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Materialism
S e b a s t i a n Tr u s k o l a s k i

INTRODUCTION sanctioned, and that, as such, they can be


contested, challenged and, ultimately,
The aim of this chapter is to outline the sig- changed. However, as we will find, many of
nificance of materialism for the formulation the most prominent attempts to give concrete
of the Frankfurt School’s critical theory of shape to these views have wound up inad-
society. Traditionally, materialism has been vertently reproducing the very metaphysical
taken to mean that the world is composed of assumptions that they set out to overturn. The
a single substance or matter, and that all materialism of the Frankfurt School stems
worldly phenomena – including ostensibly squarely from within this contested space.
intangible ones, such as thought – are modi- Accordingly, the positions advanced by fig-
fications or attributes thereof. Accordingly, ures from its so-called ‘first generation’ (par-
materialism has long been equated with the ticularly Max Horkheimer and Theodor W.
view that our experience of the world is Adorno, as well as Ernst Bloch, Walter
rooted in (and conditioned by) tangible, Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse) mark a sig-
material circumstances. It signals an effort to nificant, if not uncritical, contribution to the
explain the world out of itself, on its own history of this idea. Horkheimer, for instance,
terms, i.e. without appealing to any higher discusses the question of materialism in his
principle, be it the primacy of the Idea or the early essays ‘Materialism and Metaphysics’
supreme reign of God. The wider implication (2002a), ‘Materialism and Morality’ (1993)
of this view – famously elaborated in the and his seminal ‘Traditional and Critical
nineteenth century by Karl Marx, Friedrich Theory’ (2002b). This theme is taken up
Engels and their followers – is that these again in his discussions with Adorno (Adorno
material circumstances are historically pro- and Horkheimer, 2011), who – in turn –
duced, rather than naturally given or divinely treats it in his lectures on Philosophical
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Terminology (1974) and his magnum opus It is noteworthy, too, that many of the
Negative Dialectics (1973). Other notable most pointedly Marxian aspects of the early
examples include Bloch, who explores the Frankfurt School’s materialism were taken
issue in his book Das Materialismus- up in the 1960s/1970s by students of Adorno
Problem, seine Geschichte und Substanz and Horkheimer in Germany, and Herbert
[The Problem of Materialism, its History and Marcuse and Leo Löwenthal in the United
Substance] (1972), Benjamin, who debates States. Significant examples include works
the matter in the notes comprising his unfin- by Alfred Schmidt (1971, 1973, 1974, 1975,
ished Arcades Projects (1999), and Marcuse, 1977, 1981), Hans-Jürgen Krahl (1974), Hans-
who examines the subject in his essay ‘New Georg Backhaus (1997), Helmut Reichelt
Sources on the Foundation of Historical (2001), Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt
Materialism’ (2005). What holds these texts (2014), as well as Angela Davis (1998). Their
together is that, in one way or another, they positions markedly contrast with those of
all interrogate the professed materialist dis- prominent figures from the so-called ‘second-
position of Marxian social criticism, which, generation’ of the Frankfurt School, includ-
they suggest, had hardened into a dogmatic ing Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth,
worldview by the 1930s – at least in its offi- whose work has tended to foreground ques-
cial iterations. Following figureheads of tions of normativity over explicitly Marxist-
‘Western Marxism’ (Elbe, 2013), such as materialist forms of social criticism.
Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch, the authors Without presuming to account for the full
from the Institute for Social Research thus breadth of the Frankfurt School’s materialism –
re-inscribe the diverse concerns collected there are, of course, considerable differences
under the heading of materialism into the his- between its individual players – the follow-
tory of philosophy, especially that of German ing pages will attempt to highlight some of
Idealism – a tradition which, in their estima- its salient features, such as the prominent
tion, had been prematurely left for dead. In emphasis on the suffering body, on material-
this regard, Horkheimer, Adorno et  al. ist epistemology, and on the negative image
explore questions of experience and affectiv- of utopia that the examination of these themes
ity, cognition and morality, as well as the is supposed to throw into relief. To this end
relation between nature and culture in the age the chapter is organised into three parts:
of ‘positivism’ – a byword for the philo- (1) An overview of the history of materialism,
sophically un-reflected empiricism of much and an indication of the Frankfurt School’s
scientific thought, including its Marxist vari- place therein; (2) An account of Adorno’s
ants. By re-engaging with the problems of ‘imageless materialism’ as a paradigmatic
materialism in this expanded sense, and by instance of the Frankfurt School’s position;
drawing on a range of disciplinary special- (3) An attempt to highlight the cotemporary
isms – from sociology to philosophy and resonance of the Frankfurt School’s ideas in
economics – the authors from the orbit of the contrast with a recent form of philosophical
Institute for Social Research thus sought to materialism known as Speculative Realism.
recast the parameters of this concept with and All the while the overarching conceit is the
beyond Marx. In this regard they position following: the Frankfurt School’s re-formula-
themselves against a tendency, prevalent tion of materialism – the malleability of man’s
amongst Soviet Marxists such as Lenin, who historical, material situation – intends to safe-
tended to neglect the wide-ranging philo- guard Critical Theory from the perceived pit-
sophical implications of Marx’s early writ- falls of both Soviet-style Marxism and liberal
ings, thus re-converting the emphasis on the scientism by creating an interdisciplinary
material transformation of society into a toolkit with which to change the world that
metaphysical doctrine. philosophy has hitherto only interpreted.
MATERIALISM 663

OVERVIEW OF THE HISTORY OF the French revolution are well documented


MATERIALISM (Kant, 1996), rejected materialism – along-
side Idealism – as insufficient for grounding
Although it is arguable that the concern with a critically self-reflexive form of philosophy.
matter and the way that it relates to conscious- As he writes:
ness is coeval with the emergence of (European) Through criticism alone can we sever the very root
philosophy itself, materialism – in the sense of of materialism, fatalism, atheism, of freethinking
a distinctive intellectual formation – means an unbelief, of enthusiasm and superstition, which
eminently modern phenomenon; one that rose can become generally injurious, and finally also of
to prominence in eighteenth-century France idealism and skepticism, which are more danger-
ous to the schools and can hardly be transmitted
during the era of the so-called ‘High to the public. (Kant, 1998: 119)
Enlightenment’ and is associated with the writ-
ings of the Baron d’Holbach, Julien Offray de The German aversion to materialism, which
la Mettrie, Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien was foreshadowed in the famous controversy
Helvétius and others (Israel, 2001). In turn, the between Leibniz and Newton (Bertoloni-
French materialists – whose fiercely atheistic Meli, 1993), remained in force throughout the
views are frequently named in connection with first three decades of the nineteenth century
the revolutionary ferment of the late 1780s – – a period that was dominated by the Idealist
forged their positions in response to a wide systems of Fichte, Hegel and Schelling. The
range of older philosophies, which fore- Idealist’s relation to materialism can be
grounded the material stuff of life over the lofty gleaned in Hegel’s lectures on the history of
realm of ideas: from the Pre-Socratic Atomism philosophy (1995), which praise the French
of Democritus and his follower Epicurus, to the materialists’ attempt to overcome the dualism
pantheistic monism of Spinoza, and the scien- of body and mind, whilst rejecting their view
tific thought of Galileo, Bacon and Descartes. that it is possible to grasp totality in terms of
With a view to these sources, amongst others, mere matter. What is important here is that
the French materialists developed their charac- following Hegel’s death in 1831, Idealism –
teristically polemical, politically explosive the philosophy of Spirit – increasingly came
view that human beings are quasi machine- under fire. As a consequence, numerous
like, that they are independent of divine design, attempts were made to circumnavigate its
and that – as such – they are not answerable to perceived failings. They are characterised by
clerical and (by extension) royal authority. A an extraordinary conceptual breadth, ranging
famous formulation of these views appears in from Søren Kierkegaard’s Existentialism to
d’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770), Hermann von Helmholtz’s Neo-Kantianism.
which denies the existence of any final causes, Amongst these varied programmes there are
arguing that there is no soul apart from the four specifically materialist approaches that
living body, and suggesting that faith in God is bear mentioning, insofar as they form the
the result of an irrational fear before the ulti- backdrop to the Frankfurt School’s subse-
mately mechanistic processes of nature. quent work. They are, first, the physiological
Despite the widespread political reception materialism of Jacob Moleschott, Carl Vogt
of the French materialists’ ideas amongst and Ludwig Büchner; second, the anthropo-
German-speaking intellectuals, which was logical materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach;
due – above all – to their association with third, the early dialectical/historical material-
revolutionary Republicanism, their philoso- ism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; and
phy as such tended to be met with some sus- fourth, the late reformulation of dialectical/
picion. Immanuel Kant, for instance, whose historical materialism by Engels, as well as
declared, if not unambiguous, sympathies for its reception by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
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(It exceeds the limitations of the present actualised form of reason, and an associated
chapter to outline a fifth important forebear of state of freedom, which, they claimed, fol-
the Frankfurt School’s position, namely: the lowed from Hegel’s thinking, but exceeded in
messianic materialism of the Jena Romantics its radicality his stated intentions. Although
[Frank, 2004].) Feuerbach is best remembered for the criti-
First, then, Moleschott, Vogt and Büchner cisms levelled at him by Marx (2000) and
are notable principally because their posi- Engels, his central work – The Essence of
tions demonstrate the extent to which Christianity (1957) – is an important fore-
German-speaking philosophers had aban- runner of dialectical/historical materialism,
doned the precepts of Idealism by the mid not least because it emphasises the impor-
nineteeth century (Gregory, 1977). Over the tance of human sensuality. As Feuerbach
course of the 1850s, Vogt, for instance, pub- writes, ‘I negate God. For me this means that
lished a series of popular texts that echoed I negate the negation of the human. I put the
the fierce atheism of the French materialists sensual, real, and, consequently, necessarily
by rejecting the biblical view of creation on political and social position of the human
biological grounds, arguing that the world, in place of its illusory, fantastic, heavenly
and our experience of it, is to be explained position’ (Feuerbach, 1990: 189). On this
in purely physiological terms; a view that, in basis, Schmidt has done much to rehabilitate
turn, led him to identify psychological pro- Feuerbach’s philosophy by pointing out the
cesses with physical ones (e.g. thinking with importance of his atheistic humanism for the
brain activity). Vogt’s ideas were vigorously development of subsequent materialisms. As
contested by an array of Christian thinkers, he argues:
most prominently Rudolf Wagner, culminat-
If, in its most advanced form, Marx’s theory dis-
ing in a public disagreement at Göttingen in
cusses societal reality on two levels (which are
1854 – the so-called Materialismus-Streit related precisely by dint of their mediation); if it
(Bayertz et  al., 2012). Without touching on insists that, despite their objectivity, economic
the finer points of these debates – in essence categories, such as the commodity, value, money,
they amount to a series of broadly ideological and capital are ‘subjective’, i.e. that they are con-
crete existential determinations of embodied
declarations of the superiority of materialism
human beings, then this insight points back to
over spiritualism and vice versa – the public Feuerbachian impulses. (Schmidt, 1973: 19)
interest in such issues, spurred on by major
advancements in the life sciences, created a Third, then, Marx and Engels are crucial for
fertile climate for the proliferation of other carrying out a practical re-orientation of
materialist philosophies. Feuerbach’s anthropological materialism, by
Second, Ludwig Feuerbach – a contem- foregrounding the agency inherent in human
porary of the physiological materialists, who sensibility, which is central for the wider
corresponded for a time with Moleschott and project of re-shaping the material world.
Vogt (Feuerbach, 1993) – is significant for Although Marx acknowledges the impor-
introducing an anthropological dimension tance of Feuerbach for the development of
into the newly fangled German debates about these ideas, one of the best-known docu-
the primacy of matter. Along with Bruno ments of his consequential efforts to recast
Bauer, Max Stirner and others, Feuerbach the concept of materialism is a set of critical
had been associated with the left-leaning notes known as the ‘Theses On Feuerbach’
Young Hegelians, who – in the period before (2000): ‘Feuerbach’, we are told, ‘wants
1848 – foregrounded aspects of Hegel’s phi- sensible objects – really distinguished from
losophy that had seemed to them to call for a thought-objects: but he does not conceive
ruthless criticism of the present (chiefly reli- human activity itself as objective activity …
gion, but also the state) in the name of a fully Hence he does not grasp the significance of
MATERIALISM 665

revolutionary, practical-critical activity’ Finally, it bears stressing the importance


