‘Critical Ecologies: The Frankfurt School and Contemporary Environmental Crises’ reviewed by Adrian Wilding

Critical Ecologies: The Frankfurt School and Contemporary Environmental Crises

University of Toronto Press, Toronto and London, 2011. 352pp., £22.50 pb
ISBN 9780802095657

Reviewed by Adrian Wilding

About the reviewer

Adrian Wilding is currently a visiting scholar at the Institut für Philosophie, …


Were the early members of the Frankfurt School still alive today it is likely they would have little trouble making sense of our current environmental crisis. In particular one can imagine it would not take long for them to comprehend the phrase “anthropogenic climate change”, because as they themselves might reply, it is an idea all but predicted in their work. It was the Frankfurt School who foresaw most presciently that the direction in which our societies were developing might prove catastrophic for the human race’s survival. Not only in Adorno and Horkheimer’s writings of the 1940s but also in the post-war writings of Marcuse, the idea of nature having been controlled or dominated in such a way that would react back destructively on the species was predicted with uncanny accuracy. But while this observation points to the topicality of Frankfurt School reflections on nature, it also represents a problem, because the idea of “anthropogenic climate change”, an idea in many respects reminiscent of Dialectic of Enlightenment’s key concept of “the domination of nature” (Naturbeherrschung) is frustratingly abstract. While emphasising the “anthropogenic” may laudably help persuade a sceptical public that our current environmental crisis is no “natural” phenomenon but something dangerously unprecedented in the planet’s history, it falls far short of being analytically concrete and thus politically useful. Because it lays the blame at the feet of an abstraction – man (anthropos) – and lacks any sense of the historical, social and economic forces that shape humans’ interactions with the natural world and which have led to the current crisis. In fact, to adapt what Marx said in criticism of Feuerbach, the abstract anthropos is really the ensemble of social relations: particular men and women embedded in definite historical and geographical contexts and driven by particular economic imperatives to exploit their environment.

Awareness of the prescient yet problematically abstract character of first generation Frankfurt School thinking on nature is a theme running through this excellent volume of essays. Each of the authors take as their premise that the Frankfurt School has much to tell us about the current ecological crisis though the School’s conceptual weaponry may need to be critically sharpened. Several of the contributions, while keen to show the enduring relevance of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse on this issue, are at pains to question the simplistic and often one-sided aspect of their analysis. Not surprisingly then, Dialectic of Enlightenment’s positing of a transhistorical will to mastery of nature on the part of the human species comes in for particular criticism.

William Leiss’ perceptive opening chapter furthers the work of the present author in attempting to give historical content to this rather timeless category of Naturbeherrschung. The main flaw in Dialectic of Enlightenment’s treatment of nature, as Leiss realises, is that it sees Horkheimer at his most Schopenhaurian and Adorno at his most Nietzschean. Marx, so central to the foundations of the Frankfurt School, fades somewhat into the background of Dialectic, nowhere more clearly than in what that work says about nature. Leiss recognises how glaring are the gaps left in Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis, in particular the unanswered question of just who or what is “dominating” the natural world. Is it all humans? To the same degree? And can our faculty of reason (an overweening “belly become mind” as Adorno called it) really be the cause of this? If so, what hope is there of avoiding catastrophe?

In the chapter that follows, Christoph Görg draws on a rich yet (to the English reader) relatively unknown German literature on gesellschaftlicher Naturverhältnisse (social relations with nature) to nuance and sophisticate the issue. He gives a persuasive critique (part criticism part defence) of the Frankfurt School’s environmental reflections, pointing out that as humans we cannot avoid exploiting and transforming nature – this is in fact a “natural” aspect of human society – yet we can alter the way we do this, and indeed we must, as the capitalist mode of this exploitation is clearly unsustainable both for humans and the nonhuman world. Görg argues that the root of our problems lies not so much in a will to domination as in a pervasive Akkumulationszwang (capital’s compulsion to accumulate) which pays no heed to natural or social limits, something which, as Gorg notes in passing, gives the lie to any possible “green capitalism”. Görg’s essay is not purely political, though, and along the way he sketches a quite sophisticated post-constructivist philosophical position which builds on Adorno’s insight that the construction of nature is always “a construction of ‘something’” (51) and which moves the perennial realism versus idealism debate forward in interesting ways.

Both Katherine Farrell’s and Andrew Feenberg’s contributions find particular resources for a critical ecology in the work of Marcuse. Farrell shows how Marcuse’s idea of a “new science” converges with elements of “post-normal” (i.e. post-paradigm) science in a common orientation to a less exploitative attitude to the natural world. Feenberg explores in thoughtful manner what Marcuse’s idea of social liberation as entailing the “liberation of nature” might mean in our present conjuncture. Andrew Biro’s chapter draws its inspiration from Walter Benjamin, taking seriously Benjamin’s warning of a society so alienated that it can “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure” (229). Biro surveys a growing ecological “culture industry” where climate-change has become the stuff of disaster movies or primitivist fantasies like Avatar – billion dollar sources of consumerism and distraction.

As the volume progresses we become aware of something of an ambivalence on the part of the Frankfurt School. While texts like Adorno’s Jargon of Authenticity warn of the appeal of primitivism as flipside to capitalist development, in other places, for example certain passages in Dialectic of Enlightenment, we find arguments disconcerting similar to the anti-modern movement known as “deep ecology”. Both schools of thought show a marked antipathy to progress and enlightenment as traditionally conceived, while tending to view the domination of nature as transhistorical, as an outcome of anthropocentrism or hubris. These parallels are brought to light in Bruce Martin’s interesting chapter. What divides the two schools is no less important, however, and Martin argues strongly against deep ecology’s “disturbing tendency towards misanthropy” (130). What troubles Martin in deep ecology and its variants is that “intuitive identification with nature combined with minimal social analysis results in a philosophy … that threatens to remain abstract and contradictory and to further intensify domination and exploitation” in the very act of trying to defend the nonhuman world (126).

Colin Campbell’s chapter develops this theme, comparing and contrasting two of Heidegger’s students, Marcuse and Hans Jonas. Jonas receives a qualified defence here: he appears not just as the thinker who developed the ecological dimension latent in Heidegger’s fundamental ontology but one who refused the sort of ontological levelling to which Heideggerians often appeal. Jonas was always sceptical of any “monistic naturalism” (152) emphasising just as much the rift which the sapient, self-reflecting human being represents in the evolutionary order. Yet Jonas finally equivocated between monism and dualism and remained stuck in an aporia. Thus Campbell turns instead to Marcuse (in particular Marcuse’s critique of Freud’s death-instinct in the book Eros and Civilisation) to sketch a more sophisticated ecological ethics, one which would no longer neglect the sociological. Against any “premature” celebration of “the unity of life” (158), Campbell concludes, and against any equation of reason with mastery of nature, critical theory must remember the real distinctions, the real qualitative differences between humans and nonhumans, distinctions which are by no means coterminous with domination. In a similar vein, Timothy W. Luke argues later in the volume that “far too much ecological criticism and post-humanist thought is easily adapted to propping up the existing disorder of everyday life” (313).

Donald Burke’s chapter is a more textual contribution, reading the history of philosophy in its reflections on beauty through Kant, Hegel and Adorno. He reconstructs Adorno’s critical appraisal of the Kantian “sublime”, in which the mind is seen trying to rise above and dominate external nature yet which (for Adorno) also retains a welcome “remembrance of nature within the subject” (171). Though Hegel reversed Kant’s privilege of natural over artistic beauty he proved an equal partisan of the spirit, argues Burke: for him artistic beauty was the greater the higher its productions “stood above nature” (172). Burke’s sympathies lie with Adorno’s critique of both and he gives a sympathetic account of Aesthetic Theory in which natural beauty prefigures the utopia of a no longer domineering relation to both external and internal nature.

