Jean Baudrillard and the System of Objects


The System of Objects (1968)



Jean Baudrillard, the versatile French philosopher was a prolific writer whose chief claims to fame are his postmodern refutation of traditional Marxism and his influential articulation of postmodernism as “simulacra”–that is, a copy of a copy without an original. Like most French intellectuals, Baudrillard was deeply disillusioned by the events of May 1968, and the failure of the social revolution predicted by Marx and the reinstallation of bourgeois authoritarian order, which demonstrated not only the middle class docility but also the opposition to real social reform. Capitalism had triumphed and the desire for commodities and social stability was more potent than the desire for reform and revolution. Like Frederic Jameson, Baudrillard looked for a more modern or postmodern critique that included not just the economy but also the culture it produced as well. While traditional Marxists had separated politics and culture from the “base, or mode of production, Baudrillard recognized the importance of culture in conveying the ideologies of capitalism and in maintaining these economic practices. The Marxists had maintained that the economy was more important or more “real” than the superstructures of culture, but this neglect of culture had been challenged by the Frankfurt School, particularly in the early works of Walter Benjamin and the later works of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

The emergence of a consumer society after the Second World War forced traditional Marxism to change in order to take into account mass media and its role in creating consumers and in creating desire for the objects put forth for possible consumption. Baudrillard, however, went beyond the approach of the Frankfurt School. Adorno and Benjamin continued the Modernist tradition of believing in some form of authenticity, that there was such an entity as “fine art” and that “Art” could be autonomous and free from popular culture. Baudrillard had no such illusions. For Baudrillard the entire society, the total culture was but a system of signs. In his books, such as Le système des objects (1968), and Le socièté de consommation (1970), the philosopher reconstructed the political economy of Marxisn on the basis of the semiological theories of the sign. As Jameson once said, “No society has ever been saturated with signs and messages like this one.” In making the role of the cultural sphere his main focus, Baudrillard examined the life of signs in society. To the extent there can be a subject (a dubious entity within Postmodernism), s/he is confronted by a controlling world of objects.

These objects are organized into systems of signification that are, in turn, broken down into 1. non-functional objects, 2. functional objects, and 3. metafunctionlal objects. Baudrillard examined these objects from the perspective of Ferdinand de Saussure (signs) and Sigmund Freud (psychology) in order to reveal the secret life of objects and their hidden meanings. Objects loose their singular nature and are subordinated into systems that are relative to each other, just as language is understood only within a network of relationships which constitute meaning. In order to explain the embeddedness of the object within the sign system, Baudrillard wrote in the beginning of “The System of Objects,”

If we consume the product as product, we consume its meaning through advertising. Let us imagine for a moment modern cities stripped of all their signs, with walls bare like a guiltless conscience. And then GARAP appears. This single expression, GARAP is inscribed on all the walls: pure signifier, without a signified, signifying itself..Signified despite itself, it is consumed as sign..Advertising, like GARAP, is mass society, which, with the aid of an arbitrary and systematic sign, induces receptivity, mobilizes consciousness, and reconstitutes itself in the very process as the collective. Through advertising mass society and consumer society continuously ratify themselves.

In other words, we consume the sign. We all live in a new world of leisure and mass media, which produce an alienation of conspicuous consumption and empty affluence (“affluenza”) in which, in America, according to Baudrillard, the consumers desire what others have. This fundamental alteration in the human species from using or utilizing what is considered necessary to desiring what is not necessary, except psychologically (desire), has resulted in a culture of affluent individuals surrounded by objects (signs), not people (who are also signs). Everyday life is now determined by manipulation of commodities and messages, all of which become an organization and display of domestic goods to be desired and consumed. Commodities are part of a “system of objects” that are correlated with a system of needs. Objects are offered within the context of other objects, and the collection of objects creates a total meaning. As Baudrillard wrote, “It is even the ultimate in morality, since the consumer is simultaneously reconciled with himself and with the group. The becomes the perfect social being.”

