Andrew Feenberg’s ‘Revisiting Reification’ is one of the articles I alluded to in my previous post that attempts to save Lukacs’ theory of reification by abandoning any of its Marxian elements. In contrast to Honneth, Feenberg’s attempt to rescue the theory does try to elaborate a supraindividual, rather than intersubjective, notion of reification. Unfortunately, the way Feenberg does this is unsatisfactory in a way that is exemplary of contemporary critical theory. What follows are some notes on why I think this is the case.
In the first place Feenberg does not engage with Lukacs’ Marxian heritage, nor with the Marxian heritage of the Frankfurt School. Instead these Marxian notions are often dismissed as antiquated or written off by conflating them with the sort of vulgar understandings of Marx that pervade contemporary critical theory. Lukacs’ theory is therefore introduced as ‘no longer credible’ but it is not explained why this is the case. Later on history is personified as the judge of Marxist politics because the revolution never came about. (Curiously history does not pass judgement on Marcusian sexual desublimation, which is still groovy)
The presence of this absence is felt in Feenberg’s move to revitalize critical theory. The lack of any discussion of Marx or the importance of Marx in Lukacs and the Frankfurt School’s social theory might be said to be one of the main underlying reasons that Feenberg’s attempt at revitalization is so unsatisfactory. The tact of using woolly terms such as rationality, instrumental reason and social pathologies are indicative of the unintended irony of a fatuous diagnosis of what is ailing society; it is not a historically specific form of social production (capital) that creates and utilizes technology in order to reproduce itself, but technology as such; therefore such a diagnosis does not call for critical theory of society that provides an analysis of how technology is integral to this specific social dynamic, but a critical theory of technology.
Such a critical theory tries to out Lukacs the early Lukacs. In contrast to the late Lukacs, Feenberg claims that the early Lukacs did not conflate alienation with objectification. Feenberg’s argument for why this is the case is confused: in the first case he states that Lukacs couldn’t have thought objecification had to be overcome because the Marxist method is one example of such a form of objectification. This ignores the immanence of such a method that will no longer be relevant when capitalism – i.e. reified totality – is de-reified and thus de-objectified. (Marxist theory would hardly be necessary in communism when we would be happily reconciled with everything.) Yet later Feenberg notes that Jay rightly points out that Lukacs follows Hegel in viewing history as a process of humanity’s reconciliation with its alienated forms, which is precisely what the late Lukacs criticises the early Lukacs for.
Furthermore, Feenberg’s notion of technology is symptomatic of Lukacs’s conflation of objectification and alienation qua reification. As Feenberg defines it — technology is created by alienated social processes and becomes a second nature which structures and deceives those who constitute it. Technology, therefore, is essentially an objectified thing that is separated from those who produce it. Like Lukacs’ reified totality, this means that technology should be seized by the collective technological subject on behalf of Feenberg’s empty notion of democratization.
Feenberg’s proposal for revitalizing reification can then be said to revitalize the worst aspects of Lukacs’ theory. Devoid of the categories Lukacs used in attempt to explain the constitution of reification qua capitalist totality, Feenberg makes an argument for revitalizing some of the most questionable aspects of Lukacs’ theory which are based on an even more questionable object of critique. Rather than the best aspects of Lukacs’ theory which attempted to extend Marx’s theory of value as a theory of how and in what way the historically specific forms of capitalist social domination were constituted and how they were constituent of a myriad of social phenomena, Feenberg follows the worst in arguing that technology is a form of reification because it can be said to share the same properties as Lukacs’ theory. Even worse, Feenberg does not attempt to link technology to the dynamic of capital or to capitalist society, eschewing a critical theory of society for one of technology. Yet surely it is not technology that instils the type of rationalized, contemplative and instrumental behaviour he faults it with but the very social form that compels the creation of these types of technology. Simply thus democratizing its operation will not get at the root of the problem, nor does a diagnosis of technological reification.