About this topic

Critical Theory refers to a form of self-reflexive social critique as well as a particular tradition associated with the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), a.k.a. the Frankfurt School. Early Frankfurt School theorists combined a Hegelian Marxist social criticism with other emancipatory approaches, such as psychoanalysis and cultural critique, taking a genuinely anti-positivist and interdisciplinary approach. Critical theory was intended to contribute to the “intensification of the struggle with which the theory is connected,” wrote Horkheimer, becoming a material force in the “transformation of society as a whole” (219). Theorists associated with the early Frankfurt School include Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin, while contemporary figures such as Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser, and Seyla Benhabib continue the tradition with non-Marxist forms of critique grounded in, for example, communicative reason and social recognition. Today, Critical Theory refers to a broader spectrum of social theorists in poststructuralist, feminist, queer, critical race, disability, and postcolonial theory, such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon, Enrique Dussel, Gayatri Spivak, Giorgio Agamben, Jacque Rancière, and Slavoj Žižek.

Key works

Max Horkheimer’s 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory” (in Horkheimer 1972) is a foundational text, outlining the Institute’s interdisciplinary methodology and critique of "traditional" theory. Other important works by early Frankfurt School theorists include Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment; Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia and Negative Dialectics; short works by Walter Benjamin in Illuminations and Reflections, particularly his essays “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “On Violence”; and Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization. Jürgen Habermas’ two-volume work The Theory of Communicative Action represents a break from the earlier Marxist tendencies of the Institute, laying out a new normative foundation for critique in communicative reason. Axel Honneth, the current director of the Institute for Social Research, has alternatively reconstructed the Hegelian notion of social recognition in his critiques of social injustices and social pathologies in Struggle for Recognition and Freedom’s Right. Seyla Benhabib’s Critique, Norm, and Utopia and Nancy Fraser’s Unruly Practices are also important works in the Frankfurt School tradition. Seminal texts beyond this tradition include, for example, Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble Enrique Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation, Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, and Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer.


The best scholarly introductions to the Frankfurt School tradition in English are Jay 1973, Held 1980, and Wiggershaus 1994. Jay Bernstein has edited the six-volume collection: The Frankfurt School: Critical Assessment and the publications of the Institute’s journal Zeitscrift für Sozialforschung (1932-1941) are available in a nine-volume set. Notable anthologies on the Frankfurt School and critical theory more generally include Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (eds.), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas MacKay Kellner (eds.), Critical Theory and Society, David Rasmussen, The Handbook of Critical Theory, Benhabib, Butler, Cornell, and Fraser, Feminist Contentions; Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell (eds.), Feminism as Critique, William Rehg and James Bohman (eds), Pluralism and the Pragmatic Turn, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, et al. (eds.), Critical Race Theory, Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg (eds.), Race Critical Theories, Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory, and two volumes on the “idea of communism”: Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek (eds.),The Idea of Communism, and Slavoj Žižek (ed.), The Idea of Communism, Volume II.

Related categories

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  1. The Silent Space of the Vacuum.Jonathan Morgan - 2019 - Religious Theory.
    In this paper I argue that a reimagining of the notion of silence as more than a sonic phenomenon is needed to address the dominant structural apparati of Western discourse. Silence as an existential medium is where the Foucauldian apparatuses that power the status-quo of the world operate. They forge connections between things like ideology and social organization where one falls into the wake of the other and is shaped in a way that is nearly invisible to the passing glance. (...)
  2. Dall’economia del debito all’economia dell’angoscia: Il paradigma dell’indebitamento al tempo dell’austerity.Andrea Mura - 2015 - LETTERa: Quaderni di Clinica E Cultura Psicoanalitica 5:193-210.
  3. Neoliberalism and the Right to Be Lazy: Inactivity as Resistance in Lazzarato and Agamben.Tim Christiaens - 2018 - Rethinking Marxism 2 (30):256-274.
