Points of Departure:
Sketches for a Critical Theory
with Public Aims

Section Two

By Stephen Bronner


Solidarity is no guarantee against the abuse of power. Its political value is defined by the way in which it is organizationally mediated. Issues concerning liberty, for this reason, must always make reference to the institutional conditions through which interests might become tractable and social formations accountable. Empowerment is subsequently less a discursive concept than a political one. It is always the product of strategic action even if its aim involves the creation of institutions capable of reproducing norms consonant with an ongoing discourse among equals. Accountability is the lynchpin for any institutional notion of empowerment. It connects knowledge and interest. It binds the communitarian notion of popular sovereignty with liberal ideas of individual responsibility (Mundigkeit). It reflects a concern not only with the production, but with the reproduction of relations empowering the disempowered. It rejects identifying democracy with the will of the majority or even participation; it tempers such concern with respect for the rights of the minority and the problems pertaining to representation. It recognizes the positive role bureaucracies can play in furthering democracy and insists on confronting their petrifying tendencies so well analyzed by Max Weber. Accountability is not merely a metaphysical or discursive concept, but the practical fulcrum for making judgments concerning the democratic character of existing institutions.

Empowerment is a process. It can take different forms and call for the primacy of different "standpoints" under different circumstances. New social movements have furthered equality under the law and transformed previously "private" issues like spouse abuse into matters of public concern; indeed, they have challenged and changed the realm of everyday life. Unions and labor parties have, by the same token, historically waged the battle for economic equality and republican institutions. The priority accorded social movements and interest groups in relation to unions and organized parties will, under present circumstances, vary according to the given institutional context. No single organization like the labor movement of the nineteenth century, after all, is able any longer to both extend universality in the political domain and class specific interests in the economic realm. Nevertheless, only in terms of this dual burden inherited from the labor movement is it possible for critical theory to deal with empowerment from the standpoint of both form and content.

Accountability speaks to this dual burden. Whatever the obvious contributions of the new social movements, insofar as their identity claims have been created by particular interests, they have also generated a certain logic of political fragmentation and an inability to confront the existing production process. Unions, similarly, have increasingly become preoccupied with the narrow economic concerns of their constituencies while labor parties have entered the mainstream and ignored issues dealing with identity or the quality of life under advanced capitalism.

The whole has become less than the sum of its parts. Coordination of what political scientists call "cross cutting" interests among the exploited has, for this reason, become a paramount concern. Class, of course, is what these interests "cut across." Capital and labor remain the two basic categories of the existing economic system. But they are either turned into simple interests by important pluralists like Robert Dahl, who ignore the imbalance of structural power between them, or dismissed from the political discussion entirely by theorists like Hannah Arendt

Empowerment generates a concern with the accountability of all social, political, and economic institutions. The exclusion of capital is purely arbitrary and a class concept is necessary to contest its power as well as its ability to set different subaltern groups and organizations off against one. Such a category must link the formal equality sought by most of the new social movements with the interests specific to the working people within each; it must also confront petrifying labor organizations with their original reason for being. Neither economics nor the "spirit" of a nation can guarantee the employment of a class ideal. Indeed, for this reason, politics must take precedence in the formulation of any future socialist or critical theory.

No longer is it possible to think of class in terms inherited from the nineteenth century. Working people may still serve as the sine qua non for any successful attempt to transform the accumulation process or restructure the political order. There is no longer a single organization capable of expressing their interests; indeed, their identities have been fractured -- and undeniably broadened -- in a multitude of ways. Class conflict has, certainly for the time being, been "suspended" (Habermas); it has been pushed or displaced to the margins of society. Labor is no longer identifiable with the industrial working class, and stratification has helped shatter "class consciousness." The structural, empirical, and normative elements within the concept of class are, in short, no longer unified as they were during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. And the same holds true for the values informing the proletarian class consiciousness of a bygone era: republicanism, social equity, and internationalism.

These values remain necessary for developing any emancipatory project concerned with the accountability of institutions, and future forms of critical theory must seek to reconnect them in a coherent fashion. These means confronting once again the issue of class. Empirical and structural inquiries, however, are insufficient for such a task. More important is the political insight and speculative judgment since the primacy accorded any constituent element of the class ideal will change from one set of contingent circumstances to another.

