What would you do just to stay alive, to put food on your table, a roof over your head, and clothes on your back? Would you destroy yourself, or the lives of your children? If you answered: of course not! –Adorno would say that you are lying to yourself. He thinks that we are destroying ourselves in the name of survival. In order to keep our jobs and pay our bills, we are complicit in the destruction of the natural world on which our lives depend. Since we are willing to destroy ourselves and the natural world in the name of survival, self-preservation has gone wild; it has run completely amok.
Adorno claims that we have not yet fully distinguished ourselves from other animals because we have failed to acknowledge our own natural history. Human history displays an appalling continuity when seen in light of our instinctually motivated compulsion to dominate nature, other human beings, and our own inner nature. Increasingly destructive and self-destructive, our untamed survival instincts now pose a serious threat to the future survival of all life on this planet. What I want to do in my talk is to give you some sense of what Adorno thinks about self-preservation, why he claims that this instinct now runs wild, and what he believes we need to do to tame it. This is just one of the paradoxes on which Adorno invites us to reflect with the aim of discovering how we might overcome it before it’s too late.