Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Frankfurt School: Legitimate Social Theory or Opium Induced Ramblings?

Well, I’ve just finished my second semester of my Masters Degree. I guess I’ll try to summarize what I learned over the past four months.

I was in a class about a particular tradition of theoretical literature called “The Frankfurt School.” These guys build upon the Marxian critique of capitalism, but they do so in the context of German National Socialism. They therefore don’t agree with Marx that a socialist revolution is inevitable – quite the contrary. They see capitalist domination as an inevitable symptom of mass society.

The theories are unbearably complex. I could never begin to do them justice. They are deeply philosophical and highly abstract. At first I was completely thrown off. But I had a good professor, and class discussions were usually illuminating. At the very least, I can summarize my own understanding of this literature, off the mark though it may be.

The basic idea is simple: mass society necessarily produces certain tendencies towards the rational division of labour, the centralization of power, and the total administration of society through bureaucratic institutions. We are no strangers to this – globalization and corporatization are contemporary examples of this logic.

The Frankfurt School argues that such tendencies debase the experienced “lifeworld”. Take the production of art, for example: no longer is it created “for art’s sake” as it was in precapitalist societies. Now, art (such as music, literature, film) is produced for profitability. Because art and culture must observe the formulas of market-oriented institutions, they become standardized, ultimately inculcating the masses with the same repetitive shit.

These guys were writing this in the 50s and 60s… and I think they were very prophetic. Just look at the culture industries today; they tend to produce the same formulaic bullshit. We all know this.

The problem I have with the Frankfurt School is that their solution to this problem (if they ever have one) is usually so vague that it cannot ever be described in simple terms. Many of them believe that there is a certain kind of “dialectical” form of expression that can emancipate or “awaken” the masses from the hypnotic spectacle of mass cultre… but they don’t go much further than that. I’m just not exactly sure how an image or a work of art, aesthetically shocking though it may be, could realistically cause an individual to “feel the totality of their social relations.”

My biggest criticism is that they do not propose real-world solutions. The entire problem is a consequence of mass society. Capitalism itself, I would argue, is the only viable economic system that can sustain mass society. These guys try to identify the problem in aesthetics and culture… I think the problem is much simpler: overpopulation.

I’m sure that a more developed student could tell me that the theories are more nuanced then that, and I’m sure that they are. I just think that “emancipation from capitalism” is neither attainable nor desirable while our population is so high. Is that too oversimplistic? Maybe. But regardless, that’s the only thing I’ve really concluded from my studies this semester. 

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