Nature Becoming Conscious of Itself: Adorno on Self-Reflection
Cook, Deborah, Philosophy Today
Wir sind uns unbekannt, wir Erkennenden, wir selbst uns selbst: das hat seinen guten Grund. Wir haben nie nach uns gesucht-wie sollte es geschehn, daß wir eines Tages uns fänden?
During the Nürnberg trials, defendants argued that they were only following orders when they murdered and tortured their victims. In an appalling reminder that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it, this defence of the morally indefensible has recently been used again by some of the Americans who tortured and murdered detainees in the Abu-Gharib Prison. Their attempt to deny and deflect responsibility for their actions raises important issues about individual autonomy; some of these issues were discussed by Theodor W. Adorno as early as the 1940s. If the Nürnberg judges famously deemed those who carried out the orders of their superior officers to be morally responsible for their actions, Adorno took the opposite route, charting the loss of autonomy in the West that helped to explain why so many Germans had simply followed the order to commit atrocities. He also made the disturbing observation that the authoritarian character traits prominent in Nazi Germany were visible in other Western countries as well. The Authoritarian Personality revealed that Americans were potentially fascistic to the extent that they tended blindly to submit to authority figures out of fear and resentment, engaged in stereotypical thinking, and exhibited a readiness to attack those perceived as weak whom they considered to be members of an out-group. In fascism, aggression towards the authorities one unconsciously fears is directed away from these authorities towards a substitute object (Jews, blacks, communists, etc.) defined in rigid and stereotypical terms as outcast, evil. Adorno devoted much of his work to understanding the social, political, and economic conditions that had contributed to making these authoritarian traits so alarmingly pervasive. Unfortunately, much of his analysis remains relevant today.
Speaking again about totalitarian movements in his lectures on metaphysics, Adorno noted that the trademark of these movements is to monopolize "all the so-called sublime and lofty concepts," such as freedom, justice, and democracy, "while the terms they use for what they persecute and destroy-base, insect-like, filthy, subhuman and all the rest-they treat as anathema.'" Yet, he also offered a solution to this problem in the conclusion to The Authoritarian Personality when he wrote that, to counter totalitarianism, it is not only imperative to understand the damage inflicted on individuals by exchange relations, but concomitantly, to increase "people's capacity to see themselves and to be themselves."2 Believing that people "are continuously molded from above" in order to maintain "the over-all economic pattern," Adorno claims that "the amount of energy that goes into this process bears a direct relation to the amount of potential, residing within people, for moving in a different direction."3 This potential is inextricably linked to people's capacity to see themselves. To become more fully autonomous, reflection is needed on how our ideas, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours have been shaped both by the societies in which we live and by instincts and needs. Critical self-reflection may reveal the extent to which our activities and beliefs merely reflect prevailing opinions and the views of authority figures, the materialist values of our exchange-based society, and our accommodation to existing states of affairs in the interest of survival. Because self-reflection fosters the capacity to think for oneself rather than merely parroting others, it represents a form of political maturity that is essential for more substantively democratic polities.4 Given the widespread loss of autonomy and freedom in the West today-the craven submissiveness of individuals to the powers-that-be, their adaptation and adjustment to the way things are, along with their propensity simply to follow orders-it is all the more urgent to examine why Adorno recommends self-reflection as a solution.
Self-reflection obviously requires a self on which reflection is made. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer maintain that a description of the emerging self appears in Homer's account of Odysseus' encounters with the forces of nature.5 Paradigmatic for the subsequent development of the self, and for self-reflection, Odysseus instinctively pits himself against nature in order to preserve himself against it. In so doing, he reveals himself to be part of nature because his antagonism to nature is motivated by nature itself in the form of the ego instinct of self-preservation. Indeed, Adorno frequently comments on the paradoxes that arise in the attempt to preserve oneself against the powers of nature. Self-preservation culminates in the loss of the self for whose sake the attempt is made because it results in the denial of nature in the self. By rigidly opposing ourselves to nature in order to preserve ourselves against it, we end by positing ourselves as the antithesis of both outer nature and our own inner nature. Throughout Western history, our relationship to nature has taken just this adversarial and injurious form. As Adorno warns in Negative Dialectics, by turning ourselves into the Other of nature, we forget that we are part of nature and allow our instinct of self-preservation to run wild, thereby regressing all the more fatefully into nature and becoming irrational.6
The self that emerges from its conflict with nature eviscerates itself by denying its natural, material, dimension or aspect. This should already suggest that, when it develops, self-reflection will be problematic. However, before exploring Adorno's views about the emergence of self-reflection and the problems that accompany it, I shall remark briefly on the possibility of knowing or understanding "nature" in the self7 (what Adorno may have meant by "nature" will be discussed in the next section). For Adorno, both the self and nature are mediated: the self is mediated through nature, and nature is mediated through subjective concepts. Yet he also argues that, along with society and the world of social objects and institutions, nature preponderates over the self. Nature preponderates because the self is also something objective-a part of the living, natural world. Although the preponderance (Vorrang) of the object "does not mean that objectivity is something immediate" (ND, 184/ 185)-because nothing can be known about nature without conceptual mediation-it is nonetheless the case that the subject through whose concepts nature comes to be known is itself material, embodied. Equally important, the preponderance of the object also entails that the mediation of nature through subjective concepts can never claim to exhaust nature (ND, 172/174). As Adorno puts it, negative dialectics "says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder, that they come to contradict the traditional norm of adequacy" (ND, 5/16-17).
Since, on Adorno's account, the object preponderates, and the self is also something natural, self-reflection has been skewed from the outset. We have fundamentally misunderstood ourselves. Throughout the history of philosophy, for example, a "radical difference" has been posited between the abstractly conceived mind and body; this rigid dualistic distinction reflects "the mind's historically gained 'self-consciousness' and its rejection of what it denies for its own identity's sake" (ND, 202/ 202). Among other objections he raises to this idea of ourselves as pure mind or consciousness, Adorno argues that this self-understanding is mistaken because a somatic moment can be found in both sensation and cognition; because knowledge would not be possible if the knowing subject were radically other than the objects it knows; because action requires a physical subject located in space and time; and because the "will" is impelled by physical impulses, or by what Adorno calls the addendum (das Hinzutretende), "the rudiment of a phase in which the dualism of extramental and intramental was not thoroughly consolidated yet, neither volitively bridgeable nor an ontological ultimate" (ND, 228/227-28). As J. M. Bernstein remarks, Adorno insists that reason should reflectively acknowledge "that its force is not its own, and that it cannot utterly transcend its natural context without self-defeat."8 Bernstein's remark is amply confirmed in a late essay "Progress" (among other places) where Adomo states that mind is "not what it enthrones itself as, the Other, the transcendent in its purity, but rather is also a piece of natural history."9
At the same time, Adorno conceded that there is some, albeit highly qualified, truth to the understanding that the self has of itself as "pure" and without admixture. If the self is ineradicably material, objective, it is also defined by its capacity for abstraction, for thinking in universal concepts. Simply put: "Abstraction is the subject's essence" (M), 181/182). Owing to its cognitive development (historically tied to the instinct for self-preservation), mind or consciousness secured a measure of independence from objects, including its own material substratum. Over its history, "the consciousness that has achieved independence, and is epitomized in carrying out cognitive performances, has branched off from the libidinous energy of humanity's species being" (ND, 185/186; tr. mod.). Indeed, its relative independence is one reason why consciousness can acquire knowledge about the world. The conceptual abstractions through which the subject reflects on objects and gains knowledge of them allow it qualitatively to recoil "into what not merely 'is'," to think beyond the given, rather than reacting purely instinctively to what is given. Yet, precisely because it has branched off from the instincts, consciousness remains tied to that from which it has branched. Consequently, the break between consciousness and nature ultimately means that "everything mental is modified physical impulse" (ND, 202/202; passim). Offering an "immanent definition" of the rational self, Adorno writes that it is both "a moment of nature and yet something else." The self or ego is "natural as the psychological force split off for purposes of self-preservation" but, having split off from nature by means of its reflection upon it in the interest of ensuring its own survival, the self "also becomes nature's otherness" (M), 289/289).10
Although we have historically seen ourselves as antithetical to nature, Adorno also believes that the development of the capacity for self-reflection represents a watershed in Western history. In Negative Dialectics, for example, Adorno insisted that "the formation of the individual in the modern sense" refers not simply to "the biological human being, but [to] the one constituted as a unit by its own self-reflection, the Hegelian 'self-consciousness.'" Furthermore, though our current understanding of ourselves is mistaken, self-reflection is crucial for both individual autonomy and freedom. It would be "an anachronism to talk of freedom, whether as a reality or a challenge," before the modern individual fashioned itself through self-reflection (ND, 218/218). For Adorno, then, the development of self-reflection is not only something positive, it is also a distinctly modern phenomenon. This obviously does not mean that self-reflection never occurred before the modern period, but just that self-reflection is a peculiar feature of modernity.11 Alluding to the famous soliloquy of the protagonist in Hamlet, Adorno claims that it represents the "beginning of the self-emancipating modern subject's self-reflection" (ND, 228/227; tr. mod.). This remark appears earlier in Adorno's lectures on metaphysics where he describes Hamlet as "the first wholly self-aware and despondently self-reflecting individual."12
Self-reflection is the hallmark of modernity. While Adorno does not have much to say about the connection between self-reflection and capitalism, the period he designates as inaugurating self-reflection is, of course, the period under which capitalism was emerging from the feudal system. Moreover, Adorno's remarks about the birth of the modern individual also help to confirm the link between self-reflection and the rise of capitalism with the fierce competition among bourgeois entrepreneurs that marked its first liberal phase.13 If the modern individual was formed through self-reflection, its evolving "independence [Verselbständigung] is a function of a society based on exchange" (ND, 262/259; tr. mod.). Here again, self-preservation would have played a decisive role as catalyst. To survive in the early stages of capitalism, human beings had to become self-reliant and self-regarding; they were, so to speak, thrown back upon themselves and their own resources in a way unparalleled in Western history. Modern individuals emerged when human beings were forced to promote and defend their economic interests against the competing interests of others in order to preserve themselves.14 Consequently, the recoil back upon the self through reflection was fostered by the new economic order of liberal capital that required relatively autonomous and free subjects in order to function.
