Critical theory notes

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Humanist-->historical-->critical-->cultural studies

The challenge to ideas of the natural sciences and social science perspective

Big focus on historical, material conditions of the knowledge

Emphasis on the challenges of bringing in the interpretative, symbolic narrative to the approach

Frames all kinds of data/experience/knowledge in the style of literary criticism with focus on subjectivity

Next week, read Calhoun on critical social theory

He highlights the distinction bt earlier critical theories, classic humanistic theories and recent

Universalism vs particularism

Overarching threads versus

Possibility of radically different experiences for diff groups

Trad rationality of enlightenment versus later romantic pushback

Post-modern cultural studies approach as a revival of a romantic world view

Remarkable insights/perspectives in the critical tradition tendency toward idiosyncracy solipsism

To effect emancipatory change is beyond critical theory

For all the negative and internal critiques

Not that successful in effecting change

Hegemonic, oppressive, inequitable social conditions


Comes up somewhat in Bronner’s book

Third generation Frankfurt school ppl

We haven’t succeeded on the level that horkheimer/adorno would have expected us to

Read Bronner book all the way through

Leah has used chapters of his larger book—like it a lot

Power of positive thinking Ryan

Leah likes Habermas’s public sphere and communication

Basics of critical theory

Critical theory as being a special type of theory

Critical is an attitude, a way of approaching things

MT: discrepancy bt aims and reality

Critical viewpoint taken for granted, common sense viewpoint. We’d like everyone to be able to do this as intellectuals

But it is a fact that the scholars themselves

Roots in Marxism, but departs from Marxism


A tradition a distinct tradition

Pervasive attitude in European thought, here, it’s considered different

American tradition in comm resch social science and british media/cultural studies tradition draw heavily on these ideas, celebrate popular culture, rather than criticize

Randall Collins: sociology of philosophies

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Very well-known network scholar

Enormous project looking at who influenced whom

That kind of cascading of ideas, where they come from, how they get refuted. He shows geography, interpersonal relations, institutional



Intellectual histories imp to get framing around the ideas

Heart of the dialectic is thesis-antithesis-synthesis

Tend to be theological

Outcome to history

Based on Socratic form of questioning, based in reason/logic

Part of the critical theory tradition has one foot in idealism

Historical determinism

Most critical theorists are interested in the economics and material conditions with goal of emancipation

Becomes normative

Normative commitments to this idea of the realization of human freedom

Sherrat also highlights the tension bt the idealist and the materialist

Reason is very important

Horkheimer shifts away from materialism/economics toward culture

Dialectic of Enlightenment

Utterly disappointed in that tradition bc Marx’s predictions hasn’t happened, ended up with fascism and socialism that have turned against reason and toward authoritarianism. What can be recovered from Marx? How can we pull forward the emancipatory project to the good society without undue oppression?

Is related to political economy insofar as mass production

They wanted to industrialize

Marx and Engels studied the industrialization in England

Mass production requires instrumental thinking, which is oppressive?

Horkheimer not convinced that proletariat was revolutionary

This whole approach is sometimes called the conflict tradition

Doesn’t suppose that society harmonizes, integrate of interests

No, different classes/groups have different interests, and will naturally be in conflict

How do you keep them in some sort of coexistence and maintenance knowing that the conflict will be there

Conflict is necessary bc there are conflicting interests in the world

Critical theory basically is developed and advanced (esp by Hork and Adorno), Frome, Marcuse (Kellner is executor of his estate)

This group of thinkers said if we can adapt some of the ideas of Marxism, how are we going to escape this instrumentality and ideology? With critical theory with a focus on cultural critique

Ideology: centerpiece of whole area

Ron Day, Budd, what does it mean?

Ideologies create and sustain dominant power (opposite of dialectic)

Ideas taken for granted not worth questioning, gives it power

Naturalized, dominant ideology

What techniques might we develop to shake ourselves out of the ideological


How do we reimagine

Critical theory is proposed as a way to undermine ideology and open a way for alternatives

Critical theory—making theory is the method, ends up looking a lot like literary critique

Research being part of your activism

But that’s not hork and adorno are about. They’re critiquing cultural products, lang, music, literature, philosophy

Critical theory is oppositional. Trying to uncover dominant ideologies and create new spaces. Trying to overcome oppressive conditions is the point of doing this critical theory—not just the product, but it is also the doing.

Internal criticism – internal comes from the self-definition

Holding the institution to its own standards

Authenticity/faithfulness to one’s own aims

Insert that contestation into the discourse of what’s being said and believed, is the method of critical theory that exposes ideology and oppression

Uncover irrational, hypocracy, places where oppression can happen bc there’s a difference bt the imagined and the real

1960s – claim is democracy, but it’s not, that’s why the outrage “we’ve been sold a bill of goods”

claims don’t match reality

similar critiques lodged by feminists where groups were highly differentiated by gender  claiming to offer idealized trying to set standards but the equity isn’t there


Enlightenment ideology didn’t live up to its own standards



Essential mechanism of identity thinking is categorization

Classification – one of our core things is figure out categories of knowledge, classification schemes

Relatedness or differences

Tendency to classify and take those as though they are reality

New phenomena, we either fit into a slot or make a new slot

Classifying impulse is taken for granted. Ideological system creation seems so natural to us. We find a way to make the new thing fit.

Adorno says we have to jump out of this identity thinking.

When we do this fitting, want to fit it into an existing structure/make it seem familiar. This misrepresents some of its meaning.

New objects seen thru existing concepts. The concepts take the place of the object itself. Keeps us from seeing the new thing in a new way.

Scientific observation. Stomach ulcer example. How do you break those paradigms (Kuhn)? Usually takes someone younger, not as entrenched to think differently. Changes the rest of the knowledge structure.



