Jonathan Ferguson
The New Understanding: Post-Secular Pluralism and Universalism!

The Risk of Israel VI: Adorno’s Cure for ‘Facts’

By Primitivojumento - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Primitivojumento - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality.

How do you feel when you read these words?

Many in our world might agree with them.

Or then again, many in our world will feel suspicious.

After all, the world is really rather chaotic nowadays, isn’t it?

And in such a time, one certainly doesn’t have to admire Marx (I know I don’t!) to agree with him that ‘all that is solid melts into air.’

Or again, you don’t have to love Yeats (although many of us most certainly do) to feel a certain dark foreboding as you bring to mind once more his ever-unsettling refrain:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

And in such a period, it’s no doubt tempting to retreat behind that time-honoured Anglo-Saxon philosophy of language: clarity, simplicity, transparency, facticity.

Those who hold to this mindset, so aptly epitomised by George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ (an essay every bit as thrillingly effervescent and exhilarating as the flamboyant title!) generally consider the leading lights of continental philosophy to be unbearably evasive, whimsical, frivolous, lightweight, and often enough, downright deceptive and dangerously fraudulent cult leaders.

For such people, the sober, restrained prose of a ‘serious polemicist’  Raymond Aron is where truth is to be found in Continental philosophy; rather than in Adorno and the Frankfurt school, nor indeed the Hegel who inspired them so much.

Of course, this division in poetry (to say ‘Adorno vs Aron’ is as much as to say ‘Poetry vs Prose’) is also a division in politics.

Firstly, there is Adorno the visionary, quietistic radical, ever engaged yet ever free of dogmas and commands.

And then there is Aron, the liberal activist.

This Raymond Aron was a Cold War political philosopher after the mode of Karl Popper, and is well beloved of those who are very much on the wrong side of poetry.

Yet even so, he was still very much on the right side of history as regards the unspeakable moral depravity of the Statist Communism that the best Continental Philosophers, such as Adorno, have likewise found appalling.

And yet, the division between the prosaic sense of life and the poetic sense of life is ultimately something which runs like a silver thread down to the very essence of the person.

And as a keen critic of the Soviet Union, Raymond Aron is unlikely to have been ignorant of the nihilistic fervour of those who endeavour to conceal, or at least half-conceal, barbarous intentions and behaviours and attitudes behind a dull, moronic, mechanical veil we can call the bureaucratisation of language.

And this, he was not alone.

For it was no less prominent a mind than Orwell himself whose aforementioned essay of 1946 reads very clearly as an indirect indictment of Fascism, Nazism and Communism: and in the very same piece of writing, we can clearly perceive a stubborn attempt to unmask Moscow’s totalitarian weaponisation of unclarity as a vessel of inauthenticity.

Stalin’s ruthless assault upon human dignity is here met with a counter-assault of clarity as a vessel of authenticity.

But as Adorno and other Hegelian thinkers both inside and outside the Frankfurt School might say, this is a clearly ‘undialectical’ vision.

That is to say, this apparently clear-cut distinction fails to see how this ‘authentic clarity’ has its own inauthenticity and its own obscurity within it.

Likewise, the Orwellian vision of language, or ‘Spirit of ’46’ if you will, fails to see how an ‘inauthentic ambiguity’ may also have its own authenticity and clarity within it.

The paradox of Orwell’s prosaic vision of language is that it is rather Dickensian, and reminiscent of Mr Gradgrind of 19th century England at the time of the Industrial Revolution:

Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.

Yet sadly, while the Soviet Union was indeed a very serious offender in the matter of abusive ambiguity of language, isn’t it also rightly known as a very shallow, prosaic and unbearably monotonous place of radical disenchantment?

The famous shuffling workers of Weimar Germany’s ‘Metropolis’ (1927) (trailer here for those who want a flavour) are classic icon of the tedious, drab, monotony of the industrialised world.

Exhausted, slow, demoralised, lifeless, all dressed in indistinguishable uniforms, all equally interchangeable, all equally meaningless and empty as the stunted, wilting, attenuated lives they all had felt compelled to accept as inevitable and foreordained.

Any society, or anti-society, founded upon viciously materialistic premises, whether it be thoroughly uncivilised like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, or only semi-civilised like Victorian Britain and Weimar Germany.

The prosaic monotony both of liberal modernity and of its notorious rivals, its overtly totalitarian rivals and counter-modernities, is not only a matter of its matter; it is also about the spirit of its spirit (Geist).

A prosaic philosophy of language, will inevitably result in a prosaic world.

Such a philosophy of meaning is not a true philosophy, a love of wisdom, but rather a misosophy, or hatred of it.

Orwell was correct to discern the inauthenticity of ambiguity, but to understand this is only to see very little.

Perhaps it is little wonder then, that the final one of his six rules for defending the managerial, bureaucratic vision and/or non-vision of language, is rather telling:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Could it be that Orwell, here, was a keeper of dark counsels?

Never mind!

After all, as Ludwig Wittgenstein has famously said:

That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.

Elijah the prophet was silent in the wilderness, even if he was vocal to God.

Enoch the patriarch was silent in the starry skies, even if he cried out to the highest heavens, as he remained below.

And Adorno’s wondrous brother in a common cause, Walter Benjamin, was martyred, and yet still he speaks today.

Adorno offers each one of us today a precious insight that is far from comfortable, and perhaps for some a great deal more than others:

Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality.

To repeat is not simply to say one more time.

It is to say anew.

For like as Heraclitus said one cannot step in the same river twice, Kierkegaard half-grimly, half-poignantly noted one cannot step in it even once.

Scarce wonder then, that the Shema begins with these stirring words:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The Orwellian vision of language is reminiscent of an ancient dialogue (or mutual monologue?) in ancient China.

Confucius inquired of his fellow-sage and sage-in-the-making, Lao-Tzu, of the details of some ancient rites:

You speak of men who have long decayed together with their bones. Nothing but their words has survived.

Language, over time, becomes dessicated, corrupted, dull, lifeless, and prosaic.

But those who know Ezekiel 37 can understand, at least a little, how beautiful it is when the dry bones are made flesh.

But this can only be performed and lived into by the sacrifice of the prosaic.

The prophet Ezekiel, as a wise person and a godly man, could not bear the proto-bourgeois climate of his times, where the one thing needful was for everyone to say familiar things, to say them in a familiar things, and rub along more or less nicely together and not make a fuss.

No wonder, then, that Adorno himself was destined himself to bear within him something of the aura of the prophetic age.

It must be understood that the truth of his writings lies not in the weaponisation of ambiguity for the sake of sinister purposes, as the prosaic spirit of the age might unjustly choose to libel him with.

Rather, the authenticity of Adorno (the authenticity that characterises him and in turn, he begs leave of us to characterise) lies in his understanding that ambiguity can itself have its own authenticity…

And that those who sacrifice all ambiguity purely on account of the crimes of a purely alienated and inauthentic ambiguity, will not be held guiltless of taking the name of Truth in vain.

For the inauthenticity of clarity is no less a shame and a disgrace upon the land than the inauthenticity of ambiguity.

For not all ambiguity, after all, is created equal.

One creative transformation of the words of the well-beloved Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, might be this:

From the place where we are clear,
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place of prose
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But ambiguity and poesie
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

There is an ambiguity that is a kind of murder, and an ambiguity that restores unto life.

There is a poetry that is fraudulent and oppressive, and there is a true and authentic poetry that is more true and liberating to the human spirit than any mere work of lexical bureaucracy and administrative word-arithmetic could ever be.

A wholly mechanistic kind of language inevitably ends with a wholly mechanistic world.

The cold-blooded murder of the poetic is what is used to justify the lifeless howls of execution upon the life of the poet, because those who subordinate language to the false imperative of the prosaic are also those who subordinate human beings to the dehumanisation of being a mere subject of progress or a mere object of regress.

And Adorno himself (no narrow conformist he!) was one of those who ardently desired to see the world improve, but who was no less passionately suspicious of ‘Progress’ as the means of doing so:

It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies.

It appears to me of truly providential significance that the Hebrew term ‘Tikkun Olam,’ or ‘Mending the World,’ so resoundingly refutes the myth of ‘Progress.’

For the flourishing of us all lies in a reconcilation of things old and new, and of the harmonious synthesis of both change and continuity.

