On the Historical Immanence of Language in Adorno
new version June 2006
Neil Larsen, University of California, Davis
“The whole is the untrue.”1 This phrase, one of the signatures of Adorno’s most unmistakable work, Minima Moralia, points to an irony that perhaps not even its author could have discerned. Notwithstanding the truth of its bitter rebuke to the Hegelian dialectic as apology for capitalist modernity, as a philosophical dictum in its own right it would itself have to be judged false, fatal to any aspiration to dialectical thought. To that much, of course, Adorno testifies, both in practice–for neither Minima Moralia nor any other of his works reflect any doubt that critical theory, as part of its own conceptual movement, must strive for the totalization of its object– but also in theory: one need look no further than to Minima Moralia itself than to have this confirmed: “Dialectical thought opposes reification in the…sense that it refuses to affirm individual things in their isolation and separateness: it designates isolation as precisely a product of the universal.”2 A refusal to isolate means a commitment to totalize, albeit a non-Hegelian one. The alternative would be to succumb to the reified consciousness of the object in its sheer immediacy. The “whole” may be the “untrue,” but that does not make the part the truth. Both become false, at least from the immediate standpoint of “wrong life” reflected, consciously and without apology, by Minima Moralia.
The less conscious, perhaps inadvertent irony in these words, however, is how true they become in relation to Adorno’s own formal mode of self-presentation-that is, as a reflection on the relationship of his thinking to the language and style in which it is conveyed. With only a few exceptions, this is a language that, outwardly at least, resists its own mediation by any formal standard of systematicity or argumentative blueprint. Any reader of Adorno, from the newcomer to the initiate and academic exegete, experiences this, for example, in the great difficulty one has in summarizing-and also at times in retaining-his arguments. As I can confirm from my own experience in teaching Adorno’s works and assigning my students to produce such summaries, this can seem to be a virtually impossible task. The end result is often little more than a list of citations, almost always a sampling of Adorno’s aphoristic and dialectically tensed sentences. Consider for example-taking Horkheimer’s co-authorship as moot in this regard–the chapter on the Culture Industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment. How is one to outline or condense the logic of its argument as a whole? One can attempt a gloss, or look up one of the reasonably good ones already published, but sooner or later, if the text itself is followed closely, the conclusion seems inevitable that this logic, though everywhere in force, does not so much develop by stages as it reiterates itself continuously and in shifting empirical and polemical contexts. From its opening statement-“Culture today is infecting everything with sameness. Film, radio and magazines form a system.”3 -the “whole” is, in essence, already expounded, and, although someone not immediately persuaded by it might in the end succumb to the sheer thrust-almost a kind of fury-of its will to truth and to its sociological sweep, nothing in Dialectic of Enlightenment that follows can be said to take on the burden of proving it, or any other in the series of emphatic, unrelentingly indicative-mood sentences that follow it and that, in effect, make up the entire text of chapter and work themselves. Here, as, to one degree or another throughout Adorno’s corpus, the “untruth” of the “whole” can only be eluded through constant exertions to wrestle the latter into virtually every lexical predication. That Adorno’s thinking at any given point in its development and formal presentation forms a coherent, exquisitely reflective and mediated whole, supple and adaptive, is in no way contradicted by this. But the movement of thought through language is at the same time an inward, condensing movement of language within itself, a movement toward what is, for the logical organization of Adornian critical prose, a fusion of dialectics and style at the level of such language’s smallest moving part: the sentence or short, aphoristic sequence of sentences. So, for instance, a sentence taken almost at random: “There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh about.” (112) Or another: “What is offered [in photographic images] is not Italy but evidence that it exists.” (119) Or again: “The consumer becomes the ideology of the amusement industry, whose institutions he or she cannot escape.” (128) The last of these sentences, somewhat more theoretically explicit, is probably a better choice than the former for the would-be précis of “The Culture Industry,” but the essay’s claim to truth, and its corresponding power of conviction, seems to weigh equally in each of them. All such sentences or dicta appear to elaborate, in an iterative or serial structure, on a logic that is virtually identical and whole in each of them.
No one, of course, was more aware of this than Adorno himself, and one can find reflections on this form of presentation throughout his writings4. But nowhere is the latter more poignantly evoked than in one of the centerpieces of Notes to Literature, “The Essay as Form.”5 What Adorno observes there-essayistically-of the essay,-e.g., that it “allows for the consciousness of nonidentity, without expressing it directly”; that it “is radical in its non-radicalism, in refraining from any reduction to principle, in its accentuation of the partial against the total, in its fragmentary character” (9)- not only provides the elements for a general theory of the essay-form but is as good an account as any of what Adorno’s readers should, ideally, experience if form remains true to its intention.
But such reflections on what amounts to Adorno’s fundamental formal principle, the node at which style and theoretical aim merge in what we might refer to schematically here as Adorno’s dialectical minimalism, are not the end of the story. Even if Adorno is right about the cognitive and critical powers of the “methodically unmethodical” (“The Esssay as Form,” 13) -and, as could be argued, his dialectical minimalism has succeeded, probably beyond Adorno’s wildest dreams, in generalizing itself as a kind of (ironically) popular-cultural voice of critical-theoretical authenticity, a voice that no one striving for such authenticity, including the author of these lines, can resist trying to imitate-there remain the questions both of the deeper, historico-genetic origin of such language and of what might be its own ideological limitation, its own possible moment of “untruth.” At the very least we are faced with a theoretical and formal paradox staring back at us from virtually every page of Adorno’s work as a critical theorist: namely, why has the “whole” become the “untrue” for the formal, expressive tendency of a thinking that, in relation to any given object, knows-and ultimately reflects this knowledge in its own content and movement-just the opposite? This is the question I want to discuss, however speculatively, in these pages.
One way to attempt to illuminate this paradox is to consider how Adorno’s dialectical minimalism compares to the inevitable model for all modern, critical-dialectical prose, namely the language of Marx, and above all that of Capital. Even if, philosophically and, in a sense, philologically speaking, the most visible debt of the Adornian dialectic is to Hegel, Adorno’s re-thinking of the form of critical theory in relation to totality and system is unquestionably mediated by Adorno’s own positive theoretical relationship to Marx, however problematic this relationship and however reluctant he seems to have been to address it explicitly. Consider, in this light, one of Marx’s most distinctive and enigmatically dialectical mots from the concluding, fourth section (on the “fetishism of commodities”) of the first chapter of Capital I: “Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead. It rather transforms every product of labor into a social hieroglyphic.”6 This two-sentence sequence contains the dialectical chiasmus or inversion typical of Marx as a dialectical stylist: the objective, reified surface of the capitalist social formation appears as something self-evident, as transparent. The value-form is socially tacit, its own logic apparently already given in universal social practice. But it is just this apparent self-evidence, this objective transparency, which conceals the essence, the fundamental synthetic principle of capitalist society. The value-form is a fetish-form, not because it is mysterious (a “hieroglyphic”) per se, but because it exists in a relationship of mutual determination with an objective social nexus that itself turns its products into fetishes and its own social “bearers” into fetish-worshippers. The truth of the value-form is hidden in its own transparent self-evidence, both practically and theoretically. To decipher value one first must understand how value converts the social totality itself into a cipher.
Adorno, more than most Marxists of his day-and thanks, clearly, to being as much the student of Hegel as was Marx himself-knew how to read Capital, and, down to the sentence level, could reproduce the same dialectical, logico-stylistic movement evident there, often in the same inverted or chiasmic form. Thus the Culture Industry, as theorized in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, does not dominate its consumers by hectoring or lulling them into subservience. It dominates them precisely by making them free to consume its products, that is, by virtue of already having taken on a social objectivity existing “behind the backs” of consumers who, say, even when switching off the television, continue to reproduce the essence of its “message” in their own heads. The Culture Industry, like value, represents the outward, objective form of what the subjects of the dominant, reifying social relation already are qua subjects.
But the position of Marx’s dictum within the whole that is Capital is in no way arbitrary. Marx could not have opened the chapter on the commodity with it because the truth that it condenses, here in a quasi-aphoristic style, about the object of Marx’s critique-the value-form-must already have been shown by means of the rigorously theoretical argument that precedes the concluding, fourth section of the chapter on the commodity. The objective transparency of value in its form of appearance has already been proven by Marx to disclose, within its own immanent terms, its mysterious, fetishized essence. That the value-relation self-evidently exists and just as self-evidently rests on an equation of qualitatively different kinds of labor and use-values serves as the unshakeable premise here from which it follows that value must appear as a paradoxically “social substance” residing in commodities as their seemingly material, thing-like property. And that result, judged by the same standard of self-evidence furnished by the value-relation itself, must be deemed false. The classical political-economic theory of Smith and Ricardo succumbs to the commodity-fetish, convicting itself, ultimately, on its own, immanent terms. The incomparable critical force of Marx’s chiasmic dictum on the value-form and of his mode of presentation generally in Capital rests on this proof, and the remainder of Capital proceeds to extrapolate from it and to build a theoretical system on its rigorous foundation.
Not so the dialectical sentences of “The Culture Industry.” In Adorno’s defense, it must doubtless be acknowledged that his own thinking also, even if only implicitly, strives consistently to follow through on this theoretically rigorous point of departure, or at least to keep its radical truth constantly in view. Moreover, insofar as the objects of Adornian critique are cultural or ideological in form, the standards of proof themselves become considerably more difficult to meet, far more complexly mediated. But that should not, in principle, have prevented Adorno-much less prevent his contemporary readers and students-from attempting to hold critical theory and immanent critique to this same, rigorous standard. The abjuring of systems and “false” wholes, whether in the name of the “individual” or the “non-identical,” may begin to look like little more than theoretical abdications in light of the systematic, logical standard set by Capital. Yet, already in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno appears to require of his readers that they somehow learn to overcome the expectation that the logical articulations and truth-claims of immanent critique could meet such standards of proof. Ironically, given what is on one level its profound philosophical rigor, nothing in Adorno’s thinking is proven-unless, that is, one is willing or able to share Adorno’s evident suspicions that anything not already reified and turned into a piece of “positive” knowledge could be proven, or that proof could count any longer as anything more than the perpetual, emphatic disclosure of the object’s sheer negativity. The movement of what would be the proof for Adorno, if one were (or perhaps when one is) possible, appears to coil itself within the dialectical springs of style and language themselves, in the intuitive hope, if not faith, that the critically-theorized object in its own worldly course will shine through the words themselves when the moment is right. But in the meantime, a possible moment of self-apology has to be acknowledged in Adorno: for surely it is not the essay, as Adorno (self-referentially) describes it in “The Essay as Form,” that constitutes the “critical form par excellence” (18). The form of Capital-a form regarding which one might indeed speculate (to what genre does Capital belong?) but which is certainly not that of the essay-sets this standard, and sets aside and humbles any claims lodged on behalf of a “methodically unmethodical” flux of quasi-Nietzschean aphorisms, however dialectically-charged and true such sentences may be, in their particularity, to their Marxian point of origin.
