Adorno, Butler, and the Death of Irony

By Alex Joffe
Friday, September 28, 2012

Irony cannot exist in isolation; something is ironic only in relation to a larger pattern of events or behavior.  Every three years, on the birthday of the German Jewish philosopher Theodore Adorno, September 11, the city of Frankfurt awards its Adorno Prize to honor scholarly achievement in philosophy, music, film, and theater, all areas in which Adorno worked.  This year, Frankfurt gave the prize to Judith Butler.  Adorno famously stated that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  Giving the prize to Butler, a Jewish American feminist philosopher and Israel boycott advocate, raises the question of whether irony, like poetry, still exists.  

Butler, a leading figure in “Queer Studies,” is better known as an “engaged academic.”  The Adorno Prize, supposedly given for scholarship, has gone to an academic who has erased the line between intellectual endeavor and political advocacy.  Her views on Israel are well known.  She supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.  She has described Hezbollah and Hamas as “social movements that are progressive” and “part of a global Left.”  She refuses to lecture in Israel, preferring universities in the West Bank.

Butler has called for a Judaism that is “not associated with state violence.”  She complains that “precisely because . . . as a Jew, one is under obligation to criticize excessive state violence and state racism, . . . one is told that one is either self-hating as a Jew or engaging anti-Semitism.”  Her recent book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism is an elaborate anti-Zionist statement, explicitly animated by the spirits of Hannah Arendt and Edward Said, a kind of secular diasporic Jewish theology that calls Palestinian “dispossession” an affront which can be rectified only by the “dismantling of the structure of Jewish sovereignty and demographic advantage”—i.e., a binational Israel.

Adorno is vastly more interesting than Butler.  Born into a mixed German family (his mother was Catholic, his father an assimilated Jew), he was a musical prodigy who discovered that music, philosophy, and aesthetics were one. With a doctorate in philosophy, he performed and wrote widely about music and befriended, among others, Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin.  Adorno left Germany in 1934, first for Britain, then America. 

Adorno became one of the founders of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, founded on the idea of understanding the historical settings of ideas and the goal of shaping change and emancipation.  He was adamant against theoretical dogmatism.  His famous 1944 book with Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, put it that “explanations of the world as all or nothing are mythologies”; it also exposed Enlightenment theory as masking dogmatic and totalitarian values.  Both views indict Butler’s absolutism regarding the Good of the Diaspora and the Evil of Israel.

Having escaped Nazism, Adorno was also utterly realistic about anti-Semitism and anti-Semites.  He recalled the German woman who, after seeing a dramatization of the Diary of Anne Frank, commented, “That girl at least should have been allowed to live.”  Perhaps Butler, unconsciously to be sure, aspires to the role of the unusual Jew who, all would admit, deserves being saved.

Butler’s construction of a Jewish argument for anti-Zionism and binationalism is another iteration of Jewish powerlessness.  In contrast, Adorno and Horkheimer, in a 1956 letter on the subject, were blunt: “These Arab robber states have been on the lookout for years for an opportunity to fall upon Israel and to slaughter the Jews who have found refuge there.”

Why would a German city give its leading cultural prize, named after a Jewish philosopher, to an obscurantist American?  Perhaps because this was an irresistible opportunity to use two Jews in order to indict Israel.  As Colin Shindler points out in his important new book Israel and the European Left, Germany’s efforts to contend with the Holocaust have been troubled.  The quote attributed to Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex, “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz,” could have come from Adorno’s lips.  How fitting—ironic—that Adorno has been co-opted into the cause of portraying Israel as akin to Nazi Germany.

Israel as the collective Jew has longstanding resonance in Germany.  As Shindler notes, Europe’s current anti-Israeli boycotts, protests, and violence go back at least four decades.  The European left, in its many manifestations, has regarded Zionism as a unique evil, as a betrayal of the revolution or as actual treason against the workers’ state.  Especially in Germany, Europe’s left inherited from the Soviet Union the trope of anathematizing Zionists as fascists—and added, beginning in the late 1960s, an outright identification with the Palestinians and romanticism about violence inherent in their program.  Butler’s thrall to progressivism and the global left (extending, in her case, to the religious fascism of Hamas and Hezbollah) has a long lineage. 

Adorno, writing to his friend Herbert Marcuse, worried that the students they had encouraged were becoming left-wing totalitarians.  He was more correct than he knew.  Though left-wing violence ultimately caused a wave of revulsion in Germany, the children and grandchildren of 1968 now dominate the country.  Their passions have dimmed but not substantially changed, except that they now find it possible to enlist figures like Adorno in their quietly determined efforts to vilify Israel.  Manichean as only true believers can be, they display what Shindler calls a “Mandela syndrome,” a “polarizing belief of good and bad, or right and wrong,” a “retreat from complexity into celebrity.”  The same description applies to Butler, who finds her wider celebrity by pronouncing on one particular issue, albeit in suitably convoluted terms.

At a certain point, the ironic becomes the merely predictable, part of the pattern and not a contrast with it.   Many Europeans cannot forgive Jews for Auschwitz and the end of poetry any more than their ancestors could forgive the crucifixion.  Jews like Adorno, who cannot defend themselves, are unwillingly co-opted into the anti-Zionist cause; Jews like Butler, in thrall to values they believe will exempt them, willingly lend their Jewishness to the same cause. The contradictions heighten, the denouement creeps closer on the horizon, and the lights continue to go out across Europe.

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