Home » Modern and Post Modern » From Critical Theory to Postmodernism – Foucault, Horkheimer and Adorno

From Critical Theory to Postmodernism – Foucault, Horkheimer and Adorno

Readings for this module.

Critical Theory and The Frankfurt School

Credit : The Frankfurt School facebook page.

The narrow sense of “Critical Theory” was coined by a group of  German philosophers and social theorists known as “the Frankfurt School”. This began with Horkheimer and Adorno and stretched to Marcuse and Habermas. They distinguished “critical”  from “traditional” theory saying that a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Horkheimer 1982, 244). In a broader sense critical theories aim to explain  all the circumstances that enslave humans. This group of thinkers is still active today.

To find out more about the Frankfurt School this BBC4 podcast from Melvyn Bragg and guests  is very interesting.

My course notes for this week. Again they are taken from Professor Roth’s videos and my readings so this is not my own work.

Getting out of Totality

The title “Getting out of totality” refers to the ways in which people like Horkheimer and Adorno, saw a system of enlightenment that had become tighter in its organization, more global in its reach, and more powerful in its ability to control people. They saw modernity and enlightenment joining hands to create a new universal myth that entrapped us with its appeal while controlling us and diminishing our freedom at every step.

Although Foucault thought differently about enlightenment he also saw a growth in the global accumulation of power from which it was increasingly difficult to escape.

The theme of these thinkers is that, ironically, attempts at liberation, end up being steps towards oppression.  Foucault thought that the ideas of Nietzsche were important to leave behind the view that the generation before his had developed.

Horkheimer and Adorno

English: Photograph taken in April 1964 by Jer...

April 1964 by Jeremy J. Shapiro  Horkheimer and  Adorno  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Horkheimer and Adorno wrote in the Nazi period coming out of the Hegelian Marxist tradition, one where the path of reason, of the master-slave dialectic, accelerates and becomes evermore prominent. For them the truth that Marx saw as the engine of eventual freedom was actually an accelerator of our oppression.

Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, talked about how the accumulation of wealth would also result in the accumulation of the power of the proletariat (the lower classes), to free themselves from the tyranny of capitalist wealth accumulation. According to Marx and Hegel, as the proletariat became more aware of its oppression, they would turn against the system that created that oppression.

Adorno and Horkheimer tried to understand was how, when the oppression became even more visible, as it did with the growth of fascism, masses of people didn’t rebel against the oppression. They tried to understand the attractions of fascism and Nazism, and why the working classes didn’t rebel against the owners of capital and the massive corporations or the political parties that fed them. Horkheimer and Adorno tried to understand why we participate in our own control or oppression, why we give power to the things that turn us into less free and less capable human beings. They were interested in the persistence of domination despite the possibilities for freedom.  They traced the persistence of domination, back to the enlightenment.

“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Enlightenment’s program was the disenchantment of the world.”

But enlightenment didn’t” liberate human beings from fear and installing them as masters” it created conditions for a new kind of fear and so “the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity”. Horkheimer and Adorno saw this in Nazism and in the weapons of mass destruction as today we can see it in environmental degradation or global warming for example. Triumphant calamity is a result of the very progress that we have been so proud of.

For Adorno and Horkheimer enlightenment, that started out as a way of getting rid of myth, had become so self-fulfilling, self-justifying that it was itself a myth that worked against human beings and came to dominate them. They link technology and domination.

“Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labour of others…. What human beings seek to learn from human nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.”

Knowledge had come to mean domination of the world setting up the “knower” in a position to dominate other things, other forms of understanding were pushed aside. Our methods of understanding came to oppress us. What they saw in this process was that ‘quantification’ came to be the only framework that counted as knowledge. In the 19th century, you might have narrative, philosophical explanation, other modes of qualitative experiments or qualitative investigation counting as knowledge. By the middle of the 20th century, Horkheimer and Adorno said that the only thing that really counted as knowledge, as science, is that which that could be quantified, knowledge that resulted in the domination of the object studied. This works against us because it sets up the “knower”, or the “subject” as an agent who shows his (and it’s usually a him) his power through control of others.