Formulating standards of accountability for differing institutional systems and subsystems, illuminating repressed contradictions within the "autopoetic" processes of a complex bureaucratic society, can alone make empowement concrete. Realizing accountability is possible only through democratic institutions. Commitment to the formal and universal elements of democracy must, for this reason, serve as the precondition for realizing substantive and particular aims. Only in this way is it possible to reject the trade-off, so reminiscent of cold-war thinking, between civil rights and economic equity. A self-enforced blindness to questions of class and the structural imbalances of economic power, however, will result in an abstraction not only from the accumulation process and its differentiated effects, but from the constituting practice of various other institutional systems and sub-systems as well. Indeed, following Claus Offe and Ulrich Preuss, it becomes apparent that opening the various sub-systems of society to public pressure can only occur by contesting the various hegemonic interests embedded within them.

A critical theory with public aims must deal with issues of this sort. Such a theory, however, must content itself with generating the freest possible conditions in which individuals can reach intelligent decisions concerning the quality of their lives. A public philosophy has its limits. It can never decide on the existential "meaning" of life or a host of private issues ranging from sexual practice to euthanasia.

But this need not simply relegate ethics to matters of procedure. Quite the contrary. Ronald Dworkin was indeed correct in suggesting that the debate over euthanasia becomes confused when framed in terms of generalisable interests or the "right to live" and the "right to die." Substantive judgments concerning dignity and the integrity of the individual are crucial for rendering judgments about conflicting generalisable concerns. A public philosophy cannot simply rest on the universal character of claims, but must advance certain informed substantive positions on issues ranging from ecology to life-style and the assumptions of institutions as diverse as capital and the Catholic Church.

Ideological controversy and the clash of interests is the stuff of democracy. A public ethic is, for this reason, as little concerned with ontological questions of truth as with theological questions of grace. It is preoccupied with the institutional and ideological preconditions for democratic action: issues of power, accountability, and the equitable redress of grievances. Contingency marks the new epoch. Too much is at stake, however, for using the concept to justify some poststructuralist reduction of philosophy into "play." Confronting the triumph of uncertainty means substituting an ethics, contingent in its appeal and utility, for any form of teleology and developing a new relation between theory and practice.

There is no artificial substitute for an "agent" capable of connecting theory with practice. Theory can now only present the prerequisites for its realization. An emancipated future is no longer appearing in the present. Opposing teleology subsequently calls for tempering optimistic theories of moral evolution and discourse ethics as surely as the predictions of an outworn Marxism. The insights of an artist like Odon von Horvath can prove useful; his major works like Geschichte aus dem Wienerwald, Der Ewige Spiesser, Die Italienische Nacht, and Jugend ohne Gott all refuse to presuppose reflexivity, conscience, or the inherent desire of people to reconcile contradictions.

New approaches in critical theory must squarely confront the reality portrayed by Horvath without resorting to abstractions concerning moral evolution, the "cunning of history," or inflexible economic laws. It is nececessary to draw the consequences of teleological failure. But this means less accepting a rupture in the relation between theory and practice than a disjuncture. Arguing against any attempt concerned with developing the preconditions for judgment is useless and grounded in an outmoded metaphysic. Judgment remains a "practical" necessity; Kant, in this regard, was simply right. Theory, for this reason, still has a task. But it can now only provide what are usually considered ethical questions with a practical referent and practical questions with an ethical framework for judgment. Therein lie its limits and possibilities. Indeed, for the time being, connecting theory and practice can occur only from the standpoint of theory itself.


Autonomy was, for critical theory, the response to alienation and reification. It was, from the start, a reflexive concept with ethical connotations. Autonomy never had anything in common with license. Increasingly, however, the preoccupation with autonomy has begun to evidence ever stronger affinities with what the young Hegel called "bad reflection" or the fear of entering the real. It became self-referential, coterminous with the totally other," the "great refusal," "higher praxis," or genuine communication." Such exercises in "bad reflection" made it impossible to specify what tendencies were inhibiting the exercise of autonomy in which particular spheres. Thus, autonomy turned in upon itself.

Autonomy exhibits a material component insofar as the exercise of human faculties depends upon certain economic, political, and social preconditions. Even Kant used the concept to anchor his theory of "practical reason" and, politically, its identification with individual responsibility (Mundigkeit) made autonony the core justification for republicanism. Civil liberties and the rule of law, human rights and popular sovereignty, all presuppose autonomy even as they seek to secure it universally through a public realm capable of protecting the weak from the arbitrary exercise of power by the privileged. For this reason, from the standpoint of practice, universalism and particularism do not stand in some rigidly antinomial relation with one another. The same is true of solidarity and autonomy. Following this line of thought, in fact, the partisans of democratic socialism were intent on pursuing material equality precisely so that economic "necessity" would not intrude on the exercise of "freedom." Thus, Henry Pachter could identify a genuinely socialist order with "the highest stage of individualism."

