Saturday, March 10, 2012

Book Review: Not Adorno's Negativity

John Holloway, Fernando Matamoros, Sergio Tischler
Negativity & Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism
Plutio Press, 2008. 256pp.  $37.00 pb
ISBN 9780745328362


     One of the novel features of the struggles over the last 6 or 7 years has been their negativity in the sense of a lack of demands and in their tendency towards a raw refusal without an alternative. In light of this, the title Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism would seem to promise an interesting union of this negative activity and Theodore Adorno's philosophical notion of negativity. Yet the title is discordant, even jarring. Negativity. Revolution. Adorno. Political Activism.
     Revolution and Political Activism? “Activism”, with its connotations of a kind of professionalization of political action, carried out by specialists known as “activists”, goes uninspected in this entire book. In a book which nominally takes Adorno seriously his profound distrust of activism generates no self-reflection.
     Negativity and political activism? The activist negativity, the “No!” of refusal, has little to do with Adorno's philosophically informed negativity, which is to say as determinate negation. The two are forced together in an uncomfortable union. This is enabled by the repetition, over and over again, of certain formulations of Adorno's, taken out of context and without any attention to the development of those formulations, a very un-Adornian way of proceeding. This general lack of critical reflection on activism is nowhere more self-evident than in chapter 5, which poses a post-vanguardist activism against a vanguardist activism, but which has no notion whatsoever of where that vanguardism came from or that the activism in both cases is possibly more critical in binding them together than the vanguardism in question drives them apart.
     Adorno and Revolution? Adorno was a determined enemy of this society. He sought to work out in concepts its increasingly barbarous character. However, Adorno did not believe that revolution was on the front steps, around the corner or even in the same neighbourhood. Not only did he not think that the massive counter-revolution that ran from 1923-1945 was simply going to be reversed, but he believed that capital was going about consolidating its victory in a variety of ways that would likely cement it in place, at least for the indefinite future. Most importantly, Adorno believed that the problems of the present were not simply grounded in capital, but in instrumental forms of Reason going back to the Greeks. Sadly, little to nothing of Adorno's own political thought is engaged with, but instead he is himself used instrumentally.
     Which brings us to Negativity and Adorno. Despite the invocation of Adorno's negative, most frequently this is reduced to nothing so much as a “No!”. Negativity as raw refusal goes against every ethical aspect of Adorno's thought. Interestingly, this denigration of negativity gives rise to a constant need to scold Adorno for his role in 1968. The “No!” is first and foremost said to Adorno, ritualistically, at the beginning of almost every chapter. You can almost invariably tell the quality of the coming chapter simply by noting the presence or absence of this revolt against the Father in the first 4-5 paragraphs. This means that the Introduction and Chapters 2 and 6 lack any awareness of how far they depart not only from the negativity of Adorno, but from Holloway's own earlier work before he was usurping the Name of the Father in order to kill the Father. 
     More importantly, the general lack of a properly philosophical negativity seems to go hand-in-hand with a positive, ontological treatment of labour, of sociality, and of direct, unmediated relations that was foreign to Adorno.
   Good, concrete labour is posited against bad, abstract labour, but Adorno saw communism entailing a world in which labour no longer mediated the relation between Man and Man. Labour belongs to the realm of necessity, not freedom, a point which Adorno understood explicitly. Along with Holloway's contributions in Chapters 2 and 6, so too Sergio Tischler's chapter 7 sings the praises of living labour as Doing. This hypostatization of labour, of living labour against dead labour, is just the lauding of variable capital against constant capital. The raw, simplistic “No!” to capitalism gives way to a joyous, simplistic “Yes!” to the ontological positing of “Doing”. Such a positing of Doing is no better than a positing of Being, since all it can claim in effect is that our Being is our Doing and so we run full circle back to a social ontology of Being, and thus capital reappears through the back door. The irony of this conception of labour is that the familiar, and philosophically underdeveloped, critique of Deleuze's concepts carried out in chapter 4 by Alfredo Bonnet can be turned on this conception of labour with equal force. Just as Deleuze turns away from negativity and dialectic towards difference, desire, and life and thereby make these into first principles, into metaphysical and positive-ontological essences of a transhistorical human existence, so Holloway in particular transforms labour into just such a creative essence.
     The positive adulation of the social goes hand-in-hand with this reading of labour. The romantically non-alienated aspect of everything social is part and parcel of a Leftism that denigrated the individual in favour of the collective, at times with utterly murderous consequences. Further, pre-capitalist society was oppressive and exploitative exactly through directly social relations of domination. Marx never deploys pairs of concepts except to indicate their existence as categories of capital. Use-value is a category of capital, the way in which things people use exist first and foremost as useful for valorization. Concrete labour is the particular labours through which abstract labour must subsist, but it isn't labour free from social form. So too sociality and individuality dance as a pair. If it was any other way, it would be hard to make a claim that use-value was self-contradictory, that is, that the contradiction between using things to meet human needs comes into contradiction with objects as useful for valorization, first and foremost among these, labour
     Finally, there is a tendency to imagine revolution as direct irruption of social Doing, as the end of mediation. This depends on a frequent elision of or confusion over the difference between mediation, contradiction, and antagonism. The end of antagonistic social relations does not necessarily entail the end of contradictions, the absence of which does not entail the end of mediation. The struggle with this is nowhere more clear than in Werner Bonefeld's essay. The very idea that critical theory has as its task to de-mystify actuality of course assumes what Bonefeld himself has long criticised: the idea that appearance is merely illusion, rather than the mode of existence of the essence, its necessary form of appearance. There is no de-mystification which can lead us to some direct knowledge of what really is the case. The appearance “really is” because it is the way in which essence must express itself, and not as two different worlds, but as one world which appears in a mediated fashion. Bonefeld actually formulates the problem of the entire approach taken by the majority of essays in this book:

Marx’s thesis that the understanding of the world of things has to comprehend human practice implies that this practice is constitutive. However, this formulation is full of dangers, too. It presupposes a definite resolution to the stated problem: If social practice constitutes, is it urspr√ľnglich, be it primitive or original? If it constitutes, does it remain external to its creation? Can it remain innocent in the perverted world that it has created? (116)

However, not far down the conflation of antagonism and contradiction already occurs: “There is only one reality - a reality of disunion, contradiction, fissures, and antagonism” (117). Where Marx suggests that all science would be unnecessary if essence and appearance directly coincided, this entails that this non-coincidence is a part of actuality as such, not merely one where antagonistic relations obtain. Nor is contradiction synonymous with antagonism. There is a difference between a contradiction and an antagonistic contradiction in both Hegel and Marx. A contradiction in Marx's sense involves two unlikes which can each subsist only in and through each other, that is, which constitute a relationship of opposites which mediate each other. This contradiction does not need to be antagonistic. Nor does the resolution of the contradiction result in some kind of immediacy in relation to either object. That is, even in a resolved contradiction, the result is not an unmediated actuality.
     Were mediation to indicate only mediation of a contradiction and that contradiction only capable of being antagonistic, then communism would entail a world without mediation, of pure immediacy. This would erase the conceptuality of the world and reduce us to a world of pure immediacy, which would in effect be a state of psychosis. Following Bonefeld's own logic in reverse, if mediation exists, then contradiction exists, and then antagonism exists, and so capital becomes a closed loop.
     This results from the un-Adornian treatment of labour, immediacy, and sociality. Once one has taken the path, it is hard to veer off of it. So I do not find it surprising that the main political concept of a book on negativity is very positive: dignity. The concept has deep roots in Kant's own bi-polar, antinomic split of ethics and law. It is fitting that Adorno himself says that “Dignity was never anything more than the attitude of self-preservation aspiring to be more than that.” (133, Theodore Adorno 2002. The Jargon of Authenticity, 2nd Edition (London: Routledge).)  This Adorno, no doubt associated with the Bad Father who called the police and was against activism, is not only of no interest to most of the authors, but is replaced with the Good Father, Subcommandante Marcos.
     The ultimate note of discord echoes from the effect of two chapters, which seem oddly out of place because they are distant from activism and genuinely engaged with Adorno. Adrian Wilding actually stages both a spirited engagement with Adorno's lectures and a subtle appreciation of his care to avoid becoming a guru or an institution, showing how badly his own students misunderstood him by trying to condemn him with the words “Adorno as an institution is dead.” Marcel Stoetzler's chapter provides a nuanced critique of sexual dimorphism, gender, and sexuality and the problem of the “liberation of sexuality” as opposed to human liberation. At odds with most of the rest of the book both in terms of quality and tenor, they set in relief rather than bring relief from the weakness of the book as a whole.
     The book remains a disappointment, despite these last, genuinely valuable contributions. The editors intended to produce a work that was self-consciously not a scholarly treatment of Adorno, but a genuine appropriation of his dialectic of negativity. They have indeed produced a work which is not scholarly, but they have not produced a convincing appropriation, critique or comprehension, of Adorno's negative dialectic.  

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