Adorno: the stars down to earth and other essays on the irrational in culture

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and other essays on the irrational in culture

Theodor W. Adorno

Edited with an Introduction by Stephen Crook

London and New York

First published 1994

by Routledge
11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE

Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada

by Routledge
29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001

Reprinted 1998

© 1994 Selection and editorial matter, Stephen Crook. Individual
chapters, Theodor W. Adorno

Typeset in Bembo by LaserScript, Mitcham, Surrey

Printed and bound in Great Britain by
T.J. International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or

reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or
other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying
and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without
permission in writing from the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress

ISBN 0-415-10567-6 (hbk)

ISBN 0-415-10568-4 (pbk)




Introduction: Adorno and Authoritarian Irrationalism






Basic situation of the column


The column and the astrological magazines


The underlying psychology


Image of the addressee


The bi-phasic approach


Work and pleasure


Adjustment and individuality


Ruggedness and dependence


Categories of human relationships










Name Index


Subject Index



The editor and publisher would like to thank the following for permission to reproduce the essays in this volume: Chapter 1, “The Stars Down to Earth”, Telos 19, Spring 1974, pp. 13-90; Chapter 2, “Theses Against Occultism,” in Adorno’s Minima Moralia (translated by F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso New Left Books, 1974); Chapter 3, “Research Project on Anti-Semitism,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, Volume IX, pp. 124-43, reprinted by Kösel-Verlag, München, 1970; Chapter 4, “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda,” in E. Simmel (ed.) Anti-Semitism: A Social Disease (Madison: International Universities Press, Inc., 1946).

The editor’s thanks are due to Chris Rojek of Routledge for his encouragement of the project; to the Department of Sociology, University of Tasmania for material and intellectual support; to Rowena Stewart of that department for invaluable secretarial assistance; and to the Department of Sociology, University of Leicester for their hospitality during the completion of the manuscript.



This volume brings together four texts written by Theodor Adorno between the late 1930s and the mid-1950s. The longest, “The Stars Down to Earth” is for the most part a content analysis of an astrology column in the Los Angeles Times which Adorno wrote in 1952-3 during a return visit to the United States from Germany. The shortest, “Theses Against Occultism,” is on a related but more general theme and was written in 1947 as part of Minima Moralia. “Research Project on Anti-Semitism,” a review of the dimensions and sources of modern anti-Semitism co-authored by Adorno, appeared in the journal of the Institute of Social Research in 1941. 1 The title of the final piece, “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda,” explains its topic clearly enough. Published in 1946, the paper draws extensively on a much longer study which Adorno had written in 1943, but which was not published in his lifetime. 2

These four diverse pieces by Adorno are underpinned by a (more-or-less) consistent and coherent account of the powerful tendencies towards authoritarianism and irrationalism operative in mid-twentieth century Western culture. That account is of much more than historical interest: Adorno’s mid-century diagnosis is still, or even especially, relevant in the fin de siècle, postmodernizing, 1990s. Most obviously, there is no shortage of evidence that authoritarian politics, aggressive ethnic prejudice and extreme nationalism are still with us. The genocidal war in the former Yugoslavia and the resurgence of fascism in Italy and Germany are only the most prominent examples that euro-centric media place at the top of our agenda.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the period in which such irrational phenomena seem to have proliferated is also marked by a broader cultural anti-rationalism. It is a truism of debates about postmodernization that the rationalistic “grand narratives” of enlightenment, progress and emancipation have lost their binding power in the advanced societies. Such societies evince a curious intertwining of dependence upon and hostility to science and technology. The anti-rationalisms of “New Age” cults, religious fundamentalism and deep ecology develop alongside and make use of the latest communications technologies and the latest findings in science. Adorno’s diagnoses of the authoritarian complicities of astrology and occultism are directly relevant to these developments. The remarks which follow do not urge a blanket endorsement of every element in Adorno’s theoretical framework, each step in his methodological procedures, or every one of his substantive claims. There is much that is debatable, and a little that is frankly silly, in Adorno’s work. But with all their infelicities, these essays throw down a challenge to students of contemporary culture to come to grips with the crucial, if unfashionable, problem of authoritarian irrationalism. 3 The main dimensions of that challenge can be mapped by three dogmatic propositions.

