we live in a society

(Notes on Adorno’s “Society.” Dedicated to my friends in the Adornotes reading group, or “Frankfurt School 2.” Thank you for keeping me sane this summer!)

Society cannot be defined. Adorno tells us that “society” falls under the category of concepts described by Nietzsche whose names denote processes, not objects, and therefore elude definition. In his Introduction to Dialectics lecture series, Adorno suggests that the refusal of definitions is essential for dialectical thinking, saying that natural scientists, lawyers, economists, and social scientists have yet to catch up with Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche—each of whom recognize that the use of definition in standard intellectual practice has a primarily affective function to provide us with a deceptive sense of security. Another Nietzschean insight: our definitions prove that we are still religious, even and especially in our science. The role of the dialectical critic (after this, just critic) is “to shatter the deceptive confidence of this faith in definitions” (Lecture 18). Adorno writes, “this refusal springs from the need to express the moment of non-identity here, the fact that the concept and thing [conceptualized] are not simply equivalent” (Lecture 2). For Adorno, immanent critique is the process of forcing a “constant confrontation” between the concept and the thing it is supposed to conceptualize until the concept is “convicted of its own inadequacy” (Ibid.). Through this process, concepts undergo development, rather than being either simply clarified or simply abandoned—or, at least, are subjected to maximal development until they can only be abandoned. But “society” is a concept that can neither be simply defined nor simply abandoned. It is one of those concepts which, Adorno writes, “effectively elude definition because they involve a historical content which cannot be reified or tied down” (Lecture 19). Yet, if we abandon the concept of society entirely to enumerate social facts, we will lose the capacity to explain how social facts themselves emerge, a problem Adorno diagnoses in facts-first sociology.

Adorno’s critique of sociology begins with the sociological platitude that “society” is a classificatory concept, or the highest level of sociological abstraction, “under which all lesser social forms would be ranged” (144). For Adorno, this apparently innocuous concept of society is open to immanent critique because it is an instance of pure identity-thinking, since sociologists “confuse the current scientific ideal […] with the very object of knowledge itself,” viz., society (144). The problem with this definition of “society” as a meta-sociological concept is that society is neither rationally continuous (like a Russian nesting doll of social forms each coinciding within a higher and containing a lower one) nor a universal umbrella under which all social particulars can be subsumed. But when Adorno refuses this definition, he does so by offering another one, with a functional definition of society as a totality in which everyone is dependent on everyone else, or a web of existential dependence. For Adorno, this functional definition resists (1) immediate apprehension (of society) and (2) empirical verification of the concept of society. What makes this definition strong is the way it precludes the treatment of society as just another fact. In other words, this definition consists in a problem for someone who thinks they’re familiar with the concept being defined rather than a solution, which makes it a true philosophical definition.

In his introduction to dialectics lectures, Adorno explains that the critic despises the vulgar use of definition—clarifying concepts to generate a false sense of security at the outset of an investigation—because it “violates what philosophy must achieve at the end by placing what can only be a result and a process right at the beginning” (Lecture 19). But these philosophical definitions which arrive at the end of an arduous investigation into the matter at hand are themselves provocations to a new investigation. Adorno uses Benjamin’s definition of ‘fate’ as an example, “the nexus of guilt among the living,” because (1) it will be of little help to anyone who is not already aware of some version of the concept “fate” and (2) it constitutes a problem for the person who confronts it, a problem that attracts/gathers different concepts of fate that person already has (e.g., moments of blind necessity, moments of menace, the interconnected character of events) around itself as they try to solve it (Ibid.). Adorno: “In other words, these definitions serve expressly to release the life that is already harboured in the concepts themselves, to release the power that is still preserved in them, to release these concepts as so many fields of force” (Ibid.). The purpose of philosophical definition is to create a problem that generates a magnetic field without arresting the movement of concepts. Only a philosophical definition is adequate to the task of rising above identity-thinking, or what Adorno calls the “reified” form of a definition, by compelling us to think in dynamic instead of static terms (Ibid.).

