Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity
Eric Oberle



Identity: Theory and Praxis

In 1966, when the German-Jewish philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno published Negative Dialectics, the volume was chiefly understood as a provocation. The book’s opening lines, proclaiming that philosophy “lived on because the moment of its actualization was missed,” invoked Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach in a way that seemed intended to aggravate. Conservatives read it as the confession of an unrepentant Communist. Radicals were perplexed by the inversion of the young Marx: if Marx’s original thesis had said “hitherto philosophy has merely interpreted the world, but the point is to change it,” Adorno the old Marxist seemed to insist that the day of revolutionary action was over, that nothing could be done but retreat into the academic fastnesses of philosophical abstraction.1

During the next three years, the Frankfurt student body interposed itself between Adorno’s words and his text, positing a different version of Marx’s Theses by seeking to transform critical theory into a mode of action. As protests against the Vietnam War and the social role of universities grew pitched, attendance in Adorno’s lectures became standing room only. His books came into high demand; his lectures on Kantian ethics, ontology, and the principles of sociology became meeting points for student radicals—and targets for student protests. The ironies compounded as the Institute for Social Research, rebuilt after the war adjacent to Frankfurt’s Goethe University with the help of American occupation funds, was occupied by protesters demanding a return to the Institute’s Marxian origins. Adorno, protective of the Institute yet sympathetic toward the students, continued to take the double stance suggested in Negative Dialectics, sharpening his criticism of the contemporary situation while denouncing the actionistic “Leather Jacket” wing of the student movement that favored direct—even blind—protest actions (and police provocations) over theoretical discussion.

Words became flesh during the spring semester of 1969, when Adorno’s lectures were regularly disrupted by protests. On April 22, two groups interrupted “The Introduction to the Dialectic.” The first group demanded that the lecture be converted to a teach-in. Calling on Adorno to submit a self-critique on the university’s (and his own) relation to authoritarian governance, they wrote on the chalkboard: “Whoever allows Adorno’s words to govern will live their whole lives under capitalism.” After Adorno assured this group that a lecture on dialectics might prove relevant, he resumed speaking, only to be interrupted again. This time, three leather-jacket-clad women stepped to the podium and, baring their breasts, showered him with rose petals and kisses. This “happening” proved to be Adorno’s last lecture. The rest of the semester was canceled; Adorno died of a heart attack a few months later.2

Left behind for publication was Adorno’s “Marginalia on Theory and Practice,” which, though replete with sympathetic gestures toward the student movement, was adamant about what he referred to as the non-identity of theory and practice. The Theses on Feuerbach, argued Adorno, did not teach the immediacy of action; rather, they showed that the desire for rebellion must never collapse meaningful politico-philosophical distinctions. The attempt to turn the celebrated “unity of theory and praxis” into a “simple identity” threatened, he argued, to turn dialectic into its opposite—authoritarian dogma, reactionary behavior, subjective self-contentment.3 To underscore the concrete political dangers of such false identities, “Marginalia” pointed to press reports that compared the action and protest doctrines of the extraparliamentary opposition (which later formed the kernel of the Green Party) to the (neo-Nazi) German Nationalist Party. To equate these movements was itself a form of reaction; yet students, their right-wing critics, and the liberal press were converging on actionism. Theories of action must not exploit or coerce identity, argued Adorno. They must heed differences among principles and contexts—among modes of activity, agency, and knowledge—and in this sense they were always in need of the work of theoretical reflection.

This book is the first part of a two-volume study reexamining Adorno’s life and theory in terms of the history of a central but neglected contribution of critical theory: the critique of the identity concept that Adorno articulated in the middle decades of the twentieth century but sought to refine up through the 1968–69 crisis. The concept of identity embraced by the students in the late 1960s was not Adorno’s starting point, yet he was far more engaged with the challenge of identity than the students understood. The notion that personal identity, action, and philosophy could become identical in politics, that self-making could be action and theory in one, crystallized in a new form in the 1960s. But it emerged out of a broad and loose discourse articulated from a host of sources reaching back to the origin of the modern period, and it was first explicitly theorized by Frankfurt philosophers and social thinkers in exile in America in the 1940s. The idea that every action in society is either an act of cooperation or one of protest emerged from a logical notion of identity rooted in philosophy; the idea that the baring of breasts could bring a halt to capitalist accumulation or the machinery of war had grown out of a vitalistic concept of personal identity and its ties to a notion of political culture. Together these notions were contributing to a new way of thinking about politics and the ideals of emancipation it strives for: the idea that “the personal is political,” and vice versa. Adorno was, during his American years, present at the creation of this new idea of personal identity, and he would develop it ex negativo in the course of the next twenty years, into the concept of non-identity at the center of Negative Dialectics.

If Adorno was, by the end of his life, in many respects thinking along with the protesters, he came at the concept of identity with a longer history and a different perspective. Adorno and the student protesters of the New Left agreed that identity posed a challenge to the politics of social structures and rational interests. Where Adorno differed with the students was in his insistence that identity, if it was to become an expansive concept, must also be a negative one. Throughout “Marginalia,” Adorno invoked the idea of identity in a logical sense to show that the collapsing of categorical differences is the first move in a brutalization of the intellect. He also, however, acknowledged the importance of identity in the subjective sense, speaking of how violence accompanies the formation of group identities.

Positing a parallel between thinking about alterity and respecting the rights of others, Adorno argued that deep within the tradition of modern selfhood there exists a desire toward having a self—an identity. This desire liberates. But its other side—negative identity, rooted in loss and woundedness that emerge from the trauma of alienation and self-consciousness—is not only always present but is prior: people first experience identity negatively. And identity has a history of actively willing the dissolution of the self into a collective identity, an unmediated relation in which thought is action, theory is practice, and violence is done to others to make them conform with the uncertain and weak self. If the twentieth century’s vision of achieving identity hoped to extend and radicalize the tradition of universal rights, Adorno sought to describe the shadow of this tradition, the weak link in its claim to self-grounding. Adorno’s proposition was that though identities of self and deed must be taken seriously, they must also be criticized and reconceptualized in terms of their history of truth and falsity. No identity is born pure; identities are always the result of a negation, a recoil from an unreconciled, unemancipated state. To think about non-identity is to think against the subject’s myth of self-creation and to consider the subject in a force field of negations, borrowings, and displacements. Doing so, ironically, might strengthen the subject. One could not understand nationalism or terrorism, liberation or domination, fascism or liberalism without addressing identity and negative identity together. Arguing dialectically, Adorno insisted that the negative side of identity—which looks like a side effect—is antecedent to every form of identity. Adorno came to think, however, that it was possible to work through identity as a form of retrograde self-consciousness and thus liberate identity from the fear that drives it.

