Dialectics at a Standstill:
A Methodological Inquiry Into
the Philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno

Section Two

By Stephen Bronner

Exploding the Inversion

"The gentleman does not find the world to his liking? Then let him go and look for a better one." (ibid., pg. 115.) Adorno hated this kind of talk. But, he protested too much. For, while such a view might well shackle artistic experimentation and limit the range of experience, its relevance for politics is obvious. Adorno, however, could not -- or would not -- make the distinction. And this has profound implications. The question is whether the cult embracing Adorno, identifying his ideas with those of critical theory per se, are willing to draw them.

It is irrefutable that Adorno made seminal contributions to aesthetics by reaffirming the centrality of the work, exploring its inner dynamics, and opposing its reduction to psychology and historicism were surely noteworthy. Early in his career, however, he argued that transcendental philosophy must give way before a standpoint predicated on the "critique of ideology" ("Ideologiekritik"). He had maintained then that the function rather than the manifest content of philosophy demands analysis. Nor did he ever really retract that claim. It would inform his negative dialectics, his defense of an idealist tradition betrayed by history, and his decision to emphasize the primacy of the artwork. Consequently, it is only fair that Adorno's own standpoint be confronted with the same standard of criticism he embraced.

Clearly, from his early commitment to the "critique of ideology," Adorno's thinking became increasingly marked by a retreat from the concrete and an affirmation of the status quo he always putatively rejected. The critique of ontology becomes defined by what it opposes. The "truth" of illusion is pitted against the "untruth" of reality, the determinate confronts the indeterminate, metaphysics rejects history, and aesthetics opposes anthropology. A divide results. The theoretical architechtonic and the concrete reality are separated in terms of an "ontological chasm". Nor does it help to claim that Adorno is turning dialectics against itself, whatever that means. The result is not dialectics, but stasis wearing the costume of radical change. The result neither provides a method of concrete analysis nor a theory of practice. This is, indeed, what Walter Benjamin termed "dialectics at a standstill."

Adorno's theory, whatever its contributions, does not constitute an extension of the Marxian method capable of dealing with either the collapse of its teleology or the world of "late" capitalism. (Frederic Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic (London, 1990), pgs. 182ff.) The character and aims of his thought, even while predicated on the reinversion of a world inverted by the commodity form, are different. There is no objective referent for solidarity, (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 51 and passim) and no immanent analysis of the production process. Adorno may occasionally have spoken about his commitment to a "genuine liberalism." But there is no institutional analysis of the divergent political systems representing advanced industrial society. The philosophical importance of his work, in fact, derives from its greatest sociological weakness: an exaggeration of the integrative power of advanced industrial society and the impossibility of practical resistance. References to the influence of Adorno on those concerned with developing an immanent critique of the logic of capital does not help matters; indeed, whatever their quality, investigations of this sort were always notoriously lacking in the ability to develop genuine political implications or bridge the gap between the phenomenological and the empirical moments of the analysis. Note the seminal works by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Geistige und korperliche Arbeit: Zur Theorie der gesellschaftlichen Synthesis (Frankfurt am Main, 1970); Roman Rosdolsky, The Making of Marx's Capital (London, 1977).

Its extraordinary integrative power is precisely what makes aesthetics alone capable of testing reality in the name of freedom. In the process, however, freedom is robbed of its content and subjectivity becomes just as nebulous as in the most reactionary of phenomenological approaches. Adorno's unwillingness to engage in discussions of "grounding" is no excuse. Neither is his fear of "systems." His refusal to justify the status of either aesthetics or philosophy was, in fact, what left him in this unenviable theoretical situation. And its implications become manifest in a variety of ways. Adorno claims, for example, that a progressive work of art provides an immanent critique of the formal limitations of existing artworks and, simultaneously, a rejection of repression. His justification, however, is based on little more than a previous definition of form as embodying freedom and an identification of empirical reality with repression. "By being different from the ungodly reality, art negatively embodies an order of things in which empirical being would have its rightful place." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 322 .) The argument thus becomes tautological.

