Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Pensky, Max. Review of Thomas Wheatland, THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL IN EXILE. NDPR (January 2010).

Wheatland, Thomas. The Frankfurt School in Exile. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009. Following in the footsteps of earlier compendious intellectual histories of the Frankfurt School by Martin Jay and Rolf Wiggershaus, Thomas Wheatland's The Frankfurt School in Exile offers a thorough intellectual, political and institutional history of the adventures of the Frankfurt Institut fuer Sozialforschuung in the United States. Concentrating on this rich and strange institutional odyssey, and tapping the previously ignored archives of the Department of Sociology in Columbia University, Wheatland presents a far more vivid, nuanced, and strange picture of the Frankfurt Institute's American years. Among the many entrenched myths punctured in this book, the most important one to fall is the received view that the key figures of the Institute and their American, primarily New York, academic hosts were mutually indifferent. Just as significantly, however, Wheatland documents that the cadre of New York intellectuals gathered around the so-called 'little journals' of the nascent anti-Stalinist Left also had far more interest in, and were in far closer contact with, the Institute members than the existing historical literature suggests. These findings in general compel a reappraisal of the Institute's New York exile. And though Wheatland himself touches only very lightly on the political implications of this more intense and complex relationship, his history also, inevitably, raises questions about the developments that set both the New York anti-Stalinist Left, and less conspicuously the 'core' members of the Institute, on the path toward variations of neo-conservatism. The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School has always been a candidate for an intellectual-historical approach: there is first of all the simple fact of its extraordinarily interesting history, the personal dramas of its eccentric and compelling cast of characters, and of course the extraordinary times in which these men lived and wrote. The intellectual history of the members of the Frankfurt School is indeed the history of twentieth century Europe in microcosm: bourgeois and proletariat, religion and secularism, philosophy and politics, crisis and critique. The intellectual histories of critical theory have surpassed in both number and quality the philosophical analyses. In English or in translation, Jay's classic Dialectical Imagination, and Wiggershaus' The Frankfurt School remain unsurpassed, and untranslated German works by Alex Demirovic and Wolfgang Kraushaar document the political life of the postwar Institute in West Germany in minute detail. But oddly the American years of Critical Theory remain, if not unresearched, then certainly under-researched and susceptible to caricature. Horkheimer and Adorno, comprising the center of the Frankfurt institute, adeptly shifted both personnel and resources to New York, where an uneasy but productive relationship through most of the 1930s produced much of the Frankfurt School's empirical work on authoritarianism and anti-Semitism. Political prudence and justified fears at American anti-communism in the prewar and wartime years led the critical theorists to adopt an attitude of deep reserve with their American hosts, while personally dismayed at the callow mass culture of the United States, the critical theorists nevertheless slogged through their fifteen-year exile in New York and California. Horkheimer and Adorno returned to post-war Germany as the rubble was barely cool, while Marcuse, at Santa Cruz, transformed himself into a Hawaiian-shirted guru of the American New Left. Well, not quite, as Wheatland's historical research shows in a series of linked studies of the myths and half-truths that this received view is based on. This research turns up no smoking guns or shocking disclosures. But it does considerably complicate and expand our understanding of what happened to the Frankfurt School in New York and California, and this expanded understanding will make it difficult for some of the myths of the received view to survive much longer. . . . Read the whole review here:

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