Cultural criticism

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Cultural criticism is the criticism of (a) culture that is understood as disparate for different human needs. It can contain cultural pessimism and see culture as a form of disguise , distortion (deformation), alienation , degeneration , decadence , incompleteness or external determination of human ways of being or living conditions. It deals with the way people live and the meaning of their ways of life.

Cultural criticism knows many forms of expression. This includes objections to modern phenomena ('counter- modernism '), complaints about the general decline of morals and society, about alienation and rationalization , about the disastrous rule of money, technology or the media. The term refers to a “wild” way of thinking without discipline , which promises broadening of the field of vision, which arises with modernity and which offers stories of loss against modernity. Cultural criticism processes a wide variety of knowledge in a rather unsystematic and osmotic manner (from everyday knowledge to philosophical knowledge).

The historical roots of western cultural criticism lie v. a. in the Greek myth of a pre-civilizational “ golden age ” ( Hesiod : works and days ). A number of other mythological traditions also connect the apocalyptic end of a primordial golden age with the emergence of civilization (agriculture, centralized administration, ruling priestly caste), which in many mythological traditions is described as originally created by gods . In the Renaissance , the criticism of European belief in progress begins with Michel de Montaigne . According to his culture-relativistic belief, culture permanently destroys nature.

Enlightenment cultural critics like Jean-Jacques Rousseau took up the mythical stories of antiquity , brought them into a secularized form and propagated them as a counter-model to the Enlightenment myth of progress . The diffuse feeling of “ nostalgia for paradise”, which is also present in many religions, forms a core feeling of the culture-critical discourse. The apocalyptic undertones of many culturally critical writings are similar to those of ancient biblical prophets and, not least, derive their popularity from a broad audience from these mythological references.

Usage types

Criticism of civilization can often be used synonymously for criticism of culture. Three types of usage can be identified, which include different time spans and concepts: a broad, a narrow and a specifically German use of the term.

Next term

The broad term includes all comments, objections and accusations against "incorrect" value systems, "bad" conditions and "wrong" behavior since ancient times.

Narrow term

The cultural criticism in the narrower sense can paradoxically think “in the long term” despite the intended relevance to the topicality. It only emerged in the wake of the European Enlightenment . The decisive difference to the wide variant lies in a new kind of time awareness with an open future. While the Cynics want a “back to nature”, Rousseau and Schiller , for example, consider the process of civilization to be irreversible.

Specific German term

Cultural criticism in a specifically German sense operates with a narrow, normative concept of culture that, as a contrasting point of reference, guides awareness of the crisis. Your thought leader is Nietzsche .

It begins with the downgrading of the Enlightenment to the preparatory phase of classicism and the philosophy of German idealism ; Together with the cliché of rationalism and utilitarianism of the Enlightenment, which were alien to history, it is firmly established in the consciousness of many educated people and receives new energies towards the end of the 19th century. Now the Enlightenment is being brought closer to the - increasingly rejected - Western civilization , which is considered to be the summary of individual achievements and many undesirable developments in modernity .

It serves as a projection surface for what seems to threaten the cultural hegemony of the “educated world”. A peculiarity of German cultural criticism arises from this feeling of threat, namely the judgmental gradation or even antithetical comparison of highly valued culture and rejected civilization .

Education and culture serve as a collective pattern of interpretation that guides perception, processes experiences and motivates behavior. The terms develop a symbolic socializing function, because the “educated world” is united in their name. And so they carried under the conditions of German history (the erosion of the educated middle class , the unsettling realities of the economy and society, the crisis-ridden republic and threatening workers' movement) a readiness for authoritarian solutions and solutions.

Phenomenon of modernity

There is not the cultural critique: works with large diagnostic qualities are works with a redundant anti-modern resentment against. In the latter case, cultural criticism has an alarmist, hyper-generalizing character; it is subjective-judgmental, bypasses an analytical deepening; it is casuistic , not systematic. It judges ethically and normatively.

Pioneers and cultural critics, who act as keywords for the culture-critical repertoire, include Jean-Jacques Rousseau , Friedrich Schiller , Nietzsche , Sigmund Freud ( The Uneasiness in Culture ), Max Weber , Oswald Spengler , Ortega y Gasset and Adorno .

Central pathology findings of modernity such as alienation, reification or rationalization, which are commonly assigned to Marxist and sociological social criticism, stem from culture-critical loss stories. With Nietzsche, cultural criticism began to attack not only the emancipatory promises of the Enlightenment and the liberal world, but also its own normative center, to which various disciplines and styles of thought related. (e.g. Critical Theory , Western Marxism , Conservative Revolution etc.) Another example of the destruction of programmatic guiding ideas is Ernst Jünger's Der Arbeiter. Rule and form .

Starting position

Cultural criticism is an international phenomenon, with national centers u. a. in Germany and England. It also includes various political options and intellectual achievements: party support for the right or the left, diagnoses and decay scenarios. This way of thinking arises from dealing with the Enlightenment , especially with its anthropology and philosophy of history. It questions the Enlightenment's theory of progress, the belief in the rational, linear perfection of the world. It takes their emancipatory promises seriously, and it presents stories of loss. The motivating starting position of culture-critical thinking is based on an insurmountable discrepancy between high expectations and sobering experiences.

From this discrepancy arises the general problem configuration of culture-critical thinking, namely the alienation from oneself and from society and the difficult mediation between the individual and society. Cultural criticism is an osmotic way of thinking with a claim to criticism and the interpretation of the world, which lives from the zeitgeist, although it turns against its own time. It is steeped in philosophy, but rarely disciplined in terms of philosophy.

Forms of valuation and knowledge

As a thought pattern with which knowledge is generated, the cultural criticism contains an evaluative difference between the embarrassed past, an ideal as a normative point (the state of nature , the Greeks, the Middle Ages, the “whole person”, the genius, the “ superman ”, the successful one Identity) and the bad circumstances and behavior in the present. The judgmental difference sharpens the criticism and evokes antithetical juxtapositions.

The total construction gives individual aspects a "symbolic conciseness" for the diagnosis of decay. In contrast to the criticism of time , cultural criticism has an awareness of history “of long duration”, but is not tied to either the left or the right. Cultural criticism grows out of the judgmental reconstruction of different civilizational conditions; it questions the progress of one's own age, rejects one's own present with a view to the victims of individuals or groups and looks for ways out in the future (triadic thinking).

Immanent problems of cultural criticism

A central problem of cultural criticism is the determination of what is to be understood by a good human life. Cultural criticism always implies a certain understanding of life and an image of man . In the critique of ways of life, philosophical and sociological positions are inevitably introduced, which deal with the meaning of life , ethics and the socio-political conditions with which certain cultures are connected. Cultural criticism has led to massive problems through (mis) perception in the area of ​​politics (Sölter 1996, 2017).

Conservative cultural criticism

With their criticism of culture and progress, conservative and traditionalist cultural critics like Julius Evola refer explicitly to the world age doctrine of traditional world views. Enlightenment ideals (freedom, equality, emancipation - especially women's emancipation) are interpreted as signs of decay. Radical conservative cultural critics like Evola see a traditional social order rooted in mythology / religion and royalty as a counter-model.

Conservative thinking emphasizes that culture is part of being human and is suspicious of contemporary phenomena that want to cut off “old braids” without being able to reveal new perspectives. It tends to see the essential in the traditional .

For conservatives, culture is seen as the reservoir of tried and tested life, as the possession of one's own history. Conservative cultural criticism turns against cultural “anarchy” and “barbarism” as well as against the foreign as a threat to one's own.

With his critical attitude to social civilization , Friedrich Nietzsche considered people fundamentally incapable of forming a free and creative society and saw his cultural criticism as incitement, as the objective necessity of a spike with which an intellectual elite should drive and tame the herd of people. Nietzsche's understanding of society is not based on an understanding of the state according to Plato , but rather on the fact that the corresponding form of society has to be derived from the formation of a certain culture. Cultural development arises thereafter from the changes in prevailing culture class (eg. As scientists, artists, politicians) that inevitably by their power after its peak decadent must be replaced over and over again by powerful cultural protagonists. Culture is therefore the work of superhumans , who advanced them as the elite of their time, and it always needs some kind of leadership to advance the human nobility. Martin Heidegger unfolds a. a. in Being and Time (1927) and in the posthumously published Thinking Diaries of the Black Hefts, a theory of the present age determined by culture and criticism (Sölter 2017).

Left cultural criticism

Left cultural criticism sees problems of culture as problems of outdated ways of life and human ties through social constraints. Its aim is to abolish formal customs and to overcome conditions that are understood to be outdated. In contrast to conservative cultural criticism, the main source of which is traditional worldviews, left-wing cultural critics primarily fall back on the ideological fund of the Enlightenment , but see themselves as the "real implementers" of the ideas of the Enlightenment (essentially freedom , equality and progress ).

Various references were made to argumentative overlaps and the use of similar topoi (alienation, criticism of deterioration, derogatory statements about the conditio moderna as a whole) in left and right variants of cultural criticism (Sölter 1996). Both forms of cultural criticism have in common borrowings from apocalyptic discourses. While conservative cultural critics tend to have a nostalgic attitude, which has also been referred to as “restitutive” cultural criticism (Konersmann 2008), left-wing cultural critics tend to adopt an eschatological attitude that could perhaps best be described as “humanistic eschatology”.

