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  • Desires and Fears: Women, Class and Adorno
  • Claudia Leeb (bio)

1. Introduction

Feminist thinkers have both appropriated the central concepts of the early Frankfurt School thinker Theodor W. Adorno, such as his concept of the non-identical, and pointed at his problematic depictions of the feminine.1 Despite the growing literature on the latter there is so far no scholarship that shows how the feminine interacts with class in Adorno’s figuration of the working-class woman.2 She appears in the Dialectic of Enlightenment and Adorno’s later texts as the maid, Circe, süsse Mädel (sweet girl) and the waitress. Although Adorno’s central aim was to challenge instrumental rationality as he found it in its exploded forms in modern societies — in the culture industry and in fascism — I show that he resorts to such a rationality in his figurations of the working-class woman. 3

I draw on the theoretical framework of the French psychoanalytic thinker Jacques Lacan to grasp the deeper desires and fears that implicate Adorno in the very same instrumental rationality he aims to counter with his critical theory. Working-class woman appears in Adorno’s works as the fantasy object petit a in three figurations, the phallic woman, the castrating woman and the castrated woman. I show that these figurations are a response to what Lacan termed the Real — the element in the symbolic domain and its signifiers that resists absolute symbolization. Objects petit a are the historically contingent objects that takes on the function of unconscious fantasies to conceal the impossibility of attaining wholeness in the symbolic domain.4

1. In her first form, we encounter working-class woman as the “phallic woman,” the fantasy object petit a as she is linked to the imaginary domain.5 In this domain the subject desires to obtain her/his wholeness via identifying with an idealized whole image of an other with a small o, which is either the subject’s mirror image or the image of a fellow human being.6 In Adorno’s writings we encounter the phallic woman as the idealized “whole” woman that marks the utopian moment of reconciliation and a time when instrumental rationality has not yet made its advances. The central moment behind this unconscious fantasy object is desire, the desire to achieve an impossible wholeness via the identification with the idealized whole woman.

2. As fantasy object petit a, which refers to the moment of the Real, working-class woman appears in her second form as the “castrating woman.” The Real is linked to anxiety insofar as it confronts the subject with the fact that she remains a suject troué (a subject-with-holes or non-whole) in the symbolic order no matter how much she desires to become whole.7 Here working-class woman turns into the “object, which by essence destroys which he will never truly be able to find reconciliation.”8 We find her in this second form in Adorno’s texts as the Wesen (essence) of instrumental rationality, which castrates subjects in late capitalist societies.9

3. Precisely at the moment when the anxiety-provoking image of the castrating woman appears, we encounter her in her third form, the fantasy object petit a, which is linked to the symbolic domain — the “castrated woman.” The castrated woman serves a central means to ward off the intrusion of the traumatic Real. Whereas the phallic woman is the result of the desire to become whole, the castrated woman is the result of the anxiety that such wholeness is impossible. We encounter her in Adorno’s texts as the complete victim of instrumental rationality, unable to resist the culture industry or fascism. Since the working-class woman (and the working-class man) end up “castrated” in Adorno’s thought, Adorno hopes to spare the bourgeois male from his “castration” through instrumental rationality.

In section two, “Odysseus’s Encounter with the Maids” I draw on “Excursus 1: Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment,” a chapter in the Dialektik der Aufklärung, to show that despite Adorno’s central insights into the mechanisms of bourgeois, male domination, he fails to reflect on how his figurations of the working...

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