    Neoliberalism has installed an unending competitive struggle in the economy. Within this context activists have pushed for a reappraisal of laziness and inactivity as forms of resistance. This idea has been picked up by Maurizio Lazzarato and Giorgio Agamben in different ways. I start with explaining the former’s appraisal of laziness as a release of potentialities unrealizable under financial capitalism. Lazzarato’s appraisal of laziness however resembles neoliberal theories of innovation, because both share the conceptual persona of a subject whose potentialities (...)
  4. Financial Neoliberalism and Exclusion with and Beyond Foucault.Tim Christiaens - forthcoming - Theory, Culture and Society:026327641881636.
    In the beginning of the 1970s, Michel Foucault dismisses the terminology of ‘exclusion’ for his projected analytics of modern power. This rejection has had major repercussions on the theory of neoliberal subject-formation. Many researchers disproportionately stress how neoliberal dispositifs produce entrepreneurial subjects, albeit in different ways, while minimizing how these dispositifs sometimes emphatically refuse to produce neoliberal subjects. Relying on Saskia Sassen’s work on financialization, I argue that neoliberal dispositifs not only apply entrepreneurial norms, but also suspend their application for (...)
  5. Hayek’s Vicarious Secularization of Providential Theology.Tim Christiaens - 2018 - Philosophy and Social Criticism 45 (1):71-95.
    Friedrich Hayek’s defense of neoliberal free market capitalism hinges on the distinction between economies and catallaxies. The former are orders instituted via planning, whereas the latter are spontaneous competitive orders resulting from human action without human design. I argue that this distinction is based on an incomplete semantic history of “economy.” By looking at the meaning of “oikonomia” in medieval providential theology as explained by Giorgio Agamben and Joseph Vogl, I argue how Hayek’s science of catallactics is itself a secularization (...)
  6. Craft Theory And The Creation Of A New Capitalism.Jonathan Morgan - 2018 - The New Polis.
    This paper challenges the notion that the only way to progress to a post-capitalist society is through the wholesale destruction of the capitalist economic system. Instead, I argue that Craft —an existential state and praxis informed by the creation and maintenance of objects of utility—is uniquely situated to effectively reclaim these systems due to its its focus on materiality over abstraction and its unique position as a socially aware form of praxis. This argument focuses not on competition, but on hyper-abstraction (...)
  7. Rezension von Ulrich Bröckling: Gute Hirten führen sanft. Über Menschenregierungskünste. [REVIEW]Benedict Kenyah-Damptey - 2018 - Zeitschrift für Philosophische Literatur 6:56-64.
    This is a review of Urlich Bröckling's book (2017) "Gute Hirten führen sanft. Über Menschenregierungskünste." (which can be roughly translated as: "Good shepherds lead gently. On the arts of governing humans") Bröckling's book collects new essays, as well as already elsewhere published works, which have been revised for this book. On 422 pages the author presents his sociology of governing humans through gouvernementality, which is a worth reading contribution to the governmentality studies. The book is divided into three main sections: (...)
  8. A Festival for Frustrated Egos: The Rise of Trump From an Early Frankfurt School Critical Theory Perspective.Claudia Leeb - 2018 - In Marc Benjamin Sable & Angel Jaramillo Torres (eds.), Trump and Political Philosophy: Patriotism, Cosmopolitanism and Civic Virtue. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 297-314.
    This chapter combines the insights of Sigmund Freud and Theodor W. Adorno to explain some of the psychoanalytic mechanisms that contributed to a scenario where people voted for a leader who undermines their very existence. Trump successfully exploited feelings of failure of the millions of Americans who have not been able to live up to the liberal capitalist ideology of success. By replacing their ego ideal with that of their leader, Trump voters could get rid of the frustration and discontent (...)
  9. Per una fenomenologia dell'alienazione sul lavoro. A partire dai Manoscritti economico-filosofici.Eleonora Piromalli - 2018 - Società Degli Individui 62:43-46.
