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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Traces of different colors: An interview with Peter E. Gordon

Traces of different colors: An interview with Peter E. Gordon

Soren Whited

Platypus Review 151 | November 2022

On February 17, 2022, Platypus Affiliated Society member Soren Whited interviewed Peter E. Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History and an affiliate of the Departments of Philosophy and German at Harvard University, author of Adorno and Existence (2016), the forthcoming A Precarious Happiness: Adorno and the Sources of Normativity (2023), and other works on modern European intellectual history. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Soren Whited: I’m interested in talking to you about your work on Adorno, and about your understanding of Adorno’s Marxism — his relation to historical Marxism and the Left in general. I’ll begin by asking you about your own encounter with Adorno. In the preface to Adorno and Existence you write that you initially hesitated to undertake a book-length treatment of Adorno: “I feared I loved him rather too much. Criticism is a scholarly virtue. Love is not.”[1] In what context did you first encounter Adorno? What impact has he had on you intellectually and academically? How has your fondness for him shaped the work you’ve done on him?

Peter E. Gordon: Except for one or two occasional essays, Adorno and Existence was my first attempt to write at great length about Adorno. Since that time, I’ve written more about him. For that initial exercise, however, I should admit that I felt ill-equipped to understand some of his core philosophical commitments and his Denkstil, his manner of thought, not least because I had spent so long wandering the Holzwege (wooded ways)with Martin Heidegger. It made sense as an initial foray into Adorno’s work that I would investigate his critical encounter with philosophies of existence and with phenomenology, from Kierkegaard through Husserl and Heidegger. I had spent so long in the thought world of the others in phenomenology and existentialism, that this seemed like a natural bridge to Adorno, a bridge that would help me gain some sense of orientation. That book was an initial foray, perhaps only a half-successful one. The book is largely expository, an exploration of what Adorno thought about Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Heidegger, and a few others along the way; it doesn’t offer my own analytical perspective. It doesn’t foreground any of my own independent judgments. That meant the book largely follows a method of neutral reconstruction and paraphrase.

I like to think that I’ve moved on from there, that I’ve developed a better understanding of what Adorno was up to philosophically, that I’ve permitted myself to develop a more independent and critical perspective on his work. Like many other students in Europe and North America, my earliest encounter with Adorno came years before in college, when I picked up a copy of Minima Moralia (1951), a book I found exhilarating and perplexing. Over the years, I found myself returning to the aphorisms and the dark pronouncements of that book, without understanding how it fit into his larger philosophical project. I continued to read Adorno and the Frankfurt School only piecemeal through the rest of my time in college, and I only came to understand them better when I began my graduate studies with Martin Jay at Berkeley. At that time, Berkeley was still in the grips of enthusiasm for French post-structuralism, and its intellectual influence there was stronger than that of the Frankfurt School. Notwithstanding Martin Jay’s stature, it seemed to me that the Frankfurt School had become something of a historical memory, whereas the legacy of Foucault, who had been a visiting professor in Berkeley in the early 1980s, was still a vivid and forceful presence. I once met Leo Löwenthal, who was a professor of sociology in Berkeley, but by that time he was quite old. My own interests in the German philosophical tradition therefore left me feeling a little marginalized.

Nonetheless, I knew that this was the focus of my intellectual passions. All the same, I confronted a certain problem; I suppose you could call it the anxiety of influence: because my advisor Martin Jay was so formidable and so knowledgeable, I was left with the feeling that I might not be able to contribute much that was new to the field. I was a timid student, and Jay’s scholarship loomed large. So it was easier for me to move to other topics.

My interest in Heidegger has something to do with that. To be sure, it also had deeper, more philosophical origins. I was especially drawn to Heidegger’s study of Kant and the problem of metaphysics, and found that book so intriguing that I felt compelled to develop a dissertation that would somehow address its singular importance. I began to work on the 1929 encounter between Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer in Davos, in part through the lens of Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish existential theologian whose thinking, despite noteworthy differences, is in some respects analogous to Heidegger’s.

All of which is to say that Adorno and the Frankfurt School remained a marginal presence, though I had the sense that my own natural style of thought — if I can put it this way without sounding arrogant — was not unlike what I found in Adorno. When I read Adorno, I had the feeling of deep recognition, of another thinker articulating my own intuitions, though with far greater precision. For this reason I was concerned it would be unproductive for me to write on him: I would feel too powerful a sense of intellectual and psychological identification. To write productively about any intellectual formation, there should be some critical distance. As Adorno would say, the mind needs a dialectic of negativity, not reconciliation or fusion. So it was only when I felt I could break the cathexis, to use the psychoanalytic term, that I could write about Adorno. This break took many years.

In the meantime, I deepened my understanding of the Frankfurt School. Once I came to Harvard, I began to teach the Frankfurt School, and I developed a strong interest in the later generations of critical theory, particularly JĂĽrgen Habermas.

One last point deserves mention: the 2014 publication of Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte (Black Notebooks) was a confirmation of what I already knew. Some scholars experienced it as a catastrophic revelation, perhaps because they hadn’t realized the depth of his anti-Semitism or his commitments to Nazism. I wrote a review of the Schwarze Hefte for The New York Review of Books,[2]and I had spent a summer reading the three initial volumes of the Black Notebooks in German. It was a distasteful experience, and I realized that I no longer wished to write about a person who was politically so unappealing and who belonged on the wrong side of history. All the same, my own philosophical disenchantment with Heidegger came much earlier. By the time I wrote the book on Davos, I had begun to realize that there were elements of his philosophy which struck me as either unintelligible or philosophically unsophisticated. This point often surprises people: it was most of all Heidegger’s assessment of the natural sciences that struck me as naïve. It’s a caricature that reflects deeper anti-modernist values and misunderstandings of the complexity of the history of philosophy. Cassirer, who was a brilliant philosopher of science and wrote a superb study of relativity theory, helped me to see the poverty of Heidegger’s understanding of the natural sciences. Being the son of a natural scientist, I found these caricatures not only implausible but intolerable. This may further explain my motives for turning back to Adorno from a position of greater intellectual maturity and critical distance. A bit like the prodigal son, I needed to travel a wide circuit before I made my return.

SW: That raises the question of the relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and his anti-Semitism. After the Black Notebooks, those who are inclined to defend Heidegger sought to uphold a distinction between the two, whereas others saw more continuity. I’m more interested in that question with respect to Adorno, i.e., the relationship between his political orientation and his philosophical work. Your engagement with Negative Dialectics (1966) indicates an interest in how its philosophical content intersects with political commitments or utopian ideals that Adorno holds dear.

But first, you said that you felt you needed to develop a certain kind of critical distance between yourself and Adorno before you could feel confident taking him up in a sustained manner, and that that took a while. What sort of development ultimately made you feel more comfortable and confident doing that? Did that happen with your teacher Martin Jay, regarding  your understanding of Adorno next to his. Did you have to create some distance there, before you felt confident enough to embark on a steady engagement over the last few years with Adorno’s work?

PG: I’ve actually never asked myself that. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Jay, and I continue to learn a great deal from him, not only about critical theory, but also the life of the mind, how one should conduct oneself as a scholar with a generosity of spirit, and an even-tempered style that exemplifies the virtues of interpretative charity. This style doesn’t come to me as naturally as it seems to come to him, but I do my best.

What I might have learned from him about Adorno is a more interesting matter. One of the less common aspects of my approach to critical theory is that I feel the possibility of mediating between first- and second-generation critical theorists. I.e., I’m in a contested philosophical space, mediating the problems that preoccupied Adorno / Horkheimer and the problems that preoccupy Habermas. I share this with Jay. It’s an uncommon position, because today there are hardened partisans of the two camps, and many believe that there can be no reconciliation. I suspect that this problem is of special interest for readers of the Platypus Review. Some critics see Habermas as having made an unforgivable retreat from Marxism, from the more revolutionary tendencies around the edges of the first generation, at least with its mediated relationship to Marxism and its overt alignment with Marxist themes, e.g., in the writings of Herbert Marcuse. As you know, Habermas was never a Marxist militant. He was already 40 years old in 1969, and he looked upon the conduct of student activists with unease — a mix of sympathy and concern.

SW: Given Habermas’s subsequent, apparent retreat from more radical commitments, it is interesting that in the context of the events in Frankfurt in 1969, he had, as you put it, a mix of sympathy and criticism. But he did talk about a Left fascism in that context.

PG: He later regretted that phrase.

SW: What did he say?

PG: I don’t recall his explanation. But we can appreciate why the charge was felt to be provocative in the German political postwar context. It may have been uttered in the heat of the moment and was something that he later came to feel was imprudent or unfair.