(Marx, 2000: 171). As such, Marx chides, of Engels’ reformulation of his and Marx’s
Feuerbach merely presents another variant concept of materialism in later works like
of traditional materialism. By contrast, Anti-Dühring (1987a), Dialectics of Nature
he suggests, the true task of materialism (1987b) and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End
would be to outline an approach that is of Classical German Philosophy (1990),
intellectually adequate to the actualisation as well as the reception of these works by
of philosophical ideas, to ‘revolutionary, Lenin. (As we will find, it is the Engelsian-
practical-critical activity’ – in short, to Leninist position that prompts the Frankfurt
changing the world. This is why, as Schmidt School’s reformulation of materialism.) On
points out, Marx’s concept of materialism Engels’ late account, his and Marx’s com-
aims at a critique of social objectivity. But mon goal had been to demonstrate a ‘general
there is another instructive point that can be law of development of nature, society, and
gleaned from this short passage, namely: thought’, which is at once historical and onto-
Marx’s redefinition of the then prevalent logical (Marx and Engels, 1990: 361). Engels
philosophical conception of subjectivity. thus equates certain socio-political develop-
That is to say, Marx sought to recast the ments with particular natural processes. As he
(Kantian) concept of the subject – the ‘I’ – argues, ‘what is valid for nature’ – the mate-
as, in the first place, passively apprehending rial world as such – ‘must also be valid for his-
the material world as an object of intuition tory’; ‘Political praxis is … the consummation
before mastering it intellectually through its of historical’ and, by extension, natural ‘laws’
conformity to certain mental structures that (Elbe, 2013). This schema has epistemologi-
are deemed to be universally human (space, cal implications. For Engels, the ‘law’ of the
time, causality). However, although Marx dialectic, which he and Marx had taken over
concedes Kant’s point that the subject is from Hegel, is, in fact, ‘split into “two sets
central to producing knowledge of the mate- of laws”’: into ‘the dialectic of “the external
rial world, he denies that the role of human world”’, on the one hand, ‘and the dialectic of
sensibility is merely passive in this process. “human thought”’, on the other (Elbe, 2013).
Rather, he ascribes sensibility – and hence In this sense, Engels’ view aims at a material-
human activity more generally – a trans- ist reversal of Hegel’s philosophy. ‘The inver-
formative role. As Peter Osborne points out, sion of the dialectic in Hegel rests on this, that
‘This new materialist redefinition of the it is supposed to be the “self-development of
human subject as sensible practice (practical thought”, of which the dialectic of facts is …
activity as the sensuous being of the human), only a reflection, whereas the dialectic in our
rather than a subject being defined by its heads is in reality the reflection of the actual’,
knowledge of an object, has profound conse- material, ‘development going on in the world
quences for the traditional philosophical of nature and of human history in obedience
concept of human essence’ (Osborne, 2005: to dialectical forms’ (Marx and Engels, 1975:
29). Instead of appearing as a mere ‘abstrac- 520). In this sense, Engels suggests, Hegel’s
tion inherent in each single individual’, the dialectic is marked by a simple mind–matter
inter-relatedness of human activity means dichotomy, which is unduly weighted
that the old conception of society as an in favour of thought. It is not Spirit which
aggregate of competing individuals no drives the historical process, but an as yet
longer holds. Instead, Marx foregrounds the unnamed material force. (By contrast, it will
relational character of socially transforma- be recalled, for Marx this force had been
tive practice under the banner of his new human activity: practice.) Undoing this con-
materialism – a materialism aimed at chang- fusion is supposed to put the dialectic back
ing society. on its feet. On the one hand, this is intended
666 THE SAGE HANDBOOK OF FRANKFURT SCHOOL CRITICAL THEORY

to demonstrate the interconnectedness of all replacement of materialism by idealism


fields of intellectual inquiry (philosophy, and agnosticism’ (Lenin, 1961: 252). Lenin’s
political economy and the natural sciences are misgivings are directed chiefly at Alexander
all seen as evincing the same dialectical-his- Bogdanov’s three-volume work Empirio-
torical tendency); and, on the other hand, this Monism (1904–6), which – for its part –
unifying endeavour is designed to put social- draws on theories developed by the Austrian
ism on the authoritative ground of empiri- physicist Ernst Mach. In brief, Mach argues
cal science. However, Engels’ view that the that physics proceeds not from the study
dialectic ‘in our heads’ is merely a reflec- of matter, but from the study of sense-
tion of ‘actual developments in the world’ experience: ‘not bodies produce sensations,
undercuts the primacy of praxis, and with it but element-complexes (sensation-complexes)
critique, which he and Marx had previously constitute the bodies’ (Mach, 1959: 29).
insisted on. Engels portrays consciousness Bogdanov follows Mach by advocating a
as a mere ‘product of evolution and a passive strict empiricism, which rules out any form
reflection of the process of nature, not how- of a priori knowledge. As he argues, ‘The
ever as a productive force’ (Schmidt, 1971: real world is identical with human experi-
55–6). In other words, as Schmidt points ence of it’ (Rowley, 1996: 5). His specifically
out, Engels’ later characterisation of his and Marxist manoeuvre is to recast the individual
Marx’s concept of materialism portrays the experiences described by Mach into those
external world as a rigid, immutable given, of a collective subject: the proletarian class
in which humankind is ‘limited to a mere itself. Accordingly, knowledge of the external
mirroring of the factual’, i.e. the ‘uncriti- world – and the ability to change it – is not
cal reproduction of existing relationships in based on the merely subjective whims of indi-
consciousness’ (Schmidt, 1971: 56). It seems viduals. Rather, it is made up of the ‘shared
clear, then, that if the Frankfurt School’s con- perceptions of the collective consciousness
ception of a Marxian materialism entails that of a society’ (Rowley, 1996: 5). However,
human beings have the power to practically as Lenin charges, Bogdanov’s idiosyncratic
affect their material circumstances (a return adaptation of Mach cannot escape its rooting
to Marx’s early insight), then the cogency of in a fundamentally individualistic outlook.
this view will depend on how effectively they Accordingly, the prioritisation of sense-
can challenge Engels’ position. In order to experience is said to displace the primacy of
gain a fuller sense hereof, however, it remains mind-independent matter – a circumstance
to consider a final episode from the history of whose political consequence is taken to mean
materialism, namely: the reception of Engels’ that materialism, which Lenin equates with
ideas by Lenin. political praxis, is transformed into subjec-
Engels’ late re-formulation of his and tive quietism. Accordingly, the purportedly
Marx’s concept of materialism resounds in bourgeois ‘belief that our knowledge of the
Lenin’s meta-scientific opus Materialism world is constructed out of a field of sense-
and Empirio-Criticism (1961) – a work that data’ is seen as creating ‘an insuperable bar-
went on to significantly shape the theoretical rier between human consciousness and the
foundations of Soviet Marxism. On the sur- external world’ (Richey, 2003: 43). Lenin’s
face, Lenin’s book is couched in a string of effort to defend the priority of matter thus
factional debates concerning recent develop- requires an alternative account of how human
ments in the natural sciences. The discovery beings relate to the material world – an alter-
of radioactivity, in particular, is supposed native epistemology. As Lenin argues, rather
to have led to a widespread rejection ‘of an than constituting bodies, sensation appears as
objective reality existing outside the mind’; ‘the direct connection between consciousness
a sentiment that – in turn – provoked ‘the and the external world’ (Lenin, 1961: 51).
MATERIALISM 667

