In December the New Yorker published an article, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming,” that examined German novelist and social critic Thomas Mann’s deep concern that McCarthyism presented a prelude to fascism—a concern perhaps not dissimilar to our current political situation. At this time Mann consulted with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, renowned critics of mass media in the 1950s and early members of the Frankfurt School, a collection of social theorists and philosophers associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, commonly understood as having founded a form of self-conscious social critique aimed at change and emancipation through enlightenment known as Critical Theory.
Around this time last year Amy Allen published her third book, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. In it, Allen attempts to bring together two polar schools of thought: the Frankfurt School (which Allen channels primarily through the work of Jürgen Habermas, a leading scholar currently guiding Frankfurt School thinking) and the more diverse, but no less significant, collection of theories and social analysis that includes post-structural, feminist, gender, post- and de-colonial theory, often couched under the term “critical theory”— lowercase “c” and “t.” Best known through the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler (among many others), critical theory in all forms has been deployed against the forces of imperial capitalism and neoliberalism for a good portion of the past century. And yet the Frankfurt School and French critical theory have been separate—some would say irreconcilable—in these arguments, and no less distinct in the ways they have understood the role of history, communication, structures of power (particularly in language), and development of the self in relation to society as part of these arguments. This striation in critical theory mirrors our present-day politic.
As with any reconciliation project, one of the core issues tackled by Allen in The End of Progress is where to find common ground to start “building the bridge.” And in this process, her text offers striking parallels to the quandaries faced by sociopolitical and culturally critical movements that are stirring America today in response to ubiquitous nationalism and rollbacks in progressive policy. As a nation with fraught histories informing a dissonant relationship between the altruistic ambitions of the center left, the urgent need to recognize intersectional disadvantage, and the (one would hope largely unintentional) complicity in insidious forms of repression (see criticisms faced by Women’s March on Washington), Allen’s method appears to hold some answers. Perhaps this not an either/or but a both/and situation, wherein our best attempts at social change and emancipation must come first from finding a shared foundation between parties with common goals. More importantly, Allen reminds us that social progress is not linear, nor is it cumulative: there is still much work to be done in considering how one might go about participating in processes of “decolonization”—notwithstanding the threat of regressivism. In her book, Allen often speaks about formulating a productive methodology—a way of practically moving forward—which sounds pretty good right about now.
This interview forms part of an ongoing series looking at the past, present, and future of art education and the intersection of art and education practices including pedagogy, relationships between education and social organization, community-based and socially engaged practice, critical theory, and formal and informal education structures.
Nisa Mackie: Let’s start with The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. Tell us about the origins of this work and how the project fits into your research more broadly as well as your particular interests within the field(s) of critical theory?
Amy Allen: In many ways, this book grew out of my previous work in critical theory, particularly my 2008 book on the Foucault-Habermas debate, The Politics of Our Selves. That book focused on the relationship between subjection and autonomy in the work of Foucault and Habermas (and also in the related debate between feminist theorists Judith Butler and Seyla Benhabib), and it attempted to build some sort of middle ground between these two theoretical perspectives. My main argument in that book was that a Foucaultian understanding of subjection is compatible with a Habermasian account of autonomy, and that both perspectives are important and necessary for a feminist critical theory. Making this case required reinterpreting and to some extent recasting both perspectives; it was essentially a bridge-building project.
As I look back on it now, I realize that the question of history—and, specifically, of Foucault and Habermas’s very different ways of thinking about history in relationship to normativity—emerged here and there in that book without ever being tackled head on. And after I finished The Politics of Our Selves, I started to wonder whether the question of history might disrupt my attempt to bridge their theoretical perspectives. And this is one of the main questions that motivated The End of Progress.
More specifically, the project began when I was invited in 2008 to participate in a symposium at the American Philosophical Association on the future of critical theory. As I thought about critical theory’s future in preparation for that event, I became convinced—as many others have been, I’m by no means the first to say this!—that the best way forward for critical theory was to go back and recover some important themes from the first generation of the Frankfurt School that had been lost in the excessive rationalism of the Habermasian communicative turn.
