James Loeffler reflects on antisemitism and intersectionality
After last October’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, American society responded in predictable fashion: Politicians and communal leaders voiced outrage and sorrow. Twitter exploded with hashtags like #noplaceforhate and #strongerthanhate. And Marginalia’s own Editor-in-Chief, Samuel Loncar, responded with the essay “Antisemitism Is Our Problem.” Yet the chorus of grief also sounded a few false notes; such was the press statement by Columbia University that neglected to mention that it was Jewish people who were the victims in question, nor did it contain the word “antisemitism.” Instead, the text spoke hazily of the general spate of recent “attacks directed at faith and identity,” noting the Orlando Pulse LGBT Nightclub shooting, the murder in Kentucky of two African-Americans, and the violence against “civil rights and anti-racist protesters in the streets of Charlottesville.”
Critics lambasted the hapless Columbia communications team for its tone-deafness. Some even charged the administration with anti-Jewish bias. In all likelihood, the oversight was simply human error. On another level, however, the slippage suggests a deeper American confusion today about the meaning of anti-Jewish hatred. Is antisemitism a unique form of ideological prejudice? Or does is it merely represent one interchangeable form of some underlying hate?
Ironically, these very questions were first asked at Columbia University seventy-five years ago, when a group of exiled German Marxist intellectuals from the Institute for Social Research Frankfurt launched the field of prejudice studies. In fact, as Eric Oberle reminds us in his remarkable new book, Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity, the scientific study of hatred was born in this complicated moment of wartime encounter. Fleeing European antisemitism themselves, these scholars now came face-to-face with American racism. That transatlantic crossing not only forced a reckoning with the crisis of modernity in Europe, but also tested the very limits of social theory to explain the world.
Born in Frankfurt in 1903 to an Italian-Catholic mother and a German-Jewish father who had converted to Protestantism, Theodor Adorno spent his early years ensconced in the vibrant fin-de-siecle world of Austro-German culture. In the 1920s, he worked professionally as a pianist, composer, and critic, while pursuing graduate studies in philosophy and aesthetics. For him, music went hand-in-hand with Marxism. When Max Horkheimer took over the Institute for Social Research in 1930, he assembled an impressive array of philosophers and social critics that grew to include Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm. After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1934 for England, he reached American shores in 1938, where he would remain throughout the war, living in New York and Los Angeles, before returning for good to Germany in 1949.
Adorno’s grandest project was an ambitious attempt to synthesize Kantian idealist philosophy and Marxist materialism into a comprehensive theory of modernity. As a devotee of the German musical tradition, he saw in the artistic genius of Beethoven, Mahler, and Schoenberg a progressive fulfillment of Kant’s Enlightenment humanism–art mattered as a means of individual self-liberation and moral action. Yet as a confirmed Marxist, he also believed that underlying, objective economic forces shaped society: Individuals were ultimately irrelevant; art was but a superficial reflection of these impersonal forces. Caught between those two commitments, Adorno devoted himself to building a neo-Marxist theory to explain how individual subjectivity was compatible with the iron laws of historical materialism. The classical avant-garde was as important as the rising proletariat as equal reflections of the new “human consciousness.” The coming world revolution needed a soundtrack.
Yet when the revolution arrived in 1930s Germany, it came not in the form of a Marxist opera, but as a Nazi death march. Adorno would spend the rest of his life trying to understand how his beloved German Enlightenment could have produced the Nazi Holocaust. More immediately, though, the Nazi triumph forced him to confront his own personal fate as a victim. His own Jewishness, heretofore something attenuated and not quite real, given his complicated family history, was now transformed into a racial brand imposed on him by the Nazis. To the pain of persecution was added the humiliation of exile in a place he regarded as a land of unfettered capitalism, empty consumerism, and racial intolerance. Worst of all, he hated the new American music that had taken Europe by storm: jazz.
Adorno scholars have long squirmed awkwardly around the subject of Adorno’s biting criticisms of jazz. Throughout his writing, the Marxist critic caustically skewered the African-American art as a form of commercial “barbarism” and aesthetic “castration.” Typically, this striking hostility is explained away by reference to his Old World elitism and fussy highbrow, professorial tastes. But in a bold, inspired move, Oberle zeroes in on Adorno’s troubled relationship to race and racial culture to expose a hidden dynamic that promises a large-scale reconsideration of Adorno’s entire oeuvre and the origins of his theory of prejudice. To do so, he argues convincingly that Adorno’s overall wartime encounter with African-American culture as a quasi-Jewish refugee produced a decisive breakthrough in this thinking. Oberle locates the interpretative key to that process in the appearance of a single word that had scarcely figured in Adorno’s lexicon before his arrival in the United States: “identity.”
The American 1940s largely gave us our vocabulary of sociological terms that now dominate how we think about individuals and groups in modern society: The term “ethnicity” first appeared in a 1941 sociological study, and “genocide” came two years later in a book funded by the Carnegie Foundation. “Racism,” too, dates from the war years, replacing the older “race hatred”. And it was Adorno’s close colleague, Fromm, who popularized the term “identity” in his 1941 Escape from Freedom, which Oberle reminds us, was “the first English book to employ the word ‘identity’ as a technical, psychosociological term.”
To explain what drew people to the toxin of authoritarianism, Fromm blended Freud and Marx to argue that modernity had produced a weakened “individual self-image” in relation to society. That imbalance between individual and society led the masses to flee from freedom into the waiting arms of irrationalism and tyranny. The solution, thus, was to restore the liberating force of healthy, positive “identity.” But Adorno reached the opposite conclusion. Far from only a positive expression of individual autonomy, Adorno saw identity in negative terms as itself a potential trap, a racial brand. What had just happened to him in Europe, then, was his acquisition of a “negative identity” shaped by the external reactionary forces of society. Far from a state of universal emancipation, for Adorno, identity reflected a state of subjugation.
Building on this insight, Oberle reads Adorno’s Jewish-themed writings against his ideas about African-American vernacular culture. This leads him to diagnose what so troubled Adorno about jazz: Since it was premised on a fictive “negative identity” imposed from the outside, Adorno concluded that racial culture could not but be an inverted form of racism. Hence jazz or any other form of minority culture was by definition “a negation of universality” and an ugly “wound” left by oppression. Difference was not a marker of authenticity or a moral expression of self-emancipation, but only a mirroring of stereotypes.
Thinking about “negative identity” led Adorno to begin to conceptualize antisemitism and the larger meaning of hatred in modern society. Oberle thus argues that his American exile as an “ambivalent” Jew, coupled with his engagement with African-American experience, activated “a new philosophical emphasis on the negative and vulnerable dimensions of subjectivity.” This in turn led him to “a wider revalorization of sociocultural particularity, a recognition that the autonomous individual could not exist without the particular experience – the wound—that had made him or her an individual.” Instead of dismissing ideological prejudices like antisemitism as “the socialism of fools,” Adorno hence began to search for “psychological and cultural explanations—matters of personal and group identity—rather than retreat behind the old universalisms.”
The result of all this abstract thinking was remarkably concrete. Together with Horkheimer, Adorno began conducting a series of pioneering social science experiments on prejudice in American society. Over the course of the war years, he developed sociological techniques that we now recognize as bedrock approaches to the subject: opinion-polling, survey research, focus-groups, and media-content analyses. Through partnerships with Columbia, Princeton, and Berkeley, and the American Jewish Committee, these studies soon shaped the emerging field of prejudice studies, and not only framed the work of postwar American social science, but also served as part of the psychological research on discrimination and its effects used in the civil rights legal work, including in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. By that time, however, Adorno was back in Germany, at the reconstituted Institute for Social Research, where he would spend the final two decades of his life.
Oberle’s book is full of pathbreaking insights rendered in a dense, fast-paced but crystalline prose. Written for an audience of intellectual historians, it nevertheless speaks directly to all of us as we grapple with the contemporary “interconnections among racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice.” In the end, though, it leaves unanswered the precise question of how Adorno saw the relationship between antisemitism and racism. It is not clear whether Adorno ever really resolved the tension between his Marxian universalism and “the demands of particularity.” Did he go far enough in his recognition of pluralistic nature of human experience—and the varieties of identity that the world has produced? Happily, we can look forward to Oberle’s promised second volume, continuing this crucial endeavor of intellectual history.
Meanwhile, events in our day continue to exhibit the ongoing relevance of Adorno’s insight that the positive and negative identities – subjective self-affirmation and external societal marking – operate in tandem. Any account of antisemitism must grapple with the distinctive character of Jewish identity. That is why the problem of antisemitism continues to resist easy incorporation into a general theory of prejudice–generalization requires congruence between all units in the category. Where do Jewish people fit in to the roster of other oppressed minorities? Neither color nor class neatly apply. Nor does sexuality. Even religion cannot capture the scope of antisemitism, as the case of Adorno himself perfectly illustrates.
That may help explain why Adorno’s latter-day heirs, the social theorists of Intersectionality, have struggled so much with how to slot antisemitism into their theories of prejudice. Like the spokespeople of Columbia University, they remain captive to their own limited understandings of the Jewish identity under attack.
James Loeffler is Berkowitz Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Yale, 2018). Tweets @Jbloeffler.