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The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus

Music and fascism fifty years after Adorno

Philosophy of New Music by Theodor W. Adorno. Edited and translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. University of Minnesota Press, 248 pages.

The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford, with Betty Aron, Maria Hertz Levinson, and William Morrow. Introduction by Peter E. Gordon. Verso, 1,072 pages.

Not that anyone asked, but Theodor Adorno would have hated Lana Del Rey. There is little within the contemporary musical landscape that one might imagine the Frankfurt School’s most bellicose pessimist bemoaning more than the narcotic, almost Reichian repetition of “Venice Bitch,” or the straight-faced appropriation of an ascendant porn genre by means of an ironically morose Sublime cover, whose Aryan mouthpiece, blown up to the scale of Godzilla, resembles the valkyrie Brünnhilde, heroic soprano of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, an opera Adorno situated at “the beginning of German imperialism,” an “inflamed prophecy of the nation’s own doom.” These words, from 1951’s Minima Moralia, were published the same year the émigré philosopher, then residing in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, famously announced that “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” And yet, at the historic coincidence of Hot Girl Summer and the fiftieth anniversary of Adorno’s death, his fellow Angeleno’s sixth album, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, establishes its composer as “one of America’s greatest living songwriters,” while, in a more obscure corner of what Adorno ridiculed as “the culture industry,” his dialectic apologias for the avant-garde appear once again in the Fall 2019 catalogs of academic publishing houses.

Forcing opinions into the mouths of dead writers is a dangerous style of necrophilia, especially when the writer is Adorno, who dedicated an entire book to the negation of negation. The Institute for Social Research, whose faculty Adorno joined in 1931, advanced the dialectical method to apply not only to political economy and the philosophy of history, but psychology, sociology, musicology, art history, and literary and cultural criticism as well. The endless possibilities presented by a “theory generating its own anti-theory”—as George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock learns it from the “reading group” of Malibu communists who kidnap him in Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers’ homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood—continue to inspire certain factions of the activist left even as they incite paranoia on the right. One conspiracy theory recently endorsed by former astrologer Olavo de Carvalho, Brazil’s Steve Bannon, absurdly suggests that Adorno, an accomplished pianist and composer, was the covert mastermind of the British Invasion, ghostwriting the Beatles’s catalog in an effort to spread “cultural Marxism” internationally.

Though the Coens’ caricature of the Frankfurt School, led by an anachronistic Herbert Marcuse (who was, in reality, working for the Department of State), succeeds in “getting communist content into motion pictures,” Adorno’s exile in California, which lasted from November 1941 until his repatriation to West Germany in 1949, was not so lucrative. Still, it was in LA that he wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment, a collaboration with Max Horkheimer that remains the most defining statement of critical theory, the aphoristic Minima Moralia, and two books reissued this summer: Philosophy of New Music and The Authoritarian Personality. That Adorno’s SoCal diaspora included giants of modernism seeking asylum on studio lots—Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Thomas Mann—is less impressive than his ability to juggle music criticism and academic psychology, cementing a reputation as a polymath that is not easy to dispute in good faith.

One conspiracy theory recently endorsed by former astrologer Olavo de Carvalho, Brazil’s Steve Bannon, absurdly suggests that Adorno was the covert mastermind of the British Invasion.

University of Minnesota Press first published Robert Hullot-Kentor’s translation of Philosophy of New Music in 2006, but the thirteen-year delay of its appearance in paperback speaks less to its relative value as a commodity than to the press’s investment in Adorno’s work, which amounts to a small but commendable list of commentaries and translations. Since 1985, the press has published the journal Cultural Critique, whose editorial home in the university’s Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature would likely not exist without the Frankfurt School’s indictment of Western civilization, and not capitalism specifically, as the source of false consciousness. Verso’s edition of The Authoritarian Personality also points to the role institutional commitments play in keeping the dream of the Institute (which still exists) alive—in this case, the New Left Review and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, under whose guidance a new era in British politics and criticism was theorized. Both presses were at the vanguard of publishing what is marketed as “Theory” before its widespread colonization of Anglophone scholarship in the 1980s, and thus, whether they like it or not, are complicit in the logic of capitalist production, commodifying knowledge into content: the subject of an Instagram post, title of a gallery exhibition, accessory to a DSA tote.

