“I believe that while philosophy may well terminate in definitions, it cannot start out from them; and that, in order to understand, to have knowledge of, the content of philosophical
concepts themselves – and not simply from the point of view of an external history of ideas or of philosophy – it is necessary to know how concepts have come into being, and what they mean in terms of their origins, their historical dimension.” – Adorno
“Philosophy” is often he pathology of the way people justify their identity, but when it is not, it generally ends with questions and genealogies and logics, not pat answers. Generally, however, as Marx, Nietzsche, and Adorno understood and as many other non-German thinkers have also understood but not did have the press to articulate, philosophy is the product of the material development of history mixed with the social development of people. In other ways, people have a condition or position and need to come up with a justification, and then there we go. I would not go so far as to say it was always just a justification as the epiphenomena it produces actually justify all sorts of developments from technology to science (through meta-justifications that do themselves clarify).
Philosophy too then is as Badiou defines it: a way of mediating between truth processes. But this is only in the ideal, and the ideal, sadly, is only rarely the real. In the end, our rubric cannot be the formalized definition, but it’s opposite: The informal question and genealogy.
That said, it is important to look at the historical development of a philosophical position or a political position for what it obscures as much as it what it says. One should also question one’s motives for doing it.
The separation of agitprop from a political philosophy, the slogan from a coherent political stance, the ideology from the meme, and the hard answer from the easy one may be something I take up for wrong reasons. Un-reasoned positions can’t be reasoned out of, and positions which reinforce identity doubly so. That itself may be a problematic form of distinction. Yet, if no one says anything, the easy answers keep getting pushed. I think I am going to have a cup of tea and read a book then.
The easy answers confirm our identity; they reduce cognitive dissonance, they allow things to go unchanged.
So much of what I see on the “left” or the right or the center–the reduction of things, the recitation of statistics without context, the half formed views of nation states as being one thing or the other, is the easy answer. No, I realize that these ideological positions aren’t equally guilty, but the tendencies to view philosophy as a handmaiden to politics and for politics to be about identity or its obfuscation.
Sometimes I think a lot of what passes for progressive ideas is a conspiracy to make fascism look good. No, I don’t actually believe that, but damn, it’s easy to see how bad ideas bring worse ideas to life. Fascism, here, is not right-wing ideas alone or totalitarianism, or discipline, or any such notion: fascism here being the willingness to combine all sorts of ideological predisposition to maintain an identity, despite the fact it is legitimately falling away. (This definition is actually also incomplete, but it fits for here).
The reason I feel that way about a lot of what passes for “progressive thought” is that it often ahistorical and also abiological. Neo-keynesian focus in the 1933 through 1955 and Keynesian spending, ignoring the leveling and rebuilding of Europe in the process and the decline in real profits of the 1970s. ‘-isms’ (able-ism, capitalism, sexism) and ‘archies’ (patriarchy, corporatocracy) are spoken about as if they were anamorphous enemies that have been constant throughout time without any improvement or context. These -isms and -archies are rooted in the very real, very lived experience, but as they are spoken about in this way, the realness seems to fall away into mere projection. This is a projection of value that looks inherently unknown and can make conservatism or other forms of ideological positions that are actually not in the interest of many of the oppressed (as individuals or as a class) seem more natural and more contextual. Luckily, in the US, conservatism in the popular parlance seems to have gone insane, but many liberals, leftists, and otherwise take a false sense of security from that and other demographic facts without realizing that they themselves could easily be becoming the sane version of the status quo.
Badiou would inform us of the truth process here in seeing bad politics and our need to cut away. So the formalist and genealogist meet again.
So I’ll end with a chuck of Gravity’s Rainbow and let you, gentle and intellectual reader that I hope that you are, see the relevance as I saw it today:
But the rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it – in combat, in tunnel, on paper – it must survive heresies shining, unconfoundable . . . and heretics there will be: Gnostics who have been taken in a rush of wind and fire to chambers of the Rocket-throne . . . Kabbalists who study the Rocket as Torah, letter by letter – rivets, burner cup and brass rose, its text is theirs to permute and combine into new revelations, always unfolding . . . Manicheans who see two Rockets, good and evil, who speak together in the sacred idiolalia of the Primal Twins (some say their names are Enzian and Blicero) of a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle. Gravity’s Rainbow (727)
“Identity is the Ur-form of ideology” – Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics
“You create identity, you’re not given identity per se. What became more and more interesting to me wasn’t the “I”, it was text because it’s text that create identity. That’s how I got interested in plagiarism.” – Kathy Acker, Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991)
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.