Repudiations of Realism I: Critical Theory

  • John Orr
Part of the Edinburgh Studies in Sociology book series (ESIS)


With respect to literature, the most striking feature of critical theory is that it has no theory—only significant fragments. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, its two most eminent critics, both resisted that totalising mode of theorising which is characteristic of Lukacs and Auerbach. What they have bequeathed us are a series of essays on often unrelated themes. Adorno, possessing a Nietzschean resistance to philosophical standardisation, based his literary criticism on the principle of a detotalising totality.1 This principle is part of his wider conception of theory as negative critique of existing culture and society. In Benjamin’s work, this negative critique takes the form of a cryptic meditation on public life, which is viewed as an ever-recurrent threat to the freedom of the individual spirit. In Herbert Marcuse, one of the more programmatic thinkers of the Frankfurt School, there is an attempt to use the scattered insights of his colleagues to produce a theory of the relationship between art and modern society. But at best it is carried out inconsistently, without the understanding of modern literature which they possessed.


Modern Society Critical Theory Modern Literature Frankfurt School Negative Critique 
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  1. 1.
    See Frederick Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton 1971), chapter 1.Google Scholar
  2. Producer’ New Left Review, 62, 1970Google Scholar
  3. Ernst Juenger Der Arbeiter (Berlin 1932)Google Scholar
  4. J. Orr ‘German Social Theory and the Hidden Face of Technology’, Archives europeenes de sociologie, xv, 1974, pp. 312–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 7.
    See The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York 1972)Google Scholar
  6. Martin Jay The Dialectical Imagination (London 1973), p. 216ff.Google Scholar

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© John Orr 1977

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  • John Orr

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