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"There is no such thing" — Review of Adorno's 'Philosophy and Sociology'

Aaron Bao

June 8, 2023

"There is no such thing" — A Review of Adorno's Philosophy and Sociology Aaron Bao June 7, 2023 In 1987, in the heady days of neoliberalism, Margaret Thatcher uttered the oft-quoted dictum “There is no such thing as society.” Several decades later, as neoliberalism falls into crisis, the internet meme “We live in a society” has been one of the most popular and cliched statements on the internet. Our moment seems quite different from thirty years ago, yet if you were to ask anyone the question: “What actually is society?” it would remain difficult to find an answer. Society, as Adorno will say, has become opaque. In fact, already by Adorno’s lifetime, as part of the famous “positivist dispute” in the social sciences, prominent chaired professors in sociology departments were saying that the concept of society needed to be dispensed with altogether, anticipating Margaret Thatcher by several decades. This complete denial by the discipline towards its very own object would have come as very disturbing for Auguste Comte, the founder of the field, who believed that Sociology would be the highest of sciences, one that could uncover the fundamental laws of society in order that a better, freer, more prosperous one could be possible. Yet this sea-change within the field did not happen simply because thinkers have become less intelligent or less perceptive; there is something about society itself as an object that has also changed. Adorno’s lectures on Philosophy and Sociology, transcribed in 1960, and translated and published last year by Polity Books, provide a necessary and salutary attempt to grapple with the concept of society, its meaning to us today, and why it is so difficult for us to grasp. *** Society, as Adorno will quote from the legal historian J C Bluntschli, is a concept of the third estate. In other words, the concept of society arose with the bourgeois revolution which threw off the fetters of the old, rigid, hierarchical, caste society of feudalism. For bourgeois society’s most radical expositors, those like Adam Smith and Hegel and Rousseau, society was a whole greater than the sum of its parts, nothing more than the sum total of all individuals taken together, in all their thoughts and actions and interactions, and yet also encompassing something greater than it with its own movement and dynamism and direction. This has deeper implications than what we’re usually accustomed to think. Every individual is, as Hegel will put it, a particularization of society. Everything you think has been already thought by others, everything you do has been already done by others, and the very constitution of your being and thought and feelings and action, from your most professional and external to your most personal and private and intimate lives has been completely conditioned, through and through, by society. When you sit alone in your room thinking by yourself, this might actually be you at your most social. Yet at the very same time, we are free, we are autonomous, we are self-determining, simply because the free individual is the very unit by which modern society is composed of — We are never more social than when we are free. Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology as an academic field, remains a very difficult thinker to grapple with today because he understands society in precisely this kind of way, as an object that is metaphysical . In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life , Durkheim will say that we moderns are to society what pre-modern people were to God, in that society is both entirely immanent within every aspect of our lives, thoughts, feelings, relationships, actions, yet is also a transcendent object that goes above and beyond all of us, to the point that it acts as a larger invisible force that compels and pushes and prohibits — in fact, it might even possess a will of its own. Society not only penetrates every aspect of our ways of interacting and relating to others, but in fact goes all the way down to the basic constitution of subjects as such, the basic categories and faculties which structure our consciousness and allow us to comprehend and grasp the world at all. For Durkheim, your very constitution as an individual who thinks and decides and acts is also social. When society acts on us as a law, as impulsion, as prohibition, it does not do so as a force wholly external to us but one that’s internal to us as well. In this way, we can have consciences, morals, qualms, and guilt. Within this ethical realm, we can feel the opacity of society precisely “where it hurts” — the places society becomes thinglike, becomes like nature, becomes something resistant to us — someone struggling against a social convention feels literally a physical force within them which tries to prevent them from acting this way. Of course, this is all simply happening “in your head.” At the same time, society is also an object that changes, develops, transforms. For a Rousseau or a Hegel, society is the way that we as humans transcend nature in order to create a second nature. In the most simple hunter-gatherer peoples, Durkheim describes moments of collective effervescence, religious ritual where man identifies with the totems of his tribe, and attributes new properties onto objects and things around him which are not there in everyday experience. Through these collective moments, a supra-empirical significance gets imputed onto things, which no longer dwell in a profane world but instead a super-sensory world charged with meaning. The given has become transcended, and the tribe’s interaction with the world and with each other has become transformed — this for Durkheim is what separates the humans from the animals. Though religion is the first way that humans are able to transform their nature and create a second nature, the modern world has been able to do so on a more thoroughgoing level. In a world made up of free, self-conscious individuals, society is a constant process of reflection and change and transformation, which takes place through individuals within a collective sociality that goes above and beyond them — modern thinkers such as Adam Smith or Rousseau or Hegel capture such a dynamic in their concepts of ‘the invisible hand’ or ‘the general will’ or ‘Geist.’ Less than a century later, under the conditions of industrial capitalism, that collective sociality which goes above and beyond its members but is yet nothing other than its members, has gone amok. Marx has an image of the sorcerer’s apprentice whose summoned spirits have broken beyond his ability to control them; man is now subject to what seemed originally his creation. In a world where the material relations between people become social relations among things, society itself takes on a thing-like character, a phantom objectivity, and seems to impose itself and its demands on its members. The older bourgeois dialectic of subject and object has broken down and society is known and felt by us in its very opacity and impenetrability. In fact, the chosisme of Durkheim, society’s resistant and opaque character, is a recognition that we’ve come to live in a reified society, one where society as second nature has become objective and rigid to us, in a reversion to the objectivity and rigidity of the first nature and its laws. Yet on the other hand, within every partial sphere, reification has also made society more transparent than ever. Within the modern division of labor, social production and organization have become increasingly rationalized; with that, modern individuals have been made consistent, predictable, uniform, down to the level of their motivations, wants and desires. The division of labor produces specialist fields which generate extremely precise and wide-ranging knowledge about every discrete topic of social interest. Every particular branch of knowledge and learning and practice has become more developed and rational than ever; yet at the level of the totality, everything appears ever more irrational and disconnected and difficult to grasp — the parts become transparent while the whole becomes opaque. Notably, this is the exact opposite of the situation that persevered at the time of the bourgeois revolution, where each particular field of inquiry was less well-developed, and each singular individual more unpredictable and difficult to assimilate to the prevailing knowledge, but there was an eminently highly developed ability to theorize and conceptualize the movement and functionings of the social whole, for example the entire tradition of classical political economy. What is difficult to understand today is how natural and straightforward concepts of society were to bourgeois thinkers in the past. In the mid-19th century Marx will off-handedly describe value as a social substance with little need for elaboration, something that contemporary commentators will write hundreds and hundreds of pages trying to explain. Put differently, what Marx and others took for granted in the past has become obscure and mysterious and esoteric in our epoch. How then, can one even begin to understand society today? Adorno is not going to give direct answers, but will approach the topic dialectically. In other words, by following the attempts of thought to get to know society as an object, and ways they find themselves inadequate, or only capable of capturing a partial picture, he can begin to intimate the fullness of the historical problem that we’re faced with. At first glance, the book is a collection of transcriptions of a lecture series, structured around the opposition of the academic fields of sociology and philosophy. Both of them, he observes, carve out their niche in the contemporary academic division of labor by delineating themselves from the other. Philosophy seeks to grasp unchanging metaphysical essences or logically necessary truths, while sociology relegates any conceptual discussion to “theory,” so that it can concern itself with empirical social research that takes society simply as a given without investigating the object itself. It should be noted, of course, that when the field of sociology emerged, as a very late science, and as a product of the French Revolution, it was scarcely if at all distinguished from philosophy. How philosophy and sociology came to be opposed and distinct fields, representing separate and incompatible claims to truth, becomes a central question of Adorno’s lectures, one that can shed light on the present state of society as a concept. Adorno, although he was both a professor of sociology and a professor of philosophy, would of course never have been able to give these lectures if he was simply an academic philosopher or simply a sociologist. What his approach presumes, and what allows him to take up these two competing academic disciplines in such a dialectical way, is his marxism, which is neither a philosophy nor a sociology. The first half of the book concerns itself with laying out the state of these fields, and looking back to see if the germs of the present situation can be found in the sociology or philosophy of the past. The second half takes up the question of ideology, where, according to Adorno, the relationship between Philosophy and Sociology is posed most sharply. Here, philosophical claims to the validity of truth come head to head with sociological claims to the genesis of knowledge. On the one hand, any theory that claims anything about the world can become watered down to “mere” ideology by showing its social and contextual and contingent origins; on the other hand, every theory of social origins has its own claims to validity and to truth. *** To talk at all about ideology presumes false ideology. This means that discussions of ideology often bring in conceptual structures which originate in philosophy, for example the essence-appearance distinction. False consciousness is often understood as a veil over peoples’ eyes that prevents them from seeing the world as it truly is, and in this way, for those more philosophically inclined, discussions of ideology may seem to bring us back to age old questions of relativism: if all thoughts are simply determined by class background or self interest or social position, how can we know that anything is true? How can we even trust our own thoughts if they’re simply reflections of our petty-bourgeois background or upbringing or education? Many today, in the aftermath of the new left’s failures, have blamed the impotence of the political left and its inability to change the world on the power of ideology. Usually this involves what Adorno would call a “totalizing” theory of ideology, one where everything is ideology . The world becomes an all-encompassing field of ideological constructs that every person is stuck in the middle of with no way out. Such a totalizing theory, Adorno notes, contains a resigned skepticism about the possibility of knowledge at the same time that it assumes a rigid absolutism about how knowledge is the product of social conditions. The value of all thoughts, or all cultural and intellectual products, is called into doubt because of their social genesis. In its most facile form, this is through some kind of ruling class conspiracy, but in more sophisticated thinkers there are objective social determinants which fully condition the existence of each and every ideological construct. As such, this conception of ideology takes up one extreme pole of the problem Adorno’s considering about the origin versus the validity of knowledge. For a totalizing theory of ideology, no idea has validity for its own sake; its significance derives wholly from its social origins and social determinants, a prime example of reified thinking, since thought is taken up in a thing-like way, simply as an object rather than for its own content. Adorno, of course, does not find this satisfying; he will want to understand ideology in a way which doesn’t counterpose genesis and validity, one which will be able to take up ideas in themselves as well as in their social necessity. In other words, Adorno wants to take up ideology in a way that is dialectical . To do this, one can’t simply weld one pole to the other in an attempt to make the antitheses touch. Instead, what’s required is to understand ideology at the level of history, and at the level of the totality, something which will require a recovery of the Marxist concept of ideology. For Marx, ideology is not about mere subjective attitudes and objective determinants, but about the totality. Just like the conceptions of Rousseau or Hegel or Durkheim described above, he understands society as a second nature, formed above and through the actions and wills and thoughts of humans as social animals. Ideology is not about simply thoughts, but the very constitution of modern individuals as individuals. Marx differs from Hegel or Rousseau not because he’s smarter, or because Hegel or Rousseau are wrong, but because there’s been a historical change; their bourgeois society has been thrown into contradiction by the industrial revolution, and every individual, as a particularization of society, is formed by that contradiction at their core. For Marx, ideology is a necessary appearance of the truth of our society. For example, the thought of free and equal exchange is internalized by every single member of bourgeois society and constitutes the most basic attitudes and orientations and actions which bourgeois subjects have towards one another, from the most basic interactions in the workplace to the most intimate relationships. Capitalism itself is based on a free and equal exchange between worker and capitalist, which at the very same time produces value which goes beyond what would be an equal exchange. In other words, the basic constitutive elements of bourgeois consciousness that are necessary for the functioning of capitalist society are also undermined and made a lie by the functioning of capitalist economy. Marx’s theory, Adorno notes, is a critical one, which means that it confronts society with its own immanent claims to rationality. Importantly, this doesn’t mean that ideology is a lie or a veil to keep capitalism going, but instead part of the implicit rationality of the system. Marx’s theory of ideology is not concerned with thought, but the very formation of subjects who live under capitalism. Liberty, equality and fraternity are not free-floating ideas that one can believe one day and discard the next; instead they are concepts that are constitutive to a modern world of free individuals, who understand themselves as free individuals, take up the world as free individuals, understand others as free individuals, and relate to those others as free individuals. Inasmuch as the epoch of industrial capitalism makes the actualization of such a freedom impossible, while at the same time demanding it of its members, while at the same time possessing the productive powers to make such freedom realizable, ideology will continue to exist. *** One way to compare the dialectical theory of ideology to the ‘totalizing’ one is that the totalizing theory is a positive one while the dialectical theory is a negative one. In a negative theory, there is a non-identity between consciousness and social being; for example, under capitalism, bourgeois consciousness sustains prevailing social conditions which outstrip it and undermine it, but also allows for the possibility of transcending those conditions. Or, as Adorno will say, something can only be ideology if it’s capable of being realized. On the other hand, in a positive theory, there is an identity of social being and consciousness — individuals are their conditions, individuals are their social determinants. This type of condition, Adorno will point out, is the one which prevailed in pre-modern times. In a hunter gatherer tribe, or in a classic feudal monarchy of medieval Europe, people were simply identical with their social roles. A peasant was a peasant, a king was a king. A peasant thought and felt like a peasant, and understood himself as a peasant. A king thought and felt like a king, and understood himself as a king. There could be no such thing as false consciousness because one’s consciousness would fully be fit for one’s social position. These positions might have been legitimated by religion, but the religion simply justified things as they were. In fact, Adorno will declare, there is no such thing as ideology until the coming of bourgeois society, since ideology required bourgeois society, in its long emergence out of the margins of european feudalism, to recognize itself as something different from feudal society, reflect on feudal society’s implicit claims to rationality, and question if it was living up to them – not long after, it was able to do the same for itself. The first enlightenment critiques of ideology took ideology to be forms of mass deception, or wool pulled over peoples’ eyes, usually by scheming jesuits or papists. This conspiratorialism, which remains common today, takes the world and its social relations for granted and then simply posits shadowy forces within it. More mature critiques took ideology to be expressions of the self-interest of a social formation, for example Locke’s critique of Filmer’s biblical justifications for kingship. Yet these critiques only retained their power because they existed in a world still stamped with pre-modern social forms, where aristocrats had a distinctly different social world and ideological self understanding than bourgeois town dwellers, who had a distinctly different social world and ideological self understanding than peasants and so on. Today however, in a society thoroughly bourgeoisified, ideology no longer lines up so cleanly with one’s immediate interest: a tech CEO and a fry cook will both believe you need to “be yourself” and “live your truth” and “practice self-care.” Ideology in the industrial age requires reckoning with the highest claims of the bourgeois enlightenment self consciousness of society to know itself, for example the science of political economy and its truth claims to the totality and the development of that totality. As political economy itself came into crisis in its attempts to grapple with the emergence of industrial capitalism, itself a crisis of the totality, the working class movement, demanding the value of their labor, insisted on political economy, and ideology critique concerned the fundamental truth claims of society. Today however, in the massified and administered and authoritarian society which was built atop the failure of the political movement of the working class to interpret and change the world, what ideology and ideology critique used to mean has become much more difficult to comprehend. In fact, Adorno will make the powerful and provocative claim that ideology is already ceasing to exist, pointing out that the relationship between individual consciousness and social being has become increasingly positive and identical, falling back to a condition akin to that of traditional society. Ideology requires a society with claims to a universal concept of reason and a commitment to social truth, yet these two things are no longer needed because society can be legitimated by the apparatus itself. Such a claim goes against the commonplace understanding of the present as an arena of competing ideologies. Yet what count as ‘ideologies’ today are not necessary forms of appearance that express a historical lag between the constitution of bourgeois subjects and the social conditions they live in, but instead something closer to ‘mental frameworks’ which are wielded by reified consciousness as a way to sort out the world, accept or reject, value good or bad, deem true or false without actually having to reflect on the objects that are being taken up. Many are able to recall political parties reversing their official ‘ideology’ to contain positions precisely the opposite from before, and their adherents going along with it without being very much disturbed or without very much needing to reconsider their identity or their role in society. Instead of ideology, what is present are detached and instrumentalized ideas ; in the absence of any emancipatory project to transform the world, politics becomes a contest of competing rackets, each attempting to draw the greatest benefit from a share in the administration of society – ideas in this world are not respected for their content, but for their utility as instruments and objects. Such a society can sustain itself perfectly well without a claim to truth – It can be noted here that contrary to the imagination of present-day dystopias, no 20th century authoritarian state included a ministry of truth, only ministries of propaganda, allied with industries of mass culture and education. Most contemporary critiques of ideology completely naturalize this deeply reified condition, reducing the critique of ideology to a critique of ideas, and treating critiqued ideas as if they were objects, reducible to their origins or uses or purposes or external relationships. Individuals too, are conceived of in a way that uncritically reproduces prevailing conditions; they become isolated, passive, and contemplative observers, detached from a reality which imposes itself upon them. For such an individual, molded and thrown about by powers that lie outside of his control and comprehension, the whole becomes obscure, thought becomes external, and the concept of society becomes incomprehensible. “To the things themselves!!” is Adorno’s constant refrain throughout these lectures. It’s all too easy, he’ll warn his students, especially on grounds of ideology-critique, to accept or reject an object, deem it true or false, posit a relationship for it, or fit it into a theory, without actually considering the object itself. Throughout the work, Adorno repeatedly urges his students, in “outbursts of pedagogical eros,” to take the world seriously, to forewarn them that the intellectual world is full of positive, pragmatic, identifying, totalizing theories. He repeatedly entreats them to take up objects genuinely, in terms of their own content, in both their static and dynamic aspects, in their being and becoming, in their expression of historical lag and contradiction between social being and consciousness. Through engaging in a negative critique, one that holds itself to this non-identity, they will find that they can transcend static antinomies between genesis and validity, oppositions of sociology and philosophy, and instead be pointed towards the whole which is fragmented, contradictory, afflicted and opaque. They will understand themselves as part of that contradictory social totality, flush with potentials and possibilities which realize themselves in a perpetually new unfreedom. As products of that unfreedom, fragmented, contradictory, afflicted and opaque themselves, they will find the splinter in their eye to be the strongest magnifying glass. Theodor W Adorno
Philosophy and Sociology
Cambridge, Polity Press, 2022. 341 pp., €21.50 pb
ISBN 9780745679426

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