Critical Theory is, by and large, concerned with the critique of modernity, modernization, and the modern state. The first generation of critical theorists – Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm – came together in the early 1930s from different disciplines within the humanities and social sciences in order to analyze and critique ideologies, institutions, discourses, and media as well as to research the social psychology of disturbing new trends like fascism and the “administered society.” All of these figures, except Benjamin, were officially connected with the Institute for Social Research which was founded by Felix Weil in the years following the First World War and became part of Frankfurt University in 1923. They were dedicated to studying society from a Marxian perspective, but diverged from classical Marxism in their emphasis on “superstructural phenomena” (e.g., problems of culture, class formation, and ideological hegemony) as opposed to the modes of production and economic forces that for classical Marxism determine such phenomena more or less mechanistically. Though rooted in Hegelian or Kantian traditions, Frankfurt school theorists were critical of the visions of totality (social, political, historical, and aesthetic) associated with these two philosophers.
The aim of the Institute in its early years (1930–64) was to develop a comprehensive social theory that would both describe relations of power and domination and facilitate and encourage radical social transformations. Adorno’s main concerns, like Horkheimer’s, were for the quality and value of human life, for the preservation of happiness, leisure, and aesthetic experience. The most important work of this period was their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), a critique of modernity in the form of “philosophical fragments,” critical analyses of Enlightenment thinking, anti-Semitism, the “culture industry,” and the administered society. The Enlightenment is here regarded as incorporating within its dialectical trajectory the very thing it seeks to overcome: mythology. “Mythology itself sets off the unending process of enlightenment,” and “[j]ust as the myths already realize enlightenment, so enlightenment with every step becomes more deeply engulfed in mythology” (11–12). This dialectical interaction is already at work in Homer, whose epic organization is at variance with mythic reality: “The venerable cosmos of the meaningful Homeric world is shown to be the achievement of regulative reason, which destroys myth by virtue of the same rational order in which it reflects it” (44). The disenchantment of the mythic unity of nature ultimately led to the alienated subjectivity of modernity and the rationalization and commodification of culture. It also created the conditions in which anti-Semitism and the “final solution” could flourish amid all of the advances of human science, philosophy, and art.
The cultural industry is Adorno’s phrase for the commodification of cultural production. He believed that the cultural productions of capitalist societies, especially those dominated by high quality media technologies, were a debasement of human potentiality, little more than instruments in the general pacification of the masses. His analysis of the culture industry reveals that in the modern era, social life is rationalized and “administered” by highly sophisticated media technologies and entertainment industries. The idea of the administered society, like Herbert Marcuse’s of the “one-dimensional man” typical of such a society, was profoundly important for the Institute theorists and chimed with work being done by sociologists like Thorstein Veblen on the leisure class and C. Wright Mills on new class formations and power elites in US society. Marcuse argued that advanced industrial societies were characterized by a form of “one-dimensional thought” that reduced all human potential and transcendence to the limited domain of capitalist material production. Adorno’s analysis of these same societies is characterized by an unstinting attack on the debasement of culture under capitalism. He argues that the technologies of popular culture (radio, television, films, advertising, the music and book industries) serve a subtle form of social control that relies less on persuasion (overt and subliminal) than on creating contexts, moods, attitudes, and “lifestyles” in order to transform the living individual who experiences the world into a consumer of commodities. The individual comes to have only an abstract and alienated relation to the material world of authentic experience.
In this environment, consumers of culture become the primary producers, but they are limited to the reproduction of existing social conditions. Thus, “ ‘consumer culture’ can boast of being not a luxury but rather the simple extension of production” (Prisms 26). The culture industry thus produces popular forms of entertainment in order to lull individuals into conformity with dominant ways of thinking and consuming. Adorno’s later critique of jazz, which he rejected as commercialized and debased, indicates the extent to which even marginal cultural forms reproduce dominant values and tastes. For Horkheimer and Adorno, people in administered societies no longer have aesthetic experiences; there is only the spectacle of consumption itself, the never-ending round of entertainments that never satisfy and also never fail to manufacture the desire for more. To feel these desires is to conform to the consumerism that has transformed the way political and economic interests determine increasingly complex, technological societies. In a consumerist society, competition and the logic of the marketplace infiltrate all levels of social, cultural, and political practice.
