Grand Hotel Abyss – the lives of the Frankfurt School (2016) is the sort of book which has me salivating….it is the story of the individuals who came together in Germany in 1923 in an unusual multi-disciplinary institute; and used what came to be known as “critical theory” to try to make sense of the social, political and economic turbulence then being experienced in Europe and Russia…... Evicted by the Nazis after only a decade, they then moved to the States where their survey work focused initially on trying to understand the Nazi takeover and then on the cultural aspects of their adopted country – at least until 1949 when Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt, managing to attract a young Juergen Habermas to their ranks. The denazification process was, understandably an initial focus of their work there but, as the political momentum for this quickly faded, their focus on understanding the new forces of capitalism was renewed.
Such figures, however, as Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm stayed behind to plough their distinctive radical furrows in the USA – which bore fruit in the heady 60s when their writings indeed were far more influential in 60s Germany than those of Adorno and co at the Frankfurt school. I vividly remember the anger of the Marxist students at Berlin’s Freie University when I spent 2 summer months in Berlin in 1964 – and it was Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional Man” which was one of the crystallising text for them.
Adorno died in 1969 but the Institute operates to this day – if with little of the global influence it had in its heady days….. For those who want their analysis in small bites, the excellent Aeon magazine has article about the school with the appropriate title – How the Frankfurt school diagnosed the ills of western civilisation
The author of Grand Hotel Abyss, Stuart Jeffries, is one of many who have penned the history of this group – although he may be the first English journalist so to do. Many Germans have been down this road eg The Frankfurt School – by Wiggershaus (1995); and at least 2 American scholars – with The Dialectical Imagination (Martin Jay 1973); and Rethinking the Frankfurt School – alternative legacies of cultural critique; ed JT Nealon and C Irr (2002).
Jeffries’ book has an excellent bibliography – which lists (some of) these books – but, as I discovered them, I wondered why he had not thought to offer a comment in (say) the Introduction to help us understand what exactly his new book offers that is different and distinctive….. I should imagine that he feels that a journalistic approach will clearly be more accessible than an academic’s – but have to confess that I find his language, on occasion, a bit elliptic if not cryptic….
In these times, however, it’s useful for a British audience to be reminded that, for almost a hundred years, this Institute has been articulating a different way of seeing and thinking……
But I often had the feeling in the first half of the book that he would have preferred to be writing about Walter Benjamin……. whose various writings are generally much more lucid than those of his colleagues at the School – eg Early Writings 1910-1917; Reflections – essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings (1978); and Selected Writings volume 2 part 2 (1931-1934) – perhaps because Benjamin was actually a journalist
I was also disappointed that, apart from a solitary paragraph, the book failed to make the connection with the group of New Left writers who have been active in Britain from 1960 to the present – particularly with the “cultural wing” which found expression in the British Centre for Cultural Studies from 1964 until its demise in 2002. British Cultural Studies – an introduction by Graeme Turner (1990) offers a good treatment of their work.
Admittedly, the Frankfurt School had a 40 year start on the Brits but, for some reason it’s the French whose influence permeates UK cultural studies (as Turner’s book shows) – with only Gramsci challenging this. Germans such as Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas simply made no impact on the Brits…Why is this I wonder? The Frankfurt School and British cultural Studies – a missed articulation is an interesting article which explores this question……
Let me finish with an excerpt from an interview with the author of Grand Hotel Abyss (and recommend that you read the full interview)
What legacies has the Frankfurt School left us? And which thinkers do you regard as its inheritors?They were certainly attentive to how culture changes us and can be a force for change. In the 1930s Benjamin imagined that cinema, for instance, by using jump cuts and close ups, would change our perspectives on reality and so might have a revolutionary potential; a few years later, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of Hollywood as if it were a totalitarian tool of oppression akin to the Nazi film studio UFA. One Frankfurt School legacy, then, then is to make us think about the politics of culture. For them, art is never just for art’s sake, and entertainment is never just entertaining. By taking the politics of culture seriously, the Frankfurt School opened up new lines of thinking. Without them, all the stuff that happened in a little corner of Frankfurt’s twin city of Birmingham (the now-defunct Centre for Cultural Studies) wouldn’t have been conceivable and our approach to culture would have been very different.
To be sure, the likes of Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams saw culture very differently from Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. They followed the Frankfurt School in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control, but, unlike the Germans, appreciated how the culture industry could be aberrantly, even rebelliously decoded, by its mass consumers and that popular sub-cultures might subvert the culture industry in a form of immanent critique.Further Reading