The Frankfurt School: The Critique of Capitalist Culture

Thu., Jul. 17, 2014, 8:30am - Sat., Jul. 19, 2014, 5:00pm

The Frankfurt School: The Critique of Capitalist Culture
An Interdisciplinary Conference
July 17 – 19, 2014
Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema, 149 West Hastings Street, Vancouver BC
Reserve a seat for the Conference:

The UBC Node is pleased to support this event. The conference is the collaborative effort of three of the leading higher educational institutions in the greater Vancouver area: Douglas College, Simon Fraser University (SFU), and the University of British Columbia (UBC). It will take place July 17-July 19, 2014 and will consist of three days of presentations and keynotes on our theme happening on each of the three campuses on the three successive days.

Keynote Speakers: Martin Jay, Andrew Feenberg, Deborah Cook

The Frankfurt School refers to the Frankfurt-based Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) founded through a bequest by Marxist political scientist Felix Weil and included Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Pollock, Eric Fromm, and Leo Lowenthal, and Otto Kircheimer. The Frankfurt School is synonymous with “Critical Theory” which represents a thorough-going re-formulation of Marxism starting in the early 1920’s and 1930’s as articulated in Horkheimer’s programmatic and influential essay “Critical and Traditional Theory” (1937). Taking up Lukacs’ influential conception of “reification,” members of the Frankfurt School constructed from concepts drawn from philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary criticism, sociology and political science a theoretical constellation, informed by empirical research, that sought to grasp the new socio-economic, political and above all cultural conditions of late capitalist society. In such a society, virtually all oppositional forces or forms of “negativity” seemed to have become all but absorbed in a pervasive “one-dimensionality” (Marcuse).

While the Frankfurt School is often seen as anticipating a post-modern counter-enlightenment, it can be argued that what lies at the very heart of this project is a redoubled, if subtle, commitment to enlightenment via a refashioned understanding of “critique.” Enlightenment here is meant less as “Aufklärung” or the means by which the object world is made “clear” or “transparent” as it is in terms of “Mündigkeit” understood as “the ability to speak or speak up for oneself” unassisted by external authorities. The interdisciplinary orientation of the Frankfurt School enabled it to point to myriad ways in which such Mündigkeit was undermined by, for example, the authoritarian state and corresponding personality structures of late capitalism, new technologically-mediated forms of domination, and, perhaps most importantly, the increasingly pronounced role in everyday life of “affirmative culture” or the “culture industry” and culminated in the “totally administered society.”

This conference, therefore, poses questions about the capacity of Frankfurt Critical Theory to help us understand the (contemporary) cultural landscape of contemporary capitalism and how this relates to the possibility of conceiving of meaningful political and socio-economic alternatives to the present order. More specifically, it asks: How helpful is the concept of the “Culture Industry” in the context of global neo-liberal order in which the Keynesian welfare state has been all but displaced? Is the modernist defense of the autonomy of art as articulated in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, for example, still cogent? Are the extraordinary semantic resources of Abrahamic religions able to reinvigorate the normative conditions for meaningful and critical communication within the public sphere? What role do specific cultural forms and practices play in the struggles for justice understood as either (or both) the redistribution of wealth or the recognition of particular and differentiated identities?

For preliminary program for the conference please see: