Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Time and Critical Theory

When the shadow of the sash appeared in the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said, Quentin, I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reductio absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury.

I've just run through Hartmut Rosa's little summary: Alienation and Acceleration. On the one hand, I respond on a deep, intuitive level to the argument that perhaps the central experience of alienation in contemporary society--late modernity, says Rosa--stems from lack of control over time. Yet I'm unconvinced along several dimensions. First, it seems that too much of the 'acceleration' effect in which Rosa is interested can be rolled into competition. This is more of an adjustment of a Critical Theory of capitalism than a new beginning--perhaps Rosa would not disagree. And the arguments Rosa makes about the necessity that Habermasian and Honnethian (!) critical theory take account of social (political) acceleration--this makes sense. Certain examples make me hesitant: there is nothing about the traffic jam, for instance, which depends on contemporary technology. It's even a kind of pure sociological phenomenon. The final pages of the book become quite casual and essayistic in their presentation of evidence--it is no longer a reconstruction/critique of the tradition of Critical Theory, but evidence of alienation drawn from, god help us, introspection and popular social psychological publications (the introspection i'll stand behind, the social psychology may be slander). Of course, there is also the problem that Critical Theory generally has, it's all identification of a problem, at its best in brutal lucidity. And then no hope at all for the future. Certainly I am not convinced that a Critical Theory built on what I think may be called a virtue ethics has any better chance of doing this than a more conventionally Marxist one--the Marxists can at least tell us to go make revolution.

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