13. System, Antinomically

The system-generating principle of the ego—pure method, pre-sorted and prescribed for each and every content—was, from the beginning, ratio. There is nothing outside of it that could set it a few boundaries, not even the so-called order of the mind. If idealism, in all its various stages, certifies that its principle is positive infinity, it makes a metaphysics out of the condition of thought, which is to say, out of its historical autonomization. It eliminates any heterogeneous beings. This defines the system as pure Becoming, as pure process, ultimately as the absolute act of production that Fichte—to this extent philosophy’s authentic system builder—declares thinking to be. Already in Kant, the only thing still holding back emancipated ratio, the progressus ad infinitum, was the at least formal acknowledgement of the non-identical. There is an antinomy of totality and infinity, for the restless ad infinitum blows open any system that has come to rest in itself, even though system owes its very existence to that same infinity; this antinomy is of an entirely idealist nature. It mimics one of the central antinomies of bourgeois society. If it wants to preserve itself, to stay the same—if it wants “to be”—it, too, must perpetually expand, press forward, push its boundaries further and further back, respect no-one, not stay the same. It has been demonstrated to bourgeois society that as soon as it reaches its ceiling, as soon as it no longer disposes over non-capitalist regions outside its borders, it will have no choice, following its own concept, but to nullify itself. This helps explain why antiquity, Aristotle notwithstanding, did not comply with the modern concept of dynamics, no less than the concept of system. Even Plato, whose dialogues have bequeathed the aporetic form to so many later thinkers, could be said only in retrospect to deal with dynamism and system. The reproach that Kant doled out to the ancients on this score concerns something more than logic; rather, it is historical and so modern through and through. On the other side of the equation, systematicity is so deeply ingrained into modern consciousness that the anti-systemic efforts undertaken by Husserl under the name of ontology, of which Heidegger’s fundamental ontology was then the offshoot, inevitably regressed back into system, as the price of their formalization. Entangled with one another in this fashion, the static nature of the system is permanently in conflict with its dynamism. Should there actually exist a closed system, it would be, no matter how dynamically conceived, a positive infinity and thus finite, static. That system entertains such notions of itself—entertains what Hegel boasted of his own system—this stops system in its tracks. Crudely put, closed systems are exhausted, beat. Scurrilities, like the one that critics are always attributing to Hegel—world history culminates in the Prussian state—aren’t just ideologically motivated aberrations, nor are they irrelevant to considerations of totality. They are a necessary nonsense, and it is around them that the unity of system and dynamism, under pressure from the start, begins to disintegrate. Dynamism negates the concept of the boundary or border but makes sure, at the level of theory, that there is always something on the outside, some external term, and so displays a tendency to disavow the system that is its product. It would be instructive to look again at the history of modern philosophy and ask how it has come to grips with the antagonism, in this or that system, between statics and dynamics. Hegelian thought only looked like a system in process or a becoming; its every individual determination was implicitly planned out in advance. It was rigged and so condemned to untruth. Consciousness would have to, as it were, lose consciousness, to swoon and thereby plunge itself into the phenomena on which it takes a position. A dialectic of this sort would of course undergo a qualitative change. The unanimity of the system would go to pieces. The phenomenon would no longer be what it remains in Hegel, all his declarations to the contrary notwithstanding: the example of its concept. This procedure would make matters even harder for thought, harder than what Hegel names, because a thought for him only ever extracts from its objects something that is itself already thought. Despite the Hegelian program of Entäusserung or externalization, and as often as it seems to call for a counterpart or opposite number, thought still pleasures itself in itself, unwinds like thread off a spool. If it really were to externalize itself, if it were to relinquish itself to the thing, if it aimed at the latter and not at the latter’s category, then under the lingering gaze of thought the object itself would begin to speak. Hegel wrote, in opposition to epistemology, that one only becomes a cobbler by cobbling, by implementing knowledge upon that which resists it, upon the atheoretical, as it were. He should be taken at his word; only this would give back to philosophy what Hegel called freedom towards the object, which philosophy forfeited, so transfixed has it been on the sense-making autonomy of the subject. But the speculative power to force open the indissoluble is the power of negation. In it alone does a certain streak of system live on. The categories of the critique of system are the very ones that comprehend the particular. Whatever it was about philosophical system that once legitimately exceeded the individuum has its proper place outside of system. The interpretive gaze that beholds in a phenomenon more than is there and only thereby beholds what is there—this is metaphysics made secular. Only a philosophy recast in the form of fragments could bring the monad, this illusory invention of idealism, into its fold. They would be representations in the particular of the totality that cannot be represented as such.

ADORNO, NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK (1966), pp. 36-39