Time is a Tense Ecosystem: An Interview on Power and Time (Part II)

By Jonathon Catlin

The first part of the interview can be read here.

JC: Theorists of history such as Koselleck have explored the multiplicity of historical times captured by Ernst Bloch’s notion of the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen). Koselleck pursued this through the metaphor of temporal layers or “sediments of time.” You quote Sebastian Conrad to this effect on “layers of time that pile up and interact…scales [that] coexist, and complement each other” (26). Your notion of chronocenosis seems to go further, emphasizing the competitive relation of temporal regimes: Time matters because temporal clashes and antagonisms play an essential role for the legitimacy or downfall of regimes. While conceptions of modernity rooted in the Atlantic Revolutions emphasize rupture symbolized by the adoption of new, secular calendars, Koselleck’s conception of modernity centers on the formation of nation-states and emphasized the acceleration of time, the formation of new “collective singulars” in forward-looking concepts like progress and history itself. Modern time as rupture, then, versus as progressive continuity. But you try to scramble this dichotomy: “revolutions are far from the main occasion on which time and power collide, wrap into each other, disentangle and redesign everyday life. Indeed, often-conflictual regimes of temporality suffuse even the most stable of political states,” for “every established political regime, every sovereign, pursues continuity—often even eternity—and to do so negotiates its relationships with other established forms of time” (7). Could you elaborate on these less obvious temporal clashes?

DE: First, I’d just point out how spatial representations of time—sediments, layers, etc.—naturally translate into a sequential model of temporality. In some respects, that is a conception of historicity as periodization, and many of the categories we used to periodize history embed within them a particular historical regime (perhaps none so clearly as “the Middle Ages” as Kathleen Davis has discussed).

Revolutions can certainly contribute to this impression of history as a sequence of distinct periods. At least from the French Revolution onward, it is part and parcel of revolutionary political culture to assert a new beginning, a new regime, even a new calendar. But what the French Revolution really inaugurates is a redistribution of historical regimes. Conservative thinkers and politicians, from Burke and Maistre to Metternich and Thiers, would orient their political and historical thought around the French Revolution just as much as progressive writers. Even among those sympathetic to la grande Révolution, there are rival accounts: Lamartine defends a Girondinist history, where Buchez and Roux (editors of the Histoire parlementaire) recount a history much more favorable to the Jacobins. Already during the French Revolution, political rivalries were often expressed through feuding historical narratives. Camille Desmoulins mounted his attack on Robespierre’s policies in a short-lived journal called Le Vieux Cordelier, a celebration of the “old” Cordeliers club’s politics. Robespierre responded by tying Desmoulins’s ally Danton to a long list of revolutionary traitors, starting with Lafayette. Revolutions weaponize history; revolutionary feuds are often over clashing accounts of what happened, and of how the present moment connects to different pasts and points to different futures.

But to get to your question, it certainly isn’t only during revolutionary times that we witness this profusion of warring historical regimes. In her chapter on Supreme Court jurisprudence, Kristen Loveland shows how the justices use—and choose—precedents to conjure up a sense of authoritative neutrality. And yet, as she shows, justices routinely dissent from each other’s reading of historical precedents, and string together past cases to reach different conclusions. These conflicting versions of legal history reflect very different accounts of past decisions, inform present ones, and shape different projections of the future.

SG: Indeed we try to scramble that dichotomy of “modernity as progressive continuity” versus “modernity as rupture or as series of ruptures.” I like the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” motif as much as anyone (and even more so Blumenberg’s playful addition, the “non-synchronicity of the synchronous”) but as you indicate, since Koselleck it’s a certain geological metaphor that has gradually taken hold. Temporal clashes, like Dan just discussed around revolutions, don’t work well at all in either of those models. This is where our approach to chronocenosis comes in: temporal regimes have competing, cooperative, collateral, conflicting relationships with one another. We describe them as a tense ecosystem.

An example of a temporal clash: think back a year ago, when Covid first hit, and it was impressed upon all of us that we perhaps already had it, had caught it a few days earlier, but it wouldn’t show at first, and then a few days in (3? 5? 10? who knew? who could test?) a patient would become symptomatic and then there would be multiple stages, the inhuman course of disease taking over the body, but meanwhile the patient could or would have infected others, perhaps before symptoms appeared, who would follow entirely different temporal courses of disease. All the while, different governmental actors enforced divergent regimes, tweets punctuated time, graphs showed a linear upward curve, and so on. If someone’s family lived in a different place, you might hear them say, “they’re two weeks behind us right now,” while e.g. Italy was two weeks ahead. Different communities would be hit differently, often depending on how home and work was organized. To read the numbers of hospitalized patients, or of the dead, was to look back a couple of weeks, to a moment of infection, and to imagine probabilities and courses of infection in “the now.” New York was living in a complete chaos of temporalities, as everyone tried to figure out whether and how to retain or replace existing ones, all in the middle of a “rapid” lockdown and those awful, near-“constant” sirens. Every new message inflicted scary information, true or false. When was all this happening? What time did one inhabit? Was it the same time as that of one’s intimates? Did kids inhabit the same time as adults? Did the aged? Did pupils after the school closures experience, thanks to Zoom, a fundamentally different sort of time pressure? Who did not find the shock of the moment to be concomitant with religious language (and zombie movies)? Even climate change (the apocalypse of our time?) had not succeeded in convincing political leaders that our time was falling apart, and Covid did. So, to what extent had Covid inflicted an irregular collapse of particular established temporalities, such that the law would be affected one way, medicine in several others, work time clashed with “essential worker” status and with medical rhythms, and so many borders—national, political, corporeal—were themselves in each case differently affected? This is what I meant before by repeating the “fragile consensus” term in describing the present: now it was broken. Every email, their tempo ever more punctuated, began by bemoaning “these extraordinary times,” or its author would scramble (at least I did) for a better term than “crisis,” given that at least since 2008, the language of crisis had itself become ubiquitous.

I hope the Covid example doesn’t come off as glib; it is intended to evoke the vivid kinds of temporalities that different people, institutions, were forced to confront—temporalities and rhythms clashing from the intimacy of the body to the grinding-to-a-near-halt of global capitalism. Our point is that such temporalities existed and competed already. The body’s time is distended by overwork; the body’s time is itself not simply one; intimate spaces and moments exist in the absence or presence of disease and certainly the omnipresence of digital organization; the temporalities of law and labor, the theologies of the time that remains. There are correlations between these temporalities and power dynamics. These correlations need to be studied further, and historians are well placed to do so.

And just to take us back to the book: several essays in the book, besides those mentioned already, handle other chronocenotic situations. Jamie Martin writes of the shifts from economic theories focused on the business cycle to economics of crisis and back to cycles in the decades around 1900; these were theories designed to deal with policy, uncertainty of current events, prediction, and so on. Andrea Westermann’s essay confronts the temporality of plastic on its way to becoming a geological factor. In a philological coup, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite discusses the invention (and backdating) of the expression “Long Divided Must Unite / Long United Must Divide” in China as a seventeenth-century mechanism for handling an ongoing dynastic collapse and replacement that contributed to the “cyclical view” of Chinese history. Our introduction glances at the competing and often conflicting temporalities of 1789, while Dan’s essay considers the different kinds of economies—political and emotional—that can be discerned in Revolution, with the attendant temporalities.

NW: Yes, it’s a great prompt, Jon, and let me chime in with a different sort of example: Australia in the 1990s. As counterintuitive as that may sound, it is a good illustration of one of those unexpected temporal clashes inside relatively stable states. If my chapter in the book explores how indigenous land rights movements produced temporal chaos for settler law in this moment, the legal story is in fact only one dimension of a larger recalibration of geopolitical, colonial, environmental, and spiritual temporalities. Their volatile interaction quite fundamentally rezoned the settler state in time and space. As mining and development projects on the “resource frontier” made questions of land ownership acute, a groundswell of indigenous activism and landmark court cases challenged and ultimately transformed the “origin story” of the state, drawing attention to the fundamental criminality (land grabbing, dispossession, and genocidal violence) of its founding. But it wasn’t only that the settler state now required a new historical narrative and ethical calculus, captured so forcefully in Prime Minister Paul Keating’s landmark 1992 “Redfern Speech.” Recognition that indigenous peoples had legally owned the land prior to colonization spurred the consciousness that they had done so for at least 50,000 years. Suddenly, an epic “new” history extended back into the quasi-infinite past, a history that revolved around the intimate and spiritual relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. As Miranda Johnson and others have argued, these new images and stories landed forcefully in a white Australia existentially adrift: as late vestiges of cultural and economic proximity to Britain dissolved, the country sought new ways of understanding itself in the world, in the region, and on the land. Vampire-like, perhaps, many non-Indigenous Australians hungrily appropriated this sacred, ancient past, which seemed to hold out the promise of redemption and meaning at a moment of disillusionment with postindustrial modernity. A mythic, spiritual timescale filtered down into the prosaic everyday; like so many of my generation, for example, I grew up with storybooks of the Aboriginal dreamtime. New selves and national identities emerged (the point, according to Keating, was “to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows, to recognise that they are part of us”). Many resisted and contested these changes, of course, railing against a “black armband” view of history, inciting a vociferous cycle of history wars and blunting native title’s radical potential. The moment of reckoning with indigenous rights, then, triggered an ornate chronocenosis involving the whole spectrum of social and political life: from the legal foundations of the state, origin stories, school curricula, and popular culture, to identities, subjectivities, and spiritual experience. The co-constitution of time and power was restructured, although no formal revolution took place. These time-knots and spectacular timescales continue to feature in public debate. In advocating for constitutional recognition, First Nations’ landmark 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, for example, explains that indigenous sovereignty is a “spiritual notion”: unextinguished, it exists alongside crown sovereignty. “How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?”

JC: Building on this, in your introduction you note “moral remainders” of historical injustices whose legacies endure such that they cannot be said to belong entirely to “the past.” At the same time, climate change and other catastrophic threats have entered us into a moral contract with future generations. Campaigns for justice, recognition, reparation, and restitution all delve into the time-power nexus and push legal thinking toward “transtemporal or intergenerational justice that might graft centuries into the same legal present and tie dispersed generations into a common moral transaction” (20–21). Could you speak to some of the ways the volume addresses shifting legal temporalities and perhaps some of their contemporary deployments?

NW: Law surfaces in many guises in Power and Time. Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford explore how the attenuated geographies of empire meant that justice came refracted through attributes of pace and duration—true for “slow justice” (as paper trails and protagonists inched around the globe and court cases stretched out over decades or even lifetimes) as well as “fast justice” (with swift, summary justice in the colonies triggering anxiety about petty despotism and the “constitutional dangers of empire”). Sunil Purushotham, meanwhile, reveals Jawaharlal Nehru’s evolving framing of postcolonial Indian sovereignty as a rich time knot, involving not only the mediation of problems of tradition, modernity, technology, and progress in an atomic age, but also Nehru’s dual practice as historian and historical actor.

