Printer Friendly


ADORNO AND EXISTENCE. By Peter E. Gordon. Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press, 2016. 256 p.

Peter Gordon confesses in the Preface to his study of Theodor Adorno's writings on the philosophies of existence that he hesitated for some years before embarking on the task for fear that he adored the Frankfurt theorist a little too much. Can one write a truly critical appraisal of a thinker for whom one candidly feels something like unalloyed affection? What emerges from the text that follows is a triumphant refutation of these courteous anxieties. He has produced a sensitively argued, minutely nuanced outline of Adorno's career-long confrontations with a current of thought that had reached a near-hegemony in intellectual affairs in the era before structuralism.

The term 'existentialism' has become all but synonymous in the history of philosophy with its late Parisian variant in the hands of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but its lineage extends back to the work of Martin Heidegger, of whom they were assiduous readers, itself born of a productive demarche from the phenomenology of his quondam teacher Edmund Husserl. At the source of the river, however, lie the mid-nineteenth century writings of Soren Kierkegaard, Christian theologian and existentialist, on whom Adorno wrote his second Habilitation thesis at Frankfurt University, published in 1933 as his first book, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic. Adorno's encounter with Kierkegaard would undergo a fascinating transformation in the thirty years that elapsed between this work and a 1963 essay that he dedicated to the supervisor of his thesis, the theologian Paul Tillich, entitled 'Kierkegaard Once Again.' Gordon faithfully reflects this circumferential route in the structure of his book, which begins with the Kierkegaard thesis and ends with a chapter dedicated to Adorno's reassessment of the metaphysical implications of the Danish thinker's work, in the artificially bright light of a world darkened by the legacy of Auschwitz.

Adorno inherited from his friend and mentor Walter Benjamin the image of Kierkegaard's philosophy as a reflection of the microcosmic world of the nineteenth-century bourgeois interior. If western philosophy had begun its career in the streets and the marketplace with Socrates calling out provocations to the passers-by, it had gradually become a matter of the individual apprehension of external reality or, as Kant termed it, transcendental apperception. In Kierkegaard, the reflective self inhabits a tightly bordered space, compact enough to become the paradigm of authentic inwardness, as contrasted with the outside world of appearances, the traffic of the crowd and the babble of commerce. No item of furniture in the apartment is more pertinent than the fashionable mirror that was designed to be attached to a window frame, so that it reflected the external scene into the living-room. Its incorporation of the street as one of the furnishing elements of the interior thereby simultaneously reflected the assimilation of the external world into the constitutive subjectivity of the sovereign bourgeois individual who underlies all philosophical idealism.

In his maturity, Adorno would mitigate this early critique of Kierkegaardian interiority by suggesting that its delimitation of exterior reality at least implied a negative verdict on the falsity of that world, against which it retained its own hope of something better. There would be no such mitigation of the fundamental ontology of Heidegger, whose body of work would become for Adorno undoubtedly the most troublesome spectre of twentieth-century thought. In Heidegger's existential construction of contingent being, given the name of Dasein, Adorno saw nothing other than a relapse into sheer abstract idealism, but this time against the minatory background of Europe's subjection to fascism, with which Heidegger had effected an all too telling professional and ideological accommodation. Existential ontology is replete for Adorno with instrumental contradictions of its own claims. While it officially sought a reconciliation of Dasein with its world, it effectively abandoned it to the hegemony of the pre-existent, foreclosing on any possibility for change. Such historicity as there is in ontology is the petrified accretion of what has already supervened, and in hypostatising the overarching notion of Being against the mass of mere beings, it betrays a corresponding disinclination to interest itself in the contingencies of concrete existence. Although Heidegger was hardly the first to bemoan the lack of attunement between the mental concepts of philosophy and the material world, the latter is never permitted to intrude, in its phenomenality or its temporality, into the individual's consciousness of itself. Instead it appears as though 'thrown' into its present world (but by what?), and can achieve a sense of its own authenticity by subjectively assuming the death that will result in its own nullity, the same relative numerical nullity in which Schopenhauer's chapter on the vanity of existence had conceived it. The Heideggerian injunction to be what one already is, simultaneously a fatuous tautology and the sinister mandate of a racial totalitarianism in which everybody had his or her assigned role to play, is the ne plus ultra of existential ontology. Gordon incidentally juxtaposes this injunction with Nietzsche's 'Become who you are!' from The Gay Science (1882), which Adorno does not cite in this context, oddly conflating Nietzsche's vision of the human potential for self-fashioning with Heidegger's elevation of static self-identity.

