No Social Science without Critical Theory: Volume 25

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Table of contents

(18 chapters)

Any endeavor to circumscribe, with a certain degree of precision, the nature of the relationship between social science and critical theory would appear to be daunting. Over the course of the past century, and especially since the end of World War II, countless efforts have been made in economics, psychology, political science, and sociology to illuminate the myriad manifestations of modern social life from a multiplicity of angles. It is doubtful that it would be possible to do justice to all the different variants of social science in an assessment of their relationship to critical theory. Moreover, given the proliferation of critical theories since the 1980s, the effort to devise a “map” that would reflect the particular orientations and intricacies of each approach to critical theory would also be exacting in its own right.1

Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno were affiliated with the Institute for Social Research throughout their careers.1 Even today, no single work encompasses systematically and completely Critical Theory's major principles, methodology, and findings.2 Traditional social science embodies a Cartesian world view taken directly from the empirical sciences. Explanation depends on logical and empirically verified propositions. Living and nonliving phenomena, for empiricists, exist in a net of causal relationships that emerge by analytically deconstructing reality into unilinear deductive sets and stressing data accumulation. Horkheimer, on the other hand, felt that scientific theorizing is historically conditioned.3 Empirical science presupposes an a priorism that is derived from, and reflects, dominant social values. Science can never be independent and a priori. It is always linked to hidden socioeconomic forces. For Horkheimer, traditional theory is a reified ideological category. It is constrained by empirical evidence and it annihilates the social totality, fueling capitalism with an expanding technology and obscuring the linkages between economic exploitation and bourgeois democracy.

Social critique is an enduring and pervasive feature of social life. It is deeply embedded in the fabric of modern societies, and certainly seems alive and well today: more- as well as less-institutionalized forms of critically monitoring societal and political processes through the social sciences and mass media are being supplemented by moral entrepreneurs, public intellectuals, and forms of activist protest; furthermore, this protest is no longer confined to demonstration marches, but instead also makes creative use of new technologies. In any case, critique is a matter of practical engagement. Therefore, as authors like Michael Walzer (2000) have argued, while social critique might depend on certain faculties of judgment, it definitely is not in need of a theory.

Toward the end of the 20th century, some work within political theory, of a kind that primarily foregrounds ethical considerations and another kind within political geography that links such ethical concerns to explication in terms of social space, territoriality and scale, has resuscitated the notion of contingent universality as an alternative to the either/or embrace or rejection of universality (and consequent denigration/celebration of particularity). As witnessed by the so-called spatial turn in many of the social and cultural sciences, this very circumstance, at least in the English-speaking world, has been one wellspring of current interdisciplinary interest in various geographical concepts and traditions. For political geographers, the idea of contingent universality arguably invites a fecund perspective from which to reflect upon a range of substantive and epistemological outcomes, which this essay will argue, are densely bound up in what, in short hand, is labeled globalization.

Since Karl Marx fashioned his theory of capitalism in the nineteenth century, scholars have continually updated Marxian theory to capture the pervasiveness of commodity relations in modern society. Influenced by Georg Lukács and Henri Lefebvre, the members of the French avant-guard group, the Situationist International (1957–1972), developed an intransigent critique of consumer capitalism based on the concept of the spectacle. In the spectacle, media and consumer society replace lived experience, the passive gaze of images supplants active social participation, and new forms of alienation induce social atomization at a more abstract level than in previous societies. We endeavor to make two theoretical contributions: First, we highlight the contributions of the Situationist International, pointing out how they revised the Marxian categories of alienation, commodification, and reification in order to analyze the dynamics of twentieth century capitalism and to give these concepts new explanatory power. Second, we build a critical theory of consumer capitalism that incorporates the theoretical assumptions and arguments of the Situationists and the Frankfurt School. Today, critical theory can make an important contribution to sociology by critically examining the plurality of spectacles and their reifying manifestations. In addition, critical theorists can explore how different spectacles connect to one another, how they connect to different social institutions, and how spectacles express contradictions and conflicting meanings. A critical theory of spectacle and consumption can disclose both novelties and discontinuities in the current period, as well as continuities in the development of globalized consumer capitalism.

Faith in working-class revolution and the inevitability of socialism all but evaporated in the wake of the First World War when nationalism and patriotism triumphed over the principles of international solidarity and, as Perry Anderson put it, “The unity and reality of the Second International, cherished by Engels, was destroyed in a week” ([1976]1979, p. 14).1 The notion of revolutionary inevitability seems embarrassingly naïve today (to the point that, now, discussions of radicalism are much more likely to focus on intellectuals rather than labor movements)2 but prewar optimism was, in many ways, justified and, in fact, the idea of inevitability was shared across the political spectrum and not merely a symptom of the left. Dreading the rise of “plebian radicalism” Rudolf Sohm, for example, wrote that “The people is [sic] already aware of its powers. Already it has recognized itself as the real nation. The battalions of the workers are about to form, that they may thrust from its throne the bourgeoisie, the monarch of the present. More and more clearly are shown the signs of a movement, the aim of which is to destroy the entire social order, the State, the Church, the family….” (Smith, 1998, p. 38).