In a clear echo of Engels’ later works, sense materialism that was forcefully contested by
data is said to mirror the world as it really is, the members of the Frankfurt School, espe-
independently of (and external to) conscious- cially following the publication of Marx’s
ness. Consequently, Lenin argues that ‘sensa- Grundrisse in 1939. This juncture invites
tion, perception, idea, and the mind of man a preliminary observation. To the extent
generally’ are to be regarded ‘as an image of that one can speak of materialism in terms
objective reality’ (Lenin, 1961: 267). This of a unified concept, it seems to fall under
framework is supposed to guarantee the sim- what Adorno and Horkheimer describe as
ple primacy of matter over ideas since ‘con- a ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ (Adorno and
sciousness is only an image of the external Horkheimer, 2002: 26): on the one hand, the
world, and it is obvious that an image can- philosophically problematic insistence on
not exist without the thing imaged, and that the simple primacy of matter can serve as an
the latter exists independently of that which emancipatory blow against the entrenched,
images it’ (Lenin, 1961: 69). The proof that and apparently divinely ordained social struc-
these images are bearers of objective truth is tures of, say, the ancien régime; however, on
supposed to be provided by scientific experi- the other hand, a suggestion such as Lenin’s,
mentation, the analogue of which is seen as that human consciousness merely reflects
political praxis. However, here Lenin runs mind-independent matter, risks reproducing
into difficulties since his suggestion that ‘it these structures under a different name – as
is absolutely unpardonable to confuse … any incontestable facts of a seemingly inevitable
particular theory of the structure of matter’ historical process, which tends (in Adorno
with the ‘epistemological category’ of matter and Horkheimer’s estimation) to culminate
itself, suggests that the primacy of matter is in barbarism rather than socialism. In other
somehow immune to scientific contestation words, a materialist programme like that of
(Lenin, 1969: 129). Accordingly, his effort the Frankfurt School – to ‘reject the illusion
to escape the trappings of Idealism (the mas- that … the power of thought is sufficient to
tery of reality in thought) runs the danger of grasp the totality of the real’ (Adorno, 1977:
reproducing, rather than refuting, the posi- 120) – cannot be put into practice if matter is
tion he rallies against. Indeed, the problem transformed into a philosophical ideal.
that Adorno, Schmidt and others point to in
this regard can be summed up as follows: if
no ‘particular theory’ can pose a challenge to
the unshakeable reality of matter as an ‘epis- ADORNO’S ‘IMAGELESS’
temological category’, then matter itself – MATERIALISM
along with the revolutionary politics that it
is supposed to guarantee – is dogmatically Having briefly outlined some major markers
elevated to a metaphysical invariant. from the history of materialism – from
It goes beyond the limitations of the pre- d’Holbach to Lenin – it remains to consider
sent chapter to explore in detail how Lenin’s the Frankfurt School’s particular contribution
reflections bear on his explicitly political to the development of this theme. Instead of
thought, and, furthermore, on his consequen- surveying its members’ individual positions,
tial revolutionary activities. The mediations the following section will focus on one para-
are complex. Suffice to note that Lenin’s digmatic example, which speaks to many of
views became fundamental for formulat- their common concerns, namely: Adorno’s
ing the theoretical self-understanding of the notion of an ‘imageless’ materialism. As will
Soviet Union as the quasi-inevitable product become apparent, Adorno outlines a philo-
of history’s untrammelled, ‘dialectical’ pro- sophically self-reflexive challenge to the
gress. It is this official iteration of a Marxist scientistic tendencies of Marxist materialism
668 THE SAGE HANDBOOK OF FRANKFURT SCHOOL CRITICAL THEORY

by elaborating on a number of the Institute’s supposedly materialist thinking will involun-


core ideas: a form of mimetic rationality that tarily turn into its opposite’ (Jarvis, 2004:
would radically reconfigure the relationship 96), i.e. into a form of subjective domination,
between humankind and the material world which Adorno associates with certain unspec-
under the yoke of capitalist modernity; the ified ‘authorities’. To be sure, Adorno’s refer-
suffering body as a negative expression of ence to ‘representational thinking’ calls to
humankind’s wish for physical fulfilment; mind the various forms of ‘reflection theory’
and an associated form of historiography that that punctuate the history of materialism
would resist the progressive narratives of from Democritus to Locke. In this respect,
vulgarised leftist discourse. In one way or the German term Abbild – image, copy –
another all of these themes are echoed in a takes centre stage. The locus of the problem,
memorable passage from Adorno’s magnum Adorno suggests, lies in ‘the Eastern coun-
opus Negative Dialectics, titled ‘Materialism tries’ (Adorno, 1973: 206). Notwithstanding
Imageless’. There Adorno writes: this indelicate indictment of the so-called
‘East’, it is striking that Adorno speaks here
Representational thinking [Abbildendes Denken]
of a ‘materialism come to political power’, of
would be without reflection – an undialectical con-
tradiction, for without reflection there is no theory. ‘governmental terror machines’ that ‘entrench
A consciousness interpolating images, a third ele- themselves as permanent institutions, mock-
ment, between itself and that which it thinks ing the theory they carry on their lips’
would unwittingly reproduce idealism. A body of (Adorno, 1973: 204). Accordingly, his invec-
ideas would substitute for the object of cognition,
tive appears to be directed chiefly against the
and the subjective arbitrariness of such ideas is that
of the authorities. The materialist longing to grasp official materialist doctrines of the Soviet
the thing aims at the opposite: it is only in the Union, not least amongst them Lenin’s
absence of images that the full object could be Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. This
conceived. Such absence concurs with the theo- suspicion is confirmed by the fact that Adorno
logical ban on images. Materialism brought that
explicitly names Lenin in the paragraph pre-
ban into secular form by not permitting Utopia to
be positively pictured; this is the substance of its ceding the one from which the long citation
negativity. At its most materialistic, materialism above is drawn. As he writes, ‘When Lenin,
comes to agree with theology. Its great desire rather than go in for epistemology, opposed it
would be the resurrection of the flesh, a desire in compulsively reiterated avowals of the
utterly foreign to idealism, the realm of the abso-
noumenality of cognitive objects, he meant to
lute spirit. The perspective vanishing point of his-
toric materialism would be its self-sublimation, the demonstrate that subjective positivism is con-
spirit’s liberation from the primacy of material spiring with the powers that be’ (Adorno,
needs in their state of fulfilment. Only if the physi- 1973: 205–6). This is further borne out in a
cal urge were quenched would the spirit be recon- lecture dated 17 January 1963, where Adorno
ciled and would become that which it only promises
describes ‘the big book by Lenin about
while the spell of material conditions will not let it
satisfy material needs. (Adorno, 1973: 207) Empirio-Criticism, which through a
sort of dogmatic repetition declares the objec-
Above all, this passage seems to stake an tive reality of the world vis-à-vis its reduction
epistemological claim: that a purportedly to subjective givens’ (Adorno, 1974: 200).
materialist form of cognition which interpo- Accordingly, the question arises as to what
lates images – ‘a third element’ – between kind of materialism is at issue here –
consciousness and ‘that which it thinks’, in what kind of politics is supposed to follow
fact, ‘unwittingly reproduces idealism’. from it? Certainly, any attempt to answer
Adorno’s phrasing thus recalls the traditional these questions cannot go unqualified today.
opposition of materialism and idealism – the Inasmuch as the theoretical and political
realm of ‘material needs’ vs. that of sway of the Soviet Union has been irrevoca-
‘absolute spirit’. It acknowledges a ‘risk that bly consigned to the history books, Adorno’s
MATERIALISM 669

