Judith Butler. (Getty Images)

When word came in May that Berkeley professor Judith Butler was this year’s winner of the prestigious Adorno Prize, a small storm predictably ensued. But conspicuously missing from the discussion has been the figure perhaps more important than all others: the prize’s namesake himself.

In the 43 years since his sudden death, the spirit of Adorno, the godfather of critical theory, has presided over not only many corners of scholarly life but over large swaths of popular culture as well. Any attempt to reevaluate Adorno, and these still break out habitually in graduate seminars, tends to orbit around a few key points, by now familiar. His writing, depending on one’s point of view, is either deliciously challenging or needlessly obfuscating; he disdained popular culture, particularly popular music, while bothering to listen to very little of it, which is either the mark of an uncompromising maverick or a poor scholar; and he was either a cheerless snob who contemplated impossibly pure utopias and disdained practicalities or a visionary who used theory to tame and reshape the world. All these, to an extent, are fascinating arguments, but they hardly explain the longevity of Adorno’s mystique.

His work, however, might. Adorno’s spirit lives on just as vividly in Butler’s boorish detractors as it does in Butler herself; to understand it, and its unexpected influence, we would be well-advised to review the master’s work.


“Life,” declares the epigram to Minima Moralia, Adorno’s 1951 collection of aphorisms, “does not live.” It’s a curious quotation, originally by the Austrian writer Ferdinand Kürnberger, and Adorno soon gets around to providing something by way of explanation. “The Fascist regimes of the first half of the 20th century have absurdly stabilized an obsolete economic form, multiplying the terror and misery the latter required for its continued preservation, now that its senselessness is plain as day,” he writes later in the book.

Private life however is also marked by this. Along with the reach of administration, the asphyxiating social order of the private, the particularism of interests, the long since obsolete form of the family, the right of property and its reflection in the character have all been shored up once more. But with a bad conscience, the barely disguised consciousness of untruth. Whatever was once good and proper in what was bourgeois—independence, persistence, thinking ahead, consideration—is rotten to its innermost core. For while bourgeois forms of existence are doggedly preserved, their economic prerequisites have fallen away. That which is private has gone over completely into that privation, which it secretly always was, and the stubborn grip on one’s own interest is intermingled with the rage that one is no longer capable of perceiving that things could be different and better. The bourgeoisie have lost their naïvété, and for that reason have become wholly obdurate and malevolent.

One imagines how titillating it must have been, and still might be, for some among the scholarly class—staffed, as it so frequently is, by the sons and the daughters of the bourgeoisie—to crack open Adorno’s slim volume and discover that they were not merely trapped in false consciousness, as traditional Marxist thought might argue, but altogether devoid of subjectivity, evil specters incapable of doing anything but haunting the prospects of civilization.

These malevolent middlings are in good company: In his other great work, Philosophy of Modern Music, Adorno has this to say about his bête noire, Stravinsky: “The artist does not converge with the lyric subject. In essentially pre-bourgeois Russia the category of the subject was not quite so firmly fitted together as in the Western countries. The factor of alienation—particularly in Dostoevsky—originated in the non-identity of the ego with itself: not one of the brothers Karamzov is a ‘character.’ Stravinsky, as a product of the late bourgeoisie, has at his command such pre-subjectivity that he is finally able to validate the decline of the subject.”

The composer of The Rite of Spring, then, isn’t merely mistaken in his approach to music, but incapable, by virtue of being Russian, of possessing anything approaching the glorious complexities of the human subject. Such right is reserved largely to Germans: The entire book, more or less, is a study contrasting Stravinsky, who is accused of all manner of depravity, with Adorno’s beloved Schoenberg. But Schoenberg himself wasn’t very impressed with the analysis: “It is disgusting, by the way, how he treats Stravinsky,” the composer wrote to a friend. “I am certainly no admirer of Stravinsky, although I like a piece of his here and there very much—one should not write like that.”

One, indeed, should not. In a critique of Adorno, Charles Rosen noted the philosopher’s systematic adherence to a pejorative vocabulary; his comfort with the sort of racist, essentialist argument that pins a composer’s entire work on the accident of having been born in one place rather than the other; and his readiness to pass sweeping judgment based on a small sample of work. “If a composer simplifies his style for a particular work or group of works,” Rosen wrote, “this is immediately called either ‘regression’ or ‘infantilism.’ ”

If this approach sounds familiar, it’s perhaps because it is the one favored by most nabobs who tweet, blog, Tumbl, like, poke, and otherwise pollute public discourse with ignorant and inflammatory pronouncements. And as is so often the case with dynasties, the children have none of the father’s luster: While Adorno occasionally made up for his failings with bouts of genuine brilliance, those who swear by him do not. He, for example, reversed Hegel’s view of history to argue that the course of human events is not one of progress but rather, to borrow my colleague Adam Kirsch’s phrase, a process devoted to “the inevitable working-out of a historical dialectic that culminates in Nazism”; allow capitalism and culture to sufficiently numb its citizens into acquiescence, and another Hitler will inevitably rise. The contemporary loons who troll the Net and are fond of comparing anything or anyone to Hitler are merely continuing in the same tradition, substituting Adorno’s theoretical underpinnings, flawed as they might have been, for sheer, dumb rage.

The same, it must be said, also goes for some of Butler’s critics. Focusing on a few utterances made in response to questions in a public lecture that may or may not have been misunderstood is a move Adorno himself would have recognized, having done more or less the same to Debussy, say, in his book. But most of us have been taught somewhere in the dawn of our development as social beings, once the generalizations and name-callings come out, it is very hard for civilized conversation to persist.

To counter all this nastiness, we need thinkers who speak in clear and compassionate voices.

This is certainly not Adorno: “Even the blossoming tree,” he wrote in one of his most memorable passages, “lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror; even the innocent ‘How lovely!’ becomes an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely, and there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better.” This is the zealot’s view, denying the possibility of grace and joy in this world and placing it squarely in some shining and distant afterlife. And we’ve zealots aplenty. What we direly lack are thinkers capable of nuance, cautious with their condemnations, and committed to rejecting abstractions and focusing instead on the sweaty, imperfect, and complicated lump that is, in all its glory, mankind.

Butler need not apply. Whatever her merits as a thinker and a scholar—and those should be debated not by dogmatic brawlers but by her peers and by those who take the trouble to carefully consider her work—Butler is very much an adherent of Adorno’s method. As my friend Todd Gitlin rightly noted, Butler’s writing doesn’t consist of “sentences that carry propositions” but rather produces “a whiff of the burning of incense before an idol called ‘theory.’ ” In her most recent book, for example, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, she writes about very concrete problems in very ephemeral ways. “It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it,” goes one typical passage. “Binationalism is not just an ideal ‘to come’—something we might hope to arrive in a more ideal future, but a wretched fact that is being lived out as a specific historical form of settler colonialism and the proximities and exclusions it reproduces through the daily military and regulatory practices of occupation.”

Is binationalism, then, an ideal to behold or a grim reality to amend? Butler seems to suggest that it is both. Some may see such an approach as valuable for its questioning of modes of discourse, its problematizing of popular notions, and other strictly theoretical achievements. But Israelis and Palestinians are not theoretical constructs. They’re human beings, and their predicaments demand more than abstractions. Former generations of intellectuals attempted, sometimes admirably and sometimes less so, to apply their ideas in the service of earthly goals. Edmund Wilson refused to pay income tax for more than a decade to protest the United States’ Cold War policies. Dwight Macdonald led a march on the Pentagon, which he hoped to levitate in an effort to end the Vietnam war. Butler, by her own admission, remains “not completely immersed in the world.” This is a pity. And in a very real way, it makes her a perfect recipient for prize named after Theodor Adorno.


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