4/22/2022 Doctorate Exam Answer
The origins of Critical Theory can be seen as originating in Germany in the years prior to the second world war. A group of scholars functioning in direct and indirect relations to the Frankfurt School in Germany worked to discover a reason(s) for the German proletariat’s failure to organize and respond to their conditions as members of the exploited working class. Members of this group included Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Habermas, and more. They were witness to the shifting politic and social conditions throughout the European world following the conclusion of the first world war that connected with or followed from the writings, teachings and work of Marx and Engels, and most notably they had been witness to the Russian Revolution and the radical restructuring of the Russian state. All of the necessary conditions that should lead to anti-capitalist revolt in Germany and across Europe seemed to be in place, but the revolt was not happening. The members of the Frankfurt School wanted to know why, but before they were able to organize and work and develop an answer, the question changed.
The rise of Hitler, the Nazi party, and fascism in Germany and through other parts of Europe forced the members of the Frankfurt School to reorganize their priorities. This reorganization was not only intellectual, but also substantially, and perhaps more importantly physical. The members of the Frankfurt School were Marxist scholars, intellectuals, in a nation that was organizing itself under the rule of oppressive power, and most notably this group of intellectual scholars were Jews. As a result of this the “Frankfurt School” became a term define a group of scholars by their shared values and research commitments more than by their continued association with a particular institution, as the members of the Frankfurt School were forced to flee Germany in the interest of preserving their own lives. In the wake of the first World War they had wondered why the German people resisted the temptation to organize and overthrow the oppressive capitalist economic situation in which they were immersed, by the beginning of the second world war they began to wonder how the German people, and others across Europe, and around the world had supported and/or submitted to the barbarity of authoritarianism, fascism and Naziism.
There had been one question. Then there had been another. Were the two questions radically distinct from one another? And did they have different answers? Critical Theory follows completely from these originating points in the early and middle twentieth century and is rooted very much within a Marxist tradition. It does recognize the incapacity of Marxism to predict evolutionary events within global, national, and economic situations, though it did not in its beginnings within the walls of the Frankfurt School. (In the early days of the Frankfurt School its members can be seen as hopefully awaiting a predictable series of events, a communist revolutionary movement, in alignment with historical materialism as formulated in Marx’s work. The rise of fascism and Naziism in the German state and growth of capitalist hegemony around the world would break from this faith.) It also recognizes the failure of the Leninist model as a means capable of achieving successes congruent with those which ideally they felt should follow from the end of the capitalist state. (This recognition also would be learned over time, and was not apparent to the Members of the Frankfurt School in the early days of the Russian Revolution.) So scientific Marxism could not predict and determine the
future, and soviet style political revolution did not succeed in producing a just, fair, economic and political outcome. So then what could the answer, or answers be?
Methodology within Critical Theory seeks to discover answers to its questions through the study and analysis of culture and cultural situations. A portion of the members of the Frankfurt School who had survived the German holocaust found themselves relocated in America for much of the continuance of their academic careers. (Benjamin died in Spain, and Habermas managed to continue as a citizen of European nations throughout his life.) They had been Marxist, and even continued to be Marxist, but Marxism had become a new thing following the work and writings of Gramsci, and eventually with overlapping connections to post-structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis (as a literary and philosophical tradition), and with a radical restructuring of the physical world in terms of production, consumption, communication, travel, etc. “Hegemony” in the early Marxist tradition had been seen as coercively organized power which effectively oppressed all within its influence. Hegemony was organized and held its power through a control of the military, police, government, media, schools, and such. Hegemony in the later twentieth century though had ceased being seen as exclusively following from plans designed by an organized oppressor. Cultural hegemony became a foundational element of much that would be Marxist scholarship in the wake of the second world war, and notably following the political and academic changes in American and across Europe in the 60’s and beyond. Critical Theory would come to seek its answers most substantially in the humanities, in the study of media, and culture, and with much attention to psychology. Why do people respond/behave the way that they do within the cultural situations in which they reside and is there a way to influence/change this cultural situation and/or the behavioral response to it in pursuit of the public good?
One form of analysis shaping an understanding of the cultural situation in which the western world resides can be found through an examination of a discussion of the postmodern world as it is done by Frederic Jameson and David Harvey in “Postmodernism: or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” and “The Condition of Postmodernity”. Jameson’s study of the postmodern condition focused specifically, as its subtitle indicates, upon a vision of the world shaped by capitalist influence, or even ideology and hegemony. Jameson’s foundation for the postmodern world as something specifically physical, material, economic differed from an alternative vision of a postmodern world that was seen as following from academic, intellectual foundations. Jameson’s postmodernism can be seen as being a form of post-structural Marxism, while an alternative version, most commonly connected with the Jacques Derrida’s academic scholarship, would be described as being post-structural linguistics. Jameson’s postmodern world exists as an empirical observable reality, not as a personal or political choice. Jameson describes the growth of consumerism, and radicalization of production and distribution, and points to the effects such processes have upon a consumers/people within a market economy. This physical reality shapes the way citizens see themselves and shapes the way that they interact, or isolate, within a community governed by the structures of a capitalistic market economy. Harvey does not disagree with Jameson’s description of market influences and the power that they have to control and/or influence people’s lives. Harvey does see the postmodern condition as being something that can be constructed personally and intellectually. Harvey’s description of the economic world matches Jameson’s, but Harvey sees
a postmodern mindset as being something that can be individually constructed. Harvey sees the individual as being phenomenologically capable of shaping an understanding of the world through different lens, and as such being able to live life with or without a postmodern understanding. (Harvey’s position is constructed with much more contradiction than that of Jameson. Harvey repeats and/or agrees with an analysis of the political/economic situation as one in which the individual is most powerless to effect his/her world, but allows a form of post-structural linguistic individualized rationality to influence his vision of the postmodern condition.) Ultimately there is much, most complete, agreement between the two men and their analysis of the cultural and economic situation that they describe, but that little difference must be noted.