The task of mediating between first- and second-generation tendencies in critical theory has less to do with political questions than with philosophical problems. I’m not a dogmatic advocate of either school. I certainly wasn’t directly a student of either. Both generations are of interest philosophically. It is fascinating to see how Habermas has tried to develop an account of the universalist pragmatics that are built into human communication, the mundane rationality of intersubjective symbolic action. This insight needs to be retained, even by those who may otherwise feel critical of his rapprochement (reconciliation) with the liberal political tradition. Rationalism is not the exclusive possession of liberalism; it’s the universally shared medium by which we seek to describe and evaluate our world. On the question of Habermas and political liberalism, I think that this so-called rapprochement is often exaggerated. Habermas stands within the tradition of reformist social democracy as it took shape in the post-war era, especially following the reforms of the Godesberg Program.[3] Marxism was ejected from the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Habermas’s career followed a similar trajectory. In the European political tradition, he is and always has been a Social Democrat. If he has drawn near elements of liberalism, this has to do with his understanding of its political pluralism and democratic institutions; it hardly reflects a commitment to the sanctity of private property. Habermas is less optimistic about the marketplace of ideas, or an Adam Smithian faith in atomistic competition. All this to say, the questions raised by the first and the second generations are of interest philosophically, apart from the political orientation of the founders of critical theory. It’s never a good idea to reduce problems of philosophy to questions of political commitment.

SW: Do you see a higher degree of continuity, at least in the philosophical realm, between the two generations than others are inclined to see?

PG: Yes. I drive home this point when I’m introducing students to the tradition of critical theory. This continuity is evident when one reads Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) alongside Hambermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962). The latter was a very early book by Habermas, and it was one that he wrote when he was close to Adorno. One can detect lines of argumentative affinity between the two books. Public Sphere has been denatured by more empirically minded historians, who believe that Habermas plundered history for illustrations of a thriving public sphere that we should cherish. In fact, the historical and theoretical trajectory of the book is more sobering and dialectical than that: it ends with the refeudalization of the public sphere and the reemergence of the performance of publicity before an abject public. I.e., it ends with a dialectical reversal, not unlike Dialectic of Enlightenment: enlightenment reverts to myth. Habermas has a realistic assessment of the chances of public rationality: he’s not an exemplar of what is called “ideal theory,” because he embeds his model of communicative reason in a socio-historical framework that acknowledges how frequently that model remains unrealized. This is a continuity that is often missed by critics who insist on the chasm between the first and second generations of critical theory.

SW: As you say, that is an earlier work of Habermas. One interpretation of his development is that he departs incrementally, but ultimately substantially from the first generation, so that his later work is more distinct from Adorno and Horkheimer’s perspective.

PG: That may be the case. There’s a shift of interest and a greater concern for the rational grounding of criticism. That’s the message that came through with Habermas’s remarks right after Adorno’s death. He said that the question remains: how can critical theory be justified? As we know from Habermas’s Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985), he believed that the first generation had painted themselves into a corner because they expressed a totalizing indictment of reason, even while they needed to rely upon reason for their own critical project. I disagree with Habermas on that point. It’s clear to me, if you read the preface to Dialectic of Enlightenment, or the correspondence between Adorno and Horkheimer, that they thought of that book as the preparatory step in what they call the Rettung (saving) of the Enlightenment. Not unlike Habermas, they sustain the ideal of reason despite its distortions.

SW: They say in the preface: “What we had set out to do was nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.”[4] This indicates the spirit in which they were writing the book.

PG: Habermas’s concern was that they didn’t have a right to that commitment. He would ask, can they justify that claim, given their totalizing indictment of reason? That’s where I disagree with him. Dialectic of Enlightenment doesn’t express a totalizing indictment of reason. First, the book is hardly a self-consistent or a comprehensive statement; it’s a collection of what they call “philosophical fragments.” Second, it’s evident that they retain hope for a different modality of reason which is not dissociated from nature, a modality which they call mimesis. This idea of a mediated and non-dominating form of reason becomes the normative vantage point from which they criticize reason’s disfigurement.

