Below is a summary of the class discussion we had on both Wednesday of last week and this past Monday. Please feel free to add any questions and comments that you might have!
In “Subject and Object”, Theodor Adorno discusses the relationship between subject and object and questions the real and the illusory elements within that relationship. What becomes real lies in regards to the face that we (as subjects) have a private life; the experience of our “inner life” (wherein lies the subject and object distinction) is taken as pure. However, Adorno makes it clear that that separation is illusory. Here then, what we mean when we say “subject”, becomes complicated.
At the same time that we are subjects we are objects in the world as well. Grammatically speaking, if one were to say “I take a drink”, the “I” is the subject. To replace the “I” with a “Me”, the “I” becomes an object. To this extent, subject and object are completely intertwined with each other. Subjectivity is not a subject, it is an object as well and the subject is then of and a part of the world at large.
Adorno continues and explains that due to this subject/object relationship, man as a human being is a result, not an eidos (essence—see pg. 511). For Adorno, we (human beings, subjects and objects) are a result of the intertwining of society at every level (language, culture, art, etc.). Language, for example, does not come from us; we did not invent language as such, we absorb the words for our subjectivity—it does not grow out of it. To this extent then, language makes us a result of the world because it does not come from us only. Further, this only further exemplifies the relationship between subject and object, but more importantly it highlights how the separation between the two is illusory.
The subject is empty without an object. When reflecting upon one’s own subjectivity, when asking “what am I doing?”—you are making yourself into an object for yourself (the subject) to study: for Adorno, your subject has an object. No matter how deeply we retreat into the subject, there is an object. Adorno wants to build a distinction between the idealism behind subjectivity and its active state. He draws away from the idealism of being wrapped up in ourselves, of objects having a meaning apart from our subjectivity. The very meaning of the object, for Adorno, is tied to our subjectivity. If there is an object without meaning, then the subject has no meaning. The act of naming in and of itself brings up this intertwinement of subject and object: ‘What is this?’ brings objectivity into subjectivity.
What makes something meaningful and how it becomes meaningful is all tied into this subject/object relationship. Our very being as humans—how we think, know and are—is inseparable from history. Our knowing and being (elements of a pure subjectivity) are inseparable from history (objects). To this same degree, in the attempt to understand who I am, it turns me back to the world (society/culture) of which I am intertwined. They are a product of history: they are reproduced to such a degree that to ask “Who am I?” is inseparable from “What is the meaning of historical experience?”
This moment in Adorno’s piece reflects back to the relationship between historical materialism and historicism which comes about in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. When Adorno explains that “man is a result, not an eidos”, the question emerges: Are we barbarism itself, since we (as subjects and objects) are a part of history? History makes it possible to see the barbarism in who we really are as subjects and objects, but what does it really matter? Why would it matter? Why not look at cultural treasures as just treasures? Why not stay blind to history as a mound of wreckage upon wreckage. If the angel of history is telling the truth of history, of being blown away by the wreckage of progress, then why would it matter to look upon it in the first place? We become the products of the catastrophe. But were would we be without it since its part of our being and the distinction between subject and object is all but illusory? Are we doomed to be part of the wreckage? Or is there a way out?
There is a complex relationship to the past in regards to what Adorno sees as the barbarism of everyday life. It is easy to forget how much the subject is an object at the same time. The relationship between subject and object allows for each entity to reflect and influence the other; in the same way that one would say ‘I am using a pen’, you can reverse it and say ‘The pen is using me’ at the same time. There is barbarism in objectivity and there is barbarism in subjectivity: but how does this obligate me? How am I made responsible towards the catastrophe of history? Of which shapes my subjectivity and objectivity? If this relationship is one where there can never truly be a distinction between either entity, then what does it mean and what does it matter?
“The distinction between subject and object is both real and illusory”(Adorno, 498).
“The object, too, is mediated; but according to its own concept, it is not so thoroughly dependent on the subject as the subject is on objectivity. Idealism has ignored such differences and has thus coarsened a spiritualization that serves abstraction as a disguise. Yet this occasions a revision of the stand toward the subject which prevails in traditional theory. That theory glorifies the subject in ideology and slanders it in epistemological practice. If one wants to reach the object, on the other hand, its subjective attributes or qualities are not to be eliminated, for precisely that would run counter to the primacy of the object. If the subject does have an objective core, the object’s subjective qualities are so much more an element of objectivity”(Adorno, 502).
“The a priori and society are intertwined. The universality and necessity of those forms, their Kantian glory, is none other than that which unites mankind. It needed them to survive. Captivity is internalized; the individual is no less imprisoned in himself that in the universal, in society. Hence the interest in the reinterpretation of captivity as freedom. The categorical captivity of individual consciousness repeats the real captivity of every individual” (Adorno, 504-505).
“Man is a result, not an eidos…”(Adorno, 511).