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Critical Theory: Who remembers the “Frankfurt School”?

Fragments from The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, ed. Fred Rush, Cambridge University Press, 2004, and Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Eric Bronner, Oxford University Press, 2011.

CHRONOLOGY

1923       Institute of Social Research founded in Frankfurt.
1928       Theodor Adorno (1903–69) begins his association with the Institute.
1930       Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Erich Fromm (1900–80) join the Institute.
1932       Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) joins the Institute.
1933       Hitler becomes chancellor. Institute moves provisionally to Geneva.
1934       The Institute relocates to Morningside Heights in New York City.
1947       Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment.
1949       Horkheimer and Adorno return to Frankfurt to reestablish the Institute there.
1955       Adorno appointed codirector of the Institute with Horkheimer.
1956       Jürgen Habermas (1929–) becomes a member of the Institute.
1958       Horkheimer retires.
1966       Adorno, Negative Dialectics.
1970       Posthumous publication of Adorno’s unfinished Aesthetic Theory.
1981       Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action.
1992       Axel Honneth (1949–), Struggle for Recognition.
1997       Honneth joins the Institute.

CONCEPTUAL FOUNDATIONS OF CRITICAL THEORY

HORKHEIMER hopes to create a new, philosophically informed, interdisciplinary social science to displace both social philosophy and sociology as they were then represented in Europe. In this sense, Critical Theory is an account of the social forces of domination that takes its theoretical activity to be practically connected to the object of its study.

For early Critical Theory the project was one of a philosophical reconstruction of idealism, ultimately through a materialist reinterpretation of those of its features that can be preserved in order to counteract reductive and instrumental tendencies of early twentieth-century European philosophy and social science.

The nature of the theory-object relation
  • Contrary to accepted view, physical sciences are, like social sciences, characterized by the theory-dependency of their objects, which leads to an instrumental understanding of the world: purposively deploying concepts – based on one’s understanding the world to be a certain way, which in turns involves one’s interests – in order to achieve predictive and manipulative control over things.
  • Critical Theory asked: can instrumental thought ever achieve the goal of overcoming the fear of a distanced nature? What effects does such distancing have cognitively and politically? How is it possible to eliminate the base alienation that produces the perceived need for instrumental thought?

Materialism contradicts idealism because “according to materialism neither pure thought, nor abstraction in the sense of the philosophy of consciousness, nor intuition in the sense of irrationalism, is capable of creating a connection between the individual and the permanent structure of being”.

Reductive materialism takes two forms that Horkheimer wants to blunt: the sociological positivism of Comte and the logical empiricism of the Vienna Circle (one consequence of the verifiability principle is that ethical and political statements are meaningless.) Positivism, for the members of the Frankfurt School, is the ideology of capitalism; it is the explicit philosophical formulation and glorification of the incorrect, objectifying attitude people in capitalist society have towards their world.

CT attempts to rescue from idealism a conception of reason as unified in its practical and theoretical employment, coupled with a dialectical and materialist account of human flourishing.

The concept of alienated labour is central for MARCUSE, while Horkheimer believes that overemphasising it valorises instrumental rationality.

WALTER BENJAMIN’s thought is characterised by a distinctive Kantianism: a turn away from purporting to investigate the nature of reality, towards an investigation of our experience of that reality. For Benjamin, the system of correspondences, the “non-sensible similarities” to which individuals respond without being aware of it, gives expression to economic life in noneconomic reality.

THE DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT

This work investigates how instrumental rationality expels freedom from the historical process and enables commodification/reification – the reduction of individuals to their ability transiently to “substitute” for variables in functional contexts – to penetrate every aspect of society. Capitalism, bureaucracy and science – all expressions of instrumental rationality – constitute the real core of the Enlightenment. Liberal ideas were betrayed by the instrumental framework in which they were embedded: the totally administered society. The irrational beliefs that the Enlightenment sought to destroy reappeared as itw own products. Humanity pays for an increase of power over nature with the loss of subjectivity.

REVOLUTION & POLITICS

Aim: to emancipate humanity from injustice; stems from applying negative dialectics to the contradictions of social reality (the confrontation between the professed goals of the bourgeois economic revolution and what that revolution had become – inversion of liberal values into their opposites); opens up the possibility for radical change; more and more difficult to imagine anyone breaking out of the logic of domination; clear thinking and the correction of error and confusion within theory were the tasks.

Capitalism has a stranglehold on the imagination of the workers in two complementary ways: they have some of the beliefs and attitudes they do because of the society they live in, and these beliefs and attitudes are somehow inappropriately constrictive; and they have some of the desires and needs they do because they live in a society of a certain kind, and having these desires or needs inappropriately limits what they can imagine and thus what they can reasonably be expected to do. This is how the capitalist system is reproduced. A false need is not one the satisfaction of which fails, or even fails systematically, to be gratifying, but rather one that the agents in question would not have developed had they been in a position to develop their need-structure freely. “Free development” here means development subject only to the conditions imposed by nature and the level of development of our forces of production.

