This book offers a unique and timely reading of the early Frankfurt School in response to the recent 'affective turn' within the arts and humanities. It revisits some of the founding tenets of critical theory in the context of the establishment of the Institute for Social Research in the early twentieth century. The book focuses on the work of Walter Benjamin, whose varied engagements with the subject of melancholia prove to be far more mobile and complex than traditional accounts. It also looks at how an affective politics underpins critical theory's engagement with the world of objects, exploring the affective politics of hope. Situating the affective turn and the new materialisms within a wider context of the 'post-critical', it explains how critical theory, in its originary form, is primarily associated with the work of the Frankfurt School. The book presents an analysis of Theodor Adorno's form of social critique and 'conscious unhappiness', that is, a wilful rejection of any privatized or individualized notion of happiness in favour of a militant and political discontent. A note on the timely reconstruction of early critical theory's own engagements with the object world via aesthetics and mimesis follows. The post-Cold War triumphalism of many on the right, accompanied by claims of the 'end of history', created a sense of fearlessness, righteousness, and unfettered optimism. The book notes how political realism has become the dominant paradigm, banishing utopian impulses and diminishing political hopes to the most myopic of visions.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book begins by revisiting some of the founding tenets of critical theory in the context of the establishment of the Institute for Social Research in the early twentieth century. After charting the history of melancholy, it focuses on the work of Walter Benjamin, whose varied engagements with the subject of melancholia prove to be far more mobile and complex than traditional accounts. The book looks at how an affective politics underpins critical theory's engagement with the world of objects. It explores the affective politics of hope. The book outlines the upsurge in theoretical writing on objects/things, especially within the much-touted field of 'object-oriented ontology' (OOO) or 'speculative realism' (SR).
This chapter situates the affective turn and the new materialisms within a wider context of the 'post-critical'. For affect theorists, the prevailing modes of social, cultural and political critique are beholden to the systems of signification, discourse, coding/decoding, ideology, and so on, all of which are preceded by affective phenomena and dispositions. Like the advent of new materialism, the 'affective turn' has developed in part through the rhetorical construction of a hegemonic obstacle, an all-powerful behemoth that only a few visionary critics and theorists are capable of defeating. As one of the most influential strands of what Perry Anderson labeled 'Western Marxism', critical theory, in its originary form, is primarily associated with the work of the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School situates itself in opposition to both the excessively doctrinaire approaches of Marxism in its Second and Third International form, and the politically deficient subjectivism represented by phenomenology and existentialism.
Melancholic dispositions and conscious unhappiness
This chapter explores how the work of first-generation critical theory can offer some interesting and timely insights into the current political economy of emotion that binds happiness and wellbeing to positivity, productivity, and measurable output. It begins by charting the major historical conceptualizations of melancholia, both in its medical and cultural iterations, since these have played such a significant role in shaping our understanding of (un)happiness. The chapter focuses on Walter Benjamin's varied and complex engagements with melancholia, many of which contrast with the traditional readings of melancholia as inherently passive, inward-looking, static, and so forth. It closes with an analysis of Theodor Adorno's form of social critique and 'conscious unhappiness', that is, a wilful rejection of any privatized or individualized notion of happiness in favour of a militant and political discontent.
This chapter shows how the contemporary (re)turn to objects initially serves as a useful corrective to social or political theories that fail to properly engage with the object world. It presents a timely reconstruction of early critical theory's own engagements with the object world via aesthetics and mimesis. The mediating role played by aesthetics is of vital importance for understanding early critical theory's engagement with objects and affects. The chapter also shows how the thought of Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor Adorno contributes to the timely task. Kracauer's work retains a relatively marginal position within studies of critical theory. The chapter then suggests that 'object-oriented ontology' (OOO)/'speculative realism' (SR) goes much beyond a post-critical fantasy, which gleefully jettisons all relationality and criticality for the sake of concocting a 'new', non-human philosophy.
This chapter aims to chart the dominant narrative of decline within leftist. Writing an intellectual history of the left inevitably involves the construction of narratives. The chapter also aims to excavate the utopian desires of critical theory with a view to reigniting an affective politics centred on hope. The utopian images and productivist dreams of building a better future are supplanted by consumerist nightmares of coercion, conformity, indifference, and subjective deformation. The chapter provides an engagement with the work of Ernst Bloch, since no discussion of the politics of hope can afford to ignore Bloch's major contributions to the topic. Bloch characterizes hope as an expectant emotion. His three-volume opus The Principle of Hope is an imposing, esoteric, unpredictable, often rambling and repetitive text, which spans the fields of anthropology, social and cultural history, philosophy, and theology.
Economically, the liberalism follows classical accounts of human nature undergirded by notions of utility-maximization, rational choice theory, and methodological individualism. In the electoral realm, the managerial liberalism culminated in the phenomenon of 'triangulation', a strategy of appearing bi-partisan in the hope of appealing to a broader range of the electorate. The seismic political events betoken the dominant form of centrist liberalism that has accompanied most post-war capitalist economies. The intrusion of the 'post-truth' storm into the liberal idyll is really just the return of the repressed. The affective underpinning to political theory and praxis has always been there; it has just been overlooked or suppressed for the sake of securing certain ends. Political economy too has always been augmented by affect: hope and fear, pleasure and pain, love and hatred, happiness and discontent.