By the 1950s, existentialism had achieved, chiefly as a result of its co-option in the novels and plays of Sartre, the status of an intellectual vogue. The notion that individuals were each of them alone in a fundamentally meaningless world, free to arrive at their own decisions in response to it, had effectively given the philosophy its turn to intellectual respectability by subtracting both the Kierkegaardian theology and, subsequently, the Heideggerian sterile conformism from it. In 1950, on the threshold of a parallel career in fiction, the Anglo-Irish Oxford philosopher Iris Murdoch already noted that existentialism was nothing other than the latest species of romantic liberalism, an antithesis to canonical Marxism despite Sartre's own successive attempts to bring faint seasonings of first Stalinism and then Maoism to it. Much as certain maxims of Nietzsche's had been absorbed into popular consciousness--Live dangerously! Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger!--so existential concepts such as the freedom to realise oneself, through moments of crucial decision and testing oneself to the limits, ossified into popular cliche everywhere, from the pulpits of the established Church to the canons of advertising. This latter trend inspired the hardest polemical edge of Adorno's 1964 assault on existentialism, The Jargon of Authenticity.

Gordon strikes an uncertain note when he characterises the Jargon as 'satirical' in its discursive tone. It is ruthlessly sardonic, particularly with regard to the blather of those poets who participated in the general strategic amnesia of official culture in postwar West Germany, by celebrating the enduring essence of humanity, only a few years after European civilisation had descended to the level of shovelling heaps of emaciated corpses into open mass graves, but that does not amount to satire. Indeed, the familiar point that 'laughter is often the best weapon against authoritarian sobriety,' as Gordon asserts, 'a Nietzschean truism that gains renewed truth when one recalls Charlie Chaplin's mockery of Hitler,' is very much not Adorno's view. In the chapter on the culture industry in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Adorno and Horkheimer write that capitalist entertainment 'makes laughter the instrument of the fraud practised on happiness ... In the false society, laughter is a disease that has attacked happiness and is drawing it into its worthless totality'. Adorno had already argued this in a letter to Benjamin of March 1936, in which he stated that '[t]he laughter of a cinema audience is anything but salutary and revolutionary; it is full of the worst bourgeois sadism instead.' And he specifically addresses both Brecht's play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Chaplin's The Great Dictator in the 1962 essay, 'Commitment': 'The true horror of fascism is conjured away; fascism is no longer the product of the concentration of social power but rather an accident ... the opponent must be scaled down, and that promotes false politics ... Contrary to all dialectics, the ridiculousness to which Ui is consigned takes the teeth out of fascism'. When a lone Jewish girl in Chaplin's film is shown belabouring Nazi stormtroopers with a saucepan, as though historic savagery could be stymied by clowning, 'the film loses its satirical force and becomes offensive.'

