Critical Theory - School of English and American Studies at ELTE
Critical Theory What and Who? Interdisciplinary collaborations with a variety of elds, including the social sciences, literary and cultural studies, and political theory, toward the goal of radical social change. First Generation / Frankfurt School (Institute for Social Research, founded: 1923) Theodor W. Adorno (190369); Max Horkheimer (18951973); Herbert Marcuse (1898 1979); and Eric Fromm (19001980); associated: Walter Benjamin (18921940) and Gyrgy Lukcs (18851971). Mostly German Jewish philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition, sons of wealthy bourgeois families. Second Generation: Jrgen Habermas (1929 ).
Why Critical? Horkheimer (becomes director in 1929): a critical theory may be distinguished from a traditional theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation from slavery, acts as a liberating influence, and works to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of human beings. Explanatory, practical, and normative: explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation. Practical aim of social inquiry suggests itself: to transform contemporary capitalism into a consensual form of social life, i.e. real democracy. No substantive distinction between science and philosophy: philosophy defines problems for research and organizes the results of empirical
research into a unified whole. Doubt During the rise of fascism in the Second World War and the commodified culture afterwards, the Frankfurt School became sceptical of the possibility of agency, as the subjective conditions for social transformation were on their view undermined. Fascism and modern capitalism both eliminate the space for freedom, while the limited freedom of the bourgeois individual puts on the illusory form of perfect freedom and autonomy (Horkheimer). Something rotten in modern Western culture as such, calls for re-thinking the Enlightenment.
Theodor (Ludwig) W(iesengrund) Adorno Studied philosophy and music composition with Alban Berg. Habilitationsschrift on Kierkegaard's aesthetics. After just two years as a university instructor, he was expelled by the Nazis, along with other professors of Jewish heritage or on the political left. Adorno left Germany in the spring of 1934. During the Nazi era he resided in Oxford, New York City, and southern California. Returned to Frankfurt in 1949 to take up a position in the philosophy department, Adorno quickly established himself as a leading German intellectual and a central figure in the Institute of Social Research. A wide range of books and articles on musicology, literature, aesthetic theory, as well as social and political theory. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of
Enlightenment (1944) Abandoned the interdisciplinary materialist approach. Did not to deny the achievements of the Enlightenment, but rather wanted to show that it had self-destructive tendencies. Historical story of the emergence of Enlightenment reason out of myth (not a historical reconstruction). Entwinement of myth and Enlightenment: genesis of modern reason and freedom and how they turn into their opposites. Rather than being liberating and progressive, reason has become dominating and controlling with the spread of instrumental reason. We are tending toward a totally administered society. Reconstruction of the history of Western reason or of liberalism in which calculative, instrumental reason drives out the utopian content of universal solidarity. Dialectic of the Enlightenment 2
Horkheimer and Adorno do not think that modern science and scientism are the sole culprits. The tendency of rational progress to become irrational regress arises much earlier. Indeed, they cite both the Hebrew scriptures and Greek philosophers as contributing to regressive tendencies. Pursuit of freedom in society is inseparable from the pursuit of enlightenment in culture. Lack or loss of freedom in societyin the political, economic, and legal structures within which we livesignals a concomitant failure in cultural enlightenmentin philosophy, the arts, religion, and the like. The Nazi death camps are not an aberration, nor are mindless studio movies innocent entertainment. Dialectic of the Enlightenment 3 The source of today's disaster is domination in a triple sense: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature
within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others. What motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown: Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization . Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized What they find really mythical in both myth and enlightenment is the thought that fundamental change is impossible. Such resistance to change characterizes both ancient myths of fate and modern devotion to the facts. Capitalist exploitation and the authoritarian personality Why hunger, poverty, etc. persist despite the technological and scientific potential to mitigate them. Capitalist relations of
production have come to dominate society as a whole, concentrations of wealth and power. Society is organized around the production of exchange values for the sake of producing exchange values. The social-psychological diagnosis of late capitalist exploitation. His American studies of anti-Semitism and the authoritarian personality argue that these pathologically extend the logic of late capitalism itself, with its associated dialectic of enlightenment. People who embrace anti-Semitism and fascism tend to project their fear of abstract domination onto the supposed mediators of capitalism, while rejecting as elitist all claims to a qualitative difference transcending exchange. The Culture Industry On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening (1938) and in The Culture Industry, a chapter in
DE. Art's commodity character is deliberately acknowledged and art abjures its autonomy and purposelessness. Instead of promising freedom from societally dictated uses, and thereby having a genuine use value that people can enjoy, products mediated by the culture industry have their use value replaced by exchange value. His main point is that culture-industrial hypercommercialization evidences a fateful shift in the structure of all commodities and therefore in the structure of capitalism itself. Aesthetic Theory 1 Adorno retains from Kant the notion that art proper (fine art or beautiful artschne Kunstin Kant's vocabulary) is characterized by formal autonomy. But Adorno combines this Kantian emphasis on form with Hegel's emphasis on intellectual
import (geistiger Gehalt) and Marx's emphasis on art's embeddedness in society as a whole. Modern art's social character, namely, to be the social antithesis of society. The unavoidable tensions within works express unavoidable conflicts within the larger socio-historical process from which they arise and to which they belong. These tensions enter the artwork through the artist's struggle with socio-historically laden materials, and they call forth conflicting interpretations. Their complete resolution, however, would require a transformation in society as a whole, which, given his social theory, does not seem imminent. Aesthetic Theory 2 One such polarity, and a central one in Adorno's theory of artworks, occurs between the categories of import (Gehalt) and function (Funktion). Adorno gives priority to import, understood
as societally mediated and socially significant meaning. The social functions emphasized in his own commentaries and criticisms are primarily intellectual functions rather than straightforwardly political or economic functions. Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness. Under the conditions of late capitalism, the best art, and politically the most effective, so thoroughly works out its own internal contradictions that the hidden contradictions in society can no longer be ignored. The plays of Samuel Beckett, to whom Adorno had intended to dedicate Aesthetic Theory, are emblematic in that regard. Walter Benjamin Origin of the German Mourning-Play, 1928 Limitations of Nietzsche's theory of tragedy regarding modern theatre.
Benjamin is concerned with establishing whether the historical conditions of the tragic form are themselves a limit to its contemporary efficacy. Distinguishes the specific and historically conspicuous technique of the German baroque mourning-play. Sorrow or mourning as the predominant mood inherent to its metaphysical structure, in contrast to the suffering of tragedy. A melancholic contemplation of things which derives enigmatic satisfaction from its very recognition of their transience and emptiness. Baroque concept of the allegorical which structures its mood of melancholic contemplativeness. The fundamental distinction between symbol and allegory is a temporal one: the temporality of the allegorical, in contrast, as something dynamic, mobile, and fluid. Seems to precede deconstruction in connecting philosophy and literary history, emphasising fluidity, allegory, time. The Arcades Project All of Benjamin's writings from the autumn of 1927 until his death in 1940
relate in one way or other to his great unfinished study ParisCapital of the Nineteenth Century, otherwise known as The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk). Five or six archetypal images of the psychosocial space of 19th-century Paris around which the project was organizedeach paired with a particular, thematically representative individual. Entry into the philosophically comprehended experience of metropolitan capitalism in Benjamin's own day, relations between its elements then and now. The notes and materials are organized into twenty-six alphabetically designated convolutes (literally bundles) or folders, thematically defined by various objects (arcades, catacombs, barricades, iron constructions, mirrors, modes of lighting), topics (fashion, boredom, theory of knowledge, theory of progress, painting, conspiracies), figures (the collector, the flaneur, the automaton), authors (Baudelaire, Fourier, Marx, Saint-Simon) and their combinations.
Technology Not only did he recognize the potential for a bloodbath in a technology subjected to the lust for profitamply demonstrated in the horrors of the First World Warbut he came to distinguish between a first and a second, potentially liberatory technology Art, in the form of filmthe unfolding of all the forms of perception, the tempos and rhythms, which lie preformed in today's machinesthus harboured the possibility of becoming a kind of rehearsal of the revolution. Benjamin's writings on film are justly renowned for their twin theses of the transformation of the concept of art by its technical reproducibility and the new possibilities for collective experience this contains, in the wake of the historical decline of the aura of the work of art, a process that film is presented as definitively concluding.
The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1936) Discussion of media, the history of art, and Marxist theory, has become a foundational text for critics in many elds, including lm studies, literature, and cultural studies. The ability to reproduce art by means of lithography and photography led to a degradation of the aura that surrounded traditional art objects. Aura existed initially because art objects were traditionally part of rituals and religious ceremony, and it was maintained by later cults of beauty, such as we see in some forms of Romanticism, that held the art object apart as pure, authentic, original, and without function. Also associated with fetishistic, uncritical adoration.
