In the essay “Culture Criticism and Society,” Adorno makes the radical claim that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno’s statement appears to be wildly counterintuitive—it seems as if we would need art even more after such devastating atrocities. What then could Adorno mean by this? In this post, I hope to illuminate some of the conceptual framework that Adorno is working within as well as to provide some insight as to why Adorno might understand poetry as barbaric.
In order to best understand Adorno’s intent in “Culture Criticism and Society,” I find it necessary to explicate three main concepts used within the essay: transcendence/immanence, reification, and false consciousness. In our excerpt of the essay, Adorno begins by referring to the “transcendent critique of ideology,” which he argues is now “obsolete.” He later goes on to suggest that the “immanent method” of critique is just as fruitless. What do these terms mean here? At the most fundamental, transcendence refers to the idea that the spiritual world is separate from the material, where immanence suggests that the spiritual can only exist insofar as it is contained within the material.
Therefore, the “transcendent critique” that Adorno mentions refers to Kant’s idea of transcendental idealism, which suggests that we can only experience the world via the a priori concepts we contain as part of our cognitive faculties. This in turn suggests that we can never truly understand things as they are in themselves, indicating a distinction between appearance and reality. Yet, for Adorno, the transcendent critique fails because it falls prey to the “very reification which is its critical theme.” This is most likely because theseemingly a priori modes of thought become reified, concretized as part of the social understanding, defeating their original purpose as separate from experience. Adorno suggests that one advantage of the transcendent critique is that it makes evident the aspects of society that have become reified; it has the potential to act as a “mirror to society’s crudity and severity.” However, Adorno remains skeptical of this idea, because ultimately “all phenomena rigidify;” they become inextricable from the monolith of culture.
At the same time, Adorno finds the opposite philosophical critique, “immanence,” to be equally lacking. This strategy is best characterized by Marxist idea of false consciousness, which seeks to reveal the way the capitalist regime dictates culture to the masses. However, this Marxist philosophy ultimately fails to uncover the depth of the causal relationship between capitalism and culture; instead, the origins of culture become obfuscated by the “absolute rule of that which is.” Like Benjamin’s Angel of the Past, we can only view history as one large wreck; we are not able to extricate the reproductions from reality. This cheapens culture for Adorno, because then, culture is no longer contingent—it is no longer tied to nor can it be traced back to its origins, nor does it stand as a “particular” in opposition to anything. This makes culture “worthless,” “vulgar,” “expendable,” “trash.”
Thus, Adorno finds both the transcendental and the materialist philosophies insufficient to describe the way culture operates within society. For Adorno, much like Foucault, the inability to critique culture via the failure of the dialectic signals the disintegration of philosophy. Is it then surprising that Adorno finds poetry “barbaric”? The word “barbarian” is etymologically derived from the Greek, for the way foreign languages sounded indistinct and unintelligible to the Greeks—essentially, gibberish: “barbarbar.” Therefore, it is appropriate that when describing poetry “after Auschwitz,” Adorno chooses a word that represents the failure of language, stating “even most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter.” We see the failure of language at work in Celan’s “Death Fugue” through the loss of syntax and constant repetition of both sounds and images. However, Adorno’s suggestion that this constitutes only “idle chatter” seems rather harsh. Furthermore, it seems as if the concept of the degradation of language predates the Holocaust. Why then does poetry become barbaric only after Auschwitz? This remains unclear, but I propose that it has to do with the culture of total destruction that the World War II era is characterized by.
Nevertheless, I want to argue that poetry’s barbarism goes beyond just its formal features. Adorno suggests that writing poetry is a barbaric act because it tries to transgress against the cultural monolith by carving a uniquely individual interpretation of the world, but in the process, its meaning (contingency, particularness) is lost, rendering it part of the cultural mass. As Adorno states, “the more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own.” In this sense, poetry is barbaric because it is against culture (individual vs. society) and a-cultural (that is, outside of “true” culture, because it is no longer located) and contained within the culture (as part of the social mass) at the same time.
Finally, we must ask if we should—if we can—write poetry after Auschwitz. Adorno seems to believe that this is an impossible venture due to the “absolute reification”—that is, the concretization, total subsumation into society—of the individual mind. Nevertheless, there seems something noble in the task: at the very least, the process of writing may be therapeutic; at its most promising, it may offer a brief moment of transformation before it is taken up into the cultural monolith.
For further reading on Adorno, Kant, or Marx, I recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
Wolff, Jonathan, “Karl Marx”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
Zuidervaart, Lambert, “Theodor W. Adorno”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .