The Utopian Content of Reification

The Utopian Content of Reification: Adorno’s Critical Social Theory of Nature
Christopher Buck

In this chapter, Chris Buck argues for a “critical social theory of nature” that requires a reconstruction of the immanent/transcendent relation. Finding resources for such a reconstruction in Theodor Adorno’s critical reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of exchange value, Buck argues for the “emancipatory potential” of a theory of nature that presses us to consider experiences of the material and nonhuman as encounters with the transcendent. In Buck’s account of Adorno’s theory of nature, we need not cast such encounters with the transcendent in terms of the eternal, fixed, and thus, the pre-political. Rather, Buck reads Adorno’s claim that “nature ‘does not yet exist’” as calling for an experience of the transcendent in nature that presses us to imagine alternative systems of valuation to that of capitalism.


In the afterword to the second German edition of The Critique of Power, Axel Honneth notes how renewed interest in the critical theory of Theodor W. Adorno is motivated in part by the conviction that Adorno’s later writings “provide the best means for comprehending the conditions for a noninstrumental relation to inner and outer nature.”1 One of Adorno’s more suggestive articulations of this relation appears in his essay “On Subject and Object,” where he violates his self-imposed taboo on speculating about the possibility of reconciliation between humans and nonhuman entities: “In its proper place, even epistemologically, the relationship of subject and object would lie in a peace achieved between human beings as well as between them and their Other. Peace is the state of differentiation without domination, with the differentiated participating in each other.”2 Honneth, however, exhibits skepticism over the fruitfulness of this turn to Adorno, arguing that it “immediately gives rise to the difficult question of how the idea of an uncoerced relation to nature can appropriately be fitted (p.128) not within the theory of knowledge or aesthetics but rather within the conceptual framework of a critical social theory.”3

Here, I begin the task of situating Adorno’s account of nature within a broader social theory, with the aim of providing a critical intervention into the current state of environmental politics, which for the most part fails to call into question central features of the capitalist social form, as though they are unchangeable aspects of first nature.4 The key to translating the ecologically promising formulations in Adorno’s writings on epistemology and aesthetics into the categories of a social theory, I argue, involves demonstrating how these writings draw heavily on Marx’s mature critique of political economy, which takes the commodity form and the phenomenon of commodity fetishism as its starting point.5 In particular, I focus on an interesting and overlooked aspect of Adorno’s thought, namely, his reluctance to embrace a relentless critique of reification as the central strategy of his critical social theory of nature. While Adorno appreciates the importance of denaturalizing the reified products of human activity, he also worries that an unwavering commitment to revealing the fundamentally social character of nature risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater, to borrow the title of an aphorism in Minima Moralia. More specifically, Adorno acknowledges that the separation between nature and society functions as a fetish form of capitalist society but insists nonetheless that this false appearance contains an aspect of truth insofar as it projects an image of a world free from alienated labor as the predominant means of self-preservation, a world in which people will no longer be required to sell their labor power as a commodity in order to survive. This image should be understood not as a nostalgic yearning for an unmediated relationship with nature but rather as the possibility, generated by the current state of science and technology, of both reducing the necessary labor time required to generate social wealth and transforming the labor process itself to minimize the alienation as well as the ecological footprint associated with production.

After presenting Adorno’s nuanced treatments of reification and nature in his later writings, I address the criticisms of two theorists who develop very different approaches to environmental ethics and politics by thinking with and against Adorno. On the one hand, Steven Vogel uses Adorno as a foil in his argument for an environmental ethic based on his philosophy of practice, which emphasizes the ways in which nature is socially constituted and endorses idealism’s account of the active character of knowledge.6 According to Vogel, Adorno’s writings betray a longing for an immediate encounter with nature that is neither possible nor desirable. On the other (p.129) hand, Jane Bennett takes Adorno to task for his refusal to indulge in moments of naïve realism that can enhance one’s appreciation for the ability of nonhuman things to leave an impression on thinking subjects and thus contribute to the act of cognition.7 Moreover, Bennett implicates Adorno in perpetuating a narrative of disenchantment that fails to acknowledge the vitality that exists in all forms of matter, human and nonhuman alike, and defends commodity fetishism insofar as it has the potential to induce moments of enchantment by attributing the properties of human agents to mere things.8 What is striking about these criticisms is that Vogel and Bennett depart from Adorno in completely opposite directions. Whereas Vogel accuses Adorno of attempting to depict nature in-itself unmediated by subjectivity, Bennett rejects Adorno’s unwillingness to offer a speculative ontology of nonhuman things in an effort to “counter the tendency … to conclude the biography of an object by showing how it, like everything, is socially constituted.”9 For Vogel, Adorno says too much about the nature of nature; for Bennett, he does not say enough.

One might follow Vogel in concluding that these conflicting interpretations confirm the failure of Adorno’s supposed attempt to reconcile Hegel’s idealism with Marx’s materialism. Here, however, I argue that these antithetical characterizations of Adorno are symptomatic of an oversimplification of his critical social theory of nature. Adorno does not seek to inhabit an ideal middle ground between idealism and materialism that satisfies neither Vogel nor Bennett. To appreciate the critical potential of Adorno’s project, one must shift registers and focus on what these two diverging critics of Adorno nonetheless share in common. Both Vogel and Bennett ground their critiques of ecologically harmful practices with reference to transhistorical aspects of the world as a means to secure an immanent standpoint of critique. Vogel’s philosophy of practice emphasizes the ways in which humans are causally and morally responsible for their environment insofar as they constantly transform the world through their thoughts and actions. Bennett invites people to embrace the ecological implications of commodity fetishism’s tendency to blur the boundaries between humans and nonhumans through its animation of artifacts. The problem with these approaches is that they lead both Vogel and Bennett to reify historically specific forms of the categories on which they rely for social criticism, despite their claims to the contrary. In other words, both theorists rely on a kind of immanence that makes it difficult for them to imagine a world beyond the existing capitalist social form, thus placing undue limitations on the realm of the possible. This becomes evident in Vogel’s tendency to conflate Adorno’s critique of the specific form of labor (p.130) under capitalism with a critique of human transformations of nature in general; it is also evident in Bennett’s celebration of the enchanting aspects of commodity fetishism, based on the assumption that the commodity form is a necessary feature of the human condition.

While I share Vogel’s and Bennett’s aim of articulating an immanent critique of ecological degradation, they do so at the expense of a very particular kind of transcendence that I contend is invaluable for environmental politics. This moment of transcendence refers neither to a pristine nature outside of human society nor a messianic promise but rather to an image of utopian possibilities generated by tendencies immanent to society itself. Adorno’s notion of a transcendence mediated by immanence enables him to disclose possibilities that are foreclosed by the one-sided emphasis that Bennett and Vogel place on immanence.

Read the complete chapter here:

Second Nature: Rethinking the Natural through Politics
Crina Archer, Laura Ephraim, and Lida Maxwell

Print publication date: 2013
Print ISBN-13: 9780823251414
Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: January 2014
DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823251414.001.0001

Posted in Ideas and Papers.

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