Gary A. Mullen. Adorno on Politics After Auschwitz. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015; 158 pages. ISBN: 978-1498515740.

Reviewed by Shannon Mariotti, Southwestern University.

In a way that is both broad-ranging in its treatment of themes from Adorno’s work and narrowly focused on exploring how they are influenced by the horrors of the Holocaust, Gary Mullen’s Adorno on Politics After Auschwitz reminds us that we can valuably reframe our understanding of an author by taking a familiar argument to new depths. In this book, Mullen argues that, in response to the Holocaust, Adorno tries to refashion modern critical reason to include compassion and a moral sensibility. Auschwitz is a symbol for the failures of modern enlightenment rationality and, for Adorno, genocide is a distinctly modern phenomena—if so many people could be put to death by modern, calculated, methodical, rationalized means, then reason itself must be radically reworked. Since so many Nazi workers at the concentration camps spoke of having to shut off their feelings to do their jobs, then to prevent Auschwitz from happening again, reason must always include a measure of compassion and attentiveness to suffering. As Mullen explains, this refashioned sense of reason must combine both thinking with feeling and critique with a responsiveness to the particularity of human suffering. This compassionate normative sensibility would, for Adorno, be a truly human form of critical reason. Adorno’s connection of thinking and feeling, his historically situated mode of philosophizing, his attentiveness to particular experiences and the material realities of human suffering culminates in a new metaphysics. Ultimately, Mullen sees Auschwitz as the motivating force behind Adorno’s work as a whole. And against those who would call Adorno apolitical, Mullen argues that the mode of sensibility Adorno outlines in his work is “profoundly political.” (71)

In brief summary, the book unfolds as follows. In Chapter 1, Mullen explores reason and remembrance as they play out in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and shows how Adorno “uncovers the normative dimension of the rational subject, whose capacity for critique lies in its endeavor to lend a voice to human suffering.” (4) Chapter 2 outlines Adorno’s critique of modern moral philosophy, showing how it severs morality and compassion, and to which, in contrast, “Adorno offers us a materialist normative discourse that is shaped by the response to human suffering.” (4) Chapter 3 explores mimesis and political violence, to assert that Adorno’s dialectic is historically situated and attentive to the particular, that his approach to philosophy is historical and politically significant. In Chapter 4, Mullen shows how Adorno connects identity-thinking with genocide, while in Chapter 5, entitled “Negative Dialectics and Democracy,” he connects Adorno’s morally sensible mode of rational critique with politics to assert that his “critical philosophy of history allows democratic norms to extend beyond the concerns of self-preservation and national interest that leave democracies impotent in the face of genocide.” (6) Chapter 6 explores Adorno’s use of messianic and theological themes toward a “rejuvenation of the critical potential of reason.” (6) Chapter 7, “Democracy as the Critique of Fascism,” refutes those critics who see Adorno as apolitical by detailing his involvement with educational reform and relationship with the student movement. The final chapter draws on the mode of Adornian sensibility, critical reason, and moral judgment developed in the book to consider whether the prison-industrial complex in the United States could properly be classified in terms of genocide.

The book’s primary value lies in its sustained treatment of how Adorno was motivated to rethink reason by the horror of Auschwitz. Over and against this, however, there are several ways that the book could be strengthened. First, Mullen might have engaged the relevant secondary literature, a discussion of which is entirely absent in both the substance of the book and in the endnotes. Somewhere in the book, Mullen could have shown how his work draws from, or is sympathetic with, but moves beyond and is distinct from, the work of previous scholars working in similar areas. For example, there is significant scholarship by J. M. Bernstein (2001, 2006) on how Adorno’s expanded concept of reason and critical reflection encompasses the sensing, feeling, and embodied self that is importantly attentive to suffering. Works by K. Daniel Cho (2009) and Henry Giroux (2004) also treat Adorno’s work on education and politics after Auschwitz and after Abu Ghraib, respectively. And perhaps most significantly, despite the fact that Mullen’s book claims to explore Adorno’s politics after Auschwitz, there is no discussion of the wide array of recent scholarship that has also worked to rethink and reconfigure Adorno’s politics toward unsettling the flawed conventional wisdom of his as elitist and apolitical. Here, Mullen might have valuably distinguished his project from the work of Paul Apostolidis (2000), Russell Berman (2002), and Espen Hammer (2006), among others.

