The terms “forgetfulness of Being” and “repression”, deriving from very different sources in the thought of our century, represent a common underlying circumstance, namely, that what is past and forgotten can have its own sort of harmful presence.
Talk of the “undealt-with past” has concentrated in recent decades on the sins of omission of what has now become the generation of the fathers–in fact it has concentrated (increasingly) less on those who set the machinery of destruction in motion than on those who neglected to destroy it in good time or to prevent its schemes from being implemented in the first place. One should not fail to notice how such structures of reproach become plausible: They are integrated into a familiar schema, which through its capacity for variation continually gains in apparent conclusiveness.
Whether people’s readiness to entertain assertions of objective guilt derives from an existential guiltiness of Dasein vis-a-vis its possibilities, as Heidegger suggested in Being and Time, or from the “societal delusion system” of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in any case it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that are described in these ways that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms. Discontent is given retrospective self-evidence. This is not what gives rise to or stabilizes a theorem like that of secularization, but it certainly does serve to explain its success. The suggestion of a distant event that is responsible for what is wrong in the present…is an additional reason why the category of secularization is in need of a critique.
The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, I.9
In other words, in bad times we seek out frameworks in which we can point to some point in the past where things went wrong, either by ignoring certain facts of existence or entering a philosophical cul-de-sac. This conveniently generates both an excuse for terrible things that might otherwise be wholly our fault, as well as a clear corrective that gives moral standing to the diagnostician. (Or, in the case of Adorno, the insistence that there is no possible corrective gives him moral standing.) Remember Being! Remember neurosis!
The solution doesn’t have to take the form of a return to the past, but it does have to cause some sort of undoing of the present, which I take to be the underlying motivation of such strategies: the desire to go from here to not-here and, even better, never-was-here. The shape of not-here matters less than the appealing prospect of having forgotten the bad times and being All Better Now.
Secularization and Heidegger seem to be the better examples. With (late) Freud and Adorno, their sheer pessimism undermines the case against their original frameworks. On the other hand, students of both of them have had no trouble constructing prescriptive frameworks that promise corrective measures just as boldly as Heidegger does.
14 August 2009 at 06:57
It seems history is to blame.
8 November 2016 at 10:24
Hello! I happened upon this interesting commentary on Blumenberg’s identification of a transcendental, repressed moment in the past being a conduit for guilt and suffering in the present. Could you let me know which acolytes of Adorno in particular have constructed “prescriptive frameworks that promise corrective measures?” Seems like these people would be putting themselves in an interesting position, given Adorno’s views on positivity.