Be Realistic, Demand the Negative

By Marina Vishmidt, 30 June 2009

Challenging the idealism of autonomist Marxism, Negativity and Revolution is a recent anthology that uses Adorno's negative dialectics to refuse false unities, placing contradiction and antagonism at the heart of revolutionary theory. Review by Marina Vishmidt

Its [dialectics] is the agony of the world, raised to a concept.

- Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

This volume represents an audacious plot to seize the legacy of Frankfurt School naysayer Theodor Adorno and rehabilitate it for the post-anti-globalisation, radical left. Starting from the negative dialectics of Adorno's own abstention from any social movement in his time (unless calling the police to remove the students occupying the Institute of Social Research in 1969 counts as participation), the book aims to chart the intricate paths that negation can take in revolutionary politics and thought in the present.


All images by Anja Kirschner

The book's avowed casus belli is the good fight against the rot of ‘post-structuralism' introduced into philosophy by Marxists - ranging from Louis Althusser to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri - when they ditched contradiction for difference as the grounding principle of materialist theory.1 Its strategy is to demonstrate the conceptual and practical virtues of negation, dialectics, and negative dialectics, with the object of restoring class struggle and antagonism to the heart of the revolutionary project. The route through Adorno that this dictates, of course, is bound to be a dramatically ambiguous one, seeing as part of the negativity of negative dialectics is the constitutive gap between object and concept which would militate against the inscription of this thought into any kind of concrete emancipatory praxis. An aporia which Adrian Wilding's text in particular details adroitly by situating Adorno alongside Herbert Marcuse in the circa-68 milieu. Marcuse stands as a counter-example of a Frankfurt School theorist who became a leading light of the student movements, though Wilding eschews any study of his motives, philosophical or political, training his lens only on Adorno.

But if the assimilation of Adorno to the kind of politics advocated here was always going to rely on fortifying doses of wishful thinking, the most successful essays are those that stick closely to Adorno's concerns, tarrying with his negative like Wilding does; those that mobilise sheer fragments of Adorno to conduct a barnstorming analysis all their own, like Marcel Stoetzler's ‘Adorno, Non-Identity, Sexuality'; or those that try to ascertain the political and philosophical stakes of holding to a version of dialectics that looks to synthesis and totality versus one that privileges crisis and the fragment, which Sergio Tischler's comparative study of György Lukács and Adorno sets out to do. Also pertinent are John Holloway's brief, programmatic interventions which come twice in the course of the book, and Alberto R. Bonnet's cogent, but familiar, indictment of the ‘philosophy of difference', mainly qua Gilles Deleuze as an aristocratic anarchism open on all sides to being turned into neoliberal pluralism by the ruse of history. Finally, there is the provocatively cryptic, possibly mimetically Adornian text from Werner Bonefeld, ‘Emancipatory Praxis and Conceptuality in Adorno'. In a book without a single female contributor, this essay has the distinction of assigning the pronoun ‘herself' to the abstract noun ‘Man'.

The essays collected here are to a large degree distilled from discussions in the permanent seminar ‘Subjectivity and Critical Theory' held at the Autonomous University in Puebla, Mexico, and there is much overlap between the contributors to that seminar and to this book. There is a sense in which the undertaking of recuperating negative dialectics for revolutionary politics can be seen in proximity to Holloway's own rigorously voluntarist agenda in Marxism, which has always sought to valorise subjectivity, the moment of negation as the kernel of revolt, and a commonality of struggles rooted in a ‘creative doing' which seek to escape the tyranny of the value-form in daily social life. It seems that the recourse to Adorno is intended to provide a conceptual architecture which would deepen Holloway's brand of autonomism - and give it a firmer Marxist authorisation - by defining what exactly constitutes negation in capitalism and how it is dialectically inscribed into the fabric of capitalist reality as contradiction.

