Fredric Jameson after the postmodern

Jameson’s style invites derision. Russell Jacoby once described his manner of writing as “a peculiar American baroque” — i.e., “a gray mash of half-written sentences punctuated by tooting horns and waving pennants,” “confounding rigor mortis with rigor.” Essays by Jameson are frequently ponderous, convoluted, and opaque. No other writer is so emblematic of contemporary Marxism’s professorial bent. Densely allusive, with many meandering asides, what Jonathan Arac called “the deliberate scandal of Jameson’s method” consists in its casual comparisons of a whole range of thinkers from across the European philosophical tradition.

Alberto Toscano might be seen as the legitimate successor to this method, along with Benjamin Noys and the late Mark Fisher (though these latter two are much more fluid writers). The theoreticism of their texts often leads readers far afield of the topic at hand, but by and large returns from these divagations enriched by the journey. One of the most brutal send-ups of Jameson’s work came from Robert Hullot-Kentor, whose approach to translation was praised at the outset of Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990). In a polemical review of this same book, “Suggested Reading: Jameson on Adorno,” Hullot-Kentor painted a very unflattering portrait of its author:

Fredric Jameson is one of the great tattooed men of our times. Every inch of flesh is covered: that web of cat’s cradles coiling up the right calf are Greimas and Levi-Strauss; dripping over the right shoulder, under the sign of the Cimabue Christ — the inverted crucifixion — hangs Derrida. And hardly recognizable in those many other overlapping splotches of color is just about everybody else: Lyotard, Sartre, Habermas, et al. “All One, All Different” scrolls across the panoramic chest. In Late Marxism Jameson scouts carefully before setting portentious digit on a densely engraved quadrate of his left hip, Adorno! and falls into a roll: “Adorno you will notice is like Althusser, only more like Sartre, except the idea of totality, in my opinion, as I’ll say again later, differs from Rorty, coming back to Luhmann, like Marxism, late, very late, minus Hegel’s concept of time. Perhaps, maybe, almost… Take another look, another look, just not too close, please, ladies and gentleman, give the man room to breathe!”

Still, if one can get past all the offhand references Jameson makes, the experience can be quite rewarding. Late Marxism was perhaps an unfortunate target for such ire, however — yes, “perhaps.” Hullot-Kentor’s caustic criticism of this work, though doubtless deserved, could have just as easily applied to Postmodernism or The Political Unconscious, released a few years before. And while it is understandable that Hullot-Kentor, the celebrated translator and interpreter of Adorno, would take Jameson to task on this subject, it was nevertheless bold for anyone to publish a defense of Adorno’s Marxist credentials in 1990. Whatever its other shortcomings may be, and they are many, Late Marxism is noteworthy at least in this respect. Especially given the Anglophone reception of Adorno up to that point, which apart from Susan Buck-Morss and Gillian Rose either ignored his Marxism or exaggerated its heterodoxy.

Regarding the rest of Jameson’s vast corpus, the stuff on periodization is probably what interests me the most. Modernity, postmodernity, and everything that comes in between. Aijaz Ahmad was right, of course, to scold Jameson for his overreach when it came to Third World literature, and Adorno was right to be skeptical of so-called “revolutions” taking place in the Third World. The sheer scope of his theoretical reading — not to mention his focus on film, literature, and architecture — is astounding. You can download a number of his works by clicking on the links below. Full-text PDFs only, since I don’t like E-books (for whatever reason):

  1. Fredric Jameson, Sartre: The Origins of a Style (1961)
  2. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971)
  3. Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (1972)
  4. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981)
  5. Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory (1988, 2008)
  6. Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990)
  7. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
  8. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (1992)
  9. Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (1994)
  10. Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (1998)
  11. Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 (1998)
  12. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (2002)
  13. Fredric Jameson, “Dialectics of Disaster” (2002)
  14. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005)
  15. Fredric Jameson, Conversations on Cultural Marxism (2007)
  16. Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (2007)
  17. Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (2009)
  18. Fredric Jameson, The Hegel Variations: On the Phenomenology of the Spirit (2010)
  19. Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (2011)
  20. Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (2015)
  21. Fredric Jameson, The Ancients and the Postmoderns (2015)
  22. Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity” (2016)
  23. Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (2016)
  24. Fredric Jameson, “Badiou and the French Tradition” (2016)
  25. Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (2016)

Below you can read an excellent review of Valences of the Dialectic by Benjamin Kunkel, originally published by the London Review of Books (and subsequently included in the Jacobin collection Utopia or Bust). Kunkel’s reviews of individual books tend to be skillful, if sweeping, overviews of a thinker’s entire oeuvre, and this one delivers well as far as that goes. He’s correct, in any case, that Jameson is more of an essayist than anything else. Enjoy!

