Literary and Critical Theory Frankfurt School
by
Douglas Kellner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0043

Introduction

The term “Frankfurt School” refers to the work of members of the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), which was established in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923 as the first Marxist-oriented research center affiliated with a major German university. Under its director, Carl Grünberg, the Institute’s work in the 1920s tended to be empirical, historical, and oriented toward problems of the European working-class movement. Max Horkheimer became director in 1930, and gathered around him many talented theorists, including Erich Fromm, Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, and T. W. Adorno. Under Horkheimer, the Institute sought to develop an interdisciplinary social theory that could serve as an instrument of social transformation. The work of this era developed what the Institute called a “critical theory of society,” generating a synthesis of philosophy and social theory, which combined sociology, psychology, cultural critique, political economy, and philosophy to produce a critical theory of the contemporary era. With the rise of German fascism, the Institute members immigrated to the United States in 1934 and set up their Institute at Columbia University. There they continued developing their theories from the family and market-oriented capitalism during the 19th century that Karl Marx theorized, which contrasted with 20th-century forms of state capitalism. The different types of state capitalism ranged from German and Italian fascism to Soviet communism, and to the Welfare State democracies developing in the United States and some European countries. The Frankfurt School also developed influential theories of the culture industry, which provided one of the first models of critical analysis of the role of mass media and culture in the contemporary era, analysis of the authoritarian state and authoritarian personality, and accounts of changing roles of science, technology, and ideology in contemporary history. After World War II, key members of the Frankfurt School, such as Horkheimer, Adorno, and Friedrich Pollock, returned to Germany and re-established the Institute in Frankfurt. Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal and others chose to remain in the United States, and after working for the US government during World War II and the beginning of the postwar period, they returned to university life. By the 1960s, the Institute scholars had become renown, and histories (Jay 1973 and Wiggershaus 2007, cited under Historical and Theoretical Contextualization), readers (Arato and Gebhardt 1982 and Bronner and Kellner 1989, cited under Anthologies and Commentaries), introductions, overviews of the trajectories of critical theory (Bonss and Honneth 1982, cited under Methods, Concepts, and Foundations of Critical Theory; and Kellner 1989, cited under Historical and Theoretical Contextualization), monographs on major themes and individual critical theorists, and passionate polemics have steadily emerged around the school up to the present day (Rush 2004 and Neumann, et al. 2013, cited under Anthologies and Commentaries).

Anthologies and Commentaries

English-language anthologies of key texts of the Frankfurt School begin with the collections Arato and Gebhardt 1982 and Bronner and Kellner 1989, both of which brought together key texts of Frankfurt School social theory and offered historical contextualization and commentary. Schirmacher 2000 collects Frankfurt School texts oriented toward philosophy. Volumes that provide critical commentary on the Frankfurt School, its major theorists and themes, and contributions to contemporary social theory, politics, and intellectual history include Marcus and Tar 1984, Bernstein 1994, and Rush 2004. Kraushaar 1998 collects key German texts of the German protest movement of the 1960s that shed light on relationships between student activists and professors of the Frankfurt School, while Neumann, et al. 2013 collects for the first time secret reports by Neumann, Marcuse, and Kirchheimer written for U.S. intelligence agencies during World War II, which provide insights into Nazi Germany and key ideas of some of the theorists who would be associated with the Frankfurt School.

  • Arato, Andrew, and Eike Gebhardt, eds. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum, 1982.

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    Arato and Gehardt provide an introduction that situates the texts chosen in terms of the institutional history of the Frankfurt School, and offer introductions to the three sections of the book: “Political Sociology and Critique of Politics,” “Esthetic Theory and Cultural Criticism,” and “A Critique of Methodology. The editors’ introductions seek to situate the historical development of the school’s thought and to demonstrate its complexity, while investigating its influence on various disciplines.

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  • Bernstein, Jay, ed. The Frankfurt School: Critical Assessments. New York: Routledge, 1994.

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    Jay Bernstein, a University Distinguished Professor at the New School for Social Research, has edited six volumes of essays providing critical assessments of the various Frankfurt School theorists and their contributions to contemporary philosophy, social theory, and other academic disciplines. However, the collection is highly inaccessible, costing over $2,000 from Amazon, although it can be examined through university libraries that have purchased the volumes.

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  • Bronner, Stephen Eric, and Douglas Kellner, eds. Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1989.

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    Bronner and Kellner’s introduction situates key texts of the Frankfurt School within the development of a critical theory of society. Selections of essays illustrate the metatheory and original program of critical theory and its theory of society, cultural criticism and critique of mass culture, psychoanalysis and the authoritarian personality, and analyses of society and history.

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  • Kraushaar, Wolfgang, ed. Frankfurter Schule und Studentenbewegung: Von der Flaschenpost zum Molotowcocktail. Vols. 1–3. Hamburg: Rogner & Bernhard, 1998.

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    Kraushaar has brought together a three-volume edition of key texts relating to the history of the Frankfurt School and German protest movement that shook German society in the 1960s. He provides discussion and notes on the relationship between key German activists and members of the school, and texts from the period of students and professors, including Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas, von Friedeburg, Krahl, Cohn-Bendit, Marcuse, and Negt.

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  • Marcus, Judith, and Zoltán Tar, eds. Foundations of the Frankfurt School of Social Research. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1984.

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    Marcus and Tar bring together an international array of interdisciplinary scholars to appraise the contemporary contributions and limitations of the Frankfurt School. The articles on critical theory were originally published in different American, German, and Italian books and journals in the 1970s. The articles are organized into six sections under the traditional headings of history/history of ideas, philosophy, aesthetics, sociology and social psychology, political science and political economy, and Marxism.

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  • Neumann, Franz, Herbert Marcuse, and Otto Kirchheimer. Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort. Edited with an introduction by Raffaele Laudani. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

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    The collection brings together for the first time key secret reports by Frankfurt School theorists Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and Otto Kirchheimer, written for U.S. intelligence agencies during World War II. The texts offer important insights into Nazi Germany, and editor Raffaele Laudani, now Associate Professor in the Dipartimento di Storia Culture Civiltà at the University of Bologna, provides an excellent scholarly introduction to the texts, with scholarly notes to introduce and locate each article.

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  • Rush, Fred, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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    Rush has assembled an international team of scholars who survey the shared philosophical concerns that have defined critical theory throughout its history, while also indicating the diversity and richness of its work. Contributors articulate its central conceptual concerns, contributions to contemporary issues, and future prospects. Rush’s introduction situates the reception of critical theory in the post–World War II epoch of the Cold War, which helped shape the theory and its reception in a variety of academic disciplines.

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  • Schirmacher, Wolfgang, ed. German 20th Century Philosophy: The Frankfurt School. German Library 78. New York: Continuum, 2000.

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    Schirmacher has assembled a German Library paperback collection that includes key texts of the classical critical theorists, such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas, and others. He provides a brief introduction and stresses the Hegelian and Marxian dimensions of critical theory.

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Historical and Theoretical Contextualization

American and German scholars began writing histories of the Frankfurt School, spanning its origins in Weimar Germany, emigration to the United States during the period of German fascism, and the split after the war, with some members staying in the United States while others returned to Germany. Jay 1973 provided the first published historical and theoretical overview of the Frankfurt School. Wiggershaus 2007 provides a more comprehensive history, making use of German archival material not available to earlier scholars. Overviews of the critical theory of society and assessment of the trajectory of critical theory and contemporary relevance are found in Dubiel 1985 and Kellner 1989, while Arato and Breines 1979 explicates Hegelian and Marxian roots of critical theory and the influence of Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs, a theme also taken up by Feenberg 1981, which focuses more on its philosophical origins and legacies. Jacoby 1981 engages the theme of critical theory’s pessimism emerging from its historical context, involving the rise of fascism and multiple defeats of the left and progressive forces following the Russian and European revolutions that emerged after World War I.

  • Arato, Andrew, and Paul Breines. The Young Lukacs and the Origins of Western Marxism. New York: Seabury, 1979.

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    Arato and Breines demonstrate the influence of Georg Lukacs on the Frankfurt School and Western Marxism. The authors argue that a form of Western and Hegelian Marxism influenced by the early work of Lukacs served as an alternative to dogmatic versions of Marxism in the Soviet Union, and influenced the Frankfurt School. The authors argue that the concept of reification as the process in which human beings become objects or things was a key concept that Lukacs transmitted to the Frankfurt School, which analyzed increasing tendencies toward reification in Western societies.

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  • Dubiel, Helmut. Theory and Politics: Studies in the Development of Critical Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1985.

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    Dubiel demonstrates how the relation between theory and practice, and thus politics, is central to the concept of a critical theory of society, and discusses various stages of critical response as responses to an evolving historical situation. The text examines the development of critical theory from an interdisciplinary materialism to more philosophical critique of instrumental reason, and appraises the Institute’s contributions to critical interdisciplinary social science.

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  • Feenberg, Andrew. Lukacs, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.

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    Feenberg, a student of Herbert Marcuse, delineates the Marxian and neo-Marxism roots of critical theory by disclosing the kinship between the thought and methods of Karl Marx, George Lukacs, and the Frankfurt School. A second edition and revision of the text appeared as The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukacs and the Frankfurt School (London and New York: Verso, 2014).

