In one of my favourite pieces, a dialogue between Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno called ‘Something’s Missing’, we find this astonishing argument concerning death from the ‘gate keeper’ of utopia:
Ever the dialectician, Adorno is interested in the resistance to utopia that shows up in the question of death, for this is the crux of utopia and anti-utopia. Suggest, he proposes, the elimination of death to someone who may be sympathetic to the idea of utopia. At least you will not get the knee-jerk response that you must be crazy. But the knee will certainly come up at another point: to eliminate death, says the interlocutor, would be dreadful. It would be absolutely terrible, boring and enervating, to face endless life. For Adorno, this is the moment of the most absolute resistance to utopia, since the strongest tie to the status quo is not social but an identification with and attachment to death. Given Adorno’s commitment to the determinate negation and the need to maintain, even negatively, the hope of utopia, this resistance must be negated. How? Death must be eliminated if utopia is to have any meaning.
So the anti-utopian attachment to death must be negated and that the way to do so is insist that on the elimination of death. But what does Adorno mean? He accepts Bloch’s distinction between dying and death. The former concerns the scientific, physical process of dying. In this he is not interested, or rather, he argues that utopia would not involve new scientific discoveries that enabled one to pass over the threshold from organic to inorganic life. He is, however, very interested in death as an ontological state, one that we face with horror and dread. Is this light, we can understand the following extraordinary observation:
I believe that without the notion of an unfettered life, freed from death, the idea of utopia, the idea of the utopia, cannot even be thought at all. … There is something profoundly contradictory in every utopia, namely, that it cannot be conceived at all without the elimination of death; this is inherent in the very thought. What I mean is the heaviness of death and everything that is connected to it. Wherever this is not included, where the threshold of death is not at the same time considered, there can actually be no utopia.
Note well: the elimination of death involves eliminating the heaviness of death and all attached to it. In other words, the sheer terror and horror of death, the pure annihilation that such a state is supposed to entail, must pass for any utopia to have meaning. Awaiting the threshold should hold no dread for us; indeed we may be able to look forward to it: ‘Utopian consciousness means a consciousness for which the possibility that people no longer have to die does not have anything horrible about it, but is, on the contrary, that which one actually wants’.
Not the Adorno to whom we are accustomed. To my knowledge, this is one of Adorno’s most forthright statements concerning both utopia and death. He has been led to this point not merely by the arguments of Bloch, but also by the logic of his own position. Determinate negation is the key, for the attachment to death as it now exists is also an attachment to the status quo. That anti-utopian resistance must be met by the determinate negation, for ‘death is nothing other than the power of that which merely is’. Even here he remains to true to his position that one must heed the ban on images, for in arguing for the negation of the attachment to death, he remains within a negative argument. Yet the dialectical outcome is that Adorno has made a positive statement, surprising even to himself. ‘Excuse me’, he says a little later, ‘if I have taken the unexpected role of the attorney for the positive’. So we are left with the position that dying in a physical sense may well continue; we will still die as we do now. But the horror of death as an ontological state may itself pass, so that one may look forward to the threshold of dying. Bloch, of course, agrees, for the moment of passing over becomes an open question, one of hope rather than despair, the beginning rather than the end of a journey.