Experience and Critique (Exposť)


The history of the critique of ideology (in a narrow sense) is short. Not only did it come to life quite some time after Marx, after its prevalence in the 1920s and 1930s it again disappeared and transformed quickly. While Karl Marx provided the roots of the critique of ideology and his early writings Die Heilige Familie and Die deutsche Ideologie are commonly held to be the fundamentals of any theory of ideology, Marx' theory is quite different from the theory that was devolved more than half a century later by Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno. The false theories in economy and philosophy were what Marx excoriated, those that did not account for real-life human behaviour, but derived this practice from some abstract principle and exculpated it thus. False theories were considered to be created rather arbitrarily by their authors, though their creation originated from the fact that the social laws of bourgeois society appeared to be natural laws. This kind of critique of ideology had been the foundation of the theories that developed after the end of the Second International, although it changed its character. The reason was that the ideology had changed its character as well. Ideology no longer was seen as a purely theoretical fallacy, found primarily in books and newspapers. Rather, the common consciousness of the bourgeois as well as the working class became the focus of the critique of ideology.

There are many reasons why ideology in this general sense came to the fore. They all are connected to the forms class struggle had assumed; class struggle, however, was no longer confined to factory and parliament. The cultural products had lost their implicitness. Not only had they become commodities; it became more and more apparent that fine arts, literature, music and philosophy only served as a source of representation and pleasure for quite a small class of society, while the proletariat received no share in it. At the same time, the arts developed according to their own laws; this way they became alienated from the bourgeoisie but, on the other hand, they never gained access to the masses that had been excluded from culture before. The ›masses‹ remained as uncomprehending as the bourgeoisie did. While autonomous art could be understood in the traditional terms of ideology, this was no longer possible with respect either to the now expanding mass culture or to the regressive adherence to cultural values. What did each of these cultural developments express? Which needs did they supply? The traditional critique of ideology became insufficient as it was concerned with more or less overt lies on behalf of the ruling class.

The second factor that led to the development of modern critique of ideology was political in nature: the failure of the Second International and the organisation of the working class. Not only did it become increasingly difficult to ignore the reactionary disposition of parts of the working class, especially as fascism gained influence; but also the communist and the social-democratic organisations developed traits irreconcilable with an emancipated and enlightened society. It became apparent that ideology could not be understood as a lie or a mistake, the thought of which could simply be banished whereupon one could discern how to change society for the better. Rather, ideology as a form of common consciousness was produced and reproduced when people tried to make sense of the society they lived in. The same goes for ›mass culture‹: it is what took hold when people tried to satisfy their needs. It became impossible to single out a certain centre of ideology or specific theories. Therefore, the critique of ideology began to concern itself with the social totality and the needs that demanded satisfaction. Ideology, it became obvious, was global infatuation that could not be individually abandoned. The modern critique of ideology therefore was closely connected to the notion of totality. However, this totality had nothing to do with a holistic conception of life or a philosophical system; it denoted the above-mentioned infatuation and thereby the object of the critique.

The conditions that gave rise to the modern critique of ideology did not hold out for long. Firstly, the critic perceived society less and less as a system of infatuation, because the point of view from which this infatuation could have been perceived became more and more doubtful. One does not become a critic of the bad totality by expressing some plausible arguments, but by virtue of a certain kind of alienation from society. This kind of alienation is not alienation in the abstract philosophical sense; nor in the sense of discomfiture with civilisation, which is as widespread as suspicious nowadays in the sense of a longing for security and loathing of ›consumerism‹ and ›superficiality‹. The kind of alienation that produced the critique of ideology was the alienation of an individual from a society that made no sense and which was not organised reasonably, but violently resisted any attempt to alter it.

The dolour upon the decline of individuality soon began to dissipate. The need for a critique of ideology dissipated at the same time. While the bourgeois individual still knew how little of his need was being satisfied, the post-bourgeois individual doffed his character mask. He no longer had to wear a mask, as he no longer was anything more than the roles he played. And play them he did, as arbitrarily as dutifully, without either a transition or a disruption. The continuous ego behind the character mask no longer existed.