“Man’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in lordly gaze, in the command.”

The enlightenment, as Horkheimer and Adorno saw it, made the human subject the replacement of God by picturing human beings in their full capacity as people who come to dominate the world through understanding.

“Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted. Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings”.

That was the legacy of Marx, we have more power but we are alienated from the thing that we’re trying to understand. They had a particular dictator in mind when they said this in the 1940’s and he knew the extent to which he could manipulate people. The core of their argument was that ‘knowledge’ becomes the ability to manipulate things which sews the seeds of our own destruction which for them was already happening. They saw modern technology being used for mass killings, efficient murder and control of people against their interest.  Understanding is linked to tyranny. That was how they explain the persistence of domination.

 “ Each human being has been endowed with a self of his or her own different from all others, so that it could all the more surely be made the same. But because that self never quite fitted the mould, enlightenment throughout the liberalistic period has always sympathized with social coercion. The unity of the manipulated collective consists in the negation of each individual and the scorn poured on the type of society which can make people into individuals.”

The persistent pursuit of equality actually creates the grounds for more coercion.  Take for example standardized testing which is supposed to treat everybody the same. But standardization also provides the tools for control, making everybody the same makes them easier to control. Social coercion is the best way to manipulate the thing you’re trying to understand.

Adorno and, Horkheimer were concerned that the pursuit of equality would erase difference because we want to treat everyone the same. We have to find ways, either through medication, political control, or through infringements on freedom of expression to make everybody comfortable, happy and controlled. This is the totalitarian state, (not yet named as such) that they saw growing around them, especially in fascism. But not only in fascism. In the enlightenment even the liberal democracies saw coercion at the core of the political regimes. One of the things that Horkheimer and, and Adorno argue in the introduction to Dialectic of Enlightenment is that, there is no alternative to enlightenment that people in modernity can imagine in respectable terms. All forms of knowledge are pulled into the enlightenment mould and are pressured to conform to the scientific or technological model of understanding. There is no alternative to it. The technological and scientific models of understanding will debunk religion, political pieties and, of course, magic. It wants to absorb everything within its paradigm. For Horkheimer and Adorno that’s what makes it a myth – that it wants to provide an explanation for every form of cognition. There’s nothing outside the enlightenment.

 “Human beings believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization of enlightenment, which equates the living with the nonliving as myth had equated the nonliving with the living. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. “

As an aside to President Roth’s lectures a quote which drew me on the same page as the one above is this one

Hermes (Ἑρμῆς, Hērmēs) God of boundaries, travel, communication, trade, thievery, trickery, language, writing, diplomacy, athletics, and animal husbandry. (Wikimedia)

“The concept, usually defined as the unity of the features of what it subsumes, was rather, from the first, a product of dialectical thinking, in which each thing is what it is only by becoming what it is not. This was the primal form of the objectifying definition, in which concept and thing became separate, the same definition which was already far advanced in the Homeric epic and trips over its own excesses in modern positive science. But this dialectic remains powerless as long as it emerges from the cry of terror, which is the doubling, the mere tautology of terror itself. The gods cannot take away fear from human beings, the petrified cries of whom they bear as their names.”

If you follow my notes on “The Ancient Greek Heroes” you will understand why I found that quote pertinent.

Back to the lecture notes.

To defeat fear people make anything that doesn’t fit into the enlightenment paradigm an object of fear. Positivism sees every other kind of intellect or thinking process as being corrupted by religion and magic, which are objects of disdain or a thing of fear. They see the triumph of the quantitative as being part of this mythologized enlightenment process. Insofar as you have the triumph of the quantitative, (what they call positivism) the scientists paradigm of enlightenment views that knowledge always will reproduce the status quo.