Into the big tent

Benjamin Kunkel
London Review
April 22, 2010

Fredric Jameson’s preeminence, over the last generation, among critics writing in English would be hard to dispute. Part of the tribute has been exacted by his majestic style, one distinctive feature of which is the way that the convoy of long sentences freighted and balanced with subordinate clauses will dock here and there to unload a pithy slogan. “Always historicize!is one of these, and Jameson has also insisted, under the banner of “One cannot not periodize,” on the related necessity (as well as the semi-arbitrariness) of dividing history into periods. With that in mind, it’s tempting to propose a period, coincident with Jameson’s career as the main theorist of postmodernism, stretching from about 1983 (when Thatcher, having won a war, and Reagan, having survived a recession, consolidated their popularity) to 2008 (when the neoliberal program launched by Reagan and Thatcher was set back by the worst economic crisis since the Depression). During this period of neoliberal ascendancy — an era of deregulation, financialization, industrial decline, demoralization of the working class, the collapse of Communism and so on — it often seemed easier to spot the contradictions of Marxism than the more famous contradictions of capitalism, and no figure seemed to embody more than Fredric Jameson the peculiar condition of an economic theory that had turned out to flourish above all as a mode of cultural analysis, a mass movement that had become the province of an academic “elite,” and an intellectual tradition that had arrived at some sort of culmination right at the point of apparent extinction.

Over the last quarter-century, Jameson has been at once the timeliest and most untimely of American critics and writers. Not only did he develop interests in film, science fiction, or the work of Walter Benjamin, say, earlier than most of his colleagues in the humanities, he was also a pioneer of that enlargement of literary criticism (Jameson received a PhD in French literature from Yale in 1959) into all-purpose theory which made the discussion of all these things in the same breath established academic practice. More than this, he succeeded better than anyone else at defining the term, “postmodernism,” that sought to catch the historical specificity of the present age.

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Society, totality, and history

Dia­lectics elude straight­for­ward defin­i­tion. No doubt it is easi­er to say what dia­lectics is not, rather than to say what it is. Against Ferdin­and Las­salle, Marx re­marked in a let­ter to En­gels that “Hegel nev­er de­scribed as dia­lectics the sub­sump­tion of vast num­bers of ‘cases’ un­der a gen­er­al prin­ciple,” and there­fore con­cluded that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od is wrongly ap­plied.”1 Vladi­mir Len­in like­wise poin­ted out that Geor­gii Plekhan­ov, the founder of Rus­si­an Marx­ism, erred in treat­ing dia­lectics as “the sum-total of ex­amples,” a mis­take from which even En­gels was not fully ex­empt.2

Still less is dia­lectics re­du­cible to an ab­stract for­mula or ste­reo­typed pro­ced­ure of thes­is-an­ti­thes­is-syn­thes­is. James re­garded this series as “a ru­in­ous sim­pli­fic­a­tion” in his 1948 Notes on Dia­lectics,3 while Len­in fol­lowed Hegel in con­sid­er­ing “the ‘tripli­city’ of dia­lectics… [as] its ex­tern­al, su­per­fi­cial side.”4 In sim­il­ar fash­ion, the Frank­furt School the­or­ist Theodor Ad­orno re­called that “Hegel ex­pressed the most cut­ting ob­jec­tions to the claptrap tripli­city of thes­is, an­ti­thes­is, and syn­thes­is as a meth­od­o­lo­gic­al schema.”5 Early in his ca­reer, Len­in up­braided the pop­u­list Nikolai Mikhail­ovsky for his fatu­ous por­tray­al of the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic as some sort of par­lor trick which “proves” cap­it­al­ism must col­lapse. “Marx’s dia­lect­ic­al meth­od does not con­sist in tri­ads at all,” ex­plained Len­in in 1894, “but pre­cisely in the re­jec­tion of ideal­ism and sub­ject­iv­ism in so­ci­ology.”6

How can this meth­od be re­tained in so­ci­ology, however, while at the same time get­ting rid of its ideal­ist residues? Ob­vi­ously, if the dia­lectic is to be any­thing more than a sub­ject­ive ad­di­tion, an ar­bit­rary “way of think­ing” about the world, its lo­gic has to be dis­covered in the ob­ject (i.e., so­ci­ety) it­self. The ma­ter­i­al­ist in­ver­sion of Hegel’s dia­lectic can only be jus­ti­fied if its con­tours ap­pear at the level of so­cial real­ity. “Dia­lect­ic­al un­der­stand­ing is noth­ing but the con­cep­tu­al form of a real dia­lect­ic­al fact,” wrote Georg Lukács in his 1924 mono­graph Len­in: A Study in the Unity of His Thought.7 Lukács’ con­tem­por­ary, the Bolshev­ik re­volu­tion­ary Le­on Trot­sky, main­tained that the meth­od should not be ap­plied to just any sphere of know­ledge “like an ever-ready mas­ter key,” since “dia­lectics can­not be im­posed upon facts, but must be de­duced from their char­ac­ter and de­vel­op­ment.”8 Re­flect­ing on his con­ver­sion to Marx­ism, Trot­sky wrote that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od re­vealed it­self for the first time, not as an ab­stract defin­i­tion, but as a liv­ing spring found in the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess.”9

Trot­sky’s meta­phor of the spring re­curs fre­quently in his art­icles and speeches. “Marx­ism without the dia­lectic is like a clock without a spring,” he later de­clared.10 Wound tightly in­to the shape of a spir­al, the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic simply mir­rors the dy­nam­ic ten­sion of cap­it­al­ism it­self. “Cycles ex­plain a great deal,” Trot­sky main­tained in 1923, “form­ing through auto­mat­ic pulsa­tion an in­dis­pens­able dia­lect­ic­al spring in the mech­an­ism of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”11 Earli­er in the year he stressed that an ad­equate so­ci­olo­gic­al ac­count must be both strong and flex­ible, since “dia­lect­ic­al thought is like a spring, and springs are made of tempered steel.”12

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Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a certain mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

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Marx and Engels on Karl Kautsky

That Vladi­mir Len­in and his fel­low re­volu­tion­ar­ies of 1917 con­sidered the So­cial-Demo­crat­ic lead­er Karl Kaut­sky a ped­ant and a phil­istine is well known. Len­in pin­pointed the reas­on for Kaut­sky’s post-1914 reneg­acy in his di­lu­tion of Marxi­an dia­lectics. “How is this mon­strous dis­tor­tion of Marx­ism by the ped­ant Kaut­sky to be ex­plained…??” the Bolshev­ik asked rhet­or­ic­ally in a sec­tion of his 1918 po­lem­ic, The Pro­let­ari­an Re­volu­tion and the Reneg­ade Kaut­sky, “How Kaut­sky Turned Marx in­to a Com­mon Lib­er­al.” “As far as the philo­soph­ic­al roots of this phe­nomen­on are con­cerned,” he answered, “it amounts to the sub­sti­tu­tion of ec­lecticism and soph­istry for dia­lectics.” In an­oth­er chapter, Len­in ac­cused Kaut­sky of “pur­su­ing a char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally petty-bour­geois, phil­istine policy [ти­пич­но ме­щан­скую, фи­лис­тер­скую по­ли­ти­ку]” by back­ing the Men­shev­iks. Need­less to say, Len­in’s im­mense re­spect for the so-called “Pope of Marx­ism” be­fore the war had all but evap­or­ated.

What is less well known, however, is that Karl Marx and Friedrich En­gels shared this ap­prais­al of Kaut­sky. But this would only be re­vealed in 1932, sev­er­al years after Len­in’s death, in ex­tracts pub­lished from their cor­res­pond­ence. En­gels con­fided to Eduard Bern­stein in Au­gust 1881 that “Kaut­sky is an ex­cep­tion­ally good chap, but a born ped­ant and hair­split­ter in whose hands com­plex ques­tions are not made simple, but simple ones com­plex.” Marx, for his part, sus­pec­ted that En­gels’ fond­ness of Kaut­sky was due to his ca­pa­city to con­sume al­co­hol, as he re­cor­ded in a note to his daugh­ter Jenny Longuet from April that same year:

[Jo­hann Most, grand­fath­er of le­gendary Bo­ston Celt­ics an­noun­cer Johnny Most,] has found a kindred spir­it in Kaut­sky, on whom he had frowned so grimly; even En­gels takes a much more tol­er­ant view of this joker [Kautz, pun­ning on Kautz-ky] since the lat­ter gave proof of his con­sid­er­able drink­ing abil­ity. When the charm­er — the little joker [Kautz], I mean — first came to see me, the first ques­tion that rose to my lips was: Are you like your moth­er? “Not in the least!” he ex­claimed, and si­lently I con­grat­u­lated his moth­er. He’s a me­diocrity, nar­row in his out­look, over-wise (only 26 years old), and a know-it-all, al­though hard-work­ing after a fash­ion, much con­cerned with stat­ist­ics out of which, however, he makes little sense. By nature he’s a mem­ber of the phil­istine tribe. For the rest, a de­cent fel­low in his own way; I un­load him onto amigo En­gels as much as I can.