Consequently, the critique of ideology no longer exists in its former sense. Instead, post-modern theories have developed, without any inclination to distinguish between right and wrong. So very self-evident had the social roles become that it seemed presumptuous to attack them. Meanwhile the notion of ideology was adopted by the social sciences, lost its critical potential on the way, and now only denotes preconceptions and prejudice. Thus, nearly any thought is ideological. The critique of ideology transformed into a guidebook on how to detect fallacies in discussions and revise papers for publishing. The critique of ideology became an applicable theory.

Adorno's (and Marx's) critique, however, had a strained relationship to theory; theory was the object of their criticism. The critique of ideology emerged from philosophy; and it relapsed into philosophy once again. Regarded as an epistemological question, ideology never can be overcome and remains an eternal problem. If human perception is determined by the social being, one is either stuck in the totality of infatuation without any chance to perceive the world the way it really is; or one has to claim a point of view totally unrelated to the existing totality, a view from nowhere. However, in the latter case, it is not clear how one gained this point of view; moreover, one is unable to perceive what other individuals perceive and even more unable to communicate one's privileged perception to those other ones.

This is the central difficulty of any critique of ideology. Epistemologically it is the eternal question about the relationship of the transcendental and the immanent and the significance of fetishism. Epistemology is necessarily abstract. One can focus on a dialectical mediation of subject and object as much as one wants, or demand that cognition be oriented upon the object - it remains pure theory. The critic of ideology, on the other hand, is not primarily interested in the theoretical question as to how ideologies are created. Any answer to that question is only a means to the end: the goal of critical thought is a moral, at any rate a practical one: to bring to an end people's acceptance of their own misery and to fulfil the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

It is difficult to maintain a point of view which is independent from society. Perhaps one has to put this even more strongly: it is impossible to perceive the object as it ›really‹ is and not as it appears to be. Any attempts to get to the pure object are for naught. »For if knowledge is the instrument by which to get possession of absolute Reality, the suggestion immediately occurs that the application of an instrument to anything does not leave it as it is for itself, but rather entails in the process, and has in view, a moulding and alteration of it. Or, again, if knowledge is not an instrument which we actively employ, but a kind of passive medium through which the light of the truth reaches us, then here, too, we do not receive it as it is in itself, but as it is through and in this medium. In either case we employ a means which immediately brings about the very opposite of its own end; or, rather, the absurdity lies in making use of any means at all. It seems indeed open to us to find in the knowledge of the way in which the instrument operates, a remedy for this parlous state; for thereby it becomes possible to remove from the result the part which, in our idea of the Absolute received through that instrument, belongs to the instrument, and thus to get the truth in its purity. However, this improvement would only bring us back to the point where we were before. If we take away again from a definitely formed thing that which the instrument has done in the shaping of it, then the thing (in this case the Absolute) stands before us once more just as it was previous to all this trouble, which, as we now see, was superfluous.« (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, Harper: p.131f)

It is tempting to solve this problem in the very way Hegel did. That would mean to apply a dialectical conception of perception. Still, one would remain firmly within the realm of epistemology. Hegel's solution is not to hypostatize subject nor object. He rejects the view that the opposition between the perceiver and the perceived is a definite one. Rather, perception emanates from the dialectical mediation of subject and object. There is neither a pure subject nor a pure object. However, it is doubtful whether this dialectical deduction of perception is successful. Many of the transitions within Hegel's system are dubious at best, while some are obviously forced. Furthermore, the totality which is the result of this dialectical motion is one in which: »what is rational is real; and what is real is rational.« (Hegel, Philosophy of Right).

Critique of ideology is not an attempt to construct totality. The elements of theory are inter-related, as are the elements that make up society. Each element is the way it is because of the other elements it is related to. It is there for a reason - within totality. Thus totality entails a moment of justification. Critical theory, on the other hand, wants to get a grasp of what might very well be a bad totality without the justificatory tendencies of a system.

Critique of ideology leaves the realm of epistemology; any attempt to reconstruct critical theory by means of epistemology necessarily leads to misapprehension, finally to a complete lack of comprehension. In terms of epistemology, it might be said that ideology criticism reconstitutes the subject as well as the object. As this reconstitution is dialectical, a Hegelian influence does indeed exist. Neither subject nor object can be fixated as itself; both are interrelated. Attempts to isolate one moment are the points of attack of ideology criticism. However, critique of ideology also attacks attempts to mediate opposites harmoniously if the reconciliation is false and the result is justification of bad totality.


