RSS FeedRSS FeedLivestreamLivestreamVimeoVimeoTwitterTwitterFacebook GroupFacebook Group
You are here: Platypus /Archive for tag critical theory

On February 17, 2017, as part of its Third European Conference, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel, “The Politics of Critical Theory.” Held at the University of Vienna, the event brought together the following speakers: Chris Cutrone, President of the Platypus Affiliated Society; Martin Suchanek of Workers Power, an international organization fighting to build a Fifth International; and Haziran Zeller of Humboldt University, in Berlin. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Summer and Fall/Autumn 2016 – Winter 2017

Every Monday, 7:00-9:00 pm

Bongo Java, 2007 Belmont Blvd.

 

I. What is the Left? -- What is Marxism?


required / + recommended reading


Marx and Engels readings pp. from Robert C. Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (Norton 2nd ed., 1978)


 

Week A. Radical bourgeois philosophy I. Rousseau: Crossroads of society | Aug. 8, 2016

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.

-- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract (1762)

• epigraphs on modern history and freedom by James Miller (on Jean-Jacques Rousseau), Louis Menand (on Edmund Wilson), Karl Marx, on "becoming" (from the Grundrisse, 1857–58), and Peter Preuss (on Nietzsche)

+ Rainer Maria Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo" (1908)

+ Robert Pippin, "On Critical Theory" (2004)

• Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) PDFs of preferred translation (5 parts): [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Rousseau, selection from On the Social Contract (1762)


 

Week B. Radical bourgeois philosophy II. Hegel: Freedom in history | Aug. 15, 2016

• G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History (1831) [HTML] [PDF pp. 14-128] [Audiobook]


 

Week C. Radical bourgeois philosophy III. Nietzsche (1): Life in history | Aug. 22, 2016

• Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life (1874) [translator's introduction by Peter Preuss]

+ Nietzsche on history chart of terms


 

Week D. Radical bourgeois philosophy IV. Nietzsche (2): Asceticism of moderns | Aug. 29, 2016

+ Human, All Too Human: Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil (1999)

Nietzsche, selection from On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic (1887)


 

Week E. 1960s New Left I. Neo-Marxism | Sep. 6, 2016 U.S. Labor Day weekend

• Martin Nicolaus, “The unknown Marx” (1968)

+ Commodity form chart of terms

• Moishe Postone, “Necessity, labor, and time” (1978)

+ Postone, “History and helplessness: Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anticapitalism” (2006)

+ Postone, “Theorizing the contemporary world: Brenner, Arrighi, Harvey” (2006)


 

Week F. 1960s New Left II. Gender and sexuality | Sep. 12, 2016

• Juliet Mitchell, “Women: The longest revolution” (1966)

• Clara Zetkin and Vladimir Lenin, “An interview on the woman question” (1920)

• Theodor W. Adorno, “Sexual taboos and the law today” (1963)

• John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and gay identity” (1983)


 

Week G. 1960s New Left III. Anti-black racism in the U.S. | Sep. 19, 2016

• Richard Fraser, “Two lectures on the black question in America and revolutionary integrationism” (1953)

• James Robertson and Shirley Stoute, “For black Trotskyism” (1963)

+ Spartacist League, “Black and red: Class struggle road to Negro freedom” (1966)

+ Bayard Rustin, “The failure of black separatism” (1970)

• Adolph Reed, “Black particularity reconsidered” (1979)

+ Reed, “Paths to Critical Theory” (1984)


 

Week H. Frankfurt School precursors | Sep. 26, 2016

• Wilhelm Reich, “Ideology as material power” (1933/46)

• Siegfried Kracauer, “The mass ornament” (1927)

+ Kracauer, “Photography” (1927)


 

Week 1. What is the Left? I. Capital in history | Oct. 3, 2016

• epigraphs on modern history and freedom by Louis Menand (on Marx and Engels) and Karl Marx, on "becoming" (from the Grundrisse, 1857–58)

• Chris Cutrone, "Capital in history" (2008)

+ Capital in history timeline and chart of terms

+ video of Communist University 2011 London presentation

Cutrone, "The Marxist hypothesis" (2010)


 

Week 2. What is the Left? II. Bourgeois society | Oct. 10, 2016

• Immanuel Kant, "Idea for a universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view" and "What is Enlightenment?" (1784)

• Benjamin Constant, "The liberty of the ancients compared with that of the moderns" (1819)

+ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the origin of inequality (1754)

+ Rousseau, selection from On the social contract (1762)


 

Week 3. What is the Left? III. Failure of Marxism | Oct. 17, 2016

• Max Horkheimer, selections from Dämmerung (1926–31)

Adorno, “Imaginative Excesses” (1944–47)


 

Week 4. What is the Left? IV. Utopia and critique | Oct. 24, 2016

• Leszek Kolakowski, “The concept of the Left” (1968)

Marx, To make the world philosophical (from Marx's dissertation, 1839–41), pp. 9–11

Marx, For the ruthless criticism of everything existing (letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843), pp. 12–15


 

Week 5. What is Marxism? I. Socialism | Oct. 31, 2016

Marx, selections from Economic and philosophic manuscripts (1844), pp. 70–101

+ Commodity form chart of terms

Marx and Friedrich Engels, selections from the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), pp. 469-500

Marx, Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League (1850), pp. 501–511


 

Week 6. What is Marxism? II. Revolution in 1848 | Nov. 7, 2016

Marx, The coming upheaval (from The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847) and Class struggle and mode of production (letter to Weydemeyer, 1852), pp. 218-220

Engels, The tactics of social democracy (Engels's 1895 introduction to Marx, The Class Struggles in France), pp. 556–573

Marx, selections from The Class Struggles in France 1848–50 (1850), pp. 586–593

Marx, selections from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), pp. 594–617


 

Week 7. What is Marxism? III. Bonapartism | Nov. 14, 2016

+ Karl Korsch, "The Marxism of the First International" (1924)

Marx, Inaugural address to the First International (1864), pp. 512–519

Marx, selections from The Civil War in France (1871, including Engels's 1891 Introduction), pp. 618–652

+ Korsch, Introduction to Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (1922)

Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, pp. 525–541

Marx, Programme of the Parti Ouvrier (1880)


 

Week 8. What is Marxism? IV. Critique of political economy | Nov. 21, 2016

+ Commodity form chart of terms

Marx, selections from the Grundrisse (1857–61), pp. 222–226, 236–244, 247–250, 276–293 ME Reader pp. 276-281

Marx, Capital Vol. I, Ch. 1 Sec. 4 "The fetishism of commodities" (1867), pp. 319–329


 

Week 9. Nov. 28, 2016 U.S. Thanksgiving break


 

Week 10. What is Marxism? V. Reification | Dec. 5, 2016 / Jan. 9, 2017

• Georg Lukács, “The phenomenon of reification” (Part I of “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness, 1923)

+ Commodity form chart of terms


 

Winter break readings

+ Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate / A&Z, Introducing Lenin and the Russian Revolution / Lenin for Beginners (1977)

+ Sebastian Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918–19 (1968)

+ Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940), Part II. Ch. (1–4,) 5–10, 12–16; Part III. Ch. 1–6

+ Tariq Ali and Phil Evans, Introducing Trotsky and Marxism / Trotsky for Beginners (1980)

+ James Joll, The Second International 1889–1914 (1966)


 

Week 11. What is Marxism? VI. Class consciousness | Dec. 12, 2016 / Jan. 16, 2017

Lukács, Original Preface (1922), “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (1919), “Class Consciousness” (1920), History and Class Consciousness (1923)

+ Marx, Preface to the First German Edition and Afterword to the Second German Edition (1873) of Capital (1867), pp. 294–298, 299–302


 

Week 12. What is Marxism? VII. Ends of philosophy | Dec. 19, 2016 / Jan. 23, 2017

Korsch, “Marxism and philosophy” (1923)

+ Marx, To make the world philosophical (from Marx's dissertation, 1839–41), pp. 9–11

+ Marx, For the ruthless criticism of everything existing (letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843), pp. 12–15

+ Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach" (1845), pp. 143–145


 

Winter–Spring 2017

II. Introduction to revolutionary Marxism

On October 31, 2015, Jamie Keesling and Spencer A. Leonard of the Platypus Affiliated Society conducted an interview with Martin Jay, author of The Dialectical Imagination (1973), Marxism and Totality (1984), Essays from the Edge: Parerga & Paralipomena (2011), and Reason after Its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory (2016) among others.

Without a socialist party, there is no class struggle, only rackets

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #82 | December 2015 - January 2016

HORKHEIMER’S REMARKABLE ESSAY “On the sociology of class relations” (1943)1 is continuous with Adorno’s contemporaneous “Reflections on class theory” (1942) as well as his own “The authoritarian state” (1940/42), which similarly mark the transformation of Marx and Engels’s famous injunction in the Communist Manifesto that “history is the history of class struggles.” All of these writings were inspired by Walter Benjamin’s “On the concept of history” (AKA “Theses on the philosophy of history,” 1940), which registered history’s fundamental crisis. Instead, for Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s, history has become the history of “rackets.”2 As Horkheimer concludes his draft, parenthetically citing Marx on Hegelian methodology, “the anatomy of man is key to that of the ape:” the past is explicable from the present, in the form of clique power-politics. But this change is for Horkheimer a devolution -- regression. It stemmed from the failure of proletarian socialist revolutionary politics after 1917-19. Without Marxism, there was no class struggle.3

The significance of this change is the relation of the individual to the collective in capitalism. This affects the character of consciousness, and thus the role of theory: the critical theory of the capitalist totality -- Marxism -- is fundamentally altered. Specifically, the role of working-class political parties in developing this consciousness is evacuated. At stake is what Horkheimer later (in his 1956 conversation with Adorno translated as Towards a New Manifesto [2011]) called, simply, the “memory of socialism.” It disappears. This was Horkheimer’s primary concern, why he points out that the socialist party was not focused on fighting against exploitation, and was indeed indifferent to it. This is because exploitation does not distinguish capitalism from other epochs of history; only the potential possibility for socialism does. That is why, without socialist politics, the pre-capitalist past reasserts itself, in the form of rackets.

At the conclusion of “The authoritarian state,” Horkheimer wrote that, “with the return to the old free enterprise system, the entire horror would start again from the beginning under new management.” Regarding the specific topic stated in the title of this essay in particular, we should note Horkheimer’s unequivocal observation in “The authoritarian state” that,

“Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable.”4

If there was a “sociology of class relations” to be had, then it would be, as usual for the Frankfurt School, a “negative” and not positive phenomenon. The issue was how to grasp the significance of the original proletarian socialist revolutionary “will toward freedom” degenerating into a matter of mere “sociology” at all. We need to pay attention to the problem indicated by the “On . . .” in the title of Horkheimer’s essay. “Class” in Marx’s sense was not amenable to sociology; but “rackets” are. Sociology is about groups; but the proletariat for Marx was not a sociological group but rather a negative condition of society. The proletariat in capitalism was for Marx a negative phenomenon indicating the need for socialism. The political task of meeting that necessity was what Marx called “proletarian socialism.”

Horkheimer was in keeping with Marx on this score. As the former SYRIZA Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis pointed out in a recent (October 23, 2015) interview, Marx was not concerned with “equality” or “justice,” but “liberty” -- freedom.5 Moreover, as Varoufakis correctly observes, for Marx, capitalism is a condition of unfreedom for the capitalists and not only for the workers.6

As Marx wrote, at least as early as The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the capitalist class is constituted as such, as a class, only in response to the demands of the workers. It treats the demands of the workers as impossible under capitalism, as a more or less criminal violation of society. It is only in meeting the political challenge of a unified capitalist class that the working class constitutes itself as a class “in itself,” not only subjectively but also objectively. For Marx, the historical turning point in this development was Chartism in England, which inaugurates the “class struggle” of the working class per se.

Only in fulfilling the task of proletarian socialism, transcending not only the workers’ (competing, racket) economic interests in capitalism but also democracy in bourgeois society, that is, coming up against the limits of liberalism, does the proletariat become a class “for itself” -- on the way to “abolishing itself” in overcoming the negative condition of society in capitalism: its politics is not about one group replacing another. But Chartism in the U.K., like the revolutions of 1848-49 on the Continent, failed. For Marx, this is the need for “revolution in permanence” (1850) indicated by the failure of the democratic revolution and of the “social republic” in 1848. This is why Adorno (1966) characterized the critical concept of “society” itself, negatively, as originating “around 1848.” The Chartists’ last act was to translate Marx and Engels’s Manifesto.7

So what, for Marx, was missing in 1848? This is key to what is missing for Horkheimer a hundred years later: an adequate political party for proletarian socialism; the means for making capitalism a political issue.

The role of the political party, specifically as non-identical with the workers' consciousness, both individually and collectively, was to actually preserve the individuality of the workers -- as well as of intellectuals! -- that is otherwise liquidated in the corporate collectives of capitalist firms, labor unions and nation-states. These rackets have replaced the world party of proletarian socialist revolution, which was itself a dialectical expression of the totality of market relations and of the otherwise chaotic disorder of the concrete conditions of the workers. For Horkheimer, workers related to the political party individually, and only as such constituted themselves as part of a class -- in revolutionary political struggle to overcome capitalism through socialism. It was not that Lenin’s party caused the liquidation of the individual, but the later travesty of “Leninism” in Stalinism was the effect of a broader and deeper socially regressive history of capitalism -- what Marx called “Bonapartism” in the 19th century -- that the 20th century authoritarian state and its concomitant “sociological” problem of political “atomization” expressed.

