THERE’s an excellent Alex Ross essay in the latest New Yorker on the Frankfurt School and the rise and fall and perhaps rise again of its reputation. Ross leads this way:
In Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, “The Corrections,” a disgraced academic named Chip Lambert, who has abandoned Marxist theory in favor of screenwriting, goes to the Strand Bookstore, in downtown Manhattan, to sell off his library of dialectical tomes. The works of Theodor W. Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, and various others cost Chip nearly four thousand dollars to acquire; their resale value is sixty-five. “He turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society,” Franzen writes. After several more book-selling expeditions, Chip enters a high-end grocery store and walks out with an overpriced filet of wild Norwegian salmon.
I’ve gone through my own ups and down with these often pessimistic Freud- and Marx-influences critical theorists, and expect I will continue to. I’ll just say for now that while I return to Walter Benjamin every few years, and am always struck by his prose style and the depth of his emotion, I find the unfashionable Adorno sometimes more rigorous in facing up to culture’s complexities. It’s not that I hate pop culture (or jazz!) but some of his stuff is quite smart.
In any case, I wonder, do these thinkers of the ’30s still have anything to tell us about our world today?