The brand name, which as Baudrillard stated is “the principal concept of advertising, (which) summarizes well the possibilities of a ‘language’ of consumption,” plays and essential role in imposing a coherent collective vision and this totalizing brand creates similitude, homogenizes and organizes everyday life into consumer items/signs/objects signifying “Jaguar,” the “granite counter top,” the Versace dress, and the Jimmy Choo shoes–all “brands” and objects of desire (not necessity). Consumer mentality is a kind of magical thought that generates consumption. Baudrillard noted, correctly, that this “code” constituted by brands is totalitarian and totalizing and that, for the first time in history is universal, a code that no one escapes. The code is a form of socialization but conversely, the code rules what is also a primitive mentality, which “believes in” the omnipotence of thoughts and in the omnipotence of signs. In contrast to traditional neo-Marxists, Baudrillard rejects the socio-cultural approach, insisting that there is no way to distinguish between “true” and “false” needs in a system that is governed by magical signs. In fact what is consumed is not the material goods themselves or actual objects–the point is that the actual objects are merely signs of needs and satisfaction of desire, a desire that will always return.

Consumption is a system that is a productive activity, requiring education and effort. One believes that s/he must insert be socialized into and become part of the consumer society. Consuming becomes a mode of social activity and becoming a walking sign (board) system of brands is now socially normative behavior. In other words, although consumption is a system that assumes the regulation of signs and the integration of the group, it should not be assumed that consumption brings either satisfaction or pleasure. Consumption is the production of coded values, a sign system which replaces moral values of days of yore. This consumer-based system of signs is organized by codes and rules of consumption, not guided by “natural” satisfaction but by and through a system of social indoctrination. The satisfaction involved is fleeting and momentary and is invested, not so much in the actual object itself but in the brand which is a signal of a certain kind to a certain group ordained to recognize and invested enough to care about the meaning of the sign.

The order of production of the signs manages the system of (cultural) “needs” by the order of signification that determines the social prestige of the purchaser and maintains the value of the system of goods to be consumed. The result of the belief system is fatal to classical Marxism: there are are no revolutionary forces; no theory of subject as an active agent of social change; there is only reification in which the objects dominate the “subject” and human begins become thing-like or, more precisely, sign-like. From the Baudrillardian perspective, we are now at a higher stage of reification and social domination by objects than described by the Frankfurt School. We (magically) believe in the social power of Jimmy Choo shoes and we believe in the stock market, until it collapses or implodes, weighted down by the false magic of the signs and wonders. According to Baudrillard, “In order to become object of consumption, the object must become sign.”

This book, The System of Objects, was one of his earliest works and was a frankly Marxist critique–via Freud–of the consumer society. As indicated by the date of publication, 1968, this form of analysis was paralleled with Guy Debord and the Situationists who were investigating the idea of spectacle. But in the wake of May 1968, taking a Marxist approach was difficult and his later books, such as The Mirror of Production (1973). His later works from 1970 on, including La société de consummation (1970), Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe (1972) refute his prior position and constitute a critique of Marxism as too conservative and is dependent upon Capitalism and its system which it “mirrors.” Later works, such as his ideas on the simulacra, discussed in the next post, point out that historical materialism as conceived of by Marx cannot exist in the new exchange of simulacra.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

The Frankfurt School, Part Two


It was the fate of the Frankfurt School, or the Institut für Sozialforschung, to be in the wrong place doing the right thing. The members of the School, Max Horkheimer, Friedrich Pollock, Herman Marcuse, Franz Neumann, Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, et al., had the intellectual ability to understand that traditional Marxism was no longer adequate as an analytic tool for contemporary society and had the uncanny ability to see into the future. The swerve away from traditional Marxist demands for a social revolution refocused their collective attention on the the psychological interaction between culture and the individual. At the end of the Great War, the German people had an unprecedented opportunity to free themselves from oppression. The working classes could have seized power and a genuine social revolution could have taken place. But the lower classes had proved to be passive and let the chance to direct their own destinies pass them by. The newly formed Institut asked why?

