TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Critical Theory and Its Aporias

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, J. F. Dorahy looks at Seyla Benhabib’s “Modernity and the Aporias of Critical Theory,” from Telos 49 (Fall 1981).

The critical theory of the Frankfurt School begins with Max Weber. With this claim I do not mean to suggest that Weber was the first critical theorist—as is well known, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, each of whom wrote before Weber and had enormous influence on the Frankfurt School, are, to a greater or lesser extent, critical theorists. Rather, what this assertion draws attention to is the perspectival significance that Weber’s analysis of modernity holds for not only the first generation of the Frankfurt School—Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse—but also for Habermas. In the last few decades, particularly in the highly influential and groundbreaking work of Axel Honneth, the Weberian diagnosis of modernity has lost its orientating position for critical theory. In its place stands the Hegelian notion of intersubjective recognition; subsequently, the once decisive notions of “rationalization” and “disenchantment” have given way, in contemporary critical theory, to the notions of “paradoxical development” and “disrespect.” Certainly, the socio-historical developments of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries bring into question the project and function of critical theory. So, too, the reflexive nature of the discourse necessitates the re-evaluation of its guiding concepts. Yet, many theorists have expressed significant reservations about the trajectory of contemporary critical theory, a trajectory that, in the words of Nikolas Kompridis, has veered “from reason to self-realization.” Perhaps, then, given the contemporary debate regarding the future directions of critical theory, the time is appropriate to revisit the history of critical theory and examine its variegated responses to the irrationality of modern reason.

Seyla Benhabib’s essay “Modernity and the Aporias of Critical Theory,” published in Telos in 1981, is an authoritative account of the Frankfurt School’s attempt to confront and overcome Weber’s diagnosis of the social pathologies of modernity. Benhabib’s article retains its relevance, not the least due to its decisive and penetrating account of the “self-reflexive paradoxes,” or aporias, which, on her assessment, ultimately vitiate the emancipatory intentions of the respective theories. It is with a summary account of these aporias that I should like to preview and introduce Benhabib’s essay.

In coming to terms with the first of these aporias, it is helpful to unpack what is posited by Benhabib as Adorno and Horkheimer’s collapsing of the phenomena of cultural rationalism and social rationalization. For Weber the processes of social rationalization—which predominantly manifest as the rational organization of labor and the bureaucratization of the political, technological and legal spheres of society—and the development of cultural rationalism—which, in brief, engenders the disenchantment or disanthropomorphization or the world—are distinct though nevertheless interconnected historical tendencies. As a result of these tendencies, Weber characterized the modern epoch as an age that bares witness to the diminution of individual autonomy and the loss of existential meaning at both the individual and collective levels. In collapsing these two tendencies, such that the rationalization of society is conceived of as the necessary expression of reason, Adorno and Horkheimer dissolve the historical contingency of Weber’s analysis. In so doing, they transpose the pathological features of modernity onto the structure of reason itself; the latter of which is marked by its propensity to establish identity between the heterogeneous otherness of the natural world. Thus, Weber’s diagnosis of modernity is transformed into an anthropological and world-historical account of reason’s increasing domination of nature, both within and without. Benhabib concludes:

Here the first aporia of the project of a critical theory of society, as conceived by Adorno and Horkheimer, becomes apparent: If the plight of the Enlightenment and of cultural rationalisation only reveals the culmination of an identity logic, constitutive of reason, then the theory of the dialectic of the enlightenment, which is carried out with the tools of this very same reason, perpetuates the very structure of domination it condemns. The critique of enlightenment is cursed by the same burden as enlightenment itself. (44)

It is, Benhabib argues, in recognition of the aporetic nature of their critique that Adorno and Horkheimer abandon the prospect of immanent social revolution, grounded in the needs, desires and aspirations of oppressed people and posit the messianic function of great works of art. In art the otherness of objectivity sunders the bounds of identity thinking and “evokes” a form of life that lies beyond the discursive possibilities of modernity.

