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Not the Portrayal of Part of Nature - Adorno’s Final Words on Natural Beauty

By Tom Allen, 13 March 2013

In the second contribution to a series of essays on the concept of Natural Beauty in Adorno’s work, originally presented in London at Historical Materialism 2012, Tom Allen relates bourgeois 'nature' to the founding violence of judgement


The Land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants.

Numbers: 13.32.


Adornos chapter on Natural Beauty ends with the following sentences, one of the most maddeningly dense and terribly beautiful in his work:


The pure expression of artworks freed from every thing-like interference, even everything so-called natural converges with nature just as in Weberns most authentic works the pure tone, to which they are reduced by the strength of subjective sensibility, reverses dialectically into a natural sound: that of an eloquent nature, certainly its language, not the portrayal of a part of nature. The total subjective elaboration of art as a nonconceptual language is the only figure, at the contemporary stage of rationality, in which something like the divine language of creation is reflected, qualified by the paradox that what is reflected is also blocked. .[...] If the language of nature is mute; art seeks to make this muteness eloquent.1


This essay is a modest attempt to discuss the import for art, revolution and everything contained within the passage.


Kant / Benjamin


Immanuel Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgement contains the following proposition with regard to the experience of the so-called beautiful in nature:


Consider a human being at those moments when his mind is attuned to moral feeling. If, surrounded by beautiful nature, he finds himself calmly and serenely enjoying his existence, he will feel within him a need to be grateful for this to someone [] In a word, he has a need for a moral intelligence, because he exists for a purpose and needs a being that both caused him and the world in conformity with that purpose.2


Sebastian Truskolaski has already demonstrated, for Adorno the beauty of nature transcends the now because it signifies something more than that which merely exists.3 This more, if it is not to lapse into tautology, can never simply be a realisation of the purpose for which a subject exists. As good communists know, this relation of objects, the moment of Capital-Geist that is the bourgeois relation to the natural world is natural only in the most violent sense. As such, the gratitude of the subject is indexed to something much darker. Adorno writes:


Something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not song, but because it obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed [] With regard to its content, the ambiguity of natural beauty has its origin in mythic ambiguity.4 The Kantian disinterest is accompanied by a domination which is necessarily incomplete and a nature which is not dominated effectively is always free to rebound against its subjects. This ambiguity finds its lebensraum in the relation between legislative and aesthetic judgements in Kant. The former places objects under a concept in order to understand, reason with and vivisect them. In doing so it may only present the subject with an object moulded by its own categories. The implicit tautology here expresses for Adorno the imprisonment of spirit at the moment of its emancipation, and the kinship of Kants freely given manifold and Adam Smiths clean and safe primitive accumulation is revealed in the metaphor of a necessary captivity:


This tautology [between subject and object] is nothing other than the expression of captivity: as knowing subjects we are never able to get outside of ourselves […] The world in which we are captive is in fact a self-made world: it is the world of exchange, of commodities, the world of reified human relations that confront us, presenting us with a façade of objectivity [...] a second nature.5


Objects in nature occupy a position of similar imprisonment. As we read in the Critique of Practical Reason, the wealth of nature represents nothing more than a vast accumulation of objects, objects which exist manifestlyunder laws. Kant later indexes an appreciation of the beautiful in nature with the likelihood of a fine attunement to the necessities of the moral law. This moral law, dependent on the freely-rational subject, manifests itself according to the logic of gallows. As such, he effectively quotes the demented psychopomps of the modern judiciary when he instructs one to ask whether or not a person who claims that an object is irresistible would feel the same werea gallows erected in front of the house where he finds the opportunity.6


The beautiful is that which pleases universally without a concept.7 However that which is deemed ugly in nature, that which exists outside of the laws determining it, may be made beautiful according to the logic of a commensurate apperception. Reflection on the mere existence of things, in this social historical moment constitutes precisely the activity of a the judge able to be disinterested precisely because they possess the capacity for violence with relative impunity. A radical aesthetics is aware of this. So go the nightmare hallucinations of Sean Bonneys poemHappiness:


George Osborne, God of Love. We have spurned beauty8


If we take Adorno, or rather Kant at his word then we must add one further level of false objectivity to the judgement of the beautiful. A disinterested judgement of that which already lies under a sedimented law, both in terms of the subject and what it is perceiving, is more than a tautology. It is an affirmation of the historical conditions that have allowed such a judgement to come into being. As such, the bourgeois consciousnesses insists thatfor it nature is exclusively appearance, never the stuff of labour and the reproduction of life.9



The moment of non-identity in this discourse is the revelation of its mythic undercurrent. Adornos use of this formulation is preceded forty years earlier by a young Walter Benjamin. In the essay onLanguage as Such and on the Language of Men, the latter writes that judgement came into nature at the same as death, law and abstraction. The primeval language of man was the ursprache,the language of supposedly perfect knowledge, rooted in the mimesis of the act of creation via the act of naming. Knowledge chimes perfectly with the object per se, and there is no natural beauty precisely because there is no judgement. To judge is to subsume, it is to assume a gap between the subjects manifold and its consciousness. In direct inversion of the profane Kant, language in Eden is paradisical because it is tautological.