“The actual is validated; knowledge confines itself to repeating it, thought makes itself mere tautology. The more completely the machinery of thought subjugates existence. The more blindly it is satisfied with reproducing it. Enlightenment thereby regresses to the mythology it has never been able to escape.”

Our scientific ways of approaching the world are only validated by mirroring the world as it is. Rather than trying to imagine the world as it might be or taking a critical perspective on the status quo, the positivists quantitatively orientated an enlightened mode of thinking, Horkheimer and Adorno argue, that this reproduces the reality in front of us as the only thing that counts, as possible and real. This creates the conditions for total control through enlightenment or scientific modes of action. Everything is used to increase the powers of manipulation and domination. Those are what are called rational procedures from Horkheimer and Adorno’s perspective.


Horkheimer and Adorno wrote again in the midst of and published at the end of World War II when they desperately tried to understand why we participate in our own domination. The answer in part is we think we’re being rational when we participate in our own domination, that’s what it means. To be rational is to reproduce the status quo.

There was a candidate for presidency in the United States very recently, who made fun of President Obama for saying that he wanted to keep the seas from rising.

“President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” (Mitt Romney)

He said that we just want to work with what’s out there in the world and that he was being more rational, more reasonable.  If the sea levels are rising, you can’t do anything about that. That would be the rational response – just not try to do anything about it, not try to change it but try to mirror reality. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the mode of mirroring reality that reinforces the status quo also reinforces domination and oppression. Horkheimer and Adorno and many others of the Frankfurt School  focused on diagnosing the problem and not in giving you solution.


They do suggest how to escape from this mode of thinking. They explore some, if not alternatives to the Enlightenment mode of domination, some possibilities that still exist for us that are not totally absorbed by that mode of domination. They focused on art and memory.  There is a very long passage on the Odyssey and the story of how Odysseus sailed past the Sirens here which I will have to come back to when I move onto the Odyssey from the Iliad. For now I will continue with following the lectures.

“The urge to rescue the past as something living, instead of using it as the material of progress, has been satisfied only in art, in which even history, as a representation of past life, is included. As long as art, including history, does not insist on being treated as knowledge and thus exclude itself from praxis, it is tolerated by social praxis in the same way as pleasure.”

Credit : insignificances.com

Art like pleasure is tolerated in the Enlightenment modality, but art rescues the past. This was important for Horkheimer and Adorno because the past contains the seeds of alternatives to the status quo. Rather than trying to project a utopian future, they think of the past as having seeds of possibility that have not yet been cultivated. Culture can provide us with pleasurable reminders of alternatives to this totalitarian picture generated by the enlightenment. However, art too is colonized by the forces of progress in Enlightenment, it is used by the forces of domination. They certainly saw that in Nazi Germany with the great choreography of mass rallies, the use of film to generate an enthusiasm for the regime and to generate hatred of the regime’s enemies. Horkheimer and Adorno over the years (Adorno in particular) saw in mass culture another mode of dominating people, by reducing the spectrum of what they can hear and see and take pleasure in and find alternative to the status quo.

I am butting in again here to quote the great Roman satirist – Juvenal who first use the term’ Bread and Circuses’.

Credit : Sott.net

“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

Some of the people that we have read for this course quoted Juvenal

J’ai en ce moment une forte rage de Juvenal. Quel style! quel style! (Flaubert, letter of 1853)

Satire, if it is to do any good and not cause immeasurable harm, must be firmly based on a consistent ethical view of life. (Kierkegaard, The Present Age)

But Adorno didn’t think much of satire.

“Regression of the masses today lies in their inability to hear with their own ears what has not already been heard, to touch with their hands what has not previously been grasped; it is the new form of blindness which supersedes that of vanquished myth.”

With this quote they were trying to remind us that there are forms of art that we might open our ears and eyes to, but there were great forces in social praxis and social coercion and the homogenization of society that limit what we can hear and take pleasure from, limit what we can see and consider as art.

