Enlightenment isn’t what it used to be

February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

A hiatus in posting on one’s literary/cultural theory blog during the festive season doesn’t traditionally require any words. In this case, however, the silence is informative. It has been a period of gestation & of coming to terms with how to write about Adorno’s Negative Dialectics [a work I’ve come to think of as a stump in my path: central & immovable, large & ugly]. What follows is its reduction in a gulp.

Immediately, the reader must account for the negative force in Negative Dialects; this force is the departure from whole, complete systems as are found most influentially in Hegel & Kant. The proposition of Adorno’s anti-philosophy is to replace systems with exegesis. Exegesis is simply the act of close & critical reading; it is a value that remained, & persists to this day, of Freud’s methodology in Die Traumdeutung. The task was not to reject canonical work or initiate a new strand of philosophy, rather to move it forward by building on tradition, though not in any familiarly respectful way but as a term against which we might better achieve understanding.

Understanding is the act of making communicable, it is a trick of linguistics, & the medium of ideas [of philosophy, thereby]. Understanding is to bridge two units or minds, making its form a dialectical one always. In Adorno’s words: “Dialectics appropriates for the power of thought what historically seemed to be a flaw in thinking: its link with language, which nothing can wholly break” (56). Or: “Dialectics unfolds the difference between the particular & the universal, dictated by the universal” (6). Dialogue begins to resolve the linguistic reliance of philosophy, for it takes no definitions or claims of objectivity for granted, being monitored by at least two independent thinking processes. Negative Dialectics works at unwinding the concepts we have come to take for granted.

The very first definition that needs overthrowing is that of philosophy as a tool, as something to be applied on the world. “Traditional philosophy believes that it knows the unlike by likening it to itself, while in so doing doing, it really knows itself only. The idea of a changed philosophy would be to become aware of likeness by defining it as that which is unlike itself” (150). Universal utility is a lie. Secured definitions, the same. They presume an ideal object that remains identical from any angle — it is, in essence, Novalis’s hypothesis of truth as that which is at home everywhere.

“The circle of identification — which in the end always identifies itself alone — was drawn by a thinking that tolerates nothing outside it; its imprisonment is its own handiwork. Such totalitarian & therefore particular rationality was historically dictated by the threat of nature” (172), which is to say that the survival instinct must falsify what is unlike it or deny existence to the unlike — all to keep its own self, that measuring rod of likeness & unlikeness, from becoming inessential. “The primacy of subjectivity is a spiritualised continuation of Darwin’s struggle for existence” (179). The invention of self, by which subjectivity is constituted, is a protective shell to preserve life; in one fell swoop, it alters life also.

The human mind is both true & a mirage; it is true because nothing is exempt from the dominance which it has brought into pure form; it is untrue because, interlocked with dominance, it is anything but the mind it believe & claims to be. Enlightenment thus transcends its traditional self-understanding: it is demythologisation — no longer merely as a ‘reductio ad hominem’, but the other way around, as a ‘reductio hominis’, an insight into the delusion of the subject that will style itself an absolute. The subject is the late form of the myth, & yet the equal of its oldest form. (186)

There are two common ends to the questioning of existence: either the human figure becomes a fetish [econocentric evaluation, utilitarianism, militarism] or it is forced into choosing itself & told that freedom is in that choice [existentialism]. These forms stabilise identity to keep it relevant — relevant to the working constellation of oneself to things & words, so that the world need not be renegotiated every morning. It is on account of this false constancy that each “end” falls under Adorno’s definition of myth: “Mythical is that which never changes, ultimately diluted to a formal legality of thought” (56). Myth is function agreed-on by all. Normality is submission to functional myth.

The way forward, then, is by accepting contradiction as a security in doubt over myth. If a voice must be silenced in the name of coherency, coherency is just a convenience. There are no efforts more gallant than the overthrowal of system, the heresy of decrowning, & the verification of new/alternative modes of being. It is about keeping questions open & thought receptive to modification: this makes the academic work more difficult, certainly, but holds the promise of a very different fruit to the traditional, progressive approach. Difference is the parent of dialectics.


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