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Butting Heads

Max Horkheimer (front left) and Theodor Adorno in Heidelberg, 1965

Max Horkheimer (front left) and Theodor Adorno in Heidelberg, 1965


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Butting Heads


“Instead of embracing democracy, as the New York Intellectuals had done,” Wheatland writes, paraphrasing Sidney Hook, “the Frankfurt School maintained an antidemocratic paternalism that was condescending and overly pessimistic.”

Though the New York Intellectuals and the Horkheimer circle (as Wheatland refers to it, to differentiate the ‘30s thinkers from later Frankfurt School theorists) shared similar diagnoses about the relationship between mass culture and totalitarianism, the two groups would come to square off over the validity of the dialectical method and the philosophical consequences of positivism, which Horkheimer and Adorno regarded as a kind of science worship excusing the status quo. Science, embedded culturally as the almighty fount of instrumental reason, could only yield technologies that would further the general drift toward a universal totalitarian society.


The positivists, for their part, regarded Hegelian dialectics as metaphysical voodoo riddled with logical inconsistencies and methodological chaos. The New York Intellectuals more or less thought the Frankfurt School’s associates were closet Stalinists. Ultimately, they arrived at the critique that continues to be leveled at the Frankfurt School’s ideas today. “Instead of embracing democracy, as the New York Intellectuals had done,” Wheatland writes, paraphrasing Sidney Hook, “the Frankfurt School maintained an antidemocratic paternalism that was condescending and overly pessimistic.”


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The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950

Martin Jay

(University of California Press; US: Mar 1996)

Wheatland, by and large, seems to agree with this critique. In demonstrating how the Frankfurt School’s forced accommodations with empiricist research assured their financial survival and spread their ideas (albeit in denatured form) sufficiently enough to permit a later revival,  he retains a palpable disdain for what he calls the Horkheimer Circle’s “antiliberalism”. He argues that they would have “benefited immeasurably from engaging in a more serious confrontation with the democratic communication theory inherent within Pragmatism and the feelings of patriotism that infiltrated the New York Intellectual community during the height of World War II.”


The Frankfurt School was antiliberal, rejecting the idea that small individual freedoms amounted to a larger social freedom and the preservation of the human capacity for sophisticated thought. Its theorists would suggest that American democracy was a sham; its uninformed voters were easily manipulated, and its popular culture was designed to actively hinder thought and assure that voters remained incapable of thinking through the political consequences of their actions. And rather than cheerlead for the ways in which ordinary people could make use of the low culture designed to degrade them and call this the democratization of taste, they would champion art only insofar as it expressed negativity, what Marcuse called “the great refusal”.


Wheatland, however, seeks to portray Adorno’s rampant hostility toward empiricism that he reasserted in Germany in the ‘50s as an aberration that served to “camouflage an important phase in the Institute’s relationship to American sociology.” Be that as it may, Adorno’s postwar writings seem more like a return to the group’s fundamental philosophical principles. Were the Frankfurt School theorists to have pursued the synthesis that Wheatland imagines would have been so beneficial, they would have had to compromise, if not abandon, the ideas that formed the Horkheimer Circle’s theoretical core. And with such a synthesis, regardless of the methodological contributions it may have fomented, the Frankfurt School would have nonetheless disappeared into the featureless institutional history of academia that Wheatland pursues at times here rather than shine like a defiant beacon as inspiration for pessimists, outcasts, and intellectuals everywhere who regard themselves as suffering an internal exile.


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The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance

Rolf Wiggershaus

(MIT Press; US: Feb 1995)

But in the ‘60s, the Frankfurt School may have suffered a worse fate at the hands of its admirers. As Wheatland details in the third and most compelling section of his book, the media seized upon the student Left’s enthusiasm for Marcuse to dismiss him as a guru, rendering his Frankfurt School comrades into mere fellow cult members. Marcuse’s incipient celebrity allowed the Frankfurt School to get caught in the very culture industry machinations they had long warned about, allowing their ideas to be distorted, trivialized, reified: As Wheatland notes, “Marcuse, one of the most sophisticated critics of the culture industry, was transformed into a commodity during the height of his fame.” His association with the New Left has caused him, in Wheatland’s view, to be “frozen in time—fused to a Movement that came to an end and that many seek to cast into the dustbin of history.”


Marcuse’s reputation has suffered with the reviled revolutionary tactics of student radicals, but what of the Frankfurt School itself? Has it become just an indie-bookstore commodity? Have the great critics of bureaucratization become institutionalized in universities, just another niche in one of the most bureaucratic corners of capitalist society? The Frankfurt School’s reputation now seems in limbo, stranded between the intemperate enthusiasm with which its ideas were embraced and misunderstood it (one of Wheatland’s most striking discoveries is how limited the response was to Marcuse’s thought in late ‘60s America) and the recurrent accusations of elitism and negativism that the new wave of apologists for popular culture tend to levy against it.


This reflects the dilemma the institute had always faced in its history, between making its ideas accessible and thus opening the possibility that they be reduced to radical chic, and hewing to a clotted, elliptical style that severely limited their potential audience and influence. Who, if anyone, makes up the appropriate audience for Critical Theory?


In his conclusion Wheatland frames that dilemma with a larger question (one which might have been raised much earlier to put some of the research he presents into context): “Is it desirable, or even possible, for intellectuals to remain on the margins as critical observers?” In America, the Frankfurt School aimed to remain in “splendid isolation” sending out their ideas as messages in bottles for future generations, since the civilization they had known had sunk into barbarism.


They cleverly conceived theories so that their aloofness could be regarded as a kind of social commitment, hoping through that contradiction to elude the logic of consumer capitalism, which holds that importance is a function of popularity. But are popular ideas always already vulgarized merely by virtue of their becoming popular? Does that mean something in the theory was not quite true, that there was a flaw that allowed it to be co-opted, repackaged? By elaborating the Frankfurt School’s ideas once again, and in the process of helpfully framing it, Wheatland has also exacerbated that still unresolved dilemma.

Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.


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