Horkheimer and Adorno were, dedicated ‘avant gardists’. They were very interested in how art aggressively pushes the boundaries of what we can think and take pleasure from and they were worried that as part of the dialectic enlightening, as part of the cycle of domination, art would become less and less adventurous. Art would become more and more a, form of mass culture or pop culture, appealing to our most base tastes and reinforcing the status quo. They wanted an art that was going to push us to think beyond where we were, beyond what the status quo required. That would be the path to what they call true praxis, the overturning of the status quo through action informed by feeling acknowledged.

“By subjecting everything particular to its discipline, it left the un-comprehended whole free to rebound as mastery over things against the life and consciousness of human beings. But a true praxis capable of overturning the status quo depends on theory’s refusal to yield to the oblivion in which society allows thought to ossify.”

True praxis integrates theory pleasure and aesthetics. They were wary that aesthetics or art, music etc were being ‘dumbed down’ into something that everybody could sing and tap their feet to which would close the door on art.They do have some hope that through art, the past can be redeemed, rescued and possibilities for the future can be opened up despite the awful persistence of domination and our participation in it.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Foucault  was an historian, a philosopher, a writer on art and literature, an activist and a bit of a trickster in some ways as well. He was a leader of French Postmodernism insofar as he was rigorously antifoundational. He, didn’t want to find the ‘really real’, nor a total dialectic. He wanted to tell the story of progress in such a way that we would see how what we thought of as progress was actually a form of greater social control and homogenization. He told that story not because he thought it had objective truth but because he thought that alternative accounts of how we came to be who we are might actually open up possibilities for us to change who we would be in the future.

Bedlam by William Hogarth (Credit neatorama.com)

The reading this week was from Michel Foucault’s work on the mental asylums and mental hospitals called “Madness and Civilization”. He gave an example of the ‘Foucauldian’ approach to the past and approach to politics. For Foucault the history of mental illness was great field for deconstruction. In the field of mental illness up until about the end of the 18th century we treated insane people very badly. We didn’t know they were sick, we thought they were possessed, we thought they were criminals, we thought that we had to chain them up and contain mental illness in a way that was barbaric. It was only after this time that we realized that these people needed help and that we could help them get better and even return them to normality. The view was of progress from persecution, torture and confinement to liberation and towards health. Foucault disagreed he said that what looks like progress towards health is actually a wave of conformity, of trying to erase the possibility of difference that man has always represented. What he saw in the development of the asylum was a massive social undertaking, where we erased the possibility of authentic madness and increased pressure towards normalization, not just for the mentally ill, but for all of us.

In his book “A History of Madness” Foucault wrote that madness escaped from the arbitrary, only in order to enter a kind of endless trial for which the asylum furnished simultaneously police, magistrates, and torturers. Madness would be punished in the asylum, even if it was innocent outside it.  Madness is ‘imprisoned in a moral world’, by that he meant after the liberation of the mad from the asylum. We replace notions of the excessive mad person, on the borders of society, with the notion of health within which all of us are imprisoned. In the old days, for Foucault, we just had to imprison or ostracise or torture the mad person, the rest of us were not subject to the order, the moralistic order that developed later.

For the madman we tortured him or we made him into a kind of hero, we made him the king for the day giving him pride of place. We invited him to special parties, made fun of him, even tortured him, but we were not all trying to be sane. The madman relieved us of the obligation to conform to some notion of sanity. Today there are a lot of people who take psychoactive medication. At the art school, that Professor Roth used to work at it, 76% of the students were on medication and proud of it because it was a sign that the parents of all these artists were trying to make them into non art, or rather healthy people. That’s the moral of Foucault’s “History of Madness”, you liberate the patient so that the patient can be normal. Now there is a pill for everything and it is so much nicer and kinder than torturing madmen.

