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  • During Auschwitz: Adorno, Hegel, and the “Unhappy Consciousness” of Critique
  • Steven Helmling (bio)

As was already pointed out in Dialectic of Enlightenment, strict positivism crosses over into the feeblemindedness of the artistically insensible, the successfully castrated. The narrow-minded wisdom that sorts out feeling from knowing and rubs its hands together when it finds the two balanced is—as trivialities sometimes are—the caricature of a situation that over the centuries of the division of labor has inscribed this division in subjectivity. Yet feeling and understanding are not absolutely different in the human disposition and remain dependent even in their dividedness. The forms of reaction that are subsumed under the concept of feeling become futile enclaves of sentimentality as soon as they seal themselves off from their relation to thought and turn a blind eye to truth; thought, however, approaches tautology when it shrinks from the sublimation of the mimetic comportment. The fatal separation of the two came about historically and is revocable. . . . Ultimately, aesthetic comportment is to be defined as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image. What later came to be called subjectivity, freeing itself from the blind anxiety of the shudder, is at the same time the shudder’s own development; life in the subject is nothing but what shudders, the reaction to the total spell that transcends the spell. Consciousness without shudder is reified consciousness. That shudder which subjectivity stirs without yet being subjectivity is the act of being touched by the other. Aesthetic comportment assimilates itself to that other rather than subordinating it. Such a constitutive relation of the subject to objectivity in aesthetic comportment joins eros and knowledge.

—Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 331

The 1944 “Introduction” to Dialectic of Enlightenment announces the book’s indictment of “enlightenment,” that it has abdicated “[die] Arbeit des Begriffs” (Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialektik 14). The German phrase—a Hegelian chestnut—is Englished as “the labor of conceptualization” in John Cumming’s 1972 translation (xiv), and as “the work of concepts” by Edmund Jephcott in 2002 (Jephcott xvii).1 Together the two translations show, as neither can by itself, the stretch of the German, which suggests both the work that concepts do, and the labor that making ourselves conscious of the problematics of the concept—“thinking about thought” (Cumming 25), “to ‘think thinking’” (Jephcott 19)—imposes on us. “The concept” is too diffuse and ubiquitous a theme in Adorno to treat here. It evokes the mind’s engagement at once with the world and (à la Hegel) with its own self-consciousness in that engagement; for Adorno, the “labor of the concept” is an imperative from first to last. I want to test the premise that for Adorno, complementary to the project of thinking about thinking—“the concept”—is an effort or struggle that I will call “the work of affects” or “the labor of affectualization.” Horkheimer and Adorno thematize this labor in their “excursus” on Odysseus and the Sirens, as a founding myth of what Adorno consistently denounces as “ataraxia”—a culture-wide affective discipline, or repression, which grounds the instrumental “domination of [external] nature” in an internalized, instrumentalizing domination of affect itself. “The need to lend a voice to suffering,” writes Adorno, “is the condition of all truth,” a premise that rejoins affect and concept, feeling and thinking, to enact Adorno’s protest against the separation of these categories—these domains of experience—in Western culture (Negative Dialectics 17–8). For Adorno, “the labor of the concept” itself involves laboring to uncover, focus, articulate, and express its properly affective elements, however repressed or distorted, fetishized or reified. Affect must be completed, “rescued,”2 even redeemed, by being concretized in the labor of, in the Hegelian formula, “apprehending it as thought”; likewise, thought—the labor of the concept—must suffer the ordeal through which alone thinking may be apprehended as feeling. Adorno urges that to “think thinking” obliges us to think our feeling, to feel our thinking—and (what our traumatic history has perhaps most inhibited in us) to feel our feeling as well.

This essay explores Adorno’s “labor of affectualization” both as theorized in his arguments and as performed in his...

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