Shannon L. Mariotti. Adorno and Democracy: The American Years. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016; 234 pages. ISBN: 978-0813167336.

Reviewed by Joshua Rayman, University of South Florida.

In recent years, revisionist histories of Theodor Adorno’s American exile from David Jenemann, Ulrich Plass, Russell Berman, and others have played a powerful role in combatting dominant images of Adorno as a hyperbolically pessimistic, elitist, cultural mandarin. It is not that these images are wholly inaccurate. If anything, they hit the mark too well, and they explain why he made easy fodder for caricature from the beginning of his time in New York. The problem is that these images are one-sided, and they fail to take into account his profoundly complex engagement with the United States, American democracy, and popular culture. The 2006 publication of Current of Music (constituted of texts from Adorno’s work with the Princeton Radio Research Project) provided an impetus for this reconsideration of his attitude toward the United States, but serious thought about his exilic works demands far broader study, for this was by far his most productive period of work. In the United States from 1938 to 1949 and in 1952–53, he wrote or contributed to, among others, Minima Moralia, Dialectic of Enlightenment (with Max Horkheimer), Composing for Film (with Hanns Eisler), The Authoritarian Personality (in various capacities), Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, as well as Current of Music, The Stars Down To Earth, and The Psychological Techniques of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses, and important essays such as “Democratic Leadership and Mass Manipulation.”

The last three of these books, written in English during Adorno’s time in Los Angeles, form the basis for Shannon Mariotti’s enlightening new analysis of Adorno’s understanding of democracy. By choosing Current of Music, The Stars Down To Earth, and The Psychological Techniques of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses, she announces her intention not merely to contribute to another social history of German intellectuals in the United States during World War II, but to show that the productive, critical form of democracy that she has uncovered in these texts can teach us something new and important about political theory and our present situation. She argues that Adorno’s attempt to speak directly to Americans, in translating his nascent negative dialectics into the American political landscape, performs a mode of “democratic leadership as democratic pedagogy.” (4) This account upends the pure negativity of previous readings of Adornian politics, because its focus shifts from the top-down hierarchical structure of high cultural mandarins pronouncing sentence on the barbaric tastes of the masses to the construction of critical forms of democratic engagement and education. From this perspective, it even becomes possible to reconcile the two sides of Adornian scholarship examined here, the elitist condemnation of popular culture and the concern for democratic engagement that Mariotti identifies; it is precisely through the critical treatment of the techniques of mass manipulation that the problems for democracy first become clear, and we can turn to the upbuilding solutions in democratic pedagogy. Thus, Mariotti organizes her book by “starting with the problems and pathologies within American democracy to be overcome and moving through each stage of [Adorno’s] ‘solution,’ from our material experience of the everyday world to the practice of critique, leadership, pedagogy, and his efforts to draw out the ‘countertendencies’ of American culture toward creating more robust and substantive forms of democracy.” (5)

In her introduction, Mariotti distinguishes the positive, forward-looking character of her project from previous historical-critical accounts that deny, omit, or merely assert his affirmation of democracy. The six chapters that follow set forth the basis of this positive democratic pedagogy. Chapter 1 deals with the pathologies of what passes for democracy in America (“pseudo-democracy”) and its construction of obedient subjects. Chapter 2 explores how a fundamental sharpening of the nature of experience and perception in a critical attunement to the nonidentical character of our material and ideological world can form the basis for the rule of the people, in the original sense of the term “democracy” (from the Greek, demos and kratos). Chapter 3, which contains an interesting excursus on the formation of experience in the works of Marilynne Robinson and David Foster Wallace, is concerned with critique and negative dialectics as essential to and definitive of this same sense of democracy. Chapter 4 deals with the construction of democratic leadership. Chapter 5 examines the construction of a democratic pedagogy, in light of Paulo Freire’s similar account; and finally, Chapter 6 grapples with the means of putting Adorno’s account of democratic theory and leadership into practice.

In Mariotti’s picture, Adorno’s critique of American society examines how the standardizing, monopolizing, and concentrating tendencies of commodity capitalism extend their private market constraints on freedom throughout the economic and cultural spheres. (28) Individuals are subject to this as well. Individuals are reified, quantified, and their nonidentical elements are effortlessly smoothed away in the mechanics of the workplace. The physiognomy of radio provides a privileged example of “giving the appearance of democracy, without producing the feelings of agency and autonomy or the kind of critical consciousness” of real democracy. (33) Its illusion of intimacy and equality conceals its peculiar distance and authoritarianism. Hence, by bringing to the fore the nonidentical and contradictory elements of contemporary life, Adorno grounds the possibility of resistance to this process of uniform subjectification of the individual. Specifically, Adorno lays out the methodology of Martin Luther Thomas’s radio addresses, with their bigoted appeals to speak for the “little guy,” as a series of techniques for manipulating the audience. (36) Thus, Thomas “appealed to masses of people in an antidemocratic spirit to encourage antidemocratic action…[even as he] cloaked his manipulations in the rhetoric and appearance of its opposite.” (37) This analysis is particularly valuable because of the way that it dialectically transforms the obvious into a range of concealed psychological techniques, and thus into a manipulative ideology. Similarly, Adorno’s analysis of newspaper astrological columns in The Stars Down To Earth exposes the authoritarian character of ideological claims (to let the reader take charge of his or her life by explaining commandments of the stars) that just happen to require conformity to American social norms. (42)

The possibility of resistance against this essentially alienated form of automated, docile subjectivity lies in our experience of thinking the nonidentical. Hence, Mariotti argues that for Adorno, the praxis of critique is crucial to the emergence of freedom, and therefore it must not be a preserve of the elite. Negative thinking “is not something you earn by taking examinations…[It is open to a]nyone who can access the truth of the nonidentical and experience the disruptive and unsettling shock of that encounter in a way that prompts him or her to critique the inevitability and desirability of modern liberal capitalism.” (57) This should not be read as an intellectualist endeavour. Resistance “is not wholly cognitive and mental, but also corporeal, embodied and sensory.” (57)

