The Aphorisms of Adorno: In The Face of Despair

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.

– Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

Having been a fan of the aphoristic style ever since reading Nietzsche as a young man it was a pleasant surprise to refresh my mind with Theodor W. Adorno’s Minima Moralia which of course he began during WWII and its aftermath. The cynicism and despair of the world, of the bourgeoisie, of the fabled hopes of communism – all these become so much bittersweet castigations and incriminations in this deft text. I’m almost hard put to find someone, even E.M. Cioran, who was more bitter and spiteful about his lot – maybe, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes? Yes, this is a work of solitude, of one who has read too long, hoped too well, fallen from the grace of his own being.

Most of the basic triggers, the subjects or objects of his titles are but sparks of spite, goads of a dark intent… yet, intent is not the correct term, for there is no directedness in this, no sense of attentive appraisal with a goal in mind, rather we have the full stop, the judgment of history itself using Adorno’s pen like a saber to cut through the knots of some Gordian priesthood’s mythical attachment to power. No. Adorno could care less of his audience, this is a personal book, a book of meditations on a culture of death, a culture that has, frankly, imploded and is now on the verge to total apocalypse.

He begins with a high point in bourgeois culture, with the author of that book of memory and time, Marcel Proust. Yet, it is not Marcel to which he speaks, rather this is a meditation of bourgeois culture itself, its disdain of such beings as Marcel. “It is not merely that his independence is envied, the seriousness of his intentions mistrusted, and that he is suspected of being a secret envoy of the establishment powers. Such suspicions, though betraying a deep-seated resentment, would usually prove well-founded. But the real resistances lie elsewhere.” Already Adorno sets the stage, reminds us that this is an investigation not into the particular characters, not a moraliste – an aphoristic study in the morality of an age, rather it is an investigation into the structure and the actual material energies that brought such things to pass. It is about power and control, about the machine of civilization itself in the hands of Capital: “The urge to suspend the division of labour which, within certain limits, his economic situation enables him to satisfy, is thought particularly disreputable: it betrays a disinclination to sanction the operations imposed by society, and domineering competence per- mits no such idiosyncrasies. The departmentalization of mind is a means of abolishing mind where it is not exercised ex officio, under contract.” Summing up those like Marcel, who have dared to retreat, dared to escape the machine, to hide out and seek refuge from the hard worlds of work and late capitalism were at last neither envied nor praise, but were judged as expendable: “It is as if the class from which independent intellectuals have defected takes its revenge, by pressing its demands home In the very domain where the deserter seeks refuge.”

And don’t expect that powerhouse of the bourgeoisie, the family, to escape the eye of this harbinger of the demise of Capital: “Our relationship to parents is beginning to undergo a sad, shadowy transformation. Through their economic impotence they have lost their awesomeness. … With the demise of the family there passes away, while the system lasts, not only the most effective agency of the bourgeoisie, but also the resistance which, though repressing the individual, also strengthened, perhaps even produced him.” One remembers that this was written at a time when the institution of the family attacked by the modernists had at last begun to fall away. Women were working in factories, becoming more independent – so to speak, for the truth was that the capitalists needed them out of the home and working alongside men to get ready for that new consumerist economy that was in the offing. So that it was the capitalists themselves that brought about the demise of this fabled institution of the family. But it would loosen desires and strange new illnesses never before seen, schizophrenia would run rampant across the earth like a desiring-machine that had no center: and, it didn’t, the family Oedipal authority was vanishing, the power that had kept this machine under control was dissolving and allowing all the forces latent in this tribal time between times to vacate the rational hold of its caged existence. One need not read Deleuze and Guattari or R.D. Laing to see that as women escaped the bond of the family circle the men went ape, lost their center, their mother, not their father – the drift of this disconnect loosened those bonds around the hearth fires that had stilled the beast. As Adorno would remark: “The rising collectivist order is a mockery of a classless one: together with the bourgeois it liquidates the Utopia that once drew sustenance from motherly love.”

So Adorno was a pop-psychologist, too. Zizek before Žižek – a sort of non-Lacanian mode of analysis, a critical gaze on the failure of the Enlightenment to stay the tide against barbarism. “Since the all-embracing distributive machinery of highly-concentrated industry has superseded the sphere of circulation, the latter has begun a strange post-existence.” The wheels-within-wheels are churning, but going nowhere, while capitalism unbound from its purpose accelerates out of control toward the abyss: “The irrationality of the system is expressed scarcely less clearly in the parasitic psychology of the individual than in his economic fate.” And, the whole notion that there is a private sphere, that an individual could actually have a home, a family, a wife and kids, a place to spend time and energy: “Today it is seen as arrogant, alien and improper to engage in private activity without any evident ulterior motive.” This is a time of probabilities, of calculations, of the mathematical engineering of a planned society, the construction of a free market. The new Spirit of Capitalism: “The evil principle that was always latent in affability unfurls its full bestiality in the egalitarian spirit. Condescension, and thinking oneself no better, are the same. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility and violence needed to exert domination.”

Adorno doesn’t leave the Left out of the bag either, his admonitions of those who seek to sympathize, to enter into and live in the midst of these societies (and where else would we live now?) must beware of the temptation to detach oneself, to become indifferent and aloof, to think that one can create a life in a pocket of safety: “He who stands aloof runs the risk of believing himself better than others and misusing his aitique of society as an ideology for his private interest. While he gropingly forms his own life in the frail image of a true existence, he should never forget its frailty, nor how little the image is a substitute for true life.” Even with the best intentions the new intellectual, the Marxist in hiding, the agitator, the worker in transit who assumes the mantle of the critical enterprise should beware in this time of laxity and hedonistic implication: “We shudder at the brutalization of life, but lacking any objectively binding morality we are forced at every step into actions and words, into calculations that are by humane standards barbaric, and even by the dubious values of good society, tactless.”

The dark undertow of the oppressed harbors a special place in the memory system that was Adorno: “The dialectic stems from the sophists; it was a mode of discussion whereby dogmatic assertions were shaken and, as the public prosecutors and comic writers put it, the lesser word made the stronger. It subsequently developed, as against philosophia perennis, into a perennial method of criticism, a refuge for all the thoughts of the oppressed, even those unthought by them.” The negative dialectic unlike its progenitors became in the hands of Adorno an acid bath in which late capitalism was thrown, yet as in all things he knew it would leave bones – and, as we all know, bones can rise and live again: “Negative philosophy, dissolving everything, dissolves even the dissolvent. But the new form in which it claims to suspend and preserve both, dissolved and dissolvent, can never emerge in a pure state from an antagonistic society.” Yet, even the negative is not immune from the enslavement of hell’s own brood: “[Negative dialectic] But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hait’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, ifit shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape.”

But what to do? How to live? “The only responsible course is to deny oneself the ideological misuse of one’s own existence, and for the rest to conduct oneself in private as modestly, unobtrusively and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell.” Yet, even envious demons – like the cowards they are, run rampant in the visible darkness of this hollow cave, and like celebrants in a Burning Man festival, they spin their unlucky nights under false stars navel-gazing, not realizing that hell never ends but only burns deeper and redder as the noise drowns out all thought of escape.

– Theodor W. Adorno. Minima Moralia. (Suhrkamp Verlag 1951)

1 thought on “The Aphorisms of Adorno: In The Face of Despair

  1. Pingback: Theodor W. Adorno: The Desolation of Truth | alien ecologies

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