Intellectual history

“Critical Theory’s paradigm is quintessentially Jewish:” An Interview with Yael Kupferberg

By Till Wagner

By Till Wagner

Yael Kupferberg is a researcher at the Research Institute Social Cohesion, where she directs the project on “The Image in the Digital Public Sphere. The Loss of Experience and Relationships in Speechless Socialization.” In 2022, she published her second monograph, “On the Ban of Images. Studies on Judaism in the Late Work of Max Horkheimer.” The book examines Max Horkheimer’s late work and shows, primarily through the concept of the Bilderverbot, that Max Horkheimer’s Critical Theory is to be understood as Jewish Thought. In 2011, she published a study on Heinrich Heine’s wit.

Till Wagner: First, I would like to talk about the process of writing “On the Ban of Images. Studies on Judaism in Horkheimer’s Late Work.” What was your motivation to write about Horkheimer’s works that he wrote after his retirement in 1959?

Yael Kupferberg: I confess that this question puts me in an awkward situation because it concerns my “positionality,” to use Helmut Plessner’s term. My reading of Horkheimer is a form of personal-intellectual self-assurance. As a third-generation Jew in Germany, I am interested in manifesting Jewish experiences and knowledge. This is my personal motivation, which is also related to the fact that Critical Theory, especially in Germany, tends to be perceived solely as a universalist philosophical offer. In my view, Critical Theory’s Jewish particularity, its roots in Jewish experience and thought, have been and are—consciously, unconsciously, unknowingly—neglected. I argue that Horkheimer’s thought, and even more Erich Fromm’s and Leo Löwenthal’s, was a translation of Jewish paradigms – that it implied and enlightened Jewish thought and experience. At the same time, I wanted to address a topic that is hardly touched upon in philosophy and research on antisemitism: namely, the dual potential of the Bilderverbot (Ger. “the ban on images”) as both a foundation for critique and as a Jewish paradigm.

TW: Before I move on to the more substantive issues, I want to ask about your methodology. Horkheimer’s oeuvre is extensive, and, as you point out, his late work is particularly fragmentary in its form. Nevertheless, you concisely identify the central concepts that structure this corpus: the ban on images and idolatry, the Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen (Ger. “the longing for the completely other”), religion, and theology. How did you approach the material that you took from Horkheimer’s intérieur (p. 43), from the Späne (“shavings”) – that is, Horkheimer’s personal, fragmentary notes that were not meant for publication?

YK: Horkheimer’s late thought is expressed in a variety of smaller literary forms. It consists of jotted-down thoughts, documented conversations, half-articulated ideas, and notes. This form of expression appealed to me because it allows for spontaneity, punch lines, and often seemed less censored.

As these documents were not composed with an audience in mind, they give the reader an insight into Horkheimer’s private thoughts. What particularly interested me was that Horkheimer, in these documents, was very vocal about his Jewish experience. I consider these late manuscripts a collection that converges and accompanies his more complex writings and lectures and presents them in a way that has been largely ignored in the German reception. Moreover, it seemed appropriate to take a closer look at the most prominent concepts and postulates that recur in Horkheimer’s work, to contextualize them, and to illuminate their relationship to his Judaism and biography.

TW: Let us discuss the central concept of your book. As implied by the title, you trace the role of the Jewish Bilderverbot, both in Horkheimer’s thought and in Critical Theory in general. You argue that the “ban on images” was a key concept in Horkheimer’s late works. What is the significance of the Bilderverbot as a “critical posture in and toward the world” (p. 105) for Horkheimer’s philosophy?

YK: In short: the Bilderverbot is everything. The ban of images—in its philosophical content—establishes a way of approaching the world, it is the foundation for critical thought. It prohibits the identity and the identification of subject and object and insists on their difference. Moreover, it postulates an absolute transcendence that resists articulation. God, as an idea, “is” absolute – that is, beyond representation, beyond “Dasein.” In this respect, nothing and no one can take God’s place. For Horkheimer, the Bilderverbot represents the limit that every self-conscious thinking—and that is very Kantian—needs to accept. On the one hand, it demands a form of self-restraint, of reflection; on the other, it is a mimetic goal. “Being” and “Dasein,” in Hermann Cohen’s words, are not congruent. Only with reference to the “completely other,” to the “absolute”—also as an authority—a critique of the world is possible. In Horkheimer’s reading, the Bilderverbot is the precondition for enlightened thought: it is the basis of ethics, and of reflexive reason; as an idea, or as Immanuel Kant says, as “Leitung” (“guidance”). The ban on images objects against an affirmative and defeatist appropriation of the world.

TW: How does the Bilderverbot relate to the philosophical foundations of Horkheimer’s thought: such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx’s materialism?

