Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2000

Abstract

Critical theory has lost the self-assurance that defined the heady days of Marxist economics and Freudian psychoanalysis. In his famous debate with Hans-Georg Gadamer thirty years ago, Jürgen Habermas argued that critical theory was a necessary corrective to the quiescence and conventionalism that followed from Gadamer's hermeneutic perspective. As the 1960s unfolded, the second generation of the Frankfurt School appeared poised to bring sophisticated techniques of social criticism to bear on the emerging postindustrialist system of global capitalism. But the promise of critical theory failed to materialize. Today, Habermas plays the role of the aging lion who refuses to accept the postmodern verdict that his theoretical roar simply has no practical bite. Sophisticated philosophy is just another narrative, the postmodernists argue, and the dream of critical theory is just a fantasy. Locked in the grip of this impasse, theorists are now searching for a new approach to critical theory.

Against this backdrop, Jack Balkin has written an important book that attempts to define critical theory in our postmodern age. Balkin's previous legal scholarship invoked postmodern and deconstructive themes, but it also invoked the critical legal studies tradition in America, which has adopted (loosely) the goals and methods of the Frankfurt School in the context of legal theory.

Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology, Balkin moves beyond the specific realm of legal philosophy and presents a comprehensive theory about the nature and genesis of ideology and the role of critical theory in responding to the effects of ideology. Balkin argues that using the metaphor of “cultural software” to describe the “tools” of understanding and evaluation opens a pathway for moving beyond entrenched positions and delivering a new and more productive account of ideology and the prospects for critical theory.

Against this backdrop, Jack Balkin has written an important book that attempts to define critical theory in our postmodern age. Balkin's previous legal scholarship invoked postmodern and deconstructive themes, but it also invoked the critical legal studies tradition in America, which has adopted (loosely) the goals and methods of the Frankfurt School in the context of legal theory. In Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology, Balkin moves beyond the specific realm of legal philosophy and presents a comprehensive theory about the nature and genesis of ideology and the role of critical theory in responding to the effects of ideology. Balkin argues that using the metaphor of “cultural software” to describe the “tools” of understanding and evaluation opens a pathway for moving beyond entrenched positions and delivering a new and more productive account of ideology and the prospects for critical theory. In short, Balkin proposes to demonstrate that critical theory remains possible in a postmodern world.

Although Balkin displays an impressive grasp of numerous currents in contemporary thought, I will argue that the guiding metaphor of “cultural software” proves unhelpful in gathering these currents into a better conception of critical theory.

Publication Citation

76 Chi-Kent L. Rev 945 (2000)