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Reading (and Writing) Critical Theory

Il faut être absolument moderne. - Rimbaud, Un Saison en Enfer

Long Sunday has dusted itself off for a series of essays on Axel Honneth's new collection of essays: Pathologies of Reason. Unfortunately, I have not read the book. But many of the essays have been published previously in English, collected now under the rubric of the "legacy of Critical Theory." What I intend to do here is not to review the book, but to reflect on a few issues illustrated by the symposium at Long Sunday.

I comment at considerable distance from the text itself: a response to responses at Long Sunday to an edited volume of essays translated from German. What Honneth really says is thus not an issue for me. This fact however points our attention towards a truism: that 'Critical Theory'—here more narrowly construed than in Craig McFarlane's contribution—is a discourse sustained by readers and commenters. There is not only a set of primary texts that form the foundation for participants, the canon of a bibliocentric post-Marxism, but also a accepted set of readings of these texts. Among these I would mark: Helmut Dubiel, Seyla Benhabib, Rolf Wiggershaus, and Martin Jay. The single most important reading of the first generation Frankfurt School is Jürgen Habermas' The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. This book has done more to concretize a certain reading of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse than any other work of interpretation. That is, it has become a sort of 'official' autobiography of Critical Theory. The main critique is leveled at the Dialectic of Enlightenment's expansion of instrumental reason into labor itself, so that Reason enslaves from its first moment, and is thus ultimately self-defeating—an aporia of reason. I remain agnostic here about the truth or fairness of this reading. However, it is crucial to understand this reading of DoE sets the stage for Habermas' communicative rupture with the first-generation Frankfurters.

The Habermasian autobiography follows the major arc of Post-Marxism in one respect: It views rationality as problematic, if not suspicious. The biggest surprise, however, is that Habermas resolves this problem into a transhistorical, transnational, trans-contextual standard of rationality. Most dissenters are uncomfortable with the procedural contortions that accompany these claims. Honneth's "recognition" project is an effort to leverage the insights of the communicative turn into a more transformative theory of social justice. (One lacuna of the Long Sunday contributions thus far is the lack contextualization against the rest of Honneth's work.) In my reading of contemporary Critical Theory, the consuming need to ground reason has pressured theorists to abandon the substance of the most compelling critical responses Post-War consumer society. As an example, let me point to Marcuse's One-Dimentional Man, where the "critique of technological reason" points our attention towards the embeddedness of reason in technological and consumerist contexts. Or, to cite another example, the language of economics and economic interest, which characterized the bourgeois public sphere in Habermas' Habilitationshrift, becomes more recently almost incidental to the real theoretical work of critical theory. Based on the responses at Long Sunday, Honneth's book is also consumed by the problem of reason and the precise epistemological and normative claims of "critique." But to the extent that Critical Theory has become a discourse turned back onto itself, reading and interpreting a set of canonical texts, it is not clear that this degree of self-reflectivity is productive. Have we, in effect, enacted "dialectics at a standstill," to borrow Stephen Bronner phrase.

A further point follows from these reflections. Critical Theory has a relevance complex: it must constantly reinterpret and resituate itself according to diagnoses of the contemporary world. Barret Weber points to the consuming need for Critical Theory to be "up-to-date." One could read Habermas' more empirical moments as symptoms of this need:

The fundamental problem of social theory is how to connect in a satisfactory way the two conceptual strategies indicated by the notions of system and lifeworld (TCA II, p. 151)
Here we see the need to diagnose modern society overshadowing the normative considerations that provided the diagnosis with its impetus. But Habermas is not alone: recall the Althusserian Marx whose social theory was purely scientific. Since Marx, the task of correctly describing modern society has been as important as the task of establishing normative foundations for change.

No single conclusion or prescription emerges out of these comments. They simply enumerate a series of recurrent trends in Critical Theory. In one sense, they mark my own growing distance to the tradition. In another, my continued indebtedness to it. However, I do believe they mark three of the most important "force fields" in which Critical Theory moves (the quote comes from Adorno's lectures on Kant): diagnosis, reason, and intertextuality. In my more pessimistic moods, I wonder if the recurrence of these themes isn't symptomatic of Critical Theory's inability to work itself out of itself in any productive way.


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