Fun with Critical Theory! Meet the Frankfurt Five
The Frankfurt School is not an actual school, but a collection of social theorists primarily associated with the University of Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research. Having a deep Marxist background, these theorists tend to be critical of both communist and capitalist thought, and they seek to find alternative paths of social change and growth.
For students of cultural literacy and critical theory, the Frankfurt School should already be required reading. The philosophers and their analyses of language, education, and material culture, as well as their in-depth looks into the social, political and historical significance of art, commerce, psychology and, well, pretty much everything else have left an enduring and important critical legacy.
To your average Joe Sixpack, this may seem like all kinds of high-falutin’ postmodern jibba-jabba. But it isn’t. The problem is, putting these scholarly writings into plain speak is sometimes difficult to do — there are some nuances, which under normal circumstances would need a full paragraph to be fully expressed, that can be quickly summed up in one 15-syllable word. But it’s important to get over the academic hurdle and look at the meaning behind the works.
Fun though it is to rail against this stuff without knowing really what it is, I’ve gathered some tidbits and snippets from five notable Frankfurt writers in the hopes that Rush Limbaugh will read this and say, “Wow, Obama’s not like this at all.” As you read through, please bear in mind that these are mere teasers — very incomplete encapsulations of schools of critical thought that you can learn much, much more about by visiting your local internet. Bring a large coffee.
Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) is Benjamin’s most often-discussed work, and most people aren’t even aware that they’re referencing it. Whenever a piece of work is said to have “an aura,” that’s Benjamin talking. In a nutshell, a work of art’s aura encompasses, and is also made up by, not only the work itself, but also its exclusivity.
Before reproductive methods were widely used, works of art could only be experienced by traveling to them. To see a painting in a gallery or to hear an aria in an opera house was an event unto itself. This experience factored into the enjoyment of the art work; the ritual of the journey to and the contemplation of a piece went hand-in-hand with the work itself. But then came the printing presses, photographs, and phonographs and all of a sudden, art was accessible to the masses. In fact, art forms like photographs and movies exist purely in the reproduced realm — a print can be completely indistinguishable from the original, and therefore a new sense of aura and reverence must be recognized.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Adorno and Horkheimer also took a critical eye to the culture industry, arguing that popular culture tended to pacify the masses. In “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” (1944), a section of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, they argued that culture industries create false needs, and the desire to have these needs fulfilled (must…get…that…new…Hannah…Montana… doll… now…) often overrode one’s true needs of life, love, freedom and so on.
This was one of the first works studying the culture industry in general, and popular culture specifically, and how modern society is shaped by this industry, rather than the other way ‘round.
Jürgen Habermas. Habermas was a sociologist who wrote theories of societal evolution and modernization. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Habermas considered the idea of the public sphere, a place where private individuals and government authorities could meet and have rational, critical debates about public matters. Discussions took place in coffee houses, bars, and town halls, among other places, and in newspaper and magazine articles.
The idea of the public sphere as an open communication space decayed, brought about by the influence and influx of commercial mass media, and a once-critical public turned into a passive consumer public. According to Habermas, we now have the mere illusion of a public sphere, and real news has been cast aside in lieu of infotainment. You know, like how we all read People instead of The Economist.
Herbert Marcuse. One-Dimensional Man (1964) is a critique of capitalism and communism that documents the simultaneous rise of social repression and decline of the revolutionary in each type of society. Like Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse felt that our modern, industrial society has created a set of false needs that are reinforced via mass media, advertising, and a sense of upholding the status quo. Marcuse proposes a “great refusal” — a rejection of the capitalist norm. Once we free ourselves from thinking we need the house with the white picket fence and the two-car garage, we can focus upon what it is that we really do need.
These philosophers take a close, hard look at the world around them and their writings were attempts to reconcile Marxist theory with the reality of their environment. Some of their outlooks are bleak, others may seem unduly harsh, but underlying everything is a sense of positivism. They seem to say, hey, if we just stop and look around a little bit we can figure out what it is we truly need and find a way to get it. Ya just gotta think on it a little bit harder.