Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), born Theodor Ludwig Weisengrund, was one of the most important social philosophers and critics in post–World War II Germany. His influence on the philosophy currents of the second half of the 20th century was deep and widespread. For example, Germany’s most renowned contemporary philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, was his student. The hallmark of the Frankfurt School, the research institution to which Adorno belonged, was the vast scope of its interdisciplinary research. The extent of Adorno’s sphere of influence is rooted precisely in the interdisciplinary character of his work. It was also born from the meticulousness with which he studied Western philosophical approaches, particularly those of Immanuel Kant and the neo-Kantians, and from the radical nature of his approach. Adorno is also one of the founding fathers of the discipline of critical theory. This entry examines Adorno’s contributions to philosophy and literature, which were influenced by his education at the Frankfurt School and his experiences during the Nazi Holocaust, which, in turn, influenced his beliefs and thoughts regarding Western civilization, the Enlightenment, and culture industries.
Adorno and Horkheimer wrote their seminal critique of the culture of Western civilization, Dialectic of Enlightenment, during World War II. After the war, the full reach of its horrors was revealed, such as the Holocaust and the vast destructiveness of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan by the U.S. forces. Adorno and Horkheimer wrote in the wake of what they saw as the failure of the Enlightenment. It is important to note, however, that Adorno and Horkheimer did not reject the Enlightenment ideals. What they saw was a pattern of domination that devolves from the degradation of these ideals. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the source of the human-made catastrophes of the 20th century follows a pattern of systemic thinking and domination: first, human domination of nature; second, the domination by humans of human nature within themselves; and finally, the domination of some human beings by other human beings. These dominations can take various forms, which they examined in depth throughout their work.
In his magisterial work Negative Dialectics, Adorno articulated even further the tragic excesses of humanity outside the parameters of rationality proposed by the Enlightenment. Negative Dialectics was published 20 years after his work with Horkheimer, in the wake of the Holocaust and assuming that a Jewish identity guarantees death. Negative Dialectics is a dense book, famously hard to understand by the general public. Indeed, critics argue that Adorno wrote mainly for his colleagues, fellow academics, and philosophers. Admirers, however, find that Negative Dialects is a profound and beautiful work. It posits that even though its attempt to change the world had failed, philosophy lives and is now compelled to critique itself mercilessly. According to many scholars, the underpinnings of Negative Dialectics lie in Adorno’s experience as a German philosopher who, due to his politics and Jewish roots, found himself condemned to being “the other” by his mother culture, to which he had dedicated his life’s work. For Adorno, the problem of the Enlightenment was caused by engaging in grand narratives to explain the world, or what he called “identity thinking.” Adorno asserted that the danger of identity thinking could be avoided through negative dialectics, which is an analysis impermeable to identity thinking.
The dialectic of the Enlightenment is based on the Hegelian distinction between the self and the Other, between the master and the slave. Individuals reach self-recognition through the recognition of what is not-me, or the Other. This type of subjectivity has a dark side because it is reached through domination of the other. Science and instrumental reason are the ultimate expression of the drive to subjugate nature through culture and technology, a drive that accomplished its pinnacle with the technology that allowed the Holocaust.
Adorno viewed critical thinking as primordial to the Frankfurt School’s work. Critical thinking, to Adorno, was a moral imperative. Instead of responding to grand narratives and reification of objects, the critical mind should reject the system that produces the object and closely examine the object itself. To paraphrase Adorno, if negative dialectics call for self-reflective thinking, it follows that for thinking to be true, it must also be a thinking against itself. In other words, critical thinking is necessary because uncritical thinking runs the risk of becoming, as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics, “the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.”
The Frankfurt School adopted Karl Marx’s concept of reification of commodities as fetish, their crystallization of desire. Commodities are, by nature, estranged or alienated from their origin. For human wants or desires to be projected onto commodities, these objects must become reified. However, that cannot occur if people have a clear understanding of the properties and context of the reified object. Adorno relies on the redefinition of reification offered by Georg Lukács, who refers to the ways in which commodities affect life in capitalist societies. In Lukács’s view, commodities make humans appear as mere objects obeying the inexorable laws of the market.
American popular culture was the ideal place for the reification of desire, or of the objects of desire, through its mass media. Culture industries—the constellation of media that disseminates culture and information—promoted freedom of choice, markets, and expression yet worked to undermine those very freedoms. The system of the culture industry, as we know it, was created in the more democratic and industrialized nations. The culture industry creates and manipulates a distorted mass consciousness or a sense of false consciousness, in Marxian terms. Popular culture and mass entertainment are homogenized for easier production and distribution while promoting individualization.
Adorno and other Frankfurt School theorists saw the culture industries as an apparatus to disseminate an ideology of instrumental reason, a type of thinking used to dominate through scientific rationale and control. However, notions of progress and technological achievement, instead of leading to the empowerment and emancipation of the people, led them to enslavement. The technological apparatus works toward an efficient categorization and homogenization that buttress the collective order. Powerful elites dominate the means of rationalization and consciousness making—in particular the culture industry—and in this way, they dominate and control other social groups. In essence, the masses are bribed with entertainment and commodities. The people, then, are quieted by a culture industry that, under the guise of promoting freedom of expression and providing information, offers behavioral models and silences opposition. The result is totalitarianism, even without recourse to overt police forces. If everybody behaves and thinks the same, identities are homogenized, and the system effectively resists the Other, any type of difference, which must then be eliminated. In this manner, the system seeks to eliminate the Other.
The fascist state embraced modern technologies to produce and propagate its ideology. This was conveyed by way of film and radio, which were controlled by the totalitarian governments. Fascist ideology utilized universal mythic narratives to disseminate its propaganda. Adorno, who had escaped the Holocaust, proposed that the concentration camps were the ultimate example of the efficiency of a technology of death. The administration of places such as Auschwitz exemplified the extremes of rational thinking. The ideology of power and extermination controlled the modern technology that allowed this. It is no surprise, then, that theorists of the Frankfurt School, such as Adorno, were deeply wary of notions of the universal and of the totalitarian possibilities of mass media technology.
See also Frankfurt School ; Global Surveillance
Adorno, Theodor W.Negative Dialectics. London, England: Bloomsbury Academic, 1981.
Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Towards a New Manifesto. New York, NY: Verso, 2011.
Brommer, Stephen Eric. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Freud, Sigmund.Civilization and Its Discontents. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.
Peters, John D. and Peter Simonson, eds. Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
Rose, Gillian. The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno. New York, NY: Verso, 2014.
Schweppenhauser, Gebhard. Theodor Adorno: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.
Tarr, Zoltan. The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 2011.
Zizek, Slavoj, et al. Mapping Ideology. New York, NY: Verso, 2012.