Liquidating the political party paves the way for conformism: individuality in society instead becomes individualism, whether of persons or corporate bodies. As Margaret Thatcher succinctly put it, “There is no such thing as society.” Not only as wish but in fact. By contrast, the party was the negative political discipline adequate to the societal crisis of liberal capitalism in self-contradiction. But for Horkheimer, now, instead positivity rules, in a direct authoritarian manner that capitalism eludes. Avoidance of the party means avoiding capitalism -- which suits the power of the rackets as such.

The problem of society’s domination by anonymous social forces was revealed by the struggle against exploitation, which demonstrated the limits of the power of the capitalists and hence the problem of and need to transform “society” as such. The “social question” dawned in the political crisis of 1848: the limits of the democratic republic. This becomes replaced by overt power relations that are mystified, by appearing to know no limits. For Horkheimer, following Lenin8, the party's struggle for socialism picked up where the struggle against exploitation reached its limits; without the party there is no struggle for socialism: no pointing beyond but only accommodating capitalism as nature -- or at least as a condition seemingly permanent to society.

This is why Horkheimer likens the ideology of organized "racket" capitalism in the 20th century to traditional civilization, by contrast with the liberal capitalism of the 19th century mediated by markets. Indeed, the problem with the rackets is that they falsify precisely the universalism of ideology, which in liberalism could be turned into a negative critique, an index of falsity. Universality is no longer claimed, so the universal condition of domination by capital is rendered occult and illegible. As Adorno put it, “The whole is the false.” Only by confronting the negative totality of capitalism politically was class struggle possible. The power-struggles of rackets do not point beyond themselves. There is no history. | P


  1. Unpublished manuscript, available on-line at: <http://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/horkheimer/content/pageview/6591478>. See the symposium on Horkheimer's essay with Todd Cronan, James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann published at nonsite.org (January 11, 2016), from which this essay is taken: <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/max-horkheimer-and-the-sociology-of-class-relations>. 

  2. Horkheimer specified the concept of “rackets” in “On the sociology of class relations” as follows:
    “The concept of the racket referring to the big and to the small units struggling for as great a share as possible of the surplus value designates all such groups from the highest capitalistic bodies down to the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of the law among the most miserable strata of the population. It has arisen as a theoretical concept when, by the increasing absoluteness of the profit system the disproportion between the functions of the ruling class in production and the advantages which they draw from it became even more manifest than at the time of . . . [Marx’s] Capital.” 

  3. Rosa Luxemburg had a half-century earlier expressed this succinctly in her October 3, 1898 speech to the Stuttgart Congress of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), that, “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle:”
    “Think about it: what really constitutes the socialist character of our whole movement? The really practical struggle falls into three categories: the trade-union struggle, the struggle for social reforms, and the struggle to democratize the capitalist state. Are these three forms of our struggle really socialism? Not at all. Take the trade-union movement first! Look at England: not only is it not socialist there, but it is in some respects an obstacle to socialism. Social reform is also emphasized by Academic Socialists, National Socialists, and similar types. And democratization is specifically bourgeois. The bourgeoisie had already inscribed democracy on its banner before we did. . . .
    “Then what is it in our day-to-day struggles that makes us a socialist party? It can only be the relation between these three practical struggles and our final goals. It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle. And by final goal we must not mean, as [Wolfgang] Heine has said, this or that image of the future state, but the prerequisite for any future society, namely the conquest of political power. . . . This conception of our task is closely related to our conception of capitalist society; it is the solid ground which underlies our view that capitalist society is caught in insoluble contradictions which will ultimately necessitate an explosion, a collapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company.” (Dick Howard, ed., Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971], 38–39; also available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/10/04.htm>.)  

  4. Max Horkheimer, “The authoritarian state,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1985), 117. 

  5. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X034u2pls3M

  6. See also Horkheimer’s “The little man and the philosophy of freedom,” in Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52. There, Horkheimer wrote that,
    “[A]lthough [the capitalists] did not themselves create the world, one cannot but suspect that they would have made it exactly as it is. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible . . . [n]ot only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.”
    Horkheimer paraphrased Marx and Engels’s The Holy Family (1845), where they wrote that,
    “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.” (Quoted in Georg Lukács, “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” part III “The standpoint of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1971], 149. Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm>.)  

  7. See David Black, “The elusive threads of historical progress: The early Chartists and the young Marx and Engels,” in Platypus Review 42 (December 2011 – January 2012), available on-line at: </2011/12/01/elusive-threads-of-historical-progress/>. 

  8. See Lenin's What is to be Done? (1902), where Lenin distinguished "socialist" from "trade union consciousness:" "We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals." Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm>.
    Furthermore, in a January 20, 1943 letter debating Henryk Grossmann on Marxist dialectics, Horkheimer wrote that, "It is no coincidence that [Lenin] the materialist thinker who took these questions [in Hegel] more seriously than anyone else placed all those footnotes next to the [Science of] Logic rather than next to the Philosophy of History. It was he who wanted to make the study of Hegel’s Logic obligatory and who, even if it lacked the finesse of the specialist, sought out the consequences of Positivism, in its Machian form, with the most determined single-mindedness [in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908]. It was still in this Lenin sense that Lukács was attacked for his inclination to apply the dialectic not to the whole of reality but confine it to the subjective side of things." Trans. Frederik van Gelder at: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_mh_grossmann_letter.html>. Original letter in German: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_MH_Grossmann_letter_DEU.pdf>. 

LOOKING THROUGH THE REGISTER of names in the writings and letters of the circle of friends around Max Horkheimer we find only rare references to Leon Trotsky. Theodor Adorno, for instance, who claims in his Aesthetic Theory (1969) that the ambitious art has been bourgeois art, remarks approvingly that Trotsky also had said in his book...

The opening plenary of the 3rd annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, on April 29, 2011.

Transcript in Platypus Review #37 (Click below):

Recently, the New Left Review published a translated conversation between the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer causing more than a few murmurs and gasps. In the course of their conversation, Adorno comments that he had always wanted to “develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin, while keeping up with culture at its most advanced.” Adorno, it seems, was a Leninist. As surprising as this evidence might have been to some, is it not more shocking that Adorno’s politics, and the politics of Critical Theory, have remained taboo for so long? Was it really necessary to wait until Adorno and Horkheimer admitted their politics in print to understand that their primary preoccupation was with maintaining Marxism’s relation to bourgeois critical philosophy (Kant and Hegel)? This panel proposes to state the question as directly as possible and to simply ask: How did the practice and theory of Marxism, from Marx to Lenin, make possible and necessary the politics of Critical Theory?

Co-sponsored by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Departments of Art Education, Art History, Liberal Arts, and Visual and Critical Studies, and the SAIC Student Association.

