As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Aaron Bell looks at Theodor W. Adorno’s “Resignation” from Telos 35 (Spring 1978).
Reading “Resignation” today, it is immediately clear that the historical context is necessary to fully grasp the significance of Adorno’s words. Originally delivered as a radio address in 1968, “Resignation” is, among other things, an important entry in the Marxist theory-praxis debate and a primary document in the history of Adorno’s troubled relationship with the radical student movements of postwar Germany. Adorno, responding directly to the Frankfurt School’s critics of the radical left, defends his refusal to translate Critical Theory into a program for political action. Against the charge of apolitical “resignation,” Adorno articulates a defiant vision of critical thought beholden to no master. This vision of critical thought remains vital today, despite the dated trappings of the theory-praxis debate and the limited interest in Adorno’s biography and the politics of postwar Germany.
At the time of its publication, Adorno’s critics were many, but it is safe to assume that the radical student movement and Soviet intellectuals like György Lukács are Adorno’s primary addressees. For both students and party theorists like Lukács, Adorno’s position on the relation of theory to praxis was simply untenable. Where they sought a fusion of theory and praxis that could guide a revolutionary politics, Adorno insisted upon the autonomy of theory and doubted the possibility of a liberatory politics. According to Adorno, theory and the theoretician are “sensitive and by no means unshakable instruments” (165), unfit to be subordinated to practical ends.
Adorno employs multiple styles of argumentation, interweaving both consequential and principled objections. On the one hand, Adorno argues that, as a matter of fact, the fusion of theory and praxis is highly unlikely to succeed. Citing the self-annihilation of the Soviet intelligentsia and the fascistic tendencies of the student movement, Adorno holds that the juggernaut of praxis will crush the subtleties of theory. On the other, he argues that only unconstrained, and often deeply impractical, thought can be considered truly critical. Thought constrained by consideration of the practical represents a concession to the “wrong life” of the given historical moment: “within absolutized praxis, only reaction is possible and for this reason the reaction is false” (167).
Drawing out the implications of this characterization of critical thought, Adorno turns his critics’ charge of “resignation” on its head, arguing that they, not he, are the ones who have resigned themselves to the status quo. Without disputing the accusation that he has chosen a path astray from any positive political program, Adorno reverses the value of practicality. Practicality is suspect, a mark of thought potentially stunted by the totality of wrong life. One is left with two options: either revise and redact the theoretical positions of critical theory in order to give it purchase on the given situation, or forgo such purchase in favor of veracity and theoretical insight. Adorno transforms the latter into the only possibility against resignation. Only a dogged apraxis, unfiltered by practical demands, is capable of truly resisting the totalizing state of late capitalism. Any capitulation to the practical is already an expression of resignation.
While this argument is largely developed elsewhere (namely, Minima Moralia and Negative Dialectics), Adorno adumbrates the power of critical, “open thinking” (168) and refusal against the demands of practicality. Of the numerous facets of this argument, the most relevant refract the concepts of criticality and thought itself. Under Adorno’s scrutiny, the pragmatic demand that critical theory be translated into effective political praxis becomes the true moment of resignation, a conservative demand to stifle the possibility of critical theory in the cage of the status quo. Adorno’s refusal to limit or revise the demands of critical theory in order to fit it to practical demands, and the admission of helplessness which that entails, is the true act of radical resistance. The sorrow and helplessness of the blocked, impracticable demand both articulates and performs what is true—what we rightly desire is often impossible. It is pure ideology to blame this on theory, not the limits of the historical moment.
Extrapolating from the particularities of Adorno’s place in postwar Germany, we can draw a few insights into critical thought and its relation to practicality. First, we should be wary of debates framed by the presupposition that effective action is possible or that progress is inevitable. If Adorno’s diagnosis of society is correct, his suspicion of efficacious political action, especially personal activity, cannot be dismissed out of hand. It is possible that the problems we now face are not ones on the scale of individual actors, and to assume otherwise is to only integrate ourselves further into and obscure the systems that we oppose. Adorno challenges us to reckon with the “cognition of [our] impotence” (167) and the precariousness of resistance. In a dialectical reversal, this reckoning, not the hardnosed realism of the vanguard or student movement, is the undeluded perspective: “the uncompromisingly critical thinker who neither superscribes his conscience nor permits himself to be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give up” (168).
Second, with typical prescience and attention to detail, Adorno relates the problem of critical thought to the manufacture of the “active life” of advertising and the cultural phenomenon of the do-it-yourself (DIY) lifestyle. Each, along with reactive political activism, represents a form of “pseudo-activity” that, rather than challenging the status quo, produces a “pseudo-reality” of false accomplishment and possibility. Given the rise of digital “activism” and the popularity of homesteading and DIY culture, which are often directly linked to conservative fantasies of self-sufficiency and freedom from the political, we have reason to heed his analysis. The active life sold by advertising and the celebration of self-sufficiency in the DIY movement reinforce the fantasy that we are effective agents, that we “are of central concern” (167). We are encouraged, in our economic consumption, cultivation of household projects and hobbies, and symbolic political participation in digital petitions, to ignore our own impotence. How impotent can we really be when we are taking part in so much?
However, and this is often overlooked, Adorno did not personally reject political action tout court, and his arguments in “Resignation” do not necessitate such a rejection. Adorno’s final years in postwar Germany were dominated by political and social engagements that actively limited his ability to work on arguably his most important works—Aesthetic Theory and Negative Dialectics. While Adorno’s own estimation of his political work is outside the scope of this discussion, it is clear that he saw a way of engaging politically without compromising the delicate autonomy he reserved for theory and himself, the theorist. Rather than cynically reject the possibility of action, the dialectical balance of Adorno’s theory and biography model a way of acting without lapsing into delusional optimism. Adorno’s argument is not one for political inaction; it is an argument against conflating the imperfect demands of political action with the uncompromising veracity of critical thought.
1. Cf. Adorno’s essay “Reconciliation Under Duress” for his critique of Lukács. Adorno blames the decline of Lukács’s philosophic insight to his dogmatic assimilation into the Soviet Party.
2. Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), p. 463.