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Tag: dialectics

 A Note on Dialectics (Marcuse, 1960)

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[In 1941, Herbert Marcuse published Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. In 1960, he added this new preface, which briefly explains the underlying basis of Hegel’s philosophy, and why Marcuse considers dialectics such a powerful approach to theory and politics. All genuine progress, he insists, requires the recognition of the negative as a social force and reality.]

By Herbert Marcuse

This book [Reason and Revolution] was written in the hope that it would make a small contribution to the revival, not of Hegel, but of a mental faculty which is in danger of being obliterated: the power of negative thinking. As Hegel defines it: “Thinking is, indeed, essentially the negation of that which is immediately before us.” What does he mean by “negation,” the central category of the dialectic?

Even Hegel’s most abstract and metaphysical concepts are saturated with experience—experience of a world in which the unreasonable becomes reasonable and, as such, determines the facts; in which unfreedom is the condition of freedom, and war the guarantor of peace. This world contradicts itself. Common sense and science purge themselves from this contradiction; but philosophical thought begins with the recognition that the facts do not correspond to the concepts imposed by common sense and scientific reason—in short, with the refusal to accept them. To the extent that these concepts disregard the fatal contradictions which make up reality, they abstract from the very process of reality. The negation which the dialectic applies to them is not only a critique of conformist logic, which denies the reality of contradictions; it is also a critique of the given state of affairs on its own ground—of the established system of life, which denies its of promises and potentialities.

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Dialectics and Difference: Against the “Decolonial Turn”

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by Ross Wolfe (Insurgent Notes #15, August 2017)

The decade or so since the financial crisis of 2008 has seen a resurgence of interest in what nineteenth-century thinkers would have called “the social question,” backpedaling somewhat from the “cultural turn” of previous decades. Yet despite a series of recent skirmishes against the post-communist geopolitical order—from the Greek uprising in December 2008 to the London riots, Arab Spring, and Spanish indignados of 2011, up to the Polish women’s strikes in October 2016—old habits die hard. Few self-styled radicals who came of age during the nineties and aughts, especially those who attended universities, want to see the discourses of “difference” on which they were weaned suddenly abandoned wholesale. Alongside nascent and budding movements, then, one witnesses the recrudescence of concepts and strategies which ought to have been superseded by events themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the almost endless balkanization of identity formations. Each lays claim to a particular set of un-relatable “lived experiences,” as if hell-bent on proving the old psychoanalytic trope of Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen (narcissism of small differences).

“Decolonial” criticism is an example of just this sort of vogue academic approach, which can be grafted onto preexisting disciplines and practices with relative ease. Still further, in so doing, it offers the semblance of radicalism, because it appears to challenge the tacit erasures and hidden presuppositions of prior revolutionary perspectives. In reality, however, it simply transposes dependency theory in the realm of economics onto that of epistemology. Third-worldism, based on the model proposed by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, has been supplanted by talk of the Global South, based on the line proposed by the former West German chancellor Willy Brandt in 1983. But the substance remains the same. Mainly it consists in diagnosing the allegedly Eurocentric prejudices of various bodies of knowledge, down to their very methodologies, and then enjoining individuals to decolonize their minds. “Kill the cop in your head!” is seemingly replaced by “kill the Pilgrim in your head!” Recently, this procedure has even sought to “colonize” dialectical thought, although in the name of its decolonization. Here it becomes worthwhile to review one of the more elaborate efforts to subsume dialectics under difference.

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Needless Necessity: Sameness and Dynamic in Capitalist Society

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Marcel Stoetzler, Bangor University, UK (via Fast Capitalism)

In capitalist modernity, all that is fluid is frozen fast, and vice versa. Everything is at the same time solid and not. We need to do something. One must always produce.[1] But then, one must always produce the same. Production is always reproduction, no more, no less, albeit on an extended scale. Capitalist society is a treadmill:[2] “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that,” as the Red Queen asserted.[3] Society (re-)produces itself, using humans as its principal agents, as ever new and ever the same. Humans (re-)produce society as ever the same by making a fresh start every morning when the alarm bell tolls: a new morning promises gold – the matter of eternity – every single day anew. My consciousness is split on this matter: it tells me, on the one hand, that I have places to go (hooray!), I have some inner growing to do, but at the same time, I am proudly identical to myself (disregarding some metabolism-related corporeal change that one tries to keep separate from one’s sense of selfhood). I who took out the student loan yesterday will have to pay up tomorrow, although the intervening time – not least ‘the student experience’, as they say – will have made me a whole new person (with places to go, hooray!). Growing up, experience – going-beyond-and-through: ex-per-ire – or not, contracts are to be fulfilled. This is a rule society will enforce.

This article explores the dialectic of a twofold compulsion characteristic of modern bourgeois society: on the one hand the dynamism grounded in the compulsion to expand production, to never stand still, relax and enjoy, always to increase the labors of self-preservation, on the other hand the static, sameness and identity that are produced by the ‘real-abstracting’ processes equally central to the capitalist mode of production, the locking down of humans in their identities, including those of sex and race. The article examines these matters through the prism of Adorno’s late essay on the concepts of ‘static and dynamic’ that is taken as a vantage point for a reading of ‘The concept of enlightenment’ in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. The last part of the essay argues that capitalist society’s needless necessities impose themselves on society through abstracting practices in everyday life but also produce an equally contradictory set of social movements that have now opened up a fragile prospect for the revolutionary overcoming of capitalist society. The key point of the argument is that Horkheimer and Adorno’s unique emphasis on the critique of ‘the economic’ beyond that of ‘the economy’ is crucial to this radical perspective.

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Hegel and Capitalism

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Hegel and Capitalism (ed) Andrew Buchwalter
State University of New York Press, Albany, 2015. 256pp

Reviewed by Christopher Araujo in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books 

Negri once paid ‘homage’ to Hegel by calling upon Marxists to ‘liberate our praxis’ from an ‘ideology that desires the exploitation of man,’ yet speaks of the ‘hope of liberation’ (2011, 44). But even if his treatment of civil society does not cut as deeply as Marx’s critique of capitalism, conferring upon Hegel the title of official ‘philosopher of the bourgeois and capitalist organization of labor’ is a caricature (ibid., 37). Before we bury the ‘dead dog’ Marx himself tried to resuscitate, Marxists should pause to consult the more measured criticisms and nuanced appraisals of Hegel’s economics in the Buchwalter-edited Hegel and Capitalism. Within the confines of this review, I cannot do justice to the diversity of views expressed there, but I hope to highlight themes relevant to Marxist readers not yet ready to cast Hegel onto the dustbin of history.

Hegel’s relationship to capitalism is contested throughout the text. The opinions range from Michael J. Thompson ─ who argues that capitalism represents a ‘deficient modernity’ and individuals have no ‘obligation’ to reaffirm its irrationality (128-9) ─ to Richard Dien Winfield ─ who criticizes those that read Hegel as having problematized the ‘ethical standing of economic relations’ and drawn ‘modernity under suspicion’ (133, 143). However, most of the authors are in agreement that, while Hegel afforded a certain justification to the market as a sphere in which subjectivity is first raised into universality, he rejected the pure particularity of unbridled capitalism. His political philosophy envisions some sort of ‘determinate negation of capitalism’ ─ although, as Nathan Ross notes, this turns upon comprehending the precise meaning of the claim that the ‘state is the sublation of civil society’ (165). Nicholas Mowad goes so far as to suggest that if ‘Hegel felt capitalism to be severely flawed, yet still legitimate’ in a modified form, then he must not have been ‘fully aware of the critique of capitalism contained in his work’ (71). Perhaps, as Michalis Skomvoulis questions, Lukács was right: ‘frightened’ by his critique, Hegel ‘retreated’ (23).

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From Marx to Hegel and Back to the Future

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In einer Zeit globaler wirtschaftlicher Krisen, zunehmender gesellschaftlicher Ungleichheiten sowie neuer sozialer Bewegungen und politischer Kämpfe gibt es ein wiederaufblühendes Interesse an Marx und seinem Denken.  Für eine kritische Auseinandersetzung mit unserer Welt ist eine erneute Lektüre von Marx tatsächlich von entscheidender Bedeutung. Das war der Ausgangspunkt der internationalen Konferenz von 25. bis 27. Februar 2016: From Marx to Hegel and Back to the Future. Hier haben wir einige der Vorträge dokumentiert.

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A Conversation with Theodor W. Adorno (Spiegel, 1969)

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– Interview in Der Spiegel, 1969, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Gerhard Richter, Monatshefte, Vol. 94, No. 1, 2002

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“Philosophy, which once seemed passe,” Theodor W. Adorno’s Negative Dia­lectic begins, “remains alive because the moment of its realization was missed” (“Philosophie, die einmal überholt schien, erhält sich am Leben, weil der Augenblick ihrer Verwirklichung versäumt ward“). (1) This perspective encrypts the double movement of a simultaneous resignation or lament and a productive, enabling force. It is only because the philosophy of which Adorno speaks— negative dialectics—was not realized that its actualization is yet to come. That it once existed without becoming an actuality means that it still remains to be thought, as both a failure and a promise. The erratic traces of this double movement not only name but also enact Adorno’s notion of a negative dialec­tic. The movement of the negative dialectic of failure and promise has strongly marked the reception of the English translations of his writings. After all, Adorno’s German, and the thought that it enacts, is rigorously and infamously resistant to translation. His writing is both strange and foreign—fremd—even in its “original” German.

To acknowledge this strangeness is also to acknowledge that what Adorno says cannot be separated from how he says it. As Samuel Weber, one of Adorno’s earliest translators so apodictically and incontrovertibly puts it in his 1967 “Translating the Untranslatable,” the “specificity of Adorno’s thought is inseparable from its articulation,” so that “conceptual concreteness may be measured by the density with which thought and articulation perme­ate each other.” (2) For this reason, any translator who, in spite of these difficul­ties, attempts to translate Adorno’s sentences runs the risk of constructing an Adorno who. in the words of one of his most astute American translators, Rob­ert Hullot-Kentor, appears “dubbed rather than translated.” (3) Thus, as Hullot-Kentor points out, while many admirable English translations of Adorno’s texts exist, others deserve to be retranslated. (4) The process is now well under way, with, for instance, Hullot-Kentor’s responsible retranslation of Aesthetic Theory which replaces the problematic British version of 1984. (5)

The following interview with Adorno has not received the attention that it deserves. It originally appeared on 5 May 1969, three months before the phi­losopher’s death, under the title “Keine Angst vor dem Elfenbeinturm” in the widely circulating German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel (6) Shortly after it appeared in Germany, an English translation, which has been virtually ig­nored in the American context, was published in a British journal. (7) In a very real sense, then, the “moment of its realization was missed.” To present this important document today in an entirely new translation, in agreement with Der Spiegel, means to take seriously—with a bit of Blochian non-syncronicity—the critical potential that it still may hold for readers interested in the relation between aesthetics and politics. But the re-presentation of the docu­ment today also requires an explanation of historical contexts and political ref­erences, glosses that culturally aware readers in 1969 may not have required and that were provided neither in the British translation nor by Adorno’s Ger­man editors, who later included the text in his collected writings (Gesammelte Schriften). (8) I have therefore provided explanatory footnotes to clarify histori­cal references for today’s readers.

To appropriate the conceptual content of the discussion with Adorno for our time also requires some contextualization in the tensions of its own time. The immediate occasion for the highly visible interview was Adorno’s can­cellation of his University of Frankfurt lecture course “Introduction to Dialec­tical Thinking” during the summer semester of 1969, following confrontations with student activists who disrupted his lectures with heckling. During the pre­vious semester, Adorno’s decision to involve the police in clearing student oc­cupiers from the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School’s depart­mental unit at the University of Frankfurt) had caused controversy. While some regarded Adorno’s reliance on the authorities as a betrayal—a siding with the enemy against the common cause of social progress—others tended to agree with Adorno’s assessment of the radical activism of some students as misguided or even, in the words of his former research assistant, Jurgen Habermas, as a form of “left-wing fascism.” (9) On the day that the Spiegel in­terview appeared, Adorno writes to his friend and Frankfurt School colleague Herbert Marcuse: “One should refrain from |… | demonizing the police whole­sale. I can only repeal that they treated the students much more gingerly than the students treated me. That was beyond description.” He continues: “The other day I was told by Mr. Cohn-Bendit during a departmental town meeting that I only had the right to call in the police if people actually wanted to beat me up with metal rods. I answered that then it would be too late.” (10)

