King Of The Curmudgeons

Reflections from Damaged Life
By Theodor Adorno
Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Main 1951; English translation NLB 1974; Verso Edition 1978

Why didn’t I read Minima Moralia back in my grad school days, when I was expected to? That was when I was soaking up Habermas, Gramsci, Althusser and the rest of the continental contrarians. Did I get lazy, or even at that age could my welt take only so much schmertz?

After all, Adorno is the spiritual godfather of the “No Logo” crowd. If you’re in the market – forgive the expression – for full-bore denunciation of the grotesque travesty that life has become in an age of machine-states, viral commercialism and global corporatism, Adorno’s your man.

“It is part of the mechanism of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produces,” he proclaims, then spends the rest of the book precisely detailing the damage the 20th century order has done to the human soul. In his view, there is something deep-down corrupt about even our own happiness. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”

The slightest things set him off. “Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men,” he barks. This, because he doesn’t cotton to those new-fangled door hinges. It has become impossible “to close a door quietly and discreetly, yet firmly. Those of cars and refrigerators have to be slammed, others have the tendency to snap shut by themselves.” By the end of the paragraph, he can barely contain himself. “And which driver is not tempted, by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists?”

Parcelled out in page-long aperçus, this would be bathroom reading if the bathroom were not also where the razor blades are kept. Still, dipping into Minima Moralia even at random will invariably yield an intriguing thought or a bang-on observation. I spent most of April watching CNN and MSNBC document the rush of hardware toward Baghdad. Here’s Adorno:

“The total obliteration of the war by information, propaganda, commentaries, with camera-men in the first tanks, war reporters dying heroic deaths, the mish-mash of enlightened manipulation of public opinion … It is as if the reified, hardened plaster-cast of events takes the place of events themselves.”

He wrote that in Autumn,

Literary Review of Canada 2003