Maire Jaanus Kurrik

Nietzsche reevaluated the polarity of negation and affirmation, and seeing that our life had been dominated by their inauthenticity and partiality, he attempted to tear the polarity apart, to displace it by a qualitatively new and different dionysiac affirmation. Given the polarity, it is almost inevitable that someone else should try to subvert the polarity in the other direction. Among these many attempts, Adorno's negative dialectics is one of the most coherent and consistent. Like Nietzsche, Adorno's thought is concerned with the affirmation-negation polarity because it is fundamentally underpinned by an attention to and the recognition of the pleasure-pain polarity in man. Self-conscious ego-formation is no longer primary and sovereign, as it was in Hegel, but in the foreground stands man's essentially affective and creative nature. The quality of life and the power of selfhood is measured by affectivity and creative possibility rather than by the autonomy of self-consciousness. Adorno's fundamental demand, like Nietzsche's, is for happiness and freedom in creativity, and he too repudiates and exposes our renunciation of this demand in what Horkheimer called mockingly our “affirmative culture.” [5] Like Nietzsche, he exposes such affirmations as we have produced as sham, but his sociologically oriented thought prevents him from displacing the rather dire vision of reality that his analysis yields by a vision of a new, cleansed, dionysiac affirmation.

The human subject is for Adorno but "the late form of' the myth" of the absolute, yet he does not wish to create a new myth of the subject to replace the old one. [6] Like Nietzsche, he feels that what we have called man or "person" is a being that should not be perpetuated, but he also knows that what "the concept of the right human being" may be is not something that we can anticipate (p. 277). Adorno's concern is a philosophical criticism, which as far as he can see can never end or be completed, as Nietzsche hoped to complete his, and therefore the Nietzschean leap to bliss is also for him inaccessible and utopian. All that Adorno can say is that "without exception, men have yet to become themselves," and that "by the concept of the self we should properly mean their potential," a potential that "stands in polemical opposition to the reality of the self" (p. 278).

In his analysis of selfhood, Adorno returns to Ivan's root position of refusal, facing squarely the fact of suffering and pain. Against all the forces that praise "the power of positive thinking" he holds on to "the seriousness of unswerving negation" which "lies in its refusal to lend itself to sanctioning things as they are" (p. 159). Although he rejects the naïve attitude of naturalism toward the somatic pleasure-pain principle, he insists that it is the survival of this element in knowledge that creates the "unrest" of thought and not, as Hegel argued, Spirit. Pain, suffering, and negativity are the moving forces of dialectical thinking (p. 202) and the condition of all truth (pp. 17-18).

It is the somatic element's survival, in knowledge, as the unrest that makes knowledge move, the unassuaged unrest that reproduces itself in the advancement of knowledge. Conscious unhappiness is not a delusion of the mind's vanity but something inherent in the mind, the one authentic dignity it has received in its separation from the body. This dignity is the mind's negative reminder of its physical aspect; its capability of that aspect is the only source of whatever hope the mind can have. The smallest trace of senseless suffering in the empirical world belies all the identitarian philosophy that would talk us out of that suffering. . . .

The physical moment tells our knowledge that suffering ought not to be, that things should be different.

(p. 203)

All our ideas of the new, the different—hope, change, and transformation—derive from a suffering actualized in the body, and actualized and reinforced there thanks to the body-mind split: Hegel blithely passes over pain in his demonstrations of ever-new syntheses, but pain and suffering are for Adorno concrete sources of truth. The ability to remain attentive to this truth and, therefore, also to the horrors of history is, as Adorno says, our only hope, and an urgency because although there is no universal history that "leads from savagery to humanitarianism," there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb."

It is the horror that verifies Hegel and stands him on his head. If he transfigured the totality of historic suffering into the positivity of the self-realizing absolute, the One and All that keeps rolling on to this day—with occasional breathing spells—would teleologically be the absolute of suffering.

(p. 320)

There is no telos in history, as Vico and Hegel believed, and if there were, it would not be the telos of a plan for a better world, but a telos of suffering and destruction. Rather man must overcome the illusion of a manifest telos in history, abdicate his passivity and idealistic illusions, and become critically and actively engaged in his own hitherto unconscious or merely semiconscious construction of theory and praxis, so that at last Vico's insight into man's ability to understand history because he has made it may be realized. For Adorno it has never yet been realized, because men do not understand themselves or their history and in the current era they do not make or control the latter.

