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Tag: adorno

Theses Against Occultism (Adorno, 1947)

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by Theodor Adorno, from Minima Moralia

I. The tendency to occultism is a symptom of regression in consciousness. This has lost the power to think the unconditional and to endure the conditional. Instead of defining both, in their unity and difference, by conceptual labour, it mixes them indiscriminately. The unconditional becomes fact, the conditional an immediate essence. Monotheism is decomposing into a second mythology. “I believe in astrology because I do not believe in God”, one participant in an American socio-psychological investigation answered. Judicious reason, that had elevated itself to the notion of one God, seems ensnared in his fall. Spirit is dissociated into spirits and thereby forfeits the power to recognize that they do not exist. The veiled tendency of society towards disaster lulls its victims in a false revelation, with a hallucinated phenomenon. In vain they hope in its fragmented blatancy to look their total doom in the eye and withstand it. Panic breaks once again, after millennia of enlightenment, over a humanity whose control of nature as control of men far exceeds in horror anything men ever had to fear from nature.

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Für Krahl (Reinicke, 1973)

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by Helmut Reinicke (Merve Verlag, 1973) PDF

[See also: Digger Journal; Krahlstudien; Krahl-briefe]

»Ist das Wahre abstrakt, so ist es unwahr

Hegel

I.

Eine Darstellung der intellektuellen Biographie der Revolt am Denken von Hans-Jürgen Krahl (1944-1970) bedarf nicht des je­weils akribischen Nachweises der gelungenen marxistischen Ab­leitung jeder Kategorie. Nicht auf das hausmannskostartige Räsonnement kann es ankommen, den Versuchen einer Rekonstruk­tion der revolutionären Theorie auf jeder Stufe vorzuhalten, sie habe Theoreme der Marxschen Lehre ungenügend abgeleitet oder die Totalität nicht im Griff. Oft sind Krahls Gedanken noch mit den Muttermalen der Kritischen Theorie behaftet, – selbst seine letzten Arbeiten, die den mittlerweile ausgesessenen Meta­physikverdacht, ein Apriorismus läge der Revolution in der Theo­rie des historischen Materialismus zugrunde, an Marx herantragen. Dies sind Relikte, welche die weiteren Debatten über materia­listische Erkenntnistheorie nicht mehr zum Gegenstand ihrer Über­legungen zu machen brauchen; Krahls Arbeiten haben selber da­zu beigetragen, dass die Rekonstruktion der Marxschen Lehre den seit der II. Internationale und dem Stalinismus angestammten Vorurteilen nicht mehr aufsitze. Verkürzungen Marxscher Begriffe oder die oft spekulativen Ableitungen kennzeichnen die Eile, in der zur Zeit des aktiven Widerstandes der Hochschulrevolt gedacht wer­den musste; sie sind zugleich Index für die Notwendigkeit revo­lutionären Denkens, sich auch als vorübergehendes Theorem fest­halten zu müssen, als transitorisches Denken.

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Adorno, Non-Identity, Sexuality (Stoetzler, 2009)

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by Marcel Stoetzler, published in Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism (ed. Holloway, Matamoros, Tischler, 2009)

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This chapter explores some of Adorno’s scattered remarks on love, on the gender relation between men and women, as well as on homosexuality, and how these relate to modern individuality, subjectivity and the capitalist mode of production. Its focus is on the modernity of the idea that there are exactly two sexes, understood as two distinct species or essences, and some of the implications and reverberations of this idea. It proceeds by way of arranging (juxtaposing perhaps) a number of related arguments taken from a body of Marxist writing mostly from the 1970s and 1980s that seems, if not influenced by, then at least compatible with, Adorno’s theorising. The guiding idea is that strict sexual dimorphism is an aspect, or expression, of the increasingly genital organisation of sexuality on the one hand, and on the other, the sublimation of Eros in the service of capitalist real subsumption. Both have been, and still are, part of the same historical process.

Der negative Anthropologe: Ulrich Sonnemann

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by Roger Behrens, Jungle World, 2012

[see also: Negative Anthropology and Critical Theory, Johanßen, 2013]

Ulrich Sonnemann ist nicht nur der Kritischen Theorie zuzurechnen, sondern hat sie entscheidend mitgeprägt: Einerseits durch sein philosophisches Hauptwerk »Negative Anthropologie«, andererseits aber auch durch seine publizistische Einmischung in die Skandale und Debatten der bundesdeutschen Öffentlichkeit. Dass Sonnemann und seine Schriften, die seit einigen Jahren in sorgfältiger, bibliophiler Edition beim zu Klampen-Verlag erscheinen, heute kaum mehr wahrgenommen werden, spricht fast schon für seine Bedeutung für die Kritische Theorie: In der Ignoranz, die ihm im universitären Betrieb schon zu Lebzeiten widerfuhr, spiegelt sich das herrschende Desinteresse an der Kritik überhaupt.

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“No Individual Can Resist”: Minima Moralia as Critique of Forms of Life (Jaeggi, 2005)

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by Rahel Jaeggi (Constellations, 2005)

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Can forms of life be criticized? Can we say whether particular forms of life are good, successful, or even rational? Since Kant it has been broadly accepted that happiness or the good life, in contrast to the morally right, cannot be determined philosophically. And since Rawls the ethical content of forms of life has been regarded, in view of the irreducible ethical pluralism of modern societies, as not up for debate. Philosophy has thus withdrawn from the Socratic question of how one should live and restricted itself to the problem of how, given the multiplicity of mutually incommensurable “comprehensive doctrines,” a just common life can be secured as the “coexistence” of different forms of life. The question of how we lead our lives has been consigned to the domain of unquestioned preferences or irreducible and unchallengeable identities. As with taste, there is no quarreling with forms of life.

This restraint is alien to Adorno’s critical theory.


See also by Jaeggi:

Minima Moralia by Adorno

Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966): Collected Works

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“The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself. Since these judgments are expressions of the tendencies of a particular era, they do not offer conclusive testimony about its overall constitution. The surface-level expressions, however, by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things. Conversely, knowledge of this state of things depends on the interpretation of these surface-level expressions. The fundamental substance of an epoch and its unheeded impulses illuminate each other reciprocally.” – Kracauer, The Mass Ornament, 1927

By Siegfried Kracauer:

The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (1922-1931)

The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany (1930)

From Caligari to Hitler A Psychological History of the German Film (1947)

Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960)

The Pasts Threshold: Essays on Photography (1927-1951)

Siegfried_Kracauer’s_American Writings: Essays on Film and Popular Culture (1941-1961)

History-The Last Things Before the Last (1969)

On Siegfried Kracauer:

Koch, Introduction to Siegfried Kracauer (2000)

Gilloch, Siegfried Kracauer: Our companion in misfortune (2015)

Hansen, Cinema and experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno (2012)

Craver, Reluctant Skeptic: Siegfried Kracauer and the Crises of Weimar Culture (2017)

Reeh, Ornaments of the Metropolis_ Siegfried Kracauer and Modern Urban Culture (2005

New_German_Critique_54: _SPECIAL ISSUE ON SIEGFRIED KRACAUER 1991

Ockman, Between Ornament and Monument: Siegfried Kracauer and the Architectural Implications of the Mass Ornament

Forrest, The Politics of Imagination: Benjamin, Kracauer, Kluge, 2015

Critical theory and experience: Interview with Detlev Claussen (2019)

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Detlev Claussen and Jordi Maiso – RP 2.06 (Winter 2019)
Translated by Alex Alvarez Taylor

[See Claussen’s biography of Adorno: One Last Genius (2008)]

Detlev Claussen (b. 1948) is Professor Emeritus of Social Theory, Culture and Sociology at Leibniz Universität Hannover. In the mid-sixties he moved to Frankfurt to study with Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, where he was actively involved in the protest movements associated with the political upheavals of 1968. In the seventies, Claussen worked as Oskar Negt’s assistant, with whom he shared the common project of opening up new avenues for critical theory without renouncing the thought of their intellectual mentors. Since then, Claussen has argued that instead of offering an overarching theory that can be applied from ‘outside’ of existing social reality, critical theory offers a variety of strategies that allow us simultaneously to disentangle and invigorate present experience. Claussen has written on a wide range of themes, including social theory, psychoanalysis, the sociology of science and culture, as well as anti-Semitism, racism, nationalism and migration. His biography of the legendary Jewish coach and footballer Béla Guttmann, yet to be translated into English, offers a prime example of how his published work cannot be separated from the wider context of his intellectual biography. Both an essayist and Adorno’s biographer, Claussen is one of the leading lights of critical theory today.

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Cured Quail Vol. 2

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As industrial culture grinds to a halt, what better time to reflect, in this hour of unprecedented catastrophe, unwieldy political ferment and social distance, on the backlog of damages inflicted by this society? The economy continues to demand reverence from lives barely tottering along while offering cultural consolation hardly worth the name.

