Reading: Adorno’s Minima Moralia

For the past year or so, I’ve been reading and rereading Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, written across 1944-1947 in exile from his native Germany. I think it’s an extraordinary and terrifying book: a relentless and self-unforgiving attempt to address the im/possibility of intellectual and artistic life within a violent and unjust world. Within a tradition of dialectical thought, which refuses any fixed positions, certainties or methods, Adorno – and this text in particular – for me most clearly commits to and demonstrates a sense of rigour. I have the strong sense that this book will accompany me throughout my life.

Here are some words that particularly struck me [page numbers correspond to Verso’s 2005 publication, translated by E. F. N. Jephcott]:

“often they win sympathy by a certain good-naturedness, a kindly involvement in other people’s lives: selflessness as speculation”. p.24

“There is no way out of entanglement. The only responsible course is to deny oneself the ideological issue of one’s own existence, and for the rest to conduct oneself in private as modestly, unobtrusively and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breath, in hell. p.27/28

“People who belong together ought neither to keep silent about their material interests, nor to sink to their level, but to assimilate them by reflection into their relationships and so surpass them.” p.45

“The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass.” p.50

“It is part of the mechanism of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produces, and there is a straight line in development between the gospel of happiness and the construction of camps of extermination so far off in Poland that each of our own countrymen can convince himself that he cannot hear the screams of pain.” p.63

“He who offers for sale something unique that no-one wants to buy, represents, even against him will, freedom from exchange.” p.68

“The very wish to be right, down to its sublet form of logical reflection, is an expression of that spirit of self-preservation which philosophy is precisely concerned to break down.” p.70

“One need only have one heard a diehard representative of a ruling clique say: ‘That is of no consequence’, or note at what times the bourgeois talk of exaggeration, hysteria, folly, to know that the appeal to reason invariably occurs most promptly in apologies for unreason.”. p.72

“Knowledge can only widen horizons by abiding so insistently with the particular that its isolation is dispelled”. p.74

“Indiscriminate kindness towards all carries the constant threat of indifference and remoteness to each. […] the gentlest, left to follow their own momentum, have a tendency to culminate in unimaginable brutality.” p.77-79

“Love of stone walls and barred windows is the last resort of someone who sees and has nothing else to love”. p.98

“In the detachment necessary to all thought is flaunted the privilege that permits immunity”. p.99

“He who says he is happy lies, and in invoking happiness, sins against it. He alone keeps faith who says: I was happy. The only relation of consciousness to happiness is gratitude: in which lies its incomparable dignity.” p.112

“To the aesthetic eye, which sides with the useless against utility, the aesthetic, when severed violently from purpose, becomes anti-aesthetic, because it expresses violence: luxury becomes brutality. Finally it is swallowed up in drudgery or conserved in caricature. What beauty still flourishes under terror is a mockery and ugliness to itself. Yet its fleeting shape attests to the avoidability of terror. Something of this paradox s fundamental to all art; today it appears in the fact that art still exists at all. The captive idea of beaut strikes at once to reject happiness and to assert it. “ p.121

“To deprive thought of the moment of spontaneity is to annul precisely its necessity.[…] a hierarchy of importance is creeping into theory-formation which gives preference to either particularly topical or particularly relevant themes, and discriminates against, or indulgently tolerates, anything non-essential […] While thought relates to facts and moves by criticising them, its movement depends no less on the maintenance of distance. It expresses exactly what is, precisely because what is is never quite as thought expresses it. Essential to it is an element of exaggeration, of over-shooting the object, of self-detachment from the weight of the factual, so that instead of merely reproducing being it can, at once rigorous and free, determine it. Thus every thought resembles play, with which Hegel no less than Nietzsche compared the work of the mind. The unbarbaric side of philosophy is its tacit awareness of the element of irresponsibility, of blitheness springing from the volatility of thought, which forever escapes what it judges. […] Distance is not a safety-zone but a field of tension.” p.124-127

“That intellectuals are at once beneficiaries of a bad society, and yet those on whose socially useless work it largely depends whether a society emancipated from utility is achieved – this is not a contradiction acceptable once and for all and therefore irrelevant. It gnaws incessantly at the objective quality of their work. Whatever the intellectual does, is wrong. He experiences drastically and vitally the ignominious choice that late capitalism secretly presents to all its dependants: to become one more grown-up, or to remain a child.” p.133

