Author: dishajani

Revolutions Are Never On Time

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

9780231179423In Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory, timing is everything. The author moves seamlessly between such subjects as Goodbye Lenin, Gustave Courbet’s The Trout, Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, and the apparently missed connection between Theodor Adorno and C.L.R. James to guide the reader through the topography of the Left in the twentieth century. The book is an investigation of left-wing culture through some of its most prominent (and dissonant) participants, alongside the images and metaphors that constituted the left of the twentieth century as a “combination of theories and experiences, ideas and feelings, passions and utopias” (xiii). By defining the left not in terms of those political parties to be found on the left of the spectrum, and rather gathering his subjects in ontological terms, Traverso prepares the laboratory prior to his investigation, but not through a process of sterilization. Rather, the narrative of the “melancholic dimension” of the last century’s left-wing seems assembled almost by intuition, as we follow along with affinities and synchronicities across the decades. In its simultaneously historical, theoretical, and programmatic ambitions, Left-Wing Melancholia sits in the overlapping space between the boundaries of intellectual history and critical theory.

In a series of essays, Traverso explores the left’s expressive modes and missed opportunities: the first half of the book is an exploration of Marxism and memory studies (one dissolved as the other emerged), the melancholic in art and film, and the revolutionary image of Bohemia. The second half of the book is a series of intellectual and personal meetings, which Traverso adjudicates for their usefulness to the left: Theodor Adorno and C.L.R. James’ abortive friendship, Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s correspondence, and Daniel Bensaïd’s work on Benjamin. The “left-wing culture” these affinities is meant to trace is defined as the space carved out by “movements that struggled to change the world by putting the principle of equality at the center of their agenda” (xiii). Since that landscape is rather vast, Traverso relies on resonant juxtaposition and very real exchanges in order to erect monuments to the melancholia he reads throughout their shared projects.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries burst forth onto the stage of history buoyed by the French and Russian Revolutions, surging confidently forwards into a future tinged with utopia. In devastating contrast, the twenty-first century met a future foreclosed to the possibility of imagining a world outside of triumphant capitalism and post-totalitarian, neoliberal humanitarianism. While successive defeats served to consolidate the ideas of socialism in the past, the defeat suffered by the left in 1989 withheld from memory (and therefore from history) any redemptive lesson. In Left-Wing Melancholia, the reader is thus led gently through the rubble of the emancipatory project of the last two hundred years, and invited to ruminate on what could come of “a world burdened with its past, without a visible future” (18).

As critical theory, Left-Wing Melancholia uses the history of socialism and Marxism over the last two hundred years and its defeat in 1989 in order to name the problem of the left today. As intellectual history, it may be found wanting, at least if one seeks in its tracing of left-wing culture some semblance of linearity. If, however, a reader is willing to follow, instead of context à la Skinner, or concept à la Koselleck, a feeling – then Left-Wing Melancholia will soothe, disturb, and offer an alternative: Traverso assures us that “the utopias of the twenty-first century still have to be invented” (119). Indeed, Traverso argues that Bensaïd “rediscovered a Marx for whom ‘revolutions never run on time’ and the hidden tradition of a historical materialism à contretemps, that is, as a theory of nonsynchronous times or non-contemporaneity” (217). Traverso’s own project could be read as part of this now-unearthed tradition.

It is clear that Traverso is aware of the reconfiguration of enshrined histories of socialism and Marxism implicit here, that he has skewed any orthodox narrative by reading through disparate political projects the feeling of melancholia. Ascribing a single ontology to the left over the course of the twentieth century and representing its culture in such a frenetic fashion makes this book vulnerable to the criticism of the empiricist. For instance, he speculates on the lost opportunity of Adorno’s and James’s friendship with “counterfactual intellectual history”: “what could have produced a fruitful, rather than missed encounter between Adorno and James…between the first generation of critical theory and Black Marxism? It probably would have changed the culture of the New Left and that of Third Worldism” (176). In such statements, it is startling to see at work the faith Traverso has in the dialogue between intellectuals, and in intellectuals’ power to change the course of history.


Hammering through the Berlin Wall. Photograph by Alexandra Avakian, from Smithsonian Mag.