This book offers a reconsideration of Adorno’s argument for the logical priority and emancipatory potential of negative identity. Taking seriously the possibility that Adorno’s negative approach to theorizing identity, though cut short by his early death, represented not only a challenge to the developing discourses of identity but also an important clarification and extension of them, this book seeks to accomplish two goals. First, by engaging with the history of Adorno’s intellectual development as a theorist of subjectivity, this book inquires into the historical and theoretical meaning of identity as a concept that has shaped the experience and interpretation of modern life since World War I. Second, it suggests that the language of negative identity, though only partly articulated at the time of Adorno’s death, offers a significant addition and refinement to the possibilities of theorizing identity. The history of positive identity is entwined with negative forms of identity: identity as racism, prejudice, ontologized conflict, and victim blaming in a world of mass-mediated subjectivities. Arguing that the dual-sided nature of identity has been latent within the concept, this book suggests that if one comes to terms with this history—if one learns to address identity in both its positive and negative forms—it is possible not only to develop a better analytical language of social subjectivity but also to imagine a new interdisciplinary social phenomenology based on a reinvigorated concept of objectivity.

Identity and Modern Freedom

The concept of identity has become so prevalent in contemporary discourse that it is difficult to measure its bounds. Historically, “identity” enjoyed its first success as an analytical term starting in the late 1950s, when Erik Erikson used it to describe the central psychological product of the process of maturation and self-development: subjects become subjects as they achieve a stable identity, and vice versa. This usage spread first gradually and then rapidly beyond the bounds of psychology and psychoanalysis, and “identity” became a political, philosophical, and cultural keyword that has reshaped the analysis of every social topic that touches on either the constative or performative dimensions of expression.4 A distillate of the modern logics of radical self-making, the language of subjective identity contains elements of the existentialist concept of authenticity; the psychoanalytic concept of egoity; the Romantic ideal of the expressive, infinite self; and nationalist and collectivist notions of self-making through cultural self-definition. Though a complex historical and sociotheoretical inheritance, the concept of identity has become so common, so deeply embedded in the discourse of politics, culture, and society, that it has become, at once, a universal answer and a universal problem. In the daily news, in the writing of historians, journalists, political theorists, philosophers, self-help therapists and security experts, it appears with such frequency that its usage attests simultaneously to its clarity and precision and to its impossible vagueness and imprecision.

Undoubtedly, identity’s ever-expanding usage is linked to changes in the concept of selfhood, attesting to a broadly held sense that the self is the only truly foundational concept in contemporary life. Identity plays an important role in answering the question “who am I?”—and not just as a matter of introspection but as a matter of professional or political self-understanding. When one speaks in the language of “as an X, I believe Y,” one is drawing on the fact that identity’s implied ontology reaches into fields of ethical and epistemological deliberation. Positive identity means, in broad strokes, that the question “who am I?” precedes and never fully leaves the discussion of questions of truth or obligation. Establishing a connection between a subjective ontology (who am I?) and questions of ethics (what should I do?) and knowledge (how do I know what I know?), identity presents itself at once as an organizing concept in an interdisciplinary discourse and as a postdisciplinary concept, a new master term that often preempts the need to negotiate the perspectives of different disciplines and different sources of authority. Embedded within this interlocking understanding is a logic of emancipation. In its ideal self-conception, to have an identity means to be awakened to who one is, and this awakening shapes subsequent questions of what one must do and of how one sees and knows the world. This emphatic form of subjective identity reveals its relation to the existentialist concept of authenticity, itself a secularized religious concept of faith directed at the self. To become aware of one’s identity is to become aware of the power of self-making, and this awareness divides the world into those who are authentic—who embrace their own identity—and those who seek or accept conformity.

The ethicist Christine Korsgaard offers an example of how the languages of identity have transformed the terms of political thought. Korsgaard uses the language of identity to solve an old dilemma in ethics that pitted Aristotle’s notion of public action against Kant’s notion of autonomy. For Korsgaard, to distinguish between “theoretical” and “practical” identity is to develop a postmetaphysical vocabulary of freedom, selfhood, and action that frames a much broader understanding of politics and personhood than was possible in either the Kantian or Aristotelian frameworks. Indeed, in many usages where Kant would have spoken of practical and theoretical reason, and thus an absolute divide between knowledge of the self and knowledge of the world, Korsgaard speaks of “practical identity” as a continuously unfolding chain of acts of meaningful self-constitution that includes

such things as roles and relationships, citizenship, memberships in ethnic or religious groups, causes, vocations, professions, and offices. It may be important to you that you are a human being, a woman or a man, a member of a certain profession, someone’s lover or friend, a citizen or an officer of the court, a feminist or an environmentalist, or whatever.5

Even in this short passage, one can sense how closely Korsgaard—for example, with her use of the pronoun “you” or the flippant existentialia of “or whatever”—wishes to cleave to the everyday language of self-determination and action. This is a hallmark of subjective identity, encapsulating the way the language of identity breaks down philosophy’s more strict (Kantian) divide between knowing and doing, between practical and theoretical knowledge. In this regard, Korsgaard reflects the absorption of a multivalent existentialism into the everyday language of identity, typifying the way that the modern synthesis of practical and theoretical “identity” implicitly expands the classical categories of citizenship to include many once-excluded dimensions of experience, including sexuality and gender, professional and interpersonal ethics, ethnic and religious affiliation. Offering a provocative synthesis of Kant and Aristotle, Korsgaard argues that human beings constitute themselves through actions that they understand to be self-making and world making at once. Human beings “deliberately decide what sorts of effects they wish to bring about in the world”; in so doing, each individual is “also deliberately deciding what sort of a cause [he or she] will be.”6

Though the identity concept’s articulation in the field of psychology and its roots in existentialism lead it to emphasize the individual, questions of being in identity have always been linked to questions of becoming, and the individual’s identity has been complexly linked to collective identities. The simple way to put this is that identity is seen as something given but also as something earned, accompanied by a (weaker) sense of obligation to recognize and foster identity in others. Erikson, whose concept of identity subsumed Freud’s notion of ego along with the entire domain of culture, saw identity not just as the product of the Oedipal drama—the logic of “identification with” the mother or father—but also as an ongoing series of struggles with conformity or rebellion, with science or religion, with one’s own industry or sense of inferiority. And this processual dimension of identity attests to the further fact that Erikson’s way of speaking about identity incorporated a deep—half-sociological, half-anthropological—sense of the psychological necessity of social affiliation. No one has an identity alone; the pursuit of identity is always already a kind of group or collective effort toward individuality. There is implied in Erikson’s thought—and in the language of identity as it has developed in the last decades—a productive struggle between individuality and group affiliation. At the outer edge, identity is the sui generis and it is a social law. On the one hand, individuals are imagined as needing to belong—to have group affiliations beyond themselves. On the other hand, individuals are imagined as creating unique identities out of these affiliations and personal judgments—as making necessary choices for determining their fidelity to themselves and, through that, gaining perspective on how to acknowledge the necessary difference in others as well. The coexistence of necessity and freedom points to a widely felt tension among exclusionary and exilic, uncoerced and free notions of identity and belonging.

