The Theory of Ideology and the Ideology of Theory? Habermas contra Adorno Habermas’s Marxism

Is Habermas’s Critique of Adorno’s Critical Theory Defensible?

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2. Is Habermas’s Critique of Adorno’s Critical Theory Defensible?

Before I tackle the first question directly and offer my own argument against Adorno’s concept of ideology, let me address the question of whether Habermas’s criticisms of Adorno are warranted. Cook claims that they are not, because Adorno ‘never denied the rational potential in bourgeois culture’.9 Of course in one sense Adorno did not deny this. He and Horkheimer famously remark in the preface to the Dialectic of Enlightenment that ‘social freedom is inseparable from enlightened thought’, and they are certainly thinking, among other things, of the humanitarian ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity, i.e. of the ‘liberal ideology’ which Cook takes to be the basis of Adorno’s ideology-critique.10 But this evidence is as double-edged as Adorno’s conception of enlightenment rationality. For Adorno claims that the very enlightenment rationality which was supposed to liberate human beings, has in fact enslaved them and led to a reversion to barbarism. Moreover this reversion is not an accident of the implementation of the bourgeois ideals enshrined in enlightenment, for the notion of ‘this very way of thinking (i.e., rational enlightened thought - GF)…already contains the seed of the reversal universally apparent today.’11 Cook’s defence of Adorno trades on the ambiguity of the phrase ‘rational potential’ which means something very different for Adorno and Horkheimer than it does for Habermas. For Adorno and Horkheimer, evidently, the rational potential of modern culture is also the seed of destruction; it is the danger as well as the saving power.12 The same is not true of Habermas who makes a categorial distinction between communicative and instrumental rationality. Using this distinction, Habermas argues that the expansion of systems of instrumental rationality that takes place under the process of modernisation has socially deleterious effects, but (and here he differs from Adorno) that rationality and rationalisation per se are not inherently pernicious. Thus Habermas denies that the spread of communicative rationality (for example the growth of the public sphere) has any depredatory social consequences. This denial is crucial. For whilst it might be true, as Cook claims, that Adorno acknowledges a rational potential in bourgeois culture in his peculiar double-edged sense of ‘rational’, this acknowledgement cannot save him from Habermas’s criticism. Habermas objection is that Adorno does not acknowledge the existence of any rational potential which is not at the same time a potential for regression and destruction. Now it may appear a little churlish for Habermas to object that Adorno does not make the distinction that he does between instrumental and communicative rationality. But he is surely justified in claiming that, because of their too one-sided and pessimistic conception of enlightenment rationality, the anthropological cum historical narrative that Adorno and Horkheimer relate in the Dialectic of Enlightenment is too crude, too all-encompassing and too vitiated to provide a nuanced and accurate account of the process of modernisation.13

In her defence of Adorno Cook simply ignores Adorno’s conception of the ‘rational potential’ of modern culture is double-edged. It is not so much dialectical as barbed. According to Cook ‘Adorno insisted on the value of culture in the face of the lie of exchange’. For a whole variety of different reasons, only some of which I can go into here, this way of putting it is very misleading. Adorno thinks that the subsumptive relation of identity between general concepts and particular objects is of a kind with exchange relations.14 This is why he argues that the phenomenon of reification extends all the way to meaning and language (ND 21-22: HTS 101). The net effect is that identity-thinking is perfectly fitted to what Adorno calls the ‘false’ world. Indeed it is the seamlessness of the connection between identity-thinking and the world of exchange which makes the phenomenon of reification so hard to detect and so difficult to remove. Adorno pays identity-thinking the same kind of back-handed compliment that Lukacs pays to Kant’s Antinomies: on the one hand they are ideological - not just dialectical - illusions; on the other hand they are ‘necessary’ because they correspond to the contradictory nature of bourgeois social reality.15 Similarly identity-thinking evinces subsumptive judgments which are correspondence-true - and functionally necessary - to the ‘false’ world of exchange. At the same time, ‘No unreflected banality can, as an imprint of a false life, still be true.’ ND 45 A statement or judgment that aspires merely to be correspondence-true to the facts of a false social world is itself emphatically untrue.16 But the dialectic runs deeper still. On the one hand the particularities or qualities of an object are bound up with its use-value. However these are suppressed under conditions of universal exchange because the object becomes infinitely substitutable for other things of equivalent exchange-value. This represents a kind of violation of the qualitative particularity of the object. On the other hand, the use-value of a thing is its mere manipulation for external ends, whereas the act of exchange at least contains within it, implicitly, the normative ideals of fairness and equality to which society fails to live up. The notion of exchange, then, contains various levels of both truth and falsity. Once we appreciate this, we see that Cook’s interpretation, according to which Adorno contrasts the ‘value of culture’ with ‘the lie of exchange’ - as if the ‘rational potential’ to which Adorno appealed was present in the former and absent from the latter - is too crude and undialectical. Adorno’s dialectic is far too subtle and involuted to license that interpretation.

A similar conclusion can be reached from the opposite direction, i.e. from a proper appreciation of Adorno’s conception of the value of culture. Adorno’s philosophical negativism implies that whatever value may reside in modern culture – or in those works of modern art within that culture which he deems successful – that value cannot be known directly and does not manifest itself positively. Without going into unnecessary details Adorno’s negativism comprises the three following theses.

i. ‘There is no way of living a false life correctly’ (MM 39) [‘Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im Falschen’ (GS 4 p.43)].17 Adorno means that in a false world there is no way of doing (and no way of knowing we are doing) the morally or politically right thing. Rational subjects cannot be sure that even apparently harmless or valuable activities are not contributing covertly and in spite of their intentions to the general state of alienation and unfreedom with which modern society is afflicted.

ii. The social world is radically evil.18 Briefly put, Adorno means by this that the social world consists entirely of sedimented patterns of instrumental reason. The appearance that there are any ends that are worth pursuing for their own sake, is illusory. In fact all socially available ends are, like the offerings of the culture industry, only instrumentally valuable as means to self-preservation through the manipulation and control of external nature. Furthermore, like Kant, Adorno thinks that instrumental reasons guide actions heteronomously, they are forms of necessity or compulsion, rather than of autonomy or maturity. Hence all activities that the late-capitalist social world makes available to subjects are forms of institutionalized unfreedom.

iii. We can have no positive conception of the good. Adorno frequently claims that the good (or what he calls variously ‘reconciliation’, ‘redemption’ ‘happiness’ and ‘utopia’) cannot be thought.19 He means not just that we cannot represent or picture the good, utopia etc. We cannot even conceive it, without falsifying it, because to conceive is to identify.

As a matter of interest, Adorno seems to slide between two slightly different positions depending on the context in which (or the audience for whom) he is writing. To avoid confusion let us call these strong and weak negativity. Strong negativity is the view that there is no good in the world apart from the knowledge that there is no good in the world. Weak negativity is the view that there are fragments of the good in the world - for example the experience of pleasure granted by certain works of art, human warmth, love and spontaneity - however only sufficient to make manifest their absence from the social totality. They are the exception, not the rule, of social reality, points of resistance to it, not its basis.20 The stronger view appears to have the advantage of being consistent with philosophical negativism, but it raises the problem of how some value or ideal absent from the social world can nonetheless be made accessible to social theory. The only way Adorno can make these transcendent, but absent, ideals available to his social criticism is by reading the traces of their rational content in the surface of the present irrational - indeed radically evil - social totality. This is the solution Adorno adopts in Minima Moralia, where he seeks the truth about life everywhere in its ‘alienated form’ and in Negative Dialectics.21 The trouble is that this way of securing the availability of liberal ideals is just a prestidigitation which, in spite of appearances, contravenes Adorno’s negativism. In fact, as Michael Theunissen shows, Adorno’s attempt to trace ‘a real path of the positive in the negative’ amounts to an inverted version of Hegelian optimism, of reading the traces of rationality in the actual.22 The force of Theunissen’s criticism becomes much more apparent when we bear in mind that Adorno’s major criticism of Hegel is of the doctrine of determinate negation, the view the negation of a negative yields a positive (ND 164: MCP 144). In that case, then by Adorno’s own lights even strong negativisim is, as Theunissen claims, ‘prenegativistic’ and ‘not negative enough’.

The trouble with weak negativism is that it is logically inconsistent with Adorno’s stated position and however dialectical Adorno is, however scathing about analytic philosophy, he never rejects rational argument and embraces logical inconsistency (ND 39ff). Moreover weak negativism faces a different version of the problem of accessibility, for it presupposes that Adorno has unimpeachable criteria for identifying these fragments of potentially emancipatory rationality in the untrue whole. But what allows Adorno to exempt these criteria from the suspicion of ideology which casts its gray shadow over all other areas of society? Without granting critical theorists an epistemic privilege, and thus making exactly the same move for which he condemns Lukács’s Marxism, Adorno’s position leaves the social theorist panning the dark waters of the social world with no reliable way of knowing when she has found gold.

Due consideration of Adorno’s philosophical negativism, then, which is central to his philosophical project, undermines the view propounded by Cook that Adorno’s conception of ideology-criticism rests on some kind of critical contrast between the ‘rational potential’ or ‘value’ of culture and ‘the lie of exchange’. And if what I have said so far is correct, then, in spite of Cook’s best attempts to rebut it, Habermas’s objection that Adorno fails to appreciate the rational potential of modern culture, still presses.

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