Theodor Adorno

As part of my work on Tillich and the Frankfurt School (via discussions with Warren Goldstein), I finally acquired Christopher Brittain’s Adorno and Theology. Apart from a few pages on Tillich, which really do not explore the depth of Tillich’s engagements with Horkheimer, Adorno and others, and apart from a strange desire to bring Alasdair Maclagan into the debate, I was disappointed to find nary a mention of Adorno’s most sustained engagement with theology, namely, his book on Kierkegaard. I know it’s a tough piece to work through, but, shit a brick, you really can’t avoid it when talking about Adorno and theology.

As I sink into my two main projects for 2011 – Lenin and Theology and The Sacred Economy – a brief intro to the book I have just completed on Nick Cave, with a preface written on the Trans-Mongolian train, somewhere in Siberia …

Over 2010 I wanted to engage in some other material that has interested me for a while – the Fleshly Readings book, which has managed to piss off a goodly number of people, and the one on Nick Cave. The latter is called Cave Droppings, looking at things like his engagement with the Bible, the novels and total depravity, death, apocalypse, love, Jesus and a big chapter on the philosophy of music and musical form, via Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno. The best bits were listening again and again to all of the music (back to 1977 and the Boys Next Door), engaging deeply with Bloch and Adorno on music, and reading through some 300 or more interviews, unpicking the narratives he spins about himself. And that’s where you find some pretty good turns of phrase, like:

I’ve got to stop quoting from the Bible because it’s irritating.

A chilly thing. The Bible. Sometimes.

All they wanted was the usual holiday snap of hell.

To eat at the same ball of vomit year after year.

When the big bomb goes off, all that’s going to survive are goths and cockroaches.

Two abiding passions – crime and theology.

Death looms large because it should.

And the decomposing lover says …

Jesus only loves a man who loses.

When those two things get together, love and violence, it makes for some nasty song-writing.

But he [Blixa Bargeld] was always more concerned with making his guitar sound like a dying horse, more than anything else.

Sometimes it [Cave's voice] sounds like the moaning of a dying insect

And the TOC:


Chapter One: Searching the Holy Books.

Synopsis: Nick Cave and the Bible.

The Life of Nick.

The ‘Word’ of Cave.

Conclusion, or, Strategies of Containment.

Chapter Two: The Total Depravity of Cave’s Literary World.

Cave World.

That House on the Edge of Town.

A Slug of White Jesus.

Rain in the Valley.


Lamentations of Woe.

The Calling of Eschatological Madness.

Conclusion: The Dialectic of Redemptive Depravity.

Chapter Three: Some Routine Atrocity, or, Apocalyptic.

Three Modes.

God’s Anger: The Flood.

Murder, Mayhem and Atrocity.

Glimpses of Redemption.


Chapter Four: Death.

From Form to Content: The Sinister Song.

Death Inflicted.

Death Suffered.

Individual Annihilation.

Collective Destruction.

Death Overcome.

Conclusion: Death Is Not the End?

Chapter Five: God, Pain and the Love Song.

Secular Soppy Songs: No Pain, No God.

Painlessly Divine: No Pain, With God.

Painfully Secular: With Pain, No God.

Brutally Divine: With Pain, With God.

Chapter Six: Jesus of the Moon, or, Christology.

Volume and Noise.

Sex and Seduction.



Chapter Seven: Hearing Round Corners: Nick Cave Meets Ernst Bloch.

Hearing around corners.

Concerning the Wandering Path of the Note, or, Forms of the Song.

Anarchy …

… and Discordancy.


Hymn (and Lament)

Sinister Song.

Dialectical Song.


Conclusion: The Dialectics of Theo-Utopian Hearing.

Conclusion: Gates to the Garden: The Search for Redemption.

If anyone happens to be in Oslo today and near the big shiny steel and perspex block known as the library of the University of Oslo (Georg Sverdrups House), the following scintillating event will be under way.

TIME: Wednesday September 15 at 1.15pm – 6.30pm
PLACE: Undervisningsrom 1 Georg Sverdrups hus


13.15 Introduction, Jorunn Økland, professor, Senter for Tverrfaglig Kjønnsforskning (STK, Centre for Gender Research), Oslo

13.30 Ilana Pardes, Professor of Arts and Letters, Hebrew University of Jerusalem: ‘Freud, Zipporah, and the Bridegroom of Blood’.

