Dorothea Nikolaidis | On Beasts and Gods

By Dorothea Nikolaidis

On Beasts and Gods[1]

What are the proper limits of utopian desire? Initially this question might strike us as misguided. In our everyday speech, utopianism stands for a kind of social imagination unbounded by the constraints of practicability. Yet when critical theorist Theodor Adorno, in his discussion with Ernst Bloch, defines his political utopia in terms of the desire for the abolition of death, we feel that something has gone wrong.[2] This is, after all, a theological notion. It finds its clearest expression in Christianity, as Bloch reminds us elsewhere in their discussion. But what place can it have, if any, in liberatory politics?

In this session of the Utopia 13/13 series, we confronted this question with our guest speakers Rahel Jaeggi and Martin Saar, as they discussed the contributions of critical theory to utopian thought. Several of this session’s contributors and participants expressed their discomfort with the notion. Philosopher and psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook argued that the concept of utopia as the end of death is politically dangerous.[3] It impermissibly goes beyond the finitude which is constitutive of human political practice.[4] Host and Professor Bernard Harcourt shared his concern, calling the concept deeply problematic.[5] Jaeggi proposed reinterpreting the passage as a metaphor.[6]

While sharing our discomfort, Saar nonetheless maintained that the concept was not so easily dispensed with. For Saar, this concept of utopia as the end of death is fundamental to Adorno’s critical methodology.[7] It forms the basis of what Saar calls a theory of ambivalence, of the degree of critical distance which theory maintains with practice.[8]

In what follows, I put forward a criticism of this conception of utopia. Following the discussions in this session on finitude as a condition of human political community, I propose a delineation of the bounds of political community as a distinct sphere of human life with its own peculiar modes of reasoning and laws of motion. Adorno’s adoption of the end of death as a political position, I will argue, confuses the boundary of the political and that which transcends it, with unfortunate consequences for what Saar calls his theory of ambivalence. The final section will suggest some ways in which theological language of alterity of the abolition of death might better serve a theory of ambivalence.


I first discuss the distinctive characteristics of the political “ought-to-be” as a refraction of a variety of human wants with which we enter political deliberation.[9]

I speak about these wants as coming from the field of ethics. By this expression I mean that they deal with the point of human life– with how life ought to be lived. When Adorno talks about our ability to regard the end of death as something desirable, I interpret him as having something like the question of how human life ought to be lived in mind. The question of the desirability of an end to death is part of the broader question of what sort of human life we should want.

We come to political community with a variety of notions and desires about how humans ought to live. Such desires may be more or less suited to realization within the political sphere. Nonetheless, they frequently cannot but find politics significant. We see this most clearly in the amenability of political matters to moral evaluation. Thus, for example, Jaeggi states that “If we see people drowning in the Mediterranean, it doesn’t take so much theory… in order to know that we should help them and… fight against a social order – a European border regime– that makes them drown.” [10] We can easily recognize this statement as, in part, a moral reaction. I think few of us would be perplexed by this reaction. I mean not just that we agree with her, but that even if we did not, we would understand the sort of statement she is making. She is telling us in part that this is not how humans ought to treat one another. If politics tends to concern how our human community is structured then it is not surprising that every political act is simultaneously subject to moral evaluation. It is also not surprising, then, that our moral evaluations might motivate us to political action.

When brought to political community, however, such desires are reshaped by this sphere’s distinctive structure. This action in this sphere, as Whitebook suggests, takes place under a general condition of finitude. Political projects are always put forward and realized by real, vulnerable human subjects. I have argued elsewhere for the centrality of Marx’s concept of “real movement” in grasping the movement of this domain.[11] The contours of this real movement possess a relative autonomy with respect to moral theory. The term real movement denotes the process which produces a certain collective subject. I have argued as well that the determination of this process of production does not make use of moral concepts in the way that traditional political theories do. Instead, it analyzes the extent to which such ought-to-be’s prove capable of taking hold of real events.

The communist movement itself is subject to such an analysis. Unlike other ought-to-be’s however, it can trace the process of its own coming to be and the development of conditions under which it takes effect. The collective subject of the real movement, then, is distinguished by a kind of capacity for practical self-reflection. With the real movement, it becomes possible for the first time to speak of an adequation of thought to action.[12]

A rejection of the real movement, and for our purposes a refusal of the choice amounts to the same thing, must place one in a rather uncomfortable practical position. It is a kind of performative contradiction. It involves a continued estrangement of a historical process which itself constitutes the ground of any possible realization of the ought-to-be in question.[13] This is particularly so under the rule of capital. If with one hand capital supplies the grounds for its own defense, with the other it melts this solid ground into air. Its development generates the conditions of its own dissolution.

In our epoch, then, the historical process described by the ‘real movement’ is not just an object of choice, but the shape of the political itself. The arc of this historical development constitutes the outer limit of political action within which a limited range of political possibilities find their varying degrees of realization. Human subjects, as finite beings bound together in political community, are constrained in the sort of projects they can realize by this community’s intrinsic processes of development. Human desires which cannot find any realization in the political community cannot find any home in it, or else they are distorted into a politically realizable form.

We might, therefore, be tempted to grant this choice a greater degree of self-sufficiency. Perhaps it does not need external ethical motivation after all. This is, in a sense, a political choice between choosing and not choosing.[14] When confronted with such a choice, so the story goes, we could not choose anything but ourselves.[15] That is, when confronted with a choice between interpreting and changing the world, we could not but choose to change it.

Whether or not such external motivation is necessary, however, we inevitably bring it along. As I suggested earlier, our reflections on the point of life cannot pass over so much of this life in silence. They not only inform, but compel our decision, even if they do not determine the shape of options we find at hand.

The conceptually first and most consequential political option which our various desires compel us to confront is, then, a holistic one. It is the choice of how one orients oneself to the real movement. Its shape is set in large part before our we and various desires come on the scene.

One must therefore assess and assume the cost of one’s political orientation, as the choices on offer are to some extent indifferent to our various feelings about them. Lukacs captures this point nicely in an early essay “Tactics and Ethics.”[16] There, he speaks of the possibility of a “tragic situation” in which “it is impossible to act without burdening oneself with guilt.”[17] Faced with a decision between two guilty choices, ethical awareness must nonetheless identify a correct course of action. We come to political activity with a variety of desires for human self-realization in hand, but political deliberation, tragically, follows its own laws of motion.


The position which I have staked out so far requires a distinction between the political ‘ought-to-be’ and human ‘ought-to-be’s in general. It is for this reason, I suggest, that Adorno’s adoption of utopia, with the abolition of death as its “neuralgic point,” as a position of political criticism is so troublesome. It straddles the boundary of political realization. For this reason, I will argue it finds itself muddled in a number of antinomies and dilemmas with unfortunate consequences for its relationship to practice.

Saar reads utopia-as-end-of-death as enabling Adorno to stake out a theoretical position of radical alterity in relation to the existent. Other positions of criticism only look beyond a single given social arrangement. But “What reaches beyond people’s identification with the existing social conditions” Adorno informs us, “is identification with death.”[18] Adorno’s utopia-as-end-of-death places him beyond identification with any given political arrangement or social movement. Theory maintains a critical distance from every such arrangement.

In Adorno’s scheme, too-close identifications of theory with a given social arrangement become subject to the charge of historical teleology. In this context, Jaeggi explains, teleology refers to the projection of a final and total resolution of antagonism in the political body.[19] Jaeggi suggests that the criticism of teleologisms is a strength of the Adornian theory. After all, we cannot believe such optimistic projections anymore.[20]

But, if we cannot believe in such teleologisms, we cannot assume them away. If Saar’s reading is correct, then, I suggest, this is just what Adorno’s position does. It defers the end of history by fiat, positing an end of death and projecting the continuation of historical antagonism so long as this condition is not met.

Here, I believe that Adorno strings us along in a sleight of hand. His position glosses over the boundaries and distinctive features of the political. It does so with unfortunate consequences for its conception of the relationship between theory and practice.

To illustrate this point, I would like to compare Adorno’s approach to an equal and opposite argumentative sleight of hand of a different strain of Marxist thought. Lukacs’ criticism of “theories of the ‘ought’” in his essay on the “Standpoint of the Proletariat” confuses the political and excessive ought-to-be in an opposite direction.[21] I suggest that this position stands in an antinomic relationship to Adorno’s concept of utopia.

Lukacs charges these theories of the ‘ought ‘to be with a neglect of the conditions of their own realization. These theories shy away from the task of discovering “the principles by means of which it becomes possible in the first place for an ‘ought’ to modify existence.” [22]  They develop the ‘ought’ independently of its conditions of realization only to find that they lack the resources to explain the course which would bring alien objectivity into conformity with the desires of acting subjects. Hence, such desires take on a purely “subjective character.”[23]

This position is, at least implicitly, a criticism of the ‘tragic situation’ of Lukacs’ earlier “Tactics and Ethics.” The tragic situation contemplates an ‘ought’ which dictates a political choice but which nonetheless leaves behind a certain remainder unrealizable within political community. The later Lukacs denies the legitimacy of any such unrealizable excess. I submit that Lukacs’ later approach suppresses the discomfort of “Tactics and Ethics” without resolving it.

Lukacs’ criticism of the unrealizable ‘ought’ does not take account of the conditions of its own validity. This validity depends on the necessity of political realization to a given ought. I have argued, however, that there are ‘ought-to-be’s which do not depend on such realization. There are objects of human longing whose ‘ought-to-be’ locates the conditions of their realization somewhere beyond political community. Perhaps they have their origins in human beings, bound together by political relationships, but they exceed any realization within human political community. They have no place in the polis. Their validity and realization therefore fall outside of the study of political science. They must be relegated to the world of beasts and gods.

Lukacs’ subsequent definition of the proletariat as the subject-object of history can be read as an attempt to close this gap.[24] Like Adorno’s deferral of the end of history, Lukacs’ argument accomplishes its task by fiat. It attempts to exclude the possibility of a desire which exceeds realization in the communist movement. He substitutes one source of historical agency for historical agency in general. By this procedure, he attempts to conform human desire in general to the limits of the political sphere. All legitimate wants will be satisfied. The cost of this forced identification is a vulnerability to the charge of ‘teleologism’ from the Adornian camp.

Here, however, an antinomy holds. Adorno’s position is equally vulnerable to the charge of subjectivism. Jaeggi suggests in defense of a methodological negativism that we have no need of a positive conception of a political future in order to engage in social criticism. One can regard existing conditions as inadequate without reference to a positive conception. That may be so. But without a basis in the object of criticism, the choice of method remains a “purely subjective” one on the part of the theorist. This basis is just what, on Saar’s reading, Adorno’s position cannot supply. The adoption of the abolition of death is entirely a function of the “radical alterity” it gives us. Here, utopia-as-abolition-of-death amounts to a political fideism.

For this reason, it encounters serious epistemological difficulties in its relationship to political practice. Both of our guests for this session spoke about the compatibility of progressive political practice with a theoretical ambivalence. I do not aim to call into question the value of the practical interventions of contemporary critical theorists. But it is not clear that a utopian vision grounded in the abolition of death has the resources to explain how these interventions amount to something progressive.

Saar attempts a resolution of this dilemma. Using the example of a lawyer doing human rights work, he explains that “you have to know… that what you do is absolutely right in this one instance… but you also need a connection to something bigger… a world in which there would be no death penalty, no borders, maybe even no capital.”[25] Thus one might characterize one’s intervention as approaching a political goal while retaining an awareness that one does not finally realize it. But the abolition of death is not only unrealizable. It is unapproachable. No amount of human rights work, or even an abolition of capital, gets us one step closer to the end of death. The source of our conviction that what we do is absolutely right in this one instance remains a mystery. As a political denunciation, utopia as the end of death proves too much. It casts a long shadow over the political present. Under it, in Hegel’s phrase, all cows are black.[26] It lacks the resources to distinguish between the many conflicting social forces at play. The choice of political practice becomes a “purely subjective one.”


It is unsurprising that in discussions of a world beyond the political present we should have recourse to theological language. This language, I suggest, corresponds to the peculiar kind of ambivalence needed to speak about a political future. Against the tyranny of a purported “rationality of the actual,” the language of transcendence opens up a space for criticism. The political present, considered as a whole, can once again be called into question. I have criticized a too-literal application of such language to the political sphere. Nonetheless, within its limits, I believe this turn to the language of theology may be productive. In what follows, I explore the possibility of a metaphorical resemblance between divine alterity and the alterity required of social critique. Speaking out of a Thomist theological tradition, I suggest a recalibration, in professor Harcourt’s phrase, of political ambivalence based on the via analogia.[27]

In speaking about God, Catholic theological traditions face their own kind of ambivalence. The practices of saying (the cataphatic) and unsaying (the apophatic) about God are closely interrelated and interdependent.[28] These practices were both in turn determined by divine transcendence. This condition was codified in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which held that “between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them.”[29] Even before its codification, this principle was present throughout earlier Catholic thought.[30]

Here, as in our discussions of a political future, the ambivalence of saying and unsaying continually ran up against a problem: How are we to determine the structure of the saying and unsaying appropriate to divine transcendence without violating the epistemological conditions set by this transcendence itself?[31]

St. Thomas Aquinas’ solution to this question comes in the form of the via analogia. Aquinas thinks that when we talk about God, we never really get a handle on what we are saying. In keeping with the pronouncement of Lateran IV, he denies the possibility of a univocal predication common to God and creature.[32]

However, he does not believe that all our predications are therefore only equivocal.[33] Aquinas believes that in the theological game of saying and unsaying, there are some statements about God which, after being qualified to death, leave behind their remains.[34] There is a certain minimum of meaning (the res significata) left behind which applies, in some unknowable way, to God.[35] This common remainder of meaning he calls analogical predication.

For Aquinas, the quality and extent of this practice of qualification finds its structure in the relation of resemblance which creation bears to God. This is a resemblance of effect to cause. Here too, we are stretching the word ‘cause.’[36] God is not just any cause, but the unknowable answer to the unavoidable question: ‘why is there something rather than nothing at all?’[37] Our every statement about God is qualified by His position somewhere in the darkness bounding the outer edges of what ‘is.’

Now I want to suggest a metaphorical resemblance between the kind of ambivalence needed to speak about God and that needed to speak about a political future. Saar’s discussion of radical alterity calls our attention to the epistemological constraints on speaking about a political future. Marx’s caution against writing the “recipes of the future” Saar reminds us, should give us pause about painting out the details of a political future in the present.[38]

Yet I have argued that the call for epistemic modesty requires us to be as careful painting with a black brush as with any other. Negative and positive predication alike require grounding in the object of predication and depend for such grounding on their interrelations with each other.

Our every statement about the future must be qualified in light of our position of knowing. This position of knowing is determined by a relation which our present has to the future. Following Marx, I have referred to this relationship as the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Here, however, I encounter another objection. Harcourt argues that at this stage of history, calls for revolution “feel too utopian.”[39] Instead, opts for a project of concrete utopias in order to “shake radical thought out of its complacency and simultaneously challenge liberal policy making.”[40]

I believe that this position does not give due weight to the limits of our political present, or to the speed at which these limits approach us. It finds a set of ready-made causal relationships. There are utopias on one side and liberal policy and radical thought on the other, with radical practice, presumably, following along in tow. But I have argued there exists a cause behind this causality: a set of background conditions which constitute the forces at play in their mutual interrelations. It enables the predominance of a radical thought which stands complacent in the face of liberal policy, just as it constructs the need for utopian intervention. But as these conditions change, “the educator must be educated” and radical practice and radical thought alike are confronted with the impossibility of the continued imposition of capitalist rule.[41] In the turbulence of political change thought and practice alike find that their unity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice. And this we call communism.[42]


[1] The phrase comes from Aristotle’s politics, and refers to a man who is by nature beyond the polis. Aristotle Politics 1253a.

[2] Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno, “Possibilities of Utopia Today,” 7 (Jonathan Roessler trans., 1964).

[3] Utopia 10/13 1:42:01-1:43:21.

[4] Id.

[5] Id., at 1:44:05-7.

[6] Id., at 1:46:21.

[7] Id., at 1:44:08-1:45:56.

[8] Id.

[9] The line of argument which I pursue closely follows Fr. Herbert McCabe O.P.’s in his chapter on the “Word as Love” in Law, Love and Language. See, in particular “If the marxist is right and there is no God who raised Jesus from the dead then the Christian pre-occupation with death as the ultimate revolutionary act is a diversion from the real demands of history; if the christian is right then the Marxist is dealing with revolution only at a relatively  superficial level, he has not touched on the ultimate alienation involved in death itself” Fr. Herbert McCabe, Law, Love and Language 135 (1968).

[10] Id., at 20:56-21:20

[11] Dorothea Nikolaidis, “No-Place Like Home: Reflections on Marx and Utopia,” Utopia 13:13 (2022).

[12] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach; See also Lukacs’ discussion of Marx’s second thesis. Georg Lukacs History and Class Consciousness, “The Standpoint of the Proletariat” (Rodney Livingstone trans., 1967).

[13] “The Standpoint of the Proletariat” (1967).

[14] I have borrowed this phrasing from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Søren Kierkegaard, Either Or: Kierkegaard’s Writings IV, Part II, 177 (Princeton University Press 1987).

[15] Id., at 213.

[16] Georg Lukacs, “Tactics and Ethics” (Rodney Livingstone trans., 1972).

[17] Id.

[18] Bloch and Adorno, 7 (1964).

[19] Utopia 10/13 17:53-18:10.

[20] Id., at 10/13 18:05-18:10.

[21] “The Standpoint of the Proletariat” (1972).

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id; For an in-depth discussion of Lukacs’ identification of the proletariat as subject-object see Meszaros Beyond Capital 347-363 (1995).

[25] Utopia 10/13 2:05:39-2:06:46.

[26] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 37 (Michael Inwood trans., 2018).

[27] Sebastian Lederly rightly cautions against a neglect of the vast differences between distinct theological traditions even among the ‘Abrahamic’ religions. He also draws attention to the Jewish theological background form which Adorno might be speaking. For my part, I can only speak from my own theological background: the Thomistic tradition in Catholic thought. Utopia 10/13 1:57:35-1:59:20. For a discussion of Harcourt’s proposed “recalibration” see Bernard E. Harcourt “Epilogue on the Frankfurt School and Ernst Bloch” Utopia 13/13 (2023).

[28] Denys Turner, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God 61 (2004).

[29] Lateran IV.

[30] See Denys Turner’s discussion in Denys Turner “Apophaticism, Idolatry and the Claims of Reason,” Silence and the Word (2008).

[31] See St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of this problem in relation to the inadequacy of equivocal predication in St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae Ia q13 a10.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] For a discussion of this process of qualification, see Fr. Herbert McCabe O.P., “God and Creation,” New Blackfriars (2013).

[35] Fr. Herbert McCabe O.P., God Still Matters, 53 (2002).

[36] Id., at 13-29.

[37] Id., at 27; S.T. Ia q2 a2.

[38] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I, 12 (Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling trans., 1887); Utopia 10/13 27:15-20.

[39] Harcourt (2023).

[40] Id.

[41] Theses on Feuerbach (1888)

[42] A paraphrase on Aquinas’ proofs of God in S.T. Ia q2 a2.