Sunday, February 11, 2007

The case for Adorno

Reproduced below is a comment that a member of The Rotten Elements group left under my first post on Adorno.

I was bemused by the reaction to that post from some of the rotters, because I didn't consider that my piece was even addressing, let alone writing off, Adorno's thought as a whole. I was only discussing his late essay 'On Resignation' and the political context surrounding it. I consider that the arguments of 'On Resignation' were bad ones, especially amidst the turmoil, euphoria, and occasional openings for revolutionary change in late '60s Europe, and I think that Adorno's treatment of his radical students during that period was pretty shabby.

(At the same time, I think the way that some radical students dealt with Adorno was problematic - I noted how easily their apparently anti-academic stunts were assimilated by a rightward-shifting intelligentsia in the late '70s and '80s. Perry Anderson tells the story well.)

I don't see how any consideration of Adorno's career and work can avoid grappling with the mistakes he made in the late '60s and the repudiation of left-wing politics that is part and parcel of 'On Resignation'.

But to say this is not to say that all of Adorno's work is ipso facto worthless. If we were to use that sort of reductionist logic we'd have to write off everything Lukacs wrote because of his complicity with Hungarian Stalinism, or dismiss The Revolution Betrayed on the grounds that its author once advocated the militarisation of labour, or shun the profound insights of Marx's late writing on the Russian peasant commune because of the nasty footnote he inserted in (and later excised from) Capital to celebrate the ongoing destruction of Russian peasant life by foreign capital. I tried to make it clear in my second post on Adorno that I think we have to relate the politics and political behaviour of a writer to that writer's work, without dissolving one into the other.

Phew. Now that's out of the way, here's an argument for Adorno:

Fuck me Maps, this is awful.

Without Adorno, the rotten elements would not exist. Look at our December 'second coming of the rotten elements', the guy in the swimsuit. Who's that then? Yep you guessed, the 20th century's most radical of interlocutor of 'the object'. Objectfied. Yes we make a monkey out of him but we make monkeys out of everyone.

To me personally, the man's a saint. I'll tell you why. 2001 and I'm being drowned in a relentless tide of Socialist Alliance activism, where everything's joined up, all the same. A world where you couldn't express a difference; a contradiction. Where the circulation of activism is fed not by money by an exchange of enthusiasms and 'things done'. This is the end of thinking.

And the CPGB were doing the same. They had there own universal equivalent=democracy. Do the SA stuff and talk about 'democracy'. I am a democrat but this is democracy depleted and bereft of any foundation.

Imagine my delight to find a book that debunked this methodology of bad totalities hastened along by bad activism and bad ideology. They were 'mad', not me. That allowed me to unpick the formal logic of the left and actually understand Marx's project away from some uninteresting rubbish about crisis theory. That book was Negative Dialectics and the writer was Adorno.

Effectively, you are lining yourself up with 'activity' without thought. Activity can only be effective if it contains its own critique. Thus, Adorno is right, you should never realise 'activity' or objectify it. It should always be on the point of collapse, of being dragged back into introspection, resignation maybe. Otherwise it just becomes a 'thing' that you do, that takes on its own life and cannot be liberatory in any sense. it becomes another bad totality that we all have to fit into (for example, British demos, even the million-strong have been a lifeless doze recently; they are an object, a routine, completely reified).

Without Adorno we're fucked, I'm telling you…


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What case is that? Some tired bod can't hack the real fight. Oh what a shame that 1,000,000 people were so uninspiring. Fits the pattern really. Adorno et al turned their backs on the working class and looked to a universal nature as the answer to capitalism's ills. A priesthood was needed to interpret nature and champion it against capitalism. So along came Adorno. Reify in the sky.

10:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The guys at Rotten Elements do seem to be rather too emotionally attached to Adorno - it's fogging their objectivity and judgement.

10:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The comment about the big anti-war demos raised my eyebrows too.

There were things to be unhappy about with those demos (I blogegd about this last week - I'm going from experience in NZ and my reading about events in the UK), but it seems that blaming lefties for their attachment to reified ritual or whatnot and their failure to read somebody like Adorno really misses the point.

It risks putting the blame for strategic and tactical errors - *political* errors - on the shoulders of the rank and file marchers, who often showed tremendous enthusiasm and creativity (artistic creativity, too - remember some of those banners and songs?). Surely we have to home in on the sometimes bureaucratic practices and too-conciliatory politics of the leaders of the anti-war movement, not the faulty philosophical thinking of ordinary marchers?

One of the things I dislike about the Frankurt Schoolers and the Situationists is the way that they can sldie from a legitimate critique of aspects of mainstream culture to an unrelieved negativity about ordinary people - I mean the folks who don't like atonal music and don't read Hegel -and the possibility of their effecting progressive political change.

I prefer the approach to culture of Raymond Williams and (going further back, to the 18th and 19th C) EP Thompson. I think they show more awareness of the many shades of grey in popular culture and the complex and sometimes contradictory ways in which people make sense of the world. Give me Williams on TV and Thompson on the sale of wives over Debord on The Spectacle or Adorno on the culture industry anyday...

Having said that, I am a bit rusty on the Frankfurters and do need to do some remedial reading before I keep slagging them off. There's probably a lot I'm missing at the moment.

11:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Adorno et al turned their backs on the working class and looked to a universal nature as the answer to capitalism's ills.'

Erm, wasn't negative dialectics the ultimate attack against universals? Cracking response that one.

Also, I went on the million-strong jobby. But being a million strong didn't actually achieve anything qualitative in British politics (unless you think an SWP popular front — Respect — is quality). What's happened to the anti-war movement. It's dissipated. Some of the fault of that lies with the anti-war movement being utterly reified and routinist.

12:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Some of the fault of that lies with the anti-war movement being utterly reified and routinist.'

It'd be interesting to see you expand on this point. At the moment I can't quite get what you're saying. What did 'reified and routinist' mean in practice, and waht was the solution to the problems you saw?

9:38 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dehistorisizing use-value is not busting universals. Its taking the working class out of history and creating jobs for professors.

10:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm. The whole point of theory is that it is temporary and needs updating. Continually. The rotten element contribution seems to think that theory is permanent.

Of course the 20th century activity was limited ... by its theory fundamentally.

To effectively abstain from the mass movement demonstrations against the war is pathetic. I was on that demonstration of more than a millioin in London. The problem was its general theory-direction, not its activism.

I'm glad a sad soul found solace in a book, though. I often need to do that. But I wouldn't make a universal approach to social change based on that.


1:47 am  
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