Frankfurt School Stuff

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I’m providing a little bit ofbackground information on the Institute for Social Research (Frankfurt School)and some topics to think about while reading.

Background: Felix J. Weil, sonof a grain merchant based in Argentina, founded the interdisciplinary Institutefor Social Research in 1923. It was meant to be an independent center ofresearch based in Marxist theory and was loosely affiliated with the Universityof Frankfurt. Its first director was Carl Grünberg, formerly Professor of Lawand Political Science at the University of Vienna. Under Grünberg, much of theresearch focused on a positivistic Marxist paradigm that privileged theeconomic base as the motor of social change as opposed to the culturalsuperstructure. The Institute changed gears in the late-20s when Grünbergsuffered health problems, and Max Horkheimer along with his long-time friendand fellow institute-member Friedrich Pollock favored revising thebase-superstructure relationship. In this endeavor, they were aided by youngerscholars, particularly Leo Lowenthal, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse.

The Institute was foundedduring a critical moment in Marxist theory. An ambiguous socialist revolutionhad taken place in Russia but not in the advanced industrial lands of WesternEurope. Indeed, the revolutionary proletariat hardly seemed capable ofrevolution. If the revolutionary class was incapable of revolution and therevolutionary party was a highly suspect alternative, then what options wereleft? This question was a central preoccupation of the institute’s work.Although Felix Weil helped secure funding from his father for the institute bypitching a study on anti-Semitism, this project did not take shape until thelate-1940s in the US.

By the early-30s, it was clearto the members of the Institute that its days in Germany were numbered. Awareof the dangers, Horkheimer had already transferred the bulk of the Institute’sendowment to Holland; he had also helped set up a branch in Geneva. When theNational Socialists took power, they confiscated the thousands of books in theInstitute’s library, but members were able to continue their work in exile dueto Horkheimer’s prescient actions.

In 1934, Horkheimer negotiatedan affiliation with Columbia University in New York City.

In 1941, Horkheimer moved toPacific Palisades for health reasons. Adorno accompanied him while the bulk ofthe institute’s members as well as the institute itself remained in New York.Despite living in exile, these years in the US were highly productive. Thereadings for tomorrow were written during a period when numerous essays andother projects were realized, including a research project on authoritarianismand anti-Semitism. (Side note. Just prior to his arrival in the US, Adornowrote a critique of jazz under the pseudonym Hektor Rottweiler thatforeshadowed his pessimistic appraisal of American mass culture as lackingnegative culture).


Seminar themes that come up inthe reading:

1. Competing notions ofGermany. The Institute insisted on publishing in German although a fewnon-German scholars were published in their journals. Part of this insistenceseems to lay in members’ unwillingness to relinquish the world of Germanscholarship and culture to the National Socialists. But, do competing notionsof good vs. bad German come up in these texts? It seems that such an evaluationis not at all limited to a particular national context. The struggle againstbarbarity is certainly urgent in the US. Which then demands a discussion ofdemocracy, actual participation, and the role of culture in society.


2. The influence of exile onmembers. We’ve discussed how exiles were not capable in some instances ofobserving the world around them in ways that substantially shifted pre-existingattitudes or prejudices. How do these two texts reflect that discussion? DoesHorkheimer and Adorno’s pessimism about “popular culture” stem from theirpre-US experiences? Is there evidence that their experiences in the US havechallenged or influenced their understanding of rational society?

3. Related to the point above,the Institute did not devote serious energy to the work on anti-Semitism untilthe 1940s when it received a grant from the American Jewish Committee. Despitethe course of events in Germany and the Institute’s forced relocation, many ofthe institute’s members did not focus on the issue until arriving in the US.For example, it seems that Friedrich Pollock asked Adorno to drop Wiesengrundfrom his name to lessen the sense that the institute’s roster was primarily composedof Jews.

4. Negative culture. Where arethe possibilities for radical change in these texts? Who are the agents of thischange? According to Horkheimer and Adorno, real happiness may never beachievable but what about even the authentic promise of happiness orfulfillment?