Adorno’s crucial insight in this essay is that society itself cannot be just another fact because society, as a whole, is exactly what determines the shape of all social facts (those which are verifiable by empirical sociology). This means we cannot “dismiss (society) as a mere philosophical survival” (145). If the concept of society is dismissed, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of free-floating social facts, each one as brute, ultimate, and indifferent as the last. For Marxists, this is a problem because it deprives us of our ability to explain the generation of social facts in the form of social conflict. Adorno’s example: it’s not just you who doesn’t get along with your boss and you don’t just find them disagreeable for personal reasons. Whether or not workers are satisfied by wages is a consequence of a price system and power differential between management and worker, both of which factors are determined by the structure of production (specifically, control of the means of production) in society as a whole. An Adornian maxim: never assign to the part that which belongs to the whole.  For Adorno, the relationship between part and whole (following Marx following Hegel) is one of mediation, which means that the whole (capitalist society) cannot exist without the elements (individuals, institutions, situations) it mediates in the same way that these elements can’t exist without the whole’s mediation of them. Put differently, it means that the social whole is the medium in which social elements exist and these social elements are themselves the medium in which the social whole exists. This dynamic of mutual mediation generates social facts. The Marxist shorthand for this process is totality. [1]

Another way of talking about this dynamic is through the idea of the laws of movement of society and the instances of their application. According to Adorno (again following Marx following Hegel), there are really laws operative at the level of the social whole which govern the interplay of social elements (again: individuals, institutions, ‘experiences,’ etc.). But as these laws are realized in different social situations (for example, the “iron law of wages” in boss vs employee power struggles), these laws are transformed. (Class struggle always happens somewhere, so naturally local outcomes of struggles between nameless bosses and employees over wages halfway around the world today can have an effect on how you’re paid tomorrow.) Society evolves as its laws are realized, and we can think of evolution here on the model of either punctuated equilibrium or gradualism as long as what’s clear is that society evolves only in qualitative breaks, whether in the form of social forces irrupting suddenly into our daily lives or those same forces conspiring behind our backs to erode away the conditions of normalcy. Either way, we are at hazard in the existence and evolution of society, which is why society cannot be just another fact and can only be theorized. However, we cannot theorize society like we do natural-scientific phenomena, since, Adorno says, “In the natural sciences theory represents a clear point of contact between well-defined concepts and repeatable experiments” (146). Society can neither be well-defined, since it has uniquely historical (or dynamic) content, nor be repeated as an experiment, since experiments can only reproduce phenomena that can be isolated under artificial conditions. Totality, or the dynamic of the social whole and social elements mediating one another, cannot be isolated in a lab or simulation. It can only be lived.

For Adorno, our theory of society can neither be objective, which would require us to stand outside of society and treat it as just another fact, nor be subjective, which would reduce society to anecdotal experience. The problem with society is its uniqueness as an object of inquiry, since it is not an object at all. Its uniqueness as an object of inquiry derives from our having to know it from both inside and outside simultaneously, with one foot in each, like the mythical image of Colossus of Rhodes straddling the harbor “over land and sea” twice. This is the necessary consequence of understanding society as the result of collective human activity with mostly unintended consequences that constrain future activity, or, in the words of Marx, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (The 18th Brumaire).

As a result, Adorno sets his sights on overcoming the dialectic between Weber (who over-rationalizes society into something utterly comprehensible) and Durkheim (who regards it as irrational and utterly incomprehensible) by occupying the borderlands between in- and-outside society “to comprehend the incomprehensible, [or] the advance of human beings into the inhuman” (147). Repeating this insight in the register of identification instead of comprehension, Adorno says society is neither something we can identify with (as in Dilthey) or recoil from as utterly alien to us (as in Durkheim). For Adorno, as for Lukács in History and Class Consciousness, each of these one-sided approaches fold into the other and trap us in the dialectic of bourgeois consciousness. The problem of identification (with society) forces its way into the foreground through our experience of rationalization, a concept I can try to give a properly philosophical definition to with the formula: the order coercively imposed on our lives in capitalist society for the sake of maintaining the anarchy of the market. Or, in Adorno’s own words, our society is “rational in its means not in its ends” (149). [2] Regardless of whether Adorno’s map of mid-20th century administered society (and his theory of monopoly capitalism and the culture industry) holds up in its entirety, at least one essential insight of his does: as rationalization imposes order on or re-orders some part of social life for the sake of maintaining the irrational anarchy of the market, we experience this contradiction of ordering for anarchy in the form of social antagonisms, or class struggle (149). Society tears itself apart as a matter of procedure in the process of rationalization and individuals interiorize this breach, caught between authoritarian impositions of social order and exposure to the chaos such impositions enable.