Tautology legitimates the supposedly radical use of inversion. Intervention is, for this very reason, equated with the inversion of reality. The formal moment of aesthetic freedom, indeterminate from the perspective of social interaction, is equated with a determinate response to repression by Adorno;"The social deviance of art is the determinate negation of a determinate society," (ibid., pg. 321.) any concrete response to oppression is, by the same token, criticized from the utopian stance for its indeterminate and partial character; indeed, this equation explains the link between his aesthetic radicalism and his fear of concrete political change. Note his conformist stance on the cold war and his embarrassingly conservative role in the student movement. (Cf. Scheible, Theodor W. Adorno, pg. 131; Rolf Wiggershaus, Die Frankfurter Schule: Geschichte, Theoretische Entwicklung, Politische Bedeutung (Munchen, 1988), pgs. 676ff.) Other inversions, under any circumstances, follow from this one. Aesthetic objectification insures subjectivity while work in the social realm demeans it. Concrete praxis, or a theoretically informed political intervention into the status quo, loses its standing as such in favor of a "higher praxis" lacking in any material effect whatsoever. Thus, Adorno can write:

"Concrete and positive suggestions for change merely strengthen [the power of the status quo], either as ways of administrating the unadministratable, or by calling down repression from the monstrous totality itself. The concept and the theory of society are legitimate only when they do not allow themselves to be attracted by either of these solutions, when they merely hold in negative fashion to the basic possibility inherent in them: that of expressing the fact that such possibility is threatened with suffocation. Such awareness, without any preconceptions as to where it might lead, would be the first condition for an ultimate break in society's omnipotence." (Theodor W. Adorno, "Society" in Critical Theory and Society, pg. 275; for a critique, see my Socialism Unbound (New York, 1990), pgs. 176ff.)

No concrete practice is ever radical enough. Theory simply turns its back on the reality it is to transform and detaches utopia from history. Art can metaphysically put "an advance on a praxis which has not yet begun."(Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 124.) But it can do so legitimately only insofar as the work does not project any concrete alternatives. Adorno never provides even the hint of an institutional alternative like the workers' councils, which informed the sectarian thinking of Korsch, from which to launch his critique. He is content to affirm that "a free society would situate itself beyond both the irrationality of its false costs and the means-ends rationality of utility. This ideal is encoded in art and is responsible for art's social explosiveness." (ibid., pg. 323.)

Whether such an encoding actually exists in a painting by Mondrian, for example, is debatable. Whether such an ideal is relevant to an emancipated order, especially given any serious commitment to non-repressive interaction with nature, is not. Such a standpoint, whatever Adorno's intentions, has less to do with freedom than license. No wonder then that his theory of freedom should lack a notion of the public good or derivative categories like reciprocity and responsibility. If Adorno is correct in maintaining that materialism eliminates epistemology by fiat, his aesthetics does the same with politics. It is simply insufficient to speak of the "unfulfilled promise" of the enlightenment without direct reference to the emancipated political institutions its theorists envisioned.

It is true, of course, that the old teleological unity between theory and practice had broken down; it was no longer a matter of the "future appearing as present." But, in principle, theory was still capable of speculating about the new conditions necessary for realizing its emancipatory promises. Adorno, however, never tried to reformulate the relation between theory and practice. Weimar, the experience of being a Jew in a failed republic, would always remain with him and so would the failure of the Russian Revolution. In looking back on these historical experiences, he came to believe that:

"The call for unity of theory and practice has irresistibly degraded theory to a servant's role, removing the very traits it should have brought to that unity. The visa stamp of practice which we demand of all theory became a censor's placet. Yet whereas theory succumbed in the vaunted mixture, practice became nonconceptual, a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of it; it became the prey of power."Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 143.)

Power is inherently evil; it is always reifying insofar as it speaks to the realm of "necessity." This result of identifying reification with objectification, however, is not only naive; it also obscures the fact that power is a relationship in which contingency always plays a role. Power is identified with the "system" rather than the struggles between people and institutions within it. A reified notion of domination substitutes itself for power and, as dialectics becomes little more than running in place or an engine idling, metaphysics supplants social theory. Breaking the relation between theory and practice, while identifying autonomy with the one and repression with the other, defines the new brand of critical theory associated with the Adorno. But the problem with Adorno's thinking is not simply one of "metacritique." It derives instead from the way metacritique is initially elaborated in Dialectics of Enlightenment. In that work, after all, freedom is expelled from history. It loses both its form and its content. Freedom becomes anchored in the subject. Nevertheless, what this means remains open to question.

