Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Placeholders on Conscience and Consciousness

I’m much too tired to attempt a serious post on the topic that interests me at the moment, but I’ve been trying to recapture a bit of equilibrium from a chaotic schedule by wrestling with Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. So many questions for me in this text… What does Adorno believe can be transcended, and what is intrinsic to thought? What is the historical register of the argument here? Is the underlying argument about the distortions of conceptual thought fundamentally a “psychological” one – such that the qualitative characteristics of universalisation and of identitarian impulses are understood as necessary scar imprinted on thought by defense mechanisms?

I go back and forth on these questions, although my suspicions point me in particular directions – directions that suggest tensions within Adorno’s thought. I believe the underlying explanation for what Adorno regards as the qualitative characteristics in conceptual thought – for universalism and identitarian thinking – is psychological: that Adorno ultimately sees these qualities as the traces of a defense mechanism at work, as the signs of thought scarred by fear and denial. The historical register for the operation of these defense mechanisms appears to be very long – occasionally, Adorno gestures at something that might resemble the advent of capitalism, but often at civilisation as such – and sometimes even at something more ahistorical:

The system by which the sovereign Spirit thought to transfigure itself has its Ur-history in that which is pre-intellectual, in the animal life of the species. Predators are hungry; the pounce onto the prey is difficult, often dangerous. The animal needs, as it were, additional impulses in order to dare this. These fuse with the displeasure [Unlust] of hunger into rage at the victim, whose expression is designed to terrify and weaken the latter. During the progression to humanity this is rationalized through projection. The animal rationale [French: rational animal] which is hungry for its opponent, already the fortunate owner of a super-ego, must have a reason. The more completely that what it does follows the law of self-preservation, the less it may confess the primacy of this to itself and others; otherwise its laboriously achieved status as a zoon politikon [Greek: political animal] loses, as modern German puts it, credibility. The life-form to be devoured must be evil. This anthropological schemata has been sublimated all the way into epistemology. In idealism – most obviously in Fichte – the ideology unconsciously rules that the non-Ego, l’autrui [French: the others], finally everything reminiscent of nature, is inferior, so that the unity of the thought bent on preserving itself may gobble it up, thus consoled. This justifies its principle as much as it increases the desire. The system is the Spirit turned belly, rage the signature of each and every idealism; it distorts even Kant’s humanity, dispelling the nimbus of that which is higher and more noble in which this knew how to clothe itself. The opinion of the person in the middle is the sibling of contempt for human beings: to let nothing go undisputed. The sublime inexorability of moral law was of a piece with such rationalized rage at the non-identical, and even the liberal Hegel was no better, when he walled off the superiority of the bad conscience, from those who demurred from the speculative concept, the hypostasis of the Spirit. (ND 35-36)

I’ve always been drawn to Adorno’s focus on rage – and particularly to his recurrent concern with understanding how rage comes to be directed specifically toward the powerless and the weak. I think this is a pivotal question, and I suspect it would be very difficult to answer without the appropriation of some kind of psychodynamic theory. I am also drawn toward Adorno’s suggestion that historically constituted potentials for transformation constitute a conscience – a reservoir of recognition that other and more is possible, and moreover a recognition that cannot be avoided, although it can certainly be denied. For Adorno, there is a price to pay for this denial, and this price does not fall exclusively on those most visibly disadvantaged by current social arrangements.

Beyond this point, though, I find myself reluctant to follow. I’ve remained unconvinced by Adorno’s attempt to extrapolate from his analyses of rage and of bad conscience, into an explanation of the qualitative character of universalism. My hesitation, I think, relates to how I think this approach forces a long historical register, rendering it very difficult to grasp and make sense of qualitative distinctions in forms of thought across time. I believe more historical nuance is possible – and that achieving this level of nuance then makes it possible to think more productively about what might, and what might not, be possible to transcend. But I’ll have to leave this point as nothing more than a placeholder – even if I were more alert, this would not be a position I could develop easily or in a short space.

