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Adorno: A Political Biography Hardcover – September 10, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
A co-founder of the so-called Frankfurt School of philosophy, Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno (19031969) produced critiques of art and culture that have pointed the way for post-Holocaust, post-Marxist thinkers of all stripes. Particularly influential were his works Dialectic of Enlightenment (written with Max Horkheimer in 1944) and the brilliantly aphoristic Minima Moralia. In this concise biography, Jäger, an editor at the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, focuses on the people, ideas and institutions through which Adorno constructed his politically oriented critique of modern culture and society. Raised in a middle-class family, Adorno first entertained the idea of being a musician but turned to philosophy after WWI. He especially favored the aesthetics and existentialism of Kierkegaard (on whom he wrote his dissertation) and the phenomenology of Husserl. With the advent of National Socialism in Germany, Adorno fled to the U.S. for political reasons, and because his father had Jewish roots. Jäger provides tart glimpses of Adornos relationships with Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, among others, and of the power relations within his main intellectual home, the Institute for Social Research. Ambition and coldness dominate Jägers Adorno, and he suggests that Adornos achievements deserve due measures of both respect and skepticism. After their exile in the U.S., Adorno and the Institute returned to Frankfurt in the 1950s, and Jäger does a terrific job describing the varying strands and strains of its power there, right up to the student revolts of the late 60s (when Adornos lectures were disrupted). This excellent volume delivers a microcosm of German intellectual life through a portrait of one of its major 20th-century exponents.
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Internal inconsistencies aside, there are problems of content. For no apparent reason, Jaeger stages Adorno's thinking as a clash between Athens and Jerusalem (although the entirely gratuitous mention of Leo Strauss might hint at an esoteric reading of the present book). Jaeger returns again and again to Jewishness, but always other peoples' Jewishness: Horkheimer, Celan... why all this in a book on Adorno? Well, Jaeger has a clear dislike for him. So Adorno - not Jewish enough, too anti-capitalist, too utopian - is often absent. This dislike is in turn understandable, since he is clearly incapable of understanding Adorno's ideas: see, for instance, the section on Heidegger and 'The Jargon of Authenticity'; or Jaeger's 'interpretation' of the Frankfurt School's sociology as a vision of society as "a kind of tabula rasa: people in it live without traditions, without religion, without nations and without a state." Bizarrely, two pages are given over to Ralf Dahrendorf's complaints about the Institute for Social Research, before we learn that Dahrendorf spent barely a month there.
"Today's reader [of Minima Morali] may be struck not only by the lack of genuine observations on America but may gain only an inadequate idea of the author's empirical existence [sic]: but if Adorno had been identical with the 'implied author' he would no doubt have been prevented from writing the book by sheer unhappiness."
Like the above sentence, this book is grammatically flawed, rhetorically atrocious (what exactly is a 'genuine observation'? Is it to be distinguished from an ungenuine one?), and showcases a total lack of understanding of its subject. Finally, it is self-absorbed. Jaeger's apparent desire to justify post-modern capitalism crushes any possibility of objective judgement.
For all that, if read as a collection of portraits (of, amongst others, Kracauer, Horkheimer, Mann and Fromm) it's a nice way to pass a winter afternoon. But don't pay full price.
This has the appearance of a hasty piece of work, and as one reads on, the impression grows that the author has little respect for his subject. As a person and thinker, Adorno was surely flawed, but his story deserves a more balanced, detailed and informed recounting.