Crisis : Janet Roitman

Marc Handelman / Dead Level
Marc Handelman / Dead Level

Crisis : Janet Roitman

What is at Stake?

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. mounted the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver a speech entitled “Normalcy, Never Again.” That day, however, Martin Luther King, Jr. deviated from the “Normalcy” text to improvise what is now known as the “I Have A Dream” speech. On January 20, 2009, the day after Luther King’s birthday, and once having being sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States, Barack Obama, deeply conscious of King’s legacy and his dream on the Washington Mall, defined contemporary American history in terms of crisis: “We are in the midst of crisis.”1

Like King’s “normalcy,” Obama’s crisis is used to characterize a moment in history so as to mark off a new age, or a “journey.” This journey, defined by Obama in terms of “struggle” and “sacrifice,” is historical insofar as it pertains to an economic and political conjuncture. And yet, after giving an inventory of the historical facts of crisis—homes lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered —Obama added a qualifier: “These are the indicators of crisis,” he said, “subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land—a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.” He then concluded: “This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls upon us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Such knowledge in the face of uncertainty implies that the historical crisis entails, or perhaps constitutes, a trans-historical journey, being, as he insisted in his closing words, a matter of hope, promise, and grace: “With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn our back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” Crisis is an historical event as much as it is an enduring condition of life and even the grounds for a transcendent human condition.

Obama noted in his address that the lived experience of what is deemed “crisis” should not be reduced to an ensemble of socio-economic indicators. He sought to convey to the American public that he recognizes their present conditions of life as entailing an experience of crisis. His secular narrative of human history is conjugated with a Christian narrative of witnessing. And yet it echoes secular accounts in the social sciences that attempt to relate the ways in which history can be characterized as crisis, the ways that social life can be said to be in crisis, and the ways that crisis becomes an imperative, or a device for understanding how to act effectively in situations that belie, for the actors, a sense of possibility.2 But the question arises: if crisis designates something more than an historical conjuncture, what is the status of that term? How did crisis, once a signifier for a critical, decisive moment, come to be construed as a protracted historical and experiential condition? The very idea of crisis as a condition suggests an ongoing state of affairs. But can one speak of a state of enduring crisis? Is this not an oxymoron?

Crisis is an omnipresent sign in almost all forms of narrative today; it is mobilized as the defining category of our contemporary situation. The recent bibliography in the social sciences and popular press is vast; crisis texts are a veritable industry.3 As will be made clear below, crisis serves as the noun-formation of contemporary historical narrative; it is a non-locus from which one claims access to history and knowledge of history. In reflecting upon the status of this term as the most common and most pervasive qualifier of contemporary historical conditions—and even of “history” itself—this essay sets the stage for a general inquiry into the status of “crisis” in social science theory and writing.4

However, in what follows, I am not concerned to theorize the term crisis or to come up with a working definition of it. Rather than essentialize it so as to make better use of it, I seek to understand the kinds of work the term crisis is or is not doing in the construction of narrative forms. Likewise, I am not concerned to demonstrate that crisis signifies something new in contemporary narrative accounts or that it now has a novel status in a history of ideas. Similarly, I will not offer a review of the literature on crisis, nor will I show how contemporary usages of the term crisis are wrong and hence argue for a true, or more correct meaning.5

What I will consider is how crisis is constituted as an object of knowledge. Crisis is mobilized in narrative constructions to mark out a “moment of truth” or as a means to think “history” itself. Such moments of truth might be defined as turning points in history, when decisions are taken or events are decided, thus establishing a particular teleology. They might also be defined as instances when “the real” is made bare, such as when a so-called financial “bubble” is seemingly burst, thus divulging alleged “false value” based on speculation and revealing “true value,” or the so-called fundamentals of the economy. As a category denoting a moment of truth in these ways, and despite presumptions that crisis does not imply, in itself, a definite direction of change, the term crisis signifies a diagnostic of the present; it implies a certain telos—that is, it is inevitably though most often implicitly directed toward a norm. Evoking crisis entails reference to a norm because it requires a comparative state for judgment: crisis compared to what? That question evokes the significance of crisis as an axiological problem, or the questioning of the epistemological or ethical grounds of certain domains of life and thought.

For clarification, I turn to Reinhardt Koselleck’s conceptual history of the term crisis, which provides one illustration of the temporalization of history, or the emergence of “history” as a temporal category and the concomitant displacement of crisis from a term serving prophecy to one serving prognosis. Koselleck maintains that, by the end of the eighteenth century, crisis is the basis for the claim that one can judge history by means of a diagnosis of time. This claim and this judgment entail a specific historical consciousness, which posits history as a temporality upon which one can act. For this historical consciousness, crisis is a criterion for what counts as history; crisis signifies change, such that crisis “is” history; and crisis designates “history” as such. In this way, crisis achieves the status of a historico-philosophical concept; it is the means by which history is located, recognized, comprehended, and even posited. Moreover, as I elaborate below, crisis is judgment: judging time in terms of analogous intervals and judging history in terms of its significance. And it equally serves expectations for world-immanent justice, or the faith that history is the ultimate form of judgment. I ask below: what is the burden of proof for such judgment?

By way of response, I consider how crisis evokes a moral demand for a difference between the past and the future such that prognosis and the very apprehension of history are defined by the negative occupation of an immanent world: what went wrong? Crisis is at the basis of social and critical theory insofar as it signifies the dissonance between morality and progress, knowledge and interests, and the limits of intelligibility: critique and crisis are cognate terms, as Koselleck reminds us. Thus crisis serves the practice of unveiling latencies; it is a distinction that transcends oppositions and dichotomies. As I explain below, there is not “crisis” and “non-crisis,” which can be observed empirically; rather, crisis is a logical observation that generates meaning in a self-referential system, or a non-locus from which to signify contingency and paradox.

Ultimately, I invite the reader to put less faith in crisis, which means asking what is at stake with crisis in-and-of-itself. Crisis is a term that is bound up in the predicament of signifying human history, often serving as a transcendental placeholder in ostensible solutions to that problem. It is a primary enabling blind spot for the production of knowledge. Making that blind spot visible means asking questions about how we produce significance for ourselves. At least, it means asking about how we produce “history.” At most, it means asking how we might construct accounts without discerning historical significance in terms of ethical failure. Thus we might ask: what kind of narrative could be produced where meaning is not everywhere a problem?6 An answer to that question, no matter how improbable, requires as a first, inaugural step, consideration of the ways in which crisis, as an enabling blind spot for the production of knowledge, entails unremitting and often implicit judgment about latencies, or errors and failings that must be eradicated and, hopefully, overcome.

Judgment Day

The very etymology of the term “crisis” speaks to the requirement of judgment. Its etymology originates with the Ancient Greek term krinô (to separate, to choose, cut, to decide, to judge), which suggested a definitive decision. With significance in the domains of law, medicine and theology, by the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the medical signification prevailed. Associated with the Hippocratic school (Corpus Hippocratum), as part of a medical grammar, crisis denoted the turning point of a disease, or a critical phase in which life or death was at stake and called for an irrevocable decision. Significantly, crisis was not the disease or illness per se; it was the condition that called for decisive judgment between alternatives.


