15. Vertigo

A dialectic no longer “riveted” to identity prompts if not the objection, which ye shall know by its fascist fruits, that it is bodenlos—bottomless, without ground or soil—then the objection that it is dizzy-making. Vertigo is a feeling that has been central to great modern poetry from Baudelaire on. Philosophy is told anachronistically that it is to have no part in such things. You should say what’s on your mind: Karl Kraus discovered that the more precisely his every sentence evinced this idea, and the more he hectored reified consciousness for the sake of such precision, the more his head spun. One of prevailing opinion’s common practices sheds light on the meaning of this affliction. It loves to present alternatives among which one is meant to choose; one checks the box. An administration’s decisions are often reduced to saying yes or no to whatever plans have been submitted to it. Management thinking has secretly become the sought after model for the ostensibly free kind. It is the task of a philosophical thought in its most basic positions not to play this game. A predetermined alternative is already a chunk of heteronomy. The consciousness of which this decision is moralistically expected in advance would first have to come to a judgment about the legitimacy of alternative demands. The insistence that one confess a standpoint is the forcing of conscience extended into theory. This amounts to a coarsening. It might strip away certain embellishments, but not even from grand theories does it subtract anything of their truth. Marx and Engels, for instance, struggled against any attempt to water down the dynamic theory of classes and its pointed economic expression by replacing it with the simpler opposition between the rich and the poor. A summary of the essentials will always falsify the essence. Any philosophy that stooped to do what Hegel already made fun of, accommodating readers so inclined by explaining just what one is meant to think when one thinks, would get incorporated into the onward march of regression, although it will never be able to keep pace. Some people wonder how best to get a grip on philosophy, how to tackle it; most of the time, one will find nothing but aggression lying behind this worry, an eagerness to tackle it, the way the schools once sent each other toppling. The equivalence of guilt and atonement has spread to the succession of thoughts. It is precisely the assimilation of mind to the dominant principle that philosophical reflection is meant to see through. Traditional thought and the habits of common sense that such thought left behind once it had philosophically withered to nothing require a frame of reference in which each thing has its place. This doesn’t have to be especially perspicuous—it can even be laid down in dogmatic axioms—provided that each and every deliberation can be pinned down and unsecured thought kept out. If cognition is to bear fruit, it will throw itself away on the objects without expecting anything in return. The vertigo that this arouses is an index of truth; the shock of something open, of negativity, negativity being the form that openness necessarily takes amidst the locked-down and the ever-same, untruth only for what isn’t true.

THEODOR ADORNO, NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK (1966), pp. 42-43