Negative Dialectics of Nature: From Nature's Death to New Materialisms
Our notions of nature have been severely unsettled in the wake of the environmental crisis of the 1960s. From Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring over the constructivist phase of the 1980s and the recent turn to a new materialism, the ecocritical discourse that has unfolded over the past decades has been shifting between emphasizing material and immaterial aspects of the nonhuman. During the first early wave of the 1960s and 1970s, concrete material considerations dominated, such as the effect of DDT on birds or the limits of ecosystems to adapt to changes. Particularly in the 1980s, this led to a focus on the social constructedness of ‘nature.’ More recently, the ecocritical discourse has been swinging back again, turning against constructivist critiques to recover the materiality of nature against its deconstruction. Relying on Theodor Adorno’s model of negative dialectics, this paper offers to read this shift as a dialectical movement upon the discourse’s object of inquiry. Following the movement then the essay traces a concept of nature, that does not have to reduce its object to either corporeality or incorporeality, but detects it rather as the tension between the two. By keeping the dialectic from coalescing into a synthesis, and by merely unfolding it through confronting the assessments of nature with each other, it becomes possible to keep open the understanding of nature as process. Rather than as a solid entity, such an approach describes nature as a continuous dialectical movement that alternates spontaneously between instances of material manifestation and presence, and immaterial aspects of productivity and change. Thus, a critical concept of nature that hopes to resist human claims of appropriation is recovered for the environmental humanities.
Key words: Adorno, Negative Dialectics, ecocriticism, materiality, nature, epistemology, constructivism