  10. Recognition and Power in Honneth’s Critical Theory of Recognition.Kristina Lepold - forthcoming - Critical Horizons.
    Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition has recently been criticised on the grounds that it conceives of the relationship between recognition and power in terms of an opposition. According to Honneth’s critics, this is too simple because recognition and power are often intertwined. My aim in this article is twofold: On the one hand, I seek to understand why Honneth conceives of recognition and power as opposed. As I will argue, this is not the result of bad theorising; rather, there are (...)
  11. Axel Honneths Neubegründung der kritischen Gesellschaftstheorie: Die kritische Theorie der Anerkennung.Kristina Lepold - 2017 - In Sven Ellmers & Philip Hogh (eds.), Warum Kritik? Begründungsformen kritischer Theorie. Weilerswist, Deutschland: pp. 281-300.
    In der gegenwärtigen Debatte um Kritik und spezifischer um verschiedene Begründungsformen der kritischen Theorie spielt die kritische Theorie der Anerkennung, wie sie von Axel Honneth über die letzten 25 Jahre entwickelt worden ist, eine zentrale Rolle. Diese Theorie soll im vorliegenden Beitrag vorgestellt werden. Um den Aufbau und die Funktionsweise dieser Theorie richtig zu verstehen, ist es unabdingbar, sich zunächst zu vergegenwärtigen, wie sich Honneth in der Tradition der kritischen Gesellschaftstheorie positioniert, also innerhalb jenes Theorieprojekts, das seine Wurzeln bei Hegel (...)
  12. Genealogies of Terrorism: Revolution, State Violence, Empire.Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson - 2018 - New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press.
    What is terrorism? What ought we to do about it? And why is it wrong? We think we have clear answers to these questions. But acts of violence, like U.S. drone strikes that indiscriminately kill civilians, and mass shootings that become terrorist attacks when suspects are identified as Muslim, suggest that definitions of terrorism are always contested. In Genealogies of Terrorism, Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson rejects attempts to define what terrorism is in favor of a historico-philosophical investigation into the conditions under which (...)
  13. Aristotle’s Anthropological Machine and Slavery in Advance.Tim Christiaens - forthcoming - Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy.
    Among the most controversial aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy is his endorsement of slavery. Natural slaves are excluded from political citizenship on ontological grounds and are thus constitutively unable to achieve the good life, identified with the collective cultivation of logos in the polis. Aristotle explicitly acknowledges their humanity, yet frequently emphasizes their proximity to animals. It is the latter that makes them purportedly unfit for the polis. I propose to use Agamben’s theory of the anthropological machine to make sense of (...)
  14. Mimesis, Critique, Redemption: Creaturely Life in and Beyond Dialectic of Enlightenment.James Dorahy - 2014 - Colloquy 27.
    The idea of creaturely life has, in recent years, emerged as an important and illuminating category of literary and philosophical critique. In this paper I seek to contribute to this contemporary discourse by examining the references to the creaturely found in the writings of T.W. Adorno. Whilst much attention has been paid to Walter Benjamin’s reflections on creatureliness, Adorno, a thinker with whom Benjamin is often associated, has received comparatively little in this regard. I begin to redress this lacuna by (...)
  15. Foucault lesen.Frieder Vogelmann - 2016 - Wiesbaden, Deutschland: Springer.
    "Foucault lesen" [Reading Foucault] proposes a systematic and philosophical readig of Foucaut’s work: Systematically, I emphasize Foucault’s methodological perspective as a nihilistic, nominalistic and historicistic analysis of practices and the realities produced by them. This analysis proceeds along the three axes of knowledge, power and self-relations. I explore the consequences of this interpretation regarding the debates about Foucault’s concept of critique, his attack on the science humaines and his stance vis-à-vis neoliberalism. My interpretation amounts to a philosophical reading because it (...)
