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The Dynamic of Play and Horror in Adorno's Philosophy

Dynamic of Play and Horror in Adorno's Philosophy
Bence Józsua Kun(Autor*in)
De Gruyter (Verlag)
1. Auflage
Erschienen am 4. Oktober 2023
VII, 172 Seiten
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978-3-11-126859-0 (ISBN)
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Long before Wittgenstein drew attention to its complexities, the concept of play had captured the interest of theorists for millennia. How do games contribute to our knowledge of the world? Wherein lies their universal appeal? Play is usually associated with a certain blitheness and buoyancy - could it nevertheless be argued that playfulness is not quite as innocent as it might seem?

Bence Kun draws on Adorno's writings to explore the relation between philosophical play (understood here as imaginative thought as well as experimental expression) and an experience of dread Adorno links to children's first encounter with death. By investigating his less familiar works, some of which have not yet been translated, Kun challenges the received view on Adorno's approach to metaphysics, the role of systematic inquiry and the modern condition. As he has Adorno say, the originary impression of shock at the heart of philosophical reflection can only be fully apprehended through an open-ended and defiantly creative intellectual practice.

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Bence Józsua Kun, Budapest, Hungary.

Chapter II - 'Something is wrong.' Elements of a theory of deformation in Adorno

- The concept is fused with untruth, with the oppressive principle, thus lessening even the dignity of its epistemological criticism.

Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 48.

This chapter offers a brief look into Adorno's critique of modernity, with an emphasis on his theory of identity thinking in post-Kantian philosophy. The concluding sections introduce the concept of deformation and establish a unifying thread for the subsequent discussion.

Their different evaluative commitments notwithstanding, Adorno's preoccupation with the crisis of contemporary culture is a shared focus of scholarly investigations into his work.43 As outlined in his collaborative essay with Horkheimer, Adorno's analysis of modernity pivots around the question of how Enlightenment rationality, which Condorcet hoped would lead to 'the perfection of the human species',44 nevertheless reverts to oppressive tendencies.45 Notably, he asks how this is enacted in seemingly unrelated behaviours and intellectual domains.

To begin with, Adorno observes that scientific modelling is increasingly taken to convey evidently valid information about reality, instead of being seen as a context-sensitive instrument meant to produce falsifiable knowledge claims.46 Since facts 'speak for themselves', interpretation is relegated to an auxiliary role to data mining, and the researcher is regarded as an arbiter of truth as opposed to an inherently biased inquirer with uneven skills and idiosyncratic interests. Consequently, scientific discovery becomes more and more path-dependent, and compliance with the results is enforced as a matter of protocol.47 In the same spirit, feedback mechanisms like peer review are used to reaffirm rather than scrutinise existing hypotheses.48

Following Adorno, this is cemented by an educational system that promotes conformity and penalises critical thought.49 In his account, students are trained to suppress novel perspectives in favour of rote memorisation and disciplinary assignments. He also notes that standards-based testing often serves to exclude supposedly impractical speculative approaches, not to determine potential areas of improvement. As such, schools develop a labour force equipped to handle specialised tasks without however providing a frame of reference to understand their overall purpose.50

At the same time, he argues against instituting humanistic values as the ethical foundation for learning,51 since they have proven to be demonstrably untenable in their failure to stop the violent conflicts of the century. He contends that the concinnity of truth, beauty and morality described in Romantic authors and the aesthetic anthropologies of the Enlightenment52 can no longer be taken for granted, yet questions whether it can be replaced by an equally substantial grounding principle.

In place of traditional 'Bildung', the task of shaping the public mind is gradually taken over by what Adorno calls the culture industry, commercial broadcasting in particular.53 The term is intended to be contradictory insofar as the intellectual products distributed via mass media resemble manufactured goods rather than creative ideas. As he asserts, the culture industry offers the semblance of lived experience without actual encounters, as if the spectators participated in the events presented to them and discovered a moral takeaway applicable to their respective situation.54 This has at least two effects. First, it generates a pseudo-community of consumers ostensibly united by their familiarity with similar tropes and stories, but in fact separated by a lack of dynamic interactions and physical intimacy. Second, it imposes norms and delineates acceptable behaviours by means of emotional manipulation, without exerting direct pressure.55 In short, it appears to cultivate character while obstructing informed opinion and instilling a false sense of security.

