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Frankfurt School

  The Frankfurt School is the name given to a group of Marxist social theorists who fled Hitler\'s régime to work within academe in the USA, returning to Frankfurt in 1949. Otherwise known as critical theorists, the group included such figures as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

These thinkers were influenced by Hegelian philosophy as well as by Marxist politics and economic analysis. They are noted too for their incorporation of some of Freud\'s ideas into their work. Although there are important differences between the individual figures in the school, they were united in their fear and hatred of fascism, and shared a certain degree of cultural pessimism which may be attributed to their prewar experiences.

Although broadly left-wing in orientation, these thinkers were by no means followers of Stalinism and are perhaps best known for the way they tried to refine Marxist theory in the light of developments in both communist and capitalist states. They attempted to move away from what they saw as the over-deterministic and economistic tendencies in some of Marx\'s writings, and to account for the complexities of modern culture and new forms of consciousness.

The significance of the Frankfurt School for students of the mass media or popular culture, has been in relation to their focus on the development of a mass consumer culture. The possible effects of advertising, mass-produced popular music and the technical reproduction of images via cinema, television, etc., were seen as intrinsically bound up with the needs and values of entrepreneurial capitalism and the capitalist state, (though they applied their analysis to communist régimes too). It was argued that modern societies were becoming increasingly dehumanized through the increase of technology (especially those forms connected to the mass media), and that individuals were manipulated by mass media that were bound to work, ultimately, in support of the status quo.

Horkheimer and Adorno took a particularly pessimistic view, while Marcuse suggested ways in which, despite the unlikelihood of any form of proletarian revolution, new groupings, such as students, might begin to challenge the manipulations of mass culture. As such, Marcuse became for a while in the 1960s a guru of the youthful ‘counter-culture’.

The Frankfurt School disbanded at the end of the 1960s, and their ideas on mass culture and ‘cultural decline’ have been superceded by writers who have focused more on the way popular media and cultural forms may be seen as a process of struggle and negotiation, rather than as a subtle form of coercion. Nevertheless, the influence of critical theory has been immense and the echoes of its work continue to be heard. BC

Further reading D. Held, Introduction to Critical Theory.



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