Critical Theory and Cultural Studies

Preparation Guide 2012

There are three progenitors of the cultural studies movement. The first path traces through Europe, beginning in orthodox Marxism. (Later critical theorists point out that orthodox Marxism is like neo-Aristotelianism: it is not Marx, it is interpreters of Marx.) Orthodox Marxism, a mechanistic theory of society, distrusted rhetoric, believing it was the source of ideology that masked the reality of historical materialism, thus keeping the working class in chains. In Western Europe during and after World War II, that notion was critiqued. Instead, the problems in the Soviet Union taught that even Communism, steeped as it was in Marxist-Stalinist ideology, was based in ideology. Thus, Neo-Marxism came into vogue. Reinterpreting historical materialism into a contextualist theory of society, the developments we today know as "continental philosophy" took hold of social inquiry. Critical theory was hatched in the Frankfurt school including Horkeimer, Adorno, and their student Habermas. In France, a series of sociologists and philosophers developed social theory. In Birmingham, England, this developed into Stuart Hall's version of cultural studies. Critical Studies had come to the United States with the exiles from Germany. But in the oppressive environment of the Cold War, anything hinting at Marxism was dangerous. Instead, the ideas were worked subtley into media studies, particularly by James Carey.

But there evolved another strain in the United States within Communication Studies. It began in the cultural strains in the work of Kenneth Burke. During the 1930s Burke had proposed cultural analyses of the symbolic action within social ritual. His work with such cultural symbols as "the monetary synthesis" initially influenced scholars in in Sociology and Anthropology, in the work of Hugh Dalziel Duncan and Clifford Geertz. Within the linguistic turn, these ideas emphasized the use of rhetoric in ordinary everyday discourse and in rituals of social order that created the character of culture. Late in the century, those following this lead in communication picked up the thought of the continental philosophers, critical theory, and British cultural studies and cultural studies within communication developed.

We want to understand the theoretical moves that underlay this work.

Clusters: critical theory, cultural studies, rhetoric and ritual, semiotics.

Preparation for discussion

Week 1: (December 3)

Read the material indicated below. Come prepared with either (1) concepts you did not understand tied to page numbers, or (2) what you take to be key concepts. We will organize discussions around this.

Week 2: (December 10)

We are going to explore the intersections and differences between critical and cultural theory. As you read, map this out (feel free to create a mind map, a literal map, a chart -- whatever is easiest for you to conceptualize these connections). To help you do this, consider the following questions:

We also want to find the edges of the critical/cultural theory move, looking for places of overlap and difference from earlier moves. As you read, consider how the critical/cultural move is different from and similar to the freedom/domination move and the identity move. Where are the edges? How much overlap is there?

* = Reading for December 3
# = Reading for December 10

Basic Reading:

Additional Reading:

Recent Work: (Selected by Annie Laurie Nichols and Thomas McCloskey)

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