Marx, it will be useful to recall, reflects on the methodological question of the whole in a widely-read section of the introduction to the Grundrisse subtitled “The Method of Political Economy.”7 There he acknowledges the seemingly more obvious method of “beginning with the real and concrete”-in economics, population-and then moving “analytically towards ever more simple concepts (e.g., class, exchange, division of labor) from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until [arriving] at the simplest determinations.” (100) This method he contrasts to the inverse, less spontaneous one of beginning with such simple determinations-with abstract concepts-and ascending from these back to the level of the concrete whole: “Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second the abstract determination leads towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.” (101) The latter is, according to Marx, “obviously the scientifically correct method.” (ibid.) Although one should stipulate here that, on this plane of generality, the “scientifically correct method” is still that of the classical political-economic systems (Smith and Ricardo primarily) which Marx takes as his own immanent object of critique, it is also clear that, formally, Capital too adheres to this method too by starting with the commodity, or value-form and deriving from it the structured sequence of theoretical categories (e.g., exchange, money, capital, surplus-value, etc.) that lead, theoretically, to the “concrete totality” that is the capitalist mode of production itself. Marx diverges-critically-from classical political economy by insisting on the historical, specifically bourgeois origin of the conceptual abstractions themselves. (Grundrisse, 105) While retaining their abstraction, however, their systematic inter-relation or structure in the methodological context of Capital is itself made possible by a historically evolved whole-a concrete totality-whose own structure and “laws of motion” Capital’s theoretical structure, in a sense, now comes to embody directly, i.e., to which it now becomes immanent. The simple determinations or conceptual abstractions work as abstractions without succumbing, as they do in classical political-economy, to their own reified, naturalized form because they have become, in Capital, historically-grounded moments of a totality that is not abstract. Thus the proof that value, in its social form of appearance, conceals the social whole that generates it is, on one level, a (theoretically) simple matter of showing that this whole is historical, that it has not always been and will, necessarily, become other than what it is. Capital’s “mode of presentation” (its Darstellungsweise in the terms of Marx’s postface to the second edition of Capital I) does not coincide with its “mode of investigation” (Forschungsweise) because only the former can reflect the immanent motion of the historical whole and set forth the theoretical system within which a rigorous proof of this historicity-a proof that does not revert to the reified, tautological form of classical political economy-is possible.8
Considered from precisely this vantage point, Adorno’s dialectical minimalism, his idiosyncratically dialectical dissidence in relation to the logic of the system and to rigorous theoretical method, at least on the level of his own Darstellungsweise, betrays neither a reversion to the naïve empiricism governed by the “chaotic concrete” nor a Hegelian-idealist equation of the whole with the concept itself. It bespeaks rather an adherence to the method of Capital in which, paradoxically, what should be the concrete, historical whole has itself undergone a kind of collapse back into abstraction. It is as if the “concrete totality” immanent to and thus mediating the theoretical abstraction and systematicity of Capital had inexplicably lost its historical source of motion and come to a halt. Concepts, in Adorno, retain their dialectical, non-reified form-thus evading their “bad” abstraction in, say, the theoretical poverties of positivism-but seem to resist their own methodological deployment on the level of a theoretical system. This is because the only concrete totality that could possibly ground a “totality in thought” already appears, to Adorno, to have falsified its own historical concept. Method itself, without ceasing to be sensed as necessary, grinds to a stop. There is no mediated, logical way to arrive at a whole that no longer, as in Capital, situates itself in thought as both the premise and the result of theoretical reasoning because this whole now confronts theory as a “bad” abstraction, as a given, as soon as its concept is invoked.
Thus the “whole,'”in this case, turns out to be “untrue” in still another sense-as the historical totality that, harkening back to but simultaneously annulling its methodological basis in Capital, mediates the conceptual abstractions of theory and method, only here with the apparent risk of stripping them of their truth. Mediation seems to turn back on itself, resulting in the paradoxical need for a dialectical immediacy. Faced, that is, with such a monolithically “false” whole it follows that only a dialectic that never for a moment turned its back on it, that denounced it and its absolute positivity incessantly, a dialectic that had bound itself–like Odysseus before the Sirens–to its own immediate surface as form, could hope to survive.
The problem is that even if the thought positing it could somehow manage to preserve its own dialectical consistency and configuration, such a whole would not itself be dialectical and would work just as incessantly to annul the dialectical movement of its own immanent, critical reflection. This is, in effect, the argument advanced by Moishe Postone in Time, Labor and Social Dominationagainst Horkheimer’s “critical pessimism,’ but it would appear to apply with equal force to Adorno9. Observing the key influence of Friedrich Pollock’s theory of state capitalism on Horkheimer’s thinking, Postone notes a “theoretical turn taken [by the Frankfurt School] in the 1930s, wherein postliberal capitalism came to be conceived as a completely administered, integrated, one-dimensional society, one that no longer gives rise to any immanent possibility of social emancipation.” (84-85) This is a charge often made by “orthodox” Marxists and “revolutionary” theory generally against Critical Theory, and Adorno in particular-one recalls Lukács’s famous quip about Adorno having taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss”-but what lends particular force to Postone’s argument is its careful demonstration that Horkheimer’s was not merely a conjunctural but a “necessary pessimism” concerning the “immanent possibility that capitalism could be superseded.”(86) This paradoxically immanent historical necessity, ascribed by Horkheimer not to historical change and internal crisis but to stagnation and paralysis, is clearly a model for the paradoxically “orthodox” but apocalyptic embrace of the dialectical methodology of Capital evident in Adorno’s thinking. Postone likewise attributes such “critical pessimism” not to a deviation (as per Critical Theory’s “revolutionary” detractors) but to an unquestioned, uncritical adherence to “traditional Marxism” and especially to the latter’s identification of the revolutionary, critical standpoint with that of the proletariat, or ‘labor.’ Postone’s general critique of the latter position is too elaborate and far-reaching to summarize here, but its gist is that labor, no less than the commodity or value, is an abstract social form inseparable from capital and hence one whose crisis is subsumed within the crisis of capitalism as a whole. The counter-posing of “labor” to capital as if the former represented a positive, spontaneous, and necessary pathway to social emancipation fails to grasp a theoretical result worked out in Capital: that the abstracting of “labor” from the general form of purposive social activity already conforms to the logic, constitutive of capitalism, that counts as “productive” only activity that produces value. Take away the value-abstraction, however, and the logic of isolating “labor” from social praxis and reproduction falls with it. The concrete labor that produces use-value can, in capitalism, only serve as the vehicle or embodiment of the abstract labor productive of exchange-value – or, simply, of value. Making “labor” the revolutionary subject thus only reproduces the Ricardian standpoint that directly counter-poses the relations of production to those of distribution, reasoning, effectively, as if value, in its subjective, active form could somehow negate itself merely by abolishing its own form as a given, objective result. Thus the danger clearly arises that, in the wake of a conjunctural, political defeat of the proletariat as the representative of “labor,” a “pessimistic” theory might interpret this crisis as merely the eclipse of the subjective factor, leaving the objective side of “labor”-value-and the neo-Ricardian distortion of Capital firmly in place. This is the apocalyptic, “negative” re-affirmation of “traditional Marxism” that Postone attributes to Horkheimer:
We have seen that Horkheimer’s theory of knowledge had been based upon the assumption that social constitution is a function of “labor,” which in capitalism is fragmented and hindered from fully unfolding by the relations of production. He now begins to consider the contradictions of capitalism to have been no more than the motor of a repressive development, which he expresses categorially with his statement that “the self-movement of the concept of the commodity leads to the concept of state capitalism just as for Hegel the certainty of sense data leads to absolute knowledge.” Horkheimer has thus come to the conclusion that a Hegelian dialectic, in which the contradictions of the categories lead to the self-unfolded realization of the Subject as totality (rather than to the abolition of the totality), could only result in the affirmation of the existing order. Yet he does not formulate his position in a way that would go beyond the limits of that order, for example, in terms of Marx’s critique of Hegel and of Ricardo. Instead, Horkheimer reverses his earlier position: “labor” and the totality, which earlier had been the standpoint of critique, now become the grounds of oppression and unfreedom. (113-114)
