U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Adorno Watches the Olympics


7 August, 2016

The Olympic “spirit” has now become obligatory. Undergirded by unifying myth and ritual, the ancient games once provided some sense of the whole; today, these “modern” games would insist upon a partial return to events lost to memory and to history–this time staged as a barbaric parody of the whole—if only they did not insist so seriously. The crashing banality of the “Olympic theme” everywhere assaults the ear, a sickening Hollywood confection played in “loops” in broadcasts so that eventually its demands on individual consciousness mark the entire spectacle with an inescapable, only too recognizable, constantly repeated and repeatable fragment of ostensibly “classical” music. The distinction between “classical” and “pop” long ago elided, no one can say precisely when or how the tune was created, only that it stamps the proceedings with a recognizable “brand,” the mode of which is “gravitas.”

10 August 2016

 The Olympic spectacle features beautiful bodies that are grotesque. The bodies are “beautiful” because they are grotesques, beauty no longer having any redeeming or recognizable content immune from the insistent pathos of the Olympic “games.” How hard they all work! Each body reflects the iron logic of a supremely specialized division of labor, each one crafted and then honed for its grim purpose. The swimmer Phelps is a monstrous torpedo. In woeful Sisyphean fashion, he works his way from one end of the pool to the other, lap after lap, so that to finish is not to finish at all, but merely to invite yet another “event.”  Watch him utter a few banalities before slumping away toward the empty respite of a Potemkin Olympic “village” once his daily labors are through, only to do it all again the next day.

16 August 2016


The gymnasts’ bodies are outrageous, made all the more outrageous by the tacit agreement everywhere that these bodies are not outrageous. Advertisements are thus made indistinguishable from the spectacle of bodies. “Welcome to it all” Comcast insists.[1] The histrionic pathos of the athletes’ painful adaptation to their specialized labors does not distinguish itself from the unspeakable pathos of the everyday “couch potato,” whose consciousness is continuously assaulted and molded by innumerable choices of channels and entertainments. “If you build it he will come” a child mindlessly repeats in front of his Comcast-provided television entertainments, a budding consumer’s ritual reenactment of a memorable “catch-phrase” from a film about baseball (not an Olympic “sport”), an absurdist rationale for the pitiless bankrupting of Rio de Janeiro by the gods of global capital. God will arrive at dusk on television screens for children everywhere because Rio built his accommodations only too willingly at first, muting their enthusiasms only after it was far too late. “A revolution began” the disembodied voice of Comcast tells us; alas, it is but the anticipatory memory of a favorite TV show. So too with the ads for Ben Hur, a new “remake” of an odiously derivative older film remaking a still as yet older film that remade an even older popular novel which could never have been old in the first place. (The culture industry has long betrayed no shame in the mindless repetition of its naming practices—surely Phelps will watch it). One can no longer parse the differences between the Olympics, the insipid glory of global capital’s empire and celluloid fantasy. That Judah Ben-Hur stages ridiculous, meaningless resistance to an empire is a detail merely obscene in its remarkable insignificance.

17 August 2016

In this masochistic theater, this unspeakable, tortured warping of bodies to their specialized labors, it must be insisted that the athletes remain “clean.” The Russian “doping” scandal (the linguistic affinities between “dope” and the soporific effect of the entire spectacle are everywhere) has become ludicrous, the utter preposterousness of the Russian chicanery an honest allegory for the basic dishonesty of the Olympic proceedings as a whole.

18 August 2016

The “Today” show begins the daily Olympics broadcast, its name signaling the collapse of every possible temporal signification into a ubiquitous present. Is it the morning or is it today? One has no reason to know, nor to care any longer. Watch “Al” and “Matt” parade through the glittering streets of Rio’s wealthiest shopping districts accompanied by Brazilian “supermodels.” “Super” is a term connoting the global ubiquity enjoyed by these women, having been plucked from obscurity in order to assume the highest reaches of standardized physical grotesquery. The “supermodels” pick out clothes for “Al” and “Matt” so that the pair might take on a Brazilian “look.” The clothes look like the clothes everywhere.


 21 August 2016

It is finished. No one watches the closing ceremonies. Even the continuous sense of foreboding for 2020 does not warrant it.  “See you in Tokyo!”

[1] https://www.ispot.tv/ad/ARD1/comcast-welcome-to-it-all

8 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Dear Ted, Your problem is that you don’t recognize the difference between the true Olympics and the repressive Olympics in their current form in our advanced industrial society. The realization of the true objective of the Olympics would call for the negation of the prevailing Olympics, and the extension of the true Olympics to that which is outlawed or suppressed. Sincerely, your buddy Herb

    • Dear Herb,

      Typical. Your painful circumlocutions, from “repressive” Olympics to “true” Olympics only obscure your sublimating tendencies, a petulant impulse toward the “true” and “beautiful.” The possibility of any “prevailing” Olympics only suggest that in your view one might “rearrange decks chair on the Titanic” or find some more hospitable place in hell.

      Your pal,


  2. New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman sent me this piece from his upcoming column on the Rio Olympics.

    Rio’s Revolution

    Last week’s Olympics in Rio were truly historic, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Rio’s history. What’s important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The media seems too caught up in worrying about their own skins to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the fields for the wheat.

    When thinking about the recent troubles, it’s important to remember three things: One, people don’t behave like lemmings, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Lemmings never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. Two, Brazil has spent decades being batted back and forth between colonial powers, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If authoritarianism is the world’s ironing board, then capitalism is certainly its alarm clock.

    When I was in Rio last week, I was amazed by the variety of the local cuisine, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Rio have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Brazil are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.
    So what should we do about the dispossessed and the corruption in Rio? Well, it’s easier to start with what we should not do. We should not ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to moderation is so poorly marked that Brazil will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Dilma Rousseff needs to cooperate with the necessary economic reforms.

    Speaking with a small business entrepreneur from the small Jewish community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said a local saying that means roughly, “A huge part of real love is constant forgiveness.”

    I don’t know what Brazil will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven’t lost sight of their dreams.

  3. Reading this bad impression made me appreciate all the more the quality of Adorno’s actual writings.

Comments are closed.