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  • Jacoby, Russell. Dialectic of Defeat. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511571442Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Jacoby combines Freudian and Marxian thought in analyzing connections between critical theory, history, and politics, stressing concepts like critique, negation, and utopia. Jacoby shows how critical theory’s pessimism emerged from its historical context, involving the rise of fascism and multiple defeats of the left and progressive forces in a turbulent historical period following World War I.

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  • Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

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    Jay published the first comprehensive history of the major themes of the critical theory of society developed by the Institute of Social Research, covering their critiques of mass culture, literary theory, theories of the state, fascism, the critique of ideology, and authoritarian personality. The text traces the emigration of the German-Jewish group to the United States during the period of German fascism, and the return of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Pollock to Germany after the war, while Marcuse, Lowenthal, Neumann, and others remained in the United States.

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  • Kellner, Douglas. Critical Theory, Marxism and Modernity. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989.

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    Kellner, a philosophy professor and supradisciplinary scholar, focuses on the relationship between critical theory and Marxism, and the critical theorists’ conceptualizations of modernity and the present age. The text contains studies of the Institute’s supradisciplinary materialism, theories of monopoly/state capitalism, the dialectic of enlightenment, the authoritarian personality, the critique of science and technology, and the culture industry, focusing on analysis of the ways that post–World War II capitalism differed from the 19th-century capitalism analyzed by Marx.

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  • Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School. Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Translated by Michael Robertson. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007.

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    A German philosopher, historian, and writer, Wiggershaus has produced what is often seen as the most comprehensive history of the Frankfurt School. Drawing extensively on the archives of the Institute for Social Research collected in Frankfurt, Wiggershaus provides a compelling and well-documented account of the school’s history, key ideas, and developments. He raises the question of whether the Frankfurt group should be considered as a “school” by stressing differences among the theorists and their shifting positions in different historical contexts.

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Critical Theory as Social Theory

Critical theory was developed in 1930s Germany as a critical theory of society that was interdisciplinary in scope, practical and political in its intentions, and historical in its very concepts, aiming at developing a critical theory of the contemporary moment. 1930s critical theory in Frankfurt under the leadership of Max Horkheimer initially focused on changes in capitalism and society since the 19th-century critique of capitalism developed by Karl Marx, with studies of the family, the culture industry, the authoritarian state, changing roles of science and ideology, and metatheoretical reflections on the idea of a critical theory of society. With the rise of German fascism, the critical theorists emigrated from Germany to the United States and continued their studies under new historical conditions. By the 1960s, critical theory emerged as a major force in Germany and an alternative to positivist models in social science. Translations began appearing in English and throughout the world. A variety of introductions to critical theory emerged, as well as more specialized scholarly studies that engaged particular concepts and theorists.

Introductions to Critical Theory

There are a number of introductions to critical theory and the Frankfurt School that are of use for students and scholars seeking a first introduction to its themes, thinkers, and controversies. These introductions were written in times and places, and from disciplines and perspectives, that necessarily restrict focus and prejudice presentation. Early introductions include Schroyer 1973, Slater 1977, and Tar 2011 (first published 1977), with Schroyer providing an introduction to critical theory from a US Marxist perspective heavily influenced by Habermas, while Slater presented a more negative interpretation of critical theory from the perspective of English Marxist social and political theory, and Tar’s highly critical introduction is from the perspectives of American social science. Held 1980 provides an introduction to critical theory from the stance of critical social and political science, while Bottomore 1984 introduces the Frankfurt School from the perspective of British sociological Marxism. Bronner 2011 is sympathetic and provides key ideas of critical theory in a highly accessible manner, while Agger 2006 situates critical theory within a broad range of contemporary critical theories.

  • Agger, Ben. Critical Social Theories: An Introduction. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2006.

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    Agger interprets Frankfurt School work in relation to a panorama of contemporary critical theories, ranging from feminism to postmodernism to cultural studies. He seeks to develop a public sociology that addresses contemporary issues and calls for a revision of critical theory from the engaged perspectives of 1960s activism, valorizing the sociological imagination of C. Wright Mills and the New Left activism of Tom Haydn as models for a contemporary critical theory.

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  • Bottomore, Tom. The Frankfurt School. London: Tavistock, 1984.

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    Bottomore looks at the Frankfurt school through the lenses of English social theory and science. His clear and accessible introduction relates the Frankfurt School to modern sociology, and criticizes its alleged neglect of history and political economy. Bottomore relates critical theory to the radical movements of the 1960s, while exploring its relationship to other forms of sociological thought, especially positivism and structuralism. A later and shorter version of the text was published posthumously as The Frankfurt School and its Critics (London: Routledge, 2003) in the Key Sociologists series.

