Experimental Geographies

"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)

Freedom or should I just swallow the blue pill?

“[…] we must abandon the illusion that freedom is a reality so as to salvage the possibility that freedom might one day become a reality after all”

                                                                        -Theodor Adorno (2006: 203)


Theodor Adorno and Gilles Deleuze. Not exactly Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Jules et Jim, or even Starsky and Hutch. I’ve just put down an excellent article by Daniel Smith (2007) in Parrhesia on the question of desire in the work of Deleuze and its crucial role in setting out what Smith refers to as an “immanent theory of ethics.” The article raises two main questions:

1) What is an immanent ethics? How does it abjure the transcendental that is usually subsumed under the banner of ‘morality’?

2) How is the question of desire an ethical problem? 

Readings these two together (via Spinoza, Nietzsche, Leibniz, and Freud among others) leads Smith to reflect on a key problem of our own modernity which is namely our  desire to be “separated from power” and from “ our capacity to act” (68). In other words, how have we come to collectively desire our own repression, servitude, and unfreedom. For Deleuze, coming into active possession of one’s own power is crucial to any form of immanent ethics.  There is much more that could be said about this but the particular line of flight in Smith’s article that intrigues me is the relationship of desire to notions of freedom. Smith ends with a suggestive passage where he argues “that the concept of freedom—which plays such a decisive role in Kant’s philosophy—also assumes a prominent place in Deleuze’s own philosophy of desire, albeit in a new form—namely, as the question of the conditions for the production of the new” (75).

The connection to Kant and the recasting of freedom in Deleuze as the problem of desire brings me to Adorno and his tremendous lectures on “History and Freedom” (1964-5). These lectures were part of a series of 4 lecture courses that Adorno gave in the early 1960s and which form the immediate backdrop to the publication of Negative Dialectics in 1966. Coincidentally, Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition was published in 1968 and while the two books diverged on the practice of dialectical thinking, they both “challenged the ‘identifying’ character of postwar advanced capitalism” while vindicating difference in rather different ways (Bonnet, 2008: 46). I’m looking forward to working my way slowly though the Adorno lectures when I get back from Berlin. There is a clarity and quiet modesty and even a gentle humour to the way in which he lectures that one sometimes loses in the polyphonic textures of his written work.

Ultimately, my quarry is to think through the possibilities of a theoretical point of contact between Adorno and Deleuze that focuses on the question of freedom. For Adorno, any form of objective freedom has been thoroughly compromised by a late capitalist society which reduces difference to function and freedom to narcissistic self-preservation. Subjective freedom is similarly threatened by “ego-weakness, addiction to consumption, conformism” (2006: 4). And yet, if according to Adorno, an individual can only rehearse the “gestures of freedom” (2006: 265), he also points to the role that certain kind of impulses and what he describes as “mimetic behaviour” play in the spontaneous experience of ‘freedom’ (213). I wonder how far we really are here from Deleuze’s seemingly different world of drives, desires, and motivations. That Adorno had preceded his lectures on freedom by exploring the problems of moral philosophy may plausibly suggest that it is partly in the form of an immanent ethics that we may still find a capacity (call it a capacity to act or a modest will to power) for recovering the good life in a bad society.


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