Society is not an organism: Brazil on Adorno, Adorno on Brazil

(Photo: Getty Images / edit by @cacrisalves)

(Photo: Getty Images / edit by @cacrisalves)

Sam E

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

A couple weeks ago, Olavo de Carvalho, erstwhile astrologer and right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s pet public intellectual, informed the world that “The Beatles were semi-literate in music, they barely knew how to play the guitar. Who composed their songs was Theodor Adorno.” Adorno (1903–1969), a left-wing social philosopher and aesthetic critic, figures in the far-right mythology as a sort of harbinger of all the evils of modernity: Hence we are told he is responsible for “the devastating effect of The Beatles’ music… [which is] all about LSD, about drugs”.

For clarity’s sake, Carvalho is incorrect; Adorno detested The Beatles. He (Carvalho) is parroting a misreading of intellectual history that amounts to a conspiracy theory. However, these kinds of remarks, which are the products of the peculiar media ecology in which polemicists like Carvalho have become profitably and comfortably situated, cannot be ignored.

This is because that media ecology is now the mainstream — it got Bolsonaro elected, and arguably helped consolidate Trump’s influence; it is no longer the fringe but literally occupies the halls of power. It’s comprised of YouTube videos, apocryphal whispers among establishment conservative politicians, crackpot authors and radio hosts, and a Norwegian domestic terrorist’s manifesto (to which Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss is intended to be something like a corrective). It constitutes the telephone game capable of transforming “Adorno was a 20th century leftist academic who wrote on music” into “Adorno co-wrote ‘Hey Jude’”.

Carvalho wields considerable influence over Bolsonaro, himself the leader of a nation containing 200 million citizens and 60 percent of the Amazon. Bolsonaro “prominently displayed [one of] Carvalho’s book[s]… on his desk during his election night victory speech”. Carvalho, a self-styled philosopher with a background in writing astrology columns (coincidentally, Adorno gave astrology a critical sociological treatment in his The Stars Down to Earth: On the Irrational in Culture), has cast doubt on heliocentrism and the scientific consensus regarding the shape of the Earth. His thoughts regarding climate change proceed in like manner.

How are we to treat the contemporary trend of intellectual regression among certain reactionary groups in society as an object of social inquiry? Misconceptions about the world (about science, intellectual history, specific academic disciplines, etc.) do not spring up from the ground pre-formed, and in a certain sense are never intentional; they are produced. Adorno himself was remarkably concerned with both ‘stupidity’ as a social category and with the interplay between the progressive (what he calls the dynamic) and reactionary (static) forces of society. He is no dogmatist; he offers sophisticated models for these concepts. It may be worth returning, then, to Adorno, and letting him speak for himself.

It is worth adding two qualifications. First: To Adorno, the progressive or dynamic forces of a society are by no means synonymous with the good, and the regressive or static are by no means simply or absolutely synonymous with the bad. We will see why. Of course, a progress which is ‘identical to itself’ or which achieves complete consistency with its own principle is a liberatory force, insofar as it abolishes the present state of things (which, to Adorno, is self-evidently bad); the trouble is in the nonexistence of any such progress. Second: Adorno’s thought resists summarization, so any synopsis will necessarily fail to do justice to it. In short, there is no substitute for reading the texts themselves.

In the fourteenth of a series of twenty lectures, collectively “An Introduction to Dialectics”, which Adorno gave at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt in 1958, he characterizes a particular understanding of society assumed by some of his contemporaries in sociology as distinct from his own. The former understanding supposes that

[o]n the one side there are certain dynamic, mobile, and progressive groups, namely those involved in finance capital, and to a certain extent in industry, especially manufacturing industry and the like, and then, by contrast, there are also static, regressive and conservative groups, such as the peasantry; and society simply consists in the way the static and dynamic factors yield a kind of mixture. And the results of these static and dynamic factors then constitute the history which we have to accept as ours (Adorno 251).

In this lecture Adorno is furnishing a “critique of the fetishism of ultimate ‘elements’” in social and philosophical thought (245). Dialectical thought, the tradition of thought Adorno is working within that emphasizes the movement of phenomena through their internal antagonisms, “is necessarily opposed to the notion of an even or simply continuous development” (249). The “internally contradictory” nature of historical processes “is what already excludes the idea of [both] some even and seamless progress… [and] social stasis or invariance.” So neither progress nor stasis exist as granular elementary building blocks of society or culture; there is no movement forward that is held back by however many individual regressive or conservative social forms. Adorno continues:

In relation to historical reality it may specifically be one of the deepest insights open to dialectical thought that it need not regard the non-simultaneous character of what has lagged behind yet still persists simply as an obstacle upon the smooth path of historical progress. Rather, it is capable of recognizing what for its own part resists or cannot comfortably be accommodated within this so-called progress and grasping it in terms of the principle of development itself (249, emphasis mine).

Adorno tells us that that which ‘resists or cannot comfortably be accommodated’ by progress must be explained, in a rather paradoxical formulation, not with reference to its resistance, but with reference to the thing which it resists. A dialectical theory of society, if it is to acknowledge the “nonsimultaneous aspects” (249) present in society,

must also try to understand, in terms of ongoing temporal development, precisely what has, if you like, proved unable to keep pace historically speaking (249).

Adorno provides a concrete example in the social conditions which served as an impetus for the rise of Naziism, which he had the unfortunate experience of personally witnessing as a Jew living in Germany. (For a biography of Adorno and thinkers associated with him, see Jeffries’ book mentioned above. Adorno moved to America at the start of WW2, where he later encountered and wrote about astrology, pop music, etc.) I will quote somewhat at length, editing for repetition, given that it is a transcription of a spoken lecture:

[I]f we can observe certain reactionary currents within the [middle class], currents which then came to play such an extraordinarily significant role in the emergence of fascism itself in Germany, we shall not be able to regard these persisting elements simply as vestiges or remnants within the historical process. Rather, we should… [derive] what has lagged behind precisely — if I may express this in a very extreme fashion — by reference to the movement of progress itself. In other words, the path of progress involves a process in which certain human groups find themselves dispossessed, groups which certainly belong, in terms of their origin and ideology, to the realm of bourgeois society [by “bourgeois” Adorno means the broad category of wealthy civilized society as a whole, as opposed to the traditional Marxist sense of those in control of capital assets], but which now suddenly forfeit the material basis of [that origin]. Thus these human groups… which in comparison with the past can expect nothing good, rightly or wrongly, from further changes in society, are turned into laudatores temporis acti [those who prefer the past] by the path of progress itself, by the process of historical development… And this regressive tendency… is then very easily combined with the strongest social forces which for their part negate the [Enlightenment, bourgeois — here meant in the historical sense of post-French Revolution — concept of progress,] one that is bound up with notions of liberality and individual freedom. These forces… appeal specifically to authoritarian forms of rule… To this extent we might say, therefore, that precisely the most reactionary aspects of National Socialism — such as the notion of ‘Blood and Earth’, the racial theories, and all these things which are connected with a spurious cult of origins — in a certain sense were themselves actually functions of dynamic social change… namely of the increased power of large-scale industrial production (249-251).

Parts of the German bourgeois middle-class found themselves dispossessed by particular trends in society, and came to expect nothing good from the movement of historical progress. This found a home in certain social institutions (the State, Church, certain ideological groups, etc.) in which liberal ideas of individual freedom are negated or suspended. These types of institutions, on account of their internal dynamics, tend to appeal to authoritarianism. (Adorno’s explanation of anti-semitism is detailed and complex. It is found in his and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Here is a quick summary.)

Insofar as what is occurring — not only in Brazil, but around the world — is the recrudescence of a genuinely nationalistic sentiment, and insofar as the ‘spurious cult of origins’ is rearing its ugly head again, it is not difficult to imagine using the same dialectical tools to analyze our own current situation. We can attempt this only by

refusing to regard what has not kept pace, what has lagged behind, in a simply static fashion — that is, as something which has simply lagged behind, which is now opposed to change and movement. For if the extremes are indeed as reciprocally mediated as I have attempted to make clear to you, then the static and the dynamic dimensions are themselves mediated with one another here; that is to say, the supposedly static sectors of society must actually be derived from the dynamic trajectory at work (251, emphasis mine).

Reciprocal mediation is incredibly important here. It is rather obvious that you do not encounter progress without also seeing tradition ‘bound up in’ or expressed through it, but it is much less clear that every expression of tradition also always-already has progress itself ‘bound up in’, or mediated through, it.

The spread of a sort of anti-modern sentiment across Brazil is enabled, in some sense, by specifically modern forms of social organization: Practices of news and media dissemination and consumption engendered by digital technology; information and communications networks which operate on cosmopolitan, liberal principles of universal expression; an anti-globalism which is happy to participate in globalism (Carvalho lives in Richmond, Virginia, not Brazil); a yearning for a return to tradition that strategically revises the content of tradition itself in order to consolidate its elements into an alternative to (rather than the basis of) modernity; a distinctly modern supersession of traditional hierarchies pertaining to academic authority that allows conspiracy theorists to attract attention; and so on. We may even say that it takes higher education occupying a peculiar role among the totality of organizations in society — specifically, a rather preeminent, universal, or public role, one which it did not achieve until the 20th century —  to hasten the reversion of the general atmosphere of society into the regressive kind of anti-intellectualism that is found in Brazil and America (and now parts of Western Europe). In this way, Adorno can help us explain Bolsonaro.

Adorno reminds us that “an image of social reality [that sees society as a map composed of elementary units within larger units, and so on] would be literally false, for society is not composed out of these elements” (253). It is rather that

these elements for their own part stand within a highly complex self-conditioning functional context… [T]his context is actually better described as one mediated by social antagonisms than as one of ‘wholeness’ — as people love to say — or as a so-called organic social context. For, if there is such a thing as society, it is far more like a system than an organism, albeit a system of disparate moments, a system which is essentially self-contradictory in character (253-254).


Adorno, Theodor. Introduction To Dialectics. Polity, 2017.