The “Life” of Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius

J.M. Woolsey reviews Detlev Claussen by Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, in Politics and Culture:

In his writings dedicated to collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs argued that family memory operates as a “physiognomy” in which our remembrance of family members and relations consist of a condensation or “summation of an entire period—the idea of a type of life” (60). At the level of both content and method, Halbwachs’s observations about the condensed and physiognomic nature of family memory as “the idea of a type of life” speak directly to Detlev Claussen’s Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius. Anyone familiar with Adorno will surely be aware of his infamous claim in Minima Moralia that “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly” (39). This statement—usually interpreted as “survivor’s guilt,” or a declaration about the impossibility of escaping total enmeshment in the exploitative exchange relations of capitalism—has become, inter alia, the equivalent of a physiognomic sound bite, metonymically branding Adorno. It is perhaps Claussen’s most valuable biographical insight that this negation of an idea of a type of life should be understood in relation to Adorno’s own memory of family life and his membership in the extended family of his intellectual friendships.

With the publication of One Last Genius, Claussen, a former student of Adorno who is now a professor of social theory and culture at the Leibniz University of Hanover, has made an important and valuable contribution to the recent literature dedicated to exploring the relation between the dialectician’s life experiences and his unique articulation of critical theory. By combining a close, if unbalanced, reading of some of Adorno’s central texts with an astute attention to letters and other private and public testimony written by his intellectual contemporaries, Claussen has produced a work similar in scope (but not depth) to Rolf Wiggerhaus’s magisterial account of the Institute of Social Research: The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance (1995). However, anyone who reads One Last Genius looking for a definite statement about Adorno or “negative dialectics” will be sorely disappointed. In fact, throughout much of the text, Adorno is a shadowy figure in the background of a story focused on his intimate circle of friends; just another face in the crowd. Furthermore, Claussen’ s stylistic approach is often so repetitious and circular that it is bound to frustrate even the most interested and sympathetic reader. This problem can partially be attributed to the fact that each chapter in the book is designed to stand on its own and thus inevitably covers the same material as others, often in the same context and to make the same point.