Autonomy only makes sense with reference to accountable institutional forms capable of realizing reciprocal conditions for the free play of the faculties. But critical theory has had trouble conceiving of it in these terms and part of the problem derives from identifying alienation and reification with objectification. The increasing dominance of instrumental reason was seen by various members of the Institute as creating a situation in which all forms of social and political action undermine subjectivity. Only the aesthetic or philosophical inversion of public life was seen as capable of redeeming authentic experience in the "totally administered society."

Both for Marx and Lukacs, however, coming to terms with reification involved empowering the exploited and disadvantaged through political action. They may have assumed the existence of a revolutionary subject. But they assumed something else as well: the existence of responsible people with determinate political aims. Neither meant to imply that working people are things or that subjects are objects. Crucial for their understanding of the commodity form was how working people are treated by dominant institutions and treat each other, the values of the existing order and the extent to which workers are defined as a mere cost of production by capital.

Focusing on this concrete referent for reification produces the preoccupation with empowerment and the accountability of institutions. Reification projects a world in which no subject is treated as an object or means to an instrumental end; indeed, this is the point on which the critical theories of Kant and Marx converge. Such a world is one in which the institutional space and material conditions are created for a permanent revolution and enrichment of subjectivity. Certain forms of political activity can help bring about such a world and, for this reason, reification concept is not interchangeable with objectification or the mere externalization of subjectivity. Indeed, for this same reason, neither concept is identifiable with alienation.

Alienation generates little interest in reforms or revolution; it lacks a determinate referent and, for this reason, creates a concern with the apocalypse and utopia. Alienation expresses the "poverty of the interior" (Benjamin); it is not concerned with externalization at all. It is existential in character and speaks to issues like loneliness, death, and the lack or source of ultimate meaning. These are real concerns and there is no sense in simply condemning them as mystical or irrational. Arguably, in fact, the emancipatory purpose of abolishing reification is so that each can come to terms with private matters of this sort in his or her own way without the intrusion of institutional dogmas like the fear of hell or the economic needs of everyday life. Indeed, there is a sense in which autonomy does involve becoming sovereign over what Martin Heidegger called "one's ownmost possibility."

"Ecrasez l'infame," the famous words flung by Voltaire at the Church, must now receive a new and expanded meaning. Old prejudices and provincial beliefs, along with the institutions profiting from them, must receive a new form of criticism. Sensitivity for existential problems must combine with a commitment to broaden the public space in which autonomy is exercised. For all that, however, the proponents of critical theory cannot deceive themselves. No theory can offer magic remedies for alienation. Loneliness and death will not disappear. Dealing with them through the mores of a "new sensibility" might indirectly temper the experience of alienation. But subjectivity will always recede behind the veil of politics and the longing for utopia or the "wholly other" will remain. Thus, the danger in burdening political action with limitless expectations or viewing empowerment as a series of steps on the road to utopia.

Alienation and reification speak to different domains of existence, and dealing with the one does not invalidate the importance of the other. There are even points of overlap. Considering the commodity form, for example, qualitative differences between objects are still ever more surely being reduced to quantitative ones and the "labor power" sold by individuals on the market is ultimately still being evaluated by the employer no differently than any other resource. Nevertheless, this is all taking a new and more radical form insofar as the subversion of reflexive capacities is increasingly becoming fused with the expansion of choices.

Amid a staggering literacy crisis, and an invasion of the private sphere by mass media in ways even Flaubert could never have imagined, the subject now faces an expanding number of material decisions with existential import. Public are steadily becoming private questions. Violence, environmental decay, the difficulties in accessing scores of new information, and making choices ranging from cloning to euthanasia, obviously impinge on the existential experience of existence. Indeed, the question concerns just how well society is preparing the subject for this expanded realm of decision-making.

Autonomy means being able to choose between cultural and political options. Its public exercise thus still presupposes reflexivity, which depends upon education. For this reason, in keeping with the efforts of Henry Giroux and others, critical theory has an important role to play in developing new forms of pedagogy and contesting both the narrow ways in which "culture" is transmitted and the avoidance of questions concerning "quality" in modern education. Without making reference to education and reflexivity, in fact, it makes no sense to speak of autonomy. Indifference will then increasingly define its exercise. One choice will become the same as another even as the range of alternatives increase. Autonomy will, under these circumstances, ever more surely degenerate into cynical forms of anomie.

Inhibiting choices by which the individual might enhance the control of his or her destiny is no alternative: it only leads to the arbitrary exercise of power and resentment. The point is rather to develop categories for proceeding with ethical precepts and a sense of human possibility. Critical theory and all forms of rationalism, for this reason, will soon have to begin thinking about how new advances in parapsychology, space travel, cybernetics, and holograms might effect the phenomenological encounter of the subject with his or her world. The "end of history" and the "end of art" are all metaphysical judgments. Technology continues to develop and coming to terms with it will demand a rejection of the assumptions formed in the postmodern night where all cows are black. Indeed, conceiving of the future as unfinished is less a theoretical problem than a practical one.


John Dewey once said that aesthetics is the "ultimate judgment on the quality of civilization." It only makes sense then that virtually every major representative of critical theory should have produced studies on art and the ways in which given works and styles of music, poetry, film, and literature reflect certain historical and anthropological experiences. The contextual referent never entirely vanished from the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School, and it remained dominant in the work of Leo Lowenthal. But it clearly grew less important in the aesthetic theory of Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, and even Siegfried Kracauer. Epecially following World War II, in keeping with philosophical developments, a preoccupation with form increasingly marked the greatest aesthetic achievements of critical theory.

Both its unequivocal allegiance to modernism and its famous analysis of the culture industry were anchored in the emphasis on form. An understanding of the one, in fact, is possible only in terms of the other. The history of modernism coincides with an elimination of the representational object in the name of color or line; consider, for example, the dynamic leading from the haystacks of Monet to the fauves and Kandinsky as well as the road leading from Cezanne's Monte Saint-Victoire and Chateau Noir to the cubists and the constructivists. Subjectivity affirms its autonomy from the objective world precisely insofar as form vanquishes representation in an effort to capture a more "authentic" content.

Autonomy and the unique experience generated by modernism are, by the same token, seen as precisely what the culture industry seeks to subvert with its emphasis on the lowest common denominator and desire to assure the greatest possible profits. Classicism and realism, with their contemplative concern for the representational object and commitment to narrative, can offer no resistance. Their formal conservatism, in fact, makes its more radical elements particularly susceptible to "nullification" by the culture industry. Indeed, according to Lowenthal's interpretation of classical French drama, the "realist" critique of society is seen as occuring concommitantly with the gradual elimination of unique subjective experience.

The emancipatory elements of modernism are, of course, also open to absorption. But, with its affirmation of subjectivity and formal innovations like montage, the modernist legacy was generally seen by critical theorists as the only bulwark against the conformism generated by the extension of the commodity form into the cultural realm. Aesthetic resistance to the culture industry was thus undertaken in two ways, which essentially derived from the idealist and romantic currents of modernism.

According to Herbert Marcuse, whose views were based on a tradition extending from Schiller to Rimbaud, aesthetic resistance would involve the projection of utopia. Cultural norms would inform a new sensibility capable of envisioning the emancipated life-world and the "pacification of existence" would serve as the critical referent for contesting advanced industrial society and the commodity form. A confusion between political and cultural practice, however, takes place. The aesthetic projection of utopia winds up substituting for the determination of emancipatory social or political institutions even while the particular work of art and the categories for dealing with it vanish from critical inquiry.

By contrast, in keeping with a central tenet of romanticism, Theodor Adorno provides the work with primacy to the point where its inner dynamics actually generate the categories, or characteristics, making for its interpretation. Reception is no longer an important category of aesthetic understanding precisely because the culture industry has already impinged upon the autonomous exercise of subjectivity. The work with its paradoxical ability to resist the conditions of its own genesis, preserves subjectivity in an objective fashion, forges a mimetic content through reflexive means, and creates a unique inner language through technique. It resists the omnivorous culture industry, however, by producing an inversion of sociological categories. Thus, the identity of the artwork lies in its ability to strengthen the tensions underlying the non- identity between subject and object.

Both Marcuse and Adorno essentially begin with a metacritique of the culture industry. Its products are essentially dismissed a priori. Neither ever provides categories for making qualitative distinctions between different works developed within different traditions, styles and genres. Sociologically, of course, it is legitimate to forward general claims concerning the negative effects of the culture industry. Aesthetically, however, it is both mistaken and useless to deny that the culture industry has produced numerous works of high quality. Nevertheless, excpeting perhaps Benjamin and Kracauer, an unyielding emphasis on aesthetic form and complex techniques combined with old-fashioned elitism has made most proponents of critical theory blind to this possibility.

A metacritique of the culture industry makes no sense if it must assume that the dove of Picasso or any other "popular" work can produce enlightenment only in the form of "mass deception." Works of popular culture deserve the same serious treatment as those generally interpreted from the perspective of high art. They too exist within a context and manifest its contradictions; they too are defined within genres and influenced by manifold traditions; indeed, they too can evidence critical and emancipatory elements. None of this calls for a suspension of critical judgment. Quite the contrary. Precisely because the culture industry is eradicating perceived differences in quality, which is only in keeping with the imperatives of the commodity form, aesthetics must privilege the category of judgment.

Aesthetics can only reassert its critical character and contemporary value by confronting its assumptions and applying its methods to practical problems. Old concerns about the nature of aesthetic "experience" have lost their relevance given the ability of the culture industry to create and even fulfill a variety of existential needs. Subjectivity is, furthermore, now less threatened than overwhelmed. Arguing for modernism over realism, or non-representation against representation, is simply irrelevant given the dominance of an industry capable of generating a plethora of styles in any number of genres. Nor is it any longer legitimate to maintain that "art" inherently projects freedom or a vision of emancipation. Indeed, this only assumes what interpretation must demonstrate.

Making practical differentiations between the manifold critical or utopian potential that works in the most diverse traditions may or may not evidence is the contemporary task of radical cultural criticism. Art has no predetermined purpose and neither its "meaning" nor its contribution is self-evident. Fostering resistance or reflexivity, for example, no more defines music than the limitless ways in which popular songs give rise to various dances or become associated with a limitless set of personal memories. Giving priority to either only makes sense if aesthetic inquiry enters the public arena and makes explicit its social or political presuppositions.

The point is not to simply define aesthetic inquiry by politics. It is merely to recognize that the work of art does not generate the norms for either its application or appropriation. A given work, just like a particular tradition, can simultaneously offer progressive impulses for cultural production and regressive implications for politics and vice versa. Critical cultural criticism must respect the tensions between different spheres of activity even as it seeks to expand the alternatives of cultural experience. Nevertheless, this cannot occur by continuing to focus on the autonomy of art or the manner in which "resistance" takes place through technical complexity and the preservation of a repressed subjectivity.

"Resistance," from the standpoint of aesthetics, is meaningful only insofar as the subject is able to make meaningful choices among this increasing set of cultural products. Technical aesthetic knowledge is crucial for determining quality. But so is a certain cosmpolitan exposure to diverse cultural traditions. A genuine commitment to diversity involves judgment. It calls for contesting the fad and relativism of the culture industry in the name of imperiled classics and excluded traditions. But it also recognizes that doing so is possible only within a public arena and on the basis of assumptions consonant with any enlightenment notions of pedagogy. There is also a place for the private, "purposefully purposeless" (Kant), experience of an artwork in which public judgment is simply irrelevant.

The more elitist tenets of critical theory have as little place in an emancipatory cultural criticism as the more patronizing tenets of populism. The "material level of culture" (Marx), however, is a genuine issue. Raising it will always involve the criticism of bohemians, non-conformists, and those whom reactionaries like Maurice Barres liked to call "rootless cosmpolitans." Aesthetics will always have a special place for such people; indeed, therein lies its special power.


The harnessing of nature once seemed closely linked with the philosophical promise of the good life. Technology promised both empowerment and the transformation of dead nature into a live world of commodities. Critical theory played an important role in dispelling such illusions. Its willingness to emphasize the human price of progress, the costs of alienation and reification, the implications of scientific reason upon moral capacities, and the potential "revenge of nature" were all major contributions. The increasing fear of everything associated with instrumentalism, however, sundered whatever fruitful interchange Max Horkheimer had originally envisioned between critical theory and the empirical sciences.

Nature increasingly became pitted against technology while "science" was engaged either sociologically or from the utopian perspective of a "new" type whose categories and criteria were never fully articulated. But there was a kernel of truth to the often exaggerated criticisms of empiricism and positivism. Skepticism concerning the technological definition of progress was also surely warranted and, if the proponents of critical theory generally ignored the new theoretical developments in the philosophy of science, they surely anticipated many contemporary concerns of the ecology movement.

Each age defines its problems. Ecology first became an issue in advanced industrial society just as "society" only appeared as an object of concern in the industrial age. Without this historical perspective, in fact, coming to terms with the effects of either becomes merely a metaphysical exercise. The institutions of modernity itself are necessary for dealing with what modernity produced. A degree of bureaucracy and planning are unavoidable in mitigating what is rapidly becoming an environmental nightmare. Nevertheless, what makes the process so difficult, however, is that an ever more complex division of labor has seemingly bedeviled administrative decision-making.

Linear notions of scientific development have fallen before the new preoccupation with "paradigm shifts." There is also little consensus concerning what values and and political priorities are intrinsically connected with developing sustainable forms of ecologically sound production. It has become ever more apparent, without even considering purely metaphysical questions of grounding the "scientific method," that specialists in different fields of scientific endeavor increasingly find themselves unable to communicate with one another on the most advanced planes of research. All this, indeed, contributes to the creation of what Ulrich Beck has termed the "risk society."

Consequences of previously unimaginable ecological horror now seem attendant on the most routine decisions of an administrative apparatus increasingly defined by what Hannah Arendt originally called the "rule of nobody." The impact of an oil spill is incalculable. The very dynamism of modern technology, the prospect of a geometrically increasing set of unintended consequences for every technological act, fosters a growing refusal to accept responsibility which has itself become ever more difficult to assign due to the proliferation of institutional subsystems, committees, and the like. Elisabeth Beck- Gernsheim and others have even shown how technological change is transforming the existential character of decision-making by forcing individuals to deal with issues ranging from cloning to personal appearance.

Raising ecological concerns of this sort is an important contribution by theories dealing with the risk society. Its systems and sub-systems become the point of reference. Movements can raise issues and pressure existing institutions. Ultimately, however, adjustment will depend upon the ability of the very organisations generating ecological and other forms of risk to reform themselves through what has variously been described as "reflexive modernization." An often contradictory drive toward self-criticism takes hold. Critique is no longer limited to particular institutions or sub-systems; the risk society seemingly engages in an ongoing self-criticism of its own "risk" dynamics. The problem, of course, is that certain institutions profit from "risk" while others fear it. Consequently, if this actually generates new concern for a public response to newly intractable interests, it also becomes evident that even the process of adjusting will manifest the uncertainty and contingency associated with the new order.

The encounter with nature, and the pervasive character of risk, is seen as rendering irrelevant the old political distinctions between "left and right." An integration of the "other" -- whether black, woman, proletarian, etc. -- is also projected. But this will not result in a new organic form of community. Quite the opposite. The implications of the new risk society will actually intensify the anomie and moral paralysis with which critical theory originally concerned itself. The "poor" might still suffer most from its effects. But traditional assumptions will nonetheless fall by the wayside. The very expansion of alternatives, for example, will explode the enlightenment equation of autonomy with emancipation. Radically interpreting the hermeneutic of "risk theory" will involve recognizing that the concern for justice and procedural fairness cannot substitute for questions concerning the interaction with nature and the substantive character of the "good society." Behind the back, so to speak, happiness reasserts itself as a public issue generated by the domination of nature.

There are obvious problems regarding the abolition of the "other" in the face of unresolved "non-synchronous contradictions" like racism. Believing in the irrelevance of political worldviews ignores the manner in which ideologies inform policy choices. It is also somewhat naive to suggest that the mere recognition of future risk will cause industries like nuclear energy to "reform" themselves; indeed, a prime cause for the weakness of regulatory agencies in the United States is their dependency on the experts and information of those very industries whose excesses they are seeking to mitigate. Risk theory is missing the categories for articulating ethical judgments, understanding the accumulation process, or dealing with matters pertaining to the contradictory character of institutional or symbolic reproduction. Nevertheless, future experiments in critical theory should not ignore the serious questions raised by Ulrich Beck and other proponents of this new interpretation of modernity.

Coming to terms with them will involve dealing with the manner in which the given order structures alteratives and poses choices. These are substantive rather than purely formal concerns and Korsch's "principle of historical specification," once again, shows its relevance. Rolling back technology or offering unformu- lated versions of a "new science," for example, is an abstraction. The irony is that new bureaucratic institutions and new forms of technology will become necessary to constrain ecologically devastating forms of production before they are introduced. The issue thus becomes one of making choices about the direction of technology or the social character of science. Indeed, these will become the substantive concerns of any public philosophy committed to progressive aims.

A critical theory with public aims must begin indicating the ways government can influence ecologically sound production, provide subsidies or tax-benefits for particular industries, fund particular forms of knowledge creation, and make "risks" a matter of public debate. It must propose ways of rendering anonymous institutions and their administrative sub-systems more accountable and individuals more aware of the moral conflicts awaiting them. It will have to consider the role of parties and inter-mediate forms of control linking the locality with larger institutional settings. It will also have to offer revised definitions of responsibility, "evidence," and culpability in order to meet the needs of a society whose interaction with nature is ever more defined by complex developments in science, technology, and administrative management.

Progress has always worked behind the backs of the masses. Imprisoned within the private realm of the subject, ethics could not respond to a scientific method whose extension seemed to permit of no alternatives. The complexity of "science" and its neutrality with respect to means, which seemingly justifies a closed debate among experts, became the basis for an often uncritical acceptance of purposive ends generated without reference to any democratic will formation. Focusing on internal issues pertaining to the methodological conduct of research thus actually perpetuates the reification of society. It is less a matter of the scientific method than the manner in which technology crystallizes social goals. The goal for critical is to prevent the scientific enteprise from remaining identified with the discourse of experts.

Progress, in emancipatory terms, will occur only insofar as the public has input into its definition. A democratic critique of technology is, following Andre Gorz, the basis for any "revolutionary reform" of society. But too much time has been spent, especially by those who lack any genuine scientific expertise, on deconstructing the "scientific method." More important are sus- tained critical inquiries into the institutional complexes, with their particular balance of forces, wherein the "scientific" method receives its purposive aims and social content. Retreating into the realm of procedure is too often a way of avoiding questions concerning the normative content of social choices. Dealing with such issues critically is impossible without a substantive interest in reasserting the lost connection between critical theory and the empirical sciences no less than with the movements and political organizations seeking to effect ecological change.

Instituting new technological priorities and ethical parameters for the human interchange with nature is inherently a "world experiment" (Bloch). Ecological concerns are the new motor for internationalism precisely because a disaster like Chernobyl is limited neither by time nor space. The very difficulty of assigning responsibility or providing compensation calls forth a cosmopolitan commitment as surely as the need to control a rapacious set of multinationals. James O'Connor may have exaggerated the case in arguing that the ongoing despoilation of the planet will ultimately bring about the final crisis of capitalism. Ecological concerns will, however, surely help set the parameters for any new progressive views on the accumulation process in a democratic polity as well as any future definition of social equity or internationalism. They raise the need to reconsider the notion of progress and human well-being. Indeed, precisely to that extent, confronting the domination of nature immanently raises the question of utopia.


History has not been kind to utopia, perhaps because there is no way ever to deliver on what it promises. Utopia is the response to alienation and, for that very reason, it always retains an element of otherness. But that doesn't obliterate its practical importance. Utopian longing has inspired the most extraordinary sacrifices and the grandest undertakings. These have always given way to resentment following their betrayal and with every failed experiment in liberation, of which communism is only the most recent example, utopia has been buried anew. But then, with an event like Tiannamen Square, it again rises from the dead. Somehow whenever the call for "common sense" is trumpeted, whether in Eastern Europe or elsewhere, the need for "hope" makes itself felt. Utopia is "nowhere." But its traces appear every time solidarity triumphs over self-interest. Speaking about "the end of utopia," like Judith Shklar, thus simply misses the point.

Every experiment in social change presupposes a certain notion of the "best life." Each assumes, in its own way and after its own fashion, that things can be different. Glowing like the biblical "burning bush," with which Manes Sperber associated it, utopia constantly rekindles the dreams of the lowly and the insulted. It forms the underside of history, the response to alienation, and the preoccupation of critical theory with the concept was only logical. The utopian imagination opened materialism to a host of repressed and unrealized possibilities. It offered a certain standard with which to judge the repression of the present and provided the future with an emancipatory legacy from the past.

Transcendence is not inimical to immanence. Both are moments of revolutionary practice. Fantasy and happiness, beauty and wonder, have often inspired what in the moment of execution can only have appeared as inherently "anticipatory" enterprises of social or political change. Karl Mannheim was aware that the neglect of utopia constituted a serious failing of all "realistic" theories. Even a critical theory reinvigorated by the insights of pragmatism cannot affored to ignore the practical role of the novum.

Marx, of course, was always justifiably wary of attempting to depict the emancipated communist society of the future. He had only contempt for the "system builders" and moralists concerned with making dogmatic claims about the "good." Marx could indulge in such irony, however, because he considered his own theory capable of "objectively" explaining how an alternative to the prevailing course of history would arise within history itself. Perhaps there is still a place for such forms of "scientific" endeavor. But the teleology of times past is no longer plausible. Ernst Bloch probably has the most to offer for the development of a new philosophy of history in which transcendence is linked with immanence. His utopian theory, however, is still grounded in the ontological and teleological assumptions of an earlier time. History now makes new demands on social theory.

"Negative dialectics" breaks the connection between utopia and teleology. It interprets utopia to meet the conditions defined by the previously unimaginable horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. The proponents of negative dialectics, however, take a step back behind Bloch. Auschwitz is seen as the final and most compelling reason for the Bilderverbot. In projecting utopia beyond the realm of action, however, transcendence becomes reified. "Other-worldliness" (Jenseitigkeit) and abstraction become ends unto themselves in notions of the "totally other" and the "yearning" for God no less than in the fleeting moment of aesthetic experience and anamnestic remembrance. Reification is ignored in favor of alienation. Utopia turns its back on history and, once again, is exiled to "nowhere." The novum loses its power no less than its appeal. Articulation becomes impossible. Utopia is a content devoid of form.

An alternative is to interpret utopia as a regulative ideal. No longer is it the "other." The formal assumptions of a democracy are seen as prerequisites for an emancipated order. Utopia is thus asymptotically connected with practice as a phenomenological complex of procedural rules for communication. Conditions for the reproduction of utopia enter the analysis even while the regulative view militates against associating it, either positively or negatively, with the totality; Habermas has indeed correctly argued that, even when considering feudalism, progress made in one systemic domain can produce regression in another. He has also recognized the danger of dogmatism in venturing substantive judgments on the relative merits of one culture or set of traditions against another. Utopia, from this perspective, is immanent within "justice" rather than transcendent in its vision of the "good." Alienation is ignored in favor of reification; utopia becomes a form without content.

Relativism on all matters other than procedure, however, makes it impossible to "rub history against the grain" (Benjamin). Even relatively emancipated political institutions do not necessarily generate emancipatory culture or expressions of subjectivity. An exclusive commitment to justice leaves the culture industry no less than most regressive mores intact. A pure proceduralism ignores the pleas of Benjamin and Bloch to "never forget the best" even as it denies everyday experience wherein judgments regarding the superiority of one set of texts over another becomes practically necessary in the forming of curricula as surely as in making sense of what Marx called the "material level of culture." The legacy of the past can only receive an emancipatory determination when judgments make substantive reference to particular works and forms of conduct.

Utopia can conceptually illuminate repressed needs and even help provide insights into what Ernst Bloch termed the ratio of the irratio. But the concept retains practical relevance only when impulses towards the "best life" are symbolically and institutionally mediated and their inherently transcendent character is given a degree of determination. Alternatives to existing institutions and forms of cultural production are concrete only when intertwined with existing interests, some intractable and some open to compromise, which are themselves in need of judgment. Alternatives conceived without reference to interests must hang in the abstract. Future forms of critical theory thus cannot afford to ignore questions concerning the contextual specification of material interests and how they buttress structural imbalances of power within given domains of action.

Action generates its context. Different spheres of activity demand different criteria of judgment. The legal toleration of cigarette smoking, for example, should not preclude an evaluative judgment or a cultural campaign against it. A cultural critique does not necessarily imply the need for political action nor, for that matter, is every political act in need of a cultural critique. An asymmetry marks society and, for this concrete reason, the exercise of freedom can never prove total. The prerequisites for social change seeking to realize utopia are precisely what generate new, if often qualitatively different, forms of alienation. Utopia is the "totally other," but it inspires every struggle for justice and every theory willing to view freedom in its asymptotic relation to reality.

The absence of utopia, following Jacques Derrida, indicates its presence. Utopia is not an anthropological break. It is not merely pacification, it is also growth. It is not simply play, it is also l'esprit serieux. It is not just spontaneity, but order. It is not only a higher form of intuition, but also knowledge. It is not only the future or anticipations of space travel and parapsychology, but remembrance and logic. It is not merely "mimesis" (Adorno), but reflexivity. Utopia is a juggler balanc- ing an inherently mutuable content with a regulative form. It is the tension between freedom and license.

Perhaps that is why "the best life" is never defined by a system. It is closer to a sketch. Sketches are not paintings. Nor are they drawings. Both are complete; they integrate their diverse components, place them in motion against one another, and project beyond the context. Sketches are always incomplete. They are often little more than half-visible outlines of a seemingly indeterminate content. That is why the sketch cannot dictate how an artist must employ contrasts of tone, shadow, and color in a painting. Each is open to employment in a different way, in one part of the sketch or another, and each is open to being redrawn or withdrawn. Sketches, however, retain their inner logic. The best offer constructive insights into the problems internal to a particular artistic undertaking and the terms in which the struggle to resolve them will be waged. The very indeterminacy of a sketch thus provides the future work with a degree of determination. It lets the eye play and provides a sense of direction. The sketch serves as a set of coordinates.It provides a way in which the painting of the future can become visible.