The Challenge of Progress: Volume 36

Cover of The Challenge of Progress

Theory Between Critique and Ideology

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Table of contents

(15 chapters)

Prelims

Pages i-xi
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Introduction

Pages 1-11
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Part I Identifying the Challenge: A Critical Discussion of the End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016), By Amy Allen

Abstract

Allen’s critique of current Frankfurt School theory presents the joint methods of “problematizing genealogy” and “metanormative contextualism” as alternative for the normative grounding of critical theory. Through a close reading of Allen’s critique, I investigate whether Allen’s identification of philosophy of history is an accurate diagnosis of the problems of the normative grounding of current Frankfurt School theory, whether Allen’s distinction between metanormative and normative levels is tenable for critical theory, and whether Allen’s methodology constitutes a viable alternative for the normative grounding of critical theory. As an alternative, I suggest scrutinizing the grounding strategies of current Frankfurt School theory to expand beyond their genealogy in Enlightenment thought, and address the question of what made the affirmative form of thought underlying current Frankfurt School theory a historical possibility. Expanding on Allen’s reiteration of the mediated nature of categories, I suggest that the stark contrast between forms of thought underlying first- and second-generation Frankfurt School critical theory needs to be understood not in relation to philosophy of history but against the backdrop of the specific context of the European historical present that informs its normative universe.

Abstract

This review of Amy Allen’s book, The End of Progress (2016), first addresses the structure of the book and focuses on specific points made in individual chapters, including the affinity between postcolonial theory and the approaches of Adorno and Foucault in subjecting the notion of historical progress to “withering critique,” and Allen’s alternative approach to decolonization; Habermas’ aim to put critical theory on a secure normative footing; Honneth’s stance that the history of an ethical sphere is an unplanned learning process kept in motion by a struggle for recognition; Forst’s attempt to reconstruct Critical Theory’s normative account through a return to Kant rather than Hegel; and Allen’s claim that her approach is fully in the spirit of Critical Theory and could be seen as continuation of Critical Theory’s first generation, as in Adorno, and how it is a “genealogical” approach that draws on Adorno’s negative dialectics and critique of identity thinking, as well as on Nietzsche’s conception of genealogy, as developed by Foucault. The second part of my response raises three issues: (1) Allen’s partial compromise with the idea of progress; (2) whether critical theory would profit from engagement with other critical theories and theories of ethics, beyond postcolonial theory; and (3) nonwestern theories shed a different light on the question of Allen’s critique, a theme that also draws attention to the gesture of decolonizing, the distinctions between colonialism and empire, and the sociology of knowledge production.

Abstract

This chapter offers a review of Amy Allen’s The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016) and presents the book as having both a negative and positive aim. Its negative aim is to offer a critique of the Eurocentric narratives of historical progress that serves the function of normative grounding in the critical theories of Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth. Its positive aim is to provide a new approach to the normative grounding of critical theory that eschews Eurocentric narratives of progress through the idea of metanormative contextualism. For Allen, metanormative contextualism is developed through an engagement with the works of Adorno and Foucault. This chapter raises some critical questions concerning the position of metanormative contextualism, arguing that there are significant differences between Adorno and Foucault that render the position unstable. Specifically, Adorno’s normative conception of truth, alongside his critical naturalism presented through the notion of natural history, makes him ill-suited as a representative of Allen’s metanormative contextualism and complicates the contributions of Foucault’s genealogical analyses. The chapter concludes that a careful consideration of Adorno’s views reveals him to be opposed to the two central tenets of metanormative contextualism as defined by Allen.

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Abstract

This chapter rethinks the future of critical theory by engaging Amy Allen’s recent work. Allen does the Frankfurt School a great service by drawing a sharp-edged picture of some significant problems. I aim to think along with her in a spirit of shared sympathies that follow sometimes divergent paths. I agree with Allen’s critique of Frankfurt tendencies toward Eurocentrism, progress thinking, and historical teleology. However, I also argue that critical theory must be more thoroughly reconfigured to adequately address the struggles and wishes of our age. Specifically, recent work of the Frankfurt School displaces critique in two important ways. The first is a tendency to work at a paradigmatic, meta-level of analysis rather than focusing on concrete problems. The second is a tendency to rely on democratic procedure for normativity without taking account of the tensions and contradictions in actual political cultures. In place of these uncritical tendencies, we need more interpretive and freely experimental critical strategies. One example is an interpretive approach that problematizes political cultures, revealing the tensions ignored by proceduralism. Another example lies in the rich archives of postcolonial thought that have had such a large impact on contemporary political and social life. Postcolonial critique is a non-dogmatic and flexible form of interpretation that has great potential to address problems of racism, international inequality, and the false universalism of many of our ideals.

Abstract

My response to the thoughtful and insightful critical discussions of my book, The End of Progress, offered by Reha Kadakal, George Steinmetz, Karen Ng, and Kevin Olson, restates its motivation and rationale to defend my interpretive claims regarding Adorno, Foucault, Habermas, Honneth, and Forst by applying standards drawn from the first two theorists that are consonant with postcolonial critical theory to the perspectives, claims, and theoretical contributions of the latter three theorists. Habermas, Honneth, and Forst presume a historical present that has shaped the second, third, and fourth generations of the Frankfurt School they represent – a present that appears to be characterized by relative social and political stability – a stability that only applies in the context of Europe and the United States. Elsewhere, anti-colonial struggles, proxy wars, and even genocides were related to the persistent legacies of European colonialism and consequences of American imperialism. Yet, critical theory must expand its angle of vision and acknowledge how its own critical perspective is situated within the postcolonial present. The essays of Kadakal and Ng express concerns about my metanormative contextualism and the question of whether Adorno’s work can be deployed to support it. Steinmetz challenges my “process of elimination” argument for metanormative contextualism and asks why I assume that constructivism, reconstructivism, and problematizing genealogy exhaust the available options for grounding normativity. Olson calls for a methodological decolonization to complement the epistemic decolonization I recommend. Critical theory should produce critical theories of actually existing societies, rather than being preoccupied with meta-theory or disputes over clashing paradigms.

Part II Assessing the Challenge: Progress, Politics, and Ideology

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Abstract

Nietzsche’s texts contain diverse and sometimes contradictory themes that defy singular summations and are open to divergent interpretations. He also often deployed puzzling and contradictory statements to provoke readers’ thoughts. Although not claiming to illuminate the one true Nietzsche, I contend that his sociocultural and social psychological arguments about German antisemitism and nationalism not only contradict alt right views but also theorize conditions that give rise to this distinctive type of demagoguery. Conflictive appropriations of Nietzsche have been part of the battle over capitalist crises and reactionary populist revivals for over a century, and unregulated growth and massive expansion of the global economy relative to the biosphere greatly increased material throughput and production of waste and generated a host of severe global environmental problems, including especially climate change. In this situation, the alt right contends that cosmopolitan people are deracinated, emptied of their cultural particularity, and spiritually lost. Progressives contend that cosmopolitans potentially benefit from more diverse people and perspectives, enhanced ability to empathetically play the role of the other, and consequent wider communicative capacities and refined powers of cooperation. Nietzsche too exhorted humans to “remain true to the earth” and its “garden joy,” and implied a naturalist esthetics and pacification of nature, and he should be rescued from alt right by reaching beyond his legacy to envision and forge new political-economic alternatives and collective actions capable of sustaining life on the planet and creating and perpetuating a more just democracy that favors cosmopolitan human flourishing.

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Ridley Scott’s 1982 cinematic production of Blade Runner, based loosely on a 1968 story by Philip Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), is read within a general context of critical theory, the purpose being twofold: first, to highlight the film’s fit with, and within, several issues that have been important to critical theory and, second, to explore some questions, criticisms, and extensions of those issues – the dialectic of identity/difference most crucially – by speculations within and on the film’s text. The exploration is similar in approach to studies of specific films within the context of issues of social, cultural, and political theory conducted by the late Stanley Cavell. Interrogations of dimensions of scenarios and sequences of plotline, conceptual pursuit of some implications, and assessments of the realism at work in cinematic format are combined with mainly descriptive evaluations of character portrayals and dynamics as these relate to specified thematics of the identity/difference dialectic. The film puts in relief evolving meanings of prosthetics – which is to say changes in the practical as well as conceptual-semantic boundaries of “human being”: what counts as “same” versus “other”? “domestic” versus “foreign”? “integrity” versus “dissolution”? “safety” versus “danger”? And how do those polarities, understood within a unity-of-opposites dialectic, change, as human beings are confronted more and more stressfully by their own reproductions of “environment” – that is, the perspectival device of “what is ‘text’ and what is context’?” – and variations of that device by direct and indirect effects of human actions, as those actions have unfolded within recursive sequences of prior versions of perspectival device, a device repeatedly engaged, albeit primarily and mainly implicitly, as a “prosthetic that could not be a prosthetic.”