Panelists:
Chris Cutrone, Platypus (School of the Art Institute of Chicago)
Andrew Feenberg (Simon Fraser University)
Richard Westerman (University of Chicago)
Respondent: Nicholas Brown (University of Illinois at Chicago)

On March 21, 2011, the Program in Critical & Visual Studies at Pratt Institute was pleased to join with the Platypus Affiliated Society sponsoring this talk by Professor Tim Hall of the University of East London.

For more information about Pratt's Program in Critical & Visual Studies, please see their site at: http://www.pratt.edu/academics/liberal_arts_and_sciences/critical_visual_studies/

Recent attempts to address the question of the good or worthwhile life have placed it at the center of social and political theory. These attempts have come, for the most part, from explicitly conservative commentators. Timothy Hall reminds us that such questions about the good life are also at the heart of critiques of social domination. In this talk, Hall discusses the continued relevance of Georg Lukacs' critical theory of the social relations of capital and the pervasive nihilism it produces. At a time of uneven challenges to authoritarian regimes and policies, questions of social justice and questions of the meaningful, good, or worthwhile life cannot be separated or put aside, but are pivotal to understanding resistance and social change. Hall brings Lukacs --- and perhaps Critical Theory itself --- back to this contested terrain.

Tim Hall is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of East London. His main areas of interest are Marxism and Frankfurt School critical theory. His publications include The Modern State: theories and ideologies (Edinburgh 2007) with Erika Cudworth and John McGovern and The Fundamental Dissonance of Existence (Continuum 2010) with Timothy Bewes. He is currently writing a book on the political thought of Theodor Adorno. In addition he has an interest in state theory and international ethics and is currently researching Marxist state theory and Cosmopolitan political theory.

Sponsored by
The Platypus Affiliated Society
The Department of Social Science & Cultural Studies
and its Program in Critical & Visual Studies, Pratt Institute.

Chris Mansour

Platypus Review 33 | March 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]

On February 19, 2011, Chris Mansour of Platypus interviewed Robert Hullot-Kentor, noted Adorno translator and author of Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Chris Mansour: For several decades you have been translating and interpreting the relevance of Adorno’s thought for us. In your most recent essays, however, it seems you have mostly wanted to save Adorno’s ideas from appropriation by the postmodern and contemporary canon, which you claim have done “immense damage” to his insights. What kind of disservices have been done to Adorno’s work from his time to ours, and what exactly do you think needs to be redeemed?

Robert Hullot-Kentor: You say, “immense damage.” That rings a bell somewhere—Adorno, or no Adorno. But, as to helping to discern Adorno’s “relevance” to this day and age, relevance has never been relevant to my mind; “relevance” is a measure of irrelevance. The moment is plenty relevant to itself if we can figure out how to locate its—our—own thinking, its—our—own words. And whatever “immense damage” we now inhabit, I doubt those canons you cite—postmodern or contemporary canons—would hurt a fly, or Adorno. There aren’t canons to struggle with, not since more than half a century ago when they were already rags. The current situation is narrow, blinded and constrained, and awash, all at once, but it is not polarized in the fixed fashion that invoking the idea of a “canon” wants to imagine. Getting wound up about the danger to life and limb of the canon is for English departments so preoccupied teaching students to write credible business memos that the faculty can’t be interested in literature anymore.

The problem for critical thought, now, is how to make reality break in on the mind that masters it. For what we are involved in, that’s the one praxis. And the puzzle of this praxis is shaped in realizing that while reality must be made to break in on the mind, that can’t occur in the model of tossing a stone through a window; the window must shatter under its own fissuring tinsel pressures, from within, as a violence against the violence. It differs from being mere violence as an act in which reality has been made humanly commensurable, without this commensurability of experience in any way pretending that reality itself is human. We are considering a capacity for experience.

CM: There is much to say here, but maybe we can work our way back to it from my first question to you, I was asking what you think needs to be redeemed in Adorno’s work.

RHK: Redeemed? Nothing. I mean…us? You don’t mind if we go a bit word by word here? Well, I don’t think that we are in a position to redeem anything. I doubt we can redeem Adorno’s work, and definitely not if we pose that question to ourselves in terms of his own thinking, if that’s what we’re in part curious about in this conversation. Come to think of it, at that conference you organized for Platypus at the New School a couple of months ago on Critical Theory,[1] didn’t something come up about Adorno and religion?

CM: Yes, momentarily, there was a discussion critical of Adorno’s relation to the sacred.

RHK: So maybe it is worth mentioning—since in a way you also broach the question, perhaps from the other direction—that Adorno’s thinking, if I can half quote him here, touches at every point on a theological element (no less than does Beckett’s), but only by way of the most extreme diffidence to what his work lives from. That tense diffidence (that’s his word for it) is implicit to any critique of enlightenment that actually is a capacity of enlightenment. The self-critique of enlightenment, at its extreme, by way of its own sober reasoning, amounts to the insight that its disillusionment, its ability to vanquish every last ghost in the machine, is itself the production of an illusion as a credulousness of its own mastery. This thought, which, maybe you know, has a vast antiquity, doesn’t confirm the supposedly plump, ultramontane comforts of belief or an urge to bend at the knees. As enlightenment, and not simply citing antiquity’s maxim of humility, it is as much a critique of theology, which, Adorno thought, has never once been extricated from the powers that be.

CM: Was Adorno a believer?

Goethe-Johann_Heinrich_Wilhelm_Tischbein-300x236

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Goethe in the Campagna, oil on canvas 164 x 206 cm, 1787.

RHK: Adorno was not among the faithful, the skeptical, or the agnostic in the Que sais-je? tradition. But I do think of him in the tradition that begins in the 15th century with Cusanus—the Cusa—who in many ways marks the decisive point in the secularization of theological reasoning in aesthetics. I am not saying Adorno was Cusanus, but he did pursue the experience of thought’s dependence on its object both in his materialism and, inextricably from that materialism, in his theses on metaphysics. By this measure, the gods, the many, many gods, must be a whole lot more interesting than what Feuerbach thought he might find in them as the sum total of alienated human essence.

It would be superstitious to think that human making is limited in what it makes only to what it has made, as Vico perhaps thought. An obvious, palpable clue here, in terms of technique, is that we can only do with things what can be done with them. One can only do with glass what can be done with glass, with plastic what can be done with plastic; one can only do with each and every word and with each and every note, as well, what can be done with each of them, and so on. It takes imagination to recognize that reality is not raw material, as something we can concoct however we see fit. But, with regard to imagination, it is even more important to say that there is only imagination in the experience of that recognition. Wallace Stevens—who, as you know, is always as much on my mind as are Adorno and Nabokov—had many ways of saying this: His “necessary angel,” which bears interesting comparison with Benjamin on Klee’s Angelus Novus—is the necessary angel of reality without which there is no imagination. Or, as Stevens otherwise put it, “Reality is the only genius.”[2] To comprehend the same thing, Adorno had the idea of “exact fantasy” from Goethe. In these terms, the Prometheus of labor shrinks but he also gets a whole lot more interesting, as do those deities lounging right this moment out in that Hindu temple in Queens.

