A block on dialectics

Mistakes and forgetfulness happen all the time. But sometimes a metal screw-cap lodges right in the part of my brain that would allow me to coherently appreciate and practice something simple, like playing Tetris, organizing laundry, or making small talk. Dialectics (in the Hegelian/post-Hegelian sense) definitely falls into that category for me. I’m told it really isn’t so bad, once you get used to it.

Image result for tetris
How do I sublate this damn thing???

The problem, my “block,” comes down to paralysis. Whenever I try to figure it out with positive assertions, I am invariably answered with some variant of “no, dialectics escapes your hollow attempts to circumscribe it.”

If asked to describe how it works, I can usually drudge up something like the triad of thesis, negation, sublation, and then a simple example, like being, nothing, becoming (the start of Science of Logic). But it feels like a rote exercise performed in the dark. When exposed to people brilliantly out-Hegelling each other – such as Adorno, whose work I’ve been surveying – I can’t help but think of the Robot Chicken nerd character who ruins everything magical he touches, exposing cracks in the original fantasy by replacing it with an equally unconvincing new one.

Your negation just negated my negation!

Of course, the Robot Chicken nerd is still committed to his fantasy. He isn’t nearly as reflexive as dialectical thinkers, and that makes him a lot funnier (and more sympathetic, if you ask me). Or, to take another stab, the dialectical method inverts improv comedy’s original principle of “Yes, and…” As Adorno writes: “Dialectics is the consistent sense of nonidentity. It does not begin by taking a standpoint” (Negative Dialectics, intro). Commitment to a proposition misses the actual point, which is a melancholic awareness that I can never grasp the thing itself even as I reach for it. Dialectics indexes “my guilt of what I am thinking.”

Adorno claims his law of nonidentity applies not just to thought, but to reality itself: “the object of a mental experience is an antagonistic system in itself—antagonistic in reality, not just in its conveyance to the knowing subject that rediscovers itself therein.” By reality, Adorno seems to mean the (bad) effect of (bad) society on the human subject. He uses the supposed reality of dialectics as a polemical tool against utopianism: “Dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.”

At the same time that he projects this overwhelming paranoid helplessness and dissatisfaction, he also points to a dangling carrot of something lying beyond our immediate conceptual grasp: “Philosophical reflection makes sure of the nonconceptual in the concept,” and thus it “strips the blindfold from our eyes.” Again, though, “nonconceptual” does not refer to a reality out there that beckons us, but to a surplus of cognitive experience that hides like a Trojan horse in supposedly determinate concepts: “On its part, [the concept] is entwined with a nonconceptual whole. Its only insulation from that whole is its reification—that which establishes it as a concept.” The concept presents itself as a digestible and consistent chunk, and “to change this direction…to give [conceptuality] a turn toward nonidentity, is the hinge of negative dialectics.” The enticing aspect of Adorno’s negative dialects is this very search for surprise in the appearances that we take for granted.


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