Understanding the Present through Interdisciplinary Study

By Charles Prusik

This is the sixth and final post in a series on the work of the Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique. The Critical Theory Workshop is a dual-language intensive research program, founded by Gabriel Rockhill and sponsored by Villanova University’s Graduate Program in Philosophy. It takes place every summer at the Sorbonne in central Paris. Open to graduate and undergraduate students, as well as to faculty or independent researchers and writers, it provides an international platform for trans-disciplinary, comparative and engaged work in critical social theory (in the broadest sense of the term). For more information, as well as videos and links to social media accounts, visit the website: https://criticaltheoryworkshop.com.

As Max Horkheimer argued in “Traditional and Critical Theory,” critical thinking is the function “neither of the isolated individual nor of a sum-total of individuals.” In opposition to the tendency towards specialization within the academy, the Frankfurt School began as an attempt to develop critical theory as an inter-disciplinary research program. Bringing together philosophers, sociologists, economists, and psychoanalysts, the Institute of Social Research began as a rich and collaborative intellectual safe haven for critics of modern society. In addition to funding independent research, the Institute’s major publication—the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung—disseminated the works of figures such as Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and countless others. Ranging from Marxian critiques of political economy to far-reaching aesthetic and cultural debates during the 1930s, the Frankfurt School established critical theory as a preeminently collaborative project which rejecting traditional divisions of academic labor and objects of research.

Given the broad commitment to interdisciplinary research and collaborative production in its historical origins, the state of critical theory should raise a number of questions.  On the one hand, critical theory today has transcended the limits of its Frankfurt School designation. Expanding into the diverse regions of critical race theory, feminism, queer theory, post and de-colonial theory, as well as crip theory and various branches of identity politics, critical theory today can indeed only be recognized in its plurality—i.e., as “critical theories.” Ranging from the post-structuralist historicism of Michel Foucault to Judith Butler’s brilliant analyses of gender performativity, critical theory today far exceeds its original determination as a primarily Freudo-Marxist program. To my mind, these developments are important and necessary transformations. Given the complexity and range of the crises which structure the present—from the economic crises of the Eurozone to police brutality in the United States—intellectual researchers must resist their specialization and draw from the productions, methodologies, and histories of neighboring disciplines. And yet today’s university seems committed in its obstinate disapproval of interdisciplinarity, and moreover regressive in its affirmation of the isolated scholar who publishes the results of specialized research. If critical theory is to remain adequate to its task in developing an historically dynamic analysis of the world in its shifting crises, then theory must eschew its regimentation by the academic and professional strictures which threaten to reduce intellectual production to the activity of isolated agents. Resistance to this regimentation therefore, can only emerge through collaborative labor within, as well as outside the academy.

My research, which draws from the work of Adorno, is an analysis and critique of today’s financial neoliberalism. Confronted with the mystifying and baroque language of economics, all analyses of neoliberal capitalism are conditioned by the difficulty of entering into this scientific discourse. What Adorno and other thinkers of the Frankfurt School have demonstrated however, is that critical theory can only seize upon its object through a constellation of heterogeneous tools and disciplines. Rather than accepting the narrow terms of economics—which tends to isolate its facts according to narrow criteria—an immanent critique of contemporary financial capitalism should try to identify what assumptions are operative when we identify an institution, a behavior, or a social relation as “economic.” To this end, a critical understanding of neoliberalism should proceed not only through the tools and concepts within the field of economics, but should also draw from philosophy, sociology, anthropology, as well as the complex historical development of these interlocking disciplines.

Given the need for interdisciplinary interaction, the Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique at Paris-Sorbonne IV, is an important and valuable intellectual resource for critical theorists today. Sponsored by Villanova University’s Graduate School and the Department of Philosophy and directed by Professor Gabriel Rockhill, the CTW/ATC offers a unique opportunity for students, professors, artists, and independent researchers to participate in a three-week seminar and collaborative discussion with an internationally recognized list of guest lecturers. In this summer’s past workshop, for example, Amy Allen of Pennsylvania State University presented her recent work, The End Of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory, which opened an important discussion regarding the Frankfurt School today in relation to developments in decolonial theory. In addition to participating in critical “recontres,” or encounters, with a number of theorists operating from a diverse range of intellectual backgrounds and disciplines, students and participants are given the opportunity to collaborate and present their own independent research, art works, or writing. Although located in traditional Paris-Sorbonne IV, the CTW/ATC is not traditional in its orientation. Participants are encouraged to not only develop and structure encounters with visiting lecturers, but are equally encouraged to present and collaborate with each other on original projects. Free from the constraints of narrow academic specialization and institutional hierarchy, participants find the occasion at the CTW/ATC for open, but nevertheless rigorous and challenging collaboration with an international and interdisciplinary body of thinkers, artists, instructors, and colleagues.


Charles Prusik is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Villanova University. His dissertation draws from the work of Theodor Adorno to develop a critical theory of neoliberal society. His research specializes in the Frankfurt School, as well as the history of economics. .


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