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Skimming off the top: A review of Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

By Andrew Key.

Grand Hotel Abyss reviewed

Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss (Verso: 2016)

If you’ve studied the humanities as an undergraduate within the last few decades, there’s a chance that at some point, perhaps during a survey of capital-T Theory, you will have been made to read an essay by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, called ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’. You may also have been asked to read an essay by Walter Benjamin called ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. At a few institutions you might have been encouraged to read more broadly within the Frankfurt School—particularly enthusiastic teachers may have assigned a few aphorisms from Minima Moralia, or some of Benjamin’s slightly less dense or abstruse essays, like ‘The Storyteller’ or ‘The Task of the Translator’. It’s not unlikely that after reading the Culture Industry essay, you will have come away with a sense that the writers were essentially sneering cultural elitists; out-dated snobs writing impenetrable prose to dismiss popular culture that they didn’t understand. Films and pop music are good, actually, and you don’t need dead German men who only listen to incomprehensible atonal music or Beethoven to tell you otherwise. And then maybe you will have read more Adorno and changed your mind, or maybe you won’t have read anymore and will have retained that image of him, or maybe you’ll have forgotten all about it and moved on with your life.

Now, however, Stuart Jeffries would like you to reconsider the thought of the Frankfurt School in the light of the current situation. In a recent Guardian column, extracted from his book, Grand Hotel Abyss (Verso, 2016), he (or the sub-editor who came up with his headline) claims that Adorno and Horkheimer’s “forgotten 1930s critique of capitalism is back in fashion”. He has written a group biography, organised chronologically, to take readers unfamiliar with the thinking of this group of (mostly) dead, (mostly) Jewish, German intellectuals, through the development of their thought in the Weimar Republic, their flight from European fascism to California, their engagements and disengagements with the student movements they inspired, up to their intellectual descendants’ involvement with pressing present-day issues like whether the internet is a good thing or a bad thing for rational communication.

To be fair to Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss does not claim to be a scholarly book, though it does retain the apparatuses of a bibliography and endnotes. It would be unreasonable and cruel to insist on anyone having read all of the extant scholarship on the intellectuals this book deals with, in English or in German (let alone other languages). But it is not unreasonable to expect someone writing a book on the Frankfurt School to have read more than Jeffries apparently has. I’m not asking him to read Wolfgang Kraushaar’s untranslated three-volume mega-tome on the Frankfurt School and the student movement, Frankfurter Schule und Studentenbewegung – Von der Flaschenpost zum Molotowcocktail (though it wouldn’t have hurt). However, in formulating his arguments he relies heavily on really just a handful of books throughout; usually Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, Stefan Müller-Doohm’s Adorno: A Biography, Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings’s Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, and Rolf Wiggerhaus’s The Frankfurt School: Its Histories, Theories and Political Significance. All of these are important or essential texts in Frankfurt School scholarship, but you might as well just read those, rather than this half-hearted and inelegant synthesis of them: the authors of those books have done the intellectual leg-work, while Jeffries is skimming off the top.

Often, when I was reading Grand Hotel Abyss, if I saw a footnote looming at the end of a paragraph I would find myself trying to predict whether or not Jeffries had read the primary text he was discussing. Far more often than not he apparently hadn’t, or if he had, he hadn’t understood it well enough to summarise it himself—the citation would point to a secondary source; Jeffries had glossed a gloss. The most egregious of these moments comes in Jeffries’ fourth chapter, when he offers an extremely dubious reading of Adorno’s critique of Hegel in Negative Dialectics. Here, his source is a Guardian article about the Frankfurt School, by Peter Thompson from 2003: not a piece of academic scholarship dealing with Negative Dialectics (a rare enough appearance in this book); not a critical introduction to Adorno’s thought as a whole, or a summary of it—a Guardian article. Fine, it’s a Guardian article written by a Reader in German at the University of Sheffield. But taking this as a source for your explication of one of the knottiest problems in Adorno’s thinking is beyond bad research: it is sheer laziness. Elsewhere, Jeffries cites Gillian Rose’s excellent introduction to Adorno, The Melancholy Science, in his endnotes. Why doesn’t he cite Rose here, who certainly knew something about Adorno and Hegel?

