Jargon of Authenticity, Day 4

Heidegger enters the scene on the third page. Here’s the paragraph in full:

This [Kracauer getting shown the door by the Rosenstock circle] was well before the publication of Being and Time. In that work, Heidegger introduced authenticity par excellence, in the context of an existential ontology and as a philosophical term of art; so, too, did he pour into the mold of philosophy the object of the Authentics’ less theoretical zeal; and in that way he won over all those in whom philosophy strikes a vague chord. It was through Heidegger that confessional demands became unnecessary. His book acquired its nimbus by describing as full of insight — by presenting to its readers as an obligation true and proper — the drift of the [German] intelligentsia’s dark compulsions before 1933. Of course in Heidegger, as in all those who followed his language, a diminished theological resonance can be heard to this very day. The theological obsessions of those years have seeped into the language, far beyond the circle of those who at that time set themselves up as the elite. Nevertheless, the sacred quality of the Authentics’ language belongs to the cult of authenticity rather than to the Christian cult, even when — for temporary lack of any other viable authority — the Authentics end up resembling Christians. Prior to any consideration of particular content, their language molds thought in such a way that it adapts to the goal of subordination even when it thinks it is resisting that goal. The authority of the absolute is overthrown by absolutized authority. Fascism was not simply a conspiracy, although it was that; it originated, rather, in a powerful current of social development. Language provides it with a refuge; in language, the still smoldering disaster speaks as though it were salvation. 

A reader might launch into this passage and think they have arrived at the main event, the smackdown, Adorno vs. Heidegger. This is what I came to see. That would be wrong — consequentially so. For anyone trying to make sense of The Jargon of Authenticity, nothing is more important than noticing that Adorno is taking much of the onus off of Heidegger, who was at most an important relay for a malign turn in German intellectual life that happened well before he started writing. Stripped of all detail, what this page is saying is that the problem goes well beyond Heidegger. Focusing too much on Heidegger lets too many other intellectuals off the hook.

       I’d like to go ahead and extract three theses from this paragraph — they are, I think, the book’s major claims — and pause to ask what implications they might have for anyone trying to reckon with the revival of fascism in our own generation.

        Thesis #1) Anti-fascists, when studying fascist thought, should be prepared to cast the net widely. At some level, Adorno’s approach isn’t all that unusual. On the basis of this paragraph alone, we could think of The Jargon of Authenticity as his attempt at an Intellectual Origins of National Socialism, and we might note that the book appeared at more or less the same time as the classic volumes on that topic: Stern’s Politics of Cultural Despair (1961); Mosse’s Crisis of German Ideology (1964). It’s just that Adorno proposes figures of his own, alongside the agrarian ethno-nationalists and anti-Semites and pan-German Wander-birds unearthed by Mosse and Stern. He thought that the early existentialists had something important to contribute to the making of fascism — an authoritarian cast of mind that typically posed as religious and sometimes even posed as free. But unlike Mosse and Stern, Adorno was also interested in the survival, after 1945, of this proto-fascism. The fundamental task of all historical study is to judge matters of continuity and rupture — to identify what in any historical constellation has been inherited and what has been made anew. And there is perhaps no period for which this most basic of historiographic questions has higher stakes than Germany in the 1950s. What did the Germans (and their minders) manage to remake after the war, and perhaps build from scratch? And what was carried over from the 1930s and ’40s? (Who rebuilt the bombed-out cities if not Nazi architects? Who staffed the reopened public schools if not Nazi teachers?) Adorno, at any rate, is offering his own version of what we might too innocuously call the Continuity Thesis.

      Thesis #2: Even radical philosophy has a way of remaking itself as an idiom, a set of verbal commonplaces, a lingo for the educated classes. This indicates a break with Adorno’s usual method. You can pick up Negative Dialectics if you want to see Adorno grapple with the technicalities of Heidegger’s philosophical program — if, that is, you want to watch him crawl inside of that program and flush out its impasses and contradictions from the inside. The reason, one concludes, that Adorno decided finally that The Jargon of Authenticity did not belong in that volume is that he is in this case not interested in philosophy qua philosophy, and certainly not interested in its subtle failures. If anything, he is interested in the success of modernist German philosophy, but as something other than philosophy — interested, I mean, in the making of a Heideggerian-existentialist patois that got spoken, apparently, by a lot of people who weren’t philosophers — people “far beyond the circle” of adepts. What I’d like us to notice for now is that this position is doubtless repeatable. Adorno hands us a question that we might want to ask and at intervals re-ask: How does the late-modern Bildungs-bourgeoisie deploy to its own ends the philosophical argot with which its professors have equipped them? We might, for instance, want to chart the fate of critical theory itself as it moves from the classroom to Left Twitter and Left Tumblr and various workplaces. And when we ask that question, we will want to avoid a certain temptation, which will be to blame the speakers of this or that philosophical jargon for not getting it; we will have to choke back the lecture that we have at the ready, the one that pronounces ex cathedra that That’s not what Heidegger (or Foucault or Butler) really said. If Adorno is right, then philosophy attains its (malleable) historical force only in reduced form, as a vulgate. It’s the crude version that we should be keeping an eye on.

       Thesis #3: Fascism draws some of its intellectual energies from people who do not regard themselves as fascists and who may even take themselves to be anti-fascist. I can specify the matter like so: Many of the intellectuals that Adorno sees as preparing the way for Heidegger and for what he is content to call fascism were Jewish — either active Jews (like Rosenzweig or Buber) or men from Jewish families (like Rosenstock or the Ehrenbergs). In fact, the one figure that Adorno has cited approvingly (Borchardt) was way closer to the fascists than the unnamed figures he is now attacking. This is bound to shake up our understanding of fascism. Hans Ehrenberg was a vocal member of the movement that defied the Nazi takeover of the Protestant churches. Rosenzweig and Buber made landmark contributions to the revival of modern Jewish philosophy. Adorno’s argument is outrageous if wrong and disturbing if right: Your positions, as they enter the world, will not remain *your* positions. Even your anti-fascism can be transposed into a fascism. Call it the ruse of un-reason.

One way to capture the force of Adorno’s theses would be to update them, speculatively, for the revival of fascism in our generation. You could, if you wanted, enter the ranks as an anti-fascist philosophical watchdog. You could tell us that members of Trump’s inner circle have been reading Julius Evola, that they’ve met with Aleksandr Dugin. You could warn us again about Nick Land and the lure of Dark Enlightenment. You can bone up on de Benoist and the French Nouvelle Droite. But if we follow the page in front of us, then this isn’t nearly enough and may be something of a distraction.  For a decade, Nick Land was a professor of Continental philosophy at the UK’s most famously left-wing university. Alain de Benoist was first introduced to American readers by a journal founded by Lukacsians. Fascism, if it is to succeed, will have to find a perch in ordinary discourse, including educated discourse. And some of that discourse is likely to be your own. The Benoist circle call themselves Les Identitaires.

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