Toward a Critical Theory of Death: Adorno on Dying Today

Max Pensky


While Adorno developed no theory of death, his scattered remarks and criticisms can be read as forming a constellation in which a critical theory of "dying today" can be discerned. This essay describes that constellation and suggests what such a developed critical theory of death might entail. The first section opposes contemporary analytic philosophy of death and dying with Heidegger's description of death in Being and Time. Through a reading of Adorno's critique of Heidegger in Jargon of Authenticity, I show how these two philosophical approaches appear as an antinomy. In a second section, Adorno's observations on the nature and transformation of death and dying in the "wrong life" of contemporary society point toward a critical overcoming of that antinomy. The discussion focuses on the dialectic of natural history and the idea of transience as key terms as Adorno observes the impossibility of meaningful death. A final section suggests that the deeply negative account of dying today in Adorno's work still contains, in a dialectical fashion, a utopian moment. 


Theodor W. Adorno, Martin Heidegger, Jargon of Authenticity, Being and Time, death, dying

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