Book Review: The Terms of Cultural Criticism

By Steve Best

"The danger today does not come from the utopian impulse of metaphysics but rather from the various attempts to kill off metaphysics."
--Richard Bernstein

In this recent collection of essays, Richard Wolin further secures his authority as a leading contemporary social theorist and important American heir to the work of the Frankfurt School. Wolin examines the cultural criticism of four major schools of contemporary thought: the Frankfurt School, existentialism, neo-pragmatism, and poststructuralism. He attempts to show where these theories develop important critiques of modern theories and values, but also where they regress behind the contributions of liberalism, the enlightenment, and critical Marxism. Wolin's standpoint is clearly neo-Marxist and is strongly influenced by the Frankfurt School, Habermas in particular, and he seeks to create a stronger modern critical position through confrontation with other theories.

In the first section of the book, Wolin develops a historical and critical account of the "Frankfurt School." In his opening essay, "Critical Theory and the Dialectic of Rationalism," he cautions against reading the Frankfurt School as a unified movement and shows that different figures developed different conceptions of reason and that, overall, members of the Frankfurt School held a deep ambivalence about the nature of rationality. Thus, the critique of "instrumental rationality" advance by Adorno and Horkheimer and Marcuse represents only one side of an attitude that, in this case, linked rationality with the project of domination. Wolin shows that in the late 1930s, Horkheimer and Marcuse initiated a "rationalist turn" which, in response to regressive political conditions and the rise of positivism, finds important resources of critique in Western rationalism.

Wolin describes a key point of transition in the development of Critical Theory in his next essay, "The Frankfurt School: From Interdisciplinary Materialism to Philosophy of History." Under Horkheimer's tenure in the 1930's, the Frankfurt School sought to overcome the division between philosophy and social science in German culture to create an interdisciplinary program of study. In Horkheimer's view, philosophy and social science should complement each other: empirical research should be guided by a philosophical vision and philosophical claims should be grounded in empirical analysis. With the ideal of "social philosophy," Horkheimer conceived of an interdisciplinary study that could reflect on the complexities of advanced industrial life, and actively intervene in these conditions to promote greater freedom.

But, as Wolin notes, this laudable ideal was only partially realized in practice. While a great deal of important research came out of the institute's journal, the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung (1932-1940), and in larger collective research efforts such as Studies on Authority and the Family (1936), Wolin argues their analyses leaned more on the theoretical than empirical side and ultimately betrayed a mistrust of empirical work. In the 1940's, Horkheimer decided to dissolve the Institute for Social Research to pursue his projects. For Wolin, this marks a new phase of the Frankfurt School where, as represented by the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1941-1944), the focus shifts from a critical social philosophy to a pessimistic philosophy of history. Wolin finds this turn a regression behind the better aspects of interdisciplinary research and a forfeiture of the positive aspects of enlightenment reason which are reduced to a project of instrumental domination.

In his final essay on Critical Theory, "Mimesis, Utopia, and Reconciliation: A Redemptive Critique of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory," Wolin examines Adorno's theory of art. With the eclipse of possibilities for social change, critical theorists either abandoned Marx's revolutionary hopes for a pessimistic philosophy of history, suspended the utopian motif, or relocated utopian aspirations to "superstructural" realms of religion, philosophy, or art. For Adorno, art in general and especially modern art have a utopian function insofar it creates or preserves an ideal of a life which is not completely degraded by commerce and alienation. Adorno also believes that art has the mimetic function of helping the subject remember that it is a sensuous being and part of nature, and thus helps to oppose the rational domination of nature.

Wolin agrees with Adorno that art has an important cognitive and utopian functions, but he believes that Adorno reduces aesthetic experience to pragmatic functions and thereby sees art too tendentiously. Wolin also challenges the elitist nature of Adorno's theory and argues that art should have meaning not only for philosophers and critics, but be accessible to a diverse audience. Here Wolin leaves Adorno's modernist framework behind for a postmodern standpoint that seeks a deeper merging of art with everyday life and a popular audience. Wolin notes this position is problematic insofar as it threatens to dissolve art into life and forfeit its critical potential, but he finds an effective safegaurd to this in Adorno's emphasis on an "aesthetics of determinate negation."

In the second section of the book, Wolin addresses the politics of various existentialist theories. Beginning with "Carl Schmitt, Political Existentialism, and the Total State," Wolin analyzes the work of one of the leading German legal theorists of the Weimar years who later embraced Hitler's policies. According to Wolin, Schmitt was no mere Nazi hack, but a gifted political and legal theorist. But Wolin notes that many recent English writings on him (most notably the Telos crowd) have been too apologetic and uncritical, much of it whitewashing his Nazism. It is within this context that Wolin undertakes a detailed analysis of Schmitt's various works and a critique of his political ideology.

Wolin's principle argument is that Schmitt's embrace of Nazism represented a logical outcome of his positions in the 1920's. A central aspect of Schmitt's writing in this period involves a critique of liberal democracy and a defense of political dictatorship. Schmitt argued against pluralism and a system of checks and balances and in favor of the centralized power of the state and a charismatic ruler. Throughout Schmitt' work, one finds existentialist rhetoric and positions. Against rationalism, Schmitt embraced vitalism and a decisionist ethic that championed making spontaneous decisions in disregard of legal or moral norms. With existentialists, Schmitt advanced a critique of routinized everyday life, but, unlike them, Schmitt devalued the individual and exhalted the primacy of the state over everything else.

In "Merleau-Ponty and the Birth of Weberian Marxism," Wolin analyzes the work of a left existentialist and the conflict between his theory and politics. In The Phenomenology of Perception and other works, Merleau-Ponty emphasized the contingency and open-endedness of meaning, the finite and situated nature of the knowing subject, and the lack of foundations for knowledge. Yet, in Humanism and Terror, he contradicted these principles with a doctrinaire, unequivocal defense of the proletariat as a bearer of historical truth whose use of violence was entirely justified.

For Wolin, there is an obvious contradiction between Merleau-Ponty's open-ended and contingent epistemology and his absolutist politics. "In the proletariat Merleau-Ponty desires more than an infusion of rationality in history; he desires a transcendental force that wil purge history of its accidental character, of its ambiguity" (115). It was not until Adventures of the Dialectic that Merleau-Ponty brought his politics in line with his philosophical emphases. Wolin shows how Merleau-Ponty's novel synthesis of Weber and Marx helped to accomlish this. Weberian relativism helps to overcome dogmatic and teleological tendencies within Marxism and Marxism helps to overcome the relativistic, fatalistic, and liberal aspects of Weber. On Wolin's reading, Merleau-Ponty successfully overcomes the problems of each position through balancing it with the other and creating a politics based both on opposition to the present order while accepting the indeterminancy of results and lack of absolute justification of its positions.

In "Sartre, Heidegger, and the Intelligibility of History" Wolin analyzes some key similarities and differences between Sartre and Heidegger and finds that the notion of historical intelligibility is central to both. Wolin shows how Sartre tried to shift away from the standpoint of Being and Time which, heavily influenced by Husserl, posited a transcendental subject and theory of absolute freedom. Coming to realize the importance of history for understanding human reality, Sartre first turned to Heidegger. Yet Sartre's theory remained inadequate because Heidegger himself never developed an adequate understanding of history, despite all his talk of historicity and the situated character of Dasein.

Wolin is heavily critical of Heidegger and the post-war French reception of his work. Wolin argues that Heidegger was a crucial influence on the "logocentric" critiques of Western metaphysics made by Derrida and others. Yet, Wolin claims, this reception has been one-sided insofar as it only takes up Heidegger's later work and ignores his earlier existential ontology. From Wolin's perspective, the later Heidegger is even a further regression behind the earlier Heidegger for it is there Heidegger abandons all reference to concrete human existence and moves even closer toward preventing the attribution of moral responsibility to specific groups or individuals (as if fascism was an error of Being). Heidegger's analysis of history from beginning to end hypostatizes Being as a predetermining, transcendental force such that analysis of real historical actors and situations is precluded in favor of the "destiny of Being."

In Heidegger's ontological reductionism, there are no real differences between political systems, such as between communism, capitalism, or fascism, for all equally are informed by the domination of modern will to power. As Wolin makes clear here and in his recent edited work The Heidegger Controversy (where he also takes on Derrida's apologetics for Heidegger), Heidegger's work is almost irredemably tainted from facist ideology and he never abandoned his belief in "the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism." Ultimately, Heidegger only continues the tradition of metaphysics he pretends to abandon and evinces a premodern longing for other-wordly transcendence which has disastrous political implications.

In the third section of his book, Wolin delivers powerful political critiques of Rorty`s neopragmatism and Derrida's and Foucault's poststructuralism. In "Recontextualizing Neopragmatism: The Political Implications of Richard Rorty's Antifoundationalism," Wolin discusses how Rorty's relativism embroils him in logical quandaries and politically regressive positions. Rorty rejects absolutism and champions relativism and the virtue of tolerance. Yet Rorty's relativism leaves him without any the means to privilege tolerance of any other value. Rorty's claim that all thought is context-bound is itself absolute and context-transcendent. In addition to being self-defeating, relativism flies in the face of everyday, nonscientific practices that presuppose some sense of objective truth and correspondence between thought and reality. The forms of objectivism that Rorty attacks are easy targets and Wolin claims he ignores more sophisticated, non-foundationalist versions that promulgate defensible versions of truth and correspondence. Abandoning all traditional moral and epistemological concerns of philosophy, Rorty espouses an "edifying" philosophy that Wolin thinks trivializes the power of philosophy and eviscerates social critique in favor of academic parlor games.

Since Rorty abandons any perspective from which one can criticize actions or policies as immoral or unjust, he disables critical judgment and ultimately resigns us to the status quo, to the liberal bourgeois society for which Rorty is so apologetic. Wolin finds this situation ironic, since the Deweyian pragmatism that influences Rorty had a much sharper political bite and critically addressed social and political issues entirely foreign to Rorty.

In "Michel Foucault and the Search for the Other of Reason," Wolin documents another case of contemporary theory impeding rather than advancing the project of critique. Wolin argues that throughout his works, Foucault seeks to identify an Other of reason, a force outside of its hegemony which can negate its normalizing operations. Whether it be madness, language, sexuality, or stylized existence, all appealed to by Foucault in various works, Foucault sought a primal, prediscursive reality uncorrupted by reason and able to transcend it.

Wolin believes not only that Foucault therefore has a hidden metaphysical thrust, but he also has a hidden normativity, a supressed value dimension, which Foucault, as a self-described "happy positivist," thinks he has abandoned. Wolin finds that the underlying problem is Foucault's functionalist theory of power which sees all forms of power, knowledge, and moral values as vehicles for the operation and reproduction of power. Ironically, this theorist so often identified as "postmodern" employs a Hobbesian social mdoel, envisaging society as a battlefield of competing interests where might makes right.

Because he thinks power-knowledge is all-encompassing, Foucault concludes the only way to overcome it is to escape the boundaries of reason altogether. But since Foucault overgeneralizes his theory so that everything is an instance of power, it becomes impossible to discriminate among different forms of power. We cannot draw a distinction, for example, between coersion and uncoerced agreement. We cannot employ the resources of immanent critique, using the language of rights and democracy against their abuses, since all notions of morality and justice are merely masks for power. By giving up the standpoint of rationality, his aesthetized ethics prizes actions for being beautiful or bold, rather than "good" or "right," and allows for treating others as mere means to one's own aesthetic ends.

Finally, Wolin considers the case of Derrida in "The House that Jacques Built: Deconstruction and Strong Evaluation." Wolin begins by coming to Derrida's defense against charges that deconstruction is idealist or apolitical. Wolin argues convincingly that Derrida intends deconstruction to be a form of materialist criticism that challenges the notion of the autonomy of the text. Yet, Wolin claims that, ultimately, Derrida has problematized referentiality to the point where it is unrecuperable behind the webs of textuality he weaves.

As with Heidegger, Wolin argues that for Derrida our current problems have more to do with metaphysics than social history, with language than social institutions. For Wolin the central weakness of deconstruction is its inability to reconstruct what it deconstructs. Deconstruction too lacks the resources to discriminate between warranted and unwarranted assertions or just and unjust actions. While deconstruction superbly demonstrates the hazards of taking a position, it paralyzes all positive gestures of ethics and politics. By default, we are once again left with affirming the present system.

Although Wolin's text is a loosely organized collection of essays, rather than a systematic analysis of contempory theories, a coherent critique and vision informs his book. Wolin finds that that the newer critical theories such as neo-pragmatism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction (all of which we can refer to as "postmodern") have a great deal to offer towards a critique of the metaphysical tradition informing philosophy and social theory. Yet, they are completely inadequate in helping to reconstruct theory and they are thoroughly regressive in their political standpoint and implications.

For Wolin, the key task of critical theory today is to advance a positive concept of the enlightenment through analysis of its historical inadequacies. Wolin assails any theory that regresses behind the critical potential of enlightenment reason and the advances in freedom brought by modern liberalism. In their denigration and forfeiting of these advances, and their eventual acquiescence to present-day capitalism, Heidegger, Rorty, Foucault, and Derrida all adopt regressive and conservative political positions. In its embrace of vitalism, decisionism, and aestheticism, poststructuralist theory flirts dangerously with fascism and has frightening parallels with the kind of fascist philosophy advanced by Schmitt.

The hidden hero of this book turns out to be Habermas, a figure rarely mention but nevertheless present in spirit on every page. With Habermas, Wolin thinks that the problem with modernity is not so much a surfeit of reason, as Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida argue, but rather a dearth of reason. More accurately, Wolin seeks advances in what Habermas terms communicative rationality over a narrow scientistic or instrumental rationality. Hence, throughout the book, Wolin upholds the importance of a substantive concept of rationality that can draw non-arbitrary distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate statements, unjust and just actions, truth and falsehood, domination and freedom, etc. Like Habermas, Wolin seeks to defend concepts of truth, objectivity, and correspondence, but in a post-foundationalist framework that overcomes traditional philosophical illusions (such as inform the metaphysics of presence position that Derrida so effectively challenges). Wolin seeks a theory that retains strong normative concerns that can defend critiques of the existing order and alternative visions of social life. Given the advances of postmodern thought, Wolin finds it vital to accomplish something postmodern theory cannot, and in fact works against -- the rehabilitation of "the capacity of thought for strong evaluation" (211).

At this level, the key problem with Wolin's text is that he makes no progress in the actual development of this project. While clearly trying to advance beyond the aporias of the total critique of Foucault or Adorno, Wolin vacillates between upholding the virtue of immanent critique (which critically contrasts the difference between social ideals and reality) and a quasi-transcendental critique which goes further in its attempt to actually ground norms. All we find by way of metatheoretical defense of normative critique is an uncritical rehearsal of Habermas' claims regarding the universal nature of contemporary norms that can be redeemed in a domination-free discursive context. While Wolin is critical of Habermas ahistorical and abstract positions, the one key essay missing from the book is an extended analysis and critique of Habermas' important but problematic attempt to reconstruct the normative foundations of critical theory.

Nevertheless, Wolin's book is an important event in post-metaphysical thinking and in our current post-postmodern condition where the lessons of postmodern critiques are being absorbed in more positive ways.

The Terms of Cultural Criticism. By Richard Wolin. New York: Columbia Press. 1992. 256pp.