From edition

The shadow of cultural criticism

In an article published in Athenäum in the year 1800, the German poet and critic Friedrich Schlegel agreed with Immanuel Kant’s famous dictum that the times were such that they could meaningfully be termed a “critical age”. But, in an ironic response to answer Kant’s positive tone, he added: “so that soon everything will be criticized, except the age itself” (Schlegel, 1800b: 338)[1]. In a way characteristic for the Romantic Movement, he pointed to the tendency of Enlightenment’s critical thinking to be analytic rather than synthetic. Though perfectly tuned to differentiate phenomena into ever smaller elements, it could not, in his view, in the same way account for unity, wholeness, totality. The age of criticism, then, could not in any meaningful way think itself or its own character.

As it would turn out, however, the intellectual developments of the time would prove Schlegel’s answer wrong. The critical age was already seeing the emergence of an alternative kind of critical reflection; a kind that took the character or spirit of the culture as a whole as its primary subject matter, and valued its historical development as the gradual spread of corruption or decadence. Indeed, Schlegel’s own writings were in many ways exemplary for a new type of criticism that emerged around this time and would become profoundly important for the self-understanding of Western culture.

At the time of the article, this type of writing was still relatively novel. To be sure, complaints about the morals of the age (o tempora, o mores!) were nothing new. The “critical age”, however, brought with it a new perspective that profoundly changed the nature of critical discourse. As many studies in the history of thought have shown, the late 18th century witnessed the dawn of a new historical consciousness, linked to a new understanding of culture[2]. In brief, this process may be characterized as the emergence of a new concept of culture as a domain of human intervention which is open to progressive rational improvement. Thus, human activity, rather than being the fulfilment of an eternal order which is transcendentally legitimized, was interpreted increasingly as the creative opening of new possibilities of secular life improvement. History, from this period onwards, was the history of civilization[3].

In this context, a new form of criticism – cultural criticism in its specifically modern sense – emerged: the criticism of one’s own culture as a whole, in a historical perspective. Writers from Rousseau to Spengler grappled with the processes of rationalization that characterized European life since the advent of modernity, trying to make sense of their world-changing effects. Their writings expressed an experience of acute anxiety about a changing culture, which they interpreted in one way or another as decadent.

In general terms, the difference between the modern discourse of cultural criticism and its predecessors can be summed up as the difference between cosmo-teleological criticism on the one hand and a cultural-historical variant on the other. Earlier critical discourses contrasted a certain system of eternal values with the actual practices in society. The discrepancy between the two often resulted in reflections on man, who – as he was perceived in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a fallen animal that was essentially sinful – could not live up to the divine or rational standard. Cultural criticism, on the other hand, put the value system itself in a historical perspective. Not just people’s behaviour, but the general cultural forms, and thus the standards by which individual and collective behaviour were measured, were perceived to be changing for the worse.

Today, we have grown accustomed to the forms of cultural criticism. As a matter of fact, they often seem to have become ubiquitous. In politics, literature, art, in advertising and the press, everywhere we come across its all too familiar language, which, frankly, often bores us with its constant repetitions. No wonder then, that it has been suggested that every self-reflective culture necessarily generates its own cultural criticism (Schnädelbach, 1992: 166-167). Such a systemic viewpoint is put into perspective, however, by the realization that even though the forms of cultural criticism are omnipresent, they nonetheless seem to have lost much of their former force and resonance. As is often remarked, its tropes frequently sound dated, its pathos out-of-place, and its tone shows “traits of grouchiness and surliness, of snobbery” (Seibt, 1999: 29)[4].

This appraisal is confirmed by the fact that new cultural criticism regularly understands itself as ‘reviving’ or ‘rejuvenating’ a tradition. It seems that even those who still believe in the possibility of a form of cultural criticism that goes beyond the purely decorative – beyond its obvious instrumentalization in service of the entertainment industry – feel the necessity to leave the beaten track behind and pursue new approaches. They too admit that its ubiquity notwithstanding, the possibility of a meaningful role of cultural criticism in contemporary culture can no longer simply be assumed[5].

