Theodor Adorno and “Negative Dialectics”





Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote their critique of the culture of Western civilization, Dialectic of Enlightenment during the Second World War. When the book was published in German in 1947, the full extent of the Holocaust had been revealed, two atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Horkheimer and Adorno were now “Holocaust survivors,” and cultural amnesia was already setting into the minds of the German people. The failure of the Enlightenment was now evident and the raw truth of the rout of rationalism was undeniable. And although the book opened with the essay “The Concept of Enlightenment” the texts on the Culture Industry were the best remembered. Perhaps it took the magisterial pessimism of Theodor Adorno in Negative Dialectics to articulate the true extent of the Fall of humanity outside the bounds of the Enlightenment. Published two decades after his work with Horkheimer, Negative Dialectics is a tragic document, written in the wake of Shoah and in full understanding of the author’s Jewishness as an identity that guaranteed death.

Negative Dialectics is famously difficult to read, much less comprehend or understand. Large stretches of the book are page after page of impenetrable prose with little narrative flow, guaranteeing reader frustration. Adorno certainly wrote for his peer group, his fellow philosophers who were presiding over the corpse of Western philosophy. Every now and then, flashes of poetic writing that one begins to recognize as Adorno’s “style” or “manner,” so to speak, break this wall of writing. Thomas Mann, who called Adorno a “strange intellect, stated that he refused to chose between music and philosophy as his life’s work. The artistic nature of the opening sentences of this book is nothing short of profound and beautiful.

Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried…philosophy is obliged ruthlessly to criticize itself…The introverted thought architect dwells behind the moon that is taken over by extroverted technicians.

Even the most educated reader waits for and treasures such passages, which are relics or reminders that Adorno was once a gifted pianist. The roots of Negative Dialectics lie undoubtedly in his entire experience as a German philosopher who was surprised to find himself sentenced to being the Other by a culture he had dedicated his intellectual life to studying. Adorno’s scholarly home was the Frankfurt School, which understood that the problem of contemporary Western civilization was the Enlightenment itself, because that “civilization” had ended in “barbarism”. They owed this profound thought to Freud, who put forward the proposition in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization could be brought into being only through repression of primal instincts. One force—call this force ego or civilization—had to repress another—the id or instinct or barbarism—and these forces would be translated into social forces seeking control of the masses. Beyond a disciplinary force seeking to rule antisocial behavior are competing political and social forces, whether religion or regime, seeking to gain the upper hand. No matter how benign or benevolent, these social forces come into power by suppressing by acts of power other contenders. Thus “civilization” is the result of “barbarity”, a condition of force.

The Frankfurt School was formed and re-formed during a battle of civilization—the Allies—struggling against barbarity—the Nazis. Long before the war began, the French considered themselves to be cultured and the Germans to be barbarians, threatening invasion of European “culture”. After the war, the Germans were exposed as barbarians. The extent of the barbarism was not fully evident until the post-War period, inspiring Bertold Brecht to note that the “mansion of culture” was made of “shit.” The world, shocked by photographic and documentary evidence of death on an industrial scale wondered incredulously how the nation that nurtured Kant and Hegel and Beethoven could have systematically slaughtered over six million human beings. How from this peak of culture could the society sink to these depths of barbarism? The Enlightenment had failed, having produced positivism. Positivism, a degraded form of the Enlightenment, created an administered society that led to totalitarianism. Fascism was administered and highly controlled capitalism that revealed the contradictions inherent in the Enlightenment. Fascism put into practice the inherent self-destructiveness of the Enlightenment.

During the Second World War, the scholars of the Frankfurt School were scattered between European outposts and locales in America. For some the experience in America was a satisfying one, for others, such as Adorno, his time in America was an “exile.” Even though he became an American citizen, Adorno finally returned to Germany in 1949. Succumbing to the inducements of the city of Frankfurt, the scholars came back to Germany in 1950, committed to being politically committed, to exposing the myths of capitalism and socialism in the era of the Cold War. The memory of Walter Benjamin was maintained and even celebrated in the seminal study of German forgetting, The Inability to Mourn, by Institute fellows, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, contrasted mourning to melancholia. Benjamin had picked up these contrasts from Freud and used them in his discussion of allegory. The Mischerlichs, in turn, appropriated these ideas and fittingly used them to point out that Germany refused the mourn (the Jews) and hence was condemned to a state of (unresolved) melancholia.

