Adorno in America

by Corey Robin on February 15, 2019

The history of the Frankfurt School in America is usually told as a story of one-way traffic. The question being: What did America get from the Frankfurt School? The answer usually offered: a lot! We got Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal, Fromm, and, for a time, Horkheimer and Adorno (who ultimately went back to Germany after the war)—the whole array of émigré culture that helped transform the United States from a provincial outpost of arts and letters into a polyglot Parnassus of the world.

The wonderfully counter-intuitive and heterodox question that animates Eric Oberle’s Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is: what did the Frankfurt School get from America? To the extent that question has been asked, it has traditionally provoked a negative response. Not a lot. Adorno was notoriously unhappy in the US: the kitsch, the kitsch. And for those Frankfurters who may have found what they were looking for in the States, the suspicion has always been that they were somehow seduced and made less smart—less gloomy, less dialectical, less mandarin, less mitteleuropäisch—by their experience in the US. Witness Erich Fromm.

But Oberle refuses that argument. In a work of boundless ambition and comparable achievement, which combines close reading of familiar texts and synoptic intellectual histories that bring together unfamiliar texts, The Century of Negative Identity shows just how indebted the Frankfurt School, particularly Adorno and Horkheimer, was to its time in America. One of the most innovative and exciting sections of the book (of which there are many) involves a re-reading of the relationship between The Authoritarian Personality and Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The two works are often taken as almost polar opposites: the first, a dutiful recitation of American-style social science, replete with data-sets and survey modules, and enough quantitative evidence to make a social psychologist swoon; the other, a recondite work of continental philosophy, with enough obscurity (of argument, style, organization, scope) to make a comp lit grad student swoon. The freshness of Oberle’s approach is to show how much the two works owe to each other. Deftly combining different facets and disciplinary invocations of identity—from logic and epistemology to social psychology and politics—Oberle demonstrates that Adorno consistently found himself reworking issues of identity through his efforts in The Authoritarian Personality, setting him up for his masterwork in postwar Germany, Negative Dialectics. Often presented as an unpleasant distraction from his philosophical work, Adorno’s work on The Authoritarian Personality was something Adorno actually enjoyed; as Oberle notes, Horkheimer reports in a November 1944 letter that Adorno said “that he ‘had a lot of fun’ meeting with the Berkeley Public Opinion group to develop preliminary questions on the ‘F-Scale.’”

Since the election of Trump, The Authoritarian Personality has been revived as a kind of Rosetta Stone to our age of authoritarianism. For good reason. In its time, the work was a path-breaking attempt to combine different methods in the social sciences (in-depth interviews, surveys, and so on), with an orientation that was both quantitative and qualitative, approaching questions of individual personality through a variety of lenses: politics, economics, psychology, and sociology. It was highly self-conscious about its methods, about the relationship between researcher and researched. More important, it asked the question of whether it was possible for a democratic seeming society to prove host to assorted anti-democratic tendencies. Understandably, a work of that sort would seem like a natural resource for our present moment.

But as Oberle shows, the actual approach of The Authoritarian Personality was light years away—and ahead!—of our current approaches. Too often today, the discussion around authoritarianism in the US devolves into a set of easy oppositions. There is a part of the country, the coasts, that is enlightened, tolerant, open to diversity, and opposed to racism and misogyny. Then there is the benighted part of the country—the proverbial white working class, who are thought to be located in the Upper Midwest, Appalachia, and the South—that is psychologically disposed to the opposite values: ignorance, fake news, racism, misogyny, nativism, and parochialism. It’s like a parody of the Enlightenment that Rousseau would rise up and roar against, where moral values and intellectual typologies become the markers of greater and lesser civilization.

The Authoritarian Personality, by contrast, was inspired by the dialectician’s belief in what Oberle calls, in a luminous phrase, “the shortest distance between norm and extreme.” Where much of the dominant social psychology of the time (and this would increase during the Cold War) set up a contrast between the normal, adaptive, humane, egalitarian ethos of democracy and the pathological, maladaptive, domineering ethos of authoritarianism, Adorno and his co-authors understood the world as one of contradiction, where the poles of disagreement or dissimilarity often masked or rested upon a deeper synthesis of agreement or similarity. The adaptive and maladaptive might simply be different expressions of a more structured diremption in a society or institution. As Horkheimer wrote to Adorno in a programmatic letter of 1945:

If in a family with two boys where the respected father or beloved mother complains repeatedly about having been cheated or outsmarted by Jews, one boy sticks to the general doctrines of good behavior and neighborly love advocated in school and home, and the other boy goes out and hits a Jew, who, do you think, acts more neurotically? I admit, the problem is not easy.

In their interviews and empirical research, the team behind The Authoritarian Personality consistently found cases of the tolerant and egalitarian enfolding more racist and anti-Semitic views. Rather than simply seeing the first as a mask for the second, however, the authors attempted to show how imbricated the two views were and how easily they could co-habit in the same mind.

Another distinctive feature of their research was their refusal to take group identities as pre-existent or natural.  Adorno, Oberle argues, was haunted by the same question that haunted Simmel: “Why must the Stranger be hated?” All too often in contemporary discourse, there seems to be an assumption that there must always be in any group an Other. Adorno and his colleagues worked tirelessly to understand how groups are constructed as in-groups and out-groups, and how that process of construction so often preceded or transcended more psychological accounts of identity formation. As Oberle writes of The Authoritarian Personality:

The study went out of its way to avoid naturalizing identitarian logics. In conducting interviews, the interviewers were instructed to make no assumptions about outgroups—neither their membership, nor mutual antagonism, nor even their actual existence. Outgroups were analyzed as they existed in the minds of the interviewees…most individuals related to group collectivities first through the law and property relations, and then through a sense of shared vulnerability. Groups therefore formed not organically but as a network among similarly situated individuals. Therefore, though interviewers probed whether self- or ingroup concepts were formed antithetically, they were careful neither to suggest identitiarian thinking is necessarily neurotic, pathological, or aggressive, nor to cast notions of group antagonism as inevitable or natural. To do so would tribalize individuality.

As this passage suggests, The Authoritarian Personality took the materiality of identity and social and psychological life seriously. Identities are not given; they are made, through law, property, institutions, and the like. That, too, sets Adorno’s work off from much of the contemporary discourse of authoritarianism in America, which sees the source of the problem to be overwhelmingly psychological, strictly within the heads of individuals, something that can only be solved by better education.

The materialism of Adorno and his team leads Oberle to make a fascinating connection between The Authoritarian Personality and the Frankfurt School, on the one hand, and the great midcentury works of American social analysis such as Myrdal’s American Dilemma. This discussion opens an entire new window on the discourse of race and racism in America, with Adorno offering a counterpoint to the heavily psychological approach that so many writers took to what used to be called “race relations” in the United States. In an afterward to The Authoritarian Personality that was never published, Adorno wrote of Myrdal:

The gist of Aptheker’s argument is that the Negro problem is [in Myrdal] abstracted from its socio-economic conditions, and as soon as it is treated as being essentially of a psychological nature, its edge is taken away.

The Aptheker in question, of course, is Herbert Aptheker, the Marxist historian of slave revolts. That Adorno would find a sympathetic critic in Aptheker suggests not only how resolute he was in his effort to meld economics and psychology (“the concept that there is economy on the one hand, and individuals upon whom it works on the other, has to be overcome”) but also the connection he saw in the question of anti-Semitism and European fascism, on the one hand, and racism and American authoritarianism on the other. That connection has recently been taken up quite a bit in histories of the Nazis (most notably in the work of James Q. Whitman), but Oberle reveals a whole discourse in the 1940s that was very much concerned with the same problem. A discourse that got shut down during the Cold War, when the attention of the American state shifted from fighting fascism to fighting communism.

But while that discourse was live, it insisted, as Adorno did, not on sequestering the psychological, the way so many contemporary accounts of racism do, but on mixing the material and the psychological.

As Oberle shows, that discourse from the 1940s now reads almost like the lost tractates of an ancient civilization. And yet, as Oberle also shows, it still speaks to us, calling out what we have yet to learn. As Ralph Ellison put it in an unpublished review of An American Dilemma from 1941:

In our culture the problem of the irrational, that blind spot in our knowledge of society where Marx cries out for Freud and Freud for Marx, but where approaching, both grow wary and shout insults lest they actually meet, has taken the form of the Negro problem.

So it remains today, where discussions that attempt to relate the question of race to the organization of capitalism are dismissed and reduced to the mocking rubric of “economic anxiety.”

Update (8 pm)

Ellison’s review, while it was not published by The New Republic, which had commissioned it, did finally appear in his collection of essays Shadow and Act, as someone on Twitter pointed out.

{ 14 comments }

1

Chad Stanton 02.15.19 at 7:33 pm

“So it remains today, where discussions that attempt to relate the question of race to the organization of capitalism are dismissed and reduced to the mocking rubric of “economic anxiety.”

I’m not sure how this squares with the popularity and adoption of many of the arguments found in essays and books like “The Case for Reparations” or “Stamped from the Beginning”. The assertion that racism has a function in transferring wealth from mainly poor Black communities to mainly more affluent white communities seems ubiquitous.

Do you disagree these ideas have a lot of purchase today? Do you believe these arguments amount to a mocking those concerned with “economic anxiety”?

2

bob mcmanus 02.15.19 at 10:18 pm

Thanks. Waking up to this made my day, or week. Looks like I picked the wrong Martin Jay to start today (Downcast Eyes).

It is, unless you are Zarathustra the ass on the mountaintop, a matter of choosing a convenient authoritarianism in order to survive and prosper. I have seen little else in my lifetime but authoritarians, projecting. The Ellison is wonderful.

3

John 02.16.19 at 4:30 am

Although it is not directly relevant to Corey’s essay most/all of the right-wing culture wars warriors here in Australia blame the Frankfurt School for the now supposedly everywhere Marxist long-march through the academy and by extension the culture at large.

4

Sonny Jim 02.16.19 at 6:02 pm

.Too often today, the discussion around authoritarianism in the US devolves into a set of easy oppositions. There is a part of the country, the coasts, that is enlightened, tolerant, open to diversity, and opposed to racism and misogyny. Then there is the benighted part of the country—the proverbial white working class, who are thought to be located in the Upper Midwest, Appalachia, and the South—that is psychologically disposed to the opposite values: ignorance, fake news, racism, misogyny, nativism, and parochialism. It’s like a parody of the Enlightenment …

Lately, I’ve been reading Christine Pawley’s study of public libraries in post-war rural Wisconsin, “Reading Places: Literacy, Democracy, and the Public Library in Cold War America” (UMass P, 2010). One of the things she does early on in that book is show how deeply professional-class stereotypes about rural communities in Wisconsin in the 1950s were informed by the eugenics and immigration discourses of earlier decades. She interviews elderly librarians who had been active in those communities in the ‘50s and they blithely sketch out for her a racialised typology of intellectual life (and intellectual capacity) in various ostensibly “white,” immigrant-derived communities out in the country. There was no point offering library services for Belgians, for instance—they had no apparent interest in books or even newspapers—while Norwegians had more regard for education and reading. There’s a whole system of professional-class knowledge about race and citizenship here, one that seems both unfamiliar and oddly contemporary.

So, what I’d suggest is that the current “coast vs. flyover state” dichotomy isn’t so much a parody of Enlightenment thought, as it is silently informed by an oddly persistent strain of eugenicist thought, one that’s both class-based, obviously, but also regional. There are certain hinterlands that seem eternally problematic due to the particular ethnic groups that had settled there and their uncertain position in the hierarchy of whiteness. It’s striking to me how neatly the Clintonite language of “deplorables” maps onto an earlier discourse about “degenerates” and the “feeble-minded,” one that was associated with “poor white” communities in just those same parts of the US (Appalachia; the Upper Midwest) now seen as suspect in professional-managerial-class circles (susceptible to foreign subversion, even) due to the 2016 election results.

5

Metatone 02.17.19 at 10:30 am

I’ve always been pretty anti-Adorno (a discussion for another time) but it’s always mystified me how his fanboys simply don’t recognise how interesting the exploration of method in The Authoritarian Personality period was and indeed how far ahead it remains of most of what is considered “good practice”* even now.

6

Michael Sullivan 02.17.19 at 4:19 pm

Like Chad Stanton @1, I’m a bit non-plussed at the idea that thinking of racism as purely psychological would be mainstream. I mean I guess it is, in the sense of mainstream (mostly white dude) media pundits. But AFAICT, not among anyone who thinks seriously about race and racism and has read relevant authors of color on how race works in America.

