Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

While lauding 19th century Realism, Lukacs attacked modernist experimental writers as “decadent” instances of concern with the subjectivity of the alienated individual in the fragmented world of our late stage of capitalism. He thereby inaugurated a vigorous debate among Marxist critics on the political standing of the formal innovators in the 20° century. The Frankfurt School of Marxist aesthetics, associated with the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research founded in 1923, comprised a group of Neo-Marxist social theorists and philosophers, who, in opposition to Lukacs, eschewed Realism altogether. During the Nazi period, the group was exiled to New York, from where it returned to Frankfurt in 1950. The group espoused a non-dogmatic version of Marxism, which they called “critical theory”, incorporating various influences from modern traditions of philosophy, sociology and psychology.


From top left to right: Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Friedrich Pollock, Franz Leopold Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin.

Early members of the group included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm, Walter Benjamin and Jurgen Habermas, who lauded Modernist writers such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett, proposing that their formal experiments, by the very fact that they fragment and disrupt the life they “reflect”, establish a distance and detachment that serve as an implicit critique — or yield a “negative knowledge” of the dehumanizing institutions and process of society under capitalism. Frankfurt School critics were much influenced by their experience of a totalitarian regime and fascism on the one hand and American mass culture, capitalism and commercialism, on the other. Both Nazi and American societies were regarded as “one dimensional.”


Theodor Adorno

Art and literature have a privileged place in Frankfurt thinking. In an early initiative Critical Theory, Marcuse proposed the notion of “affirmative culture” by which he sought to register the dialectical nature of culture as conformist but also critical. Adorno argued that “art is the negative knowledge of the actual world.” In his view, art, acting within the social system and reflecting on it, produces an indirect knowledge. In his analysis of Beckett’s Endgame, Adorno reflects on the ways in which Beckett gives us a negative knowledge of contemporary culture and modern existence by presenting characters who possess only the hollow shells of individuality and the fragmented cliché of language. Horkheimer favoured avant-grade and modernism because they are hostile to passivity, acquiescence and submission to the political and artistic status quo, and thus to any form of initiative or repressive ideology.


Culture Industry, a term indebted to the Marxist term “ideology” and coined by Horkheimer and Adorno, in Dialectics of Enlightenment, refers to mass culture that “standardizes” pleasure and fun as market “products’, and produces unthinking masses of people who accept commodified sentiments and entertainments as “natural” and consume them passively. “industry” refers to the standardization of the cultural product, its meaning and value. Thus, prestige, or social value becomes standardized as “brands” in consumer culture. In films, values and meaning become attached to themes and stereotyped characters: patriotism standardized as “hating your neighbour”, happiness is standardized as “loving your parents and family” and corruption is standardized as “politician.” The culture industry has converted the value, meaning and pleasure to be obtained from the use of the product, into the product and its elements.

Walter Benjamin, for a while associated with Adorno, took a contrary view to him and was pro-Brecht. He surveyed the importance of technology in the 19th and 20th century urban and industrialized society, and the enormous development of the media.

In the post 1950 phase of the school, the leading figure has been the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who has been notable for defending the tradi-tion of the Enlightenment against the inroads of postmodernism.


Max Horkheimer

The Frankfurt School attempted a philosophical and Hegelian re-interpretation of Marxism in relation to the advanced capitalist societies by an increasingly critical view of the developrnent, theoretical work of Frankfurt School has been designated by Horkheimer as “critical theory” which refers to an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. Unlike traditional theorists who look at the social scientist as independent of the object of study, critical theorists consider the him/her as shaped by the culture within which s/he lives. The critical theorist is aware that the way in which s/he sees the world is conditioned by political and ideological structures of the society.

Critical theory is therefore, self-reflexive and studies the ways in which knowledge is socially conditioned and recognises the power structures inherent in that conditioning. Critical theory exerted a great influence of German social thought, and had tremendous intellectual and political impact, which reached its peak in the late 1960s with the rapid growth of students’ movements and the emergence of the New Left.

Frankfurt School’s Contribution to Postmodern Thought

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