Cultural & media studies

The sages of reason

Critical Theory - Critical Theory and the Novel - Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists

Critical theory has become synonymous in some quarters with post-structuralism. Although there are similarities between the two, there are also marked differences. Post-structuralism refers to the work of Lacan, Derrida and Foucault. These thinkers mobilise, in various ways, Saussure's claim that language is a system of differences with no positive terms. What this means is that reality does not precede language but is created by it. Hence it is conventional and can be changed.

This progressive insight has not always been realised in the work of post-structuralist thinkers. Lacan's work is deeply pessimistic. It shows how language constructs a divided subject unable to name his or her true desire. Permanent self-alienation is the price of entry into the world of words. Derrida's insight that we cannot pronounce "a single destructive proposition" which is not already caught up in "the form, logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest" also suggests that changing the world is not simply a matter of choosing to speak about it differently. Even the work of Foucault which promises change in the slogan "where there is power, there is resistance", shows only how subjects internalise the apparatus of power and police themselves.

Critical theory - the term was coined by Max Horkheimer - can be seen as a response to the Russian revolution and the apocalyptic character of the First World War. The scale of the carnage ended the belief that technology equalled progress or that the development of science led to moral improvement. Liberalism had lost its allure. A new way of understanding society was needed. Critical theory tried to provide this by developing a method of analysis that combined immanence and transcendence. Thus, while it aimed to reveal how repressive interests were hidden by supposedly neutral formations of, for example, science and sociology, it also sought to articulate utopian ideals, ones which, however unrealisable in the present, nevertheless represented potential for social development. It is this element of transcendence together with a commitment to social justice that most clearly demarcates critical theory from post-structuralism. Part of this commitment is a concern for the freedom and integrity of the individual. No such concern is apparent in post-structuralism, where the notion of the individual has been replaced by the notion of subject which is understood not as a person, but as a site of conflicting drives, forces, and determinations; an abstract category not a living being.

The books reviewed here approach critical theory in different ways. Stephen Eric Bronner provides a scholarly and impassioned history of critical theory from Karl Korsch to Jurgen Habermas. He examines the relative influence of Kant and Schopenhauer on the development of critical theory. Kant's ideas of reason, a universal subject, republican values and his teleology of hope gave it a driving force occasionally countered by Schopenhauer's elitism and pessimism. The influence of Schopenhauer was strongest when critical theory became disenchanted with Marxism. Faith in that particular philosophy was shaken by Stalinism and, in addition, it was felt that Marxism lacked the conceptual refinement necessary for understanding the increasing bureaucratisation and the growth of authoritarian institutions which reached their apotheosis in Fascism. Critical theory also moved away from Marxism because, as a totalising concept, it mirrored, in an uncomfortable way, the character of the totally administered society. Thereafter, it was argued that freedom derived not from an insight into necessity, into the laws, that is, of history, nor from confronting the present with its contradictions so as to highlight its emancipatory possibilities, but from resisting necessity.

Two ways of achieving this were through art and Adorno's idea of the "constellation". Both were aimed at stopping concrete particularity from being absorbed by instrumental reason. "Constellation" opposed the scientific Marxist claim of a single position from which society could be understood. In its place, Adorno proposed that an object could be understood only through a variety of perspectives. It was, however, to art that critical theorists mostly turned to find redemptive possibilities.

Bronner chronicles the debates between Bloch and Lukacs over the relative merits of expressionism and realism. Lukacs dismissed expressionism because it took no account, in his view, of how subjective experience was the result of the mediations of the totality of society. Bloch argued that the aim of expressionism, unlike realism, is not to reflect what is the case but to articulate what might be the case. He also charged Lukacs with being prescriptive about art and concluded by claiming that Lukacs's view of realism undermined any chance of art being able to anticipate a new condition of society.

The disagreement between these two indicates a dilemma in critical theory. On the one hand there is the unique experience, on the other there is the totality of social relations: and there seems no possibility of reconciling them. The "fragment" in Benjamin's aesthetics may glow with the promise of restoring lost histories, but there is no real possibility of doing this unless that "fragment" is placed in its social and economic context. Adorno tried to circumvent this problem by showing how art retained an oppositional stance despite being integrated into society. This resistance centred on the role of illusion but it is cancelled by the greater illusion of the "culture industry" into which art seemed destined to be absorbed. It is the seeming powerlessness of art that makes Jurgen Habermas sidestep it in order to articulate the ideal of communicative rationality, that is the supposition that language, however distorted and manipulative, always has consensus or understanding as its inner telos. Unfortunately, Habermas's solution reproduces the problem it seeks to avoid since, like art, it too is not sufficiently contextualised.

David Suchoff emphasises the critical and utopian aspect of art. His interest is in the history of literary criticism in America from the Cold War to the present. The argument is that liberalism constructed a view of literary modernism devoid of political energy by suppressing the connections between "high" and mass culture. After liberalism came New Historicism - principally identified with the work of Stephen Greenblatt - a politically conscious form of criticism and highly aware of the complex interrelations between "high" and "low" culture. Suchoff's critique of New Historicism is that while it identified the mechanisms by which literary texts exert social control it failed to develop any strategies for resisting them. The only way forward now, argues Suchoff, is by appropriating the insights of Adorno and Benjamin. Only by reference to these thinkers can the connections between "high" and "low" culture be restored. This is a worthwhile project and Suchoff certainly shows how his chosen authors, Dickens, Kafka, and Melville, derive a great deal of their power from their links with the mass market. What is doubtful is whether he succeeds in highlighting the sort of utopian element in their work which Adorno and Benjamin felt was the chief characteristic of art. The main reason for this is that Suchoff is uncritical in his application of these thinkers and so the problems inherent in their notion of art are transported into Suchoff's own analysis.

David Couzons Hoy and Thomas McCarthy are less interested in art than in the nature of reason. The former is a post-structuralist, the latter a critical theorist. Hoy uses Foucault and Gadamer to formulate an anti-foundationalist, historicist approach to critical theory, while McCarthy develops and defends a conception of critical theory on the basis of the thought of Habermas. His aim is to articulate a pragmatic but nevertheless universalist conception of reason, Hoy's is to give a genealogical account of reason which shows that its assumption of universality and necessity is based on ignorance of its historical formation. The different positions, the close argument and the detailed responses to each other's case make this a fascinating and informative read. McCarthy shows that, despite its repudiation of binary oppositions, post-structuralist rhetoric is determined by the opposition of either reason or the other of reason; imagination, sensibility, desire, the body and so forth. He also points out that attacks on reason inevitably use reason to make their point, and he argues against dispensing with "truth", claiming that it serves as a standard by which we can criticise the beliefs and ideas we inherit. McCarthy also argues that it is impossible to do without a notion of totality since we constantly face questions about how what happens in one part of social life affects or is affected by what happens in others. This makes him sympathetic to "grand narratives" which he sees as interpretative frameworks for historically oriented, critical analyses of society rather than as unitary explanations for all manner of social phenomena.

Despite these defences, McCarthy takes on board many of post-structuralism's tenets. He recognises that reason is not transcendent but is embedded in culture and society and is used to serve certain interests. Similarly, Hoy does not distance himself completely from critical theory. He is interested in how it anticipates post-stucturalism. He notes how Adorno and Horkheimer characterise the dialectic in a manner that brings it close to Derrida's method of deconstruction and his concept of dissemination. He also points out that Rusche and Kirchheimer's study of prisons foreshadowed Foucault's Discipline and Punish. Hoy's main point, however, is that critical theory is less important as an epistemology than as a history that focuses our attention on the present. This is not a view of the present as a culmination of what has gone before nor is it a bid to preserve the status quo. Rather, following Nietzsche, the present is open to the future despite problematic links with the past.

Although Hoy and McCarthy disagree over concepts of agency, reason, and universality, their exchanges show that, when brought into relation, post-structuralism and critical theory can be mutually illuminating. Critical theory has been neglected in recent years and was regarded as too much in the enlightenment tradition to merit the attention of a post-structuralism that saw itself as radical. What it ignored was that critical theory was highly sceptical of the enlightenment and fully acknowledged that reason could be used to dominate more than to liberate. This superb book shows that "difference" - perhaps the key term of post-stucturalism - is not an absolute and that it is possible to effect a rapprochement between the two movements revitalising both to produce more rounded and penetrating critiques than have been in evidence in recent years.

Gary Day is senior lecturer in critical and cultural theory at De Montfort University.

Critical Theory

Author - David Couzens Hoy and Thomas McCarthy
ISBN - 1 55786 172 2 and 173 0
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 280pp

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