Highlights: Critical Theory, by Bronner, Stephen Eric


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Philosophy has evidenced a subversive element from its inception.

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complaint. 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.

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most important representatives would wage an unrelenting assault on the exploitation, repression, and alienation embedded within Western civilization.

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critical theory was always concerned not merely with how things were but how they might be and should be.

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moment of freedom appeared in the demand for recognition by the enslaved and the exploited.

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They were concerned less with what Marx called the economic “base” than the political and cultural “superstructure” of society. Their

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The Frankfurt School initially believed that its intellectual work would aid the practical prospects for revolutionary action by the proletariat.

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The Frankfurt School registered this historical shift by subjecting long-standing leftist beliefs in the inherently progressive character of science and technology, popular education, and mass politics to withering interrogation.

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The Enlightenment and Marxism were confronted from the standpoint of their unrealized ideals as the Frankfurt School refashioned the historical dialectic

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Critical theory began the process of reclaiming forgotten utopian images and neglected ideals of resistance under circumstances in which the possibility for realizing them seemingly no longer existed. The result was a new form of “negative dialectics” whose popularity has only grown among contemporary academics.

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The Frankfurt School had always considered establishmentarian philosophies as obstacles to bringing about a liberated society. Its members condemned the preoccupation with absolute foundations, analytic categories, and fixed criteria for verifying truth claims.

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phenomenology, with its set ontological claims about how individuals experience existence, and positivism, with its demand that society be analyzed according to the criteria of the natural sciences. Both were attacked for treating society in a-historical terms and eliminating genuine subjectivity. Critical theory was intended as an alternative. It was fueled by a transformative intent and a particular concern with the culture of modern life.

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Alienation and reification are the two ideas most commonly associated with critical theory. The former is usually identified with the psychological effects of exploitation and the division of labor, and the latter with how people are treated instrumentally, as “things,” through concepts that have been ripped from their historical context. Pioneering studies of alienation and reification had already been undertaken by Western Marxists during the 1920s, but the Frankfurt School provided a unique sense of how these complex categories impacted upon individuals in advanced industrial society.

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They investigated the ways in which thinking was being reduced to mechanical notions of what is operative and profitable, ethical reflection was tending to vanish, and aesthetic enjoyment was becoming more standardized.

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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.

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it appeared to the Frankfurt School as if Western civilization had generated not human development but an unparalleled barbarism. They knew that something more was required from radical thought than the usual stale critique of capitalism.

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A bureaucratically administered mass society was apparently integrating all forms of resistance, obliterating genuine individuality, and generating personality structures with authoritarian predilections. Conformity was undermining autonomy. If capitalist development is connected with standardization and reification, then progress actually constitutes a form of regression. Illusions associated with the Enlightenment, uncritically accepted on the Left, thus required reexamination and modernity itself invited critique.

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A new “culture industry”—arguably the most famous concept associated with critical theory—was constantly striving to lower the lowest common denominator in order to maximize sales. Authentic individual experience and class consciousness were being threatened by the consumerism of advanced capitalism. All this led Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse to claim that the extent to which a work becomes popular—regardless of its political message—is the extent to which its radical impulse will be integrated into the system.

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They identified the mass movements of the 1960s with those of the interwar period, and they associated utopian thinking with totalitarianism.

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heightening the tension) between the individual and society.

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They generated new insights on race and gender as well as the postcolonial world. In the process, however, critical theory lost its ability to offer an integrated critique of society, conceptualize a meaningful politics, and project new ideals of liberation.

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cultural preoccupations, and metaphysical disputations increasingly turned critical theory into a victim of its own success. The result has been an enduring identity crisis.

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New political perspectives are required to accentuate the transformative prospects for change within a new global society. It is now a matter of subjecting the established forms of critical theory to the critical method. And that is as it should be. Only in this way is it possible to remain true to the original spirit of the critical enterprise.

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At this point, his concern with the negation of misery took a new turn. Looking back to the Old Testament, which prohibited depicting the divine, he came to believe that preserving the idea of resistance was now possible only through the all encompassing negation of reality and the longing for emancipation. The sacred—or, better, the otherworldly—became the vantage point for confronting the profane. He took the critique of Enlightenment to its farthest extreme. Friends noted a growing flirtation with Catholicism. All links between theory and practice were sundered. Critical theory was already imperiled when Max Horkheimer died at the age of seventy-eight.