The origins of the mereological (individual/group) tension in the concept of identity go back to the mid-twentieth century, and they map onto the twentieth century’s disciplinary unclarity about the relation between science, liberation, and progress. Midcentury discourses on identity, strongly informed by anthropological assumptions, typically attempted to resolve the question of why the supposedly universal need for identity had become so pressing in modernity by arguing that identity, though passively part of traditional societies, became an explicitly necessary goal of the individual only in modern societies. A little bit of Émile Durkheim’s mechanical solidarity trailed along, adding the suggestion that traditional societies tend to suppress individuality and foster collective responsibility and group solidarity, whereas modern societies tend to require individual autonomy while undercutting the communal resources that would make it possible.7 Yet typically such attempts at a historical anthropology of identity, far from overcoming this dilemma, only underscore the fact that the tension between the individual and collective forms of identity has been constitutive of the identity concept’s rise. Both Erikson and Korsgaard’s use of the term suggests that one creates a unique, individual identity largely by participating in and identifying with some larger community of shared meaning. Echoing the Tocquevillean logic of “liberal” or “free association,” identity language tends to imply a kind of pride of ownership: as one acquires an identity, one acquires a world of meaning along with the sorts of positive liberties that come with participation in a group. The triumph of this linguistic paradigm in the age of neoliberalism is itself remarkable. In Erikson’s psychological or Korsgaard’s moral-ethical version of identity, the notion that the individual needs to have an identity, and that society should do what it can to foster the emergence and expression of such an identity, indeed represents a kind of multicultural supplement to a whiggish-liberal conception of history and rational choice theory. The assumption that everything is getting gradually better, that individuals are becoming gradually more free, is reinforced by the idea that identity and culture represent new areas of expanding emancipation in a hierarchy of liberations. Just as the emergence of cultures (in the plural) signifies the liberation of groups otherwise suppressed by the power of the majority, so individuals gradually overcome oppression through the articulation of identities.

Part of the reason for the rising correlation between freedom and identity comes from the way the concept of identity has expanded the liberal language of rights by defining otherwise unpolitical—cultural—activity as political. Personal identity gains a public dimension as the effects of self-making are seen as extending outward from the individual into the larger culture.

The language of identity allows for an ethics of self-creation and for an ethics of recognition of others, but it also allows for a politics of the demonstrative refusal of recognition. If every act of identity making is potentially a political act, then the question of affiliation and the meaning of struggles for recognition can become richly complex, overlaying the expectation of a “thick” recognition of difference onto a “thin,” formal notion of legal equality. As the post–World War II world engaged in a successful struggle to remove forms of caste, racial, and sexual discrimination from de jure legal codes, the movement of history tended toward demands for recognition of otherwise marginalized forms of subjectivity. Redefining liberty in terms of expressive subjectivity, these new identity formations have not only broadened the meaning of liberation; they have also exposed the complexities within the discourses of freedom in ways that have made freedom seem incomplete, identity a more desirable solution.

The lexical graph from Google’s n-gram corroborates the conceptual story:8 identity has risen alongside the rise of culture, and the two together appear to be gradually absorbing the language of freedom as a means of expressing the meaning of individual liberation and of explaining the dynamics of group formation and social causality. The raw semantic drift toward the language of culture and identity correlates to a conscious post–World War II movement, one that intensified greatly in the 1960s, toward conceiving of a layer of freedom that unfolds according to individuals’ access to cultural particularity, their consciousness of and ability to participate in collective modes of identity.

Identity in the Shadow of Domination

The confrontation between Adorno and the students in the late 1960s prefigured the historical-conceptual expansion of identity. The students’ utopian anticipation of a transformation of the meaning of politics itself would be, at least in part, confirmed by the remarkable changes that occurred when identity entered into the public sphere in the form of movements for recognition of sexual, gender, ethnic, or racial identities. But though Adorno’s death in the middle of this confrontation cut short the full discussion, it is clear that Adorno identified not only the tension between individual and collective that would increasingly characterize discourses on identity in the last half century but also the challenges that would arise from this essential tension. In emphasizing the importance of a non-identity between the personal and collective forms of liberation—as well as among personal authority, professional or scientific authority, and state authority—Adorno was pointing to many of the problems involving the relation between group and individual identity that have become increasingly evident to theorists of the last decades. The mereology of identity includes the fact that sometimes the very thing that is liberating for the group is a burden for the individual, and vice versa; that personal and collective responsibility is often a shared burden; and that agreement on what defines a group often subtly exacerbates tensions within the group or the individual that fuel reactionary patterns of exclusion or conflict. As the concepts of personal and group identity have become routine ingredients of public life and discourse, these tensions have not disappeared but create problems whenever attempts to articulate matters of public responsibility have encountered the individual/collective divide.

A recent example of the problems that arise when identity is invoked as a principle of collective responsibility can be found in a speech given on February 2, 2015, by Joachim Gauck, president of the Federal Republic of Germany. Commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz, Gauck spoke to the Reichstag about the question of historical memory in post-reunification Germany. His assessment begins on an Adornian theme—with the idea that the “majority of Germans would like to forget about the Nazi past”—and unfolds into a discussion of how powerful the will to forget is in modern society. This part of Gauck’s speech is in fact a nod at the Institute for Social Research’s Gruppenexperiment, which studied German attitudes in 1955, a time when the perpetrators of the Holocaust were still alive. The study showed Germans seeking to deflect not just responsibility but memory, and not just memory but self-identification with the perpetrating group. As the speech builds, and Gauck connects the question of collective memory to problems of national self-consciousness, the references to the Institute’s work become more clear. Germans in the 1950s, Gauck argues, indeed thought of themselves as Germans almost exactly to the extent that they practiced the art of shifting blame for the Holocaust onto some external historical force or foreign group, whether by imagining themselves as powerless to influence public life, by fostering the myth that Germany was attacked first, by insisting that National Socialism “seized power” from without, or by denying that they or their fellows ever held fantasies of domination, revenge, or racial supremacy. Extending the 1955 argument that willful amnesia is an extension of the crime, Gauck insisted that the imperative to remember applied not just to those directly guilty, but also to those who became Germans with the so-called grace of late birth or those who, because they lived or were born in East Germany, imagined themselves to be antifascist by definition and thus to be free of guilt. Summarizing the duty of all Germans—even those born post-reunification—to reflect continuously on their national past, Gauck uttered the quotable subclause that inspired dozens of headlines: “there is no German identity without Auschwitz.”9

