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Ghost in the Machine

March 24, 2021

Ghost in the Machine

March 24, 2021

Photo: Felix Nussbaum, The Wandering Jew, 1939. Excerpt from the cover of Migrants in the Profane. Courtesy of Yale University Press.

In the last fragment of his 1951 book Minima Moralia, one of the foundational texts of critical theory, Theodor Adorno provocatively recasts his own philosophical project in seemingly religious terms. “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair,” he writes in E.F.N. Jephcott’s translation, “is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” Soon, the theological language grows even more explicit: “Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.” Adorno did not present himself as a religious thinker, yet theological concepts flash up in his work at key moments.

In the spring of 2017, intellectual historian Peter E. Gordon delivered a series of lectures at Yale examining the fraught role of theology and secularization in Adorno’s work, as well as that of his friends and colleagues Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer. In his talks, Gordon argued that these thinkers—all major figures in the Frankfurt School, a cohort of influential anti-capitalist German social theorists that emerged in the interwar period—reckon with and transform theological ideas in a variety of compelling ways. Late last year, he released a book adapted from these lectures, Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization.

In some ways, this book concerned with exile—from its titular image to its interest in the lives of these theorists, all of whom were displaced from Germany during the rise of the Third Reich—marks a homecoming for Gordon. As a graduate student, he studied under the intellectual historian Martin Jay, whose 1973 book The Dialectical Imagination ignited American interest in the Frankfurt School. (Migrants in the Profane is dedicated to Jay.) Gordon’s own scholarly career, however, has been centrally engaged with the ideas of the philosopher Martin Heidegger; his first two books considered Heidegger’s relationships with the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig and the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer, respectively. His 2016 book Adorno and Existence, on Adorno’s generative critique of phenomenology and existentialism, served as Gordon’s bridge back to the Frankfurt School after “many years in the Heideggerian wilderness,” as he writes in the acknowledgments to Migrants in the Profane.

Through close, creative readings of Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Adorno, Gordon’s latest book pursues these thinkers’ relationship to religious concepts and secularization, along with broader questions about their epoch and ours. “Does secularization mean the disappearance of religion or its transformation?” he asks in the book’s introduction. “In the modern era can religious concepts survive or are they irrevocably lost? Can religious concepts retain both their relevance and their validity in a secular age, or is the dissolution of religion a philosophical and political necessity if we are to think of ourselves as truly modern?”

I spoke with Gordon about these thinkers’ varied attempts to reckon with religion and secularization and the relationship between theology and social critique. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Nathan Goldman: How did you become interested in secularization?

Peter E. Gordon: Some years ago, I wrote a long review of [the philosopher] Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age. I have enormous admiration for Taylor, but I quarreled with his book quite a bit—and it was partly due to my quarrels that I felt moved to start developing my own thoughts on secularization. The concept interests me in part because it unites philosophical themes and themes in social theory. And I found it especially intriguing that it figures prominently, and in very complex ways, in the writings of some members of the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theorists—Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno.

In fact, Adorno suggests that in order to properly understand what’s happened in the modern philosophical tradition, we need to attend to the way theological concepts have been transformed and secularized. For instance, he thinks that Martin Heidegger’s thought represents a kind of pseudo-theology without God. In his little polemical book The Jargon of Authenticity, he talks about the way existential motifs in postwar Germany [influenced in part by Heidegger’s earlier work] bear witness to a gesture of sanctification without a sanctifying factor—which is to say, there’s this aura of the sacred even though there’s no source of the sacred.

I’ve found a great deal of instruction in the philosophy of [second-generation Frankfurt School theorist] Jürgen Habermas. He has long had an interest in the problem of secularization, but more recently he’s turned in a far more decisive way to the question of how secular societies might continue to draw moral and political instruction from religion without sacrificing their commitments to a secular framework for democratic life. It’s that question that I find most intriguing.

NG: In your chapter on Walter Benjamin, you draw on this perplexing claim from the philosopher’s unfinished opus, The Arcades Project: “My thinking is related to theology as blotting pad is related to ink. It is saturated with it.” You argue that “Benjamin conceived of his work as the secularized trace of theological ideas.” How do you understand the role of theology in Benjamin’s thinking? Where do you see the problems with his use of religious concepts?

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