CM: You are talking about the critique of constitutive subjectivity?

RHK: Yes. The philosophem—the recognition of disillusionment as an uttermost illusion—is another formulation of the critique of constitutive subjectivity as a capacity of subjectivity to spring its own trap. It is not categorically different from Marx’s critique of the Gotha Program that labor is by no means the source of value.

CM: In this idea of the recognition of disillusion as illusion, are you saying that religion and irreligion converge?

RHK: In Adorno’s thinking, they do. It is one thing, as he put it in the “Finale” to Minima Moralia, to “contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the perspective of redemption”—a perspective from which, as he developed the idea, “the question of the reality or unreality of redemption hardly matters.”[3] And it is very much something else to suppose that we are in a position to redeem anything whatsoever.

CM: I am curious whether the idea of the recognition of disillusionment as illusion, which you say is so important to Adorno, has a correlative in his aesthetics? Earlier on, when you were talking about technique, I noticed you mentioned notes and words along with plastic and glass.

RHK: Just as Adorno thinks that enlightenment is capable of criticizing its own limits, in his aesthetics he thinks that art, to be art, must be the making of what is more than can be made. Art, as he understood it, tests the thesis that subjectivity potentially transcends itself by way of subjectivity, and not by its abrogation. That is, the artist isn’t a pythian vessel. But insofar as Adorno wrote that radical art—art that in any way means to be art—needs to be “things of which we cannot say what they are,” he simultaneously asserts a making that is capable of escaping its own intention. You’re in art school, right, Chris?

CM: Right.

RHK: Well, if you become an artist you have the experience of someone stopping by the studio, poking a head through the door and wanting to know, “Did you really make that?” If you haven’t had that experience by the time you’re in your twenties, you can stop paying rent on the studio. Artists are, and have always been, keyed to making the unmakeable; the muse is obsolete, but all the same sine qua non. A friend from many years ago, Jim Tate, a poet, said that he wrote poetry to ensure “that it could still happen.” That’s what it’s about. Who would bother with art, unless it exceeded what was made? In his letters, van Gogh writes to his brother, Theo, that he had no idea how he made his paintings; he was sure that he didn’t know how to make them. It is worth thinking, all the same, that the artist writing those letters was a nominalist technician if there ever was one, building every painting up out of three or four gestures, wet on wet. It is, literally, an inconceivable mastery, and in these terms one’s sense that no one could have made those paintings is not utterly delusive; and it wasn’t for van Gogh, either. Do you know Francis Bacon’s phrase, wanting his work to be a “Sahara of the appearances”?

Bacon meant that he wanted to produce a likeness by way of an absolute unlikeness. That would be an act of recognition in the movement across the absolute distances of shifting sands in which vision returns to the beholder as an intention by way of what has entirely relinquished intention. That is the unmakeable thing he needed to make.

BACON-figure-with-meat-281x300

Francis Bacon, Figure with Meat, oil on canvas 129.2 x 121.9 cm, 1954.

CM: Adorno says that, doesn’t he, in his aesthetics, when he writes that art doesn’t imitate nature, it imitates cloud dramas?

RHK: Yes. That movement at a standstill could be a movement in clouds or sands.

CM: Do you like Bacon’s work?

RHK: The early works, much more than the later ones. But even when the painting isn’t where my imagination can go, what he could make is astonishing. Bacon was finally so overwhelmed by his desperation to make what exceeded him that he could only bring that amorphousness back by way of an inflicted and thematically narrow intentional articulation. I wasn’t surprised when one of his paintings ended up in a Batman movie.

CM: Was that a psychological matter for Bacon?

RHK: That must be an aspect of it. But it is much more a problem of where art went, and where it is now. Up until modern art, artists could get away with imitating the unmakeable: rhyme schemes, for instance, imitate the unmakeable—that’s a transparently painful conceit now. Art became radically modern when it had no choice but to demand of itself the veridically unmakeable, no longer its illusion, and found itself facing an impossible task. Dance became break neck gymnastics in response. “Found art” capitulated in front of the problem of the unmade and hoped to surrogate the untouched for the untouchable. That’s the level of the problem that compelled Bacon.

CM: Photography certainly taps the unintentional.

RHK: Yes, it does. But what makes photography so difficult is that it so easily wins the unintentional while paying so heavily for it in its inability to engage the constructive powers of the eye on which the capacity for exceeding appearances depends.

CM: Wouldn’t Marx say that art that claims to produce the unmakeable is the manufacture of a fetish?

RHK: I’d say that Marx’s admiration for the “work hardened bodies” of the proletariat is a fetish.

CM: That is an opaque answer. What do you mean?

RHK: I mean a number of things, including that Marx’s critique of labor did not go deep enough. It is there in his writings, but you can understand why Adorno concluded that Marx wanted to make the world into a labor camp: the Soviet Union wasn’t only a misunderstanding of Marx. So, I mean that, but I mean at the same time that of course art is a fetish, but the worst of life is not what leaves labor behind, even if it’s just pretending. No doubt, setting up the made as the unmade is a fetish. But, all the same, if disillusionment is an illusion, then humans are considerably more interesting than the self-certain sobriety that interprets artworks by tracing them back to their maker’s intentions or, with greater socio-economic sophistication, to the historical interests of the moment in which they originated, as if that’s so smart and informative. The doctrine of interest itself needs to be demystified, in political representation as in art. Those cloud dramas are no less the voice of nature. The entire history of art—and this is very clear now—is nothing but the development of techniques for potentiating intention as the intentionless; the piano keyboard serves for nothing else. If the history of art could be written, that history of techniques of the unmakeable would be its history. What is at stake is distinct from mystical effusion in that the accomplishment is not by way of abolishing subjectivity, but by way of subjectivity; you can think of van Gogh’s nominalism, which we’ve discussed a little, or you can think of what Hegel called the “extinguishing of the subject in the object.” This is an activity that leaves the artist behind like a heap of ash, an experience that can be hard to survive without all the braggadocio that goes on over in places like the art gulch in Chelsea. Making the unmakeable is what raises every important question about the nature of aesthetic form. Adorno’s apothegm is to the point here, that it is in art, if nowhere else, that “origin is the goal.”

CM: There is enough to talk about here that we might as well go back to the very beginning of our conversation. Why was it, when I asked you what you’ve wanted to do with Adorno’s work over several decades that you answered with what you called the idea of praxis, of making reality break in on the mind that masters it? That does not, to be honest, seem like much of an answer. Did you lose track of the question?

RHK: I hope not. I try to hold the whole conversation in mind at once, which is pretty hopeless, I’m sure. I mean to keep track; I know I was keeping track then. But the truth of it is, I’m more interested in what keeps coming back to us more than I think in terms, as you suggest, of our going back to anything, now or later, whether to the beginning of our conversation or elsewhere, as if there’s an origin at one end of the dusty road of time and, in the other direction, tomorrow is already busy taking shape. That image implies a spatialized, kinetic idea of time. What we have gone back to in this conversation is what has come to get us. Thinking in these terms makes sense in light of Freud’s concept of regression, as the need to deal with what is still to be solved, what’s nagging at us, what’s right here in our bones as elements of those splintering forces that are by no means located somewhere back at a spatialized beginning that we sometimes visit, or don’t, as, for instance, when we were talking about what makes a window shatter under its own tinsel forces in terms of immanent criticism. By the way, that’s just as much the concept of time inside Adorno’s notion of those cloud dramas: A concept of time that developed in opposition to the idea of a primordial, primitive origin at the beginning of all things. Without the development of that idea of time, we wouldn’t have had Freud or Adorno, let alone Virginia Woolf or Joyce.

CM: Does this involve what I remember you writing, I think, in the introduction to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, about thinking by means of an enjambment of thought? Enjambment as opposed to argumentation?

RHK: Yes, argumentation as modus operandi—the proudly hard-headed passion for “getting it” vs. “not getting it,” “right judgments” vs. “your wrong judgments”—is spuriously philosophical. It is an appeal to the authority of origin, not as the goal, but at the beginning of all things. It‘s not that logic is a matter of indifference, on the contrary, but its putative necessity is a strong-arm fraud, inextricable from the fraud of historical necessity. The problem of critical historical thought, by contrast, is—and I don’t think there is any other content to the whole of Adorno’s oeuvre—how to dissolve the illusion of this necessity we have woven for ourselves. I’m not saying that truth is a flip of the coin or that making mash out of the idea of truth would do us any good. Thinking is a search for binding, if however transient, insight; indirection is essential to it, enjambment is its crisis. Adorno called that enjambment, parataxis. As a technique, this can be just as full of nonsense as the syllogism. But thinking must feel its way along, so to speak. And when the issue is the consideration of Adorno’s work—and this isn’t exactly a special case—this consideration not least of all involves recognizing where his work gives indications that it is no longer binding or meaningful; where what is fleeting in insight turns out to be more than an axiom about its fleetingness.

CM: What does that actually mean, then, in considering Adorno’s writings?

RHK: It means reading with an eye to perceiving where the text surrenders its importance, as if the words themselves are insisting that “it can no longer be said like this.” That isn’t a measure of relevance or irrelevance; it is the emergence of one aspect of its own non-identity with itself. History is taking its own measure. Recognizing these moments, I want to repeat—if its not too much trouble for us to keep track of all of our conversation while we’re talking—is obviously not an act of redemption. But it is a salvaging labor in which critical subjectivity possibly becomes the ability of the old to long for the new. This approach is not altogether different from listening with a compositional ear to music and noticing that the music itself indicates that it can no longer be composed.

CM: That is part of Adorno’s theory of composition, is it not? And you are saying that considering Adorno’s work in this way aims at making it break in on the mind that masters it?

RHK: I suppose. But with the caveat that conceptual labor is not art, in which case it acquires something akin to the sound of Heidegger enthused with his inamorata—the sheep of the fields. Arty criticism, criticism that claims to be art, criticism plus sheep, criticism plus adjectives, fails art and fails criticism.

CM: Does this not conflate criticism and philosophy? But, in any case, there is certainly a lot of art in Adorno’s writing.

RHK: There is. And, in German at least, his writing certainly has its own sound, and that sound, a distinct voice, is often discussed. But that sound is not the achievement of being arty. What is involved, again, is a matter of that diffidence that we were discussing earlier, though here that diffidence is somewhat differently focused. A way of condensing the issue of the relation of philosophy and art in Adorno’s work is to think of Wallace Stevens writing that the “poem is the cry of its occasion/part of the res itself and not about it.”[4] Modern poetry and a radically modern philosophy that wants to settle for nothing less than the thing itself, converge in an opposition in which, as Adorno put it in Aesthetic Theory, art only has it—that is, the “cry of its occasion”—because it can’t say it; and philosophy can say it, only because it does not have it. That is, incidentally, one way of stating why aesthetics is the middle point of Adorno’s work.

CM: If Adorno’s thesis describes the relation of philosophy to art, then there must be another side to this, right? The obverse. Because in the phrase you quote from Stevens, he seems to be claiming to “say it” in a way that Adorno’s maxim would seem to prohibit.

RHK: Good point, It is true that art can pretend to be philosophy, as much as the reverse. But, you know, in the poem where Stevens writes that line, I think it’s in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” he is using concepts in opposition to the illusory surface of the poem—he might as well use sand paper on the poem’s illusory surface—as an act of abstraction. It’s similar to how Zola could introduce in a novel a long inventory list of the contents of a department store; that’s roughing up the illusory surface of art as well. It is part of art resisting art in an effort to remain art. Conceptual art wants to do that too, of course. And of course this can backfire and usually does.

CM: Well, if we are just looking around for the moment, I am curious to ask you, since you brought up the sound of philosophy and also mentioned Heidegger: Does Heidegger have a sound, a voice?

RHK: In German, Heidegger has the voice of what you might expect in a letter you would get at sleep-away-camp from grandma. Juxtapose “being at sleep-away-camp” with “being-in-the world” and an English monoglot starts to hone in on the sound of Heidegger in German without needing to study the grammar. If English translation didn’t provide Heidegger’s phrases with a densely arcane professionalism, as if it were a technical language, while he is being so down-home, it would be much less difficult to understand his work for what it is. I don’t see how people put up with it. Its content is death and imagination as nothingness. Habermas’s notion of communicative action is no less obtuse to libido than Dasein, but at least it can read a newspaper without disgracing itself with inauthenticity. There is not a lot to go on there. Adorno’s Jargon of Authenticity at points froths at the lips, but the general credulousness for Heidegger is much more disturbing.

CM: We’ve ended up in a discussion of style.

RHK: I suspect we’ve been talking about style in various ways all along, whether about parataxis and argumentation, or in what I was saying a bit ago about examining Adorno’s work for where it falters. That involves an eye for style. Another way to put it is to say that one has to be prepared to tap on words—in this case Adorno’s words—with the hammer that Nietzsche bequeathed to the philosophical temperament for tapping. And if one isn’t prepared, one might as well spin out concepts in those vast, argumentative sheets one reads everywhere, whether about the critique of the constitutive subject or the disintegration of “emphatic experience,” or “immanent critique,” but as a parody. Then theory is just “theory” dressed up in the critique of the constitutive subject. But really it is nothing else than its assertion. I say “dressed up” because in the 1844 Manuscripts Marx wrote that fashion is a synonym for relations of production.

