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
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
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
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.