Sunday, August 12, 2007
The Rhetoric of Tacit Affirmation (more Adorno and Hegel)
Adorno’s complaint, in his late work, that Hegel coerces affirmation (cf. “The Course of the World” below, June 2007), is as methodological as it is ideational. The methodological strand of his analysis is best phrased in the brilliant essay “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel” (1963; in Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen [MIT P, 1993]; "skoteinos" = Gr. "full of darkness," opaque, obscure), and amounts to a challenge to the legitimacy of the reconstructed presupposition or norm. Adorno’s questioning of what it means for an analysis to rely on norms is interesting for contemporary theory—from Habermas to Butler—that takes the identification of a norm as a first stage.
In Hegel, the concept “is turned this way and that” and “breaks up when it insists on its identity,” revealing its presupposition to have been a nonidentity that was “inherent” in its meaning (“Skoteinos” 133). Adorno goes on,
The usual conception of the dynamic of Hegel’s thought—that the movement of the concept is nothing but the advance from one to the other by virtue of the inner mediatedness of the former—is one-sided if nothing else . . . . Often . . . the presentation makes a backward leap. What would be new according to the simple schema of triplicity reveals itself to be the concept that formed the starting point for the particular dialectical movement under discussion, modified and under different illumination. (“Skoteinos” 134-135)
Hegel’s texts advance by bringing “starting point[s]” out of the shadow of that which they are said to have produced and introducing them as new—or else introducing new points and claiming that they were starting points. It’s hard to say whether Hegel’s thought proceeds on the basis of givens or retreats from givens to still more primordial givens that are themselves in motion. Although we have to assume that any point we've attained in the text is transitory, Hegel doesn't render what might be static dynamic in order to “add anything to the grammatical concept that forms the subject, as . . . with Kant” (“Skoteinos” 133). Rather, he works in the name of “retroactive force,” an authority that emanates from what came to pass and gets projected into its would-be presuppositions. When we move on from our current place in Hegel's text it will not be because an argument has been offered; Hegel “can be understood only when the individual analyses are read not as arguments but as descriptions of ‘implied meanings’” (“Skoteinos” 140). Underlining Hegel’s methodological reliance on ascribing a new kind of facticity to preconditions and norms and narrating their realization in history, Adorno concludes that there is a “latent positivistic moment contained, for all Hegel’s invectives against narrow-minded reflective thought, in his philosophy’s stubborn insistence on what is” (“Skoteinos” 145). The “latent positivistic moment” is literally the latency of fact and its attendant value in a presupposition.
The qualities that Adorno perceives in Hegel’s thought in “Skoteinos” and History and Freedom would be controversial even in the best circumstance, if what Hegel claimed to discover in his reconstructive procedures unproblematically existed. But that isn’t the case, because Hegel has also revised the idea of what it means for something to exist in a way that is itself arguable. When Hegel proceeds from a situation to its norm, he gives the norm as much factive weight as the situation; in his unfolding narratives, reconstructed entities step into the avant-garde of history by being brought to consciousness—one step back and two steps forward. The ontological status of a norm, however, is often debated in the history of philosophy, and tastes vary widely on this point to the present day. A norm presumed by a particular historical event or claim could be viewed as Nietzschean genealogy views it, not as a necessary precondition or cause of a state of affairs but an epiphenomenon of it—the kind of phenomenon that should be described as “not nothing” rather than as a causal substantive. Nietzsche would say that a norm often only seems to have force because we read history backwards and take events’ metaleptic projections for their causes. This element of Nietzsche’s thought inspires Foucauldian genealogy’s and queer theory’s use of norms not to discover hidden principles for proceeding but to identify ideological formations that should be brought to light in hopes that they can be discarded. Like Nietzsche in this regard, Adorno complains that Hegel reads history “from the point of view of the victors” (History and Freedom 41), and his ontological taste is correspondingly skeptical. My point isn't that the ontological status of thought entities—philosophy’s version of psychic facts—is easy to resolve, but just the opposite. They occupy a gray area of fact and value, and no one can jump casually over arguments about their status. One of the main uses in contemporary theory of counting thoughts and norms as facts as a matter of course is to enforce a supposed necessity that someone doesn't endorse; for example, to argue that Derrida really entails all the concepts that he places “under erasure,” or that queer theory reinscribes the norms it repudiates because it refers to them. Because Hegel’s dynamic sense of “is” gives every object a nimbus—it is “not firmly delineated as an object but frayed, as it were, at the edges” (“Skoteinos” 133) —he diffuses the coercion of the fact/value conflation over reconstructed preconditions and logical norms, which are as it were covered within the vague bounds of the Hegelian fact.
In this way one can read out of Hegel’s methodology the possibility that in Hegel’s philosophy, the course of the world in practice accrues all of the authority that is available “by virtue,” in the words of cultural historian Terry Pinkard, “of the way they have shown themselves to be unavoidable for us” (German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism [Cambridge UP, 2002], 359; my italics). This “us” that shapes and is shaped by what counts as avoidable and unavoidable, that assumes that “we” must be what we are, defends against the present possibility of a different humanity (and is therefore the target of queer theory’s sometime polemic against reliance on norms in social thought). Pinkard, whose history of German philosophy focuses throughout on its handling of “normative authority,” observes that Kantian exigency modulates in Hegel into “practical” necessity. Hegelian necessities such as universal self-consciousness are “that which we, as part of a developmental story we must tell about ourselves, come to find that we practically cannot do without” (Pinkard, German Philosophy, 359). To ignore the qualification “practically,” and with it the possibility that if we did something different we might not need to be “ourselves,” is exactly what it means to perpetuate a norm. One of the legacies of this strand of Hegel’s thought is the systematization in pragmatic discourse of effective necessities and an expanded, effective acceptance that goes with them. So Habermas presupposes “ideal content that can be only approximately satisfied” which, correspondingly, “all participants must de facto accept” (Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy , trans. William Rehg [MIT P, 1998], 16, my italics). “De facto” acceptance of projected discursive norms is the logical end of treating thought entities as quasi facts that coerce quasi values, and it suggests how the loosening of what counts as fact drifts, with the best of intentions, toward obligating members of a community to tacit affirmations that they neither perceive nor endorse.
Image: Matthias Weischer, Chair, 2003