He also eschews the Freudian use of the term “melancholia,” representing it instead as a feeling of loss and impossibility, expressed through writing, monuments, art, film, and his repeated articulations of how “we” felt after 1989. Presumably, this “we” is those of us who existed in a world that contained the Berlin Wall, and then witnessed it come down and had to take stock afterwards. This “we” is transgenerational, as it is also the subject that “discovered that revolutions had generated totalitarian monsters” (6). This same collective subject is a left-wing culture that had its memory severed by 1989, but also remembers in an internalist melancholic mode: “we do not know how to start to rebuild, or if it is even worth doing” (23). (I ask myself how the “we” that was born after 1989 fits in here, if the transgenerational memory of the left was severed in that year. Leftist post-memory, perhaps?) This book is addressed to fellow travelers alone. The reader is brought into the fold to mourn a loss assumed to be shared: “…we cannot escape our defeat, or describe or analyze it from the outside. Left-wing melancholy is what remains after the shipwreck…” (25). Thus, Traverso demonstrates the possibility of fusing intellectual history and critical theory, where one serves the other and vice versa; in his discussion of Benjamin, he remarks: “To remember means to salvage, but rescuing the past does not mean trying to reappropriate or repeat what has occurred or vanished; rather it means to change the present” (222). Left-Wing Melancholia has the explicit purpose of rehabilitating the generation paralyzed by the triumph of neoliberal capitalism. It is a long history of left-wing melancholy that puts struggles for emancipation in our own moment in perspective. And for all its morose recollection, Left-Wing Melancholia contains moments of hope: “we can always take comfort in the fact that revolutions are never ‘on time,’ that they come when nobody expects them” (20).

Global/Universal History: A Warning

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

Last week, in an essay on the state of global history, historian Jeremy Adelman asked, “In our fevered present of Nation-X First, of resurgent ethno-nationalism, what’s the point of recovering global pasts?” In the wake of last November’s election in the United States, and the slew of executive orders, hate crimes, and retaliatory moves by other governments that have followed, it is a fair question: have the unequivocal challenges to the project and paradigm of global integration put into jeopardy the very task of the global historian? Adelman concludes that the challenges to interdependence and “the togetherness of strangers near and far” levied by “the anti-globalism movement” must be met by historians willing to engage with disintegration as well—willing to listen to the “tribalists out there and right here.” In other words, it would not be helpful or honest to write another global history that does not account for the reasons behind the apparently widespread and domino-like backlash against sunny, cosmopolitan narratives about a world seen, as though from space, as a single swirling orb.

Global history is not necessarily the history of globalization. It is also not, as Adelman notes, “the history of everything.” It is “both an object of study and a particular way of looking at history… it is both a process and a perspective, subject matter and methodology” (Sebastian Conrad). Despite the myriad approaches to and existing volumes on this very subject, I want to return to the version of global history predicated on the interconnectedness and integration of our global present (and the anxiety around this present now quickly fading into the past). When the avowed raison d’être of a historical narrative that calls itself “global” is to explain how the world became so connected in the first place, dialogue among historians of global history has until now meant contending with the assumption that one is participating in this “moment.” The language of historiographical change is replete with the imagery of movement: the current, the turn, the shift, the trend—toward global history. Sitting still for too long isn’t great, but even worse is getting caught out of touch with the “out there.” Given the waning interest in foreign-language training and the desire to strengthen borders and drive out the “foreign,” if one had been proceeding all this time with an understanding of global history as tied to globalization – and its enduring possibilities for a new kind of humanistic citizenship, as Lynn Hunt suggested in her 2014 book—then one might imagine that a threat to that vision might mean a threat to the mission of the global historian.

What did one have to believe about the world to look around in 2014 and see a process of closer integration and interconnectedness? What did one have to ignore? In the news were rising deportations by the Obama administration, the prominence even then of an anti-globalization movement (granted, with a different character), and the success of far-right parties in the European Parliament elections in May 2014. These were not considered part of a single phenomenon as widely or nervously as similar, as much more large-scale events are now. Indeed, the difference seems to be regime change: anxiety about a wave of right-wing governments upending the post-war liberal project mark the advance of every major election in the wake of November’s unexpected win by President Trump. The democratically elected far-right cannot any longer be dismissed as the purview of the newcomers to the West, like Hungary and Poland, or those who lie outside its borders, like India. The jeering faces of Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders loom the morning after every Trump “win”—in congratulations and promise/warning. This is a critical distinction: it is only with regime change, with the “fall” of governments to illiberalism that a trend has taken shape and been given a name in the columns of commentators. Yet the persistence and violence of border regimes, right-wing successes, and anti-globalization have been a part of the before-time just as they are a part of this epoch—post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-insert-catastrophe-here.

It is at junctures like these that it becomes most obvious that our historiographical preoccupations lie flat on top of our anxieties.

Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori have sketched an overview of the field of global history as part of their exploration of the possibility of global intellectual history. The current flowed from Hegel to Marx to the present. In Hegel we see the world-historical, the paradigmatic, the antecedent to the global history of our own time (taking some slightly unsavory detours through the “universal”). Indeed, much work on transnational connections and “connected histories” contains an explicit challenge to the Hegelian view of history and all its apparently outmoded Eurocentrism: “Hegel himself might have ended the narrative of the self-realization of ‘reason in history’ with the European state, but others carried the project forward to examine the implications for other parts of the world of the claims of European modernity to universality.”

In 2000, the philosopher and intellectual historian Susan Buck-Morss wrote an essay in Critical Inquiry arguing that “Hegel and Haiti belong together.” In her essay and the book that followed, she demonstrates that Hegel and his contemporaries were aware of and critically engaged with the events surrounding the Haitian Revolution via the widely read journal Minerva. She asks why Hegel scholars, with few exceptions, have chosen to read the dialectic of master and slave in Phenomenology of Spirit as mere metaphor. She also asks, “To what degree is Hegel himself accountable for the effective silencing of the Haitian Revolution?” Buck-Morss notes that the political metaphor of slavery as the embodiment in Western political philosophy of “everything that was evil about power relations” came about at the same time as the “systematic, highly sophisticated capitalist enslavement of non-Europeans as a labor force in the colonies.” She then wonders, why has the uncanny relationship between Hegel and Haiti been ignored so long? “Not only have Hegel scholars failed to answer this question; they have failed, for the past two hundred years, even to ask it.”

Buck-Morss takes this simple observation—the absence, the unasked question—to untangle the meaning of universality in history. What kind of subjectivity was assumed to be held by the singular and universal protagonist of history that moves in Hegel’s work and that of his heirs? (You and I number among them, reader, if the trajectory of intellectual history proffered by Moyn and Sartori above is to be believed.) It is the same protagonist at the center of the teleology of Marxism and indeed, at the center of globalization (and the strain of global history with which it is associated). In place of this sort of universality, Buck-Morss suggests that asking the hitherto unasked question “creates the possibility for rescuing the ideal of universal human history from the uses to which white domination has put it…. If the historical facts about freedom can be ripped out of the narratives told by the victors and salvaged for our own time, then the project of universal freedom does not need to be discarded, but rather, redeemed and reconstituted on a different basis.” Indeed, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has written in Provincializing Europe, without Hegelian universals like history and freedom, “there would be no social science that addresses issues of modern social justice”.

Buck-Morss shows us that inquiring after the unasked question—refusing to take it on faith that Hegel and Haiti were worlds apart—can expand the possibilities of historical inquiry. Permit me an exercise in parallelism: If the historical facts about globality can be ripped out of the narrative of globalization told by the victors and salvaged for a time in which the Western academy seems to have woken up to the fact that “globalization” is neither telos nor panacea, then the project of global history does not need to be discarded either.

In reading this version of global history through Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, I have tried to suggest that we make ourselves unhelpfully vulnerable as historians when we drive the stakes of our narratives into shifting sands. I am not suggesting here that global historians did not, or do not, see the complications or limitations of the approach. As I noted above, there are many ways to write global history, and hindsight will always see blind spots and stumbling blocks more clearly than those who were writing histories even a short while ago. I have been concerned here with a very specific feature of this field: a mission to write a story of the past shaped by an occluded and willfully blind cohesion. Orienting an historical approach around an assumption about the future “progress” of the world does little more than make us prone to hasty retreat as soon as that future is jeopardized by the caprice of the “real world.” In Buck-Morss and in Adelman’s essay, I read a warning. If a single, redeeming, and final world-historical force ever calls out to you, either plug your ears with wax or tie yourself to the mast, because there are other, more distant calls the siren song is doubtless drowning out.

The Interwar, Ourselves

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

The period in between the First and Second World Wars yields fertile ground for reflection by many of our public intellectuals. Much of this resonance comes from the fact that historians have typically understood the 1920s and 1930s in one of three ways. The period can be understood as the aftermath of the First World War and the lost peace. It can be understood as the lead-up to the Second World War. And the contrarian’s response to these gloomy retellings: it was the culturally vibrant period that birthed the Jazz Age, talkies, advances in technology, and shifts in the restrictive social mores of the Long Nineteenth Century. But to hear it told as a single European story, the history of the interwar years reads first and foremost as warning. The period-after-the-war and the period-before-war are one and the same, as the post bleeds into the pre. The years between the First and Second World Wars become a cautionary tale for foreign policy experts, a lesson for those who tinker with the economy, and a time of warnings unheeded.

There are three sets of assumptions attached to most renderings of this period. First, that ‘war’ is defined as the armed conflict carried out between state actors and bound by official declarations that mark the beginning and end of fighting. Second, that ‘peace’ is merely the absence of war, meaning that the period between 1918 and 1939 was one of relative, if not absolute stability – the ‘inter’ in ‘interwar.’ And finally, that the First World War was a signal and symbol of the breakdown of a particular European civilizational identity. The Allied victory in 1945 was consequently a triumph in the wake of which a peaceful liberal order for Europe was built in the shadow of Soviet Russia and the encroaching illiberal mirror-image it represented.

In our moment, it has become customary to draw comparisons between the contemporary world and the world of the 1920s and 1930s. I invite readers to search Twitter for the phrase “and what rough beast its hour come round at last slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The overwhelming result will be a piece of news or photograph with Yeats’ ominous query quoted without comment. In an era apparently marked by the crumbling of the postwar liberal order (if our public intellectuals are to be believed) it makes sense that we look to the last time that happened. Pankaj Mishra, for instance, has characterized our moment as an “age of anger” that liberal rationalism is incapable of explaining away. Instead, Mishra proposes considering democracy as a “profoundly fraught emotional and social condition” rather than one side of the liberal-illiberal binary. Commentators have framed and re-framed the first decades of the twentieth century in The London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Dissent, and The New Republic, among others. Arguments against comparing our moment to the Weimar Republic were published last month in Jacobin by way of a Weimar historian. In this vein, Mark Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century remains an early example of the reevaluation of the cradle of post-1945 stability, years before the oft-referenced ‘de-stabilizers’ occurred – 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of the far-right in Europe, and the Syrian civil war.

Alternatively warning away from or advocating for the use of the past as a lesson, writers nonetheless have found it powerful to compare and contrast century-old developments and the present. It is not difficult to understand why these lessons resonate. Much of this conversation has to do with the simple act of naming: what is a fascist? What is a liberal? What is a populist? It is not for me to say here whether these parallels should or shouldn’t resonate, or what kind of value these comparisons may hold, either for our understanding or for productive political action. I am merely inviting an examination of the assumptions contained within our treatment of the interwar period, and what happens to this period in our collective memory if those assumptions’ legacies are dismantled by some, and upheld by others. The distinction is stark if we compare two kinds of reflections on the resonance of the interwar period. If the comparison is made in order to demonstrate the dangers of ignoring or abetting a threat to liberalism or social good, then the interwar stands as a warning. If, however, the parallel is not a call to preserve or guard against a threat, but rather to reexamine the usefulness of the very thing in need of preservation – NATO, the Democratic Party, or a ‘free press’ for example – then the critical intervention necessarily involves an adjustment of the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s. Such an intervention requires at least a partial rejection of the notion that the twentieth century’s greatest triumph was the spread of liberal democracy.

The interwar period has also been framed as a simultaneous genesis and telos of our narrative understandings of the past. 1914 was the year our present began, and it was the year the world ended. Playing with these starts and stops forms the substance of many, if not all, historiographical interventions in the study of the interwar period. And because this period is also considered the genesis of many of our paradigmatic and normative categories for political life, a re-orientation of the narrative has implications for the foundational assumptions of our notions of governmentality, order, and social good, as gathered – as though for ease of access – in the term “liberal democracy.” Two historians who have recently grappled with these questions are Robert Gerwarth and Enzo Traverso.


Robert Gerwarth shifts the center of the violence of the war towards the defeated states in his recent book, The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed to End.  Gerwarth’s aim with this book is to move eastward, away from victory and ‘strength amid chaos’ narratives, and to those places with chaos as the main character. The shift is simultaneously geographical and chronological. Gerwarth encourages us to extend the “end” of the period of European violence called the First World War from 1918 to 1923, because, as he argues, “in order to understand the violent trajectories that Europe – including Russia and the former Ottoman lands in the Middle East – followed throughout the twentieth century, we must look not so much at the war experiences between 1914 and 1917 but at the way in which the war ended for the vanquished states of the Great War” (13). Gerwarth does not concern himself much with explaining why tensions arose between particular ethnic groups or political opponents in the period following the armistice, which he tends to see as older antagonisms coupled with new national struggles (214). Rather, he is interested in how and why such violence became so pronounced in the defeated states. The aftermath of the First World War, or rather, the extended European war, changed the course of the twentieth century because it altered the “logic of violence” (254). Even as he describes the moments of success for democracy and stable government, Gerwarth is sure to emphasize the hubris of such moments of triumph: “many policymakers in the vanquished states, and notably in central Europe, firmly believed that they had delivered where the liberal revolutionaries of 1848 had failed…. Liberal democracy, which had failed to come into existence then, had finally emerged triumphant” (116-117). Thus the foundation of whatever ‘peace’ that existed after 1918 is cast as misguided and naïve.