Foucault wrote that “the asylum no longer punished the mad man’s guilt”. It didn’t see the mad man as guilty, but it organized the guilt of the mad man and then organized all of the guilt of society, making all of us subject to the pressures of psychologization. The asylum used to be the place where people were confined. Sometimes people would go to look at them like they would look at animals in a zoo. But you would look at them because they were living an alternative reality what has happened, Foucault says, is that alternative reality is closed off. The only reality is the reality of normalization so increasing the power to homogenize, to flatten out society.

“We should admit, rather, that power produces this is knowledge and not simply encouraging it because it serves power, by applying it because it is useful.”

Criticism of Foucault in this period was he didn’t identify the ‘bad guy’.  In Marxist stories the bad guy is capitalist. In anti-colonialism the ‘bad guy’ is the colonial powers, and for the anti racists of today the ‘bad guy is racism. Foucault avoided that trap of naming conformity as the ‘bad guy’ because for him it was important that there should be a system without an author. Any change should happen by itself so that you don’t know who to attack to change it.

“The asylum is a religious domain without religion; a domain of pure morality, of ethical uniformity. Now, the asylum must represent the great continuity of social morality. The values of family and work, all the acknowledged virtues, now reign in the asylum. “

Magdalene asylum. (photo credit: rjosephhoffmann.files)

In the 19th century, the asylum became a model place for bourgeois morality. Foucault’s History of Madness is one where madness comes to be the vehicle for him to understand how we reinforce social codes in such a way as to increasingly limit the possibilities we have for alternative ways of life, alternative pleasures for, or even one might say, for the experience intensity. Intensity is pushed to the side, is diminished in favour of normality.

“Madness escaped from the arbitrary only in order to enter a kind of endless trial for which the asylum furnished simultaneously police, magistrates, and torturers. Madness will be punished in the asylum, even if it is innocent outside of it.”

Credit : whale.to

Madness had become part of our moral world which Foucault thought was a world of reinforced social conformity. He delighted in showing how the pursuit of anti-conformity  often lead to more conformity because you concretize or make too stable some alternatives, you make them into identity markers that then become their own forces of conformity. For example Foucault in his History of Sexuality wanted to show how the fluidity of sexuality gets increasingly controlled over time, especially in the modern period. Especially when people think they’re pursuing sexual freedom, they create new categories for how you should pursue sexual freedom, new forms of identity to which you should conform even if that identity is outside of the main stream. This is Foucault’s great subject. How we, in a way, police ourselves. How we dominate ourselves by saying, oh, I am going to be a radical, so now; I have to act like the radicals act. In other words, you conform to the image of radicalization. Some might say, well, I am not a diseased person because I like to have sex with people of my own gender. No, no, I am not that. I am free, I am gay, or I’m a homosexual, or I’m a lesbian. I am free. And Foucault says, yeah, you’re free. But now, notice how we start to have to conform to being gay, being lesbian, why do we need always to find a new mode of conformity or a label for our freedom that comes then to repress us?

The repressive hypothesis is the core of psychoanalysis. Foucault thought this was very deceptive mode of thinking as it deceived us about the nature of pleasure and desire. Psychoanalysis convinced us that if we lie down on a couch and tell the analyst about what we were really thinking, that somehow we would be liberated. Lying down and free associating would enable us to access true feelings and get them beyond repression. For Foucault that was a productive mistake. It produced a lot of talk around sexuality about how repressed we are. For Foucault everyone kept talking about things they’d learned to talk about in the same way. They learned to desire the same things, increasing conformity.

Foucault also wrote about the prison system. We used to be very barbaric towards prisoners punishing and torturing them in very public ways. Now we think we have to rehabilitate them, that they should be given a moral treatment that brings them back into society. Foucault was very suspicious of these efforts at rehabilitation. He says that we take the forces that used to go into torture and policing, and we put them into policing ourselves all the time. Schools become the engines of conformity, schools become like prisons. All our institutions start resembling prisons because all of our institutions start pushing a model of identity from which they cannot escape.

