7 December, 2019 • • 41.2Philosophy

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The Inconsolability of Philosophy

Maya Krishnan

Theodor Adorno
Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life
2005 (1951)

This past August marked the fiftieth anniversary of Theodor Adorno’s death. This year is also the sixtieth anniversary of Adorno’s completion in exile of Minima Moralia. Given the present sense of impending political and environmental catastrophe and concomitant despair over how to fix those problems now identified as “structural”, there is a special appropriateness to Adorno’s famous proclamation in Minima Moralia (published two years after its completion in 1949) that “[w]rong life cannot be lived rightly”. That being said, Adorno would probably be the first to point out that the claim of the distinctiveness of the current political moment is precisely the kind of self-deception that enables the large-scale perpetuation of “wrong life”. Have matters ever not been catastrophic? Haven’t the oppressed felt despair long prior to the political events of 2016? But then, isn’t insistence on the trans-historical status of despair itself a political mistake that undermines resistance by making oppression seem like the natural order of things? 

It is difficult to make an unobjectionable remark in narrating the recent history of political moods. An intensified version of this sort of difficulty is characteristic of the aura of intractability that pervades Adorno’s work. To read Minima Moralia is to be trapped between two slightly askew mirrors—the sense is that of being caught in an ever expanding series of reflections, where an obscure curvature intimates the possibility of escape without allowing it.

Fifty years after Adorno, it remains unclear how to navigate within the sort of conceptual trap that is commonly associated with the label “hermeneutics of suspicion”, a term that was quasi-coined by Paul Ricoeur via his 1971 identification of a “school of suspicion” comprised of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. The characteristic commitments of this “school”, which Adorno shares, are to unmasking illusion and to unmasking the illusion that illusion can entirely be unmasked. “There is no way out of entanglement,” he writes. “The only responsible course is to deny oneself the ideological misuse of one’s own existence.” Adorno’s elaboration of Marxist theory within the cultural sphere leads him to oppose the “illusory gratifications” and “false pleasure” through which “the abominable order keeps a second hold on life inside [people], as if it did not already have them firmly enough in its power from the outside”. Adorno also exhibits the school of suspicion’s trademark awareness of the way one’s own position might become the instrument that strengthens the very forces one intends to critique. He therefore warns that “the notion of culture of ideology… has a suspicious tendency to become itself ideology”.

The school-of-suspicion aspect of Minima Moralia has not aged well. This is due in part to the feeling that suspicious reading has exhausted its current creative possibilities. In Touching Feeling (2003) queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out that, while a certain kind of leftist paranoid reading has become almost default in much of the academic humanities, its hegemony is unearned—the fact that you can’t rule out the paranoid reading doesn’t make it right. The result is a posture of aloofness that persists despite the implausibility of its presuppositions. “I daily encounter graduate students who are dab hands at unveiling the hidden historical violences that underlie a secular, universalist liberal humanism”, Sedgwick writes, before pointing out that none of her American students have experienced socio-political circumstances that could accurately be described as “secular, universalist liberal humanism”. One highly effective way of undermining the apparent glamour of the dark spiralling of paranoid thought is to point out how mainstream the whole thing has become. The success and consequent ubiquity of paranoid methods, including the Frankfurt School’s novel fusion of Marxism and cultural analysis, can make it hard to get excited about reading the texts that developed those methods. In this sense, Minima Moralia suffers from the Frankfurt School’s achievements. This point is exacerbated by the fact that many of Adorno’s specific cultural observations—for instance, that “glorification of the splendid underdogs is nothing other than the glorification of the splendid system that makes them so”, or that “[t]he more purely nature is preserved and transplanted by civilization, the more implacably it is dominated”—are dubious at best, despite being cleverly constructed. This situation then raises the question: what remains of Minima Moralia on the fiftieth anniversary of its creator’s death and the sixtieth anniversary of its own completion?

One aspect of Minima Moralia that not just retains its original power but whose value has become amplified over time is the way it renders visible the links between suspicious reading and existential extremity. Minima Moralia was written from 1944 to 1949. Awareness of the “unspeakable collective events” to which Adorno refers in the preface remains present throughout the work. While a sense of existential extremity of one kind or another is common to all the founding members of the school of suspicion, it is with Adorno that the connection between emotional or even spiritual condition on the one hand and theoretical positioning on the other becomes most explicit. Adorno follows the aforementioned dictate that one must “deny oneself the ideological misuse of one’s own existence” with the recommendation of “modest” and “unpretentious” conduct, which Adorno claims is required “no longer by good upbringing but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell”. In Minima Moralia, which Adorno advertises in the dedication as related to “the true field of philosophy” as “the teaching of the good life”, a fusion of intellectual and spiritual dimensions takes place. This fusion separates the work from the uncritically critical attitude into which suspicious reading risks having lapsed. 

Minima Moralia teaches the good life in part by presenting a philosophical practice that consists in the systematic refusal of consolation. It inverts the goal of the late antique genre of philosophy (of which Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most famous instances) to bring its readers personal tranquility in the midst of political instability via the disclosure of philosophical truth. For Adorno, horror and loss motivate sensitivity both to the inadequacy of any effort to secure a small measure of peace for oneself, and to the ubiquity of those efforts, however unaware many authors may be of their own self-consolatory projects. Adorno thus lays out the inadequacies of the view that memories are inalienable possessions on theoretical grounds before labelling the position a set of “impotently sentimental consolations”. Consolations are putative sources of security, peace, or repose. They promise escape from threatening and quasi-inarticulable forces that tend to occupy the interstices and boundaries of human awareness (death, absurdity, violence). It is not the “illusory gratifications” or “false pleasures” of mass consumer society that Adorno most fervently opposes (although he does oppose them) so much as the illusory gratifications and false pleasures of theoretical repose: “The dream of an existence without shame… is to be maliciously strangled”. But it is hard to avoid perpetuating some version of this dream. Adorno’s condemnation of philosophy as the “justification of what exists” that thereby “attaches itself to the triumphal car of objective tendencies” expresses his view that it is near-inevitable that thought turn into a self-soothing and self-serving project. Adorno shows disdain toward any effort to find security:

There is nothing innocuous left. The little pleasures, expressions of life that seemed exempt from the responsibility of thought, not only have an element of defiant silliness, of callous refusal to see, but directly serve their diametrical opposite. Even the blossoming tree lies in the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror; even the innocent ‘How lovely!’ becomes an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely.

 The ethos of Minima Moralia is unpitying. It might be possible to motivate this attitude by appealing to the tendency for consolation to lead to error. But when motivated in this way, the anti-consolatory position seems melodramatic. While there are probably some (or even many) cases in which the desire for consolation leads to theoretical error, it is an overstatement to say that philosophy simply is the justification of what exists. Likewise, while it is not hard to see what Adorno means when he says that exclaiming “How lovely!” upon seeing a blossoming tree is merely “an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely”, it is difficult to find sufficient justification for the conclusion that “there is nothing innocuous left”. Sometimes trees just do look good. The winner of the theory game should not always be the person who puts up the most resistance to any position that bears the taint of seeming nice or common-sensical. 

Resistance to consolation is really the manifestation of a struggle over the right way to be. Adorno’s rage over Schiller’s optimism is not about Schiller being incorrect, but about the moral horror that someone might dare to say what Schiller does: 

Schiller’s dictum that ‘Life’s good, in spite of all’, paper-mâché from the start, has become idiocy now that it is blown into the same trumpet as omnipresent advertising, with psychoanalysis, despite its better possibilities, adding its fuel to the flames.

Inconsolability is a stubborn and spiky condition. Not only does the inconsolable thinker refuse all efforts to make things better by conceiving of things as better, they notice such smothering efforts everywhere. The rejection of consolation is the demand for the toleration of despair. While inconsolability can be seen as a particular species of suspicion, namely the suspicion of being offered a false sense of comfort, inconsolability is also implicit in the classics of suspicious argumentation, where it appears as the rejection of the promise of finding some fragment of goodness and teleologically overcoming despair (e.g. Foucault’s suspicion of “progress” and “reform”). Suspicious argumentation constructs a defence against any implicit offers of consolation, even those premised on a tapestry of objectivity and good intentions. The arguments are built as conceptual landmines, compact devices that blow up in the face of anyone who makes a clumsy move in the frequently inadvisable effort to defuse them. The argument that Adorno provides before declaring that wrong life cannot be lived rightly provides a concise example of an anti-consolatory strategy: 

[I]t is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home… one must nevertheless have possessions, if one is not to sink into that dependence and need which serves the blind perpetuation of property relations. But the thesis of this paradox leads to destruction, a loveless disregard for things which necessarily turns against people too; and the antithesis, no sooner uttered, is an ideology for those wishing with a bad conscience to keep what they have. Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.

The basic move in this case is to articulate a “paradox” of practical reason, according to which one must both perform and omit an action. Moreover, both the thesis (to reject property) and the antithesis (to accept it as the necessary corollary of not becoming dependent and somehow perpetuating property relations) lead to consequences that are unacceptable from a moral and political point of view. The space of possible actions is exhausted by unacceptable and incompatible actions, and one is somehow required not only to select one of these unacceptable actions, but also to perform both of them, thereby being both doubly wrong and absurd.

The arguments of the masters of suspicion are often unconvincing. Is it really the case that “not being at home in one’s home” requires rejecting all ownership of property, or that all ways of rejecting private ownership on one’s own behalf lead to “blind dependence”? Moreover, disregarding things does not “necessarily” lead to disregarding people (although it might), any more than realising one must own property necessarily covers for bad conscience (although it might). Moral-psychological tendencies are being transmuted into necessary laws. If Adorno’s aphoristic polemicising is supposed to provide a convincing argument, he’s doing a bad job.

But what this really shows is that aphoristic polemics aren’t supposed to function the way that standard philosophical arguments do, bringing the recalcitrant reader around by way of unassailable rational considerations. They are supposed to crystallise an aporia of moral conscience—to encapsulate the struggle of the mind that attempts to “live rightly” in the midst of an immoral system of relations from which one cannot disentangle oneself, and which presents an ongoing psychological hazard. Adorno’s polemical aphorisms appropriate the forms of philosophical arguments for the purposes of Adorno’s own genre of conceptual entrapment. Because the argumentative forms and conventions that characterise philosophy are implements through which the necessity of a conclusion can be established, they are apt literary or rhetorical devices for bringing about the entrapment of conscience. Philosophical reasoning is a tacit expression of faith in the power of finite minds to reach sensible conclusions about what to say, think, and do. When that faith has been lost, the rhetorical deployment of the forms of philosophical reasoning points to the absence.

Suspicion is an art form with its own genre conventions. It deploys explanatory methods proper to particular disciplines, such as history (Foucault), psychology (Freud), economics (Marx), or philosophy (Adorno/Nietzsche), and uses explanations within those disciplines in order to construct configurations of thought from which there is felt to be no escape. All efforts at refutation (which is escape by another name) in some way confirm, reinforce, or elaborate upon the more fundamental condition of entrapment. Success within this genre requires a combination of mastery of the underlying discipline and literary skill. The more ingeniously the trap is constructed—the more irresistibly it draws its quarry in, the more inevitably it keeps the mind circling around itself, the more effectively the rhetoric is able to cause the conscience to find itself dazzled and thereby transfixed—the better the instance of the genre. 

Although the construction of the conceptual trap is the most complicated form through which the masters of suspicion reject consolation, there are also the straightforwardly critical or even contemptuous remarks against consolation. The pages of Minima Moralia are replete with this kind of remark. Adorno rages against the “imperturbable enunciation of platitudes” that manifest an “unmistakeable sign of latent contempt for mankind” by means of their brazen “triteness”. (Adorno’s example of the unapologetically trite: “The artist ought to love life and show us that it is beautiful. Without him, we should doubt it”.) Here Adorno characterises consolation as a kind of intellectual kitsch, a form of bad taste that is intertwined with moral turpitude. He recognises an impulse to kitsch as ubiquitous in his own cultural moment, and portrays the resistance of that impulse in oneself as central to aesthetic and intellectual discipline:

What is true of the instinctual life is no less of the intellectual: the painter or composer forbidding himself as trite this or that combination of colours or chords, the writer wincing at banal or pedantic verbal configurations, reacts so violently because layers of himself are drawn to them. Repudiation of the present cultural morass presupposes sufficient involvement in it to feel it itching in one’s finger-tips, so to speak, but at the same time the strength, drawn from this involvement, to dismiss it.

If giving in to the magnetism of that which is “banal or pedantic” is a vice, then there can be an equal and opposite virtue in refusing to give in. Adorno correspondingly finds that “there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better”. While the “possibility of what is better” provides the explicit justification for resisting consolation, Adorno’s language valorises the strength involved in the “withstanding” and the “forbidding” and the “holding fast”, affording value to these acts even in the absence of the materialisation of “what is better”. The anti-consolatory standpoint grounds its own heroic ethos.

In apotheosising resistance to the kitschy sentimentality of consolation, Adorno shows his susceptibility to his own form of consolation: that of intellectual chauvinism. The “strength” of the artist or intellectual who “dismiss[es]” the attraction of the “present cultural morass” establishes a fundamental difference between their own spiritual state and that of the artist and intellectual who falls into what is “trite” or “banal” or “pedantic”. The problem here is not the bad taste of Adorno’s self-congratulation. It is that the self-congratulation of the purportedly strong intellectual in turn facilitates their seeing some class of people as lesser and weak. One of the most striking combinations of Adorno’s self-congratulation for his own intellectual vigour on the one hand, and denigration of those who wear the shadow of his insecurity on the other, occurs in a section on “Orientals” and “Africans” in which Adorno argues that an “uncompromising mind” is “the very opposite of primitivism, neophytism, or the ‘non-capitalist world’” (52). Here Adorno tries to say that “Orientals” and “Africans” are more likely to take up an adulatory attitude toward Western capitalism and Western culture because a critical attitude “presupposes experience, a historical memory, a fastidious intellect and above all an amply measure of satiety” (52). One doesn’t have to wonder long over who Adorno thinks possesses a “fastidious intellect”. While there may be interesting things to say about the topics Adorno is trying to deal with here, they are not well said by someone whose motivations include the desire to prop up his own philosophical manhood.

It is not Adorno’s unique pathology to establish “strength” of the philosophical resistor of consolation via the rejection of the putative weakness of a dominated group. In “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946), Sartre puts forward his own anti-consolatory position, the robustness of which is underscored by the words of a foolish woman:

From another quarter we are reproached for having underlined all that is ignominious in the human situation, for depicting what is mean, sordid or base to the neglect of certain things that possess charm and beauty and belong to the brighter side of human nature: for example, according to the Catholic critic, Mlle. Mercier, we forget how an infant smiles (Mairet translation).

It is no accident that the representative of “charm and beauty” should be a woman, or that the best argument she can supposedly provide is one that Sartre has selected in order to induce maximal cringing. The audience is left to fill in its association of Mercier’s position with a naïve, smothering sentimentality. The opening portion of “Existentialism is a Humanism” takes up the burden of demonstrating that existentialism is subject to widespread misunderstandings, and it is, unsurprisingly, a gaggle of women who are shown to be incapable of rising to the level of real philosophy: “I have lately been told of a lady who, whenever she lets slip a vulgar expression in a moment of nervousness, excuses herself by exclaiming, ‘I believe I am becoming an existentialist’”. The image of the silly woman provides Sartre’s audience with a foil: they, by contrast, are the clued-in intellectuals who would never make such an embarrassing error. 

Adorno’s critical-theoretic “gaze falling on horror” and Sartre’s resolute existentialist stance are each in their own way predicated on a rejection of consolatory stories about the human condition. Misogyny and racism arise as the accompaniments and intensifications of the purported self-mastery of the anti-consolatory philosopher, who has supposedly dominated his own internal impulses towards softness and weakness. These phenomena are not the necessary consequences of the anti-consolatory position, but they do reveal a natural temptation that arises for those who take the position: the temptation to take refuge in believing that (supposedly) showing a greater degree of intellectual skill or critical acumen than others somehow matters deeply. The violence, the brutality, and, ultimately, the silliness of the chauvinistic position are not just a reflection of the insecurity of the thinker who both asserts and doubts his own status as strong, vital, and serious. They are also a reflection of the desperation that all this strongness and vitality and seriousness should mean something. The need to ridicule the thinker who fails according to some particular metric expresses the desire that that metric measure something of profound significance. Adorno hopes that his philosophical virility will hasten the coming of the “messianic light” towards which he gestures at the end of Minima Moralia. The violence that accompanies the ridicule reflects the awareness that it doesn’t.  

Both the most and the least successful aspects of Minima Moralia derive from Adorno’s determination to find the places that horrify him, and then to theorise from the edge of those places—far enough into them that illusion is burned away, far enough away from their centre that speech is still possible, and aware the whole time that there is nothing beyond illusion’s reach. Minima Moralia is not only an opportunity to absorb some of the Marxist cultural criticism for which Adorno and the rest of the Frankfurt school are justly celebrated, but also a text whose 153 aphorisms contain moments that belong to a genre of their own. While there are other texts from which Marxist cultural criticism is perhaps better learned, none succeeds in the craft of inconsolability so well as Minima Moralia. But at times it seems that Adorno has gotten so lost in his own horror that he loses his better critical judgment and gives in to the temptation to denigrate others and elevate himself by comparison.

There is a way in which Adorno’s worst moments are also his most instructive. Adorno’s viciousness emerges from the centre of that dangerous zone formed by the interplay of the realisations that illusion is inescapable and that the death of six million is real. What he leaves behind can be understood as a transcript that records a mind’s experiment in acknowledging this. But there are limits to acknowledgment. Adorno seems both to know and to forget that critical awareness does not bring about salvation. What Adorno saw most clearly was also what his lapses into racism show him fighting to deny. Inconsolability may be dazzling, but in the end not even the most cleverly constructed rhetorical act can function as an answer.


Maya Krishnan is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at All Souls College. She works on metaphysics, theology, and Kant.