Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Waiting for Adorno

I’m having a perversely difficult time getting a copy of Theodor Adorno’s “Sociology and Psychology” article, published in the New Left Review in two parts, in Nov-Dec, 1967, and Jan-Feb 1968. My library doesn’t happen to carry the journal from this period, but has a normally very efficient service for procuring articles from other university libraries, so I hadn’t expected that I would still be waiting, one month on from my request… So I’m still holding on to a draft piece on Adorno’s attempt to weave psychological and sociological theory, waiting to see whether this article (which I have read with some attention previously) adds any wrinkles to the sorts of claims Adorno makes in Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics.

I have an ambivalent relationship with Adorno’s work. On the one hand, Adorno recognises and problematises the difficulties in researching “human nature”, when such research is often not self-reflexive – not sufficiently cognisant of the ways in which both the observing subject and the observed object have been heavily shaped by determinate historical circumstances. Adorno, like Benjamin, is keenly aware of the need to be open to the potential that humanity might be very different from what it has been, or is. As Adorno writes (in a very Benjaminian passage):

We cannot say what man is. Man today is a function, unfree, regressing behind whatever is ascribed to him as invariant… He drags along with him as his social heritage the mutilations inflicted upon him over thousands of years. To decipher the human essense by the way it is now would sabotage its possibility. Negative Dialectics p. 124

On the other hand (and again like Benjamin), Adorno remains committed, at base, to the notion that class domination is the primary factor distorting the realisation of humanity’s potential. This commitment, I believe, significantly weakens his own ability to be self-reflexive – to grasp the specific ways in which human subjects and objects have been shaped in this particular historical moment. Thus Adorno will alternate between insights into specifically contemporary society that could potentially be quite incisive – only to be dragged back into transhistorical generalisations by his underlying critique of class domination since, of course, class domination characterises all organised human societies, and therefore cannot easily grasp what is unique about our own.

It requires, of course, no keen insight to point out that the Frankfurt School theorists fail to live up to their own standard of producing self-reflexive critique: they acknowledge this themselves. The famous opening passage to Negative Dialectics paints a stark picture of Adorno’s analysis of why this is so:

Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it has merely interpreted the world, that resignation in in the face of reality has crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried… Theory cannot prolong the moment its critique depended on. p. 3

In the framework underlying Adorno’s quotation, self-reflexivity requires linking theoretical critique to the existence of a determinate potential for society to become other than what it currently is. Early Marxist critiques, in which the Frankfurt School theorists also originally placed their hopes, understood the “forces of production” – the working class and increasingly socialised large-scale organisation of production – to be dynamic and progressive forces in society, forces that were constrained by the “relations of production” – class relations mediated by private property and the market.

In this early Marxist framework, emancipation was expected to result from the overthrow of capitalist “relations of production”, a social transformation that was expected to enable the forces of production to come into their own, through conscious planning. This transformation was expected to unleash productive potentials and vastly increase material wealth; importantly, it was also expected to inaugurate political emancipation. Marxist critique sought to be self-reflexive by aligning itself with the forces of production – by pointing to the potential represented by those forces when arguing that private property and the market were socially unnecessary forms of domination.

By the time Adorno writes the statement above, he and other Frankfurt School theorists have come to the conclusion that, in essence, the “forces of production” have come into their own – that the market and private property have been abolished in the East and severely curtailed in the West. As expected, this transformation has resulted in a vast increase in material wealth and productive power. It has not, however, resulted in anything even remotely resembling political emancipation.

What follows from this point is an extremely interesting re-evaluation of the potentials of laissez-faire capitalism – particularly of such factors as the contrast between private, intimate spheres and public spheres; the principle of delayed gratification associated so strongly with the economic necessities of the small business enterprise; the intense relationships of the bourgeois family; the prevalence of universal ideals (important as ideals, even if never realised in practice by the market), etc. If the re-evaluation had remained on this level – that is to say, had remained an analysis of a historically-definable moment – it might have led in some very interesting directions. As it happened, however, the centrality of the category of class domination kept drawing the analysis further afield, seeking psychological and cultural correspondences between human societies at the dawn of time, and contemporary capitalism.

The results are still often brilliant, but are also more devastating for the concept of social critique that the simple corrective realisation that central planning was not as intrinsically emancipatory as once believed. Adorno ends up fighting a strange, inspired, but also self-defeating battle against conceptual abstractions as such. He develops an elaborate theory of the way in which humanity originally sought to overcome its vulnerability before nature through magical means – a strategy that resulted in the first class division, as specialised priests assumed the role of mediating between human communities and the natural world and, in the process, drew around themselves the cloak of awe and fear that was once associated with the natural world itself. This early division of mental from manual labour ramifies through human history, and fundamentally scars theoretical reflection, whose conceptual abstractions are the echo in thought of the underlying recognition that class domination is unncessary, and the underlying fear of dominant intellectuals that it may someday be overthrown.

There is very little room for theory in such an approach – and yet Adorno doesn’t want to abandon theoretical reflection. To do so would be, within Adorno’s framework, a capitulation to what is. Yet he is left with only the exhortation to use what is against itself, and without the ability to explain the historical emergence of critical sensibilities like the ones he expresses in his work. This inability leaves him in the position often criticised as elitist, where he appears to believe that he can uniquely perceive aspects of contemporary reality not accessible to others. I don’t believe frank elitism was his intent – instead, it was a consequence of losing the ability to be self-reflexive about his work in the sociological sense (where being self-reflexive involves explaining why forms of critique might arise at a particular time), and instead being forced into a form of self-reflexivity in the more conventional sense of the term (where self-reflexivity involves individual reflection).


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