History, Progress, Critique
The relationship between historical analysis and critical social praxis has been one of the central concerns of critical theory since its beginnings. For critical theorists, historical analysis plays a key role in identifying immanent social forces and potentials as resources for a better society, i.e. for social and moral progress. While it was sufficient for the first generation of critical theorists to adopt a non-vulgarized version of historical materialism – perhaps with a Nietzschean “genealogical proviso” – as a method for analysis, the experiences of the Second World War and the Holocaust made it necessary to radically rethink the naive teleological assumptions inherent in the notion of progress provided by German Idealism and Marxism. Critical theory found itself confronted with the problem of grounding historical analysis on an alternative philosophy of history. The need to rethink the philosophy of history found its first expression in the seminal work of Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Since then, any effort to substantially reorient critical theory has required a reassessment of the philosophy of history and its key notions.
This is perhaps the motivation behind Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s engagements with the concept of progress. They asked whether the very notion of progress presents an impediment to the radical transformation of society. If so, the concept of progress would need to be transformed. A similar question plays a crucial role in poststructuralist and postcolonial strands of contemporary critical theory. On the one hand, prominent theorists such as Foucault and Derrida developed their critical perspectives on the rejection of not only rationalist but also structuralist binaries, including traditional/modern, static/dynamic, or progressive/regressive. The poststructuralist deconstruction of processes of knowledge and subjectivity production has generated transdisciplinary and emancipatory agendas that significantly enhance the scope of critical analysis. On the other hand, critical postcolonial theory has shown how the idea of progress has justified colonial exploitation and domination. The reassessment of the category of modernity, and the subsequent call for methodological self-reflexivity aims at transcending the sometimes narrow and Eurocentric perspective of the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory. Feminist theory has also opened new perspectives that allow us to critique patriarchal historical narratives that obscure gender differences and promote masculinist ideas of progress.
In light of these challenges, this conference asks whether and how to hold onto a philosophy of history and a notion of progress that enable critical theory to reflect on its own dependency on historical developments and prevent reifications. We invite all interested scholars to address the following questions:
- Does critical theory need a philosophy of history?
- How should the normative assumptions of critical theory relate to historical experience?
- What role does historical experience play, or what role should it should play, in transforming the theory and practice of critique?
- How should critical theory reassess the notion of progress today?
- Can genealogy as a historical method be reconciled with a critical notion of progress?
- Do we need to decolonize critical theory’s philosophy of history? How is this possible?
- Is the notion of progress an impediment to emancipatory transformation? Is critique possible without the notion of progress?
- What understanding of temporality is necessary for a critical theory of history and progress? How do changes in temporal structures under neoliberal conditions affect our critical understanding of history and progress?
- What relationship should be established between notions of progress and contemporary political, social, economic, and technological structures?