The answer, the scholars believed, could be found, not in the theories of Karl Marx but in the theories of Sigmund Freud. The accomplishments of the Institut für Sozialforschung in the decade between 1923 and 1933 were extraordinary. The Frankfurt School combined a new academic discipline, sociology, with traditional Marxist economics, with Freudian theory into an interdisciplinary discourse about modern society. The School rejected the old Marxist notion that the “secret” machine of history was economics and that the dialectical clash was between the classes. Although the scholars directed attention to the young Hegelian Marx, they also rejected absolutism or “identity thinking.” The School rejected the fetishism of any one particular “engine” of society and rejected the idea that any one aspect of the superstructure could be separated from the larger whole. The philosophers, who came from many different academic backgrounds, understood that culture could not be separated from society and that social conditions had to be examined by combining theory and praxis, or theory with empirical data.

The first major study of society undertaken by the Frankfurt School was supervised by Erich Fromm, examined the German working class, employing empirical data interpreted from a psychoanalytic, was never published. By the time it was completed, this important body of work revealed a disconcerting truth that the working classes were receptive to the fascist message of the Nazis. It is on the unsettling note of this unpublished study that the Frankfurt School spent its last days in Germany. Frankfurt was a city with a new university and other free thinking intellectual institutions where Jews could exist in an unusually open society, relatively free of anti-Semitism. It was easy for the scholars who were mostly Jewish to be blind to the ugly forces that were gathering against them. That said, despite their denials of anti-Semitism or of the significance of their Jewish identity, the members were not helpless in the face of danger. The funds of the Institut, generously supported by the Weil family, father Hermann and son Felix, were transferred to Holland by 1933 and the School moved to Geneva just before Hitler came into power. On the very day of his ascendency to the ruler of Germany, Hitler’s minions seized the home shared by Horkheimer and Pollock. A few months later the School’s library was seized.

For the next twenty years the Frankfurt School would be on the move. With this move to New York, the School was confronted with a new and alien culture that was young and had little tradition of scholarly speculative thinking. But New York was the only available haven and most of the scholars of the Frankfurt School became American citizens and most of the European scholars who followed them to the United States became Americanized. Driven to New York by the wrath of Adolf Hitler, like so many émigrés, the members of the Frankfurt School reconvened in New York city, under the protective affiliation with Columbia University. It should be stressed that the scholars were still searching for a way to study society, its culture, and its people by combining theoretical insights from several academic areas with empirical research. It should also be stressed that the Frankfurt School was a research institute which brought together speculative insights or hypothetical thinking with a gathering of factual data. The research was propelled by changing times, modernity.

Modern life in the twentieth century required a new means of understanding and a new mode of analysis, but the century was evolving so drastically that it was difficult to grasp the changes. In a single decade, Germany had gone from a nation stunned by a shocking military defeat, from a nation crippled by a world wide Depression, to a country under the thrall of a man who put its inhabitants under a hypnotic spell. Just how evil the enchantment was, the scholars could not imagine, but they understood that an entire population was allowing itself to be led by an individual who was hostile to freedom of thought. When the members of the Frankfurt School began to gather in New York in the 1930s, the members began to redirect its study of modern society in general and in particular the nature of the personality that responded so supinely to authority. However, with a change in venue came a change in scene and a change in methodology.

American scholarship tended to be pragmatic and practical, and, as a result, its research tended towards empiricism. The members of the Frankfurt School were aware that however sophisticated and enlightened their philosophy, their mode of empirical operation was “primitive.” Although it is often thought that the transplanted Institut was isolated from American intellectuals, there was enough interaction to change the working methods of the Frankfurt scholars and to change the ideas of American intellectuals. The most important book on the subject of the Institut in America is the recently published The Frankfurt School in Exile by Thomas Wheatland of 2009. In contrast to the focus on the New York experience, Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, written thirty years earlier, provides an excellent description of the philosophy and theories of the school in general. The move to New York changed the Institut from a group of scholars who still spoke in Marxist terminology to scholars who spoke in more neutralized terms. The Frankfurt School moved to Critical Theory, a critical analysis of society through a variety of methods.