Adorno was, to be sure, a more subtle thinker than Horkheimer, as apt to question the latter’s increasingly liberal positions on late capitalism as he was to share Horkheimer’s generally pessimistic view of the possibility of social emancipation. But the underlying connection between such pessimism and an ironic adherence to a traditional Marxist privileging of “labor” detected in Horkheimer by Postone has the potential to explain certain basic problems in Adorno’s thought as well. That an inverted, apocalyptical, but still implicitly labor-centered Marxism likewise suffuses and delimits the theoretical content of Dialectic of Enlightenment has, in fact, been argued recently and in detail by the German critical theorist Norbert Trenkle10. While acknowledging the path-breaking contribution of Horkheimer and Adorno to setting in motion a radical critique of Enlightenment, Trenkle-along with Robert Kurz, Ernst Lohoff and Roswitha Scholz one of the leading representatives of the critical school known as Wertkritik in German-speaking, left-wing circles-finds in the text of Dialectic of Enlightenment itself “the document of a critique always partially recanted out of fear of itself. Its argumentative movement is at least in part one that does not base itself in the dialectic of the thing itself but that is derived in opposition to it.”11 This authentic, but, for Adorno and Horkheimer, displaced “dialectic of the thing itself” Trenkle argues to reside in “a fully determinate social relation, constituted by commodity and value-form.”12 Although Adorno and Horkheimer clearly grasp and allow for this inner, dialectical connection of Enlightenment to value-form (to that extent showing their unmistakable debt, shared by virtually all Frankfurt School Critical Theory, to Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness) they reduce it in turn to a far more generalized, abstract, and anthropologized “abortive separation from Nature” (“misslungene Ablösung von der Natur”, 47) lying, apparently, at the threshold of primordial societalization. But by the very fact of this “reverse-projection” (“Rückprojektion”, 46) of the value-abstraction-an abstraction from all qualitative content, issuing in what for Kant becomes the pure, ahistorical formalism of Reason itself-back to the origins, so to speak, of “species-being,” Dialectic of Enlightenment reproduces the ideology of bourgeois Enlightenment itself, as the standpoint that (like the classical political-economic systems critiqued in Capital) regards all previous history as merely the incomplete working-out of itself, i.e., of the value-abstraction and its rationalist, philosophical sublimation. What distinguishes the teleology underlying Dialectic of Enlightenment from its bourgeois Enlightenment variant is not, finally, any substantive critical-theoretical break but the former’s “turn to resignation” (“resignative Wendung”):
What is described is no longer the glorious triumphal march of progress but the gloomy tread of fatality. Liberation from domination is never more than a flickering possibility, rendered groundless and no longer, in any case, the end-point of history. As correct and important as the critique of the idea of progress clearly is [in Dialectic of Enlightenment], it remains caught up in this idea itself. Insofar as it merely rejects the optimism of the idea of progress (the supposed necessity of liberation), it reproduces the historico-philosophical construct that forms its basis.13
Trenkle traces the same “negative” Enlightenment-teleology, the same tendency to recoil from the full, historical implications of a crisis of capitalist modernity only imperfectly glimpsed, to Adorno’s later works as well, specifically to Negative Dialectics. (See Trenkle, pp. 51-65) Here he criticizes Adorno’s attempt to “rescue” Kantian ethics as well as his ambiguous stance vis as vis the exchange abstraction: an abstraction accurately grasped (following Alfred Sohn-Rethel) as the underlying, social-form basis of “identity thinking” but simultaneously and paradoxically posited in a utopianized, purportedly reciprocal and non-capitalist form, freed from the fetters of surplus-value extraction, as if a kind of Kantian “ethics” of exchange could point beyond its own social and historical determination.
But Trenkle’s fundamental critical insight here-in effect, that Adorno can disclose the crisis of capitalist modernity as a crisis of the modern subject-form (and to that extent initiate a fundamental break with a “traditional Marxist” reduction of critical standpoint to class standpoint) only at the cost of a de-historicizing, abstract-universalization of this crisis itself-could, I think, be developed still further and help to unravel the more troubling aspects of Adorno’s aesthetics. This is the subject for a study of its own, exceeding the immediate limits of this essay. But its argument would run as follows: Adornian aesthetic theory can be considered to rest on a paradoxically dual conception of formal abstraction as a negative principle both qua mimesis (i.e., formal abstraction as the true, negative rendering of the “positive” reifications of late capitalism) and qua emancipation (the modern, abstract work of art as itself the only remaining historical line of flight or negative standpoint from which to oppose or resist said reificaiton). Following Postone, Trenkle and Wertkritik, one might see in this duality yet another working out of the logic of “critical pessimism”: that artistic form is inexorably driven to comprehend the equally inexorable tendency of the value-abstraction to negate, even to the point of self-annihilation, all social content, aesthetic included, follows from the historical specificity of capitalist crisis itself. But that such a mimetic negativity should double as a kind of social transcendental, that the aesthetic should, in some mysterious way, step in to redeem a lost social negativity, removes us once again to a plane of abstraction outside the historical specificity of the crisis of value-form. The abstract work of art suddenly takes up a position with respect to the value-abstraction essentially congruent with that of “labor” in traditional Marxism: as the “subjective” negation of an object that, as part of this same, pseudo-dialectical movement, expels from its own theoretical consciousness any and all principles of immanent negativity or contradiction. That “labor” falls away and the abstract work of art steps in to take its place thereby furnishes the “real abstraction” of value with a kind of historical alibi in the face of its real, and terminal, historical crisis.
