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Jargon of Authenticity, Day 6

Adorno was just listing terms that belong to “the jargon” — and also remarking that many of them are ordinary German words, not immediately recognizable as jargon if cited out of context. He goes on:

The point, then, is not to compile an Index Verborum Prohibitorum of fast-selling noble nouns, but to ponder the linguistic function of such terms in the jargon.

A reader might be wondering here about the phrase “noble nouns.” That’s a single, compound word in the original, which Adorno has formed by attaching the prefix Edel- to the word for “noun.” It is, as best I can tell, Adorno’s coinage, though it follows an established pattern in German. English, like German, refers to helium and neon and the like as “noble gases,” but Germans extend that formulation to many other things, in a way that English speakers don’t, often marking out the high-grade or special members of some class by attaching to it the prefix Edel-. A German gem is a “noble-stone.” Stainless steel is “noble-steel.” That said, we won’t want to overlook the soft oxymoron that Adorno has generated around his coinage: The terms in question are noble, sure, but they are also good business — “fast-selling.” Their very nobility has been diluted or indeed hucksterized, hawked by journalists and pundits, on the lips of every pretender.

     The Latin phrase, meanwhile, is Adorno’s riff on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, for which he has substituted “Index of Forbidden Words,” the idea being, of course, that he is repudiating the role of censor. He wants us to keep track of the jargon, but he’s not going to tell anyone to delete its terms from their vocabulary.

      He continues:

Its lexicon consists of rather more than noble nouns anyway. At times it even seizes upon [otherwise] banal words, holds them aloft and then bronzes them in the fascist manner, which wisely commingles the plebeian with the elite.

The first thing to notice about these two sentences is that they give one good reason to forgo censorship. The jargon, Adorno says for a second time, features many ordinary German words — one is tempted to say “common nouns,” in juxtaposition to those nobles one — and it would be downright silly to interdict basic and everyday terms from the German vocabulary. A contemporary American professor could just about instruct his students to stop using (and mostly misusing) the word “ontology,” but he’s hardly going to tell them to stop using the word “body.”

But this passage is, of course, more alarming than that, since Adorno is beginning to elaborate now on his big point — that something about how educated Germans spoke, as late as the 1960s, still sounded kind of fascist. And this particular observation about fascism’s verbal style — that it employed a mixed idiom that oscillated promiscuously between the demotic and the high-flown — could easily remind the reader of a second book, one that preceded Adorno’s by some sixteen years: This would be Viktor Klemperer’s LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii, or “Language of the Third Reich,” a set of reflections on the idiosyncrasies of Nazi German, compiled in notebook-form during the ’30s and ’40s by a Jewish-at-birth literature professor and published to great acclaim in 1947. Adorno, in other words, had a model.

        But the writers he is about to name are neither of them Klemperer. Once you know who he’s talking about, in fact, the next sentence is downright alarming:

The neo-romantic poets who drank their fill of the choicest vintages, like [Stefan] George and [Hugo von] Hofmannsthal, by no means wrote their prose in the jargon; many of their intermediaries, however, did — [Friedrich] Gundolf, for instance.

To remark now that Stefan George is usually regarded as the most important German modernist poet — and that Hofmannsthal was his Austrian twin, his sometime collaborator and lifelong frenemy, is not yet to say nearly enough. The most important thing to know about George is that he started his career as a junior member of the Mallarmé circle in Paris, slurring his name to Shorsh in place of the crisply Germanic Gay-yor-guh, and that he ended his career as the official poet of Germany’s hard Right and indeed of the Nazis. He thus enters cultural history as the intermediate step between the queer aestheticism of the 1890s and National Socialism; he was the guy who, while writing poems that typically remind English speakers of Eliot or Pound or Yeats, also helped publish numerous volumes of literary history with swastikas in their front matter and titles like The Poet as Führer. This is explainable: George and his followers — he was famous for having followers — united around a stalwart program to dismantle the institutions of the modern world. They wanted to roll back a whole range of depersonalized social forms: capitalism, large cities, rule-based organizations of any kind, industrialism and its technologies, mass media, mass politics. We should be careful here, since this was at one point a fairly common program and came in lots of different versions, not all of which landed on the political Right. The Rousseauvian Left could still sign onto that platform. So could the Jeffersonian republicans, on the understanding that to be a true American is not to be European, is not to be civilized; to be American is to remake yourself for the better in conditions of relative hardship (away from big cities and settled institutions &c). What made the George Circle distinctive, then, was twofold: First, it championed poetry as the alternative to (over)civilization — poetry and not, say, the frontier. The poet-prophet would play the role that Americans more typically assign to the cowboy or the Nebraska pioneer. Poetry would keep open the possibility of a life lived beyond the industrialized anonymity of mass society. That’s the first distinctive point. The second distinctive point is that the George Circle thought that fascism would make the world safe for aesthetes and queer people — if not the Nazis, then at least some hypothetical other fascism that at least some of them, for a time, mistook for really existing National Socialism.

     What I can add now is that Gundolf was for many years George’s favorite disciple — and the one tasked with translating the Circle’s program into accessible prose. It’s that divvying up of duties that seems to interest Adorno here. We can give the right-wing poets a degree of credit — credit, that is, for not having resorted to a standardized idiom even when writing prose. But it was the literary historian’s job to re-state the tenets of their fascist aestheticism in terms that lent themselves to codification and repetition — to take the rarefied discourse of George’s “Secret Germany” and make it not-so-secret. And what Adorno thinks he has noticed is that the postwar existentialists are still talking in the accents of the fascist-bohemian middlebrow.

      Adorno continues:

Particular words only become jargon through the constellation they deny, through each word’s posing as unique. What the singular word has lost in magic is acquired for it in a dirigiste manner, as though measures had been implemented. 

“What the singular word has lost in magic…” The place to start here is with the observation that words used to have magic but now mostly don’t — that’s clearly a linguistic variant of Weber’s disenchantment thesis. Adorno has omitted an important explanation here that serves as the backdrop to his more targeted comments — namely, that a great many modern intellectuals have regarded poetry as a way to combat disenchantment. Let’s start with one familiar understanding of magic: The sorcerer is the person who can speak something into being, via spell or incantation. Any anti-mimetic theory of literature, then, will ask us to think of poetry as a species of lesser magic. Poets do not merely write down what they see in front of them; they are the inventors of worlds. The fictioner gives ongoing evidence of the mind’s creative powers. But that’s not the end of it. Anyone who subscribes to speech act theory or social constructivism or the doctrine of mind-dependent social kinds is claiming to find this sublunary magic at every turn, IRL, and not just in the library. It turns out that we routinely speak things into being. The word “spell” means both “abracadabra” and “to list in their proper order the letters that make up a word.” At root, the word “incantation” just means “song.” “Grammar” is “grimoire.” A disenchanted language, then, would be one that is unwilling to unleash the powers of alphabet, song, and grammar, content only ever to describe and transcribe and record — a language that makes nothing, backed by a theory of language that sees all words as secondary, as following on from the things they merely designate, a theory that grants language no creative force. To this we need merely add that many modern poets really have tasked poetry with keeping alive the creative force of language — word-magic — in periods when that rival view of language (as so many tokens) has come to prevail; with charming the reader beyond the constraints of analytic understanding; and perhaps even with safeguarding the ancient and esoteric wisdom that mere science has tended to overwrite. For a period, Stefan George belonged to an esoteric circle in Munich that called themselves the Cosmics. W. B. Yeats was a wizard in the Order of the Golden Dawn.

        If you go back now and look at Adorno’s last two sentences, what will jump out is that Adorno is talking still about the jargon and not about poetry. On the basis of this passage alone, we can’t say what Adorno thinks about those properly poetic attempts to restore the magic of language, though in other essays, he does express a guarded admiration for George, and especially for the intransigent, homophile nonconformity of the poète maudit. The point here, however, is that the jargon has its own way of trying to re-enchant language, and that this way is ham-fisted, bullying, and hopeless. The jargon inherits from the poetry to which it is adjacent the project of re-enchanting language, but is really bad at it. I’d go so far as to say that this short passage offers a theory in passing of what makes jargon jargon; it teaches you how to recognize when a word has been annexed to some jargon. The problem with jargon is that it claims to produce the thing that it names — that’s the magic bit — without the speaker having to make any additional effort. Someone speaks the word “identity” and concludes that they have thereby fashioned a stable persona, without having to understand how selves get assembled or pausing to worry about how our ego constructs tend to come unstuck over time. I speak the word “intersectionality” and believe that I have thereby already done the hard work of solidarity. Having been told that networks of oppression typically overlap, I spare myself the labor of figuring out just how they are articulated — here, now — and I find myself with nothing to say about how the matted skein of domination might yet be unraveled. Each term pretends singly to some such power, even though they are all interlinked, tending, in fact, to be defined in terms of one another: “intersectionality” gets defined with reference to “identity”; anyone explaining “identity” asks first if you understand “positionality” and so on. And the terms themselves are rhetorically quite flat. Repetition alone will tend to routinize them and so strip them of their verbal mojo. The jargon will never achieve the insinuating and uncanny character of the well-turned poetic line, that weird cadence that can make verse sound like an improvised hex: “And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Words like “identity” and “intersectionality” have been assigned their bogus magic by professorial explanation and glossaries compiled on college websites. They are magic only by decree, pedantically enchanted.


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.

Jargon of Authenticity, Day 3


We should be able to pick up the pace. Adorno has just said that it should be impossible for a free and independent mind — a mind that accepts the basic principle of all philosophy, which is that thought is to bow to no authority; that it is to accede to no position if authority is the only thing the position has going for it — it should be impossible for such a mind to submit to revealed religion. But that is exactly what the followers of Kierkegaard seem to be demanding. The Patmos people make the perverse demand that a freethinker freely submit to a paradoxically optional Absolute.

          He goes on:

The ones who closed ranks [against Adorno’s friend Kracauer] were anti-intellectual intellectuals.

That’s probably clear enough from what I’ve just written. I’ll just add that the phrase “anti-intellectual intellectuals” could serve equally well for a long tradition of skeptical anti-philosophers — thinkers who draw on stores of deep learning and use the methods of philosophical argument in order to discredit philosophy, reason, knowledge, or science. If you want to talk a philosopher out of philosophizing — if you want to persuade him that the problems that matter to him can’t be solved by philosophical means or that philosophy is actively making his life worse — you are presumably going to have to give him some sound arguments. You will have to learn to turn philosophy against itself. Kierkegaard said that his philosophy was a course in retrieved simplicity. Anyone reading Kierkegaard is learning to abandon the intellectual sophistication that is required to read Kierkegaard.

          Next sentence:

They proved to themselves their higher unity by shutting out the person who did not make a profession of faith in their manner, the way they all bore witness to one another. 

A few small things: Adorno was one of the first philosophers to pay close attention, on dialectical grounds, to the dynamics of exclusion — to pay close attention to what any particular conceptual formation has to exclude in order to maintain its integrity and to worry about the fate of the excluded terms. You can already see this in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, whose simplest, unsuperseded observation is that enlightened people have a way of dealing cruelly with anyone they deem unenlightened. There is even a whisper of Schmitt’s enemy-thesis in this sentence: We’ve already been told that the intellectuals in question had joined  different denominations and religions. Their affinity was to that extent fairly abstract and could only be brought into focus via a scapegoat.


What they championed spiritually, they entered into the ledger as their ethic, as though a person’s adhering to the doctrine of some higher being were enough to elevate his inner rank, as though the gospels had nothing to say against the Pharisees. 

What I’ve translated as “entered into the ledger” is a single word in German: buchen — they’ve “booked” their religious commitments; they bring a bookkeeping mentality to their own spiritual accomplishment. They’re keeping score. They want credit. The bit about the Pharisees is easy enough to parse: If I call someone “pharisaical,” I might just mean that they are being self-righteous, holier-than-thou. But I might also mean something more specific: that they are rigidly enforcing the external forms of religion and caring not enough about the spirit, that they want above all to be seen to be religious. It may come as a small surprise to realize that Adorno is in this instance siding with the gospels.

  In this last as in so many other respects, it is easy to get Adorno wrong. Many of us have read maybe two chapters of the Dialectic of Enlightenment in college and have him pegged accordingly — as the guy who thought that Francis Bacon led to Hitler. You’ll have to read rather further in Adorno to realize that in his thinking, the familiar Counter-Enlightenment positions don’t come off any better than the scientists or the lumières. If anything, they come off quite a bit worse. 

    That’s what makes the opening pages of The Jargon so instructive. The intellectuals who denounce the Enlightenment are most often promoting some version or another of religious revival, and that’s an option that Adorno rejects out of hand. Elsewhere, in an important essay on Schönberg, he writes that ”our epoch refuses to vouchsafe us a sacred work of art” and that “sacred art has become impossible.” We’ll want to know why he thinks that, given that he felt at least some affinity with religion — the kind of affinity that any heterodox Marxist might feel for Christian socialism or liberation theology. And we should note: It’s not that he thought that religious art was available but pernicious. He thought that the path to a genuinely religious art was blocked (and that attempts to fashion such art were therefore doomed and perhaps for that reason alone retrograde). Still, it’s a puzzle. “It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore.” That, too, is Adorno, making it clear that he was pretty close to Brecht after all. And one might think that Judaism and Christianity are helpfully crude in just this way — the way of the-last-shall-be-first-and-we-hold-all-things-in-common. Why wouldn’t someone trying to imagine the redeemed society avail himself of their accumulated historical power?

