Courtesy of The New York Times and Bard College.

May 4, 2024

AMADOR | What Adorno Taught Me About War, Movements and Myself

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It was 1969. Philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno received a letter from Herbert Marcuse. In the letter Marcuse had one request: to give a lecture at the Frankfurt school where Adorno taught. But Adorno’s interest in the idea immediately began to atrophy; student protests were erupting around the world, and Marcuse had been “the idol of the rebellious student.” Not a few months prior, students occupied a department building, setting it ablaze as “a protest against the indifference to war in Vietnam.” It sent a message, but the students were promptly imprisoned: a win, then a loss. 

Perhaps there is truth to the platitude: History does, and always will, repeat itself. This week, Columbia University student protestors occupied a campus building, breaking windows and barricading themselves in. It garnered national attention, but Columbia left it to police to end the siege and detain the students: another win, another loss.  

And the same will likely happen at Cornell — but it hasn’t yet. It’s actually been quite peaceful. What has transpired across universities across the country, however, is anything but. More than 40 pro-Palestinian protestors have been arrested at Yale; nearly 200 at UCLA; 300 at Columbia. Some schools like Brown have managed to reach agreements with student protestors, claiming to consider negotiations on their main request: to divest from companies supporting Israel. But they won’t. And even if they do, it won’t do anything. Divestment has proven to have very little, almost no, impact on any financial markets, and therefore minimal influence on any company’s behavior in the modern age. But students don’t need to know that, says school leadership. At least the encampments are gone. The students think they’ve won. 

Since Oct. 7, the war in Gaza — the death of thousands of innocent civilians — has left college students ignited with zeal. It’s a zealous call for a cease-fire. For divestment. For revolution. For humanity. 

But are disruptive protests the most effective means to achieve this end? Adorno thought: “no.” Adorno was an unpopular theorist of his time. Critical theorists sought to develop guidelines to help us self-reflect on the injustices in the world, and then change it. Clearly, it was, and continues to be, an attractive framework for groups seeking change. But what divided Adorno and Marucuse was the question on the linearity between theory and praxis: Could critical theory accurately grasp social reality? Could we apply reflection towards a meaningful practice and therefore amount to change? 

You can’t. The chants, the teach-ins, the nonnegotiable demands, the tactic to escalate, to incite; the effort to mobilize a critical mass of students has bordered on the oppressive. Say what you will about Israel or Palestine — both sides are guilty of this. This is why universities are caught at a standstill. Republican politicians on the right threaten to silence those who sympathize with the Palestinians; students and faculty threaten to escalate if their demands aren’t met. Both sides want change, but have cornered themselves through practice that won’t achieve it: Abide by what we demand or we’ll destroy you and your university, one way or another

Unfortunately, the state doesn’t care about how symbolically utopian the movement is: Trespass private property, and you’ll face repercussions; burn a building down, and you’ll get arrested. The people and the movement are silencing themselves in the act, rather than relaying the message as intended.

This realization may likely anger those protesting the war in Gaza, inasmuch as it struck a nerve with those against the war in Vietnam in the ’60s. But this isn’t an insight against revolutionary ethics, it’s an appeal towards a transformative potential within theory and praxis. We can reflect on the injustices in the world and achieve change. Not through extra-parliamentary means but through the democratic process instead. There’s a fine line that separates resistance and repression, acknowledged Adorno. For the former can easily slip into the latter. Just look at what’s happening at universities across the country

In this resistance movement — or any for that matter — we must find ways as intellectuals to reach mass audiences in educational and pedagogical ways. It’ll form new cadres whose influence would then reach society as a whole. 

So no: I won’t boast on hypotheticals or dreams on how “no institution” holds powers within the encampments occurring around university campuses — because it’s simply not true. Our expression is protected in theory, but in practice it is not unfettered or unbound. Our constitution says so. And for good reason. These acts can easily turn to hate, or crime, as Adorno feared: they can turn repressive. 

It’s why I write. No institutional body has rein on the words I use. And long after the war has ended, and hopefully the Israeli and Palestinian people find peace, perhaps very few will remember the sights of the encampments we built or the buildings we burnt to the ground. But they’ll never forget the language encoded in the cause.  

Hugo Amador is a senior editor and staff writer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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