Construing freedom as the Other necessarily renders irrelevant any concern with expanding, reciprocally and universally, the range of choices in the present. But, in contrast to either Hegel or Marx, Adorno identifies freedom with subjectivity rather than a sociopolitical arrangement capable of making reciprocal claims upon its members under a liberal interpretation of the rule of law. Freedom is now content to contest power and thus forgets that power is necessary to constrain its arbitrary exercise. (Cf. Franz Neumann, "The Concept of Political Freedom" in The Democratic and the Authoritarian State: Essays in Political and Legal Theory ed. Herbert Marcuse (New York, 1957), pgs. 160ff; Henry Pachter, "Freedom, Authority, Participation" in Socialism in History: Political Essays of Henry Pachter ed. Stephen Eric Bronner (New York, 1984), pgs. 36ff.) The ethical and practical function of freedom is lost. It becomes transcendent and loses its immanent connection with human affairs. Freedom, from the standpoint of social reality, must appear as an illusion.

Politics is inherently liquidated in the name of a methodological critique incapable of either specifying the conditions needing transformation or positing an alternative form of institutional organization. It only makes sense then that, with the sundering of theory from practice, a divorce between form and content should follow. A sacrifice of the concrete and the particular occurs when Adorno is analyzing the formal and the universal and vice versa. He would contend, of course, that balancing the antinomies and fostering the tension between them is necessary to preserve the "non-identity" between subject and object. But, especially given his oft-stated desire to explode the distance between category and object, this is actually nothing more than yet another manifestation of the chasm dividing his thought.

Sociologically, the problem becomes apparent in the famous study of The Authoritarian Personality. There, in collaboration with a team of researchers, Adorno developed an "f-scale" for testing the degree to which authoritarian values had taken hold in an individual. It becomes evident, in contrast to Dialectics of Enlightenment, that fascism is not the necessary outcome of liberal society and that mass culture can play a positive role. Enlightenment and education can mitigate the worst forms of racism and intolerance. The study was a major contribution and, with its quantitative techniques, caused a great deal of controversy. Adorno, however, never integrated the results into his general theory. And for good reason. Extending its sociological insight would have involved subverting the broader enterprise. The Authoritarian Personality calls into question, after all, the "formal"identification between alienation and objectification as surely as the claim that attempts to engender "mass enlightenment" will only result in "mass deception."

Now, of course, defenders of Adorno might argue that the general formal claim can never fully encompass the particular. That is, in fact, precisely the point of Adorno's "negative dialectics." It resists the distorting power lurking in concepts as surely as in institutions. He But the real issue is whether the particular and the empirical contradicts the general and the formal. Mediating categories are necessary to show the connection if it doesn't. These, however, are never supplied. There is subsequently only one conclusion to draw: the empirical analysis in Authoritarian Personality he excludes the formal analysis forwarded in Adorno's philosophical studies. The situation is the same in the famous analysis of the "culture industry" first articulated in Dialectics of Enlightenment. The purpose of Horkheimer and Adorno was undoubtedly a noble one. They wished to examine the effects of the commodity form on culture. They had seen how the state could employ the new media in advanced industrial society; they recognized its potentially negative effects on political consciousness no less than on what Marx had termed "the material level of culture." The issue was its form; the increasing power of the culture industry was a direct reflection of the expanding power of the commodity form and instrumental reason. And, from the perspective of the general theory, the commitment to a criticism of the culture industry must prove uncompromising. That is why Adorno could write that, no less than dissonance, "black as an ideal" -- the color devoid of colors -- would alone enable art "to stand its ground." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pgs. 58-9.)