This quotation from “What is Enlightenment?” echoes Kant’s essay.

“Kant was not seeking to understand the present on the basis of a totality or of a future achievement. Kant was looking for a difference. What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?”

Kant, Foucault says, is interested in how enlightenment marks a possibility, a change, a difference, for Foucault that creates, what he calls, an attitude of modernity.  Foucault associates modernity with Baudelaire and sees it as a time when you can invent possibilities rather than conform to alternatives.

“For the attitude of modernity, the high value of the present is indissociable from a desperate eagerness to imagine it otherwise than it is.”

That’s what Foucault is always looking for, to think about a reality that could be otherwise than it is. He gets this from the surrealists and it becomes a key part of his thinking

“Baudelairean modernity is an exercise in which extreme attention to what is real is confronted with the practice of a freedom that simultaneously respects this reality and violates it.”

For Baudelaire you paid great attention to the world around you rather than close your eyes and imagine another society. But you pay that attention in the service of imagining an alternative to the reality that’s around you and this violates the reality around you. You don’t want to just try to discover something else in the status quo but to invent or create something else.

“Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his inner truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not ‘liberate man in his own being’; it compels man to face the task of producing himself.”


is the core message of our week for Foucault. That modern man doesn’t seek to find the true essence, or the foundation, or the telos, the goal, but to invent himself. Then he has the possibilities of liberation that is new rather than liberation that is conforming to another, somebody else’s model of what it means to be free. This is what Foucault’s critical practice is all about, how do we expand the possibilities of invention that changed the world around us, without succumbing to new modes of conformity, new models of oppression. Foucault talks about this as practical critique.

Foucault says that we are caged in and we need a critique that opens up possibilities of transgression. Just like Baudelaire did in “The Bad Glazier” poem where he just threw something at this guy to shouting at him make life beautiful. It was transgressive, it wasn’t moral, it didn’t conform to anything else. But, it opened a space. That’s what Baudelaire was trying to do with his poems, and that’s what Foucault is trying to do with his histories. Open a space of possibility where something new might happen.

“What is at stake then, is this. How can the growth of capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of power relations? “

Is the exploration of possibility possible without those explorations becoming new forms of repression? Foucault sought that out in his personal life, in his teaching, in his books and essays and, in the arts that he thought about and wrote about.

Personal note from Professor Roth

 I had the privilege as a young historian to work with Foucault in, in Paris. And I was working on the kinds of things that Foucault really didn’t like at all, frankly. I was working on Hegelian things, you know? And my dissertation was on Hegelianism in France. And Foucault was the great enemy of Hegelianism in France. But he was very kind and generous with me and helped me connect to people that I needed to know to do my research. And I was really struck by his of course, his charisma, his powers as a thinker, as a teacher, but also, by his generosity. Because I think part of his generosity was the creation of possibilities from even people who disagreed with him, creation of possibilities in a world that increasingly closed off things for us and to us. He was a thinker who wanted to open up things for us and to us, and he did that with gusto with generosity and with a piercing intelligence.


If you enjoy reading my notes consider making a small donation to one of these charities. No donation is too small, you could change a life.


  1. sirwebs says:

    Wonderful notes. I’m studying them for my 6th essay.

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you. The sixth essay is quite hard without taking huge chunks of the text from the readings.

  2. […] From Critical Theory to Postmodernism – Foucault, Horkheimer and Adorno (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] From Critical Theory to Postmodernism – Foucault, Horkheimer and Adorno (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  4. Kate Zen says:

    Thanks for this wonderfully informative post!

  5. […] The narrow sense of “Critical Theory” was coined by a group of German philosophers and social theorists known as “the Frankfurt School”. This began with Horkheimer and Adorno and stretched to Marcuse and Habermas.  […]

  6. […] From Critical Theory to Postmodernism – Foucault, Horkheimer and Adorno […]

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