On first reading Adorno

by Norman Fischer | January 05, 2015 at 1:18 PM

I began by reading a tremendous book by our new local rabbi Aubrey Glazer, who, it turns out,  writes critical theory! His book is “A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Thinking After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought.”

Which I read with great interest, and it struck me as so obvious, finally, that I am amazed I never thought of it before, nor have I ever read or talked to anyone who ever thought of it (though they must exist out there somewhere): that theology (Jewish or otherwise) has to be responsive to the world we are living in now, and so has to be open to all the world’s influences and thinking. If not, theology soon becomes irrelevant and nostalgic: the preserve of preservists who are only trying to preserve something that was at once point moving and useful. And this is what has happened. Aubrey writes that he was amazed to discover that the JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary, where he trained) was blocks away from the offices of the School for Social Research, where, for a time, Adorno was based, and yet there was zero communication, though most of the philosophers there were Jewish (if secular).

This has bothered me for a long time. Religion is over there in its little corner. Philosophy, literature, science, etc., are all over there in their little (or larger) corners. There is no interpenetration, no dialog, no connection.

People in philosophy, literature, science, etc., may feel that religion is outmoded and irrelevant. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Deep and sympathetic study of any religious tradition reveals essential depths and riches. The trouble is that these need to be re-thought, challenged, integrated into what we are thinking and dealing with now if they are to really serve us. But this never happens! Any attempt at “relevance” in religion tends to be superficial, based more or less on the current news and social trends. What we need is deeper thinking and more sensitive and soulful consideration. Which Aubrey begins to do in his book.

Which sends me to Adorno. At least a little. He is very hard to read. I started his important work “Negative Dialectics” and found it too difficult—I suspect because the translation(online) I read doesn’t spare me the Germanic locutions, which really cannot be preserved in English without making the text so muddy it’s impossible.

Then, at Aubrey’s suggestion, I began “Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life,” a much more informal text Adorno wrote when he was living in America during the Second World War. In its short pieces Adorno demolishes just about everything—marriage, all social relations, architecture, Marxism, Capitalism, sexuality, you name it. Nothing escapes his scathing critique—and no clear and pleasant space beyond critique is proposed.

You must constantly remind yourself while reading that he has just escaped Hitler, who is still raging in Europe at the time of the writing. So yes, total social and personal despair might just be in order. And this is I think the general idea of “Negative Dialectics.” That Hegel was wrong, Marx was wrong, that all efforts at establishing some positive theory of how we are to live and organize ourselves are doomed to repeat the disaster that became Fascism and the Communist State. So the only position of intellectual integrity is “negative dialects,” that is, critical theory, critiquing what is, with the background hope against hope that one does so from the standpoint that things could be better.

Good idea, but the fact is I would hate to live like that. I need a little relief. My political program calls for at least a little happiness to make the days pass a bit more sweetly. I myself couldn’t sustain a steady diet of negative dialectics. Wonder how Adorno did it.

However, I can see the necessity for applying a negative dialectic to all religious thought and practice. It’s necessary to keep things honest. In order to have some faith, you absolutely have to doubt. You have to wonder whether yesterday’s truth still applies today. You have to ask if it does or not. Be willing to tear down today’s truth to find something, if anything, behind it. This makes life—and religion—alive.

Adorno is beginning to sneak into my point of view. It seems right that things were then, and remain, really terrible. Capitalism’s mania for subsuming everything under the category of markets and money and consumption makes life trivial and people much less than they should be. The tyranny of the material world freezes the soul. The violence, the unfairness, the lack of real consideration and love. So, yes, this must be named. We can do better! 


Norman Fischer