- the producer -- of its own ethos, where all measures are stubbornly quantitative in a thoroughgoing positivistic sense.
In view of the all-encompassing breadth of its task, the division of labor is immeasurably complex. The behavior of any person in any productive role is nominally free, at least within the constraints imposed by maximally productive technique, especially as that is manifest in the material means of automation. Leisure time, moreover, is nominally devoid of productive constraints, equipment, and procedures manuals. Adjustment to the factory regime is the strongest evidence that a person is a mature adult.
While the factory putatively includes everyone and all benefit accordingly, compensation for the occupants of the role of Big Capital is exaggerated to a degree that is commensurate with its ostensibly over-riding importance. Individual manifestations of Big Capital are aware of their contribution and the presumed justice of their material reward, but they are blithely oblivious to the fact that they, too, are factory products, as is their dollar-valued contribution. For them to think otherwise would approximate an unimaginable act roughly comparable to viewing the outside of the entire outer rim of the universe from the inside. Just as that image makes no sense, there is no vantage point from which late capitalism, the referent for the factory metaphor, could look at itself from the outside.
Only when we address the position and role of Big Capital do we begin to come to grips with the primary substance that runs throughout Adorno's Minima Moralis: Reflection from Damaged Life. The damage to which Adorno refers has been visited on all of us, not just those who were forced to flee Nazi tyranny and the horrors of its death camps. The damage is inherent in the factory metaphor introduced at the outset, and that encumbers us as we continue with our lives.
In truth, following Adorno, the productive freedom and unfettered leisure attendant to occupying a role in the factory are, in fact, intrusively scripted. However, since everyone was born, raised, and socialized into adulthood within the factory, a rationally scripted life is second nature to all. Readers who have worked through Adorno's book The Culture Industry will understand this in concrete detail, and the factory metaphor is useful shorthand for a fully developed sociology of critical knowledge. The factory is all there is, and it constitutes the totality of individual and collective experience. The factory is all that can be known.
Within the factory, the only rationality is intrinsic to the readily measurable process of production. Much as in Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, alternative standards have neither precedent nor purpose. After all, production is for capital accumulation and consumption, and the commodities consumed are meant for those who fill the manifold positions throughout the factory. When presented in this way, in the context afforded by the factory metaphor, no other form of rationality seems useful or even conceivable. The exclusive pervasiveness of a model of rationality based on purely quantitative means-ends relationships seems as sensibly and destructively prefigured as Horkheimer described it in Eclipse of Reason.
Adorno's excursions into areas seemingly not subsumed by the commoditizing factory ideal-type, including considerable attention to the lives of women, are not adventitious. Instead, they reveal the consequences for people and their social context when, though for some it may seem otherwise, all of life is contained in the factory and imbued with the factory culture. People produced as commodities and reckoned in terms of exchange value and who think and feel accordingly bring very little joy to themselves or others. This is something for which they have not been scripted.
The cumulativity of work by Adorno and other members of The Critical School is no accident. The constraints, compulsions, relationships, and cultural substance intrinsic to the factory metaphor are pervasive throughout the work of Critical School theorists. Their brilliance inheres, in good part, in their shared sensitivity to the ways in which the processes they described have imbued all institutions, organizations, and modes of expression that we, in our various locations in the factory, have come to take for granted. The all pervasiveness of the rationalized, standardized, and scripted social and cultural influences invoked by Adorno may help to explain why Minima Moralia took its particular aphoristic and short essay form: using a multitude of examples from a broad range of topically distinct domains, Adorno emphasized the immanence of his theme.
Adorno's ability to adopt a thoroughly critical position, something unimaginable from inside the metaphorical factory, seems closely tied to his position as a German emigre who moved to England and the United States, returning to Germany after the end of World War II. Adorno, as with other members of The Critical School, spent much of his life as an outsider. Unassimilated but enabled by the tools of rigorous scholarship, Adorno gained access to insights and an over-arching perspective available only to one who was marginalized, and in that sense independent of the taken-for-granted substance of the world view that cripplingly inculcated so many others. The War destroyed Adorno's native Germany, gave horrific meaning to otherwise unexceptional names such as Auschwitz and Treblinka, and demonstrated that the cold and indifferent logic of the factory metaphor was intrinsic not only to capitalism but to the most extreme forms of fascism,
Furthermore, writing in the 1940's, the processes that were creating what has become an international capitalist system, when compared with present circumstances, were at a relatively early stage of development. The factory metaphor had not yet come to cover the entire world, including nominally socialist states. Spontaneity, eccentricity, and creativity were still occasionally possible without calling into question the fidelity and sanity of those exhibiting these non-standardized ways of behaving. The rationality of the factory model did not yet completely preclude them. Social and cultural domination was still incomplete, and the workings of Big Capital were primarily a national rather than an international phenomenon.
Minima Moralia is a dense, wide-ranging, and difficult book. Its primary concerns, however, are pretty simple: the domination and denaturing of human beings, rendering them to the status of commodities, made and unmade in terms suggested by the factory metaphor. I think that Adorno sometimes ranges too far afield and covers too much too obliquely, now and then with a hint of banality. Nevertheless, this is a brilliant book, written by one whose scholarly attainments are beyond question and who demands a great deal of his readers.
on February 14, 2013
Theodor Adorno's late theoretical masterwork is called *Negative Dialectics*, but these earlier aphoristical comments on war and fascism might have been titled *Negative Socialism*. As Lenin and the Communists had earlier reacted successfully to the failures of the Socialist International in the First World War, the Frankfurt School looked at the failures of Communism at midcentury; at a time when many on the left viewed peace with Russia as the only aim of agitation, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and others proclaimed early the dangers of "state capitalism" and the need for the intellectual left to think through problems of mass culture and totalizing domination clearly. Adorno's comments on every type of insidious and insipid standardization and failure to think are unrelentingly critical, but on a closer reading his attempt to carry the socialist standard into a new era is unstinting and generous; every goal of the worker's movement is secretly approved, every attack on popular freedom tilted at. Critical Theory, away from the endless exegesis of Hegel and obscure Marx works -- in a format more than suggestive of Nietzsche's aphoristical works -- actually makes for pleasant reading, and this work is surely a minor classic of Twentieth-Century literature and thought.
The book is also notable for its emigre perspective on America. Officially, Adorno and Horkheimer hated the philistine gum-chewing of the United States: however, a recent biography makes it known that for a time Adorno contemplated a sort of "rentier" existence in California. Really, *Minima Moralia* -- written towards the end of the Second World War, then published in Germany in the early postwar era -- is a sort of warning to the "master race" that there was an even more ruthlessly limiting and banally evil way to run a society than they knew. In this way, the book is part of the Faustian bargain with German *Kultur* and barbarism that constituted Adorno's whole life. The translation makes lovely English of what is called *Adorno-Syntax*: although the new Verso discount line has discarded the powerful older cover, it does make the work available at a price affordable to everyone. I first read *Minima Moralia* in high school, and thusly suggest that older radicals might give the book as a guide to the "blessed life" for an adolescent or young adult who is politically intelligent but insufficiently contrarian. Definitely a book to read before you become old and, well, immoral.
on June 2, 2007
Though largely unknown outside of certain obscure academic circles, Theodor W. Adorno was, without a doubt, the foremost socio-political theorist of the 20th century. For truly intelligent, literate, questing minds (free of occultist nonsense) Adorno's MINIMA MORALIA is absolutely indispensible. A compendium of always eloquent, surprising, mournful, and deeply humane musings on modern capitalist society in all its terrible unfreedom, this book is among the most uncompromisingly radical ever written (cf. Max Stirner's THE EGO AND ITS OWN). To read and understand Adorno--even imperfectly--is to experience the tremendous pleasure of being in the presence of impeccable historical awareness, great moral rectitude, and visionary wisdom.
on November 18, 2015
Minima Moralia is a modern take on Aristotle's Magna Moralia for a post-fascist world. This volume contains some of Adorno's most beautiful prose and, contrary to what some have said, I don't think his writing in translation in difficult. Compared to other German philosophers in the tradition he was working in, his prose style and allusions are crystal clear, and are dense in the aphoristic style of nineteenth century German philosophy. Some minimal background is needed to understand where he is coming from, but to a basically educated reader, Minima Moralia should come across as a brief, interesting read on the downfallen tendency of industrial society in the depressive vein. I don't like Verso's edition of this or other works--the sandpaper background is ugly, and doesn't even have a sandpaper texture--but that is no fault of Adorno or his translator. Necessary reading--a desert island book.
Adorno's Minima Moralia is one of his characteristic texts-it is an extraordinary study of the contradictions of modern society. While Adorno's argument does not turn exclusively on a criticism of capitalism (whereas Marcuse's did), his work is clearly indebted to a mode of dialectical argumentation which exposes the thetic movements of our modern cultural situation. Adorno is a marvelous stylist-this text moves in Nietzschean manner through a dense web of cultural and political lineages and points to their corresponding symptoms. This is one of the singularly accomplished texts regarding the state of alienated subjectivity from the Continental tradition. A limitless and indispensable resource.
on March 29, 2000
The paradox of Adorno is that he is known as a "difficult, complex, and hard to read" writer...but the typists at the Princeton Radio Research Project, at which Adorno spent a few unhappy years, found his work quite readable.
The administrators at the project found him difficult as a writer and perhaps personally because they were so embedded in the very system Adorno had identified ("the administered world") that they could not think outside its categories.
Although Minima Moralia does presume some knowledge of Continental philosophy and German literature, it is quite readable, entertaining, and at the close rather moving: its "finale" reminds me of the ending of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto.
Now, the "Logical Positivist" philosopher Rudolf Carnap has called philosophers like Heidegger and Adorno "musicians without talent." This shows a mistaken view of music (inherited from Plato) as at best entertaining sounds without meaning, and it fails to account for entertainment, which is taken as a primitive.
There is a musical quality in Minima Moralia but even as the informed concert-goer finds layers of meaning in good works, Minima Moralia rewards the patient reader.
Teddy would shudder at my saying this, but Minima Moralia is a good buy because it repays re-reading.