Interview with German social theorist Alex Demirović. –
Andrius Bielskis: Let me start with your reasons for choosing to study philosophy. What prompted you to study it and how did you become interested in Marxism and/or Critical Theory? You did your first degree in Philosophy, Sociology and German Studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. You also studied in Marburg and Paris. Who were your philosophy teachers that influenced your philosophical thinking the most? What was it like to study Critical Theory in the mid-1970s in Germany and France?
Alex Demirović: I don’t think that we are fully conscious about the social and philosophical choices we are involved in. These things happen, but they are not transparent for us for the time being (in actu). But nevertheless let me try to give you an idea about the constellation in which I decided to study philosophy. Until the age of sixteen I was more or less a Christian. I was a member of the boy-scouts and raised, formally speaking, relatively strictly in a Christian way (going to church every Sunday, going to confirmation class). The faith confronted me with some irresolvable philosophical paradoxes: why does God allow evil to happen or why doesn’t he help me? What about freedom of choice: is there such a thing? Why do human beings behave in an aggressive way and are hostile to each other? Is this a kind of a proof of the seriousness of religious faith? Of course some of these problems I had had been trivial: the girlfriend I felt in love with, school problems, but also problems you do not take at the beginning very serious but they turn out to be grave.
I was a working class kid, the income of my parents was very low and that erodes your self-esteem, my father was a former slave worker under the Nazi-regime, a displaced person, I myself was like my father stateless until the age of fourteen. So in a way I experienced to be an outsider – like so many of my friends who were children of Germans refugees from Eastern European countries not familiar with Germany and the German language and confronted with hostility in our village. These experiences trigger an intellectual process that changes the whole view on the world and god: from a personal god who is observing and controlling you and causes everything that happens I ended in some assumption of a deist version of faith. At a certain point I wondered how others thought on these problems. Increasingly I had the impression that these problems are in fact not resolvable, that they are wrong problems, problems without any meaning. So the reference point, the frame changed very quick.
One of my teachers I came in contact with in 1968 was the first during all these years who gave me the feeling that what I thought made sense. He was familiar with all the modern literature: Faulkner, Beckett, Pavese, Trakl, Brecht, Thomas Bernhard, Jürgen Becker, not the ordinary literature we were forced to read. But even reading with him Goethe or Höldelin opened my eyes. As a university student in the early sixties he came in contact with Adorno, and he and his wife lived rather unconventional lives. At this point, in ’68 there was a strong impact on me by the movement of students everywhere. I was so impressed by some of the German spokespersons of the student movement, namely Rudi Dutschke. He gave a famous interview on TV. Looking retrospectively, I didn’t understand a word, but immediately I had the strong sense that this is an intellectual challenge I had to cope with. I became involved in the student protests against the restrictions to attend university, an attempt of the conservatives controlling the state bureaucracy to limit the number of university students and to continue with elitism of the German system of higher education. For the first time I read Marx, Marcuse, Adorno with other students. Although I didn’t understand very much, everything seemed to be so promising.
In school we learned a lot on recent German history, the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, the conservative resistance of the high ranks in the German army, but nobody explained to us that there has been a long history of build up to the Second World War, that there was so much resistance by communists and social democrats, that the first world war ended with a revolution, a civil war in Germany and a three month success of workers councils becoming the government of Germany and after a first defeat again the Munich council republic was founded. Anti-communism was part of the ideology of the Nazis as well as of the Federal Republic. Since Heidegger and other intellectual supporters of the Nazi regime it was a common argument that the Nazis fought against bolshevism in agency for the free western countries. It was like a Paulus-effect: suddenly you understand why some of your fellow students at highschool could define themselves as Nazis terrorizing others. You are aware that some brutal teachers have been former members of the SS and so they give support to the right students in the classroom. We were obliged to collect money for the so called brothers and sisters in the Russian occupied eastern Germany (nobody was allowed to speak of GDR) – and suddenly you understand that you are part of a process of ideological domination, of false consciousness.
With the student protests we could elaborate on our perspective and detect the truth. In the name of freedom there was warfare in Vietnam, the military coup d’état in Greece in Chile, in Argentina, the Franco regime in Spain, the dictatorship in Portugal, the colonial war in Algeria, there was so much killing and torture and persecution in so many countries (Iran, Brazil, El Salvador). What I and others experienced was a whole continent of knowledge und political activity. Of course we have read Sartre in school but it was just school stuff, a duty, not taken seriously. Nobody helped you to decipher these texts as Marxists – most of the teachers hadn’t any idea of what Marxism is and lived an anticommunist ideology. More so in the case when they themselves were former refugees from the GDR. Now we could discover the context and read all these unknown books burned by the Nazis and taken out from the libraries and reprinted now by left activist. These books were republished, resistance fighters have been invited to speak about their experiences and their history, persecuted persons have been interviewed. Before these activities of reprinting the books and selling them in left and newly founded bookstores we couldn’t read the books of those people from the left and attempt to understand their debates as being part of our own life. Because the winners were these people who were still in power everywhere. And what was the worst of all: suddenly you are aware of that they forced us to live naïf, in a meaningless world without any perspective. Not in the sense of housing, food, car, job and so on – although all these aspects played of course a role, but in a new perspective: which meaning has all this for your individual life? Would you feel happy? Is life something that only consists of those basic ambitions: having a good job, buying a car, finding a woman, having children, building a house? Is that all what you might expect from your life: working, earning money to be able to go to work the other day to work to earn money – an endless repetition of the same? So everyday life, the whole perspective of the individual life horizon has been put into question. What I mean is: metaphysical problems lost their relevance or better, what I understood was that metaphysical problems are the appearance of something more concrete and material. And I figured out that these questions were those I wanted to be concerned with, to found out which answers have been given to those questions and what I can contribute to this.
All this happened between 1968 und 1971. I then decided to study philosophy in West-Berlin or Frankfurt am Main. In Frankfurt of course there still existed after the death of Adorno and the departure of Jürgen Habermas to Starnberg in summer 1971 in the department of philosophy a little continuity of Frankfurt School. Many of the philosophy students fought in favor for Alfred Schmidt becoming the successor on the chair of Max Horkheimer. Alfred Schmidt was alongside with Haag, Schweppenhäuser and some younger philosophers like Günther Mensching, Peter Bulthaup, Frieder Schmidt or Rudolf zur Lippe one of the most promising scholars in Critical Theory. He published a book on Marx and the concept of nature and also several important pieces on Marx, in particular Marxist epistemology (Erkenntnistheorie) and the materialist tradition of philosophy. He taught Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, philosophy of history, and he was collaborating with others like Hans Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, both engaged in the project of interpreting “Capital” from a critical theory perspective focusing on chapter 1 of Capital and the Grundrisse following the Ukrainian communist Roman Rosdolsky and his path breaking book on the theoretical project of Marx – they referred so much to Lenin’s sentence that nobody had understood “Capital” unless they hadn’t read Hegel’s Science of logic. Also Jürgen Ritsert or Joachim Hirsch have been part of this group of younger scholars committed to Critical Theory. And this means that philosophy and social science amalgamated to a new form of Marxism.
So as a young student in Frankfurt you could imagine that all these people were following one theoretical project combining most challenging philosophical arguments with psychoanalysis, state theory, philosophy of science with the aim to elaborate an encompassing critical theory including what was called a theory of revolution. Theory of revolution was the name for a lack in Marx’ theory, and aimed to a theory of action and of transition. This lack was seen as the main reason for the failures in the history of the socialist movement because only with such a theory it was expectable to avoid authoritarianism. In this context what was also important for me and some friends was the fact that Alfred Schmidt wrote an important book on History and Structure that came out in 1972, a criticism of Althusser and with strong reference to Gramsci. For us it was a challenge. We read all the recent publications by Althusser and his collaborators, Rancière, Badiou, Balibar, Poulantzas, also Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Bachelard, Canguilhem, Deleuze, Derrida, Kristeva, Lacan, Saussure, Barthes. I often went to Paris to go to the seminars of these people. In the beginning the reason was just to understand better what we intended to criticize and what was seen as structuralism.
But becoming more familiar with the so called poststructuralist debate I became more and more convinced that many of the questions of Critical Theory were in some aspects better and with deeper historical knowledge elaborated by those authors. The linguistic and semiotic turn was auspicious, it enabled very concrete analyses of everyday life habits. The anti-metaphysical reading of the philosophical tradition practiced by Derrida or Buci-Glucksmann, the more formalized way of analyzing culture was inspiring (to find out that there was such a long and unknown tradition like that of Jacobson, Propp, Erlich, Bachtin, Volosinov was so exciting). I myself in particular became interested in Marxist state theory and was very interested in the work of Nicos Poulantzas in Paris and Joachim Hirsch in Frankfurt and also in Foucault’s theory of power and truth. But at that time my project was the PhD thesis on Marxist aesthetics, an epistemological inquiry on the discursive structure of Marxist approaches: Lukács’ late work on aesthetics, Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht, Marcuse, Althusser, Gramsci – and with reference to the above mentioned Russian and Saussurian tradition). At that time, in 1976 it was for the first time I read Gramsci. His prison notebooks at that time were not translated yet into German. So I learned Italian and started studying Gramsci. It was attractive to become familiar with the Italian tradition of the left because it was very fruitful with all its approaches and militancy: operaism, postoperaism, the communist party, the left faction of communist like Magri or Rossanda, Ingrao. Many of the hopes were destroyed with the assassination of Aldo Moro who was the first Christian Democratic Party (Democrazia Cristiana) leader who agreed to a historical compromise with the Communist party. In 1979 I finished my doctoral thesis.
A.B.: To continue our discussion on your intellectual trajectory, you worked at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt on a number of philosophical topics focusing on the importance of critical theory of the Frankfurt School for studying politics and culture of postwar Germany. Your first book Jenseits der Ästhetik. Zur diskursiven Ordnung der marxistischen Ästhetik (1982) was on Marxist aesthetics while your later books were focus on the state, democratic theory, in particular economic democracy (a good example is your Demokratie in der Wirtschaft, 2007). You also published a book on Nicos Poulantzas (Nicos Poulantzas: Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung, 1987), an influential albeit undeservedly forgotten Greek Marxist. How then would you retrospectively describe your philosophical trajectory? What have been and still are the main philosophical questions you are trying to pose and tackle?
A.D.: My concern with aesthetics was the experience of the paradoxical constellations in left debates. There was always a kind of perplexity in the analyses: is a novel in the perspective of art a good novel when the plot, the characters are ugly or critical. Kafka and Joyce have been criticized by Lukács as phenomena of erosion, of bourgeois decadence; Marcuse argued in favor of Schiller, Adorno instead saw Schiller in a critical note as an ancestor of the Nazis, he had his sympathies for Beckett and Proust, Schoenberg and Berg and with some conservative authors. Adorno argued that conservatives as well could take up conversation on important aspects of bourgeois regime and advocated for a sort of saving critique. He disliked Brecht and authors explicitly on the left. As young students we endlessly were engaged in debates if Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix are subversive or part of cultural industries and already conformist. So the core problems were repeating again and again. The theoretical and political expectation that between the quality of an art oeuvre and a political position exist a logic connection failed.
That was the problem of intellectuals like Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno or Brecht: how is the progressive, critical character of an art piece to be determined? What needs to be done so that art gains a critical function? After having time and again led such discussions anew and kept hitting the same wall, I wanted to think precisely about these kinds of debates, about these cycles into which the philosophical aesthetic questions entangle us. My ambition was not to add another aesthetic judgment or to be satisfied with this kind of ideology criticism but to analyse the structure of the whole discourse in Marxist terms that means: the discourse as organically articulated with the civil society, intellectuals and the mode of living of the bourgeoisie. Within this context I also tried to cultivate the ideas of Derrida or Foucault, the approaches of Russian formalism, in order to get out of the aesthetic. Today I think that I overestimated the possibilities, which those approaches offer for a critical analysis of aesthetic and the materialistic theory of artistic practice.
These considerations – and following those arguments in the “German Ideology”, Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy”, Adornos concept of dialectics, Althussers meta-reflections on philosophy, the archeology of Foucault and the theory of hegemony of Gramsci – led me to the idea that philosophy is in itself a discourse worth to do research on. Marx positioned himself with good reason against the philosophical critique, which he ironically called the critical critique. He said that the times of critique of religion were over. But in another aspect Marx was wrong: philosophy is in itself a practice worth to do research on. But what does philosophy mean? What is philosophy about? What is the function of philosophical problems, discourses, practices, and institutions in modern capitalist society? So you see that I took up my questions of the late sixties and early seventies and gave them a new turn: now I argued that philosophy is a practice of intellectuals and plays with its forms of arguing and bringing up problems a role in the organization of civil society (in the Gramscian sense) and domination; that even the bourgeois society continues in different forms with metaphysics – it is structured metaphysically. There is a struggle going on about the right to define reason and truth and to traca out the horizon of intelligibility and reasonability.
And it is not possible to solve those problems by some correct lingual practices as the early Wittgenstein or Carnap and others believed. In modern, bourgeois philosophy the object of struggle is the concept of reason. My plan was to write a book on the early conceptualization of reason in the German Enlightment, based on empirical research. But then I followed this program by doing this kind of research on the concept of reason in Critical Theory. What did they do when they reflected on this concept? Which intellectual practices (academic, journals, empirical research, activities in scientific societies, how the empirical field of philosophy was structured: professorships, journals, publishers) were connected with this concept? How did they teach and how did they organize their academic work: teaching, examines, research? Struggling for reason means to argue in favor for specific models of intellectuals, a division of intellectual and manual labor, a way of universalizing a hegemonic world view or to contest it and to fight for different universalities.
So in some aspects it is about a critical impulse against the problems and questions in philosophy, which was present in analytical philosophy as well. Is it not possible to overcome such problems. Where such problems are rational, they can be further researched as scientific questions. That is also the idea of Habermas, when he speaks of the “placeholder function” of philosophy (der Platzhalterfunktion der Philosophie). But the problem is complex as it is also about taking philosophy seriously as a social practice.
A.B.: My next question is about Marxism and the Frankfurt School. Alasdair MacIntyre, who was a Marxist in the early stages of his philosophical career (an interview with him is also included in this short book), has argued that one of the reasons for the failure of Marxism by the end of 20th century was that it gradually ceased to inform the political praxis of the working class. This maybe one of the reasons why a number of influential philosophers have gradually distance themselves from Marxism – Jürgen Habermas and Alasdair MacIntyre are two immediate examples that come to my mind – in the 1970s and 1980s. You, on the other hand, took a different root and engaged both with the Frankfurt School and so called French poststructuralists and with orthodox Marxism. What were the philosophical reasons behind your decision to swim against the stream, so to speak, which, by the way, cost you dearly (in 2002 you were refused, on a purely political ground, a professorship at Frankfurt despite public pleas and objections by a number of influential figures such as Judith Butler, Nancy Fraser, Iris Marion Young, and others)? What were your philosophical disagreements with Jürgen Habermas about?
A.D.: First of all I think it is a question of definition. I think Marxism underwent several crises. The crises of Marxism were not causes only from “outside”: the growing complexity of the capitalist society, Marx’ wrong prognosis of the developments of the economy, the class structure, or the authoritarian and totalitarian experiences inside the socialist and communist tradition. One should not leave aside the ruling classes and their way of intervening in social constellations and dominating the interpretation of history and social struggles. The alienation of intellectuals to the Marxist debate and the left is one important moment of such crises. One of the most serious crises was and is Stalinism that was strongly criticized by Critical Theory. You may see Critical Theory or Althusser’s and Foucault’s work as a critical reaction to the development of Stalinism in the realm of Marxism. Critical Theory sees itself as the continuity of Marxism after its defeat.
That was after National Socialism. It came to a deep crisis of the New Left when in the 1970s the West European Left rediscovered the Gulag, the Stalinist propaganda trials and the authoritarian praxis of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or the communist party in Vietnam. Many members of the New Left had turned to Maoism, as they thought it could be an alternative to Stalinism. Because of that experience they turned away from Marxism, which they didn’t really know too well. That was the case as the members of communist groups in West-Germany or France surprisingly learned Marxism from old Stalinist textbooks. For them Marxism consisted of few texts from Mao Tse Tung, Kim Il Sung, and from articles of the Volkszeitung. It was a strange experience for me when I partook in a seminar of Alain Badiou on dialectics at the University Vincennes and he read with the students articles from the Volkszeitung on the contradictions among the people. Many of those students did not participate in the vivid international Marxist discussion. The intellectual level was low.
I think Marxism itself didn’t fail. There is some analogy with Christianity and the catholic church: did they fail? They underwent several conjunctures in their history but they are still alive and organize many people. Marxism is part of the contradictory reproduction process of bourgeois society. As long as bourgeois society and class relations will exist there will exist Marxism in the one or the other way. In this context it has to reorganize and reform itself to become attractive and convincing. Marxism has a use value for the individuals, insofar it is the most radical and universal approach for the will of freedom among human beings. Marxism is an organic criticism with the aim to overcome the capitalist mode of production, all forms of servitude (wage labor, state oppression, sexism, racism, the exploitation of nature), and finally Marxism itself. It always attracts newly young people – but then in the process of founding a family and looking for a job they alienate. And of course today Marxism is in a weak position, because a whole bunch of discursive elements are today articulated with Marxism that are more or less bourgeois or Stalinist. There is a political and ideological success of adversary groups to disarticulate Marxism from the working class and other popular sectors. It doesn’t play any role in parties or trade unions, intellectuals distance themselves, and so far as some of them are still Marxists, they are marginal, discriminated, sometimes persecuted, imprisoned or even killed. This enforces the weakening of the theory. But the aim is not Marxism in itself, it represents the organic tendency to freedom and self determination of the collective life by and through all individuals. Thus the weakening of this theory equals with the weakening of the society to solve the relevant problems (overcoming the greenhouse effect, the increase of resources exploitation and waste) by overcoming the necessity of a steady growing economy, the power of globalised corporations and the erosion of democracy, the hunger, the war.
There are other moments of those crises: the defeat of the working class in the twenties. How powerful the working class was at that time in Germany and how brutal the bourgeois class destroyed its power not only in Germany but drew the whole of Europe into this struggle – supported by so many conservative, nationalist, racist and antisemitic forces all over Europe. And many societies were divided because one part collaborated and contributed to weaken the working class and its intellectuals. After the Second World War a comprehensive class compromise – Fordism – was established: that means: economic growth, jobs, a wealthy everyday life even for working class families and social security, chances for higher education, deep changes in the production apparatus of highly developed capitalist countries, a huge industrial reserve army after the breakdown of state socialist countries and the extension of the commodity form of labor all over the globe, and the negative experiences with the former elites becoming now neoliberal capitalists, the achievements in technology and science (energy, genetics, nanotechnology, information based technologies), the investments in China and other low wage areas.
So far as I am concerned of course my commitment to Marxist and Critical Theory is one of the reasons for the difficulties I personally had. But it is more than that. My work blurs the boundaries between Critical Theory and post structuralism, I also refer to Gramsci or to Althusser. Post structuralism was seen in Germany as irrationalist and protofascist. Alfred Schmidt saw this theoretical current as something ideological and had no sympathy for us as his disciples to be concerned with this tradition. Habermas was even worse. To bring these things together: an unorthodox Marx and Gramsci, Althusser and Foucault, and also Critical Theory; all this was seen as something beyond any acceptable horizon. Today in the international critical debates all these references became a matter of course. The reason for this may be that the welfare state class compromise has dissolved, and it was the fundament for those theories like that of Habermas or Rawls. You could say that Foucault, Deleuze, Althusser, Poulantzas and others they represent the breakup of ’68 and the search for new emancipatory and anti-authoritarian concepts. Under this angle I propose to re-read again the older Critical Theory that was dissimulated by the interpretations of Habermas and others who took Horkheimer and Adorno out from the context of the Marxist debate.
In my opinion the crisis of Marxism means a crisis of the intellectuals, who no longer concern themselves any more with the questions of Marxist social theory as a theory of emancipation of the whole society. That is why it is necessary to seize all impulses of emancipation and to constantly expand and deepen the theory with ever new aspects. It also means that intellectuals do not only find the theory attractive, but also understand it as the form in which the process of emancipation radically takes place. I mean a simultaneous change of thinking, everyday practices, the way people appropriate nature and make decisions about collective living.
To speak in more theoretical terms I was and I am still interested in the elaboration of critical social theory, and I want to take the claim serious. This means to elaborate a conceptual framework that includes a critique of political economy as well as a critique of the state and of all aspects of civil society. Thus I read Marx’ work not as an economic analysis but as the “philosophical” foundation and the first part of a comprehensive theory of the capitalist societal formation.
A.B.: As a revolutionary Aristotelian, the term coined by Kelvin Knight, a good friend and colleague of mine, I want to ask you about philosophy as a practice or, as I call it, structure of meaning. I stress ‘revolutionary’ here in order to distance from Habermas’s misunderstanding of neo-Aristotelianism as a conservative social philosophy (this, of course, is not to say that his critique of some neo-Aristotelians as conservative is not convincing). By practice I mean what Alasdair MacIntyre means by it (After Virtue, 2nd ed., p. 187), that is practice as a cooperative activity which has its own internal standards of excellence in pursuit of which human powers are systematically extended. To put it in Marx’s terms, practice can be seen as concrete non-alienated labour which requires particular skills and virtues, although not every concrete labour is a practice. What then, in your view, are the key standards of excellence of philosophy as a practice / structure of meaning thus understood? Also, what are the dangers and pitfalls in our attempts to advance philosophical enquiries?
A.D.: I agree that philosophy is a theoretical practice. The pitfall is that philosophy still sees itself as either the foundation of all theoretical or practical efforts or as meta-theory that has the right to play the role of a judge and to make decision about what is serious science.
This is a central problem of academic philosophy. But it is in fact disenchanting if you visit a philosophical institute. Many work on topics, questions, terms or systems that have so little to do with current questions and problems of people and the society. There are single-minded intellectuals whose work is worth reading but a great deal that is written in philosophy is of hardly any importance. So there is a big self-misunderstanding in philosophy. You think you are dealing with the big and eternal questions of mankind, but de facto it is some sort of idealistic historicism of the few big thinkers of a small region. Gramsci speaks of a peak view of thinking (Gipfelansicht des Denkens) and Foucault as well is sceptical and tries to investigate the history of thinking from the bottom up. This is not necessarily the way of thinking of simple people, it is methodologically impossible without further ado. But even the great thinking of intellectuals like Plato, Kant or Hegel is based on a broad pillar of everyday habits, practices of power, relations of gender, a particular understanding of how subject and truth can be lived.
In my eyes philosophy has to link with concrete theoretical and empirical questions and contribute to a new emancipatory conception of the world but without the claim of being the high priest. Essentially I would suggest to integrate academic discipline into other subjects: such as biology, sociology, neuro-sciences.
But I would also demand it the other way around: that all students need to know the philosophical problems, terms and central position in the history of philosophy. From everyday experience at the university one can determine, that only a certain knowledge of philosophical terms enables students to gain theoretical cal scientific knowledge. Otherwise there is simply the risk of positivism and empirical factual knowledge.
A.B.: As a follow up I want to ask a further reflective question: looking at philosophy from the point of view of critical theory, what, in your opinion, is the end or meaning of philosophy? Although this question might sound as a half-baked or slightly naïve one, I nonetheless pose it with great seriousness. In a way it is the question similar to ‘what is philosophy?’, the question posed both by philosophy-innocent students as well as by serious philosophers (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, for example, wrote an influential book on this matter).
A.D.: I think several aspects have to be distinguished here. There is a philosophy or a Weltanschauung (world-view) people have: people interpret the world in which they live, they give their lives a reason, want to understand, who they are and why they act in a particular way. The great academic philosophy plays hardly any role here. This everyday philosophy is worked out by religion, the cultural industry, music hits, films or daily papers. Even the state plays a big role through education in kindergarten, school or at university: it defines what important and legitimate knowledge is. Even concrete labour in the factory, the social circumstances as well as the experiences of family-life get a certain philosophy across: “people are the way they are”; “it has always been like that”; “everyone tries to get as much out of it as possible”; “you have to adapt”; “be reasonable”; “what can you expect”; “be humble, don’t expect too much”; “those on top anyway do whatever they want to”; “I’m too stupid and clumsy for that”; “I don’t dare do that”. It was a central question that preoccupied Marx and Gramsci: how is it possible to elevate the thinking and knowledge of people onto a higher level, so that they understand the world in all its complexity? This was and still is aimed against the church, which contributes to bind people to the most primitive metaphysical systems. But it was also critical against the scientific naturalism and technicism, which want to resolve everything into some natural or sociological causal-relations. It was Marx’s basic conviction that individuals act freely – but not within self-chosen circumstances. These circumstances and conditions, however, are created by them, are a result of their terms and their praxis. The project of emancipation is about them also freely deciding about their circumstances. In order to do so they need to develop the intellectual skills and realise that they have always lived in the world they themselves have created.
Such a cognitive capacity doesn’t have anything to do with educational dictatorship, as representatives of elitism always claim. It is about enabling one to relate oneself, one’s own subjectivity and the collective activities to the world and to make decisions about the consequences of one’s own actions from the highest point of knowledge. So it is about a reform of consciousness, of thinking, of subjectivity. In this perspective Marx follows the tradition of Socrates or Jesus – from this point onwards people develop a new view on things, new terms, new practical rules. People should be able to behave ever more nuanced, more fine, more sensitively and more intellectually because they innervate that it is they themselves who create the circumstances and that the appropriation and decisions are not reserved for only a few individuals. Marx’ suggestion is more radical than anything that has ever been thought in the history of philosophy: everyone is a philosopher, everyone decides together in their collective praxis, that is, about the terms in which they think. What we think in our everyday lives and what some intellectuals think – the scientist, the artists, the philosophers – falls together. So it is about a world-historical new understanding of Socrates’ following suggestion: Know thyself! Lead thyself! Hence the central terms that determine our actions are questioned: terms of economy and state, technology, gender, family, violence, punishment and prison.
It is always a matter of practices, of specific forms of freedom as well as of force or the powerful shaping of freedom. To think critically about this means to create these circumstances anew or potentially opening them up to be questioned. From this point of view, it is a matter of creating a new intellectual praxis, that integrates the scientific argument, the scientific insight in a more and more complex and nuanced daily-life in a way that the everyday life itself is lived in this sense of conceptual and intellectual well-being.
So we have those different aspects: the thinking of everyday life, the religious and spiritual convictions as metaphysical (in countries such as Germany or Switzerland most people are only distantly religious or spiritual), the elaborated cultural constructions by intellectuals in the apparatuses of cultural industry (here there is often a soft form of religious convictions and metaphysics: creativity, hermeneutics), the sciences as naturalistic metaphysics and finally theology or philosophy as attempts to synthesise those metaphysics that are mostly spread amongst intellectuals and to put them into a historical context. For most people this remains irrelevant. But for those ruling it is important because it gives their thinking a certain coherence and a stable morality. In the tradition of Critical Theory it is in the end about a completely new order and about an overcoming of those different levels. Here academic philosophy can indeed play a role: to decipher all the forms and conflicting practices of intellectual contributions to the historical struggles that took place. Realistically spoken that happens only in rare historical and institutional constellations. Many philosophers are rather on conventional, conservative or liberal, intellectual tracks.
A.B.: The philosophical project I am preoccupied with at the moment deals with the question of the meaning of being. I argue that the key philosophical question is the question of the meaning of existence, yet the way Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, J.-P. Sartre and other so called existentialists deal with Seinsfrage is philosophically unconvincing and needs to be posed in terms of or within Aristotelian teleology. Therefore I would like to ask how you – an influential critical theorist and/or Neo-Marxist – would go about the question the meaning of human existence. Given that a number of analytical philosophers have argued that the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ is a bogus question, how would you attempt to answer it?
A.D.: When I was younger it was an enormous relief to reject the question of the meaning of human life, which has a very religious character, as a pseudo-question. In the end the question assumes an instance through which one could measure such a meaning. But there exists no God, no world-historical aim that could give our lives a meaning. People get murdered for no reason, the Jews in the Holocaust, children die from hunger. But that precisely what is awful about it: that every single living being will be destroyed and that there is no consolation. Life is concrete: friends, children, working together, understanding the world and forming it together with others, the joy in something: a plant, a house, a falling hair, a scent. We know from semiological research that and how meaning is created. That is why we are able to understand and shape what we associate with meaning as a concrete praxis. However, there is a great danger that the spirit of positivism escalates if the question is rejected. Facts and technological implementations are then supposed to be the meaning of our lives. Then we are also asked not to expect more. That is why I was speaking against a naturalistic and technicistic understanding of science. It has another aspect though: meaning always creates an ideological additional value, which seduces us not to realize and understand our circumstances, ourselves, the other people in the concrete practices, but to give them more and more meaning. Meaning creates an imaginary, a whole, that doesn’t exist in this way. So we always have to fight for the meaning, we have to correct it. Some terms tend more to create such an imaginary than others. But no term can be without meaning.
That’s why the question is important. Even more: there is something emancipatory in it: we give our lives a particular meaning in terms that we share and work out with others. The meaning is always a meaning that is shared with others. Looking for the meaning in ones own existence claims to be more than only a function in the contemporary system: working, saving money, having sex and children, dying. Instead we are part of a chain and we should feel responsible for the everyday life we live in, for all our fellow human beings, the planet, and for the future generations. The question of the meaning of human life hence is a question of our concrete practices in relation to our fellow beings. Precisely because I myself argue completely anthropocentric, I have the opinion that to this question of meaning belongs also our relation to the non-human animals and the nature in a broader sense. It is the case today as in Marx’ times that the earth is not owned by anyone and that it is our task to bequeath it for future generations in a better condition. The inquiry after the meaning entails that we conceive ourselves as animals that live together with other animals. Precisely because the meaning is so precarious every individual existence deserves respect.
Originally published in Lithuanian popular science book
„Apie filosofijos ir meno prasmę“
(On The Meaning of Philosophy and Art).