Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “Cogitative Self-Reflection”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 8. Cogitative Self-Reflection

Sooner or later, philosophers discover that philosophy itself is problematic.

In true Hegelian style Adorno speaks about this development as if he were outside it, while also embodying what he describes in the structure of his thought. He is observer and observed in the same moment. In acting out the philosophy he describes, he is also Hegelian in projecting a sense of inevitability on the development he articulates. But whereas Hegel sees the final historical triumph of reason in the creation of a final, total philosophical system; Adorno sees a historically specific failure of reason, along with its self-subversion (i.e. reason’s generation of reason’s negation).

Imagine Enlightenment thought as a version of Pac Man. He gobbles up everything it can find – ghosts, pellets, etc. – until nothing is even left of the game but Pan Man himself. He has eaten everything, and so now contains everything in the game (in his Pac stomach). This might seem like Pac Man has attained his fullest actualization, than Pac Man has become universal and completed his mission for all eternity; that everything for him was leading to this one perfect crowning moment. Unfortunately for Pac Man this is not the case. It was never just about the ghosts, or just about the pellets. For Pac Man, eating everything is his modus operandi. He cannot exist without eating. He must move onward, and the only way to do this is to eat the only thing remaining: himself.

Consider this dialectic of Pac Man’s consumption: he seeks out these objects – these ghosts and pellets – wanting to absorb them into himself. He wants to conquer and contain them. However, in this act of consumption, his claim of them is also his annihilation of them. This does not really pose a problem for Pac Man, so long as his purpose is the devour and remove from play these various consumable elements. However, this devouring desire reaches a problematic apex indeed when Pac Man the subject finally looks upon himself as object – as mouth and as food. He can only devour himself. He must devour himself.

Like Pac Man, Enlightenment thought seeks to conquer and control objects by subsuming them into concepts and systems. In so doing, it destroys its objects as it conquers them. It destroys them because it is inherently both limited and solipsistic. The concept can never ‘truly’ contain its object, and so the concept always observes its own reflection as applied to the object, rather than the object in a complete form. Concepts, always pointing to the universal, necessarily overlook the particularity of the object within the act of naming the object as within the universal. In its attempt to overcome itself and connect to the object, reason actually reinforces its alienation from the object.

If self-consciousness signals a kind of milestone in development, the advanced, self-conscious philosophies of people like Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, which attempt to descend to the depths of ‘pure’ reason or Being, only end up that much further away from the empirical and social world in which philosophy actually garners its relevance. Magisterial labyrinths of concepts attempt to reach a Final foundation (or at least a Final and conclusive emptiness) and to somehow relate everything else to it. But these webs of prose, while brilliant, involve the subject in a painstaking hyper-analysis of  relations of concepts. And in so doing, they remove the subject even further from the object buried underneath the awesome stack of tangles and structures.

But this Enlightenment reason is destructive in another sense too. It disenchants. It penetrates, evaluates, pulls apart, sifts, catalogs, and discards. Eventually, this force must become self-reflective and in doing so, apply this sort of violence of rationality to itself. The Enlightenment rips itself open and tears itself down. The Enlightenment sees through the illusion of its own promises. The concept is revealed as limited and alienating, the object as unobtainable through reason. In doing so, philosophy discovers non-identity, and in a sense transitions into it from the focus on identity and the search for it. The disunity between concept and object is highlighted, rather than a unity between the two alleged.

 

The Utopian Element

At this point Adorno calls attention to a “utopian element” intrinsic in the whole identity vs. nonidentity drama. Things get a little bit weird here, if they were not weird already.

My guess is that Adorno’s discussion of utopia in relation to philosophy, is actually intended to point to the social and empirical.

I will briefly frame this claim a some more:

In Adorno’s philosophy, the theoretical and the social and empirical essentially shift together, taking on consonant shapes that are mutually reflective. Adorno’s Marxist base (pun intended) would suggest that he holds the social-empirical to be primary, the theoretical-cultural acting as its representative and expression. The project of immanent critique might also point to this position. However, Adorno posits no such deterministic claims. It is possible, and arguably legitimate, to read this into his thought, but personally I prefer to err on the side of his descriptive characterization of the mirroring development of the two spheres, the social and the theoretical. 

That said, at many moments in his writing, Adorno appears to be more concerned with either the theoretical and culture or the social and empirical. In this case, his discussion of “utopia” is ostensibly focused on theory and the relation of concepts; but I cannot see why he would point to this if it were not for its reflection of the social. This is important to note because it is difficult to make sense of his discussion of the “utopian element” without this implicit reference as the source of its main import. Accordingly, in the following interpretation, I make the reference explicit despite the fact that here Adorno left it unsaid.

Essentially, Western philosophy, going back even to ancient Greece, contains this preoccupation with the concept owning the object. It is a search for finality, for unifying alienated parts. Less a legitimate description of a unity that has been achieved, it is a call for a unity in the future. It is a reaching out from what is toward what could be; out from an alienated and contradictory what-is to a unified and reconciled what-could-be. From actuality to potentiality. And it is not only a longing, it is also a faith that this utopia in thought is possible. Consider this element in philosophy as a reflection of an element in the social and empirical world. We live in a society of social alienation and social antagonisms, and we push onward toward a perfect society where alienation and antagonisms are overcome. Humanity is constitutionally driven toward achieving a perfect society. Just as philosophy cannot purge itself of its utopian element, so humanity is similarly committed in a political sense.

 

Freedom

Adorno’s concern with the political is closer to explicit as he shifts the discussion from pure reason to the concept of freedom. Calling a person “free” involves pointing beyond the person to a universal concept: “freedom.” In pointing beyond the individual, we miss the individual. The freedom of the individual is not contained in the universal concept of freedom.

This is not to say that the concept of freedom is meaningless. Adorno insists that the concept of freedom needs to be honored in its own freedom. Attempts to delineate, define, and circumscribe it do not do it justice. They do not present it in its fullness. They stunt it. “The individual is both more and less than his general definition” (151).

 

References

Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “On the Dialectics of Identity”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 7. On the Dialectics of Identity

Negative dialectics involves interrogating the relations – especially the contradictions – between concepts and their objects, always with a critical eyebrow raised to the dubious claim that a concept can actually fully contain its object. Instead of assuming or seeking out the identity between concept and object, negative dialectics honors their difference and tears down delusions of identity.

“As in Body, So in Mind” and Vice Versa

A brief preface is in order at this point.

Adorno has a pattern of argument in his style that to my understanding may owe a lot to Lukács. I am thinking in particular of Lukács’ essay on reification. Anyway, in a broad sense, the pattern is one of homology: stuff is shaped similarly. Adorno places images or ideas or whathaveyou beside one another and relies on our intuitive sense of their likeness to convince us that they are somehow of the same dynamic, or follow the same kind of structure or motion. Specific to the issue here (and this is actually where the connection to Lukács strikes me), the homology is posited between the realm of socioeconomic life and the realm of culture and philosophy. I will distill it down to the following double dictum: “As in body, so in mind” & “As in mind, so in body”.

Dialectics play out in philosophy as well as in the social world, which essentially serve as metaphors for one another, if not outright mirroring one another. Adorno does not posit a cause-effect relationship outright in the orthodox Marxian sense of the economic base determining the ideological superstructure. However he does indicate – often only implicitly – that the social-economic and cultural-philosophic tend to move together, like two wheels on the same axis or a pair of synchronized swimmers.

End preface.

Barter Logic

Concepts take a bunch of different stuff, identify common characteristics between them, and ignore everything other than those common characteristics. Under identity thinking, the concept is the object. Individuality qualities of objects are stifled under the domination of the abstract concept.

As is mind, so in body…

On the ground – so to speak – individuality is also stifled in the human community under the abstract logic of barter. Adorno describes barter logic in a way reminiscent of Marx’s distinction between use value – “this DVD is worth a couple of hours of mildly enjoyable distraction for me when I watch it” – and exchange value – “this DVD is worth $4.00 when I buy it for $4.00”.  As use value, the DVD has a qualitative value specific to its being a DVD and to how much I happen to like the movie on the DVD. As exchange value, the DVD has only a quantitative value, bearing no necessary relation to the fact that it is a DVD or to how much I like the movie on it.

Commodification happens to people too, not just to their DVDs. Like the use value vs. exchange value distinction, this notion also stems back to Marx, as one aspect of his concept of commodity fetishism. Without going into detail about commodity fetishism, for present purposes the following is the aspect of specific import: under capitalism people view and treat one another as things. I mentioned Lukács and his essay on reification above, and here too, he deserves a nod.

[Lukács <- nod]

This seems to be what Adorno is getting at when he mentions barter: It is the reduction of things – including people – to a state of quantitative equivalence, where their particular qualities are lost or at least not taken to be important. This barter logic is homologous to the logic of the concept: individuality is stamped out under the domination of an abstract relation which renders things ostensibly the same.

And identity is ideological too, just as ideology thrives on identity thinking. In barter and in the concept – as two types of identity logic – the perpetuation of domination is supported by the clingy nature of of identity with itself; or rather, of the solipsism endemic to identity thinking. Identity logic says: “I am all, all is I”. Naturally then, it is self-maintaining by default. In other words, of course we have to accept domination; there is nothing else. What basis is there for a critical angle when all angles of reality have already been accounted for according the narrative of the status quo?

At first glance, this seems to imply that the hope for liberation lies in the revolt against this homogenization, this forced equality that dwarfs us all into numbers. Not so fast! Before human differences were leveled under the logic of barter, what was the world like? Domination was even more stark! Feudalism, for example, is not something we should try and emulate. Freedom is not waiting to be reclaimed in neo-“traditional society”. Turning back the clock is not only impossible in practice, it is a terrible idea in theory. Be careful what you wish for!

And Another Thing About Hegel…

In case it wasn’t clear the fiftieth time: Adorno is not just a Hegel in denial. Negative dialectics is not just part of Hegel’s dialectic.

Or is it?? 

Hegel would certainly argue that it is. But what was Adorno just saying about identity? We have a bit of a standstill here. Two dialectics, one claims they are the same, the other claims they are different. The one that claims they are the same also claims that claims to non-identity can, should, and will be overcome through identity. The one that claims they are different also claims that identity can, should, and will be overcome through non-identity. It’s kind of a toss-up, arguably even an “existential choice” (sorry Adorno!).

It does of course, change what kinds of things you emphasize if you go one way or the other. Whether you work toward non-identity or identity more – this is a key issue that places you on the Hegel or the Adorno side of things. Hegel is in many ways Adorno’s point of departure. Negative dialectics is faithful to Hegel’s dialectic as its point of origin, and maintains a strong likeness in its maneuvers. But make no mistake: it departs.

Really, it does. Honest.

References

Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

Lukács, G. (1967 [1923]). “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat.” History and class consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics. Merlin.

Marx, K. (1992 [1867]). Capital, volume I. Penguin.

Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “‘Logic of Disintegration'”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 6. “Logic of Disintegration”

The notion that our reality is split into two realms – mind/matter – is common in Western philosophy since Descartes. This theoretical rift between ideas and the physical world has been a point of challenge to various philosophers, who try to overcome the division. The faith that all of reality must at some deep level be One has been a major driver of various attempts. Kant sort of does the job, but sort of falls short. He posits a mutual dependence between our understanding and our sense perceptions. Basically, “reality” as we experience it is formed out of the meeting of thought and matter.  Without either one, we could not experience reality. Hence without either one the other vanishes.

Mind the Gap

This is pretty good, but it still leaves unanswered the question of how the two realms touch.  Somehow ideas reach matter deep down in the depths of the mind-machine. But how? Kant has reproduced the problem, just maybe on a smaller or different level.

