Friday, February 21, 2014

Review of Against Nature by Steve Vogel

As is clear from my post on Elmar Flatschart's critique of Critical Realism, the problem of the relations of nature, science, and philosophy strike me as both timely and unresolved. I am generally on the lookout for engaging works that seem philosophically serious without being scientifically naive. Steven Vogel's book Against Nature seemed quite promising in that respect. Vogel reviews the key debates around the concept of nature in critical theory and the question of science beginning with Lukacs, through the Frankfurt School, and into Habermas. A serious book-length treatment of the relationship between critical theory, nature and science is in some respects long overdue, given the importance of the issues for critical theory and also the contentious and much-debated views of the key authors.

Vogel really begins by laying out how he understands Lukács' position. He focuses on the concept of reification that Lukács develops in History and Class Consciousness, as the attempt to generalize Marx's critique of the fetish character of the commodity. Lukács puts himself into a contradictory position by attempting to shield natural science from the implications of reification, while also arguing that all knowledge is mediated and thus in class society reified.  It is this ambiguous position of Lukacs that leads to the contradictory criticisms of Lukacs as on he one hand a complete social constructionist and Romantic critic of the natural sciences on one side as opposed to those who claim that he actually seeks to exempt the natural sciences from the the critique of reification.

Lukacs' critique of the Engelsian view proceeds at two levels: the critique of Engels' presentation of dialectic as a universal ontological method applying equally to nature and society, and the lack of a subject-object dynamic within the epistemological aspect of his dialectic.  Vogel may not put it into these terms, but what he describes is the claim made explicit by Plekhanov for on the one hand a "dialectical materialism" as the claim to ontological universality of dialectical logic, and on the other hand a "historical materialism" that is the epistemological "method."   [Footnote: The cal for a return to a dialectical materialism and a historical materialism in Slavoj Zizek's Parallax View that ought to be taken as an opening to the critique of Zizek's philosophical commitments in general.]  Young Lukacs will thus make two moves: to completely drop the ontological claim of "dialectical materialism", and thus to restrict dialectic to a "historical materialism" applicable only to society because only applicable to a possible subject-object relation.  There is no dialectic without a subject.

This raises the question, however, of the fact that we do not experience nature or think about nature outside of society.  In fact, and this is key for Vogel, we don't have an immediate knowledge or experience of nature, but only one mediated by our social being and concepts.  Is it possible then that not merely is our knowledge of nature mediated, and thus any method of acquiring knowledge socially mediated, but that the object itself, nature, is a conceptualization of our social practice?

This results in a possible critique of natural science as always-already reified consciousness when it is applied to society (as society naturalized, or second nature, and thus apparently open to the same methods as first nature in the view of bourgeois ideology since capitalist social relations are nature-given), and the misapplication of social theory to nature vis-a-vis dialectic.  However, if science is human knowledge, then is it not he case that this is also investigating second nature?

Vogel sums up the problem on page 18:
"[Lukacs' method] seems to assert a kind of ideological neutrality to the methods of natural science when applied to their own proper realm - that of nature - while reserving its criticism for the misapplication of of these methods to the realm of the social; we might call it the misapplication thesis.  But that those methods are so easily misapplied and that they are "predisposed to harmonize" so well with the requirements of a reified society suggests that their "problematic" character might arise at a different level.  We have already seen Lukacs associate the methods of natural science with a nondialectical "metaphysical standpoint, presupposing as they do a set of epistemological assumptions where knowledge ("science") appears as the pure and disinterested apprehension of external objects taken as independent of the knowing subject.  It is these very assumptions and not merely their "misapplication" that Lukacs criticizes as "problematic": might the methods of natural science themselves reflect the structures of capitalist society in which the contribution of knowing and acting subjects to producing the objects they confront is systematically obscured?" 

Vogell will spend the book arguing that this ambiguity in Lukacs has to be resolved decisively in favor of a strictly social constructivist notion of nature.  He argues that, far from being outside of the problem of reification, nature as a concept and the natural sciences as practices, are as subject to it as society and the social sciences.

In each section there are certain other authors on these topics who Vogel will take up.  In the case of Lukács, with whom he is fundamentally sympathetic, Vogel will also sympathetically (not uncritically) cite Andrew Feenberg and Andrew Arato.  In the case of Adorno, of whom he is fundamentally critical (though not entirely unsympathetic), he will cite and be particularly critical of Gillian Rose.  His references to Feenberg and Rose in particular, however, will bring out fundamental problems not merely of the view Vogel will champion from Chapter 2 forward, but also with his fundamental incomprehension of Adorno's critique of Lukács.

