Against Individualism: a Review of Theodore Adorno’s Essay “On Subject & Object”

Army

This is the second “homework” essay that I’ve written in connection with a course on critical theory that I’m taking at The People’s Forum in New York City. As I mentioned last week, the course is taught by Stanley Aronowitz and is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.”

This week’s reading, our second from Theodore Adorno was entitled simply “On Subject and Object.” It was extremely abstract and difficult to understand. So, during the class I proposed the following question for Stanley. I said,

“I truly admire Adorno’s brilliance. And I appreciate how spending hours trying to decipher his meaning can yield a satisfaction and kind of pleasure for intellectuals who enjoy solving world-puzzles. In addition, I recognized that the expenditure of such time and effort can certainly lead one to think more deeply and to appropriate insights that might not emerge from grappling with more easily understandable prose.

However, who besides the intellectuals just mentioned can suffer these texts? Who, besides the exceedingly few, has the energy to endure them? Their ideas are obscured, not clarified, by references, vocabulary, and tone that comes off as pretentious, elite and even obscurantist.

If they are truly interested in world-changing praxis (as critical theorists claim) why write like this, rather than in a more accessible manner?”

Stanley’s response to me was direct. He said, “The text is so difficult because Adorno is writing for me, not for you.” He went on to explain that our author was actually quite adept at writing for ordinary people in very engaging ways. Adorno frequently spoke on the radio during the 1930s, and was very popular. However, when authoring essays like “On Subject and Object,” his audience turned out to be philosophers familiar with the entire works of Kant, Heidegger, Hegel, Freud, Marx, and others. Stanley himself falls into that category — I, not so much. Hence my difficulties and those of my classmates.

In any case, and for what it’s worth, here is my attempt to “translate” into concrete language what I understood from grappling with this Adorno text myself.
______________________________________________________________

The Need for Greater Objectivity
(A review of Adorno’s “On Subject and Object”)

In our contemporary culture, the forces of capitalism, advertising, and consumption all lionize individualism. Standing out from the crowd, doing-your own thing, and writing your own story are sold as paramount forms of being human. Outside one’s own family, any kind of collectivism is perceived as a threat.

Even the military claims to be a vehicle empowering enlistees to “be all that you can be.” In the end, however, those who sign up inevitably discover that all the army allows them to be are pawns whose highest aspiration is not individual development, but reduction to sameness, conformity, and blind obedience in the service of an organization whose main purpose turns out to be killing and breaking things.

Apparently, it’s the same for everyone. In psychological terms, those the culture has encouraged to be autonomous subjects – whatever their line of work – are reduced to objects not only on the job, but at home and even in their recreational activities. We all end up doing what we’re told within parameters that stifle (in Theodor Adorno’s words) pure spontaneity and originary apperception. That is, our systemic structures frustrate what we’re told is our absolutely dynamic principle (255).

But is that our fate as humans – universal objectification and individual frustration (247)? Why is it so difficult to be a subject and so easy to be reduced to object-hood?

In his essay “On Subject and Object,” Adorno takes up those questions. In short, his answer is, “Well, it’s complicated . . .” (245). You see, he argues, individualized subjectivity (as understood by the dominant culture) isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it leads to isolation, self-captivity and ultimately to the domination of others (246, 252, 257).

However, there is another form of subjectivity –one more authentic than encouraged by our culture – that recognizes a dialectical relationship between subjectivity and objectivity. Appropriating that subjectivity, so to speak, should be our life’s objective.

Moreover, being an object should not be entirely vilified. Ironically, and properly understood, it should be embraced as humankind’s salvation, as the prerequisite for achieving authentic subject-hood and the peace we all desire. To achieve peace, Adorno observes, the individual must selectively subordinate self to collective (247). In that dialectical process of on-going give-and-take between subjectivity and objectivity, lies our salvation.

In other words, “On Subject and Object” is written against the popular understanding of overriding individualism. Adorno’s basic argument is that the individual cannot be understood apart from society. This is because the individual is actually the product of society – and this according to the insights provided by linguistic analysis, evolutionary theory and biology, along with reflection on personal experience, philosophy, and, above all by critical theory.

Adorno considers those sources one-by-one.

• Language: Adorno begins his analysis linguistically. He points out that what we call “subject” is intelligible only in its relationship to “object.” Or more clearly put, the very terms “subject” or “individual” make sense only in relationship to humanity at large. Similarly, any reference to a particular person as such presupposes the concept of human species from which subjects distinguish themselves. Even personal names such as “Stanley” or “Michael” are employed to separate the individuals so-called from presupposed others. In other words, our very language reveals a dialectical relationship between individuals and society. The dialectic suggests that the collective is more important than generally recognized in our highly individualistic culture (245).
• Evolutionary biology supports that suggestion. Contrary to origin myths found in all cultures, human beings did not emerge full-fledged (246-247, 258). Rather (as works-in-progress) they developed gradually from lower forms of life. Even then, and for millennia, their primary identification remained with group, clan, or tribe (258). Only gradually did any concept of individual emerge. And only in the last few centuries, with the surfacing of capitalism – with the emergence of homo oeconomicus – did individualism and its ideological emphasis on subject become primary (248). Put otherwise, evolutionary biology testifies to the fact that any notion of subject contains within it a certain objectivity; deep down, it has a core of object (250). The subject was produced by the collective.
• Personal experience as a primary criterion of truth (252, 254) supports the relevant conclusions of evolutionary biology. For years in childhood and adolescence, none of us can really fend for ourselves, but are dependent for survival on family and tribe. Confronted by a hostile environment, human beings are much more ill-equipped to survive than other creatures. Instead, we require a kind of rudimentary social cooperation with others of our species even to defend ourselves from less developed counterparts. All of this signals a priority of species over individual subjects (258).
• Philosophy since the Enlightenment has obscured such primacy. The “Copernican turn” of Immanuel Kant emphasized human subjectivity as never before (251, 254). Till Kant, conventional wisdom typically imagined the process of knowledge as the result of a knowing subject confronting an object “out there” (246). For Kant, however, inborn categories of knowledge fundamentally shaped all objects perceived by the subject in question. In a sense, then, on Kant’s analysis, the human subject actively constituted reality (255).
• Critical Theory, however, along with the general sociology of knowledge has called Kant’s radical subjectivity into question. True: critical theorists (like Adorno himself) agree that human beings do in fact interpret reality according to subjective categories. However, those categories themselves are produced by society. Specifically, and increasingly since the middle of the 18th century, they have been manufactured by capitalist ideology (248, 250-254). That ideology has deformed humans into individual subjects pure and simple. On the one hand, it has made them captives within themselves (252, 257). On the other, it has set them against the collective as they seek to impose their sovereign wills upon the group (246). War is the unavoidable upshot.

Conclusion

Adorno is interested in peace, not war (247). Yes, he wants to affirm subjectivity, spontaneity and originary apperception as our absolutely dynamic principle. However, on his view, absolutizing the subject over-against the collective fetishistically reifies and deforms human beings (251). It sets them against each other and creates a tragic situation where it is indeed possible for army propagandists to convince the young that they can reach their highest potential by killing their brothers and sisters and by destroying the latter’s homes, schools, churches, hospitals and factories.

Only by de-emphasizing individual subjectivity, by recognizing the priority of human community, by retaining a dialectical understanding of subject’s relationship to object, and of individual to species, can such tragedy be averted.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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