Le­on Trot­sky was caught off-guard by the ca­su­istry Kaut­sky dis­played after 1914, re­mem­ber­ing the praise he had showered on the Rus­si­an work­ers’ move­ment a dec­ade or so earli­er. “Kaut­sky’s re­ac­tion­ary-pedant­ic cri­ti­cism [пе­дант­ски-ре­ак­ци­он­ная кри­ти­ка Ка­ут­ско­го] must have come the more un­ex­pec­tedly to those com­rades who’d gone through the peri­od of the first Rus­si­an re­volu­tion with their eyes open and read Kaut­sky’s art­icles of 1905-1906,” de­clared Trot­sky in his pre­face to the 1919 re­is­sue of Res­ults and Pro­spects (1906). “At that time Kaut­sky (true, not without the be­ne­fi­cial in­flu­ence of Rosa Lux­em­burg) fully un­der­stood and ac­know­ledged that the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion could not ter­min­ate in a bour­geois-demo­crat­ic re­pub­lic but must in­ev­it­ably lead to pro­let­ari­an dic­tat­or­ship, be­cause of the level at­tained by the class struggle in the coun­try it­self and be­cause of the en­tire in­ter­na­tion­al situ­ation of cap­it­al­ism… For dec­ades Kaut­sky de­veloped and up­held the ideas of so­cial re­volu­tion. Now that it has be­come real­ity, Kaut­sky re­treats be­fore it in ter­ror. He is hor­ri­fied at Rus­si­an So­viet power and thus takes up a hos­tile at­ti­tude to­wards the mighty move­ment of the Ger­man com­mun­ist pro­let­ari­at.”

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“Everyone’s a victim”: Relativizing Auschwitz with Adorno

Aus­chwitz was lib­er­ated 72 years ago today. In hon­or of In­ter­na­tion­al Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day, I am re­post­ing a re­cent art­icle by Ingo Elbe on a new book by Marc Nich­olas Som­mer. Elbe is au­thor of the ex­traordin­ar­ily thor­ough over­view Marx im West­en: Die neue Marx-Lek­tü­re in der Bun­des­rep­ub­lik seit 1965. The first chapter of this book has been trans­lated and pub­lished over at View­point, which every­one ought to read. He con­tac­ted me about this short re­view, and en­cour­aged me to re­pub­lish it.

Some brief com­ments of my own, be­fore pro­ceed­ing to Elbe’s art­icle. First of all re­gard­ing the act­ors. Read­ers of this blog will doubt­less be fa­mil­i­ar with Theodor Wiesen­grund Ad­orno, a mu­si­co­lo­gist and lead­ing crit­ic­al the­or­ist of the In­sti­tut für So­zi­al­for­schung. Günther An­ders, ali­as Stern, like­wise con­trib­uted to the In­sti­tut’s journ­al from time to time, though he was nev­er a mem­ber. An­ders was also the first hus­band of the fam­ous Ger­man-Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al philo­soph­er Han­nah Aren­dt. Like her (as well as Her­bert Mar­cuse, an­oth­er mem­ber of the Frank­furt School), he was a one­time stu­dent of the in­flu­en­tial Nazi pro­fess­or Mar­tin Heide­g­ger. In 1948, An­ders up­braided his former mas­ter in a scath­ing po­lem­ic “On the Pseudo-Con­crete­ness of Heide­g­ger’s Philo­sophy.”

Jean Améry, pseud­onym of Hanns Chaim May­er, was an Aus­tri­an es­say­ist based in Brus­sels, Bel­gi­um. Un­like either An­ders or Ad­orno, he sur­vived the Aus­chwitz death camp. Between 1962 and 1966, he wrote a series of re­flec­tions on his ex­per­i­ences there, com­piled un­der the title At the Mind’s Lim­its. It is a haunt­ing, angry col­lec­tion, not­able for its ab­so­lute un­will­ing­ness to for­give any­one com­pli­cit in per­pet­rat­ing the Judeo­cide. Philo­soph­ic­ally Améry in­clined to­ward Sartrean ex­ist­en­tial­ism rather than crit­ic­al the­ory. He was gen­er­ally un­im­pressed by Ad­orno, whose 1964 study of The Jar­gon of Au­then­ti­city he lam­pooned in his own 1967 tract, Jar­gon der Dia­lek­tik. Con­tem­por­ary the­or­ists who draw in­spir­a­tion from both Améry and Ad­orno — such as Gerhard Scheit, of the hard anti-Ger­man ISF and sans phrase — have at­temp­ted to re­con­cile the rift in rather tor­tur­ous fash­ion, seek­ing to es­tab­lish com­mon ground.

