Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Book Reviews

Glimpses of Light from Enlightenment’s Prison

Adorno: Neither utopian nor negativist.

Claire Richters

Theodor Adorno, “Self in Mirror,” 1964; photograph by Stefan Moses; reproduced in Gerhard Richter, “A Portrait of Non-Identity,” Monatschefte, vol. 94, no. 1, Rereading Adorno (Spring, 2002), 2.

If, as Theodor Adorno says, there is “no right living in the false,” and modern society is “the false,” then that’s that. We modern human beings have surely been condemned to “the bad life.” As we live out our final days in gnostic misery, the best anyone can hope to do is don the eyes of Mephistopheles, the spirit of negation, and embark on late modernity’s version of the via negativa. The modern via negativa, far from being a method for knowing some divine essence, is the act of engaging in the one critical gesture left to human beings subjected to conditions of inhumanity: to look out at the world and exclaim, “Not this!

Does this sound to you like an accurate account of the philosophy of Adorno, the Frankfurt School social critic best known for his scathing criticisms of modern, Enlightened civilization as a “totalitarian” regression into “a new kind of barbarism”? If so, Harvard University philosopher and intellectual historian Peter Gordon would like a word with you. Against popular accounts of Adorno as an “austere negativist” and “totalizing skeptic” who believed that the social conditions of modern society were so evil that the human beings entrenched in them could no longer conceive of “the right life,” Gordon makes the opposite argument in A Precarious Happiness: Adorno and the Sources of Normativity. It is because Adorno believed that human beings could engage in “rehearsals for the right life” from within the “the wrong life” that he was driven to dedicate his career to “relentless criticism” of Enlightenment-based civilization.

A Precarious Happiness is a far cry from Gordon’s Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, and Davos. In that 2010 book, he reconstructed a 1929 debate between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger in order to draw attention to the nuances of “philosophical questions that themselves remain unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable.” Gordon’s newest book provides more than an erudite reconstruction of a philosophical debate—it offers a means of exorcizing “the spirit of cynicism” from contemporary social critique. This spirit of cynicism, so attuned to how normative claims have served the interests of the powerful, Gordon observes, has taken hold of social critique over the course of the past few decades to such a degree that it has displaced the age-old practice of holding society accountable to normative ideals. In stark contrast to these contemporary, normativity-shy social critics, the Adorno of Gordon’s reading is not afraid to declare that he is criticizing modern society because it falls short of the normative ideals to which social critics ought to hold society accountable.

Gordon’s call for contemporary social critics to exorcize the spirit of cynicism from their social criticism is not a demand to abandon negativity altogether. On the contrary, A Precarious Happiness can be read as a lengthy call for social critics to engage in “a relentless criticism of our current life” that is as “ruthless and unrelenting” as Adorno’s own social criticism. Heeding this call would require social critics to continue pointing to instances of inhumanity and exclaiming “Not this!” with as much fervor as ever, but with the added expectation that they then point to an alternative worth striving for.

Unlike the negativist, the social critic who proclaims, along with Adorno, “Not this.... That!” does not fit neatly into typical ideological categories. Like Adorno, such social critics fit the label of “negativist” just as little as they fit the label of “idealist” or “positivist.” Rather than approach social criticism like the negativist who believes that immanent critique is impossible from within the “pervasively evil” conditions of late capitalism, or like the idealist who believes that there is a transcendent, “Archimedean” standpoint that offers easy access to knowledge of the absolute good, or like the positivist who believes that contemporary society is rich with already-existing “normative resources” that social critics can look to for concrete guidance, Gordon argues that Adorno’s approach to social criticism is as chimerical as modernity itself—neither totally good nor totally bad. Adorno’s philosophy offers a practical account of what social critique must look like in a world where human suffering and despair are so rampant that they impair our knowledge of the good.

According to Gordon, Adorno’s awareness of his own limited access to knowledge of the good does not prevent his philosophy from being animated by the Enlightenment ideals of universal human flourishing and happiness. Unlike Adorno the supposed negativist, who can only make minimalist moral claims like “Never again Auschwitz,” Gordon’s Adorno is a maximalist who demands that modern society attempt with all its might to deliver on the Enlightenment’s promises. In this view, it is not the Enlightenment’s ideals but their “partial and distorted” realization that are responsible for modern human suffering.

Well aware that his maximalist interpretation may appear perilously close to a revisionist reading of Adorno as a utopian thinker, Gordon dedicates A Precarious Happiness to the sprawling task of following Adorno’s “pulsing heart of normativity” to the ends of his vast, antisystematic, often paradoxical corpus. By taking the reader along through Adorno’s analysis of a dizzying array of topics ranging from the metaphysics of history to the emancipatory effects of listening to Beethoven, Gordon aims to demonstrate that Adorno was neither a utopian nor a negativist—just a staunch believer in holding society accountable to ideals that reach beyond its current, very damaged capabilities. It is a difficult quest, to be sure, because it depends on preventing Adorno’s bleaker passages from overshadowing his maximalist demands of society. Such has been the tendency of contemporary social critics such as Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, and Fabian Freyenhagen, who hold Adorno to be a negativist.

Essential to Gordon’s line of argument is his insistence that such critics conflate Adorno’s despair at the conditions of late capitalist modernity with his views on normativity and rationality. In Gordon’s view, conflating these two sets of beliefs deprives Adorno of the very tools required for the immanent critique he engaged in throughout his career: normative ideals and rational thought. Gordon identifies the source of this conflation with the mistaken belief that the social critic ought to be somehow immune to despair—a tall order for anyone, but perhaps especially for the social critic. The key to Adorno’s philosophy is the belief that the presence of suffering in the human world laces all happiness with despair and that it is the duty of the practitioners of social critique to remain open to the full breadth of human emotions that come along with being forced to live “the wrong life.” In remaining open to these sensibilities, it is only natural for social critics to experience moments of despair and to express these in their writing. For this reason, when Adorno says, for example, that society has become so “pervasively evil” that it is best described as “a single integrated system that is completely denuded of worthwhile ends, and fully instrumentalized, such that no part of it is immune from complicity from forms of domination,” Gordon argues that this can be true for Adorno without it being the entire truth.

To do otherwise, Gordon asserts, would be to ignore the central role played in Adorno’s philosophy by his fixation on “non-identical” moments in modernity, which act as counterbalances to the moments of totalizing despair that threaten to transform his philosophy into negativism. Such moments occur wherever and whenever contradiction with the logic of late capitalism shines through, showing the possibility of another system, such as when observing the “ludic innocence” with which children play a game that pays no attention to the exchange value of the objects involved or when someone gives a gift, an act that selflessly anticipates the needs and desires of another. These instances of the nonidentical appear like a “glimmer of light” that shines momentarily through the walls of modernity’s prison and can take on the form of experiences of happiness ranging from “brute somatic pleasure” to “the higher modes of aesthetic fulfillment.”

Although fleeting in nature, Gordon argues that these nonidentical moments contain enough metaphysical and moral power for Adorno to supply his philosophy with its “pulsing heart of normativity.” While this may seem like a lot of heavy lifting for what Adorno describes as the “stale,” “mutilated,” and “scarred” remnants of the nonidentical, Gordon argues that these moments have a transcendent quality to them that hearkens back to the Kantian notion of the Ding an sich (“the thing in itself”), which is nonidentical with the world of appearances yet is implied by it. These experiences of the nonidentical are embedded in the sensuous nature of human beings, which is always open to the pleasures and pains of the world that surround it. It is doubtful, then, that humans could ever fully succumb to the “gray” of a social world sapped of its humanity. By paying attention to their own experiences and looking at these moments of the nonidentical like “‘shells’ [Schalen] or fragments of divine light that have been scattered throughout creation,” social critics can hold fast to these moments as normative ideals from within the damaged world of “the wrong life.”

Gordon paints a compelling picture of Adorno as a theorist of happiness and human flourishing. He occasionally feels the need, however, to reassure his audience that happiness is a sufficiently precise and rigorous concept for philosophers to take seriously. It raises questions about his imagined audience. Given that there is a long philosophical tradition of taking human happiness seriously that ranges from Aristotle to Stanley Cavell, I have to wonder: Would Adorno have wanted to be redeemed in the eyes of an audience who needed his claims about happiness restated in propositional logic?