So you want to learn about the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, but you have no idea where to begin? We’re here to help. Below we outline (and summarize!) which books by the Frankfurt School you should start with, out of all the books by the Frankfurt School out there (many!).
Dialectic of Enlightenment (Cultural Memory in the Present) by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer
Dialectic of Enlightenment is an absolute classic of critical theory. The basic argument is that mythmaking in early history (the Homeric myth of Odysseus, for instance) is an early form enlightenment just like the rationalist enlightenment of the 18th century, and that the rationalist Enlightenment and all its scientific progress was also a form of mythmaking. Although the Enlightenment destroyed a lot of pre-modern myths, such as those related to religion, this of all the books by the Frankfurt School this one best shows all the ways in which scientific progress could not move forward without a number of beliefs that are essentially mythical. The mythical dimension of the light mint mostly has to do with the ways in which it recasts the observer and nature. For instance, scientific protocols — the actual steps that a scientist takes in a laboratory, for instance, or essentially a kind of ritual, but this extract – rational ritualistic element in science is repressed from the consciousness of science. Similarly, the scientific enlightenment attitude retroactively slanders the sophistication of myth, as premodern ritualism typically represented rational efforts to systematize and optimize various practices (i.e., it was science in embryo). As they write in this book:
The metaphysical apologia at least betrayed the injustice of the established order through the incongruence of concept and reality. The impartiality of scientific language deprived what was powerless of the strength to make itself heard and merely provided the existing order with a neutral sign for itself. Such neutrality is more metaphysical than metaphysics.
The other focus of this book is the way in which the bourgeois subject is a fiction that gets elevated and empowered through the myths of enlightenment. Scientific demonstration may be valid, but this generates nonscientific beliefs that human beings are like God, and these nonscientific beliefs are essentially at the epistemological level of infantile premodern religion. Nature is not mere objectivity, but the actual truth of the matter is that human beings are in a complex and interdependency with nature. Scientific enlightenment proceeds by rational comprehension of the world, but it does so at the cost of non-rationally and non-scientifically distorting our image of nature as something other than us. “Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power.” (Page 9)
One of the most interesting parts of this book is the focus on the tale of Odysseus. As the authors write, the tale of Odysseus shows the intrinsic entanglement of myth, domination, and capitalist labor exploitation. The famous sirens represent the temptation and risk of losing oneself in the past. And the hero who resists the siren reaches maturity through inflicting the suffering of delayed gratification on himself.
Although this is a relatively dense book, it is an incredible read, which genuinely rewards the patient struggle to follow its subtle arguments. It is a must read for anyone serious about philosophy, especially 20th-century critical theory.
Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (Radical Thinkers) by Theodor W. Adorno
This is one of my favorite books of all the books by the Frankfurt School. It is a collection of short essays and aphorisms that are just devastatingly incisive. To be perfectly honest, this book can be really depressing because Adorno delves as deeply as possible into the saddest and most decadent aspects of modern culture. And once he’s opened a wound of the postmodern condition, he just pours salt all over it and twists the knife a few more times for good measure. But if what you want is a really radically critical view on contemporary culture, if you love thought that dares to go where few normal people like to go, then you will love this book. It has the feel of a crazy smart critic writing in his diary. In fact, you can kind of see this book as if all of the thoughts he ever had that were just too brutal to be published in any other form, and published altogether. The book is wide-ranging and covers almost every dimension of culture, from academic philosophy to popular music to cinema to gender to race and fascism. Adorno is famous for being a melancholy stalwart declinist who loathes everything new and popular as capitalist decadence, and perhaps nowhere else does this image of him come through more clearly. While I do not agree with all of his judgments, I personally find his extreme dislike of almost everything currently existing to be highly interesting, impressive, and useful to one’s own critical capacities. Love him or hate him, this is maybe one of his most fun to read – or at least just fascinating – volumes.