So what happened? In the 1999 special edition on Kulturkritik of the Neue Rundschau, the editors noted that many of its contributions sounded the tone of an obituary (Bauer et al., 1999) [6]. As an explanation, they pointed to the differentiated character of modern culture. This posed, in their view, problems for the traditional rhetorical and analytical techniques of cultural criticism on at least two levels. First, in contemporary society the diverse fields are no longer integrated into one single, over-arching value system. Instead, they function in parallel, according to their own criteria and dynamics. No single system can claim superiority over others, making the postulation of a general character of the culture as a whole – as was typical for modern cultural criticism – seem unconvincing (Sieferle, 1984: 22-29).

The same applies to the criteria the critic deploys to differentiate between cultural phenomena. Typically, the cultural critic will identify specific phenomena as ‘expressions’ of a certain general ‘spirit’, ‘epoch’, or ‘culture’, that is deemed in one way or another detrimental to human life. This character is not, however, immediately apparent. The act of identification is made possible only by the reorientation, or rather re-education of the observer perspective. The cultural critic constructs a tension between the superficial side of things, and their actual, profound meaning. This aspect is only accessible through the viewpoint of the critic himself, and is taught – rather than argued – with great pathos and authority to his audience.

Such an Archimedean position of god-like overview, however, has become more difficult to sustain in recent times. The conceptual distinctions that make up the diagnostic tools of the cultural critic necessarily emerge from a specific cultural field. The fact that the spirit of our age is presumed ‘dead’ or ‘ill’ rather than ‘living’ or ‘healthy’, for example, presupposes a biological-medical frame of reference. Alternatively, complaints about its ‘deformity’, ‘disunity’, ‘falsity’ or other, all point to a certain interpretative framework that is applied to the culture as a whole. But, when in the context of general cultural differentiation the criteria of one system seem inadequate, or rather irrelevant, to another, what can legitimize such a generalization?

Interestingly, as cultural criticism in its modern sense lost much of its appeal, the word itself has re-emerged in a different context. The emergence of cultural studies as an academic discipline and the “cultural turn” in the humanities produced an understanding of the term cultural criticism that is vibrant, yet profoundly different from its tradition. Just recently, the Munich University of Television and Film, in cooperation with the Bavarian Theatre Academy, advertised a course of studies under the title of Kulturkritik (Sucher, 2009). Coming across such an announcement, the reader is at first a little stunned. Traditionally, this kind of institutionalization would have been – to say the least – unusual. The pathos of the outsider, the lone visionary, has been an integral part of the tradition of cultural criticism. Any attempt at institutionalization or group-building would have been contrary to its main rhetorical goal: constructing an outsider position that permits an interpretative overview over the culture as a whole yet at the same time remains untainted by its flaws[7].

As it turns out, however, the type of cultural criticism that is taught in Munich is decidedly different from what one could expect. A quotation from Lessings Hamburgische Dramaturgie which crowns the statement of purpose already points to the fundamental difference: “The true judge of art (Kunstrichter) does not infer rules from his taste, but has formed his taste after the rules which the nature of the subject demands” (Lessing, 1769: I, 145). Criticism, then, is understood in the sense of literary criticism, as the judgement of works of art; and culture as a certain range of products of high aesthetic value, rather than the general character of a historical life form. The program, in fact, offers training as a cultural journalist, fitted to the specific fields of the theatre, film and television.

This understanding of cultural criticism is – at least in the German context – still uncommon enough to generate some initial surprise. The word Kulturkritik primarily evokes a certain philosophic and literary tradition that is largely projected into the past, but is still recognised as part of the cultural heritage. In the United States, on the other hand, where the term cultural criticism has not traditionally been widely used, the new meaning has arguably gained the upper hand. Instead of the tradition of diagnoses of general decadence, the term is linked to the academic discipline of cultural studies on the one hand, and a specific field of journalism on the other.

