Fail again, Fail Better: Reification, Critical Theory and Crisis

I spent part of my summer on the following, which tries to provide contemporary critical theory with a notion of crisis by drawing on and developing the Marxian strand of Lukacs’ theory of reification. In so doing, I thought I could criticize how contemporary critical theory revised Lukacs’s theory, point to the dearth of contemporary critical-theoretical accounts of crisis, and develop such a theory. A neat idea, or so I thought. But as you can imagine,  this led to an argument that was too compact, and not critical enough of Lukacs. So I’m going to split them into two.

The first article will look at and criticise Honneth, Feenberg and Chari’s utilization of Lukacsian elements of reification from the perspective of the current economic crisis. Here I will argue that the elements of Lukacs they draw on eschew the Marxian elements of his theory which conceives of reification in terms of the autonomous, inverted, dominating and crisis-prone dynamic of capitalist society. This leads all three to focus on criticizing elements within society on the basis of passivity in the context of theories of intersubjectivity or the separation between structure and agency, rather than criticizing the domination of the dynamic that issues from reifed society as such.

This leads me to uncover the Marxian element of Lukacs’s theory of reification. Here I show that a theory of crisis can be discerned that is linked to the autonomous, inverted and dominating dynamic of reified society. Yet as I also show, this theory is fragmentary and is undermined by the other aspects of Lukacs’s theory, which Honneth, Feenberg and Chari adapt, holding that reification can be overcome simply by dissolving the proletarian passivity and grasping and coordinating production and distribution, rather than by reordering society as such.

As a consequence, I turn to elucidating how these Marxian elements were reconfigured by the early Horkheimer and his formulation of the critical theory of society. For as I show, Horkheimer construes the critique of political economy in terms of the manner in which the capitalist social form constitutes the ‘basic structure’ of society which possesses ‘the real compulsiveness’  wherein  “the autonomy which the economic forces have acquired in respect to humanity, the dependence of all social groups on the self-regulation of the economic apparatus” compel the production and reproduction of human life. Such a formulation, not only provides a more robust and non-contradictory account of the autonomous inverted and dominating aspects of Marx’s theory than Lukacs, it also points to how crises inevitably arise from such a dynamic. Finally, it aligns this account of crises with a critique of the very same social form that triggers crisis, in Horkheimer’s seminal formulation of the critical theory of society. As such, this account of Horkheimer’s construal of reification, critical theory and crisis, not only contests the shibboleth that the Frankfurt School merely took up Lukacs’s theory, but makes the case that contemporary critical theory should revisit these formulations of reification rather than Lukacs’s pre-critical theory, in order to formulate a critical theory of society as such, rather than one within society.

The second article will develop such an account of crisis on this basis incorporating the above framework I unpack in Horkheimer with Marx, the NML and historical accounts of the recent crisis.

Both will take up and rework elements of the attached, which is a failure, but hopefully an interesting one. reificationcrisisandcriticalsocialtheory5



About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
This entry was posted in crisis, critical theory, Horkheimer, Lukacs. Bookmark the permalink.

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