It was in New York that the school logically completed its earlier studies of the compliant mentality of the working class in Germany. These studies were also a study of fascism and eventually anti-Semitism, the seminal topics of the unsettled era. From the beginning, the Frankfurt School insisted on maintaining German as it language of publication, as a way of preserving what was left of German intellectualism untainted by Nazi thought and ideology. Certainly such a decision resulted in a separation of Critical Theory from an audience of English readers, but it was an important philosophical position on the part of a group of Jewish scholars hunted from their homeland. Fromm’s The German Workers Under the Weimar Republic was finally published as Escape From Freedom in 1942. Although Fromm, who had been in New York since 1932, eventually broke with the Institut, the idea of the questionnaires used in his study was carried over into the School’s American study, Studien über Autorität Familie. This five year study was typical of the collaborative nature of the Frankfurt School in that the work was based upon three essays by Horkheimer and Marcuse and Fromm who speculated on the meaning of the empirical results. In contrast to the study of the working class, the study of authority centered on the bourgeois family and the leadership of the father as well as the working class family.

In late capitalism, the authority of the father had been undermined when the ultimate unquestionable authority of the patriarchal system by the state itself. Thus the authority of the father became increasingly as “irrational” or based on assertion rather than fact. Women, for whatever reason, had not taken advantage of the freedoms offered to them and submitted, like the children, to irrational authority. The ultimate authorities were the corporations and the government but the intimate authority within the family was the father whose demand for obedience created a regressive personality with a weak ego. In Freudian terms, the “superego” of institutions were too remote to be effective, leaving the individual at the mercy of arbitrary emotional authority, anxious of its powers. The father’s demands created an individual who was masochistic and passive and susceptible to appellations from other paternal father figures demanding obedience. The study examined this new personality type, described as sado-mascohistic, to draw its outlines. The Studien über Autorität Familie was based upon work done with German families but avoided the component of anti-Semitism that haunted Nazi ideology. It was time for the Institut to study fascism and America was a safe place to undertake this class. Franz Neumann led the way with is groundbreaking work, Behemoth. The Study and Practice of National Socialism in 1942, a monumental study of the Nazis rise to power. Neumann exemplified the split that was forming in the Frankfurt School. He was more conventionally Marxist in his approach to the rise of fascism and based Hitler’s success on economic conditions and the splintering of class interests by the Nazi form of “socialism.”

Fascism was essentially corporate capitalism founded upon the kind of authority that undercut the clash of social groups and replaced social struggles with nationalist unity. Neumann’s orthodox Marxism which posited the economy as the engine of the Nazis would always be part of the explanation for how Hitler came to power, but he ignored an element that Horkheimer and other members of the School considered to be of great importance: mass media. Mass media introduced a new element not fully covered by a Marxist analysis, psychoanalysis, or the mentality of the group. What was the best way to study a society increasingly manipulated by technology? The economic conditions of Germany were used by the Nazis to bring back an older form of authority, the father figure, Der Führer, to whom all eyes turned. For Neumann, who had been arrested before he was able to leave Germany, Nazi authority, based upon terror and coercion and propaganda, mirrored the violence of capitalist bosses against labor. For Horkheimer, Nazi authority was based upon the unprecedented role of mass media, used and manipulated by Goebbels and his control of propaganda in a way which assaulted the psychology of the population. Neither scholar could see where the removal of a rational institution and its replacement by an irrational authority would lead until after the Second World War. By the end of 1945, it became clear that the members of the Institut für Sozialforschung were “survivors,” beneficiaries of their foresight in leaving Germany at the first indication of danger. Some would never return to Germany but the next chapter of the Frankfurt School would take place in the capital of mass media, Los Angeles, California, where Horkheimer and Adorno would study “The Culture Industry.” The Next Post will be “The Frankfurt School, Part Three.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


The Frankfurt School, Part One



“A categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind; to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”

Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 1966

While Karl Marx did not seem to foresee the importance of commodities in restraining the social revolution he predicted, the early decades of the twentieth century opened well for Marxism. If one defines” Marxism” as the political manifestations of his theories the surely the Russian Revolution was the culmination of his predictions. The lower classes rose up against their oppressors and the former Empire became one nation, under Communism. The Great War accelerate the revolt against hereditary powers and broke up the aging empires, freeing a number of new nations to make their own destiny—choosing between communism or democracy—in acts of what Woodrow Wilson called “self-determination.” The choice was not clear-cut. Democracy, to people used to autocratic rule, was tempting but dangerous, and old habits of dependence and obedience often resulted in the replacement of one ruler for another. As would be seen in the new Soviet Union, the high hopes for a Communist utopia were quickly dashed by the resumption of a totalitarian rule under Lenin and then Stalin.

