This post is part of my ongoing blogging project called “Critical Theory Down to Earth.” In these posts I provide summaries of and brief reflections on writings throughout the wider critical theory landscape.
Adorno denotes non-identity as a central motif of his negative dialectics, distinguishing it from the more typical ‘positive’ dialectics epitomized in Hegel. In the positive variety, dialectics addresses rifts between seeming opposites, reconciling them into a higher or more fundamental identity. Binaries like matter and idea or being and nothingness, for example, are only binaries in an incomplete view of them. In Adorno’s negative dialectics, however, the rifts between these sorts of things are not reconciled, and instead need to be highlighted and explored in their own right.
Especially important in the present context is the binary between object and concept. When Adorno references “objects” he is not necessarily referring to material objects such as door handles, spoons, etc., although they would certainly qualify. Instead, the term has a more general use really anything we can refer to as having some sort of empirical existence for us, could be said to be an object. Sociology, for example, is an object. Adorno is an object.
In the ‘positive’ dialectics of Kant, as presented in the Critique of Pure Reason, the abstract and the concrete are mutually dependent, and mutually generative. In other words, the capacity to consciously perceive concrete objects is dependent on our use of our cognitive faculties which involve abstract concepts. Without abstract thought, concrete things would not appear to us in consciousness. One might posit that they do in fact exist ‘in-themselves,’ but once we start talking about things existing outside of human consciousness, we leave the domain where it is reasonable to claim anything about their properties – including their ‘existence’ in space and time as we know it.
Consider how scientists have recently decided that matter is made of electrical energy, deep down. The solidity we perceive is actually an illusion, based on our inability to perceive the electrical, non-concretized reality at the root of the one we experience as ‘real.’ What would a table “look” like if we could see it on the level of energy, rather than just on the level of concrete matter? The question is unanswerable, in part because we cannot informatively speak of visual perception beyond the capacities of our visual perception.
Or consider how you “know” that your hands are separate objects from the computer keypad. You perceive them immediately as separate objects. You already know that they are, so well that it is extremely difficult to imagine that your hands are actually not separate from the keypad. This is because of our capacity for abstraction. The understanding that “hand” is an independent object in intrinsic to the perceiving of the hand as an independent, material object. In a crude sense, the concept hand makes the object hand possible. And of course reciprocally, the concept “hand” could never exist without instances of the object “hand.” The concept hand not only references the object hand, it is intrinsically tied to it. The concept hand and the object hand cannot exist without one another, at least not in human consciousness – and where else are we going to look? In a very fundamental sense then, they are inseparable. This is the principle of identity.
In Adorno’s negative dialectics, the object and the concept are not reconciled. Instead, he wants to show that they cannot be entirely reduced to one another. They do not really fit together or fuse into one another. The object always includes more than the concept grants it, and the concept is always more than the object to which it ostensibly refers. While in positive dialectics, contradictions between concepts tend to be analyzed, negative dialectics specifically addresses contradictions between concepts and their associated objects.
Adorno further indicates that the tension between the concept and the object is problematic in advanced capitalism in a way that reflects – although not necessarily in a causal sense – the fact that there are problematic, immanent contradictions in society. The way in which we use concepts in approaching objects is similar to the modus operandi of the modern capitalist order: mastery. We strive to master objects with concepts just as we strive to master nature with science.
Adorno, T. W. (2014). Lectures on negative dialectics: fragments of a lecture course 1965/1966. John Wiley & Sons.
Kant, I. (1998 ). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.
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