Critical Theory

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I. Introduction

II. Origins of Critical Theory

III. Critique and Culture

IV. Exile in Popular Culture

V. A Critical Legacy

I. Introduction

The phrase “critical theory” was first promoted by the German philosopher and sociologist, Max Horkheimer, in a 1937 essay, “Critical and traditional theory.” An astute academic entrepreneur, he devised it to promote the approach to studying society and culture that he and his colleagues had been developing at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, which he had headed since 1930, and which became an important influence on international media and communication research (Horkheimer 1972).

The later labeling of the group as the Frankfurt School with its strong connotations of a single position misrepresents both the scope and diversity of the members’ interests. The institute was a path-breaking interdisciplinary center that cut across the boundaries dividing philosophy from empirical inquiry and the humanities from the social sciences. It attracted scholars from a wide range of intellectual and academic backgrounds, including musicology (Theodor Adorno); political economy (Friedrich Pollock); literary theory (Leo Lowenthal); political philosophy (Herbert Marcuse); and psychoanalysis (Erich Fromm). This heterogeneity generated novel theoretical combinations, but also disputes and disagreements – self-critical debate as a basis of social critique.

II. Origins of Critical Theory

The Frankfurt group’s work was grounded from the outset in the Enlightenment’s core philosophical project of advancing human emancipation by replacing the rule of religious dogma, hereditary privilege, and tyrannical government with the free and critical exercise of reason. Surveying the social landscape in the early 1930s, however, the Frankfurt group saw rationality increasingly used to develop technologies and administrative systems employed as instruments of domination rather than liberation – a process later reaching its terminal point in the Nazi death camps. The promise of the Enlightenment had been negated by the very forces it had set in motion. Horkheimer and Adorno set out to reveal this logic in their best-known book, the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973, 1st pub. 1944).

Against the ascendancy of “instrumental reason,” Horkheimer and Adorno sought to develop a critical theory that would keep the promise of emancipation alive, identifying possible points of opposition. Marx’s critique of capitalism was central to that project. As noted in the opening chapter of Marx’s major work, Capital, the seductive surfaces of commodities concealed the dark secret of capitalism’s radically asymmetric power relations. The intention of critical analysis is to reveal these hidden mechanisms, to demonstrate how they block Enlightenment principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and to explore ways of dismantling them. This project is critical in two senses: it proposes a comprehensive critique of prevailing systems of power; it also subjects its own assumptions to continual scrutiny – a double ambition summed up in Marx’s favorite motto, De omnibus dubitandum (“You must have doubts about everything”).

For Marx, capitalist power was not as secure as it appeared. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, with popular protests and insurrections across Europe, it seemed as though his prediction of mass workers’ risings was about to be fulfilled. However, only the Bolshevik revolution in Russia succeeded, and within a few years, Germany and Italy, both bastions of socialist and communist opposition, had witnessed the rise of Hitler and Mussolini and the establishment of fascist dictatorships. This reversal posed a major theoretical challenge for intellectuals of the left, prompting them to look beyond economics and politics – to culture.

III. Critique and Culture

For both the Frankfurt group in Germany and Antonio Gramsci in Italy, one central explanation for social developments in the first few decades of the twentieth century lay in the intensified management of cultural life and its enlistment in securing popular consent. In the Soviet Union, too, the explosion of experiments that followed the Bolshevik revolution had been replaced by socialist realism, mandated by Stalin. Nor was this tendency toward closure and centralization confined to totalitarian states. The Frankfurt group’s leading political economist, Friedrich Pollock, argued that it was becoming increasingly characteristic of the major capitalist democracies, including the US. The market-driven system of capitalism’s initial phase, with its relative openness to innovation, seemed to be giving way to state capitalism, in which more and more of the responsibility for managing the economic playing field passed to the state, leaving only pseudo-markets that were carefully engineered to match mass consumption to mass production. This argument strengthened Horkheimer and Adorno’s conviction that, in the absence of a radical workers’ movement, the cultural sphere was the next battleground. As Horkheimer argued, “Art breaks through the barriers” erected by “accepted forms of thought” and “the language of propaganda” and marketing (Horkheimer 1972, 279).

The idea of culture and art as a separate and autonomous realm, resistant to incorporation into the mundane worlds of economy and administration, had long been a theme in idealist German philosophy. For Adorno, culture in the true sense never simply accommodated itself to prevailing ideas and existing tastes – it always simultaneously raised a protest against the social relations within which people lived. His belief in the resistant power of art was at the core not only of his philosophical position, developed in graduate theses on Husserl and Kierkegaard, but also of his own creative experience. Adorno was an accomplished pianist, who had studied composition under the prominent avant-garde musician Alban Berg, and belonged to the circle surrounding the leader of the so-called Vienna School, Arnold Schoenberg. In Adorno’s view, music retained an emancipatory potential, with two main characteristics. First, it was produced out of inner conviction, as an authentic expression of personal vision, rather than with an eye to sales. Second, instead of reconciling listeners to contradictions in society by offering the illusion of harmony, its formal structure should encourage a critical stance by engraving these contradictions in its innermost structure. Schoenberg’s atonal string quartets met these criteria for Adorno; popular music, with its standardized formulae and routinized distribution, did not.