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  • Bronner, Stephen Eric. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199730070.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Bronner provides sketches of leading representatives of the critical tradition, as well as engaging many of its seminal texts and empirical investigations. The text focuses on the cluster of concepts and themes that set critical theory apart from its more traditional competitors in philosophy and social theory, presenting a short and lucid introduction to the history, methods, and key concepts of critical theory, intended as a first introduction and overview of critical theory.

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  • Held, David. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

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    A professor of politics and international relations at Durham University and cofounder of Polity Press, Held provides a clear introduction to, and evaluation of, critical theory, focusing on Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and, in particular, Habermas. Major themes include critical theory’s relation to Marx’s critique of political economy and capitalism, Freudian psychoanalysis, aesthetics, and the philosophy of history—and their contribution to epistemology and methodology.

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  • Hoy, David, and Thomas McCarthy. Critical Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

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    Philosophy professors Hoy and McCarthy present critical theory from a Habermasian perspective, focusing on the critique of reason and linguistic turn in critical theory. Focus is on traditional philosophical issues of reason and the rational subject, truth and representation, knowledge and objectivity, identity and difference, relativism and universalism, the right and the good. The authors resituate these issues within the context of critical theory as it has developed from the work of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s and 1940s to the multiplicity of contemporary approaches.

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  • Schroyer, Trent. The Critique of Domination: The Origins and Development of Critical Theory. New York: George Braziller, 1973.

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    Schroyer interrogates “the origins and development of critical theory” from a neo-Habermasian perspective focusing on the critique of domination. After engaging Hegelian and Marxian theories of alienation, Schroyer explicates a reflexive philosophy of critical theory, laying out its critique of positivism and developments of Habermas’s metatheoretical investigations. The concluding part calls for a unification of the Marxian critique of political economy and capitalism with cultural Marxism and contemporary American critiques of capitalism and society.

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  • Slater, Phil. Origin and Significance of the Frankfurt School. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.

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    Slater attempts to translate complex Frankfurt School concepts and theories into language familiar to English social sciences, but finds the social science dimension of critical theory problematic. Written from a British Marxist and activist position, the author critiques the academic orientation and language of the critical theorists, and will put off those who appreciate its dialectical, Hegelian, and cultural dimensions.

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  • Tar, Zoltán. The Frankfurt School: The Critical Theories of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 2011.

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    Tar presents a highly critical introduction to the work of the Frankfurt School. After explicating the school’s original program of providing a general theory of modern capitalist society and claim to represent a continuation of the original Marxian theory, Tar raises the question of the scientific validity of critical theory in light of the canons of the natural and social sciences. He proposes that critical theory is largely a philosophical expression of the alienation of Jewish intellectuals from Central Europe, while arguably revealing a positivist bias of his own that it was the mission of the Frankfurt School to critique. First published in 1977 by Wiley.

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Methods, Concepts, and Foundations of Critical Theory

A number of scholarly texts have assessed the methods, concepts, and foundations of critical theory from a variety of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. Benhabib 1986 engages the philosophical foundations of critical theory, explicating its conceptions of critique, norm, and utopia. Essays in the collection Bonss and Honneth 1982 engage critical theory as critique and explore its differences from positivist and empiricist social science. Wilkerson and Paris 2001 brings together new models of critical theory relevant to the social and political challenges of the 2000s, while Calhoun edits a collection of studies that elaborate on the contemporary relevance of Habermas’s notion of the public sphere. Geuss 1981 explicates the Frankfurt School notion of critical theory and ideology critique, while Jay 1984 demonstrates ways that Marxian and Frankfurt School concepts of totality provide critical perspectives for social theory today. Honneth 1996 and Fraser 2008 expand critical theory to engage contemporary social and political struggles and movements and show its political relevance.

  • Benhabib, Selya. Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

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    Benhabib focuses on the theoretical foundations of critical theory and its normative and critical dimensions. She examines the origins and transformations of the concept of critique from the works of Hegel to Habermas, and, investigating the model of the philosophy of the subject, she pursues the question of how Hegel’s critiques might be useful for reformulating the foundations of critical social theory.

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  • Bonss, Wolfgang, and Axel Honneth, eds. Sozialforschung als Kritik: Zum sozialwissenschaftlichen Potential der Kritischen Theorie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1982.

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    Bonss and Honneth’s collection focuses on social theory as critique by theorists influenced by Habermasian syntheses of critical social theory and social science. The contributors explicate the critical dimension of Frankfurt School social theory and its critique of positivist and empiricist social scientists, distinguishing how critical theory as social theory differs from competing paradigms.

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  • Calhoun, Craig, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1992.

