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At the beginning of October, sixteen scholars convened on the campus of the University of Michigan to participate in a conference on Critical Theory and Alternate Modernities. The purpose of the conference was to engage the critical theory of the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas) and its changing perspectives on modernity. Another key focus of the conference was to examine the metropolitan origins of critical theory and to explore the challenges that have emerged from the perspectives of gender studies, "peripheral" theories and locations. The conference was meant, Kathleen Canning, director of the Center for European Studies suggested in her opening remarks, not only to showcase the institutional reincarnation of the Center for European Studies at the University, but above all to stress anew the question, self- definition and idea of "Europe": in other words, the imaginary territory of Europe itself.
While it would be possible to view one group of presentations as contending with the historicization of critical theory, another set of papers explored and challenged more centrally the relevance of critical theory for contemporary politics. Peter Uwe Hohendahl's essay, "From the Eclipse of Reason to Communicative Rationality," for example, offered an exemplary and carefully nuanced historical reconstruction of the development of critical theory — from Horkheimer's and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment and Marcuse's "Philosophy and Critical Theory" to the Habermasian version of "communicative action."
William Scheuerman, by contrast, presented an extremely partisan "historical" recuperation of the theory of Carl Schmitt, "twentieth century Germany's infamous right-wing authoritarian jurist," specifically his thinking on "decisionism and legal indeterminacy." According to Scheuerman, Schmitt's interest in decisionism and indeterminacy not only "culminated in his embrace of fascist legal and political practice," but also genealogically linked this "first identifiably deconstructionist legal theorist" with today's brand of "radical deconstructionist accounts of the rule of law" (Marc Kelman, Claire Dalton and Stanley Fish are selectively cited) under the name of "proto-fascistic tendencies." While Scheuerman undertook an ex post factum historical alignment of deconstruction with proto-fascism, the contributions of William Connolly, Gyan Prakash and Peter Uwe Hohendahl— among various interesting inquiries presented at the conference — sought more ambitiously to engage and confront the contradicting legacies of critical theory.
The opening talk, "The Politics of Becoming" by William Connolly, a political theorist at Johns Hopkins University, might be understood as a fold against which static ideas (about Europe, politics, or "the meaning of critical theory" for example) could be re-read and re- thought. He considers in his book The Ethos of Pluralization the foundational antagonism between "sustenance" and "violence" inherent in the concept of territory as a means to introduce his call for "multiple territorializations," a concept that offsets the power of unitary concepts (such as the metropole or Europe). This shift would derail "a conventional pluralist [who] celebrates diversity within settled contexts of conflict and collective action." Connolly's gesture toward this new theoretical possibility subtly delineated the contested intellectual "territory" in which the contributions to the conference could be positioned. Connolly's talk developed through readings of Nietzsche, and indebted to Deleuze and Guattari, argued for a "paradoxical politics by which new cultural identities are formed out of old energies, injuries, and differences." His paper called for a more comprehensive understanding of justice, for example, which is "responsive both to the indispensability of justice and radical insufficiency of justice itself," as opposed to a concept of public discourse that is premised upon the "impartiality of justice" and/or upon a universally communicative rationality (Habermas).
Peter Uwe Hohendahl, a professor of comparative literature from Cornell University, provided a comprehensive outline of the history of critical theory from Horkheimer and Adorno, to Jürgen Habermas and finally to Habermas' heir Axel Honneth. Pursuing the question of the relationship of critical theory to philosophy, Hohendahl offered thoughtful reflections on the work of Herbert Marcuse, who was often considered a less visible and central figure in the history of critical theory. Pointing to Marcuse's early essay on "Philosophy and Critical Theory" (1937), Hohendahl argued that "critical theory, unlike philosophy, derives its progressive tendencies from its involvement with the present social process." The limitations of speculative philosophy, unlike those of critical theory, arise in Hohendahl's view from philosophy's blindness to the material aspects of life, which, for example, Marcuse's trenchant critique of capitalism addressed most directly. Completing his survey of critical theory's intellectual trajectory, Hohendahl traced the evolution of the concept of reason among Frankfurt School philosophers, from Adorno's and Horkheimer's critical indictment of reason to Habermas' particular reincarnation of reason as communicative rationality. Although contending that "the world is largely but not exclusively constructed through language," Hohendahl's argument attended not mainly to the intricacies of language and reading itself, but remained embedded in notions of the social, in a social realm that is seemingly independent of its respective linguistic incarnations.
In a paper entitled "Reason and its Post-Colonial Double," historian Gyan Prakash from Princeton University approached the question of reason, rationality and modernity from the perspective of his own work on the history of colonialism and postcoloniality. Prakash contended that the universalization of reason, as well as the territorial and "spiritual" integrity of Europe, was premised upon its permanent exterior border or upon a colonial other which secured the "metropolitan 'inside.'" Drawing upon Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism and Frantz Fanon's and Aimée Césaire's famous anticolonial tracts, Prakash also emphasized the "barbarization" of the metropole as an essential outcome of the "civilizing mission" of colonialism. In order "to establish the universality of reason," Prakash argued, Europe had to legitimate itself through its colonial double, through a distinction between "civilized nations and barbarians" (John Stuart Mill). Prakash's considerations of territoriality, of "territorial conquest" and its relationship to the "universality of reason," as well his recognition that "colonial oppression ... would corrupt ... [the metropolitan] body politic," implicitly subverted Hohendahl's elaborations both on a theoretical and historiographical level. Prakash utilized Gayatri Spivak's particular notion of postcoloniality as catachresis, "as an effect produced by the displacement of European concept-metaphors from their proper context." Postcoloniality as catachresis, Spivak suggests, thus "refers to a position of reinscription, and its conditions of possibility imply the displacement of colonial discourses in the process of their dissemination." With this understanding in mind, Prakash re-situated the historical, social and political discourses of postcoloniality firmly within a practice of philosophy and rhetorics and thus re- established the postcolonial discourse as (linguistic) remembering. Ali Behdad reminds us in a slightly different context that "postcolonial practices are exercises in remembering . . . they question the hegemony of taxonomic and allochronic representational strategies of the discourse of power through recourse to the history they were denied." In their talks, Connolly, Hohendahl and Prakash demonstrated the various difficulties of "this recourse to history," and showed that the discourses of history are always subject to the discontinuous practices of remembrance, to linguistic instability, to reterritorializations that threaten the very stability of this "recourse to history," the very stability of reason that supposedly constitutes the world.
The contributions of Connolly, Hohendahl and Prakash showed that not all interpretational endeavors seek to merge diverse ideas and themes under the sign of a textual and/or intellectual interaction that might ideally result in some kind of mutual understanding or fragile consensus. In retrospect, it might seem — at least to the author of this selective response — that the lasting "lesson" of their talks, maybe of the conference, is precisely their disinclination to succumb to the inherent violence of the dictum mutual understanding, and thus to the presumable law of exegesis, which seems to require a result in the form of a strong concise statement about the content and substance of an interpretation. In this respect, William Connolly's remarks are particularly timely: "The biggest impetus to fragmentation, violence, and anarchy today," writes Connolly, "does not emerge from political engagement with the paradox of difference. It emerges from doctrines and movements that suppress it. Specifically, it arises from totalistic identities engaged in implacable struggles against those differences that threaten their hegemony or exclusivity. Such culture wars do not reflect too much diversity, difference, or variety; they express contending demands to control the exclusive form the nation, state or community must assume."
The diversity of arguments and theories that emerged in the course of this conference and that refused subsumption under a consensual panorama might be understood not as a shortcoming, but rather as a sign of hope for new, uncharted intellectual reterritorializations.
Hubert Rast is a faculty member in Germanic Languages and Literatures.