Preorders are now open for Cured Quail Vol. 2. The more preorders we receive, the faster the printer cylinders rotate.

Cured Quail Volume 2 | Fall 2020 | 304 pages

Cured Quail also now has its own Facebook and Twitter pages. Be sure to follow!

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Die Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen: Max Horkheimer im Interview mit Helmut Gumnior (1970)

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»In einer wirklich freiheitlichen Gesinnung bleibt jener Begriff des Unendlichen als Bewußtsein der Endgültigkeit des irdischen Geschehens und der unabänderlichen Verlassenheit des Menschen erhalten und bewahrt die Gesellschaft vor einem blöden Optimismus, vor dem Aufspreizen ihres eigenen Wissens als einer neuen Religion.«

Diesen Satz schrieb Max Horkheimer vor 35 Jahren im amerikanischen Exil. Er war damals seit über einem Jahr in New York. Noch galt er zu der Zeit als Marxist, als Begründer einer Theorie, die gesellschaftliches Wirken als Produktionsprozeß zu begreifen versuchte, die Philosophie als Kampf und nicht als weltferne Spekulation verstand, die von einer Revolution eine heile Welt, den vernünftigen Zustand der Gesellschaft erwartete.

H.G.: Herr Horkheimer, wie kommt ein Marxist, ein Revolutionär dazu, einen solchen Satz zu schreiben?

MAX HORKHEIMER: Es stimmt, ich war Marxist, ich war Revolutionär. Ich habe nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg begonnen, mich mit Marx zu beschäftigen, weil die Gefahr des Nationalismus offenkundig war. Ich glaubte, nur durch eine Revolution könnte der Nationalsozialismus beseitigt werden und zwar durch eine marxistische Revolution. Mein Marxismus, mein Revolutionärsein war eine Antwort auf die Herrschaft des Totalitären von rechts. Ich hatte aber schon damals Zweifel, ob die von Marx verlangte Solidarität des Proletariats schließlich zu einer richtigen Gesellschaft führen würde.

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Adorno on Hegel (1956)

Hegel: Three Studies by Theodor Adorno

Like other closed systems of thought, Hegel’s philosophy avails itself of the dubious advantage of not having to allow any criticism whatsoever. All criticism of the details, according to Hegel, remains partial and misses the whole, which in any case takes this criticism into account. Conversely, criticizing the whole as a whole is abstract, “unmediated,” and ignores the fundamental motif of Hegelian philosophy: that it cannot be distilled into any “maxim” or general principle and proves its worth only as a totality, in the concrete interconnections of all its moments. Accordingly, the only way to honor Hegel is to refuse to allow oneself to be intimidated by the virtually mythological complexity of his critical method, which makes criticism seem false no matter what, and instead of graciously or ungraciously listing or denying his merits, go after the whole, which is what Hegel himself was after.

Behind our Backs: Moishe Postone in Conversation

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Moishe Postone, who was Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of the College, History, and the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago, passed away in March of 2018 after a long battle with cancer. A founding editor of Critical Historical Studies, he is best known for his important and novel reinterpretation of Marx in Time, Labor, and Social Domination. His passing is a serious blow; his mind and his person will be deeply missed.

In the spring of 2015, we sat down with Professor Postone to talk about everything except Marx. Our conversation focused on the authors read in the Social Sciences Core (Soc Core) sequence that he chaired from 1990 to 2016, “Self, Culture, & Society.” Professor Postone was the most formative influence on the “Self, Culture, & Society” curriculum during his tenure as chair and was a passionate advocate for general education requirements.

All undergraduates at the University of Chicago are required to take a year-long, three-quarter course in the Soc Core. “Self, Culture, & Society” (“Self”) is one of the three most popular Soc Core sequences at the University, the others of which are “Classics of Social and Political Thought” (“Classics”) and “Power, Identity, and Resistance” (“Power”), both of which are mentioned below. The reading list for “Self, Culture, & Society,” circa 2015, was roughly as follows:

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Gillian Rose (1947-1995)

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The Melancholy Science An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno

Hegel Contra Sociology

Dialectic of Nihilism: Post-Structuralism and Law

Judaism and Modernity

Love’s Work

Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy And Representation

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: A Reappraisal (ed. Browning)

Gillian Rose died on the evening of 9 December 1995 after a long and courageous struggle with cancer. The hour of her death coincided with the closing moments of a conference dedicated to her work at Warwick University. Although her rapidly deteriorating health prevented her from attending as planned, the conference was inspired by the presence of her work, above all by its questioning of the division between the political and theological faces of Hegelianism.