Elbe sides, some­what sur­pris­ingly, with Améry in this par­tic­u­lar dis­pute. That is to say, he be­lieves Améry is bet­ter able to grasp the spe­cificity of Aus­chwitz. Ad­orno is con­victed by Elbe of the very “iden­tity-think­ing” [Iden­ti­täts­den­ken] de­cried at length in Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics, set­ting up a false equi­val­ence between the de­lib­er­ate murder of European Je­w­ry by the Nazis at Aus­chwitz and the in­dis­crim­in­ate mas­sacre of Ja­pan­ese ci­vil­ians by the Amer­ic­ans at Hiroshi­ma. One aimed at an­ni­hil­a­tion, the oth­er at ca­pit­u­la­tion. Here I cer­tainly ac­know­ledge the valid­ity of the dis­tinc­tion Elbe is try­ing to make, but am less bothered by Ad­orno’s in­clu­sion of Hiroshi­ma along­side Aus­chwitz (one could men­tion any num­ber of oth­er at­ro­cit­ies) as an ex­ample of the un­par­alleled bar­bar­ism of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, fol­low­ing the fail­ure to tran­scend cap­it­al in its open­ing dec­ades. Stal­in’s GU­Lag ar­chipelago dis­turbs me just as much, if not more, des­pite the fact they were nev­er meant to ex­term­in­ate the in­mates. For they rep­res­en­ted the be­tray­al of com­mun­ism, which was at least sup­posed to prom­ise a bet­ter world, as Primo Levi poin­ted out, where­as with fas­cism the con­cen­tra­tion camps fol­lowed from first prin­ciples.

Per­haps this is in­dic­at­ive of a broad­er dis­agree­ment between Elbe and my­self, and by ex­ten­sion Améry. While I am awake to the dangers of left an­ti­semit­ism, I do not be­lieve that any and all op­pos­i­tion to Is­rael is an­ti­semit­ic. Améry’s charge that anti-Zion­ism had be­come “the re­spect­able an­ti­semit­ism” by the 1970s may ring true in some in­stances, and he provides sev­er­al com­pel­ling ex­amples where this is the case. (Just a couple weeks ago, a Ger­man court ruled that torch­ing a syn­agogue near Düsseldorf is a le­git­im­ate form of anti-Zion­ist protest). Yet I be­lieve that it is pos­sible to op­pose the Zion­ism with­in an anti-na­tion­al­ist frame­work which does not view it as ex­cep­tion­al, the his­tor­ic­al pe­cu­li­ar­it­ies not­with­stand­ing. However, I do share Elbe’s dis­may at the cheer­lead­ing that fre­quently goes on among West­ern left­ists for Is­lam­ist groups that spout some brand of anti-im­per­i­al­ist rhet­or­ic. So there is prob­ably a great deal we’d agree on. En­joy his art­icle.

adorno-sitting-copy jean-amery-foto

“The world as a concentration camp”

Ingo Elbe

…re­du­cing tor­ment­or and tor­men­ted to the com­mon de­nom­in­at­or “vic­tims,” by means of a dia­lect­ic­al pi­rou­ette.

— Jean Améry1

In his book The Concept of Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics,2 Marc Nich­olas Som­mer claims to re­con­struct Theodor Ad­orno’s neg­at­ive philo­sophy of his­tory as a “philo­sophy of his­tory from the view­point of the vic­tims” (294). Som­mer sug­gests, fol­low­ing Ad­orno,3 that “since World War II every sub­ject” has be­come “a po­ten­tial vic­tim of his­tory” (295). “Every single one” could now “po­ten­tially” ex­per­i­ence him­self as a vic­tim of “the ut­most ex­treme” [„des Äu­ßers­ten“] (295). Con­cur­ring with Ad­orno, Som­mer defines “the ut­most ex­treme” as “‘de­lu­sion­al pre­ju­dice, op­pres­sion, gen­o­cide, and tor­ture.””4 Also in ac­cord­ance with Ad­orno, Som­mer some­times uses the phras­ing the “ever-present cata­strophe”5 (325) in­stead of the ut­most ex­treme. In­deed, Som­mer read­ily con­cedes “that not every single one ac­tu­ally ex­per­i­ences him­self as a po­ten­tial vic­tim” (325) and in­so­far per­haps people liv­ing in more or less func­tion­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al states have bet­ter pro­tec­tion against “the ut­most ex­treme” than those liv­ing in au­thor­it­ari­an states and un­der dic­tat­or­ships, but — and this is his main ar­gu­ment — “with the nuc­le­ar bomb a new power has ap­peared,” mak­ing the “ut­most ex­treme” pos­sible for every per­son. In agree­ment with Günther An­ders he refers to his dia­gnos­is that “‘the threat of nuc­le­ar war […] trans­forms the world in­to a hope­less con­cen­tra­tion camp‘“6(325). Som­mer uses the term “con­cen­tra­tion camps” for be­ing at the mercy of the “ar­bit­rar­i­ness of the guards,” for the ir­rel­ev­ance of one’s own be­ha­vi­or re­gard­ing the ques­tion of wheth­er one be­comes a vic­tim or not, and for a not fur­ther spe­cified ex­term­in­a­tion. Fur­ther de­tails are not giv­en. Else­where, he uses the term “Aus­chwitz” in­stead of “con­cen­tra­tion camp” (or simply “camp”). Som­mer defines the term Aus­chwitz — once again in ref­er­ence to Ad­orno — as “‘ad­min­is­trat­ive murder of mil­lions.””7 With the nuc­le­ar bomb the “ex­per­i­ence of camp in­mates” has been gen­er­al­ized, “that the dis­aster of the ar­bit­rar­i­ness of the guards can be­fall them at any giv­en time, re­gard­less of their be­ha­vi­or.” The nuc­le­ar bomb trans­forms the world in­to a con­cen­tra­tion camp be­cause it con­stantly threatens us with the pos­sib­il­ity of total ex­term­in­a­tion — re­gard­less of how we be­have.” (295f.)