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    One of Habermas’s American students, sociologist Calhoun, currently the President of the Berggruen Institute, presents a collection of essays demonstrating the relevance and importance of Habermas’s concept of the public sphere. Topics covered range from political theory to cultural criticism, from ethics to gender studies, and from history to media studies. Contributors include Hannah Arendt, Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser, Nicholas Garnham, Jürgen Habermas, and Thomas McCarthy.

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  • Fraser, Nancy. Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2008.

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    Fraser synthesizes critical theory, feminism, and post-structuralist theories to engage important social and political issues of the day. She argues that while traditional struggles for justice proceeded against the background of a taken-for-granted framework of the nation-state, targeting injustice today requires a global perspective that cuts across borders and makes the scale, scope, and domain of justice an object of political struggle. In exploring these questions, Fraser adds the dimension of representation and participatory democracy to dimensions of redistribution and recognition to frame the issue of social justice.

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  • Geuss, Raymond. The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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    Geuss focuses on the concept of social science in critical theory, and sorts out the ways it does and does not conform to conventional social science and presents alternatives to positivist and empiricist concepts of social science. As part of the “idea of critical theory,” Geuss also explicates the ways that the Frankfurt School develops the Marxian concept of ideology critique.

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  • Honneth, Axel. The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.

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    Honneth puts the struggle for recognition at the center of critical theory. Building upon Hegel, Mead, and Habermas, he articulates three primary forms of recognition that constitute the sources for our sense of self-worth and the sources of our sense of injustice, including love, rights, and social solidarity. Honneth argues that struggles for recognition in these domains provide new normative foundations for critical theory and highlight important fields of social research and struggle.

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  • Jay, Martin. Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

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    Jay argues that the concept of totality has been a key concern from the first generation of Western Marxists, most notably Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci, and Bloch, through the second, exemplified by the Frankfurt School, Lefebvre, Goldmann, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Della Volpe, and including a diverse mix of later Marxists such as Althusser, Colletti, and Habermas. Yet no consensus has been reached concerning the term’s multiple meanings—expressive, decentered, longitudinal, latitudinal, normative—or its implications for other theoretical and practical matters. Jay relates Marxist theories of totality to the Frankfurt School and other versions of neo-Marxism, showing the importance of concepts of society and history for theory and politics.

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  • Wilkerson, William S., and Jeffrey Paris, eds. New Critical Theory: Essays on Liberation. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

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    Wilkerson and Paris collect essays by North American critical theorists who develop critical theory in response to contemporary theoretical developments and social and political issues. A foreword by Martin Matustik argues for the continuing relevance of Herbert Marcuse, while the editors’ introduction provides a rationale for new critical theories as responses to new theoretical, cultural, and sociopolitical conditions.

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Major Figures in Critical Theory

A vast literature has developed on the major figures among the critical theorists, so the following list is necessarily selective. While initial histories of the Frankfurt School focused on the central role of director Max Horkheimer (see Jay 1973, cited under Historical and Theoretical Contextualization), the importance of T. W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin was recognized as well (Buck-Morss 1977 and Jay 1984, the latter cited under Methods, Concepts, and Foundations of Critical Theory). Benhabib, et al. 1993 and Abromeit 2011 provide later scholarly appreciations of the work of Max Horkheimer. With the rise of the New Left as a global political phenomenon, Herbert Marcuse was broadly recognized as an important critical theorist (Kellner 1984), while Müller 2010 provides a reading of Marcuse’s thought in the context of his work with US intelligence and government services during World War II and the Cold War. Scholars have recognized as well the significance of Erich Fromm (Funk 1982) and Karl August Wittfogel (Ulmen 1978), with illuminating overviews of their work. A small industry has emerged containing books on Jürgen Habermas, the most important member of the second generation of the Frankfurt School, beginning with McCarthy 1978.

  • Abromeit, John. Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511977039Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Abromeit highlights the key role that Institute director Max Horkheimer played in developing the theoretical foundations of critical theory. Providing the first comprehensive intellectual biography of Max Horkheimer during the early and middle phases of his life (1895–1941), Abromeit draws extensively on archival sources, and provides both a critical overview and specific details of Horkheimer’s intellectual development.

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  • Benhabib, Seyla, Wolfgang Bonss, and John McCole, eds. On Max Horkheimer: New Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1993.

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    A diversity of American and German scholars analyze the important role and contributions of Max Horkheimer in developing and promoting critical theory. Contributors include Alfred Schmidt, Jürgen Habermas, Hauke Brunkhorst, Thomas McCarthy, Axel Honneth, Stefan Breuer, and Martin Jay, who demonstrate the richness of themes and intellectual connections in Horkheimer’s work.

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  • Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origins of Negative Dialectics. New York: Free Press, 1977.

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    An illuminating study of the development of the ideas of T. W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, their friendship, overlapping themes, and differences, and how their model of critical theory differed from that of the 1930s model developed by Horkheimer, Marcuse, and others.

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  • Funk, Rainer. Erich Fromm: The Courage to Be Human. New York: Continuum, 1982.

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    Rainer Funk has produced a comprehensive biography that covers Fromm’s entire life, from his traditional Jewish upbringing to his association with the Frankfurt School in the 1930s. Focus is on Fromm’s encounter with Freudian psychoanalysis; his critique of orthodox Freudianism; his syntheses of Freud, Marx, and religious thought; and his connections and break with the Frankfurt School.

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  • Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) Official Homepage.

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    The webpage for Marcuse, maintained by his grandson Harold Marcuse, a professor of modern German history and public history at UC Santa Barbara.

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  • Kellner, Douglas. Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-17583-3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Kellner provides the first comprehensive overview of the entirety of Herbert Marcuse’s life and work. The text interprets the trajectory of Marcuse’s thought in relation to crises of Marxism in various stages of Marcuse’s life that led him to incorporate into Marxian critical theory themes of phenomenology and existentialism, Freud and psychoanalysis, Weber and theories of the state and bureaucracy, and other motifs from contemporary philosophy and social theory that made it attractive to the New Left and other social movements from the 1960s through the end of his life.

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  • McCarthy, Thomas. The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1978.

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    McCarthy introduces the key ideas of Habermas for English-speaking audiences in a comprehensive overview of his thought and how it moves beyond positions in the first generation of the Frankfurt School. Although the book was written many decades ago, it remains one of the best books on Habermas that grasp his core ideas and provide access to understanding his project and an excellent vantage point to engage his later works.

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  • Müller, Tim B. Krieger und Gelehrte: Herbert Marcuse und die Denksysteme im Kalten Krieg. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2010.

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    Müller provides a contextualist and materialist study of the thought and work of Herbert Marcuse and a group of left-liberal intellectuals with whom he served in the US intelligence agencies during World War II and in academia during the period of war against fascism and then the Cold War. Müller demonstrates how Marcuse’s government experience influenced his conception of one-dimensional man and society, and how Marcuse and his colleagues provided important research into German fascism and then Russian Communism.

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  • Ulmen, G. L. The Science of Society. The Hague: Mouton, 1978.

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    Ulmen details Wittfogel’s contentious relationships with members of the Frankfurt School, and his turn from communism toward a fierce anti-communism and his naming names of former Communist associates during the McCarthy period. Ulmen analyzes in detail the genesis and scope of Wittfogel’s monumental work Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, first published in 1957, which combined a Marxist analysis of the economy with ideas of Max Weber on “hydraulic-bureaucratic official-state” in India and China.

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  • The Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate.

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    Edited by Scott J. Thompson & co-edited by Christopher Rollason, the site has not been updated since 2016.

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Politics and Polemics

Frankfurt School critical theory defined itself from the beginning as relating theory to practice, and thus to the political issues of the day. Not surprisingly, a large number of books and articles have appeared dealing with the political dimension of the Frankfurt School and a wide range of issues that the critical theorists engaged. Brick and Postone 1976 discusses how the main Frankfurt School political economist Friedrich Pollock argued against the standard Marxian position of the primacy of the economic by affirming a primacy of the political with the rise of state capitalism in the 1930s, putting politics at the center of the critical theory of society. Forester 1985 provides the reader with essays focusing on critical theory and public life, which explore the implications of Habermas’s work for the analysis of contemporary politics and public life. The question of the relationship between the Frankfurt School and contemporary Marxism has long been of interest to scholars, and Kluge and Negt 2016 contrasts bourgeois and proletarian public spheres and how the working class has oppositional public spheres in the modern era that have been sources of radical political change. Keane 1984 draws on Habermas’s thought to evoke a revitalization of democracy and the public sphere under conditions of late capitalism, contrasting tendencies toward bureaucratization described by Max Weber with autonomous public spheres as sites for democratic participation. Leiss 1974 connects the ideas of the Frankfurt School and Marcuse to key issues in ecology and crises of the environment, and applies the Frankfurt concept of the “domination of nature” to describe a posture toward nature that Leiss believes is a major source of environmental problems and alienation from nature. Issues of feminism and the oppression of women are addressed from a Frankfurt School perspective in Mills 1987, which argues that the thought of Erich Fromm and other Frankfurt theorists is relevant to feminism and current debates over gender, the family, and male domination. Scheuerman 2008 demonstrates how the work of the Frankfurt School is relevant to issues of globalization, democracy, and law in the contemporary era.