From the left, cultural criticism is essentially directed against the aesthetics of securing power, which penetrates into the everyday practice of bourgeois culture and subjects it to the economic necessities of capital utilization. Theodor W. Adorno spoke of a culture industry that is able to “ reify ” people's consciousness in such a way that they are fed with meaningless products to affirm the existing through the “delusion of context ” of their cultural experiences . His “Aesthetics” wanted to address the sensibility to this and show their wounds in art; his " Negative Dialectic " wanted to promote thinking to a fundamental doubt against any totality, against the totalitarian thought formations of bourgeois culture and the established spirit (Adorno: "The whole is the untrue"). This was the basis of the critical theory , which was implemented, among other things, in the student movement in active cultural criticism (e.g. anti-authoritarianism, art as "political action", university criticism). However, Adorno distanced himself from this practice and, as a theoretician of aesthetics, remained at the same time a theoretical esthete. His aesthetic cultural criticism ultimately turned out to be a classic cultural sensation with an epistemological basis. As such, she opposed any entertainment culture, e.g. B. also against jazz, and rejected the problems of the emerging emptying of meaning and event culture by resorting to "true" art.

See also


  • Adorno, Theodor W .: Prisms. Cultural Criticism and Society. Berlin and Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp 1955.
  • Baden, Sebastian, Christian Bauer and Daniel Hornuff (eds.): Forms of cultural criticism. Wilhelm Fink, Munich 2018.
  • Beer, Susanne: Immanence and Utopia - On the cultural criticism of Theodor W. Adorno and Guy Debord . LIT-Verlag, Münster 2012, ISBN 978-3-643-11487-7 .
  • Bollenbeck, Georg : A history of cultural criticism. From Rousseau to Günther Anders. Beck, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-406-54796-6 .
  • Jung, Theo: signs of decay. Semantic studies on the emergence of cultural criticism in the 18th and early 19th centuries (= historical semantics 18), Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2012, ISBN 978-3-525-36717-9 .
  • Jung, Theo: A "lawsuit as old as history"? Dimensions of change in the discourse of modern cultural criticism, in: Olivier Agard and Barbara Beßlich (eds.), Cultural criticism between Germany and France (1890-1933) , Frankfurt a. M .: Peter Lang 2016, pp. 25–40.
  • Konersmann, Ralf (ed.): Cultural criticism. Reflections in the changed world , Leipzig: Reclam 2001, ISBN 3-379-01741-8 .
  • Konersmann, Ralf: cultural criticism. Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp 2008, ISBN 978-3-518-58499-6 .
  • Petras, Ole and Kai Sina (eds.): Cultures of Criticism. Media descriptions of the present between pop and protest. Dresden: Thelem 2011, ISBN 978-3939888925 .
  • Schmitz, Markus: Cultural criticism without a center. Edward W. Said and the counterpoints of critical decolonization. Bielefeld: transcript 2008, ISBN 978-389942-975-6 .
  • Sölter, Arpad A .: Modernism and cultural criticism. Jürgen Habermas and the legacy of critical theory. Bouvier Verlag, Bonn 1996, ISBN 3-416-02545-8 . [Diss. Univ. Cologne 1993].
  • Sölter, Arpad: Mirrors of Evil. Cultural Criticism, Critique of Modernity, and Anti-Semitism in Heidegger's Thought. In: Daniel Pedersen (Ed.): Cosmopolitism, Heidegger, Wagener - Jewish Reflections. Stockholm: Judisk kultur i Sverige / Jewish Culture in Sweden 2017. pp. 125–142.
  • Thaa, Winfried : Cultural criticism and democracy with Max Weber and Hannah Arendt . In: ZfP 2005, pp. 25-56.
  • Downfall or transition. 1st International Congress of Cultural Critics in Munich 1958 . Munich: Werk-Verlag Dr. Edmund Banaschweski 1959. Contains presentations a. a. by Max Horkheimer ( Philosophy as Cultural Criticism , pp 9-34), Hannah Arendt ( culture and politics , pp 35-66), Ludwig Marcuse ( cultural pessimism , pp 106-126) and Oswald von Nell-Breuning ( Our Society and its cultural face , pp. 127–141) as well as contributions to the discussion (pp. 157–232).

Web links

Wiktionary: Kulturkritik  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Dieter Haller (text), Bernd Rodekohr (illustrations): Dtv-Atlas Ethnologie. 2nd Edition. dtv, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-03259-9 .
  2. Eliade, M. (1954): The religions and the holy. Salzburg: Verlag Otto Müller, p. 433–437: "The homesickness for paradise"
  3. ^ Evola, Julius (1934): Revolt against the modern world. Ansata-Verlag, Interlaken 1982, ISBN 3-7157-0056-4 .