Martin JayNov 15, 2023
The Frankfurt School under Pressure
The Frankfurt School’s own legacy is best preserved by exercising an immanent critique of its premises and the conclusions to which they often led. By distinguishing between what is still and what is no longer alive in Critical Theory, Immanent Critiques: The Frankfurt School Under Pressure (Verso, 2023) seeks to demonstrate its continuing relevance in the 21st century. Fifty years after the appearance of The Dialectical Imagination, his pioneering history of the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay reflects on what may be living and dead in its legacy. Rather than treating it with filial piety as a fortress to be defended, he takes seriously its anti-systematic impulse and sensitivity to changing historical circumstances.
Honoring the Frankfurt School's practice of immanent critique, he puts critical pressure on a number of its own ideas by probing their contradictory impulses. Among them are the pathologization of political deviance through stigmatizing "authoritarian personalities," the undefended theological premises of Walter Benjamin's work, and the ambivalence of its members' analyses of anti-Semitism and Zionism. Additional questions are asked about other time-honored Marxist themes: the meaning of alienation, the alleged damages of abstraction, and the advocacy of a politics based on a singular notion of the truth. Rather, however, than allowing these questions to snowball into an unwarranted repudiation of the Frankfurt School legacy as a whole, the essay collection also acknowledges a number of its still potent arguments. They explore its neglected, but now timely analysis of "racket society," Adorno's dialectical reading of aesthetic sublimation, and the unexpected implications of Benjamin's focus on the corpse for political theory. Jay shows that it is a still evolving theoretical tradition which offers resources for the understanding of–and perhaps even practical betterment–of our increasingly troubled world.