Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Fragmentary Thoughts on Dialectic of Enlightenment

I’ve been struggling to bring together bits and pieces that I’ve written on Adorno’s understanding of the psychology of reification, to try to figure out how to organise a coherent argument that might actually be useful in establishing some goals for contemporary theory.

Adorno interests me because he can, in places, read as though he is writing a criticism of fundamental mechanisms of conceptual thought, such that critique almost appears to be a struggle to think against the grain of thought itself – a sort of fundamental theoretical pessimism, from which it would be difficult to conceptualise a form of critique that could reach beyond the contemplative. One of my colleagues is prone to using Adorno to criticise conceptual abstractions as such – an interpretation that would seem defensible based on these dimensions of Adorno’s texts.

In other places, though, I think it is clear that Adorno understands himself as a theorist of the specific ways in which thought is scarred by its socialisation into a society characterised by class domination. This critique is still certainly pessimistic, in that the class theoretic framework doesn’t allow Adorno to link specifical critical sensibilities with determinate potentials for transformation. It is no longer, however, intrisically contemplative (although you could argue that it is conjuncturally contemplative for the moment in which Adorno is writing, given how he understands the transition away from liberal capitalism).

Adorno’s argument adopts an interesting strategy of differentiating between the psychological effects that the experience of powerlessness might have, when the subject recognises that this powerlessness is “objective” – reflective of the limited material powers of a given society – and the effects this same experience might have when the subject knows or suspects that powerlessness is “artificial” – sustained by social practices, rather than reflective of material limitations. Adorno argues that the experience of artificial – socially-enforced, rather than natural – powerlessness accounts for particular qualitative characteristics in forms of perception and thought – particularly the existence of a particular kind of impulse toward abstraction and universalisation, manifest in the reification of class relations, as well as in the perception of nature as a passive and lawlike object for technical manipulation.

What I suspect I need to do in my article is tease out two levels of analysis within Adorno’s writings – one more historically specific, and one on a quite sweeping historical register. I don’t agree specifically with either level, but I find one more productive – more illustrative of some of the problems a contemporary critical theory might need to address – than the other. On the more productive level, Adorno is trying to understand the qualitative characteristics of contemporary forms of perception and thought – and he is asking two questions that, I think, remain important: how do we make sense, theoretically, of people’s ability to be aware of counterfactual potentials for the transformation of existing society? And: what impact does it have – for better and, sometimes, for worse – that people might have such an awareness?

Adorno lays the foundation for a potentially historically specific analysis of these issues, focussing on the transition from liberal to state-centred forms of capitalism in the early 20th century, and asking what impact this transition – which left the individual so much more objectively powerless before the encompassing state, than it was before the institutions of liberal capitalism – had on ego development and on the ability to translate an awareness of transformative potentials into political action. Adorno offers a particularly poignant analysis of how this experience of powerlessness is related to unconscious rage – an analysis that is, I think, important to explore in detail (although I won’t do so in this post). Nevertheless, because Adorno understands capitalism primarily in terms of class relations, his core analytical categories won’t actually allow him to focus solely on this one historical transition – or even solely on modern history. Instead, like Habermas, Adorno chases the logic of his analytical categories, and in my opinion these categories lead him very far astray – into a sweeping account of what he then must claim are similar qualitative distortions in perception and thought back to the dawn of recorded time.

This account of human prehistory and the impacts of class domination on perception and thought is explored most clearly in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, although there are sufficient gestures in works like Negative Dialectics to suggest that the basic framework is implied throughout Adorno’s work.

To follow briefly the narrative from Dialectic of Enlightenment: Adorno and Horkheimer start with the category of mimesis – with the imitation of heterogenous, volatile nature within thought. They speak of the spontaneous awe and dread experienced in the face of overwhelming nature – arguing that the “primitive” belief in “unidentified and volatile mana (pp. 20-21) – as a situation in which mana, the moving spirit, is no projection, but the echo of the real supremacy of nature in the weak souls of primitive men” (p. 15). This objective powerlessness leads to a kind of conceptual and practical imitation of nature in an attempt to master objective dependence – it results in a bringing into the self of a heterogenous perception of nature very different from the universalising distance characteristic of contemporary science – a perception predicated on nature’s absolute and unpredictable power.