  16. The Symbolic Scenarios of Islamism: A Study in Islamic Political Thought.Andrea Mura - 2016 - Routledge.
    The Symbolic Scenarios of Islamism initiates a dialogue between the discourse of three of the most discussed figures in the history of the Sunni Islamic movement—Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Osama bin Laden—and contemporary debates across religion and political theory, providing a crucial foundation upon which to situate current developments in world politics. Redressing the inefficiency of the terms in which the debate on Islam and Islamism is generally conducted, the book examines the role played by tradition, modernity, and transmodernity (...)
  17. Review Essay: Entre o Velho E o Novo Mundo: A Diáspora Palestina Desde o Oriente Médio À América Latina. [REVIEW]Bryan Lueck - 2019 - SCTIW Review:1-6.
  18. De uitzonderingstoestand van Giorgio Agamben naar Michel Foucault.Tim Christiaens - 2015 - Vlaams Marxistisch Tijdschrift 49 (1):104-118.
  19. De wereld is alles wat het geval kan zijn. Agambens metafysische en politieke interpretatie van potentialiteit bij Aristoteles.Tim Christiaens - 2015 - de Uil van Minerva: Tijdschrift Voor Geschiedenis En Wijsbegeerte van de Cultuur 28 (2):113-132.
    Deze tekst vertrekt vanuit een van de meest invloedrijke denkers in de metafysica, namelijk Aristoteles. We lezen hem via de interpretatie van Giorgio Agamben in het artikel On potentiality. 4 Agamben werpt in die tekst een nieuw licht op het onderscheid tussen potentialiteit en act. De Westerse metafysica heeft vaak de act geprivilegieerd boven de potentialiteit. Enkel actuele entiteiten zouden bestaan, terwijl mogelijkheden behoren tot het domein van de verbeelding. Aristoteles ondermijnt deze stelling volgens Agamben. De mens als redelijk dier (...)
  20. Digital Subjectivation and Financial Markets: Criticizing Social Studies of Finance with Lazzarato.Tim Christiaens - 2016 - Big Data and Society 3 (2):1-15.
    The recently rising field of Critical Data Studies is still facing fundamental questions. Among these is the enigma of digital subjectivation. Who are the subjects of Big Data? A field where this question is particularly pressing is finance. Since the 1990s traders have been steadily integrated into computerized data assemblages, which calls for an ontology that eliminates the distinction between human sovereign subjects and non-human instrumental objects. The latter subjectivize traders in pre-conscious ways, because human consciousness runs too slow to (...)
  21. First Things First. Redistribution, Recognition and Justification.Rainer Forst - 2007 - European Journal of Political Theory 6 (3):291-304.
    This article analyses the debate between Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth in a dialectical fashion. Their controversy about how to construct a critical theory of justice is not just one about the proper balance between `redistribution' and `recognition', it also involves basic questions of social ontology. Differing both from Fraser's `twodimensional' view of `participatory parity' and from Honneth's `monistic' theory of recognition, the article argues for a third view of `justificatory monism and diagnosticevaluative pluralism', also called the `first-things-first' approach. According (...)
  22. Social Transformation and Online Technology.Christopher Ryan Maboloc - 2017 - Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 21 (1):55-70.
    The Internet age has seen the influential rise of social media. Consumer culture is tied to this modern phenomenon. This paper begins with an exposition of Herbert Marcuse’s grounding in phenomenology and his subsequent critique of Heidegger’s apolitical Dasein. In explicating Marcuse’s critical theory of technology, this paper will retrace Hegel’s influence on Marcuse in the idea of the dialectic. The dialectic is an integral aspect of social transformation. While modern technology may be value-neutral, it is argued herein that the (...)
  23. "Critical Inquiry" and Critical Theory: A Short History of Nonbeing. Pippin - 2004 - Critical Inquiry 30 (2):424.
  24. Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory.Allen W. Wood & Seyla Benhabib - 1988 - Philosophical Review 97 (1):107.
  25. The Political Theory of Liberation Theology: Toward a Reconvergence of Social Values and Social Science.John R. Pottenger - 1989 - State University of New York Press.
