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What is the Meaning of Critique Today?

A Moderated Panel Discussion on Thursday, November 12, 2015

Moderators: Alex Stoner and Adam Bronson  

What is the meaning of critique today, in 2015? This question is especially apt in light of the unfolding of the twentieth century, and particularly in light of the post-1968 moment. For example, why were the “new” social movements unable to “prevent a redeployment of capitalism that proved so costly in human terms”?

The critical theory of the Frankfurt School was rediscovered by the New Left in the 1960s. As Jeremi Suri and other historians have argued, the New Left reception of this theoretical tradition was mediated by a shared concern with the closing down of political possibilities during the Cold War. The work of Marcuse, in particular, provided a means to critically frame the “détente” of the Cold War as a moment that pitted technocratic elites—both Soviet and American—against “marginal groups” that exceeded traditional categories of class analysis and critique.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been increasing concern that this critique of technocracy and “administered society” has been partially incorporated into a neoliberal dogma that foregrounds individual freedom and agency as pretext to inaugurating a new age of economic austerity and precariousness. Such dogma threatens to undermine the possibilities of radical critique once again, albeit in a register and milieu that would have been foreign to Marcuse and an earlier generation of critical theorists. In this context, we believe it is necessary to reexamine the relationship between the tradition of critical theory and contemporary dogma without succumbing to the temptation to idealize a past golden age of welfare capitalism and oppositional social movements. 

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