The Frankfurt School is probably familiar to anyone with even a passing academic interest in cultural studies. It’s notorious for its dour skepticism about pop culture (coining the term “culture industry” to castigate mass-produced entertainment product, manufactured, in their view, to stupefy the populace with false, meaningless choices) and its grim pessimism about the fate of “administered” societies ruled by instrumental reason (quasi-scientific rationality has become a form of bondage, curtailing our ability to think and enforcing a universal alienation).
The group’s members included thinkers whose names would become celebrated in graduate seminars during the height of the American theory boom, including T.W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. Its chief theoretical work, the relentlessly discursive Dialectic of Enlightenment, remains relevant, prescient in its analysis of how emerging forms of entertainment would simultaneously serve as modes of social control, and of how pacification of the masses would be achieved finally through consumerism.
Though well-entrenched now, the Frankfurt School’s survival through the War years was precarious and its philosophical legacy was by no means assured, as Thomas Wheatland, a professor of German history, details in The Frankfurt School in Exile. Formed by predominantly Jewish left-wing intellectuals in ‘30s Germany, the Institute for Social Research (as it was officially called) at first set out to fuse empirical techniques with theoretical developments in psychology, philosophy and sociology in order to study capitalist society as it teetered on the cusp of authoritarianism.
The Marxist theory many of the Frankfurt School’s scholars accepted as a starting point had predicted the emergence of a revolutionary working class in the wake of capitalism’s contradictions unwinding the existing social order. But instead, workers tolerated or supported the fascist movements. Why? What went wrong? This was one of the primary questions that the Frankfurt School, under the leadership of its second director, Max Horkheimer, sought to answer.
With a traditional academic’s humility, Wheatland intends The Frankfurt School in Exile to be a complement to the two definitive histories of the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay’s The Dialecticial Imagination and Rolf Wiggershaus’s The Frankfurt School, covering the minutia of the institutional history—the departmental squabbling and careerism—that the earlier books left underexplored. So it’s a bit hard to imagine anyone reading Wheatland’s book without having read the other two, which itself is a tall order for anyone without an intense scholarly interest in the subject.
Though Wheatland is unfailingly lucid in his accounts of the Frankfurt School theorists’ ideas and their ramifications and echoes among other intellectuals of the period, these capsules can be somewhat tangential to his purpose, which occasionally requires rote recitation of facts about financing and shifting job titles. This may frustrate casual readers (assuming there are any), who will most likely be more interested in the cultural critique than the ambiguous fruits of Wheatland’s extensive research into how the Frankfurt School paid its bills and got along in America.
Dialectic of Enlightenment
(Stanford University Press; US: Mar 2007)
After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, the Frankfurt School needed to relocate for obvious reasons. Thanks to a prescient paranoia, the school had managed to expatriate most of its endowment to Switzerland, which allowed them to shop around for new institutional environs beyond the reach of Hitler. There was no reason for anyone to expect that the academic world in the US would be very hospitable to a bunch of Eurocentric German Marxists steeped deeply in the Hegelian dialectic, many of whom wrote inscrutable philosophical screeds and seemed to reject publishing in English on principle.
Their barely disguised anti-Americanism didn’t help, either. Fortunately, thanks mainly to the ingratiating efforts of Erich Fromm (a neo-Freudian whose works eventually managed to achieve a mass-market vogue and which can still be found in thrift-store paperback bins) they were able to secure a beachhead at Columbia University, which was looking to bolster its sociology department.
From that base in New York City, the German scholars came into contact with the so-called New York Intellectuals, another predominantly Jewish left-leaning literati (among them Dwight Macdonald, Daniel Bell, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, and Irving Kristol) concerned with the critique of mass society. Wheatland provides a thorough accounting of what personal relationships among the intellectuals may have existed, but admits that the archival record of the two groups’ interaction is thin, probably because Horkheimer mandated that the institute maintain a low profile to avoid undue political suspicion.
Instead, Wheatland traces the Frankfurt School’s influence in some notable works by the New York writers and details the groups’ fundamental differences with regard to the central question of analytical method, which mirrored the larger disjunction between Continental and Anglo-American approaches to sociological research. The Continental tradition tended to indulge speculative, big-picture theorizing with little regard for substantiating data, while English and American sociologists, fetishizing the scientific method and largely in thrall to evolutionary assumptions, demanded empirical research to ground their hypotheses. As Wheatland details at length, the Frankfurt School engaged in some empirically based projects, deriving, for instance, psychological profiles from surveys for a study of authority and the family, but its orientation grew ever more militantly anti-positivist.