Reason and reparation

Research paper by Fred Alford

Indexed on: 01 Feb '90Published on: 01 Feb '90Published in: Theory and Society


Critical theory is critical because it reflects on the circumstances of its own existence. It is critical too because it takes utopia seriously, which means, in part, never short-circuiting the distance between reality and Utopia. Reparative reason, it has been argued, is no substitute for this philosophical project, but a source of support for it, one better suited to the concerns of the Frankfurt School than eros. What both reparative reason and the reparative impulse require is guidance as to the most deserving objects of our care and concern. Critical theory can provide this guidance.At least two objections to this reformulation of critical theory in light of Klein's insights into love, hate, and reparation are possible. The first would argue that reparation remains insufficiently relational, still selfish, more concerned with the satisfaction of the one who makes reparation than its object. The second objection is almost the opposite of the first, that reparation lacks what makes eros such a powerful oppositional force: not merely its selfish, demanding character, but its teleological orientation. Freed of the distorting effects of social domination, eros requires no guidance. By its very nature it seeks out the truly beautiful and good, much as Plato argued in the Symposium and Phaedrus. Such objections are, I believe, quite mistaken. They do not, however, lack insight into the issues involved.Regarding the first objection, Klein argues that we seek to make reparation out of genuine concern for the object. Reparation is truly an object-related passion, motivated by our relationship to the object, our love for it. Reparation may reduce guilt and anxiety, but this is an effect, not a cause. But, if reparation puts the object first, there is nonetheless an individualistic cast to the Kleinian account missing in Benjamin and Chodorow. For Klein, we care for others not because they are part of us, but because they are different, and we are concerned about them. In a certain limited sense the other remains an object, not in Freud's sense of an object of our drives, whose humanity is unimportant, but as a person who is distinct and separate from ourselves. This does not make reparation selfish. It does make it an expression of individuality, not its denial or transcendence.Regarding the second objection, it is true that reparation is not as autonomous as eros, and perhaps not as inherently oppositional either. But, neither is it as subject to corruption as eros (repressive desublimation), for reparation harnesses not the desire for pleasure, but guilt over the harm we have done to others. But, perhaps it was a mistake all along to try to found critical theory in eros, as though biology (Marcuse calls eros a biological basis for socialism) could take the place of critical consciousness, social opposition, or a revolutionary class. Insofar as it finds a material basis for hope for a better world in apparently transhistorical human attributes (albeit attributes that exist only within particular histories), reparation supports the Utopian project of the Frankfurt School. Reparation is, however, no deus ex machina. Historically situated human beings will have to confront the tragedy of human history on their own, a tragedy that stems, ultimately, from the way in which our fear and aggression constitute a world that requires so much reparation. It is, of course, this insight that keeps reparation from short-circuiting the path to utopia. For not only does reparation not exist apart from particular histories, but it does not exist independently of the hatred and aggression that bring it into being.