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Telos 137: The Limits of Modernity

The promises of modernity have always been problematic. The aspiration to draw a neat line between a rosy present and a benighted past, the paradigmatic modern historiography, never adequately gauged the force of tradition. The cultural legacy of the past can be heavy with inertia, but it can also draw on an organic vibrancy that can intrude abruptly into the up-to-date illusions of reason. What modern thought derides as old-fashioned just refuses to disappear—not because modernity has been too weak to expunge it (for it has surely tried hard to do so), but because modernity elicits its opposite, calls it forth, creates its own monsters, and then wonders why they won’t go away.

The creatures at the limits of modernity are multifold: the gripping power of religion that, as if to shame the arrogance of secularism, has returned with a vengeance to the world-political center-stage of the twenty-first century; the material life of the body, which resists the late-enlightenment project to repress subjective desire by repackaging it as performativity; and the various dreams of the past, nature, and community, which refuse to succumb to the managerial utopias of the new class of social engineers. When the project of modernity declines into bureaucracy—the last ditch effort to manage a world that will not be managed—its opponents appear, sometimes plausible, sometimes grotesque, an array of desires and fantasies that frustrate the well-laid plans of the good people in power.

The last two issues of Telos largely concerned historical phenomena, the formations of totalitarianism on the left and on the right, especially as they played out in Germany under the Nazis and then the Communists. Part of the interest was strictly historical, but of course the question of totalitarianism has suddenly returned in the efforts to understand the dynamics of illiberalism and anti-modernity that are sweeping the world. In 1989, it seemed that dictatorships were crumbling and the spirit of liberty was irresistible. Today, Russia may be veering back into a neo-repressive regime, and the enigma of North Korea becomes ever more threatening, but the overriding question on the darkened political horizon remains the anti-westernism of the forces controversially labeled “Islamo-fascist.” An extensive discussion of the term has taken place on the Telos website,, and we will come to discuss it in these pages as well, but this current issue approaches modernity and its limits through explorations of crucial theoretical and historical formations that underpin the lability we see playing out before our eyes.

John Wells’s account of Adorno and Augustine highlights the obsolescence of any primarily historicist treatment of modernity, the sorts of claims that define a modern period as beginning at such and such a date and thoroughly separate it from the earlier experience of an allegedly distant antiquity. That sort of reified periodization has contributed to a repression of the past, with considerable damage to our experience of tradition. Wells takes seriously the familiar claims of a theological content in Critical Theory and presents a systematic account of the homologous arguments in these two thinkers. Nor should this be surprising. Adorno is associated with nothing more than the critique of enlightenment (which is why, ultimately, Habermas ran away from him), and the standard foil to enlightenment is religion. Yet the dialectical plot quickly thickens, insofar as theology itself turns into an incarnation of enlightenment. For Wells, especially the Augustine of The Confessions participates in a conversation with Adorno, both trying to describe the viability of a subjectivity threatened on the one hand by an empty idealism, including Platonism and its heirs, and on the other by the traps of materialism, ancient and modern. The Christian imaginary received little attention in classical Critical Theory (despite Dante’s cameo appearance in Lukács’s Theory of the Novel). Wells’s essay is an important step to explore this limit of modernity.

Julia Rothenberg also reads Adorno into an unexpected terrain, feminist performance art. She productively redirects aspects of his aesthetic theory, moving it away from his own limited modern canon, to recent work, especially by Hannah Wilke, in whose “body/material” Rothenberg analyzes dynamics akin to the material aesthetics familiar from Beckett, Kafka, and Schoenberg, including the utopianism and “the possibility of pleasure experienced through love, eroticism, and intersubjectivity.” At precisely this point, however, Rothenberg turns Adornian utopianism against the performativity theory of Judith Butler, who figures, de facto, as the counterrevolution in feminism. Instead of the “[h]umanist versions of agency and politics [that] assume that actors confront an external political field on which they can act to change the conditions of their existence, . . . Butler concludes [that] actors have no access to political possibilities outside of the discursive terms that constitute both the subject and the political field.” Hence a retreat from the utopianism, which Rothenberg discovers in Wilke’s work.

Rothenberg’s critique of Butler sheds light on the emergence of a growing discrepancy between, on the one hand, those elements of the left (including the feminism of Rothenberg’s essay) that understood themselves as carriers of an emancipatory content and, on the other, the representatives of a (largely academic) left “anti-humanism,” who reject models of subjectivity and emancipation and then take the next logical step of celebrating regimes of political repression. The anti-humanist Foucault applauded the Khomeinist revolution in Iran (regardless of the violence it directed against the left, its mistreatment of women, and its persecution of gays) in much the way that Butler now reportedly embraces Hezbollah as “part of a global left.” [1] Presumably her point was not that Hezbollah has rediscovered the repressive potential inherent in the historical left (as misogynist as the left has been and therefore a component part), but that her anti-humanism enables her to repress a discussion of the repression. When Nasrallah takes over Beirut, there won’t be much room left for feminist art.

