- Damage Control: Adorno, Los Angeles, and the Dislocation of Culture
1. Flying T.W.A. .
To begin with an ending of sorts: at the conclusion to his 1967 Foreword to the English edition of Prisms, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno suggests, rather formally, that
[f]inally, the author could wish for nothing better than that the English version of Prisms might express something of the gratitude that he cherishes for England and for the United States—the countries which enabled him to survive the era of persecution and to which he has ever since felt himself deeply bound. 1
“Gratitude,” “cherish,” and “deeply bound” are scarcely words that one would generally expect from, or associate with, Adorno, much less with his impressions of the United States, where he resided from 1938 until 1949, first in New York and then in Los Angeles, before returning to Frankfurt to help rebuild the Institute for Social Research. Yet they appear in this fashion in Prisms, and again shortly afterward, in slightly altered form, in a longer meditation on his stay in the U.S., a 1968 essay somewhat curiously titled “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America.” Here he similarly concludes with an expression of “gratitude, including intellectual gratitude, toward America,” and, switching to the first person, with a declaration that “I [n]ever expect to forget as a scholar what I learned there.” 2
The following year, while vacationing in Switzerland, four months after having been humiliated publicly by a militant student group and its demands for active political engagement to match a revolutionary political theory, Adorno died of a sudden heart attack. 3 And his death consequently lends an eerie sense of epitaphic finality to these “grateful” expressions. Are they to be viewed as a sober revaluation, as mere politesse, or, rather, as a brief instance of retrospective illusion over a particularly difficult period of his life?
More familiar to us, of course, is another, less overtly grateful Adorno, who rails against an array of manifestations of American cultural production, from jazz to Hollywood movies, from astrology journalism to suburban tract housing, [End Page 85] from Americans’ use of nicknames to their propensity to smile. In an anecdote contained in the “Scientific Experiences” essay mentioned above, for example, he vents his spleen with more characteristically cantankerous wit. Writing of the Princeton Radio Project, in which he participated from 1938 to 1940, he claims that
[a]mong the frequently changing colleagues who came in contact with me in the Princeton Project was a young lady. After a few days she came to confide in me and asked in a completely charming way, “Dr. Adorno, would you mind a personal question?” I said, “It depends on the question, but just go ahead.” And she continued, “Please tell me: are you an extrovert or an introvert?” It was as if she was already thinking, as a living being, according to the pattern of the so-called “cafeteria” questions on questionnaires, by which she had been conditioned. [ . . . ] Reified minds are in no way limited to America, but are fostered by the general tendency of society. But I first became aware of this in America. 4
Although any contemporary American critic confronting the depth, rigor, and elusiveness of Adorno’s thought runs the risk of misunderstanding the latter’s project—of continually posing, much like the “young lady” scholar he describes above, the wrong questions—the aim of this paper is, among other things, to “just go ahead and ask” “personal” questions of Minima Moralia, a particularly “introverted” text that Adorno wrote while in Los Angeles, about America, about himself, and about what exile might mean for philosophy. Taking exception to long-standing claims that the core of Adorno’s thought remains constant over the course of his long and extraordinarily productive career, 5 I shall be examining what is distinct about Adorno’s writing from, and understanding of, the U.S.—and how the experience of emigration in “the era of persecution” changed the course of his thinking. For, as Adorno himself comments, “[i]t is scarcely an exaggeration to say that any contemporary consciousness that has not appropriated the American experience, even...