Stefan Breuer, Adorno’s Anthropology

Anniversary commemorations are ambivalent events, particularly when they celebrate philosophers. Such commemorations focus on a life’s work and occasionally contribute to its elucidation. However, they frequently do violence to those they intend to honor, by emphasizing primarily those aspects of a thinker’s work which make him acceptable to the spirit of the age. And such was the fate of Theodor Adorno, whose eightieth birthday was observed in 1983 at a major conference, held in Frankfurt, West Germany. There his interpreters, embarked on the task of rediscovering, brought out important aspects and opened up new perspectives. But the heart of Adorno’s work, the negative dialectic, encountered outright resistance. The celebration acknowledged the theoretician of ‘non-violent communication’ (Wellmer) and of ‘relations of universal understanding’ (Bruckhorst), not the analyst of late capitalist society and its blinding mechanisms. One could even hear that: “The negative dialectic as an ‘ontology of the false condition’ cannot be salvaged.”1

Given this reception, it is necessary to recall that the incriminated ‘ontology of the false condition’2 was not merely arrived at by a simple transposition of certain topoi from the critique of idealism into social theory. Adorno’s negative ontology and its centerpiece — the ‘negative anthropology’3 — are not the result of some arbitrary initial determinations. Rather, they are the outcome of a continual movement of thought between the central theorems of dialectical social theory (as developed by Hegel and Marx) and the empirical reality of late capitalist social structuration, which Adorno both as social psychologist and as a sociologist of music examined time and again during the course of his life.

Thus, the negative anthropology is not a peripheral element which can be excised from Adorno’s oeuvre without serious consequences. Indeed, it is far more correctly seen as the organizing focus of his work — that component which organizes the various parts, and which must be viewed as Adorno’s essential contribution to dialectical social theory.

A central feature of dialectical anthropology is the complete absence of a first nature. In contrast to those anthropologists who study primitive societies, Adorno devotes no time to the task with which such anthropologists usually begin, i.e., the description of the natural environment. True, advanced capitalist society remains ‘naturverfallen’ — both a repression and therefore a continuation of nature (in a Freudian sense) — but only as the result of a development which presupposes a rupture between society and first nature. Modern society, at any rate, has subjugated and domesticated first nature to such a degree that theory may disregard it.4

Rather than following the approach of classical anthropology, Adorno (following Levi-Strauss) turns immediately to the analysis of the ‘structures elementaires’ which determine the distribution of individuals in society, their relations and customs, rules and institutions. Corresponding to the conditions of a highly industrialized order, however, Adorno located these elementary structures not (as does Levi-Strauss) in kinship relations, but in the commodity form. According to the Marxian analysis, capitalist society is above all a society of commodity producers, who produce their goods in isolation from one another, and first experience their social relation in the marketplace. There, however, their products do not appear as what they immediately are: manifestations of concrete, useful, and private labor. Instead, they appear in a mediated form: crystallizations of an abstract social structure which constitutes itself behind the backs of the producers, of abstract social labor, which appears in the form of exchange value and whose measure is money. The fundamental fact of modern society is exchange and thus abstraction. “Objective abstraction takes place first in the universal performance of exchange, not in scientific reflection; here originates the disregard for the qualitative specificity of producers and consumers, for the mode of production, even for the needs which the social mechanism satisfies as it were in passing, as a secondary consideration. The primary consideration is profit.”5

While classical Marxist theory up to and including Lukäcs tended to see in exchange abstraction and its social realization (reification) a mere appearance which, from the standpoint of production (the ‘standpoint of the proletariat’) could at any moment be seen through and shattered, Adorno goes one step further. The abstract universality of the value relation is admittedly a mere idea, an ‘appearance’ or ‘illusion’, with respect to production or use value. “At the same time, however, that illusion is the most real thing of all, the magic formula that has bewitched the world.’6 As such, Adorno radicalizes Marx’s notion that the social mediation of labor products which is achieved via the category of value does not remain extrinsic to these products but infiltrates into the organization of production itself during the progressive development of capitalism. While production in pre and even early-bourgeois society was based on the dominance of use value as the “system-transcending value concept,” advanced capitalist society is characterized by the “totalitarian tendencies of the social order”* which, for Adorno, meant less a political process than the totalization of social structuration via the category of value. In the thoroughly-capitalized society, use value is “replaced by pure exchange value, which precisely as exchange value deceptively takes over the function of use value”9 Use value forfeits its last ‘organic’ immediacy. Indeed, it dies off, as Adorno put it as early as 1935 in a letter to Benjamin. The forces and relations of production enter into a new synthesis, in which the moment of mediation is clearly determined by the latter. The structural differences between production, circulation, and consumption, which in the early bourgeois period denoted distinct spheres within the social whole (which was only outwardly bound together by the money form, while in truth being determined by production), become obsolete. “Material production, distribution, and consumption are jointly administered. Their boundaries (which once truly separated the spheres from one another, despite their mutual dependency within the total process, and thus respected their qualitative differences), dissolve. All becomes one.”10

Adomo sees the prerequisite for the possibility of this unification in modern science, which he understands (with Weber and Lukäcs) as formal, instrumental rationality. Although he vacillates in the derivation of this rationality, Adomo portrays quite clearly the inner relation between its modern form (for which the contents of knowledge are insignificant, while the transcendental categories count for everything) and bourgeois social structuration. The abstractness of formal rationality, its logical absolutism (as Adorno argues, for example, against Husserl) points back to the commodity form, thereby however pointing to the abstractness of the functions which, under bourgeois conditions of production, mediate the formation of the social synthesis.11 This abstract rationality, which has its innermost principle in linear, uniform, and homogeneous time 12 becomes socially relevant first in the production process which, with the transition from the artisan-manufacturing to the machine-industrial mode of production is ‘rationalized,’ i.e., standardized and schematized. From there it reaches out into the areas of politics and administration, family and education, art and culture, thus apprehending individuals even in those areas where they are not directly subjugated to the imperatives of technical production and ‘production-time.’13 “The technical labor process has spread from the decisive sector, the industrial, into every aspect of life. Research has yet to sufficiently uncover the stages of mediation by which this has occurred. The technical labor process forms the subjects who serve it, and occasionally one is tempted to say that it quite literally produces them.”14

With this, the task of a dialectical anthropology is set. Its point of departure is the assumption that the fundamental principle of the industrial-capitalist mode of production, ‘schematism,’15 spreads into the other spheres of society and, in the process, unifies them, although ofcoursc one must still take into account the inherent laws of these spheres. That ‘all becomes one’ in the thoroughly capitalized society does not mean that labor is the same as free time or that the family is the same administration; it means that they share a common organizational principle, an analogous encoding, which structures each of the various spheres. The task of a dialectical anthropology is to examine the effects of this process on its original subjects, the social individuals, who are “not merely the biological substrate, but simultaneously the reflection form of the social process.”16 What does it mean for individuals when that which critical theory once regarded as ‘appearance,’ mere surface phenomena, ideology, passes into “the very structure of the crowding and jostling atoms, so to speak into the anthropology itself”?17 How is this reflection achieved, this turning of the social process back onto individuals? And can one even speak of an anthropology any longer in the proper sense of the word, when this process is defined by its abstraction from all that is genuinely human?

An answer to these questions requires first a brief review of the conception of the individual on which Adorno’s reflections are based. For this it is not necessary to go back to the highly speculative and justifiably criticized comments (found, e.g., in the Dialectic of Enlightenment) on the ur-history of western bourgeois subjectivity. True, Adorno always retained the historical-philosophical conception of a ‘logic of disintegration’ which was developed in that work as well as in other, even earlier, texts. At the same time, however, he based himself in his concrete analyses so strongly on Marx’s social theory that one may safely disregard the ur-historical argumentation with respect to the structure of advanced capitalist society.18 In his essay on ‘Individual and Organization,’ for example, he defines the individual as a genuinely modem achievement, not to be dated much earlier than the 16th century, or at most from the early Italian Renaissance.19 Even in Dialectic of Enlightenment, where the genesis of the bourgeois subject is traced back to the Odyssey, one finds a clear formulation of the insight that individuality and capitalist competition belong together. The individual emerged as the ‘power-cell’ of economic activity: “Emancipated from the tutelage characteristic of earlier economic stages, the individual now looks out for himself alone: as proletarian, by hiring himself out on the labor market and through continual adaptation to new technical conditions; as entrepreneur, by the untiring embodiment of the ideal-type homo oeconomicus.”20

According to Adorno, the individuality brought forth by competition and the market economy is distinguished by its double character. On the one hand, individuality rests upon affect control and suppression of instincts, upon the denial and repression of the natural dimension for the purpose of self-preservation: the introversion of sacrifice. On the other hand, however, it is precisely this which makes ‘civilization’ (understood as the free interplay of subjects) possible in the first place. The individual develops anthropological qualities such as foresight and self-responsibility, autonomy and spontaneity. He acquires a certain continuity of consciousness which organizes itself on the basis of a concrete-qualitative sense of time and its manifestations: subjective recollection, experience, and memory. And he achieves a balance — precarious though it may be — between the demands of the instinctual economy and the requirements of reality.21 Adorno would undoubtedly have agreed with Norbert Elias (whose important investigations into the process of civilization were apparently unknown to him) that modern society rests on the transformation of external compulsion into internal compulsion, and the concomitant possibility of greater differentiation and civility.

But this remains only a possibility. For the same structure which gives rise to the bourgeois individual — the process of social structuration via the category of value — also brings about, according to Adorno, his abolition. The first to suffer this are the workers who, under the compulsion of the profit principle, are granted only limited chances for the development of a differentiated individuality. The “dehumanization brought about by the capitalist production process”22 not only denies them all pre-conditions for (bourgeois) Bildung,’ it simultaneously destroys the possibilities for individuation which were inherent to traditional production processes (even if only in rudimentary form), devaluing productive experience and rendering it superfluous. Concrete and individual time, in which the mediation between the working subject and the natural material took place, disappears from the rationalized labor process. It is replaced by abstract linear production-time, which runs in “identical and stroke-like, potentially simultaneous cycles,” and which has no more need of qualitative, acquired experience.23 The “quantification of the technical processes,” their “dissection into the most minute operations, largely independent of Bildung and experience”24 lets the worker be ever further removed from the final product. Moreover, “the individual labor processes come to approximate one another more and more in their disqualification”25 so that individuals increasingly regard themselves as interchangeable, as disqualified and virtually superfluous particles. If one further recognizes that, with the progressive incorporation of science and technology into the production process, the share of living labor in this process “sinks tendentially to a minimum,”26 it becomes clear why Critical Theory can no longer consider political economy as anything but a melancholy science.

However, it is not only the workers who suffer under the destructive effects of the modern rationalization process. The “universal reduction of all specific energy to this single, uniform, abstract form of labor” extends “from the battlefield to the studio” and befalls not only the subjects of production, but those of circulation and consumption as well.27 Everywhere, individuals see themselves “at the mercy of the course of abstract, mechanical time,”28 consciousness of a temporal continuum, around whichindividuality had been organized, disintegrates into “discontinuous, shocklike moments” and surrenders the individual to the present instant, to whatever situation he immediately happens to be in. Continuous, methodical action is replaced everywhere by “unresisting and zealous conformity,”29 the unified and stable ego by psychic discontinuity and incoherence.30 The subjectively varied modes of experiencing are leveled out and neutralized, since industry strips the subject of the task of synthesis, of the mediation between reality’s concrete diversity and rational categoriality.31 Concepts such as autonomy, spontaneity, criticism are dismissed, and the achievements connected with these concepts are substituted through the ‘schema of mass culture,’ “which captures even the last internal impulses of its compulsory consumers.”32 The end of the principium individuationis, the “abolition of the individual”33 proclaims itself.

Adorno captures the psychodynamic aspects of this development with the theorem of the increasing organic composition of man. This theorem alludes to the Marxian law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit, according to which capitalist competition leads to a constant revolutionizing of production techniques and to an increase of constant capital, while in contrast to this the share of capital which is engaged for living labor decreases. Although Adorno remained quite skeptical about the theory of economic collapse connected with this law,34 he carried the basic idea over into anthropology. This change in the technical composition of capital, writes Adorno in Minima Moralia, continues within those who are enmeshed in (and actually first constituted by) the technological structure of the production process. Here, too, the proportion of living and dead components shifts in favor of the latter. While Lukäcs argues that the reification process cannot ultimately transform the human-spiritual essence of the worker into a commodity,35 Adorno responds that advanced capitalist society is long past the stage where it is a matter of the mere sale of the living: “Only inasmuch as that process, which began with the transformation of labor power into a commodity, thoroughly permeates individuals (a priori objectifying all their impulses and simultaneously making them commensurable as variants of the exchange relation) does it become possible for life to reproduce itself under the dominant relations of production. Its complete organization requires the coordination of the quasi-dead.”36 The increasing organic composition of man strikes above all that agency which in early bourgeois society had to establish the equilibrium between the demands of the individual’s instinctual economy and the dictates of real self-preservation: the ego. Its position becomes precarious. On the one hand, even advanced capitalist society demands from the individual an abundance of adaptation and balancing achievements which are necessary for the social survival of the individual. On the other hand, the same social order makes these ego accomplishments tendentially superfluous: in the world of machines and mega-organizations neither moral decision nor reflection are needed, neither the internalization of social norms nor (lie resolution of one’s own instinctual conflicts. Instead, the “prompt, immediate identification with stereotyped scales of value” is demanded and quick, quasi-reflexive reactions.37 The predominant social character is thus a “subjectless subject,” which engages in “self-preservation without a self,”38 and is characterized by a “scattered, disconnected, interchangeable and ephemeral state of ‘informedness’ which one can see will be erased the very next moment to be replaced by new information.”39 This demolition process is summarized in the familiar aphorism which is fully misunderstood if interpreted as an arrogant assertion of Adorno’s own superiority: “For many individuals it is already an outrage when they use the word I.’”40

At this point it is necessary to pause and cast a glance at the limits to which, despite everything, the totalization of the abstract, of system rationality, is subjected. In response to the recently-raised objection that Adorno did not distinguish clearly enough between system rationalization and its institutionalization in the ‘life-world,’ thus underestimating the internal contradictions inherent to this process,41 it should be pointed out that Adorno was quite aware of such limits and contradictions. For instance, in the somatic, physical moments, which express themselves in suffering from abstraction and reification;42 in the material, non-intentional, and noncognitive, which are inseparably bound to the physical existence of man;43 in the necessity of familial socialization, which always implies the possible development of a ‘deviant’ individuality, one not completely subjected to social control; and in the unquenchable need for happiness, immediacy, love for non-repressive social relations, freedom from anxiety and pain, for reconciliation with nature.44 Although the living, under the compulsion of the exchange principle, must make themselves into things, this can never happen completely, so long as the system is dependent on living producers and consumers. There remains an “incompatibility between the system and the individuals of whom it is composed,”45 an irresolvable contradiction between individuals and the universal, which results from the fact that “the overpowering social processes and institutions still emerged from human ones,” and that society, “even in its questionable form, remains the paragon for producing and reproducing human life.”46 Adomo persistently refused to draw from these considerations any conclusions for a positive anthropology which would identify in the existing society the germinating cells of a future non-antagonistic society. However, such considerations were on occasion the basis for hopes which stand in strange contrast to Adorno’s insight into the abstractness of the value-structuration of society and point to an undissolved romantic-lebensphilosophical residue in Critical Theory: “The rigidity which the spirit mirrors is no natural fated power to which one must humbly bow. It was made by men, it is the final result of an historical process in which men made men into appendages of an opaque machinery. To see through this machinery, to know that the appearance of the inhuman conceals human relations, and to gain control of these relations themselves are stages in a counter-process, a healing process. When social basis for this rigidity is truly exposed as appearance, then the rigidity itself may disappear. The spirit shall return to life in that moment when it no longer hardens itself in isolation but instead resists the hardness of the world.”47 If any objection can be made against the negative dialectic, then it must be that, at times, this dialectic is not negative enough.

However, such utopias, which aspire towards a resurrection of the buried human being, towards a reanimation of the petrified, are fortunately a peripheral element in Adorno’s oeuvre. Of far greater comparative significance are the theorems which point out the system-functionality of even those moments which appear not to belong to the system. In contrast to Bloch, for example, who in the pre-fascist period developed his thesis of the ‘non-synchronicity’ of the capitalist order and believed it possible to mobilize the irrational, archaic-mythic moments for progressive and utopian ends,48 Adorno stresses from the start the ideological function of these non-synchronous moments. The rationalization process, he argues, fails to remove the irrational moments and institutions only because it needs them as putty, or, to change the metaphor, as a veil to mask the irrational principle of social organization. Simultaneously, however, this process neutralizes these moments, amalgamates itself with them, or shunts them off onto sidetracks where they will not disturb the workings of the overall mechanism.49 In this form the functionless is transformed into “function in the second degree”;50 it lends to a society which has long since become inhuman the deceptive appearance of humanity and vitality, thereby contributing to the society’s continued existence. That the individual is altogether liquidated is, according to Adorno, “still too optimistically conceived.. . . The disaster takes place not as the radical extermination of that which was: rather, what has been condemned by history is dragged along dead, neutralized, and powerless, and ignominiously pulled down. In the midst of the standardized and administered human units, the individual wastes away.”51

Besides this rather traditional ideology-critical theorem, which focuses on the masking and integrative functions of the non-synchronous, Adorno develops a second, more radical line of argumentation which reveals even the non-synchronous to be mere appearance, to be an effect of rationalization itself. According to this argument, the social structuration process does not exhaust itself in the domination of the exchange abstraction over production, which occurs as extension of the living and dead machinery on the one hand, as a repression and marginalization of the non-exploitable moments on the other. The repressed marginalized does not remain outside of the social mediation, but instead enters into a cycle in the course of which the “sisyphean labor of the individual instinctual economy. . . is ‘socialized’ and directed by the institutions of the culture industry.”52 The growing organic composition of man thus signifies not merely an extension of specialized technical capabilities, but encompasses also their counterpart, “the moments of the ‘natural which of course themselves were generated by the social dialectic and now fall victim to it.”53 According to Adorno, precisely the unstructured within individuals must be regarded as a “product of the social form,” as a “response to advanced industrial mechanization,”54 and not, as the contemporary ideologies of immediacy would have it, as the return of repressed spontaneity. “What a certain obdurate innocence enthusiastically views as forest primeval is fabricated commodity through and through, even where, as a ‘limited offer,’ spontaneity is put out as a special product.”55

This mediation, which simultaneously disguises itself as immediacy, is made possible by a mechanism which Adorno characterizes as ‘substitution.’56 This term refers first of all to the circumstances that in advanced capitalist society the affects and wishes are increasingly transferred from the use value of commodities to their exchange value, from the concretely useful aspect of a product to its prestige and status value. What gets consumed, particularly in the realm of the culture industry, are pure fetishes whose specific qualities are not even consciously registered by the consumers.57 This shift, however, is accompanied by a shift in the affect structure itself. “The substitutes fulfill their purpose so well because the desires against which they are measured have themselves already been substituted.”58 Desire is no longer desire for an object, or, in psychoanalytic terms, no longer object-libido. It is desire exclusively for the confirmation and maintenance of the endangered self, which can find no footholds within social reality as a basis for achieving realization and thus is constantly thrown back upon itself. “The affective cathexis of exchange value is no mystical transubstantiation. It corresponds to the behavior of the prisoner who loves his cell because he has been left with nothing else to love.”59

This substitution expresses itself in the psychic organization of the individual as replacement of object-libido by ego-libido, as regression to priary narcissism. The ego, which is no longer able to achieve an equilibrium between libidinal needs and the demands of self-preservation, regresses under the pressure of the outside world to ego-libido, or fuses its conscious functions with its unconscious ones. This “transposition of the ego into the unconscious” transforms the ego, which was formerly characterized precisely by its conscious achievements, by the raising and conversion of psychic processes from the level of primary process (distinguished by condensation and displacement) to the level of secondary process (distinguished by the capacity for thought and judgement). Also transformed, moreover, is the id, which in the psychic structure of the bourgeois individual had represented an ‘ex-territorial’ agency, similar to the use value in classical political economy.60 The differentiated forms of object-libido, which Adomo characterizes as primary libido, are repressed by the more archaic narcissistic energies “of a (so to speak) impure libido, one directed towards the ego and«it the same time unsublimatcil and undifferentiated,” a libido in which “the self-maintenance function of the ego is (at least apparently) retained, but which is simultaneously split off from consciousness and surrendered to irrationality.”61 Psychoanalytically, this can be identified as a regression, but one which cannot be simply attributed to the individual. Instead, it is a regression which has social roots, an ‘artificial regression,’ a regeneration of the archaic “within civilization, brought about by civilization itself.”62

Admittedly, Adorno did not analyze this development in detail. But he did work out the social consequences which result from the replacement of object-libido by primary narcissism. His thesis is that this artificial regression to ego-libido fails to solve any problems, indeed quite the contrary: it only compels ever more substitutions. That the individual under existing social conditions is forced to turn his unused instinctual energies back onto himself only increases his difficulties. With the increase of narcissistic energies rise the pretensions to omnipotence and grandiosity (which develop within the unconscious out of archaic mother representations), but along with these grows the potential for narcissistic insults, which the weakened ego is incapable of mastering. To overcome the threatening split between the archaic ego-ideal (which undergoes a diffusive, cosmic expansion, striving for omnipotence) and the desolation and hopelessness of the real ego, the individual escapes into substitute formations which compensate for his real powerlessness imaginatively through self-projection. This is the root of collective narcissism: “Collective narcissism amounts to this: individuals compensate for the consciousness of their social impotence (which reaches down into their individual instinctual constellations) and at the same time for their feelings of guilt (because they fail to be and to do that which they should be and should do, were they to fulfill their own concept) by making themselves, either in reality or merely in their imaginations, into members of a higher, more comprehensive being. To this being they attribute all the qualities which they themselves lack, and from this being they receive in return something like a vicarious participation in these qualities.”63

The most striking manifestations of collective narcissism can of course be found in the great charismatic mass movements which are based on the mechanism of identification and the replacement of individual narcissism by Führer-images: nationalism and its derivative, fascism.64 In so far as individuals make the collective subject of the nation (or the Führer) into their ideal and endow it (or him) with fantastic qualities, they make real a piece of that archaic grandiose-self whose realization is denied to them in their individual existence.65 At the same time, they liberate themselves via projection from their own aggressivity, previously bound in the ego-ideal, with the unavoidable consequence that the world becomes populated with dangerous objects bent on reprisal, against whom in turn the subject must offer resistance: the flip side of the gratifications which the ‘socialized narcissism’ creates, is the persecution complex.66

According to Adorno, however, it would he a fatal error to equate the phenomenon of collective narcissism with the well-known political mass movements or to couple it with their substantive goals. Collective narcissism does not first manifest itself in certain empirical mass formations: rather, it lies deeper, in the inclination of individuals towards forms of consciousness which are simultaneously subjective and general: belief [Meinung], half-education, delusion, myth. Even the simple assertion of a subjective consciousness (which is restricted in its truth content) as unquestionably valid rests on narcissism, “that is, on the fact that individuals up to the present have been forced to turn a measure of their capacity to love not towards others but towards themselves, compelled to love in a furtive, unadmitted and thus poisonous way.”67 While this assertion may, in a particular case, be harmless, nevertheless it slides easily into forms of the ‘pathic belief,’ in which the tie between the subject and his corrective — the relation of thought to its object — is completely severed.68 In the pathic belief, experience and reflection are replaced by thinking in cliches and stereotypes, in prejudices and blind resentment. Collective narcissism celebrates its triumph in the countless forms of prejudice and superstition, of the rumors and systems of collective delusion which dominate the everyday life of the masses in advanced capitalist society: it proliferates in occultism as well as in the various sect movements, in star cults as well as in the attitude of ‘being on top of things,’ that expert manipulation of all the current buzzwords, that posturing as an authority, all of which belong to the contemporary forms of half-education. Adomo goes so far as to trace its presence even in sophisticated forms of reflection which, like transcendental philosophy with its hypostatization of creative subjectivity, only mirror “the imprisonment of the subject in itself, an imprisonment of which the subject himself remains unaware.”69 Since the narcissistic character (or, in the terminology still used in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the paranoid) “only perceives the external world to the degree that it corresponds to his blind purposes, he is only able to constantly reaffirm his self, which has been alienated to the point where it turns into an abstract obsession … His will pervades the universe, nothing is allowed to dispense with a connection to it. His systems are seamless. As astrologist he endows the stars with the power to destroy anyone who is incautious: in the preclinical stage, he means the ego of a third person, in the clinical stage, his own ego. As philosopher, he turns world history into the executrix of inescapable downfalls and catastrophes. As completely insane or absolutely rational he annihilates those bearing the mark through the individual act of terror or the well-considered strategy of genocide … He is malevolent, driven by compulsion, and as weak as his own strength. As it is said of God Almighty that he draws the creature unto himself, the satanic, fantasized omnipotence draws everything into its own impotence. This is the secret of its domination. The compulsively projecting self can project nothing but his own misery, the reason for which, although resting within him, is cut off from him in his utter absence of reflection. Thus are the products o f his false projection, the stereotyped schemata of thinking and of reality, so disastrous.”70

The interaction of the mechanisms of abstraction and substitution (which, for analytic purposes, we have discussed separately) can be illustrated by the theory of the culture industry, to which Adorno dedicated so much time. The culture industry is the typical product of a mode of production which forces the overwhelming majority of its producers into deadening, uniform-repetitive activities, and which eliminates numerous qualities that prove to be non-exploitable: fantasies and emotions, instinctual needs and dreams, wishes for non-regimented communication and physical activity. All of these banished impulses manifest themselves as mass needs, as a collective demand which is seized upon by capitalism and answered with one specific offer: the production of culture-commodities which (next to capital goods, weaponry, and means of transportation) has become one of the most important branches of industrial capitalism. In this fashion, the socially-developed realm of necessity produces its complement, the realm of free time, in which the need for distraction and release, itself brought forth by the highly rationalized and disciplined mode of production, is satisfied.

However, according to Adorno, the culture industry is not merely an effect of the abstract social structuration process. Once developed, it functions instead as component of this process and enormously magnifies the abstraction mechanism. Being an industry, it is able to fulfill the mass need for meaningful activity, spontaneity, and immediacy only with industrial means, i.e., with commodities whose production and distribution are themselves rationalized and standardized (even if, as with music, there remain traces of an artisan mode of production). The total spectrum of that which the culture industry — spanning from illustrated magazines and comic strips, through radio, TV, and movies, all the way to opera and theater, and, presently, in the form of media conglomerates, undergoing consolidation into a seamless total system71 — has to offer consists of stereotypes which are geared to the average reader, listener, or viewer, and which are designed to absorb or simulate a wide range of impulses. These stereotypes aim for a standardized reception in which it is no longer the case that each particular recipient performs the mediation between detail and the conceptual whole; rather, this mediation is schematically reproduced as an industrial prefabrication.72 The abstraction of labor, which in the scientifically restructured production process leads to a dissolution of the relation between producer and product, is duplicated in the sphere of consumption inasmuch as here, too, the now-autonomous apparatus inserts itself between subject and object: in ‘top 40’ music, for example, the composition does the hearing for the listener, since his reactions are already planned out in advance, while in film the “social agency of the camera-eye” plugs in between product and movie-goer and anticipates the sensations with which he shall watch.73

Adorno worked out the anthropological consequences of this abstraction process particularly clearly in his studies in the sociology of music and television. In music, particularly light music, the standardization of ‘hit’ production leads to the subjection of listeners to prefabricated listening models, under which everything taken in is automatically subsumed: even deviations and improvisations are immediately resolved into the “comfortable familiarity of his well-worn reaction patterns” by the schema-fixated listener. Through the technique of plugging (i.e., the constant repetition of certain songs in the various media), individuals are conditioned and grow accustomed to the repetition of the ever-identical; at the same time, such schematism promotes passivity and stultification, since productive efforts by the listener are no longer required. Television also forces this regression of consciousness, inasmuch as its pure form, prior to all content, disaccustoms viewers from the use of language. Through fixation upon an image-language (in which the images, if only because of their unremittingly rapid succession, can no longer be studied or examined, but only passively registered), the consumers are forced back to archaic modes of reception and communication, which permit neither differentiation nor a conceptual working through. Moreover, this “televisionization of free time” (M. Winn) serves to destroy the internal atmosphere of the family and further undermines the role of parents as socialization agents, thus making the maturation process more difficult for children, and reinforcing an already rampant infantilism among adults. The result of this development is a general loss of sensitivity and the capacity for reflection, a regression to a collective illiteracy, “a second, this time an acquired illiteracy, towards which the objective spirit of the age as a whole is striving.”74

Stereotyping, leveling, reduction, and repression: all these phenomena suggest that the abstraction mechanism characteristic for the workings of the culture industry be analyzed in analogy to the function of money, which, as the transcendental horizon of the commodity world, makes possible the exchangeability of diverse concrete products through reduction to their immanent measure — value. The mass media, one could argue, selects from the diversity of needs only those which allow themselves to be subordinated to the formal-organizational standards of ‘entertainment,5 while all deviating, system-transcending needs — particularly those for productive spontaneity — are omitted or forcibly dammed up.75 According to Adomo, however, such an analogy only incompletely captures the actual workings of the culture industry. In his view, the culture industry functions so well not only because it standardizes and formalizes needs, but because it simultaneously couples every abstraction with a substitution and thus itself produces, to an ever greater degree, the consumers of its own products. Its functional mode is not truly comparable to that of money, which always ‘socializes5 products in the sphere of circulation only post facto, only after conclusion of the production process, thus in the final analysis remaining external to them. Rather, it is analogous to capital, which seizes all given forms of production and consumption and transforms them according to its own needs: the fetish character, says Adorno, “has historically become the prius of that to which it should have been the posterius, according to its own concept.”76

Adorno characterizes the substitutions typical for the culture industry with the Greek prefix ‘pseudo,’ i.e., false, not genuine: pseudo-individuality, pseudo-activity, pseudo-rationality. The reason for their massive dissemination is that the culture industry, in order to dispose of its products, cannot present them in their undisguised stereotypye, since the needs they attempt to connect with are characterized by their opposition to the stereotypye and abstraction paradigmatic for the sphere of production. The culture industry escapes from this dilemma inasmuch as it does not simply suppress the deviant, the particular, the individual: instead, it draws them into its own designs. In jazz, for example, where individual spontaneity is given space for improvisation which at the same time, however, never leaves the fundamental rhythm, thus stabilizing the musical conformity; in film, where the star cult masks the rigid role distribution and the schematism of serial productions with ostensibly ‘original’ personalities; in the ‘do it yourself’ industry, where the ‘adventure of pseudo-activity’ turns consumers into discoverers of exactly those industrial products which were interested in being discovered by them. These are pseudo-forms, or, as Baudrillard calls them: simulacra, towards which needs are increasingly directing themselves, thus producing that “circle of manipulation and retroactive need,” into which “the unity of the system is ever more clearly crystallizing.”77

Nevertheless, Adorno places great emphasis on the fact that the unity of the system is not to be conceived of monolithically. True, the culture industry leads towards a complete revolutionizing of the structure of needs, so that distinctions can no longer be made between ‘true’ and ‘false’ ones. However, the satisfaction which the culture industry grants these needs is (for obvious reasons) only temporary and superficial: the next installment in the series, the next generation of products is already waiting ‘on call’ for its customers. From this situation an ambivalence develops within consumers which is capable at any moment of converting into rage and a desire for destruction. Since this response, however, is no longer filtered and guided by a rational ego, it remains blind and impotent in the face of the appeals of the culture industry which already beckons anew with different products. When individuals do break out of their passivity and rebel against the ceaseless manipulation, they fall prey to a particularly vicious form of manipulation, one which has already anticipated their revolt and draws from it the power for a new, expanded reproduction. As in the Hegelian logic of essence the ‘counterthrust’ of the immediate only serves to propel the real mediation of the essence with itself, so, in Adorno’s view, the individual with his need for immediacy and spontaneity only serves to drive forward the dialectic of abstraction and substitution on which advanced capitalist society is based. “Chaos is the function of the cosmos, le desorde avant Vordre. Chaos and system belong together, in society as well as in philosophy.”78”

Nothing is therefore more illusory than the various strategies of ‘culture revolution’ which supersede one another with wave-like regularity, criticizing the culture industry on behalf of this or that repressed moment, whose liberation promises to bring ‘emancipation,’ ‘progress’ or the like. Even the liberation of the body, of sexuality, of physical movement, on which the jazz-enthusiasts of the 30s prided themselves, was no escape from the commodity structure, but merely its recapitulation: precisely the archaic aspects of jazz, as Adomo noted in 1936, are the most commodity like: “the rigid, quasi-timeless immobility in the movement, the mask-like steretype, the union of wild agitation (as the appearance of dynamism) and the inexorability of the authority which dominates such agitation.”79 And it has been the same story with all the liberation movements which have followed. The liberation of genitality did not result in the liberation of sexuality but in its neutralization and desexualization, in the replacement of pleasure by immature and surrogate pleasure.80 Liberation from the family destroyed not only the most effective agent of bourgeois socialization, but simultaneously a precondition for individuality and therefore resistance.81 Liberation from bourgeois convention not only swept away the inhibitions and repressions which went with it, but simultaneously lifted the inhibition against brutality and violence, which now could be let loose unchecked, whether in concentration camps or on city streets. Even the seeming revolutions of the youth movements in the 20s and 60s ended in a pseudo-activity which at times bore delusionary features and finally ran aground in subcultures no less conformist in their own way than the conformity of mass culture. “Under the spell, even that which is different and of the merest ad-mixture of which should be incompatible with the maintenance of the spell, is transformed into poison.”82 The true misery of capitalist society, so must one summarize Adorno’s reflections, consists not so much in the fact that there is so little resistance, as in the fact that what there is takes the form of pseudo-activity and thus makes the blinding mechanisms even more impenetrable. Marx was right when he compared progress with that hideous Indian idol who would drink nectar only from the skulls of sacrificial victims.83

The preceding considerations may have made clear why the negative position Critical Theory originally took regarding anthropology should not be accepted as final. While Lukäcs in 1923 still saw the great danger of every anthropological viewpoint in the tendency to rigidify man into an object and thereby allow both dialectic and history to be brushed aside,84 Adorno makes clear that the developmental dynamic of bourgeois society gives this viewpoint renewed relevance. If the dialectic merely leads to the self-annihilation of this society and history ends in posthistoiry, anthropology becomes justified once again. True, not in the sense of that simple “turn to nature” or “turn to the lifeworld” by which (according to Marquard) modern philosophical anthropology is constituted,85 for such a turn suppresses the historical-social mediateness of precisely those phenomena on which anthropology focuses. Justified, however, in the sense of a “turn to second nature” which describes human beings and their relations as purifications, as sedimentations of the now completely autonomous structure in which they are trapped. Anthropology is only possible today if it becomes dialectical. But in becoming dialectical, it is simultaneously rendered a paradox: an anthropology without anthropos.

Acknowledgements: Originally published in Leviethan, vol. 12, no. 3 (1984); pp. 336-353. Translated by John Blazek.


1 Herbert Schnädelbach, “Dialektik als Vemunftkritik. Zur Rekonstruktion des Rationalen bei Adorno,” in Ludwig von Friedeburg and Jürgen Habermas eds., Adorno-Konferenz 1983 (Frankfurt, 1983), p. 89. For a critque of the discussion of Adorno at that conference see also Helmut König, “Adorno in Wissenschafts-betrieb. Die Adorno-Konferenz in Frankfurt in September 1983,” in Leviethan, vol. 12, n. 4 (1984), pp. 600-608.

2 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik, in Gesammelte Schriften ed. by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedeman, (Frankfurt, 1970), vol. 6, p. 22. (Hereafter referred to as Negative Dialektik).

3 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, in Gesammelte Schriften, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 188. (Hereafter referred to as Minima Moralia).

4 In this rupture is rooted Adorno’s rejection of naive anthropology ä la Scheler, Plessner or Gehlen. See Negative Dialektik, p. 130. Despite this rejection, Adorno did not deny himself the use of the concept of anthropology for his own purposes. See Minima Moralia, pp. 28, 176, 261f, 280.

5 Theodor W. Adorno, Soziologische Schriften, vol. 1, now in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 8, op. cit., p. 13. (Hereafter referred to as Soziologische Schriften).

6 Soziologische Schriften, p. 209.

7 Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophische Terminologie (Frankfurt, 1974), vol. 2, p. 269. (Hereafter referred to as Philosophische Terminologie).

8 Soziologische Schriften, p. 16.

9 Theodor W. Adorno, Dissonanzen; Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie, in Gesammelte Schriften, op. cit., vol. 14, p. 25. (Hereafter referred to as Dissonanzen); and Aesthetik Theorie, in Gesammelte Schriften, op. cit., vol. 7, p. 32f. (Hereafter referred to as Aesthetik Theorie).

10 Soziologische Schriften, p. 369.

11 Theodor W. Adorno, Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie, in Gesammelte Schriften, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 76. (Hereafter referred to as Metakritik). See also Negative Dialektik, p. 180; and Vorlesung zur Einleitung in die Erkenntnistheorie (Frankfurt, 1957-58), p. 266. (Hereafter referred to as Vorlesung).

12 l’orhwttnx* P- 31411.

13 Soziologische Schriften* p. 361.

14 Ibid., p. 450.

15 Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung, in Gesammelte Schriften vol. 3, op. eit., p. 144fT. (Hereafter referred to as Dialektik der Aufklärung).

16 Minima Moralia, p. 259.

17 Ibid., p. 28.

18 Concerning the unmediated simultaneous existence of these two lines of argument, see Joseph E. Schmucker, Adorno — Logik des Zerfalls (Stuttgardt-Bad Cannstatt, 1977), p. 75 and p. 107. For a critique of the historical-philosophical line, see Jürgen Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, (Frankfurt, 1981), vol. 1, p. 506f. Habermas, however, takes into account only this side of Adorno’s thinking.

19 Sozologische Schriften, p. 450.

20 Dialektik der Aufklärung, p. 229; and Minima Moralia, p. 167.

21 Sozologische Schriften, p. 70f, 138 and 450.

22 Ibid., p. 99.

23 Philosophische Terminologie, vo. II, p. 270; and Soziologische Schriften, p. 230.

24 Minima Moralia, p. 218.

25 Soziologische Schriften, p. 389.

26 Ibid., p. 359 and p. 236.

27 Dialektik der Aufklärung, p. 233.

28 Dissonanzen, p. 228.

29 Dialektik der Aufklärung, p. 230.

30 Soziologische Schriften, p. 189.

31 Dialektik der Aufklärung, p. 145.

32 Ibid., p. 229; and Soziologische Schriften, p. 138.

33 Dialektik der Aufklärung, p. 177.

34 Soziologische Schriften, p. 320 and p. 355.

35 Georg Lukäcs, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (Neuwied-Berlin, 1968), p. 356.

36 Minima Moralia, p. 260.

37 Dialektik der Aufklärung, p. 224; and Minima Moralia, p. 262.

38 Soziologische Schriften, p. 68.

39 Ibid., p. 115.

40 Minima Moralia, p. 55.

41 Christoph Deutschmann, “Naturbeherrschung und Arbeitsgesellschaft,” in Friedeburg/Habermas, op. cit., p. 335.

42 Negative Dialektik, p. 203.

43 Philosophische Terminologie, vol. II, p. 177.

44 Negative Dialektik, p. 261, 281 and 371. See also Theodor W. Adomo, Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 10, op. cit., p. 686ff. (Hereafter referred to as Kulturkritik).