objections to the functionaries of dialectical metaphysics, such as that advanced by


materialism may appear to have lost much of antique Epicureanism, with its thesis that we
their currency. Nevertheless, ‘Materialism continually receive little images from matter’
Imageless’ points beyond its immediate con- (Adorno, 1974: 213–14). Adorno thus raises
text by holding fast to what Adorno describes the question as to how matter, which Lenin
elsewhere as a ‘Utopia of cognition’ (Adorno, characterises as being ‘wholly without soul
1973: 10). That is to say, ‘the materialist or spirit, i.e. causal-mechanical material in
longing to grasp the thing’ means nothing the sense of Democritus’, comes to emit such
less than a desire to radically reconceive how images in the first place (Adorno, 1974: 214).
thinking bears on the material world, albeit What interests us here is how the analogy
not without certain caveats. For what can we between Moscow and Athens allows Adorno
really say about a ‘cognition that neither to expose certain metaphysical presupposi-
merely depicts nor constitutes things – how is tions underlying Lenin’s account of how con-
it to be thought?’ (Schmidt, 1984: 25). After sciousness relates to the material world. In
all, the Utopia implied by Adorno’s concept this regard it is worth considering a lecture on
of materialism – ‘harmony between man and Atomism, perhaps the earliest form of philo-
nature’, as Schmidt puts it (1984: 25) – is sophical materialism, which Adorno gave in
subject to a ban on representation. As Adorno 1963.1 Drawing on a major work by the pre-
argues, ‘one may not cast a picture of Utopia eminent Neo-Kantian historian of material-
in a positive manner’; ‘one can only talk ism, Friedrich Albert Lange (Lange, 1887;
about Utopia in a negative way’ (Adorno and Schmidt, 1974), Adorno describes how, in
Bloch, 1988: 9). To form any image of Democritus and Epicurus’ view, all mat-
Utopia is to predetermine it from the stand- ter continually emits ‘fine particles’, which
point of the present situation and thus ‘to are absorbed by our sense organs (Lange,
garnish the status quo with its ultimate apolo- 1887: 106). The origin of our sense impres-
gia’ (Comay, 1997: 348). The question thus sions – mental images – is thus due to a con-
arises as to how we can make sense of stant flow of such particles from the surface
Adorno’s concept of materialism given that it of material bodies. As Lange expounds, it is
resists any positive determinations. thus that ‘actual material copies of things’
One possible avenue would be to respond to are said to ‘enter into us’ (Lange, 1887: 106).
this question negatively, i.e. by clarifying the Accordingly, it is the impact of these particles
terms in which Adorno criticises Soviet mate- on our sense organs that enables us to per-
rialism, especially Lenin’s theory of reflection. ceive the images supposedly sent out by mat-
This will allow us to situate his views, and – by ter. Adorno objects to the Atomists’ views by
extension – those of the Frankfurt School more asking how it is possible ‘to simultaneously
generally, in the long history of materialism teach the being-in-itself of nature as some-
sketched in the previous section. The following thing independent of us, whilst’, at the same
pages, then, will consider two prominent aspects time, ‘assuming that our sensory perception
of Adorno’s ‘imageless’ materialism: its quasi- is the source of all cognition?’ (Adorno,
epistemological dimension and its somatic 1974: 212). In order to square this contradic-
moment. tion, Adorno suggests, ‘Epicurus is forced to
In Negative Dialectics Adorno argues that posit a metaphysical thesis, which is irrec-
Lenin’s concept of materialism is rooted oncilable with Materialism’s denial of meta-
in ‘an Epicurean-style materialist mythol- physics’ (Adorno, 1974: 212), namely: that
ogy, which invents the emission by matter matter emits little images, whose truth is ver-
of little images’ (Adorno, 1973: 205). As he ified by sensory experience. In turn, Adorno
writes, the ‘naïve replica-realism’ of Lenin’s asserts a convergence of the Atomists’ views
theory of reflection is rooted in a ‘materialist with Leninist reflection theory. As he argues:
670 THE SAGE HANDBOOK OF FRANKFURT SCHOOL CRITICAL THEORY

This reflection theory, then, played a significant is, at the very least, theoretically deficient.
role in the history of Marxist materialism. To this As Adorno contends, Lenin’s trans-historical
day it lives on in the form of DIAMAT reflection
metaphysics of matter embeds human beings
theory, according to which theory is supposed to
be an image of reality, regardless of the fact that in a system of seamlessly determined nature
whilst the spiritual and intentional may be directed which belies ‘the possibility of freedom,
at particular states of affairs – it may mean them, whilst’, paradoxically, ‘speaking at the same
make judgements about them – it does not resem- time of spontaneous action, even revolution’
ble them … imagistically. (Adorno, 1974: 212)
(Schmidt, 1984: 18). Whether or not bad
politics necessarily stems from bad theory,
To be sure, Adorno’s identification of Lenin’s as Adorno implies, cannot be decided here.
dialectical materialism with Epicurean Suffice to note that his objections to Lenin
Atomism is uneasy. His suggestion that there are designed to underscore the historical
is an absolute correspondence between constructed-ness of capitalist modernity, as
Democritus’ belief that nothing happens by well as the imperative to critically interro-
chance and Lenin’s alleged historical deter- gate its apparent permanence.
minism, for instance, does not account for But what does Adorno’s criticism of Lenin
the role of Democritus’ doctrine of the say about his own conception of material-
atomic swerve – clinamen – which states that ism? If ‘Materialism Imageless’ negates
the movements of atoms, the indivisible the images of Leninist reflection theory by
building blocks of matter, are ultimately polemically invoking the theological ban on
random – a claim that is supposed to account images, then this strategy implies a different
for the existence of human beings’ free will mode of grasping (and acting upon) the mate-
in an otherwise mechanistic universe. rial world, which does not limit itself to mere
Nevertheless, Adorno argues, Lenin’s theory mirroring, and which does not inflict on it the
of reflection reproduces those meta-physical kind of violence that Adorno associates with
presuppositions that it seeks to recant by identity thinking. In other words, Adorno
assigning an extra-physical quality to osten- seeks to cast into relief a different way of con-
sibly disenchanted matter. By positing the struing the relation between mind and matter;
mysterious ability of mind-independent a relation which calls to mind the ‘Utopia
bodies to emit images whose truthfulness is of cognition’ cited above. Such a relation,
confirmed through sensory reflection, and by however, resists positive portrayal, not least
elevating this reality to the status of an unal- because the tools available for its construal
terable philosophical principle which ensures are insufficient for expressing it. The task of
the efficaciousness of revolutionary praxis, philosophy is thus to think thought beyond its
Adorno charges that Lenin’s concept of inbuilt limitations whilst using the restricted
materialism succumbs to the very ‘meta- terms at its disposal. Materialism, on this
physical subtleties and theological niceties’ reading, implies a complete overhaul of how
that it aims to overcome (Marx and Engels, human beings think the material world, and
1996: 81). In other words, Lenin is said to the possibility of its transformation, from the
fetishise matter by imbuing it with life-like inside out. Such a complete overhaul, how-
qualities, whilst simultaneously reifying ever, raises questions – not directly answered
human consciousness by turning it into a by Adorno – as to the kind of Marxism that is
passive object: a reflecting mirror. It follows conceivable on this basis. What seems clear
that if the official materialist doctrines of the is this: whereas Lenin (following Engels)
so-called ‘East’ aid the ‘uncritical reproduc- postulates socialism as a quasi-natural his-
tion of existing relationships in conscious- torical inevitability, Adorno (and the other
ness’, as Schmidt suggests, then the kind of members of the Frankfurt School) stress
Marxism that these doctrines serve to ground contingency, failure and the reversal of an
MATERIALISM 671

