What Barbarism Is?
An enormous nation happy in a style,
Everything as unreal as real can be.
Prometheus stole fire to distract the gods, not for our gift; what he bestowed was reason, the ability to make anything into a weapon—even this.
by Robert Hullot-Kentor (2010)
What interests us in the thought and writings of T. W. Adorno cannot interest us. Where it touches us most closely in the urgency of the moment, it misses the mark entirely. When it cuts to the quick, nothing is felt. This is easily demonstrated. For wherever we open Adorno’s writings, whichever volume we turn to, the topic is the barbaric and barbarism. In Aesthetic Theory, we read that the “literal is the barbaric”; we learn in the section on “Natural Beauty” that “it is barbaric to say of nature that one thing is more beautiful than another.” Adorno insists, again in Aesthetic Theory, that he will not temper his most notorious claim that it is “barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz.” Concerns we barely recognize are nonetheless barbaric: the New Objectivity is said to “reverse into the barbarically pre-aesthetic.” Inwardness is “barbaric.” Even it is barbaric, says Adorno, to name the artist “a creator.” I am positive that he would have found this fragmented rendering of phrases from his work barbaric. The relentless apostrophizing of the barbaric emerges as the single apostrophe of his labor and circumscribes the entirety of what he perceived. In Minima Moralia “the whole itself” is, in fact, said to be “barbarism.” And, if so, if the whole itself really is barbarism then nothing less than all things are barbaric. In the stream of assertion that threads through his thousands of pages, Adorno never once admits a half-tone, not a single “almost,” “semi,” or “formerly” barbaric. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the culture industry that this country produced is “barbarism.” This American “barbarism is not the result of cultural lag,” as other European visitors to America speculated, he writes, but of progress itself. And here, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, we arrive at the statement that shifts like a magnet under the iron filings of what has so far been a scattered catalogue of barbarism’s membra disjecta and causes them, as you’ll see in a moment, to draw together, take their place, become legible and shape the focal point of the whole of thinking. The intention of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno writes, with Horkheimer—this is the sentence—is to understand why “humanity founders in a new form of barbarism instead of entering a truly human condition.”