Adorno’s work underscores the new emphasis in Marxist theory on art, aesthetics, and the artist’s commitment to social change. The Holocaust underscored the limits both of culture and of critique: “The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (Prisms 34). In other words, it is difficult to reflect on the impossibility of art, because even that critical reflection is tainted by the barbarism latent in Enlightenment visions of progress. The rationalization of culture makes it difficult for Adorno to see any emancipatory potential in humanism, which means that he must turn to the radical innovations of anti-humanist, avant-garde artists like Arnold Schoenberg, Samuel Beckett, and Franz Kafka. For Adorno, the negative aesthetics exemplified in their work proffers the only authentic alternative to the administered culture of advanced capitalism. Adorno’s theory of Negative Dialectics is one of the most important tools for analyzing social and cultural problems without becoming entrapped in traditional concepts of subjectivity and identity. Negative dialectics preserves the “negativity” of the NEGATIVE, which resists being appropriated by the positive term of dialectical processes. It is not a reversal of standard dialectical operations. As Adorno warns, “a purely formal reversal” of the formula “identity in nonidentity” merely reinscribes conventional dialectical relations (154). Negative dialectics avoids such a reversal by rescuing nonidentity from a dialectical process that would subsume it in the production of identity. Nevertheless, the process of rescue remains tied “to the supreme categories of identitarian philosophy as its point of departure” (147).
Adorno’s friend and colleague, Walter Benjamin, was less committed to dialectical method. He is best known for his work on the Parisian arcades and the flâneur, the quintessential figure of modernity, adrift in the city, in thrall to a constant barrage of people, objects, and commodities. He combined the sociological and philosophical rigor of the Institute with a messianic point of view best illustrated by his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” For Benjamin, historical determinism is not a dialectical process but rather a form of mystical simultaneity in which the “angel of history” faces the past, which is piled like wreckage at its feet, its back to the future towards which it is irresistibly propelled.
Benjamin was, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “the most peculiar Marxist ever produced” by the Frankfurt school (qtd. in Benjamin 10). In line with other Critical Theorists, Benjamin regarded the vast array of cultural productions – popular music and films, literature, fashion, consumer products – in terms of how they reproduced the logic of capitalism. But unlike them, he attempted to identify what had been gained in the process of commodification. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin argues that traditional works of art were “one of a kind,” that they possessed an “aura” of authenticity inseparable from a ritual function. However, there is at least partial compensation for the loss of aura that occurred once works of art were mass produced. Film and other new art forms could now create an emancipatory popular culture in which the once-sacred artwork would be “de-sacralized” and “de-aestheticized,” its infinite reproducibility making it both more democratic and less tied up with mystifying ritual: “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (224). The loss of aura signals an ambivalence at the heart of modern culture, for the very means by which traditional culture is robbed of its authenticity are the means by which art becomes available to the masses. With the loss of aura came the loss of the idea that the work of art is a timeless, unified structure. For this reason Benjamin explored new avenues for expressing his views about literature and culture. Because he was drawn to the materiality of things, to the telling detail, he became adept at the use of quotation. “In this,” according to Arendt, “he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of ‘peace of mind,’ the mindless peace of complacency. ‘Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions’ ” (qtd. in Benjamin 38). Benjamin developed a model for critical understanding based not on a conception of organic or synthetic unity, but on a constellation of texts, concepts, and ideas that constitutes a provisional and effective totality as well as a mode of social practice.
Jürgen Habermas’s emergence in 1964 as the chair in philosophy and sociology at the Institute marked a second phase of Critical Theory. He and his followers, especially Seyla Benhabib, carried on a tradition of social theory associated with the Frankfurt school. At this time, we see a shift away from a critique of modernity as the dead-end of capitalism to a critique in which the emancipatory potential of the “unfulfilled” project of modernity could be realized in new strategies for social transformation. Something of Benjamin’s hope for new cultural technologies is evident in Habermas’s belief that new forms of “communicative action” could provide a means of achieving social and political consensus. These were noncoercive, rational forms of consensual action based on a principle of mutual criticism and a shared acceptance of the values and risks entailed in rational consensus. By 1975, with the publication of Legitimation Crisis, Habermas was able to offer a systemic alternative to Adorno’s view of society. Along with Hans Blumenberg, Claus Offe, and Ernest Mandel, Habermas argued that crises in advanced, “technocratic” capitalist societies provided critical opportunities for social change. In this context, the welfare state theorized by Offe is a symptom of a capitalist system that is far from exhausted, that is simply taking risks in producing social programs that contribute to a de-commodification process in which, contrary to the logic of commodity production and consumerism, the State gives away resources without a commensurate enrichment in the form of capital or other commodities.
In the late 1970s, Habermas entered into a debate with Jean-François Lyotard, who argued, in The Postmodern Condition (1979), that the project of modernity was indeed finished and a new one had already begun. Habermas’s claim to the contrary, in his oft-cited 1979 essay, Modernity versus Postmodernity – that the “project of modernity has not yet been fulfilled” (12) – can be regarded as an expression of Critical Theory’s optimism with respect to modernity. His Lectures on the Discourse of Modernity (1987) reinstates modernity as the “positive” force, the philosophical ground and material condition for Critical Theory and social practice. Many other theorists at this time were writing on modernity, though not from a Frankfurt school perspective. Anthony Giddens, for example, in The Consequences of Modernity (1990) and Modernity and Self- Identity (1991), put forward a social theory grounded in the idea of reflexivity, a social process in which identity is conceived as a dynamic process involving the individual’s access to and management of information. While Postmodernists concentrated on the nature and effect of language games and media simulations, Giddens focused on the way individuals acquired competence within information environments. He distinguished between the self (a “generic phenomenon”) and selfidentity, which “is not something that is just given, as a result of the continuities of the individual’s action-system, but something that has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual” (Modernity and Self-Identity, 52).
The renewed interest in modernity marks a third phase of Critical Theory, one very much influenced by the revisionist Marxism of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. In some respects, this phase responds to the very problems that the study of modernity made evident. What is to be done, asks Wendy Brown, when the “constitutive narratives of modernity” are “tattered,” when challenges to such concepts as “progress, right, sovereignty, free will, moral truth, reason” have not yielded any alternatives? (3–4). One response to this question was a greater openness to Postmodern and poststructuralist theories and to ideas coming from Feminism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Deconstruction, Postcolonial Studies, and Cultural Studies. Critical Theory at this time sought to redefine social totality as “the totality of conditions under with social individuals produced and reproduced their existence” (Benhabib 2). For Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the hegemony of dominant classes in capitalist societies is grounded on inauthentic totalities – that is to say, the particular and limited interests of a dominant group are represented as the universal foundation for justice, morality, and politics. They advocate the production of a counter-hegemony in the form of strategic coalitions of political groups mobilized to exploit weaknesses, contradictions, crises, and other gaps in the hegemony of advanced capitalism. Laclau has advocated the use of “quasi-transcendentals,” which can serve as the starting point for cultural and political discourses that seek consensus across broad audiences or constituencies, and Judith Butler, in her analysis of feminist politics, calls for “contingent foundations” to allow for coalition building and political activity. In 2000, Laclau and Butler joined Slavoj Žižek in publishing a volume of polemical essays – Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left – whose general warrant was to explore the possibility for social theory of contingent or provisional totalities and to “account for the enigmatic emergence of the space of universality itself ” (Butler et al. 104).
Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press, 1973.
——. Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.
Benhabib, Seyla. Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
Brown, Wendy. Politics Out of History. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London and New York: Verso, 2000.
Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity versus Postmodernity.” New German Critique 17 (Spring 1979): 3–22.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
Source: Castle, Gregory. The Blackwell Guide To Literary Theory. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2007.