Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

More Ruminations on the So-Called Free-Floating Intellectuals

I have an overweening interest in the history and thought of the Frankfurt School thinkers, that broad interdisciplinary project of mostly Germanic thinkers, chased out of their homeland by Nazis, and which included such wonderful intellects and personalities as Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer. There were many, many more... Leo Lowenthal. All of 'em: scarily erudite mo-fos. It wasn't a "school" under one roof, but something stronger than an "affinity group," to my eyes. And it carries on to this date, above.

These guys were tremendously well-trained academics, staggeringly well-educated, but all made the crucial mistake of having (or being suspected of having) "jewish blood" in them.

(Yes, those of you who are saying they were known Leftists too, and that was enough to make them potential lampshades: you're right. This bit relates to my "dangerous intellectuals" blog-spiels of last week.)

The Frankfurt dudes wondered: Germany was the country most steeped in High Culture before 1914, rich, the flower of Enlightenment, well-governed...and by 1933 most of them had fled a few steps ahead of Nazi thugs. (Walter Benjamin, tragically, never quite made it out, as you probably know. He was my personal fave.) What the bloody hell happened to Germany? They spent the rest of their careers (mostly in the US, then after the part of the war that lasted 1939-45, back to Germany for some of them) trying to psychoanalyze Germany and then Western culture to discern: what went wrong?

And what a Project! All those books!

They combined Marx with Freud with Hegel with Kant with Max Weber with Georgy Lukacs. A potent stew, aye: and when it simmered: Critical Theory. What does Critical Theory have to do with "free-floating intellectuals" as theorized by Karl Mannheim (who was a sort of para-Frankfurter, having partied with some of the main Frankfurt guys, or their affiliates, but ended up at the London School of Economics and not New York or Los Angeles)?

Horkheimer had admired Mannheim's work, but in exile and with Critical Theory coalescing, Horkheimer had a problem with Mannheim's "free-floating unattached intellectuals" (FFUIs). By 1933, just before they realized they needed to pack their bags pronto, Mannheim had "unmasked" Marxism as yet another ideology. Now, with Critical  Theory as a well-honed tool, it rested on many of Marx's assumptions about alienation, false consciousness, and other aspects. Both Critical Theory and Mannheim's sociology of knowledge sought to reject all claims to Absolute Truth...but it seems that Horkheimer wasn't ready to go as far as Mannheim had. Mannheim's rejection of Truth was a tad more "Absolutier"? I think so. (A very prominent American once talked about a "more perfect nation," but I digress.)

Further, Horkheimer thought the need to reject the "free-floating" idea because: they (Mannheim's posited relatively classless stratum of free-floating intellectuals) were caught up in the whole web of assumptions about Western thought, but were as hopelessly unaware as anyone else, which I think seems kind of overweening, as Horkheimer and the Frankfurters seemed to imply they were somehow, by contrast, able to climb outside it all and see, Truly. Unfettered and Clearly. True Being, etc. (pfffft!)

As Martin Jay writes in his (in my estimation) so-far-still-definitive book on the Frankfurt School:

"By claiming that all knowledge was rooted in its social context (Seinsgebunden), Mannheim seemed to be undermining the basic Marxist distinction between true and false consciousness, to which Critical Theory adhered." (The Dialectical Imagination, p.63, and if you know of a better book on the Frankfurters, please lemme know. Their books and thought make a cottage industry for academics, and it's possible I've missed a cracking good read that's even better than Jay's.)

What interests me here - and maybe you see it as sorta "funny" too - is that the Frankfurt School guys seem to have fallen into the trap of assuming a sort of Archimedean privileged vantage point. Mannheim's view of knowledge more or less Einstein-ized the social sciences: there is no absolute privileged spot when it comes down to social beings and knowledge. To me, this is the crucial social-epistemological difference between Critical Theory and the sociology of knowledge.

[Let us all pause and take note of our own lives - and friends, family and acquaintances (let's leave out pundits for now, shall we?) - and how overwhelmingly seductive is seems to adopt the Archimedean view...Sobering, innit?]

Mannheim did not use "relativity," he used "relationism."(All partial truths are perspectives on the whole, but the FFUIs could conceivably, given their situatedness in the scheme of society, know more of the truth than any other thinkers attached to a "class"or the imperatives of an institution.)

This is socially isomorphic to Einstein's physics, it seems to me.

The Frankfurt School thinkers had fallen - via the Archimedean assumption - for that old Platonic Philosopher King trap, to joyously mix Greek metaphors. (Why did they assume only THEY could discern what was true and false consciousness and not Mannheim's FFUI grand flaneur class?)

