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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 andpraxis 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 secularismare 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.
Anne Schult: Reading Epidemic Empire, I was struck by how the “epidemic imaginary”—and its associated metaphors of contagion, spread, growth, infection, outbreak, inoculation, and immunity—knits together political organization and science in profound ways. One of these epidemic metaphors also plays a big role in Ed Cohen’s recent book A Body Worth Defending. Though he equally identifies the nineteenth century as a starting point for the conceptual merger between health and politics, Cohen makes an argument for the opposite direction of transmission: he suggests that in the case of immunity, it was long-standing perceptions about human social organization that entered into and transformed the biomedical lexicon, as immunity had existed as a legal concept since ancient Rome. Rather than seeing Cohen’s study as a competing argument, though, I would like to ask: if taken together, what do these terminological vacillations tell us about the historical permissiveness of what we now think of as discrete disciplines, and about the broader stakes of modern biopolitics?
Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb: At this late stage in the process of making this book, I think less and less about directionality and more and more in terms of a constant mutual reinforcement. I really hope that what I’ve written doesn’t suggest that language or figure flows in one way: from science into politics. I will say I felt immense pressure as I wrote the book to “pick” one of these arguments, to declare “it started in this field, and moved into the other!” I’m not sure why there is this pressure to pick—I wonder if it has something to do with the inherited polemicism of certain European and North American Marxist criticism. I don’t see this as much in the South Asian, Caribbean, and Black American archive of Marxist theory.
In any case, what seems clear to me from the documents I worked with is that there’s a difficult and always mobile permeation between the two realms, a vacillation, as you say—let’s call them science and politics for the sake of simplicity. So you see invocations of war, siege, battle, and defense in the early writing of the Royal Epidemiological Society (late 1850s) just as you see an insistence on contagion, infection, and pathology in the writings of British historians of the Mutiny. As you say in the first part of our conversation, it was crucial to me to study the coinciding of cholera and the anti-colonial uprisings in India. It helped me understand how these discourses bolstered each other and changed the parameters of what we understand to be “disease” and what we understand to be “insurrection.” And in this instance, although the language functions metaphorically, they were talking about very concrete, very material bodily experiences.
I want to be sure to answer your question, but I am also going to swerve because the events in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 have brought me back to some of my earliest questions about epidemics and insurgency. Today, we are not talking about a figural overlap. As in the late 1850s in India, we are talking about an actual and acute intertwining of pandemic and insurrection, one anti-colonial, and one white supremicist. Why? I do not have answers, I want to say that right away! But I do think it’s worth thinking more about what the shared condition of vulnerability brought on by a pandemic enables in terms of collective thinking, and what it enables in terms of reconceptualizing who counts as the body politic. I wrote so much in the book about the Indian context, so I would just refer readers to Part I of the book here and use this space instead to add: I think racist white Americans are reacting violently to understanding themselves as existing in the same space—pandemic space, if you will—as the rest of us. It’s inconceivable to them. Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, pandemic deniers are saying many things, but one of the things they are saying is: I refuse the “pan” or universality of this condition. It doesn’t apply to me. My body, white America’s body, is not vulnerable. It is immured, immune, it doesn’t need to “hide” behind a mask.
To some extent they are right: the medical racism in this country, to give a very complex set of factors a short name, has made Black, Latinx and Indigenous people leagues more vulnerable to Covid-19. The breach of the Capitol was a ritualized performance of the immunity (to police) and the sovereignty (feet on Pelosi’s desk, the seizing of the rostrum) of the white, able, cis, hetero body. I would be very eager to hear Ed Cohen’s thoughts on this as well, because I think a lot of what he does in that book helps us to understand this moment.
AS: Moving from mobile metaphors to mobile lives, I was wondering if you could say a bit more on how global migration figures into your argument in Epidemic Empire. You allude to it a couple of times throughout the book: certain groups, you point out, are seen as “viral vectors,” and their mobility is marked as pathological and thus dangerous. Most prominently, this nexus is represented by the book’s cover, which features an 1832 painting by Friedrich Graetz where an anthropomorphized cholera is dubbed “the kind of ‘assisted emigrant’ we can not afford to admit.” [see featured image above] But you also address this link through specific historical examples, including Muslim pilgrims in British India and Arab “nomads” in French Algeria. It seems to me that your observations also prove crucial for migrants beyond an explicitly (post-)colonial context, though, with the most prominent example being the twentieth-century refugee who has frequently appeared as a “pathogen” in public discourse and is now regularly conflated with the Islamic terrorist (a fact that has been endlessly exploited by the far-right). How central is migrancy for the “epidemic imaginary” as it emerges from your research?
AFRK: It’s so meaningful to me that you ask this question, particularly because it’s something I’ve continued to study since I finished the manuscript. Reading Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America, Daryl Li’s The Universal Enemy, and Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United Statesthis past summerdeepened my gut feeling that it’s hard to come up with an instance inside the “migrancy” paradigm that isn’t explicitly (post-)colonial. Part of this is terminological. When white Euro-Americans or their descendants in settler states like Australia and New Zealand move around or relocate in the twenty-first century, it’s not understood as an issue of “migration.” This is to do with numbers, it’s to do with the immense wealth hoarded in the states of the Global North and white Oceania, and it’s to do with assumptions about what “people” do, need, and want when they get somewhere. The abiding myths of settler colonialism have not been shaken—white people go somewhere to help, or to establish, or to build, to remedy, to contribute—it’s a selfless act of charity, a “burden” in Kipling’s terms. It is almost never, in the hegemonic languages of history, journalism, and state-sponsored narrative-making, an act of greed or even self-preservation. Israel is in some ways an exception to this rule, but certainly not in all ways, and certainly not since 1956, when an explicitly expansionist imperialist agenda overtook a (dubious) narrative of safety. We use the term migrants for those who are mobile within and because of the legacies of racial capital, religious persecution, and the settler practices that are their abiding methods. That is also to say it’s equally impossible for me to imagine a meaningfully non (post)colonial space on earth as it is to imagine a space on earth meaningfully unimpacted by capitalism. There is no outside—the pockets of resistance are also determined by this immanence.
You’re asking specifically about the twentieth (and I’ll also say twenty-first) century refugee: to compass all these groups in a short answer like this, or even a book or series of books would be impossible, but I’ll describe a pattern and offer two examples I’ve been thinking about lately that help us see, I think, how pathologization is part of the narrative operation that establishes the difference between migrants (Brown and Black people) and—let’s call them jet setters, for fun, or “cosmopolitan” subjects. On patterns: migration and the seeking of asylum and refuge by large groups from Sudan to Ethiopia to Myanmar to Ciudad Juarez to Lesbos are frequently at sites of intensity produced by borders drawn in colonial wars or colonial negotiations—borders that often paid no mind and no respect to existing governance or claims to self-determination. Examples: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about two recent events and wondering how I would have included them in the book, if I had been able to. First, the study released by Brown University Costs of War project, which posits (on the low end) 37 million people displaced by U.S. Wars after 9/11 and a direct death toll of over 800,000. It’s extremely worth spending some time with the resources they put together. In sum, the contemporary “refugee crisis” is a direct result of the War on Terror, and of the pathologization of Muslims and people from what are understood to be “Muslim” countries.
