Reason and Horror: Critical Theory, Democracy, and Aesthetic Individuality

Reason and Horror: Critical Theory, Democracy, and Aesthetic Individuality

Reason and Horror: Critical Theory, Democracy, and Aesthetic Individuality

Reason and Horror: Critical Theory, Democracy, and Aesthetic Individuality

Excerpt

Reason and Honor originally grew out of my dissatisfaction with the failure of political and social theorists to bring the critical theory of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno to bear on the problem of individuality in modern democratic society. In the wake of Horkheimer and Adorno's powerful and dire appraisal of the fate of the modern "subject" in a Western world shaped by the process of enlightenment, there seems to have been a general disregard for the need to reexamine, in light of their work, the character of the individual who is the very center of democracy. A tacit consensus seems to have formed around the view that rather than offering a renewable source of critical analysis, Horkheimer and Adorno's contribution to this issue concluded with the interpretation of their work taking shape in the three decades following the defeat of Fascism. To the exclusion of other possibilities, this tradition of interpretation emphasizes dimensions of their work tracing the disappearance of the individual in late capitalism, who is swept up into a future perpetuating the rationality responsible for the horrors of the past. The approach I take here runs contrary to this tradition. By drawing upon the critical theory of Horkheimer and Adorno and entering it into dialogue with the thought of Nietzsche, Whitman, and Tocqueville, I attempt to theorize a new form of individuality.

"Aesthetic individuality," I believe, has been developing gradually in modern democratic society from its very birth, nurtured by democracy's most fundamental institutions, practices, and principles. By creating the modern self and its world in ways that depend on and promote the flourishing of the great diversity of differences that surround it, aesthetic individuality serves as a barrier to the evil of punishing those who are different by virtue of their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity, among other forms of difference for which individuals and groups are treated punitively. Aesthetic individuality's distinctive quality is that it serves as a barrier to the evil of holocaust and genocidal extermination.

To the extent to which it has been realized, my project has been contributed to generously over the past several years by friends, colleagues, and students. I am especially indebted to Bill Connolly, whose work on identity and difference posed important challenges to my idea of an aesthetic form of individuality, and to George Kateb, whose contributions to a theory of democratic individuality, and contagious love for the art of Walt Whitman, formed the inspired background for my work. I am grateful to George Kateb and Shadia Drury for extensive comments on the entirety of Reason and Horror, which improved its arguments considerably, and to Bill Connolly, Jane Bennett, Dick Flathman, Tom Dumm, Tracy Strong, Stephen White, and Nancy Love for reading and commenting on

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