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Tyrus Miller, Modernism and the Frankfurt School

Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014 (256 pages). ISBN: 978-0748640188
Caroline Pollentier
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Tyrus Miller, Modernism and the Frankfurt School, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014 (256 pages). ISBN: 978-0748640188

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1Modernism and the Frankfurt School offers a most valuable introduction to major thinkers of the Frankfurt school—Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—as well as more recent critics and theorists of the Later Frankfurt School such as Peter Bürger, Albrecht Wellmer, and Alexander Kluge. This theoretical overview addressed to English-language modernist scholars can be praised for its great clarity and nuanced conciseness. Miller admittedly goes over well-trodden ground, but does in fact much more than summarise what can be read in the German originals or their sometimes belated English translations—not to mention the numerous exegeses of Frankfurt School theorists that already exist in various other languages. Miller’s book makes a cogent case, indeed, for reinvestigating the relevance of the Frankfurt School’s methods in approaching our disciplinary field today, and grasping what is perhaps not so new in ‘new modernist studies.’ In their 2008 charting of the field, Doug Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz outlined various ways in which cultural binarisms have been significantly rethought after and against Adorno’s cultural mapping of modernist culture. But as Miller takes a broader view on Frankfurt School theory and resituates Adorno within a larger dialogical tradition of thought, unexpected affinities start to emerge. By thinking modernism across European nations and across the arts, by reflecting on the convergences—and not just the opposition, as Frankfurt School theory has become notorious for—between mass culture and high art, and by arguing in favour of pluralism, the Frankfurt School, understood as a polyphonic and heterogeneous ensemble rather than a monological entity, paved the way for the transcultural, transmedial, and ‘pluralistic modernism’ (Wellmer quoted in Miller 162) endorsed by researchers of the early twenty-first century.

2Benjaminian in spirit, the book as a whole is self-consciously structured as a constellation, which, as such, displaces the dominant focus on Adorno’s cultural dichotomies amongst modernist critics. Helping us look beyond the high vs low binarism which was, among many other studies, revised by Andreas Huyssen’s 1987 After the Great Divide and questioned by Robert Scholes’s 2006 Paradoxy of Modernism, Miller reframes a vaster critical legacy by opting for a montage-like ‘casuistic approach’ (Miller 2) juxtaposing echoing but distinctive theoretical outputs. Defending his opening decision to consider the Frankfurt School ‘pragmatically’ (2) rather than historically or conceptually, Miller explains that he chose not to launch into a fully-fledged intellectual history but to concentrate instead on three key figures commonly seen as representatives of the Frankfurt School—three markedly different thinkers, he shows, since Benjamin and Adorno dealt with examples taken from the arts as art critics, and were themselves involved in artistic production (Benjamin as a translator and Adorno as a trained composer) while Marcuse engaged with general ideas rather than specific examples.

3The main argument of the book, and the common denominator between the various thinkers examined by Miller, consists in the identification of a stylistic and conceptual interaction between modernity, modernism, and Frankfurt School Theory. While Miller defines modernism as a creative response to lived experiences of modernity, he argues that Frankfurt School theory attended to lived modernity as well as modernist aesthetics by adopting modernist ‘styles of thought’ (Miller 6) such as montages, constellations, aphorisms, or thought-images (Denkbild). Modernist form therefore functions as more than an object of thought for Frankfurt School theorists; it becomes part and parcel of a heuristics that simultaneously captures its object, reflects on it critically, and potentially reshapes it. In other words, Frankfurt School theory drew on modernism to think and rethink modernity. Miller’s relational framework of thought is a most fruitful one to comprehend the reciprocal relationship between modernism and theory—or, as Stephen Ross phrased it in Modernism and Theory (2009), between ‘theory’s modernism’ and ‘modernism’s theory’ (Ross 13). Breaking down boundaries between art and criticism, such a framework encourages us see how both modernist artists and Frankfurt School theorists envisioned form, content, and thought relationally, as they variously recast form as content but also as a critical mode of thinking able to reimagine historical contents.