Beyond the lack of engagement with the majority of secondary material available to anyone with an internet connection or access to a library, Jeffries has hardly bothered to read the people that the Frankfurt School themselves read, or hasn’t mentioned them if he has. To take one example, there’s not a single mention in Grand Hotel Abyss of Samuel Beckett, to whom Adorno intended to dedicate Aesthetic Theory, and whose writings are certainly not insignificant to the latter’s thinking about art late in his life. Proust at least appears a handful of times, most often in the chapters discussing Benjamin, but Jeffries does not once make reference to the fact that Benjamin translated parts of À la recherche into German, a fact explicitly mentioned in Benjamin’s Moscow Diary. Instead, we’re just told that it’s “poignant” that when Benjamin visited Moscow in 1926, he “finds in the Bolshevik experiment a Proustian reverie”. Yes, indeed, how poignant that a man translating Proust in Moscow would slip into a Proustian tone while in Moscow! When the Frankfurt School’s philosophical forebears are mentioned, meanwhile, more often than not they are flattened to inane, journalistic parodies of themselves. Marx’s theory of the fetish-character of the commodity becomes, in Jeffries’s account, treating shopping like a religion. Freud’s Oedipus complex becomes sons rebelling against their fathers. At one point (in the reading of Negative Dialectics borrowed from the Guardian, mentioned above), he manages to imply that Hegel thinks history unfolds in the noumenal realm: if Jeffries had opened the Phenomenology of Spirit he would know that Hegel does not write very much at all about what takes place in the noumenal realm, since his philosophy is in part a rebuttal of Kant’s formulation of such a thing’s existence.

For anyone who cares about these topics, these are annoying misreadings, errors and omissions. Beyond that, though, they are also inimical to the thinking of the Frankfurt School in general: the way these ideas are sloppily regurgitated reduces them to mere things, completely undermining any critical power that Marx’s analysis of the commodity-form, or Freud’s analysis of the structure of intra-familial relationships, might hold. Scholars of critical theory, or those already interested in these ideas, will recognise the tired parodies for what they are, and rightly not bother with the book. Readers who are unfamiliar with these thinkers—presumably the target audience—will recognise the clichéd version of Marx and Freud that they’ve already heard about, and are unlikely to be encouraged to read them for themselves. This kind of shiftless research just serves to close down any critical thought—an impressive result for a book about critical theory.

It is either Jeffries’s career as a journalist, or his contempt for the activity of thinking itself, that leads to a number of irritating habits and turns of phrase in his book. Jeffries is certainly not interested in trying to be dialectical: any contradictions in someone’s thought are almost always described as paradoxes and are then left as irresolvable, or, more frequently, as veiled imputations of hypocrisy on their thinker’s behalf. The vexed question of the relationship between theory and praxis is reduced to theory as a retreat or withdrawal from life versus praxis as participation and action. Philosophers, in this account, are typically associated with their armchairs. As such, we find some strange judgements about the relative merit of the thinkers under discussion. Henryk Grossman, the Galician Marxist economist and early member of the Institute for Social Research, who hardly anybody reads anymore, becomes a kind of hero in the early chapters of Grand Hotel Abyss—not so much for the calibre of his thinking, but because he was involved in a bit of street-fighting as a young socialist organiser. He’s out there getting roughed up in Poland while Benjamin was still eating baked apples from a silver spoon in the cosseted bourgeois echelons of Berlin. At one point, Jeffries reduces Herbert Marcuse’s imaginings of a world in which sexual repression might no longer be a primary condition of existence to an anodyne hope for a better “work-life balance,” rather than the sex-utopia that Marcuse would (probably) have wanted—as though a life’s work spent trying to consolidate the massive theoretical edifices of Marx and Freud could be reduced to the ambitious and revolutionary horizon of the six-hour working day and the occasional romp in a field.

Usually, these tics of Jeffries’ style are fairly innocuous, like when he gets close to a truth but undermines the force of the ideas he’s discussing by his inelegant turns of phrase; for example, Benjamin’s careful attention to historical detritus and forgotten objects of the past is, for Jeffries—sliding into a Trumpism—“a history of the losers.” Sometimes, however, they create strange tensions in the book. I’m thinking in particular here of Jeffries’ attempts at psychologising the relationships of the members of Frankfurt School with their parents: the critique of capitalism developed largely by the sons of bourgeois industrialists is regularly and breezily described as “Oedipal”, in the reductive way mentioned above, and the Marxist critique of the family as a germ-cell in the development bourgeois and capitalist society is discussed a number of times, though of course with no reference to Engels, who wrote a whole book about it. Adorno and Horkheimer et al. criticised the family as an ideological institution, but often came from rich families themselves. Hypocrisy! Then, even more paradoxically for Jeffries, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, these hard-edged critics of family life had the gall to write affectionate letters to their parents, using pet-names, and helped them resettle in the United States after they’d had their property stolen by fascists. And to top it all off, in Minima Moralia Adorno even brazenly writes a few melancholic aphorisms about the decline in familial cohesion and the position of the bourgeois father being usurped by the authoritarian mentality of society under the administered life of late capitalism. At these points it feels as though Jeffries is holding Adorno by the collar, demanding, “Which is it then, Teddie? Is the family good or bad?”

Again, it would be unreasonable to expect Jeffries to be an expert on how family relationships in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Germany were organised, or what the psychological effects of these relationships were. But he could have read a bit more about them—even outside of the Frankfurt School writers—and tried to think beyond a rudimentary schema of Oedipus based on a rusty understanding of Freud. Erik Erikson’s (a contemporary of the Frankfurt School thinkers, who also emigrated to California in the 1930s) study of Hitler’s childhood, in Childhood and Society (1950), might have been useful, for example, in its discussion of the oppressive presence of the father and the typical structures of adolescent rebellion in turn of the century Germany, as well as how this is in turn mystified by German writers; or even Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann (which, to be fair, Jeffries does mention in passing—though only to say that in their own relationships to their parents, the Frankfurt School “unwittingly subverted” the schema laid out by Mann’s novel, whatever that means). One can’t read everything, of course, and nor should one. Another of the issues with Jeffries’s account of the Frankfurt School’s “Oedipal” relations with their parents is that while Freud claims that the Oedipus complex is a universal developmental process, Jeffries manages to forget this, instead implying that the thinkers he’s writing about just chose to rebel against their fathers out of a kind of spoiled brattishness. The Frankfurt School in his account are simultaneously representatives of the unfolding logic of a specific familial relationship particular to Wilhelmine Germany, subjects of a universal human condition, and wimpy, workshy eggheads choosing to sponge off their fathers’ hard earned cash. They’re tangled up in such a complex psychodrama, it’s no wonder their writings remain so opaque!

Another uncomfortable moment in the text, which seems to be there purely to satisfy Jeffries’ wish for a tantalising hint of conspiracy, comes after the account of Walter Benjamin’s suicide on the Spanish-French border in 1940. After taking us through Benjamin’s movements over the weeks leading up to his death, and describing his last days and the morphine overdose that killed the philosopher, Jeffries then launches into a discussion of the bizarre theory that Benjamin was in fact assassinated by Stalinist agents, before finally dismissing the theory as unlikely. The ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ probably did not disturb Stalin enough to have its author killed, in the very unlikely possibility that Stalin read it when it was first published. The source for these ruminations, which manage to distract from the fact that persecution by fascism killed Benjamin, is—perhaps unsurprisingly—another Guardian article, written by Jeffries himself in 2001, which takes its cue from an article in The Weekly Standard. Again, Jeffries has not written a scholarly work and should not necessarily be held to scholarly standards, but peer review can sometimes be a useful thing.

