The Frankfurt School saw no hope for escaping the pathologies of society that they diagnosed…



From Open Letters Monthly:

Jeffries thinks the secret of Benjamin’s lasting allure is that he married this focus on reification of human capacities in object to modernist collage techniques: “what Benjamin started in 1920s Germany – a style of writing that borrowed its form from the best journalistic vignettes […] and its techniques from avant-garde cinema, photography and art – would prove to be one of the most enduring literary forms for later European intellectuals,” writes Jeffries. He adds

[Benjamin] wanted to bring the collage techniques he admired in surrealism to bear on his books. […] Instead of writing history through the study of great men, he aimed to disclose history through its refuse and detritus, studying the over-looked, the worthless, the trashy—the very things that didn’t make sense to the official version but which, he maintained, encoded the dream wishes of the collective consciousness.

This mention of the “collective unconscious” brings up the second source of the Frankfurt School’s distinctive ideas: Freudian psychoanalysis. The school is sometimes summed up as the union of Marxism and Freudianism. Under capitalism, according to them, we could interpret the objects onto which we projected our reified selves as if they were a collective unconscious. We could talk about fire trucks and merry-go-rounds and bonsai trees in a way that illuminated our own displaced problems. Thus, for example, Walter Benjamin’s major (and unfinished) book The Arcades Project was to be an intimate analysis of the shopping stalls set up in covered alleys in 19th century Paris.

Benjamin hoped that his kind of writing would be, as Jeffries puts it, “a kind of Marxist shock therapy aimed at reforming consciousness,” waking people up to the dream-world they lived in under capitalism. But along with the other thinkers of the Frankfurt School, he seemed to deny the possibility of any escape from that dreamworld. “This was to become one great theme of critical theory,” writes Jeffries: “there is no outside, not in today’s […] totally reified, commodity-fetishising world.” Or, as Benjamin more memorably put it, “There has never been a document of culture which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”

The point of all this exposition is to say that the Frankfurt School hugely elaborated a minor angle of criticism from Marx, and added to it a deep pessimism about the possibility of changing or escaping what they criticized. This is Jeffries’ favorite point, and it’s embodied in the book’s title: “Grand Hotel Abyss” is where the Frankfurt School dwelled, according to the mockery of the communist thinker Lukacs. Lukacs thought they were theorizing comfortably at the edge of an enormous empty chasm. They saw no hope for escaping the pathologies of society that they diagnosed. After WWII, this hopelessness found graphic expression when Theodor Adorno condemned and was condemned by the student movement of the ’60s. This gave rise to some tragicomic episodes, several of which Jeffries recalls for us in Grand Hotel Abyss:

On April 22, [Adorno] endured his bitterest humiliation. He started his lecture series […] by inviting students to ask him questions at any point. Two students demanded he perform an act of self-criticism for having called the police to clear the Institute [of a student sit in] and for starting legal proceedings against [a student leader]. It was then that a student wrote on the blackboard: ‘If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease. ‘ Others shouted: ‘Down with the informer!’ Adorno said he would give everyone five minutes to decide if they wanted him to carry on with the lecture. Then three women protesters surrounded him on the platform, bared their breasts and scattered rose and tulip petals over him. He grabbed his hat and coat, ran out from the hall and later cancelled the lecture series.

“Patricide Deferred”, Robert Minto, Open Letters Monthly