Refusing “Positive Thinking” After Auschwitz 

Theodor W. Adorno

The feeling which after Auschwitz resists every assertion of positivity of existence as sanctimonious prattle, as injustice to the victims; which is reluctant to squeeze any meaning, be it ever so washed-out, out of their fate, has its objective moment after events, which condemn the construction of a meaning of immanence, radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence, to a mockery. Such a construction would affirm the absolute negativity and ideologically aid its continued existence, which really lies in any case in the principle of the existent society down to its self-destruction. The earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the Leibnizean theodicy, and the visible catastrophe of the first nature was insignificant, compared with the second, social one, which defies the human imagination by preparing a real hell out of human evil. The capacity for metaphysics is crippled, because what occurred, smashed the basis of the compatibility of speculative metaphysical thought with experience. The dialectical motive of the recoil of quantity into quality triumphs once more, unspeakably. By the murder of millions through administration, death has become something, which has never yet been so feared. No possibility more, that it could enter into the lives of individuals as something somehow concordant with its course. The individuated is expropriated of the final and most impoverished thing, which remained to it. That the individuated no longer died in the concentration camps, but rather the exemplar, has to affect the dying of those who escaped the administrative measures. Genocide is the absolute integration, which is everywhere being prepared, where human beings are made the same, polished, as the military calls it, until they are literally cancelled out, as deviations from the concept of their complete nullity.

The theology of the crisis registers, what it rebelled against abstractly and for that reason in vain: that metaphysics is fused with culture. The absoluteness of the Mind, aureole of culture, was the same principle which untiringly did violence to what it pretended to express. After Auschwitz, no word intoned from on high, nor any theological one, has any right in its original form. The challenge of the words handed down by tradition; the test, as to whether God would permit this and not wrathfully intervene, once more carried out the judgement on the victims, which Nietzsche had passed long before on the ideas. Someone who withstood Auschwitz and other camps, with a power which is to be admired, remarked heatedly against Beckett: if he had been in Auschwitz, he would write differently, namely more positively, with the trench-religion of a survivor. The survivor was right in a different sense than he thought; Beckett, and whoever else remained in control of themselves, would have been broken there and presumably forced to confess to that trench-religion which the survivor garbs in the words, he wants to give human beings courage: as if this depended on any sort of intellectual construction; as if the intent, which turns to human beings and arrange itself according to them, would not rob them of what they are due, even if they believe the opposite. This is what metaphysics has come to.

It has been observed that mysticism, whose name hopes to rescue the immediacy of metaphysical experience against its loss through institutional construction, for its part forms a social tradition and stems from tradition, across the demarcation lines of religions, which are heresies to each other. The name of the corpus of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, means tradition. Metaphysical immediacy, where it dared to venture the furthest, did not deny how mediated it is. If it appeals however to tradition, then it must also confess its dependency on the historical condition of the Mind.

Of all the disgrace, which theology deservedly earned, the worst of all is the howl of joy in which the positive religions break out, over the despair of the unbelieving. They voice their Te Deum at virtually every denial of God, because they at least use the name of God. Just as the means usurped the ends, in the ideology swallowed by the entire population of the Earth, so too has the resurrected metaphysics of today usurped the need, for what it lacks. The truth-content of what is absent becomes indifferent; they assert it, because it would be good for human beings. The solicitors of metaphysics argue as one with the pragmatism which they detest, which dissolved metaphysics a priori. Likewise, despair is the latest ideology, as historical and historically conditioned, as the course of the cognition which has gnawed at the metaphysical ideas, which is not to be stopped by means of any cui bono [Latin: who benefits].

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics, translated by Dennis Redmond (2001), Part III (iii): Models. Meditations on Metaphysics, excerpts.

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Uploaded 15 June 2013

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