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Crisis and Immiseration: Critical Theory Today

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by A. Benanav and J. Clegg (2018)

The late 1960s saw an efflorescence of dissident Marxisms across Europe: operaismo in Italy, situationnisme in France, and what would become the Neue Marx-Lektüre in Germany. Marxian orthodoxy had entered into crisis after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. A ‘new left’ was now groping for new ideas, and a wave of worker–student revolts, erupting worldwide in 1968, seemed to require a critical theory of post-war capitalism adequate to the practical critique taking shape in the factories and on the streets. Just as a previous high-point of theoretical production in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 had seen a revival of the critical spirit of Marx’s writings, so too the new generation of dissident Marxists carried out their own ‘return to Marx’ aided by the discovery and distribution of many of his unpublished manuscripts.

Members of the Frankfurt School acted as an intellectual bridge between these two high points of Marxian theorizing. In Germany, the work of Theodor Adorno – along with the writings of some of the more unorthodox associates of the Frankfurt School, such as Alfred Sohn-Rethel – had a major influence on emergent re-readings of Marx’s mature writings. This Neue Marx-Lektüre interpreted Marx’s theory of value through his discussion of fetishism, not as a theory of the determination of prices, but rather as a theory of the determination of social labor as price. Here the dissidents drew on Sohn-Rethel’s notion of ‘real abstraction’, in which the material life process is dominated by the abstract and impersonal social forms of value. On this view, Marx’s late critique of political economy was not an attempt to improve upon the classical political economists, as Marxian orthodoxy had it. Instead, his critique showed how their inverted perspective corresponded to the real inversions of the ‘perverted, topsy-turvy world’ of capitalist society. . .  [READ PDF]

source: SAGE Handbook for Frankfurt School Critical Theory, ed. Best, Bonefeld, O’Kane 2018

What Barbarism Is?

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Richard Serra, “Betwixt and Torus and the Sphere” (2001). Wheatherproof steel. Three Torus sections and three spherical sections, overall: 11’10” × 39’9″ × 26’7″ (3.6 × 11.5 × 8.1 m), plates: 2″ (5.1 cm) thick. Private Collection. Photographed by Dirk Reinartz. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

An enormous nation happy in a style,
Everything as unreal as real can be.

Wallace Stevens

Prometheus stole fire to distract the gods, not for our gift; what he bestowed was reason, the ability to make anything into a weapon—even this.

Anon.

by Robert Hullot-Kentor (2010)

What interests us in the thought and writings of T. W. Adorno cannot interest us. Where it touches us most closely in the urgency of the moment, it misses the mark entirely. When it cuts to the quick, nothing is felt. This is easily demonstrated. For wherever we open Adorno’s writings, whichever volume we turn to, the topic is the barbaric and barbarism. In Aesthetic Theory, we read that the “literal is the barbaric”; we learn in the section on “Natural Beauty” that “it is barbaric to say of nature that one thing is more beautiful than another.” Adorno insists, again in Aesthetic Theory, that he will not temper his most notorious claim that it is “barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz.” Concerns we barely recognize are nonetheless barbaric: the New Objectivity is said to “reverse into the barbarically pre-aesthetic.” Inwardness is “barbaric.” Even it is barbaric, says Adorno, to name the artist “a creator.” I am positive that he would have found this fragmented rendering of phrases from his work barbaric. The relentless apostrophizing of the barbaric emerges as the single apostrophe of his labor and circumscribes the entirety of what he perceived. In Minima Moralia “the whole itself” is, in fact, said to be “barbarism.” And, if so, if the whole itself really is barbarism then nothing less than all things are barbaric. In the stream of assertion that threads through his thousands of pages, Adorno never once admits a half-tone, not a single “almost,” “semi,” or “formerly” barbaric. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the culture industry that this country produced is “barbarism.” This American “barbarism is not the result of cultural lag,” as other European visitors to America speculated, he writes, but of progress itself. And here, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, we arrive at the statement that shifts like a magnet under the iron filings of what has so far been a scattered catalogue of barbarism’s membra disjecta and causes them, as you’ll see in a moment, to draw together, take their place, become legible and shape the focal point of the whole of thinking. The intention of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno writes, with Horkheimer—this is the sentence—is to understand why “humanity founders in a new form of barbarism instead of entering a truly human condition.”

