Senior Seminar

Senior Seminar

Frankfurt School Aesthetics, Literary Theory, and Criticism
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Robert Kaufman
2-3:30 pm

This senior seminar will offer students an introductory overview of, as well as in-depth engagement with, the work in aesthetics, literary theory, and criticism developed by the Frankfurt School. The emphasis will be on Frankfurt School texts of philosophy, critical-theory, aesthetics, and criticism; but we’ll also read a fair number of literary artworks (or excerpts from literary artworks), putting them into dialogue with the seminar's assigned critical-theoretical or philosophical texts.

 “The Frankfurt School” was the term eventually coined to identify a core group of intellectuals working in and around the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), founded in 1923 and affiliated to this day (except for its exile during and in the immediate aftermath of the National Socialist/Nazi regime) with the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. The Institute’s founders sought to develop new methodologies, which they called “critical theory,” combining theoretical and empirical approaches to explore the unprecedented complexities, difficulties, and suffering engendered by modern, industrial-capitalist society and the often authoritarian political responses to it. In time, their work also took up the new global dispensations that followed World War II. With regard to Left responses to modernity, the Frankfurt School sought to develop alternatives to what they saw as the determinist rigidities of orthodox versions of Marxian theory, whether Social Democratic or Leninist. As members of the Frankfurt School themselves often acknowledged, many of the fundamental concepts underlying critique had already emerged in recognizably modern form in the work of eighteenth and nineteenth-century figures like Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others. In addition, twentieth-century contributions to critical thinking by Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and Georg Lukács, among others, would prove crucial for the Frankfurt School.

The members of the Frankfurt School tended to think of critical theory as an effort to understand the social organization of economics, politics, culture and the arts–-and, indeed, of everyday life—-in order to establish the grounds from which existing social dispensations and their values could be grasped and questioned, and from which alternative social practices and formations could be projected. Critique, they thought, was thus central to the democratic processes by which we assess a given sociopolitical formation’s legitimacy, viability, and efficacy. Critique also animates contemporary democratic notions of dissent, freedom of expression, and political participation, in which various values and norms are challenged, reformulated, and justified publicly through reflective analysis and open debate. Critique likewise helps us analyze, articulate, and contest the ways in which cultural, artistic, and aesthetic activities and institutions relate to the economic and political spheres.

There have to date been at least three–-and today, we are perhaps amid the flourishing of a fourth–-“generation” of Frankfurt-School philosophers, theorists, critics, and thinkers. While each generation has paid important attention to the role that aesthetic and imaginative activity play in critical thought, it is arguably the Frankfurt School’s “first generation” that developed the most sustained and influential arguments for the importance of art and culture to critical agency. While this seminar will briefly discuss the Frankfurt School’s later generations, it will emphasize the foundational work of the first generation.  We’ll read theory and criticism focused on the critical value of literature, the other arts, and culture by a number of those first-generation figures, including Max Horkeimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Löwenthal. But throughout the semester, we’ll emphasize the work of two figures whose work on literature and the other arts has proved decisive in both critical-theory circles, and, more generally, within literary, art, aesthetic, and cultural criticism (as well as within the work of artists themselves): Theodor W. Adorno, and his close friend–-who was significantly associated with, though not formally a member of, the Frankfurt School–-Walter Benjamin.

The seminar’s first few weeks will involve a double-track focus. While reading Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination: : A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950, we’ll simultaneously read and discuss selected texts by three eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophers whose thought provided points of departure for Frankfurt critical theory: Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and Karl Marx. While doing so, we’ll also begin to read a number of brief literary texts (or excerpts from them), primarily poetry, prose-fiction, and drama.  Through the rest of the seminar, we’ll then read selections of key Frankfurt works, focusing on Adorno and Benjamin while considering other Frankfurt authors as well.  We’ll also continue to read short texts and excerpts from the fiction, poetry, drama, and criticism–-and perhaps, time permitting, we’ll work with some music and cinema–-by a number of artists important in Frankfurt critical writing, including Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Brecht, Stevens, various Surrealists writers, Beckett, Celan, Schönberg, Webern, Boulez, Chaplin, Eisenstein, and others. We’ll also consider later writers, including Cha, Césaire, Paley, Lorca, and Vallejo.

Among the key questions and issues we’ll see Frankfurt aesthetics, literary theory, criticism, and cultural analysis taking up in relation to the making and experiencing of art will be these:  Does art offer us a kind of knowledge, and, if so, what status does such knowledge–often termed “subjective”–have vis-à-vis “rational,” science-oriented, “objective” or “conceptual” knowledge? How might this matter of knowledge relate to different kinds of value, or different processes of valuation and judgment, in modernity (aesthetic, artistic, cultural, political, economic)?  How do the mechanical or technological emphases of modern economic and cultural production interact with aesthetic “subjectivity”?  How should we grasp the relations of mass or popular culture, with what were once called–-and sometimes still are referred to as–-the “fine” or “high” arts? Finally, what can all this tell us about whether art, aesthetics, and criticism are–-or should be–-ethically and sociopolitically “committed” or “engaged,” i.e., aiming to contribute to the consciousness and activism of classes and groups who’ve historically experienced oppression and exploitation?