Here lies my only significant misgiving about the volume, because whilst Burke’s is a pretty accurate exposition of the German tradition, it does let Adorno off rather lightly, a tendency shared by the essays of Jonathon Short and Michael Lipscomb elsewhere in the book. These three would have benefited from the more circumspect approach shown by the majority of contributors. In particular, Adorno’s concepts of mimesis, non-identity and the preponderance of the object, each central to his appeal to ecologists, are more problematic than first appears. Philosophically, they look much more questionable once one has read Hegel beyond the rather caricatured version Adorno himself often promulgated. In particular, promoting an Adorno-inspired non-domineering relation to nature can ironically revert to an even more simplistic idealism than that rejected as glorifying mind over nature, because it assumes that by the mere adoption of these concepts we would no longer exploit nature in the currently unsustainable way. Not that this is a problem only for Adorno’s sympathisers; it is also one for the avowedly anti-dialectical work of a thinker like Bruno Latour, only briefly mentioned in this volume but worthy of a more serious confrontation by critical theory.

In this context it can be useful to bear in mind the above-mentioned and sometimes worrying affinities between elements of Adorno’s philosophy and the “deeper” end of ecological thought and to emphasise instead his more critical moments. Shane Gunster’s chapter “Fear and the Unknown” does just this. Importantly, though, Gunster goes on to show how ambiguous Adorno’s use of the word “nature” remained. On the one hand it figures as something non-identical, something sublime, something (rightly in Adorno’s eyes) never fully conceptualisable; on the other hand, a nature which appears as fate or a society become “second nature” is strenuously to be critiqued and de-reified. The reverently mimetic and the critically de-reifying attitudes towards these two natures point in different directions, though, and are never really reconciled by Adorno. Gunster’s sympathies lie – rightly in my opinion – more with critique than with reverence for the non-identical: “challenging the domination of nature by simply defining it as off limits to human reason is irresponsibly premature in the cultural, economic and political environment of today” (224).

Steven Vogel comes down even more squarely on the critical, de-reifying side. His chapter “On Nature and Alienation” furthers the argument of his book Against Nature and is perhaps the most audacious in this volume. Meticulously unpicking the idea that we are “alienated from nature”, Vogel shows how confused and contradictory an idea this is (not least when one tries to define which human activities are “unnatural”). His own alternative involves an intriguing fusion of Marx and Hegel and challenges us to view alienation not as some putative separation from nature (of which we are simultaneously and contradictorily said to remain a part) but as consisting rather “in our failure to recognize ourselves in the world we have transformed – a failure, that is, to acknowledge responsibility for what we have done and built” (201). Alienation names not our separation from nature but the misrecognition of the transformation of our environment (including its current, destructive form) as a product of social labour. Though some readers may resist Vogel’s apparent collapsing of first into second nature – no part of the planet is said to be left wholly untouched by labour or its effects – he makes a case that is hard to fault. And its ramifications are significant: not least that it may mean abandoning a key tenet of Frankfurt School thinking.

Taken together these essays make the important argument that our environmental crisis is not simply the result of anthropocentrism or untrammelled scientific reasoning – on this we can no longer share the first generation Frankfurt School’s thinking – but of the fact that, to adapt another phrase of Marx’s, we transform nature though in a manner not of our choosing. Our interaction with our environment is shaped intrinsically by our mode of production, that is, production is always that of specific historical and geographical (and in our case potentially lethal) forms of “second nature”. This implies further that exploitation of the environment is mediated at a fundamental level by intra-human exploitation, today by a world which is “competitive rather than cooperative, anarchic rather than rationally planned”, as Biro puts it (234). Our built environment is one in which we can no longer recognise ourselves as builders and which moreover now threatens our survival, along with that of the planet’s other life forms. Where the early Frankfurt School foresaw this trajectory they have much to tell us. Where they one-sidedly and pessimistically laid the blame for this development at the feet of reason or enlightenment or scientific method they lose some of their relevance, especially given what we have learned and can still learn from the highly rational procedures of climate science or sustainable technology. A deficit rather than a surfeit of reason, reason understood as goal-oriented and co-operative and not merely self-interested nor instrumental, is closer to the problem here, something it took the second generation Frankfurt School to realise even if they then failed to appreciate the radical socio-economic transformation that will be needed to avert disaster. What Horkheimer and Adorno called the Flaschenpost (“message in a bottle”) character of their own critical theory takes on a new and ominous meaning in a time of melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Much in that message is worth re-reading today and, as this excellent book shows, even if it is not possible to concur with all of it, the issues raised are nevertheless of pressing urgency.

3 April 2012

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