While crisis, taken either as an historical event or as an epistemological impasse, serves as the basis of a great deal of writing, there are few conceptual histories of the term. The notable exception is the work of Reinhart Koselleck, who describes a decisive shift in the semantics of crisis, transpiring between Hippocratic medical grammar and Christian exegesis.7 Not surprisingly, one did not replace the other: in the elaboration of Christian theology, with reference to the New Testament and alongside Aristotelian legal language, krisis was paired with judicium and came to signify judgment before God, which Koselleck characterizes as possibly the unsurpassable signification of crisis in the course of its conceptual history.8 Through the course of its conceptual displacements—involving the elaboration of semantic webs as opposed to a linear development of substitutions, and which I have drastically abbreviated9—the term crisis entailed a prognosis, which increasingly came to imply a prognosis of time.

Koselleck’s history of the concept of crisis illustrates how, over the course of the eighteenth century, a spatial metaphor comes to be an historical concept through the temporalization of the Last Judgment. This account of this complex semantic shift is part of his oeuvre on the emergence of the European concept of history and the ways in which associated historico-political concepts (e.g. progress) thematize time.10 Prior to the achievement of this shift, crisis did not have a time; it was not historically dated and it did not signify historical dates. While serving throughout the seventeenth century as a catchword with a range of political applications, by the late eighteenth century, crisis, as a concept, sheds its apocalyptic meaning: “it turns into a structural category of Christianly understood history pure and simple; eschatology is, so to speak, historically monopolized.”11

With the temporalization of history—or the process by which, since the late eighteenth century, time is no longer figured as a medium in which histories take place, but rather is itself conceived as having a historical quality—history no longer occurs in time; rather, time itself becomes an active, transformative (historical) principle.12 The temporalization of the Last Judgment is the temporalization of history: crisis serves a transposition from prophecy to prognosis, or the “channeling of millennial expectations,” because it becomes the basis for claims that one can interpret the entire course of history via a diagnosis of time. And such evaluations about a putative temporal situation require knowledge of both the past and the future, which implies that, as a concept that has been integral to the temporalization of history, crisis entails a theory of time. More than just a novel manner of defining and representing history per se, the temporalization of history amounts to a temporal shift in experience.13 The very notion of an historical perspective, which allows for the identification and judgment of a temporal situation, presupposes that history has a temporal quality. And, in similar fashion, the historical perspective itself is taken to have a temporal quality, making the truth of history contingent, not given once-and-for-all. That now familiar point is based on the assumption that time is constantly being produced and that it is always new: the future is fundamentally open.14

But this constant production of the new, or of new time, is not without the production of new pasts. In order to incorporate new experiences into one’s own history—inspired by the awareness of an elsewhere and by the very idea that one constructs history—one must be able to conceive of the past in terms of its radical or fundamental difference. Crisis comes to signify the marking out of “new time” insofar as it denotes a unique, immanent transition phase, or a specific historical epoch. The somewhat odd practice of the retrospective recognition of the past as new—an epoch can only be recognized as such (i.e. in its “true significance” for history) ex post facto—distinguishes this “epochal consciousness” and the philosophy of history of the late eighteenth century. In effect, Koselleck’s account of this historical consciousness and philosophy of history presupposes that, because time is not manifest and thus cannot be intuited, we necessarily draw on terms from the spatial realm.15 Historical concepts are dependent upon metaphorical language and a spatial referent:

To talk about history and time is difficult for a reason that has to do with more than ‘history.’ Time cannot be intuited (ist anschauungslos). If a historian brings past events back to mind through his language, then the listener or reader will perhaps associate an intuition with them as well. But does he thereby have an intuition of past time? Hardly so, or only in a metaphorical use of language, for instance, in the sense in which one speaks of the time of the French Revolution without thereby making visible anything specifically temporal.16

And the temporal significance of such concepts is necessarily experienced and apprehended in terms of retrospective effects.17

Crisis, as an historical concept, refers to the retrospective effects of events and to their constitutive presuppositions. For the epochal consciousness that arises by the end of the eighteenth century, crisis is a criterion for what counts as “history’ and is a means of signifying change. It is a means of designating history in-and-of-itself.18 While typical to an eighteenth-century philosophy of history and a corresponding conceptualization of history in terms of progress, this epochal consciousness is nevertheless very familiar to us; it is in keeping with common contemporary usage of the term as a turning point in any particular history, or as an iterative, periodizing concept. In this instance, crisis is defined as both entirely specific—because it defines an historical epoch—and as structural recurrence—because it establishes and fulfills the notion that historical change takes place in analogous forms. In sum, crisis acquires a historico-philosophical dimension and becomes, by the end of the eighteenth century, a freestanding historico-philosophical concept.19 Thereafter, one speaks of crisis pure and simple; it is a means by which history can be located and understood. This history, which is for Koselleck specifically “modern,” is constituted out of its own conditions of knowledge and action: the criteria of time.20 This new concept of history in-and-for-itself nonetheless requires a referent from which movement, transformation, and change—historical change itself—can be posited. It is in that sense that crisis is the means to “access” history and to qualify history as such: crisis marks history and crisis generates history.

What we forget when invoking this technical or scholastic sense of the term is its theological genealogy, which Koselleck reinstates: this manner of marking both a threshold and the possibility of analogous forms that translate specificity into a general logic is the occasion for the claim to “offer historically immanent patterns of interpretation for crises that are theoretically able to do without the intervention of God.”21 He then concludes: “That the crisis in which one currently finds oneself could be the last, great, and unique decision, after which history would look entirely different in the future—this semantic option is taken up more and more frequently the less the absolute end of history is believed to be approaching with the Last Judgment. To this extent, it is a question of recasting a theological principle of belief. It is expected of world-immanent history itself.”22

What is expected of history? With the temporalization of the Last Judgment, history, in its immanence, becomes a problem of meaning. The emergence of crisis as an historical concept occluded practices of prophecy in favor of practices of prognosis, as indicated above, thus raising the issue of the burden of proof for meaning in history, and for the meaning, or significance, of history itself. Koselleck comments on this burden of proof, invoking Schiller’s influential dictum: “World history is the judgment of the world.”23

This model is compatible with fate, which in Herodotus appears behind all individual histories and which can be read again and again as the consummation of a world-immanent justice. However, Schiller’s dictum raises a greater claim. An inherent justice, one which acquires almost a magical air, is not only required of individual histories but of all world history in toto. Logically, every injustice, every incommensurability, every unatoned crime, every senselessness and uselessness is apodictically excluded. Thus the burden of proof for the meaning of this history increases enormously. It is no longer historians who, because of their better knowledge, believe themselves to be able to morally judge the past ex post facto, but rather it is assumed that history, as an acting subject, enforces justice.24