The second thing I’ve been reading and thinking about is the fire at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos this past summer. The men who started the fire cited unlivable conditions, confinement, the camp as prison; their reasons for burning this hellscape to the ground are, if not defensible, at least understandable—few have moved on from the holding place of the island to mainland Greece and beyond. Few who remained at Moria saw any hope of asylum, let alone a livable life or meaningful work. A small number of Covid-19 cases—reported to be around 35—led to the lockdown of the site. With little available medical care, the camp was certainly a profoundly vulnerable space for a more widespread infection. But the community on Lesbos surrounding Moria was already treating the space like it was under quarantine—calling on Greece to resettle and remove the residents and return life to “normal.”
The catastrophe at Moria requires that we recognize the carceral archipelagos that link us to, say, Japanese internment—but also those in the present. Moria was made to quarantine Muslims from Europe far before Covid-19 cases broke out there. This anticipatory cynicism—as in Trump’s “Muslim ban” and the way it was upheld by the fiction of a regional epidemic—has structured every moment of racial becoming in the white world since 2001, in ways that build on colonial histories of population management and disease containment as justifications for empire. In short: “migrancy” is very central to the epidemic imaginary!
AS: I want to take a moment to also ask about method here, because I think you suggest something really interesting and perhaps, on first glance, counterintuitive in the book. For one, you argue that some administrative modes of colonial bureaucracy and data collection, including the new science of epidemiology, transferred into the literary realm. At the same time, these modes appear to have inspired you as well: to reconstruct a broader cultural narrative, you read across vastly different time periods, geographical regions, and genres and knit together narratives produced by journalists, medical experts, colonial administrators, lawmakers, and politicians to make visible their shared settler colonial heuristic. In the introduction, you call this approach an “epidemiological mode of reading.” But what does it mean to read “epidemiologically,” and which aspect have you found useful to adopt—or perhaps rather co-opt—from the scientific method of analyzing epidemics?
AFRK: For a time, when I was putting the pieces of the book together, this was a really fraught question for me. It was a moment when there was something of a burgeoning in interdisciplinary study in literature and I was taking and teaching courses in the law school, and reading a lot of medical history. A lot of the work coming out of those spaces on the literature side was sort of flat-footed. Much of it still employed pretty straightforward literary close reading methods (New Critical in nature) and aggregated a bunch of instances of lawyers or courtroom scenes in novels, or a bunch of instances of medical practitioners appearing in books and films. In a way, this is good and important—we need the catalogue of scenes, concerns, characters that point outside of feeling and toward a specific practice or training like medicine in the literary archive in order to proceed. But the biggest problem with these approaches was that they were often limited by existing categories of literary history: Victorian studies, or early American literature, and they left the “interdiscipline” largely uninterrogated. New Historicism was a partial exception to this rule, but because of the training of the founders of the field, also very Eurocentric at first. It was mostly (of course, not exclusively) in the already interdisciplinary literature fields—African American and diasporic, Indigenous studies, and postcolonial studies—where better, more adventurous, more consequential work was happening. A few of my teachers published books during these years that I thought of as new gold standards: Joey Slaughter’s Human Rights Inc.(law and literature), Brent Edwards’s The Practice of Diaspora(French, music, and culture), Cristobal Silva’s Miraculous Plagues(medicine and literature). These works created completely new archipelagos of meaning for me. Each of them (and others, as I was starting to learn about and from anthropology at CUNY, specifically Gary Wilder, Talal Asad, Susan Buck-Morss) also interrogated the existing boundaries between fields and the methods of those fields. So I started thinking more methodologically about what was going on in the study of epidemics, and about the foundation of epidemiology.
I wrote in the book about the awkwardness of discovering that “epidemiological reading”—synoptic, multi-regional, a shuttling between close and systems-level analysis—was kind of a good tool for reading what and how I wanted to read. But I worry less about that now. Epidemiology came into being to name and handle a problem that was global, mobile, an effect of empire. So it’s logical that its tools would be useful in studying those effects in the literary and paraliterary archives as well. I’m really glad I put in the work to understand how epidemiologists read and understand their objects, especially in the early days when they were trying to figure it out and give language to their approach. It taught me a lot about the capacities of discourse analysis on the ground, and in the archive. However, to put a very fine point on it: manufacturing a “new” way of reading was an occupational hazard when I was in grad school, and I don’t fret about it as much anymore. It’s not so new, and it’s not so complicated—epidemiological reading is a lot like comparative postcolonial analysis and multi-site discourse analysis. And, like all methods forged in the workrooms of imperial university culture, it has a terrible history (just as the study of English literature does) but has already been profoundly reworked by thinkers who seek to decolonize university epistemologies. I try to honor those thinkers, and, as I say above, follow the object and move it along.
AS: Throughout Epidemic Empire, you stress that the “disease poetics” we are familiar with today were born out of the European colonial project and essentially continued a much older discourse of Orientalism. Beyond the obscuring or outright denying of deliberate political agency on the part of colonial subjects by these poetics, you also point to the limits of the epidemic metaphor as “just a metaphor”—due to the fact that for many, it is a lived reality and part of “a war so long and an attendant discursive regime so pervasive that it restructures every encounter, every memory, appears in every dream.” Bound as it is to underwriting fundamentally imperial epistemologies, do you think there is any “redemption” for the epidemic metaphor? Have you found generative examples of rethinking the politics-disease nexus over the course of your research?
AFRK: I adore this question, and I think about it in new ways every week. The counter-example I talk about most extensively in the book is Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a novel I think is incredibly complex and smart and sensitive on these subjects. There’s a beautiful storyline in the novel where a political community is brought together by the occasion of a pilgrimage to help heal a woman with breast cancer and a younger woman with epilepsy, who functions as something of a prophet. It isn’t immediately apparent that this is an epidemic allegory—we tend to think of epidemic as a contagious affliction—but the storyline actually theorizes what an epidemic (an event that befalls or is upon the people, from epi (around or upon) and demos (the people)) might be in a more expanded sense. It forces us to imagine non-contagious illness as a social or spreading phenomenon as well, and imagines this occurrence alongside news, belief, action, collectivity. Because it does this so tenderly that the experience of sickness and the attendant group dynamics work, in Edward Said’s terms, to affiliate this group of people. They meet a sorrowful ending, but the message isn’t pessimistic exactly. Later in the novel, another prophet figure speaks about his plans to “tropicalize” London: a recolonization that involves shifted cultural values but also shifted states of presumed health. It’s vengeful and powerful, and again, it doesn’t completely undo the imperial underpinnings of the epidemic metaphor, but it reveals them for what they are: a long-standing justification for ill-gotten riches.
