Homage to Adorno at the Goethe

The Holocaust transformed our moral landscape for ever. Reflecting on this unspeakable event, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno offered his famous, albeit widely misinterpreted, rhetorical lament. No poetry, he said, could be written after Auschwitz. Adorno – who is the subject of a conference at Thessaloniki’s Goethe Institute today on the centenary of his birth – was not urging poets to stop writing altogether. What he meant, rather, was that poetry before and after the Holocaust were divided by an unbridgeable chasm. To be sure, in the wake of the most traumatic event of the 20th century, poetry had to learn to express what lies beyond the limits of the imagination. Adorno, for his part, devoted much of his life to deciphering what it was that made such barbarism possible, although he became increasingly pessimistic about the remedial effect of philosophy and literature in general. The question, for Adorno, is why did the progressive forces of the Enlightenment that promised to liberate man from fear and turn him into a master of nature instead create a world where people were willing to commit such monstrosities? Against the mainstream, Adorno argued that Auschwitz was not a mere aberration or the manifestation of some misanthropic instinct deeply rooted in the darkest corners of the German psyche. Rather, it was the logical outgrowth in a society where reason has gone wild. Put in the driver’s seat by the Enlightenment, reason became an effective tool in the hands of the ruling elite, ensuring compliance and control over the «reified» masses – that is, of people turned into objects. Without this reification, the Holocaust would not have been possible. Adorno was born in 1903 in Frankfurt am Main. Along with Max Horkheimer, the co-author of his best-known work, «Dialectic of the Enlightenment,» which was published in 1947, Adorno became one of the leading members of the much-celebrated Frankfurt School, the headquarters of critical theory. The school, which was forced into exile in the United States from 1935 to 1953, did not preoccupy itself with Marx’s reductionist critique of capitalism but tried to shed light on the oppressive and exploitative structures that pervade modern bourgeois society – and which are often disguised under the insidious influence of the mass media. Because of its shift away from revolutionary action, the institute was accused by orthodox Marxists of elitism and passivity. Adorno’s lack of direct support for the 1968-69 student revolution gave voice to critics and bruised his reputation. He died soon after the upheaval. Jointly organized by the Goethe Institute, the Jewish community of Thessaloniki and the graduate and postgraduate associations of Heidelberg University, the event starts at 8.30 p.m. Speakers include Martin Seel, professor of philosophy at the University of Giessen, and Zisis Papadimitriou, sociology professor at the University of Thessaloniki.