Identity, Commodity, Authority: Two new Books on Horkheimer and Adorno

Book review by Marcel Stoetzler

Abromeit, John, 2011, Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press

Benzer, Matthias, 2011, The Sociology of Theodor Adorno, New York etc: Cambridge University Press

John Abromeit and Matthias Benzer have published two detailed and highly informative monographs, one on Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), the other on Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969). The two books are written in styles that could hardly differ more: Abromeit’s is a primarily historical presentation that engages in exegesis of key texts mostly in chronological order, covering the period from Horkheimer’s birth in 1895 to 1941, whereas Benzer’s presentation rarely references historical context and draws in each of its chapters on the entire range of Adorno’s writings insofar as they make explicit or implicit statements about society. Adorno’s position is shown not in its gradual emergence but from the perspective of its most developed stage, Negative Dialectic being one of the most often quoted works. Furthermore, while Benzer almost completely disappears behind his subject matter, which he presents in a detached but faithful manner, Abromeit frames his argument within an evaluative, historical narrative that presents the Horkheimer of the 1930s as the most genuine representative of Critical Theory, whereas the Horkheimer of 1941ff is suggested to represent a lesser version. Abromeit chose the year 1941 as the cut-off point because in that year Horkheimer reduced to a minimum the activities of the Institute for Social Research in New York, ended the publication of the Institute’s journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, and moved to Los Angeles to concentrate on theoretical work with Adorno. Abromeit also emphasises that Erich Fromm had departed from the Institute in 1939, which is around the time Adorno became a member.

Key to Abromeit’s narrative is his view that Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s co-authored Dialectic of Enlightenment (first published in 1944) ‘fits seamlessly into the larger trajectory of Adorno’s work, but represents a break with Horkheimer’s early Critical Theory’ (Abromeit 2011:4).1 The decisive point here is the interpretation of the Enlightenment: [Read more →]