When he returned to Germany, Adorno was not received as a conquering hero but as someone tainted with his American associations and, ironically, for someone who criticized popular culture, he was known mostly for his music criticism. As an exile, he returned to a culture that had been through an experience he had not shared and his mindset and methodology had been changed in New York. But Adorno had a sharp eye and a unique perspective for the way in which anti-Semitism had become a non-issue, swept under the rug while the former Nazis were being absorbed back into “normal” life. Just because the “Jewish question” had been “solved” in the concentration camps, did not mean that identity politics had also vanished. If the Jews in Europe had been exterminated in the name of “identity”—that is, they were identified as “the Other” through their yellow stars, then it was up to Adorno to explore the concept of non-identity.

In order to do so, Adorno continued his critique of philosophy, a critique that went beyond the abstract realm of thought and grappled with the implications of the refusal to remember the past so prevalent in West Germany. While The Inability to Mourn, is an elegy to the loss of “culture” in Germany, Negative Dialectics, is less psychological than philosophical. Martin Jay’s book Adorno set out the five “force fields” in his career: Marxism in the West, modernist aesthetics, intellectual despair, and deconstruction. Indeed it is fruitful to read Negative Dialectics through the Deconstruction of Jacques Derrida. Like Adorno, Derrida thought deeply about Hegel’s dialectic—thesis, antithesis and synthesis—as the metaphysical force that propelled Life toward the Absolute. Both modern philosophers would be suspicious of metaphysics but interested in the mechanism through which “Being” was brought into existence through its Other, Nothingness.

In deconstructing the Dialectic, Derrida noted that one term was always valued over the other term and yet the de-valued term was necessary for the preferred or favored term to exist. We understand one term only through the other term or by the différance and so, Derrida pointed out, these terms are neither opposite nor independent and their final meanings remain indeterminate and without origin. Later Jean-François Lyotard would use deconstruction married to Adorno to discuss the Holocaust in terms of what he called the differend and the forced silence of those who were outside the dialectic.

For Adorno, the problems of the Enlightenment were caused by “identity thinking”, or the subsuming of the particulars under general concepts or grand narratives. Like Benjamin who insisted on examining an object in its historical particularity, Adorno asserted that the danger of identity thinking could be averted through Negative Dialectics, which assesses relations among things according to the criteria the object had of itself. The constellation would be impervious to bourgeois identity thinking. The “constellation” refused to privilege one element over another and produced a dialectical model of negations or a fluid reality that was hostile to the reconciliation of the dialectical process.

Adorno took up the Dialectic in order to negate the presumed progression from one term to the other. Along with Benjamin, he understood a word to belong, not as part of a pair of opposites, but as an element in a constellation. While Benjamin thought of his “constellations” or what Fernand de Saussure would call a “network of relationships” as being eternal in meaning, Adorno understood meaning as being both historically determined and contingent upon the points in the cluster. Most importantly, Adorno has eliminated the linear teleology of the Dialectic and once the possibility of progressive movement is negated within the constellation, the point of origin—Nothingness—is eliminated. In other words, there was no positive to be reached.

The Dialectic that structures the Enlightenment is based upon Hegel’s distinction between the self and the other, between the mind and matter, between the One and the Other, between the Master and the Slave. Self-recognition and actuality is achieved through the recognition that it is not-me. But subjecthood has a dark side. Subjecthood is achieved through the domination of the other. Humans become “human” through culture, which denies and deforms nature. Science is the ultimate expression of the (in) human drive to subjugate nature through culture (technology), a drive that reached its peak with the Holocaust and the technology of Death.

That which was Jewish would be expelled from the purity of the Nazi body politic. Through subjective domination, Jews became objectified through reification. To counter this domination of nature, the Nazis had to regress to the mythic past and progress spawned barbarism. The humanity of the Jews was “forgotten,” because as Adorno said, “…all reification is a forgetting…” and even democratic countries produce forgetting through the culture industry. All levels of culture are permeated with this process of commodification that reduces people to things to be assimilated or purged.

