Race and the Enlightenment

I wrote a preamble to this piece relating it to a recent debate over postmodernism and Enlightenment. Since it got a bit overlong, I decided to repost as a standalone entry. But you can still read Goldner’s excellent essay on “Race and the Enlightenment” below.

Race and the Enlightenment

Loren Goldner
Race Traitor
August 1997

Part one
Pre-En­light­en­ment phase: Spain, Jews, and In­di­ans1

It is not of­ten re­cog­nized that, pri­or to the sev­en­teenth and eight­eenth cen­tur­ies, the peri­od which West­ern his­tory calls the En­light­en­ment, the concept of race did not ex­ist.

It is still less of­ten re­cog­nized that the ori­gin of the concept of race, in the last quarter of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, in very spe­cif­ic so­cial cir­cum­stances, was pre­ceded by cen­tur­ies of a very dif­fer­ent vis­ion of Afric­ans2 and New World In­di­ans, which had to be erad­ic­ated be­fore the concept of race could be in­ven­ted, ex­press­ing a new so­cial prac­tice in new so­cial re­la­tions.

In the cur­rent cli­mate, in which the En­light­en­ment is un­der at­tack from many spe­cious view­points, it is im­port­ant to make it clear from the out­set that the thes­is of this art­icle is em­phat­ic­ally not that the En­light­en­ment was “ra­cist,” still less that it has valid­ity only for “white European males.” It is rather that the concept of race was not ac­ci­dent­ally born sim­ul­tan­eously with the En­light­en­ment, and that the En­light­en­ment’s “on­to­logy,” rooted in the new sci­ence of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, cre­ated a vis­ion of hu­man be­ings in nature which in­ad­vert­ently provided weapons to a new race-based ideo­logy which would have been im­possible without the En­light­en­ment. Pri­or to the En­light­en­ment, Europeans gen­er­ally di­vided the known world between Chris­ti­ans, Jews, Muslims, and “hea­thens”;3 be­gin­ning around the 1670s, they began to speak of race, and col­or-coded hier­arch­ies of races.

What was this al­tern­at­ive “epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al grid” through which, pri­or to the 1670s, the West en­countered the “Oth­er”?

Continue reading

Once again on the term “identitarian”

An­gela Mitro­poulos, an Aus­trali­an aca­dem­ic and au­thor of Con­tract and Con­ta­gion: From Bi­opol­it­ics to Oiko­nomia, re­cently pos­ted a note on her blog about the ori­gins of the term “iden­tit­ari­an­ism.” This is something that’s come up at dif­fer­ent points in de­bates over the past few years, in­clud­ing the con­tro­versy sparked by the late Mark Fish­er’s art­icle “Ex­it­ing the Vam­pire Castle,” so I thought it might be ger­mane to treat the is­sue at great­er length. Mitro­poulos dir­ectly in­ter­vened in that de­bate against Fish­er, moreover, so it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to en­gage with her at that level as well.

“Iden­tit­ari­an­ism” is an un­for­tu­nate word, for sev­er­al reas­ons. First of all, it’s an awk­ward and off-put­ting con­struc­tion. Ugly neo­lo­gisms — phrases like “pluriver­sal trans­mod­ern­ity,” “phal­lo­go­centric on­to­theo­logy,” “de­co­lo­ni­al epi­stem­o­logy,” etc. — are these days sadly all too com­mon. Second, it’s a poly­semous ex­pres­sion, sig­ni­fy­ing more than one thing. Of­ten it refers to things which are not just dis­tinct from one an­oth­er but even op­pos­ite in mean­ing, a prob­lem I’ve writ­ten about be­fore. Lastly, it has both pos­it­ive and neg­at­ive con­nota­tions de­pend­ing on what’s meant and who’s us­ing it.

Hope­fully, this will be­come clear in what fol­lows. Re­turn­ing to Mitro­poulos’ entry, men­tioned at the out­set, we find:

Ad­orno coined the term “iden­tit­ari­an­ism” in Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics (1966), promp­ted by cri­tique of Kan­tian and Hegel­i­an philo­sophies.

