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.”]