Throughout his career, Adorno never relaxed his hostility to “affirmative cultures” and wrote Negative Dialectics, 1966 and explored the dark implications of Auschwitz for metaphysics and art. Adorno’s critique of the concept of “origin” coincided with the 1968 uprisings both on the streets of Paris and within the halls of French philosophy and he was taken up by Post-Structuralism, also known as Post-Modernism. He insisted that philosophy continue its engagement—an engagement that was “fatal”—with the world. This task would preserve the critical powers of philosophy and maintain a dialectical relationship between tragic history and philosophy. For the Frankfurt School, genuine materialism was an ethical function. Philosophy had come full circle and returned to the analysis of the real world and its political condition. But philosophy could no longer trust “progress” or “reason” and could only assume a position of constant critique against the effects of reification upon human culture.

The Frankfurt School accepted Marx’s notion of reification, of desire being frozen and fixed in place as a commodity object-as-fetish. Commodities are estranged from human origins in order for desires to be projected onto and into them so that the objects can become reified. America was the setting for the reification of desire through mass media. In the land of freedom and democracy, “The Culture Industry” undermined freedom of choice and expression. “Reason” becomes an “instrument” aligned to technology. The system of the Culture Industry was created in more liberal and industrialized nations. The culture industry creates a mass consciousness that is manipulated and distorted. Popular entertainment is standardized but pretends to individualization but produce Herman Marcuse’s “one dimensional society”. The techniques of the Culture Industry include the distribution and mechanical reproduction, which are external to the object. Therefore, all mass culture is identical and impresses its same stamp on everything.

“Instrumental Reason” was a pernicious effect of rationality. The term alone speaks of its danger: “instrumental” is subjective aligned to “reason”, presumed to be neutral. The Enlightenment had produced opposites that reduced everything to abstract equivalents of everything else in the service of the system of the exchange principle. All that is different or “non-identical” is forced into the mold to produce identity. For Adorno this mode of thinking would be countered by asserting his own difference, his own Jewishness—Difference instead of Identity. Instrumental Reason could be used to dominate nature through scientific control.

Progress and technological advances led, not to the empowerment of the people, but to their enslavement under despots. Modernism was exposed as a myth and social progress is shown as having fallen from grace. Technological apparatus allows for more efficient categorization that strengthens the collective order. Certain social groups succeed in administering and dominate other social groups through the appropriation of the means of rationalization. The masses are bought off with commodities. The masses are silenced by the entertainment industry that claims to inform but only instructs and stultifies opposition while pretending to allow “freedom of expression”. The result is totalitarianism or totalizing thinking. Everyone and everything must be the same, think the same, do the same: identity must be identical and the system resists the Other, which must be purged to protect the purity of the system. Hence the danger of the dialectic is that it privileges the One over the Other and seeks to annihilate the Other by negating it.

Under Fascism, progress became regression through ideology. Nazism refused the modernity of the Enlightenment while embracing modern mechanisms to produce and promulgate ideology, expressed through film and radio, controlled by the government. Fascism always regresses into a mythic past, while using mechanical means to control the present. The concentration camps were the ultimate example of administered death and efficient extermination. Auschwitz was the ultimate expression of rational thinking. Power had become the ideology, which controlled technology. As a Holocaust survivor, Adorno was profoundly suspicious of the universal. As he wrote,

Identity and contradiction in thinking are welded to one another. The totality of the contradiction is nothing other than the untruth of the total identification, as it is manifested in the latter. Contradiction is non-identity under the bane [Bann] of the law, which also influences the non-identical.

In Adorno and Horkheimer: Diasporic Philosophy, Negative Theology, and Counter-Education, Ilan Gur-Ze´ev wrote in 2005 that Horkheimer and Adorno broke with tradition and created a “diasporic philosophy” which is “nomadic.” Its starting point, he pointed out is the absence of truth. This analysis is a particularly valuable one because Gur-Ze´ev stresses the signal importance of the effects of exile upon Post-Structuralism after the War. It is impossible to go home again and take up philosophy where it left off. The Shoah represents the Fall of Humanity from Eden and what is left is the blasted wasteland of philosophy. Both Hegel and Marx offered a promise of a utopia, whether of Spirituality or of the Social, but Adorno could accept no Positive ending and the concept of a Synthesis had proved to be a dangerous one when put into political practice. Synthesis insists upon Sameness and Adorno counters with Non-Identity.

