Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity
Eric Oberle


Chapter 6: Subject/Object and Disciplinarity

What Is Orthodox Freudianism?

In “Remarks on The Authoritarian Personality,” the unpublished 1949 afterword to The Authoritarian Personality, Theodor Adorno wrote a few sentences about Sigmund Freud that almost certainly surprised his collaborators:

The fundamental problem of whether and to what extent prejudice can be approached with psychological methods in general, and depth-psychology in particular, will be discussed more systematically later. However, mention should be made here of the relation of our research to other psychoanalytic investigations in this field ([Otto] Fenichel, [Ernst] Simmel, and many others), that have exercised considerable influence on our method. Our whole study, though its subject-matter falls into the area of social psychology, is in full harmony with psychoanalysis in its more orthodox, Freudian version. On theoretical grounds, our group opposed the attempts to “sociologize” psychoanalysis through the softening of basic concepts, e.g., the unconscious, infantile sexuality, the psychological dynamism of the monad, by looking for environmental influences which would have to be registered in terms of the ego rather than the unconscious.1

If one looks at this passage in terms of the politics of coauthorship, the invocation of “Freudian orthodoxy” might be put down as another erratic move by Adorno the academic enfant terrible. As a whole, Adorno’s collaborators—Daniel Levinson, Nevitt Sanford, Else Frenkel-Brunswik—as well as those directors of Studies in Prejudice not from the Institute—Hadley Cantril, Robert MacIver, Gordon Allport, and Samuel Flowerman—were interested in producing social surveys informed by psychological research. Even for Frenkel-Brunswik, the most Freudian of this group, the question of maintaining Freudian orthodoxy was subordinated to the disciplinary need to be scientific, sociologically as well as psychologically, and this meant being pragmatic in applying qualitative judgments and theories to quantifiable psychological and sociological data. Adorno’s insistence on orthodoxy appeared to put theory ahead of practice, disciplinarity ahead of empiricism.

Yet Adorno, as we have seen, was rarely disruptive for no good reason. And when we ask why he would, at this moment in his career, suddenly espouse an orthodoxy in which he had shown little previous interest, a serious answer emerges. The passage brings together two well-established aspects of Adorno’s theory of interdisciplinary epistemology. First, it continues Adorno’s practice of attacking the psycho-social synthesis, rejecting the organism/environment analogy. Second, the passage reveals an ongoing, clear preference for heightening rather than “softening” the tensions between disciplinary approaches and concepts. “Orthodox Freudianism,” with its clearly demarcated divisions of the psychic apparatus—id, ego, superego—appealed to both impulses, even if Adorno’s next (highly unorthodox) move was to assert the social nature of this psychology. The programmatic statement that he intended to connect while accentuating the difference between the sociological imagination and psychoanalysis’s most inwardly closed, monadic qualities indicates that for Adorno, the key thing was not to reduce theory to the ego or psychology to the id. Rediscovering Freud’s vision of the divided self became crucial as Adorno began to emphasize the epistemological value of negation and mixed objectivity and moved toward a theory of the non-identical character of truth.

In signaling a return to Freud, the passage registers Adorno’s willingness to rethink basic theoretical assumptions. For all its apparent lack of diplomacy, moreover, the passage offers insights into Adorno’s evolving approach to interdisciplinary method during the 1940s, dropping important clues about the relation between his largely private, speculative writings and his public-facing interdisciplinary work. As we have seen, Adorno’s thought in the 1940s was divided between two quite different modes, which we might roughly designate as speculative and analytical-objective. The speculative mode, which predominates in Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia, is fusional and freely associative, applying the Echternach epistemology of radicalized acceleration of psycho-social logics to try to think arguments, or historical tendencies, through to their logical, practical—often absurd—extremes. This speculation aims to diagnose the crisis in bourgeois life without concern for solutions until the last moment, when it takes a step back. The analytical-objective mode, which is deployed in The Authoritarian Personality and other public writings, is probative, reconstructive and empirical, speaking in language Adorno’s American collaborators could understand—even if it often resignified their terms—and it is aimed at producing valid data. Applying itself not to a crisis but to a world of laws that might potentially fall back into crisis, the analysis also addresses questions of objectivity with much more concern for the boundaries among disciplines. Where the speculative mode largely disregards differences between distinct dimensions of a “layered” personality or of different “value spheres” to generate speculative hypotheses concerning the mediation of the totality, the analytical-objective mode is attentive to the processes of mediation within both the subject and the object.

If this dual approach was crucial for Adorno’s exploration of the epistemological dimensions of non-identity in the 1940s, the recovery of the necessity of Freud’s structural model is indicative of what he learned in the process. In the effort to rescue psychoanalysis from panpsychologism and define its interdisciplinary value, Adorno honed his theory of objective and interdisciplinary negation, his understanding of the importance of the not-I in the analysis of identity. Seldom, we might say, has the pursuit of “orthodoxy” been so heterodox; seldom has a theory been so interdisciplinary in its pursuit of disciplinarity purity. One might even call it negative orthodoxy—a counterintuitive usage aimed at the underlying construction of rationality at stake in the construction of subject/object relations. As we saw in Adorno’s analysis of Kant and Simmel relative to sociological alienation, or of the Lukácsian understanding of the fetishization of value relations, so here with Adorno’s examination of Freud, the question of the non-identical nature of positivity plays a central role in defining Adorno’s understanding of how to apply theoretical speculation to the analysis of empirical models and data.

This chapter seeks to understand Adorno’s defense of Freudian orthodoxy as a model for critical theory’s approach to the divided self, a divided society, a divided notion of truth. In so doing, it seeks to achieve an initial understanding of the idea of subject/object reciprocality and wounded subjectivity in relation to the Freudian and Marxian concepts of universal objectivity. Following Adorno’s evolving understanding of Freud’s interdisciplinary uses, the chapter explores how the critique of Fromm’s concept of the psycho-social synthesis led toward the analysis of both social science and liberalism’s forms of abstract subjectivity, authority and reason. Picking up on the previous chapter’s analysis of how the genres of emotional constraint and expressivity of bourgeois life incubated within themselves patterns of incomplete emancipation, negative identity, and reactionary potential, this chapter explores how subjective negative identity formed the foundation for authoritarian politics. The second half of the chapter examines the epistemologies of practice and political theory, examining how Max Horkheimer’s 1947 Eclipse of Reason applied these logics of non-identity to a critique of American Pragmatism and liberalism’s formalist evasion of objective social relations. Freud’s structural model connects these two endeavors.

Orthodox Freudians: The Inversion of Identity in Fascism and the Reconstruction of Legitimate Authority

To access what “orthodox Freudian” meant for Adorno in the late 1940s and to understand why he connected it to a specifically disciplinary argument, we must consider the process whereby Adorno concretized his criticism of the positivity of Fromm’s concept of psychological identity. By 1945, Fromm and Karen Horney were the leading figures in the neo-Freudian revisionist movement. Adorno, writing in the notebook of aphorisms that would become Minima Moralia, attacked “business-like revisionists” for declaring Freud bourgeois and repressed and for advocating a simplistic vision of increasing sexual emancipation through decreased hierarchy in social, personal, and familial relations. There can be no doubt whom Adorno is attacking, nor can there be doubt about the trajectory of this attack. Preserved in Minima Moralia’s entries from 1944, one can find a kind of “Freud suite” of aphorisms that address the question of the Freudian system and its relation to questions of social integration and epistemology.2 Preferring the analyst who preserves “analytical coldness” over those who pretend that the world is in a happy state or can be brought into one by modeling positive interpersonal relations, Adorno puts Freud and Marx in the column of the power of negative thinking and underscores the danger of the liberal model of sympathetic universalism:

The repressive traits in Freud have nothing to do with the want of human warmth that business-like revisionists point to in the strict theory of sexuality. Professional warmth for the sake of profit fabricates closeness and immediacy where people are worlds apart. It deceives its victim by affirming in his weakness the way of the world which made him so, and it wrongs him in the degree that it deviates from the truth. If Freud was deficient in human sympathy, he would in this at least be in the company of the critics of political economy, which is better than that of Tagore or Werfel.3

