The consciousness industry



Commentary on “Minima Moralia”, book by Theodor W. Adorno

Inappropriate to be read diagonally, Adorno's style is anti-journalistic and slow, like that of the translator Gabriel Cohn, who rejects the version that enshrines “reflections from the damaged life”, preferring “the damaged life”, radicalizing a dialectic that it will be done “from” the mutilated life, as a “late” form of life, from what remains, survives and “comes later”.

“Injured” is life wounded in body and spirit by the monstrous practices of fascism and anti-Semitism, bureaucracy and totalitarianism, as well as by its most “benign” figure, the cultural industry and cliché thinking. “Aggrieved” is the individual without communication with the other, who has lost the ways of living in company, with the disappearance of the art of giving gifts or of closing a door without slamming it, which expressed modes of coexistence, civility and politeness, constituting the recognition of the reciprocal presence in a common and shared space.

Minima Moralia revives the humanist ideals of “delicacy of manners” and the disinterested passion for things of the spirit that good living supposes, characteristics of cosmopolitanism and European encyclopedism: “Goethe, who was clearly aware of the imminent impossibility of any human relations in society emerging industrialist, sought, in the novels of Wilhelm Meister's years of pilgrimage, to represent civility as a savior reference among alienated men. For him, the human consisted of a self-limitation, which supplication assimilated the inexorable march of history, the inhumanity of progress, the atrophy of the subject”.

In the essay that accompanies the translation, Gabriel Cohn considers the acoustics of the words in Portuguese and in German, elects a “dodecaphonic” language, mobilizing formulas and allusions to signify the ruins and the shock, in life and in thought. Rebel, still, is the book that is an autobiography, but challenging the rules of the genre with continuous narratives of experiences to be transmitted. In the world of total domination of men and things, existence is shattered, because contemporary history is that of life damaged by the “society of total administration” and by the industry of conscience: “To think of the complete liquidation of the individual is still too optimistic. In the midst of standardized and managed human units the individual vegetates”.

From Aristotle to Cicero, from Montaigne to La Rochefoucauld and Proust, Minima Moralia gives continuity to the tradition of humanism and the search for the “good life”, giving letters, languages, rhetoric, morals, politics the narrative of gesta hominis, the practical knowledge of the lives of individuals and their course, in their conflicts and conjunctions. Just as scientific thought and dialectics, under the hegemony of the concept, fall back on positivity and the affirmation of the existing, the moral minimums are responsible for raising, in abstract forms, the historical contents reified in the logic of domination: “the depth in which it [dialectical determination] plunges into objectivity at the cost of being an accomplice in the lie that objectivity is already the truth”.

Em Minima Moralia institutional philosophy disappears, obsessed with the drastic distinction between true and false, founded on the ego cogito and its criterion of truth. Confusing the “book of nature” with the “book of man”, knowledge has become analytical, transforming man into the object of the classificatory procedure: “topological thinking knows the place of each phenomenon”, but does not know a single phenomenon, writes Adorno in Prisms; “is secretly linked to the system of paranoid madness that no longer has contact with the experience of the object.” He understands paranoia as the autism of reason for which all his others are just an occasion for delirium. Think of synthetic biology, the fabrication of life from inert matter and the “self-regulation” of science which, like the greed of the market, recognizes no limits.

The “coldness of contact” with what is alive corresponds to the subject’s non-contact with himself and with the other, a coldness that Adorno refers to considering the end of experience, the end of thinking: “the clarification delivered ready transforms into products of mass not only spontaneous reflection but also analytical insights, whose force equals the energy and suffering with which they are obtained, and reduces to trivial conventions the painful secrets of individual life as the orthodox method tended to reduce to formulas.

The dissolution of rationalizations itself becomes rationalization. Instead of performing the work of self-awareness, experts acquire the ability to subsume all instinctual conflicts in concepts that deep down cannot reach them. "The fear before the abyss of the ego is removed by the awareness that none of these are more than trivial evils".

World of banality and insignificance is also antigenealogical. In it, the individual conceives of himself as if he owes everything to himself, revealing a symbolic deficit and the lack of stable and lasting ties between individuals and in society. This results in the loss of sensus communis, called by Kant “mental disorder”, and the appearance of the “logical singularity” or sensus privatus, with the impoverishment of the subject's inner landscape. If the world of moral maxims is that of the history of “characters”, of self-knowledge and “care of the self”, it concerns the experience in the tradition of ancient and modern moralists.

Maxims and sentences helped to cope with misfortune and good fortune because they served as an example. Differentiating example e copy, the Latin reveals that this is what one should imitate, while the example it also comprises a moral and intellectual meaning, as well as requires love: “love is the ability to perceive the similar in the dissimilar”.

Adorno, with his micrological method of valuing detail, everyday life, of what, in textbooks, was passed over as a footnote, welcomes the insurgent fragments that oppose the dichotomy of the particular and the universal, releasing a uniqueness that is irreducible to one of the two terms, since the regime of his discourse is not logic, but “analogy”, for which there is no general rule. Approaching the doctrine of correspondences and similarities, he establishes relationships between diverse and heterogeneous domains to manifest the hidden virtues of things.

Moral minima constitute the subversion of the present which, in the tradition of the philosophical essay and the sentences, must surprise the status quo, so that thought is not absorbed by the “facticity of a false state”. The fully managed society is one of subordination of all spheres of life to the economic factor. It is an “open-air prison” in which “the guarantee of not dying of hunger is obtained in exchange for the risk of dying of boredom” (Raoul Vaneigen).

* Olgaria Matos is a professor of philosophy at Unifesp. Author, among other books, of Philosophical palindromes: between myth and history (Unifesp).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 2, May 2009.



Theodor W. Adorno. Minima Moralia - Reflections from the injured life. Translation and presentation: Gabriel Cohn. Rio de Janeiro, Azougue editorial, 266 pages.

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