At the moment of the fall:


Immediacy in the communication of abstraction came into being at the same time as judgement, when, in the Fall, man abandoned immediacy in the communication of the concretethat is nameand fell into the abyss of the mediateness of all communication [] The Tree of knowledge stood in the garden of Eden not in order to dispense information on good and evil but as an emblem of judgement, over the questioner. This immense irony marks the mythic origin of law.10


At this moment production and reproduction enter the image of nature and it, like the subject, becomes something that may only be possessed merely. It is also at this moment that the impossibility of attaining the positive tautology of the Eden vanishes to be necessarily reinforced by the infernal tautology of the bourgeois order of things. Law, ironic to itself and infernal to those who suffer, manifests itself as a language more forceful than others, but one which does no more justice to its objects. It is here that the aforementioned soul-couriers of the judicial system force their meaning onto events long lost to a true historical recollection, and it is here that the ludicrous question as towho will police the policereveals itself as a necessary bad infinity.


The mute language of nature, the language of the particularity of the suffering, cannot be accessible to a consciousness which sanctions this suffering. Hence, it is only once the production of society has been reconfigured that Sur L'eau, Adorno's famous description of paradisical of disinterest in 'Minima Moralia' become realisable. Alberto Toscano and Hannah Black have both made recent use of the phraseciphers of our incomprehension.11 It is useful to think this again as a natural relation. The abject unknowability of a world dictated by the now unthinkably fast dictates of finance capital confronts the subject as a list of unanswerable demands: an up-down index of Fate. This Fate springs from the mythic ambiguity of law humming under a nature turned second-nature. The same Fate, the same false necessity of The Trial which, according to Benjamin must crown the law, works through squat evictions and the planned mass relocation of sections of London just as it did through Moseskilling of the Israelites. Now, as ever, it is perfectly possible for someone to declare to herself thatHell is empty, and all the devils staff the job-centre.Capital, largely commensurate with bourgeois interests, occupies an opposite relation to such mythic-revelations. To quote Volume II:


The contractor receives in advance various stages as the building of the house progresses. None of these stages is a house; each of them is rather a really existing component of a future house that is coming into being; despite its reality, it is thus only an ideal fraction of a whole house, but it is sufficiently real all the same, to serve as security for an additional advance.12


Dogs / Cannibal Freud


With judgement comes Sin and the internalisation of guilt. The subject lives as always potentially annihilated by this natural ambiguity. The image of this horror is described by Milton in book II of Paradise Lost as an unfortunate precursor to Lukács proletariat who is both subject and object of a certain kind of history. Sin exists at the centre of a storm of production and reproduction:


about her middle round

A cry of hell hounds never ceasing barked

With wide Cerberian mouths full loud, and rung

A hideous peal: when they list, would creep

If aught disturbed their noise, into her womb,

And Kennel there, yet still there barked and howled.13


Her story is one of constant suffering:


These yelling monsters that with ceaseless cry

Surround me, as thou sawest, hourly conceived

And hourly born, with sorrow infinite

To me,for when they list into the womb

That bred them return, and howl, and gnaw

My bowels, their repast; then bursting forth

Afresh with conscious terrors vex me round,

That rest or intermission none I find.14


Sin is a natural-historical image of the capitalist mode of production itself. Her body is her own fixed capital which, against her will, houses the variable capital of hell that dies and returns hourly in an eternal process. Surplus represents itself as the pure surplus of suffering. Her screams resound into the the empty caverns of a fallen history which, projected into a forever future of recurrence, is alienated and beholden to the capacity for accumulation. Eve internalises this movement at the moment of the Fall as she


…...engorged without restraint,

And knew not that she was eating death.15


To eat death is both to eat the dead labour of the producers and to cannibalise oneself through the act of self-reproduction. Sin, in essence, is the working day and the working day is Sin. In the 1917 textMourning and Melancholia, Freud describes a process whereby the ego, in losing a loved object begins to cannibalise itself:


An object choice, an attachment of the libido to a particular person, had at one time existed; then, owing to real slight or disappointment [] the object relationship was shattered [] Henceforth the shadow of the object fell upon the ego and the latter could be judged as if it were an object, the forsaken object.16


Later inThe Ego and the Idwe read that the moment of sacrifice can be read as constitutionally necessary in the foundation of any functioning ego:


When it happens that a person has to give up a sexual object [] there often ensues an alteration of his ego which can only be described as a setting up of the object inside the ego as it occurs in melancholia […] [this process] makes it possible to suppose that the character of the ego precipitate of abandoned objects-cathexis and that it contains the history of those object-choices.17


The subject internalises the potentialities of mythic nature and represents itself dialectically as the exernalisation of an internalised series of losses which this very ego, through its cannibalistic construction, renders necessary. Odysseus's sacrifice fixes the subjects fungibility at the same that she loses the potential for a singular affection. This founding experience projects itself outwards onto nature, specifically in the experience of nature as beautiful. Seen as an experience of the non-identical, this experience contains both the mythic element and its negation: ‘In its uncertainty natural beauty inherits the ambiguity of myth while at the same time its echoconsolation – distances itself from myth in appearing nature.’18



It is in this experience that Sin balances exactly on the image of the possible. Reconciliation is promised in the experience of beauty, but it is promised to an imprisoned subject. This is the bind: consolation in nature is the song of the sirens which grows louder as the bonds holding Odysseus pull tighter and the speed of the oarsmen, history's forgotten, increases. Accordingly, the idea of the commune a subjectivity founded away from the private individual, is the sphinx to the bourgeois mind, and now, as in 1871 the rage of the state is the rage of a judge who in another moment wonders casually how the dissected prisoner could have so much horse inside of him. Perhaps then, communist action would be to not perpetuate this mythic nexus by attempting the kind of moronic positive dialectic that, by being manifestly untrue and indifferent to the suffering of the negative, sanctions what it claims to sublimate, but to maintain a moment of tautology that weaponises the categorical imperative along the lines of hatred, history, and with it, nature. Once again, Bonney:


When you meet a Tory on the street, cut his throat

It will bring out the best in you.

It is as simple as music or drunken speech.

There will be flashes of obsolete light.

You will notice the weather only when it starts to die.19



Tense: Conclusions for Art.


Adorno would have dismissed the possibility of such thought to spread into positive revolutionary speculation. He was no fetishist of therupturenor of a certain kind of disinterested graduate nihilism that proclaims the everything to already be over. The lesson of the in-growing ego forever susceptible to mythic-ambiguity is that as long as there is suffering there will be some kind of future. Art must a play a different role within this aporia, in which the objectivity of pain finds no mirror in the world and the ego becomes perversely stronger the more it loses and the more it dominates. This is what is at stake in the paragraph with which this paper opened. The mute language of nature, rendered silent since the Fall, since the introduction ofjudgementand infernal tautology finds its echo in the attempts to reproduce the Edenic act of naming, the originary non-legislative judgement. It is this impossibility that art appeals to. The task of the artist is to allow nature to speak in its falleness. Music is thehuman attempt, doomed as ever to name the Name, not to communicate meanings.’20


To name the Name would be to reconnect humanity with a divine teleology. It would be to re-enact the Franciscan story of St. Anthony, the medieval Orpheus, who, having been ignored by the towns folk of Rimini preaches a miraculous sermon to fish, an inverted version of the profane sacrifice to which the fish respond by nodding their heads, opening their mouths andendeavouring as much as possible to express their reverence and show forth their praise.’21


The world, however, is irrevocably fallen, and the hope for art, and philosophy which continue because, the chance for their realisation is continually missed, is to articulate this suffering in its alienated and objective form. To do this would be allow particularity a moment in which to communicate. The demand and its negation are both present in the dialectical vortex of natural beauty. Its realisation would allow one to see the gallows hanging from every tree and to change the tense of history in order to, as Adorno writes of Mahler, turn those who lie prostrate before the murderers, those whose bones are necessarily interred in every green and pleasant land, into those who should have been saved.22





1 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, (trans. Robert Hullet-Kentor), 1997, London: Continuum. pp.101.

2 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement. (trans. Werner S. Pluhar.) London: Hackett, 1987, pp.335.

4 Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., p.88.

5 Theodor, W. Adorno, Kants Critique of Pure Reason, (trans. Edmund Jephcott), 2006, London: Polity. pp.137.

6 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason. (trans. Allen J. Wood.), 1999, London: Cambridge University Press. pp.163.

7 Critique of Judgement, op. cit., p. 67.

9 Aesthetic Theory, op. cit. p.87.

10 Walter Benjamin, ‘On Language as Such and on the Language of Men’, (trans. Edmund Jephcott.), in Selected Writings Vol 1, 19131926 .(eds. Marcus Bullock & Michael W. Jennings) 1996, London Harvard University Press p.72.

12 Karl Marx, Capital Volume II, (trans. David Fernbach.), 1978, London:Penguin. pp.148.

13 John Milton, Paradise Lost. II.653-659.

14 Ibid., II.795-802

15 Ibid., IX. 791

16 Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (trans. James Strachey), in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 14, London: Vintage, 2001, p.207.

17 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Ego and the Id’, (trans. James Strachey.), in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 19. 2001, London: Vintage, p.29.

18 Aesthetic Theory op cit.. p.92.

20 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Music and Language: A Fragment’, in Quasi Una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music. (trans. Rodney Lvingstone.), London: Verso, 1998, p.2.

22 Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler, A Musical Physiogomy. (trans. Edmund Jephcott) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p.102.