j_spot the Journal of Social and Political

Volume One, No. 2 | June 2000

j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842

Adorno and the
Muse of the Dialectic
(a fable)


Chris McCutcheon

Ph.D. Candidate,
Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought
York University

      After a Great Victory—What is best about a great victory is that it rids the victor of the fear of  defeat.  “Why not lose for once?” he says to himself; now I am rich enough for that.”1

    In spite of Adorno’s insistence that negative dialectics is a patently immanent critique, I feel pressed to ask (by Adorno himself, I would say) about its outside.  There is a certain gravity; something moves me to look into what is out there.  For dialectics suggests motion; it is an activity of thought, and however at hand the material of the dialectic may be, I am not the one who moves it—though of course it would be nowhere without me.  What, then, moves thinking for Adorno?  What moves the thinker and her thought?  What argor instigates its motion and maneuvers it through the obstacles to thought?  What is behind or outside the dialectic that allows it to sense the contradictions without these being the inventions of an imprisoned subject?  What inspires the negative?  What spurs a thinker to stand by a philosophy that “holds fast to a possibility of experience that is destroyed by the bourgeois reason that ostensibly grounds it”2 and to attempt to overcome the impossibility of thought presented by this thought?

    Pressed to name the force I find lurking behind Adorno’s thinking, I would approximate it to the swaggering, self satisfied voice of Nietzsche’s victor.  The victory is that of domination itself and its triumph is so total that the idea of its own defeat becomes nothing more than novelty; it is nothing new, just the Same renewed, a sameness so complete that it sees itself in everything, even difference.  This situation is precisely the predicament of language and immanence that emerges through what Adorno and Horkheimer describe as the dialectic of enlightenment.  Their story goes like this.  The subject is born by exploiting the gap in representation that suspends the shroud of totality and perpetuity maintained by myth.  During myth and even before, all things were interchangeable because they were equivocal, because each thing was itself and the Other, the omnipresent, universal force of nature.  The dialectic of form is then initiated in the gap of this difference in order to pop the bubble of the immanent.  The subject arises as epic narrator, the one who attempts to speak about the world as it actually was, who opposes the illusion of pure, universal saying—the language of myth and reflective reason—with the mimetic force of representative language, or epic speech.  This effort fails because the subject’s fear of natural domination leads it to imitate and reproduce the domination it thought it had escaped through individuation.  Having achieved its separation from nature and having become the incarnation of domination in turn, the subject sacrifices the meaningfulness of descriptive language for the power of the sign.  Not only does the process of enlightenment fail, but the resistance of descriptive language is re appropriated and neutralized as image; it becomes art and regresses to ephemeral protest.  The enlightenment as myth is a total victory because it has provided the arena for its own defeat.  At the end of the day, everything, even the hope for the new, is just the same again.  And this myth is worse than myth; where the epic narrator had metaphor as a meaningful means out of immanence, the failure of that moment of freedom leaves the thinker with a double bind.

    It is with this dilemma in mind that Adorno begins a text like Negative Dialectics.  I describe the problem as a force lurking behind Adorno’s thought—which suggests, I hope, a spectral quality—for three reasons.  First of all, despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, it is not quite substantive enough to be a complete obstacle to thinking.  That is, in spite of its impossibility, Adorno still invests in the potentiality of thought.  Secondly, though Adorno often characterizes the discomfort of this double bind as a motive for thinking, he never quite formulates it as a maxim for thought; the double bind does not provide a ground for philosophy.  If this situation says anything to him it is that philosophy cannot begin upon any foundation at all.  In the effort to overcome its proclivity for abstraction, to finally reach a reconciliation of concept and thing, philosophy must be spontaneous.  As Adorno writes, negative dialectics must be a thinking “of whose movement the thinker becomes aware only as he [sic] performs it.”3  This means a thinking of the new as a passage to the thing.  However, for philosophy to gain any purchase on reality it must “transcend the official separation of pure philosophy and the substantive or formally scientific realm.”4  It needs the legitimacy of a science, but knows that science is “merely significative in dealing with its object.”5  Adorno wants a language other than the mere organization of signs, but he is very quick to point out that philosophy cannot go the way of its only apparent option, art; it cannot appropriate the aesthetic to escape from its own abstraction and the inherent violence of the sign.  Instead, he will describe his philosophy as one “in which all aesthetic topics are shunned.”6  In need of a muse—some catalyst to thinking—philosophy does not have art as an option.  And here is another reason for thinking the agony of the double bind as a spectre within Adorno’s work: it haunts philosophy as the negation, the denial, the shadow of the muse.  As we will see, Adorno cannot think philosophy against itself without rubbing up against art’s licence on the outside.  As part of the process of its own formation, philosophy must want what it cannot have.  For Adorno, I suggest, the transcendence of the Same may occur in a tension between the haunting spectre of the double bind and the banned, the shunned aesthetic muse.  Not moved by the muse, philosophy may be moved by its other, something outside, beside the muse.

    According to Adorno, philosophy does have its own means to access reality, a seeming hybrid of the image and the sign: the concept.  The concept is not an obvious way out of immanence because of how it is plagued by the concept of its own concept; the concept’s problem is that its essence is contradiction—it must simultaneously be what it is and what it is not.  The moment it tries to do away with its contradiction, it lapses into an ideology of reconciliation.  Adorno wants a sign that acknowledges its intrinsic violence.  The objective is to turn away from any idealist tendencies and recognize by means of the concept the “true matters of philosophical interest” as “nonconceptuality, individuality, and particularity.”7  But then philosophy is stuck with a hypostasized medium of cognition and cannot seem to recognize anything but itself thinking.  Philosophy’s danger is that its “immanent claim is its order creating invariance as against the change in what it covers.”8  The thing is transitory, whereas the concept claims universality and permanence.  This problem of the concept does not permit us to discard the concept.  Philosophy must retain a concept of the thing in itself, but this thing is never to be known as such.  Any claim to possess the object in this way is a false identification of what is actually a separation between the concept and the thing, or, more accurately, the mediation of the thing by its concept.  The concept is always marked by its inadequacy, its failure to be what it claims.  In the turn towards the nonconceptual, the individual, and the particular, Adorno is calling for a recognition of the concept’s own self-contradiction.

    But contradiction cannot be observed, let alone articulated, without the force of that which opposes it, identification.  Identification cannot be abandoned, because identification is itself the essence of thought: “to think is to identify.”9  Thinking cannot be done otherwise.  At the same time, however, there is a difference between actual identification and thinking under the aspect of identity.  ‘To think is to identify,’ but this allows for the possibility of identifying nonidentity.  The contradiction occurs when the law is broken by the logic of the law.  The thought of identity leads via dialectics to the thought of nonidentity, which itself must be the thought of—or the thought of the thought of—something.  Nonidentity is not the imagined opposite of identity, but the logically derived contradiction of identity as the measure of what is beyond itself.  Hence, it is the measure of the falsity of identity, the measure of the concept’s inadequacy as sensed by the concept.  Identity is shown to be false in negative dialectics because the concept is never adequate to the thing; yet the contradiction is always laid open in the interest of achieving identity.  This is why the inadequacy of the concept is not something that is measured transcendentally.  The concept’s inadequacy is not exposed as a falsehood measured according to a standard of truth as adequatio.  The concept’s failure is experienced within the concept as its own disenchantment.  The concept is guilty by definition.  It always simultaneously represents the object and itself as the violent obfuscation of the object.  This dissonance means a proclivity for dissimilitude and the desire that it be otherwise.  Hence, the inadequacy of concepts is immanent to thought: “dissatisfaction with their own conceptuality is part of their meaning, although the inclusion of nonconceptuality in their meaning makes it tendentially their equal and thus keeps them trapped within themselves.”10  Recognition of the contradiction in the concept does not free it from this trap, but frees it from the fetishization that makes the concept the appearance of the presence of the thing itself.

    Adorno realizes that he needs some force from the outside that invokes the appearance of this trap, that affords a perspective on the contradictions at work in the context of immanence.  He states this explicitly when he claims that “no immanent critique can serve its purpose wholly without outside knowledge...without...a bonus from subjective thought that looks beyond the dialectical structure.”11  The critique of immanence requires a “moment of spontaneity”12 to allow it to look, if only fleetingly, outside in its critique of the inside.  The need for this spontaneous moment outside the false totality is what leads Adorno, contrary to his proscription, to broach the topic of the aesthetic.

    By Adorno’s definition, the concept is suspended in paradox, yet this paradox is philosophy’s only way out.  The problems of the concept are inescapable and philosophy goes nowhere without them.  As Adorno puts it in this context, “[t]hough doubtful as ever, a confidence that philosophy can make it after all...[that it] can thus reach the nonconceptual...is one of philosophy’s inalienable features and part of the naïveté that ails it.”13  The dialectical thinker is in a rather awkward position.  As Adorno puts it, “[t]he un naïve thinker knows how far he remains from the object of his thinking yet must always talk as if he had it entirely.”14  In order to think in this way, Adorno suggests, the thinker must have the ability to ‘clown’.  There is a bit of clowning around the thing to open the possibility of getting to it.  This clowning is necessary to offset a pure seriousness, to negate a thinking that believes in its own appearances:

      Philosophy is the most serious of things, but then again it is not all that serious.  A thing that aims at what it is not a priori and is not authorized to control—such a thing, according to its own concept, is simultaneously part of a sphere beyond control, a sphere tabooed by conceptuality.15

    Here the moment that Adorno suggests is intrinsic to the concept derives from a domain that is outside of philosophy.  It must be so in order for the nonconceptual element in negative dialectics to be experienced in thinking’s failure to break with the immanence of the concept.  The nonconceptual in negative dialectics is known cognitively as the concept of the nonconceptual, but only inhabits philosophy as a kind of play.  Play is the agent of the paradox in negative dialectics.  There must be an element of play intrinsic to thinking in order to maintain the paradox as a possible passage to true identity.

    For Adorno, the activity of play in un-naïve thought means that philosophy has something to do with art, that “the aesthetic moment is thus not accidental to philosophy.”16  However, we are soon led again into a further quandary when Adorno follows this inclusion of the aesthetic in philosophy with the statement that “it is no less incumbent upon philosophy to void its aestheticism, to sublimate the aesthetic into the real by cogent insights.”17  The playful, aesthetic element is inherent in philosophy; yet philosophy, to be itself, must turn around and negate this part of itself.  Philosophy seems now to be schizophrenic; as Jekyll could become Hyde and turn back into Jekyll again, philosophy operates as a flux between the two antithetical characters of cogency and play.  Philosophy is in part aesthetic and retains its nature as philosophy by voiding its aestheticism.  Both cogency and play are essential to philosophy; yet it is also essential to philosophy that the element of cogency voids the element of play.  It seems that Adorno has thus rectified what appeared to be a violation of the ban on the aesthetic.  Philosophy is now in a position to move outside itself—to be mused—by shunning art.

    The position as it now stands is confusing because Adorno has aesthetics as something existing in both philosophy and art; it does not belong to art alone.  When Adorno claims that philosophy must void aestheticism, he is not referring to art; it is an aestheticism proper to philosophy that must be purged from philosophy.  The aestheticism of philosophy is not exactly the same as that of art. Adorno is clearly hinting at this when he says that philosophy’s “affinity to art does not allow it to borrow from art.”18  A philosophy that becomes too aesthetic is not art, but simply a form of Weltanshauung.  Either philosophy and art are on opposite sides of the same aesthetic, in which case the aesthetic functions as their border, or there are two separate aesthetics, with one of them having been chipped out of art by thinking.  For now, we have as the only difference between philosophy and art the fact that philosophy voids its own aestheticism.  Despite their differences, the aesthetic provides philosophy and art with something in common.

    Adorno does go on to define art and philosophy in terms of their commonality, though what they share in common is at the same time the virtue of their difference:

      Common to art and philosophy is not the form, not the forming process, but a mode of conduct that forbids pseudomorphosis.  Both keep faith with their own substance through their opposites: art by making itself resistant to its meanings; philosophy by refusing to clutch at any immediate thing.19

    What is common to philosophy and art in this account is not necessarily the aesthetic moment, but the fact that they void any possibility of communion between themselves.  Art is art because it is not philosophy, and vice versa.  The aesthetic gives them a border.  The aesthetic moment in philosophy is not a borrowing of art’s form or formation; on the contrary, philosophy is defined by refusing what in art merely appearance.  If there is a sharing of aesthetics, it is experienced very differently in each.  As it appears in philosophy the aesthetic moment is there to be negated, to be refused.  But why?  Because its appearance is merely an appearance.  It is the appearance of the nonconceptual without the substance of the nonconceptual.  So philosophy refuses the immediate thing in order to get to the substance of the thing.  However, it still appears that the nonconceptual aesthetic moment has art as its source because art is itself defined, in opposition to philosophy, as a kind of pure nonconceptuality, as a pure appearance.  Perhaps this is the important difference: that the nonconceptual element in art is not the nonconceptual that is sought after by philosophy.  Purely appearance, art is the nonconceptual semblance or the semblance of the nonconceptual, but not its substance.

    So art seems to offer philosophy an outside, a border to delimit its identity.  Adorno manages to incorporate his ban on the aesthetic as a way to invoke a philosophical aesthetic.  In the perception and negation of aesthetic semblance—the truth of its untruth— it appears that Adorno has found the dialectical muse.  However, the confusion of this situation is not resolved.  If you will permit one more negation, what Adorno has done here is false; it is a complete fiction.  Negative Dialectics is an attempt at philosophical self reflection, an attempt to think and an attempt to think about philosophy.  Bound to what are really conceptual parities—essence and appearance, cogency and play, sign and image—Adorno manipulates the aesthetic into a way out.  Aesthetic semblance stimulates a recognition of the paradoxes, and cogency keeps these suspended.  But what Adorno runs up against in his argument is nothing more than philosophy’s predilection for becoming both the means, object, and subject of its knowledge.  In arguing that art offers philosophy a limit, Adorno actually unveils philosophy’s obsession with its own boundlessness.  What we find here is no account of the relationship between philosophy and art as such, but a lesson about the disease of thinking.  Despite the ban on an appropriation of the aesthetic, Adorno is forced philosophically to think the concept of philosophy against the concept of art.  The example of art is not art itself, but art’s concept; Adorno shows that as much as this concept belongs to art it is philosophy’s to do with as it pleases.  Here it has been used to deliver the goods to thinking.  With regards to this apparent discussion of art, the only truthful statement in Negative Dialectics about art is that it has been shunned.  Art is shunned, and then philosophy invents it as its own outside.  The moment of play that is to be derived from art, the distinction between the conceptual and the nonconceptual, appears as nothing more than manipulated concepts of philosophical reflection.  The untrue truth here is that a negation of appearance is also a negation of the truth upon which it stands.  And to rectify this by negating the false, the apparent, is also untrue. Adorno is standing on something like the abyss of thinking that Nietzsche described— where, after having abolished the true world, nothing remains: “with the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”20  However, the difference is that in this abyss the world still remains; it has not been abolished.  The lesson may be that after the abolishment of the true and the false, the world still remains.  Adorno is enmeshed in the experience of the inadequacies and exigencies of language, which he takes as the starting-point of truth, the recognition that “no narrative can partake of truth if it has not looked into the abyss into which language plunges when it tries to become name and image.”21

    Narrative is a suggestive and important word here because of what appears to me to be a genre transformation that occurs in Adorno’s thinking.  The truth of negation has been made false.  The terms of Adorno’s critique congeal into an unarticulated statement about the fiction of philosophy, which leads to the appearance of philosophy as fiction.  No negation is ever true; there is no escape from the double bind, there is no hope.  But these claims are also false, since they rest on the fiction of truth.  This last negation denies the existence of any philosophical muse.  However, something else happens when philosophy declares the falsity of its truth claims, when it only repeats the truth of the double bind, when its only freedom is to express its own unfreedom.  As Lacoue Labarthe has put it, “to think fiction is not to oppose appearance and reality, since appearance is nothing other than the product of reality.  To think fiction is precisely to think without recourse to this opposition, outside this opposition; to think the world as fable.”22  The fable is that which lies and offers itself as example, as truth.  It is a model for truth that effaces itself at the same time, declares its uselessness as model.  In the end, an end that is of course interminable, philosophy is left only with the agony of this experience.  As a grave discomfort between the impossibility of a resolution of the dialectic of reality and appearance, between concept and thing, image and sign, philosophy thinks fiction from and as an appeal to something above any paradox, and above the double bind.  Space does not permit me here to unfold the fable philosophically, so let me turn to a fable for the truth of my thought.  This fragment is a piece from Kafka that he calls “A Little Fable.”

      “Alas,” said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day.  At first it was so big that I was afraid, I ran on and I was glad when at last I saw the walls to the left and right of me in the distance, but these walls are closing in on each other so fast that I have already reached the end room, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am heading for.”  “You only have to change direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.23

    The mouse’s position is tragic and surely he stands for any one of us.  But the moment of laughter that emerges with the agony reminds me that the basis for sensing this truth is itself false.  I sense that the humour of this fable appeals to something outside itself; it appeals to the experience of a living subject who believes in his or her fulfillment, a possibility denied in the fable itself if it is treated as more than fiction.  There is an invocation of subjective experience that is needed to sense a truth in fiction, especially in the fiction of philosophy.  Fabulation is the ‘not’ that unties what is knotted by negative dialectics.  It appeals to the moment when the subject will not reject the experience of longing, the longing for reconciliation, despite the knowledge that “only thoughts which do not understand themselves are true.”24  Thought refusing understanding for the sake of experience: this I think is as close as I can come to naming the haunting muse of the dialectic.


    1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo. trans. by Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Vintage, 1989), 192.  back to text

    2. Theodor W. Adorno, “On Epic Naiveté,” in Notes to Literature - Vol. I. trans. by Sherry Weber Nicholson. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 26.  back to text

    3. Adorno, Negative Dialectics. trans. by E. B. Ashton. (New York: Continuum, 1995), xixback to text

    4. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, xxback to text

    5. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 56.  back to text

    6. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, xxback to text

    7. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 8.  back to text

    8. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 153.  back to text

    9. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 5.  back to text

    10. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 12.  back to text

    11. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 182.  back to text

    12. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 182.  back to text

    13. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 9.  back to text

    14. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 14.  back to text

    15. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 14.  back to text

    16. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 15.  back to text

    17. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 15.  back to text

    18. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 15.  back to text

    19. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 15.  back to text

    20. Nietzsche, "Twilight of the Idols," in Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche. trans. by W. Kaufman. (New York: Viking, 1954), 486. As cited in Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, “The Fable (Literature and Philosophy),” in Lacoue-Labarthe, The Subject of Philosophy. trans. by Hugh J. Silverman. ed. by Thomas Trezise. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 6.  back to text

    21. Adorno, “On Epic Naiveté,” 27.  back to text

    22. Lacoue-Labarthe, “The Fable (Literature and Philosophy),” 5.  back to text

    23. Franz Kafka, “A Little Fable.” in Kafka, Shorter Works. Vol. I. trans. by Malcolm Pasley. (London: Secker and Warburg, 1973), 142.  back to text

    24. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 48.  back to text


    Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1995.  back to text

    _________________. “On Epic Naiveté,” in Adorno, Notes to Literature - Vol. I. trans. by Sherry Weber Nicholson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

    Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. trans. by John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1995.

    Kafka, Franz. "A Little Fable," in Kafka, Shorter Works - Vol. 1. trans. by Malcolm Pasley. London: Secker and Warburg, 1973.

    Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. "The Fable (Literature and Philosophy)," in Lacoue-Labarthe, The Subject of Philosophy. trans. by Hugh J. Silverman. Thomas Trezise, ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

    Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. trans. by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1989.

    Nietzsche, "Twilight of the Idols," in Walter Kaufmann, ed. The Portable Nietzsche. trans. by W. Kaufman. New York: Viking, 1954.


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