Although the process of individuation actually began much earlier-Adorno and Horkheimer view the Odyssey as a description of the earlier stages of this process-the modern individual is the achievement of capitalism. As I shall discuss later, this achievement was short-lived. For Adorno also claims that individuality abruptly declined after the heyday of capitalism when liberal capital was superseded by monopoly capital, and individuals surrendered the task of self-preservation to the owners of the means of production who, in pursuit of their particular economic interests, claimed to be acting for the good of all. Yet Adorno remains a staunch champion of the individual. Despite its economic origins and the damage done to it under late capitalism, Adorno maintains that "extreme individuation is the placeholder for humanity." In fact, he asserts that humanity can be thought "only through this extreme form of differentiation, individuation, not as a comprehensive generic concept."15
Remarking on the decline of the individual in "Individuum und Organisation," Adorno also proclaimed: "Given the collective powers that usurp the world spirit in the contemporary world, the universal and rational can hibernate better in the isolated individual than in the stronger battalions that have obediently abandoned the universality of reason." If autonomy and freedom, formerly fostered by capitalism itself, have given way to heteronomy and servitude, they may one day be regained on condition that critical, self-reflective individuals become aware of the extent of their loss and "make the moral ... effort to say what most of those for whom they say it cannot see or, to do justice to reality, will not allow themselves to see" (ND, 41/51). For Adomo, who occasionally appears to echo Hegel's view that understanding our limitations is a sufficient condition for surpassing them, "the sole demand that may really be raised without impudence is that the impotent individual should remain in control of himself through an awareness of his own impotence."16
Self-reflection offers a way out of our current predicament. Nevertheless, given the fundamentally mistaken and injurious conception that the self has of itself as pure mind or spirit-its blindness to its bodily, material dimension-Adorno is obviously not advocating self-reflection as it is currently practiced. Self-reflection must take a different form if we are ever to actualize the potential for moving in a more salutary direction that is currently being blocked energetically by the economic powers to which we have surrendered the task of ensuring our survival. For Adorno, self-reflection should involve reflection on both nature and the natural impulses or drives that have so far controlled and directed human behavior throughout Western history. Progress that is worthy of the name-emancipatory progress-would entail that humanity become "aware of its own inbred nature" and bring to a halt "the domination it exacts upon nature and through which domination by nature continues."17 Or, as Adomo insisted in "Reason and Revelation," reason must attempt to "become cognizant of its own natural essence."18
Adorno resorts to yet another, more paradoxical, formulation of the task of self-reflection when he comments on Kant's notion of freedom in his lectures on moral philosophy. The Kantian concept of freedom always made reference to nature because freedom consisted in making sense of nature by organizing its components and rearranging them through the categories of the understanding. In fact, Adorno insists that what Kant meant by freedom in the midst of nature can only be expressed dialectically: if there really is a "little piece of our nature that is not nature," then it must be "identical with consciousness of self." According to Adorno, "we are no longer simply a piece of nature" only "from the moment that we recognize that we are a piece of nature."19 To stand outside nature in any meaningful sense, to become more fully human, we must first acquire "consciousness of self, the capacity for self-reflection in which the self observes: I myself am part of nature." Mindfulness of nature in the self will also be the harbinger of freedom: true freedom will consist in "nature becoming conscious of itself."20 To transcend nature, then, we must first recognize how nature has not only shaped Western history, but also subverted it by dint of our own lack of critical self-awareness. In "Progress" Adorno remarks that we can progress beyond the absolute domination of nature, which is effectively also "absolute submission to nature," only by means of reflection on nature in the self.21