As Adorno notes, the concentration of capital into higher, rarefied strata of the ruling class worsens the separation of social power from social helplessness. The proletariat is increasingly vulnerable to the alternating cycles of order and disorder in a Manichaean social cosmos engineered by the administrative wing of the ruling class. This trend in the concentration of capital is registered at the level of individual experience as the underemployed are condemned to search for steady work: “Almost everyone knows from his own personal experience that his social existence can scarcely be said to have resulted from his own personal initiative; rather he has had to search for gaps, ‘openings,’ jobs from which to make a living, irrespective of what seems to him his own human possibilities or talents, should he indeed still have any kind of vague inkling of the latter” (150). This experience finds ideological expression in “The profoundly social-darwinistic notion of adaptation, borrowed from biology and applied to the so-called sciences of man in a normative manner,” which is further “transposed onto the relationship between nations, between the technically developed and underdeveloped countries” (150). This is Adorno at his most mobile, developing the way contradictions that structure the social whole contain, and are contained by in turn, the contradictions felt as existential struggle between capitalists in the competition of capitals, workers in competition for wages, and nations in competition for colonial surplus. But for sociology to become adequate to this dynamic of social totality, or the mutual dependence of the mediating whole and mediating elements, it would have to face the “terror from that theory which puts [social facts] in perspective and gives them their ultimate meaning” (148). The simplest way to rephrase Adorno’s complaint is to say that sociology needs to catch up with Marx before it claims to surpass him.

But totality doesn’t just elude sociologists. Even if, Adorno continues, the socially helpless can’t be deceived about the particulars of their class conflicts, the rationalization of social life in authoritarian impositions of order (and exposures to disorder) is supplemented by the culture industry—the marketing department of the administrative wing of the ruling class, or what used to be Hollywood. The culture industry arises as a solution to the capitalist problem of finding new markets by creating demographics of people who are groomed to consume certain kinds of commodities from birth and revel as adults in a world that seems to be made just to satisfy their needs. Adorno’s term for this is integration. In what he calls “a mockery of all the hopes of [Hegelian] philosophy, subject and object have attained ultimate reconciliation” in a “tireless intellectual reduplication of everything that is” (152). Along with Hegel, Leibniz is realized as well in the pre-established harmony between consumers and the brands, franchises, and extending cinematic universes they identify with, or the recurring characters they’ve developed deep, parasocial attachments to. What we call culture is fan-service.

Consequently, social production acquires a dual character in the 20th century, as mass-produced psyches find their niche in the social environment consuming mass-produced commodities. (Distinctions, ultimately superficial, between these niches come to the fore in the endless debates about conscious consumption.) The subject of capitalist society is split twice down the middle between, on the one hand, alternating impositions of authoritarian order and exposures to disorder, and on the other, between consciousness of their helpless position in the class struggle and the mirage of belonging to a world made for their needs. We could condense this insight by saying the function of mass media in capitalist society is supposed to serve as a replacement for your ability to make sense of having to live in an irrational society organized to maintain the anarchy of the market at the high existential cost of widespread social misery.  