Adorno is here defending the importance of moving between a speculative-theoretical and an analytical-objective mode of theory and research, while refusing to jump into the trap of liberal sympathy. Only with the category of negative identity—and the reciprocality of the subject/object relation—does it make sense to compare Fromm’s “business-like demeanor” to the spiritualized stance of Rabindranath Tagore and Franz Werfel’s literary attempts to cultivate sympathy with the sufferings of the non-Western. Adorno is thinking about how notions of identity, self, and culture structure the broadest form of objective knowledge about others and otherness. Forging a complex analogy between Freudian revisionist attempts to reform the clinical situation in order to improve the world and the attempt on the part of novelists and poets to address violence by reshaping the patterns of global transcultural understanding, Adorno attacks the idea that emotional empathy and a vision of the good can ground analysis. Freud’s clinical detachment is compared to Marx’s critique of political economy: both theorists are seen as having more sympathy with the whole by denying false warmth and false identities because they understand the economic and psychological order for what it is, a complex system of humanity and inhumanity structured by power. Adorno is challenging whether, in the age of the culture industry, aesthetic or scientific universality can argue for increasing the public flow of emotion and identification in a nonreactionary way.

The problem with Tagore, Werfel, and Fromm in Adorno’s eyes—and the reason that their mystic subjectivism compared badly to the hardheaded objectivity of Marx and Freud—came from their attempt to create a subjective counteridentity to the modern world: to make a negative identity into a positive one. Werfel was best known for his 1933 Forty Days at Musa Dagh, which depicted the Armenian Christians bearing the stigmata of human suffering; Tagore, the great Bengali poet, had won the 1913 Nobel Prize for his transreligious poems preaching universal harmony. Though it is not surprising that Adorno, an austere and circumspect modernist, was suspicious of Werfel and Tagore’s aestheticized notions of cultural-religious reconciliation, the linkage to Fromm can be illuminated by probing the aphorism’s later critical remarks on Freud as a global theorist of individualism who “vacillated between negating the renunciation of instinct as repression contrary to reality, and applauding it as sublimation beneficial to culture.” Freud at his objective best “grasps the Janus-character of culture objectively,” knowing that “no amount of praise for healthy sensuality can wish it away.”4 Adorno saw Marx and Freud as materialist thinkers who understood how consciousness repressed the facts of domination. Echoing Freud’s criticism of Romain Rolland’s “oceanic feeling,” Adorno here doubted whether a general sense of love and common feeling can guide critical thoughts of universalism. Whereas Freud rejected the notion of a universal longing for reconciliation, oneness, and wholeness emanating from the infant’s connection with the mother, he concluded that there was indeed a universal sense of guilt, brought about by the vulnerability of the child in the Oedipal situation. One could, in other words, explain the longing for wholeness as one of many possible psychological screen ideas that shield one from examining the relation between selfishness, weakness, and the imposition of the law. When arguing for the redemptive possibilities of a subaltern identity, one should, argued Adorno, be wary of reification; the attempt to point out the redemptive qualities of other religions, nationalities, or selves fosters suspicion that one is being manipulated into caring for a bad cause. Sympathy with identities (positive or negative) unguided by materialist critique breeds contempt and fosters ideology.

Using the word “materialism” to describe how Freud and Marx incorporate the non-identical in their theory of objectivity, Minima Moralia explores how every identification embeds within itself questions of social power. Freud spoke of “identification” in terms of the Oedipal drama and paternal authority. Individuals forced to renounce the pleasure principle rather than violate the incest taboo ultimately identify with the father or the mother. Equally, the “primal horde,” after rebelling against the father and killing him, comes to deify the father and to identify with his image as a way of assuaging their guilt. Seeing psychic identification as a mode of symbolic-material exchange, Adorno ties the idea of role identification to the question of economic exchange, arguing that under capitalism people who receive something of non-identical value for their labor also start to see “all of culture as a lie” in that nonequivalent exchange seems to infiltrate all forms of social authority, from the highest levels to the lowest. In this idea of identification, the symbolic becomes the real at the same moment that pleasure is renounced. Dialectically, Adorno then proceeds to examine the non-identity of this identity. To believe in identification as the real is delusional, because to do so not only makes culture equivalent to the oldest forms of fate, but “such identification undercuts every possible oppositional thought.”5 By failing to make a distinction between speculation and analysis, Freud’s theory of identification describes a bare functionalist schema of adaptation and assimilation to domination and fails to articulate how much authority, legitimate and illegitimate, is created in acts of such identification. Such non-identities plague the application of psychoanalysis to social theory. Adorno, wanting to rescue the Freudian ego from being a mere vehicle for social adjustment and adaptation, attempted to show that the theory of identification with scientific authority (and transference) does more than endorse the now-dominant culture. Worrying aloud that Freud himself had no theory of scientific objectivity other than a loose and general appeal to Darwinian adaptation, and that Freud evinced no theory of logicality and objectivity that could separate itself from “psychologism,” this aphorism reflects on the question of whether, in an age in which truth has come to be defined as the mode of one’s identification with power, it remains compelling to see the ego as a refuge of rationalism.

Minima Moralia shows Adorno drawing on an interdisciplinary idea of identification in search of a Kantian, even a Hegelian Freud—in search of a body of theory that would transform the subjectivistic approach to identity into something lawlike, materially grounded in emancipation, and insulated from extremity. Echoing his earlier interpretation of Simmel, Adorno wished to update Freud and fit him into a general social epistemology. The problem was that both Freud’s concept of the libido and the materialist concept of knowledge kept misaligning, sometimes appearing as mere techniques of total domination, sometimes as a misplaced sympathy with the irrational. In judging psychoanalysis as a stand-alone therapeutic doctrine, Adorno often deemed it so incomplete as to be harmful; whereas when he looked at identification as a global phenomenon for the transfer of symbolic and material authority, he found it a helpful diagnostic tool for the inner contradictions of the pleasure principle. On the one hand, Minima Moralia struggles with what one might consider the “culture industry” interpretation of Freud’s focus on the weak ego. This view holds that Freud’s defense of emancipation and happiness can be deployed as mere superficial palliatives to individuals displaced by domination and that Freud’s hand-wringing defense of repression as the price of civilization may indeed leave little room for the subject to express a rational sense of love for himself or others. On the other hand, Minima Moralia weighs the problem of the strong ego—the notion of a self who takes pleasure in aggression and domination and sheds all inhibition other than the need to identify libidinally with the most powerful force. Gesturing to an orthodox Freud in a parallel fashion to his “orthodox” Marxism, Adorno here was working through the subject/object distinction from the standpoint of epistemology, exposing the fact that Freud himself had trouble defining the proper scope and role of repression in holding together civilization. Adorno’s engagement with the problem of global racism did not just lend urgency to the need to reconstruct Freud’s materialism; it suggested a negative means of grounding. Adorno’s Freud aphorisms—among them, “This side of the pleasure principle,” “Ego is id,” “Outside and Inside” and “Free Association”—suggest that even the analyst’s ego provided no safe “Inside” insulated from the external irrationality. For Adorno in 1944, even Freud’s highly qualified defense of ego rationality was too weakly theorized to provide the tools to counter the ego relativism of fascism. Though Freud suggested the ego had a law of its own, Adorno saw this as the modern version of the “cogito ergo sum” of identity that fell victim “to agoraphobia . . . or in the existential exposition of Being-in-the world, to the racial community.”6

Accusing psychoanalysis of cultivating techné without responsibility other than to whoever is paying the bills, Adorno doubted whether introspection was still possible. He worried whether labor and consumption have been so intermingled in the concept of identity as to obscure the line between reason and unreason, waste and fulfillment, in both theory and practice. Thus, meditating on Freud and Fromm, Adorno asked whether psychoanalysis had not just become a particularly corrosive part of the division of labor:

If all psychology since that of Protagoras has elevated man by conceiving him as the measure of all things, it has thereby also treated him from the first as an object, as material for analysis, and transferred to him, once he was included among them, the nullity of things. The denial of objective truth by recourse to the subject implies the negation of the latter: no measure remains for the measure of all things; lapsing into contingency, he becomes untruth. But this points back to the real life-process of society. The principle of human domination, in becoming absolute, has turned its point against man as the absolute object, and psychology has collaborated in sharpening that point. The self, its guiding idea and its a priori has always, under its scrutiny, been rendered at the same time non-existent. In appealing to the fact that in an exchange society the subject was not a subject at all, but in fact a social object, psychology provided society with weapons for ensuring that this was and remained the case. The dissection of man into his faculties is a projection of the division of labor onto its pretended subjects, inseparable from the interest in deploying and manipulating them to greater advantage. Psycho-technics is not merely a sign of psychology’s decay, but is inherent in its principle.7

Psychology is here viewed as a weapon in the class struggle: a way of dissecting the self and the narratives of the world through the psychological measurement and categorization demanded by technical specialization. It is out of this dynamic of hollowing out the self—of making the self an object for the purposes of consumption—that Adorno saw the notion of identity emerging. Less an attack on Fromm or Freud than on objectification in general, Adorno’s charge was that psychological objectification undermined individuals and their spontaneities by developing techniques for the transformation of inner life into the measured predictability of human capital. If the self is reduced to a single point, if the “I” appears “a mere prejudice,” there is no “residue” of non-identity and domination is unstoppable.

Adorno’s relation to psychoanalysis evolved through his work on The Authoritarian Personality. Though he never stopped seeing it as involved in the “psycho-technics of domination,” he came to see its epistemological one-sidedness as useful for understanding the woundedness of divided subjectivity. This transformation occurred when he applied his theory of subjective negativity to situations beyond those of the transference of clinical or cultural authority to theorize about questions of lawfulness and autonomy, transgression and heteronomy. A clear indicator is found in The Authoritarian Personality’s approving citation of Erikson’s 1942 article “Imagery of the Hitler Youth.” Erikson had argued that Hitler and other fascist leaders did not, as both Fromm and Horkheimer had hypothesized, put themselves forward as leaders by exploiting the traditional roles of father figures in the authority vacuum created by the economic crisis of the Great Depression.8 Rather, the fascist circuit of appeal, argued Erikson and Adorno, was deeply fraternal: it did not attack the category of legitimate authority but trashed its core concept of lawfulness through abusive practice. The authoritarian and fascist leader gives lip service to “law and order” but creates an exception in the fashion of an emotional, protective, sexually incontinent, and violence-prone “big brother,” who, out of the red-blooded impulse to protect his compatriots from a world out of control, occasionally lashes out. The symbolism of fascism is one of abrogating the law to restore its emotional power as immediate rather than mediated justice. This allows the fascist to engage in a vendetta-style politics to define his identity negatively in terms of his victim yet uphold the idea that his motives are apostle pure: the fascist leader comes Jesus-like, here to break the law and thus to fulfill it. The rise of such identity thinking displaces all understanding of actual social relations.

By the time Adorno wrote his 1951 “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” he saw his interpretation of the logic of heteronomy, victim blaming, and the assertion of a negative identity in accord with an orthodox Freudianism. In the later article, Adorno cited Freud’s 1921 Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego to show that Freud himself refuted notions of the collective violence of crowds as a matter of mass hypnosis invoked by the image of paternal authority. Rather, argued Adorno, Freud saw fascist violence as arising from a kind of regression to an early stage of psycho-social development, one in which intragroup fears and the hope of a stabilizing erotic bond between brothers in the primal horde served to nurture the delusion that they were capable of living without paternal authority, purely according to the sympathetic bonds of brotherly mutual protection. The deployment of negative identity could reshape the content of lawfulness to the point where it resembled its opposite.9

Two ideas go together in this (culturalist) understanding of fascist lawlessness, neither of which requires psychoanalysis: the fascist makes himself by choosing his victim, and aggression comes out of weakness. Both involve the idea that the subject could become object. The bit of (Hegelianized) “Freudian orthodoxy” that The Authoritarian Personality added to this mixture was the insight that it was not primarily the ego or the id that forged the bonds of social aggression but the superego. For Adorno this came from realizing that authoritarian behavior developed not from the ego or the id’s economy of pleasure and reality but from the superego’s woundedness, its vulnerability and ability to wound. Its agency was the one capable of transmuting the ordering narrative principles of worldly authority and content analysis, and it was the superego, ironically, that served to authorize violence in an age when negative identity could organize politics. The Authoritarian Personality in fact uses this scenario to understand how the punitive superego could be deployed instrumentally by the modern state and economic power—in concert with the politics of hate—to turn the classical concept of personality against civilization and to inspire a new, identity-based notion of ideology, action, and violence.

The philosophical framework for arguing this point was Adorno’s reconstructed Hegelianism, which interpreted Freud in terms of the theory of primary and determinate negation. Adorno’s interpretation of Hegelian negation involved, as we have seen, the idea that philosophy as speculation grew out of the limitation rather than the experience of immediacy. Reflection occurred not in the pursuit of a primal essence but in the aftershock of one’s encounter with negativity—the realization that one was not identical with one’s environment or with Others but that one’s subjectivity could be rendered into an object. This idea of the primacy of negation and woundedness sought to debunk the ideological function of all mythic notions of primary wholeness. In seeking to reconcile Marx to Freud through these ideas of negation and the internally divided self, Adorno’s concept of the priority of negative identity was more than a mere swipe at the ideological notion of plenitude. It drew on a Hegelian interpretation of Freud’s notion of introjection and Freud’s concept of the divided self, or “structural model.”

In Adorno’s view, Freud’s structural model made sense based only on the premise that there is no ego, id, or superego without wounded negation. The ego, which develops first out of the id, separates itself from the id through the negating voice of the superego, an “introjection” of paternal selfhood and social authority forbidding the ego-id from being one with either itself or the world. This linkage of introjection to negation served as the avenue through which Adorno embraced not just Freudian orthodoxy but also the Freudian controversy surrounding the source of aggression and self-destruction in the infamous “death drive.” Historically, Freud’s definition of the superego was conjoined with his articulation of a death drive or drives. Both were articulated in relation to Freud’s attempts to understand the destruction of World War I. The death drive was first described in Freud’s 1921 Beyond the Pleasure Principle, while the superego first appeared in the 1923 The Ego and the Id. These texts, read alongside the 1921 Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Id and Freud’s 1929 Civilization and Its Discontents, are considered to constitute the core of the “late Freudian” approach to both technical matters such as the structural model of the personality and political-cultural matters such as the regressive character of mass politics and war. It is beyond dispute that Freud, in positing an innate impulse toward (self-)destructive behavior, broke with his earlier understanding that all libidinal forces were inherently pleasure seeking. After Freud’s death, however, it was highly contentious whether there was such a thing as a destructive instinct or a primary masochism comparable to the fundamental drive of libido. Otto Fenichel, a central figure of the orthodox Freudian Left, doubted in his 1945 commentary whether the concept was useful or necessary. As ego psychology became a movement focused on the structuring role the ego played in shaping consciousness, it increasingly disfavored the idea of a libidinal drive, preferring, as did Anna Freud, to consider egoic impulses toward destructiveness a consequence of trauma, or as Heinz Hartmann, to reject as counterproductive any speculation on an unconscious drive toward masochism when masochism was better understood as a kind of maladaptation to a hostile environment.10 Adorno’s Hegelianized Freud fused negation to the structural model in a way that took trauma as a given but rejected the displacement of the superego by the ego.

The Authoritarian Personality fully incorporates Adorno’s determinate negation of the Freudian structural model, which held that the ego itself was a product of negation that emerged from the unavoidable circumstance in that subject is an object to others. Differentiation within the personality structure thus came not merely from an internalization of a “hostile” environment, or oppressively narrow social roles, or the repression of inner drives, but from the fact that the personality was, like knowledge itself, built on internal negations. In many instances in the collaborative work, this notion of a deep, imbricated negativity helped Adorno evade theoretical dogmas that might have sidetracked the entire project. An excellent example of this might be seen in his careful use of the word “integration,” a largely Jungian term favored by Murray, in describing the personality structure of an “authoritarian” individual:

The most essential feature of [the authoritarian] structure is a lack of integration between the moral agencies by which the subject lives and the rest of his personality. One might say that the conscience or superego is incompletely integrated with the self or ego, the ego here being conceived of as embracing the various self-controlling and self-expressing functions of the individual. It is the ego that governs the relations between self and outer world, and between self and deeper layers of the personality; the ego undertakes to regulate impulses in a way that will permit gratification without inviting too much punishment by the superego, and it seeks in general to carry out the activities of the individual in accordance with the demands of reality.11

If one acknowledges that work on The Authoritarian Personality could have easily been derailed by controversies involving superego and the death drive, one sees how adroit it was to draw on the “layered” model of the personality to sidestep questions of fundamentalism or innateness. Here the crucial assertion is not whether aggression is innate, or whether the environment can be transformed, but whether the ego, as it governs or fails to govern the personality’s relation between inner and outer world, must necessarily engage consciously with the impulses of the id and the superego and try to avoid a rupture such that any one agency of the personality dominates the other. This is a kind of structuralist interpretation of the structural model, one that has no predefined notion of health, and defines pathology on a case-by-case basis. Thus it notably avoids the usage suggested by Jung’s concept of integration, which names the moment when the ego joins with the collective unconscious and bonds to the world of meaning as an individual. It is in its eclecticism fairly close to Abraham Maslow—also cited in The Authoritarian Personality—who viewed integration as a totality concept for how “the wholeness of the organism” achieved an internal balance relative to external pressures.12 Adorno’s invocations of Freud’s structural model in The Authoritarian Personality conform to the basic contours of ego psychology’s emphasis on the defense mechanisms of the ego. Equally, the book adheres to empirical psychology’s notions of a “structured moral agency” and resistance to intraceptive narratives. Nevertheless, it insists that for the purposes of studying fascism, a punitive superego (rather than the id or even the ego) should be viewed as the key agency in generating aggression.

