Summary of Jargon of Authenticity

Jim Rovira jrovira at
Fri, 09 May 2003 23:44:23 -0400

Any comments would be appreciated as I come to grips with this text...



Adorno’s principle critique of Heidegger is found in his Jargon of Authenticity
(1964, English translation 1973)), a dense, difficult work characterized by
wry, sometimes pointedly dismissive rhetoric.  Adorno’s commitment to a
dialectic does not extend to the ideas expressed by early to mid 20th century
German existentialism (“existentialism” here will always refer to German
existentialism, especially as developed by Heidegger and Jaspers) as his
critique of existentialism is unrelenting and unqualified, ultimately seeking
to characterize existentialism as intellectual fraudulence.  Adorno loosely
organizes his critique of existentialism around its use of key words such
“statement,” “authentic,” “inauthentic,” “commission,” “shelter,” and
“commitment” (7-8).  He asserts that the use of this language implies more
meaning than is actually conveyed, suggesting an aura associated with these
words in a Benjaminian sense, but an aura in decay, hence, a jargon.  More will
be said about the aura below; Adorno’s description of the intellectual milieu
(I’m sick of this word) out of which existentialism grew is the beginning point
of his critique of existentialism.

Adorno begins his critique of existentialism by arguing that it arose from a
movement in very early 20th century Germany that, inspired by Kierkegaard, was
less interested in specific doctrine and more interested in conviction.  Their
new religion, or “spirituality,” would arise from the autonomous intellect.
“Authenticity” was its primary value, so intellectualism was sacrificed for
“the concrete.”  An unnamed individual, presumably Heidegger, held back from
this movement, according to Adorno, not wanting to fall back into religion.  In
order to avoid falling back into religion Heidegger developed an existential
ontology, a theoreticization of the work and goals of the “authentics.”  This
theoreticization served as a means of holding on to a consciousness similar to
religion without affiliation with doctrine or denomination.  As a result the
language of authenticity, according to Adorno, though not Christian in content,
resembles Christian language and effectively attempts to produce Christian
character without Christian belief.

Religion becomes an end in itself, valued simply because it is held and not
because it is true.  According to Adorno, “one needs only to be a believer – no
matter what he believes in” (21).  The jargon usurps religion in the process of
legitimizing it as religion’s real content becomes a matter of indifference (so
long as it employs the jargon).  Belief is fine, so long as the believer is
sincere and tolerant.  The ideal inner state of the “authentic” person is one
of “trustful alliance” (24).  What is left are religious customs and habits of
thought without religious content.  Naive positivity is adhered to at the
expense of the negative.  Since content doesn’t matter, affirmation is valued
for itself regardless of content, and negativity, negation, or critique are
impolitic, distasteful.

Adorno’s key observation seems to be that through the jargon, the “authority of
the absolute is overthrown by absolutized authority” (5). At this point, as at
many others, it is unclear if Adorno is really developing an argument or simply
making assertions.  Immediately after making this observation, however, Adorno
describes fascism’s development in a powerful social context supported by
language, presumably the jargon.  Since “absolutized authority” in this
sentence clearly refers to fascism, Adorno’s critique of existentialism
ultimately seeks to demonstrate how its jargon of authenticity actually creates
an atmosphere conducive to and supportive of fascism.

“The authority of the absolute” in Adorno’s key sentence consists of the
theological resonances in the jargon of authenticity, which in themselves make
the speakers accomodating to subordination or submission.  This occurs as the
jargon molds thought before being applied to any particular content.  Because
the existentialist’s state of submission is devoid of any specific object,
dogma, or God, users of existentialist jargon are predisposed to submission
without having an object to submit to.  A totalitarian state, demanding
submission, presumably fills this void by meeting a felt, though undefined,
need in an audience predisposed to accept its claims.

Some sense of the “aura” communicated by the jargon of authenticity may also
contribute to understanding how it supports the fascist state. The aura is
partially communicated by the fact that the words employed by the jargon don’t
have any specific conceptual content, but create the impression that something
meaningful is being said just because these words are being used.  The “aura”
created by the use of this language is specifically the impression that
something of the speaker’s very “essence” or “being,” something of the
speaker’s very self, is conveyed through his or her words.  Once this
impression has been conveyed, that is sufficient to satisfy credibility demands
regardless of the actual conceptual content of the speech.  But it is the very
lack of specific conceptual content that causes the aura of an authentic self
associated with these words to submit to decay.  The individual is robbed of
his or her individuality by the jargon.  The speaking subject is virtually
eradicated since the language used to convey the speaker’s “self” is itself
empty of specific content (15-16).

Adorno begins his direct attack on Heidegger from this point.  Heidegger’s
speech about existence (the Da) in terms of immanence and the immediacy of
life, with its theological undertones, essentially “whisks away” the boundary
between the natural and the supernatural.  Transcendence is tamed and brought
into close reach for everyone.  This bringing of transcendence close to home
via a widely disseminated form of speech imposes a generic “person” upon
everyone using the speech, a mass-consumption person not unlike the
“interchangeable persons” posited in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of
Enlightenment.   The jargon itself disseminates the very “they-self” that
Heidegger condemned in Being and Time.  The jargon’s political and economic
functions consist in the fact that by it the “formal gesture of autonomy
replaces the content of autonomy” (18).  Adherence to a mass, socially imposed
self creates the illusion of participation in a homogenous middle class by the
lower and working classes.  The language implies a social contract without
actually providing one, and masks the fact that it has done this by the very
act of forbidding specific content to be attached to the notion of the self.
Doing so, according to Adorno’s account of Heidegger, would reduce
existentialism to “anthropology, sociology, psychology” (28).

Another result of the jargon’s refusal to attach specific content to the self
is that salvation now consists in people becoming what they already are anyway,
since “meaning” is defined as that which something is “authentically,” as that
which is hidden in it.  This definition causes questioning of the thing itself
to be avoided.  Proceeding from the assumption that language naturally
functions by describing the world as it is understood by the society using the
language.  Reflection upon language and the world resists this trend, but the
jargon both exploits and flows along with this tendency, gaining the authority
of absolute speech by reinforcing what people already think of the world.  The
jargon functions much the same way as advertising in this respect, expressing
the irrational need of the bourgeois to maintain the world as it is.  Adorno
asserts that “in happy agreement with its consumers, the jargon fills the
breach created by the societally necessary disintingration of language (47).

Adorno asserts that this tendency expresses itself through Heidegger’s
anti-intellectual stance, associating “true philosophy” with provincialism
(understood in a positive sense) and with agrarianism.  According to Adorno,
Heidegger adopts past divisions of labor or past forms of labor as if they were
eternal (59).  These are “primary” social categories in which the individual is
idealized as being immediately present with others. Heidegger, according to
Adorno, is oblivious of history.  Within this context, Adorno critiques how
human beings are conceived within Heidegger’s existentialism.  Again, the
jargon’s association with Christianity brings over Christian character traits –
in this case, humility – without a specific object before which the authentic
is to be humble.  As a result, powerlessness and nothingness are essential
characteristics of the authentic person, robbing the authentic of the ability
to criticize a state of affairs precluded by the “divine rights of the soul”

This innate sense of insufficiency also predisposes people to submit to an
external, competent authority in the form of the fascist state, as the
individual becomes nothing more than the sum of his or her social functions.
At the very moment that society is believed to be irrelevant to individual
psychology, individual psychology is determined by society.  The concept of
“inwardness” also reinforces the determination of individual psychology as the
individual disregards society.  The individual ego is held to be above the
world rather than a part of it; the individual retreats from an empirically
determined subjectivity but in its place a generic inwardness is provided by
the jargon.

On the level of mind, the jargon reproduces the social functions of
bureaucracy, working hand in hand with mass administration of society and with
fascism.  The word “commission” accomplishes this goal, acheiving the
confluence of authority and sentiment.  That which is “commissioned” is
legitimate by virtue of the commission itself, “valid without reference to the
people or organizations that issued the commissions,” allowing the commissioned
to act with unquestioned authority (88).  Again, the jargon works by being
empty of specific content, and as a result supports authority structures by
removing them from questioning.  Obedience is spoken of as a completed fact, so
that the subject isn’t confronted with the reality of a command issued from a
specific authority, valid or not, that it  must obey or disobey.  Overall,
Heidegger removes himself from criticism by employing a jargon empty of
specific content – there is nothing to disagree with.

Since Adorno sees the self as a construct of social and biological forces, and
Heidegger sees the self as an immutable entity that exists beyond the reach of
these forces, Adorno accuses Heidegger’s philosophy of “transforming a bad
experiential reality into transcendence” (116).  Adorno also applies Kant’s
critique of the ontological argument for God’s existence to Heidegger’s notion
of being, claiming that Heidegger makes the subject a predicate in his
conceptualization of Dasein.  The ontological, however, should be that which is
prior to all traits, not a trait that something has.  Heidegger’s distinction
of the ontic from the ontological “expels Dasein from itself” (121) since the
ontological has no existence apart from the ontic.  The claim that “mere being”
is something important in itself externalizes being, makes it a quality.  But
all this occurs in the midst of a firmly held refusal to define the self in
relationship to anything external to it, robbing the individual self of any
specific characteristics and, as a result, creating a generic self.

“Authenticity,” Adorno observes, is a word that tends to shift definition
depending upon context.  In Heidegger, the subject is authentic to itself, the
very definition of authenticity, so one’s own subjectivity is the judge of what
is authentic. Reason is discarded as a judge at this point (126) and
Heidegger’s existentialism becomes associated with irrationality. The only
external agent that serves as a check upon Dasein is death, because in
Heidegger death is the only point at which the self recognizes itself as a
distinct self apart from the They.  Death takes the place of God in Heidegger’s
existentialism, serving as the external judge and validating standard of
authenticity as well as the catalyst by which it is discovered.  Death is the
ontological foundation of totality, the ultimate leveling factor that both
makes everyone alone and everyone identical.  The jargon, ultimately, creates a
generic self via its use of generic language, a malleable and submissive self
in the face of external authority validated by the very language that created
the self to begin with, the interior arm of an external totalitarianism and its
origin as well.