A nice summary of his intention in this book can be found in this quote:
The melancholy science from which I make this offering to my friend relates to a region that from time immemorial was regarded as the true field of philosophy, but which, since the latter’s conversion into method, has lapsed into intellectual neglect, sententious whimsy and finally oblivion: the teaching of the good life. What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.
Adorno is a master of teaching the lessons he has learned about the good life. As I said, it’s a heavy read but hugely rewarding. And the aphoristic style of Minima Moralia makes it very easy to dip in and out of the book in short spurts.
This is another absolute classic of the Frankfurt school. While Adorno and Horkheimer often thought and wrote together, Herbert Marcuse was somewhat more independent from them. Adorno and Marcuse disagreed strongly about how to interpret the radical student movement of the time, with Marcuse being more sympathetic and lending his support, and Adorno finding it horrifically fascist and generally criticizing it. The difference of viewpoint comes through in One-Dimensional Man, which ends with Marcuse saying he believes that a union between students and Blacks may very well be the collective revolutionary subject that would emerge in late capitalism. So how did he come to this conclusion? Of all the books by the Frankfurt School, One-Dimensional Man is the best for explaining how the development of capitalist culture tends to subsume cultural opposition to capitalism. Through various pathways that he catalogues, one of the defining features of capitalist culture is that a channels opposition into consistency with it.
One pathway is simply that capitalism “delivers the goods,” that is, capitalism is genuinely very good at efficiently producing desirable goods and services at low cost, so this buys off consent to the ethical horrors. As Marcuse writes in One-Dimensional Man:
The distinction between true and false consciousness, real and immediate interest still is meaningful. But this distinction itself must be validated. Men must come to see it and to find their way from false to true consciousness, from their immediate to their real interest. They can do so only if they live in need of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing. It is precisely this need which the established society manages to repress to the degree to which it is capable of “delivering the goods” on an increasingly large scale, and using the scientific conquest of nature for the scientific conquest of man.
But capitalism also contains and channels dissent into itself through other more complex mechanisms. Dislike wage labor? Capitalism will deliver to you and infinite supply of commodities that satisfy your consumer demand to oppose wage labor. One of the most interesting parts of the book is where the author talks about how capitalism can fundamentally change language. The meaning of words is shaped by market dynamics, to the point that opposition to the economic system as such becomes literally impossible to articulate, because such statements become literally incomprehensible overtime. The long-term outcome of capitalist culture is to produce human beings who are incapable constitutionally of opposing an economic system based on explication, any oppositional dimension in which human beings might criticize and oppose the system as such becomes collapsed through processes imminent capitalism itself — humans become fully merged with the economic system, man becomes a “one-dimensional man.”
Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin
Of all the people considered to be in the Frankfurt school, Walter Benjamin was perhaps the most independent and idiosyncratic. As for books by the Frankfurt School, this one is a good representative collection of some of Walter Benjamin’s best and most famous essays and articles. Benjamin was almost something like Mystic in some dimensions of the stop, he was very interested in weird aesthetic and semi religious dimensions of politics. His famous essay on doing hashish in Marseille is not included in this volume, but what is included is the essay where he discusses the so-called angel of history. The angel of history appears in the essay called “theses on the philosophy of history.” Benjamin wrote:
There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.
This volume is the only one of all the books by the Frankfurt School that includes an introduction by the famous and super brilliant Hannah Arendt, which is worth reading for its own sake, to see Hannah Arendt’s view on Benjamin. Benjamin is very unsystematic, he loves scattered bits of thought and explosive ecstatic realizations, scribbled hastily and reassembled later. You very much get a sense of the style with this particular volume. All around super interesting and very fun to read, with respect to all the books by the Frankfurt School, this is a great book to take with you traveling and to dip in and out of casually for inspiring insights and rushes of speculation (kind of like Minima Moralia in that regard).
This book contains some of the dopest stuff Benjamin wrote about memory, such as:
To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes. In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
And finally, on the infamous Angel of History and the storm we call progress:
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
We hope this will help you get started with all of the books by the Frankfurt School. There are many, but these are the best ones to start with!