In the same section of Adorno and Existence, 'Satire and Secularisation,' the misapprehension of Adorno's stance on satire leads Gordon to an oddly flat-footed response to the critique in the Jargon of the appropriation of sacred language by existentialism. Having completed the expulsion of theistic concepts from philosophy that had its prelude in the scepticism of the European enlightenments, late existentialism then makes an attempt to reappropriate such categories on behalf of a thoroughly disillusioned but newly enthroned imperious subject. Because existentialism pronounces only a negative anathema on the spiritual realm, it fails to rescue the moment of dignity in the category of the other-worldly, precisely that which held out hope, in however illusory a fashion in the established religions, for the transformation of the present life. It somewhat misses the mark, then, to throw an ironic light, as Gordon does, on 'Adorno's own barely stated and persistent investment in the theistic categories he considered obsolete'. Not everything about the categories was to be considered obsolete, a facet of Adorno's thinking that would be sustained into the 'Meditations on Metaphysics' that conclude Negative Dialectics (1966). 'In condemning the [existentialist] jargon as a species of idolatry,' Gordon writes, 'Adorno appealed counterfactually to the holiness it betrayed.' For 'counterfactually,' however, we could read 'dialectically.' 'Unanswered in Adorno's polemic,' Gordon continues, 'was the question as to why even such a distant appeal to the sacred would retain any validity in a profane age,' a charge then efficiently refuted by the remainder of the same paragraph, which concludes with Adorno's answer. 'Previously, the unbearable transience of a false and unsatisfied life was counteracted by theology, which gave hope of an eternal life. This hope disappears in the praise of the transient as absolute.' Venerating the mundanity of everyday life in the same terms is what tinges existentialism's jargon with its note of blasphemy.

It is in the attempt, however, to find common ground between Adorno's negative dialectics and Heidegger's existential ontology, an enterprise not lacking for exponents in the past decade particularly, that Gordon tests the tensile cohesion of his own argument to its limit. In the section 'Heidegger's Critique of Reification,' he contends that Adorno acknowledges, despite himself, the truth moment in Heidegger's derogation of phenomenological positivism for seeing the subject-object relation as a simple non-negotiable dualism. Adorno's argument against Heidegger, however, is that he projects any reconciliation between the two back to its vanished origin in Being itself, thereby pulling the rug from any attempt in the present, or in any future world, to reconcile them. On Gordon's reading, Adorno's argument 'underscores the point that Heideggerian thinking cannot be summarily dismissed as outright falsehood.' If fundamental ontology invokes the hope for a reconciled state that would end the reification with which Dasein must live, a hope that it then sabotages and denies by fatefully shifting it back into the mists of primal existence, the pass is already long since sold, but Gordon tries to suggest that Adorno somehow cryptically awards Heidegger the credit for at least conceding that reification is undesirable. What Heidegger calls the 'forgetting of Being' (Seinsvergessenheit) is not the same thing at all as the epigram from the Dialectic of Enlightenment with which Gordon juxtaposes it--'All reification is a forgetting.' What distinguishes them is precisely the temporality that is Heidegger's putative fundamental theme. Ontological forgetting is as old as evolution. The reification to which members of the administered society are subject derives from the historically developed methods of administration themselves, from the industrial revolution to the garbage of the culture industry. These, precisely, are what a reconciliation worthy of the name would need to confront, while Heidegger's 'dirge over the forgetfulness of being,' as Adorno puts it, 'is the sabotage of reconciliation.' Heidegger's philosophy is not a genuine attempt to envision a reconciliation, but rather the sanctimonious sigh of one closing the file on it.

Notwithstanding these burrs in its argument, Adorno and Existence is elegantly composed, in lucid and unalienating prose, which is by no means the gold standard in current writing on the Frankfurt School. It will be an authoritative text in the continuing encounter between dialectical critical theory and those belated philosophies of existence that, following the decapitation of French existentialism in the postmodern age, continue to multiply like the Hydra's heads in a world tottering on the brink of yet another abyss.


United Kingdom

It seems to be a commonplace: Adorno's thinking is--more than anyone else's--essentially critical. Or in his own words: "Thought as such, before all particular contents, is an act of negation, of resistance to that which is forced upon it." Although this refers to Hegel's determination, the principle of thought is negativity, it can indeed be understood as a characterization of Adorno's own thought which--borrowing a metaphor from Hegel--appears to "infiltrate the opponent's stronghold and meet him on his own ground."