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His interest in the psychological appeal and ethical impulse provided by religion never fully disappeared, in spite of the atheism he adopted during the 1920s, and he struck a popular chord with his humanistic reinterpretation of the Old Testament in You Shall be as Gods (1967).

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Emphasis upon the practical character of psychoanalysis, its

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Emphasis upon the practical character of psychoanalysis, its connection with resisting repression and fostering humanistic values, would mark his career.

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Always cognizant of the utopian potential exhibited by art, yet still concerned with practical forms of resistance, Marcuse envisioned a break with the established order. Nevertheless, his speculative ventures were complemented by various sociological and political studies.

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His signature work, One-Dimensional Man (1964), virtually brought critical theory to the United States and, through its citations, introduced many young intellectuals to the Frankfurt School. Marcuse always saw himself as working within the tradition of historical materialism. But he was flexible in his approach and was a prophet of cultural transformation. Herbert Marcuse incarnated the radical political moment of critical theory for a generation of young radicals in the United States and much of the world.

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There is a sense in which Benjamin incarnated the Luftmensch—the impractical individual whose imagination has lifted him beyond the world.

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Critical theory in their hands was marked by intellectual daring and an experimental quality. It was for them, in the first instance, always a matter of method. Horkheimer put it well when he wrote: “Critical theory in its concept formation and in all phases of its development very consciously makes its own that concern for the rational organization of human activity which its task is to illuminate and legitimate. For this theory is not concerned only with goals already imposed by existing ways of life, but with men and all their potentialities.”

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Orthodox Marxism does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the “belief” in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a “sacred” book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.

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Lukács liked to quote Giambatista Vico (1668–1744) that “the difference between history and nature is that man has created the one but not the other.” With its utopian vision, its critical attitude toward finished philosophical systems, and its insistence upon proletarian empowerment, Western Marxism was expressive of what Bloch termed “the underground history of the revolution.”

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Human emancipation became its aim.

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Their point was to clarify the changing conditions and preconditions for transformative action. That standpoint made it illegitimate for Marxists to carry over ideas and categories from one period to the next in mechanical fashion. Or, to put the matter another way, they forced historical materialism to exhibit its historical character.

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own ideals, Korsch highlighted the methodological importance

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importance of “historical specification.” He treated Marxism no differently than any other form of philosophy. Its character and employment at any given time were understood in terms of the organizational interests, constraints, and opportunities

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Marxism no differently than any other form of philosophy. Its character and employment at any given time were understood in terms of the organizational interests, constraints, and opportunities for action provided by the historical context.

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Traditional theory was, therefore neither as neutral nor as reflective as its advocates tended to believe. Social interests were hidden within the philosophical discourse and, if only for this reason, the established approaches could not simply be dismissed out of hand. Immanent criticism was required to demonstrate how the premises of contending philosophical outlooks were tainted by the values of the existing order.

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Materialism in the form of positivism and its offshoots was condemned for dismissing subjectivity and ethical concerns while analyzing society through categories and criteria derived from the natural sciences. 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.

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To be sure, scientific rationality was considered the more pernicious of the two by the Frankfurt School. Nevertheless, its members originally chastised them both for their blindness to critical reflection, history, and the utopian imagination.

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Critical theory was intended as a general theory of society fueled by the desire for liberation.

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Critical theory would treat facts less as isolated depictions of reality than as crystallized historical products of social action.

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Critical theory would treat facts less as isolated depictions of reality than as crystallized historical products of social action. The aim was to understand a fact within the value-laden context wherein it assumes meaning.

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the alienating impulses of modern life that produced the desire

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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 the particular reflected the whole.

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All of these works evince the influence of the sociology of knowledge whose leading figure, Karl Mannheim, held seminars in the Institute for Social Research. His major work, Ideology and Utopia (1931), argued that even the most universal and utopian mode of thought is ideological insofar as it inherently reflects the interests of a particular social group or class.

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Critical theory can be understood as presenting a version of the sociology of knowledge with a transformative intent Marx had understood capitalism as an economic system in which the working class serves as the producer of wealth (or capital).

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the proletariat constitutes the only force capable of transforming the system.

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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. Lenin drew the radical implications.

