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Alex Ross - The Naysayers: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the critique of pop culture | The New Yorker - September 15 2014
Benjamin, whose dizzyingly varied career skirted the edges of the Frankfurt collective, receives the grand treatment in “Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life” (Harvard), by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, who earlier edited Harvard’s four-volume edition of Benjamin’s writings. The Frankfurt School never presented a united front.... One zone in which they clashed was that of mass culture. Benjamin saw the popular arena as a potential site of resistance, from which left-leaning artists like Charlie Chaplin could transmit subversive signals. Adorno and Horkheimer viewed pop culture as an instrument of economic and political control, enforcing conformity behind a permissive screen. The “culture industry,” as they called it, offered the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” A similar split appeared in attitudes toward traditional forms of culture: classical music, painting, literature. Benjamin, in his resonant sentence linking culture and barbarism, saw the treasures of bourgeois Europe as spoils in a victory procession, each work blemished by the suffering of nameless millions. -- Between them, Adorno and Benjamin were pioneers in thinking critically about pop culture—in taking that culture seriously as an object of scrutiny, whether in tones of delight, dismay, or passionate ambivalence. The worst that one Frankfurt School theorist could say of another was that his work was insufficiently dialectical. The word “dialectic,” as elaborated in the philosophy of Hegel, causes endless problems for people who are not German, and even for some who are. In a way, it is both a philosophical concept and a literary style. --It “mediates,” to use a favorite Frankfurt School word. And it gravitates toward doubt, demonstrating the “power of negative thinking,” as Herbert Marcuse once put it. Such twists and turns come naturally in the German language, whose sentences are themselves plotted in swerves, releasing their full meaning only with the final clinching action of the verb.-- Although Marx was central to their thought, they were nearly as skeptical of Communist ideology as they were of the bourgeois mind-set that Communism was intended to supplant. “At the very heart of Critical Theory was an aversion to closed philosophical systems,” Martin Jay writes, in his history “The Dialectical Imagination” (1973).
books  biography  intellectual_history  20thC  entre_deux_guerres  Germany  Frankfurt_School  critical_theory  Benjamin  Adorno  cultural_critique  mass_culture  high_culture  aesthetics  literary_history  lit_crit  art_history  music_history  cinema  dialectic  bourgeoisie  capitalism  culture_industries  EF-add 
september 2014 by dunnettreader

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