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Cultural critique is a broad field of study that employs many different theoretical traditions to analyze and critique cultural formations. Because culture is always historically and contextually determined, each era has had to develop its own methods of cultural analysis in order to respond to new technological innovations, new modes of social organization, new economic formations, and novel forms of oppression, exploitation, and subjugation.
The modern European tradition of cultural critique can be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) seminal essay entitled ”What is Enlightenment?” Here, Kant opposed theocratic and authoritarian forms of culture with a liberal, progressive, and humanist culture of science, reason, and critique. By organizing society under the guiding principles of critical reason, Kant believed that pre-Enlightenment superstition and ignorance would be replaced by both individual liberty and universal peace.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) historicized Kant’s version of critique through a technique called genealogy. Nietzsche argued that Kant’s necessary universals are born from historical struggles between competing interests. Nietzsche rested his faith not in universal categories of reason but rather in the aristocratic will to power to combat the ”herd mentality” of German mass culture.
Like Nietzsche, Karl Marx (1818-83) also rejected universal and necessary truths outside of history. Using historical materialism as his major critical tool, Marx argued that the dominant culture legitimated current exploitative economic relations. In short, the class that controls the economic base also controls the production of cultural and political ideas. Whereas Nietzsche traced central forms of mass culture back to the hidden source of power animating them, Marx traced cultural manifestations back to their economic determinates. Here culture is derived from antagonistic social relations conditioned by capitalism, which distorts both the content and the form of ideas. Thus for Marx, cultural critique is essentially ideological critique exposing the interests of the ruling class within its seemingly natural and universal norms.
With the Frankfurt School of social theory, cultural critique attempted to synthesize the most politically progressive and theoretically innovative strands of the former cultural theories. Max
Horkheimer (1895-1971), Theodor Adorno (1903-69), and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) are three of the central members of the Frankfurt School who utilized a transdisciplinary method that incorporated elements of critical reason, genealogy, historical materialism, sociology, and psychoanalysis to analyze culture. While heavily rooted in Marxism, the members of the Frankfurt School increasingly distanced themselves from Marx’s conception of the centrality of economic relations, focusing instead on cultural and political methods of social control produced through new media technologies and a burgeoning culture industry.
While the Frankfurt School articulated cultural conditions in a stage of monopoly capitalism and fascist tendencies, British cultural studies emerged in the 1960s when, first, there was widespread global resistance to consumer capitalism and an upsurge of revolutionary movements. British cultural studies originally was developed by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson to preserve working-class culture against colonization by the culture industry. Both British cultural studies and the Frankfurt School recognized the central role of new consumer and media culture in the erosion of working-class resistance to capitalist hegemony. British cultural studies turned toward the oppositional potentials within youth subcultures.
Currently, cultural critique is attempting to respond to a new era of global capitalism, hybridized cultural forms, and increasing control of information by a handful of media conglomerates. As a response to these economic, social, and political trends, cultural critique has expanded its theoretical repertoire to include multicultural, postcolonial, and feminist critiques of culture. Thus, cultural criticism is reevaluating its own internal complicity with racism, sexism, colonialism, and homophobia and in the process gaining a new level of self-reflexivity that enables it to become an increasingly powerful tool for social emancipation.
- Durham, M. G. & Kellner, D. (2001) Media and Cultural Studies. Blackwell, Malden, MA.
- Kellner, D. (1989) Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.