Malfeasance and Appearance

marginal notes on Adorno, part 2

Adorno’s critique, in Negative Dialectics, of Nietzsche’s “ridicule [of] the difference between essence and appearance ... concurring here with all of positivism” applies a hundredfold to the latter’s French poststructuralist epigones: “nowhere else, perhaps, is it so palpable how an indefatigable enlightenment will profit the obscurantists.” The real difference between essential categories and their forms of appearance cannot be willed away without siding with untruth and apologia. Yet essence must be comprehended as the inverse of the being-in-itself, the eternal verity, traditional philosophy took it for. Rather, the essence categories have: 1. come to be historically, and 2. are negative. Adorno expresses the truth about essence in a nearly untranslatable play on words: wesen [essence] is unwesen — which both Redmond and Ashton render as ‘mischief,’ though Thorne & Menda probably come closest with ‘malfeasance,’ which at least slant-rhymes with essence.

Adorno is defending Marx’s dialectic here — Marx says the surface of society, the sphere of circulation “itself must be mediated as the totality of mediation, as total process. That is why its immediate being is pure appearance. It is the phenomenon of a process running behind its back.” But Adorno’s elaboration of this point has itself been extremely influential on the new Marx reading. It’s one of the keys to demolishing positivistic as well as structuralist Marx-readings.

Considered a bit more broadly, it’s also the key to exposing how today’s jargon of vulgar ‘anti-essentialism’ peddles voluntaristic delusion and wishful thinking, blocking comprehension of the real workings of the bad society it thinks it has stepped out of by means of a deflationary thought-gesture.

This is the postructuralist legacy: while fuming against The Enlightenment and reflection, it fails to see that it is simply radicalized enlightenment that refuses to reflect on itself, a reductio ad absurdum of positivism whose commitment to blind appearance has turned over into the conceptless arbitrariness that already lurks in the fact-checking scientism which is allegedly its mortal enemy. Celebrated Nazi deconstructor Paul de Man’s asinine punning description of Derrida as an ‘Archie Debunker’ points up this affinity: merely ‘debunking’ an actually-existing untruth itself gives cover for, and participates in, untruth by suggesting that it can be tidily dispensed with in theory, even if that theory itself is little more than a kind of noncommittal hedging, a bad-infinite deferral. The falsity in the given facts cannot be assuaged by injecting a palliative dose of indeterminacy into them (which amounts to squinting ’til your vision blurs when you don’t like what you see); rather it must be rigorously determined in its relation to the essential laws of motion of the false society with an eye toward their negation. Anti-essentialism is a matter not of theory, but of practice.

A New Institute for Social Research