Below the Asphalt Lies the Beach
Reflections on the legacy of the Frankfurt School
October 9, 2018
Oct 9, 2018
15 Min read time
There is still much to learn from the radical legacy of critical theory.
Editors’ Note: A version of this essay was prepared for an international conference on emancipation at the Humboldt University of Berlin on May 25, 2018.
May 1968 marked the political awakening of my generation. I was a junior at the American College for Girls in Istanbul at the time, feeling the revolutionary winds as a young Jewish woman in a predominantly Muslim society and because of the anti-Americanism precipitated by the Vietnam War. Pictures of napalm attacks on Vietnamese children and adults circulated among us during lunch hours. And when the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet scheduled a visit to Istanbul, and many boyfriends, relatives, and others were clubbed by the police, our sense of political disappointment with and opposition to U.S. policies increased.
May 1968 was a revolt against the oppressive conformism of the postwar Pax Americana.
Living in Istanbul, we knew that the wider political world was on fire. Soviet tanks crushed the Prague reform movement under Alexander Dubček and the “socialism with a human face” experiment. Students built barricades in Paris and confronted the police. And the countercultural movement in the United States challenged the pieties of bourgeois decorum. The continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict was personally devastating: I feared for the continuing existence of Israel after the 1967 war, while feeling moral outrage and pain at the oppression and occupation of Palestinian Arabs.
May 1968 saw our revolt against the oppressive conformism of the postwar Pax Americana. We hoped for liberation from the spirit of consumerism, the shackles of the patriarchy, bourgeois family, nationalism, militarism, and much else. No theoretical tradition captured the aspirations I shared with many contemporaries as well as the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. My intellectual journey from Istanbul to Frankfurt began with Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), which I read that fateful spring.
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The critical theory of the Frankfurt School was a blend of philosophical reflection and social scientific inquiry born in reaction to the European catastrophe of the last century: the failure of the European working classes to resist the rise of fascism (with the exception of the republican forces in Spain who resisted but were defeated); the blindness of the bourgeoisie and big capital who deluded themselves into thinking that they could manipulate Nazism for their own ends; the silence and cooperation of the mandarin classes; and the Holocaust of European Jewry.
No theoretical tradition captured the aspirations I shared with many contemporaries as well as the critical theory of the Frankfurt School.
At the center of this political and theoretical project was the transformation of the concept of critique. The Frankfurt School completed an epistemic and ontological revolution that had started with Immanuel Kant. The task of the Kantian “critique of pure reason” was to limit reason’s theoretical pretentions in order to create room for a faith that would support freedom and morality. Kant argued that we can never establish with theoretical certainty that we have free will; nor could this claim be proven wrong. So it remains open to us to act with a practical faith that we are free: that we can be moved by reasons, assert our autonomy, and fulfill the demands of morality. Critique for Kant is in the service of autonomy: only a critical exercise of reason can save us from our self-inflicted tutelage to false beliefs in authority, religion, and tradition.
In his 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Max Horkheimer provided a particularly compelling statement of the Frankfurt School’s post-Kantian conception of critique. Following G. W. F. Hegel and the brilliant Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, Horkheimer defended a program for critical thought that presses beyond Kant’s conception of freedom. Lukács had argued that Kant’s views of freedom were limited because he lacked a concept of praxis—of a historically and socially situated human agency. We are not only subjects with moral freedom, but historical subjects who express our freedom by transforming the external world through various forms of human individual and collective activity—including labor, culture, religion, art, and political institutions.
Horkheimer defended a program for critical thought that presses beyond Kant’s conception of freedom.
Horkheimer’s remarkable achievement in “Traditional and Critical Theory” is to develop this philosophy of praxis into a critique of the epistemology of his contemporaries—both positivist social sciences as well as the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Horkheimer puts critical inquiry once more in the service of autonomy and emancipation. Emancipatory knowledge, he argued, helps to demystify the supposed objectivity of the social world, and above all, of the so-called “laws” of capitalism. By disclosing that the world of social facts is not governed by natural laws but is instead the historical residue of the work of human beings themselves, it will be possible to end the alienation from and enslavement to a social reality that dominates humans.
