Adorno’s Negativity: Suffering Devoid of Sense, Sense Without Suffering
It might be a coincidence that the time when the last survivors and participants of the Second World War are passing away coincides with the time when Holocaust denial becomes ‘edgy’, when Neo-Nazis march on the streets of the US and extreme right solutions become more attractive to significant parts of the general public. Only now we may become aware of how important it was to the generations whose parents and grandparents have fought and suffered in the War to be confronted with living memory; and no matter how hard historians, filmmakers, and writers have tried to capture these experiences for the future, it appears that the attitude towards the Second World War will radically change, starting with the current generation of children and teenagers. With the good guys vs. bad guys narrative being justly revised and certain crimes by the Allies coming to public awareness, the status of the Shoah as an unspeakable catastrophe seems to be equally losing its evident nature, giving way to the cynical maxim of “humans have always been cruel to each other”. Hence, we might be facing an important historical moment that asks for an intense glance at an experience that defined the generation that is slowly leaving this world — the incisive rift that the Shoah left in our own humanity and the even more dangerous rift that awaits us if we let the monstrosity decompose in indifference.
The arguably most radical formulation of the relation between the utter meaninglessness of the catastrophic event and its consequences for humanity and modernity was written down in Theodor W. Adorno’s Meditations on Metaphysics, the last part of his Negative Dialectics. The only contender is arguably Beckett’s End Game and by no accident is he one of Adorno’s main references. Right in the beginning of the Meditations, Adorno refers to the historical experience of the Shoah and its consequences for the possibility of sense:
“After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence” (ND 361).
This very dense passage presents the main themes of the Meditations. First of all, Adorno speaks of a feeling that lays claim to objectivity, meaning that the experience is meant to be valid as evidentness. Second, Auschwitz (as a pars pro toto for the Shoah) lead to a crisis of sense, meaning not only that the deaths of its victims were senseless but also that all lives, past or present, are affected by it. Immanence, with all its currently existing living beings does not ‘receive’ meaning from an all-embracing transcendence. Of course, humans have also suffered prior to Auschwitz, but this was always coated in various legitimizations — honor and glory, the need for land and food, the claim for higher ideals, internal conflicts — which, in the obvious senselessness of the Shoah, sound more like excuses. Even if the small spark of hope, that after witnessing the cruelty of Auschwitz, humanity had ‘learned its lessons’ and lived in eternal peace, had come true — a hope that didn’t even last half a decade with the start of the Cold War — the deaths of these innocent human beings wouldn’t have been ‘worth it’. This would amount to a “squeezing any kind of sense […] out of the victims’ fate.”
What the feeling in the quote above describes, is an impossibility to distance oneself from the event, to reduce and abstract the victims to “statistics” (364) — something that, as we might realize, has happened by now. The eschatological claim that sacrifices are necessary to attain the Good has long lost its validity, which also means that the evidentness of the new imperative, “that Auschwitz will not repeat itself” cannot be treated from a discursive distance,
“for the new imperative gives us a bodily sensation of the moral addendum — bodily, because it is now the practical abhorrence of the unbearable physical agony to which individuals are exposed even with individuality about to vanish as a form of mental reflection. It is in the unvarnished materialistic motive only that morality survives” (365).
The somatic (bodily) proximity to suffering corrects the bourgeois coldness, its emotional distance, that had rendered the catastrophe possible, the coldness of “at least it’s not happening to me”. To expose oneself (mentally) to the suffering of others humanizes the victims and makes us aware that while the suffering of Auschwitz might be over, there is still suffering in this world, and that by profiting from it, we are just as guilty as the ones who have profited from the evictions and expropriations that went along with the Shoah (say, from inhumane conditions in certain factories nowadays thanks to which certain products become affordable).
Adorno complements this correction of an approximation towards the victims with a distancing, namely the distancing from oneself. The individual that overestimates its own importance in the world does so at the expense of others and in its fear of death it easily falls into an inhumane social-darwinistic mind-set. Looking at oneself from the outside can offer us a new perspective where we overcome the inherent selfishness of our ordinary conceptions of morality:
“‘What does it really matter?’ is a line we like to associate with bourgeois callousness, but it is the line most likely to make the individual aware, without dread, of the insignificance of his existence. The inhuman part of it, the ability to keep one’s distance as a spectator and to rise above things, is in the final analysis the human part, the very part resisted by its ideologists” (363).