But more immediately, the goal is to draw a line in the sand between fidelity to the dialectical method and apostates like Hardt and Negri, who are accused of rejecting Hegelian dialectics for its reductive and Stalinist connotations only to end up with a static positivism that would identify one hegemonic political figure after another (‘immaterial labour', ‘affective labour', ‘commons'). It is also a matter of returning to the centrality of the antagonism between capital and labour (labour being defined non-dogmatically of course) as against a ‘sociological' multiplicity of social subjects. It is thus defined as a battle between the materialism which recognises contradiction as the mutilating effect of capital's real abstraction and the idealism which thinks the contradiction can be overcome in thought by replacing dialectics with difference. And finally, the autonomist emphasis on the priority of the working class in the reproduction of capital is switched to the priority of the working class in the crisis of capital. And not just in, but as the crisis of capital. The second gesture in this double move is the invocation of Mario Tronti's ‘strategy of refusal' and the promise to go one better with the help of Adorno. The ‘strategy of refusal' still depends on an identifiable working class subject, to be identified with class-composition analysis, while with negative dialectics one can get to a notion of a working class which refuses identity as well as capital, echoing Karl Marx's notion of the working class as the class which acts to eliminate itself, the class of no class. This much is set out in the Introduction.

It is perhaps time to be a bit more overt about the reasons behind such a painstaking introduction of the issues. This simply has to do with the fact that this is actually all there is to the book. It is indeed a fascinating tin, and its wrapping gives the whole game away. As long as the reader does not expect accounts which engage with formations or events that might specify or mark changes in the contemporary landscape of labour, of contemporary instances of militancy, or the structural crisis tendencies of capital in its current phase as part of the narrative of ‘negativity', then all will be fine. There are few surprises in this book, and the wilting touch of the empirical is kept firmly at bay. It steers a mainly philosophical course, and actualisations remain peripheral, with the qualified exceptions of Wilding's consideration of social history and Stoetzler's exuberant carousel ride through gender theory from St Paul to ‘gay communist' prophet Mario Mieli, with the odd nod to Adorno, watching forlornly from the ground.

Adorno as an Institution is Dead!'

Picking up on one of the guiding threads of negative dialectics as thought's awareness of its own inadequacy, deflecting the temptation to mastery in opposition as well as domination, Adrian Wilding's essay ‘Pied Pipers and Polymaths: Adorno's Critique of Praxisism' elegantly works out the implications for political action. This piece goes a long way to explaining why is it that Adorno was fated to reject the student movement then washing up in his lecture halls and, not long thereafter, planting bombs in German shopping precincts. It seems that on the one hand, Adorno had a robust suspicion of the ‘charismatic guru' syndrome, subjected as he was to demands from the floor to translate his analyses into ‘concrete utopias' and horrified by the popularity of ex-colleague Marcuse. On the other hand, Wilding illustrates how Adorno's philosophical commitments alone, his wavering between a pessimism of the totality and an abstract but fervent utopianism, were enough to preclude him from endorsing any of the rebellions then on offer. A ‘concrete utopia' made no sense to Adorno - only the negative utopia of implacable opposition to the bourgeois lifeworld was conceivable, and anything else was a betrayal. There is a fine excursus into Adorno's views on the theory-praxis divide: since the Enlightenment, this split reflected the capitalist division of labour, and was an index of the mutilation this division inflicted on the social subject. Therefore, the call to subordinate theory to practice is only an inversion of the alienation it confronts, not a solution to it.

More topically, like Jürgen Habermas, he believed that West German politics were in ‘a blocked state' where the ‘shortcut' between theory and praxis, or the rejection of theory in favour of praxis, far from attaining its goals, was only liable to unleash the repressive forces of the still-fascist state apparatus and exacerbate the blockage for another generation. (In fact, he came to believe that the flower children who tried to dislodge him from the podium were fascists, and he soon fled to a Swiss resort and died of a heart attack). But Wilding also points out how such a stance could be open to charges of resignation, quietism, and the fallacy of ‘objective conditions' not being ripe, all charges that Adorno took on board in various subterranean ways. It is suggested that centreing his curriculum on Immanuel Kant's Critiques in 1968/9 and attacking Kant's notion of ‘noumenal freedom' which can never be practically realised as a form of bourgeois mystification was a concession to the revolutionary mood.

Illuminating Adorno's primal scene - rather than become a leader figure, he preferred for the students to be led out by the cops - as well as powerfully grounding this historical anecdote in the redoubts of Adorno's thought, this chapter says much about why ‘Adorno' and ‘Political Activism' are not a juxtaposition to be made lightly. The role of Marcuse in the '68 social movements, however, remains a foil throughout, and the reader is left wanting clarity, both on his position on the ‘guru' and ‘praxis' issues, and in the relationship to Adorno. The only implicit link made is the mutual adherence to ‘critical theory' as a ‘polymath' form of inquiry that refutes the division of intellectual labour created by the rationalisation of the university and takes on the whole.

Sitting at the Anorexic's Table, or, Micropolitics, We Hardly Knew You

Alfredo R. Bonnet and Sergio Tischler both mount intensive inquiries into the nuts and bolts of negative dialectics, with the former polemically arraying its political efficacy against the transcendental empiricism of Deleuze and the latter showing how opting for a Hegelian dialectics of synthesis, using Lukács' notion of class consciousness as an example, or for a dialectics of negation, entails divergent brands of Marxism. Naturally, negative dialectics is deemed to be both more faithful to Marx and more conducive to non-identitarian forms of struggle - a conclusion which may be equivocal since Tischler decides to point to the Zapatistas as a test case. But another of his main points, that negative dialectics defends against any form of vanguardism, is hard to dispute, given his close reading of Lukács. The significance of ‘Adorno: The Conceptual Prison of the Subject, Political Fetishism and Class Struggle' in this collection is that it clarifies what makes negative dialectics so different and appealing with respect to the Hegelian variety; ‘the whole is the untrue' for Adorno, thus particularity, which resists being subsumed by totality or the Absolute, must be fought for.


Particularity also guards against fetishising social subjects (‘the working class') or forms of struggle (‘the class Party'), though the point is made that such particularity may itself be fetishised in the absence of a theory of exploitation or value, an absence that looms large in Adorno. Bonnet, meanwhile, does a comparative reading of Negative Dialectics and Difference and Repetition, as Deleuze's political involvement around May '68 is inevitably used to attest to the more politicised nature of his thinking contra Adorno. While both essays are dense and accomplished, a compressed discussion will let them down; perhaps a quote from Bonnet's text will have to suffice, for its lucid summation of negative dialectics:

For its part, negative dialectics aspires to display a fidelity to this antagonistic character of capitalist society: it is a dialectical modality of thought because society is antagonistic; negative because this antagonism cannot be overcome through thought; and certainly utopian, because it continues to hope for a reconciled reality.

It has to be said that Bonnet dispatches the enormous philosophical gulfs between Deleuze and Adorno all too tidily, and in a way which may be fatal to the understanding of a non-specialist reader. Deleuze was by no means such a staunch anti-dialectician as he is painted, and the question of the very different takes on immanence espoused by Adorno and Deleuze cannot be collapsed into a materialist vs. idealist problematic, with all the usual political effects: just because you can doesn't mean you should!2 The essay is rather undermined by its facile annexation to the ‘logic of the market' of anything that veers from the ‘dialectical' script and has an especially stunted take on ‘micropolitics' - bad for argument, good for rhetoric.

