In Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, “The Corrections,” a disgraced academic named Chip Lambert, who has abandoned Marxist theory in favor of screenwriting, goes to the Strand Bookstore, in downtown Manhattan, to sell off his library of dialectical tomes. The works of Theodor W. Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, and various others cost Chip nearly four thousand dollars to acquire; their resale value is sixty-five. “He turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society,” Franzen writes. After several more book-selling expeditions, Chip enters a high-end grocery store and walks out with an overpriced filet of wild Norwegian salmon.
Anyone who underwent a liberal-arts education in recent decades probably encountered the thorny theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School. Their minatory titles, filled with dark talk of “Negative Dialectics” and “One-Dimensional Man,” were once proudly displayed on college-dorm shelves, as markers of seriousness; now they are probably consigned to taped-up boxes in garages, if they have not been discarded altogether. Once in a while, the present-day Web designer or business editor may open the books and see in the margins the excited queries of a younger self, next to pronouncements on the order of “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Walter Benjamin) or “The whole is the false” (Adorno).
In the nineteen-nineties, the period in which “The Corrections” is set, such dire sentiments were unfashionable. With the fall of the Soviet Union, free-market capitalism had triumphed, and no one seemed badly hurt. In light of recent events, however, it may be time to unpack those texts again. Economic and environmental crisis, terrorism and counterterrorism, deepening inequality, unchecked tech and media monopolies, a withering away of intellectual institutions, an ostensibly liberating Internet culture in which we are constantly checking to see if we are being watched: none of this would have surprised the prophets of Frankfurt, who, upon reaching America, failed to experience the sensation of entering Paradise. Watching newsreels of the Second World War, Adorno wrote, “Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen.” He would not revise his remarks now.
The philosophers, sociologists, and critics in the Frankfurt School orbit, who are often gathered under the broader label of Critical Theory, are, indeed, having a modest resurgence. They are cited in brainy magazines like n+1, The Jacobin, and the latest iteration of The Baffler. Evgeny Morozov, in his critiques of Internet boosterism, has quoted Adorno’s early mentor Siegfried Kracauer, who registered the information and entertainment overload of the nineteen-twenties. The novelist Benjamin Kunkel, in his recent essay collection “Utopia or Bust,” extolls the criticism of Jameson, who has taught Marxist literary theory at Duke University for decades. (Kunkel also mentions “The Corrections,” noting that Chip gets his salmon at a shop winkingly named the Nightmare of Consumption.) The critic Astra Taylor, in “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” argues that Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their 1944 book “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” gave early warnings about corporations “drowning out democracy in pursuit of profit.” And Walter Benjamin, whose dizzyingly varied career skirted the edges of the Frankfurt collective, receives the grand treatment in “Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life” (Harvard), by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, who earlier edited Harvard’s four-volume edition of Benjamin’s writings.
The Frankfurt School, which arose in the early nineteen-twenties, never presented a united front; it was, after all, a gaggle of intellectuals. One zone in which they clashed was that of mass culture. Benjamin saw the popular arena as a potential site of resistance, from which left-leaning artists like Charlie Chaplin could transmit subversive signals. Adorno and Horkheimer, by contrast, viewed pop culture as an instrument of economic and political control, enforcing conformity behind a permissive screen. The “culture industry,” as they called it, offered the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” A similar split appeared in attitudes toward traditional forms of culture: classical music, painting, literature. Adorno tended to be protective of them, even as he exposed their ideological underpinnings. Benjamin, in his resonant sentence linking culture and barbarism, saw the treasures of bourgeois Europe as spoils in a victory procession, each work blemished by the suffering of nameless millions.
The debate reached its height in the wake of Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” a masterpiece of contingent optimism that praises mass culture only insofar as mass culture advances radical politics. Many readers will sympathize with Benjamin, who managed to uphold a formidable critical tradition while opening himself to the modern world and writing in a sensuous voice. He furnishes a template for the pop-savvy intellectual, the preferred model in what remains of literary life. Yet Adorno, his dark-minded, infuriating brother, will not go away: his cross-examination of the “Work of Art” essay, his pinpointing of its moments of naïveté, strikes home. Between them, Adorno and Benjamin were pioneers in thinking critically about pop culture—in taking that culture seriously as an object of scrutiny, whether in tones of delight, dismay, or passionate ambivalence. [Read More]