Critical Theory | Reflections & Notes

Stephen Eric Bronner. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2011, 2017. (140 pages)


When recent conversational trends around Critical Theory [CT] (and specifically, Critical Race Theory [CRT]) began circulating, I wanted to get ad fontes, get “[back] to the source.” Conclusion? As expected, the topic and history of CT are deeply intricate and the term has mutated (blossomed?) into a variety of diverse applications, making CT broadly applied, but shallower in substance as the reach expands. This inevitably leads to a challenge—a paradox, really—with which I am forced to contend and accept. One, virtually everyone that is currently discussing CT is missing significant elements. Two, I don’t really blame them.

For example, I heard David Fitch, a Christian theologian, describe CT in the following way:

Post World War II, after the complete destruction of Europe by Naziism, by Hitler, you had a whole bunch of intellectuals, people who thought, actually before World War II, Marx was going to save the world; actually, they thought industrial capitalism was going to move into Marx, but instead it moved into fascism, it moved into Hitler. And, so people are asking, ‘How did this just happen? How did millions of German Lutherans go “Heil Hitler?” … So you had the Frankfurt School, post-Marxist Critical Theory asking ‘How did good Christians become Nazis?’

… how are we being shaped by the cultural ideologies of our day? And I think that’s what Critical Theory does; you get the word “critical” from not just accepting Marxism, but being critical of Marxism or “critique” of ideology. So critical theory is breaking down all the layers of cultural frameworks that shape the way we think and feel to make us go, ‘Heil Hitler,’

This is a woefully inadequate description of CT. However, he’s not wrong. Consider the following map of the Origins of Critical Theory in Stuart Sim & Borin Van Loon’s book, Introducing Critical Theory:

The post-structuralist deconstruction definition that Fitch gives is in the lower right quadrant, right above J. Derrida. So, while I may quibble at his insufficient answer, he’s still on the map.

On the other end of the spectrum, apologists like Neil Shenvi, published at the Gospel Coalition blog, has a really well-articulated and comprehensive grasp of CT. Yet,

If we had to recommend just one book at the popular level that demonstrates critical theory in action, it would be Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. It’s essential reading for anyone trying to understand the basic ideas and methods of critical theory. – The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity, May 15, 2019

Again, this recommendation is mind-boggling, as it is most certainly not helpful for people to grasp “the basic ideas and methods of critical theory.” However, it does “demonstrate CT in action,” and would most certainly pique people’s engagement with perspectives that are in the “CT family tree.” So, he too is not wrong.

Let me simply confess, for everyday people of faith, for the navigation of contemporary real world circumstances, it is unreasonable, and indeed insensitive of me to expect the rest of the grid to be represented in every explanation.

But aye, there’s the rub.

CT, in all its historical glory, disdains a settled sense of perspectives and beliefs, definitions, and systems. Without it, we will miss the human dynamics that harm, and indeed we are blind to ways in which we live that perpetuate oppression. There are two significant implications of this shortcoming. First, CT can be highly misapplied, and various ideologies and worldviews can be smuggled in through this kind of thinking if we don’t examine and understand CT, even on its own propositions. In other words, we must be critical of CT in order to apply CT appropriately, on CT’s own terms. It is most definitely not simply a “tool.” But second, CT is not as nefarious as apologists would have it, calling it “a serious and growing threat to the church.” In addition to the narrow theological lens Shenvi uses to caution Christians, Shenvi is leveraging the principles of CT in his evaluation of the dangers of CT. Sure, there are aspects of race, gender that may be incompatible with some version of Christian dogma, but this, in and of itself, is not a disqualification of the compatibility or merits of CT within Christianity. In fact, it may be, unbeknownst, an affirmation of CT’s fundamental project.

Okay, with all of that said, here are six key elements of CT, extracted from my notes below, that are really important to understand, that shed light on the more fundamental and principal elements of CT:

  1. Engage in a “ruthless critique of everything existing.” This is especially true of long-standing beliefs. Ensure that the scrutiny is rational and total.
  2. Interpret the particular with an eye on the totality. The parts have meaning within the context of the whole.
  3. Resist “alienation & reification”. Do not exploit and divide a person from their labor, thus redefining that person by their “instrumentality.”
  4. History matters. How things came to be is part of what they mean.
  5. Reject the separation between “facts” and “values.” All statements are value-laden.
  6. The goal is transformation, not philosophy. Critical Theory is, in that sense not a theory, but a practice.

