Russell Jacoby for Theodor Adorno, against Fredric Jameson

American poststructuralist, post-Marxist, and post-everything thinkers appeal to these [honorable Hegelian] ideas in justifying their language. We are highly trained specialists, using a complex prose, they say; and we are dedicated subversives, using an idiom that resists a repressive clarity. For instance, Judith Frank, a feminist professor, complains that a journalist critic “seems to expect the humanities to be utterly transparent to the general population, when the truth is that for those of us who have gone through graduate training, the humanities are a profession, and that the people who practice a particular profession are trained in its language.” [13] This might be called pulling rank, showing the unaccredited to the door.

Fredric Jameson, a dean of Marxist cultural criticism, offers a similar justification; literary and cultural theory is as complex as molecular biology. It is “surprising” how many people take a “belletristic view,” Jameson commented, making “the assumption, which they would never make in the area of nuclear physics, linguistics, symbolic logic, or urbanism, that such [cultural] problems can still be laid out with all the leisurely elegance of a coffee-table magazine.” Cultural theory is no “less complex” than biochemistry, and resists coffee-table elegance. An admirer, who quotes these sentences, continues:

The intricacies of Jameson’s sentences are a sign not only of the difficulties of the problems he analyzes but also of the seriousness of his approach. His technical prose bears witness that cultural theory . . . is as valid as those “other disciplines.” [14]

The reasoning is slick: complex sentences spell profundity, and profundity spells professionalization, which demonstrates cultural theory’[s parity with biophysics. The only piece missing is the political justification, which Jameson set forth in Marxism and Form; he defended the writing of the German critical Marxists from the charges of obscurity. “It can be admitted that it does not conform to the canons of clear and fluid journalistic writing taught in schools. But what if those ideas of clarity and simplicity have come to serve a very different ideological purpose . . . ?” What if transparency facilitates clichés, but avoids “real thought” requiring effort and time? For Jameson the density of T. W. Adorno’s writing exemplified a break with repressive clarity. His “bristling mass of abstractions and cross-references is precisely intended to be read in situation, against the cheap facility of what surrounds it, as a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking.” [15]

The point is well taken; it is also misleading, and not only because the characterization of Adorno’s writings as a “bristling mass of abstractions and cross-references” misses the mark; this describes academic writing, not Adorno’s. The issue is not the difficulty of writing, but the fetish of difficulty, the belief that fractured English, name dropping, and abstractions guarantee profundity, professionalization, and subversion. With this belief comes the counter-belief: lucidity implies banality, amateurism, and conservatism.

*     *     *     *

Even Adorno can be defended against his devotees. The easy references to his convoluted and abstract sentences malign his oeuvre. From the iridescent aphorisms of Minima Moralia to the polemical Jargon of Authenticity Adorno’s work explodes academic prose. If anything, his writing is deliberately anti-academic, a term he once embraced. A student protested that Adorno’s criticism of Heidegger was too polemical, lacking collegiality; Adorno replied that if philosophy is to be more than a trite enterprise, it must “burst the concept of the academic.” [32] Virtually all of his sentences display a compressed energy and corrosive intellect worlds apart from standard American academic prose. Pedantic references, indifferent sentences, and empty abstractions do not litter his writings. His incomparable essay “Cultural Criticism and Society” opened this way:

To anyone in the habit of thinking with his ears, the words “cultural criticism” [Kulturkritik] must have an offensive ring, not merely because, like “automobile,” they are pieced together from Latin and Greek. The words recall a flagrant contradiction. The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent. [33]

On the other hand, Fredric Jameson, who highly esteems Adorno, writes in a peculiar American baroque: a gray mash of half-written sentences punctuated by tooting horns and waving pennants. A chapter in his book on Adorno begins with this sentence:

In fact, far from being an “open” or aleatory composition, [Adorno’s] Negative Dialectics imitates—as over a great distance, with radically different building materials, and in that “prodigious erosion of contours” of which Gide, following Nietzsche, likes to speak—the plan of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. (I am tempted to say that it wraps it as a postmodern reconstruction—glass shell, arches—wraps an older monument; except that Adorno is not postmodern and the more fitting analogy would be what Thomas Mann does to Goethe’s Faust.) [34]

The point needs no reinforcement; to move from Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx to their French interpreters and American followers is to enter a different universe. The pedantry, self-satisfaction, and academicism which the original critical theorists despised metastasizes in the disciples, where it threatens to become not simply a lesion but the whole of their work. In the name of subversion the new academics throttle language, confounding rigor mortis with rigor.

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13. Judith Frank, “In the Waiting Room,” in Wild Orchids and Trotsky, p. 130.

14. David Kaufmann, “The Profession of Theory,” PMLA, 105 (1990): 525.

15. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. xiii.

32. T. W. Adorno, Philosophische Terminologie. Zur Einleitung, vol. 1 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973), pp. 161-66.

33. T. W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. S. and S. Weber (London: Neville Spearman, n.d.), p. 19.

34. Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or The Persistence of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 1990), p. 73. See the essential review by Robert Hullot-Kentor in Telos, 89 (Fall 1991): 167-77.

SOURCE: Jacoby, Russell. Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America (New York: Doubleday, 1994), pp. 167-168, 176-177, 223-224.

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