A student and a reader recently asked me: why is essentialism bad? Uhg, I thought, how do you answer that? But it is a fair and reasonable and nagging question, and I will give it a try.
Courtesy of the Canadian government (Canadians—your tax dollars are hard are work!) I recently finally got around to buying Adorno’s lectures on Kant, which are proving to be (maybe “proving” isn’t the right word) amazing. In the notes in back, there is a little passage from “a text that appeared in student newspaper in 1955 with the title ‘Studying Philosophy.’” Here is Adorno, in extra-grumpy mode, complaining about the anti-philosophic tendencies of the classroom. This complaint is something near and dear me these days as the semester gets underway:
“Many students wait expectantly to see whose side the lecturer takes; they become excited if they detect an affirmative or polemical judgement and prefer a definite position to mere reflection. Extreme care must be taken to avoid any distortion of a philosophical nuance of meaning since the most important distinctions, the specific nature of an argument, most commonly lie hidden in such nuances. The overwhelming need of students to take notes reduces what is being said to summary theses so that what gives the ideas their vitality is discarded as mere ornament, to say nothing of the resentment that is felt towards ideas that limit or refute an argument. Dialectics as a school of philosophy are acceptable, but as a form of thinking that actually enacts a dialectical process is a source of irritation and is sometimes regarded as an obstacle to success in examinations. But it is precisely this insistence on the ‘thesis,’ on the expectation that the lecturer should lay down the law about what you should think and even what you should do that is the true enemy of philosophy and of the mind as such” (quoted in Adorno, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, 284).
What professor has not—inwardly, outwardly, upwardly, downwardly—complained about the “overwhelming need of students to take notes”? And yet what, exactly, is that need? In my head, I made a connection (not a logical connection, but some kind of connection) of this passage with that question: why is essentialism bad? Adorno does not use the word essentialism, but what he means by “summary theses” here is related: essentialism lays down the law. For Adorno a summary thesis is bad because it is non-dialectical: there is no “process” in summary theses. The law is timeless, it is a thing to learn and repeat. You take notes on the law. The process of dialectical thought, on the other hand, is always in time, in history (which is itself a paradox Adorno spends a lot of time thinking about): if you start to take notes, you stop doing it. Part of his point is that what is crucial in the classroom, and what is crucial in philosophy, and what is crucial in art (art is not in this passage, but he says it a lot elsewhere), is a (difficult if not impossible to specify) process that never quite turns into a procedure. In short: do not take notes.
I suspect that many teachers (certainly not all) will have a little black-humor sympathy with Adorno’s grumpiness here. But my answer, at least at this point, seems a little evasive to me: “difficult if not impossible to specify”…that’s not a very good answer. Here is another try: I suppose I could, like they used to do on game shows, take the second half of the question first and say something like “essentialism isn’t bad—it’s just an interpretive mode or philosophic position, and it doesn’t do anything by itself; essentialism has no agency—it can’t be bad.” Yet that response mostly sidesteps the question, rather than answering it—it avoids the heart of the question, which is the intimate connection in many circles between essentialism and badness. And I suspect Adorno would object: essentialism very definitely does something, very definitely has agency in the industrialized world—that is why he usually uses the word “reification” (borrowed from Lukacs, who is rewriting Marx’s term fetishism, which is a rewriting of the term ideology).
There is another customary, obvious answer, I suppose. It is the answer that lurks already in the question “why is essentialism BAD”? Essentialism is bad because it is socially oppressive. It blindly stresses one side of a binary opposition (high not low; inside not outside; left not right); it naturalizes and universalizes the interests of a particular group (capitalists, men, The West, whatever) in order to dominate another group (workers, women, The East, whatever). There is certainly something to that answer, which I don’t think is always stupid, particularly when I’m on the side of the equation getting dominated. In academe, that other side is usually not part of the classic repertoire of identity politics (race, gender, ethnicity). It is rather usually part of the classic repertoire of intellectual snobbery (“he’s just stupid,” where “stupid” stands in for the dominated half of the binary. In the UK, they say “he’s not very clever”—it took me years to figure out that UK “clever” = American “smart,” because I’m apparently not either. Perhaps that is what happens to Americans living in Canada). But basing your politics or your interpretations around anti-essentialism (she’s too right; he’s too stupid) is a notoriously slippery slope, and the oil that makes it slippery is pretty clear: the ease and fluidity with which an “anti-essentialist” answer appears IS essentialism, its very definition. It is a summary thesis. The law has been laid down; notes have been taken. To ask, or to worry, or to believe as a proposition the thesis lurking in the question “why is essentialism BAD” is already to essentialize.