        The short answer is that Adorno is pretty sure this power has been dispelled for good. At heart, the claim that sacred art has become impossible is just Adorno’s restatement of Walter Benjamin’s great argument about the death of the aura. The simplest way to put this would be to say that art will never be special again, and if you still think that art is sort of special, that’s only because you have never lived in a world where artworks were genuinely special: singular and hummingly charismatic. The fancier way to put it would be to say that all art has undergone a many-sided process of decontextualization. The passage from church to museum deconsecrates the object in a single blow, removing it from the web of practices in which it was formerly suspended, stripping it from the believers who perceived it as sacred to begin with and handing it over to an endless parade of schoolchildren and tourists. Ceremonial pipes go unsmoked. Greek icons end up unkissably behind glass. Sacred art has become impossible because framing an object as art is all it takes to negate its sanctity.

      But then museums are just part of the story. Walter Benjamin was interested above all in the fate of art after the 1880s, when photography was mainstreamed, and as of the 1920s, when sound recording took off. And the point here, of course, is that photographs and records decontextualize art all over again. They do so rampantly, in fact, by reproducing any artwork a thousandfold. Anyone who walks into the Sistine Chapel is likely to have seen its ceiling a hundred times already, before seeing it now, “for the first time,” and is unlikely to feel that they are in the presence of God. They’re just happy they got to hear the band play its greatest hit. Fresh experience gets shelved in favor of the three-dimensional augmentation of the already-known. In the age of the postcard and the dorm-poster, you can’t remember when you first saw Girl with a Pearl Earring or Starry Night or The Birth of Venus. You have never not seen them.

         So that’s most of Adorno’s point: Art this routinized is going to have trouble conveying the sacred. The last time I listened to Bach’s Easter Oratorio, I was vacuuming the house. To this, he adds the simple observation that the churches are much weaker than they used to be. Science now carries most of the intellectual authority. Thus Adorno: “How is cultic music possible in the absence of a cult?” How is ritual music possible when so few people attend the rites? An artist who wanted to create in a religious idiom would be speaking a language that most people no longer understand. And such art wouldn’t be sacred. It would just be … there.

        So what happens when artists try to create religious art all the same? They can travel the path of the subject, but if they do that they will inevitably miss their target. A devotional poem about the Christian’s ardently pious inner life is not a poem about God; it’s a poem about a Christian. Alternately, then, they can travel the path of the object, which would mean rejuvenating some of the old religious iconography, only to suffer the fate of Chagall’s etchings of Moses and Jeremiah and Rachel — images whose storybook naïveté preemptively invites viewers to regard the Hebrew Bible as folklore. Anyone who knows their Adorno might remark at this point that he advocated an iconoclasm, which we might hold out as a third option, the path of neither subject nor object. A big part of his project, in fact, is to update the old Judeo-Protestant ban on images. Short version: 1) He is preoccupied, on dialectical grounds, on the gap between things and the concepts, words or terms that claim to capture them, and so fixated on the way in which representation is likely to betray its objects. 2) He subscribes to the Marxist prohibition on spelling out how communism is likely to function, which irritates many readers of Marx, but is, in fact, altogether defensible. If the whole point of communism is for people to make their own society together — and to remake it ongoingly — then the society they build and re-build obviously can’t be spelled out for them in advance. Their constituent power has to remain the gap in your thinking. The point is easy to defend on political grounds, but aesthetically something of a mess, since iconoclasm is an unpromising platform for anyone looking to make sacred art. Adorno’s essay on Schönberg’s Moses und Aron boils down to his amazement that the composer had had the gumption to devise an opera, of all things, on the subject of iconoclasm, a Gesamtkunstwerk on a biblical theme whose lesson is that we should stop trying to represent sacred things, a Singspiel in which anyone who sings turns out to be sinful for that very reason.

  We’re in a good position to appreciate the book’s next sentence:

A full forty years later [after the Patmos incident — in the 1960s, therefore, as Adorno was writing The Jargon of Authenticity], a retired bishop walked out on a conference at a Protestant academy because an invited speaker had cast doubt on the possibility of sacred music today. 

At least we can be pretty sure who that invited speaker was.

He too felt absolved from, or had been warned against, getting mixed up with people who do not toe the line; as though critical thought had no objective foundation but were instead a kind of subjective lapse.

It would be easy to mishear Adorno as voicing the liberal intellectual’s familiar complaint against believers, which is that they are intolerant. But that’s not really what he’s saying here. In fact, we might as well correct a second misapprehension while we’re at it. It is common for readers to complain that Adorno is finally apolitical or even anti-political — that he talks often enough like a Marxist and still manages to land upon a pessimistic quietism. It’s not hard to see where readers get that idea, given that he rejected what were in his lifetime all the available political options. But what we see here is Adorno hewing to one of the classic Marxist positions — the one that affirms the priority of the political. Critique has an “objective foundation.” In this instance, that means: The position of religion really has changed — socially, structurally, and as it were objectively. Under those conditions, no one can rescue religion simply by doubling down  on belief, by promising to believe all the harder. Big changes in the social order cannot be overcome by adjusting one’s subjectivity.

 We read on. Adorno is still talking about the bishop who stormed out:

People of his type combine the tendency that Borchardt called “putting oneself in the right” with the fear of reflecting on their reflexive reactions—as if they didn’t altogether believe themselves.

In this instance Adorno’s claims are easy enough to identify. Beliefs arrived at by existentialist methods could seem uniquely fragile. I have chosen a set of commitments, but I know that I have chosen them freely and that they lack strong justifications. I have merely chosen them. And if I keep this perspective before me, as the existentialists would have me do, one might reasonably ask whether I really believe my own beliefs. Certain types of philosophical reflection are, in fact, no longer available to me. I can’t ask, for one, whether my beliefs are true or right — or whether some new experience hasn’t shown them to be false. I didn’t claim they were true to begin with; and new experience can’t falsify them. Any questions of this nature can only prompt new confessions of their groundlessness. The first bit, meanwhile, says little more than that some of these religious types act self-righteously. The curious thing is that Adorno bothers to cite Rudolf Borchardt in order to make the point, since the point is simple enough, and Borchardt was one of those rare German Jews who became fascists if never quite Nazis. He was the very model of a freak-Right literatus, totally committed to the legacy of the European humanities; to antiquity, in fact, though opposed to the Renaissance, which he thought of as having destroyed antiquity in the guise of reviving it, and committed to channeling this other, stranger, poetic-prophetic antiquity, which channeling he combined with a virulent German nationalism. He was also Adorno’s favorite alt-Right poet; his essay in praise of Borchardt has got to be Exhibit A in any attempt to depict Adorno as a mandarin of the Left. (Adorno likes the phrase “putting oneself in the right” enough to mention it in that essay, as well, though in neither case does he provide a citation. In the essay, at any rate, Adorno is explaining how much he likes a short neo-cavalier poem that Borchardt wrote in the voice of a sexually loose woman who is leaving her current lover in favor of a richer man — and one of the things he likes most about the poem is that it is non-judgmental, ironic but not satirical. Borchardt, he says, does not “put himself into the right.”)

      He goes on:

They still sense the old danger of losing, again, what they call the concrete—of losing it to that abstraction of which they are suspicious and which cannot be eradicated from concepts. They consider concretion to be promised in sacrifice, and first of all in intellectual sacrifice.

It might be easiest to illuminate this point without specific reference to German existentialism. Adorno often comes out against philosophies that think they can break through to something outside of thought (outside the concept, outside of abstraction) simply by affirming it. I affirm particularity or materiality or specificity or the individuum or the concrete —meaning: I say that it’s what I care about; I tell others that it’s what should matter to them; it’s what they should give priority in their thinking. This is all pretty hapless — I will happily second Adorno on this point — because those terms are themselves all abstractions. If I say that I am intellectually committed to particularity, then I am committed to no particular particularity and am therefore not committed to particularity at all. Or more bluntly: Just saying “let’s think about objects” obviously doesn’t get you to the objects. You don’t get to, y’know, vote for the object.

Adorno, in other words, shares with the existentialists (and vitalists and pragmatists and object-oriented ontologists) their suspicion of abstraction or mere thought. But he doesn’t think that there is a ready exit out of abstraction; there is no short-cut to concretion. He is, for most purposes, what we might call a reluctant idealist. The task is to dialectically overcome the idealism that is our fundamental cognitive condition, on the understanding that this can’t be done non-philosophically, by, for instance, kicking stones. And to that extent, he is not in fact the kind of anti-philosopher for which he (and other critical theorists) are often mistaken. (The first sentence of Negative Dialectics is “Philosophy lives on….”) The existentialists seem to think that you can get closer to the stuff of the world if you just stop thinking about it. The later Heidegger settled on the idea that  poetry is writing that is content not to know its objects, a writing that summons the objects into view while presuming to tell you very little about them. Poetry is the sacrifice of thought; it teaches us how to un-think the world.

   We see here now, already for a second time, an issue that is going to recur again and again throughout the book, which is that Adorno is plainly attacking his intellectual cousins and potential allies. It is from Adorno, after all, that many of us first learned to distrust abstraction. Here’s one of the most famous sentences from the opening pages of Negative Dialectics: “At this historical moment, philosophy’s true interest lies with those things in which Hegel professed to be least interested: with the concept-less, the individual, and the particular; with everything that has, since Plato, been written off as ephemeral and insignificant and which Hegel festooned with the label of ‘lazy existence.'” Adorno seems committed enough to the “concrete” that I couldn’t without checking remember whether this sentence included that word. What Adorno is opposing, then, is what he sometimes calls “simulated immediacy” — the pretense that one can dispense with concepts altogether or use them in a way that somehow neutralizes their inevitable abstractness — the illusion, then, that we can throw our arms around the uncognized object and still know that we are doing that. Negative dialectics offers, at best, a highly intellectualized path back to particularity, one that requires extended feats of philosophical virtuosity, in which the thinker hijacks the apparatus of abstraction and forces it on an accelerated schedule to the breakdown that it would eventually have suffered anyway. The alternative that Adorno is warning against is the one that says that we can sidle up to the stuff of the world if only we train ourselves not to think; and by using the term “intellectual sacrifice,” sacrificium intellectus, he is aligning the existentialists with a history of anti-intellectual religious authoritarianism, an ethos of mental submission, that was formulated paradigmatically by the Jesuits, from whom the phrase has been borrowed.

      A short capper:

Heretics baptized this circle “The Authentics.”

The verb is, of course, a jab. Kierkegaard’s philosophical Anabaptists have been re-baptized. It is, after all, what they wanted.

Jargon of Authenticity, Day 2

So we are sent back to the passage already quoted, to scan it again for clues:

In the early 1920s, a number of people active in philosophy, sociology and theology were planning a gathering. Most of them had switched from one denomination to another; what they had in common was their emphasis on newly acquired religion, and not the religion itself. They were all dissatisfied with the idealism that still dominated [German] universities at the time. Philosophy moved them to choose, out of freedom and autonomy, what has been known since at least Kierkegaard as positive theology. 

What jumps out now is that the men in question were all converts (not strictly true of the Patmos Circle, but perhaps true of the particular conference that Adorno is describing — who knows)? So maybe that’s the problem. But then why would that be a problem? You could begin by asking yourself: Do you typically have a beef with people who leave their religion for another — or who get God for the first time? Adorno also remarks that they had all converted in a Kierkegaardian spirit, and this might seem significant. Adorno, we know, was sufficiently interested in Kierkegaard to have written his PhD dissertation about him. So maybe that’s the problem — not conversion as such, just the Danish kind. Maybe that’s how we can tell the difference between the religious thinkers that Adorno warmed to and the ones he had no patience for. Rosenstock and Rosenzweig were existentialists; Walter Benjamin was not. But here, too, a complication opens up. Key figures in the Patmos circle were converts in the ordinary sense: Rosenstock was born into a secular Jewish family, but converted to Christianity as a teenager. The anti-fascist Protestant minister Hans Ehrenberg likewise converted from Judaism in his 20s. His cousin Rudolf Ehrenberg wasn’t exactly a convert, but was baptized Lutheran by his assimilated Jewish father, which is close. (Let’s poke around the family tree: Both Ehrenbergs were cousins of Franz Rosenzweig’s. And Rudolf’s niece was Olivia Newton-John’s mother. And Hans’s nephew was the father of the British comedian who created Blackadder.)

        The problem is that if we’re talking about Kierkegaard, then conversion might not have its ordinary meaning. I’ll see if I can’t put across a few core Kierkegaardian positions, and I’ll emphasize the ones that mattered most to the existentialists. We can begin with the idea that you have to choose yourself. Society is the domain of conformity and routine and a muddled, huddling thoughtlessness. Chances are that on any given day, you just do what everybody else is doing. You do the expected thing. Nobody living under these circumstances, which is of course most people, is even remotely an individual. Your task, then, is to become an individual, and Kierkegaard has some strong beliefs about how you might go about this. The first thing to know is that philosophy won’t help. Philosophy, after all, is keyed to the universal; it wants to be able to make claims that will hold true for all people at all times — and that’s not a promising path for anyone seeking to individuate. Philosophy is just a more recondite way of becoming no particular person. The only way to achieve individuality is to be committed to something, to be fully dedicated to something outside yourself — though you can already tell from what I’ve just written that your commitment won’t proceed from philosophy and to that extent won’t be rationally defensible. You won’t be able to give compelling reasons for holding the particular commitment that you do — reasons that other intelligent people would have to grant are cogent.

      Now Kierkegaard’s thinking on this matter is impeccably Protestant — and not just generically evangelical, but specifically Anabaptist, though that’s one of those explanations that probably needs explaining in turn. Anabaptism is the name for the Protestant sects who oppose infant baptism — who regard it as ungodly, in other words, to baptize babies, to induct newborns into a church without their consent and with no inkling of their actual standing with God. Baptism, on this view, is meant to follow on from a conversion experience, of a kind that a young child is unlikely to have and as a seal of one’s new openness to God — and as a cleansing, obviously, and a second birth. Ana- is a Greek prefix meaning “again” and refers to the early stages of the movement, when adult believers would have had to rinse away the false and infantile sprinklings of their native churches by getting baptized anew. The German word for Anabaptist means “re-dunker” or “double dipper.”

    The thing to know about Kierkegaard, then, is that he was profoundly hostile to what we might call “cultural Christianity” — a society in which most people are Christian by default, because they were raised that way. (The last book he saw through to publication was his Attack Upon Christendom.) Conversion in the specifically Kierkegaardian sense might therefore involve leaving one church for another, but it needn’t. It might just mean committing with one’s whole being to the institution of which was already nominally a member. In this framework, conversion, commitment, and the second baptism group tightly together. Franz Rosenzweig thus belongs in Rosenstock’s company even though he didn’t convert to Christianity, precisely because he very nearly converted before deciding not to: “Also bleibe ich Jude. … It looks like I’m staying a Jew,” but for real this time — which is the sound of Judaism remaking itself on the model of Baptistry, a Judaism for born-agains.

 Adorno, in fact, points out one of the more distinctive features of conversion — that it is chosen religion, religion practiced freely and by autonomous people. But then that can hardly be the problem. Surely freedom and autonomy are the very best things about the Kierkegaardian program. Let’s stick with the Anabaptists. The Amish famously tolerate among their teenagers all manner of ungodly behavior: wearing jewelry, signing up for Instagram, playing X-Box off of farmhouse generators, binge-watching Fast and Furious movies, gathering at the end of country roads to listen to hip-hop and drink Miller Lite. There is a general understanding, in other words, that a sixteen-year-old Amish person is not yet genuinely Amish and that the ordinary rules of Amish society therefore don’t apply. What’s at stake in this is perhaps best phrased like so: Being Amish is not an ethnicity. Americans at large tend to ethnicize the Amish, because Americans ethnicize everybody. The Amish even ethnicize their non-Amish neighbors and anyone who, like, drives a car, who are known collectively as “the English.” But the Amish do not ethnicize themselves. They are not “the Pennsylvania Dutch.” Young German-speakers in Lancaster County are only in some very qualified sense Amish, and their teenaged brothers and sisters are even less Amish than that, in a visible state of suspension, with the choice in front of them whether to be Amish or not. The creed of these horse-and-buggy traditionalists, then, is in core respects anti-traditional, premised on the conviction that custom is no-one’s fate, that heritage has claimed no-one in advance; and this goes back to a few of the key tenets of all sectarian Protestantism: that no-one can make you believe anything, that no-one should be forced into a church against their will or conscience. Milton called this the promise of “Christian freedom.”

      The other point to make here is that critical theorists and their cousins have often written in favor of conversion. It is thus hardly obvious that a radical philosopher would have to look askance at the experience of re-birth. Three examples will clinch the case.

         1) The core Sartrean position begins with the idea (again) that you have to choose yourself. You have to choose yourself; *and* you have to know that you have chosen yourself, you have to keep that idea in front of you; *and* you have to be ready to keep choosing yourself ongoingly; *and* you have to grant others all possible latitude to choose themselves. Conversion actually plays two distinct roles in this scheme: First, Sartre thought of Being and Nothingness — most of it anyway — as a close description of what it was like for a person to live without having arrived at this understanding. And his word for that arrival — for breaking through the reifying and identitarian delusions of ordinary existence — was “conversion.” A person, if she’s lucky, converts out of mauvaise foi. Second, nothing guarantees that I will continue to choose my personhood in the future in just the same way that I have in the past. (That’s a silly sentence, right? — because if there were a guarantee, then it wouldn’t be a choice. Sartre framing my selfhood as a perpetual choice has already abolished the guarantee.) The possibility always stands that I will encounter an “instant,” a moment of rupture, an ending-beginning, where my earlier project — my earlier personhood — is terminated and another one opens before me. The ongoing possibility and occasional reality of conversion vouches for my freedom, for a self that cannot be made intelligible via biography or some personal past.

       2) For a while, Zizek was pushing a theory of what he called subjective suicide. Let’s start with the idea that all of us spend nearly all of our lives cocooned in ideology, social convention, and pseudo-sociological delusion — a set of more or less specious understandings of “how the world works.” Eventually, though, any one of us is going to have experiences that the social-symbolic order does not cover, and Lacanian wisdom holds that these experiences are bound to be deeply unpleasant, since anything that is compatible with that order will immediately get incorporated into it, absorbed into one of the pat narratives that we already tell about ourselves and our society, which means, in turn, that anything that lies outside that order is incompatible with it, ergo a threat to our ordinary understandings of the world and ourselves. Most of the time, these encounters with the Real don’t amount to much; they aren’t much more than eerie smudges on the screen of your experience. It is always possible, though, that an encounter with the Real will, for an interval, sunder your ties with the social-symbolic order, propelling you out of your accustomed social “reality,” and in the process obliterating all of your socially entangled perceptions of yourself: your “identity.” Lacan himself gives this experience the innocuous name of “the act,” which makes it all the more alarming to realize that the technical term for the resulting condition is “psychosis.” Zizek seems to get it right, tonally, when he calls it subjective suicide, though we might also just say: Sometimes you snap. Here’s Zizek: ‘The act differs from an active intervention (action) in that it radically transforms its bearer (agent): the act is not simply something I “accomplish”—after an act, I’m literally “not the same as before.” In this sense, we could say that the subject “undergoes” the act (“passes through” it) rather than “accomplishes” it: in it, the subject is annihilated and subsequently reborn (or not).’ This, then, is the Lacanian account of conversion: your temporary reduction to nothing; psychotic Anabaptism.

        3) Badiou’s theory of the “truth-event” is the Lacanian act’s benign double. Sometimes — not often — we have an experience that strikes us as surpassingly important, something that hits us as anomalously true and real and right, an experience that leaves us feeling transformed and that suspends the normal order of the day: “This changes everything.” For Badiou, then, ethics is simply a matter of attending to those experiences — being open to them, letting ourselves be changed by them, and then resolving to stay changed, not to let ourselves bend gradually back to the norm and expectation and set-point. Until you have been called, there is simply no way for you to live morally. All ethics is an ethics of conversion.

     All I mean to say here is that radical philosophy furnishes some rather attractive defenses of conversion, which means we’ll have to account for Adorno’s not following them.

     Adorno also remarks that the Patmos group was religiously mixed; its members didn’t have a religion in common. He doubtless has this one gathering in mind, but his point would hold just as well for the New Thinkers at large. The Rosenstock-Rosenzweig correspondence is often held up as one of the twentieth century’s great feats of Judeo-Christian dialogue. Die Kreatur was published under the direction of three editors: a Protestant, a rogue Catholic, and a Jew (that last would be Martin Buber). It is hard to see these efforts as anything but a benignly ecumenical exercise. By the time Adorno wrote these words, Germans had been attacking each other on confessional grounds for more than four hundred years, often lethally: Schmalkadic Wars and  Kulturkämpfe and Judenhetze. It will come as a surprise, then, to realize that this interdenominationalism is a big part of what is bothering Adorno.

         We’ll have to keep reading to figure out why. The men in question had all taken a religious turn. A new passage:

However, they were less interested in the specific doctrine, the truth content of revelation, than in a disposition or cast of mind. To his slight annoyance, a friend [of mine], who was at that time attracted by this circle, was not invited. He was—they intimated— not authentic enough. For he hesitated before Kierkegaard’s leap, suspecting that any religion con­jured up out of autonomous thinking would subordinate itself to the latter, and would negate itself as the absolute which, after all, in terms of its own conceptual nature, it wants to be. 

I’m going to fill in a few details, and then we can see what they add up to. We know from Adorno’s papers that the friend in question was Siegfried Kracauer. If you’re reading that name for the first time, you could, just for now, think of him as the other Walter Benjamin, a second German-Jewish intellectual, close to Adorno, a good decade his senior, transfixed by popular culture in a way that Adorno manifestly was not, determined to remake thought around the experience of modern cities, and with a great many illuminating things to say about photography and film. (But then Adorno met Kracauer in his late teens, which means that in T.W.A.’s biography, he came first. Benjamin appears as a kind of second Kracauer. Also: You have to be able to imagine a Benjamin who was able to hold down a job at a major newspaper and who managed to make it out of France.)

        Apparently one of the Patmos people told Kracauer that he was inauthentic. I’m sure you don’t need to be told that no-one was accusing him of being watered down to suit American tastes, like he was a corrupted version of Kracauer the way they cook it back home. The existentialist doctrine of “authenticity” tends to involve variations of the following claims:

        -You need to know that you choose yourself, that you choose your identity, choose your way of living, choose your fundamental commitments. However you are, you weren’t just born that way.

          -Equally, then, you need to be willing to own yourself — to be candid about your commitments and to take responsibility for your personhood, for your way of being in the world. The German word for “authenticity” — the one in Adorno’s original title — is Eigentlichkeit, which comes from the word eigen, which is the everyday adjective that designates something of one’s own: “I brought my own book.” “I brought mein eigenes Buch.” Its closest cognate in German is Eigentum, which means “property” — what you own. To be “authentic,” then, is to be your own person and to be willing to own the person that you are.

-If your fundamental commitments line up in some sense with those of your culture — and it is the hallmark of right-wing existentialism that it considers this always your best option — then the task in front of you is to be in some now fully committed way what up until now you had been unthinkingly. If you wake up at 17 and realize that you have been raised more or less as a Jew and that other people regard you as Jewish, then it is up to you to commit to your Judaism and to adopt it as a project. (And yes, equally: If you wake up at 17 and realize that you have been raised more or less as a Russian, then it is up to you to commit to your Russianness…) This is where the existentialist notion of “authenticity” rejoins vernacular concerns with race and ethnicity and bad Chinese food: You go from being an x to being a real x.

   And then there’s this bit about “the Kierkegaardian leap.” That’s what English speakers usually refer to as a “leap of faith,” though Kierkegaard scholars love to point out that he never actually used that phrase. They also tend to object that the term, having first been invented by K’s Anglo-Saxon readers, then gets extracted from the ironies and pseudonymous obliquities of his writing and turned into some kitschy, blog-ready philosopheme — which is, of course, all the more reason for us to pay attention to it. The version that has come down to us mostly gets routed through the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, who was one of the key figures in the Kierekegaard revival who will turn out to be one of Adorno’s prime targets in this book. It’s his version of the leap we need to know about here.

         The first point to make about Jaspers is that he was a dualist: He thought that the human mind was bifurcated into two fundamentally different domains. Unlike many of his existentialist cousins, Jaspers had no objection to science and reason as such. They aren’t really the problem; they’re just grand as far as they go. There’s no reason to call into question what the scientists have figured out about non-human nature. Science will pass all but the most stringent epistemological tests. But if I say that they are grand as far as they go, then I am implying, of course, that they also have limitations. They can’t go just anywhere. Crucially, science and reason can’t tell us how to live — can’t tell us what to care about — can’t tell us what kind of people we want to be. I can become quite learned — I can bone up on string theory and evolutionary biology and the latest research into the Haitian Revolution — and I can reflect carefully on what I’ve learned. But none of this amassed knowledge can tell me what to do with my life. That’s the dualism: There are some problems, a great many problems, that we can approach with the tools of science; and there are other problems that we have to learn to think about in some fundamentally different way. For anyone interested in the history of philosophy, one of the more unusual features of Jaspers is that he thought of himself as a Kantian; he knew himself to be devising an existentialist Kantianism or to be offering Kierkegaardian answers to Kantian prompts. Kant’s first Critique vindicates science (and other types of empirical knowledge), while insisting that the mind will nonetheless press on, riskily, to some non-empirical notion of the world, the self (or soul or psyche), and God. Existentialism, then, picks up where science leaves off. What, after all, are we supposed to do about all those issues where science and knowledge can’t help? Maybe now’s the moment to pause to ask yourself: What is your basic orientation to the world? What other orientations would be possible? What are your fundamental commitments? Jaspers’s point — and this is how the “leap of faith” has often been understood — is that you are going to have to choose those commitments — some commitments, maybe an overriding commitment — and make your peace with your knowledge that this commitment is in some sense groundless: sorely under-justified. You’ve chosen *this* commitment; you could have chosen another. Jaspers has a lot to say about the dualism of science and commitment: about the danger of treating existential matters as matters of knowledge and the even graver danger of trying to duck those fundamental existential choices.

      This last must be the accusation that was leveled against Kracauer, more or less: that he refused to grant that all convictions, including nominally secular ones, resemble religious belief; that he couldn’t bring himself to announce a commitment of a basically religious kind; that he thought maybe he could get by without commitments; that he was no leaper. Of course, Adorno also gives us — and implicitly endorses — Kracauer’s counterclaim: “He suspected that any religion that has been sworn to out of autonomous thinking would subordinate itself to the latter, and would negate itself as the absolute which by the light of its own concept it wants to be.” There are a few different issues that need to be teased out here. Adorno shares Kracauer’s exasperation with what looks like a contradiction in the existentialist position. To see this, we’ll need to bring into play the opposite of autonomy, which is heteronomy — the condition of being ruled from without — not giving-yourself-the-law, but having-the-law-imposed-upon-you. Adorno’s premise is plausible enough: He seems to think that religion is fundamentally an exercise in heteronomy, for which the Christian’s ordinary word is “revelation.” The law comes to the Christian from some external source: from the Catholic’s gradual training into Church tradition and discipline; from the scripturalist’s painstaking study of Holy Writ; from the spiritualist’s resolve to wait for God’s “leading.” Adorno’s point is that you can’t sincerely arrive at heteronomy non-dogmatically and via your own independent judgments. The existentialist gambit is to say that you can be a freethinker and still submit, and that your submission will not abrogate your status as a freethinker. And to this Adorno responds that if you retain a sense of yourself as a freethinker — if, following Jaspers, you never forget that you have chosen your commitments and could have chosen otherwise — then your commitment will always be provisional and indeed revocable and in that sense not really a commitment at all, certainly not an “absolute” one, one that you couldn’t imagine re-negotiating.

         Of course, we can run the contradiction the other way. The heteronomy that the young existentialist agrees to mimic will require that he relinquish his freedom, punctually, over and over again, even as he tells himself that he is doing so freely. Existentialism thus resembles nothing so much as the voluntary servitude first described by La Boétie in the 1540s — or the condition that made Spinoza shudder, the confusion of people “who fight for their bondage as though it were their freedom.” Equally, we could think of this existentialism as a bizarre reversal in the history of Left Hegelianism. In the 1840s, Bauer and Feuerbach and others began arguing that religion was the very model of alienation: Humans had invented God; assigned to him their own most distinctive powers (the powers of spirit, of creation, their ability to make and remake their world); and then subordinated themselves to this distorted avatar of their own disavowed eminence. Left Hegelianism was obviously an invitation to drop the God-act; to recognize that God was a projection of the power of thinking human activity and so to affirm that power directly. The existentialists then arrived on the scene and took these arguments on board, only to say: That! Do that! Kneel to the god of your own making, even as you freely concede that this is what you are doing. Existentialism thus enshrines the alienation that it was supposedly designed to combat. It is the resolve to stay alienated even once you have gained insight into the sources of your alienation.

           There’s another problem that follows on from this last and which Adorno has already insinuated at least twice: These early existentialists weren’t interested in any one religion, weren’t interested “in any specific doctrine.” So Jaspers says that we choose are commitments freely, and this will tend to imply that commitments are always plural — not that *I* will have multiple commitments, but that other plausible commitments were available and that I could have chosen differently and that I have to be prepared to let other people choose differently. Their choosing freely means they don’t have to choose as I do. This is Jaspers’s big innovation on Kierkegaard, who when all is said and done only had this one ardent version of Protestantism in mind. And though we might congratulate Jaspers for having figured out how to make Kierkegaardianism liberal, we might for that very reason fret that he has led us straight into the quagmire of multiple and contending Absolutes. We begin to sense the scope of the problem if we look again at Badiou, whose ethics is designed above all to undo liberal society’s general neutralization of commitment — its insistence that we not really believe what we claim to believe, or its grudging permission to believe anything we want provided we promise in advance never to do anything about it. Badiou, in other words, wants to teach members of a liberal society how to be fanatics again; he wants us to recover our lost capacity for militancy and Schwärmerei. The peculiar character of his argument, though, is that he is sticking up for fanaticism in general — for no particular fanaticism — and certainly not for communism specifically, which is what you might have thought he was after. And “fanaticism in general” is, of course, a broken-backed concept, a contradictory fusing of zeal and indifference: extreme and passionate dedication to a cause that doesn’t care anything about the cause. Badiou’s ethics thus incorporates the flaccidly noncommittal pluralism that it was designed to overcome, offering only a hollowed-out militancy remade on the model of its liberal enemy. Or to put the point more plainly: A genuinely religious person can’t care about religion in general, because he will be committed to the specific claims (rites, beliefs) of some particular religion. Particularity is built into the thing. Religion can only appear as “religion” to someone whose underlying premises are secular.

Jargon of Authenticity, Day 1

[The introduction is here.]

Adorno starts with an anecdote. This already marks out The Jargon of Authenticity as a bit unusual, since anecdote is not Adorno’s usual way. He doesn’t begin the Dialectic of Enlightenment by telling you about the time that he and Horkheimer hitchhiked to Amsterdam. Even Minima Moralia, which one might reasonably regard as Theodor Adorno’s Diary of America, hides its origins in lived experience behind a veneer of abstract and depersonalized utterance: Notes from the Damaged Life, not Notes from My Damaged Life. So we shouldn’t take this first page for granted. Let’s listen to Adorno tell a story.

In the early 1920s, a number of people active in philosophy, sociology and theology were planning a gathering. Most of them had switched from one denomination to another; what they had in common was their emphasis on newly acquired religion, and not the religion itself. They were all dissatisfied with the idealism that still dominated [German] universities at the time. Philosophy moved them to choose, out of freedom and autonomy, what has been known since at least Kierkegaard as positive theology. 

A reader might pause at this point to wonder who exactly Adorno has in mind here. The Jargon is Adorno’s most polemical book, and surely we would learn something if we could put names to its targets. What he says here, on the opening page, is going to frame everything that comes after. Aren’t we being asked to see these figures as representative, and wouldn’t Adorno’s points be easier to follow if we knew who they were? Or you might just be curious: Who had sufficiently raised Adorno’s ire that he was still going on about it some forty years later?

        That question has an answer. We do know who is referring to, though The Jargon will let them remain anonymous. A few years ago, a philosopher in Germany — it turns out that scholars are good for something — discovered an unpublished notebook of Adorno’s in the Walter Benjamin archive in Berlin, and in that notebook Adorno tells the story again—and this time with identifying marks. So the people he has in mind were a group of German intellectuals who came together after World War I to remake religion in a broadly Nietzschean spirit—to devise versions of Christianity and Judaism that could withstand Nietzschean attack—and to explain, further, how this modernist religion, a religion without metaphysics, could push Europe to remake itself, apocalyptically, after Passchendaele and the Somme. The key name here is Eugen Rosenstock, though the figure that a contemporary English-speaker is most likely to know is not Rosenstock, but Franz Rosenzweig—not Rose-tree, but Rose-branch, who was the former’s closest collaborator. I should point out: Even in the notebook, Adorno doesn’t write out their names; he just calls them “the Patmos people”—Patmos being the name of the publishing house that the Rosenstock circle founded in order to spread their hopes for new life in the post-Wilhelminian Pentecost.

      The question now is whether filling in these names will help us understand why Adorno doesn’t like them. Will it make the book in front of us any easier to read? And the answer to this is less clear than one might have hoped. If anything, finding out about Rosenstock and Rosenzweig can make Adorno’s animosity harder to understand.

      Let’s say we start scanning these first four sentences for clues. Adorno tells us, for one, that Rosenstock and his crew had come out against the German idealists—that they had rejected the legacy of Kant and Hegel. But it is hard to see Adorno attacking them on those grounds alone. The Jargon of Authenticity was first conceived as a series of chapters in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics and was, in fact, included in that book’s first edition, as an appendix. And that’s the book where Adorno remarks that “philosophical system is the belly turned mind, just as rage is the defining mark of idealism in all its forms.” Suffice it to sat that Adorno is unlikely to call out a post-Nietzschean philosopher for being insufficiently respectful to Kant.

         But then there are, of course, many different ways of opposing idealism. The next step, then, would be to try to at least catch the drift of R&R’s particular anti-idealism—to try to put some substance to their discontent with the philosophical heritage. Here it will help to know about three positions that Rosenstock and Rosenzweig shared—positions that add up to a kind of anti-philosophy.

         1) Philosophers have typically erred by convincing us that we can think abstractly, outside of space and time. This is little better than a trick, a writerly illusion that falsifies the most basic coordinates of human experience and the human situation. One of the few things that we can say about human beings in general is that they have to be somewhere and that they exist in time. The task of a post-Nietzschean counter-philosophy—what Rosenzweig called the New Thinking—will be to clarify what is going on when I try to apprehend the world at some particular moment, from some particular place, and to do this is in a way that resists transcendence’s every lure. Hegel, in the introduction to his smaller Logic, describes what it’s like to start studying philosophy: “The mind, denied the use of its familiar ideas, feels the ground where it once stood firm and at home taken away from beneath it.” And that, of course, is a vision of displacement and dispossession. Philosophy will take away your land; will put you on the run; will leave you homeless. Every twenty-year-old who picks up Fichte undergoes their own personal Nakba. The easiest way to understand what Rosenstock and Rosenzweig were up to, then, is simply to notice that they wanted to re-do philosophy without Hegel’s cruel threat. It doesn’t matter where you are right now, as you are reading these words. You are reading them in some particular location, and there’s a good chance that you are there by choice, because you want to be. The New Thinking is content with your remaining a terrestrial being, not that you could be otherwise. You can think carefully and still stay where you are. You don’t need to levitate, and you don’t need to leave.

 #2: A thinking that has stopped trying to abstract from time and space will have no choice but to reconstruct the primal varieties of religious experience (or else shut up about religion altogether). The idea here is that religion should be kept away from philosophy, set free from doctrine and system and argued-out theology. Once we have agreed that we are terrestrial creatures—and that we must not delude ourselves into thinking otherwise—then the question becomes whether we can discover the stuff of religion within the texture of ordinary, earth-bound experience. If we attended to experience in a more or less phenomenological fashion, could we find the raw materials of religion, non-transcendentally and before its capture by philosophy? One of the more curious consequences of that question is that it asks us to face, historically, in two directions at once. In one sense, it resembles nothing so much as the Protestant Reformation, which wanted to go back behind the whole history of the Christian church, and especially behind the tradition of Christian (Catholic) philosophy, in order to revive—to let loose upon the world again—the original spirit of Christianity (or pre-rabbinical Judaism), to turn an ossified Church back into the Jesus movement (or an archaic Israel). It can seem as though Rosenstock and Rosenzweig are proposing a radicalized version of that project, whose gambit is to get us back behind the whole history of philosophy. That’s the bit they got from Nietzsche and will share with Heidegger. At the same time, though, their point is that what we call religion is a permanent feature of human experience, to be accessed at any time. We might need to scrape away layers of philosophical accretion in order to do that, but we don’t need, each of us, to make a preposterous transhistorical leap to early antiquity.

       #3: One of the best ways to retrieve the sources of religious experience—away from the latter’s codification in theology—is to pay close attention to ordinary language. The way we speak, the way we use language, has a way of pointing to those things that we ordinarily call “religion.” Examples will help: So maybe you would grant that a few people feel a religious calling, but you know equally that most people don’t. Saul, you have read, was called on the Road to Damascus, but most of us don’t expect to be transformed by a blinding light while traveling to Dallas for work. You know that priests sometimes say they felt a calling, but it seems pretty clear that cashiers and construction workers don’t. To this Rosenstock would respond that we have all, in fact, had the experience of being called — that we are called all the time and over and over again: “Hey, Remy!” “Oh, Clara, am I glad to see you!” “Yo, Julian! What’s good?” Others address us, and our orientation in the world briefly shifts. Someone speaks my name, and I am pried open. What’s more, the vocative is primary; all the other things we do with language happen after a relationship has been established via a calling. We are inclined to think otherwise only because philosophers and grammar books tend to take the indicative as the paradigmatic instance of language, but it’s not. Second case in point: We create in language—we build our cultures and out customs and our institutions and our lifeworlds; we make things happen with utterance—and every such speech act follows the example of “Let there be light.” Religion, in general, has thus tended to be more clear-eyed about the powers of language, less deceived than philosophy by the tyranny of the declarative sentence, the syllogism, the doctrine of predication. Socrates, God help us, is a man.

     The problem, I think, is the following: We know that Adorno was friendly with intellectuals who were to varying degrees religious. It is, after all, hard to imagine a close reader of Walter Benjamin rejecting these three positions out of hand. Benjamin, indeed, published in the house journal of the New Thinkers, Die Kreatur; he published alongside the very thinkers that Adorno is going after here. And for a number of years, Adorno served as informal assistant to the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who must rank high on any list of T.W.A.’s consistently remarkable mentors. (Adorno on Tillich: Without him, “it is very questionable whether I would be able to speak to you today; it is even questionable whether I would have survived.”) Adorno was certainly capable of taking the fight to the religious Right. He wrote an entire book, in English, about a former boxer turned radio evangelist—an anti-Semite and red-baiter who first took to the airwaves to combat the malign influence upon America of Upton Sinclair. But Rosenstock and Rosenzweig are no Martin Luther Thomas. The easiest way to figure out what they expected from religion will be to let their modern students summarize their program.

             Here’s Wayne Cristaudo on Rosenstock: He held that “today so many, including so-called Christians, failed to fathom the claims about Jesus’ divinity, which had to do with the overpowering of death, not in any mystical or Pythagorean manner of the continuity of the individual soul in a netherworld, but in the triumph over death and deadly forces through forming a body across time, the Church. For Rosenstock-Huessy, Jesus was proof that Caesar and Pharaoh and ‘great men’ were not gods and Jesus’ divinization meant that after him no one else would be God, that our redemption was universal and mutual. Jesus’ taking on the role of the crucified was to show us that we crucify God when we do evil to each other, and that we fail to achieve the maximum of our powers (our own divinity) in our failure to obey the law of love, and that to obey the commandment of love means being continually prepared to leave abodes ruled by death and to die into new forms of love and fellowship.”

         Here’s Benjamin Pollock on Rosenzweig: “According to Rosenzweig, redemption designates that future point of unity towards which all beings strive through acts of interpersonal love and recognition, through the formation of religious and political communities, and … through translation; it is a future point that orients our everyday temporal existence but that we can experience proleptically through liturgical practice; a future point toward which history unfolds, without history thereby achieving it.”

             Here’s Cristaudo again: Rosenstock “never doubted that his desire to create new forms of community, to change the education system by bringing students and workers together, and to restructure the workplace, were as much part of one calling and project as his studies on Egypt, Greece, Christianity, the tribes, the nations, the law, and every other topic he addressed in his writings. Like Rosenzweig, he saw scholarship as a contribution to life. He held that ideas are nothing without incarnation and that everything he did was all part of one life lived in devotion, service, and prayer.”

   The word you might wish to circle is “redemption”—as in: “Redemption designates that future point of unity…”—since any long-time reader of Adorno will know that it’s a word that he uses a lot: (From the final pages of Minima Moralia: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption.”) At some point, Adorno and Horkheimer decided in tandem that Stalinism had made it impossible to keep using the old Marxist vocabulary. This is a book about jargon, right?—and Marx’s was the jargon that they were drawn to and sometimes spoke, until they dropped it, famously scrubbing the first edition of the Dialectic of Enlightenment to make it sound less like Chicago’s Voice of Labor: “exploitation” became “enslavement” (or “injustice” or “subjugation”); “capitalism” became “the economic system”; “class society” became “society”; and so on. The question is, then: What did Adorno write instead of the words “socialism” and “communism”? And my point here is that he mostly made do with variants of “redemption” and “reconciliation,” to the point where the literature on Adorno is crowded with these terms: “the redeemed future,” “the redeemed world,” “reconciled humanity,” “a reconciled society.” Adorno himself refers in Minima Moralia to those “tidings of redemption whose purest notes are heard in the Sermon on the Mount.” I could also put the matter this way: In the early 1940s, Eugen Rosenstock, by then in his New England exile, took over a recently vacated workers’ camp in Vermont. His plan was to extend the New Deal’s jobs program to college students, on the theory that the “overprivileged”—his term—needed to learn to work for the community every bit as much as the destitute and the displaced. And that project—it was called Camp William James—is sometimes cited as the most direct precursor to the Peace Corps, which was apparently proposed to the Kennedy administration by one of its alumni.

       That’s the puzzle, in other words: Adorno does not begin The Jargon of Authenticity by going after some dingbat Ariosophist or the so-called German Christians—those were the people who thought the Romans had nailed Jesus to a swastika. He begins by going after the Christian intellectual who is said to have inspired the Peace Corps. And one wishes to know why.

The Real Universal, No. 3 – Part 4

For a pdf of the entire book, click here.

That was one inconsistency. Here’s another:

-Derrida’s theory of violence is an instance of the violence it theorizes. Derrida thinks that we can call all indigenous societies “violent,” and that we can do this on philosophical grounds, without having to check, on the simple grounds that they all possess language. He thinks, further, that we can call all language “violent” because sounds and marks begin functioning as words only when they refuse to discriminate among the multiple objects they designate. Language simply will not permit us to fix our regard on some particular thing; it is a hard-wired invitation to inattention, the inevitable thoughtlessness of thought, an inability to cherish, the ongoing obliteration of specificity. It would be enough at this point to restate Derrida’s claim that all culture is colonial: “Every culture institutes itself through the unilateral imposition of some ‘politics’ of language. Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming, of imposing and legitimating appellations.” Colonized people are as violent as the people who have colonized them because they give things names. If you want to stay close to Derrida’s reasoning, you have to be able to amplify these points with a certain ferocity, declaiming your view that every word is a red-hot cattle-brand, every noun a cauterant; that we speakers of language are the victims of an irreparable ontological wrenching, an abduction, after which we will never again be where we each most wanted to be, never simply and placidly there, as language yanks our head, over and over again, away from whatever we looked at last and towards that thing’s many substitutes and remote doubles. Of course, it is enough to paraphrase Derrida in this het up fashion to realize that his rhetoric of violence is, in fact, wholly optional. All language is general, sure enough, but one is hardly obliged to make that point in a manner that recalls angry severity or physical force, which last Derrida is stuck referring to as “empirical violence.” Other words would also serve: Maybe language is “alienating” or “etiolating“ or “schematic.” Language compels inattention, so maybe it’s just “rude.” To use the word “violence” to name all neglect of specificity is to discount the possibility that there is something specific about violence. Equally, it is to block the judgments that we are otherwise called upon to make about types and degrees of violence—judgments, in other words, about which kinds of violence we might wish to oppose in the first instance, today, before going home. Not that Derrida doesn’t himself sometimes distinguish between forms of violence, instructing us, indeed, which types to prefer. In Specters of Marx, Derrida says that people attached to their localities are “archaic” and “primitive” and then greets the possibility that modern, quintessentially American media—radio, film, telephones, television, what he calls “tele-technics”—will roust and scatter such people, subjecting to “the process of dislocation” anyone who still thinks he possesses a “native soil.”


So much for the second incoherence. Here’s a third:

-Derrida’s universalism is not really universal. So a Derridean might want to reply at this point that aboriginal people are never aboriginal, which is to say that they are always already displaced and dispossessed. The colonizers don’t have any ontological privilege or historical mandate. If everyone is already dispossessed, then metaphysically speaking, there’s nothing for a land-hungry settler to do. This is where Derrida is, in fact, closest to Lacan (or to Lacan/Žižek), offering his own theory of the barred subject, universal alienation, and our fundamental inability to reunite with the world, which in Lacan is simply Oedipus or the lost mother, hence the course of individuation or, worse, of failed individuation. But there are nonetheless questions of an Aristotelian/Hegelian kind about the relation between the particular and the universal—about, in other words, the realization of the universal in this or that particular. And here Derrida is perfectly willing to distinguish between people (and practices and institutions) who actualize this universal dispossession to greater and lesser degrees. It will be important at this moment to consult the passage in Of Grammatology where he concedes that the invention of “writing in the narrow sense” was an event of epochal significance because it involved “a prodigious expansion of the power of differance.” Speech is already mediation, already the active and productive coding of the world, but writing makes this truth overt and unignorable and potent. This means, in turn, that people with “writing in the narrow sense” are imbued with “the power of differance” in ways that non-literate peoples are not. What had been writing in nuce becomes writing in elaborated fact. More: Derrida thinks that some people can convince themselves that they are rooted or non-alienated and that it would be better if they were rendered fugitive. “Dislocation” is primal in Derrida, coeval with the fantasy of a settled community, and yet techno-media are granted the special power to effect that dislocation in some actualized and real-world form. And the word “dislocation,” of course, introduces as relevant context a rather striking set of historical referents. To insinuate that people would be better off having their land taken from them because it would correct their metaphysics is to offer  philosophical apology for dispossession.

I began with some questions: How can we tell the difference between deconstruction and the other philosophies of non-identity, notably negative dialectics? Who are deconstruction’s real enemies? Can just anyone be a Derridean? Answers should now be forthcoming: Derrida is unlike Adorno because he universalizes the civilizational technology of writing; because his inflated concept of violence refuses to distinguish between a Native American clearing a path through a forest and a European clearing a path through Native Americans; because his entire program is pitched against the non-literate, which could mean the badly educated, but mostly means the indigenous, who are not the philosopher’s Levinasian others, but rather his chosen adversaries, the unwelcome. If there is a politics to deconstruction, Derrida says, it is a “politics of exodus, of the émigré. As such, it can of course serve as a political ferment or anxiety, a subversion of fixed assumptions and a privileging of disorder.” Underlying this subversion—this bringing of disorder to the natives—we find a fixed assumption in turn, which arrives in the form of an analogy or even a sort of allegory: that emigrants are people in the condition of writing, no longer tied to a single place, spread out, propagated, published, a kind of human écriture. Human societies are just only when they approximate the condition of literature. Linguists, of course, have felt free all along to ignore deconstruction, preferring to stand pat on the idea that writing-in-the-narrow-sense is secondary to language-in-general. Linguists will tell you that the minds of children are set up to develop language, to absorb it from the vibrating air, whereas writing has to be in a different sense learned, which is to say taught, broken down into steps and lessons and drillable techniques. They will also tell you that most languages have never been written down, including the great majority of historically vanished ones. From that perspective, there is nothing more telling in Derrida than his dismissal of oral societies. His entire argument is designed to dislodge people without writing from historical and global primacy, or even to deny their existence. A linguist will hear this and think it all a bit dotty, since the numerical preeminence of oral societies is as well established a fact as any in the human sciences. But all of early deconstruction is an effort to set the terms such that these propositions become in some special sense plausible, and if we know that, we will be in a position, at last, to spot the biggest misunderstanding in all of critical theory. Deconstruction is not a critique of Western metaphysics; it is a defense of Western metaphysics from critique. When Derrida first published Of Grammatology, he mailed a copy to Roland Barthes, who was then serving out a stint at Johns Hopkins, and Barthes wrote back to thank him. In Baltimore, Barthes said, Derrida’s writing was “like a book by Galileo in the land of the Inquisition, or more simply a civilized book in Barbary.” And what we learn from the civilized book of deconstruction is that it is a mistake to think that one could ever be non-Western, that in Maryland no less than in North Africa, there is nothing outside the West. Il n’y a pas de hors-ouest.

Pownal, Vt • January 2024


A Commentary on Adorno’s Jargon of Authenticity

Certificate of Authenticity


Today, I would like to begin a project whose like I have never attempted before. Over the next several months, I will provide a detailed commentary on a short book that Theodor Adorno published in 1964, in the run-up to Negative Dialectics. That book, The Jargon of Authenticity, has never attracted much interest, in German or in English. It’s not that readers make it through the book and then decide they don’t like it. They mostly don’t read it. Or they take it up and soon set it down again, thirty pages into the thing and still unsure what Adorno is up to. This is entirely understandable. The book is a roundhouse attack on a certain intellectual scene as it took shape in Germany in the 1950s and early ‘60s, the milieu of a right-leaning existentialism whose presiding gurus were Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. But Adorno barely even uses the word “existentialism,” which the Sartreans had come by that point to monopolize, and he is not especially interested in his opponents’ philosophical positions. He is interested, rather, in how existentialism had, by 1964, degenerated into set of commonplaces, and he expects the reader to be able to recognize this sub-philosophical boilerplate. But then we are emphatically not in a position to recognize that boilerplate. History (and a foreign language) have drawn a curtain over Adorno’s efforts.

Worse, the few intellectual historians who have bothered to comment on The Jargon of Authenticity have concluded that it is minor Adorno—or even unworthy of him. They miss the dialectical intricacy of his more famous engagements with Heidegger — the ones that take Heidegger seriously as a philosopher and offer to meet him on his own ground. By the standards of Negative Dialectics (or of the now published lectures on Ontology and Dialectics), The Jargon can seem merely polemical or perhaps “sociological,” for which read “Marxist.” But then this, of course, is precisely the interest of the volume. Adorno is tracking the fate of a philosophy when it gets picked up by people who aren’t exactly philosophers, and he has changed his grip accordingly. If you want to figure out the work that a philosophy does—in the world and not just at the seminar table—it won’t be enough to read the masters. You will have to take seriously the B-listers and garbled enthusiasts, the people who seize on a philosophy’s key terms and strip them of their native subtlety. This is worth our attention for at least two reasons: First, Adorno here expands his at least somewhat well-known critique of Heidegger to many other figures, including a few intellectuals (like Buber) with whom we might have expected him to have some sympathy. Heidegger, after all, makes things easy for the critical theorist, who can always just cry “Nazi!” and claim victory. But what do we say about the Existenzphilosophen who weren’t fascists, who opposed the Nazis or were almost killed by them? Second, one suspects that all successful philosophies suffer the fate that Adorno traces here; that they are all made to yield a jargon, a bundle of memes and buzzwords. One suspects, indeed, that the list of such philosophies would include critical theory itself, with or without the capital K. And we might well be grateful for Adorno’s help in thinking about this problem. Philosophy cannot realize itself unless it is taken up as a project, and by many readers at once. But if a philosophy is widely taught, the most likely effect, at least in the middle term, is that it will become the common property of the educated classes, an acquired idiom for a society’s more successful members to justify their very advantages. Existentialism, says Adorno, outs itself as the “snooty crowing of come-down gentlemen.” To which we must add: Speaking the lingo of critical theory is by now mostly just evidence that you went to a good school.

Some practicalities: Anyone wanting to read along could grab a copy of the 1973 Jargon of Authenticity, translated by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will. We should be grateful to anyone who completed an Adorno translation fifty years ago, without the benefit of the extensive Frankfurt apparatus now available in English. But the translation is as error-prone as one would expect of such a pioneering effort, and I will often amend it without explanation.
Also: I have a companion in this project, Justin Piccininni of Williams College, who first suggested that The Jargon deserved a closer look. There is very little in the book that I would understand if it weren’t for conversations with him.

The Real Universal, No. 3 – Part 2


  • 4.2

If the term “post-structuralism” has ever referred to any titles in particular—if post-structuralism, that is, has had not just canonical texts, but name-generating ones—then surely it refers to the attacks that Derrida launched against Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1966 and 1967. “Structure, Sign, and Play” goes after “structural or structuralist thought” in its very first sentence; its opening claim is that “structure” is as old as the West, an encumbrance, therefore, an unthinking conceptual reflex, one more bad habit picked up in childhood, the philosophical equivalent of chewing your nails. This “would be easy enough to show,” we read in the lecture, which formulation is Derrida’s preferred way of not showing something.[i] It’s not clear, anyway, that Derrida is right about this. An etymological dictionary will tell you that the word “structure” is Latin, from struere “to build,” and so not, in fact, ur-Western—old, sure, but not Aegean-old. It will also tell you that “structure” goes back to the Indo-European root stere-, meaning “to spread or stretch out,” which also gives us Greek stronymi or “strew,” in which case we would have to conclude that the word “structure” has “strewing” as one of its closer cousins. Structure and dissemination are thus not the antitheses that deconstruction takes them to be, but in fact variants of one another, two different ways of naming a collection of scattered points. Anyone wanting to toss out the one on the grounds of its metaphysical antiquity would, to be consistent, have to discard the other, as well.

The attack on Lévi-Strauss then continues in Of Grammatology, where the anthropologist serves as Derrida’s one great example of a living, breathing gramophobe—all the evidence he has, really, for the claim that a writer could still in the late twentieth century rise to prominence by systematically dishonoring his own medium, that someone trained as a philosopher could take to print in ink-loathing praise of peuples sans écriture. Lévi-Strauss had reported seeing an indigenous man in Brazil, living far from white settlement, wielding fake writing as a weapon against his fellows, trying to bolster his authority over them by pretending to read wordless scratchings on a page. Reflecting on that scene some days later, he had concluded that this incident revealed something important about all writing: namely, that some of its political effects depended not at all on what it said, but merely on the performance of the saying; that writing communicated the power of the writer before it communicated anything else. You can tell that the power of the writing is independent of its words because it seems to operate even when there aren’t any words.[ii] Such is the argument that Derrida was out to defeat. And to the extent that Lévi-Strauss was uniformly regarded as structuralism’s standard-bearer, that defeat would do more than any other event in recent French philosophy to bring into view the possibility of what we might call thought after Lévi-Strauss and what we have called post-structuralism, which is the name we give to sundry radical French philosophers when assimilating them to Derrida.

But then if you’re going to call deconstruction and the rest “post-structuralist,” you also have to let “structuralism” suffice as a descriptor for Lévi-Strauss’s work. This means, in turn, that if you emphasize other features of Lévi-Strauss’s system—or if you simply recognize other keys to Lévi-Strauss’s renown in the mid-1960s; other features, I mean, of his public profile—then our conception of deconstruction will shift accordingly, and maybe our conception of post-structuralism, as well, should it be shown to have been surpassing other things, too, in the process of outstripping la structure.

Anyone with enough time can confirm through a course of reading the broad outlines of Lévi-Strauss’s philosophical project. The trick to reading Lévi-Strauss is to realize that he was, despite himself, a big-historical thinker. Structuralism, officially anti-historical, houses within itself a whopping-great story about What Has Happened to the World Over Time, and it is these disavowed historical claims that underwrite its rejection of history in favor of myth. Those claims are by now pretty familiar. Lévi-Strauss begins with the anti-humanist theory of (European) man that we associate above all with Heidegger and the Frankfurt School: of Promethean man, in other words, an Ahabian humanity driven to master the world, all-conquering, determined to murder the very ocean, self-subordinating, too, constructing the technologies and institutions that “destroy innumerable living forms,” and then capturing itself in its own disastrous machinery.[iii] Many have come to the conclusion that there is a basic ambiguity in Lévi-Strauss’s arguments or that he wants to have it both ways. No French writer of his generation wrote as ardently against ethnocentrism or against the late Victorian habit of ranking the world’s peoples, and if we take Lévi-Strauss at his word, then we shouldn’t be able to rank the West any more than we can rank the Bantu or the Inuit. Or rather, we shouldn’t be able to demote the West. European civilization should settle in as just one more culture among others, with conventions of its own, cognitive customs (called “science”), narrative customs (called “history”), and so on. But there is, of course, a second sense in which Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism takes European culture to be unique, after all—uniquely diseased, uniquely alienated, estranged from the fundamental ways of relating to others and to the non-human world that are preserved by tribal thought. Structuralism was thus energized by a remarkable combination of features: a Frankfurt-style critique of instrumental reason—or a Heideggerian critique of productivism—grafted upon an anthropologist’s regard for indigenous ethics, though it’s not hard, of course, to see how these would go together: the comprehensive rejection of European thought sponsors a rigorous survey of the non-European kind.

The subtle point about structuralism, then, is that it meant not only to report on the thinking of pre-literate societies, but also to replicate that very thought for the people of Europe and North America—to teach someone who would otherwise be reading Salinger and Nabokov to think again like an indigenous person. It’s not just that Lévi-Strauss was an eco-thinker in the ordinary sense, though he could usefully be revisited under that rubric, given that he was trying to spell out a conservationist approach to thinking itself, an approach to thought modeled on the conduct of people who live amidst scarcity, on the recycler’s approach to objects, therefore, in which thought can be reconditioned and repurposed and so does not require endless innovation or concept-production, where you sift through the intellect, take what you need, combining one fistful of concepts and images with scraps of other such, cinching together out of the leavings of former reflections a not-exactly-new thought-object better suited to the task at hand. The idea, at least, is that such tinkering is what thought actually does, only we don’t know this because we chronically overestimate the mind’s novelty and independence. But then equally it is what thought should do—adapt, sort through its already existing riches—rather than engineer a single intellectual innovation determined to drive all others from the field. Structuralism, which is another name for pensée sauvage, offers itself as the very model of extensive and non-hierarchical cognition, the thinking of concrete possibilities, permutations within generous limits, social and cultural variety, solutions other than the one we opted for.

All I mean to say is that it is important to recall just what Derrida, in 1967, was attacking by attacking Lévi-Strauss. A person, of course, would have to have read deeply in Lévi-Strauss to put a résumé together.[iv] But it is enough to thumb through his UNESCO writings—among the most widely read anti-racist tracts to come out of Europe after the war—to find sentences like this: “There is no justification for asserting that any one race is intellectually superior or inferior to another.” Or this: “The original sin of anthropology … consists in its confusion of the idea of race, in the purely biological sense, … with the sociological and psychological productions of human civilizations.” Or this: “In actual fact, there are no peoples still in their childhood; all are adult, even those who have not kept a diary of their childhood and adolescence.”  Or again this: “We may note that acceptance of the Western way of life, or certain aspects of it, [by non-Westerners], is by no means as spontaneous as Westerners would like to believe.”[v] Alternately, a person reading Tristes Tropiques in the 1950s might have remarked that in its opening chapters Lévi-Strauss violates his own chronology in order to let the reader know that he was friends with André Breton, with whom he was in exile in New York, the two men having met unexpectedly on the anti-fascist refugee ship that carried them both from Marseilles to Martinique.[vi] This early French reader, moreover, would likely have known something that a belated Anglo reader could easily miss—that the Surrealists were themselves ardent anti-colonialists; that anti-colonialism, more than a rather generic united-front communism, was the distinguishing drift of Surrealist politics—which means, in turn, that when Lévi-Strauss drew attention to the Breton circle as one of Tristes Tropiques’s more relevant contexts, he was requesting that his readers see that book as an extension of the French avant-garde’s repudiation of high Europe. Structuralism asks to be seen as a restaging of a Surrealist action from 1925, in which Breton and his friends disrupted a Parisian literary banquet by sneaking into the hall and tucking into each place-setting a flyer that began: “We profoundly hope that … colonial insurrections will annihilate this Western civilization whose vermin you defend. … We take this opportunity to dissociate ourselves publicly from all that is French.” Read in this context, Lévi-Strauss’s output looks like a multi-volume companion piece to the exhibition that the Surrealists mounted in 1931, called “The Truth about the Colonies”—totally direct that exhibition was, no poetry needed, not Surrealist, but realist. One could go on. A ‘60s-era reader of Tristes Tropiques—Derrida, say, when preparing the Grammatology—might have recalled the much discussed Manifesto of the 121, co-written by a young Surrealist and revised by Breton himself, calling for organized resistance to the French government in Algeria and aid for the independence movement there.[vii] One detail in particular stands out: It was on that journey across the Atlantic, alongside Lévi-Strauss, that André Breton first made the acquaintance of Aimé Césaire, who became Surrealism’s most important exponent outside of Europe and who was already publishing a journal called Tropiques, which then furnished Lévi-Strauss with half his title: Tristes Tropiques, Troubled Tropics, Tropics of Woe, Despairing Equator.

Deconstruction, we can now say, came into the world as an attack on anti-colonial anthropology. Not that Derrida was the first person to disagree with Lévi-Strauss—hardly. His method had already faced a strong challenge from the Left, where it was said that structuralism was a device for downplaying conflict, for minimizing the fractures and struggles that agitate and occasionally transform even non-literate and stateless societies. Many readers on the Left have always felt that structuralism was guilty of overstating the ability of culture, art, or myth to produce stability in a society by imaginatively reconciling its real antagonisms.[viii] But then Lévi-Strauss had also faced a challenge from the Right, which accused him of being a self-loathing Westerner driven by anti-civilizational prejudice, a temperamental and aestheticized primitivism that would say anything, opportunistically and unaccountably, in order to make tribal people look better than the Belgians or the Lyonnais.[ix]

It is this second line of argument that Derrida took up in 1967. What we’ll want to note first is that indigenous peoples are never not at issue in Of Grammatology, from beginning to end, albeit in ways that can be a little hard to spot. Indians don’t appear by name until the chapter on Lévi-Strauss, but they hang silently over the entire book, since they can’t help but be Derrida’s test case, over and over again, for his signature claim that there have never existed societies without writing. Take the following sentence: “Even before it is linked to incision, engraving, drawing, or the letter…, the concept of the graphie [the unit of a possible graphic system] implies the framework of the instituted trace, as the possibility common to all systems of signification.”[x] The word to pay attention to is before: Even before the letter, before writing in the ordinary sense. Derrida has to grant that there have existed oral societies even in the process of negating that claim. The same holds true for the the prefix arche- in the term arche-writing; it, too, points to indios and islanders. In some contexts, of course, arche- just means “very ancient” or the “first,” and if that were true here, arche-writing would refer to “the rudiments of writing” or “ur-script,” hence maybe to Babylonian accounting methods, except Derrida exploits a permanent ambiguity in perceptions of the primal, which ambiguity follows on from the simple observation that the prototype of a given thing is often unlike that thing’s common form, sometimes to the point of unrecognizability. The earliest version of x both is and isn’t x. What Derrida also calls “originary writing” thus carries its own negation inside itself: writing-before-writing, which is also writing-that-is-not-writing, which is also indigenous writing or the writing-of-people-who-don’t-read. If you were to substitute “Indian” for “arche-“ every time you saw it, it would become rather easier to reconstruct Derrida’s historical claims: arche-writing, Indian writing, un-writing.

The first of Derrida’s complaints is thus easy to guess: Lévi-Strauss is to be rebuked for stupidly believing that the Nambikwara didn’t know about writing until he showed up with his notepad. If you’ve read any Derrida at all you will have seen this thesis coming, though even in that case, the “Violence of the Letter” will give you a chance to confirm your hunch that Derrida can make his signature argument only by proclaiming all marks to be writing: vegetable-dye tattoos, zigzags on squashes, wolves urinating on rocks. The idea is that the precolonial Nambikwara could have gained insight into writing by watching a jaguar claw significance into tree bark.[xi]

It is, however, Derrida’s second argument, the one about violence, that you might not have seen coming. Lévi-Strauss, after all, had wanted to specify the forms of oppression that Europeans have inflicted on the non-European world, and to point out that this oppression was not just material, but cultural and cognitive, as well. And to this Derrida replies that the violence at issue was not Europe’s fault, that colonized people were already oppressed before their conquerors arrived, overcome from the start by “the originary violence of language which consists in … classifying, in suspending the vocative absolute”—the direct address—and so using words to subsume the world in generalities.[xii] Here, at the very latest, we are forced to conclude that Derrida has fundamentally reversed tack on radical philosophy’s usual wildcat genealogies of “metaphysics” or “Western thought.” For if deconstruction is right, the problem with “Western thought” is not its addiction to theoretical, philosophical, or scientific knowledge (which has its home in writing &c); nor are we meant to contemplate the ways in which writing everywhere produces new forms of hierarchy: scribal elites, ranked degrees of literacy, preferred positions for the hyper-literate, &. The most serious problem with “Western thought” is that it encourages one to believe that there is also something other than “Western thought.” The polemical thrust of early deconstruction in its struggle with anthropology boils down to the idea that there is no position outside of the violence perpetrated by meaning-making people from which one might in good conscience struggle against London or Paris.

This is not an argument that will withstand even basic modes of scrutiny. One can, of course, indict Lévi-Strauss on charges of a generic Rousseauvianism. If you’ve already decided that Rousseau was a chump and Alp-climbing hippie, or if you think that anyone who prefers indigenous people on any grounds is indulging in so much noble savagery, or if you think that smart and convivial Indians are only ever stock characters, then nothing Lévi-Strauss says is going to change your mind. But the details of Derrida’s objections won’t hold up. Nor is this a subtle point. It’s enough to go and read Tristes Tropiqes to see that Derrida is wrong about Lévi-Strauss. The big point should be apparent, in fact, to anyone who knows anything about structuralism, even second-hand. Lévi-Strauss, after all, is not dreaming of a paradisical spoken language in which words were still full, directly attached to the world’s furniture, capable of presence. Quite the contrary: He accepted Saussure’s position, which Derrida also misrepresents on this point. The most basic move of structuralist anthropology was simply to extend the Saussurean account of language to tribal societies, precisely in order to defeat the idea that language worked differently for indigenous people—to show that tribal people, too, existed in culture and not nature, that they were semiotic peoples, all peoples being semiotic, intensely and intricately coding the world in language via differences that were not positivities. When Derrida attributes to Lévi-Strauss the opposite position, he is simply inventing things that his rival does not say.

It’s even worse on the matter of violence, because the evidence could not be clearer. Derrida says repeatedly that Lévi-Strauss is pushing some stupid myth in which native Americans are fundamentally peaceful, which then allows the anti-colonial anthropologist to claim that white people introduced violence to the Americas. And again, this simply isn’t what Lévi-Strauss is claiming. In the chapters immediately surrounding “The Writing Lesson,” Lévi-Strauss describes an orphan trampled at a dance; “children often hitting out at their mothers”; a little girl who says: “When I’m big I shall kill all the wild pigs and all the monkeys”; hunters who think they will be reincarnated as predatory cats; and those same hunters’ belief that any woman who pries into the secret rites of men “should be struck down at once.” He also notes “the speed with which [the Indians] pass from cordiality to hostility.” He recounts the making of poison. He even describes how the Nambikwara, by their own admission, “murdered” some Protestant American missionaries. It’s just that Lévi-Strauss asks us not to judge them for this, construing that killing as a spontaneously anti-colonial act, and so shrugging good riddance to this Presbyterianism-on-the-march, even though he is pretty sure at one point that his hosts are about to kill him, too.[xiii] That last episode, where Lévi-Strauss anticipates his death at Indian hands, appears in “The Writing Lesson” itself. Nor does Lévi-Strauss then turn around and incongruously describe his hosts as pacifists. He doesn’t say much more than that he liked them—that they were “charming,” that they goofed around a lot, that they seemed to enjoy each other’s company.[xiv] Post-structuralism’s founding arguments rest on errors of the most elementary kind.

[i] See “Structure, Sign, and Play” (1967), in Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass (1978), (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 351-370, quotations at p. 351.

[ii] See “The Writing Lesson” in Tristes Tropiques (1955), translated by John Russell (New York: Criterion, 1961), pp. 286-297.

[iii] Lévi-Strauss, Mythologiques, III, L’Origine des Manières de Table (Paris: Plon, 1968), p. 22.

[iv] In addition to Tristes Tropiques, a person would need to have read The Savage Mind (1962), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966) and the late talks on Myth and Meaning (New York: Schocken Book, 1979). It would also help to read David Pace’s Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Bearer of Ashes (London: Routledge, 1983) and the biography by Patrick Wilcken (New York: Penguin, 2010).

[v] Levi-Strauss, Race and History (Paris: UNESCO, 1952), p. 5 (quotations #1 and #2), p. 19, p. 31.

[vi]  Lévi-Strauss describes his meeting André Breton in Tristes Tropiques, p. 26.

[vii] On the politics of Surrealism, see Mark Polizzotti’s Revolution of the Mind (New York: Farrar Straus, 1995), pp. 235-240 and p. 601; also Jody Blake’s “The Truth about the Colonies, 1931: Art indigène in Service of the Revolution” in Oxford Art Journal 25:1 (2002), pp. 35-58.

[viii] See for instance Maurice Godelier’s “Myth in History” in New Left Review 1.69 (1971), pp. 93-112.

[ix] See esp. Roger Caillois’s two-part essay “Illusions à rebours,” in La nouvelle nouvelle revue française, December 1954, pp. 1010-1024 and January 1955, pp. 58-70.

[x] Of Grammatology, p. 46.

[xi] See also Points, p. 84.

[xii] Of Grammatology, pp. 111-2.

[xiii] Tristes Tropiques, p. 274; p. 276; p. 281; p. 282-3; p. 284-5; p. 290.

[xiv] ibid., p. 285.


I found the photograph at the top in National Geographic

The Real Universal, No. 2


Deconstruction aligns itself with market society, with a universal and impossible commerce. Derrida is never more appealingly stringent than when trying to devise an action wholly outside the exchange relation, which would require as its occasion an object beyond the commodity form. An act for which you get nothing in return: giving is what we call that, except let’s take it seriously for once. “Nothing in return” means we can’t be exchanging gifts, not even on a delay, so Christmas presents won’t count, and neither will birthday packages, since the buttercup yellow stand mixer I present to you in February will come back to me as a vintage tweed overcoat seven months later. If I am really giving something, I can’t expect a counter-gift as recompense, but then I can’t expect anything else either: neither gratitude, certainly, nor a favor, nor the admiration of onlookers. Better, then, that I give the gift anonymously, since anonymity will make me hard to repay, though there remains the risk that I might, in my role as secret giver, bask in the diffuse wonder and room-searching thankfulness of the one opening the parcel, so better still that I not be there for the giving, even incognito (because the other’s confused smile will feel to me like compensation, and if there’s compensation, then—no gift). Even in this last scenario, of course, I might tickle myself by imagining the delight felt by the beneficiary of my shrouded largesse, so better if that person doesn’t even know it to be a gift. It is only by disguising the gift as something other than what it is that I cease to impose the obligation of gratitude. A gift stops being a gift when it can be named as such. Only the non-gift is a gift. But then the last remaining problem is that I will know it to be a gift even so, and this is a problem because I am bound to congratulate myself for having pulled off this feat of generosity. The satisfaction I take in my ethical handiwork will be my last remaining compensation, and once again, the gift will vanish. It is not enough, therefore, that the other not know the gift to be a gift. I can’t know it either. That’s a gift, the only gift: an object given by someone who doesn’t know herself to be a donor to someone who doesn’t know himself to be a recipient.[i]

It’s a remarkable argument and all the prompt one needs to recall the several passages across his corpus where Derrida seems to lead deconstruction outside of the marketplace. One thinks of the splendid, stinging attack on copyright at the beginning of Limited Inc—an attack, that is, on writing as personal possession and saleable article, for which Derrida means to substitute a theory of collective authorship and the text as commons. In the same vein, there’s this, from Monolingualism of the Other: “But who exactly possesses [language]? And whom does it possess? Is language in possession, ever a possessing or possessed possession … like a piece of personal property?”[ii] Language resists all efforts to treat it as one’s own. It can’t be in the least surprising, then, that literature is Derrida’s one plausible candidate for the impossible and utopian gift, perhaps its only real-world incarnation. Ecriture “surpasses the phantasm of return and marks the death of the signatory or the non-return of the legacy, the non-benefit, therefore a certain condition of the gift—in the writing itself.”[iii]

The only plausible candidate? Maybe that isn’t so clear. Empirically, this claim is perhaps a bit silly. The rigorism that otherwise characterizes Derrida’s argument about the gift—the moral severity that allows him to say that no gift is really a gift—has now disappeared, since nearly all writers (all writers?) do expect and get a return for their writing: payment, status, teaching jobs, tenure, praise, fans, although perhaps we can make Derrida’s argument more specific: When the text gets disseminated, some of the encounters it generates will have the character of the impossible—will be gifts, maybe the only gifts—via the people who read me that I don’t know and didn’t even foresee and who conversely know nothing about me, who never reimburse or even talk back to me. With any luck, they will read a copy of my book without dust jacket or title page, meaning: They won’t even be able to praise me by name, to cite me approvingly or raise my reputation with third parties.

Such is at least one way of filling in Derrida’s argument. The problem with this, however, is that by the time I imagine someone finding my book without my name on it, I am no longer conceiving of myself as engaged in a repeatable practice. I am headed back, rather, to the impossible and the utopian—not real literature as the realization of the impossible gift, but an improbably anonymous literature as the non-realization of the impossible gift. At the very least, Derrida has to abstract these fleeting and hypothetical encounters from out of an otherwise mundane culture of print, publishing, and literacy that has compensation and exchange built into it at multiple levels. But then perhaps the problem is equally that he has not done nearly enough to abstract writing-as-gift from ordinary print culture. I just wrote that the text can begin to function as a gift only once disseminated, and the primary vector of such dissemination in any society that we have known is the print marketplace. Anyone wanting to think concretely about deconstruction will need experimentally to excise the word “dissemination” every time that it appears in Derrida’s writing and silently substitute the word “distribution,” which is its unexcitingly commercial equivalent. Even the gift arrives mostly via warehousing middlemen and trans-Pacific shipping containers.

It is from out of materials like these last that Derrida builds one of the screwiest arguments in the annals of critical theory, which is nothing less than an Adornian defense of global capitalism. Here’s how that works. We’ll need first to hold in mind the point just made. Derrida’s account of dissemination has always worked best within the literary marketplace, though it does not strictly presuppose it, since the mere technology of writing is enough to ensure the unpredictable survival and circulation of texts. All the same, dissemination kicks into high gear—is realized to some higher degree—in the marketplace. Consider almost any book now sitting on your desk and you’ll be forced to conclude that it was the marketplace that did most of the work disseminating it. The book-as-commodity almost certainly traveled further than it did in its aftermarket existence as possession or shared good. To that extent, dissemination always works best as an argument about the print commodity. And yet Derrida sometimes takes himself to be talking about gifts, objects that are beyond exchange, which gives us the following puzzle: If the text is a paradigm for the gift, and the disseminated text is also paradigmatically a commodity, then gift and commodity have collapsed back into each other. Derrida’s perfect gift-and-non-commodity comes to us in the form of its opposite.

At the end of Given Time, the first of his two gift books, Derrida steps forward to argue this point without camouflage. People like Aristotle want to regulate trade in the name of householding, but Derrida isn’t having it, and this on the anti-domestic grounds that we often associate with queer militancy: because the home is a closed space and hearth-warmed penitentiary and to that extent immoral. The home is the very paradigm of identity-thought—you can find Adorno and sundry others arguing the same case. The ethics of deconstruction therefore requires that we not have homes or at least that we leave our homes unguarded, and if we are to do this, then we will have to promise not to pursue Athenian oeconomy, which supports an old and paternalist fantasy about well-governed homesteads. Here’s Derrida: “Nothing … can happen in the family … in the sealed enclosure, which is moreover unimaginable, of the restricted, absolutely restricted economy.”[iv] So we need an alternative, an open house, one name for which is hospitality.

Its other name, according to Derrida, is accumulation. The way to bid the world welcome—to practice non-identity or what used to be called the freedom of the house—is to reject Aristotle’s preferred option (thrift, careful expenditure, housewifery for men) and embrace the alternative he has discarded, which is the aggressive pursuit of wealth, Greek chresmatics or getting rich, which will transform your hitherto tedious dwelling into one more permeable node in the planetary circulation of goods. Derrida, this is all to say, concludes one of his major books by arguing that receptivity to the other requires global trade. “As soon as there is monetary sign … the oikos is opened…. This is at the same time its orginary ruin and the chance for any kind of hospitality. … the chance for the gift itself.”[v] Derrida’s chief candidate for the role of non-commodity is thus a certain type of commodity, the kind from Brazil or Vietnam, circulating anonymously, untethered from its origins—just like text, which for deconstruction has paradigmatically been commercialized text anyway. Firm judgments, national economies, and many types of interpretation are closed, hence malign. Open are 1) aporia or the skeptical suspension of judgment; 2) global markets; and 3) poetry and poetic principles of literary interpretation, of a kind that can be brought to bear even upon narrative.

At this point, there lights up a long sequence of passages, from across three decades of writing, in which Derrida aligns deconstruction with markets or money or the commodity. I’ll point to three of them briefly. A fourth demands closer consideration.

1. Platonists often argue that there need to be wise people who can make judgments concerning good and bad, benefit and harm—people, that is, who can discern the ethical implications and political effects of proposed innovations. That’s an argument that Derrida unsurprisingly rejects, though what is nonetheless easy to overlook is Derrida’s active recasting of Plato’s position into an anachronistically commercial language: “it is the King who will give [writing] its value, who will set the price of what, in the act of receiving, he constitutes or institutes.”[vi] That sentence, it has to be said, is rather strange, because there is very little to suggest an economic reading in the passage from Plato to which Derrida is responding. In other words, Derrida has had to introduce the economic register, which arrives in the form of an accusation: The king is the one who, believing himself possessed of moral insight, makes ethico-political judgments, which are akin to price-fixing. And having framed his complaint in pecuniary terms, Derrida has given himself no choice but to produce an alternative that will also work in such terms, a policy that is at once textual and economic. The emancipated and mobile writing that he theorizes in “Plato’s Pharmacy” is thus a textuality that has slipped loose from commercial controls, a liberalized écriture around which buyers and sellers will without supervision set the terms for what is good and bad. Or rather: Literature is itself the low-tariff marketplace of language, in which language circulates freely, without monopolies or trade restrictions.

