Adorno is Not a Cheery Guy

Photograph Source: Adorno mural in Frankfurt – Vysotsky – CC-SA BY 4.0

Maybe Teddy would be lots of laughs in a Berlin pub after one too many. But, judging from his essay, “Education after Auschwitz,” written in popular style in 1966 (three years from his death), Adorno might chase away the crowds. “Hey, see that dreary old guy sitting alone in the corner? That’s sad old Adorno.” This essay takes no prisoners, it doesn’t offer any sentimental escape routes from facing the premier demand of his (and our) time. “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again.” Period. Boom, boom, boom. If poetry wasn’t possible after Auschwitz, well, education might be. But education has to face the “monstrous in the face of the monstrosity that took place.”

“Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz. It was the barbarism all education strives against.” He mocks those who whisper in the corridors about a possible relapse into barbarism. Relapse, says Teddy, Auschwitz was the relapse! Barbarism continues as “long as the fundamental conditions that favored the relapse continue largely unchanged. That is the whole horror.” Teddy thinks “societal pressure” still bears down on us, driving us “toward the unspeakable.” One sniffs the acrid air. He may be right. Teddy’s buddy, Walter Benjamin, once said: “There is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism.” Agreeing, Adorno believes that “barbarism itself is inscribed within the principle of civilization.”

If that is so, Teddy laments, how can we prevent Auschwitz’s recurrence? The monstrous lies beneath the surface, ready to rise portentously from the tomb. He worries that the “fundamental structure of society” is the same as it was 45 years ago. Today, in its Neo-liberal form, it is foaming at the mouth and salivating at the very thought of bombs exploding everywhere –at the same time? In fact, Teddy, is big time convinced that we can link the atom bomb with genocide. One hundred thousand incinerated in one might blow. Whole populations killed! Teddy knew that massacres were occurring in Viet Nam. Whole populations killed. Bombs light up the sky. No electrical grids necessary. Teddy knew lots of things, including theories of music and aesthetics.

If we think we can make the needed structural changes, well, think again. No hope. No chance. Extremely limited. To work against Auschwitz, we are “restricted to the subjective dimension.” You can’t appeal to “eternal values”: the persecutors who commit their crimes would just shrug their shoulders. Adorno wants us to understand the mechanisms within our personalities that render us capable of such deeds. “When I speak of education after Auschwitz, then, I mean two areas: first, children’s education, especially in early childhood; then general enlightenment that provides an intellectual, cultural, and social climate in which a recurrence would no longer be possible, a climate, therefore, in which the motives that led to the horror would become relatively conscious.”

Specifically, Teddy informs us, the “very willingness to connive with power and to submit outwardly to what is stronger, under the guise of a norm, is the attitude of the tormentors that should not rise again. It is for this reason that the advocacy of bonds is so fatal. People who adopt them more or less voluntarily are placed under a kind of permanent compulsion to obey orders. The single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz is autonomy, if I might use the Kantian expression: the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.” This power of reflection does not flinch or side-step facing the horror. It could recur, he warns, it could draw near, if we refuse to speak of it, as if we the speaker were the guilty one.

“But what Auschwitz produced, the characteristic personality types of the world of Auschwitz, presumably represents something new. On the one hand, those personality types epitomize the blind identification with the collective. On the other hand, they are fashioned in order to manipulate the masses, collectives, as Himmler, Hoss, and Eichmann did.” Teddy urges us to work against the “brute predominance of all collectives, to intensify the resistance to it by concentrating on the problem of collectivization.”

Adorno worries greatly about what this passion to integrate one’s self into something or other could lead to. These days “religion” or “nation” sweeps us away and we permit horrific things to occur. The “alleged educational ideal” of “being hard” enables us, once we have learned to be hard with one’s self, we earn the right to be hard with others– And be oblivious to the pain they suffer. Utterly hard and utterly cold.

