‘The Golden age of cultural theory is long past’ (Eagleton 2003: 1) is the first sentence of Terry Eagleton's After Theory, and while such an estimation may appear to be overly dismissive of much contemporary work, it is fair to say that the unique combination of circumstances that allowed the work of certain figures to transcend the confines of academic culture is now firmly behind us. This does not mean that the quality of work in the field has diminished, or that the discipline as a whole has become less crucial in the analysis of culture, but that the conditions that prompted and informed so much pioneering work have either disappeared or come to be reformulated on different terrain.
What has become known as critical theory in the Anglophone world is a rather disparate amalgam of ideas from across a multitude of disciplines. Its porous boundaries and the vagaries of intellectual fashion make a definitive selection of authors and ideas a very difficult task, as some theoretical strands that were at one time central to critical theory have been displaced or marginalized. Although it can lead to simplification and the crudest historicism it is useful to consider the trajectory of critical theory as a series of conjunctures at which a distinctive set of social, political and aesthetic issues predominate. The contributions of many of the central figures in the development of critical theory span more than one of the conjunctural moments, and the work of figures such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault manages to encompass several of the key theoretical movements that have characterized the development of the discipline as a whole.
While the key theoretical lineage of critical theory lies in the nineteenth century, its modern incarnation can be dated to the work of the so-called Frankfurt School in the 1930s. The work of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse emerged against a background in which the emancipatory promise of Soviet communism was patently being subsumed by Stalinism, and the prospects for revolution in the West were diminishing as capitalism survived the upheavals of the late 1920s and threatened, not least in the form of the libidinally saturated consumer capitalism characteristic of the United States, to dominate in the developed industrial world. Although still aiming to situate their critique in the dialectical tradition of G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, the Frankfurt School broke with Marxian orthodoxy by incorporating thinkers such as Freud, Max Weber and Friedrich Nietzsche into their critique of both contemporary capitalism and subsequently what they came to characterize as the baleful legacy of the Enlightenment.
What characterizes the work of the Frankfurt School is a desire to launch a critique of capitalism and capitalist culture from a theoretical standpoint which is uncontaminated
by the logic of the commodity form and what they termed ‘instrumental rationality’, the type of knowledge which considers the world solely in terms of the ways in which it can be exploited for maximum profit. In this sense, the work of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse forms a template for the subsequent evolution of critical theory. Capitalism is subjected to critique not only in terms of the manifest injustices inherent in such an economic system, but in relation to the degraded intellectual culture and the art which are associated with it. Adorno and Horkheimer both fled Germany after the rise of fascism, eventually settling in California, and it was during their exile in Los Angeles that they produced their most influential work, Dialectic of Enlightenment
(1947). The majority of this intensely pessimistic book charts what the authors take to be the inevitable decay of the Enlightenment's promise of knowledge uncontaminated by power
, deference and superstition. The book also contains the short essay ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, which represents one of the formative documents in the debate around the value of ‘mass’ or popular culture. Adorno and Horkheimer subjected the film and music industries in the United States to a withering assault on the basis of their standardization and almost complete subsumption within the industries of mass production and consumption. Although the original members of the Frankfurt School continued to produce theoretical interventions until the 1970s, it is on the terrain of the study of popular culture that they were to some extent superseded in the decades that followed their original studies.
THE 1950S: STRUCTURALISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES
Despite the 1950s having a reputation for political and intellectual quiescence in the Anglophone world, the work of Raymond Williams
in this period and beyond has been hugely influential in the development of critical theory, and especially the subdivision of theoretical enquiry known as cultural studies. Williams worked in a British academic culture that was isolated from the main trends in European thought, although his work does resonate with certain themes characteristic of the Frankfurt School and the concept of hegemony
as articulated by Antonio Gramsci
. Culture and Society
(Williams 1958) is significant because it utilizes the Marxist notion of Base and Superstructure
, which emphasizes the material determination of culture, that Williams and his successors later expanded to include not only literature but also the whole array of signifying practices and discourses that constitute a national culture. Williams refers to the foundational ideas of materialist thought in Marx's Critique of Political Economy
(1859), which contains the assertion that ‘The mode ofproduction of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general’ (Marx 2000: 425). The crucial emphasis on the economy as the determining factor in the production of culture allows Williams to displace individual consciousness from its previously determinate role in the analysis of culture. Williams' work is also significant because it analyses British culture not as the seamless unfolding of an uninterrupted and unified cultural tradition, but as a fractured and contested site which reveals the process of class struggle since industrialization. Williams' 1958 essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’ also marked a more attentive and sympathetic attitude to mass
culture than that produced by the Frankfurt School, especially in terms of its discussion of the cultural idioms of the British working classes.
The 1950s also witnessed the development of structuralism (see Chapter 2
) as a theoretical methodology for the analysis of art, culture, politics and ideology. Taking its cue from the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure
, especially the division of the sign
and the distinction between langue
, structuralism attempted to bring a scientific rigour to the study of signifying practices. Two of the main contributors to the development of structuralism were the literary theorist Roman Jakobson
and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss
, but it was with the publication of Mythologies
in 1957 that Roland Barthes joined the analytic pretensions of high structuralism with a wide-ranging survey of cultural systems and a leftist commitment to revealing the ideological dimensions of the generation and fixity of signification. In a move that parallels the attention to popular culture that would eventually characterize British Cultural Studies, Barthes produced readings of such diverse cultural phenomena as Marlon Brando's hairstyle in Hollywood films, professional wrestling and soap powders. Barthes did not deploy the term ideology
in his early writings, but his concept of ‘Myth
’ or second order signification is very close to the semiotic
concept of ideology that would come to typify theoretical thinking in the 1960s and 1970s.
THEORY TAKES OVER: THE 1960S
Amidst the process of decolonization in the developing world and the transformation of cultural values and social practices in the Western world, another small act of liberation had a huge influence on the direction of critical theory during the 1960s. The French Communist Party (PCF) had undergone a process whereby the suffocating orthodoxies of Stalinism had been jettisoned, and a vibrant new intellectual culture was generated. Foremost among this movement was the figure of Louis Althusser
, who formalized many of the approaches to culture, politics and subjectivity
which still figure prominently in contemporary critical theory despite the eclipse of Marxism. Althusser explicitly repudiated the Hegelian influences that had hitherto characterized Marxist critical theory, meaning that he attempted to break with the economic determinism that had revolved around the ways in which the economic base was accorded causal priority in relation to art, culture, law and politics. This may appear to be a minor and obscure point, but Marxism exerted a powerful influence on French intellectual culture in the 1960s, and by breaking with the orthodoxies of dialectical materialism
Althusser paved the way for the consideration of art and culture as relatively autonomous from the economies in which they are produced. Although Althusser held on to economic determinism with his insistence that the economic base is ultimately determinate, his work unleashed a new wave of innovative theoretical work across the humanities. Art, literature and politics could now be viewed as operating within their own distinctive trajectories, and their relationship to the actual structures of economic exploitation could be distinctly contradictory. So, while several varieties of classical Marxism had always insisted upon the ways in
which art and literature were primarily ideological justifications for the capitalist social order, Althusser's work allowed literary critics such as Pierre Macherey
to examine literature as a process which worked through the contradictions of ideology and could demonstrate the points at which it became contradictory and aporetic.