SW: You talk a great deal in your Adorno Vorlesungen (2019) about the theme of reconciliation in Negative Dialectics and Adorno’s apparently paradoxical or aporetic attitude from one moment of the book to the next. As you have observed, he was not seeking to develop a systematic philosophy. He even refers to the project as an anti-system. This pertains to Habermas’s critique of Adorno, and then your critique of Habermas’s critique regarding Adorno’s apparent commitment to stay within that tension. But Adorno wants to resist the temptation to prematurely seek a resolution to antinomies, in the realm of thought only. What would you say is the philosophical value of that resistance to premature resolution?

PG: That’s the question of how Adorno thinks overall. You’re asking the more general question of what Adorno thinks the value of philosophy as such is. You’re right that he never wants to miss any moment of negativity in the drive to press toward reconciliation. The idea of a negative dialectic is just that: to express the resistance toward any premature reconciliation.

SW: That’s one of the grounds on which, in the final section of Negative Dialectics, Adorno upholds Kant against Hegel and Hegel’s desire to complete the circle, to do away with non-identity in a final sublation.

PG: Yes, I agree. E.g., in one of his earlier lecture courses  — “Introduction to Dialectics”  — Adorno contrasts what he calls the “closed dialectic” of Hegel’s philosophy with what he recommends as an “open dialectic” — one that attends to persistent negativity rather than pressing past negativity to reconciliation. This is a persistent theme in his work. Adorno remains faithful to that open dialectic because he thinks it’s the only way to honor genuine reconciliation.

This is something that some interpreters of Adorno miss. The question is, why is he concerned with sustaining the openness of the dialectic? Why is he so concerned to resist premature reconciliation? The answer can only be that he wants to protect the higher truth of reconciliation against its falsification. I.e., there is a counterfactual norm animating all of Adorno’s work, a norm of the true, by which he can take the measure of the false. That norm is not frequently stated, but it’s there. It’s stated only infrequently in Negative Dialectics, but that doesn’t mean that Adorno is lapsing into thoroughgoing skepticism about reconciliation (or peace or truth or happiness — he employs many such terms, often without taking care to differentiate them as he should). On the contrary, it’s a sign of how seriously he takes that norm, and how concerned he is to protect against the risk of its reification, which would sabotage its realization. This is the utopia which is entirely effaced but serves as the animating normative core. My Adorno Vorlesungen made a gesture in that direction, but they were rather brief lectures, more experimental than definitive. My forthcoming book will develop this argument in greater detail.[5] This norm is the most crucial feature of Adorno’s thinking, and it protects him against Habermas’s charge.

SW: Can you elaborate on your understanding of Adorno’s norm? To what degree can we understand that norm outside of the political, or more specifically, a Marxist context?

PG: I’ll quote from Negative Dialectics: “All happiness is but a fragment of the entire happiness men are denied, and are denied by themselves.”[6] And here’s another: “Grayness could not fill us with despair if our minds did not harbor the concept of different colors, scattered traces of which are not absent from the negative whole.”[7] Here we see metaphors of the fragment, the scattered trace (versprengte Spur). Adorno consistently used these metaphors throughout his career. They can be found in “The Actuality of Philosophy,” his inaugural lecture as professor at Frankfurt, all the way down to Negative Dialectics, and into the remarks on promises of happiness in Aesthetic Theory and so forth. Adorno senses that the totality is false, and that we know it is false because it is internally inconsistent: it contains the scattered traces of the alternative. He commits himself to the identifying fragments of happiness, or, in a rejoinder to Hegel’s metaphor of philosophy painting the world “gray on gray,” to scattered traces of a different color. Adorno took seriously the achievements of bourgeois culture and developed his negative dialectic through an immanent critique of its catastrophes and achievements. He burrows into the world as it exists. He sees it as fragmented, as broken, as shot through with negativity (though not just in the sense of “the negative”). This negativity is a sign of a truth that the false world wants to suppress. This is a qualification in Adorno’s thinking that scholars miss, because they believe that to claim Adorno as a radical thinker would mean to claim that Adorno makes no concession to the slightest traces of a happiness in the world we now inhabit. That interpretation is mistaken. Adorno’s immanent critique can only gain critical traction against the world, because we can say, “look what’s not being realized. Here are instances of happiness or human flourishing that the world is denying us. We have a glimpse of what might be, a glimpse of what’s being falsified or betrayed.” This is the truly radical perspective, and it’s consistent with Marxism.