The ar­gu­ment, very briefly, goes something like this: Like Hegel, Ad­orno re­jec­ted the man­ner of Kant’s dis­tinc­tion between nou­men­al and phe­nom­en­al forms. Put simply, Ad­orno gran­ted Hegel’s claim con­cern­ing the his­tor­ic­ally- and con­cep­tu­ally-gen­er­at­ive qual­it­ies of non-cor­res­pond­ence, but wanted to press Marx’s cri­tique of philo­soph­ic­al ideal­ism fur­ther against Hegel­i­an Marx­ism. Ad­orno re­mains a dia­lec­tician. But, un­like Hegel and more like Marx, he es­chewed the af­firm­at­ive, syn­thet­ic moves of con­scious­ness (i.e., philo­soph­ic­al ideal­ism) and ac­cor­ded epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al-his­tor­ic­al pri­or­ity to the ob­ject (mat­ter, ma­ter­i­al­ism) rather than the sub­ject (ideal­ism) in ex­plain­ing the course of this gen­er­at­ive, non-cor­res­pond­ence (or non-iden­tity). Iden­tit­ari­an­ism and the ideal­ist philo­sophies of Kant and Hegel are thereby con­tras­ted to a ma­ter­i­al­ist philo­sophy of non-cor­res­pond­ence, or what Ad­orno calls “neg­at­ive dia­lectics.”

How it happened that “iden­tit­ari­an­ism” came to be plaus­ibly used as a syn­onym for “iden­tity polit­ics” — or, more ac­cur­ately, co-op­ted by arch-iden­tit­ari­an Hegel­i­an Marx­ists against any em­phas­is on race, gender and/or sexu­al­ity, and in their de­fense of more or less ex­pli­cit ar­gu­ments that class is the a pri­ori or primary cat­egor­ic­al di­vi­sion of sub­stance — is a mys­tery to me.

Mitro­poulos dis­tin­guishes, in oth­er words, between the ho­mo­gen­eity as­ser­ted by lo­gic­al op­er­a­tions of equi­val­ence or iden­tity, which de­clare un­like things (A & B) to be alike (A = B), and the het­ero­gen­eity as­ser­ted by vari­ous iden­tity groups with com­pet­ing sec­tion­al in­terests, which de­clare them­selves dif­fer­ent from everything else. She in­dic­ates, quite cor­rectly, that the former was cri­ti­cized by Ad­orno in the six­ties, where­as the lat­ter has been cri­ti­cized by fig­ures like Ad­olph Reed, Wal­ter Benn Mi­chaels, Nancy Fraser, and Mark Fish­er over the last fif­teen or so years. Continue reading

Nikolai Bukharin on the criterion of practice in epistemology

Below appears an excellent chapter from Nikolai Bukharin’s book, unpublished in his lifetime, Philosophical Arabesques (1937-1938). The whole collection is really quite good, but this portion on epistemology is particularly superlative. Lately I’ve been reading up on Marxism and the problem of truth: the way it involves the relation of subject to object, as well as theory to practice. I have to admit, Bukharin’s competence in treating difficult questions of philosophy surprised me a little. Not just because I’d read his short 1921 textbook on Historical Materialism — which, while insightful at times, is on the whole very mediocre — but because of Lenin’s low estimation of Bukharin as a philosopher. Shortly before his death, the Bolshevik leader recorded in his “Testament” that

Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party. His theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, however, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics and, I think, never fully understood it).

Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, whose studies of the philosophical legacy in Marx’s thought remain unparalleled, took Bukharin to task for this theoretical deficit. “For one faction (typified by Bukharin’s book The Theory of Historical Materialism),” wrote the former, “the whole of ‘philosophy’ has fundamentally already reached a point that in reality it was to reach only in the second phase of Communist society after the full victory of the pro­letarian revolution, viz. the transcended standpoint of an unenlightened past.” Lukács wrote that “Bukharin attributes to technology a far too determinant position, which completely misses the spirit of dialectical materialism.”