What is more, immersion in the artificial milieu of popular culture facilitates the subject's detachment from both the natural and the built environment. Regarding the former, the most common attitudes are exploitation and reverence: nature is either treated as a resource to be harvested with radically invasive practices, or anthropomorphised as a transcendental entity with its own volition in a manner reminiscent of magical thinking.56 For Adorno, neither of these conceptions do justice to the mutually determining relationship between human agency and the organic world.57

Regarding the latter, the individual relies on increasingly complex technologies he has little insight into or control over. Though these automated systems promise comfort and an improved quality of life, how they function is largely unknown, which causes us to lose touch with our everyday surroundings.58 Because the machinery regulating our ordinary interactions seems strange or confusing, we are inclined to seek consolation in displacement activities and anxiety-reducing habits, or withdraw to the fake companionship afforded by televised series, magazines and the like. In addition, Adorno warns that the resulting disengagement makes us susceptible to authoritarian beliefs and a general hostility towards change.59

Insofar as man is inextricably part of the natural world, the control mechanisms through which he keeps nature in check impose limits on his own choices and character as well.60 Following Adorno, these regulatory structures, while meant to ensure the individual's safety from an overwhelmingly hostile environment, reinforce functional tensions between his various social capacities, including his role as a citizen, parent, officiary and the like.61 The artificial separation of such spheres makes it easier to delegate personal responsibility to 'faceless' institutions and dehumanize ideological opponents. Adorno and Horkheimer examine how these factors contribute to the emergence of violent mass politics in their essay on the culture industry and the 'Elements of Anti-Semitism.'62

Based on this cursory sketch alone, Adorno's attempt to grapple with a post-metaphysical condition echoes more conservative interpretations by writers such as T. S. Eliot, Chesterton, Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset.63 While these parallels are justified, Adorno's framework is in some ways more subtle.

For one, his dialectical approach leads him to detect tensions or 'contradictions' in apparently uncomplicated situations, which he believes attest to inconsistencies in the norms and values defining modern life.64 Indeed, he problematises perfunctory phenomena so as to reveal the ideological context they are embedded in.65 As an example, he points out how indulging in 'healthy' sexual intercourse as a form of physical exercise takes away 'its actual spiciness',66 the erotic fulfilment that arises from exploring different modes of pleasure and experiencing the intensity of desire. Accordingly, the liberal imprimatur on safe sex as an acceptable pastime deprives it of an essential quality, paradoxically reflecting our continued misgivings about base bodily functions. At his best, Adorno does not rely on external criteria to ascertain these concealed tensions, but evaluates an action or set of circumstances on its own terms, showing how it falls short of its stated purpose.

Another feature that sets Adorno's critique apart is his notion of identity thinking and its role in exchange societies. Given its philosophical import, I will consider this question separately.

II.1 Adorno's critique of identity thinking

Though Bernstein, Thyen, Silberbusch, and Fischbach67 note that the problem of identity and non-identity is central to Adorno, there is no consensus on what exactly 'identity thinking' entails. Since Adorno introduces the notion in a variety of contexts including discussions on technology, art, nature and intellectual history without clarifying how the core idea obtains in each domain, expository readings tend to be selective.

Most frequently, secondary sources depict identity thinking as the common link in Adorno's critique of idealism.68 Following this explanation, it refers to the identity of concept and thing, or rather the assumption that it is unreasonable to posit aspects of real entities which exceed our capacity to conceive them. Positively put, it indicates that it is possible to entirely determine any state-of-affairs through appropriate concepts applied by a rational agent, a premise Adorno contests. By contrast, a minority of interpreters69 focus on how Adorno deploys the notion to challenge the primacy of types or taxa in organising...

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