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, these essays seek 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. Honouring 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 essays also acknowledge 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.
About the Author
Martin Jay is Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for forty-five years after getting his doctorate at Harvard in 1971. His research interests are in modern European Intellectual History, Critical Theory and Visual Culture. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, awarded an honorary doctorate by Bard College, and given the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.
"A century after its founding, the Institute for Social Research, now better known as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, continues to generate provocative ideas and critical perspectives on the world that we inhabit. Just as from the vantage point of Adorno, Benjamin, Horkheimer, and others, however, there can be no genuinely critical thought that is not mediated in decisive ways by the history of its own genesis, thereby rendering the task of inheriting the refractory legacy of the Frankfurt School a difficult and ongoing undertaking. Martin Jay's powerful new study provides us with a beautifully articulated path through the thicket of that inheritance, thoughtfully lingering along the way to illuminate central tropes and concerns that emerge from this constellation of writers. By focusing on the characteristic critical gesture that unites many Frankfurt School thinkers-that of immanent critique-Jay succeeds in opening up a productive and unfailingly fascinating perspective on a critical legacy that, even a century on, remains open and still to come. In Jay's masterful hands, the texts that constitute this legacy have lost none of their urgency and abiding interest." —Gerhard Richter, L. Herbert Ballou University Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature, Brown University
"Throughout these thought-provoking studies Martin Jay's characteristic lucidity and unrivalled command of the relevant source material is on display. Jay is sensitive both to the socio-political contexts of Frankfurt School thinking and to the continuing relevance of the School's legacy. Even those steeped in the tradition of Critical Theory will learn something new from his wide-ranging and sometimes provocative reflections." —Peter Dews, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Essex
"That Martin Jay is not only the leading historian of the Frankfurt School, but one of its most creative and interesting practitioners in the third generation, becomes irrevocably apparent in this superb collection of articles. Circling around the notion of "immanent critique", these articles explore the viability of some of this tradition's core ideas in a time of political turbulences and postcolonial challenges. In so doing, Martin Jay teaches us how to actualize Critical Theory without credulously sticking to the original texts." —Axel Honneth