Aesthetic Theory: The Frankfurt School

Claudia Breger

Aesthetic Theory is the name of Theodor W. Adorno’s late masterpiece (of which we will read excerpts only—not to worry). At the same time, it is a good indication of the broader interest in the relations of aesthetics, politics, and society that is at the center of many other key works by the group of critical theorists (in part loosely) affiliated first with an interdisciplinary institute in Frankfurt, Germany, and later in exile, temporarily with Columbia University. The course delves into this rich—and unfortunately newly topical—body of work, much of which was first developed in response to twentieth-century fascism. We will trace some of the “Frankfurt School’s” philosophical genealogies in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and György’s Lukács Marxist philosophy of aesthetic form and read some of Walter Benjamin’s and Siegfried Kracauer’s Weimar (and beyond) criticism, film, and media theory before turning to Max Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and its group-authored sociological
companion piece on The Authoritarian Personality. The course will also at least touch upon Herbert Marcuse’s work on mass culture and Ernst Bloch’s counter-emphasis on the utopian potential of art and literature, and we will spend some time on the female philosophers on the margins of the group, such as Hannah Arendt and Angela Davis, a student of Marcuse’s. Throughout, we will also ask critical questions, for example, about how to decolonize the Frankfurt School, even while appreciating its continued echoes in twenty-first-century aesthetic theory, from Lauren Berlant and José Muñoz to Tavia Nyong’o and many others.