But, Jon, you’re right that the urgent political and ethical questions of our own day make the relationship between law, time, and morality especially explosive, as we write in the introduction. The problem of intergenerational justice—facing both forward and backward in time—makes the combustible present one epic, sprawling struggle over the relationship between power and time, from reparations and the Rhodes Must Fall movement to the existential imperatives of climate justice and planetary survival. One can ask: how should we understand the responsibility of present generations for historical injustices like slavery and empire? But that formulation leaves the past at a neat distance, when in fact the heart of the matter is the dense way these processes sedimented into structures that are very much alive and ongoing today, dissolving any easy means of cleaving past from present. Similarly, in considering our moral obligations to future people for the state of this planet, many climate activists respond: “the future is now.” If we have important recent work on global spatializations of justice—I think of Adom Getachew on a “welfare world” and Samuel Moyn on “global subsistence rights”—it is not only the geography but also the chronology of justice that is (or needs to be) expanding. The elongated temporalities of decolonization and climate change render many simple forms of historicism and futurity limp and ineffectual. In their stead, the ethical present balloons out in all temporal directions—a kind of dark sublime—inciting us to live with and in “the past” and “the future” in far thicker ways, and to devise forms of politics adequate to the challenges of that expansive present.

JC: I know Stefanos is particularly fond of neologisms, and the “index of temporal terms” at the end of the book directs us to a number of striking concepts: “antichronism” (abolition of time), “temporal crisis,” “time of disease,” “historicity” versus “presentism,” and, of course, “chronocenosis,” your term for competing and conflictual temporal regimes. How might some of the concept-work in this volume speak to our present moment of intersecting crises?

SG: Don’t blame me! The terms in the index are in circulation already, and most of them aren’t neologisms really. Most are attempts in particular fields to develop a useful approach to temporality that sometimes defends the field and its particularity, sometimes announces a specific way of handling a temporal question. As we invite our readers to work on questions of time once more, these terms declare emphatically that a common-sense or empirical approach to time just won’t suffice. So we don’t shy away from bringing these terms together—because we do think that these terms have to be engaged together, they do their work most effectively together, and they have to be related to one another and often in competition with one another. The languages of time are not snakeskins to be shed as the real thing wiggles out of them; they are the fabric of ideas and social practices.

DE: Hopefully the volume will also serve as a reminder that, to paraphrase a famous French sign about trains, one historical regime can hide another. There’s a certain laziness to popular historical thinking, which can even seep into more academic work. We tend to subsume the present under an omnipotent symbol: the jet age, the age of information, the age of climate change. Each of these symbols encapsulates a tidy little history. The jet age: from the wheel to the ship to the car to the airplane—next up, flights to Mars! Climate change: industrialization, over-industrialization, apocalypse. But these shorthand historical regimes are deployed in mutually exclusive ways. Why worry about nuclear proliferation if we’re going to drown in rising sea levels? Do we still care about traveling to Mars if we’re busy mining cryptocurrencies? I think that one of the most interesting things about our current moment is that the many competing historical visions in circulation don’t share many common reference points. If you go back to the nineteenth century, or even the Cold War, the main rivals for the domination of history were engaged in direct combat, and argued over the meaning of the same events. Today, we have fleeting historical regimes du jour (anyone remember the Population Bomb?), but seem incapable of thinking about multiple historicities that are not parallel and do not always intersect. That seems like an important challenge for future historians to take up—at least according to this account of history.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Book jacket courtesy of Jorinde Voigt.


“‘The Present’ is Merely a Fragile Consensus”: An Interview on Power and Time (Part I)

By Jonathon Catlin

The edited volume Power and Time: Temporalities in Conflict and the Making of History (2020) appeared last year from the University of Chicago Press. The work is co-edited by Dan Edelstein (William H. Bonsall Professor of French and Professor of History at Stanford University), Stefanos Geroulanos (Professor of History at New York University), and Natasha Wheatley (Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University). Power and Time’s seventeen chapters span disciplinary approaches ranging from history, to law, to anthropology, to the history of art, and each illustrates how political authority is constituted through the shaping of temporal regimes in historically-specific ways: The expansionist futurity of the Nazi “New Man” meets the apocalyptic presentism of the Manson Family “cult,” meets the “deep time” of our Age of Plastic. In their introduction, the editors propose a new theoretical model of historical temporality, chronocenosis (inspired by the biological notion of biocenosis), a term which reflects not only “the multiplicity but also the conflict of temporal regimes operating in any given moment” (4). The volume goes on to explore competing orders of time not only as they are reflected in iconic moments of rupture, such as the French Revolution, but also in “silenced clashes” stabilized by often unnoticed but decisive temporal frameworks: “An aesthetics of power and time offers a way for organizing the complexity of power, for locating [its] multiple and conflicting temporal regimes, and for understanding how these get harmonized into a seemingly sinuous, often undifferentiated temporal experience that largely eschews conflict” (37). Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed the editors about their new volume.

Jonathon Catlin: This remarkable volume spans a breadth of geographies, periods, and historical methods so vast that I fear we will only be able to get a taste of them here. Yet all the essays hang together around the common framework of investigating “the co-constitution of temporal and political orders” (3). I wanted to start simply by asking about the origins of the volume and the 2015 conference on which it was based. Why did this set of historical-theoretical concerns strike you when they did as warranting new interventions?

Dan Edelstein: If memory serves, Stefanos and I discovered on a walk around Washington Square that we were both working in this vein. Stefanos mentioned at the time that he’d recently had a very similar conversation with Natasha Wheatley. So in a sense, we all stumbled on the topic independently, which led us to believe that it might be an interesting subject for a conference. And clearly others were also thinking along these lines: Christopher Clark was at the conference and presented his last Lawrence Stone Lecture, an early version of what became the closing chapter of his book Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich (Princeton, 2019).

So it is interesting to ask: why was time in the Zeitgeist, so to speak? Obviously there were a number of important works that had paved the way, though some of the most canonical had been out for quite a while: I’m thinking particularly of Reinhart Koselleck’s Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (1979, translated 2004) and François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2003, translated 2015).

I’m not sure there’s an overarching explanation for why, in 2015, many intellectual historians were thinking about political theory in relation to time, but perhaps a partial reason has to do with the fact that it’s been a while since there’s been a “methodological moment” in intellectual history. The major methodological pieces of the Cambridge School were written in the heyday of pragmatics (e.g., Skinner and speech act theory) and structural linguistics (e.g., Pocock and Saussure). Foucauldian genealogies and Begriffsgeschichte have also been around the block a few times. I’m not suggesting that it’s time to throw out the old and bring in the new! But it does seem that there’s a certain periodicity to these kinds of debates and reflections. Notably, we’re not the only ones proposing new perspectives on methodology: Benjamin Straumann recently published a fascinating article on The Energy of Concepts” (2019) that questions whether we should replace our basic Wittgensteinian understanding of concepts with one inspired by Frege.

Whatever the reason, it does seem that the prevailing methods in intellectual history do not accord much room or importance to what we might call the “x-axis” of political thought. Obviously, intellectual historians think about conceptual change over time. But what often gets missed is the role of time within political theories. There are of course exceptions to this generalization—J. G. A. Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment (1975) being no doubt the largest. This particular aspect of Pocock’s masterpiece, oddly enough, did not spark much emulation. In general, intellectual histories, especially of political thought, trace the evolution of concepts between t1and tn, but pay less attention to the embedded narratives or histories that might underpin a concept, organize a theory, or chart a range of potential interpretations.

Stefanos Geroulanos: That’s my memory too (of how we came to the subject). For my part, I was bothered by a certain static quality characteristic of histories of concepts, a kind of inertia that shadows the privileging of “big concepts,” that stabilizes them into the same well-known periodizations. I had started thinking about the figure of the “New Man” and the role it has played in revolutionary circumstances, aesthetic politics, and also scientific policy. What did it mean that people proposed to build a “new humanity,” to change human nature? —when would that humanity be? how did it relate to the revolutionary situation or, perhaps more interestingly, to periods when it was pursued as a scientific goal—which followed an entirely different temporality than the political/revolutionary invocations? What kind of futures were these images of humanity depicted, imagined, promised, painted, sculpted (into stone or metaphorically) and in what relations did they stand toward the present, and to what present(s) for that matter? While Dan was working on revolutions, I was discussing this with Natasha, who was already working on the time of law and on historical right.

I remember returning to Koselleck with a deep sense of dissatisfaction about his famous 1970s essays. His way of working was compelling, yet it simply sapped the energy out of any temporal questioning in subjects and moments that I was interested in—it even foreordained the questioning. Multiple temporalities, acceleration, a certain German-centered vision of the nineteenth century—ok, thanks for the metanarrative, but this is a fully armored theory of modernity, whereas there are so many other spaces to mess around with time. So, where to go? We all seemed to have this desire to chisel at a new chessboard. By the conference in May 2015, this sense that Koselleck et al. insisted specifically on a particular regimen of multiple temporal regimes while most people working on temporality were striking out in different directions felt more intense for me. Caroline Arni had published a spectacular essay on the French Saint-Simonian Claire Démar who committed suicide just after publishing her manifesto; Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov has a different, no less fascinating piece on the culture of birthday gifts to Stalin. Henning Schmidgen had written books—in the plural!—on conceptions of the temporality of the brain—and I love his piece on belatedness and forced synchronicity that we have in the book; Claudia Verhoeven’s essays on Russian terrorist temporality and its “wormholes” had led her to thinking about Charles Manson’s weird theories of time. These divergent approaches suggested a more competitive, conflict-ridden approach to time.

What made the canon all the worse, I think, was the limited range of alternatives: I thought Johannes Fabian’s 1983 Time and the Other (which is contemporary with Koselleck’s early essays)was useful in parsing relations of temporality and power in the anthropological encounter, but then it idealized coevalness rather than leaning on non-coevalness as the basis of all temporal interactions, including in matters of class, race, gender, work, age, and so on. Hartog’s approach to regimes of historicity, which is derivative of Koselleck, intentionally empties out the contemporary moment. So I felt that grasping at a new approach meant thinking with a number of criticisms of these figures. And I kept having that dreary experience where you engage a colleague who looks at you like an alien and a fool because you aren’t starting out with E. P. Thompson’s classic article, or with memory studies, or slams the hammer that you must begin with Heidegger or Benjamin or in fact with Koselleck and Fabian. But you’re no longer sure where to start out, there’s so much to work with, you’re not sure how to frame particular problems of interest, and the more you read the more the ground keeps giving. It is urgent to get time and its connections to power right. That was the coalescence of impulses for me.

Natasha Wheatley: One way of gathering together some of these themes, to riff on what Dan and Stefanos have already said, is that we had each stumbled into problems in which time seemed central, but not at all in its usual methodological guise of context, or anachronism, or change over time, or modern acceleration, and so on. Time wasn’t the property surrounding the object in question, but rather a constitutive feature of its internal architecture. Simplistically put: we were pursuing not so much a regime in time, but time in a regime. We were all hungering after ways of conceptualizing and approaching problems of that sort. And we wanted to do so dialogically, to think and exchange broadly with others in different fields and disciplines, and to hopefully generate new methodological oxygen and energy. I see the project as an opening, an invitation to think with us and the other contributors about the things power does with time. A volume with all the doors and windows left open.

