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Professor Fabian Arzuaga and "Critical Theory: 50 Years After Adorno"

Over Thanksgiving break, Professor Fabian Arzuaga traveled to Mexico for the Adorno Conference. Titled “Critical Theory: 50 Years After Adorno,” Arzuaga and his colleagues set out to discuss and reflect upon capitalist society through the lens Theodor W. Adorno. Adorno was a twentieth-century German philosopher whose work focused on the relationship between modern society and the human condition. 

Professor Arzuaga was kind enough to lend his time to answer some questions about himself, his work, Adorno, and the conference.

1) Can you give some background about who you are and the work you do?

As a Vassar College graduate, I really appreciate the small liberal arts environment of W&M. My research is currently on the political economic dimensions of authoritarianism as a psycho-social phenomenon and the politics of the abolition of work. I was trained as a political theorist in a department of political science, but my research strongly intersects with philosophy, psychoanalysis and social theory.

Like many folks, I've been working for wages since I was 15 years old (I grew up in NYC). Before going to graduate school in 2008, I was occupied at one point or another as a cashier, a salesperson, a roadie (without being on the road), an office worker, a shipyard laborer, a journalist, a waiter, and a bartender. Of course, many of these experiences were positive and formative but the world of work as a young subordinate also terrified and fascinated me.

Why was measuring the time one worked such a paramount concern for both employer and employee? (or, really, why does work take the form of paid time expenditure?) Why would the clock seem to impossibly slow to a crawl at the end of a shift? Why were supervisors and bosses given despotic power over what, how, when and where you worked? Why did seem like they, too, were subject to similar or same despotism even if they had no boss beyond themselves? Why do many of us assume that devotion to our jobs or careers is considered a cardinal virtue? Most importantly, why did so many people take these phenomena as self-evident?

I went on to explore these questions in graduate school which, of course, led to many, many more questions. I hope to share some of these along with at least some answers in a book I'm currently under contract with Bloomsbury Academic Press to publish next year entitled Marx, Adorno, and the Critique of Labor: Individuality in the Age of Surplus Populations.

2) What is the Adorno Conference?

The conference's official name was "La theoría crítica: 50 años después Adorno" (Critical theory: 50 years after Adorno), and it was organized by the postgraduate sociology program at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the philosopher, sociologist, and musicologist Theodor Adorno. He was a founding member of the massively influential school of critical theory known as the "Frankfurt School" since they were founded in that city in the 1930s. Comprised of researchers in philosophy, economics, sociology, and political science, these left intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish, had to complete a great deal of their research while in exile in the United States.

3) Why was it in Mexico, and why did you go?

While the Frankfurt School has garnered international influence over the decades, interest in the work of its earliest theorists has slowly swelled in a veritable revival in recent years. I think this reassessment might be explained by the fact that they were much more attuned than their intellectual successors (Jürgen Habermas being the most famous) in theorizing the economic imperatives of capitalism and how they profoundly shape culture, politics, and consciousness. Despite the source material being originally written in German and English, intellectuals and activists of Latin America have notably propelled this revival.

It's difficult to find academic outlets to share research on Adorno in the United States, especially about the profound influence Marx played in his work. Most American academics associate Adorno with the study of culture and aesthetics, the findings of which are also often surmised to amount to little more than a seething and pernicious pessimism made all the worse by being crowned with the notorious and rightfully-impeachable hatred of jazz. While there may be some kernel of truth in this ill reputation (insofar as all falsehoods contain traces of truth), Adorno's work was not only enormous* and eclectic*, it was also of a profundity with which we still have yet to explore and appreciate.

*(20 volumes of publications with another 20 or so volumes of previously unpublished material)

*(e.g. Wagner operas, the psychology of authoritarianism, the commodity character of contemporary consciousness, etc.).

4) Were you presenting at the conference?

My paper was part of a panel of topics that brought the ideas of Marx and Adorno to bear on contemporary social and political research. My paper, "The Law of Value and the Logic of Superfluity: a Neue Marx Lektüre reading of Adorno," examined the common grounds by which modern individuality seems to ineluctably decompose in an ostensibly 'individualistic society' and how nearly a billion people in the world today are considered superfluous for the global economy.

5) What stood out to you as the most important takeaway from the conference?

I think I finally understood why a sizable amount of research on the Frankfurt School --especially coming out of Latin America -- puts a great deal of emphasis on what they take to be the autonomy of local and spontaneous political organizations, whether these are made up of street vendors, university students, or the unemployed. Collective struggle occupies a central and unmistakable presence not only in the Latin America's academic research, but on the street and in everyday consciousness.

I cannot say for sure whether this culture derives from what might be a comparable weakness of state institutions in countries like Mexico relative to the US and the EU or to the long history of popular struggle in the entire Latin American region against the motley parade of murderous autocratic regimes that were (and continue to be) all too commonly supported, funded, and imposed by US foreign policy. I do strongly suspect that "politics" means far more in terms of presence and consequence in the everyday lives of many more Latin Americans than (North) Americans of the United States.

6) Is there anything from the conference that you want to incorporate into your work?

The manner in which politics occupies a greater part of people's everyday lives than here in the US made me reassess my understanding of spontaneous social organizations and to rethink the design of my seminar, "Politics of the Abolition of Work." Certainly, I still believe that work has profound contemporary political relevance not only because the workplace can be an important site of contestation over decision-making, authority, and autonomy, but also because the specific form of waged-work itself constitutes one of the most central institutions of modern life. But I've emphasized in the choice of readings a lot more politics in the politics of the abolition of work. I'm looking forward to hearing what my students make of this stuff, much of which is assigned at the end of the quarter.

You can find more information about Professor Arzuaga and his work here and here.

More information about Theodor W. Adorno can be found here