If you pay close attention to those elements, we’re all benefactors and inheritors of CT in a liberal democracy that operates on capitalism and justice. We should consider more carefully the values and virtues of CT in conjunction with the goals for which we are all striving because they’re both aimed at the same target.

For Christians and CT I would sum it up this way: Fitch needs to do more, Shenvi needs to admit more. Christians who accept CT without thorough investigation need to understand better. Christians who dismiss CT as dangerous, irrelevant, or incompatible need to concede that they’ve just applied CT.

Last, the role that power plays within CT is perhaps the most telling clue of all. Pay attention to those who dismiss CT as dangerous, because for them, it actually might be. CT, in its original form, sought to expose the power structures that allowed the privileged to thrive at the expense of the underprivileged. It is no wonder that CT is then met with such a negative force by those in power today. Though covered in an objective philosophical veneer, religion’s rejection of CT is ironically affirming of CT’s thesis, that those who live by hegemonic power truly are held blindly captive. If ideas have consequences, the disdain of ideas has even more.

(Oh, and side note: The Oxford Very Short Introduction series is a treasure trove.)



Introduction: what is critical theory?

Socrates called conventional wisdom into question. He subjected long-standing beliefs to rational scrutiny and speculated about concerns that projected beyond the existing order. What became known as “critical theory” was built upon this legacy. (1)

Critical theory refuses to identify freedom with any institutional arrangement or fixed system of thought. It questions the hidden assumptions and purposes of competing theories and existing forms of practice. It has little use for what is known as “perennial philosophy.” Critical theory insists that thought must respond to the new problems and the new possibilities for liberation that arise from changing historical circumstances. Interdisciplinary and uniquely experimental in character, deeply skeptical of tradition and all absolute claims, critical theory was always concerned not merely with how things were but how they might (1) be and should be (2)

Critical theorists learned to interpret the particular with an eye on the totality. The moment of freedom appeared in the demand for recognition by the enslaved and the exploited. (2)

Alienation and reification are the two ideas most commonly associated with critical theory. The former is usually identified with the psychological effect of exploitation and the division of (3) labor, and the latter with how people are treated instrumentally, as “things,” through concepts that have been ripped from their historical context. (4)

Alienation and reification were thus analyzed in terms of how they imperiled the exercise of subjectivity, robbed the world of meaning and purpose, and turned the individual into a cog in the machine. (4)

With images of the Nazi concentration camps still fresh, Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed, new reports emerging about the Soviet Gulag, and McCarthyism on the rise in the United States, it appeared to the Frankfurt School as if Western civilization had generated not human development but an unparalleled barbarism. (4)

A new “culture industry”–arguably the most famous concept associated with critical theory–was constantly striving to lower the lowest common (4) denominator in order to maximize sales. (5)

1 The Frankfurt School

1. Three leading figures of the Frankfurt School: Max Horkheimer (left), Theodor W. Adorno (right), and Jürgen Habermas (rear). This is the only photo of them together.

The inner circle

[Horkheimer]’s essays of the 1930s concentrated on distinguishing critical theory from its philosophical competitors and demonstrating how liberal capitalism had betrayed its original promise by creating the psychological, racial, and political foundations of totalitarianism. (9)

cf. Critique of Judgment (1790) by Emmanuel Kant

cf. Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947)

…Horkheimer edited a multivolume interdisciplinary research project, Studies in Prejudice, for the American Jewish Committee. It included Rehearsal for Destruction (1949) by Paul Massing, which brilliantly analyzed the social origins of anti-Semitism in Imperial Germany; Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator (1950) by Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guttermann; and the classic The Authoritarian Personality (1950) by Theodor W. Adorno and a host of researchers. (9)

cf. Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving (1956); The Heart of Man (1964); May Man Prevail (1961); Escape from Freedom (1941); The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973); The Jewish Law: Toward a Sociology of the Jewish Diaspora (1922); The Sabbath (1927); The Dogma of Christ (1930); You Shall Be as Gods (1967)… (11)

cf. Herbert Marcuse; Hegel’s Ontology and the Theory of Historicity (1932); Reason and Revolution (1941); One-Dimensional Man (1964)… (12)

cf. Walter Benjamin; Illuminations (1969); Reflections (1986); One-Way Street (1928); Berlin Childhood Around 1900 (1950); The Origins of German Tragic Drama (1928); Arcades Project (1982); Selected Writings… (13)