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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

Fidel Castro on the Frankfurt School

One of the last Cold War­ri­ors left stand­ing fi­nally bit the dust last night. If we’re lucky, Henry Kis­sing­er will also be dead by year’s end. Good fuck­ing rid­dance. Com­rade Emanuel San­tos put it splen­didly: “Fi­del Castro, Sta­lin­ist butcher and en­emy of the work­ers, is dead. The work­ing class won’t be happy un­til the last bur­eau­crat is hung with the in­test­ines of the last cap­it­al­ist.” [Fi­del Castro, ver­dugo Es­ta­linista y en­emigo de los obrer­os, ha falle­cido. La clase tra­ba­jadora no estará con­tenta hasta que el último burócrata cuelgue de las entrañas del último cap­it­alista].

An­oth­er com­rade, Ash­meet Teemsa, ex­claimed that “the en­emy of Cuban pro­let­ari­at is dead, a man no more a friend of the work­ing class than Thatch­er,” adding: “Shame on the ‘an­arch­ists’/’com­mun­ists’ who eu­lo­gize or mourn!” He then quoted from the In­ter­na­tion­al Com­mun­ist Cur­rent’s Ba­sic Po­s­i­tions: “The strat­i­fied re­gimes which arose in the USSR, east­ern Europe, China, Cuba etc and were called “so­cial­ist” or “com­mun­ist” were just a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal form of the uni­ver­sal tend­ency to­wards state cap­it­al­ism.”

There is no such thing as so­cial­ism in one coun­try, and na­tion­al­ism (wheth­er Amer­ic­an or Cuban, “right-wing” or “left-wing”) is noth­ing more than the con­sort of war, de­signed to fa­cil­it­ate the di­vi­sion of the world pro­let­ari­at, to lead the work­ing-class onto the bat­tle­field, march­ing un­der “its own” na­tion­al flag, and pre­pare the sep­ar­ated sec­tions of the work­ing class for re­cip­roc­al slaughter, all this in the name of “their” na­tion­al in­terest, the in­terest of “their” na­tion’s bour­geois­ie. The self-pro­claimed Castroite “anti-im­per­i­al­ists” (i.e. anti-west­ern im­per­i­al­ism) fail to un­der­stand that im­per­i­al­ism is simply the lo­gic of world cap­it­al­ism’s atom­ic com­pon­ents, na­tion-states — im­per­i­al­ism is cap­it­al­ism’s meta­bol­ism in a world di­vided in­to na­tion-states. As com­pet­ing zones of ac­cu­mu­la­tion with­in this world-sys­tem, na­tion-states are led to clash with one an­oth­er. Only the dis­sol­u­tion of na­tion-states, as politico-eco­nom­ic units, can put an end to this sys­tem, and hence bring about world pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion.

What we see in Cuba, Venezuela, etc., con­trary to tankie/Chom­sky­ite non­sense, is noth­ing pro­gress­ive, no step for­ward for the work­ing class. The dis­place­ment of the old bour­geois­ie and their re­place­ment by a new, “red” bour­geois­ie and the re­place­ment of privat­ized in­dus­tries and free-mar­ket cap­it­al­ism with na­tion­al­ized in­dus­tries and state-cap­it­al­ism (and a flour­ish­ing black mar­ket) are ir­rel­ev­ant. The ob­vi­ous fea­tures of cap­it­al­ism, as de­scribed by Marx in Cap­it­al — the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of value, com­mod­it­ies, the ex­ploit­a­tion of work­ers, etc. — re­main the same. In­ter­na­tion­al­ists re­ject the choice between “cap­it­al­ist” bosses, po­lice and pris­ons and “so­cial­ist” bosses, po­lice and pris­ons. Between “right-wing”/pro-Amer­ic­an and “left-wing”/anti-Amer­ic­an re­gimes or coun­tries. This is all su­per­fi­cial, left­ist (left of cap­it­al) non­sense. In­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions are in­her­ently flu­id. Those who eu­lo­gize or pro­pa­gand­ize on be­half of the “red” bour­geois­ie help to foster and re­in­force il­lu­sions about the “re­volu­tion­ary” or “pro­gress­ive” nature of vari­ous anti-pro­let­ari­an, na­tion­al­ist re­gimes and state-cap­it­al­ism. We have reas­on neither to mourn nor cel­eb­rate.

