Negative Dialectics

Note 1: Adorno, Hierarchy, and the Necessity of Dominion. 7/22/99

I take positive delight in saying things that are too naive to be believed. Putting myself forward as some sort of philosopher is one thing anyone who reads this ought to question a priori and without any evidence to support a contrary view that I am only a fool with a computer and too much time on my hands (looking at them now I see no-time on them at all), a view of myself (that I am a fool) even I would be inclined to support without hesitation or evidence either if I thought it mattered one way or the other in the first place but actually believe that being or not-being a philosopher is probably the least significant question of identity anyone can ask of anyone else and so consider myself neither one thing nor the other (fool as opposed to philosopher) which probably illustrates as well as anything can precisely why dialectics can never escape from the characterization of being only negative. Opposite extremes, fool on one side and philosopher on the other, when brought into juxtaposition with each other in a dialectical constellation are supposed to create, enter into, a synthesis which will then produce a composite character out of both, which will, and cannot, be precisely one or the other of the original terms but some newfangled subject/object none of us have ever heard of, seen, or experienced before in our lives. I have absolutely no idea what the synthesis of fool/philosopher is but, whatever it might be, neither philosopher nor fool certainly because both of those are obliterated, canceled out and negated by synthesis, I am nevertheless reasonably certain that such a beast should probably have its tongue cut out so as to spare the rest of us having to listen to whatever nonsense it might be inclined to utter. Since that did not happen, or has not happened yet, due probably to a profound lack of vigilance on the part of whatever agency is in charge of preserving the peace and tranquility of twentieth century Eurocentric ideological hegemony, I might as well get on with the business of saying something completely pointless and naive.

Theodor Adorno, in his "Introduction" to Negative Dialectics, expresses the opinion that "[t]he path of philosophical experience is twofold, like that of Heraclitus, one leading upward, one downward" (47). Being a "philosopher" of sorts, on the one hand, I want to jump right in with opinions of my own about what I think that statement means, what it encompasses, where it might take us if we follow it out to some logical end; but I hesitate to pursue my instincts in this case because I am not certain precisely what Adorno's reference to the "upward/downward" path of Heraclitus signifies. Being a fool, however, on the other hand, I am perfectly free to ignore my own ignorance, transforming myself into stupid, which is precisely what fools are known to do, and can therefore ask a question that occurs to me here: why is the path of philosophy perceived as either up or down and not left or right or forward or backward? Why is the vertical plane (up/down) better than the two horizontal ones (left/right; forward/backward) when one considers matters or problems of philosophical import? Given the fact that there are only six directions one can go when choosing a path, why settle on the vertical when there are twice as many options on the horizontal plane one can travel?

To claim that a philosophical path leads either to the left or to the right puts one in mind of the fact that a political judgment may have been rendered with reference to the ideological trend that a particular thinker tends to favor. A liberal philosophy is one that breaks away from a centrist orientation and moves toward a horizon that is decidedly more radical than one which moves toward the right and a more conservative approach to solving social problems. Left and right then would tend to classify a philosophical position more in terms of its political orientation than it would in terms of its potential as a metaphysical system. While it is possible to apply radical versus conservative quantification to questions involving the existence or non-existence of metaphysical categories, and to use such distinctions as a way to classify how those categories are infused with value, in terms of how this or that philosopher approaches such questions, and even possible to judge a thinker as radical or conservative where ethical and moral problems are involved, one is always left with the sense that the right way of perceiving such issues remains essentially ambiguous, if not relativized, when the principle means of judging the differential is abandoned to either a preference for radical thought as opposed to simply a conservative one. In other words, left and right, as terms and means of judgment, simply do not rise to the level of certainty that a more absolute distinction between one and the other implies in a context where every thinker is perceived as free to choose this position over that other one.

On the other hand, of course, it is still possible to make a moral judgment against a thinker who might be inclined to choose left over right as a means of pursuing this or that philosophical question. I know this from personal experience because my fifth grade teacher decided one day to cure me of the intolerable habit I had developed of writing with my left hand instead of my right one. Being wrong to use my left hand, she tied it to the desk to prevent me using it at all. That "issue" was resolved in my philosophical favor by my father, also left-handed, when he had a word or two with my teacher. She gave up reformulating my mind to her standard after that but always hated me anyway because I refused to conform to modes and means of normal production, using my left instead of my right and/or proper hand.

