Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wrong life cannot be lived rightly

"Wrong life cannot be lived rightly."

          — Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, section 18

Here are some of my thoughts on the subject, from 2009, slightly edited.

* * *

22 Jan 2009

Of late this aphorism keeps popping up in my head, as a spontaneous counterpoint to social/cultural input. I can't recall the contexts that spur these thoughts, but they may have something to do with the self-help industry, Oprah, Obamamania, the culture industry, American individualism, upper middle class liberalism . . . vs. the larger perspective that challenges the false immediacy of popular ideology. I also have in mind Adorno's notion of theory and practice, of his lectures on Kant's morality, on his obsession with Auschwitz. Otherwise, I am just considering this sentence in isolation from its context in Minima Moralia.

I keep coming back to this quote as a challenge to the veil of falsity that hangs over American life, which this insane fetishism of President Obama perpetuates. There should be a way of explaining accessibly what is at stake in Adorno's view, or in any intellectual's that does not join in with the crowd.

Now I am curious about who has written what on the ethical dimension of Adorno's thought, indeed, that lies behind Adorno's thought. I haven't read it, but the first thing that comes to mind is . . .

Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics by J. M. Bernstein
1. Wrong life cannot be lived rightly;
2. Disenchantment: the skepticism of enlightened reason;
3. The instrumentality of moral reason;
4. Mastered by nature: abstraction, independence, and the simple concept;
5. Interlude: three versions of modernity;
6. Disenchanting identity: the complex concept;
7. Toward an ethic of nonidentity;
8. After Auschwitz;
9. Ethical modernism.
You can also read some of the intro via

Also, there are two essays in The Cambridge Companion to Adorno.

23 Jan 2009

A few years back I objected to Adorno's notion that the good life could only be characterized negatively; that we couldn't say anything positive. This also dovetails with Adorno's animosity towards Erich Fromm, who, because of his generally affirmative posture, was called by one of the Frankfurters — maybe it was Marcuse — the Norman Vincent Peale of the left. And yes, I have found Adorno far too ascetic and austere. But when one feels that one's culture and society has been totally compromised, and one can see the long-range implications of negative social forces, taking this stance makes more sense.

But it's not mere elitism that drove Adorno, though it does relate to his lived experience as a product of high bourgeois culture. Adorno lived through the destruction of European culture as he knew it. His first book, on Kierkegaard, was published the day Hitler took power. The swallowing up of the individual personality — what was then called "modern man" — by the monstrous machine of society, was not the world of postwar prosperity in western nations as we knew it from approx. 1950-1970, which also involved a dehumanizing regimentation against which the '60s generation rebelled. Fascism meant that the individual life could be totally compromised, and there was no room to maneuver. Adorno may have also experienced survivor's guilt, not only in general, but in particular, in relation to his close friend Walter Benjamin.

However exaggerated Adorno might have depicted the iron cage in prosperous western democracies (but for only about the last two decades of his life), even with a more differentiated and refined analysis, Adorno's broad-brush picture nonetheless abstracts out broad social trends, ongoing processes rather than total faits accompli. As such, Adorno highlights decisive aspects of contemporary society that are ideologically repressed by the culture industry and the so-called ideological state apparatuses: that is, Adorno expresses broad contours of society against the enforced silence about how society is fundamentally constituted.

Hence Adorno doesn't address what the individual is going to do, or what social activists are going to do, but what can't be spoken in the mainstream media and cultural apparatus. And this is why I bring in the self-help industry, Oprah, Dr. Phil, Extreme Home Makeover, American Idol, and the rest. The largess bestowed by the wealthy and corporate America on a few lucky people is fine for the individuals who benefit, but it is predicated on the falsification of social reality and social misery, while fostering a groveling attitude to corporate America (or whatever country you live in).

So maybe we don't need to be depressed all the time, but the gap between the illusory notions on which society runs and the recognition of the gap between that and an understanding of what's really going on and the depth at which it has to be challenged, is likely to promote a much-needed negativity. Though I don't believe in being grumpy 24-7, I don't trust people who always want to think positively, for, when one examines their ideology, one always finds it predicated on falsehood. And when the people who espouse it belong to the privileged upper middle class (though not exclusive to them), I find their attitude insufferable.

No comments: