Reading Adorno: “Resignation”

I suspect this will be the last blog post specifically following our reading of Adorno for a little while.  After reading the essay ‘Resignation’  I discovered that Adorno wrote this piece towards the twilight of his life, and it was his final publication . For me, this has a powerful resonance for a variety of reasons. It sounds like the writing of a man who has seen a lot in his life: the fall of Marxism’s theoretical worth; the rise and fall of Nationalist Socialism and the implosion of expressionism and the early 20thC avant-garde, in a way you could say there is a correlation between all of those three things. Marxism and the avant-garde became perverted by ideology through its idealist advocates. Idealism of political ideology is the enemy of Adorno’s last essay.

One of the themes I’ve had throughout my reading of Herr Adorno’s essays is this: if we are to accept Adorno’s cultural vision of the world as an oppressive mechanism of capitalism to promote the status quo, where is the oppurtunity for change, and what are the grounds of its possibility? A related criticism of Adorno is this: in his perspective on culture and his use of a Marxist framework, where is the potential for radical change and challenge against the status quo?

A critique of ‘absolutised’ praxis

I think the one thing that I found amusing is how Adorno refers to ‘the eleventh thesis’ (my personal ideosyncracy) as ..Feuerbach’s ‘eleventh thesis’. Adorno has become so tired of hearing this dictum that it has become a painful dogma of any Marxist thinker. In the essay ‘Resignation’, Adorno answers the common question that he apparently got: why is there no scope for radical reform or activism in his theoretical view of culture and society. In a sense, Adorno does not answer this but instead critiques the presumed view that praxis must accompany theory. Adorno makes the following specific points:

  1. Extreme action in the name of radical social change is a form of resignation
  2. Those who emphasis praxis so much tend to be ‘light’ on theory
  3. Those who say praxis must accompany theoria place an arbitrary limitation on thinking; a form of suppression
  4. ‘Absolutised activism’ is an activity which accepts the impossibility of the change such advocates try to promote, in that way it is a form of pseudo-activity where the only form of response to the status quo is reaction. This is basically the equivalent of someone shouting as loud as they can at poor customer service when they realise nothing will happen through this activity of shouting, but their indignant reaction is the only limited option they have, for their theoria limited minds.
  5. ‘pseudo-activity’ as Adorno calls the overly excited activism of a person who is too much praxis, not enough thought, is a form of resignation, an acceptance that by creating an immediate action to the present, they cannot resolve the disconnect between their lofty idealism of a utopian world, with the status quo. Adorno considers ‘political acts violence’, and anarchism as examples of ‘pseudo-activity’
  6. Adorno considers this form of resignation in Freudian terms: to regress one’s understanding of the world to simplistic terms and overly simplistic means of achieving a satisfactory outcome is a sign of dissatisfaction or acknowledgment of the impossibility of change. Or as Adorno puts it:

“The feeling of a new security is purchased with the sacrifice of autonomous thinking. […] According to Freud [..]whoever regresses has not achieved the goal of his drives. Objectively viewed, reformation is renunciation, even if it considers itself the opposite and innocently propagates the pleasure principle”

Adorno calls out two ironies. Firstly, that so-called critical discourses of Marxists and activists, genera, are so keen to uncritical simplifications. Secondly, Adorno would point out the irony that those who would be so eager to critique him for proposing no means of radical reform or change are themselves the people who are resigning their fate to the status quo. Their extreme political actions are an acceptance that they will achieve nothing. To paraphrase Doctor Johnson, absolutised praxis is the last resort of a scoundrel. Where is the critical thinking in the arbitrary division of labour between praxis and theoria? If we are to say it is 50/50, any reason we have would be arbitrary. If we are to take praxis in any way seriously, we have to take into account what the analysis says, or allows for political and social change. To limit theory in this way of emphasising praxis is to cease critical though. Activism becomes terrorism, both terrorism of the intellect and literal terrorism.

Let’s not sidestep this issue

Adorno is asked a question about the space for political action in his theoretical world, and does not answer it, instead sidestepping into an interesting critique at the uncritical and untheoretical aspects of people who would call themselves critical theorists. I think its interesting how Adorno dedicates an essay to one of his most important criticisms, and yet refuses to answer it! Maybe I can do a bit of archaeology here and mete out an answer to this question. To repeat the question: Why does Adorno propose no form of political action or model of change to the capitalist status quo? I think this answer would take place in the theory, or to put it in other words: there really isn’t much scope for social change.

Adorno makes the point in ‘Resignation’, that thinking, and ideas are the most powerful form of criticism. Feminists circles would perhaps call this ‘consciousness raising’, and many in such circles see this as one of the first steps in feminist activism. Adorno’s vision of the world is fundamentally pessimistic. Adorno follows an ethical philosophical pessimism of the likes of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Adorno’s pessimism has a sociological bent as well, following the likes of Max Weber’s take on the role of (instrumental) rationality taking over the industrialised world, Weber himself, I think, was influenced by Nietzsche. The reason that there is little scope for change is that capitalism subverts even that which was subversive to the status quo, that is the essence of the culture industry.

With success and a greater engagement into established channels of the means of production, we see former revolutionary bands like Judas Priest or Megadeth who capitalised on highlighting the disenchanted youth of their respective 1970s and 1980s, have become whirring tools in the capitalist machine. Their degree of social critique is still present, but within the confines of their means of production. It is fair to say that Adorno allows a theoretical possibility for social critique and by extension, social change. Adorno would also think that each new innovation that came, and that will come in the future, will provide new ways of social challenge (consider the way that social media can be used to organise protests), but these new means also provide new forms of control (consider the way social media claims more ownership on your information, advertises to you more aggressively and can be controlled by external agencies). The culture industry is clever, and will always find new ways of making money and controlling social space.



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