On Wings and Without a Head

Jul 03, 2015

In a 1944 essay Adorno imagines Hegel confronting the terror "robot-bombs" of the war.

Theodor Adorno’s essay “Out of the firing-line,” from 1944 doesn’t have the single focus that most of the other essays in Minima Moralia have. I found its roughly three parts illuminating. In the first, Adorno reflects on the fragmented nature of the Second World War, the way in which it, “lacks continuity, history, an ‘epic’ element, but seems rather to start anew from the beginning in each phase…” This reminds me the discussions I enjoyed with some historians who assembled for a day long workshop at the University of Manchester, bringing together a number of us who work mostly on East or Southeast Asia, and those who work on Europe. We were all exploring themes and historical problems we might have in common, since, after all, the conflict was part of a single greater event we call the Second World War. Much of our discussion, I believe, reminded us of how strained this can be.

Another element of this essay includes a unusually concrete declaration of Adorno’s views on the retribution to come following the war, especially towards Germany. “At no price,” he says, “would I wish to be an executioner or to supply legitimations for executioners. Secondly: I would not wish, least of all with legal machinery, to stay the hand of anyone who was avenging past misdeeds.”

What prompts this entry, however, is a moment where he turns speculative and suggests that a complete refutation for Hegel triumphant historical vision can be found in the “robot-bombs” of hitler:

Had Hegel’s philosophy of history embraced this age, Hitler’s robot-bombs would have found their place beside the early death of Alexander and similar images, as one of the selected empirical facts by which the state of the world-spirit manifests itself directly in symbols. Like Fascism itself, the robots career without a subject. Like it they combine utmost technical perfection with total blindness. And like it they arouse mortal terror and are wholly futile. ‘I have seen the world spirit’, not on horseback, but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel’s philosophy of history.

What if, instead of Hitler’s rockets, Adorno had come to see the drones of today? Or the completely autonomous weapons of tomorrow?