By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Thematic: By Theory Possessed

From Frankfurt to Fox

The Strange Career of Critical Theory

Malloy Owen

THR illustration; Shutterstock background.

Spare a thought for the critical theory cognoscenti, who have lately been forced to watch the ideas they cherish kicked around in a highly public and undignified manner. The slap fight over so-called critical race theory is the first case that comes to mind. The critical theorists are full of scorn for the conservative activists who have adopted the term as a scare word. But some of them may also feel a certain unease over the development of industrial-scale diversity training like that practiced by “whiteness studies” scholar Robin DiAngelo. Are PowerPoints telling Goldman Sachs employees how racist they are really opening the way to “a state of civilization…in which human needs are fulfilled in such a manner and to such an extent that surplus-repression can be eliminated,” to quote Herbert Marcuse’s utopian vision?11xHerbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1966), 151. One can imagine an argument to this effect, but formulating it would be a heavy task. Diversity training’s entanglement with bureaucracy is just one attribute that would seem to disfavor it from the point of view of critical theory, at least of the Frankfurt School variety. Yet rightly or wrongly, it is diversity training that today carries forward the banner of critical theory in public. Confusing times indeed.

Similar points could be made about critical theories of sex and gender, of disability, and so on. On the one hand, these developments have spurred conservatives to devise ever more absurd caricatures of critical theory itself. On the other, the suspicion lingers that critical theory has somehow betrayed itself, sold out to power, eaten away at the very solidarity that its founders had hoped to recover.

If all that is not enough, the critical theorists also have to reckon with the strange allure the Frankfurt School and French theory have in certain corners of the right. Michel Foucault, never a reliable ally of the left, was taken up anew by conservatives during the COVID pandemic, when the concept of biopower seemed eerily apt. Giorgio Agamben, an heir to Foucault’s account of biopower, has alienated large parts of the left and won new friends on the right through his power analysis of the global pandemic response. The critical theory journal Telos, along with some of its regular contributors, was never averse to thought from outside the left but is now seen in some quarters as positively right-wing. One of the intellectual godfathers of the latest incarnation of the New Right is Nick Land, who was once a leading figure in a cutting-edge school of digital media studies influenced by the French theory luminaries Georges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard.

A new generation of conservative writers, almost wholly severed from the old ecosystem of National Review and the American Enterprise Institute, regularly invoke twentieth-century critical theory against institutional progressivism; many of them have gathered around the slick new online journal Compact, which was founded with the explicit intention of marrying the critical theories of left and right against the despised liberal center. And as Compact’s managing editor, Geoffrey Shullenberger, has pointed out, a number of influential figures in and around Steve Bannon’s Trumpist circle were initiates into the mysteries of the Frankfurt School and French postmodern thought.22xGeoffrey Shullenberger, “Theorycels in Trumpworld,” Outsider Theory, January 5, 2021, Shullenberger argues that even as figures such as Andrew Breitbart condemned “cultural Marxism” outwardly, they were putting into practice lessons learned from the critical-theoretical account of how power works in liberal modernity. Like Breitbart before him, Fox News star Tucker Carlson is now bringing this most popular and accessible expression of the critical style before a right-wing public. Fretting about hostile elites is nothing new on the right, but Carlson’s attacks on what he calls the “ruling class” and its subtle uses of the market and the culture industry to manipulate preferences and shape the sense of the possible are several degrees more sophisticated and more suspicious than the populist yelps of his predecessors on conservative cable and talk radio. The reactionary blogger Curtis Yarvin, a 2021 guest on Carlson’s show, refers to this form of order “the Cathedral”—a decentralized but omnipotent system of information production and control that is often hard to distinguish from the culture industry as described in the critical theory canon.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).