CM: “Theory” becomes an assertion of the given relations of production?

RHK: I think so. As I said, there’s a lot of that to read.

CM: You’re critical of theory?

RHK: Theory is critical of theory, wouldn’t you suppose?

CM: Could you give an instance of the kind of tapping you think is worthwhile? Are you referring to what you have written about the idea of the primitive? Is that an instance of what you mean by “tapping”?

RHK: Yes. Open any few pages of Adorno’s writings and you’ll notice that of all the comments that concern the “primitive,” in one way or another, whether the “primitive” itself, or the “savage”, the “barbaric”, the “archaic”, “prima philosophia,” or of “regression” to the barbaric, none communicate what they did twenty years ago, let alone at the moment they were written, when barbarism had just blown through the front door. Open, for instance, Minima Moralia, which is here in front of us: I’m here on p. 226, read about “the affinity of culture to savagery,” and see how that comes up on the nervous system, as Francis Bacon would say. See if it means anything at all. Then start turning pages in any direction in the book and throughout the whole of Adorno’s writings, and you will notice that we don’t exactly know what Adorno is talking about or what the “primitive” amounts to. We may even feel a kind of antagonism toward Adorno, as if he were making the distinction at our expense. We want to raise our hand in class and demand, “What do you mean by primitive?”

CM: Is that something about the idea of the primitive exclusively in Adorno?

RHK: No. Read anywhere in the literature of the 1940s, for instance (I’m busy with that because I’m putting together a selection of essays from the Journal of Social Research, the journal, that Adorno and Horkheimer published in the 1930s and 1940s), and you will find throughout phrases concerning barbarism and the primitive by many writers, “It is the thesis of this book that the two [society and the military] are inseparably connected both with each other and with a third thing, barbarism.” That insight, or, in any case, the possibility of that insight was once protean. I am referring to a review written by Karl Korsch, which was highly critical of the book and of the writer I quote, but not of the possibility of differentiating barbarism.

CM: If we can go back (the word “back” has started to sound a bit different) to the issue of relevance, why not say that the words “barbarism,” or “the primitive” aren’t relevant anymore?

RHK: Because it may be that the fashion of barbarism—fashion in the sense we were discussing earlier, the way Marx develops it in the 1844 Manuscripts—has absorbed the differentiation of the primitive. And to think in terms of relevance, which would mean dropping the now obscure appellation, irrelevant, would only amount to becoming a fellow traveler.

CM: This is indeed important—Platypus has often argued that society is in the midst of “regression.” What is the implication of the kind of tapping you’re doing here for this thesis?

RHK: There is a group of implications, including that it’s approximately hopeless going around asserting that society is in the midst of “regression,” let alone in the primitive or the barbaric. It does not mean anything at all. The words are not even leaden; they are a matter of indifference, especially if stating them doesn’t include the insights that they most importantly contain and one is only participating in a kind of amnesia. The faltering differentiation has to be expressed in the self-consciousness of the statement of what is faltering.

CM: Is that indifference to the differentiation of the primitive a matter of the “banality of evil”?

RHK: The “banality of evil” is itself a tad banal, don’t you think? We didn’t get used to evil. Moral impulses didn’t wear out, they were overwhelmed by superior imperatives—that’s Hobsbawm’s point—imperatives that the newspapers most regularly present as the primacy of the financial, but that are much more deeply evidence of the coming extinction of the liberal state. It’s what we see in Obama encouraging the members of congress at the recent State of the Union speech this January to break party lines and sit together. The obliging congress members did not give evidence of good will toward men but of the national disintegration of party allegiance, of lucidly oppositional politics and of representational government under the weight of the social whole. That “sit-along” has much less to do with affirming the spirit of compromise—a good thing, which Obama has changed into the spirit of capitulation—than with the supplanting of the sovereignty of the people by something considerably closer to consumer sovereignty: the selection of the best product qua representative while disregarding party affiliation. The “banality of evil” doesn’t cover much of this.

CM: There would be a lot to say about this. But I don’t want to lose track of the general point of our discussion of the problem of contemporary praxis so far as what’s at stake in making sense of Adorno’s work. Have you been saying that what is needed is to develop the self-consciousness of a faltering differentiation?

RHK: That’s it. The issue is the faltering differentiation of the primitive and of the context of concepts in which it is located. Adorno’s thinking altogether revolves around the development of insight into the primitive. Or, we could put this the other way around, by focusing on the disappearance of the differentiation of the radically new, here in the land of the perpetual “rethink.” The radically new, which artists, especially composers, sought in their work in the early 20th century as the “air of another planet,” developed reciprocally with the insight into the primitive, when the primitive became the impulse of the new. But listen to the phrase,“the air of another planet,” and what there is to hear is that it speaks more appositely to the imminently unlivable air of this “planet.”

CM: It is as fruitless to invoke the increasingly “primitive” situation of the United States as it would be to urge people to seek the “new”?

RHK: The demand for the “new” probably sounds even more feeble and absurd than invoking insight into the “primitive,” don’t you think?

CM: We are suddenly out of time, and there is so much more to consider here. But, I must ask you something that has kept coming back to me throughout our discussion today, from almost the first moment. You said (I’m taking you by your own words now) that the problem of “making reality break in on the mind that masters it” is the one praxis. Whether it really is the one praxis, I don’t know. But, what you call praxis, I would call theory. Haven’t you confused theory and praxis?

RHK: This is some sense of humor, bringing us to the close on a question that would need another day to sort out at all. But what you’ve brought up is something I repeatedly try to state to myself: theory is praxis insofar as thinking has entered the world of objects. Meaning that, as a capacity of subjectivity, it has escaped the claustrum of means/ends reasoning, what Hegel would have called subjective spirit, and has engaged the unmakeable. |P


[1]. See J.M. Bernstein, Lydia Goehr, Gregg Horowitz, and Chris Cutrone, “The relevance of critical theory to art today,” Platypus Review 31 (January 2011), available online at </2011/01/01/the-relevance-of-critical-theory-to-art-today/>.

[2]. Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), 177.

[3]. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (New York: Verso, 2005), 247.

[4]. Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 473.

An all day symposium, "What is Critique?" was held on Nov. 20th, 2010 at the New School in New York City. The first video is from the afternoon panel, entitled The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices. This panel consisted of Tom Butter, Simone Douglas, and James Elkins; it was moderated by Laurie Rojas. The second video is documentation of the evening panel, entitled The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today. The panel consisted of J.M. Bernstein, Chris Cutrone, Lydia Goehr, and Gregg Horowitz; it was moderated by Chris Mansour.

Abstract: What is Critique? is an all day symposium that consists of panel discussions with artists, critics, teachers, and students city-wide that investigates the role that art critiques and criticism play in art production. The first half of the day will focus on the nature and function of art critiques as a form criticism and pedagogy. The latter part of the day will be a panel discussion addressing the relationship between critical theory, art production and art reception.

The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices

Video streaming by Ustream

The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today

Video streaming by Ustream

A transcript of Chris Mansour's opening remarks to The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today can be found in the Platypus Review #39 (Click below):

An edited transcript of The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today can be found in Platypus Review #31 (Click below):

Speaker Biographies:
James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer.

He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in Chicago; he got a graduate degree in painting, and then switched to Art History, got another graduate degree, and went on to do the PhD in Art History, which he finished in 1989. (All from the University of Chicago.) Since then he has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism.

His writing focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images, writing systems, and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some are about natural history (How to Use Your Eyes).

Current projects include a series called the Stone Summer Theory Institutes, a book called The Project of Painting: 1900-2000, a series calledTheories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Art, and a book written against Camera Lucida.

He married Margaret MacNamidhe in 1994 on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Margaret is also an art historian, with a specialty in Delacroix. Jim’s interests include microscopy (with a Zeiss Nomarski differential interference microscope and Anoptral phase contrast), optics (he owns an ophthalmologist’s slit-lamp microscope), stereo photography (with a Realist camera), playing piano, and (whenever possible) winter ocean diving.

Tom Butter has been exhibiting sculpture, drawings and prints in NYC and internationally since 1980. His work is included in several museum collections in the United States, and has been reviewed in many art publications. Recipient of 3 NEA Grants and 2 New York Foundation for the Arts Grants, Butter has taught in many east coast fine art programs, including those at RISD, Tyler, Yale University, Harvard, University of the Arts, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, MICA. A member of the faculty at Parsons the New School for Design in the Fine Arts Department since 1986, he was recently Director of the MFA Program ’06-’07. Currently adjunct faculty at Parsons and Brooklyn College (CUNY), staff writer Whitehot Magazine, website:www.tombutter.com

Simone Douglas is the director of the MFA in Fine Arts at Parsons. She works across photography, video and installation, and has curated numerous exhibitions. Her works have been exhibited internationally at, and are held in, collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney; and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Additional exhibitions include at the Photographers Gallery, London; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; and the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney. She was project director and curator for Picture Sydney: landmarks of a new generation at the Australian Museum, a Getty Conservation Institute Initiative. She has been a guest scholar at Koln International School of Design, and initiated the international art and design collective Conjecture and served on the Board of Directors at First Draft Gallery, Sydney. Most recently, Simone is running an international visual research project, The Exquisite Corpse. Before joining the faculty at Parsons, Simone held faculty posts at the College of Fine Arts, University of NSW; National Art School, Sydney; and Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney (tenured) where she is currently an honorary faculty member. She holds an M.F.A. and a Grad. Dip. Prof. Art Studies from the College of Fine Arts, University of NSW and a B.A. in Visual Arts from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney

Gregg M. Horowitz is Chair of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He works on the philosophy of art and art history, political philosophy, and psychoanalysis. He has special research interests in the relation of aesthetics, cultural theory and art criticism to critical social theory.

Horowitz is the author of SUSTAINING LOSS: ART AND MOURNFUL LIFE (Stanford University Press, 2001), and, with A. Danto and T. Huhn, THE WAKE OF ART: CRITICISM, PHILOSOPHY, AND THE ENDS OF TASTE (Gordon and Breech, 1998). More recently, he has authored “The Residue of History: Dark Play in Schiller and Hegel” in GERMAN IDEALISM – AN INTERNATIONAL YEARBOOK (Walter de Gruyter, 2007), pp.179-98 and essays on Andreas Gursky, Tony Oursler, and Wallace Stevens.

Lydia Goehr is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. She is one of the 2009-2010 recipients of the Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for exceptional teaching in Arts & Sciences. In 2005, she received a Columbia University Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching and in 2007-8 was recipient The Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC)’s Faculty Mentoring Award (FMA). She has also been a recipient of Mellon, Getty, and Guggenheim Fellowships, and in 1997 was the Visiting Ernest Bloch Professor in the Music Department at U. California, Berkeley, where she gave a series of lectures on Richard Wagner. She has been a Trustee of the American Society for Aesthetics. In 2002-3, she was the visiting Aby Warburg Professor in Hamburg and a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. In 2005-6, she delivered the Royal Holloway-British Library Lectures in Musicology in London and the Wort Lectures at Cambridge University. In 2008, she was a Visiting Professor at the Freie Universität, Berlin (Cluster: “The Language of Emotions”) and in 2009, a visiting professor in the FU-Berlin SFB Theater und Fest. She is the author of The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (1992; second edition with a new essay, 2007); The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy [essays on Richard Wagner] (1998); Elective Affinities: Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory [essays on Adorno and Danto] (2008), and co-editor with Daniel Herwitz of The Don Giovanni Moment. Essays on the legacy of an Opera (2006). She has written many articles, most recently on the work of Theodor W. Adorno, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Arthur Danto. She offers courses in the history of aesthetic theory, the contemporary philosophy of the arts, critical theory, and the philosophy of history. Her research interests are in German aesthetic theory and in particular in the relationship between philosophy, politics, history, and music. With Gregg Horowitz, she is series editor of Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts, Columbia University Press. She is presently writing a book on the contest of the arts.

Jay Bernstein is Chair and University Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. He received his BA in 1970 from Trinity College in Religion and his PhD in 1975 from the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of numerous books and articles on philosophy; his recent books on art include The Fate of Art and Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting.

Chris Cutrone teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago, where he is completing his dissertation on Adorno’s Marxism. He is the original lead organizer of Platypus.

Chris Cutrone KARL KORSCH'S SEMINAL ESSAY on “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) is a historical treatment of the problem from Marx and Engels’s time through the 2nd International to the crisis of Marxism and the revolutions of 1917–19 in Russia, Germany and beyond. More specifically, Korsch took up the development and vicissitudes of the relation between theory and practice in the history of Marxism, which he considered the “philosophical” problem of Marxism. Korsch, like Georg Lukács and the thinkers in Frankfurt School critical theory, was inspired by the “subjective” aspect of Marxism exemplified by Lenin's irreducible role in the October Revolution. Korsch was subsequently denounced as a “professor” in the Communist International and quit the movement, embracing council communism and shunning Marxian theory, writing an "Anti-Critique" in 1930 that critiqued Marxism as such, and by 1950 actively seeking to liquidate the difference between Marxian and anarchist approaches. In so doing, Korsch succumbed to what Adorno termed “identity thinking.” By assuming the identity of theory and practice, or of social being and consciousness in the workers’ movement, Korsch abandoned his prior discernment and critical grasp of their persistent antagonism in any purported politics of emancipation.