“What transcends the ruling society is not only the potentiality it develops but also all that which did not fit properly into the laws of historical movement. Theory must needs deal with cross-gained, opaque, unassimilated material, which as such admittedly has from the start an anachronistic quality, but is not wholly obsolete since it has outwitted the historical dynamic.” p.151

“To the converted and unconverted philosophers of Fascism, finally, values like authenticity, heroic endurance of the being-in-the-world’ of individual existence, frontier-situations, become a means of usurping religious-authoritarian pathos without the least religious content. They lead to the denunciation of anything that is not of sufficiently sterling worth, sound to the core, that is, the Jews. […] The equation of the genuine and the true is untenable.” p.152-153

“The human is indissolubly linked with imitation: a human being only becomes human at all by imitating other human beings.” p.154

“There is tenderness only in the courses demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more. Every other seeks to apply to a condition that ought to be determined by human needs, a mode of human conduct adapted to production as an end in itself. Into the wishful image of an uninhibited, vital, creative man has seeped the very fetishism of commodities which in bourgeois society brings with it inhibition, impotence, the sterility of the never-changing. […] It is not man’s lapse into luxurious indolence that is to be feared, but the savage spread of the social under the mask of universal nature, the collective as a blind fury of activity. […] Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars” p.156

“He alone loves who has the strength to hold fast to love.” p.172

“Just as all acquaintances feel an inclination to say something disparaging about everyone from time to time, probably in part because they caulk at the greyness of acquaintanceship, so at the same time each is sensitive to the views of all others, and secretly wishes to be loved even where he does not himself love […] In this climate the passer-on flourishes, never short of damaging material and ever secure in the knowledge that those who wish to be liked by everyone are always avidly on the lookout for evidence of the contrary.” p.178-179

“A major crime appears to the individual very largely as a mere infringement of conventions, not only because the norms it offends are themselves conventional, ossified, unbinding on the living subject, but because their objectification as such, even when they have underlying substance, holds them at a distance from the moral innervations, the sphere of conscience. The thought of particular indelicacies, however, micro-organisms of wrongdoing, unnoticed perhaps by anyone else […] can fill the delinquent with unconquerable remorse and a passionately bad conscience.” p.180

“domination is propagated by the dominated” p.183

“Anyone who, in conversation, talks over the head of even one person, is tactless.” p.183

“The wordless need only to stick immovably to their interests and their natures to get their way. It is enough that the other, vainly seeking contact, falls into a pleading or soliciting tone, for him to be at a disadvantage”. p.184

“The common consent to the positive is a gravitational force that pulls all downwards” p.184

“The private generosity that the rich can supposedly afford, the aura of happiness surrounding them, some of which is reflected on those they allow to approach them, all this helps to veil them. They remain the nice, the right people, the better sort, the good. Wealth insulates from overt injustice. […] By all the desiderata of private morality, even the most advanced, the rich man could – if only he could – indeed be better than the poor.” p.186

“Perhaps a film that strictly and in all respects satisfied the code of the Hays Office might turn out a great work of art, but not in a world in which there is a Hays Office.” p.191

“True thoughts are those alone which do not understand themselves.” p.192

“It is not because they turn their back on washed-out existence that escape-films are so repugnant, but because they do not do so energetically enough, because they are themselves just as washed out.” p.202

“everything that has ever been called folk art has always reflected domination.” p.203

“that in the making of a film numerous experts, and also simple technicians, have a say, no more guarantees its humanity than decision by qualified scientific advisory boards ensures that of bombs and poison gas.” p.205

“The more masterfully the artist expresses himself, the less he has to ‘be’ what he expresses, and the more what he expresses, indeed the content of subjectivity itself, becomes a mere function of the production process. […] The transformation of expressive content from an undirected impulse into material for manipulation makes it palpable, exhibitable, saleable. […[ The much lauded pay-acting of modern artists, their exhibitionism, is the gesture whereby they put themselves as goods on the market.” p.214-215

“The comfort that flows from great works of art lies less in what they express than in the fact that they have managed to struggle out of existence. Hope is soonest found among the comfortless.” p.223

“Negative philosophy, dissolving everything, dissolves even the dissolvent.” p.245

“To gain perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects – this alone is the task of thought. […] we know well that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered to the world.” p.247

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