Critical theory

Other disciplines that might further develop socially engaged art practice

This section considers other disciplines that are relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) and are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; and the carnivalesque. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.

This is the sixth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

The first post briefly discusses critical theory.  My research is based around this approach and its methodologies.  I use the term un-capitalised because my work is informed by a critical theory beyond that attributed solely to the Frankfurt School.

critical theory cartoon

Critical theory is at the heart of this research. It is, in its broader and narrower senses, an approach that provides ‘the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms’ (Bohman, 2013). For Horkeimer, Critical Theory is emancipatory, seeking ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’ (Horkheimer, 1982, p. 244). It is a critically interdisciplinary approach which, as, Bohman explains:

‘Critical Theorists have long sought to distinguish their aims, methods, theories, and forms of explanation from standard understandings in both the natural and the social sciences. Instead, they have claimed that social inquiry ought to combine rather than separate the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity. Such an approach… permits their enterprise to be practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense. They do not merely seek to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather… seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression. This normative task cannot be accomplished apart from the interplay between philosophy and social science through interdisciplinary empirical social research’ (Bohman, 2013).

Critical theory must meet three criteria continuously: ‘it must be explanatory, practical, and normative’; it must ‘explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation’ – a task only achievable ‘only through interdisciplinary research that includes psychological, cultural, and social dimensions, as well as institutional forms of domination’ (Bohman, 2013). As Horkheimer explained, capitalism must become more democratic so that ‘all conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus’ (Horkheimer, 1982, pp. 249-250); Jürgen Habermas continues to critically explore such forms of cooperative, practical and transformative action today. There is a reawakening of critical theory at present. In responding to:

‘a period in which philosophy cooperates with empirical sciences and disciplines, Critical Theory offers an approach to distinctly normative issues that cooperates with the social sciences in a nonreductive way. Its domain is inquiry into the normative dimension of social activity, in particular how actors employ their practical knowledge and normative attitudes from complex perspectives in various sorts of contexts. It also must consider social facts as problematic situations from the point of view of variously situated agents… This kind of normative practical knowledge is thus reflexive and finds its foothold in those ongoing, self-transforming normative enterprises such as democracy that are similarly reflexive in practice’ (Bohman, 2013).

Bohman roots this resurgence of interest in critical theory as a response to the ‘pernicious ideology’ presently at work in suggesting there is no alternative to our present way of living; a time when ‘the social scientifically informed, and normatively oriented democratic critic’ can suggest ‘novel alternatives and creative possibilities in place of the defeatist claim that we are at the end of history’ (Bohman, 2013). Critical theory can, perhaps, be seen as a solution to the call for a critical postmodernism that responds to and suggests alternatives to ‘scepticism concerning the transformative and critical powers of art, aesthetics, knowledge’ by seeking individualised alternatives that ‘end of any simple faith in what have sometimes been called the “grand metanarratives”’ (Hebdige, 1992 [1986-7], p. 337); creating ‘a postmodernism of resistance, including resistance to that easy postmodernism of the “anything goes” variety’ in so doing (Huyssen, 1998 [1984], p. 336). As such, critical theory can be considered as aligned to post-structuralism’s ‘refusal to grant structuralism its premise that each system is autonomous, with rules and operations that begin and end within the boundaries of that system’ (Krauss, 2011, p. 40), yet, perhaps, it is also different from post-structuralism in terms of its goals.