Iain Macdonald, What Would Be Different: Figures of Possibility in Adorno. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019; 248 pages. ISBN: 978-1503610279.

Reviewed by Deborah Cook, University of Windsor. 

What Would Be Different appears at an interesting conjuncture in the history of Adorno scholarship. Nearly fifty years ago, when Adorno and the Frankfurt School were first introduced to a North American audience, well-known American commentators sought to read Adorno’s work against the grain, long before most readers had managed to read his work with it. Fortunately, over succeeding decades, important commentaries on Adorno appeared. Thanks to Susan Buck-Morss, Gillian Rose, Martin Jay and Jay Bernstein, among others, the understanding of Adorno deepened, and his work became more widely accessible, not just in North America but in countries around the world. Although there will probably never be an Adorno industry (as there is in the case of Foucault, for example), these commentators introduced tens of thousands of readers to Adorno’s extensive and damning critique of late, or monopoly capitalism.

Today a new generation of scholars, which includes Iain Macdonald, is grappling with controversial aspects of Adorno’s work. An issue that is hotly debated in the literature today concerns the political aspects of Adorno’s work and its relevance for political activism. In 2013, Cambridge University Press published Adorno’s Practical Philosophy, a rigorously argued book by Fabian Freyenhagen, in which he makes the strong and controversial claim that Adorno is a methodological, epistemic, and substantive negativist. He argues that Adorno neither provides nor needs to provide a sense of something more positive than what currently exists in order to criticize late capitalism. Freyenhagen also denies that the normative claims that he concedes can be found in Adorno’s work require some sort of knowledge of “the good.” On Freyenhagen’s view, Adorno can make normative claims without having any sense at all of something that would be different than what we have now. In fact, Freyenhagen spends over two hundred pages developing his argument that Adorno adopted a position of metaethical negativism.

The stakes in this debate on the political dimension of Adorno’s work could not be higher. For without a sense of what would be different, political activism would grind to a halt. If Freyenhagen is right, and all we can know is that existing conditions under late capitalism are bad (to the point of being intolerable for many), and we cannot point to ideas about how socio-economic conditions might change for the better, then we would be far more likely simply to accept “the bad,” or to resign ourselves to it (as Adorno’s colleague, Herbert Marcuse, also feared). Indeed, Adorno thought that it was important to defend himself against the charge of resignation, and he wrote an eponymous article in order to refute it towards the end of his life. Equally important, Adorno explicitly recognized that an idea of something better is needed to provide a sense of direction for change. If change is not to be completely aimless, we need some sense of where we might reasonably go from here.

Where Freyenhagen argues that Adorno does not logically require a sense of the good in order to criticize the deleterious aspects of late capitalism, others have countered that, while this may be the case logically, Adorno’s work does, in fact, evince a sense of something better—a sense that is articulated in Adorno’s extensive critique of capitalism from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. And while Macdonald does not directly address Freyenhagen in What Would Be Different, he squarely places himself in the second camp and tacitly calls Freyenhagen to account. For some time now, and with remarkable tenacity, Macdonald has attempted to come to terms with the notion of possibility in Adorno’s work. He has written numerous articles on this topic, and What Would Be Different presents readers with the results of years of fruitful effort.

Macdonald begins the book by implicitly taking a stand against Freyenhagen when he offers an alternative interpretation of Adorno’s claim that under late capitalism, our consciousness of what would be different is utterly tainted, and hence completely unreliable. For Adorno did believe that we can arrive at ideas about a life that is significantly better than the lives we currently lead. To be sure, and as Macdonald correctly notes, we cannot simply hold up a single standard, or set of standards, that would serve as a corrective to what exists. No single vision of a better life can serve as an end in itself. However, a critique of late capitalism can reveal possibilities that point to something better—such as a world in which everyone, without exception, has enough to eat their whole lives through. One of the principal aims of Macdonald’s book is to discover the nature of these possibilities.

Having made clear, in the first two pages of his book, his position on the current debate about the political dimension of Adorno’s work, Macdonald devotes Chapter One to a consideration of the notions of possibility that were articulated by two thinkers whose work had a profound impact on Adorno: G. W. F. Hegel and Georg Lukács. Commenting on their similarities and differences in the first chapter, Macdonald proceeds in the next to look more closely at Adorno’s ideas about possibilities for liberation—possibilities that would connect what Adorno calls the “wrong life” under late capitalism to a life that would be better. (22) In Chapter Two, Macdonald “descends into the details” regarding Hegel’s excoriating views about possibilities like these while considering Adorno’s responses to them. The upshot of his argument is that Adorno convincingly shows that possibilities that would allow everyone to lead substantively better lives can, in fact, be found in the world as it exists here and now. However, despite his belief that the world can change significantly for the better, Adorno contends that these possibilities for change are currently blocked.

Chapter Three seeks to provide a more detailed understanding of the type of possibility that Adorno discovered by placing his views within the larger context of his dialectic of nature and history. This chapter suffers somewhat from the problem of trying to explain something complex with something that is more complex still, and it could be improved with a more dialectical account of Adorno’s idea of natural history. However, its discussion of the provenance of the idea of natural history in Walter Benjamin’s essay on German tragic drama, and Macdonald’s explanation of how the idea of possibility evolved in Adorno’s later work, make an important contribution to the literature on Adorno. Indeed, Macdonald argues that Adorno first developed his ideas about possibility in the context of his early account of natural history (1932), and he shows how these ideas were modified in subsequent work, including Adorno’s “Theses on Need” (1942). Macdonald also plumbs Adorno’s essay “Society,” along with Ralf Dahrendorf’s objections to Adorno’s claims about possibility in the 1950s, in order to trace the historical trajectory of Adorno’s conception of blocked possibility.

Chapter Three also looks closely at Adorno’s conception of possibility in the context of his ideas about the relation between late capitalist society and the individual. Here Macdonald rightly remarks that we do experience blocked possibilities. Even children are aware of the disparity between their lives and the lives of others, and they often question it. Experiences like these must not be overlooked. What they point to is the oppressive nature of the economic system under which we live. But apart from oppression under late capitalism, something equally sinister is going on. Macdonald argues that “[w]e are not merely occasionally hindered from realizing our goals or potentials as human beings.” Instead, the block that hinders us from realizing goals and potentials that are embedded in reality is even more “insidious,” because it also hinders us from becoming aware that these possibilities are being blocked. In other words, the block affects our understanding of the world in which we live: we think we have achieved a great deal—to the point where some believe we have reached the end of history—but Adorno shows that we are effectively blocked even from recognizing that so much more could be achieved, and so much senseless suffering could now be relieved, given the resources that we currently have. (79ff) Consequently, Chapter Three offers a plaidoyer for Adorno’s recuperation of the concept of utopia as a cipher for a world in which possibilities for alleviating suffering here and now would finally be recognized and “unblocked.” This chapter ends with a discussion of the utopian dimension of some artwork.

Chapter Four deals with another thorny issue in Adorno scholarship: Adorno’s fraught relation to Heidegger. Here Macdonald contrasts Adorno’s ideas about possibility to Heidegger’s, noting that they have very different views of the future. Where Heidegger ultimately wants to make manifest a possibility that was allegedly available from the beginning of Western history but never realized, Adorno hopes to “dynamically liberate new possibilities from a reality in the process of collapse.” (133) Furthermore, where Heideggerian interpretation attempts to reveal essential structures in the primordial disclosure of beings, Adorno invents a form of interpretation that makes visible “historical forces that would otherwise determine actuality in a blind, fate-like, manner.” (134) This contrast of Adorno and Heidegger on possibility is followed in Chapter Five by a fascinating discussion of the connections between Adorno’s views about possibility and Benjamin’s dialectical images. Macdonald’s analysis of these connections is lucid and thought-provoking, and it will spawn further thinking on the Adorno/Benjamin nexus.

To be sure, a few critical comments could be made of What Would Be Different. For example, Macdonald seems to equate possibility and nonidentity, but he never explains what Adorno means by “nonidentity.” In fact, nonidentity may refer to possibility, but it is not reducible to it. There are also references throughout the book to determinate negation and primary experience, but few attempts are made to parse these ideas. Furthermore, Macdonald could have contrasted Adorno to Marcuse, especially given Marcuse’s ideas about possibility and containment. Hopefully, Macdonald will address these issues in future work. Still, What Would Be Different is a very well written book; it also has the merit of being accessible to those who may not be familiar with Adorno’s work. Finally, it takes an important stand in a debate that matters, not just to armchair academics, but to everybody on the planet. If ever there was a time that change for the better was needed, this is surely it. Macdonald realizes how high the stakes are in this debate. He takes Adorno’s side against commentators, who (I would argue) seriously misinterpret Adorno by eviscerating the radical core of his thought. Equally important, these commentators deprive those who currently seek significant social change of ideas that could contribute substantially to it.


Additional Works Cited

Theodor Adorno (2006) [1932] “The Idea of Natural History,” in Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno, (ed./tr.) Robert Hullot-Kentor (New York: Columbia University Press), 252–69.

— (1969-70) [1965] “Society,” (tr.) F. R. Jameson, Salmagundi, vol. 3, nos. 10-11: 144–53.

— (2019) [1942] “Theses on Need,” (tr.) I. Macdonald and M. Shuster, in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Towards a New Manifesto, 2nd edition (London: Verso), 79–89.

Fabian Freyenhagen (2013), Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).