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Intellectual Transfer and the Con(Texts) of Exile
Rereading T. W. Adorno’s Émigré Writings
"Nothing else is left to us but to transfer as far as possible that which is not transferable." (T. W. Adorno, Los Angeles, 1945)
In 1941 two essays authored by Theodor W. Adorno appeared successively in the last two issues of the Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, the journal brought out by the Institute of Social Research (hereafter Institute) in its American exile . the first a critique of Oswald Spengler, while the second a critical response to Thorstein Veblen. Both were English translations of lectures delivered in German in the United States, where the emigre Critical Theorist had been residing since 1938. After Adorno's return to the Federal Republic, the essays were published in German after extensive revisions, firstly in the journal, Der Monat, and later, in 1955, in his renowned collection of essays on cultural criticism, Prismen. It is somewhat startling that an early mention of the non-identical, the most crucial category of Adorno.s thought, appears in one of these English-language journal articles, viz. "Spengler Today" (Adorno 1941c). In the course of his criticism of Spengler's determinist view of history, the emigre intellectual clarifies, "Freedom postulates the existence of something non-identical". But, this pithy formulation is conspicuous by its absence in the essay anthologized in Prismen and its authorized English translation from 1967 in Prisms.
As one reads this rather straightforward statement, one is struck by its foreignness to Adorno's signature paratactic phraseology, a mode of intellectual expression that is marked by multiple clauses held together tautly through tensions generated by figures such as paradox. It is clear that the almost accidental emergence of the complex, multilayered conception of the non-identical in relatively lucid English prose is in part an outcome of the process of translation, necessitated in turn by exile. Considering that the above statement emerges as part of the process of translation of an author.s text, whose expression has been regarded as opaque, his idiom as untranslatable, his ideas as nontransferable, and his exile as a cultural failure, this is indeed a significant instance of intellectual transfer. This illuminating moment from Adorno's emigre experience counters the familiar caricatures that it has often been reduced to. This intellectual-in-emigration - the high-modernist European of this well-rehearsed story, who was allegedly averse to and incapable of understanding the melting-pot of the American society - appears in this instance to be straddling the complex and treacherous terrain between two languages and intellectual cultures rather well. Simultaneously the author and translator of this text, Adorno seems to mediate his immense philosophical and stylistic ambition with the intricate demands of intelligibility and clarity at one and the same time.
It is in Adorno's hitherto unpublished letter dated 3rd July 1941, addressed to (Edward M.) David, who was assisting him in the English translation of his essay on Spengler, that one finds a fascinating record of this process of translation. In this document, which meticulously discusses in fourteen points the translation of the Spengler text, Adorno (1941a) conveys his dissatisfaction with the earlier English rendering of a statement that in turn was rather ambiguously worded in German: "Freedom develops...through nature's resistance to man [sic]". In the journal publication (Adorno 1941b: 322), the above statement reads: "Freedom develops only through the natural world's resistance to man [sic]". The German original, which Adorno quotes in the letter, and which in revised form could be found in Prismen (Adorno 1977: 67) reads: "(Freiheit) entfaltet sich bloß am Widerstand des Seienden". Instead of rendering it more-or-less literally, such as: "Freedom unfolds only through the resistance of the existent" (Adorno 1967: 69) - a translation that retains the ambiguity of the German statement - it is overinterpreted and uncoiled, probably with the intention making its intent clearer to its American audience. But in this particular case it turns out to have been counterproductive, as Adorno (1941a) needs to further clarify the dialectical import of his remark to the American translator, "The non-identical element must not be nature alone, it also can be man [sic]". On the contrary, the statement inserted within the text, cited above, i.e. "Freedom postulates the existence of something non-identical" turns out to be both readable and illuminating.
