ND Reading Guide
ND Reading Guide


OK, so you're sold on the virtues of Negative Dialectics, have the translation in hand, and want to plunge into the text. What follows are capsule summaries of what each section does; each link leads to a general run-down of each section of the text, with selected quotes from Adorno highlighted in yellow, accompanied by analyses for each section (about 4-6 pages of material on average). If you're teaching this text or using it for a discussion, feel free to use any or all of this as informal notes or hand-outs to your students. If you find the material confusing or have questions about specific points, don't hesitate to email me and I'll try to get back to you within a week or so. Remember, there's no such thing as a stupid question, especially when it comes to Adorno, whose work is so complexly nuanced and complicated; often the best questions are the simplest ones, so don't hesitate to ask!

Introduction (pg 15-66) Adorno's first move is to lay out the case for a negative, a.k.a. multinational, dialectics. To do this, he works through the leading 20th century ideologies, ranging from logical positivism to logical absolutism, ontology, existentialism as well as engaging with several varieties of Marxism (Lukacs, Benjamin, Sartre, etc.), and of course American consumerism in its 1940-1965 phase.

I. The Ontological Need (pg 67-136). Before moving into the multinational future of monopoly capitalism, Adorno touches base with its neo-national past, via an in-depth critique of Heidegger and the ontological movements, as well as a diagnosis of the ontological need which drove the creation of the ontologies in the first place. This is important, because the ontological systems were the first mass-cultural spin-offs of the classical theoretical systems handed down by the 19th century. Though the ontologies weren't necessarily fascist in themselves, they were deeply authoritarian, and protested against the reification, massification and leveling of monopoly capitalism by an ugly conceptual xenophobia and denunciation of anything doesn't belong to one's own deeply repressive national community; this is why ontology preceded the Fascisms of the 1930s, and outlasted the military defeat of these movements. Adorno is particularly interested in identifying the ontological ideologies and thematics which continued to linger on the societies of monopoly capitalism in the 1950s.

II. Negative Dialectics: Concept and Categories (pg 137-208). This section outlines the basic categories and tools of a negative, a.k.a. multinational dialectics, ranging from tropes of demystification (dialectics of disassembly) to the Hegelian concepts of identity and the synthesis, which Adorno radicalizes via the concepts of non-identity and analysis, and finally to the constellation (multinational form) and the preponderance of the object (multinational content). Basically, this is the work-shop of ND, where he assembles his categories, pores through what's been achieved in the past, and sketches out where dialectics needs to go in the future, so if you're into pure cultural theory, this may be the best place to start.

III. Models. Metacritique of Pure Reason (pg 209-294). This section takes on one of capitalism's most devious and effective ideologies, that of freedom (variously coded as opportunity, individuality, innovation, etc.), and ties this in with a broad-ranging analysis of the Kantian antinomies and ethics in the context of the juridical and legal infrastructures of capitalism. Along the way, Adorno uses the insights gleaned therein to illuminate specific aspects of Hegel, Freud, and the 1950s existentialisms (including the early Sartre). After examining concepts ranging from the supplementary and ethical imperatives to the will and contemplation, he moves to the themes of historical causality and intelligibility, i.e. the utopian content of those infrastructures.

III. Models. World-Spirit and Natural History (pg 295-353). This section analyzes Hegel's notion of the world-spirit in the context of the antinomies of national identity, nationalism and imperialism, setting them in motion towards the Marxian categories of exchange-value, use-value, capital and accumulation. Simultaneously, Adorno disassembles Hegel's notion of universal history and the popular spirit, deploying the poles of social history and natural history to rethink the Marxian mode of production and the space of the world-market itself.

III. Models. Meditations on Metaphysics (pg 354-400). This last section, Adorno's most personal and simultaneously political statement (and it's a measure of Adorno's importance, that he grasped the significance of the fact that the personal is political, all the way back in the 1940s, in his magnificent work Minima Moralia, decades before its micropolitical praxis), sets the entire theoretical corpus of the 20th century in motion towards some new, post-national space of dialectics, organized around a group of new themes: genocide, death and dying, nihilism, waiting in vain, utopias of place and temporality, the Kantian block and intelligible world, transcendence and otherness, and finally the shadowy, phosphorescent realm of a multinational solidarity, gleaming in the distance like the pixel image of alien star-systems.