…Benjamin attempted to fuse a messianic outlook with what became a growing interest in historical materialism. Reacting against the fatalism of scientific socialism, contemptuous of its transformation of the classless society into an unattainable ideal, his concern was with reclaiming the metaphysical experience of reality and, ultimately, the unrealized utopian possibilities of history. That undertaking was plagued by an inability to articulate the barriers to liberation as well as the inconsistencies and mutually exclusive assumptions embedded in his general outlook. (14)

No thinker better exemplifies [critical theory’s] uncompromising commitment to the glimmer of freedom [than Theodor W. Adorno] (15)

2 A matter of method

The Frankfurt School took its inspiration from the intellectual framework provided by Western Marxism with its emphasis on history, agency, and the dialectical method. Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, and Antonio Gramsci…along with Ernst Bloch, and others, their thinking reflected the liberating elements driving the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent European uprisings of 1918-23. Western Marxists stressed the role of ideology in maintaining capitalism and the decisive character of class consciousness in overturning it. They also highlighted the legacy of philosophical idealism for historical materialism as well as the link between Hegel and Marx. (17)

| Western Marxists had no use for talk about textual orthodoxy or the fixed character of historical materialism. “Orthodox Marxism does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations,” wrote Lukács in History and Class Consciousness. On the contrary orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.” He and his associates insisted that theory must change in order to meet the changing needs of changing times. Or, to put it another way, history determines the character of class consciousness, not some prefabricated reliance on the economy. (17)

Human emancipation became the aim of Marxism, and its critical implications were now applicable both to capitalist societies and increasingly to authoritarian states like the Soviet Union. Western Marxists were intent upon contesting hegemony–…in all its forms. (18)

Fundamentally concerned with civil society, its non-economic institutions, and its guiding ideas, he stressed how the dominant culture produces habits of subservience on the part of the ruled. He maintained that a counter-hegemonic strategy was required to empower the working class and, through new civic institutions, strengthen its self-administrative capacities. Such a strategy called for organization not merely from above, or through some rigid vanguard party divorced from the masses, but rather through the practical work of organic intellectuals dialectically bound to the proletariat. (18)

cf. Marxism and Philosophy, by Karl Korsch; What is Socialization? (1919); The Materialist Conception of History (1929); Karl Marx (1938).

In the 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Horkheimer…conceived of critical theory as an alternative to the dominant philosophical paradigms. Other forms of thought were seen as affirmative of the existing order in spite of their self-proclaimed neutrality and objectivity. …they were seen as justifying its workings. (20)

cf. “Materialism and Metaphysics” (1933) … Metaphysics was, by contrast, castigated for ignoring the philosophical relevance of the material world and employing universal precepts to enable the individual–whether through what Kant termed “practical reason” or what Heidegger understood as phenomenology–to indulge in what are ultimately intuitive moral judgments. (20)

Critical theory was intended as a general theory of society fueled by the desire for liberation. … Highlighting the context for practice thus became a core concern for the new interdisciplinary approach of the Frankfurt School. In turn, this led its members to reject the traditional separation between facts and values. (21)

| Critical theory would treat facts less as isolated depictions of reality than as crystallized historical products of social action. The aim was to understand facts within the value-laden context wherein they assume meaning. (21)

cf. “Psychoanalysis and Sociology” (1929); “Politics and Psychoanalysis” (1930); Escape from FreedomThe Working Class in Weimar GermanyHistory and Class Consciousness.

Critical theory sought to make good on the injunction of the young Marx and engage in a “ruthless critique of everything existing.” Its leading representatives insisted that the whole could be seen in the particular and that the particular reflected the whole. (22)

2. The Tiller Girls danced in tightly orchestrated geometric patterns that seemed to reflect the increasing administration and standardization of modern society.

cf. “The Mass Ornament” (1927 by Siegfried Kracaur; Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time (1937); From Caligari to Hitler (1947); “Lyric Poetry and Society” (1957); Literature and Mass Culture (1984); Literature and the Image of Man (1986).