In my own case, I’d come to such questions through an interest in law and time. A whole array of temporal operations are integral to law’s functioning and its authority, from its reliance on continuity to its formal use of analogy (which, legally speaking, collapses differences between times and places). Especially dramatic in this regard are understandings of sovereignty, which often comprise doctrines of perpetuity or immortality—something like a philosophy of history contained in sovereignty’s conceptual structure. I wanted to analyse what legal regimes presumed about and required of time—how they stretched it and collapsed it, arranged it and consumed it—in ways that were constitutive of their power and authority. I’ve found the history of science more methodologically generative and inspiring than a lot of intellectual history for problems of this sort, with its focus on what we might call the preconditions of truthiness—its attention to the internal truth structure of disciplines and fields and knowledges. I’m playing around with ways of drawing that sensibility into legal and intellectual history. Indeed, you see the influence and imprint of the history of science—and of anthropology—throughout this volume. Not least in the pieces on regimes of inquiry, whether Jamie Martin on the temporal imaginary of economic knowledge, or Joanna Radin and Emma Kowal on the time of the freezer and the “cryopolitics” of indigenous blood samples suspended between life and death, or Maria Stavrinaki on prehistory and/as posthistory and “apes and caves and bombs.” We’re all experimenting with different ways of cracking open the problem of time, reaching for a methodological expansiveness and subtlety capable of capturing the sorts of conjunctures we encountered in our research.

JC: I appreciate the way you collectively explore temporal regimes and their conflicts from the bottom-up, asking, “How is the fantasmatic unity that permeates most temporal experience made possible, and which frictions and chasms does it paper over?” (4). This question goes back to Kant, who answered in his First Critique, if not quite satisfactorily,that “time is the form of internal sense,” the synthetic apprehension upon which unified, conscious experience is based. Though time is the currency of historical analysis, historians have not always interrogated their (modern, Eurocentric, etc.) assumptions about time; hence your stated goal for the volume is “to relocate questions of temporality from the esoteric margins to the center of modern historiography” (4). “Temporal” and “global” turns in history were already proclaimed a decade ago, but you regret that “history writing on time has not really harassed the central categories of the discipline. ‘The past’ that historians supposedly study remains largely unchallenged in its meaning, ‘the present’ always too clear” (5). Instead, you write, “what we usually call ‘the present’ is merely a fragile consensus, a silenced clash,” and the same goes for naively accepted past presents (27). If this is the case, you write, the “presentism” diagnosed by François Hartog and others “is an illusion” (34). Do historians need a stable conception of “the past” they are analyzing? Is identifying one possible, or even desirable, in light of your volume?

SG: When we begin working on a particular subject, or within a certain framework, different agents and institutions fill these temporal categories of past and present with meaning in very different ways; they think in different scales, experience different kinds of temporal continuities, are perhaps differently traumatized, and so on. So: no, historians need the exact opposite of a stable conception of “the past” and the same goes for other temporal categories, “the present” included. Ethan Kleinberg has written more beautifully and effectively on this than I can. It would be unfortunate (intellectually, politically) for the discipline to pretend that the past is a single past. Or that the same moment even, examined at different scales, in different documents, or across different actors, is in fact the same moment. Why would anything different go for that awkward nexus we call “the present,” this moment we ourselves begin from? Just as you suggest, with reference to Kant, we all have some sense of the present, of time passing now; debates in the philosophy of time going back to Aristotle and Augustine have tried to deal with this problem. But as we detail in the introduction, this is indeed something of an illusion—not necessarily a bad one, just one that ignores all sorts of ways in which our temporal experience is synthesized out of very different temporal regimes. The way I would abbreviate our argument in our introduction is that the present, any present, involves the silent clash or fragile consensus you mention.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Book jacket courtesy of Jorinde Voigt.


Adorno and the Ban on Images: An Interview with Sebastian Truskolaski

By Jonathon Catlin

Dr. Sebastian Truskolaski is Lecturer in German and Comparative Literature at King’s College London and the author of Adorno and the Ban on Images (Bloomsbury, 2021), which traces the trope of the biblical ban on images of God (Bilderverbot) in the work of Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) and a number of his interlocutors. Its three chapters investigate Adorno’s “imageless materialism,” “inverse theology,” and “aesthetic negativity,” which together “reorganize Adorno’s uneasily systematic ‘anti-system’ around the notion of imagelessness” (8). While Adorno adhered to the maxim that “one may not cast a picture of Utopia in a positive manner” (140), his late work suggests that “successful” works of art “negatively intimate an ‘imageless image of Utopia’” (146).

Sebastian Truskolaski, Adorno and the Ban on Images (Bloomsbury 2021).

Grounded in nuanced close readings, the book also illuminates the status of theological figures in critical theory after they have “migrat[ed] into the realm of the secular, the profane” (81). In Adorno’s thought, Truskolaski ultimately finds “a restless and incessant dismantling of established philosophical dogmas that throws into relief a mode of thinking, and—by extension—living, that escapes the violence and coercion of the present” (13). Adorno’s “labour of critique,” the book suggests, holds open a “caesura” in “which a life free from domination might become conceivable” (151).

Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Truskolaski about his new book

Jonathon Catlin: Your book sets out from the biblical story of Moses breaking the tablets containing the laws he received from God on Mount Sinai. Moses then destroys the idol of the golden calf the Israelites made to worship in his absence. It has been argued by the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842–1919), among others, that the ensuing ban on material images makes Judaism a “philosophical religion” and its god an “intellectualized” one (3). In their 1944/47 Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) invoke this conception of Judaism as an antidote to the mythic, dominating, and instrumental rationality they identify with fascism: “‘The disenchanted world of Judaism’, we are told, ‘propitiates magic by negating it in the idea of God’” (4). Could you give us a brief history of this figure, and speculate a bit about why two secular, materialist philosophers might have turned to it in that dark hour?

Sebastian Truskolaski: The origins of this figure, as you rightly point out, lie in the Old Testament—specifically at the point in Exodus when Moses (upon receiving the tables with the Ten Commandments) reproaches his brother, Aaron, for encouraging the Israelites to worship an idol. On one level, the point is simply that intermediaries, such as the golden calf, are insufficient for capturing God’s transcendence. This is a foundational precept of biblical monotheism: there is one God, whose laws—including practical directives for proper worship— are absolute. God resists representation by earthly means.

There is another point here, though, which has a wider philosophical resonance. Such a view of a transcendent Absolute runs contrary to what one might call an “animated” view of the world. To put it bluntly, if the one true God demands exclusive worship and resists capture in the form of an intermediary, then: (a) This rules out the possibility of “magic,” as apparently practiced in various nature religions—at least according to Freud, whom Adorno cites on this point; and (b) It casts doubt on the truthfulness of “images” more generally. Images come to appear as partial, even deceitful attempts to enter into a relation to what might loosely be dubbed “truth.” In a sense, this recalls Plato’s famous cave parable: submitting to the “charismatic power of the idol” is akin to accepting the veracity of the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. From this viewpoint, what is philosophically at issue in the biblical commandment against idol worship is negotiating what a more emphatic concept of truth might entail. On the one hand, the banning of images asserts the power of reason by disenchanting the images’ claim to capturing the Absolute. On the other hand, it comes up against the difficulty of how to adequately construe a relation to what these images apparently miss. Versions of this problem have been taken up by a wide range of thinkers over the centuries, including—significantly for Adorno—leading figures from the German tradition. Kant, Hegel, and Cohen, for instance, all cite the image ban in connection with Judaism at prominent junctures in their writings (for instance in Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime”).

I think it’s fair to say that, for all their differences, these thinkers invoke the Bilderverbot to explore a shared question: What are the possibilities afforded by reason for entering into a relation to truth, be it in epistemological, ethical, or aesthetic terms? Adorno takes this question very seriously. However, he reads it in light of what he and Horkheimer call a dialectic of enlightenment (or of reason, if you will). For Adorno, the outlawing of images appears as an early instance of a rationalized approach to the world; but such an approach—or so the argument goes—always already contains its opposite. Reason reverts to unreason. To the extent that Adorno’s philosophical project turns on trying to immanently short-circuit this dynamic so as to arrive, prospectively, at a lived form of rationality beyond what he calls “identity thinking,” the Bilderverbot serves as a kind of case in point. Can this figure, which is implicated in the very dynamic it’s trying to overcome, serve as an occasion for the immanent critique of reason as such? On this point Adorno is close to Marx, to cite another thinker who was fond of citing the image ban: if pre-empting the shape of a world beyond suffering and domination limits the possibility of meaningful change, then the path to societal transformation must lie in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” It’s about weighing what reason promises against its inbuilt limitations. In my view, that remains a timely task.

Gustave Doré, Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law, 1866. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

JC: You write that “Adorno openly heeds the verdicts of his intellectual forerunners Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, arguing that ‘positive religion has lost its (. . .) validity’; that ‘[t]raditional theology is not restorable’” (6). Indeed, Adorno sees the waning of religious authority as an opportunity for critical thought. Yet he also derives an important insight from religion: “a refusal of the sense that that ‘which merely is’, is, in fact, everything” (6). Given Adorno’s skepticism of positive religion, what status do theological tropes or images in his thought hold? Can we call them merely metaphorical if they seem to play an indispensable role in his project?

ST: On my reading Adorno is a resolutely secular thinker, which makes the conspicuous recurrence of theological figures in his work surprising (at least at first glance). Religion and theology are, for Adorno, superseded forms of rationality—stages in the dialectic of enlightenment. However, insofar as these stages are conceived of dialectically, each of them contains a seed of truth. The yearning for transcendence is potentially emancipatory, but it too runs the danger of reverting into its opposite. The image ban might thus be read as an expression of the sense that something more may be possible, even if the particular shape of a truly liberated condition cannot be fixed in extant terms. As soon as one imagines something like a utopian land of plenty, this possibility is inscribed into the very structures it’s trying to overcome. Jürgen Habermas calls this a performative contradiction (Adorno’s thinking appears to him as suffering from a normative deficit). The point about the place of religion in Adorno’s account is to do with the broadly Weberian view that capitalism usurped the traditional place of religion in modernity, albeit with a certain modification. On this point, I follow an argument developed by Sami Khatib in his book Teleologie ohne Endzweck (2013). Khatib cites Benjamin’s fragment, “Capitalism as Religion,” arguing that Weber’s argument works in two ways. Through the usurpation of religion under capitalism, the positions of the old world-religions also shift. Accordingly, capitalism advances both the sacralization of ostensibly non-religious terrain and the profanation of a realm that was hitherto called sacred. Religion is entstellt, dislocated. This means that, in a peculiar historical twist, profaned religious terms gain a kind of afterlife in the critique of what, following Benjamin, one might call the “capitalist cult religion.” The image ban retains its propensity for gesturing towards something beyond the status quo; but it’s a beyond that must emerge from the immanent critique of the present, rather than as a divine incursion from “out there.”

