MINIMA MORALIA: Reflections from the Damaged Life, aphorism #22: Baby with the bathwater.

by Theodor Adorno (translated by Dennis Redmond)

Baby with the bathwater. – One of the central motifs of cultural critique since time immemorial is that of the lie: that culture produces the illusion of a society worthy of human beings, which does not exist; that it conceals the material conditions on which everything human is constructed; and that by seeking to console and assuage, it ends up preserving the bad economic determinacy of everyday existence. This is the notion of culture as ideology, which at first glance both the bourgeois doctrine of violence and its opponent, Nietzsche and Marx, seem to have in common. But precisely this notion, like all hand-wringing against lies, has a suspicious tendency to itself become an ideology. This is evident in the realm of the private. Thoughts concerning money and the conflicts attendant on such invariably reach deep into the most heartfelt erotic, sublime and spiritual [geistige: spiritual, intellectual] relationships. The cultural critic could demand, following the logic of consequence and the pathos of the truth, that all relations ought to be reduced to their material origins, without any consideration and directly according to the interests of the participants. After all, meaning is never free from its genesis, and it would be easy to show the trace of injustice, sentimentality, and frustrated and therefore doubly poisonous interest in everything which overlays or mediates that which is material. Yet if one wished to act radically on this insight, one would uproot all that is true along with everything untrue, everything which, however powerlessly, dares to try to escape the demesne of universal praxis, indeed all the chimerical anticipations of a worthier state of affairs, and would thereby fall back into that barbarism which one reproaches culture for mediating. In the bourgeois cultural critics after Nietzsche this unexpected reversal was always evident; Spengler enthusiastically endorsed it. But Marxists are not immune to this either. Once cured of the social democratic belief in cultural progress and confronted with the rising tide of barbarism, they face the constant temptation to advocate such as the “objective tendency” and, in an act of desperation, to expect salvation from the mortal enemy who, in the guise of the “antithesis”, is supposed to blindly and mysteriously arrange a happy ending. Invoking the material element against the Spirit [Geist] as a lie bears a kind of dubious affinity with political economy, which one subjects to immanent critique, comparable to the complicity between the police and the underworld. Since the banishment of utopia and the unity of praxis and theory was made compulsory, one has become all too practical. The fear of the powerlessness of theory yields the pretext of declaring fealty to the almighty production-process and thereby fully concedes the powerlessness of theory. Traces of malice are not entirely foreign to authentic Marxist discourse, and today there is a growing resemblance between the spirit of business and the sober, juridical critique, between vulgar materialism and the other kind, in which it becomes increasingly difficult to properly separate subject and object. – To identify culture solely with lies is most disastrous at the moment when it really becomes absorbed by such, and this identification is enthusiastically lauded in order to compromise every thought which resists such. If one calls material reality the world of exchange-value, and culture, that which refuses to accept the domination of such, this refusal is indeed illusory so long as the existent continues to exist. But since the free and equal exchange is itself a lie, whatever denies it stands at the same time for the truth: lies accordingly become a corrective on the lie of the world of commodities, and consequently denounce such. That culture has hitherto failed is not a grounds for demanding its failure, by strewing the store of milled flour on spilled beer like Katherlieschen [reference to fairy-tale]. Human beings who belong together should neither be silent about their material interests nor reduce themselves to their lowest common denominator, but should reflectively grasp their relationship and thereby move beyond such.

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