Interestingly, Vogel will immediately move, in chapter 2, to put forward his view based on the contradictions in Lukacs' view, and then contrast this reading of Lukacs with that of post-Lukacs critical theory.  This forces us to take up his own viewpoint now and then relate it to his problem-laden readings of Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas.

The limits of Vogel's view stand out sharply in three moments.  The first is his conflation of labor with practice, something which becomes evident on page 42 and then is repeated in an especially crude way on pages 94-5.  Vogel falls into the attribution of an ontological primacy to labor that is found not only in traditional Marxism with its overt love of labor, but which is also central to thinkers as seemingly at odds as John Holloway, Jonathan Pike, and the Gyorgy Lukacs of The Social Ontology of Being.  There is something simply ugly in his vulgar prolier-than-thou condemnation of Adorno as the labor-hating aesthete, followed by the uncritical conflation of labor and practice.  The despair over a society of labor is not an invention of Adorno, however, but comes directly from Marx, not least in Vol. 3 of Capital where he distinguishes between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom.  The realm of necessity is exactly the realm of labor, of labor time, whereas the realm of freedom is precisely the realm of time freely determined, active and inactive, time not spent on the reproduction of the conditions of human existence.  Part of what distinguishes capitalism from earlier forms of domination is that the realm of necessity is treated as the realm of freedom: arbeit macht frei.  No wonder that for Adorno there is a sense in which earlier, pre-capitalist society was more free, both at the level of the ruling classes who defined themselves by their leisure, but also to a degree among the peasants who worked far, far less than the typical modern individual under capitalism. To put it another way, the relationship of idle and idyll are important for Adorno, and his subsequent praise of art no doubt corresponds to the necessity of idleness, that is, of time not subordinated to labor, for artistic creation, not to mention the singularity of what is produced, its formal resistance to the value-form no matter how much it may succumb to exchange relations.

The second moment flows from the first, insofar as Vogel puts forward a classically neo-Kantian privileging of practice against theory.  Practice must of course be superior, a point that overlooks that all theory is itself a practice and that no practice is atheoretical, that is, aconceptual.  Vogel, on page 95, attempts distinguish his "solved antinomy" from those like thinking/being or subject/object by claiming a different ontological status for practice, but having conflated labor with practice already, all we have here is the logical conclusion of the treatment of labor as ontologically primary.  Labor takes the place for Vogel which he imagines nature has for Adorno, but whereas for Adorno there is an unresolved tension between Nature and Society, Theory and Practice, an antinomy actually existing in and produced by bourgeois society, Vogel believes he can resolve the antinomy in theory by appeal to its resolution in practice.

The third moment is Vogel's brief, acerbic treatment of Gillian Rose.  In order to put forward his own reading of the Lukacs-Adorno relationship, Vogel takes up Gillian Rose's detailed and nuanced treatment.  In doing so, however, it is not only evident that he bastardizes Adorno, but that he does not, or maybe as a labor fetishist cannot, understand Rose and that he fundamentally misunderstands the status of notions such as concept in classical German philosophy, reading them in a typically empiricist manner.

What makes his mistreatment of Rose and Adorno so awkward in the end is the degree to which Vogel lays out Habermas' textbook neo-Kantianism, while Vogel himself succumbs to the exact critique of Lukacsians Rose makes in her book on Adorno with his adherence to a strict social constructionism vis-a-vis Bruno Latour.  Rose is nothing if not the contemporary critic of neo-Kantianism and of the unspoken commitment of 20th century philosophy to one brand or another of neo-Kantianism which Lukacs only manages to partially surpass by reproducing a Fichtean subjectivism.

Thus the book moves from an engaging and clarifying analysis of the problematics structuring the thought of Lukacs and Habermas to a very poor and frequently just bitter and crotchety non-engagement with Adorno and Rose.  The basis of this is quite simply the twin commitment to a defense of the moral and ontological primacy of labor, and to a Fichtean social constructivism that would overcome the subject-object dilemma of capitalist society by simply deny that there is any object that is not a product of the subject.  As such, Adorno's commitment to the object as a radical political position (Robert Hullot-Kentor has aptly phrased it, "how to make reality break in on the mind that masters it"), and his critique of the fetish of labor, cannot be anything other than an abomination.  However, it is exactly the defense of labor that is an apology for capital, and the Fichtean philosophical position represents the ontology of labor in its most extreme form.  I think this is why in the last chapter an attempt to come up with a radical politics and ethics of ecology seems so incoherent relative to the rest of the book because you cannot square these philosophical aporias with a truly radical politics.


  1. 'Adorno's critique of the fetish of abomination' - how so?

  2. My point is that Vogel sees it as an abomination, explicitly so. I am defending Adorno's critique of labor.