The German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno had much to say about what was wrong with society, and even now, nearly fifty years after his death, his adherents would argue that his diagnoses have lost none of their relevance. But what, exactly, did he think ailed us? This animated introduction from Alain de Botton’s School of Life on the “the beguiling and calmly furious work” of the author of books like Dialectic of Enlightenment, Minima Moralia, Negative Dialectics, and The Authoritarian Personality offers a brief primer on the critical theory that constituted Adorno’s entire life’s work.
Well, almost his entire life’s work: “Until his twenties, Adorno planned for a career as a composer, but eventually focused on philosophy.” He then became an exile from his homeland in 1934, eventually landing in Los Angeles, where he found himself “both fascinated and repelled by Californian consumer culture, and thought with unusual depth about suntans and drive-ins.”
This eventually brought him to define “three significant ways in which capitalism corrupts and degrades us,” the first being that “leisure time becomes toxic” (due in large part to the “omnipresent and deeply malevolent entertainment machine which he called the Culture Industry”), the second that “capitalism doesn’t sell us the things we really need,” and the third that “proto-fascists are everywhere.”
Even if you don’t buy all the dangers Adorno ascribes to capitalism itself, his core observation still holds up: “Psychology comes ahead of politics. Long before someone is racist, homophobic, or authoritarian, they are, Adorno skillfully suggested, likely to be suffering from psychological frailties and immaturities, which is the task of a good society to get better at spotting and responding to.” In order to address this, “we should learn to understand the psychology of everyday insanity from the earliest moments.” What would Adorno, who “recognized that the primary obstacles to social progress are cultural and psychological rather than narrowly political or economic,” make of our 21st-century social media age? Maybe it would surprise him — and maybe it wouldn’t surprise him at all.
On a related note, you might want to read Alex Ross’ piece in The New Yorker, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.