4A skillful storyteller, Miller goes through all the well-known but ever elusive concepts devised dialogically by Benjamin, Adorno, and Marcuse. The theoretical clarification he offers is remarkable, though one may sometimes regret that by choosing paraphrase over exegesis, he rarely positions himself within an existing critical debate. In his first study, Miller presents Benjamin’s paradigmatic technique of montage and defines his concepts of autonomy, shock and aura by demonstrating that the fragmentary nature of the philosopher’s art criticism aimed to grasp the cultural experience of modernity. Linking such critical mimesis to the sharing of experience and the communicability of form, Miller clears up for the English reader the semantic differences between two meanings of ‘experience’ in German (Erfahrung and Erlebnis), which allows him to situate the impoverishment of experience in a tension between tradition and subjectivity. Particular attention is then paid to the importance of urban affects in One-Way Street, which is convincingly read as an early form of psychogeography. In his presentation of Benjamin as a theorist of the modernist city, Miller sheds valuable light on Benjamin’s utopian understanding of architecture, as exemplified in particular in his readings of Bruno Taut, Paul Scheebart, Sigfried Giedion, and Le Corbusier. In the wake of his study on temporality in Time-Images: Alternative Temporalities in Twentieth-century Theory, Literature, and Art (2009), Miller here investigates at greater length Benjamin’s spatial figuration of modern experience, surveying his reflections on real urban space as well as his analysis of literary space, and showing how Benjamin highlights, in his 1929 ‘Surrealism’ essay for instance, the capacity for literature to produce an ‘image-space’ and function as a space of experience.

5Turning to Adorno, who became the director of the Institute of Social Research after Horkheimer in 1958, Miller starts once more by tracing a conceptual reciprocity between style and thought. In Adorno’s case, stylistic convolutions are understood as a reflection of modernist difficulty and a refusal to reduce dialectical complexity. Adorno’s conception of autonomy is then contrasted with that of Benjamin, both visions emerging as two sides of a dialectic. In the context of what Adorno perceived as the rise of the culture industry in advanced capitalism, which affected culture as a whole and should not be taken as an equivalent for mass culture, Adorno asserted the autonomous status of the work of art, unlike Benjamin who described the dissolution of art’s autonomy and its concomitant shift to collective political functions. For Adorno, modernist artists such as Picasso, Schönberg and Beckett devised innovative artworks according to a logic of non-identity, unlike what he famously dismissed as degraded art, namely jazz music. Explaining how Adorno’s dichotomous framework of thought ultimately led to a reflection on art’s utopian content, Miller explores in greater detail his musical criticism and the primordial connection he drew between subjectivity and music in his writings on Wagner, Schönberg, and Stravinsky. The end of the chapter, devoted to modernist masculinities, turns to a lesser-known aspect of his oeuvre, revealing how Adorno revalued passive masculinity as a form of musical receptivity, in particular in his reading of Alban Berg.

6In the two next chapters, Miller concentrates on later thinkers, namely Marcuse, whose early work admittedly dates back to the thirties, and the theorists of the Later Frankfurt School. This may lead us to raise questions about the modernist focus of the book, and more specifically, why Siegfried Kracauer and Ernst Bloch are only treated as peripheral subsections in the preceding chapters. Miller defines modernism historically as an aesthetic response to modernity but does not broach the question of periodisation as such. This seeming contradiction may not be a definitional loophole in itself, however. The book does downplay the specificity of modernism’s modernity, while leaving less canonical figures in the background, but also productively suggests, as Andreas Huyssen and Fredric Jameson have previously demonstrated, that the Frankfurt school theorists’ interest in modernity allows us to qualify and revise overly strict demarcations between modernism, postmodernism, and the avant-gardes, and in doing so, acknowledge modernism’s critical legacies and continued presence as an object of thought.

7The antithetical attitudes towards autonomy successively adopted by Benjamin and Adorno are thus usefully summoned up again in the pages devoted to Marcuse, whose ambivalent stance on the formal closure of the artwork kept the dialectic alive. Extending the argument to the sixties and the seventies, the period of Marcuse’s greatest cultural impact, Miller also quotes an illuminating 1977 dialogue between Marcuse and Habermas, in which Habermas challenges Marcuse’s autonomist conception of modernist art and his critique of the contemporary avant-gardes. The idea that art should be accorded a special status was in fact originally critiqued by Marcuse in his 1937 essay ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture,’ which exposed the segregation between mental and manual labour in bourgeois society. Giving the character of Leonard Bast in Howards End as an example, Miller briefly suggests that modernist fiction dramatises the tensions between culture and social structures Marcuse would later theorise, leaving them open in a state of unresolved conflict. He proceeds to show that Marcuse’s critique of art’s ‘affirmative’ cultural function should be read alongside his subsequent reflection on art’s utopian potential for liberation, rooting aesthetic fulfilment in the senses. The promotion of such utopian dynamics, granting art the capacity to imagine alternative realities, ultimately accounts for Marcuse’s later defense of the autonomous artwork as that which resists reality, in contradistinction to avant-garde works aimed at actuality.