What I’ve always wondered, though, is whether, if I were to develop this argument, it would react back on those elements within Adorno’s thought that do appeal – whether it makes sense for me to be drawn to Adorno’s arguments about rage and about a sort of Benjaminian historical conscience, while rejecting the arguments about universalism as the product of a defense mechanism geared toward the denial of the potential for transformation… It’s time, I suppose, that I develop my position in sufficient detail that I can begin to resolve some of my own questions…


12 responses to “Placeholders on Conscience and Consciousness

  1. Edward Yates March 5, 2007 at 11:20 am

    I have a question about Adorno, who I find difficult to understand after failed attempts on several occasions.

    Does Adorno theorize that rage directed against the weak stems from the weak reminding us of our own frailty and mortality? (A la similarities with Judith Herman) Or does he think that it stems from the reminders of the everyday violence directed against us that we have suffered? Hence we turn upon those weaker than us to enact the very same violence in which we have experienced?
    Or is it to do with our need to be recognized by others, and to deny this need for recognition, means that we become angry at the weak for being recognized as being such, when we are not recognized for being anything special?

    Yours sincerely confused…

  2. N Pepperell March 5, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Adorno tends to be a bit multi-layered, so I wouldn’t often say for certain that he doesn’t assert viable arguments, but my sense of the main trajectory of his argument is that we experience (and repress) rage at what we were forced to undergo, when we can’t avoid knowing that our sacrifices were not natural and inevitable, but social in origin. The weak and the marginalised, perceived as sitting outside society, remind us of this artificiality, trigger our longing for something else – and then, as this longing itself elicits fear of social exclusion, brings about a rage against those who reminded us that something else might be possible…

    Sorry if this isn’t very clear – I’m writing on the run, and will try to do better justice to the question later.

    I also find Adorno maddeningly difficult to read… Much of this is deliberate, of course, since he seems to feel that linear argumentative structures are aligned with and reinforce linear forms of thought that he believes are coercive and totalising – forms of thought scarred by fear and denial, and therefore unable to tolerate exception or contradiction. This makes it at best dicey to argue (as I’ve just done…) “Adorno means…” 😉

  3. Edward Yates March 5, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    No don’t apologize, that is much clearer for me in terms of reading your original post through that clarification. I do understand your hesitation of saying ‘Adorno meant X’. But I do appreciate your adept interpretation. 🙂 As I just get lost and feel like I am on some psychotropic journey when I last attempted to read some of his writing. So basically your reading is that rage stems from our feeling that our suffering or condition is social in nature and we long to change our conditions, but fear exclusion like those who are weak, hence we turn on those weaker than us in anger? So fear begets anger…hmmm… I think Jedi master Yoda had something to say about that… Oh well see you on the dark side.

  4. N Pepperell March 5, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    Yeah, I find Adorno a bit like that too… There are a couple of earlier posts that try to make some sense of Adorno’s position on this – both are kind of short and underdeveloped, but are still more detailed than anything I could write tonight (I still have a lecture to prepare (!!!) and so can’t procrastinate as much on the blog as I’d like… ;-P). If you want to take a look, they’re here and here (the second one you might have seen, but the first was, I’m reasonably sure, before you started reading the blog).

    Edited to add: Ack! The second one you did see – and commented on, no less! Sorry Ed – my brain clearly isn’t functioning tonight… Nevertheless, I think the first post might be new to you… (and, if not… well… that’ll give you some sense of the level of lecture I’m probably about to write…)

  5. Edward Yates March 5, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    I had forgotten that I had responded to that thread! Actually my question seems remarkably similar from one thread to another, perhaps an unconscious interest or way of responding to your Adorno threads…curious…

  6. N Pepperell March 6, 2007 at 3:25 am

    Yeah, yeah sure – blame it on my Adorno threads… ;-P More seriously: I keep writing these little placeholder-style pieces on Adorno, rather than developing a reading of him in full, because I just haven’t had the time to trawl back through Negative Dialectics in enough detail to do something proper – so it probably provokes questions because I’m being so abbreviated…

  7. Edward Yates March 6, 2007 at 10:26 am

    No, no, it is probably a case of that I’m just going senile! 😛

    The slide into old age, I suspect, is going to be quite easy…

  8. N Pepperell March 6, 2007 at 11:33 am

    So it’s not a decline, but a sliiiide

  9. Edward Yates March 6, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Well slide…another term for slippery-dip…and a more positive ‘framing’ of the concept. Who doesn’t like to slide?! I should start working for the Democrats…oh wait they already have someone! Perhaps PR work then for old folks homes… 😛

  10. Joseph Kugelmass March 9, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    This post makes me wonder is whether Adorno’s position can lead us to create two separate universalisms: the historical universalism that often has led to marginalization and oppression, and a historically possible, but so far unrealized, universalism that avoids the cycle of projection and destruction. That would also mean a universalism whose sacrifices are less or different.

