Provincializing Frankfurt. Towards a Conversation Between Habermasian Critical Theory and Postcolonial Critique

Monday, 11 July 2016: 16:30
Location: Hörsaal 45 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Floris BISKAMP, University of Kassel, Germany
Much like feminism, postcolonialism poses a great challenge to all established theories of society. Today any social theory – particularly if it deems itself ‘critical’ – has to face the question, to what extent its presumably universal assumptions, observations, conceptions, or conclusions about human society are Eurocentric or indeed generalizable.

In my paper I perform such a postcolonial interrogation of Habermasian social theory. With reference to Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe I refer to this move as Provincializing Frankfurt. Chakrabarty emphasizes that the provincialization of Europe is no polemical or relativistic project. It is no attack on universalism in the name of incommensurable particularity, rather its purpose is to question the self-evidence and swiftness with which European ideas and developments are taken as universal without sufficient justification.

My interrogation focuses on three aspects of Habermas’ work. In each of these cases I demonstrate that his theory does indeed prove to be highly problematic from a postcolonial perspective. However, I also show that there are ways to overcome these problems within the Habermasian framework and that it does in turn offer important insights for postcolonial critique.

First, I discuss Habermas’ conception of social evolution; building on Spivak’s Derridean reading of Marx I criticize his swift generalizations and suggest reading the decoupling of the economic and political sub-systems as a pharmakon. Secondly, I turn to Habermas’ theses on modern culture and life-world rationalization; picking up Chakrabarty’s work I suggest that Habermas is too quick in identifying specifically metropolitan processes as generally modern. Thirdly I take up Gilroy’s critiques to problematize the absence of colonialism and anti-colonial resistance from Habermas’ model. Despite of all these criticisms I hold that Habermas’ idea of communicative reason can be highly useful for postcolonial critique which continues to make strong normative claims without being able to account for them.