For Theodor Adorno, tact emerges as the bourgeoise individual frees himself of moral absolutism (the doctrine of whole rights and whole wrongs). I assume the freedom from absolutism, for Adorno, represents the historical entrance of the liberal, egotistical individual and the making of society for him. This individual knows no whole rights and wrongs, for everything is simultaneously justified and condemned by that person’s self interest. Acting in one’s self interest is necessary, and yet selfish and violent towards one’s peers. Tact is the historical remnant of this now impossible absolutism, the left-over. It is found in the trappings of hierarchical placements and considerations, and it makes “living together within privileged groups bearable.” But for Adorno, tact breaks down as it becomes transparent. Adorno, Minima Moralia, aphorism 16: “Thus individuals begin, not without reason, to react antagonistically to tact: a certain kind of politeness, for example, gives them less the feeling of being addressed as human beings, than an inkling of their inhuman conditions.” The transparency of the connection between the social convention “tact” and the inhuman conditions of living (and competing) in a liberal, market society makes tact something to be reviled, for it brings into light the animalistic, savage nature of such a society. The presence of tact only further reinforces one’s awareness of living in subhuman conditions. Tact is a cultural form that “demanded the reconciliation – actually impossible – between the unauthorized claims of convention and the unruly ones of the individual.” As such, it is a futile mission.
But is it, nevertheless, a useful one. “That the abolition of this caricature of tact in the rib-digging camaraderie of our time, a mockery of freedom, nevertheless makes existence still more unbearable, is merely a further indication of how impossible it has become for people to co-exist under present conditions.” Adorno, writing in 1944 at the height of WWII, as a historical witness to the Holocaust and Fascism, justifiably sees society as broken and culture as a veil. That tact makes this situation slightly more bearable is a demonstration of the debasement of man, for man ought not require such aristocratic and baseless social conventions to keep from killing one another.
Versus the convention of tact is the convention that has us interact with one another “without preamble.” But this convention is dangerous, for…
“behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. The direct statement …that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things” (emphasis added, MM aphorism 20).
In the competition between social conventions, one being an remnant of aristocracy and the other a byproduct of capitalism, no one wins. Social interactions without “ornamentation” simply reflect the fact that human beings have been turned into commodities. That vestige of moral absolutism, tact, cannot cover up this arrangement. As it cedes ground to “time as money” and “matter-of-factness,” the reality of the human condition (its material basis) becomes all-too-apparent. In aphorism 22, Adorno stresses the danger of reducing all human relations to their material basis, which functions as both a critique of capitalism, and as a compelling caution against those (e.g. worker’s organizations) who isolate this material basis as the basis for a politics of change. Doing so limits the imagination of a “nobler” existence, it forces the unity of theory and practice to the detriment of the former (MM, aphorism 22). Adorno wants to leave open a door to Utopia, at the historical moment of its opposite.
The question to ask at this point is: how to escape from this predicament? Can freeing theory from practice enable us to overcome the materialist basis of society, and thus realize a society which no longer needs the trappings of tact in order to be bearable? What would “theory” mean without an attending role for practice?