fireandbloodA similar shift takes place in Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood: the European Civil War, 1914-1945, which was translated from the French last year. Traverso extends the period of violence even further than Gerwarth does, as he examines the years between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War as a single historical event. The characterization of the conflict as a civil war frames the European continent as a single polity tearing itself to shreds, with a shifting roster of combatants. At the beginning, the war emerges as typically as conflicts had for hundreds of years with a formal declaration of war and the mobilization of troops. It turns into a total war, in which civilians are fodder for the war machines of various state and non-state actors. Traverso notes that the norms of liberal democracy become subsumed under the conditions of civil war, which takes on its own horrible logic. He considers the Holocaust, the anti-fascist resistance, and the deaths of civilians on both sides of the wartime and interwar fronts as part of a single global epoch one in which the scale and chaos of violence was unmatched.

Fire and Blood also dislocates two of the most persistent assumptions of older accounts of the interwar period. One of these assumptions is the “anachronism so widespread today that projects onto the Europe of the interwar years the categories of our liberal democracy as if these were timeless norms and values” (2). The second incorrect assumption is that the Allied victory over the Nazis proved itself a “new triumph of Enlightenment…a victorious epic of progress” (276). Sandwiched between these moments is an account of resistance and violence with an almost aggressive refutation of teleology or a progress narrative. Thus, contained within what appears to be merely a chronological and geographic widening, Fire and Blood furnishes an overtly political refusal to celebrate what are meant to be the triumphs of liberal democracy and humanitarianism post-1945. Traverso demonstrates the profound impact a little rearrangement can have.

Indeed, the study of the interwar period has been until recently an investigation into what went wrong and then what went wrong a second time. This sort of narrative is necessarily based on an assumption that things were going right when they were not going wrong. The break between the old world order that existed before 1914 and the subsequent “self-immolation of bourgeois Europe” – to borrow a phrase from Tony Judt – had to be explained. Any discussion of the cultural production, social advances, scientific breakthroughs, moments of hope, or signals of progress had to be mitigated by the epilogue: “little did they know….” Attached to the study of the interwar period then, are the particular methodological and epistemic implications of studying something for its very failure. The historian knows what is to come, but no one else does. Melancholy saturates the prose of such works, and if not that, then a slightly smug dramatic irony.

We are far enough away from the interwar period that it has nearly lapsed out of living memory – the experience of the Great War almost completely gone. Despite this, as Traverso in particular has shown, the period carries meaning for our understandings of violence and collapse. The interwar years remain both near and far. There is continuity in our political lexicon, but many of the categories and their potency have shifted in the ensuing century. Old vocabularies are often deployed to refer to shifting phenomena. If the period is upheld in historians’ understanding as the non-violent (yet markedly uneasy) interlude between the collapse of European order on the one hand, and the triumph of the West and liberal democracy over the evils of fascism on another, then we are left with a very brittle image of what it feels like to endure violence. As Nitzan Lebovic notes in his review of Traverso’s book: “If the polis has been stained since its earliest days by the crimson tide of internal conflicts, its constitutive order should be seen in a different light.” What experiences of suffering sit just off-center, obscured by the stark periodization of war and peace and its accompanying narrative of progress? We are left with a story that marks crisis via formal declarations of war, and the cessation of formal conflict becomes synonymous with peace. The continuation of violence in the lands of the vanquished and the prolonged civil war with its own logic are two spatial-temporal re-orientations that serve to destabilize the creation myth of the order of global liberalism which we are meant to just now evaluate as “in crisis.” And so, as if historians ever needed a reminder: periodization matters. Scale matters. The interwar period is unique because we made it so – it has become in the historical profession and in the public imagination an epoch saturated with poignancy and foreboding, of possibility and thwarted progress. Our moment and the interwar period have been mutually constituted as interstices of chaos. Moving a few things around can have consequences.

“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.