‘The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory After Hegel’ reviewed by Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker

The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory After Hegel

Columbia University Press, New York, 2015. 226pp. $55.00 hb
ISBN 9780231168663

About the reviewer

Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker is the Managing Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture …


Critical theory finds itself in two camps. First, there is a critical theory that has emerged out of Jürgen Habermas’ defense of communicative reason as a rebuttal to the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists’ critique of instrumental reason. This has yielded the work of Axel Honneth, Rainer Forst, and Rahel Jaeggi. As a result, the origins of critical theory in a radical Marxian critique of society have largely dissipated from view. Second, there is a variant of critical theory that has continued to pursue the critique of reason, but largely from the point that Theodor Adorno left it, which has rendered critical theory more amenable to postmodernism – a project that Habermas challenged in his Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. This has, in turn, led to broadening of the definition of critical theory. While this trend has ostensibly sought to recover critical theory’s radicalism, it has also made the project nebulous. Any critique of reason becomes a critical theory and any thinker who engages in critique is counted a critical theorist.

Robyn Marasco’s The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory After Hegel enters into this fray. In her advocacy of a critical theory that valorizes despair, she situates herself in the tendency that adopts a broader interpretation of critical theory. To this end, she recruits Hegel, Kierkegaard, Adorno, Georges Bataille, and Frantz Fanon. At the same time, she explicitly frames her endeavor against Habermas. The substance of her charge against Habermas is that he wrongly turned to reason. Habermas is depicted as something of a coward, seeking solace in reason rather than fully appreciating where critical theory might take us if we do not resort to reason.

From Marasco’s standpoint, Habermas’s move forecloses a serious consideration of the passions and, more importantly, what Marasco calls despair. But this relies on a caricature of Habermas that suggests his project was motivated less by a sincere intellectual enterprise than a desire to escape despair. Unfortunately, Habermas is not the only theorist who Marasco fails to do justice to. There are good reasons to call into question whether any of the thinkers she discusses were the defenders of despair she makes them out to be. Marasco’s book is rife with attempts to contort thinkers into taking stances that the texts do not substantiate. But it is not only specific interpretations that are at stake in critiquing Marasco’s book. At issue is how the liberties she takes with texts affect political theory more broadly.

“Despair,” Marasco argues, “names an aporetic condition in which neither reason nor faith can furnish clear direction, yet the sense of journey and the experience of movement remain.” (6) Despite all the other things despair might name Marasco never justifies her definition against equally viable ones. Nevertheless, we ought to take it seriously insofar as her book hinges on whether or not she can demonstrate that her thinkers exhibit such an understanding of despair. Certainly, the late Adorno, Bataille, and Fanon turned neither to reason nor faith. If Marasco confined her claims to this point, her thesis might have sturdier foundations. Marasco, however, pursues a larger claim: “Against the main currents of critical theory today,” she tells us, “I do not believe critique suffers a deficit of hope, nor do I think it needs rescue from despair.” (10) It is not simply that these thinkers rejected the turn to reason or faith. Rather, she wants to claim that, by refusing to flee despair via reason or faith, a study of these thinkers claims a place for despair in critical theory, which, she believes, delivers something positive for politics.

Hegel and Kierkegaard are the focus of the first part of the book. They represent thinkers who, Marsco thinks, engage the issue of despair – even if their respective turns to reason and faith are, in her view, mistaken. Immediate problems emerge with her treatment of Hegel. For a thinker so attuned to the relevance of every concept he employs in his system, Hegel shows very little interest in despair, which can only lead us to conclude that it did not occupy an important place in his thought. The entirety of Marasco’s use of Hegel rests on a passage in the Phenomenology of Spirit where Hegel suggests that the move away from what Hegel calls natural consciousness is a pathway of despair. This is the source of the title of Marasco’s book, but, on a more scholarly note, Marasco strangely replaces “pathway” with “highway” even though the A.V. Miller translation she cites uses the term “pathway”. (Where does she get “highway”?) Apparently, Marasco assumes that because Hegel begins the Phenomenology with natural consciousness, despair animates Hegel’s project. She seems to miss that Hegel thinks natural consciousness is a deficient mode of knowledge. Reason – as we discover later in the book – reveals the deficiencies of lower forms of knowledge, e.g., natural consciousness, and, thus, it is the true animating force. Then again, Marasco does not care about Hegel’s actual argument, only that he briefly mentions despair.

Such a selective emphasis on the early parts of the Phenomenology evidences Marasco’s reliance on an interpretation of Hegel that can be dated back to Alexandre Kojève’s lectures and their enormous influence on francophone thought. The existentialists and postmodernists indebted to Kojève seldom read beyond Hegel’s discussion of the lord and bondsman relation in chapter four, they ignored the rest of the Phenomenology. Yet, there has been a serious effort on the part of numerous Hegel scholars to try to read Hegel systematically. Whether one agrees with this scholarship or not, it is astounding that, with the exception of a single reference to Robert Pippin and a few to Robert Solomon, Marasco ignores it.

Marasco well knows that reason plays the central role in the overcoming of deficient modes of knowledge, but she excuses her negligence by explaining that her hope is “to recover that voice in Hegel’s Phenomenology that speaks not of clear beginnings and certain endings, but of the forces set in motion by the restlessness of the negative.” (56) That Marasco hears this voice against all evidence that it is there is troubling. But Marasco continues to hear voices when she comes to Kierkegaard (for a book that purports to consider the relation between Hegel and Kierkegaard, it is surprising that Jon Stewart’s Kierkegaard’s Relation to Hegel Reconsidered is never cited). One would think that Kierkegaard might be somewhat more amenable to Marasco’s project because – unlike Hegel – he actually takes despair seriously. The only problem is that Kierkegaard’s solution to despair is faith. Once again, Marasco favors voices over the text: “I want to think despair against the edifying voice in Kierkegaard.” (57) Ultimately, what matters to Marasco is that both Hegel and Kierkegaard mention despair. Marasco tells us she wants “to dwell … in the place where Kierkegaard follows Hegel, where dialectical thought meets up with passion, where the restlessness of the negative keeps things moving.” (71) And what of the fact that restlessness for Hegel allows reason to make its appearance or that for Kierkegaard it brings us to faith? This matters little in Marasco’s fetishization of despair.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a scholar choosing to accept certain aspects of a thinker’s work and rejecting others, but the reader should be told why. Without telling us why Hegel and Kierkegaard are wrong about their solutions, Marasco decides it is time to stubbornly fumble forward. She thinks we should proceed by asking, “What’s left of critical theory that is left to its despair? What does critique look like when it bears the wounds of negativity? Could the play of passions indicate new directions for critical theory? And do our remaining hopes for substantive freedom and concrete pleasures lie in the very condition that would seem inhospitable to all hope?” (78) Such questions pave the way for Part Two of Marasco’s book, where Adorno, Bataille, and Fanon enter.

Marasco’s discussion of Adorno relies heavily, as one would expect, on his late book Negative Dialectics. This book has done much to motivate criticisms of Adorno as leading us to a philosophical dead-end. For the late Adorno, capitalism so thoroughly colonizes reason that we must hold any outcome of dialectical reason suspect. Ruthless critique, including of the dialectic, becomes the only way to rebel against the fact that reason always becomes ideology. Though what Adorno describes hardly sounds like an “aporetic condition,” in her determined hunt for despair decides that the negative dialectic is despair. She writes, “The dialectical view of despair and the view of dialectic as despair are, to my mind, rooted in a reading of Adorno’s critical theory.” (18) Yet, contra Marasco, Adorno never says the negative dialectic is despair.

It is worth noting that Marasco may not be altogether wrong about Adorno insofar as despair appears throughout his texts, especially those written in the wake of the Holocaust. The more important issue is that his conception of despair does not align with hers. We must recall that the crux of Marasco’s interpretation is her contention that Adorno is one of her brave protagonists who do not seek to escape despair. But Adorno tells us, “despair is the final ideology, historically and socially as conditioned as the course of cognition that has been gnawing at the metaphysical ideas and cannot be stopped by a cui bono.” (Adorno 1973, 373) If the negative dialectic is a way of resisting ideology, then it seems that it is also a way out of despair. Likewise, in his Minima Morallia, Adorno writes, “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” (Adorno 2005, 247) Talk of facing despair does not sound like willingness to allow critical theory to be “left to its despair.”

Adorno can be a frustratingly esoteric thinker, which has made his late thought amenable to a good bit of scholarly fudging. Yet, when Adorno makes statements that seem to contradict Marasco’s thesis – statements she neglects entirely – we must conclude she has taken the fudging too far. Far more so than Adorno, Bataille’s work permits a great deal of interpretive leeway, but even with this theorist of transgression there are limits. Marasco’s manipulation of his work resonates with her poor handling of Adorno. Much as she decides that Adorno’s negative dialectic is despair, she associates Bataille’s discussion of chance with despair. “Chance sends projects into ruin,” Marasco explains, “leaving their architects to despair. Chance rips our designs to shreds. But chance, says Bataille, also restores to the human condition that play-element, without which knowledge, community, and the sacred are scarcely possible.” (114) As in Adorno, we might find some evidence that Bataille was not quite so dismissive of despair as inherently negative, but several passages throughout his corpus show us that he too often thinks in terms of the response to despair.

For Bataille, rage, violence, and transgression are the responses to despair. For example, in “The ‘Lugubrious Game’,” he writes, “Intellectual despair results in neither weakness nor dreams, but in violence.” (Bataille 1985, 24) Likewise, in the Accursed Share, Bataille talks about how despair emerges in the face of death: “The nature of the sovereign demands that this sentiment of defeat, of humiliation, always provoked by death, attain such a degree that nothing, it seems, can stand firm against the fury of animality. No sooner is the event announced than men rush in from all quarters, killing everything in front of them, raping and pillaging to beat the devil.” (Bataille 1993, 89) Whatever one wants to make of Bataille, he does not present himself as a theorist content with despair.

Bataille may be the most ambiguous of Marasco’s thinkers. There are places where he makes statements that can be made consistent with Marasco’s claims (for example, in his On Nietzsche). At the same time, there are good reasons to suggest that transgression might be the antidote to despair. Hence, with her interpretation of Bataille all Marasco may have to guide her are, once again, those voices she chooses to hear. Bataille gives us good reason to question whether it is the voice that chooses to “dwell” in the space of despair that we ought to give greater credence than the one that espouses transgression as a response to despair.

In a highly confused book, we find an interpretation that borders on the offensive with Marasco’s analysis of Fanon. Here, Marasco places special emphasis on Fanon’s discussion of violence. She tells us, “Fanon’s dialectic is not ‘hope without hope’ or a last affirmation, but steady and spontaneous receptivity to experience. A world consumed with sickness and loathing is also one that furnishes refracted images of freedom, justice, and democracy.”(145) Later we are told that violence is “the sign of a sickness or dis-ease.” It is also, “a symptom that is also a therapy. It is the sign of sickness that is also a treatment for sickness.” (158) Despite her appreciation of Fanon’s emphasis on praxis, Marasco fails to recognize the thread in his thought that understands violence as the only means the colonized have to combat colonial violence.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon tells us quite clearly that violence “frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” (Fanon 1963, 94) When Fanon speaks of despair in such terms, that freeing oneself from despair restores dignity, it is irresponsible to label it an “aporetic condition” or frame it as “spontaneous receptivity to experience.” Further substantiating Fanon’s opposition to despair, we find him write, in his discussion of the Algerian militant, “The man of action … very often sees that his task is not only to hunt down the enemy forces but also to overcome the kernel of despair which has hardened in the native’s being.” (Fanon 1963, 293) A theorist who talks of overcoming despair is not interested in its valorization.

As I noted earlier, had Marasco confined her claim to the idea that the late Adorno, Bataille, and Fanon are in search of alternatives to reason or faith, I think she would have been correct. It bears repeating that she added to this the claim that they do not exhibit – as she bizarrely accuses Habermas of displaying – a “felt yearning for a way out.” (180) My many examples from the texts that Marasco claims to have engaged offer, in my view, a persuasive case for why the thinkers she discusses say the exact opposite of what she tells us they say. Adorno, Bataille, and Fanon do want a way out, even if it is not one based on reason or faith.

This review could have contested Marasco’s thesis, that despair is somehow politically valuable. It could have challenged the political usefulness of Kierkegaard, the late Adorno, and Bataille. The problem is that, in the absence of evidence, a theory does not warrant such concerns. And this, in itself, is a political issue because with Marasco’s book we enter into the scholarly equivalent of the world of alternative facts. Marasco’s book is not the only one that indulges in fanciful reinventions of what theorists say. It is merely one manifestation of rampant intellectual acrobatics, particularly in the realm of critical theory, contorting ideas to make ill-profound claims. What is lost is any serious consideration of the work that theory ought to do in the world. And it is inevitable that political theorizing that divorces itself from real politics, ultimately divorces itself from ideas themselves.

The one thing that Marasco may be right about is that despair deserves some attention from people who think about politics, especially because there are currently so many experiencing despair, though not necessarily her brand, in the face of a resurgent far-right. We must ask, if despair is an “aporetic condition,” or, as Marasco also puts it, “a misrelation to a present that concretely is, more than a past that never was or a future that ought to be,” (13) is this what refugees denied the right to leave warzones, assaulted Muslims, people of color who fear the police, or millions of unemployed facing poverty are experiencing? I suspect their despair has more to do with the institutions that abandon them or persecute them. If I am wrong and Marasco is right, then she has deprived us of a word to describe their experience.

19 April 2017


  • Adorno, Theodor 1995 Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso).
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1973 Negative Dialectics trans. E.B. Ashton. (New York: Continuum).
  • Bataille, Georges 1993 The Accursed Share, Volumes II & III trans. Robert Hurley. (New York: Zone Books).
  • Bataille, Georges 1985 Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
  • Fanon, Frantz 1963 The Wretched of the Earth trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press).

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