Resignation in Early Spring: On Adorno’s Non-answer
In between grading student essays and reflecting on the history of some pacification of the militant protestant sects, I began thinking about Adorno’s “Resignation” and the way I have seen Adorno rely on pure negativity as a means to dialectic. Now to get all Hegelian about things, this is a refusal to go to an axiomatic stage of the dialectic, and thus is a refusal to conceptualize a way out. Now in a crude Hegelian manner, I can point out that this seems like an abnegation as much as a resignation: a refusal to accept the dialectic as more than a via negativa, a negative ecology. to use a phrase from Malcolm Bull:
Even political undertakings can sink into pseudo-activities, into theater. It is no coincidence that the ideals of immediate action, even the propaganda of the [deed], have been resurrected after the willing integration of formerly progressive organizations that now in all countries of the earth are developing the characteristic traits of what they once opposed. Yet this does not invalidate the critique of anarchism. Its return is that of a ghost. The impatience with theory that manifests itself with its return does not advance thought beyond itself. By forgetting thought, the impatience falls back below it. [Adorno, “Resignation,” (1969), in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 292.]
Now I have seen this read as a returning to Lenin’s critique of Left communism and as a embrace of nearly mystical Jewish eschatology, both of these have some rooting in fact no doubt. Yet one cannot help but note that despite Adorno’s Leninism, the Leninist project no longer resembled anything Adorno would be willing to defend (or most probably even Lenin would be willing to defend). The more critical question would be that psuedo-activity is endemic and if the Frankfurt’s school own fate illustrates, pseudo-activity of the mind is something that dominates most theorists, and yet this is something that is distinct from any pronouncement of Lenin I know of:
This is made easier for the individual by his capitulation to the collective with which he identifies himself. He is spared from recognizing his powerlessness; the few become the many in their own eyes. This act, not unwavering thought, is resignative. No transparent relationship obtains between the interests of the ego and the collective it surrenders itself to. The ego must abolish itself so that it may be blessed with the grace of being chosen by the collective. . . . The sense of a new security is purchased with the sacrifice of autonomous thinking. The consolation that thinking improves in the context of collective action is deceptive: thinking, as a mere instrument of activist actions, atrophies like all instrumental reason. . . .
Notice then that while Adorno critiques seriously the autonomous of the spirit of anarchism, he also psychologizes solidarity politics in a way that makes it also fairly meaningless as a means of avoidance of abnegation of truth. Adorno has put himself in a double-bind in left-wing politics and removed the meaningfulness of most action in the current context, rendering the situation to many a speed reader, much more eschatological than anything that would have slipped out of Lenin’s mouth.
Yet there is a point to this in which one begins to wonder if Adorno’s answer to this bind, similar to Kolakowski’s prior to him, is actually an answer:
By contrast the uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither signs over his consciousness nor lets himself be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn’t break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation. . . . Open thinking points beyond itself. . . .Whatever has once been thought can be suppressed, forgotten, can vanish. But it cannot be denied that something of it survives.For thinking has the element of the universal. What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others: this confidence accompanies even the most solitary and powerless thought. . . . The happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity. The universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such. Thought is happiness, even where it defines unhappiness: by enunciating it. By this alone happiness reaches into the universal unhappiness. Whoever does not let it atrophy has not resigned.
One cannot ignore that whatever one thinks of this answer, it is a dramatic lowering of the bar from anything that ever left Lenin’s mouth. Regression is the normal answer given, and yet as a concept, do not let any Marxist-academic fool you, regression is not a category that can be simply understood or demarcated as, for some strange reason, as many an academic will tell you the situation of socialist and capitalist society is ALWAYS regressing. One has an almost inverted Steven Pinker/Pangloss “liberal modernity is the best of all possible current worlds” to “liberal modernity is best of all possible current worlds because we have regressed from prior possible visions.” Negri and many an Italian Marxist have lost patience with this deconstructive impulse, and criticized Adorno for his lack of a positive construction. Other friends see this as a point of failure of vision. Some see it as bad Marxism, a friend of mine once quipped: “it’s all dialectics and no materialism” and at the end Adorno does retreat the field of battle outside of the material world and its temptations of pseudo-activity. Regression has made that so?
But regression does imply a theory of history in which the future progressive standpoint can be known, which is why contingency is such a threat to the Adorno-influenced Marxist. Yet as Hegel dialectics can take, if we look at Hegel’s Shorter logic, both positive and negative forms and moves forward by positing new positives from prior situations. Yes, Hegel thought philosophy could become objective, but outside from the eye of God, no one knows the outcome of a dialectical moment until it is passed through, contradictions sublated, and new contradictions emerging.
The negativity of the dialectic is a given, but it doesn’t end there. Whatever you think of Lenin, thought was not a means out of resignation or a hope for a utopia, nor was it the belief that thought itself changed the world as an absolute idea in Lenin. Thought moves through world because it emerges from it, and is in a feedback loop with it. Therefore any thought that doesn’t change material condition as well as emerge from them is Utopian in the purely negative sense.
You can’t think your way out of a necessary historical situation.