It is evident however that the clarifications quoted above notwithstanding, many parts of the English-language article on Spengler appear to have resisted their 'translation' into English, and thus, not unexpectedly the better-known, postwar German version comes across as the more intelligible one. Conversely and surprisingly, one finds the Veblen article, longer and comprehensive in its American form, to be more accessible and insightful than the somewhat cryptic postexilic version. Thus, it could be stated that the Critical Theorist's English language publications from the early years of his exile in the United States - such as the articles in Studies in Philosophy and Social Science from 1940 to 1941 - are specific instances of a difficult but productive process of intellectual transfer that has hitherto been ignored or undervalued. When these lesser-known English-language journal articles are read against Adorno's familiar postwar German publications, one encounters similar differences - omissions and additions - engendered among others by the difficult and ambivalent experiences of translation and exile. Moreover, such critical, textual comparisons reveal intricate patterns of amendments, inclusions and deletions, many of them complex, coded responses to the altered historical, political realities. Thus, careful readings of such specifics of the travel of thought across cultural and temporal boundaries militate against the familiar and static pronouncements regarding Adorno's untranslatability and bring into sharp focus the non-identity of the process of intellectual transfer.
It can be seen that summary judgments regarding self-censorship in Adorno's emigre writings are deeply implicated in the problematic historiography of the Frankfurt School in exile. Some of the influential accounts of the Frankfurt School's exile in the United States, such as Rolf Wiggershaus. (1994) monumental history, have tended to emphasize the alleged insularity of the Critical Theorists from their New World surroundings. An often lopsided portrayal presents them as an elite and secretive coterie of academicians, who were almost paranoid in their effort to conceal their radical past or dilute the overtly political or Marxist facets of their theoretical writings, in order to safeguard their supposedly privileged status in the United States. Thus, their emigre writings have been seen as products of self-censorship and have been read as being marred by extensive and overcautious dilution or equivocation of their political vocabulary and perspectives.
When, for instance, James Schmidt (1998) compares the two versions of Dialectic of Enlightenment - the first circulated amongst a select readership in 1944 as a mimeographed typescript of over three hundred pages, carrying the title Philosophical Fragments, and the book published by Querido in Amsterdam in 1947 - he emphasizes what he calls "a purging of Marxian terminology", which he attributes in the main to Adorno and Horkheimer's exilic cautiousness. Willem van Reijen and Jan Bransen (1987) however discuss "the disappearance of class history" from the 1947 publication by contextualizing it directly within the ongoing theoretical debates between the members of the Institute, principally Friedrich Pollock and Franz Neumann, regarding the economic nature of National Socialism, which had strongly altered the Critical Theorists' understanding of their contemporary reality. In this "controversy over the primacy of politics or economics in postliberal capitalism", Horkheimer and Adorno had accepted the viewpoint advocated by Pollock wherein he contradicted the Marxist theory of the collapse of capitalism and developed the concept of "state capitalism" to characterize the economies of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Union (Horkheimer & Adorno 2002: 248-52). Besides, world history had seen a tectonic shift in the three years that separated the two versions of the epochal text; Hitler's armies had been defeated in Europe, and a Cold War or the confrontation of blocs had ensued between the new superpowers. Moreover, the internal politics within the United States had gradually become openly hostile towards intellectuals with leftwing backgrounds or sympathies. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), which had been set up during the late 1930s, was given the status of a permanent committee in 1945. Hans Eisler and Bertolt Brecht, colleagues of Adorno and Horkheimer during their American years, were summoned to appear before it in 1947 and thus became early victims of the witch-hunt against suspected communists and sympathizers which later came to be identified as the McCarthy era. This altered political context internationally and the vitiated atmosphere within the United States affected the refugee intellectuals more-or-less directly, and they needed to practice discretion to negotiate the manifold uncertainties of their exile.
The Critical Theorists were constantly aware of their precarious emigre situation, as they were faced with a suspicious American State, an often skeptical academic Establishment, and an occasionally envious emigre community. Even though some of the core associates of the Institute, such as Herbert Marcuse, Pollock and Neumann, had been working with the institutions belonging to the American State during the Second World War and had collaborated in one sense or the other in the war effort, it is by now well-known that almost none of the members of the Institute could escape the extensive surveillance operations of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for at least some part of their stay in the United States (Rubin 2002: 173). In this context, the emigre intellectuals were surely not being paranoid, if they played down their pre-exilic past as leftwing radicals or toned down the political rhetoric in response to the political situation. Secondly, when they left Germany in early 1930s they had viewed themselves - even though disillusioned with the revolutionary leftist and workers' politics after their experience of the failed November revolution by the end of the First World War in Germany - as a leftist intellectual avant-garde. However, their experience of the American society during the late thirties and the forties deeply influenced their ideas, and by the time of their return to post-war Germany, Adorno and Max Horkheimer had started taking the project of Western liberal democracies far more seriously. Thus, what is sometimes read as hedging or equivocation in their emigre writings could simply have been an expression of altered or evolving political orientations.
Therefore, not straightforward self-censorship but a complex, political dialectic underlies Adorno's exilic writings. It is a dialectic that is articulated through a distinct intellectual Sklavensprache [slave-language] (Claussen 1986: 7; 2008: 9), i.e. a resistant intellectual code fashioned collectively by the Critical Theorists, and structured in the main by their experiences, of the New Deal in their exile in the United States, and then of the Cold War after Adorno and Horkheimer's return to the Federal Republic. This mode of expression was intensely political in nature and sought to resist the explicit or implicit taboos and political gag orders through intellectual subversion and indirect resistance. This should not be confused with - and could actually be contrasted to - Denkverbot, or the often self-imposed prohibition on thinking which the reified discourses of academies perpetuate and which Adorno critiqued in his accounts of his American experience (Adorno 1958: 13; 1998a: 224). Conversely, this code collectively fashioned by the marginalized intellectuals could be seen as a language that subverts external prohibitions on thinking through strategies not unlike irony and euphemism. Like many ciphers, it communicated simultaneously on at least two different planes; there was the apparent, relatively inoffensive, import, which was intended for the Establishment, and then there was the hidden, coded message, which like the proverbial message in a bottle [Flaschenpost] was evidently intelligible only to those amongst its readership who were receptive to it. Not unlike other codes, this too was shaped and limited by the experiences of those who shared it, and moreover, like any other code, it courted the danger of being misread by those whom it excludes. Most significantly, such Sklavensprache resonated and expressed - through its linguistic folds - the complex dynamic of the materiality of its cultural and political contexts.
Thus, when one compares the emigre version of the Spengler and the Veblen essays with the postexilic publications, the results are remarkable. One rarely encounters instances that could be categorized as cases of emigre self-censorship, but the postwar versions - located in a fraught Cold War context in the early 1950s in a Germany that was still marked by the presence of the Allied forces - reveals multiple layers of the Sklavensprache that Adorno honed in response to the multipronged political context. In fact, the postwar journal, Der Monat, where the essay was first published in German, was in itself a forum amongst many where the theatre of the Cold War was being played out. Founded by Melvin Lasky in 1948, the journal was intended to be a platform for intellectual exchange between liberals, and in the jargon of the Cold War, the non-communist leftists. In 1967, it emerged that it was being funded by the CIA through institutions such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It could therefore be stated that if in the duration of Adorno's exile, it was the American Establishment that needed to be outmaneuvered, in the post-war Federal Republic, apart from the local Establishment and the Americans and the Western Allies, the political realities of the Cold War, i.e. the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union were active presences which also needed to be intellectually negotiated. Thus, ironically, Adorno.s post-war return to the Federal Republic appears to have added to the 'translation-work' in terms of the intellectual negotiation of the political filters.
In conclusion, it could be stated that sweeping generalizations regarding either the nature of Adorno's emigre writings or the translatability or the lack thereof of his multifarious oeuvre would be woefully inadequate. Besides, just as the academic assessment has failed on the whole to emphasize the vital significance of Adorno's American experience to his thought, it has underestimated his emigre writings, especially those published in English. When subjected to close and comparative readings, they reveal that translation in the emigre context is not a purely linguistic or philosophical but a profoundly political problematic.