Terge Steinulfsson Skjerdal: In search of a philosophy of praxis in Adorno's negative dialectics

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Steinulfsson Skjerdal, Terje. “In Search of a philosophy of praxis in Adorno’s Negative Aesthetics” http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/2152/adorno.htm (accessed August 17, 2008).

Key Words: Adorno, Marx, praxis, (negative) dialectics, change, (anti)rationalist

Other Words: neo-Marxism, culture, modernity, anti-enlightenment, culture industry, mass culture, capitalism, subjectivist explanations, anti-revolutionary nihilism, Marxist terminology, contextualization, totalitarianism, Frankfurt School, Habermas, resignation, “stand-still” oriented theory

Echoing Martin Jay, Terje Steinulfsson Skerjdal contends that Adorno’s negative dialectics critiques Hegelian Marxism as a methodology applicable for all social conditions. The author subsequently asserts that, as a theorization of practice, negative dialectics has had no effect on political change owing to its non-participatory and impractical disposition. Rather, it might be understood as a stratagem for resistance by way of resignation. The author supports this claim with assertions made by Adorno in his late essays titled “Resignation.” Here he “…accuses the practically-oriented advocates to be more easily objects of repression, ” a position (apparently) aligned with Adorno’s understanding of the cultural industry as a hegemonic force intent on coopting all resistance. Dissent is thus futile.

Having not read Adorno’s essay, I remain unsure of some of Steinulfsson Skerjdal’s assertions. This dubiousness is fostered by other curious claims made in this paper. These include the author’s sense that Adorno is anti-rationalist in spirit, a position quite different from Brian O’Connor’s more nuanced understanding of negative dialectics as a transcendental approached concerned with non-reified or non-reductive rationality as a critique of both philosophy and rationality. For Steinulfsson Skerjdal, however, Adorno’s approach is above all anti-rationalist thus and contrasts with Habermas’s understanding of reason as a tool for overcoming suppression. The author also offers a curious and under developed sense of negative dialectics as a “flattening out” of the dialectical analysis in classical Marxism. This point is illustrated with a quote from Ben Agger who asserts: “Dialectic no longer reveals the unfulfilled purpose of things, but instead simply mirrors a negative dialectic of society which successfully reconciles all social contradictions.” Again, not having read this source, it is difficult to evaluate Steinulfsson Skerjdal’s own reading of this text. Nevertheless, the author’s general tendency to read Adorno through secondary sources gives his paper a decidedly editorial gloss. Many perspectives are offered, only a few of which seem to be Adorno’s own.

These observations aside, the immediate value of Steinulfsson Skeerjdal’s text is two fold. On the one hand, the author elucidates the vague link between theory and practice in Adorno’s negative dialectics. He not only locates this disconnect in the zeitgeist of post-war Western Marxism (apparently characterized by disillusionment [?]) but also identifies Adorno’s conviction that theory is practice. But because Steinulfsson Skerjdal is concerned with the role of change in philosophy through the interplay of theory in practice [read: praxis], he concludes (rather reductively) that Adorno has no political significance in the contemporary world. According to the author, “[Adorno] was stuck in his pessimistic interpretations, his subjectivist explanations, his anti-revolutionary nihilism.”

On the other hand, this paper usefully compares and contrasts Adorno’s neo-Marxism to classical Marxism, notwithstanding Steinulfsson Skerjdal’s carefully made disclaimer that his paper should not be read as a comprehensive analysis of Adorno’s troubled relationship with Marx. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying this discussion, both theorists condemn capitalism and take a critical view of industrial progress, while also criticizing enlightenment reason as being totalitarian. Finally, Steinulfsson Skerjdal’s offers the provocative claim that three characteristics summarizing Adorno’s view of modernity can be expressed as follows: (1) mankind has a collectively corrupted mind (2) industry has exploitive motives (3) history is marked by collapsing progress.

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