Karl Mannheim…[in] Ideology and Utopia (1931), argued that even the most universal and utopian mode of thought is ideological insofar as it inherently reflects the interest of a particular social group or class. (24)

cf. “The Social Function of Philosophy” (1939)

Critical theory can be understood as presenting a version of the sociology of knowledge with a “transformative intent.” (24) … In The Communist Manifesto (1848), however, Marx and Engels insisted that revolutions are possible only if elements of the ruling class break off and join the struggle of the oppressed. Insofar as the working class is entrapped by capitalism, and material misery stunts its consciousness, bourgeois intellectuals are needed to provide the proletariat with a systemic critique of capitalism and consciousness of its revolutionary possibilities. (25)

As communism turned totalitarian, however, the Frankfurt School became disillusioned, and its critique of the reification process intensified. … Social transformation was no longer the issue. Totalitarianism turned the preservation of individuality into the central preoccupation of critical theory. (25)

| Contempt for cruelty and the desire to live an upright existence inspired its intellectual efforts. All its members showed an explicit interest in abolishing not merely social injustice but the psychological, cultural, and anthropological sources of unhappiness. (25)

[Walter] Benjamin conceived of history as “one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” Only from the standpoint of a messianic materialism are the shards of that catastrophe open to redemption. (26)

Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee

…the angel of history with face turned to the past is nonetheless propelled into the future. … That painting ultimately became an icon of the Left. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin described this angel in the following way:

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Redemption is now the key to utopia. Critique recalls what history forgets by rummaging around the ruins and putting the garbage to use in sparking the imagination. (28)

Critical theory shifts its focus: its aim is now to awaken the individual from the intellectual slumber into which he or she has (28) been socialized. … DIvorcing experience from critical reflection creates an opening for ideology and compromises the ability to resist what Adorno termed the “ontology of false conditions.” But the assault on system, logic, and narrative by Benjamin and Adorno carries a price: it undermines the ability to generate criteria for making ethical and political judgments, thereby threatening to plunge critical theory into relativism. (29)

cf. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987) by Jürgen Habermas

3 Critical theory and modernism

The last quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed the birth of an international avant-garde that focused upon alienation, standardization, and the liberation of the individual from constrictive social norms. (30)

cf. Spirit of Utopia (1918) by Ernst Block; Soul and Form (1911); Theory of the Novel (1920); Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928); Endgame by Samuel Beckett.

The Frankfurt School understood that radical aesthetics need not conform with radical politics and that the artwork is not reducible to the prejudices of its author. (32)

cf. In Search of Wagner.

3. A caricature of the Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett by Edmund Valtman (1969). According to T.W. Adorno, Endgame, a play by Beckett, exemplifies the unique experience of subjectivity with which critical theory should be concerned.

Modernists launched their attacker not against a class or an economic system. They took aim at “society” and its “culture.” (34)

cf. Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[Nietzsche] was acutely sensitive to the looming cultural crisis of Western civilization, and he raged against “slave morality,” conformism, tradition, religion, crude materialism, and the loss of cultural “niveau.” Nietzsche also despised the “terrible simplifiers” and anything that smacked of the “herd,” popular culture, and mass movements (whether liberal, socialist, or fascist). (35)

Aft should express the estrangement of freedom from existing reality–or, as Adorno put it, art must “hurt,”… (37)

4 Alienation and reification

An extraordinary intellectual event took place in 1932. That was the year in which Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 were finally published, accompanied by a superb review from Herbert Marcuse, in the Insitute’s Journal for Social Research.

The writings of the young Marx evidence a utopian quality. They give precedence to the anthropological and existential elements of human misery rather than capitalist exploitation of a purely economic sort. Alienation has its roots in an inability to grasp the workings of history and subject them to human control. The division of labor expresses this situation. It leaves workers increasingly divorced from the products they produce, their fellows with whom they work, and—ultimately—their possibilities as individuals. Eliminating private property is thus not an end unto itself but only a stepping stone to claiming control over history and reclaiming a fractured humanity. (39)

The roots of unhappiness

Alienation has a long history. Its connection with utopia already appears in the biblical expulsion from Eden. The story of paradise lost precedes the loss of objects to the world of commodity exchange. The biblical allegory justifies the fallen state of humanity and explains why people are condemned “to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow.” It also shows why trust between individuals has been lost, nature appears as an enemy, and—interestingly enough—redemption becomes possible. Unity and harmony are forfeited. Adam and Eve exhibited free will. They bought about their expulsion from Eden—by succumbing to evil. (40)

Paradise has always been identified with the pastoral. (40)

cf. Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750), by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Hyperion (1795), by Friedrich Hölderlin:

You see craft-workers, but no genuine people; thinkers but no people; priests, but no people; lords and servants, youths and persons of property but no people. Is this world not like a battlefield on which hands, arms, and limbs of all sorts lie strewn amid one another while their spilled life-blood runs into the sands?

