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.footnote＊ 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
In the English-speaking world, it is the relation between the characteristic procedures of deconstruction developed by Derrida and the ‘negative dialectics’ of Adorno which has attracted the most attention: a common concern with the lability and historicity of language, a repudiation of foundationalism in philosophy, an awareness of the subterranean links between the metaphysics of identity and structures of domination, and a shared, tortuous love-hate relation to Hegel, seem to mark out these two thinkers as unwitting philosophical comrades-in-arms. However, up till now, the predominant tendency of such comparisons has been to present Adorno as a kind of deconstructionist avant la lettre.footnote5 The assumption has been that a more consistent pursuit of antimetaphysical themes, and by implication a more politically radical approach, can be found in the French Heideggerian than in the Frankfurt Marxist. It will be the fundamental contention of this essay that, for several interconnected reasons, this is a serious misunderstanding. Firstly, although there are undoubtedly elements in Adorno’s thought which anticipate Derridean themes, he has in many ways equally strong affinities with that mode of recent French thought which is usually known as the ‘philosophy of desire’. It is only the exaggeration of the constitutive role of the language in post-structuralism, it could be argued, and a corresponding antipathy—even on the intellectual Left—to the materialist emphases of Marxism, which have led to this aspect
In his 1973 essay on the painter Jacques Monory, Jean-François Lyotard makes significant use of the following tale from Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings:
In one of the volumes of the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses that appeared in Paris during the first half of the eighteenth century, Father Fontecchio of the Society of Jesus planned a study of the superstitions and misinformation of the common people of Canton; in the preliminary outline he noted that the Fish was a shifting and shining creature that nobody had ever caught but that many said they had glimpsed in the depths of mirrors. Father Fontecchio died in 1736, and the work begun by his pen remained unfinished; some 150 years later Herbert Allen Giles took up the interrupted task. According to Giles, belief in the Fish is part of a larger myth that goes back to the legendary times of the Yellow Emperor.
In those days the world of mirrors and the world of men were not, as they are now, cut off from each other. They were, besides, quite different; neither beings nor colours nor shapes were the same. Both kingdoms, the specular and the human, lived in harmony; you could come and go through mirrors. One night the mirror people invaded the earth. Their power was great, but at the end of bloody warfare the magic arts of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. He repulsed the invaders, imprisoned them in their mirrors, and forced on them the task of repeating, as though in a kind of dream, all the actions of men. He stripped them of their power and of their forms and reduced them to mere slavish reflections. Nonetheless, a day will come when the magic spell will be shaken off.
The first to awaken will be the Fish. Deep in the mirror we will perceive a very faint line and the colour of this line will be like no other colour. Later on, other shapes will begin to stir. Little by little they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. They will break through the barriers
of glass or metal and this time will not be defeated. Side by side with these mirror creatures, the creatures of water will join the battle.
In Yunnan, they do not speak of the Fish but of the Tiger of the Mirror. Others believe that in advance of the invasion we will hear from the depths of mirrors the clatter of weapons.footnote6
For Lyotard this story condenses a critique of the modern subject which he shares with the majority of post-structuralist thinkers. Subjectivity presupposes reflection, a representation of experience as that of an experiencing self. But through such representation, which depends upon the synthesizing function of concepts, the original fluidity of intuition, the communciation between the human and the specular world, is lost. Consciousness becomes a kind of self-contained theatre, divided between stage and auditorium: energy is transformed into the thought of energy, intensity into intentionality. Thus Lyotard writes that ‘Borges imagines these beings as forces, and this bar [the bar between representation and the represented] as a barrier; he imagines that the Emperor, the Despot in general, can only maintain his position on condition that he represses the monsters and keeps them on the other side of the transparent wall. The existence of the subject depends on this wall, on the enslavement of the fluid and lethal powers repressed on the other side, on the function of representing them.’footnote7