Dialectic of Horkheimer and Adorno

I’m not usually much of a fan of theater, but I would love to see this dialogue between Horkheimer and Adorno, which ran in the New Left Review last year, be made into a comedic play. Dork that I am, it made me laugh repeatedly as I was reading, especially when Horkheimer first refers to Adorno as “Teddie.” I can’t tell when they are making fun of each other, but I suspect, probably wrongly, that it is often. Consider this exchange:

Adorno: The Utopians were actually not very utopian at all. But we must not provide a picture of a positive utopia.

Horkheimer: Especially when one is so close to despair.

I always thought that the distinctively compressed, nonlinear rhetoric of Dialectic of Enlightenment was achieved through careful addition-through-subtraction-style editing that removed all the transitions between ideas, but apparently Horkheimer and Adorno actually spoke that way to one another, trading gnomic non sequiturs in a spirit of stubborn one-upmanship. (Or maybe Gretel Adorno, who transcribed the dialogue, did some editing on the fly.)

There are many highlights — Adorno claiming he’d be happy to work as a lift operator in the post-revolutionary utopia; Horkheimer’s defense of being “inflamed by desire to touch a woman’s body;” Adorno’s intuition that American voters “would refuse to tolerate Richard Nixon as Vice President;” Horkheimer denouncing consensus as “repellent”; their weird fixation with riding motorbikes; the importance of preserving American drug stores — but much of it is about the necessity of work and whether people are simply deluded if they find any sort of work fulfilling under capitalism. They often seem to be debating what it is that freedom’s supposed to make people free to do. It’s not simply to consume more. Horkheimer mentions that “the opposite of work is regarded as nothing more than consumption,” which I take to mean that these are opposites that define each other in consumer capitalism — that the value of consumption (beyond subsistence) has no positive quality; it is only measurable in terms of the absence of work. And anyway, consumption has collapsed into production thanks to its ready transformation into circulatable signs. Adorno notes that “the enjoyment of speed is a proxy for the enjoyment of work,” which I think is borne out by the irresistibility of accelerating consumption to the point of information overload

If consumption is only “regarded” as the opposite of work, what would actually constitute nonwork under the best of conditions? And is work fetishization actually impeding the possibility for solidarity? Do we want to universalize work or overcome it or pass through one to the other? There is a lot to unpack in this passage:

Horkheimer: It is not just a matter of ideology, but is also influenced by the fact that a shaft of light from the telos falls onto labour. Basically, people are too short-sighted. They misinterpret the light that falls on labour from ultimate goals. Instead, they take labour qua labour as the telos and hence see their personal work success as that purpose. That is the secret. If they did not do that, such a thing as solidarity would be possible. A shaft of light from the telos falls on the means to achieve it. It is just as if instead of worshipping their lover they worship the house in which she dwells. That, incidentally, is the source of all poetry.

I love that “incidentally”. But is that the secret, that people get caught up in their personal pursuit of flow and neglect the possibilities, the necessity, of collectivity?

This is reminiscent of the passage in Marx’s Economic Manuscripts where he mulls over species being.

For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life.

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses the relationship, so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence.

He is struggling with the same issue here, what to make of work’s necessity, and to what degree “making one’s life activity” means seizing upon oneself as a kind of property, an object for oneself. Alienated work means that our life activity has been turned into labor we sell for survival. But unalienated work still implies a kind of self-ownership. What is the ultimate goal that Horkheimer evokes, the telos? Obviously it’s not poetry, that’s for sure.