What is the nature that it is the task of self-reflection to understand? The question of what Adorno might have meant by nature has been broached by commentators like Fredric Jameson and J. M. Bernstein. Unfortunately, Jameson's claim that Adorno defined nature as the nonidentical22 is far too broad because, for Adorno, all objects-whether natural or social-are "nonidentical." For his part, Bernstein problematically argues that, by "nature," Adorno refers "to what is living as opposed to what lacks life."23 Like Jameson, however, Bernstein fails to capture the specificity of nature when he characterizes the living, or the animate, as the "nonidentical excess." Describing this "excess" as the "deity 'in' the object"24 Bernstein also misinterprets Adorno who staunchly refuses to place objects (whether natural or social) on the "royal throne" once occupied by the subject, precisely because such enthronement would turn objects into idols (ND, 181/182). In contrast to these definitions, I would argue that nature, as opposed to other objects, is that which is sufficiently powerful to remind us that it is not yet nothing. Admittedly, this definition is vague but it nonetheless agrees with Adorno's repeated claims that nature has, throughout our history, appeared to us as something fearsome that poses a threat to our survival. For millennia, we have cast nature in the role of absolute Other; nature is opposed to culture, to reason, to mind, or to every trait we consider human. It is just this oppositional stance towards nature that set in train the dominating and identitarian behaviors against which Adorno rails.
To be sure, nature cannot be studied outside of its conceptually mediated forms. So, for example, in his Aesthetic Theory, Adorno describes nature in abstract, epistemological terms that apply to all objects when he states that nature is the "mediated placeholder for immediacy [vermittelte Statthalter von Unmittelbarkeit]"25 Nevertheless, in "On Subject and Object," Adorno offers practical advice on how to approach the "nonidentical excess" in objects. To approximate the nonidentical, we must reflect "at every historical and cognitive stage, both upon what at that time is presented as subject and object as well as upon their mediations." Here Adorno agrees with Kant: the object is '"infinitely given as a task.'"26 To discover what nature might be, then, we must explore our conceptual and practical engagement with the objects we have deemed natural. Once again, this engagement has been largely antagonistic, hostile: "reason, which wants to escape nature, first of all shapes nature into what it must fear."27 Pace Marx, who optimistically thought that we had overcome this primitive, "animal consciousness" of nature, Adorno claims that we have historically viewed nature as "a completely alien, all-powerful and unassailable force."28
Adorno refers much more directly to nature when he speaks about internal nature, or nature in the subject. Here nature appears as instinct. Reason itself is a naturally evolving phenomenon: it developed historically as an organ of adaptation against an environment perceived as hostile. This is the thrust of the Odyssey chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment, where Horkheimer and Adorno describe the cunning of Odysseus, the artifice and deception that enabled him to survive. Two decades later, in "Marginalia to Theory and Praxis" Adorno writes that rationality "cannot, any more than the subjective authority serving it, the ego, be simply split off from self-preservation" because rationality actually "came into being in the first place as an instrument of self-preservation, that of reality testing."29 Similar remarks are made in Negative Dialectics. Our sense of ourselves as superior to nature-as stronger and more powerful than nature-is really just "a spiritualized confirmation of Darwin's struggle for existence" (ND, 179/ 181). This self-understanding "always blocks the road to truth" (ND, 180/181-82). Again, rather than exhibiting superiority over nature, our domination over nature, which suppresses "nature for human ends," is itself naturally driven; this is why "the supremacy of a nature-controlling reason and its principle is a delusion" (ND, 179/181). Like other animals, we have been "imprisoned" in the struggle for survival for millennia; this may help to explain the "unacknowledged and therefore more dreadful ferocity of homo sapiens" (ND, 180/ 182).
For Adorno, human history consists in "the history of the progressive mastery of nature." It is a history that merely "continues the unconscious history of nature, of devouring and being devoured" (ND, 355/348-89; tr. mod.). In the struggle for survival, our behavior has been largely aggressive and destructive; the drive for self-preservation has unconsciously motivated us violently to subdue both outer nature and nature within ourselves. This is why Adorno denies that Western history consists in progress from "savagery to humanitarianism." Instead, he postulates a line of historical development that leads from "the slingshot to the megaton bomb," and ends "in the total menace which organized mankind poses to organized men" (ND, 320/314). Once again, to progress beyond the stage of being motivated blindly by survival instincts-which has led to such an impasse that it now imperils all human life on the planet-reason must apply reason to itself. Forgetfulness of nature has meant that "not merely the telos of the outward control of nature but the telos of man's own life" has been "distorted and befogged."30 Reason should therefore attempt to see through itself "as a moment of praxis and... recognize... that it is a mode of behaviour."31 To be mindful of nature, we must acknowledge that reason developed as an adaptive response to the threats that the environing world posed to our survival, or that the trajectory of reason has been determined by instinctually driven relations with nature.
To become more fully conscious of nature in ourselves, it is also necessary to reflect on needs. For if, as Adorno observed in "Thesen über Bedürfnis," need is a "social category," it is also the case that nature, in the form of instinct, is "contained within it." Apart from reflecting on the ego instinct for self-preservation, then, self-understanding requires that we understand how other instincts have motivated, and continue to motivate, our behavior. Nevertheless, there are serious impediments to acquiring this understanding because needs have been thoroughly socialized, or brought under control by a variety of agencies and institutions for the purpose of exploitation and manipulation. Needs today have been taken in charge by the capitalist economy and the culture industry and commodified. Some needs are simply repressed or ignored; others are deflected or displaced on to substitute objects; while yet others are satisfied either indirectly or directly. Now wholly a function of profit interests, every need is "so socially mediated that what is natural in it never appears immediately but always only as something produced by society."32 Rather than trying to differentiate between true and false needs, then, Adorno thought it more important to understand how our monopolized needs help to maintain the existing social order. In other words, he hoped that self-reflection would show that we-the victims of manipulation, exploitation and domination-are helping to perpetuate our own victimhood.
Like other instincts harnessed to the machinery of capitalist production, self-preservation has been taken over by society-in the form of the welfare state and the capitalist economy. This point is made explicitly in Negative Dialectics where Adorno remarks that, without "ceding the self-preserving interest to the species-in bourgeois thinking represented mostly by the state-the individual would be unable to preserve himself in more highly developed social conditions." Because the task of self-preservation has been ceded to late capitalist society, reflection on nature in the subject must also be extended to reflection on society in the subject. Ostensibly geared towards the preservation of its subjects, late capitalism is currently destroying them by abstracting from its living human substratum in its relentless pursuit of profit. If the transfer of self-preservation to society was necessary, it nonetheless put "the general rationality at odds with the particular human beings whom it must negate to become general, and whom it pretends-and not only pretends-to serve" (ND, 318/312). War, famine, disease, and environmental disasters are among the more harmful effects of harnessing the drive for self-preservation to particular interests in profit and power that only masquerade as universal. Apart from these utterly destructive (and self-destructive) effects, Adorno thought that reification, along with many of the psychological and social disorders prevalent today (narcissism, paranoia, authoritarianism), could also be blamed on harnessing instincts to the particular interests of the owners of the means of production under late capitalism.
If self-reflection reveals that the instinct for self-preservation has been subverted owing to its subordination to profit imperatives that threaten the lives of the individuals they are supposed to preserve, it also reveals that individual self on which Adorno invites us to reflect is now largely a sham. In fact, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer stated that individuation has "never really been achieved" because "self-preservation has kept everyone at the stage of mere species being."33 Since our behavior continues to be unconsciously motivated by instincts we share as a species, individuation never fully developed. Under capitalism, of course, individuation was always only a function of economic interests; capitalism came into being "through the individuation of the contracting parties." "In other words," Adorno writes, "the principium individuationis literally was the principle of that society, its universal." Yet if individuals under liberal capitalism were always mere "executive organs of the universal" (ND, 343/ 336), they exhibit an even greater degree of homogeneity today because monopoly capitalism promotes submissive and conformist, rather than independent and reflective, behaviors. Similar points were made twenty years earlier in Minima Moralia where Adorno stressed again the importance of self-reflection by arguing that the individual grows "richer the more freely it develops and reflects this relation [between itself and society], while it is limited, impoverished and reduced by the separation and hardening that it lays claim to as an origin."34
Adorno also thought that candid recognition of the decline of the individual under late capitalism would inflict a narcissistic wound on both individuals and the society that vaunts individuality as its substance because such candor would reveal selfhood as "non-existent, . . . an illusion." The source of this illusion is the principle of self-preservation which at one and the same time makes it possible for our exchange-based society to function, but also "makes every individual look solely upon himself and impairs his insight into objectivity." The "objectivity" into which most individuals lack insight is that self-preservation now compels them to become the involuntary executors of the law of exchange that operates over their heads and through them (ND, 312/307). In their struggle to survive, individuals have surrendered their individuality, becoming mere "agents and bearers of exchange value."35 As Simon Jarvis remarks: "The more obvious it becomes that the economic basis of any individual's life is liable to annihilation, and the more real economic initiative is concentrated with the concentration of capital, the more the individual seeks to identify with and adapt to capital." To this Jarvis adds a chilling note: "For capital, however, the individual's selfpreservation is not in itself a matter of any importance."36
Today self-preservation unflinchingly dictates conformity to late capitalism, undermining attempts to preserve any vestige of autonomous selfhood. To preserve themselves, individuals have to adapt to socially approved models of behavior as well as to prevailing offers of need satisfaction in which real differences between them are suppressed. Mere pawns in a world "whose law is universal individual profit," individuals now submit to forms of integration so complete and far-reaching that Adorno goes so far as to compare them with genocide (ND, 362/355). Indeed, bourgeois individualism, which celebrates the individual as the very substance of society, masks an entirely different reality: the predominance of the universal exchange principle and its homogenizing and leveling effects on needs, behavior, thought, and interpersonal relations. Individuals today "act as a collective"-albeit a severely damaged one (ND, 344/338). Their integration helps to pave the way for totalitarian movements. If, in Negative Dialectics, Adorno described the historical development that led from the slingshot to the megaton bomb, in Minima Moralia he speaks of the "straight line" that leads from thralldom to reifying exchange relations to "Gestapo torturers and the bureaucrats of the gas-chambers."37 The triumph of integration has meant that most of us will simply follow orders without question.
