Culture and Critique: An Introduction to the Critical Discourses of Cultural Studies

By Jere Paul Surber | Go to book overview

1
The Critical Discourse of Liberal Humanism

The first modern critical discourse arose during the Enlightenment. In fact, one might say that the defining characteristic of Enlightenment thought was a new, self-consciously critical attitude toward prevailing cultural practices and institutions. Although the broadly liberal humanist basis for the Enlightenment's cultural criticism has itself been attacked by virtually every subsequent critical discourse, we should not overlook its crucial role in initiating a project that has continued into our own time.

As we will see, the critical discourse that commenced in the Enlightenment involved several different strands. Still, the cultural critics of the Enlightenment all shared a number of important convictions; these permit us to refer to their collective orientation, despite their other differences, as that of liberal humanism. The first and most pervasive characteristic was a common opposition to any claim to truth or knowledge based solely on authority. At the beginning of the modern era, there were three major sources of authority of particular concern to Enlightenment thinkers: the church, the state, and Greco-Roman antiquity.

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church was the most important, pervasive, and powerful cultural institution. Although the universality of its influence had been seriously challenged in the early sixteenth century during the Reformation, the subsequent fragmentation of the Catholic church into various competing religious groups often resulted in an overall intensification rather than a waning of the influence of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions on culture. The bigotry, intolerance, and violence frequently resulting from adherence to opposed religious creeds provoked critical responses from early Enlightenment thinkers, who increasingly came to regard the institutionalized religions' demands of faith on the part of their followers as diametrically opposed to reason, to the human being's natural ability to adjudicate claims to truth for itself.

The Reformation was closely connected with the historical emergence of the modern nation-state, a geographical area with fixed boundaries under a single, centralized political authority. In many places in Europe, the nation-state first took the form of absolute monarchy, based on a theory of the divine right of kings, itself supported by the authority of religious doctrine. Again, while their concrete politi-

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