Critique and Tradition: A Conversation with Susan Buck-Morss

By Nasrin OllaNovember 17, 2019

Critique and Tradition: A Conversation with Susan Buck-Morss
THE POWER OF Susan Buck-Morss’s writing is its capacity to surprise the reader. An intellectual historian and philosopher by training, Buck-Morss creates imaginative juxtapositions and analogies that denaturalize our most familiar narratives of the past. Whether writing about the reception of the Haitian Revolution or the dream-worlds of modernity, Buck-Morss attends to questions that fall outside established frames of reference and analysis. History, for Buck-Morss, has the ability to undermine binary thinking and problematize symbolically violent myths. Of her method, she writes, “What I would like to propose is a different construction of history altogether — to cite the past, as one might sight the stars, bringing elements of it together within constellations of meaning that relate to our own time as the vanishing point.”

Buck-Morss is Distinguished Professor of Political Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center and Professor Emerita at Cornell University, where she taught from 1978 to 2012. Her early work centered on the critical tradition of the Frankfurt School and particularly the writings of Walter Benjamin. More recently, she has written on a diverse range of topics, including the passing of mass utopias in Dreamworld and Catastrophe (2000) and Islamic critical thought in Thinking Past Terror (2003). In 2009, she published her groundbreaking study Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, for which she was awarded the Frantz Fanon Prize. Her latest book, Revolution Today, which was released in August by Haymarket Books, uses photographs and other visual materials to reflect upon the popular mobilizations of the last two decades.

In the following interview, Buck-Morss discusses the major themes of her work, including boundary-crossing questions, transdisciplinary thinking, and her conception of “scarred universality.”


NASRIN OLLA: I was interested to note that one of your first investigations into the global dimensions of modernity came out of ethnographic research in Greece. During the 1970s, you were doing research in a small seaside village in Crete that had suddenly become a tourist destination. In the article that came out of that research, “Semiotic Boundaries and the Politics of Meaning: Modernity on Tour — A Village in Transition,” you analyzed the way the process of modernization, exemplified by tourism, gives rise to unexpected forms of resistance. Can you tell us how this ethnographic work shaped your later writing? Even in this early work, the nation-state does not frame your investigation. Can you tell us how you developed a transnational analysis?

SUSAN BUCK-MORSS: That gets to the heart of my method, which is not conceptual but based on experience. All my books are based on my living in a place or living through something, which I then write about; and that means that I do not start conceptually, and I don’t have an overall schema — it is very non-Kantian in that regard. It’s hard for me to explain to you how I ended up doing research in a Cretan village. At that time, I was working for a radical think tank in Amsterdam and had hitchhiked to Greece. It was sort of by accident that I came across this village. Over the next few years, I went back to the village many times and eventually produced an analysis of how these so-called traditional villagers responded to modernity as it came in the form of tourism. I became a kind of observer of the tourist-and-indigenous clash.

What was striking was the positionality of bodies: a young Greek boy was seen as exotic in a tourist setting, but that same person, were he a guest-worker somewhere in Europe, would be seen and treated differently. In other words, the same individuals had completely different experiences depending on where they were positioned, and this element fascinated me.

As you say, even in this early work, the nation-state was not a frame I used. When I was doing research for that essay, I was reading several Marxist economists who were working on Greece. They all seemed to be talking about a tobacco factory outside of Athens, whereas it seemed clear to me that the big industry was tourism, but they had nothing to say about it because “tourism” was not a Marxian category. This whole question of seeing these tourists arrive in Crete could not be spoken about as an issue related to Marxist political economy. It really didn’t lend itself to that frame.

In your work, you don’t simply develop a theoretical discourse but rather invite the reader to participate in a visual argument. There is a kind of performative dimension to this visual argument — the reader actively has to make connections between two or more images. Can you tell us how your work incorporates the visual?

The way I use images is a strategy that is not unlike cinematic montage. What are two shots until they go together? Early cinema, particularly silent films, work by placing two images together. The presentation that produces their significance is the juxtaposition. So, in my work, I use images as a kind of montage. For example, in Dreamworld and Catastrophe I placed the poster for the movie King Kong next to a statue of Lenin; both images were produced in 1933 and both appealed to mass audiences. This kind of juxtaposition suggests many possibilities and connections — it worries the imagination.

Left: Boris M. Iofan, competition project for the Palace of the Soviets, Moscow.
Right: Poster for the movie King Kong (USA, 1933), Ernest B. Schoedsak and Merian C. Cooper, directors.

In Dreamworld and Catastrophe, you write: “Although written in fragments, this book is meant to be read as a whole as the argument cannot be divorced from the experience of its reading.” So the coherence emerges from the process of reading and from the process of “making sense” of these fragments. You have written elsewhere that this dialectical effect teaches us a “new mimetic skill” because it encourages us “to see likeness in difference, the likeness that emerges when images are juxtaposed and yet still opposed.”

As you say, the performative element is important. In my work, the visual is always presented as a juxtaposition of extremes, and all my projects are situated on a border between two extremes. In other words, “Semiotics on Tour” is not an ethnography of a Greek village; it is an ethnography of a semiotic clash that is right on a border of meaning, performed on the village street. Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History does the same thing, as well as my book on the USSR — both sit on a border that no existing epistemological frame allows you to cross. That is what holds together every one of my projects.

One of the most compelling aspects of your work is the way you take us to a historical event or figure that we think we know and show us an unexpected dimension. In Dreamworld and Catastrophe, you show us that the 20th-century utopian dreams of communism and capitalism are not as separate and disparate as we might think. These dream-worlds crisscross in surprising ways. Similarly, in Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, you show us that the Haitian Revolution was an event that Hegel would have read about in the pages of Minerva. Therefore, his work is part of a global modernity. Is this what you mean by a boundary concern? The way these projects are placed in the “blurry boundary zone” between two supposedly separate categories?

My work tries to find and inhabit the boundary between two supposedly antithetical positions. Instead of showing the impossibility of this position, I try to elucidate from that boundary. Thinking from these boundaries is a way of valuing the concrete fragments of history — that lived experience that actually happened. In a certain sense, I have a respectful reverence for the material object or the material event itself, and I seek to honor the vulnerability and fragility of life. Life is always transient, even in its best moments. This fantasy of the modern subject who is in control is simply false. Everyone’s life is misunderstood, transient, and imperfect. My method tries to make the reader experience this fleeting quality in something that is thought to be in the past and finished.

Readers of Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History have sometimes wanted to read the book as nostalgic for Hegel, while others have wanted to see you as holding up the Haitian Revolution as a perfect example of freedom in action. What is challenging about the book is that it does not choose either position. It places itself on the border of this juxtaposition. In this sense, it does not offer a system of thought that is reproducible everywhere. Instead, the reader sees these compelling juxtapositions — Hegel and Haiti, Lenin and King Kong — and can make several connections. It seems to me that, in your work, there is a kind of critical unfaithfulness to any one mode of thought. Perhaps unfaithful is the wrong word …

That is absolutely true! I’ll take unfaithful! I think it is an interesting reading of my work, and you are right, I refuse simply to be a Benjaminian or a card-carrying member of any school of thought. There is a kind of promiscuity that I pursue — I think it’s healthy to go where you are not supposed to! I have always been suspicious of the whole idea of father-to-son inheritance. I felt this very strongly when I was writing my dissertation and reading a text by Adorno called “The Actuality of Philosophy,” which I translated under the pseudonym Benjamin Snow.

Benjamin Snow — that is great!

I was having a difficult time understanding that text and felt very much like a dutiful daughter trying to understand Adorno as the master. Then I realized he was only seven years older than me when he wrote the piece — and it was just badly written! And suddenly, I was totally liberated. So for me, there is a kind of rebelliousness against the passing down of tradition through a paternal lineage — this is a feminist struggle.

The other part of this is a kind of anarchist gesture: I’m not interested in offering up a new master signifier that my students can rally behind. When, as a teacher and writer, one deals with critical theory, one is passing down a critical tradition, and the question that emerges is, “How can critique be traditional?” Those words — critique and tradition — don’t sit well together. How can a critique become the authority? In my work, I have tried to incorporate this tension in the way the argument is presented.

You have described your thinking as close “to what Bert Brecht described (and admired) as plumpes denken — non-elegant thinking.” Plumpes denken would be a kind of vulgar or inelegant thinking that has the agility to respond to the demands of our historical present. Fredric Jameson has described this kind of thinking as not a “position” that stands alone but a “demystification of some prior position from which it derives its acquired momentum.” This seems to fit in well with what you have termed a boundary question.

Yes, my colleague Irving Wohlfarth was the first to describe my work as a form of plumpes denken, and I take that to be a compliment! You have mentioned the element of unfaithfulness or a kind of promiscuity to my method. I would also add that it offers a critique of received tradition. In 1992, I was in Berlin, and it was some anniversary of Hegel. A lot of new books came out on Hegel’s Jena Writings that offered variants of his lectures recorded in student notes. Reading those, I noticed that it was exactly in 1804/1805 that the dialectic was spoken about by Hegel in terms of master/slave. I thought that was curious: this year was the culmination of the Haitian Revolution. So I asked some scholars in Germany, but they all said, “No, no. The master/slave dialectic is a reference to the revolt of Spartacus in ancient Rome.” I thought, “Well, wait a minute. Hegel’s economic theory is about Adam Smith, and his political theory is about Rousseau and the French Revolution, so how is it that he goes back to Spartacus for the theme of master and slave?” That struck me as bizarre. So I began to read about the Haitian Revolution, but it took me almost nine years to bring Hegel and Haiti together. Eventually, I found the microfiche of the journal Minerva, which Hegel read religiously, and in it I found many pages on the Haitian Revolution.

I remember when I first gave the lecture, “Hegel and Haiti,” in W. J. T. Mitchell’s seminar at the University of Chicago, someone in the audience asked me, “Why are you so angry when you give this lecture?” I was angry at the thought that my education had completely overlooked this connection between Hegel and Haiti. So there is also a kind of rebelliousness or anger at received traditions. It taught me, “Don’t be too respectful of authority — if it doesn’t make sense, maybe it’s wrong.”

So there is coherence to my method that is not a conceptual coherence. I am not interested in creating a traditional systematic form of philosophy; rather, my work offers a liberatory gesture, a freeing from established traditions, which can open up a space to do nontraditional work. That is my hope, that some of these methodological maneuvers can be used in other scholars’ projects in order to support their own, different interests, which are not necessarily mine.

I would like to ask you about the idea of universal history and a shared world in your work. Looking over some of the public lectures you gave during the time you taught at Cornell, I noticed that these themes of world community and a common culture kept cropping up. An early version of Dreamworld and Catastrophe was presented under the title Is There a Common Postmodern Culture?, and in 1985, you gave a series of lectures on “Marx’s Idea of a World Community (and Its Relevance Today).” Can you tell us why, in the mid-’80s and early ’90s, the ideas of a shared world and a common culture interested you?

To answer your question, I have to go all the way back to the demonstrations in the late ’60s, when you saw in news images people all over the world making the peace sign. You saw this on the streets of Tokyo, Berlin, New York, and many other places. Who knew exactly what that sign meant? More than meaning something, it did something. It was a performance of solidarity among members of a generation.

In terms of Marxism, what was important was not what Marxists were saying about national economies and so on but the fact of Marxism, which was a universal language of critique. It was a common language, a utopian possibility that traveled across diverse spaces and was transformed in unexpected ways. Even though Western Marxists might have disagreed with Stalinist Marxists or Marxists from Korea, Thailand, or Tanzania, they all knew what a mode of production was, so they could talk to one another, fight with one another, and collaborate. That was Marx’s terribly important contribution. It is not matched by any other individual thinker today.

I remember reading somewhere that, when you finished your undergraduate degree at Vassar, you went to work for an advertising agency in New York. You said that you would work all day and wait till five o’clock for your life to begin. So, in a sense, you had firsthand experience of the way alienated labor functions.

I wrote to one of my teachers saying I have to go back to school because, at this job, I was living after work, and I wanted what I do all day to be something more than just survival. When I went back to graduate school and read the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, I realized that was it — alienated labor — and I became a total convert to Western Marxism.

Your later work is engaged with gestures of solidarity and alliance, which you have understood as a contribution to universal history. In your thinking, this idea of universal history is not an idealistic conception of wholeness or totality. Rather, it is the mark of a wound. In your 2011 collaboration with the Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, you wrote, “Human universality is a scarred idea, and the sources of the scarring must be remembered along with its moments of inspiration.” I wonder if you could tell us about your thinking regarding a scarred or wounded universality.

You are right to say that, in my work, the universal is not some idealistic melting pot where differences become nullified; rather, it is an attentiveness to the way that concepts become visible in the world because of human practice. If you think about the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square, what was important there was that the horizon of the possible was expanded. People came together, created a space, and learned how to protect that space and one another in that space. I find this politics of making something visible infinitely more useful than one of revolutionary rupture. Some of these useful practices are religious. Some are based on identity politics, but it has to happen, and when it does, it becomes part of the empirically possible.

In Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, you draw attention to a Polish regiment that disobeyed orders and refused to drown Haitian revolutionaries because the members of the regiment felt an alliance with the Haitian struggle, and to a group of French soldiers who, hearing the Haitian revolutionaries singing “La Marseillaise,” questioned which side they should be fighting on. For you, are both of these contributions to universal history because they participate in the expansion of the possible?

The Polish soldiers refuse to follow their orders — they don’t do it — and the French soldiers question their allegiance.

This suggests that the Haitian Revolution contributed to a universal history because it made the concept of freedom visible. This enactment of freedom resonated across national allegiances and dividing forms of difference.

It made something visible for all of us. And these moments of clarity belong to no one, they belong to no exclusionary side.

You write of our global condition as producing a “we,” “the ‘we’ who have nothing more — nor less — in common than sharing this time: that is the universal condition.”

Yes, I do hold on to this word we, and by this I mean a plausible address to everyone who is alive — and no one who is dead! I find the idea of a shared life, a shared world of experience, far more interesting as a starting point than the Heideggerian idea of being-toward-death. We are all alive in this time, and, therefore, there is an infinite metaphysical responsibility to being alive with one another. I find this worth pondering.


Nasrin Olla is the Carol G. Lederer Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University. She specializes in African diasporic literature, postcolonial criticism, and continental philosophy.

LARB Contributor

Nasrin Olla is a South African scholar who specializes in African and African diasporic thought, postcolonial theory, and continental philosophy. More information about her writing can be found at


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