There are other texts and books I didn’t find a way to write about in this book. Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel Child of All Nationshas an incredibly moving set-piece about a young woman, Surati, who intentionally infects a serial concubine-abuser with small-pox and effectively dismantles a sugar-plantation’s operations in the process. Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salemdoes gymnastic thinking about the Salem witch trials, shared states of vulnerability, the limits of Western medicine, and moral logic in the context of new-world enslavement. Tristan Garcia explores the cultural logics of HIV and AIDS in La meilleure part des hommes,but the character who posits the gift of AIDS and the radical politics of getting and spreading the disease is ultimately treated in a nineteenth-century tragical fashion. The book is well worth reading, but I wouldn’t say it attempts to redeem the metaphor as much as it shows exactly why you cannot, in the face of the intransigence of the body. Mary Shelley does some interesting things with pandemic apocalypse-as-fantasy in The Last Man, which I’ve written about in connection with a diplomatic drama around bird flu here.
Ilya Kaminsky develops a simultaneously allegorical and totally material theory of deafness and revolt in Deaf Republic. I can’t recommend this book more highly, and it is written with such exquisite sensitivity to both contemporary politics and the range of sensory abilities I get teary even thinking about what to say about it. Read it! In the book, I also write a little bit about shared states of disability brought on by the violence of occupying forces in Kashmir (and although I didn’t write about it, Palestine), building on Jasbir Puar’s work in The Right to Maim, and the affiliative capacity of those conditions. While these writers interrogate the ideology in presumed conditions of wellness as a static state (a presumption that has been catastrophic for women, Black and Brown people, disabled people, mentally ill people, neurodivergent people, and the sick), none of them hope for something like health disruptions. So at the heart of what you’re asking is also, I think, an intractable problem—smart theorists and writers play with trying to reveal further and further layers of power and inherited dispositions toward sickness or ability, but these gestures stop short of redemption. What they work to do is to re-conceive non-normative health states as beautiful forms of existence, of flourishing, and at the same time to create more just systems of support for differently abled and sick people. Moving beyond the epidemic metaphor, as a historical function, is what enables this work, I believe.
Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb is associate professor of English at the University of Toronto. She is a scholar of colonial and postcolonial literature and theory with particular research interests in the history of science and intellectual history, poetry and poetics, gender and sexuality studies, political theory and independence movements, the gothic and horror, and comparative literary studies.
Anne Schult is a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.
Featured Image: “The Kind of assisted emigrant we can not afford to admit.” Political cartoon by Friedrich Graetz, via Wikimedia.
Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb is associate professor of English at the University of Toronto. She is a scholar of colonial and postcolonial literature and theory with particular research interests in the history of science and intellectual history, poetry and poetics, gender and sexuality studies, political theory and independence movements, the gothic and horror, and comparative literary studies. Editor Anne Schult spoke with her about her first scholarly monograph, Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817-2020 (out now with University of Chicago Press), which lays out the literary and discursive history behind the ubiquitous figure of the “terrorism epidemic,” locating the origin of contemporary global Islamophobia in the post-Mutiny British empire, and assessing the contemporary “epidemiological” approach to terrorism as a legacy of therapeutic empire.
Anne Schult: Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, reflections on contagious disease as allegory have abounded, and some of the most canonical texts engaging with this trope—from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor to Albert Camus’ The Plague—have regained popularity in public discourse as commentators are trying to make sense of the current public health crisis. In Epidemic Empire, you also draw on these (and many other) writings but place them at the very specific discursive nexus of epidemic, terror, and Islam. In doing so, you not only trace how disease has been used rhetorically to pathologize and dehumanize political resistance since the nineteenth century, but also expose the historical concurrency of insurgency and contagious disease in British India and their consequent stylization as inextricably related epistemological problems across the British, French, and American empires. What aspects that have hitherto remained hidden or obscured about the “epidemic imaginary” does this explicit focus on colonial, anticolonial, and postcolonial politics reveal, and how might these explain its continuous appeal?
Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb: You’ve identified really carefully the process I unfold in the book: the way metaphors of disease— and in the story-length register, allegories of epidemic, like Camus’s—naturalize political violence along the lines of an earthquake, or an extinction event, as if they are part of earth’s in-built life cycle. In earlier imperial writings about nature and the natural world, you also see natural phenomena being described as revolutions, upheavals, or the violence of nature. Think Alexander von Humboldt, trained as a geologist for the purposes of mining, observing the earthquakes in the new world, or the term “rogue wave,” denoting a break in tide patterns but also connoting a vagrant or a beggar by way of the Latin rogare.For catastrophes and novel events—events we might call sublime, or at least out of the realm of the everyday—speakers of many languages use the tools of comparison to assist in sense-making. Why are fish dying in freshwater streams? Well, it is like a sickness spreading through the land. What is cancer? It is like a mutiny inside the body that grows and spreads. These are simple similes, but they help show us the process you need to interpret them because you can see very clearly that the terms on each side of the equivalence must be unpacked if you want to really understand what they mean, who they serve, which ways of thinking are assumed to be shared or common-sense, and finally what logics are promoted through them.
Another way of saying this is the metaphor always begs the question: to whom is this event surprising, new, in need of a comparison in order to understand it? This is a silly example, but a pervasive one: if you live in North America and have a name or eat foods that seem to some “foreign,” one of the first things a European descendant will often do on encounter is try to liken your name or food to something familiar: “Oh, like Angelina!” or “…so your Christmas dinner is like…Indian tacos?” You can see right away that such operations assume a stable state of the human, and then variants on, additions to, or even challenges to that presumed whiteness. For many centuries, the task of shoring up “human” knowledge has been understood by the West—in concert with the projects of educational and humanitarian missionarism—as its rightful and sole inheritance. So let’s say metaphors are everywhere in human thought, but the ones I am most interested in are the ones attached to power. Those are the ones that determine who lives and who dies, how justice is twisted and thwarted, and what governs the making of a global system.
To get to the specifics of your question, theorists of what I call the “epidemic imaginary” have taught me that disease is far from a “natural” occurrence, in the sense that it is deeply social, and completely enmeshed in human behavior. The writings of Hans Zinsser, Georges Canguilhem, David Arnold, Priscilla Wald, Alan Bewell, and many others are central to my thinking. I don’t think these writers missed anything! Each of these theorists, to varying degrees, also examines or acknowledges the construction of disease as a raced concept from the Athenian plague forward. Which is to say, I don’t feel this book uncovers something hitherto hidden. Instead, I think of it as bringing these lessons to a particular problem that is the defining problem of North Americans of my generation: the revival of hard-line imperialism by the US after 9/11.
