Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Frankfurt Fool

Adam Kirsch at The New Republic provides a very helpful review of Thomas Wheatland's The Frankfurt School in Exile. According to Kirsch, the book brings an appreciative, but more down-to-earth reading of the revered "fathers of critical theory" (Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Fromm, Horkheimer, etc.). Incidentally, in Seminary instead of "church fathers," we all learned to say "church fathers and mothers." But I suppose that is easier to pull off in church history than with mid-century Marxism. Here's Kirsch:
Wheatland shows how the Institute [for Social Research] came into contact with two important segments of the American Jewish community. The first were the New York Intellectuals, who were in many ways the perfect American counterpart to the Frankfurters: Jewish radical intellectuals with an interest in politics and culture. While the two groups never engaged as deeply as they mightg have - in part, Wheatland shows, due to the Frankfurters' policy of staying aloof from American politics - some relationships did form, and New Yorkers like Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, and Nathan Glazer became aware of Critical Theory.
But for Glazer, we might add, the awareness very much deepened, especially regarding Critical Theory's impact on public architecture. In his wonderful book that I continually refer to, From a Cause to a Style, Glazer is judicious about Critical Theory, but also mildly exasperated:
Young students should reach out, try, experiment. Even if the theory that speaks to them is impenetrable to me, they should try to realize the hints and insights and possibilities they divine in it. But when they design and build for the public, one factor affecting what they design must be public response... if the students empathize with the people [they build for], maybe what is necessary is not to critique it but to bring with their designs something they would not find in graceless environment[s]: perhaps humor, perhaps nostalgia, perhaps repose, perhaps even, if one is capable of it, something of beauty
But by the end of the book, the gloves come off. The sons of the fathers of Critical Theory, according to Glazer, soon became
scarcely comprehensible, and the less comprehensible... the more they engaged architects' interests, but in any case they were no longer theories that envisaged the role of the architect as enabling and improving the life of ordinary or run-of-the-mill people and communities, as early modernism did. Despite the influence of quasi- and pseudo-Marxist thinking in these advanced contemporary theories, they had little interest in the improvement of the common social life and the circumstances of the working class or low-income families, or in the social reform that is consistent with some kinds of Marxism. Rather, they showed much more interest in the catastrophism, the apocalyptic character, that is a more important part of Marxism. Theories in favor today among advanced architectural theorists and students are those that emphasize, indeed celebrate, breakdown in society and meaning, often in obscure and contradictory language.
And so, Glazer foolishly sold his birthright as the New York heir to the Frankfurt School for a mess of comprehensible language, concern for the needs of real people, social cohesion, and beauty. What was he thinking?