Contemporary theory: the issues at stake

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5. Negative Dialectics

Adorno's idea of artistic truth content presupposes the epistemological and metaphysical claims he works out most thoroughly in Negative Dialectics. These claims, in turn, consolidate and extend the historiographic and social-theoretical arguments already canvassed. As Simon Jarvis demonstrates, Negative Dialectics tries to formulate a "philosophical materialism" that is historical and critical but not dogmatic. Alternatively, one can describe the book as a "metacritique" of idealist philosophy, especially of the philosophy of Kant and Hegel (Jarvis 1998, 148-74). Adorno says the book aims to complete what he considered his lifelong task as a philosopher: "to use the strength of the [epistemic] subject to break through the deception [Trug] of constitutive subjectivity" (ND xx).

This occurs in four stages. First, a long Introduction (ND 1-57) works out a concept of "philosophical experience" that both challenges Kant's distinction between "phenomena" and "noumena" and rejects Hegel's construction of "absolute spirit." Then Part One (ND 59-131) distinguishes Adorno's project from the "fundamental ontology" in Heidegger's Being and Time. Part Two (ND 133-207) works out Adorno's alternative with respect to the categories he reconfigures from German idealism. Part Three (ND 209-408), composing nearly half the book, elaborates philosophical "models." These present negative dialectics in action upon key concepts of moral philosophy ("freedom"), philosophy of history ("world spirit" and "natural history"), and metaphysics. Adorno says the final model, devoted to metaphysical questions, "tries by critical self reflection to give the Copernican revolution an axial turn" (ND xx). Alluding to Kant's self-proclaimed "second Copernican revolution," this description echoes Adorno's comment about breaking through the deception of constitutive subjectivity.

Like Hegel, Adorno criticizes Kant's distinction between phenomena and noumena by arguing that the transcendental conditions of experience can be neither so pure nor so separate from each other as Kant seems to claim. As concepts, for example, the a priori categories of the understanding (Verstand) would be unintelligible if they were not already about something that is nonconceptual. Conversely, the supposedly pure forms of space and time cannot simply be nonconceptual intuitions. Not even a transcendental philosopher would have access to them apart from concepts about them. So too, what makes possible any genuine experience cannot simply be the "application" of a priori concepts to a priori intuitions via the "schematism" of the imagination (Einbildungskraft). Genuine experience is made possible by that which exceeds the grasp of thought and sensibility. Adorno does not call this excess the "thing in itself," however, for that would assume the Kantian framework he criticizes. Rather, he calls it "the nonidentical" (das Nichtidentische).

The concept of the nonidentical, in turn, marks the difference between Adorno's materialism and Hegel's idealism. Although he shares Hegel's emphasis on a speculative identity between thought and being, between subject and object, and between reason and reality, Adorno denies that this identity has been achieved in a positive fashion. For the most part this identity has occurred negatively instead. That is to say, human thought, in achieving identity and unity, has imposed these upon objects, suppressing or ignoring their differences and diversity. Such imposition is driven by a societal formation whose exchange principle demands the equivalence (exchange value) of what is inherently nonequivalent (use value). Whereas Hegel's speculative identity amounts to an identity between identity and nonidentity, Adorno's amounts to a nonidentity between identity and nonidentity. That is why Adorno calls for a "negative dialectic" and why he rejects the affirmative character of Hegel's dialectic (ND 143-61).

Adorno does not reject the necessity of conceptual identification, however, nor does his philosophy claim to have direct access to the nonidentical. Under current societal conditions, thought can only have access to the nonidentical via conceptual criticisms of false identifications. Such criticisms must be "determinate negations" pointing up specific contradictions between what thought claims and what it actually delivers. Through determinate negation, those aspects of the object which thought misidentifies receive an indirect, conceptual articulation.

The motivation for Adorno's negative dialectic is not simply conceptual, however, nor are its intellectual resources. His epistemology is "materialist" in both regards. It is motivated, he says, by undeniable human suffering—a fact of unreason, if you will, to counter Kant's "fact of reason." Suffering is the corporeal imprint of society and the object upon human consciousness: "The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject … " (ND 17-18). The resources available to philosophy in this regard include the "expressive" or "mimetic" dimensions of language, which conflict with "ordinary" (i.e., societally sanctioned) syntax and semantics. In philosophy, this requires an emphasis on "presentation" (Darstellung) in which logical stringency and expressive flexibility interact (ND 18-19, 52-53). Another resource lies in unscripted relationships among established concepts. By taking such concepts out of their established patterns and rearranging them in "constellations" around a specific subject matter, philosophy can unlock some of the historical dynamic hidden within objects whose identity exceeds the classifications imposed upon them (ND 52-53, 162-66).

What unifies all of these desiderata, and what most clearly distinguishes Adorno's materialist epistemology from "idealism," whether Kantian or Hegelian, is his insisting on the "priority of the object" (Vorrang des Objekts, ND 183-97). Adorno regards as "idealist" any philosophy that affirms an identity between subject and object and thereby assigns constitutive priority to the epistemic subject. In insisting on the priority of the object, Adorno repeatedly makes three claims: first, that the epistemic subject is itself objectively constituted by the society to which it belongs and without which the subject could not exist; second, that no object can be fully known according to the rules and procedures of identitarian thinking ; third, that the goal of thought itself, even when thought forgets its goal under societally induced pressures to impose identity on objects, is to honor them in their nonidentity, in their difference from what a restricted rationality declares them to be. Against empiricism, however, he argues that no object is simply "given" either, both because it can be an object only in relation to a subject and because objects are historical and have the potential to change.

Under current conditions the only way for philosophy to give priority to the object is dialectically, Adorno argues. He describes dialectics as the attempt to recognize the nonidentity between thought and the object while carrying out the project of conceptual identification. Dialectics is "the consistent consciousness of nonidentity," and contradiction, its central category, is "the nonidentical under the aspect of identity." Thought itself forces this emphasis on contradiction upon us, he says. To think is to identify, and thought can only achieve truth by identifying. So the semblance (Schein) of total identity lives within thought itself, mingled with thought's truth (Wahrheit). The only way to break through the semblance of total identity is immanently, using the concept. Accordingly, everything that is qualitatively different and that resists conceptualization will show up as a contradiction. "The contradiction is the nonidentical under the aspect of [conceptual] identity; the primacy of the principle of contradiction in dialectics tests the heterogeneous according to unitary thought [Einheitsdenken]. By colliding with its own boundary [Grenze], unitary thought surpasses itself. Dialectics is the consistent consciousness of nonidentity" (ND 5).

But thinking in contradictions is also forced upon philosophy by society itself. Society is riven with fundamental antagonisms, which, in accordance with the exchange principle, get covered up by identitarian thought. The only way to expose these antagonisms, and thereby to point toward their possible resolution, is to think against thought—in other words, to think in contradictions. In this way "contradiction" cannot be ascribed neatly to either thought or reality. Instead it is a "category of reflection" (Reflexionskategorie) , enabling a thoughtful confrontation between concept (Begriff) and subject matter or object (Sache): "To proceed dialectically means to think in contradictions, for the sake of the contradiction already experienced in the object [Sache], and against that contradiction. A contradiction in reality, [dialectics] is a contradiction against reality" (ND 144-45).

The point of thinking in contradictions is not simply negative, however. It has a fragile, transformative horizon, namely, a society that would no longer be riven with fundamental antagonisms, thinking that would be rid of the compulsion to dominate through conceptual identification, and the flourishing of particular objects in their particularity. Because Adorno is convinced that contemporary society has the resources to alleviate the suffering it nevertheless perpetuates, his negative dialectics has a utopian reach: "In view of the concrete possibility of utopia, dialectics is the ontology of the false condition. A right condition would be freed from dialectics, no more system than contradiction" (ND 11). Such a "right condition" would be one of reconciliation between humans and nature, including the nature within human beings, and among human beings themselves. This idea of reconciliation sustains Adorno's reflections on ethics and metaphysics.
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