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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Earlier this week I participated in a small reading group on Adorno's "The Essay as Form" and there was one particularly good sentence from this piece that I thought worth sharing in the light of that discussion as it forms a perfect examples of Adorno's model of the dialectical sentence.

"The moment of irresponsibility, in itself an aspect of every truth that does not exhaust itself in responsibility toward the status quo, will account for itself when faced with the needs of the established consciousness." Adorno, Theodor W., ‘The Essay as Form’, in The Adorno Reader, trans. by Bob Hullot-Kentor and Frederic Will (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 92–111, p. 95.

The structure of this sentence can be mapped out, fairly easily, as containing one independent clause and one subordinate clause. The sentence achieves its dialectial aim by ensuring that the modifying subordinate clause is a negation of the independent clause within which it is embedded.

Independent clause: "The moment of irresponsibility will account for itself when faced with the needs of the established consciousness"
Subordinate clause modification: "The moment of irresponsibility [is] itself an aspect of every truth that does not exhaust itself in responsibility toward the status quo"

In short, whether irresponsibility is a positive aspect for which the essay as form should strive fluctuates as the sentence is parsed. As we encounter the subordinate clause, it seems that irresponsibility is necessary (when that responsibility is purely towards the status quo and authority). The independent clause, however, implies that irresponsibility is the moment when an account/justification is given to the status quo.

The fact that truth can exhaust itself is, also, an interesting aspect of this sentence, but this demonstration of Adorno's dialectical principles at the level of the sentence is pretty interesting. As with Adorno's definition of art as the intersection of the material and the super-material that remains non-idealist, this sentence never comes to a resolution. It is not that one clause overwrites the other, but rather that they remain non-identical, but fused into a single mode that oscillates continually.