Grand Hotel Abyss

Georg Lukács in 1962 used the colorful image of a fictional “Grand Hotel Abyss” to express his disappointment in the theorists of the Frankfurt School. Here is a passage in which the idea is described in “Preface to the Theory of the Novel” (link):

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as ‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ (The fact that Ernst Bloch continued undeterred to cling to his synthesis of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology (e.g. cf. Frankfurt 1961) does honour to his strength of character but cannot modify the outdated nature of his theoretical position. To the extent that an authentic, fruitful and progressive opposition is really stirring in the Western world (including the Federal Republic), this opposition no longer has anything to do with the coupling of ‘left’ ethics with ‘right’ epistemology.)

The thinkers of the Frankfurt School — Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Benjamin, Wellmer, Marcuse — were for Lukács too much devoted to theorizing capitalism and barbarism and too little about changing it. They were like imagined world-weary residents in the Grand Hotel Abyss, observing the unfolding catastrophe but doing nothing to intervene to stop it. They were about theory, not praxis.

Stuart Jeffries uses this trope as the organizing theme of his group biography of these figures in Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, and, in a word, he finds that Lukács’s critique is unfounded.

Jeffries emphasizes the common social origins of these boundary-breaking critics of capitalism. The book is detailed and insightful. Jeffries emphasizes the common social and cultural origins of almost all these men — German, Jewish, bourgeois, affluent — and the common threads of their criticism of the capitalism and consumerism that surrounded them in the early and middle twentieth century. The central question of how it came to pass that ordinary people in cultured, philosophically rich Germany came to support the Nazi rise to power was of vital concern to all of them. But consumerism, authoritarianism, and the suffering both created by and hidden by capitalism are also in the center stage.

The book is primarily about ideas and debates, not the particulars of personal biography. Jeffries does an impressive job of walking readers through the debates that swirled within and across the Frankfurt School — is capitalism doomed? Are workers inherently revolutionary? Is art part of the support system for capitalism? Is Marxism scientific or dialectical? Jeffries does an exceptional and fascinating job of telling this complex story of intellectual history and social criticism.

A particularly important innovation within the intellectual tradition of critical theory was the pointed critique these theorists offered of mass culture. Unlike orthodox Marxists who gave primary emphasis to the workings of the forces and relations of production — economics — the critical theorists took very seriously the powerful role played within advanced capitalism by mass culture, film, media, and television. (The publication in 1927 of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 appears to have been an important impetus to much of the theorizing of the Frankfurt School.) Here is one example of the social criticism of Hollywood offered by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Consider, for instance, Donald Duck. Once, such cartoon characters were ‘exponents of fantasy as opposed to rationalism’, wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Now they had become instruments of social domination. ‘They hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.’ (225)

So what is a more progressive role for works of art and culture to play in a society embodying serious social exploitation and domination? One work that was important point of consideration for several theorists was the Brecht and Weill opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany. Adorno and others regarded this work as one that gave appropriate and unblinking attention to the suffering of the modern social order.

Brecht’s libretto, too, sought to make it clear that the bourgeois world was absurd and anarchic. ‘In order to represent this convincingly’, wrote Adorno of the dramatisation of the bourgeois world as absurd and anarchic, ‘it is necessary to transcend the closed world of bourgeois consciousness which considers bourgeois social reality to be immutable. Outside of this framework, however, there is no position to take – at least for the German consciousness, there is no site which is non-capitalist.’ This was to become one great theme of critical theory: there is no outside, not in today’s utterly rationalised, totally reified, commodity-fetishising world. When Marx wrote Capital in the mid nineteenth century, the more primitive capitalist system he was diagnosing made commodity fetishism merely episodic; now it was everywhere, poisoning everything. ‘Paradoxically, therefore’, Adorno added, ‘transcendence must take place within the framework of that which is.’ Brecht’s assault on capitalist society in Mahoganny was then paradoxically both from within and from without at the same time, both immanent and transcendent. (132)

Jeffries also provides a fascinating and extended discussion of the deep interactions that occurred between Thomas Mann and Adorno in Los Angeles as Mann worked at completing Doctor Faustus. Mann wanted Adorno’s expert advice about modern music, and Adorno obliged. Jeffries argues that Adorno had a substantive effect on the novel:

Arguably, the finished novel reflects Adorno’s melancholic philosophy more profoundly than Mann’s. This is not to suggest plagiarism: as Adorno wrote in 1957, the insinuation that Mann made illegitimate use of his ‘intellectual property’ is absurd. The underlying aesthetic philosophy of the novel goes beyond the binary opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysian, between the orderly and the ecstatic, that Nietzsche set out in The Birth of Tragedy and to which Mann repeatedly appealed in his fiction… During the collaboration with Adorno, however, Mann set aside his original, Dionysian conception of the composer and as a result Leverkühn became something much more interesting –a figure who dramatised something of the Frankfurt School’s, and in particular Adorno’s, distinctive contribution to the philosophy of art. (243)

And what about fascism? This was a central thrust of Frankfurt School research, and opinion was divided about the causes of the rise of Nazism in Germany among the Frankfurt School theorists. But here is an interpretation that seems particularly relevant in 2016 in the United States, given the pageantry of political rallies and the slogans about making America great again:

Fascism was, as a result, a paradox, being both ancient and modern: more precisely it was a system that used a tradition hostile to capitalism for the preservation of capitalism. For Bloch, as for Walter Benjamin, fascism was a cultural synthesis that contained both anti-capitalist and utopian aspects. The Frankfurt School failed to emphasise in its analysis of fascism what Benjamin called the ‘aestheticisation of politics’. It fell to Benjamin, Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer to reflect on the Nazi deployment of myths, symbols, parades and demonstrations to command support. (250)

The chapter on Habermas is also very good and can be read separately as an introduction to Habermas’s leading ideas (chapter 17). It is significant that this final voice of the Frankfurt School should be one that provides a basis for greater optimism about the prospects for modern democracy than what emerges from the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The perspectives of the Frankfurt School were developed in the context of crises of capitalism, fascism, and anti-semitism in the 1930s. But these theories are once again deeply relevant in the context of the politics of 2016. A xenophobic, divisive candidate and party have assumed the reins of power in a populous democracy. The issues of propaganda and unapologetic political lies are before us once again. The politics of hate and intolerance have taken center stage. And the role of culture, media, and now the internet needs to be examined carefully for its dependence upon the corporate order as well as its possible potency as a mechanism of resistance. The Frankfurt School thinkers had important insights into virtually all these questions. Jeffries’ very interesting intellectual history of the movement is timely.

Jeffries quotes from a letter from Adorno to Mann on the aftermath of Nazism in Germany with observations that may be relevant to us today as well:

The inarticulate character of apolitical conviction, the readiness to submit to every manifestation of actual powers, the instant accommodation to whatever new situation emerges, all this is merely an aspect of the same regression. If it is true that the manipulative control of the masses always brings about a regressive formation of humanity, and if Hitler’s drive for power essentially involved the relationship of this development ‘at a single stroke’, we can only say that he, and the collapse that followed, has succeeded in producing the required infantilisation. (273)

These are words that may be important in the coming years, if the incoming government succeeds in carrying out many of its hateful promises. And how will the institutions of media and culture respond? Let us not be infantilized in the years to come when it comes to the fundamental values of democracy.

Public intellectuals in France and the US

What is the role of the intellectual in France in 2010?  And has that role declined in the past several decades?  Have the media and the internet profoundly eroded or devalued the voice of the intellectual in public space?  The Nouvel Observateur takes up these questions in a recent issue devoted to “Le pouvoir intellectuel” (link).

The line of thought is a complicated one.  Jacques Julliard frames the question by proposing that the public imagination of the intellectual involves a narrative of precipitous decline since the active engagements of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus.  There was a conception of the engaged intellectual who brought his/her ideas and convictions into opposition when state and society were going wrong — Algeria, Vietnam, capitalism.  And, Julliard suggests, the common view is that the current generation of intellectuals have not succeeded — perhaps have not even attempted — at bringing theory, critique, and value into the public sphere.  Jean Daniel captures the idea in his editorial: “Faut-il rire des ‘intellos’?

But — here is the complexity — Julliard refutes this idea.  The tradition of the public intellectual is not attenuated or corrupted in France; rather, the current generation of intellectuals are in fact engaged and involved.  It is nostalgia for a golden age — the age of Liberation, Communism, and Existentialism — that foreshortens the reputation of the intellectual today.  But the golden age is a myth.

Tout cela est faux, archifaux, et prouve seulement que Saint-Sulpice n’est séparé de Saint-Germain que par quelques enjambées et par la piété du souvenir. Et revenons aux faits. [All this is false, badly false, and only proves that Saint-Sulpice is only separated from Saint-Germain by a few steps and the piety of memory.  Let us return to the facts.]

Julliard points out five salient facts. First, we sometimes confuse the intellectual and the literary artist.  The artist is valued for the aesthetic quality of his/her works, whereas the intellectual is valued for the significance of the impact of his/her ideas.  Second, the impact of Sartre and Camus on France’s wars in Algeria or Vietnam was minimal, and later generations of French intellectuals have actually exercised greater influence.  In fact, Julliard argues that Lévy, Glucksmann, and Finkielkraut were more effective in their own interventions about policy in Bosnia than Sartre or Camus on the colonial wars.  Third, Julliard argues that modern media, including the blogosphere, have provided the contemporary intellectual with a much more powerful platform for disseminating ideas and values than was available to Zola, Sartre, or Camus.  He cites debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict, global warming, immigration, European governance, and even philosophy and literature, as locations of debate where modern media have amplified the voices of intellectuals.  Fourth, there is the question of designation: who decides who the “intellectuals” are?  The media select their talking heads; what confidence can the public have that these are the best voices available?  Julliard even suggests that there has been an inversion of quality; the telegenic pundit acquires reputation as a savant, rather than the savant being sought out as a pundit.  And fifth, there was a tendency of the “engaged” philosophers of the generation of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Camus, to be engaged in service to a cause — Communism, most commonly.  So the positions offered by these intellectuals were often enough not “intellectual” at all; they did not follow from the principles, ideas, and methods of the thinker, but rather derived from the position of a party or camp.  Today’s intellectuals, Julliard suggests, are interested in ideas rather than ideologies.  And with this commitment they have returned to the real vocation of the intellectual:

En rompant avec l’idéologie abstraite au profit de l’universel concret, les intellectuels, du moins les plus novateurs d’entre eux, sont revenus à leur fonction essentielle : la critique sociale, et d’abord la critique de leur propre pratique. [Dispensing with abstract ideology, today’s intellectuals have returned to their essential function: social criticism, and especially criticism of their own practice.]

So Julliard’s telling of the story expresses several key points: France needs public intellectuals; there are several overlapping generations of thinkers who are filling this role (and more to come); and in fact, the decline of ideology and the rise of media and the Internet makes the voices of intellectuals more effective rather than less.  In his editorial in this issue Jean Daniel reaches a similar conclusion: “En un mot: depuis que nous n’avons plus confinace dans des idéologies, nous avons un frénétique besoin des idées. C’est-a-dire des intellectuels.” [In a word: since we no longer have confidence in ideologies, we have urgent need of ideas; which is to say, intellectuals.]

In continuing the theme, Nouvel Obs returns to the debate of 1980 by talking again with several of the young intellectuals it consulted in that year.  Pascal Bruckner, Luc Ferry, and Gilles Lipovetsky offer their perspectives on the role of ideas and intellectuals in French society from the vantage point of 2010 (link).  And there is a challenging interview-discussion with Alain Badiou and Alain Finkielkraut on communism (link).  So Nouvel Obs is doing its part — it is helping to bring to the fore debates and thinkers who can help France navigate into the twenty-first century.

There is one form of practical proof of the importance of intellectuals in contemporary France that is not so visible from the United States: the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television.  For a taste of the breadth and depth of the voices of intellectuals in French society today, consult the list of podcasts made available from radio programming at France Culture (link).  Particularly rich are Les nouveaux chemins de la connaissance (link) and Repliques (link). These programs exemplify serious voices, serious debates, and nuanced and extensive discussions.

In the United States it seems that the whole issue of the public intellectual plays out differently than in France.  To begin — the great majority of the “public” have virtually no interest in or respect for academic discussions of issues.  Fox News, talk radio, and blistering political blogs fill that space.

Second, however, there is a subset of the American public that does have an appetite for more detailed and nuanced treatment of the issues that face us. has between 5 and 8 million unique readers a month; the Huffington Post logged about 10 million visitors in December, 2009; and logs about 4.5 million readers a month.  The Facebook page for “Give me some serious discussion and debate about crucial issues!” could be huge.

Looking at the question from another angle — the academic world in the United States is itself a meaningful segment of the workforce.  There are about 1.5 million post-secondary teachers (professors and lecturers) in the United States, and the majority of these have doctoral degrees.  Of these, a smaller number fall into traditional “intellectual” disciplines: English literature (74,800), Foreign literature (32,100), History (26,000), Philosophy and Religion (25,100), and Sociology (20,300), for a total of 178,300.  In engineering, mathematics, and the sciences there are another 262,600 post-secondary teachers.  (These data come from a Bureau of Labor Statistics snapshot for 2008 (link).)  So a small but meaningful proportion of the US population have advanced degrees and intellectual credentials.  They are a core segment of the audience for public intellectuals. And, of course, you don’t have to be an academic to be an intellectual.

Further, there are a host of specialists and experts on specific crises — environment, finance, globalization, war — who are called upon to comment on specific issues, and there are specialized “think tanks” that promote and disseminate research on critical public issues.  Moreover, voices like that of Bill Moyers have offered critical and nuanced perspectives on public television (link) (regrettably, now off the air).  And the United States has a number of prominent academics who speak to a broad public — Henry Louis Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Michael Walzer, and James Gustave Speth, to name a few.  So there is a domain of intellectual discourse that succeeds in escaping the confines of the academic world and the limiting echo-chamber of cable television; this domain helps to create and feed an intellectual public.

Overall, it seems fair to say that public intellectuals have little influence on public opinion and public policy in the US today.  Perhaps Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) still has a lot of validity.  But maybe, just maybe, it is also possible that the Internet is beginning to offer a bigger footprint for serious analysis and criticism for the American public and American policy makers.  Perhaps there is a broadening opportunity for intellectuals to help define the future for the United States and its role in the world.  And perhaps we can be more like France in this important dimension.

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