Marx, with his understanding of the dynamism and dialectics of world history, understood that bourgeois society is not false through and through: it’s shot through with the signs of its own overcoming. This is why Marx could praise, e.g., the Ten Hours Act (1847), calling it the victory of the proletarian principle against the bourgeois principle.[8] The overcoming of bourgeois society takes shape within bourgeois society itself. Adorno is faithful to that same idea of the birth of the new out of the old, the obstetric metaphor that is so deeply at work in the historical dialectic in both its Hegelian and Marxian versions.

SW: Adorno picks up on and develops Marx’s immanent critique of capitalism, wherein that critique is understood to correspond to immanent contradictions within capitalism, particularly industrial capitalism. You referred to the Adornian formulation about the happiness that the world promises and yet denies. Presumably, forcing the world to release that happiness to us would entail some sort of practical transformation, a political or historical transformation. What role do you see philosophy playing in any such transformation?

PG: You’re asking me to step down from my innocent perch as a mere expositor and take a more definitive stand on these political questions.

We are all familiar with the Left-Hegelian conceit that one wants to sustain a bridge between theory and practice, and that at a certain point the interpretation of the world must inform our efforts to change it (to paraphrase the 11th thesis on Feuerbach[9]). We know from the beginning of Negative Dialectics that Adorno takes a dim view of that Left-Hegelian conceit. He says, “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”[10] The implication being that the dialectical sublation of theory into practice was possible only at a certain moment in time, but that epoch is gone, vorbei, and we live in the aftermath of catastrophe where all we can do is retreat to a critical thinking and gaze upon the ruins of the bridge that used to connect critical thinking to radical practice. I don’t share Adorno’s pessimism on that score.

The reason I disagree with him is unusual and may sound even more skeptical. By the end of the 1960s, particularly in the spring of 1969, Adorno had difficulties with some militant students in Frankfurt, in the context of which he wrote “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (1969), a bitter reflection, which we can understand as a coded expression of dissent from the students in the extra-parliamentary opposition.[11] “Marginalia” is also a philosophical meditation on the relationship of theory and practice. Adorno defends the view that the rush to praxis is always premature and has the tendency to betray the ideals it claims to promote; it descends into thoughtless praxis, or what he calls actionism. He recommends theory as a redemptive practice in itself. He says more than this in that essay, and it’s a fascinating text philosophically and as a record of his difficulties that spring. The reason why I disagree with Adorno may sound surprising: I don’t believe that most radical political events are first developed within a laboratory of theory, no matter how dynamic and historically alert that theory may seem. This is a conception of the relation between theory and practice that offers consolation to intellectuals who wish to indulge in the fantasy that their theorizing about politics will play a guiding role in political life. But the realm of political contestation and the movements of emancipation in the modern era have only the most tenuous relationship to the niceties of radical theory. I don’t say that with any great regret; I say it in a spirit of honesty or realism. Any candid assessment of political history shows that political activists often have a spontaneous awareness of what the political moment permits, which runs counter to what theorists have imagined. And that’s fine.

There’s an important role for social theory to clarify what is otherwise a disorienting historical situation. The situation changes from moment to moment, and theory needs to be alive to its changes. But what theory can do to steer the course of events strikes me as modest. It’s not negligible, but it’s far less than politically engagé intellectuals would prefer. They like to think that they’re directing what happens on the barricades. It awards too much prestige and authority to intellectuals to imagine that they have that kind of directorial view.

SW: Adorno didn’t subscribe to the view that practice is simply guided by theory. But he also critiques the inversion of that, where theory tails practice. How, then, should we understand the relationship between theory and practice? Should we understand that relationship as itself historically constituted, as manifested in different ways from one historical moment to the next? Already in Marx  — and before that in Hegel, Kant, and Rousseau  — there is a problematization of the theory-practice relationship. You cited the opening of Negative Dialectics, that “philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” That indicates that for Adorno there is a historical moment  — or a series or constellation of moments —wherein the theory-practice relationship underwent a shift. You also spoke about the notion that the later 20th century is a post-catastrophe age; so when was the catastrophe? Where would Adorno place it?