[Now here's the trick, kiddies]:

However, if I adhere to some version of Mannheim's sociology of knowledge (and I do, but it's closer to the phenomenological version developed by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann as influenced by Alfred Schutz via Edmund Husserl, not that you'd asked), then I must be at least suspect or unsure to some degree of what I have written here and everything else in my blogging, and to go on a spell more, a lot of what I have personally said in the company of some of you, and let's not pretend: I do know some of you, and I do get in my cups. I do like the cannabis indica. I am a bit of a nutball. I think at least one of you have seen me on psilocybin. I get into fits of whining, let's be honest here. Some of you have endured my pangs of hypochondria. I could go on, but won't. It's downright embarrassing. Suffice: You have heard me say some dippy things...

To all this I say: it's "relational." But how many people do you know who are more FFUI than me?

And again and back to it: I am suspect. My utterances, jottings, my ideation: it's by definition suspect. It's just that I'm not sure to what degree I should suspect, and where. My own ideas, my own picture of myself, even being brutally honest: there's gotta be some lacunae in my total schmeer. There's just gotta, if I go with Mannheim's idea. I just don't know where and to what degree. (Feel free to tell me where I'm wrong in the comments! I need straightening-out, I'm just not sure WHERE.)

But I'll fer damned sure be glad to tell you how things look from my non-absolutely privileged vantage point! (Perhaps the main boon blogging confers?)

Thanks for hanging with this one. I hope it made some sense!

P.S: If you have a non-relative, non-relational privileged/Archimedean view on all social reality, please share it in the comment box below. I've been looking for you for a looooooong-assed time!


ARW23 said...

Excellent example of 'free-floating intellectuals" - Frankfurt School - a movement associated with the Institute for Social Research founded within the University of Frankfurt in 1923. I find Adorno's voice, in his essays on mass culture: "The Culture Industry", potentially the greatest challenge to the debate over post modernity and "the banality of mass culture". He actually summarizes it in the title of his book.

michael said...

He and Horkheimer had some still-never-adequately -answered Qs about what they called "the culture industry."

Adorno HATED pop culture, and that's a big problem for the Frankfurters, in my opinion, and esp Adorno: they - some moreso than others - were so hoity-toity about their tastes. And that's all it was: taste. They thought (some of them, but esp Adorno) almost all non-High Kulch was a horrifying symptom of the decline of the West. Hey, there are PhDs who love heavy metal and Star Trek. The older Frankfurters were "too Germanic" in this sense.

But a lot of their stuff got rehashed and watered down with the pomo mvt in academia in c.1980-99 or so...Adorno's Minima Moralia is a text to graplle with, though, at least for me. And I love Benjamin's Illuminations and Reflections. Erich Fromm's critique of "having" over "being" is reflected in the No Logo and Church of No Shopping and other things like that.

Indeed, I think the Frankfurters as a whole posed this Q: okay, you're getting more and more technology, quicker, faster, smaller, cheaper, at an accelerated rate. You're great at TECHNE, but to what end? What is the TELOS in your TECHNE?

ARW23 said...

"What is the TELOS in your TECHNE?"

Good question! Techne resembles episteme? "Disinterested understanding"?

michael said...

I think, by around 1965, the Frankfurters - Marcuse esp - wanted Westerners to have a social goal in mind for their TECHNE. To what end? Leftist and liberals thought that curing world hunger, giving everyone access to clean water, education, stopping war by developing renewable energy and mutual interconnectedness were all things worthy of our TECHNE. Look at Buckminster Fuller's ideas! I think Hegel was a big influence here, for the Frankfurt School. He said that, throughout history, States were weak when they defined who they were by who they were against. It is strong to say this is what we are FOR, and stand by it. Unfortunately, Hegel was so Idealistic and so far up in his Ivory Tower he probably got nosebleeds. Still, I do think people, if not States, should decide what they're for, make their values explicit, and don't say one thing and act 180 degrees differently. I don't think Bread and Circuses are a worthy goal at all.

The Transhumanists/Extropians/Singularitarians want TECHNE to take us to some place totally mindblowing; in fact, most of them seem to think it's teleological.

Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary thought space migration, intelligence increase and life extension (including curing the disease of death!) were worthy TELOS for our TECHNE.

And there are plenty of erudites who really want to RETURN to some sort of Better Time in the past.

I think all of this involves, individually, your own day-to-day negotiations with your own axiology, and I do think it is one sense in which, a hierarchy develops. But it's YOUR hierarchy, no one else's. And it's malleable, of course, subject to your embodied emotions and new information, etc