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Responsibility and critical theory: Responding to suffering after Auschwitz

Antonio Y Vazquez-Arroyo, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In contemporary theoretical discourse the concept of responsibility is often found in the intersection of attempts to rethink ethics of difference, enlightened notions of human agency, as well as questions of accountability. This dissertation complicates the terms of these discussions by exploring the meaning and implications of theorizing responsibility politically. In doing so, this study disentangles the question of responsibility from formulations that privilege accountability and from those associated with deconstructive and ontological paradigms. Accordingly, I formulate a critical theory of responsibility that without ceasing to be material and critical and without erasing the “subject,” is responsive to claims of Identity/Difference, otherness, and suffering captures the political dimension of these questions. Responsibility is thus partly redefined as the need to politically respond to a certain predicament both as an individual as a member of different collectivities, face the burdens of acting collectively, and assume the obligations involved as a collected collectivity that is vigilant in relation to the forms of power it generates, as well as of its uses. Stated differently, rather than to approach responsibility only from an ontological, or “analytical” outlook, I propose to look at political responsibility from the perspective of critical theory by considering the historical experience of genocide in the aftermath of Auschwitz. In its conceptual aspect, this dissertation combines careful interpretative work on major political thinkers in the twentieth-century with a critical engagement with the works of anthropologists, historians, literary critics, and philosophers. Chapters on the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, Adorno's dialectical-constellational critical theory, the Great War and the political theory of catastrophe, on the dialectic of enlightenment and its entanglement with late modern despotism and the historical coupling of violence and civilization, the critical import of historicism for a ethico-political historical consciousness, and universal history, frame the bulk of the dissertation. These chapters aim at constituting what Theodor W. Adorno, following Walter Benjamin, called a “constellation” of concepts and narratives that seek to illustrate the complexities of theorizing responsibility politically, without aiming at exhausting the question.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Political science

Recommended Citation

Vazquez-Arroyo, Antonio Y, "Responsibility and critical theory: Responding to suffering after Auschwitz" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136789.