Adorno remarks that there are countless times "when unavoidable motives of self-preservation force people, even conscious people capable of criticizing the whole, to do things and to take attitudes which blindly help maintain the universal even though their consciousness is opposed to it." To survive, even self-reflective people often have little choice but "to make an alien cause their own" (ND, 311/306). Individuals now live in fear of becoming outcasts if they fail to comply with "the economic rules." This fear "has gathered such force that, however thoroughly one might see through its irrationality, it would nevertheless take a moral hero to cast [it] aside."38 At far greater disadvantage, however, are those who lack the mindfulness of nature needed for self-actualization and self-determination. For they remain the unconscious and largely helpless instruments of an economic system that uses (and abuses) them with the sole aim of promoting its particular interests in profit and power. Ever since the "self-preserving function" of our egos was "split off from that of consciousness" and subordinated to economic and political agents and institutions, our attempts to preserve ourselves "surrendered to irrationality."39 Once we became completely dependent on society for our survival, late capitalism could dispense with "the mediating agencies of ego and individuality" which it had originally fostered. It thereby arrested "all differentiation," while exploiting "the primitive core of the unconscious."40 Substantially weakened, the individual ego has become powerless against its own instinctual drives and their exploitation by political leaders and the mass media.
Fascism is certainly one of the more repulsive expressions of this self-destructive surrender of the self in the interest of self-preservation. Under National Socialism narcissistic individuals subordinated themselves to their equally narcissistic leader to such a degree that they not only went willingly to the slaughter themselves, but attempted to eradicate an entire people when given orders to do so. To understand these regressive forms of identity and solidarity, Adorno borrowed extensively from Freud's analysis of military and religious group formations. In "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego," Freud claimed that, after individuals have identified and bonded with a leader, "what is heterogeneous is submerged under what is homogeneous" because, in most group formations, "the mental superstructure, the development of which in individuals is so dissimilar, is removed, and the unconscious foundations, which are similar in everyone, stand exposed to view."41 Following Freud, Adorno observed that instinctually motivated groups often act as a "negatively integrating force" by distinguishing themselves (sometimes violently, as in Nazism) from other groups. Negative emotions towards out-groups provide a narcissistic gain for those in the in-group; they believe that "simply through belonging to the in-group, they are better, higher, and purer than those who are excluded."42
Recent events-the rise and spread of both neo-Nazism and nationalism, with their symbolic politics, exclusionary rhetoric, and violence towards the excluded Other-make it difficult simply to dismiss Adorno's account of the human condition under late capitalism. Freely admitting that he was exaggerating the "somber side" of that condition,43 Adorno wanted to illuminate objective tendencies in societies like our own where "the immense concentration of economical and administrative power leaves the individual no more room to maneuver," that is, where "the structure of such a society tends toward totalitarian forms of domination."44 If this tendency is ever to be stemmed, a form of radical self-reflection-of which most individuals are currently incapable-is required. Yet Adorno did not believe that individuals were irrevocably doomed to remain blind to the ways in which they perpetuate their own powerlessness. For, as he argues in Negative Dialectics, the antagonism that developed between the self and nature is historically contingent; it rests on something "accidental" (ND, 321/315). Although the instinct for self-preservation has led us to do fearsome and destructive things both to ourselves and to the environing world on which our very survival depends, it is also the case that things might have gone, and may yet go, differently. Indeed, it was only because he believed that radical change was still possible that Adorno persisted in his attempts to redirect the tremendous energy that is currently expended on deception (and self-deception) towards emancipatory self-reflection.