Adorno's negative dialectics returns to the negative moment in Hegel's dialecticism as a new point of departure. It is the moment when Hegel discovered the nonidentity in identity, the vital contradiction, which he again lost when he overturned his own negative dialectics into a positive, speculative idealism in which identity always triumphs. From Hegel's new synthesis and identities there issued, among other things, the pure falsehood and fantasy that we call human subjectivity. Hegel saw the nonidentity between the subject and the object but ignored it turning the object (cat) into the subject (the subject's idea of cat). What disappears in this analysis first of all is the particular. The particular is subsumed under the universal and becomes a function of the universal, as it always has been in philosophy (p. 313). But only if the particular is granted the same right as the universal (p. 329) can the universal be changed (p. 313), and what Adorno calls the futile, Sisyphus-like labor of our thinking away the negative side of the universal be ended (p. 327). We have made unity the measure of heterogeneity, and by this we have impoverished our experience and have lost not only particularity, but by extension all true sense of difference, diversity, divergence, and dissonance.

Thus negative dialectics, which is the consistent sense of nonidentity, rescues the remainder, the particular, the nonconceptual that the concept dominates—in other words, all that Hegel called insignificant and transitory (p. 8). What is of supreme importance to Adorno is the very fact that the concept does reach the nonconceptual, otherwise our thought by its autarky would be condemned to emptiness, stupidity, and primitivity—as in fact it has been because we have failed to see that the disappearance of the object is thought's own work (p. 149).

For Adorno, nonconceptuality is "inalienable from the concept," and it "disavows the concept's being-in-itself" (p. 137). Thus, although “thinking without concepts is not thinking at all,” (p. 98) thought must abdicate its idea of hegemony and autarky, and practice a disenchantment of the concept, its transcendence. Thought must admit that it is not only cogency but play, that it is random and can go astray, and can only go forward because it can go astray (p. 14). Thought has an unshielded and open aspect, which is unsystematic, and which traditional philosophy has repressed for fear of chaos (p. 20) and for purposes of self-preservation. This "freedom" of thought is like the freedom of the object which was lost in Hegel, vertiginous, inconclusive, unframed, and unlocalized (pp. 32-33). To do this means to think "something," but always to know that that something is not identical at all with thinking (p. 33). Thus negative dialectics is by definition thinking against thought without abandoning it (p. 141); it is a way to counteract the tyranny and coercion of thought, a way to know and measure rationally when rationality becomes irrational (pp. 148-49).

Negative dialectics attempts to reverse the reduction of objectivity to subjectivity, to end the fantastic and irrational idea of the subject's pure inwardness and apriority, and what idealism has been drilling into us for thousands of years: the idea that the object is a subject (p. 179). For Adorno, idealism's presumption in taking mind as a totality is nonsense (p. 199). Adorno's critique of identity aims to show "the preponderance of the object" in the very subject itself (p. 183). He rethinks the mediation of the subject-object polarity, which is basic to thought and without which "cognition would deteriorate into tautology" (p. 184), to point to the inequality inherent in the mediation:

The subject enters into the object altogether differently from the way the object enters into the subject. An object can be conceived only by a subject but always remains something other than the subject, whereas a subject by its very nature is from the outset an object as well. Not even as an idea can we conceive a subject that is not an object; but we can conceive an object that is not a subject. To be an object also is part of the meaning of subjectivity; but it is not equally part of the meaning of objectivity to be a subject.

(p. 183)

The ruthless repression of objectivity, particularly in ourselves, has not only devitalized subjectivity, but in a kind of return of the repressed perpetuates this negated nonidentity "in suppressed and damaged form" (p. 318). What we call reification and lament over is, for Adorno, but 11 the reflexive form of false objectivity" (p. 190). We cannot comprehend or cope with what we have repressed, and therefore it returns to negate us (p. 344), like a "spell" or poison. "Spell" and ideology are for Adorno “one and the same.” And ideology dates back to biology: self-preservation (p. 349). What we currently call our new "pluralism" may signify the breaking of the "spell," but since the pluralism comes from disintegration, Adorno is not certain whether it signifies liberation or disaster (p. 346). For the sake of its unconditioned rule, subjectivity has paid a heavy price, part of which for Adorno is Auschwitz. For if the subject denies the objective conditions dwelling in its core, "if the nature in reason itself is forgotten," reason will be self-preservation, running wild, regressing to nature (p. 289). Therefore, after Auschwitz there is no word, for Adorno, "that has any right unless it underwent a transformation" (p. 367). There can also be no systematic philosophy nor any validity in a thinking that is unaware that "deep down, the mind feels that its stable dominance is no mental rule at all, that its ultima ratio lies in the physical force at its disposal" (p. 177).