In a complex—hey, what do we expect from Teddy?—argument, Adorno believes that in our technologically-saturated world, where “people are inclined to take technology to be the thing itself, as an end in itself, a force of its own, and they forget that it is a extension of human dexterity,” the ideal of a “life of dignity” is “concealed and removed from the consciousness of people.” We fetishize technology, we will do anything to serve it. We love things. We are constantly told we must serve the Inevitable. So much so that this rapturous love for things “finally leads to the point where one who cleverly devises a train system that brings the victims to Auschwitz as quickly and smoothly as possible forgets about what happens to them there.” Well, that’s quite the jump, Teddy, quite the big leap, but lots of little baby steps down this dark road, particularly if we are always looking forward, never thinking, never hearing the bombs out there, never noticing the rumblings beneath the surface, never noticing little monstrous acts–can lead to the big monstrous act.

These people who run the trains efficiently to the camps are “people who cannot love.” “Those people are thoroughly cold: deep within themselves they must deny the possibility of love, must withdraw their love from other people initially, before it can even unfold.” Teddy shocks the hell out of us when he states: “If coldness were not a fundamental trait of anthropology, that is, the constitution of people as they in fact exist in our society, if people were not profoundly indifferent toward whatever happens to everyone else except for a few to whom they are closely bound and, if possible, by tangible interests, then Auschwitz would not have been possible, people would not have accepted it.”

He’s right: we are set, mostly, on the pursuit of our own interests against the “interests of everyone else.” These days, Teddy surmises, few people feel loved. “The inability to identify with others was unquestionably the most important psychological condition for the fact that something like Auschwitz could have occurred in the midst of more or less civilized and innocent people…The coldness of the societal monad, the isolated competitor, was the precondition, as indifference to the fate of others, for the fact that only very few people reacted. The torturers know this, and they put it to the test ever anew.”

Yikes, Teddy, I am squiring under these words that were once unspeakable. Then, you hit us hard by proclaiming that you “do not want to preach love. I consider it futile to preach it; no one has the right to preach it since the lack of love, as I have already said, is a lack belonging to all people without exception as they exist today. To preach love already presupposes in those to whom one appeals a character structure different from the one that needs to be changed….One of the greatest impulses of Christianity, not immediately identical with its dogma, was to eradicate the coldness that permeates everything. But this attempt failed; surely because it did not reach into the societal order that produces and reproduces that coldness.”

Hard truths, Teddy, very hard to fathom. No hallmark cheery words from thee. Even the “exhortation to give more warmth to children amounts to pumping out warmth artificially, thereby negating it. Moreover, love cannot be summoned in professionally mediated relations like that of teacher and student, doctor and patient, lawyer and client. Love is something immediate and essence contradicts mediated relationships. The exhortation to love—even in its imperative form, that one should do it—is itself part of the ideology coldness perpetuates. It bears the compulsive, oppressive quality that counteracts the ability to love. The first thing therefore is to bring coldness to the consciousness of itself, of the reasons why it rose.”

One stops in one’s tracks. Numbed. Our global civilization (hmmm) is in a kind of ice age. We don’t care much at all that billions starve, kids get gunned down, species disappear by the day, glaciers melt, plastic fills the seas…why not? Why are we so cold? How can a religious teacher slap an Indigenous girl across the mouth with a ruler to stop her from speaking her own language? How can a world leader stagger around in drunken stupor slapping tariffs on everything without one damn thought for how many people suffer consequently.

Teddy warns us—he is right to do so—that the a “resurrection of the Third Reich” is most promoted by the “revival of nationalism.” “It is so evil because, in the age of international communication and supranational blocs, nationalism cannot really believe in itself anymore and must exaggerate itself to the extreme in order to persuade itself and others that it is still substantial.”

Teddy thinks that the task of education is to “teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms. One must submit to critical treatment—to provide just one model—such a respectable concept as that of ‘reason of state’; in placing the right of the state over that of its members, the horror is potentially already posited.” But desktop murders are very much around and people down below appear willing to “perpetuate their own servitude and degrade themselves.” However, Teddy squeezes a fleck of hope out of his imagination, “education and enlightenment can still manage a little something.”

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.