As part of a systematic notion of social theory, Freudianism was complete and coherent only if it renounced the idea that the personality emerges as a thing with its own unique essence, seeing the self instead as a product of internal division and negation that unfolded as a material-historical process. Adorno advocated this divided epistemology in his afterword but had already integrated it subtly throughout The Authoritarian Personality, and it would become the consensus view for critical theory in the postwar period. Herbert Marcuse, whether or not he read “Remarks,” clearly understood Adorno’s position. A decade later, his 1956 Eros and Civilization articulated the definitive Frankfurt School statement on Freudianism by arguing that Freud was clearer than widely suggested on the superego genesis of aggression, and that the superego was for Freud himself an inversion of a fundamental, preconscious biological tendency of all nature to return, through death, to inanimate matter. Quoting Freud’s argument that “in the construction of the personality, the destruction instinct manifests itself most clearly in the formation of the superego,” Marcuse clarified that the superego emerged from the determinate negation of the most archaic part of the self, the death drive. Life, to become life, must first negate death. A by-product of the original energy that negated the impulse toward death and turned into libido, the superego—as the reserve of the individual’s highest ideals—is, paradoxically, a creation of the most primal instincts.13 This definition of the superego sees a duality of ideality and destructiveness. The voice of the paternal, social authority telling one to become one’s ego ideal is coeval with the impulse to destroy the self, ideals, and all of civilization. Freud, if interpreted negatively as a theorist of objectivity and negation, thus defined both the id and superego as elements of the not-I, of objectivity embedded in the subject and its field of object relations.

Marcuse’s goal in defending the connection between superego and the death drive had its roots in two dimensions of Adorno’s response to fascism: its concern about the reactionary potential of the liberal subject, and its deeper subject/object model of how to study social conflict. The question of liberalism’s relation to fascism and the utility of a theory of rational subjectivity became deeply entwined in the research. The search for the social and psychological preconditions of fascism was of course central to a book with the working title The Potential Fascist. Though Adorno and Horkheimer had speculated on questions of a general desubstantialization of reason and the rise of an identity logic of vilification, the statistical inference and interview material from The Authoritarian Personality had placed the question of the liberal convert to fascism front and center. The alchemy of fascism forged a common cause between active ideologues and passive authoritarians, between people who had allowed id to dominate superego and to express their need for self-definition as aggression against others and those who ratified this aggression by redefining revenge as lawfulness, authorizing the superego not just to ignore revenge but to see it as an expression of the need for more punishment, more legality. Both types of authoritarian, the active ideologue and passive fellow traveler, depended on social structures that invested heavily in an externally referred superego, conjoined with a willingness to deflect introspection by orienting negatively toward others.

If one focuses on the destructive social power of this negative orientation, it becomes clear that a publicly asserted negative identity has two moments: when it makes the activist and when it acquires political assent from the mainstream. Critical theory, concerned with both the agitator and the followers, thereby realized that it needed a better understanding of how social divisions were exploited inside the liberal democratic state. It was important to understand the substantive conceptual pathways whereby a subject such as 5061a, a low scorer who referred her judgments to her fascist husband, could be converted from being a tolerant liberal with an ordinary sense of propriety to someone who could be mobilized to invoke good democratic principles of fairness to finally “do something about” a “problem” group. The possibility of agitators converting liberals to tolerate fascism provoked the question of what kind of theory could diagnose and counteract this kind of conversion. Adorno had already developed the hypothesis that notions of a conformist totality—whether cultural or institutional—conjoined with a stimulus-response model were useless in protecting divided selves in a divided society from the kind of rapid slippage experienced in a subject such as 5061a. To deal with a woman capable of converting, almost instantly, from theoretically informed expressions of the love of universal man to abject stereopathic visions of group eradication, theory needed to explain how the superego’s investment in lawfulness could, when faced with a strong vision of negative identity, be converted into a horror of the continued existence of the Other.