By becoming more fully cognizant of nature in ourselves, it may yet be possible to direct self-preservation consciously and rationally to the goal that it implicitly contains: the preservation of the species as a whole. Self-preservation itself potentially makes such emancipatory self-reflection possible. "Through self-preservation," Adorno writes, "the species indeed gains the potential for that self-reflection that could finally transcend the self-preservation to which it was reduced by being restricted strictly to a means." In fact, Adorno argues that reason "should not be anything less than self-preservation, namely that of the species, upon which the survival of each individual literally depends."45 Reason can never simply be "split off from self-preservation," not only because it has historically been impelled by this drive but also, more emphatically, because the "preservation of humanity is inexorably inscribed within the meaning of rationality." Viewed prospectively, self-preservation "has its end in a reasonable organization of society."46 A rationally organized society would orient itself towards the goal of preserving "its societalized subjects according to their unfettered potentialities."47 This helps to explain why Adorno declared that "self-reflection has today become the true heir to what used to be called moral categories."48 In order to establish a more emphatically rational society, one which does not divorce the preservation of the individual from that of the species as a whole, we must become fully conscious of ourselves by reflecting on that which we have historically excluded from our self-understanding as Other than ourselves: the natural world that has made "us" what "we" are.
University of Windsor, Windsor Ontario N9B 3P4, Canada
1. Theodor W. Adorno, Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 123.
2. Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sanford, et al., The Authoritarian Personality, abridged edition (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1982), 479.
3. Ibid., 480.
4. Theodor W. Adorno, "Critique," in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 281.
5. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Gumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), 43-80.
6. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, (New York: Continuum Books, 1973), 289. Cited henceforth in the text as ND. see Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), 285. All subsequent references in the text will cite both the English and the German texts, with the English page reference appearing first.
7. Steven Vogel broaches this problem in Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (Albany: SUNY, 1996), where he accuses Adorno of implicitly positing nature as immediate while explicitly acknowledging that nature is mediated. Vogel's own approach, however, consists in falling back on the argument that nature is socially constructed, while refusing to take the dialectical step of showing how the social itself is mediated. Consequently, the "social" becomes the pure immediacy that Vogel wants to deny to nature: the social is "that on which everything is supported, on which everything depends and by which everything is oriented" (this is Adorno's definition of immediacy in Metaphysics, 29). For all its flaws (and I by no means want to deny that it has them), Adorno's conception is the more coherent because he rejects the claim that things are given immediately (or as they are in themselves), including society (or "the social"). Moreover, unlike Vogel, whose notion of society or the social is vague and obscure, Adorno gives society the same epistemological status as nature: our understanding of society is as indirect or mediated as our understanding of nature because both are part of the objective realm.
8. J. M. Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 259.
9. Adorno, "Progress," 156. While Adorno insists that we recognize that human history is also a natural history, natural history is a far more complex and dialectical idea than I can adequately express in the confines of this paper. Suffice it to say that the natural evolution of the human species, which Adorno conceives along Darwinian lines, is dialectically entwined with the history of human thought and practice. Nature affects thought (through the drive for self-preservation, among other natural drives) and history affects nature (for example, by altering external and internal nature, sometimes irremediably).
10. See also Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974), 243: "Mind arose out of existence, as an organ for keeping alive. In reflecting existence, however, it becomes at the same time something else. The existent negates itself as thought upon itself. Such negation is the mind's element. To attribute to it positive existence, even of a higher order, would be to deliver it up to what it opposes."
11. See also Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modem Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). Taylor also views self-reflection as a distinctly modem phenomenon. Although his conception of human history is idealistic in the sense that he fails to examine the relationship between the development of self-reflection and its material substratum (the instincts, or the realm of nature generally, and the socio-historical world of institutions and practices), Taylor remarks that "we come to think that we 'have' selves as we have heads. But the very idea that we have or are a 'self,' that human agency is essentially defined as 'the self,' is a linguistic reflection of our modern understanding and the radical reflexivity it involves" (177). He adds that the second stance of radical reflexivity, which is equally characteristic of modernity, consists "in exploring what we are in order to establish" our identity, "because the assumption behind modern self-exploration is that we don't already know who we are" (178). The first "stance," consisting in the idea that we are or have selves, was initiated by Descartes; the second by Montaigne.
