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  • How To Read Adorno on How To Read Hegel
  • Steven Helmling (bio)

This article reads Adorno’s 1962 essay “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel” as an implicit program for Adorno’s own writing practice. Throughout his oeuvre, Adorno is consistent in the demand that philosophical writing must enact in its “form” the arguments and negations that philosophy usually thought of as its “content.” Commentators rightly take “The Essay as Form” as Adorno’s most insistent manifesto on behalf of this very modernist idealization of writing. (Among this article’s aims is to evoke the specifically modernist context of Adorno’s thinking about writing, from Hegel to Mallarmé and beyond.) But “The Essay as Form” prescribes for philosophy, so to speak, generically, expounding the creative and expressive tension of “form” with “content” in general, without investment in any particular philosophical positions. “Skoteinos,” by contrast, though not so explicitly staged as a program for philosophical writing, is vastly more fraught than “The Essay as Form” in mobilizing Adorno’s prescriptions about writing as a critique of his most potent philosophical precursor. “Skoteinos” intimates Adorno’s own ambitions, and anxieties, as a practitioner of (philosophical) theory and/or theorist of philosophical (writing) practice. “Skoteinos” stages Hegel’s philosophical failures as a function of Hegel’s failures as writer, and more broadly of Hegel’s failure to bring the implications of his dialectic for language to realization in the “form” or textuality of his own writing—as if Hegel the “immanentist” should have known better than anyone that there could be no “end of art.” Moreover, Adorno’s account of Hegel’s failure implicitly declares Adorno’s own philosophical aspiration, renewing Hegel’s project by correcting Hegel’s shortcomings. If Adorno’s grandiose claims for the aesthetic are usually assessed according to philosophical criteria, this article attempts the reverse, to do unto Adorno as “Skoteinos” does unto Hegel: to put Adorno’s theory to the proof of his writing practice.

But the essay [“as form”] is also more closed [than “systematic” thought], because it works emphatically at the form of its presentation. Consciousness of the non-identity of presentation and subject matter forces presentation to unremitting efforts. In this alone the essay resembles art.

—Adorno, “The Essay as Form” 18

Criticism has power only to the extent which every successful or unsuccessful sentence has something to do with the fate of humankind.

—Adorno, “On the Crisis of Literary Criticism” 307

The dialectic’s protest against language cannot be voiced except in language.

—Adorno, Hegel 121

This essay is part of a larger study about how Adorno writes, and how self-consciously he writes: about how his thinking and his writing are functions of each other, implicated in each other, how indeed they produce each other. My premise is that in Adorno’s usage such terms as “constellation,” “dialectic,” “concept,” “negation,” and “immanent critique”1 exert their force as much on questions of (to adapt Gertrude Stein) “how the writing of critique should be written”—how Adorno’s own writing is written—as on questions of critical or cognitive motives or purposes. Their point-d’appui is how to write as much as, maybe more than—or perhaps simply as—how to think. It is usual in this connection to cite Adorno’s mid-1950s essay, “The Essay as Form,” because it is so patently a manifesto for Adorno’s own work as a writer-critic. Shierry Weber Nicholsen’s Exact Imagination, for the most prominent example, makes “The Essay as Form” the centerpiece of her chapter on “Configurational (sc. “Constellational”) Form” (103–36; see especially 105–13, 123–30). I want here, however, to treat an essay much more charged and thus more suggestive for Adorno’s writing practice and for his view of language, the important late text dating from 1963, “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel”—an essay not only about reading Hegel, but about the problems of philosophical writing and expression in practice, and specifically about Adorno’s own critical practice.2

The idea that Hegel’s writing—his “textuality”—can facilitate a discussion of his work was just emerging in the period (1962–63) when Adorno was writing...

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