MIT 2200 Lecture 3 Critical Theory – Jan 22
The Frankfurt School for Social Research
CONSERVATIVE THINKERS critics worried about how life would become, worried
about the mass media and democratization and that it would bring chaos and anarchy
Mass Society Critics This group emerged from the other side of the spectrum. They
were Marxist thinkers. Were not worried about mass culture for the same reasons as the
critical thinkers who thought mass culture was killing the traditions. Instead they were
worried about mass culture dumbing down the society.
The Frankfurt School for Social Research
1920s to 1960s, moved from Frankfurt to USA and back again
They were mass society critics who focused on the Marxist views of mass media.
Some members of the school:
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer Coauthored The Dialetic of Enlightenment
Herbert Marcuse (was into civil rights movement, would teach it to schools) One
Walter Benjamin Illuminations
The people of this school were all GermanJewish. Walter Benjamin was killed trying to
get out of Germany during the war
The Institute for Social Research: est 1923
Were brought up in the rigorous, demanding German school system
They chose to start this ‘school’ on their own. They did not teach to others but did
Formed out of a need to provide an intellectual environment with a decidedly Marxist
orientation (Marxism was not big and fond of in Germany at the time)
Hoped to blend theory with empirical research, and broad interdisciplinary interests
(they were all from different backgrounds of study, put their different perspectives
together to come up with theories
Worked to hold itself apart from the influences of University life, were seen as rebel
rousers at that time
The Inspiration of History
Wrote against the backdrop of the failure of worker’s movements and the rise of Hitler
and fascism, the failure of unions, and the rise of capitalist free market economies
Entire generations of men were wiped out from the first World War, which was a fail of
all the important social democratic movements of the time. This led to fascism (Through
Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin)
There was a failure of unions which lost power, and a rise of capitalist economy
Focuses of These Mass Critics of the Frankfurt School The major question of these mass society critics: why was there no workers revolution,
when workers were treated badly at the rise of capitalism. These wondered why the
people would not step up, and why people accepted their position in the world and how
they were treated.
Another aspect that the Frankfurt school focused on was based on the rise of Hitler as
they lived during this time. (because they were Jewish, Frankfurt school in Germany had
to move to Columbia in New York)
After moving to New York they were in the middle of mass culture and media, right in
the middle of broadway and lights.
They went from Germany Nuremberg 1936 in the middle of major protests, right to New
York , Broadway in 1948 where they saw the major rise of this capitalist society. They
then wondered, what is the link between culture and power and the ways that this
media and pop culture could be used to propagate forms of power.
Critical Theory of Frankfurt School
Why do people endorse and accept a system that demonstrably operates against their
What keeps people complacent about the way in which they are governed, exploited, and
A theory is critical to the extent that it seeks ‘to liberate humans from the circumstances
that enslave them.’
They believed that the use of human reason is the key to liberation. The ability to think
and be critical is the way to this.
Theory must seek to reveal abuses of power and increase freedom
The Culture Industry/Mass Media in the eyes of Frankfurt School
Were not interested in glorifying the past by saying that new mass culture is ruining the
Instead they looked at the present and what mass media was used to function for
currently. Saw mass media forms as tools of domination, to propagate.
Thought it was used to promote the status quo and protect the interests of those in power.
Believed that those who had economical power could shape the world with the media as
they have power of it. For example: the news currently. Some bigger and wealthier
companies have majority of power in what is produced for society to hear.
The media obscure certain truths and promote others based on their best interests
Example: Hurricane Katrina There is live coverage of what is happening, people are
drowning in the water, and looters taking things from stores. Watching the CNN news
coverage, they have a particular orientation of these ‘looters’. They called some of the
people doing this ‘survivors’ and some ‘looters’. It was ironic that CNN was calling all
of the black people in poorer parts as looters.
The choices that the newsrooms are making are based on those that have the power in
the media industry by looking to please them. This is what the researchers of the
Frankfurt School proposed, that media looked to help the powerful.
Popular Culture/mass/Social Media
Transmit the values of capital Undermine individual autonomy by increasing the management and control of leisure
We are ‘enculturated’ to become obedient workers for capital?
What is the distinction between work and play? (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram)
The fact that what we are given to express our identities are privately owned brands that
are getting tons of money
Frankfurt school try to incorporate Marx and Freud. They asked what is the
psychological impact of life under capital? What does it feel like to live in a society like