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
6. “Logic of Disintegration”
The notion that our reality is split into two realms – mind/matter – is common in Western philosophy since Descartes. This theoretical rift between ideas and the physical world has been a point of challenge to various philosophers, who try to overcome the division. The faith that all of reality must at some deep level be One has been a major driver of various attempts. Kant sort of does the job, but sort of falls short. He posits a mutual dependence between our understanding and our sense perceptions. Basically, “reality” as we experience it is formed out of the meeting of thought and matter. Without either one, we could not experience reality. Hence without either one the other vanishes.
Mind the Gap
This is pretty good, but it still leaves unanswered the question of how the two realms touch. Somehow ideas reach matter deep down in the depths of the mind-machine. But how? Kant has reproduced the problem, just maybe on a smaller or different level.
Hegel closed the gap more convincingly. But is this a good thing? Adorno is not convinced. He sees dialectics as depending on both philosophical method and engagement with brute matter. Both of these dependencies are irreducible. Trying to fuse them together is more obfuscating than illuminating. Dialectics is a dance of contradictions. Adorno says we should embrace that instead of trying to find some creative excuse to pretend we can ‘ultimately’ connect everything consonantly.
Under Adorno’s auspices, dialectics will no longer be focused on “superseding” divisions, and subsuming everything under unifying ideas. Instead, dialectics will work toward the disintegration of ossified concepts. Too often we refer to general notions and definitions as if they are real, or capture all that is real. This is a lie; ossified concepts are like cardboard cutouts that we place in front of our lines of sight. Instead of seeing the variations and multiplicities that move on the other side of the cutout, all we see is the cutout. We then avail ourselves of the responsibility to look behind the cutout. “All the world’s a cardboard cutout, and the men and women merely cardboard cutouts”, we like to tell ourselves. But from now on, dialectics will be all about ripping up cardboard cutouts. All cardboard cutouts. No identity will be safe!
Oh the Irony
What tools can we use to rip up these cardboard cutouts? I’m so glad you asked. The answer is simple: cardboard cutouts! What else could the answer be? Philosophy will liquefy philosophy. Concepts will eat themselves, and as they chew, the spaces between bites will imply the object. The crack in the philosophical pavement will reveal the profile of the object.
I crack myself up.
Between the concept and the concept, falls the object.
A horse walks into a dialectic. The Marxist says: “Why the long preface?” The horse says: “It’s my interpretation of my interpretation. My critique of my critique. It’s my being-for-myself and my logic of disintegration, all wrapped up in one and two. What’s your point?” The Marxist says: “The point is to change it.”
But seriously folks…think about the ideal of so much philosophical knowledge: certain truth, i.e. “pure identity”. Ideas under the pretense of pure identity masquerade as the truest true, as the most exacting accuracies. The funny thing is, they are the most removed from the object in its full chaos. The pretension of identity, the reduction of the concept, is projected onto the object by us. Standing up the abstract conceptual cardboard cutout in front on the full uncharted openness of the object, actually blinds us to the object.
Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.
Kant, I. (1998 ). Critique of pure reason. Cambridge University Press.