Thursday, April 19, 2007

Adorno's Court of Appeal

In Nietzsche’s period of amor fati, no personal injustice is so little that the world can put up with our objection that it “ought not to be.” The defensive extremity of this formulation suggests its reversibility: any small injustice potentially has the power to overturn the right of the world. In two directly responding sections of Minima Moralia, Adorno takes up Nietzsche’s legal metaphor of justice and injustice to defend the possibility that the part may legitimately be dissatisfied with the whole. The first of these sections is entitled “Court of Appeal”:

Nietzsche in the Antichrist voiced the strongest argument not merely against theology but against metaphysics, that hope is mistaken for truth . . . . He refutes the Christian “proof by efficacy,” that faith is true because it brings felicity. For “could happiness—or, more technically, pleasure—ever be a proof of truth? So far from this, it almost proves the converse, at any rate it gives the strongest grounds for suspecting ‘truth’ whenever feelings of pleasure have had a say in the matter. The proof of pleasure is proof of: pleasure—nothing more; why in the world should true judgments cause more enjoyment than false ones and, in accordance with a preordained harmony, necessarily bring pleasant feelings in their train?” [Antichrist §50). But Nietzsche himself taught amor fati: “thou shalt love thy fate.” This, he says in the Epilogue to The Twilight of the Idols, was his innermost nature. We might well ask whether we have more reason to love what happens to us, to affirm what is, because it is, than to believe true what we hope. Is it not the same false inference that leads from the existence of stubborn facts to their erection as the highest value, as he criticizes in the leap from hope to truth? . . . In the end hope, wrested from reality by negating it, is the only form in which truth appears. Without hope, the idea of truth would be scarcely even thinkable, and it is the cardinal untruth, having recognized existence to be bad, to present it as truth simply because it has been recognized. Here, rather than in the opposite, lies the crime of theology that Nietzsche arraigned without ever reaching the final court. (Minima Moralia §61, trans. modified)

If for Nietzsche no complaint against nature is small enough to be excusable, for Adorno no complaint is too small to be unworthy of the trouble of making it; and the limit case, gratuitous expression of discontent with nature, is the ultimate civilized act. Adorno attacks Nietzsche where Nietzsche believes he is strongest, in the concept of “right,” with the figure of the court. In Adorno’s opinion, Nietzsche can legitimately be indignant that philosophers take seriously the existence of anything other than the actual world, but he cannot legitmately deduce the actual world’s right to exist (for us) from the fact of its existence (for us). That which cannot be otherwise can still exist without having any right to be. Nihilists may be neither skeptics nor metaphysicians, but conscientious objectors to the laws of the given world.

In Part III of Minima Moralia Adorno brings the figure of the “court of appeal” into closer proximity to personal happiness:

Someone who has been offended, slighted, has an illumination as vivid as when agonizing pain lights up one’s own body. He becomes aware that in the innermost blindness of love, that must remain unknowing, lives the demand of one unblinded. Something unjust [unrechte] happened to him; from this he deduces a claim to right and must at the same time reject it, for what he desires can only be given in freedom. In such distress he who is rejected becomes a person. Just as love inevitably [abdingbar] betrays the general to the particular in which alone justice is done to the former, so now the general, as the autonomy of others, turns fatally against love. . . . He who has lost love knows himself deserted by all, and this is why he scorns consolation. In the senselessness of his deprivation he is made to feel the untruth of all merely individual fulfillment. But he thereby awakens to the paradoxical consciousness of generality; of the inalienable and unindictable human right to be loved by the beloved. With his plea, founded on no titles or claims, he appeals to an unknown court, which accords to him as grace what is his own and yet not his own. The secret of justice in love is the annulment of all rights, to which love mutely points. “So forever / cheated and foolish must love be [So muß übervorteilt, / Albern doch überall sein die Liebe” [Friedrich Hölderlin, “Tränen”]. (Minima Moralia §104)

Adorno revives Nietzsche’s identification of particular with global rejection (any complaint against the actual with complaint against all actuality) by imagining it from the side of the rejected part: rejected by the one--the lover, the only one who counts--the rejected one is “deserted by all.” But for Adorno recognizing the necessity, or metaphorically speaking, the “justice” of such an offense goes with, rather than invalidating, the appeal to an unknown court. The slight illuminates both the other person’s right to commit the offense and one’s own right in perpetuity to be loved. The continued appeal of the nihilist or lover in distress, far from being a denial of necessity, expresses an understanding of it. The rightfulness of the appeal provides some counter to “the castration of perception by a court of control that denies it any anticipatory desire, [and] forces it thereby into a pattern of helplessly reiterating what is already known” (Minima Moralia §79).

Although Adorno believes that he differs with Freud because he believes—here he uses Freud’s words—that Freud “‘places social goals higher than fundamentally selfish sexual ones’” and fails to understand “that moment in pleasure which transcends subservience to nature” (Minima Moralia §7), Freud too recognizes the utopian potential of the expression of discontent in the negative therapeutic gesture at the end of Civilization and Its Discontents:

I should find it understandable if someone were to point out the obligatory nature of the course of human civilization and were to say, for instance, that the tendencies to a restriction of sexual life or to the institution of a humanitarian ideal at the expense of natural selection were developmental trends which cannot be averted or turned aside and to which it is best for us to yield as though they were necessities of nature [my italics]. I know, too, the objection that can be made against this, to the effect that in the history of mankind, trends such as these, which were considered unsurmountable, have often been thrown aside and replaced by other trends. Thus I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation: for at bottom that is what they are all demanding—the wildest revolultionaries no less passionately than the most virtuous believers.

The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.
(Civilization and Its Discontents, 92)

The “developmental trends” of civilization may or may not be natural, and Freud claims not to feel up to prophecy on this matter. But he does something better. He takes up in imagination the position, outside civilization altogether, that he earlier describes as impossible and necessary for civilization-therapy. In these last two paragraphs, separated by a break from what precedes them, Freud removes himself from the first person plural. His “fellow-men” become and remain a “they” in whose predicament he no longer participates: “the fateful question for the human species seems to me to be . . . their cultural development.” From his place outside “the human species,” Freud refuses to console, which is also to say that he doesn’t interrupt or appropriate an action that doesn’t belong to him. Freud stops just short of agreeing that the self-destructive “developmental trends” of civilization are natural. But he also does not say that they are not natural; and he opens a court of appeal by not allowing apparent necessity to form its own conclusion.

Image: sky, Echo Park

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