So, this happened a few days ago….
In the multiple choice poll that Jeet Heer posted, Adorno came a distant second to Hannah Arendt (but ahead of Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt). I’ve taught texts by all four of them (a post that is partly about teaching Arendt’s The Human Condition is here). They all have their virtues. And if you only have 5 minutes, read the two-page Epilogue to Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
But if you have more time, then Adorno. I’ve taught a seminar on Critical Political Theory eight (ulp!) times now. Adorno has always been there to some extent, although he has been looming larger as the course has evolved. The first few times, I just assigned the “culture industry” chapter from Dialectic of Enlightenment (co-authored with Max Horkheimer). Then a few years ago, for a variety of reasons, the course underwent a major re-boot, with a more sustained focus on Frankfurt School thinkers (including Adorno). Now we read all of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which takes close to half of the course, and the last couple of times through, I have also started the course with a shorter essay of Adorno’s (more on those, below).
First warning: if you are looking for a quick solution to the Trump problem, Adorno is not your guy. For Adorno, the search for solutions (and especially quick and easy ones) is exactly what gets us into the kinds of problems that we are currently facing.
Second warning: one of the problems with proposing an Adorno reading list is that, as Adorno says in “Essay as Form”: “It is impossible to always begin at the beginning.” I warn my students that Adorno is a difficult writer, and no matter where you start, you are likely to feel like you are not just dropped into the deep end, but adrift on a vast ocean. Occasionally, you will spot an island of meaning rising above the waves (“hey, I get that reference!”) Keep paddling, and you will increasingly (eventually) be able to put your feet down.
A few places to start:
- “Society.” This is where we start my Critical Political Theory course. It is a short (10 pp) piece that is something like an encyclopedia entry. It gives a sense both of what Adorno thinks “society” is or means, and of what a “critical theory” is supposed to look like.
- “Education after Auschwitz.” This was suggested by @FoptimusSublime in response to Heer’s poll. It is from a 1966 radio lecture, so the form makes it more accessible than some of his written work. And if this exercise is inspired by the fear that we are veering towards fascism, then it is on-point.
- “The Idea of Natural History.” I mean, if you actually want to start at the beginning… this is one of Adorno’s earliest published works. I think it is really helpful for thinking about contemporary environmental issues, particularly in the Anthropocene, but that may be another story.
Now, if you want the “really essential readings” (s/o to folks who were in the grad school Comparative Politics core course, where that phrase was regularly used to describe the tranche of ~500 pages of weekly assigned readings, just below the equally big “required” tranche).
- Minima Moralia. A collection of 100+ – what do we call them, mini-essays? “hot takes” avant la lettre? The aphoristic format – the vast majority of the sections are no more than a page or two – means you don’t need a big block of time to devote to it. Adorno is a master aphorist, and a lot of the best ones are here.
- Dialectic of Enlightenment. This is the text that is probably best known, though not necessarily most read. The entire field of cultural studies more or less begins as a reaction to the perceived elitism of the chapter on the “culture industry.” (It is the first chapter in Simon During’s edited collection The Cultural Studies Reader.) As mentioned above, I used to assign that chapter alone, as I think it still provides a sharp diagnosis of much of contemporary pop culture (I don’t think it or Adorno more generally is as elitist as cultural studies scholars have tended to assume). It is the second-last chapter of the book, and when I initially shifted to assigning the whole book, I worried that the last full chapter, and the fragmentary “Notes and Sketches” that follow it, would be somewhat anti-climactic. This year, that changed. Reading the last chapter (“Elements of Anti-Semitism”) in mid-October 2016 was an amazing experience. If you can set aside the dated Freudian view of sexuality, Horkheimer & Adorno’s fixation on the “half-educated” and “paranoiac” as a political-psychological problem, seems an uncannily prescient view of contemporary politics.
- “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda.” Another short piece, based on the work done for the large Research Project on Anti-Semitism, that produced The Authoritarian Personality. This essay can be found in The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, which also includes Adorno’s (significantly longer) analysis of the LA Times Astrology column.
- “Commitment.” A later (1962) essay on political art.
And then… Adorno’s two biggest and most challenging works.
- Negative Dialectics. If anything can be described as Adorno’s philosophical magnum opus, this is it. He might have rejected the “philosophical” descriptor, but it certainly is a big work. The lecture course that preceded its publication, where he works out many of the ideas in the text, is now available (Lectures on Negative Dialectics). Full disclosure: I haven’t read the Lectures, although I did have a student who did for her MA thesis, and she said it made ND itself easier.
- Aesthetic Theory. Published posthumously as it wasn’t finished in Adorno’s lifetime. In the first paragraph of Robert Hullot-Kentor’s translator’s introduction, he describes “starkly unbeckoning sheer sides of type, uninterrupted by chapter titles or typographic markers, that have severed and jettisoned every approach and patched over most every apparent handhold.” You’ve been warned.
I generally don’t recommend secondary literature to my students, as I would rather they struggle with the texts themselves, even if they get some of the ideas “wrong,” than learn someone else’s interpretation. I also haven’t kept up with the secondary literature on Adorno in the last decade-plus. So, caveat emptor.
- If you are interested in the historical/biographical background, Martin Jay’s Dialectical Imagination is a classic, and provides at least as much time to explaining Frankfurt School ideas as to covering historical events. Thomas Wheatland’s The Frankfurt School in Exile is more historically focused, on their time in the USA. Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, embarrassingly, sits on my to-read pile. I know I should.
- In the same vein but much shorter is the “Introduction” to David Held’s Introduction to Critical Theory. I assign this along with Adorno’s “Society” in the first week of the Critical Theory course, so that there isn’t a mass exodus from the course.
- It’s been a while, but I remember Simon Jarvis, Adorno: A Critical Introduction being helpful as I worked my way through the Adorno chapter of my PhD dissertation. Slightly more recent is Jay Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. And then Robert Hullot-Kentor, Things Beyond Resemblance.
- Finally, to circle back to where this, in a way, really started: like a lot of people, over the last year and a half I have read a lot of essays, thinkpieces, hot-takes, op-eds, and Twitter threads about Trump. Peter Gordon’s essay, “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump,” from last summer, remains, I still think, the single best one I have read.