    What are your thoughts on this? Sorry for the late response, the post was absorbing reading and I’ve had it flagged for awhile now.

  11. N Pepperell March 9, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    My gut feeling is that Adorno, at least, thinks that what would replace abstract universalism is something based on a transformed and sublated mimetic faculty. He seems to understand mimesis as something that structures thought in the state of human vulnerability to nature, where there is an interpentration of inner and outer life, subjectivity and objectivity, as an accurate reflection of the genuine relationship of dependence of humanity on the natural world. So mimesis is originally a kind of aquiescence in the face of genuine vulnerability – a bringing into the self of nature in its diversity and multiplicity, but in a process essentially driven by nature’s transcendent objective power…

    We begin to free ourselves from this power – and to step away from mimetic forms of thought, and toward abstract universalism – as our objective mastery over nature increases. In his account, though, this mastery was historically achieved via the imposition of a “second nature” of class relations – which then cloaked themselves in the aura of “nature”, asserting themselves as timeless, inevitable, essential. This second nature (and the psychological dynamics associated with it) then reacted back on our perception of “first nature” – causing us to lose the mimetic appreciation of the non-universal in the natural world, and flatten our perception of the natural world into the search for lawlike, repetitive behaviour – modelled on the lawlike, repetitive, mechanistic reassertion that characterises the reproduction of social domination…

    Adorno seems to think that we can untie this knot – that we can dissolve both the forms of social domination, and their associated forms of thought and perception of the natural world – and reinstate something like a transcended mimesis: a form of perception and thought capable of recognising contingency and diversity, but without this being coerced, as it were, by our abject vulnerability to nature…

    It’s difficult to say whether Adorno would articulate this in terms of a different form of universalism – I suspect he would avoid the term, and my impulse is also to conceptualise his sense of an alternative – of some form of transcendent mimesis – as a “pessimistic” position in the technical sense: I don’t think he grounds this potential in any kind of social analysis.

    I have myself, though, played around with the idea of alternative conceptions of universals – I’ve used the phrase “historical universal”, in fact. My sense would be that we’ve coercively demonstrated to ourselves, often in quite ugly ways, that certain things might be possible – and that critique can understand itself, at least in part, as a process of extracting these insights from the alienated forms in which they were historically achieved… Not that I can develop this sort of position here… But just to flag that it’s an issue that interests me.

    I started to answer your final question on sacrifices, but felt my answer was getting vast and starting to crawl up its own tail… ;-P Basically: yes – I think it would mean different sacrifices. I’m more leery about quantitative comparisons – but we can make comparisons perhaps in terms of sacrifices we might rather make – sacrifices that don’t impose the kinds of costs we’re imposing on ourselves now…

    But I have so much work to do on Adorno – even to convince myself that the sort of reading I keep tossing out here in fits and starts is accurate. The difficulty is that central lines within Adorno’s historical argument, for example, stand in tension with more prescriptive statements about what critical theory “ought” to do – and there are also much more socially specific theories lurking around in his text – theories that, I think, he can’t properly develop, because he is committed to understanding modernity primarily in terms of class relations, and I think this prevents him from picking up on the implications of some of what he does write… But I always worry that, on the next re-read, I’ll change my mind completely…

    On the late response: please don’t worry about that – I can’t tell you how many things I have stacked up that I want to reply to, but just haven’t had the time lately… And, by the same token, apologies that this is so scattered – the beginning of the term (particularly the beginning of this term ;-P) is not great for… er… abstract conceptual thought – and sadly not for any transformative reasons…

  12. Pingback: » Fragmentary Thoughts on Anger

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