What Would Be Different
Figures of Possibility in Adorno
Iain Macdonald


Contents and Abstracts
1What Would Be Different
chapter abstract

This chapter presents a first approach to the notion of "what would be different," focusing on Adorno's claim that "wrong life cannot be lived rightly." The central question is, How is the possibility of "right life" related to "wrong life," to the lived actuality that seems to suppress it? Adorno's view is first set against Hegel's typology of possibility and his critique of the "ought." More specifically, Adorno lays claim to an "ought"— non-actualized possibility—that does not fall into Hegel's category of formal possibility but also falls short of what he calls real possibility. Adorno's concept of possibility or of "what would be different" is then contrasted with that of two other thinkers who put forward apparently similar theories: Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch.

2Hegel's Fallacy: Possibility and Actuality in Hegel and Adorno
chapter abstract

The question of how Adorno's understanding of possibility relates to Hegel's is developed in greater detail in this chapter. The guiding thread is provided by Adorno's repeated claim that Hegel's metaphysics of actuality contains a fallacy. Starting out from a few clues about his meaning, the chapter aims to spell out the terms of this accusation. Passages from Hegel's Science of Logic and other texts are analyzed with a view to clarifying his modal categories and their dialectical interrelation. The focus gradually narrows to his affirmation that real possibilities are not only identical with real actuality but are necessarily "used up" in the process of actualization. With some help from Marx's 1843–1844 criticisms of Hegel, we come to see how Adorno intends to defend the blocked possibility of socially unnecessary suffering against Hegel's metaphysics of actuality.

3Adorno: Nature–History–Possibility
chapter abstract

This chapter discusses Adorno's implicit theory of possibility in reference to a number of works stemming from different stages of his development. The dialectic of nature and history is taken up as a lens through which the different aspects of the treatment of possibility are brought into focus. After a presentation of Adorno's early and relatively unspecific comments on possibility and the nature-history dialectic, the chapter examines his theory of society and his confrontation with Ralf Dahrendorf on the possibility of transforming society for the better. An overview of Adorno's writings on art adds to the overall portrait. The chapter culminates with a distinction between the "ought" of formal possibility and the "real ought" that society shunts into the category of formal possibility in order to maintain itself.

4Adorno and Heidegger: Possibility Read Backward and Forward
chapter abstract

Heidegger is no doubt one of Adorno's most important philosophical adversaries and a recurring figure in many of his writings. This chapter takes up the challenge of reading Adorno's criticisms of Heidegger in light of certain telling differences between their respective theories. The chapter first distinguishes the different strands of Adorno's criticisms to separate philosophical from satirical and political concerns. To this end, Adorno's critical standpoint is compared and contrasted with Thomas Bernhard's and Emmanuel Faye's readings of Heidegger. The chapter then focuses on two central concepts: interpretation and progress. While their respective concepts of possibility may seem similar in certain respects, it is shown that they lead in opposite directions, with Heidegger asking us to step back from metaphysics into "the other beginning" for thinking and Adorno aiming to recover the blocked possibility of a form of social progress hitherto unactualized in history.

5Adorno, Benjamin, and What Would Be Different
chapter abstract

Adorno's debt to his friend Walter Benjamin's intellectual accomplishments is well known. Less well understood is how Adorno's concept of possibility relates to Benjamin's central concepts and notably to so-called dialectical images, such as the figure of the flaneur. Starting from a reading of crucial passages from Benjamin's Arcade Projects, this chapter aims to show that Benjamin too was interested in images of blocked possibility—for example, the flaneur's ultimately failed effort to incarnate a critical idleness evocative of an alternative to alienated labor. However, for Adorno, such traces of the lost or blocked possibilities of actualizing a better society have to be understood within the framework of a theory or quasi-metaphysics of possibility, which Benjamin does not provide. The chapter ends with a sketch of what Adorno means by "solidarity with metaphysics at the moment of its fall."