EXT 502 - Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School: For Graduate-Level Communications Studies
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EXT 502 - Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School: For Graduate-Level Communications Studies



I gave this presentation in our Human Communication course (EXT 502) in May 2008. It provides an overview of critical theory in the context of communication and technology studies.

I gave this presentation in our Human Communication course (EXT 502) in May 2008. It provides an overview of critical theory in the context of communication and technology studies.



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  • Can anyone define critical theory? (wait for hands; ask people who want to make suggestions) In his essay entitled Traditional and Critical Theory , Max Horkheimer defined it like this: Critical theory is social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory which is oriented only to understanding or explaining it.
  • Especially important: “critiquing and changing society as a whole” Core concepts of critical theory are: < write these on board > That critical social theory should be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e. how it came to be configured at a specific point in time), and That critical theory should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology. Prior to Horkheimer, Kant (18 c.) and Marx (19c.) had each asked society to question itself in order to move society forward. In the 1960s, J urg en Habermas raised the discussion to a new level in his Knowledge and Human Interests , by identifying critical knowledge as based on principles that differentiated it either from the natural sciences or the humanities , through its orientation to emancipation. Sam’ll talk about Habermas more later in the presentation. In the meantime, we’ve got a basic understanding now of what critical theory is, based on what that fellow Horkheimer told us. As a recap: Critical theory is social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole. Critical theory is in contrast to traditional theory, which is oriented only to understanding society or explaining it.
  • As with any theory, critical theory makes three assumptions. The first:
  • This is what the critical theorists assume from an epistemological perspective. When you know what’s going on, you can begin to change what’s going on. Knowledge is emancipatory.
  • This is what the critical theorists assume from an ontological perspective. < read it > The idea is that – as the 502 chant/rap tells us – critical theory is all about power structures, and people are forced into these structures by the dominant group.
  • From an axiological perspective, we can say that critical theorists’ approaches are rooted in a value system that encourages individual thought and expression. The result is, of course, emancipation. Any questions?
  • Here’s a summary. On the surface of critical theory, it’s simply about looking closer. The idea is to disrupt the status quo, to challenge what’s going on, to turn our realities on their heads again and again and again in an effort to be more aware of the powers that dominate and how those powers determine what we eat, what we wear, who we befriend, what books we buy and what we know.
  • Which leads us from critical theory in general to critical theory and the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School was an actual school – called the Institute for Social Research – set up by a group of Marxist intellectuals in Germany in 1923. Started by Marxists, the role of the Frankfurt School was to research social and historical structures, primarily on the workers’ movement. The school was meant to be cross-disciplinary, so researchers and scholars there studied a range of topics, from sociology to history to psychoanalysis to music theory to mass communication.
  • The following Marxist and neomarxist scholars either studied at the Frankfurt School or contributed in some way to publication from the school: Max Horkheimer Friedrich Pollock Erich Fromm Wilhelm Reich Herbert Marcuse Theodor Adorno Walter Benjamin Jurgen Habermas The work of the Frankfurt School has come in phases – there are currently 3 phases, with the first one circling around Adorno & Horkheimer’s Culture Industry concept and the second based on Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. (Important note: I’m focusing on the culture industry today.) It’s important to understand that Adorno was just one thinker in the whole School, but he is best representative of the thought that the School produced.
  • What separates the Frankfurt School from general critical theory as we understand it today is that the Frankfurt School approached critical theory as a critical theory of Marx. That is, members of the School felt that many so-called Marxists were using Marx’s philosophies to promote their own Communist agendas rather than to critique what was happening in Capitalism. The Frankfurt School’s view of critical theory, then, is always informed by Marxism or neomarxism. It is especially concerned with power structures in capitalist societies. Now let’s move on to Adorno, our representative of the FS.
  • Theodor Adorno was renowned for his studies of literature and mass culture, which would become so influential from the 1960s on. His philosophies were decidedly value-laden, given the environment in which he developed as a critical thinker and philosopher.
  • Adorno was a half-Jewish musician and philosopher living in Germany during the time that the Nazis came into power. When the Nazis took greater hold in Germany, Adorno self-exiled to the UK and then to the US to study (along with other members of the Institute). There was a distinct difference between what Adorno saw in Germany vs. what he saw in the US. While he was in Germany, of course, he was intensely aware of the propaganda Nazis were spreading – such as the poster above - which is just one of hundreds of examples of similar posters and films that used Jews as scapegoats for the problems of Germany post WWI. Propaganda like this helped to turn the German population against Jews, Poles and other powerless groups as well as members of the resistance, especially the French. Of course, in Germany, it was the government that was in control of creating and distributing such propaganda.
  • When Adorno was in the US, he saw something quite different. No hate propaganda necessarily, but instead private companies – rather than public institutions – involved in mass communication. What the American version of this poster was doing is speaking to power, wealth/money and production. It’s creating a sense that members of the American ‘culture’ should want to purchase and own this car. The poster produces knowledge, information and awareness of what it meant to be American in what Adorno called, “The Culture Industry.”
  • This video helps explain how private interests built around capital gain for one group were mass producing culture. (to 3:30) That was an example that’s a bit obvious. What would the critical theorists say that video was doing? < elicit responses > The idea that the mass communicators produced and reproduced was simple: manufacturers - or, those who own the means of production - keep America growing and protect it from Communism and those people who ‘criticize’. And, given that they were building the American Dream, it was impossible for a person to think counter to the way the rest of America was thinking. So, instead, you bought into it.
  • Speaking of buying into it, let’s talk for a second about those cookies you all (check!) received today. What do you think the point of those was/is? So, with that, let me explain the cookies you’ve received. Any idea what those cookies are meant to represent? < wait for responses > The idea is that products and messages that are offered to the general public are those that have been filtered through the dominant group and deemed appropriate for mass consumption. These messages will usually perpetuate existing ideas - such as the concept of the unifying American Dream - and lead to what critical theorists would call homogeneity. Those cookies were wrapped in messages that are produced by the dominant discourse, made easy to access and meant for mass consumption. Everyone’s eating the same thing and enjoying it. Just like in the clip we saw: it’s good to buy into what the dominant discourse is saying.  When you’ve grown up with that classic taste, you learn to like it. Mass consumption tastes good. 
  • Now, quickly, let’s talk about the Frankfurt School and technology. Because, to build on what McLuhan would later say (without trying to be anachronistic), when you own the medium, you own the message.
  • Something that came up in my readings about critical theory was this statement: “domination fosters resistance.” Marx said it before the Frankfurt School and then Michel Foucault after. Technologies of communication, as Habermas pointed out in 1989, have been used at integral moments in modern social mobilizations. First with industrialization, the telegraph, the lithograph and inexpensive newspapers, which brought waves of progressive social movement like abolition and suffrage; today, critical theorists ask and negotiate answers to the question: Can contemporary communication technologies – especially Web 2.0 technologies that empower the user & connect people – help in modern resistance movements? Can Web 2.0 emancipate people/subjects?
  • In his 1993 “The Virtual Community”, Howard Rheingold – who coined the term virtual community – suggests that emergent qualities of the Internet allow information to flow across communication networks, which then allows broad exchanges between large numbers of actors. This creates what Rheingold calls rich possibilities for democratic interaction. In fact, a new group of global justice movements are entirely online and have been termed “Internetworked Social Movements” (ISMs). Examples of ISMs include the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
  • These ISMs owe their very existence to the Internet, which has enabled their cyberactivism and cyberpolitics. Douglas Kellner, a writer and scholar, has suggested that ISMs are relatively successful because the Internet allows unprecedented opportunity for the exchange of information outside of the control of the dominant media corporations. For contemporary matters such as the sex trade, poverty and deforestation, which critical theorists and stakeholders say are “direct consequences of contemporary neoliberal globalization” (Langman, 45) and domination, the Internet has proven to be the only “mobilizing structure” that is fluid enough and participatory enough to circumvent dominant forces and move their issues forward in the public sphere.
  • But what about that control issue? What of the need we’ve discussed for people in positions of power to control the messages that are put out for mass consumption? What about the Ryerson student, who made public the process of learning and immediately underwent very public punishment at the hands of the institution, or the traditional owners of knowledge? What about corporations who hesitate to allow users to contribute reviews? What about corporations who say they’re being transparent with their product/service reviews but who actually use technology to filter their reviews? What about cases on Amazon, in which book publicists have posted fake book reviews?
  • Is there still an inherent power structure in our use of online communication technologies? Would Adorno find the Internet to be a potential tool for emancipation, given that the Internet is helping to mobilize ISMs, which are revolutionary in nature, and also given that corporations continue to control/influence/bias what’s being said online? This leads us to a critique of the Adorno before Sam takes over:
  • A criticism of Adorno and the first two phases of the Frankfurt School is that, basically, Adorno points to no hope – there’s no real solution to the problems, only awareness and emancipation, which he doesn’t even suggest is actually possible. Theorist Karl Popper suggests that even Marx pointed to a promise of a better future but that Adorno and Horkheimer simply condemn society and offer no promise or hope. The most recent phase of the Frankfurt School is built around Habermas’ communication theory, which does suggest a promise of a better future. Let’s let Sam talk about that now.

