(the) Political, Adorno, Agency and Politics, Alain Badiou, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Object Oriented Ontology, Ontological Politics, Speculative Realism

Adorno having a few speculative realist and object-oriented moments

While reading Adorno & Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment I was struck not merely by the complexity of their argument, but by the fact that their analysis of the achievements of Enlightenment shows so many (indirect) affiliations with recent developments in Speculative Realist or Object-Oriented ontologies.Before going into these it must or can be remarked that their project, at least in the light of this barely noticed relation to these new trends in philosophy, sets out to capture the political consequences of considering the fear of pre-Kantian (or, in their terms, mythological) thought, i.e. the ‘departing from bare facts’, as the fear of social deviation. As Adorno puts it, radicalized Enlightenment becomes ‘totalitarian’ ‘by tabooing any thought which sets out negatively from the facts or from prevailing modes of thoughts as obscure’ (p. 5). In other words; where Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented ontology up till now have largely developed as new and promising trends in continental philosophy, Adoro seems to pave to way to develop their (political) critical potential. As a preliminary, this would entail to show that denying the possibility of any ‘new’ to appear in reality, to claim to be able to exhaust ‘matter’ by dominating it (either by science or language etc.) implies the negation that critique can ever do anything but reinforce the existing ‘order’ (by taking over its categorical apparatus). 

(i) It is always the subject who confers meaning against the meaningless object and there always remains the distinction between rational significance and its accidental bearer.       The image of matter as an ‘accidental and meaningless bearer’ of something it is not, seems to lucidly capture SR’s or OOO’s attempt to grant the object itself either the possibility of meaning-by-effect or an existence that essentially escapes every attempt to fully grasp it. Graham Harman conceptualizes this by combining a Latourian ontology of relations with a phenomenological account of the realist status of objects – i.e. objects always function in a network of relations, but this network of relations does not exhaust their being. This would coincide with Adorno’s remark in the sense that the object can never be said to be just a bearer of something, since it is always itself something which it only ‘bears’ when one thinks of existence as that which is ‘beared’ by a being.

(ii) Whatever might be different is made the same; this sets the boundaries to every possible experience. Enlightenment relates every existing thing to every other by means of abstraction and calculation: it fixes the transcendence of the unknown in relation to the known.      Although perhaps more of a Badiouan fashion (in the sense that ‘fixing the unknown in relation to the known’ would for him relate to ‘democratic materialisms’s’ attempt to deny the possibility of the Event) it is interesting to see how Adorno here tries to show that the ‘new’ (‘something that cannot be exhausted by brute actuality’) is made impossible by means of abstraction. Abstraction would, then, count as the correlationist theorem that being and thinking are inextricably connected – as Meillassoux would say; they are always already related and one cannot have the one without the other. Adorno could be said to suggest that only realism (ofcourse not of the naive sort that would say that every rational thinking automatically grasps the thing as it is in itself) makes it possible to conceive or to think of the possibility that there can always be something that disrupts the known, i.e. that there can be a radical unknown-unknown (in Rumsfeldian). As he points out, it is Enlightened, demythologizing science which inevitably turns back into myth at the moment that it becomes and remains ‘pure immanent positivism’; at the moment at which it even labels Enlightenment itself as a myth. Adorno states that Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized; nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of outside is the real source of fear. The political message of this is clear; the Totalitarian only rules the people in as far as it is calculable, known and not disruptive or able of an unknown-unknown. In 21th century parlence; the ‘logical order’ of Badiouian everydayness always tries to consume the possibility of the new by seizing it, by incorporating it as a known, as a not-new.

(iii) This last political point is captured by Adorno when he says that: any stepping outside the jurisdiction of existence, i.e. the jurisdiction of the actual, becomes senseless and self-destructive.       The only function of Reason, as Adorno puts it, has become to manipulate the actual and its only concern is that which is immediately at hand. At this point his deviation from SR and OOO becomes beautifully apparent, since he – as many other of his contemporaries – places the possibility of the new in thought alone. In his terms; Thought, or reason, is a servant which cannot be controlled by its master. The SR or OOO would, rather, locate the possibility of the new, or the new itself in reality, i.e. as a possibility of the object as it exists as a non-correlative.

What the above fragments, nevertheless, show is that contemporary realist positions can and do have a political potential – although the title ‘realist’ causes an even bigger and totally different stir in politics than it does in philosophy, i.e. in philosophy it is shocking and seen as outdated, but in politics it is the term that is used for that politician which repeatedly compels others to ‘stick to the facts’. SR and OOO’s political-critical edge would be to take Badiou’s arguments serious, but without having to bite the Maoist-bullit. That is; it can use its argument that the ‘new’ can never totally exist as a mere correlate of the already-existing, that political categories of empirical circumstances, situations, events etc. do never exhaust the reality of these. Moreover, and in my opinion, most importantly it can try to conceptualize a kind of political critique that is wholly immanent. 

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7 thoughts on “Adorno having a few speculative realist and object-oriented moments

  1. Pingback: Horkheimer & Adorno’s possible relation to SR/OOO « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. Pingback: Adorno, Representation, and Differential Ontology « Larval Subjects .

  3. Thanks very much Graham/Levi for linking/commenting to the Adorno post.

    @ Ross Wolfe; I was only vaguely aware of that (obviously). I already wanted to read Brassier’s book, so this seems to be a good reason to try to get hold of it soon. (In relation to @Tim Morton’s comment) I’m curious whether Brassier also develops his take on Adorno in relation to Negative Dialectics. Seems to be worth researching.

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