I think a lot of people who are genuinely against occupation and imperialism would intuit easily the arguments I make in this book: the War on Terror is a neo-colonial war dressed in pathogenic logic and therapeutic excuses. What I wanted to show, and what I hope I do carefully, is to provide a record of exactly how the epidemic imaginary consolidates and creates our geopolitical present, which is one marked by both Islamophobia and now a global pandemic exacerbated by and exacerbating health inequity. The last thing I’ll say on this is that epidemic is an age-old concept, but the study of epidemics through the discipline of epidemiology is not. It’s a historical occurrence that lines up with the East India Company’s expansion, and later the establishment of the Imperial government in India in the middle of the nineteenth century (or, as I sometimes think about it, the cholera century) and the French expansion into North Africa and Egypt. Tropical medicine, for example, has a slightly different geography and history, centered more in the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa. There is an extremely rich scholarship in this field as well that links these earlier scientific moments to neglect and the criminal and deliberate impoverishment of Caribbean, African, and Indigenous communities.
AS: You are a literary scholar by training and base part of your argument on the narrative link between rebellion and disease in canonical Anglophone and Francophone literature, including Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Albert Camus’ The Plague, and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Yet in many ways, Epidemic Empire departs from the purely literary realm and offers a much broader history of the present. Time and again, your research reveals, the “terrorism epidemic” that appears as a narrative trope in popular fiction has also been used by government officials to recast military action to crush rebellion as a “natural” defense reaction against an oncoming “plague.” To showcase the continuity of this “descriptive habit” in literary and bureaucratic prose alike, you juxtapose a number of discrete historical events: the British response to the 1857 Indian Mutiny with the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan through a vaccination campaign ruse (Part I); the Algerian War of Independence as shown in in the film The Battle of Algiers with Pentagon preparations for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Part II); and Salman Rushdie’s fictional treatment of the Partition of India and its aftermath with reports about mass protests in 2016 Kashmir (Part III). Can you tell us a bit more about your research process and the way you went about linking historical episodes that occurred at times centuries apart?
AFRK: I am lucky to have been exposed to and trained by some of the founding thinkers of postcolonial theory, including those involved in the Subaltern Studies project. From the jump, this was a markedly cross-disciplinary agenda, and also, from the start, these thinkers interrogated colonial archives, forms of knowledge, and asked constantly about what the Western academy—which is the model for many colonial institutions of learning as well—left out or siloed in disciplines that should have been talking to each other. Five theorists who were hugely influential to my early thinking—Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, David Arnold, Ranajit Guha, and Gauri Viswanathan—worked between archives and times, between literature and other kinds of writing, and insisted on demonstrating continuities between historical moments that at first appear to be discrete. In some cases, the colonial archive and colonial historiography work really hard to make them appear discrete. Each of these thinkers also insisted that these moments in the past had a great deal to teach us about power and inequity in the present. Their archives illuminated so much about what we’ve inherited as common sense. This either was or became completely intuitive to me as a way of working, and then I needed to do the reading and build the skills to make these kinds of arguments myself. That took a very long time.
I also came to literary study sort of sideways, first through what I thought would be a career in medicine, and later through a kind of eclectic undergraduate training in comparative literature that was largely assembled from courses in area studies, theory, and interdisciplinary arts. I was not an English major because I wanted to do courses in music, musicology, art history, Urdu, Middle Eastern theater, South Asian history, and so forth. Landing in an English department for my PhD was a deliberate choice (over comparative literature), but it also meant being “disciplined” to an extent in the ways of working I had avoided. A lot of finishing my dissertation and moving into a tenure track position in an English department became about justifying these sorts of wild moves while also trying to train myself and seek out training in multiple disciplines at once. The research process started as an abstract geometry: here were these five or six historical snapshots in time, recorded in literary and non-literary writing and images. I knew they would tell a story if I could put them together right. I kept reading and reading about philosophies of history, and also reading and reading in those snapshots of time, until I found the right materials to build strong textual bridges between the periods.
Some readers still find these links too artificial, guessing that there’s evidence you could marshal or interpret differently, or offering other examples of the epidemic imaginary that don’t quite fit. I absolutely love those don’t-fit moments, and I look forward to hearing more from readers on this, to being challenged on my version of the history. I am really conscious of parallel stories that have been deeply studied and written about regarding disease, race, war, and the colonization of the Americas through murder and enslavement. Understanding the link between that work and my own will also take time, greater language competence, and further research to flesh out. But I do feel satisfied in the archival and textual backbone of what I’ve done here. Mostly, I hope it’s valuable to others in reframing both the War on Terror and the present pandemic and in inspiring further research.
AS: In order to methodically approach “the meeting point of content and form in the figure of epidemic,” you draw on both “pathotropic” political theory, such as the works of Jacques Derrida and Roberto Esposito, and various histories of colonial science and health politics. How do you situate your work within, or between, these two “canons,” which each come with quite different modes of investigating and conceptualizing disease?
AFRK: This is a beautiful question! To which I must give a sadly unbeautiful answer: I’ve been working hard to avoid situating the work within or between dominant rubrics or methodological schools. It’s not because I don’t admire the work—I have learned so much from both what I’d call biopolitical critical theory (the “pathotropic” observation is my own name for a kind of burgeoning of this work after 9/11, but the theorists themselves don’t use this term) and from historians of colonial medicine and analysts of public health. It’s more that each object—novel, report, testimony, poem, film—I approach demands a different set of tools for interpretation. My teachers, particularly Gauri Viswanathan, whom I’ve been studying with since I was an undergraduate, and who directed my dissertation and continues to influence my work, have very patiently helped me see how to put the object of analysis at the fore, and how to build flexible means of perceiving, reading, and interpreting it. So the method follows the object. I think what links my readings is a close attention to figures and an insistent pressure on patterns. In this way, I really see the book as following Foucauldian and Saidian discourse analysis in terms of how it’s constructed, and Fanonian analysis in terms of how I read my objects. I won’t go too deeply into this because it would unleash an absolute torrent of thoughts about my debts to these three thinkers, but I will say that in spite of his many errors and appropriations of Black thought—particularly Angela Davis’s work on prisons—Foucault’s work made my work thinkable. Edward Said’s method in Orientalism is not discussed enough in terms of intellectual history. He barely reads literature in that book although he reads in a profoundly literary way. And Fanon…what is there to say that is adequate. You can’t think his political philosophy without his ontology, and you can’t read his para-ontology without his psychiatric case studies. That said, I wouldn’t arrogate to slot myself between these people. I guess I would say I try to borrow responsibly from them all, to answer the call of each work—what it knows it’s asking for from the reader, and what it doesn’t know it’s asking for. Maybe it’s also worth saying that relevance to the contemporary politics—especially the politics of race and the ongoing exploitation of the formerly and currently colonized world and peoples—is always front and center for me. If I can’t make what I’m working on speak to something important in our current discursive and political climate, I try again or I put it aside.
AS: In certain regards, your work is also in conversation with more distant scholarship on figuration and metaphors in European intellectual history. Philosopher Hans Blumenberg, for example, whose work has seen a rise in popularity over the past few years, also considered metaphors as epistemological tools. How does your study connect with—or, by contrast, produce tension within—this long-standing intellectual debate on metaphors?
AFRK: Thank you for pointing me to Hans Blumenberg’s work—I wasn’t familiar with it and am now very excited to delve in! Instead of trying to answer the question proleptically (ask me again in a month!), I’ll speak to how I approached what at first appears to be a pretty vast chasm between more formalist approaches to literary figure and the kind of postcolonial criticism that was the crucible in which I read and lived for many years, and which I prioritized in my study of these materials. I noticed the pattern of pathological figuration in the archive of colonial letters before I really thought much about theories of figuration. Kim, Dracula, a bunch of 1890s novels—and then I returned to Guha’s important essay “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” which does amazing work in identifying how uprisings are naturalized in the Indian colonial record. So it was a matter of finding in my own memory the text that enabled me to see and read that way, and then studying it carefully again to try to understand its operations and lessons. That essay is very hard! And it was written by a historian who is nevertheless totally attuned to how history is written, in a poetic sense, even in prose.
In much of literary training, there is a false but operative assumption that implies or sometimes outright suggests that to study white literature is to understand literary complexity—figure and form, but also tradition, intertextuality, and so forth—and that to study the work of colonized, Black, or Brown writers or speakers is to necessarily focus on politics, identity or history—none of which are understood to be properly literary. As I write this, I feel like I’m describing an “old” field, but scholars across the field are doing incredible work unpacking various insidious effects of presumed whiteness. I particularly love Dorothy Wang’s work on experimental poetry and race. Again, I was lucky to have been trained by exceptionally agile thinkers, and to have encountered this kind of binary only very rarely in their classrooms. Once I left those spaces, it was a different story. Our field has not changed fast enough, and even the thought of doing conceptual work on metaphor while also doing postcolonial critique is still alarming to many colleagues in English departments.
Let me move out from these cloistered concerns and try to get to the heart of your question: I have built a kind of working theory of metaphor-as-epistemology from some people the academy would readily call “theorists”: Jakobson, Barthes, Genette, Macherey, Serres, Eve Sedgwick, Sontag. I love the classic work of linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. I think a lot of Edward Said’s work is fundamentally about figure and metaphor, not in opposition to but at the heart of politics.
I have also gleaned a lot about poetics and theory from writers like C.L.R. James and Jamaica Kincaid, whose unmaking of Romantic figure in The Black Jacobins(James) and Lucy(Kincaid) is foundational for me. Or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose Decolonising the Mindposits an essential link between language, power, and political consciousness. I’ll give one more example because it burns through my mind almost every day: M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” where she writes of the foreign anguish that is English. All of this is to say that I don’t think metaphor—or at least the metaphors I study—can be separated out or theorized without careful consideration of the already translated aspect of the colonial subject who writes, reads, and thinks in multiple languages. When she does so in the colonial language, she regularly experiences it as a violence. Often, she experiences direct physical violence as a result of this thinking, whether it is expressed properly or improperly, directly or metaphorically. So if a metaphor—literally—is a carrying over or a transfer, a discomfiting shift from the perfect fit of (theoretically) perfect expression or transcendent meaning, then the study of metaphor can also challenge the kind of imperial monolingualism or monoculturalism that is anyway inaccessible to linguistic and literary traditions that have been purposefully severed by the forcible kidnapping of peoples, the removal from ancestral lands, and the evisceration of linguistic and artistic lifeways. I’m not trying to say the condition of postcoloniality is always already metaphorical (and I believe metaphors are profoundly material), but I’m not not saying that either, in relation to the presumed stability of the “human” as white, male, etc.
Although they ripple through all kinds of discourse, metaphors belong, ultimately, to the realm of poetry. Which is to say, to the act of creation, of poiesis. I write in this book about the “disease poetics of empire.” By that I mean both the disease metaphors and figures that imperial powers use to excuse and justify their existence and their ruinous policies, but also and equally the way the concept of disease instantiates and creates empire, brings it into being—an act of poiesis. To bring things back down to earth, and to a more hopeful place, Audre Lorde writes in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” that poetry is a “vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” I love this both in the way she means it—imagination as a necessary precondition of freedom—and also in another way that simmers beneath the surface of her writing: understanding metaphors, especially the malign ones, is vital to our existence. It’s not something we luxuriate in before or after the workday with a quiet book of verse. It’s a matter of survival. I definitely have to reteach myself even the simplest definition of metaphor quite regularly. For me, maintaining a disposition of alacrity toward figural expression is key—if you’re not in the space of being head-fucked by a metaphor, the figure has lost its power and you have to work to recover it, find the strangeness in it again.
This is the first installment of a two-part interview. Read the second installment here.
Anne Schult is a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.
Featured Image: Close-up from the cover of Frank G. Boudreau, Ancient Diseases, Modern Defences: The Work of the Health Organization of the League of Nations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939).
Roman Yos is a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Potsdam. His research focuses on the history of German Philosophy in the early and mid-20th century. In 2017, he co-edited Mensch und Gesellschaft zwischen Natur und Geschichte, a volume that investigates the relationship between Philosophical Anthropology and Critical Theory. Contributing editor Jonas Knatz spoke with him about his new book Der junge Habermas (Suhrkamp, 2019), an intellectual biography of German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas.
Jonas Knatz (JK): In the introduction to Young Habermas: An Intellectual History of His Early Thought, 1952-1962, you note that Jürgen Habermas’ work has not been as formative for the theory-hungry students of the 1970s as for example Michel Foucault’s or Theodor W. Adorno’s books. Despite his status as a ‘classic’ in social philosophy and the numerous introductions to his work, you also point out, Habermas’ oeuvre has neither sparked the emergence of rivaling interpretative schools fighting over the correct reading of his philosophy nor a historiography of his ideas. How do you explain this (lack of) reception of Habermas’ work, and what motivated you to make Habermas’ early years the subject of your book?
