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Adorno and Democracy: The American Years

by Shannon L. Mariotti

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234 pages  Pubdate: 07/22/2016  6 x 9  

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German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) is widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers. A leading member of the Frankfurt School, Adorno advanced an unconventional type of Marxist analysis in books such as Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Minima Moralia (1951), and Negative Dialectics (1966). Forced out of Nazi Germany because of his Jewish heritage, Adorno lived in exile in the United States for nearly fifteen years. In Adorno and Democracy, Shannon Mariotti explores how this extended visit prompted a concern for and commitment to democracy that shaped the rest of his work.

Mariotti analyzes the extensive and undervalued works Adorno composed in English for an American audience and traces the development of his political theory during the World War II era. Her unique study examines how Adorno changed his writing style while in the United States in order to directly address the public, which lay at the heart of his theoretical concerns. Despite his apparent contempt for popular culture, his work during this period clearly engages with a broader public in ways that reflect a deep desire to understand the problems and possibilities of democracy as enacted through the customs and habits of Americans. Ultimately, Adorno advances a theory of democratic leadership that works through pedagogy to cultivate a more robust and meaningful practice of citizenship.

Mariotti incisively demonstrates how Adorno’s unconventional and challenging interpretations of US culture can add conceptual rigor to political theory and remind Americans of the normative promise of democracy. Adorno and Democracy is an innovative contribution to critical debates about contemporary US politics.

Shannon Mariotti is associate professor of political science at Southwestern University. She is the author of Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal: Alienation, Participation, and Modernity.

This is sure to be a groundbreaking contribution to the scholarship on Adorno. Meticulously researched, carefully conceived, and lucidly written, Mariotti’s book works through a series of neglected writings to unveil a surprising portrait of a principled and richly nuanced democratic theorist. Adorno and Democracy helps to advance the conversation about how an ethics of democratic engagement—our efforts to attend to the suffering of others—can be meaningfully interwoven with a more radical critique of liberal ideology and the capitalist mode of production. -- Andrew J. Douglas, author of In the Spirit of Critique: Thinking Politically in the Dialectical Tradition

In stark contrast to the commonly heard complaints about pessimism and elitism, Mariotti presents an account of Adorno as an engaged and concerned proponent of democratic citizenship. Thanks to this splendid book, it is possible to see that his famous critique of the enlightenment did not prevent him from being a deeply progressive thinker. -- Espen Hammer, author of Adorno's Modernism: Art, Experience, and Catastrophe

In Adorno and Democracy the political theorist Shannon Mariotti turns to less familiar texts that Theodor W. Adorno wrote in English for an American audience while he was living in Californian exile and reveals a latter-day Tocqueville keenly evaluating the shortcomings and potentials of everyday American political life. Alongside his criticisms of 'pseudo-democracy' and the culture industry, this 'American Adorno' also advocated for the cultivation of the latent 'substantive forms of democracy' he witnessed in existing American culture. Moreover, by drawing on a wide range of Adorno’s writings Mariotti successfully shows the connections between Adorno’s concepts of experience, critique, autonomy and democracy. She elaborates Adorno’s understanding of 'democratic leadership' as a kind of public pedagogy aimed at developing inchoate 'countertendencies' into 'vaccines' in order to strengthen democratic culture. Through judicious comparisons with affect theory, Freire’s pedagogical theory, contemporary novelists and current alternative democracy researchers and praticioners Mariotti demonstrates the continuing relevance of Adorno’s diagnoses, arguments and proposals for what he called 'democratic enlightenment.' While other recent books have argued for a political Adorno, Mariotti’s study makes the case for the more controversial claim that Adorno’s American writings are in fact those of a full-bore 'democratic theorist.' This study is certain to elicit great interest and discussion among political theorists, critical theorists, and intellectual historians. -- Henry W. Pickford, Duke University

Adorno and Democracy offers a carefully researched, well-written, and long overdue rethinking of Adorno’s contributions to political theory.

Mariotti’s Adorno and Democracy makes a giant leap forward in demonstrating the importance of Adorno’s critical theory for contemporary democratic politics [. . . .] -- Contemporary Political Theory