Issue #26 October 2019

Revisiting Adorno’s “Jargon of Authenticity” (1964)

Hans Hartung - L 73 - (1958)

One of the difficulties in approaching the Jargon of Authenticity is that it is written as a reaction to a specific tendency within German thought, particularly the existentialism of the 1920s and 30’s, and its revival in the 50’s and 60’s (cf. JA, xiii). The original title, Jargon der Eigentlichkeit, as a direct reference to Heidegger’s Being and Time, points both to the rhetoric and ideology of this tendency. Yet, Adorno’s text doesn’t primarily target Heidegger, and rather his imitators, who adopt his terminology without the philosophical originality of his thought — which Adorno does not overlook. Heidegger’s role within the Jargon of Authenticity is nevertheless ambivalent, as his idealisation of the rural and archaic, as much as his exaltation of singular words feed such vulgarisations. After all, Heidegger is also guilty of clouding such Germanic and rather untranslatable words like Geborgenheit (shelteredness), Anruf (appeal), Begegnung (encounter), Anliegen (concern) in a mystified aura (cf. ibid., 6). The rhetoric function of using the apparent archaism of language to uncover the true meaning of words directly relates to a philosophical conception of truth as something that has to be rediscovered after being ‘buried’ by modernity (as Dasein needed to be retraced from the wrong tracks of ontology in Being and Time). Concepts of authenticity are marked precisely by such lines of argument, by rhetorics of return and rediscovery. It is the political aspect of such ideas that interested Adorno, the functions that such reasoning fulfils. Today, once again, even though the political landscape has drastically changed, the jargon of authenticity reappears in a wide array of discourses, from nationalism to environmentalism, but also in the rising popularity of such schools of thought as existentialism, stoicism, Buddhism, and other practices of ‘mindfulness’. The jargon needs to be uncovered within the new context.

Authenticity today

Seen in Zurich, photo by T.G.

In search of interiority

Certainly, authenticity lays claim to a ‘praxis’. Optimistically, the authentic is given the power to radiate, so that one’s own sanctified everyday life shines in its light (cf. JA, 33). However, since there are no external categories for such a ‘praxis’, no criterion can be found which can urge the existing structures to change. This ethos, therefore, is not a movement outward, but inward; it is not a ‘battle’, but rather a search for what’s been left in the rubble. The affirmation of authenticity, of the untouchable, guarantees that not everything is lost. But the claim is even stronger: Thanks to this loophole, the subject wins by default, as it is the cliff on which power breaks. But if this is the case, then the only change necessary for a way of life to become authentic, is to ‘become aware’, which ultimately means that everything remains the same. While awareness as a political category is indubitably valuable, its ability to bring change on its own is highly overestimated. The cliché of ‘Eat up for the children in Africa’ conjures the image of a whole starving continent, without ever changing one’s behaviour — outside the dining table.

In search of origin

Authenticity is not only said to be found ‘within’, but also in the past. The ambivalence is even stronger here, as the praise of the ‘noble primitive’ is a known currency of imperialism. As long as a civilization does not abandon the myth of the expulsion from paradise, barbarism overwinters in it, reoccupying its ‘authentic’ place in heated times. Ideas of the innocence of children, who then get ‘spoiled’ by entering the adult world, are examples of this myth’s persistence. As Bergson rightly notes, it is wrong to think that the ‘primitives’ have stopped where ‘civilization’ has progressed (cf. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, passim). All cultures that are still alive today have developed and lived over the same amount of time. Today’s ‘primitive’ is as far removed from the origins of humanity as ‘we’. ‘Distance’ here has a purely normative character; it measures both the apparent superiority of those who have ‘gone further’, thus legitimising the domination over the ‘innocent’, and the accumulated guilt, consequence of the primal expulsion. It never contradicted a racist mindset to admire minorities for their talents in sports, singing, dancing, or playing instruments, just as it didn’t contradict it to rape and having children with them, as those are aspects of an ‘authentic’ sensuality. But even the ‘cerebral’ talent of composing, just like all intellectual activities, were denied, as the apple of knowledge, as all rationality, was supposed to be both a sign of guilt and superiority. Such ideas persist in contemporary critiques of capitalist greed, in contrast to the self-sufficiency of the ‘primitive’ and the frugality of the poor — a form of critique that at the same time affirms their exploitation. The lifestyles that such a ‘critique’ creates are perfectly compatible with consumerism, with yoga, super-foods, and ‘alternative’ medicine all drawing from the ‘wisdom’ of the authentic ‘primitives’. But even more so, excluding the ‘dignity’ of the poor and the exploited from materialist culture, thereby ‘preserving’ their ancient ways, served as an excuse to vindicate their perpetual exclusion from access to material goods and to the market, as much as their lacking possibilities to rise in the social and economic hierarchy. The embracing of materialism in hip-hop culture (C.R.E.A.M.) was thus more subversive than one would expect.

Hans Hartung - Lithographe

In search of meaning

Real suffering giving rise to the seminal experiences of metaphysics does not mean that those who suffer have any privileged access to metaphysical truth — as this would once again nobilitate them. Rather, suffering as pure negativity negates the truth of all ‘metaphysical’ entities or authorities, as it is caused and perpetuated by humans, and therefore ‘all too human’. Only by negating this negativity, by eliminating suffering, and not by overcoming the negative with a positive creed or dogma, can the possibility of truth arise. Authenticity thus becomes dialectical: It is the negative experience that neither the ideologies’ order nor nihilism’s chaos, neither affirmation nor indifference, have the last word. In short, suffering doesn’t grant access to truth, but it proves the untruth of all those who affirm its necessity, who build on it and perpetuate it. What is meaningless is not ‘the world’, but the world of suffering, of torture, of exploitation. The suspension of the split between metaphysical suffering and real suffering, the abolition of the latter, is the only means for the self to create a world that can be lived.

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Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies from the University of Zurich. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of this magazine.

Abbreviations and Works Cited

JA – The Jargon of Authenticity

ND – Negative Dialectics


October 2019


Revisiting Adorno’s “Jargon of Authenticity” (1964)

by Timofei Gerber

How Silent Reading Gave Birth to the Modern Subject

by Tollef Graff Hugo

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by John C. Brady

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