Roman Yos (RY): In Young Habermas, my aim was to map out the full spectrum of intellectual influences on Habermas’ early work. So, I largely set the fundamental question of how to classify his work aside. I primarily wanted to examine the contemporary reception of Habermas’ essays and books and, of course, the texts themselves. Which intellectual currents did they engage with? This approach illustrated that the names of Adorno and Horkheimer were far less present in Habermas’ early work than one would initially assume. Even in the early 1950s, during his student days, Habermas was an independent thinker defining his own philosophical problems and developing his own ideas—this is evident, for example, from the numerous newspaper articles he authored during this period. I wanted to recover the lesser-known, often underappreciated intellectual impulses on Habermas’ early work, including his reception of literature and political events, to present a more accurate picture of his formative years. In my opinion, considering these early influences reveals why Habermas cannot simply be considered an epigone of the founders of the Frankfurt school. Now, for the classification of Habermas’ work, you have to keep in mind that the German-speaking reception of Habermas’s oeuvre was politiciced by the revolting “sixty-eighters.” Arguments about legitimate discipleship, or rivalries between incompatible receptions, opposing approaches, etc., are an integral part of the daily business in philosophy and the social sciences. Not infrequently, however, they are also the product of a subsequently politicized reception. If I am not mistaken, one can also observe a similar politicization in the Anglo-American reception of Habermas, which began at the end of the 1960s and in which the New Left played a decisive role. In the US, the idea of a generational succession of Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, who continue what Horkheimer and co. had set out to do in the mid-1930s, was omnipresent from the start. Understandably, this initially led to the classification of Habermas’s work as “Critical Theory.” The ongoing controversy about the reception of Habermas’ work and about “Critical Theory” more generally, and the fact that Habermas still takes a stand as a critical commentator on contemporary issues, may be reason enough for some to consider him a contender for the status of a “classic.”
In other parts of the world that were less influenced by “Western Marxism,” I see less debate about this question. In general, however, it is quite conceivable that the “hunger for theory” of the new generations of students will be satisfied by catchier authors (such as Adorno or Foucault). And admittedly: neither Theory of Communicative Action nor the even more extensive This Too a History of Philosophy are easy to quote or come as transportable paperbacks. In my opinion, it is currently difficult to assess in which direction the reception will develop in the long run: whether Habermas’ role as a political intellectual, his philosophical oeuvre, individual books or even just his most memorable terms will be remembered.
JK: Your intellectual history of Habermas pursues two interconnected critical goals: to caution against a synthesizing retrospective that glosses over the ambivalences, turns, and contradictions in his early work, and against a reading that associates his philosophy too readily with the Critical Theory of Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. Habermas’ philosophically formative years in Bonn seem to substantiate both claims: he was a student of Erich Rothacker and Oskar Becker, who both had been supportive of National Socialism and whose philosophy was very different from the Critical Theory that the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research is known for. How would you describe their influence on Habermas’ early work?
RY: When in 1956, after five years in Bonn, Habermas began working as Adorno’s research assistant at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, he came into contact with intellectual traditions that were hardly present in postwar Germany as a result of forced emigration. Neo-Kantianism, Logical Positivism, Psychoanalysis, or social-philosophical Marxism, for example, had no significant foothold at the university in Bonn. In a certain sense, his two most influential academic teachers there, Erich Rothacker and Oskar Becker, are emblematic for the somewhat outdated theoretical horizon that one encountered in Bonn at the time: they clinged to psychology without Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology without the Sociology of Knowledge, to name just two examples that illustrate the Nazi-induced loss in the intellectual professions. In addition, a few years earlier, Rothacker and Becker had been suspended from academic positions due to their prior commitment to National Socialism. When Habermas became a student in Bonn, the period of institutional denazification had already ended, though it was not peculiar to Bonn that professors who had taught during National Socialism continued to teach after the war. Critical voices therefore used the catchphrase “restoration” to refer to the first years of the Federal Republic. But, in the 1950s, you didn’t talk to professors about politics, and about culture only if you showed an interest in Geistesgeschichte (cultural and intellectual history). And intellectually, Rothacker must have been impressive for Habermas. He had a deep and far-reaching knowledge of Geistesgeschichte and was an expert on the philosophical strands that had been popular in the 1920s. As a psychologist, he could also draw on his expertise in empirical cultural and experimental behavioral research. And he was open to support the next generation: Karl-Otto Apel, Otto Pöggeler, Hermann Schmitz, and others took his seminars. For some time, Habermas tried to formulate a culture-critical approach that was based on Rothacker’s concept of “style” (who himself drew on Heinrich Wölfflin) and meant to express a critical Haltung [attitude, posture] towards the cultural sphere—and this positive reception of Rothacker is still present in Habermas’ first article for Merkur from 1954. Titled “Dialectic of Rationalization,” this brilliant text still conjures up associations with Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” a misleading trace as I try to show in the book.
In a seminar of Becker, a former student of Husserl and an admirer of Heidegger, Habermas decided to engage more extensively with Schelling about whom he eventually also wrote his dissertation, The Absolute and History. Becker, who was an experienced logician and mathematician and who, via Paul Lorenzen, also influenced the Erlangen School of Epistemological Constructivism, was a very reserved personality compared to Rothacker. Presumably hardly anyone knew his race-theoretical texts from a few years earlier. Although Habermas only made very scattered remarks about both philosophers, they certainly had some influence on his philosophical thinking. In retrospect, I would say that he emancipated himself from their influence over the course of the 1950s, similar to his emancipation from Heidegger’s influence at the same time.
JK: Given Habermas’ often polemical attacks against Martin Heidegger, it is surprising to see how much he initially relied on a vocabulary associated with Heidegger’s philosophy. In his first articles for the feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Habermas even adopted Heidegger’s apologetic arguments for Vernehmung [apprehension] as the correct, passive philosophical posture for the postwar period and also joins the Freiburg philosopher in his criticism of the alienation caused by technological development. An important turning point in this relationship seems to be 1953, when Habermas read Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, which contained the latter’s critique of “what is peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism, but which has not the least to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement.” You argue that this reading experience initiated a process through which Habermas gained political distance from Heidegger, but that he initially did not fully break with the latter’s philosophy. How would you describe Habermas’ early critique of Heidegger, and how central was Heidegger’s conceptual apparatus for his early philosophy?
RY: Formulas such as Schellings “submission to the higher” or even “attitude/posture of apprehension,” which clearly refered to Heidegger, contain motifs that gave Habermas a certain orientation. These formulas, which Habermas drew not only from Heidegger but from a wide array of thinkers and political movements, helped him to diagnostically process the political present in the postwar period. Some of them can only be found in his journalistic work or completely disappear in his later work, while others were merely replaced or reformulated in new theoretical approaches. But some phrases have remained decisive to this day: the “broken attitude” towards national traditions, for example. The slogan “Ohne mich” [“Without me”], which in the early 1950s expressed a commitment against the rearmement of the Federal Republic, offered him such an orientation as well. It constituted a way to situate oneself in the contemporary intellectual discourse. “Ohne mich” was part of a political habitus, similar to “Me Too” or “Fridays for Future” today.
In contrast to today, though, the West German postwar situation was much more marked by an awareness of its potentially provisional status. Democracy was still young and, given the recent past, fears about its future were not entirely baseless. At first glance, Heidegger’s “attitude of apprehension” seemed to express an opposition to his own political activism of the early 1930s. And Habermas initially interpreted Heidegger’s plea for “serenity” as a fundamental reservation with regard to current political events, which he himself also only followed from critical distance. At the beginning, he was probably convinced that adapting Heidegger’s terms—similar to Rothacker’s concept of “style”—would be useful in sharpening his own criticism of the cultural zeitgeist.
This changed, however, when Habermas realized that Heidegger’s new perspective was a personal exoneration in disguise: his interpretation of the Nazi movement as a symptom of an age of “planetary technology” leveled the differences between National Socialism and the postwar order. Later, Habermas called this (self-)exonerating turn in Heidegger an “abstraction via essentialization.” I interpret Habermas’ critical reflections on Heidegger, which began in 1953 with the controversy about the latter’s Introduction to Metaphysics, as the inception of a long-lasting process of detachment. This process began with taking note of the relevant passage you quoted—but it did not end there. In my book, I characterize this phase of Habermas’ Heidegger reception as tentative. Only in 1957, while immersed in Marx’s writings and contemporary Marxism, Habermas fully explored to what extent an “attitude of apprehension,” is connected to a logic of the absolute as a metahistorical process. For even if there actually were meaning in history, it could not be intercepted in the form of a “history of being,” but would have to be justified and at the same time realized by practical reason. So, one could say that this was the moment when Habermas began thinking with Kant and Marx and against Heidegger, which is fundamentally different from thinking “with Heidegger against Heidegger.”
JK: In 1956, Habermas joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and became Adorno’s personal assistant. Yet, your book cautions against considering Habermas too readily a, as you put it, “epigone” of the founding generation of this institute. In what ways then did Habermas’ personal philosophy differ from the particular strand developed at the institute during his initial stint as Adorno’s assistant, and why is he commonly understood as the Frankfurt School’s philosophical heir?
RY: It is difficult to say whether Habermas had his own fully-fledged philosophy at this early stage. In his position at the Institute for Social Research in the late 1950s, he was mainly concerned with questions of empirical sociology and, to a lesser extent, with university politics. On the side, he wrote his first book, The Structural Transformation of Public Sphere, about which one could argue whether it contains a philosophy in nuce. Irrespective of the outcome of this discussion, it is clear that, even before he moved to Frankfurt, Habermas began to autonomously identify philosophical problems and ways to solve them. Hans Paeschke (co-editor of Merkur), for example, already noticed this about Habermas in early 1954 when he edited the aforementioned essay. There is a letter in which he admiringly prophesied that Habermas would later found a philosophy.
During this time, Habermas thought about possibilities to contain both technical and economic rationalization—something that he tried getting at with the term “social rationalization.” At the same time, however, he insisted that the bond between progress and reason must not be broken. “Social rationalization” is initially a problematic concept, just like “communicative action” a little later, which Habermas introduced in the mid-1960s long before he worked out the Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas’ more recent considerations in This Too A History of Philosophy also touch on this systematic connection, which is inconceivable without a comprehensive concept of reason. So, one could say that the endeavor to get social dynamics under control even where they seeminly elide human grasp is one of Habermas’ earliest intellectual efforts. From a systematic point of view, this is still central todayincluding the democratic-theoretical implications that it entails.
It should also be mentioned, however, that Habermas developed his concept of communicative reason, which he believes has the aforementioned complexity, over a long period of time by way of dealing with classic sociological issues, i.e. outside of philosophy. This can be seen in the first volume of the Theory of Communicative Action, which in the German original bears the subtitle “The Rationality of Action and the Rationalization of Society.” Its synthesizing effort is based on a post-metaphysical understanding of what is meant by rationality. According to Habermas, it is only possible to orientate oneself in action or engange in rational praxis if the normative starting point can be traced back to inner-worldly foundations. The philosophical fundament for this argument can be found both in the writings of the late 1950s and in his early works. But if you consider that behind all of this—in contrast to systems theory, for example—there is still the therapeutic aim to keep a world which “is out of joint” open to corrective interventions despite its constant increase in complexity, then we touch upon a level of philosophical thinking that connects Habermas with Adorno.
JK: In 1981, Habermas said in an interview for Ästhetik und Kommunikation (English translation in Telos) that one of the fundamental weaknesses of Critical Theory was that “on the level of political theory, the old Frankfurt School never took bourgeois democracy very seriously.” (8) You argue that finding a normative foundation for democracy is the gravitational center of Habermas oeuvre and thus also provides the motivational background of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. However, precisely this book is often read as an attempt to provide historical and sociological support for Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s cultural critique. In contrast, and in line with your larger argument that Habermas’ philosophy has a trajectory that is independent from the history of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, you warn against this reading on the basis that Habermas differed from them in his understanding of democracy. Would it be fair to say, then, that Horkheimer’s critique of Habermas’ philosophy as an attempt to rationalize Herrschaft [domination] but not to abolish it contains in nuce the difference between his philosophy and Critical Theory?
RY: This question is suggestive. But yes, if you restrict this question to political philosophy, then one could answer exactly as you suggest. In terms of its approach, the abolition of domination is different from the rationalization of domination. But this says nothing about the implementation of these goals, and the goals themselves also remain vague at this theoretical level of abstraction. What exactly should the political community look like? It is moot to speculate whether Horkheimer and Habermas could have agreed, for example, on the abolition of private ownership of the means of production at various stages in their lives. And don’t we have to consider what this meant for different generations? Horkheimer’s understanding of critical theory also constituted a reaction to different historical contexts: The German Empire, the Weimar Republic, National Socialism, exile, the Federal Republic—his thought confronted very specific experiences. But where does the focus of a theory lie? If you consistently historicize, you quickly lose track of what you might consider to be the theoretical core of this or that theory. What is Critical Theory? Even the question about its spelling (with a capital or small “c”) harbors some tensions in the German-speaking discourse. The idea of a generational succession, which is much more prevalent in the English-language discourse, tempts one to slip over it without further ado (“first, second, third generation of Critical Theory” etc.). But I don’t see a political philosophy in the narrower sense of the word in Horkheimer. If I’m not mistaken, he didn’t publish anything in this direction after his return to the Federal Republic. Of course, he had very understandable reasons for this. One of Habermas’ earlier works (the introduction to Student and Politics) that Horkheimer disliked bears the telling title “On the concept of political participation.” In this text, Habermas investigates, among other things, whether and how one could transform the democratic into a social constitutional state. Even if Horkheimer sensed Marxist revolutionary theory, it was rather radical reformism that motivated Habermas’ question.
JK: The philosophical distance between Habermas and the Institute for Social Research is also evinced by Habermas’ concept of ‘human action’ that draws from philosophical sources that are usually not associated with Frankfurt Critical Theory. You explicitly mention Hannah Arendt’s distinction between work, production, and action, Arnold Gehlen’s concept of action, and Karl Jaspers’ notion of existential communication as inspirations for Habermas’ concept of ‘communicative action.’ Specifically, Jaspers seems to have been an important influence on Habermas’ theory of communication. Could you elaborate on this?
RY: These, too, are—each in and of themselves—complicated relations. Regarding the concept of communicative action, Arendt and Jaspers as well as Gehlen provided important impulses for Habermas. In terms of its conceptual prehistory, one has to keep in mind that at the end of the 1950s Habermas was concerned with finding a “world concept” of philosophy, as outlined in Kant: a world concept [conceptus cosmicus] “which necessarily interests everyone.” This early attempt to tease out philosophy’s practical relation to the world takes the form of a concern with the “worldly relations of action.” In this early attempt, the collective singulars “man” and “history” form the central reference for a practical conception of reason in which the world is from the outset considered a Mitwelt [shared world]. With regard to Habermas’ concept of reason, the Kantian legacy is obvious and further demonstrated in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, where Publizität [publicity] expresses the public character of reason.
In Jaspers, whose own efforts in the postwar period make strong references to Kant, there is a form of intersubjectivism that is still metaphysically contained, because communication only takes place indirectly via the medium of das Umgreifende [the Encompassing] that guarantees the connection between those communicating. According to Jaspers, reason only exists in communication. It is not surprising that he is considered as having oriented himself toward “communicative truth” in the postwar period. He was one of the few who thought about the role of philosophy in postwar West Germany. That alone separated him from many of his philosophical colleagues, who preferred to devote themselves to the philological exegesis of ancient or classical German philosophy. Jaspers’ philosophical work met with little approval in its time. However, he was known as the author of The Question of German Guilt, a small volume in which he emphasized the difference between collective guilt and collective liability, which was of eminent importance for the German postwar situation. As a tireless admonisher, he was a public figure that constantly provoked discussions, for example by pointing out the danger of the atomic bomb or by radically condemning the statute of limitations for the crimes of National Socialism. It is not entirely absurd to compare Jaspers’ role as a political intellectual at the time with that of Habermas today. In the book, I also try to show that Jaspers’ interpretation of Schelling was important for Habermas in his revision of his previous, Heideggerian reading of Schelling that is still present in his dissertation.
Regarding Habermas’ reception of Arendt, it is her emphasis on the cooperative nature of action as the power which regulates the fate and history of humanity that is important. Joint action in public—that is what grounds Arendt’s concept of communicative power. The similarity to Habermas’ concept of the public sphere should be relatively evident. Arnold Gehlen, finally, approaches the problem of action in a sober and rather direct manner. That made him interesting for Habermas. However, his empirical approach to philosophy came with a blatant deficit in meaning. From Habermas’ point of view, Gehlen lacked the intersubjective component that was present in Jaspers and Arendt. Habermas vehemently denied that Gehlen’s ideas about an externally guided subject (David Riesman) could be expedient in normative terms. This is reflected in a number of sharp remarks about Gehlen, for example in Habermas’ 1956 review of his book Urmensch und Spätkultur (Primitive Man and Late Culture).
JK: At the occasion of Habermas’ 90th birthday last year, Raymond Geuss used a contemporary democratic decision, the British referendum on Brexit, to attack the German philosopher’s concept of communication and, by extension, intersubjective rationality. This attack provoked responses by a host of thinkers such as Seyla Benhabib, Martin Jay, and Michael J. Quirk, who all pointed out that Habermas’ work is key to understanding the current historical moment. Did you follow this debate? What can Habermas’ early thought offer to better understand our current historical situation?
RY: Geuss’ polemical comment is basically not worth mentioning. After all, his article was not so much about Habermas; I read his contribution more as failed comment on the Brexit vote and its aftermath than as a statement on the latter’s work. Geuss certainly also criticizes liberalism. But does it make sense to associate Habermas with a policy that can be described as liberal on both sides of the English Channel? I do not think so. Let’s just take Geuss’ clueless assertion that the integration of the Federal Republic into the West formed the appropriate historical framework for The Theory of Communicative Action. This is an untenable statement, considering both Germany’s and the book’s history. Anyone who is even a little familiar with the history of the Federal Republic knows that Geuss is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole here.
In the end, there is not much left to discuss. Geuss plays into the well-known reflexes of a cynicism that heralds the end of the era of liberal politics for the umpteenth time, and Brexit offers him a pretense to do so. Geuss’ conflation of an imperative rigorism with Habermas’ understanding of communication and discourse is a common mistake. It does not seem to matter to him at all that the discursive element in Habermas’ political theory differs from what Kant calls an insight based on the “fact of reason.” In fact, the achievement of the discourse-ethical approach actually lies in an intersubjective extension of Kant’s categorical imperative—which, despite the trans-subjective outline of the problem, is suffering from its own solipsistic narrowness. Of course, Geuss only criticizes what he considers to be Habermas’ core idea about communication. His reservations are based on the misleading assumption that Habermas’ concept of communication is more or less a product of empty ought. A scientific discussion or well-founded criticism would be something else. Geuss is probably aware that he isn’t on solid ground anymore. How else could one explain that he does not provide comprehensible evidence for any of his idiosyncratic interpretations? Like countless others before him, Geuss dwells on the concepts of “discourse without domination” and the “ideal speech situation” without bothering with the context of these terms. (Martin Jay and Seyla Benhabib have already said a lot about this.) Geuss dedicated a large part of his life to philosophy and wrote a book that also deals with Habermas some decades ago. One is inclined to ask, then, whether all his efforts have been in vain. If you don’t want to be completely naive, you have to assume that he was trying to bring someone out of their shell. Such attempts are frequent in the German feuilleton. Clever professors comment on Habermas’ lack of political and philosophical success, only to then admit at the next best opportunity that he, of course, plays in the highest philosophical league.
Jonas Knatz is a PhD Candidate at New York University’s History Department. He works on a conceptual history of the automation of work and Modern European Intellectual History more generally.
Featured Image: Jürgen Habermas, 1956 (c) Jürgen Habermas