A Fictional Tribute to Theodore Adorno

Back then, on the day of the 1968 democratic convention in Chicago, and in the days before and after we protested, V and I had a hero. It was Theodore Adorno, an exiled German intellectual we emulated in every way, a guy often quoted in anti-establishment circles because of his creative critique of capitalism. He was at odds with nearly every established thing, especially business and boardroom puppeteers. He had a name for the methods they use to control the common man. He called it the ‘culture industry’.

But at the time, among the socialist leaning intellectual elite, who it can be argued also were puppeteers, he was a constant source of material, inspiration, and justification. The few of us who identified with the underground here in Madison, at least for a time, thought highly of Adorno’s work because it challenged us, slapped us in the face, and strengthened our arguments. Through him we sometimes felt capable of taking on big questions.

Viewing the clash of police and protesters at the democratic national convention on television, or having read about it in the paper, he would have grabbed coffee or tea or some such thing and composed an essay on the brutality of the state. I don’t know if he drank much. Adorno would have torn to pieces mayor Richard Daley and his corrupt officials for even calculating confrontation. He would have singled out and verbally abused the unwitting armed thugs of the culture industry, in this case the CPD. But we never heard a word. He died a year later still deliberating over Aesthetic Theory, perhaps his greatest work some say, but to me another abstraction. His prolific life ended at death in 1969.

I was trending, in those days, away from the abstract toward the tangible. I’d grown skeptical of intellectual pursuits. Thinking back, I’d just reached my potential too son. But I still respect Adorno for what he was, an incredible intellect, a philosopher and sociologist who also liked music, especially Schönberg of course, which brought him a measure of comfort. At least he liked the composer during the early years.

Maybe as the police did their thing in Chicago he listened to the Suite for piano, String Quartet no.3. Someone said he breathed the early works of Schönberg (Schönberg was known in the 1920s for radical contrapuntal pieces but following a heart attach in 1945 in Los Angeles, he composed hymns and such which pissed off Adorno.). People change. I’ve remembered that odd factoid about Schönberg because it appears that life knocked the shit out of him.

What would Adorno have done if he’d been with us on the streets in Chicago that night? I think if he’d been with V and I in front of the Hilton Hotel or Grant Park – gas flying, blood letting, crowds shocked and racing through the dark streets, faces animated by fear – maybe if he’d been there he’d have been as freaked out and wide eyed as I was. Who knows? Adorno was an icon, cool headed it seems in every situation, or so we believed him to be.

“Art is the sedimentation of misery,” Adorno wrote, or words to that affect. Many have attempted to address human suffering, and the root of suffering, and the causes of human suffering, from endless perspectives through the centuries. Working with the sediment of misery is still the work of artists today though again more hopeful. I think of Spark, the Design Collaborative, design thinking in general. It all seems hopeful to me, a continuation of searching for the enlightenment but interesting at least. Adorno on the other hand implied that attempting to ‘pacify’ the masses through culture, clearly a different and clandestine proposition, simply extends misery. I’m hopeful sometimes to see students addressing the most vexing social issues with art and design and yet, they don’t have the funding, resources or even access to communication channels that business relies upon.

Regardless, we put Adorn’s quote on misery on a dozen T-shirts, in 1967 I think it was. We thought it ironic at the time that we would render his comment about the culture industry in trash art on an advertising specialty.

Would Adorno have walked up to the cops? Of course not. He was an old man, philosopher, intellectual, a man of ideas. But it would have been incredible to sit across the street, a dash of teargas in the air, sipping wine and snapping fingers to the beat of his analysis, the counterpoint of police tapping their batons on shields, concrete music at it’s best.

Adorno was not in Chicago, as far as we knew, to protest the DFL convention; or war or anything else. In truth, neither were we. We neither succeeded in advancing anyone’s political agenda, nor did get laid.

The street action ended for us on chrome stools in a stale bar just a few minutes from Lincoln Park, instead of behind bars where some spent the night. Worse yet some went to the hospital. V had been literally dragged by one of the policemen, a big guy who had taken him down and then gripped his wrists, but the cop got distracted, nearly overwhelmed for a second by the surging crowd, and V got away.

At the bar V showed me thick bruises from batons, one on his right thigh just above the knee, the other across his ribs just below the right armpit. That’s the one that could have killed him I think. The medic said there is an axillary artery right around there. The same guy, one of the medics volunteering with the protesters, taught us that night how to watch for signs of clotting – hard thick pads of ashen skin surrounded by large patches of very dark bruised skin is a good start. V had that but wouldn’t go into the ER. It was all about the money with him, and maybe machismo.

Adorno wrote feverishly, from 1926 forward. He published his Construction of the Aesthetic in Frankfurt in 1933, just a few years after my parents were born as I think of it. That same year he fled Vienna (Adorno was given to blasting whole cities, even nations, with sweeping gestures, a trait not lost on his generation, but he was particularly amusing and entertaining as he did it so he became popular.).

