Adorno in America

The history of the Frankfurt School in America is usually told as a story of one-way traffic. The question being: What did America get from the Frankfurt School? The answer usually offered: a lot! We got Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal, Fromm, and, for a time, Horkheimer and Adorno (who ultimately went back to Germany after the war)—the whole array of émigré culture that helped transform the United States from a provincial outpost of arts and letters into a polyglot Parnassus of the world.

The wonderfully counter-intuitive and heterodox question that animates Eric Oberle’s Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is: what did the Frankfurt School get from America? To the extent that question has been asked, it has traditionally provoked a negative response. Not a lot. Adorno was notoriously unhappy in the US: the kitsch, the kitsch. And for those Frankfurters who may have found what they were looking for in the States, the suspicion has always been that they were somehow seduced and made less smart—less gloomy, less dialectical, less mandarin, less mitteleuropäisch—by their experience in the US. Witness Erich Fromm.

But Oberle refuses that argument. In a work of boundless ambition and comparable achievement, which combines close reading of familiar texts and synoptic intellectual histories that bring together unfamiliar texts, The Century of Negative Identity shows just how indebted the Frankfurt School, particularly Adorno and Horkheimer, was to its time in America. One of the most innovative and exciting sections of the book (of which there are many) involves a re-reading of the relationship between The Authoritarian Personality and Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The two works are often taken as almost polar opposites: the first, a dutiful recitation of American-style social science, replete with data-sets and survey modules, and enough quantitative evidence to make a social psychologist swoon; the other, a recondite work of continental philosophy, with enough obscurity (of argument, style, organization, scope) to make a comp lit grad student swoon. The freshness of Oberle’s approach is to show how much the two works owe to each other. Deftly combining different facets and disciplinary invocations of identity—from logic and epistemology to social psychology and politics—Oberle demonstrates that Adorno consistently found himself reworking issues of identity through his efforts in The Authoritarian Personality, setting him up for his masterwork in postwar Germany, Negative Dialectics. Often presented as an unpleasant distraction from his philosophical work, Adorno’s work on The Authoritarian Personality was something Adorno actually enjoyed; as Oberle notes, Horkheimer reports in a November 1944 letter that Adorno said “that he ‘had a lot of fun’ meeting with the Berkeley Public Opinion group to develop preliminary questions on the ‘F-Scale.'”

Since the election of Trump, The Authoritarian Personality has been revived as a kind of Rosetta Stone to our age of authoritarianism. For good reason. In its time, the work was a path-breaking attempt to combine different methods in the social sciences (in-depth interviews, surveys, and so on), with an orientation that was both quantitative and qualitative, approaching questions of individual personality through a variety of lenses: politics, economics, psychology, and sociology. It was highly self-conscious about its methods, about the relationship between researcher and researched. More important, it asked the question of whether it was possible for a democratic seeming society to prove host to assorted anti-democratic tendencies. Understandably, a work of that sort would seem like a natural resource for our present moment.

But as Oberle shows, the actual approach of The Authoritarian Personality was light years away—and ahead!—of our current approaches. Too often today, the discussion around authoritarianism in the US devolves into a set of easy oppositions. There is a part of the country, the coasts, that is enlightened, tolerant, open to diversity, and opposed to racism and misogyny. Then there is the benighted part of the country—the proverbial white working class, who are thought to be located in the Upper Midwest, Appalachia, and the South—that is psychologically disposed to the opposite values: ignorance, fake news, racism, misogyny, nativism, and parochialism. It’s like a parody of the Enlightenment that Rousseau would rise up and roar against, where moral values and intellectual typologies become the markers of greater and lesser civilization.

The Authoritarian Personality, by contrast, was inspired by the dialectician’s belief in what Oberle calls, in a luminous phrase, “the shortest distance between norm and extreme.” Where much of the dominant social psychology of the time (and this would increase during the Cold War) set up a contrast between the normal, adaptive, humane, egalitarian ethos of democracy and the pathological, maladaptive, domineering ethos of authoritarianism, Adorno and his co-authors understood the world as one of contradiction, where the poles of disagreement or dissimilarity often masked or rested upon a deeper synthesis of agreement or similarity. The adaptive and maladaptive might simply be different expressions of a more structured diremption in a society or institution. As Horkheimer wrote to Adorno in a programmatic letter of 1945:

If in a family with two boys where the respected father or beloved mother complains repeatedly about having been cheated or outsmarted by Jews, one boy sticks to the general doctrines of good behavior and neighborly love advocated in school and home, and the other boy goes out and hits a Jew, who, do you think, acts more neurotically? I admit, the problem is not easy.

In their interviews and empirical research, the team behind The Authoritarian Personality consistently found cases of the tolerant and egalitarian enfolding more racist and anti-Semitic views. Rather than simply seeing the first as a mask for the second, however, the authors attempted to show how imbricated the two views were and how easily they could co-habit in the same mind.

Another distinctive feature of their research was their refusal to take group identities as pre-existent or natural.  Adorno, Oberle argues, was haunted by the same question that haunted Simmel: “Why must the Stranger be hated?” All too often in contemporary discourse, there seems to be an assumption that there must always be in any group an Other. Adorno and his colleagues worked tirelessly to understand how groups are constructed as in-groups and out-groups, and how that process of construction so often preceded or transcended more psychological accounts of identity formation. As Oberle writes of The Authoritarian Personality:

The study went out of its way to avoid naturalizing identitarian logics. In conducting interviews, the interviewers were instructed to make no assumptions about outgroups—neither their membership, nor mutual antagonism, nor even their actual existence. Outgroups were analyzed as they existed in the minds of the interviewees…most individuals related to group collectivities first through the law and property relations, and then through a sense of shared vulnerability. Groups therefore formed not organically but as a network among similarly situated individuals. Therefore, though interviewers probed whether self- or ingroup concepts were formed antithetically, they were careful neither to suggest identitiarian thinking is necessarily neurotic, pathological, or aggressive, nor to cast notions of group antagonism as inevitable or natural. To do so would tribalize individuality.

As this passage suggests, The Authoritarian Personality took the materiality of identity and social and psychological life seriously. Identities are not given; they are made, through law, property, institutions, and the like. That, too, sets Adorno’s work off from much of the contemporary discourse of authoritarianism in America, which sees the source of the problem to be overwhelmingly psychological, strictly within the heads of individuals, something that can only be solved by better education.

The materialism of Adorno and his team leads Oberle to make a fascinating connection between The Authoritarian Personality and the Frankfurt School, on the one hand, and the great midcentury works of American social analysis such as Myrdal’s American Dilemma. This discussion opens an entire new window on the discourse of race and racism in America, with Adorno offering a counterpoint to the heavily psychological approach that so many writers took to what used to be called “race relations” in the United States. In an afterward to The Authoritarian Personality that was never published, Adorno wrote of Myrdal:

The gist of Aptheker’s argument is that the Negro problem is [in Myrdal] abstracted from its socio-economic conditions, and as soon as it is treated as being essentially of a psychological nature, its edge is taken away.

The Aptheker in question, of course, is Herbert Aptheker, the Marxist historian of slave revolts. That Adorno would find a sympathetic critic in Aptheker suggests not only how resolute he was in his effort to meld economics and psychology (“the concept that there is economy on the one hand, and individuals upon whom it works on the other, has to be overcome”) but also the connection he saw in the question of anti-Semitism and European fascism, on the one hand, and racism and American authoritarianism on the other. That connection has recently been taken up quite a bit in histories of the Nazis (most notably in the work of James Q. Whitman), but Oberle reveals a whole discourse in the 1940s that was very much concerned with the same problem. A discourse that got shut down during the Cold War, when the attention of the American state shifted from fighting fascism to fighting communism.

But while that discourse was live, it insisted, as Adorno did, not on sequestering the psychological, the way so many contemporary accounts of racism do, but on mixing the material and the psychological.

As Oberle shows, that discourse from the 1940s now reads almost like the lost tractates of an ancient civilization. And yet, as Oberle also shows, it still speaks to us, calling out what we have yet to learn. As Ralph Ellison put it in an unpublished review of An American Dilemma from 1941:

In our culture the problem of the irrational, that blind spot in our knowledge of society where Marx cries out for Freud and Freud for Marx, but where approaching, both grow wary and shout insults lest they actually meet, has taken the form of the Negro problem.

So it remains today, where discussions that attempt to relate the question of race to the organization of capitalism are dismissed and reduced to the mocking rubric of “economic anxiety.”

Update (8 pm)

As someone on Twitter pointed out, Ellison’s review, while it was not published by The New Republic, which had commissioned it, did appear in his collection of essays Shadow and Act.

On Facebook, Peter Gordon, who knows more about the Frankfurt School than just about anyone, says that my claim about the American connections of the Frankfurt School not being sufficiently studied is overstated if not wrong. He pointed me to this volume, which he says has been “unjustly neglected,” and which also looks excellent.

7 Comments

  1. uh...clem February 15, 2019 at 3:21 pm | #

    trivial point: Horkheimer was not alive in 1994. You probably mean 1954 or 1964.

    • Corey Robin February 15, 2019 at 5:06 pm | #

      Fixed.

  2. Benjamin David Steele February 15, 2019 at 7:07 pm | #

    “The two works are often taken as almost polar opposites: the first, a dutiful recitation of American-style social science, replete with data-sets and survey modules, and enough quantitative evidence to make a social psychologist swoon; the other, a recondite work of continental philosophy, with enough obscurity (of argument, style, organization, scope) to make a comp lit grad student swoon. The freshness of Oberle’s approach is to show how much the two works owe to each other.”

    I’d like to see more of this kind of thing. As an autodidact, I read widely and so often see connections across fields. I consider your book on the reactionary mind among the best I’ve ever read. Yet I must admit it made me hunger for what the social science take would be on the same topic. I could sense where your argument could’ve extended in numerous directions.

