Surrealpolitik: Critical Theory

Author: Stephen Eric Bronner

Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011)

Quick Summary

Even if every single one of Marx's theses were proven totally wrong, it doesn't matter, since the real value of Marxism is the method (Lukacs). The method included contesting hegemony and immanent critique but Bronner doesn't actually get much into what comprises Marxist method. The overall thrust of critical theory is that capitalism's instrumental rationality has led to a totally administered society marked by alienation and reification. This bureaucratically administered society is able to absorb all forms of resistance and integrate them into the system (anti-capitalism sells). The culture industry lowered the lowest common denominator with an eye on sales, with the effect that resistance through art was compromised: it would either be neutered by virtue of its celebration by consumerist popularity, or it would be marginalized. The Enlightenment, whose scientific rationality was presumed to lead towards liberation by freeing people from superstition, religion, myth, and the arbitrary exercise of unaccountable power, had instead led to totalitarianism by way of coldly instrumental thinking incapable of making ethical judgements. A main focus of critical theory is the preservation of individuality and autonomy: the non-identification of subject (you) with object (society). There is a strong affinity between critical theory and surrealism in countering instrumental rationality. Also between critical theory and postmodernism in the primacy of subjectivity and a shared suspicion of fixed narratives and appeals to universality.
  • Lukács: Theory of the Novel; History and Class Consciousness -- idealistic and utopian above and beyond economics, he was forced by the ComIntern to renounce it in 1924, but all proved justified by the revelations of the 1844 manuscripts.
  • Erich Fromm: popularized alienation in Escape From Freedom
  • Max Horkheimer: "The Authoritarian State", shows individual alienated from both community and individuality itself
  • Jürgen Habermas: made the "linguistic turn" seeking undistorted communication


There are 16 quotes currently associated with this book.

The writings by the young Marx evidence a utopian quality. They give precedence to the anthropological and existential elements of human misery rather than capitalist exploitation of a purely economic sort. (page 35)
Tags: [Revolution, Capitalism]
Alienation defines the totality whose perpetuation rests on turning people into things -- or reification. Capitalism increasingly strips human beings of their humanity. It treats the real subject engaged in the production of commodities (the proletariat) as an object even as it turns the real object of its productive activity (capital) into the fictive subject of modern life. Inverting this "inverted world" -- an idea that Marx borrowed from Hegel -- is possible only by abolishing what in Das Kapital is termed "commodity fetishism." Or putting it somewhat differently, abolishing alienation calls for abolishing reification. (page 40)
Tags: [Capitalism]
[Dialectic of Enlightenment] investigates how scientific (or instrumental) rationality expels freedom from the historical process and enables reification to penetrate every aspect of society. Even art turns into just another commodity and loses its critical character...Horkheimer and Adorno respond to the "totally administered society" with a systematic assault on systematic thinking. (page 51)
Tags: [Capitalism, Rationality]
With the triumph of fascism, the degeneration of communism, and the integration of social democracy, [Enlightenment] ideals were seen as having lost their cachet and, as a consequence, this kind of political critique as having lost its appeal. Auschwitz had punctured the aura associated with progress and modernity. Old-fashioned criteria for making judgements, constructing narratives and understanding reality thus became anachronistic. The postmodern appears avant la letter. Enlightenment and modernity find their fulfillment in a concentration camp universe run by an unaccountable bureaucracy, fueled by an instrumental rationality run amok, and expressed in the unleashing of an unimaginable rage. (page 52)
Tags: [Fascism, Postmodernism, Capitalism]
Reification is...undermining the capacity of individuals to exercise moral judgment...Not merely capitalism requires interrogation, therefore, but civilization itself. Thus, the critical theory of society takes an anthropological form in which resistance relies upon an increasingly imperiled subjectivity. (page 53)
Tags: [Capitalism]
Capitalism, bureaucracy, and science -- all expressions of instrumental rationality -- constitute the real core of Enlightenment. They turn nature into an object of use, progress into alienation, and freedom into control. Autonomy is a nuisance and critique is a threat. Enlightenment may be associated with such ideals. But its real goal is standardization and control. In the name of liberation, its advocates wound up fostering a rationality of technical domination. The irrational beliefs that the Enlightenment originally sought to destroy thus reappeared as its own products. (page 55)
Tags: [Capitalism, Rationality]
Humanity pays for an increase in power over nature with the loss of subjectivity. Blind to the domination in which it was engaged, equally blind to the reaction it was nurturing, Enlightenment humanism was incapable of understanding that in its "innermost recesses there rages a frantic prisoner who, as a fascist, turns the world into a prison." [quoting from Adorno & Horkheimer I think] (page 55)
Tags: [Rationality]
A critical standpoint on aesthetics now suggested that the aim of art is not to depict the wrongs of society int elastic terms, offer platitudes about how things should be, or pander to the masses. Critical theory must redefine mimesis with an eye on montage, stream of consciousness, and other techniques that offer new forms -- new illusions -- for experiencing reality and eliciting the utopian longings of the audience. These longings are probably strongest when the conditions for their realization are most improbable. Herein perhaps is the meaning behind the famous words of Walter Benjamin from his essay on Kafka: "It is only for the sake of the hopeless that hope is given to us." (page 64)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics]
Lukács challenged European modernism in general and German expressionism in particular for their irrationalism, subjectivism, and utopianism. Essays like "Greatness and Decline of Expressionism" (1934) and "Realism in the Balance" (1938) maintain that fashionable avant-garde trends helped create the cultural preconditions in which fascism could thrive. Lukács' alternative was a form of "critical realism" perhaps best exemplified in the works of Honore de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, and Thomas Mann. (page 66)
Tags: [Surrealism, Fascism, Culture]
Utopia makes us aware that what we have is not necessarily what we want and that what we want is not necessarily all we can have. Enlightenment thinking becomes open to criticism -- according to Bloch -- insofar as it reduces the rational to the real, and it remains blind to the unrealized utopian elements buried in magic, madness, childhood fantasies, and the like. Arguments can be made that he romanticized these states of mind, over identified with those who laud them, and overestimated their salience for utopian philosophy. But the critical moment of Bloch's enterprise is an attempt -- one that stands squarely within the tradition of critical theory -- to illuminate the ratio of the irratio. This is of importance not simply for making sense of magic and mysticism but for understanding the "false utopias" embedded in racism and other ideologies that privilege the intuitive and the irrational. (page 68)
Tags: [Rationality, Madness]
Imperialism, militarism, economic exploitation, patriarchal family structures, religious dogmatism, and the false needs generated by consumerism all render it irrational. Only a kind of primal guilt maintains the identification with its values and institutions. (page 70)
Tags: [Capitalism, Rationality]
Hegel believed that progress is ultimately furthered by the person who is out of step with the majority. Only this person, the genuine nonconformist, really experiences the constraints on freedom. Only this person is in the position of questioning the prevailing understandings of happiness. For Hegel, indeed, the "unhappy consciousness" is the source of progress. (page 77)
Tags: [Activism, Propaganda, Culture]
Art enabled the individual to resist society not simply by challenging popular tastes and perceptions, or so Lukács argued, but by intensifying experience through its allegorical and symbolic qualities...The artist in Lukács new and broader definition of the term now appears as a "problematical man." Not the political revolutionary but the erudite cultural radical with a bohemian bent -- like Nietzsche -- is the agent of the new: the prophet of an invigorated subjectivity, an emergent culture, and a transformed reality. (page 79)
Tags: [Politics & Art, Activism, Surrealism's Promise, Culture]
The Frankfurt School...knew that mass media tends to champion right-wing causes. But they also knew that the culture industry can also produce works of a seemingly progressive slant. Mass media had already often bashed capitalism, intolerance, and the power elite. Even then, however, it seems to standardize experience and undermine critical reflection. According to the Frankfurt School, the culture industry integrates all opposition by its very nature. The impotence of a work is a direct function of its popularity. (page 79)
Tags: [Culture, Capitalism]
The issue is not the political content but the form in which it is expressed -- the medium is the message. Adorno put the matter bluntly in Minima Moralia: "the value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar. It is objectively devalued as this distance is reduced." (page 82)
Tags: [Surrealism's Promise, Lead Quote Candidate]
Once connected with the critique of religious prejudices and political authority, experimentation and the exercise of judgment, tolerance has turned into a bulwark for the status quo. Marcuse's argument once again relies on the idea that the medium is the message. Insofar as the culture industry presents all positions on any issue in a public forum, they all ultimately appear as having equal value. Tolerance as exhibited by the culture industry thus renders all truth claims relative -- or, better, turns their acceptance into a matter of taste. Now it is not just beauty but truth that lies in the eye of the beholder. What happened to art has happened to the discourse. Both become subordinate to the commodity form whereby qualitative turns into merely quantitative differences. When considering imperialism and war, or assaults on the welfare state and creationism, one stance is as good as another. The mass media renders resistance no more legitimate than support. (page 85)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Culture, Capitalism]