Horkheimer’s breathtaking ambition was to transform the tradition of German idealism into a critical theory of society. But this program had ceased to convince even during the lifetime of the early members of the Frankfurt School. Unlike the young Marx and Lukács, the Frankfurt School could see no revolutionary historical subject who would end world alienation and put an end to social domination. By the time Theodor Adorno and Horkheimer composed the Dialectic of Enlightenment in exile in California in the 1940s, the program of the emancipatory philosophy of praxis had inverted into its opposite. Human mastery over nature came at the expense of internal repression; civilization was not a process of humanization but instead a dark development of repressing and disciplining the psyche that would then manifest itself in bursts of violent aggression toward those “others” that are threatening the already fragile integrity of the civilized self. In one of the “Notes” appended to the text called “The Importance of the Body,” Adorno and Horkheimer memorably write: “Europe has two histories: a well-known written history and an underground history. The latter consists in the fate of the human instincts and passions which are displaced and distorted by civilization.”
Emancipatory knowledge helps to demystify the supposed objectivity of the social world—and above all, of the so-called “laws” of capitalism.
The Dialectic of Enlightenment is a bridge text to a broader conception of critical theory—of oppositional and emancipatory knowledge—that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century. Although Michel Foucault quipped that he had never read the Dialectic of Enlightenment (published in 1944), his work replaced the creative subject that Horkheimer took from Hegel, Marx, and Lukács with a theory about how subjectivity is created. History is a not a record of the deeds of a collective or singular subject, he argued; rather, it is formed by a series of epistemes—configurations of power-knowledge—each giving shape to different conceptions of knowledge and action. In the essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault explains that whereas archaeology digs into the layers of what is manifest in the present, genealogy searches for the breaks and displacements between the source and the phenomena. Genealogy searches for emergence (Herkunft), but emergence does not mean a smooth evolution from a known original (Ursprung). Just as there is no continuous narrative that can be told of a unified collective subject unfolding in history, so too genealogy does not trace an uninterrupted line of development from the past to the present, providing a narrative of improved knowledge and moral progress. Instead, society is constituted by a discontinuous and fragmentary series of power-knowledge configurations, full of displacements and erasures. Knowledge is not just emancipatory but also disciplinary; power can only be confronted by power. “The ‘Enlightenment,’ which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines,” he writes in Discipline and Punish (1975).
There is a natural affinity between Foucault’s counter-narrative of the Enlightenment and contemporary postcolonialism and critical race theory.
There is a natural affinity between Foucault’s counter-narrative of the Enlightenment and contemporary postcolonialism and critical race theory. Both urge us to consider the process of European modernization from the periphery as well as the center. At its best, postcolonial theory scrambles the center-periphery distinction altogether. The Enlightenment’s contradictions became evident when, in the process of building their republics, the European powers—the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and somewhat later, the Germans and Italians—also acquired their empires and confronted radical differences of race, color, and culture. Imperialism reveals the limits of Enlightenment universalism. Europe, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s words, “needed to be provincialized” in order to envisage a true universalism that encompassed all of humanity and not just white male Christians.
Postcolonial theory also bears affinities with one of the most influential critical theories of the post–Frankfurt School period, Jacques Derrida’s method of “deconstruction.” Derrida transforms Hegelian “immanent critique” into the interplay between the text and its constitutive exterior. For Hegel, there is more to a form of life than what the participants can grasp in thought. Immanent critique unfolds through the contradictions they face as they aim to understand a world they can only imperfectly grasp; this dialectic of thought can only be stilled when, as Hegel supposed would happen in a fully rational form of life, thought and actuality are reconciled. The idea that there is always something more than we grasp in thought is transformed by Derrida into a teaching about texts. Derrida shows that the silences and gaps of a text are indices of the repressed subjectivity of others who haunt the footnotes, the appendices, and the marginalia. Deconstruction thus has an ethical core: the uncovering of the margins of the text becomes a project of critiquing “phallogocentric western rationality.”
Imperialism reveals the limits of Enlightenment universalism.
In addition to Foucaultian genealogy, postcolonial theory, and deconstruction, contemporary feminist theory is an important form of critique. Much like these other approaches, feminist theory aims at demystifying the masculinist Promethean anthropology guiding the model of humanity’s transformation of nature through praxis. The implicit model behind praxis has always been that of physical labor such as building, constructing, or making in general. Women’s domestic work, which is also a form of physical labor that sustains, repairs, and upholds the daily world—as well as the work of bearing and raising children and sustaining intimate relations—has been ignored. Feminist theory requires a radical revision of the Marxist philosophical anthropology of labor.
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My brief comments on contemporary critical theories of the post–Frankfurt School period is intended only to suggest that they can be viewed as plausible rearticulations of a project of critique initiated by Kant and redeployed by the Frankfurt School. This is not a widely shared strategy for reading the contentious plurality of approaches that locate themselves in the space between the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, Foucaultian genealogy, and Derridean deconstruction. Nor am I arguing that this contentious and rivalrous plurality can be ignored. I have engaged in many contentious debates with colleagues myself. I am arguing that we have to accept the legitimate and illuminating pluralization of critical theories. The project of emancipation in a globalized world—one in which many different civilizations and life-worlds are continuously confronting one another, in which new subjectivities represented by women, gender, and sexual minorities and ethnic and racial groups are expressing themselves through competing narratives—cannot ignore the lessons of genealogy, postcolonialism, and feminist theory, or neglect the ethical meaning of deconstruction.
The project of emancipation cannot ignore the lessons of genealogy, postcolonialism, feminist theory, or deconstruction.
Yet none of these approaches succeeds in carrying out one crucial legacy of a critical social theory that Horkheimer identified: the critical theory of society develops, he said, an existential judgment of a “period which is approaching its end.” Critical theory must also be a theory of crises. Restoring this link between critique and crisis in a theory of society has been one of Jürgen Habermas’s many lasting contributions.
In The Legitimation Crisis (1973) Habermas argued that in the domain of economics and administration, crisis meant dysfunctionalities, blockages, sudden economic downturns, and the inability to predict and control the unintended consequences of public and private administration and agencies. But socially transformative crises require something more: a disruption in our sense of shared meaning, in our ability to communicate and interact free from distortion, in our capacity to project future forms of the good life and solidarity. Transformative social and political movements emerge—if they emerge at all—in response to the frustrations and heartbreaks of our social life-world (Lebenswelt), not just in response to economic dysfunction or the failures of private and public administration. A legitimation crisis would develop, Habermas argued, when failures to solve practical problems—economic crises and the state’s inability to guarantee secure jobs, fair housing, health, and education for all (and today we would add a sustainable environment and the preservation of earthly habitat)—could no longer be explained away by the culture of withdrawal into the privacy of one’s family, and indifference to and lack of solidarity with others. A legitimation crisis, such as would lead to oppositional movements, required both radical disillusionment with available cultural values and the demystification of public ideologies of late capitalist societies.
Critical theory must also be a theory of crises. Restoring this link has been one of Jürgen Habermas’s many lasting contributions.
Habermas’s theory of communicative action and the crises of system and life-world he developed envisaged a pluralization of oppositional subjectivities and bid farewell to the myth of a unified working class as the privileged subject of world transformation. The plurality of emancipatory struggles, with no assured harmony, has been acknowledged by many others as well. Where Habermas’s theory differs from Foucaultian or Derridean critical theories is in its insistence that contemporary emancipatory struggles must build upon the conflicted and incomplete legacy of constitutional democracies. Legitimation crises in capitalist democracies do not reject the legacy of radical constitutionalism but seek to revitalize the spark of civic-republican energies that once went into the creation of constitutional orders.