In the early Frankfurt School, particularly in the dark masterpiece Dialectic of Enlightenment, one could find a richer, more ambivalent conception of rationality—the capacity to act according to reasons—that acknowledges and attempts to think through its entanglements in power; a more complex and sober conception of the self and the relations of internal domination required to hold it together; and a bleak yet powerful and resolutely non-progressive (but also non-regressive!) reading of the history of enlightenment rationality.
Mackie: Your book claims that we still need to decolonize critical theory. But in order to think about critical theory we also need to consider how we think about the idea of progress, which, as I mentioned in my intro, rests on a precept of normativity—that is, the agreed upon “rules” or “foundations” upon which we as people can build a better society. Our readers could readily imagine how these “foundations” could at infancy be imperialist traps! Central to your argument is the delineation of two different approaches to the idea of progress: one that looks forward and one that looks backward. Could you describe these two approaches and how they manifest in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and in other forms of critical theory?
Allen: Recently critical theorists such as Axel Honneth and Thomas McCarthy have argued that critical theory is necessarily committed to some account of historical progress, and that this commitment is required in order for critical theory to be genuinely critical. As I started working on this project, and especially after reading McCarthy’s 2009 book, Race, Empire and the Idea of Human Development, I became very concerned about this claim, since it seems to put contemporary Frankfurt School critical theory starkly at odds with post- and decolonial theory, which has relentlessly debunked the notion of historical progress and its implications in ideologies of colonialism and imperialism. Indeed my primary reaction to McCarthy’s book—which is an important book that I greatly admire—was that his articulation of the challenge posed to critical theory by the post- and decolonial critique of ideas of progress and development, on the grounds of their implication in ideologies of colonial and postcolonial domination, was so compelling and powerful that his attempted solution, which involved modestly recasting the Habermasian position on modernity and modernization, seemed, to me at least, unconvincing.
And so I tried to think through the various arguments that had been offered for the claim that critical theory needs to be committed to the idea of progress in order to be genuinely critical, because it seemed to me that such a commitment might stand in the way of the goal of decolonizing critical theory. And I found two different kinds of arguments. One held that critical theory needs to posit some sort of normative goal or ideal, such as the more just or less oppressive society, the achievement of which would count as progress. The other maintained that critical theory needs to understand itself and its own normative commitments as the outcome of a directed historical learning process, and thus as the result of ongoing historical progress. Implicit in these two arguments, then, are two distinct understandings of the concept of progress: one is forward looking, oriented toward the future, and it construes progress as a moral-political or normative imperative, as something that we are striving to achieve; the other is backward looking, oriented toward the past, and it construes progress as a process of historical development that has led up to “us.” One of the main critical-interpretive arguments of my book is that in the work of Frankfurt School critical theorists such as Habermas, Honneth, and McCarthy (in different ways, of course), these two conceptions of progress are deeply intertwined. This is significant, I think, because it means that a version of what I call the backward-looking conception of progress—one in which “our” modern, European, Enlightenment perspective is understood as the result of a progressive historical process of rationalization—is securing the normativity of critical theory. But it is precisely this backward-looking story that is—in my view, rightly—viewed as problematic from the point of view of post and decolonial theory because of the ways it is intertwined with a neocolonial, neo-imperial logic.
So, basically, it seems to me that in order for critical theory to decolonize itself, it has to start by decolonizing its normative foundations. And, just to be clear, I want to emphasize that I don’t think that decolonizing the normative foundations of critical theory would automatically yield a fully decolonized critical theory. Weaning critical theory off of its commitment to a certain understanding of historical progress is only a first step—but a necessary one, I think—in that more ambitious project. My strategy for doing this is to attempt to decouple the forward-looking commitment to the possibility of moral or political progress (what I call progress as an imperative) from the backward-looking reading of history (what I call progress as a “fact”). To that end, I draw on and reinterpret Theodor Adorno’s idea that progress occurs only where it comes to an end. Although Adorno’s concerns about reading history in terms of the idea of progress were somewhat different from mine, and although I develop his idea in a somewhat different direction, the basic insight that I take from Adorno is that jettisoning false, ideological readings of history as progress is necessary if we are to make progress in the future.
