Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Adorno's Endgame

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Adorno's Endgame

Article excerpt

Fredric Jameson, observing in Late Marxism that Adorno adopts Marx's view about the abstract character of all historical forms of exchange, adds that the abstractions characteristic of exchange profoundly affect society because they extend "across the whole range of distinct human activities (from production to the law, from culture to political forms, and not excluding the psyche and the more obscure 'equivalents' of unconscious desire)."1 Indeed, Adorno examines the negative effects of abstract exchange relations on both individuals and the natural world in much of his work. Yet, even as he argues that "society's law of motion has been abstracting from its individual subjects, degrading them to mere executors, mere partners in social wealth and social struggle for thousands of years,"2 Adorno recognizes that a society in which exchange is merely episodic and fragmentary (a barter society, for example) must be distinguished from late capitalist society where abstract exchange relations insinuate themselves into nearly every aspect of social life while commodifying virtually all nature.

Today, the concentration of capital has reached such a size that capitalism appears to be "an institution, an expression of the entire society." Now pervading society, "the old fetish character of commodities, which reflects human relations as though they were relations between things, ends in the socially totalitarian aspect of capital."3 Following Marx, then, Adorno also adopts the view that commodity exchange has taken on a life of its own to which human life is now completely subordinate. To emphasize this point, he compares the "real total movement of society" to Hegel's world spirit: like the Weltgeist, Western society has effectively dissociated itself from the actions of living individuals whose labour reproduces it and continues to sustain it, thereby rendering them virtually powerless to change it (ND, 304). Individuals do not just depend on society for their material survival; they are also "entwined in society." The individual "owes society its existence in the most literal sense" because its entire "content comes from society."4

By reducing individuals to agents and bearers of exchange value, late capitalist society has adversely affected the process of individuation. Viewing individuation as a positive achievement, Adorno criticizes our current subordination to exchange relations because it compromises our potentially emancipatory powers of critical self-reflection and seriously undermines prospects for changing our destructive and self-destructive relationship to nature. In fact, Adorno predicted the catastrophic annihilation of nature under capitalism. Following a discussion of Adorno's views about individuation and the individual's practical relationship to nature in labour, I shall outline his criticisms of the damage this relationship continues to inflict on the natural world, and explore his ideas about socio-economic conditions that might make possible a more salutary relationship to nature. I shall end with a discussion of Adorno's criticisms of collective action while explaining why he thought that some individuals may play a crucial role in effecting a radical change in our relationship to nature.

The Rise and Fall of the Individual5

Adorno devoted much his work to examining the tremulous process of individuation, as well as the waning prospects for self-determination and self-actualization in the West. Championing the individual as a potentially resistive and critical force, Adorno complained in Dialectic of Enlightenment that individuation has never been fully achieved because the instinct for self-preservation continues to maintain us "at the level of mere species being."6 Odysseus represents one of the first attempts to shake off the primal mud of species being, but this attempt backfired. To survive in the face of the hostile forces of nature, Odysseus eviscerated the very self he was trying to preserve by suppressing his instincts and defining himself over and against nature in order to dominate it. …

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