Friday, June 29, 2007

“The Course of the World”

Adorno’s “negative” interpretation of Geist asks us to credit Hegel’s supposition of a powerful rational force that produces history, as long as we also understand that history is a disaster and that the contradictions of reason are lethal. The figure of “world spirit” isn’t nonsense because history does produce itself out of these conflicts which it outlives, and “world spirit” is something to call the logic, insofar as it is one, that binds history to its conflicts:

the human race in fact can only survive in and through the totality. The only reason why the optimism of the philosophy of absolute spirit is not a mere mockery is because the essence of all the self-preserving acts that culminate in this supreme concept of reason as absolute self-preservation is after all the means by which humanity has managed to survive and still continues to do so. And it has succeeded in doing so despite all the suffering, the terrible grinding of the machinery and the sacrifices of what Marx would have called the forces and means of production. The infinite weak point of every critical position (and I would like to tell you that I include my own here) is that, when confronted with such criticism, Hegel simply has the more powerful argument. This is because there is no other world than the one in which we live . . . . So that we shall always be told: everything you are, everything you have, you owe, we owe to this odious totality, even though we cannot deny that it is an odious and abhorrent totality. (History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-65, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Cambridge: Polity, 2006], 47-48)

Adorno’s inquiry into de facto power inheres in phrases like “in fact” and “simply” and “there is” (assuming these have survived into the translation). Given that "the course of the world" has been what we think it has been (which is an empirical and historical question), it’s hard to get leverage on Hegel from within this world. Adorno points out that Kant “would say: very well, individual conscience and the course of the world are absolutely incompatible. But then he would add: so much the worse for the course of the world” (65). Adorno is a Hegelian and not a Kantian to the extent that he focuses on how individuals necessarily participate in the course of the world. He’s a Kantian and not a Hegelian to the extent that he doesn’t identify what has happened with what had or has to happen, nor the factive with the right: “By identifying reality and spirit, you conflate possibility and reality” (68). Adorno’s attitude toward spirit as the course of the world resembles Hegel’s toward public opinion, it “is to be respected as well as despised” (quoted on 93); for Adorno, the course of the world is to be despised as well as respected. Thus his stress on “possible” worlds, either in the past or in future: what “allows reason, and indeed compels and obliges reason, to oppose the superior strength of the course of the world is always the fact that in every situation there is a concrete possibility of doing things differently” (68; my italics). The fact of possibility, the fact in the social realm of the literal everpresence of possibility—this is the only thing that constrains Hegel’s attempt to convert a series of social facts into a natural law. In other words, factive power can only be limited by the limit of fact—but luckily, every fact is by nature limited by possibility, and possibility is particularly broad for social facts, everything that is human-made in the first place.

Footnote: Adorno includes nearby a reading of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and agrees with Benjamin that “contrary to what traditional philosophy believed, facts do not simply disperse in the course of time, unlike immutable, eternal ideas . . . . they crystallize time in themselves” (91). Adorno's and Benjamin's common fear of facts' being forgotten creates tension in their desire for change. Neither Adorno nor Benjamin much considers the dispersion of facts and ideas altogether, nor the mortality of time. Adorno doesn't seem to find it worth considering that not only the possibility of social change, but the possibility of the mortality of spirit limits Hegel, along with everybody else--that is, as soon as humanity, which has always continued to survive despite all, ceases continuing to survive, Hegel will have been wrong, but it's as though that's not worth thinking about since in that case no one wins. For Adorno it was “hubris” in 1964 to entertain “the possibility of a total catastrophe which we can barely imagine” (94); maybe it doesn’t take as much hubris now, and has become more plausible than “precipitately” hopeful (94). A sign of this may be that contemporary imaginations of catastrophe don’t rely as often on the fantasy of instantaneous atomic annihilation, instead contemplating comparatively gradual degradations of environments and societies intended by no one in particular (“no one”—world spirit). Even more radically, there is the nature beyond "no one," resistant to personification, in which without consciousness at all, and therefore without tragedy, worlds expire, not as a result of the course of our world, but regardless of it.

Image: World Spirit award 2004 for Nordic Vodka.

See also New World Spirit 80DF Dual Fuel Range Cooker;; Merrell World Spirit Mens Shoe.

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