Thought and Utopia in the Writings of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Benjamin(*)

By Benzaquen, Adriana S. | Utopian Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Thought and Utopia in the Writings of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Benjamin(*)


Benzaquen, Adriana S., Utopian Studies


"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." Marx's succinct, elusive eleventh thesis on Feuerbach has not ceased to haunt Western culture ever since its pronouncement: the rejection of the mere activity of interpretation, and the positing of a new task, change, effected a crucial displacement in our understanding of what it means to think, know, and act in the world. What is this task of changing the world? The significance of this question is enormous. Marx's thesis has been the focus of debates on the relation between theory and practice. Marxists engaged in revolutionary activity often read it as an indictment of philosophy, understood as "thinking which is isolated from practice" (Marx 144), with the consequence that Marxist theory, granted a subordinate position in relation to practice, lacked independence and lost the capacity for self-reflexivity. Yet what was the role of philosophy after Marx's thesis? Adorno refers to this problem in the opening of Negative Dialectics: "Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried" (3). Adorno's words might be construed as a reversal of Marx's thesis. Do they cancel the task of changing the world in favor of a restored philosophy of mere interpretation? Susan Buck-Morss claims that, although "Adorno accepted a Marxist social analysis and used Marxist categories in criticizing the geistige products of bourgeois society ..., the whole of his theoretical effort was to continue to interpret the world, whereas the point had been to change it" (42). Was Adorno's theoretical effort then a regression to the philosophical stance critiqued and rejected by Marx? In this paper, I suggest that Adorno's thought never abandoned the space opened up by Marx's thesis. Adorno's rejection of the subordination of thought to practice responded to the need to reconceptualize thought in light of both the new task proposed by Marx and the historical failure of the one-sided acceptance, by many Marxist revolutionaries, of practice alone. In what follows, I reflect on the relation between the Frankfurt School's insistence on critical thought and Marx's injunction to change the world. The alternative to the simple opposition of thinking and practice (and concomitant rejection of thinking), yet also to the conflation of the two (thinking as practice, or praxis), is to think thought as a practice: one among many, with specific characteristics and a role to play toward the task of changing the world. But how can critical thought think, and contribute to, change? How can thought envision a world beyond the actual--the free society, the different future, utopia? And what are, for the Frankfurt School, the limitations and the risks of utopian thinking?

On Utopia

   The materialist longing to grasp the thing aims at the opposite: it is only
   in the absence of images that the full object could be conceived. Such
   absence concurs with the theological ban on images. Materialism brought
   that ban into secular form by not permitting Utopia to be positively
   pictured; this is the substance of its negativity. At its most
   materialistic, materialism comes to agree with theology. (Adorno 207)

Horkheimer and Adorno's critical theory of society is founded on the vision of a better world, and, simultaneously, the refusal to describe this utopian vision in positive, substantive terms. Their refusal to write utopia has been related to the Jewish ban on images. Martin Jay insists on "the subterranean influence of a religious theme on the materialism of the Frankfurt School" (56) and Buck-Morss notes Horkheimer and Adorno's adherence to "the Jewish Bilderverbot by refusing to delineate the nature of postrevolutionary society" (24). …

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