- How the World Really EndsAdorno on Working through Catastrophes to Come
Writing under the threat of nuclear war, Theodor W. Adorno remained strikingly silent about its possibility. From the perspective of the present, this relative silence by an author who was elsewhere so eloquent on the subject of catastrophe could appear as a lacuna that confirms the charge of quietism that has hung over his work. Yet, at a time in which buzzwords around the topic of climate change proliferate, this absence appears prescient. In eschewing epochal terms like “the nuclear age,” Adorno’s writing lets the bomb stand as an absence that focalizes the everydayness of the processes that could lead to its use.1 In its simultaneous elevation and disavowal of human agency, the language with which nuclear war and climate change have been theorized works to naturalize catastrophe as a fated outcome of history.2 Anticipating the latter through the former, Adorno perceived that there were those for whom the threat of nuclear annihilation served as a sublime limit of the human that would force humanity to think of a “world without us” and others for whom it would demand a new humanism that could assume responsibility for risk on a planetary scale.3 By no means opposed to each other, these two views come together in a metaphysics that is caught between a “we” that would constitute the human and the world in which we could act.
Critiquing the terms in which these questions are posed, Adorno’s postwar writing draws a connection between the scale in which a catastrophe is thought and the political possibilities that could emerge in its wake. Then, as now, Adorno’s work demonstrates that such theorizations of the end of the world remain eschatological in their attempt to find anew humanity’s proper place in a universe it can control. Adorno’s critical theory anticipates the prevalence of the term “Anthropocene” in its resistance to the idea that humanity’s domination of [End Page 112] nature is either “recent” (kainos), or reducible to a single definition of “man” (anthropos). If the word “world” itself already encodes the idea of “the age of man” (David, 1217),4 then Adorno’s working through the intellectual fixation on the world’s ending elucidates how these fantasies authorize the catastrophes that occur for the sake of its survival. Rather than trying to simply find another way forward, Adorno analyzed the twinned pulls of triumphalism and guilt that this immense capacity for destruction engenders in those who envision a global future. By drawing attention to the ways an attachment to the world can easily justify its maintenance as is, Adorno’s work asks “why the world—which could be paradise here and now—become hell itself tomorrow” not only by projecting a world in which things could be otherwise (1998a, 14), but by unearthing how they have so stubbornly remained the same.
This essay begins in the immediacy of the postwar with a letter from Adorno to his parents. Folding past and future potential for collective murder into a complex of guilt, this letter points to how those who feel responsible for past catastrophes come to accept such violence as a preordained outcome of historical processes. Turning to Minima Moralia, in which Adorno identified this fatefulness with the entry of perpetual war into the rhythm of everyday life, it explores how Adorno’s representations of totality locate hope for its transformation in the realm of banal matters of fact, rather than in that of transcendent possibility. Opposed to the global scale in which nuclear war and climate change continue to be thought, Adorno offered a theorization of regression that shows that, if the world were to really end, the processes that would finally bring it about would have had to have been rationalized long ago. Against a return to traditional metaphysics at the end of the world, Adorno’s critical sociology takes aim at the philosophic resignation that pervaded German thought of the postwar and answers the work of contemporary thinkers like Dipesh Chakrabarty, Bruno Latour, and Timothy Morton.
Writing to his parents in the aftermath of the Second World...