emancipatory tendency into its opposite; Physical’. As he writes, ‘all pain and all nega-
and whereas Lenin (again, following Engels) tivity, the motor of dialectical thought, is the
emphasises the mind’s propensity to reflect variously mediated, sometimes unrecognis-
the world, Adorno aims to negate the image able form of physical things’ (Adorno, 1973:
of the status quo. 202, translation altered). In a characteristic
Having thus established the sense in which gesture Adorno identifies the antithetical
Adorno’s confrontation with Leninist reflec- moment of dialectical thought – ‘negativity’ –
tion theory throws into relief a new form with ‘pain’. His ‘Utopia of cognition’ thus
of materialist epistemology whose utopian presents itself as ‘the mirror image’ of a neg-
implications cannot be positively pictured, ative affect, which inversely signals a state
it remains to explore the aforementioned of hedonic fulfilment (Adorno, 1974: 247).
somatic dimension of his thought. In Negative Adorno thus upends the Engelsian-Leninist
Dialectics Adorno argues that ‘the object’, topos of reflection. This is the sense in
whose primacy is dogmatically asserted by which, for Adorno, suffering is imbued with
Lenin, ‘is a terminological mask’ (Adorno, an ethical imperative. The ‘physical moment
1973: 192). It covers over an elusive excess tells our knowledge that suffering ought not
of matter that cannot be captured by thought. to be, that things should be different “Woe
Wittingly or not, ‘Once the object becomes speaks: Go”. Hence the convergence of the
an object of cognition’, Adorno suggests, specifically materialist with the critical, with
‘its physical side’ – its irreducibly material socially transformative praxis’ (Adorno,
moment – ‘is spiritualised’ (Adorno, 1973: 1973: 203, translation altered). Once again,
192). As he contends, leaving this spirituali- Adorno’s multifarious concerns converge:
sation unchallenged reduces sensation – ‘the materialism is assigned an ethical dimension,
crux of all epistemology’ – to a ‘fact of one which coincides with his view of critique
consciousness’ (Adorno, 1973: 193). In this as a form of socially transformative praxis.
sense, theories of reflection, such as Lenin’s, Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud
run the danger of misconstruing the thing resound in these lines. As Adorno continues,
that is registered in sensation as being merely ‘the telos of such an organisation of society’
another link in the chain of cognitive func- as would allow for the satisfaction of want
tions. By contrast, Adorno argues, sensation ‘would be to negate the physical suffering
is not spent in consciousness. ‘Every sen- of even the least of its members’ (Adorno,
sation is a physical feeling also’ (Adorno, 1973: 203–4). The insistence on a negation
1973: 193). It is such ‘physical feeling’ that of ‘physical suffering’, in turn, recalls a for-
Adorno associates with a ‘resurrection of the mulation from another important document
flesh’ in ‘Materialism Imageless’. Curiously, of Adorno’s materialism, his ‘Theses on
Adorno explicitly denies the Christological Need’ (1942). ‘The question of the imme-
connotations of his formulation. Instead, he diate satisfaction of needs should not be
cites the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ as his source posed under the aspects “social” and “natu-
(Adorno, 1974: 187). Whatever the prov- ral”, “primary” and “secondary”, “true” and
enance of Adorno’s imagery, ‘resurrection’ is “false”. Rather it falls into the same category
intimated negatively. Suffering becomes the as the question of the suffering of the vast
somatic index of the non-identity between majority of all the people on earth’ (Adorno,
humankind and the material stuff of nature. 2005: 43). In a ‘classless society’, he argues
This contrasts starkly with Lenin’s Engelsian in an atypically affirmative manner, the rela-
suggestion that matter is simply reflected tion between ‘need and satisfaction will be
by sensory experience. Adorno sugges- transformed’ (Adorno, 2005: 43, emphasis
tively illustrates this point in a passage added). Notwithstanding the question as to
from Negative Dialectics titled ‘Suffering what kind of anthropology informs Adorno’s
672 THE SAGE HANDBOOK OF FRANKFURT SCHOOL CRITICAL THEORY

