Tag Archives: Marcuse

“April Day” and the Frankfurt School

Like many progressive employers at the time, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (aka “Frankfurt School”) regularly gave its employees May 1 (May Day) the day off work. But the real “holiday” at the Institute came a month earlier, on what was often referred to at the Institute as “April Day.” What started with a few simple pranks developed over time into elaborate practical jokes, perhaps culminating with the faux-serious presentation of a live chicken – “Max von Cluck” – as a “visiting speaker” to the Institute. Everyone but Friedrich Pollock was in on the joke, listening attentively and taking notes for several minutes, until Director Max Horkheimer turned to Pollock and announced “I think we should give Friedrich the honour of the first question to our guest.” Pollock’s flummoxed expression was met with gales of laughter.

Horkheimer’s love of practical jokes is fairly well-known, although the infamously embarrassing incident that saw Leo Lowenthal trapped in a closet for several hours is inexplicably excised from the published version of Martin Jay’s history of the Institute. Perhaps less well-known is Theodor Adorno’s fondness for the “novelty items” that he discovered in America in the 1930s and 40s. An early draft of Minima Moralia, for example, has a section called “Joy Buzzer” that describes “the product of comic book culture” as a “shock which both reifies and, in its “novelty,” provides a momentary delivery from reification.”

When Adorno returned to Germany after the war, he maintained a regular correspondence with Herbert Marcuse, who stayed in the United States. Even when they disagreed quite sharply over the student movement, they remained deeply allied in other ways. Marcuse’s letter to Adorno on 5 April 1969 (starting at p5 on this pdf) – a letter that Marcuse says at the outset is “really difficult to write” – came with a package that included dribble glasses, then still unavailable in Germany, that Adorno had requested. Proof perhaps, that jokes provide a path to reconciliation.

-April 1, 2016


[Addendum, June 6, 2016: In case the date of the post wasn’t enough of a clue, the general terms of the disclaimer here apply to this post as well. It is satire. The specific events and quotations are made up. Although members of the Frankfurt School never, as far as I know, called razing homes to expand a car dealership’s parking lot an “improvement.”]



Teaching theory: fast and slow

In preparation for the start of classes, I have revamped my syllabus for a Critical Theory course (syllabus posted on my academia.edu page – here). I’ve previously taught it a few times, as a kind of survey of Frankfurt School and (post-)structuralism. I liked the variety that offered: students come out with at least a passing acquaintance with Marcuse, Horkheimer & Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Baudrillard, Jameson, and a few others that happen to be catching my fancy that year (Giorgio Agamben, Jane Bennett, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Slavoj Zizek…) It is a combined senior undergraduate/MA course, so I don’t feel the responsibility to give them really solid understanding of any particular theorist or school; it is more about whetting their appetite.


But the new version is different, focused more resolutely on the Frankfurt School, and specifically on undertaking a close reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment. We’ll read that book (about 200 pages) over 5 weeks, or 15 hours of class time. About 4 minutes per page if we get to the “Notes and Sketches” section at the end, or a little over 5 minutes per page if we don’t.

After we finish Dialectic of Enlightenment, we move to more contemporary critical theory, and start reading at a pace that is perhaps more appropriate to “fast capitalism.” Four books (each fairly short) in four weeks. I know that today we need to be able to assimilate written material quickly, and assigning a lot of reading material so that they learn how to skim texts effectively can get them to learn how to do that.

But before getting to that point, I want us to consider the idea that something important is lost in the drive to process information ever more efficiently. “Thought must consider itself” is perhaps the central message of Dialectic of Enlightenment (“the necessity for Enlightenment to consider itself” – p xvii in the Jephcott translation). And consideration, much less reflexive consideration – “thinking about thinking” – doesn’t happen if we don’t make time for it.

A number of years ago, I was at a conference where a senior political theorist advised that: “However much reading you are planning to assign for your course, cut it in half.” His point was that good texts (like canonical works of political theory) repay deep reading. And that students will rarely engage in deep reading unless the course is structured to encourage or even demand it.

The other story I am keeping in mind going into this course, is one told to me by Bill Leiss, who graciously attended a workshop I organized in 2006, and who had been a student in a graduate seminar taught by Herbert Marcuse, on Hegel’s Phenomenology. What was Marcuse like as a teacher? Certainly Leiss recalled the class, and Marcuse, with a great deal of affection. Marcuse’s approach was to start the class by asking a student: “Read the first sentence, and then tell me in your own words what you think it means.” Then another student for the second sentence, and so on. I can’t imagine that the class got through the whole book, whether they had a whole semester or a whole year. But reading and talking about a book at that pace and in that way is about the closest thing to a guarantee that students will understand it. Certainly the way that the experience was retold, some four decades later, shows the impact of that kind of teaching. Now, who has time for that?


Teaching & Translating Marcuse: Making the Critique of One-Dimensionality Accessible

This is another update on teaching political theory – my Contemporary Political Theory course which includes in-class exercises to translate theoretical concepts and texts to more applied setting. In other words, how can we use political theory in (so-called) “real life”? The course is actually just finished (except for the grading), but this post is on the second of three major texts covered in the course: Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. A subsequent post will talk about teaching Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

One of the problems confronted with Marcuse’s text is that, despite the claim that it ignited the New Left in the 1960s (“The foremost literary symbol of the New Left” according to the New York Times, as quoted on the book’s back cover), it is still a dense work of political theory. And the central argument about “one-dimensionality” at least suggests that the flattening out of concepts – the “making accessible” (or “dumbing down”) of philosophical content – is a significant part of the problem facing contemporary society. Talking about the “popularization” of great works of the past, Marcuse writes:

“but coming to life as classics, they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth.” (p64)

Maybe these exercises deprive Marcuse’s book of its antagonistic force. I hope not. Or at least no more than the mere act of putting it on the curriculum does.

A couple of the exercises that we did repeated what we did for Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition: In one class, after reading about Marcuse’s philosophy of language, students each wrote a postcard to Marcuse from 2014, and then (in small groups) responded to the postcards as Marcuse. In another class, students drew posters representing Marcuse’s ideas. This one is notable for its subtle (or perhaps unintentional) reference to Pink Floyd.

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This one I think is Adbusters-worthy.

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After reading just the first two chapters, students had to pick four relatively recent developments that could be put on a Marcusean Likert scale (something that Marcuse would think is great; pretty good; pretty bad; terrible). Things that were terrible were easy for them to come up with, and some groups struggled (appropriately) finding something contemporary he would think is great. The middle categories sparked the most discussion. Would Marcuse see the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rise of the internet as “pretty good” or “pretty bad”?

Since they didn’t want to perform political theatre again (as much as I liked watching it) I had them come up with a storyboard for a movie about repressive desublimation. Here is one for “Repressive Desublimation: A Day in the Life” (though I think best title award goes to the group that came up with “Michael Bay’s Repressive DesubLEGOmation”).

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In the last class on Marcuse, students were assigned to come up with a buzzfeed-style quiz on “How one-dimensional are you?” Each group came up with some good questions, but my original plan to have them come up with a scoring mechanism was cleverly usurped when they decided that no matter which answers were chosen, anyone taking the quiz was one dimensional.