Gauck’s speech is sober, reflective, and responsible—and also not fully in control of its governing concept. His speech represents the best of what a head of state has said about how the experience of World War II must continue to shape the collective consciousness of globally engaged citizens regarding the problems of mass murder and genocide. Nonetheless, the statement comes across as strange and jarring. The reason for this is rooted deep in the logic of identity and its historical residues. The positive valence of the concept of identity—with all its unavoidable connotations of self-discovery, self-mastery, and futurity—sits oddly with the exhortation to take responsibility for the brutal objectification of selves in the Nazi era. The positivity of identity logic tends, as a principle of its own health and strength, to promulgate myths of self-making, to cultivate forgetfulness—and it tends to view notions of duty or weakness as useless or even harmful. Modern identity consciousness aligns with nationalism in wanting self-making without self-incrimination. Thus, though it was clearly the opposite of Gauck’s intention to characterize Auschwitz as an “achievement” of the Germans, his representation of Auschwitz as the foundation of German identity carries with it echoes of barbarians crowing over the corpses of their victims. The victims of Nazi mass murder surely did not die so that a coherent Germanness could thrive; yet the logic of the “making of identity” implies this, tending to define victims reductively as objects for the forging of the oppressor’s collective subjectivity. Lacking a language for the negativity of identity—for the ways selves are shaped through injuries to others that redound on the self—Gauck’s invocation of identity struggles not to reify mass murder into a life-or-death confrontation between dominant and subaltern groups. In the case of Nazism, this risks at the very least positing an essentiality to Germanness and Jewishness that reinforces the racially purified and historically falsified image of Germanness advanced by the Nazis themselves and that effaces the instrumental role that aggression played in the assertion of that identity. In drawing on the language of identity to articulate the ongoing responsibility of contemporary Germans for the crimes of their grandfathers, Gauck unintentionally demonstrates how weak and unstable identity in its national mode is at commemorating victims and taking responsibility for collective crimes.

It is ironic, here, that Gauck not only meant no harm in invoking identity—that he was seeking to be a responsible statesman—but that, in doing so, he was also invoking one of Adorno’s most celebrated lines, the pronouncement that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” Yet the fact that an attempt to use Adorno as a resource for twenty-first-century political discourse produced this awkward result is itself telling, on multiple levels. In shifting Adorno’s argument from poetry to identity, Gauck was seeking to ground an ethical negative historical consciousness in something that seems more proximal to the psyche than the expressive products of a national culture: “identity” seemed to modernize Adorno’s strictures for a generation less invested in verse. But Gauck unfortunately failed to see the relevance of the rest of Adorno’s sentence: “to engage in a cultural critique of the barbarity of culture [and point to poetry’s impossibility] . . . erodes even the insight and intelligence that pronounces it as such.”10 Adorno believed that lyric poetry had non-identity in its identity: it is—but also is not—a mode of collective expression. Cultures express—cultures create—themselves through their poetry; yet the power of lyric poetry derives from the fact that what is expressed is not the wholeness of the culture but the woundedness and woundability of the individual self, the fact that the relation between individual and collective always involves a dimension of injury. Adorno was therefore arguing that insofar as the connection between poetry and culture could be addressed, this must be done immanently and historically. In attempting to translate Adorno into the twenty-first century by addressing identity rather than culture, Gauck was making precisely the reduction Adorno sought to warn against. Adorno, at the end of his life, was exploring ways of countering the students’ vernacular language of identity with a negative approach to identity and philosophical non-identity. Gauck’s misunderstanding of how to apply Adorno’s ideas—and the distortion of the point he was attempting to make—indicates at once the need for just such a negative concept of identity as Adorno was exploring, and for a more precise vocabulary for this negativity and the social substance of non-identity.

This need is, perhaps, all the more palpable for the fact that Gauck’s attempt to deploy a critical construction of identity reverberates not only with the old action logic of the “cult of the deed,” the fascist obsession with unity and purity, but also with the more recent languages of “European identity” advanced by a new generation of right-wing activists explicitly opposed to the mandate of critical, historical self-examination. Already in the 1960s, Adorno worried that identity thinking favored the cultivation of social antipathies without objective responsibilities. By the twenty-first century this concern had proven predictive. Despite identity’s long-standing association with progressive causes, identity has become a favorite tool of right-wing and reactionary discourses. On both sides of the Atlantic, there have emerged religio- and ethno-nationalist identity movements that declare themselves spontaneous countermovements to left-wing identity politics. There is a Christian Identity movement in the United States that cultivates an “anti-Semitic and racist theology” designed to hasten an “end times” prophecy by (forcibly) returning the Jews to Israel, among other antigovernmental fantasies.11 In Europe, the Génération Identitaire movement seeks to purge the European Union member nations of foreign immigrants and their cultures and to reassert the ethnic roots of nationality. The leaders of these movements draw on the languages of identity and culture as wedge issues for mobilizing ressentiment, and they have become quite savvy at amplifying identitarian rage through social media and sensationalized news.12 When the language of existential danger is reinjected into identity discourse, a whole set of reactionary notions of encirclement, dilution, and “corruption from within” are reincorporated into languages of identity and culture that had been articulated as permanent replacements for the concept of race. When Geert Wilders and Renaud Camus, practitioners of this new right-wing identity discourse in Europe, speak the language of identity, they do so to stoke fears that the “white” race and its culture are “being replaced” by immigrants with a strong “settler mentality,” self-aware of their identity in a way that supposedly weak liberals have forgotten.13

One can observe that identity language is increasingly being used as a reactionary counterdiscourse espousing nationalist identity without accusing Gauck or other progressive advocates of culture and identity of being “essentially” reactionary. It is, however, clear that identity has become a treacherous and contested terrain. The discourse of identity as subjective liberation is shadowed by its vitiation of the language of objective historical reflection; identity’s utility in imagining new possibilities for freedom is complicated by its instrumentalization for the purposes of identifying enemies and inventing collective antagonisms. For this reason, it is useful to pay attention to Adorno’s original complaint, his insistence that it is incumbent on theory to distinguish more clearly among positive and negative, subjective and objective uses of identity within the non-identical fields of culture, society, psychology and law. Just as in 1958 Isaiah Berlin found it necessary to distinguish between “two types of liberty,” positive and negative, in order to understand the relation of liberty to concepts of law and the state, so it seems increasingly important to distinguish positive from negative identity in order to analyze its subjective and objective dynamics.14 Identity, far from being self-identical, is not one.

