Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School Hardcover – 6 Sep 2016
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'Stuart Jeffries has produced a compelling and politically pressing group portrait of the philosophers associated with the Frankfurt School. Their thinking has never seemed less forbidding and more inspiring.' --Matthew Beaumont, author of Nightwalking
'Throughout the book, Jeffries demonstrates that he is comfortable and conversant with the often thorny philosophical ideas of his subjects. A rich, intellectually meaty history' --Kirkus Reviews
'An impressive work of popular intellectual history.' --Open Letter Monthly
“Jeffries moves swiftly across the decades, retracing the jagged paths from the official founding of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in June 1924, through its years in exile in New York in the ’30s and Los Angeles in the ’40s and its hasty return to Frankfurt in the early postwar years, up to the work of Horkheimer and Adorno’s prized protégé Jürgen Habermas and the Institute’s legacy today.” – Noah Isenberg, Bookforum
“Equally sympathetic and critical, this book is sure to gain an enthusiastic reception from academics, arm chair philosophers, and fellow travelers.” – Library Journal
“A fractious Europe, a failing currency, a challenged economy, populist parties on the rise, a divided left, migration from the east, an atmosphere of fear combined with social and sexual liberalism. The parallels between Britain today and Germany in the 1920s may well make this a compelling moment to revisit those postwar German thinkers who gathered in what was known as the Frankfurt school for social research – something akin to a Marxist thinktank, though one whose policy papers and brilliant books fed future generations as much or more than their own ... Little wonder, given the history of the 20th century, that the Frankfurt school gave us intellectual pessimism and negative dialectics. Jeffries’s biography is proof that such a legacy can be invigorating.” – Lisa Appignanesi, Observer
“There is much to provoke interest and thought, even entertain, in Jeffries’ informative account of a group of highly intelligent observers and analysts of the imprisonment of humanity, both socially and individually by the corrosive system under which it suffers.” – Morning Star
“Intriguing and provocative . . . Jeffries has done a great service in producing such a readable, wry and detailed introduction.” – Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
“This seemingly daunting book turned out to be an exhilarating page-turner…Grand Hotel Abyss is an outstanding critical introduction to some of the most fertile, and still relevant, thinkers of the 20th century.” – Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“A towering work of staggering scholarship.” – Irish Times
About the Author
Stuart Jeffries worked for the Guardian for twenty years and has written for many media outlets including the Financial Times and Psychologies. He is based in London.
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- they lived in a beautiful and comfortable hotel on the edge of an abyss;
- they were Marxist or neo-Marxist theoreticians who lived a comfortable academic life but, with the exception of Marcuse, kept aloof from party politics and political struggle;
- part of the reason for this was that both in the United States and later in Germany they did not want to provoke the government or imperil funds they received from some wealthy supporters or resarch contracts they received from government departments;
- they contented themselves with analysis and understanding, but did not believe it was possible to change society because they thought the working class was not capable of revolution (explained partially in psychoanalytical terms by Erich Fromm);
- they distrusted the political left for an authoritarianism that was as bad as that of the Right;
- in exile in America, they saw some similarities not only between the control mechanism of Hitlerian fascism and Stalinist communism but even between them and those of Roosevelt’s America – it was merely that Goebbels and Zhdanov were more open about what they were doing;
- they thought that capitalism was no longer likely to self-destruct;
- the task now was to study these control mechanisms that kept it in place - mechanisms which went far beyond merely economic ones and that to understand them required a wider interdisciplinary cultural approach;
- the sciences, logic and reason were now all tools used by capitalism’s oppressors.
This approach was the essence of Critical Theory. Not least by giving the book its title, Jeffries seems to agree with many of these charges, although he rightly values many of the insights, critiques and influences of the School.
Jeffries shows us the divisions within the Frankfurt School – notably that between Marcuse on the one hand and Adorno and Horkheimer on the other over the student revolt of 1967 to 1969, and that between the older founding generation with its profound and radical pessimism and the younger, more cautiously optimistic one, represented by Habermas, who, as Jeffries’ chapter heading has it, pulled the School “back from the abyss”.
But Jeffries is more critical of Habermas than he is of his predecessors: three times he likens him to Pollyanna. The founders of the Frankfurt School had, with Marx, regarded religion as the opium of the people, and Habermas had originally shared that view. But in 2004 he broke with this idea and found that religion has a valuable role to play in the public sphere as long it is not fanatical and supplements rather than opposes the ethical teaching of secularism. It can fill the God-shaped hole that is found in pure secularism.
Stylistically the book is a mixed bag. In many instances Jeffries’ own account and comments are as clear and thought-provoking as one would expect from a Guardian journalist; but in too many others I found the book hard going. The ideas are of course very difficult. At one point Jeffries writes that Walter Benjamin’s “writings in the 1930s got sucked into a terminological black hole”; and indeed I found that many of the quotations from Benjamin – as well as many from other writers in the Frankfurt School - fitted this description: they are bloodless, jargon-infested, abstract and (to me, at least) often obscure; but I found that to be true also of many passages in Jeffries’ own writing. And when (according to Jeffries) Adorno took the works of Heidegger, Buber and Jaspers “to be self-mystificatory, each in their own way devising elitist philosophies with abstruse terms”, that seems to me like the pot calling the kettle black.
To my mind, a part of the writings of the Frankfurt School is pompous, pseudo-profound and sometimes even ludicrous. A striking example of that, for me, is the way Adorno wrote about jazz. One may criticize jazz from a traditional musical point of view, but Adorno went far beyond that when he attacked it on philosophical and sociological grounds: jazz to him was (according the Jeffries) “suitable for fascism” and suggested “sadomasochism”, “symbolic castration” and “premature ejaculation”!
Although I have a reasonable general knowledge of philosophy, I am not a professional philosopher. Because I found so much of the book too difficult to understand, I do not know how to rate it for quality. Jeffries has clearly read very widely: there is a huge list of Further Reading, which presumably consists of books he has read. But I can rate it only for the quality of my enjoyment. For all I know, somebody who understands the material better than I do, could give the book more or fewer stars than I have given it.
On the whole the book is well written, engrossing, and wears its considerable learning lightly. Jeffries manages to explain complex political ideas in terms that most of us can understand, and does not leave out some of the many ironies of the School's history (Marcuse working for the CIA?). There are always quibbles: I think he's too kind to Adorno, who is approvingly shown returning from a comfortable exile in the US to berate his fellow countrymen for not resisting Hitler more fiercely. I also think he's too indulgent towards Habermas, but that's a rather different issue.
A good and interesting read then, but don't forget there's more to life than eloquent despair.