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The Frankfurt School with Response to a Classmate's Post Below

What’s in a name? As an educator, the naming of things is vastly important to me as it allows me to accurately describe and define the subject matter that I teach. Naming provides a common knowledge set. But how does one even begin to address the tremendous amount of criticism, philosophy, and pioneering thinking begun and continued by The Institute for Social Research (Bronner 9)? The Institute’s critical theory has opened every philosophical thought, including itself, to critique. I am struck by the name of this organization. Bronner states that members intentionally convoluted their writing to hide their radical beliefs (6), beliefs that conformist Americans of the 1930s through the 1950s would find much too radical, much too individualistic, much too activist for its developing culture of conformity as a result of the late capitalist culture industry that Adorno so detested when he moved to America in the 1940s (Fry 8).

But the name itself? Every associate of The Institute for Social Research, or The Frankfurt School, should have critiqued the naming of this diverse group of philosophers who railed against complete systems of thought and organization as they became an Institute themselves. Should not Jürgen Habermas, writing as late as 1987, have seen through the lens of language (Bronner 33) a means to critique the sly (20) naming of critical theory and the Institute themselves? Did the Institute’s own naming predict its becoming a complete system of thought? Bronner states that the Institute “was audacious in its attempts to assimilate the insights of diverse thinkers into the framework of historical materialism” (29), a move that smacks of the hegemonic desire to find the nichés (Fry 8) for each element of critical theory, to assess it, and to place it within the context of the larger Institute, movement so similar to that of the culture industry in America.

At the same time, I am struck by naming in American politics as I use the presidential election of 2016 to teach the patterns of writing to my college composition students. In my corner of the world, any discussion of politics that does not vehemently support the Christian, Ultra-Right Wing segment of the Republican party, much less any outright demonstration of belief in a system of thought outside of this socialized norm, receives ad hominem attacks of “typical liberal,” an epithet that might as well have read as “dirty liberal,” that my former pastor called me when I simply questioned motives regarding gun control restrictions and fear during a Facebook discussion in which a friend, a former police detective, advocated the tightening of gun legislation loopholes.

Critical theory may remain as the “last gasp” (I am sure that this is not my own phrase) through which American society can be analyzed, and it must, perhaps, begin with individuals in academia trained in the tradition of critique to begin a dismantling of partisanship within late capitalism. While Benjamin sought religious redemption as a means of sparking imagination (Bronner 32) and breaking free of the system, we now see experience divorced “from critical reflection creat[ing] an opening for ideology and compromis[ing] the ability to resist” alternate forms of thought (33) within American politics. Maggie Koerth-Baker’s “Why Rational People Buy into Conspiracy Theories,” read soon after that Facebook discussion, or rather verbal bating and berating, convinced me that sane people react to the world through narratives of conspiracy out of fear, uncertainty, and powerlessness (Koerth-Baker 343) and that arguing against such fears as “They are going to take away our guns” by asking who the “they” references simply fuels belief in false information (344).

What am I to do? Debunking irrationalities backfires on me as those with opposing views confirm their ideology (Koerth-Baker 344). But the idea now occurs to me that it is the middle class, that which has appropriated for itself all forms of thought, of having been there and done that (Fry 4), that now feels itself alienated and reified. Shall we return to an elite and condescending view that one of the enlightened must zerstreut (Fry 9) the middle class so that it becomes aware of its ideology? And how exactly does one shock this middle class that has seen all, done all, been all, and is ultimately right above all?

I am inclined to Adorno’s gloom, and my gloom is at the failure of any critique to make any change in my corner of the world. Using composition class to teach criticism of sources in light of the 2016 presidential election may be my own attempt at redeeming a small portion of a culture stuck in conspiracy theories of Muslim attacks, immigrant takeovers, and government spying, but I feel it is too little and perhaps too late. Activism exists in the energies of the young, such as the activism of the young men who became the members of the Frankfurt school and the counter-culture youth of America in the 1960s, I may be able to make my college students aware and active in the political sphere and for a semester, at least, teach them how to critique their world, but what happens when these youth have their own mortgages, kids, and greater income?They, too, may simply rejoin the culture they were socialized into.

Works Cited

Bronner, Stephen eric. “Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction.” Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Fry, Paul H. “ENGL-300: Introduction to the Theory of Literature, Lecture 17 - The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.” Yale University. New Haven, CT. 24 March 2009. Open Yale Courses. <>. Note: Page numbers reference a printed transcript prepared by Yale University.

Koerth-Baker, Maggie. “Why Rational People Buy into Conspiracy Theories.” Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and Guide. 13th ed. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Boston: Bedford, 2015. 342-345. Print.

My Response to The Frankfurt School and Theatre (original post by classmate not included)

I am fascinated by your description of Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theatre's removing the curtain on the special effects so that the audience could be aware of how it was being manipulated. I just now had an image from The Wizard of Oz where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the tiny, unimpressive Professor Marvel (oh! the name Marvel!) and Dorothy and company's shock at having been manipulated. That a dog would be the one to realize the manipulation and shock the audience into realization of the true situation is comical and cynical; it took a (supposedly) non-thinking non-human creature to make the humans aware of what their situation actually was.

And then there are the mechanics of Professor Marvel's wizardship. I sometimes catch myself watching movies and crying, not because of the acting necessarily, but because of the music, a means, like a laugh track, to get the lowest common denominator emotionally ready for the staged scenes, and I'm not necessarily upset at that awareness; I'm simply aware. It perhaps did not help that my parents are both designers (mechanical and architectural), and my father had a passing interest as a child in magic tricks. If we were allowed to talk at dinner (after he ranted about his day to us), it was to try to answer one of my father's logic questions. His having worked for Universal Studios for a time and explaining at another time the magic behind Disney's Haunted House (it was fun to ride in the car and see ghosts appear next to us, but I knew how they did it) and showing us how the switches for the monorail he designed at the Tampa airport worked (about four different times with different relatives present, but we got to see where the car bay was, behind the curtain) has made me a secret questioner for most of my life for my father is one of the Ultra Rights I mention in my own post. Neither of my parents, though, expressed any of their political opinions when I was growing up except to note that my father willing fought in Vietnam when drafted, my mother supported him while he was gone (while his best friend fled to Canada), and that they upheld the establishment as they were never hippies.

It was Dad's continual pulling back the curtain through magic tricks, logic problems, and his own work (and my mom's as well: I've seen the insides of unfinished houses more than most and have a basic understanding of blueprints and foundations) that did, in fact, place a desire to question everything once I reached an age when I realized that it is okay to question everything and still believe. The Wizard lives, but he's not whom I expected.


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