Thomas Wheatland


On his book The Frankfurt School in Exile

Cover Interview of December 02, 2009

The wide angle

In a letter of June 29, 1940, Max Horkheimer eloquently developed one of the metaphors that became central to the history of Critical Theory in America.  Writing to the actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel, Horkheimer despaired, “In view of everything that is engulfing Europe and perhaps the whole world our present work is of course essentially destined to being passed on through the night that is approaching: a kind of message in a bottle.” 

This trope of the message in a bottle, the Flaschenpost, has been adopted by many of the historians and scholars of Critical Theory and has helped to reinforce the illusion of the Frankfurt School’s “splendid isolation” in the United States. The traditional account further proclaims that if Critical Theory was cast (like a message in a bottle) into a dark and angry sea during the 1930s and 1940s, it was spectacularly found and uncorked on the beaches of the U.S. by New Leftists, hippies, and flower children in the 1960s.

The image of the message in a bottle underplays the interactions between Critical Theory and American intellectual life during the Frankfurt School’s years in exile, and it simultaneously helps to overplay the relationship between the Horkheimer Circle’s legacy and the American New Left.  That is why this metaphor of the Flaschenpost, as much as I find it poetic and powerful, needs to be broken and discarded.

A vast literature about both the Frankfurt School and its individual members exists and continues to grow. Nonetheless, as I began my own research, there remained substantial questions about the actual encounters that took place between members of the Frankfurt School and the American scholars who had contacts with the exiled Institute for Social Research.  While both Martin Jay and Rolf Wiggershaus touched on this topic in both of their books, it was not a major focus for either.  Thus, the theme of exile appeared to me as a vantage point that could perhaps help me to see Critical Theory, as well as the intellectual history of the United States, in a new way.

The realities of exile for a scholar are challenging enough, but the fact that the Frankfurt School arrived in the midst of the Great Depression made their situation more hazardous.  Horkheimer could be ruthless with some of his associates, but he also proved to be a slick and successful operator.  How strange to see these famous critics of advanced capitalist society and the culture industry being forced to participate and accommodate themselves to both in order to survive.  Or perhaps it wasn’t particularly strange at all; perhaps they could only see these socio-cultural developments not by simply viewing them from the margins of American society, but by traveling into the belly of the beast.