Thursday, August 20, 2009

Kirsch, Adam. "Frankfurt on the Hudson." TABLET MAGAZINE August 18, 2009.

Wheatland, Thomas. The Frankfurt School in Exile. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009. It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Frankfurt School in recent American thought. Philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Max Horkheimer—to name just the best-known members of the group—helped to develop a subtle and powerful way of thinking about the problems of modern society. Critical Theory, as it is usually capitalized, adapted the revolutionary impulse of Marxism to 20th century conditions, in which mass culture and totalitarianism seemed to shut off any real possibility of social transformation. Especially appealing to academics is the way Critical Theory makes the analysis of culture feel like a revolutionary act in and of itself. Reading Adorno on modern music, or Benjamin on literature, it is momentarily possible to believe that criticism is a weapon of liberation, rather than simply a hermetic exercise for intellectuals. No wonder that after the 1960s, as Thomas Wheatland writes in his impressive new study The Frankfurt School in Exile, “ambitious young sympathizers with the New Left” in the academy turned en masse to the Frankfurt School, a scholarly subject that they could explore “without having to disguise or hide their intellectual and political orientations.” It is strange that it took until the 1960s for the Frankfurters to make a major impact on America, however, since from 1934 to 1949 they were actually living in the United States. The Institute for Social Research—the institutional home of the Frankfurt School thinkers—had to uproot itself from Germany in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power. After a brief period in Geneva, it relocated to Morningside Heights, where it formed an uneasy partnership with Columbia University. From its headquarters at 428 West 117th Street, the Institute struggled with the intellectual and practical challenges involved in doing European-style Critical Theory in America. While the members of the Institute eventually scattered—Horkheimer and Adorno moved to Los Angeles, joining the German émigré colony there, while after Pearl Harbor Marcuse and others went to Washington, applying their skills to the war effort—New York remained the Institute’s official home until 1949, when Horkheimer moved it back to the University of Frankfurt. In his book, an unusually thorough blend of intellectual and institutional history, Wheatland sheds new light on this phase of the Frankfurt School’s existence. . . . Read the rest here:

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