Dave Harris: Brief notes on: Adorno, T – W (1973) [1964] The Jargon of Authenticity, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

It goes without saying that this text will present the same formidable problems as any Adorno text.  There is dense philosophical argument, written in that curious speculative style, with many asides to philosophers, writers and poets that Adorno assumes we will be familiar with.  This text also features a very close reading of several works by Heidegger and Jaspers, which are referenced.  There are a number of preliminary readings which might help with this one, including Marcuse’s critique of existentialism (my notes here), and an excellent online reading guide here. 

As usual, I am going to sketch what I take to be the general argument and then pick one or two little gems.  I must say it that reading it on this occasion (2009), I was struck by the continued relevance of the critique to current notions of authenticity or personal sincerity.  Authenticity has been extensively discussed in tourism studies, for example, especially ‘existential authenticity’, which seems to involve a personal feeling that one is experiencing something unusually authentic but only when travelling to an exotic location.  A cult of sincerity affects a number of recent efforts in social science, such as autoethnography, the ideas of performance or narrativity in a number of areas, including Education and ethnography.  Adorno’s critique seems to apply beautifully to those cases as well.

What is the critique?  It seems to me that, fundamentally, Adorno seems to be accusing Heidegger and the existentialists of an uncritical form of ‘identity thinking’.  This seems to operate at two levels.  First, they identify the current state of social relations with philosophical concepts.  Thus it is the current state of individuality, produced by a definite set of social relations that have rendered individuals powerless and isolated, which is identified with individuality as such in existentialism, with decisionism replacing power over one’s life, with menacing ‘Theys’ determining one’s existence, and with deep alienation producing that existential dread and despair that leads to the appalling consolation of one’s own death as the only sign of personal meaning.  It is also clear that Heidegger works in a number of politically-loaded German cultural volkisch themes in his depiction of an authentic rural provincial life.  Secondly, identity thinking operates in the other direction, this time in a familiar way.  Just as Hegelian philosophy identified Reason with the Prussian State, so Heideggerian existentialism compromises with authoritarianism, and eventually with Nazism.  In Marcuse’s terms, Heideggerian existentialism revealed a fatal weakness and compromise with the idea of a strong leader who would overcome anxiety and indecision.  Adorno seems to offer something similar, fostered by a central vacuousness in the ‘jargon’ surrounding authenticity, which values sincerity in the speaker, and not the truth in the speech.

At the most technical level, Adorno expresses strong reservations about Heidegger’s attempt to derive from earlier philosophies a more general universal concept, Being or Dasein, which somehow underpins both ordinary being and consciousness, and even constitutes it.  This trend has inspired other work, especially in social theory.  We have the attempt by Giddens to argue that there is a virtual level of social reality which gets ‘structurated’ into the familiar pattern of organisations and ways of life.  There are also the followers of transcendental or critical realism, such as Bhaskar, who attempt to deduce the existence of such a level by arguing that the well-known splits between structural and individual levels of analysis in social life must indicate the existence of something beneath that explains both.  For Adorno, such attempts are dangerous in that they try to end the dialectic between being and thought, the central dynamic lying behind the ability to do critique and consider political alternatives.  Of course, both Giddens and Bhaskar offer critical analyses of existing social forms, but I suppose they do this in a ‘Young Hegelian’ manner, for Adorno, pointing out, usefully, that the existing social reality is not the only one, but rather a particular construction of the possibilities.  Apart from anything else, however, this can slide into a general and all-purpose politics just like other versions of social constructivism: if everything is socially constructed, this somehow equates advanced monopoly capitalism with the perceptions of children about Santa Claus.

The jargon of authenticity is fashionable again, it could be argued, with statements valued in terms of how sincerely they are believed, with no external standards of critique applied to them.  This appears in the uncritical reception given to emotional statements in particular in autoethnography, and their ability to induce similar emotions in the readers, the ‘validity of tears’ (see Gannon 2006).  It also appears in the sincere but strangely unoriginal disclosures of various writers engaged in performance or in journeying.  Pink, for example, (2008a, 2008b) performs her ethnographic investigation of the ‘Slow City’ movements in three locations in England, but comes to the same complacent and rather self satisfied conclusions in each.  Hunt (2009) offers perhaps the best example of the sincere journey, away from (a pretty garbled version of) western metaphysics and the scientific tradition, through Kuhn, into more subjectivist methodologies and thus to a familiar tolerant accommodation with more or less any view whatsoever.

Hunt’s view summarises just about all the important recent trends in educational thinking, in fact.  It is very difficult to know quite what to make of the frequent mentions in current educational thinking of critical thinkers such as Habermas, Freire, Gadamer, or even Bakhtin, except as the flourishing of the jargon.  Certainly, none of them seemed to have thought of any serious objections to a naive social constructivism.  At the same time, it is clear that social constructivism is also limited, usually to the views of one’s opponents or predecessors. Of course, there is an authoritarianism beneath the surface here as well, and these arguments can function as signals that the writer belongs to some privileged and insightful group of sensitive persons: any dissenter can be readily pilloried as upholding an oppressive tradition, or suffering from some personal conservatism.  To take a recent example, I raised a mild objection after a conference presentation to a speaker who wanted to insist that the underlying general category of ‘love’ bore some fundamental political and philosophical significance.  My critique paralleled Adorno’s, arguing that the dominant powers would simply redefine ‘love’ in a way that suited them.  I was denounced as ‘having no heart’, and, therefore, presumably having no right to speak either.

