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Negative Utopia as the Ground for Universality

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

In his Critique of Judgment, Kant explains how “subjective judgments” resemble theoretical claims about truth in that they claim universal assent, even though they do not have an objective basis for doing so. In other words, although they are subjective, they assert a strict sense of objectivity and claim a universal ground for truth. Therefore, the proof of the validity of these judgments cannot be found in a specific “observable feature” of the object, but rather in the “actual intersubjective agreement.” While truth in his third Critique is neither a matter of the intellect nor a thing reducible to conceptual realm, it seems that he offers a different sense of truth that influenced the major trends in continental philosophy. One can trace this sense of truth as it provides a ground not only to “test the limits of our historical era” but also “to go beyond them.”

While one can argue that the notion of the Other, in Kant’s philosophy, is an end-in-itself, the turning point occurs with Fichte. According to him, the subject cannot give itself the consciousness of freedom; rather, freedom is intersubjectively mediated. Such mediation, which is not a mere matter of epistemology, is based on the idea of summons (Aufforderung), where it requires the irreducible independence of the Other. Fichte calls this relation recognition, in which autonomy of subject has a “divided ground,” both in the subject and in the Other. He frames it as partially “external” to the subject in the summons, as the “real ground,” and partially “internal” to the subject, as the “ideal ground.”

However, with Hegel’s dialectical logic not only Fichtean concept of the ideal/internal ground and real/external ground, but Kantian notion “beyond” is dissolved in favor of the unity of “the identity of identity and difference.” In other words, while in his Logic he claims that “truth is the whole” and it “exists only as totality,” the legacy of German idealism results in no possibility for the notion of “beyond” and no space for the radical Other in Hegel’s all-inclusive notion of the whole.

Marx, however, not only negates Hegel’s idealistic metaphysics; but the notion of “sublation” takes on a different meaning. It is important to note that the emergence of truth as an end-in-itself, for him, will occur “beyond” the existing status quo. This is where his most radical departure from German idealism arises. While for Hegel freedom and truth of the subject are both achieved and fulfilled within the universal history, Marx’s dialectical procedure attempts to move “beyond” the Hegelian logic to form an “internal-external” connection. He writes, “The true realm of freedom begins beyond the present condition of history.” Therefore, although it seems that Marx’s concept of truth is located in German idealist tradition, there is a unique potentiality in his dialectic that interrupts the totality of “the whole” and moving toward exteriority and beyond the current version of universal history.

On the other hand, while for Hegel history as progress is the very ground of Reason and he formulates progress in terms of the realization of freedom, what is controversial for Adorno is the potential for such an idea when it collaborates with the ideological notion of progress. It typically produces a quite opposite result: regression. Contrary to the idea of continuity in history and its progressive character, what he suggests, is the idea of “historical discontinuity” in which events in history are not part of a narration of progress, but rather the manifestation of particularity that resists being subsumed under a narration of universal history. History, as he writes in History and Freedom, “is discontinuous in the sense that it represents life constantly disrupted.”

Adorno’s critique of the Hegelian notion of history, thus, centers on Hegel’s neglect of the very phenomena of suffering and violence in historical reality for the sake of consistency. This is where, for him, Hegel’s notion of history becomes “undialectical.” It is crucial to remember, however, Adorno’s notion of “historical discontinuity” does not aim to invert the Hegelian hierarchy. Rather, it argues that disruption is the very characteristic of any universal account of history. While history, in his perspective, is the unity of continuity and discontinuity, Adorno’s position should not be conceived as paradoxical; it is in fact a fuller understanding of historical events as events and not moments. According to him, the progressive narrative of universal history justifies eliminating particularity and its suffering. The main issue for Adorno is that Hegel ignores the matters of true philosophical interest in history, namely, non-conceptuality and particularity. That is why, not only Adorno maintains “the concept of universal history can be salvaged,” but he refers to “unspeakable suffering” as the condition of any historical process and the condition for truth. While he already criticized Hegel because of his quasi-theological worldview in which history operates above the space of human agency, he distances himself by pointing out the differences between particularism and universalism that captures individual moments of suffering. While he argues the Hegelian notion of universal history assumes an Archimedean position above culture and society, for Adorno progress might be attainable but only once the ideological characteristic of it is abandoned. His suggestion is to push the tension between particularity and universality further to where the theory cannot afford to continue.

Regarding the issue of universalism and particularism, it is important to underline that for him there is neither a radical duality nor a fundamental unity between them; they constitute each other as much as they are distinguished from one another. While under the existing condition Adorno writes that “nothing particular is true,” he does not abandon the notion of universal history or “identity mode” of thought in favor of particularity. Rather he introduces a new criterion for truth in which the Other, the non-identical, has been located within its core.

While there is a strong desire to make a connection between truth and the Other in postwar philosophy, the notion of a “utopian moment” in Adorno, Benjamin, and Bloch is set not merely to negate but to transmute the “reactive forces” and suppressed elements within the history. Only through “becoming-active” of suppressed hopes and repressed elements in history, the moment of engagement between philosophy and history becomes utopian. Indeed, the conception of truth implies an “immanent utopianism” in a sense that it does not posit an ideal future but rather aims to connect with socio-political subjects that are present but suppressed by the totalitarian notion of history.

While the longing for salvation is the utopian moment, the ontological discourse of universal history converts utopian moment into a totalizing ideology. Thus, the rejection of the ontological sense of history becomes the priority. That is why the concern for the Other, or non-identity, under the notion of universal history, as Bloch argues, remains “always” utopian precisely because it promises “always” other than the ways of the current articulation of history.

Therefore, while Adorno’s call for “waiting in vain” is mostly considered pessimistic, one should note that this is rather insight into the fact that there is no ultimate emancipation or absolute reconciliation under the capitalist version of universal history. As he notes, “the general stultification today is the direct result of cutting out utopia. When you reject utopia, thought itself withers away.”

Despite the fact that “we do not know what utopian society or the absolute right way of life looks like,” we do know the current socio-political condition is not the right way of life “because suffering, hunger and exploitation still continue.” Thus as he writes, “we do know what we should fight against.” As a result, his notion of reconciliation should be understood in terms of a hope for dialectical reconciliation between particular and universal in light of Marx’s notion of “beyond,” rather than Hegelian dialectic of universal history. Here is the exact moment that Adorno’s vision of utopia meets that of Bloch. The key factor in utopian moment, for both of them, is to seek the transformation of the whole, namely, realization of freedom with realization of happiness at the same time. However, as they claim under capitalism and its totalizing history, human beings become unable “to imagine the totality as something that could be completely different.” That is why, Adorno argues, philosophy is still necessary simply because it provides critique as a form of resistance and becomes the ground for negative utopia under current universal history.

While in German idealism “the true is the sign of itself and the false,” Adorno argues that “the false is the sign of itself and the truth.” Following Benjamin’s notion of resurrection of past hopes, Adorno introduces the completion of incomplete salvation as the only ground for the revolutionary understanding of history. In other words, Adorno argues through reducing the notion of discontinuity to the logic of universal history we both miss the moment of resistance and turn it into another act of universal history. Hence, the idea of discontinuity provides not only the very base to abolish the universal history, but also the very base for redemption. While it seems that he suggests a different understanding of revolution then Marx, there is one main common ground for both: revolution is not the aim of history, but its end.

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