- The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk ed. by Susan H. Gillespie
The Challenge of Surrealism asks this pressing question: in what sense is critical theory political? The question has been asked before, but the book takes a slightly off-kilter course through the question. It explores the political in critical theory by presenting a relationship between Theodor Adorno and one of his students as she prepares her dissertation under his tutelage. The student, Elisabeth Lenk, is involved with some of the student activism in Paris of '68 even as she falls in with surrealist groups including André Bréton, and she concludes that Bréton and his followers are making manifest the political substance of critical theory in their art and practice.
The Challenge of Surrealism consists of four main parts. In the first, the classic essays on surrealism by Adorno and Walter Benjamin are reprinted. The second exhibits the complete correspondence between Adorno at the Frankfurt Institute and his student in Paris in the late sixties, as he is working on Negative Dialectics and then Aesthetic Theory, and ending with his death—this part begins with a contemporary introduction by the student, Elisabeth Lenk, looking back at her relationship with her teacher and mentor, as well as her compendium of notes and references giving context and background to the letters. The third part consists of Elisabeth Lenk's own publications: first an "Afterward" to Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant, and then an introduction to a German translation of Charles Fourier's Theory of the Four Movements. The Fourier introduction suggests a parallel between Adorno's critical theory and the politics of surrealism (even as far back as Romanticism). The last section presents a series of twenty short surrealist-like vignettes co-written by Adorno and Carl Dreyfus and published under a pseudonym, Castor Zeiback, in Germany (four of them in Frankfurter Zeitung in the early thirties, and the entire series thirty years later in the literary journal Akzente). Though labeled as "surrealist" in these publications, the vignettes do not conform to the "automatic writing" method, with its claimed recourse to the psychoanalytic Unconscious or to dreams, or to "l'art pour l'art." Rather, they offer snippets of everyday situations that build toward an abstraction like the "cut-up" does, as the editors explain (226), in line with Adorno's own understanding of particularity as a disruption of the concept, its (internal) negation. As "covert sociology" (12), the contents of the vignettes as such are meant to appear as sitting on the cusp of social change.
Yet, though central to the book's stated purpose, The Challenge of Surrealism grants few signposts for navigating how these four stitched-together sections draw a picture of the political in critical theory. In her introduction, Rita Bischof links the legacy of the political in surrealism's philosophy and art to critical theory in contemporary politics, citing Occupy Wall Street, Pussy Riot, the Arab Spring, and anarchist hacking. "Surrealism itself was a political matter," she writes, "—anyone who fails to pay attention to this is fooling [End Page 531] himself [sic]—and it remained faithful, to the very end, to the anti-imperialist political intentions it had already manifested at the time of the First World War" (3). Elizabeth Lenz, she goes on to say, joined the Social Democratic Party (SDS) that she saw as fundamental to the "Adorno line," or a way of approaching left politics without parties and an "active political engagement that ultimately led her to the surrealists" (3). Even so, the correspondence between Adorno and Lenk is mainly vapid of both political and intellectual content. For the most part, it consists of invitations to dinner, plans to meet up, solicitations for letters of recommendation, Adorno's encouragement for Lenk to call on his intellectual peers when they are passing through Paris (Habermas, Marcuse, etc.) or hooking her up with potential employers and publishers for her work. The letters reduce...