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.
Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories
3. “Peephole Metaphysics”
The way Adorno describes it, coming up with theories that posit foundations – like “Being” a la Hegel or Heidegger [nudge, nudge] – seems doomed to belittle us. First of all, positing any kind of primary principle or supreme force, etc. necessarily contrasts everything Other as secondary or lesser-than. Consonant with this, Nietzsche and Feuerbach are both happy to see people throw away the concept of God and instead elevate humanity to the center of the narrated world, rather than conceptually remaining as God’s lesser-than.
Imagine humanity in a closet, peering out into a room through a peephole: “Look! Out there on the other side of this wall! I can see the tiniest bit of the out-there! And me, I’m stuck in this cramped dark closet.” This is hardly a position to have reverence for – us puny humans peering out with our tiny minds in hopes of catching sight of the last thread of the coat-tails of the true reality.
Or consider Kant. In Critique of Pure Reason, he puts the shape of reality in the hands – or mind, rather – of the subject. “I give reality its shape. I bring to it the categories. I bring to it the capacity for intuition, imagination and understanding. Without my mind, ‘reality’ would be…well nobody can even say.” In this scheme, it is not the subject who bows before the immense reality beyond the closet door. The deep, objective reality of “Being” does not come first, with our experience just determined by it. In a sense, we come first and “Being” follows. Instead of the object coming prior to the subject, Kant puts the subject prior to the object, at least in terms of the object’s mode of appearance. Really there is a reciprocal determination, a mutual arising, an intrinsic co-dependence. But part of this relationship is the subject’s relation of determination over the object’s appearance.
At first glance, it may be tempting to think that humanity is thereby elevated in Kant’s system. The trouble is, humanity is elevated to a position of…of what? Dominion over nothingness? Lord of the ephemeral? Knower of one’s own constructed reality? Solipsistic story-tellers? When we degrade the object by putting it second in this way, we also degrade the subject. This is essentially Hegel’s master-slave dialectic applied to first philosophy. Is it better to be the lord of garbage or the garbage of the lord? Neither side of the equation is satisfying. Either way you are stuck in garbage-land.
When the object becomes a product of the subject, and the thing-in-itself is preserved as unreachable, Kant simultaneously moves ‘pure reason’ into a realm of total abstraction. This is pretty far from the object! So the subject’s determination of the object is in the same breath the subject’s alienation from the object. With Kant we philosophize about categories, in a very abstract way. This is reason’s power in action! Some power, eh? It doesn’t seem to be doing much for the object!
Is there a way out of garbage-land? A Hegelian second negation maybe? Do we become “Lord Garbage” and live happily ever after? Not for Adorno. Kant’s model seems closer to Adorno than Hegel’s or Heidegger’s. No, we cannot peep out of our cognitive closets are glimpse the majesty of pure Being by way of our philosophical grandiosity: “In a flicker it is there and then it is gone again! Make sure your eyes are open before it changes into Nothingness or into the conditions for its own existence!” No, there is no peephole. Stop it with the peephole already! We cannot reach outside ourselves.
All Is Not Lost
On the other hand, let’s not sell ourselves short. So we can’t throw a dart and hit Being in the bullseye. Fair enough. But that does not mean we are completely helpless to even entertain the notion? We do not have to pack it in, cry Derrida tears, and assume all of our notions are just garbage after all. Instead, we can discover this cat “Being” in its 9 lives. If the object “Being” is an invisible magnetic force, we bring to it various little metal balls with which to show its power. If “Being” is a law of nature, we can see its expression in the multiplicities of local ecologies. If “Being” is a coin under a sheet of paper, we can discover its outline through rubbing a pencil over and over and coloring in the paper above it with a great collection of lines. As soon of you touch the bubble it pops, so don’t bother trying to trap it! It’s kind of like in Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” If you love an object, set it free. If it returns, your concepts are illuminating.
Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.
Deleuze, G. (2001). “Nietzsche.” Pure immanence. New York: Zone.
Feuerbach, L. (2004 ). The essence of Christianity. Barnes & Noble.
Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1992). History of the concept of time: Prolegomena. Indiana University Press.
Kant, I. (1998 ). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1974 ). The gay science. New York: Vintage.
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