Adorno – Negative Dialectics: “On the Dialectics of Identity”

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. 

Negative Dialectics

  • Part Two: Negative Dialectics. Concepts and Categories

    • 7. On the Dialectics of Identity

Negative dialectics involves interrogating the relations – especially the contradictions – between concepts and their objects, always with a critical eyebrow raised to the dubious claim that a concept can actually fully contain its object. Instead of assuming or seeking out the identity between concept and object, negative dialectics honors their difference and tears down delusions of identity.

“As in Body, So in Mind” and Vice Versa

A brief preface is in order at this point.

Adorno has a pattern of argument in his style that to my understanding may owe a lot to Lukács. I am thinking in particular of Lukács’ essay on reification. Anyway, in a broad sense, the pattern is one of homology: stuff is shaped similarly. Adorno places images or ideas or whathaveyou beside one another and relies on our intuitive sense of their likeness to convince us that they are somehow of the same dynamic, or follow the same kind of structure or motion. Specific to the issue here (and this is actually where the connection to Lukács strikes me), the homology is posited between the realm of socioeconomic life and the realm of culture and philosophy. I will distill it down to the following double dictum: “As in body, so in mind” & “As in mind, so in body”.

Dialectics play out in philosophy as well as in the social world, which essentially serve as metaphors for one another, if not outright mirroring one another. Adorno does not posit a cause-effect relationship outright in the orthodox Marxian sense of the economic base determining the ideological superstructure. However he does indicate – often only implicitly – that the social-economic and cultural-philosophic tend to move together, like two wheels on the same axis or a pair of synchronized swimmers.

End preface.

Barter Logic

Concepts take a bunch of different stuff, identify common characteristics between them, and ignore everything other than those common characteristics. Under identity thinking, the concept is the object. Individuality qualities of objects are stifled under the domination of the abstract concept.

As is mind, so in body…

On the ground – so to speak – individuality is also stifled in the human community under the abstract logic of barter. Adorno describes barter logic in a way reminiscent of Marx’s distinction between use value – “this DVD is worth a couple of hours of mildly enjoyable distraction for me when I watch it” – and exchange value – “this DVD is worth $4.00 when I buy it for $4.00”.  As use value, the DVD has a qualitative value specific to its being a DVD and to how much I happen to like the movie on the DVD. As exchange value, the DVD has only a quantitative value, bearing no necessary relation to the fact that it is a DVD or to how much I like the movie on it.

Commodification happens to people too, not just to their DVDs. Like the use value vs. exchange value distinction, this notion also stems back to Marx, as one aspect of his concept of commodity fetishism. Without going into detail about commodity fetishism, for present purposes the following is the aspect of specific import: under capitalism people view and treat one another as things. I mentioned Lukács and his essay on reification above, and here too, he deserves a nod.

[Lukács <- nod]

This seems to be what Adorno is getting at when he mentions barter: It is the reduction of things – including people – to a state of quantitative equivalence, where their particular qualities are lost or at least not taken to be important. This barter logic is homologous to the logic of the concept: individuality is stamped out under the domination of an abstract relation which renders things ostensibly the same.

And identity is ideological too, just as ideology thrives on identity thinking. In barter and in the concept – as two types of identity logic – the perpetuation of domination is supported by the clingy nature of of identity with itself; or rather, of the solipsism endemic to identity thinking. Identity logic says: “I am all, all is I”. Naturally then, it is self-maintaining by default. In other words, of course we have to accept domination; there is nothing else. What basis is there for a critical angle when all angles of reality have already been accounted for according the narrative of the status quo?

At first glance, this seems to imply that the hope for liberation lies in the revolt against this homogenization, this forced equality that dwarfs us all into numbers. Not so fast! Before human differences were leveled under the logic of barter, what was the world like? Domination was even more stark! Feudalism, for example, is not something we should try and emulate. Freedom is not waiting to be reclaimed in neo-“traditional society”. Turning back the clock is not only impossible in practice, it is a terrible idea in theory. Be careful what you wish for!

And Another Thing About Hegel…

In case it wasn’t clear the fiftieth time: Adorno is not just a Hegel in denial. Negative dialectics is not just part of Hegel’s dialectic.

Or is it?? 

Hegel would certainly argue that it is. But what was Adorno just saying about identity? We have a bit of a standstill here. Two dialectics, one claims they are the same, the other claims they are different. The one that claims they are the same also claims that claims to non-identity can, should, and will be overcome through identity. The one that claims they are different also claims that identity can, should, and will be overcome through non-identity. It’s kind of a toss-up, arguably even an “existential choice” (sorry Adorno!).

It does of course, change what kinds of things you emphasize if you go one way or the other. Whether you work toward non-identity or identity more – this is a key issue that places you on the Hegel or the Adorno side of things. Hegel is in many ways Adorno’s point of departure. Negative dialectics is faithful to Hegel’s dialectic as its point of origin, and maintains a strong likeness in its maneuvers. But make no mistake: it departs.

Really, it does. Honest.


Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics. Continuum.

Lukács, G. (1967 [1923]). “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat.” History and class consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics. Merlin.

Marx, K. (1992 [1867]). Capital, volume I. Penguin.

Jeremiah Morelock

Leave a Reply