YK: Kant, Hegel, and Marx were central for Horkheimer – especially with regard to the Bilderverbot. Hegel’s dialectic, the subject-object relation in all its varieties was, of course, fundamental. Horkheimer, however, had to refuse the positive abolition, the synthesis – because of the ban of images. He considered negation to be more progressive: it philosophically accommodated the infinite as an open movement. Incidentally, Marx’s concept of fetish can also be linked to the concept of the Bilderverbot, where the fetish can be identified with idolatrous thinking. This topic would be worth another study.

Horkheimer’s reception of Kant seems of particular importance to me. Kant—it can be argued with reference to Horkheimer—provided a philosophical translation of the ban on images when he postulated a “boundary” between “faith” and “knowledge.” Jürgen Habermas has written about this. It was precisely Kant’s normativity and his postulates of reason that were significant not only for Horkheimer but for modern Jewish philosophy in general. Horkheimer’s relationship to Kant was especially emphasized by his Jewish readers.

TW: Max Horkheimer is mostly known for Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored with Theodor W. Adorno, and for his concept of “instrumental reason,” which he developed in Eclipse of Reason. The latter denotes a form of reason that acts purely utilitarian and thereby reinforces existing structures of domination rather than working towards their abolition. To what extent did Horkheimer’s critique of “instrumental reason” in his early work prefigure his later critique of idolatry as an affirmation of the existing?

YK: Critical Theory is based on the ethos of analyzing society and the ideology it generates. In Horkheimer’s case, this is already evident in his early writings. Also, in “Dawn,” a collection of notes that Horkheimer wrote between 1926 and 1931, it becomes clear that he was thinking about metaphysics. In “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” the Bilderverbot is already present as well. A more determinate and openly articulated turn to Judaism occurs during his emigration and in response to “Auschwitz,” I think. Judaism becomes particularly important in Horkheimer’s late work, both as a philosophical-analytical moment and as a paradigm to be saved after the catastrophe and in the “administered world.” Admittedly, even the philosophical Marxism, to which Horkheimer is inclined and which is inherent in his thought, contains critique as its essential moment. From his early writings on, Horkheimer turns against the given, that is, against “instrumental reason.” Horkheimer’s ethos was always that of critique. However, in his late thought, this critique is increasingly and more openly based on the idea of the “absolute.”

TW: To what extent do religious and specifically Jewish references in Horkheimer’s late work provide an alternative to instrumental reason? What is the critical relevance of the Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen; a motif that is strongly connected to the Bilderverbot?

YK: In its idealistic variety, Judaism refuses to represent God: any exaltation of the worldly is negated. This separation, this “boundary,” is, according to Horkheimer, the condition of possibility for critique. When this boundary collapses, when God and man become identical, the basis for critique becomes suspended. If there is no unconditional moral authority—that is, no idea of the absolute—then, according to Horkheimer, there is also no justification for moral-ethical action. Thus, “instrumental reason” is also the consequence of a missing corrective. “Instrumental reason” is planned, calculating, and has no metaphysical concept of man – the man himself becomes a “means.” In Judaism, according to Horkheimer, the dialectic is suspended – it preserves the idea of the “completely other,” of the absolute, of the “limit.” In this respect, Horkheimer’s Judaism refuses the affirmation of the existing and preserves the moment of critique, the moment of difference, of the “non-identical.” It resists and therefore preserves a non-articulable utopia. As a Kantian Leitung (“guidance”), the Bilderverbot represents a corrective to instrumental reason. Judaism thus preserves Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Or, more briefly and biblically, in Horkheimer’s formulation: …denn er ist wie du (“…for he is like you”).

TW: In the second chapter of your book, you elaborate on the biographical context of Horkheimer’s insistence on the ban on images, his adherence to the postulate of the “absolute,” and his critique of idolatrous thought. You describe how the rise of National Socialism, as well as Horkheimer’s experience of the Holocaust as a survivor in exile, shaped his later work. This observation is in clear contrast to the accusation that Horkheimer detached himself from political and social problems in his late work. To what extent can the heightened emphasis on the Bilderverbot and his critique of idolatry be understood as a reaction to the civilizational rupture of the the Holocaust and the history of the 20th century?

YK: Horkheimer himself pointed out—perhaps as an observation, perhaps self-ironically—that people become conservative with age. I do not want to evaluate this statement. However, I think that Horkheimer, after being philosophically and academically interested in universality in his early career, at an older age began paying more attention to preserving the Jewish existence in the world, at least philosophically. His insistence on criticizing idolatry cannot be explained with reference to “Auschwitz” alone. Even before “Auschwitz,” he insisted on the non-representability of Utopia from a Marxist perspective. However, after “Auschwitz,” he recognized that this motif was rooted in the Jewish paradigm of the Bilderverbot. And—as I understand it—he considered this paradigm an unconditional civilizational and habitual progress that had to be preserved.

The second dimension of the Bilderverbot is its analytical and habitual content. The ban on images prevents the mimetic appropriation of the projected. Softening the ban implies an idolatrous habitus: it motivates affirmative assimilation to the object, identification, irrationality, affectation, antisemitism, ideologization, fanaticism, and harshness. To exaggerate: lifting the ban was, for Horkheimer, the habitus of the antisemite. This was a very determined, analytical reaction to National Socialism, to antisemitism, to “Auschwitz.” In this respect, the Bilderverbot was immanently political.

TW: Because of its more overt references to religion and the author’s alleged move from social and worldly concerns to metaphysical questions, Horkheimer’s late work is often contrasted with his earlier work. Contemporary and current readers of Horkheimer often speak of a conservative turn, mostly with negative undertones. You, in contrast, argue against this reading in your book. How do you see the relationship between Horkheimer’s earlier and later work?

YK: I must confess that I was specifically interested in what was particular about Horkheimer. In his particularity, I see a normative and Jewish posture that few have recognized and appreciated, and that is more evident in his late work. I would nevertheless maintain that the Jewish theme, the question of Jewish “positionality,” had significance for his early work, too: such as his attempts as a playwright. The particular and universal existence are always related: they cannot be separated.

Horkheimer was still interested in universality in his late work. At the same time, he began emphasizing his Jewish existence, his relation to the Jewish experience, also in an epistemological way. Horkheimer’s historical-Jewish experience, the annihilation of the European Jews, did not eradicate but reinforced his devotion to the fact that a comprehensive improvement of the world concerns and should concern all people. This is a consistent theme of his work.

TW: You argue that Horkheimer’s thought—and in a sense Critical Theory as such, insofar as it upholds the Bilderverbot and contains the concept of ganz anderes (“completely other”)—is to be understood as a “translation of Judaism and Jewish paradigms into German philosophy” (p. 100). Can the negative reception of Horkheimer’s late work, in which the Jewish substance of Critical Theory becomes more evident than in the early works of the first generation of Critical Theory, be understood as a resentment against his Jewishness?

YK: Yes, I see it that way. Horkheimer’s readers wanted to perceive, uphold, and canonize his universalism – which is also unquestionably part of Critical Theory. At the same time, out of ignorance, insecurity, discomfort, and bias, the Jewish heritage was ignored, flattened, or devalued. This is still the case today. The Jewish moment of Critical Theory, its posture, and content continue to be suppressed. The justified universalist reception and appropriation of Critical Theory quite ruthlessly ignore its intellectual origins. I would like to object to this: Critical Theory is also Jewish philosophy, written in a particular historical situation, grounded in a particular socialization and a particular experience. Its paradigm is quintessentially Jewish. This origin should be acknowledged so that we can comprehend the depth of Horkheimer’s philosophy. For me, this is the famous Flaschenpost (“message in a bottle”).

TW: Lastly, I want to ask about the present and future relevance of Horkheimer’s late work. Your book emphasizes that Horkheimer’s late work has been largely neglected and belittled. What would you like to see in future reception and research on Horkheimer’s work and his contribution to critical theory?

YK: I recognize that every generation has its own reading experiences and poses its own questions to his work. I wish—and I must not demand this because it must be done out of free will—that this specific Jewish heritage in Horkheimer’s Critical Theory receives recognition and is not entirely absorbed into the general and indifferent: that its history and intellectual content is not suspended. For me, Critical Theory as philosophical posture and habitus is deeply influenced by the Jewish experience and the Jewish paradigm. If this origin is neglected and excluded, Critical Theory’s epistemological potential can hardly be intellectually grasped. Thus, my book is a restitution.

TW: In your book, you correct the image of Horkheimer’s late work as conservative or theoretically weak. Thus, you make clear the extent to which Bilderverbot and the Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen represent critical modes of thought that resist affirmation and ideology. What relevance do you attach to this specific critical thinking in a moment that is increasingly dominated by visual representation?

YK: The Bilderverbot and the Sehnsucht (“longing”) have the highest analytical relevance as a philosophical posture. It is precisely the increasingly visual present that needs a critique of appearance, a reflection on the specific contemporary aesthetic experience and appropriation of the world. I consider the analytical potential here as not yet exhausted, and I strongly argue for an update – and remembrance (Eingedenken) in the way Critical Theory understood it. The aesthetic experience, understood comprehensively, that people make and can make, is by no means a negligible quantity (quantité négligeable).

Till Wagner holds a bachelor’s degree in history and political science and recently completed his master’s studies at the Berlin Center for Research on Antisemitism with a thesis on the thought of Hannah Arendt and Jean Améry. He currently works in public history.

Edited by Jonas Knatz and Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Max Horkheimer with his wife Rose Riehker at the First Congress of Cultural Critics in Munich in 1958. Courtesy of the Archive of the Munich Stadtmuseum.

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