This lecture examines American and European understandings of the concept of culture and highlights the need for developing critical thought instead of yielding to the strength of the status quo in either setting. At the heart of the contrast between American and German culture lie two approaches toward the word culture: (1) gaining mastery over one's natural surroundings and human nature; and (2) caring for and preserving nature that the human power simultaneously destroys. These approaches are not without negative aspects: American culture, based on the idea of taming nature, does not go beyond shaping the external world and relationships between people. In Germany, grounding the concept of culture in the idea of conserving nature for its own sake has led to spiritualization, to Geisteskultur but has made people forget the idea of culture as a conscious confrontation of external and internal nature that shapes political reality. On the basis of these two approaches to culture, Americans tend to regard European culture as limited to aesthetics, and Germans see Americans as “uncultured.” Opposing this anti-American stance, the lecture points out that in American society of pure exchange, democracy is more substantial than in Germany: the universality of the exchange principle leads to a greater freedom from authority, does not allow one to isolate oneself in one's own individual interests, and brings benevolence to human interactions. However, the exchange society generates the pressure of conformity, particularly dangerous for emigrant intellectuals. The talk thus seeks to overcome the dichotomy of uncritically identifying oneself with, or hypercritically isolating oneself from, the United States. Adorno proposes that it is not enough simply to understand one another or realize that everything has positive and negative sides: in both the United States and Europe it is crucial not to let go of critical thought and surrender to the status quo.
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Theodor W. Adorno; Kultur and Culture. Social Text 1 June 2009; 27 (2 (99)): 145–158. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-2008-028
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