Thomas WheatlandThe Frankfurt School in Exile

University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 2009

by marshall poe on June 20, 2012

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[Cross-posted from New Books in History] I have a friend who, as a young child, happened to meet Herbert Marcuse, by that time a rock-star intellectual and darling of the American student movement. Upon seeing the man, he exclaimed “Marcuse! Marcuse! You have such a beautiful head!” I don’t know how beautiful Herbert Marcuse’s head was, but I do know a lot of other interesting things about him and his Frankfurt School buddies now that I’ve read Thomas Wheatland’s wonderful The Frankfurt School in Exile (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). The story Tom tells casts the Frankfurt School in a new (and more correct) light. For one thing, Horkheimer, Adorno, and the rest really were hard-core empirical social scientists in the beginning, not “Critical Theorists” as we understand the term. They counted, measured, conducted surveys and did everything a positivist sociologist or economist would do. But, of course, that was not how they became idols of the New Left and the founders of “Critical Theory.” (Now that I think about it, almost no one ever achieves fame by doing empirical social science. See “Malcolm Gladwell” for more.) No, they–or rather Fromm, Marcuse and Habermas–got famous by telling young Americans that they were “repressed,” “alienated,” and “downtrodden” at exactly the moment they wanted to hear it, that is, the 1960s. You see, the “old” Marxism was dead; this was the “new and improved” version. In other words, they were in the right Critical-Theoretical place and at the right Critical-Theoretical time. And, as Tom points out, they were bewildered and even a bit disturbed by their fame. Despite what my friend said, Marcuse did not get a big head. Rather the opposite. He, much to his credit, told the students he didn’t want to be their guru, that he didn’t believe in gurus. But they didn’t care–they made him one anyway. Students love gurus. I loved Tom Wheatland’s book, and I encourage you to read it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Patrick Murtha June 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm

The interview was truly enjoyable and illuminating to listen to, so I must thank both gentlemen! I will make sure to get hold of the book soon. I teach in the prepa (university high school) at one of the many campuses of the Tecnologico de Monterrey, one of Mexico’s top universities. I was hired as a humanities generalist to teach philosophy, world history, the social sciences, literature, and art history, all in English; I was an American Studies major at Yale and got my M.A.T. from the English Department and School of Education at Boston University.

My Introduction to Philosophy course is historical / chronological / biographical in approach, and started with a template given by the Tec to which I have added as much more material as I can fit. I end the course with a 90-minute class that deals (naturally very basically) with developments in contemporary philosophy – half the class is on the Frankfurt School, concentrating on Habermas and Marcuse, the other half on French structuralism and post-structuralism (Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, and Derrida). With Marcuse, I stress how relevant his critique of consumer culture and his concept of co-option are this very minute; examples are as close as your laptop or television. (Apropos of which, did you hear about the Karl Marx MasterCard which started to be offered just this month by the German bank Sparkasse Chemnitz?)

An introduction to philosophy class, I have discovered, is part of the standard curriculum in any serious Iberian or Iberian-American preparatory high school. Hardly any American students, even at the top private universities, are required to have any exposure to the subject at all, which may help explain why the level of intellectual discourse continues to decline, as you both eloquently discussed. As an example of the Iberian enthusiasm for philosophy, the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater did a wonderful television series called “La aventura del pensamiento,” covering about 25 major thinkers, that has had wide exposure in Spanish-speaking countries; since all the episodes can be found on YouTube, I used them extensively in my course. Savater doesn’t have an episode on Marcuse, but he does have one on Adorno.

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