    “In their interviews and empirical research, the team behind The Authoritarian Personality consistently found cases of the tolerant and egalitarian enfolding more racist and anti-Semitic views. Rather than simply seeing the first as a mask for the second, however, the authors attempted to show how imbricated the two views were and how easily they could co-habit in the same mind.”

    This is something I see as all too applicable to your own theory. In recent years, it’s become blaringly obvious how easily liberals and left-wingers become prone to reactionary tendencies, from intellectual curiosity about the Dark Enlightenment to an unconscious flirting with fascism, along with much else. The reactionary isn’t only a mindset but insidiously works its way into the entire society. The power of the reactionary in co-opting opposing forces and sometimes opponents can never be underestimated.

    “Another distinctive feature of their research was their refusal to take group identities as pre-existent or natural. […] But while that discourse was live, it insisted, as Adorno did, not on sequestering the psychological, the way so many contemporary accounts of racism do, but on mixing the material and the psychological.”

    This brings me to another point. I wonder how earlier waves of European intellectuals play into this. Frans Boaz was born, raised, and educated in Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1887 when he was in his late 30s. He is now considered the father of American anthropology with his opposition to scientific racism and his promotion of cultural relativism. That obviously fits into what your discussing here. It was Boaz who united four different fields under anthropology: the study of material culture and history, and physical anthropology, the study of variation in human anatomy, with ethnology, the study of cultural variation of customs, and descriptive linguistics, the study of unwritten indigenous languages.

    He introduced the basis of linguistic relativity into American thought, which was developed by his student Edward Sapir. Other students furthered the cultural emphasis and that became a major influence on anti-racism. But there was a secondary influence by way of another European who visited the US, Carl Jung. Many American anthropologists, including some of Boaz’ students such as Ruth Benedict saw in his personality theory a model for cultures. Benedict did a study, in borrowing from the philology of E. R. Dodds, did a comparative study between Japan and the US. Her work influenced Julian Jaynes (originally trained in behaviorism) who, by the way, theorized the connection between individualism and authoritarianism by putting it in a context of societal and psychological development over the millennia.

    I’m not sure how all of this might relate to the thinkers you mention. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find connections. Philology, in particular, would likely be a key field in looking for lines of influence. It was more popular in Europe than America, but it has had its adherents here as well as the above shows. Philology, like anthropology, brings many areas of study together. And in terms of the study of rhetoric, definitely a part of authoritarian studies, philology has much to add to the discussion.

  3. Chris Morlock February 17, 2019 at 12:43 am | #

    I got to admit I am not well versed in the Frankfurt school, but this subject has come up in recent analysis of the”classical liberal” social theories of the pseudo intellectual “dark web”. They tend to push a strong narrative that this is the root of all of our problems. It goes something like this: Marcuse, Adorno, and the like where, like all German leftist intellectuals of the 1920’s era, deeply upset that the revolution did not take place in Germany (as had been widely predicted). They also had a bit of disdain for Marxist Leninism, which they saw as the right wing of Communism. The big existential question was always “why isn’t it happening in Germany or America like we hoped?” So they wanted a deeper analysis of the various institutional forms that prevent revolution. This led to complex analysis of identity and the advent of Identitarianism.

    This leads to the American civil rights movement, which by the Reagan era has some serious problems. Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow coalition” lacks cohesive structure and philosophical clarity, being a complex interweaving of various minority rights groups with an olive branch extended to the white working class via economic justice. It fails, and by the mid 1990’s intersectionality was the way forward to provide the structure needed to galvanize the various different identities.

    I don’t know how I feel about that narrative or of all of it honestly, it’s an interesting lineage of thinking but it’s not produced anything close to diversity or economic justice for the “outgroups” of capitalism. What does any of it mean without a strong economic justice message? I remember reading Patricia Hill Collins books in college and thinking “wait, did we forget the Marxism somewhere in this new way of thinking?”.

  4. relstprof February 19, 2019 at 4:25 am | #

    He was no Amy Klobuchar fighting hard for the same!

  5. Roquentin February 21, 2019 at 11:47 am | #

    The book sounds good and I’ll have to get around to reading it sometime. I often think Marcuse had the biggest influence on the US political landscape, in no small part because of the influence he had on Angela Davis.

    One of the things I always liked the most about Adorno was how he put reason firmly on the side of the left. You just don’t see people talk like this all that often anymore. I guess it’s gotten a little better in recent years, but rationality was ceded to neoliberalism at some point, almost across the board. I find it admirable that theorists like Adorno, Horkheimer, Lukacs, and Spinoza all put rationality firmly on the side of the left and see reactionary politics as something deeply irrational. Adorno’s attempts to tie German mysticism of the sort practiced by Erik Jan Hanussen to the Nazi movement more broadly is exactly the kind of analysis we need today. People often forget that the Thule Society was perhaps the most direct precursor to the NSDAP, that the links between this kind of occultism and fascism ran deep.

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