1. Critical Theory, Commons, and Social Totality:
If we follow Max Horkheimer’s idea of Critical Theory[i] then, we learn, most importantly, that Critical Theory is concerned with the struggle for a total social change. In that respect it differentiates itself from Traditional Theory -which has had difficulty engaging with the idea of change itself. Towards the struggle for total change, Critical Theory wants to dissolve the subject/object binary. One of the ways in which Critical Theory works towards dissolving the subject/object binary is by bringing into question the assumption of subject/ object separation (as an assumed order of things).
Let us try to list some of the key pointers about critical theory, that might help understand about its intentions: 1) It is a ‘theory in action’ -for a better reality, for a right kind of society, for an association of freemen. 2) Questions assumed ideas and order of things. 3) Gives voice to the mystery of existing reality. 3) No customs on its side. 4) Struggle towards a transformation of society as a whole. 5) Against the individual genius (intelligentsia). 6) Man as producer of their own historical way of life. 7) concerned with consistency of rationality (internal consistency, reasonableness, honesty, truth). 8) Neither deeply rooted (totalitarianism) nor detached (liberalism). 9) begins with simple exchange (social, economic, and natural). 10) Working with forces and counterforces. 11) Working towards rational mastery of future (society and nature). 12) Exercise of will power by the knowing subject (conscious relation to historical practice). 13) Events are historically unfolding (historical realization / historical development). 14) Function of knowledge is mastering of nature. 15) bravery and courage. 16) Judgement of anything is only possible contextually (no general criteria).
This sense of holism in critical theory was later nuanced into a pluralism in the works of Habermas (and later Adorno and Horkheimer)[ii]. However, the specter of the Marx’s Critique of Political Economy (or at least its spirit) still persisted in the later development of Critical Theory. Particularly, courage, contextuality, historical reasoning, forces and counterforces, universalism (with plural nuance), among others.
2. The figure of Antigone and Figure of a Critical Theorist:
Courage: In the light of the discussion on the idea of Critical Theory, it seems that one of the most important quality of being a Critical Theorist is Courage.
“I will not urge you. Even if you should wish
To give your help I would not take it now.
Your choice is made. But I shall bury him.
And if I have to die for this pure crime,
I am content, for I shall rest beside him;
His love will answer mine. I have to please
The dead far longer than I need to please
The living; with them, I have to dwell for ever.
But you, if so you choose, you may dishonour
The sacred laws* that Heaven holds in honour.”
This is a sense one gets from Marx, Horkheimer, Zizek, Butler, etc. Be Brave! Be Courageous! Is there an opposite of courage with respect to Critical Theory? Ok, may be, this question is valid only in the dialectical sense. Perhaps what we need to ask is, is it an ‘either, or’ quality. Does one wear the batch of courage to sleep and every waking hour? Can one not have moments of non-courage? Moments of less-courage? Soft-courage? What I am trying to ask is, can courage itself have several qualities? Can one be a critical theorist and not hone the armor of courage on a Winter’s Sunday afternoon?
In Horkheimer’s reading of Traditional Theorists, it appears that the opposite of courage is not cowardice but two other thing 1) complaisance and 2) the figure of a genius. The complaisant kind works in favor of existing reality (order of things); assumes the given state as society; finds expression in formal logic, contribute to the persistence of the past and carry on the business of an outdated order of things; located in the Cartesian dualism of thought and being; congenial to nature and bourgeois society.[iv]
3. Apocalypse and Catastrophe: Events as fissures for a new possibility.
Apocalypse and Catastrophe: Zizek, in this seminar, distinguishes between the idea of Apocalypse and Catastrophe. Apocalypse etymologically means unveiling or disclosure of truth -which in religious thinking usually refers to the revelation of the ultimate truth or reality. While Catastrophe can refer to actual disasters like Pandemic, Earthquakes, Tsunamis, etc. Zizek, building on the ideas of earlier thinkers, continues the argument that perhaps human-life is a series of catastrophe without any disclosure of truth or apocalypse.
This implies that one can only get to the truth of the catastrophe (or, event) only after the fact and never before or during the duration of the event. Like we can never get at the truth of pandemic before the the pandemic, neither during the pandemic, but always after the pandemic.
Zizek sometimes uses the term truth and reality as interchangeable. Like when Zizek agrees with Kant and Heidegger that we can never go beyond the horizon of meanings of our epoch. It is also close to also what Foucault would refer to as episteme. But unlike Foucault and perhaps even Heidegger, Zizek would argue that truth / reality always lies beyond that horizon. Apocalypse in its true sense means the disclosure of horizons, only to figure out that there are further horizons and so on.
If human-life, and by extension humanity at large, is defined by a series of catastrophes and their apocalypses (one wonders if new scientific and philosophical breakthroughs can be categorized neatly in apocalypse or catastrophe?) then, how should humans think about living in this ‘tipsy-turvy’ world, that is constantly erupting? One possible answer that Zizek offers is that, each eruption (or disruption or interpretation) offers an opening towards an alternative future (for a total social change or a universal change). But how can we act once we have realized there is such an opening and an opportunity for social change?
4. What can we do today? Marx’s Philosophical Swerve:
Zizek’s solution for this, in his wonderful counterintuitive manner, is Act as if the Apocalypse has already happened…. But, only to change the destiny.
Here, Zizek wishes to rethink two ideas 1) destiny and 2) Antigone’s ethics. Destiny, as understood in the religious sense, is closely associated with the idea of apocalypse and with the idea of some kind divine will. One can also think about the idea of destiny as what Democritus (a materialist par excellence) called as the ‘bonds of fate’.
Every atom is pushed in a straight line. For Marx, this seemed like an extremely oppressive view of the world and human existence. So, he turns to Epicurus for inspiration who thought, atoms swerve away from the bonds of fate, and hence it is possible for atoms to freely bump into one another, creating variations in forms in the universe[v]. Politically speaking, this idea of swerving away and freely meeting other atoms, is what one sees at the root of all Marxian thought -including the entire lineage of Critical Theory since Marx.
This is important also because, even though Marx and several Marxists are only interested in the social use of philosophy, it becomes evident that philosophy has not run out of steam and carries potential to open new avenues and ways of thinking about the world. As Zizek himself has been arguing, that the end of philosophy has been declared several times already in history, only to find philosophy to shake several grounds in its developments.
Returning to the question of destiny and bonds of fate. Zizek proposes that we should not wait for one more catastrophe or apocalypse to take place. But to behave as if apocalypse has already occurred, as we are already living in a catastrophe, and figure out ways to change or swerve away from that destiny or fate. So, we should not wait for climate change to happen one day. On the contrary, behave as if it has already taken place (which many indications have proven without doubt) and strategies our actions to change the change of climate. If not that grand a change, then at least, to figure out how can ‘we’ ‘all’ can live in this tipsy-turvy event.
This question of ‘we’ and ‘all’ is the central question of Critical Theory. All lives matter, because Black Lives Matter. Here, Zizek pushes to reinterpret the scene from Sophocles’ Antigone which concerns with the dilemma of burying her brother who is considered as a traitor in the polis. Here, Zizek wants us to focus on another ‘but’ in Antigone’s dialogues. The ‘but’ that concerns with discarding the laws of the polis for what is ethically right or correct.
“Your choice is made. But I shall bury him.”
This might appear, that Zizek is in favor of the few over the many, or all. However, as Zizek himself argues, that we should consider this ‘but’ as a way to think about ‘universality’ today. We should argue that ‘not all lives matter but black lives matter’. In other words, all lives matter, because! Black lives matter! To put it the framework of the maxims of Critical Theory, it would mean to join hands with the struggles of those very many, who the global polis excludes from their net of care -regardless of the fact that our actions are against or outside the purview of laws of the land.
This poses an interesting question on the idea of ethics, but also more importantly on the idea of chance and precarity of life regardless of the dominant mode of production or the form of civilization that we are part of. Zizek urges us to consider not only the difference between ethics (Kant’s formalism) and morals (socially accepted norms), but to add one more category of social responsiveness: one posited by Antigone when she acts despite action for the sake of action and what is socially accepted (law of the land).
5. Would it not be a kind of religious thinking? Life, chance, and accidents are so weird that despite all facts it seems that life continues. I am thinking more about human-life. For instance, there are several devastating road accidents, train accidents, aircraft accidents, home accidents, etc. that take place on a daily basis across the very many human settlements and their backyards. Yet, those of us, who are not part of such accidents assume and work as if life goes on. Perhaps it does, also. But this poses an interesting question to the idea that Zizek is proposing: ‘act as if Apocalypse has already happened, but only to change that destiny.’ This would mean, that every waking hour of human existence, one should only be occupied with nothing other than the Apocalypse that has happened and how to find our way out of it. If religious thinking is about avoiding a utopian apocalypse, then Zizekian thinking seems to be about getting over or moving away from the actual catastrophe (perhaps to another catastrophe?). But would this still mean a certain kind of religious thinking from other side. Why? Precisely because, humans, in this model are expected to be active and self-conscious all the time, mobilize all efforts towards swerving away from an event or catastrophe that that is currently unfolding -instead of avoiding divine judgement.
[i] Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays (A&C Black, 1972).
[ii] James Bohman, “Critical Theory,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2021 (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2021), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/critical-theory/.
[iii] Sophocles, Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
[iv] Horkheimer, Critical Theory.
[v] Karl Marx, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, 1967.