Saving Mediation: The Topicality of Max Horkheimer’s Post-liberal Concept of the Political

If we want to gain a deeper understanding of the specific relationship between the ethical and the political in current times, we have to talk about the mediating agencies that enable this relationship. And if what the announcement for the Telos Conference 2016 in New York states were really true, namely, that at “the theoretical level, political reality has come to be seen as divorced from ethical life,” we need to ask: what has happened to these mediating agencies? That is exactly what the German philosopher Max Horkheimer was doing with his racket theory. He never explicitly referenced the “ethical” as a philosophical category. Yet he was able to show that in post-liberal societies, the social instances that made the relationship between the political and the ethical possible in the first place, are being destroyed—or they are at least tending towards a loss of their reflexive function. For Horkheimer this is at the core of what he called the racket society: that ultimately, every reference to universality and to society, or in German to the Allgemeinheit, is lost.

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The Contradictions of Power

In November 1939, gangs of German civilians and Nazi operatives stormed Jewish stores, synagogues, and homes, killing or arresting those who could not escape. The Nazi leadership had carefully planned the assault—Kristallnacht would become only one among many instances of unimaginable horror. In the coming years, the Nazis proceeded to murder thousands of disabled Germans; when Germany invaded Russia, groups of special units—known as Einsatzgruppen—followed closely behind the German army, liquidating Jews, Communists, and Roma.[1] By 1942, the Nazi death camps had initiated yet another gruesome and terrifying phase of the Reich’s program of anti-Semitism and racial purity.[2]

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The Vigilant Jew as an Annoyance: How Hamid Dabashi Misreads Adorno

An article by Hamid Dabashi recently appeared in the online version of the English-language edition of Al Jazeera. Dabashi teaches Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where the exiled Frankfurt School thinkers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno found refuge during the period of National Socialism. Dabashi quotes Adorno’s 1949 thesis that it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz and asks what it really means: “How could writing poetry after a calamity such as Auschwitz, and by extension a horror like the Holocaust, be something barbaric? Doesn’t poetry console in moments of mourning and despair?”

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Feminist Performance Art and Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory

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, Carlos Kong looks at Julia Rothenberg’s “Form, Utopia, and Feminist Performance Art: Toward a Rehabilitation of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory” from Telos 137 (Winter 2006).

In “Form, Utopia, and Feminist Performance Art: Toward a Rehabilitation of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory,” Julia Rothenberg attempts a recovery of Adorno’s aesthetic theory through an unconventional application of its utopian hermeneutic gestures to feminist performance art of the 1970s. Reading beyond popularized characterizations of Adorno’s pessimism, his apoliticism, his privileging of high modernism, and his negativistic theorizations of culture under late capitalism, Rothenberg suggests that overlooked, utopian elements of Adorno’s critiques of Enlightenment and commodified exchange practices both prefigure and are revived by feminist performance art. Rothenberg’s focus on Adorno’s disavowal of instrumental reason and his turn to art as counter-dialectic to the dominating potential of knowledge accrues a new politicized relevance when reread in relation to feminist performance practices. Thus, a rehabilitation of Adorno’s critical utopianism, as Rothenberg ultimately maintains, further invokes the possibility of political praxis and social transformation when expressively performed in the body of the subjected.

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On Modernity and the Autonomous Individual

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 Joel Whitebook’s “Saving the Subject: Modernity and the Problem of the Autonomous Individual,” from Telos 50 (Winter 1981).

Autonomy is, arguably, the most fundamental concept in the discursive constellation of modernity. If it is apposite, and I believe it is, to think in terms of the differentiation between political, socio-economic, and cultural modernities, then it is clear that the concept of autonomy—either with reference to the autonomous individual or the autonomous work of art—is a constitutive force within each sphere. In “Saving the Subject: Modernity and the Problem of the Autonomous Individual,” Joel Whitebook offers a historically nuanced overview of the difficulties involved in thinking the “autonomous individual” under the conditions of a dynamic and increasingly complex modernity. Whitebook’s piece is wide-ranging and fuses a deep psychoanalytic insight with a robust sociological consciousness: a fusion that accompanies, to my mind, the best critical theory. To be sure, the many subtleties and divergences that emerge from Whitebook’s dialectic are resistant to a full reconstruction within this preview. Rather, I would like to simplify Whitebook’s account by drawing out the three historical epochs examined by Whitebook and say a few things regarding the key aspects of Whitebook’s reading of Marx and Freud and Adorno and Habermas as thinkers who most significantly appreciate the problematic nature of the modern, autonomous individual. Finally, I conclude by arguing for the innovative character of Whitebook’s thoughts regarding the centrality of affective relationships in the formation of the autonomous individual.

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