Abstract

As the social scientists of modern society, sociologists find themselves in a peculiar situation. Human civilization appears on the brink of collapse; the ravages of global capitalism are turning natural and social orders upside down. Some theorists are declaring the “end of history,” while others wonder if humans will soon become extinct. People find themselves increasingly shouldering burdens on their own, strangers to themselves and others. Struggles for recognition and identity are forged in harsh landscapes of social dislocation and inequality. The relationship of the individual to the state atrophies as governmental power becomes at once more remote and absolutely terrifying. How are we as sociologists expected to theorize under such circumstances?  What implications result for the mission of sociology as a discipline and area of study? What political initiatives, if any, can counter these trends?

This chapter provides an immanent critique of sociology as a profession, vocation, and critical practice. Sociology today (in the US and around the globe) faces fierce social, economic, and political headwinds. The discipline continues to be a perilous choice as a vocation for independent researchers as much as the shrinking professoriate. Yet while the traditional functions of sociology are thrown into doubt, there has been an increase in critical practices on the part of some sociologists. As institutional norms, values, and traditions continue to be challenged, there will be passionate debates about the production of social worlds and the validity claims involved in such creation. Sociologists must play an active role in such discourse. Sociology is needed today as a mode of intervention as much as occupational status system or method of inquiry.

Part III Confronting the Challenge: The Dynamics of Progress in the Modern Age

Abstract

This survey of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a benchmark for the transformations of the Anthropocene, is a provisional exercise in applied social theory. Like multiple processes of desertification that are accelerating in and around Las Vegas, this study is provisional, as it follows Las Vegas as a discrete place whose desertifying qualities are spreading far beyond Nevada, regionally, nationally, globally, and virulently so. Las Vegas, Las Vegas Valley, Mohave Desert, and Colorado River Basin are biopolitical spaces and geophysical places that iteratively replicate the psycho-social contradictions of people in search of sustainable lifestyles in global spaces rocked by ecological catastrophe, and which is open to critical scrutiny. The study more closely examines how systems of organized growth tied to commercial degradation, urban demography, military development, and nuclear devastation drive desertification in this region as well as elsewhere. Like the planet’s other sprawling cities, Las Vegas is an integral component in the globalizing neoliberal omnipolitanization of the Earth’s surface. The neoliberal logic of “winner takes all” also is reflected in the metrometabolic exchanges of these extraordinary urban formations. The rampant overdevelopment of a vast urban simulation, featuring multiple ruinations of its own built and natural landscapes, may give many Las Vegans, and probably most Vegas visitors, their most fundamental sense of place.

Abstract

This chapter studies the social reproduction of the traditional heterosexual engagement ritual in which men propose marriage to women, even as many women now occupy positions of power, surpass men in educational attainment, and provide their own incomes. We draw from 37 semi-structured interviews with middle-class, heterosexual women in which they discussed their marriage proposals. We argue that three related types of socioeconomic incentives encourage women to participate in traditional proposals: (1) the social status of being chosen to marry, (2) the value of gifts, especially an engagement ring, which also reflects the fiancé’s implied taste, and (3) the proposal story itself as scrip for inclusion in heterosexual women’s social groups. By considering social factors that mediate relationships among women, we show that economic and status incentives are important explanations for the perpetuation of the traditional engagement ritual. Specifically, the middle-class, heterosexual women in our study exchange socioeconomic status in their female-centered reference groups for their participation in gender-normative relations with their male partners.

Abstract

This chapter examines Francis Bacon’s influence on Émile Durkheim and demonstrates that Bacon’s theory of mental “idols” has a significant presence in Durkheim’s work. Both Bacon and Durkheim sought to demarcate new methods of inquiry against contemporary contenders. Both were wary of unfettered philosophical abstraction, as well as the pseudo-scientist’s preoccupation with immediately practical results. Thus, it is fitting that Durkheim would explicitly characterize perceived dangers to sociological knowledge in terms of Bacon’s idols – as objective obstacles which habit substitutes for fact in the absence of a sufficiently powerful epistemological mechanism. In preparation against these idols, Durkheim and Bacon offer rhetorically and logically similar remedies of self-imposed discipline and restraint. A close reading of key texts reveals that Durkheim’s references to Bacon capture surprisingly deep similarities, suggesting that Bacon influenced Durkheim to a greater degree than is commonly recognized.

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Index

Pages 221-224
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Cover of The Challenge of Progress
DOI
10.1108/S0278-1204202036
Publication date
2019-11-26
Book series
Current Perspectives in Social Theory
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-78714-572-6
eISBN
978-1-78714-571-9
Book series ISSN
0278-1204