Sunday, 30 October 2016

Deborah Cook on Adorno and nature

Just a few words on Deborah Cook's Adorno on Nature (Acumen, 2011), which I finished reading today. Cook shows great familiarity with Adorno and is a reliable guide to his thinking. Usefully, she starts off by introducing two ideas central to his approach to nature. The first is the idea of "natural-history" (Naturgeschichte) which, as she points out, "informs all Adorno’s work" (Cook 2011:1). Correctly, she points out that this idea should be understood as a critical tool. As Adorno writes himself in Negative Dialectics, the task is "to grasp historic being in its utmost definition, in the place where it is most historic, as natural being, or to grasp nature, in the place where it seems most deeply, inertly natural, as historic being" (quoted in ibid. 17).

The second important idea concerns Adorno’s materialism. Adorno conceptualizes materialism not in terms of base and superstructure, but in terms of "the preponderance of the object" (Vorrang des Objekts). To him, matter has priority over mind not only because material objects are never completely grasped by their concepts but also because they impinge on thought, shocking and upsetting it through the pain and suffering that signal their non-identity with the concepts. For thought to develop rightly, it has to pass through and negate itself in this pain, thus reshaping itself and rearranging itself in a way that does more justice to the object. To refer to this thought operation he uses the Hegelian term "determinate negation", but unlike in Hegel the imperative to remain true to the object prevents thought from stabilizing itself in the form of a system because of the non-identity between concept and object. Instead, it triggers a dialectics of disintegration (Logik des Zerfalls) that shows the falsity of such systems and allows us to criticize them.

Here I won't go through the entire book, but will just mention a few points I found interesting.

The first has to do with Adorno’s Kantianism. Adorno combines the Hegelian idea that all is mediated with the Kantian idea of an object non-identical to its concept. But how is this possible? As Cook points out, Adorno links the latter idea to a valorization of immediacy as the truth of what the concept fails to cover - an immediacy that shows up in pain, vertigo and shocks that serve as the propulsive force of negative dialectics. Simply put, the answer is that mediation - as in Hegel - concerns the realm of concepts. But unlike in Hegel concepts are not all. The object remains outside this realm, although never wholly separated from it. To thought it inevitably appears through the mediation of concepts, but nevertheless "preponderates" in the sense described above, generating pain and contradictions.

This Kantian respect for the object means that Adorno is not a social constructivist. Cook rejects Steven Vogel’s criticism in Against Nature that Adorno contradicts himself by positing nature as immediate while at the same time stating that nature is mediated. Vogel himself asserts that nature is nothing apart from its socially mediated forms. But as Cook points out, there are problems with Vogel’s social constructivism, above all concerning the ontological status of the "social":
Adorno would respond to this claim by arguing that Vogel wrongly treats the ‘social’ (which he nowhere defines) as ‘that on which everything depends and by which everything is oriented’ (MCP [Metaphysics: Concept and Problems] 29). Against this, Adorno contends that ‘society itself is determined by the things of which it is composed and... therefore necessarily contains a non-social dimension’ (HF [History and Freedom]122). (Cook 2011: 41)
This points to a larger problem with social constructivism as such. Although Cook doesn't develop her argument beyond the criticism of Vogel, it points to the problematic status in social constructivism of the "society" that is supposed to do the constructing. It's obviously problematic to assign objectivity to the "social" alone - as is implicitly the case when everything else is seen as a mere construction. The opposite position, to see society as well as socially constructed, leads to a self-referential paradox that ultimately leaves us with no explanation at all unless we abandon social constructivism and start to look around for non-social factors behind the construction of society.

A second important point concerns how Adorno's ideas of natural history and preponderance of the object relate to the possibility of a dialectics of nature. As I've already discussed in another blog post, John Bellamy Foster accuses Adorno and other Western Marxists for having restricted dialectics to the realm of society, handing over the study of nature to positivism and ending up in idealism. Not surprisingly, Foster comes in for criticism in Cook's book. “Adorno’s thoroughly dialectical view of natural history puts paid to Foster’s contentious and largely unsupported claim that Western Marxists, including Adorno, ‘increasingly rejected realism and materalism...’” (ibid. 25). The reasons for this criticism of Foster should be clear. Firstly, Adorno is a materialist, although not in the sense of the "dialectics of nature" Foster seeks to develop. The core of Adorno's materialism is rather the idea of the object's preponderance, which implies a denial of constitutive subjectivity (and thus of idealism) that is arguably far more rigorous and thoroughgoing than Foster's.

A second thing Foster misses is that Adorno's rejection of a "dialectics of nature" in the sense of the materialist dialectics developed by Engels by no means implies a rejection of all dialectical thinking in relation to nature. Thinking necessarily involves concepts, and - just like all other objects - "nature" involves a relation of non-identity to concepts that calls for dialectical thinking. As Adorno makes striking evident in his discussion of "natural history", drawing a rigid boundary between society and nature is itself undialectical.
Flatly denying that dialectics can be extended to nature as ‘a universal principle of explanation’, Adorno nonetheless argues that it is just as wrong to say that nature is undialectical and society dialectical. [...] In fact, the trenchant distinction between history and nature, which fails to acknowledge their entwinement, only reflects the deceptive division of labour between the social and natural sciences. [...] Since human beings are inextricably part of the natural world, with which they must constantly interact to survive, nature can be said to be dialectical. (ibid. 28)
Foster's criticism that Adorno restricts dialectics to society is thus clearly a misreading (and a rather baffling one at that). Furthermore, he also seems to overlook the similarities that exist between Adorno’s dialectics and the Marx-based society-nature dialectics that he himself advocates. Cook points out that, ironically, the result of Foster’s attempt to go back to Marx to reconstruct a dialectics of nature and society leads to a Marx-interpretation that “seems to ally Marx much more closely with Adorno than even Adorno thinks” (ibid. 25).

That said, Cook also highlights the contrast between Marx and Adorno. Above all "Adorno’s refusal to identify subject and object ... led him to take a markedly more critical stance towards science than Marx did" (ibid. 29). An example of this is Adorno's criticism of the concept of causality, in the course of which he questioned the degree to which science, with its identitarian deployment of concepts and mathematical formulae, understands nature (ibid. 72). We can note that this criticism makes it plain how absurd the accusation is that Adorno would have handed over the study of nature to positivism.

The suspicion towards science's identitarian logic also makes Adorno much more critical than Marx of the drive towards science-based domination over nature. The utopian counter-image to such domination is not Soviet-style socialism but rather what Adorno calls reconciliation with nature. This, however, doesn't mean that Adorno has given up hope for a better, more rationally organized future in which nature would no longer be dominated. That Adorno is critical of the Soviet Union doesn’t mean that he rejects socialism.

Large portions of the book concern "inner nature", i.e. the self as material, embodied nature, and the relation between self-consciousness and the self's natural, sensory part. Cook, however, also seeks to make Adorno relevant to contemporary ecological discussions. She thus ends the book with a chapter comparing Adorno to three radical ecologists (the deep ecologist Arne Naess, the social ecologist Murray Bookchin and the eco-feminist Carolyn Merchant).

I don't have much to criticize in the book. I think Benjamin and Lukács would have deserved more extensive discussions. The notion of "second nature" gets short shrift and Cook seems to miss out on some interesting differences in how Adorno relates to first and second nature. In regard to these questions, it might be a good idea to supplement her book with Susan Buck-Morss' The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (The Harvester Press, 1977) or her The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press, 1991), both of which contain lucid and very interesting discussions on these topics.

Reconciliation with nature (mediated by Hollywood)

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