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Telos 146 (Spring 2009): Critical Theory: New Discussions

Critical Theory developed in response to the specific historical developments of twentieth-century Europe: war and revolution, the transformation of Communism into Stalinism, and the rise of Nazi Germany. Combining the legacy of German philosophical idealism with the tradition of critics of idealism—Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Marx, and Nietzsche—Critical Theory also built on the emergent social theory, especially Weber’s analysis of modernity and his one overriding theme, bureaucratization. For Weber, creative innovations that transform social life and that take shape especially through religious genius as charismatic prophecy succumb to the dead weight of the world: however animating the idea, however compelling the vision, its spirit flags, worn down by the inertia of life. This decline transpires, tragically, as a consequence of the efforts to implement the ideals: first comes the prophecy, then comes its management, which finally snuffs it out. This deadly logic of bureaucratization marks the fate of both capitalism and socialism; it is the institutional form of rationalization. Indeed, modernity faces two alternative threats: the stultifying embrace of bureaucratic rationalization and its opposite, the seductive irrationalism that promises fulfillment but only makes matters worse. The pessimism stereotypically associated with Adorno derives significantly from Weber’s bleak vision, the choice between charismatic dictators and anemic bureaucrats, while reserving a very small and unstable position for an objective thoughtfulness—where reason and values might momentarily coincide.

Charisma and bureaucracy, the constellation under which Critical Theory was born, describes our own historical moment as well. On the one hand: a popular leader radiates personal appeal, apparently still unencumbered by any mundanely identifiable policy positions and, as of this writing, still floating above the clouds of partisan fog. On the other: a historic transformation of the political economy of capitalism is underway, an intrusion of the state into the economy on a scale still too hard to grasp. Nor will we be able to grasp it soon enough, since so little debate is allowed to take place (so much for a “public sphere” of rationality), so little consideration of the numerous measures and their consequences, since the press long ago surrendered its capacity for criticism. True, we do learn of the various personal scandals of the political class and its habit of not paying taxes. Important as this muckraking certainly is, it is a sideshow to the social transformation now taking place, a process that makes Critical Theory all the more relevant as the authoritarian state reemerges.

Weber’s focus on bureaucratization reflected his German context and its particular version of state power. Yet it also belonged to a stage in the social-economic history of capitalism, the transition from nineteenth-century liberalism of independent entrepreneurs to the organized capitalism that intersected with state power and pursued a management of ever greater spheres of life. Critical Theory inherited and developed that account, and, for Telos, reading Critical Theory often involved the recognition that the era of bureaucratization itself appeared to have become historical during the last third of the twentieth century. Watergate led to a challenge to state power from the left, as did Thatcher and Reagan from the right. Neo-liberal ascendancy in the decades of globalization seemed to roll back the state in the West, just as the collapse of the Soviet Union meant reprivatization in the East. As the bureaucratic state receded, despite the resistance of the “new class,” Telos raised questions about what might take its place. Discussions of populism, federalism, tradition, and religion followed in these pages. Today, however, the question we face is whether that moment of deregulation (with all of its economic, social, and cultural consequences) really represented a sea change in social history or whether it was just a brief episode and Weber would be proven right after all, through an inexorable reassertion of the logic of bureaucracy. The State returns.

Weber famously described how the force of rationalization shatters life into several distinct value spheres, ultimately incommensurable arenas of experience, among which we move, without ever achieving integration. We accept this condition as suppleness, or we stumble over its inconsistencies. This issue of Telos looks at aspects of Critical Theory and some cognate traditions across several of these spheres—morality, aesthetics, intellectual life, and religion—in order to understand the limits of the tradition as well as to point out the challenges for its future.

Social critics of all stripes, and not only Critical Theory by any means, claim to be able to call aspects of the existing order into question. To do so assumes some logical basis for that criticism, but that intellectual move can have significant consequences for the consistency and credibility of the criticism. James Gordon Finlayson provides an elaborate and systematic account of the underpinning of Frankfurt School criticism, its problem with norms. As he writes, “No one disputes that Critical Theory has normative aims, but it is harder than it looks to state what these are.” Indeed in many ways first-generation Critical Theorists harbored deep apprehensions about traditional moral criteria, both because of a modernist bias against traditionalism and because customary values seemed helpless in the face of twentieth-century political violence. Hence a turn away from a specifically moral discourse and to psychoanalysis as well as various social-theoretical assertions. Finlayson provides a careful dissection of this problem in the history of Critical Theory and traces how subsequent thinkers, Habermas and Honneth, tried to articulate alternative solutions.

One of the most distinctive features of Frankfurt School neo-Marxism is the shift of attention away from narratives of a revolutionary proletariat to a focus on culture and, especially, the work of art. For Adorno, social criticism has passed from the political movements, viewed as being subsumed by structures of power, and into the realm of art. Through the integrity of hermetic form, the work of art manages to escape the perpetual exchange of market logic. Meanwhile, Benjamin anchors his version of aesthetics in the dynamic of technological transformation. Yet, as Joshua Rayman shows, neither Benjamin nor Horkheimer and Adorno can escape metaphysics, and therefore, on a fundamental level, all run the risk of the same conformism of which they accuse their opponents. Still, Rayman can suggest how Critical Theory might be able to overcome the metaphysical burden it has never fully escaped.

A further hallmark of Critical Theory, especially of Adorno, is the difficulty of his prose, a feature sometimes seen as a corollary to his valorization of hermetic art: always a tough nut to crack. As distinct as Adorno’s writing style may be, the resistance to his challenging texts is indicative of the reception of continental philosophy more broadly. Is it truly more difficult to read than, say, sophisticated analytic philosophy, legal documents, or any other specialized discourse? More likely, resentment derives from the tension between challenging prose and the critical message. Nicholas Joll examines this problem by asking how and why clarity can be a proper expectation of philosophical texts.

Sigrid Weigel provides a welcome guide to a different sort of writing and thinking, Hannah Arendt’s philosophical journals, her Denktagebuch. They present the private side of the increasingly prominent public thinker. Literature, philosophy, and political reflection intertwine. What looms largest, though, is the quality of language as metaphor and its specific relationship to thought, or as Weigel puts it: “the representationality or figurativity of language reflects a fundamental requirement for all thought. The same words can be understood as concepts or metaphors, yet their designation as metaphor reflects the moment of transmission that is always inscribed in them—at least when it is a question of the designation of the invisible. Therefore, metaphors also maintain a closer relationship to truth than do concepts . . .” As metaphor, however, language is poetic, and precisely therefore philosophical, but it is also in metaphor that thought becomes corporeal. Weigel extends this discussion of language into a perspicacious treatment of Arendt’s reflections on love and its disappearance.

A set of three essays leads through a discussion of religion, a topic that has emerged as a no longer secret focus of Critical Theory. Jean-Michel Landry provides an astute account of Michel Foucault’s unpublished 1980 lectures On the Government of the Living. In effect a foundation to the History of Sexuality, the lectures interrogate the origins of Western subjectivity through Christianity and its various disciplinary practices, in particular confession: “By demanding that the Christian speak the truth about himself, he is forced on a quest that can only be undertaken from a position that brings him into subjection—since the relationship of the subject to his own ‘truth’ is mediated by an Other, and this Other requires submission and dependency. Behind confession lies a political technology of obedience.” Foucault treats Christianity as exclusively a mechanism of domination that becomes the foundation of modern structures of political control, even or especially when they come in secular garb. To all this Thomas Lynch presents a robust response. The notion that modern technologies of power derive directly from early Christianity turns out to be difficult to maintain. More importantly, as Lynch shows, Foucault misunderstood the monastic culture in which practices of confession emerged and which, rather than representing abject submission, indicated a “striving for a special excellence” (in Elizabeth Clark’s words). While Lynch concedes that Christianity can participate in structures of domination, it can—drawing on Augustine and other traditions—also provide a source for a critique of domination: “Christianity affirms a notion of the self and its corresponding disciplines that refuses coercive domination and rejects the disciplines of structures that cannot conceive of discipline in any other way.” Aaron Riches concludes the religion discussion, proceeding from an exchange between Carl Schmitt and Jacob Taubes and into an elaboration of the Pauline theology of law and its suspension. Riches argues that the critique of law, directed against both Torah and the imperial Lex, should be reduced neither to an antinomian canceling of law nor to a state of exception. Instead, following Taubes’s lead, he describes an alternative account of law compatible with messianic love.

Three substantial reviews conclude this issue. Ulrich Plass surveys five recent and very different contributions to Adorno scholarship. Lynita K. Newswander carefully uncovers structural tensions in Fredric Jameson’s treatment of utopian literature and science fiction. Finally, Michèle C. Cone discusses Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine’s study of the history of Romanian fascist intellectuals.

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