Extract from ‘The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory’ by Amy Allen

| Amy Allen | Heathwood Press |

 In this book Allen, Professor of Philosophy and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, undertakes an important internal critique of the Frankfurt School. Leading with the question of how we might decolonize critical theory, she offers a timely critical examination of Jürgen Habermas’ and Axel Honneth’s respective projects, challenging the way these Frankfurt School thinkers employ such concepts as normativity, history and progress. Demanding that we re-imagine the way critical theory grounds its normative claims, Allen offers an intriguing reading of Rainer Forst before turning to the work of Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault. In the process, she presents an alternative approach to history, initiating a fertile dialogue on issues of normativity and on the need for the “fuller realization” of certain normative ideals of the Enlightenment. The book concludes by introducing an alternative concept of open-ended practical reason as well as the interesting notion of “metanormative contextualisism”, relating the latter to the criticalizing of postcolonial theory.

Along with the below extract, we’ve also included audio from a talk by Allen entitled Adorno, Foucault, and the end of Progress: De-Colonizing Critical Theory (see above). This talk was originally presented at the Center for Global Ethics, in partnership with the Social and Political Theory Student Association, on 20 March, 2014.


Critique as Historical Problematization: Adorno and Foucault

Allow me to tie together some of the common threads that have already been implicit in this discussion of the work of Adorno and Foucault; from this discussion, a sketch of their alternative approach to history and its relationship to normativity will emerge.

Reason and Power

Although both Adorno and Foucault are sharply critical of the idea that history is to be understood as the progressive realization of reason, neither endorses a totalizing critique or an abstract nega­tion of enlightenment rationality. For Adorno, “What makes the concept of progress dialectical, in a strictly non-metaphorical sense, is the fact that reason, its organ, is just one thing. That is to say, it does not contain two strata, one that dominates nature and one that conciliates it. Both strata share in all its aspects” (HF, 157). In other words, reason is entangled with power and we cannot, as critical theorists following Habermas have attempted to do, iden­tify a use or a stratum of reason that is not so entangled. And yet Adorno is no advocate of “the denial of reason”; indeed, for him, such a denial would be “certainly not a whit superior to the much derided faith in progress” (HF, 169). Rather, the task for philoso­phy, as Adorno understands it, is to reflect on its own activity as a rational enterprise and in so doing to attempt to transcend itself (HF, 169–170), to transcend the concept, as he says, “by way of the concept” (ND, 15). This is, as I suggested above, the aim of Adorno’s ethics of resistance.

Similarly, for Foucault, although his work starts from the rela­tionship between reason or rationalization and power, he does not conclude from this that reason should be put on trial. “To my mind,” he writes, “nothing would be more sterile” (SP, 328). To say that the entanglement of reason with power justifies putting reason on trial is to find oneself trapped into “playing the arbitrary and boring part of either the rationalist or the irrationalist” (SP, 328), a trap that Foucault elsewhere refers to as “the ‘blackmail’ of the Enlightenment” (WE, 312). To be sure, unlike Adorno, Foucault is skeptical that “ ‘dialectical’ nuances” can enable us to escape this trap (WE, 313). Moreover, he suggests that his attempt to “analyze specific rationalities rather than always invoking the progress of rationalization in general” distinguishes his approach to the entan­glement of rationalities and power relations from that of the Frank­furt School (SP, 328–29). Nevertheless, like Adorno, he insists that it is the task of philosophy understood as a mode of critical thought to reflect on its own rational activity and its entanglements with dangerous relations of power. As Foucault notes in his essay “What Is Critique?,” his approach to the question of Enlightenment is a “way of gaining access, not to the problem of knowledge, but to that of power” (PT, 59).32

Utopia and Utopianism

But if the task of philosophy is to reflect on its own rational activity and in so doing to attempt to transcend itself, what sense can be made of this notion of transcendence? If the aim of philosophy is to push beyond itself, then what is meant here by “beyond”? One might think that there is an implicit and abstract conception of utopia in the background here and that as such this view is open to the kind of impotence of the mere ought objection that attracted Habermas and Honneth to Hegel in the first place. Although Adorno is less hostile than Foucault to the concept of utopia—whereas Foucault prefers to speak of heterotopias,33 Adorno does offer an account of utopia, linked to his notion of reconciliation and defined as “above identity and above contradiction” or as “a togetherness of diversity” (ND, 150)—both are careful to offer only negativistic accounts of utopia or the good life toward which such notions of transcendence might aim.34 For Adorno, we cannot glimpse the right life from within the wrong one, and the very idea of reconciliation forbids it being posited as a positive concept (ND, 145); this is why utopia can only be glimpsed indirectly and in an anticipatory way through the illumination cast by certain works of modern art.35 Similarly, for Foucault, we cannot have access to a point of view outside of power relations, which means that any conception of a society that is devoid of power relations will be utopian in the negative sense (ECSPF, 298). Both thinkers are very attuned to the fact that any vision of the good life offered from within a society structured by relations of domination is likely to reproduce those power relations, to be infected by them, so they both eschew utopian speculations about what kind of content “the good life” might have.

However, there is also a sense in which Foucault and Adorno are more radically utopian thinkers than either Habermas or Honneth, for they hold on to the possibility and desirability of radical social change in the direction of an open-ended conception of the future.36 In other words, Foucault and Adorno envision social transformation not just as the better and fuller realization of our existing norma­tive ideals—for example, a version of liberal democracy that is more transparent and less distorted by power relations, or a recognition order that is more inclusive and egalitarian, or a political system that rests on justifications that cannot be reasonably rejected—but also as the possibility of the radical transformation of those ideals themselves, where that transformation would not necessarily be a regression. The early work of Foucault in particular is filled with thought experiments that pose this possibility: someday we might look back on our present preoccupation with mental illness and wonder what all the fuss was about, and from that point of view our current historical a priori may well seem benighted. Although we can’t imagine what it would be like to inhabit that future point of view, there is a critical value for Foucault in being open to this pos­sibility and to the idea that the creatures who inhabit that point of view will inhabit a different historical a priori and hence a different moral universe. In order to be genuinely critical, critical theory has to be open to both kinds of social transformation—not just reform­ism, whether radical or not, but also radical social change—and it has to be careful not to prejudge the outcome of such radical trans­formations, for to do so would necessarily be to presuppose that our own historical form of life is not only superior to all that came before it but also unsurpassable, that it constitutes the end point of history. Such a presupposition is, as we have seen throughout this book, both conceptually and politically problematic.

The Historicization of History

Both Adorno and Foucault understood their own critical, historico­philosophical projects as historically situated. In this way, both attempted to think through the logic of the second, historicist Enlightenment, to apply the insights of this historically situated conception of rationality reflexively to the historico-philosophical enterprise itself. As I argued above, this is evident in Foucault’s early work when he makes it clear that history is important for him not because historicity is characteristic of our reason or our exis­tence but rather because History—the Hegelian conception of his­tory as the progressive unfolding of a rationalization process—is central to our modern historical a priori, which is thus both his­torical and Historical. The point of Foucault’s historicization of His­tory in the History of Madness is to show the historical contingency of this idea of History and to analyze the role that it plays in the exclusion and domination of those who are deemed unreasonable. Similarly, Adorno, in good dialectical fashion, understood his con­ception of philosophy as historically situated as itself historically situated. In this way, he too historicized his own conception of his­toricity.37 Indeed, Adorno is sharply critical of both Heidegger and Hegel on precisely this point, because they fail, in different ways, to historicize their understandings of historicity. Heidegger’s is, thus, an “ahistorical concept of history” that, by locating the concept of history in existence, “amounts paradoxically to an ontological infla­tion that does away with the concept of history by a sort of con­juring trick” (HF, 123).38 If we are to avoid this “ontological infla­tion” through which history becomes “mutation as immutability” (HF, 123), we have to locate the concept of history in history rather than in existence. Adorno repeats the “mutation as immutability” charge against Hegel, whom he accuses of failing to fully realize his own conception of dialectics by appealing to a timeless, unhistorical conception of history that is both metaphysical and mythological: in this way, history for Hegel “acquires the quality of the unhistoric” (ND, 356–57). The proper response to this, according to Adorno, is to perform a reverse dialectical “transmutation,” this time “of meta­physics into history” (ND, 360). As with Foucault, the historiciza­tion of history is both the thread that connects Adorno to Hegel and the gulf that separates them.

Genealogy as Problematization

The historicization of History is closely bound up with its problema­tization, where this means two things: first, revealing the historical contingency of our own historically situated point of view;39 second, showing how that point of view has been contingently made up and as such is bound up with particular relations of power.40 Because our historically situated point of view is inflected with a certain conception of History, effectively problematizing that point of view demands a distinctive way of taking up while radically transforming that conception, which I will characterize as a distinctive kind of genealogical method. Following Colin Koopman, who in turn builds on some insights from Bernard Williams, we can distinguish three different modes of genealogical inquiry: subversive, vindicatory, and problematizing.41 The common core of these three ways of doing genealogy is their attempt to explicate, as Nietzsche puts it in the preface to On the Genealogy of Morals, “a knowledge of a kind that has never yet existed or even been desired,” namely, “a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances in which [moral values] grew, under which they evolved and changed.”42 In other words, the com­mon core is a historical approach that asks how specific, contingent historical processes have led human beings to develop and embrace this sort of value or concept.43 However, each of these three modes of genealogical inquiry uses such knowledge for a different end. The subversive mode of genealogy aims not only to raise the question of the historical emergence of our values, but also to reject them as lacking value in some other, more important sense.44 vindica­tory genealogy, by contrast, traces the historical emergence of our values with an eye toward showing those values to be justified and reasonable.45 The third mode of genealogical inquiry has both sub­versive and vindicatory features insofar as it aims to reveal both the dangers and the promise contained in the values, concepts, or forms of life whose contingent history it traces, but its aim is nei­ther simply subversive nor vindicatory. Rather, its aim is a critical problematization of our historical present.

In a late interview, responding to a question about the difficulty of pinning down his political position, Foucault highlights the impor­tance of problematization for his own practice of critique: “It is true that my attitude isn’t a result of the form of critique that claims to be a methodical examination in order to reject all possible solutions except for the valid one. It is more on the order of a ‘problematiza­tion’—which is to say, the development of a domain of acts, prac­tices, and thoughts that seem to me to pose problems for politics” (PPP, 114). However, the aim of this critical problematization is not, as Foucault’s critics have often assumed, to subvert or undermine the acts, practices, and thoughts that are so problematized. Rather, as he put it in an oft-quoted passage from another of his late inter­views: “I would like to do the genealogy of problems, of probléma­tiques. My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do” (OgE, 256).46 Moreover, although the aim of Foucault’s genealogies is clearly not to vindicate our current practices or forms of rationality, there is an important if often underappreciated vindicatory element to his problematizing genealogical method. This element comes out clearly in “What Is Enlightenment?” when Foucault emphasizes “the extent to which a type of philosophical interrogation—one that simultane­ously problematizes man’s relation to the present, man’s historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject—is rooted in the Enlightenment” (WE, 312). In other words, Foucault situates his own problematizing critical method within the philosophical ethos of critique that forms the positive normative inheritance of the Enlightenment—an inheritance that demands fidelity not to its doctrinal elements but rather to its critical attitude, an inheritance that involves reaffirming the legacy of the Enlighten­ment in and through its radical transformation.

Although Adorno does not use the terms “genealogy” or “prob­lematization”—much less “genealogy as problematization” or “problematizing genealogy”—to describe his approach to history, still the outlines of such an approach can be found in his work.47 One of his major criticisms not only of Hegel but also of Marx and Engels is that they failed to acknowledge that the antagonism that they saw as the fundamental driving force of history was itself his­torically contingent, that “it need not have been” (ND, 321). Adorno links this recognition to the possibility of a specifically critical social theory: “Only if things might have gone differently; if the totality is recognized as a socially necessary semblance, as the hypostasis of the universal pressed out of individual human beings; if its claim to be absolute is broken—only then will a critical social conscious­ness retain its freedom to think that things might be different some day” (ND, 323). Moreover, as we saw above, Adorno clearly and emphatically rejects any straightforwardly vindicatory reading of history: “After the catastrophes that have happened, and in view of the catastrophes to come, it would be cynical to say that a plan for a better world is manifested in history and unites it” (ND, 320). However, his aim isn’t a straightforward rejection of the values and norms of enlightenment modernity either. For example, although Adorno is highly critical of the entanglement of the modern prin­ciple of equality with capitalist mechanisms of exchange and bour­geois coldness and thus with structures of reification and relations of domination, he also regards these principles as important his­torical achievements that protect individuals from some kinds of injustice. “Anyone who like me has had experience of what the world looks like when this element of formal equality is removed,” Adorno writes, “will know from his own experience, or at the very least from his own fear, just how much human value resides in this concept of the formal” (HF, 253). Adorno’s position, as Jay Bern-stein explains, is that “the ideals of the enlightenment, as they have come down to us, are a mixture of domination and promise: the equality of individuals in the market is also their reduction to their labor power, and the reduction of labor power to labor time; the concepts which enjoin the freedom of the moral law—respect, fear, and so on—are also repressive.”48 Thus the aim of Adorno’s philoso­phy of history, like Foucault’s, is to chart the simultaneous histori­cal emergence of both the domination and the promise of the ideals of the Enlightenment, the unity, as he says, of discontinuity and continuity (ND, 320). The method for doing so can be understood as a kind of problematizing genealogy, even if Adorno himself doesn’t use this term.

Amy Allen_End of Progress_front

* Excerpted from The End of Progress by Amy Allen. (c) 2016 Columbia University Press.

Heathwood Institute and Press is a non-profit, critical theoretical organisation that was formed by a collective of academic researchers across a wide range of disciplines. Motivated and inspired by Frankfurt School critical theory, our aim is to investigate the root causes of social, economic and environmental inequality by offering foundational, holisitic social critique as well as promoting concrete, critical alternatives to the type of social policy symptomatic of today’s highly unjust societies. Learn more.

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