The relationship between popular and elite culture has remained high on the agenda of critical theory and research. For the original Frankfurt group, this relationship was thematized in exile. As critical Jewish intellectuals in Hitler’s Germany, their situation became untenable, and the institute moved, first to Paris and later to the US.

IV. Exile in Popular Culture

After a brief stay in New York, working in an uneasy partnership with Paul Lazarsfeld on a research project investigating radio music broadcasts, Adorno joined Horkheimer in California. While there, he collaborated on a major research project on the popular roots of fascism published as The authoritarian personality (1950). His psychologist co-authors looked for determinants of anti-Semitic attitudes within the individual, but Adorno drew attention to the general cultural climate, and particularly to the role of mass media in molding public opinion. He explored this process empirically in 1943 with a detailed dissection of the radio broadcasts made by a right-wing Christian demagogue, Martin Luther Thomas, demonstrating how Thomas’s personalized forms of address promoted an authoritarian populism and transformed religious bigotry into political and racial hatred (see Apostolidis 2000). This research was among proliferating studies of propaganda during and immediately after the war, including Prophets of deceit, a study co-authored by another Frankfurt group member, Leo Lowenthal.

Adorno’s interest in the ideological role of media was not confined to politically motivated speech. He also explored how prevailing relations of power were bolstered by routine instances of popular culture, including the astrology column in the Los Angeles Times. By inviting readers to yield to invisible, pre-determined forces that paralleled the impersonal economic and administrative powers over which people had no control, he saw the daily predictions reinforcing everyday feelings of dependency. True to the Frankfurt group’s commitment to combining cultural, political, and economic analysis, Adorno developed his detailed analyses of particular media texts alongside a general structural critique of the commodification of cultural production and its consequences for the diversity of popular expression.

By the early 1940s, Hollywood was a dominant force in world cinema; American jazz and popular music had achieved global reach; and commercial radio was an established everyday presence in American life. It was the dynamics shaping this imaginative landscape that Horkheimer and Adorno set out to investigate in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Subtitled “Philosophical fragments,” the Dialectic was intended as a work in progress, and originally circulated as a mimeographed manuscript. The chapter on the culture industry, still widely read, should be interpreted in this spirit, as an initial sketch of trends in cultural production rather than as a detailed analysis of the communications industries. In fact, the English translation conflates these two levels. In the original German, the term “culture industry” refers to the progressive transformation of cultural work, in all its forms, into commodity production, oriented to the market, while “the culture industry” refers more specifically to the mass media. The confusion is further compounded by Adorno’s later admission that “the expression ‘industry’ is not to be taken too literally,” and that their main concern was with the “standardization” of popular cultural forms and “the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly the production process” (Adorno 1991, 87). There is little doubt, however, that Horkheimer and Adorno saw American commercial media as reproducing the stereotypical design and standardized assembly of any kind of commodity, and as prototypical of the rule of instrumental reason in the cultural sphere. “Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through” (Adorno 1991, 86).

The implication of such in-depth analyses was that the culture industry, specifically the drive toward standardization, was robbing popular culture of its critical potential. Adorno did admit exceptions, Charlie Chaplin’s uniquely individual style, for example. He also pointed to detective novels, but noted that although they “regularly unmask” the sordid underbelly of capitalism, their “standardized schemas” would ensure that any challenge to the status quo was eventually charmed away by the “inevitable triumph of order” (Adorno 1967, 129). Even jazz improvisation was, for him, simply a collection of repetitive techniques, continually sorted out and kaleidoscopically mixed into ever-new combinations to produce the appearance of novelty, but no real innovation (Adorno 1967, 124). Returning to the relationship between popular and high culture, Adorno concluded that the creative autonomy defining genuine art was being eliminated, not because writers, performers, and musicians acted in bad faith, but because they – and their bosses – were employed in factories devoted to producing profits.

Many later commentators on Adorno and Horkheimer have assumed that they saw audiences as passively accepting the culture industry’s blandishments. Horkheimer came closest when arguing that people had lost the power to conceive a world different from the prevailing system (Horkheimer 1972, 278), but in the Dialectic, consumers are cast as skeptics rather than dupes. They see through the promotional ploys, but nonetheless feel compelled to buy and use the products on offer (Horkheimer & Adorno 1973, 167). Audiences are not deceived, but the heartlands of popular culture offer them few alternatives, making them informed accomplices. In Adorno’s striking phase, media users are “amphibians” moving between the solid ground of distrust and the pleasures of immersion in the warm waters of routine and repetition. This ambiguity has continued to occupy later critical communication studies.

