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Month: August, 2017

The Failure of the Recognition Paradigm in Critical Theory


by Michael J. Thompson (PDF)

Critical theory has been decidedly transformed over the past thirty years by the influence of ideas that, in many basic ways, run counter to the initial set of ideas and propositions that defined and shaped the first generation of critical theorists. Now, critical theorists deal with questions of human rights, dignity, justification, and theories of democracy. They have broken with a more robust, more insightful, and more radical project of understanding the mechanisms of social domination, the deformation of character and the deformations of cognitive and epistemic powers that explain the increasing acceptance of the prevailing social order and the increasing integration and legitimacy of pathological forms of social life. The break was effected with a move toward pragmatist themes on the one hand and toward a concern with neo-Idealist ideas rooted in Kant and Hegel. This reworking of critical theory has been centered on the elimination of ideas rooted in Marxism and into a kind of system building that champions the supposed self-transforming powers of intersubjective social action. Indeed, whereas Habermas has been highly successful at promoting a Kantian-pragmatist paradigm based in discourse, Axel Honneth’s work has been premised on a neo-Idealist return to Hegelian themes fused to pragmatist ideas about social action and self- and social transformation. I believe that this move has been lethal for the actual political relevance of critical theory, that it has drained it of its potency even as it has allowed for more professionalized success within mainstream intellectual and academic circles. The price paid for winning this acceptance, however, has been dear and it has compromised the very methodological and philosophical commitments of critical theory . . . [continue]

 A Note on Dialectics (1960)


[In 1941, Herbert Marcuse published Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. In 1960, he added this new preface, which briefly explains the underlying basis of Hegel’s philosophy, and why Marcuse considers dialectics such a powerful approach to theory and politics. All genuine progress, he insists, requires the recognition of the negative as a social force and reality.]

By Herbert Marcuse

This book [Reason and Revolution] was written in the hope that it would make a small contribution to the revival, not of Hegel, but of a mental faculty which is in danger of being obliterated: the power of negative thinking. As Hegel defines it: “Thinking is, indeed, essentially the negation of that which is immediately before us.” What does he mean by “negation,” the central category of the dialectic?

Even Hegel’s most abstract and metaphysical concepts are saturated with experience—experience of a world in which the unreasonable becomes reasonable and, as such, determines the facts; in which unfreedom is the condition of freedom, and war the guarantor of peace. This world contradicts itself. Common sense and science purge themselves from this contradiction; but philosophical thought begins with the recognition that the facts do not correspond to the concepts imposed by common sense and scientific reason—in short, with the refusal to accept them. To the extent that these concepts disregard the fatal contradictions which make up reality, they abstract from the very process of reality. The negation which the dialectic applies to them is not only a critique of conformist logic, which denies the reality of contradictions; it is also a critique of the given state of affairs on its own ground—of the established system of life, which denies its of promises and potentialities.

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Mediations Vol. 30, No 2: Post-Humanisms Reconsidered


Sandeep Banerjee: Beyond the Intimations of Mortality: Chakrabarty, Anthropocene, and the Politics of the (Im)Possible

Responding to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Sandeep Banerjee argues that Chakrabarty treats nature as a thing rather than a relation. Reading the Anthropocene as a dialectical relation, Banerjee argues for an emergent “planetary consciousness” where the planet itself becomes the site of the labor/capital struggle.

Auritro Majumder: Gayatri Spivak, Planetarity and the Labor of Imagining Internationalism

Auritro Majumder revisits the work of Gayatari Spivak to highlight the importance of Hegelian-Marxist thought to her work. Against the hegemonic interpretation, Majumder reads Spivak’s concept of “planetarity” against the “global” as a way of thinking through the “dialectic of the human imagination of the impossible as well as the interplay between the human and the natural.”

Caren Irr: Introduction: An Althusser for the Twenty-First Century

Caren Irr introduces a roundtable on Althusser and argues for his importance in the twenty-first century. The roundtable itself is occasioned by the recent publication in English of Althusser’s On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Each of the essays collected here represents new ways of thinking through the core issues that make up Althusser’s body of work. Namely, they interrogate the ongoing importance of ideology as a “social glue” by examining the ways individuals interact with institutions and within technologically mediated networks.