Adorno was known for his skill at anticipating apparent contradictions, gymnastically reframing objections to his theses as their necessary conclusions, and he would not have been shocked by the cultural capital afforded his byline any more than the ongoing devaluation of the art he held above all else. An insufferable elitist who championed art for refusing to conform to the standards of public consumption, his bad takes on jazz—attributing its popularity to sadomasochism, comparing the jitterbug to St. Vitus’s dance—are lamented, and sometimes excused for their ignorance: the only jazz Adorno knew, which he pronounced more like “yatz,” was the kind played by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and increasingly derivative (mostly Caucasian) dance bands that entertained the Weimar bourgeoisie. As Stuart Jeffries notes in Verso’s Grand Hotel Abyss, Adorno spent the 1940s only a few miles from the clubs on Central Avenue where Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Mingus inaugurated a bop renaissance on the West Coast, but there’s no record of the critic going anywhere near them. According to New Yorker critic Alex Ross, Adorno “shows no sympathy for the African-American experience, which was finding a new platform through jazz and popular song. The writing is polemical, and not remotely dialectical.”

For Adorno, musical progress was most exemplary in the twelve-tone technique of composition developed in the 1920s by Schoenberg, a triskaidekaphobe, and his students, Anton Webern and Adorno’s own teacher Alban Berg, who together comprise the Second Viennese School (the first being Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert). A compositional system that organizes individual notes serially, the technique replaces the traditional order of key with a chromatic economy of tones. Developed further by postwar composers, serial composition came to recall the arbitrary constraints of Oulipo, like Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, written entirely without the letter e. As Adorno argues in “Schoenberg and Progress,” the first of two essays which make up Philosophy of New Music, the twelve-tone technique tore down a wall that had circumscribed what was possible in music just as it proscribed what was not, emancipating composers from the totality of tonality at the same time that it enforced rules for when and how often a single note could be played. It is in this tension between the liberation of what Adorno calls the “musical material” and the composer’s domination of that material that he locates serialism’s weakness and strength—and through it, the dialectical movement of Schoenberg’s “late style,” which followed the material back to tonal composition in the 1930s: “Only from twelve-tone technique can music learn to remain master of itself, but only if it does not become its slave.”

In its pursuit of authenticity, Stravinsky’s music regresses, shielding its listener from the miserable realities of modernity.

In his introduction to the first edition, published in Tübingen in 1949, Adorno acknowledges that “It must appear cynical after what has happened in Europe, and what continues to threaten, to lavish time and mental energy on the deciphering of esoteric questions on the technique of modern composition.” Though it was out of print by 1953, Philosophy of New Music caused no less of a stir in the classical scene than Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus had when it was published in 1947. Mann regularly consulted Adorno while writing the novel, borrowing ideas and casting his “privy counselor” as an incarnation of the devil. The decline of Mann’s protagonist, a syphilitic twelve-tone composer in the mold of Nietzsche, parallels that of German society in the first decades of the twentieth century. Schoenberg, who by 1944 had retired from teaching at UCLA, was annoyed by Mann’s use of his intellectual property, especially as digested by Adorno, whose “blathering jargon” in the companion essay, on Schoenberg’s nemesis Stravinsky, the Austrian dismissed, LDR-style, with an appeal to civility: “One should not write like that.” By then, “master percussionist” Stravinsky was the most beloved composer of the modern era; his Rite of Spring had provided a soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia in 1940. But it was in the White Russian’s compositional flirtations with neoclassicism and folk that Adorno identified the “blind obedience” of authoritarianism (ironically, Stravinsky would begin using twelve-tone technique, by then regarded as masturbatory and passé in some circles, following Schoenberg’s death in 1951). In its pursuit of authenticity, Stravinsky’s music regresses, shielding its listener from the miserable realities of modernity with escapist harmony and danceable rhythm. For Adorno, “new” music (misguidedly translated in an earlier edition as “modern”) “is spontaneously aimed: toward absolute oblivion. It is the true message in the bottle.”

