A Journal of No Illusions: Telos, Paul Piccone, and the Americanization of Critical Theory is now available from Telos Press. Maxwell Woods talked with contributor Robert Antonio about the influence of Paul Piccone and Telos on his intellectual development.
Maxwell Woods: In your article “Absolutizing Particularity,” you discuss Telos and Paul Piccone’s critique of liberalism. How do you view this article today? How did this piece fit into your intellectual world when you wrote it?
Robert Antonio: Every or nearly every participant at Telos and, probably, most of its serious readers have had serious objections, fears, or dissatisfaction with liberalism as we have known it from the start. However, there have always been different liberalisms, and, as Paul stressed, divergent positions toward them among the Telos circle and readership. When I started reading the journal, “social liberalism” (Keynsianism and the welfare state) was the dominant capitalist regime, but already riven with contradictions and in decay. Many of us split with the journal when “market liberalism,” or neoliberalism, was in ascendance and took different positions toward it. I rejected the Schmittian and populist turn and return to tradition and had more affirmative views about key facets of liberal political and legal institutions, civil society, and social liberalism. However, I don’t believe that liberalism and capitalism as we have known them are sustainable. We have a huge environmental wall ahead and fundamental problems with capitalism’s growth imperative, and we also face multiple deep crises related to finance, real economy joblessness, and inequality. I have always disagreed with Paul’s exhaustion thesis about the liberal-left, but I fear that the consequent crises are upon us and the political culture is not responding; there is a profound lack of political vision and political will. We are in trouble, but not in exactly the way that Paul expected. The crisis and future of liberalism and capitalism is for me the most central issue for social theory and politics today. Thus, I try to follow divergent views about this issue.
Woods: How has Telos fit into your own intellectual life? What has “Critical Theory” meant for you, and how has Telos shaped this definition?
Antonio: Writing this piece stirred thoughts about my own intellectual development and biography, even though this theme may not be that apparent in my piece. When I agreed to write it, I expected to do something less formal, shorter, and from memory. However, I had saved so many of Paul’s Telos communications and letters that I did something more. I also looked through my issues of the journal all the way back to the early 1970s and looked at my scribbling in the margins and notes. All of this brought back a flood of memories and, of course, made me think about my current path in light of my past. Telos of the ’70s, and especially the later ’70s and early ’80s (the journal and the people), had a formative impact on my thinking and teaching—not merely the things that I learned and embraced but also the oppositions. Unlike many who left the journal, I continued to read it after my departure. I wish I had a succinct and clear definition of how I am situated in the Critical Theory tradition, but the exact location escapes me. Many of us from this era had roots in Hegel and Marx, and that likely still remains important to many of us, no matter how far we drifted substantively from the original theories. Like Paul, I also engaged Husserl and phenomenology when I was young, and Dewey later on. Overall, I think that our more radically historicized immanent criticism allowed diverse fusions and contradictory directions, but in ways that still interrogated the existent liberal democratic regimes, sought something more, and, ironically, inspired us to charge the other with being unhistorical (a chief theme of my back and forth communications with Paul).
Woods: Did you interact with any personalities in Telos? You discuss Paul Piccone’s theory thoroughly in your article. Did this arise from personal contact with the editor of Telos?
Antonio: Yes, I met many of the ’70s and early ’80s Telosers who participated more centrally on the journal and contributed much more to it than I did. Many likely do not remember me, but they impacted my thought and I have vivid memories of them. Some of the people visited Kansas, as David Dickens discusses in his piece. But myself and several other people in the Kansas Telos group participated in several of the big gatherings of the circle from the mid-’70s to 1980 or so. Paul also visited Lawrence several times. I probably knew Paul better than any of the other regular (non-Kansan) participants in the group. I did not have the day-to-day interaction and close relationship with him shared by long-term, regular participants in the circle and by his intellectual and political fellow travelers. However, I visited with Paul a good number of times from the mid-’70s through the early ’80s, and we communicated and argued via letter, phone, and e-mail sporadically for a much longer time. He hoped I would return to the journal after I departed. We had a friendly relationship, partly due to some common cultural background—Paul’s bluster, loyalty, stubbornness, and other all too human qualities were familiar in larger than life older members in my family and old neighborhood. I was in the household of his family in Toronto—could have been my family. I never took offense at his harsh words, loudly delivered. I had heard them all before, at the same pitch, from my family and old friends. Though I disagreed and fought with Paul, I always had affection and respect for him. He had an amazing sense of new ideas coming on the scene and a creative, forceful, protean intellect. Social theory was Paul’s vocation—he lived it and pursued it tirelessly at almost any cost until his ending. His seriousness—that he was not playing a game—is what I admired most about him.
Woods: At the end of the article, you say, “One can disagree with his [Paul Piccone’s] direction, but concur about the need to address the current regime’s mounting crises (i.e., cultural, economic, environmental) and rethink it.” How has this discussion about the crises of liberalism affected your own personal intellectual outlook?
Antonio: I originally came to Critical Theory by reading Telos and interacting with other readers of the journal and participants in the circle and former participants. The experience of Telos and its consequent residue is an important root of my development. For better or worse, it’s part of me. I believe that the differences I had with Paul and with others, who shared his view in the mid-80s and after, somehow arise from a common root—though opposed, we have different vantage points and divergent normative visions about the same crises of liberalism and capitalism and hopes about a route beyond the current scene that is still hard to envision.