  26. Critical Theory Today.Gabriel Ricci (ed.) - forthcoming - Transaction.
  27. Philosophy and Science in the Social Theory of the Frankfurt School.Halina Walentowicz & Maciej Bańkowski - 2009 - Dialogue and Universalism 19 (3-5):209-225.
    The present essay focuses on the Frankfurt School’s views on relations between philosophy and science. The author specifically concentrates on Horkheimer, the School’s leader, and Habermas, its most prominent contemporary representative. In her reconstruction of the Frankfurt School’s approach to the dependencies between philosophy and science the author—similarly to the Frankfurt theoreticians—abstains from treating it abstractly, instead placing it in its social and historiosophical context. The essay’s leading thesis is that the Frankfurt School sees philosophical self-reflection as a remedy for (...)
  28. Friendly Critics, Critical Issues.David Schweickart - 1995 - Radical Philosophy Review of Books 11 (11):54-67.
  29. Contre la violence éthique.Judith Butler - 2004 - Rue Descartes 45 (3):193.
  30. Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions.Judith Butler - 1989 - Journal of Philosophy 86 (11):601-607.
  31. Enlightenment and Rationality.Axel Honneth & Trans Gaines - 1987 - Journal of Philosophy 84 (11):692-699.
  32. The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues in Social Theory.Robert Porter - 2002 - Contemporary Political Theory 1 (3):392-393.
  33. “J.”, Or: The Black Holes of Hillisle Mal.Tom Cohen - 2004 - Journal for Cultural Research 8 (2):201-215.
  34. The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy and the Making of a New Political Subject.James Martin - 2006 - Contemporary Political Theory 5 (2):229-231.
  35. Towards a Critical Theory of Society: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume 2.Ian Fraser - 2005 - Contemporary Political Theory 4 (4):469-470.
  36. Deliberative Freedom: Deliberative Democracy as Critical Theory.Aysegul Keskin - 2010 - Contemporary Political Theory 9 (2):258-261.
  37. Of Persons and Peoples: Internationalizing the Critical Theory of Recognition.Volker Heins - 2010 - Contemporary Political Theory 9 (2):149-170.
    Although Axel Honneth's critical theory of recognition continues to resonate among political theorists, its relationship to the debate on political and moral cosmopolitanism remains unclear. The paper aims to fill this gap by defining a few guideposts to a ‘recognition-theoretical’ conception of the international. My argument is that Honneth's theory oscillates between a liberal-cosmopolitan model of the global spread of human rights and an alternative model that is closer to the anti-cosmopolitanism of the late Rawls. Both models reflect certain assumptions (...)
  38. Towards a Genealogical Feminism: A Reading of Judith Butler's Political Thought.Alison Stone - 2005 - Contemporary Political Theory 4 (1):4-24.
    Judith Butler's contribution to feminist political thought is usually approached in terms of her concept of performativity, according to which gender exists only insofar as it is ritualistically and repetitively performed, creating permanent possibilities for performing gender in new and transgressive ways. In this paper, I argue that Butler's politics of performativity is more fundamentally grounded in the concept of genealogy, which she adapts from Foucault and, ultimately, Nietzsche. Butler understands women to have a genealogy: to be located within a (...)
  39. Changes in Today’s Workplace and in Critical Social Theory.Russell Rockwell - 2016 - Radical Philosophy Review 19 (1):173-182.
    Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is a key text from within the Critical Theory tradition in terms of its utility for assessing today’s new stage of automated production, its impact on social relations, and the prospects for the type of challenge to capitalism that includes within it a concept of an achievable postcapitalist society. The interpretation here seeks to uncover the socially relevant dialectical relationship of the Grundrisse and Capital, which is in contrast to Marcuse’s theory, which holds that Marx, in Capital, (...)
  40. Pragmatism and Critical Theory of Technology.Andrew Feenberg - 2003 - Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 7 (1):29-33.