Foucault, Rorty, and Lyotard have been interpreted as designing of a postmodern vision that separates itself from a more socially constructed desire for the public good, that separates itself from a desire as pursued by the members of the Frankfurt School to understand the human condition and change it for the benefit of all. This interpretation sees Foucault’s work as describing the impossibility of social change and as justifying instead the pursuit of individualistic egoistic desires. This is the form of chosen postmodern individualism that Harvey describes and dreads. It sees the working class as experiencing all of the frustration and anger that Marx described as a logical response to capitalistic oppression and describes the solution as being the egoistical pursuit of individual desires.
Ironically, both sides of the political spectrum decry postmodern influences upon the cultural situation. They focus on Lyotard’s disregard for grand narratives and see postmodernism on one hand as working to promote Marxist values, and on the other as being completely destructive of the Marxist tradition. Jordan Peterson from the right says that postmodernism claims to dismiss grand narratives, but in reality the only thing that it ever does is to promote the grand narrative of an essentialist Marxist ideology. In complete contrast the Marxist left hates the postmodern movement because it fails to support movements seeking to bring unified change in opposition to capitalist dominance.
The tension between a pursuit of individual/particular/egoistic success and the pursuit of a universal/social/public good disrupts an achievement of a simple resolution. While the Jordan Peterson right may more simply focus on the achievement of personal success and acquisition of personal wealth (enclosed within a neo-liberal, Randian, ideology which sees pursuit of individual well-being as being the foundation for achievement of the good, or even sees the public good as being nothing but society’s responsibility to provide opportunities for personal success), the left must manage a variety of particular interests that could lead toward or distract from universal goals.
An effort to organize leftist strategies that would facilitate the pursuit of universal goals within a world filled with particular needs and influences motivated much of the work contained within “Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left” by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Zizek. The written dialogue would lead to a substantial personal rift between Laclau and Zizek as visions of a path forward exhibited themselves with much contrast as they were formed by the two men. Each, of course, along with Butler, wished to pursue achievement of the universal public good. (The most complete achieve of the universal public good from a leftist/Marxist tradition in which they were/are immersed would be an end to capitalism.) The difficulty arose from the pursuit of an
understanding of the value of the particular within the structures of cultural realities. The individual and the universal function, of course, as opposite ends of a spectrum, and one vision of the particular can be seen as functioning similarly to the individual. The individual pursues its own interests, the particular pursues its own interests. Laclau though saw the particular as being a necessary tool to be used in pursuit of universal goals. Examples of particular interests do include feminism, anti-racism, and all forms of local efforts to improve local conditions. A local effort to provide clean drinking water to a small community is a particular goal. The more universal would be the provision of clean drinking water to all people throughout the world. How though does the pursuit of particular interests lead toward universal goals, and how does it distract from the pursuit of universal goals? Zizek emphasizes the need for pursuit of the universal while Laclau sought to empower the pursuit of particular achievements. Should black communities work together with white communities seeking to end poverty for all? Or Should each individually pursue their own desires?
Critical Theory functions within contemporary American culture today because of the radical right’s desire to put an end to the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” in American classrooms. Interestingly the right does unconsciously understand how Critical Theory within Critical Race Theory does seek to undermine its ideological positions and influences. Most of the right’s noise though seeks to protect the sacred value of American identity, American history, and the very concept of what it means to be “American”. The love of country functions alongside the love of God attaching the individual to the universal, making the particular a part of something greater than the self. This connection makes it all so personal. A critique of nation is an attack upon the self. How can one be proud to be an American, how can one be proud to be a Christian, how can one be proud to be anything when that thing is seen as being dysfunctional, broken, violent, racist, imperialistic, psychopathic?
The members of the Frankfurt School understood/understand the connection(s) between the individual, the particular, and the universal. Critical Theory works to develop strategies that will empower the development of strategies effective toward achievement of universal, or ethically particular, goals. My work within Critical Theory seeks to challenge the influential power of the sacred as it functions within the modern/postmodern cultural world. American nationalism today, tied strongly to religious belief, exhibits profound hatred for any disrespect for the sacred. The flag and the cross, country and God, must be aggressively defended. My work argues that the public good suffers when personal attachment to sacred signifiers isolates individuals placing them in combat with one another for shares of the public good, and that the deconstruction of these sacred things must function as an effective portion of public education designed to promote the well-being of its students and the general public.