Cottage Industry

David Berry (ed.), Revisiting the Frankfurt School: Essays on Culture, Media and Theory

Ashgate, 218pp, £55.00, ISBN 9781409411802

reviewed by Andy Murray

There are few categories in the history of Marxism as indeterminate as that of ‘Frankfurt School’. Since this term came into common parlance in the 1960s to refer to the associates of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, it has often been used simply to refer to Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. These two have become the subject of an academic specialisation that produces a massive output of publications and symposia, a cottage industry its own right. The bright light concentrated on these two personalities has left many other associates of the Frankfurt Institute in their shadow. All too often, mention of ‘a Frankfurt school argument’ is intended to refer to the arguments in Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), or more specifically, Adorno’s chapter on the Culture Industry, or even just the concept ‘culture industry’ itself.

Although assessing and rebalancing this situation would undoubtedly be the work of more than one publication, Revisiting the Frankfurt School contributes to such a project. The book collates nine essays from nine different scholars, most of which are dedicated to a particular associate of the Frankfurt School. The general approach of these essays involves asserting the importance of these associates for contemporary leftist praxis, examining the theoretical and historical importance of relatively minor figures to the Frankfurt school and assessing their importance for the development of modern media and cultural studies. This method is in marked contrast to the trend in scholarship which asserts the importance of central figures (particularly Adorno) and which rereads the Frankfurt school in light of later developments in continental theory. This collection therefore is an interesting counterpart to another collection of essays, Rethinking the Frankfurt School, edited by Jeffrey T. Nealton and Caren Irr, which is structured on this contrary model.

In valuing the radical politics of the Frankfurt School many of the essays revise the caricature of the Frankfurt school as scholastic, i.e., a set of academics whose work has little investment in actual class struggles. Philip Bounds’ essay is a valuable contribution to this reoccurring debate. He shows that Herbert Marcuse’s response to the New Left in the late 1960s reveals that ‘pessimism’ and ‘optimism’ are, with regard to political struggle, complex terms that dialectically pass into one another. Marcuse’s optimism towards the New Left is shown to involve a pessimistic undertone in supporting movements whose radical demands were often knowingly self-defeating; whereas Adorno’s active pessimism towards student demonstrations contains an element of hope for a more productive political movement.

A few of the essays convincingly demonstrate the importance of the Frankfurt School for contemporary leftist politics, particularly in relation to new internet media such as social networking. Julian Petley argues that Habermas’s narrative of the ‘refuedalization’ of the public sphere during late-capitalism – a process whereby the media is transformed from a space of communicative action to one primarily concerned with limiting the development of collective consciousness – can, in light of Habermas’s own revisions of this theory and of the development of new media technologies, be used to understand and determine new forms of anti-capitalist strategy. Mike Wayne has a similar purpose in his essay on Hans Magnus Enzenberger, in which he makes a bold case that Enzenberger’s essay ‘Constituents of a Theory of the Media’ is as important for understanding popular collective consciousness in a world of social networking as Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art’ essay was for the decades of developing cinema.

Other essays focus their research on the formative development of their subject and the impact of the Frankfurt School’s historical context. The strongest works in this regard are by Alan O’Connor and Caroline Kamau. O’Connor’s compellingly argues that some of the oddities and contradictions in Benjamin’s thought are not due to his personal quirks, but are instead responses to the intellectual environment of interwar Germany, a context he adeptly models using social categories elaborated from the work of Pierre Bourdieu. Kamau, pointing out that Erich Fromm was the originator of the key concept of the ‘authoritarian personality’, shows his decisive impact on the Frankfurt School’s research. If Fromm is today a less studied figure, it is because he was estranged from Horkheimer and Adorno due to both personal and methodological differences.