Hitler’s popularity and brutality was rising at the time, too. Even Hitler, as V pointed out, and his leather-clad minions of all people, talked of the enlightenment. From a comfortable distance across time and space, the notion of a Hitler yammering on about the enlightenment, and getting there by eliminating anyone that wasn’t like him, is hilarious. I can’t imagine the horror I would have felt being in Germany at the time.

Of course Adorno, and others like him, scattered from Germany, like foam flying from the lips of rabid dogs, some to Zurich, to Swizerland, and he to England. Increasingly he became disillusioned and wrote in near disdain about the whole idea of a cultural enlightenment. That promise had, already in his day, become unlikely. I think it was this grim realization that captured V’s attention too, and thus mine. In the end, intellectuals have little impact on suffering, however well intentioned, however well positioned in society.

From England Adorno emigrated once again, this time to the USA, to New York. He entertained everyone he met, philosophizing into the early morning hours on a daily basis. He fucking exploded onto paper, which is one of the most inspiring things about the man – incredibly prolific. On paper, and in other public venues, he challenged the literate, artistic and political worlds all at once to become more responsible, to awaken. How could you not want to investigate Adorno? He took us all on, everyone who cares to align with modernity, religion, the arts, politics, this or that philosophical thread; past, present or future. He wasn’t clearly on a side except I suppose the side of socialism. Anyone knows of the true intellectual, they cannot easily be pigeon holed.

In the late 30s in New York, people gathered to drink Adorno’s rhetoric, and to hear the ascending scales of this new philosophy. He knew it all and often mixed the wisdom of occidental philosophy with sufi texts, nomadic wisdom, and tales from distant recesses in the mind. That’s what I heard once anyway. I wasn’t there.

In Wisconsin though, we acted on his ideas, or tried to do so, but instead innocently created a form of self-parody. Looking back I sometimes feel shame.

I recall V in his dark-rimed glasses and I in mine – style over content, debating with anyone who would listen on campus. We had to have dark suits and pale shirts but never once, as far as I remember, deeply acknowledged our motives for mimicry. We practiced an all-pervasive, all-consuming purposeful rationality building on the works of Hegel, probably because he was the obvious target of existentialism, and because Adorno quoted he and Nietzsche so often. But there were other influences. And to our credit, we tried to build on our own observations. The point, for me at least, is that it was all just practice. V could absorb and recall the arguments, connecting one to the next and make them all meaningful even to idiots like me. He knew I was in over my head and didn’t care, at least up until that trip.

If we had ever been that noble voice, cutting through false enlightenment, champions in the fight against an escalating culture industry, the merit is Adorno’s alone. We wore his ideas in the way our peers wore paisley. We literally assumed his persona at times – dark rimmed glasses, sport coats, cropped hair. We were as guilty of lacking true actualization as the systems we denounced.

So it was no surprise to anyone that given this self-inflicted mandate, to expose the world for what it is, and with our dark glasses and dark suits on, we managed an invite from MOBE to join other youngish mover’s and shakers in Chicago, at Grant Park and Lincoln Park. We were cool on their politics but went anyway. It promised to be an incredible scene.

Some of the organizers believed Chicago would be the next Prague, Crowds never really materialized, which is probably good. Nothing remotely ascended to planner’s projections. Even worse, things turned ugly. The worst of it happened before cameras started rolling.

Our friend Abe, who had split the cost of a hotel room with V and I, stuck with us through the MC-5 concert at the festival in Lincoln Park. To be honest we were all there just to socialize, maybe get stoned, and to meet women. But after the concert neither of us saw him until we were about to leave town.

As for V and I, we narrowly avoided getting arrested during the worst of the mayhem that night, which would have been stupid since in all honestly we did everything we could to avoid confrontation. In fact when we tried to walk around the action, and get back to the hotel, a cop chased V. It might have been funny except for the violence it represented. After he got away, which wasn’t difficult since V was a medaling cross-country runner in those days, we drank heavily, got stoned, and slept late into the following morning. Getting chased affected V though – pissed him off I think.

At noon on Tuesday we walked the parks again, trying to find the red-haired woman V had an interest in, and Abe of course, who hadn’t shown up at the hotel. We assumed with a wink that he’d found better things to do. Neither of us had seen him when the cops went nuts so we didn’t think he was in jail.

V predicted more police and direct confrontation would follow, leading to violence, and he was right. We talked about getting out of town but both knew we wouldn’t do that – curiosity and excitement had taken over.

I remember V saying we should stay away from the Amphitheatre but he said that while fucking walking straight in that direction. “Daley’s men might shoot someone tonight,” he kept saying. What actually happened was far less violent but very public. Even so, V kept moving to the center of the action instead of away, and that’s how he suffered his baton blows.

Remarkably, we ran into Abe just after the violence broke out and the three of us left Chicago. Somewhere near Beloit, V decided his side hurt a lot and it was time to drink. I recall a booth beneath the Land of Sky Blue Waters neon sign and a cartoon bear. V was on a roll when we got there, saying to Abe something like, “So much for Hegel and actuality.” He was also on pain meds.

A couple days earlier, on the drive to Chicago, V and Abe had a nauseous, repetitive argument concerning Hegel’s concept of actuality. Abe had no right arguing. V had the training and would eventually enter the University of Chicago, home of dozens of Nobel laureates, and nearly become an award recipient himself in the study of philosophy and anthropology. Abe eventually drove a Budweiser delivery truck.

But at the bar we were all equals and the debate started up again. “There are two independent requirements for actuality. Hegel was all about that,” Abe droned on. My God. Like me he’d probably only read a section or two of the Dialectic but at least I kept my mouth shut. Everyone wanted to impress V, we all tried at one time or another to keep up with him, but this wasn’t Abe’s night.

“There are two conditions,” Abe repeated. He wasn’t even attempting to add value to the argument, just repeating what he thought he remembered. He claimed that even institutions could be considered ‘actual’ if they had the ‘right of subjective particularity’. I wrote that on a napkin because it didn’t make sense. He talked like a frigging dictionary with pages missing yet I wondered if he was, for once, right. “The Democratic party is Actual. It is an actual institution and needed. It satisfies the basic interests of the citizenry, and it is accepted by us, the people, and therefore it is actual.”

V rolled his eyes. “Accepted by us?” V used the word bullshit a lot and said the DFL did not in ‘actuality’ satisfy the basic interests of its participants. It was at best an inflated institution, if actual at all. He said its leaders put on airs as if they were the only good guys and positioned against all manner a evil, a regular theodicy, which to this day I don’t know if that’s even a real word, but V said it. He said the party purposefully induces its constituents to believe that it, and by extension they, are participating in what is good and serving of their interests, when in fact they are not. The Republicans aren’t actual either if anyone wonders. That became even truer after Lewis Powell’s memorandum and subsequent organizing of corporate America in the early 1970s when they began pooling cash. They own media outlets for Christ’s sake and secretly funded the origins of radical talk radio; but shit, I digress.

“They are only actual enough to create the illusion of solidity in that they have their own cultural icon, that ridiculous donkey, a legacy to point to and a published agenda, so on and so forth,” V insisted.

Their discussion was the first of many times since where I recognize that knowing things only goes so far. People in Chicago had known things and had even acted on them in the street, but for what? It was an epiphany to listen to the discussion, if nothing else.

V had something else going on in his head that night, too. Maybe it was about Abe but I think it was about both of us, all of us maybe. Something changed. His eyes were often averted. Occasionally he would look to me as if alarmed, inquisitive, about to speak, but then he would return to his thoughts and leave me to my mine. I recall feeling abandoned and as I think of it, that feeling never left.

We drank nearly to oblivion, Abe all the way there. He actually fell over once trying to score on a woman selecting music at the jukebox. Finally, the bar gave last call and we left. I drove drunk. Abe snored.

As we approached Madison, V rambled on about the red-haired woman; tall, lithe, incredibly long braded hair, the purest skin he’d ever seen, had to be a model, had to be from Ireland with that beautiful accent; soft dimples and incredible smile. Had I seen here eyes? And he interspersed questions to keep me awake. How was I doing? Was I OK? Was I tired? And then we were both silent.

He hadn’t even gotten her name.

Finally, V announced he would leave for Europe soon, which caught me by surprise. He said he’d just decided that in the bar. And, he briefly talked about man’s inability to absorb even the least significant thing, as if he had not only detached from me, but separated from any responsibility to coddle or make sense of anything ever again. He seemed truly at peace. It was the last time we ever talked about anything deeper than baseball.

Years later I took a road trip to Chicago on business. On that trip, which wasn’t all that long ago, I deliberately stopped at Grant Park. On the way home I managed to find the bar in Beloit. It had been renamed, redecorated, and the sign was gone; but memories of V and Abe remained.

1968 was an era of big events, big personalities, and big ideas. Every generation now slips farther from the one before, but in some ways ours was the first radical departure. Us vs. them? Not for me any longer. It didn’t prove to be as useful as we would have liked.

The sociologist and philosopher Adorno was right about one thing. Our institutions are not actual. They are both maladaptive and antagonistic to the needs of the people they were created to serve. Save the few wealthy individuals that control them, we’re no better off today than we were back then – probably worse off. For the workingman there is no enlightened past, present, or future – less social mobility and fewer opportunities are the norm. Things look even worse for our kids and grandkids. If it were any other way we would not be called workingmen; we would be called enlightened men. Worse, we are in increasing numbers, becoming the working poor, entertained by reality television and yelling opinions into a camera, what passes as news.

Adorno understood that and so do I, I think. He was right to point it out but as I say, knowing things doesn’t matter. We’ve been had and we’re beyond the tipping point.

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