Terrors of Theory:Critical Theory of Terror from Kojève to Žižek

Bradley, Arthur Humphrey (2020) Terrors of Theory:Critical Theory of Terror from Kojève to Žižek. Telos, (Sprin (190). ISSN 0090-6514

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This essay seeks to offer a new genealogy of contemporary critical theory of terror from Alexandre Kojève to Slavoj Žižek. It is clear that critical theory’s response to the volatile post-9/11 geopolitical landscape takes many forms, but one of its most controversial tasks has been a reclamation of the fatal signifier “terror” itself for the radical Left. According to thinkers such as Žižek and Alain Badiou, we must redeem the emancipatory core of the Jacobin Terror from its “Thermodorean” betrayal by two centuries of political and economic liberalism. Yet my claim is that this critical attempt to recuperate terrorism can only be understood in the context of a much longer debate about the meaning of “terror” within twentieth-century European philosophy, which stretches back to Kojève’s lectures on Hegel in the 1930s. This essay tracks the evolution of critical theory of terror from Kojève’s political ontology of terror in his (famously or notoriously) idiosyncratic interpretation of the Hegelian master–slave dialectic to its contemporary conclusion in Žižek’s embrace of Jacobin terror. If Kojève’s lectures effectively introduced Hegel into twentieth-century European philosophy, I will argue that they were also the platform for a wave of neo-Hegelian reflections on the historical, political, and philosophical stakes of terror including, most importantly, Emmanuel Lévinas’s Time and the Other (1947) and Maurice Blanchot’s “Literature and the Right to Death” (1949). In conclusion, I contend that Žižek’s neo-Hegelian defense of the Jacobin leader Robespierre in recent works like In Defense of Lost Causes (2008) might, for better or worse, be read as the latest manifestation of this Kojèvean terrorist legacy.

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12 Apr 2018 10:26
Last Modified:
21 Sep 2023 02:23