PG: I think what he’s referring to there, in rather Aesopian terms, is the failure of Left revolutionary movements in the West. Specifically, he has in mind the failed socialist revolution in Germany right at the end of World War I, the one he knew most intimately. He also has in mind the emergence of fascism, and the catastrophic betrayal of ideals of freedom in the Soviet Union, which descended into barbarism and mass murder. More generally, however, the opening passage in the book is a comment on the Left-Hegelian conceit which animated revolutionary and Social Democratic reformist movements in the West through the 1920s with the rise of fascism and National Socialism. Confronted with these interconnected catastrophes, Adorno was not unjustified in feeling that the hope for a dialectical bond between revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice had been irrevocably broken. I am tempted to say that I disagree with him for the simple reason that I don’t believe there has to be one historical moment at which social transformation is possible. The correlative is also true: there’s never a single moment at which social transformation becomes impossible. To hang all of one’s hopes on a specific temporal instant strikes me as mistaken. It confines the Left Hegelian idea of a bridge between theory and practice to a specific historical index, such that, after that instant in time has passed, we’re supposed to be left only with disappointment. Occasionally Adorno forgets his own dialectical principles and lapses into this mode of exaggerated, thoroughgoing hopelessness. That mournful posture is implausible and unhelpful. There are always possibilities for social transformation, though whether they take the form of revolution today strikes me as dubious. We should regrettably admit that social forces and institutional powers are aligned in such a way that revolution is more likely to come from the Right than the Left. One of the dangers for the Left is that in cleaving so much to the ideal of revolutionary change it fails to attend to the more incremental modifications that can actually improve human lives.

SW: That’s an interesting observation, that in today’s political context revolution is more likely to come from the Right. What might that look like? Would that be a purely regressive development, or do you see anything potentially redemptive in the Right’s antagonism to the status quo?

PG: There’s a tendency in crisis theory to think that the conditions of capitalism are so sclerotic and deadening, that action on the radical Right might be welcomed insofar as it might destabilize the forces of capitalism and thereby open up the possibility for an emancipatory revolution. This helps to explain why some recent theorists on the Left find inspiration in Rightist critics of political liberalism, like Carl Schmitt. The assumption is that hostility to liberalism is salutary regardless of its underlying political motives. That appeal to Rightist anti-liberalism strikes me as perverse. It isn’t helpful in the U.S., nor in most of the democracies of the capitalist West. On the contrary, all I see is the instability or fragility of liberal democracy; there’s nothing eternal about democratic life. Insofar as revolution is meant to honor the unrealized ideals of democracy, if liberal democracy were to collapse today, Left revolutionary politics would die a catastrophic death as well. So I don’t see why crisis theory is considered at all credible. Granted, there are a few exotic voices on the Left who disparage warnings about incipient fascism as little more than liberal hysteria. But anyone who feels optimistic about the survival of democracy is fooling themselves: the cool skeptic who says that fascism can never come again suffers from a failure of historical imagination.

Democracy has never been fully realized, surely not in the U.S., and it is being challenged from the Right by a rising movement of authoritarian populism around the globe. Unless one cleaves to the ludicrous old myth of American exceptionalism, it seems that the only responsible stance for those of us on the Left is to remain aware of the horrors that could replace liberal democracy. It’s nihilistic to observe with satisfaction as democracy loses its stability simply because we oppose the liberal-capitalist establishment. This was the posture of communists in the 1930s who attacked socialists as “social fascists.” We know what followed: the collapse of the Popular Front and the victory of fascist governments who hardly cared for the factionalism of its enemies.

SW: You spoke of the unrealized ideals of democracy and freedom, understanding the latter as it was elaborated in the liberal tradition, from the Enlightenment on. To what degree is Adorno faithful to that liberal conception of freedom? If these ideals of democracy and freedom are to be recovered, from where in the contemporary political climate might such a progressive tendency be harvested? Marx engaged the labor movement of his day as an object of immanent critique; Adorno engaged Heidegger  — and Heideggerianism  — as an object of critique through which he could point towards the fractured traces of which you’ve been talking. What is available to theorists today as such an object of critique? Do we have any such object?

PG: The most honest way to begin my response is by making it clear that I would never appoint myself to the role of a public intellectual who can speak for either the tendencies of the Left today or its future tasks. I have neither the confidence nor the competence for such a role. There are many other theorists I would prefer to read today if I were seeking that guidance. I find Axel Honneth’s work on the idea of socialism gripping, as I do Nancy Fraser’s remarks on socialism and her illuminating conversation with Honneth. I could mention a half dozen others, including Noam Chomsky, whose commentaries on politics have remained of great importance for me. I wouldn’t want to offer any pronouncements ex cathedra on the path the Left should take, or what its objects of criticism should be.

It’s obvious that corporate capitalism is powerful and dehumanizing, and it has created systemic injustice and suffering across the globe. Permit me to mention one specific case in point, namely, the highly bureaucratized for-profit healthcare insurance industry in the U.S. The fact that we have outsourced decision-making in our healthcare system to private corporations is one of the most irrational inventions of modern civilization. Such corporations systematically intervene in decisions between doctors and suffering patients, and they routinely deny care based upon the financial bottom line. The health insurance industry is an absolute scandal. So if there is one problem toward which I think the Left should continue to direct its energies, it would be the radical restructuring of medical care. The so-called “public option” is a merely reformist measure: the private health insurance system as a whole should be abolished. On a related point, it’s a bitter irony in American political culture that those who speak in the name of religious traditions are most often opposed to delivering medical care to the most vulnerable. The evangelical Right in the U.S. is an apologist for corporate greed, with the result being that they betray the message of the charismatic religious leader they claim as their founder (a religious revolutionary, who embraced the weak, the ill, and the outcast).

Another area of concern is voting rights. Today the stated ideals of American democracy are being betrayed by one of the two major political parties that control the U.S. They’re doing so systematically, state by state, to disenfranchise the poor, the non-white, and the disabled. Many of the most powerless depend on the system of voting by mail, and many of the states where the Right is strongest are now dismantling that system.

We need to invoke the norm that has been transgressed: the norm of democracy, of self- authorization. The norm of freedom that is realized through our participation in institutions is in jeopardy. We need to be able to invoke the norm in order to explain what is being violated. If there were no such norm, our social criticism would be unintelligible. This is why we need to defend Adorno and the first generation of critical theorists against the misreading of their work that sees them as denying the availability of standards or normativities, however faint or fragile those standards might be.

SW: You spoke of the need for there to be a norm in order for social criticism to make sense. You invoked health care and voting rights as two expressions of historical failure, or regression. We could add quite a few other expressions to the list. I’m interested in where that norm is preserved and the forms in which it is preserved, however constrained or distorted. Marx certainly opposed the pathologies of capitalism, but he addressed them by way of criticizing the Left’s attempts to mitigate and/or negate those pathologies. I.e., he took up the labor movement and other Leftist tendencies of the 19th century not only as a normative foundation for his social critique, but also as objects of critique. There are the abject pathologies of contemporary society, but where are its norms preserved in such a way that a critique of their constrained expression might ground a critical project attuned to its moment?

PG: That’s a great question. I gently disagree with your characterization of where Marx believed that norm was located. I’ll use a much-abused term and say that Marx was more of a humanist than that, and less of an institutionalist. In Capital (1867) we can see that Marx wants to document human suffering; he wants to focus our attention on the scandalous exploitation that occurs in the course of the average workday. Despite what Louis Althusser may have argued, there are moving passages in Capital that demonstrate Marx’s humanistic outrage and reflect his career as a journalist. One can also look at Engels on working-class Manchester. Both are instances of what you might call “ethical ethnography.” Marx thought that the International Workingmen’s Association was charged with the task of articulating the normative claims embodied in daily experience and then giving them an effective political structure. Adorno shares a fair bit with that model. Adorno’s immanent critique of bourgeois experience is alert to the dialectic between happiness and suffering that structures daily life. It’s one of the reasons why Minima Moralia might be his most successful book: it shows us the intermingling of happiness and suffering. It is an attempt to mobilize our sense of the everyday on behalf of a social critique. Of course, Adorno was not an effective thinker about political institutions.

The reason I disagree with you has to do with how we read Marx, and with how we read the purposes of Leftist theory today. There’s a danger that haunts Leftist theory, which is a certain kind of theoreticism and factionalism where the Left becomes so consumed with its own habit of criticizing and correcting other theorists on the Left that it loses sight of the widespread suffering it is supposed to remedy. We therefore fall into the habit that Marx himself ridiculed under the name of “critique of critical criticism.” Marx recognized the danger that Left intellectuals would grow obsessed with their own purity. Most of us in the U.S. are aware that this is a real danger in Leftist discourse. There’s also the danger in insisting upon purity in ideological posture and moral language. Universities are full of goodwill, but they are also too often caught up in a game of moral scrutiny where the point is to catch out another person at a transgression that you find unacceptable. If we continue to pursue this strategy, we’re going to end up in a circular firing squad.