Finally, I couldn't help thinking about the hoo-hah about authenticity in Tourism. Adorno would sort them out! Authenticity seems to refer to some other set of social relations there too, quite often a volkisch one of British seaside holidays or some nostalgic past. It is riddled with artsy-craftsy stuff, most marvellously where indigenous folk are to be allowed to benefit from authentic tourism by setting up their own craft stalls to sell 'authentic' souvenirs or by staging tours to their own volkisch hinterlands. Its jargon is deployed entirely tactically and serves to draw social boundaries among the 'right-thinking folk' who go for it, despite all the denials that it is about the hack division between mere tourists and proper travellers. It justifies Tourism Departments and a whole journal for that matter.

Anyway, what I will know do is simply identify some important sections and quotations in Adorno’s own book:

A happy or ‘hale’ life has to be defined in opposition to a damaged life which allegedly prevails in industrial societies.  “Through the ingrained language form of the jargon, that real life is equated with agrarian conditions, or at least with simple commodity economy, free from all social considerations…  The field of association here is a leftover of romanticism and is transplanted without second thoughts into the contemporary situation…  The categories of the jargon are gladly brought forward, as though they were not abstracted from generated and transitory situations, but rather belonged to the essence of man…  Conclusions are drawn from certain categories…  where the institutions of exchange do not yet have complete power over the relationships of men.  From  those categories it is concluded that their core, man, is immediately present among contemporary men, that he is there to realise his eidos’ (59).

Heidegger resorts to authoritarian and dogmatic language in order to make his arguments at crucial stages.  “Heidegger…  cracks the whip when he italicises the auxiliary verb in the sentence, ‘Death is’.  The romantic or translation of the imperative into a predication makes the imperative categorical.  This imperative does not allow for refusal, since it no longer at all obliges like the Kantian imperative, but describes obedience as a completed fact…  The objection raised by reason is banned from the range of what is at all conceivable in society.’ (89) Adorno goes on to quote a satirical speech allegedly addressed to businessman and politicians, about human values.  The speaker flatters the audience by suggesting that they are the ones who know the real essence of properly authentic matters.  The speaker insists that his audience ‘think with the heart and…  tune in the human antenna to the same wavelength’. (90)  Adorno comments that ‘while what the speaker is aiming at remains unspecified, the jargon brings it to light’ (91) – it is a way of both empowering administrators and flattering the existing ones.  ‘The exhortation to think with the heart…  has been admired by businessmen right from the beginning…  [but in a way in which]…  all content is “bracketed”’ (92).

It is nonsense to appeal to some sort of primal experience, some basic human qualities.  ‘In the universally mediated world everything experienced in primary terms is culturally preformed.  Whoever wants [to contact] the other has to start with the immanence of culture, in order to break out through it.  But fundamental ontology gladly spares itself that, by pretending it has a starting point somewhere outside.  In that way such ontology succumbs to cultural mediations all the more.  Philosophy involves itself all the more deeply in society as it more eagerly – reflecting upon itself – pushes off from society and its objective spirit.  It claws itself firmly into its blindly social fate, which –in Heidegger’s terminology –has thrown one into this and no other place.  That was according to the taste of fascism.  With the downfall of market liberalism, relationships of domination stepped nakedly into the foreground.  The baldness of their order, the authentic law of the “needy time” easily permits itself to be taken for something primal.  That is how people could jaw about blood and soil, without a smile, during the excessively accumulating industrial capitalism of the Third Reich (99 – 100).

The ‘artsy-craftsy element in the jargon…  provides a refuge for the stale notion that art should be brought back into life..  It gathers reproductions of kitschy life–reforming impulses... and spares them the hopeless testing ground of actualization.  Instead, language rolls up its sleeves and lets it be understood that right action, in the right place, is worth more than reflection.  In that way the contemplative attitude, without any perception of the praxis which brings about changes, sympathises all the more strikingly with the here and now, the servicing of obligations presented within the given’ (108-9).

Heidegger’s ‘hatred towards curiosity is allied to his hatred towards mobility; both are even hammered into the mind by the ripe old saying: stay in the country and earn your living honestly’ (110).

‘Whatever praises itself for reaching behind concepts of reflection –subject and object – in order to grasp something substantial, does nothing but reify the irresolvability of the concepts of reflection.  It reifies the impossibility of reducing one into the other…  This is the standard philosophical form of underhanded activity, which thereupon appears constantly in the jargon.  It vindicates without authority and without theology, maintaining that what is of essence is real, and, by the same token, that the existent is essential, meaningful, and justified.’ (121).

‘The concept of selfness is here being eternalised precisely at the moment in which it has already disintegrated.  Late bourgeois thinking re-forms itself into naked self preservation…  But whoever stubbornly insists on his [existential being], because everything else is being cut off from him, only turns [such being] into a fetish.  Cut off and fixed selfness only becomes, all the more, something external.  This is the ideological answer to the fact that the current state of affairs is everywhere producing an ego weakness which eradicates the concept of subject as individuality.  That weakness as well as its opposite march into Heidegger’s philosophy.  Authenticity is supposed to calm the consciousness of weakness, but it also resembles it.  By it the living subject is robbed of full definition, in the same way as it loses its attributes in reality’ (122).

‘Language [actually] uses the term “authentic” in a floating manner...  The interest in the authenticity of the concept enters into the judgement about this concept.  Whatever is authentic in this concept also only becomes so under the perspective of something that is different from it.  It is never pure in the concept itself…  [but rather has an objective meaning, in social relations]...  Nominalism is in the wrong to the degree that it remains blind toward the objective element of meaning in words…  The essence of the thing is not anything that is arbitrarily made by subjective thought, is not a distilled unity of characteristics.  In Heidegger [however] this becomes the aura of the authentic: an element of the concept becomes the absolute concept…  [he] imputes the authentic immediately to things [a legacy of his phenomenological training] and thus turns the authentic into a special domain.  Hence…  its promotion to an existentiale, to a state of mind.  By means of an alleged independence from thinking…  [the concept] becomes an absolute [asserted] against the relativity of the subject, while simultaneously it is presented as purely descriptive diagnosis.’  (124).

Heidegger is quoted as admiring people who follow the impulses of their own Dasein, creating their own world.  However ‘The testifying to humanity, and thus its authentic completion, occurs through the freedom of decision.  This grasps necessity and puts itself under the commitment of a supreme order’ [this is Adorno quoting Heidegger’s essay on Holderlin, which I have never read].  Adorno says ironically that ‘That very statement is nobly meant, quite in the spirit of the jargon…  Outside of the tautology all we can see here is the imperative: pull yourself together…  Subjectivity…  is sought in the absolute disposal of the individual over himself, without regard to the fact that he is caught up in determining objectivity’ (128).  This determining objectivity is often mystified as a sense of obligation to something, leading itself open to ‘the power structure of the moment’ (128).  Existentialists are just as likely to fall for this.  Real self possession would offer freedom, but the jargon of authenticity offers only this abstract version of self possession.  As a result ‘No end to controls is sought; rather the controls are carried over into the Being of Dasein…  [via]…  the hoary custom of German Idealism.  By that custom one should not speak of freedom without adding that it is identical with duty...  one sees that the merely existing world determines what on any specific occasion applies to those words; that world becomes the highest court of judgment over what should and should not be.  Today...  a thing is essentially only that which it is in the midst of the dominant evil: essence is something negative’ (129--30).

Heidegger’s views of existing social relations are also mystified, not least by his constant references to social constraints as emanating from ‘the They’.  Adorno says that ‘For Heidegger the They becomes a cloudy mixture of elements which are merely ideological products of the exchange relationship…  The general condemnation of that sphere, which philosophy dubiously enough called intersubjectivity, hopes to overcome reified consciousness by means of a primary subject that is supposedly untouched by reification.  Yet in truth such a subject is as little something immediate and primary as is anything else’ (151).  Heidegger goes on to identify death as the only escape from the They, the only guarantee of authenticity: ‘[death] becomes the authentic.  Authenticity is death’ (Adorno: 152).  Adorno sees this as the desperate abstract “grinding of teeth which says nothing but I, I, I.  That it is characterised by the same nothingness that the self becomes in death.  But Heidegger’s language blows up this negative element into the act which is substantial’ (152).  For Adorno, death is far from being the realisation of selfness: ‘Insofar as death is absolutely alien to the subject, it is the model of all reification.  Only ideology praises it as a cure for exchange’ (152).  Death is the final decision to adapt and obey, for Adorno, but ‘It is not even really obeying, for in any case Dasein does not have a choice’ (153).  As such, it really serves to integrate individuals into the social order, which Heidegger partially recognises himself.  In this sense, ‘Heidegger does the same thing as fascism: he defends the more brutal form of being, negative as it may be’ (155), instead of offering a possibility of a good life, one in which people no longer have to fear death or to sublimate it as some hallmark of freedom.


Gannon, S.  (2006)  'The (Im)Possibilities of Writing the Self-Writing: French Poststructural Theory and Autoethnography', in Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, 6 (4): 474 - 95.

Hunt, C. (2009) 'A long and winding road: a personal journey from community education to spirituality via reflective practice', International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28(1):71 — 89.

Pink, S. (2008a) ‘An Urban Tour. The Sensory Sociality of Ethnographic Place-making’ in Ethnography  9(2): 175-196.

Pink, S. (2008b) ’Mobilising Visual Ethnography: Making Places and Making Images’ , in Forum: Qualitative Social Research 9(3), Article 36 [online] http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1166/2581


More notes on Adorno and other social theorists