Adorno’s praise of dissonant compositions for evoking feelings of loneliness, suffering, anxiety, and powerlessness results in aesthetic judgments that may elude sympathy and comprehension. The circularity of his arguments and opacity of his prose can make even the most seasoned reader feel stupid, but in the German philosophical tradition this is a feature, as the technocrats insist, not a bug. This difficulty, in turn, has left Adorno’s work vulnerable to misinterpretation: at the University of Chicago, white supremacist Richard Spencer wrote a galaxy-brained Master’s thesis rejecting Adorno’s critique of Wagner on the grounds that the composer’s anti-Semitism tainted the philosopher’s objectivity. The entanglement of art and politics is foregrounded in Dialectic of Enlightenment, which reveals the horrors of the twentieth century to have been determined already in the preceding centuries of “progress.” But as Adorno demands in Philosophy of New Music, a musicological demonstration of these themes, the social implications are evident within the material itself, and not solely a product of external factors. That is, art is a problem of base as well as superstructure, and therefore far from irrelevant to the global proliferation of totalitarianism.

The kernel of fascism can be found in the human personality as readily as in a Stravinsky ballet, a superhero movie, or a Kanye West record—or so argues The Authoritarian Personality, a study funded by the American Jewish Committee in partnership with the Institute, which Adorno represented as a lead researcher. He came late to the project, and lacked the background in social psychology shared by his co-authors, Berkeley professors Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford (who was dismissed from the university upon the book’s completion for refusing to sign a red-baiting “loyalty oath”). The Cold War loomed large over the study, and to an extent, sanitized its findings. While The Authoritarian Personality has been subject to criticism—particularly its methods, which smell of confirmation bias—its greatest shortcoming, perhaps, is the failure to propose a properly Marxist analysis. The authors conclude that the fascist personality constitutes a recognizable type with roots in early childhood, but short of compassionate parenting, there may not be much to be done in the realm of psychology: due to the estimated scale of the disease, “the direct contribution of individual psychotherapy has to be regarded as negligible.” Rather, the “task is comparable to eliminating neurosis, or delinquency, or nationalism from the world. These are products of the total organization of society and are to be changed only as that society is changed. It is not for the psychologist to say how such changes are to be brought about.”

The kernel of fascism can be found in the human personality as readily as in a Stravinsky ballet, a superhero movie, or a Kanye West record.

Despite its flaws, The Authoritarian Personality, along with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, decisively typologized Nazis in both academic and mainstream discourse. The Republican closet case and the self-loathing incel share the “anti-democratic” qualities displayed by “Mack,” a composite of those subjects who scored high on Adorno et al.’s “F-scale”: conventionality, rigidity, repressive denial, weakness, fear, and “a power-oriented, exploitively dependent attitude toward one’s sex partner and one’s God.” Arendt assigns blame to the isolation of the individual in modernity, and Adorno would agree, though his ambivalence about the study is obvious in the chapters he authored, addressing prejudice in the interview material, and acknowledging that the fascist’s obsession with sorting humans into groups is replicated in the methodology. In “Remarks” omitted from the book when it was published in 1950, Adorno writes that modern society is made up of masses “incessantly molded from above” by “standardized forms of life which are built after the model of industrial mass production, and by actually or vicariously satisfying their wants and needs”:

The overwhelming machinery of propaganda and cultural industry evidences the necessity of this apparatus for the perpetuation of a setup the potentialities of which have outgrown the status quo. Since this potential is also the potential of effective resistance against the fascist trend, it is imperative to study the mentality of those who are at the receiver’s end of today’s social dynamics. We must study them not only because they reflect these dynamics, but above all because they are the latter’s intrinsic anti-thesis.

There’s a reason why Adorno’s defenders might gravitate toward depression, unpleasantness, or both: his world is a huge bummer. But so is ours. Rational arguments, appeals to sympathy, and integration have done little to stave off the fascist threat, as The Authoritarian Personality predicted they would not, and the study’s recommendations—“legal restraints against discrimination,” minority groups “conforming in outward appearance”—seem insensitive and naive. The year that Adorno died, he was cancelled, more or less, for his opposition to revolution, calling the police on “unruly” students and asserting the existence of “left fascism” against a more skeptical (and hip) Marcuse. A lecture he delivered to a socialist student association at the University of Vienna about Neo-Nazism two years prior has occupied German bestseller lists since Suhrkamp published it as Aspekte des neuen Rechtsradikalismus this July, no doubt due in part to the renewed attention of a generation of readers who had dismissed Adorno as an “informer” decades before. As long as the specter of communism haunts Europe or elsewhere, so will Adorno’s legacy of negation, forever resisting (if only in theory) history’s totalizing motion, the demand of authoritarianism to conform, identify, and obliterate.