Contemporary Critical Theories I: Genealogies of Critical Theory

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Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation CoreSCC2FC3014

Cohort for which it is compulsory: All MA Programmes of SCCE

Cohort for which it is elective: Other MA Programmes of University

Semester and Year Offered: Monsoon

Course Coordinator and Team: Santhosh S.

Email of course coordinator:

Pre-requisites: None

Course Objectives/Description:

This course is designed keeping in mind the antagonistic relations that exist between theory and cultural/artistic practices in academic art education. In fact, most of the arts institutions in India discourage students from engaging with contemporary theoretical developments in the field by reducing arts education to mere skill development.

This course reflects SCCE’s vision to integrate theory and practice in a more productive and sustainable manner, and is imagined as an integrating thread across all the M.A. Programmes offered by the School of Culture and Creative Expressions. This course is comprised of three parts, intricately connected to each other, and is offered over the duration of three semesters. The first part provides a critical overview of various strands in contemporary critical theories by tracing their genealogies.

The first semester of the Contemporary Critical Theories course for the M.A. Programme combines the study of: a) the two main traditions of critical theory, namely, the Frankfurt School and French anti-humanism, b) their background in 19th-century European Enlightenment philosophy and particularly, a critical introduction to the key philosophical concepts of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche.

The primary objective of the course in the first semester is to introduce the critical discourses which enable pedagogy as a whole to deal with the complexities involved in contemporary cultural production. One of the areas of focus in this course is to frame theoretical formulations in their historical, cultural, and intellectual contexts. It attempts to familiarise students with several strands of contemporary critical thought. It also introduces them to the history and methods of various streams of critical thinking. Given that most of the historical and theoretical strands of each of the M.A. specializations is deeply informed by these larger philosophical discourses, this course is imagined as a (re)source which explores this dialectical relationship.

As an initial step, this course introduces four key thinkers of the 19th century whose theoretical/philosophical ruminations still play a central role in contemporary critical theory, namely Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx. Further, to provide a background to the works of Frankfurt School of critical theory, the course begins with a brief introduction to the Marxist literary/artistic theories and various strands of Marxism as a political philosophy, especially in the context of cultural production. Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Louis Althusser are some of the key thinkers that this course introduces through a series of lectures and discussions.

As part of the continuous assessment process, a student or a group of students have to make half-hour long presentations on key texts assigned to them. Similarly, each class in every week has thematic focuses and separate reading/reference materials.

Course Outcomes:

  • Upon successful completion of the course, the student will be able to:
  • Acquire a demonstrable understanding regarding the genealogies of critical theory.
  • Distinguish between differences and similarities between various strands within critical theory and their dialectical relationship with creative/cultural knowledge production. These differences and similarities include: 1. Historical, 2. Ideological, 3. Philosophical, 4. Artistic, 5. Aesthetical, and 6. Political
  • Internalize and articulate through oral, visual, or written forms, the historical predicament of the European Enlightenment and its global ramifications by locating them as part of critiques of Enlightenment from multiple vantage points.
  • Develop a nuanced understanding regarding the interrelationship between critical and creative practices and inculcate these values in their own practices.
  • Critically and creatively engage with the heterogeneous character of the relationship between art, aesthetics, and politics, and articulate them through their artistic practices.

Brief description of modules/Main modules:

Genealogies of the ‘Critical’ in Critical Theory: This introductory module exposes students primarily to two school of thoughts that are central to the formation of critical theory in its initial stage. Here, we explore the critical history of the Frankfurt School and other strands of critical theory such as the works of Antonio Gramsci. This module also engages with the works of G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Immanuel Kant to trace the genealogies of the concept/term ‘critique’.

What is Enlightenment?: This module engages with the historical phenomenon of European Enlightenment and it global impact by analysing it from multiple perspectives. It provides an in-depth reading of Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” through Michel Foucault’s reflection on this essay bearing the same name. This pairing of texts enables the students to engage with the critical dimensions of the act of reading in general and the way in which one can assess the contextual relevance of the texts from the past and their ramifications in the present.

Critique of Judgment: This module comprises a discussion around extracts from Critique of Judgment by Kant and the first chapter of Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction.

Ideology Critique: This module primarily deals with multiple schools within the Marxian critique of ideology through undertaking a close reading of works by political philosophers such as Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Louis Althusser. The focus of the module is to critically engage with the question of culture through these debates around ideology and ideological apparatuses.

Commodity Fetishism and Phantasmagoria: This module engages with the Marxian notion of commodity fetishism as part of ideology critique, by revisiting some of original passages from the texts of Karl Marx on the one hand, and Walter Benjamin’s expansion of these concepts in the context of techno-aesthetics or the phantasmagoria of capitalist practices of political and cultural economy.

Assessment Details with weights:

Mid-Term Essay/Creative interpretation: 30% (Month 2). This assignment is a critical or creative interpretation on the conceptual similarity between a fictional and non-fictional/theoretical reflection on some of the foundational questions regarding the formation and structuration of the society or polity that we inhabit.

Class Participation and Peer Review: 10% (Semester long)

Class Presentation: 20% (Month 3). These presentations are based on key concepts in critical theory and students are encouraged to work in groups and elucidate these concepts through their own disciplinary vocabularies. Presentations may include propositional and creative undertakings.

Research Paper/Creative Interpretation of Concepts and Reflective Note: 40% (End Semester). These are individual reflections or scholastic ruminations in written form (minimum 2500 words) with adequate amount of disciplinary focus and illustrative examples.

Reading List:

  • Andrew Arato and Dike Gebhardt eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, New York: Continuum, 1982.
  • Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (Vol. 1, 2, 3), NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 2011 (new edition).
  • David McLellan ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, London and New York: OUP, 2000. 2nd Edition.
  • Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, London and New York, Verso, 2007.
  • Immanuel Kant and Werner S. Pluhar, Critique of Judgment, Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub. Co., 1987.
  • Immanuel Kant. An Answer to the Question: 'What is Enlightenment?', UK: Penguin, 2013.
  • Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press, 1971.
  • Louis Althusser, Readings Capital, London and NY: Verso Books, 2009 (reprint).
  • Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Paul Rabinow ed., The Foucault Reader, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984: 32-50.
  • Peter R. Sedgwick, Nietzsche: A Critical Reader, UK: Blackwell, 1995.
  • Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London & New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner eds., Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, London: Routledge, 1989.
  • Stephen Houlgate ed., The Hegel Reader, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.
  • Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1998 (reprint).
  • Theodor W. Adorno, The Culture Industry, New York and London: Routledge, 2003 (reprint).
  • Walter Benjamin, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
  • Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1968.