  41. Deconstruction and Critical Theory.Tanya Ditommaso - 2004 - Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy/Revue canadienne de philosophie continentale 8 (1):142-144.
  42. The Paradox of Normalcy in the Frankfurt School.Donald Ipperciel - 1998 - Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy/Revue canadienne de philosophie continentale 2 (1):37-59.
    This article proposes a solution to the ‘paradox of normalcy’, a problem raised by the early Frankfurt Sehool in its questioning of basic concepts of psychoanalysis. After reviewing the different definitions of normalcy put forward by Freud, the paradoxical character of the concept of normalcy, as perceived by the various members of the Frankfurt School, will be made explicit. The solution to the paradox will take the form ofa practical ‘dis-solution’, and will bring to the fore a fundamental principle of (...)
  43. Technological Democracy or Democratic Technology?Jeff Kochan - 2004 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 35 (2):401-412.
  44. Theory and Politics.Benjamin Gregg - 1984 - Télos 1984 (61):207-214.
    Despite numerous obituaries to the contrary, Critical Theory, now half a century old, is still very much alive. The historical context in which the Frankfurt Circle worked has of course changed radically, as have forms of philosophy and social science. Hence no one can be surprised to find that the classical Frankfurt texts no longer shed direct light on contemporary society. Yet the various reconstructions of this tradition's potential for new social theory save it from the fate proclaimed for it (...)
  45. South Africa's Search for Legitimacy.H. Adam - 1984 - Télos 1984 (59):45-68.
  46. The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory.James Schmidt - 1978 - Télos 1978 (36):192-197.
    How one evaluates Richard Bernstein's study of recent alternative approaches in political and social theory depends in part on the expectations one brings to it. It is easy to find fault with the book. Simply in terms of content, Bernstein has perhaps underestimated the literacy of his potential audience. His discussion of mainstream empirical approaches, even though it is far more even-handed than is usually the case, scarcely seems aware that in some quarters—such as those theoreticians engaged in simulation or (...)
  47. Morality and Critical Theory: On the Normative Problem of Frankfurt School Social Criticism.James Gordon Finlayson - 2009 - Télos 2009 (146):7-41.
    I. The Problem of Normative Foundations: Habermas's Original Criticism of Adorno and Horkheimer In The Theory of Communicative Action, Jürgen Habermas writes:From the beginning, critical theory labored over the difficulty of giving an account of its own normative foundations …1Call this Habermas's original objection to the problem of normative foundations. It has been hugely influential both in the interpretation and assessment of Frankfurt School critical theory and in the development of later variants of it. Nowadays it is a truth almost (...)
  48. From Virtual Public Spheres to Global Justice: A Critical Theory of Internetworked Social Movements.Lauren Langman - 2005 - Sociological Theory 23 (1):42-74.
    From the early 1990s when the EZLN (the Zapatistas), led by Subcommandte Marcos, first made use of the Internet to the late 1990s with the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Trade and Investment and the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, Quebec, and Genoa, it became evident that new, qualitatively different kinds of social protest movements were emergent. These new movements seemed diffuse and unstructured, yet at the same time, they forged unlikely coalitions of labor, environmentalists, feminists, peace, and global social (...)
  49. Evolution and Event in History and Social Change: Gerhard Lenski's Critical Theory.Michael D. Kennedy - 2004 - Sociological Theory 22 (2):315-327.
    Authors have contrasted social change and history many times, especially in terms of the significance of the event in accounting for the broadest contours of human societies' evolution. After recasting Gerhard Lenski's ecological-evolutionary theory in a critical fashion, by emphasizing its engagement with alternativity and by introducing a different approach to structure, I reconsider the salience of the event in the developmentalist project and suggest that ecological-evolutionary theory can be quite helpful in posing new questions about an eventful sociology. By (...)
  50. Mimesis, Law, Struggle. A Contribution to Social Ontology.Rastko Jovanov - 2015 - Filozofija I Društvo 26 (4):917-933.
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