Adorno on death

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.

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7 thoughts on “Adorno on death

  1. For a very fine discussion of the theme of death along the same lines as pursued by Bloch and Adorno, see Gillian Roses’s essay, O! Untimely Death, in Mourning Becomes the Law. Rose is a philosopher that I have only just begun reading seriously, and I find her a challenging thinker, but worth the effort.

  2. I am reminded of Jameson’s discussion of the theme of death and utopia in Bloch from Marxism and Form – in particular, this passage which has stuck with me since I first read it:

    Now it may be clearer how the Utopian instant, or indeed the Utopian eternity, if it cannot abolish death, may at least rob it of its sting: for where normally at the moment of dying the individual is brutally wrenched from that future in which alone he might have found completion, now the transfigured time of Utopia offers a perpetual present in which there is a specific, yet total ontological satisfaction of every instant. Death, in such a world, has nothing left to take; it cannot damage a life already fully realized. (143)

    1. Bloch couldn’t have said it better, especially towards the end of Atheism in Christianity, except he goes further and argues that death is the beginning of a journey the destination of which is unclear.

  3. It’s actually not coincidence since exposure to your work is responsible in part for my reengagement with Jameson.

  4. “Amateur” philosopher and writer here, thanking you for posting on this “topic,” which is of utmost importance in my mind.

    I’ve just finished reading Bloch’s “The Spirit of Utopia.” The last two big chunks there– “The shape of the inconstruable question” and “Karl Marx, Death, and the Apocalypse”– hit with such an impact. Yet I’m convinced that Adorno’s approach– of tediously interpreting the world such that our unfreedoms are brought to light within such a ‘free society’– is also quite valid. And Jameson seems to be saying similar things at the end of his long essay on Utopia, where he emphasizes that making a “break” with the status quo is more pertinent than developing political-practical strategies– “the future as distruption.” All of this echoes with some themes in French thinking as well– theory as interruption (Lyotard), or the ‘suspension of sense’ (Nancy). Thinking through the “lightening of the heaviness of death” seems to lose no weight no matter which of these lenses we choose. Also– Paul Celan, for whom poetry must be pursued “in light of Utopia,” where the poem is always “en route to the other,” which “lets what’s ownmost in the other speak: its time,” and is a person-become-language on a path to a “perceiving Thou.”

    But here I interject a question of Georges Batailles (who thought life must be nothing less than incessant risk and revolt, who advocated a radical insubordination of language on all its ‘terms’), “WHAT IS ONE TO DO, HAVING INCONTROVERTIBLE DEMANDS WITHIN?”

    I have life-long writing projects, I write occasional pieces over at fragilekeys.wordpress.com, I post links to inspire people to their potential on my Facebook and G+ pages, I engage in conversations about language, death, and the “We/With” with my friends and family, I try to challenge status quo strategies of thinking the world, and in my heart it is all undermined by a humor that I associate with the lightness of the heaviness of death (the “laughability” so important in Bataille’s work). And none of it seems enough– the stone will not give no matter how repeatedly I chip.

    What can we do? Zizek and Baudrillard say that we must return to “interpreting” the world (against Marx’s famous statement that philosophers should stop doing this and instead change it). Baudrillard says in effect, “The world will transform with our without us; we must understand this transformation if we don’t want to live in a world without us.” It is all about unleashing passion and revolutionary energy– about articulating and inscribing a “revolutionary gnosis” (Bloch again).

    But I can’t help but ask– what can we do? I do not seek more platforms– I seek the unleashing of potentials in us all. How do we speak? How do we reach? How do we organize/abolish the “proletariat” (i.e., “realize philosophy”)? I know there is no answers here. Perhaps (whoever you are) we can correspond, build a coalition, if not of actions, then at least of hearts.

    Thank you for all you do. And as Badiou would remind us, as if the urgency in our souls really needed this reminder: never give in.

    Tim.

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