Like Russia, Germany had a long history of powerful rulers and when the Great War ended in the nation’s defeat, the people had no experience of democracy. After the abdication of the Kaiser in November 1918, socialism seemed like a middle ground for a nation unaccustomed to self-rule and in need of state administration. The replacement for a militaristic regime was a coalition government, the Weimar Republic. Early on, there were struggles to establish some kind of Communist rule, as in the Soviet Union, but the left-wing revolutionaries were assassinated. The dream that Karl Marx had of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” had run aground as the forces of socialism and fascism struggled for power. The working class had less interest in social change than the intellectuals, who were dedicated activists. One can assume that in Germany there had been enough change: a war had been lost, a Kaiser had been deposed, a nation had to be rebuilt, and many of the restraints of centuries of political oppression and bourgeois repression were lifted. No one wanted another social disruption. There were other diversions afoot.

Berlin became the site of an outbreak of widespread social indulgence and experimentation in once-forbidden pleasures against the backdrop of a corrupt and ineffectual government that struggled to manage a modern nation in a modern world. Crippled by war reparations and haunted by the traumas of the War, the German people appeared to have little taste for more social disruption. It is against this backdrop of the promise and the failure of a revolution that would liberate the working classes that the famed Frankfurt School was launched. Disillusioned by the failure of left wing concerns to have any resonance, Felix Weil, the son of a wealthy German industrialist, Hermann Weil, received the funding from his father to found an institute to study contemporary society.

Weil brought together an event called the First Marxist Work Week in the summer of 1922 in Thuringia. This “week” was attended by Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Richard Sorge, Friederich Pollock, Karl August Wittfogel, Bela Fogarasi, Konstantin Zetkin, and so on. The stimulating success of the gathering of intellectuals inspired Weil to establish a permanent institute. The chosen site was Frankfurt. Frankfurt was an island of intellectualism during the 1920s, due in no small part to the recent establishment of the University in 1914. With a loose affiliation with the University, the Institut für Sozialforschung was founded in 1923. The first director was Kurt Albert Gerlach but he died, then for a brief period the Institut was directed by Carl Grünberg, an Austrian Marxist who edited the first European journal of labor and socialist history. Under Carl Grünberg, the Institut was led by a traditional orthodox Marxist, whose old fashioned “vulgar” Marxism was not shared by his colleagues. Conventional Marxism would not be the direction of the group of scholars who gathered in Frankfurt.

After Grünberg had a stroke, he was forced to resign and from 1931 on the Institute was directed by Max Horkheimer. Under Horkheimer, the Institut took a different direction, away from orthodox or “vulgar” Marxism and towards a new understanding of society—a sociology of the modernist culture. If one term characterizes the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, it would be “assimilated Jew” from a privileged upper middle class intellectual background. This description comes up over and over in the writings on the School, from Martin Jay to Zoltán Tar to Thomas Wheatland, and the ambivalent social position of being “assimilated Jews” would seal the fate of the Institut and its members. Max Horkheimer and his associate, Frederick Pollock, were joined by Leo Lowenthal, Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, Hermann Marcuse, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer, and Erich Fromm, all of whom were Jewish (Adorno was half-Jewish). Indeed, Jews were very assimilated in Germany and that nation was where the most Christian-Jewish intermarriages took place in Europe. Although there were signs of intolerance and anti-Semitism in Germany, the scholars of the Institut insisted that there was no “Jewish question.” Because of a cultural heritage they though little of, these scholars would be forced to leave Germany and live in exile for over a decade. Working in New York and Los Angeles, the members of the Frankfurt School would forge a new form of neo-Marxism, Critical Theory. Most of these émigrés would never return to Germany, the nation that had persecuted them. They would remain in their adopted country, the United States of America.

