Friday, September 28, 2018

A Translation of "Die Idee der Naturgeschichte" by Theodor W. Adorno

The Idea of Natural History

Perhaps I should declare from the outset that what I am about to say is not a “lecture” in the technically proper sense, not a disclosure of results or a succinct, systematic explication but rather something on the level of an experiment, a mere effort to assimilate and elaborate the problem outlined in the so-called Frankfurt discussion.  I am aware of how many disparaging things have been said about this discussion, but I am also aware that the focal point of this discussion has been quite firmly fixed and that it would be wrong to keep starting from scratch.

I should say a few things about our terminology.  The natural history that we shall be talking about here is not natural history in the conventional prescientific sense; it is not, say, the history of the nature that is the object of study of the natural sciences.  The concept of nature that is at issue here has nothing whatsoever in common with the concept of nature in the mathematical natural sciences.  I cannot specify in advance what nature and history are going to end up meaning in the following remarks. But I shan’t be giving away too much if I tell you that what I plan to say will genuinely tend to sublate the traditional antithesis of nature and history; that, in other words, I must never be understood as working with the concepts of nature and history as definitively specified essences, that I shall instead be pursuing the intention of driving these two concepts to a point at which they will be sublated in their pure disintegration.  There is so much to be said by way of elucidating the concept of nature that I would like to unravel here that in the course of this unraveling I shall be dealing with a concept that if I were of a mind to translate it into the conceptual language of traditional philosophy might best be translated as the concept of the mythical.  Even this concept is quite vague, and its precise specification cannot be yielded by previously tendered definitions but rather and exclusively through a process of analysis.  By the mythical we are to understand whatever has been here from time immemorial, whatever human history carries within itself as a fatefully established prescribed form of Being, whatever manifests itself within this history, whatever within it is substantial.  Whatever is demarcated by these expressions is what I mean by nature here.  The question that we are faced with is that of the relationship of this nature with what we understand as history, according to which history implies that human behavioral pattern, that pattern of behavior handed down from generation to generation, that is above all characterized by the fact that the qualitatively new is manifested in it, that it constitutes a movement that is not carried out in pure identity, in the pure reproduction of whatever has always already been here, but rather a movement in which the new occurs and which attains its true character via that within it which manifests itself as the new.

I would like to develop what I am terming the idea of natural history on the basis of an analysis, or, rather—to put it more aptly—an overview of the ontological question intrinsically framed by today’s discussion.  This entails our taking the “natural” as our starting point.  For the question of ontology as it posed nowadays is nothing other than what I have meant by nature. I shall therefore employ a different approach and try to develop the concept of natural history from the problematic of the philosophy of history, a problematic wherein this concept will already become standardized and concretized to a considerable degree.  After these two interrogations have been adumbrated, I shall try to articulate the concept of natural history itself and tease out for you the moments by which it seems to be characterized.

I. First to the question of the present ontological situation.  If you pursue the ontological interrogation as it has unfolded particularly within the context of so-called phenomenology, and especially and specifically in the context of Husserlian phenomenology, in other words from Scheler onwards, one can say that the actual founding intention of this ontological interrogation is the overcoming of the subjective standpoint of philosophy, the supersession of a philosophy that aspires to dissolve all determinations of Being into determinations of thought, and believes that it is able to base all objectivity on determined foundational structures of subjectivity by an interrogation in such a way that a different, a fundamentally different Being, a fundamentally different region of Being, a trans-subjective, an ontic region of Being, is attained.  And ontology is in point here to the extent that the logos must be acquired from this on.  Now it is the fundamental paradox of all ontological interrogation in present-day philosophy that the method by which philosophers are attempting to acquire trans-subjective Being is nothing but the same subjective ratio that was previously effected by critical idealism.  The phenomenological-cum-ontological endeavors make themselves out to be an attempt to acquire trans-subjective being by means of the autonomous ratio and with the language of the ratio, for they have no other means or language at their disposal.  Now this ontological question is being articulated twice over—once as the question of Being itself, as that which since Kant has as the thing-in-itself been pushed back behind the philosophical interrogation and is being hauled out again.  But at the same time it is being articulated as the question of the meaning of Being, of the meaningfulness of the existent or as the meaning of Being as possibility tout court.  This very doubleness attests to the tenability of the thesis that I am expounding, the thesis that the ontological interrogation with which we are dealing today abides by the starting position of the autonomous ratio; only specifically when the ratio acknowledges the reality that confronts it as something alien to it, as something lost to it, material to it; only when it is no longer immediately accessible and when the meaning of reality is not shared with the ratio—only then can the question of the meaning of Being be posed at all.  The question of meaning is yielded by the starting position of the ratio, but at the same time this question of the meaning of Being, a question that is the focus of phenomenology in its early phases (Scheler), produces a very expansive problematic in virtue of its subjectivistic origin; for this yielding of meaning is nothing but an interpolation of significances as they are posited by subjectivity.   This insight that the question of meaning is nothing but an interpolation of subjective significances into Being leads to the crisis in that first stage.  The drastic expression of this is the fact of the volatility of the fundamental determinations that the ratio must make in its attempt at acquiring an order of being qua experience.  While it has turned out that the factors that are acknowledged as foundational and meaningful—as in Scheler, for example—spring from a different factual sphere, are not even possibilities in Being, but rather are derived from the existent and therefore inhere in the questionability of the existent, the entire question of Being is becoming problematic within the context of phenomenology. Insofar as the question of meaning can still occur, it does not signify the acquisition of a guaranteed sphere of significances opposed to the empirical, a sphere that would be valid and perpetually accessible, but rather means nothing more than the question ti hn on, the question of what Being itself actually is.  The term meaning (or significance) is fraught with equivocation here.  Meaning can mean a transcendental content that is signified by Being, lies behind Being and is singled out by analysis.  On the other hand, meaning for its part cannot be the explication of the existent itself in terms of whatever is characterized as Being without that explicated Being’s having been proved to be meaningful beforehand.  It is therefore possible that the meaning of Being as the meaning of the significance of the category of Being—of what Being actually is—is being interrogated, but that in the meaning of that first question the existent is turning out not to be a meaningful but rather a meaningless one, as is largely in keeping with the meaning of current developments.