Objectification: When I adopt an objectifying attitude I treat my beliefs as if they were completely distinct from and external to the state of affairs to which they refer, and as if they were practically inert and had no effect on the state of affairs. The members of the Frankfurt School took a Hegelian view of human society that construes it as a self-reflexive, historically developing totality – that is, the beliefs and attitudes people in the society have about themselves and their society are themselves an integral part of the society.

Social institutions all have an inherent teleology – they are directed at contributing to the “good life” – and by analyzing their structure and their operation one can extract from them their “concept” in the technical sense in which Hegel uses that term: the internal teleological mechanism that governs their operation. Dialectical thinking criticizes existing institutions, practices, or states of affairs simply by contrasting what they are with what they could be, and are in some sense striving to be but are not.

ADORNO had by far the more pessimistic attitude towards revolution – for him dialectics could be at best a defense against pressures of conformism, but without much hope that this could be more than a rearguard action. HORKHEIMER and Adorno intended to confront the limits of Enlightenment from the standpoint of enlightenment itself. Their point of departure was the erosion of autonomy. Because the whole is false, and mediations are never introduced, critical theory becomes compelled to consider negation as its guiding principle. If the totally administered society is truly total, and capable of integrating and domesticating all critical undertakings, then the prospects for political action are dim. Instrumental rationality is the problem, the commodity form is the culprit, and the culture industry is the enemy. Divorcing experience from critical reflection creates an opening for ideology and compromises the ability to resist what Adorno termed the “ontology of false conditions”. There is no alternative. The only available option is negation (negative dialectics) and the relentless criticism of the present.

MARCUSE was at times more sanguine about the possibilities for the development of a potentially revolutionary “new sensibility”: a spontaneously generated need for solidarity and aesthetic satisfaction, and an intolerance of repression and coercion. He saw this new sensibility arising within western capitalist societies among those who were not yet fully socialized, those who rejected the values of society by a kind of spontaneous act of will, or those who for one reason or other were excluded. On the other hand, central to his thought is the concept of The Great Refusal: A refusal to be drawn into the life of late capitalism (incl. reformist politics) – against Enlightenment. “The critical theory of society posseses 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)

HABERMAS rejects this total critique and argues that the Enlightenment presents a Janus face of possibilities. Deliberative democracy: formal institutions of representative democracy, informal interactions of a public forming their opinion in a well-ordered public sphere. We must find a way of talking with each other as equals about the elimination of systemic inequality before we can eliminate it. Decentered democracy: plurality of grass-root forces.

ADORNO’S AESTHETIC THEORY

PHILOSOPHICAL AESTHETICS AS A THEORY OF REASON

Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and HABERMAS all agree that formal or scientific reason necessarily surmounts and then excludes the authority of the sensible as its condition of possibility. For Kant and Habermas, the exclusion of sense from reason is driven by the presumption that the space of reason is normative, and thus necessarily a space of freedom, the very opposite of the domain of material coercion and causality.

The governing animus of Critical Theory aesthetics is to claim that sense is indeed the repressed or repudiated other of reason, not in the Nietzschean sense of an alternative to reason as a form of comportment towards the world, but rather as a repudiated and hence split off part of reason itself. Sensory matters belong intrinsically to reason. The domain of art (or, more widely, culture) is the social repository for the repressed claims of sensuousness, society’s sensory/libidinal unconscious. Simultaneously, it is the social locale where the normative binding of reason and sense is forged, elaborated, and reproduced.

MARXISM AND AESTHETICS

Western Marxism developed from an initial questioning of the base/superstructure model of society. For this to work, one must shift to a broadly two-level, functionalist model of the social world. On the level of system integration, what is required is a functional integration of the consequences of social action, which must occur both within single social practices and among institutional practices. On the level of social integration, agents are able to coordinate their social actions by adopting harmonious action orientations, which itself involves adopting (internalizing and believing) the same or essentially complementary meanings, social rules, and values. If social integration is necessary for system integration (the functionalist equivalent of base/superstructure), then the two levels can be thought of as mutually conditioning one another, and the transforming of action orientations, hearts and minds, would be providential for social change.

Western Marxists came to think that the primacy of the economic base was not transhistorical and, therefore, not the deep motor of history but, in fact, a unique feature of capital itself: capital is defined by the economic becoming autonomous and the consequent relegation of other social instances, including the political, to the economic instance. The mechanism through which this occurs is not a dialectic of forces and relations of production but – said sotto voce – the long-term processes of occidental rationalization as theorized by Max Weber. Institutionally, rationalization involves social rules becoming more abstract, decontextualized, formal, impersonal, and means–ends rational, hence less traditional (historically bound) and less dependent on the character of reasoners and their relations with one another. This rationalization of reason is the process through which the sensory – the contingent, contextual, and particular – is first dominated and then repudiated as a component of reason. The general pattern of rationalization involves the subsumption of particulars under universals. For Adorno, this process is irrational in its endpoint because a part of reason – nature controlling, instrumental reasoning – is taken as the whole of reason.

