New Critique: From Hyper-heteronomy to Autonomy. Thought of the Day 13.0


The new critique is an invention of a new form of autonomy from hyper-heteronomy, a therapeutics of the pharmakon. This critique is dimensional in that, it is pharmacological, a critique that consists in analyzing the specifics of the pharmaka, a critique that invests its energy in finding the toxic possibilities of individuation, through an approach that is both theoretical and absolute and that is without a context, but not totally context-free, since it is an organological approach, an approach which is always within a context, in the Nietzschean genealogical sense of the term, but is at the same time independent of any particular political situation.

Moishe Postone: Capitalism, Temporality, and the Crisis of Labor. Note Quote.

Moishe Postone: Capitalism, Temporality, and the Crisis of Labor from The American Academy in Berlin on Vimeo.

Moishe Postone’s work establishes a crucial distinction between the critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labour and the critique of labor in capitalism.The former implies a transhistorical account of work, while the latter situates labor as a consistent category – capable of “social synthesis” – within the capitalist mode of production. But, does this distinction require us to abandon any form of ontological account of labour? As Postone would say,

It depends what you mean by an ontological account of labour. It does force us to abandon the idea that transhistorically there is an on-going development of humanity which is effected by labour, that human interaction with nature as mediated by labour is a continuous process which is led to continuous change. And that labour is in that sense a central historical category. That position is closer actually to Adam Smith than it is to Marx. I think that the centrality of labour to something called historical development can be posited only for capitalism and not for any other form of human social life. On the other hand, I think one can retain the idea that humanity’s interaction with nature is a process of self-constitution.

One of the most important contributions of Time, Labour and Social Domination is a novel theory of impersonal domination in capitalist society. To him “traditional Marxism” is a criticism of capitalism from the standpoint of labor. Postone’s Marxism, by contrast, is a critique of labor in capitalism. Since Marx’s theory refers to capitalism, not society in general, labor cannot be a transhistorical category. Instead, it must be understood as an integrated part of capitalism. This means that labor cannot provide a standpoint from which to criticize capitalism, and neither can the proletariat: “the working class is integral to capitalism, rather than the embodiment of its negation”. The struggle, then, should not be a struggle of labor against capital, as traditional Marxists thought, but a struggle against labor seen as an integral part of the valorization of capital.  This conclusion has implications for Postone’s understanding of domination in capitalism. Rather than being a matter of class relations, it takes the form of domination by impersonal and quasi-objective mechanisms such as fetishism, in the construction of which labor is deeply implicated. The benefit of this reinterpretation, according to Postone, is that it shows the usefulness of Marx’s theory not only in a criticism of liberal nineteenth-century capitalism but also in a criticism of contemporary welfare-state capitalism or Soviet-style state-capitalism. The latter forms of capitalism are just as capitalist as the former since they all build on the valorization of capital built on labor. Abolishing private ownership or rearranging the distribution of goods is not enough to escape capitalism. Postone both builds on and criticizes the approaches of Lukács and the Frankfurt School. There is much in his book that shows his affinities especially to the latter – such as the criticism of welfare state capitalism or the stress on fetishism – but he nevertheless criticizes these earlier thinkers for being bound to a transhistorical conception of labor. Lukács in particular is singled out for heavy criticism since he saw the proletariat as the Subject of history, as capable of grasping totality and hence offering the standpoint of critique. Engaging with the Hegelian legacy, or should I quip lunacy in Lukács, Postone arrives at one of his most important and provocative arguments. “Marx suggests that a historical Subject in the Hegelian sense does indeed exist in capitalism, yet he does not identify it with… the proletariat”. Instead it is capital that is portrayed as a Hegelian Geist – as a subject and self-moving substance, following its own immanent historical logic. Hegelian dialectics, then, is specific to capitalism and is not a tool for grasping history in general. Thus, to Marx, the “totality” was not the whole in general, and certainly not a standpoint which he affirmed. Instead, he identified totality with the capitalist system and made it the object of his critique: “the historical negation of capitalism would not involve the realization, but the abolition, of the totality”, Postone argues. The working class cannot lead history towards this negation. In fact, it is only by breaking with the logic consitutive of this totality, in which the working class forms part, that a different, post-capitalist society can be born.

The abolition of the totality would, then, allow for the possible constitution of very different, non-totalizing, forms of the political coordination and regulation of society.

In a question asked about if the capitalist form of domination not better defined as the appearance of truly abstract relations as if they were concrete, personal relations? Furthermore, does this inversion, or at least the recognition of the crucial role of abstraction in capitalism, render a definition of class struggle untenable, or are we rather in need of a concept of class that takes this distance from the concrete into consideration? Postone says,

I am not sure that I would fully agree with the attempted reformulation. First of all, with regard to the quote “relations between people appearing as relations between things” what is left out of this version of what Marx said is that he adds that relations among people appear as they are, as social relations between things and thingly relations between people. Marx only explicitly elaborated the notion of fetishism with the fetishism of commodity. All three volumes of Capital, are [our change] in many respects, however, a study on fetishism even when he doesn’t use that word. And fetishism means that because of the peculiar, double character of the structuring social forms of capitalism, social relations disappears from view. What we get are thingly relations: we also get abstractions. However, one dimension of the fetish is, as you put it, that abstract relations appear concrete.They appear in the form of the concrete. So, for example, the process of creating surplus value appears to be a material process, the labour process. It appears to be material-technical, rather than moulded by social forms. And yet there are also abstract dimensions and regularities that don’t appear in the form of the concrete. I am emphasising this is because certain reactionary forms of thought only view capitalism in terms of those abstract regularities and refuse to see that the concrete itself is moulded by, and is really drenched with, the abstract. I think a lot of forms of populism and anti-Semitism can be characterised that way. Now I am not sure that this appropriation of the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy renders a definition of class struggle untenable, but it does indicate that class struggle occurs within and is moulded by the structuring social forms.This position rejects the ontological centrality or the primacy of class struggle, as that which is truly social and real behind the veil of capitalist forms. Class struggle rather is moulded by the capitalist relations expressed by the categories of value, commodity, surplus value, and capital.

Postone’s approach only seems far-fetched if we continue to equate capitalism with the economy. Not if we think of it as a form of life. For example, after Darwin wrote, natural processes, such as adaptation or sexual selection, came to be seen as operating within history. This gave us the naturalist novel of Zola or Norris. “Nature” was seen to structure history (the Rougon-Marcquet saga, the strike in Germinal etc.) as well compel individuals from within. For Postone, it is not “natural” Darwinian processes that do this but an historic process, capitalism. Another example of the same idea is Max Weber’s “spirit of capitalism.” Weber can be read, and wanted to be read, as saying that there are forces outside capitalism on which capitalism depends, such as religious ethics. However, Postone is suggesting that such “spiritual” Weberian forces as asceticism, compulsivity and hypocrisy (Weber’s famous triad) are internal to capitalism, structuring its motion. But, there are ambivalences to his theory, and especially ones concerning science and technology. Postone rejects the view, associated with traditional Marxism, that sees industrial production as a neutral, purely technical process that could be salvaged from capitalism and carried on in similar form in socialism. To criticize capitalism, he argues that we also need to criticize industrial production, or at least the form it has assumed in capitalism. The problem is that he simultaneously argues – based primarily on a famous passage in Grundrisse – that science and technology creates the preconditions for an overcoming of capitalism, since they enable human beings to create unprecedented “material wealth” in a way that relies less and less on human labor. Since in capitalism “value” can only be created by labor, capitalism increasingly comes to be characterized by a contradiction between the processes generating “wealth” and “value”. Unlike “value”, Postone appears to think that “wealth” is a category that it is fine to apply transhistorically. “Wealth” existed in precapitalist societies and must also be imagined as something that can exist in post-capitalist, socialist societies. What happens with capitalism is that the creation of “wealth” can only take place through the production of “value”, i.e. through the exploitation of labor and valorization of capital. However, by showing that “wealth” can be produced in abundance without relying on labor, science and technology open up possibilities of overcoming capitalism. Here Postone portrays science and technology, not as irremediably implicated in capitalism, but as potentially liberating forces that point beyond capitalism. That is of course fine, but the question then becomes how to distinguish the good and bad moments of science and technology. Postone calls for a transformation of not only of “relations of production” but also of the “mode of production”, but without giving us much in the way of explaining how much or how radically the latter needs to be changed.

Then there is the problem of dialectics. As mentioned, Postone confines Geist and totality to capitalism. This claim has some antecedents in earlier critical theory. Adorno, for instance, claims that the role of Spirit in capitalism is taken by “value”: “The objective and ultimately absolute Hegelian spirit [is] the Marxist law of value that comes into force without men being conscious of it” (Adorno). The posture of taking up arms against “totality” itself is of course also familiar from older critical theory. Adorno, however, never confined dialectics in toto to capitalism. Although Postone does allow for some forms of dialectical interaction (e.g. people changing their own nature reflexively through acting on nature or the reciprocal constitution of social practice and social structure), he argues that such interaction only becomes “directionally dynamic” in capitalism. In other words, dialectics in the sense of a historical logic or necessity only exists in capitalism. This raises the question of how capitalism can be overcome. If there is no Geist but capital, then dialectics cannot point the way out of capitalism. Liberation can only mean liberating oneself from dialectics, by creating a world in which it is no longer dominant.

The indication of the historicity of the object, the essential social forms of capitalism, implies the historicity of the critical consciousness that grasps it; the historical overcoming of capitalism would also entail the negation of its dialectical critique.

However, sometimes Postone himself seems to grasp the relation between capitalism and its outside dialectically, as when he uses the term “determinate negation” for the movement whereby capitalism is transcended. But if the overcoming of capitalism is a determinate negation, doesn’t that require the premise of a totality transcending the capitalist system, as Lukács thought?  Sometimes Postone writes as if the totality of capitalism were driven towards its own abolition by its inner contradictions. However, apart from the discussion of technology and wealth referred to above, it is hard to see that he specifies anywhere what kind of contraditions might bring about this self-abolition.

Could Complexity Rehabilitate Mo/PoMo Ethics?

A well known passage from Marie Fleming could be invoked here to acquit complexity from the charges and accusation pertaining to relativism. He says,

Anyone who argues against reason is necessarily caught up in a contradiction: she asserts at the locutionary level that reason does not exist, while demonstrating by way of her performance in argumentative processes that such reason does in fact exist.

Such an absolute statement about complexity would similarly be eaten along its way.


Taking the locutionary from the above quote, it could be used to adequately distinguish from performative, or logic versus rhetoric. Such a distinction gains credibility, if one is able to locate an Archimedean point to share discourse/s, which, from the point of view of complexity theory would be a space outside the autopoietic system, or, in other words, would be a meta-theoretical framework. Such a framework is skeptically looked upon/at by complexity, which has no qualms in exhibiting an acknowledgement towards performative tensions at work. Such tensions are generative of ethical choices and consequences, since any accessibility to the finality of knowledge is built upon the denial of critical perspective/s, thus shrouding the entire exercise in either a veil of ignorance, or a hubristic pride, or illusory at best.

Morality gains significance, since its formulations is often ruptured for want of secure, and certain knowledge, and both of which are not provided for by complexity theory and French theory, according to the accusations labeled against them. Even if, in making choices that are normative in nature, a clear formulation of the ethical is obligated. Lyotard’s underlining conditions of knowledge is often considered unethical, as he admits to the desire for justice to be shrouded in an unknown intellectual territory. Lyotard has Habermas in mind in dealing with this, since for the latter’s communication therapy, what is mandated is clearly consensual agreement on the part of the public to seek out these metaprescriptions as universally valid and as spanning all language games. Habermas is targeted here for deliberately ignoring the diversity inherent in the post-modern society. For Lyotard,

It is the monster formed by the interweaving of various networks of heteromorphous classes of utterances (denotative, prescriptive, performative, technical, evaluative, etc.). there is no reason to think that it could be possible to determine metaprescriptive common to all of these language games or like the revisable consensus like the one in force at a given moment in the scientific community could embrace the totality of metaprescriptions regulating the totality of statements circulating in the social collectivity. As a matter of fact, the contemporary decline of narratives of legitimization – be they traditional or ‘modern’ (the emancipation of humanity, the realization of the idea) – is tied to the abandonment of this belief.

The fight over consensus, if it could be achieved at all, is contentious between Lyotard and Habermas. Obviously, it could be attained, but only locally and should not even vie for universal validity. Lyotard scores a point over Habermas here, because of his emphasis on the permeability of discursive practices dressed with paralogy. Justice, as a subset of ethics in the post-modern society, in order to overcome its status as a problematic, must recognize the heteromorphous nature of language games or phase regimens on the one hand, and consensus as reached must have a local space-time valuation contingently subject to refutation or nullification on the other. Such a diagnosis goes against the crux of modernism’s idea of ethics as founded upon foundational and universal set of rules, and maybe imperatives. Modernism’s idea of ethics is no different, at least in the formative structure from the rule-based analysis, since both demand a strict adherence to the dictates of rules and guidelines. A liberation comes in the form of post-modernism. Bauman sees the post-modern society as not only setting us free, but also pushing us towards a paradoxical situation, where agents have the fullness of moral choice and responsibility, while simultaneously depriving them of the comfort of the universal guidance as promised by modernism. Moral responsibility comes with the loneliness of moral choice. Such paradoxical events or situations facing man in the post-modern society only reinvests faith in agonistics of the network. At the same time, such an aporetic position is too paradoxical to satisfy many. Taking cues from the field of jurisprudence, the works of Druscilla Cornell could help clear the muddy waters here to an extent of a satisfactory resolution. Cornell aims to establish the relationship of the philosophy of the limit, or what she calls the post-structural theory of Derrida in principle, to questions of ethics, law and justice. Cornell shows no inhibitions towards accepting the complexity of relationships governing humans, and in the process accepts Hegel as the vantage point. Hegel criticizes Kant for his abstract idealism, and admits to our constitution within a social structure, which is teleologically headed for perfection. In short, the dialectical process is convergent for Hegel, since it is operative within a social/historical system aiming towards organization. Adorno differs here, since, for him dialectics is always divergent, with stress laid upon differences that characterize between humans as always irreducible to a totalizing organized system. This position of Adorno with its sympathy for difference is much closer to complexity, that at first would seem. Cornell carries further on from there and introduces the work of Luhmann, who is a towering figure in sociology, when it comes to bringing in autopoiesis within the fold. Humans are never allowed to stand outside the system that Luhmann thinks is not only complex, but autopoietic as well. Therefore, on an individual level, the choice element has no role to play, except, accepting the system that would undergo an organization to best suit its survival through a process of evolution, and not transformation. Luhmann’s understanding still prioritizes the present, and has no place for the past or the uncertain future. Cornell considers this a drawback, and makes past as an ingredient in understanding the meaning of an event, on the one hand, and following Derrida, wants to take up responsibility for the future, even if it is unknown. With a structure like this in place, it is possible to evade the rigidity of modernist claims on ethics on the one hand, and fluidity of evasive tendencies towards responsibility on the other. Instead, what Cornell calls for is an acceptance of the present ethical principles in all seriousness. That is to be resistant to change, and awareness of applications of the principles is what is called for. Ethics involves calculation in a responsible manner. In a similar vein, complexity entails irreducibility to calculation, in the sense of coming out with novelistic tendencies involving creativity that is not simply a flight of fancy, but an imagination laden with responsibility. Only, in this regard, could ethics mean not subjecting to any normativity. And, one of the ways to achieve this to obviously shy away from intellectual arrogance.

Brassier, Enlightenment & Nature: A Reciprocity


A lapse back into nature is a tendency that is inherent in all living things, and the overcoming of this tendency is the hallmark of development. This lapse is more like a blind conformity to nature and in a way is reason’s own fatal submission to the dictates of nature. As Ray Brassier tries to juxtapose this reason with the Enlightenment’s reason (specifically taking his reading of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment seriously), he calls this reason as a function of adaptational constraints. He does this precisely because as the two authors talk about the Enlightenment reason’s drive to conceptually subsume particularity, heterogeneity and multiplicity to universality, homogeneity and unity and in the process rendering everything equivalent to everything else, but in a way such that nothing is identical to itself. This is conceptual identification that stipulates differential commensurability and in their own words ‘amputating the incommensurable’. The evolution of this reason is undoubtedly the case of the confrontation between the dominated and the dominating powers that subjected the humans under the sway of the all-powerful nature. Brassier takes his reading of sacrifice from the Dialectic of Enlightenment as an attempt to propitiate these incommensurables. Adorno and Horkheimer claim in their book that enlightenment equates the living with the non-living, just as the mythical tales equated the non-living with the living.

The authors accord to reason a reflexivity that is capable of understanding and resolving the incommensurability that is generated as a result of the enlightenment science’s knowledge of the actual and the existence. This reflexivity of reason is purely centred on its own historicity. They claim that the reason is independent of nature by virtue of its reflexivity on its own dependence on nature and this is where science fails to reach for somehow it depicts its incapability of engaging with reflexivity. The subject that postulates absolutes is sick in their view, passively succumbing to the dazzlement of false immediacy and the only remedy to cure the ailment is by inaugurating a mediation in the form of remembrance that would encompass the human history in its socio-cultural milieu. This kind of nature is different in that now, we, the humans belong in it, as compared with the earlier version, where we were excluded from nature.

Modernity and Tragedy


When I talk of the tragedy of modernity, I don’t want to form the impression of the total destruction of the meaningful whole and the thread of hope that it contains. On the contrary, it opens up the vistas for the possibilities of deliverance of the project of enlightenment. This is done by critical insight into the current situation by making it clear that this critical thought is beyond the current historical situation and hence being utopian. It is looked as a concrete utopia because the normative point of departure of critique is set out of the concrete historical situation.

The discussion of tragedy has no better point than the one outlined by Aristotle in his Poetics. In his Poetics, Aristotle divides the Greek tragedy into three parts viz., 1) anagnorisis, 2) peripeteia and 3) pathos. By anagnorisis, Aristotle means the transition from ignorance to knowledge. After this sudden enlightening, the tragic hero enters peripeteia, wherein the happiness turns into suffering. The last phase namely pathos makes katharsis possible, by which Aristotle means a state that arises in the reader or a spectator when she witnesses the humiliation and suffering of the tragic hero. The end of the tragedy can be either happy or unhappy, but the spectator or the reader gets purified. The primary aim would be to go beyond Aristotle and study the stopping of the dialectical process of the modern history. This is because modern history characterizes itself at a standstill.

This is achievable by analysing modernity in both sociological and philosophical aspects. Sociologically, modernity refers to the last great epoch of humanity characterized by phenomenon like scientific and industrial revolution, economic and political re-organisation of societies around the capitalistic forms of production. The process of modernization has produced material and cultural resources for the development of accomplished individuality. On the one hand many of the technological innovations help people make lives easier and on the other humanity has become more and more one-dimensional culturally where even free time is mapped out to its most meticulous detail. And to add to the woes, the process of globalization has made the exploitation of the third world extremely bitter and has brought about the world on the brink of ecological and social catastrophe. This is referred to as the tragedy of modernity. On the one hand, modernity has produced material and cultural prosperity, while on the other hand; it has also produced class polarisation on a global scale, mental pathologies, and a one dimensionality that is all pervasive in the society.

But looking at this tragedy of modernity would yield concentration on Stoss more than katharsis. Walter Benjamin’s concept of Stoss comes about by his critical reading of Freud. Freud argues that some memories are too painful for the conscious mind. The rapid pace of the working life and changes taking place in the society inflict shocks that overwhelm individuals and institutions. The culture industry responds to this situation by offering means of repressing and coping with the entire negative reactions inevitably caused by the situation. This quandary can only be answered by applying dialectics more in a heuristic fashion so that we get the following picture: Stoss is needed in order to liberate the dialectical movement of enlightenment to proceed onwards from the present circling in place. It can liberate us from “the end of history” nihilistic atmosphere, to empower us. Philosophers and social scientists can dream again of the unforeseen futures. Those dreams can hope to open the avenues as to how the project of enlightenment can be realized.

The Enlightenment is the modern mode of thinking that intends to emancipate people from self-inflicted and socially heteronymous structures. According to critical theory, social freedom is linked indispensably to the Enlightenment. The meaning of the Enlightenment is seen as a concretisation of goodness in the form of a humane society. The Enlightenment is the process of maturation of humankind by means of the destruction of the myths and the authority of tradition. “The Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty,” but, on the other hand, “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” (Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment). The Enlightenment destroys myths to free men, but in the process itself became an enslaving myth. It replaced myths of earlier mythological world-views with the myth of factuality and that of an engineered society. In this kind of society, the individual is drowned in the iron cage of society. The ideological mask of factuality and commodities tend to cover antagonistic social contradictions and the minority of subjects.

Within the Frankfurt School there is a discrepancy about the meaning of the modernisation process on a general level. In addition to the first generation of the Frankfurt School, we can identify at least two major new departures. Jürgen Habermas has argued that there is also a positive tendency in the process of modernisation. This tendency reveals the possibility of rational discussion and communication, and helps the evolution of a social moral consciousness to the level where it is possible to open practical discourse on social justice. Axel Honneth argues that in the modern world there is a possibility to overcome antagonisms between individuals and between individuals and institutions. This possibility is connected to the authentic reciprocal recognition in three dimensions: primary relationships (love, friendship), legal relations (rights), and community of value (solidarity).

Regardless of the fact that the Frankfurt School is a very heterogeneous research tradition, it has two principles common to all representatives and different formulations of critical theory. These two principles are also the basic driving forces behind my project: First, the empirical sciences and philosophical reflection are internally connected, and second, research is orientated toward social criticism (critique of unjust social structures) and it endeavours to take into consideration the hopes, needs and moral convictions of those people that live under unjust social structures.

The focus is on the tradition of critical theory itself and its relationship to the tragedy of modernity. The theme, which can be named as “the tragedy of modernity and the fate of critical theory,” the idea of tragedy and the paradox of modernity itself are reflected and the tradition of critical theory is viewed through this concept. Modernity has created the possibility for theoretical reflection on “the costs and gains” of the process of modernisation. We consider the tradition of critical theory the most important instance of critical reflection on the nature of modernity and the conceptualisation of the tragedy of modernity. In doing so, critical theory itself drifts into paradoxes. Critical theory is not the Fichtean third eye that views the world from the outside, but instead is a part of the tragedy of modernity and the paradox of (the dialectic of) the Enlightenment.

It follows that any attempt to actualise critical theory requires a theoretical self-understanding of the Frankfurt School and its own theoretical paradoxes.