The irony of the tensions between Adorno and some student activists are legible enough. On the one hand, his theories had contributed to the es­tablishment of the first general wave of political activism in Germany after Word War II and to a general critical engagement with the legacies of Ger­man fascism, a subject that had largely remained taboo after 1945. Examples of Adorno’s theoretical interventions that were especially significant in this regard included his and Horkheimer’s analysis of the culture industry, his dis­section of the authoritarian personality, his subversive reflections on what it means to be German, his meditations on education “after Auschwitz,” and his anti-fascist reflections, among many others. But on the other hand, more con­crete signs of solidarity were expected of Adorno after December 1966, es­pecially on the part of the “APO.” “APO” stands for “Außerparlamentarische Opposition” (“Extraparliamentary opposition”), the collective name of the German student and New Left movements, along with a variety of smaller op­positional groups that were not presented in the German parliament. The APO came into existence in 1967, in response to the “Grand Coalition” formed between Kurt Georg Kiesinger’s conservative CDU/CSU and Willy Brandt’s social-democratic SPD on 1 December 1966, that is, when almost no opposi­tion remained within the German parliament itself. Many in the APO now looked to Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School for practical po­litical leadership, often in vein.

In a patricidal reversal that pitted parts of the Student Protest Movement and the New Left against one of their theoretical fathers, Adorno was sub­jected to a series of institutional and personal attacks at least since 1967, and leaflets proclaiming that “Adorno as an institution is dead” (“Adorno als In­stitution ist tot“) were circulated during his lectures. For instance, when he was invited by Peter Szondi and Wilhelm Emrich on behalf of the Depart­ments of German and Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin to deliver a lecture in July 1967 on “The Classicism of Goethe’s Iphigenie,” a meditation that was later included as an essay in his Notes to Literature, Adorno was greeted with heckles on the part of some. Adorno had earlier re­fused to write a letter of support exculpating the activist Fritz Teufel, whose controversial hand-outs and leaflets had been read by his accusers not as a sat­ire but as a concrete incitement to arson and violence. Because Adorno refused to conduct a political discussion instead of delivering his lecture as planned, his detractors regarded his decision to speak on Goethe as a retreat from po­litical intervention into classicist aesthetics.

But the most notorious incident was yet to come. During an April 1969 assault, an instance of “planned tenderness” which has come to be known as the “breast action” (Busenaktion), three female sociology students wearing long leather jackets invaded the lecturer’s podium, sprinkled rose and tulip petals over Adorno’s head, attempted to plant lipstick kisses on his cheeks, ex­posed their naked breasts to him, and provoked him with erotic pantomimes. Adorno, attempting to protect himself with his briefcase, proceeded to exit “Hörsaal V” (“Lecture Hall V”). This attempt to embarrass Adorno publicly was a sign of the larger structure of misunderstanding between Adorno and those student activists who had grown increasingly impatient with their theoretically-minded teacher’s reluctance to engage in street interventions and other forms of political activism.

The tension and misunderstanding between Adorno and some of the student activists was by no means universal. Indeed, many found the public provocations of Adorno by a minority of students misplaced and embarassing. Those critical of the activities to which Adorno was subjected must have re­called not only their indebtness to the theoretical apparatus for a critical analy­sis of society and culture that he had supplied, but also Adorno’s general in­terest in being a public intellectual open to discussion and to a sustained engagement in concrete political causes. For instance, after the so-called German-American friendship week had been marred by severe street violence and clashes between protesters and the police in May 1967, Adorno, along with his colleague Max Horkheimer and others, on 12 June 1967 engaged in a pub­lic discussion with students and activists regarding the relationship between Critical Theory and political praxis. Similarly. Adorno spoke out publicly against the German Notstandsgesetze (Emergency Laws).

These Emergency Laws were to enable the German government to suspend certain basic demo­cratic citizens’ rights when protests and concrete opposition threatened to destabilize the basic order of the state. The proposed bill that would make Emergency Laws legal in Germany was passed on 30 May 1968. Two days earlier, Adorno had made a last-minute effort to derail the passing of these laws, formulating a firm rejection of these curtailments of civil liberties in an address entitled “Gegen die Notstandsgesetze” (“Against the Emergency Laws”) in the “Große Sendesaal” of the Hessischer Rundfunk (Hessian Broad­cast Service). (11) And as Adorno reveals in a November 1968 letter to the writer Günter Grass, he maintained friendly relations with the Social Democratic politician Gustav Heinemann—then West Germany’s Minister of Justice and later, from 1969 through 1974, President of the Federal Republic—whom he closely advised regarding West Germany’s progressive criminal law reform. Similarly, Adorno was instrumental in helping to work out a compromise agreement between the “IG Metall”, West Germany’s Metal Workers’ Union, and their companies. But while he supported these and other political causes, such as then Foreign Minister and Vice Chancelor Willy Brandt’s concrete at­tempts to loosen the iron collar of Cold War ideologies through a new politi­cal relationship with countries to West Germany’s East, he remained suspicious of certain “aporias of the politics of reconciliation” (“Aporien der Versöh­nungspolitik’’).

These included the politics that he feared would disguise the ways in which the Soviet Union’s gestures of political reconciliation with its satellite states could also be read as attempts at even greater domination of these slates. Here, he feared, the questionable and deeply problematic politi­cal interests represented by both Washington and Moscow found a possible way of supplementing one another in their expansivist quests for world domi­nation. Rejecting what he often denounced as “erpreßte Versöhnung” (“forced reconciliation”), Adorno confesses to Grass his “mounting aversion to any kind of praxis in which my natural disposition and the objective hopelessness of praxis in this historical moment may meet each other.” (12) Between the writ­ing of these lines and his death some ten months later, this aversion may have grown ever more pronounced in light of the heightening intensity with which the personal attacks against him were carried out.

In the interview reproduced below, Adorno explains, in more lucid and conversational terms than is characteristic of his formal writings, his concep­tualization of the political relevance that his theoretical work may have. For Adorno, the political impact of his work is not to be measured by the extent to which it enables unmediated social praxis but rather by the extent to which it effects a broad change in consciousness. Here, the oppositional pair of thought and action itself is suspended. The text belongs in the general orbit of similar meditations that Adorno devoted to this subject in the late 1960s, such as his texts “Resignation” and “Marginalia on Theory and Praxis,” and his conversation regarding Critical Theory and the Protest Movement with the Südeutsche Zeitung. (13) Indeed, there is no sentence in Adorno’s mature work that is not touched by the political implications of the thoughts that he expresses in the Spiegel interview.

In my English translation, I have attempted to capture some of the in­formal conversational tone of Adorno’s sentences, a tone that may strike some readers as belonging to a surprisingly different register than that found in the formal and rigorous precision of his written works, where his German prose, in its persistent self-reflexivity and performativity, often appears, quite strate­gically, to resemble no living language. The sinewy lucidity of Adorno’s spo­ken and improvised language in this interview cannot be explained fully by Der Spiegel’s editorial practices, as listeners to the recently published collec­tion of five compact disks containing a variety of his speeches and interviews can attest. (14) Adorno’s fluid style as a live interlocutor and public speaker—es­pecially as he developed it for his various radio, television, and mass print ap­pearances soon following his return to Germany from American exile in 1949 —should be placed into a dynamic constellation with his written language to assess the shifting contours of his imagined relationship to the audience.

I wish to thank Der Spiegel for kindly granting me permission to trans­late and reprint this interview.

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