Although there was interest in the Weil family of understanding prejudice, when it was founded, the main goal of the School was more broad. Sociology was a relatively new academic discipline and was, at that time, mostly based upon empirical research. The only means of examining society from a theoretical perspective was Marxism. The question was now, which Marxism? The older and now discredited Marxism which reduced society to a “mode of production?” Or a new approach to the ideas of Karl Marx, based upon his early works? The Institut returned to the young Marx in his more Hegelian position, in other words, the scholars revisited dialectical materialism. The goal was to develop a theory that would allow the appropriate kind of study for this new modern society. Modernism, as it existed after the Great War, was out of the intellectual reach of traditional Marxist thinking. What these intellectuals would retain from Marx is the concept of “critique,” which means to analyze and to study social conditions from the inside. Thus the Frankfurt School began to develop Critical Theory, a means whereby contemporary society in post-war Germany could be examined through a combination of empirical research linked to a theoretical hypothesis, a new combination—Hegelian-Marxism.

From the beginning, the Frankfurt School maintained its independence from any and all institutions, the University of Frankfurt and later Columbia University. In a politically unstable era, the Institut wisely decided to take a non-political position. Even though the scholars maintained neutrality, as individuals they were politically committed to change. The School was able to avoid local controversies by articulating a unique methodology. Although in its early years, the members accepted the traditional Marxist, base-superstucture mode of analysis from traditional Marxism, later, after 1930, the notion of the base was jettisoned and the scholars concentrated on the superstructure or culture. In addition to returning to the beginnings of Marxist thinking, the Institut employed another innovative element as the basis of its studies, Freudian theory, or psychoanalysis. Society has its own psychology and different groups in society have their own particular mindsets. People was moved by their social and economic conditions, but they are also moved by the ways in which they think which are based in the individual and his or her psyche.

Sigmund Freud, just coming into wide acceptance, in the 1920s, considered the family to be the basis of a person’s psyche which formed certain reactions to childhood training. The psychic forces constructed by the parents would then play themselves out in the social arena. The members of the Frankfurt School adapted Freudian theories to their studies of contemporary society. The result of this new methodology was an integration or fusion among various disciplines, philosophy, sociology, psychology to form an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the current political situation in Germany. The uniqueness of the Frankfurt School is this mixture of a multiplicity of approaches to understanding the individual within the group. As time went on, it became more and more clear that the “individual” or “subject” was a “convenient fiction,” and that people are constructed by their environments and by instrumental societies. The Frankfurt School studied a sociology of knowledge or a materialist theory of society which was buttressed by empirical research in order to achieve a synthetic view of culture. All knowledge and all thinking was conditioned by concrete historical situations. There was, therefore, no fetishization of the individual who could not be transcendent, nor of culture itself, because it could never be autonomous.

For these philosophers in this changed society, Marxism was no longer the philosophy of social revolution. But why not? Why had the German working class not taken advantage of the opportunity to forge a strong alliance that would impact government policies? One of the most important studies undertaken by the Institut was an examination of the German working class, supervised by Erich Fromm. In order to determine the social consciousness of the laborers, Fromm used questionnaires in which the answers were taken down verbatim. Horkheimer analyzed the answers through keywords and the conclusion of the study was that the working class was not only passive, rather than revolutionary, but also receptive to the message of the new rising political force, fascism. For a variety of reasons, the Institut chose not to publish the depressing findings. But what they learned from their research was precinct and predictive of things to come. Although Fromm would drift away from Freud and the Institut when it moved to America, this study was the first of similar studies of social attitudes and their root causes that would come from the Frankfurt School.

Once Hitler was elected in 1933, the Institut für Sozialforschung was in a precarious position, and Horkheimer was not blind to the rising tide of fascism and its dangers to a group of left-thinking Jews. The funds of the Institut were transferred to a bank in Holland and the Frankfurt School prepared to decamp. The Nazis closed down the Institut as quickly and as ruthlessly as they had shuttered the Bauhaus. Indeed, by the time Herman Marcuse joined the School in 1932, he was assigned to its new outpost, Geneva. The School also opened branches in Paris and London and in these cities, the preferred form of publication, the Zeitschrift, or short essay, rather than long book, could continue. When the Nazis came to power, most of the members were already on the move, leaving behind a magnifcant 60,000 volume library to be seized by the fascists. Horkheimer was among the first faculty of the University of Frankfurt to be dismissed because he was Jewish, and he left for Geneva. Adorno went to London, and Walter Benjamin, who was loosely associated with the Institut, went to Paris. Those who stayed behind, such as Wittfogel, were simply thrown in a concentration camp.

