Adorno and the Weather

Critical Theory in an Era of Climate Change

RP 174 () / Article

In Beckett’s Endgame – about which Adorno wrote an important essay – nature is in ruins (‘corpsed’, as Clov describes it), yet the weather is still important.* The pathetic story that Hamm tells (and he has to bribe Nagg to listen) about a man crawling to him on his belly to ask for help on one Christmas Eve is punctuated by incongruously precise weather reports. The day was cold: ‘zero by the thermometer’; sunny, ‘fifty by the heliometer’; windy, ‘a hundred by the anemometer’; dry, ‘zero by the hydrometer’ – as if the only question we could ask come doomsday were: How is the weather?1 The weather may well be the last bastion of myth today, in so far as it is seen to be beyond our control, of concern to us all, and seemingly apolitical – hence a safe subject for dinner conversation. This view of the weather is clearly mythic, in that it serves to remind us of our impotence as individuals, and opens the way to a greater tolerance for state control and intervention, particularly when the state is allied with knowledge and know-how, with Hamm’s heliometers and hydrometers. One egregious example: when important foreign dignitaries visit Beijing the Chinese authorities shoot rockets at the clouds to induce thunderstorms that will clean up the polluted atmosphere, to show that the state can control even the weather. However, such a means of control is doublesided. As has been pointed out many times, it is the indiscriminate use of science and technology in the industrial process by capitalist and socialist countries alike that started a series of events that has led to major changes in weather patterns, the most disastrous of which is the impending catastrophe of global warming facing us today.

What is currently happening to the weather can be taken as one example of the dialectic of Enlightenment, features of which include: reason reduced to instrumental reason; the overcoming of domination by nature becoming a domination of nature; hence, progress-asregress. Moving from nature to culture, Horkheimer and Adorno see the dialectic of progress-as-regress exemplified nowhere so clearly as in the appropriation of culture by the culture industry. In a later essay, Adorno usefully points out that culture industry is not synonymous with ‘mass culture’ or ‘folk culture’, which emerges from below; rather, culture industry is administered from above, by the entertainment or educational industries.2 It is manipulated culture whose overall goal is control and domination. Nietzsche had already presaged much of this in The Birth of Tragedy in the notion of Greek decadence not as decline, but as one-sided development.

These familiar arguments are bold, but also rather bald, giving us what might be called the dialectic of Enlightenment in its crude form. Its tenets can be made more precise – and also more paradoxical – only when Adorno reflects on the question of critique itself, questioning its effectiveness, durability and even its very possibility. This would mean, as I shall try to show, subjecting any critique, even dialectic of Enlightenment as critique, to further interrogation, instead of propagating it as truth. It is here that the weather is again a useful figure. It can serve not only as an instance of the dialectic of Enlightenment, but also as a challenge to critique. Let us return to the weather with this in mind and ask how the catastrophe of global warming has been critiqued.

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* This is the text of a talk to the workshop ‘Transdisciplinary Texts: Dialectic of Enlightenment and A Thousand Plateaus’, held at the French Institute, London, 22– 23 March 2012, organized by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP), Kingston University London, as part of the AHRC-funded project Transdisciplinarity and the Humanities, with additional support from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.