This argument makes it logical to assume that a particular type of reflexive discernment is necessary with respect to art. "Happiness is an accidental moment of art, less important even than the happiness that attends the knowledge of art. In short, the very idea that enjoyment is of the essence of art deserves to be overthrown." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 22. The proper experience of a work as a "tour de force", (ibid., pg. 154ff.), in contrast to the false immediacy propagated by the culture industry, is interconnected with a technical knowledge of its form. There is no place here for condescension. Guernica by Picasso is, from this standpoint, meaningless to a person who knows nothing of the context it embodies or the techniques it employs. Adorno might have concerned himself with questions dealing with how to improve the "material level of culture." Even so, however, there is something profoundly legitimate about Adorno's criticisms of those whose politics stem from guilt or those who glorify the "underdogs" by embracing anti-intellectualism. (Adorno, Minima Moralia , pg. 28, 102.)

Aesthetic form of the most innovative and complex variety preserves subjectivity' indeed, even when emptied of its most expressive content, the form recalls -- without redeeming -- the horrors spawned by progress along with those aspects of individuality weakened by a pervasive culture industry. The subject experiences his subjectivity then in response to the "slaughterbench of history" and his freedom in the rejection of prefabricated forms of "entertainment." This only makes sense given that "the emancipation of the subject by art was co-extensive with the shift towards autonomy in art itself. "(Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, pg. 281.) Nevertheless, if subjectivity is freed to the extent that art becomes autonomous, then the extent to which art can fulfill its purpose is the extent to which it contests and breaks free of its subservience to the commodity form.

What then of the positive comments Adorno makes about the circus, fireworks, or even the Marx Brothers? He is, after all, willing to consign "all" sports to the realm of "unfreedom" and maintain that jazz is simply a "commodity in the strict sense." (Cf. Theodor W. Adorno, "Zeitlose Mode. Zum Jazz" in Prismen, pgs. 144ff.) The contradiction is obvious and there is only way to resolve it. Adorno will sacrifice the empirical and experiential reality of these works for their formal and symbolic value. A bizarre situation results in which even the "proto-type of art," fireworks, must be embraced as a formal principle and then rejected when employed -- in what is actually its most flamboyant form -- by the "systems" on occasions ranging from Independence Day to Chinese New Year. It is the idea of "fireworks" not the reality which Adorno enjoys. Nor is the cooptation of fireworks, by Walt Disney Productions to introduce its programs, ever mentioned. The idea of fireworks is lifted above its real manifestations just as freedom is defined outside its immanent exercise.

Nor is the situation any different with the Marx Brothers. Sensitive literary critics can note that Adorno praises the simple and the outrageous quality of their skits. (Cf. Jameson, Late Marxism, pg. 137, 145.) Radical differences of quality, however, define their films no less than the rapid-fire delivery and relentless routines within them; Adorno does not have even the most general categories to make such distinctions, judge them against imitators like the Ritz Brothers, or rate them higher than other comic giants of the culture industry like W.C. Fields. Discussion of this sort would obviously contradict his claims about sports and jazz. It would subvert the general theory of the culture industry by suggesting that its products deserve the same analytic treatment as any other work of art. The chasm looms once again. Adorno's aesthetic offers no procedure or categories to justify such judgments; they appear completely arbitrary. Habermas surely overstates the case by claiming that Adorno calls the very commitment to rationality into question. Nevertheless, there is something legitimate in the suggestion that his former teacher followed Nietzsche in turning what should present themselves as discursively justifiable validity-claims into mere preferences. (Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, pg. 123; also, cf. his "Nachwort" to Dialektik der Aufklarung (Frankfurt, 1986 edition).

A new preoccupation with the individual subject marked the change in critical theory initiated by Adorno. It inspired the cultural rebels of the 1960s even if he criticized them for ignoring the dangers of pseudo-uniqueness and "non-conformist conformity." (Adorno, "Veblens Angriff auf die Kultur" in Prismen, pgs. 82ff.) In concrete terms, however, authentic subjectivity remained hanging in the abstract. Adorno was right in suggesting that the system of advanced industrial society had absorbed its revolutionary negation; subjectivity was all that remained when dialectics is at a standstill. Institutional conditions for fostering or inhibiting it, however, are never discussed. He may have insisted: "no emancipation without that of society." (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pg. 173.) But the demand rings hollow. His theory nullifies its promise. All that remains is the long trek inward and a bitter memory of what was left behind.