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They were content to argue that the dominance of instrumental reason was merely an expression of capitalist social relations. As communism turned totalitarian, however, the Frankfurt School became disillusioned, and its critique of the reification process intensified.

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Social transformation was no longer the issue. Totalitarianism turned the preservation of individuality into the central preoccupation of critical theory.

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The Frankfurt School was now engaged in redeeming the repressed potential within the lived life of the individual.

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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.

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Everyday life serves as the material for utopia, and no preconceived plan or set of universal concepts can suffice for its determination. Utopia derives from the imaginative will to reconfigure what Benjamin called the “rubbish” of history—the

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The real changes its face in the light of future redemption. The imaginative will—theological in origin—shatters the material constraints of history.

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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.

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by providing thousands of quotations without authorial commentary, projects a transcendent narrative constructed through fragments and fashioned with an ever-shifting gaze on the reader’s desire.

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If the totally administered society is standardizing thought by rendering it formulaic, then redemption cannot be found in the simple narrative form. Only aphorisms or fragments allow for the evanescent moment in which utopian glimpses can be illuminated. The mediated totality surrenders in favor of the individually structured constellation as the organizing principle of critical theory.

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Arcades Project crystallizes the constellation. His interpretation of modernity contests the rational presumptions of a seemingly integrated world that is actually dominated by rupture and incoherence.

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Critical theory shifts its focus: its aim is now to awaken the individual from the intellectual slumber into which he or she has been socialized. Subjectivity is no longer considered identical with or capable of being defined by any category.

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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 carry a price: it undermines the ability to generate criteria for making ethical and political judgments thereby threatening to plunge critical theory into relativism.

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however, serves as a useful corrective for the

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Toward the end of his life, indeed, Weber supposedly remarked that: “Method is the most sterile of all concerns…. Nothing was ever accomplished through method alone.” He was right.

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The Frankfurt School originally saw itself articulating a new form of materialism infused with critical reflection, a capacity for fantasy, and the prospect of resisting an increasingly bureaucratized world. But it became ever less clear what practical purposes its speculative inquiries were meant to serve. The understanding of resistance grew increasingly vague. It was as if the real conflicts of interest, the real imbalances of power, were vanishing within a totality defined by alienation and reification.

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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.

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Improving working conditions in a world of scarcity, or “necessity,” makes way for a “leap into the realm of freedom.”

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The story of paradise lost precedes the loss of objects to the world of commodity exchange.

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It also shows why trust between individuals has been lost, nature appears as an enemy, and—interestingly enough—redemption becomes possible.

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Paradise has always been identified with the pastoral.

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The arts and sciences, wealth, and technology may foster civilization but—as Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously argued in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750)—they fragment the organic community and produce an antagonistic relationship between humanity and nature.

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The arts and sciences, wealth, and technology may foster civilization but—as Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously argued in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750)—they fragment the organic community and produce an antagonistic relationship between humanity and nature.

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Artificial needs are thereby created that corrupt the natural virtues like decency, simplicity, kindness, and honesty.

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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?

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He believed that alienation exists insofar as humanity is estranged from its normative ends, and its creations escape its conscious control.

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Hegel’s principal concern was the way in which social action escapes conscious direction and history occurs, so to speak, behind the back of humanity.

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Realizing freedom is the culmination of a teleological process wherein the arbitrary exercise of power is negated in a new state governed by the rule of law. Conflict and existential alienation remain even at the “end of history” insofar as individuals must still confront their own mortality. The constitutional state simply creates the space in which they can finally concentrate upon their most private concerns free of external interference.

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His inability to deal with alienation in terms of its roots in the capitalist production process also has an existential component: to engage the material character of alienation would involve denying the bourgeois aims of his entire project.

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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 the lords and masters alone genuinely benefit. Abolishing alienation thus depends upon the consciousness of the slave—or, better, the worker.

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The very existence of this disenfranchised and exploited class demonstrates how freedom has been truncated. The structural domination of this class is ignored.

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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.

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This same division of labor infects the modern state. Mathematical formulae define profitability and efficiency in transhistorical terms without recognizing structural conflicts of class interest. Society is thereby robbed of its historical, fungible, and changeable character.

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Alienation defines the totality whose perpetuation rests on turning people into things—or reification.

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It treats the real subject engaged in the production of commodities (the proletariat) as an object even as it turns the real object of its productive activity (capital) into the fictive subject of modern life.