‘Adorno on Nature’ reviewed by Paul Sutton

Adorno on Nature

Acumen, Durham, 2011. 198pp., £18.99 pb
ISBN 9781844652624

Reviewed by Paul Sutton

About the reviewer

Paul Sutton has written on Iain Sinclair and Frank Zappa and is now, at least in the intervals left …


In terms of style and pace, Adorno on Nature takes its place alongside such theoretical primers as the Guide for the Perplexed series. Deborah Cook’s volume has the advantage, however, of tracing Adorno’s engagement with the theme of nature, from a 1932 inaugural lecture to the 1960s lecture notes which have been translated in the last decade, thereby providing a more immersive experience of his thought than would otherwise be the case. The theme in question could scarcely be more philosophically resonant, falling as it does under the rubric of subject/object relations. Moreover, as Cook makes clear, particularly in her final chapter, Adorno’s development of this theme has much to contribute to contemporary environmental debates.

Chapter 1, ‘Critical materialism’, opens thus: ‘Adorno’s work has been variously described as Nietzschean, Weberian, Hegelian, idealist, Marxist and materialist. With equal frequency, commentators have excluded Adorno from one or the other of these camps’ (7). As her title indicates, Cook is concerned here to defend Adorno as a Marxist and a materialist and to contest Sebastiano Timpanaro’s claim that the Frankfurt School has an ‘antimaterialist, anti-Enlightenment, anti-jacobin orientation’ (7). Cook deftly refutes this claim, invoking Adorno’s frequent acknowledgements of his debt to Marx. Indeed, the following, cited from Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, constitutes the core of Adorno’s philosophy of nature:

We know only a single science, the science of history. History can be conceived from two sides, divided into the history of nature and the history of humankind. Yet there is no separating the two sides; as long as human beings exist, natural and human history will qualify each other.

Adorno resists a reductive dualism, deploying a characteristically Marxian chiasmus: the nature which is opposed to history is historical and the history which is opposed to nature is natural. Nature is characterized by growth and change and, indeed, is subject to human intervention while history is concerned with the tendency to either increase or decrease, as Adorno and Horkheimer observed in Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘the natural survival prospects of the human species on the earth or within the universe’ (2). Indeed, even for Hegel, Adorno argues, mind ultimately ‘originates in the real life process, in the law of the survival of the species, of providing it with nutrients’ (9). This nature is not simply the external nature of nutrients and predators but the internal nature of survival and reproductive instincts. Moreover, there is a second nature, composed of language, culture and socio-economic institutions, which emerges from, and occludes, first nature of physics and biology. Adorno cites Capital: “the law of capitalist accumulation … has been mystified into a law of nature’ (8). Cook concludes ‘[I]n our ceaseless attempts to preserve ourselves – whatever the cost – we continue to eviscerate the very selves for whose sake these struggles are waged when we renounce the satisfaction of our instincts and ignore our natural history’ (33).

Chapter 2, ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’, considers the epistemological implications of Adorno’s philosophy of nature. He honours that ‘noble feature’ of Kant’s thought, the ‘things-in-themselves’ which ‘survive as a reminder that subjective knowledge is not the whole story’. They are, however, ‘without further consequences’ (37). By insisting on the radical distinctness of subject and object, Kant effectively lapses into the very idealist subjectivism from which he is trying to escape. While, for Kant, phenomenal forms are merely adventitious and subjective, for Adorno, they are objective, if not completely so. As Cook points out ‘so-called secondary qualities [colours, smells, etc.] are also objective because they are borrowed […] from the subject’s own corporeally mediated apprehension of objects’ (38). Indeed, in Hegelian fashion, a truer apprehension of objects depends not upon a purging of mediations, but upon a reflection upon them. So, while the concept can never exhaust the object, the subject, as, at least partly, a natural object, has a profound affinity with nature (indeed, if it did not, nature would be absolutely unknowable). That, owing to the vicissitudes of our survival instinct, our attitude towards nature is often antagonistic, does not, in principle, rule out reconciliation. Much the same could be said of our attitude towards internal nature, as instanced in the work of Freud. Adorno is consistently more pessimistic than Freud with regard to reconciliation under current social conditions, but much less so with regard to what is possible under different conditions. ‘Indeed, Adorno thinks that needs will change decisively once the production process is devoted unconditionally and unrestrictedly to their satisfaction’ (60).

Chapter 3, ‘Thought thinking itself’, insists on the necessity of the non-conceptual, that without which philosophy would be condemned to its definition by Aristotle as ‘thinking on thinking’, an identity thinking in which, Adorno claims, ‘there would be no truth; emphatically, everything would be just nothing’ (62). In a suitably dialectical manner, this idealism emerges directly from the need to satisfy the claims of ‘first nature’; philosophy is ‘the belly turned mind, and rage is the mark of each and every idealism’ (70). Indeed, Adorno is no irrationalist or mystic and is perfectly willing to grant the erstwhile necessity of subsumptive, abstract reasoning. Thought, he argues, is a ‘revolt against being importuned to bow to every immediate thing’ (66). Examples of emancipatory thought range from

The primitive who contemplates how he can protect his small fire from rain or where he can find shelter from the storm to the Enlightenment philosopher who construes how humanity can move beyond its self-incurred tutelage by means of its interest in self-preservation. (66)

Nevertheless, with the emergence of domination, the development of instrumental reason bespeaks a schism between subject and object, humanity and nature. As Cook observes of Adorno’s account of the Odyssey in Dialectic of Enlightenment

By outwitting the Cyclops, Odysseus also acquired a sense of himself as distinct from nature. Yet, his was also a pyrrhic victory because it was bought at the cost of self-denial, the denial of nature in himself. Odysseus effaced himself when he called himself “Nobody”: he acknowledged himself to himself by denying himself; he saved his life by losing himself. (68)

Our knowledge of nature is now, Adorno argues, ‘so pre-formed by the demand that we dominate nature […] that we end up understanding only those aspects of nature that we can control’ (72-3). Science’s claim to value neutrality is, by default, a legitimation of ‘second nature’, the laws of capitalist accumulation. Nevertheless, Adorno finds in what might be termed ‘modernist science’ a possible mitigation of identity thinking. In post-Einsteinian physics, for example, ‘ratio peers over the wall it itself erects, [catching] a snippet of what does not agree with its own ingrained categories’ (73). As we have seen, Kant acknowledged the block to truth only to erect a cordon around it; Adorno, on the other hand, insists upon repeated and systematic stumblings against this block, the better to asymptotically approximate, if not truth, at least a smaller lie, less inimical to both inner and outer nature. Such stumblings, or, rather, constellations thereof, constitute a negative dialectics which judges both ‘whether the concept does justice to what it covers’ and ‘whether the particular fulfils its concept’ (77).

Chapter 4 is entitled ‘Adorno’s endgame’, a nod not just to one of Adorno’s literary touchstones, Samuel Beckett, but to the potentially catastrophic pass to which humanity has been brought by domination, identity thinking and the blind submission to ‘second nature’. ‘Under the monopoly conditions that characterize late capitalism, individuals stand in much the same relation to society as particulars stand to universal concepts’; identity thinking subsumes objects under concepts and society subsumes individuals under abstract exchange relations. The early modern individual, as represented by Hamlet, was, by virtue of the space opened up by a declining feudalism, capable of a self-emancipating self-reflection. However, the very individualism and contractualism of properly capitalist social relations eventually leads to the ‘individual’s monotonous confinement to her particular interest’ (94). Individuals persist and are ‘even protected and gaining in monopoly value’, but increasingly resemble the ‘foetuses that once drew the wonderment and laughter of children’ (95). Nevertheless, just as Beckett is not entirely despairing (the monologues continue, after all), so Adorno can still find in the individual, and in its response to the extremity in which it finds itself, the necessary, but by no means sufficient, grounds of a critique which could harbinger a properly political global solidarity.

Cook’s final chapter, ‘Adorno and radical ecology’, examines Arne Naess’s deep ecology, Murray Bookchin’s social ecology and Carolyn Merchant’s ecofeminism. All three are as much activists as philosophers, a fact reflected in their work, which can seem merely homiletic after 120 pages of Marx, Kant and Hegel. Indeed, judging from the almost contemptuous ease with which the author dispenses with their arguments and suggests Adornoite improvements, Cook shares these reservations. Given the hegemony that environmentalism now enjoys, it is understandable that Cook should wish to inject it with the sadly less hegemonic socialism. It is, perhaps, a measure of her success in presenting Adorno’s thought that her account of ecological thought falls somewhat flat. So, while Cook provides a useful and persuasive account of Adorno’s concept of nature and its relationship with the thought of, above all, Marx, but also Hegel, Kant and, to a lesser extent, Freud, her argument for its relevance to radical ecology is probably of more interest to Greens than to Marxists.

4 December 2011

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