Hegel closed the gap more convincingly. But is this a good thing? Adorno is not convinced. He sees dialectics as depending on both philosophical method and engagement with brute matter. Both of these dependencies are irreducible. Trying to fuse them together is more obfuscating than illuminating. Dialectics is a dance of contradictions. Adorno says we should embrace that instead of trying to find some creative excuse to pretend we can ‘ultimately’ connect everything consonantly.

Under Adorno’s auspices, dialectics will no longer be focused on “superseding” divisions, and subsuming everything under unifying ideas. Instead, dialectics will work toward the disintegration of ossified concepts. Too often we refer to general notions and definitions as if they are real, or capture all that is real. This is a lie; ossified concepts are like cardboard cutouts that we place in front of our lines of sight. Instead of seeing the variations and multiplicities that move on the other side of the cutout, all we see is the cutout. We then avail ourselves of the responsibility to look behind the cutout. “All the world’s a cardboard cutout, and the men and women merely cardboard cutouts”, we like to tell ourselves. But from now on, dialectics will be all about ripping up cardboard cutouts. All cardboard cutouts. No identity will be safe!

Oh the Irony

What tools can we use to rip up these cardboard cutouts? I’m so glad you asked. The answer is simple: cardboard cutouts! What else could the answer be? Philosophy will liquefy philosophy. Concepts will eat themselves, and as they chew, the spaces between bites will imply the object. The crack in the philosophical pavement will reveal the profile of the object.

I crack myself up.

Between the concept and the concept, falls the object.

A horse walks into a dialectic. The Marxist says: “Why the long preface?” The horse says: “It’s my interpretation of my interpretation. My critique of my critique. It’s my being-for-myself and my logic of disintegration, all wrapped up in one and two. What’s your point?” The Marxist says: “The point is to change it.”

But seriously folks…think about the ideal of so much philosophical knowledge: certain truth, i.e. “pure identity”. Ideas under the pretense of pure identity masquerade as the truest true, as the most exacting accuracies. The funny thing is, they are the most removed from the object in its full chaos. The pretension of identity, the reduction of the concept, is projected onto the object by us. Standing up the abstract conceptual cardboard cutout in front on the full uncharted openness of the object, actually blinds us to the object.

Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

References

Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

Kant, I. (1998 [1781]). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.

Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “Relation to Left-Wing Hegelianism”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 5. Relation to Left-Wing Hegelianism

Adorno seems to have gotten some flack for his philosophy by people who claim that he is just a Hegelian boasting to be offering something new. Specifically, his whole “non-identity” thing is already accounted for within Hegel’s system. In this sense, speaking of a “negative dialectics” seems essentially redundant and superfluous. It also appears that this criticism is leveled at Adorno from a more ‘orthodox’ Marxist contingent with an anti-intellectual streak. One might assume this is something akin to making a worldview out of a surface reading of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, culminating in a patent rejection of theory and embracing of practice. This is not hard to imagine – Adorno going on about Hegel and the importance of not resolving everything into unity, only to be met with the bored and impatient response of activists who tell him to drop it and join the revolution instead.

Adorno is not impressed. Practice needs theory in order to be effective. Without theory, practice is bound to fail. Theory can help us reflect upon the failings of past practice, and thereby improve practice in the future. Without this theoretical reflection, we are doomed to be stuck in whatever ineffective-practice-muck we are already in. Hey hey, ho ho, anti-intellectualism’s got to go!

Despite his disagreement with the ‘practice not theory’ position, Adorno indicates some sympathies. After all, academic philosophers incessantly claim that their ideas are New and hence worthy of specific attention, when by and large they are just born of the same cloth. And yet Adorno insists that origins do not totally determine the nature of things in the fullness of their qualities, trajectories and fates. Negative dialectics may be the close offspring of Hegel’s system, but that doesn’t make Adorno a Hegelian tout court.