Positive and Negative Identity: Subject Becomes Object

This book argues that identity was born to be a more dialectical, interdisciplinary, and objective concept than what it has become. It argues furthermore that one can see the lineaments of an alternative history of identity in the critique of subjectivity, alterity, and racism articulated in the exile writings of Theodor Adorno. Adorno’s approach to psychology and sociology, epistemology and ontology, law and politics, an approach based on an understanding of the conflicted non-identities within all assertions of identity, holds untapped promise not just for the theory of domination and emancipation but for our understanding of the relation between individuality and public life, science and expression.

The narrow historical and linguistic claim for this argument has to do with the history of the word “identity” itself. Though Erik Erikson became the most celebrated promoter of the concept of identity, he had himself adopted the term “identity” from Erich Fromm’s 1941 international best-seller Escape from Freedom. This book was also an important starting point for Adorno. Having been Fromm’s junior colleague and rival at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, Adorno objected to what he saw as Fromm’s romanticization of unalienated subjectivity in the figure of the “Renaissance Man.” Rejecting this notion of identity, Adorno built his core critical ideas around a negative articulation of Fromm’s hopeful invocation of a self strong enough to resist the crushing power of capitalism and fascism. Starting with the assertion that investigation of the “I” needed to be accompanied by an investigation of the “not-I,” Adorno began to explore the implications of the idea that modern philosophy and social thought had ascribed too much power to the subject and to subjectivity and had not devoted enough effort to saying what subjectivity is not. Though Adorno’s engagement with this question began with—and crucially, never lost sight of—the political problem of how capitalism nurtures fascism within itself, Adorno’s analysis quickly went beyond the areas Fromm addressed. Adorno criticized all invocations of essential and pure origins, and he carried this critique over from the realm of political analysis to philosophy and the theory of science—to approaches to perspectival disciplinarity and logical non-identity. Startlingly, Adorno warned not only against the reactionary possibility of political arguments based in identity but also against any judgment grounded in the self rather than in the object:

There is a moment of content to the form itself, seen in the transcendent critique that sympathizes with authority before expressing any content. The expression “as a . . . , I . . . ,” in which one can insert any orientation, from dialectical materialism to Protestantism, is here symptomatic. Anyone who judges . . . by presuppositions that do not hold within that which is being judged behaves in a reactionary manner, even when he swears by progressive slogans.15

Rejecting the assumption that the subjective position from which an individual views an object grants a special authority, Adorno also discerned a similarly damaged relationship to the object in scientific discourses that claimed to produce objectivity by imposing the perspective of the discipline on the object of study. Out of this observation arose an interdisciplinary dialectic of the not-I that refused to take selfhood or objectivity for granted but saw the negation of selfhood as the beginning of both subjectivity and objectivity. Adorno, I argue, devoted his mature thought to understanding how sociological and psychological ideas of the self as actor had been grafted onto the core notions of epistemology and ontology, and his exploration of the fault lines and possibilities of this graft led Adorno to make his “negative” turn as a philosopher. This negative turn injected the language of the non-identical (Nichtidentität) into the analysis of every form of positivity—the assertoric and apodeictic, the constative and performative modes of identity assertion—while expanding the phenomenology of experience so that it could account for every element of objective coercion, from the categorical reduction of agency through instrumentality to the ascription of negatively binding labels of social roles and hierarchies.

The crucial term for the insights Adorno sought to achieve through his negative philosophy was “non-identity.” Cutting across his late work in logic, epistemology, sociology, and psychology, non-identity spoke in each case to a problem: the concept never exhausted its object; the clean lines of language and thought were always insufficient to the totalities and particularities of reality. Allegories and analogies, typologies and symbols, the categories and concepts of law and the sciences, failed to express their relation to things, and they concealed the failures in their naming. For Adorno, non-identity was at once a fundamental epistemological problem and a sweeping social and historical one: the rift between concept and object was always a scar, a remnant of the social histories of domination and instrumentalization that allowed the subject to make itself by forming its object. To read for non-identity was to trace out this history of injury and to become aware of the possibility of reversal: subject could become object, object could become subject—the dominant, the victim. Yet Adorno also believed that a full knowledge might take account of this insufficiency in the concept of self-sufficient subjectivity, that it might recover substantive knowledge through the analysis of apparent contradiction. If nature and art, according to Kant, open a window into the sublime by mapping out the limits of our understanding, so Adorno believed that the non-identical allows us to confront the conflict of the faculties and the social substance of the subject constituted by the forms of reason. To read along the cicatrix of non-identity was to discover epistemological value in the dialectical application of objective reason to constitutive subjectivity, and vice versa.

Non-identity is to Adorno’s philosophy what spirit was to G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy or being was to Heidegger’s: a keyword positioned at the center of a philosophical system, drawing together the central ideas of a lifetime of philosophical inquiry. Adorno’s non-identity has, however, received far less attention than these other concepts, either in terms of its unifying role in Adorno’s thought or in terms of its utility in relation to broader strains of twentieth- and twenty-first-century thought. Though a small but growing number of scholars have, for instance, recognized the relevance of the critique of non-identity to the concept of nature within the project of environmental studies, the possibility of developing an interdisciplinary inquiry connecting the problem of nature to the construction of the object in other disciplines or to problems of negativity in subjective identity has not been explored.16 There are several reasons for this relative neglect. One is that previous scholarship has misread Adorno’s interest in negativity as a form of psychological or historical pessimism. Another is that the term “non-identity” became dominant late in Adorno’s career, summarizing decades of work in which Adorno explored this idea in the languages of a range of disciplines, and that its function as a kind of keystone in the architecture of his thought was less clearly established than it might have been at the time of his death. The importance of this concept for developing a science of negativity—of negativity expressed in real human suffering and mastery—remains to be explored.

Drawing on the distinction between positive and negative liberty that first appeared not in Berlin’s essay but in Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, this book advances the distinction between positive and negative identity as a heuristic to elucidate how Adorno’s philosophical critique of non-identity emerged from his American years—from his work on defining the relation between authoritarian politics and racism. Just as the distinction between positive and negative liberty served Fromm and Berlin by providing a clarifying paraphrase of the Hegelian problem of political liberty from a subjective point of view, so the distinction between positive and negative identity can illuminate Adorno’s Hegelian approach to identity and its consequences for philosophy and sociology, for the idea of subjectivity and the history of domination. Hegel was a thinker of systems (social and logical) and of the subject as an expressive, autonomous being; he was also a theorist of liberty, slavery, and legitimate and illegitimate authority. Adorno, more than any previous Marxist thinker, was interested in defining how modern subjectivity—in both its positive and negative dimensions—was simultaneously autonomous, a creator of meaning, and dependent, enmeshed in a sphere of social reproduction. Adorno studied how forms of subjectivity mediate the broader systems of social domination, and vice versa, looking at how selves have their own inner dynamics that partly mediate and define social relations but also at how the bourgeois obsession with selfhood can occlude the ability to understand the social systems and forms of domination in which we live. Carrying on what Peter Gordon has called a “contestatory dialogue with the philosophers of bourgeois interiority,” Adorno developed a wide variety of terms for his project, whether through his calls for a “critique of identity,” his critique of the “jargon of authenticity,” or his interest in the “dialectics of the individual and the particular,” the “non-identity of thinking and being.”17 In proposing a distinction between positive and negative identity, this book seeks to show, first, how a concern for the negative dimensions of identity constituted a red thread in Adorno’s thought, and second, how Adorno’s approach to the negativity of identity can help resolve the kinds of problems that, as we have seen with the example of Gauck, increasingly present themselves when identity is invoked to mediate questions of knowledge and ethics, individual and collective responsibility, majority and minority rights.

To consider Adorno’s philosophical work in terms of the concept of negative identity is to recognize a challenge to the existing scholarship on the Frankfurt School. The literature on Adorno, still burdened by misunderstandings dating from the 1968–69 moment, has largely taken for granted that Adorno was hostile to the new philosophical concerns and social movements of the 1960s and has failed to connect Adorno’s critique of personality and identity to his exploration of logical and social negativity or to his understanding of the nature of social abstraction. The story is both more complicated and more interesting than that.

As I seek to show, recognizing that Adorno’s later critical theory shared a common starting point with the identity discourses that proliferated in the later twentieth century not only clarifies what remains at stake in an Adornian critique of identity, but also shows how Adorno’s work points toward the relevance of a critique of subjective identity for the theorization of interdisciplinary objectivity. Far from simply opposing identity, Adorno’s work can help us understand how the analysis of identity—as negative identity—needs to be extended into a theory of objectivity. The key to this exposition will be to pursue the origins of non-identity historically, in terms of its emergence from the methodological problems that a universalist encountered in studying the phantasms of racism as objective false consciousness. If Adorno did not live to articulate the full dimensions of what he called “non-identity,” the story of how experiences of negative identity compelled Adorno to address identity as a central problem of the twentieth century can help make clear how Adorno’s critique of fascism, anti-Semitism, and racism’s inverted constructions of the Other, developed in America, were not only integral to, but also the foundation of, his later, post-exile philosophical engagements.

A Century of Wounded Universality

If one approaches identity not as a subjective notion of freedom but as an objective fact, encoded in passports and identity cards as much as in the minds of the civil majority, positive identity shares a horrifying history with the modern state’s modes of exclusion. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, modeled on the Jim Crow laws of segregated post–Civil War America, outstripped their model by setting the stage for mass deportation and mass murder; but both of these racial laws imposed a binding negative identity upon their citizens. The aftermath of World War I and the attempt to develop new territorial nation-states out of old empires created millions of stateless and semi-stateless people whose only purchase on a universal identity took the form of a negation of their past. Depending on which side of the bayonet, machine gun, or barbed wire one stood, identity could appear in the twentieth century either as a kind of privilege or an unobtainable goal: such is the conclusion that one must draw if one views subjective non-identity in a coldly objective way. Though one can speculate as to whether expanded subjectivity itself fueled an expansion of alterity, the historical record reflects that in the twentieth century, forms of identity proliferated not just as part of liberation but as outgrowths of a century of violence and upheaval. From the growth of coercive group membership to the proliferation of forms of globalized collective subjectivity (involuntary and voluntary), identity expanded objectively and must be enumerated as one of the tools of authoritarian mass movements. It is an inescapable fact that millions of people were murdered in the twentieth century for “having identities” that were in fact imposed from without, and as many (perhaps more) identities were forged, ascribed, and coerced as were freely given, received, or embraced. Objectively speaking, the twentieth century made identities—made them optional and obligatory at once. Though the twentieth century did not invent the situation in which having the “right identity” could win one political or economic rights, it made negative identity as ubiquitous as identity itself.

When one thinks along with Adorno’s experience of the twentieth century, it is clear that he initially perceived these objective problems of negative identity as belonging to the historical past. Like many observers of European social democracy after the war, Adorno came of age with the expectation that as empires were dissolved by nation-states, and nation-states were absorbed by global capital, the role of economic, global forces in determining the shape of life would expand while the need to define one’s national or group identity would fade. One needed to define oneself as an individual, but not as a member of a group per se. It took hard experience to unseat this bias toward the global and teach Adorno’s generation that small details of heritage or historical experience could matter in relation to the forces of modernization. Born in Wilhelmine Germany in 1903 to a Jewish father and a Catholic-Italian mother, Adorno had a mixed identity: he was neither not Jewish nor not not-Jewish, and he was culturally and legally a German citizen until that citizenship was stripped from him by the Nazi government. During his middle years—from 1933 to the mid-1950s—Adorno lived in the United States, employed first as a researcher on music and mass media in the age of radio, later as a social scientist researching how anti-Semitism and racism developed in reaction to changes in both the economy and the personality structure of the individual. This process of research and emigration, which led to the publication in 1950 of the landmark Authoritarian Personality and culminated in Adorno’s return to Germany to teach philosophy and sociology in the mid-1950s, brought about a philosophical reevaluation amounting to a profound reversal in his thought.

Before coming to the United States in 1937, Adorno had a substantially complete theory of social causality, culture, and individual knowledge that one might describe as an Enlightenment universalism buttressed, at its crumbling edges, by a kind of modernist Jacobinism. He was an avant-garde aesthete, a Marxian system theorist, and a heterodox Kantian who stood opposed to subjectivistic and psychologistic theories of culture. Like other Marxists—and most Kantians—of Adorno’s generation, he did not accept the idea that people’s self-conceptions are pivotal for how history is made or how politics unfolds. Both of these traditions of universalism emphasized objectivity and law in a way that stood in stark contrast to the idea that individual subjective identifications with nationalities or groups are worthy of significant study because they can shape daily praxis. To take subjective identification seriously—even in a negative way—would require a significant reassessment of the philosophical and political traditions represented not just by the Frankfurt School but also by almost every movement associated broadly with the Left, with liberation. Instead, Adorno’s Kantian Marxism sought to advance the notion of “the rights of man” by riding out the tide of modernist self-consciousness as it unfolded alongside advancing production methods and an advancing division of labor. Marxian materialism intermingled with a Kantian belief in science and universal subjectivity, and with a Nietzschean and avant-garde belief that each individual needed to cultivate a critical intelligence capable of inverting the stupidities of mass culture and des idées reçues. In this mixture of philosophical values, two competing visions of a universalist relation between self and world stood in creative tension. The Marxian theory of human universality addressed the real-world difficulties of being an autonomous subject in the ideal Kantian sense, while the Nietzschean avant-gardism allowed Kantianism to be upheld as a negative utopia. Once one recognized the delusional quality of modern culture as an imposed master morality, one could preserve, philosophically, a model of how an ethical and rational self, undamaged by the world, might behave if only he or she were allowed to do so. Adorno’s Marxism of the 1930s combined utopian and avant-gardist moments, yielding a kind of aestheticized radicalism in which the imperative to repair the world struggled against a sense of the impossibility of doing so. This view of damaged universalism imagined a productive community of cultural as well as material production, in which all individuals might someday receive as much cultural investment in them as they placed in the production of goods.

