June 13, 2024

The Dialectic Of Enlightenment From A Postsecular Lens, Part 2 (Roger Green)

I ended my first post in this series considering David Scott’s description of the tragic disposition as an obligated action in a world where values are “unstable and ambiguous.”  I have been rethinking Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment with particular attention to the role a conception of the Literary plays in their work because that aesthetic notion is often taken for granted in philosophical arguments.

There is a kind of use-value that literature often takes in philosophical arguments wherein literary works come to exemplify or help articulate a point without much attention to conceptions of the Literary.  There is a space I am calling ‘the Literary’ that gets treated as self-evident and unproblematic.  For those of us with backgrounds in literary studies, the fact that there are different ways of reading is common knowledge.  Aesthetic privileging of a conception of Literature with a capital “L” signals classist assumptions about high and low art that were, as my quotation from Todorov in the previous post indicated, “secularized” in the later half of the twentieth-century.

I am heartened, on the one hand, by Horkheimer and Adorno’s implicit esteem for the role of literature in their argument.  On the other hand, I find myself questioning how convincing their argument is, not just in this particular book but also in its place within the continuum of discourse called Critical Theory, which I have brought into a more current moment with my invocation of Scott’s critique from within postcolonial discourse.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno make passing references to the abuses of Indigenous peoples through enlightenment rationality.  It is harder to determine what they want from their readers, but we catch a glimpse at the end of chapter one when they write, “A true praxis capable of overturning the status quo depends on theory’s refusal to yield to the oblivion in which society allows thought to ossify” (33).  Implicitly, I think Horkheimer and Adorno are arguing that thinking itself relies on literature’s ability to prevent such ossification by displaying what is thinkable.

Following Christopher Rocco’s reading of Dialectic, Scott makes a case that Adorno and Horkheimer’s ability to hold the paradoxes of enlightenment in tension without seeking resolution re-engages modes present in Greek tragedy.

It is a move that urges us to read Dialectic of Enlightenment as inviting neither a complacent acquiescence to the totalizing languages of modern reason, nor the phantasy of an exit or escape from the modern conditions that have contributed definitively (if not comprehensively) to making us who we are. [. . .] And consequently, this folding of Dialectic of Enlightenment through a poetics of tragedy potentially inspires the cultivation of an idea of politics and of ethical-political action that depends less on the heroism of the sovereign revolutionary subject and the renewal of humanity it promises to initiate, and more on a receptivity to the paradoxical reversals that can unmake and disrupt our most cherished ideas. (190)

Scott’s book makes a parallel case through comparative readings of two editions of C. L. R. James’s postcolonial classic, The Black Jacobins, which is an account of the Haitian Revolution.  At the end of their first chapter in Dialectic, Adorno and Horkheimer explicitly argue, “The blind power of technology needs to be dissolved but it has come to deceive the masses.”

In 2019, such thought is echoed in David Pan’s introduction to the current issue of the journal, Telos, which is dedicated to the thought of conservative German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt’s critique of technical rationality.  As Pan notes in his opening paragraph, “The path forward [from species-wide problems and global impending global climate catastrophes] will not be revealed by new technological advances, which can easily create more problems than they solve, but through the development of new ethical, political, and affective frameworks by which people understand themselves and their connections to the rest of the world” (3).

Anyone familiar with Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason will know that a phrase associated with continental thought and Sartrean existentialism — the “last gasp of humanism.”  That phrase had signaled that the notion of moral development among the humanist tradition apparently had no affect on SS officers who could leisurely read Goethe between shifts at concentration camps.  It also signaled the arrival of the nuclear age, where human science had “evolved” to the point that it threatened all human life.

Although I generally agree with David Pan’s statement above, it ought to be obvious that a rethinking of ethical, political, and affective frameworks in the midst of environmental catastrophe also necessitates a critique of androcentrism within dominant ethical, political, and affective traditions, which probably goes beyond what Schmitt is capable of theorizing (though I duly note the problem of buribunkology).  I mention Schmitt, however, both because of his presence in recent discussions of political theology and postsecularism and because we should note that critiques of technical rationality come from both the left and the right.