Hegel and Marx both have their foibles. That doesn’t mean we have to trash everything they ever wrote. There’s a lot of good stuff in there! History has born out some challenges for the ideas of Hegel and Marx. We can use theory to reflect on those challenges, and to take Hegelian and Marxist ideas forward. It is not an all-or-nothing issue.

References

Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.

Marx, K. (2005[1845]) “Theses on Feuerbach.” Marxists.org.

Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “Noncontradictoriness Not To Be Hypostatized”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 4. Noncontradictoriness Not To Be Hypostatized

What makes us so sure that objects conform to concepts? Even in the Kantian scheme, there is an assumption that our experience of objects will be of them as conforming to our conceptual capacities. One of the great challenges many have undertaken in Western philosophy has been to figure out how to close the divide between mind and matter; how to overcome Cartesian dualism. Well, maybe we have been going about this all the wrong way. Maybe concepts and objects don’t need to be re/unified.

Adorno says objects do not have to follow the rules of our thinking. Despite the fact that we cannot think past our own thoughts, we can think thoughts that recognize that our thoughts are limited by the rules of thinking, and that objects are not necessarily bound by the same parameters. Concepts must be concepts. Objects do not have to be concepts. Duh!

Consider the [Kantian] object: mutual dependence of thought and sense perception in the constitution of human experience. Neither thought nor sense perception comes first, because both require the other as prerequisite. However, both have to come first, since both require the other as prerequisite. This makes no sense when you look into it deeper like this. Yet, this is only an unsolvable riddle if we insist on assuming that logical rules of causation have to apply to this our object. If we abandon this idea that the object has to make sense within our ideas of logic and cause-effect, then we can live and let live. Two things can serve as mutual prerequisites, why not? There does not have to be a problem here. Or on another level, so what if this is paradoxical? It may be that objects are paradoxical, despite the conceptual angst this might inspire in us.

Is it really so wrong to be an irreconcilable contradiction? Hegel’s dialectic cannot rest at the level of paradox. Resolution is necessary and inevitable. So far so good, but things can easily turn sour when you are trying to fit a square object into a round concept. They do not fit, but somehow for Hegel they have to. And despite the narrative of reconciliation, Hegel’s need for resolution introduces the element of antagonism into the contradiction. You get a battle of forces that is in need of a ceasefire, but the ceasefire can only come on condition that the two armies compromise and merge together.

Adorno suggests this imperative for reconciliation be abandoned. In the Hegelian set-up, the demand for peace is the cause of war. Adorno says we should let differences be, and not assume they have to be mashed into a unity. Reconciliation is predicated on antagonism and the defeat of difference. If we drop the alleged need for unity, we can avoid the whole sordid drama.

References

Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford University Press.

Kant, I. (1998 [1781]). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.

Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “‘Peephole Metaphysics'”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 3. “Peephole Metaphysics”

The way Adorno describes it, coming up with theories that posit foundations – like “Being” a la Hegel or Heidegger [nudge, nudge] – seems doomed to belittle us. First of all, positing any kind of primary principle or supreme force, etc. necessarily contrasts everything Other as secondary or lesser-than. Consonant with this, Nietzsche and Feuerbach are both happy to see people throw away the concept of God and instead elevate humanity to the center of the narrated world, rather than conceptually remaining as God’s lesser-than.

Imagine humanity in a closet, peering out into a room through a peephole: “Look! Out there on the other side of this wall! I can see the tiniest bit of the out-there! And me, I’m stuck in this cramped dark closet.” This is hardly a position to have reverence for – us puny humans peering out with our tiny minds in hopes of catching sight of the last thread of the coat-tails of the true reality.

Or consider Kant. In Critique of Pure Reason, he puts the shape of reality in the hands – or mind, rather – of the subject. “I give reality its shape. I bring to it the categories. I bring to it the capacity for intuition, imagination and understanding. Without my mind, ‘reality’ would be…well nobody can even say.” In this scheme, it is not the subject who bows before the immense reality beyond the closet door. The deep, objective reality of “Being” does not come first, with our experience just determined by it. In a sense, we come first and “Being” follows. Instead of the object coming prior to the subject, Kant puts the subject prior to the object, at least in terms of the object’s mode of appearance. Really there is a reciprocal determination, a mutual arising, an intrinsic co-dependence. But part of this relationship is the subject’s relation of determination over the object’s appearance.

At first glance, it may be tempting to think that humanity is thereby elevated in Kant’s system. The trouble is, humanity is elevated to a position of…of what? Dominion over nothingness? Lord of the ephemeral? Knower of one’s own constructed reality? Solipsistic story-tellers? When we degrade the object by putting it second in this way, we also degrade the subject. This is essentially Hegel’s master-slave dialectic applied to first philosophy. Is it better to be the lord of garbage or the garbage of the lord? Neither side of the equation is satisfying. Either way you are stuck in garbage-land.

When the object becomes a product of the subject, and the thing-in-itself is preserved as unreachable, Kant simultaneously moves ‘pure reason’ into a realm of total abstraction. This is pretty far from the object! So the subject’s determination of the object is in the same breath the subject’s alienation from the object. With Kant we philosophize about categories, in a very abstract way. This is reason’s power in action! Some power, eh? It doesn’t seem to be doing much for the object!

Is there a way out of garbage-land? A Hegelian second negation maybe? Do we become “Lord Garbage” and live happily ever after? Not for Adorno. Kant’s model seems closer to Adorno than Hegel’s or Heidegger’s. No, we cannot peep out of our cognitive closets are glimpse the majesty of pure Being by way of our philosophical grandiosity: “In a flicker it is there and then it is gone again! Make sure your eyes are open before it changes into Nothingness or into the conditions for its own existence!” No, there is no peephole. Stop it with the peephole already! We cannot reach outside ourselves.

All Is Not Lost

On the other hand, let’s not sell ourselves short. So we can’t throw a dart and hit Being in the bullseye. Fair enough. But that does not mean we are completely helpless to even entertain the notion? We do not have to pack it in, cry Derrida tears, and assume all of our notions are just garbage after all. Instead, we can discover this cat “Being” in its 9 lives. If the object “Being” is an invisible magnetic force, we bring to it various little metal balls with which to show its power. If “Being” is a law of nature, we can see its expression in the multiplicities of local ecologies. If “Being” is a coin under a sheet of paper, we can discover its outline through rubbing a pencil over and over and coloring in the paper above it with a great collection of lines. As soon of you touch the bubble it pops, so don’t bother trying to trap it! It’s kind of like in Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” If you love an object, set it free. If it returns, your concepts are illuminating.

References

Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

Deleuze, G. (2001). “Nietzsche.” Pure immanence. New York: Zone.

Feuerbach, L. (2004 [1841]). The essence of Christianity. Barnes & Noble.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1992). History of the concept of time: Prolegomena. Indiana University Press.

Kant, I. (1998 [1781]). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1974 [1882]). The gay science. New York: Vintage.

Adorno – Lecture 10 on Negative Dialectics: “Philosophy and ‘Depth'” (12/9/1965)

Adorno is not impressed with “deep thoughts”, at least not as commonly construed in the 1960s. While depth is important, the ways people talk about it are elitist and hollow a good portion of the time. He notes people – importantly including philosophers, of course – tend to equate depth with a romanticized notion of suffering. But Adorno says happiness is not necessarily shallow, and suffering is not necessarily profound. Inwardness is also commonly associated with depth, and again, Adorno thinks this is bunk.

So then what is depth really? Adorno locates depth in modes of engagement rather than in surface products and conclusions. Depth occurs in refusing to buy into established truths at face value, and instead looking further than what is immediately apparent. Depth occurs in creativity, and in engagement with the social world. Depth goes beyond the surface.