But the primary problem with the book is its superficial treatment of the political. Given how prominently this theme figures in the title and framing of the book, the reader wants a deeper treatment of how Adorno’s expanded metaphysics might impact our comportment as citizens, how it might reshape what it means to be politically engaged, how it might reconfigure the terrain of meaningful democracy. Mullen only gestures toward answering these questions. He asserts that there is political significance in Adorno’s recovery of metaphysics and notes that “[w]hile Adorno doesn’t offer a positive political program for reshaping institutions, he hardly leaves us with a politics in which there is no contingency in human affairs and no possibility for meaningful resistance and for checking the genocidal tendencies of modern institutions and practices.” (70) But ultimately Mullen only goes so far as to say that, for Adorno, compassion is a necessary political quality that is waning in modern life: “Metaphysics has political significance and politics has metaphysical significance…Adorno’s recast metaphysics takes the realm of the contingent and perishable—the realm of politics—as inseparable from philosophical truth.” (102) Mullen goes on to say that

[a] political ethic does not promise to get politics right, or to never cause anyone harm; it promises, however, that political action might be guided by the perpetuation of the good manifest in the interaction of human beings, the well-being of the governed. To do this, political thought must be able to recognize evil and alter its course. A politics guided by distinguishing good and evil, this is what classical politics has promised since Aristotle, and this is what stands as an alternative to a politics guided merely by security, or, after the exaggeration of the principle of self-preservation, a feeling of security, efficiency, and brute power. (103)

For Mullen, Adorno’s metaphysics is political because it requires that we ask “what does this mean for those who are the most likely to suffer from the effect, what impact will this policy or theory have in terms of its impact on human lives—this is the heart of the political ethic generated by the metaphysics of vulnerability.” (ibid.)

All of what Mullen says is correct and very important to note. But to argue that reason must combine with compassion to fulfill the promise of the political, not to mention the promise of democracy, is not especially original (even if modern polities still often seem not to have learned this lesson). Nor does it go deeply enough into the question of Adorno’s politics. Adorno actually does engage in more detailed and fully fleshed out discussions of politics and democracy. He explains how the theory of negative dialectics translates into a program for democratic leadership in the form of an unconventional democratic pedagogy that can strengthen the everyday practice of citizenship. In texts that the author does not explore, specifically in some of his English-language compositions written in the United States during his exile, Adorno lays out what does amount to quite well-developed political theory, indeed a democratic theory. My own recent book (Mariotti 2016) lays out the contours of his unconventional democratic politics. But even if Mullen had stuck to the primary texts his book analyzes (Dialectic of Enlightenment, Negative Dialectics, Minima Moralia, and some of his writings on education), he might have theorized more fully about the effect of Adorno’s reconfigured metaphysics, his expanded version of critical rationality, on democratic politics. There is only a superficial treatment of these themes, which would seem to be deeply foundational to the book. Finally, the theme of genocide is not explored at all deeply enough in the book beyond asserting that Auschwitz is central to Adorno’s thought and despite repeated passing references to Srebrenica, Nyarubuye, and the killing fields of Cambodia. The last chapter on genocide, political judgment and the prison-industrial complex seems like an attempt to bring these central themes together, but is too insubstantial and underdeveloped.

Ultimately, then, those who read this book will encounter an author who is very informed, perceptive, and knowledgeable about Adorno’s own writings. Mullen’s in-depth analysis on Adorno’s response to Auschwitz will help clarify and sharpen the perspective even of those scholars who are familiar in general terms with the significance of the Holocaust on his thought. But given that this book is also clearly targeted toward scholars of this most famous member of the Frankfurt School, and is not written for those who study politics or genocide in more general terms, Mullen’s failure to engage the relevant existing Adorno scholarship is troubling and weakens the overall project.


Additional Works Cited

Apostolidis, Paul (2000), Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio (Durham: Duke University Press).

Berman, Russell (2002), “Adorno’s Politics,” in Adorno: A Critical Reader, (eds.) N. Gibson and A. Rubin (Malden, MA: Blackwell).

Bernstein, J. M. (2001), Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Bernstein, J. M. (2006), “Intact and Fragmented Bodies: Versions of Ethics ‘after Auschwitz’,” New German Critique 97: 31–52.

Cho, K. Daniel (2009), “Adorno on Education; or, Can Critical Self-Reflection Prevent the Next Auschwitz?,” Historical Materialism 17:1: 74–97.

Giroux, Henry (2004), “What Might Education Mean after Abu Ghraib: Revisiting Adorno’s Politics of Education,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24:1: 3–22.

Hammer, Espen (2006), Adorno and the Political (New York: Routledge).

Mariotti, Shannon (2016), Adorno and Democracy: The American Years (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky).