Much of their work in exile focussed on totalitarianism, although they assessed the phenomenon from a certain remove. For them, the genocidal state was not merely a German problem, something that resulted from listening to too much Wagner; it was a Western problem, rooted in the Enlightenment urge to dominate nature.
Therefore, the defeat of Mussolini and Hitler, in , fell short of a final defeat of Fascism: the totalitarian mind lurked everywhere, and America was hardly free of its influence. Chronically disapproving as these thinkers were, they were not disengaged from the culture of their day. In order to dissect it, they bent over it. One great contribution that they made to the art of criticism was the idea that any object, no matter how seemingly trivial, was worth a searching glance. You often feel a tension between the intensity of the scrutiny and the modesty of the subject, as if an electron microscope were being used to read the fine print on a contract.
Adorno, during his American exile, took it upon himself to analyze astrology columns in the Los Angeles Times. Benjamin took a different tack.
In his maturity, he struggled to reconcile materialist and theological concerns: on the one hand, the Marxist tradition of social critique; on the other, the messianic tradition that preoccupied the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem, a close friend from student days. The messianic urge set off sparks of mystical hope that were fundamentally foreign to Adorno. Benjamin was born in Berlin in ; his father, Emil Benjamin, was an increasingly successful entrepreneur, his mother something of a grande dame.
Adorno was born in Frankfurt in , in conditions of comparable ease. His father, Oscar Wiesengrund, ran a wine-merchant business, and his mother, Maria Calvelli-Adorno, had sung opera. From earliest childhood, Adorno, as he chose to call himself on leaving Germany, swam in music, forming ambitions to become a composer. Adorno hid in sounds.
Benjamin had the more complicated personality. Staggeringly intelligent, he was so consumed by the life of the mind that he routinely lost track of reality. Adorno, a cannier and less conflicted character, established himself in academia, writing dissertations on Husserl and Kierkegaard. He also studied composition with Alban Berg, one of the supreme musical figures of the twentieth century. Adorno was industrious, imperious, brusquely brilliant—the picture of the child prodigy who never fully grows up. But there was a bohemian strain in him, too.
Adorno was nicknamed Teddie. Georg and Freddie go to all-night fancy-dress balls and one night end up in bed together, hovering on the edge of erotic contact. Benjamin and Adorno met in Frankfurt in the early twenties, when Adorno was still a university student. At first, Adorno acted like a Benjamin disciple, virtuosically interrogating culture high and low. In the new biography, Adorno comes across as a petty enforcer, trying to make Benjamin conform to Frankfurt School norms.
Yet Eiland and Jennings may misunderstand the give-and-take of the relationship.
In one letter, Adorno urges Benjamin to stop paying halfhearted tribute to Marxist concepts and instead to pursue a more idiosyncratic vision. Benjamin, for his part, was no hapless victim. The two served each other best by challenging assumptions at every turn; it was a mutual admonition society. With the advent of the Nazis, Benjamin left Germany at once, taking up residence primarily in France.
Adorno, whose post-doctoral thesis was published the day Hitler took power, hesitated to break from Germany, occasionally making slight gestures of accommodation with the regime. When his part-Jewish ancestry made his position impossible, he settled for a time in Oxford. He and his wife, Gretel, urged Benjamin to follow them, casting New York in a seductive light. At the heart of the scheme was Baudelaire, the prototype of the compromised modern artist, who casts off the mask of genius and surrenders to the life of the street.
Baudelaire is depicted as a ragpicker, cobbling poetry from discarded fragments.
The book Spirit and System: Media, Intellectuals, and the Dialectic in Modern German Culture, Dominic Boyer is published by University of Chicago Press. Spirit and System: Media, Intellectuals, and the Dialectic in Modern German 3 Dialectical Politics of Cultural Redemptionin the Third Reich and the GDR.
When Benjamin committed suicide, apparently in the mistaken belief that he could not leave Nazi-occupied France, he carried with him an American entry visa, which the Institute for Social Research had obtained for him. It is hard to picture what might have happened if he had made it to New York—or, for that matter, to Jerusalem, where Scholem tried to get him to settle.
The story might still have ended sadly: Eiland and Jennings emphasize that Benjamin had been tempted by suicide long before the cataclysm of Adorno, for his part, eked out a living at various institutes and think tanks in America, and when he returned to Frankfurt, in , he became a monument of German intellectual life. He died in , of a heart attack, after a hike in the shadow of the Matterhorn. Benjamin might have scorned the scholarly fuss, but he knew the value of what he had achieved.
Benjamin pushed past such panel-discussion topics to the more fundamental issue of how technology changed all forms, ancient and contemporary. Chartres exists only at Chartres. The journey toward art resembles a pilgrimage.
In the age of reproduction, however, aura decays. Free of that velvet prison, art can assume a political role. These spectators approach watching a film not as supplicants before an altar; rather, they take pleasure in the images and appraise them critically. They do not passively contemplate; they are alert eyewitnesses. Indeed, in the documentary films of Dziga Vertov, the masses themselves become actors, and the divide between author and public disintegrates.
Unsentimental about his own highbrow milieu, he had already done his bit to puncture the affectations of bourgeois aesthetics, and in particular the fantasy that classical music floats above society, in an apolitical haze. Adorno believed that Benjamin was too much under the spell of Brecht, who appeared ready to cast highbrow forms on the rubbish heap. Pop culture was acquiring its own cultic aspect, one neatly configured for technological dissemination.
Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Conceptualizing the Formation of Dialectical Social Knowledge 2. Self, System, and Other in Eastern Germany after 5. Michael Herzfeld Michael Herzfeld.
It is nothing short of an ethnographic examination both of German post-reunification society and anthropological theory. This is not only an methodological tour de force, it is also ethnographically sensitive and an original and experientially grounded introduction to one of the central problems of German and, indeed, European ethnology. As such, it constitutes a serious provocation to reflect on the cultural politics of anthropological theory at large.
Andreas Glaeser Andreas Glaeser.
Thus he penetrates deeply into the core of both social theory and everyday life. More, by focusing on journalists he can show how experiences and languages shape each other. Spirit and System is empirically ambitious, methodologically innovative and theoretically acute, a splendid performance in the sociology of knowledge. Marcus M. Payk German Studies Review.
David Kettler Canadian Journal of Sociology. The book of a promising, ambitious, young scholar in short, and an addition that should be welcomed by both sociologists and anthropologists working on problems of social knowledge. Chicago Blog : History.