  • Brick, Barbara, and Moishe Postone. “Friedrich Pollock and the ‘Primacy of the Political’: A Critical Examination.” International Journal of Politics 6.3 (Fall 1976): 3–28.

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    Brick and Postone demonstrate how the political economist Friedrich Pollock argued for the “primacy of the political,” thus breaking from economists and Marxists who stressed the primacy of the economic in the contemporary era. Pollock rooted his analysis of the primacy of the political in the turns toward state interventionism in Europe and the United States during the 1930s economic depression, which required the state to help fix economic, fiscal, and monetary policy, and thus to privilege the state over the economy in German and Italian fascism and Soviet Communism.

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  • Forester, John, ed. Critical Theory and Public Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1985.

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    Forester has produced a reader with essays focusing on critical theory and public life. The essays explore the implications of Habermas’s work for the analysis of contemporary public life, encompassing such topics as the public sphere, industrial policy under advanced capitalism, education, the mass media and consumerism, public participation and planning, policy analysis, and critical historical studies. The collection illustrates the political richness of Habermas’s thought and the diverse political concerns of critical theory.

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  • Keane, John. Public Life and Late Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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    A professor of politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin, John Keane draws on Habermas’s thought to evoke a revitalization of democracy and public life under conditions of late capitalism. He contrasts tendencies toward societal bureaucratization described by Max Weber with autonomous public spheres championed by Habermas as sites for democratic participation in contemporary societies.

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  • Kluge, Alexander, and Oskar Negt. Public Sphere and Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere. London: Verso, 2016.

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    Kluge and Negt carry out a study of proletarian public sphere that complements and critiques Habermas’s analysis of the bourgeois public sphere with it salons, papers, and institutions that debated issues of democracy from the time of the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century. Kluge and Negt contrast bourgeois and proletarian public spheres and demonstrate how the working class has oppositional public spheres in the modern era that have been sources of radical political change ranging from union halls and beer halls to oppositional pamphlets and literature and cultural institutions that advanced democracy and interests of the working class.

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  • Leiss, William. Domination of Nature. Boston: Beacon, 1974.

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    A former student of Herbert Marcuse, Leiss has been a professor at several prestigious academic positions in Canada, and in 2003 he was made an officer of the Order of Canada. Leiss connects the ideas of the Frankfurt School and Marcuse to contemporary issues in ecology and crises of the environment, and applies the Frankfurt concept of the “domination of nature” to trace the idea of the domination of nature from the Renaissance to the 19th century and into the present. He is concerned with failures to understand the destructive impact of industrial society and advanced technologies on the delicate balance of organic life in the global ecosystem, which may result in devastating problems for future generations.

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  • Mills, Patricia. Woman, Nature, and Psyche. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

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    The feminist theorist Patricia Mills connects the ideas of Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and others in the Frankfurt School to issues in contemporary feminism, and argues that despite patriarchal attitudes and ideas of some of the critical theorists, their thought is relevant to feminism and current debates over gender, the family, and male domination. The thrust of Mills’s critique is that the Frankfurt School theorists represent and analyze women’s situation from a male point of view and exclude the specificity of women’s experience from their theoretical positions, while privileging male self-development, male relations (to father, mother, siblings, and others), and male experience and subjectivity over women’s self-development, relations, experience, and subjectivity.

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  • Scheuerman, William E. Frankfurt School Perspectives on Globalization, Democracy, and the Law. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    Scheuerman demonstrates how the work of Neumann, Habermas, and other members of the Frankfurt School are relevant to issues of globalization, democracy, and law in the contemporary era. The text demonstrates how the Frankfurt School tradition presents critical perspectives on globalization, the reform of the welfare state, and the environmental crisis. Arguing that the legal substructure of economic globalization tends to conflict with traditional models of the “rule of law,” Scheuerman discusses how democracy and the rule of law might flourish in the context of globalization.

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Aesthetic, Literary, and Cultural Theory

Aesthetic, literary, and cultural theory have long been a major focus of many of the major Frankfurt School disciplines, and its work has had lasting effects in the fields of aesthetics, literary and cultural history, and media/cultural studies. Adorno’s masterpiece Aesthetic Theory (Adorno 1998) defends the critical and emancipatory features of high culture and critiques the ideological components of mass culture. Berman 1982 provides a contextualization of major literary figures, architecture, and the city within the drama of capitalist modernization. Several scholars explicate the Frankfurt School concept of the culture industry and the distinction between high culture and low culture, including Steinert 2003, which produces a balanced explication and critique of the culture industry theory developed by the critical theorists, while Cook 1996 defends Adorno’s critique of mass culture against charges of elitism, and Swingewood 1977 situates the Frankfurt School critique of mass culture within the context of debates over mass society. Lowenthal 1961 engages complex relations between capitalism, literature, and popular culture in a framework more sympathetic to popular literature than Adorno. A major cultural critic in Weimar Germany influenced by the Frankfurt School, Kracauer 1995 presented critiques of Weimar German culture and society, providing anticipations of German fascism, while Gunster 2004 argues for the relevance of critical theory for cultural studies. Schwartz 2005 connects critical theory with art history and developments in 20th-century art and aesthetic theory.

  • Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

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    Adorno defends the critical and emancipatory features of high culture and critiques the ideological components of mass culture. A master of both classical and modernist forms of culture ranging from music to literature to architecture, Adorno also surveys classical and modernist aesthetic theory and valorizes critical and emancipatory features of high culture while criticizing the ideological functions of mass culture. First published 1970.

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  • Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.

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    Berman’s opus on modernity and modernism takes its title from a phrase in the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels that describes the radical changes in the modern world in which “all that is solid melts into air.” Taking up the Frankfurt School motif that modernity is constantly destroying tradition and producing incessant change and novelty, Berman explores the relationship between art and processes of capitalist modernity that systematically destroys the old and creates the new. Beginning with Goethe and Faust, Berman also examines the modernist aesthetics of the cities of St. Petersburg and Paris and the New York highways of Robert Moses, demonstrating how the urban landscape has chronicled modernity’s advance.

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  • Cook, Deborah. The Culture Industry Revisited. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.

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    Cook argues that even Adorno’s “pessimistic” theory leaves room for resistance to the culture industry and stresses the complexities of Adorno’s analyses of so-called high and low culture. After setting out the theoretical background of Adorno’s work, Cook examines his conception and criticism of mass culture and its consumption, and his views about art and its relation to mass culture. Cook avoids the extremes in Adorno criticism between idolatry and dismissal on grounds of alleged elitism, and provides a balanced account of Adorno’s theory of the culture industry and its conflicted receptions.

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  • Gunster, Shane. Capitalizing on Culture: Critical Theory for Cultural Studies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442672727Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Gunster focuses on Frankfurt School cultural theory, its critique of mass culture, and its relevance for cultural studies in the contemporary moment. The author provides exposition of key ideas in the cultural theory of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, the early Birmingham school, and Larry Grossberg. He argues that cultural studies should base itself upon Frankfurt School theorists Benjamin and Adorno, who theorize the commodity-form of mass culture, which Gunster believes is the key to the production and consumption of mass culture in contemporary capitalist societies.

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  • Kracauer, Siegfried. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

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    The text contains key essays of Siegfried Kracauer, a major cultural and film theorist who was associated with the Frankfurt School. The essays address concerns shared by the critical theorists: modernity, isolation and alienation, urban culture, consumption, mass culture, and the relation between the group and the individual. The introduction by Thomas Levin situates Kracauer in the context of his experiences in Weimar Germany, associations with members of the Frankfurt School, and experiences of the United States in exile.

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  • Lowenthal, Leo. Literature, Popular Culture and Society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1961.

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    Remaining in the United States after World War II, the late Berkeley sociologist Leo Lowenthal lays out the Frankfurt School’s distinctions between literature and popular culture, illustrated with a wide range of examples from cultural history. Unlike Adorno, Lowenthal finds socially critical and revealing features in popular literature and has a less dismissive stance toward popular culture.

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  • Schwartz, Frederic J. Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

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    Schwartz explores connections between critical theory and other discourses of the visual arts in the first half of the 20th century, showing how the aesthetics of the Frankfurt School were rooted in contemporary developments in painting, photography, architecture, art history, and film. Schwartz examines the critical theories of Benjamin, Adorno, Bloch, and Kracauer, exploring the emergence of their thought out of contact with artists such as Moholy-Nagy and engagement with art historians such as Wölfflin, Riegl, and Sedlmayr, seeking to establish new reference points by which to gauge the politics of the image in early 20th-century modernity.

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  • Steinert, Heinz. Culture Industry. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003.

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    In a clear presentation, Steinert engages the concept of the culture industry developed by Max Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno and indicates its relevance and limitations for contemporary cultural critique. The culture industry represents for the Frankfurt School the commodification of culture and development of a mass culture that provides ideological legitimation of existing societies.

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  • Swingewood, Alan. The Myth of Mass Culture. London: Macmillan, 1977.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-15783-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Swingewood presents an analytical and historical critique of the concept of mass culture shared by the Frankfurt School in the context of debates over mass culture that emerged with the proliferation of modern media, general education, and worries about the effects of the media on individuals and cultures.

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