The subject that doesn’t want to die due to its will to self-preservation will arrive at the conclusion that it does not need to die in seemingly objective proofs of the immortality of the soul or the absolute subject. Driving instructors teach us that we’ll steer wherever we look at and hence to avoid the tree we have to stop looking at it. Thought, if it doesn’t reflect on its inherently desire-driven structure, will magically wield us the results we secretly wish for. And the more the thinking mind suppresses this initiating urge, its fear of death, the more authoritarian its urges to control the world become, leading to the instrumental reason that directly lead us to the monstrosities of WWII (this is the primary topic of the Dialectics of Enlightenment). But that does not mean that we should give up on thought altogether, neither can we give up on our primal desire to live; instead, we need to bring this inherently intentional moment of thought to light (here’s the Freudian lesson), leading to a “self reflection of thinking”, which is “a thinking against itself” (365). The pressing question is, though, if such a turn will lead to the self-dissolution of thought or not. It can only escape the current crisis, if human beings can decrease their distance to the others and increase the distance to themselves.
Auschwitz was not the exception, it was the rule; the difference is that Auschwitz couldn’t adorn its suffering with reasons like honor, national spirit, power, a divine plan or profit — they all turn out to be chimaeras, excuses. No suffering has sense, ever. It does not follow an economical logic, where one’s negative is another one’s positive, where the negative is justified if the positive surmounts it. This means that physical suffering inherently makes for an underlying metaphysical suffering that has essentially and irrevocably become obvious with the Shoah, which was the most painful manifestation of a “permanent catastrophe” (320). The solution thus lies not in the past, in a lost notion of authenticity, but in a future where suffering is not. Understanding the necessity of this connection is crucial to see why Adorno’s text is so precarious.
We all know that the cruelties of war come along with the dehumanization of the other. But it is one thing to reduce the other to an animal to be slaughtered, and another to reduce him to a thing, as it happened in the Shoah. The evidentness of the objective wrongness of it, meaning the evidentness that human beings are more than things leads to the pertinent question, why it is so. Essentially, if we can’t answer the question why a human being is more than a thing, we cannot answer the question why Auschwitz was objectively unjust either, why humans are not merely things among things. You might take issue with the word ‘objectively’ and say that we are way past such ideas, but be aware of what you’re saying with it. First of all, you wouldn’t say it if you perceived the immediate possibility of such a thing happening to you and you wouldn’t say it if you felt the somatic evidentness of it not being true. Hence, such a conclusion is only possible if you exclude yourself from the danger and distance yourself from its potential and actual victims. Indeed, Adorno does not offer a philosophical, ‘objective’ argument for the wrongfulness of the Shoah, but rather refers to the immediate experience of its abhorrent nature. In short, if you can watch Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog without experiencing the objective wrongness of inhumanity, you have lost something very valuable; this is what Adorno calls, following Benjamin, the withering of experience. Objective evidence follows from true experience, not from cold arguments.
The core experience is: There is suffering, but there should be none. This is the starting point of true philosophy, meaning that philosophy is inherently normative. But if there’s suffering in the world and if suffering is bad, then the world is bad. If the world was bad in itself, it’d be best, if it ended as soon as possible. But that would lead to an absurd conclusion — Auschwitz wouldn’t be an expression of inhumanity, but rather the pinnacle of humanity. If humans are mere things and humans were destroyed as things in the Shoah, then the Shoah is the point where humanity realizes itself. This would render all critique void. Therefore, only in the possibility of the end of suffering can there still be hope for humanity. This possibility is incredibly small, it is barely conceivable. The only stance that you can take is a negative one, because positive utopias would once again try to give suffering a sense, while absolute nihilism not only leads to absurd and impossible conclusions that can only lead to silence and death (each breath that the nihilist takes disproves him) but also simply disintegrates in the most mundane of all humane gestures:
“And yet the lighting up of an eye, indeed the feeble tail-wagging of a dog one gave a tidbit it promptly forgets, would make the ideal of nothingness evaporate” (380).
What remains is the necessary question of why humans are more than things, and the ethical impulse that it must be so. This is not a comfortable position to be in, but necessarily so. Because the only possibility of sense that we can attain for ourselves and that we can attribute to others is by striving to reduce suffering in this world. As long as there’s suffering, the world is devoid of sense, for ourselves and for others; only a world where no human being is treated as a thing can hope for such a claim. But “hope is for the hopeless,” as Walter Benjamin understood.
Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Routledge, London/New York, 2004.