Amy Allen, The End of Progress - Decolonizing the normative foundations of critical theory

On progress: Critical theory and the “decolonial” imperative

I repost below Bruce Robbins’ excellent review of Amy Allen’s very poor book, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016), originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books website. My reasons for titling this post “Critical Theory and the ‘Decolonial’ Imperative” is that Allen clearly thinks decolonization is something that ought to happen (i.e., a moral guideline or maxim that determines practical action). She somehow fails to self-reflexively see the normative foundations of her own critique of critical theory, at least until the very last chapter, as Robbins points out in his review. He is a bit disingenuous, I think, when he remarks at the outset that The End of Progress is a “difficult but rewarding book” — a begrudgingly charitable judgment not borne out by what follows, which thoroughly dismantles Allen’s argument. Nevertheless, her argument deserved to be panned, so I don’t see this as a problem.

Apart from this specific instance of “decolonial” thought, I should perhaps explain my more general objections to the discourse. One of my reasons for being so skeptical is purely aesthetic, a result of my distaste for clunky academic language. “Conversations with Enrique Dussel on Anti-Cartesian Decoloniality & Pluriversal Transmodernity,” a 2015 collection of articles edited by Mohammad Tamdgidi, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Ramón Grosfoguel, provides ample evidence of the jargon employed by theorists of decolonization. The title alone should be enough to discredit it. Beyond this aesthetic disgust, however, a more intellectual objection I’ve always had to decolonial theory is its anachronism and its consequent reliance on metaphor. Great colonial empires are today mostly a thing of the past, the colonizers having been driven out by anti-colonial movements for national liberation or self-determination. In fact, the only real colonies that remain today are arguably Palestine (occupied by Israel) and Tibet (occupied by China). Even then, they’re odd sorts of colonies. Palestine is not directly administered, and Tibet is ruled by a government which claims to be communist.

Whenever decolonial activists go beyond the metaphoric injunction to decolonize — “kill the pilgrim in yr head!” — and insist on its literal meaning, they veer into absurdity. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” proposes to forcibly expel everyone who is not of Amerindian or African descent from the Americas, i.e. Occupied Turtle Island. By that logic, all East Asians, Middle Easterners, and Indians would have to repatriate, to say nothing of individuals who are of mixed descent. Sadly, claims of “indigeneity” can be used to justify the most ridiculous ends. Ryan Bellerose, an indigenous rights activist from Alberta, Canada, advocates on behalf of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland, upholding their native rights. It’s hard to counter this line of reasoning once you accept indigenist premises. Unless one wants to concoct some statute of limitations for Blut und Boden ethnic claims to historic lands, it’s impossible to resolve the issue within the framework of indigenous politics. Fortunately Marxism does not aim to permanently restore territories to any particular group. Individuals should be able to live peaceably wherever they damn well please, irrespective of any “organic connection” to the land.

Paul-KleeProving the impossibility of progress

Bruce Robbins
LA Review of Books
May 13, 2016

REVIEW: Amy Allen, The End of Progress:
the Normative Foundations
of Critical Theory
(January 12, 2016)

Walter Benjamin famously imagined the angel of history, wings spread, propelled backward into the future by an irresistible, all-annihilating wind. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote, the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage on wreckage.” The angel can obviously know nothing of the future, to which his back is turned. All he can know is “the pile of debris before him.” This, Benjamin says, is how we should think of progress.

Within months of composing this scenario, Benjamin was dead, a victim of the Nazis. The manner of his death helped make his beautiful, disillusioned tableau of progress-as-catastrophe one of the best remembered takeaways from the Frankfurt School. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, the Frankfurt School was a brilliant group of German-Jewish Marxo-Freudian analysts of culture who (except for Benjamin) escaped the Holocaust and lived long enough to denounce American consumerism, jazz, and the student movement. Their present-day inheritors, collectively known as critical theory, include thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth in Germany and, in the United States, Seyla Benhabib, Thomas McCarthy, Nancy Fraser, Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, and other luminaries. They and what they made of the concept of progress are the subject of Amy Allen’s difficult but rewarding book, The End of Progress. Allen argues that key members of this generation (the Germans, but for some reason not the Americans) have been too uncritical of progress — much more uncritical than Benjamin or Theodor Adorno or, for that matter, Michel Foucault, whom she drags across the Rhine and conscripts as an ally. Allen exposes, hidden below the philosophical work of Habermas, Honneth, and Rainer Forst, a belief in progress that in her view is fatally Eurocentric, hence unworthy of their high emancipatory project.

Beyond making the charge of Eurocentrism, Allen does not really argue the anti-progress case. She doesn’t compare childhood mortality statistics or the quality of neighborliness, the situation of women or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere now and 100 years ago; the sorts of pros and cons that might come up in a dorm room late at night don’t interest her much. And her indifference to empirical examples is not incidental. The major accusation she levels against the best-known of the critical theorists, Habermas and Honneth, is that although they seem rigorously philosophical, they pay too much attention to facts like these. For Allen’s style of philosophy, any attention is too much attention. Continue reading


On becoming things: An interview with Axel Honneth

Jensen Suther

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

On July 3rd, 2013, at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, Jensen Suther interviewed Axel Honneth, director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and author of numerous books and articles, on behalf of Platypus. Their conversation focused on the problem of “reification,” or the tendency for processes of transformation to appear as, and be treated as if they were, static objects of an immutable nature. Reification was the theme of several writings Honneth delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley in 2005. These lectures are compiled in the book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Jensen Suther: In your 2005 Tanner Lecture series, you argue that Georg Lukács’s Marxist analysis of the problem of reification is problematic, particularly in that he ascribes the overcoming of alienated social relations to the working class. You end the lecture by emphasizing that, pace Lukács, for whom reification is generated by the commodity form, different sets of social practices give rise to reifying behavior and no one group, class, or social movement can be singularly assigned the task of abolishing reified social relations. However, reification has historically been an important concept for the Left. Do you see the critique of reification as necessarily leftist? How, if at all, does your contribution to the discourse on reification relate to the Left?

Axel Honneth: This is a surprising question, one I would not have thought to ask, so my answer comes very much ad hoc. I do not believe that concepts belong to any specific political community or group. The degree to which concepts help us explore something or see something new, they should be taken as an instrument potentially available for everyone in society. So, in that sense, I do not believe that reification is an automatically leftist concept. Moreover, in terms of the history of ideas, I am not even sure that reification is necessarily a concept developed only by leftists. For instance, the French Marxist thinker Lucien Goldmann sought to demonstrate the similarities between the approaches of Lukács and Heidegger. You can find in Heidegger an idea of reification, which already indicates that reification was a concept also utilized by the right, or on the right. There are many problems with Lukács’s analysis. The almost mystical role he assigns the proletariat is only one of them. Even if we grant that his was one of the most fruitful periods in the Left tradition, in the history of Western Marxism, I think that today we can see much more clearly the limits of that analysis and the mistakes bound up with those limits. And, surely, the biggest mistake is not only the emphasis on the world-historical role of the proletariat, but also how this is emphasized, namely by way of a very peculiar set of background ideas, let’s say, about the social structure of reality. Lukács relies on a kind of Fichtean-Hegelian metaphysical concept by which all human society is thought to be grounded in a certain kind of world-constituting activity, and so Lukács thinks that the only class that can overcome reification, which is seen as the destruction of that world-constituting activity, is the class which is representing — even under alienated or distorted conditions — that kind of praxis. Therefore, we have this almost fantastic piece within the whole study, wherein Lukács wants to reveal this one moment of the overcoming of these distorted conditions. For Lukács, this moment looks almost like this one revolutionary act; I mean, you almost get the sense that in one second all these destructive conditions are overcome. It’s a very peculiar analysis — enormously inspiring, but also very strange.

Georg.Lukács seated in the darkness of his library (1913)

Georg Lukács seated in the darkness of his library

JS: You argue in your 2005 lectures that reification does not eliminate non-reified forms of social praxis, but only papers over them, and you claim that this was also Lukács’s position. In other words, you argue that a “genuine form of human existence,” one based on mutual recognition, perseveres beneath reified social relations. Even if this is the case, is it possible to grasp this genuine, underlying social reality, “as it really is”? Or is it rather the case, as Theodor Adorno suggests, that misrecognition is constitutive of our social condition? And what of Lukács’s claim that the commodity form not only generates reification, but also produces consciousness?

AH: That strikes me as an epistemological question, or probably better still an ontological question: If we grant the condition that reification is constitutive of our society, how could we ever attain a less distorted, or “undisturbed,” form of praxis? If we are to avoid contradicting ourselves, we can only hold out hope for this better form of praxis if we also believe that there must always already be an element of the better, undisturbed form of praxis in our already existing society. This is a difficult issue in Lukács. One way to understand him is to say that all praxis in the present moment of capitalist society is completely reified. But then you have this problem of how one has access to any sense that an undistorted form of praxis is possible. In Adorno it is trickier still. Even when Adorno is saying that reification is constitutive, he believes that there are still alternatives, or signs of another form of praxis. Be it in art, the artwork, or be it in small examples of everyday practices — there are, he claims, elements of an undistorted practice. So in Adorno you have this idea of the immanent appearance of an undistorted praxis, whereas Lukács is much more radical in his claim that reification is total. But this makes it much more difficult for Lukács to think the revolution, or think social change. Thus for Lukács it has to be this completely eschatological transformation, a complete reversal. With respect to this question I think Adorno is more open.[1] Continue reading