Critical Theory

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 11/19/2014

Critical theory is a school of thought that stresses the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to change it, by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. The original aim of critical theory was to analyze the true significance of "the ruling understandings" generated in bourgeois society, in order to show how they misrepresented actual human interaction in the real world, and in so doing functioned to justify or legitimize the domination of people by capitalism and to explain the failure of Marxism prediction of "an era of social revolution" but rather fascism and totalitarianism.

Its core concepts are:
  1. That critical social theory should be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e. how it came to be configured at a specific point in time)
  2. That critical theory should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology
  3. Critical theory must at all times be self-critical, "explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify actors to change it, and provide clear norms for criticism and practical goals for the future". 
In Horkheimer's words the goal of critical theory is:
"the emancipation of human beings from the circumstances that enslave them"
With the growth of advanced industrial society during the Cold War era, critical theorists recognized that the path of capitalism and history had changed decisively, that the modes of oppression operated differently, and that the industrial working class no longer remained the determinate negation of capitalism. Indeed, the material tensions and class struggles of which Marx spoke were no longer seen by Frankfurt School theorists as having the same revolutionary potential within contemporary Western societies—an observation which indicated that Marx's dialectical interpretations and predictions were either incomplete or incorrect. So they interpreted all the other areas of society which Marx had not dealt with, especially in the superstructure of society. Adding elemnts from Weberian theory in comparative historical analysis of Western rationalism in capitalism, the modern state, secular scientific rationality, culture, and religion; analysis of the forms of domination in general and of modern rational-legal bureaucratic domination in particular; articulation of the distinctive, hermeneutic method of the social sciences and Freudian theory in Critique of the repressive structure of the advanced civilization, discovery of the unconscious, primary-process thinking, and analysis of the psychic bases of authoritarianism and Critique of mass culture as a way of suppression, critique of Western culture as a culture of domination.

For Adorno and Horkheimer, state intervention in economy and mass culture had effectively abolished the tension between the "relations of production" and "material productive forces of society," a tension which, according to traditional Marxist sociology, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism. The market (as an "unconscious" mechanism for the distribution of goods) and private property had been replaced by centralized planning and socialized ownership of the means of production. And this led to the rise of National Socialism, state capitalism, and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domination that could not be adequately explained within the terms of traditional Marxist sociology.

While modernist critical theory concerns itself with “forms of authority and injustice that accompanied the evolution of industrial and corporate capitalism as a political-economic system,” postmodern critical theory politicizes social problems “by situating them in historical and cultural contexts, to implicate themselves in the process of collecting and analyzing data, and to relativize their findings”. Meaning itself is seen as unstable due to the rapid transformation in social structures. As a result, the focus of research is centered on local manifestations, rather than broad generalizations.

Drawing upon Max Weber, Horkheimer argued that the social sciences are different from the natural sciences, inasmuch as generalizations cannot be easily made from so-called experiences, because the understanding of a "social" experience itself is always fashioned by ideas that are in the researchers themselves. What the researcher does not realize is that he is caught in a historical context in which ideologies shape the thinking; thus theory would be conforming to the ideas in the mind of the researcher rather than the experience itself:
"The facts which our senses present to us are socially performed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived and through the historical character of the perceiving organ. Both are not simply natural; they are shaped by human activity, and yet the individual perceives himself as receptive and passive in the act of perception".

Dialectic of Enlightenment, originally published in 1947, was an extremely influential work that Horkheimer collaborated Adorno. Its main argument was to serve as a wide-ranging critique of the "self-destruction of enlightenment". The work criticized popular culture as "the product of a culture industry whose goal was to stupefy the masses with endless mass produced copies of the same thing". Horkheimer and Adorno coined the term culture industry, arguing that in a capitalist society mass culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods — films, radio programmes, magazines, etc. And the result is a constant reproduction of the same thing.
"Culture today is infecting everything with sameness."
They stated that the Culture Industry delivers the "goods" so that the people then only have left over the task of the consuming them with little attention given so these cultural products are used to manipulate mass society into docility and passivity no matter how difficult their economic circumstances, by robbing them of their imagination and takes over their thinking for them thus demolishing critical thinking and individuality, and this is a vital means by which the capitalist order itself was maintained. The inherent danger of the Culture Industry is the creation of false psychological needs that can only be met and satisfied by the products of capitalism. This dependence on the cultral products makes the people fearful of anything genuinely new or innovative. It is psychoanalysis in reverse. Rather than challenging our repetitive and destructive patterns of thought and behaviour, it serves to reinforce these patterns.

The term "Culture Industry," does not refer to "mass culture," or the culture of the masses of people, in terms of something being produced by the masses and conveying the representations of the masses, but on the contrary, they are imposed upon us from above and such involvement of the masses is only apparent, or a type of seeming democratic participation.

For example, the introduction of the radio, a mass medium, no longer permits its listener any mechanism of reply, as was the case with the telephone. Instead, listeners are not subjects anymore but passive receptacles exposed "in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations". However, they also explain how pseudo-individuality is encouraged among these products in order to keep the consumers coming back for more. They argue that small differences in products within the same area are acceptable.

Art is only autonomous when it is not subject to specific demands and is not produced for any purpose other than its ‘functionlessness’. It should challenge our conception of existing social norms and reality by criticizing the world outside its boundaries. Art should provide an alternate vision of reality. It should highlight the inequalities and irrationality of reality, by presenting an ideal vision of what mankind can aspire towards. But what really happened is that the production and circulation of cultural goods had come under the monopolistic control of the culture industry. This represented the triumph of instrumental reason over the role of culture (instrumental rationality tends to focus on the 'hows' of an action, rather than its 'whys'). Rather than being produced for the inherent value of the piece itself (why produce?), which for Adorno lay entirely in its lack of use value – its functionlessness – art had now been almost entirely commoditised and no longer free from the demands of the market.

It creates art that is indistinguishable from reality. This is a form of pseudo-realism, as the gap between art and reality which is the basis of its critical potential had been undermined, so it prevents critical analysis of the existing social and economic order. Art had become a means by which to cement mass audiences to reality and serves to create a sense of fatalism and an acceptance of the existing order as unquestionable. It passifies any social discontent by presenting not a picture of an alternative reality, but an alternative picture of the existing reality.

The viewer is presented with a smooth and comfortable spectacle that requires no deep concentration, and elicits no genuine attempt to criticise the art. Everything has been pre-classified by the production team and the audience has no choice but to become a passive unreceptive recipient of the art. This process is reinforced by the incessant and deliberate incorporation of ‘cues’ within the works themselves, which direct us to the ‘correct’ reaction. A TV show will contain canned laughter, a movie sad music, and so on. Thus ‘programmes watch for their audiences and popular music hears for those who listen’. In their critique of the culture industry, Adorno and Horkheimer describe the way in which culture becomes a tool for domination.

They make consistent comparisons between Fascist Germany and the American film industry. They highlight the presence of mass-produced culture, created and disseminated by exclusive institutions and consumed by a passive audience in both systems. Hollywood pumps out an endless stream of movies, all classified according to the exact tastes of particular groups, ensuring the viewer has to exert next to no mental energy in understanding the film. Whilst there are differences in the content of each film, these differences amount to merely pseudo-individualism, that serves to mask the fact that the style and form of the film is identical to all others; all differences, such as variations in plot, character type etc, are simply superficial imitations of individuality that mask the fundamental sameness of all its products. Thus studios spend enormous amounts promoting ‘bigger better’ films, new bands, a new star, but rather than these differences in fact it is the underlying structural uniformity which is the ‘really meaningful content’ of the film.

In "Jargon of Authenticity", Adorno organizes his critique of existentialism around its use of key words such “statement,” “authentic,” “inauthentic,” “commission,” “shelter,” and “commitment”. He asserts that the use of this language implies more meaning than is actually conveyed.  The aura is partially communicated by the fact that the words employed by the jargon don’t have any specific conceptual content, but create the impression that something meaningful is being said just because these words are being used. This theoreticization served as a means of holding on to a consciousness similar to religion without affiliation with doctrine or denomination. As a result the language of authenticity, according to Adorno, though not Christian in content, resembles Christian language and effectively attempts to produce Christian character without Christian belief.  The jargon’s association with Christianity brings over Christian character traits –in this case, humility – without a specific object before which the authentic is to be humble. As a result, powerlessness and nothingness are essential characteristics of the authentic person, robbing the authentic of the ability  to criticize a state of affairs precluded by the “divine rights of the soul”. Religion becomes an end in itself, valued simply because it is held and not because it is true. According to Adorno, “one needs only to be a believer – no matter what he believes in”. Adorno’s key observation seems to be that through the jargon, the “authority of the absolute is overthrown by absolutized authority”. This occurs as the jargon molds thought before being applied to any particular content. The jargon works by being empty of specific content, and as a result supports authority structures by removing them from questioning. Whoever is versed in the jargon does not have to say what he thinks, does not even have to think it properly. The jargon takes over this task. It breaks the dialectic between language and meaning. The individual is robbed of his or her individuality by the jargon. The speaking subject is virtually eradicated since the language used to convey the speaker’s “self” is itself empty of specific content Because the existentialist’s state of submission is devoid of any specific object, dogma, or God, users of existentialist jargon are predisposed to submission without having an object to submit to. A totalitarian state, demanding submission, presumably fills this void by meeting a felt, though undefined, need in an audience predisposed to accept its claims. “Authenticity,” Adorno observes, is a word that tends to shift definition depending upon context. In Heidegger, the subject is authentic to itself, the very definition of authenticity, so one’s own subjectivity is the judge of what is authentic. Reason is discarded as a judge at this point. The only external agent that serves as a check upon Dasein is death, because in Heidegger death is the only point at which the self recognizes itself as a distinct self apart from the They. Death takes the place of God in Heidegger’s existentialism.

In "Eros and Civilization", Marcuse discusses the social meaning of biology - history seen not as a class struggle, but a fight against repression of our instincts. He argues that "advanced industrial society" (modern capitalism) is preventing us from reaching a non-repressive society. He contends that Freud's argument that repression is needed by civilization to persist is mistaken, as Eros is liberating and constructive. Marcuse starts with the conflict described by Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents - the struggle between human instincts and the conscience of repression (superego), which is self-repressing trying to follow the society's mores and norms. Freud claimed that a clash between Eros and civilization results in the history of humanity being one of his repression: 'Our civilization is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts.' Sex produces the energy, and it is repressed so the energy can be channeled into progress - but the price of progress is the prevalence of guilt instead of happiness. "Progress", for Marcuse, is a concept that provides the explanation and excuse of why the system has to continue; it is the reason the happiness of people is sacrificed. Marcuse's argument depends on the assumption that instincts can be shaped by historical phenomena such as repression.

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