- Reviewed by
While "Critical Theory" has recently come to mean "literary criticism," "meta-criticism," or even "literary theory" in some contexts, it more properly designates a particular constellation of ideas—a philosophically-informed amalgam of Kant, Hegel, Weber, Freud, and Marx—originating from the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in the 1920s (the term itself was coined in 1937 after most of the members of the Institute had left Germany for the United States). Reappraisals is located squarely within that Frankfurt School tradition. Yet from the opening pages, Hohendahl acknowledges the problematic nature of the term and the rapidly shifting boundaries of this tradition. He points out that until about 1980, critical theory was perceived primarily as a radical way of thinking about society, politics, and culture, as part of the larger project of Western Marxism; since then, however, its concerns and effects have been somewhat altered in response to contemporary [End Page 215] porary social, political, and philosophical debates in both Europe and the United States. Indeed, Hohendahl's objective in this book is to reappraise and chart critical theory's modified alignments in light of its varying roles in these debates.
Reappraisals is made up of eight loosely-connected essays, most of which have appeared as journal articles (two of these, however, have been previously published only in German). Taken together, they adroitly place in historical and political context the thinking of many writers traditionally associated with the Frankfurt School and critical theory—Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and Jürgen Habermas, along with Georg Lukács (a more problematic "fellow-traveller")—and introduce a number of second and even third generation critical theorists who are not so well known on this side of the Atlantic. Hohendahl very effectively summarizes, explains, and evaluates certain central questions and concerns in the works of these various figures. But he does more: he also rearticulates the historical, philosophical, and political relationships that obtain between them; and he demonstrates how issues brought forward by certain critical theorists—most notably Adorno and Habermas—become realigned in response to the work of Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty, and in the larger context of contemporary debates with poststructuralists, postmodernists, and feminists. In this way, Hohendahl can show why Adorno's stock has recently been on the rise, why it might be worthwhile to give Lukács' aesthetics another look, and why Habermas is frequently misunderstood in North America.
Reappraisals is aptly titled. It is not an introductory work, not written primarily for those who need an initial appraisal. Rather, it seeks readers who already have some familiarity with the more common features of the territory. Hohendahl wants us to look at critical theory again, more closely, and from the interdisciplinary and international vantage point of today. And he is the perfect guide: his prodigious knowledge of contemporary philosophical and social thought is only matched by his understanding of the political and institutional scene (since the war) in both Germany (East and West) and the United States. He has the discerning eye of a cartographer coupled with a unique transcontinental perspective; indeed, part of the appeal of this book is in Hohendahl's ability to bring materials only available in German to bear on contemporary issues in aesthetics, politics, culture, and postmodernity.
At one point early on Hohendahl states that "the question of What is the meaning and relevance of critical theory today? has to be answered in local terms." Reappraisals masterfully maps out the terrain where these answers can begin to be found. [End Page 216]