Cultural Critique

Cultural critique is a broad field of study that employs many different theoretical traditions to analyze and critique cultural formations. Because culture is always historically and con textually determined, each era has had to develop its own methods of cultural analysis in order to respond to new technological innovations, new modes of social organization, new economic formations, and novel forms of oppression, exploitation, and subjugation.

The modern European tradition of cultural critique can be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) seminal essay entitled ‘‘What is Enlightenment?’’ Here, Kant opposed theocratic and authoritarian forms of culture with a liberal, progressive, and humanist culture of science, reason, and critique. By organizing society under the guiding principles of critical reason, Kant believed that pre Enlightenment superstition and ignorance would be replaced by both individual liberty and universal peace.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) historicized Kant’s version of critique through a technique called genealogy. Nietzsche argued that Kant’s necessary universals are born from historical struggles between competing interests. Compared to Greek culture, Nietzsche saw contemporary Germany as degenerate. Prominent figures such as David Strauss and Friedrich Schiller represented ‘‘cultural philistines’’ who promoted cultural conformity to a massified, standardized, and superficial culture. Thus contemporary culture blocked the revitalization of a strong, creative, and vital society of healthy geniuses. Here Nietzsche rested his faith not in universal categories of reason but rather in the aristocratic will to power to com bat the ‘‘herd mentality’’ of German mass culture.

Like Nietzsche, Karl Marx (1818–83) also rejected universal and necessary truths outside of history. Using historical materialism as his major critical tool, Marx argued that the dominant culture legitimated current exploitative economic relations. In short, the class that controls the economic base also controls the production of cultural and political ideas. Whereas Nietzsche traced central forms of mass culture back to the hidden source of power animating them, Marx traced cultural manifestations back to their economic determinates. Here culture is derived from antagonistic social relations conditioned by capitalism, which distorts both the content and the form of ideas. Thus for Marx, cultural critique is essentially ideological critique exposing the interests of the ruling class within its seemingly natural and universal norms.

Whereas Kant defined the proper uses of reason for the creation of a rational social order, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) argued that the liberal humanist tradition failed to actualize its ideal because it did not take into account the eternal and unavoidable conflict between culture and the psychological unconscious. Freud argued that the complexity of current society has both positive and negative psychological implications. On the one hand, individuals have a certain degree of security and stability afforded to them by society. Yet at the same time, this society demands repression of aggressive instincts, which turn inward and direct themselves toward the ego. This internalization of aggression results in an overpowering super ego and attending neurotic symptoms and pathologies. For Freud, such a conflict is not the result of economic determination (as we saw with Marx), but rather is a struggle fundamental to the social contract and is increasingly exacerbated by the social demand for conformity, utility, and productivity.

With the Frankfurt School of social theory, cultural critique attempted to synthesize the most politically progressive and theoretically innovative strands of the former cultural theories. Max Horkheimer (1895–1971), Theodor Adorno (1903–69), and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) are three of the central members of the Frankfurt School who utilized a transdisciplinary method that incorporated elements of critical reason, genealogy, historical materialism, sociology, and psychoanalysis to analyze culture. While heavily rooted in Marxism, the members of the Frankfurt School increasingly distanced themselves from Marx’s conception of the centrality of economic relations, focusing instead on cultural and political methods of social control produced through new media technologies and a burgeoning culture industry. In the classic text Dialectic of Enlightenment (1948), Horkheimer and Adorno demonstrate that Kant’s reliance on reason has not resulted in universal peace but rather increasing oppression, culminating in fascism. Here reason becomes a new form of dogmatism, its own mythology predicated on both external domination of nature and internal domination of psychological drives. This dialectic of Enlightenment reason reveals itself in the rise of the American culture industry whose sole purpose is to produce docile, passive, and submissive workers. Marcuse argued along similar lines, proposing that the American ‘‘one dimensional’’ culture has effectively destroyed the capacity for critical and oppositional thinking. Thus many members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno in particular) adopted a highly pessimistic attitude toward ‘‘mass culture,’’ and, like Nietzsche, took refuge in ‘‘high’’ culture.

While the Frankfurt School articulated cultural conditions in a stage of monopoly capital ism and fascist tendencies, British cultural studies emerged in the 1960s when, first, there was widespread global resistance to consumer capitalism and an upsurge of revolutionary movements. British cultural studies originally was developed by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson to preserve working class culture against colonization by the culture industry. Thus both British cultural studies and the Frankfurt School recognized the central role of new consumer and media culture in the erosion of working class resistance to capitalist hegemony. Yet there are distinct differences between British cultural studies and proponents of Frankfurt School critical theory. Whereas the Frankfurt School turned toward the modernist avantgarde as a form of resistance to instrumental reason and capitalist culture, British cultural studies turned toward the oppositional potentials within youth subcultures. As such, British cultural studies was able to recognize the ambiguity of media culture as a contested terrain rather than a monolithic and one dimensional product of the capitalist social relations of production.

Currently, cultural critique is attempting to respond to a new era of global capitalism, hybridized cultural forms, and increasing control of information by a handful of media conglomerates. As a response to these economic, social, and political trends, cultural critique has expanded its theoretical repertoire to include multicultural, postcolonial, and feminist critiques of culture. African American feminist theorist bell hooks is an exemplary representative of new cultural studies who analyzes the interconnected nature of gender, race, and class oppressions operating in imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. Scholars of color such as hooks and Cornell West critique not only ongoing forms of exclusion, marginalization, and fetishization of the ‘‘other’’ within media culture, but also the classical tools of cultural criticism. Through insights generated by these scholars, cultural criticism is reevaluating its own internal complicity with racism, sexism, colonialism, and homophobia and in the process gaining a new level of self reflexivity that enables it to become an increasingly powerful tool for social emancipation.


  1. Durham, M. G. & Kellner, D. (2001) Media and Cultural Studies. Blackwell, Malden, MA.
  2. Freud, S. (1930) Civilization and its Discontents. J. Cape & H. Smith, New York.
  3. Kant, I. (1992) Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Ed. P. Guyer & A. Wood. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  4. Kellner, D. (1989) Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  5. Nietzsche, F. (1989) On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Vintage, New York.
  6. Tucker, R. (Ed.) (1978) The Marx Engels Reader. Norton, New York.

Back to Top

Back to Sociology of Culture.