Tag Archives: Critical theory

Adorno: A Reading List

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.


Donald Trump, Rob Ford, and the Performance of Seriousness, Part 1

[This post is turning out to be longer than anticipated, so I’m splitting it in two. Part 2 should be coming in the next few days. But for now I have to finish digging out.]

“I’m not a reality TV star, but I play one on television.”

I admit that “seriousness” is not the first trait that comes to mind when thinking about either Donald Trump or Rob Ford. I will get to the “performance of seriousness” in part 2 of this post. Part 1 focuses on what Trump and Ford have in common, particularly in terms of the strength of support they have among their base. I’m trying to get a handle on Trumpism (what else to call it?) through the lens of critical theory, which Max Horkheimer described as focusing on “the question of the connection between the economic life of society, the psychical development of individuals, and the changes in the realm of culture.” Updating this work for the 21st century could be an important key to understanding the resurgence of authoritarian populists like Trump and Ford.

In September, back when I (mistakenly) thought Trump was about to flame out, I tweeted:

trump tweet copy

Four months later Trump is still around and going strong. This, of course, despite numerous statements that, in an earlier, more innocent political era, would be called “gaffes.” Trump can say that Mexican immigrants are rapists, assert that he will get Mexico to pay for a border wall, call for a ban on all Muslims entering the US, mock other candidates for their physical appearance, and it does nothing to dent his popularity.

heer trump tweet copy

It is worth remembering that Ford similarly managed to not only persevere, but in some ways thrive, on things that conventional political wisdom would have described as mistakes or failures. Even with mounting evidence of serious substance abuse problems, not to mention allegations of criminal activity, Ford couldn’t be counted out of winning re-election as mayor until he formally withdrew from the mayoral race shortly before the vote for health reasons (he was still re-elected to City Council with 58% of the vote in ward 2).

The upshot of Ford’s political career, particularly but not only as a city councillor, was that he was (is) both a very effective retail politician, and also terrible at (or not interested in) engaging in the collaborative business of governing. Ford famously dealt with all kinds of little problems for individual constituents, but was often at odds with virtually everyone else on city council, frequently finding himself on the losing end of 44-1 votes. There is an excerpt from John Filion’s book about Rob Ford, “The Only Average Guy” up on Slate (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book). Filion summarizes Ford’s appeal to a certain demographic as follows:

They believed the elites had been given so much that little was left for them. That sense of unfairness put a chip on their shoulders….

“They’re not self-aware, so once they’ve made a decision, they have a hard time admitting they’re wrong. That’s Ford Nation,” [former Ford campaign manager Nick Kouvalis] said.

Kouvalis also puts this in lay psychoanalytic terms:

“It’s all about their upbringing,” [Kouvalis] said of the rock-solid Ford supporters. “It’s all about their fathers treating them like shit. That determines their behaviour going forward.

“Ford Nation inherently has been treated like shit. That’s how they feel. They didn’t get their fair share in life. They were rejected. They were deprived of love or of something. Fundamental core stuff: love, security, food.”

A lot of this applies, at least in fairly broad terms, to Trump supporters, too. This seems, at least to me, to be an undercurrent of the view that Trump supporters are those who are in the process of losing racial privilege, and/or economically disadvantaged by American neoliberalism. Marc Tucker in the Huffington Post notes Trump’s support among people with low educational levels, and makes a similar point, but emphasizing socio-political rather than family dynamics:

What is motivating Trump’s supporters is an overpowering sense of resentment against a world that has passed them by, a world dominated by highly educated elites who dismiss them and their values, and who, far from offering them a hand up, keep them pinned to a demeaning position, elites who flaunt their success at the very same time they are denying this group access to success. I am describing a world in which, for many people, what has been lost is not just the means of making a decent living, but something far more important to them: their self-respect.

It isn’t a matter of choosing between these two levels of analysis – macro-level socio-political forces versus micro-level psychology. The two are interrelated and probably impossible to fully tease apart. (The same could be said about the debate over whether Trumpist ressentiment is a function of economic insecurity or racism.) As the quotation from Horkheimer at the beginning of this post suggests, we should be trying to understand how they are connected.

