Critical Theory is... "the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age." Marx in 1843
Critical Theory Seminar is a reading group and discussion forum held weekly at the Red Victorian, a communal house in the Embassy Network. We seek to continue our higher learning beyond the liminal space of academic institutions. Our topics have ranged from Marxist economics to Donna Harraway's "The Cyborg Manifesto." Each week we read selections chosen by a member of our group and meet to discuss and engage in theory, relate it to our lives, and consider how we might develop what we've learned into practice. You can read our notes on on the project's Gitbook. We are currently attempting to write collaboratively-- stay tuned!
Below is an overview of what we read from December 2016 to August 2017 by member Eric Rogers: In the first week, we read Max Horkheimer’s essay distinguishing between critical and traditional theory. Whereas traditional theory plays a pragmatist’s role of attempting to understand—using empiricism alone—the present conditions within ‘society’ or ‘nature,’ in order to improve or extend these conditions, critical theory begins from the position that the world could be radically different from its present form, and, with this in mind, sets out to critique the forms and institutions that prevent the world’s transformation (including traditional theory).
Meanwhile, alongside this reading, we began to read Marx’s Capital, Vol. I, which, beginning with an analysis of the commodity, sets out to examine the highly particular and contingent conditions under which capitalist production is possible. From there, we moved on to an analysis of exchange, and a look at the basis of prices and profit in “Value, Price, and Profit.” After a few weeks off to celebrate pagan holidays that have been appropriated by Christianity, we read Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle,” the Situationist manifesto that theorizes capitalist society’s separation, atomization, and alienation within the spectacle of mass media, urban development, insular transportation methods, and social moorings. We also screened Debord’s film by the same name.
The following week, we looked at Richard Marsden’s “The Nature of Capital: Marx after Foucault,” which investigates the complementary themes of Marx’s ‘social relations of production’ (a phrase that opens up the prospects for all manner of Marxist cultural analyses), and Foucault’s investigation of the various registers of power.
The connection between these two monumental thinkers, we would read later on, can most fruitfully be explored by reading Louis Althusser—the French structuralist Marxist who was the teacher of Foucault and many of his contemporaries, and whose major contribution to critical theory was his analysis of ideology as a means of ensuring capitalist reproduction, and his theorization of a bi-modal state power: half repressive (operating by means of force) and half ideological (operating by means of culture). The resultant ‘repressive state apparatuses’ and ‘ideological state apparatuses’ begin to resemble Foucault’s ‘sovereign power’ and ‘governmental power,’ respectively, and the latter’s production of subjectivity is very similar to Althusser’s concept of the ideological ‘hailing’ of the subject. Towards building an understanding of this connection, we read Althusser on ideology the week before looking at Marx and Foucault.
At the end of January, we took a look at Negri, and the Autonomia movement of 1970s Italy, honing in specifically on Marx Beyond Marx, Negri’s “Lessons on the Grundrisse.” In that essay, Negri reflects on the conditions for ‘social surplus value,’ grounding his analysis of class struggle in the political economic writings of Marx. That mode of critique became extremely important in distinguishing, two weeks later, between the right-wing cultural critique of the contemporary moment—embodied in Steve Bannon’s film “Generation Zero”—and Immanuel Wallerstein’s left critique of the contemporary configuration of political economy and its cultural and political manifestations in “Introduction to World-Systems Analysis.” For Wallerstein, a systemic failure of capitalism beginning in the late 1970s precedes any kind of analysis of culture or personal character, whereas for Bannon, the breakdown of traditional moral order in the late 1960s is the core cause of societal deterioration.
This discussion prompted a shift in focus to the role of culture in perpetuating and advancing capitalist development and particular power configurations. Our first stop along this trajectory was Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1944 “Culture Industry” essay, which was followed by a series of readings on cultural studies—particularly the writings of Stuart Hall, whose poststructuralist cultural analysis in “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular” and “Encoding/Decoding” offered a far less myopic view of culture than Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s. We followed up these cultural considerations with an intermission of Foucault readings, focusing on the different registers of power, and how these implicate culture in the production and maintenance of particular hierarchies and economies. We looked at the differences between sovereign, disciplinary and governmental power, and the ways that they increasingly rely on an internalization—often through culture and identity—of the mandates of power, such that ‘docile subjects’ automatically fulfill their roles in political and economic structures.
This analysis of the different registers of power, Foucault notes, should not necessarily be assumed to have clean historical breaks. The different registers of power are applied at different times, toward different people, in different places. In America, the landscape of power is highly correlated with race, such that different races are subjected to different modalities of power and authority. This notion led us, after reading Foucault, to turn to Cedric J. Robinson’s “Black Marxism,” to investigate how differing and uneven modes of power demand diverse—and sometimes divergent—tactics of political organizing and methodologies for analysis.
Race, of course, is not the only valence of differentiated experience, and our next turn was toward gender, and an investigation of the gendered dynamics surrounding emotional labor. We read “The Managed Heart” by Arlie Russel Hoschild, “Ordinary Affects” by Kathleen Stewart, and “Sex Work for the Middle Class” by Elizabeth Bernstein, examining the central importance of domestic, unwaged labor (emotional or otherwise) in maintaining a capitalist economy. In our discussion of emotional labor, questions of affect emerged as central to the discussion, and the following week we shifted to "Depression, A Public Feeling" by Anna Cvetkovich, and "A Clamor in my Kindergarten Heart: Class, Academia, and Anxious times" by Sarah Appel. In our broader considerations of affect, we discussed these as a type of poststructuralism emerging from the Deleuzean lineage, in which ‘structures of feeling’ are used both to perpetuate forms of power, and can be subverted to undermine these.
In our third round of analytical, valanced inclusion, we turned to the subaltern, reading Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”—one of the foundational texts of post-colonial theory. In our discussions, we looked at the basic notion, in post-colonial theory, that historians, in their attempts to represent the subaltern, are ultimately engaging in a form of discursive domination over those populations, who are not given the space to represent themselves. These questions about the subjugation and poor representation of the subaltern led us to look at the fate of plants and animals—whose plight we approached through Donna Haraway’s essay “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” and “The Cyborg Manifesto,” and which we would revisit several months later with “Why Look at Animals,” by John Berger and Giorgio Agamben’s “The Open: Man and Animal.”
Following this, we visited upon gay and queer struggles, with a reading of John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in which he argued for a queer conceptualization of kinship that resists capitalist reproduction.
After this long tour of differentiated identitarian struggles, and their intersection with capitalism, we read Wendy Brown’s chapter “Wounded Attachments” in “States of Injury,” in which she made the case that while many identity-aware struggles are empowering, often identity-based struggles can be disempowering, by reproducing an attachment to their own helplessness and reifying externalized state power.
This reading, alongside Wendy Brown’s fantastic lecture “Feminist Change and the University,” primed us to approach several strategically-chosen instances within the feminist canon, looking at the so-called ‘waves’ of feminism. Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects” (1792) and Susan B. Anthony’s 1875 “Social Purity” speech as representative of the first wave, we looked at the ways that sexual purity and Christian morality were initially used as a basis for feminist liberation—a heritage that one may argue has not been fully transcended by contemporary feminism. Simone De Beauvoir’s "Introduction" to “The Second Sex” (1949) served as a second wave waypoint, followed by Rebecca Walker’s 1992 "Becoming the Third Wave" and Kimberle Crenshaw’s 1993 “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” as representative texts of a highly heterogeneous and variegated (and incredibly academicized) third wave. Finally, we visited an overview of contemporary ‘fourth wave feminism,’ the mostly online, populist variant of feminism that dominates today. As one representative of this ‘wave,’ we visited upon Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate “lean-in” feminism, and Jessa Crispin’s scathing critiques of the fourth wave.
Following this, we visited a reaction—on the part of men—to feminism, in the form of the Men’s Rights movement, which, like some of the populist feminisms, mobilize essentialized assumptions about organic and inherent gender categories into an oppositional zero-sum politics. We screened Cassie Jaye’s documentary “The Red Pill,” with its provocative finishing statement that the filmmaker no longer considers herself to be a feminist, and read several r/TheRedPill subreddits, followed by F. Roger Devlin’s 2006 “Sexual Utopia in Power,” which claims that feminism has succeeded in subjugating men to the ‘hypergamous’ natural drives of female sexuality. Stepping back from these zero-sum identitarian political positions, we read Byung-Chul Han’s 2017 “Outrage Society”—his diagnosis of the futureless identity-based political outrage of our age.
This set us up for a dive into queer theory, and its critique of fixed gender and identity categories—categories that it insists may be played with, switched, hacked and redesigned. We looked at a series of 1920s posters created by the American Social Hygiene Association aimed at making gender and heteronormative sexuality in America, and then read Judith Butler’s 2004 "Introduction: Acting in Concert," in “Undoing Gender,” and Lauren Berlant’s 2008 "Introduction: Intimacy, Publicity, and Femininity," in “Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture.” Both addressed questions of feeling and affect and sentimentality in the mobilization of gender and sexuality in capitalist power, and advocated a remaking and remapping of desire and sexual/gender practices.
The following week, we took a turn away from gender and identity to read the Invisible Committee’s short book “To Our Friends,” which analyzes the use of crisis in the governance of populations under austerity-choked, neoliberal capitalism. Continuing on the theme of neoliberalism, we delved into the particular political-economic conditions of neoliberalism, and its histories, reading Henry Giroux’s “The Terror of Neoliberalism: Rethinking the Significance of Cultural Politics,” Thomas Palley’s “Keynesianism to Neoliberalism: Shifting Paradigms in Economics,” and Scott Lash & John Urry’s "Introduction" to “The End of Organized Capitalism.” Following this deep dive into neoliberalism, we then zoomed out to visit the condition out of which neoliberalism arises: the ‘long duree’ of global economic history, with readings from Giovanni Arrighi’s “The Long Twentieth Century” and Robert Brenner’s editorial introduction to the journal “Catalyst.” Connecting the necessity-driven financialization of the American economy to moments of transition of capitalist power and accumulation in the past, we also visited the parallel developments between economic financialization and cultural postmodernism, reading texts from Fredric Jameson and Jean-Francois Lyotard.
Postmodernism, for all of its flaws, does have the advantage of opening up a contingent cultural sphere that is prime for subversion and the production of alternatives, and this was perhaps the motivation for our turning to design (we founded, at this point, the Other Futures Design Working Group), which we investigated under the guise of a “Toolkit for the Future.” That week, we read a 2015 chapter from Dunne and Raby’s “Speculative Everything,” a piece looking “beyond capital,” and a 2016 piece by Rachel Charlotte Smith entitled “Design Anthropology in Participatory Design,” which we followed up with Gilles Deleuze’s "Postscript of the Societies of Control" and William H. Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.” This theme of contingency and the production of alternatives extended into our most recent considerations and critiques of the sharing economy.