Interview with Douglas Kellner

Questions from "Cadernos de Filosofia ContemporÉnea"

1. In your opinion what are the great topical philosophical questions at the present time?

DK: The questions of modernity and postmodernity are among the most important theoretical and political debates of our time. The concept of the postmodern points to decisive breaks within the regions of history and society (modernity/postmodernity), the arts (modernism/postmodernism), and thought (modern/postmodern theory). Articulating these oppositions is a major concern of contemporary thought that in turn attempts to articulate what is new and original about our contemporary moment.

The question of the postmodern has motivated my books on Baudrillard and Jameson (both 1989) and my work with Steven Best. Our Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (1991) sets out the major differences between modern and postmodern theory and the specific contributions of Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Jameson, and postmodern feminist theory, as well as similarities and differences from the Frankfurt School. In The Postmodern Turn (1997), we articulate the paradigm shifts in theory, culture, science, and politics. We argue that the debates over the postmodern are more complex than in some presentations (onesidely pro or con), and that the polemics have obscured the great variety and diversity of postmodern positions, some of which we reject and some of which we affirm.

In particular, we would reject an extreme postmodernism that either claims that modernity is over, that postmodernism in the arts is exhausted, that modern theory and politics are obsolete, and that we need a dramatically new form of thought and practice. We argue, rather, that we are between the modern and the postmodern and that thus syntheses of modern and postmodern thought help illuminate the present situation. In this way, we try to avoid one- sided positions and to take the debate to a higher level.

2. What is your opinion about the debate on modernity and post-modernity? As regards this debate would you emphasize Lyotard as an important philosopher? If so, please specify why.

DK: Lyotard decisively shaped and publicized the issue of the postmodern through publication of his book La Condition postmodern: rapport sur la savior which appeared in France in 1979 and with an influential introduction by Jameson in an English translation in 1984. Lyotard pointed to a new mentalite, a new Zeitgeist, a new distrust against grand narratives and totalizing thought, accompanied by a quest for new modes of thought and practice. The text represented a decisive break with his earlier Marxism (although Marxian motifs arguably remained in his work) and strongly influenced development of postmodern positions in theory and politics that broke with modern positions -- theoretical perspectives which Lyotard continued to develop in his later work.

There is, however, an aporia between Lyotard's attack on "grand narratives" and "totalizing" theory and claims that we have entered a "postmodern condition" which I do not think that Lyotard has ever resolved. While in later writings he makes more modest claims for the postmodern (it is a "mood," an attitude, and not an entirely new era in history as Baudrillard and others would have it), he continues to exploit the term in a way that suggests that something significant and new is signified by the term -- which, to me, requires something like a grand narrative or articulated theory to clarify and legitimate.

Yet Lyotard's significance as a philosopher is certainly not limited to his popularization of the problematic of the postmodern. He has many provocative positions in theory, aesthetics, and politics and his philosophical itinerary is a complex one that has not been properly explored -- a task for the new generation!

3. What is Marcuse's legacy regarding questions brought about by our times?

DK: In my book Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (1984) I delineated the broad outlines of Marcuse's thought and legacy and more recently have argued that Marcuse's mode of theorizing major historical shifts and ruptures provides the modes of thought necessary to articulate the great transformation of our times (see Technology, War, and Fascism, 1998; Portuguese translation, Technologia, Guerra e Fascismo, 1999; Sao Paolo, Brazil: UNESP). In particular, the transformation associated with globalization, new technologies, novel forms of war and politics, and emergent modes of culture and identity require the sort of grand theorizing associated with Marcuse (which constitutes a counterpole, if you wish, to Lyotard's Postmodern Condition). Marcuse was especially good at theorizing the connection between the economy, technology, society, and culture, thus avoiding one-sided positions. His dialectical thought avoids technological or economic determinism, as well as, any modes of reduction by analyzing the interaction between different modes of economic, political, social, and cultural life.

Moreover, Marcuse provides a critical imagination and spirit necessary to see what is wrong with the current organization of society and to envisage alternatives. Although much of the controversy around Marcuse in the 1960s and '70s involved his critiques of contemporary capitalist societies and defense of revolutionary social change, in retrospect, Marcuse left behind a complex and many-sided body of work comparable to the legacies of Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukacs, T.W. Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. His social theory is characterized by broad critical perspectives that attempt to capture the major socio-historical, political and cultural features of the day. Such attempts to get at the Big Picture, to theorize the fundamental changes, developments, contradictions, and struggles of the day are more necessary than ever in an era of globalization in which the restructuring of capital and technological revolution are changing all aspects of life. Marcuse's thought thus continues to be relevant because he provides a mode of global theoretical analysis and addresses issues that continue to be of relevance to contemporary theory and politics -- such as subjectivity, culture, technology, ecology, social transformation, and so on. His unpublished manuscripts contain much material pertinent to contemporary concerns which could provide the basis for a rebirth of interest in Marcuse's thought.

Further, Marcuse provides comprehensive philosophical perspectives on domination and liberation, a powerful method and framework for critically analyzing contemporary society, and a vision of liberation that is richer than classical Marxism, other versions of Critical Theory, and current versions of postmodern theory. Indeed, Marcuse presents critical philosophical perspectives on human beings and their relationship to nature and society, as well as substantive social theory and radical politics. In retrospect, Marcuse's vision of liberation -- of the full development of the individual in a non-repressive society -- distinguishes his work, along with sharp critique of existing forms of domination and oppression, and he emerges in this narrative as a theorist of forces of domination and liberation. Deeply rooted in philosophy and the conception of social theory developed by the Institute for Social Research, Marcuse's work lacked the sustained empirical analysis in some versions of Marxist theory and the detailed conceptual analysis found in many versions of political theory. Yet he constantly showed how science, technology, and theory itself had a political dimension and produced a solid body of ideological and political analysis of many of the dominant forms of society, culture, and thought during the turbulent era in which he lived and struggled for a better world.

Thus, I believe that Marcuse overcomes the limitations of many current varieties of philosophy and social theory and that his writings provide a viable starting-point for theoretical and political concerns of the present age. In particular, his articulations of philosophy with social theory, cultural criticism, and radical politics constitute an enduring legacy. While mainstream academic divisions of labor isolate social theory from philosophy and other disciplines, Marcuse provides a robust philosophical dimension and cultural criticism to social theory, while develop his theoretical perspectives in interaction with concrete analyses of society, politics, and culture in the present age. This dialectical approach thus assigns philosophy an important role within social theory, providing critical theory with strong normative and philosophical perspectives.

4. It seems that your theoretical positions follow the steps of the Frankfurt School. Is there any difference between your position and that of the classical theoreticians of the Critical Theory?

DK: I do associate my work with the Frankfurt School and just as they appropriated what they saw as the most progressive or advanced modes of contemporary thought into their social theory of the contemporary age (i.e. Nietzsche, Freud, Weber, etc), so too do I believe that critical theory today needs to engage the most advanced forms of postmodern, feminist, multicultural, and other new forms of theory in order to illuminate the present age and provide models of personal and societal transformation. Unfortunately, many contemporary followers of the Frankfurt School have maintained a rather dogmatic position in regard to postmodern and other new forms of theory that is polemical and rejective rather dialectical and appropriative.

However, in regard to Frankfurt School theory I do not maintain a strict orthodoxy or follow the line and letter of specific theorists like Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm, Habermas, or other major theorists in the tradition. I believe that all the critical theorists contain valuable contributions to critical social theory and radical democratic politics today and that to be an orthodox, say, solely Habermasian or Marcusian, would be against the spirit of critical theory that is precisely a critique of theory and society!

In addition, many central positions of the classical Frankfurt School need to be revised. While the Frankfurt School is historically important for theorizing the new forms of economy, politics, culture, technology, and subjectivity in the transition from market capitalism of the 19th century to the new forms of state and monopoly capitalism which they theorized from the 1920s until their respective deaths, today there are new forms of economy, politics, technology, culture and so on that require new theoretical analyses. I would go so far as to maintain that the restructuring of capitalism described by the code words of "globalization" or "technological revolution" is as vast and momentous as the changes to the stage of state and monopoly capitalism, the culture industries, and the administered society described by the Frankfurt School in the 1930s and the 1940s. Such transformations require new forms of thought and the development of critical theory in the contemporary moment. The categories of critical theory are dialectical and historical and require revision and development. Hence, a dogmatic critical theory is a contradiction in terms, although dogmatism certainly infects current followers of the Frankfurt School -- a dogmatism I would try to avoid in principle.

5. In your opinion, what are the links between modernity (or post-modernity), ethics and political philosophy?

DK: One of the distinctive features of the debates between modern and postmodern theory is the contrasting views between modern and postmodern ethics and politics (although there are passionate debates over what constitutes postmodern ethics and politics, just as there have been significant polemics over modern ethics and politics!). I have already written enough for one questionnaire, so for my views on postmodern ethics and politics I would refer the read to Chapter Five of my book with Steven Best The Postmodern Turn, or later developments of our ideas in "Postmodern Politics and the Battle for the Future" (New Political Science, Vol. 20, Nr. 3 [1998]: 283-299) and "La politica postmoderna la batallia por el futuro" (Revista de Ciencias Sociales [1998]: 5-29).

Austin, Texas
October 5, 1999

Douglas Kellner is George Kneller Chair in the Philosophy of Education at UCLA and is author of many books on social theory, politics, history, and culture, including Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, co-authored with Michael Ryan, Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (with Steven Best), Television and the Crisis of Democracy, The Persian Gulf TV War, Media Culture, and The Postmodern Turn (with Steven Best). He can be reached by email at