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A New Type of Human Being and Who We Really Are

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by Robert Hullot-Kentor (2008)

It needs to be noticed: We have New Left Review and October; we have Monthly Review and Critical Inquiry; there is Rethinking Marxism and Cultural CritiqueSocialist Review and ConfrontationCritiqueRadical Philosophy; the Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies and shelves and shelves of critical theory of all kinds. We have criticism of all things. Nothing is spared. A web search I tried last week of “critical studies”—leaving aside “cultural studies” and “critical theory”—turned up more than 31 million references. If we prudently discount 15 million of these references, we still easily have 15 million plus critical studies publications, programs and sundry essays: critical studies in television, of food, and culture; of science; of the arts, of media, across the disciplines; of society, of gender, in theatre and performance. And so on.

This capacious critical literature is certainly not homogeneous. Under any scrutiny, it polarizes out into the most remote extremes: On one hand, much of it amounts to fantasies of conceptual omnipotence; mental muscle magazines of self-obfuscation and academic self-advancement; administrative techniques for treating all things, all at once; a plausible way for anyone with an advantage of mental agility to get a hoist up on top of who knows what. But at the other extreme, an important part of this critical research and thinking, much for instance that can be found in volumes of Monthly Review and New Left Review, is of the greatest seriousness and responsibility, without which it is hard to imagine ever getting an education.

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Cured Quail vol 1. (review)

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Cured Quail, Glasgow, 2018. 224pp., £12, reviewed by J. Harvey

Against a backdrop of widening climate catastrophe and incessant war, representation appeared as focus of popular outcries in the so-called era of post-truth and new media. Cured Quail is a Marxist journal of critical aesthetics, self-published in 2018, that takes seriously the appearance of a generalized crisis of representation, truth and culture afflicting contemporary capitalist societies at the edge of disaster. In a society profoundly unable to represent anything other than its fragmented self, the very universality of language becomes threatened. Far from employing a deconstructionist or relativist approach, Cured Quail levels the charge of illiteracy against this society. The notion of illiteracy utilized here is similar to Adorno’s concept of the “speechlessness” of a new type of human being: that of a people who speak concretely and without illusion, but in the voice of a radio announcer, and who are ipso facto unable to openly express how the world could be any different. In their opening statement, the editors of Cured Quailshow an awareness that these solipsistic pitfalls are equally present in the academy, gallery, pamphlet and newsfeed. Cured Quail’s intervention is necessarily immanent as it does not proclaim to be external to these conditions.

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Durcheinander der Revolution. Umsturz als Transformation und Konstruktion

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Von Bini Adamczak (2018)

Die Revolution, die eine gute Zukunft realisieren will, entstammt einer schlechten Gegenwart, die sie überwinden will. Ohne die gefrorene Gewalt dieser vorrevolutionären Strukturen lässt sich die entfesselte der revolutionären Bewegung nicht verstehen. Wer das stille Leid der Unterdrückten nicht sehen will, wird in ihrem schließlichen Schrei nichts anderes hören können als das Brüllen einer Barbarei, gegen die dieser eigentlich gerichtet ist. Denn zunächst ist die Aufgabe der Revolution negativ bestimmt, sie hat einen unerträglichen Zustand zu beenden. »Der Zweck der Revolution«, schrieb Theodor W. Adorno in einem Brief an Walter Benjamin bündig, »ist die Abschaffung der Angst« (Adorno 1994, 173). Insofern aber die Angst, die sich auf eine ungewisse Zukunft richtet, der Vergangenheit entstammt, ist das kommunistische Morgen nicht ohne kapitalistisches Gestern verstehbar. Die Revolution lässt sich nicht ohne Kenntnis der Welt erschließen, aus deren Zusammenbruch sie hervorgeht und aus deren Trümmern sie eine neue zu erschaffen hat.

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Hans-Jürgen Krahl (1943-1970)

Studenten-Demos BRD - Besetzung der Frankfurter Uni; mitte J?rgen Krahl, Vorstandsmitglied der SDS

Hans-Jürgen Krahl points to the ceiling during the occupation of the University of Frankfurt, May 15, 1968 (AP Photo)

Dave Mesing | Hans-Jürgen Krahl, For and Against Critical Theory: Introduction

For Anglophone readers, Hans-Jürgen Krahl’s name is most distinctive as a marker for a possible alternative path within the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research.

Hans-Jürgen Krahl | Personal Information

The anti-authoritarian revolt was precisely a process of Marxist training, in which we have gradually detached from bourgeois ideologies, in which we have revealed the purely ideological character of its promises of liberation, and definitively understood that the classic forms of liberalism and emancipation, which still drive the liberal capitalism of competition, have definitively passed away. We have understood that now, in the struggle against the state, against bourgeois justice, and against the organized power of capital, in a long and certainly difficult process, it is a matter of conquering conditions that allow us to enter into organized contact with the working class and to create the historical pressures necessary for the education of class consciousness. It was a long process of education which also had to impose itself within the SDS.

Detlev Claussen | Krahl and His Conjuncture: An Interview with Detlev Claussen

The task for intellectuals is not to propagate the revolution from the outside, but to develop emancipatory needs which go beyond work—an emancipatory consciousness of the totality. In 1969, the world in Europe still seemed so open, the Italian Hot Autumn and the September strikes in Germany made such a task seem appropriate.

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Reading Adorno’s Fascist Propaganda Essay in the Age of Trump

 

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Writing shortly after the end of World War Two, just as the enormity of what had transpired begun to set in, Theodor Adorno turned to the writings of Freud to help account for the convulsive power of the fascist spell. Drawing on Freud’s studies in the psychology of masses, he was able to render an account of the psychological conditions for the rise of a charismatic leader, as well as the arsenal of gestures used by the leader to bewitch and to mobilize.

In an era marked by the rise of a paradoxically international right-wing populism, and in the midst of ethno-nationalist tumult in the United States, this roundtable reflects on the legacy and contemporary utility of Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.

Might Freud and other psychoanalytic theorists still have something to offer to social and political philosophy today? How can Adorno’s analysis of Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s inform our analyses of contemporary right-wing movements? These are the questions discussed by this roundtable, featuring J. M. Bernstein, Chiara Bottici, Vladimir Safatle, and Jamieson Webster.

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‘It only needs all’: re-reading Dialectic of Enlightenment at 70

by Marcel Stoetzler (opendemocracy)

Seventy years ago, Querido Verlag published a densely written book that has become a key title of modern social philosophy. Underneath its pessimistic granite surface a strangely sanguine message awaits us.

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Horkheimer left, Adorno right, Habermas background right, running hand through hair. Max Weber-Soziologentag, Heidelberg,April,1964. Wikicommons/Jeremy J.Shapiro. Some rights reserved.

How do you make an argument against social domination when the very terms, concepts and languages at your disposal are shaped by, and in turn serve that same social domination? Probably in the way you would light a fire in a wooden stove. How would you write a book about the impossibility of writing just that book? Like a poem about the pointlessness of poems. What if your enemies’ enemies are your own worst enemies? Can you defend liberal society from its fascist enemies when you know it is the wrong state of things? You must, but dialectics may well ‘make cowards of us all’ and spoil our ‘native hue of resolution’.

Dialectic of Enlightenment¹ is a very strange book, and although it was published, in 1947, by the leading publishing house for exiled, German-language anti-fascist literature, the Querido Verlag in Amsterdam, alongside many of the biggest literary names of the time, no-one will have expected that it gradually became one of the classics of modern social philosophy.

It is a book that commits all the sins editors tend to warn against: its chapters are about wildly differing subject matters; the writing is repetitive, circular and fragmented; no argument ever seems exhausted or final and there are no explicitly stated conclusions, and certainly no trace of a policy impact trajectory. Arguments start somewhere, suddenly come to a halt and then move on to something else. If this sounds like the script for a Soviet film from the revolutionary period, then that is not totally coincidental: it is an avant-garde montage film, transcribed into philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, given that it was written during WW2 in American exile and published at the beginning of the Cold War, it does not carry its Marxism on its sleeves, but it gives clear enough hints: in the preface, Horkheimer and Adorno state that the aim of the book is ‘to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism’. This addresses the dialectic referenced in the title of the book. The important bit here is the ‘instead of’: the reality of barbarism was undeniable and clearly visible, but the originality of the formulation lies in its implication that humanity could have been expected to enter ‘a truly human state’ sometime earlier in the twentieth century, leaving behind its not so human state.

The promise of progress towards humanity, held by socialists (and some liberals), blew up in their faces. It would have been easy and straightforward then to write a book arguing against the holding of such hope, but this would not have been a dialectical book; Dialectic of Enlightenment undertakes to rescue this hope by looking at why progress tipped over into its opposite.
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