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EN943 Critical Theory & Media Studies: The Frankfurt School and Others

NB: This module will not be available 2013-14

Nick Lawrence (

Office: H535; Tel. 23309
Office hours: T 12:00-1:00; Th 2:00-3:00; or by appointment

This module offers an intensive engagement with an important strand of twentieth century critical thought by focusing on the issues raised by media studies in relation to cultural analysis. Our purpose is to sample a range of conceptual tools for the critical study of modern culture in general and the problems of media and communications in particular, especially as the latter inflect the study of the written word. Given the increasing importance of multimedia applications both as means and objects of interdisciplinary study in the humanities, the module is designed to equip students with a range of critical approaches to the study of media and to enable them to situate their work within an emerging field of media-conscious literary and cultural studies.

Because its focus represents just one strand in the multivalent project associated with the Institute for Social Research, the module can be only an abbreviated and fairly tendentious introduction to the work of the Frankfurt School. Accordingly, the second half of the module contextualises the work of Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin et al. by examining other approaches to a critical theory of media, in works by McLuhan, Williams, Barthes, and other more recent theorists. The aim is both to extend and to complicate the insights of the Frankfurt School into the contemporary nexus of media, society, and politics.

Note: Our first meeting, in Week 2, will be introductory. Please familiarize yourself as well as you can with the readings for that week, but note that we won’t discuss them in full.

Week 1:
No meeting

Week 2: Precursors

Marx, “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859)
Marx, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” from Capital Vol. I (1867)
Lukacs, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat: The Phenomenon of Reification,” from History and Class Consciousness (1923)

Week 3: The Work of Theory in the Age of Mass Reification

Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory” (1937)
Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture” (1937)
Adorno, “The Actuality of Philosophy” (1931)

Week 4: Adorno and Benjamin on New Media

Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility” (1936)
Adorno, “The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938)
Adorno and Benjamin, letters (1935-38)

Week 5: The Frankfurt School Goes to Hollywood

Adorno and Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” (1944)
Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (1963)
Adorno, Minima Moralia (selections) (1943-46)
Adorno, “How to Look at Television” (1954)

Week 6: The Toronto School

Innis, “Paper and the Printing Press,” from Empire and Communications (1950)
McLuhan, from The Mechanical Bride (1955)
McLuhan, from Understanding Media (1964)

Week 7: The Birmingham School and Cultural Studies

Williams, “Culture is Ordinary” (1958)
Williams, “Advertising: The Magic System” (1960)
Williams, from Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974)
Hall, “Encoding, Decoding” (1980) from Simon During, ed., The Cultural Studies Reader

Week 8: Return to Reason: Public Sphere Theory

Habermas, “The Public Sphere” (1964)
Habermas, from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962)
Garnham, “The Media and the Public Sphere” in Habermas and the Public Sphere (1992)
Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics” (2001)

Week 9: Post-FS Developments in Critical Media Theory

Barthes, “Myth Today” (1950) from Mythologies
Enzensburger, “Constituents of a Theory of the Media” (1970) from Dreamers of the Absolute
Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Media” (1971) from For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign
Kittler, “Introduction” from Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986)

Week 10: New Media, New Histories

Peters, “Phantasms of the Living, Dialogues with the Dead” from Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (1999)
Silverstone, “The Texture of Experience” from Why Study the Media? (1999)
Bolter and Grusin, Part I of Remediation: Understanding New Media (2000)
Trow, Within the Context of No Context (1998