Wednesday, January 20, 2010

C Wright Mills/Jurgen Habermas

Read: Appelrouth & Edles 409; Mills 1-20; Appelrouth & Edles 719-752

Critical Theory – the examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two quite different meanings with different origins and histories, one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism. This has led to the very literal use of 'critical theory' as an umbrella term to describe theoretical critique.

C. Wright Mills – There has long been debate over Mills' overall intellectual outlook. Mills is often seen as a "closet Marxist" because of his emphasis on social classes and their roles in historical progress and attempt to keep Marxist traditions alive in social theory. Just as often, however, others argue that Mills more closely identified with the work of Max Weber, whom many sociologists interpret as an exemplar of sophisticated (and intellectually adequate) anti-Marxism and modern liberalism.

Jurgen Habermas – Habermas's works resonate within the traditions of Kant and the Enlightenment and of democratic socialism through his emphasis on the potential for transforming the world and arriving at a more humane, just, and egalitarian society through the realization of the human potential for reason, in part through discourse ethics. While Habermas has stated that the Enlightenment is an "unfinished project," he argues it should be corrected and complemented, not discarded. In this he distances himself from the Frankfurt School, criticizing it, as well as much of postmodernist thought, for excessive pessimism, misdirected radicalism and exaggerations.

Habermas conceives of the lifeworld as a prereflexive framework of background assumptions, a “network of shared meanings that individuals draw from to construct identities, to negotiate situational definitions, or to create social solidarity.” It consists of taken-for-granted cultural know-how, customs, and norms through which we are able to construct common understandings of our social world. In addition, the lifeworld provides for the socialization of society’s members and the internalization of norms and values essential to the stability of the social order (721).

Habermas maintains that his notion of the lifeworld helps correct Marx’s reductive, one-sided theory of society. According to Habermas, Marx and his successors failed to recognize the significance of the symbolic and communicative domains of society, opting instead to emphasize the role of economic production and property relations both in generating conditions of exploitation and in sparking the eventual communist revolution. Nevertheless, to avoid developing his own one-sided, and thus incomplete, theory, Habermas introduces the notion of the “system” to address some of the concerns that Marx had earlier studied. The system comprises a society’s political and economic structures that are responsible for the organization of power relations and the production and distribution of material resources. As societies evolve, both the state and the economy develop their own formal structure and mechanisms for self-organization. Habermas calls these organizational mechanisms steering media and argues that two primary forms emerge: power and money (721).

As the complexity, power and differentiation of the system grows, it eventually becomes sealed off from the lifeworld and ultimately comes to engulf it. In one of his more famous expressions, Habermas describes this process as the colonization of the lifeworld. In this process, system steering media (money and power) and technical/instrumental logic come to replace the consensual negotiation of shared meanings as the foundation for social integration and the reproduction of the lifeworld. The result is a “totally administered” society in which social relationships are increasingly mediated by power and money and the interpersonal debates and discussions within the lifeworld come to have less and less impact on the constitution of the system. Thus, while modern societies have witnessed a phenomenal expansion of productive capacity and material wealth, they have yet to fulfill the promise of the Enlightenment (723).

communicative action – a process in which individuals come to mutual understand and consensus through open, no coercive debate and discussion freed from the corrosive effects of money, power, and manipulation. Encompassing the other forms of rationality and addressing simultaneously the worlds of objective, social and subjective experience, communicative action embodies a critical stance that allows for the negotiation of shared meanings, the coordination of action, and the socialization of individuals. In the process, communicative action—itself an outgrowth of the evolutionary rationalization of the lifeworld—reproduces the lifeworld by transmitting the cultural stock of knowledge, integrating individuals into the community, and securing the formation of personal and social identities (724).

the public sphere – is composed of an array of social spaces where, ideally, private individuals can publicly congregate and freely debate political, ethnical, and social issues in a noncoercive and “undistorted” manner. The public sphere is not an institution, an organization, or a system; rather it is:

a network for communicating information and points of view (i.e., opinions expressing affirmative or negative attitudes); the streams of communication are, in the process, filtered and synthesized in such a way that they coalesce into bundles of topically specified public opinions. Like the lifeworld as a whole, so too, the public sphere is reproduced through communicative action (725).