However, Althusser's biggest contribution to the development of theory was the notion of ideology and subjectivity proposed in his famous essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus’ (1970). The key innovation is to be found in his statement that ‘Ideology represents individuals' imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence’ (Althusser 2001: 163), which radicalized the concept of ideology away from the notorious idea of ‘false consciousness’. This is an important innovation in that it moves the critique of ideology away from a concept that focuses on the adequation between mind and world and towards the idea that the analysis of representation itself is key to understanding ideology's effects. Whereas the idea of false consciousness emphasized the way in which the exploited masses failed to perceive both their immiseration and their revolutionary potential, so that everything hinged upon the alignment of consciousness with reality, post-Althusserian theory acknowledges the pervasiveness of ideology as a medium for the generation of social meaning. It is important to note that when Althusser uses the term ‘imaginary’ he does not mean illusory (although misrecognition certainly plays a crucial part in the process) but refers to the way in which an individual can become captivated by an image with which they identify. This act of identification is central to another key theoretical idea popularized by Althusser, namely the idea that ‘ideology interpellates individuals as subjects’ (Althusser 2001: 163). Interpellation is a process in which, according to Althusser, the individual is hailed or personally addressed through the operations of ideology, and for the most part they recognize themselves as the subject of this address. Althusser's influence on theory is profound, but his idea of interpellation is partially the result of the influence of another major figure whose work resonates through the history of critical theory; the unorthodox French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and in particular his theory of identification outlined in the famous ‘Mirror Stage’ seminar paper. Althusser adapted Lacan's idea that the human infant identifies with a unified bodily image, a point outside itself, and that one of the implications of this is that our identity, both as an individual and in relation to the social structures we must negotiate, is largely dependent upon our assent to the way things appear to be. In this vein, ideology ceases to be a question of a false or distorted view of reality and becomes fundamentally concerned with the ways in which subjectivity is intimately bound up with the consolidation of a social, political and epistemological consensus. What the Althusser/Lacan axis achieved was to displace the traditional notion of the human subject as a self-generating core of initiatives (the subject of classical ‘humanist’ thought) and to emphasize the ways in which subjective identity is conferred upon the individual via external signifying practices. However, despite successive finessing by Althusser and his followers, this notion of ideology proved far more useful in accounting for the acquiescence of political subjects than it did in imagining the ways in which such subjects could refuse the confines of a given identity and instigate resistance to the force of things.
The rather negative and one-dimensional aspect of the Althusserian critique of ideology was the result of it being premised upon only one aspect of Lacan's model of the human psyche, the imaginary. In Lacan's work, the imaginary is one component in the topography of the psyche, and it is concerned primarily with stasis and fixity. Lacan's work had influences beyond its incorporation in Althusserian Marxism, although this was a key aspect in bringing Lacan to the attention of the Anglophone academy. His work ranges far beyond clinical psychiatry, covering epistemology and ethics
amongst many diverse topics, but it is probably through his awareness of post-Saussurean linguistics that Lacan has figured most prominently in the development of critical theory. In the work of Lacan the division of the sign into signifier and signified characteristic of structural linguistics became a focus on the primacy of the signifier, on the way in which the process of signification itself is what characterizes human culture and identity. This observation had always been implicit in psychoanalysis, especially in Freud's work on dreams and fetishism, but with Lacan the ways in which the labyrinthine operations of signification both constitute and ensnare the human subject and its habitat become increasingly apparent.
What the increasing influence of the work of Lacan and other near-contemporaries of Althusser signalled was a pivotal change of direction that would define critical theory as the radical 1960s unfolded. This epochal shift revolved around the eclipse of Marxism as the dominant organizational problematic and political touchstone for theory. Althusser had already marginalized the primacy of economic determinism in the analysis of culture, and amidst the social, economic and political upheavals that marked the developed world from the mid-1960s onwards theory moved away from the class-based focus of Marxism in tune with the more diverse and politically libertarian ambience of the times.
Michel Foucault, a pupil and colleague of Althusser, took materialist criticism in a new and innovative direction in his pioneering work The Order of Things (1963). Foucault's work chimed with the times because his notion of power, which is indebted to Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy, did not emanate from a single determinate point but was intimately bound up with the social construction of meaning and identity at every level. Foucault also developed a notion of ‘discourse’ that examines the ways in which discourses of truth, veracity and power develop through different historical periods, and the social and institutional consequences of this. His work accorded a new and productive importance to the discourses surrounding madness and sexuality, linking these with the consolidation of capitalist modernity and the disciplinary and regulatory frameworks deemed to be characteristic of such a social formation. Foucault's work from the 1960s onwards is central to the development of theory in its own right, but his influence also underpins the proliferation of theoretical developments which emerged and became consolidated in t...