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Adornos Concept of Materialism

(6th International Critical Theory Conference, Rome, 6-8/05/2013.


Sebastian Truskolaski, Goldsmiths, University of London.)

The present study is an attempt to examine the meaning of Theodor W. Adornos enigmatic notion of an
imageless materialism, as it appears in his magnum opus Negative Dialectics (1966). I take it that,
articulated herein, is a curious intersection of theology, materialism and epistemology, which is
characteristic of Adornos project. The central importance of the closing lines from the passage in question
warrants their lengthy citation:

Representational thinking would be without reflection an undialectical contradiction, for without reflection
there is no theory. A consciousness interpolating images, a third element, between itself and that which it thinks
would unwittingly reproduce idealism. A body of ideas would substitute for the object of cognition, and the
subjective arbitrariness of such ideas is that of the authorities. The materialist longing to grasp the thing aims at the
opposite: it is only in the absence of images that the full object could be conceived. Such absence concurs with the
theological ban on images. Materialism brought that ban into secular form by not permitting Utopia to be
positively pictured; this is the substance of its negativity. At its most materialistic, materialism comes to agree with
theology. Its great desire would be the resurrection of the flesh, a desire utterly foreign to idealism, the realm of the
absolute spirit. The perspective vanishing point of historic materialism would be its self-sublimation, the spirits
liberation from the primacy of material needs in their state of fulfilment. Only if the physical urge were quenched
would the spirit be reconciled and would become that which it only promises while the spell of material conditions
will not let it satisfy material needs. (Adorno, 1970, p.207; 1973, p.207)

Above all, this passage stakes an epistemological claim: that a purportedly materialist cognition, which,
interpolates images, a third element, between consciousness and that which it thinks, in fact,
unwittingly reproduces idealism. In this regard, I take it that the section is directed, in the first instance,
against a form of representational thinking Abbildendes Denken that Adorno associates with the
official materialism of the Eastern Bloc, not least, the theory of reflection Abbildtheorie from Lenins
Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908). (Although elsewhere Adorno uses the term reflection theory
in connection with Epicurus, Bacon, Locke, Berkley and Wittgenstein, his objections in Materialism
Imageless are explicitly directed against its usage by Lenin.) However, although the passage undoubtedly
marks an astute account of the shortcomings of Soviet epistemology, Adornos objections to the
functionaries of DIAMAT admittedly, appear somewhat pass, given that the theoretical and political
sway of the Soviet Union has been all but consigned to the history books. Nevertheless, I argue, the
passage retains much contemporary relevance inasmuch as Materialism Imageless, in fact, points beyond
the critique of reflection theory and the canonical history of materialist philosophies, more generally, to
what Adorno describes, cryptically, as the Utopia of knowledge. (Adorno, 1970, p.21; 1973, p.10)
[Translation altered / my emphasis] The materialist longing to grasp the thing is conceived as nothing
less than the effort to re-configure the relationship between subject and object in thought, with respect to
their real correlate in natural history. The point is that the coercive mechanisms of thought (which are not
necessary, but are real) are co-extensive with the un-free state of things. Accordingly, the question what
we can really say about A cognition that neither merely depicts nor constitutes things (Schmidt, 1983,
p.25) [My translation], posed by Adornos erstwhile student, Alfred Schmidt, gains a substantive socio-
political dimension.
I propose to explore Schmidts question with respect to the notion of an imageless materialism,
notably, in two steps: i.) An account of Adornos critique of reflection theory, ii.) Some preliminary
thoughts on the self-effacement of materialism.

The Theory of Reflection:

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism must be seen as Lenins attempt to devise a materialist theory of
knowledge for Marxism. Lenin is keen to disavow bourgeois philosophies of science, prevalent in his day,
above all the empirio-criticism of Richard Avenarius and Ernst Mach. He objects to empirio-criticisms
attempt to ground a scientific account of reality in a theory of pure experience, gained through sense data,
charging that such a view is, ultimately, idealist, inasmuch as it places the constitution of matter in a
reflecting subject. Instead, he insists that the world is a priori material, and that consciousness is
determined by it, not vice versa. Sense data is said to mirror the world as-it-really-is, existing
independently of- and external to- consciousness: sensation, perception, idea, and the mind of man
generally are to be regarded as an image of objective reality. (Lenin, 1927, p.274)
Adorno objects to this view by arguing that Lenins theory of reflection succumbs to a nave
realism, which merely re-doubles the illusions of bourgeois thought, with the disastrous result that the
unpenetrated target of criticism remains undisturbed () and not being hit at all, () can be resurrected at
will in changed constellations of power. (Adorno, 1970, p.205; 1973 p.204-205) What Adorno is
alluding to is that in official materialist dialectics, epistemology was skipped by fiat, (Adorno, 1970,
p.205; 1973 p.205) thus unwittingly reproducing the very imperialism of spirit, which it sought to
displace, in a view of reality as seamlessly causal-mechanical. Accordingly, the theoretical deficiencies
of a materialism such as Lenins, ground a political configuration wherein, on the threadbare pretext of a
dictatorship () of the proletariat (), governmental terror machines entrench themselves as permanent
institutions thus mocking the theory they carry on their lips. (Adorno, 1970, p.204; 1973 p.204)
With this in mind, we might ask how we can conceive of the relationship between the mind of
man and the image of objective reality (Lenin, 1927, p.274), invoked by Lenin, if the former is not
simply a mirror image of the latter. I take it that there are two points worth noting, here: i.) The rooted-
ness of the theory of reflection in the Epicurean idea that matter emits little images (Adorno, 1970,
p.205; 1973 p.205), ii.) The equivocity of the term reflection, between Abbildung and Reflexion.

i.) The first point concerns a materialist conception, dating back to Epicurus, which states that matter emits
little images (Adorno, 1970, p.205; 1973 p.205) that are reflected in consciousness.1 Adorno argues:
The thought is not an image of the thing (it becomes that only in an Epicurean-style materialist
mythology which invents the emission by matter of little images). (Adorno, 1970, p.205; 1973 p.205)
These little images designate the reflections Abbilder purported by Lenin as affirming a primacy of
the material world. Adorno charges that this claim is metaphysical, inasmuch as it is extra-physical, which
is incongruent with the attempt to reduce reality to the level of sheer physicality. Accordingly, Lenins
doctrine of images faces a considerable difficulty: how does matter, which was previously characterised
as wholly without soul or spirit, i.e. causal-mechanical material () come to emit such images in the first
place? (Adorno, 1974, p.214) [My translation] Lenins effort to ground his staunchly anti-metaphysical
materialist epistemology in a theory of reflection thus relapses into speculation where a totality of
images mistaken for reality blends into a wall of un-reflected sensual data before reality.
(Adorno, 1970, p.205; 1973, p.205) [My emphasis] This is the sense in which the properly materialist
longing to grasp the thing aims at the opposite of representational thinking, for only in the absence of
images could the full object () be conceived (Adorno, 1970, p.207; 1973, p.207)

ii.) In attempting to differentiate between two different uses of the term reflection, I rely on the peculiar
translation of Abbildtheorie as theory of reflection. (The German prefix Ab, roughly translatable as of,
already implies that the Ab-bild is an image of the image, so to speak an impermissible tautology, if
nothing else. Though it is, elsewhere, rendered as replica or representation, I take it that the notion of
an Abbild as a literal form of reflection a mirror image is opposed, here, to Reflexion, which means
theoretical reflection.) In Lenins reflection theory, then, sense perception is the mirroring of reality in
consciousness, which is said to affirm a primacy of the material world as existing independently of- and
external to- consciousness. Adorno uses a string of metaphors to indicate the literal replica-character
Abbildcharakter hereof. They fall roughly into three groups: firstly, the image is conceived of literally as
a mirror image; secondly, it is characterised as a photograph. (Adorno, 1970, p.205; 1973, p.205);
thirdly, it is figured as an idol. What clings to the image remains idolatry, mythic enthrallment. (Adorno,

1
This is, of course, a very partial account of Adornos reading of Epicurus. Whilst Adorno is certainly critical of
some epistemological precepts of Epicurean materialism that have survived into Newtonian physics and, more
crucially, into Soviet materialism, his own notion of happiness is undoubtedly indebted to Epicurus.
1970, p.205; 1973, p.205) That is to say, Adorno associates the ban on images with the monotheistic
proscription of idol-worship. Demythologisation, the thoughts enlightening intent, deletes the image
character of consciousness. (Adorno, 1970, p.205; 1973, p.205) Accordingly, the supposed grasp of
objectivity delivered by the images of reflection theory is, in fact, illusory. Materialism Imageless must,
then, be viewed as invoking a theological motif in the service of debunking the idols with which
materialism traditionally sought to break, but which reflection theory upholds.
By contrast, where Adorno speaks of representational thinking Abbildendes Denken as being
without reflection (Adorno, 1970, p.207; 1973, p.207), his use of the term, rather, recalls a form of
theoretical reflection: Reflexion. The point is that for Adorno, as for Hegel dialectics, as the reflexive
movement of consciousness through contradiction, procures a series of shapes-of-consciousness,
conceived as the history of its education to the standpoint of science. Obviously, this is overstating the
matter. Clearly, Adorno does not adopt Hegels theories part and parcel. After all, we are dealing with a
negative dialectic. Nevertheless, we might say, with respect to the double meaning of reflection, which we
have asserted, that for Adorno and Hegel alike when an object appears to consciousness it is reflected
i.e. conceptually mediated as relative to its conception of what knowledge is. With regards to Lenins
theory of reflection, then, this marks what in the Phenomenology is merely the first, most partial form
of knowledge: Sense-Certainty, as a literal Abbildung (reflection-as-mirroring) of objective reality in the
senses. But, in rejecting the centrality of theoretical reflection Reflexion as bourgeois metaphysics,
Lenin cannot move forward from this stage, despite his assurances to the contrary. Dialectics lies in
things but it could not exist without a consciousness that reflects it. (Adorno, 1970, p.206; 1973, p.206)
That is, the moment of subjectivity or reflection cannot be taken out of the dialectic. (). Where this
does, nonetheless, happen, the philosophical grounds for a transition to a state-religion are laid, wherein
we can observe with horror the deterioration of dialectical theory. (Adorno, 1974, p.215) [My translation]
The point is that, on Adornos reading, there is a materialist moment to the hyper-idealism of Hegelian
Reflexion and, hence, to the bourgeois subjectivity that Lenin seeks to disavow. This becomes clear by
analogy: if, as Hegel argues, Kants attempt to ground the conditions of possibility / limits of legitimacy of
knowledge before knowing already is a form of knowing, then this being-conscious-of-something, has an
irreducibly material moment which Lenins realism cannot reproduce.
The point, then, is twofold: firstly, the thing, which materialism of the Leninist cast claims to grasp,
remains at the level of illusion; and, secondly, the all-encompassing claim of such a materialism, which is
entirely causal-mechanical, embeds man in a system of seamlessly determined nature, thus denying the
possibility of freedom, whilst paradoxically speaking at the same time of spontaneous action, even
revolution. (Schmidt, 1983, p.18) [My translation] In other words, where materialism consigns itself to
affirming such a total order, it betrays its emancipatory tendency by reproducing the antagonistic subject-
object relation it hoped to overturn.
The Self-Effacement of Materialism

Let us remind ourselves, briefly, that Adornos critique of Lenin amounts to a meta-critique of the un-
reflected precepts of materialism, not its outright rejection. The invocation of the image ban serves as a
quasi-theological corrective to the theoretical shortcomings of materialism, but occurs strictly in its
service. Though it cannot be our aim, here, to embed Adorno in the canonical history of the term, from
Epicurus to Diderot to Marx, it remains to discern something of his peculiar notion of materialism, on its
own terms, so to speak. Let this be our point of departure: if materialism runs the danger of reproducing
precisely the imperialism of spirit, which it seeks to displace, then it follows that a politicised materialism,
such as that of Lenin, cannot be guaranteed to be an emancipatory kind of thinking. (Jarvis, 2004, p.79)
[My emphasis]
Accordingly, I propose to approach Adornos concept of materialism on three fronts: i.) The
primacy of the object, ii.) The somatic moment, iii.) The idea of its self-effacement.

i.) The notion of a primacy of the object is, above all, a formal point. It concerns an asymmetry in the
relationship between subject and object, wherein objects are said to relate to subjects in a qualitatively
different way than subjects to objects: An object can be conceived only by a subject but always remains
something other than the subject, whereas a subject by its very nature is from the outset an object as well.
(Adorno, 1970, p.184; 1973, p.183) But how is it that Adorno comes to speak of subjects and objects as
distinct in the first place?
In terms of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the point is that the original sin of philosophy is also
the moment of its inception. The emergence of individuated consciousness from the enchanted union with
nature marks the splitting asunder of subject (man qua individuated consciousness) and object (nature).
Accordingly, enlightenment must be seen on the one hand as the dual process of rationalising deadly
forces from without (both physically and intellectually), and on the other hand as the self-imposed
bondage necessary to persist under such conditions. In other words, the split between subject and object
means that history is always already marked by the domination of objects by subjects, even though the
subject is (unbeknown to itself) a special kind of object. However, whilst the splitting apart of subject and
object designates a historical reality, it is by no means immutable. The point is not so much to reconcile
subject and object in the sense of bringing them back together, but rather, to reconfigure them in a state
of differentiation without domination. (Adorno, 1977, p.743; 1993, p.247) This is the meaning of the
Utopia of knowledge (Adorno, 1970, p.207; 1973, p.207), intimated at the outset. It assumes that the
coercive relation between subject and object has its correlate in real socio-historical antagonisms.
The notion of the primacy of the object, then, bespeaks at once the effort to uphold its dignity
as irreducibly singular (not least, in the face of its curtailment by the subject) and an account of the
troubled relation that obtains between these terms. The real complication of the subject-object relation lies
in the ambiguity of the object-status of the subject, which is connected to Adornos reading of Alfred
Sohn-Rethel. In any case, the point is that, whilst the relationship of coercion and domination brought
about by the original sin of philosophy is real, it is not eternal but must be expounded by philosophical
critique.

ii.) We turn, then, to the somatic moment of Adornos materialism: Once the object becomes an object of
cognition, as it does for idealist and materialist epistemologies alike, its physical side its irreducibly
material moment is spiritualised. (Adorno, 1970, p.193; 1973, p.192) It is called object only from
the viewpoint of a subjectively aimed analysis in which the subjects primacy seems, once again,
beyond question. (Adorno, 1970, p.193; 1973, p.192) To speak of objectivity in terms of epistemology,
then, is to reduce sensation the crux of all epistemology, the somatic moment of materialism to a
fact of consciousness. (Adorno, 1970, p.193; 1973, p.193) Hence, Adorno argues that, There is no
sensation without a somatic moment. (Adorno, 1970, p.193; 1973, p.193) In other words, epistemology
(of all ideological shades and hues) runs the danger of misconstruing the material moment of sensation as
being purely a link in the chain of cognitive functions. The point is that this excess of physicality, not
captured by epistemology, concerns the human body itself. Physical suffering is the somatic index of
Adornos materialism.
But Adornos evocation of suffering as the register of non-identity contains the seed of its own
undoing: the demand for its abolition in hedonic fulfilment. The physical moment tells our knowledge
that suffering ought not to be, that things should be different. (Adorno, 1970, p.203; 1973, p.203)
[Translation altered] It testifies to the entanglement of thought and un-freedom. This is the sense in which
Adorno argues that The telos of such an organisation of society as would allow for the satisfaction of
want would be to negate the physical suffering of even the least of its members. (Adorno, 1970, p.203-
204; 1973, p.203-204) I take it that this is connected, not least, to his attempt at formulating the outlines of
a non-coercive imageless form of materialist cognition.

iii.) In his lectures on Philosophical Terminology, Adorno argues that, One of the substantive
misinterpretations of materialism believes that, since it teaches the preponderance of matter or, indeed, of
material conditions, this preponderance is () itself positive. (Adorno, 1974, p.198) [My translation]
Rather, Adorno argues, The telos, () of Marxist materialism and Adorno is, after all a Marxist, albeit
of a highly heterodox cast is the abolition of materialism, i.e. the introduction of a state in which the
blind coercion of people by material conditions would be broken, and in which the question of freedom
would become truly meaningful. (Adorno, 1974, p.198) [My translation] Although the issue of whether
this is in fact an accurate reading of Marx will have to remain un-addressed (characterising Marxs
concept of materialism falls beyond our remit), it nevertheless goes some way towards demonstrating that
Adornos conception of materialism is, ultimately, self-effacing. That is to say, materialism, properly
understood, would be its own undoing, erasing even the trace of itself in the satisfaction of physical need.
It would not simply be a counter-position to idealism, but rather the outcome of an immanent critique of
the latter an immanent critique that aims at an altogether different relationship between subject and
object beyond intentionality, instrumentality and means-ends relations. This is what Adorno means by the
closing lines of Materialism Imageless, where he says: The perspective vanishing point of historic
materialism would be its self-sublimation, the spirits liberation from the primacy of material needs in
their state of fulfilment. Only if the physical urge were quenched would the spirit be reconciled and would
become that which it only promises while the spell of material conditions will not let it satisfy material
needs. (Adorno, 1970, p.207; 1973, p.207) Adornos self-effacing imageless materialism, then, points
beyond the critique of representational thinking to a Utopia of knowledge (Adorno, 1970, p.21; 1973,
p.10) [Translation altered] that remains pressing, at a time when crudely realist tendencies are prevalent
amongst philosophers once again.

Sources Cited:

- Adorno, Theodor W.: Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 6 Negative Dialektik/Jargon der


Eigentlichkeit. 1970. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp Verlag / Negative Dialectics. Ashton, E.B.
(Trans.) 1973. London: Routeledge & Kegan Paul.
- Adorno, Theodor W.: Philosophische Terminologie Bd. 2. 1974. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp
Verlag.
- -Adorno, Theodor W.: Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 10 Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft II. 1977.
Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp Verlag.
- -Adorno, Theodor W.: Notes to Literature, Vol. 1. 1993. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Jarvis, Simon: Adorno, Marx, Materialism, in: Huhn, Tom (Ed.): The Cambridge Companion to
Adorno. 2004. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- Lenin, Vladimir Ilich: Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. 1927. New York: International
Publishers.
- Schmidt, Alfred: Der Begriff des Materialismus bei Adorno, in: Friedenburg, Ludwig v. &
Habermas, Jrgen (Eds.): Adorno Konferenz 1983. 1984. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp Verlag.