Senior Seminar

Senior Seminar

Frankfurt School Aesthetics, Literary Theory, & Criticism
Course Number: 
Course Catalog Number: 
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Robert Kaufman
T, Th
2:00-3:30 p.m.
Dwinelle 130

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 them)--poetry, prose fiction (short stories; excerpts from novels); plays--putting them into dialogue with the seminar's assigned critical-theoretical and 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 Horkheimer, 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 making reference to and encouraging you to read an “optional” text (in fact, you might want to start reading it before the course even begins!)—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 required 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, Lorca, Beckett, Vallejo, Celan, Schönberg, Webern, Boulez, Chaplin, Eisenstein, and others. We’ll also consider later writers, including Cha, Césaire, Paley, Hansberry, Pérez, Adnan, Marriott, Darwish, Arteaga, Lerner, Guest,Valdez,  Morrison, Ashbery, Baldwin, and others.

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?


[Note: Texts of critical theory, philosophy, aesthetics, and/or criticism will be presented in English translation, though, with texts not initially written in English, we will frequently consider the German, French, Spanish, etc., originals.  The literary texts we read that were not originally composed in English will be read and discussed primarily in English translation, though we will almost always, when possible, also consult a facing-page (or at-hand-xeroxed) version of the text in its original language--most often German, French, or Spanish. Knowledge of other languages—especially German, French, and/or Spanish—is not required.]

 And Finally (!!!), A "Current-Events" Coda to the Course Description:

It perhaps also bears noting that over the last few decades, a significant number of far-right figures have warned that a group of philosophers, historians, sociologists, literary critics, and aestheticians were fomenting--in a memorable and oft-repeated phrase--a "conspiracy to corrupt" America and "the West."  This corrupting work was said to occur, in many respects, through the medium of art, and through something the conspiracy theorists identified as "cultural marxism." The leftist intellectuals attacked by the conspiracy theorists were, as you no doubt know or have by now guessed, associated with what was--and still is--popularly known as the "Frankfurt School."  The Frankfurters themselves never used the term "cultural marxism," nor did they believe themselves to be "corrupting" America or any other society.  But attacks on the Frankfurt School's alleged conspiracy to corrupt the West with "cultural marxism" continue to circulate.  The historian Martin Jay has noted that many far-right publications today feature an identical list of offenses allegedly committed by the Frankfurt School: "1.The creation of racism offences [i.e., civil and human rights laws making illegal various kinds of discrimination based on race]; 2. Continual change to create confusion; 3. The teaching of sex and homosexuality  to children; 4. The undermining of schools' and teachers' authority;  5. Huge immigration to destroy identity; 6. The promotion of excessive drinking; 7. Emptying of churches; 8. An unreliable legal system with bias against victims of crime;  9. Dependency on the state or state benefits; 10. Control and dumbing down of media; 11. Encouraging  the breakdown of the family." 

While such views might once have seemed the stuff of fringe circles, they have more recently been associated with notably horrific occurrences.  In July, 2011, the Norwegian neo-fascist terrorist Anders Behring Breivik set off car explosions that murdered eight people in Oslo; he then proceeded to the socialist youth camp on nearby Utoeya Island, where he shot 69 young people to death. That morning, Breivik had published a 1500-page manifesto filled with denunciations of the Frankfurt School and "cultural marxism," to which he assigned significant blame for what he called the "invasion" of Europe by Islamic and other "foreign" cultures.  The Australian white supremacist who murdered some 50 Muslim worshipers in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, 2019, published his own manifesto making similar charges--and approvingly citing Breivik.  More recent atrocities, including racist attacks in Buffalo, New York, El Paso, Texas, and Gilroy, California,Pittsburgh, Pennsylvvania, and others have echoed the Norwegian and New Zealand instances.  Meanwhile, the "Frankfurt School/Cultural Marxism/Decline of The West" charge and meme has been propagated by apparently more mainstream politicians and officials, including those serving in various right-wing governments (the list includes officials and staff who have served in the recent Bolsonaro Administration in Brazil, the Trump Administration in the United States, as well as examples in other countries).

This course will not consider in any detail the history or status of these conspiracy-theory claims about the Frankfurt School.  But as you can see from the lengthy course-description above, the course will focus on one of the underlying issues: what did the Frankfurt School critics think, say, and write about literature and the other arts?  Why did they indeed ceaselessly contend that literature and the other arts--with their underlying formal and phenomenological structures of aesthetic experience--play a crucial role in developing human beings' capacities for critical judgment and agency, for imaginative and critically rational thought, for people's ability to understand and--should they choose--to move from critical reflection to ethical and sociopolitical action?