Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno

Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno

Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno

Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno

Synopsis

A leading figure in the Frankfurt School of philosophers from the 1930s through the time of his death in 1969, Adorno was the author of influential philosophical and sociological works on issues ranging from aesthetics, music history, and mass culture to politics, modern technology, and the Western philosophical tradition. Prismatic Thought is a brilliant tour of Adorno's work, with special emphasis on his aesthetic writings. Peter Uwe Hohendahl opens with a pair of chapters that considers Adorno's years of exile in the United States during the Second World War and his return in the early 1950s to a West Germany harrowed by its recent Nazi past and responsibility for the Holocaust. He then examines Adorno's writings on literature, language, poetry, philosophy, and mass culture in relation to modern history. Throughout the book, Hohendahl argues that Adorno's work "ultimately resists the desire for systematic order, the search for a grand design that gives meaning to all the individual texts". Prismatic Thought is distinguished by Hohendahl's sensitivity to the historical and intellectual conditions of Adorno's time and by his mastery of the myriad Adorno studies of the past twenty-five years. Equally important is his description of Adorno's relevance to our own age. In the course of situating Adorno in his own era, Hohendahl introduces us to an Adorno who is also our contemporary.

Excerpt

As more than one critic of Adorno has acknowledged, the presentation of his theory to an uninitiated audience, especially in the English-speaking world, borders on the impossible. Among serious readers of Adorno's work it has become a commonplace to argue that his style, the embeddedness of his thoughts in the language of German idealism, makes it exceedingly difficult to communicate his ideas in modern English prose, which demands simplicity, brevity, and clarity. While this is certainly true, it does not completely explain the unusual complexity of Adorno's work. Even if one recognizes the peculiar form of his writings and underscores the intricacy of his dialectic (especially in his late work), one has not yet fully accounted for the difficulty of Adorno's texts. There are two additional concerns which any critic has to address: the subjective character and the antisystematic, essayistic nature of Adorno's writings. Both aspects, however, need clarification to avoid misunderstanding. By subjective, I do not mean impressionistic or whimsical; rather, I want to point to the way Adorno makes use of the philosophical and intellectual tradition. As much as he is aware of and acknowledges the critical tradition in which his own writings are grounded, he does not see himself as someone who either continues or simply breaks away from this tradition. Instead, his work breaks up and displaces the elements of the philosophical tradition. Clearly, Adorno uses them in a highly personal and individualistic manner.

The same holds for the scope and organization of his work It does not suffice to stress the multifaceted and interdisciplinary character of Adorno's oeuvre, the fact that he was equally at home in philosophy and music, in literature and sociology; one has to come to grips with Adorno's unique way of approaching the topics of his interest. His work ultimately resists the desire for systematic order, the search for a grand design that gives meaning to all the individual texts. Each piece, the small essay or the major . . .

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