To recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it, is the basic movement of the spirit, whose being consists only in returning to itself from what is other… Thus what constitutes the essence of Bildung is clearly not alienation as such, but the return to oneslf — which presupposes alienation, to be sure.
– Gadamer, Truth and Method
In the humanistic tradition of Bildung as it extends from Hegel through Gadamer (see prior post), the dialectic between self and other is transcended through identity. The self comes to recognize in its encounter with the other an aspect of itself that had previously remained hidden. By overcoming its alienation from the other, the self simultaneously overcomes self-alienation. The difference between identity and non-identity is resolved through identity.
As traditionally understood Bildung is a self-discipline by which individuals converge on a set of ideas, tastes, judgments that constitute the current approximation to universal standards. In a society dominated by economic considerations, Bildung ensures that buyers and sellers are on the same page regarding what sorts of commodities ought to be circulating. And universality never arrives; it’s always on the horizon, setting the direction of movement, of progress. The always-not-yet of the universal horizon assures a continuous influx of new and better products and a well-informed (i.e., well-disciplined) consumer base that’s ready to demand them. Bildung’s continual extension of provincial awareness toward the universal horizon assures the progressive globalization of the economy. Nietzsche recognized what was happening: As much knowledge and Bildung as possible — therefore, as much need and production as possible — therefore, as much happiness as possible. Instead of creating the universally conscious enlightened individual, this pseudo-Bildung produces a herd of Bildungphilisters — cultivated philistines, consuming popular culture spoon-fed to them by the marketplace while remaining unmoved by art and literature and other manifestations of high culture.
For Theodore Adorno, the humanistic project of Modernity has been thoroughly co-opted by the capitalistic production apparatus. In the marketplace the only difference that makes a difference is one that can be measured in excess profits: lowered cost of production, increased use value, and especially increased fetish value. All other differences are reduced to identity. Originally a means of nurturing humanistic individualism, Bildung becomes a means of minimizing individual differences. Higher culture is not immune:
No theory escapes the market anymore: each one is offered as a possibility among competing opinions, all are made available, all snapped up. Thought need no more put blinders on itself, in the self-justifying conviction that one’s own theory is exempt from this fate, which degenerates into narcissistic self-promotion.
– Adorno, Negative Dialectics
As a corrective Adorno calls for a “negative dialectic” that upholds the irreducible integrity of non-identity in spite of the homogenizing machinations of capitalism. Adorno isn’t merely asserting the negative in response to the affirming collapse of all difference into the false optimism of the marketplace. It isn’t even the “negative of the negative,” by which the synthesizing co-optation is forestalled. Instead the intent is to draw attention to the unsynthesized remainder, the excess that identity cannot contain. Whatever resists identity will appear as contradiction, as the irrepressible negative.
Contemplating an unfamiliar idea or work of art, the observer encounters realms of familiarity interspersed with enigma. If you allow yourself to resist the lure of the familiar and to be drawn into the enigmatic, you find yourself withdrawing from comfortable identification and immersing yourself in the alien. You engage in a process of alienation from pseudo-Bildung — which is also a self-alienation, since the self has been so thoroughly shaped by pseudo-Bildung’s collective awareness. The progressive transcendence promised by authentic Bildung is pursued, says Adorno, not through self-effacement in the collective mind but through self-withdrawal into irreducible non-identity.
Adorno characterizes his praxis of Bildung as a “negative dialectic.” From the standpoint of the marketplace, differences that cannot be exploited economically have no meaning, no reality. To delve into these invisible differences is to seek presence in absence, forcing the mass culture of pseudo-Bildung to recognize its existence, which it can experience only as a negative, a disruption, a potential subversion. From within Critical Theory, of which Adorno was a central figure, Bildung becomes a form of counter-education, a way of building revolutionary resistance and counter-pressure to the hegemony of the “Culture Industry” that dominates the contemporary scene.
The practitioner of Adorno’s reconstructed Bildung is an alienated figure, a neurotic who will not be cured, who resists the social pressure exerted by the happy, healthy, normal people produced by mainstream pseudo-Bildung. Adorno’s pessimism was profound: Probably every citizen of the wrong world would find the right one intolerable, they would be too damaged for it. But there is no abandonment of humanistic idealism here. Instead its movement toward transcendence is inverted as a temporary corrective to the socio-historical situation “on the ground.” Instead of a unifying societal force, Bildung becomes a prophetic calling, a lonely trail into the wilderness, a utopian vision that only the pessimistic and the alienated can see.