2. The ghost is the textbook Derridean term, the present absence, the spirit in quasi-corporeal form, the body-spirit, outside of categories, outside the regime of knowledge or discourse—something we cannot claim in the usual fashion to name or know: “One does not know [the ghost]: not out of ignorance, but because this non-object, this non-present present, this being there of an absent or departed one no longer belongs to knowledge. … this Thing that is not a thing.”[vii] Very early in Specters of Marx, during one of that book’s first bits of free association, Derrida makes clear that the commodity is, if we follow Marx, ghost-like in just this sense: a non-sensuous sensuous thing. And Derrida is right about Marx; Capital, Volume One famously speaks of “the phantomlike objectivity of the commodity.”[viii] But then if Derrida is sticking up for the ghost as the disruptive and redemptively unclassifiable term, if, that is, we are to prefer spectral versions of things to their mundanely tangible and daylit forms, and if commodities are apparitional in the relevant sense, then Derrida has got to be sticking up for the latter, too—for commodities—and deconstruction’s putative reconciliation with Marxism shows itself, not for the last time, to be happier inside markets than outside of them.

3. In the great lecture on “Differance,” Derrida says he finds it striking that the word difference, in French, never actually means “deferral” (even though the underlying verb can mean “defer”). Nor does difference mean polemos, as in “difference of opinion,” an English formulation that doesn’t come readily to French speakers. That is the situation that Derrida means to remedy by proposing that we swap in an -a- for that second -e-. Differance will mean all three at once: dissimilarity, postponement, and conflict. Later in the lecture, he revisits the second on the list, noting that the economic meaning of “deferral” is especially important to him. Language has the structure of an economic delay: delayed satisfaction, the deferred realization of profit on an investment, and so on. Deconstruction, one is startled to realize, is a cousin to the Marshmallow Test. We should pause here to note that deferral-as-economic-delay is a usage he might have come across in French anthropology. The verb “defer” shows up with this meaning in Claude Lévi-Strauss, for instance, whom we know Derrida read closely and who in turn had borrowed it from an important monograph on pre-modern Chinese kinship. Lévi-Strauss had been eager to distinguish between different types of exchange, and especially between:

-first, one-off trades, two-term swaps that have at least some of the characteristics of bartering, and…

-second, the kind of extended chains and complicated, interlacing transactions common to market societies and many societies of the gift.

The first Lévi-Strauss and the sinologist called chassé-croisé, which means “crossover” or “back-and-forth,” though it also a move in French country-dancing, which tempts one to translate it as “do-si-do.” The second he called échanges differés.[ix] Or rather, that’s what Ganet, Lévi-Strauss’s source, had called it: “deferred exchange.” Lévi-Strauss preferred to call it “generalized” as opposed to “restricted” exchange. And this brings us back, via a different route, to the final pages of Given Time. Differance absorbs as one of its meanings the unrestricted economy, the trade that only ever opens up onto another trade—exchange without end.

4. The paper of Derrida’s that most often gets misread is probably “White Mythology.” Again and again, one comes across experts claiming that the main argument of that essay is that philosophy cannot cleanse itself of metaphor. It is hard to pin this misunderstanding on Derrida, who is clearer than usual about what he’s arguing: He begins the essay by saying that this notion—no non-metaphorical philosophy!—is the point that everyone knows already and then spends the remainder of his time making the opposite case, which is that the entire language of metaphor is metaphysical, that by talking about metaphor rather than about concepts one is not leaving philosophy behind. In other words, the essay’s takeaway is that the literary types should stop gloating, that their preferred (putatively non-philosophical) approach to language does not exempt them from the European intellect’s contaminating legacies. Pensée sauvage—mind in the wild, thinking outside the philosophical West—is what’s at stake in that essay, only not in the way that a first-time reader might think. It’s precisely the position that Derrida is out to defeat, though his named targets are not so much anthropologists as the historical philologists who thought you could peel away all the vernacular and philosophical abstractions in language until you reached the original, indigenous names for things—the first terms and positivities. He is claiming that this can’t be done—that there is no logic of the concrete to be accessed by tracing abstractions back to the metaphors, flinty and palpable, from which these were originally derived; that thinking tangibly has never been an option; that there has only ever been abstraction and this from word one.

Granted, before readers can get to this argument, they will have to make it through a confetti-spray of puns and mad troping. The essay’s very first post-titular word is “Exergue,” appearing above the first paragraph, as a chapter heading, and meaning several things at once.[x] It’s a French word dating to the seventeenth century, a bit of concocted pseudo-Greek approximating the phrase hors d’oeuvre, “outside the work,” which means that we can take it, if we like, as meaning “preface” or even “starter.” This isn’t the word’s definition of record, however. A big English dictionary will tell you that “exergue” is a term from numismatics, in which capacity, as a piece of hobbyists’ jargon, it means the small text printed caption-like on a coin—“inscription,” then—except among English coin-collectors the meaning shifted early on to mean not the inscription itself but the space, beneath the liberty torch or emperor’s head, into which the inscription got stamped. “Exergue” thus means either words on coins or the coin itself understood as a space for writing.

There are now two arguments we have to be able to hold together: first, that language is never concrete, not even when pre-philosophical, if that word is even allowed; and second, that we can usefully think about writing in the context of money or perhaps that we would do well to think of writing as money-like. Words cannot be concrete because they have to be able to circulate; they have to be usable in multiple contexts—this is the sense in which they are like coins. Observations that Derrida makes first about florins and guilders he therefore invites us to transfer over to language: Old coins were vulnerable to wear-and-tear; we should be thinking about the slow effacement, through regular handling, of design and motto, their gradual reduction back to metal, bare and un-signifying. Derrida’s point is that you can’t profit from a circulating something—a common noun or Mercury dime—if you’re not prepared to risk a degree of abstraction, and not just a one-time abstraction, but an ongoing slide into higher abstraction. Rather than trying to recover the concrete terms that supposedly lie sedimented behind our philosophical concepts, we should commit ourselves to this course of de-specification, which is the fate of all much-handled things. This is perhaps the baldest instance of Derrida’s characteristic resolve to solve philosophical problems by shifting thought to higher levels of generality. It’s just that the image he produces to telegraph that solution is especially striking here: Thinking does not begin in concretion and lapse into empty form. It begins in abstraction and becomes even more abstract, and the paradigm for this process, once completed, is a ground-away coin, a denarius whose symbols and national designations have been effaced—a kind of global hyper-currency, in other words, not backed by any metropolitan treasury, ministerially unsigned, undenominated—an impossible coin, you might say, because no transnational currency currently exists, until you realize that all that Derrida is describing is raw specie, undifferentiated bullion—an ingot.[xi]

It’s important to be clear about this: For Derrida, such un-differentiation is the utopian condition of both money and language, because, at least as a thought experiment, it would allow for maximal and frictionless circulation, maximal delocalization, without borders or translators or currency-exchange kiosks. The philologists think that they can trace the word nous back to something that a goatherd once witnessed in the northern Peloponnesus, and Derrida’s response is to claim that language has never been aboriginal in this way—that it is, indeed, better for us that it never be aboriginal, localized, non-commercial. This last idea should help us understand why Derrida calls the essay “White Mythology.” A century ago, Anatole France, arguing in the indigenist-philological mode that Derrida rejects, asked his readers to think of philosophy as mythos alienated from itself, a system of thought with mythic origins that, however, did not know itself to be mythical, burying its underlying concretion in layer upon layer of false ideation. In a sense, that notion is a way of denouncing philosophy, and yet it also posits a mostly unrecognized continuity between myth and school-wisdom, suggesting, indeed, that something telluric remains intact even in the loftiest of modern thought-systems. A talented philologist should be able to pick up Fichte or Malebranche and make him speak myth again, by tracing the philosopher’s attenuated concepts back to their primeval and non-philosophical roots. If, having done this, we then return to the Treatise on Ethics as written, it will look to us not like great philosophy, but rather like “anemic mythology”—that’s how France put it.[xii] Hence Derrida’s title: It is Anatole France’s philosophy-as-blood-sick-folklore that the essay renames “white mythology,” and it is that latter concept that Derrida means to vindicate, because blankness is deconstruction’s path to redemption. This cannot be said often enough. The essay “White Mythology” was written in defense of its eponym, though even here what matters to Derrida is not so much the “mythology,” which is the word he took over from Anatole France, as the “white,” which is the word he introduced of his own volition. Onwards, says the Derridean … no going back …  forwards … into the whiteness. Mush.

[i] Derrida, Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money (1991), translated by Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992).

[ii] Derrida, Limited Inc, translated by Samuel Weber (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 29-31; Monolingualism of the Other, p. 17.

[iii] Given Time, p. 100.


[iv] ibid., p. 159.

[v] ibid., p. 158.

[vi] “Plato’s Pharmacy,” p. 78.

[vii] “Specters,” p. 6.

[viii] Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (1867), translated by Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 128.

[ix] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), translated by James Bell and John con Sturmer (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 312.

[x] “White Mythology,” p. 209.

[xi] ibid, p. 210.

[xii] Anatole France, The Garden of Epicurus, translated by Alfred Allinson (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1923), p. 214. Derrida quotes—or misquotes—France at p. 213.

The Real Universal, No. 1


Deconstruction aligns itself with writing, with a universal and impossible language. That writing is emancipatory is the only one of these three claims that shouldn’t be in the least bit surprising; it is the argument, in fact, with which deconstruction is most often associated. If the point is nonetheless worth restating now, this is in order to give each of us the chance to consider afresh whether we actually believe in the redemptive ubiquity of écriture, whether we are convinced that there spills constantly from our mouths and out our fingertips the force of non-identity and therapeutic instability. Writing in “Plato’s Pharmacy” is the straying, playful, patricidal, atheistic, radically democratic outlaw and anarchist—the Bonnot Gang in twenty-six letters and five diacritics. The words I write and speak will always betray-which-is-to-say-save me, cheerfully undermining my declamatory pretense, shielding me from my own authoritarianism, rescuing me by preventing my expert self from functioning successfully as dogmatist or despot. Deconstruction invites us to set up camp in “the place where discourses can no longer dominate,” though if you read around in Derrida at all, you’ll realize before long that this place is everywhere, that language never actually wields power over us, however prone we are to invest words with a specious authority that we could just as soon withhold.[i]

This view might be right, but what we’ll want to see is that the Derridean can come to this position only by setting aside an equally compelling body of scholarship, viz. the historical sociology that finds in writing a force for standardization, stabilization, and new types of hierarchy. It seems at least plausible that it was writing that carried some once localized god into new regions, demanding uniform reverence for the book-god at the expense of sundry resident sylphs and godkins. We have some good reasons, indeed, for believing that textual religion, like textual law, goes in for authorized versions, exact copies, and the sanctity (or binding quality) of the fixed word, making possible enforceable orthodoxies, shackling the present to the quotable past, with the written document serving as bulwark against eclecticism and improvisation. In Anglo-Saxon England, meanwhile, fields that counted as private property, having owners in something like the modern sense, under the permanent control of a named person who could transfer them at will, were called “bookland.” In order to declare deconstruction correct, we have to be able to say, implausibly, that a world with scripts—canons, for a start, and legal codes and catechisms—is if anything even more miscellaneous than a world without them.[ii]

Sometimes, it’s true, the Weberian account of writing obtrudes into Derrida’s argument as a goad or quellable doubt. At one point, he says that he wants to write with a “multiplicity of levels or tones” even though “the ‘dominant’ demand always requires, or so people want to make us believe, more linearity, cursivity, flattening.”[iii] What jumps out in that statement are its two hesitations or qualifications: the scare quotes around “dominant”,  plus “the demand” that might actually just be a trick perpetrated by das Man. Is homogenization happening or not? Derrida doesn’t seem to know. Something, it’s true, seems to be pushing towards a flat and uniform world, though how far this process has advanced it is impossible to say. Uniformity might only be a demand—unfulfilled, unheeded. And even that demand might be a fiction, a misread signal, an order we thought we heard but that no-one actually gave. It is vexing to find Derrida so noncommittal on this issue, since the status of deconstruction changes drastically depending on which of these positions you adopt. For if language has become standardized—or is itself an agent of standardization—then deconstruction steps forward as a militant project to reverse an entrenched historical process, in a manner that would align it with Marxism, anarchism, the critique of bureaucracy, and so on. But if language, per contra, has not been standardized—if it is, indeed, incapable of standardization—then it becomes hard to see why deconstruction would have any urgency or what exactly it takes itself to be doing, since you needn’t attempt a multiplicity of levels and tones if you think this is the organic character of all language anyway. “Attempting” simply wouldn’t enter it. “A message,” Derrida says elsewhere, “never remains intact,” and what that means is: There is no standardization.[iv] An utterance always refracts. A world united (i.e., not really united) around a single book—the New Testament, say—would be difficult to distinguish from a many-scriptured and partially bookless world. The world was no less varied after Christian colonization and the nineteenth-century missionary movements than it was before it. If language cannot be standardized, if its multifariousness is guaranteed, then deconstruction ceases to be a project and so shrinks down to the status of mere demonstration, the pedagogical performance of a known and unchangeable truth, an old chemistry experiment performed every year in front of high-school juniors.

[i] Points, p. 86.

[ii] For the Weberian account of writing, see, among others, Jack Goody’s Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). The classic essay on bookland is Frederic William Maitland’s “Book-land” and Folk-land,” in Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897), pp. 244-258.

[iii] Points, p. 130.

[iv] ibid., p. 125.