restricted access A Totality of Ruins: Adorno on Kierkegaard
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A Totality of Ruins:
Adorno on Kierkegaard

Mythical dialectic consumes Kierkegaard's god, as did Kronos his children.

Theodor W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic

Adorno's first work in philosophy, the book on Kierkegaard (Adorno 1989, 2003b), is rarely, if ever, given the attention it deserves. This is partly due to its nature as one of the most precocious and impenetrable works from a writer who is a challenge at the best of times. But it is also due to the fact that its real subject is theology. Adorno may have subtitled it Construction of the Aesthetic, but a close reading soon reveals that this study of one of the greatest Protestant philosophical theologians has theology as its main target.1

One may identify both an underlying theoretical basis and the de tailed structure of Adorno's critique. The basis is what I have elsewhere called "theological suspicion": intimately connected with and in many ways reliant upon Marxist ideological suspicion, Adorno reshapes that practice with an eye on theology (Boer 2007, 394). That suspicion operates by means of critical discernment, in which one is constantly on the watch both for the subtle effects of theological modes of thought and for the possible genuine contributions theology may make. The study of the Kierkegaard book is clearly a case of the former exercise of theological suspicion, for Adorno seeks to uncover the theological underlay of Kierkegaard's philosophical system with a view to demolishing it. For Adorno, Kierkegaard's effort suffers from two problems. First, it attempts to conceal its theological basis; second, it thereby sublates and dangerously redirects the patterns of power and authority characteristic of theology.

Apart from this theoretical basis in theological suspicion, the detailed structure of Adorno's critique follows a two-fold strategy, a [End Page 1] pincer movement if you will: the first locates the myth that lies concealed behind the explicit theological material, while the second identifies the impossible paradoxes that disable Kierkegaard's every effort at dialectics. Having removed the layers beneath which myth has been carefully obscured in Kierkegaard's work, Adorno moves to pull apart the paradoxes of that system. Throughout, the bulk of Adorno's argument stays with theology, particularly in the way theology forms the ground of Kierkegaard's system. But theology turns out to be a treacherous backer, dissolving into mythology at almost every turn. It is then rendered nonsensical by internal paradoxes that fail to respond to the dialectic. As if to complicate the doubled pattern we already have, Adorno makes this move twice, once in the treatment of the spheres and then again with sacrifice. I have structured my assessment accordingly, critically assessing this doppelganger argument in detail.

Setting the Scene

Given the relative neglect of Adorno's study of Kierkegaard, I would like to make three preliminary points that set the scene for the following analysis. To begin with, what are the stakes involved in engaging with this text? The questions Adorno raises are pertinent to the ongoing recourse to theology among a significant number of thinkers on the Left, such as Slavoj Žižek, Alan Badiou, Terry Eagleton, Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri, and Clayton Crockett. The proposals keep multiplying, whether it is the Apostle Paul or Pascal as thinkers of the event (Badiou 2003, 2006, 213-22; see Karlsen), Paul as the source for rethinking the revolutionary seizure of kairós as a moment of potentiality (Agamben), Christ's death as the moment of God's impotence (Žižek 2000, 2001, 2003, 2008, 2009; Žižek and Milbank; see Kotsko; Karlsen), an argument for the simple, disinterested virtues of theology as a way of reconstructing a metaphysics to answer the challenges of our age (Eagleton 2003b, 2005, 2007, 2009a, 2009b), the biblical Job as a source for the creative force of suffering that bends transcendence to immanence (Negri), or even an argument for a humble and limited God as an answer to imperial arrogance (Crockett). In each case, we witness an effort to revitalize what is perceived to be a moribund politics by means of untapped resources in the Bible and theology. Almost [End Page 2] in every case, theology...