Sade, Adorno, and Ressentiment

The relatively overshared photo of Negative Dialectics as a shield was only one piece of literature represented on that front…
Sade and Dialectic of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment has a despotic, totalizing tendency to Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. There must always be a common denominator in instrumental reason. “Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence” (Adorno & Horkheimer 1992, 51). All mystifications, cultural codes, bodies, and motions share the same referent under the grip of the Enlightenment. What Adorno and Horkheimer achieve with Dialectic of Enlightenment, above all else, is a compelling ascription of many of the tendencies conventionally attributed to capital to the Enlightenment itself. Far from enabling a vast intellectual or political freedom, the Enlightenment initiated a universal dogmatism that has plagued the collective psyche. A world has sprung out where individuals substitute “formula for concept, rule and probability for cause and motive” (Adorno & Horkheimer 1992, 49). This schematization, this “calculability of the world”, that the epigones of Enlightenment cling to contains within it an anxious finality. But, to Horkheimer and Adorno, the implications reach far beyond mere epistemological differences or metaphysical debates stowed away in bourgeois academia. This line of thinking sets the terms of any inquiry. It is in this sense that the enlightened world has not moved too far beyond the despotic tendencies noted by Kant, that one can “[a]rgue as much as [one] like[s], but obey!” (Kant 1991, 55). These tendencies inform our social structures, politics, economic systems. “For the Enlightenment, whatever does not conform to the rule of computation and utility is suspect” (Adorno & Horkheimer 1992, 50). This relatively clear and concise statement about Enlightenment frameworks is a deeply crucial one. It intimates a serious danger that the utilitarian thinking of the post-Enlightenment world. It is a political assertion, not just a philosophical one. Animism endows the object with a soul, “whereas industrialism objectifies the spirits of men” (Adorno & Horkheimer 1992, 54). The demystification of the human being does not lead to its liberation. Far from that, it enters the human body into a system of “power that explores it, breaks it down, and rearranges it” (Foucault 1977, 138). Foucault, and Georges Canguilhem before him, also attempt to expose the limitations and dangers of the Enlightenment approach, although their works are institutionally focused.[1] Canguilhem specifically revives the Enlightenment, but only to bring it to a point of autocritique in his work The Normal and the Pathological. “Two centuries later the Enlightenment returns: but not at all a way for the west to become conscious of its actual possibilities and freedoms to which it can have access, but as a way to question the limits and powers it has abused. Reason – the despotic enlightenment” (Foucault 1991, 12). Horkheimer and Adorno see this tendency of reason embodied in the musings of Sade’s Prince in 120 Days of Sodom. “The Prince points the path which imperialism, reason in its most terrible form, has always followed” (Horkheimer & Adorno 2002, 70). The Prince in Sade harshly contends that “the government itself must control the population. It must possess the means to exterminate the people, should it fear them, or to increase their numbers, should it consider that necessary” (Sade quoted in Horkheimer & Adorno 2002, 69-70). The Prince espouses, to Horkheimer and Adorno, Enlightenment governance par excellence.

Negative Dialectics and Ressentiment

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno provides a reading the dialectic that is in mechanical opposition to the systematic understanding present in the Hegelian conception. Furthermore, he critiques the notion of a totalizable whole, which can—in a sense—be read as an indirect critique of sublation, a notion central to Hegel. There is propensity, according to Adorno, in idealist philosophy to collapse into its own infinite self-reference through unjustified universality. In an interesting tie-in, there is a brief section dedicated to the transvaluation and a subtly unique psychoanalytic interpretation of ressentiment. A rage underwrites the idealist disposition, but it is a primal rage that is sublimated. “The animal to be devoured must be evil. The sublimation of this anthropological schema extends all the way to epistemology” (Adorno 1973, 22). The always self-referencing, self-justifying epistemology must maintain, not merely a human dominion over nature, but a unique superiority. Of course, one cannot disregard the inclusion that their prey must be evil. This clearly echoes comparable notions that are present in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality. “We can guess what the creature of ressentiment wants: he wants others to be evil, he needs others to be evil in order to be able to consider himself good” (Deleuze 1983, 119). However, rather than focusing on the dichotomy of good and evil, what Adorno does that is particularly tactful, his focus is primarily the mechanism by which this assertion of evil is to be made. Nietzsche does attest that the figure of ressentiment “will inevitably end up cleverer” than their noble counterpart (Nietzsche 1994, 1§10).Hegel, like Kant, is plagued with bad consciousness.

read more…

Adorno, T. 1973. Negative Dialectics. (E. B. Ashton, Trans.) New York: Routledge.

Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M. “The Concept of Enlightenment.” In D. Ingram & J. Simon (Eds.) Critical Theory: The Essential Readings. Saint Paul: Paragon House. 49-56.

Deleuze, G. 1983. Nietzsche and Philosophy. (H. Tomlinson, Trans.) New York: Columbia University Press.

Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.) New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. 1991. “Introduction.” In G. Canguilhem The Normal and the Pathological. (C. Fawcett, Trans.) New York: Zone Books.

Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. (E. Jephcott, Trans.) Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kant, I. 1991. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” In H. Reiss (Ed.) Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 54-60.

Nietzsche, F. 1994. On the Genealogy of Morality. (C. Diethe, Trans.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Foucault explicitly states his academic affinity for the work of the Frankfurt School both in “The Subject and Power” and Remarks on Marx, where he suggests that, had he read Adorno, Habermas, and Marcuse earlier, he would have “saved useful time” and “would have avoided certain errors” (Remarks on Marx, 119). Though, he remained skeptical of the humanist tendencies present in their works.

One thought on “Sade, Adorno, and Ressentiment

  1. Reblogged this on Extemporaneous Dénouement and commented:
    Will Conway does a fantastic job giving a quick contrasting of 2 seminal works of the Frankfurt School’s Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (The Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics) with various other thinkers like Sade, Foucault, and Nietzsche! A delightful read. Follow Will for more forthcoming brilliance!!


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