In his book Adorno and Existence, Peter E. Gordon focuses on one tradition of thought Adorno repeatedly criticized in his writings: "[existentialism, the philosophy of existence, existential ontology," even though "these terms are not interchangeable". (2) But understanding this project as a depiction of ostensibly opposed thinking, along with the expatiating assessment of their correctness, would be misleading. Rather, the central ambition of this book is to unfold how Adorno develops his philosophical thought in immanent critique of Edmund Husserl, Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. Gordon's aim is to show the "philosophical continuities" (31) of Adorno's work in critique of existentialist positions, how he moves through this critique "toward the thought of negative dialectics via a critical reading of phenomenology" (82) and how his "path toward materialism is developed via the internal and dialectical reading of prior idealist philosophy" (155). What could be more appropriate to Adorno's thought than this "via negativa" (XI) Gordon chooses?

Although existential philosophy plays a crucial role in this exposition, it is explicitly not Gordon's aim to give detailed accounts of its central arguments. Instead, bearing in mind that "Adorno was not the most careful of readers" (161), his "enduring, if dialectically mediated, allegiance to the philosophy of existence" (160) is intended to be elaborated. For this purpose, Gordon leads the reader in a very comprehensive but not trivializing way through Adorno's substantiation of his "own mental impulses," as he puts it in Negative Dialectics. It's one of Gordon's essential purposes to highlight the "task" Adorno felt "ever since he came to trust" those impulses, namely "[t]o use the strength of the subject to break through the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity", taking into account both Husserl's phenomenology and Adorno's critique of it. Gordon defines Adorno's mode of immanent critique as "a form of redemptive criticism" which "strives for "salvation [Rettung]" of phenomenology's central ideas" and "seeks to discover the signposts in bourgeois philosophy that point toward its own overcoming". (80) Gordon is able to demonstrate in different such cases how--and in which respects--Adorno shared the underlying "need" of existentialist positions and how he aimed to rescue it in a mediated form of thought. For example, he shows the connection of Adorno's judgement, "Heidegger reaches the very borders of the dialectical insight into the non-identity in identity," with his conception of negative dialectics and how he developed the latter in conflict with Heidegger's ontology. In addition to this discussion of the relation to Husserl and Heidegger in the Negative Dialectics, substantial landmarks of Gordon's way through the development of Adorno's thought are his Metacritique of Epistemology, the Jargon of Authenticity and the book on Kierkegaard, his 'Habilitationsschrift.' Discussing thus almost the complete work of Adorno, Gordon's stance, based on the perspective of his critique of existential philosophy, seems to allow an immanent reconstruction of substantial constitutive moments of Adorno's thought including the "primacy of the object" and his repeated reference to a thought from the standpoint of redemption. In the case of this conception of a "primacy of the object" an allegedly one-dimensional access of Adorno's thought through his immanent critique of existential philosophies reaches its limitations. To discuss this preponderance and the "disenchantment of the concept" Gordon has to reconstruct Adorno's understanding and critique of Hegel's philosophy, as well as referring to Adorno's letters to Walter Benjamin to illuminate the last aphorism of Minima Moralia. In line with this, Gordon's reconstruction is not as immanent as is the reconstructed critique is and how he portrays it. To be clear, this does not mean that Gordon's reconstruction is wrong; it's just not as coherent and consequential as it presumes. Besides, the reconstruction of Adorno's critique of Hegel is, despite its brevity, as precise and intellectually stimulating as the chapters on Heidegger and Kierkegaard. Gordon's "via negativa" does not lead not invariably through ontology; instead some detours are apparently necessary.

Despite this incoherence in the actualization of its negative principle, Adorno and Existence illuminates how Adorno's thought enmeshes itself in existential philosophy in an attempt to cut its Gordian knot--a metaphor he uses for dialectics--by searching for its raison d'etre and thinking it through. As already noted, existential philosophy is not the only object of critique, but it is indeed the one--next to Hegel's thought--that occupies Adorno's repeated attention. Gordon's book shows connections in Adorno's work that one would have difficulty finding without the perspective from which he apprehends it. Those constitute the basis for the speculative need that Gordon's book evokes. This formidable study should constitute only the beginning for the intensified involvement with Adorno's redeeming critique of existentialist philosophy to which it provides access.


University of Leipzig, Germany
COPYRIGHT 2019 Vishvanatha Kaviraja Institute of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Walton, Stuart; Huschke, Maximilian
Publication:Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters