A Precarious Happiness: Adorno on Negativity and Normativity

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It is a commonplace view that Adorno subscribes to a doctrine of “epistemic negativism,” or “austere negativism.” On this interpretation, Adorno denies that we can have any knowledge of the good, since our society is wholly false. Gordon’s talk offers, first, some arguments against this commonplace reading of Adorno’s work and, second, proposes an alternative explanation for the normativity that underwrites his criticism. First, Gordon argues that the epistemic negativist interpretation is overstated, insofar as it presents society as a) uniform and b) closed; meanwhile, it also leaves Adorno with no resources to defend his theory’s own self-reflexive possibility. Second, against the epistemic negativist interpretation, Gordon argues that Adorno’s practice of immanent critique can succeed only because he acknowledges normative resources in the midst of our false society. This is one underlying commonality between Adorno and Marx. These normative resources are available to us not primarily as concepts but as experiential “traces” of sensuous happiness. In this respect Adorno subscribes to a species “materialism,” broadly construed. But Adorno’s commitment to such sensuous or aesthetic experiences does not leave him vulnerable to charges of hedonism or aestheticism; on the contrary, he insists that these very experiences themselves are precarious: they register the damage of our damaged world even as they also point beyond it.

Peter E. Gordon is Amabel B. James Professor of History, Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is a critical theorist and an historian of modern European philosophy and social thought, specializing in Frankfurt School critical theory, phenomenology, existentialism, and Western Marxism. He has published major works on Heidegger, the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, and Theodor W. Adorno. His book Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy (2003) received four international awards, including the Salo Baron Prize for the best book in Jewish history, the Goldstein-Goren Prize for the best book in Jewish philosophy, and the Forkosch Prize from the Journal of the History of Ideas. His second book, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (2010) received the Jacques Barzun Prize from the American Philosophical Society, one of the most distinguished awards in European and American cultural history. His third and more recent monograph, Adorno and Existence, was published by Harvard University Press in 2016, and was reviewed in periodicals such as Critical Inquiry (by Robert Pippin) and The New York Review of Books. Gordon’s most recent book is Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization, which is based on lectures he gave at Yale University in the Franz Rosenzweig Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought (2020). He is also co-author of Authoritarianism: Three Inquiries in Critical Theory with Wendy Brown and Max Pensky (2018). In June, 2019, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Theodor W. Adorno’s death in 1969, he delivered the Adorno Vorlesungen at the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, on the theme, “Adorno and the Sources of Normativity.” The lectures, widely reviewed in the German press, including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeiting, are currently available online from the Institut für Sozialforschung, and will be published by Suhrkamp Verlag.

Gordon has also edited numerous collections, including The Cambridge Companion to Modern Jewish Philosophy (2007); The Modernist Imagination: Essays in Intellectual History and Critical Theory (2008); Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy (2013); and The Trace of God: Derrida and Religion (2014). He is co-editor with Warren Breckman of The Cambridge History of Modern European Thought (2019), and he is co-editor with Espen Hammer and Axel Honneth of The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School (2018), and co-editor with Espen Hammer and Max Pensky of A Companion to Adorno (Blackwell, 2019). He also helped to edit and wrote the introduction for the new edition of Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality (2019). He is currently writing a longer, more comprehensive study of secularization and social theory since Max Weber.