Theodor W. Adorno - Life and Career - Exile: Oxford, London, New York, Los Angeles

Exile: Oxford, London, New York, Los Angeles

After the possibility of transferring his habilitation to the University of Vienna came to nothing, Adorno considered relocating to Britain upon his father's suggestion. With the help of the Academic Assistance Council, Adorno registered as an advanced student at Merton College, Oxford, in June 1934. During the next four years at Oxford, Adorno made repeated trips to Germany to see both his parents and Gretel, who was still working in Berlin. Under the direction of Gilbert Ryle, Adorno worked on a dialectical critique of Husserl's epistemology. By this time, the Institute for Social Research had relocated to New York City and began making overtures to Adorno. After months of strained relations, Horkheimer and Adorno reestablished their essential theoretical alliance during meetings in Paris. Adorno continued writing on music, publishing "The Form of the Phonograph Record" and "Crisis of Music Criticism" with the Viennese musical journal 23, "On Jazz" in the Institute's Zeitschrift, "Farewell to Jazz" in Europäischen Revue. Yet Adorno's attempts to break out of the sociology of music were, at this time, twice thwarted: neither the study of Mannheim he had been working on for years nor extracts from his study of Husserl were accepted by the Zeitschrift. Impressed by Horkheimer's book of aphorisms, Dawn and Decline, Adorno began working on his own book of aphorisms, what would later become Minima Moralia. While at Oxford, Adorno suffered two great losses: his Aunt Agathe died in June 1935, while Alban Berg died in December of the same year. To the end of his life, Adorno never abandoned the hope of completing Berg's unfinished Lulu.

At this time, Adorno was in intense correspondence with Walter Benjamin on the subject of the latter’s Arcades Project. After receiving an invitation from Horkheimer to visit the Institute in New York, Adorno sailed for New York on June 9, 1937 and stayed there for two weeks. While in New York, Max Horkheimer’s essays “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics” and “Traditional and Critical Theory,” which would soon become instructive for the Institute’s self-understanding, were the subject of intense discussion. Soon after his return to Europe, Gretel moved to Britain, where she and Adorno were married on September 8, 1937; a little over a month later, Horkheimer telegrammed from New York with news of a position Adorno could take up with the Princeton Radio Project, then under the directorship of the Austrian sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. Yet Adorno’s work continued with studies of Beethoven and Richard Wagner (published in 1939 as "Fragments on Wagner"), drafts of which he read to Benjamin during their final meeting, in December on the Italian Riviera. According to Benjamin, these drafts were astonishing for “the precision of their materialist deciphering,” as well as the way in which “musical facts … had been made socially transparent in a way that was completely new to me.” In his Wagner study, the thesis later to characterize Dialectic of Enlightenment—man's domination of nature—first emerges. Adorno sailed for New York on February 16, 1938. Soon after settling into his new home on Riverside Drive, Adorno met with Lazarsfeld in Newark to discuss the Project’s plans for investigating the impact of broadcast music.

Although he was expected to embed the Project’s research within a wider theoretical context, it soon became apparent that the Project was primarily concerned with data collection to be used by administrators for establishing whether groups of listeners could be targeted by broadcasts specifically aimed at them. Expected to make use of devices with which listeners could press a button to indicate whether they liked or disliked a particular piece of music, Adorno bristled with distaste and astonishment: “I reflected that culture was simply the condition that precluded a mentality that tried to measure it.” Thus Adorno suggested using individual interviews to determine listener reactions and, only three months after meeting Lasarzfeld, completed a 160-page memorandum on the Project’s topic, “Music in Radio.” Adorno was primarily interested in how the musical material was affected by its distribution through the medium of radio and thought it imperative to understand how music was affected by its becoming part of daily life. “The meaning of a Beethoven symphony,” he wrote, “heard while the listener is walking around or lying in bed is very likely to differ from its effect in a concert-hall where people sit as if they were in church.” In essays published by the Institute’s Zeitschrift, Adorno dealt with that atrophy of musical culture which had become instrumental in accelerating tendencies - towards conformism, trivialization and standardization - already present in the larger culture. Unsurprisingly, Adorno’s studies found little resonance among members of the project. At the end of 1939, when Lazarsfeld submitted a second application for funding, the musical section of the study was duly left out. Yet during the two years during which he worked on the Project, Adorno was nevertheless prolific, publishing “The Radio Sympthony,” “A Social Critique of Radio Music” and “On Popular Music,” texts which, along with the draft memorandum and other unpublished writings, which are now found in Robert Hullot-Kentor’s recent translation, Current of Music. In light of this situation, Horkheimer soon found a permanent post for Adorno at the Institute.

In addition to helping with the Zeitschrift Adorno was expected to be the Institute's liaison with Benjamin, who soon passed on to New York the study of Charles Baudelaire he hoped would serve as a model of the larger Arcades Project. In correspondence, the two men discussed the difference in their conceptions of the relationship between critique and artworks which had become manifest through Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility." At around the same time Adorno and Horkheimer began planning for a joint work on "dialectical logic," which would later become Dialectic of Enlightenment. Alarmed by reports from Europe, where Adorno’s parents suffered increasing discrimination and Benjamin was interned in Colombes, their joint study could entertain few delusions about its practical effects. “In view of what is now threatening to engulf Europe,” Horkheimer wrote, “our present work is essentially destined to pass things down through the night that is approaching: a kind of message in a bottle” As Adorno continued his work in New York with radio talks on music and a lecture on Soren Kierkegaard's doctrine of love, Benjamin fled Paris and attempted to make an illegal border crossing. After learning that his Spanish visa was invalid and fearing deportation back to France, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine tablets. In light of recent events, the Institute set about formulating a theory of anti-Semitism and fascism. On one side were those who supported Franz Neumann's thesis according to which National Socialism was a form of "monopoly capital"; on the other were those who supported Fritz Pollock's "state capitalist theory." Horkheimer’s contributions to this debate, in the form of the essays "The Authoritarian State," "The End of Reason" and "The Jews and Europe" served as a foundation for what he and Adorno planned to do in their book on dialectical logic.

In November 1941 Adorno followed Horkheimer to what Thomas Mann called "German California," setting up house in a Pacific Palisades neighborhood of German emigres which included Bertolt Brecht and Arnold Schoenberg. Adorno arrived with a draft of his Philosophy of New Music, a dialectical critique of twelve-tone music, which Adorno himself felt, while writing, was already a departure from the theory of art he had spent the previous decades elaborating. Horkheimer's reaction to the manuscript was wholly positive: "If I have ever in the whole of my life felt enthusiasm about anything, then I did on this occasion," he wrote after reading the manuscript. The two set about completing their joint work, which transformed itself from a book on dialectical logic to a rewriting of the history of rationality and the Enlightenment. First published in a small mimeographed edition in May 1944 as Philosophical Fragments, the text would wait another three years before achieving book form when it was published with its definitive title, Dialectic of Enlightenment, by the Amsterdam publisher Querido Verlag. This "reflection on the destructive aspect of progress" proceeded through chapter which treated rationality as both the liberation from and further domination of nature, interpretations of both Homer’s Odyssey and the Marquis de Sade, as well as analyses of the culture industry and anti-semitism.

Their joint work completed, the two turned their attention to studies on anti-semitism and authoritarianism in collaboration with the Nevitt Sanford-led Public Opinion Study Group and the American Jewish Committee. In line with these studies, Adorno produced an analysis of the Californian radio preacher Martin Luther Thomas. Fascist propaganda of this sort, Adorno wrote, "simply takes people for what they are: genuine children of today’s standardized mass culture who have been robbed to a great extent of their autonomy and spontaneity" The result of these labors, the 1950 study The Authoritarian Personality was pioneering in its combination of quantitative and qualitative methods of collecting and evaluating data as well as its development of the F-scale. After the USA entered the war in 1941, the situation of the émigrés, now classed "enemy aliens" became increasingly precarious as government measures turned from anti-Nazism to anti-communism. Forbidden from leaving their homes between 8pm and 6am and prohibited from going more than five miles from their houses, émigrés like Adorno, who would not be naturalized until November 1943, were severely restricted in their movements. In addition to the aphorisms which conclude Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno put together a collection of aphorisms in honor of Horkheimer’s fiftieth birthday that would later be published as Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. These fragmentary writings, inspired by a renewed reading of Nietzsche, treated issues like emigration, totalitarianism and individuality, as well as everyday matters such as giving presents, dwelling and the impossibility of love. In California, Adorno made the acquaintance of Charlie Chaplin and became friends with Fritz Lang and Hanns Eisler, with whom he completed a study of film music in 1944. In this study, the authors pushed for the greater usage of avant-garde music in film, urging that music be used to supplement, not simply accompany, the visual aspect of films. Additionally, Adorno assisted Thomas Mann on his novel Doctor Faustus after the latter asked for his help. “Would you be willing," Mann wrote, "to think through with me how the work - I mean Leverkuhn’s work - might look; how you would do it if you were in league with the Devil?” At the end of October 1949, Adorno left America for Europe just as The Authoritarian Personality was being published. Before his return, Adorno had not only reached an agreement with a Tübingen publisher to print an expanded version of Philosophy of New Music, but completed two compositions: Four Songs for Voice and Piano by Stefan George, op.7, and Three Choruses for Female Voices from the Poems of Theodor Daubler, op. 8.

Read more about this topic:  Theodor W. Adorno, Life and Career

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