The Frankfurt School in Exile

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.

Book: The Frankfurt School in Exile

Author: Thomas Wheatland

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Publication date: 2009-04

Length: 416 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $39.95

Image: 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.

Book: Dialectic of Enlightenment

Author: Max Horkheimer, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, Gunzelin Schmid Noerr

Publisher: Stanford University Press

Publication date: 2007-03

Length: 304 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $35.95

Image: 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.

Butting Heads

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

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.”

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

Author: Martin Jay

Publisher: University of California Press

Publication date: 1996-03

Length: 382 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $22.95

Image: 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.

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

Author: Rolf Wiggershaus

Publisher: MIT Press

Publication date: 1995-02

Length: 787 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $50.00

Image: 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.