Critical Theory of Communication: New Readings of Lukács, Adorno, Marcuse, Honneth
The task of this book is to provide new readings about how some specific works of authors related to the Frankfurt School matter for critically understanding communication today. It presents five essays that review aspects of the works of Georg Lukács, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Axel Honneth and Jürgen Habermas and applies these ideas for grounding foundations of a critical theory of communication in the age of the Internet and social media. Each chapter is dedicated to revisiting specific ideas of one of these thinkers. The book is intended as a reader on aspects of cultural Marxism in the digital age. The chapters can also be read independently.
The approach this book takes is that it a) discusses elements of specific critical theories and b) relates them to the topics of communication and the Internet. It thereby wants to contribute to a renewal and sublation of the critical theory of communication as a critical theory of society.
In this introduction, I first discuss elements of a critical theory of society (section 1.1). Second, I point out the importance of Karl Marx’s works for critical theory (section 1.2). Third, I provide some background on the Frankfurt School (section 1.3). Fourth, I argue that for a critical theory of communication it is a feasible approach to link the works of Frankfurt School to other critical cultural and social theories (section 1.4). Fifth, I comment on the relationship of the Frankfurt School and Heidegger (section 1.5). Finally, I provide an overview of this book’s chapters (section 1.6).
The Frankfurt School is one of the traditions in Marxist theory that has drawn our attention to the importance of studying culture. It does so with profound engagements with ideology, the culture industry and communication. In the twenty-first century, digital culture and digital communication have become important phenomena. It is therefore an interesting task to revisit some of the writings of Frankfurt School thinkers in the light of these developments. This book is not an introduction to critical theory, a textbook or a historical account. Rather, it focuses on some selected key areas of critical theory as building blocks for the foundations of a critical theory of communication that goes beyond Habermas.
Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn and Kosmas Psychopedis (1992) argue in the introduction to the first volume of the three-part collected volume Open Marxism, that with the rise of neoliberalism and postmodern thought, it became fashionable in the 1980s to turn against Marxism and criticise it as outdated, old-fashioned, reductionist, deterministic, and a closed system of thought. They question this tendency and argue for open Marxism as a methodological approach. Open Marxism sees the ‘openness of Marxist categories themselves’ (Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis, 1992, xi).
“Closed Marxism” is Marxism which does either or both of two interrelated things: it accepts the horizons of a given world as its own theoretical horizon and/or it announces a determinism which is causalist or teleological as the case may be (xii).
They mention Adorno and Lukács as two of the figures in the tradition of open Marxism (Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis, 1992, xii).
The Open Marxism project does not aim to reconstruct Marx’s thought, in the sense of presenting an interpretation which masquerades as the sole ‘correct’ one. Such an approach would not be helpful, for it would presuppose the possibility of a uniform and finished interpretation of Marx’s work (Bonefeld, Gunn, Holloway and Psychopedis 1995, 1).
Comparable to Bonefeld, Gunn, Holloway and Psychopedis, Wolfgang Fritz Haug (1985) argues for plural Marxism, a project that is based on the dialectic of unity and diversity (Haug 1985, 12).
Marxism does not simply exist, but is becoming. Marxism can only exist as process. Marxism’s truth cannot be organised in a number of phrases, but only in the process of the inconclusive engagement of differences with each other. […] Marxism is not a given, there are Marxisms. Marxism exists in the plural. […] [Marxism requires] convergence in divergence. (Haug 1985, 20)
In contemporary society, we have witnessed a certain revitalised interest in Marx, the critique of class and capitalism, and socialism. The basic trigger of this interest was the global economic crisis. In this situation, we need an open cultural Marxism in three respects. If one looks at contemporary Marxist discussions, publications and conferences, then issues relating to communication and culture are often treated as having minor, secondary importance and as having mere superstructural character. At the same time, it is, however, difficult to deny the significant role of cultural labour and communications in contemporary society. Countering dominant trends, I have argued for a media and communication studies-focused reading of Marx and Marxism (Fuchs 2016).
First, open cultural Marxism can revisit some of the contributions to cultural Marxism in an open manner. The Frankfurt School is an important tradition in cultural Marxism. One should, however, not reify particular traditions or thinkers, but practice an open conversation between various Marxist approaches. Marxists still often like to treat themselves mutually as their worst enemies, accusing each other, for example, of interpreting Marx incorrectly, not having understood this or that aspect of Marx or another critical approach, not being Marxist at all, being orthodox Marxists, etc. They forget who their real political and theoretical opponents are. Where one should expect comradely behaviour, one sometimes only encounters dogmatism and sectarianism.