At first, Bukharin sided with the “mechanist” faction of communist interpreters of Marx. Other notable adherents included Abram Deborin and László Rudas, bêtes noires of both Korsch and Lukács, who admonished them for their Hegelianism. This sensibility was rather in line with Bukharin’s training as an economist and his enthusiasm for the natural sciences. During the 1930s, though, he made a renewed study of German classical philosophy. Following his imprisonment in 1937 at the hand of his onetime ally Stalin, Bukharin finally got around to writing a treatise on philosophy. He was adamant that it be published, whatever his fate:

The most important thing is that the philosophical work not be lost. I worked on it for a long time and put a great deal into it; it is a very mature work in comparison to my earlier writings, and, in contrast to them, dialectical from beginning to end.

Unsurprisingly, his wishes were not honored. These manuscripts only surfaced after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. You can download the translation by clicking on the link above or read the chapter on practice below the photographs underneath. Additional works by Bukharin are available here as well:

Practice in general and the place of practice in the theory of knowledge

Nikolai Bukharin
Philosophical Arabesques
September 1937

Earlier, we dealt with the naïve claim of the agnostics to be reasoning on the basis of their sense perceptions alone, and thus to be able to demonstrate the unreality or incognizability of the external world.

This claim proved to be baseless and comic. From this we may conclude that any philosophical reasoning, since it operates with concepts, which are a social product, the product of thousands of years of mental work, must because of this very fact operate on the broad basis of all the achievements of science, leaving behind all the fuss and bother of foolish subjectivists.

Science, however, tells us that in historical terms, the starting point was the active, practical relationship between humanity and nature. Not contemplation, and not theory, but practice; not passive perception, but action. In this sense Goethe’s dictum “In the beginning was the deed,” when counterposed to the evangelical-Platonic-Gnostic dictum “In the beginning was the word” — that is, logos, or reason — furnishes us with a precise expression of historical reality. Marx noted this repeatedly: in his notes on the book by Adolf Wagner, in which he heaps scorn on the closeted professorial view according to which objects are passively “given” to humanity; in his Holy Family; in his Theses on Feuerbach; throughout the whole text of Capital; and together with Engels, in the brilliant pages of The German Ideology.

Contrary to the ravings of idealist philosophy to the effect that thought makes worlds, and that even matter is the creation of spirit (for example, the world-positing “I” of Fichte), it is human practice that creates a new world, actually transforming the “substance of nature” in line with human wishes. Historically, it was social humanity, the social-historical human being, and not an abstraction of the intellectual side of humanity, personified by philosophers as the subject, that above all produced, ate, and drank. It was only later, through the division of labor, that theoretical activity became separated off and isolated as an independent (or relatively independent) function, becoming restricted to particular categories of people, “mental workers,” with the various social and class modifications of this category. Theoretical cognition arose out of practice as well. The active, practical relationship to the external world, the process of material production, which, as Marx put it, conditions the “exchange of substances” between humanity and nature, is the basis for the reproduction of the entire life of social humanity. The chattering of the high priests of the so-called philosophy of life [Lebensphilosophie], including Nietzsche and a series of present-day biological-mystical hysterics, bypasses this fundamental fact, just as numerous representatives of classical idealist philosophy also bypassed it. Of course! After all, from the point of view of Kant the simple acts of sawing wood, smelting iron, or making liquid oxygen constitute a breakthrough into the “transcendental,” that fearful transgression which is “impossible”! What a mess the “practical” bull creates in this china shop full of unknowably subtle statuettes!

In fairness to Hegel, that “colossal old fellow,” as Engels affectionately called him, it should be acknowledged that although Marx and Engels had to wage a desperate, impassioned, and ultimately victorious struggle against the “drunken speculation” of Hegelian idealism, Hegel did have an understanding of practice, of labor and its tools. Moreover, the embryo of historical materialism, in the form of brilliant conceptions, was present in his works. We shall have cause to be convinced of this subsequently… Continue reading

The Jews and Europe

Max Horkheimer
Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung
December 1939

Whoever wants to explain anti-Semitism must speak of National Socialism. Without a conception of what has happened in Germany, speaking about anti-Semitism in Siam or Africa remains senseless. The new anti-Semitism is the emissary of the totalitarian order, which has developed from the liberal one. One must thus go back to consider the tendencies within capitalism. But it is as if the refugee intellectuals have been robbed not only of their citizenship, but also of their minds. Thinking, the only mode of behavior that would be appropriate for them, has fallen into discredit. The “Jewish-Hegelian jargon,” which once carried all the way from London to the German Left and even then had to be translated into the ringing tones of the union functionaries, now seems completely eccentric. With a sigh of relief they throw away the troublesome weapon and turn to neohumanism, to Goethe’s personality, to the true Germany and other cultural assets. International solidarity is said to have failed. Because the worldwide revolution did not come to pass, the theoretical conceptions in which it appeared as the salvation from barbarism are now considered worthless. At present, we have really reached the point where the harmony of capitalist society along with the opportunities to reform it have been exposed as the very illusions always denounced by the critique of the free market economy; now, as predicted, the contradictions of technical progress have created a permanent economic crisis, and the descendants of the free entrepreneurs can maintain their positions only by the abolition of bourgeois freedoms; now the literary opponents of totalitarian society praise the very conditions to which they owe their present existence, and deny the theory which, when there was still time, revealed its secrets.

No one can demand that, in the very countries that have granted them asylum, the émigrés put a mirror to the world that has created fascism. But whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism. The English hosts today fare better than Frederick the Great did with the acid-tongued Voltaire. No matter if the hymn the intellectuals intone to liberalism often comes too late, because the countries turn totalitarian faster than the books can find publishers; the intellectuals have not abandoned hope that somewhere the reformation of Western capitalism will proceed more mildly than in Germany and that well-recommended foreigners will have a future after all. But the totalitarian order differs from its bourgeois predecessor only in that it has lost its inhibitions. Just as old people sometimes become as evil as they basically always were, at the end of the epoch class rule has taken the form of the “folk community” [Volksgemeinschaft]. The theory has destroyed the myth of the harmony of interests [between capital and labor]; it has presented the liberal economic process as the reproduction of power relations by means of free contracts, which are compelled by the inequality of the property. Mediation has now been abolished. Fascism is that truth of modern society which has been realized by the theory from the beginning. Fascism solidifies the extreme class differences which the law of surplus value ultimately produced.


No revision of economic theory is required to understand fascism. Equal and just exchange has driven itself to the point of absurdity, and the totalitarian order is this absurdity. The transition from liberalism has occurred logically enough, and less brutally than from the mercantile system into that of the nineteenth century. The same economic tendencies that create an ever higher productivity of labor through the mechanism of competition have suddenly turned into forces of social disorganization. The pride of liberalism, industry developed technically to the utmost, ruins its own principle because great parts of the population can no longer sell their labor. The reproduction of what exists by the labor market becomes inefficient. Previously the bourgeoisie was decentralized, a many-headed ruler; the expansion of the plant was the condition for every entrepreneur to increase his portion of the social surplus. He needed workers in order to prevail in the competition of the market. In the age of monopolies, the investment of more and more new capital no longer promises any great increase in profits. The mass of workers, from whom surplus value flows, diminishes in comparison to the apparatus which it serves. In recent times, industrial production has existed only as a condition for profit, for the expansion of the power of groups and individuals over human labor. Hunger itself provides no reason for the production of consumer goods. To produce for the insolvent demand, for the unemployed masses, would run counter to the laws of economy and religion that hold the order together; no bread without work.