Mackie: One thing that struck me about your book is its attempt to go back and reconcile dissonant theories with a view to develop a productive methodology with practical intent. This is particularly exciting when thinking on how your work might relate to the practice of museums. Before we delve into this I wanted to hear more about your thoughts on the practical aim of critical theory?
This is a really difficult question, actually, and there has been a lot written on the relationship between theory and practice in several of the different traditions that I work in and through: feminist theory, Frankfurt School critical theory, and Foucaultian genealogy. I suppose I’ve been very influenced throughout my career by Nancy Fraser’s Marx-inspired definition of critical theory as “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age” (Fraser, Unruly Practices, p. 113) because this definition expresses a complex, bottom-up, if you will, relationship between theory and political practice. On this account, critical theory doesn’t offer blueprints or plans for political practice; the critical theorist isn’t what Foucault would have called the universal intellectual, whose job it is to tell political actors what they should do.
And yet, what distinguishes critical theory from other approaches is its practical, political character. What this means is that critical theory frames its research program in light of existing social and political struggles for emancipation. In other words, critical theory is, from the start, on a side in social and political struggles for emancipation; it isn’t a neutral generator of normative or conceptual frameworks that can then be applied, in a second step, to contemporary political problems or situations. This is why critical theory has to be rooted in—and in my view, has to begin with—an empirically informed diagnosis of actually existing relations of domination, oppression, and injustice. Whatever normative goals or conceptions of emancipation it might develop are rooted in and designed to be responsive to an empirically and historically informed analysis of existing relations of domination in all of their depth and complexity.
Mackie: Why did you feel that this bridging process was necessary? Where does this lead us?
Allen: My hope was and still is that the book would clear the space for and open up a dialogue between Frankfurt School critical theory and other approaches that I would call critical theories in a broader sense—particularly feminist, queer, post- and decolonial theories. Because I was really struck as I was working on the book by how far apart some of those conversations were. For example, as I was finishing the book, I would talk with my colleagues in Gender and Sexuality Studies, many of whom also worked in postcolonial theory, about the project, and they literally could not believe that anyone would seriously defend the idea of historical progress in the contemporary academic context. From their point of view, the idea that European modernity could be understood as the outcome of a process of historical learning and development had been so thoroughly debunked by post and decolonial theory that they were shocked that anyone would still defend it. Meanwhile, within Frankfurt School critical theory circles, it seemed to me that the critique of progress emerging from post- and decolonial theory was for the most part not engaged with seriously or systematically, despite the fact that it constitutes a serious challenge to much contemporary work in that tradition.
From the point of view of Frankfurt School critical theory, I think that addressing the post- and decolonial challenge is necessary if critical theory wants to be truly critical. This means not only taking a political stand against neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism, but also thinking through the ways in certain core commitments of critical theory itself might be implicated in neo-colonial and neo-imperial logics, and attempting to think our way beyond those commitments. So, there is a lot at stake for the Frankfurt School tradition in this discussion, I think, and in fact my book is mostly concerned with what Frankfurt School critical theory stands to gain by opening itself up to a more sustained dialogue with post and decolonial theory.
However, I also think—although this strand is admittedly much less well developed in the book—that there’s something to be gained on the other side, as it were. Frankfurt School critical theory offers a rich tradition that can, I think, provide useful and important normative, conceptual, and methodological resources for feminist, queer, and postcolonial theorists. For example, I think that the account of normativity that I develop in chapters five and six of the book could help postcolonial theorists counter the charge of relativism that is frequently levied against them, but without falling back on the kinds of strongly universalist or teleological conceptions of normativity that they (in my view, rightly) criticize. I also think that my attempt, drawing on Adorno, to decouple progress as an imperative from progress as a “fact” can help to address the paradox of progress objection to post- and decolonial critiques of progress. Paraphrasing Rainer Forst, this objection holds that one cannot be against progress without also being for it. In other words, whenever one criticizes the notion of progress for being entangled with neocolonial domination, one is claiming that it would be better if this idea of progress was rejected; but, in so doing, one is thereby implicitly committed to the very idea of progress one is criticizing. My distinction between progress as an imperative and progress as a “fact’ shows that this paradox is only apparent; one can be against progress as a “fact” while still being for progress as an imperative. In other words, the problem is not so much with the concept of progress per se but rather with a particular conception of progress—progress as a “fact”—and with the role that this conception is playing in relation to normativity.
