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Review: Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss highlights the value of critical thinking

Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School
Stuart Jeffries

As a white male who became enamoured with leftist politics – or, more accurately, leftist, post-Marxist political and critical theory – as an undergraduate not so long ago, I have been watching recent protests at the University of Toronto with great interest, and narrow, squinty-eyed skepticism.

The kerfuffle began in late September, when professor Jordan Peterson posted a lengthy video attacking the campus culture of political correctness. Specifically, Peterson was resisting pressure to refer to students who identify as non-binary (that is, possessing a gender identity defined as neither male nor female) by their preferred pronouns.

Peterson's stance against what he called the "totalitarian and authoritarian" policing of language drew plenty of criticism, particularly from students and staff who identify as gender-fluid or non-binary. There were op-eds, interviews, petitions and protests. While I would never deny the existence of gender fluidity and the right of a human being to be called by whatever pronoun they please, I also value the hoary notion of "academic freedom," and Peterson's essential right, as a tenured professor, to say whatever he wants – even if it seems unpopular or just "wrong." Watching the surely well-meaning protests curdle into pitchy yelling, I was reminded of philosopher and critical theorist Juergen Habermas's notion of left-fascism. And I couldn't help but wonder, "Has the time come to return to theory?"

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The relationship between theory and radical politics has long been contentious. It's something that crops up again and again in Grand Hotel Abyss, British author Stuart Jeffries's new "group biography" of the Frankfurt School. Founded in 1923 as the Institute for Social Research, the term "Frankfurt School" refers to a loose collection of philosophers, sociologists and critics – including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Friedrich Pollock, Herbert Marcuse and a handful of others – devoted to the exhaustive study of Marxist theory and social research.

With Hitler's ascent, and the ensuing emigration of these Jewish-German intellectuals, the Frankfurt School's ostensible mission was twofold: First, to understand why fascism, and not socialism, had gripped Germany; and secondly, to sniff out all lingering traces of the totalitarian tendency in politics, thought, art and culture. As Jeffries writes, Adorno especially was "apt to see Nazism in nearly everything he disliked." Jazz was fascist. Astrology was fascist. Even Donald Duck cartoons were fascist.

In his early chapters, Jeffries writes with great affection of German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, positioning him as a guiding light for the Frankfurt School thinkers. Benjamin's work "recovering the abject and obsolete from historical oblivion" set a tone for subsequent thinkers, essentially inventing the category of critical theory. "If critical theory means anything," Jeffries writes, "it means the kind of radical re-thinking that challenges what it considers to be the official versions of history and the intellectual endeavour."

But though Benjamin, Adorno and the rest were no doubt radical in their thinking – and certainly critical, embracing negativity and philosophical pessimism as a matter of course – the most common charge laid against them is that such radicalism rarely translated into on-the-ground political action.

Jeffries's intelligent, accessible book takes its title from Hungarian Marxist Gyorgy Lukacs, who charged that the Frankfurt scholars had taken up residence in "a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered." As Adorno once wrote, in defence of such claims of inaction, "It is difficult to even sign appeals with which one sympathizes, because in their inevitable desire to have a political impact, they always contain an element of untruth."

Given their first-hand experience fleeing fascism, this removal to the comfort of sustained, abstract thought is understandable. While the Frankfurt scholars may have seemed politically aloof (Adorno even called the cops on student protesters in the 1960s, in a show of his terminal fuddy-duddiness) and acutely condescending, I can't help but feel that there is value in this approach – even if, as Jeffries writes, "[i]n our age anyone resuscitating critical theory needs to have a sense of irony."

It's not just because this thinking, from Benjamin's idea of the modern world as a hell on earth to Adorno's notion that happiness is unhealthy to Erich Fromm's description of the capitalist subject for whom "everything is transformed into a commodity," provides the cynic a certain cold comfort. It's because the left's adoption of screeching bully tactics, and embrace of the politics of anger, from U of T protesters to trolling "Bernie Bros," reveals something of the savage totalitarian tendencies the scholars slumped in the Grand Hotel Abyss were describing. We spend so much time thinking about means to ends, and not nearly enough thinking, and rethinking, the ends themselves.

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