In Germany, fascism had taken over the revolutionary position once held by Marxism. The Frankfurt School now had new goals. First the Institut had to save itself. Switzerland could not be a permanent home, as Horkheimer already sensed the coming sympathies for fascism in that neutral nation. Second, the Institut had to preserve German culture and remove German intellectual heritage and contemporary intellectual thinking to a site where it could not be tainted by Nazi philosophy. This self-imposed mission was deeply important to the members of the Institut. The Nazis were already appropriating German culture for their own ends and in the process was polluting the history of German intellectual and artistic culture, from Nietzsche to Wagner. It was important to continue an uninterrupted strain of German thinking and the only place to do this was in New York City. Opportunities in London were limited and the intellectuals in Paris were decidedly unwelcoming to German scholars, so the Institut moved towards another alliance with another institution, Columbia University.

Over time, all the members of the Frankfurt School gathered together in New York. In continuing their determination to carry on German culture, the Institut members decided to write and publish in German. During the early years of Nazi rule, the School worked to rescue and fund European scholars on the run. Although some two hundred intellectuals were indebted to the well-funded School, Horkheimer and Adorno were unable to save their close associate, Walter Benjamin who simply did not want to emigrate to New York. Benjamin was finally persuaded to leave France after the Nazi takeover and made his way to the Spanish border. Once in Spain, he had passage to New York, thanks to the Institut. Unfortunately, in a now famous tragic tale, the border between France and Spain was closed on that day at that point and Benjamin, in despair, committed suicide. The members of the Institut were horrified and devastated. In contrast, Wittfogel was freed and found his way to the safety of America.

The now-common term “critical theory” actually stems from the work done by the Frankfurt School in these post-Weimar years. It is customary to think of Critical Theory as an analysis of authority and a study of power and how totalitarian forces manipulate society, but this was a relatively new position for the School. In America, the scholars shifted their foci. While in Germany, the Frankfurt School had concentrated on interdisciplinary studies attempting to understand the German working class. As the impact of fascism upon society became more apparent, it was clear that there were psychoanalytical aspects to the acceptance of Hitler by the Germans. In American the studies of the Institut led to an investigation into the “authoritarian personality,” or the kind of mind-set that would accept a totalitarian leader. The studies began, not in politics, but with the bourgeois family and how the passive acceptance of leadership had led to Hitler.

When Horkheimer managed to relocated the Institut to Columbia University in New York, the social and political theories of the School was impacted by the pragmatism and empirical methods of American scholars. It is America that the scholars began to shift their attention from the failures of communism and the willingness of the working class to follow fascism to the growing importance of technological communication in shaping social responses. Mass media and mass spectacle had come of age, and the power of art forms could be used for good or for evil. The scholars of the Frankfurt School were among the first to understand the importance of mass media and national culture. They were among the first to sound the alarm and among the first to delineate the consequences of new communication technologies upon culture and society.

But the critique of a culture shaped by technology was also a critique of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it can be said that the Frankfurt School initiates the study of the consequences of the Enlightenment through the critique of philosophy by philosophy. The ideas of the Enlightenment had been working themselves out for two centuries, but, until the Frankfurt School, Reason and Rational Thinking as concepts had not been examined in terms of their social consequences. Certainly, Nietzsche had railed against the kind of reason that resulted in nihilism, but, unlike the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, he did not have the vantage point of observing the unintended consequences of “Enlightenment,” such as the Holocaust. Totalitarian governments and “authoritarian” personalities and blinded obedience were seen as direct consequences of reason gone wrong.

The effects of totalitarian thinking became one of the primary concerns of the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School shifted Marxism into the Twentieth Century by observing contemporary culture, its ideologies and how these belief systems impacted society through this new technological world of mass communication. The Frankfurt School and its associates were be hard hit by the increasing oppression of fascism and were dislocated during the Second World War. As intellectuals, they were in grave danger; as Jews their lives were in peril. Some went into exile, some survived, some did not. Those that lived survived to continue their roles as defenders of Marxism as a mode of critique that revealed the true intentions of ideology, laying the groundwork for what would eventually be called “post” or “neo” Marxism.

The next post on The Frankfurt School, Part Two, will examine the work of the Institut in America.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]