Adorno for Lovers

Under-theorised in the book so far has been how compulsory (hetero- or homo-) sexuality emerges out of the real subsumption of capital in its drive to put Eros to work, with its corresponding ‘genital organisation', leavening this hard labour sentence with the consumerist tropes of ‘identity' and ‘lifestyle'. Marcel Stoetzler comes along to remedy the situation, admitting he has scant resources from Adorno to do so (the formulation is straight out of Marcuse, if anything). He does have some very crucial points of departure in Adorno, however, in elaborating the essay's guiding thesis, that sexuality in capitalist modernity is a vanishing mediator, both proof of Adorno's concept of the ‘rising organic composition of man', the commodification of all affective capacities, and the lie given to that commodification by a realm coded as ‘free' or ‘natural'. A realm which must be ideologically and ‘really' sustained for that commodification to proceed without utterly eroding the social context that reproduces it. Love requires an abandonment of the ego, but the harsh conditions of capitalist social relations imperil the very abandonment that enables the transaction of feelings to take place. Such a heady brew of Marx, Foucault and feminist theory (Monique Wittig's The Straight Mind is noted for its dialectics of sex roles) makes for a viable re-telling of Foucault's genealogical thesis that sees the incessant production of the ‘truth' of sexuality as the cornerstone of contemporary biopolitics. Stoetzler also showcases Mario Mieli, the 1970s Italian founder of ‘gay communism' which refused all essential identities for a ‘gayness' that named the ‘ de-genitalised' sexual and affective relations that would be obtained come the social revolution.

Stoetzler points out that Mieli and Foucault were travelling along some of the same tracks when it came to charting the bourgeois fetish of sexuality as a natural, trans-historical urge. This naturalisation helped with the invention of sexual and racial paradigms of normality and deviance underlying the social stratifications of capitalism and imperialism, going so far as to project Victorian social relations into nature, as Darwin is accused of doing by Marx. The invention of women and homosexuals as essentially different species of being from the straight white male standard is discussed, as well as the close ties of the construction of deviance with individuals' relation to production: queer sex, masturbation and prostitution are despised as unproductive pursuits. This is where the link between biopolitics and capitalism comes in, a link often studiously ignored.3

The logic of un-production is also shown to extend to anti-semitism, an equation which has become something of a hot potato on the left with the financial crisis commentaries on ‘real economy' and ‘finance capital'. Homosexuality thus gains an arch-political status due to its ‘unequivocal assertion of the purposelessness of sexuality.' Following Thomas Laquer, it is proposed that bourgeois society is caught in a bind between the omnipotence of the value-form and the values antithetical to the value-form required for social reproduction, and that sex is a fetish of this bind (fetish taken to mean the reality-effect of a violent process which is concealed through that effect).4 The swoops and arabesques of the Freudo-Marxism are quite Adornian in shape, though Stoetzler misses the chance to relate the above-mentioned typologies to the ‘identity principle' that was Adorno's sworn enemy and the main target of negative dialectics. He veers instead into a concluding section where the work of Soviet-Marxist legal scholar Evgeny Pashukanis frames a discussion of the western legal subject who anchors the fluidity of exchange relations with his inalienable property of a body, a self empowered to make claims. Stoetzler does end with a flourish - sexuality cannot be liberated, only people can be liberated, and that will never happen until we overthrow capitalism.

Did Someone Say Adorno?

So can Adorno be made safe for the revolution? Such a question would serve as a diversion, for the book's objective is not so much to bring back Adorno but to use the generic name ‘Adorno' to refer to an event in Marxist philosophy (to throw around some Badiouan slang) that yields a non-totalising and non-teleological version of dialectics, the only kind acceptable after the unfortunate streak of actually existing ‘dialectical materialism' in the 20th century. In a way, it is not so different a gesture from ‘going back to Lenin', like Slavoj Žižek, or ‘never leaving Mao', like Alain Badiou, or ‘what about that Jacobin Terror', like Peter Hallward. It is an attempt to review philosophical and political moments that do not accord with prevailing wisdom to see what leverage they might provide in the current ‘blocked state'.


An eternal internal exile, standing at an extremely oblique angle both to the militant intellectual currents of his time as well as the established leftist parties, musician, aesthete, bourgeois, romantic melancholic, an orthodox Marxist grafted on to all that, Adorno took the fight to culture and aesthetics as the last stand of humanism in a wholly commodified world and patiently eviscerated that humanism into its component commodified elements. He still maintained that it is art that prefigures utopia, since it is the only form of articulation which lives in the gap between the concept and the object, the obverse to the identity thinking of rationality, which can only lead to fascism. More interested in psychic structures in their imbrication with the commodity form than class or value, Adorno's aesthetic theory has been labelled reactionary or theological by critics who rightly identify these omissions but somehow manage to miss the dialectical tension that makes the whole thing go.

But coming back to negative dialectics, the key feature is surely the idea of identity as a reification in thought of the commodity form, meaning that critique, whether reflective or practical, has to start out from the gap between the concept and the object, the object which can never be subsumed by the concept without a remainder. It is possible to think of this remainder as struggle, and the concept as the value form, as some writers in the book try to do - the critique of identity bears obvious correspondences with Marx's fetishism of the commodity argument. Critique, though, is not the same as politics, and it may be ventured that this book tries to do something Adorno never considered within his remit; that is, translate critique into the idiom of politics. In this sense, the book does many things right, but some individual contributions often create an impression of Adorno being used as a hobbyhorse to advance ideas which are not yet developed enough to stand on their own, and several of the texts (e.g those by Fernando Matamoros and Darij Zadnikar) are either ill-served by the translation, defy comprehension through lack of editing or both. 5

Perhaps a measure of concreteness could have been gained with some discussion of negative dialectics in terms of something slightly more on Adorno's turf than e.g. the Zapatistas; for example, contemporary artivism or the currency of the political in contemporary art. After all, when Adorno does make an appearance in art criticism today, it is more as a lovely funeral bouquet, brought in for atmosphere rather than substance. As political activism is staged more and more in ‘cultural' arenas, and cultural production such as free software increasingly crosses over into economic production, while art slots into government policy and is used to redevelop whole regions, as ‘critical practice' is brought out of storage when the market retreats, it seems to me that Negativity and Revolution misses a trick there. It would be easy enough to say that when the culture industry becomes the medium of rationality itself in its apotheosis as the creative industries, and any incongruity between critical dissent and market value is long gone, perhaps the Adornian ‘pessimism' that was consigned to the dungeons by generations of cultural studies and media academics proves timelier than ever.

If Adorno once predicted that the instrumentality of affects peddled by the culture industry might come to engulf the whole of social reality, he was perhaps more on the ball than the theorists of ‘real subsumption' who see this as a condition of liberation. In a recent blog entry, Jason Read muses whether Adorno and Horkheimer were not ‘class composition' theorists avant la lettre, but of the bourgeoisie rather than the working class. He pulls from Minima Moralia the contention that the material basis for bourgeois virtues such as independence, conscience, restraint, etc., had been superceded, as 19th century liberal capitalism was superceded by monopoly capitalism. The objective principle of the liberal phase of capitalism, competition, was now permeating subjectivity as well, leading Read to wonder if this was not actually prescient of the ‘networked' subject of neoliberalism entering into all social interactions with a view to (potential) exchange-value.6 It is with arguments like this that prevailing artistic strategies, premised as they are on ‘participation' as the condition for critique, and complicity as aestheticised deviance, should be contested. And what are the socially progressive agendas of public art institutions if not bourgeois virtues - civility, responsibility, artistic autonomy, public not private interest - grown outmoded on the current capitalist stage?

When it comes to politics, perhaps negative dialectics at best can be a regulative idea, as it is more emphatically in art, gauging the chances of autonomy precisely to the extent that its relation to heteronomy is grasped, an insight which can be gained independently of Adorno, through Marx.7 And of course Adorno's bleakness and astringency, the high artifice of his writing, his melancholic materialism, is always a good corrective, not only against today's authoritarian personalities of the assessment, the outcome and the target, but to the panoply of ‘cultural producers' whose invocation of politics always stops short of the feathering of personal nests. However, displacing Adorno from his turf is a worthwhile experiment. Carl Andre famously said ‘Art is what we do, culture is what is done to us.' It might not be too late to do politics with Adorno, but he might roll a bit more gently in his grave if he could stop politics being done to anyone.