My own thoughts add little to this, though one might also con­sult the ex­cel­lent 1966 bul­let­in on “Cuba and Marx­ist The­ory.” Leav­ing aside the egre­gious treat­ment of LGBT in­di­vidu­als in Cuba un­der Fi­del, forced in­to labor camps from 1959 to 1979, a few words might be said.

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For a Dionysian proletariat

Robert Rives La Monte is today a largely forgotten figure in the history of Marxian socialism. He’s probably best remembered for his epistolary exchange with the fiery journalist H.L. Mencken, published in book form as Men versus the Man in 1909. Like Mencken, La Monte was a Nietzsche aficionado and committed advocate of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Unlike his individualist adversary, however, he did not feel a system of collective ownership was incompatible with modern freedom, stressing the Marxist remark that this future society would be “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Outside this public back-and-forth, La Monte also translated some works by Karl Marx, as well as by Gabriel Deville (one of Marx’s early French supporters) and the Italian Marxist criminologist Enrico Ferri. To be sure, he was quite critical of Deville’s more conservative turn in the 1890s, to say nothing of his horror at Ferri’s sudden admiration for Mussolini late in life. Along with Jack London, the young Walter Lippmann, and a few others, La Monte was an unabashed Nietzschean Marxist. In a magnificent line, he quipped that “today the world’s workers need not Jesus, but Dionysus.” As he went on to explain in his article “Nietzsche, Iconoclast and Prophet” (1908):

In every sense, the red-blooded socialist proletariat seems to me Dionysian, and I’d find it difficult to define class-consciousness in terms that would not to a Nietzschean suggest the Dionysian spirit. You and I would like to see the Proletariat aware of its own tremendous strength, glorying in it, and resolved to use it to emancipate themselves and humanity; we would like to see them living in the actual world of reality instead of dreaming in the fictitious world of Apollonian or bourgeois art; and our highest and ultimate hope is to see them reveling in the joy of the earthly paradise, undeterred by any preacher or moralist. Only a Dionysian working class can accomplish the social revolution. The rank and file of the Socialist Party today are undoubtedly Dionysians.

It was Nietzsche’s misfortune to preach the Gospel of Dionysus to a bourgeoisie close upon senile decay and moral degeneracy and live his life in utter ignorance of the only class which in our day is capable of breeding Dionysians — the proletariat.

La Monte was quite adamant on this point: “We socialists must recognize [Nietzsche] as a brother revolutionary… His chief theme seized upon the violent contradiction between the ruthless self-seeking of capitalism in an age when the cash nexus had become the only tie between man and man. No mercy was shown and no quarter given upon the fields of industrial and commercial warfare, despite the [Christian] religion of love, sympathy, and self-sacrifice professed in all capitalist countries.” For Trotsky, writing around the same time in 1908, Nietzsche’s brazen amorality was a weapon against “moralizing populism.” Davidovich rushed to defend Nietzsche against Narodnik platitudes.

Indeed, many Marxist revolutionaries in Russia — Anatoly Lunacharsky, Stanislav Volski, Aleksandr Bogdanov, and Vitaly Bazarov, to name only those listed by George Kline — also took inspiration from Nietzsche. Maksim Gorky, the great realist author, likewise drank deeply from the well of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Clara Zetkin and Erich Mühsam, prominent Marxists in Germany, along with literary champions of socialism like Karl Henckell and Alfred Klineberg, all cited Nietzsche as a formative influence. Even Franz Mehring eventually came around. Upon first encountering the philosopher’s writings in the 1890s, he’d described Nietzsche as “the philosopher of financial capitalism,” writing:

Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism. That was a big mistake for a philosopher at the end of the nineteenth century, because a philosopher who doesn’t know how to confront the most powerful movement of his time is anything but a philosopher. But the real problem was that this gap left open the possibility to whitewash Nietzsche’s philosophy of monopoly capitalism and to aestheticize away the fact that he combated proletarian class struggle from the same elevated circles of thought as did the next best stockbroker or the next best reptile.

By the early 1900s, Mehring had changed his tune. “The Nietzsche cult is useful to socialism,” he wrote. “No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people growing up within the bourgeois classes, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. For such people, however, Nietzsche is often a gateway to socialism.” Victor Serge adopted an opposite approach in a 1917 article, but arrived at the same conclusion about Nietzsche: “He was our enemy. So be it. But he himself said to us: Desire perfect enemies. One can fraternize with ‘perfect’ enemies; our struggle with them makes us more beautiful, more fertile.”

