Theodor Adorno’s Critical Theory Text Minima Moralia Sung as Hardcore Punk Songs

Image of Theodor Adorno (right) by Jere­my J. Shapiro, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

With the pos­si­ble excep­tion of John Gray’s Straw Dogs, few works of phi­los­o­phy con­front the bar­ren­ness of human life in the mod­ern world in bleak­er terms than Theodor Adorno’s Min­i­ma Moralia. Tak­ing its title from Aristotle’s Magna Moralia, or “The Great Ethics,” Adorno’s book sub­verts the clas­si­cal idea of the good life as a real­is­tic aspi­ra­tion in a world dom­i­nat­ed by total­i­tar­i­an sys­tems of con­trol and inex­orable, grind­ing log­ics of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion. “Our per­spec­tive of life has passed into an ide­ol­o­gy which con­ceals the fact that there is life no longer,” writes Adorno in his Ded­i­ca­tion. The indi­vid­ual has been “reduced and degrad­ed” by cap­i­tal­ism and fas­cism, flat­tened to mere appear­ance in the “sphere of con­sump­tion.”

Adorno’s book—a philo­soph­i­cal mem­oir of his expe­ri­ence as an “intel­lec­tu­al in emigration”—reflects his pes­simism not only in its title but also in its sub­ti­tle: Reflec­tions from Dam­aged Life. How lit­tle he could have suspected—and how much he like­ly would have despised—the kin­ship between his own post­war angst and the neu­rot­ic anger of the Amer­i­can hard­core punk gen­er­a­tion to come some thir­ty-five years lat­er.

Take, for exam­ple these lyrics to Black Flag’s “Dam­aged,” from their 1981 album of the same name:

Right now look at me now
Look at me now
Just shad­ows
I’m just shad­ows of what I was
I just want anoth­er thing
I don’t even get by for that

One might make the case that Black Flag lyrics—and those of so many sim­i­lar bands—play out Adorno’s the­sis over and over: to quote a much less angry pop band from a lat­er gen­er­a­tion: “Mod­ern Life is Rub­bish.”

Seiz­ing on these pes­simistic par­al­lels between punk rock and crit­i­cal the­o­ry, film­mak­er and artist Bri­an J. Davis record­ed an EP of read­ings from five chap­ters of Adorno’s book, set to blis­ter­ing hard­core drums and gui­tars. (Any­one hap­pen to know who is on vocals?) Above, hear “They, The Peo­ple,” and “This Side of the Plea­sure Prin­ci­ple” and below, we have “UNmea­sure for UNmea­sure,” “John­ny Head-in-the-Air,” and “Every Work is an Uncom­mit­ted Crime.”

As you’ll note, Adorno’s titles allude to well-known works of art, pol­i­tics, folk song, and the­o­ry and—as the publisher’s note in my Ver­so edi­tion puts it— “involve irony or inver­sion,” pri­ma­ry rhetor­i­cal meth­ods of his “neg­a­tive dialec­tic.” The hard­core punks who picked up, how­ev­er uncon­scious­ly, on Adorno’s dis­af­fect­ed cri­tique may have eschewed his self-con­scious­ly lit­er­ary approach, but they were no less mas­ters of irony, even if their tar­gets hap­pened to be much more pop-cul­tur­al.

Punk rock Adorno comes to us from WFMU’s Ken­neth S as exam­ples of “aca­d­e­m­ic the­o­ry… sung by peo­ple who can’t sing.” As Col­in Mar­shall point­ed out in a post yes­ter­day, Gold­smith has made his own con­tri­bu­tion to the genre, singing writ­ings by Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Lud­wig Wittgen­stein, and Sig­mund Freud. And to even more humor­ous effect, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly brought you the work of M.A. Num­mi­nen, Finnish per­for­mance artist who turned Wittgenstein’s Trac­ta­tus into a bizarre com­ic opera.

For a much more seri­ous look at Adorno and music—a sub­ject he wrote pas­sion­ate­ly and con­tro­ver­sial­ly about—check out this post on his own avant-garde com­po­si­tions, which turn out to be much less punk rock than one might expect giv­en his social alien­ation and despon­den­cy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The The­o­ry of Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Lud­wig Wittgen­stein & Sig­mund Freud Sung by Ken­neth Gold­smith

Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s Trac­ta­tus Gets Adapt­ed Into an Avant-Garde Com­ic Opera

Hear Theodor Adorno’s Avant-Garde Musi­cal Com­po­si­tions

Theodor Adorno’s Rad­i­cal Cri­tique of Joan Baez and the Music of the Viet­nam War Protest Move­ment

Theodor Adorno’s Phi­los­o­phy of Punc­tu­a­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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