A dialectical theory of experience allows addressing many problems of epistemology and ethics in quite a unique way. This work will focus more on the practical than on the purely theoretical issues, but ultimately the theory of experience will blur the line between theory and practice. The theory of experience will provide answers to many epistemological problems, but it will provide those answers en passant. Epistemology is shown not as a prima philosophia but as an attempt to embed the phenomena experienced into a static framework. The following chapter will show - with respect to specific examples from Adorno's and Benjamin's work - how their conception of experience worked. The goal is neither to narrow the theory of experience down too much, nor to report their theories as a whole. This will be done by examining the critical theory in action, focusing on the notion of experience while incorporating other elements of the theory as far as required by the topic discussed. The topics are arranged in a way that show the differences between Benjamin and Adorno, as well as to show the development of either one.

1. According to Adorno, dialectic is the experience of the resistance of the object against the subject. Generally, experience is not just subjective but a form of mediation between subject and object. »The vigour for fear and for happiness is the same: a boundless and self-relinquishing open-mindedness for experience, in which the one succumbing finds himself once again. « (Adorno) Adequate experience is neither immediate nor mediated by ready-made categories. Reasoning presupposes that genuine experiences have been had. If one only perceived in ready-made categories, reasoning woud remain locked in itself, eternally reproducing past thoughts and perceptions. Genuine experience includes an element of shock. Its opposite is the cliché, which presupposes acquaintance with the object. »Experience is replaced by the cliché, active imagination by diligent reception. On penalty of quick demise, the member of any class is prescribed a specific amount of orientation. This orientation has to include knowledge about the most recent plane as well as alignment with one of the given bearers of power.« (Adorno)

Walter Benjamin juxtaposes experience with the event. The event does not become part of the experience; rather, it is the result of something that does not appear to be self-evident. It is perceived as shock. »The more important a role shock plays within a certain impression […} the less it becomes part of the experience and the more it satisfies the notion of event. « (Benjamin) Adorno's notion of experience is more emphatic than Benjamin's. Both writers, however, are concerned with adequate experience that gives consideration to the subject (which is created by experience) as well as the object (which is understood by experience, not as it is in itself, but as it is with respect to the subject).

2. It is by means of resemblance that genuine experiences are gained. Both Adorno and Benjamin spoke about Mimesis as a method to get to the object, to minimise the distance between subject and object. While Mimesis itself is a relict of the magical era, a dialectical theory of experience makes use of Mimesis to break the object away from the categorical totality. Mimesis, then, is not the result of cognition, but only its beginning. However, similarities are not fundamental relations; they depend on a conceptual framework and therefore cannot provide an ultimate justification.

Benjamin widens the notion of resemblance to include non-sensual resemblance. In his book Der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels Benjamin discusses the epistemological function of allegory. In an allegory, objects have become symbols signifying something that is completely unrelated to the symbol itself. However, an allegory is not only about the meaning alluded to and it cannot simply be translated into what is being intended. Rather, the symbols gain a life and meaning of their own. Only the allegorical objects that are seemingly independent from their meaning can be the objects of experience. In his later works, Benjamin inverted this central conception of his philosophy and tried to gain access to the meaning, i.e. to understand an epoch via the every-day experiences available. These experiences might very well be »mutilated« experiences in Adorno's understanding, while Adorno's adequate experiences would be the result of the process of understanding what social laws and developments are expressed in those experiences.

3. »Since the end of the last century, [philosophy] has made a number of attempts to take possession of ›true‹ experience in contrast to experience that is reflected in the standardised and denaturalised existence of the civilised masses. It is customary to classify these attempts in the category Lebensphilosophie. Understandably, these attempts were not based on man's within society; they invoked poetry, preferred to invoke nature, and finally preferably invoked the mythical age.« (Benjamin) Adequate experience would mean to include the conditions under which the experience takes place. In this respect traditional philosophy failed. Either philosophy developed romantic notions about natural and authentic experience or it tried to understand experience in terms of pure reason. In neither case is experience grasped as social relationship, or are its shortcomings understood as part of the social totality.

