Resignation

Fritz Wotruba (1907-1975), Der Denker (The Thinker), 1948.
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By THEODOR W. ADORNMENT*

A radio conference given in 1968.

We, the older representatives of what came to be called the Frankfurt School, have recently been accused of resignation. We would have developed elements of a critical theory of society, but we would not have been willing to draw practical consequences from it. Nor would we have provided action plans or even supported the actions of those who felt stimulated by critical theory.

I leave aside the question whether this can be required of theoretical thinkers, who are in some ways sensitive and by no means shockproof instruments. The determination that fell to them in society based on the social division of labor may be questionable and, perhaps, they themselves have been deformed [deformiert] for her. But they were also formed [geformt] for her; certainly, they could not suppress, by mere will, what they had become.

I do not mean to deny the moment of subjective weakness inherent in confinement to theory. I consider the objective side more important. The objection, easily repeated, goes more or less as follows: anyone who at this point doubts the radical transformation of society and who, therefore, does not participate in spectacular and violent actions, nor recommends them, would have resigned. He does not consider achievable what he imagines; in fact he never wanted to do it. Inasmuch as he leaves the state of things as it is, he approves of it without avowing it.

The distance from praxis is suspect in everyone's eyes. Those who don't roll up their sleeves and don't want to get their hands dirty are discredited, as if the aversion to that wasn't legitimate and distorted only by privilege. Mistrust of those who distrust praxis spreads from those who repeat the old motto “enough talk” to those on the other side, to the objective spirit of advertising, which propagates the image [BILD] - the ideal [mission], as they call him – of the active and acting man; whether he is a business leader or a sportsman. Everyone must participate. Who only thinks, who withdraws, would be weak, cowardly, virtually a traitor. Without their realizing it, the hostile cliché of the intellectual operates deep within the group of those oppositionists, who are, in turn, called intellectuals.

The thinking activists respond: what should be transformed precisely, among other things, the very state of separation between theory and praxis. Praxis would be necessary precisely to get rid of the domination of practical men and the practical ideal. But soon there arises a prohibition to think. A minimum is enough for resistance to repression to turn repressively against those who, however little they want to glorify their own being [das Selbstsein], do not renounce what they have become.

The much proclaimed unity between theory and praxis has a tendency to pass to the predominance of praxis. Some strands vilify the theory itself as a form of oppression; as if praxis were not linked to it in a much more immediate way. In Marx, the doctrine of this unity was animated by the present possibility of action – not already realized at that moment. Today, the opposite is taking shape. People cling to actions out of appreciation for the impossibility of action.

However, already in Marx there is a hidden wound. Perhaps he expounded the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach so authoritatively because he himself was not entirely sure of it. In his youth, he had claimed “merciless criticism of everything existing [rucksichtslose Kritik alles Bestehenden]”. However, he mocked the critics. But his famous joke about the Young Hegelians, the term "critical criticism," was a long shot, fading into mere tautology.

The forced primacy of praxis irrationally silenced the criticism that Marx himself exercised. In Russia and in the orthodoxy of other countries, the mean joke about critical criticism has become an instrument for the existing [das Bestehende] could accommodate in a terrible way. Praxis simply meant: increasing production of means of production; criticism was no longer tolerated, with the exception of the one that said that people were not working hard enough. With ease, the subordination of theory to praxis was inverted in the service of a renewed oppression.

Thought, self-conscious enlightenment, threatens to disenchant the pseudo-reality in which activism moves, according to Habermas's formulation. This activism can only be tolerated because it is taken as a pseudo-reality. As a subjective posture, pseudo-reality is combined with pseudo-activity – a doing that is concealed and activated thanks to the very nature of the activity. publicity, without admitting to what extent it serves as a substitutive satisfaction, rising to an end in itself. Inmates desperately want to get out.
The repressive intolerance against thinking that is not immediately accompanied by instruction to action is based on fear. Unguarded thought and the attitude that does not allow one to bargain with it must be feared, because, deep down, one knows what one must not admit: that thought is right. An old bourgeois mechanism, which the Enlightenment [spotter] of the XNUMXth century knew well, it is repeated, but in an unchanged way: the suffering caused by a negative state, this time by a blocked reality, becomes fury against the one who expresses it.

In such situations, one no longer thinks, or one thinks only with fictitious assumptions. In hypostatized praxis, one only reacts and, therefore, in a false way. Only thought could find a way out, more precisely a thought for which one does not prescribe what should result from it, as so often happens in those discussions in which it is predetermined who should be right and which, therefore, do not advance the question, but whether inevitably degenerate into tactical questions.

If the doors are obstructed, then thought, still less, must be stopped. He should first analyze the reasons and then draw the consequences. It is up to him not to accept the situation as definitive. It would transform itself, if that were possible, only through an understanding [insight] unrestricted. The leap into praxis does not cure the thought of resignation as long as it is paid for with the secret knowledge that this is not the way to go.

Pseudo-activity is, in general, the attempt to save enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a completely mediated and hardened society. Such attempts are rationalized by saying that the small transformation would be a step on the long road towards the transformation of the whole. The fatal model of pseudo-activity is the "do it yourself”, do it yourself: activities in which you do what, for a long time, could be better done with the help of industrial production, just to awaken in unfree individuals, paralyzed in their spontaneity, the confidence that they are important . The stupidity of "do it yourself" in the production of material goods and also in many repairs is evident. It is not, however, total. In the scarcity of so-called services, provision of services, the measures that a private person takes, sometimes unnecessary according to the technical level, fulfill an almost rational purpose.

The "do it yourself" in politics is not exactly the same type. Men themselves are the society that impenetrably confronts them. Confidence in the limited action of small groups is reminiscent of spontaneity, which atrophies under the rigid whole without which it cannot transform itself into another. The managed world tends to stifle all spontaneity, and ultimately channel it into pseudo-activity. At least, it doesn't work as smoothly as agents in the administered world would have hoped.

However, spontaneity must not be hypostatized, nor separated from its objective situation and idolized as the managed world itself. Otherwise, the ax at home, which never dispenses with the carpenter, breaks through the next door and the riot police take up position. Political actions can also be reduced to pseudo-activities, to theater. It is not by chance that the ideals of immediate action, themselves propaganda of the act, are resurrected after organizations, once progressive, meekly integrated and developed, in all countries of the world, traces of what they once opposed. But, thus, the criticism of anarchism did not expire. His return is that of a ghost. Impatience with theory, which manifests itself in it, does not drive thought beyond itself. To the extent that it forgets it, it falls short of thought.

This is facilitated for the individual through his capitulation to the collective with which he identifies. He is spared the acknowledgment of his impotence; the few become the many. That act, not the resolute thought, is resigned. There is no transparent relationship between the interests of the Self and the collective, to which it surrenders. The Self must be erased to become part of the collective's election of grace. An implicitly un-Kantian categorical imperative arises: you must sign below.

The feeling of new protection [security] is paid for with the sacrifice of autonomous thought. It is a misleading consolation to think that one would think better in the context of collective action: the act of thinking, as a mere instrument of actions, is dulled like instrumental reason in general. No way [shape] superior of society is concretely visible at this moment: therefore, there is something regressive in those who behave as if it were within reach. But whoever regresses, according to Freud, has not reached the goal of his drive [Triebziel] The regressive degeneration [regression] is objectively renunciation, even if it considers itself the opposite of this and naively propagates the pleasure principle.

Faced with this, the uncompromised critical thinker, who does not falsify conscience and does not allow himself to be terrified into acting, is the one who actually does not give up. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what, in any case, is. As long as thought does not cease, it retains the possibility. Its insatiability, its aversion to being deceived, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation. In it, the utopian moment is stronger the less it objectifies itself in utopia – this is also a form of regression – in such a way as to sabotage its realization.

Open thinking points beyond itself. Being itself a behavior, a figure [shape] of praxis, he has more affinity with transforming praxis than he who obeys in the name of praxis. In fact, in the face of any particular content, thought is already the force for resistance and was only painfully alienated from it.

Such an emphatic concept of thought is certainly not covered up either by existing relationships, or by ends to be achieved, or by any battalions. What was once thought can be repressed, forgotten, taken away. However, he is not persuaded that any of it survives. For thought possesses the moment of the universal. What has been accurately thought must be thought by others, elsewhere: this confidence accompanies even the loneliest and most helpless thought.

Those who think do not get angry in criticism: thought has sublimated fury. Since the thinker does not force himself, he does not want to force others either. The happiness that appears in his eyes is the happiness of mankind. The universal tendency of repression runs counter to thought as such. He is happiness even where he determines unhappiness: insofar as he expresses it. Only in this way does happiness penetrate universal unhappiness. Anyone who does not allow this to languish has not resigned.

*Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) was a professor at the Universität Frankfurt (Germany). Author, among other books, of the authoritative personality (Unesp).

Translation: Felipe Catalani.

Originally published in german philosophy notebooks, flight. 23, no 1.

 

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