Like Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse assumes an explicitly anti-modern stance grounded in the Weberian diagnosis of modernity as both oppressive and nihilistic. As with Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse posits the reconciliation between the rational, dominating subject and the dominated nature as the only possible avenue for liberation. In Marcuse’s work the psychoanalytic dimensions of the dialectic of enlightenment receive an additional, and according to Benhabib, much needed emphasis. However, Marcuse’s application of Freudian psychoanalysis to explicate the processes via which the rational domination of the natural world is internalized and subsequently manifests as the self-suppression of psychic tendencies and the collective of oppression of fellow human beings, does not escape, but simply reproduces, albeit in a modified form, the aporetic structure inherent in Adorno and Horkheimer. Benhabib formulates the aporia that afflicts Marcuse’s critique of technological civilization thus:

The one-dimensionality of industrial-technological civilization leads the critical theory of society into a self-reflexive paradox: the historical dynamics of the very object of inquiry make obsolete the categories through which this object can be comprehended. . . . With the transition to organized capitalism, with the weakening of the “living bonds between the individual and his culture,” with the disappearance of the bourgeois family, the categories of psychoanalysis reach their cognitive limit. . .  Marcuse cannot preclude the possibility that the socialization patterns of industrial-technological society have advanced so far as to make the very categories of psychoanalysis obsolete. (47)

Simply stated, Benhabib identifies an immanent contradiction between Marcuse’s social-philosophical account of modernity as the “totally administered” society and his use of Freudian concepts to illuminate the processes of ontogenetic development which reproduce the pathological conditions identified by Adorno and Horkheimer that persist at the phylogenetic level. According to Benhabib, Marcuse identified a way out of this impasse in the “redemptive function of memory”: the re-discovery and re-appropriation of the cultural wealth of the species, denied to the individual under the conditions of modernity, is the necessary process through which subject and object can be reconciled and modernity can be transformed. The task of theory is thus to evoke this lost and forsaken heritage. However, this very task of evocation is itself aporetic inasmuch as it is situated within a society that, as per the thesis of one-dimensionality, denies its own historicity:

If, however, the very development of the object of inquiry makes obsolete the categories through which it can be grasped and if, moreover, the subversive potential of the redemptive memory evoked by theory remains outside the historical continuum, then has not critical theory acknowledged the aporia, namely, the conditions of its own impossibility? (48)

Benhabib’s treatment of the first generation of critical theory, which constitutes the first half of the essay, is meticulous, and, particularly in regard to the treatment of Marcuse, dense. As such, it rewards a close and attentive reading. The second half consists of two themes: the first is a critical account of Habermas’s early critical theory; this is followed by an outline of the then future possibilities for critical social theory. Clearly, Benhabib’s understanding of Habermasian critical theory is highly astute. Her study should be seen as crucial for those attempting to come to terms with the history and legacy of German critical theory: the following account is my attempt, within a limited context, to do this study justice.

In contrast to the stance of anti-modernity assumed by the first generation of critical theorists, Habermas seeks the consummation of the “incomplete project of modernity.” According to Benhabib, at the heart of Habermas’s defense of modernity is his commitment to the significant gains—in the spheres of theoretical, practical, and aesthetic reason—that cultural rationalism has brought about. Despite his wide-ranging and theoretically sophisticated revision of both the Weberian diagnosis of modernity and the first generation of critical theory’s pessimistic account of reason in history, Habermas’s delineation of the emancipatory potential of discursive rationality engenders yet another significant aporia. As Benhabib states:

The more the theoretical conditions for the fulfillment of modernity are elaborated in the forms of an evolutionary theory of discursive rationality, the further removed does the prospect on an emancipated society appear, for a counterfactually conceived structure of discursive rationality articulates an emancipatory ideal that cannot guide emancipatory praxis, since it belongs to the concrete life-history of no social subjects, but to the evolutionary potential of the species in general. (54)

The aporetic structure of Habermas’s thought has, if I understand Benhabib correctly, a particularly pressing consequence for critical theory in its Habermasian form. As is well known, the first generation of critical theorists sought to illuminate the failure of revolutionary communism and to account for what appeared as the revolutionary subject’s total integration within the structures of the status quo. Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and others were faced with the socio-political and ideological foreclosure of a potentially revolutionary section of the population, to whom critical theory might be addressed. In contrast, and according to Benhabib’s reading, Habermasian critique theoretically forecloses the possibility of its being directed and addressed to actual social protagonists. The result, however, is the same as was found in the cases of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse: a critical theory of society, which, to a more or less conscious extent, acknowledges its own impossibility. Uncovering and overcoming the aporetic tendency thus appears as a challenge that any prospective critical theory, which hopes to continue the tradition, must meet.

Read the full version of Seyla Benhabib’s “Modernity and the Aporias of Critical Theory” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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