4. While experience must undergo a process of dialectical appropriation, this cannot be understood in terms of speculation on a given foundation. Rather, the process of reflection creates the »un-mutilated experience« (Adorno). To understand reality only in given terms and concepts is inadequate, but so is the romantic notion of adherence to the given individual object. The close relationship between subject and object in both Adorno's and Benjamin's philosophy is reflected in quite a unique conception of the subjective and the objective. The objective is not that which is non-controversial (i.e. inter-subjectively accepted), but that which resists the grasp of the subject; this, however, is exactly that which is not perceived in terms of convenient ready-made categories. The subjective on the other hand, is the unquestioned perception, the façade of classified data. Adequate experience, for Adorno, would mean to be aware of these aspects of the object, which transcend the categories that are used to classify it. To focus on the individual object does not mean to abandon theory. Quite to the contrary, understanding the individual object requires theory; however, it is the object, which determines the theory, not the theory that determines the object. Empiricism purports to start with the empirical data; that, too, is inadequate, as it ignores the interconnectedness of the individual, which therefore expresses more than what it appears to be.

This background is necessary to understand Benjamin's concrete philosophy, which does not mean disregard for theory and has nothing to do with finding truth and beauty in the ›simpler things of life‹. It is, in fact, an attempt to avoid limiting experience to the economical and social constraint of capitalist society.

5. One of the views Adorno is most notorious for is his scathing criticism of jazz music. This criticism became a model for Adorno's theory of the culture industry. Jazz music was, to Adorno, inferior to the music developed by Schönberg, Webern and Berg, which Adorno preferred. However, Adorno not only criticised technical aspects of jazz music; not only did he criticise the fact that the reason to produce cultural products became making profits - not creating quality; not only did he criticise the consumers of those cultural products for their bad taste. Rather, the object of his criticism was the social relationship of which the artist, the consumer and the industry are only parts. As scathing as his criticism of jazz has been, his criticism of the romantic proponents of a more traditional art was none the less so. In both cases, the focus of Adorno's criticism was the inability to gain genuine experience. Musical experience requires knowledge, leisure, diligence and reflection. Experience results neither from the immediate impression, nor from the emotional reflex one is conditioned to feel, nor from the recollection of categories in which we have learned to talk about music. While Adorno's criticism focused on jazz as a mass phenomenon, it also included more experimental and avant-garde forms of jazz. He noticed that the radicalism and the originality of jazz were mostly staged. Not only had the improvisations jazz was famous for usually been studied beforehand; more importantly, the claim that jazz was unrestricted and unconventional had to be rejected. While jazz itself - behind virtuoso tricks and pretensions - was quite conventional in structure, the jazz fans - behind the appearance of vitality and orgiastic happiness - showed perfectly conformist and restrained behaviour.

6. The integration of the people into capitalist society is often achieved in a roundabout way by opposition, as even the mind in opposition perceives the world in reified categories. Some rebellions, while firmly within the framework of the existing society, will help society advance; some will simply preserve society as it is; some romantic ›rebellions‹ will lead back into the Dark Ages. As the progressive and the reactionary elements are often intermingled, much effort had been made by both Benjamin and Adorno to salvage the progressive elements. Critical theory of society could be formulated and developed from neither within nor from without this society. Epistemologically, that would mean to shed the given categories and come to a better, more accurate understanding of the object. Critically, it would mean to experience the limits of the theoretical and practical totality to work out where bourgeois society denies its own promises and possibilities. This is the reason why critical theory is often either socially transcendent or concerned with the means of integration. Adorno examined the non-conformism that was staged by the culture industry as well as the student movement of the late 60s the theory and practise of which he thought would mainly express its own powerlessness.

In this respect, Adorno was more traditional than Benjamin, who tried to examine the integration of the aspects of social totality into individual objects. Benjamin described the integration of the country into the city, the integration of history into fashion and he described the subsequent disintegration in his theory of the collector. This process not only leads to objects that can be experienced but also to the experience of the tension between the individual objects of a society that is no longer self-evident.

