I read Negative Dialectics last year and just finished rereading it today. I thought it would greet me like an old friend, the it’s been too long kind of old friend, who inspires you to pick up the phone and solicit a noonday stroll and a chat about old times - until shortly after shaking hands you realize you and said friend never walked anywhere. You argued at bars. At the expense of the people you invited along. And couldn’t get through a sentence without undressing the same old grudges and slights. You’ve been convinced by movies and shitty songs that time’s shroud is thick and gauzy and this one friend - like a shiv to the side - deflates the cushion of hot aired regard holding your memories aloft. And for that reason alone you keep said friend’s number in your phone. Well, that’s Adorno. We start arguing with each other from the first page. So. Time for some old-fashioned name calling.
Here are the facts: Adorno behaves like a bully-pulpit irrationalist. He investigates concepts I’ve never adequately intellectualized because of their inherent rationality, and wonders aloud if I’m even capable of such investigations.
First time through, he bear-baited me into believing how unfathomable a concept like “unfreedom” could be; I am, after all, a paragon of privilege, a fully literate asshole striving to understand a concept like “cruelty,” while probably drinking tea and eating biscuits. There’s no way in hell I could understand “freedom,” because I have a falsely-conceived notion of what “unfreedom” is. And where did I get it? From Adorno. He brought it up. It’s like he knew I read philosophy and was incapable of understanding suffering in the way he would prefer I understand it, because in his mind, the one person above all others incapable of understanding suffering would be someone who… reads philosophy.
In my second pass I came to the book for a dialogue (fistfight). I have never been a reader who believes he is inferior to the text he holds. Adorno may be a much more intelligent man than I am, but he has only his text through which to speak. And call it stubbornness, call it delusion - but the text functions in part because of my participation, not in spite of it. So long as I bring to the text my desire to take from it, my focus entirely on the words in front of me - no preoccupations, no distractions - I’ll be ok. Theory is theory, gibberish is gibberish. But with Negative Dialectics, your desire to take from the text is what Adorno uses against you. Hell, it’s practically his thesis. If it is (I mean, it isn’t, but let’s just pretend it is…) what you’re left with is an elaborate joke. And the setup to the joke is… all your previous readings in philosophy.
This all sounds so fucking convoluted, but the version that played out in my mind’s prose was several pages longer. So much of Negative Dialectics requires an acceptance that what one believes is a theory fostered within is really a reaction to the repressions that submitting to a theory can engender. No man wants to accept, or live beneath, another’s theory. And so according to Adorno, when we seek to toss off the chains of civilization, we do so in accord with a fallacy established by the dialectic method: that a concept replaces its negation (freedom replaces unfreedom, etc), or as Spinoza says, more accurately, “All determination is negation.” Adorno reminds us that we cast off one freedom for another, uncertain in the end if the freedom we move toward will make us more free. In order to denounce the society that constricts us, we have to denounce the categories we use to denounce society. And not once is it brought up that maybe one of those categories is Adorno’s fucking book - not once does he say, “Dialectical materialism is one more cog in the goddamned machine.”
I enjoyed the book, don’t get me wrong. I just think that the same kind of reactionary behavior that causes dogmatic televangelists to cheat on their wives is starting to seep into my reading habits. I’m patently afraid that all this Adorno is going to throw me into the arms of a Twilight novel.