Gillian Rose’s first published work, The Melancholy Science is a critical exploration of Adorno’s thought. The self-titled last chapter of the book seeks to outline the progression of complications Adorno’s social philosophy encounters and his emerging response. She establishes his social diagnosis as “approached as the immanent question of ‘the conceptual mediation’ of social reality (139),” and, as such, concerned with the meaning of social experiences.
In order to diagnose social reality in terms of meaning, Adorno invokes Marx:
Adorno construes Marx’s theory of value so that it describes the process which structures social reality at the level of meaning, or more accurately, at the level of illusion. This process is the production and exchange of commodities which entails ‘the reduction of the products to be exchanged to their equivalents, to something abstract’, and, that which is abstract, in this sense, is conceptual. This ‘conceptual entity’ Adorno calls ‘illusion’.
In Adorno’s conception, due to this phenomenon, “reality is thereby presented to people in a way which ‘prevents them from becoming conscious of the conditions under which they live’”(Rose 139). This is a theoretical description of totalitarianism. What Adorno reveals is the leveling of social difference by mass culture. Rose seems to be impressed by this elegantly structured argument: “Adorno’s notion of ‘conceptuality’ as a socially-produced illusion is designed to rival any theory of the constitution of meaning which suggests that ‘meaning’ is direct or immediately intelligible (Rose 145).”
What perhaps best indicates the totality of this illusion is its apparent lack of source. Rose states that social reality is systematized by “a principle which can be specified without any reference to the meaning conferred on that reality by individuals,” but one that still imposes its illusions on the level of meaning (Rose 139). This social homogenization imposes itself onto history, leaving no room for individually derived alternatives.
Rose clarifies this conception of illusory meaning by reflecting on the goals of art:
In the realm of art Adorno distinguishes between the ‘meaning’ of a work and its communication or reception; ‘meaning’ corresponds here to the process of production and thus to the way in which the work represents the relation between subjectivity and social objectivity. The sphere of production is contrasted with the sphere of exchange and consumption in which commodity fetishism may intervene and obscure the meaning of a work of art.
The Marxist concept of commodity fetishism describes here the phenomenon of sourceless, or mass, meaning- the market, not individual subjects, defines the value of an art piece in the modern world. Adorno explains this as “reification,” which Rose explains as the proscription of concepts to people by society, who in turn reimpose these concepts onto reality. This “systematic misrecognition of the relation between concepts and underlying social reality (illusion) is due to a social process, the production of value in exchange. ‘Meaning’ is thus opaque” (145).
Rose accepts the totalitarian horror of such leveling, but argues that Adorno’s diagnosis of the subject is incomplete. She argues that “it is sociologically and logically wrong not to construe some notion of the ‘subject’. It is sociologically wrong, because social formation and deformation cannot be conceived otherwise, and, as a result, it is logically wrong, because it leads to antimonies in theory. Yet Adorno mourns the ‘subject’ which has lost its ‘substance’ and his thought is haunted by this ghostly, missing agency (Rose 142).”
While Adorno addresses the imposed identification of subjects as objects in modernity, it is apparent that Rose sees him as going too far; a subjectless social diagnosis cannot be anything other than incomplete. In this essay, she addresses this point in correspondence with another critique of Adorno that he “himself drew attention to”- a reliance on theory that oversteps its bounds. However, “the ‘melancholy science’ is precisely an attempt to redefine the relation between theory and praxis (Rose 143).”
This means that Adorno’s diagnosis effectively supports itself. The call for positivism or solutions that can accompany social analysis is invalidated by Adorno because the diagnosis itself is praxis. According to Rose, this is because “praxis is a theoretical notion. Theory must have priority over praxis in this sense, but cannot have priority over the object. For theory is not capable of healing the split between subject and object by its own means.” Theory without praxis is limited in scope, “there is a sense, however, in which ‘praxis’ as the power of the object, is stronger than and separate from theory” (Rose 147).
Adorno seeks to make theory a social activity that does not instrumentalize objects. This is indicated by the name of his seminal work.
“The title Negative Dialectic is intended to cut across the conventional theory/praxis distinction by delineating theory as a form of intervention which combats prevalent modes of identity thinking, without in turn setting up a new identity between concepts and reality.”
Rose empowers Adorno’s diagnosis to effect social meaning, despite its weakened sense of subject and lack of social action. This places critical thought as separate from instrumentalized theory, which “misconceives the relation between the subject and social objectivity…[and is] therefore inefficacious and regressive, exacerbating the very conditions it seeks to overthrow” (Rose 148).
Which, Rose states, presents the “task of recasting theory as a form of praxis without overstating its claims to be a revolutionary weapon,” that is, “for Adorno, ‘the morality of thinking’” (Rose 148). This critical thought assumes the responsibility of praxis, and applies value to the social world transparently, as a productive critique of opaque conceptuality.
Above all else, this exploration of Adorno stresses that “the melancholy science is not resigned, quiescent or pessimistic. It reasons that theory, just like the philosophy it was designed to replace, tends to overreach itself, with dubious political consequences,” and, as a system of social thought, holds a responsibility to those it addresses. Rose tells us that Adorno’s “’morality’ is a praxis of thought, not a recipe for social and political action” (Rose 148). This praxis of thought extends beyond mere illusory action, but realizes itself and its task.