Contradictory Heritage, A History Boy, 08/09/2017

I have a pretty stand-offish relationship with Theodor Adorno. I think it’s a result of my first exposure to him. That came through an older university librarian I knew by the philosophy department circles back in my undergrad years at Memorial.

He was the philosophy specialist in the library’s procurement, and his own PhD research focussed on Adorno. CD was a smart guy, and although I found him a little pretentious, he was a good person to hang out with. I have to say, though, he wasn’t very good at selling Adorno to me.

I reconsidered his work as I got older, but never really made the jump to studying his philosophy in full. Mostly, it was because I was working on a totally different tradition and approach in Western philosophy during my doctorate – informing environmentalist ethics through philosophy of biology and ecology, with a leg up from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on the conceptual framework.

Remember, freshmen, there is no art without suffering.
No education without folly.
No philosophy class without a surly smart-ass.
But I think it was also because of his reputation. I’m not usually one to cower in front of a reputation, but with Adorno, I did. His work wasn’t just philosophy to me – it was an edifice. I came to that image through the Adorno specialists and students I knew – they treated him like a figure of awe.

Nein broke that image for me. He injected some levity into Adorno for me, and made him and his work more approachable. I don’t want to read some unapproachable edifice. I want to read a thinker.

So I’ll probably hit up some Adorno soon. I’ll soon be transitioning away from looking at left-wing philosophy as it’s more traditionally defined. But after a walk along the path that I’m heading for, I think I’ll go back to some Adorno, no matter how strange his work might be.

How strange might that work be? Well, here’s Perry Anderson’s take on it. This is probably what I admire most about Anderson’s writing and thought. He’s a historian of ideas who can genuinely grapple with the real strangeness of some ideas and still find witty and concise ways of explaining it.

Maybe it helped that I was already familiar with the context. I mean, I haven’t read much Adorno myself, but I’ve read almost everything else that influenced him. So it’s not like I have no idea what kind of concepts are flying around there.

Here are the concepts that Anderson throws down to explain the underlying ontology of Adorno’s philosophical writing. Same goes for the rest of the Frankfurt School more generally.

He describes Frankfurt School thinking as on the same plane as these following two philosophical frameworks. One is the philosophy of Friedrich Schelling. Anderson describes this as adapting the metaphysics of Christian salvation to the human relationship with the material Earth. So the path to humanity’s redemption from our fundamental corruption is a kind of devotion to harmonious material nature.

Schelling is another German philosopher who I
could just never get into. Everything I heard about
his ideas, even from people who loved his work,
made me think I would hate it all. I haven't heard
anything much different yet.
The City of God becomes the City of Man when it’s no longer a city, but a forest. And we must treat it as such.

Two is Heidegger’s critique of technology, his account of the technological attitude as the rupture of man from nature. This rupture is the ongoing social, cultural, and philosophical goal of dominating the Earth – we dominate Earth to make commodities from it, and we define our lives through our commodities, our stuff.

In the words of the Frankfurt School’s marxist heritage, capitalism is the rupture of humanity from Earth, from nature. So a liberated society, in Adorno’s thinking* is a reconciliation of humanity and Earth.

* According to Perry Anderson.

It’s a beautiful vision. As someone who holds environmentalist political and ethics values, I definitely like it. Despite the way Anderson’s account tends to reify nature. Actually, that’s a serious problem for me. By pulling Schelling’s Christian salvation narrative into an immanent material relationship – humanity and Earth – you turn the planet into God.

Earth isn’t God. It’s Earth. If you believe it’s God, you’re making a serious mistake. God as a Christian concept was designed as the ultimate Other – the Fall means that humanity’s nature is utterly and totally anathema to the Divine. That we’re virtually like poison to divinity.

If this is really the underlying metaphysics of the Frankfurt School, I can’t even say they’re radical left anymore. To make a Christian God of Nature is making an idol out of a word that shouldn’t even be capitalized.

There’s an even deeper conservatism underneath the ideas of what the radical right today call the communist conspiracy of the modern era.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, not sure about this reading to be honest. For one thing, I think it's worth noting that Adorno doesn't see capitalism as a decisive break from other forms of human society. We always had an instrumental relationship to the world; capitalism has just given us way, way more powerful tools for dominating it. Of course, capitalism's also much more totalistic than previous forms of social organisation in Adorno's view.

    More importantly, though, Adorno actively opposes any kind of positive account or model of emancipation, and the Nature = God reading certainly is just such a positive account. I think you need to read his discussion of instrumentalisation and domination in the context of his negative dialectic, i.e. that we can only be emancipated by thinking against our conceptual frameworks, in order to draw attention to what they exclude. In particular, the way that they obscure the existence of real, concrete suffering. Through this negative dialectic, which is a constant, ongoing process, we can become more and more emancipated. But, it provides no account at the beginning of what that emancipation would look like; there's no end goal set out for us, and certainly doesn't give us a simple model like "We should reject instrumentalisation and be one with nature."