By Rick Elmore
There are few phrases I dislike more than “it is what it is.” It grates me something awful. However, if there is one person that would have hated it more than any of us, it’s T. W. Adorno. In fact, the one redeeming attribute of this phrase is that it perfectly highlights the central stakes of Adorno’s work. I’m not being hyperbolic. If you want to understand what critical theory is all about, one way to explain it is to say that critical theory is a fundamental rejection of “it is what it is” and all that phrase implies. But first things first, let’s revisit the horror of “it is what it is.”
People probably can’t help the occasional recourse to banal tautologies. Phrases like “it is what it is” have a certain sports radio, ‘works in almost any conversation’ kind of appeal. It’s like describing a team as “strong up front” or affirming a statement with “you can’t stop a train.” No one really knows exactly what you mean, but it sounds just concrete enough that everyone goes home happy. Yet, what’s truly pernicious about this phrase and what connects it to Adorno’s work isn’t that it’s tautological or unimaginative, but rather that it is a shorthand way of naturalizing the current state of the world.
When someone says “it is what it is,” what they really mean is that this thing, whatever it may be, is an intractable fact of reality: unchanging and unchangeable. It is what it is. That part of the world cannot be otherwise. It’s necessary, not in the least open to the contingencies of history or desire. You might as well stop thinking about it. “It is what it is” marks the parts of the world that cannot be other than they are, and, in so doing, it implicitly marks the limits of what is worthy of thought. Now as a general rule, I follow the environmental philosopher Karen Warren in thinking that anything one has to take the time to say is “natural” or “necessary” probably isn’t, since if it was, you wouldn‘t need to say so. However, claims to naturalness are also one of the central concerns of Adorno’s work.
Enlightenment, capitalism, fundamental ontology, the culture industry, nature, these are all logics that Adorno argues work on one level or another to make what is historically contingent appear ahistorical and necessary. Thus, the worry over the phrase “it is what it is” is itself the fundamental worry of critical theory. Just take the example of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger (steady…we can do this).
Like the concern for “it is what it is,” Adorno’s critique of Heidegger focuses on the worry that Heidegger’s fundamental ontology ends up naturalizing the world. This naturalization occurs through Heidegger’s notion of the “ontological difference,” that is, the difference between the existence or “being” of any particular thing and the quality or fact of “Being” (with a big B) that all existing things share insofar as they exist. Now this might sound complicated, but it’s actually very common sense. Heidegger is just pointing out that in a world of existing things there is a difference between the existence of any one thing and the quality or characteristic of Existence that all things share insofar as they exist. However for Adorno, Heidegger’s insistence on this strict separation leads him to dark dark places, like naturalizing Nazism for example. So starting from the ontological difference here is how Adorno argues you or Heidegger can naturalize the current political, social, and economic character of your world in five easy steps.
1. Given the strict separation of the ontological difference, you argue that one cannot define Being (the kind that all things share) nor make it into a concept, since any qualifying of Being (giving it a particular characteristic or quality) would violate the ontological difference. It would make what cannot be particular, particular.
2. You state that this unqualifiable notion of Being is essential to all existing things, since without it they wouldn’t exist at all.
3. You contend that since what is essential to all entities is their relation to your unqualifiable notion of Being, all the other particular, material, specific, and historically contingent aspects of these entities must be inessential or accidental, since for these characteristics to be essential (part of your unqualifiable notion of Being), they would have to be essential to the existence of all entities, and they obviously can’t be that.
4. Having made it this far, you go on to argue that your unqualifiable notion of Being, since it is essential to all entities, must be the truest expression of their lived experience, as otherwise it wouldn’t be essential to them in any meaningful way. Hence, it turns out that all those particular, material, specific, and historically contingent aspects of an entity’s existence that we thought were accidental are actually the very expression of their Being in a grand sense.
5. Hence, you conclude that through the logic of the ontological difference, the current aspects of every entity’s existence, the social, political, material, and economic state of their world, is the very expression of Being. The world as it is is the necessary, ontological essence of what it means to exist at all. Or, put another way, you’ve just shown that the world, as it appears right now, is the only world that could have ever appeared. It is what it is. Now whether or not Adorno is right about Heidegger (and I think he is in general), it’s certainly the case that there is nothing more fundamental to the project of critical theory than resisting, at every turn, the notion that the world is what it is.
One of the things for me that remains crucial about critical theory and Adorno’s work in particular is that it reminds us unrelentingly that the logic of claims like “it is what it is” are not only problematic insofar as they naturalize some contingent aspect of the world, but also because they implicitly naturalize the whole framework in which that contingent aspect appears natural. When one says “it is what it is” today, one is not simply stating that whatever one is talking about is natural and necessary, but also that capitalism is necessary and natural, that climate change is unavoidable, that the extinction event we are in the midst of could not have been otherwise, that LeBron really does belong in Cleveland, etc. Adorno reminds us that one of the major impediments to progressive and radical thought, particularly on the environment, is not only the inability to really believe that the world can be different, but also the inability to think through the radical interconnectedness of our material lives. Hence, it’s precisely because the world isn’t what it is, that the world still needs critical theory.