Was the Frankfurt School On to Something?
In the thread that shows the Right would like to reanimate the corpse of Trotsky to be their endless punching bag, OTer LeeEsq noted that a lot of old academic theorists are coming back in the days of Trump. Most notably, the Frankfurt School received mentions in The New Yorker and Vox.
Who were the Frankfrut School? Roughly, they were a group of German-Jewish Marxist Intellectuals who first started writing during the Weimar Republic but who really took off when they needed to flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They had one basic question. Why did a Communist Revolution happen in a backwoods country like Russia instead of an advanced and civilized country like Germany like Marx predicted? This question became more important to them in the 1930s after the Nazis seized control. The most famous scholars like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse came to the United States and were largely horrified by what they saw especially in terms of mass/popular culture. The Frankfurt School developed a dichotomy between art, which elevates and causes someone to question authority and culture, a force that lulls people into a false sense of security.
The Frankfurt School never really took off beyond academia. Partially because they are dense and bad writers. I know this from personal experience as an undergrad especially with Adorno’s essay on Endgame. The other aspect that makes them so off putting is that they were total in their worldview and uncompromising. Stuart Jefferies phrases it this way in his Vox interview:
So Adorno and the other critical theorists saw culture as inherently totalitarian, and this was particularly true in America. This, of course, didn’t go over well with the public. You have these Germans coming to your country with their old attitudes and their defense of bourgeois art, and they’re critical of every aspect of American culture and regard it as an artistic wasteland.
Americans struggled with this idea that popular culture, their popular culture, could be subversive in this way. And, to be fair, many of the critical theorists didn’t get American culture, and so they undoubtedly overreached at times.
The other fact is that what is usually called high-culture does not appeal to most people and often never has. It isn’t hard to see why the Frankfurt School turns off a lot of people, but Jefferies is right: Adnorno and company had a lot of things going for them.
American culture seems to be divided into a lot of bubbles. There are songs that are popular in red states and songs popular in blue states. You can do this for almost every aspect of pop culture and we use pop culture to fool ourselves into believing our worldviews are on the rise and unquestionable.
There are also memes for reducing all political debate into cutsey snaps. Memes and gifs depress me. They are present on all political sides and to me it looks like a society that has given up on some of the foundations of liberal democracy like the idea that “reasonable people can disagree.” Memes and gifs represent a loss of faith in rhetoric and convincing anyone of anything. They are all very pat and seem to preach to the choir while digging trenches that will survive the Battle of the Somme.
Since I am a liberal and care about the goals of my side in advancing the welfare state and civil rights and liberties, I am especially concerned with how much fellow liberals seem to resort to snark, memes, and gifs as matters of communication for all things. A lot of pop culture over the last few years has been rather liberal in soft ways and I wonder if this gave a lot of liberals a false sense of security about always being on the winning team. We got excited about Will & Grace and Joss Whedon’s favorite actors making commercials for Hillary without thinking that it could be off-putting to the right number of people. We rested on the laurels of Modern Family instead of wondering whether a right-wing backlash was coming.
There are plenty of memes on the right-wing or libertarian-wing that show an equal amount of disdain if not more for the commonwealth and seek to “rah rah” the ingroup instead of finding true cross-ideological alliances on issues where agreement is possible.
And now we have Trump as our President. Our President is a washed-up reality star with a short temper, shorter attention span, thin skin, and his cabinet is prone to telling outright lies or “alternative facts” as they call them. Instead of realizing that this is potentially intentional tactic, liberals just surrender themselves to silly memes about “alternative facts” on social media. I admit that I did this as well but it struck me as an act of impotence. The Republicans control all three branches of government, they don’t care about any norms or the popular voice, and seem dead set on getting as much of their agenda done in a steam-roller fashion. Why not go to secure snark? Why not bubble myself off more?
Over the course of the last week, the left started resistance to Trump appeared strong and spontaneous. The question is whether this rebukes some of the Frankfurt School because memes and gifs and pop culture still reign on the Internet. I don’t think it has. People still use myriad examples of pop culture as security blankets for why their worldview is correct and dominant. We still have an authoritarian know-nothing in the White House trampling over Constitutional norms and he does not seem to be going away any time soon. I remember in college when we would all watch The West Wing and use it as wishthinking as opposed to Bushian reality. I wonder and am also horrified by the kind of wishthinking culture Trump will inspire. I worry that the left will forget whatever is learned from Trump and just go back into a lulling from pop culture.