Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Communication in Constellation: Adorno and Habermas on Communicative Practices under Late Capitalism

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Communication in Constellation: Adorno and Habermas on Communicative Practices under Late Capitalism

Article excerpt

On Theodor W. Adorno's account of late capitalism, the exchange principle distorts interpersonal relations to such a degree that individuals see themselves and others in much the same way that they view the commodities that they produce for the marketplace. Pressured to adapt to a thoroughly reified society, individuals currently display narcissistic personality traits; their relationships with others are shallow and self-centered; and their understanding of the world often consists in a positivistic endorsement of what exists. These negative effects of the exchange principle on personality, sociality, and culture have not left communication unscathed. In a characteristically bleak pronouncement, Adorno complained that "at present each communicative step is falsifying truth and selling it out."1 Agreeing with his colleague Herbert Marcuse, who railed against the one-dimensional abridgement of language to a tautological affirmation of existing states of affairs, Adorno also observed that language-use currently resembles ventriloquism. Vacuous and mechanical, consisting in stock phrases and cliches, the words we use in conversation "are coming to resemble the formulae which used to be reserved for greeting and leave-taking." Furthermore, everyday speech has become competitive, or "sportified." When issues are discussed today, speakers simply "seek to pile up points: there is no conversation that is not infiltrated like a poison by an opportunity to compete."2 Yet, even as they cling tenaciously to their opinions, narcissistically investing them "with affect,"3 individuals seldom hold beliefs that deviate from the dominant or prevailing ones: what is believed to be true is usually nothing other "than what everyone thinks" (ODS, 106).

For his part, of course, Jurgen Habermas offers a markedly different assessment of the state of communicative practices today. Conceding that the functionalist rationality of the economic and political subsystems has succeeded in colonizing these practices and distorting them, he nonetheless attempts to counter Adorno's skepticism about communicative interaction. For this second generation critical theorist, a more authentic form of reason is already "incarnated in contexts of communicative action and in structures of the lifeworld."4 Oriented towards an understanding (Verstandigung) of the world reached through argumentative practices that redeem "claims to propositional truth, normative rightness, subjective truthfulness, and aesthetic harmony,"5 reason now manifests itself in everyday conversation to the extent that communicative action satisfies the ideal presuppositions embedded in it. Very generally, when we converse to reach understanding, we cannot but presuppose that our arguments both exclude "all external or internal coercion other than the force of the better argument," and neutralize "all motives other than that of the cooperative search for truth."6 When the force of the better argument prevails in communicative practices, rational agreement about states of affairs, moral principles, and expressive matters may be achieved. Such agreement not only serves as a warrant for our knowledge about the world, it also sustains and promotes solidarity with others, while fostering a measure of personal autonomy and responsibility. In turn, knowledge, solidarity, and autonomy may allow members of the lifeworld successfully to defend themselves more or less successfully against the colonizing encroachments of the economic and political subsystems.

What I want to do here is to identify some of the more interesting points of contrast between Adorno's and Habermas' ideas about communication with the immediate aim of pointing out precisely what is at stake when communication assumes the status of a philosophical problem in their work. To do this, I shall explore the constellation of concepts and ideas in which these theorists situate their accounts of communication. Subjectivity and intersubjectivity, fascism and democracy, unreason and reason, and dystopia and utopia are four of the notional bodies around which their ideas of communication revolve. …

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