The basic goal of Theodor Adorno’s “Progress” is made apparent in the very first sentence: to provide a clear, theoretical and philosophical understanding of the concept of progress. Though he does not clarify until later, the author is referring to the progress of humanity in the widest possible sense. Simply contemplating this task immediately sparks a number of questions. How does one define progress? What are its positive and negative effects, if any? Which things progress and which things do not? Has there ever been progress? Is there progress now? Can there ever even be progress?
For answers, Adorno draws primarily upon Kant, but also utilizes writings by St. Augustine and (to a lesser extent) Benjamin, Hegel, Marx, and others. Using these sources, he establishes first the inseparable bond between progress and humanity. “As little as humanity tel quell progresses by the advertising slogan of the ever new and improved, so little can there be an idea of progress without the idea of humanity,” Adorno says. Subsequently, (according to Adorno’s interpretation of “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) progress is thus inextricably linked to the human desire for redemption, particularly in the eyes of future generations. This feeds directly into the idea (which Adorno links rather elaborately to Kafka) that humanity’s only purpose—both in the past and today–is the propagation of the species. According to this logic true progress is nonexistent. Not much attention is given to this definition, though, nor is it given to almost all totalitarian or limiting arguments brought up in the essay. In fact, the author problematizes almost every key term he uses and avoids oversimplifications and assumptions at all costs. The result is painfully dense, but dialectically bullet-proof.
After musing on the nature of humanity, Adorno smoothly transitions into establishing the dual societal and philosophical nature of progress. He posits society as the window through which we see progress, and philosophy he equates to a vital tool of society. As he progresses in his argument, summarizing the varying opinions of progress as both good and bad (but mostly bad), Adorno forms a complete, if paradoxical, new understanding of progress.
“Progress means: to step out of the magic spell, even out of the spell of progress, which is itself nature, in that humanity becomes aware of its own inbred nature and brings to a halt the domination it exacts upon nature and through which domination by nature continues. In this way it could be said that progress occurs where it ends” (130).
As hinted at in that quotation, the essay concludes that every conceptualization of progress is ultimately cyclical. This allows connection to another circular concept. Progress is established as stemming from the bourgeois principal of exchange, of purporting to trade one thing for another thing of equal value. However, if exchange actually worked like this, there would be no shift of power. Nothing would change and there would be no real trade. This system is maintained, then, by “the truth of the expansion [which] feeds on the lie of the equality” (140). Thus is the bleak truth (in Adorno’s eyes) of progress today—a steady building of philosophical thought now stuck in a rhetorical loop, like an album forever skipping on its final track.
All is not lost, though. Adorno suggests that should the exchange be made even, should there be a shift away from the dominant capitalist bourgeois mode of thought, progress would then be freed to defend society from relapse. This harkens back to Adorno’s collaboration with Max Horkheimer on Dialectic of Enlightenment, specifically, “Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment,” in which they equate sacrifice to the principal of bourgeois exchange. They also use Odysseus’ cunning manipulation of that system as evidence of his status as a prototypical bourgeoisie—and also suggest that an even exchange would cause the very same system Adorno is so concerned with, that of our current “progress,” to crumble. It would dissolve like an angler fish pulled from the briny crags of the deepest seas and baptized in our liquefying air.
Adorno, Theodor. “Progress.” Can One Live After Auschwitz? Trans. Henry W. Pickford. New York: Stanford University Press, 2003.