45 Soziologische Schriften, p. 49.

46 Ibid., p. 17; Aesthetische Theorie, p. 335; and Kulturkritik, vol. II, p. 632.

47 Theodor W. Adomo, Kritik Kleine Schriften zur Gesellschaft (Frankfurt, 1971), p. 33. (Hereafter referred to as Kritik).

48 Ernst Bloch, Erbschaft dieser Zeit (Frankfurt, 1973), p. 6Iff.

49 Dissonanzen, p. 333.

50 Ibid., p. 221.

51 Minima Moralia, p. 151.

52 Kulturkritik, vol. II, p. 508.

53 Minima Moralia, p. 2(>0. 54 Ibid., p. 205; und Kulturkritik, vol. I, p. N5. 55 Kulturkritik, vol. 1, p. 126. 56 Dissonanzen, p. 25. 57 //>/

62 Kritik, p. 63 and p. 42. With these reflections on the role of narcissism, which are already found in the theory of “pathic projections” in Dialectic o f Enlightenment, and explicitly brought forth for the first time in the essay “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (now in Soziologische Schriften, pp. 408-433). Adorno anticiapted the debate over the “narcistic personality” and the “new sozialization type” which was touched off in the early 1970s largely by the works of Kohut. See Heinz Kohut, Narzissmus. Eine Theorie der psychoanalytischen Behandlung narzisstischer Persönlichkeitsstörungen (Frankfurt, 1973); Thomas Ziehe, Pubertät und Narzissmus (Frankfurt-Köln, 1975); Christopher Lasch, The Culture o f Narcissism (New York, 1979); Die Neuen Narzissismus-theorien: Zurück ins Paradies? Ed. by Psychoanalytisches Seminar Zürich (Frankfurt, 1981); etc.

63 Soziologische Schriften, p. 114. See also Kulturkritik, vol. II, pp. 563, 580, and 589.

64 Kulturkritik, vol. II, p. 563ff, p. 588, p. 675, pp. 69Iff. See also Dissonanzen, pp. 359ff. 65 Kritik, p. 48.

66 Kulturkritik, vol. II, pp. 566 and 590. See also Dialektik der Aufklärung, p. 217ff.

67 Kulturkritik, vol. II, p. 576.

68 Ibid., p. 574ff.

69 Ibid., p. 749.

70 Dialektik der Aufklärung, pp. 215ff

71 Kulturkritik, vol. II, p. 508. See also Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung, (Frankfurt, 1972) pp. 232ff.

72 Dissonanzen, pp. 205ff.

73 Ibid., p. 208. Cf. also Theodor W. Adorno (with the assistance of G. Simpson) “On Popular Music,” in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, vol. 9, pp. 17-48.

74 Dissonanzen, p. 326. On light music, see ibid., pp. 34ff and p. 208f. On television, see Kulturkritik, p. 51 Off. Anders developed a similar argument at about the same time. See Günther Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (München, 1956), pp. 97ff. See also Marie Winn, Die Droge im Wohnzimmer (Reinbek, 1979), and Ulrich Oevermann, “Zur Sache. DieBedeutung von Adornos methodologischem Selbstverständnis für die Begründung einer materialen soziologischen Strukturanalyse,” in Friedeburg and Habermas, op. cit., pp. 234-289.

75 Prokop has developed this aspect of Adorno’s theory thus, not accidentally, bringing Critical Theory close to the structural-functional theory of generalized communication media. See Dieter Prokop, Massenkultur und Spontaneität. Zur Veränderten Warenform der Massenkommunikation im Spätkapitalismus, (Frankfurt, 1974).

76 Kulturkritik, vol. II, p. 745.

77 Dialektik der Aufkldnwg, p. 142. On llic pscudo loiiiis, sir Adorno, “On Popukir M usik,M op. (•//., p. 2411′: Dialektik der Aufklärung, p. 177; Mininut Moralia, p. 156; Negative Dialektik, p. 341; Soziologische Schriften, p. 148; Kulturkritik, vol. I, p. 79 and p. 129; vol. II, p. 652, p. 760, pp. 771 il‘, pp. 796IT; Dissonanzen, p. 30, p. 41, clc.

78 Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 12, op. cit., p. 50. Here, Adorno distinguishes himself from Marcuse’s rather monolithic concept of the one-dimensional society. His theory of pseudo-forms as a kind of system-generated negativity comes very close to the concept of “artificial negativity.” See Paul Piccone, “The Crisis of One-Dimensionality,” in Telos, n. 35 (Spring 1978), pp. 43-54.

79 Theodor W. Adomo, “Über Jazz,” in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, vol. 5 (1936), p. 243.

80 Kulturkritik, vol. II, p. 535.

81 Minima Moralia, p. 23.

82 Negative Dialiktik, p. 340.

83 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke, vol. 9 (Berlin, DDR, 2972), p. 226. 84 Lukäcs, op. cit., p. 373. 85 Odo Marguard, Schwierigkeiten mit der Geschichtsphilosophie, (Frankfurt, 1973), p. 125.






About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
This entry was posted in Adorno and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s