Critical thinking is negative because it does not achieve something positive by its negation. Its achievement lies only in "the consistency of its performance" and "the density of its texture" (p. 35). Also critical thought does not really "discover" anything or generate ideas or provide answers; it unfolds the answers given in questions, allowing thought to catch up with experience (p. 63). Therefore critical thought has no use for any thought that preserves itself as an origin (p. 63) or that is "fascinated by the chimera that anything is absolutely ‘first’" (p. 103). For Adorno the very "category of the root, the origin, is a category of domination" (p. 155), that domination which the mind is always fearfully and self-defensively seeking. "A new beginning at an alleged zero point is the mask of strenuous forgetfulness—an effort to which sympathy with barbarism is not extraneous" (p. 71).

Critical thought also has no use for causality, a notion made obsolete by the fact that "every state of things is horizontally and vertically tied to all others" (p. 267). Its concepts denote a function, not a substance (p. 65). A total, systematic philosophy can no longer be hoped for (p. 136), but philosophy cannot simply be obviated and realized in revolutionary praxis and change, as Marx had proposed. The primacy of "praxis itself was an eminently theoretical concept" (p. 144). Philosophy can only disappear into philosophizing, a continual thinking that restricts the mind to the real, and thereby escapes the imprisoning circle of identitarian thought.

Both Adorno and Nietzsche see what was once our substantial ontology as a construct of consciousness. For Nietzsche, behind this construct lies a radical ontological dispersion, the truth of the Will to Power, which we have negated but to which Overman will be able to commit himself by a free affirmation. For Adorno, what lies behind the construct is not readily apprehendable. The dispersal that we now appear to see is not the natural and the true, but a condition that has evolved historically because the mind segregated itself long ago from the object. The present condition includes deformation because it was shaped by processes of deformation and suppression, but these processes are neither readily analyzable nor reversible. It is, in a sense, an objective reality of particulars gone insane under the pressure of the mind's universal. "The universal that compresses the particular until it splinters, like a torture instrument, is working against itself, for its substance is the life of the particular" (p. 346). It is this deformation of the life of the particulars, their splintering and dissociation, that now appears to put life beyond the pale of human control. Perhaps we no longer have the potential to change it or our relationship to it (p. 345). We have abused consciousness too long precisely by elevating it and ignored the context in which it exists. For Adorno, it is, paradoxically, the principle of totality and not that of negativity which has produced our sundered reality. We discovered negativity, but were unwilling to submit ourselves or our thought to its truth. The consequence of our fear and evasion, our anxiety to predominate as subjects, is a distorted and maddened world, a world which accurately reflects our conscious misinterpretation and abuse of the truth of negation.

Certainly, given Adorno's analysis of the inauthenticity of this dispersal, it is not something he can affirm. For Adorno, there are no affirmations past, present, or future that can be made or remade; there is only the possibility of criticism. And at the heart of this criticism stands Adorno's conviction that we must rethink negation and negativity because we have never understood them or the nonthought, the unthinkable, the truly different and other that they imply. We have never dared to think to the limit for fear of confronting an undefiable negation. Such self-criticisms as we have made have never moved far beyond Odysseus' ruse of "No-man"; they were self-renunications made for the sake of self-preservation. Our aversion to the preponderance of the object is institutionalized because we have always been "afraid that heteronomy may be mightier than [subjective] autonomy" (p. 189). This is the "secret" of our affirmations: simultaneously the evasion and abuse of negation. We have fundamentally misunderstood the play of one polarity against the other. Serious negation begins with the affirmation of the immanent subject and object, and is the critical recognition of their power to tyrannize. Our history is the demonstration of this tyranny which can be neither escaped or affirmed.

Adorno's and Nietzsche's divergent though equally critical and radical interpretations of the historical pattern of our negations and affirmations take place within this obsessive polarity and point to their possession by it. Hence their visions of a violent and violated history, dominated by one part of the polarity or the other, and their need ultimately to disengage and clarify the true nature of the other part of the polarity. Both Nietzsche's vision of pure affirmation and Adorno's of serious negation are the direct product of their respective interpretations of inauthentic affirmation and negation.

[5] Quoted in Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), p. 172.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Seabury Press, 1973, p. 186. Future references are to this edition.

SOURCE: Kurrik, Maire Jaanus. Literature and Negation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), excerpt from Chapter 3—Modernism: Negation Versus Deletion, pp. 218-224, 264-265.

Excursus on Bachelard’s The Philosophy of No (Excerpt)
by Maire Jaanus Kurrik

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