Tag Archives: Jargon

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 A few years ago, a philosopher in Germany — it turns out that scholars are good for something — discovered an unpublished notebook of Adorno’s in the Walter Benjamin archive in Berlin, and in that notebook Adorno tells the story again—and this time with identifying marks.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.