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Toward a Dialectic of Identity

By: Eric Oberle  

This paper makes a philosophical argument for a concept of “negative identity” by means of a historical examination of Theodor Adorno’s philosophy. The paper asserts, first, that the concept of identity as we use it today always has a negative side to it; and secondly, that this ‘negativity’ was in fact part of the original articulation of the idea itself under the auspices of the Frankfurt School. A historical look at the concept of identity points to its nervousness: the concept took off in the late 1960s as an idea of individual self-making and liberation, and it now rivals the concept of “freedom” in describing the ideals of individual and even national autonomy. Identity has become synonymous with liberation, wholeness, expressive individualism; yet it does not take much reflection to realize the degree to which Identity remains shadowed by the incompleteness of modern emancipation: within identity there are deep traces of loss, weakness, the vulnerability of all to the power of domination. Often deeply charged with ressentiment, the concept of group and personal identity is easily entangled with ethnonationalist and colonial concepts of race, and it can take on projective and paranoid features defined by victim-blaming and negative ontologies. Looking at the initial articulation of the identity concept by the Frankfurt School in the 1940s, this paper argues that a concept of “negative identity” can be useful at once for analyzing the negativity of the identity concept and for recovering identity’s emancipatory power.

Identity Adorno, Theodor
Civic, Political, and Community Studies
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session



Eric Oberle

Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Humanities and Communication, Arizona State University, United States
United States

Eric Oberle is an Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History and the Humanties from Stanford University. His book, Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity will be published on Stanford University Press in July of 2018.