• Authoritarian irrationalism is an integral part of enlightened modernity, not to be thought away as historical relic, unintended consequence or marginal other.

• The affinity between modernity and authoritarian irrationalism must be sought in the psychodynamics of modernity, in the characterological bases and outcomes of processes of cultural, economic, political and social modernization.

• In their common manipulation of the dependency needs of typically late-modern personalities there is a direct continuity between authoritarian irrationalist propaganda and the everyday products of the “culture industry.”

The three sections which follow explore each of these propositions in turn: while the four texts collected here are not (by Adorno’s standards) difficult, their themes and contexts may not be familiar to contemporary readers. A fourth section offers a summary assessment of the contemporary relevance of Adorno’s work.


Adorno’s unsettling account of the modernity of anti-Semitism provides a useful point of entry into the more general analysis of authoritarian irrationalism.

For too many people anti-Semitism is nothing more than a pitiable aberration, a relapse into the Dark Ages; and while its presence is understandable in those nations of middle and Eastern Europe whose post-war status made the permanent achievement of democracy impossible, it is on the whole viewed as an element foreign to the spirit of modern society. 4

This view, set out at the beginning of the “Research Project,” is as prevalent in 1994 as it was in 1939-41. Indeed, there would be an added point: even for those who acknowledge the contemporary importance of ethnically-inflected prejudices and communal conflicts, anti-Semitism might seem a marginal issue. Afro-Americans, Australian and British Asians, French North Africans and the Turkish communities in Germany can be argued to be far more significant targets for racist politics than Jews. But, although twentieth-century anti-Semitism can appear definitionally linked to the time and place of the Nazi persecutions and eventual Holocaust, it does not go away.

Two German skinheads had, together with a Polish-born pub landlord, attacked and killed Karl-Hans Rohn…after beating him they poured alcohol over him and set him alight, declaring “Open Auschwitz up again, Jews must burn.” 5

It is not only in Germany that European anti-Semitism has re-emerged, of course. It is a potent force in the post-soviet societies of Russia and the East, while the far West is not immune.

Trevor Phillips, the [Runnymeade] Trust’s chairman said: “this report shows that anti-Semitism is still alive and—literally—kicking in Britain today”. Attacks include the desecration of a cemetery in Southampton last year with Neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic slogans, and the circulation of a letter accusing the Jews of the ritual murder of children. Rabbi Neuberger was one of many to receive a hoax greetings card for the Jewish festival of Chanukah last autumn showing a robin at a concentration camp, with the words “away in a chamber” and “God rest ye merry gentlemen.” 6

The ambiguous and persistent negative stereotype of the Jew, the “conceptual Jew” in Bauman’s phrase, 7 portrays Jews not only as alien and inferior but sinister and powerful. It is strikingly easy for the criticism of established economic and political power to slip into complaints against the Jews: during the period of the Nazi rise to power the German Communist Party itself occasionally flirted with anti-Semitism, for example. 8 In our own time there are examples of members of disadvantaged minorities giving an anti-Semitic gloss to their grievances. The tension between African-American and Jewish-American communities in New York has hit the headlines more than once, while in Britain as elsewhere, radical Islamic groups flirt with anti-Semitism. 9

at night he is teaching young Muslims about their “enemies.” The Jews, he says, are the most powerful force in Britain. “Who signed the GATT agreement for Britain? Leon Brittan, a Jew. Who signed for the Americans? Another Jew.” 10

The arguments of the “Research Project” considerably illuminate, even if they do not resolve, these difficult issues. Anti-Semitism is not an historical relic but “one of the dangers inherent in all more recent culture.” 11 In a striking and provocative claim it is held that modern movements for emancipation and the modernizing process are both fundamentally implicated in anti-Semitism.

Emancipatory mass-movements from the first Crusade to the Wars of German Independence are analyzed and shown to display either a frankly anti-Semitic strain or some formal equivalence to anti-Semitism. For example, German universities in the post-Napoleonic period “combined anti-Semitism with the German ideology of freedom.” 12 During the French Revolution itself, the aristocracy was marked as a “race” to be exterminated. Further, “there are a number of accusations against the aristocrats which correspond to the usual charges against the Jews—shirking work, parasitic character, viciousness, international connections, their claim to be chosen, etc.” 13 The argument connects with Horkheimer’s thesis 14 that bourgeois revolutions have always repressed egoistic and hedonistic demands, thereby producing aggression, terror and the perversion of hopes for “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Modern anti-Semitism is the typical expression of that perversion.

