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Derrida, Adorno and the Problem of the Political Subject

17 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 23 Aug 2010

Claudia Leeb

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: 2010


The French thinker Jacques Derrida, in his Specters of Marx, aimed to reintroduce the silenced, political voice of Marx, which implies that “one must not only understand but also change the world.”1 For Derrida such a voice is crucial, as it induces acts of rebellion in liberal capitalist societies. In a similar vein, the early Frankfurt school critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, in his "Negative Dialectics", alludes to Marx with his statement that the trouble with theory in late capitalist societies has been that “its very indifference to the task of changing the world made it a piece of obtuse practice.

This paper takes a closer look at the ways Derrida and Adorno envisioned the political subject, the rebellious agent whose task it is to change the world. One of the reasons why the French and German political thinkers have been discussed apart from each other is their different takes on the problem of the political subject. French authors are often lumped together as those proposing the “end of man” or dispensing with the subject. In contrast, the Frankfurt school thinkers are considered as holding on to the notion of the autonomous subject, critiqued by the French.

Such a characterization of the French/German split in Continental political thought has also contributed to the scarce literature that makes an attempt to discuss Derrida in connection with Adorno. It seems that Derrida, the “postmodern” French thinker of deconstruction, does not have much in common with Adorno, the German “thinker of modernity,” especially when it comes to their takes on the political subject. However, such a pitting of Derrida against Adorno is too broad, and does not take the commonalities in their political philosophies into account
This paper aims to show the commonalities between these authors views on the political subject, without erasing crucial differences between them. Throughout their works, both Derrida and Adorno critique the violence and exclusions inherent in the notion of the self-centered, autonomous subject. However, Derrida is more suspicious than Adorno about the possibility of a rethought subject without invoking the violence of the self-centered subject, which leads to difficulties in his conceptualizations of an agent of socio-political transformation.

In contrast, Adorno – in his attempt to counter the illnesses of modern, capitalist societies – returns, at certain points of his thought, to a rather strong notion of the subject, which contradicts his critique on such subjectivity. Although both thinkers do not solve the problematic of the political subject, Derrida’s deconstruction and Adorno’s negative dialectics provide central concepts for rethinking the political subject, as what I have termed a “political subject-in-outline.” A political subject-in outline does not give up on the notion of the subject and makes sure not to return to the violence of the self-centered subject.

A political subject is crucial in a time of global capitalism, as it allows the underside of capitalist societies – such as the poor, sexual and racial minorities, violated women, the homeless, the unemployed, and the stateless - to form a rebellious agent that transforms the status quo. However, for such a political subject not to return to the self-centered subject it is crucial to conceptualize it as an outline, which implies that our attempts to define the political subject, whose task it is to induce acts of rebellion, can never once and for all come to an end.

The first section, “Derrida and the Deconstruction of the Subject,” outlines Derrida’s critique of the self-centered subject. The second section, “Adorno’s Critique on the Modern Subject,” explains Adorno’s critique on the modern, autonomous subject and his attempts to rethink the political subject. The third section, “Adorno and Derrida: Non-Identity and the Undecidable,” shows the commonalities between Adorno’s and Derrida’s theoretical concepts, which contribute to thought about a political subject-in-outline. The fourth section, “Adorno and Derrida Un-reconciled,” discusses some of their differences and the implications of a subject-in-outline for feminist politics.

Suggested Citation

Leeb, Claudia, Derrida, Adorno and the Problem of the Political Subject (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Claudia Leeb (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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