Critical Theory

Course Description: 

The aim of this course is to offer our students a perspective on social research and social studies, especially social theory, which should – and perhaps might – inspire them to self-reflection and permanent questioning, chiefly of the conceptual framework(s) prevalent in the contemporary discourse concerning ‘the human world’.

   Like it or not, this will have to take into account the theoretical and ideological uncertainties caused by the crisis. Our students come mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, and so they must have witnessed the unraveling of bourgeois democracies and of the customary post-war, Western-style constitutional systems in this region and, to a lesser extent, everywhere in Europe. The course should not address these problems, but it cannot ignore the serious consequences these would force the young generation to face.

   One of the best tools at our disposal in these crisis-ridden times is the only theoretical tendency which has not broken with the great tradition of German Idealism (grand theory starting from a narrative account of modernity), especially with Hegel and Marx, although of course it has changed most of its presuppositions through Aufheben, i. e., Critical Theory.

   Critical Theory agrees with its chosen main adversary, Martin Heidegger, in his diagnosis concerning the obsolescence of classical humanism, but instead of rejecting it, it would attempt a modified revival in the medium of social sciences, through an historical critique of modern capitalism and of its alleged late modern rivals.

   The indomitable attempts by Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Sohn-Rethel, Benjamin, Pollak, Kirchheimer etc. – that is, Critical Theory in a slightly larger sense than the Frankfurt School proper – to address within a single theoretical effort the subjugation of nature and the reification of human spontaneity together with the courage to break with the idea of liberty dominant in the early and ‘high modern’ bourgeois era (at a time when this idea was under attack by Fascism and National Socialism and was suppressed by Stalinism) point the way towards new experiments today to end illusions and learn to talk freedom anew.

   It must be understood that there are no guarantees, neither in liberal theoretical practices, nor in an ‘imputed consciousness’ of Lukácsian pedigree – as creators of liberating social ‘realities’ – to preserve the fragile modern social world from disintegration into barbarity and wholesale destruction. There isn’t much that can and should be saved in order to alleviate the risk of savage repression, servility and obscurantism.

  In order to see clearly, we must re-read (even if only fragmentarily) Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics most carefully and painstakingly, together with Horkeimer’s writings on theory and history, Benjamin’s political theology and Sohn-Rethel’s works on capital and labour. We should study parts of Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor and Social Domination, and conduct discussions concerning the ‘naturalness’ of capitalism, a topic dear to this teacher’s heart. I would consider the course successful if we managed to leave behind the sectional criticism of contemporaneity (e. g., economic or political) and we understood how the system is unified (and why this unity is a reason for its seemingly insoluble dilemmas).

   This course is warmly recommended to all those who were good enough to attend Class on Class, of which this new course is in a way an extension and completion.