Moving on then to the second question as to why Adorno perceives philosophical thought as a matter of up/down and not forward and backward, one can surmise that the binary forward/backward, as applied to habits of thought, might be too heavily weighted in favor of forward and against backward to be useful as a generalizing characterization of the kind of path a philosopher might be inclined to follow. This is true because Eurocentric discourse has always believed in the myth of its own progress toward perfection and to move, willfully or not, in a backward direction condemns one to an ultimate and perceived failure to realize that supreme but illusory standard of perfection. Progressive and reactionary modes of thought, while they can certainly be said to exist in human consciousness, are again so much a matter of relativistic perception, so much a habit of usage and cultural expectation, and so dependent on the everyday contingencies of living an honest life, that they cannot be effectively used, I suppose, to qualify the nature of a path one might choose to follow toward philosophical discernment. One problem I see in this context is the inevitable possibility that a thinker might very well be confronted by a situation that requires more than a backward glance over ground already covered in order to find a way around a stumbling block in his forward pointing path that arose out of an unanticipated contingency he/she could not have reasonably foreseen. Taking three steps back in order to take one step forward, especially if everyone is looking at you while you are reversing your field, which they are likely to be doing because someone brought to your attention the fact that your previous path was flawed, causing you prudently to reverse your course for necessary corrections, will give them the false impression that you are more a back-slider than the forward- strider you have always claimed to be.

Since what might be perceived as a forward thought by one person can just as easily be called backward by another, and since there seems to be no possibility of creating a scale of judgment that can codify what is, and is not, truly forward as opposed to backward, we are left (handed) with the final binary which has always already been the one preferred by most people anyway for use as a classification of how a philosophical path ought to be viewed and considered by anyone not directly responsible for creating it in the first place. Up/Down, then, if only by default, since none of the other directional possibilities seem suitable to the task, comes to be seen, not as just the best way to classify philosophy, but as the only way it can and ought to be done.

A philosophical path which takes an upward direction, then, can be said to strive toward the realization of God, Heaven, and the wholly idealistic realm of perfect thoughts and pure reason where every philosopher worthy of the title wants to park his pound of beans at the end of his harvest of good ideas and bad. On the other hand, and in the opposite direction, of course, and this goes without saying, a path which takes a downward turn must inevitably lead not to God but to the Devil, not to Heaven but to Hell, and finally, not to ideal forms and pure reason but to broken pieces of materialistic reality perceived through a filtering haze of irrational falsity meant only to deflect the seeker of truth from his goal and mission in life. There is no ambiguity here, no relativity, no room for doubt, no space for second-guessing the true/false validity of what the philosopher claims to perceive. In the up/down model everyone already knows the difference between the good, the bad, the true, the false, the pure, the impure, the rational and the insane.

Adorno puts it this way:

"The principle of dominion, which antagonistically rends human society, is the same principle which, spiritualized, causes the difference between the concept and its subject matter; and that difference assumes the logical form of contradiction because, measured by the principle of dominion, whatever does not bow to its unity will not appear as something different from and indifferent to the principle, but as a violation of logic." (48)

In the Up/Down model of philosophical travel, then, as everyone probably already knows, it is not only possible to retain the all-pervasive and indispensable categories of essentalistic hierarchy, as a "principle of dominion," as Adorno does here, but it is literally impossible to escape from them even if you were inclined to make such a break for freedom from structures of thought always already intent on sorting out everything visible and invisible under the sun into graduated scales of good/evil, true/false, valuable/worthless, and so on. The truly wonderful thing about this kind of thinking, of course, is that most of the judgments rendered under the "principle of dominion" have already been made for the philosophical journey-man/woman and little if any time need be spent sorting out or through the problem of how any particular idea fits into a scale of value determined by structures of hierarchical necessity because those judgments come with the package one buys into in the first place. As Adorno notes here, the idea which does not "bow to [the] unity" of the system one chooses as a philosophical path is simply dismissed a priori as being "a violation of logic." The obvious point to be made here, of course, is that left/right and forward/backward do not automatically embrace the notion of any particular brand of hierarchical structure because higher/lower only exist on a vertical plane of reasoning and never enter the picture when one is wasting a life of thought on a purely horizontal ground.

If it does not go without saying, Adorno clearly is in favor of rejecting all notions and forms of relativity, which are standard, if not inherent, aspects of the left/right, forward/backward models of thinking. He makes this clear when he says that "relativism has gone somewhat out of style" and we "do not hear so much twaddle about it either" (90). The only question I have at this point is how exactly do you go about reforming the shape of planetary orbits from ellipses back again into the more stylistically acceptable circles that they used to have under the old Ptolemaic system which inevitably supports the concept of the "principle of dominion" Adorno refuses to abandon here even in the face of all reasonable evidence to the contrary. He does as all other deterministic philosophers do: he simply chooses to call it "twaddle" and ignores the implications of Einstein's cosmological revolution by pretending that it has nothing to do with the shape of human thought processes, especially when the right to domination, "which antagonistically rends human society," has finally been shown up to be just another misguided notion at odds with the real shape of the natural world.

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