Adorno for Autodidacts

Ralph Dumain


Installment of my Studies in a Dying Culture podcast series (<—abstracts + podcasts downloadable) under the auspices of Think Twice Radio:

May 7, 2015 Adorno for Autodidacts (podcast, 59:12 minutes)

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), a preeminent philosopher, aesthetician, literary and cultural critic, pioneer in social psychological research and the social criticism of music, was a chief exemplar of critical theory, associated with the Institute for Social Research, popularly known as the Frankfurt School. In part 1 I provide an introduction to the Frankfurt School and to Adorno’s intellectual career and reception, along with my assessment of his importance. While Adorno, a product of a highly cultured European bourgeoisie, has been criticized as elitist and resigned to abstinence from transforming the social order, I propose to demonstrate the opposite. While some thinkers now advocate “Adorno for revolutionaries,” I judge this to be a misguided effort. I argue for something new and different—the relevance of Adorno to autodidacts and working class intellectuals. I illustrate my case in part 2, which consists of a series of quotes from the works of Adorno on the role of intellectuals, theory and practice, the division of labor, critical thinking, and autodidacts, with my comments on Adorno’s themes and the structure of his arguments. All this is to defend the thinker given the impossibility of the unity of theory and practice. Finally, I mention Richard Wright, who apparently never read any of the critical theorists, but as a militant intellectual who rose from the bottom of society, might well have found Adorno’s perspective congenial.

Timeline (in minutes, approximate. Time-marks are different for online listening & listening to downloaded file)

00:00-04:30 guitar intro, intro to Studies in a Dying Culture & this podcast
04:30-08:30 Part 1: introduction to the Frankfurt School / Institute for Social Research / critical theory
08:30-24:40 Part 1: introduction to Adorno
24:40-26:35 End of Part 1: facing inward & outward, why Adorno matters to autodidacts
26:35-57:25 Part 2: Adorno’s “best break-up quotes” (esp. 1st 3 quotes)
57:25-59:12 Richard Wright

Dumain guitar introduction (50 sec.) [originally recorded June 2011]

Adorno not merely academic

Links to Adorno quotations & their sources

Bibliographies & web guides

Richard Wright

Podcast series (this site):Studies in a Dying Culture” (May 10, 2010 - )

On other sites:

Robert Hullot-Kentor in The Brooklyn Rail

Organizations & discussion groups

Association for Adorno Studies

Adorno Studies (journal), Vol 1, No 1 (2017)

theory-frankfurt-school -- Discussion of Frankfurt School critical theory

Books & essays by Adorno

Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated with preface by Henry W. Pickford, introduction by Lydia Goehr. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. (1st ed. 1998) (1963, 1969)

The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited and with an introduction by J.M. Bernstein. London; New York: Routledge, 1991.

On the fetish character in music and the regression of listening — The schema of mass culture — Culture industry reconsidered — Culture and administration — Freudian theory and the pattern of fascist propaganda — How to look at television — Transparencies on film — Free time — Resignation.

The Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno, edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

The Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno, translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.  (Older, oft-disparaged translation.)

"The Concept of Enlightenment" — "Excursus I: Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment" — "Excursus II: Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality" — "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" — "Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment" — "Notes and Drafts". (1947)

Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1974. (1951)

Minima Moralia, translation 2005 by Dennis Redmond

Books on Richard Wright

Fabre, Michel. Richard Wright: Books & Writers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Miller, Eugene E. Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.


This is a unique approach (my first attempt) at the popularization of Adorno. The thinker may face inward cultivating intellectual resistance and outward toward the world, each of these and the relation between the two yielding illumination. These quotes on the intellectual and the world, while they do not address the full range of subject matter of Adorno’s work, nevertheless shed light on the essentials of how he thinks and reveal his importance.

In retrospect, the barrage of Adorno quotes in part II becomes too much to absorb after a while. Note that several of the excerpts comprising the web pages are abridged in the podcast. The first three or four have the greatest impact and form the core of what I dubbed “Adorno’s Best Break-Up Quotes” with tongue in cheek, as they uniquely reveal the very essence of intellectualism and why it matters in a world that hates it—and that opposition includes one’s most intimate acquaintances.

While “positive thinking” is an understandable psychological orientation for overcoming hardship, reality is not what works for you. Even people who admire intelligence—at arm’s length—hate critical thought. Intellect is despised everywhere. Hence Oprah is a billionaire.

I have no recollection of a prior linkage of Richard Wright and critical theory. There is no record of any of the critical theorists in Michel Fabre’s Richard Wright: Books & Writers, which documents the books that Wright is known to have read, owned, borrowed, or mentioned. I have no doubt though that Adorno’s perspective— especially on intellectuals—is congenial to Wright’s. Wright understood something else: the meaning of the intellectual life for someone who fought his way up from the bottom of society. Wright was no mouthpiece for folk wisdom. Certain contemporary Black academic/pop intellectuals, such as Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have not been kind to him.  It should also be noted that Wright’s still unpublished writing of the 1930s (see Miller) reveals a sophisticated perspective about the need for intellectuals in collaboration with workers, in a fashion contrary to the Communist Party’s hostility to intellectuals who did not march in lock-step.

Adorno’s notion of the culture industry is also relevant here. The culture industry is predicated on not allowing any individual, three-dimensional perspective on social experience to emerge.  Persons who are not just thoughtless products of their environment and who think beyond pre-fabricated categories effectively do not exist. Because there are billions of dollars to be made off of skin color, popular culture’s suppression of reflective individuality in black people is even more ruthless than it is for others, and this suppression is perpetrated by all with an investment in the culture industry, not just the white males who hold the key reins of power.

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Uploaded 8 February 2017
Postscript added 9 February 2017
Links added 13 Aug & 27 Oct 2019

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