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Normal-neurotic Health in Adorno’s Minima Moralia

As the projected science of the subject, psychoanalysis positioned itself at the turn of the 20th century both as a liberating investigation of the sources of repression and as a reinforcement of those very sources of domination. Adorno devotes at least 5 of his aphorisms in the first part of Minima Moralia to questions specifically addressing the psychoanalytical promotion of a certain type of sickness all the more difficult to uproot and identify because it takes on the guise of the health of the normal. Unfortunately, the ethics of Freudian psychoanalysis has always been subservient to a particular view of the good citizen, the good society, and thus to a certain type of political aspiration. Due to Adorno’s “melancholy science” which investigates the plight of the individual, it might be useful to analyze what follows from the fact that Freud “takes over the antithesis of social and egoistic, statically, without testing it…Or rather, he vaciallates…between negating the renunciation of instinct as repression contrary to reality, and applauding its sublimation as beneficial to culture” (37). In order to specifically situate the response on this question, I will keep my comments to the sections entitled “This side of the pleasure principle” and “Invitation to the dance.”

Adorno specifies that it is not Freud’s lack of warmth that is symptomatic of his repressive traits, but the fact that after tracing conscious actions back to an unconscious basis, Freud still “concurred with the bourgeois contempt of instinct which is itself a product of precisely the rationalizations that he dismantled.” This is what leads Freud to oppose sexual goals as selfish against social ones (in particular, this would be to ignore the role of reproduction—which does not mean that sexuality is more social than individual but that it shares social goals (maintaining the species) and individual ones (pleasure, shared intimacy, expression of love, etc.). By relegating sexuality to individual drives which must be sublimated in order to become socially redeemable, Freud reproduces the double bind of the bourgeois order which simultaneously urges us to enjoy while rejecting all signs of enjoyment as tactless and not polite to bring out in the light. Denigrating the sexual and obscuring the social, Adorno argues that Freud “stands ambivalently between desire for the open emancipation of the oppressed, and apology for open oppression.”

How does this double bind come to be manifested? To simplify somewhat on Adorno’s argument, Freud reduces reason to rationalization insofar as he rejects the end of sexuality (pleasure) which alones proves the means (reason) reasonable. Thus, pleasure becomes a “trick for preserving the species” and ultimately resembles a cunning form of reason, a rationalization. Adorno sees this as a false dialectical conclusion because Freud does not take account of the moment in which pleasure “transcends its subservience to nature.” Yet the conclusion nonetheless takes hold and truth becomes effectively relativized at the same time as individuals are left defenseless to dominant power formations.

The aporia continues further in Adorno’s next section where he begins by stating “Psychoanalysis prides itself on restoring the capacity for pleasure, which is impaired by neurotic illness” (38). Adorno finds it astonishing that a discourse on happiness could not have been immediately seen for what it is, i.e. a symptom of the very devaluation of pleasure and happiness themselves. In this sense, psychoanalytic discourse finds an ancient forerunner in Aristotle’s discourses on virtue. Don’t the psychoanalytic cure and the Aristotelian middle way represent perfectly the dismemberment of desire in the attempt to create stable individuals who are “happy” with the dominant order? Adorno performs a reversal on the assumptions of these two discourses when he argues that, in order to be able to imagine new ways of promoting different paths to happiness, we must become disgusted with the happiness of normality, we must gorge ourselves on the inadequacies offered by the actual state of affairs, in a word, we must destroy the categories of happiness to which we are resigned to the point of becoming insensible to the established means of creating happiness.

Isn’t this why in his discourses on the sickness of morality Adorno can seem simultaneously so pessimistic and yet so uncompromisingly sober? When sick with the health of the normal, it is only the forms that seem to be labeled as sick, perverse, and mad that hold the keys to revitalizing a more genuine form of health. Adorno would be in agreement with Nietzsche who believes that it is precisely the sickness, stagnation, and weakness of the good which have to be fought against at all costs. This is because, in order to stabilize its power centers and thus render them normal, the good have to foster means of repression that simultaneously represses the symptoms of that repression. With the double bind on the individual’s responsibility to become a sublimated, good citizen comes the double stranglehold on the dynamic production of desire. Relegated to the general, the particular’s power is nullified and brought to a higher level that ignores differences on a molecular level. Raising the social to the absolute, the individual cannot escape the normality which common sense declares as a universal constant of and precondition to good culture. In modern society (which, through its development of power, worries less about the individual’s transgressions), the individual’s deviance from an established order does not so much warrant open, reactionary and repressive measures but instead results to more insidious means which mark the individual as uncultured, unsophisticated, tactless and uncivilized. Thus to continue this discussion, we should turn to the dialectic of tact presented in section 16.

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