Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School.

Author:Harrison, Oliver
Position:Book review
 
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Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

London: Verso, 2016; 448pp; ISBN 9781784785680

Over the years there have been many useful works on the Frankfurt School and its resultant form of critical theory (see for example Jay 1996; Held 1980; Kellner 1989). Stuart Jeffries--a long-time contributor to The Guardian and its former arts editor--is aware that his path is well-trodden, and seeks instead to provide what he hopes to be a 'new' and 'compelling way into the Frankfurt School's distinctive perspective on the world'. To do this he offers a 'group biography' that seeks not only to rescue the School's insights from its 'detractors', but also remind us just how prescient the former remains today (pp8, 9).

I approached this view as someone proficient in the works of some of the Frankfurt School's key contributors, but not all, and certainly not aware of the relationships and debates they had amongst one another. In this vein, overall I found the book enjoyable. One of the main reasons lies in its structure: split into chronological sections corresponding with how the Frankfurt School developed from its inception onwards, this ensured that the book unfolded engagingly. Rather than simply discuss key thinkers and/or their respective contributions in turn, Jeffries is able to weave a more dynamic narrative which offers some interesting anecdotal passages throughout--the brief discussion of a meeting between Sartre and Marcuse in the late 1960s is particularly amusing (p324). The title of the book is incisive, referring to a derogatory comment directed at its early interlocutors by Gyorgy Lukacs deriding their retreat from political praxis to theoretical critique. The paradoxical nature of the School as a whole is certainly not missed by Jeffries, at one point describing them as 'Marxists without a party, socialists dependent on capitalist money, beneficiaries of a society they sniffily disdained and without which they would have nothing to write about' (p167).

Jeffries succeeds in his first task--the book does indeed present an absorbing account of the history, development and specificities of the Frankfurt School and its various members. The extent to which...

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