Trapped by Consumer Fetishism: Stuart Jeffries on the Frankfurt School
Posted by Stuart Jeffries
Stuart Jeffries will be in conversation with Sarah Bakewell on Tuesday 27 September to discuss his latest book Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, a lively group biography of the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, in turn showing how their ideas can shed light on our age of social media and mindless consumption. Book tickets now.
Stuart Jeffries on the modern resonances of the Frankfurt School's output, intellectual fashion and the challenges of writing a group biography
Works such as Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction still seem remarkable in their ability to interpret the world we live in. What other legacies has the Frankfurt School left us? And which thinkers do you regard as its inheritors?
They were certainly attentive to how culture changes us and can be a force for change. In the 1930s Benjamin imagined that cinema, for instance, by using jump cuts and close ups, would change our perspectives on reality and so might have a revolutionary potential; a few years later, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote of Hollywood as if it were a totalitarian tool of oppression akin to the Nazi film studio UFA. One Frankfurt School legacy, then, then is to make us think about the politics of culture. For them, art is never just for art’s sake, and entertainment is never just entertaining. By taking the politics of culture seriously, the Frankfurt School opened up new lines of thinking. Without them, all the stuff that happened in a little corner of Frankfurt’s twin city of Birmingham (the now-defunct Centre for Cultural Studies) wouldn’t have been conceivable and our approach to culture would have been very different. To be sure, the likes of Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams saw culture very differently from Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. They followed the Frankfurt School in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control, but, unlike the Germans, appreciated how the culture industry could be aberrantly, even rebelliously decoded, by its mass consumers and that popular sub-cultures might subvert the culture industry in a form of immanent critique.
The moral legacy the Frankfurt School has left us, I suspect, is more important. It’s one that Adorno set out in Negative Dialectics. He wrote: “Hitler imposes a new categorical imperative on human beings in their condition of unfreedom: to arrange their thought and action that Auschwitz would not repeat itself, [that] nothing similar would happen.” His one-time assistant Habermas has spent a lifetime trying to devise an intellectual system to uphold that imperative. It’s why, for instance, Habermas has been so keen on a transnational Europe, one that acts as a bulwark against against repeating past evils.
That is a common German refrain. When Martin Roth recently resigned as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, he cited as one reason for his decision his sense that, Brexit was betraying his idea of Europe – a post-national civilisation that would stop the continent collapsing into barbarism. As a German born in 1955, he suggested, this was an intolerable betrayal. In Roth’s principled stance, I think, you could see the legacy of Adorno’s imperative that we don’t repeat Auschwitz.
In that sense, the great inheritors of the Frankfurt School may not be leftist academics (though everyone from Judith Butler to Terry Eagleton clearly owe them a debt), but the architects of the European Union. Viewed thus, Jacques Delors is so Frankfurt School; Boris Johnson, not so much.
One other inheritor: if you read the thoughts of the now voguish French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou, you’ll find he has notions of time, political events and revolutionary solidarity that amount to footnotes to Walter Benjamin.
‘Barricades are ridiculous against those who administer the bomb’, Adorno remarked. Did the barricades of 1968, or of 1989, the Arab Spring and the ‘Occupy’ movement prove him wrong?
I like to imagine Walter Benjamin, had he lived to see the barricades of 1968, would have disagreed with Adorno. Benjamin wrote about ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’. That leap was across time to a historical moment that now resonated with topicality, a gesture of identification or even solidarity with heroes of an earlier epoch. That’s why, for instance, during the French revolution, so many revolutionaries dude themselves up in ancient Roman clothes. Benjamin explained why in his great essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: ‘Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.’ That continuum, or what Benjamin called ‘homogeneous, empty time’, was the temporal order of the ruling classes, and it was negated by such time-travelling leaps of radical solidarity. So maybe Benjamin would have thought barricades had a radical significance in 1968 that Adorno couldn’t grasp.
What Adorno was trying to shatter by means of this remark you quote, I think, was the idea that you can overturn the powers that be without commensurate power. In the late 1960s, he and Habermas derided what they saw as the insufficiently theorised ‘actionism’ of the student protesters. They both saw fascism behind the flower power student movement. What Adorno didn’t sufficiently appreciate, I think, is that the very ridiculousness of the mismatch might be the protestors’ asset. The little guy against the big machine has, despite what Adorno thought, rhetorical traction. One student against a Tiananmen Square tank. A bunch of Black Lives Matter protestors chaining themselves to the runway of City Airport. The fall of the Berlin Wall could not be stopped by the Soviet administrators of the bomb.
But it’s worth saying something else. While that ridiculous mismatch can bring down governments, that doesn’t happen often and the success of a political action is not always to be measured by whether it overthrows an irksome system. Rather, its function may also be to bear witness, to express solidarity with the oppressed of today and and yesterday and, even more romantically, it may allow one, albeit briefly, to live outside the system for a few cherished moments. Virginia Woolf wrote in The Waves: ‘One cannot live outside the machine for more perhaps than half an hour.’ But, Walter Benjamin might have added, such half hours blast through the continuum of history and confer on otherwise degraded humans a little dignity.
Benjamin would have also pointed out that mobilising the iconography of past struggles has another important function. The Benjamin scholar Terry Eagleton glossed the great German Jewish critic’s political philosophy thus: “What drives men and women to revolt against injustice is not dreams of liberated grandchildren, but memories of enslaved ancestors.” By building barricades in 1968, then, the protesters expressed solidarity with, and thereby strove to honour, earlier struggles and to redeem the memory of previous sufferings. Such was the romantic, redemptive tenor of Walter Benjamin’s political thought.
So while I don’t think the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989, the Arab Spring or Occupy prove that Adorno was wrong, I suspect that each demonstrates a kind of political action that temperamentally alienated him. He understandably sought to deride political posturing, but in the same rhetorical move, mocked the kind of political action that, in its very ridiculousness, stands up to power. Unlike his one-time mentor Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno didn’t find such gestures to his taste.
How have the vicissitudes of intellectual fashion affected our view of Frankfurt? Marcuse, for instance, venerated in 1968 and now largely forgotten, Benjamin rather obscure during his lifetime but now very much flavour of the month …
Well maybe, but hold on. Fashions don’t unaccountably change. Hemlines don’t rise and fall as inexplicably as the motions of sub-atomic particles. And intellectual fashions are explicable too. I suspect our current neglect of Marcuse’s books is hobbled by several things. They aren’t beautifully written (unlike, say, pretty much everything Adorno composed); also, they were often topical interventions for the most part hobbled by misplaced utopianism. And, in any case, his best ideas were mostly diluted versions of ones better expressed by Adorno and Horkheimer.
You’re right that Benjamin’s genius was only really recognised posthumously. He’s such an oddball, difficult and creative thinker that perhaps it has taken us, certainly us anglophones, a long time to get to grips with what he was on about. What’s more, some of his most beautiful writings, notably his memoirs of his Berlin childhood, have only recently become available in English – and yet they are really helpful illuminations of his rather gnomic philosophy as well as great works of literature.
Perhaps one victim of intellectual fashion is Jürgen Habermas, Adorno’s one-time assistant, who sought to produce a hopeful philosophical system as an antidote to his boss’s despair and defeatism. Slavoj Žižek once told me it was sad that Habermas’s ideas had become irrelevant. That’s too harsh, no doubt, but certainly few today seem to get excited about Habermas’s heavily theorised notions of communicative action, ideal speech situations, or the revivification of the public sphere. Or maybe I’m wrong and perhaps the ideas of the Frankfurt School’s most optimistic thinker have a future.
High culture, and in particular German high culture, is an abiding preoccupation of the Frankfurt thinkers, Adorno and Benjamin in particular. Is there a clear continuity between the classical tradition of German thought as exemplified by Kant and Hegel and the Frankfurt School, or did 1923 mark a fundamental break in that tradition?
The leading lights of the Frankfurt School were Jews, but, crucially, they were German Jews. They were steeped in German literary, musical and philosophical traditions and they venerated much of it. They saw themselves, in their American exile during the Third Reich, as that civilisation’s protectors. Horkheimer wrote to a friend in 1940: ‘In view of what is now threatening to engulf Europe and perhaps the world, our work is essentially designed to pass things down through the night that is approaching: a kind of message in a bottle.’ The night he meant was, of course, World War Two and the Holocaust. And among the ‘things’ he envisaged he and his colleagues passing down, I suspect, was a sophisticated, critical appreciation of German high culture that had been either mangled or silenced by the Nazis. Even when they returned to Germany after the war to that climate of denial and suspicion that Horkheimer called the ghost sonata, these Holocaust survivors were coming back to a culture and a language that was their first love. Adorno wrote an essay in the mid-1950s called ‘On the Question “What is German?”’, had a ‘special affinity with philosophy’, and was able ‘to express something in the phenomena that is not exhausted in their mere thus-ness, their positivity and givenness’. For anglophone readers, it’s a breathtaking, even arrogant, assertion: only German philosophy, and its tradition of critical thinking going back to Kant, could get to the heart of the matter.