V. A Critical Legacy

With the end of World War II, the Frankfurt group dispersed. Marcuse and Lowenthal stayed on in the US; Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Germany. Despite a rapidly changing media landscape, neither pursued their analysis of the culture industry. The second generation of Frankfurt writers, led by Jurgen Habermas, had different preoccupations. Appalled by the revelations of Hitler’s “final solution,” Habermas set out to construct a model for deliberative democracy, rooted in agreement through argumentation. He shared Adorno’s view that the cultural resources for this project were becoming increasingly commodified, oriented to entertainment rather than Enlightenment, but offered no detailed analysis of how that general process operated in the contemporary media environment. This task was left, not least, to a disparate group of scholars in different national contexts who were developing a critical political economy of communications.

The US had survived the war unscathed by bombing, invasion, and rationing, enabling it to consolidate its strength in the film and music industries and to press forward with the major postwar medium: television. With the onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the cultural industries assumed an unprecedented political significance. As the former colonies of the European empires achieved political independence, they became stakes in the struggle for global influence between the two new major powers. In accordance with the Frankfurt group’s diagnosis, popular culture, again, became a key site in the battle for hearts and minds. A process of cultural imperialism was examined in detail by Herbert Schiller in a series of influential books, from Mass communications and American empire (1969) to Culture Inc. (1989). With a wealth of empirical examples, he described this dynamic as a logical extension of processes within the US that were marginalizing critique and mobilizing media around the promotion of consumerism. Although Schiller’s work was indebted to the Frankfurt group, particularly Marcuse’s One-dimensional man (1964), which achieved wide readership when they were both colleagues at the University of California, it also drew on a strong current in American critical thought running from Upton Sinclair’s scathing attack on the commercial press, The brass check (1920), to C. Wright Mills’ anatomy of “mass society” in The power elite (1956).

In an essay on “Art and mass culture,” Horkheimer (1972, 275) had argued that the routinization and commercialization of leisure had turned it into “a kind of tail to the comet of labour.” The Canadian scholar, Dallas Smythe (1994, 1st pub. 1977), took this argument one step further, arguing that since the economy of commercial television relied on selling viewers to advertisers, audience labor inevitably became commodified, and viewing became working to complete the circuit of consumption (Audience Commodity). Programs were the “wages” paid for the labor of attending to sales pitches.

This critique carried less resonance in Europe, where television (and radio) was organized primarily as a public service funded through license fees. Identifying this system’s distinctive features, and defending it against extensions of commercialism, became a major theme in critical media scholarship, particularly in Great Britain which, uniquely among major European countries, had introduced commercial television in the mid-1950s. Utilizing Habermas’s notion of the public sphere, Nicholas Garnham, Graham Murdock, and Peter Dahlgren, among others, argued that, for all its faults, public service broadcasting offered the most accessible and flexible basis for the cultivation of citizenship – within and despite a consumerist culture.

Central components of critical theory – for example, the theoretical conception of culture as a site of social struggle, and the reliance on interdisciplinary methodologies to identify power in social practices – have informed not just work in the political economy tradition, but also cultural studies, feminist and gender studies, postcolonial theory, and other current research positions. Some of this work has been grounded in wider debates in the philosophy of social science, for example, Roy Bhaskar’s argument for a critical realist epistemology. Identifying the generative mechanisms underlying everyday action and the hidden barriers to emancipation was, for Bhaskar, the first step toward encouraging action that transforms rather than reproduces existing social conditions. One influential version of such a critical project was pursued by the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, in a series of studies of cultural production and consumption. His contributions have proved particularly fruitful in opening up new avenues for critical empirical research on everyday cultural practices, which had been given less attention by Herbert Schiller and other figures in the critical political economy of communications.

The critical interventions of Adorno and Horkheimer remain a starting point for contemporary studies of the concentration of media ownership, the commercialization and commodification of communication, and the consolidation of consumerism throughout culture and society. At a time when governments around the world see “the culture industries” as a driver of economic growth in the postindustrial era, it is important to revisit the history of the term and to reclaim it for critical inquiry. The Frankfurt group’s legacy suggests the lasting value of an interdisciplinary approach combining the detailed analysis of texts with critical political economy, to interpret – and change – current cultural practices and institutions.


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  5. Apostolidis, P. (2000). Stations of the cross: Adorno and Christian right radio. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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  8. Dahlgren, P. (1995). Television and the public sphere: Citizenship, democracy, and the media. London: Sage.
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  14. Murdock, G. (1994). Money talks: Broadcasting finance and public culture. In S. Hood (ed.), Behind the screens: The structure of British broadcasting. London: Lawrence and Wishart, pp. 155–183.
  15. Schiller, H. I. (1969). Mass communications and American empire. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
  16. Schiller, H. I. (1989). Culture Inc.: The corporate takeover of public expression. New York: Oxford University Press.
  17. Sinclair, U. B., Jr. (1920). The brass check: A study of American journalism. Long Beach, CA: Published by the author.
  18. Smythe, D. W. (1994). Counterclockwise: Perspectives on communication (ed. T. Guback). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (Original work published 1977).
  19. Steinert, H. (2003). Culture industry. Cambridge: Polity.
  20. Witkin, R. W. (2003). Adorno on popular music. London: Routledge.
  21. Wright Mills, C. (1956). The power elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

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