America challenged and changed this antisubjective universalism, and in the most interesting way: Adorno pushed subjectivism back upon itself, becoming an innovative theorist of identity’s roots in alterity and Otherness, prejudice and racism. To understand how this happened is to understand how Adorno accepted, with modifications, not just one idea but a host of interconnected concepts to whose implications he was deeply opposed. If Adorno arrived in America believing that his goal was to develop an objective, Marxian social science, his understanding both of objectivity and of his role as a researcher ran headlong into America’s culture and academic research system. Inside and outside the university, Adorno encountered variations on the themes of cultural relativism and social adaptation. Grateful as he was, as an émigré, to the nation that figured on the world stage as the last bastion of freedom, Adorno could not understand how the Americans, with their narrowly instrumental approach to objectivity and their Pragmatist tendency to equate truth with success, could mount any successful defense against the fascist ideologies from which Adorno had fled. The conflict between Adorno’s idealist and social universality and the American celebration of relativism and cultural particularity would shape not only his experience of exile but also the approach to philosophy and the social sciences with which he would return to Germany. His first and dominant reaction to American social science was to seek to defend universality (both in its subjective and objective dimensions) against all attempts at relativist definition. This seemed to Adorno the only theoretically rigorous way to fend off attempts to legitimize race and national particularity as objects of scientific inquiry. It was in Adorno’s second reaction that the experience of exile began to reshape theory. Instead of viewing historical and scientific knowledge as a matter of aligning the subjectivity of the inquirer with the universality within the object of inquiry, Adorno began to ask what happened when that objectivity or subjectivity had already been distorted by relations of domination. Just as exile turned subjects into objects and distorted the category of subjectivity, so, too, domination could distort science and perception in ways that only a self-reflexive and reciprocally self-conscious science—a dialectical science—could address. Once Adorno came to see things this way, his heterodox Marxianism and Kantianism entered a new phase, in which he theorized how modern society necessarily “produced” victims and tyrants, how it created narratives of domination and control in order to deflect insight into exploitation and inequality.

The key discovery in the history of negative identity came about at a moment of confluence of different research agendas and historical circumstances. This was in the 1944–45 moment, in which Adorno and Max Horkheimer realized that twentieth-century anti-Semitism was far more than hatred of the Jews or even just a peculiar European hybrid of garden-variety racism. Anti-Semitism—particularly the generative anti or negative part of it—was in fact a new “populist metaphysics” that sought nothing less than the reorganization of selfhood and religion, nations and states. Independent of the presence of actual Jews, modern mass-mediated anti-Semitism was an attack on political rationality and its narratives of emancipation and redemption. The key logic to anti-Semitism involved displacing the idea of the universal onto a polarized field of negative and positive subjectivity on which complex maneuvers of victim identification and victim blaming could be carried out. The importance of Jews, within this logic, was largely symbolic. Jews could be used to stand in for the decreasing social control individuals felt over their lives. Historical reasons of course made the propagandistic imagery of the Jews particularly well suited for creating, in a moment of world economic crisis, an inverted image of the world spirit out of the negative identity of Jews. The Jewish historical “double nature” as weak and strong, pariah and parvenu, was congruent with the need to personify the historical forces that were mandating an ever-more-advanced division of labor, an ever-more-forceful separation of mental and manual labor within the individual, and an ever-more-distanced relation between individuals and the forces that governed them.

Dialectic of Enlightenment’s stunning 1945 pronouncement that true “anti-Semites no longer exist” emerged out of this analysis of the objective power of negative identity in the bourgeois past and neoliberal future. Anti-Semitism was the prototypic, European form of a more general anti-subjectivist pseudo-subjectivism—a scaffold of projection that could be recast into any kind of racism, sexism, or negative identity as needed by circumstance. More importantly, the pure negative construction of identity—based on victim blaming, projection, and ascription of secret control—could find fertile ground anywhere in the modern world, because the prevalent demand of capitalist consumption and production had embedded within itself a kind of impossible individualism—one that places no limits on demands of self-redefinition. Every consumer good, every quantum of labor is stamped with the ideology that the self made it, formed it, and can enjoy it in its entirety: this subjectivism masks the objective domination of labor and nature. This redefinition of selfhood was not without its emancipatory dimension; but the point, for Adorno and Horkheimer, was that the inverted Kantianism of modernity had become an invisible factor of production. To survive and thrive, individuals were expected to distinguish themselves as autonomous, as laws unto themselves in a world governed by forces beyond their control. And everyone knew that if they failed to achieve autonomy, they would be devoured by the “antagonistic whole,” with only themselves to blame. This internalized set of expectations drives the inward desire for identity—the ontological need—as well as its outward expansion: the impulse to assign a name to some subjectivity, some entity or group of people who, lurking in the margins of the infernal system, are secretly directing it, controlling it, taking advantage of it. Adorno came to regard this systematically distorted phenomenology of social perception as highly dynamic—capable of shifting to accommodate the needs of its subjects and designate new victims according to the historical situation. As he did so, his theoretical concern expanded from the problem of anti-Semitism to racism more generally, and to the problems of the divided self and the dialectics of identity. Adorno believed one had to be interested in the particulars of social projection of positive and negative identity—why the Germans, why the Jews, but also why gender and sexual orientation, why students and why immigrants?—and yet theory also had to rise above mere advocacy. One needed to work through the interaction between the liberating and degenerative forms of identity, and to articulate how negative identity offered a new, false metaphysics, while still being able to address questions of a universal character. This meant thinking against identity as well as with it, being aware that an obsession with the particularities of identity, even by those sworn to defuse its horrors and seek liberation in it, could undercut one’s insight into the objective and the universal.18

This is not only a book about Adorno but an inquiry into the subjective and objective meaning of identity and its politics. As an attempt to recuperate an analytics of identity’s negative side and to restore a missing chapter in the story of social thought, this book is not an attack on the idea of identity but a kind of double history. It presents, at once, a reinterpretation of the intellectual history of the Frankfurt School in the context of American and European social thought and an inquiry into the philosophical-historical tension between concepts of universalist liberation and particularist meaning or being. Implicitly, the two histories meet in that both involve a rethinking of the residue of Hegelianism that is still part of narrative historical explanation and theories of social causation based on metaphors of the subjective. Recognizing that identity has become the contemporary guise of the concept of world spirit should make us wonder about the gain or loss in analytical power that comes from dropping (left) Hegelian distinctions between an sich and für sich dimensions of ontology, between objective and subjective analytical perspectives, immediate and reflected self-consciousness, abstract and concrete historical conceptuality. The Hegelian questions of how historical subjectivity can be used in a universal mode, and how one can consider universality in a subjective mode, remain crucial for law and ethics in a neoliberal age. Adorno’s belief that human universalism must be defended, but that any form of universalism could be turned against its claimant, is a post-Hegelian thought of concern to every human science that would give counsel to modern individuals or states. This core idea of reflexive subject/object universality—the notion of a “dialectic of enlightenment” in our speech about the universal and the particular—was central to Adorno’s innovative investigation of racism, and it was crucial to his attempts to understand how the historical transformation of ideas of subjectivity, governance, and domination made such a possibility of reversal not just possible but quite likely under modern conditions. Understanding the negative element of identity is just the beginning of understanding its dialectic. A dialectical theory of positive and negative identity aims to describe the objectivity of subjectivity and the subjectivity of objectivity, and thus makes possible an analysis of identity as both a false and true consciousness of individual emancipation and oppression.

In the sequel volume, we will investigate how Adorno’s concepts of woundedness, objectification, and alterity always contemplated a second reversal—the possibility that false consciousness could become the material for self-reflection, that consciousness of negative identity could be turned into a principled self-consciousness. Non-identity, the dominant concern of Adorno’s postwar work, frames not only the discussion here but, I would argue, should frame our understanding of what social theory and identity mean today. It is the argument of this book, however, that this later critique of non-identity and the metaphysics of the subjective develop out of a critique of authoritarianism and prejudice, and that the fuller contours of Adorno’s unfinished philosophical system are best understood not in terms of its systematic closure and self-identity but in terms of the wounds that went into its making, the experience of damaged life that compelled Adorno to grapple with the subjective as negative identity.

Chapter Overview

Chapter 1 offers a revised interpretation of the infamous jazz controversy and Adorno’s first confrontation with the idea of race and the American concept of culture. Chronicling Adorno’s missteps in applying a theory of the commodification of musical universalism developed in Weimar Germany to the substantially different conditions of American society of the 1930s, this chapter reconstructs the political and cultural situations in which Adorno’s jazz essays were written and published. By examining the history of critical theory through the story of Adorno’s understanding—and misunderstandings—of jazz, this chapter explores Adorno’s intellectual development in relation to the historical trajectory of twentieth-century attitudes toward culture between the worlds of ethnicity and the avant-garde.

Chapter 2 looks at Adorno’s contretemps with American sociology, exploring how his American experience shaped his commitment to a Kantian vision of science, ethics, and human universalism. Drawing its title from Georg Simmel’s image for the alienated nature of sociological insight, and from Adorno’s extended discussion of Simmel in an important American lecture, this portrait explores how Adorno responded to the daily pressure toward cultural assimilation, and to American academic sociology’s emphasis on assimilation and adaptation as the essence of truth and progress, by considering more deeply the importance of difference for American democracy and culture. For the Stranger in America, personal alienation contributed to theoretical innovation, a realization concerning how a commitment to rationalism and universalism might reinforce a commitment to understanding the power of social irrationality. Exploring what it meant for Adorno to be a Kantian Marxist and Nietzschean universalist, this chapter argues that during his early years as an émigré in America Adorno engaged with the relation between universalism and particularity in a way that laid the grounds for his turn toward studying racism and authoritarian politics, the social dynamics of subjective identity, and the interaction between public and private life.

Chapters 3 through 6 constitute a single argument, exploring the relations among the private, philosophical work of Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia, the groundbreaking social-psychological empirical work on prejudice in Authoritarian Personality, and Horkheimer’s important public lecture series Eclipse of Reason (prepared with the assistance of Adorno and Leo Lowenthal). In examining these works together, these chapters challenge several persistent scholarly assumptions about Adorno’s intellectual biography: that the war years marked a “retreat” from practice to theory; that the esoteric philosophical speculation of Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia represented the “true” Adorno; that Adorno and Horkheimer were “pessimists” or “nihilists” during this period; that the empirical study of Authoritarian Personality was a distraction from Adorno’s real concerns. Countering this narrative, these chapters argue that the work of the 1940s must be read in terms of an ongoing attempt, at a moment in which Adorno had become Horkheimer’s closest intellectual interlocutor, to realize the work envisioned by Horkheimer’s 1931 inaugural address and expanded in his 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory”: that of creating a social-psychological model of interdisciplinary inquiry that devolved neither into positivism nor social Darwinism. Arguing not for the unity of theory and practice but for a dynamic interplay between private theorization and publicly engaged practical science, these chapters show that the continuity of collective purpose during these years eventuated in a number of striking intellectual innovations. Demonstrating how the language of identity was articulated by the Frankfurt School as a language of unalienated subjectivity and then was almost immediately set aside for being Romantic and uncritical, these chapters argue that the struggle over the identity concept led Adorno and Horkheimer to a quite different understanding of the Institute’s interdisciplinary project than they had started with, and this allowed them to articulate a new notion of social objectivity, reason, and legitimate authority that was explicitly understood as a negation of theories of subjective identity. In pure theoretical terms, I argue that Horkheimer and Adorno came to see themselves as defending an “orthodox” Freud and Marx and a “heterodox” Kant and Weber. Politically speaking, the critical attitude toward the human sciences contained in these orthodoxies and heterodoxies positioned Adorno particularly well to contribute to the reconstruction of postwar German culture.


1. GS, 6:15.

2. FSSB, 1:418.

3. GS, 10.2:765–66.

4. For a history of the identity concept, see Gerald Izenberg’s excellent survey GI, esp. 1–24.

5. Christine M. Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 20.

6. Ibid., 19.

7. See the discussion of the “Eight Ages of Man” with “epigenetic chart” in CS, 222–45.

8. NGram Viewer, “identity, freedom, culture,” accessed July 12, 2016,

9. Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck, “Vorlesung zum Tag des Gedenkens an die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus,” Der Bundespräsident, Berlin, January 27, 2015, Newspapers running “Identität” in the headline on January 26–27 include die Süddeutsche Zeitung, die taz, die Welt, and Merkur.

10. GS, 10.1:30.

11. “Ideologies of Hate,” Southern Poverty Law Center, accessed November 4, 2016,

12. Markus Willinger, Generation Identity (London: Arktos, 2013).

13. Reinhard Bingener, “Das Wörterbuch der neuesten Rechten,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 6, 2016.

14. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 6.

15. HTS, 194. Translation modified.

16. Deborah Cook, Adorno on Nature (New York: Routledge, 2014); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

17. Peter E. Gordon, Adorno and Existence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 6.

18. DE, 200.