AUTONOMY: ART’S DOUBLE CHARACTER

“[Art] epitomizes the unsubsumable and as such challenges the prevailing principle of reality: that of exchangeability”; “it criticizes society by merely existing.”

“Something severs itself from empirical reality and thereby from society’s functional context and yet is at the same time part of empirical reality and society’s functional context”.

Primacy of form over content. Form is the internal bearer of art’s (external) sociality.

Art: Spirit coming to know itself in the alien medium of sensuousness (Hegel). Modernism contests these conceits: “Art’s spirit is the self-recognition of spirit itself as natural”. If art’s meanings were rational meanings in a wholly alien setting, then those meanings would be capable of being fully abstracted from their alien setting, and judged and communicated in exactly the same way as standard cognitive and moral claims. If intuitions, then, are to be meaningful in themselves and not solely through what concept they fall under, then it is necessary that some portion of cognition be nondiscursive; and, conversely, perhaps it is necessary for the possibility of nondiscursive cognition that meaning adhere to things, have a moment of nondetachability; and perhaps it is necessary in order to think of nondetachability that we have in mind the idea of a “nonconceptual, nonrigidified significative language.” If meaning can adhere to objects, then factual states of affairs can be normative in themselves (priority of the object over the subject).

“By its form alone art promises what is not; it registers objectively, however refractedly, the claim that because the nonexistent appears it must be possible”.

THE CULTURE INDUSTRY AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE

According to the Frankfurt School, the culture industry integrates all oposition by its very nature. The cultural or utopian potential within a work of art is nullified, reduced to just another form of free expression in a free and affluent society, thereby rendering people more and more receptive to tradition and authority. Mass culture is an essential feature of the totally administered society.

ADORNO’s “On the Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938) noted that the products of the culture industry were not works of art that were only later packaged as commodities but, instead, conceived as commodities from their inception.

HABERMAS introduced the public sphere (all the activities and organizations capable of fostering public debate) into the sociological lexicon. All the great movements for political democracy and material equality generated a vibrant public sphere. The problem arose, however, once public opinion became identified with publicity and, with the domination of mass media, popular struggles began surrendering their power to the organizations and experts involved with the bureaucratic welfare state. . Still, he believed that an altered civil society might yet contest the increasing dominance of instrumental reason.

HABERMAS’S “KANTIAN PRAGMATISM”

Central to Kant’s account of human reason: our capacity for freedom (to “set ends”) that is, to think and act on the basis of considerations (“reasons”) that one can reflectively endorse.

On Habermas’s model, normativity does not depend on a voluntaristic notion of the capacity of an agent to give a law to itself. Rather, it is specifically within social practices of “reciprocal recognition,” where individuals mutually ascribe the status of reason-giver to one another, that the notion of an agent as a “law-giver” (and hence the source of normativity)must be located.

Basic distinction between “consent-oriented” (communicative) and “success-oriented” (purposive-rational) action. The goal of communicative action is expressed or realized in an attempt to reach agreement or mutual understanding. Communicative freedom refers to the capacity of individuals to take a yes/no position (or abstain from taking one) with respect to the claims raised in contexts of social interaction – reasons responsive, “reflective endorsement” (Korsgaard), sociality of reason. To see agents as “rational” requires viewing them from the deliberative stance, to see them as acting under the idealizing suppositions of communicative action (she is assumed to be able to provide justifying reasons for her actions). Something ultimately can count as a reason not in virtue of some property it possesses independent of the practice of reason-giving, nor solely in virtue of its endorsement by an agent, but as a result of its status within the normative practice of the exchange of reasons (intersubjectivity as opposed to subject-centered reason).

INTELLECTUAL LEGACY

The historical past should be understood as a process of development whose pathological deformation by capitalism may be overcome only by initiating a process of enlightenment among those involved. Social pathologies are to be understood as a result of deficient rationality. One might say with Marx (and echoing Hegel) that social pathology depends upon the actual organization of society falling short of the standards of rationality that are already embodied in the forces of production.

Central premise of CT: the social circumstances that constitute the pathology of capitalist societies have the structural feature of disguising precisely those states of affairs that would otherwise provide particularly urgent grounds for public criticism. In blending Marx and Weber, they arrive at the conviction that the potential of human reason unfolds in a historical learning process in which rational solutions to problems are inextricably bound up with conflicts regarding the monopolization of knowledge – a conception of capitalism energized by a theory of rationality.

Freud: the stress from suffering (result of impediment of the rational ego) presses towards a cure by means of exactly the same rational powers whose function the pathology impedes. CT expects in their addressees a latent interest in rational explanation, since only winning back an integral rationality can satisfy the desire for liberation from suffering.

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