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Habermas’s theory of communicative action has been criticized for its Eurocentrism. This critique misunderstands that concepts such as rationalization, system, and life-world describe processes that are not just Eurocentric but developments of a global modernity. The capitalist economy from the start had a worldwide dynamic reach. The modern state and its juridical and administrative apparatus became the universal aspiration of many former colonies that freed themselves from their colonial legacies. Theories of alternative modernity should not reject the analytical usefulness of these categories. Alternative modernity models are most helpful when they inform us about the varying institutional and organizational configurations of states, markets, and civil societies in Western, non-Western, and global contexts. But historical descriptions of alternative modernities cannot substitute for a critical approach that tries to locate the emancipatory and oppositional potentials of these transformations. The charge of Eurocentrism misunderstands the methodological abstraction through which Habermas develops his system and life-world crisis theory.
The West has no monopoly on the intensity of murderous nationalisms.
Inspired by Habermas as well as Hannah Arendt, my own work of the last two decades has tried to overcome sociological nationalism by interrogating citizenship, migration, and the rights of others in today’s global context. The boundaries of the demos—of the self in democratic self-government—have not been formed democratically through the enfranchisement of the voice of all affected. The nation has been the privileged collective identity that has inserted itself into the gap between the ideal of democracy as the subjection to laws that come from all who are affected, and the reality of a closed demos founded on the privilege of belonging to the nation. This interplay between democratic voice and nationalist closure is a global process that we see in Turkish as well as contemporary Hindu nationalism, in Japanese as well as increasing German ethnocentrism. The West has no monopoly on the intensity of murderous nationalisms.
Emancipation means not only liberation from injustices but also having the courage to build a new world in which freedom can be housed.
Students of Carl Schmitt, on the left and the right, see in such processes the necessary conflict between democracy and liberalism. Whereas democracy, they argue, always presupposes a bounded collective subject, a “we” that is distinct from a “they,” liberalism is cosmopolitan: it presupposes an unbounded association of individuals entitled to rights. Liberal democracy appears as a contradictio in adjecto. This essay is not the place to explain how this simplistic juxtaposition misrepresents the complexity of contemporary democratic struggles about the boundaries of the demos. But I do want to insist—as I think I would have in 1968—that if we embrace skepticism about universal human rights (as many are now doing), we will have very few conceptual tools with which to oppose European right-wing populism, murderous Turkish nationalism, Hindu chauvinism, and a reactionary and racist American isolationism that aims to retain white hegemony by closing its borders to the brown and black people of this world.
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Today the post–World War II international order (or disorder) is in shambles. A new war of superpowers is announcing itself, disguised for the time being as trade wars. The left has always been skeptical—in many cases justifiably—of multi-national governance institutions such as the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and the World Trade Organization. But it now finds itself on the sidelines of history, watching the clash between the U.S. and China on the one hand and the growing expansion of authoritarian populism from Hungary to Turkey, from the Philippines to Poland, from Russia to Singapore, on the other. And unfortunately, so far we have had very little to say about the shape of an alternative world in which freedom and justice can be housed in institutions that transcend murderous superpower confrontations. The left critique of neoliberal globalization will have to be extended to envisaging new global institutions for controlling capitalism on a global scale, for encouraging sustainable and ecological planetary growth among peoples, and for supporting the international human rights system.
The left critique of neoliberal globalization will have to be extended to envisaging new global institutions.
As Arendt observed, liberation is not the same as freedom. Freedom requires creating institutions and practices; it involves shaping new and durable worlds. And this is a task that every generation must bear anew. I do not share in today’s widespread “left-wing melancholia,” to use the title of Walter Benjamin’s essay, now made famous again by Enzo Traverso’s masterful and poignant account of the passing away of traditional socialist and communist projects in our world. The task of critique is interminable; it needs to confront ever-new forms of injustice, oppression, exploitation, and marginalization. Emancipation means not only liberation from such injustices, exploitation, exclusion, and marginalization but also having the courage to build a new world in which freedom can be housed.
One of the famous slogans of the German student movement, originally used by French Situationists in the 1960s, was “Unter dem Pflaster liegt der Strand”—below the asphalt lies the beach. I am still looking for it.
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October 09, 2018
15 Min read time