This doctoral dissertation focuses on the declining optimism regarding the emancipatory potential of politics within the tradition of cultural critique. In order to examine this transformation, I investigate the relationship between subjectivity, or the modern conception of the person, and internalization, whereby people discipline themselves given modern practices and beliefs, in the work of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School, and Foucault. Widely read as critics of the culture of their time, each one of these thinkers articulates in different ways that the mechanism or underlying logic whereby civilization comes to fruition is also the same logic that leads to its demise. In each of these accounts, the emergence of subjectivity is co-extensive with the internalization of some ultimately self-denying custom or belief, be it vain social standards (Rousseau, Christianity (Nietzsche), late capitalist ideology (Adorno and Horkheimer), or disciplinary norms (Foucault). Within these four critiques, however, I look to the changing role of politics and its relationship to salvation from the ills of society. What results is a complete reversal in the emancipatory capacity of politics: for Rousseau, politics in the Social Contract is meant to mitigate and ameliorate the ills of society. In Nietzsche, however, the promise of politics becomes much more ambiguous, given the experimental nature of his ‘philosophers of the future.’ The Frankfurt School offers an apolitical hope for emancipation from the ills of society: namely, retreating into abstract art as the last refuge of political resistance. Finally, Foucault articulates how power operates through language, knowledge and social practices and on these grounds outlines a specifically anti-political protest within these power structures themselves.
Given these four thinkers’ critiques of culture, three intertwined historical themes arise which occur simultaneously. First, from Rousseau to Foucault there is a decline in optimism with respect to the possibility of politics being a vehicle of liberation. Second, there is a diminishing perceived possibility for originality or authenticity on the part of the individual vis-à-vis society from Rousseau to Foucault. Third, there is a deepening articulation of the mechanism by which people are dominated, also beginning in Rousseau and culminating in Foucault’s bio-politics. By bringing out how each author articulates these themes in terms of how we lose sight of what we internalize, this dissertation does not only to connect these thinkers in a way that other interlocutors have not before, but also to reestablish the centrality of this concept in modern political theorizing.