Eric S. Nelson, Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other. New York: State University of New York Press, 2020; 469 pages. ISBN: 978-1438480244.

Reviewed by Emilia Angelova, Concordia University.

Eric S. Nelson’s most recent work is timely, provocative and substantively novel, arguing for a connection between Levinas and Adorno that is seldom made. Adorno affirms “non-identity thinking,” (44, 86) distinguishes it from Hegel’s theory of synthesis, and sets it up as the third term, not to be negated by the complicity between the twin logics of a constitutive idealism of subjectivity and the domination of nature. Levinas affirms the asymmetry of the ethical relation to the Other, distinguishes it from the absorption of the Other to Being in Heidegger, and sets that up as a third term, evading subsumption to the twin logics between the ego of impersonal, anonymous individual being and the ontology of being and the thought of enframing both social totality and nature. Nelson shows that rather than negations, both these third terms, instead ought to be read through teleological suspension, as reversals within the general equivalence of representation and instrumental rationality. (181) All told, this promotes a materialist and a constructivist ethics, primarily aimed at decolonizing the marginalized subject, extending to the nonhuman. (79) The book will become a landmark. It is a labour of love and a critical re-evaluation of modernity, amidst the best of its kind.

The argument posits the relation to the third party as common to both thinkers—Levinas’s word for the Other and “all the others,” (121, 125–128) and Adorno’s word for the prophecy of redemption of “damaged life” (58, 82) and “natural history.” (50, 86) In the actions of appropriation and co-appropriation, as processes of the humanization of the “human,” this relation elaborates exposure to the “senselessness” of suffering. (81) Nelson pays equal attention to both these figures, but it suffices to introduce here through Levinas this relation to the third, a mode of delivering ethical meaning, tied to the constitutive materiality of the “face” of the Other. Ethics is not transcendentally presupposed, prescriptive, and autonomy-oriented; rather, it is indicative of a more radical sociality we belong to. Levinas recalls materiality and need, in the relationality of acts emphasizing the “food, drink, shelter,” and “tenderness” that I offer “to” the other. (82, 97) Materiality has no representation in language; it is a diacritical form, subjecting the I anterior to the will of self-mastery and self-control over my speech. The idea of ethics as responsibility to and for the Other is the paradox of my subjectivity, “after the fact” of the encounter that occurs in the account of realizing the priority of suspending violence against the “stranger” and the “child”—to use two of Levinas’s images. (200) Through their third terms, both Adorno and Levinas appeal to something other than bourgeois codes of morality, a general economy and a political economy, too, of the exchange of goods and pleasure. Both appeal to alterity, as opposed to ideological identity.

Scholars not only in continental philosophy but political philosophy more generally, including graduate students, will find this discussion and explanations lucid and valuable. To begin with, we see the often-neglected claim about the face of the Other revived—that the face is the materiality of the other. This approach takes not a religious but a “rhetorical” language as centre in Levinas. Choosing materiality through the face, as the center around which to unify Adorno and Levinas, is novel—both are thinkers of “other-constituted” (47, 117) intermaterial life and the “evasion” of oppression. Nelson, who was trained in German Idealism, skillfully shows that the two share a common philosophical inheritance. Both receive Hegel through the early Marx’s materialism, the messianic account of time and history, and the alienation of labour. More importantly still, both treat language as filter and the empty symbolic ground of reality, from which emerge all of the individual’s personal and political agendas. To substantiate, Nelson recalls how Hegel engages the legacy of the French Revolution (“freedom toward the object,” 50, 57, 77, 86), and that he claims that culture, the Enlightenment’s battle with Faith, does not exhaust the concept. (58) Rather, for Hegel, metaphysics as a system resorts to ideas such as justice and time, which apply to empirical beings through the symbols of language—over these symbols, neither social institutions nor the individuals in them hold sway. There exists no way of overcoming the schism between the general address of the Other and the singularity of the addressee.

Nelson forges, by affinity with Hegel, the unifying role of thirdness, but not as synthesis—this indebts both Levinas and Adorno to a messianic account of time, tied to the materiality of the face, the address of the other. (255–256) Treating consciousness and its engagement with not simply its inner/outer relation to the object, but also enlarged in its non-relational relation with exteriority, works transversally across disciplines, an “intermaterialism” and an expansive materialism of the weak powers of self-overcoming—regulative concepts and boundaries are dissolved. Nelson brilliantly contrasts this Hegel—as a philosopher of a socially-situated and embodied political modernity, of the actualization of the concept as a self-revising process of rationality becoming being-for-itself—to Kant, who acclaimed Enlightenment as a “perfectionism” (245) of the conditions of possibility, given and delimited by the concepts of pure reason itself. Assessing this contrast from Kant to Hegel pays off exceedingly well for the entirety of this project. (43, 73, 77) The severity of the self-discipline of reason as set in the interiority of a subjectivity, over and against an unchanging being and a thing in itself, leads Kant to value individual autonomy and conscience over heteronomy, and dualism between theoretical and practical reason, where norms, values and idealization are internally set up to disavow facts. The schism in Kant lies with the counterfactual method of producing propositional validity into true judgements, built into the system of reason as debasing “facts” of their value and embodiment in definition. (89)

Nelson helpfully meets halfway these two key twentieth-century figures as critics of modernity, arguing that they are more alike than scholars have assumed. Both offer a modernist critique of political modernity, but both are keenly aware of the epochal gap separating an Enlightenment Kant from a modern Hegel. (315) Exceptionally, the two were contemporaries who did not directly engage each other; certainly, Levinas did not know of Adorno. And yet, both found themselves responding to pressing historical events—the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, for Adorno, and the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust, for Levinas. (316, 320) Both declared opposition to the late capitalist and social totalitarianism twin logics, Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1948, and Levinas to the atrocities of disaster, in Existence and Existents in 1946. Fully relevant to our own current political moment, both found that resistance is possible through writing. And through constructing an ethics of materiality, both sought to counter and respond to the failings and limits of liberalism and neoliberalism. Thinking with both Adorno and Levinas together, as affinitive and complementary in method, the reader will welcome phenomenology and critical social theory, expertly brought to a common ground. This is not a historiographic account of these figures. The reconstruction is more a systematic reading of common threads than an exegetical interpretation. Written in lucid and accessible style, this capacious and forward-looking argument is a successful provocation to a philosophy of history traditionally told of the Western canon.

Nelson is an uncanny reader, for the ways he inhabits diverse schools and thinkers, not limited to the West. The legacy of Levinas in contemporary philosophy has been productively engaged through Derrida’s deconstruction. (195) On the other hand, Adorno’s legacy has been resisted in Habermas and Honneth’s third generation of the Frankfurt school. For Nelson, failure to detect both a positivity and critique (e.g., negativity in the non-identity thinking of nature) in Adorno is akin to the failure to detect the same things in deconstruction, for example in Habermas’s The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. When Nelson structurally decodes the causes of this failure to engage productively Adorno, and by extension Levinas, what becomes apparent is the inability, a crystallization of bad memory, pain, guilt, a hasty foreclosure plaguing contemporary political language, Habermas and Honneth’s models of democracy, “ethics of discourse,” and “freedom’s right,” respectively. (61) In the argument against foreclosure of the symbols of modern institutions and politically structured wholes, the reader will find Adorno’s ethics of non-identity thinking and material others superior. Nelson shows this by singling out Adorno’s perhaps most “revolutionary” (59) volumes of Minima Moralia (239) and Aesthetic Theory. I find this well-executed yet unexpected foundation-level theorizing sound and compelling.  Adorno does not relent in defending the semiotic practices of “music” (68); discourses through his “natural history,” “mimesis,” (61) and “art” (70) defend a more “expansive materialism.” (59–63) For Nelson, key to this critique of language “is the nonidentity between language and the contents and objects it seeks to signify.” (50) Instead of inventing new deontological or deliberative rationality discourse ethics, or even care ethics, we are rather to look behind the tropes of semantic or legalist positivism or originalism, around which the so-called countries of the First World build current ethics of symmetry and reciprocity. “Ethics of the material other,” (94) as Nelson coins the phrase, is felicitous, and in both Adorno and Levinas, the underpinning notion is that of the primacy of the “indirect materialism” and non-phenomenological encounter of the other, where the encounter, far from being the end, is that with which giving an account of subjectivity, as being for the other, begins.

The volume is divided into three major parts, on the general topics of nature, religion, and justice. Readers have a lot to learn from this very legible, systematic and thorough study. The overall critique is directed toward the “pathologies of freedom” (289, 324) as nested into power-autonomy relations of epistemological knowledge of subject and object relations, where normativity rules warrant validity claims of symmetry and reciprocity that represent one power for and to another power—symbolic status is granted to those who can purchase it and excludes those who cannot. The question therefore becomes how to disrupt dominant ideologies of symmetry and to reorient from out of the ethics of the primacy of the asymmetry of the other person. Capitalist value systems of maximization of profit relegate nature to secondary and derivative status. In today’s political moment of various related crises, such as race, class, gender, colonialism, and the capitalist crisis-tendency (60, 211), exposure to acute vulnerability is far from invisible. To address the crisis-tendency, Nelson begins by affirming the methodological priority of “nature”/ “the materiality of the face of the other.” Before we change the world, we ought to change our practices of episteme, and concomitantly re-evaluate the importance of disrupting dominant practices of subordination and cycles of “interhuman subordination.”

While Nelson’s section on nature deftly outlines the ethics of the material other in both Adorno and Levinas, his analysis of religion operates as middle term between nature and justice, substantiating a helpful yet neglected commonality between Levinas and Adorno through Derrida’s messianicity. (174) Nelson defends as interruptive not only Levinas’s ethics, but Adorno’s idea of immanence, the socially-mediated aporetic and non-identity thinking rooted in an immanently interruptive dialectical idea of nature. (239) The work on justice gracefully concludes the book. Nelson demonstrates why normative theory in Habermas and its “anti-naturalism” does not well serve the political stakes of the egalitarian state and democracy. This section outlines why and how the Enlightenment, modernity, and inherent colonialism, racism and white supremacist tendencies, could all benefit from or be mitigated by Adorno’s immanent critique, as well as by Levinas’s priority of the asymmetry of the ethical relation.

Nelson has produced a highly commendable, superb guide and introduction to continental political philosophy of history in a new key.