Film Theory: Frankfurt School

Frankfurt School

Founded in 1923, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt developed a ‘critical sociology’ indebted to Marx, Weber and Freud. Leading Frankfurt School critics included Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Leo Löwenthal.

Adorno’s Notes to Literature

Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama

Löwentahl’s Literature and the Image of Man

Löwenthal continued this work at the University of California, Berkeley, during the 1950s and 1960s.

Adorno’s Notes to Literature is a collection of essays, including ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society.’ It argued that poetic thought is a reaction against the commodification and reification of modern life, citing Goethe and Baudelaire as examples.

Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama argued that the extreme ‘sovereign violence’ of the 16th and 17th century German ‘Trauerspiel’ (literally mourning play, less literally tragedy) playwrights expressed the historical realities of princely power far better than had classical tragedy.

Habermas succeeded Adorno to the Chair of Sociology and Philosophy at Frankfurt. Habermas’s first major work, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit was published in German in 1962, and in English translation as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1989.

It attempted to explain the socio-historical emergence of middle-class public opinion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Developing a new kind of institutional sociology of literature, it argued that the public sphere had been organized around literary salons in France, learned and literary societies in Germany, and coffee houses in England. These institutions sustained the early novel, newspaper and periodical press.

Sociology of the Avant-Garde

Peter Bürger was Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Bremen. His Theorie der Avantgarde was published in German in 1974 and in English translation in 1984. Like Habermas, Bürger was interested in the institutional sociology of literature and art.

He postulated a historical typology of aesthetic social relations, measured along three main axes, the function of the artwork, its mode of production and its mode of reception. This gave three main kinds of art, sacral, courtly and bourgeois.

Bourgeois art had as its function individual self-understanding and was produced and received individually. It became a celebration in form of the liberation of art from religion, the court and even the bourgeoisie.

Modernist art was thus an autonomous social ‘institution.’ the preserve of an increasingly autonomous intellectual class. The ‘historical avant-garde’ of the inter-war years developed as a movement within and against modernism, as an ultimately unsuccessful revolt against this autonomy.

Habermas adopts a similar approach in his own account of the avant-garde.

Sociology of Book Trade

Robert Escarpit was Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Bordeaux and founder of the Centre for the Sociology of Literary Facts. His works included The Sociology of Literature, published in French in 1958 and in English translation in 1971, and The Book Revolution, published in French in 1965 and in English in 1966.

In Durkheimian fashion, Escarpit concerned himself only with the externally defined ‘social facts’ of literature, especially those registered in the book trade.

He focused fell on the ‘community of writers,’ in aggregate as ‘generations’ and ‘teams’. He extended the definition of literature to include all ‘non-functional’ writing and also insisted that literary success resulted from ‘a convergence of intentions between author and reader’.

Empirical studies of the sociology of the book trade were carried out by Lewis Coser in the US and Peter H. Mann in Britain.

Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s L’Apparition du livre, first published in French 1958 and in English translation as The Coming of the Book in 1976, is a work of social history (Febvre was a leading figure in the Annales School of historiography).

But it is deeply sociological in character – Annales history was determinedly social scientific – and provides a systematic account of the long-run development of the European book trade (the period of 1450–1800).

Goldmann: Genetic Structuralism

Lucien Goldmann was Director of Studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris and founding Director of the Centre for the Sociology of Literature at the Free University of Brussels.

Like Escarpit, Goldmann was influenced by Durkheim.  His definition of the subject matter of sociology as the ‘study of the facts of consciousness.’

But he was also interested in developing a sociology of the text. The central task of the literary sociologist was to bring out the objective meaning of the literary work by placing it in its historical context, studied as a whole

Goldmann defined the creating subject as trans-individual, as an instance of Durkheim’s ‘collective consciousness.

Following Marx and Lukács, however, Goldmann assumed that group consciousness was normally class consciousnesses. The mediating agency between a social class and the work of literature became the ‘world vision,’ which binds the individual members of a social class together.

Hidden God

Le Dieu caché, his study of Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine, was published in French in 1955 and in English translation as The Hidden God in 1964. It identified ‘structural homologies’ between the Jansenist ‘tragic vision’, the textual structures of Pascal’s Pensées and Racine’s plays, and the social position of the seventeenth-century ‘noblesse de robe’.

Goldmann’s structuralism was genetic, seeking to trace the genesis of literary structures in extra-literary phenomena.

In 1964 Goldmann published Pour une Sociologie du Roman translated by Alan Sheridan as Towards a Sociology of the Novel in 1974.

Like Lukács, Goldmann sees the novel as revolving around the problematic hero’s search for authentic values in a degraded society.

But Goldmann also postulates a ‘rigorous homology’ between the literary form of the novel and the economic form of the commodity. The early novel is concerned with individual biography and the problematic hero, but, as competitive capitalism evolves into monopoly capitalism, the problematic hero progressively disappears.

The period between the First and Second World Wars witnesses a temporary experiment with the community as collective hero: Goldmann’s example is André Malraux. But the main line of development is characterized by the effort to write the novel of ‘the absence of subjects’. Goldmann’s example is the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute.

Andrew Milner’s John Milton and the English Revolution (1981) is an application of Goldmann’s genetic structuralism to the study of seventeenth-century English literature.


Goldmann’s sociology of literature remains significant in itself and as a source of inspiration, both positive and negative, to the kind of ‘sociocriticism’ developed by Edmond Cros, Pierre Zima and their co-workers in France and Canada.

Neo-Marxian Ideology Critique: Althusser

Marx used the term ideology to denote the inner connectedness of culture, including literature, and class.

The philosopher Louis Althusser elaborated on this notion in the early 1970s, arguing that ideology functions so as to constitute biological individuals as social ‘subjects’ by representing their imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence.

For Althusser art was not ideology. But his theory was applied to literature by Macherey in France, Eagleton in Britain and Jameson in the US. The central novelty of Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology was its argument that literature could be understood as ‘producing’ ideology, in the sense of performing it.

Jameson’s The Political Unconscious argued that literary analysis can be focused on three distinct levels, ‘text’, ‘ideologeme’ and ‘ideology of form’, each of which has its socio-historical corollary, in the equivalent ‘semantic horizon’ of political history, society and mode of production.

The version of ideology Jameson applies to all three levels is Althusserian. The novelty of his position, however, was to argue for a ‘double hermeneutic’ simultaneously concerned with ideology and utopia.

Macherey, Eagleton and Jameson were literary critics, but their applications of ideology-critique to literature are sociological, insofar as they seek to explain literary phenomena in extra-literary terms.

Levy: My goal is to explain cinematic phenomena in extra-cinematic terms.