Identity has become a central feature of national conversations: identity politics and identity crises are the order of the day. We celebrate identity when it comes to personal freedom and group membership, and we fear the power of identity when it comes to discrimination, bias, and hate crimes. Drawing on Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction between positive and negative liberty, Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity argues for the necessity of acknowledging a dialectic within the identity concept. Exploring the intellectual history of identity as a social idea, Eric Oberle shows the philosophical importance of identity's origins in American exile from Hitler's fascism. Positive identity was first proposed by Frankfurt School member Erich Fromm, while negative identity was almost immediately put forth as a counter-concept by Fromm's colleague, Theodor Adorno. Oberle explains why, in the context of the racism, authoritarianism, and the hard-right agitation of the 1940s, the invention of a positive concept of identity required a theory of negative identity. This history in turn reveals how autonomy and objectivity can be recovered within a modern identity structured by domination, alterity, ontologized conflict, and victim blaming.
About the author
Eric Oberle is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University.
"An indispensable contribution to the history and theory of the concept of identity in the twentieth century, Eric Oberle's book has convinced me that Adorno's wrestling with this question not only permits but requires a reinterpretation of the whole body of his work."
—Gerald Izenberg, Professor Emeritus, Washington University in St. Louis
"The historical and philosophical literature on Adorno is abundant, and the bar is high for new work. With a mix of persuasive analysis, meticulous research, and astute commentary, Eric Oberle's book clears it."
—Warren Breckman, University of Pennsylvania
"In a work of boundless ambition and comparable achievement, which combines close reading of familiar texts and synoptic intellectual histories that bring together unfamiliar texts, The Century of Negative Identity shows just how indebted the Frankfurt School, particularly Adorno and Horkheimer, was to its time in America."
—Corey Robin, crookedtimber.org
"Oberle's book is full of pathbreaking insights rendered in a dense, fast-paced but crystalline prose. Written for an audience of intellectual historians, it nevertheless speaks directly to all of us as we grapple with the contemporary 'interconnections among racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice.'"
—James Loeffler, Marginalia, Los Angeles Review of Books