After thinking about it for a while, I have another answer: essentialism is bad because it stops, or it tries to stop, reading…
If you are still reading—well thanks. Because at this point I made in my head another connection: this entire problem reminded me, somehow, of some of the writing on Arcade these days, particularly the discussion of Derrida. I am certainly not the first person to think that Adorno’s readings sound a lot like Derrida’s readings. Negative dialectics and deconstruction are much more alike than unalike—at the very least, they are both ferociously difficult, or at least opaque. A main reason for their difficulty, I guess, is their compulsion (let me call it) to avoid what Adorno tends to call “reification” and Derrida calls “ontology” and what (for present purposes) might also be called essentialism—all those digestible theses that students and readers always want (I want them too, often enough). Why can’t he just SAY IT? The question “why is essentialism bad” is always a lurking issue for them, even if the badness of it is more of a sort of ethic (Simon Critchley’s argument) than a philosophical position, since they both go to such extreme measure to avoid it.
But I don’t think their philosophic or personal distaste for the essential—their “philosophies” or their political positions— is really what is interesting or difficult about either Adorno or Derrida. I think they are mostly difficult because they do what so few people do: they read the text at hand. They pull out both its logical consistencies and inconsistencies (every text has them, including the question of what a “text” is); and they think about the threads between those consistencies and inconsistencies and the broader structures that the text sets in motion: formal structures, cultural structures...really, whatever—it depends on what text they’re reading. The internal logics of a particular metaphor, in this light, are largely an incidental problem. What is difficult, for me, is not Derrida or Adorno or the question of “essentialism”; what is difficult and inconsistent are texts. “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo.” What the hell does that mean???
I would go so far as to say that what is difficult and inconsistent is just life, and when you pay attention to it, whoa…
Reading "Plato’s Pharmacy" does not seem to me like a bunch of shell games are occurring; it does not seem like logic is alternately being pushed too hard, or not hard enough; it does not seem, in short, uncharitable. Rather, I cannot think of a more charitable reading of Plato (which includes the thousands of years of stuff attached to the word Plato) than Derrida’s: he loves Plato; he reads Plato; he pains over Plato; he is not willing to merely believe Plato. Likewise, reading Specters of Marx (a book that is loathed by dogmatic Marxists, uniting them in a bizarre (unholy?) alliance with Anglo-American philosophers), I am struck not by Derrida’s intellectual laziness or his lack of charity to the Marxist tradition but by his remarkable patience—his willingness to slowly work out just how WEIRD fetishism is, or to think about why we need to know whether or not the face of the ghost of Hamlet senior was visible, or to try to work out how Marx in The German Ideology is so utterly obsessed with Stirner.
When I read Marx (or anyone), zillions of things half occur to me: passages that don’t quite add up; phrases that seem especially zingy; connections that float about in my mind that I don’t quite work out as I’m reading along. Derrida’s patience as a reader—and this is true of Adorno as well—follows these threads. Derrida tends to follow them by writing many long sentences loosely connected together; Adorno tends to follow them by writing hyper-dense contradictory sentences. But they are doing something very similar. When Derrida or Adorno are at their best (obviously they are not always at their best), nothing about the reading feels forced or imposed or set up from the beginning; rather, it seems that something about Plato or cultural critics or Kant or whatever that had been lurking has been brought out in all its weird contradictory ways. The text of the text resonates in all its textyness—resonates as something like a living thing: and really, it is a living thing, a slow-motion, compacted version of life. I take it that is what Adorno means by “nuance” in that first passage: “the most important distinctions, the specific nature of an argument, most commonly lie hidden in such nuances.” “Distinctions” in that sentences could readily be one of Derrida’s favorite words, “differences.” The “specific nature of an argument” is its distinctions, its differences, its nuance—not its consistency, not its escape from time, but its differentiations. I read Derrida on Plato and think—yeah, it is like that—Plato is brilliantly building walls around a bunch of problems that keep oozing out on him.
And in part—just to add a logical conclusion or structural closure to a rambling post—Adorno has this in mind, I think, when, in “Skoteinos, or How to Read Hegel,” he makes a very funny observation (Adorno can be funny!). First Adorno quotes Hegel: “Reason thus drowns itself and its knowledge and its reflection of the absolute identity, in its own abyss: and in this night of mere reflection and of the calculating intellect, in this night which is the noonday of life, common sense and speculation can meet one another.” Huh? It’s a passage that sounds like gibberish or Romantic poetry; it certainly makes me feel stupid. Here is what Adorno says about it : “Only the ingenious and precise imagination of an impassioned member of a philosophical seminar will be able to illuminate the meaning of the last sentence, which is a match for Hölderlin’s most advanced prose of the same years, without doing violence to it” (Hegel, Three Studies, 90-91). I take it to mean that the difficulty of the sentence, its opacity, is part of what Adorno likes about the sentence—it is certainly part of what he likes and values about Hegel. And when he says only an impassioned member of a seminar could illuminate it without doing violence to it, he is, on the one hand, making fun of the obsessiveness of such a member (impassioned! What lunatic would read that sentence enough to start getting a handle on it?). But at the same time, he’s insisting that only in such a circumstance, only in the mode of passionate but patient unfolding, could the many reverberations of such a sentence be said to resound. “Doing violence to it” would be essentializing it, giving it a thesis, which is precisely what Hegel, or Derrida, or Adorno, is not doing. And then Adorno the impassioned reader starts to read it and unpack the (non)totality of Hegel.
It’s just awesome.