The Frankfurt School (Institut für Sozialforschung) was founded by a group of interwar scholars dedicated to social theory and critical philosophy. The school Marxist studies across Europe and was composed of various philosophers, social scientists, and political dissidents, who were dissatisfied with the various forms of government and economics in interwar Europe. The rise of the Nazi party forced many Frankfurt School members to move from Germany to the United States, where a partnership with Columbia University allowed the work of the school’s members to gain traction in English-speaking countries. Notable members of the Frankfurt School include Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Pollock, and Leo Löwenthal.
The culture industry is a term coined by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment. They argue with the mass production and mass distribution of standardized popular culture, art loses the creative and transcendent qualities that were promised by traditional culture. The function of the culture industry, they argue, is the creation of false needs for products and services that capital society supplies to consumers.
Karl Marx’s theory of alienation is a critique of the capitalist mode of production. Rather than producing something for themselves, the wage worker in a capitalist economy labors for another, and thus cannot identify themselves in the products of their labor. In capitalism, Marx argues, the worker is “alienated” from their livelihood and hence from themselves. Marx’s theory of alienation has been further developed by critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse, who applies the theory of alienation to advanced industrial society in his book One Dimensional Man. Postwar technological development improved living conditions and provided new levels of convenience, argues Marcuse, but it also intensified everyday alienation as technology further pervades daily life: mediating communication, work, and interpersonal relationships. Marcuse points proposes a radical new society in which humans have control over technology rather than the reverse.
Herbert Marcuse uses the term technological rationality to describe the prevailing mode of thought in advanced industrial society. As science and technology increasingly pervade everyday life, Marcuse argues, they impose instrumental logic on social interactions. Marcuse’s essay “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” critiques technological rationality and connects it with Marx’s theory of alienation, arguing that the technological control of labor compels workers to behave like automatons and alienates people from one another.
According to Theodor Adorno, the bourgeois model of Bildung (the process of self-cultivation), is inhibited by the standardization of cultural products under capitalism. The promise of autonomy provided by traditional culture, he argues, has been replaced by Halbbildung, or “pseudo-culture”. Individual self development is stymied by the new heteronomy of mass media. Consumers of pseudo-culture are fed standardized images and the ideological baggage which comes with them, rather than freely expressing their own individuality and thereby developing autonomy.
Repressive desublimation is Herbert Marcuse’s description of the means by which desire, once repressed, is allowed to find expression in commodified form. This expression, while appearing to be liberatory, serves to obfuscate oppressive relations of production. Society appears to be free and open while being built upon the same material unfreedom of the prior, more outwardly repressive society. By ameliorating the deadening nature of alienated labor, Marcuse argues, repressive desublimation inhibits the growth of critical thought and dissent.
In his essay “The Method and Function of an Analytic Social Psychology”, Erich Fromm attempted to combine Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxian materialism. While both these theories heavily influenced Frankfurt School philosophers like Marcuse and critical theory generally, attempts to synthesize the two were controversial: the combination of subjective and objective considerations contradicted orthodox theories from both disciplines. Fromm argued that such a synthesis was both possible and necessary, since Marxism on its own could not explain psychological factors within society, and psychoanalysis on its own could not explain how economic factors influence the psyche. However, in combining the two, one can analyze both the psychological and economic elements of society and the dialectic between them.
“Surplus repression” is Marcuse’s expansion upon the Freudian concept of repression—the act of holding back one’s drives from conscious thought or action. In traditional Freudian theory, repression was necessary in order for society to function. Marcuse argued that some of the repression within society exceeds that which is necessary to maintain human survival, and instead exists to preserve social domination. He referred to this excess portion as “surplus” repression.