From Marx
Adorno adapts to the idea of identity thinking, what we see is the representation we’ve created for the object – this is reification

Concept substitutes for the object itself. We treat the categories as though that’s the reality

Dehumanizing when it comes to ppl

TKTK when it comes to the natural world

Systematic approach to making sense: categorization as well as myth-making

Adorno says if we can recognize reification, we can change it

Doesn’t mean we don’t categorize, but to destroy the power of the concepts

In info studies, we take a very critical approach to information

The attitude is to understand fully that these classification schemes are created

Seen reification for what it is and made that term

Overcoming ideology and complacency, identity thinking,

All about linguistics, discourse

Theoryàdecision makingàpractical change

George Soros: successful; was a student of popper; started open society foundation; set u offices throughout Europe to set up libraries when things were unstable in Europe

Informing decision making based on theory

Decision making takes place in the political sphere/political economy

Political economy of information – class by Kelty

Theoreticians (Giddens, Habermas) Giddens is easier to understand
BBC lectures Giddens – listen to them. Flew him around the world.

He then got into the political sphere. His theory has to do with the overlap of macro and micro, got into this thirs way of thinking. They codetermine each other. Constitutuon of Society read

Theories influence the society. Cultural power. No direct translation of findings into a payoff.

STEM sci, tech, engineering, math education

After industrialization, thinkers contemplated

Enlightenment, did its practitioners live up to the aims? Has become an outright objection to enlightenment, even though some of it worked. The practitioners failed.

French philosophers

Other ppl saw it and applied it to the kinds of cultural products that need poilitcal/power critique

Political economy is a very interesting hybrid: critical theory blended with literary theory, end up with cultural studies

we have to negate the concept in an effort to understand the object in itself/see it in a new way – anti-ideology
negative dialectic: negation of concepts/categories to see object for what it really is

Displaced philosophers: They got so pessimistic abt American pop culture that they threw up their hands

Habermas took it upon himself to rehabilitate this project by focusing on the affirmative TKTK of communication as the generate

Communication ethics as possible TK for recovering


Comm and knowledge interests we can cultivate good or bad knowledge interests

Tech, practical (the talk), emancipatory interest

All three are there in the world, but the technical and practical tend to overshadow the emancipatory. Figure out a way to suggest conditions for communication have to exist for the emancipatory interest to be realized
ideal speech situation (even though it can never be realized): create circumstances under which all of us is equally able to talk, listen, fully informed, equipped, ready to express ourselves and understand the others. Never happens in real world. If we could achieve a deliberative process like this, we might be able to move toward a situation to be able to articulate what emancipation would look like, not privileging the tech and practical interests. Very vocal abt press laws, legal, media, political parties. How do these have to look for more interests to come into the conversation.

Oxford’s Habermas – get this!!

One of the things we encounter, esp americans, its hard for ppl who aren’t in the intellectual mktplace to understand this ongoing attitude of critique. We can take apart and always be asking the

Horkheimer: what’s all the smiling about?

Functionalist sociology vs. conflict scholars

Differences of temperament
difficulty if we take the critical attitude, but must be done

Challenge to the prevailing order is achieved by questions
analysis and then there is the position you take; what we’re aware of, and

A theory emerging now: statistics and polling and the rhetoric abt polling; confluence abt a different meaning of what numbers are for, may be at the threshold of a new quantitative era.

Building an identity thinking abt oneself in terms of numbers

Means also “what numbers am I going to use” how am I going to represent myself
journalism in the age of data documentary

Bronner acknowledges the problem of temperament inside critical theory. There is no solution. “there are better things for critical theorists to do than indulge what has become an obsession with attempting to express the inexpressible. Better to identify what is apparent but unrecognized, painful yet remediable, and expressed yet empowering.

Critical theory is struggling with this. Figuring out what neo-neo-Marxism is to be

Theories can be totalizing—must resist this (Leah)

Day’s modern invention of information (read the whole thing)
definitions of information
how did it get to this state, where we use this as the primary term, what does it do for us and what does it obsure

He and Budd are both doing internal critique

Figuring out what metaphor you adopt

Conduit metaphor—Day is against using metaphors, just like reification, losing full meaning

Dropping meaning out of the conversation

Critical tools and how ppl might approach critique
1. simply the ability to identify metaphors

Defamiliarize ourselves from the word informationàgiving shape to meaning like a verb
ability to explain how a later idea has appropriated an idea from an earlier one


  1. ability to reconstruct the texts own acct of its position in the field
  2. ability to imagine a text/idea in a network of institutions

Budd and Day are both attempting

Budd’s examples are leaning toward only one vision (unification) they are misrepresenting the situation. Sheouldn’t be running away from libraries.digitization focus neglects some historical facts of librarianship. Talks about these three items their arguments should be rejected bc all three are using ideological apparatus for their arguments. He is engaging in fight bt the L and the IS.

Discourse of self-loathing in LIS for a long time. Was very destructive for a lot of doctoral students. Doubt language. Now we’re kind of past that. Budd was at the tail end of a lot of this kind of discourse. At the end of the day, he continues to reify the divide as though it’s meaningful, true and necessary.

Spends a lot of time explaining ideology critique thru LIS lens
putting himself on the library side of the divide. There’s never a choice here that says “couldn’t we change the libraries?” he picks out three items to criticize that are like shooting fish in a barrel. Doesn’t offer other rhetoric from his own side. He doesn’t bring up the institutional context. Everyone who writes picks and chooses.

Ron day comes from L side, but PhD is in comp lit. was an academic librarian. Really good critical scholar. A more nuanced job of making his case, clearly positions himself, so he is more persuasive. He tries to look for solutions. Broad horizon in looking for solutions. If this is going to be useful even for scholars, we have to point a direction.

One of the clearest explanations of Heidigger (read this).