Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Samantha's notes on Critical Theory

‘Critical Theory’ is a term used to refer to a tradition divided by generation. Contemporary theorists include Habermas, Offe, Apel, writing broadly in the tradition as redefined by Habermas. The early theorists included Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Lowenthal, Neumann, Benjamin. What unites them is a concern to provide a systematic and critical analysis of social phenomena and the tendencies of modern societies with the aim of achieving a more rational society. The project contains empirical, theoretical and philosophical themes, and draws on Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud, as well as (esp. Habermas), Durkheim and Weber.

The ‘Frankfurt School’ was established as an institute of orthodox Marxian studies in 1923. In 1930 Max Horkheimer became its director; from this time a distinct tradition emerged. Basic questions and issues:

Why was there no revolution after 1917 in the West?
How to explain the phenomenon of alienation?
Why did people consent to fascism?
Why does exposure to culture, commonly seen as civilising, not guard against barbarism?
Dispute with positivists and concern to oppose instrumental reason.

Disenchantment with orthodox Marxism

Saw tendency for Marxism to become scientistic socialism, creating a void in which the right could take control. Engaged in a critical re-examination of Marx’s ideas for early c20, using the argument that historical materialism by definition anticipates its own constant reformulation – c20 Marxism must be distinct from c19 Marxism due to changed historical circumstances.

Dealing with political upheavals in Europe in the first decades of the c20, and influenced by the publication of Marx’s early writings at the time. Focused on the need for interdisciplinarity and on the dangers of closure/assuming a totalising explanation (reality incomplete, therefore to effect closure implies domination).

Therefore not orthodox Marxists. Class conflict and economic forces important, but did not give a complete picture. Need to examine a more general historical dynamic (in which Marxism itself ensnared). That general dynamic was one of enlightenment and domination. For example, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment argued that Enlightenment was destroying itself from within. With increased knowledge, humans had gained increased mastery over both external nature and human subjectivity. Both were increasingly subordinated to technical control and manipulation. Taking up Weber’s account of rationalisation as producing an ‘iron cage’, they argued that as instrumental reason became increasingly dominant the space for criticism closed down. Enlightenment was returning to myth and to more absolute forms of domination.

Central question was therefore how to maintain a space for criticism. This lead them to examine the political and sociological aspects of culture, understanding mass media as an assimilating force for capitalism.

Three sets of ideas helped in the reformulation of Marxism:

1. Work of Korsch and Lukacs. Former argued that orthodox Marxism was a form of ‘contemplative materialism’ – waiting for the revolution as an inevitable event meant neglect of subjectivity. Latter argued that the main barrier to realisation of revolutionary agency was reification. Critical theorists use these ideas to break open Marxism from within.
2. Nietzsche’s ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Suspicion of any claim to totality/truth – completeness always out of reach. Marxism had reached a premature closure. Need for continuous criticism. Idea that one must move backwards toward the truth as something is missing in the present.
3. Psychoanalysis. Important in critical theorists attempt to understand fascism. Argument that weakening of the ego and assumption by social forces of the role of the superego had reduced the role of the family in late bourgeois society. Vacuum of authority in family meant that individuals were more receptive to authority figures outside the family, e.g. in culture industry and fascist demagoguery.

Critique of positivism

Dialectic of Enlightenment gives an account of Enlightenment as a project aimed at liberating people from fear and establishing sovereignty of human reason, but describes a process whereby reason becomes a fetter. Instrumental reason, technical control over humans and nature, comes to dominate. This is identified as positivism:

1. treats human agents as facts/objects – determinism
2. conceives world only as it is immediately given – no distinction appearance and essence
3. establishes an absolute division between fact and value – separates knowledge from human interests

The critical theorists opposed this with dialectical theory. Mediation of facts and values and appearance and essence as part of one totality, a contradictory and moving dialectical process. No value freedom – the intellectual is part of what they study. Positivism is tied to increased domination and control over people and things; it dissolves the possibility of criticism. This even reaches the aesthetic realm – affirmative culture works to erase the possibility of criticism and produces increasing uniformity – mass culture for mass society, with only pseudo individuality. A kind of psychoanalysis in reverse.

Possibilities for change

Autonomous art – that which refuses standardisation and familiarity could be a repository of difference and new values
Negative dialectics – resistance to orthodoxy, continual and immanent criticism.


Link between theory and practice? Believed society not ripe for revolution – no agent in this period, therefore task centred on maintaining the possibility of criticism through darkness (Habermas describes this as a ‘politics of hibernation’)

Obscurity – attempt to develop fragmentary writing as a way of resisting closure, but this makes their work difficult.


- Stressed interdisciplinary character of social inquiry – resistance to disciplinary boundaries.
- Worked to maintain Marxism as a form of ethical critique at a time of positivism and Stalinism.
- Historical materialism as open-ended – opposed dogmatism.
- Recognition that capitalism had changed since c19, and the need to rework ideas in the light of this.
- Emphasised that social and political theorists need to understand culture, and emphasised the relationship between aesthetics and politics.
- Relation of humans and nature – critique of instrumental reason is also a critique of the domination of nature, something most Marxist accounts accept.