“Many thanks to Teddie Adorno”: Negative Dialectics at Fifty

by guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

Ten days after the fateful U.S. presidential election, several leading scholars of the Frankfurt School of critical theory gathered at Harvard University to reevaluate the legacy of the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. The occasion—“Negative Dialectics at Fifty”—marked a half-century since the publication of Adorno’s magnum opus in 1966. Fitting with the mood of the political moment, co-organizer Max Pensky (Binghamton) recalled Adorno’s 1968 essay “Resignation” in his opening remarks: “What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others.” To use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, dialectical work as demanding as Adorno’s has a Zeitkern, or temporal core: its meaning unfolds over time through constant re-interpretation. As participants reflected on this work’s profound legacy, they also translated its messages into terms relevant today. Time has served Negative Dialectics well. Fulfilling Adorno’s call for philosophy to restore the life sedimented in concepts, the critical energy of this conference demonstrated that both the course of time and the practice of intellectual history do not necessarily exhaust texts, but can instead reinvigorate them.

Adorno’s work has received a surge of recent attention for the ways in which it speaks to our present moment. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross went so far as to title a recent article, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming,” writing: “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.” Ross notes that our time’s “combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking élite domination.” In his opening remarks, co-organizer Peter E. Gordon (Harvard)—author of “Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump”—addressed the sense of intellectual defeat palpable in the wake of the election. Yet this prognosis endowed what followed with a certain urgency that made the rigorous intellectual history of Gordon and Martin Jay (Berkeley) feel just as timely as the new critical work of theorists like Rahel Jaeggi (Berlin) and Jay Bernstein (New School).

Participants gathered in Harvard’s Center for European Studies, which, suiting Adorno’s cultural tradition, once housed the university’s Germanic Museum and resembles a fin-de-siècle European villa, ornamented with sculpture and inscribed dictums from the likes of Kant, Goethe, and Schiller. Yet Michael Rosen (Harvard) rightly described Adorno as a “Jeremiah” within German society for decrying the ways it had not come to grips with its Nazi past and then foretelling catastrophe still to come in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Adorno’s disciple Jürgen Habermas once remarked that he wouldn’t speak of Adorno and his time’s other great German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in the same breath—and Adorno himself once claimed that he returned to Germany to “finish off” his compromised rival. But while Heidegger’s affinities with Nazism have recently left his work mired in controversy, Adorno’s corpus has re-emerged as a source of critical resistance. Without the space to address each conference speaker’s contributions, my aim here is to illustrate some reasons why they all still found Negative Dialectics compelling today.

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Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi, and Martin Jay (author’s photo)

It would have been quite a feat to produce a unified conversation around a work like Negative Dialectics, which proclaims itself an anti-system and even anti-philosophy. Alas, the nearly three-hour-long conference panels often meandered far from their prescribed topics. Still, there was one theme nearly every presenter circled around: Adorno’s resistance to the overweening tendencies of concepts, a problem engaged most concretely through Adorno’s relation to his dialectical forbearer, Hegel. Negative Dialectics attempted to develop a mode of dialectical thought that harnessed Hegel’s negativity to counter his triumphalist narrative of the “slaughter-bench” of world history, which glorified existing reality and thereby undermined the possibility of critiquing it. As Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, “Regarding the concrete utopian possibility, dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.” The end goal of negative dialectics, then, is to transform present conditions into those that would render dialectics itself superfluous. If the challenge confronting Adorno in the 1940s was to develop a form of critical thought that could break through the blind, positivistic reproduction of the world order that had produced Nazism, Negative Dialectics can be seen as proposing a constellation of tentative solutions.

Gordon’s paper situated Negative Dialectics in a long intellectual tradition of disenchantment (Entzauberung) from the Enlightenment to our present “secular age.” Yet beyond the traditional sense of alienation, Gordon also identified a positive, critical potential in another use of the term: “the disenchantment of the concept.” If one historical marker came to represent disenchantment in modernity for Adorno, it was Auschwitz, an event referred to in nearly every presentation. Lambert Zuidervaart (Toronto) in particular grappled with Adorno’s search for a new mode of truth that would be adequate to a new reality after Auschwitz: “The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth.” He suggested that this demand necessitates a material turn in Adorno’s thought toward a “thinking against thought” undergirded by a bodily revulsion at what happened at Auschwitz. Zuidervaart argued that metaphysical experience “after Auschwitz” must make contact with the nonidentical, which he connected to a practice of redemption, an undying hope for the possibility that reality could yet be otherwise.