JC: Following Georg Lukacs’s (1885–1971) quip that the Frankfurt School took up residence in the “grand hotel abyss,” Adorno has been derided for his supposed apolitical quietism and pessimism by critics ranging from Jürgen Habermas, to Hans-Jürgen Krahl, to Jacob Taubes, to Giorgio Agamben. Your book defends Adorno against their various charges, presenting his thought as a rigorous “effort to safeguard the minimal space within which something like a radical societal transformation might yet be thought”—namely by resisting capitulation to or apologia for the “administered world” of the society in which he wrote (6). How does re-centering Adorno’s work around the Bilderverbot bring out a less “resigned” Adorno?

ST: As you note, there’s long been a tendency to deride Adorno for his supposed quietism. For all their differences, the critics you cite share the view that it is impossible to conceive of something like societal transformation in Adorno’s terms. However, it seems to me that this misses something quite fundamental, namely that Adorno wants to completely overhaul the very terms in which we conceive of something like politics. Adorno is attempting to recast—from the inside out (ohne Leitbild)—structures of thought that he sees as co-extensive with the subjugation of difference. On the one hand, Adorno sees these structures as emerging from the material history of humankind, the speculative pre-history of subjectivity outlined in Dialectic of Enlightenment. On the other hand, it is precisely these structures of thought (what he calls “identity thinking”) that enable and sustain not only epistemic forms of violence, e.g., the subsumption of particulars under universals, but also the very real erasure of difference in, say, the Nazi death camps. Politics is what would follow from the very far-reaching effort “to think thinking differently,” as Derrida puts it with reference to Adorno; it means the prospect of difference without domination. But since the particular shape of a thinking that would undergird such structures cannot be pre-empted without being complicit in the problem it is trying to remedy, it follows that this “utopia of cognition” cannot be pictured. So how else does one arrive at such a position? For one, instances of what Adorno means flare up, albeit negatively, in modern works of art. In their own paradoxical way, works art stages what Adorno means by politics but cannot allow himself to spell out. It brings Adorno into an improbable connection with Heidegger, I think: short of a fully-fledged rethinking of thought itself (in its connection with lived reality), any talk of “politics” is bound to reproduce the injustices of the present.

JC: You’ve also co-translated, with Paula Schwebel, the forthcoming English edition of Adorno’s letters with Gershom Scholem that Asaf Angermann edited in German. These letters show Adorno reframing his negative dialectics for an eminent scholar of mysticism. You quote Adorno claiming, in a 1967 letter to Scholem, that his dialectical materialism, based on “the preponderance of the object,” defies any dogma or fixed worldview yet “warrants an affinity with metaphysics (I would almost have said theology)” (7). As Adorno similarly writes in a passage of Negative Dialectics (1966) that is central to your study, “At its most materialistic, materialism comes to agree with theology” (10). Scholem had already described Adorno’s 1951 Minima Moralia as a work of “negative theology”—a view Adorno found objectionable, but which has nevertheless spurred a stimulating discussion of resonances between these traditions. How has this exchange shaped your understanding of Adorno’s use of theological tropes?

ST: To me, the most interesting thing about the Adorno-Scholem correspondence is the way they approach each other’s projects from their particular disciplinary standpoints. It is characteristic of Adorno that since he cannot allow himself to positively articulate certain concerns, he has to circumscribe them; and, for this purpose, he often expresses similar points in a variety of different registers—philosophy, sociology, musicology, art/literary criticism, etc. He talks around the issue, casts it into relief. In the letter to Scholem that you note, he is, in effect, reframing the basic tenets of his negative dialectic in broadly theological terms. For instance, “theology” and “metaphysics,” as Adorno presents them, come to coincide because, ultimately, they are both chapters from the aforementioned dialectic of reason. They contain partial articulations of a “truth” that Adorno wants to present in terms of what he calls materialism, which is a version of the non-coercive thinking I mentioned earlier. The point about negative theology is interesting: on the one hand, it appears that Adorno’s resistance to picturing the Absolute is akin to saying, via negativa, that God is only what is not not. However, I think Adorno’s objection to this classification is understandable to the extent that negative theology, properly speaking, is still a full-blooded theology, whereas Adorno is not making a case for the existence of God—negatively or otherwise. In a 1934 letter to Benjamin, he insists, instead, that his position is better characterized as an “‘inverse’ theology,” which goes back to the point we discussed earlier concerning the dislocation of religion in the present. This is a “theology” only in a very qualified sense. I prefer to think of it as a terminological peculiarity that follows from a diagnosis of the historical currency of theology in capitalist modernity. Adorno assigns a peculiar afterlife to theological terms. The central points of reference are Kafka and Benjamin, rather than any established theological tradition. The flipside of this is that negative theology comes to play a prominent role in Jürgen Habermas’s criticism of Adorno. “God,” on this reading, is forever out of reach; and, to the extent that “God” might be substituted here with a less loaded term (say, politics), this is precisely the disqualification of Adorno that I try to argue against.

JC: Let’s dive into that critique of Adorno. Habermas figures in your book because, in a 1981 profile, he pejoratively described his mentor’s thought as a “negative theology”: His negative dialectics being without normative foundation, “Adorno is […] left with nothing but a vague longing’ for an amorphous ‘wholly other’” (73). One accomplishment of your book is, to put it polemically, to reclaim Adorno from followers of Habermas. You are not alone in worrying that “the reception of Adorno’s work has long been dominated by a slightly singular interest in questions of normative legitimacy,” an approach with a “broadly liberal” rather than revolutionary political orientation, which also sometimes diminishes Adorno’s work by seeing it as merely “a prelude to the achievements of the Frankfurt School’s so-called second generation” (8). Your attention to aesthetic dimensions of Adorno’s distinctive language and style (and not only his objects of inquiry), as well as your willingness to take theological motifs seriously, rub against the grain of prevailing “analytic” interpretations. Could you situate your work in Adorno studies and speak to some promising directions the field might take in the future?

ST: It’s true that I’ve tried to steer clear of the focus on normativity that—in my view—has (somewhat unduly) come to dominate Adorno’s reception today, and that seems to me to be a particular preoccupation of figures from the orbit of the Frankfurt School’s so-called second generation. In the first instance, I’ve attempted a sympathetic reconstruction of Adorno’s position on its own terms—and that includes engaging with the eccentricities of his “style.”

I believe that Adorno’s difficulty is essential to his project, rather than being a mere obstacle to understanding something he might’ve said more clearly in his lectures, or an occasional piece for a newspaper, or in a radio lecture. The point, for me, is that his main concerns are not independent of their articulation. It’s all a matter of presentation, Darstellung. The issues play out at the level of the text—that’s why they require close readings, or even a broadly deconstructive approach. I’m not convinced, for instance, that there’s much to be gained by trying to translate Adorno into terms that would be recognizable to many mainstream anglophone philosophers today. It’s partly a political point in the sense alluded to earlier: as I see it, Adorno was not principally interested in, say, legitimating democratic institutions through recourse to the power of the better argument. (That may have been true of Adorno the citizen, but it doesn’t seem to me to follow from his published works, whether that reflects his intentions or not.) As I mentioned earlier, the kind of politics that I see as following from Adorno’s writing turns on a very far-reaching effort to “think thinking differently”—and this is to do, in practice, with destabilizing established intellectual conventions, rather than assimilating Adorno to them (be they liberal, revolutionary, or whatever). One way this seems to be playing out in practice is by trying to imagine what “identity” of an altogether different stripe might look like, thinking with and beyond Adorno. That was something I took away from the workshop series on Adorno and Identity you co-organized this year: it’s important to imagine how thinking “differentiation without domination” plays out, politically, in terms of race, gender, or sexuality.

JC: I know you’ve also spent a good deal of time in the art world, along with doing your degrees in fine arts and visual culture at Goldsmiths. Your third chapter focuses on the importance of art in Adorno’s thought, showing that “for Adorno the significance of art lies precisely in the fact that it eludes theorization while, at the same time, demanding it” (134). You go on to explain how it is that “artworks speak,” seeking to express “what has become opaque to humans in the language of nature” (142). For Adorno, works of art express a “truth content” and have a “cognitive character” (135). It’s interesting to recall here that Adorno first studied to become a composer in the tradition of the modernist Second Viennese School. I was struck by the fact that Adorno still refers, in a 1963 essay, to Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron (1932) as “sacred music” (55). What is at stake for you in this category after, as Adorno writes, “a secular world can scarcely tolerate […] sacred art” (53)? Can art still provide, like Kafka’s Odradek, a “photograph of earthly life taken from the perspective of the redeemed” (56)?

ST: Adorno’s wager seems to be that “advanced” works of art are paradigmatic—if paradoxical—products of capitalist modernity, self-conscious instantiations of the commodity form. As such, he suggests, they enact—at the level of form (e.g., through the interplay of their compositional elements)—a relation that anticipates what, elsewhere, he describes as a state of “differentiation without domination.” In his more pointedly philosophical writings, this is coded in terms of the subject-object relation; in his philosophy of history, it’s thought of as the dialectic of nature and culture; but in his aesthetics, it’s to do with a particular attention that works of art require so as to discern from them something that points beyond the present condition. Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is an interesting example for Adorno, not least because the image ban is at the heart of the libretto. In a secular world, the opera cannot function as a work of sacred art, properly speaking; but the very fact that it poses questions as to the possibility of such art in the twentieth century is a testament to art’s enduring striving for something “more.”

It’s a productive kind of failure. The point about Odradek—the central figure from Kafka’s “Cares of the Family Man” (1919)—is related insofar as it serves as another occasion for Adorno to outline his “‘inverse’ theology.” The formulation you cite (“standpoint of the redeemed”) occurs several times in Adorno’s writings. It suggests a contradictory topography: how can Adorno presume to speak of a divine perspective given his self-professed abidance by the image ban? The point, I think, is to do with what we said earlier: for Adorno (via Kafka and Benjamin), theology is dislocated, entstellt. The polarity of sacred and profane is short-circuited so that the “messianic light” that he occasionally invokes does not shine from some transcendent beyond, but rather from within the cracks and deformations of the present, e.g., in certain works of art (including, significantly, those by Kafka). To put it differently, Adorno collapses the distinction between town and castle in Kafka’s Das Schloss  (1926). There is only life as it is lived in the village at the foot of the castle, if you will.

19 December, 1919 printing of Franz Kafka’s short story, “Die Sorge des Hausvaters,” featuring the mysterious figure “Odradek,” in the Prague-based newspaper Selbstwehr: Unabhängige jüdische Wochenschrift. Wikipedia.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured image: Theodor W. Adorno, courtesy of DPA, pixelated by the author.


Depicting Extraterritoriality: An Interview with Matthew Hart

To many viewers of the must-see blockbuster film of 2020, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the seemingly dreary Oslo Freeport upstaged every exotic locale. The Freeport is a type of warehouse, usually adjacent to an airport, where oligarchs and antique dealers can store their art beyond the scrutiny of the tax inspector and expert appraiser. But beholden to no state authority, and armed with its own private military, its neon lit rooms also constitute a jurisdictional black hole that Nolan employs to great allegorical effect (in Tenet, the villain is storing a futuristic machine that can usurp the very rules of time). Innocuous yet secretive, sensible but violent, the Freeport is a gripping backdrop because it represents a type of space that we feel intimately familiar with, yet rarely tend to think much about. This is changing.