Once this counterturn of the question of Being has taken place, the one inaugural intention of the original ontological counterturn, namely an intentional turn towards ahistoricality, vanishes.  Scheler, at least in his early work (and this was its decisively influential phase), attempted to construct a heaven of ideas on the basis of a purely rational view of the ahistorical and internal levels, a heaven that sheds its light on everything empirical, a heaven which has a normative character and by which the empirical is permeable.  But at the same time in the origins of phenomenology a fundamental tension is posited between this meaningful essence that lies behind the historical phenomenon and the sphere of history itself.  In the origins of phenomenology a duality is posited.  This duality (here nature is to be understood as that domain of the ahistorical and Platonically ontological), along with the inaugural intention of the ontological counterturn sited in it, has corrected itself.  The question of Being no longer has the significance of a Platonic question of the scope of static and qualitatively different ideas that stood face-to-face with the existent qua the empirical domain in a normative or tensional relationship.  Instead the tension is vanishing: the existent itself is being transformed into meaning and Being’s foundation, the great beyond of history, is being replaced by the blueprint of Being qua historicality.
With these changes the site of the problem is being displaced.  First and foremost the problematic of the relationship between ontology and historicism is ostensibly vanishing.  From the perspective of history, of historical criticism, ontology simply looks like a formal framework that has nothing whatsoever to say about the content of history, a border that can be stretched around the concrete in an arbitrary fashion; or alternatively the ontological intention, when it was a material ontology as in Scheler’s work, seemed to be a gratuitous absolutization of micro-historical facts, an absolutization which for ideological purposes may even have been intended to retain the status of eternal and universally valid values.  The converse has seemed to be the case from the ontological standpoint, and this antithesis is the one that dominated our Frankfurt discussion, such that all radically historical thought, in other words all thought that seeks to trace back all emergent content exclusively to historical conditions, presupposes a blueprint of Being itself, a blueprint through which history is passed off as the structure of Being; presupposes that only thus, within the framework of such a blueprint, is the allocation of individual phenomena and content-items at all possible. 

Now the most recent counterturn of phenomenology—if one can still call this phenomenology—has executed a correction, specifically as a result of its eradication of the antithesis of history and Being.  In virtue of its eschewal of the Platonic heaven of ideas, of the fact that on the one hand in contemplating Being, it is contemplating it as something living—as a result of this, formalism is eradicated along with false stasis, for the blueprint seems to assimilate the plenitude of the determinations of Being, and the suspicious attitude towards the absolutization of a contingent one also seems to be on the wane.  For now even history itself in its extreme turbulence has turned into the fundamental ontological structure.  On the other hand, historical thought itself seems to have undergone a fundamental counterturn, since it is being reduced to a philosophically load-bearing structure of historicality qua structure of a fundamental determination of existence, at least of human existence, which makes it possible for history in general to exist without entailing the determination’s counterposition by what history “is” qua something finished, fossilized, alien.  This is the state of the discussion that I am taking as my starting point.  Here is where the critical motifs join in.

It seems to me as if the approach attained here, which unites the ontological and historical questions under the category of historicality, is likewise inadequate to the mastery of the concrete problematic, or is adequate to it only merely in virtue of the fact that it modifies its own consistency and the fact that it assimilates as contents motifs that do not necessarily emerge from the principle limned in the blueprint.  I shall illustrate this only in connection with two points.

In the first place, this blueprint remains stuck in general determinations.  The problem of historical contingency cannot be overcome via the category of historicality.  A general determination of the structure of vitality is offering itself, but when one is interpreting an isolated phenomenon—the French Revolution, for example—one can indeed discover every possible moment of this vitality there, can discover for example, how the bygone is returning, is being assimilated; one can verify the significance of the spontaneity arising from the human individual, detect causal connections, etc., but one will not succeed at bringing the facticity of the French Revolution in its extreme factual Being into line with these determinations; rather within its broadest circumference there will be a domain of “facticity” that drops out.   This is obviously no discovery of mine, but rather something that has long since been substantiated within the framework of the ontological discussion.  But it has not so far been articulated with the brutality with which it is being articulated here; or, rather, it has been handled within the problematic in a last-ditch fashion—this as a result of the fact that all facticity that is not included in the ontological blueprint itself, is subsumed under a category—that of contingency, of randomness, and of the fact that this category is assimilated into the blueprint as a determination of the historical.  But this is highly consistent; it contains the concession in itself, such that the mastery of the empirical materials has not succeeded.  At the same time this turn offers the schema for a turn within the ontological question.  This the turn to tautology.

By this I mean nothing other than that the attempt of neo-ontological thought to reconcile itself to the unattainability of the empirical is continually proceeding in conformity with the schema, such that precisely when moments of any sort are not included in the determinations of thought, are not capable of being made transparent, but rather stand still in their thereness, such that this very standstill of the phenomena themselves is transformed into a general concept and is imprinted on the stasis as such an ontological value.  Such is the case with the concept of Heidegger’s concept of Being Towards Death and also with the concept of historicality itself.  In the neo-ontological interrogation, the problem of the reconciliation of nature and history is only seemingly solved in the structure of historicality, because although here it is certainly acknowledged that there is a foundational phenomenon that is history, because the ontological determination of this foundational phenomenon or the ontological exegesis of this foundational phenomenon is now hamstrung as a result of the fact that it itself is being transfigured into ontology.  For Heidegger, history, understood as a comprehensive structure of Being, is tantamount to Being’s own ontology.  Here such feeble antitheses as history and historicality, antitheses in which nothing is fixed but the fact that as a result of being taken away from the existent any qualities of Being observable in existence [Dasein] are transposed into the domain of ontology and transformed into ontological determination, consigned to contributing to the exegesis of something that is basically only yet another iteration.  This moment of tautology is unconnected to the contingencies of linguistic form; rather, it perforce adheres to the ontological interrogation itself, which clings tenaciously to the ontological efforts, but which thanks to its rational starting point is incapable of ontologically construing itself as what it actually is, namely a product and semantic echo of the starting point of the idealistic ratio.  This remains to be explicated.  If there is a way that can lead further, it can in point of fact only predestinedly consist in a “revision of the question.”  Admittedly, this revision is applicable not only to the historical interrogation but also to the neo-ontological interrogation itself. Here I may at least faintly hint at why it seems to me that it necessarily follows from this problematic that the idealistic starting-point has not been left behind even in the neo-ontological body of thought; namely, because here we are confronted by two determinations that fall specifically to the share of the idealistic body of thought.      

The first is the determination of the comprehensive whole vis-à-vis the particulars subsumed by it; a whole that is no longer understood as being a wholeness of the system but rather is subsumed by the category of structural wholeness, of structural unity or totality.  But even as one supposes that one can unequivocally amalgamate the entirety of reality, albeit in a structure, there lurks in the possibility of such an amalgamation of all given reality within a structure the claim that whoever comprehensively unites everything existent within this structure has the right and the power to acknowledge the existent as adequate on its own and to assimilate it into the form.  The moment this claim ceases to be put forward, all talk of a structural whole is no longer possible.  I know that the contents of the new ontology are very different from what I have just asserted. It might be said that the latest turn of phenomenology is not rationalistic in character but rather an attempt to draw in the irrational moment in an altogether unprecedented way, under the auspices of “vitality.”  But it really seems to make a great difference indeed whether irrational contents are being incorporated into a philosophy fundamentally based on the principle of autonomy or the philosophy itself is no longer starting from the assumption that reality is adequately accessible.  I need only remind you that a philosophy like that of Schopenhauer arrives at its irrationalism through nothing other than the rigorous retention of the fundamental motifs of rational idealism, of the Fichtean transcendental subject.   This seems to me to testify to the possibility of an idealism with irrationalistic contents.  The other moment is the moment of the accentuation of possibility vis-à-vis reality. The truth is that within the framework of the neo-ontological interrogation this very problem of the relationship between possibility and reality is perceived as the greatest difficulty.  I wish to be circumspect here, and I have no intention of firmly associating the new ontology with positions that are intrinsically controversial.  In any case, it is very much an abiding position of this ontology that the “blueprint” of Being always maintains a priority over the facticity dealt with by it, that such a prius is taken on board along with the fissure vis-à-vis facticity; the facticity must be interpolated after the fact, and if it is not, it devolves into the rightful possession of a philosophical critique.  In the ascendancy of the kingdom of possibilities I see idealistic moments, for within the framework of the Critique of Pure Reason the antithesis of possibility versus reality is nothing other than that of the categorical subjective stratum versus empirical multifariousness.  Not only does this correlation of the new ontology with the idealistic position explain the formalism, the necessary universality of the neo-ontological determinations, into which facticity cannot be integrated; it is also the key to the problem of the tautology.  Heidegger says that there is nothing wrong with walking in a circle, that the only thing that matters is entering that circle in the right direction.  Here I am inclined to agree with Heidegger.  But when philosophy remains true to its mission, this entrance in the right direction can amount to nothing but the fact that in the act of explication, Being that defines itself as Being or explicates itself highlights the moments through which it explicates itself as such a Being.  It seems to me that the tautology is explicable in terms of nothing but the old idealistic motif of identity.  It emerges in virtue of the fact that a Being that is historical is being brought under the umbrella of a subjective category of historicality.  This historical Being involved in a subjective category of historicality is supposed to be identical to history.  It is supposed to submit to the determinations that are being imprinted on it by historicality.  The tautology seems to me to be less a sounding of the mystical depths of language than an occultation of the old classical identity of subject and object.  And the recent turn towards Hegel in Heidegger’s work seems to bear out this interpretation.

After this revision of the question the approach itself must be revised.  It remains to be mentioned that the collapse of the world into natural and spiritual Being or natural and historical Being as it is customarily conceived by subjective idealism must be sublated and that it must be replaced by an interrogation that intrinsically effects the concrete unity of nature and history.  But it must effect the concrete unity, a unity that is not orientated towards the antithesis of possible Being versus actual Being but that is rather created out of the determinations of actual Being itself.  The blueprint of the new ontology will have a chance of acquiring ontological dignity, the prospect of arriving at a genuine exegesis of Being, only if it radically vectors itself not towards the possibilities of Being, but rather towards the existent as such in its concrete microhistorical determinateness.  All selection of natural stasis out of historical dynamism leads to false absolutization; all segregation of historical dynamism from the indissolubly solid natural element in it leads to bad spiritualism.  It is to the credit of the ontological interrogation that it has radically worked out the indissoluble interpenetration of the elements of nature and history.  On the other hand it is necessary to purify this blueprint of the mirage of a comprehensive wholeness and further necessary to criticize the separation of reality and possibility from the perspective of reality, as the two of them have so far fallen asunder.  These are initially general methodological desiderata.  But there is much more that must be postulated.  If the question of the relationship between nature and history must be posed in all seriousness, the only prospect of an answer lies in conceiving of historical Being itself as a natural Being in its utmost historical determinateness, where it is as its most historical, if such a conception is practicable; or in conceiving of nature as a historical Being where it is apparently most deeply lodged in itself as nature, if such a conception is potentially practicable.  What is necessary is no longer the conceptualization of the fact of history in general under the auspices of the category of historicality as a fact of nature toto caelo, but rather the reconversion of the establishedness of the microhistorical events into an establishment of natural events.  What is needed is not a search for a pure Being either underlying or inherent in historical Being but rather an understanding of historical Being itself as an ontological Being; in other words, a natural Being.  The reconversion of concrete history into dialectical nature is the task of the ontological reorientation of the philosophy of history: the idea of natural history.

II. I am going to take as my starting point the problematic of the philosophy of history as it has already materially contributed to the development of the concept of natural history.  The conception of natural history did not fall down from the sky; rather, it received its bona fides in the context of the philosophy of history’s work on certain specific material, above all aesthetic material.  The simplest way of giving you an idea of this kind of historical conception of nature will be to cite the sources from which this concept of natural history originates.  I am referring to the works of Georg Lukács and Walter Benjamin.  In his Theory of the Novel, Lukács employed a concept that is pointed in this direction, that of second nature.  The context of the concept of second nature is as follows: Lukács has derived from the philosophy of history a general idea of a world suffused with meaning and a world devoid of meaning (the immediate world and the alienated world, the world of the commodity) and is attempting to delineate this alienated world.  This world, as a world of the things created by human beings and lost to them, he calls the world of convention.  “When no goals are immediately given, the entities that the soul discovers in its incarnation as a site and substrate of its activity among human beings lose their obvious roots in superpersonal, ostensible necessity; they are simply something existent, perhaps something powerful, perhaps something mouldering, but they are neither intrinsic bearers of the consecratedness of the absolute nor reservoirs for the overflowing interiority of the soul.  They constitute the world of convention: a world whose omnipotence has only deprived the soul of its innermost core; a world that is omnipresent in bewildering multifariousness; a world whose rigorous legality, both in becoming and in being, for the perceiving subject is perforce becoming evident but which amid all this lawfulness is showcasing itself neither as meaning for the goal-oriented subject nor as matter in sensuous immediacy for the action-oriented one.  It is a second nature; like the first”— admittedly for Lukács “first nature,” as an alienated nature, nature as understood by natural science, is “definable only as the quintessence of necessities that are recognized and devoid of meaning and for this reason ungraspable and unrecognizable in their actual substance.”1  This fact of the world of convention as it has been produced in the course of history, the world of things that have become alien to us, things that cannot be decrypted but that present themselves to us as ciphers—this is the starting point of the problematic that I am propounding here.  From the perspective of the philosophy of history, this question initially presents itself as the question of how it is possible to recognize, to interpret, this alienated, reified, dead world.  Lukács has already taken notice of the alienness and the puzzle-like character of this question. If I am to succeed at giving you a sense of the idea of natural history, you should first learn something about the thaumazein [i.e., Aristotelean θαυμάζειν, meaning astonishment or wonder (DR)] that this question signifies.  Natural history is not a synthesis of natural and historical methods but rather an alteration of perspective.  The passage in which Lukács comes closest to this question reads:  “The second nature of the human entity has no lyrical substantiality: its forms are too rigid to adapt themselves to the symbol-creating moment; the contentual precipitate of its laws is too determinate ever to be able to forsake the elements that in lyric poetry are obliged to be transformed into occasions for essayistic speculation; but these elements live so exclusively by the grace of the legalities, are so utterly devoid of any sensuous valency of existence that is independent of them, that in their absence they cannot but crumble away into nothing.  This nature is not silent, sensible, and senseless like the first one: it is an ossified, alienated, mental complex that is no longer capable of awakening interiority; it is a Golgotha of putrefied interiority and accordingly could be awakened only—if this were possible—by the metaphysical act of a reawakening of the psychical element that it created or preserved in some earlier or intended mode of existence, but could never be experienced by a different mode of interiority.”2  The problem of this awakening that is validated here as a metaphysical possibility is the problem that constitutes what is understood here as natural history.  Lukács has sighted the transformation of the historical element as a transformation of the bygone into nature; ossified history is nature, or the ossified living element of nature is mere historical having-become-ness.  In the discourse of Golgotha lies the moment of the cipher; such that all this signifies something, but exactly what is signified by it must first be fetched forth. Lukács cannot conceive of this Golgotha other than within the category of theological reawakening, within the eschatological horizon.  Benjamin has executed the decisive turn in the treatment of the problem of second nature by fetching forth the reawakening of second nature from infinite distance into infinite proximity and making it the object of philosophical interpretation.  And as philosophy takes up the motif of the awakening of the cryptic, of the ossified, it has beginning to develop a more sharply defined concept of natural history.  To start with, there are two passages from Benjamin that complement Lukács’s passage.  “They (the allegorical writers) conceive of nature as an eternal evanescence in which only the saturnine gaze of those generations recognizes history.”3 “When with the advent of this form of tragedy history wanders into the theater it does so as a writing system.  On the countenance of nature ‘history’ is contained in the hieroglyphic inscription of evanescence.”4

Lukács’s philosophy of history has been augmented by something fundamentally different here; in both passages the word evanescent or evanescence appears.  The deepest point at which history and nature converge is sited in that selfsame moment of evanescence.  If Lukács allows the historical to be changed back into the bygone in nature, here one sees a different side of the phenomenon—nature portraying itself as evanescent nature, as history.
The natural-historical interrogations are not possible as general structures; they are possible only as interpretation of concrete history.  Benjamin starts from the assumption that allegory is no mere tissue of secondary contingencies; that the allegorical is not a contingent sign for its underlying content, that there is an objectively significant relationship between allegory and the allegorically signified, that “allegory is expression.”5 Allegory is traditionally defined as a sensuous representation of a concept, and thereby regarded as abstract and contingent. But the relationship between the allegorically phenomenal and the signified is by no means contingent and symbolic; rather, something peculiar unfolds within it; the relationship is a form of expression, and what unfolds within its space, what it expresses, is nothing other than a historical relationship.  The theme of the allegorical is virtually history.  Its essence as a relationship between the phenomenal, phenomenal nature, and the signified, namely, evanescence, is explicated thus: “Within the crucial category of time—and the conveyance of this category into this domain of semiotics was the great romantic insight of these thinkers—the relationship between symbol and allegory can be emphatically and formulaically stipulated.  Whereas in the symbol with the apotheosis of the downfall the transfigured visage of nature is fleetingly disclosed in the light of redemption, in allegory the facies Hippocratica of history is exposed to the eyes of the beholder as a petrified primeval landscape. History in all that is unseasonable, sorrowful, and misguided about it from the very beginning finds expression in a visage—nay, in a death’s head.  And thus all ‘symbolic’ freedom of expression, all classic formal harmony, all that is human, falls short of such a death’s head—it does not express merely the nature of human existence per se, but rather and significantly the biographical historicality of an individual existence in this its most dilapidated natural state, as a riddle. This is the kernel of allegorical meditation, of the baroque, secular exposition of history as the history of the world’s suffering; significantly it is only in the stages of its decay.  There is as much significance as deathly decadence because death buries the ragged line of demarcation between physis and significance so deeply.”6 What is this talk of evanescence meant to reaffirm, and what is the meaning of the primeval history of signifying?  I cannot develop this concept in the traditional manner.  What is in point here is of a fundamentally different logical form from development out of a “blueprint” constitutively underpinned by moments of general conceptual structure.  This different logical structure itself cannot be analyzed here.  It is that of the constellation.  It does not consist in an illumination of concepts by means of one another but rather of a constellation of ideas, and specifically of the idea of evanescence, of significance and of the idea of nature and of the idea of history.  These are not to be resorted to as “invariants”; the intention of the question is not to seek them out; rather, they cluster around the concrete historical facticity that is disclosed in the nexus of these moments in their matchlessness.  How do these moments hang together with one another here?  Benjamin himself regards nature qua Creation as marked by the stigma of evanescence.  Nature itself is evanescent.  But in being so it contains the moment of history.  Whenever the historical walks upon the scene, the historical repudiates the natural element that is vanishing within it.  Complementarily, whenever “second nature” makes an appearance, whenever that world of convention accosts us, it is deciphered as a result of its very evanescence’s being clarified by its significance.  In Benjamin’s work this is initially conceived of in such a way that—and this bears further exploration—there are such things as primeval, foundational historical phenomena that were present at the very beginning, that have vanished and are signified in the allegorical, that return in the allegorical, that return as the literal.  One must not merely point out that primeval historical motifs keep cropping up in history itself; rather, one must point out that primeval history itself as evanescence contains the motif of history.  The foundational determinant of the evanescence of the terrestrial signifies nothing other than such a relationship between nature and history; that all Being or all that is existent is conceivable solely as an interleaving of historical and natural Being.  As evanescence primeval history is absolutely present.  It is present in the sign of “significance.”  The term “significance” means that the moments of nature and history do not arise within one another but rather simultaneously break out of one another and are interleaved in such a way that the natural walks upon the scene as a sign of history and history, when it presents itself as most historical, as a sign of nature.  Everything that is Being or at least has become Being, everything that once was Being, metamorphoses into allegory, and in the process allegory ceases to be a category employable exclusively by art historians.   At the same time, “signifying” itself is transubstantiated from a problem of the hermeneutics of the philosophy of history or even from its transcendent meaning in the moment; the constitutively historical is transubstantiated into primeval history.  Whence the expression “the primeval history of signifying.”  In the Baroque idiom, the situation of, say, a tyrant is akin to that of the setting sun.  This allegorical relation already encompasses the intimation of a procedure that could successfully construe concrete history’s features as nature and make nature dialectical in the sign of history.  The realization of this conception is in turn the idea of natural history.

III. Now that I have adumbrated the origin of the idea of natural history in these terms, I wish to go further.  The unifying thread of these three passages is contained in the notion of Golgotha.  In Lukács’s work it is merely an enigma; in Benjamin’s it turns into the cipher that must be read.  But under the auspices of radical natural-historical thought everything existent is transformed into ruins and fragments, into the sort of Golgotha in which significance is unearthed, in which nature and history interpenetrate each other and the philosophy of history acquires its mission of construing intentions.  It is therefore a double-turn that is being executed.  On the one hand I have reduced the ontological problematic to a historical formula; I have tried to show in what manner the ontological interrogation must be radicalized in concrete historical terms.  On the other hand under the sign of evanescence I have shown how history itself is in a certain sense rushing towards the execution of an ontological turn.  What I understand as an ontological turn here is something completely different from what is usually understood as such a turn nowadays.  My intention is therefore not to reclaim this expression permanently but rather to adopt it in a thoroughly dialectical fashion.  The notion of natural history that I have in mind is not “historical ontology,” not the attempt to single out and ontologically hypostasize a nexus of facts that as the meaning or infrastructure of an epoch supposedly comprehends the Whole, as, for example, Dilthey attempted to do.  This Diltheyan attempt at a historical ontology has run aground; because it failed to follow through with facticity adequately, it has been left stuck within the bailiwick of intellectual history and, in the manner of non-binding concepts of styles of thought, utterly failed to apprehend materially felt reality.  What must replace this is not the acquisition of constructions of historical archetypes conceived in terms of epochs but rather an insight into historical facticity in its historicality even as a manifestation of natural history.

