Far More Than a Mere Instrument, Research Time, 04/02/2014

One chapter of Living in the End Times demonstrates the problem that the Utopias project faces: the gravity of Marxism. The chapter is a comprehensive critique of traditional Marxist perspectives and the engagement with traditional Marxist perspectives of Alain Badiou and the Frankfurt School. 

The extremely intense Max Horkheimer
Zizek’s basic idea is that the concept of instrumental reason is an incomplete critique of how our society works. The legacy of Martin Heidegger is the problem here. For all of Heidegger’s reputation for difficulty and complexity, when you look past all the possibilities for purely technical/historical criticism regarding his appropriations and interpretations of various philosophers,* his philosophy amounts to a critique of the vision of the world as existing as a potential resource. When we look at the world today, says Heidegger, we understand it only in terms of things that we can use. The Frankfurt School writers like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, understood this in terms of humanity’s one-dimensionality. We were no longer even able to critique ourselves, because instrumentality, use-value, was our only framework left for understanding the world.**

* The academic paper of the form “X’s understanding of Y” is very easy to write and publish in a contemporary specialist journal. All you have to do is compare and contrast X’s interpretation of Y with that of several prominent contemporary specialized scholars of Y. I’ve read these papers, and they tend to amount to quibbling, with very little philosophical creativity. The prevalence of this attitude among so many journal reviewers I’ve encountered over the last few years is why I want to concentrate on writing books for my philosophical work instead.

** If our supposed one-dimensionality makes critique impossible, then why were Horkheimer and friends able to write their critical books? A cheap shot, but a fun shot to make.

My own perspective on the Frankfurt School authors is complicated. I’ve explored a little Marcuse and the basics of Adorno, but I’ve largely kept my distance in the past. I think this is because I’ve met too many people who worship Adorno, and slavishly parrot his views, ideas, and terminology without fully understanding them. As well, the amount of secondary material that has been produced about them is so massive that it’s become intimidating. I feel as though the only way I’d be able to speak with legitimacy about them is to study them and the works about them to the exclusion of everything else. If the Utopias project will require any one skill, it’ll be learning how to take in a wide scope of philosophical ideas and texts while maintaining the credibility for my discussion to be taken seriously.

Zizek’s critique is that conceiving of humanity as one-dimensional is too one-dimensional, putting the blame for the inevitable collapse of the Enlightenment dream and social revolution on a fundamental and inescapable feature of human nature. Even Heidegger himself didn’t think instrumental reason was necessary to humanity, just an enormously dominant feature of thought in our civilization. The real phenomena of totalitarianism, the exploitive features of mass-scale capitalism, and the injustices of colonial military-economic expansion are too complicated to reduce to a single cause or underlying framework of thought. And because the phenomena of oppression are so complicated in their generation, structure, and development, they can also be sabotaged, critiqued, and fought in equally complicated ways. 

For someone who describes himself as a pessimist, Zizek is very good at arguing against pessimism. 

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