Nature and the “Industry that Scorched it”: Adorno and Anthropocene Aesthetics

Marah Nagelhout


How 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 my essay I will discuss how Theodore Adorno’s aesthetic theory accommodates, and is innervated by our new geologic era. Adorno argues that “artistic motifs are no less critical of cultural needs than empirical ones”(Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 244), and in many ways 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 “shudder” and “aura.” 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” (244). 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 to show how his theory sets an example for historical materialists in all facets of Anthropocene discourse and illuminates the validity of the dialectic approach in this new geologic era.

Aesthetics - Anthropocene - Capital - Dialectic of Enlightenment - Environmental Crisis - Marx - Nature - Adorno - materialism