14.30 Roland Boer, Comrade, University of Newcastle, Australia. Paper: ‘Freud, Adorno and the Ban on Images’.

15.30-16.00 Coffee/tea

16.00 Erik Steinskog, Associate Professor, Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, Section of Musicology, University of Copenhagen. Paper: ‘Of Mice and Men – and Moses: Voices in Kafka and Schoenberg’.

17.00 Hedda Høgåsen-Hallesby, Ph.D.-fellow, STK. Paper: ‘Monotheism and Synesthesia: The Word becoming Flesh in Strauss’s Salome’.

17.45 Øystein Gullvåg Holter, Professor of gender equality and masculinities, STK: Response

Every character in a word is like a grille through which meaning shines forth by breaking free of its sensual trace, its phonetic echo. Every note is the unconscious imprint of a sound, and gains a share in its meaning only through configuration.

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund, aka Adorno, Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction, p. 64.

When Adorno first turned up in the US of A he was employed as a researcher with the Princeton Radio Project, a marketing exercise directed by Paul Lazarsfeld. Needless to say, Adorno didn’t quite fit in. For example, on 1o October 1939 Adorno gave a lecture on the commodification of music on the radio. The response, to both the lecture and the subsequently circulated text of the lecture, is summed up in the comments of the well known W.G. Preston Jr, assistant to the vice president in charge of programmes on NBC:

The paper is so full of factual errors and colored opinions, and its pretense at scientific procedure is so absurd in view of its numerous arbitrary assertions, that it is hardly worthy of serious consideration, except possibly as propaganda. In short, it seems to have an axiom to grind.

Fucking brilliant! Makes me feel in good company, given some of the reports I have had. And the equally well-known Geoffrey Gorer, an anthropologist, opined:

The statement that music today is not an art but a commodity seems to me quite meaningless. Musicians have always had to eat.

Soon afterwards, Adorno had the distinction of having the funding cut for his role in the project – from the Rockefeller Foundation, no less.

For all his flaws, that’s why I like the man. Onya, Theodor!

Not a moment too soon, given that my mother is now onto my blog … Here is Adorno, whom I am deploying with Ernst Bloch for my book on Nick Cave:

Luther, who felt that greatness in composition involved telling the notes to go where they belonged …

Quasi Una Fantasia, p. 97.

Then Naples was initially a threatening chaos, the roads there look like forests, melons are sold among heathen cult symbols, stuffed cats’ heads are considered a delicacy, animal brothels an erotic specialty, and even the kitsch of the buildings, which purport to be classical in style, excessively ruptures all civilizatory security.

Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, in a letter to Alban Berg, 15 October 1925 (p. 20).

While I was out on my bicycle tour, Sean Burt posted this comment on my entry from 25 January called Dis/Re-enchantment:

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a bit. I fundamentally agree with you here, though I’ve been wondering — if the narrative of re/disenchantment is fundamentally of a capitalist world, what can that lead us to say about pre-capitalist (i.e. ancient) fantasy literature? I’m thinking about Apulieus, Lucian, even Tobit (maybe you could even go with apocalyptic here, but I’m thinking more of the narrative, ‘novelistic’ mode). Why would ancient people have flights of fancy if their world wasn’t disenchanted? That’s not a rhetorical question — it really is something that’s been puzzling me!

This post was ages ago in internet time, but in the chance you see this, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

In a few earlier posts (here, here and here) I had argued that the idea of re-enchanting the world is one that is generated out of a capitalist context, where the narrative of enchantment-disenchantment-re-enchantment itself arises. Only in a world that seems to be abandoned by God (Lukacs) does it become possible to dream of re-enchantment. So a politics of re-enchantment (as the Radox – Adam Kotsko’s wonderful term – people propose, or as some like Michael Carden would like to see) is itself tied in with the logic of capitalism itself.