But it is capitalism itself that forces separateness upon the (administered) world, cleaving theory from practice creates a false contradiction, which is not real but which is the result of the way in which capitalism fragments society. Capitalism is not a neutral economic force or an impartial system, for it contains the seeds of fascism as the ultimate in administrative capitalism. According to Adorno, He who does not wish to speak of capitalism should also be silent about fascism”. Such a world does not admit to contradictions that must be silenced by received wisdom or what Adorno called “reified consciousness.” Reified thinking is almost a contradiction in terms for such a pattern of acceptance cannot change. Therefore “negative dialectics” is the refusal to accept the presumed identity between a thing and its concept.

Only by confronting the contradictions can one resist totalizing systems. The goal is to rescue non-identity, or that which was repressed in the quest for totalization and reification. In an abstract way that is also concrete and psychological, it is important for Adorno that one recognizes not just that which as been refused but also to come to terms with one’s guilt for having turned away from the contradictions within the dialectic. The philosopher’s thinking is often metaphorical and the need to feel guilt and the necessity of seeking redemption is more than a critique of Hegelian dialectical thinking. Philosophy has “allowed” and even constructed such thought processes of opposites with all internal discrepancies filed away and forgotten unexamined. One must now, in the face of a disastrous history, make amends by remembering.

Remembering is difficult and fraught with danger in post-war Germany. Adorno could foresee that the “working through the past” would lead to exactly where it ended up twenty years after his death, in the “Historians’ Controversy.” His worst fears were realized when apologists attempted to “normalize” the Holocaust and re-characterize it as part of larger historical patterns. As Yasmin Ibrahim pointed out in 2009 in Holocaust as the Visual Subject: The Problematics ofMemory Making through Visual Culture, “The Holocaust is inextricably imprisoned through the dialectical discourses of universalism and particularism.”

Adorno insisted upon critical thinking, which was a moral imperative. Dialectical thinking must be redeployed against systematic thinking, like that, which trapped the Holocaust. Instead of responding to reification, the mind should turn away from the system that “produced” the object and closely view the object itself. The aim is to overcome what Adorno called “philosophical imperialism” or the way in which the mind seeks to conquer (by categorization) and annex the “Alien.” The result of such imperializing and totalizing thinking is to render the indigestible into that which must be expelled. As Adorno wrote,

If negative dialectics calls for the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true – if it is to be true today, in any case – it must also be a thinking against itself. If thought is not measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.

In many ways, Negative Dialectics is the aftermath of Dialectic of Enlightenment, for the Holocaust was the result of modernity and the breakdown of Enlightened thought under the totalization demanded in Late Capitalism. Technology forces conformity of thinking through propaganda and entertainment, producing conformity and homogeneity through the principles of pleasure and desire, always denied and always promised. The result is an inability to identify with anyone but the group to which we have been assigned. Those on the outside loose their identity and become what Lyotard called “unrepresentable,” because they have become absorbed into the “differend.”

It was the goal of Theodor Adorno to refuse identity and to demand that non-identity be recognized. Other Holocausts would come, he predicted accurately. To resist the false “positive” is to insist upon the “negative” and to reintroduce the invisible term back into visibility of the (moral) dialectic. The book ends on an elegiac note of mourning and guilt, for the author and philosopher and musician has arbitrarily survived the Holocaust. Adorno had recurring dreams of being sent to the gas chambers and found himself not just a Survivor but also an alien in his own homeland. Written in 1966 Negative Dialectics is not just a critique of Western philosophy after the end of the Enlightenment it is also a document of morality. In his parting thoughts, Adorno wrote these famous lines,

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Our metaphysical faculty is paralyzed because actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought could be reconciled with experience…the administered murder of millions made of death a thing one had never had to fear in just this fashion…That in the concentration camps it was no longer an individual who died, but as a specimen—this is a fact bound to affect the dying of those who escaped the administrative measure.

Genocide is the absolute integration…Absolute negativity is in plain sight and has ceased to surprise anyone.

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there would have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.

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