Research area social critique

For the social sciences in general, and sociology in particular, critique was and is a central object and at the same time an important aspect of their scientific practice. It should be recognized first that the practice of sociological critique has always already adopted different forms and models (Bröckling 2013). Out of the clear rejection of a "critical sociology" by pragmatic sociology, the "sociology of associations," and from a system theory perspective (Luhmann 1991, Latour 2007a, Boltanski 2010), can be derived an urgent need to define the relationship between sociology and critique in a new way (Lessenich 2014). According to Luhmann, social criticism does not realize that the interaction between critique and crisis lies at the roots of modern society, and so crises are not to be traced back to constellations of false consciousness or misguided politics (Luhmann 1991). According to Latour, social criticism has "long been dead" (Latour 2007a) because it keeps the world at a distance and because its assumptions about the nature of the social already presupposes what it seeks to understand. According to Boltanski and Chiapello (2003) the transformation of capital has disarmed and assimilated traditional forms of social and artistic critique. Instead of bringing about the "end of critique" in sociological analyses, these diagnoses generate the new and renewed preoccupation with concepts and phenomena of critique.

The research group therefore takes critique as a point of reference for empirical-analytic or interpretational research that represents a legitimate object of research through and beyond a multi-paradigmatic discipline. To the shifts in the forms, media and effects of critique described in the main idea of the research training group corresponds the newly sparked discussion about critical sociology, sociology as critique and critique as social practice (Jaeggi/Wesche 2009, Wuggenig 2010, Bröckling 2013, Vobruba 2013, Lessenich 2014, ZfkSP: "Kritik heute," no. 2,1/2015, Frère 2015). In a deliberate departure from older mainstream currents of the sociological thematization of critique (Delanty 2011)—namely the critical theory of the "School of Frankfurt," Bourdieu's critical sociology, Foucault's "genealogical critique" and "critical realism" (Sayer 2011)—issues and approaches will be taken up that can be productively tied in with the training group's research program.

In order to outline the focus of the subject area, we suggest adopting the term of "social critique," which has been used heterogeneously in its history. First of all, it points to Boltanski and Chiapello's fruitful distinction between artist critique and social critique (Boltanski/Chiapello 2003), without adopting the sharp, historically questionable separation between the two types of critique, or excluding the fluid transitions to artist critique. Secondly, the term allows the inclusion of Latour's demand for a new orientation of social research (and critical analysis) toward the processes of constitution of hybrid collectives of human and non-human actors (Latour 2001 and 2007b). Thirdly, "social critique" avoids the terminological deadweight of such concepts as "social criticism" and "critique of culture," which, in Luhmann's terms, were introduced as concepts of first order observation that claimed a critically omniscient point of view. However, a sociology as second order observation can very well study scenes of critical social practice. In this sense, we are talking about an exploration of the emergence of forms of social critique, their media, effects and modes of representation—phenomena which Callinicos (2006), with an eye on the present, describes as "new styles of social critique."

In keeping with the main idea of the research training group, the focus will be directed to situated scenes of critique and their dependence on representation. The thematic twofold division of the research area of social critique is therefore open to synergies with the research areas of art and media critique: the "esthetics of social critique" aspect connects constructively with the prospect of artistic practice as critique, while the "infrastructures and forms of assembly of critique" aspect displays fruitful connections to the research perspectives of the media of criticism.

Esthetics of social critique

The development of current "scenes of dissent" (Bröckling 2013) presupposes a conceptual as well as a methodological sensitivity to the production of these scenes, and therefore the forms, media and effects of their representation. This means that esthetic approaches and theorems will become part of a sociology of new forms of critique. The fact that social-theoretical discourse can no longer do without an esthetic extension of its own repertoire is now being discussed with regard to methodological implications (Adkins/Lury 2009, Beyes/Steyaert 2013 and 2015). On the other hand, a somewhat estheticized theory of society and sociology of culture can be observed. Accordingly, societal development will be thought of as an intensification and mobilization of processes of estheticization that run across societal fields or systems and lead to an imperative of creativity (Reckwitz 2012). As a result, a certain thinking about society in terms of a theory of the movement of antagonistic social forces will be developed and will make an "affect theory of the political" necessary (Marchart 2013). There was a similar argumentation in earlier studies that located the concept of public and counterpublic in a new way (Kluge/Negt 1972). Critical publics, for example, will be conceived of as performative, inasmuch as they create a temporary social space, or a social "stage" (Warner 2002), and so present themselves as "dependent on representation" to a particular degree. Moreover, they are characterized by a certain unplanability and unforeseeability and constantly require a minimum of attention or need to be updated (Marchart 2007). This results in two mutually related research perspectives: 1) the issue of the esthetic conditions of the constitution and implications of social critique, such as it was established in the core concepts of the research training group—scene, representation, forms, media, effects; 2) the preoccupation with actual cases of scenes of dissent, their modes of organization and forms of representation, and the analysis of the versions of critique and its effects that are realized in it.

Infrastructures and forms of assembly of critique

New medial infrastructures of critique—i.e. online publications, blogs, forums, or social networks—expand the margin of play of critical publics on the one hand, and call established forms of authorized critique into question on the other (Münker 2009, Lovink 2008, Schabacher 2013). Here, it is not just a matter of the authority of critical authorship being called into question that brings about upheavals in various professional fields, such as literary, film, or art criticism in the press, television and radio (Büttner 2007, Urban 2007, Rippl/Winko 2013, Neuhaus 2015). More pertinent is the question whether and how the transcendental subject withdraws behind digital technological conditions (Stiegler 2009, Hörl 2011, see Forschungsbereich Medienkritik ). Nor are the forms of assembly of social critique thinkable without the so-called "re-materialzation" of social research, which has devoted a great deal of attention in recent years to the agency of objects, actants and materiality, as well as to infrastructural questions (Latour 2008, Miller 2010, Easterling 2014). In Latour's terms, we want to go beyond the classical repertoire of modern critique—a dominant nature behind which society, discourse and subjects withdraw; the reduction of the social to socialization and fields of power; as well as deconstruction and its focus on discursive effects of truth (Latour 1998)—in order to turn to scenes of social critique and critical social practice as combinations and assemblies of objects, technologies and human actors. While human and non-human actors are equally attributed an agency and active part in the construction of orders of knowledge and society, the "social" to be criticized will itself be put into abeyance and a radically new concept of agency and discursive truth effects will be advanced. 


This leads to a series of relevant, overriding research questions that can be developed with both current and historical references: what consequences does a dispersed agency have for models of community, society, culture and politics? What forms of critical speech and action are possible at all in a democracy that is augmented to such an extent by non-human actors? What understanding of participation results from this, and how can such "dispersed" processes of participation be described? How do we grasp a social critique that has always had to think of itself as being materially co-constituted?


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