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109 SIX Levinas and Adorno Can There Be an Ethics of Nature? EricSeanNelson NATURE OR HISTORY? A common flaw in many contemporary discussions of the environment , including environmental activism and philosophical approaches in environmental ethics and environmental phenomenology, is its ahistorical character. Animals, ecosystems, environments, landscapes, that is, all that we associate with the ambiguous and problematic word “nature,” are addressed as if they were either external to or permanently fixed throughout human history. Nature, whether interpreted as antagonistic or idyllic, is constructed and reified as the opposite of human culture, history, and sociopolitical life. Recent studies in environmental history and environmental literary criticism have explored the socially, historically, and culturally mediated character of both conceptions and experiences of what counts as nature and naturalness.1 As Levinas and Adorno already pointed out, “nature” is bound up with human desires and practices, including those involving domination and exploitation. Yet contemporary environmental philosophy, both analytic and phenomenological , has not sufficiently attended to the consequences of the mutual interdependence of history and nature even if this thesis is generally acknowledged. One reason for this is the fear that the universality of ethical claims—such as all animals are equal and have the same 110 Eric Sean Nelson rights—or the truth of phenomenological claims—such as encountering a stone, a tree, a river, or a woodchuck discloses a basic structure of existence—would be undermined by considering their human context and conditions. Second, the suspicion of culture, history, and society in relation to the environment is a genuine response to the environmental damages they have caused, traditional anthropocentrism , and positions that entail that (1) entities are primarily social products or linguistic constructs and thus (2) in a sense insignificant if not immaterial and unreal. Constructivist theories, insofar as they are committed to both claims one and two, do not appear to leave much room for the recognition of anything self-sufficient in animals, ecosystems, and environments that was not conferred on them by a human or humanlike agent, subject, or system of signification. According to prevalent ecological arguments, it is difficult to have an ethics of nature as nature if nature only exists as a derivative product of God, humanity, or late capitalist society. There thus seems to be two interpretive choices. On the one hand, environmentalism appears to require some sort of appeal to nature external to agency and representation or naturalism, whether scientifically , phenomenologically, or romantically conceived. Nature is essence and identity. On the other hand, Judeo-Christian monotheism , philosophical idealism, and social-linguistic constructivism appear to exclude this recourse to nature as pagan, intellectually naïve, or an ideological artifice. Against this either-or between the natural and native, on the one side, and the fabricated and foreign, on the other, I consider two alternative approaches to the relation between the natural and the human. It might well be the case that there can be an ethics that is responsive to and responsible for animals, ecosystems, and environments without presupposing or requiring any concept or experience of nature—as it is formed in human discourse—at all. Instead of furthering environmental reflection, appeals to nature might impede and harm it, such that environmental ethics is better off “without nature.” This possibility is suggested by the works of Emmanuel Levinas, who relentlessly criticizes discourses of nature, naturalness, and naturalism in the name of the ethical. Levinas’s interpretation of nature as derivative of ethics concerned, first, positivistic and reductive naturalism and materialism that he analyzed as undermining the transcendence Levinas and Adorno 111 occurring through the ethical relation to the other. Ethics requires the interruptive and reorienting force of transcendence, infinity, and the otherwise than being in relation to being and biology. Second, his approach to nature addressed the adventure of nature in its romantic, irrationalist, social Darwinist, and fascistic forms.2 Akin to Theodor Adorno, Levinas was justifiably suspicious of both the nostalgia for the archaic and the “primitive” and of the “return to nature.” This nostalgia construes nature, according to Adorno, through “the cultural desire that everything should remain unchanged,” reflecting the failure and alienation of—instead of a genuine escape from—culture.3 What appears as unchanging nature is doubly false in Adorno’s analysis since nature is historically changing as well as human experiences and interpretations of it. Adopting an argument from The German Ideology, Adorno stresses that such “naturalness ” consists of the remnants and fragments of previous human activities (HF 96).4 Nature is a...


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