Adorno wants us to look beyond appearances, and interrogate essences. He wants us to reflect as a mode of being; rather than as a means toward an end, only to be superseded at the journey’s completion. We should have our thinking extend beyond the façade of appearances, beyond the limits of established facts. We should maintain a “speculative surplus”, which constitutes the zone of freedom in thought. Preventing speculation holds back the power and expansiveness of thought’s potentiality.

References

Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.

Adorno – Lecture 9 on Negative Dialectics: “The Element of Speculation” (12/7/1965)

Despite Adorno’s materialism and his insistence on objects always being larger than their concepts, he also maintains that concepts and larger than their objects (see lecture 1). In other words, concepts cannot capture all that is contained in the object; and yet concepts cannot be completely filled by their objects either. There’s a kind of remainder in both cases.

The excess of the concept beyond its object can easily be understood as its zone of error. But it is also the part of the concept that extends beyond the bare reporting of facts. “Truth” should not be understood as contained entirely within the bare reality of empirical facts. Come on, we’re talking about the Frankfurt School here! This zone that goes beyond the object is not necessarily in error just because it goes beyond the object. It risks error, but it is also the zone of intellectual creativity that moves human understanding forward.

Speculation takes place here. And speculation is a crucial part of any decent philosophy, according to Adorno. The classic distinction between appearance and essence is a case in point. “Essence” is beyond immediate appearance. And essence, in the Hegelian sense of investigating the internal contradictions of a thing that are the forces behind its appearance, is a central element – if not the central element – of “immanent critique”, the signature methodology of the Frankfurt School. Adorno likes essence. Adorno likes speculation. Adorno may ‘put the object first’ but he does not end there. Make no mistake! Definitions are not the enemy. It is fixed definitions that are to be avoided. Conceptual thought is important; it just needs to be flexible and open is all.

Play, Art and Mimesis

Don’t be such a sourpuss about philosophy, Buzzkill McGee! Sure you should be serious about what you do, but you should also be playful! Philosophical thinking needs both elements. Be disciplined, but also dance around outside of your discipline. Get down with your non-conceptual self!

And do the mimesis thing more. Wait, what???

I am not sure how good these examples are, but…Do as Simon says. Pretend you are Batman. Really get into it, e.g. method acting. Be the ball. Watch the movie in 3D and care what happens. In other words, don’t just dance; let yourself identify with something other than yourself.

This identification with an Other is “mimesis” in Adorno’s lexicon. So not just mimesis as in mimicry, although I think that’s an honored option. The really key thing is getting the experience of identification with an Other. And in this sense, dancer may involve mimesis, depending on how “into it” and spontaneous you are.

Philosophy needs to use this element, and to use it wisely. It needs less identification of, more identification with. It needs to allow space for this aesthetic consciousness, and use it as part of generating insights about reality. No arbitrary claims according to whims though. No everyone-is-right mentality. Intuitions need to be evaluated. How to evaluate? Well, how do you assess the quality of a work of art? What is it trying to do? Does it do a good job? Is it relevant? Does it resonate? Does it “stand up” like Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Or does it fall on its face like Ernest Scared Stupid?

References

Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1969[1831]). Science of logic. Humanities Press.

Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “Compulsory Substantiveness”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 2. Compulsory Substantiveness

Adorno, destroyer of philosopher worlds though he may be, is a materialist. Any idea must reference at some point in some way, something substantive, some sort of object. Ideas do not occur independent of sensation. Ideas are predicated on sensation.

Kant acknowledged the central place of sensation in our conceptual cognition. For him consciousness consists in the mutually dependent interaction of conceptual thought and sensual experience. And yet Kant preserves this transcendental empty thought capacity thing, this “transcendental apperception” as he calls it, which underlies all experience, sensation of course included. Hegel was more of a belligerent idealist, but Kant ultimately placed the subject before the object too. Speaking of the subject, Kant’s notion of experience as contained by the mind implies the relegation of sensation to the individual. Adorno indicates that this model does not pay the ontic/material world its due. If Kant put substantive things before ideas in his philosophy, then his thing about “transcendental apperception” would fall to pieces. The floaty idea force cannot be so omniscient if the ontic does not stem from it, but instead precedes it.