One thing that is interesting to note in some of the recent commentary on Trump is the way that his supporters’ relative lack of education can work as both a descriptive shorthand for this neoliberalization (these are folks who don’t have the education or credentials to succeed in the new economy), and a normative and pathologizing diagnosis. (Tucker, to his credit, notes that “The people who support Trump are not dumb and they are not oblivious to their own interests.”) Trump’s supporters (like Ford’s) are seen by many as a particular problem because they lack self-awareness and don’t allow facts to change their minds.

Kouvalis, once more, describing a focus group of Ford supporters to Filion:

These folks had so completely identified with Rob Ford that they couldn’t cut him loose. They’d made him their hero and had congratulated themselves on making such a smart choice. If Ford had screwed up, Kouvalis explained, so had they. “They don’t want to admit it because that means they fucked up in their life. They had an opportunity, and they blew it. They don’t want to admit that to themselves.

All of this I think can be helpful in understanding the resilience of Trump’s support. It’s also worth noting, for those who take comfort in the fact that Trump appeals to those who are described as less likely to vote, that the same was true of Ford. As Filion notes, Ford’s mobilization of those disenchanted with the political system, which significantly boosted voter turnout, was one of the keys to his 2010 election victory.

In part 2, I’ll explain the “performance of seriousness” as something that accounts for Trump and Ford’s shared ability to re-engage people disenchanted with the political system.






Teaching theory: fast and slow

In preparation for the start of classes, I have revamped my syllabus for a Critical Theory course (syllabus posted on my academia.edu page – here). I’ve previously taught it a few times, as a kind of survey of Frankfurt School and (post-)structuralism. I liked the variety that offered: students come out with at least a passing acquaintance with Marcuse, Horkheimer & Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Baudrillard, Jameson, and a few others that happen to be catching my fancy that year (Giorgio Agamben, Jane Bennett, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Slavoj Zizek…) It is a combined senior undergraduate/MA course, so I don’t feel the responsibility to give them really solid understanding of any particular theorist or school; it is more about whetting their appetite.


But the new version is different, focused more resolutely on the Frankfurt School, and specifically on undertaking a close reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment. We’ll read that book (about 200 pages) over 5 weeks, or 15 hours of class time. About 4 minutes per page if we get to the “Notes and Sketches” section at the end, or a little over 5 minutes per page if we don’t.

After we finish Dialectic of Enlightenment, we move to more contemporary critical theory, and start reading at a pace that is perhaps more appropriate to “fast capitalism.” Four books (each fairly short) in four weeks. I know that today we need to be able to assimilate written material quickly, and assigning a lot of reading material so that they learn how to skim texts effectively can get them to learn how to do that.

But before getting to that point, I want us to consider the idea that something important is lost in the drive to process information ever more efficiently. “Thought must consider itself” is perhaps the central message of Dialectic of Enlightenment (“the necessity for Enlightenment to consider itself” – p xvii in the Jephcott translation). And consideration, much less reflexive consideration – “thinking about thinking” – doesn’t happen if we don’t make time for it.

A number of years ago, I was at a conference where a senior political theorist advised that: “However much reading you are planning to assign for your course, cut it in half.” His point was that good texts (like canonical works of political theory) repay deep reading. And that students will rarely engage in deep reading unless the course is structured to encourage or even demand it.

The other story I am keeping in mind going into this course, is one told to me by Bill Leiss, who graciously attended a workshop I organized in 2006, and who had been a student in a graduate seminar taught by Herbert Marcuse, on Hegel’s Phenomenology. What was Marcuse like as a teacher? Certainly Leiss recalled the class, and Marcuse, with a great deal of affection. Marcuse’s approach was to start the class by asking a student: “Read the first sentence, and then tell me in your own words what you think it means.” Then another student for the second sentence, and so on. I can’t imagine that the class got through the whole book, whether they had a whole semester or a whole year. But reading and talking about a book at that pace and in that way is about the closest thing to a guarantee that students will understand it. Certainly the way that the experience was retold, some four decades later, shows the impact of that kind of teaching. Now, who has time for that?