Although many have faulted Adorno for his apparent contempt for the masses, Mariotti argues that, for Adorno, the experience of this corporeal resistance has its telos in recognizing our inherent human solidarity and thus the possibility of our collective action. (73) Hence, it is particularly crucial that the corporeal experience of the nonidentical, of despair, anxiety, and alienation, not be blocked, medicated, and normalized away by the emerging sciences of psychoanalysis. (81) Democratic leaders are crucial to the process of resistance, yet they should not be conceived as intellectual elites, but rather as critical, discursive democratic practitioners. Adorno “focuses on what leaders do, in terms of how they accomplish their goals with respect to their target audience.” (92) He focuses on their methods, not their identities or the source of their authority. The methodology of democratic leaders is that they converse with others and involve them in attaining more democratic practices, constituted by “greater autonomy and self-determination.” (92) Leaders stand outside groups, and they lack followers; anyone can become a democratic leader simply by practicing democratic modes of experience. Indeed, leaders are more like educators than political figures. Democratic leadership is democratic pedagogy.

The reality of democracy in America is quite different. Adorno regards it merely as a shell defined by “hollow and inflated leaders” whose “phony charisma” enables them to “prey on the powerlessness and impotence of citizens to cultivate obedience and irrationality”—democracy is producing antidemocracy. (95) It is only by working on both cognitive and emotional dimensions of the masses through democratic pedagogy and leadership that critical democracy can emerge from these antidemocratic tendencies. Because antidemocratic policies are often enacted by working the powerful levers of cognitive and emotional dimensions in the masses, Adorno’s alternative functions in part by attempting to appropriate their power, while reversing their polarity, re-applying the basic “feebleness, arbitrariness, and accidentality of the object choice” of group hatred into a force for doubting and dismantling this hatred (100); “[t]he democratic leader must work at the same level as those who would manipulate individuals in de-democratizing directions, the level of affect, emotion, desires, and feelings.” (103) Attention paid precisely to the stimulus and reactions of antidemocratic forces and mass delusion thereby becomes an agent of democratic transformation through its ability to vaccinate or immunize individuals against social pathologies.

At this point, it becomes a genuine concern whether Adorno can set forth an egalitarian, democratic program with strong values of solidarity and collective action by the mere inversion of antidemocratic propaganda, as Mariotti contends. To substitute democratic for antidemocratic content while sustaining the same forms hardly seems radical enough to provide for the transformation of society. But Adorno himself recognizes in his treatment of radio that the character of the medium itself overrides variations in content, in so far as its very structure standardizes and homogenizes whatever content it may express. Radio offers a limited degree of variation (leading to channel surfing) and modulation (adjusting the dial to receive a better signal), and it disseminates “‘an identical content…[to] innumerable places at the same time…[such that] the same material is impressed upon a great number of people’.” (126–27, quoting Adorno) Thus, the listener retains only a pseudo-originality and power over radio (in the limited actions one can take to alter the signal and to call up to request a song, for instance), while the radio programmer is also limited to the technical specifications of radio and its uniform dissemination to all receivers, regardless of the critical and theoretical concerns of the programmers. The form imposes its own limitations on the content, the programmer, and the listener. Similarly, Adorno and Horkheimer’s contention in Dialectic of Enlightenment that the formal structure of fascist and capitalist propaganda in World War II exhibited deep similarities shows that Adorno himself recognized the problematic character of basing resistance to the ideological structure of propaganda on mere inversion of its content, even if it is eminently reasonable and realistic to recognize the importance of the affective and psychological dimensions of human political beliefs and forces. Then too, as Mariotti recognizes, Adorno often expresses an apparently antidemocratic distaste for popular culture precisely in its popularity and low brow sensibility, which seems more compatible with the leadership of a counter-ideological Marxist intellectual vanguard than egalitarian democratic practice. Nevertheless, in “What a Music Appreciation Hour Should Be,” Adorno sets forth a democratic project in which listeners are to be trusted to experience serious music directly on an egalitarian basis, “without pandering” to them, on the assumption that “the capacity for critique” is universal and requires for its actuation only an openness to “a deeper mode of experience” of the nonidentical. (141)

Mariotti’s intention to set forth this Adornian democratic project is extremely important, because it diverts us from the stale debates over Adorno’s biographical attitude toward the United States to the question of how we can connect his deep criticism for the American culture industry with his positive visions of a new democratic practice steeped in critical transformations of experience, pedagogy, and leadership. In light of the importance of this project, I would argue that a simultaneously broader and more detailed account would better serve the reader. The text of the book is only 158 pages. By eliminating her overly extensive prefatory remarks to each section (which repeatedly state that Adorno has something to say about democratic pedagogy without specifying what it is he has to say), Mariotti would have the space to provide a stronger historical-critical and self-critical treatment of the subject, to attend to Adorno’s highly relevant German writings of the 1940s and 1950s, and to establish the practical entailments of his democratic theories, even if, as she says, “the substance of that collective world-building enterprise is not prefigured…[but] left up to the demos.” (158) Nonetheless, Adorno and Democracy is an admirable contribution to revisionist interpretations of Adorno’s work. Mariotti demonstrates that Adorno was not (merely) another Marxist intellectual dismissive of the masses, that he engaged with American institutions and practices. Adorno saw the masses as the proper focus for constructing democratic institutions and practices, and he articulated concrete mechanisms for the democratization of America that are relevant to how we should think about democratic resistance to antidemocratic forces today.