[G. W. F. Hegl] believed that alienation exists insofar as humanity is estranged from its normative ends, and its creations escape its conscious control. World history is the stigmata suffered by consciousness whose purpose is to appropriate anew what humanity has unwittingly produced. (41)

Hegel noted in The Phenomenology of Mind (1807) that the lords and masters of every historical epoch have an existential and material interest in preventing such consciousness from coming about. They seek to make their servants and slaves believe in their dependence upon them, their masters, through ideological and institutional means. This was the point of departure for Hegel and the young Marx. The critical method becomes the tool by which the servants and the slaves—and the masses of the proletariat—realize their power as producers of the particular order from which their lords and masters alone genuinely benefit. Abolishing alienation thus depends upon transforming the consciousness of the slave—or, better, the worker. (43)

cf. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

If religion produces a situation in which humanity is dominated by the products of its brain, which is what Marx learned from Ludwig Feuerbach, then, under capitalism, humanity is dominated by the products of its hands. (44)

| Marx believed that the working class was growing poorer even while bourgeois society was growing richer. The proletariat was also becoming more spiritually impoverished as an appendage of the machine. Individuality, creativity, and solidarity were all being capitalist production call for viewing workers merely as a cost of production that must be kept as minimal as possible. Maximizing profits also requires the division of labor whereby each member of the working class is separated from others on the assembly line, kept from learning other tasks and developing his or her full potential, and conceptualizing the product that is ultimately being produced. This same division of labor infects the modern state. (44)

4. Alienation and reification turn the worker into an appendage of the machine, and destroy individuality, as this poster suggests.

cf. Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), by Max Weber; “Science as a Vocation” (1918)

Critical Theory and Revolution

cf. History and Class Consciousness (1923); Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844; Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm; “The Authoritarian State” (1940) by Max Horkheimer.

Alienation and reification thus increasingly become understood as psychological and philosophical problems that in the first instance (48) require psychological and philosophical solutions.

cf. Knowledge and Human Interest (1971).

In principle,…undistorted communication underpins all forms of deliberative democracy. (49)

Is the ideal speech situation merely a methodological point of departure for social action or is it rather a fixed philosophical category with its own rules? Is it a matter of understanding undistorted communication in terms of a critical theory of society or as the foundation for a new variant of language philosophy with its own rules? (49)

cf. Theory of Communicative Action (1981); “Philosophy and Critical Theory” (1937); The Eclipse of Reason (1940).

Looking backward

Critical theorists saw in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts a new emphasis upon ending the repression associated with the “pre-history” of humanity. Socialism would now be identified with how people were treated rather than a fixed set of institutions and policies. The young Marx seemed to exhibit utopian inclinations along with the vision of a new man freed from egotism, cruelty, and alienation. The revolution against capitalism now turned into something intent upon transforming the human condition. (51)

cf. Marx’s Concept of Man (1961)

Capitalism was to be opposed not simply because it was materially exploitative, but because its system of impersonal market forces called upon individuals to (51) treat one another as potential competitors and means to an end.The issue for him was not merely the mechanized society over which humanity has lost control, but the inner passivity and mental dullness that it fostered. His critical social psychology was thus predicated on articulating and affirming anti-capitalist values and progressive possibilities for individual development. Here is the basis for what would become an overriding attempt to recast socialism as a form of humanism while downplaying narrow class concerns and revolution. (52)

cf. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, (1932) by Henry Pachter.

Both the socialist and the communist movements were less intent upon utopia than nationalizing major industries and regulating the market, substituting a (democratic or authoritarian) dictatorship of the proletariat for the rule of the bourgeoisie, and introducing a new secular ideology presumably based on technological and scientific progress. (52)

5 Enlightened illusions

The illusion of progress

Auschwitz had punctured the aura associated with progress and modernity. … Enlightenment and modernity find their fulfillment in a concentration camp universe run by an unaccountable bureaucracy, fueled by an instrumental rationality run amok, and expressed in the unleashing of an unimaginable rage. (54)

If modernity is increasingly and repressively standardizing individuality, then the encounter with difference and autonomy will logically generate a resentment born of unconscious envy. (55)

Capitalism, bureaucracy, and science—all expressions of instrumental rationality—constitute the real core of Enlightenment. They turn nature into an object of use, progress into alienation, and freedom into control. Autonomy is a nuisance and critique is a threat. Enlightenment may be associated with such ideals. But its real goal is standardization and control. In the name of liberation, its domination. The irrational beliefs that the Enlightenment originally sought to destroy thus reappeared as its own products. (57)

Dialectic of Enlightenment does not claim that individual shave simply been turned into robots. What occurs instead is a perversion of autonomy. Individuals are seen as increasingly incapable of making anything other than technical or emotional judgments. (57)

Philosophical idealism had initially been predicated on the idea of a universal subject lacking all empirical determinants: it was the referent that individuals should use in making ethical decisions. Liberalism employed universal principles for its rule of law and its view on rights. But that is precisely the problem. From the willing surrender of individuality in the name of instrumental needs to the denial of class claims in the name of an abstract humanity to the final assault on metaphysical abstraction itself—all become logical steps within a single logic. (58)

Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them insofar as he can manipulate them. – Horkheimer & Adorno

5. Fascism finds its roots in the Enlightenment. This photograph shows Goethe’s beloved oak tree in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The retreat from history

Fascists were never infatuated with scientific rationality or universal categories. They instead made ideological use of notions like “Jewish physics” or “Italian mathematics.” (61)

Horkheimer and Adorno were more interested in the dialectical process that works behind the conscious intentions of individuals and groups. But their dialectic lacked historical specification. They never inquired into the moments of political decision that produced the new barbarism. (61)

European fascism was not the product of some prefabricated philosophical dialectic but rather the self-conscious ideological response to liberalism and social democracy. Its mass bases everywhere lay primarily in pre-capitalist classes—the peasantry, the underclass, and the petite-bourgeoisie—whose existential and material interests seemed threatened by the capitalist production process and its two dominant classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. (62)

What next?

6 The utopian laboratory

cf. Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, by Friedrich Schiller, (1795) … Schilller introduced aesthetics as a utopian response to reality. … The aesthetic realm incarnates the “inner truth” of humanity. (65)

cf. The Principle of Hope, by Ernst Bloch; Subject-Object (1949); Spirit of UtopiaThe Magic Mountain (1927) by Thomas Mann; History and Class Consciousness (1924); “Greatness and Decline of Expressionism” (1934); “Realism in the Balance” (1938); “Discussing Expressionism” (1938).

Bloch understood socialism as a projection of utopia. … His outlook was eschatological, but it was never reducible to faith or symbols. Utopian anticipations can be found in the most basic human experiences and images that hark back to the garden of Eden. But the best also becomes manifest in the thrill of sports, the desire for love, nursery rhymes, daydreams, and the lightness experienced in a genuine work of art. Each is a dim prefiguration of the world we (69) seek, and human history is one long struggle in the multiple dimensions of life to articulate and realize it. (70)

| Underpinning all our disappointments and fears, including death, is the hope for redemption and the freedom that has been denied humanity. Utopia receives an ontological foundation in the experience of hope and the inherently incomplete character of existence. The task of critical thinking is to illuminate these unconscious and half-conscious yearnings by highlighting the “anticipatory consciousness” that allows for reinterpreting the past.

cf. Atheism in Christianity (1968); Natural Law and Human Dignity (1961).

Utopia makes us aware that what we have is not necessarily what we want and that what we want is not necessarily all we can have. (70)

The pacification of existence

cf. Eros and Civilization (1955), by Herbert Marcuse; Civilization and Its Discontents (1930); “Technology and Science as ‘Ideology'” by Jügen Habermans (1968); The Crisis of PSychoanalysis (1970); The REvision of Psychoanalysis (1992); “Social Science and Sociological Tendencies in Psychoanalysis” (1946); Dissent (1956).

Minima Moralia: “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” (76)

What’s missing?

cf. Utopia (1516) by Thomas More; Looking Backward (1887), by Edward Bellamy; We (1921) by Yevgeny Zamyatin; Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley; Animal Farm (1945); 1984 (1949) by George Orwell.

The idea of apocalyptic redemption forecloses compromise. Utopia has always been laden with the self-righteousness born of prophecy—and, as often as not, the celebration of violence. Utopians traditionally justified the terrible means they employed by the liberating ends they supposedly guaranteed. There is ample reason for deriding utopia as irrational and abstract, vague and indeterminate, oblivious of human nature. (77)

Utopia is ultimately a regulative ideal: it provides us with a sense of how little civilization has achieved and anticipatory traces of what might be achieved in the future. (77)

7 The happy consciousness

Everyone can be like this omnipotent society; everyone can be happy, if only he will capitulate fully and sacrifice his claim to happiness. – Horkheimer & Adorno

How the culture industry works

The Frankfurt School assumed that opposition to mass society meant opposition to mass culture.

