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New Left Review I/200, July-August 1993

Theodor Adorno

Messages in a Bottle


Key people.—The self-important type who only thinks himself something when confirmed by the role he plays in collectives which are none, existing merely for the sake of collectivity; the delegate with the armband; the rapt speechmaker spicing his address with wholesome wit and prefacing his concluding remark with a wistful ‘Would that it were’; the charity vulture and the professor hastening from one congress to the next—they all once called forth the laughter befitting the naive, provincial and petty-bourgeois. Now the resemblance to the nineteenth-century satire has been discarded; the principle has spread doggedly from the caricatures to the whole bourgeois class. Not only have its members been subjected to unflagging social control by competition and cooption in their professional life, their private life too has been absorbed by the reified formations to which interpersonal relations have congealed. The reasons, to start with, are crudely material: only by proclaiming assent through laudable service to the community as it is, by admission to a recognized group, be it merely a freemasonry degenerated to a skittles club, do you earn the trust that pays off in a catch of customers and clients and the award of sinecures. The substantial citizen does not qualify merely by bank credit or even by dues to his organizations; he must donate his life-blood and the free time left over from the larceny business, as chairman or treasurer of committees he was half drawn to as he half succumbed. No hope is left to him but the obligatory tribute in the club circular when his heart attack catches him up. Not to be a member of anything is to arouse suspicion: when seeking naturalization, you are expressly asked to list your memberships. This, however, rationalized as the individual’s willingness to cast off his egoism and dedicate himself to a whole which is really no more than the universal objectification of egoism, is reflected in people’s behaviour. Powerless in an overwhelming society, the individual experiences himself only as socially mediated. The institutions made by people are thus additionally fetishized: since subjects have known themselves only as exponents of institutions, these have acquired the aspect of something divinely ordained. You feel yourself to the marrow a doctor’s wife, a member of a faculty, a chairman of the committee of religious experts—I once heard a villain publicly use that phrase without raising a laugh—as one might in other times have felt oneself part of a family or tribe. You become once again in consciousness what you are in your being in any case. Compared to the illusion of the self-sufficient personality existing independently in the commodity society, such consciousness is truth. You really are no more than doctor’s wife, faculty member or religious expert. But the negative truth becomes a lie as positivity. The less functional sense the social division of labour has, the more stubbornly subjects cling to what social fatality has inflicted on them. Estrangement becomes closeness, dehumanization humanity, the extinguishing of the subject its confirmation. The socialization of human beings today perpetuates their asociality, while not allowing even the social misfit to pride himself on being human.

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Theodor Adorno, ‘Messages in a Bottle’, NLR I/200: £3

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