I see the idea that race is primarily psychological, or something ones sees and not absolutely *rooted* in the disparity of socio-economic conditions between races is a fundamentally oblivious white attitude. One adopted by the kind of white people who “don’t see color”, but usually have plenty of unexamined and mostly unconscious class and regional prejudice to go along with their unexamined and unconscious racial prejudice (but *never* admitted to, because racism is *bad*, and only *bad people* are racists, it’s like the worst thing you can call someone!).

Among people who take racism seriously as something to study and work against, both in themselves and in society, it has long been understood that the difference in socioeconomic situation is at the heart of understanding racism, not just as a result but also as a self-perpetuating cycle. The very outcomes produced by past racism become the seed and soil for future racism.

This more realistic discussion of race has even *become* part of the mainstream since the early to mid teens. Between Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Black lives Matter, the election of an outright white supremacist to the presidency for the first time in a century, a lot of people are waking up. Hardly a majority of white people yet, but in my generation of white people on the left at least, maybe there’s finally a majority (or close) who aren’t wilfully oblivious to how race works in society.

That said, it *is* interesting that Adorno was already seeing and saying this in the 1940s (as had been plenty of black authors since DuBois at least, it should be noted), and yet large portions of our populace still have trouble with it today. But as Upton Sinclair noted, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

7

Scott P. 02.17.19 at 8:05 pm

It’s striking to me how neatly the Clintonite language of “deplorables” maps onto an earlier discourse about “degenerates” and the “feeble-minded,” one that was associated with “poor white” communities in just those same parts of the US (Appalachia; the Upper Midwest) now seen as suspect in professional-managerial-class circles (susceptible to foreign subversion, even) due to the 2016 election results.

Except Clinton’s speech had no geographic component at all. Maybe you’d be better off with Obama’s ‘bitter clingers’.

8

aso 02.17.19 at 8:43 pm

@7, I can tell you as someone who was in Oklahoma during the election, that the deplorables comment touched a raw nerve among “Okies”. It was all over fliers from Republican candidates. It definitely “helped” Clinton lose by 36 percentage points–in a state where approx. 65% of population is white (2010 figure was higher, but Hispanic pop. is booming, as Texas is only a short drive from most settled places in the state. When I cite the margin of her defeat without naming the state folks assume I’m speaking of Wyoming or Montana.

9

Yan 02.18.19 at 7:00 pm

“Like Chad Stanton @1, I’m a bit non-plussed at the idea that thinking of racism as purely psychological would be mainstream. I mean I guess it is, in the sense of mainstream (mostly white dude) media pundits. But AFAICT, not among anyone who thinks seriously about race and racism and has read relevant authors of color on how race works in America.”

10

Yan 02.18.19 at 7:09 pm

Michael Sullivan @6
“Like Chad Stanton @1, I’m a bit non-plussed at the idea that thinking of racism as purely psychological would be mainstream. I mean I guess it is, in the sense of mainstream (mostly white dude) media pundits. But AFAICT, not among anyone who thinks seriously about race and racism and has read relevant authors of color on how race works in America.”

But of course, it would be strange to see “mainstream” views about racism as being a subset of, or significantly overlapping with, “anyone who thinks seriously about race and racism and has read relevant authors of color.” On the contrary, the defining feature of mainstream views about racism (and I include pundits and journalists) is that they are usually the product of a *lack* of serious thought and certainly *not* the product of any kind of relevant reading.

That said, I agree that the view is not as common as the OP suggests. As Corey puts it: “discussions that attempt to relate the question of race to the organization of capitalism are dismissed and reduced to the mocking rubric of ‘economic anxiety’.”

This is a painfully accurate description of what, almost word for word, a very vocal minority of liberal Democrats on social media repeat over, and over, and over. I dare you to do a Twitter search for some key words like “economic anxiety” or “racism and class” to see just how loud and frequent it is. I suspect that’s what Corey is referring to. But of course, the group of constantly online bitter and resentful Democrats nursing 2016 wounds by attacking anyone on the left who raises issues of class and economy is not a very good measure of mainstream thought.

It is, to be sure, a common enough view–there are many major media articles attacking the left in this way–but it’s probably not the standard among either public or pundits.

11

Yan 02.18.19 at 7:16 pm

Scott P. @7:
“Except Clinton’s speech had no geographic component at all. Maybe you’d be better off with Obama’s ‘bitter clingers’.”

