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  • Adorno's Tears:Textures of Philosophical Emotionality
  • Annika Thiem (bio)

Finale.—The only philosophy that can be practiced responsibly in the face of despair would be the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption. . . . Perspectives would have to be created in which the world displaces itself, estranges itself, reveals its fissures and crevices similar to how indigent and garbled it will lie open one day in the Messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with the objects—this alone is what thinking is about.

—Theodor W. Adorno1

In the final aphorism of Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno suggests that we find ourselves in a situation of despair—and that this situation raises the question of how philosophy "can be practiced responsibly in the face of despair."2 Adorno's answer is unequivocal: Philosophical thinking must long for the redemption of the world, renounce its [End Page 592] claims to mastery, and uncompromisingly denounce suffering and violence. This question—how thinking and philosophy can perform responsibly—runs through Adorno's works. Responsible thinking is an explicit question in Negative Dialectics and Minima Moralia and animates his reflections on aesthetic experience in Aesthetic Theory.3 Adorno makes the style of philosophical argumentation central to his critique of philosophy which seeks to elaborate a changed philosophy that reflects critically on its own epistemic violence. Adorno himself does not elaborate explicitly the affective and emotional dimension of this transformed kind of thinking. I will argue, however, that by attending to the style and tone of philosophy we can consider the emotionality of thinking as a medium of reflection belonging to the text rather than to the thinker or audience.

Building on Adorno's reflections on aesthetics and style, my argument is that there is a kind of emotionality that is the medium of thinking and that needs to be tended to. This emotionality is not directly any individual's emotional response or disposition. Instead, it inheres in and is either fostered or curbed by philosophical approaches themselves. Insofar as we give ourselves over to this or that philosophical approach as guiding and shaping our own thinking, we participate in this particular emotional disposition.

In Adorno longing for reconciliation and redemption is not simply an emotional motivation for the practice of philosophy, but this longing characterizes the emotionality of philosophy itself to which Adorno ascribes an epistemological-critical status. In particular, I suggest that Adorno's analysis of art's aesthetic comportment as critical and emotional offers a way for understanding philosophy as emotionally engaged and perceptive. This aesthetic comportment describes a passionate longing for reconciliation that is in itself fractured and also marks philosophy's irreconcilability with the status quo of the world. Embracing the emotionality of philosophy runs the risk of stylizing this emotional dimension into kitsch sentimentality. However, I argue that philosophical emotionality does not per se promote a pathos of [End Page 593] kitsch or sentimentality. Through Adorno's critique of what he calls the jargon of authenticity, I elaborate that philosophical emotionality remains distinct from philosophical kitsch, insofar as this emotionality interrupts the link between the text's and the individual's emotional involvement.

In his commitment to opposing kitsch and its compromised relation to suffering, Adorno is unrelenting in his refusal to embrace sadness, which he sees as sacrificing the critical force and composure of art and thinking. Departing from Adorno in the last section, I will turn to Walter Benjamin's work on Goethe's Elective Affinities, to argue that tears and sadness, Traurigkeit, do not necessarily justify or glorify suffering, but can open emotional spaces that allow for re-elaborating relationships between individuals beyond the text.4 Benjamin's hope for Adorno's tears does not overcome or resolve philosophical emotionality, but refers the textual emotionality to an extra-textual emotionality in order to reorient and reinvigorate our passions for thought and action.

Philosophical Longing for Reconciliation and Redemption

Adorno's attempts to rearticulate philosophical thinking seek to inscribe an affective responsiveness into how philosophy and critical thinking proceed. Philosophy...


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pp. 592-613
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