Seyla Benhabib, Below the Asphalt Lies the Beach. Reflections on the legacy of the Frankfurt School, Boston Review, A political and literary forum, October 09, 2018
The Dialectic of Enlightenment is a bridge text to a broader conception of critical theory—of oppositional and emancipatory knowledge—that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century. Although Michel Foucault quipped that he had never read the Dialectic of Enlightenment (published in 1944), his work replaced the creative subject that Horkheimer took from Hegel, Marx, and Lukács with a theory about how subjectivity is created. History is a not a record of the deeds of a collective or singular subject, he argued; rather, it is formed by a series of epistemes—configurations of power-knowledge—each giving shape to different conceptions of knowledge and action. In the essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault explains that whereas archaeology digs into the layers of what is manifest in the present, genealogy searches for the breaks and displacements between the source and the phenomena. Genealogy searches for emergence (Herkunft), but emergence does not mean a smooth evolution from a known original (Ursprung). Just as there is no continuous narrative that can be told of a unified collective subject unfolding in history, so too genealogy does not trace an uninterrupted line of development from the past to the present, providing a narrative of improved knowledge and moral progress. Instead, society is constituted by a discontinuous and fragmentary series of power-knowledge configurations, full of displacements and erasures. Knowledge is not just emancipatory but also disciplinary; power can only be confronted by power. “The ‘Enlightenment,’ which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines,” he writes in Discipline and Punish (1975).