Herbert Marcuse's vision of liberation from the ‘affluent society’ constitutes one of the most significant interventions into public life of any philosopher in the last half of the 20th century. Yet his major works are little read today in philosophy departments in North America, where, if first-generation Frankfurt School critical theory is on the menu, it is usually represented by the work of Theodor W. Adorno. Within North American and, to a lesser extent, European sociology, on the other hand, Marcuse is still generally acknowledged as an important influence, although the extent and nature of his legacy remains unclear. This article examines the relevance and applicability of some of Marcuse's theories to recent developments within sociology, and especially to the growing and influential critical literature within the sociology of consumption, in which ideas that originate in first-generation Frankfurt School theory are clearly operative, but rarely acknowledged.1 The scope of the paper is restricted to three of Marcuse's most influential theoretical claims: (1) An underlying ‘performance principle’ has become a primary determining factor in shaping the economic, social and cultural systems of advanced industrial societies. (2) Resistance to the general developmental tendencies of these societies is being contained and weakened through a process of ‘repressive desublimation’; and (3) The human activity of play, understood as a distinct field of free (i.e., unalienated) human activity, is threatened by the ascendancy of instrumental rationality. These claims are evaluated in terms of their applicability to the problem of self-experience and the threat to individuality that is a principal feature of contemporary consumer capitalism.

Just like in mainstream society, types of academic discourse seem to go in and out of fashion. We are now in a moment when it seems that the critical theory of the Frankfurt School has little to offer. The son of one of the prominent members of the Frankfurt School even said to me “My father's main thesis in One-Dimensional Man is that our society is inherently irrational. How does one revive such work in such an irrational time?”(Conversation with Peter Marcuse, November 2005.) My response was that in these irrational times such a work is most relevant.

The greatest danger for radical social theory in an age of empire is not its own hidden imperial ambitions – though these are never to be discounted – but rather its search for consolation in reactivity, that is, in efforts to escape from the hegemony of imperial discourses. Long accustomed to reign, these discourses suck up all available light, leaving as openings only the will to darkness. Such contrariness has led to the self-medicating backwater of post-modern ahistoricism and anti-narrativism, the end of meaning, the celebration of discord and disenchantment, of trauma and tear, where “noise too has its pleasures” and we can wonder “what Empire?” For those unable to bear this metasilence, there is a further flight to theory, any theory, that would cushion the trauma, quiet the questioning, in particular the dark wisdoms of Freud, Augustine, Leo Strauss, Thucydides. Too often, even the Frankfurt School – note the incomplete label “Critical Theory” – has been conjoined to counterhegemonic enterprises, and to what in its analysis of alienation and reification could too easily result in the resolution to bear the agonies of empire in an inevitably fallen world.

In August 2007, over 6,000 sociologists gathered in New York to attend the 102nd meeting of the American Sociological Association and discuss the possibility of radical social transformation in post-modern capitalist society.1 The adoption of the conference theme ‘Is another world possible?’ was theoretically significant, for it seemed to call into question one of the most fundamental assumptions upon which critical sociology depends: that despite the rarity of radical social change, it is possible, desirable and even imperative to imagine and struggle for better alternatives to existing ways of being. From phenomenological insights into the contingency of our subjective interpretations of reality to the imperative of reconciling ‘appearance’ with ‘reality’; from the long history of collective movements to defend human dignity to the ‘politics of small things’ (Goldfarb, 2006), critical theories of society presume that human fates are not determined and futures are not reified, and that the possibility of possibility is a pre-condition for ‘normal’ human existence. This is not to say that progressive alternatives to the status quo are not often and everywhere repressed to some degree and in some form, or that they are equally distributed or attainable. But as Gustavo Gutierrez once remarked, a ‘commitment to the creation of a just society and, ultimately, to a new human being, presupposes confidence in the future’ (2003, p. 197).

This essay investigates the meaning of rationality in Michel Foucault's notion of “governmental rationality,” both in what he takes rationalities to be and in how they relate to practices of governing. I try to resolve these questions in a sympathetic manner by detailing some of the social dynamics implicit in practices of governing. Pierre Bourdieu provides means to connect such practices with a detailed understanding of social struggle and resistance to power. These insights reveal strong lines of continuity between governmental rationality and collective political resistance to it. On this basis, I suggest a new path of investigation into forms of popular sovereignty as relatively neglected examples of governmental rationality.

The prospect of public sociology is beginning to be widely discussed and debated. Critics put forth several reasons for skepticism, one of which is that the program of public sociology, under the leadership of Michael Burawoy, will infect sociology with a Marxist drift. This paper examines whether this drift in fact comports with Marx's ideas on the relationship between scientific knowledge, the role of intellectuals in the class struggle, and the type of political action he advocated. It finds that critics are fundamentally mistaken about the extent to which Marx's ideas are expressed in public sociology's program.

The “theory” in the distinctive sociological theory of C. Wright Mills is this: American society was increasingly “postmodern,” by which he meant a society devoid of reason and freedom as practical features of everyday life and thus a societal formation fundamentally severed from the aims and optimism of The Enlightenment (Mills, 1959b, p. 13, p. 166, also 1959a). With Max Weber and John Dewey principally in mind, but also upon the benefit of his study of Marx and the Frankfurt School, Mills argued that “rationality without reason” was coming to dominate lived experience (see Dandaneau, 2001, 2006, 2007).

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Current Perspectives in Social Theory
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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