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 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.footnote1 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,footnote2 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.footnote3 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.footnote4

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 of Adorno’s work being overlooked or underplayed. Secondly, from an Adornian perspective, it is precisely this lack of a materialist counterweight in Derrida’s thought, the absence of any account of the interrelation of consciousness and nature, particularly ‘inner nature’, which can be seen to have brought forth the equally one-sided reaction of the philosophy of desire. From such a standpoint, different post-structuralist thinkers appear as dealing, in an inevitably distorting isolation, with what are in fact aspects of a single complex of problems. Finally, Adorno’s concept of reconciliation, while far from immune to criticism, cannot be regarded as a simple ‘failure of nerve’ on his part, even less as an invitation to ‘totalitarianism’, to be contrasted with the harsher, less compromising vision of post-structuralism. It is rather the logical consequence of the attempt to think beyond a set of oppositions which—in their Nietzschean provenance—remain vulnerably brittle and abstract. In short, I hope to show, through an exploration of the central common theme of the critique of identity, that far from being merely a harbinger of post-structuralist and post-modernist styles of thought, Adorno offers us some of the conceptual tools with which to move beyond what is increasingly coming to appear, not least in France itself, as a selfdestructively indiscriminate, and politically ambiguous, assault on the structures of rationality and modernity in toto.

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

This protest at the coercive unification implied by the notion of a self-conscious, self-identical subject is—of course—one of the central themes of post-structuralism. It occurs, in a formulation very close to that of Lyotard, in works such as the Anti-Oedipus of Deleuze and Guattari, in which the schizophrenic fragmentation of experience and loss of identity is celebrated as a liberation from the self forged by the Oedipus complex. But it can also be found, in a more oblique form, in the work of Michel Foucault. The models of enclosure and observation which Foucault explored throughout his career are, in a sense, historically specific, institutional embodiments of this conception of a consciousness imposing its order upon the disorderly manifold of impulse. This is clearest in the case of the Panopticon which Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish; but, in fact, as far back as Madness and Civilization, Foucault had analysed ‘the elaboration around and above madness of a kind of absolute subject which is wholly gaze, and which confers upon it the status of a pure object.’footnote8 Throughout his work the omnipresent look reduces alterity to identity.

Traditionally, within the sphere of philosophy, it is perhaps the stream of dialectical thought derived from Hegel which has most persistently opposed this rigidity of the classifying gaze. Hegel’s critique of the ‘philosophy of reflection’ is based on the view that any assumption abstracted from experience and taken to be fundamental must necessarily enter into contradiction with itself, including the assumption that subjectivity itself is something self-contained, isolated from and standing over against the object of knowledge. In Hegel’s conception experience consists in the shifting reciprocal determinations of subject and object, and culminates in an awareness that the very distinction between the two is valid only from a restricted standpoint. As early as his essay on the difference between the systems of Fichte and Schelling, Hegel had established this fundamental principle of his philosophizing. ‘The need of philosophy can satisfy itself,’ he writes, ‘by simply penetrating to the principle of nullifying all fixed oppositions and connecting the limited to the Absolute. This satisfaction found in the principle of absolute identity is characteristic of philosophy as such.’footnote9 However, as this quotation makes clear, the dialectical mobilization of the relation between subject and object in Hegel does not entail the abandonment of the principle of identity. Hence, for post-structuralist thought the reliance on an Absolute which relativizes and reveals the ‘reifying’ character of conceptual dissection, the operation of the understanding, results in an even more ineluctable form of coercion, since the movement from standpoint to standpoint is oriented towards a predetermined goal. The voyage of consciousness is undertaken only with a view to the treasure of experience which can be accumulated and brought home: the individual moments of the voyage are not enjoyed simply for themselves. This critique of Hegel is also, of course, implicitly or explicitly, a critique of Marxism, which is seen as attempting to coerce the plurality of social and political movements into a single unswerving dialectic of history.