Mechanical reproduction 2 The aura has been stripped away in the modern era because the distance between the masses and art has been closed by the availability of easily made, cheap reproductions; he saw this as a positive development, because when the consumer is close to art, it becomes a potential tool with which to communicate directly with the masses, and therefore could serve progressive political ends. But he always regarded progress as a destructive force, and believed that the kind of historical narrative, like Marxism, that depicts civilization as always improving ignores violence and rupture. Cinema could offer an alternative to fascisms aesthetization of violence and politics (mass rallies, etc.). Cinema also represented the modern experience, with its constant movement that does not allow for lengthy contemplation and its replacement of unitary substance by a succession of disparate images. Cinema shaped the modes of
perception of the mass audiences, who then took this experience back out into the world. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Age of High Capitalism Baudelaires poetry is shaped by the shock that is the experience of the overstimulated individual in the crowd that makes up the modern city. It turns away from the pure, beautiful aesthetic and from the aura of the work of art. In Baudelaire's The Painter essay, modernit famously denotes the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent. Benjamin was (politically and philosophically) interested in the new and the routinization accompanying the generalization of the new as a mode of experience in fashion and boredom, in particularand the formal structure of sameness involved in its repetition. Baudelaire embraced modernity with heroic effort, attempting, like the painter of modern life, to
extract its epic aspects and distill the eternal from the transitory; Benjamin, on the other hand, sought to understand it in order to find a way out of what he called its hell. Gyrgy Lukcs early work Historicisation of aesthetic categories, though, in many ways, his view of the classical forms of epic and tragedy as outmoded genres in a capitalist world was a legacy of German romanticism. The novel, in his account, was alienated humanitys version of the epic; in a world abandoned by God, the modern individual could no longer pursue the conventional quest-myth that had reflected and reaffirmed the unitary values of past cultures. Instead, the hero of the bourgeois novel must navigate a world of contradictions and compromises ill suited to
the human soul and the fullness of its sensibilities. Early essays Relationship between form and life. A) the question of how the element of form distinguishes art as a separate sphere of value. B) there is the sociological-historical question about the relation between (individual and collective) life and the (aesthetic and ethical) forms in modern bourgeois society. Next to form, two central concepts are totality and life. With totality Lukcs refers to a whole set of elements that are meaningfully interrelated in such a way that the essence of each element can only be understood in its relation to the others. Life, as Lukcs understands it, is the intrinsic richness and potentiality of experiences and actions of individuals and societies. Both individual and social life is in principle capable of forming an integrated totality. However, this is only the case if the essential properties of its elements are intelligible in terms of their relations to other particulars of
life. This was the case in the times of Homeric Greece where a totality of meaning was immanent to life itself. This immanence of meaning and the totality it constituted was, however, lost in the subsequent historical development, transforming form into an external factor to life. Modern art is the response to this loss. History of the Modern Drama, 1909 Concerned with the historical changes in our relations to form. Connects the history and sociology of drama, genres and historical changes. He argues that drama is connected to specific historic circumstances: a Weltanschauung. The tragic Weltanschauung only exists in periods of societal disintegration where individual emotions and objective facts are in a relation of mismatch so intense that they elicit heroic forms of the denial of social reality. If that class then begins to experience these very same valuations
as problematic, this signifies the beginning of its downfall. In such situations, the formal element of drama and tragedy, which involves the paradoxical relation between highly universalized form and highly individualized content, mirrors the paradoxical relation between form and life that individuals experience in their own relation to society. The Theory of the Novel, 1916 He turns towards a philosophy of history in order to clarify the relationship between historical changes of transcendental standpoints and the pure forms of aesthetic genres. The prime object of his discussion is the epic: Lukcs claims that works of art that belong to this genrefor example Homeric epic poetry and the modern novel must always express the objective reality of social and individual human life as it is. Epic poetry in Homeric times takes its starting point from a world which constituted a closed totality, that is, a world
in which life, culture, meaning, action and social institutions formed a harmonious whole. The essence of being was immanent to life rather than having to be sought out in a transcendent realm. In contrast, modern society is constitutively alienated: merely conventional social institutions devoid of meaning exist disconnected from individuals and their highly individualized self-understanding. Therefore, in modern society meaning can only be found within the inner life of the individual and cannot become recognized in the world. The Theory of the Novel 2 The intellectual history of the world is prefigured in the cultural history of ancient Greece within the movement from epic poetry to tragedy and then to philosophy. Tragedy and philosophy have already realized the loss of a meaningful totality, whereas the possibility of epic poetry depends on its immanence.
This alienation of the individual from her world leads to a situation of transcendental homelessness in which individuals must take up a purely normative stance of a should be towards the world. The novel is always relating to the development of such individuals. This development can take the shape of a subjective-idealist illusion (e.g., as in Don Quixote) or of a disillusion, that is, of individuals understanding the impossibility of finding meaning within their world. Utopian vision: the very form of the novel points to the possibility of a renewed relation between individual and world where meaning can again be found. History and Class Consciousness, 1923 After 1918 conversion to communism. Lukcs frames his basic argument as an extension of Marxs analysis of the fetishism of the commodity form in Capital I, whereby Marx
refers to the phenomenon that social relations between producers of commodities appear in capitalism under the guise of objective, calculable, properties of things (value). The form which commodities acquire due to this fetishism has gradually become, Lukcs claims, the universal category of society as a whole Commodity form stamps its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man Lukcs calls this development reification. It is a process which affects four dimensions of social relations: the socially created features of objects, the relations between persons, their relations to themselves and, finally, the relations between individuals and society as a whole. The properties of objects, subjects and social relations become thinglike in a particular way. The Historical Novel,1937 Sociological realism of great writers like Balzac and Tolstoy depended on
the literary innovations of the historical novel, in particular, those of Sir Walter Scott. Scotts characters were the first fictional persons imprinted with the historical and social forces of their age: the great human qualities as well as the vices and limitations of Scotts heroes spring from a clearly embodied historical basis of existence. The sociohistorical typicality of these characters merges dialectically with their individual idiosyncrasies to recreate the field of potential human action available to the period or age represented in the novel. The value of the art work, in this schema, stems from its capacity to show the reader not only the ability of persons to act in the world (as the bourgeois English novel of the eighteenth century had already done) but also the social and economic bases for the construction of reality and worldview. Marx & Engels: men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.
Jrgen Habermas Socialised in post-war Germany, the example of Heidegger convinces him that German philosophy is unequipped to recon with Nazism. Moves towards more empirical studies (social sciences) and Anglo-American philosophical traditions. Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 1962 Beginning in Britain in the latter half of the seventeenth century, a bourgeois public sphere arose. This special category is separate from the public sphere of political domination and administration, and is of a private character in that it has no official place. It arises out of the private sphere of ordinary peoples home-based discussion, and is fired by the increasing accessibility of the
printed word, centred in the new coffeehouses and places of public meeting. This period of vast expansion of print culture, when restrictions on publishing lapsed, saw the sustained rise of the exchange of critical debates in periodicals, newspapers, and pamphlets; rational argument and radical thought produced a new realm of political influence, later to emerge as the new concept of public opinion. In France such public criticism led to revolution. Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 2 This bourgeois public sphere withered in the later nineteenth century, when capitalist and establishment interests combined to turn the press into a mere mouthpiece of commerce and the political public sphere. Importantly, however, in this book Habermas sees political criticism and debate arising out of
seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literary criticism. His interest in a communicative ideal that later would provide the core normative standard for his moral-political theory: the idea of inclusive critical discussion, free of social and economic pressures, in which interlocutors treat each other as equals in a cooperative attempt to reach an understanding on matters of common concern. The Theory of Communicative Action, 1981 Two-level social theory that includes an analysis of communicative rationality, the rational potential built into everyday speech, on the one hand; and a theory of modern society and modernization, on the other. On the basis of this theory, Habermas hopes to be able to assess the gains and losses of modernization. Rationality consists not so much in the possession of particular knowledge, but rather in how speaking and acting subjects acquire and use knowledge. A theory of rationality thus attempts to reconstruct the practical knowledge
necessary for being a knowledgeable social actor among other knowledgeable social actors. Social theory of modernity to show the ways in which modern culture has unleashed communicative rationality from its previous cultural and ideological constraints. In modern societies, social norms are no longer presumed to be valid but rather are subjected to critical reflection, as for example when the ethical life of a specific culture is criticized from the standpoint of justice. In a sense consistent with the Enlightenment imperative to use one's own reason, the everyday lifeworld of social experience has been rationalized, especially in the form of discourses that institutionalize reflective communicative action, as in scientific and democratic institutions. Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 1985 Engaged closely with the philosophy underlying modern literary theory. Discusses ways in which humans can come to terms with living in modernity, in an age which can no longer ground itself with models from
the classical past, or through commonly held religious certainties. The work stands in opposition to the heirs of Nietzsche and Heidegger, who, questioning the possibility of stable meaning in language, reject the autonomy and coherence of the human subject. A wrong turning had bee taken by French poststructuralists, especially Derrida. Continuing significance of the Enlightenment; questioning Adornos distrust of the role of reason, he contends that the problem of Enlightenment thought was that it was not allowed to go far enough. While one should recognize the decentred, fractured nature of humans interior lives, and the deceptions of language, we can use reason as the foundation for non-coercive mutual understanding and intersubjectivity, and thus for recognition of and dialogue with others.
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