Not quite Che
Theodor Adorno, ‘On Resignation’. Translated by Henry W. Pickford, published in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998.
About the time that he wrote ‘On Resignation’, Theodor Adorno’s long career as a lecturer at Frankfurt University was ended abruptly by an incident which has become iconic. Several bare-breasted female members of the Socialist Students’ Union, or SDS, rushed the lectern from which the patriach of negative dialectics was discoursing and proceeded to ‘assault’ him with ‘carresses’. Humiliated and angry, Adorno left the stage to the SDS militants, who promptly announced that his "sexist" philosophy was "dead". A mere three months later Adorno himself would be dead, the victim of a timely heart attack.
The ‘assault’ of 1969 was only the most dramatic of a series of expressions of hostility to Adorno which issued from a new generation of German students determined to bring their sometimes peculiar notions of class struggle into the Academy. That ‘On Resignation’ is written to these students is made clear in its opening sentences:
We older representatives of what the name "Frankfurt School" has come to designate have recently and eagerly been accused of resignation. We had indeed developed elements of a critical theory of society, the accusation runs, but we were not ready to draw the practical conclusions from it.
In this, one of his very last essays, Adorno determinedly but somewhat gloomily counterposes, to the ‘pseudo-activism’ of his tormentors, a sort of quietistic ‘thinking’ which alone constitutes an effective response to the barbarities of modern life:
The utopian moment in thinking is stronger the less it – this too a form of relapse – objectifies itself into a utopia and hence sabotages realisation.
It is interesting, reading this essay, to note the changes in the texture of Adorno’s prose, changes which were presumably forced by the pressure of rebellious students. Nowhere in ‘On Resignation’ does the reader meet the winding sentences and page-long paragraphs associated with the Frankfurt School’s most famous writer. Instead, shorter, crisper, sentences marked more by bitterness than irony carry Adorno’s argument that true resignation may be found more surely in action than in ‘thought’:
The impatience with theory which manifests itself in its [anarchism’s] return does not advance thought beyond itself. By forgetting thought, the impatience falls back below it.
Despite its simplification, Adorno’s discourse remains a formidable one, stocked, as usual, with lighthanded allusions to remote regions of multiple German and European intellectual traditions. The poignance of ‘On Resignation’ comes from its one-sidedness: Adorno’s is plea to an opponent who is no longer listening, who indeed arguably lacks the ability ever to understand the langage of a man who was formed, intellectually, in the faraway era of Weimar Germany.
Adorno’s estrangement from his students symbolises the estrangement of the ideas of the Frankfurt School from the reality they would generalise. In his book Reading Capital Politically Harry Cleaver fingered the unrest that broke out in many parts of the world in the 1960s as a refutation of the "gloomy" tenets of the Frankfurt School; reading ‘Resignation’, we can, I would argue, see that refutation in motion.
It might be argued that Adorno’s isolation from young ‘pseudo-activists’ contrasts rather sharply with the alleged status of another Frankfurt School figure, Herbert Marcuse, as a guru of the New Left. Marcuse, however, was less at home with the likes of the SDS than might be imagined. His lectures were, in fact, disrupted along with Adorno’s: on one occasion, for instance, a student accompanied some of his most ‘familiar’ (and, presumably, most objectionable) phrases on a recorder. When he gave a one-off lecture to the Berlin University in the famous month of May 1968, Marcuse was heckled by students who accused of being too concerned with theory and not active enough in supporting practically the revolutionary actions sweeping Europe.
In the late sixties, as the New Left took what might be termed its ‘Maoist turn’, Marcuse’s talk of the sanctity of beauty and the revolutionary potential of art must have seemed, to many of his erstwhile fans now enthusiastic about ‘socialist realism’ and ‘revolutionary romanticism’, to be little more than petty bourgeois indulgence. Alienated from the remnants of the revolutionary movement, Marcuse would, in his last and best book, express himself in language which recalls ‘On Resignation’:
Marxist literary criticism often displays scorn for "inwardness", for the dissection of the soul in bourgeois literature…But this attitude is not too remote from the scorn of the capitalists for the unprofitable dimension of life.
Eleven years after Adorno’s last lecture, Martin Jay, the pre-eminent historian of the Frankfurt School and confidante of Adorno, faced his own ‘assault’ from the floor. Literary critic Michael Ryan kept his clothes on, but nevertheless issued a provocative challenge to a paper Jay was reading to an academic conference on intellectual history. Ryan, a devotee of Jacques Derrida and deconstructionism, attacked the presumptions about ‘rationality’ that allegedly underlaid Jay’s work, suggesting that:
If a third-world feminist attacked his rational assumptions and the institutional rationality of the conference, using non-academic obscenity, she would have appeared irrational in relation to his universal reason...
Ryan’s long-winded challenge, which fittingly was cut short by Jay, both recalls and contrasts with the attack that ended Adorno’s career. In both cases, an intricate, meticulous discourse (and, beyond that, a whole tradition of discourse) was being undercut by a gesture of contempt, a refusal to engage. This gesture is as old as thought itself: it was made, famously, by Diogenes, the ancient Cynic who, upon hearing about Zeno’s then-new Paradox of Motion, climbed out of his barrel and began to run, shouting ‘I refute it thus’.
The post-structuralist challenge can be contrasted as well as compared to the SDS students’ challenge to Adorno: we can focus, in particular, on the way that a gesture of contempt and non-engagement was transferred, in the space of eleven short years, from a radical political milieu alienated from the Academy to the heart of the Academy. We must talk of a transfer, not an extension, because the elaborate gestures of post-structuralists were, in 1980, far removed from the political context that once gave them a certain power. Jay perhaps recognises this fact when, in his belated reply to Ryan, he calls his antagonist a "soi-disant spokesperson for third-world women’. Adorno would no doubt be grimly amused, if he could contemplate the eventual destination of the gesture that ended his career.