Frankfurt on the Hudson
How the fathers of Critical Theory found their way to America
ADAM KIRSCH - August 18, 2009
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Frankfurt School in recent American thought. Philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and Max Horkheimer—to name just the best-known members of the group—helped to develop a subtle and powerful way of thinking about the problems of modern society. Critical Theory, as it is usually capitalized, adapted the revolutionary impulse of Marxism to 20th century conditions, in which mass culture and totalitarianism seemed to shut off any real possibility of social transformation. Especially appealing to academics is the way Critical Theory makes the analysis of culture feel like a revolutionary act in and of itself. Reading Adorno on modern music, or Benjamin on literature, it is momentarily possible to believe that criticism is a weapon of liberation, rather than simply a hermetic exercise for intellectuals.
No wonder that after the 1960s, as Thomas Wheatland writes in his impressive new study The Frankfurt School in Exile, “ambitious young sympathizers with the New Left” in the academy turned en masse to the Frankfurt School, a scholarly subject that they could explore “without having to disguise or hide their intellectual and political orientations.” It is strange that it took until the 1960s for the Frankfurters to make a major impact on America, however, since from 1934 to 1949 they were actually living in the United States. The Institute for Social Research—the institutional home of the Frankfurt School thinkers—had to uproot itself from Germany in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power. After a brief period in Geneva, it relocated to Morningside Heights, where it formed an uneasy partnership with Columbia University.
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