Friday, May 26, 2006

Suffering and Justice

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno wrote:

Black shrouds cover the horizon of a state of freedom that would no longer require either repression or morality, because drives would no longer have to be expressed in destruction. It is not in their nauseating parody, sexual repression, that moral questions are succinctly posed; it is in lines such as: No man should be tortured; there should be no concentration camps -- while all of this continues in Asia and Africa and is repressed merely because, as ever, the humanity of civilization is inhumane towards the people it shamlessly brands as uncivilized. (p. 285)


Five years after Adorno wrote these words, John Rawls published his monumental A Theory of Justice. Rawls' work transformed the academic practices of economics, law, and political and moral philosophy. Since 1971, he revised and refined the picture of justice developed in TJ, with Political Liberalism, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, and an exercise in international political theory, The Law of Peoples.

It has been said (by me, actually) that A Theory of Justice is a transcendental deduction of the New Deal. (I presume that readers of this blog will not need to have that joke explained.) Although Rawls attempts (in Justice as Fairness) to distance himself from that interpretation, I suspect that much of the continuing allure of Rawls is owed to the thought that the New Deal required a transcendental deduction, and that Rawls provided it.

And yet it has largely escaped notice that the world has not become a more just place since 1971, that the explosion of "the Rawls industry" has done precisely nothing to halt or even slow the dismantling of the welfare state, that Adorno's lines are as true today as they were forty years ago, and that even fewer seem to care about that truth than did forty years ago.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Yusef said...

I've wanted to know how Rawls's work overcomes the criticisms of social contract theory.

Actually, I don't want to know that very much. I just don't believe that Rawls has very much to contribute to dumb f*cks like me who are buried deep and doomed to a kind of suffocation.

I'll never be an academic, and I don't care whether I impress anyone as a philosopher, of any type, very much.

I really can only respond to something that gives me a feeling like the feeling I get when I breathe the fresh air of the forest. That might be the feeling of freedom, of resistance, beautiful if only during the moment it lasts.

I get the breathe of a housing project from Rawls. I get the feeling of resignation from Rawls.

I get some hints of angles that might somehow work in some other framework from Rawls - I don't want to fail to acknowledge that. I don't believe these angles are coming from Rawls's supposed rigor, though. I really believe they are coming from the man's beautiful heart....

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Spinoza quotes Adorno:

No man should be tortured; there should be no concentration camps -- while all of this continues in Asia and Africa and is repressed merely because, as ever, the humanity of civilization is inhumane towards the people it shamlessly brands as uncivilized. (p. 285)

- and goes on to say:

Adorno's lines are as true today as they were forty years ago, and that even fewer seem to care about that truth than did forty years ago.

Now, Adorno was a great dialectician (and pianist!), but together with his equally bald friend Horkheimer he was also the embodiment of Die Philosophie des Untergangs.

Adorno’s “production of desire” was about the past, the ennui of the present, and the rejection of the future.

And it is just not true that his gloomy words are still true forty years later. There are no longer any concentrations camps in Europe and no Gulags in Russia.

Philosophy should be a Nietzschian YES to life, or a Deleuzian CREATION of conceiving the world anew.

Don’t fall into the trap of Adorno’s finality.

But thanks for your posts. They are greatly appreciated. I look forward to more.

Orla Schantz

7:02 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

Yusef: Rawls' theory is a social contract theory, and it has the strengths and weaknesses of that tradition. On some accounts, it's the most nuanced and sophisticated version of social contract theory. But you're right to say that Rawls gives us a housing project, not a forest. How much of a condemnation that is, depends on whether or not we need housing projects.

Orla: Here I think my reading of Adorno (and of Horkheimer) differs from yours; there is a utopian moment in Adorno (at least) that comes through in Negative Dialectics and also in Aesthetic Theory. The bleakness of Dialectic of Enlightenment doesn't dissipate, exactly; they don't become piece-meal social reformers -- but utopian thinking doesn't lose it's force, either.

The real problem for Adorno and Horkheimer is that they don't have a way for the utopian to become an actualized political force. In this respect the differencs between them and Marcuse are subtle but instructive.

What they would require is a way of thinking about the virtual but real social conditions that could be actualized in a revolutionary becoming, in conjunction with an analysis of the conditions (political, economic, libidinal) which prevent the actualization of revolution. This is why Deleuze and Foucault remain crucial; they go where Adorno and Horkheimer (and even Marcuse) didn't and couldn't.