EXT 502 - Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School: For Graduate-Level Communications Studies EXT 502 - Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School: For Graduate-Level Communications Studies Presentation Transcript

    • Would you like a glass of homogenized milk with that mass consumption?
    Critical theory, the Frankfurt School and universal pragmatics in the context of communication and technology studies
  • What to expect today What is critical theory? What/Who is the Frankfurt School? Implications for communication technology & mass media Who is Habermas? What is universal pragmatics?
  • What is critical theory?
  • “ critiquing & changing society as a whole”
  • The 3 assumptions of critical theory are…
  • Knowledge is awareness, and awareness is power. (epistemological)
  • People are always organized in hierarchical power structures. (ontological)
  • Critical theorists value individuality and emancipation. (axiological)
  • Look closer.
    • The
    • Frankfurt
    • School
    • (“Institute for Social Research”)
  • Habermas Adorno Horkheimer
  • The Frankfurt School: Critical theory with a spin – it’s all about capitalism
  • The Frankfurt School + Mass Communication
  • Why so interested in mass communication & power, Adorno?
  • Why so interested in mass communication & power, Adorno?
  • The culture industry: How corporations own and mass produce a pacified culture that accepts its homogenization http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kmlm7UPtSw
    • Mass consumption tastes good.
    • At your desk when you got there – choice to eat?
    • Familiar taste
    • Easy to access
    • Groupthink: Is everyone eating them? Then I should, too…
  • The Frankfurt School + Technology
    • Domination fosters resistance
    • (Marx)
    • Can Web technologies emancipate?
    • Internetworked Social Movements
    • Is there a need for those in power to continue to control what people are saying online?
    • What would the Frankfurt School say about the emancipatory power of the Web?
  • Criticism (to keep in mind): Adorno condemns society but offers no promise of a better tomorrow.