Fromm’s methodological distinctness partly hinged on the weighted importance he gave to quantitative as opposed to qualitative analytical methods. He thereby anticipated a key divide that separated the Frankfurt Institute from American communications studies during the post-war decades. The dialogue between German and American scholarship is explored at length by Hanno Hardt in his discussion of the development of the thought of Leo Lowenthal, a Frankfurt Institute member whose critical-historical approach marginalised him in American departments. Hardt’s essay is an updated version of an essay published in 1992. Yet, its inclusion in this collection is productive, especially when read against Robert Babe’s essay comparing the concepts and methods of Adorno to the Canadian scholar, Dallas Smythe. Babe shows that even a leftist like Smythe, whose concept of the ‘consciousness industry’ shares much which the concept of the ‘culture industry’, still had methodological disputes with European Marxists.

This essay collection as a whole does therefore offer an important and often understated set of perspectives on the Frankfurt school. However, I have two reservations. First, two of the essays have limited use value. Sanda Miller’s essay on Siegfried Kracauer is overloaded with analogous and vague comparisons of Kracauer’s work with that of so many other intellectuals that none of these achieve any substantial depth. Furthermore, a series of glaring inaccuracies (or, at best, very clumsy wordings) does make one wonder whether the author herself understands the social and intellectual culture in which Kracauer’s work developed. We read, for example, that ’Baudelaire invented “modernity”,’ ‘[Meyer Schapiro] was the first to introduce Marxism as a methodology in art history,’ and ‘Historicism … was the revolutionary new methodology proposed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.’

Similar limitations apply to the essay on Max Horkheimer by David Berry. Berry’s essay has a promising element in that it reads Horkheimer’s pessimism and later theological turn as being of Schopenhauerian influence. An examination of this would have offered a fascinating perspective on the Frankfurt Institute as a whole, whose philosophical genealogy is dominated by the trio of Kant, Hegel and Marx. Unfortunately, this line of enquiry is not explored in detail, and Berry’s essay turns instead towards a lengthy comparative reading of Horkheimer’s philosophy with that of Francis Fukuyama, a figure so polarising that the comparison hardly seems worthwhile.

My second reservation is that this book is, in some respects, poorly edited. The Berry and Miller essays in particular are badly structured, containing repeated points and ungrammatical sentences. There are fewer problems with the other essays, but repeated sentences and typos occasionally surface. Such sloppy editorship has important negative implications for the substantive quality of the collection, as the book’s general framework is poorly defined. The editorial introduction is sparse, and none of the essays question the terms used throughout the collection with regard to the Frankfurt School.

A discussion of the problematics surrounding the use of the term ‘Frankfurt School’ as oppose to the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, as well as terms such as ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third generation members’, ‘members’ as oppose to ‘associates’, and even ‘inner’ or ‘elite’ figures as oppose to ‘outer’ or ‘marginal’ figures, would have helped framed the debates of the ensuing essays. An essay dealing with both the genealogy of these terms and their historiographical development in the works of the Frankfurt School historians Perry Anderson, Martin Jay, Rolf Wiggershaus and Thomas Wheatland should have been essential to this collection.

In the absence of a nuanced enquiry along these lines, it is questionable whether this collection can really serve to revise our understanding of the Frankfurt School. Indicative of the book’s limited ambition is how Adorno remains treated as a central member. Out of the nine essays, only one, Julian Petley’s essay on Habermas, excludes any significant mention of Adorno. In six out of the other eight Adorno is a key figure used in a comparative analysis with the essays’ main subject. It is not clear whether this pattern occurs because of Adorno’s decisive influence on these Frankfurt School associates (indeed, this might even be a tacit definition of a Frankfurt school associate), or whether our contemporary knowledge of Adorno is simply much stronger than most other associates of the Frankfurt School. That the former of these statements is a condition of the latter does not disentangle this problem. Unless this issue is addressed, the model for research that runs throughout this collection resembles that of a bad wheel, whereby we can see the relation of Adorno in the centre to all the other figures, but it is harder to observe the relations between those ‘outer’ figures.

Nevertheless, even if Revisiting the Frankfurt School does not tackle this project, David Berry has contributed towards it by bringing together a set of essays that demonstrate the crucial importance of more neglected Frankfurt School associates to our understanding the history of the Frankfurt Institute, the academic disciplines of media and cultural studies, and the contemporary world.
Andy Murray is a research student in history of art at University College London.