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New Left Review I/157, May-June 1986

Peter Dews

Adorno, Post-structuralism and the Critique of Identity

Over the past few years an awareness has begun to develop of the thematic affinities between the work of those recent French thinkers commonly grouped together under the label of ‘post-structuralism’, and the thought of the first-generation Frankfurt School, particularly that of Adorno. [*] An expanded version of this essay will be appearing next year in David Krell and David Wood, eds., The Return of Nietzsche, Routledge and Kegan Paul. Thanks to Peter Osborne for critical comments. Indeed, what is perhaps most surprising is that it should have taken so long for the interlocking of concerns between these two philosophical currents to be properly appreciated. Among the most prominent of such common preoccupations are: the illusory autonomy of the bourgeois subject, as exposed preeminently in the writings of Freud and Nietzsche; the oppressive functioning of scientific and technological reason, not least in its application to the social domain; the radicalizing potantial of modernist aesthetic experience; and—in the case of Adorno at least—the manner in which what are apparently the most marginal and fortuitous features of cultural artefacts reveal their most profound, and often unacknowledged, truths. Furthermore, these affinities have not merely been observed by outsiders, but are beginning to become part of the self-consciousness of participants in the two traditions themselves. Towards the end of his life, Michel Foucault admitted that he could have avoided many mistakes through an earlier reading of Critical Theory, and—in the last of several retrospective reconstructions of his intellectual itinerary—placed his own thought in a tradition concerned with the ‘ontology of actuality’, running from Kant and Hegel, via Nietzsche and Weber, to the Frankfurt School. [1] See ‘Structuralism and Post-structuralism: An Interview with Michel Foucault’, Telos 55, Spring 1983, p. 200, and ‘Un Cours Inédit’, in Magazine Littéraire, No. 207, May 1984. Similarly, Jean-François Lyotard has employed Adorno’s account of the decline of metaphysics and the turn to ‘micrology’ in order to illuminate—partly by parallel and partly by contrast—his own interpretation of postmodernity, [2] See Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Presentations’, in Alan Montefiore, ed., Philosophy in France Today, Cambridge 1983, pp. 201–204. while even Jacques Derrida, the least eclectic of recent French thinkers, has written appreciatively on Walter Benjamin, whose borderline position between the political and the mystical he clearly finds sympathetic. [3] See Jacques Derrida, La Vérité en Peinture, Paris 1978, pp. 200–9. On the other side, contemporary German inheritors of the Frankfurt School, including Habermas himself, have begun to explore the internal landscape of post-structuralism, and to assess the points of intersection and divergence with their own tradition. [4] Axel Honneth, Kritik der Macht, Frankfurt 1982; Albrecht Wellmer, Zur Dialektik von Moderne und Postmoderne, Frankfurt 1985; Jürgen Habermas, Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne, Frankfurt, 1985.

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