Even the term itself, then, points us to the fundamental change that the tradition of modern cultural criticism is confronted with. Postmodern thinking – promulgated not least by the proponents of cultural studies – has done away with the over-arching meta-narratives of which the story of cultural decadence is just one variety. Interpretations of cultural phenomena that reduce all its aspects to the expressions of a single declining spirit seem overly holistic to an understanding that has learned to revel in difference and plurality and is suspicious of the political implications of integrating the Other into a single unified framework of reference.

We find ourselves, as it were, in the shadow of cultural criticism. Though we see it everywhere around us, it seems to have lost much of its immediate power. This decline in resonance makes us realize that cultural criticism belongs to a historical constellation that is no longer fully ours. Still, it is not wholly lost either. All too often, one hears cultural criticism pronounced dead. In the end, this is too easy. Not, that it were present in the sense that it once was. The time in which the discourse of decadence could fully persuade is over. But even now, its remains are there for all to see. Neither cultural studies nor cultural journalism function in exactly the same way cultural criticism used to. Still, they are its obvious descendants and fruitful in their own way. Furthermore, the language of cultural criticism as it is instrumentalised for commercial or entertainment purposes is a cultural force to be reckoned with.

Moreover, and more importantly, the transformation of the forms in which we, as a culture, reflect upon ourselves, points us to a major transformation in its character. The question, then, is how we can make sense of this shift. To lament its decadence would be, undoubtedly, outdated. To describe its declining resonance as a general process would be to forcefully re-enter the vocabulary and conceptual framework of cultural criticism. And even if one does not mourn the loss of a sense of universal history: the claim of the end of history is itself a form of meta-narrative ‘emplotment’ (White, 1973)[8]. Its invocation means the return to a meta-perspective that we have all too clearly left behind. Instead, our form of life has – in cultural studies and its many varieties – produced its own forms of self-reflection. These are, no doubt, less bold and striking. In comparison, their tone seems hushed, perhaps even muted. As such, however, they are far better tuned to do justice to the character of our culture. These are a form of self-reflection that we can truly call our own. Exactly the abundance of differentiation, however, renders difficult the recognition of their character. This stands out only in contrast to something else; even if this point of comparison is only a shadow. Thus, the fading of cultural criticism speaks to the fundamental character of cultural studies, albeit in an indirect and ultimately shady way that not even their own seemingly endless multitude of perspectives can fully account for. We may conclude, then, that as long as the tradition of cultural criticism has not yet fully dissolved into its differentiated varieties, its shadowy presence can still tell us something about ourselves.


[1] All translations are mine (Th.J.).

[2] Schlegel himself had argued: “As the Romans were the only nation, that was a complete nation; our era [Zeitalter] is the first true era” (Schlegel, 1800a: 14).

[3] Most importantly, in the work of Reinhart Koselleck and the project of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (See Koselleck et al., 1975; Koselleck, 1987; Fisch, 1992).

[4] See also: Aerts and Van Berkel (Eds.)(1996); Klein (1998); Kopperschmidt (2005).

[5] For example: Korsten (1998); Rohbeck and Nagl-Docekal (Eds.)(2003).

[6] See especially: Ullrich (1999); Seibt (1999).

[7] The exception being the first – and to date only – International congress for cultural criticism, organised in Munich in 1958. Here, such major intellectual figures as Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt were invited, on the occasion of the 800th year anniversary of the city, to discuss the theme of ‘demise or transition’ (Untergang oder Übergang) (Freudenfeld, 1959).

[8] The term is used as a rather free reference to White’s (1973) four modes of emplotment, whereby the historical sequence of events is construed as meaningful by their arrangement into a narrative plot-structure. The point is that the claim of the end of history – the collapse of the meta-narratives that provided History with unified meaning – itself construes a new historical meta-narrative, separating a timeframe where such narratives were ‘possible’ from one (the present) where they are no longer.


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