What is the structure of prejudice? In his 1951 essay, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” Theodor Adorno reflects on the mass psychological basis of fascism. Within that psychology, he identifies a logic of ego “enlargement,” which relates directly to the structure of prejudice. Fascism depends on affective attachments, magnified by prejudice (a magnification that takes place through identification with a leader). This is a clear theme in Adorno’s critical theory. In his previous work in The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno set out the task to discover differential patterns within the general structure of prejudice, with a specific focus on the function of prejudice. As a resource to encounter this theorizing of prejudice, I turn to Adorno’s “Prejudice in the Interview Material” (chapter 16 of The Authoritarian Personality). This is one of several solo-authored chapters of Adorno’s in the Authoritarian Personality project, where Adorno attempts “to examine the relation of anti-minority prejudice to broader ideological and characterological patterns.” On the surface, this chapter is quite literally a reporting of prejudice in the voices of interview subjects. But, I argue, Adorno’s review seems to highlight a dispersal of prejudicial energies, once directed into feelings of anti-Semitism, now into new resources of social, political, and economic division. Clear pathways for this dispersal form through what Adorno names as cathexis. This is a microscopic moment in the overarching argument of The Authoritarian Personality. But, as I hope to show, Adorno’s subtle engagement with this psychoanalytic referent for psychic and emotional energy invested in a person or thing can serve as a resource for making sense of the pathways of prejudice that fascism depends on. Here, I offer a reading of Adorno’s attention to cathexis in prejudice formation as a pathway for fascist discourse, as well as the possibility of its interruption.
Expressions of a Fascist Imaginary: Adorno’s Unsettling of Cathexis
Andrew Poe teaches political theory at Amherst College, where he is an assistant professor of political science and a member of the coordinating committee of the Amherst Program in Critical Theory. His research engages problems of democratic theory, especially modes of resistance, rhetoric, belief, extremism, and political affect. Currently, he is completing a book manuscript that traces a critical genealogy of democratic enthusiasm, titled “The Contest for Political Enthusiasm.”
Andrew Poe; Expressions of a Fascist Imaginary: Adorno’s Unsettling of Cathexis. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 October 2018; 117 (4): 815–832. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-7165883
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