Matthew Flisfeder: Morality or Enjoyment? On Althusser’s Ideological Supplement of the Law

What happens when interpellation fails? Matthew Flisfeder suggests that in the current moment, “even the call of the moral supplement towards conscience and duty itself begins to break down under the continuous revolutionary thrust of the capitalist mode of production — that is, its need to break down its own limits and barriers in the further pursuit of profit.”

Eli Jelly-Schapiro: Historicizing Repression and Ideology

Eli Jelly-Schapiro examines the historically contingent combination of repression and ideology in order to articulate the forms of ongoing repression and ideology in neoliberalism. Reading Althusser against Fanon, Jelly-Schapiro describes the formation of ideology as the result of both “power in the abstract,” which recruits the subject, and “the result of an intersubjective encounter.”

Carolyn Lesjak: Althusser and the University Today

Taking up debates between domination and exploitation that run throughout Althusser’s work, Carolyn Lesjak invokes Althusser’s importance to understanding the role of the university today. How is it even possible, Lesjak wonders, for the university to claim to occupy a position of intellectual neutrality when it is oriented in every way and self-evidently toward the reproduction of the market?

Promise Li: Althusser’s Clinamen: Aleatory Materialism and Revolutionary Politics

Promise Li revisits the perceived split between early and late Althusser through the concept of the “clinamen,” as Althusser uses it in his later writings. Li focuses on the non-linearity of the term’s function. The concept of the clinamen, he argues, urges us to revisit Althusser’s famous ISA essay in order to find “gestures toward revolutionary engagement.”

Warren Montag: Althusser’s Empty Signifier: What is the Meaning of the Word “Interpellation”?

“What does ‘interpellation’ actually mean?” asks Warren Montag. Returning to the foundational concept of Althusser’s writings, Montag highlights its difficulty and importance. Examining what appears to be a settled matter, Montag argues for a renewed interest in the violence underpinning the concept: “there is nothing illusory about the means of subjection,” he writes.

Oded Nir: Althusser, or The System

Oded Nir takes the opportunity of the English publication of On the Reproduction of Capitalism to do some space clearing, refusing the dominant modes of reading Althusser. Instead, Nir at once further historicizes Althusser’s thinking and reads him as an “unsuspecting utopian.”

Jason Read: Ideology as Individuation, Individuating Ideology

Jason Read takes up the relation between the individual and collectivity in Althusser’s work. Read focuses on Althusser’s interest in the “ideological dimension of the individual,” primarily by tracing his interest in the law and in particular the moral supplement to the law within its historical dimensions.

Imre Szeman: On Ideology in Althusser’s On the Reproduction of Capitalism

How is it that subjects “go all by themselves?” This, according to Imre Szeman, is the question at the core of On the Reproduction of Capitalism. But, Szeman argues, ideology cannot be understood simply via a philosophical investigation of recruitment and misrecognition.

Phillip E. Wegner: On Althusser’s Not Un-Usefulness (Notes Toward an Investigation)

To understand the importance of On the Reproduction of Capitalism, Phillip E. Wegner argues that we must take seriously its subtitle: “Notes Toward an Investigation.” Read as a dialectical investigation, Althusser’s project is most useful in its capacity to think the “tumultuous present.” Crucially, for Wegner, this means understanding class struggle as always a struggle over the organization and functioning of institutions, including (especially) the university.


Mitch Murray: On Imagined and Science Fictional Futures

Mitch Murray reviews two books: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics by Jens Beckert and Four Futures: Life after Capitalism by Peter Frase.

Davis Smith-Brecheisen: The Limits of Art

Davis Smith-Brecheisen reviews Annie McClanahan’s Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture.

