1. Gretel Adorno: Just A Stenographer?
Martin Jay reviews Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Towards a New Manifesto, freshly translated by Rodney Livingstone, and hints at some interesting questions about Gretel Adorno’s role [right, 1] in the life her husband and his famous conversation partner. Here are some sample passages from the opening of the review (bolds mine):
Gretel Adorno was a remarkable woman about whom far too little is known. Although the recent publication of her correspondence with Walter Benjamin has confirmed the impression that she was a formidable intellect in her own right, she remains largely a mystery. What we do know for certain is that she was deeply devoted to her husband Theodor, whom she married in September, l937. Abandoning a career as a chemist to support his work unreservedly, she seems to have been resigned to his extra-marital affairs, and was so despondent after his death in August, l969 that she made a botched suicide attempt. Among the many services she rendered was the dutiful taking of minutes from the intellectual discussions he thought worth recording. Beginning in March of l938, shortly after his emigration to America and full integration into the life of the Institut für Sozialforschung (then resettled in New York), she wrote down a number of conversations he had with the director of the Institute, Max Horkheimer. She continued to play this role well after they all returned to Frankfurt in the early l950s to reestablish the Institute. …
It is worth remembering Gretel Adorno’s role in their preparation, and not only because it reminds us of the asymmetrical gender relations that prevailed at the Institute (which never had a major female presence in its ranks). Without a tape recorder, she was responsible for faithfully putting down a highly abstract conversation developing at breakneck speed — the editorial foreword rightly calls it “a careening flux of arguments, aphorisms, and asides, in which the trenchant alternates with the reckless, the playful with the ingenuous” — and it has to be accounted a minor miracle that anything coherent survived at all. If we add the tendentious title introduced by the publishers, which turn a relatively minor moment in the dialogue into its telos, it is clear that we have a text that cannot be understood as the polished reflections of authors who wanted these formulations to represent their considered opinions for public consumption. …
And yet, however gingerly we have to treat them as hasty and undercooked pronunciamentos, they do provide a fascinating snapshot of the concerns of the major Frankfurt School theoreticians at a critical moment in their development. For this, Gretel Adorno’s stenographic skills have to be acknowledged with gratitude.…
And the final paragraph of the review [Theodor and Gretel right, 2]:
Collective political action is impossible at the present time, they conclude, and so are personal relations that try to avoid the gravitational pull of the bourgeois order. Even women’s desire to “acquire the right to dispose of their own bodies” is tied up with the idea that “human beings become their own property.” (28) The belief that love is a viable refuge or meaningful alternative is therefore sadly mistaken: “Love probably contains the false negation of bourgeois society,” Horkheimer avers. And Adorno responds, “it negates it in an impotent fashion, perpetuating it through its negation.” (28) What, we might wonder in conclusion, was Gretel Adorno thinking as she recorded these sour thoughts?
Indeed. So we are left to wonder: Was Gretel Adorno merely a stenographer? Did she transcribe literally, or did she translate for meaning? Are the conversations of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer “hasty and undercooked pronunciamentos” because or in spite of her best efforts to make sense of them?
Read the rest of Martin Jay’s intriguing review here. I would say this book and these conversations go toward our larger understand of how Marx and Critical Theory work in America.
2. Artifacts of Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922), Harvard Class of 1870, Discovered in Attic
The story is here. Here are some pertinent passages from the story (bolds and links mine):
Hidden in the attic that McDonald was contracted to clear before the home’s 2009 demolition was a trunk. Inside were the papers of Richard T. Greener [picture from Wikipedia], the first African American to graduate from Harvard.
“I didn’t know who he was,” said McDonald, 51. “But as soon as I found out, I knew this was a story that had to be told.”
Historians thought the documents were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake because Greener had passed through at the time. They were astonished to learn in the past week that Greener’s 1870 Harvard diploma — water-damaged but intact — his law license, photos and papers connected to his diplomatic role in Russia and his friendship with President Ulysses S. Grant have survived.
“It gives me gooseflesh,” said Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who leads Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African-American Research. “Greener was a leading intellectual of his time. It’s a remarkable discovery.”
His graduation blazed a trail for black Harvard intellectuals including Gates’ friend, President Barack Obama, the professor added. “He was the voice before DuBois and the president’s predecessor.”
As Ben Alpers noted on the USIH Facebook page, this passage from later in the story is amazing for its, um, lack of perspective: Gates — known for his 2009 “beer summit” on the White House lawn with President Obama and a Cambridge cop who arrested him on his own doorstep — says he would “love to bring the artifacts to Harvard.” …That’s ALL for which Gates is known?! 😉
But do read the rest of the story for what it reveals about Greener’s life: born in Philadelphia, son of a slave, enrolled in Harvard in 1865 as an experiment courtesy of white sponsors, appointed philosophy professor in 1873 at the University of South Carolina, survived assassination attempt, had six children, became Howard University Law School dean, friend and rival of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, Russian ambassador under President McKinley, and on and on.
3. NYT’s The Stone: Entry #1
In this post Colin McGinn [right, 3] argues that the term “philosophy” is outdated in relation to what current professional “philosophers” do. Because practitioners today no longer “love wisdom” in the way the ancients did, and because today’s “philosophers” do no study human culture, McGinn argues for “ontical science” or just “ontics.” And professional philosophers would become “onticists.”
For my part, I have often thought that today’s intellectual historians—especially those with a humanities view of the field—hew more closely to the traditional view of philosopher than today’s professional onticists. Think about the works of the best intellectual historians in relation to those most respected in analytic philosophy. Or, more empirically (when possible), try arguing or discussing anything with a rigorous analytic philosopher. They will quickly translate your words into incomprehensible symbolic logic that subverts natural speech—both conversational and narrative. Rather than discussing grey areas and ambiguity, your conversation will become a pissing contest of binary code: 1000100111010110001. The discussion will become a logic game rather than a dialectic about the human condition.
4. NYT’s The Stone: Entry #2
Michael P. Lynch [immediate right] and Alan Sokal [down and right] exchange thoughts on “Defending Science.” Apart from the epistemelogical contest between science and religion, I found these opening paragraphs fascinating in relation to discussions about foundational and antifoundational philosophy (bolds mine):
Debates over epistemic principles sound abstract, but they have enormous practical repercussions. For instance, in order to decide policy matters (like what to put in our textbooks and what to teach in science classrooms) we need to decide on the facts.
But in order to decide on the facts, we need to decide on the best ways for knowing about those facts. And to do that, we need to agree on our epistemic principles. If we can’t, stalemate ensues. Each side looks at the other as if they inhabit a completely different world — and in a sense, they do.
So it is perplexing, even worrying, that debates over really fundamental epistemic principles can seem irresolvable. The problem is that you can’t defend first principles without presupposing them — that is what makes them “first” principles. As a result, when debates reach this point, they can seem rationally irresolvable. We can’t defend our principles without arguing in a circle.
The problem of justifying first epistemic principles is very old. It led the ancient Greek skeptics to say that knowledge is an illusion. But over the centuries, it has been more common to draw a different conclusion, one concerning the relative value of reason itself. According to many people, what the problem of justifying first principles really shows is that because reasons always run out or end up just going in circles, our starting point must always be something more like faith.
This is a great discussion. Read the rest here.
5. More On Tony Judt
Read the reflections of Judt’s spouse, Jennifer Homans, on Judt’s last days and his last work of intellectual history, titled Thinking the Twentieth Century. Keep some tissue nearby. Even so, here are some passages I found most intriguing (bolds mine):
The book is a history of twentieth-century thought. It begins with his reflections on Jewish idealism and Jewish suffering in Europe and ends with a devastating account of the failure of American politics in the post–cold war world. It is also an intellectual autobiography—of sorts. “Of sorts” because Tony rarely wrote in the first person, and the autobiographical sections of the book were wedged in, almost reluctantly, between the ideas, the history, the politics, and the ethical dilemmas that were central to his life.
This doesn’t mean that the book is not personal. For Tony, ideas were a kind of emotion, something he felt and cared about in the way that most people do about feelings like sadness or love. …Ideas and the need for historical explanations ran deep, back then and right through to Thinking the Twentieth Century. [Judt family right, 4]
Of all of Tony’s writings, this book seems to me in need of some explanation: a backdrop or a scene, because the scene—the conditions under which it was written—was so dark and because the darkness shaped the book, in its form but also in its ideas. …
So Thinking the Twentieth Century pours decades of thought and knowledge and days of illness into a lifelong idealism. It is an idealism that under the circumstances could be sustained only by a ferociously disciplined mind, and at great personal cost. I don’t mean that Tony believed in an ideal society. The only thing he was an idealist about was serious public debate. This was the one thing, along with love, that was always left standing no matter how much was felled by the disease, and so much was. Tony called it the core. To me it was a narrowing beam of light in the darkness that was separating Tony from us all. And if Thinking the Twentieth Century stands in the no-man’s-land between what is and what should be, as I think it does, this is in part because it was driven by the darkness but also part of the light. It was besieged, as he was.
The rest of Homans’ piece is here.
The more I learn about Tony Judt, the more I want to read all of his work. – TL
1. Gretel Adorno, here.
2. Gretel and Theodor Adorno, here.
3. Colin McGinn, here.
4. Judt family, here.