Adorno and Horkheimer criticise later thinkers for anachronistically interpreting this reaction to nature as a projection, arguing that a projection would require a sharp division between self and nature (subject and object) that does not exist at this point in prehistory. Adorno and Horkheimer argue,

Like science, magic pursues aims, but seeks to achieve them by mimesis – not by progressively distancing itself from the object. It is not grounded in the ‘sovereignty of ideas’, which the primitive, like the neurotic, is said to ascribe to himsel; there can be no ‘over-evaluation of mental processes as against reality’ where there is no radical distinction between thought and reality (p. 11).

Projection arises, for Adorno and Horkheimer, only when the “reality principle” with which the self resigned itself to its own impotence before nature – “the fatality by means of which prehistory sanctioned the incomprehensibility of death” (pp. 28-29) – is carried over into a situation in which “natural conditions exert their power no longer directly but through the medium of human consciousness” (p. 17). At this later historical moment, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, a class of professionals in magic come to use the awe and fear others feel toward nature to justify their class position – such that humans began “worshipping what they were once in thrall to only in the same way as all other creatures” (p. 17). It is this shift – from the natural awareness of material constraints, to the ritualised worship of nature – that generates the projection of human social relations onto nature.

Adorno and Horkheimer recount a vision of increasing division of labour, associated with the rise of specialists in the performance of ritual acts:

In the first stages of nomadic life the members of tribe still took an individual part in the process of influencing the course of nature… In it, the world is already divided into the territory of power and the profane area; as the emanation of mana, the course of nature is elevated to become the norm, and submission to it is required…. [however] in later times intercourse with spirits and submission were assigned to different classes: the power on one side, and obedience on the other. For the vanquished… the recurrent, eternally similar natural processes become the rhythm of labor according to the beat of the cudgel and whip which resounds in every monotonous ritual… In the process, the permanence of nature which they signify is always the permanence of the social pressure which they represent. The dread objectified as a fixed image becomes the sign of the established domination of the privileged. (p. 21)

In Adorno and Horkheimer’s account, this process of the consolidation of class domination is already solidified by the time written records arise:

When language enters into history its masters are priests and sorcerers. Whoever harms the symbols is, in the name of the supernatural powers, subject to their earthly counterparts, whose representatives are the chosen organs of society…. Unidentified, volatile mana was rendered consistent by men and forcibly materialized. Soon the magicians…. expanded their professional knowledge and their influence with the expansion of the spirit world and its characteristics. The nature of the sacred being transferred itself to the magicians, who were privy to it. (pp. 20-21)

Adorno and Horkheimer conclude that the hypostatisation of class relations is intrinsically related to the vision of nature as a fixed, timeless objectivity – one that could be predicted and controlled by the targeted interventions of specialists. The abolition of one is required to overcome the other.

Within this narrative, the actual material dependence of humans on nature appears to serve as a kind of check on the development of projection: the mimetic response to the differentiated, volatile, unpredictable character of nature can thus persist, alongside the projection of human social relations onto nature, precisely because nature has the objective ability to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of ritual – to disrupt human attempts to regularise, tame and tender predictable intrinsically volatile natural forces. As humans slowly develop more genuine mastery over nature, however, these mimetic elements subside, while the projection of human social relations onto the nature – the hypostatisation of class domination as essential and objective, and the perception of nature as a passive, lawlike object of human manipulation – become universal. Within this analytical framework, then, contemporary forms of perception and thought sit on the same qualitative continuum with the forms of perception and thought characteristic of all other settled human communities – it is only the rapid rise in our objective mastery over nature that has driven away the heterogenous mimetic elements of thought that were once preserved by reminders of nature’s persistent power, leaving universalising forms of thought uniquely transcendent and now falsely identified with reason as such.

Adorno rejects the option of regressing back to mimetic forms of thought – predicated as they were on humanity’s objective powerlessness, these forms of thought would no longer be appropriate to a human community that had attained a level of genuine material mastery. Instead, Adorno suggests, there might be a potential to move forward – to preserve the “conceptual” elements within thought alongside a differentiated, heterogenous perception of nature – a possibility Adorno associates with the creation of a social context that would offer genuine potentials for the cultivation of the self.

I’ll try to come back to this, as well as Adorno’s more historically specified analysis, in later posts…


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