Even the façade betrays the obsolescence of the market economy. The advertising signs in all countries are its monuments. Their expression is ridiculous. They speak to the passers-by as shallow adults do to children or animals, in a falsely familiar slang. The masses, like children, are deluded: they believe that as independent subjects they have the freedom to choose the goods for themselves. But the choice has already largely been dictated. For decades there have been entire spheres of consumption in which only the labels change. The panoply of different qualities in which consumers revel exists only on paper. If advertising was always characteristic of the faux frais of the bourgeois commodity economy, still, it formerly performed a positive function as a means of increasing demand. Today the buyer is still paid an ideological reverence which he is not even supposed to believe entirely. He already knows enough to interpret the advertising for the great brand-name products as national slogans that one is not allowed to contradict. The discipline to which advertising appeals comes into its own in the fascist countries. In the posters the people find out what they really are: soldiers. Advertising becomes correct. The strict governmental command which threatens from every wall during totalitarian elections corresponds more exactly to the modern organization of the economy than the monotonously colorful lighting effects in the shopping centers and amusement quarters of the world.

The economic programs of the good European statesmen are illusory. In the final phase of liberalism they want to compensate with government orders for the disintegrating market economy’s inability to support the populace. Along with the economically powerful they seek to stimulate the economy so that it will provide everyone with a living, but they forget that the aversion to new investments is no whim. The industrialists have no desire to get their factories going via the indirect means of taxes they must pay to an all-too-impartial government simply to help the bankrupt farmers and other draft animals out of a jam. For their class such a procedure does not pay. No matter how much progovernmental economists may lecture the entrepreneurs that it is for their own benefit, the powerful have a better sense of their interests and have greater goals than a makeshift boom led with strikes and whatever else belongs to the proletarian class struggle. The statesmen who, after all this, still wish to run liberalism humanely, misunderstand its character. They may represent education and be surrounded by experts, but their efforts are nonetheless absurd: they wish to subordinate to the general populace that class whose particular interests by nature run contrary to the general ones. A government that would make the objects of welfare into subjects of free contracts by garnering the taxes of employers, must fail in the end: otherwise it would involuntarily degenerate from the proxy of the employers into the executive agency of the unemployed, indeed, of the dependent classes in general. Nearly confiscatory taxes, such as the inheritance tax, which are forced not only by the layoffs in industry, but also by the insoluble agriculture crisis, already threaten to make the weak into the “exploiters” of the capitalists. Such a reversal of circumstances will not be permitted in the long run by the employers in any empire. In the parliaments and all of public life, the employers sabotage neoliberal welfare policies. Even if these would help the economy, the employers would remain unreconciled: economic cycles are no longer enough for them. The relations of production prevail against the humanitarian governments. The pioneers from the employers’ associations create a new apparatus and their advocates take the social order into their hands; in place of fragmented command over particular factories, there arises the totalitarian rule of particular interests over the entire people. Individuals are subjected to a new discipline which threatens the foundations of the social order. The transformation of the downtrodden jobseeker from the nineteenth century into the solicitous member of a fascist organization recalls in its historical significance the transformation of the medieval master craftsman into the protestant burgher of the Reformation, or of the English village pauper into the modern industrial worker. Considering the fundamental nature of this change, the statesmen pursuing moderate progress appear reactionary.

b_250241 Berlin, Ged‰chtnisfeier f¸r Rathenau

The labor market is replaced by coerced labor. If over the past decades people went from exchange partners to beggars, objects of welfare, now they become direct objects of domination. In the prefascist stage the unemployed threatened the order. The transition to an economy which would unite the separated elements, which would give the people ownership of the idle machines and the useless grain, seemed unavoidable in Germany, and the world-wide danger of socialism seemed serious. With socialism’s enemies stood everyone who had anything to say in the Republic. Governing was carried out by welfare payments, by former imperial civil servants, and by reactionary officers. The trade unions wished to transform themselves from organs of class struggle into state institutions which distribute governmental largesse, inculcate a loyal attitude in the recipients, and participate in social control. Such help, however, was suspect to the powerful. Once German capital had resumed imperialist policies, it dropped the labor bureaucrats, political and trade unions, who had helped it into power. Despite their most honest intentions, the bureaucrats could not measure up to the new conditions. The masses were not activated for the improvement of their own lives, not to eat, but to obey — such is the task of the fascist apparatus. Governing has acquired a new meaning there. Instead of practiced functionaries, imaginative organizers and overseers are needed; they must be well removed from the influence of ideologies of freedom and human dignity. In late capitalism, peoples metamorphose first into welfare recipients and then into followers [Gefolgschaften].

Continue reading

Small is Beautiful, but Big is Sublime

Kant, Le Corbusier, Koolhaas


Analytic of the Sublime

The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in limitation; the sublime, by contrast, is to be found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it, or at its instance, and yet it is also thought as a totality.

— Immanuel Kant, 1793
Critique of Judgment

Bolshevism means big


It is a word (a magnificent one) and not a mere matter of party membership.

In 1928, I was called to Moscow to discuss the construction of the Tsentrosoiuz there. I was taken to the office of Mr. Lubinov (now the People’s Commissar, once mayor of Moscow, before that a peasant, and at this particular time President of the Tsentrosoiuz). There was an interpreter there. The President delivered himself of a long speech in which the word ‘bolshoi,’ always delivered with great force, recurred again and again. The interpreter passed on the substance of this speech to me as follows:

The construction of this palace [The Palace of the Soviets] must prove itself an outstanding event in Russian architectural history, a history that only began with the Revolution itself. It is essential that there should be a visible quality of bigness in all the aspects of its design, a bigness achieved not simply by means of physical dimensions, nor by emphasis, but by a judicious regard to proportions. It is essential that this non-military building, the biggest that has so far been envisaged by our regime, should constitute a model: strict expression of function and dignity. All our projects must come into the world under this sign: BIG, bolshoi…

I questioned the interpreter: “That word, ‘bolshoi,’ which Mr. Lubinov kept hammering out, what does it mean?”


“So, Bolshevism…?”

“Bolshevism means: everything as big as possible, the biggest theory, the biggest projects. Maximum. Going to the heart of any question. Examining it in depth. Envisaging the whole. Breadth and size.”

Up to then, I had understood from our newspapers that Bolshevik meant a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth.

— Le Corbusier, 1930
The Radiant City


The skyscrapers here are much too small.

— Le Corbusier arriving
in Manhattan, 1935 Continue reading

Confronting the “death” of art criticism


The crisis of art criticism is undeniable. Rigor, commitment, narrative, and judgment have become dirty, antiquarian, even authoritarian words. Art criticism has almost disappeared from newspaper columns. Historical awareness of the discipline fades further with every new online journal or blog. Art criticism with a persuasive voice, poetic aspirations, dedicated to new evaluative criteria for quality, and that attempts to critique an artwork is a rare, endangered species. With the proliferation of Ph.D. studio art programs and the expansion of the art world and global art market, it is neglected. For some, art criticism’s crisis has turned into a terminal disease with no cure in sight.

The turn of the 21st century has seen a plethora of articles, conferences, and publications devoted to the crisis in criticism. Publications include Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of their Practice (ed. Raphael Rubenstein, 2006), and James Elkins’ What Happened to Art Criticism? (2003). The most recent and comprehensive accounts of the dilemmas confronting art critics today are included in The State of Art Criticism (eds. James Elkins and Michael Newman, 2008) and Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism (eds. J. Khonsary and M. O’Brian, 2010). The latter endeavors to build upon the problems posed by Elkins’ and Newman’s book. In seeking to understand the crisis, both are driven to reexamine the relationship of art criticism to other disciplines (like curating, art history, and philosophy), the role of judgment in art criticism, and the challenges to art criticism posed by the emergence of certain critical art practices (or Conceptual art).

Arnold Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle (1872)

Arnold Böcklin, Self-portrait with death playing the fiddle (1872)

This thesis is motivated to approach the problem of the lack of historical self-awareness and continuity of the discipline of art criticism. The aim is to present the historical conditions of the crisis of art criticism as it was understood in the last decade, with priority given to questions raised by a rejection of judgment in art criticism. The other task for this thesis is to determine the deeper historical causes of the crisis. First, I will situate this crisis within the early history of art criticism and, especially, with respect to the interrelationship between critique and crisis. Following this, I will flesh out what this crisis looks like in the art world today, and review how this crisis has been registered by those currently writing about art, particularly with respect to large-scale transformations in the art market. The objective, here, is to specify what kind of criticism has become practically obsolete, grasp how this process of obsolescence unfolded, and reflect on the broader implications of the implausibility and apparent anachronism of art criticism in the present. In so doing, I hope to clarify the significance of what art critic and historian Benjamin Buchloh called “death of art criticism.”[1]

On earlier modes of art criticism

To better understand the explanations of the current crisis, let us briefly revisit the emergence of criticism itself. Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (1988) elaborates on the significance of criticism and crisis in the 18th century. For Koselleck, criticism is an 18th century catchword; he describes countless volumes published during this period with the term “criticism” or “critical” in their titles. On the other hand, the term crisis was rarely used in the 18th century and cannot be considered a central concept in this period. The etymology of the words “criticism” and “critique” are at the root of his investigations. He points out that the word “critique” is derived from the Greek “krinein,” which means “to judge,” while the Greek “krisis” means “discrimination and dispute” to “select, judge, decide.” Thus “crisis” also meant decision, in the sense of final judgment or appraisal, which today extends into the category of criticism. In Greek, a single word encompassed concepts that today would usually be seen as separate: “subjective” criticism and “objective” crisis.

Later in the 20th century, this notion of the affinity between crisis and critique is recognized and elaborated in the discourse around the crisis of literary criticism. In Paul de Man’s 1964 essay the “Crisis of Contemporary Criticism,” crisis and criticism are very closely linked; much like the ideas presented by Koselleck, although he was moving beyond the issue of a shared etymology. De Man addresses the moment in which literary criticism is said to have entered a crisis because of the influence of French structuralist theory. In response he argues, “all true criticism occurs in the mode of crisis.” Furthermore, “in periods that are not periods of crisis, or in individuals bent on avoiding crisis at all cost, there can be all kinds of approaches to literature: historical, philological, psychological, etc., but there can be no criticism.”[2] If we agree with Koselleck and de Man, and consider crisis a constant element of art criticism, then claims about the death of art criticism imply an abandonment of the problems posed by crisis. Continue reading

The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis

IMAGE: Cover to Alain Badiou’s
Communist Hypothesis (2010)

Platypus Review 29 | November 2010

Chris Cutrone

Against Badiou

Alain Badiou’s recent book (2010) is titled with the phrase promoted by his and Slavoj Žižek’s work for the last few years, “the communist hypothesis.”[1] This is also the title of Badiou’s 2008 essay in New Left Review[2] on the historical significance of the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy to the French Presidency.[3] There, Badiou explains his approach to communism as follows:

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, “communist” means, first, that the logic of class — the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity — is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.[4]

Badiou goes on to state that,

As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear. Popular revolts — the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer — might be identified as practical examples of this “communist invariant.” With the French Revolution, the communist hypothesis then inaugurates the epoch of political modernity.[5]

Badiou thus establishes “communism” as the perennial counter-current to civilization throughout its history. Continue reading

Radical Bourgeois Philosophy, Week 4: Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Constant

Immanuel Kant

Benjamin Constant

Last week we covered Adam Smith’s excellent Wealth of Nations, focusing on the way in which Smith can be regarded as “the philosopher par excellence of the manufacturing period of capitalism,” as Marx called him.  We took note of the way that Smith registered the development of the division of labor, relations of exchange, and the nascent possibility of a society in which everyone could work less while still producing more useful goods for consumption.  This week we are reading Kant’s brief essays on “What is Enlightenment?” and his “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.”  The interpretation that is being presented is that Kant articulates the new, modern subjectivity of bourgeois society, based on the principle of universal freedom.  This parallels the way that Smith articulates the new, modern economic form of bourgeois society as being founded on the principle of universal exchange.  To this end, we are also reading Benjamin Constant’s “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns,” as Constant spells out more explicitly the difference between Kantian freedom and earlier philosophical/theological treatments of free will, as say by Augustine or Leibniz.