Susan Buck-Morss

Susanbuckmorss
Position: Professor
Campus Affiliation: Graduate Center
Degrees/Diplomas: Ph.D. European intellectual history, Georgetown University
Research Interests: Critical theory, philosophy of history, trans-local global commons

Professor Buck-Morss is a trans-disciplinary scholar whose political theory emerges out of a constellation of historical material, visual images, and contemporary events. She is a core faculty member of the Graduate Center’s Committee on Globalization and Social Change. Her most recent book, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), won the Frantz Fanon Prize Book Prize in 2011. Her book, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left(Verso, 2003), has been translated into Hebrew, Urdu, Spanish, Japanese, and Greek. Research for her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (MIT Press, 2000) was funded by awards from the MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Fulbright program. Her early studies on the Frankfurt School are Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press, 1989) and The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin,and the Frankfurt School (Free Press, 1979).

A longtime professor at Cornell University’s Department of Government, Buck-Morss was also a member of Cornell’s graduate fields in Comparative Literature, History of Art and Visual Culture, German Studies, and the School of Architecture, Art, and Planning. She lectures and collaborates worldwide on the editorial boards of several journals and has been an invited lecturer at dozens of universities worldwide. Her numerous international awards and fellowships include a Getty Scholar grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She holds an M.A. degree from Yale University, studied at the Frankfurt Institut für Sozialforschung, and received her Ph.D. in European intellectual history from Georgetown University. Her website is susanbuckmorss.info.

Books

hegel haiti histSusan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2009).

In this path-breaking work, Susan Buck-Morss draws new connections between history, inequality, social conflict, and human emancipation. Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History offers a fundamental reinterpretation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and points to a way forward to free critical theoretical practice from the prison-house of its own debates.

Historicizing the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the actions taken in the Haitian Revolution, Buck-Morss examines the startling connections between the two and challenges us to widen the boundaries of our historical imagination. She finds that it is in the discontinuities of historical flow, the edges of human experience, and the unexpected linkages between cultures that the possibility to transcend limits is discovered. It is these flashes of clarity that open the potential for understanding in spite of cultural differences. What Buck-Morss proposes amounts to a “new humanism,” one that goes beyond the usual ideological implications of such a phrase to embrace a radical neutrality that insists on the permeability of the space between opposing sides and as it reaches for a common humanity.

thinking past terrorSusan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (London: Verso, 2003).

Renowned critical theorist Susan Buck-Morss argues convincingly that a global public needs to think past the twin insanities of terrorism and counter-terrorism in order to dismantle regressive intellectual barriers. Surveying the widespread literature on the relationship of Islam to modernity, she reveals that there is surprising overlap where scholars commonly and simplistically see antithesis. Thinking Past Terror situates this engagement with the study of Islam among critical contemporary discourses—feminism, post-colonialism and the critique of determinism. Reminding us powerfully that domination and consensus are maintained not by the lack of opposing ideas but by the disorganization of dissent,Thinking Past Terror presents the empowering idea of a global counter-culture as a very real possibility. If the language of a global, radically cosmopolitan Left is not presumed but its attainment struggled for, if the Leftist project is itself this struggle, then democracy defines its very core.

dreamworldcatastropheSusan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000)

The dream of the twentieth century was the construction of mass utopia. As the century closes, this dream is being left behind; the belief that industrial modernization can bring about the good society by overcoming material scarcity for all has been challenged by the disintegration of European socialism, capitalist restructuring, and ecological constraints. The larger social vision has given way to private dreams of material happiness and to political cynicism. Developing the notion of dreamworld as both a poetic description of a collective mental state and an analytical concept, Susan Buck-Morss attempts to come to terms with mass dreamworlds at the moment of their passing. She shows how dreamworlds became dangerous when their energy was used by the structures of power as an instrument of force against the masses. Stressing the similarities between the East and West and using the end of the Cold War as her point of departure, she examines both extremes of mass utopia, dreamworld and catastrophe.The book is in four parts. “Dreamworlds of Democracy” asks whether collective sovereignty can ever be democratic. “Dreamworlds of History” calls for a rethinking of revolution by political and artistic avant-gardes. “Dreamworlds of Mass Culture” explores the affinities between mass culture’s socialist and capitalist forms. An “Afterward” places the book in the historical context of the author’s collaboration with a group of Moscow philosophers and artists over the past two tumultuous decades. The book is an experiment in visual culture, using images as philosophy, presenting, literally, a way of seeing the past. Its pictorial narratives rescue historical data that with the end of the Cold War are threatened with oblivion and challenge common conceptions of what this century was all about.

dialecticsofseeingSusan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

Walter Benjamin’s magnum opus was a book he did not live to write. In The Dialectics of Seeing, Susan Buck-Morss offers an inventive reconstruction of thePassagen Werk, or Arcades Project, as it might have taken form. Working with Benjamin’s vast files of citations and commentary which contain a myriad of historical details from the dawn of consumer culture, Buck-Morss makes visible the conceptual structure that gives these fragments philosophical coherence. She uses images throughout the book to demonstrate that Benjamin took the debris of mass culture seriously as the source of philosophical truth.The Paris Arcades that so fascinated Benjamin (as they did the Surrealists whose “materialist metaphysics” he admired) were the prototype, the 19th century “ur-form” of the modern shopping mall. Benjamin’s dialectics of seeing demonstrate how to read these consumer dream houses and so many other material objects of the time – from air balloons to women’s fashions, from Baudelaire’s poetry to Grandville’s cartoons – as anticipations of social utopia and, simultaneously, as clues for a radical political critique.Buck-Morss plots Benjamin’s intellectual orientation on axes running east and west, north and south – Moscow Paris, Berlin-Naples – and shows how such thinking in coordinates can explain his understanding of “dialectics at a standstill.” She argues for the continuing relevance of Benjamin’s insights but then allows a set of “afterimages” to have the last word.Susan Buck-Morss is Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Theory at Cornell University. The Dialectics of Seeing is included in the series Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought, edited by Thomas McCarthy.

negativedialectics020bookcoverSusan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (New York: The Free Press, 1977; Hassocks, England: The Harvester Press, 1977).

In her important introductory chapter, Susan Buck-Morss rightly stresses the significance of Critical Theory for young West German intellectuals after World War II. In contrast to the American situation, spaces in which questions of Marxism could once again be discussed were opening in the vicinity of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Buck-Morss convincingly sketches this learning process that ended in antagonism when Horkheimer and Adorno proved unwilling to participate in the political practice of the extra-parliamentary opposition. Leftist students turned away from Critical Theory, treating it like the proverbial dead dog after 1970, thereby allowing it to be taken up by young conservatives who concerned themselves only with the aesthetic character of Adorno’s and Benjamin’s writings.

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