Why I Read Adorno …

The Adorno mystique. Geoff Dyer, whose work I no longer read, quotes Karl Ove Knausgaard, a writer I preferred not to read, but in whose work I’ve recently developed a grudging curiosity: “‘What enriched me while reading Adorno,’ writes Knausgaard in A Death in the Family, ‘lay not in what I read, but the perception of myself while I was reading. I was someone who read Adorno.'” It seems characteristic of Knausgaard to admit that Adorno is for him a badge writer and for Dyer to admire his declaration.

I question, during a long jet-lagged night in Tokyo, whether I read Adorno for the badge. The issue of mass culture is never far from mind in Tokyo, more so than in the southern California from which Adorno’s Minima Moralia was born. It wasn’t this loose collection of interconnected fragments that endeared Adorno to me, but a life-changing reading of Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (from the Dialectic of Enlightenment).

What they had to say about mass culture (I wrote about it once), turned me from a naive condescension towards its consumers, to a fascination for its pervasive effectiveness and systemic beauty. I may not like it, but like Adorno and his contemporaries, it is easier to subject it to critique than destroy or subvert it in any meaningful way.

I’ve come to dislike the term ‘mass culture’ for its intimation that such a culture arises instinctively from the masses, preferring Adorno’s ‘culture industry’. The Japanese have a term ‘taishū’, which, I believe, refers to an aggregate of consumers for which a commodified culture is produced, pre-targeted and administered. This seems more precise and deals with the difficulty of the concept of ‘masses’.

On Twitter, for a long, time my bio stated ‘Adorno to Zwicky.’ This blog post is the first in a series reflecting on why I read those writers I consider in some way tutelary spirits, or as Beckett would have it, ‘old chestnuts’. It isn’t a fixed canon and is subject to frequent revision.

I came to Adorno initially curious to read his thoughts on Beckett’s Endgame, having read somewhere else that Beckett considered them a perverse and deliberate over-reading. From there to his illuminating writing on music, particularly the Beethoven essays (another old, old friend). There still Adorno to read and reread and I’ve no intention of reading all he wrote.

Why do I read Adorno? Beckett was undoubtedly right about wilful over-reading. I often struggle with Adorno’s writing. I lack the philosophical-sociological grounding to understand much of it. It’s also said that much of Adorno’s complex, circumlocutory arguments are difficult to translate. But my reading of Adorno often follows a similar pattern: lack of understanding-persist-glimmer of understanding-persist-some understanding, but a sense that he must be over-reading-awakening at four in the morning with a flash of comprehension and recognition. I read Adorno for those flashes. Cognitive fireworks.

9 thoughts on “Why I Read Adorno …

  1. Still waiting for the translation of Negative Dialectics. Apparently the existing one is no good, and apparently Hullot-Kentor, who translated Aesthetic Theory, is working on a translation. But rumors of that translation have been around so long I can’t help but think he might have given up.

  2. Very interesting, Anthony. I recently stumbled across Adorno in relation to Walter Benjamin, which has made me keen to read him (he’s on a list I have of books to explore before the current Verso sale finishes…) I understand what you mean by a badge writer – I might well have been there in my younger years! But I like to think I’m driven more by curiosity nowadays, a wish to explore ideas, and yes, those flashes and fireworks! 😀

  3. Reading “for the flashes!” I’ll keep that phrase, and use it often, I think. The flashes, I guess, are what difficulty is FOR. There are flashes in Gaddis’s THE RECOGNITIONS. though the prose and voice are smudged. Flashes in William Gass, though the prose and voice are heavy with the quotidian. I’m curious, though (I guess this makes me a hopeless gossip) – why don’t you read Geoff Dyer any more? I’ve loved some of his essays – does he strike you as unserious? Or, worse, careless? ( I am deeply unserious, but care about this too deeply to write a word.)

    • Yes. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I read difficult books, Adorno, Agamben, and most decent poetry falls into that category. I read all of Dyer’s early work, and still consider But Beautiful one of the best books about music I’ve read, and surely the best book on jazz. There are other pieces I like, but more for sentimental reasons. These days, I find most of his writing too knowingly arch and yes a little trite.

  4. So glad you mentioned “But Beautiful” It’s actually the only Dyer I’ve read more than once. I come in and out on Adorno, and the whole Frankfurt School – the discovery of which made me wonder why I was majoring in philosophy and studying Hegel. I never quite got back on the horse. Should I keep reading Harold Bloom? Are his obsessions misleading? Is he “difficult,” or merely cranky? I’m so jealous of you – you seem to have such a glossily blueprinted PLAN when it comes to reading. I just read whatever comes into my path – then I look behind me at the path, and see nothing but wet footprints in a snow I can’t remember having fallen.

    • Plans there may be, but I am forever falling down rabbit holes and being distracted. I am terribly fickle. Serendipity and chance bounces me from one writer to the next. Bloom is a cranky old reactionary, but I enjoy disagreeing with him and looking at literature from his perspective. My argument with the Frankfurt School and it may be misplaced-I am a dilettante and never studied philosophy-is the ivory tower nature of the intellectualism. No manning the barricades for them.

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