The second dimension of open cultural Marxism is that it is time for Marxism to open up further to culture and communication as theoretical and political issues that matter in contemporary capitalism. In this book, the focus is on particular topics and categories in cultural Marxism: Lukács’ concept of cultural work and ideological labour (chapter 2), Adorno’s critical dialectical theory of knowledge (chapter 3), Marcuse’s dialectics as foundation for the analysis of social media’s dialectics (chapter 4), Lukács’ and Honneth’s concepts of alienation and reification in the context of Facebook (chapter 5), Habermas and the dialectical critical theory of communication (chapter 6). The book suggests that knowledge, culture, communication, work, labour, ideology, alienation, reification and dialectics are some of the key categories for the foundations of a dialectical critical theory of communication. It does not have the aim to formulate such a theory, but rather provides readings that contribute to its foundations.
Critical theory is itself dialectical, which means that each new contribution relates to older contributions and sublates them in a constructive manner. A critical theory is therefore not a closed universe, but an open endeavour that cross-references other critical approaches. The six chapters in this book therefore also put some of the discussed approaches into dialogue: chapter 1 focuses not just on Lukács, but also points out Adorno’s and Lukács’ different understandings of ontology, as well as Habermas’ interpretation of Lukács. The chapter on Adorno (chapter 2) includes a discussion of how Adorno and Lukács’ aesthetic theories differ. It also relates Adorno’s contributions to a theory of knowledge to Habermas’ distinction of three forms of knowledge. The chapter on Honneth (chapter 4) includes a comparison of Honneth’s concept of alienation to the ones by Rahel Jaeggi and Hartmut Rosa, two other contemporary critical theorists. It shows how Honneth bases his notion of alienation on Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness. Based on this discussion, I develop multidimensional concepts of alienation and appropriation that are grounded in the works of Marx, Lukács and Honneth.
Questioning this approach, this book does not argue for a reification of the Frankfurt School, but rather for an open dialogue in cultural Marxism that opens up debates and lines of communication between thinkers related to the Frankfurt School and other cultural Marxists such as Raymond Williams, Lev Vygotsky, Valentin Vološinov, or Ferruccio Rossi-Landi.
Third, this book also wants to open up Marxist discussion in respect to the way we engage with the works of thinkers in cultural Marxism. It argues for seeing the rich character of cultural Marxism and to not only focus on single works that have acquired a cult status. There are alternative, lesser-known works of cultural Marxism that are very rich and can, just like the most recognised writings, inspire contemporary debates. In respect to Lukács and Adorno, most readers first and foremost think of History and Class Consciousness (Lukács 1923/1971) and The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 94–136) when hearing these names. Focusing only on single works does not do justice to the richness, plurality and complexity of the writings of key figures in cultural Marxism. This book also seeks to stimulate the engagement with lesser-known texts in cultural Marxism.
It should not be a disappointment for the reader to hear that this book is not predominantly a re-engagement with these two works. Rather, I want to open up the debate by drawing your attention to alternative, lesser-known works, such as Lukács’ Ontology of Social Being, Adorno’s Hegel: Three Studies, and Adorno’s On Subject and Object. There is a danger that the focus on single, well-known works reduces the engagement with cultural Marxism to a one-dimensional, reified and stereotypical analysis. In respect to Lukács and Adorno, it is certainly true that their major works are key readings for understanding ideology.
My point in the book at hand is that the tradition of the Frankfurt School has broader relevance for a critical theory of culture and communication and is not limited to ideology critique. For example, Lukács’ alternative works also help us to frame cultural labour and Adorno’s alternative works can inspire a critical theory of knowledge. Cultural Marxism should be open for an engagement with alternative works. Lukács’ Ontology generalises his theory of reification, which he formulated in History and Class Consciousness, into a cultural materialist and dialectical critical theory of society. It is a key work for a critical theory of culture and communication. Those interested in History and Class Consciousness will be pleased to hear that chapter 5 in this book starts off with a discussion of this work and engages with the way Axel Honneth interpreted Lukács’ concept of reification for a critical theory of recognition.
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