And on another level, what’s the deal with this ‘duration’ = ‘importance’ thing? Come on, people! Just because something is temporary does not make it unworthy of concern. Sensations come and go, sure. But by what authority does that make them less real than allegedly “eternal ideas” which are without substance in of themselves? Seriously!

Philosophy needs substance. It needs stuff. It needs objects, material, the ontic. Philosophy makes no sense without reference to the material world, even if it is a seemingly distant relation. Let’s look at the stuff that we find within space and time, and put that as primary. The abstract categories of space and time, these larger-than-life forms can listen and learn.

References

Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

Kant, I. (1998 [1781]). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.

Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “The Indissoluble ‘Something'”

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 1. The Indissoluble “Something”

In Hegel, the ultimate truth of things, deep down, is an all-embracing consciousness, aware of itself as pure self-awareness. At the heart of reality, as well as its pinnacle and final frame, is this whatchamacallit: “being in and for itself”. There are no contents at this level of being, only form (albeit a form allegedly containing all contents). It is pure subject, no predicate; or at least, the predicate or object is contained in the subject. It is the viewer, empty other than the act of viewing, which of course by extension is empty (although also allegedly completely full).

In Heidegger, at the bottom of reality, before all of our concepts, impulses, understandings, etc. there is “Being.” Heidegger’s Being also contains no contents. It takes on the shape of an infinite logical regress. For there to be Being, there must be the layer of Being that contains this Being. There must be a potentiality or quality or condition of Beingness below Being, allowing Being to exist as an “it”, formless though this particular “it” – Being – is. And yet, any potentiality/quality/condition including “Beingness” is predicated on a further potentiality/quality/condition; in this case let’s call it “Beingnessness”. So the Being of Being is Beingness and the Being of Beingness is Beingnessness, ad infinitum. “Being” is an infinite regress into itself. It is a motion back behind itself. At least, I think that is what Heidegger was getting at, albeit in slightly different words??

Adorno Is Not Having It

Adorno thinks this Hegel/Heidegger empty Being stuff is all bunk. If there is some kind of final ground of reality, it is “something”. There are entities. Being does not equal nothingness. It is not an infinite regress or an embracing self-awareness, or any obscure notion of grand emptiness. We live in a world of stuff. If we erase all of the add-ons, we will come down to a “something”. Maybe we can’t say anything about it other than that, but it is something, not nothing. And there is not some sort of transcendental, absolute, logically complete version of this “something” either. That would be some kind of weird story we told ourselves about it. Something is not something to root a philosophy in, to extend axioms from and claim to encapsulate the nature of things. It is just…”something”. Leave it at that. And move on.

The history of philosophy has brought it to a place of necessary self-critique. Basic philosophy has put the concept first. Conceptual thought is treated as the house of knowledge in philosophy. Structures of concepts are built, or concepts are scattered haphazardly or according to our desires. Either way, it is concepts all the way down. But this is a flawed project. Finally, philosophy has come to recognize this, and has fallen into knowing aporia. Philosophy is floundering and needs to really look itself in the face – and by that I mean look itself in the concept – in order to have any hope of moving forward fruitfully. Adorno is happy (or maybe “melancholy”) to oblige. And his offering is negative dialectics.

In Adorno’s negative dialectics, the concept will critique itself. And there will be no ontology, no theory of Being or being in and for itself, etc. There will be no starting point, no proclamation of the root of reality. There will also be no anti-ontology. There will be no fixed proclamation of the absence of “being” or of the absence of the nature of “being”. That would be to make grandiose claims, and to put barriers up to the movement of thought. Adorno does not want to do that. Adorno does not want a total philosophy, even a total negative philosophy. Adorno wants to give entities their due, and to let philosophy be flexible and open.

References

Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1992). History of the concept of time: Prolegomena. Indiana University Press.