12. Adorno, Metaphysics, 136. In these lectures, Adorno also argues that, though Aristotle provided a model for self-reflection with his notion of the divine as thought thinking itself-a model that "already contains the whole programme of philosophy as self-reflection" (ibid., 94)-self-reflection nonetheless "does not play any part in his philosophy, at least as a theme" (ibid., 93).
13. See also Theodor W. Adorno, "Individuum und Organisation," Soziologische Schriften I (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1972), 450: "As the free market economy displaced the feudal system and required entrepreneurs and free wage labourers, these latter were formed not only as professional but also as anthropological types; concepts arose-like those of personal responsibility, of foresight, of the self-sufficient individual, of the fulfilment of duty, but also rigid moral constraint, an internalized bond with authority. In terms of its specific substance, the individual itself-as the word is used currentlyhardly goes back much further than Montaigne or Hamlet, at best to the early Italian Renaissance."
14. Since individuation has always involved "each individual's monotonous confinement to his particular interest" (ND, 348/342), one may infer that, under capitalism, the individual is subjected to a more intense, or radical, process of individuation. Indeed, Adorno comments on the irony of a situation which, while vaunting the freedoms offered by the market economy, actually compels individuals to be "rugged" if they want to survive (ND, 262/259).
15. Adomo, "Progress," 151.
16. Theodor W. Adorno, "Individuum und Organisation," Soziologische Schriflen I, 455. Cf. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, trans. William Wallace and A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971 ), 23-24: "The very fact that we know a limitation is evidence that we are beyond it, evidence of our freedom from limitation. . . . We make ourselves finite by receiving an Other into our consciousness; but in the very fact of knowing this Other we have transcended this limitation. Only he who does not know is limited, for he does not know his limitation; whereas he who knows the limitation knows it, not as a limitation of his knowing, but as something known, as something belonging to his knowledge; only the unknown would be a limitation of knowledge, whereas the known limitation, on the contrary, is not; therefore to know one's limitation means to know of one's unlimitedness." In Negative Dialectics, Adorno aptly describes this definition of freedom as "paradoxical" (ND, 249/247). Still, idealism contains a "secret and perverted truth content:" once we know the moment of our affinity with nature (or know ourselves as natural beings), we will no longer simply equate nature with ourselves (M), 269/266). To know our affinity with nature is necessary if we are to achieve self-understanding, but the attainment of autonomy and freedom depends equally on knowing and respecting the differences between consciousness (which has evolved from nature) and the natural world.
17. Adomo, "Progress," 150.
18. Adorno, "Reason and Revelation," 138.
19. Theodor W. Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy, trans. Rodney Livingstone, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 103; italics mine.
20. Ibid., 104.
21. Adomo, "Progress," 152.
22. Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adomo, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 1990), 910.
23. Bernstein, Adomo, 191.
24. Ibid., 193.
25. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 91. Quoted in Steven Vogel's Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), 85.
26. Adorno, "On Subject and Object," 253.
27. Adorno, "Progress," 153.
28. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Part One (with selections from Parts Two and Three, together with Marx's "Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy"), trans. W. Lough, et al., (New York: International Press, 1970), 51.
29. Adorno, "Marginalia to Theory and Praxis," Critical Models, 272.
30. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 54.
31. Adorno, "Progress," 153.
32. Adorno, "Thesen liber Bediirfnis," Soziologische Schriften I, 392.
33. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 155.
34. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 154.
35. Theodor W. Adorno, "Society," trans. Fredric Jameson, Salmagundi 3 nos.10-11 (1969-70): 148-49.
36. Simon Jarvis, Adorno: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1998), 83.
37. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 183.
38. Theodor W. Adorno, "Sociology and Psychology," trans. Irving N. Wohlfarth, New Left Review 46 (1967): 71.
39. Theodor W. Adorno, "Sociology and Psychology," trans. Irving N. Wohlfarth, New Left Review 47 (1968): 88; translation modified.
40. Ibid., 95.
41. Sigmund Freud, "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego," in The Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 12: Civiliation, Society and Religion, trans. James Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 100.
42. Theodor W. Adomo, "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda," in Andrew Arato and Hike Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Urizen Books, 1978), 130.
43. Adomo, "The Meaning of Working Through the Past," Critical Models, 99.
44. Adorno, "Discussion of Professor Adorno's Lecture "The Meaning of Working Through the Past'," Critical Models, 298.
45. Adorno, "Marginalia to Theory and Praxis," Critical Models, 273.
46. Ibid., 272.
47. Ibid., 272-23.
48. Adomo, Problems of Moral Philosophy, 169.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Nature Becoming Conscious of Itself: Adorno on Self-Reflection. Contributors: Cook, Deborah - Author. Journal title: Philosophy Today. Volume: 50. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2006. Page number: 296+. © DePaul University Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.