A dynamic is involved: classical music once served as a backdrop for movies (like those of Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang) while today it serves as the backdrop for commercials. The anti-traditional avant-garde has, meanwhile, entered the museum. (81)

cf. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1961)

Tolerance and public life

cf. “Repressive tolerance” by Herbert Marcuse (1965)

Once connected with the critique of religious prejudices and political authority, experimentation and the exercise of judgment, tolerance has turned into a bulwark for the status quo. … Insofar as the culture industry presents all positions on (85) any issue in a public forum, they all ultimately appear as having equal value. Tolerance as exhibited by the culture industry thus renders all truth claims relative—or, better, turns their acceptance into a matter of taste. Now it is not just beauty but truth that lies in the eye of the beholder. What happened to art has happened to the discourse. (86)

The real problem was never repressive tolerance but the repression of tolerance. Censorship is still rife and, historically the Left has usually suffered the most when civil liberties were constricted in advanced industrial societies. (86)

cf. One-Dimensional ManMinima Moralia; “On Jazz” (1936)

The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus, it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal. – One-Dimensional Man

8 The great refusal

The new sensibility

cf. An Essay on Liberation, Marcuse; Counter-Revolution and Revolt (1972); The Aesthetic Dimension (1978).

In “The Ego and Freedom Movements” (1936), Horkheimer insisted that unconditional happiness cannot exist—only the longing for it. That longing denies all attempts by the commodity form and instrumental rationality to transform the qualitative into the quantitative and the sacred into the profane. Each of us has a natural desire for eternity, beauty, transcendence, salvation, and God—or what Horkheimer ultimately termed the “longing for the totally other.” It makes no promises, depicts no ritual, and provides no church. But this longing provides the foundation for resisting the totally administered society and affirming individuality. The longing for the totally other has nothing in common with organized religion. Nevertheless, its reliance on negation incorporates its hopes for paradise and its ability to experientially affirm the self. (94)

cf. Philosophy of Modern Music (1958).

Freedom stands beyond mimesis—like God—and that (94) is also true of hell. … The incarnation of evil, like the incarnation of good, can only be intimated and never depicted: no objectification of God can be perfect enough and no objectification of the Holocaust can be horrific enough. Adorno drew the radical implications of this position in Minima Moralia when he wrote: “only insofar as it withdraws from man can culture be faithful to man.” (95)

cf. “Cultural Criticism and Society” (1951)

Embracing the negation

cf. Notes on Literature (1969); What is Literature? (1947); The Measures Taken (1930); Aesthetic Theory (1969); Beckett’s Happy Days (1961); Negative Dialectics (1966); Three Studies on Hegel (1963).

[P]philosophy is the contradictory effort to say, through mediation and contextualization, what cannot be said. – Adorno, Negative Dialectics

The longing for the totally other fosters a situation in which the conceptual must constantly seek to grasp the non-conceptual. (98)

I can’t go on. I will go on. – Beckett, The Unnamable (1953)

9 From resignation to renewal

Critical theory was originally intended as an alternative to mainstream forms of both metaphysics and materialism. its aim was to illuminate hidden sources of repression and neglected transformative possibilities. Following the outbreak of World War II, however, the Frankfurt School concluded that liberating alternatives had vanished. Critical theory awoke in Hegel’s night where all cows are black. Resistance took an increasingly existential form. It now rested on intensifying the non-identity between the individual and society. The “system” became the point of reference. Negation confronted the ontology of false conditions. Hints of utopia contested civilization. “He wants all or nothing,” Brecht once wrote, “and in response to this challenge the world usually answers: then better nothing.” (100)

A critical theory of society

cf. “State Capitalism” (1941) by Friedrich Pollock; “Confining Conditions and Revolutionary Breakthroughs” (1965) by Otto Kirchheimer; “A History of the Doctrine of Social Change”; “Theories of Social Change” by Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann; The Authoritarian Personality (1950); Introduction to Sociology (2000)

9. A new direction for critical theory finds its source in the famous inscription on the statue marking Karl Marx’s grave site in London: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it!”

Scrutiny is required of the metaphysical turn taken by critical theory along with categories like the totally administered society and the ontology of false conditions. (104)

Reification should, by contrast, be considered fungible—and the target for social action. (105)

To put it crudely, critical theory can offer fruitful perspectives on the historical genesis and social uses of, say, the theory of relativity introduced by Albert Einstein. But it should not attempt to make philosophical judgments about its truth character. (106)

cf. The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper (1959); The Structures of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (1962).

Engaging in critique need not require an anthropological break with reality.

cf. “Approaches to the Study of Power” (1950); “The Concept of Freedom”, by Franz Neumann.

The politics of enlightenment

cf. Walter Benjamin’s German People (1933)

Liberal republicanism and democratic socialism both have their roots in the Enlightenment. Its partisans were in the forefront of those contesting the exercise of arbitrary power by unaccountable institutions. But they also contributed to the transformation of civil society through their attack on elementary forms of cruelty, religious dogmatism, illiteracy, superstition, xenophobia, and impolite behavior. The Enlightenment legacy has only gained in its social and political relevance. There are three basic political points for critical theory to consider: (109)

  1. Enlightenment ideals evince an elective affinity with anti-authoritarian movements. Left-wing movements tend to privilege cosmopolitanism over parochialism, reason over intuition, skepticism over tradition, and liberty over authority. (109) It only makes sense that right-wing movements should embrace the Counter-Enlightenment. Two movements were in conflict from the start. The dialectic of enlightenment is a fiction.
  2. Enlightenment norms have an inherently critical character. Victims of prejudice inevitably refer to them when calling for remedial action. No custom or tradition, moreover, is exempt from scrutiny. Universal norms associated with the Enlightenment contest the personal prejudices held even by many of its most notable representatives.
  3. Enlightenment principles foster pluralism. They expressly reject integral nationalism and the organic community. They also highlight tolerance, experimentation, and autonomy. Only insofar as the liberal rule of law is operative is it possible to speak about the free and practical exercise of subjectivity. (110)

Critical theory thereby lays itself open to caricature: its negation appears as the liberator incapable of either identifying the form that liberation should take or dealing with the embrace of oppression by the oppressed. … Culture has always been used to maintain the rule of the powerful and the submission of the powerless. “The ruling ideas,” wrote Brecht in Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1929), “are the ideas of those who role.” With its abstract preoccupations, however, the Frankfurt School strips resistance to those ideas of many material referent. (111)

cf. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1935); Human Smoke (2008) by Nicholson Baker

The transformative impulse

Critical theory was originally intended as an interdisciplinary enterprise to which each might bring his or her unique disciplinary talent and expertise. Its representatives highlighted the relation between philosophy and politics, society and psychology, culture and liberation. They conceived of the totality and change the way in which the social sciences, the humanities, and even interpreters of the natural sciences look at the world. (113)

| The Frankfurt School called outworn concepts into question. Its members looked at cultural ruins and lost hopes and what hegemonic cultural forces had ignored or repressed. They demanded that those committed to the ideals of liberation respond to new contingencies and new constraints. They also intimated the need for a new understanding of the relation between theory and practice. (113)

Critical theory has too long indulged what Thomas Mann first called a “power-protected inwardness.” (114)

cf. The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills, (1960)

10 Unfinished tasks: solidarity, resistance, and global society

cf. Heritage of Our Times (1935)

Modernity is not the enemy of the oppressed. The religious past was never golden, and its institutions were never safe havens. Anti-scientism, intolerance, and parochialism (119) historically served as complements for authoritarian political undertakings, whatever the anti-imperialist intentions of “prophets facing backward.” (120

Speaking truth to power is very different from demanding the abolition of power—because the latter can never happen. … Illuminating conditions of oppression, opening avenues of resistance, and refashioning liberating ideals remain the core aims (122) of the critical tradition. New perspectives are required, however, to cultivate transformative prospects within an increasingly global society, and, in turn, this calls for subjecting critical theory to ongoing critical interrogation. But that is as it should be. Only in this way can critical theory remain true to the original spirit of the critical enterprise. (123)

About VIA


  1. Pingback: Live Not By Lies | Critical Review & Notes | vialogue

  2. Pingback: Another Gospel? | Reflections, Notes, & Critical Review | vialogue

  3. Pingback: Critical Race Theory | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

  4. Pingback: Out of the Wreckage | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: