Among the reasons motivating acts of procreation there surely counts the need to somehow deal with the state of being alone. So as not to remain alone in the world (be it radically alone as a single individual or “alone together” as a couple) one acts in such a way that a new human being begins to exist – while knowing, indeed, that this new human being will now be threatened, in his or her turn, by this same state of aloneness. It is this paradox, and this moral inconsistency, that is expressed by Thomas Bernhard, in his novel “Frost” through the following formula: “To beget, because one wants no longer to be alone, another aloneness; this is criminal.”
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.
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.
[Translated from German by Dr Alexander Reynolds]
The Shaming of Old Age
It is an aspect of the Conditio in/humana that almost all historically existing societies – our own present-day society not excluded – have given their older members to understand that they are surplus to requirements. Unlike that sense of “guilt” over having been born at all, which is surely felt by only a very few human beings, the shame at having grown old is surely a widely shared one, among women even more than among men, so that Hedwig Dohm was able to note in 1903:
“There are such things as tombs for those who are still alive: lingering illness, or sorrow beyond all healing. For women, old age itself is such a tomb. They are sealed up in it long before their actual death.”
“Poor old woman! It is as if you need to be ashamed that, old and useless as you have become, you still linger on in life. Old age weighs on you like some wrong you have committed, as if, simply by existing, you are usurping a place that rightly belongs to others.” (Hedwig Dohm, The Mothers)
Shockingly, this sentiment that the old commit a sin simply by persisting in existing finds support in the words of a writer renowned as an ethicist, the famous Hans Jonas. “The dying-off of the old makes room for the young” – with this brutal enunciation that cleaves slavishly to the logic of biology as if it were the arbiter of all morality (to be found in the essay “Mortality: Burden and Blessing” in Jonas’s “Philosophical Investigations” the great “ethicist” lends a hand to the project of inculcating into our older fellow citizens a bad conscience over still being in the world at all when they have long since become, from the biological viewpoint, “surplus to requirements”. Jonas decidedly did not suffer from. But he exhorts us nonetheless to act in such a way as to allow ever more human individuals to enter into existence in this world (a world in which, in his own view, suffering outweighs happiness) while at the same time he crudely exhorts these same individuals, once they have grown old, to see as soon as possible to their own abolishment. This ethical betrayal of the old corresponds to his example par excellence of an ontic given-ness of human need: it is, for Jonas, the needy babe in arms – and not, for example, the no less needy aged man or woman – whose very being implies a certain moral duty and thereby bridges the divide between “is” and “ought”.
Parents do everything they possibly can in order to get their children up the ladder. At the same time they do everything they can to mask out the fact that they have sent a human being downhill.
As of now an English translation of my reflections on the referential context of
Vegetarianism and Antinatalism (German version published in 2014)
For one reason or another my contribution on KURNIG has just been refused by a publisher.
I am more than happy to make it available here:
Visited a relative the other day. She lives in a dementia community. An infant was also present. Someone’s grandson. He unerringly approached a rollator and held on to the handles. I said to the boy’s father: ’tis early practice only makes a master! The laughter got stuck in his throat.
Will he proceed acting in such a way that a second child will begin to exist?
Should you feel like listening to my latest antinatalist song, here you are: