Adorno on ‘Negative’ Universal History

The task of a dialectical philosophy of history, then, is to keep both these conceptions in mind—that of discontinuity and that of universal history. This means that we should not think in alternatives: we should not say history is continuity or history is discontinuity. We must say instead that history is highly continuous in discontinuity, in what I once referred to as the permanence of catastrophe. In Benjamin himself I have discovered a sentence that comes very close to this when he speaks of ‘the angel of history’, the Angelus Novus, ‘who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.’ In this image, a magnificent one, incidentally, which grandly encompasses history as a whole in a way that is easily compatible with the monadological viewpoint, Benjamin finds an authentic expression for the union of the continuity and discontinuity of history. It is similar to at least one aspect of Hegel’s theory, and in fact the resemblance is much more than casual, even though we may suppose that Benjamin’s knowledge of Hegel was not very detailed. The resemblance is to be found in Hegel’s doctrine that identity is not simply identity, but the identity of identity and non-identity, in other words, of concept and thing, since for Hegel the concept is the identity. Admittedly—and this ‘admittedly’ which sounds like a minor reservation actually embraces a world of difference—the opposite situation obtains in Benjamin; and if I may add without immodesty, the same thing may be said of my own theory. The position is not that an identity rules which also contains non-identity, but non-identity is a non-identity of the identical and the non-identical. Thus non-identity includes what gives history its unity, what enables it to accommodate itself to the concept as well as what doesn’t. For the very things that subjugate and submit, these very acts of subjugation and submission in which identity is torn apart, forge the identity of history of which we speak and which we must describe as negative identity. Simply to erase universal history from our thinking about history—and in this respect I disagree with what Benjamin says explicitly, although the opposite is objectively implied in his writings—would be to blind oneself to the course of history, the ‘storm’ of history of which he speaks. We would blind ourselves just as effectively as by doing the opposite, namely by subsuming the facts of history into its overall course (which is what I have shown Hegel to have done) without emphasizing the non-identical side of history, since to do this confirms the course of history by the way in which it ignores individual fates.

Thus the task is both to construct and to deny universal history or, to use yet another Hegelian term, one used to refer to public opinion in the Philosophy of Right, universal history is to be respected as well as despised. The domination of nature—which incidentally is mentioned in one of Benjamin’s theses—welds the discontinuous, hopelessly splintered elements and phases of history together into a unity while at the same time its own pressure senselessly tears them asunder once more. I would remind you of the quotation from Sickingen that I mentioned to you at the start of these lectures: ‘Nought without cause’. We might say that in its development hitherto history is constructed like a gigantic process involving the exchange of cause and effect. It is as if the principle of exchange were not only the determining factor in the countless myriad of actions that constitute the life of human beings, but as if the macrostructure, the macro-cosmic nature of history, were itself just one great exchange relationship in which penance follows the act of taking so that in this sense history never escapes from the bonds of myth. This was a presentiment, incidentally, that was not alien to the early philosophers. Look, for example, at some of the documents of the early Greek philosophers, of the pre-Socratics. If you take the famous saying of Anaximander and also certain statements of Heraclitus, and look at them from the standpoint of the philosophy of history, and not just of ontology, as is the fashion nowadays, you will get something of a sudden insight into the exchange structure of history. We might even define the need to escape from this process of exchanging like for like as the telos of history, namely as the goal of liberating history from everything that history has been up to now.


SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006), Lecture 10 (10 December 1964) — ‘Negative’ Universal History, pp. 92-93. Footnotes omitted here.


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