But if, theoretically-that is, on the level of system-Adorno fails to integrate the real, concrete totality and scope of capital’s historical crisis into his thinking, it could, I think, be argued that he anticipates the virtual implications of such a crisis when his thinking takes as its objects the cultural, aesthetic, and ethical particularities of his own historical moment. Might it not be that when Adorno looks back at the “false” whole through its parts-when it is conceptually and formally the parts that mediate the whole-the tendency to historical abstraction in his thinking begins to be reversed? At least, might this not be so when the “parts,” as they almost invariably do, take on the form of immediacy of culture, the ethical and, especially, the aesthetic itself? Such might be a hypothetical conclusion to the above, sketched here only in rough outline.
This is a possibility intriguingly suggested by, among other things, the fact that Adorno’s least explicitly systematic work, the work that most closely adheres to the Benjaminian organizing principle of constellation-Minima Moralia-is also his most richly historicized. The inward, self-condensing movement of Adorno’s thought-form, at its apogee in Minima Moralia but detectable everywhere in his opus, would thus be provisionally explained by the fact that, when experienced through and at the level of its cultural particularities and immediacies, the fully historical truth of late-capitalist crisis, its reality as an absolute internal limit, no longer appears strictly as something that must (but cannot) be proven theoretically. On the level of culture and “wrong life” it is the objective immediacies of crisis that, so to speak, have already taken upon themselves the “burden of proof,” and the task of the critic then limits itself to assessing such truth-claims on their own, immanent terms. Adorno’s “minimalist” and stylized dialectic might then be understood as the form that, because it imitates the accidental, fragmentary form of its objects, permits him to render the historical truth of crisis to which such objects point without needing to have already worked out its theoretical critique-in advance, so to speak, of having formulated its concept. The movement towards totality, towards dialectical mediation and synthesis, a movement that takes place for Adorno within sentences as much or more than it does between them, could be seen, in this sense, as a direct way of giving provisionally conceptual shape to the historical mediation of aesthetic, cultural and ethical immediacies that do not yet, for him, add up to a historical whole. Such sentences might thus be said to constitute an idiom of crisis in lieu but also in anticipation of the rigorously theoretical formulation of what would be the latter’s theoretical concept.
But what then, might explain in turn the anticipatory, idiomatic reflection of a terminal crisis of capital that perhaps only now, in the wake of the demise of Fordism and of the advent of capital’s “third” (microelectronic) industrial revolution, becomes a possible object of theorization? From the critical standpoint worked out by contemporary critical theorists such as Postone and Trenkle-from the standpoint of the historical unity-in-crisis of capital and labor-the answer I propose here points us again to the ironic fact that, in the “minimalist” Adorno, it is, above all, the aesthetic object, not the political or economic (or philosophical) one, through and in relation to which his thinking seems to take on its richest, most concrete historical mediacy. Adorno would thus be understood as equipped, in essence, to think the crisis of capital immanently through the form of the aesthetic even while failing, in the end, to do so in the direct, systematic categories of philosophy and theory tout court. But this, surely, would reflect equally what is, for Adorno, the intuitive understanding of the aesthetic as what is directly negated not merely by the “false” whole of the Culture Industry’ or by bourgeois “Enlightenment” but by the value-abstraction itself. The social logic of the value-relation, of the “real,” fetishized abstraction of the commodity form, is, inexorably, to annihilate all aesthetic content and experience. (The same, perhaps, might be said as well of the negativity of ethical content in relation to the value-abstraction-such at least would appear to be an unspoken but absolute premise of Minima Moralia.) The more explicitly philosophical categories of Adorno’s thinking-such as “negative dialectics”-remain far more ambiguous and historically impoverished in this sense, erecting themselves in a negative relation not to the value-abstraction itself but to categories-such as “Enlightenment” or “identity”-that eventually, because of their own “bad” abstraction, find their way back, as Trenkle has observed, into Adorno’s philosophical standpoint itself. One should be careful to add here that the more explicitly philosophical claims of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, above all the argument that artistic abstraction (e.g., “serious music” in the essay on jazz) somehow exempts itself from the reifying, essentially nihilistic logic of the value-abstraction, suffer the same historical impoverishment. But when engaged by and situated within the mediate space of aesthetic, cultural and ethical objects in their particularity, Adorno guides himself unerringly by the historical truth that these objects themselves also, unconsciously, sense: that the terminal crisis of the society governed by the abstract “labor” and the logic of “self-valorizing value”, and the historical possibility of its negation, are all that now warrants their existence.