Through the invocation of the term crisis as a historically unique transition phase, which would mark an epoch, historical experience is likewise generalized as a logical recurrence—the historian is the judge of events. And yet history itself is posited as serving the ultimate form of judgment, a judgment we take to be effected, retrospectively, through acts and errors. (Tellingly and perhaps evocatively, Schiller’s dictum originated in a love poem he composed about a missed opportunity). But knowledge about that past—glorious consummation or disgraced failure—distinguishes the possible, open future, which is a problem. Judging time (sorting change from stasis, perceiving intervals) and judging history (diagnosing demise or improvement, defining winners and losers) is a matter of prognosis. And such prognosis depends upon the stabilization of “a single concept limited to the present with which to capture a new era that may have various temporal beginnings and whose unknown future seems to give free scope to all sorts of wishes and anxieties, fears and hope.”25

The Moral Demand

The very notion that one could judge historical time—that it presents itself to us as an objective entity to be judged—and that history is defined by a teleology of justice—that there are winners and losers, errors and victories—conjures an extraordinarily self-conscious mode of being. The emergence of this particular form of historical self-consciousness is the subject of Koselleck’s remarkable first book, Critique and Crisis, in which he presents a conceptual history of the mutual constitution of those two cognate concepts: critique and crisis.26 His aim is to illustrate that this historical self-consciousness is related to what he defines as a specifically modern attitude toward politics.27

Koselleck puts forth the counterintuitive argument that over the course of the eighteenth century, a novel distinction was formulated between morality and politics that allowed for what he terms the “exclusion of morality from politics”28 or the emergence of a distinct realm that constitutes “society” and, being invested with Natural Law, marks off a self-proclaimed “moral society” from politics. This disassociation between political and moral authority is generally—and uncritically29—assumed to be an actual “great separation,” which is qualified as “the crisis” that marked off new time, or secular history. The notional separation between morality (conscience) and politics (the state) has consequences for manners of positing social change, which come to be understood as transpiring through changes in moral positions, or via rational persuasion and the telos of reason, and thus from outside the institutions of the state. Thus Koselleck illustrates the conversion of the Masonic Lodges and the Republic of Letters from “enclaves of internal exile” in the realm of the Absolutist state to “centres of moral authority” in eighteenth-century France. In the political transformation of these moral societies, claims to “political legitimacy [grow] out of moral innocence”30—a statement about politics that rings as a truism to our twenty-first-century ears, perhaps most recently in Barack Obama’s inauguration speech.

Of course, one can put many questions to Koselleck’s portrayal and analysis of these debates: does he not assume both the efficacy and historical adequacy of “the Enlightenment” as a political project? Does he not assume a pre-modern versus modern distinction, which could be undermined via alternative narratives? Does he not make use of particular personae as reductive examples of a style of thought? Does he not portray the distinction between morality and politics in absolute terms, which is a fallacy? Doesn’t his conceptual history partake of a teleological understanding of historical development? And does he not affirm a misleading—and even Orientalist—divide between modern historical consciousness, on the one hand, and a theological Middle Ages incapable of history, on the other?31 These questions are well founded. Nonetheless, if not taken as a truth correspondence theory of history, Koselleck’s illustration sheds light on the various fault lines that gave rise to a form of political utopianism based on the juxtaposition between immorality and innocence, or between what is thought to be contrived and what is taken as natural.

The triumph of reason through the pure authority of private verdicts over both politics and the state entails a notion of historical progress that is necessarily a form of moral progress, posing the ultimate challenge of emancipation. Self-rule, as an ethical principle, is generalized as a public, political demand, based on the assumption that “inner freedom” is realized in the external world. This principle amounts to the plainly incongruous demand for “a complete and total liberation of human beings from human rule.”32 What would be the burden of proof for such a demand? Koselleck notes that this burden of proof, as produced through reason, would have to be free of logical self-contradiction. By the end of the eighteenth century, the grounds for such proof had shifted from natural law to the historical future: “The transformation from personal rule into rational custodianship may be empirically demonstrated: such an expected, contested, and anticipated liberation of human beings from human subordination, in other words, their redemption within history or the negation of alienation.”33 This European challenge, he argues, became a world historical challenge.34

Koselleck’s (doubtless evident to my contemporaries) general point is that political utopianism entails a philosophy of history: the morally just and rational planning of history coincides in a hoped-for-future, and the achievement of that future requires an interpretation of the relationship of the present to the past. He asks, as noted in the previous section of this essay, what history itself might be, if it is established from the distance of time. And his reply is that it is a matter of a moral demand for a difference between the past and the future.35 He notes that Kant, as an exemplar, “assumes that the future will be different from the past because it is supposed to be different” and that this expectation is ultimately “a moral demand for a difference between past and future.”36

This demand for a temporal difference can be described in terms of a notion of progress as a moral task; and it is based on an alleged discrepancy between scientific or technological progress, on the one hand, and the moral positioning of human beings, on the other; or between honorable social emancipation and suspicious social or political technologies. Morality must respond and constantly adapt to the exigencies of knowledge; it is posited as always insufficient or inadequate. This discrepancy between morality and knowledge is taken to be an aporia, and it is signified by the term crisis. It refers to the formal, or logical, possibility of crisis, as found in the thought of Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx. In the expectation of temporal difference, it implies or entails an ethical imperative, be that explicit or not.37

For Koselleck, political utopianism as a philosophy of history—or the positing of a transcendent that accommodates the idea that humanity can devise its own destiny—actually produces “crisis,” and it does so in two ways.38 First, it is a philosophy of history that allows one to posit the very possibility of a “break” with the past. His central thesis is that, with the French Revolution, the conviction that conclusions about the past are necessary to an understanding of the future is challenged by the idea that the future is to be apprehended as indiscernible. The Revolution thus represents “the crisis of the Enlightenment,” or a new mode of consciousness of history as crisis.39 Second, and equally novel is the practical mode of social action that this historical consciousness entails: one can act “on” history to transform it, which, for Koselleck, denotes a distinctly modern way of postulating the relationship between theory and practice.40

The concept of critique, as understood by the end of the eighteenth century—that is, not as criticism of the state or of political policy, but as a judgment of the validity of institutions and concepts themselves—defines this manner of understanding the relationship between theory and practice. As a universal standard of judgment, through the exercise of reason to resolve historical contingency, critique engendered what Koselleck sees as a form of “hypocrisy” because the depiction of political crisis as the logical outcome of historical progress obscures the contingent political significance of such critique.41 In that sense, perpetual critique—of oneself via moral conscience and of the world against a standard of reason—is coterminous with a perpetual state of crisis. Critique makes the future “a maelstrom,” says Koselleck.42 “If criticism is the ostensible resting point of human thought, then thought becomes a restless exercise in movement.”43 In other words, the constant quest to authenticate the supreme authority of reason transpires through the perpetual process of critique, which is based on the idea of duty toward the future and motivated by faith in the yet-to-be-discovered truth.

To summarize, in his demonstration of the mutual constitution of the cognate concepts, critique and crisis, Koselleck apprehends the Enlightenment not as a socio-political organization but rather as an ethos that formed around key concepts, such as “state,” “society,” “politics,” “morality.” This formation depended fundamentally on the temporalization of history, for which the concept of crisis was crucial. By the eighteenth century, “crisis” denoted a freestanding, primarily historical concept. Its emergence as such was concurrent with the gradual establishment of “history” as a discipline—or with the practice of political and social history as the diagnosis of time—and I want to add, with a metaphysics of history. Crisis invokes a moral demand for a difference between the past and the future. And this critical historical consciousness—or the specific, historical way of knowing the world as “history”—discerns significance in terms of ethical failures: “what went wrong?”44

The Test

With reason as our judge, we are consumed with the problem of establishing the validity of claims to social or political critique, which makes both moral righteousness and faith in deliverance the uncertain terms of our historical self-consciousness. Of course, the grounds for human progress have been subject to suspicion for several centuries. Historical narratives produced by “Enlightenment rationalists” themselves displayed the form of irony associated with a self-critical awareness and an ethics of skepticism.45 And by the end of the nineteenth century, despite faith in technological progress, the search for general causes in history, or a philosophy of history, was deemed by many a forsaken enterprise. But what is obscured in denunciations of the notion of historical progress and the disavowal of non-contingent grounds for judgment is the way in which the temporal understanding of action and history, or theory and practice, remains contingent upon the concept of crisis. The concept of crisis is bound to its cognate “critique” and is established, as a concept, through the very widespread but strange idea that history could be alienated in terms of its philosophy—that is, that one could perceive a dissonance between historical events and representations of those events.

One might suppose that contemporary modes of immanent critique take into account the problem of assuming a dissonance between history and a philosophy of history, or even simply between history and morality. Since the time of the differentiation of reason, initiated during the eighteenth century, reason itself has been posited as a problem. Reason cannot claim a position from which to transcend history, or an Archimedean point of observation and validation; it is a wholly contingent mode of observation and yet it is our means to overcoming the condition of contingency.46 The very critique of reason, which notes that there are no epistemological or philosophical foundations for securing rationality beyond its contingent or partial manifestation, is itself a rational critique, or “performative contradiction” arising from self-referentiality. With the generalization of a reflexive disposition since the eighteenth century, the problem of self-grounding, or the legitimation of theories in terms of the very distinctions (e.g. rational versus irrational) that permit their elaboration, leads to infinite regress. This dilemma of self-grounding and legitimation is taken to be the “crisis of modernity,”47 and is defined by the problem of meaning (“lost meaning”) and alienation—the grounds for critical reason remain the fundamental source of crises for modern society.

And when the grounds for critical reason are deserted for the even more unstable lands of partial and local truths, crisis is not solved. To the contrary, the concept of crisis becomes a prime mover in, for example, poststructuralist thought: while truth cannot be secured, it is nonetheless performed in moments of crisis, when the grounds for truth claims are supposedly made bare and the limits of intelligibility are potentially subverted or transgressed. Thus, for example, epistemological crisis is defined by Judith Butler as a “crisis over what constitutes the limits of intelligibility.”48 Many scholars, including myself, take crisis to be the starting point for narration.49 Following the work of Michel Foucault, we assume that if we start with the disciplinary concepts or techniques that allow us to think ourselves as subjects—that enable us to tell the truth about ourselves—then limits to ways of knowing necessarily entail epistemological crises.50 For Butler, then, subject formation transpires through crisis: that is, crisis, or the disclosure of epistemological limits, occasions critique, and potentially gives rise to counter-normativities that speak the unspeakable. For Foucault, crisis signifies a discursive impasse and the potential for a new form of historical subject. For both, crisis is productive; it is the means to transgress and is necessary for change or transformation. In keeping with this, because reason has no end other than itself, the decisive duty of critique is essentially to produce crisis—to engage in the permanent critique of one’s self, to be in critical relation to normative life is a form of ethics and a virtue.51 In the words of Simon Critchley, who sees crisis as necessary for politics, or for producing a “critical consciousness of the present,” philosophy would have no purpose in a world without crisis: “the real crisis would be a situation where crisis was not recognized.”52 If the grounds for truth are necessarily contingent or partial, and if philosophy thus has no intrinsic object, its authority only possibly emerges as such in moments of crisis, which are defined as the “time when philosophy happens.”53

Meaning, significance, and truth are of course problems—it seems that they constitute our condition of crisis and are addressed by reflection on the possibility for critique.54 But this category of crisis, so integral to the production of new forms and the very intelligibility of the subject, is never problematized despite its cognate and historical-semantic relationship to critique. Apparently, for scholars past and present, attention to the problem of the grounds for critique has eclipsed the seemingly less imperative question of the grounds for positing crisis. This is curious: Why should crisis, as a category, be so self-evident? How is it that the grounds for critique became the defining problem of epistemology while the grounds for thinking the human condition in terms of crisis did not? Although that very broad question goes beyond the scope of this essay, it is worth noting that its effects are with us today. Indeed, even for those who renounce the possibility and duty of critique, crisis is self-evident. Thus the very first section of Bruno Latour’s wonderful book, We Have Never Been Modern, is entitled “Crisis,” referring to “the crisis of the critical stance” but never problematizing the very grounds for the concept of crisis. One might conjecture: if modernity has never obtained, then crisis has not either.

Unable to establish the non-contingent grounds from which to claim critique, truth is necessarily immanent and critique is consigned to the constant unveiling of latencies.55 The latter have been characterized in terms of invisible relations, sediments of tradition, false consciousness, ideologies, naturalized categories, or normalization. Even when the criterion for truth is not longer defined in terms of the logic of non-contradiction, or internal consistency, critique is thought to occur through paradox: through the purging of contradiction and paradox; through the commitment to obstinately demonstrate the paradox of power, or the necessary exclusions (the Other, non-sovereigns) that expose the foundations of power to be contingent suppositions.

If by paradox, we mean “a permissible and meaningful statement that leads nonetheless to antinomies or undecidability (or, more strictly, a demonstrable proposition that has such consequences),”56 it seems clear that an ample conceptual history or, better, genealogy of the concept of crisis would account for the antinomies, or how crisis has come to be a manner of signifying such a state of affairs.57 A paradox that is said to be an antimony “produces a self contradiction by accepted ways of reasoning. It establishes that some tacit and trusted pattern of reasoning must be made explicit and henceforeward be avoided or revised.”58 This kind of paradox “brings on the crises in thought.”59 And such crises are seen to be the bases for critique. When faced with two equally valid or persuasive propositions, which are irreducible the one to the other, critique is elaborated in the disjuncture between “is” and “ought.” This disjuncture could be described as the formal possibility of crisis: the contradiction that drives dialectical methods typical to social science narrative (Marx and Hegel being the obvious examples) or the dichotomies (subject/object, theory/practice, validity/value, intelligible/empirical, transcendence/ immanence) that are at the foundation of social theory and social science narration.60 Because we can only observe or differentiate—that is, produce these very dichotomies—from within immanence, we effectively assume a negative occupation of the immanent world.61

If current scholarship claims to no longer place faith in reason as the basis for validity, a critical perspective is achieved through second order observation—that is, observing observations from a standpoint that is observable. As Niklas Luhmann has demonstrated consistently, this is not a matter of empirical observations, but rather a matter of logical observations, which are distinctions and which are meaning-constituting. Crisis is just one distinction. Significantly, this practice of observation, or distinction, does not proceed from binaries or oppositions. For example, my claim is that it cannot be the case that there is crisis/non-crisis, both of which can be observed. Rather “crisis” is a distinction that transcends oppositions between knowledge and experience, or subject and object; it is a distinction that generates meaning precisely because it contains its own self-reference.62 As Luhmann says. “What can be distinguished by means of these distinctions will become ‘information.’”63 That is to say, from my point of view, the term crisis establishes second-order observation; it is not an object of first-order observation.64 This external reference for judgment in a necessarily self-referential system—or a distinction that generates and refers to an “inviolate level” of order (not crisis)—is seen to be contingent (historical crises) and yet is likewise posited as beyond the play of contingency, being a logical necessity that is affirmed in paradox (the formal possibility of crisis).65

Without doing justice to the depths of Luhmann’s work, suffice it to underscore the point that in a world that is posited as an immanent field of observations, one is necessarily in a self-referential system, which is unavoidably paradoxical.66 In other words, if we take ourselves to be without a position from which to observe society in its totality, there can be no universal principals, but only self-referential principles, which are unavoidably paradoxical. Habitually posited as a logical contradiction, paradox is a foundational sign for an order without an origin. In other words, “all knowledge and all action have to be founded on paradoxes and not on principles; on the self-referential unity of the positive and the negative—that is, on an ontologically unqualifiable world.”67 Without recognition of these conditions of paradox, standards for evaluating social conditions produce descriptions and judgments in terms of pathology—in other words, as deficient but not as merely paradoxical.68

Crisis is an enabling blind spot for the production of knowledge.69 It is a distinction that, as least since the late eighteenth century, and like all latencies, is not seen as an enabling paradox, but rather as an error or deformation—a discrepancy between the world and knowledge of the world. But if we take crisis to be a blind spot, or a distinction, which makes certain things visible and others invisible, it is merely an a priori. Crisis is claimed, but it remains a latency; it is never itself explained because it allows for the further reduction of “crisis” to other elements, such as capitalism, economy, politics, culture, subjectivity. In that sense, crisis is not a condition to be observed (loss of meaning, alienation, faulty knowledge); it is an observation that produces meaning. More precisely, it is a distinction that secures “a world” for observation or, in Obama’s terms, the grounds for testing.70

The Dream of Hope

William Rasch sums up our dilemma concisely: “We have become distinctly suspicious of transcendental attempts to construct inviolate and panoramic levels of vision labeled God, Reason, or Truth. Yet, because of political or moral commitments, we are equally disinclined to relinquish ‘critical’ perspectives from which we presume not only to see the world as it is but also to utter judgments about its inadequacy.”71 Even if a critical perspective is relegated to provisional ends, and thus applies itself to “bearing witness” to difference and partial interests, these exclusions (the Other, the silenced, the non-sovereign, etc.) are apprehended in terms of negative integration.72 The reflexive stance, which recognizes the contingency of its observations and accounts for the ways that the observer itself constructs its object of investigation, has similar implications. It means that the various disciplines of the social sciences are no longer defined by their object of inquiry: sociology is for the most part no longer the positivistic study of “society.” In the place of disciplinary objects, we have constitutive questions.73 The obvious constitutive question is framed in terms of the conditions of possibility for a given situation, practice, institution, etcetera. The less obvious but equally pervasive constitutive question is “What went wrong?”

That question brings us back to the matter, raised above, of what is expected of history—that is, the moral demand for a difference between past and future. Doubtless the world could be otherwise; we can envisage amendments that would address poverty and wellbeing. But the social movements or publics that emerge around these issues must be acknowledged as such and hence can never be true counter-publics or an alternative politics, being inevitably inscribed in, for example, the language of rights and sovereignty. Political legitimacy is generated out of the exile of moral innocence, as Koselleck argued for the secret Masonic Lodges. In Luhmann’s words, “The secret of alternative movements is that they cannot offer any alternatives.”74 Without a non-foundational foundation for political action, we can only have crisis and anti-crisis, not crisis and something else.

Taking issue with the guiding question that drives our construction of history from a negative formulation—“What went wrong?”—does not amount to a denial of error, or the “acts and omissions of mankind.”75 My aim is merely to consider how the term crisis operates as a non-place in the formulation of that question and in possible replies. Because the historical significance of our contemporary situation is construed in terms of systemic, structural or moral failure, answers to the question “What went wrong?” are necessarily sought in latencies that account for error: for instance, in the classic cases (Marxism and psychoanalysis, respectively) class interest accounts for ideology and traumatic experience accounts for pathological behavior.76 The proverbial problem is to apprehend these systems or deeper structures from a vantage point that is not itself determined by them.77 As a non-locus for signifying contingency, crisis is not a diagnostic of history as such. Under the sign of crisis, “events” are distinguished and signified; they achieve ontological status as “history” and hence are recognizable to us.

Crisis partakes of a metaphysics of history: hence Obama’s witnessing, or his judgment of moral significance as being located in history and as being the stuff of history itself. In marking out a “moment of truth” in this way, certain questions can be asked, while others are foreclosed. In his case, the referenced “historical crisis” is apparently the sub-prime mortgage market for which answers to the question “What went wrong?” have been located either in the systemic nature of capitalism (the business cycle, the falling rate of profit) or in the moral failings of speculative finance capital (producing “bubbles” of false value). These interpretations do not consider the ways in which the crisis itself is not intrinsic to a system or the result of a teleology, but is rather a distinction that produces meaning. Thus, for example, the massive devaluation of real estate values (and not their “natural” tendency to diminish) resulted in a tide of home foreclosures, which was seen as the natural result of an insufficiently collateralized debt market. However, the decision by the banking industry and the American government to define economic conditions in terms of crisis at a particular moment was motivated by questions regarding interbank loans and guarantees for bank debt. Naming this situation “crisis” implies that what was once perfectly intelligible and construed as productive (debt is a credit) is now taken to be without basis and construed as a negative value form (debt is a toxic asset).

Answers to this question “What went wrong?” are devised according to the “is” versus “ought” distinction inherent to paradox. This means that post hoc analyses in terms of crisis necessarily entail an assumed teleology. To continue with the recent case of sub-prime mortgages, such analyses entail assumptions about how “the market” should function and conjecture about how deviations from “true” market value were produced. These analyses do not to account for the ways in which such value produced by specific financial products result from an assemblage of markets, or coordinated modes of evaluation and calculation.78 Such coordination is not merely the product of the law of capitalism or the law of the market; it arises from specific technical practices, such as underwriting, accounting, and risk management, allowing debt to be figured as a fungible asset. Reference to “financial crisis” with respect to the sub-prime mortgage market only serves to unify the disparate modes of evaluation that are essential to the coordination of specific chains of valuation and calculation, which merit systematic study. In eliding such study, reference to “crisis” can only identify the historical significance of the contemporary situation in terms of systemic and ethical failures.79

But crisis narratives are not mere representations, to be compared to a truer narrative or a level underlying mere symbolic terrain. In lieu of devotion to reconciling such paradox, or antinomies, one might prefer to consider what it would take to “reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of antinomies.”80 It would follow that the aim is not to invalidate “crisis” or to critique the term as inaccurate or merely symbolic. There is no reason to claim that there are no “real” crises. Rather, the point is to observe crisis as a blind spot, and hence to consider the ways in which it regulates narrative constructions, the ways in which it allows certain questions to be asked while others are foreclosed. With contingency serving as the transcendental placeholder, having usurped both God and reason, we have no choice but to ground our faith in it—or in crisis, ultimately a signifier for contingency—via the “the series of stories” that are written, or more to the point, “in the very necessity of having to write stories.”81

One might ask: what sort of narrative could be produced where meaning is not everywhere a problem? If history amounts to a record of interruptions (suffering, alienation, crisis) how does one successfully resist or avoid the temptation to achieve admission into the record, thus severing recognition and noteworthiness from the achievement of politics?82 In the end, this politics would entail a true epistemological revolution because significance would no longer be located in history. Martin Luther King, Jr. never pronounced “Normalcy—Never Again”: there is no politics without crisis because we have no language for it.83 Or this would be an impractical, impossible politics whose form we could not imagine, since it would presumably somehow, someway subvert the temporalization of history. The problem is the future. In the words of Umberto Eco, in reflecting upon the narrative paradox of political-action-packed Superman: “Time as a structure of possibility is, in fact, the problem of our moving toward a future.”84 In Superman, the concept of time breaks down: events lose a notion of temporal progression, as in a dream.85 But a dream, surely just like history, is “a cosmically unnoticeable event” there is no spectator, no witness.86 If there is hope that the world could be otherwise—if politics is the place for passage from imagination to history—we do sorely need a dream. Inauguration day.


Janet Roitman is a Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.


1. “Transcript: Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” delivered January 20, 2009, Washington, D.C.:>php?storyld=99590481&ps=cprs, accessed January 20, 2009. This project has benefited from the insights and comments of numerous people, all of who cannot be acknowledged herein. This particular version owes a great deal to the comments of Ann Stoler, Martha Poon, Jay Bernstein, Richard Bernstein, and Gil Anidjar.

2. See A. Mbembe and J. Roitman, “Figures of the Subject in Times of Crisis,” Public Culture 7 (1995), 323-352.

3. This bibliography is too vast to reference, as are the recent conferences dedicated to “explaining the crisis” now impulsively staged by universities, think tanks, and periodicals.

4. This text is part of a larger book project, also entitled “The Anti-Crisis.”

5. One review of the term “crisis” is undertaken by Beckett (G. Beckett, The End of Haiti: History Under Conditions of Impossibility, PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, 2008), who shows how crisis has been theorized in Haiti in relation to a wider discursive field in which the notion of “decline” is dependent upon ideas of progress held to obtain outside of Haiti, most notably in the global North.

6. In his reflective essay on Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences, James Dodd notes similar questions, though with the aim, following Husserl, to show that science itself would not be possible without a human understanding of the world as a problem, or experienced as failure (James Dodd, Crisis and Reflection: An Essay on Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences [Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004], 19).

7. For his conceptual history of crisis, Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis. Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, MA: Berg Publishers, 1988). For short encyclopedia-style entries, see G. Masur, “Crisis in History, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. P. Wiener (New York: Scribners, 1973), 589; R. Starn, “Historians and Crisis, Past and Present 52 (1971), 3-22; A. Béjin and E. Morin, “La notion de crise,” Centre d’études transdisciplinaires, Communications 25 (1976). The numerous texts in German are found in Koselleck’s bibliography (see, notably, R. Koselleck. and M. Richter, “Crisis,” Journal of the History of Ideas 67(2): 358-359).

8. R. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 237; Koselleck, “Crisis.”

9. The various “semantic options” are set forth as distinct but not mutually exclusive in Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History (240-244) and “Crisis” (371-372). It is important to note that for Koselleck’s brand of conceptual history, and contrary to a history of ideas, concepts cannot be defined; they have no inner core meaning that undergoes permutations. Instead, concepts consist of semantic webs of meaning, which bring definitions into a wider relational nexus, thus producing relatively stable units of sense. See Koselleck, Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 75-92.

10. By a European concept of history, I refer to the project of Begriffsgeschichte, devoted to study of the fundamental concepts that partake of, and give rise to, both a specific concept of “history” and a distinctly historical consciousness. The main body of Koselleck’s work in English includes Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis, The Practice of Conceptual History, and Futures Past.

11. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 242; Future’s Past, chap. 13.

12. While prophecy involves symbols of what is already known and entails expectation in constant similitude, prognosis, to the contrary, generates novel events. Rational prognosis related to intrinsic possibilities hinges on an imagined novel time that is in flight. The influence of Leibniz’s metaphysics, noted by Koselleck, cannot be underestimated. For another account of this temporalization, see A. Lovejoy, A, The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

13. On the crisis, prognosis, and knowledge of past and future, see Koselleck, Futures Past, chaps. 1 and 9. Koselleck in effect documents diminishing Aristotelian semantic content during what he defines as a “saddle period” (1750-1850), after which terms such as democracy, freedom, and progress entail a novel “anticipatory content” (Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 5). Both Koselleck (The Practice of Conceptual History, 167) and Blumenberg (Shipwreck with Spectator [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997], 58) comment on this temporal shift in experience and claim that spatial representation is an older form than that of temporal representation.

14. One of the main features of the historical concept of Neuzeit is the assumption that “time is always new,” insofar as “every present differentiates itself from every past and every future; it is unique and therefore new” (Koselleck 2002: 148). Neuzeit entails an open future. On the emergence of the notion and experience of an “open future,” see A. Koyre, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1957), B. Adam, Timewatch: The Social Analysis of Time (Cambridge: Politiy Press, 1995) and B. Adam and C. Groves, Future Matters Action, Knowledge, and Ethics (Boston: Brill, 2007).

15. This notion of time as a formal, a priori condition of intuition, associated with Kant, can be contrasted to a notion subjective historical times, or simultaneous, plural objects defined by their own measure.

16. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 102.

17. See clarification and examples in chapter 6 of The Practice of Conceptual History. See Blumenberg’s argument against the notion that concepts necessarily emerge out of metaphor and for the position that linguistic metaphor imparts experience (H. Blumebberg, Care Crosses the River (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

18. This is an extremely condensed presentation of Koselleck’s analysis, the main points of which can be found in chapters 10 and 13 of The Practice of Conceptual History; Futures Past; and “Crisis” (370-371).

19. For a skillful review of crisis in historiography, see R. Starn, “Historians and ‘Crisis,’” Past and Present, 52 (1971), 3-22.

20. K. Davis takes issue with Koselleck’s mobilization of “modernity” as a category of explanation and as a “sovereign period” (Periodization and Sovereignty, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

21. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 24; Futures Past, 40-41, 240; “Crisis,” 371.

22. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 243; my emphasis; see also 243-244; “Crisis,” 370-397.

23. Translated elsewhere in Koselleck (Futures Past, 38) as “World history is the world’s tribunal.” Taken from Schiller’s poem, “Resignation,” first published in his journal Thalia in 1786, this usage of the term “world-history” was to have great effect, having been used by Schiller in his inaugural lecture to the Chair of History at Jena in 1789, and then by Kant in his Idea for a Universal World History in 1784, and by Hegel as published in the Jena Realphilosophie in 1805-06. See H.B. Acton’s Introduction to Hegel’s Natural Law.

24. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 241; “Crisis,” 371. Some counter Koselleck’s portrayal of this intellectual history, noting that history has not been posited consistently as a site of redemption, but has been equally figured as state of war, in which “true historical events” are rare. The question I pursue herein can be put to both Koselleck and to those, like Rousseau, who hold the latter view: “What is the status of ‘true’ historical events?”

25. Koselleck, “Crisis,” 372.

26. Originally Koselleck’s PhD dissertation, Kritik und Krise: Eine Studie zur Pathogenese der bürgerlichen Welt was published in 1959.

27. An insight is associated with Kant, Baudelaire, Benjamin or Foucault. See M. Foucault, 1984 on Kant’s notion of “becoming mature.” Read also Edwards’ lively commentary on Critique and Crisis, which illustrates the affinities between Koselleck and Foucault with regard to this modern (Enlightenment) attitude (“Critique and Crisis Today: Koselleck, Enlightenment, and the Concept of Politics,” Contemporary Political Theory 5, 428-446). Edwards highlights the problem of assuming the unity of “the Enlightenment,” which obscures the heterogeneous dispositions that prevailed in seventeenth-century European intellectual and literary circles—a problem noted by Koselleck (Critique and Crisis, 3) in his preface to the English Edition. In a comment on Foucault’s lecture, “What is Critique,” Talal Asad raises a fundamental question that could be put to Koselleck as well: “It is not clear whether Foucault wishes us to understand that ‘the critical attitude’ is a characteristic only of the modern West, or that ‘the critical attitude’ distinctive of the modern West is quite different from what is found elsewhere—an attitude that enables it to think for the first time of ‘the transcendent’ in a way that permits humanity to make its own future” (“Is critique secular? Historical notes on the idea of secular criticism”, The Immanent Frame, SSRC Blogs, Friday January 25, 2008: Accessed 11/17/08). For critique of Asad’s “modern,” see K. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

28. Koselleck relates the now familiar story of the emergence of a bourgeois public in terms of its “self-understanding” as a distinct social realm—an account most often attributed to Habermas, who published his habilitation after Koselleck (1962), the English translation appearing in 1989. On Koselleck’s and Habermas’ respective theses, see La Volpa 1992.

29. Read Davis who in Periodization and Sovereignty, alongside Anidjar, takes issue with the “triumphalist history of the secular,” and of universalism, which she questions through the operations of medieval/modern periodization to demonstrate how the notions of both feudalism and secularization themselves are constituted. Her concern to suspend periodization is important given the longstanding effects of the thesis of a “great separation,” which is reiterated in contemporary scholarship and denoted as “the crisis” (see Lilla 2007). I thank Gil Anidjar for turning my attention to Davis’ book.

30. Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, 95. See Gourevitch’s preface to Critique and Crisis, viii. 1998: viii. Koselleck narrates the “other side of the Enlightenment”: claims to a new society articulated by the Illuminati were made in the name of political impotence and concealed aspirations to power.

31. B. Loewenstein (Book Review: Koselleck, Kritik und KriseThe Journal of Modern History 48:1, 122-124); D. Carr, (Book Review: Koselleck, Futures Past. History and Theory 26:2, 197-204); J. Edwards (“Critique and Crisis Today”; and K. Davis (Periodization and Sovereignty), amongst others, raise these questions.

32. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 250.

33. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 250; my emphasis.

34. While agreeing that this challenge was generalized extensively from an epistemological point of view, one nevertheless might wonder whether this positing of a transcendent and the consequential challenge of redemption, or negation of alienation, are truly general to world populations.

35. Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, 98-137; The Practice of Conceptual History, 110-144.

36. Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 112-113.

37. Simon Critchley gives a list of the various contents of this formal demand: “Mosaic Law in the Bible, the Good beyond Being in Plato, the resurrected Christ in Paul and Augustine, the Good as the goal of desire for Aquinas, the practical ideal of generosity for Descartes, the experience of benevolence for Hutcheson, and of sympathy fir Adam Smith and Hume, the greatest happiness of the greatest number for Bentham and Mill, the moral law in Kant, practical faith as the goal of subjective striving in Fichte, the abyssal intuition of freedom in Schelling, the creature’s feeling of absolute dependency on the creator in Schleiermacher, pity for the suffering of one’s fellow human beings in Rousseau or for all creatures in Schopenhauer, the thought of eternal return in Nietzsche, the ethico-teleological idea of the Kantian sense in Husserl, the call of conscience in Heidegger, the relation to the Thou in Buber, the claim of the non-identical in Adorno, etc. etc.” (Infinitely Demanding [New York: Verso, 2007], 16-17). He proposes a model of ethical experience in terms of the affirmation of such a demand.

38. It is important to note that Koselleck interrogates the concept as historically produced and hence contingent, but nevertheless argues for the necessity of the concept of crisis.

39. Edwards calls attention to Furet’s influential re-interpretation of the French Revolution, where he distinguishes between the utopianism inherent in revolt, as a return to an idealized past, and the utopian future inherent to revolution, which necessitates a break with the past (Edwards, J. “Critique and Crisis Today,” 440). Note that Koselleck’s does not infer that revolutionary practice subverts what he defines as the structure of modernity.

40. Koselleck’s point, reiterated by Wellmer (The Persistence of Modernity [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993]) and Rasch (Niklas Luhmann’s Modernity [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000]) is that revolutionary practice, being enabled by what he sees as the structure of modernity, only serves to confirm or extend modernity, not negate or surpass it. The question is whether modernity ever obtained: Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993], Gil Anidjar, “Secularism,” Critical Inquiry 33: 52-77, and Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty.

41. See Koselleck Critique and Crisis, 117-123; Gourevitch’s preface (viii-ix) and Edwards, “Critique and Crisis Today,” 438.

42. Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, 109.

43. Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, 108.

44. For commentary on this interrogation, see White’s foreword to Koselleck’s Practice of Conceptual History, viiii-xiv.

45. See H. White, Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973) and K. Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

46. This is evident in the work of scholars associated with the Institute for Social Research, who sought to secure the grounds for immanent critique, as it is the case for contemporary scholars of the Frankfurt School, like Habermas or Benhabib, who seek non-foundationalist grounds for political action.

47. See also J. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984-1987); The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987).

48. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter (New York: Routledge, 1983), 138.

49. J. Roitman, Fiscal Disobedience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

50. A non-Foucauldian approach that similarly (and productively) inquires into the limits of intelligibility as a prime mover in history is the sociology of critique. See also L. Boltanski and L. Thévenot, De la justification (Paris: Gallimard, 1991).

51. M. Foucault, “What is Enlightenmnet?” in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rainbow (New York: New Press, 1997), 303-319.

52. Simon Critchely and W.R. Schroeder (eds.), A Companion to Continental Philosophy (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), 12.

53. Jay Bernstein, personal communication, New York, 2010. Here one might pursue Deleuze’s statement that philosophy takes place in paradox: “Paradox is the pathos or the passion of philosophy”—which applies to the social sciences more generally (Difference and Repetition [New York: Columbia University Press, 1994], 227).

54. This problem of meaning is of course not simple and should not be taken as “what things, in themselves, mean.” Rather, it is a problem of what counts as meaningful and meaningless.

55. This is not a novel or necessarily remarkable point. It is reviewed with clarity by William Rasch (Luhmann’s Modernity), and E. Knodt (“Toward a Non-Foundationalist Epistemology: The Habermas-Luhmann Controversy Revisited,” New German Critique 61, 77-100) on paradox and self-reference in Habermas and Luhmann.

56. N. Luhmann, Theories of Distinction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 142.

57. There are many classes of paradox, one of which is the antinomies. See, for example, W.V.O. Quine, The Ways of Paradox (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 1-21. I thank Richard Bernstein for his conversation with me about the antinomies.

58. Quine, Ways of Paradox, 5.

59. Quine, Ways of Paradox, 5.

60. I have grossly simplified the point for expediency. The paradox is best described as established between the invariance of logical truth and the constitutive mutability of our experience of that truth. Referring to it herein indicates how this thought-piece on crisis serves a history of reason. Put succinctly by Angelica Nuzzo: “The thesis that allows both Kant and Hegel to insert . . . the condition of history at the very heart of scientific rationality regards not directly the idea of truth, but rather, respectively, the possibility of error in our quest for truth” (“Science, History, and Philosophy in Kant and Hege,” in History, Historicity, and Science, ed. T. Rockmore and J. Margolis, 77-94). In What Is Philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari state this differently: because the form of time as becoming brings truth into crisis, falsity governs narration—perhaps an iteration of my point about “What went wrong?” See also Rasch’s introduction to N. Luhman’s Theories of Distinction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 6-7.

61. See Rash, Niklas Luhmann’s Modernity, 109; Luhmann, Observations on Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998); Deleuze and Guatari, What is Philosophy. Not able to read German, I content myself with Rasch’s presentation of Fuchs’ work in English. The ultimate reference for Rasch is Luhmann.

62. This brief allusion to observing systems can be explored in Luhmann’s immense body of work, in part inspired by George Spencer-Brown. For clarification, see Rasch’s Luhmann’s Modernity, Moeller and the special issue of Theory, Culture and Society (2001), guest edited by Arnoldi.

63. Luhmann, Essays on Self-Reference (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 131.

64. Although Luhmann does not assess the term “crisis” in this manner, his appraisal of Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1954) can be read through such a lens, as I have done (see Luhmann, Theories of Distinction [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002], chapter 1).

65. “Inviolate level of order” is Luhmann’s expression (Luhmann, Theories of Distinction), taken from Hofstadter.

66. Luhmann, Social Systems (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 56-57; Essays on Self-Reference, 123-143; Theories of Distinction, 130-133. See also Deleuze, Difference and Repetition.

67. Luhmann, Theories of Distinction, 101. See also 86-87, 142-43.

68. See Luhmann, Essays on Self-Reference, 136-7. This brings me to the crux of my initial intrigue with the concept of crisis, my question being how to think “Africa” otherwise than under the sign of crisis—that is, otherwise than in terms of pathology (see Roitman, forthcoming 2012).

69. This is my performative paradox. I follow Luhmann’s definition: “The distinction that is operatively used in observation but not observable is the observer’s blind spot” (Theories of Distinction, 190). See also Rasch’s introductory remarks (104-105) on this notion of blind spot.

70. “The blind spot of each observation, the distinction it employs at the moment, is at the same time its guarantee of a world” (Luhmann, Theories of Distinction, 136).

71. Rash, Luhmann’s Modernity, 127.

72. The commitment to “bearing witness to the differend” is Lyotard’s (The Differend [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988], xiii). The injunction to “witness” partakes of a Christian genealogy that seeks to redeem what has been lost (or silenced, in Lyotard’s language), though according to an ethics of remembrance as opposed to emancipation.

73. A point made by scholars associated with constructivist theories, but see also G. Canguilhem, Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988); Luhmann, Social Systems, xli-xlii and 115-166; B. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern; Latour, “The Promises of Constructivitsm,” in Chasing Technoscience, ed. D. Ihde and E. Selinger (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003); I. Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999); I. Hacking, Historical Ontology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); and P. Rainbow, Anthropos Today (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

74. Luhman, Essays on Self-Reference, 141.In related manner, Luhmann (1982: 119) argues that, because critique, as a “reflexive method for formulating values and norms” is fully institutionalized, terms such as “justice” and “truth” retain only symbolic functions. In that sense, the dichotomies that structure social theory ensure the unity of allegedly rival approaches; transformation could only ensue by accounting for that unity.

75. Koselleck, “Crisis,” 371.

76. See Rash’s introduction to Luhmann’s Theories of Distinction, p. 3.

77. Crisis often serves to signify such a vantage point, especially in accounts that seek to determine the “mediations” that might exist between structural crisis and experiential crisis, or between crisis as a descriptive category and crisis as an evaluative category (see J. Habermas, Legitimation Crisis [New York: Beacon Press, 1975], S. Benhabib, Critique, Norm, and Utopia New York: Columbia University Press, 1986]).

78. See M. Callon, Laws of the Markets (London: Blackwell, 1998); MacKenzie, Muniesa, Sui, Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); M. Poon, “From New Deal Institutions to Capital Markets, Accounting, Organizations, and Society 34, 654-674. In the case of subprime mortgages, or Obama’s referenced crisis, these include the real estate market through which property is valued and exchanged; the market for loans through which credit is established; exchanges of pooled loans between mortgage brokers and wholesalers; and the secondary market for those loans, which are sold by securitizing financial institutions as products to international investors (Poon, “From New Deal Institutions,” 656).

79. For lack of space, I cannot multiply the examples, which would include the role of “crisis” in the elaboration of humanitarianism and its associated ethic of witnessing.

80. Rasch, Luhmann’s Modernity, 9.

81. Rasch, Luhmann’s Modernity, 23.

82. This question echoes those posed by Mahatma Gandhi regarding his “politics of accord” (see L. Gandhi, “The Pauper’s Give: Postcolonial Theory and the New Democratic Dispensation,” Public Culture 23:1 [2011]).

83. Or crisis signifies a veritable aporia: an impasse in speaking, writing, narration and the inability to bear witness. See D. LaCapra, History in Transit (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 144-194. We could not narrate it. This very impossibility of bearing witness is now often signified as the “unsayability” of Auschwitz, though some insist upon witnessing and narration as a moral imperative to not forget. My point is not to recommend an ethic of forgetting or oblivion. My aim is to note how crisis is a non-locus for narration, which permits the constitution of “trauma” as a historical category. Such narration is not “bad”; it requires epistemological self-reflexivity. I thank Jay Bernstein for pushing me to clarify this point.

84. U. Eco, “The Myth of Superman,” in Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 112.

85. See the DC comics edited edition of the classic 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths (M. Wolfamn and G. Perez, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Absolute Edition, DC Comics, 2005).

86. H. Blumbenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 38; Blumenberg’s reference is Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752).