Grand Hotel Abyss sits uneasily between a general introduction to the Frankfurt School’s thought and a group biography. Unfortunately, its handling of the thinking of these very difficult writers is clumsy and reductive, and the biographic elements of the book reveal very little to no new information. Jeffries hasn’t exactly been digging in the archives. However, his attempt at writing a popular introduction to the Frankfurt School is not in itself misguided. I certainly have no intention of trying to serve as an academic gatekeeper and wanting to keep interpretation of the Frankfurt School all to myself and other ivory tower elitists. In the face of rising right-wing and authoritarian populist movements in both Europe and North America, the combination of political, cultural and psychoanalytic thinking that was developed by the Frankfurt School is, I think, as crucial as ever. People should be standing outside Trump rallies and on street corners distributing photocopies of Leo Löwenthal’s 1950 study of American fascist agitators, Prophets of Deceit; avuncular and gnomic philosophical voices should produce radio programs to teach children critical thinking, like Benjamin did, and so on. The Frankfurt School should be read, and there would definitely be merit in a new, well-handled introduction to their thought and its development as a group. But it would be against the spirit of their thinking if we took the meaning of ‘popular’ to just be simplified, basic, or dumbed down. This kind of popularisation, which turns thought into schematic gobbets to be easily swallowed, is hardly the way to bring back the critical and antagonistic spirit of the early Frankfurt School.

Unfortunately, Jeffries’s book fails to present the exciting, dynamic potential of these thinkers’ work in a way that does them justice. Rather than reviving the thought of the Frankfurt School, or making it accessible as a means of engaging with the world today, Grand Hotel Abyss ends up presenting the members of the Institute for Social Research and its various associates as historical curiosities who had no real impact on anybody for very long. Marcuse’s impact on the New Left in particular is discussed in detail, but ultimately Jeffries seems to reject his interpretation of culture and society (despite Angela Davis being quoted as emphasising Marcuse’s importance for her own thinking and action) as utopian. From about half way through the book, after Adorno and Horkheimer’s return to Germany to the final chapters on Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, the Frankfurt School is depicted as becoming more and more quietist and insular; the pessimism of Adorno is easily equated with defeat and presented as a kind of cosy insulation and resignation, rather than a pained response to the horrors of the twentieth century.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Frankfurt School thinkers did not make some missteps or judgements that we can easily reject today: Adorno was wrong about jazz, and he shouldn’t have called the police on his students in the 1960s, to take two obvious examples. But the Frankfurt School did not claim to be perfect, and they did not seek hagiography. Their lesson is one that emphasises critical thought; that is, thought that remains open and active, forcefully dynamic and engaged with the contemporary development of philosophy and politics. The power of their thinking is not undermined by the fact that Benjamin squandered his inheritance or kept involving himself in unhappy love triangles, or the fact that, despite Marcuse’s critique of bourgeois mentalities and his association with the free love movement, he retained an aloof distance from his step-children at home, and praised Thomas Mann for sitting down at his desk for three hours a day wearing a jacket and tie. This is not to say that critical biographies can’t serve a useful role in our understanding of philosophers and writers and the contradictions in their thought, but Jeffries’s book refuses to allow its subjects to contradict themselves, or to change their minds, or to not always live up to their analyses. May nobody write a book demanding the same of him.

In his introduction, Jeffries mentions the fact that the work of the Frankfurt School has been rebranded as “Cultural Marxism” by right-wing journalists and bloggers, who have described it as an effort to destabilise or undermine the major institutions of the traditional West. He points to the fact that the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik discusses them in his lengthy and incoherent manifesto. Then Jeffries writes an astonishing sentence, which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since reading it: “You don’t need to be Anders Breivik to misunderstand the Frankfurt School.” No. Clearly, you do not.


Andrew Key

Andrew Key is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and the Program in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 7th, 2017.