8Insofar as the last chapter of the book addresses the theoretical impact and reappropriations of Benjamin, Adorno, and Marcuse in the Later Frankfurt School, it anchors Frankfurt School theory in the critical present as an ongoing manifold dialogical process open to contradiction, revision, and dissensus. Miller first turns to a canonical study in modernist studies, Peter Bürger’s 1974 Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which Bürger concurs with Benjamin’s logic of montage and radically questions Adorno’s conception of the autonomous artwork. Bürger’s attack on artistic autonomy consists in stressing the historicity of Adorno’s category and reinscribing it within the ‘institution of art,’ which leads him to differentiate historically modernism’s autonomist discourse on art from the avant-garde’s rejection of aesthetic enclosure. In many ways, Miller’s book takes its cue from Bürger’s, as it too values Benjaminian montage and draws a similar opening conceptual distinction between modernism and the avant-gardes, on the grounds of their return to political praxis. Like Bürger’s, Albrecht Wellmer’s philosophical work opens up a critical dialogue with Adorno, through a detour via Habermas’s model of communicative reason. In Wellmer’s understanding of the artwork, the focus shifts to reception and the way readers, listeners and viewers bring everyday communicative competencies to bear. The writer and director Alexander Kluge, the last thinker examined by Miller, also positioned himself against Adorno insofar as he criticised his emphasis on the incommunicability of the artwork, and replaced it with an emphasis on the learning processes taking place in all spheres of life. The book ends with an illuminating exploration of coldness as a polyphonic theoretical metaphor; Miller follows the cultural ramifications of this metaphor in the works of Kluge, and traces it back to Bloch’s, Adorno’s, and Habermas’s reading of Adorno.

9This summary of Miller’s summary of Frankfurt School theory clearly cannot do justice to the immense range of philosophical texts surveyed in his book, and although one may perhaps regret that the format chosen by Miller partly prevents from drawing a genealogy of key transversal concepts—in particular, autonomy and utopia, which are mostly defined within each œuvre—, this theoretical panorama is a most welcome contribution to modernist studies. As the author admits ‘jump[ing] out of the definitional frying pan’ (2), one may be tempted to jump back in and confront, however, his framing of modernism as a critical category. As noted above, Miller establishes a stylistic interaction between modernism and modernity but avoids periodisation, defining modernism instead as a diverse set of works bound to stylistic and thematic innovation. Miller does not say what those formally innovative works are, since they are not the object of his analysis per se, but if one is to avoid reiterating an a priori distinction between high art and mass media, which are de facto both relationally rooted in modernity, the inclusiveness of this set should be clarified. If one turns to the intercultural issues raised by Miller’s consideration of German theorists in exile, who shaped our understanding of modernism outside its Anglophone construction, more problematic is perhaps the usage of the category ‘modernism’ with reference to the Frankfurt School, as in the expression ‘Frankfurt School modernists’ (Miller 15). While it is Miller’s most laudable aim to bring out a formal reciprocity between German theory and modernist culture, this definitional overlap does not elucidate the dissonances between the two ensembles as well as the differences of their objects. Even though Frankfurt School theorists conceived of modernity as a phenomenon that surpassed their nation’s borders, the fact of transferring the Anglophone concept of ‘modernism’ in a variety of national contexts, including ones in which the content of the category does not correspond to its counterpart in Anglophone language and culture, such as Germany, France or Spain for instance, urges one to raise the question of translation and thus address the transnational use of theory. One way of establishing a critical dialogue across nations would be to draw more extensively on German-language criticism than Miller does, as the book almost exclusively draws on Anglophone exegeses, with a view to clarifying German theory for English-speaking modernist scholars.

10A practical way of addressing the relationship between modernist texts and critical theory is to engage in extensive close readings, which the book certainly encourages on many occasions. Miller’s argument calls in fact for a renewed attention to the interrelatedness of close reading and theory, while giving us a clearer awareness of the critical polyphony at work among Frankfurt School thinkers themselves. Alongside his focus on style, Miller’s exploration of multimediality—and the utopianism he detects in particular in Benjamin’s reading of architecture as well as in Adorno’s conception of music and Marcuse’s endorsement of artistic liberation—constitutes a significant addition to our current thinking on modernist arts. One can only hope that this captivating study will spur many more case studies, and inspire modernist scholars to keep thinking of modernism as an ever-changing constellation.

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Caroline Pollentier, « Tyrus Miller, Modernism and the Frankfurt School »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 50 | 2016, mis en ligne le 07 avril 2016, consulté le 02 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Caroline Pollentier

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3

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