Depreciation: Adorno on Theory, Reification, Paranoia, Dialectics

Depreciation.—Kandinsky wrote in 1912: ‘An artist, having once “found his form at last”, thinks he can now go on producing works in peace. Unfortunately, he usually fails to notice that from this moment (of “peace”) he very soon begins to lose the form he has at last found.’ It is no different with understanding. It does not live on stock. Each thought is a force-field, and just as the truth-content of a judgement cannot be divorced from its execution, the only true ideas are those which transcend their own thesis. Since they have to dissolve petrified views of objects, the mental precipitate of social ossification, the form of reification which lies in a thought’s being held as a firm possession opposes its own meaning. Even opinions of the most extreme radicalism are falsified as soon as they are insisted upon, as society eagerly confirms by discussing the doctrine and thus absorbing it. This casts its shadow over the concept of theory. There is not one that, by virtue of its constitution as a fixed, coherent structure, does not harbour a moment of reification within it: develop paranoid features. Precisely this makes it effective. The concept of the idée fixe touches not only on the aberration but is an ingredient of theory itself, the total pretension of something particular that arises as soon as a discrete moment is held fast in isolation. Ideas related to their antithesis are not exempt. Even theories of the utmost dignity are prone at least to reified interpretation. They seem in this to comply secretly with a demand of the commodity society. The idée fixe, like persecution mania, usually relates to the attribution of guilt. The mania’s system cannot see through the system of mania, the veil of the social totality. It therefore hits out at a single principle: for Rousseau civilization, for Freud the Oedipus complex, for Nietzsche the rancour of the weak. If the theory is not of that kind, its reception can still render it paranoid. To say in a precise sense that someone holds this or that theory is already to imply the stolid, blankly staring proclamation of grievances, immune to self-reflection. Thinkers lacking in the paranoid element—one of them was Georg Simmel, though he made of the lack a panacea—have no impact or are soon forgotten. By no means does this imply their superiority. If truth were defined as the utterly non-paranoid, it would be at the same time not only the utterly impotent and in conflict with itself, to the extent that practice is among its elements—but it would also be wholly unable to evolve a coherent structure of meaning. Flight from the idée fixe becomes a flight from thought. Thinking purified of obsession, a thoroughgoing empiricism, grows itself obsessive while sacrificing the idea of truth, which fares badly enough at empiricists’ hands. From this aspect, too, dialectics would have to be seen as an attempt to escape the either/or. It is the effort to rescue theory’s trenchancy and consequential logic without surrendering it to delusion.


SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor. "Depreciation," unpublished piece intended for Minima Moralia, published as section VIII of "Messages in a Bottle," translated by Edmund Jephcott (New Left Review I/200, July-August 1993, pp. 5-14), pp. 10-11.


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