In his rather mammoth Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, J.M. Bernstein offers a reconstruction of the profound, but never fully explicated, ethical dimension of Adorno’s thought. With the goal of recapturing for us the possibility of living ‘the right life’ from our situatedness in the wrong one, Bernstein’s reconstruction is based around the idea that we can recover the qualitative ‘aura’ to experience (something that has been lost in scientific modernity, cf. especially Benjamin’s essay The Storyteller) via ‘fugitive ethical events’ that act, by analogy to Adorno’s thought about modernist works of art, to demonstrate to us the possibility, and hence real existence of, redemption, hope, etc. (thus, that we might indeed live the right life). Bernstein’s book is a vast work of scholarly labour and I don’t intend to offer a full critique of it here (that’s for the critical literature review I need to do for my PhD). But what I do want to do is pick him up on a point he makes about children…
So, these fugitive events, to put it simply, help us see through the false, fallen world of the ‘wrong life’, the reified world of late capitalism, and recapture a sort of moral sense, the enchanted ‘aura’ experience once possessed (as true Erfahrung rather than withered Erlebniss, to utilise the Gadamerian terms Bernstein borrows). In showing us the possibility of the right life, they help bring it about, to a limited degree, in the wrong one: a fragment of rightness, as it were. They show us that reification is less than total, that the Black Iron Prison of ideology has not had all its escape routes sealed up. Towards the very end of his book, Bernstein says this about them:
“Because the opportunities in ordinary life for fugitive ethical experiences are not many, it is likely that for most of us it is in watching and interacting with children that the promise of another nature is most vocal in the course of everyday experience. Children’s unformedness, their vulnerability and radical dependence, the necessity by which they must love, accept, trust as a condition of survival, the intensity of their conceptually unsaturated experience of the world, all can always feel like the opportunity of a new beginning, one which they bring to their interactions with adults, so almost providing a new beginning for them too, albeit one which is forfeit over and over again.” (p.455)
So it is, Bernstein supposes, that watching children play, is a commonplace fugitive ethical experience. But is it really? Certainly, in Negative Dialectics Adorno makes something of childhood experiences as offering the possibility of a world full of hope for us. “What metaphysical experience would be, to those who eschew the reduction of this to presumably religious primal experiences, is closest to how Proust imagined it, in the happiness promised [in childhood] by the names of villages like Otterbach, Watterbach, Reuenthal, Monbrunn. You think that if you go there, you would be in what is fulfilled, as if it really existed.” So children, maybe, have the possibility of this hope. But adults watching children, do they really? An adult knows that these places, which have magical names for us, as children, are almost certainly disappointing dumps like everywhere else. And likewise an adult, watching children play, knows that almost every single child will grow up to be a boring human being, horribly trapped in the Black Iron Prison just like they (the watching adult) themselves are, but in fact probably, like most of their peers, probably not even with the dignity of realising that they are trapped. Besides which: if we think watching children play offers us some sort of hope, I mean my God, are we even watching them? Most children are nasty little fascists.
Of course, watching a particularly bright, imaginative child at play, I think, might offer us a glimpse of some sort of hope for the future. That maybe they, this child, will grow up to be interesting and different and have a fun and exciting life in a world of possibility. But what hope for us? I think it is profitable here to bring in the sketch from the wonderful The Armando Iannucci Shows (a true masterpiece of late capitalist despair) where a father, napping in the garden, wakes up to overhear his children playing in some bushes, giggling about a witch, pigs taking off their trousers, a lion, a big frog, etc. Sneaking into the bushes to have a look at them, he finds (we can perhaps assume) that their play has literally brought about the existence of everything the children have been make-believing. He looks on in a sort of confused terror as the children order him away, and not to tell anyone about this, on pain of the lion eating him.
The implicit criticism of Bernstein here is that, even if children could, in failing to be co-opted by the false world, bring about a different one within it (their play literally creates what they are imagining), for us, we adults, the denizens of the false world, this is still nothing. “Probably the citizens of the wrong life would not recognise the right one, they would be too damaged for it.” Our children must order us away, because if we enter this new life, we will just soil it with our wrongness. A world infinitely full of hope, but not for us.
Bernstein’s reconstruction, then, this line of thought goes, fails to achieve his stated goal, which is to provide us with an ethics in which, from the wrong life, we could come to live rightly. He may have shown us how the right life might come about, but he has failed to show that we, ourselves, from the wrong life, can in fact live it.