Saturday, February 27, 2016

Melancholy Science by Gillian Rose

Adorno starts from the assumption of a split and antagonistic reality which cannot be adequately represented by any system which makes its goals unity and simplicity or clarity. He shared Nietzsche’s program of a ‘transvaluation of all values.’ ‘Morality’, ‘values’ and ‘norms’ do not imply a moral dimension distinct from other dimensions but characterize the construction and imposition of ‘reality’.  Adorno and Nietzsche refused complicity with that world, they rejected the prevalent norms and values  in their day on the grounds that they had come to legitimize a society that in no way corresponded to them – they had become lies. Adorno shared Nietzsche’s epistemological aim to demonstrate that the apparent fixity of the world or values arises from the systematic debasement of dynamics aspects of reality in our thinking and philosophy.

Adorno states repeatedly that society and consciousness of society have become increasingly reified. In places, he says that they have become completely reified. To say that society is ‘completely reified’ is to say that the domination of the exchange process has increased to the point where it controls institutions, behavior and class formation in such a way that it prevents the formation of any independent and critical consciousness. To say that consciousness is ‘completely reified’ is to say that it is capable only of knowing the appearance of society, of describing institutions and behavior as if their current mode of functioning were an inherent and invariant characteristic or property, as if they, as objects, ‘fulfill their concepts.’ [It is to believe, for example, that global markets  actually reflect the concept of ‘free’ when they are actually circumscribed by innumerable restrictions in the form of tariffs, subsidies and tax haven; that markets are competitive when the laws and institutions of State, modes of production and social relations serve more and more to reduce competition; that the individual is autonomous when]  the increased fragmentation of the division of labor has not only continued to make men into parts of  the machinery of capitalism but has induced them to become tools to themselves, to recognize and treat themselves as means rather than ends.  This leads to a situation in late capitalist society in which there is too little organization where organization should be necessary, in forming the material conditions of material life and the relations between men depending on them, and too much organization in the private sphere in which consciousness itself is formed. Complexity in the private sphere does not reflect autonomy but, confusion and uncertainty

  To say that consciousness of society is completely reified, however, implies that no critical consciousness or theory is possible. It is to say that the underlying processes of society are completely hidden and that the utopian possibilities within it are inconceivable. The mind is impotent; the object is inaccessible. The thesis of complete reification is therefore unstatable because if it were true it could not be known.  Adorno employed strategies to avoid such a paradox. He affirms that there must always be a possibility of what he calls non-identity or critical thought, however latent it may be in certain times and circumstances. Adorno’s account of reification and of identity thinking [ that is the composing of false equivalencies between the objects of consciousness or , conversely, contriving differences where none exist]  explain how the mind works on the meaning of received concepts without implying that it devised those concepts in the first place. According to his account, society imposes concepts on us, which we re-impose on society. The systematic mis-recognition of the relation between concepts and the underlying social reality (illusion) is due to a social process, the production of value in exchange. Concepts do not match the objects to which they refer, “Meaning’ thus becomes opaque.

Adorno’s idea of a ‘Negative Dialectic’ is intended to cut across the conventional distinction between theory and practice by delineating theory as a form of intervention which combats prevalent modes of identity thinking, without in turn setting up a new identity between concepts and reality. Concepts never represent reality in a perfect or ideal sense, constellations of concepts do a better job but not in the sense of representing a totality or achieving universality.

“If thinking teachers itself that part of its meaning is what, in turn, is not thought then its prison has windows.”

Adorno’s melancholy science is not resigned, quiescent of pessimistic. It reasons that theory, just like the philosophy it was designed to replace, tends to overreach itself, with dubious political consequences. The social reality of advanced capitalist society is more intractable than such theory is willing to concede, and Adorno had a fine dialectical sense for its paradoxes. He was planning a work of moral philosophy when he died. His ‘morality’ is a praxis of thought not a recipe for social and political action.

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