So the problem is one of false consciousness, but the “socially necessary mirage which one ought to be able to break through” isn’t so easy to break (152). Here, Adorno is an orthodox Marxist, retaining Marx’s application of Feuerbach’s critique of God to the problem of capital: humans are governed by realities of their own making and illusions of their own design. The object of critique is to expose the social necessity of both the experience of class war and the mirages which offer pseudo-reconciliations between the socially helpless and the established hostility of the world to their capacity to flourish or, at the lower limit of immiseration, just survive. Don’t invite Adorno over to watch TV:

Where people think they are closest to things, as with television, delivered into their very living room, nearness is itself mediated through social distance, through great concentration of power. Nothing offers a more striking symbol for the fact that people’s lives, what they hold for the closest to them and the greatest reality, personal, maintained in being by them, actually receive their content in large measure from above. Private life is, more than we can imagine, mere re-privatization; the realities to which men hold have become unreal. “Life itself is a lifeless thing. (151)

When successful, critique exposes the social distance that conditions the production of the satisfactions you keep closest to you, or even clutch to for comfort during episodes of personal crisis. At its best, critique dislocates you from the center of the social universe, a Copernican revolution in miniature that substantiates your misery and discredits your support network of spooks.

According to Adorno, this provokes a defensive reaction from ruling class ideology, which, under the conditions of mass media production, has become a new common sense: if you’re going to complain, at least have something constructive to offer as an alternative. Adorno (rightly!) calls this censorship, refusing to provide positive suggestions for how the ruling classes can improve their administration of social life regardless of whether or not the ruling classes can accommodate these suggestions through reform. For Adorno, real criticism is too impatient to make transitional demands for the same reason that you don’t have to step onto a landmine to prove it’s live. All criticism can do is aspire to a kind of consciousness “without any preconceptions as to where it might lead” in order to create “the first condition for an ultimate break in society’s omnipotence” (153). In the end, it is enough for Adorno to say life is a lifeless thing. But in “Society,” Adorno’s dislocation is still incomplete. He was still too patient. It’s not enough to resist your niche. The end of critique—Marxist critique, at least—is the end of critique, when the weapon of criticism is realized by the class-ending class in criticism by weapons. The suffering of the critic can only be given social content in solidarity with the socially helpless against this lifeless thing we have called life.

[1] Reference to totality is what distinguishes the Marxist concept of character-masks from the sociological category of social roles. For Marx, the “roles” we play in different social contexts dramatize our position in the relations of production, or whether or not we own the means of production as capitalists or are forced to sell our labor-power on the market as proletarians. This means that the concept of “social roles” in sociology cannot be a transhistorical anthropological constant that applies as equally to Paleolithic social groupings as 21st century global market society. Marx arrives at the concept of character masks because he grabs hold of the phenomena of social roles from both sides—both as dependent on laws operating at the level of the social whole (the laws of capital accumulation) and through the elements (capitalists, proletarians, etc.) which those laws require to realize themselves. Thereby, Marx also historicizes the concept of “social roles,” which means we can understand that the concept cannot be a transhistorical lowest common denominator in society as such. Rather, for Adorno, Marx’s lesson is that “social roles” is an idea sociologists (who didn’t exist until modernity) have of modern society because they are bringing the real, historically bounded phenomenon—of capital becoming personified by social actors in character masks—into theoretical expression.

[2] The collective agents of rationalization are the (national, international, global) networks of administrators of the production process, in which public interest and private interest coincide and civil servant and company man lose their distinguishing characteristics, which constitute and oversee what Adorno calls administered society. Adorno’s complaint is not that production is administered collectively, but that the administration of production tends during the mid-20th century towards an expanding separation of those who administer and those who are administered in the production process. Rather than reifying this experience of alienation from the social forces that administer our lives into a transhistorical conflict between individual and society, the critic historicizes this experience of alienation by founding it in a dynamic concept of society instead of a static one. More interesting than the commonplace that administration, whenever it tries to become independent of its object of administration, becomes totalitarian is Adorno’s insight that this tendency of administration towards independence defeats itself through the figure of the expert. The expert, who is required to be rational for the sake of the irrationality of market society, is subject to rationalization to such a high degree in a deepening division of labor through career specialization that the expert becomes irrationally unique, or trivial, in their expertise. In this way, the end (goal) of specialization is the end (termination) of the specialist!

3 thoughts on “we live in a society

  1. Hi really enjoyed this post and the adorno essay which I hadn’t heard of before. Do you know were this essay is published or what book/collection its from?


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