Towards the articulation of my notion of natural history I shall take up a second problem; I shall proceed from the opposite direction.  (This constitutes a direct continuation of the spirt of the Frankfurt discussion.)  One could say that I am referring to a kind of enchantment of history.  Here the historical in all its contingencies would abdicate in favor of the natural and primevally historical itself.  Here, because that which is historically encountered appears in an allegorical form, it is supposedly being transfigured as something meaningful.  That is not the sort of thing I am referring to.  To be sure, the starting point of the interrogation is the natural character of history, the alienating.  But if philosophy wished to remain nothing other than such a passive acceptance of the chok, so that what history is would always simultaneously represent itself as nature—then the situation would be like what Hegel accuses Schiller of promulgating, the night of indifference, in which all cats are gray.  How can we avoid sliding into this night?  I would like to adumbrate this before I finish.
It must be assumed here that history as it is received by us pretends to be something utterly discontinuous, not only insofar as it contains disparate facts and states of affairs, but also as it contains disparities of a structural variety.  If Reizler speaks of three mutually opposed and mutually implicated determinations of historicality—Tyche, Ananke, and Spontaneity—I would not attempt to synthesize this division of the structure of history into these determinations via a so-called unity.  Indeed, I believe that in its conception of this establishedness the new ontology has achieved something very fruitful.  Now this discontinuity—which, as I mentioned, I can see no warrant for converting into a structural wholeness—initially presents itself as a discontinuity between the mythic-archaic, natural material of history, of the bygone, and whatever surfaces in history in a dialectically new fashion, new in the pregnant sense.  These are categories whose problematic is clear to me.  But the differential method of approaching nature without anticipating natural history as a unity entails that one initially accepts and acquiesces in these two problematic and undetermined structures in their dichotomousness as they occur in the language of philosophy.  This is easier to do than it seems, given that the philosophy of history has been repeatedly attaining such an interleaving of the originally existing and the newly becoming thanks to findings presented by research.  Drawing on the domain of research, I remind you that in psychoanalysis this dichotomy is available in all its stark distinctness: in the difference between the archaic symbols to which no associations are conjoined, and the intersubjective, dynamic, microhistorical symbols that are all susceptible to elimination and that can be converted into psychic up-to-dateness, into current knowledge.  Now, the initial task of the philosophy of history, that of working out these two moments, of separating them and comparing them with each other, and only once this antithesis has been explicated, is a chance of succeeding at constructing out natural history.  The evidence of this is again afforded by the pragmatic findings that present themselves when for a start one contemplates that archaic-cum-mythical itself and the historical-cum-new. In the process it becomes evident that the underlying mythical-cum-archaic element, this allegedly substantial, persistent mythical element, does not statically underlie anything even in such a fashion, but rather that the historical dynamic is already embedded in all great myths, probably even in all mythical images that our consciousness still possesses, and embedded there specifically in a dialectical form, such that the mythical foundational givens are mutually contradictory and move mutually contradictorily (recall the phenomenon of ambivalence, the “opposite direction” of the primeval words). The Kronos myth is one of those myths in which the god’s utmost creative power has been instantaneously instituted in such a twofold fashion that he who exists annihilates his creations, his children.  Alternatively, it may be said that the mythology that underlies tragedy is invariably dialectical, because on the one hand it contains within itself the fallenness of man in his culpability vis-à-vis the nexus of nature and at the same time propitiates this destiny with its own inner resources; such that man hoists himself aloft of his fate as man.  The dialectical moment inheres in the fact that along with the fall into culpability and nature the tragic myths also contain the moment of propitiation, the fundamental moment of transcendence of the nexus of nature.  The dialectic of abortive myths redirects the notion of a static—not merely static, but undialectically static—world of ideas back to Plato as its well-spring.  In Plato the world of appearances is intrinsically fallow. It has been abandoned, but it is visibly ruled by ideas. Despite this, ideas have no share in it, and by this same token they have no share in the world; thanks to this alienation of the world of human experience from ideas, the ideas are set in stone, set amongst the stars, for the sake of arresting this dynamic altogether.  They become static—petrified.  In the Platonic moment consciousness has already become addicted to the questing of idealism: spirit, banished from the world and alienated from history, attains absoluteness at the cost of its vitality. But this is already the expression of a state of consciousness, a state in which consciousness has already lost its natural substance as immediacy. And the delusiveness of the static character of the mythical elements is what we must divest ourselves of if we wish to arrive at a concrete image of natural history.

On the other hand the “currently new,” that which is in truth produced in history dialectically, presents itself as archaic.  History is “at its most mythical when it is at its most historical.”  Here is where the greatest difficulties lie.  Instead of expounding this line of thought in general terms, I shall give you an example: that of semblance; and I am speaking specifically about semblance in the sense of a second nature, about which I spoke earlier.  This second nature, in pretending to be meaningful, is a nature of semblance, and its semblance is historically produced.  It is imbued with semblance because its reality is lost to us and we believe we understand it in a meaningful sense, whereas it has been evacuated of meaning, or because we interpolate alienated subjective intentions into it as its significance, as in allegory.  But the remarkable fact is that the microhistorical essence called semblance is of a mythical character.  As the moment of semblance inheres in all myths; nay, as the dialectic of the mythical destiny, in the forms of hubris and blindness, is always inaugurated by semblance, the historically produced semblance-contents are always of a mythical character and not only inasmuch as they hark back to an archaic, primevally historical element and as in art everything of a semblance character is bound up with myth (one thinks here of Wagner), but inasmuch as the character of the mythical itself recurs in this historical phenomenon of semblance.  The working out of the problem of semblance would be an authentic problem of natural history.  It would consist, for example, in showing that when you ascertain the character of semblance in certain dwellings, this semblance is twinned with the notion of the eternally bygone, and that it is only ever re-recognized.  The phenomenon of déjà-vu, of re-recognition, would have to be analyzed here.  Moreover, the mythical, primeval phenomenon of anxiety recurs in the presence of such a microhistorical, alienated world of semblance.  Wherever we are confronted by this semblance-world of convention, an archaic anxiety takes hold, as does the moment of threateningness, which is always peculiar to this semblance; the fact that semblance has the characteristic of drawing everything into itself as it were a funnel is also such a mythical moment of semblance. Or the moment of the reality of semblance vis-à-vis its sheer pictoriality: the fact that everywhere we are confronted by semblance we perceive it as expression, that it is not simply a semblance that must be eradicated but rather expresses something that manifests itself in it but is indescribable independently of it.  This is likewise a mythical moment of semblance.  And finally: the decisive, transcendent motif of the mythos, the motif of reconciliation, is also peculiar to semblance.  Let me remind you that emotion is always most closely conjoined with the most minor works of art and not with the greatest.  I am referring to the moment of reconciliation, which is present wherever the world presents itself in its most semblance-imbued manner; such that the promise of reconciliation is most completely given when the world is simultaneously most thickly walled off from all “meaning.” With these words, I am sending you back to the structure of the primevally historical element of semblance itself, where semblance in its essence proves to be something historically produced: in the conventional language of philosophy: where semblance is yielded by the subject-object dialectic.  In truth the second nature is the first.  The historical dialectic is not simply a resumption of newly interpreted primeval material; rather the historical material itself metamorphoses into something mythical and natural-historical.

I was hoping also to speak about the relationship between these things and historical materialism, but here I can only say this much: it is not the supplementation of one theory by another, but rather the exegesis of a theory.  I am making myself sound as if I am, so to speak, the authoritative expert on the materialistic dialectic.  It remains to be demonstrated that the preceding lecture is only an exegesis of certain rudiments of the materialistic dialectic.

1.       Georg Lukács, Die Theorie des Romans [The Theory of the Novel], Berlin, 1920, p. 52.
2.      Ibid., p. 52.
3.      Walter Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels [Origin of the German Tragic Drama], Berlin 1928, p. 178.
4.      Ibid., p. 176.
5.      Cf. ibid., p. 160.
6.      Ibid., pp. 164f.
7.       On the following cf. Sören Kierkegaard, On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, tr. Hans Heinrich Schaeder, Munich, Berlin, 1929, pp. 78ff.
8.   Translator's Note (the preceding notes are Adorno's): The editors remark that “Die Idee der Naturgeschichte” is the text of a lecture that Adorno delivered to the Frankfurt chapter of the Kant-Gesellschaft on July 15, 1932 and that it furnished some of the motifs of “Weltgeist und Naturgeschichte” [“World-Spirit and Natural History”], the third part of Negative Dialectics.


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson

Source:  Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. I, p. 345ff.

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