John Holloway, Fernando Matamoros and Sergio Tischler (eds.), Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism, London: Pluto Press, 2009

 Marina Vishmidt <maviss AT> is a writer active mainly in the fields of contemporary art, philosophy and political economy. She is doing a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London on speculation as a mode of production.


1 This rather slapdash trajectory includes both Althusser, who never did anything of the kind, and Michel Foucault, who could only be deemed a Marxist by a dislocating stretch of the imagination. A credibility gap arises when a critique indicts thinkers for consequences proceeding from premises they never held or would not admit, i.e. one can attack Gilles Deleuze for certain consequences resulting from his philosophical choices, but not for being a bad Marxist (although the work with Felix Guattari, and its direct engagement with Karl Marx, makes this more complicated). Such vagueness cannot help but bring to mind not only the totalising jeremiads of philosophical conservatives from the '70s onwards, (from Allan Bloom to Richard Rorty), but the more contemporary sniping of Slavoj Žižek and Terry Eagleton at ‘identity politics', which has salient points but is marred by its ahistorical tendencies. The critique of ‘post-structuralism' of the kind meted out by Alain Badiou and Peter Hallward proceeds from different premises (even if there is some common territory with Slavoj Žižek, et al.), and shouldn't be tarred with the same opportunist brush. For a developed argument outlining how the real-world effect of jettisoning contradiction for difference, ‘identity politics', promoted an individualism that ultimately colluded with the neoliberal ‘creative destruction' of the welfare state and betrayed the historical leftist commitment to solidarity and social justice, see Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski, The New Spirit of Capitalism, London: Verso, 2007. For a compressed version of this argument, which, unlike Chiapello and Boltanski, positions itself clearly as anti-capitalist ideology critique, see Jodi Dean, ‘Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics' in Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times, Megan Boler, ed., Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2008, and, of course, Brian Holmes' ‘The Flexible Personality', available in multiple on and off-line locations. A historically-nuanced account would have to make the dialectical point that given the welfare state, state capitalism and its attendant modes of social repression, the bureaucratic state machine may well have seemed like the immediate enemy for anyone with an emancipatory agenda - it only becomes obvious that capitalism was the enemy all along in our day, when those historical circumstances have changed beyond all recognition. The historical juncture of ‘identity politics' is also fuzzy in the above-mentioned critiques - do they start in the 1990s or 1960s? If the latter, do the black civil rights, feminist and gay liberation movements (among many others) of the '60s and '70s fall under the rubric of identity politics?

2 On this matter, see Christian Kerslake's essay ‘The Vertigo of Philosophy: Deleuze and the Problem of Immanence' at Generation Online,

3 The immanence of fixed gender roles and compulsory re/production to early capitalism is of course the central concern of Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch, New York: Autonomedia, 2004.

4 Thomas Laquer, Making Sex, Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

5 The text by Darij Zadnikar is notable for a passing comment in a footnote which, if taken at face value, would invalidate one of the main principles of the book: that apologists for the multitude should get back in touch with their inner dialectical method. Zadnikar breezily asserts that the concepts of class and multitude are non-conflictual for ‘the movements' since the former is about their relation to production, and the latter about their heterogeneity. One is reminded of the ‘universal embourgeoisement' repeatedly cited by Alain Badiou.

6 See the Unemployed Negativity blog, 16 June, 2009, ‘Class Composition in Reverse', An apt Adorno quote used here is: ‘For while bourgeois forms of existence are truculently conserved, their economic precondition hasfallen away. Privacy has given way entirely to the privation it always secretly was and with the stubborn adherence to particular interests is now mingled fury at being no longer able to perceive that things might be different and better.'

7 It would also be worth revisiting what exactly constitutes ‘heteronomy' for contemporary art - what, after all, is outside contemporary art at this point in history? What is intrinsic to it?