However, Sean raises another issue: did people view the world in this way at other times and places? Initially, I would have to say yes. Think of the ancients who began to allegorise the gods of Homer, as but one example. What do I do with these earlier moments? One path is to pick up the argument of Adorno and Horkheimer and suggest that a dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment has been with us for some time now. Invoke disenchantment (science, reason, common sense) and you get all manner of enchantments cropping up; push for re-enchantment and you will find an internal push to disenchantment (as, for example, with the Christian logic of the secular state). Another path, which actually carries on from the preceding one, is to argue that the possibility of thinking in such terms only arose in a certain capitalist context, which can then be retrofitted into earlier historical moments. It’s a little like the feeling one gets in applying a new method to the Bible: it all seems to work so well, so much so that the biblical authors seem to have read Lacan, Derrida, Zizek or Marx …

Philosophers have a temptation to build systems, although periods of anti-systematic impulse recur from time to time, literary critics (which is where someone like myself, first trained in biblical criticism, may still be located) slip into perpetual searches for new methods, historians attempt wholesale reconstructions when they have the nerve and are not distracted by yet another pile of archives. I must admit to being fascinated by the daring of such efforts as well as the risk and devotion they entail. For example, Badiou’s single-handed recovery of grand systems is as riskily breathtaking as it leaves him open to attack. Platonic in its scale, it draws in a vast array of topics – Greek tragedy, poetry, Lacan, mathematics, the New Testament, theology (Pascal and Kierkegaard), politics, art, and on and on – in a way that leaves him open to criticisms where he falls short, such as the class associations and anti-democratic tenor of Plato’s elitist thought, the untroubled classicism, the dismissive polemics against ‘sophists’ (who invented democratic theory) and the Romanticism of the event and its truth. Yet the fidelity to his own philosophical event can only be admired, and I find myself drawn to his bemusement, the shy flicker of a smile at being ‘discovered’ so late, especially when he made a virtue out of his solitary extremity to modes of French intellectual and political life. But I would find that a singular exploration of the vast territories opened would become a drag in the long term.

And there are too many systems that have collapsed before they barely were thrown together without adequate structure or mental fortitude. Dühring’s effort in the late nineteenth century merely required Engels’s firm shove and it came tumbling down in a pile of girders and dust. Many have been the apparent new ideas of a life’s work that have deflated with one simple prick. I think of my Hebrew teacher, Barbara Thiering, who constructed a whole edifice concerning the origins of Christianity among the Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll) sectarians, only to find that carbon dating comprehensively removed the Dead Sea Scrolls from the first decades of Christianity (they were written much earlier). Some have shown distinct insight with a single idea, such as Girard’s mimetic desire, only to founder with the effort to make it universally explanatory, along with the desperate attempt to include within that system his religious conversion with a ‘miraculous’ healing from cancer after prayer.

So I prefer the comments of Adorno and Bloch. Adorno was wont to quote Nietzsche’s adage:

I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

Adorno goes on to characterise system-building as provincial, naïve and caught in the past. It is like a cottage industry in a village, where the village stands in for the whole world and the system produced can pretend to have comprehended all knowledge, or at least provided a key to it. Philosophers continue to feel that they can construct a theory of the universe with a pen, paper and their own thoughts while sitting by a cosy fire in a cottage in the woods, even though they have not noticed how stale the air has become. Adorno is of course having a dig at Heidegger, but he has little time for the provincialism of philosophical systems. As for Bloch, he notes the fading dreams and perpetual retreats of the great planners of systems, preferring in their stead detours, offshoots and accidental discoveries: ‘Just as a detour in life so often turns out not to have been one at all, just as a little offshoot can provide the revitalizing contribution, so does the plan resign and overgrow itself at the same time in many first (and many late) masterpieces’. He gives the example of Cervantes’s small beginning, who wanted merely to mock chivalric romances in Don Quixote, only to find he had created a parody of humanity. Or Hegel, who set out to write a conventional textbook on philosophy and ended up with the Phenomenology. As for a grand system of life, history, the universe and everything, Bloch gives the example of ‘someone who wrote a philosophy of the postal system in three volumes, which was certainly an epochal idea at the time’.

If you have ever had to serve on committees on whom important decisions depend, or are thought to depend, you will see how the worst and the basest instincts prevail over the better, more humane ones. I should perhaps say that you will perceive this unless you completely identify with what is going on and subscribe to its principles. This is the basic experience, even though you will not see a simple confrontation between the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’, but rather an infinitely nuanced chain of individual decisions, proposals and processes that focus initially at least on topics that seem utterly remote from such global judgements. Nevertheless, in questions involving individuals there is an overwhelming tendency not so much for the worse speech to triumph over the better one, for the worse man to be appointed to the position that should have gone to the better one … Needless to say, it is not helpful to dwell on such experiences.

Theodor Adorno, History and Freedom, Lectures 1964-1965. pp, 30-1.

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