This anti-humanist love affair with repressive regimes has a longer intellectual history: Sartre and Communism, Heidegger and Nazism. Contemporary anti-humanism is unthinkable without the legacy of French poststructuralism. Richard Beardsworth examines this moment of French thought, its philosophical structures, and its own failings in addressing the limits of modernity. If we speak today of the end of theory, what we mean, ultimately, is the obsolescence of the theoretical gesture of Paris and its institutionalized afterlife in American universities. Beardsworth presents an overview of that moment. Its legitimacy, he argues, involved its interrogation of the insufficiency of a rationalism that could not account for the elements of excess and surplus that push against and surpass arbitrary limits of order. Moreover, he effectively argues that this analysis of excess anticipates the resurgence of religion at the end of the twentieth century, the critique of enlightenment put into practice. Yet in the end, Beardsworth falls back onto an optimism that an appropriate universalism, replete with reciprocity and procedures, could address and correct the material conditions of suffering that generate religious anti-modernism—as if the correction to modernity were simply an even greater quantity of modernity.

Arthur Versluis provides an extensive survey of antimodernism, an intellectual historical terrain that stretches from the Unabomber to Islamism, from Catholic conservatives to the Earth Liberation Front. While he predicts a potential alliance of conservative and ecological forces (“black-green,” in European parlance), it is above all the phenomenon of religious antimodernism that he emphasizes. Drawing especially on examples from American cultural history, he identifies a capacity for a “great affirmation” of “enduring values that make life meaningful: an affirmation based upon love—love of the divine, love of one’s neighbor, love of nature. All of the most lasting antimodernist socio-cultural experimental communities in American history had a religious center, from the eighteenth-century Pennsylvania community of Ephrata to the nineteenth-century Harmony Society of George Rapp to Amish settlements and even to the twentieth-century hippie farm communes in Tennessee and elsewhere.” Despite the wealth of this catalogue, Tim Luke’s response introduces some questions and calls for differentiation: all antimodernists are not the same, and their politics are complex and often abstruse. The likelihood of antimodern coalition politics may be less than Versluis estimates. Yet the oppositional gesture may emerge from even deeper strata: not just opposition to industrialism or alienation but a function of politics as such. As Zoltán Balázs systematically argues, politics is hardly a matter of perpetual discussion. It constitutively requires the category of a greatness, a capacity to surpass the everyday and break through the routinized immanence of existence. If “modern” implies a temporality of the up-to-date that rejects irrationality and asserts its own self-setting normalcy, an effective politics may depend on a moment of antimodernity: surpassing the merely given in order to pursue a telos that by definition does not emerge directly from everyday experience. In this account, the antimodern imagination is less a reformist gesture directed against particular flaws than a core potential of any effective political community.

Two notes echo key themes in this issue. John Zerzan demonstrates the continued tenacity of contemporary anarchist civilization criticism. The demands of order and productivism pervade the social regime, whether on the right or on the left: one of Zerzan’s most striking points is the suggestion that left anti-imperialism (especially in Latin America) is as implicated in the developmentalist, modernizing agenda as is neo-liberalism. He tries to identify a position altogether outside of that nexus. Vernaccia’s obituary for Oriana Fallaci returns us to the cultural struggles in contemporary Europe, the questions about the viability of national and religious traditions, the implications of immigration for a modern self-consciousness, and the open wounds at the borders between secular Christian modernity and aspects of the Muslim world. Two reviews also navigate the complexities of modernism and antimodernism. Aviezer Tucker examines Barbara Falk’s discussion of Central European dissidence against Soviet totalitarianism—who were the moderns in this drama: the dissidents with their “humanist” voices of opposition, or the Communists and their pursuit of the “new man”? And Christian Sieg, similarly, looks at Peter Jelavich’s account of culture at the end of the Weimar Republic, the paradigmatic history of the collapse of democracy: a morose but timely note as the late twentieth-century wave of democratization appears to have reached its limits and found fierce opposition.

Click here to purchase TELOS 137: The Limits of Modernity.


1. Judith Butler, speaking at the Berkeley Teach-In Against the War, September 17, 2006, video available online at Butler’s comment came during the question-and-answer session.

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