Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The First Taste of Freedom

I’ve just been reading a post over at A White Bear’s blog Is there no sin in it? titled “How Do You Measure Sexism?”, analysing, among other things, the process of internalisation of abuse and of gender stereotype. The post is complex, and worth a direct read – I won’t try to summarise it here. Two lines, though, particularly caught my emotions and my thoughts:

It’s not experiencing sexism that hurts. It’s the first taste of freedom from the pressures of sexism that hurts, because suddenly you realize you’ve allowed yourself to be betrayed.

For purposes of comment here, I hope that A White Bear won’t object if I extrapolate from her insight into experiences that extend beyond gender relations. What I want to explore is her notion that the psychological consequence of the first taste of freedom may actually be pain. This point resonates with me, and also reminds me of the dimensions of Adorno’s work I’ve always liked – particularly Adorno’s attempt to demonstrate that transformative political practice was never the inevitable result of the recognition of unfreedom, but that other consequences – including denial and even rage against the prospect of freedom itself – are also psychologically plausible.

Adorno’s work is concerned, among many other things, with understanding why central political expectations of early Marxist theory were never realised. Marxism had predicted a quasi-automatic drive to political emancipation, as the development of technology made possible the conquest of material nature, and as market crises increasingly pushed the development of centralised political institutions for the management of the economy. The Frankfurt School theorists quickly abandoned any faith in such an automatic historical process – the experience of Nazism, Stalinism and “state capitalism” provided, from their standpoint, a fully adequate historical refutation of the notion that centralised economic planning would inevitably be mobilised for political freedom.

This interpretation of historical developments, however, posed some challenges for the Frankfurt School’s early commitment to “critical theory”. Critical theory as a concept relies on the tension between what is possible, and what we actually do. The critical theorist speaks with the voice of this possibility, arguing that a greater range of freedom, of political choice, is possible than our current practice admits. It can be tempting, from this perspective, to treat awareness of the potential for specific kinds of freedom as an unmitigated good – as though this awareness will immediately and automatically result in transformative political practice. The Frankfurt School come to reject the notion that transformative practice results in any automatic way from the knowledge that specific kinds of freedoms are possible. Adorno, however, goes one step farther: he asks whether, under certain historical circumstances, a recognition that certain forms of unfreedom are unncessary, might actually fuel active political mobilisations against emancipatory potentials.

Adorno argues, in effect, that a deep psychological tension can result from the recognition that our actions have involved unnecessary sacrifices – that we can be scarred specifically by our recognition that potentials for greater freedom lie within reach. Adorno argues that this scarring has been constitutive of the “ego”, and offers a multi-faceted critique of Freudian psychoanalytic concepts of the ego in particular, arguing that much psychological theory confuses a psychology scarred by unnecessary sacrifice, with human nature. Adorno suggests that, in the right historical circumstances, this scarring would not prevent transformative political mobilisation. He also argues, however, that, as long as the social and psychological costs of mobilisation remain high, the tension between an awareness of potential freedom, and the reality of sacrifice, can provoke intense rage – rage expressed as a rigid denial of the potential for freedom, and rage directed into mass mobilisations, focussed particularly against those (often marginalised and socially disempowered) groups who seem to have escaped the rigid self-discipline and self-denial required to perpetuate existing forms of unfreedom.

For Adorno, interestingly, it is the intense power of state-mediated forms of capitalism that specifically overwhelms the delicate balancing act required for persons to attain the psychological resources to recognise and tolerate the pain of their recognition that they have engaged in unnecessary self-sacrifice, so that they can then engage in some kind of transformative political practice. His account thus reflects back on the Marxist critique of market capitalism with a sense of painful historical irony – that the institutional organisation of capitalism fought so hard by an earlier generation of Marxist critique, may have held more potential for emancipatory transformation than the institutional organisation of centrally planned production for which Marxists advocated.

At some point soon (it might have to wait for the end of the term), I’ll try to post a draft paper that explores these issues in more detail and provides a clearer grounding in Adorno’s writings.

2 responses to “The First Taste of Freedom

  1. A White Bear September 10, 2006 at 1:22 am

    This is an excellent application of Adorno, and dead-on, I think, w/r/t the difficulty of revolutionary ideologies. The only thing we may have to lose is our chains, but what if acknowledging those chains is a huge bummer?

  2. N Pepperell September 10, 2006 at 10:50 am

    One of the things I’ve been wrestling with, in reading Adorno, is the question of what sorts of spaces, relationships, institutions, etc. might make it more likely that people could “process” what you have called the realisation of betrayal, rather than channeling this experience into denial or anger. Adorno writes from a sense of world-historical tragedy – of a missed opportunity he does not know how to reclaim, as in the opening to Negative Dialectics:

    Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realise 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… Theory cannot prolong the moment its critique depended on. A practice indefinitely delayed is no longer the forum for appeals against self-satisfied speculation; it is mostly used as the pretext used by executive authorities to choke, as vain, whatever critical thoughts the practical change would require. Negative Dialectics (1979) p. 3

    Adorno calls for a self-critique of philosophy – which, for him, takes us in an essentially contemplative direction. It seems to me, though, that he has raised the possibility for a more practical critique: if he claims, as he does, that certain political and economic institutions, configurations of family life, etc., leave the individual less able to confront and try to master the sources of their vulnerability, then this suggests a potential target for political action…

    But I’m really just muddling through these thoughts at the moment… I tend to get stuck on Adorno – not (I hope!!!) because I have trouble understanding him, but because he expresses so well, so many aspects of the tragedy of modernity. It makes it difficult (not that Adorno is obligated to be more optimistic for my sake…) to draw out the genuinely emancipatory and creative potentials that I believe we also generate…

    I found your post really useful for helping me to concretise some of what Adorno discusses, in a way that doesn’t seem as distant from practical potentials as Adorno’s writing sometimes seems…

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