Vii issue 1 2009 Journal for Critical Animal Studies


Parallels with the Frankfurt School



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Parallels with the Frankfurt School

In fact, there are interesting historical and theoretical parallels between the emergence of the Frankfurt School and their “critical theory” approach against positivist academia and conformist cultures in Europe and the US, from the late 1920s through the 1960s (for the first and second generation critical theorists), and our current moment in the twenty-first century, specifically in the post-9/11 era, as we ourselves confront the largely abstract and apolitical institutions of academia and society in general, in order to mount a critique of MAS from a critical theory perspective influenced by the Frankfurt School in many ways.


Beginning in 1923, theorists including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, Erich Fromm, and Walter Benjamin formed the “Institute for Social Research” in Frankfurt, Germany. The Frankfurt School abandoned the ahistorical, positivist, and disciplinary outlook of mainstream philosophy and social science in favor of a historical, critical, and interdisciplinary approach that analyzed the interrelationships among culture, technology, and the capitalist economy. Frankfurt School theorists synthesized political economy, sociology, history, and philosophy, with the first modern “cultural studies” that analyzed the social and ideological effects of mass culture and communications. Against staid, pseudo-objective forms of “traditional theory,” the Frankfurt School developed a “critical theory” distinguished by its practical and radical objective, namely, to emancipate human beings from conditions of domination. Recognizing the limitations of “orthodox” or “classical” Marxism, Frankfurt theorists developed a “neo-Marxist” orientation that retained basic Marxist theoretical and political premises, but supplemented the critique of capitalism with other perspectives, thereby spawning hybrid theories such as Freudo-Marxism, Marxist-feminism, and Marxist-existentialism.
CAS emerges in conditions in which positivism is still a prevalent ideology in academia, and sophisticated sociological critiques of positivism replicate its separation of theory from values and practice. Apolitical values reign, as even “radicals” vie for respectability within the rules and logic of academia, and as the professionalization of discourse has transformed language from a potential medium of clarity into an opaque tool of obfuscation that ultimately reinforces systems of power. CAS eschews positivism and the fetishization of theory to respond as clearly as possible to conditions of oppression, domination, exploitation, and crisis. Just as in the 1930s and beyond Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Fromm, and others confronted a situation of growing totalitarianism, the domination of nature, the defeat of revolutionary movements, rampant consumerism and conformism, the co-optation of dissent, and the occlusion of emancipatory alternatives and possibilities, the same situations prevail today, only in more advanced form, and they all form the context, background, and motivation for CAS.
Like the Frankfurt School, CAS seeks a multidisciplinary theory. MAS is also interdisciplinary, but it typically leaves out political economy, whereas CAS incorporates it as a crucial part of its outlook. Like the Frankfurt School, CAS synthesizes social theory, politics, and the critique of capitalist domination in a revolutionary project to transform society and psychology alike.
CAS must stay relentlessly negative and uncompromising in its critique of the current social order, as it remains affirmative in sense of validating possibilities of resistance and envisioning an alternative future. The ultimate purpose of theory and critique is not to deconstruct textual contradictions, to explore the polyphony of meaning, or to experiment with alternative realities in literary imagination, but rather to align itself with animals and fight for their liberation. Importantly this must not occur in a way that conceptualizes animal issues as if they existed apart from social issues, but rather that illuminates the central role of speciesism in the major problems of cultures and societies, and shows how animal exploitation is now only part of a massive global system of exploitation that must be changed at all points and not just one.
CAS takes shape in awareness of historically-constructed ideologies and systems of power and domination in which humans have oppressed and exploited animals. CAS has a broad and holistic understanding of hierarchical power systems (e.g., racism, sexism, classism, and speciesism) and their intricate interrelationships, explores the systemic destructive effects of capitalism on all life and the Earth, and views animal liberation and human liberation as inseparably interrelated projects. In the spirit and tradition of the Frankfurt School, it seeks to realize its potential of developing one of the most comprehensive and radical outlooks yet developed.
Finally, at its best, the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory mediated theory and practice through relatively clear language, explicit normative and political commitment, and attention to concrete forces of power, repression, and resistance. This virtue, unfortunately has been lost in the last few decades with the enclosure of theory within minutiae, esotery, and lifeless abstraction. The turn toward abstraction, the mass production of jargon, and the fetishization of Continental and postmodern discourse is but the flip-side of avoiding forces of power, structures of oppression, struggles of resistance, and the catastrophic global ecological crisis. As so blatantly evident in McHugh’s approach, theory is completely detached from practice and indeed from comprehensible language itself, such that, the turn from critical theory to the likes of Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Derrida has had regressive effects.
Through the institutional biases of academia, and following the overall logic of modernity, theorists have become increasingly technical, specialized, and professionalized. They have thereby obliterated the role of the public intellectual and, ironically, of intellectual life in general, which the public regards contemptuously and dismissively as irrelevant to social, and thereby exacerbating the anti-intellectualism rampant throughout US culture. The tragedy is that theory – clear, concrete, and engaged as possible – is indispensible to practice, just as practice is to it, such that, to paraphrase Kant, theory without practice is empty, and practice without theory is “blind.”20 Instead of working as a weapon that illuminates conditions of oppression, galvanizes people, and clarifies ethical and political practice, the language of the intelligentsia functions as a wall, fence, and boundary that isolate specialists from laypeople as it separates universities from communities and the public realm. Overall, academics become tools of elitism and pawns of the ruling powers. In MAS, they often operate as theoretical vivisectors who dissect the “animal Other” as a social construction and discursive object, by way of a detached standpoint that substitutes for political commitment and revolutionary rage.





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