No Frankfurt scholar would have been philistine enough to junk that whole tradition of German philosophical thought. They were too steeped in Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to purge them from their intellectual systems. Indeed, it’s striking that one of Horkheimer’s last essays before he died in 1974 was about Schopenhauer, his first philosophical love. They never jettisoned that tradition but rather embellished it.
What’s more, their experience of exile in California, right next to the capital of the culture industry, Hollywood, made the likes of Adorno and Horkheimer yearn for the civilisation of high European culture amid the presumed barbarism of American low culture. Adorno even had a recurring dream while living in Los Angeles about sitting at his mother’s desk back at home in Germany. ‘Its true meaning is evidently the retrieval of the European life that has been lost,’ he wrote.
Adorno, Horkheimer, and other German exiles such as Thomas Mann in that wartime Los Angeles colony that has been called ‘Weimar on the Pacific’ longed for that European life even as it was dying. Their homesickness was most intense because there seemed no direction home. That attitude, I think, hobbled their attitude to popular culture – the experience of loss and exile made them much more hostile to American popular culture (Adorno’s horrible about jazz and misguided about Charlie Chaplin) and defensive of high German culture than they might otherwise have been.
The Frankfurt School’s ‘retreat into theory’ has sometimes been characterised as a defeatist response to the failures of Communist praxis in the years following the First World War. Is that fair? Or were those failures in part a result of a deficient theoretical understanding of the new world order?
They weren’t so much defeatist as trying to understand defeat, I suspect. At least initially. In the wake of the failure of the German Revolution of 1918-19 to emulate the success of the Bolshevik one of the year before, German Marxists tried to understand that failure. The more heretical wondered if Marxist theory from 60-plus years ago was fit for purpose any more.
Germany should have been, according to orthodox – or what Walter Benjamin called ‘vulgar’ – Marxist theory, ripe for revolution, certainly more so than Russia: the former was much more industrially advanced, had lost a war and suffered economically ruinous consequences. The dialectical march of history towards communist utopia was inevitable in Germany. Or so the vulgarians had thought. Instead, though, the revolutionary leader Rosa Luxembourg was murdered by right-wing former troops, possibly with the connivance of the social democratic founders of the Weimar republic, her body dumped in the canal and other nascent socialist republics easily crushed. Clearly Marxist theory needed to be reconfigured to explain what had gone wrong.
What the Frankfurt School realised was that the capitalism Marx wrote about in the mid 19th century was very different from the form it took in advanced industrial societies in the early 20th century. There was, in a sense, a new world order when the Frankfurt School came into being – one defined not so much as geopolitical blocs as by growingly sophisticated capitalist methods of production and control.
In 1908, the first Model T Ford, costing $850, rolled off the assembly line. Two years later, the Nestor Company opened the first film studio in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles. These two events were symptomatic of a kind of capitalism that Marx had not quite envisaged – a monopoly capitalism that made revolutionary solidarity between workers difficult (since their social relations were obscured by production methods), suckered the system’s victims with consumer products and further distracted the proletariat by what Adorno and Horkheimer called the Culture Industry (Hollywood, mass-produced music, and later TV).
In his 1922 book History and Class Consciousness, which profoundly influenced the Frankfurt School, György Lukács wrote that the proletariat, once conscious of its historic role, would destroy capitalist society. But it hadn’t, nor was it likely to under the new economic world order that the Frankfurt School anatomised.
To understand why, the Frankfurt School rebooted Marx. In Das Kapital he had written about the fetishism of commodities. Commodities, for Marx, were both economic and symbolic forms which he conceived of primarily as manufacturing goods and raw materials. The Frankfurt School’s twist was to focus on objects of consumption rather than production. Under monopoly capitalism, they argued, we are ensnared to the system by our fetishistic attention and growing addiction to the purportedly must-have, the new thing, the latest consumer good. But our consumer fetishism traps us: shopping gives not the fulfilment we yearn for but rather puts us in a Sisyphean relationship, alway buying new stuff in vain pursuit of satisfaction for degraded longings. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin wrote mordantly: ‘The ‘modern’, the time of Hell.’ His writings in that tome inspired the Frankfurt School’s later diagnosis which was, effectively, we are in hell, but we just don’t know it.
What’s striking about the Frankfurt School’s take on the heretical brand of Marxism was that it suggested it was in the most industrially and economically advanced nations that the proletariat was least likely to notice that it was in chains, still less to rise up and cast them off. Which was the opposite of what vulgar Marxism predicted.
This needn’t have been a defeatist heresy, but it became so. The Frankfurt School increasingly thought the proletariat was not fit for revolutionary purpose. Indeed as early as 1927, Max Horkheimer had written a paper called ‘The Impotence of The German Working Class’, and later theoretical embellishments, not least adapting Freudian psychoanalytical theory to neo-Marxist philosophy, helped account for why the proletariat might desire its own domination. Even by the 1960s, the darling of the New Left Herbert Marcuse was scrabbling around looking for surrogate proletariat to kick start the revolution – students, people of colour, feminists.
So eventually the Frankfurt School did turn defeatist. Only a few individuals – including the Frankfurt School, naturally – could escape the clutches of the intimidating German compound noun ‘Verblendungszusammenhang’, or ‘total system of delusion’, that beset everyone else.
Grand Hotel Abyss is a hugely entertaining read, mining a rich vein of anecdote. Are there particular challenges to writing about philosophy for a general audience?
Thank you! Heidegger was snooty about doing biographies of philosophers. He said once: ‘The man was born, he thought, and then he died.’ Any other details were bogus and, presumably, mining a rich vein of anecdote a grubby distraction. Oh dear, I seem to have done the opposite of what Heidegger thought was legitimate. What have I done!
I take a lot of succour from biographies of philosophers I’ve enjoyed reading and that, I think, have given me a lot of insight into their subjects’ work. Those include Ray Monk’s books on Wittgenstein and Russell, Robert D. Richardson’s biography of William James, and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. All of these were in my mind when I wrote this book, particularly The Metaphysical Club since it is the blueprint for what I wanted to write: a group biography with a narrative energy that interweaves minute events of thinkers’ lives with the great events of the day.
The main challenge, I guess, was not to misrepresent, dilute or render risible the ideas of the Frankfurt School while, at the same time, ensuring the book has a narrative energy and is enjoyable to read. It would be easy but fatuous to write a book that dispenses with the philosophy in taking the reader’s head and pushing it gently into the dirty linen. The rich vein of anecdote you mention is one, I hope, I mine for a reason – showing how the lives of the Frankfurt School were shaped by the times.
Lastly, what in particular drew you to the Frankfurt School as a subject? What did you, and can we, learn from them?
I hadn’t read much beyond Adorno’s Minima Moralia when my editor at Verso, Leo Hollis, asked if I’d be interested in writing a group biography of the Frankfurt School a few years ago. I really fancied the job because doing the research would enable me to fill a gap in my reading. I was never quite sure what critical theory, immanent critique, Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm, Marcuse were all about and here I was being given a chance, not to mention some money, to find out.
Two things happened when I started researching the book. One was that I saw there was a great narrative to be told that hadn’t been done so far in the many excellent histories of the Frankfurt School. That thought at least made me think the project was not worthless.
The other was that I became convinced that their thoughts are, far from being obsolete, of pressing concern to us now. Just as an example, in the late 1990s I was working as an editor at The Guardian and I commissioned an article to explore the perils of customised culture. The idea was to question the tailoring of cultural products to your tastes, the whole, “If you liked that, you’ll love this” ethos. Wasn’t the point of art, I thought then, to blast through the continuum of one’s tastes rather than pander to them? John Reith, the BBC's first director general, once said that good broadcasting gives people what they do not yet know they need. When the piece came in, several of my co-workers wondered - what is so very bad about customised culture? Isn’t getting more of what we know that we like a good thing? But, I wailed, good broadcasting and great art offers a kind of serendipity that expands your horizons rather than keeping you in an eternal feedback loop.
So, years later, when I read Dialectic of Enlightenment, I found Adorno and Horkheimer kindred spirits. They also worried that behind our much-trumpeted freedom to choose is a manipulation of tastes that ensures we choose what we are given. We had ‘the freedom to choose what was always the same’, they wrote. And they also suggested that our sophisticated knowingness about the situation we’re in changes nothing: ‘The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.’
The 70-year-old thoughts of two dead Germans don’t supply all the answers to our current predicaments, but, I think, such critiques of society are even more worthwhile now today than when those words were written.
In the new millennium, I argue in the book, an online culture industry seems expressly devised to help us hermetically seal ourselves from such serendipitous experiences.
The internet is a means for achieving precisely that – a high-tech prophylactic against contamination by ideas that might challenge your worldview. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos have made fortunes from business models that involve giving us more of the same, using algorithms the better to chain us to our tastes and make us desire our own domination. The techniques may be different and the business models more sophisticated but, arguably, our lives under capitalism today are just like the degrading and dehumanising ones the leading Frankfurt School thinkers excoriated decades ago.