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Adorno's Pessimism

Adorno's Pessimism

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Published by Rowan G Tepper
In this essay I examine Adorno's purported "pessimism," (according to Habermas and Honneth) and propose that in spite of such an apparent stance, particular uses of language allow for effective political resistance.
In this essay I examine Adorno's purported "pessimism," (according to Habermas and Honneth) and propose that in spite of such an apparent stance, particular uses of language allow for effective political resistance.

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Published by: Rowan G Tepper on May 11, 2010
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04/12/2013

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 Adorno’s Pessimism:Language and A Consideration of Two Critiques of Adorno’s Social Theory
Rowan G. Tepper, M.A.Axel Honneth in
The Critique of Power 
and Jürgen Habermas in
The Philosophical Discourse of  Modernity 
offer closely related critiques of the work of Theodor Adorno and the project of criticaltheory initiated by Max Horkheimer at the Institute for Social Research, and put forth in theprogrammatic text, the
Dialectic of Enlightenment 
. These critiques are alike also in the fact that they dealalmost exclusively with the theory of society put forth in the
Dialectic of Enlightenment 
in which socialpower is conceived as the internalization of the drama enacted in the domination of nature to servehuman interests. This domination then turns against the dominator. The attention paid to Adorno’slater philosophical works is cursory at best and negligible at worst. Habermas raises the question of how Horkheimer and Adorno’s second-order critique may escape the performative contradictionthat results from the critique of the grounds upon which critique is based. Habermas writes in
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity 
,
 With this kind of critique, enlightenment becomes reflective for the first time; it is performed with respect to itsown products – theories. Yet the drama of enlightenment first arrives at its climax when ideology critique
itself 
comes under suspicion of not producing (any more) truths – and the enlightenment attains second-orderreflectiveness. As instrumental, reason assimilated itself to power and thereby relinquished its critical force – that is the
 final 
disclosure of ideology critique applied to itself. To be sure, this description of the self-destruction of the criticalcapacity is paradoxical, because in the moment of description it still has to make use of the critique that hasbeen declared dead. It denounces the Enlightenment’s becoming totalitarian with its own tools. Adorno wasquite aware of this performative contradiction inherent in totalized critique.
1
 Moreover, while Habermas alludes to the manner in which Adorno works within this performativecontradiction in
 Negative Dialectics 
and
 Aesthetic Theory 
, he does not discuss this at length. In
 Negative Dialectics 
and
 Minima Moralia 
, Adorno works within this contradiction, which, to use Louis Althusser’s concept, is thoroughly overdetermined. The path on which we can follow Habermas intracing the movement of Adorno’s thought in these works leads us to a satisfactory hypothesisregarding the larger issue that Axel Honneth raises about Adorno’s theory of society, namely that histheory of society is completely “expressed in the concept of total domination (which remainedunchanged from his analysis of fascism) that completely ignores the entire dimension of social action
1
 
 Jürgen Habermas
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures 
Translated by Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge:MIT University Press, 1990), pg. 118-9
1
 
and is committed to the idea of an administrative manipulation of psychically weakened members of society.”
2
Furthermore, Honneth asserts that “[Adorno] did not notice the obstacles to cultural-industrial manipulation: subcultural interpretive styles and forms of perception – that is, cooperativeinterpretive accomplishments.”
3
  And most strongly that: “The one-dimensionality of Adorno’sanalysis of the culture industry is simply the theoretical result of a conceptual reductionism in histheory of society.”
4
 Honneth’s criticism bears merit as a criticism of Adorno’s theory of society 
as presented 
in
Dialectic of Enlightenment 
. However, Honneth claims that the theory of society as presented in
Dialectic of Enlightenment 
persisted relatively unadulterated in Adorno’s later cultural/social thought. Howeverthis reading of Adorno’s social thought is reductivistic. Honneth virtually ignores Adorno’s laterphilosophical works and discusses almost exclusively Adorno’s specifically sociological works.
5
Mostimportantly, Honneth neglects the vital dimension of language. The sole mention of Adorno’s major work,
 Negative Dialectics 
, is by way of saying that “Adorno made this task of a self-criticism of conceptual thought, in all its radicality for his own for the first time in the subsequent developmentof his philosophical theory. In
 Negative Dialectics 
, published in 1966, he attempts to ‘transcend theconcept by means of the concept’ – that is, to demonstrate immanently by means of a philosophicalanalysis philosophy’s own questionable status.”
6
While the validity of this assertion isunquestionable, it ignores the fundamental interrelated nature of philosophy, society, culture andpolitics. Honneth reduces the concept of philosophy operative in
Dialectic of Enlightenment,
to “thereflective form of a critical theory that discovers in each step of conceptual reflection a piece of thecontinued history of domination. Therefore, strictly speaking, it prohibits itself…. [and] since they [Horkheimer and Adorno] know that philosophy itself is lodged within the civilizing structures of 
2
 
 Axel Honneth,
The Critique of Power,
 Translated by Kenneth Baynes (Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1991), pg 100. This position is not unfounded, although, as I will demonstrate is founded upon an incomplete consideration of  Adorno’s texts. Helmut Dubiel, in
Theory and Politics 
(Which Honneth cites) writes that “Only politically isolated,organizationally unaffiliated individuals are capable of theoretically advocating collective interests.” Helmut Dubiel, pg 101
3
Ibid, pg. 80
4
Ibid., pg 81
5
 
In the chapter of 
The Critique of Power 
that treats Adorno specifically, Honneth cites the following works:
The Dialectic of Enlightenment 
, “Der Artist als Statthalter”, “Sociology and Empirical Research”, “Reflexionen zur Klassentheorie”, “LateCapitalism or Industrial Society”, “Resume uber Kulturindustrie”, “Prolog zum Fernsehen”, “Freizeit” , “Television andthe Patterns of Mass Culture”. “Individuum und Organisation”, “Antisemitism and Fascist Propaganda”, “Die revidiertePsychoanalyse”, “End of Internalization”,
 Aesthetic Theory 
,
 Minima Moralia 
, and
 Negative Dialectics 
. However, the latter twoare cited only once each, and the former thrice.
6
Ibid, pg 63
2
 
instrumental thought, they must deny it any claim to positive knowledge.”
7
  The theme that I wish to address here is that of whether the interrelation between culture,society, politics and philosophy that Adorno establishes and moreover that corresponds well withthe interdisciplinary agenda of the Institute for Social Research can establish techniques of discoursethat can at once communicate the nonconceptual and nonidentical and at the same time be used by philosophy and critique as a means by which a total critique of culture may be conducted withoutfalling into the performative contradiction that Habermas finds in the
Dialectic of Enlightenment 
andthat forms the backbone of Honneth’s critique. Furthermore, it will be seen that discourse
eo ipso
isthe locus of both the transmission of power and of resistance. Moreover, I will attempt to isolate, in
 Negative Dialectics,
 
 Minima Moralia 
and a number of his essays collected in
 Notes To Literature 
, means by  which Adorno’s philosophical methodology of critique may elude the aporias of power. I will alsoshow how this elusion may account, indirectly, for the deficiencies that Honneth points out.Dialectics and linguistic presentation serve the joint purpose of permitting critique to take its owngrounds as its object without falling prey to the downward pull of collapsing foundations. Moreover,the discourse of domination is mediated by the discourses of critique. Through these mediationsalone can society remedy its ‘bad totality.’ Negative dialectics, by virtue of the fact that they do notcompletely reduce the nonidentical to the same, allows for subcultures to emerge and for powerrelations to become mutable. These nonidentical remnants within the totally administered world may enter into relationship with one another to form constellations of subcultural resistance.
I. The Relation of Philosophy to Society / Overdetermination of Dialectic, and the CultureIndustry
In the section of 
 Negative Dialectics 
entitled “Dying Today,” Theodor Adorno offers, in acritique of Heidegger, a telling statement regarding his view of the fundamental interrelation that ispresent in at all times between philosophy and cultural, social and political elements. Adorno writesthat “metaphysical reflections that seek to get rid of their cultural, indirect elements deny the relationof their allegedly pure categories to their social substance. They disregard society, but encourage itscontinuation in existing forms, in \the forms which in turn block both the cognition of truth and itsrealization.”
8
I take this to say that philosophy is essentially constituted in relation to these auxiliary 
7
Ibid, pg 61-2
8
 
 Theodor Adorno
 Negative Dialectics 
Translated by E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), pg 368
3

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