Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Notes on Individuation in Adorno and Foucault

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Notes on Individuation in Adorno and Foucault

Article excerpt

The social construction of the individual is a central theme in critical social theory. Theodor W. Adorno and Michel Foucault address this theme throughout their work, offering important insights into individual identity and autonomy in the West. To the question 'Who are we?,' Adorno replies that we are the product of a capitalist society that forces virtually all things, people, processes, and activities into the homogenizing and levelling mould of exchange relations. By contrast, Foucault answers this question by pointing to power relations in institutions and the modern state, claiming that individuals have been shaped by the normalizing forces of disciplinary power and biopower. Yet, despite these distinct foci, Adorno and Foucault broadly agree that what we are as individuals, along with our understanding ourselves as individuals, have been affected by social forces of which we are often unaware and over which we exercise little or no control. To paraphrase Nietzsche, Adorno and Foucault reveal that we are largely unknown to ourselves.

This paper will offer a long-overdue comparison of the social construction of the individual in Adorno and Foucault. Not only have few commentators ventured to compare their views on individuation,1 but none of the existing comparisons has been informed by the wealth of material on this process that can be found, among other places, in the lectures that Adorno gave at the University of Frankfurt during the fifties and sixties and Foucault's lectures at the Collège de France in the seventies and early eighties. The dearth of comparative accounts is especially glaring given the considerable influence that Adorno and Foucault continue to exercise on critical social theory, decades after their early deaths. In this paper, I hope to redress this lacuna by offering a more fully informed account of their views on individuation.

For Adorno, individuation can be fully understood only with the aid of Freud- ian theory with its postulate of dynamic relations between ego, id, and superego. However, since Foucault often criticized psychoanalysis, this paper will begin with a brief comparison of Adorno's and Foucault's positions on Freud's theories of instinct and repression. Following this discussion, I shall compare Adorno's and Foucault's distinct views on domination, examining individuation as an effect of exchange relations in Adorno and of power relations in Foucault. This comparison will issue in a consideration of precisely what is being shaped into an individual in Adorno and Foucault. The final section of the paper will draw conclusions about the central features of individuation, while broaching the problem of whether power relations and exchange relations are now so powerful that resistance to them is effectively futile.


Adorno was neither an orthodox Marxist nor an orthodox Freudian. Although he borrowed a great deal from psychoanalysis, which he defended against revisionists (including Karen Horney)2 and other critics, Adorno expressed serious reserva- tions about Freudian theory. He criticized Freud's conception of the ego when he argued that the ego was at one and the same time opposed to repression and the agent of repression, and added that Freud failed to distinguish adequately between repression and sublimation.3 In Minima Moralia, moreover, Adorno charged that Freud had demoted pleasure to a mere means to the end of preserving the species, while treating reason as a superstructure.4 Here he also suggested that Freud was a conservative thinker because he vacillated between denouncing the renunciation of instinct as repressive and applauding it as a beneficial form of sublimation.5

Of course, Foucault too objected to aspects of Freudian theory. In fact, his crit- ics sometimes cast him as virulently anti-Freudian because he claimed that Freud's "talking cure" was rooted historically in the Christian practice of confession. In response to the strident reaction of some psychoanalysts to his genealogical account of their discipline, Foucault countered that, unlike physicists, who took no offence when Albert Einstein claimed that physics was rooted historically in demonology, psychoanalysts fulminated against his genealogy in order protect the scientific status of Freudian theory. …

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