Sunday, March 10, 2013

Theodor Adorno's "Jargon of Authenticity" and Adorno's criticism of existentialism

I just read Theodor Adorno's Jargon der Eigentlichket. Zur deutschen Ideologie [Jargon of Authenticity: On German Ideology] (1969; written in 1962-64) for the first time. It's largely an argument that the "authenticity" which is a key element of existentialism is largely a vague notion that promotes superficiality. He directs his argument largely against Martin Heidegger, though Husserl's phenomenology and Karl Jaspers' version of existentialism, a variety more humane than that of Heidegger, also come under Adorno's criticism. He even gets in a dig at the end-of-ideology notion made famous in the US by Daniel Bell, a delusional technocratic daydream that Barack Obama has revived in his hopeless quest for postpartisan harmony.

(I'm working from the edition in Adorno's Gesammelte Schriften, Bd 6 (Suhrkamp; 1996; 5th edition); all translations are mine. Adorno isn't easy to translate, so though I wouldn't be using them if I didn't think they were reasonably good, I wouldn't want to blame anyone else for these.)

Adorno took Heidegger's attraction to the Nazi cause into account in his evaluation of his philosophy. Heidegger's focus on the importance of death in his existentialism Adorno finds particularly objectionable. "'Das Opfer wird uns frei machen', schrieb, in polemischer Variation einer sozialdemokratischen Parole, 1938 ein NS-Funktionär. Heidegger ist damit einig." In that passage, he quotes a sentence that plays on the meaning of "das Opfer" as both "victim" and sacrifice": "'Das Opfer will make us free,' an NS {Nazi} functionary wrote in 1938 in a polemical variation on a Social Democratic slogan. Heidegger is in full agreement with that." He argues that Heidegger makes death "into the core of the self." (p. 504) Adorno characterizes the central role of death in Heidegger's existentialism in the following passage. Reference is made here to "ontic" as material, empirical existence as distinct from ontological, which has to do with the nature of Being:

Der Tod wird zum Stellvertreter Gottes, für den der Heidegger von Sein und Zeit noch sich zu modern war. Auch nur die Möglichkeit der Abschaffung des Todes zu denken, wäre ihm blasphemisch; das Sein zum Tode als Existential ist von der Möglichkeit seiner bloß - bloß! - ontischen Abschaffung ausdrücklich getrennt. Weil er, als existentialer Horizont des Daseins, absolut sei, wird er zum Absoluten als dem Venerabile. Regrediert wird auf den Todeskultus; deshalb hat der Jargon seit den Anfangen mit der Aufrüstung gut sich vertragen. Heute wie damals gilt der Bescheid, den Horkheimer einer Ergriffenen erteilte, die sagte, Heidegger habe doch wenigstens die Menschen endlich wieder vor den Tod gestellt: Ludendorff habe das viel besser besorgt.

[Death becomes the representative of God, who was still too modern for the Heidegger of Being and Time. Even just the possibility of thinking of the abolition of death would be blasphemous for him; the Being for death as existential is expressly separated from the possibility of its mere - mere! - ontic abolition. Because it {death} as existential horizon of Dasein is absolute, it becomes the Absolute as the Venerable One. This is a regession to the death cult; therefore jargon since the beginning goes well with increasing armaments. Today as then, the information holds good that an enthusiast shared with {Max} Horkheimer, which said that Heidegger had nevertheless at least stood humanity against before death: Ludendorff took care of it much better.
The reference there is to Gen. Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937), who by the end of the First World War had become the de facto military dictator of Germany.

Though Adorno makes a good point about how the existentialists' view of death may provide substantial points of contact with ideologies and movements, the perspective and mood of existentialist philosophy emphasize the precariousness of the human condition generally and the individual condition more particularly. Karl Löwith in "Heidegger: Problem and Background of Existentialism" (Social Research 15/3; Sept 1948) talked about how existentialism "is shaping, with ultimate logic, the basic mood of modern man's worldly existence." It poses the question of why is there something rather than nothing. "Even those who have never read a line of Heidegger, Jaspers, or Sartre are so familiar with such typical categories of existential philosophy as 'contingency' and 'finiteness' of our existence, 'anxiety' and 'care' and all that which Jaspers calls 'extreme situation,' that they can hardly imagine a normalcy apart from mediocrity," he wrote.

And he describes the mood of existentialism this way, illustrating it with a quote from Kierkegaard:

The fundamental question, therefore, is not what is but that I am. "My life has been brought to an impasse, I loathe existence, it is without savor, lacking salt and sense. ... One sticks one's finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger into existence - it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me there? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs ... ? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him." [emphasis and ellipses in original; Kierkegaard quote is from Repetition (Princeton 1941)]
Löwith's reference to those who toss around such concepts without having ever "read a line of Heidegger, Jaspers, or Sartre" could be read as referring to the jargonization of the philosophy. Though Adorno regards Heidegger and Jaspers as having generated a lot of superficial jargon first-hand. His quote from Kierkegaard also illustrates that some of the existential jargon even preceded Heidegger.

Adorno also savages Heidegger's pretensions of drawing his wisdom from the soil and the people who work it for a living.

Adorno is not writing "history of philosophy" here, a field which philosophers tend to regard as inferior to the real business of philosophy. Readers familiar with Adorno's work will not be surprised that he engages with Heidegger's philosophical ideas as such here. Adorno's writing may sometimes border on the obtuse. But a reductionist he certainly is not. He deals here with Heideggerian concepts of Sein (Being) and Seiendes (Becoming) and why Heidegger's attempt to collapse the two together is problematic for his notion of Dasein, which for Hegel was a mode of existence but which for Heidegger stood for a self-aware existence in the moment, a being-there (Da-sein) in the sense of intensely conscious experience.

Part of the promise in the jargon of existentialism is to humanize the specialization of knowledge that is so much a part of our daily lives in the present-day world. Adorno invokes a memorable image in commenting on the problem with this promise, which he sees as pretentiously pedantic:

Das Quid pro quo des Personalen und Apersonaelen im Jargon; die scheinhafte Vermenschlichung von Saclichem; die reale Versachlichung von Menschlichem ist das leuchtende Abziehbild der Verwaltungssituation, in der abstraktes Recht und objektive Verfahrensordnung jeweils in Entscheidungen von Angesicht zu Angesicht sich vermummen. Unvergeßlich aus der Frühzeit des Hitlerschen Reiches der Anblick jener SA-Leute, in denen Verwaltung und Terror sichtbar sich zusammenfanden, oben die Aktenmappe, unten die Stulpenstiefel. Etwas von diesem Bild bewahrt der Jargon der Eigentlichkeit auf in Worten wie Auftrag, wo der Unterschied zwischen einem von gerechten oder ungerechten Instanzen Verfügten und einem absolute Gebotenen, zwischen Autorität und Sentiment berechnet verschwimmt.

[The quid pro quo of the personal and impersonal in jargon; the apparent humanization of the specialized; the real specializing of the human is the radiant transfer of the administrative situation in which abstract right and objective rules of conduct disguises themselves. Unforgettable from the early time of the Hitlerian regime is the glimpse of an SA person {a Brownshirt}, in in whom administration and terror found themselves visibly united: above, the file folder; below, the top boots. The jargon of authenticity preserves something of this image in words like Auftrag {order/instructions/assignment}, where the difference between having the disposal of {being able to distinguish beteen} a right or wrong instance and an absolute order, what is counted as {a distinction} authority and sentiment, is blurred.]

Adorno, like others of the Frankfurt School and like a large part of 20th century philosophy and theology, was heavily influenced by existentialism. But it was a highly critical engagement, and was heavily conditioned by Heidegger's enthusiastic embrace of National Socialism. Adorno in this essay seems to regard Kierkegaard, the reactionary 19th-century Danish philosopher who nevertheless produced important insights that a wide variety of social critics found useful, as more substantial than the 20th-century existentialists.

But he also traces the individualism valued abstractly in nominal disregard of its social content that he finds so problematic in Heidegger and Jaspers to Kierkegaard's perspective:

Nicht umsonst ist bei Kirkegaard, dem Urvater aller Existentialphilosophie, richtiges Leben definiert durch Entscheidung schlechthin. Mit ihr halten es alle seine Nachzügler, auch die dialektischen Theologen und die französischen Existentialisten. Subjecktivität, Dasein selber wird aufgesucht in der absoluten Verfügung des Einzelnen über sich, ohne Rücksicht auf die Bestimmungen der Objektivität, in die er eingespannt ist, in Deutschland limitiert durch die ganz abstrakte und darum je nach Machverhältnissen zu konkreitisierende "Bindung an den Befehl", wie in dem Wortfetisch "soldatisch".

[Not for nothing is true life defined by Kirkegaard, the founding father of all existential philosophy, through decision absolutely. All his stragglers, even the dialectical theologians and the French existentialists, hold to it. Subjectivity, Dasein itself is sought out in the absolute disposal of the single person over himself, without regard for the rules of objectivity in which he is clamped, in Germany limited by the very abstract, and therefore depending on the power relationships to concretize, "commitment to the order," as in the word "soldierly."]
In terms of philosophical heft, Heidegger comes off better than Jaspers in Adorno's essay. He tends to regard Jaspers as even more superficial in his existential concepts than Heidegger. Adorno also isn't pleased with Martin Buber's adaptation of Kierkegaard's existentialism:

Die hinter dem Jargon waltende These von der Ich-Du-Beziehung als dem Ort der Wahrheit schwärzt deren Objecktivität als dinghaft an und wärmt insgeheim den Irrationalismus auf. Als solche Beziehung wird Kommunikation zu jenem Überpsychologischen, das sie einzig durchs Moment der Objecktivität des Kommunizieren wäre; am Ende Dummheit zum Stifter der Metaphysik.

[The thesis {Buber's}, which works behind jargon, of the Ich-Du {I and Thou} relationship, as the place of truth denigrates its objectivity as thing-like and secretly warms up irrationality. As such a relationship, communication become something super-psychological, which it would be only through the moment of the communicating; in the end, gabbiness as the founder of metaphysics.]
Adorno addresses Heidegger's pose of being nonideological, and the end-of-ideology notion more generally, in the following passage, part of which is challenging to translate into English, because he refers in a very compact way, and almost as an aside, to Heidegger's philosophy regarding ideology as of so little value that it resembles the curve in a calculus function that comes infinitely close to the line of the axis without actually touching it, i.e., that Heidegger regards ideology as being as near worthless as it can possibly be. And yet , Adorno argues, Heidegger winds up with an anti-ideology ideology:

Nennte man unideologisch ein Denken, das die Ideologie dem Grenzwert des Nichts annähert, dann wird Heidegger unideologisch. Aber seine Operation wird durch den Anspruch, sie erschließe den Sinn von Dasein, abermals zur Ideologie, ähnlich wie die heute gängige Rede vom Ideologieverlust, welche auf die Ideologie schlägt und die Wahrheit meint.

[If one calls a {system of} thought nonideological that positions ideology as being borderline worthless, then Heidegger is nonideological. But his operation becomes ideology again and again through the claim that it finds the sense of Dasein, similar to today's popular talk of the loss of ideology, which strikes out against ideology, but really targets the truth.]
True in 1964, true today. End-of-ideology aspirations or schemes of thought, especially when it comes to political theories, always wind up being heavily ideological.

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