Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics

By Satya P. Mohanty | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION: CRITICISM AS POLITICS

When Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer declared in a 1947 essay that the Enlightenment was "totalitarian," they revealed the deep anxiety many intellectuals in our times have felt about the founding age of modern criticism.1. That this anxiety has crystalized as a political concern in contemporary critical debates is an irony in need of some explanation. For the Enlightenment, declaring itself the "age of criticism" and of faith in reason to battle human superstition and servitude, saw itself as inherently radical and subversive. So while Voltaire based his critique of the Roman Catholic church on pleas for religious toleration, for instance, he mounted a powerful attack on clericalism in all its forms. And the publication of Diderot Encyclopedia was suppressed, at least for a while, for the "irreparable damage" it was supposed to do to "morality and religion." Even Kant, after the publication of Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, was forbidden by royal decree from writing anything further on the subject. There is thus an irony in the desire of any "critical" discourse to define itself in political opposition to the principles of the Enlightenment, but the fact is that Adorno and Horkheimer were not alone. Indeed, their wariness about the Enlightenment's faith in reason is shared by most contemporary theorists influenced by postmodernism. If faith in the power of reason to liberate us is an essential characteristic of (Enlightenment) critical modernity, the

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1.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming ( New York: Continuum, 1993), p. 6, and see p. 24.

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