For stagnation is the name of a continuity without change, Progress is the name of change without continuity.

A body that continues without changing will die.

A body that changes without continuing will likewise perish: for what is cancer, but a growth with but very little order and no continuity with that which came before?

Both of these terrible pathologies, Progress and Stagnation, result from the mutual alienation of clarity and unclarity: here, all there is to behold is the inauthentic poetry of oppressive ambiguity, and the inauthentic prose of bureaucratic monotony.

The degree to which this alienation is overcome, by the incremental unification of change and continuity, is the degree to which Stagnation and Progress dwindle, and a true maturity of the human race, and of every people, and of every faith, and of every human soul, is finally endowed with the right to live.

Everyone who is prosaified as a mere agent of Progress is dehumanised and oppressed.

Everyone who is prosaified as a mere agent of Regress is dehumanised and oppressed.

For human beings to have true dignity, this dictatorial and violent vision that cleaves the world into two must perish: the wicked tendency to characterise some people as between the sub-human, who represents ‘Regress,’ and the human, who represents ‘Progress,’ is harmful to all.

But if progress is mechanical and oppressive and prosaic, maturation is life-affirming, emancipatory and poetical.

The two quotations I have show you from Adorn (one on ambiguity and one on Progress) are very much of a piece.

His valiant defence of authentic ambiguity against both inauthentic ambiguity and inauthentic clarity alike is one of a piece with his defence of maturation vs Progress and Stagnation.

Whether or not Adorno would have chosen these precise words that I am using now, in every regard, is far from certain.

But I truly believe he has some very important things to say to all the world, and among the most important are his anti-Orwellian view of language, and the existential threat that the prosaic poses to human dignity, via its perilously tendencies towards the monotonous and mechanical.

And I believe my rejection of the false trilemma between progress, regress and stagnation is very much in keeping with the spirit of his work.

Is it possible to dream that what the world needs is neither Progress nor Regress nor Stagnation, but a New Understanding?

What is true human maturation were something that lay beyond the narrow, cramped, dogmatic, ideological prosaity of these three words, and what if the myriad clashing schools of secular mechanisation of people and of nature and of language are all destined, of time immemorial, to fall agonisingly short of the poetic?

What if the age of secularism were as inauthentic and prosaic as the age of theocracy was inauthentically poetic?

Let us not be over-reticent to bring to mind, at this dizzying and disorienating time of universal trepidation, that this great Jewish and great human seeker of wisdom (an unmistakably beautiful harmony of words!), has once made bold to pen this seemingly incontrovertible truth:

Of the world as it exists, it is not possible to be enough afraid.

These are truly heart-breaking words, and profoundly sobering with it!

But who can doubt, at such a time of tragedy and pain, that it’s poetry alone can deliver us from all our fears?

Adorno suffered greatly from the barbarous actions that are the inevitable result of ‘Post-Truth.’

Even so, his wise and profound body of contemplative philosophy seems to foreshadow today’s unavoidable necessity of the day:

The Post-Truth life is not worth living.

But no less unbearable is the bare and empty life of a purely inauthentic and prosaic ‘Truth.’

The world is faced with two kinds of Post-Fact world.

One possible world is hellish:

The Post-Fact that is simply Post-Truth by another name.

The other offers a sacred space for human dignity to survive, and dare we dream, perchance, to flourish(?):

The Post-Fact that resolutely rejects Post Truth and inauthentic ‘Truth’ alike.

The anchor of meaning resides in an abyss, deeper than the reach of despair. Yet the abyss is not not infinite; its bottom may suddenly be discovered within the confines of a human heart or under the debris of might doubts.
This may be the vocation of man: to say “Amen” to being and to the Author of being; to live in defiance of absurdity, notwithstanding futility and defeat; to attain faith in God even in spite of God.

These words are from Abraham Joshua Heschel.

May these precious words bring much strength and encouragement to all the world, as we stubbornly set our hearts to steadfastly refuse the deceptive siren songs of False Truth and Anti-Truth alike!


About the Author
Dr Jonathan Thomas Ferguson is an alumnus of the University of Leeds and King's College London. He is interested in interfaith dialogue, international relations, the Apocalypse of Hope and spiritual matters generally.
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