Critical Theory: Verso Student Reading
Critique your critical theory reading with this crucial list of key books, including the indispensable texts of the great Marxist controversies over literature and art from the 1930s to the 1950s, Samo Tomšič's thesis that psychoanalysis does indeed have the capacity to reaffirm dialectical and materialist thought – and never forgetting Henri Lefebvre's richest, most prescient work about modern capitalism, without which your bookshelf weeps.
What happened to the public intellectuals that used to challenge and inform us? Who is the Sartre or De Beauvoir of the internet age? General Intellects argues we no longer have such singular figures, but there are, instead, general intellects whose writing could, if read collectively, explain our times. Covering topics such as culture, politics, work, technology, and the Anthropocene, each chapter is a concise account of an individual thinker, providing useful context and connections to the work of the others. McKenzie Wark’s distinctive readings are appreciations, but are nonetheless critical of how neoliberal universities militate against cooperative intellectual work that endeavors to understand and also change the world.
Originally published in 1965, Reading Capital is a landmark of French thought and radical theory, reconstructing Western Marxism from its foundations. Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher, maintained that Marx’s project could only be revived if its scientific and revolutionary novelty was thoroughly divested of all traces of humanism, idealism, Hegelianism and historicism. In order to complete this critical rereading, Althusser and his students at the École normale supérieure ran a seminar on Capital, re-examining its arguments, strengths and weaknesses in detail, and it was out of those discussions that this book was born.
This book—aimed at both the general reader and the specialist—offers the first global cartography of the expanding intellectual field of critical contemporary thought. More than thirty authors and intellectual currents of every continent are presented in a clear and succinct manner. A history of critical thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is also provided, helping situate current thinkers in a broader historical and sociological perspective.
The three-volume text by Henri Lefebvre is perhaps the richest, most prescient work about modern capitalism to emerge from one of the twentieth century's greatest philosophers and is now available for the first time in one complete volume. Written at the birth of post-war consumerism, Critique was an inspiration for the 1968 student revolution in France. It is a founding text of cultural studies and a major influence on the fields of contemporary philosophy, geography, sociology, architecture, political theory and urbanism. Lefebvre takes as his starting point and guide the "trivial" details of quotidian experience: an experience colonized by the commodity, shadowed by inauthenticity, yet remaining the only source of resistance and change. This is an enduringly radical text, untimely today only in its intransigence and optimism.
Writing just after World War II and reflecting on the bureaucracy and myths of National Socialism and the inanity of the dawn of consumerism, Adorno and Horkheimer addressed themselves to a question which went to the very heart of the modern age: ‘why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism’. Modernity, far from redeeming the promises and hopes of the Enlightenment, had resulted in the stultification of mankind and administered society, characterised by simulation and candy-floss entertainment. Tracing humanity’s modern fall to the very rationality that was to be its liberation, the authors exposed the domination and violence that underpin the Enlightenment project.
Note: Not available in North America
In her most impassioned and personal book to date, Judith Butler responds in this profound appraisal of post-9/11 America to the current US policies to wage perpetual war, and calls for a deeper understanding of how mourning and violence might instead inspire solidarity and a quest for global justice.
No other country and no other period has produced a tradition of major aesthetic debate to compare with that which unfolded in German culture from the 1930s to the 1950s. In Aesthetics and Politics the key texts of the great Marxist controversies over literature and art during these years are assembled in a single volume. They do not form a disparate collection but a continuous, interlinked debate between thinkers who have become giants of twentieth-century intellectual history.
In essays, poems, short stories, and plays, artists and theorists trace the negative collective that is the subject of contemporary life, in which art, the internet, and globalization have shed their utopian guises but persist as naked power, in the face of apocalyptic ecological disaster and against the claims of the social commons.
***Not available in North America or Canada***
In his most wide-ranging and accessible work, Frederic Jameson argues that postmodernism is the cultural response to the latest systemic change in world capitalism. He seeks here to crystallize a definition of a term which has taken on so many meanings that it has virtually lost all historical significance.
The work of the great literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin is an audacious plotting of history, art, and thought; a reservoir of texts, commentaries, scraps, and fragments of everyday life, art, and dreams. Throughout his life, Benjamin gathered together all kinds of artifacts, assortments of images, texts, and signs, themselves representing experiences, ideas, and hopes, each of which was enthusiastically logged, systematized, and analyzed by their author. In this way, Benjamin laid the groundwork for the salvaging of his own legacy.
Composed in a series of scenes, Aisthesis–Rancière’s definitive statement on the aesthetic–takes its reader from Dresden in 1764 to New York in 1941. Along the way, we view the Belvedere Torso with Winckelmann, accompany Hegel to the museum and Mallarmé to the Folies-Bergère, attend a lecture by Emerson, visit exhibitions in Paris and New York, factories in Berlin, and film sets in Moscow and Hollywood. This incisive study provides a history of artistic modernity far removed from the conventional postures of modernism.
A major, comprehensive study of the connection between their work, The Capitalist Unconscious resituates Marx in the broader context of Lacan’s teaching and insists on the capacity of psychoanalysis to reaffirm dialectical and materialist thought. Lacan’s unorthodox reading of Marx refigured such crucial concepts as alienation, jouissance and the Freudian ‘labour theory of the unconscious’. Tracing these developments, Tomšič maintains that psychoanalysis, structuralism and the critique of political economy participate in the same movement of thought; his book shows how to follow this movement through to some of its most important conclusions.
Fredric Jameson’s pathbreaking essay “An American Utopia” radically questions standard leftist notions of what constitutes an emancipated society. Advocated here are—among other things—universal conscription, the full acknowledgment of envy and resentment as a fundamental challenge to any communist society, and the acceptance that the division between work and leisure cannot be overcome. To create a new world, we must first change the way we envision the world. Jameson’s text is ideally placed to trigger a debate on the alternatives to global capitalism. In addition to Jameson’s essay, the volume includes responses from philosophers and political and cultural analysts, as well as an epilogue from Jameson himself.
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