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yusef writes,

I'll never be an academic - Of course you will.

and I don't care whether I impress anyone as a philosopher, of any type, very much.

You impress me! But this shouldn't be your goal anyway.

I really can only respond to something that gives me a feeling like the feeling I get when I breathe the fresh air of the forest. That might be the feeling of freedom, of resistance, beautiful if only during the moment it lasts.

That's the Nietzschian EVENT. Only trust the thoughts you have when walking in the mountains. Philosophy is physical.

All the best - and please keep posting.

Orla Schantz

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Spinoza writes,

Here I think my reading of Adorno (and of Horkheimer) differs from yours; there is a utopian moment in Adorno (at least) that comes through in Negative Dialectics and also in Aesthetic Theory. The bleakness of Dialectic of Enlightenment doesn't dissipate, exactly; they don't become piece-meal social reformers -- but utopian thinking doesn't lose it's force, either.

Thank you for that clarification. You are right! I was (too much) into "The bleakness of "Dialectic of Enlightenment"".

The real problem for Adorno and Horkheimer is that they don't have a way for the utopian to become an actualized political force. In this respect the differencs between them and Marcuse are subtle but instructive.

That's true. But then Marcuse didn't have "an actualized political force" either. He was just used in the avenues and streets of Europe and the US.

What they would require is a way of thinking about the virtual but real social conditions that could be actualized in a revolutionary becoming, in conjunction with an analysis of the conditions (political, economic, libidinal) which prevent the actualization of revolution. This is why Deleuze and Foucault remain crucial; they go where Adorno and Horkheimer (and even Marcuse) didn't and couldn't.

Yes. Precisely. Deleuze and Foucault (in their mutual admiration society! - which I, by the way, find very touching) have taken us a LOT further. But then: Deleuze and Foucault didn't produce mass demonstrations in the avenues of Paris.

But thanks for bringing that up.

Orla Schantz

Orla Schantz

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"Rawls' theory is a social contract theory, and it has the strengths and weaknesses of that tradition."-Dr. Spinoza

Yes, I see being dead as a weakness, but then again, perhaps it is true that the corpse has the strength of being a good worm food.

I will coerce you and you will coerce me and the crowd will coerce us both.

Now then, let's talk about desiring our own repression and the repression of others - is it or is it not the case that repression is somehow necessary and desirable?

I'm not a nigger, a jew, a wop, a queer, a woman, or a !Kung! bushman, but just your average white middle-class protestant asshole and yet I can't say that the social contract works so well for me.

One of the hideous things about Rawls is that he was publishing these books in the early to mid seventies, exactly at that time when the great, productive post-WW2 "contract" ( or consensus, I don't care which term is used, should I?) between corporations and labor, or between corporations and government, or between corporations and society at large, was coming apart at the seams, falling to pieces before our very eyes.

This falling to pieces affected me greatly. I saw it. Did Rawls? Why not? He can't have failed to notice.

Does anyone believe that we'll somehow find ourselves in a position anytime soon ( or ever,) to COME TO AGREEMENT?

1:22 AM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

"just your average white middle-class protestant asshole and yet I can't say that the social contract works so well for me."

Speaking from the social position of an average white middle-class Jewish asshole, the social contract has served me better here than the traditional oppression of Eastern Europe served my ancestors.

However, I will not deny that there's something still terribly insidious about social contract theory -- it merely distributes coercion rather than localizing it in one person.

One of the hideous things about Rawls is that he was publishing these books in the early to mid seventies, exactly at that time when the great, productive post-WW2 "contract" ( or consensus, I don't care which term is used, should I?) between corporations and labor, or between corporations and government, or between corporations and society at large, was coming apart at the seams, falling to pieces before our very eyes.

This falling to pieces affected me greatly. I saw it. Did Rawls? Why not? He can't have failed to notice.


Precisely. Geuss also makes this point against Rawls in Outside Ethics. It's a damning indictment. (Interesting, it has a structural parallel with Adorno's criticisms of Buber in Negative Dialectics -- Buber elevates personhood into a centrally important category at the same time as historical forces are liquidating and destroying the material conditions of personhood.)

10:42 AM  

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