This book is concerned with the scope of cultural theory in its modern, it might even be said in its modernist, form. The three thinkers under most consideration in the book are Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, who might hardly be seen as representatives of cultural theory per se if that enterprise is taken to be what it should often taken to be. The book starts with Adorno (1903-1969) not just because his work is an apt way to introduce further some very basic themes of the book: in particular those of critical autonomy and educationality. Adorno's reflections on art and culture are contributions to the ethical understanding of autonomy, emphasising the importance of the cultivation of critical reflection. The argument here is that he is, rather, an ethico-critical theorist of democracy and a philosopher of hope. The book then situates the work of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), in other ways so different from Adorno, in terms of a broadly, if minimally, parallel agenda in modern cultural theory. It outlines some of the importance of Foucault's notion of an 'aesthetics of existence' in relation to his work as a whole. It further invokes related themes in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). Finally, it moves things in a different direction, towards postmodernism, invoking the increasing role of the cultural and aesthetic dimension in contemporary experience that is often taken as a central aspect of the postmodern turn.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book. The book is concerned with the scope of cultural theory in its modern form. It starts with considering what this concern might mean and why it might be of interest. The book describes the three thinkers, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, as modern cultural theorists. The goal is to claim that they can be understood according to a common thread, an agenda, or a 'genre of inquiry'. Each of these thinkers is guided by particular concerns and each, equally and obviously, have a particular style or working signature. The book seeks to pass their work through the unifying lens of certain, rather basic, principles of reading. The basic principles of reading include maximisation, coherence, redemptive critique, empiricism, and detachment.
This chapter seeks to get clear of various understandings of culture so as to make way for the conception of the scope of modern cultural theory. It lays the basic elements of some distinctions between modern cultural theory and other types of discourse such as cultural studies, cultural sociology and cultural anthropology. The chapter discusses the authors' own sense of what modern cultural theory actually is, attempting, partly by way of Georg Simmel, to convey the antinomical idea of culture that is fundamental to it. Simmel shows why art, especially the modernist art of his time, is important for the antinomical view of culture: for if anything resists the freezing of life into form, it is modernist art. The chapter further emphasises on the analysis of culture as the institutionalisation of creative convention and is concerned with something like the ethics of culture or critical reflexivity.
This chapter describes Theodor Adorno as probably the greatest Marxist cultural theorist of the twentieth century. The uses of Adorno's work are related to the fact that he is at once close to and distant from the perspective of postmodernism. Adorno is interested in the forces which restrict or act as blockages or which suffocate the potentiality for critical self-reflection. The chapter considers these blockages in more detail. The endlessly paradoxical character of Adorno's thought is central and certainly the reliance on paradox derives from G.W.F. Hegel's philosophical lineage. The best way to isolate what is specific to Adorno's own way of doing things is via the work of that proto-postmodernist and brilliant Adorno-interlocutor, Walter Benjamin. In his celebrated 'Work of art' essay, Benjamin sought signs of aesthetic and political redemption in the fate of contemporary cultural production.
This chapter first argues that Michael Foucault was a modernist and that his work, especially in its late period, was saturated with the question of aesthetics. For him, this question was connected to the ultimately ethical question of autonomy. The concept of culture haunts, most generally, Foucault's nominalism. One can argue over what kind of nominalism it was that Foucault espoused exactly. The argument of the chapter is that Foucault's nominalism was strategic, even ultimately ethical, and not just an epistemic point of view, and not even a dynamic or dialectical nominalism. Foucault explains the relevance of the idea of an aesthetics of existence but not about what contemporary form it might take. To provide a theory of an aesthetics of existence would be to contradict the idea itself. The chapter discusses a theme, namely subjectivation. Subjectivation is invocated in the chapter as the idea of an 'aesthetic of existence'.
Pierre Bourdieu is most often regarded as a general social theorist, a cultural sociologist or even just a very wide-ranging 'methodologist'. This latter view would make him a figure somewhat like Anthony Giddens or Roy Bhaskar in the English-speaking social sciences. 'The real is the relational' is Bourdieu's most succinct contribution to the social sciences: a relationist theory of society according to which agents move around in particular social spaces, with particular positionings, tendencies and trajectories. Bourdieu's principle of reflexivity is an objectivizing one. The point about objectivising reflexivity is that it provides an analogue to the objectivising tendencies of 'scientific' sociological analysis itself. Reflexivity divides into at least two forms in Bourdieu's work: the sociology of the intellectual field itself, and what Bourdieu calls auto-analysis. The chapter discusses the notion of reflexivity. To understand this notion, it considers the nature of science on Bourdieu's account.
This chapter seeks to differentiate postmodern cultural theory in the very widest sense from the forms of modern cultural theory that are focused in this book. In doing so, it focuses on the questions of aesthetics, culture and creativity. The basic and simple point is that, for better or worse, with postmodernism the regulative ideal of an ethics of autonomy has certainly been given up. It is possible to argue that a diffusion of culture represents the generalisation of modernism: the overflowing of modernist principles from the sphere of art into the social body more widely. As a result, it is not just the culture that is everywhere but aesthetic principles: only the aesthetic model is no longer tied to a particular sphere but is generalized to apply to just about everything.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book claims that there is, or was, such a thing as modern cultural theory and argued that there is, or was, something ultimately ethical about it. It also claims that cultural theory, at least in its modern form, is characterised by what, for want of better terminology, can be described as a knowledge-constitutive interest that is ultimately ethical in character. This absolutely does not mean that modern cultural theory provides yet another view of what it is to have or be a self in the contemporary era. The book describes Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu as modern cultural theorists to claim that they can be understood, according to a common thread, an agenda, or a 'genre of inquiry'.