Having read this review in The Guardian I was excited to read Stewart Jeffries’ book and I was not disappointed. As an MA student I had friends who did a compulsory critical theory course which devoted a week each to Barthes, Foucault, Kristeva and others. On the MA in Latin American Cultural Studies I was doing something rather different (the importance of which I might get round to writing about elsewhere). When I started my PhD I was told to sit in on those critical theory classes which I dutifully did without really knowing what to do with all of those snapshots. There was nothing wrong with the course and there are ones like it in many institutions but for me at that time it didn’t have a purpose other than to fill in some background. Having read Jeffries’ book I can now see why I was so confused. The theorists we studied never really seemed to go together even though they were lumped together on that course. Now I see that they weren’t meant to go together and that the course had really moved away from what critical theory was meant to be.
Critical theory, as Jeffries presents it, was the political project of Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School critics Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. Jeffries’ book skilfully interweaves the personal and the intellectual lives of these men telling us not only what they thought but also why they came to think that way.
Jeffries writes: “If critical theory means anything, it means the kind of radical re-thinking that challenges what it considers to be the official versions of history and intellectual endeavour” (Location 356) He continues: “Critical theory stood in opposition too, to what capitalism in particular does to those it exploits – buying us off cheaply with consumer goods, making us forget that other ways of life are possible, enabling us to ignore the truth that we are ensnared in the system by our fetishistic attention and growing addiction to the purportedly must-have new consumer good” (Location 363).
Critical theory, then, is a left wing project which asks us, and tries to provide us, with the tools to re-examine the relationship between culture and politics in a context where culture has been put into the service of capitalism (See Jeffries, Location 219). This narrower definition of critical theory, combined with an understanding of the circumstances in which it was produced, has, (finally!) helped me to see the importance of critical theory and how it has a purpose in my research as I continue to grapple with many of the questions they too were asking.
So, for anyone else who was never quite sure about critical theory (as well as those who always got it – and I knew a few of them too!) I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
Reference: Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss. The Lives of the Frankfurt School (London: Verso, 2016).