Philosophy as Critical Theory: The Dialectic of Enlightenment Revisited

full name / name of organization: 
Daniel White
contact email: 
dwhite@fau.edu

In The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung, 1944) Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno invoked the voyage of Odysseus—especially his encounter with the Sirens—as a sustained metaphor for the emergence of the “subject” of knowledge, judgment, and discourse out of the mythic substratum of Homeric poetry. The authors understood Odysseus to be an emblem of the modern bourgeois individual, comparable to the Socratic “self” derided by Friedrich Nietzsche and designated by Max Weber as the calculating ratiocinator who gave us “progress” in its various forms: capitalist, socialist, technocratic, and utilitarian. The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School which the authors founded was designed to provide a groundbreaking position. Like Walter Benjamin’s work, in Adorno’s view, “[Its] outlook on modernity as archaic does not preserve the traces of an ostensibly ancient truth, but means the genuine break-out from the dream-captivity of bourgeois immanence” (Adorno, “Portrait of Walter Benjamin,” Prisms, Gesammelte Werke 10,1, 247; also see Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics, New York: Free Press, 1977, p. 61). Enlightenment in the key of Critical Theory thus escapes from the autonomous “subject” conceived by Kant in his essay “Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”; it then engages in the dialectical and communicative dialogue between “self” and “other.” Philosophy as critical theory in turn becomes irreducibly social and cultural. Its adherents can still recall G.W.F. Hegel’s project in which philosophy “transfigures (verklärt) reality, which appears unjust,” even if it cannot “reconcile (versöhnt) the real with the rational” as Hegel envisioned (Einleitung, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte [Introduction, Lectures on the Philosophy of History], Sämtliche Werke, VIII, Georg Lasson, ed. Leipzig: Meiner, 1920, p. 55). Totalizing revolutionary reconciliation of the rational with the real seems tyrannical today for, as Adorno argues, “Utopia would be the unsacrificed non-identity of the subject“ (Utopie wäre die opferlose Nichtidentität des Subjekts—Negative Dialektic, Werke 6, p. 277; my translations). In other words, individual differences must be respected. The critical voice of philosophy thus branches into polyvocality.

Accordingly, in the proposed special issue I would like to call for a reopening of the meeting between the Odysseus and the Sirens. The key question I would like to address is, “What is the critical role of philosophy today in its relationship to other ‘voices’ in the social sciences and the humanities?” Some questions that contributors might consider are, for example: What are the most important forms which the Sirenic encounter takes now in the 21st century? How has it been transformed by the meeting of Europeans, the “elect,” the “chosen,” the “haves,” et al. with their “others”? What do the Sirens have to say about Odysseus? Is “consciousness” principally a matter of “constraint” or “closure,” as in the case of Odysseus tied to the mast? Is “identity” a matter of self-exclusion from an ecology of “differences,” as when the unitary Odyssean subject travels through the “strange” realm of voices yet remains “himself”? What is the role of philosophy once it has deconstructed what Ezra Talmor has called “the hierarchy of narratives” in which claims of truth and legitimization of power reside (see Talmor, “Hierarchy of Narratives III,” ISSEI Listserv, October-November 1997, as well as my “Comment” and the following exchange, 97 11 02 ff.)? Socratic “Philosophy,” as Nietzsche saw it, arose from the construction and rationalization of subjectivity in Greek texts from Homer through Plato. What is its “fate” or “course” now when it is undertaken as an interdisciplinary critical theory that can no longer assume the hegemony of the “subject” or its “reason”? How does Odysseus fare now that he must traverse the virtual dream-world of The Matrix?

Papers should be 6,000 words in length, submitted by email in MS Word format, and in the documentation style specified by The European Legacy; they should include full contact information at the bottom of the cover page; they should be sent, by October 1, 2009, to Daniel White: dwhite@fau.edu, Wilkes Honors College, Florida Atlantic University, 5353 Parkside Drive, Jupiter, FL 33458, USA. Preliminary proposals are welcome.

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classical_studies
cultural_studies_and_historical_approaches
ecocriticism_and_environmental_studies
gender_studies_and_sexuality
humanities_computing_and_the_internet
journals_and_collections_of_essays
postcolonial
science_and_culture
twentieth_century_and_beyond