Can One Lead a Good Life in a Bad Life?
Adorno Prize Lecture
I am most honoured to be here on this occasion to receive the Adorno Prize.* I would like this evening to talk to you about a question that Adorno posed, one that is still alive for us today. It is a question to which I return time and again, one that continues to make itself felt in a recurrent way. There is no easy way to answer the question, and certainly no easy way to escape its claim upon us. Adorno, of course, told us in Minima Moralia that ‘Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen’ (‘Wrong life cannot be lived rightly’, in Jephcott’s translation’),1 and yet this did not lead him to despair of the possibility of morality. Indeed, we are left with the question, how does one lead a good life in a bad life? He underscored the difficulty of finding a way to pursue a good life for oneself, as oneself, in the context of a broader world that is structured by inequality, exploitation and forms of effacement. That would at least be the initial way I would reformulate his question. Indeed, as I reformulate it for you now, I am aware that it is a question that takes new form depending on the historical time in which it is formulated. So, from the beginning, we have two problems: the first is how to live one’s own life well, such that we might say that we are living a good life within a world in which the good life is structurally or systematically foreclosed for so many. The second problem is, what form does this question take for us now? Or, how does the historical time in which we live condition and permeate the form of the question itself?
* This is the text of a lecture delivered, in shortened form and in German translation, on the occasion of the award of the Adorno Prize to Judith Butler in Frankfurt on 11 September 2012. Announcement of the prize led to a campaign against awarding the prize to Butler on the grounds of her political positions on Israel and Palestine. Her response to one such criticism in The Jerusalem Post can be found, along with more than twenty translations into other languages, at www.egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/articles/i-affirm-a-judaism-that-is-not-associated-with-state-violence.