Remarks such as these have not ceased to scandalize Stalinists like Georg Lukács. Or at least the one who wrote The Destruction of Reason in 1952, which Adorno hilariously dubbed “the destruction of Lukács’ own reason.” He read National Socialism back into Nietzsche’s philosophy in such a way that it became simply a straightforward anticipation of the views later promulgated by Alfred Rosenberg. Mazzino Montinari, the Italian Marxist critic who co-edited the critical German edition of Nietzsche’s complete works, observed that “there are cases in which Lukács’ Nietzsche is more of a strict national socialist than [Nazi state philosopher] Alfred Bäumler’s Nietzsche.” Continue reading

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

Not yet human: Universality, common inhumanity, and Marx


The earth will rise on new foundations.
We have been nothing; we will be everything.
’Tis the final conflict, let each stand in their place.
The International will be the human race.

— L’Internationale, 1871

Universality today seems a lost cause, the mild resurgence of Marxism in recent years notwithstanding. A number of prominent theorists have championed this category in their critiques of multicultural neoliberalism, perhaps most notably Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, but have made little headway. Vivek Chibber’s noble (if somewhat flawed) 2013 polemic against Postcolonial Studies was made to suffer the indignity of a public scolding by whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who writes under the handle Of CLR James: “If postcolonial theorists want to hold onto the particularity of the particular, and engage the universal through it, Chibber uses these ‘two universalisms’ [the universalism of capital and the universalism of labor] in order to denude the particular, to remove the particularity of the particular in order to reduce it to the universal.” He claims that Chibber’s book is thus not even Marxist, since the real Marxists à la mode have already all accepted the legitimate points raised by postcolonial and decolonial theory and moved on:

The Marxism fashionable both inside and outside the academy today is one which has learned to meet people where they are, that has learned that a caring approach to particularity and a concern to foster difference is not opposed to the universal but is, rather, one way of producing new universals, of realizing freer modes of being in common. Indeed, the Marxism fashionable today is that one which has taken postcolonial theory as a serious incitement, as a spur to think critically about its own deficits but also as a challenge to uncover its hidden possibilities.

Obviously, there’s no accounting for fashion. And I won’t even touch the platitude about “meeting people where they are.” Loren Goldner is perhaps a little old-fashioned. In any case, he has little patience for this fashionable nonsense. Deploring postcolonial theory as “a relativizing discourse of cultural ‘difference’ incapable of making critical judgments,” Goldner argues that Marxist universality must be recovered, reasserted, and boldly upheld. “Today, the idea that there is any meaningful universality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if the opponents of such a view rarely state their case in so many words (or are even aware that this is the issue),” he writes. “For them, such an idea, like the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria from which one can judge the humanity or inhumanity of different ‘cultures,’ are ‘white male’ or ‘Eurocentric’ constructs designed to deny to women, people of color, or gays the ‘difference’ of their ‘identity’.”

Goldner’s fulminations against the influential Heideggerian idea of ontological difference and its French variations are well known. He suspects that the partisans of “the current climate of postmodern culturalism” are mostly disturbed by the fact the Marxian critique does not have recourse to its usual explanatory mechanisms: “What bothers them is that the concept of universality for Marx and Engels was ultimately grounded neither in cultural constructs nor even in the metaphysics of ‘power,’ which is the currency in which today’s fashion trades.”

Questions of fashion aside, it might still be asked whether the method described above by Taylor is the way Marxists actually approach matters of universal import. In what does the universality of Marx consist? Goldner tells us: “The universalism of Marx rests on a notion of humanity as a species distinguished by its capacity to periodically revolutionize its means of extracting wealth from nature, and therefore as free from the relatively fixed laws of population nature imposes on other species.” According to Marx, then, the special characteristic that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, or rather potentially sets it apart, is that humans exist historically. Unlike other species, knowledge and customs are transmitted from one generation to the next through record-keeping, allowing individual humans to participate in the past as more than just temporary embodiments of genetic code. “History itself is a real part of natural history and of nature’s becoming man,” Marx concluded in Paris 1844. Élisée Reclus, a prominent nineteenth century anarchist and professional geographer, put it pithily: “Man is nature become conscious.”

One crucial detail is omitted in Goldner’s otherwise accurate formulation of Marx’s view, however: namely, that this uniquely human capacity manifests only at a specific moment in history, though perhaps it was always latent in its nature. By a confluence of factors, many of them fortuitous and by chance, a systemic logic took hold which would sweep away older forms of local community in the name of a global society founded on exchange. With the historic emergence of capital, new vistas of possibility are opened up (even if today they seem to have closed). Powers and capacities that did not hitherto exist become available for the first time. Continue reading