1 My translation. The German original reads: “Das Ganze ist das Unwahre.” (Frankurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969) p.57. In a foonote to his translation of Minima Moralia (London: NLB, 1974, p.50) E.F.N. Jephcott notes Adorno’s inversion of Hegel’s dictum from The Phenomenology of Mind, “Das Wahre ist das Ganze,” but, curiously, opts for the word “false” rather than “untrue.”
2 Minima Moralia, p. 71. These are the opening lines of fragment 45 (“‘How sickly seem all growing things'”), which, together, with 44 (“For Post-Socratics”) and 46 (“On the morality of thinking”) are this work’s most sustained reflection on dialectics. Similar language can be found throughout Adorno’s works, but the following passage from “Why Still Philosophy” (1962)-no less para-logical in its way than the earlier aphorism it qualifies-seems especially pertinent in this regard: Traditional philosophy’s claim to totality, culminating in the thesis that the real is rational, is indistinguishable from apologetics. But this thesis has become absurd. A philosophy that would still set itself up as total, as a system, would become a delusional system. Yet if philosophy renounces the claim to totality and no longer claims to develop out of itself the whole that should be the truth, then it comes into conflict with its entire tradition. (my emphasis; Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, p. 7.))
3 Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) p. 94.
4 See, for example, the concluding paragraph of the “Dedication” in Minima Moralia, p. 18.
5 Notes to Literature, Vol. One trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen(New York: Columbia University Press, 1991) pp. 3-23.
6 Trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1990) p. 167.
7 Trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguing Books, 1993) pp. 100-108.
8 See Capital Vol. One, p. 102.
9 Time. Labor, and Social Domination: a Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
10 See “Gebrochene Negativität: Anmerkungen zu Adornos und Horkheimers Aufklärungskritik,” Krisis: Beitrage zur Kritik der Warengesellschaft #25 (2002) pp. 39-65.
11 My translation. German original: “das Dokument einer Kritik, die sich immer wieder partiell zurücknimmt, weil sie vor sich selbst erschrickt. Ihre argumentative Bewegung ist wenigstens teilweise eine, die nicht in der Dialektik der Sache liegt, sondern sich dieser entgegenstemmt.” (39)
12 My translation. German original: “eine ganz bestimmte, von Ware und Werte konstituierte gesellschaftliche Verhältnisse.” (47)
13 My translation. German original: Nicht mehr der glorreiche Siegesmarsch des Fortschritts wird beschrieben, sondern der düstere Gang des Verhängnisses. Befreiung von Herrschaft ist allenfalls noch eine aufblitzende Möglichkeit, die nicht mehr begründet werden kann, auf jeden Fall aber nicht mehr notwendiger Endpunkt der Geschichte. So richtig und wichtig die Kritik des Fortschrittsdenkens auch ist, sie bleibt doch in ihm befangen. Indem sie bloss seinen Optimismus (die angebliche Notwendigkeit der Befreiung) verwirft, reproduziert sie negative das ihm Zugrunde liegende geschichtsphilosophische Konstrukt…. (46)