On the question of “Enlightenment,” the “Research Project” shows that anti-Semitic themes can be found in the work of the most ostensibly enlightened of modern writers, from Voltaire to Kant and Goethe. However, this line of inquiry does not bear much fruit in the “Research Project” itself where it is simply stated that despite their devotion to “humanity,” enlightenment thinkers were “rooted…in the reality of their environment; their impulses, their intimate sympathies, and aversions derived therefrom.” 15 No clear link is established between anti-Semitism and the logic of enlightenment.

This lacuna is largely made good in the later “Elements of Anti-Semitism” which Adorno wrote with Max Horkheimer. In addition to reflecting on the psychodynamics of Christian resentment of Judaism 16 and on what Jay 17 terms the “archaic roots” of anti-Semitism, Adorno and Horkheimer establish a series of links between enlightenment, conceptual thought, paranoid projection and anti-Semitism. The philosophical starting point is the observation that for epistemology after Kant “the subject creates the outside world himself from the traces which it leaves in his senses.” It follows from the active role of the subject in projecting a conceptual framework onto sensory data to generate empirical knowledge that “reflection, the life of reason, takes place as conscious projection.” 18 Anti-Semitism is not the antithesis of Enlightenment reason but a morbid version of it in which reflection does not set limits to projection. In such paranoid projections “the world becomes the weak or all-powerful total concept of all that is projected onto it.” 19 Paranoia is a pathological possibility built-in to all conceptual thinking, the “dark side of cognition” and the typical symptom of the “half-educated.” 20 Anti-Semitism is a form of paranoid projection which has long been at the heart of Western culture, and it can be expected to flourish as social conditions swell the ranks of the disgruntled “half-educated.” This argument is central to the link which Adorno establishes between the “irrationalism” of fascist anti-Semitism and superficially harmless phenomena such as Astrology.

A more conventionally sociological theme developed in the “Research Project” which bears on the modernity of anti-Semitism is that of “The Jews in Society.” In their historical identification with the role of “middle-man,” with so-called “non-productive capital” and with “rational law” Jews embody those visible features of capitalist modernity which are found most objectionable in petty-bourgeois and utopian anti-capitalism. 21 Anti-Semitism is a nuance away from the “progressive” critique of capitalism, in a development of the well-known diagnosis of anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools.”

The account of Nazi anti-Semitism offered in the “Research Project” is curiously thin, superficial and unconvincing. It is argued, first, that “the replacement of the market by a planned economy of the state bureaucracy and the decline of the power of money capital makes possible the policy against the Jews in the Third Reich.” 22 Second, it is asserted that Nazi anti-Semitism is aimed at foreign, rather than domestic, audiences. “While frank disgust for the anti-Semitism of the government is revealed among the German masses, the promises of anti-Semitism are swallowed where fascist governments have never been attempted.” 23 These formulae are an echo of the tensions which surrounded the gradual and reluctant acknowledgement by the members of the Institute of Social Research that Nazism was more than just another political shell for capitalism, and that anti-Semitism was more than just a diversionary tactic for Nazism. 24 Paradoxical as it may seem, Adorno’s most important insights into fascism and anti-Semitism arise out of the study of non-fascist societies.

The arguments of the “Research Project” and related texts on anti-Semitism can be read in at least two ways which preserve their contemporary salience. One way is to accept that, for European culture, anti-Semitism is not just one ethnic prejudice among others but the very archetype of authoritarian irrationalism. The “conceptual Jew” is the defining and threatening other of, first, Christian Europe and, later, the Europe of national states and cultures. When other groups are singled out as the “enemy within”—aristocrats or Asians, communists or Catholics—they are endowed with a kind of honorary Jewishness. Alternatively, “anti-Semitism” can be read as a metonym for more general mechanisms of prejudice and collective scapegoating, for an authoritarian irrationalism which may take on different surface characteristics in different environments. Either way, Adorno’s account of the modern prevalence of anti-Semitism/prejudice and its link with authoritarianism needs to be understood in relation to his model of the psychodynamics of modern culture.

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