Mackie: Could you speak more to your critique of Butler and Foucault and the paradoxical relationship between power and emancipation?
Allen: The concept of emancipation has always been central to the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory. This is part of its Marxist heritage: the goal of critical theory, as that project was initially formulated by Max Horkheimer, was not just to interpret emancipation correctly, but rather to help to bring it about. And yet the concept of emancipation—much less its practical realization—has seemed to be at odds with the Foucault-inspired idea that there is no outside to power. As Wendy Brown has argued compellingly, this seems to leave critical theorists who have been influenced by Foucault in a bit of a bind: they are suspicious of strong notions of emancipation, since these seem to entail an appeal to an outside to power, but they also need to appeal to some notion of positive transformation in order for their work to have critical bite. In my recent work, I’ve tried to respond to this bind by offering a different conception of emancipation, where emancipation first of all does not mean freedom from power relations altogether, but rather means something much more specific: freedom from states of domination, where this refers to a state in which relations of power have become blocked or immobile, where the free flow of power relations been congealed such that some individuals are rendered less capable of exercising power than others. As far as I can see, this notion of emancipation does not rely on a problematic appeal to some sort of power-free utopia, and it also gives critical theory the necessary bite. The resulting conception of emancipation is negativistic in the sense that it defines emancipation negatively as the transformation of relations of domination into mobile, unstable, reversible relations of power. It is also negativistic in the sense that it does not depend on the positing of a positive conception of the good life or utopia toward which a process of emancipation leads. This is why I call this conception “emancipation without utopia.” This phrase is somewhat misleading, perhaps, since this conception of emancipation is only opposed to a specific kind of utopian, namely, the kind of thinking that relies on a conception of a positive, power-free utopia. The account of emancipation that I offer is probably perfectly compatible with (even influenced by) other varieties of utopian thinking, including, for example, Adorno’s negative utopianism.
Mackie: In ways I feel like the plight of the contemporary art museum embodies many aspects of your project. Foucault’s theories of domination and subjection have been much discussed in relation to the civilizing force of museums. I’m thinking of Tony Bennett’s wonderful essay, “The Exhibitionary Complex.” These imperialistic tendencies are particularly exacerbated when coupled with the neoliberal expansionism of late capitalism. And yet too, the influence of post-structuralism and feminist critical theory undergirds many seminal artistic practices of the last century. It is at this impasse that I think your negativistic view of emancipation comes at a critical time for museums and the critical institutions of art.
Allen: I think that there is a general danger here, which is the risk of critical practices or discourses being coopted by the forms or relations of power or domination that they were introduced to critique. There has been a lot of interesting work in critical theory on this question in recent years, including Nancy Fraser’s work on how the turn to issues of cultural identity in feminism ended up working in tandem with the rise of neoliberal capitalism, resulting in a new version of the cunning of history. There is also Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s important book, The New Spirit of Capitalism, which argues more generally that contemporary capitalism has been remarkably successful at incorporating various strains of critique that emerged out of the new social movements and using them to serve its own ends. Adrian Parr’s work on hijacking sustainability looks at a similar dynamic with respect to environmental and sustainability discourses.
So, as I see it, the impasse is not at all unique to the museum context. I wouldn’t pretend to have a solution to that problem, but I would say that I don’t think that this should lead us to conclude that critique is futile, or merely an instrument of power, or that it has run out of steam. Rather, I would say, with Foucault, that it shows that critique must be ongoing, and that it is always in the position of beginning again. This is the case precisely because power relations are not themselves remaining fixed and constant—even though they may be relatively sedimented in institutions—but rather they are always shifting and remaking themselves. So, we always have to ask ourselves what are the most salient and pressing forms or states of domination today, how can we identify them, and how can they be transformed or undone? But this is, I think, just to say that we always have to pose the question of critique anew, in ever changing contexts.