New series: On Theory

By Sam

05 February 2013

The term 'Critical Theory' was first associated with the Frankfurt School and particularly the work of Max HorkheimerTheodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Today it is used very broadly to include Marxism and post-Marxism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, ideology critique, deconstruction, feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis and postcolonialism. As this list implies, Critical Theory is a pursuit mainly associated and confined to academia. Its difficult, not to say sometimes impenetrable, presentation has served to compound its detachment from wider left wing activity. Noam Chomsky has been a particularly vociferous critic of the insularity and pretension of much of Critical Theory particularly the French tradition. Nevertheless Critical Theory has remained very popular among sectors on the left both inside and outside the academy and its supporters insist that it provides a valuable resource of reflection and critique that is crucial if the left is to learn from its past mistakes and present limitations. 

'On Theory' is a new monthly series of articles and interviews that will try to address this gap by attempting to bring the ideas of particular Critical Theorists to a broader audience. In the course of the series we will be interrogating further what Critical Theory represents, the impact it has had on left thinking, and the role it can serve for the left in the future. Above all the aim of the series is to try to make Critical Theory relevant for an activist audience. As Gilles Deleuze insisted...

...a theory is exactly like a box of tools [...] It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate. [It] was Proust, an author thought to be a pure intellectual, who said it so clearly: treat my book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside; if they don't suit you, find another pair; I leave it to you to find your own instrument, which is necessarily an investment for combat.

With these fighting words in mind, we will be exploring a broad range of concepts and ideas, but always with a view to providing activists with a critical handle on contemporary political situations and targets. This requires first and foremost making the work of different theorists accessible, particularly for people who have not encountered thembefore. Having done this we are better placed to evaluate their merits. Any evaluation necessarily entails testing the limits of theory as well, especially in terms of its coherence and applicatory value.

The series kicks off with an interview of John Marks on the philosophy of Michel Foucault. Lined up are interviews of a similar scope and focus on Alain Badiou, Deleuze and Donna Haraway among others.

Please do get in touch if there is a theorist you would like to see profiled, you have any suggestions for someone you would like to see interviewed, or have any suggestions for the series. Email

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3 Comments on "New series: On Theory"

By Neil, on 06 February 2013 - 14:41 |

Congratulations on creating this series - I think it’s a great idea. I would be very grateful if you could you try commission an article or interview on Theodor Adorno - in my opinion one the giants of critical theory. It seems to me that much of his critique of modernity, in particular of the role of instrumental reason, has largely been forgotten on the Marxist/post-Marxist left to its detriment. I’m not sure who’s the best Adorno expert in the UK, but you might try Peter Thompson at the University of Sheffield. 

By Sean Delaney, on 08 February 2013 - 21:54 |

Great. Just what we need: another million words pontificating on ‘critical theory.’  What about setting a Twitter type limit on contributions, so then people can go away and calibrate their way round this veritable OCEAN of ideas?

Here’s a start:

Kant - Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno: All of whom CLAIMED to critique the granddaddy of CRITICAL THEORY (Kant) but failed. and so Kant’s bourgeois antinomies lived on, like a virus, unrecognisable to the host body…

Hegel - Because LUKACS and ADORNO failed to adequately critique the GRAND MEISTER, they failed to adequately comprehend HEGEL, the BIG DADDY.

Luckily for us, along comes the one and only GILLIAN ROSE…and she critiques all of the ABOVE where the PREVIOUSLY mentioned (Lukacs, Adorno) FAILED

Gillian ROSE, ergo, walks on WATER.

By Björn Lindgren, on 12 February 2013 - 12:31 |

Hi Samuel James,

Even though I once tried to read Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno in German (sic!),
and consequently faced my intellectual and linguistic limit, I fully enjoyed reading
about all of what was translated into English of the works of Herbert Marcuse.

Later when Ernst Bloch’s Das Prinzip Hoffnung was translated into English, I was tempted to purchase it, but didn’t. I realized that my intellectual hunger no longer was what it used to be.

Nevertheless, I´d be grateful if you could publish a well-reseached article or interview about
old Herbert and Ernst!                                                                         
Cheers, Björn Lindgren

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