slippery conceptions of need and satisfaction, in which he argues that ‘the perspective van-
this passage points forward to a central tenet ishing point of historic materialism would
of his unfinished final work, Aesthetic Theory be its self-sublimation, the spirit’s liberation
(2002). The alleviation of bodily suffering, from the primacy of material needs in their
the reconciliation of subject and object, the state of fulfilment’ (Adorno, 1973: 207).
overcoming of societal antagonisms – in That is to say, properly speaking, materialism
short, Utopia – can only be achieved in sem- would mean its own undoing, erasing even
blance, through the labours of autonomous the trace of itself in the satisfaction of need.
art, conceived of as the paradoxical product As such, it is not simply a counter-position to
of modernity par excellence. In the present Idealism but rather the outcome of its imma-
context this means that whilst the possibility nent critique – an immanent critique that aims
of societal transformation is mandated by an at an altogether different relationship between
individual experience of bodily suffering, the humankind and the material world, which goes
‘satisfaction of material needs’ hinges on the beyond the coercive strictures of the status
continued criticism of a philosophical tradi- quo. Adorno’s ‘imageless’ mode of materialist
tion, and a lived political reality, that has been cognition, then, points beyond the critique of
prematurely declared obsolete. ‘The power of ‘representational thinking’ to a ‘Utopia of cog-
determinate negation’, as Adorno puts it in nition’ whose quasi-messianic ‘promise’ moti-
Hegelian terms, ‘is the only permissible fig- vates the unlikely deployment of an ostensibly
ure’ of such fulfilment (Adorno, 1992: 18). biblical motif in the critical re-imagination of
It occurs in formally advanced works of art. a Marxian materialism that rejects the lure of
With this in mind, let us recall briefly the long positive portrayals of a reconciled future.
passage cited at the beginning of this section.
If Adorno argues that ‘spirit’ would ‘be rec-
onciled and would become that which it only
promises while the spell of material condi- SPECULATIVE REALISM
tions will not let it satisfy material needs’,
then the implication seems to be that ‘such Having thus outlined Adorno’s misgivings
spirit may only emerge undiminished when concerning Lenin’s mode of ‘representa-
the conditions of lack and privation, which it tional thinking’, it remains to explore the
repressed, will come to an end’ (Buchholz, contemporary resonance of his critique.
1991: 144). This ‘end’ can only be arrived at Accordingly, it is worth noting that central
critically – through the consummate negation precepts of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-
of false life. Accordingly, Adorno argues that Criticism have recently resurfaced in a vari-
‘one of the substantive misinterpretations of ant of philosophical materialism known as
materialism believes that, since it teaches the Speculative Realism. This is especially true
preponderance of matter, or, indeed, of mate- of Quentin Meillassoux’s book After Finitude
rial conditions, this preponderance itself is (2008a), which has been described as reading
what’s desired’ (Adorno, 1974: 198). Rather, ‘like a repetition of Lenin’s ill-famed
he suggests, ‘the telos … of Marxist mate- Materialism and Empirio-Criticism …
rialism is the abolition of materialism, i.e. rewritten for the twenty-first century’ (Žižek,
the introduction of a state in which the blind 2012: 625). Before proceeding to interrogate
coercion of people by material conditions this claim, however, it bears emphasising the
would be broken and in which the question sense in which Lenin’s presence at this junc-
of freedom would become truly meaningful’ ture is revealing: if it is true that After
(Adorno, 1974: 198). On Adorno’s reading, Finitude seeks to ‘complete and correct the
then, a truly Marxian concept of materialism programme of Marxist philosophy under-
is ultimately self-cancelling. This is the sense taken by Lenin’ (Brown, 2011: 163), as has
MATERIALISM 673

been suggested by some critics, then the analogue of the sun’s revolution around the
question arises as to whether the kind of earth), we must now consider the reverse:
social/political change conceivable on this that objects ‘conform to our cognition’, i.e.
basis is prey to Adorno’s critique of dialecti- that the earth revolves around the sun (Kant,
cal materialism. The point here will be to 1998: 110). Without presuming to recount the
argue that, if Meillassoux’s approach marks a intricacies of Kant’s argument, the compari-
resurgence of a quasi-Leninist metaphysics son with Copernicus is important because –
of matter, then Adorno’s position – and by as Meillassoux points out – it contains a
extension that of the Frankfurt School more slippage.
generally – provides a timely model for
It has become abundantly clear that a more fitting
rethinking materialism (and, indeed, Marxism) comparison for the Kantian revolution in thought
today. In order to do so, however, it is neces- would be to a ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’,
sary to briefly summarise the central claims given that what the former asserts is not that the
of After Finitude. observer whom we thought was motionless is in
fact orbiting around the observed sun, but on the
Put briefly, Meillassoux’s argument is
contrary, that the subject is central to the process
two-pronged: on the one hand, he suggests, of knowledge. (Meillassoux, 2008a: 118)
it is possible to have determinate knowl-
edge of mind-independent matter; on the If Copernican heliocentrism places reality at
other hand, he insists, one can demonstrate the centre of intellectual inquiry, then Kant’s
that the form of this mind-independent mat- critical turn entails a geocentric counter-
ter is radically contingent. He expounds revolution through which humankind
these views in two steps: (1) Through a becomes the measure of matter. Notwith-
critique of what he calls ‘correlationism’; standing the biases of Meillassoux’s reading
(2) Through a radicalisation of what he (Cole, 2015), his objection serves to frame the
describes as ‘Hume’s problem’. question that he shares with Lenin: how can
As a first step, Meillassoux’s effort to thought grasp mind-independent matter?
show that human beings can grasp mind- Meillassoux seeks to ‘overcome the correla-
independent matter depends on his objections tional obstacle’ from the inside out by show-
to a characteristic of modern philosophy, ing that Kant’s ‘critique of metaphysical
which teaches that ‘we only ever have necessity itself enables … the speculative
access to the correlation between thinking affirmation of non-necessity’ (Hallward,
and being’ – mind and matter – ‘and never 2011: 136). In short, the correlation between
to either term considered apart from the thought and being itself is presented as a mere
other’ (Meillassoux, 2008a: 5). In the main, contingency. As Hallward explains, ‘in order
Meillassoux argues, European philosophers to guard against idealist claims to knowledge
since Kant have mistakenly surmised that of absolute reality’, Kant ‘accepts not only
nothing can be totally a-subjective since the reduction of knowledge to knowledge of
objectivity can only be construed on ‘the facts’, that is, to knowledge of appearances
foundations of the cognition in which it is within certain intellectual strictures; he also
grounded’ (Kant, 1998: 507). He illustrates accepts that this ‘reduction’ is itself nothing
this point by citing a passage from Kant’s but one fact amongst others: ‘another non-
Critique of Pure Reason, which famously necessary contingency’ (Hallward, 2011:
likens the endeavour of critical philoso- 136). In this tacit admission, Meillassoux
phy to ‘the first thoughts of Copernicus’ locates the supposed non-necessity of sub-
(Kant, 1998: 110), the so-called Copernican ject–object dialectics, which are presented as
turn. Whereas, in Kant’s view, traditional incidental to the history of philosophy.
metaphysics assumed that ‘our cognition Immediate access to matter as such is thus
must conform to objects’ (the metaphorical deemed possible.
674 THE SAGE HANDBOOK OF FRANKFURT SCHOOL CRITICAL THEORY

In a second step, Meillassoux attempts to In this respect, Meillassoux is far from


radicalise the passages from Hume’s Enquiry Adorno’s insistence on the significance of
Concerning Human Understanding that con- sensory experience and human affectivity.
test the principle of sufficient reason. As he Instead, he isolates the mathematical dimen-
suggests, ‘any cause may actually produce sions of objects from their physical exten-
any effect whatsoever, provided the latter sion: ‘what is mathematically conceivable
is not contradictory’ (Meillassoux, 2008a: is absolutely possible’ (Meillassoux, 2008a:
90). In other words, ‘we may well be able to 126). The irrefutable reality of mind-inde-
uncover the basic laws that govern the uni- pendent matter is supposed to be proven – ex
verse – but the cause that underlies those hypothesi – in terms of pure number.
laws themselves, and which endows them There are at least two aspects of
with necessity, will remain inaccessible to Meillassoux’s argument which resonate with
us’ (Meillassoux, 2008a: 90). Meillassoux Adorno’s critique of Lenin: one regarding
concedes Hume’s basic point; however, he the place of transformative praxis, the other
suggests that Hume shied away from the full regarding materialism’s relapse into idealism.
consequence of his insight by declaring it as First, Meillassoux equivocates between
being beyond demonstration. By contrast, he meta-physical and physical necessity, between
contends, the impossibility of demonstrating ‘epistemology and ontology’ (Hallward,
that things are as they are of necessity in fact 2011: 137). In short, he inverts the Engelsian-
proves that no such necessity exists. ‘Rather Leninist view that reality evinces a devel-
than try to salvage a dubious faith in the opmental logic, whereby both cells and
apparent stability of our experience’ – like societies evolve according to dialectical laws
Lenin, Meillassoux speaks of fideism – ‘we that are reflected in consciousness. After all,
should affirm the prospect that Hume refused as we have seen, Meillassoux claims that
to accept’: that ‘an infinite variety of “effects” ‘there is no cause or reason for anything to be
might emerge on the basis of no cause at the way it is’. Consequently, the transforma-
all, in a pure eruption of novelty ex nihilo’ tion of material conditions may be both abso-
(Hallward, 2011: 132). Here a decisive differ- lute and instantaneous (Meillassoux, 2008a:
ence between Meillassoux and Lenin comes 138). Although the consequence of the
into focus. Whereas Lenin holds that ordinary Engelsian-Leninist dialectic is a strong form
sense experience provides the ultimate proof of historical necessity, whereas the outcome
of matter’s primacy, which, in turn, ensures of Meillassoux’s speculative-realist deduc-
the pre-eminence of transformative political tion is an absolute form of contingency, both
praxis, Meillassoux argues that it is precisely positions converge in mistaking metaphysical
the stability of ordinary sense experience claims for ontological ones. Whereas the for-
which prevents us from surrendering to the mer over-determines the course of history, the
full consequence of absolute contingency: latter can provide no account of what drives
complete, spontaneous transformation. As processes of transformation. In other words,
Hallward points out, the ‘conversion of whereas Engels and Lenin struggle to make
Hume’s problem into Meillassoux’s oppor- room for spontaneous action, Meillassoux
tunity’ thus requires a ‘deflation of experi- can provide no adequate substitute for what
ence and the senses’ (Hallward, 2011: 133); others have called ‘substance, or spirit, or
it demands ‘that thought must free itself from power, or labour’ (Hallward, 2011: 138). That
the fascination for the phenomenal fixity of is, ‘his insistence that anything might hap-
laws, so as to accede to a purely intelligible pen can only amount to an insistence on the
Chaos capable of destroying and of produc- bare possibility of radical change’ (Hallward,
ing, without reason, things and the laws 2011: 138). By contrast, Adorno insists on
which they obey’ (Meillassoux, 2008b: 274). the need for radical societal transformation
MATERIALISM 675

without consigning it to the realms of abso- CONCLUSION


lute necessity or absolute contingency, but,
rather, to the domain of possibility, however As has been argued, the Frankfurt School’s
slim it may be. particular contribution to the history of mate-
Second, Meillassoux’s defence of mind- rialism lies in its foregrounding of certain
independent matter tends to get tangled epistemological, ethical and aesthetic
up in mathematical abstractions, which impulses, which follow from a focus on indi-
not only lose sight of the material reality vidual experiences of visceral, somatic suffer-
they purport to safeguard, but which – on ing in capitalist modernity. On these grounds,
Adorno’s model – might be seen as repro- Adorno et  al. aim to negatively intimate a
ducing capitalism’s abstract reduction of Utopian mode of relating to the material
quality to quantity. world, including humankind’s own corporeal-
ity, which resists the dogmatic prioritisation of
As a matter of course, every unit of measurement,
from the length of a meter to the time required for mind-independent matter. Accordingly, the
a planet to orbit around a star, exists at a funda- authors from the orbit of the Institute for
mental distance from the domain of number as Social Research are notable for seeking to
such. If Meillassoux was to carry through the argu- challenge the orthodoxies of dialectical mate-
ment of ‘ancestrality’ to its logical conclusion, he
rialism by casting into relief a Marxism that
would have to acknowledge that it would elimi-
nate not only all reference to secondary qualities would liberate humankind ‘from the primacy
like colour and texture but also all conventional of material needs in their state of fulfilment’.
primary qualities like length or mass or date as On this basis, the Frankfurt School tacitly
well. What might then be known of an ‘arche- devised models for a broadly Marxian form of
fossil’ … would presumably have to be expressed
social criticism that aimed to offset the per-
in terms of pure numbers alone … Whatever else
such … knowledge amounts to, it has no obvious ceived failings of Engels and Lenin’s dog-
relation with the sorts of realities that empirical matic metaphysics of matter. The resurgence
science tries to describe. (Hallward, 2011: 140) of certain precepts of such a materialist meta-
physics in the work of authors including
Meillassoux’s misstep, then, lies in the Meillassoux, in turn, gives a renewed actuality
assumption that such mathematical forms of to the Frankfurt School’s position. However,
argumentation can remedy the ills of capi- the openness of their concept of materialism –
talist abstraction, which seem to appear to its critical disposition – means that its applica-
him as ‘mere errors of the intellect’ that do bility to current political struggles must
not have ‘any basis in a social, material and continually be determined afresh by subse-
extra-logical reality’ (Hallward, 2011: 140). quent generations of readers.
That is to say, the mathematical form of
Meillassoux’s argument undermines its pur-
portedly materialist content: the material
condition of ‘the tiny, fragile human Note
body’, to use Benjamin’s evocative phrase
1 Adorno refers in passing to the surviving frag-
(Benjamin, 2002: 144). The point, then, ments of Marx’s doctoral dissertation, The
would be to say that Adorno’s outline of an Difference Between the Democritean and Epi-
‘imageless’ materialism gains currency in curean Philosophy of Nature from 1841. A more
the present context because it models a radi- thorough investigation of this text might have
cally open-ended criticism of capitalist prompted him to redraw the genealogy of Marx’s
concept of materialism in order to contrast it with
modernity, which does not foreground its Leninist re-imagination – a task that is laud-
mind-independent matter, so much as it ably undertaken in Schmidt’s doctoral disserta-
insists on the importance of an on-going tion, which was written under the supervision of
criticism of everything that exists. Adorno and Horkheimer.
676 THE SAGE HANDBOOK OF FRANKFURT SCHOOL CRITICAL THEORY

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