Dialectics and Difference: Against the “Decolonial Turn”


by Ross Wolfe (Insurgent Notes #15, August 2017)

The decade or so since the financial crisis of 2008 has seen a resurgence of interest in what nineteenth-century thinkers would have called “the social question,” backpedaling somewhat from the “cultural turn” of previous decades. Yet despite a series of recent skirmishes against the post-communist geopolitical order—from the Greek uprising in December 2008 to the London riots, Arab Spring, and Spanish indignados of 2011, up to the Polish women’s strikes in October 2016—old habits die hard. Few self-styled radicals who came of age during the nineties and aughts, especially those who attended universities, want to see the discourses of “difference” on which they were weaned suddenly abandoned wholesale. Alongside nascent and budding movements, then, one witnesses the recrudescence of concepts and strategies which ought to have been superseded by events themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the almost endless balkanization of identity formations. Each lays claim to a particular set of un-relatable “lived experiences,” as if hell-bent on proving the old psychoanalytic trope of Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen (narcissism of small differences).

“Decolonial” criticism is an example of just this sort of vogue academic approach, which can be grafted onto preexisting disciplines and practices with relative ease. Still further, in so doing, it offers the semblance of radicalism, because it appears to challenge the tacit erasures and hidden presuppositions of prior revolutionary perspectives. In reality, however, it simply transposes dependency theory in the realm of economics onto that of epistemology. Third-worldism, based on the model proposed by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, has been supplanted by talk of the Global South, based on the line proposed by the former West German chancellor Willy Brandt in 1983. But the substance remains the same. Mainly it consists in diagnosing the allegedly Eurocentric prejudices of various bodies of knowledge, down to their very methodologies, and then enjoining individuals to decolonize their minds. “Kill the cop in your head!” is seemingly replaced by “kill the Pilgrim in your head!” Recently, this procedure has even sought to “colonize” dialectical thought, although in the name of its decolonization. Here it becomes worthwhile to review one of the more elaborate efforts to subsume dialectics under difference.

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21 Theses on the Politics of Forms of Life


by Daniel Loick (PDF)

In this position paper, I take up Herbert Marcuse’s notion of the ‘great refusal’ to describe several phenomena that can be subsumed under the concept of a ‘politics of forms of life’, especially in the context of the revolts of 1968: projects like communes, anti-authoritarian childcare centers, solidary sub-economies and many more. After naming some shared characteristics of politics of forms of life, I defend a politicization of forms of life against a liberal critique as well as hint at specific challenges. Finally, I suggest which insights of past politics of forms of life I find to be most relevant for a revitalization of critical theory today.

Preface: Attempting Liberation

In “Paralysis of Criticism,” the preface to his One-Dimensional Man  (1964), Herbert Marcuse offered an assessment of the world-political state of affairs that was rather skeptical of the possibility of societal liberation. The advanced industrialized society we live in, he argued, was the culmination of a historical dynamic in which the oppression of mankind increased concurrently with the technological progress that potentially would allow them more freedom. The final and emblematic expression of this dialectic of enlightenment is the atomic bomb, for the first time in the history of humanity threatening the sheer existence of the species. This condition, which is irrational “as a whole”, owes its stability to the intensification of the ideological control over human subjectivity that goes hand-in-hand with an integration and recuperation of critique. “Technical progress,” he writes, “extended to a whole system of domination and coordination, creates forms of life (and of power) which appear to reconcile the forces opposing the system and to defeat or refute all protest in the name of the historical prospects of freedom from toil and domination.” Unlike Marx and Engels, Marcuse can no longer identify an actual moment transcending the existing society; while the Communist Manifesto could still assume that capitalism produces its own grave diggers with the proletariat, Marcuse diagnoses a complete absence of any real desire for change, rendering every criticism to a powerless ought. However, Marcuse does not conclude that we should return to merely moral critique that would apply an abstract standard to society from the outside and thus ignore people’s real subjectivity. For him, the emancipatory task lies rather in constructively producing a transgressive moment within society itself. According to Marcuse, people can acknowledge their true interests “only if they live in need of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing.” For the construction of this material need for change, Marcuse, on the last pages of the One-Dimensional Mancoins the term great refusal. . . [continue]

Materialistische Dialektik bei Marx und über Marx hinaus


Die Akten der Tagung wurden mit dem Titel Materialistische Dialektik bei Marx und über Marx hinaus als elektronische Publikation veröffentlicht. Der Sammelband kann HIER kostenlos gelesen und heruntergeladen werden.

The conference proceedings have been published online with the title Materialistische Dialektik bei Marx und über Marx hinaus. The book can be read and downloaded without any charge by clicking HERE.

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