- Nature and the “Industry that Scorched It”:Adorno and Anthropocene Aesthetics
Consciousness does justice to the experience of nature only when, like impressionist art, it incorporates nature’s wounds.—Adorno (1997)
In the age of the Anthropocene, nature’s wounds are seemingly impossible, if not ethically reprehensible, to ignore as news of our geologic agency requires us to recognize the detrimental impact our pursuit of progress has had on a global scale. Amidst our collective culpability and heightened environmental awareness, society seems ready for the type of conscious-raising appeals to the “sanctity of nature” that ecological criticism has long promoted. Yet, as many scholars have shown, the breadth of implications the Anthropocene presents for both natural sciences and the humanities is expansive, and at a time when even the subject of this new era remains undetermined, any traditional schema of interpretation that relies on human-ist and enlightenment values is insufficient. How, then, can art function in an era devoid of a concrete subject? How can a distinctly human activity avoid the trappings of anthropocentrism? These questions posed by the Anthropocenic imagination wield exciting potential for visual and literary art, and require an aesthetic theory that adopts the paradigmatic shift in consciousness the climate crisis demand of us.
The convergence of human and natural history, the incommensurability of various scales of time, and the distribution of agency to human and non-human entities all point to the innumerable processes of temporal and material mediation that constitute the Anthropocene. For this reason, a historical materialist approach to the art that emerges out of this cognitive landscape is essential. In this essay I will discuss the ways in which Theodore Adorno’s aesthetic theory accommodates, and is innervated by our new geologic era. I do not intend merely to transpose the climate crisis onto Adorno’s theory, or to simply color his critique of capitalism and the culture industry with ecological sentiment (he is, in fact, already sensitive to the exploitation of nature). I do endeavor to show how art, under Adorno’s formulation, becomes an experiential and discursive site where our precarious position in [End Page 121] the Anthropocene can be more fully understood precisely because it is free from the compulsion of praxis. Adorno argues that “aesthetic motifs are no less critical of cultural needs than are empirically real ones”(Adorno 1997, 244), which is to say, art serves as a model for theory, particularly at times when historical materialism stagnates. I intend to show how, as theorists fail to relinquish notions of historical continuity and ontological determination, art insists upon historical heterogeneity, and resists discursive petrification through the production of artistic “aura” and “shudder.” Furthermore, Adorno’s treatment of nature, and inclusion of the most fleeting, ephemeral, and incomprehensible into the dialectic realm, sets an important example for historical materialists in a time when elusive elements of our environment drastically need accounting for. For the purpose of this essay, I will begin by discussing the role nature plays in art, from the technical transfer of natural beauty, to the historicity of art as a dialectic of nature and its domination. Drawing from the work of various Anthropocene scholars, I will then evaluate the relevance of Adorno’s formulations of subject/object relations, temporality, and sublimity to the Anthropocenic imagination.
Nature and Art
For Adorno, every productive potentiality of art lies in the transfer of natural beauty to artistic beauty. This is not the type of natural beauty that is suppressed in Hegel’s aesthetic theory and subordinated to artistic beauty in Kant’s formulation, nor is it a pleasing landscape awaiting artistic representation. Indeed, it would be counterproductive to speak of transcendental natural beauty at a time when society’s mythic characterization of nature is under sharp critique and when nature itself elicits images of desolation and violence. Accordingly, Adorno’s treatment of nature departs drastically from the enlightenment conception of nature as an objective background to human activity, replete with mythic ambiguity. He describes the way in which, under the auspices of the enlightenment consciousness of freedom, the human spirit “that exalted itself as absolute” (1997, 72) does so to its non-human other...