The enemies of embittered freedom come in unexpected forms

Following an unexpected referral to this blog, I came to this discussion of Theodor Adorno. Well, that takes me back. I remember having reams of him stuffed down my neck at Vienna University in the winter of 2001, which I didn’t like in the least. I certainly didn’t like the cult of personality some people surrounded him with, (I remember one painfully well-brought up student punk who went around with “Glückliche Sklaven sind die Feinde der erbitterteren Freiheit” scrawled on his tastefully ripped shirt) and I didn’t think much of his books.

So I’m immensely amused by this tale of how he reacted to the student movement of 1968, when a group of his students at the Institut für Sozialforschung decided to occupy the place. Specifically, he called the cops, like any good Ordinarius faced with a buncha dirty hippies. Scheißkritische Theoretiker!, (Shitty critical theorists!) howled the leader of a demo as the riot squad dragged him away past Adorno’s office.

Wonderfully, having insisted on pressing charges against the advice of Jürgen Habermas, ever the most reasonable of the Frankfurt Schoolies, Adorno didn’t bother to give evidence against the guy because it would have interrupted his summer holidays. I can’t help imagining him – trudging up an alp? in lederhosen? sunning himself on the white beaches of Sylt? – surrounded by the Daimler-Benz executives and senior civil servants he excoriated as bearers of faschistische Kontinuität, whilst the case he insisted on bringing against the student he set the cops on collapsed for want of his testimony.

It’s always interesting to watch somebody confronted with their own utopia, and Adorno’s ferocious assaults on authority could really only be read by a 60s German student as a savage critique of the old-fashioned professoriat’s authoritarianism and pomposity. He even made use of this trope in his own work – I think it’s Erziehung zur Mündigkeit in which he boasts that when he returned from exile, there were still students at Frankfurt who clicked their heels when they spoke to an academic, and now look at them! That was written some years after his experience on the receiving end of his own principles, so clearly he re-evaluated somewhat, or at least he recovered his composure.

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