A very interesting comparison. That Clinton’s speech had no geographic component isn’t particularly important, since we know who the intended audience was (her voting base of well-educated, old, white, suburban, predominantly coastal liberals) and we know that they knew the intended geography (rural flyover country).

But the comparison is interesting because Clinton’s speech did clearly fit the essentialistic aspect of eugenics. People focus on the “deplorable” but ignore the more offensive part “irredeemable.” These are bad people, innately bad, they can’t be fixed only contained, controlled, prevented from multiplying.

In contrast, while Obama’s remark was (uncharacteristically!) less diplomatic and in some ways more offensive, it doesn’t fit that picture at all. The entire point of his speech was that the people referred to are in a historically conditioned, circumstantial state, motivated by bitterness and resentment that has specific, changeable, contingent causes. The gist, then, is exactly the opposite of eugenic logic.

12

bob mcmanus 02.19.19 at 9:24 am

Picked up the Oberle, halfway through intro and first chapter. I like it a lot, seems to be a very useful study of, for example, Adorno’s insight and flaws in his work on music and jazz than I have read before, using this as a way in which to study changing understandings of “identity.”

I was especially grateful for this post because, and I will try to be careful not to offend, I felt a little alienated by the recent encomiums to Erik Olin Wright. In honor, I read his work Reconstructing Marxism and in detail found a lot to like and agree with in it, the empiricism and detail of praxis. This is maybe the 4th or 5th Analytical Marxist work I have read (Wright Real Utopias, some Elster, some Cohen).

But I put myself in the “Western Marxist” camp, if anywhere not pathologically eclectic. Wright does explicitly criticize the Frankfurt School at the beginning of RM, and in general although very enjoyable, readable, and persuasive overall I find the Analytical Marxists to be arrogant and yes authoritarian in their insistence on objectivity reason microfoundations and and what I might call the transparency of language and argument. Their so frequent accusation of “obscurantism” I associate with Anglo-American analytical philosophy and also neo-classical/New Keynesian economics which also works with rational choice theory in the 70s and 80s and the demand for microfoundations (the seminal Robert Lucas critique).

I want more poetry in my politics and economics, and more Continental cosmopolitanism. I know and knew it’s around, but it was reaffirming to see some good recent work reviewed.

13

William Timberman 02.19.19 at 12:58 pm

Interesting to compare Corey’s take here with some of the criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work, i.e., that it focuses on the psychological and cultural aspects of racism while giving less attention than it should to the economic engine which underlies both. My own take, influenced as it is by Coates’s eloquence about life at the pointy end, and by some of my own experiences growing up in the South, is that we shouldn’t undervalue the psychological, or, by extension, the cultural rules of engagement, or underestimate their legitimacy in defining a way forward.

This is not to say that I disagree in any significant way with Corey’s post. In fact, I very much appreciate the attempt to untangle what has become a very tangled set of arguments about race and racism in the United States. I do think, though, that when the right has clearly chosen to turn a cultural disagreement into yet another civil war, and has just as clearly chosen the ground on which it intends to fight, we may be forced, at least initially, to accept the terms of the conflict as they’ve defined them. Redlining and declaring an open season on black people by the police may have the same historical origins, but it’s hard to argue in the moment that remedies for the latter shouldn’t take precedence over analyses of the former.

14

bob mcmanus 02.20.19 at 7:28 am

Stupid unfair questions from an idiot dept:

Also reading this month (EOW Reconstructing Marxism is rec’d): James Scott Weapons of the Weak. In Ch 2, he explains why he spent a year and a half exploring the psychological states and expressions of Malayan villagers in order to microfound the class struggle, and rehearses ye old EP Thompson vs Althusser debate. If the correct side seems obvious, that’s likely ideology speaking through us. Above my grade to argue this adequately, so I yawp barbarically, and point toward “instrumental reason” + personal narrative grounding, plus maybe Fisher Capitalist Reason and Resnick & Wolff.

If Thompson was right and Althusser wrong, why is Britain a burning dumpster, and France “better” with a stronger resistant Left?

If Wright and Scott are methodologically superior to Frankfurt School, why is the USA a violent kleptocratic Empire, and Germany a gentler welfare greener capitalism?

#notourfaultnotherfaultnotourfault

It’s Republicans and Tory’s fault, Our methods are sound.

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