To analyze the potential for fascism within liberalism, one had to think about how scientific or legal ideas could become objects for different layers of the personality, generating regressive configurations of the id, ego, and superego unforeseen by the advance of civilization and culture. To analyze how objects of the externalized superego could appeal to the ego and id was to ask how agitators could convert liberals to reactionary thought. Adorno, drawing on his musical technique of interpreting the smallest transitions of thought as symbolic slippages, pushed The Authoritarian Personality to consider the question of “falling in love in reverse” with a given minority. Content analysis showed how ideas about the law and the Other could “fill in the gaps” between a liberal frame of mind and extremist views. Tracing out how a damaged ego and an excessively harsh externalized superego infused the objects of conventionalism with a fascination for a particular type of negative identity, Adorno sought to understand the layered psychological, social, and cultural logic of these projection fantasies and how they cut across religious, ethnic, political, and cultural lines of affiliation. The result is a stunning definition of the economic and normative origins of projective negative identity:

The individual who has been forced to give up basic pleasures and to live under a system of rigid restraints, and who therefore feels put upon, is likely not only to seek an object upon which he can “take it out” but also to be particularly annoyed at the idea that another person is “getting away with something.” Thus, it may be said that the [measurement of authoritarian aggression] represents the sadistic component of authoritarianism just as [the measurement of authoritarian submission] represents its masochistic component. It is to be expected, therefore, that the conventionalist who cannot bring himself to utter any real criticism of accepted authority will have a desire to condemn, reject, and punish those who violate these values. As the emotional life which this person regards as proper and a part of himself is likely to be very limited, so the impulses, especially sexual and aggressive ones, which remain unconscious and ego-alien are likely to be strong and turbulent. Since in this circumstance a wide variety of stimuli can tempt the individual and so arouse his anxiety (fear of punishment), the list of traits, behavior patterns, individuals, and groups that he must condemn grows very long indeed. It has been suggested before that this mechanism might lie behind the ethnocentric rejection of such groups as zootsuiters, foreigners, other nations; it is here hypothesized that this feature of ethnocentrism is but a part of a more general tendency to punish violators of conventional values: homosexuals, sex offenders, people with bad manners, etc. Once the individual has convinced himself that there are people who ought to be punished, he is provided with a channel through which his deepest aggressive impulses may be expressed, even while he thinks of himself as thoroughly moral. If his external authorities, or the crowd, lend their approval to this form of aggression, then it may take the most violent forms, and it may persist after the conventional values, in the name of which it was undertaken, have been lost from sight.14

This interpretation integrates Freud and Marx in a dialectical theory of identification and negative identity. Economic oppression and individual isolation serve to create individual alienation and repression. People who are reticent to express fears about survival or impulses of rebellion against state or economic authority will readily apply the ticket mentality to a perceived group. This cathects the libidinal energy and conscious suffering of individual negative identity into an outgroup image without violating the core ideas of liberal society. There seems to be no natural limit to the logic of negative identity; although anti-Semitism and Jim Crow established the pattern, every group from homosexuals to zoot suiters and every emotional channel from patriotism to economic theory can be used to deflect liberal fears about one’s wounded subjectivity onto those more vulnerable. Psychoanalytically speaking, though Freud frequently theorized prejudice and shame, he did not theorize an economic source for the formation of such negative “love-objects,” but he did of course give plenty of thought to the mechanism of the screen idea and its attendant notions of projection and deflection.15 Sociologically speaking, the passage analyzes the functional power of such aggression and makes it clear that it is all but unrelated to the reality of group relations. Hatred of others comes not from an inherent ressentiment or competitive antagonism but from the universal imperilment of modern capitalism and the transfiguration of authority inspired by the frustration of libidinal drives. The motivation for aggression is in fact extraneous to the objects of desire and/or sadism, resting in the original damaged subjectivity that has been asked to sacrifice its imagined wholeness—not for minorities, in fact, but for the reproduction of capital and the maintenance of traditional authority.


1. RAP, 7.

2. MM, 35–49.

3. Ibid., 60.

4. Ibid., 60–61.

5. Ibid., 44.

6. Ibid., 67.

7. Ibid., 63–64.

8. EFF, 186.

9. GS, 408–32.

10. Anna Freud, “Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development: Normal and Pathological,” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 3, no. 1 (1947): 37–42.

11. GS, 9.1:201.

12. A. H. Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370–96.

13. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon, 1974), 56.

14. AP, 232–33.

15. Catalogued in ibid., 921.