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…