7. His method of examining social integration lead Benjamin to his conception of dialectics at a standstill. This term seems to be inconsistent, as dialectics is usually understood to be a method for describing and achieving change. Benjamin, however, refuted the claim of a dialectical philosophy of history that social and political life would improve as time went by. The actual historical process was rather different. Changes occurred; but they were the result of critical problems. Dialectics means continuity in the sense of integration. Crises have to be overcome, but the result is not a more reasonably organised society but one in which the crisis can be managed. The actual dialectical development results in changes that stabilise society. Bestiality is reproduced not because of the meanness of the protagonists but because of the dire need of the moment. Therefore, paradoxically, an analysis of long-term changes would only reveal continuity. It is only when dialectics is brought to a standstill that the tensions and ruptures become apparent. Benjamin paints dialectical pictures that may very well contain contradictory elements which have not yet been resolved. After they have been resolved, the appearance of the historical process changes: this is the traditional point of view. The elements that once led to the crisis now become reasons for the things to come. That which once showed the limitations and the unreasonableness of that which is becomes its justification after the crisis.

8. Benjamin's goal was to leave the continuity of history. Historical change, for Benjamin, cannot be depicted as a straight line that would lead from barbarianism or fascism on one side to communism on the other. Communism is not located opposite to fascism, but rather the result of breaking with the continuity of history. Benjamin developed a negative theory of history. The present does not spawn a paradisiacal future. In fact, the present reproduces the coercion and exploitation in accordance with its own technical possibilities. A redeemed society, on the other hand, would be one that was free of misery and exploitation.

Adorno and his friend Max Horkheimer examined exactly the same problem in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Again, the focus was on the danger, the misapplication and the disintegration of the Enlightenment and reason. While originally, another publication should have succeeded the Dialectic of Enlightenment to explore the salvaged enlightenment, only some minutes remain of this plan.

Not until the 1960s did Adorno began to work on a sequel to the Dialectic of Enlightenment. The Negative Dialectics aims to overcome the limitations of a philosophy of identity by the very dialectics which had been its foundation. »The dialectical contradiction is neither the mere projection of a miscarried conceptual construction of the thing nor metaphysics run amok. Experience refuses to settle whatever would appear in what is contradictory in the unity of consciousness. « Contradiction is directly linked to experience: »The totality of the contradiction is nothing other than the untruth of the total identification, as it is manifested in the latter. Contradiction is non-identity under the bane of the law, which also influences the non-identical. This law is however not one of thinking, but real. Whoever submits to dialectical discipline must unquestionably pay with the bitter sacrifice of the qualitative polyvalence of experience. The impoverishment of experience through dialectics, which infuriates mainstream opinion, proves itself however to be entirely appropriate to the abstract monotony of the administered world. What is painful about it is the pain of such, raised to a concept. Cognition must bow to it, if it does not wish to once again degrade the concretion to the ideology, which it really begins to become.«

One experiences the contradiction between oneself and the object which resists the categories by which the subject aims to perceive it. At the same time the contradictory nature of the totality can be experienced if the contradictions one observes are not simply negated, but kept in mind. In contrast to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the Negative Dialectics does not only criticise the shortcomings of reason; rather, Adorno salvages reason and shows how the essence can be comprehended as a bad state of affairs.


Adorno and Benjamin became victims of their own success. Not only professional philosophy and literary criticism are deconstructing the life that is taken for granted, but also feuilleton writers and social critics prey on the details of social behaviour as they see fit for their theories. However, critical theory can be held responsible neither for those who infer from adolescents watching South Park that the Western mind is closing nor for those who infer from families eating at Burger King that consumerism is finally triumphant. It was the concrete individual Benjamin and Adorno had in mind, not the abstract individual so popular with those who feel uncomfortable with civilisation. The concrete philosophy of critical theory presupposes a theory which includes the individual as part of the whole. The individual is neither an example for a grand theory nor the empirical data to infer from; it is the counterpart of the theory, none of which elements can become independent.

This final chapter aims at contrasting Adorno and Benjamin's theories of experience with the notion of experience that was common in the 1920s and 30s as well as with the modern philosophy of mind and its conception of experience. In both cases, the critical theory is vastly superior with respect to its critical and individual intentions. The critical theory of Benjamin and Adorno is - in some respects - the most advanced form of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. In other respects, this is not true: The philosophy of the Enlightenment is widely considered a European phenomenon whereas critical theory is, in its essence, not part of a certain culture but of universal validity. Critical theory claims to transcend the culture in which it was developed. The tradition of the Enlightenment is, on the other hand, not an untarnished one, as it spawned many doubtful and ideological theories. Finally, the social and intellectual developments will be examined that allowed critical theory to develop and those that were responsible for its demise.

Florian Beck, 21. Dezember 2004