SW: Marx recognized that danger, and yet he regularly wrote excoriating criticism of other Leftist texts.

PG: Oh yeah. E.g., his “Critique of the Gotha Programme” (1875). It’s bracing and intellectually moving. But it’s also preening and self-satisfied.

SW: Maybe so. But I wasn’t thinking about Marx’s polemicizing so much as what I would characterize as his identification of the radical labor and socialist movements as embodying the normative moment of capitalism, as manifesting the contradictions of capitalism that point beyond themselves, in however constrained a form. He takes up the Left itself as an object of critique insofar as it expresses the norm of freedom, and the immanent critique of that expression constitutes the condition of possibility for his articulation of socialism.

PG: That’s a great point. It may be that we differ as to what historical possibilities there are for that kind of unified Left political movement.

SW: That’s precisely what I'm asking about. I’m not sure that I have any definitive sense of to what degree or in what form such possibilities exist today.

PG: One of the Left’s disadvantages, but also one of its virtues, is that today it resists the demand to forge a solidaristic, single-minded revolutionary movement organized around a self-consistent program. It doesn’t move in lockstep. Instead it sees itself as a coalition of sometimes contesting interests and identities oriented toward a broadly shared goal. It’s easy for an authoritarian populist movement to coalesce around a single ideology. That’s what we’re seeing in the U.S., where those who don’t fall in line with the blonde beast are frequently drummed out of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is also a well-oiled machine, but it’s also more realistic about the need to hold together coalitions, and coalition politics fits with its pluralist value orientation. Authoritarianism has little interest in pluralism, which is a democratic virtue, not an authoritarian one. The liability of pluralism is that it can become disorganized, but it’s also more faithful to the diversity of its constituents. We would do a disservice to that diversity and to those constituents if we insist that there’s one goal, a particular hierarchy of needs, and a self-consistent platform, etc. We’re not in that kind of historical moment. We’re not in a moment of any kind of organized political party like the communist movements of the 20th century.

One last note, and it recalls the comment I made about my own uncomfortable position of mediating between first- and second-generation critical theory. An interesting thing in considering these two moments is that, on the one hand, we have Adorno and Horkheimer offering a grim assessment of the culture industry and how it standardizes not just popular media forms but even everyday life. The chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment is a radicalized restatement of the classical theory of ideology. It’s a thoroughgoing indictment of the standardization of everyday life under late capitalism. On the other hand, we have Habermas trying to revive this ideal of publicity and the authentic presentation of selves and social movements, articulating their claims in a rational manner for the sake of functional democracy. How can one adjudicate between those two visions? This is where people feel like they need to take sides. Something like the Habermasian ideal of mundane rationality in public should remain our lodestar, because it helps us take a measure of the pathologies we’re now seeing, to identify them and deliberate together over possible remedies. Granted, those pathologies have reached a point that I fear lies well beyond what Adorno and Horkheimer imagined. The rise of social media has distorted the possibility not only of rational discourse, but also of truly public conversation. I am deeply troubled by what has happened in social media. It’s no surprise to me that one of the threats to the persistence of democracy in the U.S. took the form of a president who preferred to rule by tweet. Twitter is not a mode of communication; it’s a mode of performance. As a scholar, one of the most disheartening things to see is that that mode of social media performance has also begun to compromise scholarly life itself. Academics are too eager to plunge into social media; they’re too tempted to engage in superficial polemic, in games of one-upmanship in what looks like theoretical contestation about sophisticated things but is often a contest for digital charisma. As someone who’s devoted my life to scholarship, this worries me. It’s dispiriting. |P

[1] Peter E. Gordon, Adorno and Existence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), ix.

[2] Peter E. Gordon, “Heidegger in Black,” New York Review of Books, October 9, 2014, available online at <>.

[3] A program of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), ratified in 1959 at a convention in the town of Bad Godesberg.

[4] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), xiv.

[5] To be printed in German by Suhrkamp Verlag and in English by the University of Chicago Press. Gordon’s Vorlesungen will be the basis of the book.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1973), 404.

[7] Ibid., 377–78.

[8] See Karl Marx, “Inaugural Address of the Working Men’s International Association” (1864), in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 517, available online at <>.

[9] See Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), in The Marx-Engels Reader, 143–45, available online at <>.

[10] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 3. This is also a reference to the closing sentence of Karl Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923).

[11] AuĂźerparlamentarische Opposition.