Freeports and Special Economic Zones, Embassies and Consulates, International Airport Terminals and Liquified Natural Gas Transshipment Centers, Refugee Camps and foreign Military Bases—extraterritorial spaces have taken on a new urgency for understanding our world today. With this resurgent topicality, a growing community of scholars are searching for extraterritoriality in new places and attempting to pin down an extremely slippery concept in the process.

Art critics Hito Steyerl and Stefan Heidenreich declare a new artistic epoch of “Freeportism”; journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian identifies a ‘mutant sovereignty’ lurking between the privatization of the sea and outer space; and numerous historians have sought to unearth forgotten genealogies and individual responses buried in police reports and diplomatic cables. Microhistories have proven particularly good at showing the imbrication of law, diplomacy and finance, like Alison Frank Johnson’s brilliant exposé of the “enabling fiction” behind human trafficking aboard a flagged steamship of the genteel fin de siècle Habsburg Empire.

Credit: Wynono & Co.

Matthew Hart, a scholar of contemporary British literature at Columbia, makes a compelling case for how literature constitutes an important place to look. In doing so, Hart also pushes us to think harder about how fiction can contribute to new histories of the state.

The extraterritorial, whether materialized in a social practice or spun into metaphor by artists and writers, gives the lie to zero-sum accounts of how humans, and the things they make, move across, under, through or above borders…The extraterritorial is more than a heuristic…It’s a speculative resource, which in its oscillation between the one and the many, the coerced and the free, has enabled some of the most brilliant artists of our young century to reimagine where we have come from, where we are, and where, in world weird and familiar, we might yet go.

First intrigued by stumbling across several uses of the word ‘extraterritorial’ in W. G. Sebald’s oeuvre, Hart found a persistent theme in the writing of J. G. Ballard, China Miéville, Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro. From speculative and post-apocalyptical fiction to historical novels, these diverse writers pushed against the Westphalian gospel of state sovereignty and seemed to weave alternative political geographies into their work. Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction has a big and bold argument: that academics, artists, and critics have gotten extraterritoriality extremely wrong in understanding it as an exception or deviation from this Westphalian norm of modern power. In fact, “extraterritorial fracturing is one of globalization’s conditions of possibility.”. Alex Langstaff spoke with Hart about his exciting new book.


Alex Langstaff: You start the book by sketching out your own “historical theory” of extraterritoriality, a kind of critical crash course in the literature. How did you go about preparing this?

Matthew Hart: I wish I had an exciting answer! It was the result of several years reading and talking, systematic and desultory. I’d do the usual database searches and keyword dives— and I’d raid other peoples’ bibliographies, so that a week that began with me reading about Hugo Grotius might end up with research into the Ottoman capitulations. I also took some graduate coursework in the Department of History and the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture at Columbia, filling in gaps in my knowledge about political history and international relations. Finally, as colleagues and students got to hear about the project, they would recommend new things for me to read. That’s one of the things I miss now, having been working from home for months: the intellectual sociability that’s an irreplaceable part of hanging around a university.

AL: Italian thinker Giorgio Agamben has become synonymous in recent years with the study of extraterritorial spaces. Refreshingly, you’re skeptical about this. Why?

MH: Agamben’s work is extremely useful if you want to understand the abstract topology of extraterritorial spaces, which often follow what he calls the logic of the “inclusive exclusion.” Despite that, I’m unconvinced by the formalist aspects of decisionist political theories that identify sovereignty with, as Carl Schmitt puts it, “he who decides upon the exception.”

What such theories gain in theoretical clarity they lose in descriptive power. They don’t require us to say anything about the substantive content of laws and executive orders. What’s more, that formalism goes along with a thin historical understanding of how both states and extraterritorial geographies work. As I show in the book, extraterritorial spaces aren’t just sites in which states exert violent authority; they’re also spaces in which they relinquish, pool, or disaggregate sovereign power.

Finally, and this is where I know some of my friends on the left part company with me, I’m committed to a version of social democratic politics in which the state retains a legitimate redistributive and egalitarian function. Agamben’s political philosophy is basically hostile to all kinds of constituted power. That’s something I find politically disabling, as well as empirically and theoretically unconvincing.

AL: By idolizing the Westphalian ‘sovereignty-territorial ideal’, you say, we have misunderstood globalization as a crisis for the nation state: transnational practices are actually much more of a continuity, often initiated by the state. Why do you suppose novelists have often been better at registering this misunderstanding than many cultural critics and scholars?

MH: Well, I should first say that lots of scholars have also avoided that problem. There’s a long list of scholars—most notably, Keller Easterling, Eyal Weizman, and Giovanni Arrighi—whose work I depended on in developing Extraterritorial’s analysis of state and globalization.

But I do think novels can provide surprising insights into political geography. Sometimes, that’s because they’re working in speculative genres that begin by imagining a whole new secondary world, which gives an innovative writer a chance to reimagine the whole set of relations between political power and its spatial expression. Sometimes it’s because, as with Hilary Mantel’s historical fictions, they take us back to a world before the modern state system took shape. And sometimes it’s because the novel allows us to think about political power in ways that, as in Amitav Ghosh’s oceanic Ibis trilogy, exceed any single state or empire. Novelists aren’t obliged to respect the norms of international relations theory.

AL: Discussing the speculative fiction of China Miéville, and then the post-apocalypticism of Emily St. John Mandel and Margaret Atwood, you notice that “extraterritorial settings” can function as “a literary technology for making the world differently while acting like that difference is ordinary”. This banalization of radical change, of course, is also what makes extraterritorial zones so attractive to the powerful. Do you think the writers you consider are conscious of this parallel in technics between their craft, and statecraft? Does it irk them?

MH: I think some of them are conscious of that parallel: Miéville, for instance, and Atwood, both of whom have their own analyses of the ideological functions of art and culture. But my deeper instinct is to say that these are different kinds of banalization.

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood, 2003

Speculative fiction often asks us to submit to what Miéville calls “the weird of genre”—to enter into worlds that are both strange and systematic, which differ from ours, but which nevertheless follow their own norms. Extraterritorial spaces such as the “pleeblands” in Atwood’s Oryx & Crake are great at manifesting that literary effect and playing with the tension between the routine and the extraordinary. But that’s different, morally and technically, from how states obfuscate the operations of power within an extraterritorial zone such as the immigration control area of an airport.

AL: The work of artists like Mark Wallinger, or Ruti Sela and Mayaan Amir, are threaded through the book. What do artworks allow you to say about extraterritoriality that other sources don’t?

MH: I think they help me do two things. They suggest that the patterns I’ve observed in contemporary fiction also have implications for other media. In that sense, they represent a small wager on the generality of my book’s conclusions about how aesthetic objects mediate geographic experience.

More narrowly, some of those very directly illustrate problems in political geography—which is to say, they illustrate it without recourse to allegory or metaphor. An installation like Wallinger’s State Britain, which he staged right on the edge of the protest exclusion zone that extends 1km outwards from Parliament Square, really helps clarify the spatial disaggregation of criminal law within states such as the United Kingdom.

Mark Wallinger, State Britain, 2010, The Tate

AL: I was struck by how many of the writers you examine have experienced extraterritoriality, and want to communicate this: Ballard in the Shanghai International Settlement, Sebald in postwar exile, or Mantel and Ghosh in their feverishly researched archives. Did you want to get at this ambient, ‘lived’ quality behind formalist readings of their prose?

MH: One of the central premises of the book is that extraterritoriality isn’t just a geographic phenomenon; it’s just as much a property of persons. It was important, for that reason, for me to spend time with novels that bring out that personal aspect, showing how an author or character’s experience of, say, time or national identity might be changed by living in an extraterritorial space or bearing the privilege of extraterritorial immunity from local laws. That’s why, for me, if the book has a tutelary spirit, then it’s Ballard, who lived the first few years of his life in the semi-colonial playhouse of the International Settlement, then endured the dark side of that history in a Japanese detention camp, and finally experienced his adult life in England as a species of exile from his own supposed homeland.

The Tudor-style Ballard family home in Shanghai in 2007, now a luxury restaurant. Credit: Andy Best.

AL: What is your next project? Does it continue any of this?

MH: I’ve just finished an essay that develops some of Extraterritorial’s arguments about the proliferation of enclave zones within 21st-century cities, this time taking on the racist myth of the Muslim “no-go zone” in Britain and France. And I’ll eventually finish a long-delayed article on Trevor Paglen, an artist and experimental geographer whose various projects raise really provocative questions about the relationship between extraterritoriality, state secrecy, and liberal democracy. But my next book is probably going to be totally different. It’s a work of family history, as much as cultural criticism or theory, about the Kellino family of performers and film-makers, to whom I’m related through my mother and whose careers bridge the transition from vaudeville to cinema. I can’t get going with it, though, until this pandemic ends and I can bury myself in various archives in London and Los Angeles.

Matthew Hart is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His other publications include Nations of Nothing But Poetry (Oxford U. P., 2010/2013). He is Founding Co-Editor of the Columbia University Press book series, Literature Now and the past President of the Modernist Studies Association.

Alex Langstaff is a PhD candidate in modern history at NYU.

Featured Image: The Oslo Freeport in Tenet, Warner Brothers Pictures 2020.


Confronting Theory and Praxis: An Interview with Bernard E. Harcourt

Bernard E. Harcourt is a legal scholar, advocate, and critical theorist. He is Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and chaired professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Harcourt is the founding director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought. He recently published Critique and Praxis: A Critical Philosophy of Illusions, Values, and Action with Columbia University Press.

Critique and Praxis presents a theory of critical practice that aims to put armchair theorizing and practical struggle in a unified space of confrontation. Written in response to the divide between academic critical theory and activism, the book stresses the need for a corrective: Critical theory, in Harcourt’s view, should not theorize critical practice nor advise those in the field. Instead, if critique is to have any value in today’s world, it needs to be a space of critique and praxis. The theoretical and the practical side of critique should be tied together in a unified, personal space, so that their ceaseless confrontation can be the driving force of critique as ‘critical praxis’. The book presents this kind of critique not only as a possible solution to the problems troubling the well-known critical methods of the Frankfurt School, Marx, and Foucault but also as a viable alternative to the theories of critique of several contemporary critical thinkers, such as Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi, Rainer Forst, and Seyla Benhabib. The book’s introduction is freely available online from the publisher. Ruben Verkoelen interviewed Bernard Harcourt about the book.


Ruben Verkoelen (RV): Your latest book, Critique and Praxis, expresses great frustration with the tradition of academic critical theory. You lament its “contemplative complacency” and the “retreat from its practical ambitions.” What makes you think that critical theorists could nonetheless help to advance the struggles of today?

Bernard Harcourt (BH): Honestly, we couldn’t even identify the “struggles of today” without the kind of critical reflexion that has always been associated with critical theory, so in that sense, critical theorists are absolutely essential to the task of critical praxis. In this respect, I remain entirely faithful to the initial impulse of the Frankfurt School, namely to properly diagnose crises.

My emphasis on critique and praxis is intended to be a corrective, but it should not diminish the importance of “crisis and critique.” Rather, it builds on it. That foundation of critical reflexivity—the critical analysis of our social condition by thinkers who understand that they are themselves shaped by those social forces and simultaneously affect them—is essential. I admire and adhere to that project of crisis and critique, and how it shaped critical theory, from the journal that Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht proposed, Krise und Kritik, in 1930, to Reinhardt Koselleck’s seminal book, Kritik und Krise, published in 1959, to the many contemporary redeployments of those conjoined terms—they are crucial, essential. But they need to be conjoined with praxis. My point is not to sideline crisis and critique, nor to repudiate it. Rather, it is to demand that we go further, building on that critical foundation, to engage, debate, and focus on critical praxis. If I had been more verbose, or clever, I would have titled the book Crisis, Critique & Praxis

This is especially important today, in the immediate aftermath of the January insurrection at the Capitol and the resurgent threat of white nationalism in this country. If we don’t properly analyze the long history of the present, I do not think we will be able to combat this counterrevolution in the making. It’s been going on now for years, for decades. It now presents an even more threatening variant of the new paradigm of governing through counterinsurgency warfare, and it traces back to the reactionary backlash to Reconstruction. Really, if we don’t diagnose it correctly, we will be disarmed to defeat it. And critical theorists are absolutely essential in that task.

RV: In the introduction and conclusion of the book, you strike a rather personal tone when you discuss the moral issues involved in being a critical theorist. Your suggested reformulation of the critical question – from ‘What is to be done?’ to ‘What more am I to do?’ – also moves critique toward the realm of personal motivations and ethics. Why do you consider the personal space to be so fundamental in grounding and guiding critique?

BH: The personal space of praxis, I would argue, is the only proper place to begin. I realize this is somewhat akward for an academic book, or at least uncomfortable, but it’s essential. The fourth, more autobiographical part of the book is really what motivates the entire book. It is what gives the book, for me, its true ugency and necessity.

The postcolonial critiques—the work of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and others—demand that we no longer talk about “what is to be done” in such a naïve and self-authorized way. Their critiques of ordinary political discourse, but even more of critical theory, were crushing. Foucault understood well that he could not speak for others, that was the whole point of his praxis intervention in the 1970s with the Groupe d’information sur les prisons: to let the voices of those in prison be heard. But, as Spivak showed, even Foucault himself, in saying that, was putting words in their mouths. When Foucault spoke about how “the masses no longer need [the public intellectual] to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves,” even as he was carefully avoiding to speak for others, he was doing it. As Spivak quipped, “The ventriloquism of the speaking subaltern is the left intellectual’s stock-in-trade.

So, it’s clear. I cannot say what must be done, I can only address what more I can do. This is, to be honest, the source of the book and it gives it, to me, its true meaning, and its urgency.

RV: In the light of the discussions about our alleged ‘post-truth era’, it is important to note that you leave no place for truth in critical practice: As you write, “making a claim of truth or justification for others is, in the end, nothing more than an imposition of the part for the whole, and in that sense, it is inevitably the product of relations of force in a milieu marked by endless power struggles.” Evoking the critical work of Michel Foucault, you conclude that power relations, rather than truth, should be the focus of critique. But doesn’t Foucault’s work actually hinge upon the careful use of historical material as the complex truth that empowers his critiques? How do you think truth may still play a role in critical praxis?

BH: You’ve put your finger on the single most fraught issue in critical theory today—and in politics more generally. The question of truth is, without doubt, the most thorny issue. Hence its central place in Critique & Praxis. I’d say that it’s even more fraught today than ever before because of the political crisis that the former president fomented. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Regarding Foucault, you are right to point out that his work does hinge on meticulous and careful use of historical archives. It is grounded on the excavation of the real historical ways that people spoke about punishment, sexuality, or madness. That history and those analyses are intended to be correct, factual, true. He was not making up stories. As I discuss in the third chapter of the book, “Michel Foucault and the History of Truth-Making,” Foucault traced a history of the production of truth in his thirteen years of lectures at the Collège de France. I offer this as a new interpretation of those thirteen lecture series—of the books “Society Must Be Defended,” The Birth of Biopolitics, The Courage of Truth, etc. That history of truth production is painstaking and scrupulous. Similarly in his classic Discipline and Punish, Foucault was tracing a history of the discourse of penality and the birth of a new form of power he called disciplinary. That was not just fiction or stories. It was intended to be an accurate representation of nineteenth-century French relations of power.

There is a key passage in his lectures on Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling in Louvain in 1981 where he is discussing positivism, and what he explains there is that he is not anti-positivist but doing something entirely different. He calls himself “counter-positivist.” It’s in the context of his treatment of what he calls “the recent domination of science or of the technical uniformity of the modern world” and it concerns the positivism of Auguste Comte or Saint-Simon—so, the hard social sciences. He explains: “In order to situate my analysis, I would like to evoke here a counter-positivism that is not the opposite of positivism, but rather its counterpoint. It would be characterized by astonishment before the very ancient multiplication and proliferation of truth-telling, and the dispersal of regimes of veridiction in societies such as ours.” Notice that he is not embracing an anti-positivism.

Now, any discussion of truth today is even more fraught in the wake of Trump and the new Biden administration. Right now, especially, it is an extremely sensitive, difficult time to be open and honest about truth. President Biden is trying to heal this nation from the divisiveness and lies of Trump. His inaugural address and his entire approach has been about telling the truth, uniting the country, about healing. And it’s just not the right time to suggest that this is political rhetoric, right? It’s just not the time. It’s not the right time to critically examine, in depth, the fact that Trump lied so much to the American people. It’s clear Trump made deliberate misstatements of fact for months about the election being stolen in order to attempt a putsch. And it is clear how close this country came to the precipice on January 6th, 2021, and what a clear and present danger the resurgent white supremacists are to democracy. All of that is so clear, it is just not a good time to raise the difficult questions of truth, honestly.

As I note in the book, different times call for different critical praxis. I discuss the fact that the leading figures of the Frankfurt School joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, during the Second World War—in effect, that they joined the ranks of the state apparatuses that they ordinarily would have critiqued and had critiqued in the past. Franz Neumann, who had just published his landmark book on Nazi Germany in 1942, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, as well as Herbert Marcuse and Otto Kirchheimer, the co-author of the classic Frankfurt School book on crime and punishment, Punishment and Social Structure, they all worked for the OSS. Max Horkheimer was also reportedly part of the OSS. Meanwhile, Theodor Adorno, Herta Herzog, and Paul Lazarsfeld became involved in the Princeton Radio Project (later Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Research), which served intelligence functions.

In certain times of crisis, certainly in the face of a regime like the Third Reich, critical theory and praxis requires a departure from the expected. Right now, in the face of this mounting white nationalism, it again feels like one of those moments.

RV: The tradition of critical theory has always accorded great importance to understanding the nature of the present and of ourselves in the present (as Foucault once put it). Integrating that practice of understanding with forceful activism might cause oneself to lose sight of either activity, since they seem to be so far apart on an emotional spectrum. In your everyday life, how do you integrate critique and practice and bring them into fruitful confrontation?

BH: In a constantly agonizing and painful way! I mean it, it is agonizing to me, to be honest. You know, it is kind of funny. Michael Welton from Athabasca University wrote a bit of a cheeky review in Counterpunch of Critique & Praxis and placed it under the title “The Agony of Bernard Harcourt.” I’m not sure it’s in my best interest to publicize his review, but one thing it got right is that, for me, it’s really agonizing to constantly feel the need and to constantly confront my critical praxis with critical theory.

Why is it so agonizing?, you might ask. Well, the answer is that what critical theory is so good at showing us is how often we are misled or mislead ourselves. How ofter we err. How often we fall victim to our own illusions. We intend to do good, and instead we reproduce power hierarchies or racial injustice. You know the expression, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That’s precisely what makes integrating critique and praxis so trying. If one takes seriously the ethical imperative to try to change the world, if one takes seriously the ambition of critical philosophy as it was given to us unadulterated—namely, to change the world and not just interpret it—then we face a constant and daunting task: to relentlessly confront our critical praxis with critique to ensure it is pushing us in the right direction.

Right now, for instance, my co-counsel Tom Durkin and I are at a critical juncture in our representation of a man who has been detained at Guantánamo Bay for almost twenty years, the last four years despite the fact that he was found to be eligible for release and no longer presents a security threat to the United States. (The Trump administration just decided to do nothing on his case, so despite that, he has been incarcerated throughout the whole previous administration). Every step we take right now has to be thought through, not only legally and strategically, but also critically, in terms of the ongoing political circumstances and the broader conjuncture of what I have called the Counterrevolution in this country.

RV: In the book you also briefly discuss your privileged position as a professor at an Ivy League university: “Critical scholars reproduce a hierarchical space that is the very condition of possibility of our tiered universities, overlooking—or blindly ignoring—the living and working conditions in the undercommons.”  If we focus just on the university and the academic system, your direct academic space, do you believe it sufficiently enables critical praxis? Do you have plans for university activism?

BH: The current structure of the university in this country is counterproductive to critical praxis, but the problem is larger than that. I am convinced, adamant, that the existing political economy of higher education in the United States is broken. Here, I agree with Wendy Brown and her critique of the ravages of neoliberalism on universities and the academic system. We need a complete reset and massive investment in public universities, freely accessible and open to all students, compensating properly and equally all instructors. We need equally excellent public universities in all localities, not ranked, but all equally premier.

Through my center on contemporary critical thought, I try to model this and experiment with open, public seminars that are accessible to anyone and that offer a full panoply of public resources, essays, blog posts, readings, videos, bibliographies, and seminar recordings. Through what I call the 13/13 series, I am trying to make critical theory and praxis accessible to anyone around the world. I am also committed and engaged in working with universities and colleges that have less resources. The sociologist Bruce Western and I have a big project on that in the works.

I’ve always been both attracted and torn by the imperative to act locally. On the one hand, I firmly believe that one should only militate in one’s own backyard, in order to never be telling others what to do—and there is so much to be done here, on American soil. I trace this back to Voltaire’s Candide and abide by it. But that work, in my case litigating death penalty and Guantánamo cases or intervening legally and politically in protest and protest rights, can become entirely consumming. And it ends up taking so much time that I do not always get to the truly local. But I am working on it!

Ruben Verkoelen is an independent scholar and teacher based in the Netherlands. His master’s thesis traced the beginnings of contemporary life science along the lines of Foucauldian archeaology, a topic he intends to pursue further.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Bernard Harcourt.


Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization: An Interview with Peter E. Gordon

By Jonathon Catlin

Peter E. Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History and Faculty Affiliate in German and Philosophy at Harvard University. He is the author of many books, including Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy (2003) (which received the Forkosch Prize from the Journal of the History of Ideas), Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos(2010), and Adorno and Existence (2016). His latest book, Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization(Yale University Press, 2020), is based on the Franz Rosenzweig Lectures in Jewish Thought that he delivered at Yale University in 2017. It explores the work of three of the most esteemed thinkers in the early canon of Frankfurt School critical theory: Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor W. Adorno. As Jürgen Habermas writes in his blurb of the book, Gordon illuminates “the deepest and darkest thought” these thinkers confronted: “How to save the truth content of religious traditions for the sake of secular modernity while denying at the same time its very foundation in religious belief.” This work of judicious intellectual history ultimately recuperates secularism as a normative ideal for our “post-secular” age. Gordon recently wrote a freely-available essay on this topic for The New Statesman. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed him about his new book.

Jonathon Catlin: The title of your book comes from Theodor W. Adorno’s 1957 essay “Reason and Revelation,” in which he comments on his late friend Walter Benjamin’s famous image of a mechanical chess player with a “theological” animus, a dwarf hidden inside: “Nothing of theological content will persist without being transformed; every content will have to put itself to the test of migrating into the realm of the secular, the profane” (136). A few years later, Adorno added, in a letter to their mutual friend Gershom Scholem, that this migration had to be “rücksichtslos,” ruthless or without regret (111). This motif of migration you trace in Adorno’s thought resonates with themes of persecution and uprootedness in Jewish history, as well as Martin Jay’s apt description of the members of the Frankfurt School as “permanent exiles” (another title, you note, that he considered for The Dialectical Imagination). Could you say more about this passage and how it exemplifies the broader ambitions of your book?

Peter E. Gordon: I have long been fascinated with the problem of secularization. While working on a far more systematic project about secularization and social thought (which I fear I won’t finish for many years), I was honored to receive an invitation to deliver the lectures at Yale, so I seized the opportunity to think in a provisional way about some of the concepts of secularization that appear in the works of the early thinkers in the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory, Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Adorno. It’s especially striking that on several occasions Adorno refers to the idea of secularization as a “migration into the profane,” and variations on this idea appear in several places throughout his work. I revised the lectures into a book while living in Europe during some of the worst months of the migration crisis, when refugees were fleeing the murderous civil war in Syria. Because migration poses special challenges for pluralistic democracies, I felt it was an urgent matter to reflect upon the significance of Adorno’s figure of migration in relation to the secular premises of the modern democratic state. My reflections on the migration crisis itself are provisional, merely a set of theoretical prolegomena to more substantive thoughts that I hope to develop elsewhere.

The heart of the book is an attempt to reconstruct some philosophical problems that arise in relation to the concept of secularization as it appears in the writing of Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Adorno. I find it truly striking that this concept plays such an important role in their work, but it’s important to note that they thought about it in remarkably different ways. I wanted to bring out some of those differences, while placing some analytical pressure on moments of ambivalence or aporia in their arguments. But I could hardly neglect the historical experiences of the authors themselves. Critical theory, after all, first emerged in the crucible of a European culture that was descending into fascism. The persecution and exile of the Frankfurt theorists is not incidental; such experiences are scored right into even their most abstract reflections on philosophy and art. For the Frankfurt School theorists, exile was not only a biographical trauma, it was also a figure of thought: the image of what does not fit into a seamless totality of reason, of what remains “negative” and, in its negativity, serves as a point of leverage for critical practice. What Georg Lukács elsewhere calls “transcendental homelessness” becomes, one might argue, the condition of possibility for critical theory itself.

JC: In this book, you “explore the problem of secularization, not as a social process, but as a conceptual gesture” (1) employed by three secular thinkers who “borrow from the conceptual archive of theology” (59). To begin with your reading of Benjamin’s Denkbild of the chess-playing automaton, we see that secularization here describes “not the disappearance of religion but only its concealment” in a hidden messianic drive in history that might be turned toward revolutionary rupture (34). While Scholem saw Benjamin’s historical materialism as a mere dressing up of the theological core of his thought, and the Marxian New Left who also claimed Benjamin were embarrassed by such theological allusions, you present these interpretations as two sides of the same paradox: Benjamin “stages a permanent contest between Marxism and messianism” (59) since his “appeal to the messianic became the radical antidote for his own radical portrait of disenchanted history” (79). Yet you remain skeptical of Benjamin’s view, for as Adorno wrote, “If religion is accepted for the sake of something other than its own truth content, then it undermines itself” (96). Under what conditions do you think religious ideas can and should still inform these theorists’ common aim of redeeming a broken world?

Joseph Racknitz’s conception of The Turk (1789). Wikipedia.

PG: Although I have enormous admiration for his work, my quarrels with Benjamin are profound. His thinking was creative but unruly, exploratory in the best sense but rarely committed to standards of rational argumentation. My quarrel fastens chiefly on the way in which he resorts to theological categories at the most crucial junctures in his political thought. If Benjamin wishes to defend a species of historical materialism, it seems to me that he cannot at the same time appeal to a principle that lies beyond history and intrudes upon it as if from the outside. We can appreciate why he found himself in such a predicament: at the time he was writing his famous “Theses,” the Hitler-Stalin pact had exposed the absolute futility of any hopes for an imminent revolution. Benjamin therefore portrays history as a field of ruins, borrowing imagery of blasted landscapes and catastrophe that he had explored long before in his ill-fated habilitation on the mourning-plays of the German baroque. History became disenchanted: a plenum without meaning and without immanent resources that would be necessary for human happiness.

This disenchanted understanding of history also informs his interpretation of von Kempelen’s chess-playing Turk. Benjamin sees the chess player as a “dialectical image,” an allegory for historical materialism, which, he fears, has become as lifeless and mechanistic as the automaton (especially as it had been developed in the technological optimism of Bernsteinian revisionism). If it is to fulfill its purposes as an explanation for history, Benjamin argues, historical materialism must avail itself of a principle that is exotic to materialist thinking. He finds this principle in the theological concept of historical rupture—of discontinuity or the messianic. Benjamin knows, however, that in the modern, secular world, theology has lost much of its prestige and is seen as invalid. Thus, theology must be “hidden,” like the dwarf who is concealed in the chess player’s cabinet. Secularization for Benjamin does not mean the dissolution of religious values; it means only their concealment.

Here Benjamin falls into self-contradiction. Historical materialism must see change as emerging from dialectical contradictions that are immanent to history itself. The appeal to an extra-historical principle violates this understanding. This is not a problem specific to Benjamin; we encounter an analogous problem in modern political theory. Any principle that could be a candidate for democratic consent in modern political discourse needs to be exposed to critical scrutiny, not concealed from debate. Here we may discern a troubling similarity between Benjamin and Carl Schmitt. The Schmittian suggestion that an extra-systemic, religious principle could serve as the unquestionable and hidden ground for politics violates this principle. It threatens our ideal of the public sphere as a neutral medium of rational contestation. In practice, of course, that ideal is too often applied selectively or transgressed. But if we abandon it, we can easily slip back into an authoritarian order where only one religion holds sway. Under modern conditions of ethno-religious pluralism this threat needs to be taken seriously, as we see in cases across the globe, from the Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India to the evangelical Christianity here in the States.

JC: Jürgen Habermas, famous as a theorist of secular modernity, became interested in religion as a source of normativity in the early 2000s, after 9/11 and the dawn of what he called a “post-secular age.” In his massive two-volume 2019 work, Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie (This Too a History of Philosophy), he cites you as one of his most important interlocutors. This work reconstructs the millennia-long dialogue between reason and faith as a “learning process” through which secular reason might still inherit insights from religion without violating the proviso that religious values must be subjected to public criticism. Your book ends in broad agreement with this Habermasian view, which your reading identifies in nuce already in Adorno. I was curious about your admission that you changed this book’s subtitle from the concept of secularization to the question of secularization. What do you find so urgent yet unresolved about this notion?

PG: I have learned a great deal from Habermas. Although I would hardly boast that I’m one of his most important interlocutors, my little book is in close dialogue with his recent work, including the formidable two-volume tome that you mention. I wrote my book around the same time, and completed it before I had the chance to finish reading his own remarkable manuscript. I believe that in the concluding footnote Habermas cites my book by its original subtitle, where secularization is called a “concept.” Some time after he had read my manuscript, I modified this subtitle, simply because secularization remains so very much in question. Academic debates over the meaning of both secularization and “the secular” are ongoing and are unlikely to be resolved. They reflect broader public contestation around the globe as to what political frameworks might be preferred if we are to live in a society that will embrace what Adorno called “difference without domination.” But the further one digs into the theoretical literature, the more one realizes that secularism does not signify a self-identical concept or ideology; it maps out a broad field of semantic and political possibilities (not unlike religion itself). But the question is indeed urgent: if we are to accept the ethno-religious heterogeneity of modern society, we have to agree upon some common framework of political coexistence. Some theorists in recent years have quarreled with “secularism” because they are suspicious of its paradoxical and often coercive effects. They are right to be suspicious, and if they are allergic to the particular term this isn’t altogether surprising. But they cannot absolve themselves of the need to propose some framework that allows for heterogeneity to persist.

JC: It is well known that most of the members of the Frankfurt School were of Jewish descent, but there is little agreement about the significance of this fact. There are approaches like Jack Jacobs’s The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism(2014), which Anson Rabinbach says creates “a kind of identity politics for the Frankfurt School” by embracing Gershom Scholem’s quip that it was one of “the three most remarkable ‘Jewish sects’ that German Jewry produced” (p. 131). Skeptical of that identitarian approach, you emphasize the theorists’ diverging relations to Judaism and Jewishness. More apt might be Isaac Deutscher’s sociological category of “the non-Jewish Jew.” You seem to prefer Michael Löwy’s even more qualified approach positing an “elective affinity” between modern Jewish experience and utopian or socialist politics. You write that “we should resist the temptation of reducing philosophy to biography” (7–8), and this methodological approach resonates with the ethical call in your conclusion to embrace the non-identical migrant within ourselves; with nods to theorists of multiculturalism including Seyla Benhabib and Jürgen Habermas, you write, “it is only through a disenchantment of collective identity that we can achieve the kind of institutionalized coexistence that is crucial to our shared life today” (154). Is there any role for Jewish identity in the study of the Frankfurt School?

PG: I think it’s mistaken to assign too much explanatory weight to the Jewish identity of the first-generation Frankfurt School theorists. To be sure, I can appreciate that under conditions of social exclusion or persecution, groups often find comfort and solidarity in the fact of a shared cultural identity. But such bonds are not eternal; they are historically contingent and change over time. No essence of identity expresses itself in thought. Löwy’s thesis of an elective affinity is useful because it reminds us of the purely sociological reasons why so many Central-European intellectuals of Jewish descent were drawn into radical or socialist politics. That affinity nourished a long and varied tradition, from Heine to Marx to Luxembourg (to name just a few). The list is indeed a long one. But as the social conditions of exclusion no longer obtain as they once did, so too have the conditions that once encouraged this affinity. In general, I’m not a great partisan of identity: it forges bonds of connection but it also polices boundaries, and one can hardly avoid the contrastive logic by which all inclusion also implies exclusion. This is why I say that under conditions of modern pluralism we must recognize that identitarian attachments have ambivalent effects. Through the challenge of an encounter with difference, our own identities become relativized and our group boundaries become porous. And this has important consequences for how we think of ourselves: the more self-reflexive we become about the significance of group-attachments, the more we begin to realize that the social multiplicity we see outside us also works upon us from the inside. The self is not self-identical; it is multiple. The objective fact of social pluralism also implies a kind of internal secularization, whether we like it or not. More generally, I would say that the sacral bonds of community simply cannot remain what they once were. The disenchantment of collective identity seems to me an urgent necessity if we don’t wish our encounter with difference to devolve into a so-called clash of civilizations.

JC: I am also interested in whether we might, alternatively, consider the theorists’ relations to Judaism and Jewishness one of non-identity or what Eric Oberle has called “negative identity.” Felix Nussbaum, who painted The Wandering Jew (1939) on the cover of your book, was a German-Jewish painter who was murdered at Auschwitz, and the Holocaust looms large in the background of your study. The first generation of the Frankfurt School was, as we discussed earlier, “united by trauma” through their shared experience of antisemitism and exile (104). I think you are right to claim that Adorno did not “in any straightforward sense” see himself as a “full-fledged member of the Jewish milieu” (106, 109). However, across his postwar writings on the Holocaust, when he asked “whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living” (Negative Dialectics, 363), I see him as expressing solidarity with Jewish victims in a way that clearly implicates himself. You quote a 1943 letter to his parents in which he wrote, “I am totally Jewified, i.e. have nothing but anti-Semitism on my mind” (109). At that time, of course, he and Horkheimer were deeply preoccupied with the Jewish question. Would you admit the possibility of critical forms of identification, such as with the experience of exile, that are not necessarily rooted in ethno-nationalist forms of identity? Relatedly, you criticize the tendency to include Adorno in the canon of modern Jewish thought (174), yet your book develops an analogy between Adorno’s negative dialectics and the negative theology of Maimonides. Might we consider Adorno a thinker of Jewishness if not of Judaism?

PG: There are many issues here. You are of course right that we can distinguish between contingent modalities of identification and quasi-eternal facts of identity. This is an elegant distinction. And this is what I meant before about the social conditions of solidarity. But this distinction is not stable: identification is easily naturalized, and hardens into something reified, or seemingly natural that then becomes identity. Even a “negative identity” may not escape this problem. Adorno was not Jewish by conviction, nor by practice, though he was raised in a primarily German-Jewish milieu, and the fact of his father’s Jewish heritage ultimately determined his fate when the Nazi racial laws came into effect. It’s important, however, that we do not seek retroactively to impose on him a group identity he would have abjured as a matter of philosophical principle. “Jewishness” is a term of ethno-national attachment, and I fear that it’s not suitable for a thinker such as Adorno, who was simply too contrarian to welcome such bonds. Even in his early years Adorno developed a strong hostility to collective identity. This may reflect his debt to Kierkegaard, who fulminated against the mindlessness and conformism of bourgeois Christendom. All the same, the experience of persecution and exile is taken up in his work as a philosopheme, as a figure of negativity, and as a condition for the possibility of critique.

The lecture series at Yale is defined as a series that should speak to topics in modern Jewish thought; it was chiefly due to this assignment that it seemed appropriate to offer some reflections on questions of Judaism and Jewish philosophy. I find the comparison between Adorno and Maimonides intriguing: negative dialectics bears some resemblance to negative theology. (My colleague James Gordon Finlayson has explored the comparison by looking at Pseudo-Dionysius, another important figure in the tradition of negative theology.) But, ultimately, I would say that the comparison breaks down: Maimonides pursues the via negativa to liberate us from idolatry and illusion such that we may arrive at a proper understanding of the divine. Adorno pursues the via negativa to liberate us from the illusions of ideology, but he does not stop short before any kind of final or metaphysical truth. Instead he uses the critical energies of the negative without restraint: he pursues it right into the heart of theology itself where it dissolves the metaphysical object it was originally meant to serve. He would loathe the thought that this negativity is only a passing moment on the way to reconciliation.

JC: All three critical theorists you discuss employed theological ideas to unsettle the seeming naturalness and necessity of the contingent and flawed present social order. They saw the horizon of another possible world as helpful, perhaps even necessary, for challenging “the positivistic affirmation of the given” and “the compulsory affirmation of what is already the case” (82). As Horkheimer said in a 1967 radio address, “Christianity and Marxism are not opposed but rather share in common the critical function of relativizing what happens to exist. Christianity relativizes existence as mere finitude in contrast to the divine; Marxism relativizes existence as merely a stage in prehistory in contrast to the socialist future” (76). The essence of religion, Horkheimer wrote in his preface to Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, is the yearning for the “wholly other,” the hope that “earthly horror does not possess the last word” (64). In your view, Horkheimer, like Benjamin, goes too far and departs from immanent critique. You prefer Adorno’s more dialectical situation at the juncture of the sacred and the profane, which navigates between the kind of dogmatic, metaphysical atheism you have criticized in the work of Martin Hägglund and the regressive re-sacralization of the world with which Adorno charged existentialism and its “jargon of authenticity” (140–41).While Adorno wrote that secularization“preserves theology in its critique of it” (139), leading some to claim that negative dialectics constitutes a “secular Jewish theology,” you argue that the theological gesture in Adorno is “merely conceptual” and persists “only as an idea,” for he ultimately gave secular criticism the last word: “negative theology completes itself in negative dialectics” (140). Through Adorno’s work you identify a transcendental maxim for critical thought: “we are compelled to postulate—if only for the sake of our own criticism—a standpoint removed, at least conceptually, from the world we confront before us and whose conditions we take for granted as factually given” (112). Does this maxim still hold today? What are its implications for contemporary thought?

Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas (1964). Wikipedia.

PG: Horkheimer was a philosopher of great subtlety and sophistication. But toward the end of his life, the pessimism that he had absorbed in his early years from Schopenhauer discouraged him from acknowledging the possibility of an immanent transformation of society. He succumbed to a species of fatalism to which religion beckoned as the only viable alternative. Even if he is right that the theological concept of the “wholly other” stands opposed to earthly horror, it’s not clear why this concept can actually furnish a remedy for the horrors we have made here on earth. His thoughts on this matter lead to the same aporia as we saw in Benjamin: he appeals to a transcendent principle as a resolution to social pathologies that should be healed on immanent terms. Adorno is more careful: he recognizes in theology not a remedy to our problems but only a concept providing a critical vantage from which those problems become visible. This is why I believe it was misleading for Martin Hägglund to characterize Adorno as a “religious thinker.” The challenge here is to think, with the left-Hegelian tradition, in a truly dialectical fashion by avoiding the stark contrast between what is religious and what is secular as if these were pure and wholly separable spheres. The gesture of secularization as it appears in philosophy cuts across that dualism. It is dialectical and truly dynamic, a movement from the one to the other.

I don’t have the temerity to suggest what this might imply for contemporary thought. I would only say, following Habermas, that secularism need not be secularist in the dogmatic sense, because secular frameworks of government seem to be a helpful way of permitting a diverse citizenry, both religious and non-religious alike, to co-exist. Any philosophical argument for “secularism” has to honor this principle and it should not ignore the empirical fact of a global condition of ethno-religious heterogeneity. Many people on this planet are religious. We may find this regrettable or appealing. But we are not going to get very far if we begin from the premise that radical atheism is the ultimate truth of the matter while we dismiss theism as little more than a metaphysical error. Heideggerian hymns to human finitude have little bearing on the practical question as to how we might structure our political institutions here and now so that they are more inclusive and socially equitable.

JC: Some might be surprised by your book’s conclusion: Adorno, a thinker notorious for his pessimism, emerges as the most optimistic of the trio you examine, since Benjamin and Horkheimer “opened themselves to a disabling skepticism about the very possibility of modern life” by imagining “only religion as the solution to our social affliction,” thus positing a normative deficit that only messianic rupture or the wholly other could rectify (141). By contrast, Adorno drew upon theological ideas but ultimately “sustained a principled commitment to the dialectical redemption of secular society from within” through secular criticism (142). Might we call the Adorno that emerges from your intellectual portrait something like a hopeful atheist?

PG: I would resist the suggestion that he was either hopeful or a pessimist, chiefly because he’s too complex a thinker for such terms to apply. If Adorno is notorious for his pessimism, this is only because popular understanding misses much of what is truly exhilarating in his work. I tried to argue this point in my 2019 Adorno Lectures in Frankfurt. Adorno did not see the world in Gnostic terms as fallen into total darkness, and it’s a mistake to see him as some kind of scowling but privileged contrarian, a modern Mephistopheles who could never affirm but only negate. That image of Adorno circulates everywhere, of course, and it’s often interlaced with insinuations of elitism and wealth that too often activate the old vocabularies of antisemitism. None of this is accurate. Worst of all, perhaps, is the frequent complaint that his exacting aesthetic standards cannot be made to harmonize with his political aspirations. This complaint is mistaken; they cohere as two moments in an image of flourishing humanity. As Iain Macdonald explains quite brilliantly in his recent book, notwithstanding all of his critical negativity Adorno held fast to figures of real possibility. He recognized in moments of human happiness—not only in modern art but also in our embodied experience as natural beings—the normative promise of a world that might truly be otherwise than it is.

JC: Your book offers its own response to the problem of the so-called “normative deficit” of secular modernity. Invoking Habermas, you consider sources of normativity as at once “ideology and simultaneously more than ideology” (14). Your approach is critical of “an increasing number of intellectuals on the left [who] have adopted the self-sabotaging posture of generalized skepticism” and who “affirm only power as the highest reality and regard the old ideals of universal justice with cool disbelief” (13). In the midst of myriad crises and pervasive suffering today, you reject this “one-sided critique of ideology” associated with Nietzsche and Foucault in favor of the “genuinely dialectical” approach of critical theory (14). You quote from Adorno’s 1965 lectures on Metaphysics, it is “one of the most dangerous errors now lurking in the collective consciousness to assume that because something is not what it promises to be, because it does not yet match its concept, it is therefore worse than its opposite, the pure immediacy which destroys it” (16). How might the secularized religious concepts you discuss provide models for holding onto enlightenment ideals in an age of skepticism and disillusionment?

PG: I have written elsewhere about the problem of a normative deficit of modernity, namely, the idea that modern society suffers from a scarcity of moral-political norms for which religion alone may serve as a remedy. Max Weber was one important exponent of this idea, though he is not the only source, and it has enjoyed a remarkable longevity in social theory, accompanying the theory of secularization like a dark shadow. Genealogies of secularism are now enjoying a curious popularity, and I think this is welcome, at least in a certain measure. Genealogy can serve as an important critical instrument insofar as it unsettles comfortable assumptions and exposes the paradoxes of our ideals when they are put into practice. But a one-sided genealogy that becomes a mere exercise in skeptical dismantling has serious limitations. Even while we recognize how ideals are entangled in ideology, we can’t be disburdened of the need to pursue our political ideals. Genealogy, too, is a mode of critique: it exposes the dissonance between ideals and practices, and it is animated by outrage when a given practice does not live up to its concept. But any critique has to make explicit the normative principles that animate it. It’s important that we do not simply shrug off the task of philosophical justification. The tradition of critical theory emanating from Frankfurt is salutary insofar as it sustains a dialectic (admittedly unresolved) between normative justification and social critique. To insist that we choose between these two tasks would be a philosophical error.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Book jacket, Felix Nussbaum, The Wandering Jew (1939). Felix-Nussbaum-Haus in the Museumsquartier Osnabrück, loan from the Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung. Copyright/photo credit: Museumsquartier Osnabrück, Felix-Nussbaum-Haus.