Notes for Douglas Kellner “Critical Theory Today: Revisiting the Classics”

Key concepts: multiperspectival social theory.

Related theorists: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Helmut Dubiel, Jurgen Habermas, N. Katherine Hayles, Max Horkheimer, Martin Jay, Herbert Marcuse, Neumann, Wiggershaus.

Revisit classics of critical theory of Frankfurt school for engagement with postmodernism.

(43-44) During the present moment, the critical theorists have been among the most active critics of postmodern theory and the polemics between critical and postmodern theory have inspired much critical discussion and new syntheses drawing on both traditions. In this context, a return to the classics of critical theory should focus on the resources that its tradition continues to offer contemporary social theory, as well as the limitations that require going beyond the classical versions of critical theory.


Positivist sciences reproduced existing social relations.

(44) Critical theory distinguished itself through its critique of positivism, noting that the positivist sciences were instrumental in reproducing existing social relations and obstructing social change.

Critiques of mass society, decline of individuality, threats to democracy of consumer capitalism.

(44) They developed the first left critiques of the mass society and provided early warnings concerning the decline of individuality and freedom and threats to democracy in the brave new world of consumer capitalism.

Develop social theory from studies of free, open source technologies where French postmodernists no longer yielding substantive insights?

(45) Yet as a social theory, by the 1980s, critical theory no longer seemed to be the cutting edge of radical social theory. The new French postmodern theories inspired by Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, and others seemed to provide more vivid descriptions of the present configurations of culture and society. . . . But Foucault is now dead and Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, and other postmodern theorists have yielded little in the way of substantive social theory. Moreover, the limitations of postmodern theory are becoming evident. Their avoidance of political economy seems peculiar during an era of frantic reorganization of the capitalist system on both the national and international scale.
(46) It is my conviction that the critical theory of the Frankfurt School continues to provide theoretical and political resources to draw upon to create theories and policies adequate to the contemporary era, an era of upheaval, unpredictability, utopian possibilities, authoritarian horrors, the resurgence of the radical right, and as yet unforeseen crises and openings for social transformation.


Interdisciplinary social theory of new stage of state and monopoly capitalism by Jay, Dubiel, Kellner.

(47) Their [Jay, Dubiel, Kellner] attempts to develop an interdisciplinary social theory brought together the social sciences and philosophy to produce a theory of the present age and of the transition to a new stage of state and monopoly capitalism.

Reason instrumentalalized and incorporated into structure of society, sinking into new barbarism (Horkheimer and Adorno).

(48) During the 1940s, Horkheimer and Adorno, abandoned the earlier program of interdisciplinary social theory and immanent critique. Their collaborative text Dialectic of Enlightenment thus enacted a genuine turning-point within critical theory. Horkheimer and Adorno believed that reason—previously the organon of philosophical critique—had been instrumentalized and incorporated into the very structure of society.
Dialectic of Enlightenment seeks to discover “why humanity, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism” (1972: xi).

Dialectic of Enlightenment first critical questioning of modernity, Marxism, the Enlightenment, anticipating postmodern critiques.

(50) In retrospect, Dialectic of Enlightenment is an extremely interesting text in that it provides the first critical questioning of modernity, Marxism, and the Enlightenment from within the tradition of critical social theory. It thus anticipates by some decades the postmodern critique of modernity and anticipates some of the features of later postmodern theory.

Use of philosophical and literary interpretation of texts, for example Odysseus discussion, decentering analytic social theory.

(52) The methodological point I wish to stress is that Horkheimer and Adorno here use the techniques of philosophical and literary interpretation to unfold the social truth contained in literary and philosophical texts. This move decenters the sort of analytic social theory that constituted the critical theory of the 1930s and marks a significant departure and growing mistrust of social sciences and theory.

Nietzsche inspired multiperspectival social theory in experimental form of anti-semitism theses.

(52) In addition, the theses on anti-semitism also provide models of a multiperspectival social theory, inspired by Nietzsche's thought.
(53) The experimental form of the “Theses on Anti-Semitism” thus provides a multiperspectival model for social theory that is still useful for social theory today (for development of the model within critical theory perspective, see Best and Kellner, 1991). Multiperspectival theory is open, non-essentialist, and cultivates new ways of seeing and thinking.
(53) In the early 1940s when Horkheimer and Adorno were working on
Dialectic of Enlightenment, Marcuse and Neumann were engaged in a historical study of social change within Western thought that could help produce a theory of social change for the present age.


Examples of recent Frankfurt School scholarship by Wiggershaus and Habermas.

(54) Wiggershaus' Die Frankfurter Schule (1986) has drawn on this archival material and presented a history of the entire trajectory of critical theory in its classical stages.
Habermas's article “Notes on the Developmental History of Horkheimer's Works,” translated in this issue, draws on this scholarship and provides a fresh interpretation of Horkheimer's most productive decade, his collaboration with Adorno, and his later theoretical decline.

Hayles consciously duplicates Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse by engaging aesthetic works of science fiction to elicit social truths.

(55) While the inner circle of critical theory during the 1930s engaged in the production of an interdisciplinary social theory that positively appropriated the results of the sciences of the day, Adorno and Benjamin engaged in philosophical and cultural criticism that was more literary than analytical and descriptive, that elicited social truth more in the works of philosophy and art, rather than social theory.
(56) Marcuse too turned toward the aesthetic dimension in the 1940s in a previously unpublished study of “Notes on Aragon: Art and Politics in the Totalitarian Era.”


Hayles answers the challenge of articulating fragmentation and new forms of social structuration, macro and micro levels, by utilizing methods developed by Frankfurt School theorists.

(58) As I suggested earlier, Baudrillard, Lyotard, and other forms of postmodern theory which reject macrotheory and political economy, or wallow in implosion, fragmentation, irony, and nihilism, lack the theoretical resources to develop a critical theory of contemporary society. Instead, theories are needed that articulate both fragmentation and new forms of social structuration, that stress disorganization and reorganization within the present order, and that combine macro and micro perspectives. . . . Although we need new syntheses of social theory and politics today, the continuing relevance of the Frankfurt School for these concerns makes their work more than a nostalgic remembrance of things past.

Kellner, Douglas. "Critical Theory Today: Revisiting The Classics." Theory, Culture & Society 10.2 (1993): 43-60. Alternative Press Index. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.