Adorno and Antinatalism

[Excerpt from my ANTINATALISMUS, translated into English by Dr Alexander Reynolds]

As a theoretician of systematic structures of collective self-delusion, and of the historical failure of the human civilizational project, Adorno often expounds positions which approximate to those of antinatalism without ever fully adopting this latter philosophical stance as his own.

 

Adorno’s Blindness to the Truth of Antinatalism and His Complicity in the Calamity of a Persisting Human Race

There is hardly any other philosophical critic of existing human society whose diagnosis lies so close to antinatalism as does that developed by Adorno. And yet Adorno shows no compunction at all about brushing antinatalism dismissively from the philosophical agenda. He proves himself here to be a willing victim of that very structure of collective self-delusion that he devotes his work to condemning. He adopts as his own (as with the image of the dog’s happily wagging its tail in the following passage from his philosophical magnum opus) the vocabulary of this collective delusional structure and thereby renders himself complicit in the calamity which he himself declares to be rapidly approaching:

“To those who cannot rest content with mere despair it seems legitimate to ask whether it would be better that nothing exist at all. But this question too is insusceptible of any answer valid for all cases. Of a person in a concentration camp it may indeed be said – assuming that someone who was lucky enough to escape this fate has a right to pass judgment here at all – that it would have been better for them never to have been born. But this notion of a saving nothingness evaporates, nonetheless, in the face of every glimmer of joy or hope that lights up the eye of any creature, indeed even in the face of the faint strumming of a dog’s tail as he enjoys some tasty morsel that he will have forgotten a moment after having eaten it.” (Negative Dialectics)

Perhaps Adorno’s blindness to the force of antinatalist arguments can be explained by the fact that he tended to reject any notion which seemed to imply that the negation of the negative would suffice, already in itself, to establish the positive (see Adorno, Metaphysik) This would imply, in turn, his refusing to see anything positive even in his own “new categorical imperative” of “arranging our thoughts and actions in such a way that Auschwitz can never be repeated” if such a rendering impossible of Auschwitz proved only to be a stage on the road to the vanishing of mankind in general.– And this, in its own turn, could mean that he – contrary to all that he otherwise taught – secretly wanted to hold fast to the petitio principii that the existence of humanity is an unquestionably positive thing in itself.

 

Minima Antinatalia

In his “Social Theory and the Critique of Culture” Adorno plainly assumes the production of further human beings after Auschwitz to be a “given” beyond all philosophical question, while at the same time famously calling into radical moral question the production of further works of art: “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric…” (“Social Theory and the Critique of Culture”) This is a statement that he revises in his philosophical magnum opus, the Negative Dialectics, where he places in question, indeed, the very moral right to life of those, like himself, who barely escaped sharing the fate of the tormented and annihilated but continues to leave unquestioned the production of further human beings: “Continuing life has as much right to self-expression as has the tortured man to scream; therefore, it may have been wrong to say that, after Auschwitz, poetry no longer has a right to exist. It is not wrong, however, to pose the no less cultural question of whether, after Auschwitz, one has a moral right to go on living at all, and specifically whether someone has this right who escaped the camps only by chance and ought really to have suffered and died there with all the millions of others.” (Negative Dialectics) For all its vaunted mindfulness of the defining, irrecuperable calamity of Auschwitz, Adorno’s philosophy hesitates and holds back before a full-blown antinatalism.

Besides flight into the aesthetic realm as a realm whose logic is uncoupled from that of the commodified social universe, another strategy that Adorno acknowledges for the subject’s survival in the “false whole” is eccentricity. Whereas for Helmuth Plessner Man is an eccentric being by definition, Adorno sees the eccentric in sociological terms, as the type of the résistant;

“What would a happiness be that were not measured in terms of the immeasurable sorrow of what is? Because the way of the world is ruined and disrupted. Whoever takes care to adjust and adapt himself to this latter becomes thereby complicit in the madness, while the eccentric alone resists it and puts a temporary halt to the folly.” (Minima Moralia, aphorism 128) By this logic parents would need to cherish the hope, at least, that their child will grow up to be an eccentric. But did Adorno consider the immense cost in suffering involved in any such following of an “eccentric” path in life? Blindness to the force of antinatalist arguments is in fact the true failing of Critical Theory as a whole – a failing which became all the more marked once the Frankfurt School tradition had cast off its initial revolutionary impetus.