The term 'Critical Theory' was first associated with the Frankfurt School and particularly the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor 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 firstname.lastname@example.org