by Benedict Coleridge
In the course of a 2018 interview undertaken with Jürgen Habermas by the Spanish newspaper El País, the visiting journalists noted that Habermas’ residence, decorated with modern art, presented ‘a juxtaposition of Bauhaus modernism and Bavaria’s staunch conservatism’. While the shelves were lined with the German Romantics, the walls were adorned with icons of European aesthetic modernism, fitting the style of the house itself. In an autobiographical preface to his essays on Naturalism and Religion, Habermas gives an account of the confluence of his decorative and intellectual tastes, highlighting the distinctive experiences and hopes to which they testify. He writes of the post-war revelations that disclosed a civilisational rupture after 1945, along with the sense of cultural release brought about by the doors being opened ‘to Expressionist art, to Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse, to world literature written in English, to the contemporary philosophy of Sartre and the French left-wing Catholics, to Freud and Marx, as well as to the pragmatism of John Dewey’. He goes on to suggest that ‘contemporary cinema also conveyed exciting messages. The liberating, revolutionary spirit of Modernism found compelling visual expression in Mondrian’s constructivism, in the cool geometric lines of Bauhaus architecture, and in uncompromising industrial design.’ Together, these aesthetic movements espoused what Virginia Rembert calls a determination to develop an artistic practice that conveyed a ‘new world image’. And according to Habermas, the ‘cultural opening’ instigated by these aesthetic pursuits ‘went hand in hand with a political opening’, which primarily took the form of ‘the political constructions of social contract theory … combined with the pioneering spirit and the emancipatory promise of Modernism’.
In the imaginative resources it marshals, and in its fixation with conceptual transposability, formality, and procedural neutrality, contemporary political liberalism of the Habermasian variety interacts with modernist visions of social transformation and stabilisation, even while it refuses an account of historical change spurred on by abrupt or destructive rupture. And if political and social theory leans frequently upon structuring metaphors, then it’s worth wondering whether a picture, or in this case an aesthetic, holds the Frankfurt School captive rather more literally than Wittgenstein’s phrase intends: a ‘picture’ that insists upon a conceptual and practical association between modernity, emancipation and abstraction.
On the one hand, modernism seems an unlikely inspiration for a movement concerned to integrate a textured and historically alert account of social life into its theory of normativity. As William Rehg and James Bohman point out, the reformulation of Frankfurt School critical theory undertaken by Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel, while more heavily indebted to Kant than to Marx, also sought to be ‘increasingly attuned to the challenges of social complexity and cultural pluralism’. That’s an attunement prompted by the pragmatist commitment to deriving moral norms from social experience rather than transcendental ideals, partly out of an aversion to the imperial chauvinisms unleashed by strong universalist accounts of truth, rationality, or progress.
On the other hand, however, the turn to experience is made in an effort to re-found a critical normativity beyond the impasse of the Linguistic Turn, so prising open the horizon of modernity and sustaining the kind of ‘emancipatory promise’ at which post-modernists direct suspicion. And while, unlike the Bauhaus and its drive towards an aesthetically and politically cleansed future, Habermas and his intellectual heirs refuse Walter Gropius’ mantra of “starting from zero”, modernism’s ‘cool geometry’ remains in view as an intellectual ideal and structuring metaphor. Its emancipatory promise rests primarily upon a claim, made on behalf of abstract formalism, to culture-transcending ethical neutrality—that is, the notion that we can develop normatively resonant aesthetic forms that do not suffer from the perspectival limitation that the articulation of experience generally bears with it.
To pursue the neo-Kantian ‘project of modernity’ in political theory is to search for a culturally neutral vantage-point from which to establish a universal rule morality capable of conditioning diverse ethical personalities. Of course, the powerful ideological dimension to this project is its self-construal as an essentially moral rather than a political enterprise drawing from pre-political, rational, insights. And if secular reason has been dethroned, or at least seriously challenged, by post-colonial critiques of hegemonic rationalism, then the search is on for a more diminutive, yet nevertheless critically powerful, foundation for Kantian normative universality.
In this spirit, contemporary Frankfurt school theorists of the Habermasian variety seek to sustain the ‘new world image’ of Kantian universalism without resorting to ethically parochial or rampantly metaphysical idealisations. To do so they require a kind of normativity that’s substantively ‘empty’ and open to transposition across different political and cultural sites, even while ensuring the possibility of moral imperatives in the style of basic norms, rights, and deliberative procedural commitments. For Habermas this, famously, means the rational presuppositions of communicative action, while for fourth-generation Frankfurt School theorists such as Rainer Forst and Alessandro Ferrara it entails a basic right to justification and a shared mode of aesthetic judgment respectively. By construing normativity as a matter of ‘higher level internalism’ free from dependence upon particular ethical languages (Forst), or as a matter of discerning ethical-aesthetic forms like ‘exemplary self-congruence’ in ethical traditions (Ferrara), contemporary Frankfurt School theorists, for all their internal differences, lean upon the ideal of generalisable normative forms unimpaired by narrative content, ethical convention, or cultural substance. In so doing, they recognisably accord with mid-century modernist attempts at signifying experience through an idealised aesthetic formalism that eschews cultural ‘likeness’, hoping to elude ideological parochialism via the surreal, the impressionistic, and the abstract.
But for what kind of modernity might the cool geometry and abstraction of Western modernism supply allegorical inspiration? And how might aesthetic modernism mould the relation envisaged by Frankfurt School theorists between an emancipatory spirit and a perplexingly multivalent social world? Contemporaneous with Habermas’ own career, the prominent American art critic Clement Greenberg elucidated and developed the aesthetic instincts to which Habermas has evidently gravitated, his views about artistic modernism (including Mondrian) offering some possible insights into Habermas’ own inclinations. Consider, for example, Greenberg’s influential, and controversial, articulation of the raison d’être of the avant-garde in twentieth-century art, by which painters such as Mondrian and Kandinsky produced work the excitement of which lay ‘in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colours, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors’. What marks aesthetic modernism, writes Greenberg, is a turn away from the ‘the subject matter of common experience’ towards the ‘medium’ of one’s own craft, meaning that the ‘nonrepresentational or “abstract”’ must ‘stem from obedience to some worthy constraint or original’. This ‘constraint’, which might once have been located in ‘the world of common, extroverted experience’, has collapsed and can now ‘only be found in the everyday processes or disciplines by which art and literature have already imitated the former’.
Note here the manner in which Greenberg associates modernism with a fixation upon the power of the medium to generate its own principles of rational construction; hence, the artist may produce and deploy colour or form in a manner that isolates them from antecedent aesthetic traditions and the cultural narratives towards which they gesture. One may thereby mobilise colour in a manner that makes the colour itself the subject of the work, rather than an element involved in the culturally defined ‘subject matter of common experience’ from which modernism, on Greenberg’s reading, turns. The implication here is that such an act of ‘pure’ aesthetic formalism is, firstly, possible and, secondly, emancipatory in its liberation of the elements that together constitute the work of art so as to establish their aesthetic relevance upon medium-specific principles—that is, as elements autochthonous to the work itself rather than bearers of cultural sediment.
The emancipatory power of the ‘spirit of modernism’—at least in the Western forms that appear on Habermas’ wall—rests upon its refusal of co-dependence between aesthetic form and cultural substance or, in relation to the social process of normative ideation, the manner in which ‘precepts and narratives operate together to ground meaning’. To flesh out this refusal in more concrete terms let’s briefly attend to one of Greenberg’s critics (and Habermas’ contemporary), Rosalind Krauss, who presents an analysis of ‘the grid’ as ‘a structure that has remained emblematic of the modernist ambition within the visual arts.’ For Krauss the grid, employed and developed by Mondrian, in whom Habermas takes express interest, ‘announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.’ If we follow Krauss’ argument, the will to silence performed by abstract forms amounts to a rejection of antecedence and postcedence, as well as any relationship of dependence upon ethically- or socially-embedded forms and traditions, thereby enacting the ‘emancipatory promise of Modernism’ to which Habermas’ project cleaves.
In so doing, an abstraction such as the grid performs a function that is ultimately non-discursive, working visually to declare its autonomy from the social or natural worlds from which aesthetic creativity might conventionally draw form. It does so, argues Krauss, by enacting a regularising and levelling function upon the artwork, ‘crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.’ By means of its organised regularity the grid enacts an ‘aesthetic decree’, rather than an entry into discourse that evokes objects external to the artwork in its technical dimension.
The key point here, relevant to an assessment of aesthetic modernism’s relation to contemporary iterations of Frankfurt School social and political theory, is the notion that form, disassociated from the ‘dimensions of the real’ or from ‘the world of common experience’, possesses an internal logic that validates its own enterprise. The grid operates independently of any specific content or traceable lineage, working to order the artwork by marginalising the hinterland of cultural discourse that gives it its political and social intelligibility. Of course, intelligibility still relies upon an audience with some understanding of what is being enacted through the refusal of narrative and the rejection of precedent, but the claim that is made by the abstract self-reliance of the grid is nevertheless one of control and self-authorisation. In its avoidance of any mimetic relation to the natural or social worlds the grid sets out to establish itself as the product of ‘pure relationship’, so ‘abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to them’. And, as the scholar of African and African diaspora art history, Salah Hassan, reminds us, this has a powerful political dimension. Twentieth-century Western modernism’s emphasis on the experimental and alienated avant-gardes worked to exclude ‘realist and narrative modes’, including those produced outside of the Euro-Atlantic metropolitan art world; the narrative dissonance of the experimental performed the essential ‘purifying’ and emancipatory functions.
None of this is to say that all modernist departures from aesthetic realism or naturalism amount to a fixation upon ‘pure’ formalism at the expense of culturally-configured restatements of identity. Just as modernity remains a polysemic phenomenon, modernism as an account of the relationship between past and present takes different forms, shaped by distinct political projects and social resources. And, of course, post-war artistic modernism was as pluralistic and varied as the novel intellectual resources being generated at that moment in post-colonial constitutional and political thought. Kobena Mercer points for example to the ‘modernist strategies of formal experimentation’ present in mid-century ‘Afro-Modernism’, which destabilised an established image of ‘Africa’ available in Western societies and ‘opened a space for new understandings of black cultural influences as a core feature of global modernity.’
Afro-Modernism, suggests Mercer, was capable of establishing ‘multi-perspectival viewpoints’ by integrating the miniature and the monumental, thereby asserting their mutual dependence and the potential for non-dichotomous interaction. Jacob Lawrence’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, produced between 1986 and 1997, for example, is composed out of 15 prints developed from 41 tempera paintings, conveying episodically the dramas of the Haitian Revolution in tandem with stylistic hints at Soviet monumentalism (perhaps reflective of Lawrence’s interest in Soviet silent cinema). Afro-Modernists such as Lawrence developed formal innovations so as to produce a ‘pictorial narrative’ that ‘addressed the past genealogically’ so as to discern its political relevance. Intimate narrative scenes were made central to discerning the direction of modern emancipatory efforts. Differently, the Cuban sculptor Agustín Cárdenas, who joined the surrealist movement in Paris in the 1950s, reconciled more formal considerations in sculpture with references to totemic symbolism drawn from the Dogon ethnicity of present-day Mali. And artists like Ibrahim El-Salahi of the Khartoum School of African modernist painters have drawn upon obviously paideiac calligraphic practices derived from Qur’anic transcription, even while working under the eaves of the ideologically powerful avant-garde encountered in the former imperial metropole, London.
The ‘spirit of modernism’, therefore, doesn’t necessarily entail a disjuncture between cultural particularity and critical power of the kind pursued visually by some Western modernists and philosophically by neo-Kantians. Rather, when experimenting with form in open contact with genealogy, history, and experiential specificity, it enables the emergence of new claims to recognition through the re-conceptualisation of modernity as ambiguous, locally-determined, and hermeneutically challenging. This form of modernism moves within the contingent parameters of a particular or localised identity, making its emancipatory effort one of hermeneutical ‘amalgamation’, rather than displacement. In this sense, it arguably refuses the more canonically Western modernist program that, in Greenberg’s terms, ‘rejects the subject matter of common experience’ to pursue aesthetic and social transformation through the development of autonomous form and abstract solidarity.
Whereas, according to Kant’s definition in the Groundwork, ‘practical principles are formal if they abstract from all subjective ends’, Afro-modernism held subjective—which is to say, locally, customarily, formed—ends and their cultural signifiers to be the material from which to compose a pluralised modernity, so challenging the presuppositions of the Western art schools. This isn’t to say that, in the conventional role allotted to the non-Western post-colonial world, Afro-modernism supplied some kind of folkloric antidote to the rationalism of Weberian modernity. Rather, Afro-Modernism, amongst other post-colonial artistic movements, prised open discursive opportunities for transculturation, which made ‘modernism’ into something that conveyed multifarious cultural symbols and aesthetic ideals. Resourced by experiences and political hopes for transformation from beyond the former metropole, it began to visualise the ‘spirit’ of the avant-garde not as the displacement of customary practices but in terms of their entry, re-fashioned, into the dialogue of social and political modernity, with its novel experiences of the state, mass society, and post-coloniality.
Given the intellectual and aesthetic movement from which they stem, the visions of Bauhaus modernism and constructivism that adorn Habermas’ walls presumably convey notions of unity, abstraction, anti-historicism, and world-creation, all of which are recognisable features of his moral and political project—a project that responds to the barbarities of World War Two with the re-assertion of progressive social order based normatively upon an inter-subjective continuation of Kantianism. There are, of course, ideological connections between this interest in abstraction and the kind of modernity to which Habermas’ project strives—connections that belie the claim to normative system unburdened by cultural or ideological particularism. Indeed, without a testing stretch of the imagination a definitively modernist form such as the aforementioned grid might be construed as an aesthetic paradigm that corresponds with the broader high-modernist ambition for a rationally-designed social order, with its inevitably fraught relation to the “non-rational” and non-secular.
James Scott’s well known exploration of high modernism and state planning alerts us to the optical dimension involved in establishing a ‘rationally’ ordered relation between the social and natural worlds and over social life through the centrally enacted visions involved in urban-planning and design. But perhaps the more important point to make here is that there are imaginative alternatives that continue to move in an experimentally avant-garde direction. Instead of developing the ideological claim to authoritative cultural neutrality via formal abstraction, non-European movements like Afro-modernism and the Khartoum School actively inserted particular, historically over-shadowed identities into the modernist frame, so making the ‘new world image’ of modernity more multiform than Habermas’ domestic collection might suggest. Thought-provokingly for the political theorist, they signify that particular, local experiences, crafts, and customs may themselves propel critical social and intellectual re-arrangement and, with it, the struggle for a shared modern horizon.
 Borja Hermoso, ‘Philosophy: Jürgen Habermas: “For God’s Sake, Spare Us Governing Philosophers!”’, El País Semanal (25 May 2018),
 Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, Ciaran Cronin (tr.) (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 19.
 Virginia Rembert, Piet Mondrian (New York, NY: Parkstone Press, 2015), 40.
 Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, 19.
 William Rehg and James Bohman, “Introduction,” in Pluralism and the Pragmatic Turn (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 1.
 Steffen de Rudder, ‘The Bauhaus and the City as a White Spot: How Gropius Lost His Reputation on the Streets of New York’, in Laura Colini and Frank Eckardt (eds.), Bauhaus and the City: A Contested Heritage for a Challenging Future (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2011), 82.; Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (London: Abacus, 1986), 14.
 Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1965), 7.
 Ibid., 6.
 Robert Cover, ‘Nomos and Narrative’, in Martha Minnow, Michael Ryan and Austin Sarat (eds.), Narrative, Violence and the Law (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press), 139.
 Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘The Grid, the True Cross, the Abstract Structure’, Studies in the History of Art 48(1) (1995), 50.
 Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, 19.
 Krauss, #The Grid, The True Cross, The Abstract Structure’, 50.
 See Salah M. Hassan, ‘African Modernism: Beyond Alternative Modernities Discourse’, South Atlantic Quarterly 109(3) (2010).
 For example, see Frederick Cooper on constitutional rearrangements of post-war French West Africa. Frederick Cooper, Citizenship Between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa 1945-1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); and see Adom Getachew on postwar anticolonial ‘worldmaking’ in Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).
 Kobena Mercer, ‘Cosmopolitan Contact Zones’, in Tanya Barson and Peter Görschluter (eds.) Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic (exh. cat., Tate Liverpool, 2010), 43.
 Ibid., 42.
 James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).