Negative Dialectics is thus centrally motivated by a critical relationship to history. As Henry Pickford (Duke) remarked, Adorno’s task in Negative Dialectics was to attempt to see things “in their becoming,” opening up a space of possibility beyond the “hardened objects” and “sedimented history” of the reified social world as it exists in late capitalist modernity. In one of the most original presentations, Rahel Jaeggi grappled with how Adorno’s philosophy of history at the same time challenges and requires a view of history as progress. As “indispensable as it is disastrous,” Jaeggi remarked, a progressive view of history must be posited if history is to become available to consciousness as something changeable. Hegelian universal history thus exists insofar as antagonism, agency, and resistance do. Jaeggi called for an Adornian philosophy of history open enough to allow progress without requiring it. The task of progressive history would be, fitting with Adorno’s “determinate negation,” to extract progress step-by-step from the regressive historical problems with which we are confronted. This process would define progress not as teleological but as free-standing, open, and even anarchic.

Yet this critical operation remains as difficult as ever, and several speakers questioned its political efficacy. Max Pensky’s presentation on “disappointment,” noted the difficulty of Adorno’s uneasy hybrid of philosophy and empirical social theory. Since negative dialectics offers no moral sanctuary or inner realm, a critical thinker must be both in the midst of objects and outside them. Yet philosophy’s isolation from the world, its essential “loneliness,” would also seem to entail permanent disappointment. Pensky’s reading of Negative Dialectics as an anti-progress narrative was sharpened by the observation that progress for Adorno means that “the next Auschwitz will be less bad”—echoing the title of a recent book on Adorno’s practical philosophy, Living Less Wrongly. Pensky began from Negative Dialectics’ opening line: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” This recalls Hegel’s image of the “owl of Minerva,” whereby philosophy always comes too late to shape the present that has always already outpaced it. Marx’s last “Thesis on Feuerbach” subsequently called for philosophy to stop interpreting the world and start changing it. For Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), who sought to reconcile Adorno’s apparent “resignation” with a form of political protest, Adorno always seems in the end to side with Hegel against the possibility of changing history. Seeing no way to square Adorno’s thought with Horkheimer’s early conception of critical theory as inherently emancipatory for the proletariat, Cooke instead proposed an analogy with the “vagabond” or “resistant” politics of the French novelist Jean Genet, who participated in activism from Algeria to the Black Panthers but refused to ever sign a manifesto or explicitly declare his revolutionary intentions. In his response to Pensky, Rosen connected Adorno’s disappointment to present responses to the election of Donald Trump: like Auschwitz for Adorno, Trump represents for the intellectual left today the sudden dissolution of a shared humanistic project of an ongoing, regulative commitment to liberal Enlightenment values.

One of the final panels on aesthetics led the participants, at the urging of Lydia Goehr (Columbia), into the sunny renaissance-styled courtyard, where a makeshift “chapel” was arranged.

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Peter Gordon, Lydia Goehr, Espen Hammer, and Lambert Zuidervaart (author’s photo)

The session addressed a question raised earlier by Brian O’Connor (University College Dublin) as to whether, if intuitions of truth are in the end not “reportable” in language, philosophy is not therefore “singular,” or fundamentally lonely. Goehr and Bernstein noted that, for Adorno, only particular, fragmentary works of art can be true precisely in their singularity and incommunicability. It is the negativity of this aesthetic that gestures toward utopia, for, as Adorno wrote, “In semblance nonsemblance is promised.” Goehr convincingly argued for the centrality of aesthetics in Adorno’s negative dialectics: his notion of “necessary semblance” holds that art does not merely point toward rational truth, but rather constitutes a conception of truth that is itself aesthetic.

As Pickford remarked, Adorno has at once been seen as a failed Marxist, a closeted Heideggerian, and a precocious postmodernist. Peter Sloterdijk has critiqued him for positing “a priori pain,” while Georg Lukacs accused him of taking up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss.” Adorno may have been among the loneliest of philosophers and yet, as Seyla Benhabib reminded us, he was also a Sozialpädagog for a generation of Germans who listened to his lectures and unrelenting radio addresses on everything from classical music to “working through” the Nazi past. Perhaps it is on account of, and not in spite of, such contradictions that Adorno continues to engage philosophers, Germanists, political theorists, and intellectual historians in equal measure. Martin Jay no doubt spoke for many in the room when he aptly dedicated his paper: “Many thanks to Teddie Adorno, who’s been troubling our sleep since the 1970s.”

Jonathon Catlin is a PhD student in History at Princeton University, where he studies modern European intellectual history. He is particularly interested in responses to catastrophe in German and Jewish thought.

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