Left out of both the conversation around Schmitt and Scott’s turn toward narrative modes of Greek tragedy in the second half of his book are Indigenous perspectives.  Of course in dealing with James and the Haitian Revolution, Scott is dealing with an African slave revolt.  But we see in the postcolonial tradition that Scott is trying to write from and critique, his attention to the underlying questions that drive the problem-spaces that made 20th century postcolonial texts and politics stuck in a kind of feedback loop relying on romantic narratives.

This is a powerful reading, and it is echoed from an Indigenous perspective by Tink Tinker’s “Damn It, He’s an Injun,” published on The New Polis a few months ago.  The narrative genre of romance with its heroic focus on the hero, in Scott’s argument, frames the late 1930s edition of The Black Jacobins, but through James’s additions to the 1962 edition the book becomes more tragically framed.  How might such powerful critiques enter into the discussion of political theology with its persistent attention to the thought of Carl Schmitt?

The turn toward Schmitt that alienated so many readers of Telos journal during the 1980s and 1990s (see Timothy Luke and Ben Agger’s book on the journal) came from a deep engagement and perhaps a sense of exhaustion of what Critical Theory was capable of producing.  The academic discourse of political theology, outside of self-congratulatory Christian genealogies of Metz and Moltmann that attempted to reform Schmitt’s political theology in the wake of the church’s ethical vacancy with respect to the Shoah, has emerged in the 21st century as a concern for the possibilities of democracy amid more and more frequent states of exception.

Again, we should note the usefulness of Scott’s concept of a problem space, because it allows us to more consciously attend to the questions and desires framing discourse itself.  If we identify political theology as a kind of discourse, what are the desires and motivations at stake within it?  What is left out?  How, as Habermas framed in a different register, do we develop an awareness for what is missing?

Here again I find a return to the non-Christian Horkheimer and Adorno especially useful in thinking within the “postsecular” moment.  In the second chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, “Excursion I: Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment,” Horkheimer and Adorno read Homer’s Odyssey in a way influenced by scriptural study, philology, typological, and historical criticism.  Here the epic as a genre shows itself to bear the marks of enlightenment by revealing as narrative device and style that stitches together various myths.  This mode points toward a “universal language” (35).   For them this is a “nostalgic stylization.”

As they argue, “the hero of the adventures turns out to be the prototype of the bourgeois individual.”  This argument was echoed by then-emergent Cultural Studies and Antonio Gramsci’s turn toward the notion of hegemony.  And though Horkheimer and Adorno were working in the United States, the approach was quite different than the New Criticism that was current literary criticism at the time.  Such critique was also importantly absent from right-leaning mythological readings in thinkers such as C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, as Robert Ellwood has covered in Politics of Myth.

Preceding moves among French intellectuals during the 1960s, Horkheimer and Adorno also turned to Nietzsche as someone who “recognized the dialectic of enlightenment” (36).  This is important because Hegel was dominant at the time in European schooling.  Marcuse, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty —  existential phenomenology — all built from deep engagements with Hegelian thought, as well as the “humanist” readings of Marx emergent in the 1930s.

Performing their own kind of genealogy, Adorno and Horkheimer were way ahead of the curve and a lot of the thought moves they make show up in later philosophers.  We should also pause to just note that this turn toward mythology is happening among a lot of European thinkers at the time. Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930) attempted mythological rationale for Nazism.  Cassirer’s Myth of the State (1946) attempted to articulate how Nazism came to be and claimed Heidegger’s thought introduce a “passivity” to the irrational.

Chapter three in Dialectic of Enlightenment, “Excursus II: Juliette or Enlightenment & Morality,” moves from a situation of enlightenment expression in Ancient Greek literature to modernity.  They begin by dealing with Kant, “According to Kant, the homogeneity of the general and the particular is guaranteed by the ‘schematism of pure understanding’” (64).  Echoing Hegel, they write that “the bourgeois in the successive forms of the slave-owner, the free entrepreneur, and the administrator is the logical subject of enlightenment” (65).

Religion as invoked within modern thought is inefficacious for Horkheimer and Adorno because it is subordinated to enlightenment.  Morality becomes sentimental, and here we might think of Jane Austen’s brilliance in Sense and Sensibility with respect to discussions about affectivity, but we ought also consider the lonely and unsung end of Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  In these novels, the form of the novel expresses the search for the subtlety of new ways of being in ways that have become increasingly difficult for the artistic form in the 21st century.

This signals an aesthetic problem distinct from Walter Benjamin’s warnings about the aestheticization of politics.  The modes of genre and discourse limit expressivity.  In French literary thought this problem had been signaled by attempts to return to a “zero degree,” as one of Roland Barthes’s early books phrased it.  But creative writers still work with this problem today.

It is not merely, as fiction writer Brian Evenson laments in “Notes on Fiction and Philosophy,” that often our tastes are “firmly entrenched in 19th century notions of consistency.”  It is also the fact that the modern novel took on the role of tragic expression.  Although beginning in picaresque works like Don Quixote, the modern novel came to serve a different mode.  As is commonly taught in literature courses and well-written textbooks like Pelagia Goulimari’s Literary Criticism and Theory from Plato to Postcolonialism, “against neoclassical dogma (that tragedy concerns itself with the fate of the socially prominent), the novel as a genre is committed, in particular, to the serious treatment of common people, as Erich Auerbach claims in Mimesis” (37).

As the citation of Auerbach attests, the turn toward myth and literature among continental thinkers between the wars and just after WWII expresses a turn to modes of literature for aesthetic answers.  This is not to say that there have not been significant literary works outside of those circles. I am merely pointing out the dependence powerful thinkers had on the literary during their own states of exception.

In their shift to modernity, Horkheimer and Adorno generally move toward philosophy with the exception of their discussion of the Marquis de Sade. Implicit here is the rejection of mythology for the very reason that it has fallen under the sway of enlightenment rationality or instrumental reason.  But while they continue to perform a kind of bleak and tragic disposition, their suspicious approach toward mass culture implicitly leaves them suspicious of aesthetics in general.  Instead, their descriptions move into sociology.

I am not here going to delve into Adorno’s later work on aesthetics, but I think sitting with Dialectic of Enlightenment and its move away from the literary in its later chapters speaks to Adorno’s crucial need to study aesthetics against the tendency toward the literary taken up by postwar writings of Heidegger, Schmitt, and Hans Robert Jauss.  However, in the transference from philosophy or legal theory to the literary we see a different use of the literary.  For just as Horkheimer and Adorno move away from the rather serious position that literary works have in their argument, right-leaning German thinkers embrace poetry and re-readings of Hamlet.

To distinguish another angle here, especially from a Jewish thinker and profound critic of romanticism, one could situate Emmanuel Levinas’s reservations about art and literature, despite the fact that Jill Robbins has brilliantly articulated his own relationship to the literary in Altered Reading.

Emmanuel Levinas’s essay, “Reality and Its Shadow” was published in Les Temps Modernes in 1948.  Although Levinas was 42 years old and had been working in philosophy for some time, he was not nearly as famous as Jean-Paul Sartre, although Sartre would not have had access to Martin Heidegger’s writings which inspired his phenomenology had Levinas not translated them into French in the 1930s.

Les Temps Modernes was an avowedly left-leaning journal, but it would be a mistake to read Levinas as a Marxist, and even when one reads Horkheimer and Adorno today, it is difficult to reductively place them into any sort of “marxist” camp.  The fact is that Critical Theory in the post-Weimar years, whether it be Horkheimer and Adorno or Antonio Gramsci, had moved well beyond the kind of reductively high-school readings of “Communism” that someone like Jordan Peterson presents despite the ridiculous attention that his debate with Slavoj Žiźek garnered.

Such is the stupidity with which some people engaged in “theory” today contend.  In American universities there is outright resistance to the genre of thinking and writing mistakenly determined white-masculinist and exceptionalism (though I am sympathetic to a certain extent of the charge).  But as Adorno and Horkheimer articulate well in their later chapters of Dialectic of Enlightenment such anti-intellectualism also harbors anti-Semitism.

The reduction of “theory” to “the left” accompanies an entirely mistaken assumption that universities in the U.S. were “infiltrated” by communist-sympathizing thought with the arrival of Critical Theory.  In reaction, watered-down articulations of critique arrived in less overtly contestable methods of literary study such as New Historicism which, besides attempting to make everything into literature in the wake of Todorov’s comments that I cited in my previous post, largely removed all political critique from the methodology of literary theory, thus making literature itself almost entirely irrelevant to the 21st century generations of students.

Whatever subtlety that materialist historical criticism once had was quickly subsumed by self-congratulatory identity-formations by which liberally-framed students mistook theoretical critique for identity-affirmation. Concerning claims about “Marxism,” in his magnum opus, published in 1961 as Totality and Infinity, Emmanuel Levinas importantly writes:

Demented pretension to the invisible, when the acute experience of the human in the twentieth century teaches that the thoughts of men are borne by needs which explain society and history, that hunger and fear can prevail over every human resistance and every freedom! There is no question of doubting this human misery, this dominion the things and the wicked exercise over man, this animality. But to be a man is to know that this is so. Freedom consists in knowing that freedom is in peril. But to know or to be conscious is to have time to avoid and forestall the instant of inhumanity. It is this perpetual postponing of the hour of treason – infinitesimal difference between man and non-man – that implies the disinterestedness of goodness, the desire of the absolutely other or nobility, the dimension of metaphysics. (35)

In this distinction between human and animal, Levinas is simultaneously qualifying Satrean notions of freedom and politics by appealing to what he calls the metaphysical desire, a desire which is more than lack and “non-adequation,” unable to be understood as a concept or the grasping of vision.

There is a rather pedantic tradition in American universities that reduces Levinas’s critique to some sort of excess of signification that completely “rejects” the Hegelian tradition and dialectical thought.  The typical reaction is to read anything within the “Marxist” tradition as always already utopia and thus inherently or at least cryptically totalitarian and to claim that any criticism has already been accounted for in Hegel’s articulation of contradiction.  In my reading, neither Horkheimer and Adorno nor Levinas fall into that critique.

That contradiction in many ways situates being itself is not sufficiently accounted for by either Hegel or Freud or any of their derivatives because to even conceive of a “contradiction” or a “turn of phrase” or “thought” is false because it always already assumes a communicability by which even the contradiction would be recognized as such. “Contra” — against — “diction” –saying, or “word choice” presupposes communicability.  Thus, even recognition of the contradiction operates within the totalization of otherness, and this is exactly the problem of androcentric, speech-driven political thought from Aristotle on.

Levinas’s suspicions of aesthetics are present early on during the period.  For example, he opens “Reality and Its Shadow” stating that, generally, people think of Art as extraordinary.  It is “more real than real” and thus maintains a metaphysical position. In other words, people tend to relate Art to a metaphysical desire, a desire for an Other, even if they do not realize that they have reduced that Other to a version of the Same.

Realism thus “retains its prestige” (1) because Art, in capturing the Invisible, is able to capture how things really are.  Criticism then supports the metaphysical place of art as extraordinary and professes, through a “parasitic” existence and explication, to access a “depth of reality inaccessible to conceptual intelligence” which “becomes [criticism’s] prey.”

Criticism, as Levinas’s metaphor implies, is bestial and predatory.  It seeks to do violence to the Invisible by making it visible, by saying more than the work can say.  Either that, or criticism professes to be Art itself.  Criticism, Levinas says, is “the public’s mode of comportment. Not content with being absorbed in aesthetic, the public feels the irresistible need to speak.”  The critic is “the one that still has something to say when everything has been said, that can say about the work something else from the work” (2).

In this view, criticism aims to produce an adequation or understanding of the higher truth that the work represents, and in Plotinian and Augustinian hermeneutic fashion (literal, allegorical, parable, anagogical) align the public with true reality.  Levinas uses literature as an example: “We are not always attentive to the transformation that speech undergoes in literature.

Art as speech, art as knowledge, then brings on the problem of committed art, which is a problem of committed literature.” Here Levinas cites Sartre’s Literature and Existentialism.  A relevant passage from Sartre might be:

One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too. And it is not enough to defend them with the pen. A day comes when the pen is forced to stop, and the writer must then take up arms. Thus, however you might have come to it, whatever the opinions you might have professed, literature throws you into battle. Writing is a certain way of wanting freedom; once you have begun, you are engaged, willy-nilly. (65)

Against Sartre, we might ask, “what would writing for slaves look like?”  He obviously has no answer because his version of freedom already relies on an limited reverence for Eurocentric literacy.  Sartre’s words here profess the kind of committed Art to which Levinas is referring, but Levinas is saying that in our conventional dogma, we underestimate the way a completed artwork disengages from the material production.

In this specific sense, Levinas also thwarts the claims that Horkheimer and Adorno want to make against “mass culture.”  In emphasizing the overlooked detachment of art, Levinas is quick to say that he is not valorizing “art for art’s sake,” which he regards as “immoral inasmuch as it liberates the artist from his duties as a man and assures him of a pretentious and facile nobility.”

For Levinas, the “disengaged,” “formal structure of completion” is essential for a work to become art, and so it is by attending to the disengagement that we come to understand aesthetics.  He moves on to question if disengagement must always move toward Platonic ideals or if there is something else.

I want to suggest that this “something else” is not accounted for in Hegelian-derived thought, but that at same time it is is not an ‘antithetical” claim against the Notion of the dialectic.  Similarly, the critique of enlightenment as sublation in Horkheimer and Adorno introduces neither a which that enlightenment had never happened nor an easy answer about what comes next.  Instead, there is a kind of patience coming from an altogether temporality.  This might be a particularly Jewish form of messianism against the typically Marxian one considered in Critical Theory discussions.

Levinas does think there might be something in art that exceeds the understanding.  Contrary to conventional notions of art in the Plotinian sense above, Levinas sees something obscuring and unrevealing about art: “it is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow.”  Thus, Levinas’s thesis is that, far from illuminating reality, Art is created by an eventual rupture in time that obscures reality, moving “in just the opposite direction” of creation.

Levinas goes on to critique Kantian aesthetic disinterest and “grasped” concepts.  Images rather interest us by taking possession of our senses.  He appeals to rhythm’s incantatory nature which brings about a transformation: “in rhythm there is no longer a oneself, but rather a sort of passage from oneself into anonymity.  This is the captivation or incantation of poetry and music” (4).

Art puts us into a state of waking dreams.  This phenomenon he calls “an exteriority of the inward,” equating it to the “ecstatic rites” described in ethnology.  There is thus a kind of primitivism at work in Levinas’s (as well as Horkheimer and Adorno’s) conception of the experience of art as de-subjectivizing the self and producing fodder for a sacrifice.

Music and rhythm take us away from concepts.  To the extent that an image is musical, it entrances us: “Sensation is not a residue of perception, but has a function of its own – the hold that an image has over us, a function of rhythm” (5).  Because art “consists in substituting an image for being, the aesthetic element, as its etymology indicates, is sensation.” Because the entire world can be reduced to sensation there is always something representational about art, whether it is abstract art or classical art.  Levinas then goes on to critique transparency of images.

Again, Levinas implicitly invokes the Plotinian or Augustinian hermeneutic model in which the interpreter moves toward abstraction, toward an anagogical engagement.  Images differ from the “pure transparency” (6) of signs and symbols precisely in resemblance.  Image produces the shadow of reality.  A duality occurs within the internalized projection by which the imagination brackets the world.  Levinas specifically addresses allegory as “an ambiguous commerce with reality in which reality does not refer to itself but to reflection, its shadow.”

Keeping Scott’s argument in mind, which runs the risk of reinpscription to what he calls the “conscripts of modernity” by reaching back to Greek tragedy already favored within enlightenment thought, if there is potential for a “tragic disposition” for analyzing problem-spaces, we ought not allegorize that within a romantic conception of a tragic hero, as so many mid-twentieth thinkers did with Hamlet, for example.

Note that Levinas places allegory in the imaginative construction of the artist.  This, however, glosses over something historical and temporal.  Hermeneutic reading of early written work imposes allegory and typological readings through divinatory uses of texts.

Although this does not counter Levinas’s point, it does qualify it with respect to his focus on the artist.  He seems to have in mind an artist who knows “himself” as such.  He notes that in animal stories “men are seen as these animals and not only through these animals.”

The internalization of an image whose rhythm captures being, which Levinas describes as “that which reveals itself in its truth,” emphasize again that art produces reality’s shadow “on the hither side” of “inner life” (7).  The notion of the shadow affords us the ability to “situate the economy of resemblance within the general economy of being” (8).

While Levinas is sounding sufficiently Platonic in his resonance to the allegory of the cave, his locating the shadow on “the hither side” of being is uniquely modern.  Like Horkheimer and Adorno, he is not wishfully rejecting enlightenment’s history.  It is in locating this place that he invokes the problem of idol worship.  The phenomenon of the idol is more present in the plastic arts than in literature and music.  Even in masterpieces the figures are caricatures of aspiration to be alive.

Tragedy is embedded within this caricature (9).  The paradoxical static-dynamic nature of resemblance produces the idea of fate, as in the ways characters are frozen into the repetition of the same actions in a novel over and over.  Here, we must note that Levinas is prioritizing the power of the text in itself as opposed to the hermeneutic ability of the reader, whose life would necessarily change between different readings of a novel and producing different resonances with its contents.

He moves backward historically to Greek drama to say, “That is what myth is: the plasticity of history” (10). There is something of a euhemerist quality to Levinas’s theory of literary development here.  The genius of modern literature, for Levinas, is in its way of “seeing inwardness from the outside” (11).  Writers like Poe are especially able to capture the “interval” of the anxiety of being-toward-death: “It is as though death were never dead enough, as though the parallel with the duration of the living ran the eternal duration of the interval – the meanwhile.”

He then takes a religious turn: “The proscription of images is truly the supreme commandment of monotheism, a doctrine that overcomes fate, that creation and revelation in reverse.”  What would a non-monotheistic frame look like that is not situated in the romanticized pantheism that produces nostalgic “returns” to archaic revivals or hopelessly utopic?

Returning to his initial metaphor of predator and prey, Levinas begins his conclusion saying, “Art then lets go of the prey for the shadow.”  There is something about art that, more than distorting reality or merely offering a bad copy, actually dissuades us from doing violence to the metaphysical Other – although he has only implied that Other in this essay.

Art’s value is in its suspended state of duration: “The value of this instant is thus made of its misfortune.  This sad value is indeed the beautiful of modern art, opposed to the happy beauty of classical art.”  At the same time, art risks evasion from “initiative and responsibility.”  He goes on a bit more harshly:

Myth takes the place of mystery.  The world to be built is replaced by the essential completion of its shadow.  This is not the disinterestedness of contemplation but of irresponsibility.  The poet exiles himself from the city.  From this point of view, the value of the beautiful is relative.  There is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague.

Here Plato’s Republic resounds over post World War II Europe.  Art, by itself, is not committed.  So, for Levinas, Art cannot be the “supreme value of civilization” – it cannot, in a Kantian sense, mediate a dialectic by substituting symbols for human conflict and producing a conversation through which a progressive Enlightenment may occur.

Levinas laments that in his postwar moment, “for almost everyone, [art] is identified with spiritual life.” It is that very sentiment, a carryover of humanism, that is irresponsible for Levinas’s kairotic moment.

Criticism, then, has the possibility of integrating “the human work of the artist into the human world.”  It is in doing so that criticism “links this disengaged and proud man to real history.”  For Levinas, “the artwork must be treated as myth: the immobile statue has to be put into movement and made to speak” (13).  Myth becomes, “the source of philosophical truth.”

By nature, criticism must “choose and limit.”  It is in the interpretation of criticism that we speak in “full self-possession.”  Modern literature, according to Levinas, although it is “disparaged for its intellectualism” is to be praised for manifesting “a more and more clear awareness of this fundamental insufficiency of artistic idolatry.”  The artist comes to be an interpreter of myths “himself.”  The modern artist has the possibility of moving beyond the Renaissance mimetic “creator-God,” but that remains only a possibility. Criticism remains necessary in its return to the living from the shadows.

One hears in Levinas’s conclusion at once the distant echoes of Odysseus leaving the underworld, leaving Circe’s helpful magic behind; and simultaneously his invocation of an emergent ethical conversation concerning “the relation with the other” that will become the focus of Totality and Infinity.  But for my purposes here it is sufficient to let these thoughts sit alongside Horkheimer and Adorno and the broader uses of literature among these mid-twentieth century thinkers.

The “last gasp of humanism” associated with French existentialism and Les Temps Modernes is certainly apparent in Levinas’s essay here, but in retrospect what he is saying is even more pregnant.  During the 1950s, many former Nazi intellectuals turned toward art criticism.  Martin Heidegger, Hans Robert Jauss, and Carl Schmitt are among the most famous.

Those familiar with discourse in political theology will know, in Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba (1956), Schmitt notes the elevation of modern tragedy through the introduction of time into the play.  Analyzing Hamlet through the historical situation of King James I’s mother, Mary, Queen of Scots and her “overhasty” third marriage to James Hepburn, with whom she may have plotted the murder of her second husband (and James’s father), Schmitt accounts for the “event” that lifts Shakespeare to “true tragedy” and the founding myth for modernity in the specificity of the historical moment.

He is not claiming that later audiences necessarily know that history but that the “introduction of the real” – which some scholars see as preceding Lacan’s “Real” and thus theoretically important – infuses tragedy.  Implicitly, Carl Schmitt is refusing to disavow his own past and critiquing a German tendency to turn to aesthetics to mask their own pasts.

Levinas’s “Reality and Its Shadow” also (and before Schmitt) calls for the intrusion of time both in the initial event that breaks the work into its “finished state,” producing resemblance that obscures and casts a shadow, as well as in the necessity for the critic to bring the work back from the shadows.  One is tempted to see two sides of one coin in comparing Levinas and Schmitt here: while Levinas invokes the possibility for a heightened attention to the ethical relationship with the metaphysical Other, Schmitt announces, rather proudly, his complicity with National Socialism.

It is between these two modes and desires that I believe criticism must – and I am following Levinas, Horkheimer and Adorno and Scott here – do its work of demystification in a public forum that not only “understands” a work but maintains an ethical dialectic.  Art, no matter how pessimistic Levinas may seem about it, has an important part to play in this process, especially for the committed artist, committed politically and committed to the prison of resemblance.

While I am critical of Levinas’s privileging of monotheism over the “subsistence” of paganism,(11) and his seeming disdain for “ecstatic rites,” (4) his argument implies more broadly that in engaging with Art we are engaging in the sacrifice, and that in engaging in criticism we are engaging in maintaining an awareness of the performative nature of sacrifice and, above all, what sacrifice is for in the first place: the maintaining of human community, not against outsiders or strangers, who are after all cyphers, but against the violence that arises from our very selves and the meanings we construct.

The ongoing question is how to remain vigilant in our ethically critical stances in relation to aesthetics.  As I have already alluded, this necessitates a critique of androcentrism absent in “postsecular” discussions but present in Indigenous scholarship.  I will turn to them as I continue through later chapters of Dialectic of Enlightenment in my next post.


Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.



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