- Critical Models: Adorno’s Theory and Practice of Cultural Criticism
[Note: The following is a slightly revised version of a text originally intended as an introduction to the forthcoming English translation of Adorno’s late essay collections Eingriffe and Stichworte. 1 References to the essays from those collections are given in parentheses in the text.]
“If philosophy is still necessary, then solely in the way it has been since time immemorial: as critique.”— “Why Still Philosophy”
When Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Friedrich Pollock returned from their American exile to Frankfurt in 1949 they were consciously bringing the Institute for Social Research with them. The building that originally housed the Institute, and which had suffered severe bomb damage during the war, was repaired relatively swiftly with the assistance of the American occupying forces, who felt that empirically oriented social research would promote democracy. It is perhaps safe to assume that the patrons got more than they bargained for. When the Institute officially reopened on November 14, 1951, its members were already close to concluding their first major research study, which would also mark Adorno’s final direct participation in opinion surveys. In many ways the Gruppenexperiment 2 was a continuation of the depth-psychological content analysis he had pursued at Berkeley and presented in The Authoritarian Personality, 3 but now the research was adapted to the post-war (west) German context. The F-scale was modified into the A-scale (fascism to authoritarianism), though the purpose remained that of detecting latent anti-democratic attitudes in test subjects. Inspired by Horkheimer’s observation that self-censorship tends to decrease when people find themselves in a casual group setting, the project’s greatest methodological novelty lay in its being organized around interviews of pre-selected, sociologically or ideologically homogenous groups, in the hope of gaining greater access to the pre-conscious structure and dynamics of attitudes towards delicate political topics. The interpretative [End Page 247] study of attitudes regarding democracy, the Third Reich, Jews, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Germans themselves, produced a large-scale scandal: according to its conclusions, two thirds of the 1800 people interviewed expressed profound ambivalence about democracy, half rejected the notion of any guilt about the Third Reich, and anti-Semitism was as virulent as ever. 4 The authoritarian personality, the “anthropological conditions” of collective irrationalism that Adorno had philosophically conceptualized and empirically investigated during his American years, was alive and well in the post-war “German ideology”: “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascistic tendencies against democracy” (“Working Through the Past”). In a wide variety of scholarly and cultural practices, as well as in his own experience in the United States, Adorno could detect the same underlying tendency: rather than actualizing its own potential for autonomy, mind was becoming reified or “modeled” by the heteronomy confronting it. “Critical model,” the strategy to loosen reified thought he elaborated in Negative Dialectics (1966), 5 finds its tactical deployment in essays from the last decade of Adorno’s life collected in Interventions (1963) and Catchwords (1969). Here perhaps more than anywhere else in his compendious oeuvre are the practical and political motivations of Adorno’s thought most visibly at work. In the first section I briefly sketch the general context in which Adorno operated as a public intellectual after his return to Germany. The second section emphasizes the enlightenment motivations of Adorno’s criticism by juxtaposing his understanding of reification and autonomy as social and political categories. The third section then reconstructs his notion of “critical model” as the means for inducing the possibility of political maturity in the present age.
This section will recount some of the various venues in which Adorno during the post-war years practiced cultural criticism through the construction of critical models, and will argue against his caricature as a mandarin theoretician who scorned praxis, politics and the mass media. 6 Besides demanding teaching commitments 7 he published prodigiously, including several technical philosophical works, monographs of musical, musico-sociological, literary and cultural criticism; however, with the publication of Minima Moralia (1951), Adorno became a...